Iceland by Land Cruiser

By the time Leah and I were flying over Iceland, we were zombies.

Leah was outraged by the airline’s no-frills service. “Not even a tiny bag of pretzels,” she lamented, “Maybe I closed my eyes for one or two minutes.”

I was mostly pissed that my gummies were duds, but I thought the Icelandair pilot and jet did a commendable job of getting us to Iceland–crossing 4 time zones in 5 hours.

We arrived at Keflavik International Airport at 5:30am, found our bags, cleared customs, bought some duty free tequila, and got our bearings…

We have embarked on a 2-week road trip around Iceland, hopping from one hotel or guesthouse to another until we complete the circle, and we’re not too sure what to expect.

By the time we reached the reception atrium, half-a-dozen drivers were gathered by the airport entrance looking for a match. But none of the clients’ names on their iPads and iPhones matched with mine.

I approached one of the drivers and handed him my voucher. His English was perfect.

“I know this driver,” he said. “He’s the best! I think he’s running late on another trip, but I’ll call him for you.”

The phone call was brief. “He says he’s on his way.”

By 6:30am we were riding in an electric Audi SUV to Grandi by Center Hotel, discussing with our driver how Iceland’s road system is still too immature to support a fleet of EVs–plagued by insufficient charging stations and improper maintenance. The ride took 40 minutes.

“The hotel is full,” we learned from the on-duty desk clerk. “The earliest we may make a room ready for you is 2pm, and I will make it my first priority.”

Disappointed, we power-walked through a chilly spray under overcast skies from Grandi to Sandholt, a nearby bakery highly recommended by the desk clerk.

“What are we gonna do for 7 hours? I need sleep!” Leah groaned.

The streets were stone quiet this Sunday at 7am, except for a street cleaner and vacuum buggy attacking the trash along the alleys of a popular square filled with eateries.

However, one road along the way caught our attention…

We discovered that Iceland is regarded as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, having elected, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, an openly gay head of state in 2009, and Althing (Iceland’s Parliament–founded in 930 and one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world) unanimously voting for same-sex marriages in 2010. Unsurprisingly, one-third of Iceland’s population turns out for the Reykjavik’s Gay Pride parade in August.

Leah was thrilled with her breakfast. She had an omelet and I had a waffle with fruit. It gave us the boost that we needed to explore the rainbow road to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s National Church.

and Reykjavik’s iconic Lutheran landmark.

I would have liked to climb the tower for what is reputed to be the best lookout of the city, but we were too early.

View from the top of Hallgrímskirkja. Photo by Philippa via Flickr CC

And that’s true for most of the city, which doesn’t wake until 11am on Sunday, so shopping was also out of the question.

Begrudgingly, we returned to the hotel, admiring some of the charming homes,

and graffiti along the way…

and took possession of our room by 1pm.

After a 5-hour nap and an early dinner, we were ready for bed and ready for whatever new adventure awaits us in the coming days.

Babylon Badlands: True Religion

There was a time 10 years ago, when Scenic, South Dakota was for sale–yes, all 10 acres of the town and 36 acres of the not-so-scenic, surrounding property.

It was originally offered up for $3M by Twila Merrill, local rodeo legend who earned a tough-as-nails reputation for never being thrown from a bucking bronc from 1956 to 1963, but with her health fading, it was time to sell.

She eventually sold the whole kit and caboodle to a Filipino church group for just shy of $800,000 in August, 2011.

Ten years later, Scenic looks unchanged. There is scant evidence that parishioners of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) are welcome at this ghost town, although the pastel-colored Adirondack chairs on the porch suggest that a resurrection of activity is possible.

Back in the day, Scenic was a thriving hive of entertainment, with a full-scale rodeo arena, a racetrack, a manicured baseball diamond, a theatre and a dancehall.

Main Street was home to a General Store,

and a requisite saloon which was thoughtfully annexed to the town hoosegow.

It should be noted that Indians were allowed inside Longhorn Saloon, but only after Twila bought the joint and painted over “NO” on the marquis.

Meanwhile, the culture crowd would gather at Sam 2 Bulls.

Off the main drag, there’s an assortment of incongruous buildings: a couple of standing churches, a few warehouses and barns, a defunct gas station, and a post office behind a dedicated monument featuring a pterodactyl that defies logic or explanation.

Leah and I rolled through Scenic, on our way to an outpost of Badlands National Park known as Sheep Mountain Table, located in the Stronghold Unit within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

At 3,300 ft. elevation, Sheep Mountain Table is the highest point in the park.

The good news is that we could drive to the top.

The 6.5 mile road was hard-packed and serviceable all the way to the top of the table, albeit a single lane and a handful of hairpins. Once we arrived, there wasn’t much to see on the surface except tall grass, road tracks and traces of spent and unexploded ordinance scattered throughout this one-time gunnery range used by the USAF and South Dakota National Guard. The wind was blowing furiously,

which kept us anchored a careful distance from the ledge overlooking the Cheyenne River Valley.

But there was much more to explore on the other side of the table, which we could reach by hiking 2 miles or driving the rutted terrain…

so I drove…pitching and rolling along…

until we arrived at an open plateau with dramatic vistas to the west…

and the White River Valley to the east.

These Badlands were once considered sacred to young Sioux braves who would trek to the tables for prayer and self-reflection as they approached manhood.

That’s when it occurred to me that Scenic, South Dakota was rightfully named, not because of the town’s location, but because of the Badlands omnipresence and its omnificent landscape. And that may also explain why the Filipinos invested in Scenic.

