Impressions Photographique de Montréal

It took a few days of walking, cycling, and driving around Montréal before Leah and I found our bearings from atop Mont Royal.

We roamed the rues and parcs of the city in search of historic, cultural, and architectural significance–with an emphasis on good food…and we found it in many of the neighborhoods we visited.

Nouilles de Lan Zhou – Noodle Shop

We followed in the steps of 6 million annual tourists who stroll, bike, blade and run between Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (1771), 

and the Sailors’ Memorial Clock (1922) at the Vieux-Port de Montréal (Old Port).

We shared a laugh after spotting yet another monster-sized Ferris wheel on the pier, but La Grande Roue de Montréal, erected in 2017 to celebrate Montréal’s 350th anniversary is one of several family attractions that appeal to tourists near and far.

In 1642, New France took root on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, where French traders and the Crown established a fort (Ville-Marie) in support of a flourishing fur trade. Roman Catholic missionaries followed, intending to establish a North American parish that could convert the Iroquois to Christianity, and build a cathedral that was worthy of a New World capital.

Notre-Dame Basilica was designed by James O’Donnell in a Gothic Revival style, and built behind the original parish church.

Robert Auchmuty Sproule (1799-1845)

The sanctuary was completed in 1830,

and the towers followed in 1841 and 1843.

The interior’s intricate stone and wood carvings were completed in 1879.

The pipe organ dates to 1891. It comprises four keyboards, 92 stops, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.

Arson destroyed the more intimate Sacre-Coeur Chapel in 1978, but it was rebuilt from original drawings, and finished with an immense bronze altarpiece by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin.

It’s a 5-minute Metro ride from downtown to Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island park surrounded by the Saint Lawrence River. Half the park is natural (Saint Helen’s Island) and the other half is artificial (Ile de Notre Dame), conceived with rock excavated from Montréal’s Metro tunnels.

The park is a fitting tribute and memorial for its namesake, Jean Drapeau. As mayor of Montréal (1954-1957, 1960-1986), he was instrumental in bringing Expo67 to his city. Drapeau is also remembered for securing the 1976 Summer Olympics for Montréal, as well as successfully lobbying Major League Baseball for a major league franchise during its 1969 expansion (Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Pilots).

Few pavilions from Expo67 remain on the island. Notably, the French pavilion has been repurposed as Canada’s largest casino.

And the United States pavilion, featuring Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome has also been preserved, despite a fire in1976 that burned through the structure’s acrylic bubble, leaving only the steel trusses.

Fortunately, the exhibition space within the dome was spared, and has been transformed into an interactive museum named Biosphere, that tells the story of our environment through several rooms of multimedia presentations,

and a wraparound theater space.

But its the iconic geodesic dome that most visitors have come to experience. The New York Times picked the dome as one of “the 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture.”

Geometry majors may discover 32 triangles from the center of each vertex to the next vertex.

Montréal is also a culinary haven for foodies. We sampled wood-oven-baked bagels from St-Viateur, and smoked meat from Chez Schwartz in the Jewish Quarter. For dinner, Leah and I migrated to Chinatown to sample the fare with Jennifer, a dear friend in town for business.

We settled on a tasty meal of soup dumplings at Mai Xiang Yuan Dumpling, but wondered out loud about the long queue out the the door for Gol’s Lanzhou Noodle Shop.

We made a mental note and returned to Gol’s the following evening, only to find another long line of future diners waiting patiently. I spent my wait time studying the noodle maker through the window…

and tasted his skillset in my meal when we were finally seated and served a tureen-sized portion of steaming heaven.

Authentic Lanzhou braised beef and noodles

These were beef noodles to stand in line for, whenever I’m back in Montréal.

Olympic Pipe Dreams

I treated myself to a bobsled ride at the Nordic and Sliding Center in Lake Placid for no particular reason, and it was amazing.

Yet the notion of barreling down Mt. Van Hoevenberg in a pocket rocket was never part of my original bucket list…although it should have been. So I added it, just so I could cross it off my list.

True, there’s another bobsled run in Park City, but I’m not schlepping to Utah for another sliding track if I’m already here. Besides, Olympic history was made at Lake Placid, when the Americans defeated the Soviets in the men’s hockey finale.

Leah had less than zero interest in joining me, so I was on my own. Unfortunately, she was nursing a bad lower back the past few days, and missing out on a world of world-class activities–

while I was anticipating the thrill of winding through a dozen curves in a rumbling sled, and wondering how I would capture it all without dropping my phone. Carpe diem, all the way!

I filled out a “hold harmless” waiver online; showed the attendant my drivers license (although I wasn’t driving); and booked a 1pm run-time for $125. I thought it a bit pricey for a 55 second experience, compared to the “value” of free-falling from an airplane (Free Fallin’ Off My Bucket List),

or riding Class 4 and 5 rapids on the New River (New River Gorge), but at least I’d have bragging rights among friends.

