Friday, January 27, 2012

Jumping Off Point

The Sculpture

Is there such a condition as Museum ADD?  Even as a child touring the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Saint Louis Art Museum, my restlessness led me to skip ahead of my family to only the images, sculptures, or artifacts catching my attention.  Inevitably I quickly finished and aimlessly waited for others.  After spending a few precious hours peacefully and patiently perusing the magnificent halls of Louvre in Paris, I realized I had either outgrown my symptoms or managed to experience a more extensive exhibit.  My favorite piece, perfectly positioned at the top of the Daru Staircase took my breath away from the moment I initially approached it: Winged Victory of Samothrace.

On my second visit below the glass pyramids, I anxiously awaited rounding that same corner with the excitement and anticipation of seeing the beautiful sculpture again.  Had it not been for the other precious painting in the museum, and the rest of my family pressing onward to see da Vinci’s famous portrait, I might have stood in one spot for hours, just soaking in its flowing movement just in case I never returned to Paris.  Clearly my museum attention deficit had vanished.

The Painting

Smack in the middle of a DC summer, I sit on the steps of the American Art Museum waiting for the doors to open.  A dork about American history, I plan to see Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way simply because it splashes across the cover of my textbook, but once inside I stumble upon dozens of other inspiring pieces.  Almost as much as the Nike sculpture surprised me when I went to see the Mona Lisa, a work by Ray Strong of the Golden Gate Bridge strikes me by its unique perspective.  Under construction with the bridge’s footings in the foreground and the opposite end of the future span in the distance across the San Francisco Bay, the painting captivates me.  Standing in front of this finished piece of a work in progress
makes me want to cross coasts and examine the engineering amazement from every possible angle, just as the New Deal artist did.
Years later on a departing flight from Oakland, a quick glance out the plane’s windows marks my only first-hand glimpse of the massive structure.  The beautiful bridge ranks high on the list of places still yet to visit, so when the day arrives that I finally get to enjoy it from the ground, I plan for the experience to be a jumping off point on my journey to Hawaii.  As swift as this first glimpse passes, the second time I come around the corner and see the beautiful bridge, I will be as elated when it enters my view as when I returned to the Louvre.  One day I will perch on the hills above the bridge, drive across its length, and stand in one spot for hours gazing upon it.  Whether majestic ancient sculptures or enormous modern structures, deeply enamored and engulfed in their awe, the world’s beauties no longer bore me.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ponies and Locomotives

Time Travel

Were time travel possible, I would transport myself to the American West the year Abraham Lincoln won election to the Presidency.  Not that I am particularly anxious to see the horrors of the Civil War, but more so than any other span of the nineteenth century, this decade represents, in my opinion, the greatest period of change in the history of America.  Even without the conflict between the industrialized Northern states and the plantations of the Confederacy, I would witness the very definition of obsolescence as history unsuccessfully tries to keep up with itself.

Between 1849 when Joseph Sutter’s team stumbled upon gold at his mill and 1898 when the American frontier effectively closed, the transformation of the American West spiraled.  Change dramatically impacted nations from the last nomadic Native Americans losing their ability to sustain their centuries-long livelihood to Mexicans redrawing their northern borders and handing over land to the rapidly expanding country to the north.  Yes, if someone discovers how to manipulate time and transport people through it, please plop me down right there in the middle of all that change.

You Are Obsolete

Driving north on US Highway 93 between Wendover, Utah and Ely, Nevada, the old Pony Express trail crosses the road where a wide swath of dirt marks the historic and mission-critical route traversed by solitary horsemen to deliver mail across the open West.  In 1860, the first rider braved the elements and the terrain between Missouri and California and each successive rider pushed his horse to get to the next hand-off point.  Within a year and a half, the service folded, not coincidentally just days after telegraph service bridged the two coasts.  What a tiny fraction of US history this dirt lot represents along a lightly-traveled US Highway and a still-unpaved county road – a short period of history that found itself outdated almost as soon as it started – a speck of history that symbolized the expansion of the American West.

