Impressions Photographique de Montréal

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

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

Nouilles de Lan Zhou – Noodle Shop

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Auchmuty Sproule (1799-1845)

The sanctuary was completed in 1830,

and the towers followed in 1841 and 1843.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and a wraparound theater space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic Lanzhou braised beef and noodles

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

Flowerpot Rocks

Every six hours, twice a day–give or take a few minutes, depending on the tidal charts–the Bay of Fundy empties into the Atlantic Ocean,

and exposes the ocean floor.

When the tide rolls out,

the effect at the harbor is dramatic enough to leave fishing vessels resting on their laurels.

And peculiar things happen on the Saint John River…

on its way to the Bay of Fundy.

When the Saint John River drains into the Bay of Fundy at the Reversing Falls Bridge…

it triggers a phenomena seen nowhere else: water being pushed up the channel to create an inverted waterfall.

At its highest, the Bay of Fundy’s tide reaches 56 ft.–equivalent to a 5-story building…or boat.

But when the bay recedes, what’s revealed is often surprising and stunning.

Consider the rocky reef at Cape Enrage,

which supports a pop-up sculpture park…

overseen by the Cape Enrage Lighthouse–still protecting New Brunswick’s coastline since 1870.

However, there’s a different phenomena to behold during low tide at Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park,

that’s absolutely enchanting.

Tidal erosion has sculpted these magnificent cliff remnants into distinctive shapes, with sizes ranging from 40 to 70 feet high.

Scientists have nicknamed these formations Flowerpot Rocks for obvious reasons.

The cape is vast,

with so much to explore,

but time for roaming the ocean floor is strictly regulated, and closely monitored by security,

lest a tourist get pinned to the rocks by the surging tide,

and get swept away by unexpected beauty.

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Olympic Pipe Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we walked the upper course…

past Curve 1…

to Start Gate 3…

with a distant view of the Ski Jump Center.

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

“But how will I video this?” I asked.

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

We got a push and we were ready to roll…

Mt Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid–Aug 20 ’22

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

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

Completing the Golden Circle

Feeling exhilarated after our Silfra snorkeling adventure, Leah and I said goodbye to Thingvellir, and set out to complete the remaining natural wonders of the Golden Circle trifecta.

We continued to Haukadalur, a geothermal valley in South Iceland that boasts a plethora of fumaroles and geysers,

including the powerful and predictable Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser that regularly erupts every 5 to 10 minutes like clockwork,

sending boiling water skyward, 20 to 40 metres beyond its mineral-stained crust.

Afterwards, we traveled to Hvítá river canyon to visit Iceland’s beloved falls, Gullfoss. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ double drops in dramatic display.

We arrived in time for one of Iceland’s typical daily weather changes as we hiked to the closest observation deck. The blustery gales had driven the cold drizzle and falls spray sideways. While we were dressed appropriately in warm parkas and rain pants, Leah was miserable and could only manage a walk to one of many overlooks of Gullfoss.

I tried to ignore the weather, but the poor visibility and annoying spritz was affecting my ability to keep the camera lens dry while trying to capture the “perfect shot.”

Leah retired to the comfort of the Land Cruiser, while I climbed above the canyon wall in search of a different perspective, thinking that if I distanced myself from the water, I could keep my camera dry.

The best that I could manage, given the circumstances was adequate…

However, to my chagrin, I found the perfect shot at the base of the foothills, but it belonged to a park graphic with information about Gullfoss…

However, looking southeast, I also discovered a telling view of Thingvellir’s distant topography just beyond the Visitor Center.

Of course, being a national park, certain rules apply; and understandably, drone photography is a no no. But Gullfoss is so expansive that it would surely benefit from an aerial approach, so the Park Service sanctioned a third party to capture the awe and splendor that only a drone can see.

We ended our day in Selfoss,

where more adventures await…

New River Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

it’s the river I’ve come to conquer.

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

Once we were properly outfitted with life jackets and helmets…

off we went…

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

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

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

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

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

visiting Cathedral Falls in Ansted;

investigating abandoned beehive coke ovens in Nuttallburg;

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

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

Perhaps another visit is in order.

Ballistic Badlands: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

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

Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…

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

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

(Library of Congress)

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

(Library of Congress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…

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

Despite being disarmed,

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

The Mountain Is Out Today

Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.

In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.

On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”

My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.

Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!

On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:

a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…

to gaze at ancient trees…

in the Grove of the Patriarchs;

a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;

a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;

tracking iconic, Narada Falls,

as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;

admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);

and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–

which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.

The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.

Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.

We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…

until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.

We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.

Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.

The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.

It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.

With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,

while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,

and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.