Leah was willing and able to join me on the Legacy Tour, where we previewed the Olympic Center’s newest facility–the first of its kind, indoor push-track for bobsled and skeleton in the United States–

where athletes can practice start gate techniques for skeletons, and bobsleds. But they’ll need to dress for winter, because it was like a mammoth refrigerator inside!

We warmed up while examining the 1980 track, which is built atop the 1932 track, which runs parallel to the Cliffside Coaster, North America’s longest coaster.

Next, we boarded a bus that drove us to the 1st of 4 start gates of the Combined Track, completed in 2000…

for a look at what $50K to $100K will buy these days.

Then we walked the upper course…

past Curve 1…

to Start Gate 3…

with a distant view of the Ski Jump Center.

I shared my downhill ride with an anonymous coed, who took the first position behind the driver. I squeezed in behind her, with my butt planted on a quilted foam pad. Definitely, not the best position for a bad back, so Leah was right to sit this one out. Instructions were simple: hold onto the inside bars with both hands.

“But how will I video this?” I asked.

The attendant picked his words carefully: “You didn’t hear this from me, but if you hold your phone near the edge of the sled and brace your arm against the roll bar, your phone should fall into the sled if it slips out-ta your hand.”

We got a push and we were ready to roll…

Mt Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid–Aug 20 ’22

We posted a respectable 52.25 seconds over the 1500 meter run. Olympian athletes can reach speeds of 90mph barreling down the same course.

While not the fastest run at 48mph, it was quick enough to earn me a moment on the gold medal podium.

Blue Lagoon Finale

Today was departure day. While other travelers were hastily checking out of Grandi to meet their airport connections, Leah and I had other plans. We had purposely booked an evening flight to give us another day of touring, but nothing too rigorous. We jumped on the option of keeping the Land Cruiser, and driving ourselves to the airport, coupled with a visit to Blue Lagoon.

Photo Credit: Ragnar Th Sigurðsson/Arctic Images

After two weeks of circumnavigating the country/island for a total of 2020 miles, we were more than ready for a few hours of rest and relaxation before battling the airport madness.

We stopped briefly at a roadside turnoff in Reykjanes to explore our surroundings,

and spelunk a small crater from last year’s eruption.

However, as I write this, I regret missing the spectacle of Iceland’s August 3rd eruption and lava flow of Fagradalsfjall’s Geldingadalir volcano.

Nevertheless, because of the fissure’s volatility, the landscape is scarred and uninhabitable, yet eerily beautiful.

And because of Reykjanes’ geothermal properties, the Blue Lagoon has become legendary for the healing properties of its milky, mineral-rich waters.

Digression…

The social and political landscape of Iceland is an unusual paradox–progressive in some matters, while also Puritanical at times. For instance, currently 67% of women no longer consider marriage a precursor to children.

Nor is organized religion very popular these days. Although Iceland has adopted Lutheranism as its state religion, the majority of Icelanders identify as either atheist or non-religious.

Iceland is also a global leader in promoting and protecting gender rights and equality.

Which begs the question: How can a Penis Museum exist in the center of Reykjavik when Icelanders prohibit nudity at any and all pools, spas and beaches?

After arriving at Blue Lagoon registration,

we claimed our color-coded, “Comfort” bracelet, which entitled us to:

  • Entrance to the Blue Lagoon
  • Private locker
  • Silica mud mask
  • Use of towel
  • 1st drink of our choice

We grabbed a towel on the way to our respective locker rooms–offering both public and private spaces for changing and showering. Once we located an available locker, we were directed to shower before entering the pool. Same-sex monitors were everywhere to assure compliance.

I met Leah outside the bathhouse with my towel and phone. The air temperature was 54oF and we were both shivering.

“What are you doing with your phone?” she asked.

“I need it to take pictures,” I answered.

“Don’t ya think you’re taking a big chance out there?” she continued.

“Probably,” I admitted, “but the water’s no deeper than 4.5 ft, so I’m not too worried. And NO splashing!”

“Okay, but just so you know–if you drop your phone, it’s gone forever. You’ll never find it in this,” she warned.

I gripped my phone with one hand and grabbed Leah’s hand with the other, and together we slipped into the warm, milky waters.

Ahhh!!

The water temperature felt like 90oF, but as we approached the bridge, rushes of hot water circulated around us with a thin mist hovering over the surface.

It’s hard to believe that Blue Lagoon was created by accident when engineers discharged geothermal plant condensate into a nearby lava field and expected the water to permeate the porous rock. But they didn’t consider that sedimentation would eventually clog the pores, and turn the fields into expansive reservoirs.

The lagoon didn’t seem overly crowded, but a lifeguard assured me that today was the busiest day since the pandemic recovery.

Although, the further we ventured, the fewer people we encountered.

until we reached the outer limits of the lagoon to enjoy a quiet moment by ourselves.

That’s when we realized that most of the crowd was either drinking around the bar,

or applying a silica mask doled out from the treatment kiosk. So we did both!

Unfortunately, our time in Iceland has come to a close.

We’ll resume our summer travels in Maine and Canada.

