Step through a moment
when color and solitude
work in harmony.
A cool spring in fall
ushers clear sparkling water--
Adrift on a beach, the tide creeps o'er the Boneyard-- withering away
Without question, the feature attraction of Letchworth State Park…
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…
to the Mt. Morris Dam, 17 miles to the north.
And it’s the mighty Genesee River that flows between both boundaries–
continuing to carve out a bedrock gorge of mostly shale,
with exposed cliffs that rise 600 feet into the air,
earning Letchworth the distinction of being known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
But it’s the waterfalls that most visitors come to see…
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.
As the name suggests, Middle Falls falls directly in the middle,
between Upper Falls…
and Lower Falls.
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.
Letchworth also transformed an existing building atop the cliff overlooking Middle Falls into his estate, and named it Glen Iris.
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.
On our way to Bergen, Norway, the Viking Star docked at Narvik–a mountainside town reknown for its urban off-piste skiing,
and notable for its ice-free harbor,
which was of strategic importance during World War II…
for transporting iron ore that’s been mined from the world’s largest underground reserve in Kiruna, Sweden since 1898.
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.
Instead, we braved the treacherous icy streets…
and climbed the hills for views of distant shores,
clusters of urban housing,
and commemorative sculpture, such as the National Monument of Freedom.
Expanding our horizons, we boarded a bus bound for Polar Park,
the world’s northernmost animal sanctuary,
and home to Norway’s large predators such as bears,
Although the animal habitats are vast,
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,
and available for kisses and snuggles, albeit for an extra fee.
All things considered, I’d rather take my chances petting the barking dog that guards the reindeer down the road.
The peaks were fearless
The winds were steady
The world was rushing by.
The clouds churned
About the mountain islands
Anchored to an endless depth.
But when darkness settles
The sky salutes the sea
Until the two enlist the stars.
Tucked into the Alta valley, lies a kennel of 98 Alaskan huskies that are so eager to pull a sled, that a team of six can pull their anchor out of the ground.
So much so that it took a Holmen Husky trainer to restrain them.
It was that kind of energy that had Leah and me so hyped to run the dogs on the trail, but only after properly outfitting ourselves…
and learning the intricacies of mushing, as explained by Vicki from UK.
Most importantly, after witnessing the huskies’ enthusiasm, we focused on how to brake and when to brake!
After a visual review of the basic rules…
we were appointed to our teams.
For the next 90 minutes, we rode through birch forests as the snow gently fell.
Keeping our distance between sleds was our biggest challenge, as the dogs were more than up to the task of hauling a 25 kg /55 lb sled…
with two passengers.
When occasional braking was necessary to prevent our sled from overtaking the sled ahead, the lead dog always turned to us, as if to say, “Why are you slowing me down?”
And when Duke, one our wheel dogs sensed that his partner Nola wasn’t carrying her weight, he let her know about it.
Bred for speed and endurance, Holmen’s sled dogs can manage 10 to 14 miles per hour, and may travel over 90 miles in a 24-hour period, pulling up to 85 pounds apiece!
The Holmen dogs are happiest when they are working, and even more so when they are racing.
When our run was over, it was time to time to relax…
and to cuddle.
A fire, a biscuit, and some blueberry tea was the perfect nosh after our wintry mush.
But doggone it, there would be no Northern Lights tonight!
Our quest to chase Aurora Borealis continued aboard the Viking Star, cruising northbound through Finnmark, the heart of Norwegian Lapland,
and on to Alta, our northern-most destination inside the Arctic Circle.
Leah and I were praying for clear skies plus a surge in solar activity–given Alta’s reputation as the Town of the Northern Lights and home to the world’s first Northern Lights Observatory (1899) for conducting scientific research.
To that end, we mounted a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of the Northern Lights to increase our chances of an anticipated sighting. However, on this temperate night, an unexpected veil of dew painted the town, offering up a cathedral bathed in shimmery titanium,
lunging 47 meters (154 ft) toward an elusive phenomenon.
To the townsfolk, this sanctuary is as much a tourist attraction as it is a church.
It represents “a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,” according to John F. Lassen, partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen–a Danish design firm that collaborated with Scandinavian firm Link Arkitektur to win the city council’s design competition in 2001.
