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4000 Miles in 30 Days: A Love Affair and The End

On West Virginia, Climbing, Bluegrass, White Water Rafting, Cooper's Rock, and The End Game

semi-overcast 63 °F

I’ve fallen in love again. It was a brief affair, only three days, but it left me with that wonderful feeling of love. My symptoms are acute, and easy to diagnose. I feel the lighthearted tapping of butterfly wings in the hollow of my stomach, a rush of warmth to my head when I think of her. My heart is beating a little faster at the sound of her name, and I turn abruptly to the southeast convinced she is calling for me. These are but the whispers of my imagination, figments of my memories. However, the loving siren call of West Virginia is real and I am in love with her.
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Last Friday, my friend Luke and I drove down to the New River Gorge. We flew down the freeway, whistling through the warm morning sun, and rolling high into the green grandeur that is West Virginia’s Appalachia. We turned south on Highway 19, drove Luke’s Honda past Summerville, and began to recognize features from last years adventure (See From Alaska to West Virginia, May 2011). We crossed over the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arched bridge in the western hemisphere, and turned off in the small town of Fayetteville.
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As we drove through the main street of its downtown, I took stock of what it had to offer. They had a solid outdoor gear store (Waterstone) , a yoga studio, a theatre with a full season of plays and performances, the usual public service buildings, a bakery, several funky shops (The Hobbit Hole), and many appealing restaurants including Pies and Pints, The Secret Sandwich Society, and The Vandalian, to name a few. I liked what I saw. It had small town charm, friendly people, great food, and soul. That was the deciding factor for me. Fayetteville has soul.
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We drove a mile out of town, and pulled into Cantrell’s Ultimate Rafting headquarters, and met up with our trip leader, and lodging staff to get settled in for the afternoon. The good folks at Cantrell’s welcomed us by name, gave a brief rundown on where to find everything, and let us know that a good bluegrass band was going to be playing at the bar that night. We thanked them, drove down to our little cabin to stow our gear, stretch, and eat a quick lunch. Our main objective for the afternoon was to rock climb down in the gorge.
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Springtime in West Virginia is akin to playing in the Garden of Eden. The forest was vibrantly green, glowing in the sunlight. Happy creeks tumbled down the steep sides of the gorge, often forming beautiful waterfalls of clear water. The birds chirped all around us, and large butterflies flapped in chaotic patterns, stopping to land in the blooming rhododendrons. It was warm in the sunlight, a perfect backdrop for any outdoor activity.
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The New River Gorge is a rock climber’s dream, and a Mecca to most climbers on the east coast. The rock is primarily sandstone, with lots of grip, and many routes. Most of the routes are set up to top rope, though there is quite a bit of trad (traditional route climbing) as well. There is plenty of bouldering, down in the Hawk’s nest boulders. In short, no matter what style of climbing you prefer, you can find good rock in the New River gorge.
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We set up our anchors on top of The Bridge Buttress, which is located underneath the north side of the New River Gorge Bridge. It had been awhile since I had climbed, and we took our time making sure our anchors were secure. When we were satisfied, we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing high up on the rock face. We didn’t have a care in the world, simply enjoying the feel of the rock on our hands and feet focusing on the climbing problems presented to us. I kept saying to Luke, “I can’t believe how amazing this place is.”

That evening as we drove back to Cantrell’s we demolished a bag of potato chips between us. We were starving after our exertions on the rock. We learned that another large group had showed up in our absence, and had their dates wrong. Instead of turning them back, they decided to move us to another campground and into another cabin. We really didn’t mind. We knew we would have a place to sleep. We drove a mile south on highway 19 to the campground. We found the caretaker who gave us a key to our cabin. The cabin was great, and step up in comfort. It was made of old rough hewn logs, with plaster chinking in between. It had a fireplace, a full bathroom, a small kitchen area, bunk beds, a queen size bed, and a spacious back porch. It was a palace.
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We cracked some beers and sat on the front porch enjoying the cool liquid in the dark of the evening. We were satisfied with our efforts of the day. The bluegrass band was going to be starting up soon, so we headed on back to Cantrell’s to see the show.

We walked into the saloon, ordered some beers and took a seat. The band was just starting up, the cigarette smoke hung low. The place was full of people, an easygoing group of West Virginians. We talked with some locals, hung out, commented on how lucky we were and how good life is. After awhile, and several brews later, we meandered over to where the band was playing. Johnson Crossing is from Asheville, North Carolina and tours around the country. I would describe their brand of music as a soulful bluegrass. It was a four-piece band, with a good lead singer and solid backup. It was a good show.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that Luke had wandered off onto the dance floor. “I can’t help it, bro. When I get that beat in me, I have to get out there.” I was feeling fantastic, so I stepped onto the square tile of the dance floor and began getting in my own groove. Just then, the dobro player picked up his banjo, and began to tune it. Everybody in the place knew he was about to go off, and it brought more people out to the dance floor. The band began to wind up, starting with the banjo player on a lead of “The Cuckoo.” The banjo rang true. The guitar, mandolin, and bass all followed suit. The rhythm of that song had the entire dance floor out of their minds. WE LOVED IT! We danced hard, we howled for more, we clapped in unison, we laughed, we smiled. The sweat poured off us, but the band played on. I gave out that southern tradition of a giant, “Yeeee-haawww.” That song was the best song I’ve ever heard live. It is a song that normally takes two minutes to play, but the band fed off our enthusiasm and played that sucker for what felt like fifteen minutes. It was an amazing moment. I remember looking at the lead singer and seeing his satisfaction at the power of his music. I cannot imagine how good that must feel.