Till then, Kveðja Ísland! (Farewell Iceland!)

P.S. I didn’t sacrifice my phone to the Blue Lagoon.

Penis Envy

Thanks to an earlier tour of The Cave Víðgelmir, Leah and I rolled into Reykjavik @ 4pm–an hour ahead of schedule–and it made all the difference. I immediately found a legit parking spot by the side of Grandi Center Hotel, and we quickly settled into our suite long enough to unzip and freshen up. Before long, we were out the door and heading for the harbor by foot.

As we were in a hurry to walk the 1 km, there was no time for snacks…although, passing by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was tempting…

This little stand has been serving “the best hot dogs in town” since 1937, hence the name translated; although, some fast-foodies claim they’re the best in the world. In fact, hot dogs are so pervasive throughout Iceland, they are jokingly referred to as Iceland’s national dish.

As much as I wanted a wiener, my mission to conduct hard research on “pizzles,” at the Icelandic Phallological Museum was time-sensitive; we only had an hour before closing.

The phallo-logic behind this museum is best expressed by Sigurður Hjartarson, the museum’s founder, who recently sat down with Felix Bazalgette, contributing writer for The Guardian.

In Sigurður’s words…

For most of my life I’ve been a teacher in Iceland, where I was born. In the 60s, I did a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh, but in the 70s I settled into life as a history and Spanish teacher in Akranes, a town north of Reykjavík.

One night in 1974, I was having a drink with my fellow teachers after school and playing bridge. The conversation turned to farming in Iceland – we were discussing how the industry finds a use for every part of the animal. Take lamb, for instance: the meat is eaten, the skin used for clothes, the intestines for sausages and the bones turned into toys for kids. Someone asked if there was a use for the penis, which made me recall how, as a child, I had been given a dried bull’s penis as a whip, to drive the animals out to pasture every day.

I was telling my fellow teachers about this and said that I would be interested in finding a whip like that again. “Well,” said one of my friends, “you might be lucky.” He was returning to his family’s farm that weekend and offered to find me some “pizzles” (a very old word for penis). I agreed, and the next week my friend came back with four bulls’ penises in a plastic bag. I took them to a local tannery and had them preserved. I gave three away as Christmas presents and kept the fourth. That was the start of my collection.

At first, it was a bit of a joke. It was very common then for teachers to have other jobs in the farming and animal industries, such as whaling. So to tease me, other teachers began to bring me penises from their second jobs – whale penises, sheep penises. I started learning how to preserve them. Then, gradually, the collection took on a life of its own. I thought: what if I collect the penises of all the species of Iceland? So that is what I tried to do.

I kept an eye on the news; if an interesting whale was found beached on the coast, I would try to get the penis as a specimen, or if an outlying island was infested with black rats that had escaped from a ship, I’d ask the pest control technician to send me one. (I’ve always had a rule that no animal would be killed for my collection.)

By 1997, I had amassed 63 specimens and the story of my collection had become more well known. I was invited to display it in a small space in the centre of Reykjavík, and my penis museum, or the Phallological Museum, to give it its proper name, was born. There are a lot of different ways to preserve a penis and I have tried all of them, so the collection varies between dried, stuffed and mounted penises, and also those floating in alcohol or formaldehyde.

The collection is very large today, as people have sent in specimens. The largest, from a sperm whale, is about 6ft long, while the smallest, from a European mouse, is less than a millimetre and must be looked at through a magnifying glass. We have one human penis on display, from a 95-year-old man who left it to us in his will in 2011. A few well-endowed humans, one from America and one from Germany, have promised to donate theirs when they die. They are young, though, so we will have to wait a while for those.

You might call me a bit eccentric. At first people thought there was something wrong with me, but over time they saw I was a serious collector who was precise and accurate with the information I kept, and that there was nothing pornographic about the collection. I’m happy that people don’t think I’m a pervert any more.

I’m now 80 and have retired to a small town in the north. I’ve had great fun building the collection over the years and starting the world’s first penis museum; before me, there had been some small collections of penis bones – which many animals have – but not a more comprehensive collection of all these different types. Some people collect stamps or rare coins; I chose instead to collect the phallus. Someone had to do it.

In the words of Sigurður Hjartarson, Fri 22, Apr 2022–as told to Felix Bazalgette

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a museum where the patrons have been so animated. Women easily outnumbered men by 2:1, and everyone seemed to be engaged. I saw no evidence of embarrassment, and selfies dominated most picture-taking opportunities.

But what surprised me most were all the children running through the exhibits like they were at a petting zoo. And their small hands were very busy at the gift shop,

where I found a great souvenir,

and many more items…

for more sophisticated palates.

All in all, it was an uplifting hour, yet extremely humbling for human egos.

Spelunking the Largest Lava Tube in Iceland

Leah and I overnighted in Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village perched on a lava cliff in West Iceland, where Mt. Snapafell looms large across the horizon.

