Well, I’ll Be Gosh-Durned…

Talk about your roads lesser traveled…

TJ and I went on an outing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania last weekend and not only did we choose a pub for lunch well off the beaten path within the city, we tripped across this old school, unintentionally whimsical sign on the restaurant side, where we were seated.

These you don’t see much of anymore in this day and age where vulgar lexicon is praised–nearly expected–more than shunned in this topsy-turvy society. It’s almost Twilight Zone-ish. Riotous when you consider we’d just come out of a meadery where we’d happily imbibed and thrown axes.

Nonetheless, we’d observed proper decorum in both environments. Our patronage at this pub was well-received and they even gave us the t.v. remote as we had the restaurant side all to ourselves. Compliments to the food, and props to both of our servers, especially our well-intended, blue-haired girl who bought me an extra beer because they didn’t stock the brew I’d requested.

Talk about old school, they allow smoking on the bar side of this establishment, but don’t you dare drop the f-bomb into your shepherd’s pie, just sayin’. For me, the anti-profanity sign was extra hilarious coming down from a Rick and Morty marathon hangover with my son…

Staving Off the Demise of the Record Shop

Remember that feeling? It wasn’t so long ago, though it feels like something just jerked the trapdoor open with a phantom snicker resembling that pesky canine pot-stirrer, Muttley. You just know David Bowie’s nattering ch-ch-ch-ch-changes from the other side, because change will have its way. Retail, COVID or no COVID, is especially susceptible to change. Much of that comes from fluctuating tastes, malleable trending cycles, product accessibility, pricing and above all, often unpredictable shifts in social mores. All vulnerable, all volatile and all with needful fine-tuning on a continuum.

People are fickle. Especially when you have a climate of abundance and a vast array of choices. I’ve always loved Devo’s “Freedom of Choice,” not just for its pounding groove and snappy riffs, but for Mark Mothersbaugh’s snide indictment, “Freedom of choice…is what you’ve got…from from choice…is what you want…” Now we’re talking all the way to 1980 when Devo dropped that gem, at the dawn of an explosive age of consumerism in what my generation refers to as “The Big ’80s.” America was transitioning out of a recession, gas shortages and the Iranian hostage crisis. New York City was in such a decline then it was mockingly referred to as “The Rotten Apple.”

Things changed then, and for the good. Reaganomics was spat upon by punk rock, but it did work. One of the decade’s brightest spots, commercially and in a fundamental social way, was the music store. Back then, it was vinyl and even the dreaded cassette format (shockingly making a nostalgic rebound to a demographic that wasn’t alive the first time to know better) that ruled the world, and the record shop was king. I mean, an entire film was made about the cultural (and especially subcultural) significance of the record store in 2000’s High Fidelity, and in the fabled “Trax Records” used earlier in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. No doubt your first exposure to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bathory, The Exploited, Can, Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Afrika Bombaataa or Waylon Jennings came in one of these city-baked (or suburb, if that’s your case) music emporiums.

You no doubt have your favorite haunt from back in the day and you’re now drifting back in time with me, whether it’s to a mall-bound Camelot Music or Tape World, a super-size chain like Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore, or you went to your local hipster shop. Right now as I write this, I’m thinking of a bunch of out-of-print albums and rare imports nabbed at so many wonderful indie record shops I hit on assignment covering bands in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York and all around Jersey. I am still awed by Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank, New Jersey, spotted directly across from Bill and Ted’s Secret Stash, i.e. the comic store used in AMC’s Comic Book Men. I promise you I went near-broke hitting those two places. Some of the record shops I’ve supported in my native Baltimore and D.C. metro region (most are gone) over the years are Record Theatre, Waxy Maxy’s, Music Machine, Record Connection, CDepot, An Die Musik, The Sound Garden and a long-standing local chain that gobbled a lot of my spare income and was eventually gobbled themselves by FYE, Record and Tape Traders.

