Icelandic Odyssey – Day 7
On the seventh day of our adventuring, Mary and I struck out for a circuit of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula of Iceland. The weather predictions promised temperatures just above freezing and partial sun. In Icelandic parlance, that means balmy. As we drove westward along the northern coast, the mountains that run along the spine of the peninsula contrasted beautifully with the lowlands.
As we drove, we got to watch the rising sun—low in the southern sky because of our northern latitude—break over the mountains. These next two photos show some of the progression.
On our way we passed one of the natural symbols of Iceland, Mount Kirkjufell near the small fishing village of Grundarfjordur. In Icelandic Kirkjufell means ‘Church Mountain.’ This mountain appears in Game of Thrones, and is the most photographed mountain in Iceland. It’s over 1500 feet high, and its strata tell a geologic story dating back over 11,000 years.
We passed too many waterfalls to count. Some, like this one, were near the highway, and many were up in the highlands, funneling glacial water down into the lowlands. This particular waterfall also appears in Game of Thrones.
We drove through three more small fishing villages, Olafsvik, Orif and Hellissandur. Olafsvik has only about 1000 souls, but boasts a uniquely designed church called Olafsvikurkirkja.
The third fishing village over, Hellissandur, calls itself the street art capitol of Icleand. Only about 500 souls live here. When we stopped for a cup of coffee, the only café in town told us they weren’t opening for another hour.
In all of these towns, the homes and yards were all neat and well taken care of. However, out on the rural stretches, not all of the farmhouses appeared that way. Some looked abandoned, like the one pictured below.
That said, it’s remarkable how beautiful all these small villages are. Most have the essentials (by Icelandic standards): a gas station, a church, a small grocery store, a pharmacy, and often a municipal pool and school. Another thing to note: fast, LTE cell service blankets this peninsula, including the long remote stretches between villages.
Here’s Mary standing along the northern shore of the peninsula, one bay past Mount Kirkjufell. The ocean you see beyond her is called Breidhafjordhur Fjord, and across its massive expansive lies the Westfjords region of Iceland. It takes a ferry 2.5 hours to cross this stretch.
One of the dozens of waterfalls we glimpsed breaking over the highlands.
By this point Mary and I progressed to the extreme western end of the peninsula and were turning south. This shot is taken from a causeway across a fjord through a bird preserve.
Next we got into some rocky bluffs and rough ocean. This place looks foreboding, but over a thousand years ago, Vikings chose this region to settle in.
The sign reads Gufuskalavor, and it’s the site of an old fishing village from before the 1400’s. I could see no sign of anything left, but archeologists have. It seems harsh up here, but the sea provided plentiful fish, the lowlands provided plentiful grass for grazing sheep and horses and fresh water flowed everywhere.
Speaking of fresh water, below is a Viking cistern or well that dates back to the year 1000.
I ventured down to the bottom of the steps the park service installed, but was hesitant to go any further in fear of disturbing any ancient relics or artifacts.
Mary and Yours Truly on the coast of Snaefellsjokull National Park.
Next Mary and I climbed up Saxholl Crater, which stands about 325 feet above the plain. This is the leftovers of a volcano that erupted about 3000 years ago. The park service did a lot of work installing a road and steps.
The second photo is a shot from the top of the crater, looking inland to the mountains.
Ok, one mountain I wanted to see but not sure if we did was Snaefellsjokull, the peak this whole park is named after. There were a lot of clouds, blowing mist and some snow, so if one of the four people reading this blog is a geologist and knows her stuff, let me know; I’ll add a correction. But at some point (and this photo might be it) Mary and I passed the peak that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It’s at this mountain that Verne’s explorers enter the Earth’s crust.
Finally we got to meet some of the fabled Icelandic horses up close and personal—right along the road. These beautiful animals were first imported by the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. And from that point on, this breed evolved for a thousand years into this small and hardy variety of horse. In order to preserve the purity of this breed, Icelandic law forbids any horses from outside being brought in. And if any Icelandic horse is taken off the island, it can’t return.
Norse mythology venerated horses at a symbol of fertility, so it’s no wonder the Vikings brought these animals with them. Ancient Icelanders used them as warhorses, for courting and, of course, as work horses. Today there are upwards of 80,000 horses in Iceland.
Along the southern shore of the peninsula we saw some of the famous basalt cliffs, created thousands of years ago by volcanic activity.
We finally made it back to the fishing village where we were staying, Stykkisholmur. We arrived just in time to visit the ‘Norwegian House,’ right across the street from our hotel. The Norwegian House was the first two-story building ever erected in Iceland, built in 1832.
Second photo: The guest parlor upstairs in the Norwegian House. This museum has lovingly restored this house to what they believe was its original state. It was built Arni Thorlacius, a Norwegian merchant and shipping-vessel owner. He was also a librarian and a philanthropist.
Nighttime in Stykkisholmur. This was Mary’s and my last chance to catch the Northern Lights. No luck. We’d probably have to stay here for a month to improve our chances of glimpsing this fickle natural phenomenon. Alas, it’s time to leave.
The very next morning, as we drove south, the mountain pass was snow-covered and slippery. Winter is coming.
Icelandic odyssey – Days 5 & 6
Our fifth day in Iceland started out sunny and windy. A lot of the avenues and streets in downtown Reykjavik create wind tunnels. So even when it looks inviting, you need to bundle up.
Below is the view from our place in Reykjavik.
The six of us split up to take some brisk walks through town and buy souvenirs for the kids back home. Pictured here is the Prime Minister’s Office, which we walked past innumerable times. The Prime Minister of Iceland is a Katrin Jakobsdottir, a woman. Aren’t Icelanders terrifically sensible?
In addition to a very sensible and progressive government, you can find books on sale all over the place in Iceland. Gift shops, tourist information centers, cafes in the middle of the wilderness and shops in the most rural fishing villages of the island. Pictured here is a fairly big bookshop in downtown Reykjavik. The buyers have to work extra hard, as they carry titles in both Icelandic and English.
The six of us stopped for lunch at a small French bistro. Mary and I ordered the French Onion Soup. Even at lunch, Icelanders like to wow you at the table. This French Onion Soup had what amounted to a gourmet grilled cheese perched atop its bowl. So yummy, especially after tromping about in the sub-polar wind.
God help me, I can believe I’m posting this. But people will ask me if I don’t: How can you go to Iceland without doing the outdoor spa thing? So yes, the six of us did it.
These maniac Icelanders all know how to swim and love their naturally-heated pools and spas that dot the island from one end to the other. Currently in Iceland the temperatures are hovering just above freezing, but as we go into winter, they will continue to swim outside. Mickey, ever puckish, brought her camera into the spa and took all kinds of photos. You only get to see two. Pictured below, L-R: Yours Truly, Mary, Patrick (with sparkling wine of course), Robyn and Kody.
Mary and I at sunset. Yes, we are outdoors and, yes, that’s the North Atlantic right behind us.
That night our gang of six had our last meal together. They were all flying back home the next morning. Mary and I are staying for three more nights.
This was the outrageous feast I gorged myself on that night, at a Brazilian Restaurant. It’s true, Reykjavik is establishing a worldwide reputation for gourmet restaurants.
A final group photo of the six travelers together. As I write this, they’ve already arrived home safe and sound. It was a pleasure traveling with them, and May and I hope to be able to do it again soon.
L-R: Mickey, Patrick, Mary, Rich, Kody and Robyn.
On the sixth day, after the rest of the gang flew out, Mary and I went to the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. This is a magnificent facility chronicling the history of Iceland in terms of geology, culture, religion and art. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just highlight a few things that struck me.
Below: The Vikings that first settled Iceland are classified as being in an Iron Age. These are Viking broaches archeologists found in ancient graves. The two at the upper left are upwards of a thousand years old.
Up until the 1500’s, homespun (woven woolen cloth) was Iceland’s primary export. And who did the wool-working? Women. The technique of turning sheep wool into cloth is sophisticated and difficult. This is a replica of a warp-weighted loom, the kind Icelandic women used for centuries.
Not long after the Vikings settled Iceland, King Olaf of Norway pressured Iceland to convert to Christianity. It was a peaceful transition between worship of the Norse Gods to Christianity.
Starting in about 1530, the Reformation swept out the Catholics, and Lutheranism took over. Today, in the 21st Century, Christianity is on the wane here. Lutherans still make up 65% of believers, but now the rest of are a mix Catholics and other world religions, including a recent uptick in Heathenry. Today, a quarter of Icelanders are ‘non-affiliated.’
Pictured: Icelandic Lutheran relics from the Middle Ages.
The Museum also covered science and climate. This is an estimate of how much of Iceland was covered by birch forests before humans arrived. Today? About 2% of this. See previous posts below for notes on how Iceland is working to re-forest the island.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a shot of the father of modern Iceland, Jon Sigurdsson. He was the 19th century leader of Iceland’s campaign for self-determination.
After the Museum, Mary and I took the long drive up north toward the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The route took us up along the western shore of Iceland north of Reykjavik, where we had to cross two fjords. Over one of the fjords we took a bridge. At Hvalfjordur Fjord we took an undersea tunnel. The Hvalfjordur Tunnel runs for over 3.5 miles and dips to 531 feet below sea level. The minimal amount of rock coverage between the tunnel roof and the seabed is 130 feet.
I’m only sharing these facts because tunnels like this scare the daylights out of me. I mean, Iceland does have earthquakes.
The tunnel entrance came up on us so quickly that I didn’t have time to snap a photo, so I’m using the one from Wikipedia.
A mountain pass took us over the center of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Crystal clear freshwater lakes, snowcapped hills and mountains, streams and waterfalls. It was a gorgeous drive.
So, the undersea tunnel did not collapse, and we didn’t get lost, but our rental car, a diesel, did develop a problem. As you can see from the last photo, we were traveling into extremely rural territory. An idiot light on our dash told he we needed to do some servicing on our diesel. Thank you Enterprise car rental.
Thankfully, we made it to our destination, the small fishing village of Stykkisholmur. The host of our hotel was a life-safer. She told us the village did have just one car repair place, and that its owner was more likely than not to be around.
Mr. Frumherji was able to quickly take care of our car’s problem, and we were ready within minutes. This is the inside of Mr. Frumherji’s garage. Note the tires: just about all of his tires have steel studs in them. These Icelanders are getting ready for winter, which is only days away.
I’m endlessly grateful to all of the Icelanders we’ve met on this journey. They are a generous, thoughtful and intelligent people, and treat us Americans with grace and warmth. But Enterprise car rental is going to get a piece of my mind.
We made it! This is the view of Stykkisholmur harbor from our little hotel for two nights.
Icelandic Odyssey – Day 4
Our last night in Selfoss ended at a fantastic eatery called Tryggvaskali, which resides in the oldest surviving house in Selfoss, built in 1890 on the banks of Olfusa River. All six of us dined on some classic Icelandic cuisine in our own room. I don’t want to horrify anyone, so I won’t describe what we ate.
Here Mary and I are enjoying the company of our friends.
Early on the morning of our fourth day we left Selfoss for Reykjavik. This shot is just down the hill from our AirBnB there where you can see some greenhouses. When we drove by at night, these were lit up.
Greenhouse agriculture has been a thing in Iceland for a century. The volcanic soil is good for growing peppers, cucumbers and, most especially, tomatoes. These greenhouses use geothermal heat and grow vegetables year-round.
We made it to Reykjavik!
The Sun Voyager sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason was erected here on the harbor in 1990 to commemorate the 200thanniversary of city of Reykjavik. However, depending on who you talk to, Reykjavik was either founded in 1785 or in 874.
A cellist sculpture, The Musician by Olof Palsdottir, outside the Harpa. The Harpa is a world-class concert hall, home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera. Construction started in 2007 but took 4 years to complete because of the Icelandic financial crisis. It’s built of steel and glass, and the multicolored glass is supposed to evoke look of volcanic basalt, which makes up much of this island.
