Friday, June 26, 2015

Shenandoah Vacation - Hiking the Massanutten Ridge Trail

FINALLY… we managed to eke out enough time as a family to get out and do some hiking.  During our week-long summer vacation in the Shenandoah Valley Lori, Spencer, Braxton and I hit the Massanutten Ridge Trail for an early morning hike.  If you’re not familiar with the area, Massanutten Resort is a four-seasons resort near Harrisonburg, Virginia.  They have a few ski slopes in the winter, hiking, pools, golf, and adventure activities in the summer.  They also have a great year round indoor water park.  If you‘re familiar with the area but not the trail, take Del Webb Drive to the top of the mountain.  The trail head is on the left with good parking and a great view at the overlook.  From there you can hike the Ridge Trail, or cross the road and take the Kaylor Knob Trail.  The Ridge Trail runs 4 miles and can be accessed via a resort shuttle, allowing you to do it one-way.  This was Momma Bear and Braxton’s first outing carrying and riding in the back-pack, so we traveled about 1.5 miles and turned back before we hit what other some reviews have referred to as a 'really rocky section'.  

Highlights of the trip:
  • Spencer learned he is a rock climber.  We traveled 3 miles round trip.  Spencer traveled approximately 8 miles total because he zigged and zagged up the trail so he could climb and jump off each rock in the path.  He had an absolute blast.
  • Momma thought she heard a rattle snake.  She is very confident in this, and her pace increased significantly all the way back to the car.  I’m skeptical, and personally think she heard a bird or a locust, but don’t tell her that!
  • The views were gorgeous.  The trail is well maintained and well-marked.  We were up and hiking early, before the sun had time to really heat things up.  I recommend bug spray ANYWHERE outside in the Shenandoah this time of year, but they weren't too bad on our hike.

During our week the boys also made two evening trips to the water park.  Spencer was such a big boy, sliding down the big water slides all by himself.  Momma almost had to be medicated watching her little boy go whisking off down a spiral slide alone.  Braxton didn’t love it like Spencer did, but he had fun.  He’s still a little small for this sort of fun and he wasn’t crazy about all the water in his eyes.  Spencer also enjoyed the bungee trampoline, which he had to go on twice, and he rode a horse all by himself.    The boys both painted garden animals at a craft class and we took a side trip to Luray Caverns. 

Best quotes from Luray:
Spencer: after apparently being strapped in to his backpack a little too snugly (a cave is not the place you want your child to pop out of the backpack unexpectedly), as the tour guide quieted the crowd and began his speech, Spencer loudly announced (it echoed off the cave walls) “Mom, my peter hurts”.  We quickly loosened the straps, and with burning red faces we continued the tour.  All was well and Spencer was once again comfortable.
(Learning lesson for dads out there.  During potty training, when mom says to refer to it as a 'pot pot' rather than a 'peter', consider listening to her.  It may save you some embarrassment in a cave someday)

A little further along...
Tour Guide: “and if you look to your left you’ll see a formation that looks a little like Snoopy”
Spencer: “Mom, did that man just say poopy?”
Mom: “No son, he said Snoopy”
Spencer (somewhat disappointed): “Oh”

Wonderful summer vacation.  Everyone had a blast and the kids can’t wait to go back next summer.  Momma and I even had a chance to sneak off the the Crosskey Winery for lunch and a tasting.  Wow, there are a lot of wineries in VA.  We'll be back!!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Are We Still the Best?

By Mike Layne

I consider myself a patriot.  Always have!  I love my country.  I love its vibrant and tumultuous past.  I love its stories, its art, its mythology.   The fabric of our nation was not weaved from black and white thread.  It is an astounding tapestry of shades and colors, imagery and experiences.   Some will tell you we have a great need to cultivate diversity.  I say we've always had diversity.  Our story spans 238 years and our accomplishments far outpace our years; our successes outpace our failures.  I am, and always will be an American.