On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,

and ourselves.

Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,

but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.

Rocky Reservations

Leah and I have been planning our current trip since January–looking at various routes, places of interest, and RV park availability. At times it seemed like a logistical nightmare–having to shift dates and locations to accommodate timing, anticipated weather and RV park amenities (service hook-ups).

By April, most all of our mapped destinations (44 in all over 20 weeks) were booked. That’s about the same time the National Park Service (NPS) announced that two of our anticipated stops (Rocky Mountain and Glacier) now require timed-entry permits to be eligible to visit.

Because NPS is grappling with record attendance and overrun facilities at many locations, this additional measure is intended to relieve congestion at the park gates at best, and eliminate park closures due to limited parking and staffing woes.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, two reservation options were available for visitors between May 28 and October 11: Bear Lake Road Corridor plus full park access, which includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, and Fall River Area from 5:00 AM – 6:00 PM; and all park roads except Bear Lake Road Corridor, with a reservation period from 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM.

When the reservations window opened on May 1 at 8 AM (MDT), passes became available on a first-come basis—up to 60 days in advance–with approximately 25% of day passes held for guests planning to arrive within 2 days. I logged on to recreation.gov bright and early, and was eager to claim my permit, but apparently the rest of the world had the same idea.

When the online dust settled, I had my coveted entry pass, albeit with a 2:00 PM start time. While it wasn’t the most ideal situation–losing half the day–it was better than making the trip, only to be turned away. Yes, it’s happening.

On the day of our permit, Leah and I meandered through Estes Park for a few hours, breezing through art, jewelry, sporting goods, and general stores, where Leah found an eyeglass lanyard for a buck. We passed a dress-up cowboy spieling in front of Bob and Tony’s Pizza on Elkhorn Ave. and laughed it off, but we returned for some of the worst pizza we’ve ever tasted, although comparable to spreading Ketchup over a cardboard circle, which I did as a child.

Once we passed through the Bear Lake ranger checkpoint, we stretched our legs with a walk around Sprague Lake, the site of a one-time mountain resort, and immediately, we were greeted by a curious teenager,

who looks as if he had a bad reaction from a slice of pizza from Bob and Tony’s…

and is returning to a healthier diet of tall grass.

Half way around Sprague Lake, we encountered his girlfriend romping through the water, courtesy of Leah’s iPhone…

Completing the lake loop, we stood in awe at the doorstep of the Continental Divide and admired the view…but not for as long as I would have liked, since we only had a narrow window of time to explore our immense surroundings.

Naturally, being inside the Bear Lake Corridor gave us an opportunity to circle Bear Lake,

and its neighbor, Nymph Lake.

But running short on time, I abandoned my goal of hiking the rest of the trail to Emerald Lake,

and opted for time in the higher elevations. Our drive took us through Moraine Park,

till we reached Horseshoe Park at the junction of Trail Ridge Road.

Once we rounded the bend from Hidden Valley…

it was one spectacular lookout…

after another…

and another…

and another…

until we reached the Gore Range, the highest elevation on the park road at 12,183 feet.

We drove as far as Medicine Bow Curve, when a herd of elk happened to wander across the tundra to graze, as if to remind us that we were approaching dinner-time. It was our cue to U-turn.

As we doubled back, our conversation turned to the timed-entry, reservation system. The time we were allotted was just a teaser, considering the 355 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.

While I would have preferred a whole day or two or three to satisfy my craving for mountains, I support more people having a chance to appreciate this country’s beauty without annoying crowds, and to capture a lasting memory…

Wings of a Fallen Angel

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

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

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

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

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

to commemorate the loss of his son.

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

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

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

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

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

and returned to its hallowed perch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bandelier Delivers

Leah and I were en route from Albuquerque to Taos when I noticed an early road sign for Bandelier National Monument. As we got closer to our destination and signs for Bandelier became more frequent, I proposed that we make it a stop–not for overnighting, but a daytrip to break up the travel monotony–considering it wasn’t more than an hour out of our way.

While there wasn’t hardcore support for the idea, there wasn’t serious objection either, which meant I still had a chance to sell the idea.

“I think it’s been 46 years since I was there–probably some side-trip while visiting Santa Fe during my first cross-country honeymoon trip,” I started.

“I think I was there sooner than that,” Leah commented, “like in the past 10 years.”

“Really? It couldn’t have been with me,” I asserted. “Do you not have an interest in going?”

“I don’t know,” she maintained. “I mean, is there anything there that we haven’t seen before?

I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Would you pass up Niagara Falls because you saw Victoria Falls?”