Speaking of FYE, my son and I recently ventured to one of their last remaining stores which we’d frequented often in the past. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see their space now closed and barred inside a mall only holding on due to two department stores and a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Yet, the entertainment-oriented chain, if notoriously overpriced, had managed to survive in said mall for many years by cross-selling pop culture apparel and collectibles aside from mostly-mainstream CD, vinyl, DVD and Blu Ray releases. An FYE was very seldom the place you’d go to hunt down a Celtic Frost album, but in recent years, you could clean up on their buy two used get a third for a buck promotion that was always in full swing. Tres cool when you had a gift card to burn at one of their shops.

I felt a small twinge of melancholy when I saw the shock upon my kid’s face. When I stop and think about it, this particular FYE had been floating on borrowed time, even while huckstering Fortnite and Mortal Kombat action figures and coffee mugs splashed with contemporary horror and anime interests, all of which lure my son with the same enthusiasm he has for Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption games. To his delight and no comment needed on my end, we found the mall’s Game Stop unit still hanging around. As a card-carrying member of the Atari 2600 generation, I lament my lack of patience, much less interest in today’s cinematic if utterly soulless video game offerings.

For my hipper-than-thou compatriots from the music scene I once covered, the loss of a corporate-stylized FYE hardly compares to the closure of an independent record store. Yet, it’s fair to say the symbolic change in media consumerism has had an adverse effect on entertainment. It’s becoming far more fashionable to conveniently download and stream both music and film from your own t.v. or computer than going the old-fashioned route of driving to a record shop and taking the time to flip through vinyl jackets and CD cases. Yeah, back in the day you took a risk on an album carrying one or two boss beats and a lot of filler crap, but that gave you something to gripe about in line at the Front 242 gig and meet new, like-minded friends.

You may be too much of in a hurry to pull down that ear-popping jam you caught at the gym or on Sirius XM and drop it onto your hard drive or cell phone. You may feel the gas invested isn’t worth it. You may be a germophobe, as we still have plenty of those as the anti-pandemic masks begin to vanish, en masse. More than likely, you’ve just forgotten what it was like to pop in to a place where the staff most likely speaks your language, or can dig up the information for you, whether you’re hunting down Janis Joplin or the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack or the more obscure industrial-freako noise ensemble, Pigface. Sure, you can easily find any of them these days on eBay, Amazon, CD Universe or whatever online hub offers you the most comfort and convenience. Or you go to iTunes or get your kicks for free at YouTube if you want a right-here-right-now Dua Lipa fix.

Now admittedly, I’m no better than anyone else these days, so I’m not going to soapbox as to why you should be out there supporting record stores. We have the annual Record Store Day for that, as much a holiday for true audiophiles as Free Comic Book Day for that genre’s supporters. I consider myself attached to both, for the record (no pun intended).

What I will offer, here, is a road, these days lesser traveled, and for kicks, I went and took a trip down to The Sound Garden in Baltimore’s historic waterfront district, Fells Point. More supported by college drinking and weekend family outings, Fells Point has a unique charm, even with its tight quarters, narrow streets and axle-rattling cobblestones. The Sound Garden has long been one of my all-time favorite music stores, though I don’t get down like I used to. My life has changed, and I’ve been downsizing and economizing my personal space and my budget. My girlfriend, TJ, all but had cardiac arrest when she’d seen how much hard copy media I still had left after purging three quarters of what I used to. My recent move has been cathartic, and that’s included a sensible radicalization of my media. I too subscribe to t.v. streaming services like Disney Plus and HBO Max. I now have most of my albums digitally stashed on a thumb drive. TJ knows better than to try and get me to part with my Prince collection and film soundtracks, but my life, suffice it to say, looks far different than when I was writing in the music industry.

What resonated with me the most in my outing to Sound Garden last week, was how much I missed being in such an environment, and I cued up memories of all of my friends from the past. They seem like ghosts now. I remember how much fun we could have spending an hour and a half, browsing the same albums over and over again, buying some, skipping some, buying the ones we’d skipped a couple weeks later. We’d hover in the punk and metal sections like we owned them and we’d leaf through the underground ‘zines, looking for new bands and pen pals to write to. Always we’d get to know the staff. They’d try us with other genres while they had us loaf-abouts in-house and for me, especially, my all-around tastes were fostered in this fashion, making me more diverse, eclectic and well-versed. I routinely crossed genres in my articles and was often complimented by the artists and their promoters. It all goes back to being a record shop rat.

