Posted on August 31, 2017
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have ordained, what is mankind that you are mindful of him? Psalm 8
As you surely know, the U.S. enjoyed a cosmic (dare I say, near biblical) event last week— the first total eclipse of the sun to cross the entire country in 98 years. Perhaps some baseline tidbits? A solar eclipse occurs when the moon’s orbit brings it in alignment between earth and the sun. Our moon’s diameter is 400 times smaller than the sun’s, but coincidentally, the moon is 400 times closer to earth than the sun. The moon’s orbit is modestly elliptical, so some alignments of the moon between us and the sun do not fully eclipse the solar disc, producing a so-called annular eclipse. But for this August event, the moon was at just the right distance from earth to produce a precisely complete beach umbrella shadow total eclipse beginning off the west coast of Oregon and arcing southeast to exit South Carolina into the Atlantic, in a path roughly 60 miles wide.
Astronomers speak of total eclipses in four stages, labeled C1, C2, C3, and C4, referring to the very beginning of the eclipse (the time at which the orbit of the moon’s leading edge begins to cut in front of the outside periphery of the solar disc), the beginning of totality, the end of totality, and the end of the lunar periphery in front of the solar edge. Our viewing location was atop a bluff above a radio-control model aircraft airfield to the north of Redmond, Oregon, carefully chosen to produce an adequate duration of totality, an absence of teeming throngs (just the four of us), and providing relatively quick egress from there to our Cirrus, awaiting us on the ramp at the Redmond aerodrome, KRDM, for transport back home. Cathy had classes to teach the next morning.
It’s amazing what you can find on the internet and the sort of apps that can be added to a mobile device these days. In pre-eclipse recon, I discerned that my chosen camera site would have C1 at 09:06:24 with the sun at an azimuth of 103 degrees (ESE) at an elevation of 29 degrees above the horizon, and so on. See my hand-scribbled crib sheet below, which I frequently extracted from my shorts’ pocket as reference during the morning’s passage. The vagaries of mobile phone latitude/longitude position determination during a dry-run rehearsal were such that, in fact, we got a bit more totality than expected, but otherwise pretty much on the mark.
My crib sheet makes reference to a new moon moonrise at 05:05, followed by official morning twilight at 05:44 and sunrise at 06:16. This was all too glorious to pass up, so I arose at 03:30, with host Neil H kindly driving me to our viewing site so as to be setup and capturing Time-Lapse of this beginning of the day. The new moon was such a sliver that, with cirrus clouds to the east, it escaped being noticed at all, but the rest of the dawn was lovely, as I hope the linked video below will convey. My Cathy came along with Neil’s wife Kathy S (meine frau’s college dorm chum) a tad after sunup, and before C1.
All these celestial machinations are a demand for my peabrain. Okay, the phases of the moon are the result of the terrestrial shadow on the lunar surface with earth coming between the sun and the moon. A solar eclipse is when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, the moon throwing its shadow racing across the earth. But on this day, the moon rose first, even if we couldn’t see it in its newness. The sun followed, over an hour later. Then with the sun climbing left to right in the southeast sky, the moon’s shadow began taking cookie monster bites out of the sun, with the chewing starting at the upper right…
…and moving to the lower left across the sun. I guess that means that the speed of terrestrial rotation about it’s axis was faster than the speed at which the moon was rotating around us? But it makes steam exit my ears just thinking about it. Anyway, it was just wonderful being ill-informed and wide-eyed observers.
Not to mention, selfie photographer subjects.
So, it’s the moon, betwixt the sun and earth that blocks the sun to produce the eclipse, casting its lunar shadow across the earth’s surface in the process. C1 corresponds to the beginning of the penumbral shadow moving across the terrestrial surface, the diffuse shadow ahead of the full umbral shadow which races across the earth like a tsunami, first overriding then receding at C2 and C3 respectively. Those not in totality’s path also take in the penumbral shadow to the side, and it ceases everywhere at any location’s C4 time.
Midway between C1 and C2 the glow of the grasses and sagebrush began to dim while the cameras captured their T-L, and successive still imagery. That’s a very clear sky, but already dimming.
And mere moments before C2, the sky began suddenly darkening in earnest, with the umbral shadow racing towards us readily observable. That would be hostess, Kathy, below, taking in the moment. This twilight was of a different look and feel than vanilla dawn and evening twilight. The hues, which seemed to emanate from some gossamer veil of light grays and violets cast over us didn’t correspond to the pinks, oranges and reds of the myriad sunups and sundowns I regularly enjoy.
At the same instant as above, just before C2, the last moments of solar view before totality.
There’s more shadow things to mention. I had heard that two things are possibly perceivable. One is “Baily’s Beads” named after Francis Baily, who, in 1836 posited an explanation of lunar surface peripheral light at C2, and the other is referred to less elegantly as “snakes,” myriad twisting, writhing vaguely linear shadows on the earth’s surface in the split moments as totality comes on. Both are caused by the same thing—the lunar surface is not a uniformly smooth circumference, but one composed of mountains, craters, valleys and such. At just the moment of totality the sun’s light is not instantly and totally eclipsed, but manages a moment or two of wriggling past the low spots while being blocked prematurely by the higher terrain. Baily’s Beads are a dancing of light at the moon’s edge as perceived from earth. From observing it with the 12X magnification of the telephoto, I saw all sorts of spectral color variations in apparent prismatic effect, light beams bending around the lunar topography and coming through earth’s atmosphere in some angular warpage. Breathtakingly beautiful.
With a little inference, one can imagine how this might make darting snake-like shadows momentarily appear on our earth’s surface. But I’d like to share a personal vignette that you fellow terrestrials may have experienced, especially those who do first light dog walks and surf checks along the bluff in my Del Mar haunts. When the sun is up but not yet over the hill of Del Mar, the surf near the shore is cast in shadow by the cliff. As the sun rises farther, there are a few seconds when there is direct light on the white foam, brilliantly lit, simultaneously with penumbral shadows from higher trees and such up the hill. This softened, shadowed light quite literally dances aglow in fervent gay abandon in an absolutely magical way around the churning whitewater. It is momentarily fleeting, pretty much an earthly version of what a keen observer on the lunar surface would see at the edged interface of umbras and penumbras on the moon if it had an atmosphere to diffuse shadow. Pick the next sunny morning here and transport yourself into this unique earthly experience of the physics of beads and snakes.
There’s yet another eclipse experience about which many have already heard—the “diamond ring.” I don’t know if it ever occurs at the beginning moments of C2, like Baily’s Beads. I did not perceive that, anyway. But as C3 came on, the sun breaking forth at the lunar periphery, we were treated to a spectacular 1000 karat version perfectly in keeping with Richard Strauss’ Also Spracht Zarathustra fanfare.
Go ahead, indulge yourself, and turn up the volume:
So here’s the deal. All of this seems so precise and technical, because it is. The sort of information one would use to carry the proper gear, to the proper location, set up in the proper manner to assure a no-sweat, slam dunk oh-so-informed turn-key eclipse experience. True as that may be, no amount of preparation as to the technical details prepared the four of us viewers for the emotional experience. Not on a par with walking on the moon looking back at our earthly blue marble home, but a whole lot more than taking in a fine sunset or a full moon rising above the coastal mountains in the east. It haunts me still, and I am already thinking of the next opportunity, perhaps Chile in July 2019, and for sure, Fredricksburg Texas on April 8, 2024.
May I present a multimedia version of our morning on August 21, last? Don’t forget to observe the dark sunspots on the sun and the red solar flares at the one o’clock and four o’clock positions.
“Mein Jesu! Was Vor Seelenweh” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Stokowski transcription for symphony orchestra.
I thank Victor V for keying up Psalm 8 for me, and Russ H for doing the same with this quote from Blaise Pascal:
“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe, and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
Headed home along the western edge of the Sierra Madre range.
Home in time to take in the end of the day from the front deck.
As ever, Tom
Posted on June 23, 2017
The beginning of Summer and the end of Cathy’s Spring semester. What to do? How about a biking vacation in the Italian Dolomites, part of the Südtirol, or southern tyrollean mountain region which includes parts of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy? Intriguingly, while the biking was in Italy, the tyrol its largely a German language region, so we didn’t really start interfacing in Italian until our fifth lodging. Each of the small towns where we stayed have both German and Italian names, and the routine language spoken in cafes, trains, and street corners was German.
United initiated new non-stop service from San Francisco to Munich about a week before our trip, an as yet undiscovered flight routing sparing us the usual “are we going to get on?” space available travel nail-biting. There’s a train station right in the MUC terminal, where we acquired our tickets through to Innsbruck, Austria, and boarded a train for there within minutes of our on-time arrival. We used Innsbruck (which means, loosely, the place where the bridge crosses the Inn river) as our jet-lag adjustment location, and it’s a worthy mountain-surrounded city destination in its own right.
The Inn river, and a pedestrian platz, above
The “Golden Roof,” seen from the City Tower
We lodged at the Schwarzer Adler in the “Old Town” just a short walk from Innsbruck’s fine Tyrollean museum and several strolling platzes, and an equally short walk to the gondola ride up into the mountains for hiking on the west side of the city.
A shaded trail leading to a mountain hut for food and drink, before proceeding above the tree line for spectacular vistas.
There’s more than one way to get about and take in the sights.
After two nights in Innsbruck we boarded a train for a four hour journey including two train changes to tiny Silandro (aka Schlanders) Italy where we would begin the biking phase of our trip, set up by the Pure Adventures outfitter we used two years ago in the Czech Republic. Self-guided, using their rental bikes, detailed maps and written directions, with stays in very nice lodges and hotels, breakfast included, and luggage transfer provided, while we rode from town to town, generally between 50 and 60 km each day.
The view out the train window while nearing the Austrian/Italian border.
The Schlanders Bahnhof, or Silandro Stazione, if you prefer. As small and delightful as the town. One track, or gleis or binario.
We stayed two nights here, at the Hotel Golden Rose, beginning riding the next day, driven up to the Resia Pass at the border with Austria, for a 60 km downhill back to Schlanders. The route generally followed the Adige river, which means more downhill than up, but nonetheless plenty of “up” in each day’s rolling.
The scenery on Day One was none too shabby.
Small towns through which we passed usually had their own take on fountains with potable water for refilling the bike water bottles. It was in the upper 80s to mid 90s each day, so we were constantly needing to top off the H2O. We stopped at tiny Canal (20 structures?) for water, then an off-the-charts lunch of fresh salad and vegetables, and the most delicate gorgonzola white sauce and broiled chicken pasta, partaken in the shade of overhanging grapevines. Well in the running for best meal ever.
Our breakfasts throughout were continental, with an enormous variety of delectables—eggs, cereals, muesli, fruit, cheese, meats, yogurt, fresh and grilled vegetables, every sort of kickstart sweets, breads, rolls, juice, sparkling water, coffee, and even Proseco. We waddled our way to the bikes and never needed to dine again until mid-afternoon, though timing the hunger and sustenance was required, as cafes closed from 2-6 PM.
Each afternoon I tried to capture a feel for what we experienced with that day’s journey, free-associating on my i-Pad, and will paste it whole, here:
Reflections on 11 June: Resia pass to Silandro.
Sounds–Eagles’ “Hotel California” from the speakers in the diesel 6-speed stick Ford Transit Van. Songbirds. Babbling streams crossed, and shushing Adige river alongside, wind swirls as we head downhill into a headwind.
Sights–Tyrolean crags, whitewater, maps/textual directions/bike paths & signage, tall church spires, walled castles, wildflowers, and pollinator collisions–okay, that’s feel, not sight. Mea culpa.
Tastes–pasta with a delicate Gorgonzola white sauce at Canal. Five stars.
June 12: Silandro to Merano.
Cycling through countless km of apple orchards, the trees pruned to near vertical stalks in close-quarter rows. Apples, this early in the season, small green and reddish nubbins. Birdsong incessantly delighting, and joyously saluting the fine sunny day. Widely scattered small undeveloped cumulus, per Camelot meteorological statute, confined solely to the ridge lines either side of the descending valley.
Leapfrogging a family of four–two small children on their own bikes. We’d pass them, only to have the favor returned when we stopped for another Canon moment. Must have happened a half dozen times.
We beat our bags to the City Hotel, a complication for Cathy, who, used to our Czech trip, with bags awaiting, failed to stash walk-around attire in her panniers. For once I had the edge. Not to be repeated going forward.
Castle Trauttmansdorff gardens. Wow! By city bus, no less. At about 95 F. One portion of the extensive gardens featured its own river and waterfalls, a stretch slowing over pebbles along a sandy bank (where are the darting trout?) trees laced overhead, all of it a blessed relief from the late afternoon swelter. And, oh, those breezes coming up the slope at 18:30 with wasser kalt mit gas, were a godsend.
June 13: Merano to Caldaro.
It took some navigational work leaving Merano, where the directions were based on a lodge well out of town. A local map from the hotel, and a bit of intuition, and we were able to join the route after several km. The riding has been on mostly well-marked designated bike paths, with great smooth pavement, absent the broken glass of US roads. Biking is a way of life here with a diversity of riders from toddlers to oldsters, male, female, clubs, cruisers, you name it. Flip flops to SIDI and spandex. Some slower than us even in our dotage and 45 pound clunkers, but many young Italian and German men with high tech rides, wheels singing on their missions from God.
June 14: Caldaro to Trento
Our lodging in Caldaro was a small boutique hotel, Das Haus am Hang, situated well up a killer hill for heavy bikes at the very end of the riding day. But a worthy place with a commanding view of the lake and valley down yonder, a fine restaurant with al fresco dining, livened by a refreshing breeze. There’s a pool, and lounge chairs scattered under the overhead vines of this working winery.