We all had lunch in a nice restaurant near the Harpa. Here’s Pat and Mickey looking happy to be on an international vacation.
We wandered the town center of Reykjavik. It’s very Scandinavian, full of gorgeous restored old homes, many dating back into the 1800’s, and filled with all kinds of shops and restaurants. It’s lovely, but wear your coat and gloves. Reykjavik is cold city. In the summers (really just the two months of July and August) its average high temperature hovers around 55. In the long winters, though, it rarely dips below 5 Fahrenheit. The Atlantic Ocean mitigates the temperature extremes in this sub-polar climate, but those winters are still very long and dark.
A shot of one of the many alleyways in Reykjavik. This city is one of the cleanest and safest cities in the world. And like the rest of the country, it’s very green. Geothermal energy powers almost everything.
A shot of one of the town squares, with a pig sculpture displaying its junk.
The main avenue leading up to the Hallgrimshirkja church is painted in rainbow colors celebrating gay pride. Modern Icelanders are progressive and inclusive.
All of Reykjavik is bilingual, but sometimes the names of bars and eateries might not convey precisely what the owners had intended. Pictured: Robyn and Mickey.
See what I mean? Pictured: Kody and Patrick.
Night settles on Reykjavik harbor. This was the view from our AirBnB.
The next morning Patrick and I discovered tickets on our vehicles. We didn’t park quite correctly. Yes, the names of bars are bilingual, but the tickets we received weren’t. After we two geniuses tried to figure out the electronic parking kiosk, one of us had the brilliant idea to use Google translate to decipher our tickets. Turns out we parked facing the wrong direction. However, we saw many cars parked in our direction. We think maybe these tickets are a kind of tourist tax. Anyhow, tickets can be paid at any local bank.
Icelandic Odyssey – Day 3
Our third morning in Iceland greeted us with ice. Snow had fallen over night on the Selfoss region. The forecast predicted that temperatures would climb just a few degrees above freezing, and so we headed out.
Below is the view outside behind our AirBnb near Selfoss.
Today we scheduled a drive around Iceland’s so-called Golden Circle which would include visits to several natural wonders. Our first stop was Strokkur Geyser. Like ‘Old Faithful’ at Yellowstone in the United States, this geyser blows in predictable intervals of every 6 to 10 minutes. Not as big or spectacular as Old Faithful, but Icelanders aren’t show-offs.
Strokkur Geyser blows in a region called the Haukadalur Valley. This valley is riddled with mud pools and fumaroles, which is the geologic term for a hole in the Earth’s crust that emits steam and or gas.
Visiting this region is illustrative of how Iceland works as a modern nation. Iceland sits on the rift between two continental plates, which is why this island has so many volcanoes. Hell, it’s how Iceland was created and is, in essence, still being created. This island I,s geologically speaking, a young island.
Anyhow, modern Iceland uses geothermal power to heat and provide hot water to 87% of its buildings. Geothermal energy powers 26% of its electricity. Hydroelectric power creates most of the rest of it. This is in part why Iceland can remain so environmental. Except, of course, for that stink of sulfur when you’re standing next to a mud pool.
Below, a boiling mud pool that would scald the skin right off your hide.
We drove to the mighty Gullfoss Falls. These falls are on the Hvita River, and dump a tremendous amount of water down a two-stage waterfall of 36 feet and 69 feet, to empty into a gorge that runs for 1.5 miles. This photo doesn’t do it justice. The spray, the roar and the winds numb the senses. Snow was still falling and the wind was harsh off the plateau. It physically hurt to stand alongside this natural wonder and even take a picture because my hands were shaking.
These falls used to be privately owned. The history is long and complicated, but to suffice to say the land around these falls was eventually deeded to the State of Iceland and protected, never to be used to generate hydroelectric power.
Mary, Mickey and Patrick at Gullfoss Falls, enjoying the burning winds and snow.
Our next destination was the expansive Thingveller National Park, a World UNESCO Site. The Golden Circle Road runs for miles and miles through rugged natural wilderness. And yet, Icelanders see fit to provide rest areas with clean toilets and doughnut stands. So civilized.
All joking aside, this place was civilized. The name ‘Thingveller’ (an anglicized spelling of the Icelandic that I don’t have the letters for) is named for the Icelandic ‘Allthing’, the first form of parliamentary functioning. The Allthing stretches all the way back to the year 874, where tribal chiefs convened to negotiate and work out their differences.
Pictured below: the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is actually visible.
What is the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge’ you ask? It’s where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. They butt against one another, creating the world’s longest mountain range down the center of the Atlantic Ocean, almost all on the sea bottom. Only in Iceland can we see it on land, and walk along it. These immense geologic pressures have been pushing, rubbing, shoving on one another for millions of years. And it’s the central source of Iceland’s volcanoes, and thus its geothermal activity.
Perpendicular to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the middle of Thingveller National Park runs the Oxara River. It pours over the ridge and into Ridge gorge at Oxarafoss Falls.
Mary and Yours Truly at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
You’ll notice the lovely walkway we’re kissing on. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that tourism began to take off in Iceland. Two decades later the country has made a serious investment in tourism; walkways, parking, well-paved roads, marketing, staffing, international cuisine, hotels, foot-traffic access, every sign bilingual in Icelandic and English and, most importantly, roadside cafes in the most rural areas serving doughnuts.
Here’s the whole gang in a selfie at Oxarafoss Falls. L-R: Yours Truly, Mary, Patrick, Mickey, Robyn and Kody. This is the first time Mary and I have really gotten to know Robyn and Kody, and they make excellent traveling companions. All in all, I’m very lucky to be counted among this friendly, thoughtful and generous group of travelers.
A short walk down from Oxarafoss Falls, we come to ‘The Drowning Pool.’ The history of note here isn’t geologic, it’s human and it’s tragic.
The Oxara River pools up here before tumbling down another set of falls into the rift valley below. And it’s here that Icelandic men between 1618 and 1749 drowned 18 women. Why just that curious stretch of time? Because Christianity swept through the island in the 16th century, replacing the old ways with a sick new kind of morality. Records report these women were drowned for the crimes of adultery and incest. The records are sketchy and so we don’t even know their identities. Men were executed here too, but they died by beheading, hanging or, if practicing witchcraft, burning.
A view of the Thingveller wilderness with the mountains in the background.
Thingvallavatn Lake, the second largest lake in Iceland. The ancient Icelandic Allthing would convene on these shores. You can fish Artic charr from these waters, and find it prepared at local restaurants.
Kerid Crater was our last stop on the Golden Circle drive. No, it’s not a crater from a meteor impact, it’s the caldera from an ancient volcano that sealed up and filled with water. This volcano erupted about 3000 years ago.
A final view of Thingveller park. And yes, you see pine trees in this shot. Iceland has been going about the business of planting grasses and trees to prevent the further erosion of soil and to help combat climate change. Especially in the area of Selfoss, we saw lots of patches of pine forest. This is long, ongoing process.
Three organizations are collaborating on this project: The Icelandic Forest Service, Reforest Action and Woods Up. In 2021, they planted about 20,000 trees.
Icelandic Odyssey – Day 2
Our second day of exploring the south shore of Iceland took us past a lot of rural Icelandic homes. These seem to come in two varieties. The newer ones are mostly cracker-box style with white walls and steep red roofs. But we also passed a lot of older buildings, like these two. The common feature is that many of these rural dwellings sit nestled in groupings of trees. As I mentioned before, centuries ago the Vikings deforested the island, and so trees will grow here. The country of Iceland does have a reforestation program (as we would see the next day), but on an individual basis, many owners plant their own, typically around their dwellings.
We drove into the interior at the Katla Geopark for a look at a glacier-fed waterfall. We ran into rough roads and…snow. It’s hard to see it here, but the snow was driving and wet. Pictured below, L-R: Kody, Mary, Mickey, Robyn and Pat.
The road in and out of Katla took us through some farmland. In places the pastureland wasn’t fenced, and we had to do some gentle negotiating with the local residents in order to pass.
The road to the waterfall was rough, and you only want to do this with a four-wheeler vehicle, and you want drive slow. Lots of potholes, uneven grades, hairpin turns and precipices with no guardrails.
Here’s part of the waterfall in Katla Geopark, which we didn’t follow up into the mountains, as we ran into snow, freezing rain and wind. At the start of this trailhead we found a small campground with miniature camp houses and pit toilets. The toilets were closed for the season because nobody with any sense would be out here.
We returned to civilization and drove through the rural town of Vik. This pretty much is what a small Icelandic town looks like.
The gang ventured out onto the beach right near the town of Vik called Reynisdrangar. In the distance, over Mary’s head, you can see the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, which are remnants of ancient sea cliffs.
We drove around the mountain of Reynisdrangar to see the basalt sea stacks from the western side. Here we found a lot of tourists, a cliffside restaurant (not pictured) and a brutally strong gale. The weather reports warned of strong winds moving into Iceland from the southeast Atlantic, so we were on a mission to move westward. We didn’t move fast enough.
The fascinating rock formations on the cliffs at Reynisdrangar Beach.
The winds at Reynisdrangar Beach were ferocious.
Just a bit farther west of Vik we drove up to the top of a promontory overlooking the ocean to visit the Dyrholaey Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is nothing extraordinary, but its location is. Here’s Patrick and I standing on what we thought was the lee side of the lighthouse, in a gale that threatened to blow us off the cliff.
The southern Icelandic coast as it appears from the Dyrholaey Lighthouse. Things to note: black sand beaches because this entire island is the product of volcanos. The land is not barren, but grass-covered. Centuries ago it was forested. Freshwater lakes and rivers crisscross the land, all fed by the immense glaciers from the highlands in the interior.
The cliffs below Dyrholaey Lighthouse.
After the lighthouse, we headed west as fast as possible to escape the gale-force winds. A rainbow heralded our retreat. The SUV ahead of us is carrying Pat, Mickey, Robyn and Kody, and it appears they are about to drive right into the rainbow.
Our last stop of the day before heading to our next lodging was Skogafoss Waterfall. Two hundred feet high, fed by glaciers from the highlands above. This waterfall is popular in movies. It appears in one of the Marvel Thor movies, and in Game of Thrones, where Jon Snow and the murderous Daenerys Targaryen kiss in front of it.
Here I am with my sweetheart in front of the movie-famous Skogafoss Falls. Photo courtesy of our friend Mickey (actually, the best photos in this whole trip I always steal from Mickey).
We made it to our AirBnB near Selfoss. A view from one of the windows. The house is set in a rural residential area that has—surprise—trees. It’s a great place with hot water heat, a gourmet kitchen and broadband internet faster than anything I’ve experienced in the US. As I wrote previously, when you consider all these things—including doughnuts served at waterfalls, high vaccination rates and bilingual children—this is a marvelously forward-thinking country.
More adventures tomorrow.
Icelandic Odyssey – Day 1
A mere four days after returning home from our driving trip through the western states, Mary and I were lucky enough to find ourselves halfway around the world on the edge of a volcano on a remote island in the North Atlantic. But wait–I’m getting ahead of myself.
We planned an Icelandic adventure with our friends Pat and Mickey. Mary and I rendezvoused with them and Mickey’s sister Robyn and her husband Kody in JFK airport on the East Coast. Here are spending our layover between flights drinking dry the Delta Lounge.
Back to that volcano. After landing in Reykjavik (actually Keflafvik International Airport) we got our rentals and headed to Fagradalsfiall Volcano to walk off our trans-Atlantic flight. In keeping with typical October Icelandic weather, it was cold and rainy. As you can see, Mickey and Pat were ready to go!
Robyn and Kody were also dressed appropriately for a nice Icelandic jaunt.
A lava field from Fagradalsfiall. This volcano had been quiescent for about 800 years until it erupted in March of this year. We are about 25 miles south of the capitol, Reykjavik. Look closely, and you can see the sulfur steam rising from the lava field.
