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: Cheyanne, 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
  • .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: Olympic Peninsula, 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!

Inhu•manatee

Florida manatees are in trouble and it’s troubling. Today, wildlife conservationists put their current census at around 6500 individuals–up from a few hundred in the 1970’s–

and have reclassified these docile creatures as “threatened.” However, the tide may be returning to “endangered,” given the increasing number of manatees at risk from boat strikes (averaging 100 every year), and the consensus that manatees are dying in unexpected numbers this year from extreme weather. Simply put, they are starving to death.

There’s a chill in the air, and the West Indian manatees of northern Florida have been scrambling to find warmer waters during winter months, where they usually huddle in large numbers, which assists in the yearly count.

Many coastal manatees migrate to Manatee Lagoon…

to bask in the warm-water discharges of FPL’s Next Generation Clean Energy Center at West Palm Beach,

while hundreds flee to Blue Springs State Park, in Orange City, Florida, where they find safe haven at a wellspring releasing 72° water year-round.

Others migrate to Silver Springs State Park,

where clear, calm, and temperate waters provide an abundance of sea grass for grazing.

But that’s not the case in many other places where manatees congregate. In recent years, massive toxic algae blooms accelerated by increased extreme weather have eliminated several hundred “sea cows” every year.

The Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side of the state accounts for the majority of manatee losses.

According to Indian River Lagoon guide Billy Rotne:

The raw truth of the matter is due to negligence of our storm water. We’ve had continual algal blooms over the past 10 years, which blocks out seagrass and kills it…so the manatees are starving to death.

And Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club further connects the dots:

I believe that seagrass loss is making manatees travel farther to get food, often going into man-made canals where they are more exposed to boat traffic.

Manatees have no natural predators. Sharks, whales and alligators usually swim in different waters and pose no threat to them.

Only humans have the capacity to put manatees at risk, with at least 432 having already perished in the first two months of 2021, accounting for 5 times the number of deaths in recent years.

Even more disturbing, a boat charter captain trolling the Homosassa River in the western part of Florida observed a manatee with “TRUMP” etched along its back.

Perhaps we need to do a better job of protecting them, if they are going to survive our abuses.

Just Wondering…

If gators…

and birds…

can coexist side by side,

why can’t we abide.


The above-mentioned poem and pics were motivated by a day-trip to Myakka River State Park, outside Sarasota, Florida.

Originally, my early inclination was to post this as a stand-alone, abstract reaction to all the hate that’s been circulating around the country of late, but as luck would have it–at Leah’s urging–I walked along Sarasota’s Bayfront…

and discovered the 18th Annual Art Exhibit Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion.

Almost immediately, after walking through the exhibition, I realized that showcasing birds and preying reptiles was too esoteric in getting my message across.

And I knew I had to include a sampling of the thoughtful, amazing talent from local and international students…

who have found a way to express themselves both poetically and graphically in ways that astound me, and give me hope for the future of our planet.

50 panels are spread throughout a marine park setting frequented by families, dog-walkers, tourists, and boaters, etc.,

interacting among billboard-sized art.

Indeed, a captive audience for a captivating display of enlightenment that’s too good to ignore.

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.

Letchworth State Park

Without question, the feature attraction of Letchworth State Park…

LSP signage

has to be the trinity of waterfalls in the southern corridor of America’s favorite State Park (USA TODAY, 2015 Reader’s Choice), that stretches from the newly-replaced railroad trestle crossing the Portageville Entrance…

Upper falls and bridge

RR smile

RR span girders

to the Mt. Morris Dam, 17 miles to the north.

Morris Dam

And it’s the mighty Genesee River that flows between both boundaries–

Hogsback Overlook pano

continuing to carve out a bedrock gorge of mostly shale,

Genesee S curve

with exposed cliffs that rise 600 feet into the air,

Hogsback Overlook

earning Letchworth the distinction of being known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” 

keyhole

But it’s the waterfalls that most visitors come to see…

curtain falls (3)

Well almost, because there are as many as 50 smaller waterfalls throughout the park that flow into the Genesee. But none are as impressive as Middle Falls, which cascades over a 107 ft drop.

middle falls day

As the name suggests, Middle Falls falls directly in the middle,

middle and upper falls

between Upper Falls…

pool of rocks

and Lower Falls.

