Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Top Stories of 2018

A Year of Loss, Love and Little Blessings

Whenever I write these annual collections of memories, I always draft the introductory paragraphs last. That’s because I really don’t appreciate what kind of year it was until I’ve thought about it awhile, and written stuff down. 

Some years have themes. A few years back I was able to make four trips west, two of them in a short period of time.  Janice has since called 2005 “The Year of Bill.”  But she is mistaken.  Every year is the year of Bill.  In good times and bad, I know I am greatly blessed.

Before writing the first line of this post, I would have told you the theme for 2018 was grief and grey skies.  Janice and I lost some dear people, and we’ve seen so much rain and heat that we’ve been unable to do things we enjoy most.  We took very few hikes or bike rides.  We had only one or two meals on the patio.  I caught no fish in 2018.  It seems our outdoor activities were limited pretty much to mowing grass and trimming shrubs.

But now, after collecting my thoughts, I see just how much the Lord has allowed us to do in this seemingly dismal year.  We’ve seen beauty, experienced love, and enjoyed hundreds of little moments.  Even in the grief we’ve seen reasons for joy.

Easter in California

We were able to make a spring break trip with our daughter’s family--Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie. We explored San Francisco and went to Easter services in the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall downtown.  We saw the Warriors win a game at Oracle Arena, and then travelled down the coast to the Monterrey peninsula.

I have to admit that a personal highlight was an impromptu decision to play Pebble Beach Golf Links. With rented clubs and running shoes, Daniel and I enjoyed an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.  While our scores were nothing to brag about, both of us can forever say that we made birdies at Pebble Beach.

Since then I have played less golf than any time in the past 15 years.  In part it has been because of wet weather, but mostly it’s because one round at Pebble made my local muni seem pretty pale.

The best part, though, was watching Sam and Charlie exploring tide pools and sticking their fingers into the mouths of sea anemones as the Pacific crashed on distant rocks.


The California vacation included a pilgrimage to the greatest of all God’s cathedrals, the Yosemite Valley.  Our time there was cut a bit short by a looming flood and a mandatory evacuation, but no matter.  Two days in Yosemite renews the spirit like no other place.
Again, it was a joy to watch Charlie and Sam exploring streams, climbing rocks and being boys without the aid of digital devices.  Kids need nature.  They need to experience wild places.  I want to have these sorts of adventures with all my grandchildren.

The quintessential experience was a snow-covered hike to find the Giant Sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove. The trail follows an old road that, at one point, went right through one of the massive trees, now dead and charred. As we walked, often sliding to be more precise, we would spot a large redwood tree and say, “is that one?”  But when we finally spotted a genuine Sequoia, there was no doubt we found the land of giants.

The trek out featured several snowball ambushes.  There is something magical about playing in the ocean and then throwing snowballs all in the same week.

Operation Snowmen

I actually got to do that twice in 2018.  February was the annual gathering of the Snowmen, this time at Colorado’s Copper Mountain.  I love all those guys and love our annual ski trip.  Ten to 12 guys crammed into a condo, eating chili around a table for eight, debating about who snores the loudest.  Great times.

The calendar necessitated travel directly from Denver to Ponte Vedra, Florida to participate in a conference at an oceanfront resort.  The afternoon walk on the beach was colder than anything I experienced the previous four days in the Rockies.  They say it’s the humidity.

Losing Melba and Barry

Last June Janice’s mother, Melba Blount, passed away at 93.  Her death was expected, but that does not mean the impact wasn’t hard. The loss of her mother has been especially difficult on Janice.  For the past few years, caring for Melba has been a part of Janice’s daily routine. Then suddenly, it was over.

On Melba’s last day, Janice and her brother John, plus John’s wife Gale and I, gathered in Melba’s room at Dominion Senior Living.  An attentive hospice nurse sat outside while the four of us huddled near Melba’s bed talking quietly.  

At one point, I felt a very specific urge—really more of a command—to read scripture to Melba.  I resisted it for a few minutes, but the urge grew stronger.  I opened my phone Bible app to the 23rdPsalm and began to read aloud to Melba while holding her hand.  Janice, John and Gale gathered close and placed hands on her.  Somewhere around “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” she took her last breath.  I will never forget that.