Icelanders believe the village still pulses with a healing energy that emanates from chieftain, Bárður Snæfellsás, half ogre/ half human and sorcerer from the first settlement.

as imagined by sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson in 1985

Legend suggests that Bárður was swallowed by Snæfellsjökull glacier. Perhaps it was his penance for killing his nephews, who admitted to pushing his daughter out to sea on an ice floe.

Consequently, Bárður was forever frozen in time and eternally committed to protecting the people of Snæfellsnes Peninsula,

and preserving its unspoiled natural beauty…

Another storm was brewing the day of our drive to Snæfellsjökull National Park. We mapped a route in search of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull Volcano, and took the high road as directed by GPS…

until we ran out of road and visibility halfway up the pass.

It was snowing on the other side of the mountain, and road crews had already conceded to Mother Nature.

So back down the mountain we went, where the weather was more predictable, and the roads were more reliable.

Unfortunately, we sacrificed a critical hour to correct our course, which translated into less time exploring Snæfellsjökull glacier at Snæfellsjökull National Park.

Instead, we continued to our next destination and penultimate excursion–

Our pre-paid guided tour of Iceland’s largest cave was originally scheduled for 1pm, but with rain clouds rolling in and a cold drizzle spoiling any chance of sightseeing or picture-taking, we expedited our drive to Borgarfjörður, with prospects of joining the noon tour if allowed.

We arrived at 12:05pm, but Sigurður (Siggy) agreed to include us, since he was already waiting for another late arrival with reservations. Hallelujah!

With our tour party now complete, each of us received a hardhat and headlamp, and Siggy (our only true-born Icelandic guide during our trip) led us 100m across a lava field called Hallmundarhraun to a twin opening in the earth where the roof of Víðgelmir had collapsed, revealing the cave’s only entrance.

We were dressed for winter inside the cave, where temperatures usually rise to 4oC, but Siggy was comfortable in a traditional Icelandic wool sweater knitted by his mom that he wore this day to celebrate Iceland’s Independence Day.

While traditional wet caves boast an array of stalactites and stalagmites, Víðgelmir cave gave us icicle formations,

and colorful mineral deposits imbedded in the walls,

and ceiling.

After an hour, we reached the end of the boardwalk where the tube narrowed,

and it was time to resurface.

With a 2-hour drive to Reykjavik ahead of us, we may yet reach the Penis Museum before closing time.

To be continued…

Tölting to Reykjafoss

It’s always a good day when it starts with a waterfall and ends with a waterfall. Prior to today, all the designated waterfalls on our itinerary over the past eight days have been spectacular and very different from one another–given the geography, the weather conditions, the time of day, and the lighting–all of which has an impact on how the falls are viewed and captured.

Thankfully, today was no different!

After a restful overnight and an enjoyable breakfast buffet at Hofsstaðir Guesthouse in Skagafjörður,

Leah and I evaluated today’s weather, and sighed with relief knowing that overcast skies would fight off any imminent threat of rain. Maybe our prayers had been answered.

Of all our scheduled excursions, we were most excited about riding an Icelandic horse, and rain would certainly dampen the experience. We cautiously saddled up the Land Cruiser,

and patiently waited for our Hitachi Wi-Fi dongle (a very neat accessory) to find my phone. Eventually, we plotted a route to Hestasport, a tour company operating within the Skagafjörður valley–a place that’s been labeled the Mecca of Icelandic horsemanship, and the only county in Iceland where horses outnumber people.

Our conversation to the horse ranch was predictable. Leah and I were still processing the irony of our hotel restaurant serving “horse” on last night’s dinner menu. Of course, its a cultural and culinary delicacy that Icelanders have enjoyed since purebred Nordic horses were first introduced during the 9th century. And horsemeat is one of the healthiest meats for human consumption–iron-rich, low-fat and abundant in vitamin B. But our American palates and sensibilities are biased. We find that butchering horses for human fodder is morally abhorrent, while still enjoying a rib eye beefsteak. So, guilty of hypocrisy, as charged.

After arriving at Hestasport for our 10 o’clock “Viking ride,”

we gathered in the barn to dress for rain, then greeted our riding buddies in the paddock.

Icelandics have been strictly inbred for riding and working over a millennium, which makes them nearly disease-free and extremely resilient to Iceland’s harsh climate. They can easily live into their 50s. They have a friendly personality and a special affinity for people.

Leah was assigned Bjartur, while I would be riding Björn, an agreeable 23-year old, who was the only one of the herd who could fly–the fastest of five gaits (up to 30 mph) that Icelandics naturally possess.

My first impressions of Icelandics…they are small, but sturdy and capable. While their legs are short (they typically stand 13 hands on average), they are capable of carrying up to 35% of their body weight. When they walk, their head is down and neck relaxed, which gives them a straight line across their back to evenly support the carrying weight.

Their walk is smooth and sure-footed, which easily accommodates uneven landscape and shallow rivers.

We closely followed the river Svartá at a steady pace, allowing us to soak in the scenery. Our guides were ingenues from Belgium and Holland, who were mostly shepherding a German family of four with little experience, but our Icelandics were very forgiving. They took to the trail they’ve known since foals, so the Germans were on solid footings.