20200807_144857 (2)

While the names of the waterfalls seem conventional, it was an unconventional man, William Pryer Letchworth, who had the foresight to buy the property surrounding Upper and Middle Falls to thwart the installation of a hydro-electric turbine, and save the falls from ruin.

trail

Letchworth also transformed an existing building atop the cliff overlooking Middle Falls into his estate, and named it Glen Iris.

Glen Iris B&B (2)

Today, it operates as a shabby-chic Bed and Breakfast, offering meals in the garden on the lawn, on the porch under the veranda, or in any one of several indoor dining rooms.

Leah and I sat outside, dining on spicy pizza and Parmesan-garlic chicken wings. We kept our eye on the New York sky, and we were eager for dusk to arrive.

At the appointed time–when daylight surrenders–the floodlights flashed on and burned onto the water spill.

Bar tab and entrees came to $60 bucks, but the view of the falls from the top of the cliff was priceless.

middle falls lit

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.

Narvik

On our way to Bergen, Norway, the Viking Star docked at Narvik–a mountainside town reknown for its urban off-piste skiing,

Narvikfjellet_Skimap_2020 (2)

and notable for its ice-free harbor,

Viking Star at port

which was of strategic importance during World War II…

mother and child (2)

for transporting iron ore that’s been mined from the world’s largest underground reserve in Kiruna, Sweden since 1898.

distance and direction

Leah and I had hoped to ride the cable car to the mountain restaurant to enjoy the view, but on this particular day, the mountain was closed because of nasty weather.

Snorres Gate

Instead, we braved the treacherous icy streets…

hilltop advantage (2)

and climbed the hills for views of distant shores,

distant mountains

clusters of urban housing,

residential cluster

public art, 

wall mosaic

and commemorative sculpture, such as the National Monument of Freedom.

commemorative spire

Expanding our horizons, we boarded a bus bound for Polar Park,

road sign (2)

the world’s northernmost animal sanctuary,

signage (2)

and home to Norway’s large predators such as bears,

up from hibernation (2)

wolves,

wolf eyes (3)

and lynx.

chain lynx (2)

Although the animal habitats are vast,

You Are Here

and the wildlife seem well-cared for, it’s impossible to look past the fencing and not think of Polar Park as a winter zoo.

The wolves have been humanized since their arrival in 2006,

wolves on a hill

and available for kisses and snuggles, albeit for an extra fee.

wolf kiss

All things considered, I’d rather take my chances petting the barking dog that guards the reindeer down the road.

dog and deer (5)

Next stop…Bergen!

Praying for a Glimpse of Pulpit Rock

Having pre-booked Rødne’s 3-hour scenic cruise through Lysefjord–Western Norway’s most picturesque passage–

route map

Leah and I were on an impossible mission to view Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), considering the current gray skies and dismal forecast. Reknown for its views, and famous for its cliffhanger scene in Mission: Impossible–Fallout, we considered Preikestolen a must-see.

On the bright side, there was plenty of legroom aboard Rødne’s Rygerdronningen, a 297-passenger, high-speed catamaran that carried only 24 guests this particular day, many with camera lenses as long as my arm.

boat tour

We pushed off at 11:00 am sharp,

playground

easing out of the harbor’s protected waters,

marina (2)

and beyond the bridge,

bridge columns (2)

where it became perfectly clear to us that this was a perfect day for seabirds,

seabirds

but less so for Leah–who required a double dose of dramimine to deal with the swells propagating across the horizon.

pier house

Along the journey, we passed scores of coastline cottages,

summer cottage

whose owners regulary commute to town by boat during the summer months…

boathouse

unless they have the means to vacation in Rogaland all summer long.

tiered roof

 

Midway through our voyage we passed under the Lysefjord Bridge–gateway to Lysefjord–

Lysefjord Bridge1

connecting Forsand with Oanes, a small farming village on the coastline,

mountain valley

that’s dwarfed by an imposing edifice.

gateway to Lysefjord

We eased into the fjord,

into the fjords

flanked by looming walls of granite…

cliffside

until the captain navigated the bow of the ship within a hair’s breath of the Vagabond’s Cave.

cave entrance (2)

Legend has it that the cave was named after a group of vagabonds who used the shelter as a hideout for months, trying to escape the police.

cliff face

As we backed out of the grotto to pursue a course to Pulpit Rock, the weather turned to sleet and snow, shrouding the cliff’s signature square flat top, 604 meters above the fjord, and driving most of the passengers indoors.

pulpit rock

But there were some intrepid sailors who were undeterred, because they had little choice in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat).

