Dog Chapel

On the desk in my study is an Atlas Obscura calendar that captures the sensation of wanderlust in 365 days of color photographs, unique facts, and unexpected adventures. I was delighted to find today’s page dedicated to the extraordinary Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The structure was built by internationally-known author and folk artist Stephen Huneck to celebrate the relationship between human and hound. The interior walls are covered in handwritten notes and photographs of cherished dogs and other animals that have passed on, and tables offer treats for canine visitors. A sign outside reads: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.”

My husband, Gene, and I visited this remarkable place with Mac and Molly, our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs. In a podcast (the link for which I’m sharing here), I take you on a tour of the chapel, recall a romp with our M&M, take a peak at what’s on offer in Huneck’s adjacent art gallery, and wrap it all up in an interview with Huneck’s widow Gwen. Take a listen!!


Lady Dog Walker by Stephen Huneck.

Nomadic Touchpoints in Nomadland

SO grateful for our years as nomads in Nomadland!!

My husband, Gene, and I found many touchpoints in this movie to bring us back to our days on the road. Like the central character, Fern, we lived in the Badlands, ate and shopped at Wall Drug, walked with bison and crocs, marveled at the mud nests of the cliff swallows, felt the wind in our hair as we ambled along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, bathed in lakes and streams, danced in raucous bars, stood next to the great Sequoias, and looked through telescopes at Jupiter and other astral phenomena.

We spent many a glorious evening under the stars by countless campfires, sitting with an astonishing assortment of folk: helicopter loggers, a gold panner, moonshiners, survivalists, musicians, a man who worked for years as a prison guard at the supermax Pelican Bay, a veteran who’d served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, a veterinarian who only made house calls, a knitwear designer… All widened our horizons and became cherished companions along the way. We didn’t refer to ourselves as “houseless,” as does Fern, in this film; rather, we thought of our Carriage Cameo as our “not-attached-to-the-land” home.

We traveled through all the states seen in the film—South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and California—and the remaining 44 as well (I also made a side trip to Hawaii; the RV couldn’t take us there). We served as workcampers, park hosts, visitor specialists at national parks…about the only thing we didn’t do was work for Amazon.

Bobby Doerr, Mail Boats and Jerry’s Jets on the Rugged Rogue River

One of Jerry's Jets speeding down the Rogue
One of Jerry’s Jets speeding down the Rogue

Jerry’s Rogue Jets, now Oregon’s only mail boat outfit, has come a long way since the days of pike poles and sails. The Gold Beach-based company still delivers the mail up stream on the Rogue River but now carried even more often, on the shallow-draft vessels, are vacationers seeking adventure. The fully-loaded 32 to 42-foot boats can carry 38 to 65 passengers and are able to navigate in depths of as little as eight inches of water.

Swallow nests on the underside of the Isaac Peterson Bridge (aka the Rogue River Bridge) at Gold Beach
Swallow nests on the underside of the Isaac Peterson Bridge (aka the Rogue River Bridge) at Gold Beach

The company dates one part of its history back to three brothers: one who had an ability to entertain, one who was a boat designer and one who was a boat pilot. Working off of a jet propulsion system originated in 1954 by Sir William Hamilton in New Zealand and the Berkeley Pump Company in California, Alden Boice created a performance hull capable of handling the rocky shallows of the Rogue. His brother Jerry launched a company – Jerry’s Rogue Jet Boats – in 1958 and their brother Court served as their first pilot. In March of 2010, Jerry’s purchased its one competitor, the Rogue River Mail Boat Company that had been in existence since 1895.rogue-river-jet-boats-decal1

Now, with a combined fleet of 15 vessels, Jerry’s nature-based jet boat trips on Oregon’s “Wild & Scenic” Rogue River are a must do for 800 or more passengers per day in high season and more than 30,000 coastal travelers each year. On offer on the river is a blend of interpretive narration, meal stops at riverside lodges, rugged scenery, abundant wildlife, Pacific coastal estuary, and adventurous whitewater jet boating.

While in Gold Beach, Gene and I boarded one of the jet boats and partook of the 104-mile round trip “Wilderness Whitewater Adventure” that brings folks up to Blossom Bar Rapid, which is as far as is navigable by jet boat. I also had the opportunity to chat with Nic McNair, who owns the company along with his brother Scott, mother Cherie, and father Bill (the only original interest holder still attached to Jerry’s).

Cougar Lane Lodge 1
One of the stops along the Rogue

In my upcoming book, Rubber Hobos, I share highlights from my conversation with Nic and recount some of the stories of the boatmen who have grown up alongside these waters. I report on the lives that were lost by kayakers at Blossom Bar Rapid near the time we were on the Rogue. And I recall my own and Gene’s experience on the river: the 64-mile “Historic Mail Route,” segment that meanders along the Pacific Coastal Estuary, with its magnificent snowy egrets, black bears and bald eagles, playful otters and black-tailed deer, and the 80-mile “Whitewater Excursion,” where folks race over 2-Mile Rapid, Shasta Coasta Rapid, Wildcat Rapid, Old Diggins Riffle, Foster’s Rapid and Watson Creek Rapid.