On a similar route just slightly north, the railroad companies busily drew their own lines across the map.  Driving north from Idaho, this out-of-the-way location at Promontory Point, Utah represents history’s next crossing of the United States: when train travel united the post-war east to the expanding west.  First the mail, then telegraphs, and now people took a direct route across the country.  But as I arrive here in the twenty-first century, a short stretch of track recreates the site where the final golden spike joined the nation, but no train traffic pushes through the remote site headed westward.  Much like the riders of the pony express, and the relays along the telegraph wires, the trains, too, became obsolete.  I want to travel to that brief and fleeting moment in history when these places mattered.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Brock University

An Afternoon with Tim Horton

Sitting on the lush green lawn in the summer sun, Son #1 and I spend a fabulous afternoon with Tim Horton.  National Hockey League fans know Tim well as a frequent advertiser on the walls of the ice rinks of the Canadian teams.  But only a small percentage of Americans live close to the Canadian border to have the privilege of spending time with Mr. Horton.  In other parts of the country, Americans spend time with Tim Horton’s distant cousins.  Bostonians acquaint themselves with Dunkin Donuts.  The Krispy Kreme family has experienced a population boom in the South over the past decade. Out west, Winchell’s embraces its extended kin with its offerings.  I consider each of these close members of my own family, all dear to my heart, but this summer day belongs to Tim Horton.

In the lovely town of St. Catherine, we stop for a night’s rest in the vacant dorms of Brock University.  With the campus’ signature tower as a backdrop, we enjoy a sunny session on the tranquil campus with little collegiate activity midway through the summer semester.  We pull a small blanket from the car and spread out on the lawn at the main entrance and gathering space at the school.  In the winter, the wind whips across this open space, the students leave tracks in the snow, and the barren trees line its edges.  But in July, with fewer students and better weather, the open quad welcomes the students to stroll, sit, study, or, in our case, enjoy a box of donuts after a drive through Ontario.

Dorm Life

With the majority of scholars at home for the summer, the remaining enrollees are local coeds, with a minimal number of residents in the dorms.  We take advantage of the space and book a night in Brock’s “family suites,” which more closely resemble small individual rooms with a shared bathroom, but with the campus so deserted, we garner an entire floor to ourselves.  We have our own room, our own bathroom, and more than a
dozen additional rooms if we need them.  Every window of every room offers us unique and private views of the campus. We are spoiled, but we still curl up in one small area of the floor. Why be greedy?

Early in the morning well before dawn, we awake to the powerful rumblings and electric charges of a summer storm.  Pounding thunder immediately follows cracks of lightning and instantly we awake with the disorientation of stirring in an unfamiliar space.  After each flash of light, we count the seconds until its corresponding echo.  When the time between each reminder of nature’s replenishing grows long enough, we rise and begin the day’s drive back to the United States.  The rain finally tapers off leaving a delicate fog between us and the sunrise as we finish the last couple leftover delectable treats from Tim Horton’s.  Thanks, Canada, for the sights, the sounds, and the tastes.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Shared by Bears and Coeds

Not Disappointed

I once heard dialogue on TV about the Grand Canyon: the one place that when people see it in person, it doesn’t disappoint.  Truthfully, just once in my decades of exploration have I visited a place that disappointed [location withheld].  How inspiring and memorable a destination impacts me is less a measure of its “breathtaking” factor and more about the simple bits of beauty and the brief moments of discovery beyond the obvious focal points.  I love the Spanish word “buscando” because I search for more than just a photographic view.  The fragrant sweetness of the Great Basin, the soft meadows tucked above the Grand Canyon (see “Jacob Lake” from January 2012), and the rolling mist hovering above Niagara Falls do not disappoint me, regardless of the expansive iconic sites just around the bend.  I look for the pieces and parts surrounding the highlights, not just the picture spot itself, to inspire me, to touch me, to alter me.

Alaska doesn’t disappoint.  Glaciers calve into the bay, mountains scrape and poke into the clouds, and turquoise-tinted waters fed by millenniums of melting ice exponentially astound those who journey northward.  As I stand on the edge of Mendenhall Lake with its frozen source across its shore, I am reminded that the thaw continues, and may be unstoppable, and I appreciate that I see the process midway between frozen block of ice and a completely liquid lake.  Believe me, a glacier is an awe-inspiring site, but getting to its edge means even more.  My legs pedal me to this site with the sweet and salty taste of the trail mix on my tongue and the cool, wet air spritzing my face.  These sensory elements of my ride all make the background more than just a perfect camera shot, because the scents and pleasures of the day combine to not disappoint, even without the awesome glacier sliding for eons through the canyon across the lake.

