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My walk begins a few years ago, on a foggy night.

I’m going down Queen Street in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

An old colonial town on the Chester River,  where I’m attending Washington College.

 

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It’s pretty late, nearly midnight, on my nightly walk around town.

Down an all-too-familiar route — the town is small and only the historic district is worth seeing, so I know the path by heart.

I stop to admire #116 on the corner of Queen and High Streets.

My favorite dream home, in a town full of stunningly gorgeous historic homes.

Along the tiny harbor, a row of brick Georgians, some on the National Register, from the days when this was a British port of entry.

 

Widehall LOC

 

Right by the water sits “Widehall”(owned in the past by governors, senators, and judges).

A wonderful scent mixing with the salt water smells, from flowering shrubs in its walled garden.

Next door, is the old Custom House, home at times to British tax collectors and redcoats.

And then to a leader of the Sons of Liberty.  Who traded in slaves.

I wind through the old streets, move quietly down the back alley by the courthouse, and past the old historical society building.

I walk quickly, by Eastern Shore standards.

It is a foggy night, there is a moon up there somewhere in the clouds, and I reach my favorite street.

 

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My footsteps echo against the pavement, I hear each step very clearly.

The dim hum of traffic on Washington Avenue heading toward the bridge fades away.

I vaguely recall checking my phone to see the time, just as it reached midnight.

 

 

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I do not subscribe to a belief in ghosts or spirits, but at that particular witching hour, I am quite convinced that for the minute and a half it took me to reach the end of the street, I stepped back in time.

Walking swiftly through a swirling fog, in the warm, humid, late-spring air of Maryland, the noise of the cars was silenced, and I heard what sounded like horse hooves clopping behind me.

I turned and looked, but there was nothing, just fog and the same old houses I’d been admiring each night for years.

I continued walking, and mid-stride, I again heard the sound of horse hooves striking cobbles, and maybe a sound like a cane clacking against the brick pavers.

 

107 Water St

 

By the time I reached Queen Street where it becomes wider and busier, as it meets High Street, I returned to the present.

I was aware suddenly of the steady stream of sound of cars going over the bridge across the river.

But, I was sure that, only a moment ago, I had not heard any cars, nor did I recall that that the temperature had just been this humid and breezy.

I had walked into a patch of warmth, silent of the sounds of the modern era, and, upon reflection, were the street lights really that dim, or did they just not appear a moment ago?

I’ve read about “marine inversion layers” and other weather phenomena, that refract sound waves, and all that.

None of those meteorological books mention horse hooves.

 

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Midnight in Paris may be a more romantic vision, but a late-night stroll in Chestertown is apparently magical. There is something in that town’s old district that lulls you into feeling at home, wanting to linger longer. You find yourself drawn to it, walking it’s streets every night, researching the old homes that you secretly wish you could step into, if only for a minute.

Walking back from this neighborhood, I realized how I was a bit sad to be walking around in what was clearly modern times, passing the seedy Royal Farms and the beat-up gas station, where girls always worried about getting hassled.

This modern era wasn’t the town I loved.

As I reflect on it, that particular corner, Queen and High Street, really is “magical.”  Never did I feel stressed once I walked down past it, and life seemed slower. The pace of the town was muted on that street at night.  My favorite, familiar houses seemed so inviting.

On another night, after a day filled with lectures and talking, walking late with a friend who appreciated silence and the old houses as much as I did, I think I was again aware of a shift in time, although this second time the shift felt less dramatic.

The old Imperial Hotel, ritzy, too pricey for me to pay too many visits, also seemed to slow down time, and its bar exudes the 1920’s, the perfect place for a Sidecar or Gin Rickey.  Memorable for having my first and best Bloody Mary there.  It felt like the Twenties:  the music, spiffy clientele, seersucker suits, the whispered conversations. This may be partially due to the amount of vodka in the Bloody Mary (and I may have had more than one, because they were so good),  but I distinctly remember feeling this way even before I took my first sip. It is of no great surprise that this copacetic joint sits on the corner of Queen and High.