RIB (2)

We followed at our own pace…

falls and RIB (2)

until we reached Hengjane Waterfall, cascading 400 meters (1312 ft) into the fjord.

Hengjane Waterfall (2)

Soon after, we U-turned to retrace our wake before returning to Skavanger.

through fjord storm

Marie-Charlotte van Kerckhoven was among the few passengers on board. While nursing a hot coffee, Leah and I heard about her hiking expedition to the top of Pulpit Rock the day before. Braving freezing temperatures and two feet of snow, she and her hiking buddy made the ascent to the 25 by 25 meters flat top in 4 hours.

She was happy to share her view,

view from the top

and even happier to report that here was no trace of Tom Cruise ever being there.

Next port of call: Bodø

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…

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.

Ta-ta, Tulum!

GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!

But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.

According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).

“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.

All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!

While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.

I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats.
Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.

Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.

We drove to the término, reaching our destination…

Santa Fe wall

and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.

beach and ruins.jpg

We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.

Tulum envisioned

Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.

castillo and tourists

castillo signage

In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…

Tulum vista

ruins 2

ruins 4

ruins

ruins3

Temple of Paintings

temple on the hill

except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.

Leah thru the gate

Leah and Nate.jpg

After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.

hilltop view

Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…

shoreline

and that was our next destination.

Sante Fe Beach Club

Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.

Brenda

Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.

Our captain motored out to open water,

Captain of Brenda.jpg

and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.

temple by the sea

Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.

snorkeling over a reef.jpg

Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…

pelican chilling

and keeping track of my sons.

Nate snorkeling

Noah and the bird

Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.

3 amigos

Night Lights in the Garden–Naples, FL

For some reason, thousands of lights wrapped around sultry-weather palm trees…

curved palm

don’t suggest Christmas or winter wonderland to me in quite the same way as a traditionally decorated evergreen.

Biltmore Xmas tree

A live oak decorated with oversized ornaments comes close,

oak and orbs

but it’s still no match for the festive vibe that envelopes New York City during the holidays,

Angels with Trumpets

where everything is bigger…

Big Ornaments

and brighter.

Xmas lights

Not that there’s anything wrong with lit palm trees.

lit palms

Nevertheless, there is a tradition in Naples, Florida that dates back to 2009, when tiki torches first illuminated the town’s 170-acre botanical gardens.

Gardens with Latitude

Since then, the holiday light show has evolved to “to accentuate the plants themselves and their textures, silhouettes and natural beauty,” according to Ralph Klebosis, event productions manager.

wrapped palms

While some of the displays were fascinating unto themselves…

floating pan

photographing the event pulled me in a completely different direction after I noticed a pulsing plant projector.

plant projector

If this event is about night lights, then why not capture the light source and paint with it, I mused? And so I did. The images are a product of serendipity, and represent a different take on Nights of Light.

spiral palm

shoelace palm

loopy palm

Rorshach palm

cosmic palm

swirl palm w spark

44 palm

All the same, artificial light could never improve on Mother Nature!

White Sands National Park

As of December 20, 2019, White Sands National Monument became America’s 62nd national park, and just in time for those seeking a very white Christmas.

Spanning 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin,

long shot (3)

the ethereal dunes sweep across an other-worldy carpet of snow-white gypsum–

pan shot

–remarkably cool to the touch,

foot printing .jpg

and perfect for sledding, 

girl on sled (2)

dog and sled (2)

or dog walking.

dog walking (2)

Despite initial impressions of isolation,

dunescape and mountains (2)

within a vast barren landscape…

yin and yang (3)

White Sands harbors a fragile eco-system that manages to survive…

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despite its harsh surroundings…

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and uncertain conditions.

pods

But whichever way the wind blows…

wind texture.jpg

the real fascination of White Sands occurs when the sun dips below the horizon,

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and awakens the magic that ignites the desert glow.

cactus glowing (2)

Have yourself a Happy Holiday and a White Christmas!

