Tag: “Mountains”

Mont-Blanc ‘Hiking’

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The first morning cable car from Chamonix up Aiguille du Midi is packed full. You can’t move.

The passengers are varied. There are people in street clothes and formal raincoats crushed against extreme skiers and climbers (wearing harnesses festooned with gear, carrying large packs, and with ice axes over their shoulders).

The air is full also. You avoid breathing deeply to avoid some of the odors: perfumes, cigarettes, last night’s parties, fragrant breakfasts, and worse.

The talk is loud and in many languages. Skiers discuss routes and the lengths of ropes needed to reach certain points for their descent. Sightseers stare nervously at the approaching walls of rock and groan in fright when the cable car bounces as it passes over a tower.

The lift slows as it reaches the top station and glides to a stop. The Aiguille du Midi is a granitoid spire on the flank of Mont-Blanc in the French Alps. Its summit is at 3,842 meters (12,605 feet).

Auiguille du Midi (left horizon) from Chamonix, France

Auiguille du Midi (left horizon) from Chamonix, France

It is an intimidating place to ski from, or climb from, or ‘hike’ from, or even just photograph from. Precipitous rock and ice surround the top station on all sides. A solid platform leads from the building to an excavated tunnel in the rock.

Cable Car Passengers Finding Their Way

Cable Car Passengers Finding Their Way

As people leave the cable car they spread out. Some skiers move through the tunnel to emerge at the head of a famous run called the Vallée Blanche, which is 20 km (12.4 miles) long. A mountain guide is required. Other skiers with mountaineering equipment head toward other routes. The sightseers spread out on the viewing platforms. The scenery is simply spectacular.

Grainitoid Needles (Aiguilles)

Grainitoid Needles (Aiguilles)

As people mill around and take photos they notice that two guys are getting ready to go over the railing onto a rock face. In a sense this is their trailhead for a hike. It is really more climbing than hiking and they clearly know what they are doing. Still they draw a lot of attention.

At the 'Trailhead' - click

At the ‘Trailhead’ – click

Perhaps they have done this many times, but it is still impressive. They are methodical and businesslike. Mistakes cost everything. People standing next to them are thinking about a café au lait in the café.

After going through their preparations it is time to go over the railing.

Starting the hike.

Starting the hike.

It is one step at a time, like every hike, but ….

First step.

First step.

The crampons hold.



Now it is time to work on the descent.

Trust the rope.

Trust the rope.

Mountaineering skiers gather with similar gear, but with a different descent in mind.

Starting the descent.

Starting the descent.

This descent is an access to routes which involve some ‘hiking’ and some climbing.

The Climbing Part

The Climbing Part

Scrambling down the rock below leads to other route choices. They moved on down the mountain. They have a full day ahead of them.

Start 'Hiking'

Start ‘Hiking’

This form of climbing and hiking is way beyond what I would ever consider. But it was very interesting watching them prepare and then carefully work down this rock wall. The viewing platforms provided a front row perch. However, not everyone was captivated.

Stuck on Self

Stuck on Self

Despite this interesting climbing demonstration and the world class scenery some people still just wanted to photograph themselves. Instead of savoring the beauty on all sides they were documenting their presence there. There were others doing this also. These people go through life posing instead of being somewhere and learning about it. One of the purposes and benefits of travel is to lose our preoccupation with self and experience other places, cultures, and people. Pulling out a selfie stick should be as embarrassing as walking along holding up a mirror so you can watch yourself all the time.

Mont-Blanc provides plenty to look at for most people. The surrounding mountains of the French Alps are extra helpings of beauty and intrigue. Chamonix and Mont-Blanc are wonderful places to visit. You don’t have to climb or ‘hike’ to enjoy them. And there are plenty of places to walk in the surrounding valleys without having to use ropes.

Power of Beauty, Mont Blanc

Power of Beauty, Mont-Blanc



A Machine Gun and a Magic Wand

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The narrow winding roads that climb over the passes of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy lead to unforgettable scenery and some pretty good stories. Below is the story of a machine gun and a magic wand.

I had spent a week driving and photographing in northern Italy. It is hard work navigating the switchbacks up the massive mountain slopes, but the views from the passes are hard to believe. But it’s not just one or two marquee vistas. On pass after pass you are treated to panoramas of country that would be considered national park-caliber treasures in any country.

There are several east-west routes with many connections to remote valleys. The valleys are deep and they shelter colorful alpine villages. I tried to drive many of the routes that passed near the massive walls and spires of the main Dolomitic peaks. I eventually grew weary of the driving and also from dealing with the impact of the mountains. I tried hard to capture the intense beauty and magnitude, but I felt inadequate.

There isn’t a lot of traffic on the roads, but sometimes you have to deal with lines of cars behind tour buses. Other times touring packs of motorcycles scream by or large trucks push you the edge of ‘your’ part of the pavement. You could be pushed uncomfortably close to a stone wall or a sheer drop off. It is not easy driving.

On my last morning in a beautiful hotel in the small village of Cibiana di Cadore I said goodbye to the cordial staff who had treated me like family. I thought I had done all that I could do with my time photographing in the Dolomites. I was ready for the long drive down the hill to the Autostrada to drive across northern Italy to Milano where I would fly home the next day. The weather had been mostly good, but there had been clouds over the high peaks on several days and some rain.

But this morning, the sky was clear and the mountains were stunning. As I packed my car I started arguing with myself: “I have had good opportunities, I have driven many roads, and now it is time to drive back to Milano and turn the car in and get ready to leave. That is the responsible thing to do.   …BUT, wait, I could just go up the hill past Refugio Remauro, down through the next valley, and over Passo Duran and THEN turn south to the Autostrada. That would give me two more passes with views of peaks in the bright morning sun. The clouds may build up quickly, but I could have a few more opportunities. What should I do, go down the hill toward the Autostrada, or go up the hill deeper into the mountains?”

Stunning Mountain Village, My Temporary Home

I got in the car and did the responsible thing and drove slowly down the hill through the beautiful village past the ancient stone homes.

I made it about a half mile down the hill and I just couldn’t go on. I had to take advantage of the sunny morning and the views. So I turned around and went back up through the village and climbed towards the first pass.

Touring Motorcyclist Climbing a Pass, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

The sun was still low and the west side of the mountain ridges was in full shadow. But the peaks were bursting with bright light. I tried to work quickly whenever I pulled over to photograph. But I found I was still unable to turn away from the vistas. I took too many photos. Superb alpine villages occupied strategic locations on valley floors and benches.

Alpine Village, Dolomite Mountains

I gradually made progress toward the west. Hey, I did have all day after all. Of course, I still had to reach the Autostrada and then drive all the way across northern Italy.

Another Pass, Another Spectacular Wall of Dolomite!

At times I zipped my camera pack closed and tried to keep driving. Then I would reach a pass and another world class vista would open up to the horizon.