And there is much to appreciate about the design–outside and in. The exterior’s circular body mimics a magic curtain of light once illustrated by Louis Bevalet in 1838.
And the interior lighting resembles the long shafts of light associated with the Aurora.
Religious overtones are emphasized through the metal mosaics representing Twelve Disciples…
and the 4.3 meter (14 ft) modernist bronze of Christ searching the blue-glazed heavens, imagined by Danish artist Peter Brandes. While some worshippers may claim that a hidden face lives in the outstretched neck of the subject,
the illusion is subject to personal interpretation.
Consecrated in 2013, the Cathedral of Northern Lights functions as Alta’s parish church of the Church of Norway, yet remains an open forum for assembly and performance.
One-year after the first benediction, the concrete walls had settled and the pipe organ was installed. The dynamic acoustics attracted notable talent and filled all 350 seats.
Leah and I attended an organ recital by Irina Girunyan,
While following a complex score for hands and feet,
Irina skipped and fluttered her way through an evocative program of classical and contemporary music.
The ethereal sound from 1800 pipes and 26 stops was heavenly,
and left me yearning for another reminder.
Whenever I’m traveling with Leah, the driving usually falls to me. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. In fact, I enjoy driving as much as Leah prefers being the passenger. I figure our roleplay has lasted us through nearly sixteen years of togetherness and over 200,000 miles of highways and byways.
Over the years, we’ve worked out a reliable system where she tells me what to do and I’m inclined to ignore her.
Well, not exactly…
But ours is a predictable pas de deux that’s always destined for Bickerville.
For instance, if we’re traveling on the Interstate, Leah’s likely to order: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”
Typically, I’ll answer, “Okay,” and resume my present speed. I know it irritates her when I don’t accept her advice because she tells me so. Yet after a time, all is forgiven–but never forgotten. She never hesitates bringing it up again and again at my earliest convenience.
Similarly, if we’re driving in traffic, I’m likely to hear, “Why do you have to be on his tail all the time?” Her remark always seems to shift into hyperbole.
But I don’t blow a gasket. I simply suggest that if I was that close to him, I’d be able to read his license plate.
Then before too long, I’ll receive another Leah alert: “Slow down! You’re driving too fast.”
Occasionally, I’ll remind her, “You’re welcome to drive yourself, if you don’t like the job I’m doing.”
More often than not, she’ll respond with, “That’s okay. I’m good.”
But patterns are made to be broken. The chance of snowmobiling across the Arctic Circle brought a different scenario I didn’t see coming.
We arrived from Tromsø to Camp Tomak by the busload…
to participate in sledding for the day–either by dog…
or by engine.
After gearing up for Arctic climate…
we were ready for our safety and operations briefing.
That’s when Leah determined that she had no interest in driving, and even less interest in riding behind me.
“There’s no way I’m I getting on this machine with you,” she insisted.
“Why not?” I asked. “It’ll be fun!”
“Because I have no interest in getting hurt or dying,” she expressed.
“Neither do I!” I objected.
“And what if you should roll over?” she predicted. “I think I’d rather ride with Jan.”
Jan, our guide interceded and accepted to buddy-up with Leah. At first, I was insulted that she didn’t trust me–that she imagined I would risk our lives and limbs–until I realized what a huge favor she had done for me.
Without Leah behind me, I was free from scorn and criticism.
The snowscape was endless.
The cliff face was frozen.
The Nordic sky was vast.
And the scenery was breathtaking.
The guests had good reason to be giddy.
When the sun set behind the mountain,
we retired to the Sami tent for warmth, reindeer stew and tea.
Naturally, I thanked Jan for his hospitality and counsel.
“That was absolutely liberating,” I gushed. “I owe you big time for taking Leah along. Maybe you’d like to take her home with you,” I jested.
We shared a laugh together, but Leah wasn’t having any of it.
“Keep it up and you’ll be sleeping with Olaf,” she warned.
And that’s when I hit the brakes.
Our raison d’être for making this pilgrimage to Norway’s wintry Arctic Circle and beyond was to catch a glimpse of the elusive Aurora Borealis. Leah’s extensive web browsing helped us determine the best location and time of year when solar activity would peak,
and Tromsø seemed to be a worthy contender for Northern Lights activity.