Oregon Potpourri

Leah and I had a lot of ground to cover during our brief visit to the Oregon Coast. With so much to see and do before we moved on, there was little time to waste. We immersed ourselves in seaside activities until we were Ore-goners.

We set up our first camp site at South Beach State Park, and made a beeline to the beach. After 10 weeks and 9,000 miles on the road, we were finally celebrating “sea to shining sea.”

The following morning, we visited Yaquina Head to play in the tidepools;

observe the seabirds,

study the sealions;

and visit Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet), projecting its light beam 19 miles out to sea since 1873.

And then we were off to Newport’s Historic Bayfront,

where we lunched with our safari buddies Brenda and Michael, who drove from Portland to join us for the afternoon.

On our last full day at South Beach, we played nature tourist. We gawked at Devil’s Punchbowl;

the Seal Rock;

and Cook’s Chasm.

We combed the black sand beaches, searching for sea glass gems;

and we were entertained by surfers braving frigid waters along Beverly Beach to round out our day.

Typically on moving day, it’s clean-up, hitch-up and safety check before moving on to our next destination. Once in a while we’ll break up the drive by stopping for lunch at a roadside dive, but mostly we’ll snack in the pickup. However on this particular day, on our way up the Oregon Coast Highway to Cannon Beach, we were eager to stop at Tillamook Creamery.

And we were not alone. Hundreds were passing through the overhead exhibition windows with us…

before earning a taste of Oregon’s finest ice cream.

Once situated at camp site #2, we were free to roam the shore to explore a different kind of scoop, but still a rocky road…

along Ecola State Park.

Our evening was reserved for clam chowder at Dooger’s in Seaside, and then a walk along their lively beach at dusk.

The area is also filled with history. Leah and I spent the next day time climbing through the gunnery emplacements at Fort Stevens,

intended to protect the mouth of the Columbia River.

We also discovered the Peter Iredale, or what was left of the four-masted steel barque sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906 en route to the Columbia River.

Nearby, the Lewis and Clark Historical Park offered a replica of Fort Clatsup,

and a glimpse of early 19th century housing for Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark,

and their guide Sacagawea and son, Baptiste.

Finally, a day of walking through Astoria gave us wonderful examples of coastal living…

and coastal culture,

But a hike up 164 steps to the tower of the hand-painted Astoria Column…

offered us a scenic perspective…

that prepared us…

for our crossing to Washington’s Olympic National Park.

to be continued…

Wings of a Fallen Angel

U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant Victor David Westphall III and 16 Bravo Company soldiers under his command lost their lives in an ambush at Con Thien (“Hill of Angels”), a combat base near the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.

But Victor “Doc” Westphall shaped his grief differently than 58,000 other Gold Star families who were looking to find meaning in their child’s death from a senseless and unpopular war. He and his wife Jeanne would dedicate the rest of their lives working to fulfill their son’s legacy by honoring ALL victims of the Vietnam War.

When sons or daughters die in battle, parents are confronted with the choice of what they will do to honor the courage and sacrifice of that son or daughter. Following the death of our son, Victor David Westphall, on May 22, 1968, in Vietnam, we decided to build an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.

With $30,000 seed money from David’s life insurance payout and another $60,000 in savings, Doc commissioned Santa Fe architect, Ted Luna to design a chapel on his Moreno Valley hillside property off U.S. Highway 64 in Angel Fire, NM.

After three years of sweat equity, Doc presented the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel…

to commemorate the loss of his son.

The spartan, triangular-shaped chapel was intended as a non-denominational sanctuary, with the exception of a towering cross-like torchiere at the vortex.

But Westphall’s vision was running on fumes; he needed $20,000 per year in maintenance expenses, and donations were in short supply, especially after Maya Lin’s national memorial (the Wall) was dedicated in Washington D.C. on November 13, 1982.

Fortunately, the Disabled American Veterans organization committed to funding Doc’s memorial, and ownership was transferred to their foundation. The Disabled American Veterans charity tended “Doc’s” dream till 1998–building a much-needed Visitor Center into the hillside in 1986, and acquiring an additional 25 acres for a buffer zone before reverting ownership back to the David Westphall Veterans Foundation (DWVF).

In 1999, DWVF inherited a decommissioned Huey for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial grounds from the New Mexico Army National Guard, acknowledging the impact that the Huey had in Vietnam combat assault, resupply, and medivac missions.

After 17 years of ground service at the memorial, their Huey was lovingly restored…

and returned to its hallowed perch.

On Veterans Day 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson granted the Vietnam Veterans Memorial state park status, which secured state resources for needed renovations and a newly built amphitheater behind the chapel.

In 2007, a commemorative walkway was inaugurated for all U.S. veterans. The dates on the bricks-for-bucks signify the dates of service. Two stars denote the person was killed in action, and one star designates missing in action.

On July 1, 2017, management of the Memorial was transferred from the NM State Parks to NM Department of Veterans Services.

Doc Westphall died in 2003 at the age of 89, and his wife Jeanne died the following year. Both are buried at the memorial.

At the time–during the Vietnam War–I would have registered as a conscientious objector if necessary, as I had no taste for war. Lucky for me, I side-stepped conscription with a college deferment in 1970, and a high enough number (#181) in the Selective Service Lottery held on August 5, 1971. By then, Nixon had ordered phased withdrawals to coincide with Vietnamization. Consequently, fewer numbers were being called up to relieve the soldiers returning home, who received little fanfare and support from society at large.