I know the days and times of patronage vary at a place like Sound Garden. Yet it was a rare and frankly bizarre thing this time where I calmly drifted into a wide-open parking lot around back, chuckling to myself how many times I’d had to squeeze and jockey myself into tight, diagonal formations. I found people taking pictures of the Sound Garden (like myself, of course), and I thought, “It feels like more like a museum than a store these days.” Most of those snapping pics just continued on their way, or turned around and pointed their cameras at the shops and restaurants across the way. It felt quaint instead of imperative.

It’s no secret an overwhelming percentage of the world’s population has moved on from CDs, DVDs and BluRays. It’s downright laughable and overwhelmingly sad to see what Wal Mart and Target’s entertainment sections look like anymore. They cater more to the gamers than the dreamers now. The resurgence of vinyl is why hard copy even sells anymore, and I get that. For me, there will never be a finer experience than sitting on the floor of my bedroom with the vinyl jacket to Iron Maiden’s Powerslave or the electrifying gatefolds to Kiss’ Alive II and Steppenwolf 7 in my lap while spinning their respective slabs on the turntable. It was intimate, as was being forced to take the extra seconds to flip the platter over and drop the stylus back into motion.

Intimate being the operative word here. Even the quicker method of insert and eject with a CD, there’s still that tangible, motion-filled process engaging the listener to the artist, with the invitation to scour the lyrics (if provided) while letting the vibe pulse into your ears, or to get lost in the artwork. You don’t get that physical, emotive experience casually surfing the console or streaming over the computer. Music consumption is far more gray and mundane these days, YET the lack of support given to enterprising record shops is just a part of the natural order, as mundane as that is to say.

Sound Garden has changed itself to accommodate the shifting tastes of its dwindling demographic. An entire half of the store is now dedicated to vinyl, which is where I found most people lurking and browsing. What used to be a vast portion of the store dedicated to CDs is now less than half that. The video section is large enough, but likewise pared down. The store deliciously whets your appetite with advertisements, replica concert posters and t-shirts and all of it IS still as eye-popping as it ever was. That part spoke to me, as much as the cardboard Prince from the cover of Art Official Age hanging over the checkout counter.

As did the young woman ringing me out, young enough to be my daughter. She was quick to recognize and compliment my Stax Records t-shirt and we had a brief discussion about the Memphis music scene and what her parents had seen and exposed her to. It did my heart a world of good, considering I have people in my own age bracket these days ask me what the vintage soul and funk label Stax even is. In its own hopeless way, a telling of the times…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Running the Alternate Trails at Devil’s Tower

I’ve been obsessed with the Devil’s Tower ever since I was a kid. Naturally, my fascination with the ancient monolith rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River came from Steven Spielberg’s space drop wonderama, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My parents took me to see the film in 1978, on the verge of imminent divorce. Unbeknownst to me as an 8-year-old child then, the outing to the film was destined to become our swan song as a family. Appropriate that it came upon the imprinted canon of five notes. No matter your generation, you know the familiar lace of bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….

I fell asleep in the theater back then, sometime after Richard Dreyfuss was sculpting the Devil’s Tower formation into his mashed potatoes. The scene leaves an air of irony upon me now, since Dreyfuss was on the verge of cinematically losing his family. Perhaps my young mind was shutting me down on purpose to block the acted dysfunction, since Dreyfuss and Teri Garr’s onscreen combativeness rang too close to home in what I dealt with between two feuding parents.

All I know is what I saw when I woke back up changed everything for me, and I thought that had already been achieved the year prior seeing the original Star Wars in ’77. I was awestruck by Spielberg’s glow show upon a grandiose, scraped-up mountain that became a near-lifelong obsession for me. I swore back then to myself I was going to see this Devil’s Tower firsthand before checking out of this life.