But I was looking for something more. I was hoping to tölt, a oft-touted gait that’s exclusive to Icelanders, where the horse lifts its front leg up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. When we reached a level open field, Bridgette from Brussels shortened the reins of her horse, which immediately caused her horse to tölt, and immediately cued my horse to copy. I was tölting! Björn gave a smooth-paced ride with minimal bounce, as he glided over the gravelly terrain. It was exhilarating, but short-lived as we reached our destination much too soon to stop. But in exchange, we were humbled by a view of Reyjafoss.

Leah and I returned to our Land Cruiser to explore our next major destination, the Westfjords. But first, we detoured to the Vatnsnes peninsula, where iconic basalt stacks line the shore,

and volcanic sands sharply contrast against distant snow caps.

We bookended our day’s tour with a drive to Kolugljúfur Canyon, hoping to find Kola, a legendary giantess who dwelled in the canyon.

Her daily ritual of fishing and preparing salmon helped to shape the gorge.

Alas, Kola was nowhere to be found, but we discovered her hiding place; it was Kolufoss.

and it was too beautiful to disturb her.

A Tale of Two Towns in North Iceland

Widely considered the Capital of the North, Akureyri is only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle, but boasts the warmest climate in Iceland, with temperatures ranging from 75oF during summer months to 30oF during winter. However, Akureyri is also a very cloudy town, averaging just over 1000 hours of sunshine a year, with virtually no sunlight from November to February.

With a population of 19,000, Akureyri is the largest town beyond Iceland’s densely populated southwest corner, and enjoys many of the amenities of any vibrant urban center–with winding side streets and bustling plazas offering coffee shops, boutiques, gourmet dining, art galleries, and an active nightlife–all of which helps the locals get through the dark winter months.

There’s also a geothermal swimming complex that’s the envy of all of Iceland, and it’s conveniently located downtown behind the church.

If the identity and soul of Akureyri is best symbolized by the twin spires adorning the Church of Akureyri, or Akureyrarkirkja as designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (also known for Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja)…

then the heart and soul of Akureyri is in full bloom at Akureyri Botanical Gardens, or Lystigarðurinn

established in 1912 by a society of women enthusiasts who were eager to provide a green space for locals to recreate or relax.

Not only is Lystigarðurinn the first planned park space in Iceland, it’s also one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, featuring over 7,000 species of plants, and making it a valuable resource for botany research.

An hour’s drive northbound brought us to Siglufjörður, a colorful and historic fishing village atop the mainland, and only 40 km from the Arctic Circle.

But the tale of Siglufjörður lies in stark contrast to Akureyri. In Akureyki, I had to hunt for a weekend parking space. Not so much in Siglufjörður, where its population has been in steady decline. Once a bustling seaport known as the herring fishing capital of the world, only 1200 residents now call Siglufjörður their home since the herring disappeared in 1968 from overfishing.

This cautionary tale is well-documented through the town’s award-winning Herring Era Museum.

Having grown up in a household that enjoyed sardines, kippers and herring, I felt compelled to explore the museum’s interactive exhibits: which illustrates how the fresh catch was hauled to port,

and subsequently processed by an army of “herring girls”…

who could gut and brine enough fish to fill three barrels an hour.

Iceland’s first processing plant was built in 1911, where oil and meal–for pet food–was extracted from the fish. As more fishermen from Scandinavia arrived to fish the fjord’s bounty, the industry prospered.

In 1925, disadvantaged “herring girls” successfully went on strike for equal pay, and formed one of Iceland’s first labor unions.

In its heyday, Siglufjörður had 5 processing factories, and 23 salting stations supported by a hearty population of 3,000.

Today, the town of Siglufjörður hopes to ensure its future and relevance by presenting their history, and Leah’s buddies hope that tourists are listening.

Tall Tales of Iceland

Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.

Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.

Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.

By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.

Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.

For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,

we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.

But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”

Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.

Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.

Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.

However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,

with a rock island spur named Eyjan.

To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.

Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.

Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”

Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.

The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”

It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.

It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.

The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,

ranging from the sublime…

to the ridiculous.

Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.

Thank God for bogeymen!

Other Worlds of Iceland

Significant geothermal zones and volcanic landscapes throughout Iceland may give the impression of a primordial, preternatural planet. Yet, Icelanders have prevailed, despite the harsh and ever-challenging environment of their homeland.

Such is the case of Möðrudalur, a remote farm settlement in Eastern Iceland protected by Mount Herðubreið, the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains.”

Möðrudalur ranks as the highest inhabited farm in the country–at 469 m (1739 ft) above sea level, and supports a weather monitoring station, having recorded the lowest temperature in Iceland, -38.0 °C (-36.4 °F) on January 21, 1918.

The farm became inaccessible once Ring Road 1 was relocated northeast in 2001. However, a new F-road was eventually cut to continue servicing the curious folks who felt a connection to the old trails crisscrossing the wilderness, and a thousand-year history that made this a protected area.

