Saturday, September 26, 2009
We travel to Crossfjorden and its' glaciers, hanging from ragged mountain peaks. They're all but lost in low gray cloud cover, but when even the smallest ice breaks away, the fjord echoes with thunder. In the gray light at the end of our trip, everyone seems subdued.
I don't recognize the man in the mirror. Gray stubble, baggy eyes, face slack and jowly as a depressive basset hound. My clothes smell of dead whale. It is so time to go home.
As we sail past Prins Karls Forland, a thin strip of island that protects this coastline from the North Atlantic swells, winds rip the fabric of cloud cover to let in beams of sunlight over the peaks. We are here late in the summer season. The mountain peaks have shed last winter's snow from all but the most shadowed and protected clefts. Brown dust coats the glaciers in streaks. Within a few weeks, autumn snow storms will return, coating these peaks in white, freezing the sea and putting the land back to sleep.
Sometime after midnight, the sun emerges tentatively through a break in the clouds. Glowing orange and low on the horizon, it sends a pale glow across the mountains lining Isfjorden and onto the boat. We put down the last dregs of our celebratory wine, scurry up on deck and take one last round of pictures before we go.
August 20, 2009 - Spitsbergen Island, Norway
Thursday, September 24, 2009
When a 40-foot Fin whale carcass washes up, stinking and bloated in the late summer sun, it feels a little like cheating. Still, it was an opportunity too good to refuse, either for us or the bears.
We motored for six hours to reach Sallyhammna. The bears had to walk, but it seemed worth the effort. The table was set and the guests have arrived.
Our first mistake may have been anchoring downwind of the carcass. We had a lovely view of a parade of bears swimming out to feed on the whale which lay grounded in the shallows, floating on the tide. The boat, already rank with the scent of wet socks and unwashed long johns and dubious cooking skills, now stank of cetacean road kill too. We smell worse than a fish monger's dumpster. During a sanitation strike. In August.
But the bears seem to mind not one whit.
We count as many as twelve in the surroundings hills, though it's hard to keep track as waddle off into the snow to sleep off their blubber hangovers. They swim out to the whale one or two at a time, ceding their spot to any bigger bear that comes along. It looks like tough going though. The blubber has gone slimy and fibrous and soupy and the bears struggle to get a purchase even with their sharp teeth. All but the smallest loner cub, who comes out during the small hours of evening and scuttles away at the first sign of competition, look well fed and glossy. They gorge, then go off to swim and play in the 36° water.
It's not a bad life if you can suppress the gag reflex.
August 18, 2009 - Sallyhammna, Spitsbergen Island, Norway
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
In our quest for the perfect polar bear image, the noble white lord of the arctic on the pristine polar ice pack, we spent long hours on the righteous path, sailing to the edge of the pack ice, then motoring slowly for more then 50 nautical miles of constant critter hunting.
I climb 35 feet up the mast, straddle a cold, metal slat half a butt cheek wide, then tie into a safety line and scan the horizon through my binoculars from a uniquely uncomfortable perspective.
The trick to spotting polar bear on the ice is looking for their subtle color difference. Sea ice is white and blue. Polar bears fur shades toward cream or yellow. Under the high arctic midnight sun though, every patch of snow and ice within a hundred miles was bathed in a golden glow. Lovely to be sure, but it lent every hump, nook and hollow a distinctly bear-like appearance.
It made for a very long night, and by seven we were all bleary eyed and hallucinating. And the total bear count? Zero. Nada. Zilch.
We turned to each other, shook our heads and said "Screw this," and headed for the dead whale.
Sometimes you just need to get the job done.
August 16, 2009 - Latitude 80° 40', Svalbard, Norway
Sunday, September 20, 2009
I told the people who love me that I wouldn't do this. A massive iceberg looms above me, blocking out the sun, cutting me off from the surface. One more broken promise. There might be a rule in the scuba diving canon that I'm not breaking at the moment, but it's not for lack of trying.
If I swim close enough, the iceberg's surface is a finery of ancient frozen bubbles and gentle melting curves. From a distance, it seems a hulking beast. The sea, flirting with freezing even in the height of summer, is cloudy with life of an almost primordial nature. Hundreds of small jellyfish float past, their tendrils fragile enough to dissolve with a touch.
Above me, there is light and air. Below is 1200 feet or more of cold, still water. I hang suspended, listening to the pop and crack of ice, my hard breathing, blood rushing in my ears, the weight of my conscience.
I am alone and adrift in a cold sea, looking hard into the darkness. Below me, the green fades to a lifeless black, but I don't have the courage to go deeper, to plumb the depths in search of judgement or redemption or finality.
I turn instead to surface, swimming back toward the light, the sun and the world of the living.
August 16, 2009 - Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway
Friday, September 18, 2009
He was easy enough to spot as we motored through the archipelago in the zodiac in a morning of fog and cold. A small cream-colored spot on the ancient brown rock. He glared down at us from his perch, but soon grew bored and went back to sleep. The big boat joined us, but we had to wait until nearly midnight before the bear finally woke and deigned to visit.
A quick bank of fog arrived at the same time he did, and the six of us jockeyed for position on deck, shooting into the misty half-dusk. I finally slipped down into the zodiac for a better angle, and Heinrich hopped in top paddle me closer.
Steve practically leapt off the deck to get into the boat, like it was the last lifeboat off a sinking ship. Smart boy, that.
August 13, 2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
It went about well as you'd expect.
The prospect of a break in the weather on Lågøya Island in Nordaustlandet got us moving early. The rising sun made some small effort to burn through the fog, and we gulped down scalding coffee and headed for the walrus haul-out here at five in the morning. Two dozen of the brutes were heaped on the black sand beach, belching and farting with contentment.