Red Sox great Bobby Doerr lives along the Rogue and is featured in a Today Show “Vanishing America” segment on the Mail Boats (http://youtu.be/br2rEm6gly4 via @youtube). Like many of his other teammates, this second baseman, a Red Sox lifer, lost time during his prime because of military service. He played for Boston from 1937 to 1944 and from 1944 to 1951. Widely recognized as an offensive force, this nine-time All-Star, was also a slick fielder. Doerr’s number, one, was retired by the Red Sox in 1988. Club ranks: 5th in games (1,865), 5th in RBI (1,247), 5th in runs (1,094), 5th in doubles (381), 5th in TB (3,270), 6th in hits (2,042), 6th in BB (809), 8th in HR (223), 8th in PA (8,028).

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame website: “Ted Williams called Bobby Doerr the silent captain of the Red Sox. He hit a lifetime .288 and .409 in the ’46 World Series, driving in 100 runs six times, with a high of 120 in 1950. Doerr once held the American League record by handling 414 chances without an error and frequently led American League second basemen in double plays, putouts and assists. The affable second baseman was signed by Eddie Collins on the same scouting trip that netted Ted Williams for Boston.” Tommy Henrich said that Doerr “was one of the few who played the game hard and retired with no enemies.” (Source: http://baseballhall.org/hof/doerr-bobby.) He participated in the celebration of Fenway’s 100th anniversary in 2012.

I came across a report about a Facebook page (“R.I.P. Bobby Doerr”) said to have been launched Friday, July 18, that was falsely reporting his death. I haven’t been able to locate the page (it may have been taken down) but the article said that hundreds of fans had been posting their messages of condolence, expressing their sadness that the talented 95-year-old athlete was dead. And as usual, the Twittersphere was said to be frenzied over the death hoax.

Featured image: a view from the Mail Boat. In the gallery: scenes along the Rogue. All photos by Donna Hailson.

I’ve Finally Started Tweeting

This image by an Ethiopian artist of the biblical figure Ruth is in my collection.
This image by an Ethiopian artist of the biblical figure Ruth is in my collection.

I’ve finally opened a Twitter account. I’ve begun posting there on Christian spirituality, wildlife, wild places, art, travel, photography, companion animals, poetry, literature, soundscapes, habitats, books, writing, politics, social issues and…

You’ll find me under D.F.G. Hailson. I hope you’ll look for me and will connect with me there. Of course, I’ll still be blogging at this address.

Photos by Donna Hailson.

The North Carolina Blueberry Festival

Blueberry Festival signEach June, the North Carolina Blueberry Festival is held in the tiny town of Burgaw and, each year, the event’s organizers estimate the community’s population jumps from 4,000 to upwards of 30,000. Now I’m no expert at judging crowd sizes but, given the packed in shoulder-to-shoulder nature of yesterday’s fair, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this year’s numbers set at closer to 100,000. Folks crammed in to Courthouse Square to celebrate all things blueberry and, if one looked closely, one could see lots of fingers, tongues and teeth stained blue.

Smoothies and Lemonade
Smoothies and Lemonade

The first cultivated blueberry production began in Burgaw’s Pender County in the 1930s and today, the county ranks second in blueberry production for the state. On offer at the festival were flats of blueberries ($20 for non-organic, $25 for organic); blueberry lemonade; blueberry wine; blueberry fritters; blueberry shortcake; blueberry ice cream; blueberry preserves; and blueberry bread. If there was a recipe that could be converted to use blueberries, I have no doubt that some vendor on site was offering the resulting delectable for sale. Just in case any option was missed, there was also a recipe contest where folks could submit yet another idea.

The day also featured a 5K Run/Walk and the Tour de Blueberry Ride, hosted by the Cape Fear Cyclists. In the latter event, experienced riders were offered routes of 33 and 63 miles while newbies could have their fun along shorter routes of 9, 13 and 21 miles.

Vintage cars
Vintage cars

Vintage cars and trucks were lined up along the streets of the downtown where they were judged by an independent panel of experts. Once one moved past these, it was on to the booths of fine – and not so fine crafters – who were selling wares such as pine needle baskets, ceramic spoon rests, tie-dyed shirts, blown-glass bowls, and wooden pull toys. Food vendors were hawking fried seafood to fried dough. Dozens upon dozens of non-profits, civic groups and sundry other organizations were also in place including the Red Cross and Master Gardeners; a beekeepers’ association; a bow hunters’ association; a group focused on women’s health and another group working to save the rain forests.

Steve Owens and Summertime
Steve Owens and Summertime

The entertainment stage was set adjacent to the beer and wine tents and lots of folks copped a squat to listen to the Gospel Lites; Steve Owens and Summertime; Spare Change; and the Band of Oz. Older folks also wandered the aisles at the antique show and sale while tots rode a kid-sized train, bounced in the bouncy tents, and tried their best to ring the bell with the strongman hammer.

Temps were in the high 80s/low 90s so the shade provided by the square’s trees was much appreciated. A delight-filled day!

Click on the first image below to enter the gallery and view enlargements. All photos by Donna Hailson.

“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way

To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day;

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,

Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum

In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!”

– From Robert Frost’s “Blueberries”

The Battleship North Carolina

The battleship has about 15,000 tons of steel armor plate that makes up about 42 percent of her weight. The ship could carry almost two million gallons of fuel oil and averaged 166 gallons per mile. The ship moved 32 feet per gallon.
The battleship has about 15,000 tons of steel armor plate that makes up about 42 percent of her weight. The ship could carry almost two million gallons of fuel oil and averaged 166 gallons per mile. The ship moved 32 feet per gallon.