Pass View, Dolomite Mountains

Really, I’ve got to keep going. Stop pulling over. I concentrated and made it down a long hill and climbed up toward another pass. I could now see the last valley I would enter before leaving the mountains. There were villages in the distance that looked like white speckles at the base of long footslopes.

Walls of Dolomite Tower Over Villages, Dolomite Mountains

I started down towards the valley. I only stopped a few times. Eventually I came to a small inn and a few farms which marked the outskirts of the next village. It was autumn and the firewood stacks were enormous and very orderly. I was nearing the valley floor and it looked like I was coming into a good-sized village. Going down a long decline I passed large stone houses and a few businesses. As I entered the village the road made an abrupt left turn and narrowed between buildings.

I slowed and looked over to the left and saw a dark blue SUV parked perpendicular to the street. On the side in large bold white letters was the word:   CARABINIERI.   A vivid red stripe and red shield added a strong military appearance. There were emergency lights on the roof.

The street was deserted except for two Carabinieri officers. In the street in front of me standing in my lane was a hulking military officer. He was the epitome of the intimidating warrior: tall, huge muscular torso, strong square jutting jaw, crisp uniform, highly polished tall black boots, and hat worn squarely. The morning sun glinted off the shiny black bill of his hat. He was all business and his expression was serious. He held up his right hand to indicate stop, but with his left hand he waved a tiny sign. Of course, it was an official “pull over right here” waving motion, but it was a funny little sign. It was a solid red circle surrounded by a red ring on a white background. The sign was about four inches across and was held at the end of a long skinny stick. It was odd and formed an immediate impression, but I didn’t have time to recognize what the impression was, because I had to quickly slow and turn left into the indicated parking lot next to the Carabinieri vehicle.

I pulled to a stop next to the other officer who positioned himself next to the driver’s door. Before I could look over at him the commanding officer had walked over from the street and was at my window. I rolled down the window and he said something to me in Italian. The impact of his command was lost on me, but I could recognize the authoritarian tone. Quickly he understood that Italian wasn’t working and switched to the few English commands that he knew. He asked what I was doing, where I was coming from, where I was going, and whose car I was driving. I answered respectfully and handed over the rental car contract,  ID, passport, and international driver’s license as I was commanded to. He walked over to their vehicle and sat in the car to radio in and check the information.

Then I was able to look over at the other officer who had moved back up to my door. I had opened the door to get some air but he now blocked my exit. He was a round-shouldered, slouchy, and lazy-looking country kid. He smiled, but harnessed across his chest was an old, worn machine gun. He kept both hands on it ready for any kind of mafia confrontation. I certainly had no intention of moving from the car.

While the commander was talking on the radio the kid with the machine tried to put me at ease by making small talk. His English was pretty good. He asked where I was from and when I said California he became excited. He wanted to use his English, but mainly he wanted to talk about the babes on the beach in California and how much he wanted a Mustang to drive around. He became almost jovial. He was mild-mannered and soft-spoken. A simple, goofy country kid. But that machine gun was only a couple of feet from my face!

I very respectfully asked him why they pulled me over and what they were doing. He said that they do this sort of random stop for “control” and security. I told him that the U.S.A. didn’t have national police and I was surprised to be pulled over. (The Carabinieri or Arma dei Carabinieri (Force of Carabinieri) are a national gendarmerie who police both military and civilian populations.)

Eventually the commander came back and asked a few more questions about the rental car and what I was doing there. I think he looked in my camera pack, but my memory is a little sketchy because I was in a cold terror sweat the whole time.

Finally, in a very courteous and business-like manner he handed back my papers and encouraged me to drive safely and enjoy the beautiful Dolomitic countryside.

When I drove away the overload of adrenaline gradually eased and I began to relax. And as I left the village and started down the valley toward the Autostrada I replayed the episode in my mind. The goofy kid with the machine gun had been terrifying in a surreal way.

But I also began to think about the commanding officer and his little sign on a stick. It was only then that I concluded that the little sign looked more like a little-girl’s magic wand.  It was weird to see that glowering soldier waving that little wand. His waving motion was strictly military and very official. But I just couldn’t help wondering if he had forgotten his real sign at the barracks that morning and had had to dig into his daughter’s toy chest and found a princess magic wand to use. Maybe the two officers had just switched assigned tools for the day. Or maybe it was a gag, like in Super Troopers, where the two officers dared one another to do outrageous stunts to see how their ‘victims’ would react.

Of course, I have to say that I was treated with respect and courtesy. They were businesslike and professional. I may return to the Dolomites and I don’t need any enemies. But I will never forget that machine gun and that magic wand!

Floating Over Stones

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Jagged spires and walls of stone over 800 meters (~2600 feet) tall push warm air upwards. These thermal lifting currents provide world-class sites for paragliders. But the winds vary in direction and speed. Some days are better than others.

Not A Gentle Beach Practice Flight

The paragliders soar over the terrain under a double layer of fabric with air chambers which gather the wind. The pilots are suspended by cords in a harness below. The cords also provide the steering controls.

The stone waits a half mile below.

The dramatic terrain of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy is not for beginners. Perhaps they practice on lower terrain features before graduating to the big walls.

On an autumn day after a rain storm, bright sunshine warms the walls and by the afternoon clouds and winds grow over the high peaks. Tour buses, touring motorcycle groups, site-seers, and photographers drive up the narrow switchbacks to reach the summits. The views are spectacular. The mountains are other-worldly. The European larch (Larix decidua Mill.) is turning yellow and painting vivid yellow shading over the lower mountain slopes.

Overhead paragliders circle, riding the warm rising air. In the distance faint specks float across the face of the Monte Sella group of peaks. The paraglider wings are brightly-colored and stand out against the gray stone walls.

Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

The imposing rock of the Sassolungo group of peaks draws paragliders like moths to a light bulb. I watched several of them work the currents of the lower terrain and make long sweeping passes near the mountain front and then move toward me.

I followed one closely as he approached. I started photographing to see if I could portray the magnitude of what they were doing. I tracked him with the telephoto lens as he circled above me and passed by. I was trying to keep him in focus while also having the beautiful Monte Sella in the background in focus as well, but not blurred by the motion of the camera. So I composed an image guessing where I thought he would pass into the scene and waited. Exposure and focus were set from earlier shots as he flew nearby. Then he circled slowly and surely into the corner of the composition. I am pretty sure he knew he was being photographed because I was standing alone on the top of a wind-swept grassy ridge.

Miles of Dolomite Mt Terrain, Monte Sella, and Paraglider Pilot

I have been asked if I super-imposed the paraglider onto the mountain photograph. The answer is no. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time. And sometimes months of planning, pre-dawn drives, hours of waiting, and hundreds of photographs put you in the right place at the right time.

Several miles of stunning mountain scenery and a very courageous paraglider pilot don’t hurt either!