We slowly worked our way up to within ten yards of the nearest set of tusks, then five, and finally it turned into some sort of low-grade contest of machismo. I was the last man left, approaching within a yard or two of an enormous bull. I knelt carefully beside him, photographing the herd at rest. As he breathed, I was enveloped in a calming, warm cloud, and I felt an almost benevolent tolerance of my presence.
When I tried to swim with the walrus later, the greeting was a bit cooler. Sliding into the water, I slapped my fins like a playful brother walrus, and one big bull with two young acolytes circled me, taking my measure, before approaching. The enormous male swam a bee-line for me, not stopping until he gave me a single, hard head butt with his snout and tusks. They could hear the crack of ivory tusk on my glass camera dome back on the boat.
That was enough of a warning for me. I scurried back to the skiff, crawled in and unceremoniously announced my retirement from undewater pinniped photogtgraphy.
August 11, 2009 - Lågøya Island, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Monday, September 14, 2009
Lying in this cold island, blanketed in fog, two polar bear cubs lie within a few yards of each other. Abandoned, starved, silent in death.
It's about the saddest thing you could ever see.
Lågøya, Low Island, is a flat slab of crumbling dolomite somewhere north of 80° latitude, in Svalbard's Northeast Lands. A few dozen runty reindeer call it home, a marginally less inhospitable home than the surrounding bleak wastes at the northern edge of their domain.
Walrus haul out on the beach here too, a mountain of flash and ivory tusks. Maybe that's what drew the cubs' mother here, in some desperate attempt to pull down some larger, stronger prey. If she had died on land, the cubs would have stayed by her side, mewling and crying until they fell still. She may have died on the ice, or simply walked away when the cubs faltered. There's simply no way to know what happened.
In the end, the cubs had only each other.
An arctic fox may find them soon, or another polar bear sniffing for carrion. This is an unforgiving, unsentimental land.
For now, they lay almost untouched, their eyes closed, fur coats damp with the mist, sleeping on.
August 10, 2009 - Lågøya Island, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The ice around us continues to melt though the temperature hovers near freezing. She now wades through pools, leaps over narrow leads and once punches through the rotting ice and has to swim through the frigid sea.
We now have a sense of her routine, though I gathered half a dozen noise grenades and loaded three rounds in the 30-06 rifle.
Just in case.
She sniffed her way around the boat's waterline, tasting and rejecting bits of washed up trash.
We scrambled around on deck, photographing her reflections in the icy pools. Bearded seals pop their heads up nervously in the open water and she scurries off to hunt for real food. Settling in along an open lead, she curls herself into a ball and waits.
We watched and waited, praying to see a true hunt. I could already see it in my mind's eye. The hapless seal surfacing, a powerful lunge, the brief struggle and then blood on the ice.
Of course, precisely none of this happened. Heinrich returned with the zodiac from an excursion and motored into a nearby open lead. The bear stared, looked faintly put out, and returned to sniffling around the boat some more.
Curious about all the frantic to and fro on deck, she reared up and placed her paws up on the bowsprit, staring back at us. She didn't seem all that impressed, since after that she simply walked away, ambling across the broken ice as if down a city sidewalk before vanishing again into the swirling fog.
August 9, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Thursday, September 10, 2009
When the clouds deign to lift, we can make out specks of black; ringed seals and the occasional yellow blob; distant polar bear.
I pace the 30 feet of available deck space, growing anxious, bored, depressed, subdued, achy, resigned and back again over the hours. We divide the day and night into two hour shifts, sleeping and eating at strange and uncertain intervals.
Beyond the slow, inevitable melting, the view does not change.
The boat and the ice begin to feel like a prison.
Powered by two bracing cups of coffee and more anxious dreams, I scramble up the mast and survey our surroundings. Ice, mountains, snow. At the edge of vision, I can still make out one large polar bear, walking along the shore, on patrol. Not exactly walking away, but not venturing any closer, either.
Soon the fog descends, and steals him away as well.
August 8, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
We've got a bear.
Anchored in the ice along Sabine Bay near Scoresby Island, a young bear swims stealthiy up to the ice edge, then nervously walks across the ice, circling closer.
All this happens while I roll over in my bunk and drift back toward sleep. I finally force myself up on deck, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and immediately stumble over someone's tripod.
The bear is equal parts curiosity and caution. She nervously yawns, dropping to her knees and crawling in the snow. Finally, she makes up her mind, hops over a small patch of water and sidles over to the boat. She stands up on her two hind legs, rising nearly up to the boat's deck, and peers in at us. Soon she's leaning on the bowsprit with one paw on the anchor, three feet away from me.
With one good leap she could be on deck with us, and then we'd have some excitement.
August 7, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Amidst the endless miles of broken ice and snow-covered shoreline, there are two black eyes staring back, and it hits you with a jolt of recognition. We have a bear.
We have sailed for days through two days of fog and mist and bleak, barren landscapes north of 80° latitude with little to show for it. Steve and I stood staring through binoculars for hours on deck. Suddenly there he was, clear as day, a polar bear resting on a patch of steep snow, perched high enough to survey the surrounding miles of ice for his next meal. We stopped and watched, and the bear grew curious, sniffing the air, catching the scent of unwashed men and mouldering laundry.
Finally, he sits up on his back legs like an eager dog. There must be something dead to smell that bad.
August 6, 2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Friday, September 4, 2009
We knew there was a polar bear out there. The carcass of a young bearded seal lay on the ice, stripped to the bone. Close by, a shattered vertebrae, the stripped and creepy fingerlike bones of flippers, a brilliant red chunk of frozen bloodsicle.
