Monday, December 29, 2014

The Silver Lining to a Cold Land

You may have read a dire-sounding warning in The Old Farmer's Almanac, "Beware the pogonip!" It shows up nearly every year in December. The expression "pogonip" is an anglification of the Shoshone word for cloud (payinappih). It names the atmospheric condition and effects of freezing winter fog, commonly formed in mountain valleys of the western United States, particularly Nevada. Apparently, the myth still persists that icy particles in the fog can be injurious to the lungs; this ironically in a state with a relatively high proportion of smokers.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Visiting a Minnesota Christmas Tree Farm

Charlie Brown and the passing of the 70s depressed the soulless market for artificial Christmas trees, so the annual tradition of picking a live--or rather, only recently dead--spruce, fir or pine tree is still the preferred way for the majority of American households to bring a little domestic nature home and cover it with Chinese-made plastic.

Most trees are purchased at impromptu lots adjacent to box stores and gas stations. It's not only food that comes from the supermarket. Where do they store them all year? My wife always feels there is nothing lonelier than an unpicked lot tree, destined for the wood chipper and garden mulch. So this time, we opted to get a little closer to the true source, and we visited a cut-your-own tree farm about a 30-minutes drive west of Duluth, Minnesota. It's a less wasteful American family tradition in places where the jungle isn't made of concrete.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - A What Kind of Pavement?

"A what kind of pavement?" I asked the unresponsive travel guidebook as we continued our drive tour along the eastern coast of Tasmania.

Tessellated pavement pans, Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania. Farther from the shoreline than the "loafs" (below) evaporating water leaves salt deposits that more readily corrode softer, more weakly-cemented sandstone of the concave pans than the relatively resistant joint filling between them.

In architectural terms, Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines "tessellated" or mosaic pavement (also known as floor mosaic) as interior or exterior floor covering composed of varicolored stone tesserae (Latin: “dice”), cubes, or tiles of other geometry closely fitted together in simple or complex designs with a durable grout or cement. Think of the courtyard mosaics of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Where is the Best Christmas Light Display?

America has an obsession with electrical stimulation. Even Snoopy gets in on the act.

Duluth, Minnesota is making its case as the world's capital of Christmas lights. It's a win-win for everyone, especially Minnesota Power. Does that reflect the crass commercialism bemoaned by Charlie Brown, or something more? It's a curious dichotomy for a community that was recently recognized as America's best outdoor town. Merv Griffin may have been on to something when he sang about this "Christmas City." There are only so many towns with their own holiday jingle.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Photo Essay - Storming Castle Hill, New Zealand

The indigenous Ngāi Tahu people named this place Kura Tawhiti, treasure of a distant land. Later European settlers, reminded of towering battlements, called it Castle Hill. It is well named in either case. Situated on the spine of New Zealand's South Island, south of Arthur's Pass, Castle Hill is still a high-country sheep station. But amoeboid, stony marbles crisply framed against a steely blue sky, it is also an otherworldly karst landscape of tumbling limestone boulders and tors rising from the rolling, grassy turf.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Picture of the Moment - An Invitation from Lowlands Beach

I love everything about this picture my wife took in June of 2010 -- soft winter's lighting of a late afternoon highlighting individual tufts of grass and distant hills, the beckoning of the stepped, sandy bush track. Even now I can feel it inviting me in. What could await you down below, where the winding path disappears into mystery?

And then there are the memories... We knew our time in Australia was coming to a close, the bitter-sweet end of something wonderful, like a warm bed the instant before your alarm rings on a cold morning, you appreciate it most at the last.

Lowlands beach is located near Denmark, on Western Australia's southwest coast. Drive west about 30 Km from Albany via Lower Denmark Road and turn left onto Tennessee Road S, following it until the end. The last 1.5 kilometers are unsealed. From Denmark, head west via the South Coast Highway (1) to where it intersects Lower Denmark Road.

You'll find a beautiful, white sandy beach nestled between granite cliffs.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Visitor's Guide to Holiday Meals in America

We travel to see the world, but whether in spirit or in person, we also export our own stamp upon those people we visit. It's easy to forget that our hosts in different places may be just as interested in us as we are in them. Perhaps the best window into the soul of a community is through its food, and festive occasions bring out the best in a national cuisine (or the worst). And what I know best is the American standard. The five-week holiday season--Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah through to New Year's day--is a triumvirate of opportunity for large family gatherings. So may this serve as an introduction to traditional American holiday fare for those five or seven people who haven't yet been overexposed to U.S. culture outside of North Korea, who probably don't have the internet or satellite television and won't read this anyway.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Follow the Yellow Brick Road

When you come across a sign for the Yellow Brick Road, you follow it. We didn't see any munchkins, and these Oz friends are obviously disguised as homo sapiens from the "Red Green Show," but we did see a little bit of gold over the rainbow. And I discovered an affectation for show tune choreography.