Hence, our excursion to track the Northern Lights had been booked months ago using a local outfitter who would drive us a reasonable distance away from city lights to improve our viewing potential.
We met Mag, our guide behind the Scandic Hotel, not far from the city square where earlier in the day the Samis were preparing for a weekend of Nordic games in celebration of their indigenous culture, including the reindeer race championship as the main event.
Our plush mini-bus departed at 8:00 PM with 12 world citizens aboard–representing China, India, Brazil, Argentina, and Florida–all with an equal fascination for Northern Lights, and all bundled up, since we planned on sky-watching for 3 hours in frozen surroundings.
Of course, there was no guarantee that the weather would cooperate (nullifying any opportunity of seeing the Lights), but with passports in hand, our guide was prepared to drive us across the Swedish or Finnish border if need be, should our original destination in the direction of Overgård be too clouded over.
As he drove, Mag would occassionally crane his neck skyward, peering through the windshield in search of a sign. After an hour, he steered the van off the highway into a remote turnoff, and signaled that we had arrived.
He admitted that tonight would be tricky because of the full moon and passing clouds…
but if we trained our eyes across the horizon, we might pick something up.
I planted my tripod and waited…and waited…and waited…
“There!” shouted Mag, “over the mountain.”
I panned my camera in his direction, and took a timed exposure, still uncertain of what I was shooting, and waited for results.
Mag was right! Something was there, but it was barely perceptible.
But who was I to judge? It’s just that I was looking for something more spectacular. Where were the crazy colors I craved, like the grand arc I recently recorded from a slideshow monitor?
“Be patient,” he advised. “There’s something going on here. But the lights are fickle, and it’s too early to tell if the activity is significant or not.”
After making some exposure adjustments, I waited again…until I recognized a dim shadow moving across the horizon…[CLICK]…
I was feeling somewhat gratified that I discovered the aurora on my own, but still, my Impression Meter was registering Underwhelmed, while my Expectation Meter was to set to Light Show!
Others among us wondered aloud if we should move to another location.
But Mag countered, “We could spend more time driving in the mini-bus, or we could continue to search the sky where we are standing. But I can guarantee that the sky we have here is the same sky we will find elsewhere.”
Perhaps if I looked in a different direction…[CLICK]…
By now, only the hardcore remained outdoors, while Leah and half the others had retreated to a heated van. Hot chocolate and biscuits were passed around to reinvigorate us and keep our numbing fingers nimble.
The clock continued ticking and our time was coming to an end. Even though the solar activity in the sky was nominal, we were still standing under a full moon on a starry night with a beautiful backdrop.
our brightest sighting of the night!
The hour ride back was quiet. Most were asleep. But in my mind, I was calculating how many more opportunities we’d have to see the lights once again.
Captain Terje Nilsen of the Viking Star personally delivered the unfortunate news over the ship’s PA system during breakfast.
“Because of high winds, we will be cruising past the port of Bodø, and continuing onto Tromsø. I apologize for the inconvenience, but the weather is just not safe for us to make a landing.”
Of course, we were disappointed.
Bodø is a charming alpine village north of the Arctic Circle and home to Saltstraumen, the world’s largest maelstrom. Additionally, Leah and I had booked an excursion to Kjerringøy, and would have enjoyed hiking through this preserved trading post dating back to the 1800s.
But Captain Nilsen wasn’t kidding. If the gusting winds and pounding seas were any indication of what was witnessed as the Hurtigruten ferry attempted docking in Bodø, then I couldn’t imagine the Viking Star following suit–certainly not with so many passengers unable to handle the rough crossing from Tilbury, England.
Nevertheless, passengers were invited to the pool deck following breakfast to celebrate a longtime maritime tradition of crossing the Arctic Circle.
While Paulo serenaded us with folk classics and Beatles covers of Here Comes the Sun, and I’ll Follow the Sun, (ironic, don’t you think),
the crew assembled to initiate each of us into the Order of the Blue Nose.
