Category Archives: Places

Guilty as Charged

A lot of people in Atlanta took umbrage at Dan Shaughnessy’s column in the Boston Globe aboutrise up how disappointed the New England Patriots must be in having to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl. He didn’t really say anything bad about the Falcons or Atlantans, oddly enough. The gist of his argument is that Atlantans aren’t die-hard professional sports fans (and thus aren’t worthy of a spot in the NFL’s big game), but are instead crazy about college football.


Don’t get me wrong, I love and support all of Atlanta’s professional sports team, and have all of my life, as numerous of these tedious blog posts will attest. I stand second to none in my fanaticism for the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks. Heck, I even loved the long-defunct Atlanta Flames and still support them in Calgary. I know that they currently own the 8th and last playoff spot in the NHL’s Western Conference right at this red-hot second. Find three other people south of the Mason-Dixon line who care about that, I dare you.

But yes, college football is king here. And news flash: we aren’t alone.

The Northeast is the only place where the love of pro football wins out over the college game because, with the exception of Boston College (for whom our beloved Matty Ice played), there is no college football north of Philadelphia worthy of the name. Rutgers doesn’t count, despite playing—if you can call Rutger’s performance last year “playing”—in the Big Ten.

Combine that with the fact that the Patriots are really, really good—as are the other Boston teams usually—and it’s understandable why professional sports fans there are legion.

Our fanaticism here is not because of the dearth of professional championships in Atlanta sports.

It’s because college football is more exciting and more fun to watch, in my humble and uninformed opinion.

The rivalries are much more intense, and the game-day atmosphere at big-time college football games is unmatched in any other sport. Any. Shaughnessy referenced lack of excitement in Atlanta last April about a Celtics-Hawks playoff matchup (which the Hawks won, by the way). Is he kidding? Seriously? The NBA?

For game-day excitement, try the Big House in Ann Arbor when Michigan plays Ohio State (ask Michigan alum Tom Brady about it). Or the Horseshoe in Columbus when it’s played there. Or in Oklahoma during Bedlam. Utah during the Holy War or Oregon’s Civil War. Also try finding cool names like these for NFL rivalries. You won’t.

The NFL has nothing—nothing—to compare to the Iron Bowl. Or the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal. Texas and Texas A&M (though temporarily suspended). Catholics vs. Convicts.

I’m not saying there aren’t great rivalries in the NFL—the Redskins and Cowboys, Patriots and Jets, and Packers and Bears all come to mind. Heck, the Falcons and Saints don’t like each other. And the best rivalries in baseball are the Yankees and Red Sox and Cubbies vs. Cards.

But it’s not the same as the blood feuds in college football, where many of these rivalries go back 130 years. The NFL has been around since the 1920s, but most franchises—including the Patriots—barely predate the 1960s. And rivalries are divisional (Cowboys-Redskins) not geographical, like Florida and Florida State, and don’t have nearly the emotional intensity of a life and death college football grudge match.

Boston’s a great sports town, make no mistake, and I can understand how the mighty Patriots might have wanted to play a different team, with a greater championship legacy. It’s like Montreal playing Phoenix in the Stanley Cup—hockey in Arizona?

But here’s a fact: when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, they had played previously in two Super Bowls (1986 & 1997), exactly one more than the Falcons (1998) at that time. And they had lost both of those games, to the more storied NFL franchises, the Bears and the Packers.

Yes, they’ve won four since, but we all have to start somewhere, including the Patriots. Pittsburgh had won 4 Super Bowl titles before the Patriots ever even appeared in the big game for the first time in 1986.

In sports as in life, all glory is fleeting. One should be wary of acting too smug about how supreme your team is over time. The Dallas Cowboys have wandered in the playoff and championship wilderness for 20 years now after Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith retired, and perhaps that fate awaits the Pats once Brady and Belichick are gone—which they will be one day.

Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime QB, and Belichick a once-in-a century coach. Their impact on that team is not unlike Michael Jordan’s and Coach Phil Jackson’s for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA. How many titles have the Bulls won without them? Zero.

Like Cowboys fans now, one can easily imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when Pats fans might be thrilled to play in the Super Bowl again after a long, long dry spell that nobody ever foresees when the champagne is flowing. They might one day even be thrilled to be playing against the Atlanta Falcons.

Rise up.