I digress; before soaking up atmosphere and alcohol at the Imperial Hotel, I was walking.

Farther along High Street, near Philosopher’s Terrace, it’s not fun at night.  Or ever.  It smells of diesel.  Local unwashed and resentful denizens hang out by the low-rent housing on the corner, shouting and gesticulating toward you, as you go by at night.  Then you pass the frat boys, lounging about their dilapidated off-campus houses for a stretch, until you reach the college. That night, the night I heard horses, late though it was, the magic was starting to wear off as the noise of cars, the shouts of local hooligans, and the music and drunken sounds of a frat party drowned out my midnight reverie.

Turning down another street to escape back into the silent night.   Walking up to my dorm, an old brick pile from the 1800’s, I once again felt the warm glow of walking through a quiet time, though I knew I was in my own era, as a Volvo slowly glided past, and the glow of an iPhone illuminated a silhouette smoking a cigarette. I looked down, and my magical encounter had ended, but it renewed my enthusiasm for that little town at the edge of the River Chester.

 

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my home for senior year.

 

 

Chestertown History, Colonial History, Uncategorized

A Walk Through Colonial America, Part II ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ A Foggy Night in Chestertown, Maryland 1706

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History, travel

New Mexico. The Deserted Village.

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Ancient

I am amazed and fascinated by the bloggers who write-as-they-go.    I mean, almost literally posting their life as it happens.

I kind of like to mull things over a bit.  Meaning, sometimes, for years!

So…it has been a few years, but I wanted to describe one day, and a night, in the Southwest desert.

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I’d visited my extended family in both New Mexico and Utah, but I had never been to the “Four Corners” region (where the northern corners of New Mexico and Arizona meet southern corners of Utah and Colorado).  This was not a vacation, but rather a traveling class, the summer after my freshman year of college — learning about the ecosystems, cultural and biological, of the Southwest.

We visited a range of places:  an old played-out mining town, several spots in the vast Navajo territory, and the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and smaller pre-Columbian sites.

After a freshman year in a tiny concrete dorm, slogging through all the “requirements” I hated, to get them out of the way, this was like a slice of heaven.  Eating Navajo fry-bread, staying in a haunted old hotel in Durango, rafting down a river in Utah, walking around Santa Fe, seeing beautiful country and towns.

The most striking element of the trip was visiting pre-Columbian sites in New Mexico and Colorado.

Visiting a deserted house always seems like an interesting detective challenge to me – seeing what information or impressions you can glean about the former residents.  The folks at Chaco Canyon, who built all these complicated homes and religious chambers, and lived here for centuries, just walked away from it all eight hundred years ago.

You almost expect they’d leave a note on the kitchen table, telling us where they went, or why they left.   Maybe a warning to us, about exhausting your resources.

 

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Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Ozymandias  P.B. Shelley

Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in this country.  Some houses and kivas date back to the 800’s.

Other than Roman sites in Europe, the oldest structures I’ve seen.  An eye-opener for an East Coast boy, growing up where everyone likes to consider themselves the keepers of the nation’s history.

I’ve walked through 17th century houses in the Hudson Valley, New England, Pennsylvania, and the south.  The history center at my college, founded during the Revolution, is in a colonial-era custom house.  All of us history buffs in the East, revere the remnants of the British days and New Netherlands, and just north in Canada, Nouvelle-France.  

But, of course, the colonial buildings in the Southwest are even older.  And then to see a native town many centuries older than any of those sites, was pretty spectacular.

485148_607045559321012_2013764659_nAesthetically, I much preferred Mesa Verde, with the dense pine forests on the mountain sides providing a more beautiful, and certainly more dramatic backdrop, than the vast expanses of brown and yellow desert of New Mexico. But, Chaco was the older site, and the start of a great adventure.

Part of what made our visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable, was that we stayed there at night.