Approximately 2.7 million men and women served in Vietnam over the course of 20 years without America ever realizing its objective–to thwart the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia.

So many young soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country with honor, and so many paid the ultimate price with their lives. Moreover, far too many came back broken from their war experience. At the very least, we owe them all a debt of gratitude, and above all, our respect.

Thankfully, the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel offers us a place to share our grief, heal old wounds, and bring us closer to awareness and acceptance of our past.

Crystal Bridges–Sm(Art) Money

My buddy, Lee (who I’ve known since nursery school) escorted Leah and me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, his local art museum in Bentonville, AR. Imagine, a world class museum in the midst of a population center of 50,000, courtesy of Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune.

Alice assigned renowned architect, Moshe Safdie to design a space, anchored by ponds and forest using generous amounts of glass and wood.

The 217,000 sq. ft. complex includes a sculpture garden,

galleries galore,

and a restaurant named Eleven, to commemorate the day the museum opened (11/11/11). And admission is free!

It quickly became apparent that there was so much to see that we could have easily spent days walking through the wings, just to take it all in; it was overwhelming. And some of the rooms had walls that were tiered with art from floor to ceiling. It’s no surprise that museum officials have recently announced plans to increase gallery space by an additional 100,000 sq. ft.

Wanting to see as much of the space as possible, we quickly steered through the exhibition halls looking and reflecting, before moving on to the next art moment. However, some of the art that caught my eye has been curated for this post (in no particular order).

As much as I enjoyed documenting the paintings, collages and sculptures within the museum, I found it impossible to ignore the fantastic geometry that surrounded us that was equally worthy of photographing, like the echo dome in the museum vestibule…

or the Fuller dome in the garden…

But the final shape I reserve for Lee and Deb for their Arkansas hospitality.

Hot Springs is Hot Again

Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.

And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.

In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.

No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.

70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.

Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.

Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.

But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.

But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.

Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…

and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.

Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.

The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.

There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…

But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…

Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,

each one designed with classic architectural details.

and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.

Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.

We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.

Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,

and continued to the Mountain Tower,

offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.

Ryman

Nashville seldom disappoints, given the music, the Broadway scene, and the local history and flavor that makes Nashville such a go-to destination for letting loose.

But here we were in Nashville again for a third visit in as many years, and again, there were no concert bookings at Grand Ole Opry during our stay, just as before.

Perhaps, we should make our own music, although we would eventually take the stage at Ryman Auditorium like so many others,

by first taking a self-guided tour of the hallowed hall before having our picture snapped by the gift shop photographer.

Very little has changed since Ryman Auditorium opened…

as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Originally built as a house of worship…

by Thomas Ryman, who made his fortune from a bevy of saloons and a fleet of riverboats,

Ryman found God at a big-top revival, and vowed to build a tabernacle, allowing Nashville folks to attend large-scale revivals indoors.

The balcony opened in 1897, raising capacity to 6,000 worshippers.

Ryman died in 1904, and was celebrated inside his tabernacle. It was at his memorial service that Samuel Porter Jones, the preacher responsible for Ryman’s conversion, proposed the name change to Ryman Auditorium.

While Ryman Auditorium continued as a religious venue, it also opened its doors to popular culture and performing arts as a means of paying the bills, often hosting concerts, speaking engagements, dance recitals and theater, and earning its reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”

The Grand Ole Opry took up residency in 1943, and sold out its weekly shows for the next 31 years, becoming “The Mother Church of Country Music.”

Country music acts performed in front of capacity crowds and reached audiences around the world through radio and television broadcasts, earning them large followings and superstardom. Artists were eager to appear despite the primitive accommodations.

Leah and I took our sweet time as we perused the exhibits note by note, and studied the memorabilia from entertainment royalty…

In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry shuttered its downtown location in favor of a larger, modern venue within a theme park setting, dooming Ryman Auditorium to the wrecking ball. But the historical importance of Ryman, known as the birthplace of bluegrass (and so much more) could not go unnoticed, until the preservationists prevailed, and Ryman was saved from demolition.

After a dormant period of 20 years and new ownership, the exterior was eventually rehabbed and the building’s interior was refurbished and modernized for artists and patrons, restoring it as a world-class concert hall that past and present music legends agree has some of the best acoustics in the world, only adding to Ryman’s mystique and continuing renaissance.

As for Leah and me, all that was left for us to do was smile for the camera and take our final curtain call…

Start Your Engines

Motor sports awaits its biggest day on May 30, when 135,000 spectators will gather at the Brickyard for the start of the 105th running of the Indy 500. It will be the largest assembly of people anywhere for a single event since the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the country and the world.

Last year, the race was held without fans, but this year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will accommodate 135,000 of 257,325 available seats, or 40% capacity. The number is staggering until the onlooker realizes that the curved rectangle is 2.5 miles long and occupies 559 acres,

with tiered grandstands reaching 7 stories on both sides of the track.

Having checked in at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for overnight accomodations,

we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming noise coming from the nearby critter pavilions…

so off we went to follow the commotion, and found the source. Apparently, it was a tire spin-off to Mecum’s 2021 Indy Auction:

The Dodge Challenge

…an annual event that brings out the best and most coveted collector cars for bidding:

But Leah and I were in Indianapolis during the Indy 500 Practice to watch drivers rocket down the straightaways in their IndyCars at 240 mph,

in anticipation of bringing home the trophy and chugging a bottle of milk.