A church was built in Möðrudalur in 1949 on once-sacred ground by farmer, Jón A. Stefánsson to honor his wife’s passing in 1944,

and decorated by revered folk artist, Stefán V. Jónsson.

A guesthouse, a small store and highly regarded restaurant serving locally sourced farm-to-table fare have been added over time to boost tourism in the area.

A more dramatic and inhospitable environment lies 90 km to the north. Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon was carved by fire and ice and a rushing river that over time laid bare the cores of spent volcanoes.

Following the Jökulsá á Fjöllum upriver (which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier) is an impressive triplet of waterfalls, of which Dettifoss is considered the most powerful in Europe, plummeting 45m (150 ft) into Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon at 400 cubic meters per second during the summer melt.

Returning to the Ring Road, it’s another 60 km west to the Myvatn Geothermal Area (Hverir), a volcanic swath that rivals the fumaroles, steam vents and mudpots of Yellowstone…

We cleared our lungs of rancid Sulphur fumes before checking into nearby Laxá Hótel, where the Krafla caldera looms over Myvatn Lake in the distance.

But Leah and I weren’t done for the day! After enjoying a meal at the hotel restaurant, we donned our hiking boots and enjoyed a solitary 10 pm stroll through Dimmuborgir,

a field of unusual lava formations caused by an eruption 2300 years ago and the subsequent collapse of a massive lava tube.

After a day of walking through location settings for Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Alien, it’s little wonder that Iceland takes its landscape cues from a very powerful producer.

The East Fjords of Iceland

Continuing our counterclockwise circumnavigation of Iceland, today’s drive (Day 5) carried us through tranquil fishing villages,

along spectacular fjords,

and past so many sweeping landscapes…

that Leah wondered—given my many photo epiphanies–if we would ever reach Egilsstaðir, our evening destination.

Fortunately, in our favor, our summer days have 22 hours of daylight.

We started our journey with a brief stop in Djúpivogur, a 16th century Danish fishing port and trading post that attracted European merchants. By the mid-1800’s, there were four houses in Djúpivogur, and Langabúð was one of them.

Constructed in 1790 as the village storeroom and warehouse, it was considered the economic and social engine of the town up until the 1950s. Today it’s a museum and visitor center.

A walk around the Djúpivogur’s harbor offered little shelter from the frequent gusts of blustery wind coming off the water. Leah stayed behind in the Land Cruiser, but I found the 34 granite “Eggs of Merry Bay” atop their pedestals to be an interesting oddity,

as each egg had been named for a local bird.

Next stop was Petra’s Stone Collection,

beautifully curated throughout her house and garden in Stöðvarfjörður.

What started as a hobby during childhood, became an obsession throughout her adult life, until she acquired the world’s largest private collection of mineral rocks,

mostly unearthed in the vicinity of East Iceland.

We also stopped in Fáskrúðsfjörður, a small fishing village with French connections that dates to 1880. Originally developed as a French trading hub fortified by a chapel, a hospital and French consul, the town still retains its French flair.

Once we returned to the Land Cruiser, we vowed to limit our stops, but the road beckoned, and I couldn’t resist!

“One last time,” I pledged. And Leah relented.

We detoured to Teigarhorn, a natural monument and nature preserve most valued for its cache of zeolites, and most likely the source of so many of Petra’s discoveries.

Teigarhorn is also a protected nesting ground.

Ultimately, we made it to Egilsstaðir, had a meal, and found our way to Vok Baths, a geothermal spa,

tucked into the banks of Lagarfljót–a long and narrow lake–where Icelandic folklore (c. 1345) suggests a giant serpent dwells.

Three infinity pools of increasing temperature (105oF max) offered us the perfect opportunity to melt away the stress of a long travel day…without a serpent sighting.

Finally, the midnight sun had set on our day at midnight.

And hopefully, our hotel has decent blackout shades to protect us from a 2am sunrise.

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.

New River Gorge

The New River has been carving the Appalachian Valley for the past 10 to 360 million years–depending on who you ask–which makes it an ancient river–ranked behind the Finke and Meuse as the world’s third oldest river. Of course, there is the obvious non sequitur, given the river’s moniker and apparent age.

One story claims that its name comes from a translation from Indian dialect meaning “new waters.” Another explanation tells of Captain Byrd who had been employed to open a road from the James River to Abingdon in 1764. Byrd used the Jefferson-Fry Map published in 1755. However, this map did not show the river, so Byrd noted it as the “New River.”

Originating in North Carolina, the New River flows 360 miles north until it meets the Gauley River in southern West Virginia, providing some of the best whitewater (Class IV rapids and above) on the planet, and the main reason for our visit.

Our first look came from an overlook behind the Canyon Rim Visitor Center,

treating us to canopied canyon walls as far as we could see, soaring 876 feet above the water.

and a profile of the New River Gorge Bridge (the Rusted Rainbow).

When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, it was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years. With an arch 1,700 feet (518 m) long, it is now relegated to the fifth longest.

