Tuesday, December 31, 2013

City of Karma

Portland, Oregon skyline...
Portland skyline...

The last major stop of our late-summer tour through the United States southwest was Portland, Oregon. It turned out to be one of the most  memorable experiences of our trip.

During our one-day tour, we experienced a string of what I can only describe as good karma.
  • At one point, we were looking for the aerial tram, but our GPS led us astray and we found ourselves lost in the suburbs. A landscaper working in a yard not only gave us detailed directions to our destination, he further recommended his favourite ice cream shop, Salt & Straw ice cream to us.
  • At the aforementioned ice cream shop, the cheerful upbeat girl working behind the counter let us sample every flavour of ice cream they had before we made our choice. She also recommended the Portland City Grill to us as a place to have a nice dinner.
  • At the tram we couldn't find any place to park. The attendant at the nearby hospital was nice enough to let the visiting Canadians park in his lot for free despite the fact that it was a pay parking lot for hospital patrons only.
  • Following the tram tour, we decided to ride the highly praised Portland commuter rail to see the city at large. However, the ticket-issue machine was broken at the time. The conductor of the train told us that 'as much as I would love to take your money today I'm just going to have to let you ride for free'.
All this love and good fortune left us feeling pretty good about Portland. We stopped in at Voodoo Donut and picked up a dozen donuts. We ate two, but gave the rest away to homeless people in the area -- our way of paying it forward.

Approached to Portland seen from the tram...
The not-so-mean streets of Portland...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Death Valley Part II

The dunes of Death Valley...
Death Valley is damn hot. We had the air conditioning cranked to the max while driving through it. According to our van's external thermometer, the temperature peaked at 40 degrees C during our day there -- 104 degrees F

What's even more amazing is that there are actually two communities in the valley. They are appropriately named Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Those are some bad-ass names...

We drove to the parking lot of Badwater Basin -- another bad-ass name -- and hiked out onto the salt flats. Badwater Basin is located 282 feet below sea level. Here my wife demonstrates sea level against the canyon wall behind here.
Practicing her Australian crawl?
The lonely hitchhiker...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Death Valley

Flash flood in California...
Scary encounter with a desert flash flood...
From Las Vegas, we drove west to California. The intent was was to reach Death Valley National Park around sunrise for the best photos so we drove through the night. At one point, under a black sky with no light visible in any direction, we crested a small rise in the highway. On the other side we saw what appeared to be a large hole so deep that it was pitch black.

We were driving too fast to stop and for a split second I held my breath thinking we are about to plunge into an abyss. Instead we saw a spray of water shoot up in the glare of our headlights as we hit a shallow patch of water.

After we braked hard and stopped -- and started breathing again – we got out to survey the scene. During the night, heavy rain had created a flash flood. In the van headlights we could see the dark water flowing swiftly across the highway, carrying uprooted shrubs and the occasional bit of garbage with it. It appeared to be about a foot or so deep so we proceeded slowly. I was worried about sinkholes but we didn’t encounter any problems.

We arrived at the doorstep to Death Valley shortly before sunrise. We parked beside the highway for a brief nap as I didn’t want to arrive too soon. When I awoke the sky was getting light. I left Leona to sleep in the van and hiked to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun rise.

Soon after, we continued on our way, arriving at the national park early in the morning. We drove to the top of a scenic lookout with fabulous views of the valley laid out before us. Similar to Utah, the landscape of Death Valley is barren of plant life but rather than the Martian red landscape of Utah, Death Valley resembles the moon.

Sunrise over Death Valley...
The sun rises over Death Valley...
I sneaked a quick pic of this couple sleeping in the warms rays of the rising sun...

Catching early morning rays...

Friday, October 4, 2013

Stratos-fear

The view of the Vegas strip from the Stratosphere Tower...
The view of the Vegas strip from the Stratosphere Tower...
I have always had an intense fear of heights in my life, probably related to some negative experiences as a child. Several years ago, however, I decided to face my fears starting with a bungy jump on Vancouver Island. That eventually led to a challenge to myself to jump from the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas.

From Arizona, we drove up to Vegas especially to do the jump. Initially the jump attraction was closed due to the storm activity that you can see to the left in the photo above. We went for dinner and by the time we finished, the attraction had re-opened.

Yikes! Now I was committed and there was no turning back.

Nearly 900 feet over the streets of Vegas...
GULP! 880 feet over the streets of Vegas...
The jump is the highest controlled freefall in the world. You step out onto a small platform 880 feet above the streets of Vegas. The view straight down is unnerving. See the small blue square with the white dot in the middle in the photo below? THAT's the target where you land.

Don't look down...
You step off the platform, freefall for a couple of seconds and then fall at 40 mph all the way to the ground, landing about 17 seconds later.

I'm not going to be humble here. This jump took every bit of my willpower to follow through and I did it through a combination of self-talk and meditation techniques. If you watch the video on YouTube, you'll notice that I don't appear overly afraid, but I have the most intense look I've ever seen on myself.