Looking westward, in the far distance you can see the headframe of the David Bell gold mine. A staking rush after discovery of the Hemlo Gold Camp in the early 1980s was Canada's largest since the Klondike. Taxes from locally-derived gold bricks have paved plenty of roads in the thirty years since. I visited here in September, 1994 as a stowaway with the Queen's University Minex program's annual field trip to major ore deposits of the Canadian Shield.

While the rest of the group were busy looking at rocks, three friends and I organized an impromptu homage to a different kind of treasure. If memory and character placement serve, I'm the Scarecrow on the far left. The other two gentlemen were Best Man and a groomsman at my wedding two years later. I've only bumped into "Dorothy" once in the ensuing twenty years. The name of the poor photographer is lost to history.

The Yellow Brick Road is located near the Hemlo gold camp, about 55 km east of Marathon, off the Trans-Canada Highway (17), halfway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanks for the Memory

Bob Hope and Shirley Ross from "The Big Broadcast of 1938"

This week I passed a small milestone, eclipsing my goal of 10,000 views in the first year of this blog. Page statistics tell me it was someone from Russia or the United States, more than a month ahead of schedule. Whether it was 10,000 individual viewers who ran away screaming or a few people visiting several thousand times, I'm thankful to have been at least mildly entertaining with nearly 100 travel stories focussing mostly on life's ironies--and mediocre photography.

It's been particularly challenging in a year where I haven't really "gone anywhere." Ok, there was cottage camping in the Adirondacks, and this blog is generally about how local places can be just as meaningful and enriching as Rome, the Grand Canyon or the Sydney Opera House. And there were many trips to Costco. But I mostly had only good memories to work with as we focussed our attention on another stressful home move and navigating turbulent career headwaters. I intentionally avoid desperate site pimping on Twitter, and I'm still not exactly sure what "SEO" is, and I hope it stays that way. I'd rather just share a few stories from others who have taught me something, and a little of my own absurdity.

So thank you for visiting and sharing my memories. May you have 10,000 more pleasant diversions, or at least one more that doesn't frighten you away.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Moeraki Boulders - Crystalline Eggs Hatch Beautiful Birds?

Giant eggs that hatch fabulous women? Gourds or eel baskets washed from an ancient canoe of the gods? Marbles lost by some young giant?

The truth is even more interesting. The Moeraki Boulders--located 40 kilometers south of Oamaru on New Zealand's Otago coast--are calcite-cemented "septarian concretions" exposed through weathering of the surrounding, softer mudstone in low cliffs behind the beach, then concentrated by wave action. They are one of the top free natural landmarks in New Zealand.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Photo Essay - Champagne Pool, New Zealand

Taupo volcanic zone, New Zealand, where fresh air smells like passed wind. The Waiotapu geothermal field, near Rotorua is both a beautiful natural landmark of the North Island and a malodorous laboratory for economic geologists who want to see a mineral deposit in the making. And, it is a well-studied location for the biology of extremophile (microbial) organisms.

Algae aren't quite extremophiles, but they evince the primordial soup, where such things were the pinnacle of life on earth for billions of years.

Some baths are a little too hot for comfort. Frequently depicted in guidebooks, Champagne Pool is perhaps the most striking geothermal feature of Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland. Alkaline springs within its explosive crater are framed by a brilliant orange, silica sinter rim that is colored by arsenic- and antimony-bearing sulfide minerals being deposited today. No wonder this area of the park is named "The Artist's Palette." But with waters hovering above 70 degrees Celsius, a quick dip in the pool would be your last.

Ironically, if the park were an industrial area, heavy metal concentrations in the water would be high enough to attract environmental protests and lawyers. People want to come here. It was possibly the place that hit the most notes for the most people on our trip to New Zealand.

This same view is essentially the cover of Fodor's New Zealand (2006).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Spiky Bridge, Tasmania

Looking north, towards Swansea

One of the quirky architectural highlights on the east coast of Tasmania, Spiky Bridge was built in 1843 by convicts from the nearby Rocky Hills Probation Station. Readily-available convict labor built much of the early 19th century infrastructure of Tasmania.