Two problems, however. At bedtime the breeze quit, as did the AC! And the morning’s departure directions were not from Haus am Hang, but from a “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” starting point–down yonder. Eventually we found our way to down yonder, and a local, seeing our bewildered furrowed brows, took us under his wing with a half German/half English “follow me” to get us onto our route. Good to his word, in spite of a rat in the maze circumbobulation, it worked out sportingly. With another 10 km added to the day’s required kilometerage, of course. Do I sense a trend here?
A bit more about our riding days. Four or so hours including physiological and photo respites, steaming at just less than 20 km/hour. The trip follows the Adige river generally downhill but with a fair share of up amongst the down-rolling. Our riding has, without exception been into a headwind, so pedaling downhill, too. There’s a benefit to this, though–the headwind cooled us somewhat. Scattered along the route there are fountains and dedicated water sites, all with potable, often quite cold artesian water. Given the heat and exercise, I never could consume enough wasser or acqua. Invariably thirsty. Numerous bici bars and small cafes, where we’d stop for a full liter of wasser mit gas (carbonated mineral water, a staple of the region), refill the bike bottles, empty what little we could, given the extant sweat elimination process, swing a leg over the top tube and saddle up, the sitzbones and quads reminding us of their vote in the discussion.
June 15 & 16: Trento to and in Riva Del Garda
Leaving Trento was even more complicated than arriving. Our lodging was in town, but the directions were from a pension outside of town on the other side thereof. This resulted in an additional 10km to negotiate without explicit guidance, using a hotel-provided city map, and naturally a day 10 km longer than advertised. Ah, but what fun starting the journey through the Piazza Del Duomo, this morning, turned into a bustling farmer’s market, spilling into the first blocks of Giuseppe Verde Strasse. Yes, let’s laugh together at the incongruity of Italy’s iconic opera librettist having his street name in German. And while we’re indulging our funny bone, how about taking an enormous imaginative and temporal leap to join me in mirthfully transposing Cathy and I and our bikes as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck slicing through the throngs on our Vespas, now an appropriate half century after our Roman Holiday! Okay, you had to be there, but memories are made of this stuff.
Not until well out of town did I realize I’d left my water bottle at the hotel. Nothing for it but to pull from the pannier the small bottle retained from our flight to Munich. This occasioned a delightful refill opportunity at a fountain in the center of a flower-bedecked traffic circle in a one horse town beside the Adige. Then there was the textual directions’ river crossing denied us with the bridge being closed. Backtrack to the preceding waypoint, and sure enough, dayglow chartreuse signs (in Italian, natch) pointing to the necessary detour to carry on towards Riva.
There were clues, if one was alert to more than their road-weary derrière and tired quads–let’s see, we have to exit the Adige valley at right angles and proceed to a pass, so as to drop into the mountain-locked Lago Garda, the largest lake in Italy. Does the term “climb” ring any bells? Earned, the right to make the roaring descent from San Giovanni Pass, an exhilarating punctuation mark, prelude to eine grosse bier und pizza, lakeside, just before the 14:00 cafes-closed bewitching hour. Consumed as emphatically deserved-certain as the divine right of kings.
Riva Del Garda is right out of central casting as your quaint waterside Italian town. We stumbled on a wonderful cafe up an oxcart-wide cobblestone passageway in keeping with a place a couple thousand years’ established. The following day We endured the obligatory tourist boat ride down lake, the high point of which may have been the sailboat regatta on the return.
June 17 – 19: Verona.
Verona is an ancient place. We reconnected with our Italian UCSD exchange student “son” of 9 years’ past beneath the Porta Borsari, which dates to the BC era. Marco squired us to favorite sites and sights, not to mention tastes and personal vignettes. The coliseum, here, predates Rome’s, and now is celebrating its 95th season as venue of al fresco summer opera–unfortunately beginning next week. Then there’s this evening’s sold out Tony Bennett concert in the Teatro Romano. Double “Rats!”
We’ve explored very vecchio (old) streets, churches, towers, and hills, collapsing, footsore into shaded trattorias, red and white checkered tablecloths supporting leant-on elbows and glasses of chilled Soave vino bianca. And if spirits sag, how better to rally to the next adventure than with a double gelato from that tiny dispensary of taste extravaganza Marco told us of on the corner of Via Cappelletta? Then right on cue, having just licked fingers clean of cicolatta drool, while strolling in afternoon shade on Pietra Vecchia, what should we encounter but an open garage? Within, a man and his ten (?) year-old son diligently conjuring the machinations they have set in motion on a hand-made wooden Foucault pendulum using a weighted pendulum with attached stylus to render colorful circles and ovals in never-ending arcs scribed on paper. Dad waves us in, and in conversant English we learn a bit about one another. No, he’s not an Engineer, but a forest ranger, who like me, delights in the tactile pleasure of wooden things, like his scribing device, and the hand-crafted wooden-frame kayak hanging from the ceiling. His wide-eyed son is clearly enjoying this unexpected drop-in event nearly as much as he exudes love and pride in his father. I share that in the U.S. this Sunday happens to be Father’s Day, and ask of dad if he’s familiar with the English term “serendipity?” The tongue twister is beyond his vocabulary, but he clearly grasps my definition and the none-too-subtle example our ice cream-engendered chance visit represents thereof. We part, four happy humans, none of us knowing the others’ names.
And tomorrow we secure train transport back to Munich for our Tuesday flight return to day-to-day reality, serendipitous and planned adventures drifting into memory lore.
Drink break on the way to Schlanders, and then the arrival thereto.
The biking was always on dedicated and well-signed bike paths, which combined with our maps and textual directions mean only modest navigational challenge, but when challenged it was always in the getting to and from the lodging within the community at each destination.
Flower bedecked covered bridges. The sign reads “You are pedaling in the areas dedicated to the cultivation of marzipan.” Except at this point we are pedaling amongst vineyards. Ah, Italy.
En route navigation mostly amounted to how many kilometers to the next bench under a shade tree for a butt-break and a little back stretching. Which is to say that there was plenty of time to look around and enjoy the view.
Castles abound, why do you ask?
But don’t forget to take in the small scenes close at hand.
And, as ever, smell the flowers and refill the water bottle.
We arrived in Merano, pretty bushed and beaten down by the late afternoon heat. But Cathy wanted to find a way by bus to the gardens at Trauttmansdorf Castle in the hills outside of town. I went along to get along on this, only to discover that she had nailed it as a worthy venue. The gardens cover several square km, and are lushly beautiful. There were shady mini forests, vast numbers of blooming flowers and a cafe with a lovely fresh breeze overlooking the valley from the shaded al fresco watering hole.
The view of Caldaro from Haus am Hang.
Haus am Hang lounging, mit grosse bier after plunging into the pool.
I’ve mentioned bici bars and alongside the path cafes as R&R oases. The local riders routinely would consume a beer or two at these locations.
Cathy and I just tried to keep going and save the adult beverages for the end of the riding day, as in this interlude of beer, wine, bread, cheese, olives, and scenery at Scrigno del Duomo on the Piazza del Duomo in Trento. And yes, that is a new apple from one of the orchards through which we rode. A personal smile-inducing talisman. The duomo (dome) itself is off my right shoulder.
The Italians are such friendly sorts, never mind the crumb-dusted beak.
This afternoon, there was a community event in the piazza, urging people to rally against cyber bullying, with locals casually taking in the event and enjoying Neptune’s fountain.
The next morning the piazza was a thriving farmer’s market with food, flowers, and hand made goods, the square chock full of people doing the day’s shopping. We had to walk the bikes through and onto Giuseppe Verde Strasse.
Our final biking destination was Riva del Garda at the north shore of Lago Garda. There was that climb out of the Adige river valley, and then the roaring downhill to the lake.
This northern end of Italy’s largest lake has regular afternoon winds to delight wind sailors and kite sailors, as well as those engaged in sailboat regattas which we enjoyed when taking a ferry ride down the lake on our second of two days there.
The view from the harbor quay next to our lodging at Hotel Sole.
The quay is a gathering place from early morning to late at night.
And, of course, like all of Italy, the Garda area is a rich environment for a color and texture hungry photographer.
Riva has plenty of trendy stores, and cafes with tablecloth al fresco dining on narrow cobblestone streets of a dimension and carefree abandon in keeping with having been laid out a couple of millennia ago when transportation was by oxcart. On one evening we dined between two delightful Bavarian families, and learned that we were there at the end of a two week school holiday in southern Germany, thus accounting for the large number of German-speaking tourists in a highway accessible vacation mecca.
Having concluded the bicycling, we were driven to Verona, an ancient Italian city notarized by William Shakespeare, even though Romeo and Juliette never existed except in his fertile mind. The Veronese nonetheless have capitalized on the lovers’ tragedy by establishing a home for both, Giulietta’s being just off Via Capello, close enough sounding to Capulet, and finishing the nod to tourism by adding a balcony that did not exist on the house when it was chosen in 1932. Marketing 101.
An important motivation for our visiting Verona before returning to Munich, apart from never having visited the lovely oh-so-Italian city, was the chance to reconnect with our Italian “son.” Marco Tebaldi hails from there and was hosted by us as an incoming UCSD exchange student nine years ago. We’ve had wonderful host relationships over the years and have daughters from Spain and Taiwan, and other sons from France and Mexico. Marco was in town during our time there, having returned from his most recent work posting in Melbourne, Australia. We got a chance to be squired about with a local’s eye, and his boundless enthusiasm and bonhomie, and then meet and take dinner with his real parents.
Marco chose to meet us, just steps away from our Palazzo Victoria lodging at the Porta Borsari, a gate entrance to the old city dating from before the time of Christ.
The old city is a labyrinth of twisting pathways, and something fascinating and colorful awaits around every bend or corner.
The view from the Clock Tower.
The Clock Tower itself.
Dynamic Duo just below the tower.
Striding on the Ponte Pietra (stone bridge) crossing the Adige at the Castelvecchio (old castle).
The bridge is both a wonderful viewpoint, as well as worthy view subject.
Ponte Vittoria as seen from the Ponte Pietra.
Last of the twilight.
I’ve mentioned Verona’s multi-millennial age. It has a coliseum, which predates the one in Rome, with whatever Caesar it was at the time, getting the idea for Rome’s version when seeing Verona’s on a visit. Dating from the first century it is more lately the venue of summer opera presentations, unfortunately beginning the week after we left.
A little set decoration outside the coliseum’s walls, awaiting installation within.
Speaking of ancient, Dante Alighieri hailed from Verona. I think one of his circles of hell might well include our country’s present governance circus. That’s him, striking a pensive pose.
Wherever one strolls, there are sights to delight.
It was just around the corner after the picture above, that we had the serendipitous encounter with the man and his son in their garage with their handmade pendulum and kayak. And just before this next serendipitous hello appearing on cue as we strolled by, and fully in keeping with the neighborhood colors.
Well, trips end, as does this missive. But first a glimpse from our sleeping berths on the return flight. Somewhere northwest of Hudson Bay.
Posted on May 29, 2017
Memorial Day weekend, and a staple of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church is the annual Come Build Hope mission over that Friday to Sunday to build homes and plant seeds of hope for deserving families in northern Baja California. This year, a return visit for Cathy, Torrey and I, perhaps the best ever.
As a once Army grunt, I liken Come Build Hope to a military campaign, with all the strategic vision and copious logistics planning. And similarly, many things go off well, but not without a few glitches and a touch of drama here and there.
Hundreds of us rendezvous at the church campus and are transported by high-end comfortable buses to a pre-staged campsite a short distance from the shoreline near Rosarito Beach. Not just SBPC, but other churches sponsor worker bees, and all of it is coordinated with Amor Ministries, based in Mexico. Amor bulldozes a relatively level site in coastal grasses, maybe 250 yards square, and when we arrive near sundown, the tents are set up, as are the portapotties, kitchen, food serving area, modest solar showers, and a couple of sinks to wash hands and brush teeth with potable water. We travel with our individual work team group, and the site is set up with a designated module for each group encircling a campfire pit, and folding chairs to take in the warmth and camaraderie during evenings and early mornings. The Amor staff has a quiet generator to provide for the kitchen, but for everything else, it is strictly campfires and headlamps. You know, there’s something to be said for the forced quietude of non-electrification.
One of those aforementioned glitches occurred during the Friday arrival, with the group that flies in from Colorado for CBH. They got picked up on time at Lindbergh field, but their bus driver got lost navigating the warrens of Tijuana, and arrived around 2130 military time, long after the gorgeous moonset and chilling time after dinner for the rest of us. Amor kept dinner for them and their arrival was greeted by cheers from one and all.
But it’s early to bed and early to rise. I’m not sure about the healthy, wealthy and wise part of the old saying, but early the next morning we’d get a fire started to take off the chill and nurture the team’s coming together.
There’s always a flurry of activity getting the day started, a teeming mass of humanity as we fill our lunch bags with the sandwiches we make for ourselves, along with chips, granola bars, and fruit and a water bottle. This is followed by breakfast of eggs and sausage, french toast, potatoes, cereal and milk, fruit, coffee, hot cocoa or juice. There are meetings for team leaders in preparation for the day’s labors.
As you can see, Come Build Hope attracts workers of all ages and stripes. Some are not persons buoyed by faith, merely wanting to do their part as citizens of the world. There are Scouts that come as a troop. Old and young, and old that are made young, as well as young that are made mature just by the experience. It’s genuinely lofty stuff. But there’s also the stuff of families and friends having spontaneous fun.
The windup finished, the ball’s on its way.
A solid hit with a spare scrap of wood…
We load up the water and Gatorade, and board the buses for an 0800 departure to the various job sites.
