Tag Archives: Nature

The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

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My Irish Weekend Part 1: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

When I started writing blog posts that included references to real people, TumbleweedWrites was still in its infancy, and I was ignorant of the ethics of such a thing. I took advice from my roommates- who, being central figures in my life, feature in a lot of my posts- about what was the right thing to do. I made a commitment then to always use pseudonyms when referring to real people, and (perhaps more importantly) to never include mention of a person’s address or place of work. With a glass of Captain Morgan in my hand and a border collie nuzzling against my hip, I went through all my previous posts and edited them accordingly.

As a general rule, I try to avoid writing about people unless they give necessary context to a post. I think that’s just good practice- whether you are writing a short story or an article- to leave out any extraneous details, to make sure that every sentence relates to the overarching theme. And a digression into something that only makes sense to myself and a handful of chums would only diminish the quality of the piece.

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Today, I will be breaking both of these rules- but not without valid reason. Firstly- I will be giving the actual name of a place. However, this place is a business operated by my friend’s uncle, so its address is already in the public sphere. Secondly, any adventure I have with Elizabeth becomes inextricably linked to her character, so my descriptions of the places I went and the things I did will be infused with insights into her personality. It would be impossible to narrate something as simple as going to the DMV with her without revealing some aspect of her wit. In fact I’ve done that- and it was hilarious.

Elizabeth has featured a few times on this blog. Diligent readers will remember her from such posts as Our Only May Amelia and Lamb Boobs. I first met the lady I call “Elizabeth” in 2012 through her older brother Aaron. And to this day she still comes out with stuff that completely catches me off-guard. I think that’s one of the defining things about being friends with her; even her siblings will be left dumbstruck by some of her jokes. In that way, she is utterly unique. The effectiveness of her humor comes from a perfect storm of juxtapositions that makes remarks that shouldn’t be surprising to those who know her seem as fresh and shocking as if you just met. She’s neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy. She can be cooing about how “precious” a fluffy lamb is one minute, tying daisy-chains into my hair and calling me “doll”, before turning around and uttering something so crude that we can only categorize it as “pipefitter humor”. She would be just as much at home shotgunning beer in the center of a rave as she would be going through stamp collections in the company of an old bat with a goiter the size of Azerbaijan. No description I give can really do her justice or give you a truthful account of her persona. She’s an actress, a singer, a dancer, an archeologist, a historian, a swimming instructor, a pre-school teacher, a writer, a comedian, a scholar, a prom queen, a roller-blader, an audio-cassette enthusiast, a Pokemon trainer, and she’s fluent in Swedish. In high school she was voted the friendliest kid in her grade. I look at Elizabeth and I see flashes of Scout Finch’s sass, Tom Sawyer’s thirst for mischief, Mad-Eye-Moody’s wildness, Ella Fitzgerald’s rhythm, and Bob Ross’s chilled-out oneness with the universe- but those are just impressions, and not really that helpful. They say more about my associative thought processes than Elizabeth herself, because in truth she is none of those things; she is simply Elizabeth.

Her husband George is similarly hard to categorize or draw comparisons to. He asked me during my stay at their house what my preconceptions of him were prior to meeting him, and I couldn’t really give an answer. I had no idea what Elizabeth’s soulmate might look like, because Elizabeth herself doesn’t fit a certain mold. I answered that I could remember being very curious who such a person might be like; everything from his accent down to his moral values. I had no idea what to expect- what was the perfect match supposed to look like? After meeting him, however, their relationship seemed to make perfect sense. Their personalities seem almost tailor-made for one another- which is not to say that George is simply a male Elizabeth. It’s more like they are two pieces of a functioning whole, and I had a great time in the company of that dynamic synergy. George is just as quirky and unique as his spouse, and I am convinced that if I met him first, I would have been similarly stumped as to who in the heck would turn out to be his other half.