The going theory is that vertical flagstones were placed in this fashion at the top of the bridge to keep cows from tipping over the side into a drainage gully. The retaining wall is low, and this might have been a resource-saving method if the supply of flagstones was short. Every English speaking country has its rustics, and Tasmania has a reputation much similar to Newfoundland in Canada. Perhaps local cattle have the tendency to throw themselves over walls?

Another guess is it was a form of protest by the convict laborers. I prefer to think the convicts were just employing a little creativity to brighten their otherwise monotonous existence of hard work.

Looking southeast.

The odd "spiky bridge" is located 7.5 km south of Swansea, just off the western side of the Tasman Highway (A3). On the shoreward side of the road are secluded beaches overlooking Great Oyster Bay and the peninsula of magnificent Freycinet National Park. We visited here in February of 2009.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mirror Lakes, Fiordland, New Zealand - a haiku

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Lord of the Runs, New Zealand

The aptly-named Remarkables Range near Queenstown, in Otago on the South Island of New Zealand, was the backdrop for several scene's of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie adaptation. Unfortunately, I've since learned this perspective from the popular private game farm at Deer Park Heights was permanently closed by its ageing owners in 2009. That's too bad, because there were few local attractions as good a value as the park ($20/car). But I can understand people wanting to retire peacefully!

Luckily, we were able to barely sneak in a visit in October of 2008 and learned just how much screen time can be squeezed out of a few acres of varied landscape. In just about any cardinal direction of the compass we could turn towards a completely different view. And the rolling landscape facilitates photographic trickery (it's not immediately apparent that the low rise behind the two boys drops off steeply into a broad valley extending from the suburbs of Queenstown and terminating in massive Lake Wakatipu). Many unrelated scenes from the LOTR movies were filmed here from different viewpoints as well as scenes from other Hollywood productions.

Lords of the Run
This image of my two oldest boys racing near the top of Peninsula Hill on Deer Park summed up our own New Zealand adventure, though we were destined to find treasure in the Land of the Long White Cloud, not discard it. And, I was lucky to capture the moment without an intruding llama or deer.

I wouldn't trade this picture for a hundred by Ansel Adams. Maybe you have a similar treasure of your own?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sweeping through Broome

Baobab at Town Beach, Broome.

On those bitterly cold, winter school holidays Down Under, when temperatures in Aussie cities can plummet to a frigid 10˚c, the Lucky Country's population migrates en masse to warmer climes. In Western Australia, Bali is a popular destination, but the domestic option is Broome, on the Kimberley coast.

A three bedroom deluxe family bungalow at Cocos Beach Bungalows was our home base in Broome for one week in June, 2010. At that time we paid about AUD$390/night for a six night stay at what's considered a moderately priced resort. Our pleasant accommodation featured 3 bedrooms (1 queen bed with an en suite and three single beds) and second bathroom with separate toilet. I can't vouch for the television, which remained untested throughout the week. The location is superb, about a 300 meter (5 minute) walk from Cable Beach.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Superior Sunrise

For once a red sky in the morning didn't portend troubled weather. Instead the last weekend in October, 2014 holds promise of warm weather and clear skies, capping a mild autumn in the Minnesota North Country. My wife Stacey Hewitt Orobona snapped this image while dropping our eldest son off at school. Seconds later the deep pinks transitioned to orange. Late sunrises during the months surrounding winter make it more likely to witness such spectacular sunrises in high-latitude parts of the world.

Lake Superior stretches in the distance, in the lower right corner of the image.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Raptor Enrapture

Duluth, Minnesota is a destination for a lot more than human tourists. The city was recently featured in the September, 2014 issue of Outside Magazine, following a nationwide contest to name the "best towns ever," receiving the highest total from more than 1.5 million votes cast between 64 cities. Perhaps the crown jewel of Duluth's urban wilderness experience is the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. During September and through October, Hawk Ridge is the pre-eminent location in North America for spotting birds of prey.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Grand Portage National Monument, Minnesota

Lake Superior from a view point at the  Grand Portage National Monument, Minnesota. This is the scenic culmination of the Northshore Highway 61, just shy of the border with Ontario. Grand Portage is the US gateway to Isle Royale. The Grand Portage itself is an historic 8.5-mile (13.7 km) trail, still well maintained, along which the near-legendary French-Canadian voyageurs portaged their fur-laden canoes to circumvent waterfalls and rapids of the steep, final 20 miles (32 km) of the Pigeon River before it flows into Lake Superior