As we are visiting family in North Carolina and had friends visiting from up north, we decided to take a day to tour the battleship that carries our host state’s name. It took us more than three hours to cover the 729 ft. long, 108 ft. beam, six deck vessel that was built at the New York Navy Yard, launched in 1940 and commissioned in 1941.

According to a pamphlet given to visitors on arrival at the ship: “NORTH CAROLINA participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific during World War II, earning 15 battle stars. She established the role of battleships as protectors of aircraft carriers when she defended carrier ENTERPRISE against air attacks during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24 August 1942.

This Kingfisher Scout Plane would be catapulted from the deck. On its return, the plane would land in the water alongside the battleship and a crane would lift the plane out of the water.
This Kingfisher Scout Plane would be catapulted from the deck. On its return, the plane would land in the water alongside the battleship and a crane would lift the plane out of the water.

“NORTH CAROLINA carried out nine shore bombardments, sank an enemy troopship, destroyed at least 24 enemy aircraft and assisted in shooting down many more. Her anti-aircraft guns helped halt or frustrate scores of attacks on aircraft carriers. One of her Kingfisher pilots performed heroically during the strike on Truk when he rescued ten downed Navy aviators on 30 April 1944.

“She steamed over 300,000 miles. Although Japanese radio announcements claimed six times that NORTH CAROLINA had been sunk, she survived many close calls, near misses and one hit when a Japanese torpedo slammed into the battleship’s hull on 15 September 1942.


By war’s end, she lost only ten men in action and had 67 wounded. After the war, the ship served as a training vessel for midshipmen. She was decommissioned 27 June 1947 and placed in the Inactive Reserve Fleet in Bayonne, New Jersey.

When the US Navy announced its intentions to scrap NORTH CAROLINA in 1960, the state’s citizens mounted a brief successful campaign to bring the battleship to North Carolina to preserve her as the state’s premier war memorial and a tourist destination. The ship opened to the public in 1961. NORTH CAROLINA is an authentically restored World War II battleship, a National Historic Landmark and a memorial honoring the 10,000 North Carolinians of all branches of the service who gave their lives in World War II.”

Temperatures in the Engine Room could reach 135 degrees and men would serve here for up to 72 hours at a time. Their shoes would fill with water (sweat) and some would be overcome by the heat.
Temperatures in the Engine Room could reach 135 degrees and men would serve here for up to 72 hours at a time. Their shoes would fill with sweat and some would be overcome by the heat.

More than 2,300 men served on board the NORTH CAROLINA at any given time. In all, more than 7,000 men served aboard the ship from April 1941 to June 1947. The vessel had a wartime complement of 141 officers, 2,115 enlisted and 85 Marines.

In a room carrying the photos and memories shared by those who served on the battleship, is a Roll of Honor that: “perpetuates the memory of the ten thousand North Carolinians of all the United States Military Services who died in World War II. Not for fame or reward, not for place or for rank, not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty, as they understood it, these men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all, and died.”

Chapel in the Mess Hall

Church services were usually held in the mess hall, but they could also be set in any other available compartment or on the main deck. The congregation often included crews from smaller ships, such as destroyers, that did not have a chaplain. During a Christian service, a church pennant (with a blue cross) flew above the American flag. It was the only flag authorized to do so. On Sundays, Protestant services were at 10 AM. Communion was held quarterly. In the spring of 1944, a Catholic priest was assigned to the battleship. Before then, mass was held when a visiting priest came aboard. Mass was held at 8:30 AM with confessions heard at 7:30 AM.

The USS NORTH CAROLINA had nine captains in six years. They all graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Commanding the NORTH CAROLINA was a prestigious position and a steppingstone to admiral for all of her captains. All but one was promoted to admiral immediately upon leaving the ship; the last was promoted later.

The many items for personal use placed alongside postings of crew memories help visitors imagine the daily life of the ship’s crew in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.

The Dentist's Office
The Dentist’s Office

The Dentist’s Office, with x-rays, cotton balls, tongue depressors, medicine vials, dental instruments and clipboards with notes in view appear to be awaiting the arrival of a patient. The Operating Room – complete with autoclave, linens and surgical instruments – stands waiting as well. In the Cobbler’s Shop, we find shoes on a shelf perhaps ready to be resoled. In the Tailor’s Shop, we learn that most services – alterations, repairs, pressing and cleaning – were free and that any money collected went to the ship’s welfare and recreation fund.

In the Ship's Store
In the Ship’s Store

We come upon the laboratory equipped with a microscope and find a ship’s store stocked with toiletries (Dr. Lyon’s Tooth Powder, Lifebuoy Soap, Listerine Mouthwash) and smokes (Bull Durham and Velvet Tobacco, Chesterfield and Lucky Strike Cigarettes, Tampa Nuggets Cigars). Mail is in the slots ready for pick up at the Post Office. The altar and pulpit in the Mess Hall are dressed and ready for use.

Berthing Quarters
Berthing Quarters

Mattresses are placed on the cots in the berthing quarters and one begins to ponder what a task it must have been to get to the uppermost bunk scrambling over the guys in the three bunks below you. More cots are found in many of the shops indicating that some crewmembers slept in the areas to which they were assigned. A guide informs us that a man in one of these shops might also have had duty as a lookout several decks above.