The Roar of the Approaching Night

flight-93-national-memorialA recent story on the national park at the site of the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, brought back all the raw emotions of September 11. The anger, the terror, and the realization that our lives can change in an instant was never more starkly on display than on that sun-lit Tuesday fifteen years ago.

There will be many moments of reflection on this momentous anniversary. As we do, we should reflect on two other events from this past July that went by virtually unnoticed.

July 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme during World War I. On July 2, Elie Wiesel died at age 87, the Auschwitz survivor who spoke eloquently for those 6 million who could no longer speak for themselves.

What will happen when those who give voice to hell in the flesh are gone?

At the anniversary of September 11, it’s worth remembering that every event in history that evoked raw emotions was in time smoothed over and faded from memory. In our own time, the Somme and Wiesel’s death should remind us what can happen when the voices of resentment become dominant.

We’ve already forgotten about the horrors of the Somme—and World War I in general. Probablywwi not one American on the street could tell you what happened in that murderous and savage battle. Or at Passchendaele or Verdun.

The Somme is a river in northern France, and the battle that took place there for 136 days in 1916 has become a metaphor for the useless slaughter of human life.

The Germans were securely entrenched and strategically located when the allied British and French forces launched their frontal attack on a 21-mile front north of the River. Before they sent the men over the top, they shelled the dug-in Germans with a week-long artillery bombardment. For the Germans living through it, it was hell: A soldier who suffered through the bombardment at Verdun said that by day nine almost every soldier was crying. The bombardment was so loud and so intense it could be heard north of London. When the shells subsided for an instant, the air was filled with the buzzing of millions of flies who were eating the dead, and the terrifying high-pitched screams of the rats who often grew so big and bloated from feeding on the dead, it was said that they would attack and eat a wounded man if he couldn’t defend himself. It brought catatonic depression, shell shock, madness.

Saturday, July 1, 1916, was the day of the biggest military fiasco in British history. At 7:30 that morning Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, ordered his men over the top, out of their trenches, to attack the German lines head on at the Somme. Within a matter of hours 21,000 British soldiers were killed, 40,000 wounded, many of them within sight of their own trenches.

paiu1989_140_01_1By noon 60,000 men lay wounded, dying, or dead. Let that soak in. 60,000. The Germans said they didn’t even have to aim, just shoot. The 1st Newfoundland Battalion lost 91% of its men within 40 minutes, which is why July 1 is Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador.

After that day, the Somme offensive deteriorated into a battle of attrition. In October torrential rains turned the battlefield into an impassable sea of mud, and by mid-November the Allies had advanced only 5 miles.

Between July and November 1916, there were an estimated 1.3 million Allied and German casualties on the Somme. Among the British losses 73,412 were never recovered or identified.

Let me repeat those figures: 1.3. million casualties in that one battle in a war that lasted over four years. Almost 75,000 missing. To give you some perspective, as of March 23, 2016, the total of those missing in action in Vietnam is 1,621.

All those deaths and mangled bodies, for what? A few yards of mud. Almost no one today can tell you anything about it, or explain how the war began in a toxic brew of ethnic hatred, religious animosities, and tribalistic territorial alliances.

The poison of the first world war culminated of course in the second one.

NightIn 1956, Elie Wiesel published Night, his memoirs of his experience in the concentration camps: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Wiesel recounted it all, including the murders of his father, mother, and sister.

The U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. Among the survivors was Elie Wiesel.

“I must do something with my life,” he said years later. “It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

The Somme and the Holocaust stand as warnings as we once again find ourselves grappling both at home and around the world with tribalism, revanchism, and nativism.  We delude ourselves if we think these things cannot happen again.

The European Union has presided over peace in Europe for the longest period in its history, 71 years and counting, and it is imploding before our eyes in a swirl of economic unrest and ethnic hostility. We think that we are too superior to blunder blindly into another useless and forgotten conflict like World War I, leaving 37 million causalities behind. We are not.

HitlerWe think we would never allow something like the Holocaust to happen again, that we would see the madmen coming and cut them down before they turned the world into a charnel house again. Would we?  Emotions flamed by legitimate fears of terrorism and fueled by religious and ethnic hatred raise troubling doubts.

This September 11, along with the memory of our dead and the brave warriors who have since died fighting, remember too the dead of the Somme and the unchecked madness that allowed 6 million to be exterminated. The cult of resentment and fanaticism have their fatal and tragic consequences. Night may come again. If it does, humanity itself will be its author—and its final victim.

l_01Elie Wiesel warned that “if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”  37 million casualties in World War I. Over 100 million in World War II. 6 million human beings in the Holocaust.  Fifteen years after September 11 and every day forward, remember.