 

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Summer in Chaco Canyon, during the daytime, is not pleasant.  The New Mexico sun is just too intense for a fair-skinned northerner. When 110 degree heat is beating down from a large and unrelenting sun, and you’re inhaling dust in airless old sunken kivas, and also discovering that some of the “ruins” had been rebuilt in the 1930’s (and not that well in many cases) made the whole complex seem less impressive.

But by night, they again became extraordinary.

Camping out let us see the solstice light shine into a special hole in a kiva, to mark the passing of the solar event,(Indiana Jones-style)

We spent a night enveloped by the most extraordinary stars.

 

The nighttime skies in the Southwest are incredible — so much clearer and darker than home, perfect for staring into the millions of twinkling celestial bodies. The”vastness of the universe” sounds corny, but it really unfolded before our eyes, making it seem even more magical to be lying a stone’s throw from the ruins of a vanished civilization.

 

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By day, the desert is foreboding, vast and seemingly never-ending.  It spread out all around us, making us feel isolated.  And desiring to stay close to camp, so as to not get lost wandering it’s vast tractless expanse.

 

25947_606798252679076_482319926_nDespite all that nearly empty land, in my mind, the heat and dryness confine us.  We’re trapped into staying with the group.  Or in a building.  Or near the road.

Heatstroke and dehydration outweigh other hidden dangers. I wasn’t too worried about rattlesnakes, we have them back home, too, and I’ve always thought they seem like pretty reasonable creatures – – I appreciate that they give us a warning, so they don’t have to bite.

 

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But at night, the darkness softened the intensity of the desert and gave a sense of release.

 

 

The ruins, impressive in the daytime, seemed far more ancient by night, lit by our fires. The campfires cast a glow on the old stones.

Do I even remember this right?  Or did I invent the memory — I think we had fires there.  Or perhaps just lanterns.  It was forest fire season, but there was so little vegetation, it was ok to build a fire in specific camping spots.

Maybe I just wanted to remember campfires, staying at a place where the home fires went out so many years ago.

We were there very briefly, and the people that built these homes, had withered away long ago.  The old phrase seemed very apt “the sands of time.”

But the stars, and the entire universe were seeming to expand before our very eyes.

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Chestertown History, History

The Sultana. The beautiful ship. Sailing on the…great blue wet thing.

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The sun rises over the Bay.  Vibrant hues of pink and red intensify, and I watch as the nation’s largest and most storied bay is illuminated, wave by wave, in resplendent colors.

You have to get a bit poetic, and delve into your vocabulary, for settings like this.

That morning, one of the major tributaries of this great bay was already buzzing with life in the pre-dawn hours.

I was awakened just before the sun began to clamber up into the sky, the dark stillness of night transforming into a subtle blue, though barely illuminated.

Like walking through a house in the dimness, save for the reflected light from a room far down the hallway.

Amidst all this beauty and poetry,  jolted awake on deck when a radio blares out the new draft picks for the Baltimore Orioles and an outboard motor starts roaring, both belonging to a fishing boat racing by.

11665373_1164026036956292_2603883201118270301_nI was, with nine classmates, sleeping in the middle of the Chester River on a tiny schooner, the Sultana.  We’re sailing down into the Chesapeake Bay.

While many people will always recall their first days at college, most do not begin their four-year journey on a recreated 18th-century British sailing ship. It was an odd start, but a good one, beginning the process of washing away high school routines and discovering a bigger world.

The original HMS Sultana was a miniature (fifty-nine foot) two-masted ship, Boston-built in 1767, patrolling up the Atlantic coast as far as Nova Scotia, as a British revenue cutter.  It had the distinction of being the smallest warship in His Majesty’s Fleet.  In the old days, almost all of the original crew deserted.

It’s pretty cramped below-desks, and maybe they got on each other’s nerves.  Or got tired of eating lobscouse and maggoty biscuits.