It felt like stumbling upon a particularly nasty crime scene.
Another tribute to the polar bear's prowess turned up on the ice lies a few yards away; a nearly complete seal skin, peeled away and left in a heap. This bear was well fed. Fastidious, too.
Heinrich sailed the boat into pack ice at the mouth of Lady Franklin Fjord, we got ready for dinner and waited. The boat filled with the smell of Italian cooking as Steve labored over a Norwegian variation on chicken parmesan.
Steering clear of the steam down below, I sat in the wheelhouse, glassing the empty ice. The white fog ebbed, and out of the blankness I saw movement; then the shape of a young bear striding purposefully toward us.
Tripods clattered and gear quickly assembled on deck as the bear walked to within 100 yards of the boat, sniffing the air, curious but cautious, circling and approaching us until someone knocked over a tripod with a clattering thud.
The spell was broken and the bear grew guarded, less curious, more aloof. He ambled off, and we sat in the wheelhouse staring at the white on white landscape for hours. He kept a good quarter mile away, rolling on his back, playful and tormenting us before finally vanishing into the fog.
But we had our first bear.
8/4/09 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I'm feeling foggy myself from lack of sleep and painkillers. Washing down my Percocet with Glenfiddich has done nothing for my cognitive skills. I stand woozily looking out in to the half light of arctic summer. We've sailed beyond 80° North and shoved into the ice hoping for bears, but for now there is nothing but breathless calm and an utter absence of color.
I start to imagine that the ice itself has started slowly breathing.
Sounds travels far in this stillness. I can make out walrus grunts, the distant calling of geese and ducks, the whirring wing beats of passing gulls.
I imagine shapes blending with the ice, shadows emerging from the fog. But the only certain signs of life are two black snouts swimming across the bay. I grab my binoculars and stare dumbly, watching them moving silently, breathing and then quickly submerging. Finally I realize they're bearded seals, looking for a safe patch of ice to rest upon.
They slowly roll over and dive deep, disappearing into the icy gray sea as the fog rolls in.
August 3,2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard
Monday, August 31, 2009
I put on my drysuit, played the tough guy and went out to go hang with the big boys. But when the first bulbous and whiskered head popped up between my legs, I started having second thoughts. When he head-butted my camera, I was in full retreat, and wanted very badly to be somewhere else. Not that you do anything quickly in a drysuit, fins and mask. I swam in reverse and then thumped the walrus on the snout. He thumped back, much harder this time.
The walrus seem to be thinking, "So you like the rough stuff, eh..."
Every time I slapped my flippers swimming back to the boat, they swam up to investigate, checking out the fins and the wild-eyed mouth breather at the opposite end. Then they said something that sounded like "You want another piece of this?" before whacking me with another tusk.
The guys on the boat found it endlessly diverting and good for pictures. I was pretty much ready to call my mom on the satellite phone to come take me home, but they seemed happy for me to stay out there all morning.
With friends like these...
August 2, 2009 - Prins Karls Forland, Svalbard
Friday, August 28, 2009
But provisioning for six souls on an arctic expedition? Three meals a day times twenty days. Enough food at least to avoid the Donner dinner party.
It's surprisingly hard to guess what all that entails, so we attacked the only food market in Longyearbyen like starving and well-funded refugees, hoarding piles of meat and pasta, frozen fish and fresh cheese and loaf after loaf of bread. We formed a small shopping cart parade by the end of it, and were $2500 the poorer for our efforts.
We had boxes filled with pasta, another with chunks of Jarlsburg, and pretty much an entire cow, frozen and processed into sausages, fillets, chops and luncheon meats. We've already decided the single pack of diced ham will be the final meal should we find ourselves drifting lost and doomed in the pack ice. The survivors shivering and starved, allowing one small chip of diced ham to dissolve on their tongue each day...
The liquor shopping is only slightly more proscribed, and that more by state alcohol rules than common sense. I splurge on a fifth of Glenlivet, some girlie Bailey's, half a dozen bottles of red wine and a case of Heineken. I'm not at all sure what I'll drink the second week though.
We pile all the food, then case after case of our gear onto the Heinrich's steel-hulled yacht. The boat settles visibly in the water and seems to sigh with the burden of it all.
We have one final burger and beer on shore and loiter back to the harbor, sleepy in the warm evening sun. Pulling away from the harbor, we set sail without fanfare. A group of five photographers, all American save Fanus who's more fun than any of us and Heinrich who's the only one who knows what he's doing. We're all guys and there are no discernible prima-donas or psychopaths among us.
On the other hand, as Fanus points out, if you can't figure out who the asshole on the boat is, that's because it's you.
By the time we depart, I'm sore and exhausted and wander off to my bunk to rest my eyes. I sleep fitfully most the way through the calm, sunny evening voyage. I toss and turn with back and leg pain, feeling miserable and overwhelmed and anxious. At one point, it settles on me like a thick dread that I don't want to be here. But there's no turning back, and when I wake at four, the pain is still with me, but most of the dread has gone.
The morning sun is shining on barren, ragged mountains covered with glacial ice and last winter's snows, all mirrored in the glassy calm fjord. I put on water for coffee, light the stove and wait for the fun to begin.
August 1, 2009 - Isfjorden, Spitsbergen Island
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Now it was payback time.
After an entire day's flying from Reykjavik through Oslo and Tromso and finally into Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen's sole population center, I was shattered. But a restorative walks seemed in order. So after a medicinal beer, I walked along the Isfjorden shore.
Arctic terns have migrated thousands of miles to nest of these barren shores, but it seems a poorly chosen spot, the only site of human activity in a thousand kilometers. But here they are, in the Polar Institute parking lot, by the boat rental shop, beside the sled dog yard, dive bombing any passerby with a ferocious maternal defensiveness.