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Even though George and Elizabeth came to visit me in January, I began to miss them terribly. After just a few weeks I was desperate to see them again. They had just moved to Ireland and I lamented how out of reach my close friends were- but such is adult life; I think your 20s really are the decade you begin to realize just how important people are to you. I had so much to talk to them about that I was sending them 10-minute voice messages on Whatsapp every time I walked home from the warehouse. A weekend was agreed in which I could visit them, and the timing could not have been better. I got a dirt cheap flight to Shannon and a couple days off of work, which, combined with the bank holiday Monday, gave me five precious days with my American family.

Getting to Shannon from Bristol was the easiest flight I’ve ever had. We had barely been in the air for half an hour before the captain told us to sit our asses back down and buckle up for landing. The customs process was as smooth for us as gaining admittance to a Mad-town frat party is for the owner of a D-Cup bust. The duty free was full of jerseys for the Irish rugby team. It’s a tiny little airport but very neat and super-relaxed. Before I knew it I was outside, breathing foreign air for the fourth time this year. That’s always the first thing I think about when I exit an airport- the air. I always seem to be trying to get a feel for the wind and- I know this sounds crazy- in that moment it always seems different. I look at the sky and the trees and the cars and I think about how I’m in a new land with its own customs and history. I think about the lives of ordinary locals who look at what I’m seeing with as much familiarity as I would the sky, the trees, and the cars that pass through my peripheral vision in my hometown. I obsess about that sort of thing- the lives people lead in other places, and whether or not they disregard as “ordinary” the aesthetics that are for me so fresh and exotic. And I’m not even talking monkey-puzzle-exotic or pagoda-exotic; I was staring at parked Ford Fiestas, chain-link fences, and the brick backs of pubs where disgruntled employees sucked on cigarettes while taking the bins out.

Whenever I meet George and Elizabeth we do this big group hug thing. It’s more than a little bit adorable, and it always acts as a way to quickly soothe my built-up anxiety and loneliness. My trip to Ireland was convenient for a number of reasons- I was feeling particularly melancholy and stressed at the time. I’ve come to terms with the fact that depression isn’t really something I can permanently exorcise from my existence; however much progress I make it will always be there, and it comes and goes in its intensity like the tide. When it comes around, it has a way of magnifying everything I feel and think so that little worries become big ones. But standing in the Shannon airport parking lot with each of them under my armpit I felt a different kind of tide, a happiness washing over me, the cleansing effect of which I can best describe as “soothing”. Sometimes I think of depression as being like a balloon in my skull that grows in size, and as it gets fatter I become less rational, more agitated, and it’s hard to think or communicate- but then something comes along and pops it, and all the toxic air is farted away. And there I am- my mind is my own again.

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As we drove through the Irish countryside Elizabeth threw packets of Salt & Vinegar crisps at me from a giant bag between her knees. For some reason they had the mother-load of this particular flavor. I never asked why and they never explained, and it’s entirely possible with them that they were fresh off an impromptu heist of the Walkers factory.

“We gotta surprise for yoooou,” Elizabeth trilled excitedly.

The surprise was a visit to George’s aunt and uncle, who run an award-winning fairy garden outside of Limerick. It’s called Terra Nova and you should totally go if you’re ever in the area. It’s ranked number one on TripAdvisor out of 116 things to do in the Limerick area. I’m always surprised when people I know turn out to be successful for some reason. It’s like I never considered that the people behind roadside diners, traveling circuses, and baboon sanctuaries were real.

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We arrived at Terra Nova before it opened, and I was lucky enough to be given a free private tour. At first when Elizabeth told me that her husband would be serving as my tour guide, I just assumed that she meant it in that casual way a gracious dinner host would say “I’ll give ya the tour.”

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But it turned out that I was getting an official, scripted tour. George picked up the Terra Nova leaflet and looked back at his wife.

“Why don’t you tell it, dear? You’re so good at it.”

“No. You tell it much better than I do!” she insisted, and I could tell that Terra Nova really had become a second home for them.

George cleared his throat and put a hand on my shoulder.

