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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Welcoming in the Year of the Vulture

My daughter the innkeeper. And, apparently, a slave-owner. Amber's school held a "Colonial Days" event, and all the fourth-graders were assigned various roles to play. According to her job description, innkeepers utilized slaves for cooking and cleaning (though none were portrayed by any of the students). When I asked her why she owned human beings, my daughter replied "the people during those days were English." 

The Year of the Monkey is almost upon us, with today (Saturday) being the penultimate day of the Year of the Goat. Tomorrow will be Lunar New Year's Eve, a time in which families across the Chinese-speaking world get together for the year-end meal. In China, this time of the year can be one of incredible chaos; while Taiwan isn't quite as bad, the island usually sees gridlocked freeways, overcrowded tourist sights and hotel rooms and restaurants with jacked-up prices and rates. Here in the U.S., it's business as usual, with celebrations usually limited to Chinatowns (though the holiday is also an important time in Korea and Vietnam; we live next door to a Vietnamese shopping center that will celebrating Tet). Speaking of Taiwan, I was amused to read comments on Facebook from friends and acquaintances there on a recent cold spell the island was having a couple of weeks ago. While temperatures did drop to almost freezing in Taipei 台北, and many places received a rare light dusting of snow, all this occurred around the same time we here in the Washington, D.C. area had around two feet (60 centimeters) of snow dumped on us. True, with their concrete walls, tiled floors and complete lack of insulation, Taiwanese apartments can feel almost as cold on the inside as the weather is on the outside (and on a serious note, Taiwanese media reported up to 85 deaths from hypothermia and cardiac arrest). Still, I couldn't help but feel that some Westerners, at least, seem to get softer with each year they stay on the island. 

When we were living in Taiwan, we coped with the short winter season by wearing sweaters indoors, and relying on space heaters to warm up the rooms (my wife even insisted we bring our kerosene heater with us when we moved to Taichung 台中 from Yokkaichi 四日市). In fact, compared to Japan, Taiwanese homes in winter might just be more bearable. Japanese homes (with the exception of those in Hokkaidō 北海道) also tend not to be insulated, and winters in Japan are a lot colder, and for a much longer period of time, than in Taiwan. When I lived in Tōkyō 東京, I relied on space heaters, electric blankets and, eventually, wall-mounted air conditioners with heating functions in an effort to keep warm. But even with these, plus kerosene heaters, kotatsu 炬燵 and extra covers for the futon 布団, those wooden (and ferroconcrete) homes could still be very cold and drafty. I remember visiting a 17th-century wooden home in the city of Takayama 高山, located in the Japanese Alps 日本アルプス; even though I was wearing thick socks, it was still painful to walk across the frozen tatami mats 畳. It's those kinds of memories that make me appreciate the central heating system we have in our current residence. 

Two weeks after Snowzilla, I went hiking today in the Wildcat Mountain Natural Area in Warrenton, Virginia, 39 miles (63 kilometers) from our home in Falls Church. It was 37°F (2.8°C) as I started walking from my parked car and ascended 100 yards (91 meters) up a narrow, steep trail. My guidebook describes the climb as being "difficult", but I found it to be pretty easy; no boasting, as I've let myself get out of shape since we went to Shanghai. I'm assuming that our obese society has necessitated the need to re-evaluate what defines "difficulty":

The trail is maintained by The Nature Conservancy, which has placed informative signs along the path:

A long stone wall marks the top of the ridge, and a 420-foot (128 meters) gain in elevation:

A lot of the snow on England Mountain has already melted, though plenty of the white stuff still remains:

Stone walls delineate where hikers can and can't go, as England Mountain (where the trail is located) stands on private property:

The trail is muddy and wet in places due to snow melting, and I had to cross a number of babbling brooks this morning. It was at this point pictured below that I was passed by another hiker and her two dogs, who started growling at me. According to the woman, it was because I was wearing a hat. Apparently, American dogs are not sure what to do when encountering headgear or umbrellas (the latter once given to me as an excuse by an embarrassed dog owner when I was hiking on a rainy day):

A rare touch of green (admittedly enhanced after being uploaded) in the otherwise stark winter scenery:

The sound of rushing water and wind blowing through trees is Nature's way of serving New Age musicians:

The highlight of the hike today is the Smith House, which was abandoned about fifty years ago but is still in remarkably good condition. Before reaching the house, I passed by the Spring House, where pond ice or flowing water was used to prevent dairy products, fruit and meat from spoiling:

The interior of the Smith House, photographed from the outside (I didn't try to enter what is still private property):

Behind the Smith House is a chimney and fireplace, all that is left of a 19th-century homestead:

Selfie time outside the Smith House:

While I was walking around the property, a pair of Black Vultures emerged from one of the upstairs rooms. One vulture flew onto a nearby branch, while the other one took up its post atop the chimney on the roof:

Exterior of the Smith House. You can see the pair of Black Vultures in the second shot:

Back on the trail and passing by the reservoir that once served the Smith House. My guidebook describes a "dry bed", but obviously it isn't, at least not after the recent snowstorm:

This section of the trail is still covered in snow, though the snow pack here is hard, making it easy to walk on, and shallow. I thank the Nature Conservancy for the green-and-yellow markers it put on the trees, enabling hikers to pick out the trail despite the snow cover. This was also the only section of the hike where it was cold enough to have to put on gloves: 

Another bit of color. The trail must be nice in autumn:

The snow eventually gives way to ice. On the drive to Wildcat Mountain Natural Area, after exiting I-66 and turning onto Carters Run Road, I encountered a couple of large patches of ice on the road that forced me to slow down considerably so as not to skid off the road:

Back to the first section of stone wall encountered at the top of the ridge, and signifying the end of the loop trail. From here it was back down the "difficult" section and then to my car parked along England Mountain Driveway:

Some vital statistics for the last hike of the Year of the Goat include a distance of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) covered on foot; an elevation gain of 840 feet (256 meters); and a total walking time of just over two hours. Who knows where my feet will take me next as the Monkey awaits.

POSTSCRIPT: This Taiwanese expat family (well, two-thirds of it, anyway) celebrated the coming of the (Lunar) New Year by having dinner at Peter Chang in Arlington on Super Bowl Sunday (that spectacle being the reason why the streets were relatively deserted tonight). Back home afterward, my daughter received her treasured hóng​bāo 紅包:

Xīn​nián​kuài​lè 新年快樂
Gōng​xǐ​fā​cái 恭喜發財

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