I walked along, bathed in the warm glow are the arctic midnight sun, and was happy to see my old friends, their graceful swept back wings, the scree-scree call. Walking along the pavement, I wandered too close for their comfort. One tern fluttered for a moment, then dove and delivered a little pink payload of contempt, directly into my left eye.
I staggered, swearing and laughing in equal measure, trying to get the tern poo out of my eye, managing only to smear it all over my hands and face even more. I've never actually heard a Tern laugh before, but if this one had pants, he would have peed them.
After that it was like a some sick walk of shame, little showers of pink and white dropping from the skies as I made my way grimly down the road.
I read somewhere that having a bird crap on your head is good luck. If that's the case, by the evening's end I felt truly blessed indeed.
July 31, 2009 - Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen Island
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Extortionate baggage fees? Check. Ten bucks for a pastrami sandwich? Got it. Seven hours in a cramped tin can? Coming right up.
It's been exactly two weeks since I limped home from my lap around America. Two weeks of doctor's appointments and acupuncture and endless whining about my aching sciatic nerve bundle, whose very existence I was blissfully unaware until 19,000 miles of driving brought it to my attention. I spend my waking hours in a narcotic haze; a walking, talking (or limping, mumbling) advertisement for the unpleasant side-effects of animal tranquilizers.
In reality though, nobody wants to listen to you bitch about how much your ass hurts, so maybe it's just as well I can no longer string a complete sentence together.
There was, however, the matter of preparing for four weeks of arctic travel in the midst of Seattle's glorious Mediterranean summer. I dig through piles of smelly expedition weight fleece and gore-tex while the sounds of summer echo through my open windows. I somehow cram it all into my cases, carefully weighing each one on my bathroom scale and then making my way onto the plane with nerve bundles dancing with excitement.
Once on board, I pop a couple more Percocet to change the subject and hours later, somewhere over the high arctic, orange light fills the cabin as the sun skirts the horizon. I sit there half-baked in the warm midnight glow, speeding over Greenland's melting ice sheet and toward the volcanic island beyond.
I land as evidence of civil unrest is being cleared from the downtown streets. Turns out it's just the broken glass and debris from another wild Reykjavik Saturday night. The Icelandic economy might be on it's knees, the once-proud currency a cruel joke, but none of it is slowing down the hard-drinking sons and daughters of Viking blood.
The upside of all the economic turmoil is that suddenly, the whole country's on sale. The downside is that hordes of cheapskate Europeans know it, and have descended in noisy crowds to this rugged arctic wilderness. Last time I visited here, I was surprised to share the nation's waterfalls and geysers with the country's Vice President as his security entourage of one napped in the parking lot.
This I'm elbowed aside by a knot of French backpackers and trampled underfoot by busloads of ill-mannered Italians. I try to remain philosophical. The VP didn't seem all that thrilled to see me, either.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
I'm getting close.
I arrive ten minutes after the Bremerton ferry sails, so I have an hour to kill. Walking up to Starbucks, I see a big "Welcome Home" sign in the window. How thoughtful, I think, until I see it's dedicated to returning sailors aboard the USS John Stennis.
The Hyak sails away from her dock right on time, and we share Puget Sound on a summer afternoon with a bevy of powerboats and yachts under sail. A lone jet skier romps in our wake.
Mount Rainier rises above the haze, and the Seattle skyline slides into view from behind a headland. We sail closer and I can't imagine a better way to approach home than from the sea. In truth, I've spent the past week thinking about this moment, closing the circle I've made around the country.
I'm shooting and shooting, waiting for some epiphany to bring it all together for me. Just as the city fills the frame, my camera batteries fail.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
To some I guess, nothing says appreciation for the wilderness quite like donning Mad Max body armor and helmet, hopping on an unmuffled four-wheeler and racing like a banshee across miles of coastal sand dunes.
I admit that I sometimes forget my little tribe of tree-hugging, latte-sipping NPR listeners share this little corner of paradise with other, less effete types.
And I find myself squarely in their midst here at SandFest.
Becky Selby drives log truck during the week, but for now she's leaning back on her ATV, blond hair spilling out like her rich, warm laugh. She sizes me up pretty quickly. "You're hanging out with dirty, stinky loggers now. I hope you're not traumatized."
Well, maybe just a little. But I start to wonder if we don't have time to go for a quick spin around the dunes before Prairie Home Companion comes on.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Arriving in Yosemite Valley, I find myself asking that perennial question, "What would Ansel Adams do?"
The landscape pioneer was, at the very least, a lucky guy. To be part of the first generation of artists to discover the high Sierra and create a body of work that defines the place to this day. It feels like we all spend a lot of time looking for the old master's tripod marks.
Now, of course, everyone is a photographer, dangling iPhones and digital slr's, spouting megapixels and dragging tripods through the woods while wearing the obligatory khaki photo vest. What would Ansel make of all this? The park's change from wilderness to amusement park?
The landscape itself is unchanged, unchanging, but I wonder if the spirit isn't slowly leaching away, tiny parts of its soul stolen with each mindless snapshot.
I arrive in the valley long after dark and drive to the classic Yosemite Valley overlook. It's now a parking lot, with overflow across the busy highway. Even at 11:00pm, a half-dozen tourists cluster around digital cameras trying to capture the vista lit by a rising moon. I join the throng, watching ghostly light on El Capitan and the valley beyond. I drive the park road and hike around for hours, watching the summer stars circle overhead, the landscape gone spooky and leached of color by the full moon's glow.
