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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Traveling with H.G. Wells, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle

In November, I read several graphic novels, lots of comics, and a book on geology. I also read three novels. The first, by H. G. Wells, transported me to Switzerland. Or, at least, so it seemed. 

Supposedly, A Modern Utopia takes place on a planet like Earth in another solar system, but the descriptions of the landscape, and the picturesque villages, reminded me of Switzerland. In many ways, it reminded me of one of his earlier novels, The Wheels of Chance. In that novel, his protagonist, a young draper, sets off on a bicycle holiday in the south of England. His descriptions of the landscape are so vivid, so evocative, and so overwhelmingly beautiful that it made me want to follow the hero's bicycle journey with my wife. In A Modern Utopia, I felt as though he was transporting me to Switzerland. It's a country I would very much like to visit some day, and Wells spoke just as passionately about his surroundings in this idealized world as he did in The Wheels of Chance

After A Modern Utopia, Jane Austen returned me to some familiar sites in her novel Persuasion. The story begins in a manor house in Somerset, a county in southern England. In fact, it's the same county in which the real-life manor in the TV series To The Manor Born is located. 

As in the TV series, Austen's protagonist Anne, through no fault of her own, is forced to leave her beloved country home due to the fiscal mismanagement of a family member: in this case, her father. So she travels to stay with a family friend, then another member of her family, and this second visit takes her to Lyme Regis. 

While she and her party tour the seaside resort, a crucial event in the story takes place on the Cobb. This is a long walkway or pier, and perhaps the town's most striking feature. 

Jane Austen's characters then make their way to Bath, a setting she used in Northanger Abbey, which I read in October. Sadly, she doesn't offer much description of Bath in Persuasion. Austen painted a more vibrant view of the historic city in Northanger Abbey. (Also, Charles Dickens set part of his first novel The Pickwick Papers there, which I read earlier this year). Still, reading about Anne's visit to Bath made me want to travel there. It was a fashionable resort town in Austen's time, and remains a popular town for tourists today.

Finally, I returned to England for The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. This second collection of stories took me back to London, the great town's suburbs, and other towns in rural England. Then for the last story, "The Final Problem", Arthur Conan Doyle returned me to Switzerland, as Holmes and Watson seek to evade the clutches of the evil Professor Moriarty. As all Holmes aficionados know, Holmes and Moriarty have their final confrontation at a very real place: Reichenbach Falls. Having seen many dramatizations of this beloved story, I enjoyed reading Doyle's words, and following the characters' journey through Switzerland. 

Ah, the places great stories can take us!

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: The Final Four

The final four stops on this year's trip were relatively short ones. Nonetheless, we could have spent longer at each place if we would have liked. While staying in Flagstaff, Arizona for two nights, we drove a short distance to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. It was odd to suddenly be surrounded by black lava fields. We found the landscape, and the plant life, reminiscent of our trips to Hawaii. Even the geological terms for lava, such as A'a and Pahoehoe, are used here. 

Adjacent to Sunset Crater is another national monument. Wupatki National Monument offers several sites of former habitation. The Native Americans who lived here built their settlements from these red stones, instead of carving into the hillsides, as they did in Mesa Verde National Park. In this flat landscape, you could see different aspects of community life, such as circular ball fields, in which children, and perhaps adults, played sports. There was also an interesting vent in the ground, through which you could hear air blowing to the surface. 

The movie "Best Friends" featured a short scene here. In the movie, actor Richard Hatch, who would later go on to star in the TV series "Battlestar Galactica," played a young military veteran who is driving cross country in an RV with his friends and his fiancé. A recurring theme of the movie is the Native American peoples with whom they interact in varying ways. Certainly the movie reflects on the value of community, as well as one's responsibility to others. This is something that these Native American Indian ruins also make one reflect on.

Within another short drive of our motel was Walnut Canyon National Monument. Here you enter at the visitor center, then descend stairs to visit more Native American dwellings. You can see how stratified the stone layers here are. It looks as though a giant carved these hills into steps. The dwellings are interesting to look inside. Unlike those in Mesa Verde National Park and Wupatki National Monument, you get the feeling that there were lots of hillside homes here, located really close together. So this gives the area a real suburban feel.

Finally, there's the grandly-named Montezuma's Castle. Apparently it has no more to do with the ancient Aztec king Montezuma than the ride Montezuma's Revenge at Knott's Berry Farm. Someone just saw the abandoned community one day, and was so bowled-over by it that they gave it a grand name. It's the last National Monument we visited on our trip, during our drive from Flagstaff to Pheonix. We spent a couple hours there eating lunch, and people paused to look over our shoulders as I sketched and my wife did a water color. Unlike our experience at Bryce Canyon National Park, no one seemed all that enthused by my sketching, but they loved my wife's painting. When my wife told one woman that she had not been painting long, she exclaimed, "Well, it certainly doesn't show!"

