Ta-ta, Tulum!

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

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

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

“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.

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

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

I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats.

Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.

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

We drove to the término, reaching our destination…

Santa Fe wall

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

beach and ruins.jpg

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

Tulum envisioned

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

castillo and tourists

castillo signage

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

Tulum vista

ruins 2

ruins 4

ruins

ruins3

Temple of Paintings

temple on the hill

except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.

Leah thru the gate

Leah and Nate.jpg

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

hilltop view

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

shoreline

and that was our next destination.

Sante Fe Beach Club

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

Brenda

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

Our captain motored out to open water,

Captain of Brenda.jpg

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

temple by the sea

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

snorkeling over a reef.jpg

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



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…

pelican chilling

and keeping track of my sons.

Nate snorkeling

Noah and the bird

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

3 amigos

 

Enchanted

It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places.
The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.

lit reindeer

Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,

skating (2).jpg

the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.

skating trail
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,

golden tree

and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–

dome

all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.

lite trellis

Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.

family on ice

Gabe and Dan

There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.

EMT rescue (2)

After a photo op with Santa…

Santa

we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,

Dancer

Rudolph

and stopping along the way…

poppies

to admire the fancy shapes…

snow people

or not.

snow flake.jpg

While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.

The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.

Prankster

Night Lights in the Garden–Naples, FL

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

curved palm

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

Biltmore Xmas tree

A live oak decorated with oversized ornaments comes close,

oak and orbs

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

Angels with Trumpets

where everything is bigger…

Big Ornaments

and brighter.

Xmas lights

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

lit palms

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

Gardens with Latitude

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

wrapped palms

While some of the displays were fascinating unto themselves…

floating pan

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

plant projector

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

spiral palm

shoelace palm

loopy palm

Rorshach palm

cosmic palm

swirl palm w spark

44 palm

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

White Sands National Park

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

Spanning 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin,

long shot (3)

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

pan shot

–remarkably cool to the touch,

foot printing .jpg

and perfect for sledding, 

girl on sled (2)

dog and sled (2)

or dog walking.

dog walking (2)

Despite initial impressions of isolation,

dunescape and mountains (2)

within a vast barren landscape…

yin and yang (3)

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

scarab beetle (2)

despite its harsh surroundings…

anchor (2).jpg

and uncertain conditions.

pods

But whichever way the wind blows…

wind texture.jpg

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

sunset (2)

and awakens the magic that ignites the desert glow.

cactus glowing (2)

Have yourself a Happy Holiday and a White Christmas!

Leah and Neal (3)

 

Bonnie’s Deadly Deed

A recounting of a 10-year holiday memory…



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else could I do?

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare!” Leah threatened.

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



RIP, Bonnie!

A Foodie Landmark

One of the best and worst places to be during the holidays is Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

map1

Usually, it’s crazy busy here.

Philbert

And the day before Thanksgiving is no exception.

OK Produce

Today, most customers are consumed with shopping for the holiday meal.

profit

And they are shelling out big bucks for high-end produce…

apples for days

and meats.

deli meat

With international cuisines,

Peking Duck

and so many specialty foods and gourmet desserts under one roof,

goodies

there’s no better place to taste,

hanging out

and treat,

jelly bricks (3)

and chill…

boy and meat

than at this National Historic Landmark.

turkey hat

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wynwood Walls

Miami Beach was too overcast and blustery to spend time by the ocean,

Ocean Drive

and the hotel pool was too chilly to swim…

underwater (3).jpg

so Leah and I took an excursion to Wynwood Walls to survey the graffiti draped across Miami’s warehouse district.

Artists of the Walls (2)

While there is plenty to see and appreciate within the gates…

shapes and splatter (2)

reclined alligator jaw

piper cat

painted wall and rock

Kobra corner

eyes nose and teeth

faces

…and inside the containers…

gearshark

Ray by Kobra.jpg

a walk around the neighborhood delivers an extended impression of what can happen when an idea catches fire,

The World Is Yours

hose plant wall

long man

garage

Basquiat and Warhol

BAR

angry storefront

electric lines and hope

and ignites a movement that transcends artistic boundaries and property lines.

Harpers Ferry–Then and Now

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

confluence

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

barrels

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

trestle

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

militia

yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.

St. Peters

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

Heyward Shepherd memorial.jpg

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

questioning after capture

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

trial

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

hanging

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

John Brown (2)

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

Appalachian Trail

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

stone stairs to heaven


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

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

white house

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

As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,

church nave (2)

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

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

gravesite

Sounds remarkably familiar.