I experimented here with the panoramic capabilities of the iPhone on the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, October 9th, 2014. You get a sense of the landscape, but the technique minimizes the vastness of Lake Superior, the world's largest body of fresh water by surface area.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Grand Afternoon at Grand Marais

State Highway 61 winding north-east from Duluth, Minnesota towards Grand Portage and Thunder Bay (Ontario) is a classic drive along the shoreline of the greatest of lakes, as long as you're not in a hurry. It would be the perfect place to start, and end, the 1400 mile circle drive around the lake. And Grand Marais is the perfect place to stop on Highway 61 and enjoy a late afternoon, wood-fired pizza and custard from Sydney's, after a day enjoying autumn's fiery colors and crisp, blue skies on the north shore of Lake Superior.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Lucky Bay Beach

Lucky Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park,  50 kilometers drive east of Esperance in Western Australia, has the reputation as Australia's whitest beach, which seems somehow discriminatory of a natural landmark. There's also a periodic contest with other color-intolerant beaches. I see no benefit of a white beach over a black beach The main trade-off is exchanging burned soles of feet for burned eyeballs. You can build up a tolerance for burning feet.

Even kangaroos come to Lucky Bay for relaxation, and they're the only ones without sunglasses--them and my youngest, who is naturally feral. This 'roo came for a sip of the salty water and to chew on the remains of a cuttlefish (probably for the mineral content). The local kangaroo colony is a regular site at the beach.

A small western grey kangaroo takes a snack.

Another eater of sand.

Lucky Bay Beach, Cape Le Grand National Park, Western Australia.

December, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wonder in Everything I See

We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders. 

- G.K. Chesterton

The new-looking 737 has unfamiliar markings. I shuffle from the terminal along a loose string of still-sleepy miners boarding a sunrise crew charter to Wabush, Labrador serviced by Air Inuit. That itself is novel, and I wonder how many frequent fliers have even heard of this airline that has linked Nunavik communities since 1978. But the lines of our gleaming transport are familiar enough, the fortnightly process is clearly routine for the other passengers, and my mind comes back to personal travel rituals. Crosswords always help the air time pass by. Settling into my self-assigned aisle seat, I immediately search the pocket in front of me for the ubiquitous in-flight magazine. In my hands is volume 1, number 1 of Inuit.

Something new deserves a look, and as I read I barely notice our smooth liftoff from Pierre Elliott Trudeau International airport in Montréal. Despite a lot of white space, the crisply-designed magazine is a worthy first effort, focusing on Nunavik cultural heritage and reflecting obvious pride in the Inuit-owned and managed Air Inuit. I'm struck most by feature stories prominently written in symbolic Inuktitut characters and accompanied by French and English translations. It's a reminder that some parts of Canada have more than the two standard official languages. But more than that I'm intrigued by the aesthetic geometry of the printed Inuktitut language.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Americana in Ashland

The only thing missing is an old-fashioned gas pump out front...

A little bit of scavengings is junk; a lot is art. Boudreau's Antiques and Collectibles shop has the distinctly American old-junk-all-over façade that somehow works. Boudreau's shop is just east of Ashland, Wisconsin on U.S. Highway 2, just within the Bad River Indian Reservation.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pasties on the Range

In 2003 my family made its first foray into the upper Great Lakes region of Northeast Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), beginning our long, continuing affair with the shorelines of the greatest lakes. Possibly the first sign welcoming us to the area hinted at "pasties ahead, 1 mile." Soon the byways were peppered with an assortment of sometimes shambolic roadhouses, neon "open" signs beckoning us to "Get your pasties here." My first thought was of tassels and cheap burlesque. But reality was in truth as tawdry as a senior's night checkers game at a nudist colony. We had stumbled upon a heritage dish, mining's contribution to the world's palate, the pasty (PASS-tee).

The pasty is perhaps the main raison d'être for an otherwise disrespected vegetable, the rutabaga. Other principal components of the standard pasty are beef, potato, onion and spices wrapped in a crimped pastry to form a semicircular pocket sandwich that is then baked to a golden brown. In the Upper Midwest, "spices" refers exclusively to salt and pepper. The pasty is right at home there. Its most scandalous aspect regionally is mild disagreement over the spelling of the singular item, some vendors preferring "pastie."