So off we went to the fabled racetrack, built in 1909 and mostly unchanged, until the addition of the Pagoda, completed in 2000.

Trying to track the cars as they went screaming by in a blur

would have certainly resulted in whiplash if we continued watching with each passing lap, but thankfully, the video screen provided necessary neck relief.

And then the unexpected happened…

With 1hr 44min left in the practice session, #45 Santino Ferrucci turning too early into the #2 corner careened into the wall,

collapsing the front end of his racer.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1395482600823791620

Out came the yellow flag…

and it was time for us to call it a day at the track.

Fortunately, Ferrucci escaped serious injury, and was taken to the hospital for observation.

He has subsequently been cleared to race on Sunday, qualifying for the 25th position in a field of 33 cars, with Scott Dixon enjoying the pole position at the start of the race.

I hope the winner likes milk!

UPDATE:

Helio Castroneves wins the Indy 500 for a record-tying 4th time, finishing ahead of Alex Palou by half a second.

Top qualifier, Scott Dixon finished 17th in the field after his car ran out of gas before his first pit stop, and Santino Ferrucci finished sixth.

Castroneves celebrated with a chilled bottle of 2% milk, but swapped that bottle out for some strawberry milk, which perfectly matched his hot pink and white fire suit and No. 6 Honda.

The Remains of ESP

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, returns to life each day as a Philadelphia museum that’s open to the public year-round.

Completed in 1836, the imposing, neo-Gothic-styled architecture by John Haviland was intended to strike fear in all who might consider committing a crime. At the time, it was the most expensive public construction project ever built in the country. Famous inmates included Al Capone and Willie Sutton.

Decommissioned in 1971, ESP now lays in ruin, but awaits all who are fascinated by its unique radial design, towering castle walls and folklore.

Photographer, Tiffani Burchett Nieusma first visited ESP in 2016 and was awed by the unexpected beauty of the decay. Her recorded images eventually paved the way for a future gallery show during September, 2021 with a companion monograph of her work to be published on the subject.

Tiffani is currently seeking written word submissions to complement her photography for exhibition and publication. The deadline is May 31, 2021.

Click on the link to learn more about the submission guidelines.

Having reviewed Tiffani’s album of images, I’ve composed a trilogy of poems that were inspired by three haunting photographs:

L-1001*
Well-worn cells
yell hells of desperation,
as fallen walls recall
a marginal foundation.

L-1011*
Forgotten cots
and thoughts of isolation,
house black-hole souls
with goals of rehabilitation.

P-1013*
Pane glass collapse
with passing generations,
enshrines fine design
defined by desolation.

*All images courtesy of Tiffani Nieusma

Happy Campers

Leah and I are on the road again, continuing our Great American Road Trip–part 4, with some significant changes and improvements.

Last year, during the summer of Trumpandemic, we took an abbreviated trip to upstate New York in search of open outdoor vistas with blue skies and limited exposure to crowds, which we found at Letchworth State Park.

Soon after, we rounded the top of New England to enjoy a requisite Maine lobster dinner…

to dip a toe in the Atlantic on Hampton Beach…

and to gawk at the wealthy from Newport’s Cliff Walk.

We hugged the coastline until we reached Chincoteague, Virginia…

in search of precious ponies…

and to listen to the silence at the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, VA.

The trip was short (only 5 weeks and far from our ambitious itineraries of past years) yet refreshing, and daring (for all the anticipated COVID closures) yet unremarkable with one notable exception…I wrecked the Airstream in Tarboro, North Carolina.

Halfway to Tignall, Georgia (our final destination) and needing a lunch break and a leg stretch, we stopped at a charming town boasting a historic district of 18th century and antebellum landmark homes recognized by the National Park Service. I parked the Airstream inches from the curb on a narrow residential road across from Blount-Bridgers House, an 1808 Federal-style mansion-cum-museum,

and returned an hour later to continue our journey.

I casually pulled out, unaware that a protruding power pole ID tag had snagged the rear awning support and ripped all the cleats out from the aluminum skin, taking down the entire awning assembly and crushing the end caps to the tune of $17,000.

Thankfully, our insurance completely covered the damage. As we drove our beloved, but bandaged 27FB Flying Cloud to the Tampa Airstream dealer for repair, we considered the possibility of an upgrade should one be available. As luck would have it, a Florida family was trading a 2018 Globetrotter 27FB at the time, pending delivery of their new Airstream by February 2021.

We felt as if we had won the lottery. A deposit was offered on the spot, considering a total lack of previously owned inventory throughout the country.

The deal was sealed in April, when Leah and I picked up our reconditioned summer rig and took it for a dry run in Ruskin, FL in preparation for our summer adventure. We enjoyed the whisper-quiet, ducted AC; the ease of deploying the power stabilizer jacks; the convenience of rolling out the power awning; and the notion that our roof-mounted solar panels could provide us with increased boondocking possibilities.