I said, “It’s the site of an ancient pueblo village. It’s similar to Mesa Verde, and I think you may be mistaking one for the other, because we last visited Mesa Verde when we flew to Santa Fe for Carrie’s wedding 12 years ago.”

“Are you sure?” asked Leah.

“As certain as I was about Blue Hole,” I replied.

“What do you propose we do with the Airstream, ’cause we certainly can’t pull it around the canyon,” Leah asked and answered.

“We can work that out when we get there,” I proposed.

Sometime that answer gets me in trouble…but not this day!

We first passed through Los Alamos (with maybe more nuclear physicists per square mile than anywhere else on earth), and climbed a ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains,

overlooking the Frijoles Canyon.

“Any of this look familiar,” I teased.

We followed a serpentine road that wound around the mountain, carrying us deeper into the canyon. A park ranger stopped us at the park entrance station.

“Sorry folks, but your trailer–nice as it is–doesn’t fit on our mountain roads. To get to our Visitor Center and trails, you’re gonna have to drive to the Juniper Campground parking lot and unhitch there,” he advised.

“Sounds reasonable,” I confirmed.

“You’re prepared to do all this work just to drive the park?” Leah asked.

“You’ll see. It’ll be worth it!” I said.

We walked the Pueblo Loop Trail, passing Big Kiva (a ceremonial underground chamber)…

and the 700-year ruins of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village

originally a 3-story ring of sandstone rock debris exceeding 400 rooms.

From a distance we saw several families poking through the cavates, chipped out of porous rock.

We soldiered on, beyond the remnants of the Long House…

lined with protected petroglyphs,

and imagined what it once looked like…

when all that remains are chiseled-out rooms,

once hidden behind adobe walls.

We took the trail extension in anticipation of climbing to the Alcove House…

but Leah chose to sit this one out.

The climb was steep and narrow, and the ladder rungs were on fire from baking in the sun all day.

While Leah enjoyed the shade beside Frijoles Creek, I had an aerie to myself with a nestled kiva,

and sculpted rooms for meditation.

Which may have prompted me to say a prayer or two before my looong climb down.

Blue Hole

With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.

But not so fast!

We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.

“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”

“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.

“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.

I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.

I hadn’t anticipated another blowout (see https://streamingthruamerica.com/2019/06/12/blowout/).

The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.

“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”

“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.

“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.

“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.

“You’re not helping,” I advised.

Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”

I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.

“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”

“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.

“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.

It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.

We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.

Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.

90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.

“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.

“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.

“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”

“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.

Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.

As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.

But not so fast!

Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.

So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.

The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole

–ready for excitement.

When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.

“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.

“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.

“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.

“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.

“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.

I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…

“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”

“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.

“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”

It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…

except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.

I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,

which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.

The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.

P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…

and they fit just fine.

Soul Food for Thought–The History of Stax Records

After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.

Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.

In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.

Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…

which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.

Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.

Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.

Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.

The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,

Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.

Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.

Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some.  I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”

Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.

And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.

With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,

utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.

But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.

In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.

The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;

there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;

but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.

The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–

put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…

In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.

In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.

Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:

By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.

Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.

Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.

Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”

Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.

Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.

Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.

To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.

Continuing:

By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.

Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.

Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.

Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.

When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.

For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”

Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.

Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.

The Stax building was padlocked.

In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.

The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.

Start Your Engines

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dodge Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the unexpected happened…

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

collapsing the front end of his racer.

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

Out came the yellow flag…

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

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

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

I hope the winner likes milk!

UPDATE:

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

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

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

Inhu•manatee

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

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

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

Many coastal manatees migrate to Manatee Lagoon…

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

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

Others migrate to Silver Springs State Park,

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

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

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

According to Indian River Lagoon guide Billy Rotne:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccination Blues

Ever since Ron DeSantis, Trump’s toady and Florida’s Republican governor decided to ignore CDC guidelines for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s been a confusing patchwork of inefficiency for Florida’s 67 counties. Of course, first-responders, front-line healthcare workers and long-term facility residents were early targets. However, rather than vaccinate the area’s essential workers–in an effort to stem the tide of infection–DeSantis determined that Phase 1 inoculations should also be delivered to a more vulnerable and deserving population of seniors 65 and older. Rightfully, critics have accused DeSantis of politicizing the vaccine priority as a bow to those who supported his election 2 years ago.

This week, county health department officials throughout Florida received nearly 94,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 3,000 doses slated for St. Johns, my home county. Leah and I have been actively following the announcements through state and local websites, and wondered how this would trickle down to us. We were determined to bob and weave through the bureaucracy for a chance that whatever news we learned would lead us in a useful direction.