On My Way

Along the road to the glacier, wildflowers dominate the foreground: white daisies stand tall and perky, with low leaves, allowing them to blossom independently of their life source.  Fireweeds thrive and shoot upward showing their heartiness and durability, and their strength and determination to survive.  Forget-me-nots, the Alaskan state flower, the petite, gentle blooms, with colorful petals, offer gentleness from the harsh winters.  All three uninhabited floras remind me in their brilliant beauty of my own characteristics others overlook while driving past on their way to more spectacular vistas.  I see myself in these flowers as I move through my life: the times when I reached for my independence, and learned to stand tall on my own; the struggles that forced me to hold strong and be determined to make my life what I wanted; and the times when leaving a simple and brilliant impression spoke louder than my voice.  I take away a lot from the simplest surroundings.

As I bike to the end of the path at the University of Alaska, a paved trail shared by students and bears, I reach the beginning of a downward slope of the two-lane road.  I continue to pedal to increase my speed, and then I let go.  Stinging my face, the cool wind pinches my skin reminding me this is no dream, and it plays with my hair, lifting and dancing behind me as the bicycle flies.  No conflict, no confusion, and no clutter distract my thoughts.  Coasting downward, I exert no energy, yet the surge of adrenaline transforms into tranquility as I reach the bottom of the hill.  Serenity and satisfaction surround me, and while I choose to ride alone, I am not lonely.  Singularly exhilarated, and with the nexus of this ride still ahead, what I absorb from this journey makes reaching the destination more valuable.  Whatever glaciers lay ahead in this lifetime will never disappoint me as long as I witness and recall the splendor along the way.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jacob Lake


We arrive in Jacob Lake, the town, and decide to take the dirt-road excursion to Jacob Lake, the lake.  We follow the directions from the Jacob Lake Inn innkeeper, and even though we must be close, we cannot find Jacob Lake, the lake.  But in the middle of Kaibab National Forest, there are plenty of other beautiful sites, and we drive around the mountains on random roads, giggling and wondering how we could have missed an entire lake.  The tall pines hide any deep glances into the forest, but we keep traveling in a counter-clockwise direction so that we don’t get lost along the untraveled roads.  And when we reach a “T” in the road, our first thought should have been, “Do we look for Jacob Lake, the lake, to the right, or head back to Jacob Lake, the town, to the left,” but instead we just stop.

Ahead, in the middle of the forest, a picturesque meadow perfectly positioned at the fork in the road, framed by cedars, pines, and aspens, misses only Bambi and his mother nibbling the grass.  Rather than insult the fates that deposited us here, we abandon our SUV and our quest for Jacob Lake, the lake, and step into the pristine image.  The resulting photograph becomes an iconic image of brotherhood between Son #1 and Son #2.  Even when we are lost, when we are searching, we find ourselves somewhere absolutely amazing.

The Lake

At an indeterminate point in the afternoon, we drive no longer searching and without specific direction and simply enjoy the time together.  An ideal vacation, to be sure, but despite the sweeping forests, the curving roads, and the streaming rays of a nearly-summer sun, an entire body of water hides in the maze of gravel paths intentionally carved through the region.  When we finally reappear on State Road 67, the car appears to be returning to Jacob Lake, the town, and perhaps I should have surrendered and pulled back into Jacob Lake Inn, but I decided to take one last stab at the hidden, mysterious Arizona Loch Ness.  Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it wasn’t going to get the best of me – I would find Jacob Lake, the lake.

Doubling back past a less-hidden campground, we decide to explore the historic Jacob Lake Ranger Station.  Surely the Jacob Lake Rangers would be able to direct us, and maybe they would even have a more detailed map than my beloved atlas (see “Traveling With Boys” from November 2011).  However, “historic” describes more than just the age of the Jacob Lake Ranger Station, it describes its current state of use as a ranger station.  The lovely, well-kept, little building, closed to the public, offered no services, no parking, no tours, and no maps.  So in a sweeping three-point turn, we return back down the driveway leading to the abandoned building and back to our hunt.  At the end of the dirt path, across the gravel road we have driven three times today, there at fence level, a small, simple, brown sign features two stunning words in white paint: Jacob Lake.  But in the empty field behind the sign farther behind the fence, as our eyes lift from the sign to the water feature, what we see is not Jacob Lake, the lake, or even Jacob Lake, the pond.  Yes, we meet with success, but in the most accurate terms, we find Jacob Lake, the puddle.  And at least we did it together.