I've always had a special affinity for the great inspirational quotes from American history.   Nathan Hale’s last words “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country”, Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” delivered at Gettysburg, and my personal favorite, Patrick Henry’s 1775 “give me liberty or give me death” address to the Virginia Convention.   All three quotes were delivered by men with an unshakable commitment to the concept and continuation of our country, at times when that continuation was not guaranteed -- far from it.  Henry and Hale had few reasons to be confident that a break from Britain would be successful and the Civil War was far from won when Lincoln spoke. Today the battle of Gettysburg is accepted as a turning point in the war.  In November of 1863 that conclusion was still 16 months and a half a million casualties away.   These men inspire me because they believed despite the odds.  Their love of country was not skin deep.  It defined them as men, and as human beings.

Fast forward now, past gold rushes and wagon trains, cowboys, Indians and the page of a century turned, past T.R.’s rough riders, prohibition and two World Wars, "nothing to fear but fear itself, “ask not what your country can do for you”, the cold war, Vietnam, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, two towers, a five sided building and a lonely field in Pennsylvania.  Since Mr. Lincoln spoke in another Pennsylvania field 151 years ago our country has moved from restless adolescence into a mature and powerful nation.   Loved by some and hated by others, we've known biter failure and tremendous success.  

I've heard it said lately that we are no longer the greatest country on earth.  Really?  I’ve watched videos online and heard disturbing statistics that place us behind other countries in math, science and literacy and ahead of most in obesity and adult incarceration.  I’ve read long lists of comments bemoaning the state of the nation.  There is a rising tide of people who believe our best days are behind us.   Are they right, or are we still the greatest country in the world?

We do have problems.  We give money to those who don’t deserve it and sometimes fail to help those who do.   Health care costs too much.  Our politicians lie to us, our education system is undoubtedly broken and obesity is out of control.  The list is long.  Indeed, we have our share of dumb dumbs, bad politicians, moochers and round-waisted people.  If you are one, I make no apologies.  Read a book, take a class, put down the Ho Hos and run a mile.  This country was built on the ability of the common person to better their situation.  Better yours!  America offers opportunity and assistance in spades.   If you fail in life, that’s on you.

Do you think George Washington ran the numbers before he crossed the Delaware?  Did MacArthur weigh the odds before he said “I came through and I shall return”?  This country was not built on statistics, but in spite of them.  We’ve been the underdog and we’ve been the hometown favorite and we have always prevailed.  Not because we checked the polls, but because we came together and we believed; in God, in family, in freedom, in a moral code and a way of life that set us apart from the rest of the world.  We are a shinning city on a hill.  Let me say unequivocally that I will never stop believing in these things, never!  Because to stop believing is to give in to the darkness and surrender.  And to surrender is to utterly desecrate the memory of the men and women who have died to ensure our way of life survives.  We must never let that happen.  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and yes, by the way, we are still the greatest country on earth.

 “It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

-       Abraham Lincoln, November 1863

Friday, November 14, 2014

Life is a CrossFit Chipper

My wife Loreal and I jumped feet first (literally) into CrossFit back in the spring and have never looked back.  We love it.  Like the stereotypical CrossFit devotees, we've molded our lives around our addiction.  We arrange our schedules around workouts, we strive for a clean Paleo diet, our social media is dominated by CrossFit related posts and we talk about it at home all the time.  It’s not strange for the last thing we say before “I love you, good night” to be “hey, did they post tomorrow’s WOD yet”?