Sadly, we found no places of value at which to stop on our drive home from Phoenix to San Diego. Just hours and hours of featureless landscape. Maybe we missed some truly remarkable places. I hope so. It'd be nice to discover that there were all kinds of places chocked full of scenic beauty and historic interest, and plan another trip to see them. Nonetheless, this trip was filled with so many overwhelmingly beautiful and interesting places. I'm glad we stopped in each of them. I just wish we'd had more time to explore most of them. But then, that's the best way to remember a vacation, as it leaves you with a sense of awe, and perhaps, a reason to return.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Petrified Forest

From the moment you enter Petrified Forest National Park, you realize that you are looking at far more than just pieces of stone-line wood. As you drive, the land unfolds around you, revealing a wide variety of color.

Each color means something. It tells scientists what conditions were like back in the Mesozoic Era, when the continents looked different, and the sea levels were higher than today.

Unlike Utah's famed National Parks, the landscape of Petrified Forest hails from the Triassic Age, long before the later Jurassic Age, famous for its fierce and enormous dinosaurs.

During this time, creatures unlike dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Some, such as the Placerias, demonstrated both reptilian and mammalian characteristics. 

Still, it's the mystery of petrified wood that fascinates us most. What kinds of trees towered above the land so long ago? What forces preserved them so beautifully that they rival the most exquisite gemstones?

The Native Americas discovered its utility long before scientists realized how much petrified wood could tell us about the past. The plethora of shops that sell petrified wood, both inside the park and out, attest to its enduring appeal.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 21, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Mesa Verde

Of all the National Parks and State Parks we visited on this year's vacation, my friend in prison perked up when I mentioned in a letter that we had visited Mesa Verde National Park. He wrote back to say that he had visited there, and asked me to send him a photograph from our trip. His affection for the park in no way surprises me, for of all the great parks we visited, Mesa Verde was the most Human.

Curious about how the Native Americans lived? There's no better place to visit. From pullouts along the road, you'll see a plethora of family homes and small communities dug into the canyon walls.

The rangers offer tours of some of the more impressive communities, most for a minimal fee. It's interesting to listen to the rangers describe these ancient communities. Each ranger finds their own perspective on how these people lived hundreds of years ago. Each ranger wades through the archeologists' field reports, and their understanding of Native American culture, to translate how these first settlers of the United States in terms that current residents can understand.

People travel there from different states and countries. Children proved as interested in how people lived there as adults. Visitors faced only one requirement: they must be physically capable of climbing up and down stairs and ladders. If they did so, they could accompany their fellow time travelers back hundreds of years, for an hour or so.

They could understand the Native American communities delved out duties and social power to the sexes. They could learn about how people saw their world from practical and spiritual perspectives. They could imagine themselves living in these times, sharing confidences with friends, dating people from other families or communities, cooking, singing, and worshipping.

Then they could return to the present, taking with them their understanding of these ancient peoples' simple, and yet surprisingly complex lives.

Dragon Dave

Friday, November 11, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Arches National Park

The films "Hulk" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" feature Double Arch. But that's not why I wanted to go to Arches National Park so much. It's hard to explain the allure this place holds for me. All I can tell you is that I really wanted to go there. When I proposed this trip to my wife, my primary objective was to visit Arches National Park. Other stops were gradually added to our itinerary, but Arches was the first and most important consideration. 

I suppose you could say it was on my bucket list.

Some of the arches were easily accessible. Others took more effort to reach. According to the signs and maps, Broken Arch wasn't that far from the parking area. Yet it seemed to take ages to get there. We also had to climb up several steep areas of boulders to reach it. But, like all the arches, it was great to see.

We had planned three days for Arches National Park, but the weather gods ruled otherwise. It rained as we were leaving the first day, and all day the second. So on the third and last day, we returned to see some of the areas we most wished to visit. One of them was Landscape Arch, the longest in the park.

We found a log to sit on, and my wife painted while I sketched. A number of people came by to talk with us, and check out our projects. People were really sociable, low-key, and friendly at Landscape Arch. Maybe the shape of it subconsciously influenced them. Doesn't Landscape Arch remind you of a smile?

Not all the arches were notable for their size, width, or delicacy. This was one of the smaller ones near Landscape Arch. But even if they're not exceptional, they still attract me.

Here's another area that was featured in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." We hiked through this area, named Monument Valley. It was awesome to stare up at these long, thin slabs of stone that towered above us. One day, erosion will knock down the existing arches in Arches National Park, but those same forces will have carved arches into areas such as this. But right now, they're still awesome to me.