Variations on the standard pasty for the adventurous crowd might skip the beef altogether or include extra potato, and ketchup is an almost shameful side transaction not discussed between merchant and customer. Hoping no one will see, I've furtively grabbed a few courtesy packs of the condiment like a nervous youth in the prophylactic section of a drugstore. Gravy is a damnable abomination reserved for tourists.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Almanzo Wilder homestead

There is a subculture of leisure travel dedicated to romantically rural sites of factual or fictional literary interest that speak nostalgically of a "simpler" time. Perhaps devotees of Lucy Maud Montgomery's fictional  Green Gables series are the best known, flocking from worldwide to bucolic Prince Edward Island locations that inspired (or were inspired by) the book series.

The best American example may be the widely-scattered historic homesteads of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her husband and their families. Similarly passionate enthusiasts of Wilder's loosely autobiographical Little House children's series plan whole road-trip vacations around seminal locations of the series from New York, through the Upper Midwest and Missouri.

This photo was taken near Malone, New York at the boyhood home of Almanzo Wilder (future husband of Laura Ingalls), restored from largely original materials. The 84 acre farm and surrounding countryside looks much as it may have in 1865. I've followed my own wife's interest here and to De Smet, South Dakota, and such sites do add a third dimension to one's impressions of past generations, and a greater appreciation for the challenges of their "simpler" way of life. Today's McMansions have individual rooms the size of this little house, which sheltered a family of five children. But there is life lingering in old boards and something poignant about a commonplace item--maybe even a lowly nail--that someone I've read about may have handled.

Open for the summer from late May to October, general admission includes a guided tour of the restored farmhouse, reconstructed barns, and the (free) museum. Adults: $8.00,  Seniors: $7.50, Children 6 - 16: $4.50. 5 and under: Free.

To get there from Malone:
Drive northeast on US Route 11 for about 2.5 miles (towards Burke). Turn on County Route 23 to the first right, Donohue Road. Take Donohue Road to a T-intersection at Stacy Road and turn right. The Wilder Homestead is about 1/2 mile on the left at 177 Stacy Road.

July, 2014.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Picture of the Moment - A Phoenix in the Ashes

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a Western Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda) stands as a bastion of life amongst blackened neighbors consumed by wildfire. My equally beautiful wife Stacey took this picture on the road from Esperance to Albany, not far from Ravensthorpe. I only wish there could have been a few rays of full sun in the foreground.

I've always been drawn to perseverance. Perhaps it's because my career in mineral exploration demands it; success only comes from overcoming obstacles, and the road is littered with failures. We had never seen one of these Christmas trees in such full bloom. It's a reminder that it's always darkest before the dawn, and with dawn comes the brightest star.

Photo from December 23rd, 2008.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Avoiding World Record Traffic in Toronto

There will always be an argument about what city has the worst traffic. But Highway 401 (officially the Macdonald–Cartier Freeway) running between Windsor, Ontario and the Quebec border is the busiest roadway in North America, and it is arguably the world's busiest, with locally more than 18 lanes of idling cars. If you like superlatives and travel to Guinness-book sites, it's a must-see vacation destination.

When traffic is flowing, it's a poor man's thrill ride.

An office transfer off the direct mass transit routes made taking the GO train system an impossibility for me last year. Heavy city congestion meant a creative commute and work-from-home hours, and I learned from experience that driving from the city during peak rush hours (not shown here!) could make my 42-kilometer commute from Etobicoke (north-western Toronto) to Burlington take over a hundred minutes on the less-heavily trafficked Queen Elizabeth Way. That was on a good day. Google Maps tells me I could cover the distance in 32 minutes without traffic, but there's no sense in waiting for the Apocalypse. Torontonians are aggressive drivers as a whole, and not enough would be taken up in the Rapture.

To use pivot tables and breakdown statistics by weekday or route; that thought makes me weak-kneed. Since I left a regular technical role for Management, I am now absurdly pleased when I have the opportunity to make a chart or X-Y plot of anything, however banal, on personal time, hence my daily commute illustrated here. To decide between a linear trend line or the third order polynomial, that's a moment of near nirvana.

But independent variables like weather, accident, school-year traffic, teenagers, dubious third world driving licenses and sunspots wreak havoc on the best of plans. I modelled my commute in both directions over a calendar year with 3rd-order polynomial regressions, and both have very poor correlation coefficients below 0.35. But I dared not tread the main rush hour waters (4-7 pm) for a better spread of data, particularly in the afternoon, based on the hard lessons I learned before I started plotting.

Now I travel the lonely highways of northern Minnesota, and my commute is a unvarying flat line at any hour. Perhaps the end is nigh?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pardon the tumble-weeds...