So we’re CrossFit people, simple as that.  I could devote volumes to telling you how wonderful the culture is.  How the people make the experience and how a community of like-minded people drive each other to be better versions of ourselves.  I could talk about the physical changes we've seen after a short 6 months and how we've abandoned counting pounds on the scale for counting the weight we can lift and the speed of our workouts.  Those are all positive parts of the sport we love.  But if I had to boil the CrossFit experience down to the one element I believe is the most important, it would be the mental focus and commitment it requires.  These workouts are tough.  Tough beyond what most people are prepared to imagine.   They strip away all the comforts of our modern society and pit you against heavy bars of steel and your own body weight.  Ten minutes into a twenty minute workout of constant heavy movement, you’re breathing so hard your lungs burn, your arms and legs feel like they are made of whipped cream, you’re drenched in sweat and everything in you is screaming stop.  What does it take to keep going?  What internal fortitude must a person possess to force them to gut out the second half of the workout, and more importantly, why does it matter?  It matters because life is a Chipper.

For the uninitiated, the Chipper is a CrossFit workout that is long and grueling.  It typically consists of a high number of repetitions of a high number of exercises.  For example, it might include 50 reps of 12 different exercises ranging from push ups and pull ups to jump rope and Olympic lifts.   Chippers hurt.  Chippers can be demoralizing if you let them.  Chippers drain you of every ounce of energy you can muster and you’ll finish on fumes, and sometimes tears.  Luckily there is a secret to completing a Chipper…  Are you ready?  You do them one exercise at a time, one rep at a time.  That’s it.  Like any other enormous problem in life, if you force your mind to take it in all at once it will overwhelm you.  If you spend your time worrying about the exercise that’s coming up, you may talk yourself out of doing the one you’re on now.  Learning to tough through Chippers teaches us a lot about who we are and about living life in an unpredictable world full of big problems.
  •  Eat the elephant one bite at a time.  Big problems are only big if you let them be big.  Chunk them down into pieces you can manage and tackle them one bite at a time.
  •  Tackle every problem with a positive can do attitude.  If you tell yourself from the start that you can’t do something, the odds are very good that you’ll be right.  Believe in yourself.  You’re capable of way more than you know.
  • It’s normal to want to quit something that is causing you enormous discomfort.  It’s extraordinary to be able to set your mind to something and complete it despite the pain.  You can be normal or extraordinary.  You choose, but choose wisely.  The decision you make will dictate the trajectory of your entire life!

And that’s why we’re CrossFit people.  Not just because our ‘Box’, Ronnin Fitness, is full of great people with great attitudes, and iron sharpens iron.  Not just because a healthy lifestyle gives us our best chance of living a long active life with our children.  We’re CrossFit people because the basics of CrossFit are the basics of life.  If you have what it takes to be good at CrossFit, then you have what it takes to be good at life, and who doesn't want to be good at life?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Stuff of Life

Let me start by saying I totally ripped this post off.  I didn't write this.  It's from an email a friend sent, but it does reflect my core belief in the importance of slowing down and smelling the roses.  The truth is I haven't hiked or posted nearly as much as I've wanted to.  It's been a busy summer.  I discovered Spencer hates hiking in his carrier in the heat, so we didn't get out much in the hot months.  I didn't do any of the camping trips I had planned.  Our intention was to hike more in the fall and now the fall is slipping away to winter.  When I read this email it reminded me of a previous post of mine titled Finding the Beautiful and I felt compelled to share this thought -- Time will fly by you if you let it.  Don't let it go by without wringing it for every ounce of beauty and happiness you can, and sharing it with others.

How much do we notice as we go through a day? 

Lisa Beamer is the wife of Todd Beamer who said 'Let's Roll!' and helped take down the plane over Pennsylvania that was heading for Washington, DC back on 9/11.  On Good Morning America recently she said it's the little things that she misses most about Todd, such as hearing the garage door open as he came home, and her children running to meet him.  Lisa recalled this story:

"I had a very special teacher in high school many years ago whose husband died suddenly of a heart attack. About a week after his death, she shared some of her insight with a classroom of students. As the late afternoon sunlight came streaming in through the
classroom windows and the class was nearly over, she moved a few things aside on the edge of her desk and sat down there. With a gentle look of reflection on her face, she paused and said, 'Class is over; I would like to share with all of you, a thought that is unrelated to class, but which I feel Is very important. Each of us is put here on earth to learn, share, love, appreciate and give of ourselves. None of us knows when this fantastic experience will end. It can be taken away at any moment.