The bouncer gave us a ride to our cabin for being such good sports. It began to rain, hard. I fell asleep under a hand made quilt listening to the rain hammer on our roof. My last thoughts were of how damn lucky I am. I thought back to my day full of climbing in paradise, potato chips for dinner, getting drunk and dancing all night. I almost forgot that we were here to go white water rafting.

Author’s Note: This section contains some mild cursing not suitable for younger folks. It’s harmless, and I included it because it reflects the speech and mannerisms of the region I was in.

The next morning, we awoke to my alarm, and the sound of rain lashing at the windows. One of our guides picked us up in a giant van. We learned the river was up about six and a half feet and rising. “The river is going to be in fine shape,” he told us. We ate breakfast, served military style from their cookhouse. We drank strong black coffee, and dug into the homemade biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and fruit. It was delicious. We signed our lives away, rented some wet suits, and geared up. We grabbed a life jacket, helmet, and paddle. We filed onto the old school bus, driven by an elderly gentleman who knew how to handle an old clutch on the steep, twisting, single lane roads of the gorge. The bus had that sour smell that buses carry around; a combination of old vinyl, moldy river funk, and the musky scent of lots of bodies in spongy wet suits. It wasn’t long before the windows became foggy, leaving us blind to the passing countryside.

We rode for forty minutes in that old bus, finally stopping at a place called Stone Cliff. Everyone piled out of the bus, and into the rain. The rain was still falling hard, intent to soak us before we ever made it to the river. I could see the river was rising higher on the bank, pooling around several trees that were normally dry. We met our guide, Randy, and our fellow raft mates. We each grabbed the strap of our sixteen-foot raft and hauled it on down to the river. We set it in the swollen river and jumped in.

We didn’t do much for the first three hours. Mostly, we chatted with our guide, who cracked us up with his Appalachian ways and stories of a river guide. The river was running so fast, that we put in upstream to where they normally would have, just to take up some time. It was a relaxed affair, and we passed harmlessly through some class I, II, and III rapids. This was my first taste of white water rafting, and I liked my first nibble. The rain continued to fall, and the river rose a little higher. I was freezing. I shivered in my wet suit, as we rode along. The water seeping deep into my long johns I wore underneath. Eventually we stopped for lunch, just before the halfway point of our ride. We ate sandwiches, chips, cookies, and drank water in the pouring rain. I tried to find shelter under a likeable tree, but instead of small drops, I had large bumblebee sized droplets hitting me off the leaves. It was hopeless.

We packed up, and got the rafts launched back on the river. From here on out, we were heading into the heart of the gorge, and with all the rainfall causing the river to rise, we were going to have one hell of a ride.

Now our guide Randy was awesome. He did not work us to death, and he told us what he wanted us to do when he wanted it. “Now, when I say, Forward Heavy, I want you to paddle with all you got. We need to get over to the left, other whys we are going to get beeyitch slapped and you don’t want that. If we get stuck on the right side, this river is gonna beeyitch slap us the whole length of these rapids.” His accent, mannerisms, and speech were deeply Appalachian. It was like having my brother Eric as our guide. He was hilarious, very charismatic, and I will never forget him.

We entered the first rapid, and it was a big one. Easily class V, and required some technical maneuvering to get through it safely. Just as we passed over the first big wave, and into the chaos, our raft went vertical, we heard the call of “FORWARD HEAVY!”, and we all began to row as hard as we could. It was hard to paddle, being bucked around like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. It was harder still to see anything but the river coming at me in all directions. “C’MON LAYDIEES! PULLL! PULLLLL! GIMMEE ALL YEW GOT!” Randy yelled at us, his thick accent easily heard over the roar of the water. We pulled like the ladies we were, and got over to the left side before we were bitch slapped into submission.

We whooped, we laughed, and we were thrilled by this wonderful river. Randy was ecstatic. “Great Job Guys! That was AWESOME! WHOOOOO-EEEEEE!” His enthusiastic approval was reward enough for us. We paddled on through several more big rapids, each of them requiring us to pull hard, but none of them were as tough as that first one. I had a blast, my smile widening every time our speed increased as we were sucked into the maelstrom of the chaotic rapids. No longer was I cold. I began to warm up with my adrenaline, paired perfectly with my excitement, as I pulled hard on my paddle.