Join us on the road as we explore 44 destinations (mostly new, sprinkled with some favorites) for the next 20 weeks:

  • May 1: Lake Powhatan/ Asheville, NC
  • May 4: Natural Bridge, VA
  • May 7: Vineland, NJ/ Northern NJ
  • May 12: Philadelphia, PA
  • May 15: Pittsburgh, PA
  • May 18: Jackson Center Airstream Factory/ Dayton, OH
  • May 19: Indianapolis, IN
  • May 21: Nashville, TN
  • May 24: Memphis, TN
  • May 27: Hot Springs/Little Rock AR
  • May 29: Eureka Springs, AR
  • June 1: Oklahoma City, OK
  • June 4: Amarillo, TX
  • June 6: Albuquerque, NM
  • June 10: Taos, NM
  • .June 13: Great Sand Dunes NP, CO
  • June 16: Rocky Mountain NP, CO
  • June 20: Cheyenne, WY
  • June 22: Flaming Gorge, UT
  • .June 25: Bear Lake State Park, UT
  • June 28: Craters of the Moon NP, ID
  • July 1: Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, UT
    • changed to Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park
  • .July 3: Crystal Crane Hot Springs/ Burn, OR
  • July 4: Bend, OR
  • .July 9: Crater Lake NP, OR
  • .July 12: South Beach State Park, OR
  • July 15: Seaside, OR
  • .July 18: Olympic NP, WA
  • .July 21: Port Angeles, WA
  • July 25: Mount Rainier NP, WA
  • July 28: Bothell, WA
  • Aug 2: North Cascades NP, WA
  • Aug 5: Spokane, WA
  • Aug 8: Glacier NP, MT
  • Aug 12: Great Falls, MT
  • Aug 14: Billings, MT
  • Aug 16: Deadwood, SD
  • Aug 19: Badlands NP, SD
  • Aug 22: Sioux Falls, SD
  • Aug 25: Baraboo, WI
  • Aug 29: Clinton Lake State Rec Area/ Dewitt, IL
  • Sept 1: Land Between Lakes National Rec Area, TN
  • Sept 5: Top of GA Airstream Park
  • Sept. 9: Skidaway Island State Park, GA
  • Sept 15: Home

Yes, we are happy campers!

Cliffhangers

No tour of Newport, Rhode Island is complete without appreciating the summer “cottages” along the Cliff Walk. The walkway runs 3.5 miles along the Atlantic, offering panoramic views of crashing waves against a craggy seawall…

adorned with massive mansions belonging to America’s 19th-century titans of industry.

Leah and I parked at Easton’s Beach…

and followed clearly marked directions to the trail head,

for a walk through time to reflect on the splendor sponsored by owners during Newport’s Gilded Age.

Designed by a cadre of elite architects of the time, these summer homes represent the stylistic diversity of 200 years of architectural history in Newport, and offer a window into the world of its illustrious owners.

To date, many mansions like Rosecliff have been rescued by Newport Restoration Foundation after having been neglected for dozens of years, and threatened with demolition. Boasting the largest ballroom among its neighbors, Rosecliff has become a popular wedding venue.

The Cliff walk is essentially a pedestrian hike, but can be challenging in places,

with rocky outcroppings…

and unlikely obstacles that require reasonable footwear other than flip flops.

Of course, there are plenty of houses to ogle along 3.5 miles–some that have become museums, like Rough Point…

or repurposed as a Salve Regina University administration building, like Ochre Court…

or converted to condos, like The Waves…

while newer home owners along the walk eschew the notoriety.

But the real entertainment comes from people met along the way–for instance, a sunbathing cliffhanger getting in touch with her inner mountain goat just beyond the 40 Steps marker.

But she was not alone, as Wilson was seen lounging nearby.

Wise Guys

Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.



There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

Mt Rushmore1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Helsinki–Church of the Rock

With our Norway cruise behind us, Leah and I had designs on extending our Northern European adventure. Unfortunately, our plan to visit St. Petersburg hit a fatal snag after we neglected to apply for Russian visas in a timely fashion.

Originally, our flight from Bergen to St. Peterburg required a transfer through Helsinki, so Helsinki became our default destination for the next four days. Although my dream of touring the Winter Palace and Hermitage was temporarily dashed, Helsinki seemed like a worthy safety net and exciting city to explore.

But something about Helsinki was off. Ordinarily, Helsinki during winter months would be blanketed in snow with the harbor frozen over…

overview in snow

but during our visit, the landscape was fully thawed.

overview with no snow

In fact, residents hadn’t seen a trace of snow since winter’s arrival, although they were experiencing one of the wettest and gloomiest seasons on record.

And that’s exactly how it felt to us as we wandered through Helsinki’s city streets, taking in the cultural setting and the vibe.

On our first day of touring, the rain and wind was relentless, but we were undeterred. In the end, we punished our umbrellas, and rendered them useless. But they saved us from a soaking and protected my camera as we found our way to Helsinki’s 50-year old landmark, the Church of the Rock–

Entrance (2)

embedded in bedrock,

aerial

and capped by an oval dome of skylights and copper.

atop the rock

In 1961, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen–Finnish brothers and architects–conceptualized a church excavated from solid rock amidst Helsinki’s Töölö district, and were awarded the commission by a jury of their peers.

overview

Ultimately, budget constraints and construction delays prevented the project from getting underway until February 1968, but the brothers saw their vision consecrated in September 1969.

altar

The church became an instant mecca for concerts,

organ (2)

after sound engineers determined that exposing the rough-hewn rock walls could deliver an acoustic nirvana.

candle sconce

More than half a million visitors a year flock to Church of the Rock for worship, wedding celebrations, and meditation.

Leah (2)

But I came to dry off and stare at the ceiling.

flying saucer

Cruising for a Bruising

When Leah and I embarked on our Norwegian adventure aboard the Viking Star,

Viking Daily

we were unaware that COVID-19 was invading the decks of Diamond Princess while she cruised from Hong Kong to Japan–inevitably turning her into a floating Petri dish of suffering for its 3711 passengers and crew.