Silence and Scenery

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Autumn in the Dolomite Mountains, Monte Rite

The spires and walls of dolomite stretch to the horizon.

Below you narrow winding roads climb over imposing passes to reach ancient stone villages hidden in valleys that used to be separate worlds. Each valley had a unique language and culture.

As you look out over the peaks you can’t see down into the valleys. But you know the villages are there. There is very little sign of their long history in these mountains.

The scenery is stunning. The size and extent of the mountains captivate your imagination. Hours pass as you watch the light change and follow cloud shadows across the ridges.

It is not completely silent. The air is moving through the trees, but it is a gentle breeze. In the distance a few birds call in the forest below. There are no distinct sounds that intrude on your contemplations.

The air is warm. You are alone looking at the southern peaks of the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. You have the entire day to take in the view. You try to permanently store the images and the feelings of freedom.

Eventually the light begins to fade. The long walk down the mountain gives you time to review the day. The memories are vivid. Autumn is a great time to visit the Dolomites. I wish I could be there now, but this photo will have to suffice.


Neighborhood Exploration

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Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, California

I often hear people say something like, “I only take the time to explore my own neighborhood when I have company.”

Fortunately we have good friends who like to hike and take advantage of the beauty where we live. Travel is expensive so it just makes sense to sometimes explore your own area. Most places have interesting sites that visitors enjoy seeing. If you make an adventure out of it, with a group, looking around your own neighborhood can be very rewarding.

Not far from our home we have several state parks and a national park. People come from all over the world to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Our actual yard is filled with redwoods and they tower over our house. So, in general we don’t drive to the parks to see them.

But we have begun hiking the coastal and park trails with friends. We treat it like an adventure we were having in another country. We pack a lunch and make a day of it. It is certainly not an original idea, but we are asking ourselves why we haven’t done it more in the past.

There is certainly a reason why these parks were established. The redwoods in our yard, even though bigger than most trees, are second or third growth. In other words, they have grown back after one or two timber harvests. They are probably 50-80 years old and 80-100 feet (15-25 meters) tall.

The big trees in the parks near here are more than 325 feet (~100 meters) tall and simply massive. They grow in areas that have never been harvested, giving rise to the term “old growth”.

On our hikes we have met visitors who are standing and marveling at the trees. They are flabbergasted! To be honest I had forgotten what it felt like to see these giants for the first time. It was good to be reminded of that excitement.

These ancient trees are nice to have in the neighborhood!!

Huts Along the Trail

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The buzzing of the cicada and the sharp call of the cuckoo nearly drown out the sound of your footsteps on the rocky path. But occasionally you can hear the loose stones scraping underfoot. Your feet and ankles are taking a beating.  The air is fragrant with the smells of vigorously growing hardwoods, grasses, and wildflowers.

It is a beautiful, warm day in May and the route ahead will provide long days of walking. Each day will lead you through new country and to a new village. At the end of the day you will be exhausted, but after you do your daily washing and hang your clothes to dry, you get to explore and try local foods and wines. You will find comfort and kind hospitality in small village hotels. These are the rewards of wandering the open trails of  France.

Visiting France at a walking pace provides an opportunity to savor the countryside and see things you would never know about if you were traveling by train, car, or even by bicycle. You get to meet interesting people along the way and all of your senses are stimulated and challenged.

Along the trail, at the edge of a remote field, you may find a solitary solid stone hut. It may have been there for centuries. You have time, why not go over and explore? What is it for? Who made it?

Borie near Laramière, France

Most of the trails in the Lot and Aveyron River canyons are dirt but the route is sometimes on country roads. Part of the route passes over limestone plateaus called “causses”. Farmers, shepherds, and woodsmen have dealt with these stony soils for millennia. In order to cultivate the soil or build roads, the rocks have to be removed.

But what do you do with all those stones? Do you just pile them up in a heap at the edge of your field? Or do you use them to make stone walls and multi-purpose huts?

These stone huts provide shelter for shepherds and others. They are called “borie”. Some of them are simple, squat rough stacks of stones. Others are meticulously built stone masterpieces. These are dry-stone constructions, so there is no mortar to decay. The buildings remain upright by the precision of the stone placement. Some of the borie have simple ornamentation along the roof and corners. Many of them are round.

Inside Borie, Roof Construction

The roof is constructed by a gradual cantilever stacking, where each added row of stones slightly overhangs the row below. Most of the weight of each new stone is still on the stones below and increases the strength of the building. The construction must be very time-consuming.

They don’t appear to be used very often. But they have provided shelter for generations of wandering shepherds, hikers, perhaps lovers seeking privacy, woodsmen, and whomever else found a borie nearby as a storm or darkness approached.

They are interesting and varied and fun to explore. And they make a nice break along the trail. But then it is time to head toward that next village. What kind of hotel and restaurant will we find tonight? What other sites will we see along the trail? Let’s go find out!!! Happy Trails!!

On to the Next Village!

Wandering in Northern Hungary

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Eger, Hungary

Traveling east from Austria toward Budapest the scenery out the train window changes from towering glaciated peaks to flat agricultural lands. Hour after hour the Hungarian countryside stretches out like a table top as far as you can see.

Hungary is in the Carpathian Basin and most of it is flat and at low elevation, but the northern part of Hungary is mountainous.

If you rent a car in Budapest it is a short drive north to the Mátra Mountains. The highest point is Mount Kékes at 1,014 m (3,327 feet). The wooded hills are a welcome break from the urban pressures of Budapest.

The mountain roads are inviting and wind through shady forests and pass through beautiful medieval and modern villages. Near the summits there is ample parking to enjoy the broad vistas over farmland and forestland. The only sound is the wind rustling the leaves. It is a good place to clear the clamor and noises of the city out of your mind and think about the tiny villages far below.

Eger is a popular village with visitors to northern Hungary. Its ancient Baroque buildings are well preserved and the 13th century Eger castle is an interesting place to visit. Eger is 1,000 years old and welcomes guests to stroll its cobblestone streets. It is a pleasant place to spend time and unwind.

Rocky Road

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Far away and long ago Berber traditions were built on these rocky mountainsides in Morocco.

The feeling of isolation is still strong, although connections are growing.

Transportation and Freight

The sounds that remind me of  life in the High Atlas Mountains are mule hooves scraping on exposed rock, long harvesting sticks striking branches in walnut trees, the overlapping calls-to-prayer from adjacent villages echoing through the canyons, a distant, ancient truck straining up a long grade (on one of the few roads), Berber greetings that I did not understand, and laughter.

Life here requires hard work and toughness. And good mules. The trails that connect villages to markets are well-established, but steep and narrow. Mules carry most of the supplies to the villages and they carry the local products back to the markets.

Matate, Morocco

Agriculture  on these steep mountains seems impractical, but their terraces are productive. Irrigation water is delivered in ditches from streams in the high peaks. Apples and walnuts provide income while other crops provide food and tea for the villagers.