By four, I'm fading and desperate for sleep. WWAAD? Maybe he'd gut it out until that magic sunrise light. But whatever he did, I'm pretty sure that he would be smart enough not to wind up sleeping curled up in the front seat his car.
And even if he did, I bet he never woke up as I did to a family taking snapshots while he drooled in his sleeping bag.
Monday, July 13, 2009
I wonder how long I can go before my tongue swells, the hallucinations start, my brain begins to shut down, the vultures circle, flare their wings and descend.
I'm guessing it will be at least a few minutes longer than it takes me to walk the 200 yards back to my air conditioned car.
Death Valley in July is hot, no denying it. But it's no worse than a Vegas parking lot, and the scenery is better.
I walk through the sand dunes here, sweat evaporating into a thin salt crust as I wonder at the sun-bleached vegetation and sand. A gaggle of German guys hike in one dune over. They strip to the waist and make one abortive attempt at creating sand angels.
From the sound of it, the noonday sand flays the skin from their bones.
I smirk and shake my head at the foolishness of youth all the way back to my car. Up to the very moment when my I sit down in shorts on the black teutonic leather seats of my sun-baked car.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Okay, two out of three.
I tell myself to cowboy up, but it's no use. I am just not a Vegas guy. My vices are furtive and small-bore. That is not the Vegas way.
There's a big neon sign out at the desert's edge, flashing the city motto.
"Gamblin' and Whores! Whores and Gamblin'!"
They say it's visible from outer space.
I walk from my hotel up to the Strip, and realize quickly that only losers walk in Vegas. Car exhaust combines with cigarette smoke and cheap perfume into a hot, acrid cloud. On the upside, I make faster progress than the snarled traffic.
Carrying a tripod and wearing dirty cargo shorts and a baggy shirt, I look like a cross between a Danish backpacker and a skate punk gone to seed. It is not a flattering look.
I make it as far as the Flamingo. The crowds are moving thickly between refrigerated casinos. An 80-foot portrait of Donnie and Marie Osmond stares down from the hotel billboard, distracting me from the dozens of nude call-girl trading cards littering the sidewalk.
The lights, the crowd, the noise, the frickin' Osmonds...This is not my place, and these are not my people.
I turn and walk back to my hotel, stopping just long enough to buy a six-pack. By the time I get there, I can't even be bothered to decipher the pay-per-view menu.
I stop on my way out of town just long enough to take a parting snapshot. The flipside of the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign offers some sensible advice.
"Drive Carefully. Come back soon."
Um...I'll do what I can on the first bit. But don't hold your breath otherwise.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
But I think it all comes down to timing. Roll in sometime around midnight and you beat the crowds and can skip the park entrance fee to boot.
An added bonus is a total absence of adult supervision. The signs warn of dangerous, unstable cliffs. But you want to hop the fence? Go for it. Scramble along perilous, crumbling rock walls? ¡No problema! Fall and shatter a leg and die a slow, agonizing death on the lonely canyon floor?
Knock yourself out.
Under the light of a full moon, sandstone spires and hoodoos fill the chasm beneath me. In the ghostly half-light, they look like miles of melted stone walls, the remains of some ancient cathedral forsaken by an indifferent god.
It is starkly beautiful, and after an hour of walking around in the utter silence, spooky as hell. The only sound is the gentle rustling of the cool desert wind and my own breathing.
I walk down along steep canyon trails, surrounded by an army of stone sentries, imagining movement in the shadows. It occurs to me you're never too old to be afraid of the dark.
Friday, July 10, 2009
The first time you come into Monument Valley, you're enraptured. It's instantly recognizable; the red sands, the soaring mesas, the impossibly blue sky.
Taking pictures, you feel like a genius. Every click of the shutter is remarkable. It only slowly dawns on you that it's all been done before.
I still stare out at this landscape with a feel of awe, but I despair at the prospects of creating something truly original here.
I maneuver the VW truck down a rough track to the valley floor, passing more economical compacts as they scrape and gouge oil pans in a manner directly in contravention of their rental car contracts. The sun burns the desert hot and dry, and open wheel Navajo Jeep tours pass by encased in clouds of dust. I stare at the changing geometry of light and shadow, sand and rock.
Sunset ignites the red mesas to the color of flame, and with dusk the color leaches away like a coal growing cold. The moon rises full and fat behind the cliffs. I return to the overlook, watching the twilight fade to moonlit night.
There are no cowboys and the Indians have all gone home for the night. It's just me, standing on a cliff, staring out at the desert.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The town was once home to a bevy of motels and cafes catering to early cross-country drivers, and a dozen or more garages dedicated to nursing post-war Chevrolets across the desert wastes.
The Petrified Forest National Park lies just outside town, and the area was once home to herds of dinosaur and, rather more recently, Navavo tribes. Neither have exactly prospered.
A pile of mineralized wood, disaffected Indians and a dead highway seem slender threads to hang an economy on, but you play the cards you're dealt.
The town looks sun-bleached and dusty, like a faded snapshot of itself, circa 1958. It is kept on life support by nostalgic motorists and the meager cash they drop at the gas station, Navajo gift shops or the Wigwam Motel. I do my part at the West End Liquor Store, buying a six-pack of Corona from the owner, who sits tethered to an oxygen tank while chain-smoking Marlboros. I know there's a metaphor here somewhere, but I hope for a fire extinguisher, too.
Most of the other non-chain stores have gone to seed. Pow Wow Trading Post, Crossroads Saloon, J & J Cafe, all gone. Only the dinosaurs seem to be thriving. They're everywhere in town, outside all the gift shops opened or closed. I think they outnumber the ambulatory human population.
At the edge of town, there's an large billboard proclaiming "Land Available." It advertises a small patch of desert, and is surrounded hundreds of identical square miles of absolute wasteland.