There was no mention of Diamond Princess peril during our maritime emergency drill–but an advisory letter was delivered to our stateroom that evening.

Covid-19 letter

When the general alarm sounded, all 450 crew members reported to their assigned muster stations,

crew on drill

while 920 passengers assembled inside the Star Theater to learn how to prepare for an emergency evacuation.

crew on drill1 (2)

After instruction, the crew went about their business, and passengers scattered throughout the ship to enjoy themselves, unconcerned with what was brewing in Asia. Afterall, this was our home to share for the next two weeks.

The Viking Star never felt too crowded or too busy. The spacious Living Room had plenty of comfortable seating for small talk and table games.

puzzle

As a whole, people took their time getting from point A to point B. Many strolled with canes–others with walkers. It made Leah and I feel so much younger than the seventy-somethings attracted to Viking’s vision of casual luxury.

During the course of our cruise, we always gravitated to the 3-deck Atrium at mid-ship,

atrium staircase (2)

where people gathered for conversation and daily music performances. While more than 20 different nationalities were represented onboard, nearly half the ship was American, with large blocks of Brits, Aussies, and Brazilians filling out the count.

piano atrium

When it came to dining, we had a variety of options that came with a couple of rules. The dinner dress code required shoes for all and collared shirts for men. Additionally, use of sanitizer stations or hand sinks at all dining room entrances and exits was expected before seating.

We enjoyed sampling the fish and meats at The Restaurant, located aft on deck 2. It is the Viking Star’s largest menu-driven dining room,

Chef's Table

delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Manfredi's

But for intimate dining, we found Manfredi’s–directly below on deck 1–to be as good a classic Italian eatery as any on sea or land, and without a surcharge to boot. Naturally, early dinner reservations were coveted and prioritized by cabin category, but late-evening seatings became an acceptable compromise for us.

The Restaurant (2)

Next door was Chef’s Table, a small dining room that focused on delivering five fixed courses prepared from locally-sourced ingredients, and paired with selected wines. The course selection changed every few days to showcase a different world cuisine, and was included without surcharge, but by reservation-only.

world cafe

The World Cafe, located aft on deck 7 was Viking Star’s buffet option, and most popular breakfast venue for a wide range of appetites.

buffet line

However, Leah and I have always been wary of buffet lines, which are commonly compromised by passengers who inevitably return for second and third helpings. They unwittingly grab the serving tongs without considering that they may have licked their fingers earlier. Eww!

Bringing our personal hand sanizer to the table always provided a thin veil of protection.

An inspection of The Spa on deck 1 seemed appropriate after so many good meals. We discovered the weight gym,

gym weights

and the machine room.

machine room

and an amazing thermal suite, with a salt water hydrotherapy pool, sauna and snow room.

spa pool

Of course, climate-controlled swimming was available–if we were so inclined–at the Main Pool on deck 7, under a retractable roof.

pool deck

For lounging and relaxation, we could contemplate the panoramic views of the 2-tiered Explorers’ Lounge, forward on decks 7 and 8;

Explorer Lounge

or the Torshavn Lounge,

Torshavn

a nightclub venue for dancing and light entertainment.

entertainment

However, to get away from it all, Leah and I felt very comfortable social distancing inside 5006–

suite 5006 (2)

our Scandinavian-styled veranda stateroom with a king-size bed, a smart TV, and a well-stocked bar refrigerator.

5006 interior

Our cabin was outfitted with a generous-sized bathroom…

bathroom1

that featured an amazing shower.

shower (2)

Thanks to Eric, our room attendant and all the other housekeepers, the ship always sparkled–

Leah and Eric

especially after two ship inspections during our voyage. It was reassuring to see crew members scrubbing and polishing so thoroughly.

On February 14th, our final evening, Leah and I enjoyed dinner at Chef’s Table to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and a return to live TV reception, now that we were floating south of the Arctic Circle.

While savoring our tenderloin stir-fry, we reminisced about our favorite ports:

TromsoViking Star in Tromso (3)

moonrise over Tromso (3)

Altadocked

museum fjord (2)

StravangerViking Star in Stavanger

through fjord storm

and later toasted our crew, who kept us safe and made our cruise so enjoyable.

crew

On the other hand, we learned from current reports that passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess had been less fortunate. They were riding out a quarantine south of Tokyo while confined to their cabins. We learned that 218 passengers and crew had shown positive results among a sample of 700 who were tested.

On February 14th, there were 15 cases of COVID-19 in America and over 64,000 cases worldwide with nearly 1400 deaths. Speaking to National Border Patrol Council members, Donald Trump theorized that April’s warmer weather would stifle the spread of the virus.

Today, the world is on fire. At this moment, over 1.1 million people around the world have tested positive for coronavirus, killing over 57,000. The US has reported more than 277,000 cases with over 7,500 deaths, and there is no end in sight. The warm-weather theory has been debunked.

As I write, Holland America’s Zaandam has finally docked at Ft. Lauderdale, carrying 4 dead and another 26 passengers and 50 crew members infected with COVID-19.

Sadly, for the near future, there can only be one way to appreciate a cruise liner.

Viking Star model (2)

Cathedral of the Northern Lights

Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,

passages (3)

and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.

Viking docked (2)

Leah and I were praying for clear skies plus a surge in solar activity–given Alta’s reputation as the Town of the Northern Lights and home to the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory (1899) for conducting scientific research.