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

floating

Analytics Liberation

It happened early yesterday morning, although I was unaware until I awoke. I’d kept tabs from time to time, and I knew I was inching closer. And while I anticipated the result sooner than later, there was no predicting when.

It first crossed my mind earlier this summer when I began recording my travels through Southern Africa and the Great Lakes. Little by little, the notion that new posts were finding a newer audience, and past posts were being mined from archives was reassuring. But it wasn’t until I returned home, and caught up on summer highlights from my travels that I began realizing the possibility.

And it remained elusive until an alert on my phone notified me of the news earlier in the day.

After 2 years and 7 months, after 320 posts, after more than 187,000 written words, after over 5,600 uploaded photographs, after 23,000-plus visits and nearly 45,000 views, I had finally amassed my 2,000th WordPress follower.

However, to pass this milestone, it also felt at times like I was carrying this millstone.

What was once a convenient means to share the view from my Airstream with family and friends, had blossomed into a creative umbrella for me after the Discover editors saw fit to feature my blog. The initial response was seismic…yet emphemeral. While I initially gained new readers from the exposure, their enthusiasm seemed to fade over time. My followers were moving on. Alas, fewer views and fewer likes.

My confidence was soon replaced by self-doubt. Had I failed to keep things fresh? Had I run out of fascinating places to visit and report? Were my destinations and musings no longer blog-worthy? I also began questioning my purpose as a blogger. Was I a photographer who writes, or a writer who photographs?

My immediate, albeit measured response was to shape my waning success by constructing posts with wider appeal, and sharing them with the 145 countries that once signaled interest in my blog.

I diversified the content too, choosing to dabble in humor (April Fools PSA) poetic expressions (A Sleeping Bear Dunes Ditty), art and music criticism (Joshua Tree–The Album and the National Park), political commentary (Anatomy of an Email), personal relationships (Happy Birthday, Dad!), and even trying my hand at serializing a book (Uncertainty: Prologue).

I must confess to moments of obsessing over numbers–thinking about ways to boost my online productivity, with guarantees for:

  • First page ranking on Google, Yahoo, and Bing
  • Improving organic traffic
  • Securing my website from Google Penguin updates 4.0
  • Increasing my conversion rate
  • Targeting future local markets

…but then I rejected the notion outright! Why would I pay to acquire an audience? After all, this isn’t a business where I have to drive masses of asses to my site.

Bottom line–I no longer believe I have an obligation to entertain/inform my followers. Indeed, I only have a desire to continue expressing myself, and I’m hopeful my followers will allow me–however and whenever–and still support me.

In the meantime, I’ll quietly celebrate my small victory in fulfilling an unexpected goal before moving on to the next challenge.

Here’s to the next 2,000 followers.

P.S. I’m a writer AND a photographer!

Tent Rocks

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

Sandia overlook (3)

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

Sandia overlook4 (3)

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

San Felipe de Neri

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

Old Town

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

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

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

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

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

Cochiti Lake.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smartass!” she hurls.

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

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

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

slot canyon info

History and Geology

Geologic treasure

volcanic activity

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

slot canyon

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

slot canyon trail

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

slot and boulder

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

canyon walls

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

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

canyon trail

hoodoo cliff

hoodoo peaks

Leah and Carrie (2)

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

pine shadow

long root (2).jpg

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

peak towers

and freeing us from all obstructions,

canyon pan

until we could gaze across the Jemez Mountains,

Jemez Mountains (3)

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

Tent Rocks

Balloonatic

While I’m on the topic of balloons (see Balloon Glowdeo™, and Botswana by Balloon) I’ve recalled my first balloon ride from two years ago:



“$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.

albuquerquebox
*courtesy of Drumlineramos

“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,

unloading the basket

and assembled.

building the basket

The burners are tested.

testing the burner

With dawn breaking over the horizon, the balloon is unfurled, and rigged to the basket.

rigging the lines

An industrial fan blows cold air into the mouth of limp polyester, and behold, the balloon takes shape.

dawn

raising the dome

filling the balloons

Roy aims the burner flame into the mouth to heat the air,

lighting it up

fire and rigging

and eventually expands the envelope to fullness.

inflation

The buoyant balloon rights itself,

sunrise

and the six of us scramble inside to bid adieu to terra firma, and gently float away…

aloft

…one step ahead of a second balloon.

balloon sun glow

All the while, balloons below…

balloon party

…are preparing to follow our Airstream (wink wink, nod nod).