Many don’t understand the work of the Holy Spirit in our human experiences.  There is no doubt the Holy Spirit put in my head the urge to read, and also to read Psalm 23, precisely at that moment.  It was a precious gift for Melba and for all of us.  

Melba left us a gift as well.  In her last years living at home, she wrote her life story in a spiral notebook.  It’s a wonderful story of a young girl growing up in Depression-era east Tennessee, and then going to work in Washington for the FBI during World War II.  She told stories of her early dates with Charles, Janice and John’s father, and their lives as a young couple, in love, experiencing a larger world.

That notebook was a source of laughter and joy during a time of sadness.

The following month my dear friend Barry Parker died.  I’ve written before that I cannot remember when or where I first met Barry, but he became one of the most influential people in my life.  At a time when I was really down and wondering how in the world I was going to provide for my family, Barry opened doors for me at Hamilton Health Care System in Dalton, Georgia.  Then, long after, he remained my friend, confidant and encourager.

I will forever be indebted to Barry for the friendship, generosity and grace.

The Boys Are Back In Town

The perfect antidote to grief was the mid-summer arrival of Oliver and August, our two grandsons from Nashville.  For the first time they spent the weekend sans parents, and we had a blast.  Late night parties, candy and Cokes . . . just kidding!  No children were harmed in the making of this memory.
Oliver and August love to go and do, so we went and did.  The Discovery Museum, the Aquarium, the fountains and carousel and Coolidge Park. I set up a water slide in the front yard.  Janice taught them how to shuck corn.  The best part for August was exploring the deep bowels of our basement, which is half Home Alone and half Bat Cave.  He asks about our basement every time we see him.

It was all fun and over too soon.  Come back, guys, and bring your sister. 

A Mountain Lion at Sundown

One of our newer favorite places is Grayson Highlands, Virginia, which is another times-two experience in 2018. Grayson Highlands is a state park that includes rocky pinnacles and rugged grassy pastures populated by herds of feral ponies.  The Appalachian Trail wanders through it, and the views from the high places are spectacular.

In the spring we were able to watch one of the famous ponies foal.  We were chased to a safe distance by the sire. In the fall we saw some of the foals peacefully grazing near their mothers.

Grayson Highlands is in southwest Virginia, and sits very close to the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines.   Also nearby are the Virginia Creeper Trail and White Top Mountain, another place with spectacular views.  One evening at dusk Janice and I watched a creature move stealthily across a bald on White Top.  It was a cougar, an extremely rare sighting.  

The official Virginia Wildlife Management website says there are no cougars in Virginia, though some have been spotted in North Carolina and Tennessee.  I’m thinking the cat we saw lacked access to WIFI.

Once again, many thanks to Susan and Charlie Rollins for their friendship and for introducing us to this wonderful area.

Rhymin’ Simon

Those native to Chattanooga know Jed Mescon as the long-term zany host of the morning show on our local NBC affiliate. He is a VP with one of my clients now, and he has become a good friend.

In late June, Jed asked me to road trip to Nashville with him to experience Paul Simon.  I’ve loved Paul Simon almost as long as I’ve loved Janice. What a treat.  Thanks again, Jed.

Oh, and Janice and I saw Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earle Keen, Della Mae and Mary Chapin Carpenter in 2018. Musically, it was a stellar year.

Eva Schloss

Jed and I got to work together on a special project organized by the Chabad of Chattanooga—a November visit from Eva Schloss, one of the world’s few remaining Holocaust survivors, and perhaps the most eloquent left standing.  Her story is inspiring.  Her talks to adults and children were mesmerizing.  I am so grateful to Rabbi Shaul Pearlstein, Judy Spiegel, Joe Johnson and many others for allowing me to be a part of it all.

On Eva’s first night in Chattanooga, the Rabbi and his wife Rosie invited Janice and me to share the Shabbat dinner with her and a group of family and friends.  For us it was a time of fun and discovery, both boisterous and reverent.  We felt so welcome.

Thanksgiving at the Beach

The main focus of the fall was a much-anticipated family gathering at the beach for Thanksgiving. Janice and I planned and saved and rented a house big enough for she, me, Whit, Sarah, Oliver, August, Pen, Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie.  Everyone together at the beach is always a dream come true.