Homes are constructed out of the materials at hand. Electricity has reached some villages and satellite dishes bring news, entertainment, and European football.

The villages are separated by long quiet walks. The vegetation is very sparse so the scenery is stark. The mind has plenty of time to wander.

Centuries and generations have strengthened village traditions, but there is also interest in new connections, by some residents. Visitors are ignored or treated with respect. A local guide is very helpful for explaining the culture and for communications.

The High Atlas Mountains are a quiet and powerful place. They are a place well worth exploring. Accommodations range from luxurious to rustic, but the experiences are all very rich.

Six for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

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[Note: This posting is dedicated to all the supportive and generous people that I met at the Sunriver Art Faire in Oregon this past weekend. Thank you for your kindness! This post is a little longer than usual, but I hope that you enjoy a few moments of escape.]


Day 3, Leaving St.Cirq Lapopie, France


Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is a brief story about six friends on a walking tour along the Lot and Aveyron Rivers in south-central France. We never actually used this grand-sounding, national French motto, but in thinking back it does describe important aspects of our walk. We were not formal enough to have a motto, we just wanted to have fun and enjoy the French countryside in the spring.

Our emphasis was probably on liberty. There was a tremendous sense of freedom. The hillsides were verdant green and wildflowers were at their peak. It had been a dry spring so this was as lush as it would get this year.

The trail stretched out ahead and our only obligation was to reach the village where we would stay each night. We had planned our route using guide books published by the local departments and by digitizing our route over Google Earth.


Le Tour des Gorges de l'Aveyron

Route Visualization

Our packs and our spirits were light. But the warm May sun and the long hills taught us to pace ourselves and take time to savor this quiet country. Small farms filled the narrow valleys but the hills were densely wooded. 

On the rich bottomland soils along the rivers we dodged irrigation sprinklers that were encouraging emerging crops. And we passed greenhouses filled with flowers and strawberries. The scent of the heavy warm air pouring out of the strawberry greenhouses was intoxicating. Our senses were being filled and stimulated. There were new smells, sounds, tastes, and beautiful scenes.

We passed through ancient stone villages fortified against invasion, huddled strategically around their cathedral on hilltops and ridges. The imagination was given full license to fill in the daily lives of those villagers. It was not an easy life nor safe. There was not so much fraternity,  equality, and liberty for them.

The woods were welcome shelter from the mid-day sun but they also meant tougher terrain. The heat didn’t quiet the cicada. The trees were small and closely spaced as if they had been harvested many times and then re-sprouted. The humorous call of the cuckoo echoed over the hills. We had heard artificial cuckoos so often that it was hard to believe that these were real.

In many places the trail was lined with low stone walls built for miles through the woods. We were passing through private property, but these paths preceded the current owners. Some of the trails derived from Roman roads. The trails are part of the spectacular national trail system called sentiers de grand randonnée which is abbreviated as GR. Each trail is numbered. There are guidebooks and the trails are marked and signed.

Department Trail Marking

We were following GR36 which sometimes shared the route of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. For centuries these trails have provided important experiences of a lifetime for pilgrims. At times the summer pilgrims formed a roving festival of devotion on the way to the tomb of St. James as they walked for hundreds of miles across France and Spain.

Our goals were more mundane, but still left us with experiences of a lifetime.

On our first day, as the reality of a long hill in the full sun set in on us, we had nearly all exhausted our water supplies. We straggled into the shade of a large tree at the crest of the hill. We were drenched with sweat, fatigued, hot, and thirsty. Beyond the tree there was a very well-tended garden and an old stone house. It was the only house we had seen for miles. The sound of our voices brought out the occupants. We didn’t know what to expect as perhaps we would be viewed as nuisances or worse. We soon became friends with two very kind and generous people. They gave us all of the water we could drink and carry, despite the fact their water had to be brought from the closest village. They also gave us a big bag of greens from the garden for our lunch. Our interlude with them was filled with laughter and humanity. We regret not writing down their names and contact information, because they offered to let us come back and stay there and study French with them.

Several miles later at the top of another hot climb we found a shady patch of grass surrounded by old broken stone walls. We all collapsed and sprawled on the grass and against trees. We each had carried lunch items that we now spread out for our first grand lunch. That morning we had purchased a fresh baguette, local cheeses and meat slices. We made massive sandwiches and topped them off with fresh greens. Our new friends had taken care of us. We added yogurt, fruit, cookies and a wonderful bottle of local red wine. The day was full and good.

With a Little Help From Our New Friends

All of our experiences with the rural French people that we met were like this. They worked hard and enjoyed life. They were willing to teach us how to savor life simply and we were ready to learn.

Walking village-to-village on the French trail system is a great experience. The ages of our group ranged from the upper 50’s to 70-somethings. We found the trails challenging but the rewards were indisputable. We remembered how to laugh and marveled at the kindness of country people. I will tell more stories from this adventure in other postings. In the meantime, happy trails!


Make Juice While the Sun Shines

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Napa Valley Summer

Do you think of farmers as artists or poets?

It is hard to romanticize the hard work, the global market forces, the brute destruction of weather events, and many of the challenges and uncertainties of farming. And we know that a few “farmers” are primarily in business to “farm” subsidies and programs. Still, the lives of the few among us who feed and clothe the rest are not understood by most. We rely on their labors and their willingness to accept the risks.


But are there also some lyrical aspects to farming? What if their product is described as ‘bottled poetry’? What portion of their endeavor is artistic?

Farmland dedicated to growing wine grapes is expanding, at least in some wealthy countries. When a society can afford this luxury, people savor it as an important creation. Farmers and their workers exhibit artistry in their pruning and training of the vines,  in their choice of cover crops, and in other aspects of vineyard management. And each winemaker has creative control over the final product.

Wine is common in many cultures. In the U.S.A., California has a reputation for premium wine production. And in particular Napa Valley is known worldwide, although it is also surrounded by valleys and hillsides with great soils, good weather, and talented farmers and vitners.

Napa Valley is a beautiful place. In the spring it is filled with bright yellow mustard blossoms. And in the early summer the vines take over and blanket the valley floor and the hills with lush green foliage. Under those big leaves, hidden at first, juice is being stored in the fruit. In the heat of summer the fruit and juice mature and develop character.

The wineries provide a pleasant place for tourism and picnicking. Perhaps their poetry is not quite as dear as the price on the bottle. But there is no denying the artistic beauty of the valley or the artistic quality of their creative outputs.

This photograph was taken in the northern end of Napa Valley on a warm afternoon in early summer. I was born two or three miles from this location and grew up in the town of Napa. These forested hillsides were the first scenes that I saw as an infant. The valley has changed dramatically. In my youth there were extensive prune orchards. Farming income and lifestyle were much humbler. Those former orchards are now vineyards. I think it would be harder to describe the artistic aspects of picking up plums off of the ground and piling them in wooden field boxes to be taken to the drier.