Alta harbor

To that end, we mounted a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights to increase our chances of an anticipated sighting. However, on this temperate night, an unexpected veil of dew painted the town, offering up a cathedral bathed in shimmery titanium,

nighttime (3)

lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.

belfry

To the townsfolk, this sanctuary is as much a tourist attraction as it is a church.

It represents “a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,” according to John F. Lassen, partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen–a Danish design firm that collaborated with Scandinavian firm Link Arkitektur to win the city council’s design competition in 2001.

And there is much to appreciate about the design–outside and in. The exterior’s circular body mimics a magic curtain of light once illustrated by Louis Bevalet in 1838.

lithograph

And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.

Light shafts and altar

Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…

12 Apostles

and the 4.3 meter (14 ft) modernist bronze of Christ searching the blue-glazed heavens, imagined by Danish artist Peter Brandes. While some worshippers may claim that a hidden face lives in the outstretched neck of the subject,

Jesus (2)

the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.

Jesus with 2 looks

Consecrated in 2013, the Cathedral of Northern Lights functions as Alta’s parish church of the Church of Norway, yet remains an open forum for assembly and performance.

One-year after the first benediction, the concrete walls had settled and the pipe organ was installed. The dynamic acoustics attracted notable talent and filled all 350 seats.

organ

Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,

master organist.

Irina Girunyan

While following a complex score for hands and feet,

sheet music

Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.

organ performance with sheet music

The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,

med shot playing

and left me yearning for another reminder.

Northern Lights behind the Cathedral
The titanium-clad Cathedral of the Northern Lights (Photo: Adam Mørk/schmidt hammer lassen)

 

 

 

 

Tromsø–Arctic Cathedral

Leah and I eagerly anticipated our arrival to Tromsø. For one, we were bored of cruising, having spent two consecutive days at sea after missing the port of Bodø because of high winds and rough seas (see Order of the Blue Nose).

But Tromsø, for us, provided the needed adrenelin rush to jumpstart our Norway adventure. Now that we finally arrived at the Gateway to the Arctic, we could participate in many of the off-the-ship excursions within our reach, like snowmobiling through white-carpeted mountain passes, and searching for the Northern Lights.

The Viking Star gently glided past Polaria’s domino-stacked building as Captain Nilsen steered us through the harbor on our way to docking.

Polaria (2)

While waiting for the local authorities to clear our vessel, I had an opportunity to photograph our new surroundings from our stateroom veranda, looking from stem…

Tromso Sound

to stern.

bridge ramp and beyond (2)

But one building that piqued my interest sat off the port side of the ship, nestled in the snowy foothills of Tromsø Sound–the Arctic Cathedral. Absolutely stunning!

against the mountain

Strikingly modern, the church was designed by architect Jan Inge Hovig and built in 1965. It’s roof structure was formed by concrete sheathed in aluminum panels,

side walls

as opposed to Tromsø’s other landmark church, the Tromsø Cathedral. Located in the center of town on the spot of Tromsø’s first church built in 1252, this cathedral was finished in 1861, and remains Norway’s only cathedral made of wood.

wood church city center (2)

Leah and I crossed the Tromsø Bridge by bus for a closer look.

Tromso Bridge

Likened to the Sydney Opera House, the exterior of the Arctic Cathedral is simple in shape and style,

entrance and bicycle

while the interior design is modestly appointed to accentuate: the large prism chandeliers;

altar triangles

the sparse altar rail and pulpit; and the grand glass mosaic commissioned by artist Victor Sparre–depicting three rays of light emanating from God’s hand: one through the form of Jesus, one through woman and one through man.

Altar and window

The western wall of the sanctuary is complemented by Grönlunds Orgelbyggeri’s organ, built in 2005.

The Star of David radiating through the eastern wimdow symbolizes a spirit of inclusiveness and community acceptance. (Just kidding)

organ

The organ was built in the French Romantic tradition, and was adapted to the cathedral’s architecture, providing illusions of sails and ice floes. The organ comprises 2940 pipes, measuring from 32 feet (9.6 m) to just 5 mm. Much of the woodwork is solid pine with bellows made of reindeer hide.

It’s a pity I never heard it played, as I’m certain the cathedral’s vaulted vortex provides impressive acoustics.

Back at the Viking Star, after a brief bout of daylight (6hrs, 15min.)…

Viking Star and Artic Cathedral (2)

I returned to my veranda to record the Arctic Cathedral bathed in moonlight…

moonrise over Tromso (2)

and I imagined I heard Grieg’s Song of Norway playing from its soaring arches.

at night

 

Stavanger

Leah and I crossed a rocky North Sea from Tilbury, England aboard Viking Star (more on this Viking ocean liner later),

cruise port

and docked at Stavanger Port on an overcast morning.

Port Authority

Stavanger is Norway’s third largest region, and best known as the European capital for the oil and gas industry–which explains the town’s Norwegian Petroleum Museum, and its unusual derrick-like design on the city’s waterfront.

petroleum museum

Stavanger is also a popular tourist hub, as it’s the gateway to the fjords. To that end, Leah and I had booked an off-ship excursion to Rogaland to cruise through Lysefjord in search of Preikestolen, better known as Pulpit Rock.

But with some time to kill before our departure, we disembarked early to stroll along the harbor plaza to find our bearings, and regain our sea legs after a day and a half of cruising.

welcome

The plaza was sleepy for an early Wednesday morning, but it was refreshing to have the place to ourselves.

bronze man (2)

We could enjoy the local art (that celebrates the shrimping industry)…

pillar sculpture (2)

without concern for another’s footsteps.