Maybe the dinosaurs can get financing, but I sure don't see anyone else lining up.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Hours of driving through a sun-baked desert, but this is my exit.
I am so money.
Hmmm. I have to say, Vegas doesn't look like I remember it. What's with all the adobe? The empty storefronts? The ample on-street parking?
Can anyone tell me where the Bellagio is?
Judging from all the turquoise and the absence of high-roller asshole types, I may have miscalculated. And I'm okay with that.
I grab lunch at a great little Mexican cafe and then walk up to the street fair filling up the central plaza. There's a small crowd dancing to a tejano band's spanglish version of Mustang Sally. There's not a slot machine or an Elvis impersonator or anybody singing "My Way" within a hundred miles.
And I'm okay with that, too.
Viva Las Vegas. At least this one.
Monday, July 6, 2009
Just west of Amarillo, the landscape gives up any pretense of topographical variety and adopts a Cartesian pancake aspect. And what better place to sink ten vintage Cadillacs nose down in the hardpan?
Located just off I-40, Cadillac Ranch is hard to miss, and hundreds of tourists pull in and stomp out through the dusty wheat field to reach the cars, spray paint in hand. This is public art at its interactive best.
Think of it as America's Stonehenge, with graffiti.
Pretty much everyone who makes the trek paints something; a name, their home town, their dogs' names. And ten minutes later someone paints over it with something new. I find the whole enterprise cool and fun in many different ways.
And it's not just the artistic, body-piercing set. Whole families are out there tagging. That is just so much better than any family vacation I ever took.
I drop to my knees to shoot from a low angle, my butt high in the air, which is enough of a spectacle to stop four Japanese tourists in their tracks. They take turns looking through my camera and then take snapshots with me in situ.
I'm just happy they didn't paint their names on my ass for good measure.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
He said, "I was in the post office and was wondering what this idiot was doing standing in the middle of the street taking pictures."
But he was curious, not hostile or suspicious. His name was Cotton and he spent his whole life in Chillicothe, and he was eager to talk.
We look up and down the barren main street and he says, "These towns are all dryin' up. The kids get out of school and they're gone. To Dallas, Lubbock, Amarillo. There's just no work here, no jobs."
"We're hanging on, but it's gettin' pretty thin."
We're soon joined by April, an older woman who's finishing up at the post office, and as soon as she sees my cameras offers to show me the old Methodist Church. I accept out of politeness, but the church is beautiful and sad all at once.
Built more than a century ago, the pulpit stands in one corner, dark wood pews arranged in concentric arcs. Fine old German stained glass glows in the windows. It speaks of generations of pride and hard work and reverent faith.
April tells me, "On a good Sunday, we're lucky to get 35 people. The say that pipe organ is worth $165,000. We don't even have anyone to play it any more. Our organ player moved away."
She and Cotton chat for a while before he finally lets it slip that he's putting his place up for sale and moving down the road to Electra.
April looks up, surprised and stricken. "You're moving? Really...?"
"I finally give up."
She sighs, "Chillicothe's gonna' be smaller."
Friday, July 3, 2009
Welcome to the shortest cattle drive in Texas.
In spite of its status as the (almost) biggest state in the union and home to more self-applied superlatives and boundless boosterism, twice a day a small group of cowpokes move 17 Texas Longhorns past the Hyatt and through a tourist gauntlet for two whole blocks in the old stockyards of Fort Worth.
Let's just say that it is, on the whole, rather less daunting than the Chisolm Trail.
The stockyards themselves have seen more robust days. Once renowned as Hell's Half Acre, the whorehouses and acres of cow shit are long gone, though there is still a fair bit of bull. Wooden cactus sprout from flower pots, and you can pay 50 cents for a pony ride or a couple bucks to either straddle a bored longhorn or get tossed around by a mechanical bull. There's a number of perfectly reputable museums, an indoor rodeo and Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show and and an admirable number of watering holes and BBQ joints.
But I came for the cattle drive, so I lined up with the sugar-hyped kids and sweating parents and watched the show. Traffic was blocked, cowboys who wouldn't look out of place at a pride parade rode out into the broiling sun and escorted their bovine charges down the cobblestones. Kids darted about but I was disappointed that no stampede ensued. In eight minutes the cattle were on their way back to the feedlot, and the cowboys rested in the shade.
I chatted with one of the cowboys after the show. He has traded the cowboy life for a rather more refined career as city employee. "I used to work up at a stockyard running 8000 cattle a day. That was work. I took this job 'cause I loved the horses. The people...well...it gets too much and I can say my horse needs waterin' and ride off."
We chatted for a bit longer, then he mumbled something his horse seemin' a tad thirsty, and off he rode into the noonday sun.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
In a moment, the storm swallows everything, and it feels like Judgment Day itself.
I try to imagine four summers back, when the world came to an untidy end here. The raw fear to watch the monster coming and be swept up in its furious power. Katrina lumbered in off the gulf and drowned this graceful old city.
Many words have been spilled about what followed, and I'm in no place to add to the tally. Driving in, though, the scars are everywhere to see. Boarded up shopping malls, stripped and gutted houses, an emptiness still hangs in the air. But life goes on, if only for lack of any options.
I drive out along the levees as the storm ebbs and find myself out among the refineries. I spot a cemetery crucifix in the cracking towers' shadow. They call this Cancer Alley. A dull roar fills the air, as steam and gas flares rise from the stacks. A cracked marble Christ hangs from the cross, head bowed. It's a easy metaphor, and I'm not the first to find it. Life is hard out on the delta.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
It was 8:37 in the morning and both temperature and humidity were bounding past 90. I hadn't even made it to the boat and I was soaked through.