On a hot afternoon these vines are hard at work making juice. The air is filled with the scent of nearby conifers and the sounds of forest birds. It is summer in the quiet northern end of Napa Valley.


Living in Livinnalongo

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Castle Andraz, Gruppo Settsas, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

High above the Livinnalongo Valley an ancient castle guards a high mountain pass.

It is a commanding position for surveillance and for communication. Signal fires could inform people below. It lies along one of the mountain routes to and from Venice.

But only a perimeter wall and a tower remain of the Castle of Andraz. It stood guard of the Passo Falzarego in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy.

It is in a valley north of SR48 between Cortina d’Ampezzo and the valley’s main village, Livinallongo del Col di Lana.

This 31 km (~19 mi) section of narrow, winding, hairpin Dolomitic highway is packed with powerful views. Cortina valley itself is a postcard scene with chalets and ski lifts ascending mountains in all directions.

Climbing out of Cortina the entire horizon is crowded with the stunning rock behemoth called La Tofana di Rozes. Clouds swirl around the summit constantly changing the view as you wind around the base for miles. High mountain pastures fill the narrow valleys. On the other side of the road in the distance is Cinque Torri, a famous group of five rock towers.

Passo Falzarego has the typical summit tourist developments-parking, snacks, souvenirs. And views across the Dolomites.

As you descend into the Livvinalongo Valley on the other side of the pass, after a few intimidating switchback corners near the summit, there is a beautiful, well-tended stone chapel next to the road. And in a short distance you begin to see through the trees to the valley where this castle stands on top of a rock outcrop.

In the distance, above the forest is the dramatic Gruppo Settsas. On the day when I drove this section of road, clouds built up in the middle of the day. The mountains that make up the Gruppo Settsas had darkening clouds behind them, but the fronts were highlighted by the afternoon sun. On an autumn day like this with continuously changing lighting you could take thousands of photos and most of them would be interesting. The terrain is so dramatic that it is always photogenic.

Driving is hazardous because the views are so enticing that it is hard to keep your eyes on the road. This short section of road could take all day if you stopped to appreciate all the world-class views. Or you could continue on to Passo Pordoi and an even bigger rock monster called Monte Sella, or take a turn to the north and climb over Passo Campolongo and enter the stunning valley of Alta Badia.

Personally I think that dealing with the intensity of this scenery is exhausting. I was only in the Dolomite Mountains for a week. At the end of a day of photography I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted. My senses were overloaded. It was almost impossible to stop making pictures.

You can visit my online galleries to view more of my portfolio. Click the Photography link above.

Cibiana di Cadore

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Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Cibiana di Cadore is a little off the beaten path. But it is a wonderful place to slow down and spend time in the fall.

Cibiana is in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. It is a short, arduous drive from the famous and glitzy Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina is an elite ski destination and a winter Olympics site (1956).

But Cibiana itself is not glamorous or snobby. It is a well-preserved stone village with a strong independent mountain spirit. It sits along a rushing stream at the base of jaw-dropping walls and spires of dolomitic rock.

The village people are tough, self-sufficient, comfortable, and friendly. Historically, the main  industry was making heavy steel keys. But as that industry faded many adults had to spend most of their time in Germany working in ice cream factories. The village became a place of left-behind grandparents and children.

The rebirth of Cibiana was based on art. Artists from around the world have produced an interesting variety of murals painted on stucco panels on the outside of the ancient stone houses. Each mural depicts the original trade of the family that built the home centuries ago.

On a sunny cool day in autumn when the narrow streets are quiet it is a great place to walk and think about the history and the people who built this village. You might even find a small café/bar in the side of a home. There are two tables out front with a sweeping view of the mountains and a sheltered sunny exposure.

The cathedral has recently been refurbished and the village has a food co-operative with a wide selection. The town also has a partnership with world-famous mountain climber Reinhold Messner. Together they developed a spectacular mountain museum in a rebuilt stone fort on top of nearby Monte Rite. There are 360° views into the valleys and the high peaks of the Dolomite Mountains.

One of the village gathering places is the Hotel Ristorante Remauro. The small café on the bottom floor fills with locals each evening who come to socialize before dinner time. It is also a relaxing and cordial place to stay. The hotel staff are very helpful and friendly.

After spending a few days around Cibiana I was struck with the openness of the people. They are also hard-working as most mountain villagers are. In the fall each home has replenished their massive wood piles which are artistically stacked with pride. I was impressed with how the wood was delivered. Most people get their wood from the nearby mountains (or a few larger stacks, like hotels, are from a large scale wood company). The deliveries that I saw were made by very small three wheeled motorcycle-type vehicles with a truck bed or by a trailer hooked to the family car.

(Incidentally, I saw NO personal full-size pickup trucks in the Dolomite Mountains. Zero. In spite of the challenging mountain lifestyle, people got their wood, building materials, and yard supplies without owning a pickup. In fact, during five weeks of travel in Spain, Morocco, Austria, and Italy I saw TWO full-size pickups the entire time. But it seems as if about half the people where we live need to have a pickup. I don’t understand this.)

Cibiana is beautiful in the autumn. The hardwood trees brighten the scenery with oranges and yellows. But there is also a deciduous conifer, the European larch (Larix decidua Mill.). The European larch turns vivid yellow in the fall. And since it grows in extensive, dense stands entire mountainsides glow yellow. Of course, having a giant spire of rock protruding above the forest doesn’t hurt either.

If you love mountain scenery and peaceful, friendly villages then Cibiana di Cadore, Italy should be on your list. It is worth driving the narrow, winding mountain roads over the passes to find it. And it makes a great base for exploring the Dolomite Mountains, Venice (two hours south), and even southern Austria.

A Cascadian Connection

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Mount Shasta, California, USA - 4322 m (14,179 ft)

Did you toss and turn again last night wondering,  Where does all that tectonic plate material go?

If you have an earth science background you know about the connection between the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the Cascade Mountains.

Many more people have been hearing about the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The dramatic earthquake in Japan has reminded people in the western USA about our own earthquake risks.

The risk for the biggest earthquakes lies along the coast from far northern California up into southern British Columbia, Canada. Here tectonic plates (Gorda, Juan de Fuca, Explorer) under the Pacific Ocean are pushing eastward under the North American Plate.

(The famous San Andreas Fault that threatens San Francisco and Los Angeles is south of this region. It occurs along a different plate margin and moves in a different direction.)

As the Earth’s crustal material is pushed deep under the North American continent along the Cascadia Subduction Zone it eventually nears the Earth’s molten core. Over geologic time scales this crustal material is heated and becomes molten. It eventually escapes upward through the arc of volcanoes known as the Cascade Mountain Range.