The tour wasn’t, as I would have assumed, a string of facts about the flora or the history of the garden. The tour was a story. It was an original fairy tale, blossoming with creativity and whimsy, that brought to life the plethora of gnomes and hobbits and other statues throughout the garden. I was in awe of how detailed it was- going in depth into the habits and neuroticisms of the garden’s inhabitants. Because I’m lazy, I probably wouldn’t read a written tour if it were handed to me, and if I had come by myself it is likely that I would have missed out on this imaginative experience. George led me from one part of the garden to the next, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

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What struck me about the garden were the little details. It seemed that every possible corner, alcove, and space was crammed with eclectic faerie motifs- and each with its own story to tell. Elizabeth told me that she discovers something new every time she visits. You really can’t rush through this place- there’s so much to see that it’s easy to miss something. When you first arrive it looks smaller than it actually is, because there are no wide open spaces. The whole place is made up of tiny, enclosed grottoes and narrow footpaths shaded by thick canopies. You go from one little area to the next and remark “Well heck, there’s more!”

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George’s uncle joined us for some scalding-hot instant coffee by the pond, and told us how he is always adding to the place, thinking up new stories to tell. It’s such an interesting and quirky place, and you’d be remiss to leave it out of your trip if you find yourself in the greater Limerick area. I lamented that I was only stopping by; if I were a local I would come to Terra Nova on my weekends and just read in one of the gazeboes. It’s so serene and enchanting. It actually won the title “The Best Garden in Ireland”, but I prefer Elizabeth’s name for it: “The Happiest Place on Earth”.

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Wanna know more about Terra Nova Gardens? Click here to see their website!

F-Stops & Flood Plains: My Weekend Part Two

I’ve been nothing if not introspective in the wake of the New Year. I think that’s just how I’m wired. I spend a lot of time in my own head. I can’t really experience something without thinking it to death afterwards. I’m given to considering its place in the larger continuum of my life and attaching a greater significance to it. In my last post I wrote about my Saturday afternoon, in which two friends visited me in my hometown of Nailsea. I wrote about how the visit got me thinking about 2018 as a whole, and the strange feeling I had that I was leaving one chapter behind for a new one.

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Well, the second half of my weekend only extended the dialogue in my head. 2018 does feel very in-betweeney. When I returned last summer from Texas, I was picked up by my kid brother Frank in his Ford Fiesta. Like me, he had just passed his driving test that year. I was so happy to see him, because for the first time in six years, we would be living together again. I left for the University of Winchester in 2011, and he the University of Plymouth in 2013. And due to the fact that I was now living in the USA every summer, I’d gotten used to the idea that seeing him was a special treat. We still spoke every day on the phone, but he was out attending lectures on phytoplankton, conducting research into soil, and giving guided tours of a local aquarium on Devon’s south coast, while I traveled the USA from the Mennonite country stores of northern Wisconsin to the pawn shops of Pasadena, Texas. We were out making new lives, but now- for the first time since 2011- we are living together again.

But I’ve realized that this stage of our lives will likely be over in a flash. Frank’s done well since his graduation to snag himself a pretty sweet job as a flood risk engineer. We’ve been making more of an effort to spend some quality brother time together now that we’re in the same place again, and his presence has really helped me to cope with the routine blues that come with leaving my American roommates. Last Sunday we decided to go for a little hike to the site of an Iron Age fort that overlooks the town I live in.

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Frank’s one of those people with many strings to his bow; he’s got a seemingly endless supply of energy to learn and discover. Everything interests him. He’s unable to spend his free time simply resting. What I admire about him is that he seeks to fill it with as many vivid experiences as possible, and he doesn’t let something completely new intimidate him, or stop him from following his curiosity like a pig digging for truffles. It’s like he recognizes that life is short. No sooner had he acquired his new job than he was seeking out something else to consume his focus; within a week of becoming a flood risk engineer he was searching for new hobbies and experiences- refusing to let this latest career achievement define him.