There's a lot going on for me this week, so something had to give.

Moving house internationally (even between Canada and the US) with three kids, two cats, a dog and a harried spouse in a minivan is a lot of work that requires full-time attention. And we should know. It's our sixth home move in 7.5 years. Happily, the moving truck didn't need to come with the minivan.

So pardon the tumble-weeds, and I'll be back soon. Look for a blog on top tips for moving in the near future.

Regards, Mike

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blooming Western Australian Desert

It's easy to forget Australia is more than an endless coastline and Uluru. The Lucky Country is just too huge, and sometimes unforgiving, for casual trips across the continent, and air travel can be prohibitively expensive. Even many native Australians don't get far beyond the narrow strips of high population density on the east and west coasts, to an interior largely considered barren desert or dry cropland eked out of the bush. Not surprisingly then, many of the largely urban Western Australian population never experience the spectacular, seasonal carpets of wildflowers that paint the rural countryside within easy reach. Maybe they are victims of their own domestic marketing of beaches and a large rock.

Australia is the driest continent. Excepting the occasional summer cyclone, even prime farmland in the Wheatbelt of south-western Australia can go months between rains, which finally come in the temperate winter months of June through early September. With welcome moisture comes an explosion in colorful flowers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Baking in the Shadow of Vesuvius

The first thing you notice about ancient Pompeii is the buildings are in generally better condition than those of modern Naples. The second, at least for me, is the proximity to Vesuvius. I knew it was close, but visiting in person I feel I could almost throw a rock at the mountain. And Vesuvius isn't a particularly imposing peak. I don't suppose it was even particularly lofty before the historic eruption. The vegetation running up its sides gives it the appearance of pastoral approachability.

The close geography of the key elements makes it easy to picture the events of 79 AD as an observer from what is now Naples--the cloud of choking hot ash first suffocating Pompeii, then collapse of the mountainside and a superheated pyroclastic flow barreling like a freight train towards those in Herculaneum who had lingered to watch the eruption. The Earth often gives early warning, but in truth four million Neapolitans and their neighbors live in sight of a mountain that could release its pressure at any time. And if it happened today, I could be part of the next archeology exhibit. Almost tempting for a geologist.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Whiteface Mountain

New York is more than just a city. I got this lucky snap of a raven taking flight a couple hundred feet below the rocky peak of Whiteface Mountain, near Lake Placid, New York (site of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics).

Adirondack Park is the largest protected area in the lower 48 United States at the state level and the largest park in the contiguous United States, comprising over six million acres, more than a third of which is constitutionally-protected forest preserve. The tallest peaks are just over 5,000 feet (1615 meters) above sea level, but the relatively low elevation of the Adirondack dome means the topography is locally rugged.

For those less inclined to climb, there is a five mile toll road that terminates short of the 4867-foot summit of Whiteface Mountain, with an elevator to the observation center at the peak. Summer rates in 2014 are $10 for car and driver, $7 for each additional passenger and $6 for hardy bicyclists

And in winter, there is always skiing the biggest vertical drop in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, over 3000 feet (about 1000 meters).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Adventures at the Airline Ticketing Counter

The experience and attitude of an airport ticketing agent makes all the difference if you need to be rerouted. 

It was hot and humid as I surveyed the late morning build-up of cumulonimbus clouds from my front porch one Sunday in June. I immediately thought of our scheduled 7:25 pm flight to Chicago, then on to Duluth, Minnesota via United Airlines. We'd only have an hour connection in the Windy City because of limited flight options when we booked. There are often weather delays in the Midwest with summer thunderstorms, I thought. But our home finally sold in the Toronto area and, with a request for a quick closing from the buyer, my wife Stacey and I needed to arrange a last-minute trip to Minnesota for house hunting. We'll only have two days to set up accounts and insurance and look at houses, so every moment counts.


Just before leaving for the airport we get the dreaded text. Our first flight is delayed until 8:38 pm departure by "air traffic control," almost an hour-and-a-half late. That means weather. We won't make the Chicago to Duluth leg if it stays on schedule. But instructions recommend we still arrive at least an hour before the regularly-scheduled departure. Maybe the Chicago-Duluth flight will be delayed as well, but Stacey calls our hotel in Duluth and cancels for tonight before the charges are applied to our credit card. Figuring United will give us our options at the ticket counter, we head for the airport as originally scheduled and are dropped off by Stacey's father at Pearson International Terminal 1 about 5 o'clock pm.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Sistine Chapel

You're not supposed to take photographs in the Sistine Chapel, a highlight of our travels through the Mediterranean. But I felt compelled to snap one surreptitious picture that included a family member (no flash of course), hopefully while maintaining respect for the place and its ultimate purpose. I saw a lot of impressive ceilings in Europe, many painted, but the Sistine Chapel does stand far above the rest.