Two teams per bus, each headed to separate sites near one another. We called ourselves the Dirty Dozen, and by the end of the day, the term fit like the proverbial glove. That’s a small team of unprofessional builders to build a house from the ground up in two days, but most of us had been on previous Hopes, and under the excellent guidance and cajoling of team leaders Sandi and John (aka Juanito) we pulled together. Not a slacker amongst us, and the mutual support of other self-igniters carried the day. Okay, days.
This is a human endeavor, and the humanity of it all is everywhere. Our driver, Rosaria had Danna Paola written on her inside mirror with a picture of a young girl. I asked if this was the name of her daughter? No, the name of her deceased young sister.
Glitches and drama visited us on Saturday morning. After dropping off the other work crew we proceeded to our site, only to learn that there had been a reassignment to a new family. The problem was that no one knew the site address nor the name of the family. Torrey and I were the Spanish speakers in our group, and we enquired of those we encountered in the neighborhood, with little success. Eventually phone contact was made with Amor and we were able to navigate to our young family of three— Natalia and two year-old José, then after work, Cesar.
The task is to build from the ground up. Amor prepares the site by pouring the slab with tiedown straps in place. On site await the lumber, nails, tarpaper, roofing materials, bailing wire, chicken wire, cement and sand, sand strainer, windows (two per house) and front door, plus a box with some (but never enough) tools. For safety, and because there isn’t electricity at the site, all labor is manual without powered tools. We returnees tend to bring our own work pouches, with tapes, squares, saws and hammers. And hats and sunscreen.
Team leader Sandi spoke to the dignity of doing God’s work, and in the spirit of “praise the lord and pass the ammunition,” job forman John, gave us a brief overview of the tasks at hand and the division of labor before lighting a fire under us, one and all.
And, then, begins the day’s work.
There were sub teams assigned to framing the two straight walls, the three raked walls and the two subcomponents of the roof. An early challenge was that—surprise, surprise—the foundation was neither flat or rectangularly plumb. John’s internal compass worked out ways to resolve this conundrum in spite of the difficulties it presents to making walls and roof come together agreeably and having doors and windows that function.
Before long, the first wall rose up off the pad where we had framed it, followed soon after with additional walls.
And while some of us began installing the roof framing and sheeting
Others set about crafting the door jambs and hinging up the front door.
There were a few snack and hydration breaks during the day, plus emptying our brown bags—opportunities to catch our breath, stretch out complaining body parts, and savor the sea breeze and the splendid view.
Natalia and Cesar, and abuelo, straining the rocks out of the sand to be used for the next day’s stuccoing, while José (Pepe) supervises.
We finished around 1800, by which time the framing was finished and the bailing wire was wrapped and tightened to about C-sharp, beginning the process of creating a taught and stable abode.
Saturday evening’s al fresco dining by firelight was as wonderful as Friday’s, not withstanding the stiff bodies. Do you sense that I rather like the campfire aspect of Hope?
Sunday morning began with John (aka Juanito) buoying us with the fruits of our labors.
And there was much to do, with everyone doing their part. Two years old and oh so cute.
The overhead work required first putting in bird-proofing blocks along the top of the walls, then squaring and nailing the plywood, followed by stapling on tarpaper, and lastly securing the rolled roofing composite.
Then in an afternoon race with the clock, the tarpaper, which had been stapled in place in the morning, was covered with chicken wire, forming a base foundation to which the stucco adheres. Roofing nails are applied to underlying studs and fire blocks, then with a technique of manually levering with PVC pipe, the wire is stretched tautly over the nails followed by cutting out the doors and windows.
Close on the heels of this, cement and sand in prescribed ratios are mixed with water to create the first coat of stucco, which is then troweled over the walls from bottom to top. This stage is an all-hands project, it being necessary for the stucco to be the right consistency, applied before it starts drying up, and getting it done in one step—no stopping partway through. All this while racing the clock to finish before the day does.
Finally what the entire experience is designed for—presenting the homeowners the keys to their front door, a few mementos of our time together including a framed group photo and bible inscribed by all of us. Even Scrooge would choke up at the beauty to be savored in the moment. Cesar and Natalia, suffused with pride and joy, a curtain sewn by ladies from the church drifting on the afternoon breeze, as she haltingly reads our words of blessing.
After giving our stucco time to dry, Amor Ministries comes back and applies the second, finish coat of stucco, removes the internal braces, and (hopefully) adds insulation and interior wall coverings.
Giving esperanza y amor (hope and love) to a new family, honoring them and the spirit of giving, as we honor those who gave their full measure in service to our country that we might have the peace and freedom to share our blessings with others in this way.
This year we built 14 homes, which brings the total to over 20,000 built under the auspices of Amor Ministries. On Saturday evening, the head of Amor shared a satisfying backstory about Mexican governmental red-tape being cleared out of the way by the mayor of Tecate—who grew up in an Amor home and carries with her the appreciation of what giving can accomplish.
Posted on February 27, 2017
Barra Navidad Air Force
February. Winter. Cirrus magic carpet. Escape. México.
Last fall the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association announced plans for this season’s group flight getaway to Alamos, Sonora, and Bajía de Navidad, near Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico. I jumped on the opportunity, paired up with a time that Cathy, the resident SDSU professor, had free from academia. It turned out to be a large and congenial group of forty-five attendees in twenty-two Cirri, flying in from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Come launch day on Sunday the 19th, a winter cold front was pummeling not only SoCal, but all of northwestern Mexico. Egads, doth we really have to file and fly under Instrument Flight Rules? The aviating began with a climb-out through low clouds and rain before breaking out on top over the San Diego county mountains heading first toward Mexicali, then southeast by airways paralleling the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez, en route to Ciudad Obregon as our Airport of Entry to clear customs and immigration. At MMCN we purchased our multi-entrance permit to fly our U.S. registered aircraft in Mexican airspace. Not to mention refuel and decaffeinate before a short second leg to our first destination of Alamos, an old colonial era silver mining town where we ensconced ourselves in the gushingly beautiful Hacienda de los Santos. http://haciendadelossantos.com/wp/
The views of the delights within the high periphery walls of the Hacienda immediately abutting our San Bernardo suite. I should mention the mesquite log fires set for us in our bedroom’s fireplace to warm the nighttime slumbers. Daytime temperatures in the mid seventies, nights in the low sixties. Yum.
For pilots, getting there is part of the fun, of course, and the leg to MMCN required sitting up and paying attention. Prior to effecting the hand-off to Mexican air traffic control, Los Angeles Center enquired of our desired cruise altitude, and I selected 11,000′ . This seemed a nice balance between what I anticipated as cloud tops and freezing levels, and not having to trundle on with oxygen cannulas. That worked out to have been a nearly prescient choice, but not without deviations left and right of centerline to avoid the ice-laden higher cumuliform tops.
That’s TKS anti-ice fluid streaming back along the windshield, above, for our occasionally unavoidable forays into cloud tops. The higher tops were above 13,000′, and all of them were ice-laden, with many being modest thunderstorms. At least our sashays left and right of course centerline averaged being on course!
The worst of the weather was between Hermosillo and Ciudad Obregon, with the VOR DME 2 Runway 13 instrument approach a necessity. Then we had to proceed under Visual Flight Rules at a lowish 3,000′ MSL betwixt cumulonimbus bases above us and cumulogranitus tops below us, with partial success in dodging rain shafts to our landing at the MM45 (Alamos) strip’s runway 13.
Solid rain from a buildup washing the windscreen on an extended base leg leading to a straight-in final approach to Alamos.
We mostly dodged the worst cell between Obregon and Alamos, then headed down a river valley for a straight-in visual approach, lifting our skirts just above the rooftop of a house atop the knoll immediately off the approach end of runway 13, and clearing to the transient ramp, guided into our spot by a marshaller. Thomas Daniel, a Pole by birth, and longtime US resident, put this trip together for COPA, and he really outdid himself coordinating for mass arrivals and departures with the aerodrome Commandantes, immigration and customs, fuelers, surface transport. and luxurious accommodations at both stay-over destinations. Kudos, Thomas.
Newsflash—I’m a devotee of the visual, and this time of year in these latitudes of Mexico, the sun enriches the already eye-popping colors and textures of México, a land of warm and vibrant people. As I like to say, it’s a target-rich environment for all the senses sybaritic, and a relief to the soul in this contentious social and political time. Given the incessant tweets and shoot-from-the-hip emanations from Washington, it’s fair to wonder as to how Mexicans greet Gringos these days. I’m happy to report that our southern neighbor remains the land of “Bienvenidos,” of warm smiles, twinkling eyes and hearty, sometimes shy, salutations. Individual Mexicans know that not all of America is as dysfunctional and pugnacious as is D.C. Beltway chic. Our time was universally of a humanity in keeping with the warmth and beauty of the tropical milieu.
How did we spend our time? Abandoned to overindulgence, of course. The Hacienda has it’s own tequila bar with something like 500 different types to ensure a proper wasting away in Margaritaville, if not savoring fine sipping Reposado or Añejo. The group wasted no time signing up for Tequila 101, a graduate level afternoon slurpfest—everyone eschewing written exams by auditing the class.
The town of Alamos, population somewhere around 13,000, exudes the quiet small community vibe, where teenagers hang out on foot or bicycle in and around the town square zocalo, the community social heart, and always fronting the church, or iglesia. Families pass by on their daily meanderings, and seniors hold court, siting on tree-shaded benches.
For our second day antidote to epicurean overload we set out to explore an outlying area not encountered in years past, seeking trails up the tall mountain on the west side of town. Hacienda staff gave us some street-wise guidance, and then put us in touch with an eco-lodge operator who added trailhead input, and off we went. We got to the edge of town okay, but it took two salients to actually find the trail beginning near Parque Colorado. And, herein some backstories of just why following one’s nose can be such a splendid endeavor.
Speaking of which, emerging into our consciousness as if from a dream, we came upon a vision of Sancho Panza astride his faithful donkey, Dapple. Coming closer and into focus, a buenos tardes discussion revealed the wizened (there’s a pun, here) gentleman to be Ramón, astride Gaspár. Yes, he assured us, gentle twinkle in his eyes—the very same Gaspár of biblical three wisemen fame. I’ll wager he’s never heard of Donald Trump, nor bereft thereof.
Okay, truth will out. The above picture’s focus is neither the result of tequila, or of daydreams, but of the camera not resetting itself from Macro mode after the picture of the leaf-cutter. But hey, this is what unencumbered vacation is all about, right? To the errant walker, the spoils.
Back down the mountain, in what turned out to be a five mile hike, we followed our exploratory instincts and stumbled upon this delightful tiny cafe hidden behind yet another Alamos arched door set in a thick tiled adobe wall. Teresita’s was all it advertised on its doorway—a bakery and bistro celebrating its sixth anniversary. Everyone but us was local Mexican or expatriate. Cathy chose delightful soft corn tortilla carne tacos and I savored a truly awesome Monte Cristo with homemade dipping preserves as counterpoint to its tangy cheese and spicy mustard interior held in place by egg-battered French toast bread. Artisanal Mexican cerveza to wash down the trail dust, while savoring homemade cheesecakes, floured cakes, cookies and pastries. Boy, howdy.
Leaving Alamos on the way to Manzanillo (ICAO identifier MMZO), we elected to revisit the Barrancas del Cobre, (Copper Canyon) quite nearby in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Carved over the millennia by six separate rivers that combined, drain into the El Fuerte, which empties into the Sea of Cortez near Los Mochis. And this being no problema Mexico, we underflew the canyon.
The cockpit Primary Flight Display “Synthetic Vision” view of the canyon while descending into the main channel. That warning is the electronic Ground Proximity Warning System chastisement that we are below ground level. Well, duh. It’s driven by a worldwide database, probably originally satellite-derived, and corresponds remarkably closely to the actual view out the window. The system knowing our location, direction and altitude from onboard WAAS GPS. Scheiss Heiss. Hopefully you aren’t offended by German pilot expressions. I used the autopilot here so that I could wield the camera.
And then onwards, overflying Culiacán, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta en route to MMZO. Lots of mountainous terrain along the way, and we got a moderate turbulence arse-kicking on the last segment southeast of Puerto Vallarta. Tight seatbelts a must, and reduced airspeed to soften the bumps.
I can report that we never saw Manzanillo, which is the other side of the hills at twelve o’clock in the frame. Our destination was one of those absurdly over-the-top Mexican Xanadus behind us in the small Bahia de Navidad (Christmas Bay), so named by the Spanish explorer who arrived there to shelter his ship on a Christmas Day. Our lodging was yet another suite, of pretty nearly the square footage of our Del Mar digs, and overlooking the yacht harbor, strewn with vessels of J.P. Morgan’s admonition “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” ilk. If these belong to pensioners, they still have theirs!
Which is segue into a side discussion of some of the attendees, an interesting cross-section of the owner demographic. One other flight instructor chum with his lady friend, the granddaughter of a former assassinated El Salvadoran dictator. Her verbiage. Or the British developer of a Cirrus desktop flight simulator. The Indian computer PhD husband and wife team from the Silicon Valley. A farmer from Minnesota. An RV sales owner and sometimes flight training client of mine with his devil may care wife. The husband/wife team who’s retailing business turned out to be adult paraphernalia—dinner conversation turning on the benefits of the dual-motored vibrator. It gives new meaning to the common pilot preference of twins over singles. I’m not making this up. The money manager from Pennsylvania, a true gentleman of multiple years’ association from instructing at the Cirrus proficiency event in Williamsport, and his sweet as honey Mexican-born wife. In keeping with the last sentence in the paragraph above, the eighteen-wheeler owner/operator who matriculated into the Teamsters, and then ended up successfully litigating the union as a self-educated expert, on behalf of fellow retirees, regaining 80% of the value of their pensions, which had been dumped by Teamster shenanigans. He still has both of his knees, by the way, and is a stellar hero in my firmament of those who do the right thing.