Perhaps this is God's way of telling us that we must make the most out of every single day. Her eyes beginning to water, she went on, So I would like you all to 
make me a promise. From now on, on your way to school, or on your way home, find something beautiful to notice. It doesn't have to be something you see, it could be a scent, perhaps of freshly baked bread wafting out of someone's house, or it could be the sound of the breeze slightly rustling the leaves in the trees, or the way the morning light catches one autumn leaf as it falls gently to the ground. Please look for these things, and cherish them. For, although it may sound trite to some, these things are the "stuff" of life. The little things we are put here on earth to enjoy. The things we often take for granted.

The class was completely quiet. We all picked up our books and filed out of the room silently. That afternoon, I noticed more things on my way home from school than I had that whole semester. Every once in a while, I think of that teacher and remember what an impression she made on all of us, and I try to appreciate all of those things that sometimes we all overlook.  

Take notice of something special you see on your lunch hour today. Go barefoot. Walk on the beach at sunset. Stop off on the way home tonight to get a double dip ice cream cone. For as we get older, it is not the things we did that we often regret, but the things we didn't do.

If you like this, please pass it on to a friend. If not, just delete it and go on with your life! Life is measured many ways.  None are as important as the number of moments that leave us in absolute awe of our universe and it's creator.  Make a point to seek these moments out.

Have a wonderful day!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

5 Easy Ways to Take Better Outdoor Photographs

By Mike Layne

When it come to taking outdoor photos, people tend to fall into two categories.  At one end of the spectrum are the amateur hobbyist and professional photographers.  They use words like aperture, white balance, ISO, shutter speed and F-Stop. They use tri-pods, wear vests, have large full-frame cameras and they take stunning photographs, causing the rest of us no small amount of photo-envy.  On the other end are the rest of us.  We typically have a medium to high end point-and-click camera or a low to mid range DSLR (the one you can change lenses on).  Because the terminology of photography can be intimidating, some folks shy away from using anything but the 'Automatic Mode' on their cameras.  One easy way to upgrade the quality of your outdoor photography, without learning what ISO, F-Stop and Aperture really mean, is to learn, in layman's terms, when to use the other modes built into your camera.  Here are five modes and when and how to use them.

Portrait Mode - The key to understanding portrait mode is to think about what is in focus and what is not.  When photographing a person your photo will be more dramatic if the person is in focus and the background is slightly out of focus.  This naturally draws your eyes to the subject of the photograph and eliminates distractions in the photo by keeping the background out of focus.  Note that this works best if you have one subject.  For a group of people, be careful the range of focus does not put some of the people in the photo out of focus.  If in doubt, take a few photos in portrait and a few in auto mode.

Macro Mode - This is excellent for taking photos very close up.  As you might have guessed from the icon, flowers are a good example of this.  Where portrait mode narrows your range of focus slightly, making your background go out of focus, macro mode narrows the range of focus even smaller, so much so that you need to be careful what is in and out of focus or it can produce unwanted results.  You can also play around with this mode for taking close-in shots of peoples faces.  Playing with what is in and out of focus in your photos is an easy way to create photos that stand out from the everyday snap shots produced by automatic mode.

Landscape Mode - Where both portrait and macro mode seek to narrow your range of focus, landscape mode does the opposite.  When you are photographing a landscape you typically want as much of the photo to be in focus as possible.  You'll hear this referred to by photographers as depth-of-field.  The larger the depth of field, the more of your photograph will be in focus.

Sports Mode - While portrait, macro and landscape mode are primarily concerned with what is in and out of focus, sports mode is concerned with stopping action.  It does this by speeding up the shutter speed of your camera.  The faster your shutter opens and closes, the better it can capture and stop motion with out blur.