While I appreciate the engineering feat of a half-mile span that saves travelers 45 minutes of detouring,

it’s the river I’ve come to conquer.

New and Gauley River Adventures shoved off from Stone Cliff at 10am–14 miles downriver from the bridge–with six eager adrenalin junkies and our guide, Costa Rica Scott in one raft, and a support raft to tag along. Leah refused to float with us, despite my gentle coaxing.

Once we were properly outfitted with life jackets and helmets…

off we went…

While the first half of the trip was relatively lazy, with fountains of 60oF spray coming from occasional haystacks and laterals, the spring run-off and torrents of rain before our arrival had turned the second half into a fast-moving, turbulent churn, filled with hydraulic traps, and 7 foot waves.

which had us threading our way through Keeneys, Dudleys Dip, Double Z, Greyhound, and Millers Folly Rapids with increased caution.

Miraculously, we never flipped and everyone remained in the boat throughout the ride. However, the soul behind me spent most of the time stretched across the raft with his head pinned over the gunwale, retching. Fortunately, whenever our pilot commanded us to “dig in” (paddle like our lives depended on it), I avoided smacking him across the face.

After 4 hours on the river, our take-out was just shy of the bridge, beyond Fayette Station.

What a blast! If only there was time to run back and do it again, but that would have left little time for hiking to Diamond Point;

visiting Cathedral Falls in Ansted;

investigating abandoned beehive coke ovens in Nuttallburg;

strolling through a mining ghost town (pop. 5) in Thurmond;

or just chilling at The Outpost, “Where Wild Meets Wonderful.”

Perhaps another visit is in order.

Circus World

Click the audio file, and read along…

1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon

As a young boy growing up in the ’50s, I was fascinated by the circus. Toby Tyler, written by James Otis was a bedtime favorite, and fueled my fantasy of running away to join the circus. Alas, over time, the circus has fallen out of favor as family entertainment.

After incessant criticism by animal rights activists and the advent of video gaming and media streaming, the 1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon (with 367 wooden and metal pipes, 2 drums, a cymbal, and a 17-bar glockenspiel) which once heralded the arrival of the circus train…

has now been relegated to a circus museum with fifty other antique circus wagons within the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion

at Circus World in Baraboo, WI,

conceived on grounds known as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers,

who launched their first circus tour from Baraboo in 1884.

As we walked the grounds,

we realized that the circus is more than the sum of its parts.

It’s more than the costumes;

more than the animals;

more than the performers;

more than the sideshow attractions;

and more than the music;

It’s a longing for our youth,

and our feelings of wonder before we were forever trapped in our responsible, adult bodies.

Ballistic Badlands: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…

Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…

Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…

From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,

(Library of Congress)

with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.

(Library of Congress)

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.

At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.

As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.

While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.

With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.

Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.

Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.

After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.

Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…

was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.

Despite being disarmed,

it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.

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.

What’s Mine is Mine

Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.

Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.

The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.

The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…

until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…

According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”

Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.

We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,

and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,

and valuable mineral deposits.

Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.

Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…

while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.

Dateline: Deadwood, SD

Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.

Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.

Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;

touring a gold mine on the edge of town;

and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…

which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.

On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.

Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.

When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,

and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.

Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.

Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.

However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.

There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:

A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;

In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;

There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;

But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill, honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:

Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;

and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.

Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.

Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.

But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…

from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.

Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.

He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…

and declared it Mount Roosevelt.

All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.

Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.

And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…

which helps to restore my faith in optimism.

How Great is Great Falls, MT?

The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:

To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,

while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”

Photographed by F. Jay Haynes, Summer, 1880–Montana Historical Society

In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.

Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.

Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.

The gorge was aglow,

while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.

I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…

and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.

There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…

but the landscape has been inalterably changed.

Big skies are forever interrupted,

and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.

The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.

Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;

engaged us with public art created by local artists…

as we rode through neighborhood parks.

The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…

Rainbow Falls and Dam…

and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);

while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…

at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.

Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.

Streaming thru America

“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.

Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–

hand and cone

–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.

Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…

Mark Twain stump

…or besieged by fire (although its bark…

View original post 559 more words

North Cascades Detour

So much about North Cascades National Park reminds me that I’m at a very remote place in America. For starters, there’s limited phone service here which makes GPS plotting a nightmare, and probably explains the frequent mile markers that line North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). It’s the only road that winds its way through the park, and connects all the entities that encompass Stephen Mather Wilderness.

Of the 684,000 acres that Lyndon Johnson and Congress set aside in 1968, 94% of the land has been designated as wilderness. Of the remaining 6%, there is no formal camping and only a handful of designated trails, which may help to explain why the park hosts an average of 30,000 visitors per year compared to 2 million visitors per year at Mt. Rainier National Park.

By the time Leah and I reached the Pacific coast, we learned that the Cedar Creek Fire was burning out of control within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest–threatening the eastern entrance to North Cascades NP, and compromising Winthrop’s air quality, nearby. To make matters worse, North Cascades Highway had been barricaded between mile marker 170 and 185, which meant that if we managed to visit the park–which was always part of our original itinerary–we had no way out.