All told, we had rafted fourteen miles of the New River, passing over at least twenty rapids. When we hauled out under the big bridge, we were soaked through, and very happy. It was a great day. We rode the bus back on up to the top of the gorge and back to Cantrell’s. We stepped out of our funky smelling wetsuits and handed back our gear. Luke and I rode back to our cabin to get showers, and get warm. After my shower, I laid down on my bed, to stretch out for a minute. That minute turned into two hours, and I passed out solidly for a long afternoon nap. I have had some great days in my life recently, and this one was one to remember.
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The next day, Luke and I checked out of our cabin, went out for a delicious homemade breakfast at The Vandalian, and decided to drive north up to Cooper’s Rock to do some more rock climbing. All of the rock in the gorge was still wet from all of the rain, and we figured to at the very least explore the area and find where to climb. It was a solid plan and it worked out beautifully. Not only did we find another gorgeous West Virginia forest to play in, but it was also dry. We spent the afternoon top roping on the giant sandstone slabs that make up the Cooper’s Rock climbing scene.
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I love climbing, and we had fun working problems on the route and exhausting our bodies. We took turns on the rock, one person climbing with the other person belaying them. We chatted amiably with some local climbers and compared notes on places we had climbed. We were the last climbers out on the rock, and we cleaned our gear from the rock as the sun was setting.
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I marveled at the trip. It had been awesome from start to finish. We drove west in the night stopping for a burrito in Morgantown before continuing on to Bellaire, Ohio where Luke lived. It was midnight when I finally pulled the blankets up to my chin on his couch. I reflected on my fortunes. I had just finished yet another amazing chapter of this journey.

The next day, I drove eight hundred fifty miles to northern Michigan. It took me over 15 hours to make the journey, after only 5 hours of sleep. I was exhausted and road weary when I parked my van outside of my brother’s house in Hancock, Michigan. I was in a hurry because the next day I had to catch a plane to Seattle to celebrate my birthday with my birthday twin. From Seattle, I am going north to Sitka, Alaska and then onto Denali National Park. Thom’s whirlwind tour keeps right on trucking along.

End Game: I drove 4,402 miles since leaving Spokane, Washington on April 9th. That makes a solid four weeks on the road, and let me tell you it was an amazing trip. Thanks for reading, thanks for all of the support, and thank you to all who let me stay on their couches, and hung out with me. The following are some of my favorite pictures of the trip which did not make the original posts. Happy Travels, Fair Winds, and I’ll see you in Alaska!
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Posted by Rhombus 09:06 Archived in USA Tagged rivers flowers river new dancing climbing rafting photography rockclimbing westvirginia roadtrips bluegrass Comments (7)

4000 Miles In 30 Days: Side Tracked in Chicago

Miscalculations of Bliss and Twenty Four Wonderful Hours in Chicago

overcast 47 °F

I have an amendment to make to the title of this journey. I was halfway across the heartland of Wisconsin, when I tapped my odometer button to see how far I had driven on this trip. It read 2,812 miles. I was surprised. I didn’t think I had driven that far. My original estimates were WAY off. Who is in charge of logistics and plans here? What clown is running this show? My estimation of two thousand miles was a joke, as I have at least another thousand miles to go before I near my destination. Not only that, it looks like I shortchanged myself a week as well. My flight to Seattle leaves on May 9th making this a thirty-day trip, not twenty-two.

I like the changes. Every trip should be flexible and free to morph as it will. If I had chosen to, I could have forced this journey match my original parameters, but that would have robbed me of some wonderful experiences somewhere along the way. Despite my poor planning, I am humbly and happily changing the name of this journey to “Four Thousand Miles in Thirty Days.”

Chicago Explorations
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I want to tell you about Chicago. This was my third trip into Chicago, though I have driven through the city at other times on other trips, and have flown into O’Hare International on numerous occasions. In my mind, those visits don’t count. I need to spend quality time wandering around a city for it to register as a visit.

Before I get into my Chicago explorations, I want to talk about my approach to large cities. For those (both) of you that read my blog, you know I am happiest out in the wilderness, tramping around a park, viewing the wonders of the sea, or on the road passing through some lonesome landscape. However, I love visiting cities.

Large cities look intimidating from the outside, but once you get past the outer loops of frenzied freeways, the charm of the neighborhoods and bustle of urban life takes hold. They lose their intimidation factor.

Chicago is a good example. Driving around the outskirts of Chicago offers nothing to the driver (other than frustration). On my last visit, I had to concentrate on driving, usually at a high rate of speed as though I was in a race. I hardly had time to enjoy the brief view of the city before it was gone. When I rode the train downtown and spent my day on foot, I found Chicago a very approachable town. It has a decent public transportation system and teeming with interesting sights, parks, restaurants, history, and life. Chicago has it all.
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I find when I am walking through urban centers that I notice everything. I enjoy getting completely out of my element, and city life fascinates me. Why do people live here? How they live here? What makes them tick? In a city like Chicago, there are hundreds of stories all around you, and interesting vignettes of every day life, if you care to notice them.

With that mindset, I boarded the Metra Train in Kenosha, Wisconsin headed for the wonderful city of Chicago. The Metra train I rode connects the northern suburbs with the city itself. The train line has expanded since I had last ridden it. I used to have to board in Waukegan. I was glad to see the rail line expand further north. I hope to see it connect to Milwaukee some day.