Headquarters for the week was Watersound West on Florida’s 30A stretch of South Walton County.  If you have a few million bucks lying around, I recommend you buy a house at Watersound, and then, out of abounding gratitude for the advice, invite the Stiles family to use it twice a year.

We did all the beachy things.  Whit, Sarah, Lesley and Janice cooked up a category four storm of food.  At my son’s expert direction I learned how to make piecrusts.  Janice taught me how to peel and prepare butternut squash.  In 66 years, I’ve never done such things, so to me it was a big deal.  I’m now thinking about a new career as a sous chef.  

Janice said that, above all else, she wanted a family photograph.  We got one. Enjoy.

Wrapping Up

Through a business trip I got to spend too little time in a city new to me, Boise Idaho.  What a magnificent town!  A trout river runs right through the middle of downtown, as does the Greenbelt, a wonderful bike and running trail.  I stayed just long enough in Boise to crave a return trip, this time with Janice.  Maybe in 2019.

There were many other things that happened last year, both good and bad.  While in Boise I learned my brother had a heart attack. Thankfully some stenting appears to have him back on his feet.  Then we learned my brother’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.  Praying for her is one of my current priorities.

My son’s family is younger and not yet able for many big trips, but we enjoyed the birthdays, the visit to Oliver’s school, and the children’s Christmas program at their church. These moments are precious to us. Whit and Sarah are impressive in their thoughtful and intentional approach to parenting, and I admire them for it.

I had a chance for two short bike trips in 2018, one of them along my beloved Highway 64.  My hope—and hope is not a plan—is to launch a website devoted to Highway 64 in the months ahead.  I’ll let you know what happened next January 1.

There are many people not mentioned above who have touched my life this past year.  To all the team at The Johnson Group, thank you.  I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.  To all the clients who trust us to do the right thing, thank you as well.  Some of you are more friends than clients.

To our church, Brainerd Baptist, thank you for your support surrounding the death of Janice’s mom.  To every member of what was once the Homebuilders Class, Janice and I love you dearly.  To Adam Major and Scott Walker, thank you for stepping up. 

To Jo Nowell, your renewed smile and love of life is an answer to prayer.  

To Avery Grace, Janice and I were so grateful that we could help celebrate your adoption into a wonderful new home.  Michael and Karan, you are special parents.  The world is brightened by people like you.

To Dr. Robert Bowers, Clark Taylor, Robby Holt, Rodger Piersant, Raymond and Jill Clark, Flossie Weill, Robin Hood, Jim Gilliland, Durie Andrews, and Raymond Schklar, Charlie and Cindy Hughes, and all the Pannis, thank you for your friendship.  

To our neighbors, we love you.  And to neighbor Les--we know it’s you rolling our empty garbage cans around to the garage. Thank you. 

To Janice, you are the highlight of every year.  Thank you for loving me in spite of it all.

I know I am leaving someone important out.  You know who you are.  When your name comes to me later, I will thank God for you.

Blessings to all for 2019.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Decorating for Two

Years ago our neighborhood included a features writer for the local newspaper.  Sometimes when short of material, she would feature a neighbor—one’s garden, a hobby, a special talent.

So it was that Cookie knocked on our door one afternoon early in the Christmas season.  Lured by a festive wreath on our door, she wanted to know if she could feature our home’s holiday decorations.

Cookie stepped inside to find the mother lode.  My wife Janice has many talents, and one of them is filling a space with Christmas cheer. Give her some evergreen, beads, a few pinecones and a glue gun, and Janice will produce joy to the world. She is the MacGyver of Merriment.  She’s Martha Stewart with a lousy agent.

Cookie feasted her eyes, and later her camera, on our stairwell roped in greenery, our platoon of Santas, our table set with special dishes and candles, the 12-days-of-Christmas tree, and a rustic nativity.  Our massive, main Christmas tree--always a real one--was festooned with 100-feet of lights and hundreds of eclectic ornaments, some of them handmade by Janice in our early years when we couldn’t afford anything as elegant glass balls. 

And that’s just what Cookie could see from the foyer. She was enthusiastic in her plans for a colorful photo spread. Whether it was enough to entice Cookie to flip allegiance from Judaism to the other side, I cannot say.