SR-20 road closures are not breaking news to the people living east of the North Cascades. They’re used to it. In fact, every year from late fall to early spring, SR-20 is closed because of drifting snow across the road (measuring 12 feet) and the high risk of avalanches in areas of steep terrain. Anybody wishing to travel to Seattle must settle on traveling I-90 through the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass.

One week before our anticipated arrival, we phoned a park ranger to voice our concern about likely dangers, and help us determine if our plans were realistic. In return, she gave us a website address to track the daily conditions of the fire, and she reassured us that, “Every day in the park is unpredictable. It all depends on which way the wind blows.”

By the time we were scheduled to visit the park, the Cedar Creek Fire had merged with Cub Creek 2 Fire to become America’s largest forest fire with over 100,000 scorched acres and still burning wildly. Leah and I had an important decision to make: either we risk a visit, or we make alternate plans. There really wasn’t much debate. We were determined to stick to our plans, while well aware of the ranger’s mantra.

We camped outside the park in Rockport at an unusual location dotted with dated, theme cabins, a shuttered restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a smattering of weedy RV sites overrun by rabbits.

After unhitching, we drove a half-hour to Newhalem, the site of a company town owned by Seattle City Light and the residence of employees working on the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project–a series of three dams and power stations along the Skagit River–

Gorge Power Station
Diablo Dam
Ross Power Station

providing electricity to Seattle since Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously started the first generators in 1924.

As of this summer, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has petitioned Seattle City Light to remove the Gorge Dam in order to restore treaty-protected fishing rights to sacred grounds known as The Valley of the Spirits–a 3-mile stretch of the Skagit River area that has dewatered since the dam’s creation–causing the disappearance of bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead, and consequently threatening the existence of killer whales in the Puget Sound that depend on the fish to survive.

If Seattle City Light hopes to win a new 50-year license to operate the dams, they must demonstrate that the dams cause no harm to the environment. However, regulatory agencies have noted that the dams limit fish passage, affect the water temperature, and prevent much-needed, mineral-rich sediment from reaching the river beds where salmon once spawned.

The following day, our excursion took us deeper into the park, where a faint scent of smoke was in the air. It wasn’t bad enough to impact a full day of activity, but it still managed to drop a smoke bomb on our vistas, turning the “American Alps” into an American disappointment.

We started our exploration at Diablo Lake, created by the Diablo Dam finished in 1930. While the smoke offered an impressionistic vision of the mountain, water and sky,

I much preferred clearer conditions the following day.

Nevertheless, we took advantage of calm waters,

and beautiful scenery.

Feeling like a hike nearby, we followed a trail that followed Thunder Creek,

providing the following views:

until we reached our turn-around point at the suspension bridge…

and reflected on flowing riverscapes north,

and south of the span.

The latest news on the Cedar Creek Fire brought tears to my eyes. Officials proposed closing North Cascades Highway for the remainder of the year. I immediately recalled the time four years to this day when we crossed the Continental Divide at the Vermilion Pass–outrunning the BC wildfires on Kootenay Highway–with the mountains ablaze on both sides of us (see Smoke and Mirrors).

While I had no interest in repeating history, I wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour detour that would return us to I-5 in order to reach Spokane to the east. But if that was to be our only way out, I was determined to travel the North Cascades Highway the next day for as far as the law allowed.

Of course there were stops to make along the way. When we reached Ross Lake at milepost 134, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs along the Ross Dam Trail. With so little traffic on the road, we were not expecting the parking lot at the trailhead to be a challenge. But then we weren’t anticipating a mule train either.

They were preparing to cross the dam to perform trail maintenance further up the Pacific Northwest Trail.

We crossed a dense forest…

to the edge of Ross Lake and across the dam road,

where we were soon joined by the pack leader and company…

for views of Snowfield Peak and distant glaciers.

Of course, we had to dance around the mule poo on our return to the parking lot before continuing our quest.

Our next destination took us to milepost 158, where we intersected the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail at Rainy Pass on our way to Rainy Lake for an easy, 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible hike, until we encountered a tree across the trail within 500 yards of the trail’s end.

Unfortunately, physically disadvantaged people could not appreciate the crystal clear water of this alpine beauty,

or enjoy a distant look at Rainy Lake Falls cascading 850 feet into its namesake lake.

Shame on the NPS!

We reached Washington Pass Overlook–our final destination at milepost 162– to ogle the Liberty Bell Group,

and Kangaroo Ridge–

the defining point between Western Washington and Eastern Washington.

And that’s when I saw it! In the distance, midway along the stretch of highway, 8 miles away was the end of the road. I steadied myself for the shot.

We had completed our mission. There was nothing more for us to see before returning west to resume our journey east on August 5th.

By August 10th, the road closure was lifted, and low-speed, one-way traffic resumed in both directions. But I was unconcerned and didn’t mind. I had already arrived at Glacier National Park.