Riding the train was novel. I don’t ride trains very often, but I enjoy them when I do. There is something proper to riding a train. It evokes a sense of historical appreciation, especially in Chicago. For decades, people have lived out in the suburbs and have ridden these trains to get to their jobs in the city. It puts into perspective the growth of the city. As for me, I enjoy the speed, the ease of travel, and the satisfaction of using good public transportation. While on the train, I passed through suburbs and neighborhoods with strong North Chicago names. Names like: Winthrop Harbor, Lake Forest, Ravinia, Wilmette, Highland Park, Glencoe and Evanston.

As I rode, I thought of how this trip bloomed into reality. Two days before I drove down to my sister’s house, I sent a note off to my niece to see if she was up for some company down in Chicago. As it turned out, not only was she around, but she had free time, VIP tickets to see a band I had never heard of, and excitement about my visit. It made sense to stay the night, and explore the city of foot the following day. I had hatched a solid plan, and I was on my way.

She picked me up at the train station just north of downtown. We drove into Edgewater down a long street packed with charming, brick apartment buildings from a bygone era. Each building was wide, on average three stories high, and built of brick. The amount of bricks that went into the buildings of this street alone was staggering. A skilled mason laid and set each one of those bricks. I am a fan of brick buildings. I like their clean look, and historical feel.

We stopped briefly, to drop off my things and to pick up her boyfriend. We went out for sushi (which was delicious), then took the L train (elevated train) down to Wrigleyville where the nights entertainment would be.
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After walking a few blocks, we crowd surfed into a small theatre, and stepped into the queue to show our tickets. We had to pass scrutiny of the bouncers and collect our wristbands, before finally climbing up the wide stairs into the balcony to get to our seats. It was a great show. Imagine seeing a young James Brown as the front man of a young Blues Brothers band. Now they are not playing at that elite level yet, but the band was tight, and carried a fat sound. The front man had moves, timing, one hell of a voice, and had the crowd licking the tips of his fingers (if he wanted). The music they played was a mixture of originals and some covers, played and sung with a soulful funk that had us all on our feet.

It was a great night, and it was fun to catch some live music from a tight Chicago band. I would go see JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound again.

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The next morning I awoke to a very comfortable and quiet apartment. In the morning stillness, I sat in the kitchen, and admired the small green garden that my niece cared for in her back lot. I caught up on my journal, and read from Niehardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.” When my niece arose, she made breakfast for us, and I relished the relaxed freedom of Saturday morning. I enjoyed scrambled eggs on toast, fresh squeezed orange juice, and hot black coffee. Eating a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning is one of my favorite pastimes in the world.
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After breakfast, we ventured out into the cold, gray Chicago April. The wind blew steadily off Lake Michigan, and I was glad I had chosen to wear my woolen coat to combat the chill. We took the train downtown. I took polite glances at all of the riders. I kept wondering what was going on in their heads. Everyone who rides public transportation keeps their face fixed in a mask of introverted boredom. Nobody wants to look too long at anyone else. Nobody shows any emotion. Almost everyone keeps to themselves listening to their Ipod, staring off at a neutral point within the train car or out the window. It was though any outward showing of humanity would get them branded with a scarlet A (for Animated). There were a few conversations going on between friends, but nobody else said a word.
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We started our day by walking over to Centennial Park. Centennial Park is home to the Cloud Statue, more commonly known as, “The Bean.” The bean is a photographer’s dream. It has a unique giant bean shape that has been highly polished to a mirror finish. The skewed reflections of people and cityscape it produces are interesting, and this statue makes everyone smile. Everyone likes the bean. As you might imagine, there are hundreds of happy photos taken there every day. Memories are made of this.
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The flowerbeds of Centennial Park are beautiful. There were long rows of purple and cream tulips in healthy blooms. I enjoyed walking through the rows of flowers, appreciating the quiet oasis away from the sounds of the city.
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My niece had free tickets to the Chicago History Museum, and so we went back the subway, which took us closer, but we still ended up walking five blocks or so. When my travel companions ask if I‘d like to go to a museum, I‘m usually excited. I like the idea of collecting history, and seeing old objects, and scenes from the past. However, when I start walking around the knick-knacks of history, I kind of feel a little let down, a little bored, and often stifling a long yawn. The stuffy air of the museum started to put me to sleep, and my feet felt as though they were weighed down with concrete blocks. After walking through the exhibits for a while, I found my niece sitting down on a bench and I happily joined her. I was beat.
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“It feels good to sit down,” she said. I agreed. “How do you feel about deep dish pizza?” I asked her. “That sounds amazing,” she replied. One of my objectives for this trip was to get a true Chicago deep-dish pizza. I didn’t particularly care where I got it from, but I wanted a legitimate pizza. We left the museum, and went to find a good pizza joint.
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After wandering around Old Town, we still hadn’t found a place that served deep dish. Finally, she called her boyfriend and got directions to Gino’s East. It was eight blocks away, almost back down town. We laughed, and started on another long walk. We were getting our exercise in for the day, that was for sure.