A few days later our Sunday newspaper included colorful photos of our decked-out home.  The largest picture was of our family in front of the tree. Lesley was dressed in a white satin and Whit a red sweater. Janice and I looked at the article with initial embarrassment, but—hey—we are who we are.  To paraphrase Jesus, people don’t put their icicle lights under a bushel.

That article was published 25 years ago.  Cookie moved to Florida. Our kids grew up to have kids of their own.  Now it is just Janice and me asking each other the question we asked last December and the December before that—are we going to do it all again this year?

By “all” we mean the whole Christmas enchilada. Is all the decorating worth it?  Just for the two of us?

Like every family, we loved Christmas with kids in the house. With Lesley and Whit, we could justify almost any expense, any effort toward Christmas memory making, as worth it.  But the seasons of children at home are fleeting.  Janice and I have now celebrated almost a half-century of Christmases together, and less than half of those included a child under our roof.

Before baby made three, then four, there was just the two of us.  Whatever we invested in each other to show love and build Christmas memories was worth it then, so isn’t it still worth it now?

Our first Christmas together was especially sweet.  I was in school and working evenings at a grocery store.  Janice worked in an office downtown.  Combined we raked in a whopping 90 bucks a week, which paid for our three-room apartment, car, food, tuition and, in 1971, our first Christmas tree.

I came in from the Food Town one night to find Janice excitedly making ornaments out of ribbon, fragments of lace, faux pearls, tiny angels and—I kid not—empty tuna fish cans.  They were lovely.  We still hang them on our tree.

My conclusion that year—probably in error—was that what Janice wanted most for Christmas was a sewing machine.  I could not afford much, but I found a deal. It was a cabinet model, but the cabinet was busted, so I got it cheap.  With the help of a sympathetic uncle’s workshop, I mounted the machine to a wooden Coca-Cola crate that I sanded smooth and stained.  Never have I been so excited about a gift.

Janice knew—accurately—that I wanted a camera.  Secretly, she squirreled away a few dollars a week and found a nice, used Pentax SLR. I still remember the joy of opening the box and finding that unexpected gift inside.

That was 48 Christmases ago. Of the intervening years I can’t remember every tree and every present.  I can’t recall what I was feeling each Christmas Day.  Yet I can tell you that it was always worth it. It always is.  

This year we decided to leave a few little decorations packed away. We did, however, drape the staircase in garland and lights and put the big wreath on the door.  We once again splurged for the big Fraser Fir and loaded it with all our ornaments.  It was fun to do it together.  It was worth it.

There is a song by Sufjan Stevens called Christmas in the Room.  The opening lyrics go:

No travel bags, no shopping malls
No candy canes, no Santa Claus
For as the day of rest draws near
It's just the two of us this year

No silver bells or mistletoe
We'll kiss and watch our TV show
I'll come to you, I'll sing to you
Like it's Christmas in the room
I'll dance with you, I'll laugh with you
'Til it's Christmas in the room

No traffic jams, no ice and storm
Far in the house, the fire is warm
No Christmas tree, no great parade
It's just an ordinary day

No parties planned, no place to go
It's just the two of us alone
And in the house we see a light
That comes from what we feel inside

I'll come to you, I'll sing to you
Like it's Christmas in the room
I'll dance with you, I'll laugh with you
'Til it's Christmas in the room

This song foretells a future we fear, but should feel blessed to see.  If we live long enough, the day will come when I am no longer strong enough to carry a big tree from the top of the car and into the house. The day will come when Janice won’t be able to stand on a ladder to hang garland on the front porch. Christmas then will become simpler and less adorned.  

But at the heart of it all there will still be a bright light.  It’s source will be the ever-present love of the Christ child, Immanuel, God with us.  It will be amplified by our shared love, nurtured through so many Christmases together.  We will think back on the big trees. We will remember the hours putting up and taking down. We will remember children in their Christmas clothes.  

And it will be worth it.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The End of the Road

This is a Friday morning like no other.  The work this past week has been wonderfully different than the emails, meetings and thought-work of any Monday through Thursday I have known, even the ones spent on vacation.