Below, my sweetheart Mary and Yours Truly standing on an Icelandic lava field. Yes, the lava has cooled and hardened enough that you can walk on it. But it’s still venting steam through cracks all over the place.
There are over 100 active volcanoes in Iceland, and the people here are pretty matter of fact about it. Iceland is geologically active. Ample geothermal heat provides inexpensive heating for the entire island.
Next we headed East along the southern highway to see some of the sights. We stopped for lunch at a small café. You’ll notice no one is masked. All visitors to Iceland must go through rigorous Covid screening: proof of vaccination and a recent negative test. Iceland has one of the highest vaccination rates of any country in the world. There is no idiotic politicized bullshit here about masks. The populace here believes in science.
This café was typical of so many small places here. The owner was a hard-working and gregarious host–a school teacher who also ran the café with her husband the baker. Next to us sat a gaggle of schoolgirls (kids had school off today), and we noticed the girls were chatting in a mix of Icelandic and English. Turns out every Icelandic school kid grows up bilingual in both languages.
The view outside of Café Sol in Thorlakshofn. This island is a world of big skies and wide stretches of landscape.
We caravanned in two cars. Here Mary and I are following the rest of the gang heading East along the southern highway. This lower plain lies between the high plateau of the central part of the island and the North Atlantic.
Kody, with our party, is an arborist, and explained to us that large portions of Iceland used to be forested in pine. But the Vikings stripped the island almost bare, not unlike what happened to Easter Island. Now the land is used to grow hay and cultivate livestock, mainly sheep and cattle. Iceland is famous for its lamb cuisine, rivaling New Zealand.
Nowadays you can see small patches of trees coming back but it’s nothing near what was lost hundreds upon hundreds of years ago. It seems humans haven’t changed much.
Seljalandsfoss waterfall in southern Iceland. This waterfall is almost 200 feet tall and has a path where you can walk behind the waterfall. Once behind it, I quoted Daniel Day-Lewis from Last of the Mohicans.
Mary and I hamming it up in front of the falls. We’re in Iceland!
A view from behind Seljalandsfoss Falls.
You don’t venture behind Seljalandsfoss Falls without the appropriate wet gear. It was cold and moist.
Here I’d like to pause to highlight how frightfully civilized the Icelandic people are. Next to many of their natural attractions they set up tiny cafes and bistros. Here I am at the foot of Seljalandsfoss enjoying a doughnut.
After the falls we headed further East in search of our hotel. Here’s a distant view of the Westman Islands off the southern cost of Iceland. We had wanted to visit that amazing place, but ferrying out there and back would’ve taken at least a day, and we just don’t have the time on this trip. Mount Eldfell on the Westman Islands erupted in 1973 and destroyed half of the major town on the islands, threatening to obliterate its harbor—the only real access to the place. The resourceful Icelanders used sea water to cool the lava to stop the flow and save the harbor.
One of the many rivers we crossed on our drive. Iceland has hundreds of rivers, all fed by the gigantic glaciers that cap the island’s high center.
Patrick booked our first night’s stay at the remote Umi Hotel in Eyvindarholar. We had views of the mountains in one direction, a view of the Atlantic in the other. They have an onsite gourmet restaurant, where members of our party enjoyed local seafood and lamb.
We all then collapsed into exhausted sleep, looking forward to our next day of adventures.
Western Wanderings – The Final Days (Oct 2021)
The 24th day of our long circuit through the western states took us from Santa Fe into the wild, mountainous terrain of Los Alamos, New Mexico. We drove to Los Alamos in search of the Manhattan Project.
For those of you who might not know, the Manhattan Project was the secret WWII program to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. It was a gargantuan undertaking–from mining and distilling uranium and plutonium to essentially inventing new technology. All in secrecy. It started in an office in Manhattan (thus its name), but stretched from Chicago to Washington State to the remote corners of New Mexico.
Here in Los Alamos New Mexico, nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led dozens of scientists and thousands of workers to design and construct the first atomic bombs. Below: Yours Truly standing in front of the Main Gate of the secret lab that was set up by the US Military.
When Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves chose Los Alamos, the US Military evicted everyone living in the area, including the Los Alamos Ranch School, which for years raised the boys of wealthy eastern parents. A lot of famous alums came from this school, including the author Gore Vidal.
The US was in a race against the Nazis, so FDR authorized the military to evict tens of thousands of people from all kinds of places across the country, not just Los Alamos. It was brutal. But FDR considered this an existential threat.
The main lodge of the Ranch School. Once used to serve dinners to boys, used in the early 1940s to welcome in demolition experts, electricians, metallurgists, nuclear physicists, and experts in the burgeoning field of radioactivity. More than one scientist died in Los Alamos from accidental exposure.
Today Los Alamos is a small but modern artsy community. It has two amazing museums dedicated to telling the story of the Manhattan project. It doesn’t flinch from the truth. Included in the museum is this reconstruction of ancient pueblo ruins. The museum acknowledges how many thousands of Americans were displaced because of the project, as well as the moral ambiguity of the US dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.
The cottage where J. Robert Oppenheimer lived from 1942 to 1946. Oppenheimer was a genius, a great man. In agreeing to help the military create the bomb, he knew it was because of the Nazi and Japanese threat. Yet, after the first text explosion at the Trinity site was successful, he had grave misgivings. After WWII ended and the US entered the Cold War, Oppenheimer refused to have any part in the development of the even more powerful thermonuclear devices–the so called H-Bombs. Many considered him unpatriotic. He was simply humane.
A glimpse of the Los Alamos National Lab as it looks today, where the H-bombs and many diabolical thermonuclear devices where researched and developed. This created our stockpile that had the ability to annihilate all life on earth a hundred times over. Charming.
Mary and I left Los Alamos to drive back to Santa Fe. This shot from the car gives you a good idea of how rough the terrain is around Los Alamos. It was easy for the military to keep this place secure and secure back in the 1940s.
Next Mary and I toured old town Santa Fe, which is built around a square. Santa Fe is the oldest state capitol in the country, founded in 1610.
Old town Santa Fe is gorgeous. Many of the alleyways have been turned into lovely alcoves for dining. This is where we had lunch.
An open market on the Santa Fe square where Native Americans artisans sell their creations.
Next Mary and I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. O’Keeffe lived from 1887 to 1986, and is considered the premiere modernist painter in the United States. In 1929 she first visited New Mexico and fell in love with the land.
In the museum, I was surprised to learn that photography is allowed in many of the galleries. I’m not keen on the notion of photographing paintings in museums, but I took this one selfie as proof that I was there! Pictured: Part of O’Keeffe’s ‘Autumn Leaf II’, painted in 1927. I thought it nicely complimented my Covid mask.
A workshop where the museum is restoring one of O’Keeffe’s paintings. The storage room that O’Keeffe placed this painting in developed a leak in its roof. Now experts are painstakingly restoring it. Her paintings have sold for up to 44 millions dollars a piece. She is a giant of world art, and one of my favorites. Mary and I were both delighted that we were able to visit this museum.
The next morning, Friday, Mary and I began our long, long journey back home. We stopped for breakfast in Taos, NM. Yes, O’Keeffe once lived in this artsy town. Today Julia Roberts lives here. I was hoping to catch sight sight of her buying an apple fritter at Michael’s Kitchen, but no such luck.
Leaving New Mexico, the aspens were turning gold in the forests.
Our drive home was about 20 hours over the course of two days. Here’s a shot of one of the many small rural towns we drove through. I can’t remember if this was in Colorado or Kansas. We passed through a lot of run-down, impoverished communities. And yes, the quickest route home was on back roads, not interstates. You avoided traffic. And as long as we wore our masks at the truck stops, we hopefully avoided Covid. The vast majority of these places acted like there had never been a pandemic.
The mighty Mississippi in Dubuque! In 26 days Mary and I drove from the Mississippi to the Pacific and back. A couple hours after this shot we arrived home safe in Madison, WI.
Western Wanderings – Days 22 & 23 (Oct 2021)
On Tuesday morning we left the Flagstaff area and drove east through the high desert for New Mexico. And for most of the morning it rained in the high desert, often pretty hard. I think we are a bit past the summer rain season for this part of the country, so I’m not sure if this is normal or not. Here’s a shot at a rest area out somewhere between Flagstaff and NM border.
We finally made into Albuquerque, NM late in the day, with enough daylight left for Mary and I to hike through some of the petroglyphs left by the ancient Pueblo people who inhabited much of northern New Mexico long before the Spaniards showed up.
Like most indigenous American tribes, the ancient Pueblo people didn’t have a written language, just a spoken language. They handed down their histories and myths in the oral tradition. However, these petroglyphs are a type of writing. We don’t explicitly understand the meanings of all the petroglyphs–there are tens of thousands of them in the northern New Mexico region–but many of the shapes and images we do recognize.
Carbon dating has shown some of these petroglyphs to be upwards of 3000 years old. They’ve survived this long because the artist chiseled or scraped the images directly into the rock.
The next morning Mary and I visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. It is an organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating Pueblo culture. There are 19 distinct pueblos in the northern New Mexico area; these 19 pueblos comprise a sovereign government. Mary’s and my experiences in New Mexico, just after two days, make it plainly obvious that the state of New Mexico isn’t interesting in white-washing history. In this state it appears that indigenous Americans do have a voice.
Pictured: one of the many murals in their outdoor arena.
Mary and I toured the museum. It details the history of many Pueblo people, with a particular emphasis on women. As you can tell by the display I photographed below, the Cultural Center doesn’t flinch from the truth. But despite the tragedies of colonialism–from three different invading countries–the Pueblo people remain proud.
The Cultural Center is a museum, a library, a school, a market and a restaurant.
One of the many native American Pueblo poems on display in the museum. This is a philosophy all of us could adopt.
Mary and I stayed to enjoy a Pueblo ‘buffalo dance.’
Next Albuquerque stop: The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. Out back is a B29 Superfortress bomber, the same model that flew and dropped the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To the left of it stands a replica of the tower erected at the Trinity site in southern New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was tested.
A replica of ‘The Gadget.’ This thing was designed and built right here in New Mexico over 70 years ago. This is what the Manhattan Project was all about.
The first ever atomic bomb, exploded on 16 July 1945 at 5:29 am. It was a plutonium implosion fission bomb. ‘Implosion’ signifies that explosives fired in sequence–a sequence separated only by milliseconds–into a sphere around a plutonium core that crushed the core, causing it to go super critical.
Replicas of Little Boy, foreground and Fat Man behind it, the two bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two most deadliest weapons ever wielded. Touring this museum left Mary and me chilled.
After the charming joys of the Nuclear Museum, Mary and I took a sky tram up to the summit of Sandia Peak to get a glimpse of Albuquerque from 10,000 feet above sea level.
Views of Sandia Peak from the gondola. Somewhere below our feet, in a gorge, are the ruins of a plane that crashed into Sandia Peak years ago.
Albuquerque 3000 feet below us.
Western Wanderings – Day 21 of 26 (Oct 2021)
On our second day in Flagstaff, Dan and Jenna took us for a hike through Walnut Canyon to see some of the cliff dwelling pueblo-like structures left over from the ancient Sinagua culture.
This Canyon is over 600 feet deep, and over 80 pueblo-like remains fill the canyon. And we walked over 700 steps, courtesy of the Park District.
The Sinagua were large group of indigenous peoples who inhabited the area that is today northern Arizona around 600 AD to about 1450 AD. They were a hunter-gather and subsistence agriculture society, didn’t have a written language as far as we know, but left behind a lot of substantial buildings. Buildings constructed right into the face of cliffs.
The Sinagua lived in this particular valley from approximately 1100 AD to 1250 AD. After 1250 the Sinagua abandoned their cliff dwelling homes in this canyon near Flagstaff, and archeologists are uncertain as to exactly why. A change in climate or drought are possibilities. These ruins are over 700 years old.