It took me all the way to last year, in celebration of my 50th birthday, to venture out west to South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana and fulfill my own pledge. Checked only by a tiny burg called Hulett a few miles away (which has the bare basics but is impressively self-sustained by a Best Western hotel, a hidden Native American museum in the guise of an antique shop and the best bowl of beef tips I’ve ever had), Devil’s Tower lived up to the hype I set inside my head more than four decades ago. A sacred place to the Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Shoshone tribes, Devil’s Tower carries that ambience as the “Bear’s Lodge,” one of its many colorful nicknames. Look up the varying indigenous mythologies behind the Tower. In particular, the Kiowa’s legend to the monolith’s formation.

The main path circumventing Devil’s Tower is a mile long, manmade concrete walkway, and naturally it comes recommended to traverse the scores of igneous rock and boulders stockpiled at the base. The park does a wonderful job skirting the butte with advantageous views, tempting even the most casual and fastidious of visitors to pause and gape at a natural icon. If you don’t feel dwarfed and humbled by the enormity of Devil’s Tower, you’re in too much of a hurry.

The discerning eye will spot the random deer, which seem perfectly at ease around the scores of humans within their protected environment. The leaping chipmunks quickly become as commonplace as the tied prayer bundles around tree limbs, left as ceremonial offerings or remembrances to ancestors. If you give yourself to Devil’s Tower and let it guide you instead of blitzing your way around the base as I saw many people sadly doing, you will feel engulfed by something larger than yourself.

I got all I could’ve hoped for on the Tower Trail, as the main route is commonly known. However, I’d set aside an extra day on the traveling itinerary to take more round at Devil’s Tower. I’d done my research and spotted other trails I wanted in on, and man, was that the right call. Namely the 1.5 mile Joyner Ridge Trail and the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail.

I got up at sunrise to run these trails, beginning right below the Tower Trail. I had them all to myself for my full run. It was heavily forested for a bit, which served up a special treat not even a few tenths of a mile into my run. I was greeted by a pack of does, who calmly spied me before walking across the path in single file. They processed without worry or apprehension to my charging approach. I stopped to let them go and snapped a picture once they’d gotten across. The trust they showed me was as spellbinding as the Tower itself.

Coming through the clearing as I resumed my run, the trail became craggier as the elevation dipped. I kept my eyes peeled with the mount to my back, because something in my sixth sense made me aware I’d come into a place of significance, something you wouldn’t know unless you’d taken the time to hit this trail drifting from the tower. I paused my running app again and spun around, feeling the height of excitement jack my heartbeat even higher. I remember the thud in my chest once I put it all together. I was on the exact path which Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and Josef Sommer took in their ascension of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind right before the crop-duster ‘copter rolled in.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I was perhaps too giddy at this point as my pace spiked and I lightly twisted my ankle a couple times on the tougher terrain between Joyner Ridge and Red Beds. I was able to shake things off while I had a momentary flat section to trot through until I was ready to go back at regular speed. The trails interconnect with the Devil’s Tower in the distance, and the pickup to Red Beds changed the dynamic entirely.

You’ll get close to the main entrance through Red Beds, and it’s worth your time, hiking or running, to scooch through the crimson bedrock. Unfortunately, I did more than scooch, taking a hard tumble into the dirt as exuberance stymied my pivot. Gashed upon the knee with a not-too-bloody souvenir from the Tower, I laughed at myself and got back in gear.

Coming around the Red Beds Trail, I got a peek overtop the South Side Trail, which serves as the primary habitat for Devil’s Tower’s “Prairie Dog Town.” You can stop at a turnout on the main drive into the park and take pictures of a bunch of these little critters, but I was delighted to have a prairie dog away from the main dog drag peek out and give me a quick howdy on my way by. Yeah, they are stinkin’ cute.

The Red Beds Trail will kick your butt, intensity level ranging upon your endurance. It ascends right back up to Devil’s Tower on the opposite side of where climbers prefer to roll the bones up the hexagonal columns. I have a very good command of my cardio, yet even I needed to slow down to a trot again and regulate my breathing with the uptick in altitude and the rising temperature of the morning sun.