My daily agenda has been to put about 300 miles of two-lane blacktop behind me. My task list has been shortened to keeping two-wheels spinning below me and absorbing the beauties of Highway 64.

This final day starts in Farmington, NM under a high sky and sunshine.  This is an unexpected treat because rain is predicted.  

The first few miles are forgettable suburban sprawl, but at Shiprock the road turns 90 degrees to the right for a final, spectacular dash west across the Colorado Plateau toward Teec Nos Pos, Arizona and the end of the road.

I’ve seen the Shiprock once before.  Standing on the high ground of Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, you can see the Shiprock clearly.  It rises 1,583 feet straight out of the New Mexico dirt like a grand, three-mast clipper--an imperial tall ship christened by the hand of God.  

This is Navajo land.  The ancients of the tribe had never seen a clipper ship.  Their name for the Shiprock is Ts├ęBit ‘a’ i, which means rock with wings.  Ancient Navajo traditions tell of a time when the Navajo lived on top of the winged rock, and descended only to plant their fields and get water.  One day a huge lightning strike wiped out the trail. The women and children stranded on top of the rock starved to death.  Today no one is permitted to summit the peak, in part for safety reasons, but also because the Navajo do not want the spirits of their ancients disturbed.

The Shiprock is a harbinger of the majestic peaks and towers of the famous Monument Valley, which have been standing for millennia in Utah about 100 miles to the northwest.  Like the towers of Monument Valley, Shiprock is a stone remnant formed in the throat of a massive volcano perhaps 27 million years ago. The rock is breccia, the composite of smaller rocks and minerals fused together by heat into one majestic tower.

The volcano eroded away, but Shiprock stands tall and compelling.  It can be accessed from US 64 via five miles of unpaved road.

At this point Highway 64 shoots straight west toward the mountains of northeast Arizona.  It is quite clear a change in landscape is imminent.  It is as if the state line ahead marks the boundary of another room, designed by a different architect, one with a penchant for odd angles and magenta.

To each side and in my rearview mirrors, New Mexico is tan, dotted with sage and the occasional gray mesa. Ahead of me are jagged reddish rocks and purple peaks.  The mountains are making weather.  Rain is rolling our way.  

I’m flush with the idea that this is it.  This is the end of the journey.  This is the last hour of the last day of a 30-year quest, and I want to soak up every detail.  A 64 West sign looms in the distance.  Is this the last one?  Stop and take a picture.  Take 12 pictures.  Breathe the morning air.  Listen to the wind.  Stare at the curtains of rain covering distant peaks.  Stare at the red desert thirsty for every imminent drop of moisture.  Stare at the parallel lines of the chip and tar highway that narrows and vanishes into the scene.

As the Shiprock disappears over my shoulder, the road seems to fall like a rollercoaster, perhaps a thousand feet or more downhill.  I feel myself clutching the Kawasaki tighter as I start the descent.  This is part of the East Defiance Monocline, an ancient fold in the earth caused by a massive uplift that created the nearby Corrizo Mountains.  For a second or two the sensation feels like riding down the side of a bowl of broken glass. I’m falling fast and the view ahead is all points and angles.

On either side of the road, looming, eroded, sandstone rocks stand like sentries of a new land.  At the bottom is the village of Beclabito, home to about 300 Navajo citizens.  I see a few rusted buildings and earth-moving machines, remnants apparently of some long-closed mining operation, perhaps a uranium mine.  This area was the epicenter of a cold-war uranium boom back in the Fifties.  People still live here, but they don’t seem to work here.  I wonder as I pass how anyone makes a living.

Past Beclabito the road turns northwest toward the Four Corners and--I can really feel it now--the end of the road.

My heart is filled with conflicting emotions.  I’m equal parts joy, gratitude, satisfaction and grief. Joy for the adventure of it all. Gratitude for the time, resources and health to pull it off.  Satisfaction for a dream fulfilled.  And grief? Grief for a dream coming to an end.

My feeling is most like a funeral for an aging, ailing friend.  You’ve long known the end is coming, and that has provided you time to express your love and admiration, to reminisce fondly, and to share a few last smiles.  But at the end of it all, you still grieve what’s no longer there.