Gino’s East is one of the more famous deep-dish pizza joints in Chicago. I was glad I was going there, so I would get this pizza straight from the source. Our timing was good, and we had a table after only a brief wait. The ambiance of Gino’s was fun. It was dark, very spacious, and loud. The dull roar of the restaurant was raucous with stories, punch lines, laughter and music. On almost every surface of the walls, seats, tables, and picture frames, were the signatures of past diners. Gino’s encourages graffiti, but you have to bring your own marking device. White was the most popular ink, as most of the furniture is painted black at Gino’s.

We ordered our pizza. Deep dish pizza takes about forty minutes to an hour to bake. We were tired from walking all day, and thirsty. We ordered some beers and settled into our seats. That first sip is always amazing after a long day. It was Ed Rickett’s of Steinbeck fame who said, “The first glass is for thirst, the second for taste.”

It had been awhile since I had hung out with my niece and I enjoyed a thorough conversation with her flitting among the subjects like a bumblebee amongst the dandelions. We chatted of family, dogs, memories, Rex (her brother, my nephew), life, relationships, drugs, Chicago, and what else, I forget.

The pizza was as good as I hoped it would be. If you have a chance to try a true Chicago deep-dish pizza, do not hesitate. I am always amazed at the versatility of pizza. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and I am always amazed at the regional differences in the pizza that people make. In New York, the slices are huge and you fold them to eat them. In Chicago, it is deep-dish, that looks a lot like a pie. In Minnesota, they have a fetish for thin crust, and it is delicious. In Ohio, you order the number of slices you want, and they are square, thin and very crunchy. In California, they emphasize fresh ingredients with a medium thickness to their crust. I could go on, but you get my point. No matter what style of the pizza, I have enjoyed them all.
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We finished our beers and I paid the bill. I was tipsy at this point and felt great. What a wonderful way to finish off my day in Chicago. My niece hailed a cab, and we rode back to her apartment. I had to catch my train back north to Kenosha. She dropped me off at the train station, and it wasn’t long before I climbed aboard and sat down. I was exhausted. I rested my head against the window glass as so many riders have before. I shut my eyes, and smiled.
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What a great weekend.

Posted by Rhombus 11:00 Archived in USA Tagged trains parks cities flowers walking chicago breakfast music photography pizza Comments (1)

Sleep Deprived In Portland

On Sleep Deprivation, The Chinese Gardens, Powell's City of Books, Old Town Pizza, and Moments in Portland

It’s October 23rd, 2011, and I have been awake for 23 hours straight. The fun began seven hours ago when I helped dock the ship to the floating dock down in River Front Place near downtown Portland. After docking, I realized I technically was off duty, but I stayed on, as there was luggage to move from the ship to the dock. The easiest way is to hand it down from the upper deck to the main deck through a gate. This involves many spinal compressions, as travellers are apt to bring their antique typewriters and cast iron stoves on cruises; I don’t know why. I was the catcher, as I have some height to me, and am all right with hard work.

My good deed has cost me 10 minutes of my time. I feel good however, as the process went much more smoothly than without me. Luggage sucks when you are a guy down.

I went to my room, decided on a shower, refreshed with eucalyptus. Koala bears know what is good.

I leave the boat heading to the nearby coffee shop for some Stumptown, perhaps one of the world’s great coffees, and a cinnamon roll. I have a weakness for cinnamon rolls. I monkey around on the internet, posting a blog, making some inane commentary about my day on facebook, pull ahead of my brother in a game of scrabble, and snap my computer closed. The lighting is getting good.
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I amble back to the ship. I grab my camera, tripod, and offload my computer. I call my brother and I’m gone. I find a park bench lit up in perfect lighting. I have to photograph this light, as it is perfect. Not only that, but I’ve been waiting to compose this bench all season. I settle in, take my self-portrait, and enjoy the scene. It smells faintly of pee from the bums that sleep here at night, but the lighting remains beautiful. I call my brother back and the conversation resumes. It’s a good one. I haven’t talked to my brother in quite some time, and it is good to catch up, to philosophize, to laugh aloud, to reconnect, to be brothers.

I pick up and walk. I head towards Chinatown. I remember something about gardens, and I would like to see them. I’m wandering. Runners run. Biker’s bike. Good looking people look good. Frumpy looking people eye me frumpily. Nobody says, “Hello, may your day go well for you.” No matter, I’m lost in the conversation.