In the shot below, you can see Mary standing on the trail at the far end of a line of cliff buildings.
Next, a glimpse into one of the interiors.
‘Sinagua’ is Spanish for ‘without’ water. We don’t know what these people might’ve called themselves.
A view of some of these homes from the opposite side of the canyon.
Some contemporary Hopi tribes believe they can trace their ancestry back to the Sinagua peoples, and there’s archeological evidence to back this up.
After Walnut Canyon we drove out east to hike Red Mountain. That hike took us into the remains of an old Volcanic cinder cone, which is just a fancy name for a type of extinct volcano.
In this shot you can see Mary and Jenna on the trail toward Red Mountain.
Red Mountain is one of many of cinder cone formed through volcanic action about 740,000 years ago.
Here the trail narrows into a slim egress between gigantic volcanic rocks. Park rangers built a stone wall and erected a ladder to let hikers through. You can see the ladder in the center of the photograph.
Mary and me on the trail to Red Mountain.
Once we all climbed the ladder, we passed through a very narrow passage lined by tall igneous rock formations.
Inside we found an idyllic little lush valley, what geologists called an ‘amphitheater.’ A small cupped valley surround by towering volcanic rocks.
This amphitheater’s tall rock formations allow Ponderosa pines and lots of forest shrubs and trees to thrive in what is otherwise an elevated semi-arid plain.
Dan took a shot of our intrepid crew of hikers.
Dan taking a selfie. L – R: John, Tania, Jenna, Yours Truly, Dan and Mary.
Early this morning we left Flagstaff. Here’s a shot of Mary and me with our Host, the Hostess with the Mostess, my Honorary Aunt Judy. We hope we can return to Flagstaff soon for a longer visit. But for now, it’s onward to our next destination.
Western Wanderings – Days 19 & 20 of 26 (Oct 2021)
Last Saturday morning, smoke from California wildfires all but blotted out the morning Sun, turning it into a blood-red disk. We left the Yosemite area after two great days, only to drive through the Sierra Nevada hills through a thick choking haze. As of last Saturday the KNP Complex fire had already burned over 50,000 acres with only 20% of it contained.
We soon were able to drive out of the worst of the smoke, and were never threatened. But it sent home the fact of how bad the situation has gotten. I don’t mean the KNP Complex fire specifically, I mean Climate Change in general. The number and intensities of these fires is only going to get worse. We are in for bad times in the coming years, and humans have only themselves to blame. Please support politicians and bills that address climate change. Please.
After driving through Fresno, Baskersfield and some other areas of California’s breadbasket region of orchards and farms, we began our long drive through the immense Mojave Desert.
The Mojave Desert is created by the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and extends through a vast area that includes a large swath of California, parts of Nevada and Arizona. With the exception of Las Vegas, most of the cities and towns in the Mojave are small and remote.
A shot from a rest area in the middle of the Mojave. It took us a good five hours to drive through the desert. You pay attention to the signs that say ‘No services for the next 35 miles’ and such. You make sure you have a full tank of gas, water and cold Coke Zeros.
We passed a lot of long, long trains traversing the desert. It looks barren, and for a human trying to cross without preparing, it’s deadly. But the Mojave does support many living things, most of them unpleasant to me: a variety of insects, small rodents, many varieties of reptiles and, yes, rattlesnakes. All kinds of small plants grow here that excel at a hardscrabble existence: brush, cacti, desert flowers.
The landscape varies. Here are a bunch of rocks along Interstate 40. The Mojave has supported some industries, namely mining and the military. We mine iron, tungsten, silver and gold. And there are a variety of military installations in the Mojave, Fort Irwin and Edwards Air Force Base to name two.
We stayed overnight on the Eastern edge of the Mojave in Arizona, and the next morning soon saw the landscape change. In the distance the San Francisco Mountains, which tower over Flagstaff, appeared on the horizon.
Flagstaff, Arizona, is gorgeous. It’s surrounded by the world’s largest Ponderosa Pine forest, at about 7000 feet above sea level.
Mary’s brother Dan took us on a stroll through the beautiful Northern Arizona University campus.
Next our hosts, Dan and Jenna, took us on a peddler through downtown Flagstaff. In this shot you can see Mary and my honorary Aunt Judy sitting in the so-called rumble seats at the rear, while the rest of us pedaled.
Our trip on the peddler included copious amounts of alcohol. Here I am with my brother-in-law Dan and his wife Jenna. Jenna and I decided that she and I are ‘siblings-in-law once removed.’
Did I mention that our two hour trip on the peddler involved stops at various pubs? So it was a ‘pub crawl,’ or ‘pub peddler.’ This pub was on the third floor of an historic Flagstaff building.
A shot of downtown Flagstaff. A gorgeous early Autumn day with some very excellent company.
Western Wanderings – Day 18 of 26 (Oct 2021)
Mary and I started our second day in Yosemite above Yosemite Valley. We took a 16 mile long circuitous route through the high Alpine forest to Glacier Point, over 3000 feet above the floor of the valley.
A view of the granite mountain ‘Half Dome.’ We stood at 7200 feet to get this shot.
Another view of Half Dome at Glacier Point. The area Mary and I drove to is only open June through October because of the snows, and so we’re at the tail end of the season here. In fact, there were a few valleys on our drive up here where the car thermometer showed us at about freezing. Snows are not far off.
This view of Glacier Point is from the grounds of some crazy history. In 1918 a gigantic 80 room hotel was built on this spot, The Glacier Point Hotel. They used surrounding timbers to construct it. The roads were not great back then (it took us 40 minutes today to drive from the main highway). This facility was the party place of the elite and sported a grand porch from which its guests could feast on the view while drinking and (I’m guessing) gambling. Then, in the winter of 1968-69, severe snows seriously damaged the hotel. For the following summer no guests were book while repairs ensued. Good thing, for in July 1969 an electrical fire started and the entire hotel burned to the ground.
The Park Service elected to take that as a sign. Nothing was rebuilt, and a lot of work went into restoring the grounds to their natural habitat.
Another view the guests would’ve enjoyed at the Glacier Point Hotel.
It was almost an hour’s drive for Mary and me to get back down into the Yosemite Valley. As we drove, he noticed a thick fog began to settle into the mountains. A fog that smelled like wood smoke. It wasn’t fog. Later confirmed by a Park Ranger I spoke with, this is wild fire haze from wildfires hundreds of miles south of here.
Tomorrow, our route into Arizona will have to avoid those fires.
Yesterday Mary and I searched around Yosemite Village (as it’s called) for the location of their ‘Indian Village.’ It’s not easy to find. Today we searched again and finally found it, almost by accident. Yes, behind this building, on a path that is NOT marked, you can find a small encampment of old reconstructed Native American Miwok relics.
A Miwok Native American bark house, which is not exactly particular to this valley. It was the Ahwahnechee people who lived in the Yosemite valley, who were a branch of the Miwok people. For this display the town set up, they couldn’t find any descendants of the Ahwahnechee people to help, and so everything we saw was Miwok.
Anyhow, each Ahwahnechee bark house required the bark from a couple of old growth cedars that had been dead for a couple of years. When the white settlers came in, they gobbled all the trees for lumbering. So in this and in so many other ways, the invasion of white settlers completely upended the way of life for these indigenous people.
A Miwok Ceremonial Roundhouse. We no longer know specifically what the Ahwahnechee roundhouses were like. Miwok Native Americans who live locally helped with the construction of this artifact, and they still use it today for ceremonies.
I find it interminably sad, hell, I find it horrid, that we no longer have any survivors from the people who actually lived in this valley for THOUSANDS of years. Just because they had only an oral tradition of record keeping doesn’t mean they weren’t a civilization. They are now virtually obliterated. How will we ever really know about the history of their demise at the hands of white invaders? Their Miwok brothers and sisters can tell us a lot of it, but we’ll never know all of it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but we really only have the records from the white man side of it.
A Miwok Acorn Granary. Acorns were a staple food item for the indigenous peoples in the Sierra Nevada, including peoples in the Yosemite Valley. They made acorn mush and acorn flour. Their methods were ingenious and natural.
Mary and I searched for a good hike, and Yosemite has dozens to offer, from easy to strenuous to insane, of varying lengths. Because of Covid the Park is not offering its shuttle service and so we had to walk to the trailhead for Mirror Lake along a virtually empty lane.
The Trail up to Mirror Lake follows a branch of the Merced River up into a narrow valley that’s canyoned on either side by towering cliffs. Boulders from rockfalls throughout the centuries litter the forest landscape of pines, cypress, redwood, sequoia and oak.
The scale of the boulders and trees is immense, as you can see by this photo with Mary on the trail.
We made it Mirror Lake! And…the lake is bone dry.
Mirror Lake. You can see by the markings on the boulder where the water levels reach during the Spring. It’s Autumn now and we’ve had years of drought here in California. And so by this time of year there’s virtually nothing left in this branch of the Merced River.
Another view of Mirror Lake, which is not truly a lake, but a backed up reservoir of water from the Merced River. In the lower center of the photo, just above the gaggle of tourists, you can see an earthen rock dam. In the 18 and early 1900’s locals used to farm blocks of ice out of this lake and use it to chill stored food for the local hotel.
The late afternoon sun cast lines through the smoke off of distant wildfires up in the mountains.
Our final view of Yosemite Valley as the smoke of wildfires thickened.
Western Wanderings – Day 17 of 26 (Final day of Sep 2021)
Yosemite Valley, the spectacular and idyllic valley that makes this National Park famous, is about 35 miles from the gate where the Park Ranger checked our reservations. Covid has encouraged the Park Service to require reservations to many of the more popular parks in order to control the number of tourists. Once through the gate Mary and I had to drive almost an hour through winding and twisting alpine forest before we got to this vista.
Proof that Mary and I were at Yosemite! Yosemite encompasses more than 1100 square miles in the Sierra Nevada range. It was the first real park ever created by the United States. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, preserving this place from development. Yosemite is a haven for thousands of plant species. But its history isn’t all cheery. More below.
New and old in one shot. The old are granite peaks that canyon Yosemite are granite mountains formed by molten rock eons ago and subsequently exposed by millions of years of erosion. The new is the charred stump of a tree felled by a recent forest fires. Wild fires not ignited by stupid humans at campsites often start as a result of lightning, and are a natural part of a forest’s cycle.
Some of the pine forests in the Yosemite Valley scarred by recent forest fires.
Mary and I from the other side of El Capitan. El Capitan draws gaggles of foolhardy daredevils every year, seeking to rock climb up its 3000 foot face. I don’t understand it. If I had the physical ability to attempt such a feat, and accomplished it, I’d be expecting accolades and sparkling wine at the summit. No such luck. A hike up or down from the summit takes 10 to 15 hours by forest trail. The only faster way off the summit is by helicopter or by leaping to your death.
El Capitan towering over the river bed of the Merced River. Down here on the plain it’s like paradise.
Paradise. Otherwise known as Yosemite.
We believe name ‘Yosemite’ comes from a Native American word for grizzly bear, but this isn’t for certain. What is for certain is that this whole magnificent valley is stolen property. Yeah, it’s really smart and forward thinking of Americans to preserve and protect this land. But the people who lived here previously weren’t ruining it. This place should really be called ‘Ahwahnechee Valley.’ More on that in a bit.
Amidst the hiking trails in the valley you run into these boulders the size of houses. How did these boulders get here, you ask? They rained from the sky in ‘rockfalls.’ The sheer granite cliffs that make up the Yosemite valley are constantly evolving. And that means hundreds of thousands of years of wind, summer, winter, rain, ice and seismic movement stress these granite monuments. Dozens of times of years, chunks of granite fissure off the canyon walls and plunge earthward.
Another granite boulder that fell from the sky. Back in the late 1960’s, one giant boulder cracked loose and went into freefall. When it landed, it partially destroyed a Park Service building, killed a hiker and injured two rangers. This is why there is now a law that campers may not camp near the cliff faces. If you’re going to be here for long periods of time, it’s best to settle near the center of the valley.