Leah and Neal (3)

 

Bonnie’s Deadly Deed

A recounting of a 10-year holiday memory…



Finally, the nasty weather had given way to a brisk and sunny Black Friday, and Bonnie was eager to shed her restlessness. Three weeks had passed since our last outing, and I could tell she needed a proper walk. Her telltale kitchen dance with paws clattering across the hardwood floor made it obvious to Leah and me.

Merely grabbing her leash had Bonnie running in tight circles after her stubby tail, making her difficult to collar. She strained against her leash, pulling me past the front door. She leapt into the cargo space of my SUV, and curled into a ball, completely satisfied with her preparation.

One of Bonnie’s favorite walks takes us through the fancy neighborhood of Mountain Lakes, NJ for a closer look at how all the Blue Buffalo stew-eaters live, so off we went to walk among the Mountain Lake estates.

Fortunately, the local shopping malls had swallowed most of the area’s cars, so the four- mile drive to Boulevard took little time, and parking was a breeze.

The moment Bonnie’s legs hit the pavement, she eagerly sniffed for a place to do her business. Naturally, Leah and I were prepared for this moment, so out came a baggie that’s perfect for scooping.

But carrying a used baggie so early in the walk can be a bit annoying; it spoils my walking rhythm, and besides, it smells!

I believed the durable construction of the Rubbermaid barrel by the side door of the yellow house on our right would provide an ideal resting place for Bonnie’s poop, so off I went to make a deposit. I crossed through a hole between two hedges, and dropped Bonnie’s dirty deed atop a pizza delivery box with a cartoon chef declaring, “We Are Pleased to Serve You.” It seemed so apropos.

I secured the lid and rejoined my girls just as the homeowner cracked the side door, craned his neck and asked, “Can I help you?”

“No thanks,” I answered, “I’m just doing an inspection of garbage cans in the neighborhood, and I’m happy to say that you’ve passed!” I waved good-bye as Leah shot me a look, and we continued our walk.

We turned onto a new block and climbed a steep hill. Just as we were enjoying the fresh air and the scenery, a cream-colored Lexus sedan sped by, and cut us off. The driver’s side door opened, and the burly-looking homeowner emerged holding Bonnie’s holdings, but now sealed within a heavy-duty double-lined zip-locked baggie.

“I think this belongs to you,” he said, extending his arm with a dour look on his face.

And then came his rant. “My wife is seriously allergic to this! Do you realize you could have killed my wife and the baby she’s carrying if she was exposed to this? After eight goddamn years of trying, and spending tens of thousands of dollars on IVF drugs and testing, she finally gets pregnant. So now she’s on bed rest with two months to go, and here you come with your dog shit, and you’re gonna fuck it up for all of us.”

The veins of his forehead were bulging under his DeMarco Sanitation cap. I wondered if he would hit me, so I instinctively felt for the keys in my pocket and gripped them between my fingers as a defensive measure.

“I’m sorry,” I stated in my most solemn voice. “I had no idea that Bonnie’s poop was so treacherous. She’s only a cockapoo, and she really doesn’t mean any harm. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us.” I graciously took the bag of shit with my left hand, withdrew my right hand from my pocket and reached to shake his hand. “No harm, no foul,” I offered.

What else could I do?

As if by magic, he immediately relaxed and we chatted for a few minutes, trading personal histories. He introduced himself as Jason, and pointing to his cap, informed me that he owned a local waste management and carting company. I took a half-step back from him, my mind brimming with comparisons of Tony Soprano.

Jason revealed that he recently moved to Mountain Lakes, and hoped to raise a family in a clean and peaceful neighborhood. I wished his family peace and cleanliness, and I reiterated my apology for my faux paws.

With Jason assuaged and his forgiveness assured, Leah, Bonnie and I continued our walk, but now with a bigger baggie and a familiar problem.

After reaching the top of the hill, we discovered a new mansion under construction. A large dumpster stood guard in the front yard. I checked around in all directions to make sure we were hidden from view.