The guidebooks all said that if you wanted to see the bayou, visit the folks at Honey Island Swamp Tours. Normally, I'm not a big fan of group activities, but the idea of walking around some half-collapsed dock in the delta, draped in cameras and proffering cash to wary locals seemed like more drama than I could face without a drink in my hand. So for $23 I signed on for two hours in a shallow draft mud boat hurled downriver by a 200 horsepower Honda.
As a long-time Seattle resident, I've muffled most of my once over-abundant personality in a heavy blanket of emotionally-repressed Lutheran civility. I now shake hands with small babies and last raised my voice in anger sometime in 1998.
Jack doesn't have that problem. He hollers a welcome to all his passengers. He yells into his cellphone about a busted air conditioner. He bellows apologies for the delay and roars full throttle out into the bayou.
Jack spends a lot of time on 11.
But the man could work some magic with the alligators. "You want to get their attention? Throw 'em some marshmallows. Then poke some hot dog on a stick. Gators love them wienies."
I had no idea that alligators had the same eating habits as my cousins. It's not exactly textbook wildlife ethics, but it works wonders. An eight-foot alligator swims out, snarfs down the campfire fare and swims closer.
Jack raises an eye as I hold my camera down to the water's edge. "She gets ahold of your hand, it'll be somethin' gettin' it back."
I imagine the tug of war between me, Jack and the 'gator and edge a wee bit closer to the boat.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
For every Nascar race with millionaires driving in circles like they were looking for parking, there are dozens of small tracks out in the hinterlands where regulars guys (and the occasional high-threshold-for-abuse woman) toss together a car out of spare parts and wishful thinking and indulge their inner hell-raising, moonshine running, full throttle demons.
Out here, it's all backyard mechanics. No fancy corporate sponsors or factory-trained pit crew (your dad's here, and your girlfriend and your slightly retarded cousin), and you're out there with a flashlight in your teeth and sweat running in your eyes trying to figure out why she's missing on that third cylinder.
Not that you can't spend money on this sport all the same. One guy brags he's got more money in his car than his house. I joke, "Your wife must love that."
I take one look at the racing, watching the guys run flat out down the straights then kick the ass-end loose and run through the banked turn in a barely controlled full throttle slide, spitting mud and bashing metal, and I think...damn...that just might be fun.
Monday, June 29, 2009
I suppose if I longed to spend the day tromping around several acres of battleship steel in the midday Alabama sun, and was willing to pay $12 for the pleasure, I would have followed the masses up the gangplank.
But I don't, and I'm not, so I didn't.
Instead, I walk down to a nearby pier overlooking muddy Mobile Bay. A small knot of families has pooled together an admirable collection of fishing gear, and is hard at it.
They're using fat local shrimp for bait. Personally, I'd be just as happy to pop a beer, cook up the shrimp and call it good. But they throw in their lines with determination from a spot overlooking the battleship and distant city skyline, while ignoring both completely.
The afternoon passes with cheerful banter among the grown-ups and gentle lessons for the boys. No one gets too excited when the kids tangle lines, they get the help they need and I watch as their casting grows more confident, even if the results are roughly the same: Fish growing fat and happy on an inexplicable supply of shrimp floating in from on high.
On the other hand, Dee Dee, one of the few women on the pier, is killing 'em.
She excitedly hollers "I'm going to break it!" as her rod bends against a struggling fish. In the excitement, her chair is hurled over, beers are spilled and everyone laughs as she lands a five-inch Croaker. Someone snorts "That's baby jaws..." It's her first time fishing, and the guys laughter becomes only a little less enthusiastic as she lands fish after fish.
A breeze cuts through the stultifying noon heat, and distant storm clouds build and trap the humidity without offering any relief. I walk back to my car past the assembled tanks, mortars, jets, choppers and even a submarine. None of it really captures my interest. Off in the distance, though, I can still hear laughter.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Even with killer hurricanes and a collapsed housing bubble, it still feels like they're getting off easy.
I spend hours driving between two endless walls of identical strip malls. Can there possibly be enough people to buy all the useless junk, eat all the crappy food and hire all the shyster lawyers from billboards along the local highways? Judging from the number of vacant storefronts and foreclosed shops, perhaps not.
The landscape is one vast, unbroken plain, showing the same weary succession; swamp drained, citrus grove abandoned, housing and retail development thrown up and sold at extortionate profit, post-bubble slow decay. Everything was built with one eye on the next hurricane that will surely take it all out to sea. Why knock yourself out?
Heat shimmers off the pavement and thunderheads boil. Even the black buzzards look defeated as they pick over some over-ripe scrap of road kill.
For lack of a better plan, I head for the beach. Crossing a scalding quarter mile of blinding white sand, I stand looking out at the sea. I know it's too early for hurricanes, but I stare out anyway, watchful for any sign of the coming storm.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
To my great disappointment, it wasn't like that at all. It's not Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. More like an exceedingly pleasant walk down memory lane. With dead people.
Angels peer down from their marble pedestals as I wander amidst the Confederate generals, depressive authors and garden variety drunks and notables. An unlikely cheerfulness finds me. The morning sun grows hot, but a gentle breeze stirs the air and the tendrils of moss. Last night's passing storm front has drained the swampy humidity and the sky is a deep blue.