Night Mode - Sports mode speeds up the shutter speed to stop motion.  Night mode is not concerned with stopping motion, it's concerned with letting in enough light to produce good photographs in the dark.  This is one of my personal favorites and the only mode I use a tri-pod for.  If you understand that a fast shutter speed stops motion, you'll understand that a slow shutter speed is very susceptible to any kind of motion, which will show up as a blur in the photo.  If you are using night mode, either use a tri-pod or rest your camera and body against something solid to prevent as much motion as possible.  The photo below was taken with a point and click Nikon off the rail of a cruise ship in harbor at St. Thomas.

Have any photography tips you'd like to share, or questions you'd like to ask?  If so, tell us in the comments below.  We'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Finding the Beautiful

Main Street, Clarksburg, WV
By Mike Layne

In a photography class in college, and in books I've read since, the idea of looking for beauty in the mundane has always struck me.   To look at an ordinary every-day landscape and turn one unique angle into a stunning photograph is an ability I admire.  I'm no photographer myself.  I take well meaning snapshots and occasionally stumble across one that captures the scene the way I intended.  What strikes me as magic about great photography is that everyone looks at the same scenes, but a photographer sees something the rest of us don't.  Photographers see the beautiful in the midst of the ordinary.  What a great euphemism for life.   What if we all looked at life the way a photographer looks at landscapes?  Because the beautiful is there if we look for it, in landscapes and in people.  We can choose to see the bad, the mundane, the ordinary.  Or, we can look past all that the way a photographer does and choose to find the beautiful.

I was thinking along these lines this morning as Spencer and I set out on a hike through Clarksburg and up Lowndes Hill to the Civil War trenches.  I run this route sometimes in the evenings.  It's a moderate 3 mile round trip with around 350 feet in elevation gain.  The views of the city of Clarksburg are decent from the top, but compared to a stunning waterfall or a massive rock formation, it is a little on the mundane side.  Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon so a State Park trip was out.  With only about an hour to spare before the weather changed, we needed something close and a three mile round trip
Rays of Sunlight
from door step to door step is as close as it gets.  I was a little worried how Spencer would do in the child carrier on a more urban hike.  I normally try to set him down every 20-30 minutes for play time.  We'd be on public highway all the way so no place to set down if he got antsy.  This turned out to be fine.  Today I was again struck by the notion that kids have things to teach us.  Spencer didn't see the aging buildings or vacant lots.  Nor did he care much about the litter of beer cans and even an old couch at one point.  Spencer saw a chance to get outside and explore.  He was as happy on my back going down main street as he was in the natural beauty of Coopers Rock State Forest last weekend. We made our way through town and up Lowndes Hill as the sky continued to darken.  Beyond the beer cans and the couch, we also saw 8 deer cross the road 50 feet in front of us.  This is not an unusual occurrence in West Virginia and I've always suppressed a little amusement when tourist ouuu and awww about deer.  But to a two year old child the experience was new and as exciting as if a bengle tiger had crossed in front of us.  We made it too the Civil War trenches after 30 minutes of hiking, snapped some shots and turned around.  On our way
Sleepy Little Boy
back down, just for a few minutes, the clouds broke and rays of sunlight spread out across the valley below us silhouetting the tree line.  I snapped a few quick shots, the clouds closed in again and we continued down the hill.

A few minutes later Spencer went to sleep.  We finished the hike home and, as the rains set in, came inside for some breakfast.  As I'm typing now the weather outside is nasty.  The wind is blowing rain against the windows, the sky is grey and I hear we can expect this to change to snow in the AM.  Sometimes when life makes it easy to see the ugly side of things, we have to remind ourselves to look a little harder.  Sometimes it's all in how you frame it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Old Dogs, Children and Trains

By Mike Layne

There comes a point in our lives when, despite our best efforts to ignore the evidence, we're forced to admit that we are in fact getting a little older.  A gray hair here, a wrinkle there and before you know it we're saying things like "well, back when I was a kid" and "darn kids these days".   When we think about the ways we've changed over the years, it's convenient to say things like 'wisdom comes with age', but in reality what happens is more subtle.  We become more aware of the passing of time, of things lost and lessons learned.  Successes and failures mold us into older wiser versions of the children we once were, and yet somewhere along the way something important is lost.   Lately I've been thinking about the difference between things in life that are real and things that are not.  That's a lot to tackle in one blog post, I realize, but stay with me.