The Cascade Mountains are inland but roughly parallel to the coastline where the Cascadia Subduction occurs. This north-south line of volcanoes roughly traces the leading edge of the subducting tectonic plates. The length of this zone is about 1,100 km (~685 miles). The Cascade’s include mountains such as Mt. Ranier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and many others.

The southern edge of the Gorda Plate (the southern-most subducting plate) is roughly parallel with the southern edge of the Cascade Mountains, which is south of Mount Lassen in the state of California.

South of the Cascade Mountains another mountain range begins. The Sierra Nevada Mountains extend from there to the south through California and form the eastern edge of the fertile Central Valley. If you are familiar with California geography the separation between the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains is roughly along a west-to-east line from the town of Chico to Susanville.

The Cascadian Connection then is that the crustal material once under the Pacific Ocean, which pushed under North America long ago, now forms mountains such as Mount Shasta in this photograph. The scale of this system is enormous, both in time and space.

In this larger region the risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions is real. It is important to be prepared. Nobody can predict their occurrence precisely, at this time. The most prudent approach is to be prepared TODAY. Emergency supplies and shelter should be part of everyone’s routine.

If you have a refrigerator you should have an emergency supply kit.

How much energy do you think it took to push enough crustal material under North America to explosively build Mount Shasta, and all the other Cascade Volcanoes?

The answer is:  Enough energy to periodically and abruptly release violent earthquakes throughout the region. Are you ready?

Door Drum

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Corral Door, near Tizi Oussem, Morocco

On a ridge in the High Atlas Mountains a Berber family has built a strong corral for their livestock. A discarded 55 gallon drum is the crowning touch.

This is a brief story of survival.

The rest of the corral wall is made from material available on the mountainside. Stones were either picked up or pried out of the cracked bedrock and hauled into place. They are stacked without mortar.

There is no road so the only access is by foot. Supplies are carried by mule. It is a long walk to a market village. The path is well worn.

There is no house here. There is a small stone shelter for the livestock.

There are very few trees in the arid High Atlas Mountains. Wood is not readily available but the corral needed a durable door.

A 55 gallon steel drum becomes nearly worthless to people in wealthy industrialized countries when the petroleum or chemicals are used up. Around the world these discarded drums provide building materials for shelter and even musical instruments.

This Berber family cut open a drum and hammered it flat. It was combined with other scrap metal and a few branches to form the door that protects their wealth-their livestock.

I am not sure what the purpose of the brush on top of the wall is, perhaps just decoration.

Along the trails in these mountains you come across these stone corrals and shelters. There are no habitations within miles. This is the domain of shepherds who roam the mountains with their mules, goats, and sheep.

These are quiet places. But these structures help families survive. It is an ancient existence without many material possessions.

Dolomitic Dreams

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Passo Falzarego, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Am I dreaming? Are these mountains possible?

Driving the narrow roads of the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy forces you to question what you thought you knew about mountain landscapes and alpine beauty.

Along the way you also pass through many villages.

As you drive through a small picturesque village composed of stone houses, a cathedral, and a few essential businesses, your imagination is filled with ideas about what it would be like to live in the family home in a place like this. Generations before you have struggled forward from medieval trades and ancient traditions and superstitions. The grandchildren of your grandfather’s adversaries  may be your pals or your even your spouse. Your great grandmother’s volunteer work in the cathedral may still be on display in the form of draperies, lace, stitching or other handmade artwork. Old family disputes may be simmering or forgotten in the narrow cobblestone streets that are your shared world. Centuries of happiness, sickness, birth, celebration, faith, tradition, storms, and inventive tradesmen have filled your family history. You know the mountain slopes nearby as the source of your winter fuel, your water, and as the pastures where you spent your youthful summers tending the family livestock. But you also know the big city far below as the place of your studies and it pulls you toward a profession and career.

All of these ideas, and more, float through your mind as you reach the outskirts of the  village and begin the climb toward the next pass high above. The narrow cobblestone street gives way to even narrower asphalt. Massive stone walls provide the platform for  switchbacks as you ascend the steep mountainside bordering the valley where the villages are built. At times you drive near the rocky channel that delivers the snow melt runoff to the valley. The forest is dense. You can only see a short distance to the next corner. Suddenly a large truck appears and you move as far as you dare to the outside and hope that your mirrors don’t hit and that you don’t tumble down the slope. They don’t seem to be phased by the squeeze and don’t slow down. The driver in the car behind you is impatient and passes at the first opportunity and then disappears around the next corner. Now you can slow down and hug against the bank around the corner hoping not to meet another truck.

The sky above is filling with afternoon clouds. The autumn sun is low.

After dozens of corners you have climbed out of the valley, but your arms are getting tired. The forest begins to thin and there are large meadows. Then the view opens even more as you near the summit. Large expanses of grass mark where the snowfields linger in the spring.

The singular rock walls and spires of the Dolomite Mountains tower above the landscape. They always seem like they are out of scale. They are too tall when they  protrude that much above the huge forested mountain that you just drove up. They look almost artificial as if they were stretched in a digital image. But there they are.

If you are lucky the clouds will part and let the sun spotlight the white dolomitic walls. They are the real stars. The shaded forest and the dark swirling clouds frame the rock. You get glimpses of barely believable scenes as you drive near the summit.

You have to keep your eyes on the switchbacks. You have to look at the mountains.

You look back at the road just in time to swerve to the right as a motorcyclist leaning in around the corner screams by. Then six of his buddies zip by winding through the gears keeping their compression high and the adrenalin flowing. Bright colors on the tanks and on their suits leave a vivid memory, but they are gone and the sound slowly fades.

It is a relief to pull over. There is another scene that must be photographed. How can you depict such a spectacle? A short walk into the forest provides the vantage point you want, but the light is not good. The clouds are swirling around the rock. At times it is obscured completely. Eventually the clouds thin. And far to the west the clouds open and the sun shines through. The rock is almost too bright to look at. You photograph rapidly. Your time is short. Then the clouds close. Sometimes you get what you wanted, but often you don’t. You drive on. Oh, wait. Pullover. I have to get that. Repeat.

When you finally reach the pass you may find a small hotel, a café, a gift shop, and perhaps a cable car reaching up to the top of the rock. There are tour buses and lots of motorcycles parked while people take in the view. The names of the passes are intriguing: Passo Falzarego, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena, Passo San Pellegrino, Passo Cibiana, Passo Duran etc.

Each pass is integral to the history of the villages below. It can serve as the grazing grounds, the ski area, the tourist destination, the invasion point, or all of the above.

As you wind down the steep slopes on the other side the sequence is reversed. When you near the next valley small farms and inns begin to mark the outskirts of villages. The ancient traditions of these villages may not have been influenced by villages on the other side of the pass during the early centuries of history in each village. Languages may have been different also. Trade or war may have introduced their populations.

You pass through the village thinking about its history and start up the next pass.