But we didn’t eat lobscouse, as far as I know.  I keep looking it up, but then forget what the heck it is.

And I did not desert.  I loved this little ship.

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A scurvy lot of scoundrels

Washington College, in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, arranged this freshman experience with the Sultana Foundation.  So there I was, a shy young landlubber from the hinterlands, raised far from salt water, on a wooden ship full of strangers, two thousand square feet of canvas, and a lot of complicated ropes (sheets?) for a week. With the exception of a backup diesel in the hold, it was authentic down to the working swivel-guns.  And it was awesome.

photo from the Washington College website. That’s the Kalmar Nykel on the far left, from Wilmington, a replica of the Dutch ship, that carried over Swedish settlers in the 1600’s. Portside, I meant to say.

The most remarkable memory for me was the first night, sleeping above decks, seeing more stars than I had ever seen, other than in the Adirondacks.  Despite being on the edge of the light pollution from the vast megalopolis across the bay (DC-Baltimore-Philly) we could look up into a fantastic number of stars and shooting stars.

10408511_1019514914740739_3930343943261198002_nSleeping on the decks felt great, and it seemed less humid on the river than ashore in Maryland.  Waking up early, we felt pretty cool even in August.

Half-way through our voyage, we stepped ashore just in time to feel waves.

Generally not an active seismic area, on August 23, 2011, an earthquake rocked Washington D.C., with tremors felt as far north as New England.  The shockwave cracked the Washington Monument, and the chimneys of my college president’s historic home. We were in a van, going on an excursion off the boat for one day, when it struck, and we just assumed the boom was the van backfiring.  Later we learned it was a quake.

The next day, we were back aboard the ship, after a long day of sightseeing, history and culture lessons about the Chesapeake region, and an impromptu lesson on seismology.  But a personal highlight of the little voyage was next, and also happened on land.

We had sailed a bit farther down the widening river, closer and closer to the Bay itself, and had arrived at the rural Maryland equivalent of “Millionaire’s Row.”  Maryland is the richest state in the USA per capita, jammed with millionaires and billionaires, so a long succession of waterfront mansions wasn’t anything noteworthy to the locals.  But when we docked at one, I was pretty excited.  When a kid from a poor, rural, nothing town gets to spend the night at a mansion, it’s kind of a kick.

Well, technically, not actually guests in the mansion.  We kind of went round the backdoor, and slept in the boathouse!  Still very fun – their “boat house” was massive, enough room for two yachts, with a bathroom and a lounge of sorts.  (What Mel Brooks movie had that sign, “Our Bathrooms Are Nicer Than Most People’s Homes“?)

We slept fairly comfortably there and when I awoke, a sartorially-elegant and very dignified man greeted us. I was happy to be able to thank the owner for his hospitality, and told him, I thought his place was lovely.

He laughed, and told me, he was just the butler.

This mansion, or I should say, villa (complete with an actual Roman bath/pool that we enjoyed, pilfered sometime in the last century from somewhere in the Ancient World), belonged to none other than the former owner of RCA, or some such mega-corporation.  (And in case I didn’t come across right, I’m grateful that he let a mob of college kids stay on his estate.) 

So that’s all I wanted to write about that trip – – no typhoons, U-boats, or mermaids to report.  Kind of tame, but not everyone is cut out for “The Perfect Storm.”  And if you think about it, that book wasn’t autobiographical.  Because the crew was all underwater.  If I have to choose, I’d  prefer my writing to be dry instead of posthumous.  But maybe you don’t agree!  

I love history, don’t know if I ever mentioned that.  Claiming that this brief college cruise gave me a deep insight into the Age of Sail would be pretentious and idiotic, but you have to seize upon whatever fragments or experiences you can.  Enjoying the stars, or crammed below-decks when it rained, we perhaps gained a tiny, foggy glimpse of something of the past, that we hadn’t seen before.  That’s all.

What also impresses me about this, is how quickly my own trip seems like Ancient History.  