In our super-connected world of information and globalization, it's ironic that our society is in danger of loosing our connection with the things in life that really matter.   Every hour of every day we receive a relentless barrage of marketing and political propaganda.   So much in fact, that the lines anchoring us to reality become stretched and frayed.  Relevant things are pushed aside to make room for progress, change and the other stories they tell us.  Marketers want us to believe nine out of ten dentists really do prefer the latest tooth paste.   That adding batteries to a regular razor gives you a closer shave and last summer’s colors are simply not fashionable this year.   Politicians want us to believe in phrases like ‘too big to fail’ and that it takes a 4 trillion dollar budget to keep America running.  The common denominator is this; none of it is real.  Economies are built on perceptions of value and can crumble in the time it takes us to eat our breakfast.  Marketers will stretch the limits of credulity, enshrining consumerism in the pursuit of profit.  And in this sea of fabricated realities, or if you prefer 'lies', what becomes of the the things that are real?  Do we remember what they are, what they look like, the way they make us feel?  How will we show them to our children?  Here’s what I think.
Sunset in St. Thomas
Sunset in St. Thomas

Real things are timeless, immeasurable.  Their value transcends material worth.  They are things we can touch and things we cannot.  They inspire us to dream, to think, to feel, and if we let them, they impact our lives in profound and lasting ways we only truly understand as we grow older.  A few examples, so we know how to recognize real things when we see them.

The wispy way steam rises off the water at daybreak, with the earthy scents of moss and pine needles thick in the air.  The rush of cool air that sometimes comes just before dawn.  Birds in the background mix songs with the sound of running water and sunlight slides slowly down the trunks of trees.  These things are real.

Sunrise and sunset, an introduction and a farewell, they’re the bookends that hold the contents of our
days.  They are a quiet time made for contemplation and coffee, for romance and reflection.  They smell like tobacco and old leather or candles and home cooked breakfast.  They come every day, and how many times do we really slow down to see them?  We should make a point to because they are real.

Campfires are real.  The smell of wood smoke, the flickering flames.  They touch some primitive thing deep inside us that whispers of warmth and survival, of caves and hearth fires.  The smoke pulls us in and the embers in-trance us in a way nothing else can.

Railroad tracks at Valley Falls State Park
Railroad tracks at Valley Falls State Park
Trains are real.  As real as cowboys and cattle cars, Colt 45s and Kentucky Bourbon.  Has any other mechanical thing fueled the imagination of so many generations?  Trains connected our coasts, built our economy, enabled our wars and carried our families. Their rails are the backbone our nation was built on, their whistles cry a song of history and freedom.

Old dogs are real.  Growing up in Pocahontas County, we lived next door to my sister and her family.  They had a basset hound named Sam.  Sam was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a ‘community dog’.  For more than 15 years Sam walked a daily route through our neighborhood.   Everyone knew him, everyone fed him and everyone loved him.  You can still see his paths worn into the dirt.  It’s been close to 15 years now since Sam left us and to this day people still tell stories about him with a nostalgic smile.  Old dogs hold a wisdom in their eyes far beyond their years and they teach us the value of loyalty. 

Children are perhaps the realest of all things real.  Born with no prejudice, no preconceived notions and only two natural fears, children love unconditionally.  They represent us at our very best.   If we let them, they’ll teach us to see through the eyes of children again, to experience the wonders and joys that come so natural to them.

So pet an old dog today.  Ride a train or watch the sun as it sets behind the hills.  Teach your children and let them teach you and together we'll all move a little closer to the things in life that are real.