After settling in at the Grand Isla Navidad Resort http://www.islanavidad.com.mx/site/US/index.php we took one of the 24-7 water taxis across the oceanic inlet to a typically Mexican low key “poor cousin next door to big cheese extravagance” pueblo—Barra Navidad (Christmas Sandbar) and wandered the village seeking meaning and enlightenment.
Well, at least enlightenment. Right echelon formation in late afternoon sun. Have I mentioned that Mexico is unafraid of color? Barra resonated easily with me, a smaller-dimensioned version of the Mission Beach of my youth—a sandspit jutting between the Pacific on the west, and the bay (bahia) on the east. Comfy.
The hotel staff member who golf-carted us to the water taxi, we being too tired to walk it, suggested Simona’s as a worthy alfresco dinner café. Excellent advice worthy of two evenings’ dinners. I chose seared ultra rare fresh-caught tuna the first evening, and Veal Scallopini the next. Simona is a German expat of seventeen years’ Sandbar experience. First a margarita rocas con sal, then an agreeable Chilean wine while taking in the sunset over our cena.
Barra Navidad street scene. Shades of my youth when we jacked up VW’s to drop the engine for a driveway overhaul. These guys are on a union contract—one worker underneath the well-loved pickup, one to hand him the appropriately-sized wrench, and two to kibbutz from their courtside seats.
After departing this maintenance event, and before partaking of our last evening’s dinner at Simona’s, we had another road less-travelled experience, coming upon a small community park between Barra’s two main streets. Cathy eyed two young gals of early twenty-something age, setting up a cookie stand. In my best, only partially stumbling loquacious Spanish, we discovered one was the new entrepreneurial head mistress of her own Xocolate panaderia (bakery) and she was proud to offer some freshly baked cookies. Seizing upon the opportunity to have some snacks on the next day’s long return flight to El Norte, we secured a bag of nut-filled cookies. Learning of our intention to consume them on our flight home, she insisted that we take another bag—of butter cookies—tambien. For the price of one bag. Eat your heart out Donald Trump.
Ol’ What’s Her Name trying to figure out the name of this pueblo or that rio. That’s when she wasn’t reading her book on the world’s refugee crisis, or playing electronic Sudoku or Solitaire. The mountainous air between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, where we’d had such a drubbing three days before, now sublimely somnolent.
It helps to engage one’s sense of humor or at least still the passions when in unfamiliar travel circumstances, it not life more generally. We had to dodge a modest immigration incident bullet as we passed through MMCN as our chosen AOE international departure station. When you process through México’s immigration on arrival, they issue a paper visa and place it in your passport. That visa paper is surrendered to them on departure. Cathy’s passport had her visa, but mine had gone walkabout AWOL from my passport, which had been snugged into a pocket of my pilot’s kneeboard (a holder of charts and other pilot necessities, usually strapped around your thigh for easy and secure access in flight). This produced real terror in the customs inspector, who had been the very gentleman who had welcomed us at MMCN at the beginning of the week. He remembered us both just fine, but was distraught because the process involves not only securing the paper, but entering data from it into the governmental computer system. After much handwringing and head scratching I remembered that I had taken out of my passport, where I usually keep it, my immunization record, which I had placed in my Baja Bush Pilots “Airports of Mexico” booklet sitting on the back seat of the Cirrus. I hurried out and found the visa hidden in the yellow record. I’m not sure if the officer or I was the more relieved—it was smiles all around, for sure.
And as icing on our departure cake, the computer link of the Obregon Oficina de Combustibles (Fuel Office) was down, and everyone purchasing fuel had to pay cash. Fortunately having occasionally experienced this elsewhere in Mexico on past trips we had held in reserve enough cash to fill ‘er up. No, this is not a subterfuge for corruption, it is just “the computer is down” that it appears to be. In fact, without exception, over the years, every time we’ve had anything to do with Mexican officialdom at the aerodrome interface, everyone has been completely professional, courteous, and welcomingly helpful. A bona fide treat.
Before signing off, perhaps you may find interest in a few technicalities? We flew on three days of our week’s getaway, covering 2284 nautical miles. An even 16 block to block hours in my pilot logbook, but 15.2 hours takeoff to touchdown, for an average economy power groundspeed of 150 knots. 213.1 gallons of avgas, for a fuel consumption of 13.3 gallons per hour. Altitudes ranged from around 1,000′ above ground level, to 11,500′ MSL. Some actual instrument flying on Day One, a little icing, a lot of deviating that day, and one non-precision VOR approach with a non-radar airways transition in actual instrument meteorological conditions, IMC, in pilotspeak.
Safely back home with a plethora of happy memories in the can. And unrelenting rain again today, as I write. Oh, for the warmth and blue skies of tropical Mexico. Next year, once more with feeling.
Hasta Luego, Tomás
Posted on October 11, 2016
Over those many decades of commercial flying I developed a strong affinity for the stark beauty of the Four Corners region. Over the PA I’d point out that it was the only place in the U.S. where four states come together at right angles—Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Minnesota. Mind you this was back in the day when people actually looked out of the windows, passengers and pilots alike. Ahem. ‘Tis a region with appropriately modest population and infrastructure to minimize distraction from the beauty and solitude.
As SoCal Del Martians we are used to seasonal changes, but not on the order of many locales, so come autumn, Cathy and I frequently heed the siren call of deciduous extravaganza. In the mountainous regions of southern Utah, one gets to double dip with the flora as punctuation for the colors of the earth itself. Yum.
Catalina had set up her SDSU schedule with an eye to having the time off and we settled on a VRBO home in Brian Head, a quiet ski resort in the Dixie National Forest at an elevation over 10,000’ and a short drive out of Cedar City, where the Cirrus took us in 2:02.
Zion to starboard. Short final approach to Cedar City runway 20.
The otherwise sleepy aerodrome, these days is actually busy with extensive helicopter training for flight students at Southern Utah University. The folks at Sphere One Aviation had a silver Nissan rental ready for us—in fairly nice condition considering its 166,000 miles on the odometer! Well, anyway it ran well and like The Little Engine that Could, managed to get us to all of our trailheads and national monuments and parks.
Neither of us had ever visited Cedar Breaks National Monument, just a stone’s throw from our Brian Head lodging, so now was our opportunity, and it did not disappoint.
The only downside for some, might be that unlike Bryce Canyon National Park, all the hiking at Cedar Breaks is along trails atop the canyon rim. But at over 10,500′ there was enough gasping along the rim’s undulations to not add more by dropping into and then back out of the canyon itself. Not to mention, the topside view left us gawking as well as gasping.
While the second time-lapse was running, I read in the monument materials that the Spectra Point trail led to an outcrop with multiple Bristlecone pines. Oh, my. Bristlecones are the oldest living things on earth, up to 5,000 years old, although Cedar Breaks’ versions have matriculated through a mere 2,000 seasons. Lord knows in this election season it sure helps to think in terms of a longer perspective.
Can you imagine the stories to be told from this vantage point the past two millennia?
Bristlecone pines have a somewhat intriguing life plan. Some of the older portions of the tree twist to take best advantage of the location, and eventually die off, leaving the newer parts to continue being sustained by the roots. These are hearty plants that take root in poor quality virgin soil that would not support other trees, and with a dense resinous wood resistant to insects. They survive with very little water, not to mention carrying on at high elevations that would be above the tree line for many species. In a word, durable.
Plus they are wondrously gnarly. Given the advancing arthritis in my limbs, I feel a particular affinity with this specimen, so reminiscent of Tolkien’s Treebeard. I’m sure he is gesturing to make sure I appreciate the beautiful contrast between the red rock and the golden Aspens over yonder. Probably smiling internally at the colorful pranks of those youthful lowlander whippersnappers with their flashy colors.
On our second day, we ventured forth to Bryce Canyon, about an hour’s drive east of our lodging.
I thoroughly enjoy making beach drip castles with the grandchildren. Besides their redolence with my own youth, they always remind me of the sandstone filigree of Bryce. Bryce, like Zion, has shuttles about every twelve minutes that take riders to and from the various viewpoints and trailheads. A great way to get about and minimize traffic jams.
Following our day at Bryce, we considered driving 1:20 or so the next day to Zion National Park. We decided, instead, to stay near Brian Head and hike in the Dixie National Forest. Zion is superb, but worth multiple days in its own right, and the roundtrip drive time was off-putting. Ol’ What’s Her Name did a bit of online research, and came up with a couple of days’ worth of exploratory hiking from two trailheads on the Virgin River Rim Trail, meandering up and down either side of 10,000′. This entire region is part of the northeast-bound rising terrain of the Grand Staircase, forming among other things, a watershed that includes the Virgin River. Excuse my tangentialism, but here’s a glimpse of the Virgin River flowing through Zion from a previous year’s visit.
Virgin Inversion, Zion National Park
Cathy’s excellent research really hit the target for beauty, exercise and perfect crowds—we saw three other hikers on the first day, and zero on the next. Descending terrain along the Cascade Falls trail exuding the early October autumnal colors
Climbing the Virgin River Rim Trail southeast-bound from the trailhead at US Forest Service road #054. Weather conditions were primo throughout our stay, but layering was absolutely essential, with early morning temperatures in the low thirties, warming up to the middle forties, and strong gusting winds waxing and waning throughout the days. With the exertion of hiking at these elevations it felt cool, but not cold—so long as you kept moving and didn’t dally in shaded areas with the full force of the wind on you. Cathy complained about cold fingers, but didn’t let that deter her. Rounding a bend in the trail, or easing along the edge of red rock drop-offs, we were constantly reinforced for our exertions.
Gazing at the back side of Zion National Park from the trail.
Well, as mentioned at the outset, we came for the fall colors. Veni, Vidi, Vici. You Latin experts will have to change that to the first person plural, past tense—We came, We saw and We conquered the opportunity to drink deeply from the splendor of it all.
And, yes, that’s the trail along the forest floor just to the right of the tall Aspen in the center of the frame, above. I’m sure you’ve noticed the title to this missive is a silly double entendre, on hitting the season at maximum coloration, but also the mountain peaks in the region in which we traveled. Trees’ peak color is very short-lived. The image below of this particular strand of trees was taken as we drove on that unpaved #054 USFS road proceeding to the trailhead in the morning. By that same afternoon returning to our lodging, the leaves were already noticeably more orange and rapidly blowing from the branches.
Consider another example—the strand of Aspens, below, is the same as that shown in the very first image in this post, but seen twenty-four hours later. Gold, turning to rust.
Following our second days’ trail hiking I returned to another vantage point at Cedar Breaks with hopes of a viable sunset time-lapse sequence, the cirrus clouds you see in the image above, glowing in iridescent glory. However nature had other ideas. The clouds disappeared entirely, leaving an entirely clear sky—lovely by day but lacking in the pizazz of clouds lighting off in prismatic excess at and after sundown.
Still, the rich low light giving way to dim pastels has its own appeal.
My intention was to follow up that T-L with another of the Milky Way arcing above the southern through southwestern horizon, with a nice new moon setting in the bargain. Great idea, until the reality of an upper 20s temperature and about 25 knots of wind racing up from the canyon floor and over the rim directly into my face took hold. This would have required nearly three hours to film, and my teeth-chattering got the best of me after about twenty minutes. So just a few still frames lifted from those from the beginning of the abortive T-L. Dang, but I wish I’d had warmer clothes and maybe a bottle of Laphroag as anti-freeze. No guts, no glory this time.
That’s Venus, setting in tandem just below the moon, which while a sliver in real time, appears here as a globe, given the speed of movement over the fifteen seconds of the time-exposure. These frames all come from a time over a half hour after it became dark. Isn’t our galaxy just gorgeous, and can you see, as I do, how it forms a ghostly lion’s visage staring back at us, two glowing eyes above the snout, an umbral mane defusing into the night sky? The horizon glow is probably a mix of residual twilight augmented by Lost Wages’ luminescent excess, not visible with the naked eye, but fully apparent in a fifteen second exposure, taken every twenty seconds at ISO 2500. That fifteen second exposure is what necessitates 3 hours—three frames a minute for 180 minutes is 540 frames, and at 24 frames per second you end up freezing to death for 22.5 seconds of T-L video. Brrrrrr.
I’d like to finish up by dedicating this missive to two chums—T.J. Steer, a United pilot colleague from yesteryear with whom I had a guys’ Cirrus trip to the Four Corners, and Wes Mudge, with whom I’ve had a couple of trips in this region. Great guys and great memories. Being in this region has had me thinking of both of them rather a lot. T.J. has flown west, very sad to say. Wes is still happily amongst us, glad to say.
Posted on August 31, 2016
It having been too long since we’d taken a family dive trip, we decided to explore a new site in the Fijian islands—the Paradise Taveuni Resort.
Getting there from SoCal is modestly straightforward—a 10:20 nonstop from LAX to Nadi (pronounced Nandi) on the main island of Viti Levu, then an hour’s flight by De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter to Taveuni, and another hour’s drive along a rugged, mostly dirt road to the southern end of the island.
Fijians have a well-deserved reputation as among the friendliest people extant, and the welcome we got at the resort was a perfect example. The staff warmly greeted us by name right from the get-go, and throughout the days engaging us with a smile-suffused “Bula”—the Fijian equivalent of Hawaii’s Aloha. Literally translated as “life,” it is routinely used as a hello greeting. These are people who smile with their eyes, and routinely stop what they are doing to engage with you.
The resort is lovely and small, and recently rebuilt.
The view from the room, a perfect place to read in the shade after the morning’s diving, and before the sundown libations or dinner.