It really seems like quite a long while ago, and already my memories are jumbled.  I know the chronometer was invented for sailors, roughly about the same time as the original Sultana was launched, but somehow, “being at sea” left me chronologically-confused as to where and when we sailed.  (And before you say anything — the water was brackish, and connected eventually to the Atlantic, so I’m calling it “at sea,” so sue me.)  But I think the memories, however disjointed, will stick with me, and whenever I read a mariner’s tale, or see sails out on the water, I start dreaming of a sea voyage. 

Walter Mitty at the helm

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travel, Uncategorized

The Town in the Mountains

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Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”

They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.

I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger.  I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.

“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing.  Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.

And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes.  A truly nasty smell.

One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.

Or at least, turn up his nose.

And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!

I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.

actually this isn’t on the Durango line – it was taken in Utah. But good and sooty-looking.

But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.

Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town.  Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.  Summer 2012 Colorado Robbie

 

There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.

 

The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.

The hot springs felt great.  But smelled bad.  The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.

So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.

Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me.  There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.

A horse called Banjo. Best side forward, I always say.

Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier.  The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher.  Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.

Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango.  Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.

But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to TomahawkButch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.

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So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.

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Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.

As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat.  We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.

Robbie - Southwest seminar Durango

The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams.  The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.

At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there.  The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen.  Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point.  It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.

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Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.

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So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.

 

Well, he was slouching, too.

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hiking, travel, Uncategorized

Erosion and Exclusion – An American Experience of the Southwest

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I’m a New Yorker.  I grew up Upstate — the small-town part, farms, woods, far from NYC.

So it’s funny, while I was going to college in Asia, whenever someone brought up “America,” the first image in my mind wasn’t New York, but the deserts of the Southwest.

Getting ready to study abroad in Hong Kong, I had decided to see more of my own country first. And so I went “Out West.”

IMG_7549The American West has long captured the hearts and imaginations of many.  The romantic image of it, anyway.  The Rocky Mountains, vast cornfields, prairies, cowboys, fancy boots, ten-gallon hats, sixguns, cattle drives, herds of bison, the endless expanses of range and desert, where sky and ground meet for mile upon mile.

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N. C. Wyeth. Another Easterner who was fascinated by the West.

Traveling around the West was an extraordinary experience – in many ways, it was exactly like visiting a foreign nation.  You feel a connection to the people there — one minute, incredibly different from the ones I grew up with, and the next, exactly the same. The English have certain characteristics that allow you to differentiate instantly between an American and a Brit, or a Londoner from a Geordie for that matter.  But these Westerners, it was harder to put your finger on it – they were a different sort of American, and slippery to define.

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Almost like an alternative universe. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I comprehend more clearly, what an intractable mess a President has to preside over.     He’s ruling over an area that flies the same flag as the East, and yet doesn’t live by the same rules, the same attitudes, or the same culture.In the East, where we’re familiar with the networks of money and tradition that hold the key to power and happiness, we aren’t clear how things work in the West.

 

IMG_7550 (1)A lot of people think of the American West as being…what, exactly?

Rougher.  Decadent in some way.  Spanish.  Less talkative.  Less emotional.  Unlike us.

And some truth there.  They aren’t like us.  The people I met in the West seemed odd, in unpredictable ways.  Flagstaff has cowboys who vote left. People in Santa Fe have no sense of time.  Grizzled, bearded old guys in Colorado, looking tough as hell, were really friendly.

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I think that is part of the allure of the West, it is rapidly changing and yet it feels timeless. In the east there is a heart attack-inducing, blood pressure-raising frenetic energy, as millions of people clog roadways, crowd walkways, jam cities, swarm suburbs, flood villages. Everyone in the East is in a hurry, industrious and hard-working. And yet, most of this nation’s businesses are moving west. Their cities have sprawl, pollution, traffic as bad or worse than ours, and they mostly lack the public transportation we have in the East Coast.