Yesterday, we latched onto a hotline phone number that promised to connect us to a human who’d be scheduling appointments, but no matter when we called, the line was either busy, never connected, or went to voice mail. An after-hour answering service eventually took our information, but failed to return our call.

“Hurry up!” Leah shouted, running into the bedroom. The weight of 365 days of 2020 had worn me out, and I was comfortably lounging in bed. I glanced at the night table clock. It was 8:30am.

“Let’s go!” she commanded. “The Health Department is giving out the vaccine, and cars are already lining up across the street.” Leah had been on her morning walk, when she received a call from a neighbor–who on a whim, woke early, and was now first in line since 8am.

By 8:45am, I was behind the wheel, and behind a long string of sedans and SUVs, waiting to turn the corner from US-1 onto San Sebastian View, approaching the St. John’s County Administration building.

Leah and I slowly crept forward for the next hour until we turned the corner. We were making progress.

Eventually, we arrived at the first checkpoint…

where a healthcare worker offered us a sanitized clipboard with a validation form listing cautionary medical conditions, and alerting us to potential medical risks and complications for this unapproved, albeit emergency-authorized vaccine. We were instructed to tell our vaccination provider about:

  • any allergies
  • a lapsed fever
  • a bleeding disorder
  • blood thinner usage
  • any immunocompromises
  • a current or planned pregnancy
  • any breastfeeding activity
  • or if we have received any other COVID-19 vaccine.

We inched closer to the next checkpoint…

where Private Johnson, 1st Class of the U.S. Army entertained us while we waited further still. I had nothing but questions for him.

“How many shots have been given out so far, today?” I asked.

“I heard someone say 58 seniors over the past 2 hours, since opening at 9am,” he informed.

“So what happened to ‘appointments only’?” I asked.

“I really can’t answer that.” he asserted.

“But how did everyone even know about this vaccination site?” I queried.

“Beats me! Social media, most likely.” he posited. “All I know is that after 100,000 inquiries yesterday, the phones crashed, and people started showing up.”

“You mean, the Health Department was giving shots here yesterday, and there was no promotion or notification?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So much for organization.

Our conversation was cut short when I was directed to move closer to the RN station. After two hours, Leah and I relaxed our arms, and we finally received our experimental pokes.

We were directed to a 15-minute waiting zone where EMT would monitor us for:

  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling of face or throat
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • a nasty rash all over our body
  • dizziness
  • weakness

While waiting, I couldn’t help but ponder the many conspiracies spewed by Alex Jones and QAnon advocates surrounding the vaccine: No, I don’t believe that Bill Gates implanted a 5G-enabled microchip to surveil me; I don’t believe I was injected with Satan’s blood. I don’t believe my DNA was altered to turn me into a cannibal or a pedophile; and I don’t believe my immune system has now been compromised, leaving me open to greater infection.

Thankfully, after 15 minutes, Leah and I remained symptom-free.

The entire process took 2 1/2 hours, door to door. At home, I pealed the Band-aid off my left upper arm–not even a speck of blood showing.

Four weeks from now, we’ll repeat the process, as we anticipate the second dose. Perhaps by then, the roll-out will be more predictable.

But more importantly, new leadership will be moving our nation forward in a different direction, and there will be much less to fear besides COVID-19.

Good riddance 2020, and all that you brought us!…

And HAPPY NEW YEAR!

A Change of Scenery

Plans change.

Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.

Kathel Matt Lucy sign

Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.

It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.

It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.

So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.

Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.

Cracker Barrel

Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,

driveway Airstream

and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.

backyard

Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.

Leah Jimmy Kathel

Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.

Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.

After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.

To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,

cantor

who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.

After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).

She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.

She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).



Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.

Lucy bimah

Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,

tent service

while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.

self portrait

A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.

family1 (3)

Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.

Lucyfriends

For the following hour, prayers were chanted;

Lucy points and cantor

rituals were observed;

Sarah torah

speeches were made;

speech

wine was sipped;

Lucy sipping wine

bread was broken;

motze

and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.

certificate

After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!

lucy cutting cake (2)

Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.

Lucy w torah and parents

 

Order of the Blue Nose

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),

Here Comes the Sun

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.

(Applause)

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?

drinking aquavit (2)

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.

closed eyes

What follows is a small sample of inductee’s portraits–some more enthusiastic than others…

red eye

pursed lip

plaid shirt

man wirth glasses

lady with glasses

grinning lady

glassy eyes

Chinese freckles

beard man

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.

Certificate

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.

Arctic Circle marker

Now that’s what I call “Crossing the Line!”

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Entertainment

See  Part 1 before continuing…

With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.

Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,

animal people1 (2)

beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,

Cirque leads

who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.

Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters:    a skip rope team…

jump rope

a Risley acrobatic duo,


a silk curtain dancer…

curtain split1

curtain split

an audience participant…

audience member

dueling pirates…

pirate ship

a juggler…

juggler

a hand-balancer/contortionist…

contortionist

pageant and puppetry…

fish puppet

puppets

strap aerielists…

rings couple (2)

and a trampoline wall before the finale…


The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.

As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.

pets

And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.

With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,

jungle

deep within the repurposed Yucatán jungle.

 

Ta-ta, Tulum!

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

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

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

“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.

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

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

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

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

We drove to the término, reaching our destination…

Santa Fe wall

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

beach and ruins.jpg

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

Tulum envisioned

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

castillo and tourists

castillo signage

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

Tulum vista

ruins 2

ruins 4

ruins

ruins3

Temple of Paintings

temple on the hill

except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.

Leah thru the gate

Leah and Nate.jpg

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

hilltop view

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

shoreline

and that was our next destination.

Sante Fe Beach Club

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

Brenda

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

Our captain motored out to open water,

Captain of Brenda.jpg

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

temple by the sea

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

snorkeling over a reef.jpg

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



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…

pelican chilling

and keeping track of my sons.

Nate snorkeling

Noah and the bird

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

3 amigos

Free Fallin’ Off My Bucket List

This tune helps set the mood, so hit play and read until the video:


I’ve been an adrenelin junkie most of my adult life, so it figures that one day I would satisfy my urge to jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course). But for whatever reason, I never took advantage of the opportunity…until now.

The opportunity came in the form of a birthday present from my sons, Noah and Nate, but with a long ribbon attached: we’d be skydiving in Playa del Carmen, which was my gift to them to celebrate their belated birthdays!

birthday present (2)

We all came from different parts of the country. Leah and I flew from Jacksonville to Charlotte–where we met Nate, who transfered from Seattle–and continued with us to Cancun, hours ahead of Noah’s direct flight from Philly.

We thought about the weather when we arrived at Vidanta on Saturday. Our jump on Monday was conditional on the weather spirits. The winds had to be just right, and a sunny day would be a bonus. On Monday we got both.

I reserved a car from the resort’s travel center on Sunday, and returned the next day with my family to pick up my VW Polo at 9 am. I was expecting the agent, but nobody was there except for two women from Columbia, who were already waiting with their family for half-an-hour.

When we compared itineraries, the Columbians mentioned they were driving to Chichen Itza. In my mind, I thought that my family deserved priority check out. After all, we had a briefing and a plane to catch at Playa del Carmen’s aerodrome at 10 am. But I wasn’t going to make a stink about it, because we planned our departure with a half-hour contingency cushion. Nevertheless, a spark of adrenalin delivered a dose of shpilkes.

Besides, none of that mattered at 9:15 am when the agent was still a no-show, and the concierge kept her distance when Leah approached her about contacting the agent to secure an ETA, so we could make alternative plans. Another push of adrenalin and my irritation level moved to agita.

We hustled to a tram stop to catch an achingly s-l-o-w shuttle to the resort’s transit hub, and hailed a taxi the moment we got our bearings. A time check revealed 9:30 am. Google maps predicted a 10 am arrival. My pulse was racing just a bit, and I was feeling verklempt. We traveled the road to Playa mostly in silence.

We celebrated our arrival at exactly 10 am (how does Google do it?)

logo (2)

Typical paperwork to indemnify the company was waiting for us, and after weighing in, we anxiously waited for our tandem partners to arrive from an earlier jump. Nearby, our chutes were being prepared.

clearin the lines.jpg

packing the chute.jpg

Leah was driven to the jump drop on Playacar’s beach, while my sons and I met David, Jose and Juan, who we would trust our lives to.

beach landing

Finally, it was time to jump! On the way to the airport (walking distance), I learned that David had over 2400 jumps, of which 500 were tandem. I was really looking forward to this!

After an official passed us through security with a wand, we caught up with our pilot and plane, a twin engine AirVan outfitted for eight passengers parked along a single landing strip. Once we were prepped on the flight and outfitted with harnesses, we boarded the plane. Soon we were barrelling down the runway and airborne.



Our free fall time was approximately 40 seconds, and we were hurtling toward earth at approximately 200 km per hour (125 mph). No wonder my face was stretched to the max. But after touching down only meters away from our landing zone, I knew that this was a birthday gift I would long remember…

david and me (2)

until the next time!

the end

Thanks Noah and Nate for an adrenal rush of a lifetime!

Jeremy nd Noah

Tim and Nate