On the ship’s new online Sea Stories blog (http://www.seastories.battleshipnc.com), I read that, when it was time for a trim, “each guy carried a round disk to the barber shop which meant he was authorized by the division to get a haircut. When he came back he was told to hand it to somebody else the division Petty Officer thought needed a haircut.”

On that blog as well, I learned that chaplains were among the first to introduce libraries to ships.

I enjoyed the education I received in the origins of Navy terminology. Two of my favorites: “scuttlebutt” and “old goat.”


Drinking fountains on board ship are called “scuttlebutts,” Navy parlance for gossip or rumors. I did some further research and discovered the term comes from a combination of “scuttle” – to make a hole in the ship’s hull thereby causing her to sink – and “butt” – a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the ship’s crew took their drinking water – like a water fountain – was the “scuttlebutt”. Even in today’s Navy a drinking fountain is referred to as such. Since the crew would congregate around the scuttlebutt, that is where the rumors about the ship or voyage would begin. Thus, then and now, rumors are talk from the scuttlebutt or just scuttlebutt. Visit

http://www.navy.mil/navydata/traditions/html/navyterm.html to learn more about the origins of expressions such as “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” “chewing the fat,” “cup of joe,” “feeling blue,” “taken aback,” “giving no quarter,” “three sheets to the wind,” “hunky-dory” and “wallop.”

On a visit to the Chief Petty Officers’ Quarters – the “Goat Locker” – I learned that Chiefs are referred to as “goats” or “old goats.” The origins of the nickname are fuzzy but one story shared by Daniel D. Smith, Chief Petty Officer, USNR (Ret.) goes like this: “In the days of sailing ships, ships carried livestock to provide the crew with fresh milk, meat and eggs. These animals would also serve as pets and mascots. The USS New York had a goat as a mascot and his name was El Cid, meaning, “The Chief.” They took El Cid to the fourth Army-Navy football game in 1893 in Philadelphia. When Navy defeated Army, the Navy decided that El Cid brought good luck. They offered the goat shore duty at Annapolis and he became the Navy’s official mascot. Since El Cid, “The Chief,” was a goat, then chiefs became known as goats.”

General Bathroom
General Bathroom with trough

A visit to the “head” brought home the expression “rank has its privileges.” “Head”, by the way, is Navy parlance for the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened. On board, the NORTH CAROLINA, enlisted men used the “General Bathroom”, with its trough, while the Chief Petty Officers had private stalls with flush toilets.

On the day of our visit, a crew was resurfacing the ship’s main deck. Everywhere we looked, from the head to the bridge, from the engine room to the Kingfisher and its crane, the loving, meticulous attention to detail of those who are curating and caring for this magnificent treasure is evident. The Battleship NORTH CAROLINA is a must-see in Wilmington.

The featured image at the top of this page is of the Battleship North Carolina as seen from across the Cape Fear River at the Wilmington Riverwalk. Click on the first photo below to enter the gallery and view the enlargements. All photos by Donna Hailson.

The Wild Life: Surprise Encounters in the Natural World

Yellowstone.Photo by Donna Hailson
Elk in Yellowstone

For two years, two months and two days – from late 2010 to the start of this new year – my husband and I traveled across the United States in search of “experiences outside of our experiences.” Now settled for a time, I am preparing a book that traces the spirit-elevating lessons to be found in wayfaring.

In our days on the road, we met many fascinating people from gold panners and a family of wild mushroom pickers in Oregon to a moonshiner in Louisiana, from a mariachi band in Texas to Gullah-Geechee sweetgrass basket weavers in South Carolina. We spent delight-filled days marveling at glorious natural wonders from the majestic Grand Canyon in Arizona to the hoodoo-filled Bryce Amphitheater in Utah, from the lush and soul-soothing Appalachian Mountains in Tennesee to the barren salt flats of Badwater in California’s Death Valley. Along the way we also had a good many surprise encounters with wild animals, many of which we found in new and unanticipated habitats. Our companions: grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorns, mountain goats, alligators, bald eagles, elk, bison, even a band of beggin’ burros. In this entry, I’ll be recounting some of the most magical and memorable of these encounters. Before I do, however, allow me to share a bit of history.


From the time our daughter Brooke was little more than a toddler, through her teen years and even to her adulthood, she and I made regular visits to the Audubon Sanctuary in our hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There we would meander down the woodland paths, climb up the drumlin and esker, and stroll through the meadows to our favorite spot, the Rockery. We would settle ourselves into one of the hideaways by the Rockery Pond to listen to the pickerel frogs and to search for birds, painted turtles and other wild things.

In every moment, we would breathe in and revel in the beauty of the created order. After our sit, we’d scramble up and around the cave-like rock formations near the water and, as we did, we would each unpack our days.

A number of years have passed since those sublime hours in the Rockery. Brooke is now married and has toddlers of her own. Three years ago, she moved with her husband, a Marine, to Japan. And, there they stayed till just a few months ago. While they were all on the other side of the globe – Brooke and I turned to other avenues for our unpacking: Skype, Facebook, email, the post, the telephone.

With my husband Gene retired, with my work as a writer transportable, and with Brooke and her family so far away, Gene and I decided – in the summer of 2010 to launch into a time of wayfaring. We sold or packed away most of our belongings, purchased a truck and an RV and set out on the road.