“Don’t you dare!” Leah threatened.

But I was already committed. I tossed the baggie into the heart of the steel container, and quick-stepped away from the property. Glancing back, I casually surveyed the new architecture with the over-sized receptacle in the foreground–emblazoned with D-E-M-A-R-C-O in large, white, stenciled letters–and reflected on my full-circle achievement.



RIP, Bonnie!

Harriman Hikers

The four of us (Doug, Arlene, Leah and I) have been hiking together for nearly 15 years.

hikers (2)

We bonded as regulars of Harriman Hikers–a 45 year-old organization of singles from New York and New Jersey who continue to gather every Sunday, year-round, rain or shine at Ramapo College to hike Harriman State Park, along with other trails in Wawayanda State Park, Norvin Green State Forest, Ramapo Reservation and the southern Hudson Valley.

I met the Harriman Hikers through Leah just a few months into our courtship, and accepted an invitation to hike with her group. I felt confident that sufficient time had passed after rehabilitating a broken leg and torn knee caused by a Kamakazi snowboader 6 months earlier.

Big mistake! These were dedicated hikers who had mapped out a grueling 12-mile hike of steep ascents and descents, leaving me noticeably lame at the end of 6 hours in the woods. I thought that Leah might have to carry me out.

As time passed, my stamina improved, as did my personal relationships within the group. Over time, Leah and I strayed from the pack and blazed our own trail, hiking different destinations at our own convenience with Doug and Arlene, who initially met through Harriman Hikers and eventually married.

Since moving from New Jersey to St. Augustine, Leah and I have maintained a long distance relationship with Doug and Arlene, and we were eager to reprise our traditional Thanksgiving hike together…especially after over-eating with family the night before!

family table

It was time to return to Harriman. We arranged to meet at the Lake Skannatati parking lot located off Seven Lakes Drive. Fortunately, the temperature was more conducive to hiking than the prior year (see Becoming My Parents).

As always, it was great catching up with familiar faces in familiar places. We leisurely looped around the mounds of granite…

our route

…traveling 5.66 miles over 3:42:26,

Annotation 2019-12-01 205640

and reached the ridgeline approximately one hour into the hike. The wind was brisk at the clearing, but the view from the top of the hill was worthy of the chill.

Harriman ridgeline

And the warmth of our friendship carried us the rest of the way.

Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.

confluence

The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.

barrels

However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.

trestle

In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),

Heyward Shepherd memorial.jpg

five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.

questioning after capture

John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.

trial

Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

hanging

How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.

John Brown (2)

John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,

Appalachian Trail

…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.

stone stairs to heaven


The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.

Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.

white house

And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

church nave (2)

while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.

If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

gravesite

Sounds remarkably familiar.

More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.

floating

Tent Rocks

Leah and I were yearning for a satisfying hike through the mountains of New Mexico that we’d yet to explore. While we were happy hiking the Tecolote Trail in the Sandia Mountains–which offered pleasant panoramas of the desert floor stretching nine miles to South Mountain, and views of Sandia Crest that had us wishing we could stay longer–

Sandia overlook (3)

…the whipping wind that swept across the overlook killed any notion of lingering along the mesa top to enjoy the spots of fall color that recently dotted the evergreen terrain.

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However, the following day, a stroll through Albuquerque’s Old Town…

San Felipe de Neri

brought us to a photography gallery that showcased Southwestern landscapes and introduced us to Tent Rocks.

Old Town

“That place looks cool. We should go there,” I asserted.

“I agree, but how do you know if we can even get there from here?” Leah questioned.

After consulting Google, I learned that Tent Rocks was a National Monument located within the Pueblo of Cochiti, only an hour north of Albuquerque.

The following day, riding north on NM-14 (part of the scenic and historic Turquise Trail National Scenic Byway), we took a left turn onto NM-301, a rutted, dusty road connecting to NM-22.

We approached the earthen wall of the Cochiti Dam, a controversial water management project approved by Congress in 1960, and finished in 1975 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Cochiti Lake.png

Stretching 5 miles across the desert, and rising 250 feet above the Rio Grande, the resultant lake flooded sacred lands and fields belonging to local tribes for centuries.