I previously mentioned paradise. The photo below gives an inkling of just how gorgeous and lush the central valley of Yosemite is. It’s all stolen land.
The Ahwahnechee people had lived in the Yosemite valley for likely 4000 to 7000 years before the first white men saw Yosemite Valley in the 1840’s during the California gold rush. It took only a few years, until the early 1850s, for white Americans to brutally drive these indigenous peoples from their homelands. History is written by the winners, and so it’s confusing trying to sort out the details of the fights and attacks over the course of less than ten years. But by the early 1850’s white settlers had taken over the whole valley.
Over a hundred years after being driven out, descendants of the Ahwahnechee tried to live in the valley, but in 1969 it was the US Park Service itself that drove the last ones out. The Park Service then burned their homes as practice for fire fighters.
This is what the indigenous people had stolen from them. In my opinion Yosemite Valley should be called Ahwahnechee Valley.
Below is a glimpse inside the Ahwahnee Hotel. This grand hotel sits on the floor of the Yosemite Valley where little else of permanence is built, constructed in 1927. It’s the epitome of cultural appropriation, where even the name it stole from the Ahwahnechee is bastardized. They sell items in their gift shop that are native American inspired, but among their books is not a single volume about how the white man forcibly evicted the indigenous peoples from this place. Instead there are books celebrating white male heroes like John Muir and Ansel Adams, who admittedly did great work, and that I have nothing against. The point is, only THEY are celebrated.
The greatest thing this hotel has going for it, as far as I’m concerned, is that it was used for some of the interior shots from Kubrick’s horror film The Shining.
A final shot of my beautiful sweetheart Mary and me beneath El Capitan. We’ll return again tomorrow for some hiking.
Despite my feelings about how this ‘Park’ came to be, I recommend everyone visit. It’s remote and not easy to get to. But make the attempt. When you do, look up the history of the place so that you have an inkling of what you’re walking through.
Western Wanderings – Day 16 of 26 (Sep 2021)
The Monterey Bay Aquarium. It opened in 1984 through the efforts of four marine biologists and Stanford University. This not-for-profit organization helped revitalize Monterey’s ‘Cannery Row’ district and has done innumerable good toward our understanding of marine biology. It is teaching untold numbers of young people about the sustainability of our oceans and the perils of pollution.
You might think this is some kind of giant sea bass but no, it’s just my reflection in the glass of the giant sea kelp aquarium.
A white spotted rose anemone. The aquariums throughout this facility are ingeniously designed so that you can see these living sea creatures as if you were actually there in their natural habitats. Amazing.
Ok, there are a bunch of jelly fish photos in this installment. Sorry. But one of the things the Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for is their study and display of jellyfish, and how they’ve managed to create thriving environments for them. The gallery of their jellyfishes is otherworldly, like journeying to a distant world. Just this one gallery is worth the price of admission.
Pictured below: Moon Jelly, or Aurelia sp.
Pictured below: Sea Nettle, or Chryasora fuscescens. These beauties are frightfully poisonous.
Pictured below: Another variant of Moon Jelly, or Aurelia labiata.
Pictured below: Purple-striped jelly, or Crysaora colorata. Also poisonous.
An autographed photo from Leonard Nimoy is on display at the Aquarium. As every Trekkie knows, in 1986 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home filmed some scenes here where Spock mind-melded with a whale in the aquarium. Nimoy’s inscription reads: ‘The planet thanks you.’
The Aquarium also features a whole gallery on the dangers of plastic pollution in the ocean and includes sculptures made of waste plastic taken from the ocean. These gorgeous recreations of jelly fish were created by Turkish artis Gulnur Ozdaglar.
Next Mary and I headed east across central California for the Sierras. On the way we passed the massive San Luis Reservoir on the edge of California’s central valley. This massive manmade lake includes the world’s fourth largest dam. The water levels are very low because of drought. In this photo taken from our car, the waters should reach almost to the brush along the roadway.
We drove along many Central Valley irrigated orchards and fields. They seemed to go on forever.
Finally we ascended into the Sierras, on our way to Yosemite.
Fire-ravaged alpine forest near the town of Fish Camp, where we’re staying. I believe this was from the 2017 ‘Railroad Fire’ that burned over 12,000 acres. New growth is starting to come back.
At our lodge after a long day. We’re ready for two days of exploring the wonders of Yosemite.
Western Wanderings – Day 15 of 26 (Sep 2021)
The name ‘Big Sur’ comes from the Spanish ‘el sur grande’ which means ‘the big south’. Today Big Sur refers to the coastal region of California between Monterey in the north and San Luis Obispo in the south, a stretch of about 70 miles of wild, undeveloped coastline. Mary and I spent a good part of our day at Pfeiffer Beach, an out-of-the way remote spot that epitomizes the Big Sur feel: rough rocks, big blue ocean and an insane surf.
Our view from our beach chairs as we sat and read for much of the morning. The surf pounded like thunder, and the wind was wild and everchanging. It was lovely.
Tourists just don’t read warning signs. Our walk down to Pfeiffer Beach was plastered with all manner of warnings about the unpredictability and power of the surf. Still, this tourist decided they’d crawl along the rock to take a peek through one of the many archways in the formation. Boom–a gigantic wave, without warning, crashed through. Fortunately this person hadn’t gotten too far, and was able to turn back.
The road down to Pfeiffer Beach is a 4 mile one-way path through rough cypress and redwood forest. Signs alert drivers that this road is only wide enough for one vehicle, and that you should slow down and pull off on occasional turn-offs so opposing cars can pass. However, as you can see from this shot, we are traveling at 5 mph. But this BMW, though it saw us from up the road, didn’t slow down and didn’t want to move over. This happened several times. I feel this epitomizes one of things wrong about this country. It’s all about ME and what I want. And I’ll be damned if I compromise what I WANT to cooperate with anyone else!
The Naval Facility Point Sur. This facility is a relic from the Cold War. The Navy built this site as one of its submarine surveillance system facilities. The DOJ told the public that this was for oceanic research. Nowadays, the Park Service runs this place, but it’s still not easy to visit. Limited tours are available ‘on weekends.’ I still think something sneaky is going on.
California Highway 1 runs the length of Big Sur and in total is a masterpiece of modern engineering. It winds and curves and swoops to follow the contour of the coast as much as possible. Along the drive there are plenty of opportunities to pull off the highway and view the ocean, as Mary and I did here for this wind-blown selfie. There are also many opportunities to simply drive off the road to your death, as there are plenty of precipices with no guard rails! And there’s no telling when suddenly the road beneath might vanish, as this highway requires constant upkeep from erosion, wind and landslides. Oh, and the occasional earthquake.
Here it is, the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. If you watched HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’, you’ll have seen Nicole Kidman driving over this bridge every day. The series makes you think this bridge is in Monterey, but it’s actually out in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 1932. In 1998, it was retrofitted in a big way to reinforce it against earthquakes. I tried to get a shot without any other tourists in it, but that would’ve required me kicking them off the cliffs, which Mary wouldn’t allow. Killjoy.
One of the golf courses at Pebble Beach (next to Monterey), where the 1% of the 1% spend their time. This particular hole is right on the beachhead. The wind is so incessant, I don’t know how you can get a ball in the air to fly straight. Ah, the problems of the wealthy.
Mary and I took the Pebble Beach so-called ’17-mile drive’ through the neighborhoods of the obscenely well-heeled. We didn’t know this was a semi-gated-community until we got here, we just thought it was a scenic coastal Big Sur drive. We fell for their trap, a way for them to show off their well-groomed courses while collecting a 12 buck entrance fee, money they obviously don’t need.
The surf at Pebble Beach. Most of Big Sur is just like this.
A final shot of the Big Sur region highlighting the cypress trees that grow along much of this coastline.
Western Wanderings – Days 13 & 14 of 26 (Sep 2021)
On our second day in San Francisco, Mary and I spent much of the morning trying to figure out the cable car system, but ultimately failed. After tromping up and down various streets (everything in SF is either up or down and never level) we finally took an Uber from our hotel in the Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. The famous Pier 39 is here, which is kind of an outdoor mall on the harbor featuring some excellent restaurants. We brunched and then headed to a boat landing for our trip to Alcatraz Island. San Francisco Harbor was chilly, windy but very sunny. Perfect day for a ferry ride!
On the way out to Alcatraz we could see a great profile of the Golden Gate Bridge, and what a huge expanse of water it spans. That span stretches 4200 feet and the water beneath it is over 370 feet deep. In this photo, past the bridge lies the Pacific Ocean.
Alcatraz Island. A Spanish explorer in 1775 was the first white man to see the island, and named it the ‘Island of the Gannets’ (or Pelicans) because of all its birds. The ancient Spanish word for gannets is alcatraces, from which we get the name Alcatraz. In the 1840’s a lighthouse was erected here, and that’s about the last time this island was used for anything not involving the military or incarceration.
It’s perfect for incarceration. The currents around the island are vicious, and the temperature of the bay’s waters never exceeds 60 degrees because of a strange water phenomena called upwelling. So the Bay is always colder than the ocean. Prisoners who might attempt swimming from the island to shore would succumb to the cold and exhaustion long before reaching shore.
In 1969, long after Alcatraz was no longer an active prison, Native Americans ‘captured’ the island and occupied it for 19 months in protest, to bring attention to the plight of indigenous peoples across the United States. After it was all over, the National Park Service elected to keep some of the signs from that occupation, including this amended welcome sign and protest signs scrawled across the island’s water tower.
Mary and I briefly visited the barracks, which reside on a lower part of the island. These barracks look like hell now, but they were ‘nicer’ than the cell block. This housed all the support staff and their families necessary to run and maintain a penitentiary.
Alcatraz was a military prison first, going back to the Civil War. In 1934 it became a Federal Prison, and remained as such until Attorney General Robert Kennedy shut it down 29 years later in 1963.
Remains of the Warden’s House, which Native American protesters burnt down in 1970. Four wardens lived here during the island’s 29 years as a federal prison. The house was reputedly lavishly appointed and the wardens would often host posh cocktails parties here–just feet away from where murderers and thieves were rotting away.
The showers. There was just one big shower so the guards could patrol it. If you were in solitary confinement, you got to shower only once a week.
The typical Alcatraz prison cell.
The history of Alcatraz as a prison is filled with failed escape attempts. However there is one that was possibly successful.
This cell in this photo is not so typical. Look closely beneath the sink and you can see where the prisoner dug out an escape tunnel. In the left foreground of the photo is the fake head left in the bed to fool the guards.
Yes, these are the remains of an ACTUAL escape from Alcatraz. This escape occurred in 1962. Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers dug holes through concrete with spoons and left papier-mache dummies in their beds. They used inflated raincoats as flotation devices. Once they left the island, they were never found. Did they escape or drown?
Clint Eastwood starred in a movie about this escape in Escape from Alcatraz.
Where I probably belong.
The cafeteria. Back in the day, there was no such thing as plastic silverware. And so the prisoners ate with actual stainless steel forks, spoons and knives. The guards should’ve watched the spoons more carefully; Morris and the Anglin brothers used stolen cafeteria spoons to dig through reinforced concrete.
A shot of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline from Alcatraz.
A shot of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz. The winds on this side of the island are ferocious. The strait that the Golden Gate spans opens into the Pacific, and years and years of the wind and weather took their toll on the worn down buildings of Alcatraz.
Mary managed to get a panoramic shot of the skyline from Oakland Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate. No, that’s not the ghost of an escaped prisoner on the far left, that’s Yours Truly.
That night Mary and I rendezvoused with an old friend, Tilia Bell, who lives in Berkeley. She hails from Chicago, but for years has lived in the Bay Area. A great time was had by all.
The next morning Mary and I headed south on the next leg of our journey, following the Pacific coastline. Here we are strolling along Half Moon Bay beach. Up north we left foggy and rainy weather behind, which you can see in the background.