It’s clear Arizona does not care much about its little portion of Highway 64.  The state line is marked only by a small sign and gravel pull-out.  We stop for a photo so briefly we don’t remove our helmets.  Back quickly on the bikes we sprint about six miles to Teec Nos Pos and a tall highway marker bearing the message we travelled 2,336 miles to read.  End 64.

Teec Nos Pos is Navajo for round tree.  We see nothing that fits that description.  There is a scruffy trading post and some type of machine shop.  Two men at the shop taking a smoke break seem amused by Raymond and me hugging each other and taking selfies on the shoulder of their road.  We have to stoop and lean comically to get the End 64 sign in our background.  

Raymond and I thank and congratulate each other, call our wives, and post a photo to Facebook.  We take one good, long, last look around, then get back on our bikes to ride a road no longer named U.S. 64.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

That's Entertainment, 2018

It's Saturday night; what to do with our time?
We have five hours to rest and unwind,
We need entertainment to lift up our spirits!
You got a suggestion? I’m ready to hear it.

Let’s see a movie!  What will it be?
Paddington, Thor or Pitch Perfect 3?
Widescreen or IMAX or maybe 3D?
Or stop by the Red Box for a cheap DVD?

We’ve seen all of these, let’s check out TV.
With 400 channels there’s something to see.
Click-No-Click-No-Click--who would-a thunk?
With 400 channels there’s nothing but junk?

How about HBO, Cinemax, Starz or Showtime?
Or stream something new from Amazon Prime.
On Demand, Apple, or Playstation Vue?
Or YouTube, Netflix, Sling or Hulu?

We could play a game, on X-Box or Wii,
We’ve got Nintendo, GameFly and our old PS3.
That cool fighting game once cost us big bucks,
And we could play it again, but we lost the nunchucks.

We could listen to music on Alexa or iTunes,
On cool wireless speakers that fill up our rooms!
We’ve got thousands of songs that cost 99 cents.
And enough compact discs to fill up a tent.

We’ve got videos, too, that cost 12-99,
And we’ve got quite a few, and we watched them one time,
We could stream our PC to our Wi-Fi TV,
But I don’t know how; the TV’s smarter than me.

Let’s just relax and read a good book,
We’ve got all the best sellers on Kindle and Nook,
We’ve got some on iPad, some soft-back, some hard,
And enough magazines to cover the yard.

But first let’s check Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest,
There’s usually something there of great interest,
Like dancing Chihuahuas, or nice juicy tidbits,
About Hillary, Trump or some other nitwits.

Alas, our beautiful evening has waned,
As we wondered how best to be entertained.
Reality strikes like a dissonant chord,
Too much entertainment makes us all too-much bored. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Top Stories of 2017

I write these annual reviews of personalized news primarily for myself and my family.  It anyone else takes pleasure or meaning from it, that's just fine.  Thanks for your interest.

On this New Year’s Day, as I think about the year just past, the words of an old Joni Mitchell song float through my head.

And the seasons, they go round and round,
And the painted ponies go up and down.
We’re riding on the carousel of time.
We can’t return we can only look behind from where we came,
And go round and round and round in the circle game.

In so many ways this past year feels like yet another spin on the wheel, not that much different from the cycles before it.  The perception of movement.  The hum of routine.  The little highs and lows that determine my response to Janice’s daily inquiry—how was your day?

Yet the carousel is constantly changing.  Minutely, imperceptibly, the bearings on which the giant wheel turns are wearing out.  Beneath the happy clamor of the calliope, the wheel sometimes groans with age.  The discerning ear can hear the faint moan behind the melody.   This wheel will not turn forever.

Janice and I Get Medicare Cards

Yes, my beautiful bride and I turned 65.  Somehow I’ve turned grayer in the process while Janice has turned more blonde.  I’m not complaining.

In our American culture there is supposed to be something meaningful about the 65th birthday.  It certainly was meaningful to the U.S. Postal Service, who for many months packed our mailbox with a daily dump of promotional letters and brochures selling Medicare plans, Medicare counsel, retirement planning, investment counsel and European river cruises.  No exaggeration--if we had kept every piece of mail, we could have filled a small bedroom.