Even if they're not arches.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Donald Trump: On Creation & Destruction

In the film "Two Weeks Notice," attorney Lucy Kelson wishes to preserve her local Community Center. The building is located in the heart of an area her city wishes to "revitalize." Of course, it would be cheaper to knock everything down, but Lucy comes up with a proposal that will save her beloved building, while clearing the way for new construction in the rest of the redevelopment zone. Out of the three companies bidding for the contract, only developer George Wade is willing to listen to her. 

At the moment, he desperately needs of a new attorney. So he agrees to her proposal, which will help his firm win the contract, on one condition: she must come to work for him.

As Lucy's term of employment with George Wade nears its end, he bumps into Donald Trump at a children's charity fundraising event. Trump tells George he's heard he has hired a new attorney to replace Lucy. He says he'll be watching her, and if he believes she's good, he'll attempt to steal her away from George. 

In the movie, Trump is clearly in a playful mood, and engaging in a little friendly rivalry. Trump may be playing a role in a piece of fiction, but his "character" meshes well with the theme of the movie and his real life persona. After all, we're talking about a man who's most famous catchphrase is "You're fired."

It's easy to protest change without suggesting any workable alternatives. It's easy to sweep aside the old in order to create something new. "Two Weeks Notice" poses this question: in our quest to create something new, how much are we willing to destroy? Or are some things worth preserving, even if it makes the task expensive and complicated? 

Dragon Dave

Friday, November 4, 2016

Galaxy Quest: The Rocks Rise Up

What can happen if you don't respect the rocks in a national or state park? Consider, if you will, one example from history. In 1999, Commander Peter Taggart and his crew land on an alien planet to find a replacement beryllium sphere to power their vessel. 

They aren't exactly inconspicuous as they search a rock valley which greatly resembles Goblin Valley State Park. They make unnecessary conversation, and their bickering angers the spirits inhabiting the land.

As a result, the goblins rise up, and wreak their displeasure on Captain Taggart.

By contrast, my wife and I took nothing from Goblin Valley when we visited. We made no loud noises, and above all avoided bickering, to soothe the sleeping goblins. We even paid them homage, by taking some time to sketch and paint their greatness. Thus, we emerged unscathed from Goblin Valley, while the rock creatures Taggart aroused nearly ended his life.

When on travel, respect the places you visit. It's not only safer that way, but you'll enjoy your vacation more.

For more on how Captain Taggart and his crew went wrong, and what they learned from their mistakes, pick up "Galaxy Quest" on DVD or Blu-ray. You'll be glad you did.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Goblin Valley

Goblin Valley State Park has one aspect which separates it from all the other national and state parks we visited. There are no carefully marked paths. There are no no-go areas. You can wander wherever you want, and lose yourself among the fantastic sandstone formations.

It's a fantasy playground for the mind. Every step you take reveals new shapes, new forms, that tantalize the imagination. And just around the next cluster of rocks, who knows what you might discover?

It can get a little lonely here. On the day we visited, most of the people wandered around in the area closest to the parking lot. After the first few minutes, we didn't see anyone for hours. It was just my wife and I, wandering among these fantastic shapes, and enjoying our solitude.

All that freedom and solitude can get a little worrisome, however. Without visible landmarks, and clearly marked paths, we found it hard to find our way back. We wandered through valleys, climbed between formations, and often had to retrace our steps. We climbed up hills, but could see no clear way to return.

We fixed our eyes on a distant hill, and moved steadily in that direction. We followed washes, where the rains had carved deep ruts through the soft earth. We clutched hold of our hats as the afternoon winds whipped at us. We spotted a jackrabbit bounding across the desolate terrain. 

Eventually, our sandstone guardians released us. We reached the car, and shook the dirt from our shoes. As we left Goblin Valley, it started to rain. Had we angered those stone guardians by our presence? Had they summoned a storm to send us away?

We were in awe of them, but we were not afraid.

We were never afraid.

Dragon Dave

Monday, October 31, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Capitol Reef

Picture Capitol Reef National Park as a pencil, with one main road cutting horizontally through the middle. This leaves much of the park inaccessible unless you've got an 4 wheel drive vehicle. Nor can I say much for the folks staffing the ranger station. Unlike Grand Staircase-Escalante, tour buses constantly go through here, and overwhelm the facilities. We found the staff there curt and uninterested in making our stay there in any way exceptional. 

We took a little drive along the main road, and stopped occasionally to photograph any geological features that caught our eye. Then we left to find our hotel.

We returned after dinner. In the waning light, we hiked part of an Intermediate level hike, and enjoyed how the evening light deepened the colors in the landscape.