I find the gardens with little trouble. Pretty much the first place I looked. Damn, I’m good. At this point, I have been up for 18 and a half hours and feeling good. My phone battery is dying, and I’m dying, and I want to see the gardens before I die. So I say farewell to my brother who is drinking wine in a soft rain by a slightly silted river in central Minnesota.
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I enter the gardens, pay my fee, and say thank you to the garden hosts. The hosts are garden loving people and they remind me of plants by their quietness and composure. I let my senses take over. The gardens are wonderful. They offer a concoction that is irresistible to my senses. It smells fresh. Fragrant plants are important to a good Chinese garden. It is beautifully simplistic in some areas, strikingly complicated in others. The Chinese are into harmony, the yin to the yang, the tall to the short, the wet to the dry, the dark to the light. Every space has balance and beauty in nature. I’m smitten. I get it. My mind thinks. “I wish the surrounding city was silent. I wish the imposing neighborhood buildings weren’t so tall. I wish I were hanging out in classical Chinese gardens in midmorning without a care in the world. “HA! I am exactly where I want to be, and I’m happy.
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The koi fish are rascals, beautiful as dragons, swimming in erratic designs through the pond. The are intriguing, colorful, and hard to photograph. I follow them across the pond attempting to catch them off guard, but it’s impossible. I leave them be.
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The garden is wonderful. The pamphlet tells me this is the best example of classical Chinese gardens outside of China. I take out my camera and search the chambers closer than I could with my eye. I was looking and freezing the Zen moments that poured out of every chamber of this garden, and I was satisfied. I love taking photos, but I’ll not dissect that subject today. I walked through the garden twice, meandering a path in one direction and backtracking the same path in reverse. I pause to sit beneath a quiet tree in the Hall of Scholars.
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I decided to go and buy Frank Herbert’s "Dune" from Powell’s. It is a pleasant walk along streets I haven’t visited before. I cross through the park and take more photos of the elephant. When thinking of perfect conditions, I was hoping for rain. These elephants would look quite good in a gloom with nobody about, but alas, not today. I walk west along Burnside, pass the auto mart, and ignore the noisy traffic. There it is, Powell’s City off Books. I think I hear a chorus of angels singing.

On my entrance, I realize there is a handicapped person in a wheel chair with their family in tow behind me. I hold the door for them. Then I hold it for three more people leaving. They say, “Thank you,” I say, “You’re welcome.” A warm feeling buzzes around us.

I walk into the tall shelves of books. I know where I’m going. At least I think I do until I realize I’m in the wrong section. I ask a redundant man pecking at a keyboard which way to science fiction. “Gold Room, on the right.” “Thank you, sir.“ I’m on my way.

Frank Herbert is huge. He has written arguably the best science fiction series in history, and I want to read it. I want to restart with "Dune," and continue. My personal favorite science fiction series is "The Worthing Saga" by Orson Scott Card. I’m keenly interested in "Dune" for some reason. I like Science Fiction but only read it a couple of times a year. I find a copy for six bucks and move on, remembering the name of one more author I like Greg Garrett. He’s only written two books it turns out, and I had already read both of them. Ah well. I leave Powell’s purchasing only one book. It is possible.

Back to the park, to the north end, where the bums lie on benches, the ground, in the shade, and amble by working on their troubles. At this point, I have been up for 21 hours, and I’m looking forward to my pizza date with my fellow deckhands. I have some time to kill before one however, and sit down to read my new book. It goes well, but I’m nagged by the feeling of very deep tiredness, hunger, and the thought that they aren’t going to arrive at the restaurant until 2 pm. I want to be in bed by 3 pm… Not good.

I decide to go to get my pizza. I have to. I’m weary and losing my focus. I wander down Davis St. to Old Town Pizza, and enter. The place is terrific. It’s dark, hardly lit at all except by natural lighting from the front window. It smells good. A bar to my right made of good dark wood and high mirrors. Straight ahead, a politely smiling miss waits to hear my decisions. Looking at the menu, I decide on the following: Classic crust, pepperoni, bell peppers, and roasted garlic. I love roasted garlic. To me this is heaven and soon to be in my possession. I get a glass of wine at the bar and take a seat at an old wrought iron table with wood top. I love the lighting. This building is haunted, so they say, and I can believe it. This is an old building in Old Town, and it feels right for a ghost.
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It also feels right for a pizza, and it wasn’t long before it arrives. I called my friends, told them my plans, and they won’t make it in time. Ah well, I’ve dated myself before, and happily dig into my carbohydrates. It’s a damn good pizza. I eat half. I’m stuffed. I’m happy. I ask for a box. I get one. In the process of putting my leftovers in the box, I spill the last swallow of wine on my jeans. I catch the glass, somehow, and look at my jeans. It appears I wet my pants, and I now smell like wine. I laugh. This is funny. I dab at it with a napkin, cut my losses and exit.

I decide I may as well stagger back to ship and ask bums for pennies. Why not? It’s not too hard to act the part. I forget it when I near my first bum. I’m tired as hell, full, and happy.

I notice the small moments of life along the way home.

A haggard woman steps out of the public ladies room singing a happy song. A man makes out with his woman along the rail where not too long ago, I did the same thing.

A smile begins to form at the corners of my mouth. A smirk. I’m thinking of my wine stained pee pants, and the moments of my day. It’s been a good one, and I feel my face light up into a grin. I chuckle aloud to no one and everyone. Thom knows how to walk through Portland.

Geese give me the stink eye as I walk past the large flock eating grass. I hear the chomping of the blades and think of the shortening of the grass. I see many panhandlers and street people plying their trade. A man will sing you a ditty on his banjo on any subject you offer him. A talented young man plays the violin quite well. He’s not gifted, but he is good, and I toss him a buck. What do I need it for? I move on, swaying down the sidewalk. An odd-looking man in a black leather jacket talks quietly with his friend. I get the feeling he’s shy. He doesn’t strike me as a leather jacket type of guy. I think to myself that everyone has a self-image. Everyone wants to look like there own self-image of themselves. They know how they want the world to perceive them. This is too deep for me. I’ve been up for 22 and a half hours and homing in on the ship. I’m close to my bed.