But as a Rule, they also Take It Down a Notch – you don’t feel harried, you don’t feel stressed out. There’s a calmness that pervades everything.

I’m sure they live longer out there because of that, in fact I’m certain that’s the key. Perhaps it’s the Spanish heritage, because I got a similar feeling in Spain.  But how much does that explain?  British origins aren’t to blame for the East Coast’s behavior — look at the chilled-out behavior of Australians or Canadians.

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But I see the appeal of the West, and why so many people from overseas view it as the true America. The character and virtues we’re known for still ride the range there – a world less superficial, and without the East’s stagnation.  A spirit of freedom and independence pervades.

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N. C. Wyeth

This was the first time I really felt like the U.S. is a nation of nations. Sometimes Americans criticize China and Russia as being too multicultural – meaning they’re unhappy, dissonant empires – and would be better off broken into a bunch of smaller states.

But maybe this is true of the U.S., too?  I don’t think a Yankee from Massachusetts identifies with a person from Tupelo or Santa Fe.  Yes, there’s that American Identity throughout the USA, but spend one day, and you know that each region interprets “American” way differently. The politic strife of this century shows that each state is still almost a separate nation, legally, but it is the regional differences that play a bigger role in many regards.

A Marylander seems no different than a Virginian, other than than cuisine. But a person from California is just not the same as a person from Connecticut.   Our regions still dominate our mindsets. We’re a transient society, and yet that hasn’t seemed to have much of an effect on the bits of culture that are distinctly regional.

I found Westerners to be better in some ways. They don’t conform to the same systems as we do in the East, systems that are familiar but limiting. There is a sense of freedom that you cannot feel in the East, a sense of optimism, open and unbridled ambition, and a down-to-earth sensibility that makes you realize, for example, these cowboy Navajo strangers know what they are doing and how to do it.

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And then I found an even deeper divide, literally and figuratively.  The biggest culture shock came from visiting the “fourth world” in the Grand Canyon.

The Fourth World is not a clear concept to most Americans, because it’s something we try hard to ignore, talk around, excuse, or keep hushed up.  Like pretending not to notice an ulcer or cyst on a person’s body.  It is our undeclared gulag system.

Basically, it is a third world nation within the confines of a first world nation.

Some reservations are nice. Really nice, in fact.  The Indians who were fortunate enough to be exiled where natural gas or oil was discovered, or who built a successful casino, live pretty well. The houses belonging to the Navajo in Northern Arizona show they aren’t hurting for money.

But go into the heart of the Grand Canyon, to see the Havasupi tribe’s last outpost. Sorry I don’t have a more clever metaphor – you just keep going downhill, literally a mile down into the earth, and hit something close to rock bottom economically.   The tribe’s Supai village, a few hundred residents, is on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It’s pummeled by oppressive heat and sand storms. There’s no road that goes there, and therefore there aren’t any cars.

Well that’s not entirely true, I saw one pickup truck, but I honestly don’t know how it got down there. To get to the village, you walk eight miles down the canyon, or take a burro, or a helicopter.  I spent one night there with some classmates.  The Havasupi have been there over 800 years.

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The town was like something you’d see in a cowboy movie, a low-budget,  black-and-white spaghetti western. Shacks, with tin roofs. Dirt streets, tamped down by bare feet. Horses and dogs roaming around.  I’ve never seen dogs that looked so skinny, sick, and diseased.  There was a post office, a “hospital,” general store, a tiny church or two.  And a restaurant, because the village is a bit of a destination for European tourists.

The store was mostly empty, and what they did stock was all bad for you. Little wonder that 90% of Havasupi have diabetes. Shirtless kids roamed the streets, and old men and women, with faces wrinkled by time and sun, sat outside – just sitting, and staring.  They look at their young people, many of them losing their cultural identity. Many of the old ones had already lost their own identity for that matter, in their day, forced into government schools to be “Americanized”.