What will you see on the other side of the mountain? It is an old question and even the theme of a children’s book .

In the Dolomite Mountains you are certain to be treated to an unexpected panorama of startling rock formations. On the other side of every mountain a new world of mountain history awaits. The views from the fabled passes make the climbs very worthwhile.

If you enjoy mountain scenery the Dolomite Mountains will make your dreams come true! You can view more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Distant Village

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The Suburb, Arhrene, Morocco

As you plod through  the tiny Berber village you can hear hypnotic north African rhythms floating over the arid, rocky mountainside. The insistent hand drumming pulses over the thumping base that you can feel. The catchy Arabic lyrics trade call and reply with a soaring string refrain and form an addictive repetitive hook. A flute completes the sound and your imagination drifts to a smokey nomadic tent surrounded by a vast desert.

Today I would like to take you to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. If you like places that feel ‘far away’ this is your kind of place.

By the way, this morning I made a quick scan of the origins of some of the people who visited this blog last week. I can only determine the city and country of the web host, but it is still interesting. They were from various places in the USA and from Russia, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands, England, Japan, Pakistan, and Ireland. I hope that you enjoy these brief travel escapes and I appreciate your interest!!

Now let’s walk along together through a tiny village at the base of a long mountain slope. The trail enters the village from below. It is only wide enough for mules to pass. Stone houses and their porches crowd against the trail from both sides. A few villagers sit on their steps as you pass. They do not want to be photographed, so you have to store these images in your head. Can you hear the north African rhythms in the background?

The ancient homes were built mostly with local materials. Stones pried from the exposed bedrock are held together by clay-rich mud. Recently, imported building blocks, mortar, and stucco have been added to some of the homes. Even though the area has only had electricity for 10 years many homes already have satellite dishes.

Narrow trails switchback up steep slopes leading away from the village. Drivable roads are new to some villages, but are still rare. Most travel is by foot. Mules and donkeys are used to carry supplies and transport walnuts, livestock, and other products to market villages.

In places the trails are only scratchings on steeply tilted rock peppered with loose gravel. A careless step would lead to a shredding slide down the rocky slopes. And these are the easy lower trails between villages that are well-traveled.

When you leave a village behind the mountain is quiet and the views are expansive. The trail aims for a low gap on the distant ridge. In English a pass like this is referred to as a saddle, but in Berber they are called a tizi. You can see the tizi in the distance and it looks like a short walk. For hours it looks like a short walk. Distances and elevation are deceptive. Slowly you gain altitude and near the tizi. In sheltered pockets there are a few straggly low trees. At the tizi you take a well-deserved rest. It is time to drink and have lunch. The dry air has taken lots of water from you. The views are even more spectacular, but the valley villages where you started from still look like a short walk away.

On the long descent on the other side you pass roaming goats and herdsmen. A few stone corrals and huts are the only signs of human habitation. After many switchbacks you spot another little stone village near the base of the mountain. You are getting tired and it is a welcome sight, especially since it looks like it is just a short walk away…but again it is a long time before you reach the gîte d’etape where you will eat and sleep.

These Berber villages are interesting and unique. Mountain tourism is a significant economic factor for some of them. Other villages ‘turn away’ as you walk through the edge of the village through their scattered walnut trees. It is hard to describe how an entire village can ‘turn away’, but that is the feeling that you get in a few places. Sometimes in remote villages you only get glimpses of the stone houses through the walnut trees. If you pass someone on the trail they are not rude, but you get the feeling that their day would have been better if you had stayed home. Their culture and traditions have been tested for generations. This is true of most rural people in other countries too. They have their tried-and-true ways of doing things and they are content to be left alone. In other villages people are friendly, even jovial. Traveling with a local Berber guide helps a great deal. Wherever you walk though, if you are respectful you are treated with respect in return.

My walks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco were short easy strolls in the foothills. I barely entered the real mountain terrain. I also saw only the periphery of the culture in an area that has become easily accessible from Marrakech. But my brief exposure still felt like I was visiting distant cultures. And I met many friendly and helpful people. I still smile when I think about some of the unexpected humor that villagers showed. A good practical joke knows no cultural boundaries. At times the joke was at my expense, but that is OK. We all laughed.

If you are able to visit Morocco, the High Atlas Mountains are well worth a week or more. There are many local guides and muleteers available. In Imlil, Morocco I recommend the super guide Imrhan Omar. He works through Kasbah du Toubkal. Omar was raised in an adjacent village and seems to know everyone in the villages you walk through. He is a native Berber speaker and his sense of humor makes every situation non-threatening and comfortable.

I hope that you enjoyed these few moments in the mountains of southern Morocco. You can view more photographs from Morocco by following the Photography link above.

Rolling Through Cultural Dessert

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Home Away From Home, Imlil, Morocco

Gawking at the jagged vertical splendor of the Dolomite Mountains, or plodding slowly up a long, dry valley in the High Atlas Mountains, or imagining 12 centuries of intrigue within a mosque-turned-cathedral can only reveal the faintest outlines of the giant heaps of cultural riches of Italy, Morocco, and Spain. But they are tasty morsels. These settings shape the culture of the people who live there.

During 2010 I visited those three countries. I wandered around and tried to photograph some distinctive scenes and learn about their cultures. This posting is a look back at some of the memories of getting around in those countries.

Our own culture is nearly transparent to us. It is just how things are in our daily world. We take it for granted. But when we travel we notice culture and tradition by their contrasts to our norms.

Architecture, art, literature, languages, religions, education, government, transportation, food, greetings, gender relations, holidays, and many other expressions of culture and tradition make travel interesting.

You learn that other cultures and other traditions work. Brief glimpses don’t reveal differences in personal liberty and fulfillment. But you see happy people who seem contented. Some of them appear more contented than those who have much more material wealth, while some families do stagger under generations of poverty. The contrasts of wealth are extreme in some places. There is a great deal to think about as you walk village streets, or drive through, or ride a train through  towns in these countries.

This morning I was unpacking and cleaning my old and trusty rolling carry-on luggage. We just returned from a family Christmas reunion. I am amazed at how well that luggage has held up over the years.

As I looked at the wheels my mind started drifting to all the places they had rolled through this year. I thought about those towns in Spain, Morocco, and Italy which are still vivid memories.

The port of Málaga and the torn-up streets along the river between our motel and the train station were a workout for those wheels. Ancient Cádiz led us down the coast to Zahora. We let the luggage rest in a small beach house while we explored and photographed Los Canos de Meca, Barbate, Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes, Vejer de la Frontera and our local beach during the day. The autumn heat taught us the logic and beauty of the siesta. It also made the tapas option on the menu our only choice. Eating light was appropriate. You have to know how to order coffee the way you like it. This was a prime assignment for me for the first couple of days in each country. In Spain it was cortado doble! I photographed architecture, cathedrals, and street scenes in the beautiful hilltop village of Arcos de la Frontera. I learned about the frontier between religions in Andalucía. We spent an interesting night in a bull fighting arena in Jerez de la Frontera at a flamenco festival. After the train ride from Cádiz it was a long walk from the train station in Córdoba to our motel, but the luggage rolled on over paving stones, curbs, and concrete. In Granada we stood under an overhang near the train station waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t. So we deployed our plastic garbage bag rain covers for the luggage and walked briskly to our motel. When we returned to Málaga we had to negotiate the construction zone around the train station again, but no luggage failures. (Local spellings are used here throughout.)