Over this time, our meanderings have taken us over continuously changing interior and exterior terrains. These days and the lessons gleaned from this “rubber hobo” life are now the subject of a book on which I am at work. I should probably note here that I would define a “rubber hobo” as a free-spirited wayfarer – with no attached-to-the-land home – who travels about the country in a rubber-tired vehicle. A rubber hobo may work at odd jobs along the way but he or she remains unencumbered enough to answer the call of the open road whenever it may come.

As I write this, we are visiting with our daughter and her family in their new home in Surf City, North Carolina. Though today we are far from our much-loved Ipswich with its much-cherished Audubon Sanctuary, we have found new sanctuaries for the mind and heart and spirit and we still venture out each day in search of new rockeries: places of challenge and yearning and searching and learning.

As I reflect, I note that some of the most remarkable moments in my life have come through surprise encounters in the natural world.

While I’ve been working on the book, an earlier trip came to mind; it’s one I made with friends to Zimbabwe. We were in that country working as journalists but were able to take a few days away from researching and writing to visit Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. We chose as home base for our trip, Hwange Safari Lodge, a 100-room hotel that sits on 33,000 acres abutting the 3.5 million acre national park. Most of the lodge’s rooms and suites overlook a waterhole and savanna bush and all come equipped with mosquito nets.

On our first evening at the lodge, after a buffet of traditional African fare, my friends and I made our way – at sundown – toward the waterhole. There, we spied – silhouetted in the half-light glow – a herd of more than 40 elephants coming in to take an end of the day drink. The adults strode in slowly and their young clung close to their sides. I couldn’t hold back the tears and found myself weeping and weeping, overcome by so many emotions. I felt so privileged to be in their presence. But there was even more to the moment, for behind them – in the distance – I could see herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest racing across the savanna. The images from that night are indelibly stamped on my heart and memory and I find I am – even now – near to tears as I place myself again in that space, in that moment, at Hwange . . . Magic.

The morning after this encounter, one of my companions and I were awakened by a commotion in a neighboring room. Our friend Diane had disregarded the warnings of the hotel staff and had left the sliding glass door to her patio slightly ajar. She’d had quite the rude awakening when she opened her eyes to find a vervet monkey cavorting about her room, somersaulting on her bed! After some loud hand clapping and shouting, the three of us were finally able to shoo the uninvited guest out of doors.

Later that day or, perhaps it was the next, my companions and I stopped for tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. This gracious “grand old lady of the falls,” established in 1904, is set in the midst of lush tropical gardens. It epitomizes the romance of grand travel but it is also a place where – again – we were to be entertained by vervet monkeys. These impish creatures reminded me of the squirrels who frequented my bird feeders in New England; the vervets were just as numerous and just as mischievous.

In another spot on another day, three of these delightful fellows lined up on a log for me in perfectly profiled poses. What a great photo op they presented!

When I was traveling some days later in a Jeep en route somewhere, I spied three young warthogs off the road. I asked the driver to stop and raced into the bush to take some photographs. I was getting some fabulous shots when – suddenly – a question popped into my mind: “Where’s Mummy?” It was right about then, that the foolhardiness of my impromptu mission became apparent to me. A large female warthog seemed to come out of nowhere to face me. I backed away respectfully and, thank God, I was able to make it safely back to the Jeep. I learned a lesson that day and I am truly grateful Mama Warthog left me alive to share it.

Grizzly at Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: Gene Hailson.
Grizzly in Yellowstone

Human beings can behave so foolishly – human beings can abandon all reason, all common sense – when faced with a good photo op in the wild. I’ll never forget a story told to me by Nevada Barr in an interview for my radio show, On the Road with Mac and Molly. Barr, who spent many years as a ranger, is now an award-winning author of mysteries set in the national parks. I nearly keeled over when she recounted that a fellow ranger, who had worked at Yellowstone, had given a man a ticket for smearing ice cream on his daughter’s cheeks. Why the ice cream? Why the ticket? The man had covered his daughter’s face with the cold confection in hopes of luring a grizzly bear over to lick it off. The man was angling for a good picture!

When Gene and I were visiting Yellowstone we were witness to a similar episode of foolhardiness. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched two young men leap from their vehicle to make a mad dash into the woods – tripod and camera in hand – trying to get a close-up photo of a grizzly that we and they had spied some yards off the park road. Gene and I were quite content to remain at a more respectful distance. And, thank God – again – like my Mama Warthog, this grizzly allowed this pair of photogs to live another day.

Yellowstone is the flagship of the National Park Service and, based on our experience, we would say it is THE place in the country to find wildlife. Visitors can view much of the park from the comfort of a vehicle or they may hike the miles and miles of trails to backcountry destinations.

Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake at high elevation (above 7,000 feet) in North America.Photo Credit: Donna Hailson.
Yellowstone Lake, is the largest lake at high elevation (above 7,000 feet) in North America

Yellowstone is spread out over 2,219,789 acres, making it larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Seven species of ungulates (bison, moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn); two species of bear (grizzly and black); 67 other species of mammals; 322 species of birds; and 16 species of fish all call the park home. There are more than 1,100 species of native plants, more than 200 species of exotic plants and more than 400 species of thermophiles (microorganisms that grow best at elevated temperatures).

Yellowstone boasts 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers. It has one of the world’s largest petrified forests and more than 290 waterfalls. There are nine visitor centers and twelve campgrounds (with a combined total of 2,000 campsites).

