National Park Mysteries

Rocky Springs Methodist ChurchAfter my vacation trip up the Natchez Trace last year, my little sister said, “So have you read the Anna Pigeon mystery novels about the Trace?”

Who knew that there were Anna Pigeon mysteries about the Natchez Trace? And who is this Anna Pigeon anyway? It was a mystery! I had to find out more…

In the series of books, Anna Pigeon is a National Park ranger. As she gets transferred from one park to the next, she solves murder mysteries. She’s a Law Enforcement ranger, not one of those wimpy Interpretive types. She carries a gun and arrests folks. Along the way, she tends to get beat up quite a bit. There’s a score of these books, so she must be walking with a pretty good limp by now.

I’ve only read 2 of the books. I like them. I can already make out the general formula for the books. It’s not all that restricting. Basically, bad things happen. You get to know some people. Not everybody is helpful. Even some co-workers aren’t trustworthy. (Bad Park Rangers? Heaven forbid!) And there’s often a pet around somewhere. And then as part of the denoument, she gets beat up really bad, yet still manages to save the day.

Sure, there’s plenty of descriptions of the scenery. Some of it stuff that park visitors never get to see. But it’s not as much as I’d hoped. That’s OK, because this is a mystery, not a travelogue.

The first one I read was Deep South. At first I was disappointed that there wasn’t more description of sites along the Trace. I mean, there’s a burnt-down southern  mansion not far off it. And pancake stacks of waterfalls. And Indian mounds galore.  In the night, in real life, my wife and I walked right past the murder site. Finally I realized that scenery isn’t really what the Natchez Trace is all about, nor this book. It’s the history and the culture and the people of the place.

My next try was Hard Truth, which takes place in Rocky Mountain National Park. The included description was closer to what I was expecting. But, boy, you really have to pay for it. The story is a little more complicated here, with two interwoven plot lines, and two similar yet forever different protagonists.

The author, Nevada Barr, is a former National Park Enforcement Ranger. Go figure. So she knows her stuff. She’s really good at getting into other people’s heads. And she does trickle in some tricks of the trade: how silence forces people to talk more than questioning, facial movements to watch for when people are lying. (BTW, did you know that the contents of backcountry toilets have to be packed out? I hope they use mules or something more substantial than someone with a backpack.)

And when you’re done, it kinda feels like you’ve been there.

In both books, I knew who the killer was before Anna did. But apparently she doesn’t read mystery books, so I had the upper hand. In one case, I didn’t know the motive. Once Anna figured that out, and showed it to me, then we were both good. In the other one, even though I knew who did it, Nevada Barr convinced me I was wrong about two thirds of the way thru. I didn’t realize that I’d been hornswaggled till Anna figured out that it really was who I’d said it was.

So the mysteries are fair and don’t cheat.

I’ve chosen randomly among the lot, starting about halfway thru the series, then jumping another 25% forward. Next I’ve really got to start with the first one. But I dont’ think that being out of sequence will hurt very much. While each book is connected to the previous adventures, they seem to telegraph enough that you can keep up to speed.

I’m starting to think that more books should be in the mystery format. Just to spice things up a little. It would work for Hamlet, the Danish Detective. Tom Sawyer Private Eye seems a natural. Pride and Prejudice and Poison anyone?

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Soapy Sales

KirksSo I hear you saying, “Yeah, Lyle, I like washing up as much as the next person, but I just can’t get behind this Dr. Bronner’s stuff you talk about. It’s like too radical. It’s against my religious/political beliefs. It’s too hep or trendy or something. I’m not worthy. Oh, and it costs too much. But I still need to get clean! Whatever shall I do? Woe is me! I am soooo lamentatious!”

I have five words for you, kid: Kirks Original Coco Castile Soap.

In my grocery store, it’s always in the Cheap Deals aisle. My favorite health food store carries the Unscented version. The scented version smells like soap. I once asked of Kirk’s website, what’s the name of that smell? They never got back to me. It smells kinda French to me though. But in a clean way.