I can still hear the ushers almost chanting "Shhhhh, silencio. Shhhhh, silence."

While the angle is skewed, I quite like this picture. It conveys the sense of scale and awe, too big to take in on my 18-mm lens setting. The angle does convey a sense of dynamism--it's how I was looking at the ceiling in the moment. My father's upturned head reflects what all visitors do, crane their necks and slowly turn to take it all in.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Going Hungary in America

One of the benefits of living in a nation of immigrants is the rest of the world is at your doorstep if you can't travel there directly. And there is no better way to experience this smorgasbord of cultures than through your stomach. Each of the two styles of societal integration has its gastronomic merits. The melting pot gives us culinary fusion, while ethnic enclaves bring distinctive regional favors in geographic proximity.

My heritage is largely Hungarian, a small, fiercely independent nationality with an enigmatic language, whose people outlasted a millennium of attempted assimilation. Hungary nonetheless exported its national condiment throughout the world, and today paprika is found in virtually every North American home. Hungarian salami (szalámi) is also popular, most people have at least heard of goulash (gulyás) or chicken paprikás, and the Magyar claim no small portion of the credit for sausage (kolbász). But there is one meal reserved for celebratory family gatherings that makes me forget I have any other ancestry, and for a few hours I am purely Hungarian. It is the "dirty bread" of the Hungarian barbecue.

Süt szalonna (pronounced shoot SUH-luh-nuh), is literally "fry bacon." And bacon is the key ingredient, but it is a relative term. My grandfather used to negotiate for a chunk of nearly pure pork fat, held together with a few streaky wisps of meat and scored in a cross-hatch pattern on either side. Likely he got it for free after wearing down the butcher. My cousin is now the grill master, and he prefers blocks of sliced bacon skewered on a two-tined barbecue fork, much like you'd roast a hot dog on. I'm personally drawn to the fattier option only for its novelty. How satisfying is it to base a dish on melted animal fat in this antiseptic age of body consciousness? Which is the best approach is a topic for spirited debate around the fire pit, but there is no doubt, süt szalonna waits in Hades for the vegan sinner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Picture of the Moment: GPS in Cottage Country

These days there is technology available that keeps you from getting lost in the woods.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Picture of the Moment: Santorini Dragonfly

I wish I knew the species. This poser hung around long enough to let me snap a few pictures. Zooming in dulled the harsh backdrop of nondescript weeds.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


This is, after all, a creative writing space masquerading as a travel blog, so occasionally I need to give into temptation.

Besides, life is the greatest journey.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Sunset at Gantheaume Point, Broome, Western Australia

Everyone stops to look. June, 2010

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Santorini - Austere Beauty in a Ticking Bomb

I was eager to spend a full day on Santorini, a cultured adult excursion that promised wine and good olives in a geologist's playground. It was to be a brief interlude of contemporary sophistication sandwiched between several sweaty days amongst ancient ruins, mostly brothels. But first we had to get to shore. The big boat was unable to tie to a pier or anchor--the port cannot accommodate large vessels, and the water in the caldera is too deep--so we had to take a ten minute tender to the main island of Santorini (Thera) and the port of Athinios. This time the procession to disembark the Ruby Princess was very orderly, so much so that I wondered whether body snatchers had been at work overnight. This could not be the same passenger list. I get much more fodder from standard human chaos, and this herd was just not cooperating.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Niagara Falls

A "Maid of the Mist." The Canadian side has gone over to Hornblower Cruises and red ponchos, which sounds jarring considering 168 years of history. But the next generation won't know any better. If only there were only boats.

Niagara Falls is a natural wonder spoiled. It's a challenge to take any picture of the falls that doesn't include a high rise or a casino, let alone a wax museum, though well-positioned mist helps.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Wall in Fermont, Québec: "taking the black flies" in a north wind

One of the perks of the geology profession is travel to places that other people aren't rushing to visit. These backcountry outposts can be the most interesting destinations. You experience real culture in rural places, not the optimally-commercial faces painted by tourism marketing. And lines are short.