Yellowstone was the first national park established in the world and it should be the first park on any list of places to visit. Yellowstone is, as I said, THE place to see wildlife. Hints at that truth became immediately evident to us upon our arrival at the park. As we passed through Yellowstone’s south entrance, we were greeted by buffalo butt. We drove along for quite a distance looking at the backside of this bull that just took his sweet, sweet time strolling down the road, unperturbed by and seemingly oblivious to the vehicles inching along behind him.

Bison at the Mud Volcano.Photo Credit: Donna Hailson.
Bison at the Mud Volcano

Some days later, I’d see another bull, planted next to the park’s Mud Volcano, showing a similar disinterest in all the folks eagerly clamoring and clustering around him trying to get the best photo. He’d plopped down for an afternoon sit and that was that. On the walk up to the Mud Volcano, could also be seen a jackrabbit placidly sunning herself just a few inches away from a snake that was moving in her direction.

One is certain to come across a good many “bear jams” – traffic delays – throughout Yellowstone as folks stop in their tracks – in their vehicles or on foot – whenever one of the park’s denizens comes into view. And, just before sunset, great numbers of folk compete for the best parking spots adjacent to Hayden Valley which has come to be thought of as America’s Serengeti. The soil in this former lakebed permits little tree growth and the shrub and grassland valley plants are frequented by grazing animals – from rodents to large ungulates like elk, moose and bison – and they, in turn, attract predators: bears, coyotes and wolves. Folks pick a hillside, cop a squat, pull out the binoculars and cameras with their mega, mega telephoto lenses, and marvel.

Home base for our stay at Yellowstone was Fishing Bridge, a campground that – apparently – sits in bear central. Here, only hard-sided camping units are allowed and the rules regarding bears are given to visitors verbally and in writing and bear spray, a specially designed-to-repel-bears pepper spray, is available at retail outlets in and surrounding the park.

Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
Bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota

When you’re visiting Yellowstone, you’re warned to be alert for tracks, warned to stay away from carcasses (as bears will defend them), and you’re warned to stay at least 100 yards away from not only bears but wolves as well. You’re wise to give other animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes – at least 25 yards of breathing room. Bison are especially unpredictable and dangerous; they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can sprint 30 miles an hour. We did see quite a number of bison at Yellowstone but, I might note here, that the largest concentrations of this creature that we’ve seen to date are found in Custer State Park in South Dakota.

In Yellowstone, we came upon great numbers of elk (even quite a few hanging about at park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs). We also spied black bears, ospreys, trumpeter swans, moose, and mule deer.

Bighorn Sheep in Estes Park, Colorado.
Bighorn sheep in Estes Park, Colorado

As we’ve been traveling about the country, one thing that’s particularly struck me is that we have often seen large animals – white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, mountain goat…even bighorn sheep  – in the middle of densely-populated neighborhoods. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, we met two deer walking up the steps of the post office. In Estes Park, Colorado – we came across at least a dozen young elk grazing in a field adjacent to a retail complex. Not far from there, we saw another dozen or more bighorn sheep scrambling up a hillside in a residential neighborhood. It was also in Colorado, where we found a mountain goat lounging on the lawn of a bed and breakfast.

White-tailed deer in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
White-tailed deer in Manitou Springs, Colorado

Scholarly papers have been written in recent years detailing the effects of residential development on wildlife in the Rocky Mountain states. One paper noted that white-tailed deer display a high adaptability to human activity. Studies suggest that deer often select high quality forage near residential structures and benefit from the reduced number of predators found there. Elk, however, initially respond to the presence of humans with increased vigilance and flight. Large developments, such as ski areas, are altering elk distributions during sensitive periods such as fawning and this is leading to a decrease in their populations. But, now, elk are beginning to move to areas that have restrictions against hunting such as private lands. As hunter-friendly ranches are increasingly being transformed into subdivisions, more land is becoming available as a refuge for elk during hunting seasons. Bighorn Sheep are also now wandering about populated areas searching for food and safety. Humans are crowding them out and wise decisions will need to be made in the years ahead to equitably address these new realities.

Sometimes, human beings decide to let animals alone to just be in their habitats. Humans adjust their patterns so as to co-exist alongside other species. In Louisiana, near New Orleans, we were warned not to walk Mac and Molly by a lake on a campground because the alligators that live therein are particularly fond of dog.

Alligator at Forever Florida
Alligator at Forever Florida

While ziplining at Forever Florida, in St. Cloud, over pine flatwoods and forested wetlands, I was surprised when I looked down and saw an alligator looking back up at me. I was comforted by the knowledge that I was 68 feet in the air and traveling at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

On my arrival at Forever Florida, which is a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation center, I was greeted by a muster of peacocks and peahens. While riding there in an all-terrain safari coach, I was especially intrigued by our guide’s commentary on the Cracker cattle, Cracker oxen and Cracker horses that all call the adjacent Crescent J Ranch home. It turns out the animals trace their ancestry – in direct line – back to those first brought to Florida in the 1500s by Ponce de Leon.

On the other side of the country – in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, we found some relatives of those Spanish Cracker Horses: burros. Burros – and the name comes from the Spanish word for donkey – most likely derive from the African wild ass, which survives in the semi-arid scrub and grasslands of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

This charismatic relative of the horse, long of ear and muzzle, might have been domesticated a continent away, but it now spends its days on the prairies and pine savannas of South Dakota’s Custer State Park.