We continued west on NM-22 for two miles before arriving at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. We pulled up behind seven parked cars–each one waiting to pay five bucks to the BLM park ranger stretching his legs beside the fee station. Our SUV idled a minute or two, but the line was at a standstill.

The sign post beside us forecasted a 30-minute wait-time from our current position.

“I’m gonna take a walk,” and Leah was out of the car, working her way to the front of the line.

The news arrived in under a minute…offering a Trail Guide.

“All 94 parking spaces are taken,” Leah explains with a hint of exasperation. “They probably arrived when the gates opened at 8am.”

“Okay. So that was two hours ago,” I respond, admitting the obvious. “It says here on the map that the trail is 1.5 miles in and out, so hopefully, a lot of people should be on their way out by now.”

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait here?” asks Leah.

“According to the sign, it’s a 30-minute wait,” I assert.

“Smartass!” she hurls.

After 20 minutes of anticipation, I noticed movement in the ranks! Two cars in front gave up the wait and U-turned, leaving us in sixth place. 

Silly people. If only they had waited a few minutes longer. Soon after, a rash of cars passed us on the way out, and we were on our way, cruising through four miles of dip-after-dip, tribal land road, before reaching the parking zone.

While Leah and Carrie (Leah’s daughter) waited in line for the only outhouse in the vicinity, I caught up on my reading at the trailhead.

slot canyon info

History and Geology

Geologic treasure

volcanic activity

As interested as I was to learn about New Mexico’s volcanic eruptions and its pyroclastic flows, I was itching to get on the trail and weave through the slot canyon.

slot canyon

The canyon walls were so narrow in places, that only one person could navigate the labyrinth at a time.

slot canyon trail

It reminded me of the way that road crews monitor traffic on a one way road…

slot and boulder

…and it was vaguely reminiscent of a similar protocol at the fee station and toilet.

canyon walls

Of course, with so many early hikers already on the trail and now turning back, it made for several occasional stops, and many pleasant exchanges along the way.

However, when the canyon finally opened up, we were greeted with a greater appreciation of what seven million years had done to the place.

canyon trail

hoodoo cliff

hoodoo peaks

Leah and Carrie (2)

Even the trees seemed magical, managing to stand in the shadow of such uncertain footing. 

pine shadow

long root (2).jpg

Once we reached a clearing in the trail, we began our 630-foot ascent to the mesa top, giving us a better perspective of our lair,

peak towers

and freeing us from all obstructions,

canyon pan

until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,

Jemez Mountains (3)

and remind ourselves, once again, why it’s always a good idea to wait one’s turn in line.

Tent Rocks

High Time

While camping alongside the Airstream factory in Jackson Center (see Building Airstreams), Leah and I wondered how we would kill time during our weekend stopover. There wasn’t much to do in town, although we were within walking distance of the Elder Theatre, a one-screen cinema showcasing Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the Heidout Restaurant, serving bar food backed by a roadhouse jukebox.

We took a pass on both, and drove to Bellefontaine, 20 miles east of our location. How fortuitous, because high atop Campbell Hill–overlooking a scenic parking lot, and peaks of grasslands beyond, as far as the eye can see–

Campbell Hill panorama

sits the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a two-year career-technical high school campus that also doubles as the highest point in Ohio, at 1549 feet elevation.

Campbell Hill marker

Once upon a Cold War time, this site was home to Bellefontaine Air Force Station, providing radar surveillance to NORAD in the event of a Soviet invasion from the North Pole.

Remnants remain.

Hazmat Team

Leah and I were giddy with excitement. It could have been the altitude, but the notion that we were standing at the highest point in Ohio nearly took our breath away. 

highest point

However, we are seasoned travelers who have Airstreamed through most of America (see Top of the World), and we refused to be intimidated by the height of Campbell Hill.

Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.

We took a deep breath to clear our heads, and took a seat on a strategically placed bench by the geodetic survey marker.

Campbell Hill bench

After a snack to raise our blood sugar, we managed to trek to the parking lot a short distance away. As I regained my composure inside the F-150, I realized that we were brought here for a reason. I figured that given our vantage point and strategic positioning, the military may be interested in recommissioning this location as a secure listening post as we approach the 2020 presidential elections.