When I arrive it is 2 pm, and I have been up for 23 hours. I’m completely inspired to write this, and sleep will have to wait. I stand next to my bunk in my underwear and begin typing. I don’t usually write standing up in my underwear, but I’m ok with it. The words come fast, and my typing accurate. I know I have to write this while I’m in this mood, so tired, yet so perfectly poignant in my thinking about my day. I remember everything. I want to get this all down before I forget. At this point, I’m getting tunnel vision. Must keep typing. I feel the ghost of Kerouac pacing behind me whispering, “Yes, Yes, YES! Dig IT! GO, MAN GO!” I think I’m there. In eight minutes, I’ll have been up for 24 hours straight. I’m satisfied. I take another shower. I think to myself. I soap. I rinse. I can call it a day, a very satisfying full day.

I’ve been up for 24 hours and seven minutes, and I’ve turned out the light.

Posted by Rhombus 15:39 Archived in USA Tagged gardens parks flowers photography pizza portland Comments (3)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

On the Cuyahoga River, Ohio and Erie Canal, Great Blue Herons, Fischer's Cafe and Pub

sunny 85 °F

I was looking at a map of northeast Ohio, and saw to my surprise that there was a national park not too far away from where I am hanging out this week. Who knew Ohio had a national park? I didn’t, but when in roam, make like the roamers, and so we headed on down to check out Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga (pronounced Cay-uh-ho-guh) means “Crooked River” in Mohawk. It seems to me that every river I’ve ever encountered suffers from this same affliction. Are there straight rivers? Never make a deal with a river, it’ll probably gyp you out of something.

The Cuyahoga Valley has been the stomping grounds for man for eons,perhaps 12,000 years or so (but who’s counting?). In more recent history (the 1800‘s), the Ohio and Erie canal ran through here, partially watered by and parallel to the Cuyahoga. The canal also had an impressive system of locks, which allowed barges to make navigate the elevations between Akron and Cleveland. The canal was a huge success, and allowed settlers and trade goods to be passed along between Akron and Cleveland. In short, this canal helped open up Middle America for settlement.
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There isn’t much left of the canal today. It was abandoned in 1913, and nature has been slowly reclaiming its territory ever since. Today it’s a lush swampland full of plants wetland flowers and animals that love the water and thrive here.
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My adventure partner is a bit limited in her mobility just now, so we took it easy and went for a stroll on the Towpath trail, near Ira. We followed the white gravel trail until we crossed over a series of wooden walkways over a beaver pond marsh. Given our limited mobility, this seemed like a good place to see some wildlife, and I wasn’t disappointed.
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The beavers have done a terrific job of creating a beautiful wetland full of wildflowers, swamp grasses and reeds. This habitat provides a good home to a wide diversity of animals and insects including turtles, fish, frogs, herons, butterflies, bees and other birds.
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It took me 29 years to capture a good photograph of a great blue heron, and I had to go to Mexico to take it. I guess the first one is the hard one to get, because since that one, I’ve had no problems getting the herons to pose for me. Out on the boardwalk, one of these beautiful birds was sitting silently on a log not more than forty feet away from me. Knowing how long I had to wait for the first picture of one, I took the opportunity to take a few more.
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This particular heron sat motionless for some time, but then, slowly, moving its long sticklike legs very carefully and deliberately it began positioning its lanky body to snatch a fish out of the water. Herons like other water birds use slow movements and infinite patience to catch their prey off guard. The fish get used to seeing an unmoving heron standing in one place and grow complacent. Then when they aren’t suspecting, SNAP! They are in the long beak of the heron and down the gullet.
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I watched this heron do just that. It slowly uncoiled its body, and positioned its long neck closer and closer to the water. With surprising speed, it shot its beak into the water and snatched the fish. It happily ate it, and I watched the small lump travel all the way down the long heron neck.

Besides the heron, I was struck by the white water lilies that were in bloom on the surface of the water. They seemed to have a subtle grace and beauty to them that I found very alluring. I made several portraits of these flowers and couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I’ll let you decide.
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The trail was busy. It was full of families riding bikes, runners, joggers, lurchers (people who jog with weird strides), and walkers like us. It was a summer weekend, and it was good to see everyone out and about.

We finished off our visit with a stop in the small, picturesque little village of Peninsula. We ate lunch at Fischer’s Café and Pub, and it was very tasty. I’d eat there again, and recommend you stop in if you are in the area. I went for classic man food, a BBQ cheeseburger with fries, and it was delicious.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t a wild park. It’s pretty tame in comparison to some of the other national parks I’ve visited recently (Glacier Bay National Park, in Alaska), but it does have its charms. The history of the place, combined with the natural beauty found there make for a pleasant place to spend a day or two poking around. I would definitely go back, and would like to bike the length of the Towpath Trail.
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I didn’t see the entire park either, I’d like to check out Brandywine falls in autumn, and Tinkers Creek Gorge. I’d also like to see more of the canal, and see some of the rebuilt canal boats that used to navigate the canal. As I was just thinking about it, a possible interesting canoe trip would be to canoe the entire length of the Erie Canal, some 380 miles of it, but I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore.