As you can see below, however, the upland cliffs on the final leg of the Red Beds Trail does offer a spectacular incentive to push yourself through them.

There’s another trail you can drive down from the main parking lot which is also worth your effort to grab a more distant view of Devil’s Tower. All told, I’d put in 4.8 miles on these side trails before taking a hypothetical victory lap mile around the Tower Trail again. I felt so cleansed afterwards, even with the dirt, sweat and dried blood upon me.

I’d spent two days at Devil’s Tower and for my own personal reward, grabbed one of my many accumulated six packs of Moose Drool beer (one of my absolute favorite brews in the entire universe) from the gift shop and more magnets than I probably needed.

They don’t have much in that dinky town of Hulett and you can’t imagine how the Sturgis bikers manage to cram themselves in there each year, but it has a lot to offer in its miniscule stage. They embrace the Close Encounters emanations as a profitable marketing tool, Devil’s Tower being whimsically called “Area 18.” All I know is that the Tower and its prairie dogs will see me again in the not-too-distant future. Bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Necessary Art of Doing a Solid

See the source image
Ray Van Horn, Jr. with the Queen of Metal, Doro Pesch, 2011

We can poke fun at the concept with the amusing exaggerations and a hilarious twist in the form of ramifications from the double-date-gone-to-shreds “Do Me a Solid” episode from Season 2 of Regular Show. We can chuckle like horndogs at the sexual overtures implicated by the same phrase. Hey, Seinfeld junkies say it in their sleep. I can’t say it enough in a serious light; it’s not just good form, good business sense and goodwill; doing solids is paramount to your personal networking.

I recently had a publicist from the music business throw me a shout out, mentioning a music festival she’d listed me for years back, and how she’d needed a ride from the venue to her hotel after the gig. I recalled it upon her saying so and was seriously touched she’d brought it up all this time later. I remember putting my hand up to her at the show’s after party when, with no cabs or alternate pickup options (Uber and Lyft hadn’t yet become a thing), she called out for anyone heading her direction, approximately 30 miles away. It was my pleasure, knowing her all of a few hours, to give someone in need a ride. I mean, in the music business, we take of our own. It’s automatic. It’s what you do. At least before COVID, people shacked up down on their luck, road-dogging bands overnight all the time. You lend a hand. You do a solid. Not only did we have a long, fun chat on that ride back to her hotel, I made a friend. We don’t talk heavily and we haven’t crossed paths in ages, yet we have periodic communication through social media. As she said, we might never meet again face-to-face, but we have a cemented friendship.

There’s a difference being a writer in the music industry to doing freebies and doing solids for people. Freebies are assignments, reviews, interviews and photography you do without compensation to work your rep. It’s about building your profile, boning up your chops, paying your dues. In my time, record labels and video distributors always sent me hard copy promotional material, which was, then anyway, its own reward. As you can see below by my one-time labyrinth of media already a lifetime ago, three houses back in 2015. What the picture doesn’t show is five other shelves with more media, most of it free. It goes the same for press credentials and free concerts, and eventually, the attractive bait of high profile performers suddenly placed before your interview recorder. All incentive enough in the beginning, at least when there was still a vast assortment of hard copy magazines to work your way up the ladder to. I did many freebie pieces and live photo shoots for websites and ‘zines until my rep commanded actual paying gigs in the magazines and later, the higher traffic websites.

Solids, however, are a different beast, and those made all the difference in establishing myself, not merely as a pro music journalist, but a friend to the scene. I’m not out to pat myself on the back here, but for sake of the argument, I am going to reel off a few examples of solids I did that later made the difference in my 13 year career covering music and film.

There was the time I was asked by a record label to pick up a box of a band’s CDs at a local Fedex and take them down to the venue I was covering. The band had run low on merch due to a successful album launch and well-received road campaign. I wasn’t working this band that night, but it was well-noted and appreciated by the band and their label. The label never forgot that and routinely sent me care packages of band t-shirts, autographed posters, glossy pictures and more albums for pleasure listening than I could squeeze into an already hefty itinerary. Funny enough, another band on the same label who’d known what I’d done did me a solid one night by putting me on their guest list last minute when the tour manager of my designated act neglected to add me. Yes, I’d had a terrific interview with the lead singer of the band who helped me and that wasn’t forgotten, either. Across the lines, people learn about and remember you by your good deeds. See how it works?