When those faded, there were still the colors in the sky. For a few minutes, anyway.

The next morning, we drove through the park, stopping to take one last glimpse of Capitol Reef National Park. Then we headed onward to our next adventure.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour: 2016: Grand Staircase-Escalante

No one really thinks about visiting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, certainly not in the same way they do Bryce or Arches. The Grand Staircase doesn't even hold National Park status, despite the fact that it covers a huge region, far larger than both of those National Parks put together. We stopped in at both visitor centers, and spoke with the staff inside. Both visitor centers were modern structures, with impressive amenities. This seemed odd, given how few visitors they receive. The staff helped share their love of the park by offering us a piece of cake, as they celebrated the Monument's twentieth birthday. 

The second visitor center had a cast of a Utahceratops skull on display. This dinosaur species, a relative of the better known Triceratops, was discovered in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and named only six years ago. In time, I imagine more important fossil finds like that will not only help advance our knowledge of Paleontology, but also stir the public's interest in this relatively new National Monument.

As we drove through Grand Staircase-Escalante, it seemed that, with each turn of the road, we were seeing something new and awesome. Photographs don't do this area justice, but we took a lot that day. Off hand, I cannot remember a time when we pulled over to the side so often to take a photo, with the possible exception of our first visit to Kauai. 

The photo above reminds me of the area used by the filmmakers for the planet Vulcan in the first of the recent series of Star Trek movies. It isn't--that area is located in the San Rafael Swell, another area  in Utah overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Still, it's easy to imagine Spock growing up amid a stark landscape such as this.

At one point, I noticed a cave off the side of the road. So we turned around, parked, and did a little exploring. It reminded me of similar caves I've seen in Kauai, Oregon, and Texas. The pink/red of the rock made it far different than those others, however.

Part of this area also merges with the national forest system. We passed lots of campgrounds as drove. We also passed through quite a few little towns. You're really living at the top of the world up here. Most of the time we were around nine-to-ten thousand feet elevation. You've got to be hardy to spend lots of time here, without the altitude bothering you.

I'm not sure I'd want to spend a winter in such a remote region. But it's beautiful in the autumn.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Insane Discover America Tour 2016: Kodachrome State Park

Kodachrome Basin may only be a state park, but if Utah wasn't already overflowing with National Parks, it might hold that status.

The eroded sandstone walls certainly live up to the brand name Kodak gave their line of color film.

For those of you too young to remember the days before digital photography, cameras used to require film to record images. You developed exposed film by bathing it in a series of chemical-filled basins. One of the films amateur and professional photographers used was Kodachrome, made by the Eastman Kodak. This company dominated the film photography market in that era. Had the National Geographic Society expedition that traveled here in 1948 arrived a few years later, and wished to popularize the new Polaroid Instant Camera that came on the market in November 1948, this park might be known as Polaroid Valley State Park.

While my father mostly used Kodachrome film in his cameras, he also had a Polaroid SX-70 instant camera, which I inherited after his death. All told, that camera served my father and me for several decades. Alas, all good things eventually pass away. My camera eventually went the way of film photography, making movies with film, and, of course, the dinosaurs. Having said that, both Kodak and Polaroid survive as companies. You can even buy an SX-70, and the instant film packs it requires, online. I'm sure the rangers would allow you to use a Polaroid camera to take photos in Kodachrome Basin State Park. That would be kind of cool and retro, wouldn't it?

Still, if you plan on doing any hiking in the park, carrying a smart phone or digital camera is easier. I would advise against you bringing a Polaroid SX-70 if you plan on doing rock climbing, or scaling the impressive hoodoos. These stone towers may not be as plentiful and beautiful as at Bryce National Park or Red Canyon, but there are a more than enough here to fulfill your photography and climbing desires.

The canyon walls and hoodoos reminded me of sandcastles, or a dramatic underwater landscape. The bright light of the afternoon we visited robs the land of some of the color we saw that day. It'd be interesting to return in the morning, or on a cloudy day, and see how the colors of the landscape changed.

One trail takes you out on a long, thin wedge of a hill. From here, you can really see the land unfold around you. 

The above photo, taken on maximum zoom and then enlarged further on computer, was taken by my wife, from the nearest "safe" hilltop.

Yeah, I know: I'm bad. It's a burden I have to live with.

Kodachrome Basin State Park may not lie on anyone's Must See list, but my wife and I found it a fun place to explore for an afternoon. It may not be as extensively photographed as Red Canyon, but had our schedule (and energy) allowed, we could have spent more time there. If you plan a trip through Utah's scenic wonderland, you might consider a visit there. Regardless of the type of camera you bring.

Dragon Dave