After driving through several coastal towns, we’re staying for two nights in Monterey. At dinner we enjoyed some interesting clouds across the bay over the next town north of us.
For the first time on this western trip we’re not staying at a hotel, but at a Bed & Breakfast. Mary chose the ‘Jabberwocky’, a manse on a hill that is decorated with an Alice in Wonderland theme. The place features a lot of Craftsman style woodwork, is as cluttered as Dickensian mansion and is decorated throughout with the above described Lewis Carroll twist.
There are 14 guests listed on the board, and I remarked to Mary that “This is the perfect house for an Agatha Christie murder. If one person is murdered, then there’s 13.” Mary scoffed at me.
But later on, I had to go back out to our car in the dark. On my return, I bumped into the old groundskeeper, Rupert, who for some reason was working at night. He told me that the Jabberwocky’s original owners lost their little daughter to a carnivorous Carousal horse from the local carnival 75 years ago. And that she haunts this place. I scoffed.
But then, going back inside, lo and behold, beneath the veranda, lit up, I saw a Carousal house–with fangs.
Western Wanderings – Day 12 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Mary and I drove from the Napa region into San Francisco over the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, which is a weird mismatch of two bridges connecting Oakland with SF. An older design carries traffic one way, and this very cool modern suspension design carries traffic the other way. The two designs came as a result of Earthquake damage from 1989 that I prefer not to think about. This wild modern suspension section of the bridge is the ‘widest’ suspension bridge in the world.
A view of the San Francisco skyline from our hotel window. We are only here for a day and a half, and so it’s impossible to even scratch the surface of this area. Assuming I live long enough, I want to come back and spend more time here. I love the progressive politics and the eclectic culture of this place, and the impact it’s had on the society I grew up in. Anyhow, Mary and I just dove in to experience however much we could.
First stop: a trip to the Haight-Ashbury district. This was one of the early hotspots in the 1960s for the hippie counterculture movement. They impacted pop culture in a big way, which impacted me in a big way. As this street mural just off of Haight Street commemorates, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix all spent time in this neighborhood.
Here it is, the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Hunter S. Thompson (who also spent time here), called it ‘Hashbury.’ Today Mary and I didn’t get hash, we just got Ben and Jerry’s.
The Red House! Jimi Hendrix lived here for a while. This is about as close as I’ll ever get to the legend.
Next Mary and I took a bus back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 1937, this iconic bridge has a long and storied history. As we got closer (we were idiotically riding in an open air bus) we got to see just how beautiful it is. There’s an Art Deco design to the bridge that, combined with its ingenious engineering, makes it one of the wonders of the world. It’s designed to withstand sustained winds of 68 mph (and has closed 4 times in the past when winds have exceeded that), and has gone through innumerable types of refitting through the decades to strengthen it against wind, salt and, yes, earthquakes. On a more morbid note, the Golden Gate is the most popular place in the world for suicides (jumping from the bridge into the frigid bay waters 245 feet below). After more than 1500 suicides, the city has erected barriers in an attempt to stop them.
Mary and I crossing the bridge in the high, cold winds.
Down near Fisherman’s Wharf, we watched a couple of very talented street performers.
I just had to share this. One of the roads leading into Golden Gate Park was renamed to honor Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I’m sharing this shot not to be overly partisan, but to tell you I really respect this woman. If you have health insurance through the exchange, it’s because of her. She’s our nation’s first woman Speaker, and has passed legislation for equal pay, environmental protection and was about the only politician who was able to fearlessly go toe-to-toe with our former President. Mary pointed out this street as we drove by, and I was delighted to see it.
We’ve eaten at a few places in town, and everywhere restaurants REQUIRE proof of Covid vaccination if you want to dine inside. This is reason enough to move to San Francisco. The majority of people here want this pandemic to end, and believe that good citizens make sacrifices for the good of the whole.
It’s true, San Francisco is the city of steep hills. They are everywhere, and photos just can’t do justice to how steep these are. This gives a nice idea, and also conveys just how colorful everything is. Really lovely.
Nightscape of San Francisco from our hotel. Mary and I will have a few more adventures tomorrow. Number one: Visit Star Fleet Headquarters, which every Trekkie knows is in San Francisco.
Western Wanderings – Days 10 & 11 of 26 (Sep 2021)
On Thursday morning Mary and I made one last hike on the northern coast before heading inland. Here’s Mary on Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Yes, I know you can’t really see a beach. There are sections of it here and there nestled between gigantic rock formations.
The surf was wild and pounding that morning and the fog thick. For a while it seemed a rainbow would materialize but it just never quite made it. You can see the ghost of the rainbow in this shot.
We came to Glass Beach so we could see these fabled glass beads–which you can only look at but not take away. Here are a few Mary is holding in her hand so you can see them. These tiny glass beads are not a natural phenomenon. Back in 1906 we clever humans started dumping waste and all manner of garbage into the ocean here. First ‘Site 1’ and then ‘Site 2’. It wasn’t until 1967 that this practice was halted. Years of clean up ensued. But we couldn’t get it all. Remnants of glass and pottery remained, which the pounding sea for years and years has rendered into these beads.
Another view of the rough surf and fog. There were warnings that if you go down to sections of the beach between the rocks, to not turn your back on the ocean.
We found a myriad collection of tide pools among the rocks. Teeming with life. There’s now evidence to suggest that our own human origins come from tidepools. Some scientists now believe that about 400 million years ago, tide pools with longer tidal cycles helped start the evolutionary process toward the development of land-walking creatures.
Bull kelp washed up on Glass Beach. Like something out of an Aliens movie.
I crept down between some rocks to a section of beach to get this shot. You know, one of those places where tourists are warned not to never turn their back on the ocean.
My sweetheart and me at Glass Beach.
As I left Glass Beach I encountered this monster Raven. Some of you may know I’ve written a book about Edgar A. Poe, and I believe this Raven was here to remind me to get back to writing.
Next we headed south and east toward Napa Valley. Our route took us through some more Redwood forests, and so I had just had to share one more shot.
Sonoma County, heading into the Napa Region. I’m told by locals that this parched look is actually not that far from normal, despite several years of drought. One native told me that this is the real meaning behind the moniker ‘The Golden State.’ Not the Gold Rush that brought white settlers out here, but how all the grasses turn brown–er, I mean gold–in late summer.
Napa Valley has upwards of 375 wineries or more. Many of them are fucking gigantic. If you visit Napa, it takes just a half hour of research on the internet to help you avoid the more commercial ones. At least that’s what I advise. We saw tours bringing BUSLOADS of wine guzzlers to visit some of these big places. Napa Valley is like the Disney World for lushes. But with a little effort you can find dozens of smaller wineries.
The town square in Healdsburg, CA. A lovely little town where we had our first wine tasting. The downtown district has coffeeshops, a fantastic bookstore, bakeries and it’s plainly evident they are proud of their progressive stances on all kinds of issues. Mary and I loved it and might just come back for a longer stay.
Our first wine tasting was in an urban setting in Healdsburg. It was hot yesterday, but in the shade it was quite pleasant.
Our second wine tasting was out in the hilly remote part of Napa Valley, in Calistoga, CA. Lola Wines turned out to be our favorite place. We tasted wines in a lovely little garden behind an old house. Napa Valley has a long tradition of being great for Cabernet Sauvignon, but some of these smaller up and coming wineries have really expanded winemaking into many other varieties of grapes, some of which I never even heard of until yesterday.
So again, if you come here, do your research and seek out the smaller wineries.
Our third wine tasting was out in the rural hills of Napa in a gorgeous setting. The host did point out to us that just behind us on a ridge some burnt trees marked where just a couple years ago this whole area almost went up in flames. They are currently under threat of another wildfire because things are so dry.
Always bring a designate driver with you on wine tastings.
A shot of the Napa Valley countryside.
Even with the drought and the obviously stressed trees, the drives through Napa Valley are beautiful.
Western Wanderings – Day 9 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Early yesterday morning in southern Oregon we learned about the coastal fog everyone talks about.
Across the border into California we headed for Agate Beach at Patrick’s Point State Park. This was our first glimpse of the California redwoods, but we could barely see them for the Pacific fog had thickened as we traveled south.
Agate Beach and the Pacific surf, shrouded in fog.
Agate rocks, a Dungeness crab shell and sea shells.
After our foggy beachcombing hike, we drove in search of redwoods. On the way we finally encountered some of the wild elk the signs warned us about. These elk were bounding back and forth across the highway.
We decided we’d do our California Redwood touring in Humboldt State Park along a scenic roadway called ‘Avenue of the Giants.’ The redwoods line the roadway and tower up like palatial columns.
We took a trail into an old growth forest of California Redwoods. The trees here have escaped logging, and some of the giants we saw are likely over a 1000 years old.
Mary and I in front of an old California Redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens. This genus of cypress evergreen is the tallest growing tree in the world, and are the oldest. They can reach heights over 300 feet, possibly 400, and can reach an age of 2000 years.
Redwood forests are particular environments. The redwoods thrive on a wet and moderately temperate environment. The ground becomes acidic, and so only select types of vegetation thrive on the forest floor (namely ferns), a forest canopied hundreds of feet above not allowing in much sunlight. When the old trees die and fall, they become the nutrients for new life.
Mary standing at the base of an old giant. The scale of these ancient trees is hard to grasp. And they’re also ancient as a species; redwoods existed in the time of dinosaurs.
Mary at the base of another giant. This tree is likely over a thousand years old. The forest was eerily quiet, with only the sound of woodpeckers and the occasional creak of a giant redwood swaying in the winds high above. And the place smelled wonderful, a sweet coniferous scent of redwood everywhere.
These trees endure a lot. They are resistant to disease and all kinds of pestilence. This tree, hollowed out by some past calamity, was still alive, towering hundreds of feet above this photo with living green branches.
A look at the tiny needles of the California redwood.
A ridiculous selfie that nevertheless gives you an idea of how tall these trees are.
These old growth forests are my cathedrals.
Our day ended with a drive along California Route 1. Mary and I do NOT recommend this route. It is an insane, winding, hilly roadway that belongs in a James Bond car chase. This photo out the front windshield doesn’t do justice to the hairpin turns and the precipices (with no guardrails) that we had to drive along for almost two hours. We eventually made it alive to our hotel in Fort Bragg, but just barely.
Western Wanderings – Day 8 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Yesterday we covered a lot of miles, and as the day went on I realized more and more that I had terribly underestimated the Oregon coast and had woefully under-scheduled our time in Oregon. I gave us barely more than a day, we need a week.
For various reasons of history, culture and politics, the state of Oregon has managed to preserve and protect most of its Pacific Coast. Much it today remains as the white explorers found it: wild, rough, dangerous and wonderfully gorgeous. First Nations people lived in these coastal areas for centuries without spoiling it. The European settlers? Well, my ancestors managed to destroy almost everything they met, whether nature or other people. But this long stretch of coast we’ve managed to some extent to save.
Mary and I are already talking about coming back here and spending a good week exploring. Hell, if our country doesn’t go to hell in the next few years, I’d consider moving here. Anyhow, enough blathering. Now some photos from our rushed road trip.
Mary and me at Ecola State Park (the previous photo is also from Ecola). The promontory we’re standing on was once the remote location of a home for a wealthy family. Years ago they donated their parcel to the state so it could be preserved as parkland.
Oswald State Park has preserved some old growth temperate rain forest that runs along a stream, as well as a beach in a cove. The forest runs right into the ocean.
On the beach we encountered a lot of surfers. This far north on the Oregon coast, most of the surfers wore body suits (I don’t understand surfing, and find the ocean gorgeous but terrifying). So the surfers up here aren’t like the ones you see in old surfer dude movies or in Hawaii. They come dressed for the weather. In this shot you can also see the ocean mist hanging over the beach.