This squalor is in an absolutely beautiful spot.  It’s an odd contrast, this decrepit village next to the turquoise waters of the Supai falls. Cool natural rock pools, with water from the stream offering a respite from the sun.

Until we realized the water was fouled by horses and whatever else was living upstream.

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The entire time I was there, I felt uneasy. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

It was partially heat- and diet-related, I’m sure of that, but I also think it was, in retrospect, the realization that this sort of poverty should not exist, anywhere. And especially not in the United States. It felt like a movie set, except that the people were not actors. We were outsiders, often met with hostile glares. I understand this resentment of course – to them, all of us Anglos [white people] were the reason that for many years, this sweltering, fly- infested valley was all they had left of their ancestral lands.

A century ago, the National Park Service, and the Navajos, the Havasupai’s much-bigger rivals, finagled and seized the canyon, leaving only a few hundred acres and this tiny Supai village as a token of their “good will”. So it was a nation inside a nation inside a nation. And it wasn’t doing too well. It reminded me of a UNICEF advertisement, except it didn’t even have a famous actress involved, telling us to donate.  They finally prevailed in court, and regained their territory, but it doesn’t seem to have brought them much joy.

I left that part feeling very confused, a combination of exhaustion, anger, curiosity and maybe even fear.  I guess sometime, most people have, at least for a second or too, looked at a textbook picture of some medical condition, a disgusting abssess or horrible wound, before slamming the book shut, yuck.

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Let’s be honest, I also felt moments of excitement, because in a weird way it was exciting to see.  And also, I knew I was going to helicopter the hell out of there.  We flew out, and the little village faded into nothing as soon as we rose above the chasm’s edge.

The only places “officially” classified as 4th World in the US are the reservations for the native peoples.  Now that I’m living in Milwaukee, it’s too obvious that the inner cities of some cities qualify.  I’ve realized you don’t have to hide the 4th World in the bottom of the deepest canyon.  You don’t need “Indian Treaties,” fences, or walls.  It can be a few blocks away and remain invisible to most people.

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Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

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I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

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I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

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So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

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Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

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IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

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I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

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Norway, Telemark, travel

Driving in Norway-The Telemark and the Land of the Imagination

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DSC07692For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”.  People tend to use the word “magical.”

 

 

And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time.  Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.

Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.

Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)   

 

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So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.

 

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“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902

 

DSC07509Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this.  But, sorry, it really is kind of magical.  My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.

 

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My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists.  He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss.  That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.

DSC07691There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.

 

 

 

And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures. 

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“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900

 

Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome.  These are cities with Romance in their names.

Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up.  (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?)  London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.

 

DSC07345The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people).  You can see ski-slopes from downtown.

 

 

 

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What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery.  It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid.  Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial.  When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt.  It turned out to be well worth a visit.  Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists.  And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair.  Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.

"And then they heard a noise..."

“Afraid of the Dark”  Gerhard Munthe, 1906

And then a real stroke of luck.  The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals.  A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.

 

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“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.

Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.

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“Winter  Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914

Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car.  We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings.  Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.”  (It is tiny.  A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously.  Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)

The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there.  But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.

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DSC07545The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale.  Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.

 

 

 

So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires.  We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.

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IMG_0839What struck me first was how well everyone drove.  Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant.  Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy.  Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts  in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.

 

 

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DSC07545We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204.   These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor.  So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.

 

 

 

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DSC07680At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails.  The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.

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Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder.  Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them.  I did not take a picture.  I don’t know why.

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DSC07704I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah.  I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.

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At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests.  Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.

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Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose.  We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.

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Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map.  The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.

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It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.

 

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The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped.  The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice.  Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water.  The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine.  What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was  becoming less and less helpful.

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“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900

The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much.  I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes.  At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.

 

IMG_0401Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests.  Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories.  In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real.  And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts.  Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.

 

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DSC07516Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark  pristine lakes held secrets.  The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip  seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.

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Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway.  While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower,  I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.

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