Our Cruise Director, Brensley Pope took the microphone to give some background:
Good afternoon Ladies & Gentlemen and welcome! We have entered through the Arctic Circle, and it is time to make our journey official by welcoming you to the Order of the Blue Nose! First, a little history.
The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos: “near the Bear, northern” The name refers to the constellation Ursa Major, the “Great Bear”, which is prominent in the northern sky.
The region north of the Circle, known as the “Arctic” covers roughly 4% of the Earth’s surface.
The position of the Arctic Circle coincides with the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for a full twenty-four hours; hence the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” This position depends on the tilt of the earth’s axis, and therefore is not a “fixed” latitude. The Arctic circle is moving north at a rate of 15 meters per year, and is currently located at 66 degrees 33 minutes North latitude.
Captain Terje Nilsen interupted, “I believe that’s enough history for now…”
The crowd responded with laughter. And then it became official with his declaration…
Hear ye… hear ye….
Whereas by official consension, our most honorable and well-beloved Guests have completed successful passage through the Arctic Domain. We do hereby declare to all in attendance and that those who possess the courage to take the Aquavit cleanse shall be marked accordingly, with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nose.
Captain Nilsen continued…
This is to certify that you all have been formally and officially initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Chilly Deep, and should wear your blue noses proudly! With the order of myself, the Captain, I command all subjects to Honor and Respect those onboard Viking Star as one of our Trusty Blue Nose family.
We officially welcome you to the Blue Nose Order! Skol!
I got my blue nose and drained my shot glass of chilled Aquavit. Was I now a proud member of a society of alcoholics and sun worshippers?
But I wasn’t alone.
Lines formed from both sides of the pool deck for distinguished crew members to efficiently annoint all worthy passangers with a blue-tinted dab of meringue.
What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…
United in singular purpose, we now shared a common bond.
To validate our accomplishment, each of us received a certificate of achievement validated by Captain Nilsen.
Soon after, while walking about the jogging track in whipping winds after a filling lunch, I caught a glimpse of what made this affair so special.
Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”
Having pre-booked Rødne’s 3-hour scenic cruise through Lysefjord–Western Norway’s most picturesque passage–
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.
We pushed off at 11:00 am sharp,
easing out of the harbor’s protected waters,
and beyond the bridge,
where it became perfectly clear to us that this was a perfect day for seabirds,
but less so for Leah–who required a double dose of dramimine to deal with the swells propagating across the horizon.
Along the journey, we passed scores of coastline cottages,
whose owners regulary commute to town by boat during the summer months…
unless they have the means to vacation in Rogaland all summer long.
Midway through our voyage we passed under the Lysefjord Bridge–gateway to Lysefjord–
connecting Forsand with Oanes, a small farming village on the coastline,
that’s dwarfed by an imposing edifice.
We eased into the fjord,
flanked by looming walls of granite…
until the captain navigated the bow of the ship within a hair’s breath of the Vagabond’s Cave.
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.
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.
But there were some intrepid sailors who were undeterred, because they had little choice in their RIB (rigid inflatable boat).
We followed at our own pace…
until we reached Hengjane Waterfall, cascading 400 meters (1312 ft) into the fjord.
Soon after, we U-turned to retrace our wake before returning to Skavanger.
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,
and even happier to report that here was no trace of Tom Cruise ever being there.
Next port of call: Bodø
For some reason, thousands of lights wrapped around sultry-weather palm trees…
don’t suggest Christmas or winter wonderland to me in quite the same way as a traditionally decorated evergreen.
A live oak decorated with oversized ornaments comes close,
but it’s still no match for the festive vibe that envelopes New York City during the holidays,
where everything is bigger…
Not that there’s anything wrong with lit palm trees.
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.
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.
While some of the displays were fascinating unto themselves…
photographing the event pulled me in a completely different direction after I noticed a pulsing 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.
All the same, artificial light could never improve on Mother Nature!
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,
the ethereal dunes sweep across an other-worldy carpet of snow-white gypsum–
–remarkably cool to the touch,
and perfect for sledding,
or dog walking.
Despite initial impressions of isolation,
within a vast barren landscape…
White Sands harbors a fragile eco-system that manages to survive…
despite its harsh surroundings…
and uncertain conditions.