After lunch on our first afternoon, we did a single tank dive off the resort dock to verify equipment functionality and to confirm that we still knew how to apply basic underwater skills. Then we settled into relaxing with a book and an adult libation as the sun settled toward Vanua Levu across the Somosomo Strait. Jet lag be damned!
That’s the resort dive boat, by the way. Small, but seaworthy and capable of keeping something like eight divers comfortable in shade from the tropical sun. The resort sits at 16 degrees south latitude, and take your pick—180 degrees east longitude, or 180 degrees west longitude. The international date line takes a zigzag to the east so that the entire island nation is in the same time zone, not to mention the same day. Taveuni is five hours earlier and a day later than California. In fact, Fiji begins the new date for the world. Keep that in mind for your next New Year’s Eve.
The resort is renting that dive boat, because the three they had operated were destroyed last February by Cyclone Winston. There’s much to say about this beast. Cyclonic circulation is rotation around a low pressure system in the same direction as the earth’s rotation, a circulation, that due to coriolis effect, is counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise down under. Common names for cyclones are hurricane, chubasco, and typhoon. Winston was the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, and that means all oceans and seas. It came ashore, its eye near the resort, with 185 knot winds. If you’re not “knotically” inclined that’s over 210 mph! This exceeded the normal velocity standard that maxes at Category 5, so Winston got it’s bad boy rating of 5+.
The resort was totally destroyed, and the inhabitants at the time survived in a shipping container located behind the main office/dining area and wedged between coconut palms. The resort staff is from nearby local villages, and those villages and the homes were likewise obliterated. Resort owners Allan and Terri Gortan, Aussie by birth, and Fijian by current citizenship, were denied even the benefit of insurance, which dropped coverage for any cyclone over Category 4. They set about building a dormitory for their homeless staff, and then rebuilding the resort, itself. Providing a place to live, food to eat, work and earnings, and the opportunity for all to come together for a common purpose. Team effort.
Not at first grasping the magnitude and import of all this, we were the beneficiaries of introductory rates as they bootstrap the resort back to its former glory. The resort is lovely, but there was a modestly attenuated level of poshness than what jaded jet-setters expect, and thinned out vegetation. It took about a day for us to realize that we got the glorious end of the bargain, and I’m not talking dollars. We got to be the honored recipients of this team effort, tangentially contributing with our stay, to the industrious way these proud, hard-working people were elevating themselves, the resort and their communal lives. The vibe was infectious and sincere at every turn. This is something you can’t buy at a Hilton or Marriott.
As the saying goes, one picture’s worth a thousand words. The captain readies the dive boat to come from its mooring to the dock for the day’s dives, and this quiet, shy woman is hand weeding the newly replanted pathway. Each day began this way. Sharing in this rebirth was the most satisfying highlight of our stay.
But we’d gone to Taveuni for the diving, and that was certainly a stellar feature. Most of our dives were along the 13 mile long Rainbow Reef in the Somosomo Strait, and Vuna Reef along the southern tip of Taveuni. Common depths we dove were between 50 and 110 feet. Water and air temperature were about the same at 80 degrees F, and water visibility somewhere between 60 and 150 feet. Oceanic decadence.
Nurtured by nutrient rich currents that wax and wane with the strait’s tidal changes, Rainbow Reef is noted for its soft corals, exuberant testament to nature’s kaleidoscopic palette.
Another byproduct of the currents are fan corals.
Corals, of course are living organisms. They are sensitive to the nutrients of the water, but also its temperature, its pH, and man-made toxic runoff. Scientists partially gauge the health of the aquatic environment by the health of the corals, which are central to the symbiotic interplay of fixed and swimming creatures.
Typically the dives last approximately an hour underwater, then an hour on the surface, followed by a second dive. This surface interval reflects the physiology of the body’s processing of air, which is just under 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. We consume the O2 to power our bodies, but the nitrogen, being inert to respiration, dissolves in the tissues and bloodstream under the pressure of the depths and is slowly exhausted at the surface lest bubbles form in tissues and joints producing the debilitating experience of “the bends,”which can literally bend the body in response to painful nitrogen-infused bubbles in joints.
One of our dive days was a three tank gig. After the second dive we boated to a crescent beach on Vanua Levu for an alfresco lunch to increase the interval before dive 3. Our dining table was a fallen coconut palm. The cafe view was none too shabby.
Each day began with a boat ride to the day’s dive sites…
…and following the dives returning us to the resort.
On two tank days we’d enjoy a delicious lunch from a daily-changing menu, then repair to that hooch overlooking the water, perhaps a swim in the pool—or as often as not for me, a brief nod-off three or four pages into whatever book I was reading. Vacation, redefined.
There were also days when we explored some of Taveuni’s ground-based options.
Early in a long day’s island exploration with our driver guide Jim, we stopped to visit Wairiki Catholic church. Built in 1909 (and honoring a French missionary who suggested a successful strategy to defeat a Tongan war party) replete with stained glass, but replacing pews with palm floor mats.
We came by in the midst of an island-wide childrens’ Rugby tournament. Fijians are perennial Rugby powerhouses. Imagine a stateside soccer tournament, with kids’ games going on throughout the day, the families rooting on their brood from the shade of trees encircling the pitch…and being watched over by Mary in white vestments.
There’s a backstory here, as well. We learned that Jim, who also had picked us up at Matei airport when we arrived on our first morning in country, was also a minister in a very small church that he started after being moved by The Spirit on a visit to Brisbane, Australia. Much against his personal inclinations, this quiet man of faith, heeded the call, seeking to share Christ’s story with his Fijian counterparts.
On our return that day we were treated to a rain falling and a lovely down-sun rainbow. Our bure (room) is framed by the notch in the double palm and its hammock.
But still there was more diving to be had, reefs to explore, and creatures to gawk at, including two lionfish. They are invasive and destructive creatures with very venomous fanning fins.
I managed to find a couple of giant clams, several feet across, and similar to the one that holds up the coffee table in our living room, if you’ve been to the Del Mar digs.
And we also encountered some larger creatures. This picture lacks the brightness and color of my underwater strobe because this six or seven foot shark was shy, and my “there goes the neighborhood” arrival disturbed its bottom chillin’, scooting away before I could get close enough to do the image justice.
For me, the highlight of the dive creature encounters happened as I was running out of air, and starting an ascent to a nitrogen out-gas safety stop at fifteen feet under. Looking down, past Carolyn (a delightful French film producer living in London) two six-foot across black speckled stingrays were fluttering together in a mating pax de deus, their fins’ periphery a lilting dance of the veils. I can assure you, we were lost to them in the heat of their amorous ardor.
Perennial favorites of dive photography are anemone fish. They live embraced by the anemone tendrils, which are quite toxic, but for which these Clownfish (their coloring) are immune. A safety mechanism that keeps predators at bay.
And when the diving day is done, maybe a Fiji Bitter and a bit of quiet time taking in the approaching sunset? Here, I’ve started a time lapse and am nursing my brewski while reading a book. Hammock-borne multi-tasking, Paradise Taveuni style.
Or stills from this and other sundowns. The first is of a catamaran that came to the mooring to pick up a group of U.S. physicians who took off by the vessel to provide pro bono sick call at multiple small Fijian islands. A nice way to give back.
So yes, our bridging the hiatus of family dive trips was accomplished in an exemplary and altogether satisfying fashion. The Fijian subaquatic environment is healthy and beautiful, Fijians the warm, exuberant people of our recollection. And Paradise Taveuni was lovely and getting posher through the ministrations of Allan and Terry and their entire staff. Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you very much.
Posted on August 31, 2016
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to watch three hummingbird mothers go through the process of raising a brood, but each time there were logistics challenges documenting the process. Then, this March, we discovered a nesting female in a palm abutting our front porch. I’ve surmised that she may have been a first-timer, with only a single egg and placement of a shallow insecure nest on a fairly fragile frond. The upshot was that a nighttime gusty early Spring cold front rocked the tiny nest so strongly that by morning the egg had been blown to the ground below, shattering its future.
I selfishly fretted over the lost opportunity to chronicle their family-building. Then on May 7 Cathy noticed a hummingbird frequenting another palm in the same area, and sure enough, we found a sturdy, deep nest located securely on a strong frond, well protected by foliage above and below, and facing directly at our front door! Watching until she vacated the area I quickly got a ladder into position to look into the nest.
Hallelujah! Given a new lease on bird-voyeur life, I set about trying to make the most of the opportunity, setting up the 5D with a 600 mm telephoto alternating with occasional spells of the G16 in macro mode. This turned out to be a technically challenging endeavor, with fronds wafting in and out of the frame and confusing auto-focus enough to make it nearly useless, dim light on the sheltered nest confounding exposures. Depth of field with such a long lens located maybe ten feet from the nest meant that focus was always of the shallowest few inches variety.
Given the hyperthyroid exertions of their flight profiles, hummingbirds need formidable amounts of energy ingestion in the form of flower nectar, tiny insects and such, which translates to much coming and going for food, interspersed with quiet downtime sitting atop the nest to incubate the eggs, ideally kept at 96 F.
I struggled to personalize the experience first with a name for the mother and eventually her brood, receiving several great suggestions from friends following the developments on e-mail. And then one morning I realized that for days I had been stepping out the door in the morning for newspaper retrieval or surf condition checks, smiling at her on the nest, and saying something sappy like “good morning, Sweetie, how’s it going?” The name stuck. I hope she liked it.
Ruby-throated hummingbird incubation is in the range of 14 to 16 days in temperate SoCal. We first discovered the nest with eggs already in place on May 7. On May 18 the first egg hatched, followed two days later by the second.
At breakout, the hatchlings’ eyes are closed and they’re mostly bald, save for a fuzz down their backs akin to Phyllis Diller on a bad hair day, make that any day. Their skin is crenulated, about like mine these days, seven + decades into a gazillion roentgens of solar energy absorption. In fact, new little hummers would be good stand-ins for progeny of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. There, I’m dating myself, and if you don’t know the reference, Google it. Also, at this stage, they are as yet unable to maintain body temperature, so the reptilian association is perhaps even more apt. This creates even more challenge for the Sweeties of the avian world, with the effort to feed herself juxtaposed with the hatchlings’ need for both warmth, and feeding.
Hummingbird hatchlings double their weight in the first five days, and do so twice again within the next few days, so growth is rapid, and Sweetie was constantly inbound and outbound, as well as sitting quietly atop the squirming youngsters. As with mom, their names just came to me out of the blue—Bert and Ernie, in that chronologic order.
This shot reminds me of a helicopter, pitched over and accelerating out of a hover.
Bert, getting pinfeathers, while Ernie is still bald and closed-eyed.
And then there was this moment when I just had to gawk and wonder what Sweetie was thinking as to the kids’ capacity to ingest, or her own, for the matter of that. Grasshopper tenderloin, still twitching and trying to extract itself. Darn near as big as she.
In short order the kids began stuffing the nest, feathers rapidly fattening their bodies, although Ernie still is modeling cornrows—Bo Derek, but no Dudley Moore.
In time they were bulking up enough that it was often one inside the nest, and one hanging around the rim, usually the elder Bert.
Bert, being older and bigger, frequently got first dibs when Sweetie came in on a food delivery, but she was careful to feed Ernie as much. Check out the small bead of regurgitant about to transfer from Sweetie to Bert. Given that pooched out stomach, I expect Sweetie to let go with a 6.5 Richter belch.
Mom, we’re hungry!
As the maturation progressed, Bert, in particular took to frequent self-preening. Whether to fluff up his feathers, or just basic fastidiousness, I can’t say.
However, this behavior seems coincident with the testing of wings. Bert showing his stuff in the next six frames.
His full power pre-takeoff exercise was impressive, but he often collapsed in exhaustion right where he was, Ernie getting squashed by all two ounces of the elder sibling.
A countenance of pure concentration.
Getting very close to turning a high power run-up into breaking those surly bonds of earth
Bert, get back here before mom sees you!
Let me catch my breath. This is so rad, Ernie!
Mom, mom—look what I can do! Ernie, cringing and pretending it didn’t happen on his watch.
Landing gear down. Check. Flare for the touchdown.
And then, the next day, the 10th of June, the inevitable…
Remember, you saw it here, first. Outta here. Look out life, here I come.
A singularly sad state of affairs…
…but at least, Ernie now has room to spread his wings.
The next day we had grandparent (human) responsibilities up in Montrose, CA. Ernie was still solo in the nest when we left in the morning. But by the time we returned at the end of the day, I was heartbroken to learn that I did not get to chronicle his launch to freedom.
In closing, let me share a modest measurement of the scope of this magnificent event, the matriculation from tiny egg to feisty terror of the skies. It should help put our own lives in perspective.
Posted on December 24, 2015
“Imagine the amount of sorrow this wood has seen,” said Pepe. “And Joy,” countered his son, also Pepe, of the surprisingly heavy wooden plank I held.
These would be Pepe Romero, my dear friend and neighbor, preeminent concert guitarist, and Pepe Romero—the son, whom I will refer to as Pepito, for differentiation—my growing friend, and masterful luthier, as guitar-makers are more properly called. And ukulele-makers, too, in his case.
The rough-hewn plank of Spanish pine, its stubbly surface, coarse to my touch, was the point of reference in this discussion. And there, an arm’s length off my left shoulder were two magnificent, audaciously beautiful just-completed examples of Pepito’s craftsmanship—as yet unstrung Spanish concert guitars. Their faces glowed the pine’s rich honey gold, the sides and backs contrasting with the dark and light grains of rosewood.