In the end, in case you are wondering, we bought none of it.  I continue to work and drag down the actuarial rating of my employer-sponsored health plan.  Thank you Johnson Group.  I appreciate you sticking with me another year.

Highway 64

Over 30 years ago I hatched a plan to ride the 2,336-mile length of U.S. Highway 64 from Whalebone Junction, NC to Teec Nos Pos, AZ before age 65.  I almost met that deadline, initiating the first half of the trip while I was still 64 and finishing up a few weeks after my birthday.

The trip was epic, everything I dreamed it would be.  My great friend Raymond Clark and I rode over 4,000 total miles through some of God’s most spectacular land.

Some of Highway 64, particularly the eastern North Carolina section, has become virtual interstate.  But much of it remains pretty much as planned by highway engineers back in the 1920s when it was commissioned along with its glitzier cousin, U.S. 66. 

Most of Route 66 does not exist anymore, but Highway 64 remains intact.  It runs within a quarter mile of my house, so the East 64 and West 64 signs call to me almost every day.  I want to ride it again. 

The photo shown here is to me, the quintessential image of the trip.  Darkening mountains flank a grassy valley that stretches endlessly toward the setting sun.  And a road runs through it.


While on the road west, I received disturbing news.  Janice’s brother John had a heart attack while riding his bicycle at Fall Creek Falls State Park.  It turns out his heart went into ventricular fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that causes death unless there is almost immediate resuscitation.

That’s where the miracle happened.  John collapsed within the view of a campground crowded by a Seventh Day Adventist Church retreat. Included in the group were several cardiac nurses who started CPR quickly and continued it for at least 15 minutes. Then a park ranger came along with a portable defibrillator in his truck.  A LIFE FORCE helicopter landed and carried John to Erlanger in Chattanooga where, within a matter of hours, he was not only alive, but cracking jokes.

John is a long-distance bike rider, and for most of his 30-mile ride that day he was in isolated areas.  If his attack had occurred at any other spot on his route other than by that particular campground, he would not have survived.  The hand of God is a beautiful mystery.

Something similar happened to my friend Charlie Rollins, whose heart went into fibrillation while mountain biking near the Virginia/North Carolina border, miles from any paved roads.  Charlie often rides alone, but this time his son and daughter-in-law were there to start CPR.  He survived and recovered enough to out-fish me on Laurel Creek near Abingdon VA just a few months later.

We can’t understand why some people die and some do not.  We can understand that all life is a gift of God that is renewed day-by-day, hour-by-hour.  I am grateful for the gifts God gave to John and Charlie.

The Fab Five

Our quiver of grandchildren now includes five.  The year has been punctuated with sweet times with each of them.  And like most sweet things, these moments leave us wanting more.

I’m grateful for ease of travel, and also for digital photos and videos, Instagram and Facebook, which allow us to see these beautiful, growing children almost every day.  I think about earlier generations of grandparents who had only the occasional black and white photos in the mail, and maybe an annual visit to keep connected with their extended families.  I don’t want to take for granted the easy familiarity we enjoy.

Increasingly, I appreciate the differences between these five young characters.  Sam—the oldest—is driven to excel, especially at his newfound passion of basketball.  He is a 10-year-old gym rat with inexhaustible energy.  He performs under pressure.  He displays a quiet courage.

Charlie is the budding artisan—a builder like his father.  We have a great picture of Charlie standing on the dining room table beside a massive tower he built out of his new school supplies.  It’s worth a thousand words.

Oliver is our poet and artist.  His imagination is always alight.  He reads and sings and paints and writes.  Oliver draws custom bookmarks for each of his books.  I love that.

August is the comedian.  You can’t spend two minutes with that kid without laughing.  His smile is brighter than his hair.  His love of life is innate and infectious. 

And Pen is our belle of the ball.  She is pretty and petite.  She is quiet and content, especially when in the arms of her mama.  When her feet finally hit the ground, I’m certain they will be lighter than air.

Janice and I are so blessed by these young miracles, and we pray for them every day.

Oh, and we are also blessed by their parents.  Lesley and Daniel, Whit and Sarah, we pray for you every day, too.

A Daughter’s Dominion

On the other end of the age spectrum, Janice’s mother turned 91 this past year.  She also turned increasingly infirm and less able to live on her own.