The lather seems a little bit more luxurious than Dr. Bronner’s. I think that’s because Bronner bubbles are more uniformly tiny. Kirk’s bubbles come in all sizes. I might be hallucinating however.

Here’s where they sold me. They sell Kirk’s t-shirts on their website. For $7.50 each. Normally I don’t like advertising for folks. Unless I really like their products. Even then, I don’t want to PAY to advertise for them. So Kirk’s sells me a t-shirt, pretty much at cost. There’s no premium price tag like you’d get with most t-shirt advertisements. I REALLY like that.

And then they gave the knife a twist. One of the tshirts says “Clean Me Up … Scotty”. Get it? Kirk’s is saying “Clean Me Up”!!! OK, it’s a Star Trek joke. You don’t have to get it. I got it. That’s what counts. Oh, and they said it. That’s why I love Kirk’s soaps. Besides the bubbles.

They’ve got a sister brand: Grandpa’s. Cute, huh? I guess Grandpa is kind of their Emmanuel Bronner. He experiments with the ingredients to come up with cool, new old-fashioned products. And some of them are new-fashioned. (Actually, I think Grandpa owns Kirk’s. But that’s OK by me.) So if you don’t like Kirk’s soap, try Grandpa’s Baking Soda soap. It’s swell.

So now you got soap choices. Quit worrying.


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America’s Best Idea?

Big Bend OcatillosThose Ken Burns documentaries are just so darned educational. And pretty entertaining too. But I never sat down and just watched one in its entirety. Sure, I’ve seen some of The Civil War, and some Jazz.  Uh, I must have seen snippets of others. Baseball.  The War.  The Dust Bowl.  Thomas Jefferson.  Mark Twain.  Surely…

Feeling the cabin fever of Winter, I started watching The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It came out in 2009 and is 12 hours long. I was desperate for a bunch of pretty.

As usual, the story is basically about people.

I knew John Muir from my few years in San Francisco. Everything is named for him out there. I bumped into Robin Williams at Muir Woods! And I knew about Hetch-Hetchy. But I didn’t know much about it. It’s too bad that humans are more important than everything else in the world. Otherwise it would have been a crime to do that to that poor little valley.

I never realized how important Teddy Roosevelt was for the National Parks. Or the Rockefellers. Rich folks aren’t all bad, I guess.

But what really got weird for me was all the talk about Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. I know those names from… EVERYWHERE. They just keep showing up no matter where you look. And I never knew a thing about the people those names represented. And now I do. Pretty cool.

In the narration, Tom Hanks reads the part of Horace Albright. Peter Coyote is the main narrator. He has a pretty generic voice, but I got tired of it after a time. He seemed sort of sleepy the whole way, and never seemed excited about any of the scenery.

The one part that I really didn’t like was the really really really repetitive use of a Celtic-inspired piece of mountain music that played incessantly throughout the 12 hours. There was other music too, but this one piece was like the theme or something. There was just too much of it. Or it needed to be re-interpreted through variations or something. It was whiney!

Entirely because of this documentary, I decided to take The Great Smoky Mountains National Park seriously. According to Mike Oswald, the Smokies are the most visited National Park in the country, with a gazillion visitors each year. Planning ahead, I snuck in between snow storms early this Spring.

It was pretty cool. Not too many people. Would have been better if there’d have been leaves on the trees. But then my wife wouldn’t have spotted that bald eagle.

One of the sad things about National Parks, and all the other wild places, is that we’re loving them to death. Even if a gazillion people leave only footprints and take only pictures, they’ll pack the earth down hard like concrete. All the wildness will get worn out. So go visit your National Parks while you still can. Before they lock them up for their own protection.

But watch the documentary first, so you’ll know the story and what’s gone on before.


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MicroFiber is Gigantic!

I remember back when it was called polyester. It made me sweat too much, and I smelled bad. So I made a vow that I would never wear this stuff ever again!

But I’ve finally found another purpose for it.

In the old days, the polyester fiber was really big. You could see it with your bare eye. It was about the size of rice! I’m not exaggerating much. But now, they’ve found a way to pull out thinner fibers.