USA balloons

Our pilot, Roy pulls on the burners,

Roy the pilot

carrying us to 5000 ft. above the treetops,

fiesta panorama

where a birds-eye view of the valley below,

self portrait.jpg

reveals a cityscape punctuated by fantastic dots of floating colors.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)

Yet closer inspection reveals the full dimension of a multi-colored mushroom gliding through an azure sky.

baloon portrait

After forty-five minutes of soaring and dipping through neighborhoods–arousing excitable dogs,

annoyed dogs

and adoring children–

delighted-children.jpg

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.

attempting to land (2)

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.

landing place

crew pulling us in

After a quick exchange of passengers (six out and four in), our balloon is re-released with its second set of aeronauts,

group 2 on board

drifting higher into the blue yonder.

group 2 aloft

Fifty minutes later, the vacant parking lot beside the church provides the perfect setting for a second re-entry.

holy touchdown

Whereupon, the balloon is quickly collapsed,

gathering air

and folded,

wrangling the rigging

and packed away, until next time.

wrapped up

Back at base camp, it was time for a champagne toast, and a recitation of the balloonist’s prayer:

The winds…

flight certificate

I loved it, and I’d do it again. I guess that makes me a balloonatic.

 

Balloon Glowdeo™

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta celebrates ballooning for nine days in October, continually drawing record crowds and attracting new entries every year.

Star Wars fans

But for two days–Thursday and Friday– the special shapes take over, and Balloon Fiesta takes flight without ever leaving the ground. Since 1989, the Special Shape Rodeo has grown into Balloon Fiesta’s most popular attraction.

staging the balloons

The first-of-its-kind rodeo originally attracted 28 shapes and huge crowds, but today, parking has reached near-capacity, delivering crushing crowds and shrinking field capacity for one-hundred balloons that currently participate during dusk.

rainbow pan (2)

Known as the Special Shape Glowdeo™,  the special shapes inflate and glow for 2 hours after sunset, followed by a fireworks display sponsored by Canon.

Canon (2)

On its surface, this is exactly the kind of event I look forward to: colorful crowds and colorful balloons just waiting to be photographed. But I am not alone. Special Shape Glowdeo™ has become a photography touchstone, and claims to be one of the most photogenic events in the world.

frog

Nearly everyone in the crowd is carrying a camera, or becomes a de facto photographer by virtue of their cell phones and selfie sticks.

Cathy's Hope

And those without cameras are usually pushing strollers, or busy juggling food and babies.

papa smurf

Somehow, all of this works during daylight hours. As more balloons populate the horizon, most people are walking in trances as they look to the heavens, all the while focusing on a particular shape nearby.

wolf

It’s hard to calculate all the near-misses, with so many people competing to capture the same image simultaneously, but as long as there is light, accidental collisions are easily forgiven.

unicorn

But all of that changes when darkness takes over and the only available light eminates from the ephemeral flicker of the balloons across the landscape.

angry face

It’s as if the winds have shifted, and all who are present have either been transported to the dark side,

Vadar1

or they now move through space and time as if they are moving through space.

astronaut

Instantly, carriages and strollers become ankle missiles, and avoiding children on wheels while weaving through the crowd becomes an impossible challenge.

cowboy and bear (2)

Then there are the Bimbos…

Bimbo

who seeingly run out of gas,

Willer

and stop in their tracks without warning,

robot

or those who would sooner walk over me as if I wasn’t there.

sneaker

It’s enough to make a person scream…

singing

or turn to a higher power for strength–

Jesus (2)

praying for order to return to the universe.

Yoda2

If only there was another way to get around.

Wells Fargo

Nevertheless, against all odds, I rally against the lawlessness,

mouse sheriff

and persevere with a determination worthy of Uncle Sam’s attention.

Uncle Sam

My mission is to get as close as I can to as many of these nylon giants without getting trampled…

Cynthia Seal

firefly

fruit lady

And when my camera battery begins to fade,

Chicken (2)

I know that it’s time to pack it in,

Beaver

and reconnect with Leah, who’s been wandering the grounds with family.

clown (2)

“Where are you,” I ask into my cell phone.

scarecrow

“I’m under the elephant,” she answers.

pink elephant

We play Marco Polo by phone for the next 15 minutes.

queen

Waves of pedestrian traffic push against me as I attempt to swim upstream.

dancing fish

It’s not an easy reunion, but it’s as welcoming as the sun on a cool desert evening.

Sunglasses (2)

After a time, all the balloons have deflated, except for the sponsor, and our family has settled down on blankets, bracing against the north winds as we dine on pizza ($7 per slice) while enjoying the culminating fireworks display.

Canon fireworks

And I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Bayernhof

“It’s a fine line between nutty and eccentric,” explained docent Jim Masseau of the Bayernhof Museum, “and the difference between the two is money.” Over the next two-plus hours, as Leah and I toured this residential mansion in suburban Pittsburgh, Jim’s definition proved to be an understatement, as we learned more about the behavior of Charles Boyd Brown III, the master of Bayernhof.