Frank has been curious about nature photography for a while, and armed with a camera lent to him from his girlfriend and a free Sunday afternoon, decided we ought to go on a hike and take some pictures. I hadn’t used my dSLR in a while; it hangs around in the background silently judging me alongside my banjo and microphone. Three years ago I took a class in photography that taught me the basics of how to get the best out of a single lens reflex, and it’s something I’ve put to use when exploring Northern Wisconsin or indeed serving as the photographer for high school graduations and weddings. So I discussed focal ratios and shutter speeds with him and we stopped to try out different shots of nearby sheep and barbed wire fences.

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As we ascended the hillside we had the sensation of déjà vu one gets when walking a path that was once so familiar. It’s the same feeling I get when I find myself on the old route I used to walk to high school. I can’t walk past the dry cleaners without that strange, damp smell bringing me back to the cold mornings talking about girls or Premier League football. It’s the same with the trail to this ancient fort. My parents used to take us here all the time, and Frank and I would always charge ahead fighting imaginary goblins or battle droids, depending on if we were into Lord of the Rings or Star Wars that day. I think little hikes and trails are great for kids. We used to do it a lot and every time we let our imaginations run wild. Even after all these years, the trail was as familiar to us as the sound of our mother’s voice. The mud clogging up the center of the path, forcing us onto the grassy banks. The other sentient bipeds that would always say “Hello” in that breathless way they do, sometimes accompanied by Labradors and children in mittens. “Don’t worry, she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Come on, Tulip, come on…”

The trail has several gates and stiles. As kids we would jump on the gate as our parents would open it, enjoying the brief ride. I decided to do this as my brother unlocked it. He cast a smile my way in recognition of my journey to the past. The trees were leafless and what patches of grass remained untouched by the January sun were hardened by frost. The winter has its own aesthetic, I said. Frank replied that he would be back in spring to capture the place in an entirely different way. Even though it was cold out, we weren’t cold ourselves. Walking uphill negates that. It was bright too. I hate the January sun. It’s white and shapeless and its low position in the sky means that it blasts light like an aggressive search helicopter.

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As we reached the top of the hill we entered the wide bowl of the old Roman hangout. In the distance a couple of boys ran along the ramparts, lost in a play reminiscent of the kind of adventures Frank and I used to have. Not everything was the same, however. There were areas of trees cut down; it was more open, less mazelike, which disappointed me. I passed by the entrance where a big tree ripe for climbing used to stand, and I recalled a particular memory from when I was eleven years old. I decided to take my friends on a “UFO hunt” after reading that the best place to catch a flying saucer or a Roswell Grey with designs on your prostate was in the countryside. It started out super serious and one of my friends even claimed to have seen a big spaceship in the distance but it only turned out to be a cell tower. When we reached the top we forgot about UFOs and started playing with our imagination while my mom read a magazine on a blanket.

Frank and I walked through the fort to the edge of the hill, where the trees part to give an unobstructed view of the valley below. Nailsea is surrounded on all sides by marshes and farmland. Frank pointed to all the flooded areas of the pastures below and how he’d studied it for his dissertation. We continued taking pictures of the barren trees, the winter flowers, a few lonesome mushrooms, and on our way back I thought I saw a dog running free across the hilltop. Something brown and athletic like a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I didn’t have my glasses on. Blinking, I realized I was looking at a deer. It came around towards us, up the earthen mound of the rampart and bounded across the flat center of the fort. It was quite a sight; that this place once served as a hub of activity, bustling with Dobunni hunters and later, Roman soldiers, and now existed as a barren expanse of cold, pale grass where wild deer roamed free. It’s hard to imagine that empty silence filled with the clank of boots, the warmth of fires, the laughter of men and women. Pots and books and candles and tables and plates and chests and weapons. Frank and I broke into a run, chasing it as far as we could, but by the time we got to the other side, the deer was long gone.

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To bring this post full circle, hiking with my brother gave me an impression of the immensity of the past behind me. It might be the last walk up that hill I ever take, but if that’s the case then I’m okay with that. While the sights, smells and sounds of Cadbury Camp evoked the past, our conversation was fixed entirely on the future. One way or another, 2018 is going to be an interesting year for us both. And I wonder what memories I have yet to create that will one day give my older self a sense of déjà vu.