In some store, I saw dog-drying towels. They were brown, and had an an embroidered pooch at the bottom. They kind of looked like that photo above, but with a pooch, not a paw print. I bought 2 of them.

They dry dogs awesomely. They absorb tons of water. And then you wring them out, and tons of water fall into the sink, and you can dry another dog with them. And when you’re all done, you give them another wring, and they’ll be dry inside an hour. These microfiber towels are like magic!

I use them for my own after-bath drying needs. Shhh. Don’t tell my dogs.

Eventually I broke down and bought a human microfiber towel. It’s an Aquis Microfiber Body Towel with a waffle weave. It works great too.

There’s a couple of problems with microfiber towels. When your hands are dry, it’s like the microfibers are picking at your skin. It’s more than just a nuisance. The main mitigating factor is that when you use the towels, your hands will be wet. So it won’t be an issue then.

But when you wash and fold the towel, you may have some irrational reactions to the sensations. And because of problem #2, you may have to wash them often.

Problem #2: They still get stinky. All that micro-ness gives bacteria snuggly places to live.

So I don’t use these things as hand towels. That just transfers too many microbes too quickly to the towel. I only use the towels after a full shower with lots of suds. Which helps slow the colonization. But sooner than I’d like, I must launder the towel. Adding baking soda to the wash seems to help.

I’ve tried going back to scrumptuous cotton towels, but they don’t dry me as well. I don’t want to have to make more than one quick pass ever again.

While we’re on the subject: microfiber makes great washcloths, and they’re cheap! You can get eight of them for like five bucks, so long as you don’t mind 4 blue and 4 white. Or that they’re marketed for washing cars.

They scrub really fast! Maybe a little too fast. You can sort of burn your face if you scrub too much or too hard. Just once over nicely will do. Don’t loiter in any one place. Your nose will thank you.

These dry fast too, and since they’re used with soap, it takes a long time before they start smelling. And you can wring them out, and they’re dry enough to wipe off the mirror without leaving streaks.

Or you could wash your car with them. I’m sold.

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There’s NO “L” in Christmas

wreathyMy wife loves to watch holiday-specific movies. Depending on the holiday, of course.

Recently she made me sit down to watch Noel. It’s from 2004 and I’d never heard of it despite it starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Alan Arkin, & Paul Walker (?!). Oh, and Robin Williams makes an appearance, uncredited so you won’t think this is a comedy.

A handful of stories intersect in a New York hospital at Christmastime. But it’s not a hospital film at all.

I can always stand to watch Holiday Inn so I can see Fred Astaire be a major jerk. Then I watch the remake, White Christmas, where Danny Kaye is ever so nice yet manipulative. Aside from that, I’m pretty much burnt out on Christmas movies. That one with Jimmy Stewart, I don’t even want to mention. The one with Robert Wagner’s wife when she was a kid and with Mrs. Jane Tarzan ( it was later remade with Mr. French as Santa and Roddy McDowell as the evil shrink), I can stand on occasion, if only because Fred Mertz is in it, and the man Jack Albertson. The one with the original Kolchak and the gal from Close Encounters , I’ve never actually seen all the way thru. (Don’t tell me if he does actually shoot his eye out. I’m saving it for my later years.) Things start to get cloying or weird after that.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Noel. It fully demonstrates the three things that Christmas is really all about.

But there’s this embarrassing “seductive” dance number that Penelope Cruz does that you have to get thru. It’s not a Christmas kind of dance, unless you include Salome in your version of the Christmas story.

I didn’t think that I would buy a Susan Sarandon character in a Christmas movie. But she really pulls this off. Every move she makes is perfect.

I don’t know why I never heard of this movie before. It’s miraculous in it’s own little way.

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National Parking

Some Yellowstone RiverSome people travel vicariously by reading Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon, or Travels with Charley in Search of America by that guy John Steinbeck. I like to read camping guides.

It was 10 years ago that The Complete Walker IV by Fletcher and Rawlins came out. I’m still reading on it. It gets my hopes up. It calms my nerves. It’s like going out camping without getting your nose cold. I bet my dog wishes he could do that! When all the claustrophobia of my life collapses on top of me, I read some of that book, and imagine myself in the Sierras, or the Adirondacks, or the Porkies. Somewhere not here.