Dalai Lama

We opted to tour the Gamle Stravanger (Old Town), where 173 wooden buildings from the turn of the 18th century have been preserved…

rooftop cluster

down to the cast bronze utility plate covers.

Stavanger 1866A casual walk along Old Town’s winding roads of white cottages…

 

Old Town tree

soon brought us to an end-of-the-road cafe,

cafe

where old begat new,

old town district

and reminded us how far we’ve come…

My Little Ponies

and the distance we’ve traveled.

Our adventure continues…

The Shard

Leah and I were in search of a London eyrie for dramatic views, but refused to pay £27 to see the skyline from top of the Eye at 135 meters.

ferris wheel

While I’m sure that the views are impressive from the top-most bubble, we were less than interested in a vew from a carnival ride.

Then we considered The Shard–London’s tallest building, rising 310 meters,

The Shard

Inagurated on July 5, 2012, it’s observation deck on the 72nd floor commands 360° views of the city, and dominates the horizon from all parts.

Shard from Blackfriar

But again, £25 for a timed ticket? I don’t think so! But there is a cheaper way…by having a drink at Rainer Becker’s Oblix on the 32nd floor.

Oblix (2)

Just walk around the corner, enter through the attended doors, endure the TSA-type security, and wiz up the elevator, where an icon-rich, interpretive map of London confuses and delights simultaneously.

Map of London of the 32nd Floor

We arrived late afternoon on a clear Saturday, and the bar was packed with fashionistas and millenial posers.

We parked ourselves at a long table that we promised to surrender at 4:30 pm, if only to secure a seat and a stylish waitress dressed in black.

across the Thames (2)

I nursed a valencia orange Ketel One vodka with blood orange, peach & hibiscus at £14.50, but it was a bargain,

London Bridge Station

if for no other reason than to capture unparalleled views,

terminal

people watch,

skyline

and enjoy a great cocktail at half the price of The Shard’s regular admission.

Tower Bridge

Cheers!

Photos I Shouldn’t Have Taken

Our time in London was limited–only two days to explore the sights. With so much to see and so little time, Leah and I buckled down for a tour of London’s greatest hits, which easily includes a visit to Westminster Abbey, England’s Gothic royal church, and familiar site for British coronations and weddings, and national celebrations dating back to the 11th century.

WA panorama

We walked around the massive structure until we found the gate entry. Signage informed us that access to this London landmark would set us back 23£ ($30 with current exchange rates), but seniors were entitled to a 3£ discount.

north facade

The price seemed steep, but the opportunity to walk through history doesn’t come along every day.

relief of Christ

There is a strict NO PHOTOGRAPHY policy inside, which the church keepers will tell you is for the benefit of giving their guests an experience without distraction, and to perserve the solemnity of a working house of worship.

Nevertheless, we walked through the transepts and chapels listening to interactive video recordings while admiring the captivating architecture and memorials, and reflecting on the notion that Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton lie beneath our feet.

But with a newly purchased camera dangling around my neck (Sony RX10 IV), I couldn’t resist the urge.

WA main hall

I had to see what this camera could reproduce in low light…

quire

using advanced stabilization software for hand-held shots…

High Altar1

until I was admonished by an Abbey marshal in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel while capturing an overhead view from a polished mirror.

royal tomb room

My bad! He wouldn’t leave my side until I reversed the shade and capped my lens. Even then, I could feel his eyes trained on me as I walked around the royal tombs acting as contrite as I could possibly be.

Fortunately, photography IS allowed in the College Garden,

courtyard

the Cloisters,

cloisters

and the Chapter House.

columnfresco

stained glass reflection

As we prepared to leave through the Great West Door, Leah and I walked past the Grave of the Unknown Warrior toward the Coronation Chair behind glass, I was so tempted to surreptitiously point and shoot…but thought better of it. Lesson learned.

As serendipity would have it, the Marshal and I reunited outside, and all was forgiven.

marshall

We parted as friends, and I believe I was absolved for my vainglory sin. He used our final moments together to tell us the tale of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, his favorite modern martyr, whose ediface adorns the Abbey’s Great West Door.

Elizabeth

According to Marshal John…

Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1st November 1864. She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. If her childhood was Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Elizabeth found Orthodoxy increasingly absorbing, and in 1891 she adopted the faith.

Although her life had assurance and all the comforts of eminence, it rested on fragile foundations. The Tsarist state maintained its grip over a changing society by repression. Talk of revolution persisted, and grew louder. Acts of terrorism mounted. On 18th February 1905, the Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated.

This marked a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Now she gave away her jewellery and sold her most luxurious possessions, and with the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow, to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. Here there arose a new vision of a diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. In April 1909 Elizabeth and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work flourished: soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.

In March 1917 the Tsarist state, fatally damaged by the war with Germany, collapsed. In October, a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, seized power. Civil war followed. The Bolshevik party was avowedly atheistic, and it saw in the Orthodox Church a pillar of the old regime. In power, it persecuted the Church with terrible force. In time, hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned, taken away to distant labour camps, and killed. Churches were closed or destroyed. On 7th May 1918 Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17th July the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night Elizabeth, a sister from SS Mary and Martha named Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.

In the Soviet Union Christianity survived in the face of periodic persecution and sustained oppression. But Elizabeth was remembered. In 1984 she was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.

I’m certain that Saint Elizabeth, in her charity, would have pardoned me too.

Western Towers

To avoid taking interior photos of Westminster Abbey, go to https://www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/photo-gallery for complementary images.