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To Argentina: Suspended Animation

On Working Nights, Los Angeles, Problems in Houston, Waiting, and Hope

sunny 66 °F

Do you know what it’s like to work night shift? I’ve had to work nights out of necessity this past week. My fellow deckhands suffer from motion sickness, and the ocean was giving us a hell of a ride on our positioning trip from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California. The ocean’s motion doesn’t affect me, so I volunteered to stay up and do the hourly rounds all night long for the last five days.
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This isn’t normally a problem. I like the nights, and I love the ocean’s movement. However, yesterday was the start of my trip to Argentina; a travel day. Starting a travel day without a full nights rest is akin to spraining your ankle five steps before running a marathon. I knew it was going to suck, but that‘s the way it goes. There was nothing to do about it, so let’s get on with it. Ha! I love my stoicism, sometimes.

A Day of Suspended Animation
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I sat along side of the trash-strewn road in the dusty bleakness that is the industrial wastelands of the Los Angeles waterfront. Fare the well, Seabird. I am gainfully unemployed and uncaring. After three and a half months aboard my beloved ship, it’s time for a little rest and relaxation.

At LAX, my friend and I breezed through check in requirements and soon found ourselves with drinks in hand at 10:30 in the morning. A good start. My friend surprised me with a gift from one of our chief engineers. It was a travel pillow. I choked up a little bit, moved by his kindness. When I’m sleep deprived, the highs are higher, the lows are lower; life gets more potent.

I passed out in a terminal chair, fading into suspended animation. These places are terminal. I woke up a half hour later, feeling much worse.

Finally, our flight time arrives, and I board the plane. Inside, I could feel the mood of the plane was reaching the boiling point. Everyone was exasperated, nearing meltdown. “People, please! The overheads are filling up. Please check them to your next destination.” My fellow passengers were annoyed and turning selfish. Ugh. I sat down. I had no room to stretch my legs, and crumpled into the most comfortable position I could. I looked out the window as passed over the ocean beach. I see a white line of waves. We arc, turning east. At ten thousand fifty feet, I pass out.

I awoke two hours later. My dreams were vivid and of the terrifying kind. I think I angered the gods, but I’m not sure. I feel like a zombie. I can’t remember how long I’ve been awake compared to these paltry naps. I don’t care. I will carry on. I can sleep on the next flight.

“Houston, We Have A Problem…”

The Houston airport was nice. We had a long walk in front of us, but our flight was delayed by a half hour, so there wasn’t any hurry. We ate dinner. We sat around. The intercom blared, “Flight blah-blah-blah to Buenos Aires has been cancelled. Please wait in line.” Uh-oh, now what?
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We waited somewhere near the end of a very long line. In ten minutes, it didn’t move. I laugh. What can you do? Suddenly, the kiosk at the other end of the terminal opened right where we were standing, and just like that, we were first in line. Ha! What a twist of fortunes. The patient airline representatives offer us apologies, a hotel, a cab fare, food fare, and an amazing display of stress management. Imagine dozens of travel weary annoyed people who want answers, and alternatives. They are impatient and surging, and looking ready to scream.
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My friend and I are not impatient. After all, we are first in line, and we understand that shit happens sometimes. Then the booking system crashes, and the airline people are really feeling the crushing stress. They make calls, they offer more apologies, they keep trying. When they hand us our documents, minus one boarding pass, we thank them, and wish them well.

We walked through the quiet terminal to ground transportation and the next fiasco. United gave us vouchers for the Yellow Cab Company. The six other taxis in line couldn’t help us. We thought of the hundred people that would soon be waiting for a yellow cab, and shuddered. This was going to get ugly, very soon. Luckily, a yellow cab rolled up and we hustled over to it. After a confusing conversation about the validity of our roundtrip voucher with our driver, we settled on a compromise. We’d call him in the morning, so he could give us a ride back to the airport, which would settle our voucher.

I tried to enjoy a long ride to the hotel through the dark freeways of Houston, but I didn’t. I was exhausted beyond caring.

The Breakdown

What does this mean for me? Well, first things first: I slept in a bed instead of an airplane seat. Gods, be praised. Six hours of sleep in a real bed was a short trip to heaven.

Here’s where I now stand.

The next flight leaves today at 1 pm. We crunched the numbers, and figured out that we will arrive at 2 a.m. After customs, we’ll have to beeline it to the hotel to meet our charter flight group at 5 a.m. It’s going to be close, but it looks like we can make it. It’s important that we make our charter flight, because this is the one going to Ushuaia, where we will board the cruise ship.
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At this moment, I’m sitting in a chair at HoustonX. I look like hell, but feel much better than I did yesterday at this time. Someday, I will sleep, but not today. Our flight leaves in three hours, and I’m optimistic we will make it to our destination. It’s going to be a long day, but I’m still smiling.