My wife also did the jump. In fact, she jumped before I did. Just as I was about to go, she stepped forward with an almost maniacal gusto. I'm not sure what her motivation was to go first but it seemed important to her so I figured it was best to let her take the lead.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

More Chloride

Junk passes for art in Chloride, Arizona.
Hate my junk? You must be one of those anti-American Taliban lovers!

More photos of the unique town of Chloride.

As I mentioned in my last post, locals pile all sorts of junk in their front yards or hang it from trees and pass it off as art. Eye of the beholder, I guess. I like how the person above makes a patriotic statement out of their crap. There's a joke there somewhere...

Derelict gas station in Chloride, AZ.
Another derelict gas station...

We learned from a local of murals painted on rocks a few kilometres outside of town. The road there was so rutted and strewn with rocks though that we had to park our van and hike to them.

The murals of Chloride, AZ...
Somebody's been smoking peyote!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Chloride

Colourful abode in Chloride, AZ...
Vintage Chloride, AZ...
After our rafting trip we pushed westward to reach Death Valley, CA. We stopped at a Walmart in Kingman, Arizona to stock up on food and ice. I'm going to go on record as saying that we have never seen so many morbidly obese people under one roof ANYWHERE. Seriously. It was disgusting/shocking at how many people were waddling about wearing bib overalls because that was likely the only thing that would fit them.

We got our goods and left pronto, but it was late in the day and we had to stop soon. I saw a highway sign for RV and tent-trailer camping and on a spur of the moment we followed the directions and soon found ourselves in Chloride, Arizona.

It turned out to be one of the most unusual and entertaining stops along our route.

It's one of those off-the-main highway backward towns that might feature in a Stephen King novel, or maybe one of those giant bug sci-fi movies from the 50s. The entire town consists of only a few hundred people and maybe eight square blocks of dusty unpaved streets and beat up homes.

Our campsite was a sweet deal, or so we thought at first. For $10 we found ourselves in a large gravel lot that backed onto the hills surrounding the town. Except for a row of empty RVs being stored we had the lot to ourselves. The amiable owner did tell us to expect to hear wildlife and he wasn't kidding. The coyotes passed by all night long just a few feet from our tent-trailer, yipping and howling constantly.

We spent the next day exploring the town. It was a photographer's dream, full of old and abandoned homes and businesses. What was unusual was the art junk that was hanging from trees and piled up along the front yard fences. Broken glass bottles, old appliances and cookware... it was all thrown together in such a way that it was clear it was considered 'decor'.

At one point, a local -- looking every bit the vintage hillbilly with his missing teeth, scraggly facial hair, and unkempt hat and clothing --  came hobbling up to us on a cane. He regarded my camera then said to us:"If you go around that gas station you can get a real nice picture of a cactus in a bowl." He smiled a semi-toothless smile, then shuffled off down the street.

Leona and I glanced dubiously at each other, but we decided to check it out. On a crappy green plastic table in small chipped blue pot was a half-drowned cactus barely clinging to life. We're pretty sure that Festus was having fun with the 'city slickers' but, you know, we found it funny just the same.

A cattle skull hangs outside a home in Chloride.
Looks like an album cover...
Rusty pots and pans hang from a Chloride tree.
Hang your crap from a tree and call it art...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Seligman

Main street on Route 66...
Main Street,  Seligman AZ...
Seligman, Arizona is one of those throwback small western towns that looks like it stopped evolving sometime in the 50s or early-60s. This is a deliberate decision on their part to capitalize on their status as a  destination along the famous Route 66.

The main street is a collection of tacky tourist gift shops and restaurants that would look at home in Happy Days or American Graffiti. We had lunch at the quirky Roadkill Cafe -- their motto: you kill it, we grill it. The food was standard burger joint, but we were too busy staring at all the memorabilia on the walls and the stuffed animal dioramas to care

Battered colourful car outside a tourist shop in Seligman, AZ...
A car outside the historic Seligman Sundries building...

Monday, September 30, 2013

... and back out again.

The crew poses at the top...
We spent four days rafting the Colorado River. At the end of it, our crew dropped us off at Phantom Ranch early in the morning. We were looking at an eight mile hike out, including a one mile change in elevation with about twenty-five pounds of gear on our back.

The crew urged us to get as high as we could before the rising sun cleared the canyon walls as temperatures in the canyon can hit over 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) during the hottest part of the day.

I'm proud to say that Team Canada -- represented by my wife and I -- made it to the top in 3.5 hours. It was a tough slog and the thighs were definitely complaining near the end, but it was made easier by the fact that we had deliberately trained for it. One Brazilian girl in our group made it up nearly as fast as we did but the next members didn't arrive for another three hours!
The Kissing Rock...
A river runs through it....

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chocolate milk!!