But whichever way the wind blows…
the real fascination of White Sands occurs when the sun dips below the horizon,
and awakens the magic that ignites the desert glow.
Have yourself a Happy Holiday and a White Christmas!
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–
…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.
However, the following day, a stroll through Albuquerque’s Old Town…
brought us to a photography gallery that showcased Southwestern landscapes and introduced us to Tent Rocks.
“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.
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.
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.
The canyon walls were so narrow in places, that only one person could navigate the labyrinth at a time.
It reminded me of the way that road crews monitor traffic on a one way road…
…and it was vaguely reminiscent of a similar protocol at the fee station and toilet.
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.
Even the trees seemed magical, managing to stand in the shadow of such uncertain footing.
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,
and freeing us from all obstructions,
until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,
and remind ourselves, once again, why it’s always a good idea to wait one’s turn in line.
“$450 for a balloon ride?! You’ve got to be kidding” I exclaim to the Rainbow Ryder rep on the phone.
“That’s the price, sir. We are the exclusive balloon ride provider for Balloon Fiesta, unless you’re willing to fly outside the ‘Albuquerque Box’,” she managed.
“What’s the ‘Albuquerque Box’?“ I ask.
“It’s a weather phenomenon peculiar to Albuquerque,” she points out, “where the lowest winds move in one direction, while the higher winds are moving in the opposite direction. That way, our pilots can take advantage of the different air currents–by floating higher or lower, and returning you close to your original launch point.
“Uh, Ohh-kay,” I shrug, “and that’s worth $450?”
“That’s the rate for a balloon ride during Balloon Fiesta, sir. And I only have a few openings left for Saturday and Sunday,” she warns.
“Your price is sky high,” I offer, “so I’m gonna have to think about it.”
And the call is over.
I turned to Leah. “Looks like my balloon ride went from bucket list to “fuck-it” list.”
And that was a drag, since Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world, with more balloons lifting off together (mass ascension) than anywhere.
Leah sensed my disappointment. “Maybe it’s cheaper if you found an outfitter outside the box. Would you still be interested?
“I think I could manage to get excited,” I lamented.
After a flurry of phoning and pricing, I secured a dawn launch on Saturday for $250 with World Balloon, albeit on the northwest side of town, miles away from the Fiesta.
Launch day bears all the markings for a picture-perfect take-off: early air temperature hovers in the mid-40’s; the wind is streaming from the north at 8 mph; and the sky is clear as shimmering water.
A group of fifty men, women, and children are sub-divided into five, and assigned to a pilot and his balloon crew. Each chase van carries two wranglers, ten passengers, and a trailer packed with gear. We congregate at a barren football-sized lot, and watch as five balloons are prepared for flight.
Baskets are unloaded,
The burners are tested.
With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.
An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.
Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,
and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.
The buoyant balloon rights itself,
and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…
…one step ahead of a second balloon.
All the while, balloons below…
…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).
Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,
carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,
where a birds-eye view of the valley below,
reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.
Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.
After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,
and adoring children–
Roy is tasked with finding a landing site along our flight path–wide open and away from wires–and accessible to the chase team who’s been following us since our launch. After a few false starts, we locate a large house devoid of landscaping, and gently settle back to earth.
However, a chain-link fence lines the perimeter, and a locked gate gives us no way out. A woman from Birmingham, AL vaults over the side of the basket and runs to the front door to alert the owners to unlock the gate, but nobody’s home.
So it’s back in the air, with the van in pursuit, until we mobilize at a strip mall.
After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,
drifting higher into the blue yonder.
Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.
Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,
and packed away, until next time.
Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:
I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.
Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.
Its residents have been crossing its rivers and hills before the French built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers in 1754 to protect their access to the Ohio Valley.
After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.
As Pittsburgh industrialized during the 19th century, so did its transportation network, and the bridges soon followed, connecting many of the elevated neighborhoods scattered throughout the vicinity.
In fact, the “City of Bridges” moniker could easily be replaced with the “City of Hills,” given Pittsburgh’s challenging geography, for there are hills galore (North Hills, East Hills, South Hills, West Hills, Middle Hill, Upper Hill, Spring Hill, Summer Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Squirrel Hill, and the Hill District); and there are heights aplenty (Northview Heights, Brighton Heights, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights, and Stanton Heights); as well as a variety of lofty-sounding communities (Highland Park, Mt. Washington, Southside Slopes, Beechview and Fineview).