Several streams running through the forest sent their freshwater runoff right across the sands of Oswald Beach.
Mary and I stopped in Tillamook for lunch. Here she is enjoying her gourmet French cuisine. Servers and customers alike were fairly good about observing Covid precautions.
We toured the gigantic Tillamook creamery. They have a timeline of their history, which completely whitewashes history. Note 1851 in this photo, when ‘the first settlers arriving in Tillamook Valley…” Nowhere could I find any reference to the Native Americans who had been living here for centuries. Even more galling, nowhere could I find any mention about the origin of their company name: Tillamook is the name of the indigenous peoples who lived on the coast of what is now Oregon. When the white settlers showed up, there were an estimated 2200 people in the Tillamook tribe. Now there are about 50.
The ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ at Otter Rock.
The gorgeous beach just south of Otter Rock.
You can find views like this up and down the Oregon coast more times than I can count.
At a few cliff-side places we stopped, we often found sections fenced off because of erosion. The wind and water from the ocean is relentless. However, despite this erosion, the American continent is actually moving west, gaining land! Inch by inch year over year. Tectonic subduction between the North American plate and the Pacific plate is a process where the continental plate is sliding above the Pacific plate. The downside of this, of course, is eventually this tectonic pressure is going to result in an earthquake.
Just another shot from another small Oregon coastal town.
As one might imagine, the real estate prices for homes with ocean views has skyrocketed. Oregon law says the public owns the beaches along the ocean, but you can still own a parcel with an ocean view. However, for many older homes the owners have become house poor. This is an extreme example here, but for many places we drove by, it was obvious the owners could no longer afford improvements.
We also saw some NICE places for sale. Again, we don’t know the exact reasons for this, but in some places the very nice homes were in Tsunami Hazard Zones. All day long we drove in and out of the hazard zones. These zones are determined by experts hired by government officials which takes into account elevation, distance from the shore and projected water flow. In the event of the BIG ONE (you know, the coming earthquake from the tectonic subduction), there very likely could be a catastrophic tsunami. So if you come to the Oregon coast to buy real estate, I recommend building just outside of the hazard zone, and building your home earthquake resistant.
We crossed many, many bridges all day long. Some did not look very safe.
When Highway 101 veered away from the ocean, we often drove along all kinds of inland waterways. So gorgeous, so varied. This is truly a magnificently beautiful region of the country.
In almost every small coastal town we found mini espresso stands.
After weaving in and out of the high cliff regions of the coast, we entered a long stretch of dunes. These go on for miles and miles. Another amazing feature of the Oregon Pacific Coast.
Late in the day we started to race south to our destination, so as not to have to drive in the dark. But we kept spotting these gorgeous seascapes that we wished we could stop and enjoy. Next time!
The sun setting at 7:16 pm over the Pacific just as we approached our hotel.
Our seaside hotel is The Shining creepy. But this morning we’re still alive….for another day of adventure. California here we come!
Western Wanderings – Days 6 & 7 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Mary and I spent our sixth day at her brother’s just chilling and resting. The day ended with a full moon. To just right of center you can see Jupiter, and a bit more to the right (not as bright) you can see Saturn.
Early on Monday morning, our hosts Rick and Donna took us out for an old fashioned heart-attack breakfast at the Oak Table Café in Sequim. It fortified us for a long day of exploring.
Mary led the charge into a temperate rainforest in the Olympic Peninsula. These temperate rainforests used to cover a long stretch from southern Oregon to Alaska. Now in North America they exist only in a few protected places.
One of the traits of a temperate rainforest is a feature called epiphytes, where plants grow on other plants. Another major trait is lots of rain. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, these forests get over 10 feet of rain a year.
The trees in this forest have never been harvested, and tower to a canopy hundreds of feet high. There are trees in some parts of the Olympic Peninsula that are 1000 years old.
This Douglass fir is very likely over 500 years old. We still have these old trees only because these regions of forest are protected. It’s a reason to thank Presidents Cleveland and both Roosevelts, who were all instrumental in creating and preserving these vast regions to protect the last of the Old Growth Timber. We should also thank our current day forest services. These virgin forest are gigantic air filters, sucking in tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Outside of these parks, every stick of tree is chopped down every 20 to 80 years. These perpetually destroyed forests recycle only a tiny percentage of air that the virgin forests do.
We were on a hike to find the Sol Duc Falls. On the way we passed this little shelter erected by the forest rangers. It looked incredibly creepy to Mary and me. This place belongs in Twin Peaks.
The Sol Duc Falls in the Olympic National Forest. Below these falls the Sol Duc eventually splits into two tributaries, flowing over 70 miles to the Pacific Ocean. ‘Sol Duc’ is from the Native American Quileute language, meaning ‘sparkling waters’.
Mary and me above the Sol Duc Falls.
Temperate rainforests are all about old and new. Old trees die and fall, and their logs become nutrients for new trees.
Next Mary and I turned the corner on the Olympic Peninsula and headed south and west toward the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Here we found Ruby Beach, where the temperate rain forests run right into the ocean.
The wild and brutal beauty of Ruby Beach. If you look closely on the right side, to the left of the tall rock, you can see a group of people. There was a wedding going on. We’re not sure how these people actually walked to that spot, as the tide was coming in. Up above there are warning signs about the tides, as to judge how far you want to venture among the rocks and such, as a sudden tide could very quickly maroon you. We left before we could see what happened.
Mary and me on Ruby Beach.
After Ruby Beach Mary and I headed down Route 101 along the Washington State Pacific Coast. Here’s Mary on a bluff above the beach along the highway.
Yours Truly above the Pacific Coast in Washington State along Route 101.
When taking Route 101 down the Pacific Coast, don’t forget to make a stop in Humptulips, WA.
Along the southernmost stretch of Washington coastline, we crossed at least half a dozen rivers. Route 101 winds along bays and rivers and sloughs, usually with no guardrails. Often you can only tool along at 35 or 40 mph because the two-lane highway is so curvy.
We veered off the main highway to see more of the coastline, driving through several small Washington coastal towns, like this one! Ilwaco, Washington. Old towns, in many ways run down, but still thriving.
What’s really frightening is to see all the tiny blue and white tsunami evacuation signs on many of these street corners (not pictured here). Seismologists predict the BIG ONE is overdue. The fault-line between two tectonic plates–the North American Plate and the Juan de Fuca (or Pacific) plate–runs right under Seattle. When this quake hits, if its epicenter is under the ocean, a tsunami could inundate the entire Washington coastline. You’ll have only minutes to flee to an elevation at least 100 feet above sea level.
The Columbia River marks the boundary between Washington and Oregon. This is a shot just north of the Columbia, not far from where Clark (of Lewis and Clark) encamped in 1805.
We made it! The view from our hotel on the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. However, I don’t see any tsunami evacuation instructions in our hotel room.
Western wanderings – Days 4 & 5 of 26 (Sep 2021)
On the morning of our fourth day we ate our ‘complimentary’ breakfast up in the relative safety of our hotel room, as were still in the heart of Covid country in southern Idaho. Once done, we sped over into the northeast corner of Oregon on our way up into Washington State. This photo is, indeed, from Oregon, though I know it looks like a shot from the Curiosity rover on Mars. It turns out that much of the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington are high deserts, arid and semiarid. In much of Oregon they’re using these vast remote areas to generate wind power.
Mary and I spent the night in Richland, WA, to visit with her niece. I regret to say that due to too much travel, logistics and maybe too many cocktails, I have no photos of Richland to share.
But what is there to share? Richland is a ‘manufactured’ city. Early in the 1900’s it was a tiny farm town. In the 1940s, the US Military came in and bought up over 640 square miles along the Columbia River, including Richland and three other towns, EVICTING all the residents! The military set up homes to house workers and scientists. This was yet another part of the secret and massive Manhattan Project. ‘Reactor B’ was constructed here. Then scientists produced the first plutonium–used in the first ever atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and in Fat Man, the bomb that annihilated Nagasaki. The reactor still exists today, but is closed up. Rumor has it that once Covid ends, it’ll open up to visitors. We’ll see…
It appears Mary and I brought rain with us to the arid desert environs of Richland, which left Mary’s niece Jenna somewhat amazed. The next morning it was still raining as Mary and I drove off into the high desert in search of someplace with more trees.
Our route more or less followed the Columbia River valley, where a ton of orchards and vineyards, courtesy of river irrigation, thrive in a semiarid climate. In the shot we’re descending toward the river to cross the bridge you see in the distance.
The next leg of our trip took us through the Cascades Mountain Range. We were driving on I-90, and thank god for that. I can’t imagine what it must be like to drive along a less engineered highway, and I certainly can’t fathom driving this in winter. This photo doesn’t really do justice to the jaw-dropping vistas of fog-shrouded and forested mountainsides we scaled, the wild bends in the road, the sharp inclines and plunging descents we took. Much of it was white-knuckle and Mary only managed to get this shot in between bouts of me screaming like a little toddler.
We looped south of Seattle to head for the Olympic Peninsula. This took us over the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The winds that roar through the Tacoma Narrows are ferocious and destructive. There’s historical proof. The previous bridge wobbled to pieces in the wind back in 1940. There’s a charming video of it on here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mclp9QmCGs
These double spans? So far so good!
On our out way to our destination we passed parts of the sprawling Bremerton Naval Base and caught a glimpse of a few warships.
The last leg of our journey took us over another marvel of engineering, the Hood Canal Floating Bridge. It floats so that its middle section can be slid aside to allow passage of top secret US submarines. This bridge is over 60 years old, and part of it did SINK once in a storm. But I’m told it’s now very safe to cross…
Ever since we got half way across South Dakota a few days ago, we noticed our front tire started slowly leaking air. Each morning we had to find a gas station with an air hose so I could fill up the tire. Today we realized we needed to stop someplace and it checked, fully expecting we’d have to buy two new tires (you really should always replace tires in pairs). We pulled into a place near our destination for this weekend, in Sequim, WA. They found a nail in the tire and plugged it up. Evidently they saw we were from Wisconsin and took pity on us, and refused to accept payment. Good Samaritans to be sure. We insisted on leaving something for their happy hour tonight, and remain grateful for the kindness of strangers.
Here we are at Mary’s brother’s home for two nights in beautiful Sequim, WA. In five days we’ve driven from Wisconsin to the West Coast. More adventures to follow!
Western wanderings – Day 3 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Mary and I began the day by rushing out of our overpriced hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so that we were one of the first visitors into Grand Teton National Park. Part of what makes the Tetons so extraordinary is that they seem to tower over the flat plains below them, without the typical long range of foothills normally associated with mountain ranges. This Park, mountain range and the plain beneath it, encompasses more than 480 sq. miles.
We visited Menors Ferry–or rather the remains of it. Menors Ferry (no apostrophe) used to ferry homesteaders and ranch dudes back and forth across the Snake River in the early 1900s. Pictured: the ruins of the actual ferry (or perhaps an authentic-looking replica). The other notable thing about Bill Meron is that he was known for his profuse and proficient ability to curse. Perhaps he was an inspiration for the series Deadwood.
Next Mary and I drove along the mountain range to see The Teton Glacier. The time to spot it is just after sunrise, when the dawn shines directly on the ice. Since 1967, this glacier has reduced by 15%. It won’t last.
Next Mary and I drove to Jenny Lake, one of several lakes running along the foot of the Tetons. Jenny Lake was created about 12,000 years ago by glaciers. Its waters are pristine because they are protected. Shoshone Native Americans lived around this lake going back at least 3000 years. Jenny Lake is named for a 19th century Native American woman Jenny Leigh, who married an Englishman trapper. Jenny and all 6 of her children succumbed to smallpox.
Mary and I hiked a trail around Jenny Lake that took us up into the Alpine forest that surrounds much of the lake. As mentioned above, the Tetons don’t really have a large range of foothills, and so the Alpine forest rises fast and dramatically into the mountains.