If all else fails and we miss our ship, we’ve decided we’ll just rent a beach side cabana and chill out for a couple of weeks. How can I lose?

Wish me luck!

CODA

We sat in the plane still connected to our gate for another hour and a half. We were waiting on approval from the Argentine government, which required a piece of paper. I kept running the numbers through my sleep-deprived head. “Ok, if we leave here at two, that makes it five o’clock in Buenos Aires, a ten hour flight has us arriving at three a.m.” Two o’clock came and went. We finally took off at two thirty, meaning we would land at three thirty in the morning. With customs, and trying to find the rendezvous location somewhere downtown, this didn’t leave us much time for any more delays.

This was my first long international flight, and I spent my time engrossed with my entertainment screen on back of the chair in front of me. This system was our in-flight entertainment, with games to play, movies to watch, television shows, music, and an in-flight map of our current location. I played a couple dozen games of “Battleship”, some golf, and chess. I watched part of “The Hustler,” “Finding Nemo,” and all of “Prometheus.”

I only slept for an hour. This meant that by the time we landed at three thirty in the morning, I had more or less been awake for eighteen and a half hours. And I still had a completely full day in front of me before we even arrived at the ship.

There were no problems at customs. They stamped my passport, wished me luck, and motioned for the next person in line. We were fortunate to find out that there were other members of the Antarctic expedition that were on the same flight. This meant that there was no way we would miss our flight to Ushuaia, and we could relax a little. The van to the rendezvous was full, so we had to take a cab. This was easy, but we forgot to get an address to the hotel where we would all be meeting. Our cab driver was a saint, called for information and soon had the address. He hit the gas, and we rocketed through Buenos Aires at five in the morning.

It was sweet relief to see the hotel, and our friends waiting for us. The hard part was over. We had made it with an hour and a half to spare. There’s nothing like making it interesting.

I’ve had some very bad luck with my flights over the years, and this one was one of the better pressure cookers I have faced. There was a lot at stake for this one. If I missed my flight to Ushuaia, chances were good that I missed my shot at seeing South Georgia and Antarctica. I was aware of the stakes, but kept my usual calm demeanor. It was kind of fun racing the clock to make the trip, it made it a lot more interesting than being in the city a full day ahead of time. Despite staying awake for endless hours, waiting in the airport, airplane, and all the rest, we made it. And that’s the bottom line.

The rest of this story isn’t as interesting as what I’ve already told you.

We had breakfast at an opulent hotel for the well to do. I looked like hell, felt worse, but thoroughly enjoyed breakfast, chatting with my friends, and relaxing. I’ve never been in such a luxurious hotel before, and I kept my manners in mind as I ate. I can only imagine what the staff was thinking. “Who let this bum in here?”

We took a bus through Buenos Aires, and I fell in love almost immediately. I will be back. You can count on that. We took another flight south to Ushuaia, and by the end of it, my lower lumbar region was cramping and I didn’t want to sit on airplanes anymore. I was sick of it. We landed, disembarked into the brisk wind rain and snow of Ushuaia.

Our guide on the bus told me, “We have two winters here; one is colder than the other. We don’t have any summer, and the wind always blows.” I smiled. I was unprepared for this as I wore my leisure airport wear. I am used to cold wind and rain, and I walked on enjoying the fresh air. My “high watered” pants actually came in handy when I had to walk through an icy puddle.

More on Ushuaia in future posts.

We took a lunch cruise along the Beagle channel in a catamaran. It was a full lunch, delicious and made with love. I ate a ham salad, chicken stew, and drank three glasses of wine. It was delightful. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze and saw my new home moored to the dock. We unloaded, grabbed our bags, and walked up the steep gangway to our flagship, The National Geographic Explorer.

I made it.

Posted by Rhombus 08:30 Archived in Argentina Tagged food friends argentina airports waiting philosophy problems Comments (0)

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)

Duluth Revisited

On Returning to Your Old City, Pastimes, and Habits. Also, The Death of a Camera.

semi-overcast 65 °F

I’ve finally found time to relax. I’ve had two weeks of “downtime” at my disposal and I decided to spend them rambling around my old stomping grounds near Duluth, Minnesota. It’s weird to come back to a city you used to know intimately. It’s almost like revisiting an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while, it could be really good, or perhaps not. Sometimes it’s best to leave some cities to the good memories you have instead of trying to relive them. Ultimately, I had some business to take care of in the area, and so I decided to spend a week. I wanted to visit some friends, practice some of my old pastimes including: getting my van back together, bouldering, slack lining, and taking a culinary cruise through some of my favorite restaurants.

It took a week to get my van back from the repair shop. I had planned ahead, but apparently I hadn’t planned far enough in advance (everyone likes a good mechanic) and so I had to wait for it to get ready before I could hit the road. A week of downtime is equivalent to a prison sentence to me. I was a bad customer, and kept calling them everyday. I couldn’t help it. When my vacation is winding away, I get impatient.