For me, growning up in Stanton Heights was a constant cardio workout of hiking and biking in my neighborhood. I still recall schlepping up Greenwood Street’s countless steps on my way home from junior high at Morningside Elementary School. And climbing those hills in an unforgiving winter frequently required fortitude and a layer of thermal underwear, which was sure-fire bait for bullies.
Characteristically, Pittsburgh’s reputation for having the largest collection of steepest streets in the world underscores the importance of living close to a world-class medical center (UPMC)…
whose headquarters, coincidently, occupy the US Steel Building–the tallest tower of Pittsburgh’s skyline.
It had been a long time between visits to Pittsburgh, so Leah and I relocated the Airstream to an RV park north of Pittsburgh for a few days, appropriately named Mountain Top Campground…
and determined that a trip to Mt. Washington was a natural first stop for a lasting look at my hometown from the best possible vantage point.
But rather than drive to the top, we parked in a lot and rode the Duquesne Incline as tourists–
one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–
for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.
After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,
in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.
Although it’s only one block long, climbing the 37% grade behind the wheel of my F-150 was somewhat disconcerting. Aside from the bumpy ride over cobblestones, the angle was so severe, I could barely see the road beyond the windshield.
A 37% grade! I can’t even imagine what it would take to climb Canton Street during a winter storm…unless you’re a mountain goat.
But there was one last road phenomenon I needed to check out before we explored the cultural side of Pittsburgh. I had heard about a gravity hill near North Park that sounded like a too-good-to-be-true myth that needed busting.
When I reached the intersection of Kummer and McKinney, I made a hard left around the STOP sign onto McKinney Road, and passed an Audi that was there to perform the same miracle-manuever.
Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied.
And then it was my turn.
I inched toward the STOP sign, and held the brake till I shifted to neutral. Leah stepped out of the truck to record the event on her iPhone. I hesitated for a moment thinking how crazy this seemed. Of course, the truck can’t possibly roll unhill. It goes against the fundamentals of science!
When I came to my senses, I released the brake, and the truck began rolling backwards. It was not what I expected!
I’m not a civil engineer, and I’m not a geologist, so I don’t have a reasonable explanation why the truck drifted backwards, so I consulted the experts:
According to Wikipedia, “a gravity hill is a place where a slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope due to the layout of the surrounding land, creating the optical illusion that water flows uphill or that a car left out of gear will roll uphill.”
So I was on a hill that made down look like up?
How weird…but then it occurred to me that Donald Trump runs the country the very same way, and “the 37%” who follow him, must be living on their own personal “Canton Street,” unable to see the road ahead.
Detroit has been working overtime on a public relations campaign to scrub the grime off its tarnished reputation and buff the rentability of its landmark towers. A downtown resurgence is helping to restore the luster of a once-burgeoning city that grew into an industrial and economic juggernaut during the first half of the 20th century, but became a municipal pariah after accruing $20 billion of debt since the 1950s.
In its heyday, Detroit was a magnet of opportunity, attracting new residents from all American sectors with the promise of manufacturing jobs. Consequently, its population swelled to 2 million.
The collapse of the city’s automobile industry was the catalyst for Detroit’s demise. Racial tensions culminated in riots in 1967 that led to a mass exodus, and Detroit shrank to a third of its size. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings became the norm. Ultimately, the city went bankrupt in 2013–the largest debt of its kind for an American city.
Today, Detroit is rebounding, but not without new growing pains. City leaders hope to strike a balance between renewed economic confidence and building a future that is more inclusive of long-term residents who have suffered the most.
As it’s explained by Pete Saunders for Forbes Magazine:
…A partnership between city and state government, business leaders and the city’s philanthropic community led an innovative effort to restructure the city’s debt, estimated at $19 billion.
Private investment in downtown Detroit, already on the upswing prior to the bankruptcy filing, continued to trend upward. Last fall’s opening of Little Caesar’s Arena, part of the larger District Detroit business and entertainment area, the construction of a landmark mixed use development on a former iconic department store site, and the recent acquisition by Ford Motor Company of Michigan Central Station all demonstrate the accelerated pace of development in the city.
Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.
The city’s former warehouse district on the east riverfront is attracting development attention for high-end condos and apartments with downtown and waterfront views.
Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.
The New Center area, further north of downtown, is beginning to see development activity tick upward as well. Community anchor Henry Ford Hospital has just broken ground on a new cancer center. The Detroit Pistons basketball team will build a new office and practice complex in the area as well. More high-end condos and apartments are being constructed in New Center too, and the Motown Museum is planning for a $50 million expansion.
Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last year, the QLine. The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.
Leah and I took a walk around downtown to see for ourselves. First, we stopped at an Art Deco-styled landmark building celebrating its 90th anniversary.
A short walk to the Detroit River brought us face to fist with an homage to Joe Louis.
Nearby, the Spirit of Detroit was undergoing a makeover.
We crossed E. Jefferson to arrive at Hart Plaza to gaze at Michigan’s Labor Legacy.
Walking a short distance to the Detroit River brought us views of Windsor, Canada as once imagined by slaves making their escape through the Underground Railroad.
In the distance, stands the Ambassador Bridge–the busiest crossing between U.S. and Canada–with 10,000 commercial vehicles making the trip daily.
Beyond Dodge Fountain, the GM Renaissance Tower rises from the International Riverfront.
A walk along the riverwalk delivered us to the GM Wintergarden, where a life-sized model of a Chevy Silverado was made entirely of Legos.
It took 18 master builders over 2,000 hours and 334,544 “bricks” to complete. At 3,307 lbs., the sculpture stands at half the curb weight of its legitimate counterpart.
Equally as impressive, and no less the engineering feat, the Fisher Building has been referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object.”
Finished in 1928, the 30-story building was financed by the Fisher family from the sale of Fisher Body Company to General Motors.
Albert Kahn’s opulent 3-story barrel vaulted lobby…
decorated in paint…
and marble by Géza Maróti is considered a masterpiece.
Alfred Kahn also spent time up river on Belle Isle (an island park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s), where he designed America’s first Aquarium and Conservatory in 1904.
Another part of Detroit’s revitalization effort included the construction of Ford Field, the domed home of NFL’s Detroit Lions,
conjoined with Comerica Park, home to baseball’s Detroit Tigers.
Detroit has been hailed as The Comeback City, emerging from Chapter 9 with a new vibe that seems to be drawing people back to a city that was broke and broken, and considered unliveable only six years ago. With continuing investment and broad community suport, the prospects for Detroit are bright,
and turning naysayers into believers.
Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.
Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.
We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.
Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.
Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.
What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:
This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…
Leah and I had set up camp near Muskegon, MI with plans to visit Grand Rapids for an evening concert with “Weird Al” Yankovic. Being one hour away, we decided to make a day of it and explore the Grand Rapids area, but we needed an activity to keep us occupied until late afternoon, and it had to be captivating. After an internet search, all roads led to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Not knowing what to expect, we packed a lunch and set a course for what Trip Adviser informed us was the #1 attraction in Grand Rapids. With over 2800 reviews, who were we to argue with such a consensus. Upon arrival, our first impression was the immensity of the property (158 acres), And the bigness was becoming bigger with new construction all around us.
Apparently, Frederik Meijer was a big success. Who knew? Turns out, Fred was a supermarket magnate worth billions, and this park was to be his legacy–with an endowment fit for a world-class museum, and subsequent listing by 1,000 Places to See before You Die as one of the “30 Must-See Museums” in the world.
There is an impressive conservatory on the grounds with flora from every climate and environment, including a trove of carniverous plants,
but it was a beautiful day and we were there to walk the Japanese gardens…
and celebrate Meijer’s devotion to outdoor sculpture.
These are a few of my favorite things…listed alphabetically by artist:
Our time through the park went quickly. We walked over 2 miles, and returned to the parking lot to find hundreds of people tailgating behind the amphitheater, awaiting Lyle Lovett’s evening performance. Had we not made previous plans to see “Weird Al,” it would have been the perfect venue for another songfest from Lyle (see Music City, USA).
We must return some other day…after checking the concert calendar first.