I greatly admire that way Janice has cared for her mother these past years.  She takes her responsibility personally.  She struggles to find the balance of being there for her mother, for me, for her children and grandchildren, for her friends and her church, and then keeping something in reserve for herself.  It is hard.

Early in the year Janice resolved to find the right assisted living for her mother, and after a lot of research she found Dominion Senior Living, a new, small, faith-based facility in Hixson.  Her choice was good.  The staff at Dominion is great.  They fulfill their promises.  They show compassion and connection with all their residents.

Dealing with an aging parent is hard for Janice, her brother John, and his wife Gale, and they all are rising to the challenge.  But let’s be honest—the greatest burden falls on the daughters.  Her mother’s frequent confusion and early morning calls are difficult, but Janice responds with grace and patience. 

Janice, I love the way you love others.

Operation Snowmen

Back in 2013 I hatched the Operation Snowmen idea—an annual ski trip for a circle of guys from church.  Since then we’ve skied Keystone, Copper Mountain, Vail/Beaver Creek, Jackson Hole and--in 2017--Park City, Utah.

This past year had a father and son flavor as several of the guys brought along teenage sons.  It was a great time in great snow.  If you are looking for a good family ski option, Park City is an excellent choice.

A trip to Park City means you have the option to ski Deer Valley, which I recommend for at least one day.  Deer Valley is a bit more sophisticated.  It does not allow snowboards at all.  All its runs are groomed daily.  The food in the slope-side restaurants is practically five-star.

But the best thing about Deer Valley is the restrooms.  Ski resort men’s rooms are usually pits of misery.  I guess it’s difficult for the male species to take aim through four layers of Gore Tex and polypropylene while balanced on ski boots.

The men’s rooms at Deer Valley, or at least the one I found, are like spas.  Private water closets. Spotless marble. Music. A uniformed attendant.  It was better than taking a leak at the Masters.

Anyway, I’ve grown to genuinely love and appreciate the Snowmen.  Next stop, Lord willing, a return to Copper Mountain.

Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work

Clark Taylor, a long-time friend and motorcycle companion, sort of retired this past year after a long and successful career as a healthcare administrator.  I write “sort of” because Clark immediately threw himself into a new venture focused on faith and work.

Clark was gracious enough to invite me to tag along as a cofounder of a new non-profit organization, the Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work.  Our mission is to provide educational programming and counseling that helps men and women discover the important connections between everyday work and faith in Christ.  I confess that Clark is doing the heavy lifting so far, and I appreciate him for that.

In 2017 we launched our website and organized some early programming.  In 2018 we plan to do a lot more.  If anyone is interested in learning more, check out CIFW on Facebook or go to www.chattfaithandwork.org.

The Eclipse

Maybe you heard about it.  It was in all the papers.  It was awesome.

Round and Round, Up and Down

There are so many people and events that were important to me during the circle game of 2017.  I am especially grateful to have reconnected at least a little bit with Cliff, my brother.  This is an answer to prayer. 

I am grateful for my late Aunt Emme and my uncle Pat.  The Lord knows why.

Janice and I spent a wonderful week with dear friends Raymond and Jill at Cape San Blas, a scruffy homage to the way Florida used to be.  If you want to experience it, act fast.  The real estate developers are closing in.

I am grateful to Joe Johnson and all my co-workers at The Johnson Group for a meaningful year.   I’m thankful to all the good people at Erlanger Health System, Northeast Georgia Health System, West Tennessee Healthcare and others for the opportunities to do what I like to do.

I’m grateful for Micah Fries, Paul Lasso, Jeremy Maxfield, George Brown, Deb Parsons, Scott Walker, Adam Major and others at Brainerd Baptist Church for their leadership and service.  Also Robby Holt, pastor at North Shore Fellowship, who has encouraged Clark Taylor and me through the launch of CIFW. 

The year featured many upward moments.  There were also some downs.

We lost someone special this past year with the unexpected death in July of Jeremy Walker.  He was a faithful, funny guy who is sorely missed by his family and friends.

And as the year closes, one of my dearest friends is fighting the good fight against kidney failure.  I pray for Barry to recover and see healthier days in the year ahead.

Happy New Year one and all.