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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Where I’ve been (at least in part):

What I’ve been doing (at least in part):

I hope you’re enjoying your summer too!

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If the world feels a bit weighty this morning, grab a cup of something hot, sit back and enjoy Mars.

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Every so often I am struck with the realization that I live in what is, to me, a foreign country. How cool is that?

There I was, about to start up the old treadmill desk and get to work when I looked out the window and had one of those moments. You may know the kind I mean (at least I hope you do), where suddenly everything you see shines with crystal clarity.

Oh, you may think, I hadn’t realized that the neighbor’s maple was quite so magnificent this Fall, and every leaf stands out. I think of it as seeing with a child’s eyes, before “this thing” and “that thing” become a group of “the usual things” that can be ignored without conscious attention.

Do we see each blade of grass when we walk past the lawn? I don’t. In fact, it would be an almost impossible way to live, I think, and I say that with the full knowledge that I am the sort of person who pays attention to the curbs when in Athens. (What? They’re made of marble. And oh yes, The Parthenon;)

I like the everyday, appreciate the curbs and libraries and sidewalk trees that we interact with on a daily basis. The common shapes our daily experience, even as it remains largely invisible. Even so…

I live in a foreign country! Part of my realization was the sudden understanding that I’ve accomplished one of the goals I set when I was a child.

I might have been twelve years old, the details are a bit fuzzy now. There was a group of friends in the room, all of us paging through an atlas (oversized, hardcover, with glossy paper). We argued over where to go, calculated the costs, plotted impossible strategies to get there.

Living in another country seemed the height of adventure. And now here I am.

Canada is lovely and wild, with an often thin edge of civilization anchoring this vast swath of often frigid territory. Approximately 75% of the population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and the continent looks very different up here at night.

North America at night

That mostly dark bit mostly north of the U.S.? Yeah, not water. I’m waving!

Canadian history is much different than the version I grew up with. It captures an ongoing friction between very different cultures and the relatively peaceable integration of those worlds into a single entity. No flashy Revolution here. There are reasons for signs that list both French and English versions of the word “street.” There are reasons for the populations’ deep-seated love of Tim Horton’s coffee, and gravy-drenched poutine. This country has its own twists, its own heroes, its own storied and shadowed chapters.

It’s true that I can shop for groceries in my native language, read most of the signage and do not need a plane ticket to visit my parents, but I no longer live in the place I was born. It’s also true that even Canadians can be crotchety, the bread often has too much flour in it, and there really is only one road connecting the East and West halves of the country. (And they still won’t shut up about that time they burned down The White House…;) But for me, here and now, it’s all a bit magical.

Pay attention, I remind myself. You just might find that the world is a far more beautiful and astonishing place than you remember. You might also realize that in spite of the knowledge that there is always more to do, if you work hard* and you keep moving even when it feels as though you’re going in circles, dreams can come true.

How cool is that?

. . . . . . . . . . .

* Need some motivation? I recommend the PBS Great Performances documentary Hamilton’s America. Both Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda are inspirational as heck. It’s available online for U.S. viewers. The rest of us may be lucky enough to catch it on our PBS stations. (See? Not the 51st state after all;)

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It’s snowing! It’s pretty! All is right with the world.

The past few weeks of above-freezing temperatures and no snow have been, for lack of a better word, weird. It reminds me of the time I spent in Arizona, and my first warm Christmas. Seventy degrees on Christmas? In the Northern Hemisphere? Weird. I thought I’d be happy to get away from the cold and snow but I guess childhood imprinting isn’t so easy to escape.

I’ve also been thinking about the desert for a story I’m working on. Remembering the dry expanse stretching to the horizon, tenacious scrub clinging to the sides of dry riverbeds and the clarity of the air at dawn. Thinking about the challenges of crossing such a place in an era before the things Americans tend to take for granted, like functional highways, a network of gas stations and cars that didn’t blow a tire every 50 miles. And I stumbled across this fascinating article in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, about a network of alien markings giant concrete arrows crisscrossing the continent.

Before satellites, real-time GPS or other modern navigation systems, pilots had to be able to see where they were going. They couldn’t fly at night or in bad weather, and figuring out where they were was a complicated affair involving tools like a compass, maps (on paper!) and a bit of guesswork.

Some towns painted their names in oversized block letters on rooftops to help pilots get their bearings. And sometimes—like when navigational delays slowed down transcontinental air mail delivery* after 1920**—the government saw the need for a more comprehensive solution to the problem and stepped in. In this case they built a system of 70-foot-long concrete arrows pointing the way:

The government built a path of 70-foot-long concrete arrows every few miles from coast to coast, each painted yellow and topped with a 51-foot steel tower that had a rotating beacon. Using the path, an airmail pilot needed only half the time to deliver a letter from New York to San Francisco.

Eventually technology caught up with our demands and the markers were abandoned. Where are these markers now? An intrepid couple named Brian and Charlotte Smith wanted to know the answer and embarked on A Quest (because let’s face it, it’s hard to get anything significant done without A Quest).

They go on road trips to investigate these remnants of a bygone era, and now you can too. With the help of drone lessons from their nine-year old grandson, they’ve assembled photos and a database of marker locations.

The core idea of this story resonates with me. It’s the same childhood fascination I had for the Pony Express or the challenges of nineteenth-century explorers. For me, it’s hard to read a piece like this and not conjure up a daring young Lady Adventurer winging her way across an untamed landscape on a new world, with nothing but a few isolated markers to keep her on track.***

Marvelous!

—–

* FYI, I love the USPS and public libraries and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. These and other basic infrastructure**** projects help make us a better connected, better educated country and have impacted everything from social mobility to what we eat for dinner.