One such place I've spent a lot of time at recently is the "company town" of Fermont, Québec. Above the 52nd parallel, it is one of the most northerly French-speaking communities in the world, incorporated in the 1970s to exploit vast deposits of iron ore. Fermont's dominant feature is "the Wall" (le Mur), a single, self-contained apartment building--stretching a length of 1.3 kilometers (4300 feet)--that purposefully shelters most of town from the cold north wind. The building contains the police department and hospital, a bowling alley and city offices. Lucky residents of the windbreak can also enjoy shopping, restaurants, schools and a swimming pool all without having to leave the building for nine months of winter. The liquor store and bars are well-frequented.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Grand River Country

The mighty Nith.

You can almost see the real Canada from Toronto. For me, the authentic experience means getting off the main motor route between Detroit, USA and Montreal. My own little bit of Canadian paradise is in the orderly farmlands of southern Ontario. To find this treasure, just exit Highway 401 anywhere in the greater district of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, set your GPS to avoid highways, head opposite of any signs leading to box stores and explore.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ephesus - Hot Dust of Centuries in the Footsteps of Saints

An Apostle shook the dust of Ephesus from his feet and moved on. The sea left its silt here and also departed. All her people are reduced to dust. Only the heat remains and the glare of marble, a searing memory of what was.

Today's shore excursion began with the usual assortment of people cutting in line to be the first on a bus. It's much like the sun rising in the east. The ride to Ephesus is about 30 minutes through a lusher countryside than I expected--orchards of peach, olive, fig, mulberry and pomegranate. There were good views of the port of Kusadasi (KOOSH-ah-DAH-seh), Turkey as we climbed up from the coast, the Ruby Princess gleaming white in the distance. Our guide pointed out several luxury homes, looking down on the Aegean, that are selling for less than US$100,000. I could live here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Highlights of Big Nickel, Sudbury

The largest city in northern Ontario, Sudbury is a city of superlatives.

I'm in town for a few short days on a business trip to Laurentian University.

One of the local features I immediately sought out was a first hand view of shatter cones resulting from an extraterrestrial impact approximately 1.85 billion years ago. These horsetail-shaped, shock-related geological structures only form in bedrock proximal to meteorite craters or underground nuclear explosions, radiating outward from the source of the shock-wave in concentric patterns. The Sudbury Basin is the erosional remnant of such an impact crater, the second largest on Earth. A catastrophic global-change event even larger than that responsible for the Chicxulub crater in Yucatán, Mexico (which is widely believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs), the Sudbury impact was directly responsible for the metal-rich impact melt that now makes Sudbury one of the word's largest mining centers. Mines of nickel and lesser copper have operated continuously since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Day at Toronto Zoo

Zoos are controversial places these days, though not to the same extent as theme-park aquariums. For me, the benefits of a well-managed zoo outweigh the negatives. Without them, many species that are critically endangered or extinct in the wild would be gone forever. Modern civilization may be better than asteroids at killing off other species, but late 19th and 20th century creature comforts conversely gave us time to develop conservational values that are unique in human history. Ancient peoples living communally in nature didn't try to save the moa, the mammoth, or trees on Easter Island. At least we feel guilty about extinction now when clearing habitat for malls.

Toronto Zoo is divided into a separate Discovery Zone for children and six loosely-themed "zoogeographic regions" or domains representing regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Eurasia, Indo-Malaya, Tundra Trek, and the Canadian Domain. There is a lot to see, but the typical visitor--who doesn't read every informative sign in depth--can get through most of the displays in 5-6 hours. Unless bear connoisseurs, North American visitors who have been outside of a city may wish to skip much or all of the Canadian domain. I've seen enough deer looming in my headlights.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Betting on my Australian friends

Aussie, Aussie Aussie! Oi! Oi! Eh?

I know one person in Germany. I personally don't know anyone yet in Turkey or Russia (and I've never even been to Russia). But I know loads of people in Australia, having lived in the Lucky Country for three fantastic years. I only wish I'd begun this blog while I was still based in Perth.

The top 10

Attention Australians! Please share my main page link with friends to return your homeland to the three spot on my blog's all-time pageview list, in line with the other countries I've lived in. A shout-out in advance for the support. Keeping track of blog pageviews by country is like watching a horse race, and I'm betting on Australia to show.

And thank you to all kind visitors from around our beautiful world, particularity those places I've never or barely visited. I appreciate you have invested time in visiting this blog, and I hope you enjoy the content. May we cross paths someday in your home country!