We entered the house through heavy double-doors, which opened into an airy vestibule sporting a heavy chandelier–

chandelier

befitting a man who made his fortune fabricating sand-casted aluminum lanterns.

floor mosaic

Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a life-sized Hummel figurine (later identified as bearing a likeness to his great-grandfather),

father figure

and gathered in the family room with the other guests, only to stare at Charlie’s portrait while we waited for Jim to begin the tour.

Charlie

After informal introductions, Jim fed us details about Charlie’s bachelor life (born in 1937) and the house he left behind.

Built high on a hill covering 18 acres, and completed in 1982–after 6 years of construction without blueprints–Charlie’s 19,000 square-foot, Bavarian-styled “castle” overlooks the Alleghany Valley, with views reaching one-hundred miles beyond city limits on a clear day.

overlook

However, despite Charlie’s dream of constructing a $4.2 miilion estate with German folk-flourishes–

painted glass ceiling

featuring 6 bedrooms…

guest bedroom

8 bathrooms, 3 full-sized kitchens, 12 wet bars, 10 fireplaces…

bedroom

a rooftop observatory with a 16 inch reflecting telescope…

observatory

a basement batcave made of concrete and fiberglass,

basement cave

a swimming pool with a 10-foot waterfall…

swimming pool

a wine celler with a working copper still…

wine cellar

a billiard room (starring a pool table thought to belong to Jackie Gleason)…

pool room

a home office…

office desk

and a boardroom (only used twice)–

boardroom

his house, unfortunately, would never be considered museum-worthy on its own. Charlie would need a gimmick to attract greater attention. And that’s when he started collecting automated music machines from the 19th and 20th century.

Charlie couldn’t carry a tune, and had as much musicality as a bag of bagel holes. But his appreciation for century-old music machines instructed his passion for collecting them, until he acquired nearly 150 working devices (many rare and unusual), now scattered throughout the premises.

A sample of instruments can be viewed in the video below:

 

 

 

As Charlie grew his collection, he loved showing them off, and held lavish parties for 5 to 500 guests at a time–always in charge of the cooking, and always dressed in one of his signature blue Oxford shirts. He owned 283 of them. Whenever he tired of his company, he would magically slip away through one of many secret passages, leaving his guests to fend for themselves.

Before Charlie passed away in 1999, he endowed a foundation valued at $10 million to convert his home into a museum. In 2004, the O’Hara Township zoning board granted his wish, and the Bayernhof Museum was born, with the stipulation that pre-arranged guided tours be limited to 12 people at a time.

Charlie’s Bayernhof got its big break when CBS News did a feature for its Sunday Morning broadcast earlier this year…

 

 

 

and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since.

Charlie would have been very pleased.

I know I was.

 

 

15 Minutes of Fame

I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.

It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.

When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.

Debbie Harry

Warhol's Debbie Harry

He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.

“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.

These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,

HS portrait (3)

through his productive New York days,

New York graphic artist

until his demise in 1987.

The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:

“…900 paintings;

Flowers (2).jpg

Lizs'

Judy

Aretha

Jackie

portraits (8)

Elvis

Skull

…approximately 100 sculptures;

brands boxes

Clouds1

…nearly 2,000 works on paper;

Campbell's Soup tryptic

…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;

8 varieties of soup

…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”

The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;

wall of fruit

skulls

…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.

 

Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of  female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”

torsos (2)

That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.

elephantorsos (2)

Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.

silkscreening

silkscreen

While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.

Sizing Up the Mattress Factory

The cultural evolution of Pittsburgh’s North Side began with the Mattress Factory–an anchor and incubator for contemporary art that’s been cutting the experimental edge of international expression by artists for artists since 1977.

Mission statement

Just a short walk from Randyland, the Mattress Factory factors heavily in site-specific installations occupying a collection of once-abandoned, but rehabilitated properties that have contributed greatly to the economic development and revitalization of a once-depressed community.

timeline

Not knowing what to expect, Leah and I dropped in during a transitional time for the museum, when much of the Main Building was undergoing preparation in anticipation of a late September opening.

But what we saw pushes the boundaries of form and information, while pushing the buttons of eccentric taste and interpretation.