** Before 1920, if you wanted to send a letter to your cool aunt in San Francisco, for example, it went via methods like stagecoach or boat or train. Slooooooow. Or you could send a telegram and tell the whole world your business… like Twitter, actually.

*** A lot like Beryl Markham, actually.

**** (A footnote within a footnote. Does that make it a toenote?) I just want to include the definition of infrastructure and ask lawmakers responsible for assigning project funds, how is this optional?

Infrastructure: The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

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Today’s #ThingILike* is West with the Night, a fabulous piece of non-fiction first published in 1942 by bush pilot, adventurer and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham. I picked it up in a second-hand store on the strength of the title and the back cover blurb. I’d never heard of the author, but when Ernest Hemingway says he wishes he could write so well, I pay attention. Glad I did.

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”
— Ernest Hemingway

Recommended.
* Again, items in this series of Things I Like are linked for your information; no sponsors, no kickbacks, just a sampling of things that I find useful or fun or funny or sweet.

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Today’s trip in the WayBackMachine takes us to the lovely and verdant paths of New Zealand’s North Island…

July 29
Saturday
Rotorua-Mt. Maunganui

New Zealand winters are gray and damp from what I can tell, but change to bright sun in a surprisingly short time. The steam from the sulfurous ground vents here in Rotorua blends with the misty air and settles in a chill layer on my skin.

NZ

We checked out of the Sheraton early and cruised the main street in town looking for breakfast. The perfect spot turned out to be the Nomad Café, run with sloppy panache by a couple of middle-aged traveler types with style. The food was cheap, plentiful and very good, and came with a side of email thanks to the array of computers in the back. While we ate breakfast and planned the day our laundry was being done in a wash and fold storefront next door. The perfect arrangement.

Our next stop was the Maori village. As we pulled up a tour was just leaving, so we rushed over in time to hear the guide describe what it’s like to live in a village where the ground is hot enough to bake potatoes. I had a great time being deliciously scared by the steam vents, the boiling pools of crystalline blue water, and the pit of volcanic mud bubbling viscously away.

The pools are different temperatures depending on the source of the water, and can change size and temperature based on geologic shifts but are generally stable. The Maori use the hot water for bathing, cooking, and heating. After the tour we shopped a bit, didn’t eat corn boiled in the pools out of respect for Maureen’s delicate sensibilities, and headed over to the meeting house for a traditional dance demonstration.

The meeting house itself was an unremarkable concrete block distinguished only by its entryway. Carved wooden beams framed the roof’s eaves, window, door, and supported the roof’s center. These beams symbolize Maori ancestors’ arms, eye, mouth and heart protecting the village. While potentially hokey at times, the song and dance performance was compelling.

Men, women, and several children in training lined up three rows deep at the front of the meeting house wearing traditional dress. The grass skirts did not hide the dark tattoos or obstruct the whirling pompom balls the women swung like bolos. The men’s deep, often booming chants supported the women’s melodic harmonies. A Polynesian-style guitar played backup. It sounded a lot like a very pissed-off Hawaiian band, actually. Fun.

We bummed around town for a bit after leaving the village, picked up the laundry, stopped into the Old Bath House where visitors were treated to hot water treatments, and went to a park with steam rising from vents near the swing set. The sulfur smell oozed from the steam vents and flowed through town, never entirely disappearing. The top news story in my paper this morning was about an aging actress found dead in her ground-floor room at the Sulfur City Motel. Apparent cause of death: suffocating levels of sulfurous fumes in her room.

The plan for the day was to sightsee, driving north to the coast until we felt like stopping. The scenery on the road out of Rotorua was beautiful green forest around a lakeside. Dad, ever alert, swerved to look at a flock of black swans and again for a fabulous group of peacocks. That last brightened up the creatively named “Hell’s Gate,” a geologic hot spot where we pulled over and walked among bubbling evidence of the fire below.

For a few dollars we were allowed to risk our lives on paths winding through steam vents, hot pools, boiling mud, and sulfurous fumes. All walkways had been reinforced against collapse using lumber and stone, which made me feel a little better about the “Don’t leave the path” and “You’re risking your life – We’re not kidding!” signs everywhere. My brother would have loved it.

The rest of the drive was pleasant and involved a lot of careening up and down and around to the coast. Evidence of logging was everywhere for a while and there were large swaths of land devoid even of sheep. Farm animals were more common near the coast and included fun herds of ostrich and some unidentifiable herd animals that reminded me of deer.

Maureen found a likely stopping place in the guidebook and we headed up Route 2 to the Bay of Plenty. Mt. Maunganui is a beach town, about three blocks wide running the length of the beach. As luck would have it we came to the water just at sunset. Everyone else hopped out to look at the waves while I stayed in the car to nurse my stomach, grateful for a break from the winding road.

Next thing I knew they’d all disappeared. I sat in the car getting colder, peering out into the dimming light wondering if we’d stumbled into a town of mass murderers. Just as my paranoia was reaching the point when I’d have to jump out of the car and be captured myself they came back, all smiles.

It seems we’d had the good fortune to stop right between two beachfront hotels. One was a collection of luxury condos let out to lucky souls like ourselves. In no time I was inside the top floor of the Belle Mar, running between the three bedrooms, huge living room, spa, two bathrooms, and a kitchen with Italian fixtures.

The place was wonderful, had everything you’d want in a luxury apartment, and was so fabulous that we decided to stay for our last two nights in New Zealand. The apartment even had a washer that was also a dryer, full sets of cutlery and dishware, and a big broad balcony running the length of the building. Wide windows looked out on both the mountain crowning our little peninsula and the beach with its necklace of islands. All this for NZ$175, or around $85 a night. What a find!

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