The backstories of these guitars compel my sharing. Granada’s Hospital Real was built between 1502 and 1522 at the behest of queen Isabela and king Fernando of Spain, those monarchs who had bankrolled Christopher Columbus in 1492. This is when Spain, under these Catholic monarchs succeeded in pushing the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, the apogee at the time of Islamic expansionism. Originally used in caring for soldiers injured in the battle to retake the city, the structure then became the first European lunatic asylum, then hospital again, and now an edifice of the University of Granada’s library.
A Granadan artisan carpenter named Paco Montañez, who specializes in repairs and reconstruction of ancient historical buildings like the Alhambra and the Hospital Real, was employed by Pepe in a rebuild of his and esposa Carissa’s European-away Granada home. Paco had replaced a Hospital beam, and wood from that was being used in the Romero residence. Visiting Paco’s workshop and hearing the beam eerily singing as the saw cut into it, Pepe attested such apparently musical wood should be saved for use by Pepito in constructing guitars back in his Del Mar workshop.
Alone with Pepito the next day, he mused on the history of this wood, a massive beam five hundred years ago when laid in the hospital, yet having begun life a tiny seed dropping in the wind from a tree maybe a millennium before then.
What a humbling thought. What an exhilarating thought. How metaphoric for his own family tree, a story of the seed truly not falling far from the tree. And is it too far a reach in this season to not see parallels to the Christmas story, a humble beginning in a stable with the wooden manger, of a gift of love, of beauty and peace? The thought resonates with me, much more fulfilling than the hypertension of the malls.
The family, longtime residents of Del Mar, hails originally from Málaga, Spain. Pepito’s grandfather, the inestimable Celedonio, revered for his performance prowess and compositional genius, ever the gentle poetic romantic, and sire of the first family of the Spanish guitar—Celin, Pepe, and Angel. Concert guitar performances could be in any combination of numbers from solo to quartet, and all three sons are famous musicians the world over. Celedonio, and his wife Angelita have passed on, and the quartet now performs with Celin and Pepe, as well as Celino and Lito, Celin’s and Angel’s sons.
Pepito has shared with me that there had once been unspoken, yet palpable expectations that he, too, should join the family performance dynasty. But he heard and has embraced a different muse, turning his hands to crafting the instruments themselves, exquisitely creating beauty for the eye, the ear, and the tactile. Having known Celedonio for many years across the backyard fence, I find Pepito’s thoughts and philosophical expressions very… in tune… with his abuelo. I have no doubt that Celedonio smiles proudly at the broad curves and nuanced details of Pepito’s work and words. I know first-hand that his father does. For what it’s worth, so do I.
My dad, both a musician and a painter, conveyed that he saw human creativity as mankind’s modest recapitulation of God’s seminal expression of creative love—by humans, at once an homage, a touch of the sincerest form of flattery, and a fulfillment of mankind’s destiny as breathed into humankind at creation. I express it poorly, and for some this will sound too too. Whatever, for me, it is essential truth. It is why I love beauty as the fruit of creativity. And it is basic to the natural resonant camaraderie Celedonio, his sons, grandsons, and great grandson, Bernardo and I share.
The creation of music and the tools for its performance, its composition, its transcriptive adaptation, the philosophy of its place in the world, the appreciation of its beauty and redemptive powers, even the poetry flowing from those who would embrace all this is the family tree that lives from the seed of Celedonio. And it glows quietly and exquisitely in Pepito and his creations—his gifts to the world.
I referenced the season and the Christmas story above. Let me add a whimsical tangent for you non Latin or Catholic scholars. Both of the Pepes are actually named José, the Spanish version of Joseph. Joseph is considered Pater Putativus, or “P.P.”—Latin for “father in name only.” In Spanish, the letter “P” is pronounced approximately as in “pay,” and PP would be pronounced Pepe—the Spanish nickname for José. Who knew?
‘Tis the season of giving. Each of us having received the gift of life and the gifts of our living. It’s the season in which we take stock of our blessings and seek to share blessings with others. My neighbors give the gift of music to the world, caretakers of their unique capabilities and lineage, a human parallel to the sojourn of the pine seed. Beauty shared with us all. From my father, I inherit a particular affinity for this sort of thing, and I relish my proximal opportunity to convey this modest story as my Christmas season gift to you.
As Ever, T
Posted on September 28, 2015
As is widely known, last evening’s so called Super Moon also treated us to a Blood Moon total lunar eclipse in the bargain. A sufficiently infrequent event that I was positively salivating at the prospect of using multiple cameras to get both a time-lapse and still images.
Then, just this week we got word that Cathy’s brother Steve Zeisler had selected yesterday, Sunday, September 27th as the day he was retiring as the senior pastor at Palo Alto’s Peninsula Bible Church after a 43 year run there, following his time as a Stanford University student and football athlete. Another sufficiently infrequent event, that it, too, was not to be missed. We took trusty N111TT and flew up for the day, the plan being to leave there in time to return to Montgomery Field, put the plane away, and rush to my chosen photo site along a ridge in the Torrey Pines Reserve. Boy, but there were a lot of well-deserved testimonials from the Stanford and Silicon Valley types that are the parishioners there. Steve and his bride, Leslie are such a class act, so genuine salt of the earth types, and the affection of their friends is so sincere, this was a thoroughly touching event, and an honor to be there. We quickly forgot the scooting out midway through plan, and Cathy, Torrey and I stayed until everyone repaired to the patio for munchies and drinks, then scooted out.
We took an Uber ride back to Palo Alto and were shortly ensconced at 9,500 feet on a nearly direct southeasterly course. The flight was smooth and scenic in both directions.
While still at the church I figured if we got off by four-thirty, we should be able to catch the initial moonrise while near the Orange/San Diego County lines, and that is exactly how it turned out. As promised, the moon broke the horizon already showing the penumbral shadowing of a partial eclipse heading toward totality—best seen on the initial image, above.
Arriving and maneuvering for our landing, I eschewed my usual hand-flown descent and made liberal use of the autopilot to free me up for images of the rapidly advancing umbral shadow of the developing total eclipse. What a great platform to accomplish all this.
Airplane back in the barn, I was able to set up just off taxiways Bravo and Hotel for this positively glowing view.
A few more shots there, then back to Del Mar for additional images of the various stages of the Blood Moon, which is not easy for me to shoot well. The dimness of the eclipse makes focusing and exposure a challenge, especially if you want to bring out the lunar surface features.
The farther the shadow retreated, the easier it was to focus and reveal the surface mare, craters, and green cheese.
I had researched the moonset, as well, which was this morning at 07:15. I made my usual mental request for the muse to awaken me if there was going to be a viable show. I awoke at 05:45 and discovered pea soup fog had enveloped us, so I rolled over trying for more shuteye. Then about 06:30 the muse alarm went off, and I discovered a fog reprieve.
So, all in all, a nice day in the life. Great for we three Del Martians, bittersweetly reinforcing for Steve, Leslie and family. As ever, TWC
Posted on July 5, 2015
Like Rumpole of the Bailey, I am wedded to “She Who Must be Obeyed,” also known as “Ol’ What’s Her Name,” affectionate titling for my bride of THIRTY YEARS! this month. Trying unsuccessfully to keep up with my dotage, Cathy nonetheless managed to qualify for Medicare in May, ample motivation for a celebratory trip, adventurously worthy of age denial and anniversary exultation. Naturally, I obeyed her summons, and agreed that biking some 255 km (160 miles) across undulating bucolic southern Czech Republic topography fit the bill handsomely. “Yes, dear, whatever you say, dear,” sayeth Brer Rabbit, eyeing this central European briar patch. Perhaps I should mention that the Czechs exceed, by orders of magnitude, other countries’ per capita beer consumption? Pilsner is named after the Czech city of Plzen, after all. This is a country where pivo, as beer is called, is a daily part of the fabric of life.
In her inimitable way, Cathy’s research turned up a splendid outfitter in Loren of Pure Adventures www.pure-adventures.com specializing in self-guided bicycle and hiking trips. Loren, a European ex-pat, now living in Scottsdale, and his Czech in-country counterpart, Tomas, promptly fielded every request and lame question with equanimity, putting together a trip that challenged us without breaking us. Every detail was covered from navigation to accommodation, from surface transit to electrical plugs. Loren and Tomas must operate in a 48 hour per day universe, they were so capable of patiently responding to our every concern. Everywhere we had quality lodging, routinely the best place in each town, as often as not, on or just off the main square. We provided the propulsion, but Pure-Adventures took care of the logistics. Each day we sallied forth with bicycle panniers and handlebar bags carrying day gear, leaving our suitcases with hotel staff. By the time we arrived at that day’s destination, our bags had been transported ahead, awaiting us in our new lodging’s rooms.
I wish to step back and approach our adventure somewhat chronologically, mentally ambling as I go. We decided that as long as we were going to be in “the neighborhood,” why not begin by exploring Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, and finish with Prague? And then there’s the matter of a gateway to get there and return. Somehow or other we managed to find space available for pass riding on United from San Diego to Munich—then surfaced to Salzburg at the outset, and back from Prague at the end.
Salzburg, with a population of some 146,000, is a delight to the senses—the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, an approachably-sized city, redolent of western culture, and bisected by the Salzach river. Our Hotel Elefant lodging was thoroughly modern within, notwithstanding being a 750 year-old baroque structure in the exclusively pedestrian cobblestone pathway Altstadt (Old City) just steps off the river’s left bank, and loomed over by the Festung (fortress).
As I say, Salzburg is suffused with culture, a fitting nurturance for Wolfgang Amadeus, with art and music everywhere. Here we began what turned out to be a recurring theme, walking to a marvelous early evening concert of piano and violin sonatas performed in the acoustically live Schlosskirche Mirabell (Mirabell palace church) followed up with dinner at a walk-side cafe. You’ll notice that we had front and center seats, this event drawing maybe thirty attendees—not a testament to the quality of the music, but rather the number of such events available nightly.
On another evening we took sustenance just across the street from Mozart’s birth house.
And what could be more fitting than strolling to the Augustine monastery’s brewery beer garden on a warm afternoon? Sit in the deep cool shade of the trees, consuming delicious beer drawn right into your mug from wooden barrels to quaff down grilled sausage and potatoes, while people watching and conversing in rusty Deutsche and English with the table of gentlemen next to us. A vignette—free WiFi is ubiquitous everywhere in Austria and the Czech Republic. One of the gents, just off the frame to the right, looked exactly like NFL coach and commentator John Madden. I pulled up Madden’s photo on my i-phone and showed it to him as conversation ice-breaker. Not that much ice breaking is needed after consuming a couple of half liter mugs of cold brau.
From Salzburg, we took the WestBahn train on to Vienna, no reservation needed. The train leaves just about hourly. Pick a seat, and pay by credit card when the conductor meanders by. Two hours later we de-trained, and grabbed a cab to our Hotel Mailberger Hof, just off the main Kartner Strasse pedestrian pathway, and two blocks from the famous Vienna Opera House.
Cathy and I found Vienna a bit excessive, as compared to the more embraceable scale of Salzburg. But there is much to love. This is the musical city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and waltz king Johan Strauss.
It is a city of monumental cathedrals, castles and parks, the Danube flowing by on its way to Budapest. Residents and visitors are at once immersed in all this. An interesting aside, perhaps modest testimony to the egalitarian nature of Austria—Cathy and I cannot remember seeing a single police officer in either Salzburg or Vienna. Also, another quirky aside—what’s with languages changing another country’s place names? To Austrians, this city is Wien, not Vienna, and Prague is Praha up in the Czech Republic.
Across the street from the Opera House is the Hofburg Palace, and its lovely Albertina art museum, where one can take in works from the likes of Michelangelo Buonarotti, the creator of Florence’s statue of David, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and marble statue of the Pieta. Here’s a sketch by the master, a study for the statue, perhaps?
It had been quite warm while we were in Salzburg, and afternoon thunderstorms attenuated that as we arrived in Vienna. Our hotel was here, on Annagasse, another cobblestone pedestrian-only pathway. Gasse is the German diminutive for Strasse, or street—gasse, being too modest to call a true strasse street. The name Anna refers to the church Annakirche, the steeple of which is reflecting in the residual rain puddle. That’s an Italian cafe, upper left, where we had a late lunch on our first day in Wien. The next table over had two singers, conversing in English as their common language, starring as Leporello and Donna Elvira in that evening’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, tickets in hand for the sold out performance, which we had already acquired from a scalper dressed in 18th century attire. You just can’t make up this stuff.
Okay, it’s not every Del Martian beach bum who can claim to have climbed the gilded stairway of the world famous Staatsoper Wiener, and then watched a Mozart opera from a box seat, before wandering outside after intermission to capture the action with culture-embracing street people. But I am a pushover for smaller ensembles in baroque settings with the tight acoustics of stone, granite, and gilded statues beneath lofty arched ceilings. For our second evening in town, I secured tickets to a string quartet performing “right next door” at the Annakirche. Oh, my, what a glorious setting and what beautiful music.
I know, but to clean up the panorama composed of four images, is to cheat you on the vaulted splendor of this place, which nonetheless was only about the width of twenty parishioners side to side. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Yes photos, surreptitiously snapped, without flash, were allowed at all of our small venue performances in Europe. I asked first, and was very unobtrusive in the taking. Chamber music just isn’t the same on a recording. Being up close with small ensembles in tight hard-surfaced venues you not only hear the nuances of each instrument individually, but feel them viscerally. The horsehair of the bow literally vibrates across the strings and comes at you like some sort of wondrous musical washboard road. And do you not feel like royalty wafted along in gilded splendor?