We hiked 1.2 miles in search of ‘Hidden Falls.’ After a long uphill tromp, we finally made it. Thank God I made this hike with a doctor at my side.
Hidden Falls tumbles about 100 ft and is fed by snowmelt from the mountains above.
Hidden Falls feeds Cascade Creek, which in turn feeds Jenny Lake.
One more glimpse of the rough Alpine terrain. The park rangers have gone to great lengths to leave this landscape as unspoiled as possible. So unspoiled, in fact, that hikers are encouraged to purchase and carry Bear Repellent, which I dutifully carried along. We didn’t have occasion to see a Black Bear or Grizzly, but Mary insisted I keep it in case I run out of deodorant.
A boat ferry returned us from across the lake. A final close-up glimpse of the the towering Tetons. As we departed, clouds had started to blow in. You can see their shadows across the face of the mountains.
An overview of much of Grand Tetons National Park from about 7,700 feet. Mary and I ascended to the summit of Signal Mountain (by car, not by foot) to get a glimpse of the surrounding plateau. This was about midday, and a haze or mist began to blow in, clouding what had been a crystal clear morning. Don’t know if this was connected to forest fires further west or not.
Mary and Yours Truly atop Signal Mountain. Just above Mary’s head you can see a glint of the Snake River.
After our short day at Grand Tetons, we had some serious driving to do–destinations further west on Friday. And we set out into Idaho, basically following the path of the Snake River (from the Grand Tetons) as it meanders west toward the Pacific. This lower middle section of Idaho is called the Columbia Plateau. Lots of sagebrush tundra and grasslands, that seem to stretch on forever. Just a mile or so to the right of this shot runs the Snake River, cutting a gorge though the plateau.
A glimpse of the Snake River in southern Idaho, just a few miles from our overnight stay.
We are having to be very careful here, always fully masked even though we’re fully vaccinated. There’s a deadly surge of Covid 19 in Idaho right now, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the entire country. Just today the Idaho Health Department announced that Idaho hospitals are going into ‘mass causality triage standard of care.’ That means if you’re really sick and not likely to live, you don’t get that ICU bed; instead someone with a better chance of survival gets it. In other words, all the thousands of severely sick anti-vaxxer Covid patients must make way for others. This is a self-made catastrophe for Idaho (as well as many other regions of the country). Looking forward to be out of here by late tomorrow morning.
Stay safe everyone.
western wanderings – Day 2 of 26 (Sep 2021)
Our second day of travel took us into the sparsely populated state of Wyoming. In this shot, out the front of our car, you can see miles upon miles of what’s called semiarid steppe, or short-grass prairie. We thought going through South Dakota was long…this seemed longer. Perhaps it was the unremitting changelessness of the Eastern half of the state. The few towns we went through were small. Mary looked it up: Wyoming is the least populated state in the Union, just over 580K. My home county of Dane in Wisconsin has almost as many people as all of Wyoming.
Wyoming is also home to buttes. These towering mountains of solid rock are the remnants of plateaus or mesas from millions of years ago that have, through time, water and wind, eroded away.
We were headed for the northwest corner of the state, Wyoming’s mountainous alpine region. As we slowly got closer, the geographic features became more varied. This is shot of the Wind River Painted Hills. In this corner of the state it’s quite common to see arid desert residing right along lush areas, where trees and other vegetation can thrive along rivers or streams.
These gigantic red rocks, stripped away by millions of years of erosion, seem to be tilting over onto the highway. This is part of the Red Canyon Wind River region. (The River’s on the other side of the highway.) Geologic activity going back over 55 million years ago created the impression these rocks are about to slide over onto the road. What’s almost as amazing is that archeology shows us the Shoshone people lived in this region up to 3000 years ago. And then the white man came along.
Wyoming is littered with a lot of small towns and the remnants of abandoned or failed communities. Life here for many is hardscrabble. The pervasive arid desert and semiarid steppes makes life difficult. Agriculture and mining are most of what Wyoming has–except for tourism in the northwest corner. Right at this spot Mary I pulled off the road to switch drivers, and I couldn’t resist of shot of this ruin. It must’ve been wonderful in its day.
After more than 6 hours of driving, we finally made it up into the alpine region. Here is part of the Snake River, which runs along the base of the Grand Teton Mountains. The Shoshone people named themselves after this winding river. Shoshone means serpent.
In the Grand Tetons National Park I finally got to see buffalo. Here’s a whole bunch of the beasts that we humans almost drove into extinction. I’m still hoping this trip to see one up close and personal. And to dine on one in a saloon.
The glorious Grand Tetons Mountain range, flanked by the Snake River. You can’t see the Snake River in this shot, but you can see the line of trees lining the river valley.
A shot of the Grand Tetons and the glistening, winding Snake River below. As mentioned above, we know where the Snake River got its name. The Grand Tetons? There’s competing theories. They are:
- The local Shoshone people called the mountains teewinot, which means ‘many pinnacles’ in Shoshone.
- There is a branch of the Sioux Nation sometimes called ‘Teton Sioux.’ These are actually the Lakotas.
- A filthy-minded French voyageur saw the mountains and named them les trois tetons. Which means ‘the triple nipples.’
My sweetheart Mary and me at the Grand Tetons National park, with the peaks and the river behind us.
Western Wanderings – Day 1 of 26 (sep 2021)
Mary’s and my first day of our almost month-long driving trip out West took out us out of Wisconsin via Lacrosse, where we crossed the mighty Mississippi. Supposedly this marks some kind of great divide between East and West, but once we’d climbed out of the river valley, much of southern Minnesota looked a lot like Wisconsin. Just not quite as many Trump signs.
My one pic of Minnesota. We drove along and through several gigantic wind farms, which we are always very happy to see. Wind and solar and geothermal are the waves of the future. I think these gigantic machines are beautiful. Always set in flat rural areas to capture the wind, it seems to me a perfect marriage of old and new. Also, as we’re now into late summer, the soybean fields have ripened into gorgeous gold.
About a third of the way through South Dakota we crossed the Missouri River, one of the few points of interest on a long, long drive west through vast stretches of nothingness.
The Dakotas, as much of our country, pays lip service to the First Nations. After obliterating their peoples, stealing their lands, forcing them to live in the shitty leftover parcels the white pioneers didn’t care for, and giving them smallpox and alcoholism, we decided to honor them by naming a few things after them. And South Dakota erected this statue of Sacagawea*. The statue is indeed stunning. It’s set in a rest area, of all places, overlooking the Missouri River, a parcel of land much nicer than most reservations.
*Correction: My friend Hilda has altered me to the fact that the statue below is not of Sacagawea, but is of an nonspecific indigious woman honoring the Lakota and Dakota peoples, titled Dignity. Apologies for the error.
A panorama showing what most of South Dakota looks like.
Here the South Dakota authorities have erected a giant statue of Satan.
We’ve all heard of the Covid Super-spreader Events in Sturgis South Dakota, have read in the news how their governor refused to enact any sensible pandemic precautions and how the hospitals here are all full dying anti-vaxxers. Not fake news. At the ground-level it’s glaringly obvious. I counted two masked people all day long, and one of them was a tourist like us. The restaurants and gas stations all post signs about social distancing and everyone just ignores them. The signs, like the Native American names, are just fucking lip service.
After a long day of driving, just north of the Badlands a rainbow appeared. No, God didn’t make this appear as a promise to us that the dangerously stupid anti-vaxxer state would soon be behind us. It’s just weather. But hell, I’ll take it as an omen that Mary and I have adventures coming. The first leg of our journey is about complete.
Go West, you late middle-aged travelers! Sunset just before our first night’s stay.
previous travel blogs:
A Tour of American Players Theatre – from 2016
When William Shakespeare’s troupe of actors, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, erected the Globe Theatre in 1599, did Will ever imagine his plays would still be performed four centuries later half a world away? Of course they are. And here in Southern Wisconsin, we’re very lucky that one of the top professional Shakespearean acting companies in the world, American Players Theatre, calls Wisconsin its home.
This weekend I was lucky enough to tour all of the myriad backstage places and outbuildings of what amounts to a small city tucked away in the woods. American Players Theatre (APT), is a classical repertory theatre that performs Western stage classics. APT covers about 100 or so acres of forestland along the Wisconsin River, not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. The APT campus houses two theatres–a gigantic outdoor venue that seats over a 1000, and a small intimate theatre for about 200. APT puts on about 8 shows per season, and typically 2 or 3 of those shows are Shakespearean.
Putting on high quality professional classical theatre is no mean feat. Putting on 8 shows over the course of a season is tantamount to planning an invasion. Here are a few glimpses behind the scenes.
Wisconsin River country on the edge of the Driftless region. This is a view of APT’s forestland from the summit of their ‘Up the Hill’ theatre. Three thespians founded this troupe back in 1980, when they discovered that the bowl of this hill created a natural acoustic amphitheater.
The ‘Up the Hill’ theatre. For 36 years this has been the heart and soul of APT. Most of the shows I’ve seen here through the years I’ve seen at night, under the stars. For matinees they spread out a parachute to shade the stage. Everything in the theatre–the seats, the sets, the lights–has to be rain-proof. But age has taken its toll, and after this season the whole Up the Hill theatre will be rebuilt, adding new rehearsal space, a better outdoor lobby, while preserving the natural aspects of this outdoor wonder.
The actors use more than the stage, they run up and down the amphitheater aisles. At night the actors must skirt along these hidden forest pathways to make entrances from behind the audience: Lit only by blue lights, it can be treacherous–especially if you’re wearing heels or carrying a sword.
One of the dressing rooms for the Up the Hill theatre. In the rebuild, these very old facilities will get replaced. But for now, this is what some world class actors use to get ready for their world class performances: I’m not exaggerating. APT has been written up in the New York Times, and its Artistic Directors travel to New York every year looking for talent.
Another reason the Up the Hill section need rebuilding. APT’s campus has several rehearsal spaces, but this rickety old barn with screens for walls really needs an update. It’s in there they were probably rehearsing scenes for this year’s King Lear. I imagine it wasn’t that much different than what Will Shakespeare had to use.
The view from backstage in the Up the Hill theatre. I can’t count the number of steps, switchbacks, turns, aisles and crooks I climbed over. These actors and the tech crews typically navigate all of this at night.
Once finished with our Up the Hill tour, we hiked through the woods to APT’s other venue, the indoor Touchstone Theatre. It sits in the middle of the woods overlooking a wide swatch of restored prairie. This theatre is only about five years old, unlike its granddaddy up on the hill.
The inside of the Touchstone has allowed APT to really expand it repertoire. They can put on much smaller plays, and it also allows APT to stretch their season into November–after the Up the Hill has been iced over.
The Touchstone lobby. Though this is indoor, APT wanted to dovetail this theatre with its environment: wide windows letting in the light and gorgeous views of the forestland.
The backside of the Touchstone shows just how world class it is: all of the environmental mechanicals reside outside of the building, allowing the company to maintain complete silence in the performance space, controlling every aspect of the environment in order to bring theatrical illusions to life.
The scene shop. APT has two support buildings called Alpha and Bravo, and these house state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces, scene shops, paint shops, prop shops, costume shops, millenaries, laundries, offices and storage. Going through all of these spaces made me realize even more that the old Up the Hill theatre is really overdue for an upgrade.
The costume shop. There are a million universes in this place.
All of these skilled professionals work like hell to put on these shows, but they also have a sense of humor. Here’s mock up of an actual actor from Julius Caesar hanging from the wall of the prop shop, from a production of just a few years ago.
The costume storage seems infinite. APT builds from scratch about a third of the costumes they need for a season. They lift from the prodigious collection for another third, and have to rent or buy the last third. They are also in the business of renting costumes to other theatres in the Midwest.
Here is the grand old oak that inspired APT’s logo. She’s getting sick now, and not long for this world. But if you look to the right of this giant oak, you’ll see her successor has been growing for a few years now. A great analogy for the company and its future.