“It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
George Washington, 1732-1799
First president of the U.S.
“If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest,
but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.”
DANNY GAULT (March 19, 1931 – December 20, 2008)
I don’t remember as much as I should, or as much as I wish, about Danny Gault. In my youthful ignorance, I was more interested in the playful flirtations and silly antics of the other 14-year-olds at church camp — Wilderness Camp to be exact. It was the mid 1980s and the early years of Round Lake’s Wilderness Camp program, established by Danny Gault, a little old preacher who always had a smile on his face, a walking stick in his hand, and a story to tell.
Danny was the master storyteller and could have held his own on any stage in Jonesborough (home of the National Storytelling Festival). He had a story about everything — we’d hike to a big rock and as we rested our feet, he’d tell us a story about how Turtle Rock got its name. We’d hike to a cabin and as we ate our lunch, he’d tell us about Doc Drake. We’d hike to an old abandoned house, and as the sky grew dark, he’d tell us the haunting story of Johnny Little (my brothers, and anyone who went to Round Lake’s Wilderness Camp during this era, probably remember these stories and places much better than I have, and hopefully many more).
Everything with Danny had a history, with people and their stories tied to it. Some were probably real, many were probably exagerated for the good of the story. It didn’t matter — he mesmerized us with his stories. Around the campfire, he’d share stories from the Bible and sometimes stories about how precious life is. Everyone loved Danny. His enthusiasm for nature, for the Creator, and for loving life and having fun were infectious (I wish I could find my favorite picture of Danny and his famous grin, the one where he’d take out his dentures and smile so his chin would touch his nose…it never failed to get a laugh).
There was something special about Wilderness Camp. Each summer was filled with different adventures of hiking the hills and backwoods of central and southern Ohio — Appalachian Ohio, as well as trips to Pennsylvania and Tennessee. At the time it wasn’t so much that I loved the outdoors as much as my brothers and parents did. For me, it was that Wilderness Camp offered more freedom and less structure than regular camp. It was a smaller group of campers, and the nature of camping together, hiking together down trails and roads lined with Queen Anne’s lace and nettles, fixing our own sometimes inedible food, and spending countless hours around the campfire, always brought us closer together and closer to our leaders — adults who really opened themselves up to us and cared for us as we hiked miles together, telling stories just like Danny did, and learning to enjoy everything around us, even when our feet were sore and covered in blisters. It also gave us opportunity to laugh at the irreverent realities of life.
Thanks to Danny and the people who followed behind him, I learned to appreciate the woods and the amazing beauty of nature and the Creator — and the history and stories that make up life for all of us. I realize now, only in hindsight, that he helped create in me the passion I now have for the Appalachians and nature photography. When my parents got a call the week before Christmas that Danny was in the hospital and later the call that he had died, I was reminded once more how precious life is and how unfortunate it is that we wait until people die before we offer tributes like this about how special they were and what they meant to us. Don’t wait — go tell some stories to some special people in your life.
Winter view from the Beauty Spot, Unicoi
“There is a solitude which each and
every one of us has always carried within.
More inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains,
more profound than the midnight sea:
the solitude of self.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902
Social activist and leading figure of early woman’s movement
Christmas centerpiece I made Saturday at Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers
“In my garden there is a large place for sentiment.
My garden of flowers is also my garden of thoughts and dreams.
The thoughts grow as freely as the flowers,
and the dreams are as beautiful.”
Abram L. Urban
Duke turns 10 years old today (photo by Mark Peacock)
“I talk to him when I’m lonesome like;
and I’m sure he understands.
When he looks at me so attentively, and gently licks my hands;
then he rubs his nose on my tailored clothes,
but I never say naught thereat.
For the good Lord knows I can buy more clothes,
but never a friend like that.”
W. Dayton Wedgefarth
I remember the first time I realized I might actually care for this dog. Before that moment, I’d had about 4 years of grudgingly tolerating this hyperactive beast everytime I’d visit my parents in Ohio. The moment of realization came a few days after a trip to Ohio, during which I noticed that Duke (our family dogs always had royal names…Queen, Baron, Duchess, and finally Duke) might be calming down some in his maturity and may even have a sweet side to him…when he wasn’t barking, running, jumping, or slobbering. I might have even petted him once or twice during that visit.
Then came the call from my dad that Duke was missing. He’d disappeared the day before and they’d been all over the countryside looking for him and asking neighbors and local farmers. I felt sad for my Dad, but figured Duke would show up. He’d occasionally run off before to frolic with local farm dogs (and by frolic, I mean he probably fathered puppies all over that county) and he always came home. But then came day two, and still no Duke. By day four, I was calling my parents morning and evening asking if he’d been found. That was the moment — the moment I realized I cared about the dumb dog. I was elated when on day five, Duke was found four miles away where he had wandered up to a strange house, lost and hungry. (Fortunately the UPS man delivered a package to that house that day and recognized Duke — after all, he’d been greeting him with full barking vigor in our driveway for four years.)
A few years after that, my parents decided to move and go back to college. Surprisingly, the hardest part of that entire life-changing decision was deciding what to do with the dog. They couldn’t take Duke with them to college. Perhaps they’d have to give him away. That’s when my heart nudged my head and I called Dad and said, Bring him here. (It was also a bit of guilt I felt considering the years Dad put up with every stray animal I brought home as a child — cats galore; a homeless gerbil that hid in my friend’s desk at school for a few days before I snuck him home; Houdini the Hamster that escaped from his cage frequently and lived in my dresser…until Queen got a hold of him — no worries, he survived but was forever blind in one eye; the rabbits I adopted in high school as part of a quickly-abandoned FFA project; a rat I felt strangely compelled to buy at the pet store my junior year of high school; and somehow I also get blamed for a few guinea pigs along the way, too). But never had a family dog been mine. Dogs were the enemies — they chewed on my hamster (and a few Barbie dolls), chased my cats (at the encouragement of my brothers), snored under my bed at night, and left foul odors and slobber everywhere they went.
But I called Dad and made the offer. And soon after, Duke came to live with me. All 102 pounds of him. The rule was that he wasn’t allowed in the house. That rule lasted about a week. That’s all it took for me to go from caring about the dog to loving the beast. Even though he’s big and clumsy and drools and snores, he’s such a lovable guy. He’s fun loving and happy-go-lucky, even in the old arthritic pain that consumes him these days. And surprisingly to me, he’s loyal in a way that no other pet had ever been loyal to me. The way he looks at me with complete trust, admiration, and love is amazing, especially since it’s so undeserved. (I’ve jokingly said to friends that the day I find a man to look at me the way Duke does is the day I’ll finally get married.) He’s now been here almost four years — much to the chagrin of Sadie, the cocker spaniel who really owns and runs my house and the neighborhood — and I’ve never regretted the day Duke worked his way into my heart.
And I thank my Dad for sharing him with me — we’ve both had the joy of Duke following at our heels on long hikes through the woods, looking down into those trusting eyes, nightly rituals of sharing our popcorn, and being loved unconditionally and passionately every time we come home from a sometimes unloving day in the world. Yes, it’s true — Duke is a true friend. Here’s to hopefully several more years of this joy in my life!
Great Spangled Fritillary on Butterfly Milkweed plant
“If instead of a gem, or even a flower,
we should cast the gift of a loving thought
into the heart of a friend,
that would be giving as the angels give.”
George MacDonald, 1824-1905
Scottish author, poet, minister