Another snippet from my goofy noodle. Hollywood Boulevard is a Johnny-come-lately to the sidewalk stars, which are scattered all over central Wien. This one is for fellow United pilot retiree Pfred Hayes (he mocked himself with his silly spelling) who was a music major in college. One of his professors had been an oboe performer in an orchestra conducted by Maestro Toscanini. At the end of a rehearsal, one of the oboist’s valve mechanisms structurally failed, and he dutifully and nervously presented himself to the maestro to explain his plight. Mr. Toscanini just stared quietly into space for a few seconds before replying that this would not be a problem, as that particular valve would not be needed at any point in any of the pieces being played that evening. The maestro had mentally fast forwarded through all the evening’s scores to render this judgement. Apocryphal? Perhaps, but what a juicy story.
The Vienna Bucket List box checked, it was time to take the train to the Czech Republic. A couple of side stories, here. We were planning on taking a trolley to the Meidling Bahnhof (train station) but I slipped up and got us on a local bus. It got us to the station, just fine, but as a milk run through multiple Viennese neighborhoods en route. Part of the fun. Our train took us to Breclav, which is pronounced Brehslav, and this is a fitting segue into the Czech language, which I admit intimidated me as we pondered this trip.
Like Hungarian, Czech is a language unique to itself, seriously challenged by the lack of vowels where our tongue would wish to place them, and with pronunciations at which even the Czechs shake their heads. For instance we pedaled through Znojmo, which is pronounced “Noy-mo,” and stayed the evening in Telc (Telsch) and Trebon (Chey-bonya). Go figure. Loren’s instructions gave us to understand that English would be little used or understood at the small places making up our biking venue, although we could hope for some English in Prague, or is that Praha? And we’re biking through here on our own? Gulp. I’m happy to report that we found that English worked fairly well amongst younger people in the small towns of the south of the Czech Republic, and our Google translator phone apps and Pure Adventure mini-glossary helped. That and smiles, and dumb “who me?” looks generally got the job done, especially when older cafe-keepers would call out their young offspring to translate. A case in point, on one day, nearing Trebon, we needed a stretch and butt break, so peeled off at a tiny cafe abutting our two bike-width path. We sought food and a libation, which turned out to be goulash and a mineral water. The goulash really called for a pivo, but we still had kilometers to ride ahead of us. Pondering the menu was greatly assisted when the owner called in his high school age son, and before we knew it we were honored special guests, given a wonderful pamphlet (in Czech, English, German, and Spanish) extolling the region we were biking through and would we please except a free serving of their in-house specialty of fish something or other? The kid was great, keenly interested in all things English language, especially when he learned we came from the U.S., evidencing frustration that as yet his vocabulary was insufficient to convey all he wished to share, and assuring us that English was his favorite subject in school. A pathway lunch stop turned into an iconic cultural moment. Why we travel.
Another sub-tangent, here. The Czech are a proud and conscientious people. Their geographic location between Germany to the west, Austria (as in Austro-Hungarian empire) to the south, and Russia to the north, has produced its fair share of subjugation, recently during and after WWII, about which more, anon. For now, recent history reminder is that Vaclav Havel and other intellectuals effected the Velvet Revolution to throw off the Soviet yoke in 1989, and the Velvet Divorce, to separate the Czech Republic out of the former Czechoslovakia four years later. This is the nation through whose countryside we bicycled, on a route designed by Tomas to give outsiders a sense of the beauty, history, and culture of his land, apart from the tourist sites in Prague. I can’t overstate how glad we are that we got to experience this.
Navigation is clearly an important aspect of a self guided trip in an unfamiliar country with a language and alphabet all its un-pronounceable own. The following scans from the very documents we had arrayed daily before us in our clear plastic-covered handlebar bags—the bicycle version of an aircraft Heads Up Display—give a hint at the thoroughness with which our routes were prepared. The actual maps were scaled such that each grid was one square kilometer, which made estimating distance simple, although estimates were unnecessary, given that the textual guidance was accurate to the 1/10th of a km, and our two GPS units were accurate to 1/100th of a km.
Yes, the yellow highlighting was already on the maps when Tomas provided them and walked us through the basics of the travel package at our excellent pension in Valtice, CZ.
Out on the road, the Czech Republic provides clear guidance. CZ is a bike-friendly place, with bicyclists and bike routes encountered regularly. I wonder if biking’s ubiquity is because they are a healthy robust people who like the out-of-doors, or maybe if some of that became a necessity when under Nazi or Soviet thumbs? At any rate, the signage was great. This sign was at a juncture of two hardpack dirt paths in the middle of a forest.
When we were on roads they were generally tertiary or secondary paved country roads with minimal auto traffic. The Czech drivers were routinely courteous, angling to the far side of the road as they passed us, and the roads were invariably clear of glass and other bike tire-damaging debris. And with each town one entered, there was a sign telling you the name of the place, and another as you left, indicating that you were now leaving that named place. Good information, itself, but also, precisely to the tenth of a km, accurately annotated on the textual directions. I quickly learned that passing these signs, it was invariably beneficial to re-zero the second of the two kilometer readouts on my GPS, as this micro-updating kept us out of trouble when we might encounter confusion as to which juncture to depart from the small town square, say. For example in one tiny town, the GPS, updated when we passed the “Entering” sign, coupled with the textual directions, told us we should be at a picket fence, where we would discover a tiny bike path angled off in the direction we needed, but a hundred or so meters out of sight over yonder. A woman and her adult daughter saw us circling and pondering, and came out asking which language—”Deutsche or English?” then, looking at our map, pointed us in the correct direction. Another cultural exchange moment. In sum, we never got lost in six days of pedaling, but we did have the occasional 0.2 km back track, or put the foot down moments, comparing the map/text/GPS with my innate sense of direction. Not too disquieting or stressful, but caution-inducing. And a few hours after departing we would arrive safely at our next lodging, the bags up in the room, legs happy to be done for the day, and smiles on our hearts and faces.
This missive begins with a picture the innkeeper took for us, as Cathy and I began our bicycling from the small town of Valtice, CZ. The Pension Prinz, with maybe six to eight rooms, was immaculate, and thoroughly modern in every respect, beds to bathrooms, t.v. to free Wi-Fi, which as I say, was the rule everywhere in the Czech Republic—the U.S. is terribly backwards in comparison. The kind innkeeper with limited English, and her English proficient eighteen year-old daughter made sure our every need was met, and as with all our CZ lodging, this included a robust breakfast to give us the energy for the days’ endeavors. Cereal with homemade yogurt and fresh fruit, eggs as you like them, juices, coffees, hot chocolate or tea, ham, salami, multiple types of cheese, hearty breads and rolls, fresh preserves, and the Czech equivalent of crumble-topped fruit-within coffee cake or Danish breakfast sweets. Oh so civilized.
We were typically on the road by nine, a little earlier on the longer days. The trip was nominally six days of biking, to which we added two additional rest and recon days in Telc, and Cesky Krumlov, so it was eight days biking total, averaging just under 27 miles a day, some shorter, some longer. This was the view, fifty meters from where sat at table, above.
Our first few days, we were in the Czech region of Moravia. This is the Czech vineyard region, and we took the opportunity to test drive several varietals with our dinners. This is also the region in which the Liechtenstein family held power for years—yes the same folks for whom the small country between Switzerland and Austria is named, a country now with the highest per capita GDP in the world, a finance and insurance enclave. The progenitors obviously wielded great wealth, as we discovered on day one. Our textual guide gave us precise locations of several “Follies” as they are called—erected in the middle of the forests by the Liechtenstein families so that they could properly enjoy outings there with guest visitors. Then, as now, there are the superrich and the rest of us.
Further along on day one, our route had us biking a levy berm alongside a meandering river, one of many lakes and rivers we cruised beside. And here’s as good a time as any to discuss the weather and riding conditions. This day was mostly sunny, with scattered cotton balls, but a good part of our week we had multiple scattered cloud layers that summed up to overcast or nearly so, sometimes darker than a well-digger’s nether parts, and looking altogether threatening. We saw rain hither and yon, but actually encountered it only twice—once just after we pulled into lunch under a broad umbrella at a directions-recommended cafe to the north of Hardegg, the smallest town in Austria, just across the border to our south. The rain, heavy while we ate, passed on by the time we resumed bicycling. Camelot. And finally, it began raining on us the last 2 km of our longest and final day of riding, as we entered Cesky Krumlov, actually causing me to don my rain jacket, carried all those kilometers in the pannier bag mounted over the rear wheel. The other meteorological aspect was relentless headwinds, every day. Not blow you off your bike strong, but just enough to wear you down by the end of the day. This was an east to west routing, and I suspect the prevailing winds are westerly. A little penance for the privilege. That said, the cloudiness and winds came part and parcel with unseasonal cool temperature—Fahrenheit low fifties when we started in the morning, to mid sixties in the afternoon. Ideal exercise temperatures.
I’m usually behind the lens, not in front of it, but here’s a treat from Cathy’s i-phone of a little light-hearted abandon by me on this first day’s ride. As we exited a forest trail, here was this lake and a handy parent-for-kid made wooden plank swing just sitting there as engraved invitation.
Our first day destination was Mikulov, with this being its town square, “namesti,” in Czech. This Czech name tickled me throughout, given its similarity in sound and spelling to the Sanskrit “namaste,” the greeting of hello and goodbye in Nepal, and meaning roughly “I bow to the spiritual within you.” Not a bad name for the greeting place that is the center of all these small rural communities in the Czech Republic. Our Hotel Galant was just that, and located about a block off the square, where I bought a nifty linen ball cap from one of those tiny wooden sidewalk sales casitas you see beyond the statue.
I’ve mentioned the Czech affinity for relaxing with a brewski, and I felt duty bound out of respect for the culture to do my part to fit in. We walked up the hill, taking in our guidebook suggestion to visit the ancient Jewish cemetery, which like all cemeteries, stands as quiet testament to the history of an area. On the way we had passed a small neighborhood square with a recommended sweet shop, itself, right next door to a delightful version of a Czech “Cheers” watering hole. What’s a guy and gal to do? Note the renaissance structures reflected in the window, and the page torn out of my guidebook beneath my 0.5L Pilsner Urquell. This became a recurring theme of our time in CZ—big breakfast which lasted for most, if not all, of the ride, then an afternoon snack like this one after biking, followed by dinner later in the evening. All the food groups here—pivo, chocolate, a cookie, and a fresh apricot. Somebody’s gotta do it.
The next morning we launched for Vranov nad Dyji. I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce that last word in the name. Clueless. It was a fairly longish day, with lots of hills to climb, the steady headwind, and the aforementioned rain just as we pulled into the “U Svestku” pub for lunch. This area was littered with WWII pillboxes, concrete bunkers for soldiers to watch for the onslaught of enemy troops. Our textual directions also suggested we stop and take a look at a remnant of the Communist Cold War after the Nazis had been defeated and prior to the Velvet Revolution. I’ll return to this theme as my commentary takes us to Prague, but this scene is a sobering reminder of the bastard case that was Soviet communism. This barbed wire, these barricades and watch towers were not put there to keep others out, but, like the Berlin Wall, to keep the citizens in. Think on that for awhile. So much for the workers’ paradise.
Here’s Cathy arcing through another small town on the way to Vranov. Don’t you find it fascinating that the red octagonal stop sign is near universally the same the world over, with the textual admonition in English? The church itself, was mentioned as a navigational check point to the nearest tenth of a kilometer, of course.
And here’s how things looked on the descent into Vranov, and the next morning, from our Hotel Zamecky before starting the climb out of town for a visit to the chateau (née castle, or zamecky, in Czech) on the hill.
Vranov is a small market town on the Dyji river. The name translates as Vranov over the Dyji river. We tried to find a recommended restaurant near a dam on the river, but went the wrong way, to the dam upstream, not the one downstream (here’s a recommendation for a small refinement to the guidebook, Loren). We didn’t find the cafe, but we did encounter this unexpected delight in the late afternoon glowing light. Eye candy.
This is an area famous for marionettes, and here was a collection quietly hanging out in a resident’s window beside the river. Serendipity. Dinner at the hotel was just fine, then exhausted sleep before the next day’s ride beginning with an ugly climb, stopped as soon as it was finished, to visit the Vranov chateau. These had all once been castles, but later were renamed chateaus. We had to wait about :10 for a set tour of the chateau, dating from the 11th century, and remodeled in the 17th when renaissance architecture was all the rage. Cathy is literally checking her e-mail with the chateau Wi-Fi while I look for perspective on the statue of Hercules fighting off some beastly sort from the underworld.
This is the view, when looking back down on the town and the river. Our hotel is dead center in the frame, right next to where the curving road crosses the river.
I think I got the name of this hall correct. The Althanns, who did the remodel, wanted to extol their heritage.
This day’s ride, another longish one, ended up in the town of Slavonice, where we boarded one of two afternoon trains to Telc, and our planned two night stopover. Telc is yet another Unesco World Heritage Site, and a perfect place to calm down and enjoy some R&R. Our Hotel Celerin was the lynchpin of one corner of Namesti Zachariase, the town square. Throughout the Czech republic we found buildings colored in various pastel shades. Telc is noted for the colors on the square.
The first evening we discovered a restaurant not (yet) mentioned in the guidebook recommendations, called Zach’s, named for the Namesti Zachariase square on which it is located. It was rather modern in decor as compared to the more baroque cafes we often frequented. The food was excellent, as was the local pivo, and a fine Moravian Reserve Frankovka red wine. Penny pinchers take note—at this top notch restaurant with fine service, we had a mug of beer and a glass of wine respectively to go with our appetizer, then the bottle of reserve wine with our sumptuous dinners, followed by a marvelous apfel strudel with vanilla ice cream for desert, and the tab came out to around $55 USD with the tip. Total. The Czech Republic is part of the European Union, but it has retained its own currency, the Koruna, or “Crown.” The official rate of exchange is approximately $1 USD = 24 CZK. It took awhile to get used to the fact that the coins we had were not fractions of a Crown, but whole Crown denominations of fifty or less, and it took awhile longer to realize how inexpensive travel in the Czech Republic is. If you want to visit a terrific place where you can stretch your dollar, this is it.