"Beggin' Burros" on Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop Road approaching our vehicle
“Beggin’ Burros” on Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road approaching our vehicle

At the park, the burros are feral. They were introduced into the area by humans and have reverted to a wild or semi-wild state. More specifically, the park’s donkey squad descends from pack animals once used for treks to the Harney Peak summit. Now naturalized, they often plead for food from park tourists in places like the Wildlife Loop Road where they – quite frequently – cause traffic jams. Their boldness is such that they are now referred to as the “beggin’ burros.”

One of the "Beggin' Burros" at my window looking for a handout
One of the “Beggin’ Burros” at my window looking for a handout

Gene and I – and our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs, Mac and Molly – were stunned and then fascinated to find the burros poking their heads into our vehicle looking for a handout. This band of beggin’ burros – which, word has it, especially crave crackers – has quite the racket going.

Well, if we can co-exist with other species, preserve the heritage of other species, and let the tamed of other species loose to be feral, perhaps, we might also do what we can to ensure that still other species are protected so that they may continue to exist at all.

Years ago, when Gene and I made our first trek across the country in an RV, we were amused and captivated by the antics of the very social, black-tailed prairie dogs whose communities we encountered while hiking near the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

It broke my heart to hear that these little creatures have now contracted the bubonic plague. Plague has been especially active in their populations in the northern Great Plains only within the last decade but the plague was actually discovered among them as far back as 40 or more years ago. The disease appears to be spreading to encompass the entire range of the species. Some environmentalists – and the National Wildlife Federation in particular – are convinced the prairie dog has become an endangered species even though millions still roam the Great Plains.

Some of the research suggests that the numbers of prairie dogs have been reduced by 98% since 1900 (reduced through plague, hunting and other factors). And there are concerns about protecting the prairie dogs that go beyond their numbers. Prairie dog colonies are associated with sustaining more than 170 other species. “In excavating their elaborate burrow system, prairie dogs change the soil chemistry, making it more porous to rain, and increasing the amount of organic materials that nourish it; they are like rototillers adding organic compost to the ground. [In imbuing the soil with such life, prairie dogs contribute to] the vibrancy of those crawling, scurrying and flying overhead. So, take out the prairie dog, and you start by losing that one species. Then add to it all the species in the soil you lose as a result, and then the impoverishment of the vegetation that results.” (Source: The Spine of the Continent)

Sign in Interior, South Dakota
Road sign in Interior, South Dakota

As I recall the comical squeaks of the prairie dogs, I think how sad it would be to “hear” those voices silenced. When Gene and I were camping in Death Valley, California, I realized one night that I was hearing not one sound. Not an insect. Not a bit of running water. Not a single creature stirring. Not an engine purring, not a cell phone ringing. Dead silence. I looked up to find a night sky – unblemished by light pollution – and  I stood awestruck beneath the most spectacular stellar display it has ever been my privilege to behold. As I strove to take it in, I found myself, as in that moment with the elephants of Hwange, weeping. I was profoundly moved in that silence, under that star-spangled sky, and, as I recall those moments now, I seek the lessons in them.

It was eye-opening, it was instructive, to hear the soundlessness. I was led to think of the sounds of nature I would miss if I could never hear them again: the chirp of a robin; the chatter of a monkey; the rustle of the pronghorn moving through the grassland; the powerful clambering steps of the bighorn as it makes its way up a stony hillside; the trumpet of an elephant; the call of a humpback whale; the groan of a walrus; the whinny of a horse; the bray or a burro; the clicks of a dolphin; the barks of a prairie dog, the barks of our own Mac and Molly.

How precious is this world which we call home and how blessed we are to share that home with creatures that crawl and swim and fly, creatures that amble and arc and strut and slither. I hope you’ll make time today to get out into the natural world, listening for, looking out for, and celebrating the wonderful creatures that so enhance and enrich our lives.

Photo of the Grizzly Bear by Gene Hailson. All other photos by Donna Hailson.

A Dyed-in-the Wool New Englander Waitin’ on the “Stawm”

This photo from my "peeps" in Massachusetts inspired the accompanying story.
This photo from folks in Massachusetts inspired the accompanying story.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander. I’ve often used that expression over the years without ever knowing its origin and I never thought to ask other dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders why we refer to ourselves as such. I’d read, at some point, that the expression means “thorough-going and uncompromising” but it wasn’t until today that I found a history of the phrase on Merriam Webster’s website. There I learned that:

“Early yarn makers would dye wool before spinning it into yarn to make the fibers retain their color longer. In 16th-century England, that make-it-last coloring practice provoked writers to draw a comparison between the dyeing of wool and the way children could, if taught early, be influenced in ways that would adhere throughout their lives. In the 19th-century U.S., the wool-dyeing practice put eloquent Federalist orator Daniel Webster in mind of a certain type of Democrat whose attitudes were as unyielding as the dye in unspun wool. Of course, Democrats were soon using the term against their opponents, too, but over time the partisanship of the expression faded and it is now a general term for anyone or anything that seems unlikely or unwilling to change.”

I am one who has had the privilege of travelling extensively over the years – for work and pleasure – and, even now, I am visiting with family 800+ miles south of my beloved New England. I give thanks every day for the treasured times I’ve had at dots on the map from Barcelona to Manila; from Hwange to the Arctic Circle; from Capri to San Francisco; from Florence to Key West; from Death Valley to Half Moon Bay. I could rhapsodize for hours on each and every one of these glorious places and hundreds of others. But, as a storm – and a storm for the books – may be bearing down on New England, I find my wayfarin’ mind and heart and spirit turnin’ home. I’ve been on the road for a while now and, suddenly, I find myself missin’ my New England somethin’ awful.