If I had a dime for every email or phone call I received from a publicist or record label promoter asking me to “do a solid” by giving their new artist signings press coverage, I could’ve funded more than one issue of my digital ‘zine, Retaliate. In my time as a music journalist, I did more than 300 interviews, and my willingness to give new bands and artists love always won me favor when the same publicists offered me key names such as Rob Zombie, System of a Down, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Slayer or Lita Ford by way of thanks.

There was a time a young college kid reached out to me while I was the height of my time in the industry. A routine reader of my work, he was writing a term paper for his music class and he asked me to fact check and edit his work. Some people might scoff at such a request. “Who has time for that?” you hear so often, and yet I was flattered. I took the time to edit the young man’s paper and I gave him suggestions, some editorial strikes and a few music history timeline corrections, all for free. I can already hear some of you writing professionals groaning at me, but it was a mere 45 minutes of my time between album reviews. I got to multitask by spinning the next album in my queue and get a taste of it for before a more scrutinizing listen. The college kid later contacted me to let me know he’d received an A on his paper, and he then took to social media to give me props. Considering I had just started writing media reviews for Blabbermouth and was immediately torched by the site’s infamous online trolls, the kid’s praise felt amazing and it gave me strength to strap on my armor against my haters. Reward comes in many different fashions, and none of it goes out of style.

There’s a band I’ll keep anonymous whom I’d interviewed many times and we have a handful of now-hilarious stories from backstage and their touring van. Every time they came into my town, they always promptly added me to their guest list and I was almost always there. So often did I see their gigs I ended up leaving the show early once (after their slot, of course) to go buy said band a case of beer, knowing they were cash strapped with just enough gas and dinner money to make it to the next town. The current venue had neglected to comp them grub and drinks, a sad play which does happen as often as the sickening pay-to-play venues. The friends in this band have all gone on to different pastures, but we say hello to each other frequently.

Aside from giving my publicist friend a ride to her hotel, there was a time I met up with a different record label executive for drinks at a high profile music festival showcased in my hometown. Being a stranger to this city, she was lost and needed a sense of direction back to her hotel. I did what any responsible buddy or Good Samaritan should do in such a case; I escorted her the 13 city blocks to deliver her safely to her destination. She bought me dinner another time and later invited me up to Brooklyn, New York for an album release party.

All of this may come off as bragging, but I never did any of the aforementioned for self-serving purposes. Many times a solid given is a solid unreturned. It happens, so reciprocation shouldn’t be expected. Often you do a solid for someone upon request, and watching it in motion is inspirational stuff. A solid endears you to people and sure, it may put a sign around your neck that could put you in a precarious spot of being taken for granted. Yet, doing a solid off-the-cuff, without prompt, from the heart…that is what people often remember and return kindness comes in different forms; some materially, much of it intangibly.

For all the solids I did for a couple of underground music promoters I had a longtime friendship with, they were the ones who put my name in the hat to succeed them when they departed the prestigious Blabbermouth. I had written for a lot of esteemed magazines and sites and maintained monthly columns which were filled with guests months in advance. I was most proud of my six year stint at Blabbermouth, offered to me based on my solids done for others.

Last example, in another industry to which I gave my all and my spare time to my teammates and those on other teams in the company, I was given the finest compliment anyone’s ever given to me: I was called a “mensch,” the Yiddish phrase for someone possessing integrity and honor. I was genuinely choked up when I heard that. It had been noted how many solids I’d done for people in the entire organization, regardless if it was my direct job or not. You don’t need to play office politics when your shoulders are already squared with pride and you give of yourself. It doesn’t need to be Bruce Wayne-like epic bestowments of charity. Hold a door for someone. Let someone into traffic. Give a homeless person a bottle of water or a burger. Listen to someone having a bad day. It’s simpler than you realize.