You know, it’s like those Best in Tent Camping books that I love so much!

When I was 7 or thereabouts, my dad’s brother — so he’d be my uncle — gave me a big shiny picture book about the US National Parks. This was back when there still was a Platt National Park — before the giant sinkhole swallowed it, entirely, of a sudden. ‘Way back then I planned on visiting all those National Parks.

I’m still working on it.

But there’s this guy named Michael Oswald who hails from Madison, Wisconsin. And I’m sure that we all adore him! I know that I love his new book: Your Guide to the National Parks: The Complete Guide to all 58 National Parks. It came out the Summer of ought-twelve. Mike visited almost every National Park in the contiguous US. One third of the photos in the book are from his own camera. There’s maps. There’s recommendations. What I really like is the circles and arrows on the maps pointing out things not to miss.

Turns out, in some of the national parks that I have managed to visit, I missed stuff that I shouldn’t have. Missed, that is. Mike, where were you when I needed you! At least I’ve got you now.

This book really gets my hopes up. It tells you most of what you’d find at the US Park Service web sites, and it gives some history and scope. There’s plenty of background. There’s plenty of details about regulations and open seasons. There’s rated lists of hiking trips. There’s the things not to miss. There’s listings of other interesting places nearby.

And it’s not so objective that it’s empty. Mike makes those subjective leaps, telling you what he thinks is really the best parts of these different places. And, from what I’ve seen, I agree with him. And, from what I’ve not seen, I believe in him.

One of his favorites is Crater Lake. Maybe that’ll be my next trip. I’ve always wanted to go there and see the round island in the round lake in the round volcano caldera. Ever since I got this big coffee-table book for Christmas when I was just a kid. Since before the Platt succumbed.

Maybe you could give Mike’s book to some kid to dream about for a lifetime.

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The Next Thursday is HERE!

Thursday's Cab is Wrecked.It’s here! It arrived from Amazon yesterday morning! It’s: The Woman Who Died A Lot: A Thursday Next Novel. It’s the 7th book in the series.

Ever since my little sister turned me onto these books back in ought-two or so, I’ve been completely in their thrall.

They’re funny. They have good words. There’s metaphor. I could go on and on.

Some folks thought the last book, the 6th, ran a little thin. For one thing, the hero, Thursday Next, only has a handful of lines in the whole novel. She doesn’t even show up until the last couple pages. Really. For some reason some people were somewhat annoyed by this.

It was shear brilliance!

And he replaced Mrs. Danvers with Mrs. Malaprop, a broken one at that. The play of language and shadow is so dizzying and inspiring.

The one part of the book that I couldn’t fathom in the least: how did Thursday get back over the bridge, past the gameshow hosts on her return from the Isle of Fan Fiction? I know that I’m particularly dense. I even tried to look it up in the Special Features section of Jasper FForde’s website, but no luck. Can anyone please tell me how it worked? What’s the punchline?

No time to talk now. Must be reading…  You should be too!

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Chicken Salad & Spaghetti Sandwich

Chick Salad Spag Sandwhich Is ThereMy wife makes the best chicken salad ever. Pico de Gallo, too. She makes them both in big batches. Sometimes we put the pico in the chicky salad. But that’s another story…

Our step-niece once-removed was over last weekend. She has interesting eating habits. I don’t see how you could call her an omnivore. She loves french fries but not mashed potatoes.  So my wife slyly told her that french fries were made out of potatoes. She said, “I’ll never eat french fries again!!!”

But she does like Prego Spaghetti sauce (original) and cheesey garlic bread. So we made lots! And it was good! But there was lots!

I have no problem eating left overs. If it takes a long time to go thru the whole batch, I start adding spices to it. To keep it from poisoning me, should it have gone the way of bad things. I start out simply. Garlic powder. Cayenne pepper powder. Maybe some nutmeg or cinnamon or allspice, depending.