Solitary Man

sunsetBlessed with a 4-day pass over the last weekend in February, I made tracks for the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “in the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. ” Couple that with fellow Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s dictum, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” and you will understand why the mountains are a constant destination.

On that Saturday I awoke to a gloriously sunny late winter day, so with bike in tow I drove over the Richard Russell Parkway to Smithgall Woods. If you’ve never been, you’re missing out on one of our state’s great natural treasures. I would say it’s a well-kept secret, but I’m not sure that’s true, and even if it was, here I am telling you about it. But it’s undoubtedly much less used than either Unicoi or Vogel, two nearby state parks that are more widely known.

The official name of the park is Smithgall Woods – Dukes Creek Conservation Area. Its 5,664 acres (compared to 233 acres at Vogel and 1,050 at Unicoi) have their own charm, and unlike other state parks, if you don’t like being out in the woods, Tsalaski-Trail-2smit’s probably not going to be your cup of tea. But if you agree with Emerson, it doesn’t get much better. Not to mention, a river runs through it. Or, to be more precise, the restorative waters of Dukes Creek.

Smithgall Woods was acquired by the State of Georgia in 1994 from Charles A. Smithgall, Jr., and dedicated as a Heritage Preserve under the Georgia Heritage Act of 1975. Its 5 miles of trails and 18 miles of roads (paved and unpaved) are ideal for hikers or bikers.

On my first trip there last August, I biked 4 miles in on Tsalaki Trail, all the way over to State Hwy. 75 outside Helen, and then back out again. It was quite strenuous. Downright lungbusting. Even on a somewhat cool and overcast August day I was a sweaty mess. The ups and downs of the hills were calorie burners, and though I’m in good cardio shape, it was still a tough workout for this lowcountry rider. Those kinds of hills—nay, Silas, any hills—simply don’t exist in Savannah.

DSC_1485Six months later, with backpack, book, and journal strapped tight, I was simply looking for a great way to spend a beautiful winter afternoon outside. I found it.

After huffing up the initial hill that leads away from the visitor’s center, I stopped first to say hello to the Smithgall bee farm. Even on a chilly afternoon the little fellas were buzzing around in superior numbers, preventing me from moving in for a closer look, which was probably for the best. They didn’t mind posing for pictures, though.

photo 2 (1)A little farther on I parked my bike by the side of a field that in August (pictured at right) was bursting with blooming sunflowers but that now lay dormant. I spent a golden half hour writing in my journal, noting and describing the beauty all around me, listening to the rushing sound of Dukes Creek just beyond the meadow.

Dukes Creek has been rated one of the top 100 trophy trout streams in the country, and its meandering waters lie at the heart of the park. I found myself stopping repeatedly on my bike ride to just sit beside it. It’s more like a river than a creek.

You don’t have to be a fisherman to enjoy it, either. I’m not, and I spent the better part of the day sitting on its banks listening, pondering, reading, watching, writing, thinking. Every so often I’d meet a fly fisherman wading through the waters, and we’d nod to each other. Some of them must have wondered what the guy on the bank was writing about in his notebook. I enjoyed their silent company and appreciated that Dukes Creekeach of us was ultimately there for the same reasons though doing different things. Thoreau told us it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

Sitting beside picturesque Bay’s Bridge as the cascading creek tumbled by beneath, over rocks glinting in the lowering afternoon sun, I realized: I need to come back here, to these mountains, these woods, this water, in every season, for as long as I can. As a wise man once said, there may be more to learn from climbing one mountain twenty times than from climbing twenty different mountains. I’ll never be finished here.

Yes, Stan, this is all lovely, but we’re busy people here. Is there anything really to do there? My answer is that it all depends on what you mean by doing. photo 4As writer Roger Cohen thoughtfully noted, “too often we confuse activity and movement with accomplishment and fulfillment. More may be gained through a pause.”

This doctor’s advice: Take a moment sometime soon and visit a place like Smithgall Woods. If not there, someplace like it, near or far from where you live. Our state—indeed, our nation—has a wealth of such places set aside for us.

To paraphrase John Muir, he who experiences the blessing of one mountain day is rich forever. Go collect your winnings.