On our second day the townspeople had set up a small community stage in the square, and there were local youth musical groups performing songs and dances. At one point, while enjoying an afternoon pivo and sweets break, we heard gospels, sung a cappella in English, and discovered another bit of serendipity. A high school choral group on summer tour from a Chicago suburb was traveling from a prior performance in Prague to one in Vienna. One of the students discovered that he had left his passport in the Prague hotel room, so the group leaders created an impromptu stop in Telc, awaiting the passport, and got permission to join in the Telc day of song and dance. And they were terrific.
Rested and onward to Jinrichuv Hradec, which our guidebook refers to as unpronounceable, meaning simply Henry’s Castle. Hotel Concertina was right on the main square, and as you can see the bike-friendly Czechs provide guidance to locking bike rack parking just off the square.
And Jindrichuv Hradec has its own take on pastel facades. Here, Pure-Adventures outdid themselves, literally. They had upgraded our room to a suite, but I had to request a more modest room when discovering that the bedroom was a loft up a narrow circular staircase from the living area, and more importantly, the bathroom. For us gentlemen of a certain age, that becomes a worthy nocturnal consideration. Ahem.
Next up, a relatively short 29 km ride to Trebon, sitting next to a large lake, and possessed of a chateau which we declined to explore internally, in stead taking in the grounds via a stroll.
And there was another activity to undertake—a tour of the 700 year-old Regent Brewery. The tour was a bit much, conducted in Czech with brief asides in English, although the tasting directly from the storage vats was a nice finish. And this detail of an old brewing device appealed to me. Don’t ask as to its use, I couldn’t even pronounce the Czech name for the gadget, let alone translate it. But I like the look of it just the same.
Trebon is situated in that part of what by now had become Bohemia, the part where they cultivate fish in the lakes strewn about, which is why we had a fish dinner at Supina a Supinka following the brew sampling.
And then the next day, our longest journey of the trip—62 hilly, blustery kilometers to Cesky Krumlov. I’ll begin with a few images of the ride.
Here’s a couple of random recollections. Throughout our biking we were constantly wafted along by the beautiful lyrics of song birds. They were a delight everywhere we pedaled. And cherries. Multiple times we came upon cherry trees chockablock loaded with ripe fire-engine red cherries, their branches overhanging the bikeways as open invitation to sample the tangy sweet treats along the way. Yum.
Ol’ What’s Her Name resting on her laurels while I rearranged the three maps that were needed for keeping up with this day’s navigational niceties.
And then, there was an opportunity for an impromptu picnic lunch break consuming the sandwiches we had made at breakfast in Trebon, along with some fresh fruit and nuts.
Following another forest tunnel through trees, we had a steep descent into the Vltava river valley where Cesky Krumlov is located, the entrance per our directions pretty much set the stage for the place, which could well have been created on a Hollywood sound stage for a baroque period story complete with massive castle and gothic church.
The Vltava is more commonly known in the U.S., by its German name—the Moldau, musically memorialized by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in his orchestral piece Ma Vlast (My Country). It flows south to north, here on its way to Prague, and Smetana’s composition delightfully recreates its bubbling currents. This is a decidedly eye-popping place, whose only down side is quaintness situated just right for inclusion on tourist bus itineraries between Prague and Vienna—a there goes the neighborhood sort of inevitability, I suppose. Besides the medieval Cesky, there’s also a modern play version with kayakers and rafters drifting along, as here, where we had stopped our pedestrian meanderings, beginning to suffer from castle overload, to take in a rejuvenating snack of Czech sweets.
After refreshing our energy we walked the short distance on this bank to an un unexpected delight—a museum dedicated to the early 20th century work of photographer Josef Seidel. The museum is a period remodel of his home/studio. It’s like walking back a hundred years and seeing not only what his personal life and work methods were, but enjoying pictures and artifacts that let you see and feel life at this tumultuous time before the First World War, and then the new realities devolving from WWI and WWII. This wasn’t revisiting war so much as experiencing the region, and him, as they got on with the day to day business of life. It seemed an honor and privilege to gaze on Mr. Seidel’s life, and how he viewed the world around him, as here, on a bellows camera with its inverted and reversed ground glass rendering of his garden and Cesky Krumlov beyond.
A glimpse of St. Vitus’ spire across the Vltava, the scene gentled by the warpage of olden glass, the window etching and the comforting shade of green window frame. I spent my entire time in his home and studio in whispered reverence.
To give you an idea of the sort of accommodations arranged for us, let me show you our room in Cesky Krumlov’s Hotel Ruze, a former 16th century Jesuit dormitory. The view out the window, just out of sight on the far left of the frame was of the river rushing by. We kept it open all evening, lulled in slumber by Smetana’s rushing water sounds.
We ate dinner at two CK cafes listed in our guide. Krcma Satlava was only so-so. Our dinner, the second evening, next to the river at Papa’s Living Restaurant was most excellent, prepared and served by a staff that provide not just typical Czech dishes, heavy on meat and starches with rich sauces, but also southern European and South American entrees, and extraordinary salads. I had a goat cheese salad that must have taken an entire herd of goats to cheese up for me. Portions here, and at all Czech restaurants assured that no one went away hungry. By the time we were done and had walked back across the river to the Ruze, it was time to take in a gentle sunset, at 8:56 in the evening, two days after the Summer Solstice.
The next morning we were met by a driver arranged by Pure-Adventures and taken to the bus station for our drive to Prague, where we were met by another driver to take us to our Hotel Constans on one of the small pedestrian streets in Lesser Town, located just a block from the U.S. Embassy and about a :05 walk to the western portal of Charles Bridge. This bridge was originally the only one across the Vltava, and now is unquestionably the most popular with tourists, a vibrant artery in a vibrant city.
Every time I had mentioned Prague to others, I’d heard back nothing but gushing accolades. Nor shall I disavow that mindset. If there is a downside it would have to be summer crowds. This is a city with vast areas dedicated to foot traffic, and Prague seemed on a par with the masses one experiences in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many cameras being wielded at the too numerous to count sights. It’s like those videos one sees of people on cell phones stumbling off unseen curbs, or walking into closed glass doors. Not that I was any better, but the entire world seemed to be ambulating Prague’s pathways with their faces transfigured with permanent camera transplants, or frozen arms extended to a glassy-eyed 14 inch distance staring single-mindedly at their smart phone LCD screen. Then, there were the Asians. I’m sorry if this seems prejudicial, but it would be impossible to count the number of Chinese and Japanese tourists, usually frenetically scurrying in large groups, then stopping to deploy their divining rod “selfie” devices extending their smart phones out before them for yet another “here I am in front of the XYZ” photo. The generous way to address all this is to say that wondrous Prague is a target rich environment. You may fire when ready, Gridley, which is pretty much constantly in Prague.
Over on the east (right bank) side of the river is Old Town, with its endlessly appealing Namesti, the Clock Tower, and the cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Nice 360 degree views from the Clock Tower, but also delights that are closer in.
Shortly after arriving at the square we were treated to a wonderful surprise—the open area of the square, shown above, blocked off for a military review. I have no idea what the occasion was, but we spent a delightful hour witnessing the parading of colors, marching and close order drill, all accompanied by military bands surely putting a smile on John Phillip Sousa’s divine countenance. What fun.
The Clock Tower not only keeps time, topside, but down near street level there is its famous Astronomical Clock. I’ll shortcut paraphrase the Lonely Planet Guide description of this paean to 15th century Prague concerns, which goes through its ritual on the hour throughout the day. Beginning :10-:15 before the hour, enormous crowds begin massing before it for the roughly one minute action. The four small figures you see near the middle, bestride the clock, represent medieval anxieties of Vanity, Greed, Death (the skeleton, natch), and Pagan Invasion. Down lower are the Chronicler, Angel, Astronomer, and Philosopher. On the hour Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass, and the starred-in-blue-window covers open to reveal the Twelve Apostles parading by to take in all the gawkers arrayed below, finishing with a crowing cock and the ringing of the hour. As to Mr. Pagan Invasion, I wonder if there is some way to get ISIS to rethink their caliphate dream’s C-4 and beheading M.O. and replace it with something as embraceable as this? Sorry, that just slipped out.
Prague has both a Metro and the ever-present trolley. Buy your ticket for 90 minutes, a day, or three days, and get on and off from either as often as you want. The Mrs. and I managed to figure out the process and the routings to beneficial relief of tired feet. That said, we nonetheless walked mile upon mile through the Czech capital. The trolley is a delightful way to get around, and makes you feel like one of the locals, even if they know better.
My convoluted thought processes seem to find association in what comes next. Bear with me. As with Salzburg, Prague’s river meanders betwixt hills, on one of which is the enormous castle and equally large St. Vitus Cathedral. Throughout our travels I found myself taking an inordinate number of photos in portrait vs. landscape layout. Upon reflection, I concluded this was a natural byproduct of tall churches and castles built in communities laid out and built in keeping with the narrow confines of ambling oxcarts, and thus providing insufficient space for a photographer to pull back for perspective. St. Vitus cathedral is certainly such an edifice. I’ve heard descriptions of these extraordinary cathedrals as reflecting the architectural and religious sensibilities of the time—the spires metaphorically pointing to heaven’s zenith. Makes sense to me, and I don’t wonder that evoking God’s transcendent throne on high would be a necessary motivation to undertake construction of such an incredible engineering project, accomplished in more than multiple generations’ lifetimes. But to what purpose in present day, ever more rigidly secular Europe? We never seemed to be nearby for Sunday mass (and both Austria and the Czech Republic are nominally Roman Catholic), but I can’t help but notice that these churches, large and small, were either shuttered other days, or lost to tourist exploration. This Protestant sees Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air to 21st. century Roman Catholicism, and he seems deeply concerned about the Church’s relevance in the eyes of the citizens of nominally theistic-accepting countries. I hope he succeeds in better integrating the church and aligning its potential with humankind. Arguably a worthy and profoundly beneficial goal.
Hold on, as there’s a second facet here. I mentioned the Czech geopolitical realities, a byproduct of its geographic location in a continent with a long history of conflict. Prior to the blitzkrieg grab of Poland, the Third Reich employed the anschluss to annex Austria, and then decided the Sudetenland, including Moravia and Bohemia should also be part of greater Germany. As the tide turned in 1945, the Russian bear came barreling along in the opposite direction. By VE Day, the map of European spoils had been redrawn, with Czechoslovakia now under the “patronage” of the Soviet Union. The 1989 Velvet Revolution was hard on the 1987 heels of President Reagan’s call to General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall.” The times, they were-a-changing. What better example of communism’s reversal of fortune, than this image, taken just off Prague’s Na Prikope, shopping district thoroughfare? Eat your heart out, Vladimir Putin.
Cathy and I walked the Prague pathways in this area near Wenceslas Square where the 1989 crowds, no longer tolerant of their communist overlords, surged back and forth in nearly bloodless rebellion. The Museum of Communism was well worth the sobering time spent seeing laid out, through Czech eyes, the promises, deceits, failures and eventual collapse of Czech communism.
I’ve failed to translate this, but it would appear to be Nazi propaganda warning about the evil hand of godless Soviet Socialism reaching for St. Vitus Cathedral and the Castle. And then after the war, there were those watch towers and barbed wire.
Near the statue of St.Wenceslas is this small memorial to two young Czech men. Their deaths were in early 1969, shortly after the Soviets had crushed a popular uprising in Hungary. Two days before his death by self immolation, Jan Palach wrote “people must fight against the evil they feel equal to at that moment.” He died a martyr protesting the Soviet occupation of his Vast. Jan Zajic also martyred himself by self-immolation—on the 21st anniversary of communist domination. This small memorial was placed here after the Velvet Revolution, which two decades later finally gave Czech nationalism the light of day.
So, religious relevance and unshackled nationalism sharing one rough patch of mental ground in my psyche? My fervent pondering is beyond my conclusions at present. While I don’t have a stake in the Czech circumstance, I find much fondness for the resilience of the Czech people and wonder what the future will hold for them and like-minded peoples the world over, including right here at home?
Nearing a merciful close to this long-winded amble, I return to the treasure that music posed on our trip. By the time we had reached Cesky Krumlov, accessing the internet by free Wi-Fi, we had scored reservations for two more concerts—in Prague. On our first evening we walked across the Charles Bridge and entered the Mirror Chapel, a small oasis in the block-square Klementinum edifice on the way to Old Town Square. The ensemble was a string quartet, a soprano, and a pipe organist, performing in various combinations, selections from WA Mozart, Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Pachebel…
…and Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Schubert’s Ave Maria. I hope the Musician’s Union will forgive me. Anyway, that’s a video link which can give you a small hint of what it was like there. Remember, I had to be surreptitious about video—they’d said that photos without flash were okay, but the subject of videos was never entertained….
And on the next evening in Municipal House we attended performances of the Prague Symphony of Schubert’s “The Great” Ninth Symphony, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and vocal selections from Tannhauser and Parsifal.
A parting snippet of Close household silliness. From past trips to Alaska and northern New England, we’ve got an in-house game of who is going to make a given trip’s first sighting of a Moose. As you probably know, Moose are a beast of North America. But on the very last morning in Prague, just minutes before our pickup for the train station to catch our uber bus to Munich for the flight home, I nailed a biggie, that will surely go down in the Del Mar homestead archives as a monumental score.
Enough, already. If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a gold star for perseverance and indulgence.
As ever, TWC