In truth, it was probably good for me to be grounded for a bit. I have a tendency to keep moving, without taking time or making time for things that are just as important to me as my vagabond lifestyle. Namely, my family. I’m not a great brother. I don’t call enough, I don’t visit enough, and I don’t write enough. I hope y’all can forgive me for me rascality. I’ve made some sacrifices to make this lifestyle possible, and unfortunately, my family bears the brunt of these sacrifices. The good news is they take it well enough, humoring themselves as they attempt to answer questions about my whereabouts.
“So where’s Thom these days?” asks some yawning distant relative.
“Well, he spent the winter in Mexico, but he just got off of the boat in Alaska, and he was in California for a bit, but now I think he went to West Virginia for the weekend to go rock climbing. Come to think of it he just got back, but left again, now he’s in Minnesota spending some time on the North Shore before he flies out to Alaska in a week.”

I like to think of my life as entertaining if nothing else. I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut, just like everyone else. I happen to prefer to migrate instead of hibernating. The jury is still out on how I’ll turn out; I’m putting my money on “happy.”

Random Photos From My Sojourn

This is some of the coolest graffiti I've seen.
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I visited an old graveyard and was struck by the dilapidation and the green of the place. It was peaceful.
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It’s taken a bit of an adjustment to get back into this idle lifestyle after seven months at sea. The first night I slept out in my van, I felt alone for the first time in a long time. When I woke up to a beautiful morning of blue skies, white gold sunlight streaming though my windows, and all the lush greens of late spring in the Midwest, I felt at peace once again, and was reminded of why I love my van. Go to sleep with a view, that’s what I say. Who doesn’t like waking up to a gorgeous morning view?
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I’ve been getting reunited with the parks of the area. I stayed a couple of nights in Jay Cooke State Park. I went climbing along the shore just northeast of Duluth, solving one problem that I’ve been trying to solve since 2003. This reinforces the fact that I’m in the best shape of my life, at 30. I’ve slack lined at Brighton Beach, and also in Enger Park. Brighton beach is in east Duluth, and is a pleasant place to chill out on the lake and spend an afternoon balancing on your slack line. Enger Park is high up on the hill in west central Duluth. You can see it’s location from almost anywhere in Duluth, by looking at the high stone tower that stands high above the skyline. It is a pleasant park, full of cultivated flowers, a peace bell from Duluth’s sister city in Japan, that makes a rich metallic song when struck with the wood chime that resonates nicely through the park. There is also a beautiful little copse of mature hardwood trees. I really like the trees.
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I also spent two nights up at Temperance River State park, a mile south of Tofte. The Temperance River is an awesome example of the cutting power of water. The river descends down from the hills and has cut its way through a very narrow rock canyon. The river empties into Lake Superior, after coursing over a series of waterfalls. It’s a very cool park with a lot to offer the energetic vagabond. There is great hiking, long boarding, or biking, bouldering, swimming, and slack lining. The usual suspects…

Temperance River was also where I dispatched my camera to a finale. In other words, I killed it. I didn’t mean to of course, but these things happen. I had set up yet another self portrait at a secret spot of mine, and was in mid pose when I heard a “CRACK” and looked up in time to see my camera and tripod slide down the incline of a rock into a small pool of water. It had completely submerged itself, as if to reiterate the fact that it was dead. As I ran to it, I wondered if the last picture would turn out, I imagined some low angled shot of myself with a surprised look on my face, my mouth open in a tragic, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

I took out the battery and memory card, shook it, turned it on, and it briefly revived. Then nothing. I laughed. I honestly did. What can you do? It was my own fault, and I’m not one to dwell on things I can’t do anything about, so I laughed. It was a fitting end. I had taken well over 12,500 pictures with that camera, so it wasn’t like I didn’t use it. It had given me many great photos, and I’ll remember my first digital camera fondly. R.I.P.

Besides, now I have a new camera… :-D
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This is a picture of my friend Joe. He wanted some pictures of him on his motorcycle, and so he gets the honor of the first subject for my new camera.

One week to go, before I return to Alaska for two months. For now, Bon Voyage!

Post Script: On Food
Where to eat should you find yourself in the Duluth area.

Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet, MN. Classic Diner, great burgers.
Vintage Italian Pizza, in Duluth.
Texas Roadhouse in Duluth. Dynamite Steaks.
New London Café in Duluth. Cinnamon Strudel French Toast, aka Heaven on a plate.
Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake. Great Sandwiches.

I offer this list as a good place to start, and nowhere near comprehensive. These restaurants just happen to be my favorites.

Posted by Rhombus 17:11 Archived in USA Tagged food parks cities cemetaries camping graffiti bouldering slacklining Comments (0)

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