Two outlying row houses housed separate exhibits. Our exploration began at the Monteray Annex…2nd Home statementstorage

chair on bricks

easel chair

…and continued at the Sampsonia Annex…

MFAnnex
Loper statement
Loper installation

…before returning to the Main Building, where we followed the advice of an admissions clerk, and started on Floor 3 for a look at Yayoi Kusama’s two rooms…Kusama statementcircles

Leahquin

…followed by a voyeuristic installation by Greer Lankton.Lankton statementbedroom

When the elevator dropped us at Floor 2, we paused long enough in the darkened foyer for our eyes to adjust, before feeling our way through a serpentine corridor that guided us to James Turrell’s light projections.Turrell statement3-D form

blue rectangle

We finished our tour with a stroll around a compact courtyard garden designed by Winifred Lutz.

garden

While not as exhaustive as a Whitney Museum Biennial, the Mattress Factory holds a firm place in the art world, where artists can dream and “create remarkable works of art that help us see the world in a fresh and different way.”

Defying Gravity

Pittsburgh is best known as the “City of Bridges,” boasting a world’s-highest 446 spans.

Riverfront Park

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.

Fort Duquesne

After the British advanced, defeating the French and Native Americans, they established Fort Pitt in 1761.

Fort Pitt etching (2)

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.

3 sisters (3)
Pittsburgh’s “Three Sister” Bridges: the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Street Bridges. The “Three Sister” bridges were part of a massive series of bridge-building campaigns begun in 1924 by the Allegheny County Department of Public Works, and finished in the late 1930s by the Depression-period Allegheny County Authority. Credit: Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center

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.

steam paddle

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…

Mountain Top Campground (3)

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–

crossover

one of two remaining from the original 17 funiculars that Pittsburgers once relied upon to ease their commute to the heights throughout town–

incline graphic

incline car

incline track

incline house

for an unparalleled lookout of the Point.

skyline

After an overpriced lunch at The Grandview Saloon (poached pear salad for $14), we followed Jennifer (our GPS) to Canton Street,

Canton St. Google Maps

in search of America’s steepest street in Beechview.

steep st sign

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.

steep v

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.

grazing goat (2)

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.

Gravity Hill

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.

Kummer Road

Leah and I patiently waited off-road, watching the Audi repeat the same experiment… over and over again…until satisfied. 

rolling back

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?

Gravity road intersection

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.

Randy’s Pot of Gold

Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.

Randy

He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.

He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”

torsos and painted rocks].jpg

He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”

garden gate

Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.

red knight

Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.

swan planters

“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.

stairs (2)

But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.

“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”

The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident). 

land beach

An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.

Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.

Randy house

That was the genesis of Randyland…

Randyland entry

a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,

Welcome to Randyland

People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.

every which way

They stop by for the novelty…

belonging

for the vibe and the energy…

sandbox

and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.

knit fish

Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”

Randy with paint photo.jpg

Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;

neighbor paint

and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.

rainbow pergola (2)

What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.

Neal-Leah-Randy

Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:

“Hey, pretty mama…”

“I love your weave…”

“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”

signpost

Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.

Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.

Say cheese

It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.

A Concrete Idea

Chiseled from concrete, George Bartholomew stands aside Logan County Courthouse in Bellefontaine, OH with a pick ax and a plan. He is widely regarded as the American father of concrete pavement,

GB tribute plaque

but it took ingenuity and loads of confidence before city leaders agreed to allow him to continue his experiment.

Logan County Courthouse (2)

Little did he or the citizens of Bellefontaine realize what the profound effect his efforts would yield, and its resultant impact on the future of transportation across the country.

1st road plaque

Imbedded plaques surrounding his likeness detail Bartholomew’s discovery and his process, and memorialize his achievement.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

But that’s not all there is to Bellefontaine!

Sandwiched between Garfield Avenue and W. Columbus Avenue lies 30 feet of patched concrete known locally as McKinley Street (named after President William McKinley),

McKinley St

and recognized nationally as the shortest street in America, or the corners of No Parking and No Parking.

High Time

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

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

Campbell Hill panorama

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

Campbell Hill marker

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

Remnants remain.

Hazmat Team

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

highest point

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

Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.

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

Campbell Hill bench

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

 

 

Building Airstreams

Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio. 

Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).

Shredded tire

Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.

factory exterior

In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.

Wally and Stella (2)

Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.

When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,

1930s Airstream

1930 Airstream

to several vintage varities,

Wally and Stella's golden ride

Vintage 19

Airstream 345

to newest production models–

Airstream park (2)

all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,

gutting a classic

junk pen

and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.

repair lot

After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.

Customer Lounge

We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.

Don Ambos

Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…

Furniture assembly

galley build

forms cutter

curving the walls

chassis build

shells

 

wiring

assembly

final assembly

finishing

…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.

Atlas

By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!

terraport

The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.

 

 

After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.

Awards

And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.

banff-ca-2.jpg