That, my friends, is a road lesser taken well-worth the effort. Do the solid.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Interpreting the Zen of Yoda

A mutual love of Star Wars being one of the foundations to our relationship, TJ and I frequently cut each other up by dropping hilarious Yoda imitations upon each other.  The groovy-gravelly tones of the long-eared galoot Jedi doyen has been imprinted upon global pop culture ever since his hand-animated debut in 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back.  Yoda’s actual species yet remains a mystery. George Lucas himself has said in interviews he never really figured out where his pint-sized, lightsaber proficient alien Confucius actually originated from.  Shooting Yoda from the hip with Frank Oz’s memorable pebbly voiceovers, Lucas describes him as “a mystery character, he’s a magical character.  He has no background.  He comes and he goes.  He’s the subversive secret mysterious stranger that enters the film and to then exits at the end.”

And yet, the lovably twisted lexicon of Yoda has never really left us. For 40 years now, Yoda-speak has become both parody and parable in our commonplace lives.  A 900-year-old-ish master of Zen, Yoda is, and his never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover aura is so beloved in pop culture people have been known to outright sob at his demise, perhaps the greatest performance a puppet not named Kermit ever gave in cinema.  So enamored are we with Yoda, Disney has recently banked millions of dollars on merch bearing a contemporary pipsqueak preemie version, revealed during The Mandalorian Season 2 as “Grogu.”

Even if you don’t believe in The Force, there’s a strong chance you’ve heard a famous quote of Yoda snagged time and again by the general media.  It’s popped up in sports, medicine, psychology, metaphysics and self-help, and you likely already know where I’m going here. So say it with me, as Yoda dropped it upon an over-eager Luke Skywalker back in the day…

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

The overt message is wisdom for the ages, one of the most profound life lessons delivered to my generation in the same manner we were bestowed precepts at the ends of Fat Albert, He-Man and She-Ra episodes.  Beware the dark side that tempts us. Drift towards the light and make good choices for your future salvation. Don’t let a cackling wizard and his black-domed henchman seduce you into becoming an extant of hedonism.

For me, however, the underlying moral of the story, is this:

It is much easier, much safer, to take the quick and easy route in life.  It’s far more work to take the harder and slower route, the uncertain route, the less convenient route. One that may not pay off immediately, but is the more righteous way to go. In other words, a road less traveled. We have choices in life, so many they often become trivialized minutiae to the masses, though carrying vast importance to an individual or small group of like-minded. Truly, life decisions become a matter of the fast and opportune to a large percentage of our very well-known species.

There’s one thing I would ever want to say to the human race when it’s my time to vanish into the ether and merge my life essence with the grand universe as Yoda, Ben Kenobi, Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Qui-Gon Jinn and ultimately Anakin Skywalker did…

Empathy is the beacon on the path of the light side. It calls to us and empathy for one another is what will save our species.  Multicultural empathy especially is the number one lacking thing in our society. The more we take the time to understand and appreciate one another, the blurrier the division lines ultimately become.  If there’s one thing George Lucas and all the many writers, actors, directors and filmmakers have been trying to teach us through the ever-evolving Star Wars universe, it’s a spirit of multiculturalism where color, gender, sexuality and yes, humans and non-humans have a place at the proverbial table.

A brighter world, would this be, Yoda might say in his astral form.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Taking the Road Less Traveled

The term “road less traveled” is often misinterpreted from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but the intent remains the same. Frost’s poem posits an alternate path to his lyrical hike in the woods as “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear.”

Now Frost is using environmental allegory in “The Road Not Taken” to make the point that we have a choice in our lives, to follow the proverbial beaten path and automatically do as others would do. Or we can peel away the blinders and open our eyes and minds to another way to get where we’re going and where we’d like to be in life.

When was the last time you took a chance on something? Maybe you played 5 to 1 odds at the track or you might’ve shifted some of your portfolio toward a few large-cap tech stocks because you smell growth potential. You took a chance on a British murder drama on PBS instead of settling for network t.v.’s offerings or the latest critic’s darling on a trendy streaming service. You might even have tried a draft pint of crafted microbrew instead of ordering that everyday bottle of Miller Lite. In my case, you might take a huge leap of faith, not only by going out on my own and unexpectedly finding new love, but, more materially, ripping more then 800 CDs and storing them digitally onto a thumb drive before purging the hard copy.