Though I'm in no special hurry, I can imagine worse places to pass on to my reward. To spend eternity in a gracious old city filled with a reverence for its past and possessing a cheerful willingness to overlook, and even celebrate an impressive range of character flaws. When my time comes, find me a quiet spot in the shade of some ancient oaks, out by the drunken poets and ladies of unsound morals and let the cool sand take my bones.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Jazz drifts out from one of the bars lining the boardwalk, open to the night breezes stirring along the Sampit River. The setting sun sets the clouds alight above yachts and fishing boats anchored in the calm water. "Do Not Feed The Alligators" signs hang along the dock, where couples walk hand in hand in the fading light, the night air finally losing some of the heat, but none of its sultriness. The tourist trade seems to keep the lights on at half a dozen restaurants and bars, and the waterfront breathes a comfortably seedy prosperity.
Across the river, an International Paper mill looms spitting smoke and steam in to the sky. I caught small, inexplicable whiffs of it on the way into town, smelling like something threw up on my engine block. The plant's lights and billowing stacks dominate the western horizon, glittering almost prettily against the sunset sky.
Driving up to the gates, the smell doesn't get any better, but the light show grows ever more dramatic. The factory looms steaming and clanking above a dismal trailer park, and a warm, foul mist falls from the night sky, stinging my eyes.
The only signs of life beyond the swarming mosquitoes is the procession of cars lining up at the car wash across the street. As a concession to the town for fouling its air, the company does offer a free hose down for your car. After standing downwind for half an hour, I'm tempted to burn my clothes and walk through it myself.
Driving out of town and fiddling with the radio, I accidentally run over something in the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I can tell it's already dead, looking like a pile of white feathers or fur. A gull maybe, or a dog. I look back in the rear view mirror and an old man is slowly walking out from the road side. He stoops to pick it up, but before he does, I look away, ashamed.
Friday, June 19, 2009
I follow the canoe rental signs, in spite of a number of unpleasant previous boating attempts. Forget my chronic inability to master the J-stroke. I'm happy if I can make it through an afternoon without awkward riverine camera recovery attempts and unpleasant phone conversation with my insurance company.
Merchants Millpond, separated from the vastly better named Great Dismal Swamp by an escarpment, drains 80 square miles of forest into a tea-dark lake. Duckweed covers the water like a green blanket, and Cypress trees stream Spanish Moss in the still heat of late afternoon. A distant thunderstorm stirs the air, offers a menacing rumble, but keeps its distance.
I paddle slowly through the haunted landscape. A snapping turtle dives with a surprised splash. I regularly snag the paddle on barely submerged....something, and try not to levitate out of the boat. A park service poster helpfully suggests viewing and enjoying the local alligator population from a safe distance.
It's good to know I won't drown in here. The gators will make sure of that.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Our destination, selected for reasons lost to time, was Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. Though the date was determined months in advance, my father would procrastinate until the morning of departure. At the appointed hour, he would adopt a murderous expression and find a number of household and automotive repair tasks that suddenly required his undivided attention.
We would watch, bags packed in nervous silence, waiting for the storm to break. After a barked shin or bashed knuckle, he'd explode with a fearsome shower of temper and strong language. And then we'd load up the car and hit the road.
Though he repeatedly sailed across the submarine-infested North Atlantic in World War II, he wasn't much of a navigator on land. One summer we towed the family boat on a lively tour of Baltimore's public housing projects. The story is still passed down through generations, to great hilarity at the Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace, of the six goggle-eyed white people dragging that trailer around in circles, driving off in a huff, then returning for one more lap half an hour later.
Upon arrival at some mildew-scented rental, my father would take his surf fishing rod and a cooler full of beer and walk purposefully to the sea. That would be the last we would see of him. He would return, days later, sunburned and crusted in salt and happier than I ever saw him.
The rest of us would find some patch of sand on the crowded beach, wade out into the waves and set out with dogged determination to drown ourselves. I wasn't much of a swimmer, and and never had more than a farmer's tan. At the beach, I went for the major first day full-body burn, cooking myself until the flesh came off in satisfying translucent sheets a few days later. My sister slathered herself in cocoa butter and slowly baked in the sun until her skin was the color and texture of an old piece of Samsonite luggage.
I visit now with SPF 35 applied generously to forehead and nose, in spite of low clouds threatening rain. There's a cold wind blowing in off the Atlantic and both water and sand seem grubbier than I remember. But families spill out onto stolen hotel towels and kids frolic in the choppy waves. Dolle's Salt Water Taffy still stands as a cornerstone on the boardwalk, but I resist the sugary urge to pull out my fillings.
I've never been much for fishing, or vacations for that matter. Too busy. But what I would give to be out here, drinking a beer and casting out into the surf with my old man.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I make my way down the Via Dolorosa of tourist sites. The Capitol, attended briefly by a parade of dorky Segue riders and then quiet again. No sign of Clarence Thomas or his RV at the Supreme Court. The Washington Monument, encircled by flags and hosting a small jazz festival in the late afternoon sun. The Jefferson and Iwo Jima memorials across the water. But for me, nothing beats the solemn grandeur of Lincoln. It stands as a secular temple to the goodness that this country can achieve.
Lincoln sits in his outsized club chair like a father figure to the nation, he maintains a quiet dignity despite the swarming throng, their chatter reduced to a surging echoing murmur inside the cool marble walls. Cub scout troops and Indian families and school field trips pose for snapshots at his feet, a paparazzi swarm sputtering flashes. A "Quiet. Respect Please" sign goes clattering over in the crush.
What would Lincoln have made of all this? From his feet, before being elbowed aside, I look up at his stern countenance. He stares evenly out on the city he governed and the nation he saved, revealing nothing. I walk off to his left past a row of columns and into the airless cool shadows. Standing beneath the words of his second inaugural address, delivered to a nation exhausted by war. Barely a month later, he would be dead.
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Looking at his profile, I think I can make out the hint of a country lawyer's wry and weary smile, but it sure feels like there's work still to be done.