So the leftovers decision was getting difficult. Muy-enhanced chicken salad, or spaghetti a la Lyle. And then it hit me: Put the Lime in the Coconut and MIX THEM BOTH TOGETHER! Not actually having any lime nor coconut, I instead mixed the chicken salad and the spaghetti on a sandwich. A little black pepper, come cayenne for color…

It was pretty darned good. The next day, my wife even tried one. She was surprised at how well they went together. But I wanted something more.

Digging around inside the ol’ medicine cabinet, I found a clutch of caraway seeds, just begging to be devoured. Carefully, I poured them over the spag-chicky goodness. And it was super double awesome in a life preserver!!!

The caraway made my hand smell so wonderfully yummy. I see on the internets peoples talk about caraway tea. But I don’t see anything about Caraway Soda. Maybe I should get one of them seltzerifiying doo-dads and get to inventing some! That CEL-RAY guy might get a run for his money!

Hmmmmm. I see some old yogurt there in the back of the refrigerator…

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Of All the Dr. Bronners I Have Known

magic all one suds makersMy dad’s been dead for over seven years now. But strangers still come up to me, telling me what a great man he was. Greatness is like that.

Failings are more intimate. My brother curses our dad every time I see him.

Sometimes it works that way for Dr. Emanuel Bronner in the documentary Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox.

It’s full of actual film/video of the great man. From the 70’s and 80’s I’d guess.
It’s an amazing story of what it actually takes for a man to be great.

He tried to talk his parents to move out of Germany. They decided to wait out the Nazis. He gets a postcard from his dad saying “You were right.” He never heard from them again. What a horrible last thing for your father to tell you.

I don’t think my brother ever heard his dad tell him “You were right.”

Soon Emanuel starts traveling around, spreading the word on Magic All One! His family stays behind. His wife dies. His kids go through foster homes and orphanages.

After an argument with a University of Chicago professor, Doc B gets sent to an insane asylum. Luckily, he breaks out, heads to California, and makes it big in the soap business.

Then he re-collects his kids. They help with the soap. One son dies. Another takes over. The Doc dies, but his legacy keeps going. Grandkids run the place now.


His last wife says something like, “Maybe we underestimated how great he really was!”

Watching his remaining son spreading the “Dr. Bronner’s Magic All One” word is fascinating.

One person tells him, Your dad’s story could have been really negative, but he turned it into something good.

I don’t think it was just him.

I guess it’s what you dwell on.

I wish there was a way to read the soap labels’ words without actually having to read the soap labels. Their formatting is dreadful.

This is just an amazing documentary. It shows so many different sides of not just one man, but of his greater family. You can see where all the pieces fit. If you choose to, you can be like so many other strangers and accept that Dr. Bronner was a great man. Or, you can watch this movie, get a little more intimate with his life, and decide to make him a great man yourself. Or not.

At least if you use his soap, you’ll get clean and feel 50 years younger!

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Slung Blood

not to give away the endingMy wife has been trying to get me to watch Sling Blade for forever. I kept abstaining. It wasn’t for me. I don’t really like Billy Bob. Etc. La-di-dah…

Wrong again Lyle.

Did you know that John Ritter is in this movie? He’s even playing a character you’ve already met previously in his career. Kind of. Ritter and Thornton had been in a TV series together briefly.

It’s got it’s funny moments. It’s got it’s sad moments. It’s got some creepy moments.

Dwight Yoakum is unrecognizable as the worst bad guy ever. He’s a long way from Bakersfield, let me tell you.

The kid does a fine job.

Billy Bob plays the part not too large, I reckon. Hmph.

And Robert Duvall is his dad!

It’s probably the closest anyone will ever get to adapting William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury to film.  Not that it’s trying to.

James Hampton, who used to play Dobbs on F Troop, is the warden for the institution of the criminally insane. I love seeing him in anything. Anyone remember Capricorn One?

On Netflix, this alternates in availability with Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, which is the “short” version of the film, made to get funding for the longer version I’d guess. It also stars Molly Ringwald!

I really should not have waited so long to see this film. Prejudice holds us back from so much . Can I live in your garage?

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