I guess it’s safe to say, I’ll be back to the Cuyahoga Valley someday.

“The profit system follows the path of least resistance. Never follow the course of least resistance, because following the course of least resistance is what makes a river crooked. Hmph!” Utah Phillips

Posted by Rhombus 09:52 Archived in USA Tagged birds turtles food parks flowers insects photography ohio butterflies wetlands herons Comments (1)

Highlights Of An Alaskan Summer

Wildflowers, Stellar Sea Lions, Zodiacs and Glacier Bay National Park

semi-overcast 63 °F

This past week I’ve spent some time exploring the greater Alaskan landscapes by zodiac and by foot. I enjoyed getting out, and the weather has been fantastic. There hasn’t been much rain, and there has been good lighting, and phenomenal sunsets. Summer is all about us, and the days are Loooonnnnggg. Sunrise around three and sets around ten or so at night. There is plenty of light to enjoy the sights.

On Alaskan Wildflowers
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The other day I went on a long hike with a small group of our guests and it was led by one of our interpretive biologists. Now, not all biologists are created equal. I’ve listen to some drone on about whatever they happen to be interested in dodecahedrons or some other jibber jabber. However, some of them can be quite entertaining, and such was the case with David. He not only explained some of the intricate features of the coastal rainforest, but also challenged us, quizzed us, teased us when we didn’t know Latin, mocked our ignorance, and made us laugh. Go for a walk in the woods with a good biologist. You can learn more in three hours than you could read twelve books.
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I was struck by the different types of wildflowers, and their unique designs. Some smelled of cinnamon and spices, others like urine soaked road kill. I enjoyed the different forms and colors they take on to make themselves propagate. In the flower business, it’s all about how to attract pollinators (bees, insects, and birds). They must be doing fairly well for themselves, as I was very much attracted to their color display and scent. Perhaps, I was an unwitting pollinator myself.
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Stellar Sea Lions
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We arrived at the Inian islands under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky. I had finished my night shift, and decided to have one of my deck partners save me breakfast while I went on the zodiac cruise. I love breakfast. This is one of my favorite ways of setting up my morning: I work all night, head out and explore for a couple of hours and come back to a giant heart attack breakfast before going to bed. I know it sounds weird and unhealthy, but the fact remains, I burn a lot of calories running around this ship, and I can pretty much eat what I want without gaining much weight. At least that’s what I tell myself… It’s amazing what we can justify to ourselves.
Anyway, the cruise was good. The naturalist, tittered around like a bird from subject to subject, and I soon lost interest in what she was droning on about. I know a lot about Alaskan wildlife myself, having lived and worked up here for three summers now, and I entertained myself with taking some photos of the pigeon guillemots, river otters (which do quite well in the sea), sea otters, bald eagles, sea gulls, pelagic cormorants, shearwaters, and kelp.

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I smelled the sea lions before I saw them. You can tell you are near sea lions, because of the strong odor of shit that exudes from any place they dwell, usually low lying rock “haul outs“. Along with their pleasant aroma, they also add a chorus of horrible barfing noises that they use for everyday communication. I’m serious. Stellar Sea Lions sound as though they are dry heaving putrid piles of sewer waste, which considering they eat a lot of raw fish (mostly salmon), I’m probably not that far off. Considering adult sea lions weigh well over 500 pounds, the din they make is tremendous.

The big bull males rule the roost and take the top of the rock. The females appreciate a man with a lot of property and lie about the alpha males as a harem. The males spend their days bellowing at one another, shitting, mating, and eating salmon. They are not unlike Alaskan human males actually…

On Positioning Zodiacs
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There are days on the boat where it makes sense to drive the zodiacs to the next island instead of raising them to the top of the ship before moving two miles only to have to drop them back down. On those days, our bosun usually asks me if I want to reposition the zodiac. She doesn’t even need to ask anymore. Hell Yes! I want to reposition a zodiac! So away we go, and I find myself grinning from ear to ear as I zip over the water in an inflatable boat through the amazing Alaskan waters. There are mountains, islands, seascapes, landscapes, clouds, and wildlife all around me. It these moments when I realize I’m being paid for this. I’m a happy man.
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There are usually three boats to position, so after awhile I’ll meet up with the others and shoot the breeze while we wait for the ship to arrive.

Glacier Bay National Park

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Glacier Bay has a lot going for it. I’m continually amazed by it’s wildlife, mountains, glaciers, seascapes, icebergs, and massive scale. It’s a good representative of wild Alaska if there ever was one. John Muir explored this amazing bay by canoe, way back when, and since then it has become a protected jewel in Alaska’s crown. These selected shots are from the marble islands, and are mostly of one of my favorite birds: Puffins! Enjoy!
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June has been good to me up here in Alaska. There are times when I just sit still and take it all in. Life is good. Go play outside!
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Posted by Rhombus 15:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats islands flowers wildlife alaska oceans wild photography sealions Comments (0)

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