I miss the culture and intellectual stimulation of Boston and Cambridge and the incomparable beauty of the Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine coastlines. I miss cider donuts and fresh-off-the-tree Macs. I miss my farmers’ markets; I miss my May strawberries. I miss cross-country skiing from pub to pub in North Conway; I miss the apres ski at Sugarbush and Killington. I miss Vermont cheddar, Vermont maple syrup and Vermont maple sugar candy purchased in Vermont. I miss Mystic and Lyme, the Newport “cottages,” and Providence’s Riverwalk and Waterplace Park. I miss the Green Monster, the Boston Public Library, Boston Garden, the Boston Public Gardens, the icky sticky subway, and the “Make Way for Ducklings” statue. I miss the brilliant dome on the Massachusetts Statehouse, Beacon Hill, haddock, fried clams, and the old Filene’s Basement. I miss the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I miss Irish Pubs especially on St. Pat’s, the Freedom Trail, the sailboats on the Charles, the Hatch Shell, the Symphony and the Boston Pops. I miss the Huntington Theatre and I miss Bunratty’s. I miss Harvard Square, the Flume, the Concord Bridge, Walden Pond and Hampton Beach (where I pastored the most delightful congregation of Baptists). I miss all the folks with whom I made memories in these places. And I miss the comfort in knowing a place and having a place know me.

Barn in LGToday as a blizzard, that may rival the one of ’78, approaches with its threats of 30 plus inches of snow, I think back to the storm of 35 years ago. I was six months pregnant with our daughter, Brooke, living on the North Shore of Boston and making an hour-long trip each day to the South Shore to teach in an alternative high school. The administration dismissed us just a bit early as it became increasingly clear that a real blizzard was moving in. And, though the state was closing the highway – literally – right behind me, I was able to make it home – after several hours – in my Triumph Spitfire (a no-longer-produced vehicle which, as some of you may know, was little more than a go-cart!). Any Triumph devotee will tell you that part of the charm of the car was that you had to have towels at the ready to catch any raindrops or snowflakes coming in where the convertible top met the body. You had to bundle up in the winter because there was just not much of anything to insulate you from the cold. It was very low to the ground – you could stick your arm out the window and push yourself along – and it was so light, it didn’t stand a chance in Hell of holding the road in inclement weather. Oh, how I miss that car!! I really did love it! Anyway, my husband Gene and I had another vehicle at the time – a Blazer – with four-wheel drive and we decided to volunteer with the Red Cross. Gene helped pull folks out of flooded properties on the Lynn shore and I worked to create a shelter – in one of the city’s public schools – for those displaced by the storm. One thing we both remember is that neighbors who barely acknowledged us with a nod or “hello” prior to the storm suddenly became our best buds when they realized we could get out to buy essentials for them. As I recall, they forgot who we were after the storm.

I shouldn’t fail to mention what blizzards can do. Whiteouts can blind you as you’re walking or driving and the snow and cold and gale-force winds can cut – like thousands of tiny pin pricks – into your skin. The roads are especially treacherous and fishtailing is almost to be expected. If the power goes out, it may be days and days before it’s restored. Pipes may freeze, cutting off your water supply and/or flooding your home. While you wait, you toss spoiled food from the non-working refrigerator into the trash. Roofs may collapse. Trees may be toppled. Folks may overdo shoveling and suffer for it. Homes along the coast, rivers and other waterways may become inundated. Folks may need to be evacuated and shelters set up for them. Public transportation may shut down. Flights may be cancelled. Power companies, DPWs, firefighters, police officers and other civic authorities go on overdrive. And there will likely be kids home from school for a good week or more driving themselves and their families crazy with cabin fever.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll that as a given, I would imagine it must seem more than odd, to those accustomed to and ensconced in warmer climes, for me to be waxing poetic over blizzards. But…there is a unity in adversity that binds people together if only till the snow is cleared and, when it’s all over, there are stories to be told.

The Blizzard of ’13 may well be en route but Gene and I won’t be stockin’ up on bread and milk. We won’t be gettin’ out the candles. And, though, we have another four-wheel drive vehicle, we won’t be diggin’ anybody out and we won’t be makin’ snow angels. No throwin’ snowballs. No buildin’ snow forts or scramblin’ over snow banks. No countin’ how many shovelfuls of snow we’ve tossed. The dogs won’t be leapin’ over snow drifts and we won’t have to avoid eatin’ yellow snow. We won’t be sharin’ storm stories with the neighbors, the bagger at the grocery, or friends on the phone.

I pray everyone stays safe and that all use good judgment in the days ahead. And I hope our loved ones up there will think of me missin’ all the hunkerin’ down in front of the “fiahh” waitin’ to see just how wicked big the “stawm” will be. Make sure you’ve figured out a way to heat up the Dunks should the power go out. I’ll be thinkin’ of you as you wait on those calls cancellin’ school or work and, please, think of me missin’ you and all of this. I’m still dyed-in-the-wool but I can only be there with you – in my woolies – in my dreams. I’ll be watchin’ the weather and toastin’ you with hot chocolate (or, more likely, a glass of wine)!