My girlfriend, TJ and I are avid hikers and we’ve come to the realization in our travels that often it’s the side trails, the paths straying from the main flow where everyone else filters, that lure us and, so long as we keep our sense of direction, the payoffs are, more often than not, far more satisfying.

I came up with the idea of Roads Lesser Traveled following a recent getaway TJ and I had in the mountains of Deep Creek Lake. In particular, the Swallow Falls system, one of the area’s biggest attractions. Instead of catching the falls from the main entrance at the top, we discovered another way in via the bottom of the system. While there was a a fair handful of people heading onto this same unmarked trail, we took a chance on it after talking to some in-the-know local youth. At a certain point, we had this trail mostly to ourselves the deeper we ventured. We were treated to a spectacular show of rock formations, water rivulets, mushrooms and an abundance of moss you wouldn’t get on the man-made, crowded paths circumventing the high side of the falls.

TJ and I went about two miles deep into the narrowing splendor, tap-dancing around many muddy spots, but the air became more pristine from the collision of the rushing water below us and the natural seepage from the rocks at our sides. TJ thanked the earth fairies showing off for us and compared much of what we saw to the Middle Earth realm in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frankly, we didn’t even bother making our way to the main gate after such an exhibition.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and looking at another way to reach your destination, gives most people unease. Yes, TJ and I usually stick to color-coded paths in the woods, especially in the deeper forestation of the back woods zones. Still, you never know what’s waiting for you off-the-beaten path, because it’s ingrained subliminally that we shy from we can’t see or know with full certainty. It’s often said in life itself that people fear what they can’t understand. In some cases, that creates hostility, prejudice and even nihilism. What an unhealthy way to live.

Consider, this, though; what are you missing out on by taking the same route as everyone else? Sure, popular vote often bears justification. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, it’s a guarantee a cluster of people banded together at any random spot inside that vast park is something worth joining in on, i.e. a view of some bison or a grizzly. It so happened in our Deep Creek adventures that taking a barely-blazed, grown over trail yielded TJ and I a treat in the form of a young fawn lying on its belly. It held its position a long time before taking off, and we turned direction so that we could leave the fawn in proximity of its distant doe mother. This year, we’ve been graced by up-close deer contacts on four out of our last five hikes. It would seem Cernunnos or even Lugh have been reaching out to us during this vernal equinox through their earthly horned avatars. It’s been a thrilling Beltane for us, to be sure.

I’m taking a chance by opening a new blog after a few years of inactivity. In the past, I’ve blogged about music, horror and comic books and I had very steady followings. My defunct blog, The Metal Minute was awarded Best Personal Blog by Metal Hammer magazine years ago, one of my proudest achievements. I’m excited to be writing Roads Lesser Traveled and look forward to interacting with you all, pardon the pun, down the road.

The vibe here at Roads Lesser Traveled will be to take you on journeys. While travel and hiking will have their places on this blog, I’ll also be talking metaphorically about roads lesser traveled in life, love, writing, etc. My hope is to inspire and motivate through the bandwidth uniting us here. It’s all about embracing what this world has to offer without inhibitors. It’s about going upward and onward with an adventurer’s spirit, while taking the necessary pauses to reflect, appreciate, analyze and even grieve where appropriate.

So take that plunge, that leap of faith. Overcome that faint uncertainty, all within reason, of course. Assess risk sensibly, take any necessary precautions, but don’t let that gnawing trepidation against the unknown rattle you. Take a chance. Explore a new option. It’s very much the same as life itself. Taking the road lesser traveled often yields spectacular results. Or, to paraphrase Robert Frost, of the roads that diverge in the woods or elsewhere, taking the less traveled makes all the difference.

I thank you for taking the less traveled path bringing you to my fledgling blog and hope that together we may blaze it in good company…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.