Incoming!
This is the muddy Colorado River about to smack me in the face. This photo was a lucky fluke. I was trying to take a video as we went through a rapid and I hit the wrong button by mistake.

Much of the upper run is fed by side rivers such as the Little Colorado River which flood the main river with reddish-brown mud. The result is that it seems like you are travelling down a river of chocolate milk.

Colorado mud...
The first night we camped it rained, but it was a warm rain so we weren't bothered by it. The only annoyance was the fine red sand that stuck to everything.

Camping in the warm rain...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Into the depths...

Rafting down the muddy Colorado River...
Down the muddy Colorado River...
After a brief stay in Flagstaff, AZ my wife and I took part in a four day motorized rafting trip organized by Grand Canyon Whitewater Rafting down the upper Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park runs 290 miles from Lee's Landing to Lake Mead. The upper Grand Canyon rafting tour only takes you as far as Phantom Ranch while the lower rafting tour continues on to Diamond Creek.

Grand Canyon seen from the bottom...
Grand Canyon from the bottom...
The trip was well organized. The company provides everything -- transportation, food (they even prepare and serve it), camping gear...

The chief guide was the laconic Jason. He was assisted by a crew of three. What impressed me was that despite the very different personalities of the crew they were a tightly-knit team that worked together with almost military cohesion to ensure our experience was an enjoyable one.

Our laconic leader Jason...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Grand Canyon


Continuing our summer travels after Winslow, Arizona we arrived at the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The sheer size of the canyon overwhelms you. Ten miles wide, 230 miles long and one mile deep... People gather at sunset to takes lots and lots of photos.

The Watchtower sits at the edge of the north rim. It features views, native artwork and books on the history of the canyon.






Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Deep Impact

Deep impact! The Arizona Meteor Crater
Bigger than it looks...
I discovered that the Arizona Meteor Crater wasn't too far from Flagstaff and we made a special trip to see it on our way from Winslow.

I had read of this crater as a kid -- had seen photos of it in some of my astronomy books -- but still I wasn't prepared for the massive scale of it.  You could drop a 50+ storey building in the middle of the crater and it wouldn't reach the height of the sides.

The meteor that caused it struck about 50,000 years ago. If a similar or larger sized asteroid or meteor were to strike today the destruction it would cause is scary to contemplate.

The crater was used by Apollo astronauts for part of their training As a movie buff, I was also intrigued to learn that the crater was used in the filming of John Carpenter's Starman.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Winslow, Arizona

Totem pole in Winslow, Arizona...
Ancient eyes watch over the landscape.
More images from Winslow, Arizona. This totem pole is part of a park that features this poem-on-sticks...

From Wikipedia:
Ancient Pueblo peoples or Ancestral Pueblo peoples were an ancient Native American culture centered on the present-day Four Corners area of the United States, comprising southern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. They lived in a range of structures, including pit houses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings designed so that they could lift entry ladders during enemy attacks, which provided security. Archaeologists referred to one of these cultural groups as the Anasazi, although the term is not preferred by contemporary Pueblo peoples.

The description 'Anasazi' was bestowed upon them by the Navajos with whom they came into conflict. The word means 'ancient enemy' and both groups consider the word derogatory.

Park at Winslow, Arizona...
Winslow poetry...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Pale Blue Dot

The expression 'pale blue dot' was first coined by astrophysicist Carl Sagan.

He was one of the guiding lights behind the Voyager missions of the late 1970s that sent two probes to explore the outer planets. Twelve years after Voyager 1 left Earth, it was on the outer fringes of our solar system.

Sagan campaigned NASA to have the probe's camera turned towards Earth to take a photo. The subsequent image was of a single blue pixel -- the Earth -- almost invisible in the larger background of the scattered light rays of the sun and infinite space beyond.

The image of that single blue pixel inspired Sagan to ruminate on its larger implications. These meditations became the subject of a book and a speech later dubbed 'The Pale Blue Dot'.

The pale blue dot reminds us of the importance of perspective. The worries that gnaw at us... the regrets that burden us... the daily irritations that consume us... they don't mean much seen from 6 billion miles away.

Many of the Apollo astronauts were profoundly affected by their experience for much the same reason. Seeing the earth and the entirely of the human race from the surface of another world had the effect of reminding them that our common humanity on this frail planet lost in space is stronger than any national or religious differences that we may have.

When you get overwhelmed at times take a deep breath or two or three. Imagine yourself expanding outwards... past forests, past oceans and deserts... As you expand out past the atmosphere of earth itself the noise of humanity itself starts to fade in the distance. You continue to expand further still, out beyond the orbit of the moon, further and further, out beyond the orbits of the nearest planets...

Imagine our blue marble shrinking in the distance falling further and further behind until it is only a single blue point in a sea of brilliant stars.

As you stare at it from a God's-eye view six billion miles away you are overcome with a profound and overwhelming calmness as the insignificance of your puny cares and worries in the grand scheme of the universe become apparent.