It was a long train ride from Málaga to Algeciras where I took the ferry to north Africa. Tanger, Morocco is a challenge for travelers and luggage. It is a rugged industrial port which is well-worn and full of street hustlers. I had a long walk uphill to find my decrepit hotel. Old cobblestones were a hard workout for the wheels. An even longer walk the next morning to the train station was fortunately mostly over newer sidewalks. The train station in Tanger is new and shiny. I was supposed to be met at the train station in Fes by a taxi arranged by the hotel, but we missed each other. I got in a cab and started toward the old walled city center, the medina. We went only one block before the driver stopped in the middle of the street, jumped out, and got into a violent shouting argument with someone standing by the street. The cab door was hanging open in the traffic and I was alone in the cab as a small crowd gathered.  They were yelling in Moroccan Arabic so I never knew what it was about and it was unresolved when the driver returned. We went one more block and he stopped and picked up a friend who wanted to ride in the same direction. When I finally got to the gate of the medina he stopped and told me that my hotel was 200 meters ‘that way’. No cars can navigate the maze of tiny alleys and 200 meters provided plenty of rough cobblestones and many intersections. I was lucky that there were signs to the hotel. The taxi ride and the tumult of the crowded noisy alleys in Fes were intimidating but I was almost always treated with respect and kind hospitality. I learned a lot about Fes history, traditional crafts, religion, and culture. The medina was a total immersion. When I wheeled my load back up the hill to the gate to leave Fes I had an even more interesting cab ride. There are lots of official red Petite Cabs in Fes. I was waiting for one to drive by when a grizzled grandpa in a funky helmet rode up on a motorcycle pedicab. He insisted that he was a safe driver and would get me to the train station in good shape. I loaded my luggage and jumped in the open truck bed and hung on as my luggage and I bounced around through the potholes and traffic anarchy of Fes. But we did arrive safely. The longest train ride (8 hours) was from Fes to Marrakech. Due to a bad map that luggage really got a workout rolling over the stones and broken sidewalks around the train station as I circled the area trying to find the motel. Finally I gave up and took a cab. The next day was interesting for that luggage as it started the day in the back of a new SUV driving into the High Atlas Mountains and ended the day in a saddlebag on a mule in the village of Imlil. The photo above shows the entrance to Dar Imlil, a guest house. If you end up in Imlil someday, it should be high on your list for lodging. It is a great place. The last test for the luggage in Morocco was Casablanca. The urban streets would have been tough, but the cab driver found the motel (after an unsettling amount of wandering) and let me out at the door.

The Casablanca airport was smooth and easy for those wheels, as was Rome and Milano. Going through security and checking the luggage in Casablanca was very similar to US airports, except I couldn’t carry it on board along with my camera pack-0nly one item. But it showed up promptly in Milano ready for Italy. The next morning I had an interesting drive across northern Italy from Milano through Bergamo, Brescia, Verona,Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno on my way into the Dolomite Mountains. I was on the Autostrada (toll expressway) for most of the way so I could only see domes and cathedrals on hills in the distance. I eventually found my way on the narrow, winding roads in the mountains to the tiny beautiful village of Cibiana di Cadore. I rolled the luggage into the hotel and it stayed there safely while I explored the Dolomites. I even drove to Venice one day and to Kitzbuhel, Austria on another day. The self-reliance and love-of-life typical of mountain people were on display in every little village. Just as each village in Morocco had its mosque and minaret, so each village in the Dolomites had its cathedral and steeple. And since tourism and mountain recreation is vitally important, the villages are decorated with colorful shutters, hanging flower baskets, and artistic homes. Having a car in Italy allowed me to explore the Dolomites and I got a good workout. It took several days to get used to the narrowness with cars coming the other way on hairpin corners and big drop-offs. But the scenery is simply exquisite. I took so many photographs that I got physically exhausted from holding the camera.

Finally I had to pack up and head back to Milano. I put the strap around my faithful luggage and headed to the airport. It had navigated cobblestones, broken sidewalks, mule leavings, curbs, airport security, stairs, and over-packing again. No problem. During 2010 it also made trips to visit family in California and Oregon, USA. It went through a lot.

I tried to mail home and stuff in mementos from the many places that I visited. But most of my keepsakes are photographs, memories, and knowledge. Each time I was faced with new culture and traditions I felt disoriented and intimidated. But quickly a few interactions taught me that the people shared similar values and that their traditions were versions of the same things I was used to. Honesty, integrity, respect, humility, and thoughtfulness were expressed in each of the cultures. There were different religions, governments, and other cultural aspects. But as many people learn from traveling, we have more values in common than we realize.

Throughout my travels this year I enjoyed the variety of cultures and traditions. And there was certainly variety. And once again I learned that variety in art, architecture, traditions, etc enriches the experiences of travel. And the more time I put into learning about them before the trip the  better my photography planning goes and the more I get out of it.

In 2011 we plan a village-to-village walking tour near Cahors, France. My faithful rolling luggage will be stowed in a hotel at the starting point and we will venture on with light packs. But we will also explore the area for a few days after our walking tour so the luggage will get a workout.

I hope that in 2011 our experiences teach us more about our shared values and the importance of human connections. I wish the same for you!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Let It Snow

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Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon, USA

The cushions are soft and the chairs have a substantial sturdy presence. Hand made iron frames hold the heavy Douglas-fir slabs in place. The arm rests are wide enough to hold a hot drink and a good book, or your e-reader, or your computer. These are old chairs, well broken-in, but with a long life ahead. They were made to last.

The room is enormous. The sounds of a crackling, roaring log fire and the smell of smoke and old wood dominate your senses. You can feel the comforting heat from the over-sized stone fireplace. The drifts are deep outside and its is snowing heavily.

As you settle into the chair you tilt your head back and follow the massive volcanic stone chimney up through the circular balcony of the floor above and further up to the beams supporting the steep roof. Heavy iron braces, fat beams, hand placed stone, and planks of local woods provide durable shelter from the Mt. Hood blizzard outside.

At Christmas time this room has several fragrant Christmas trees and carolers stroll through the lodge filling the nearby restaurant and distant hallways with familiar melodies. It is a busy time at Timberline Lodge in the Cascade Mountains east of Portland, Oregon, USA.

But if you get up early you can find a quiet spot and settle in. It is a cozy place to spend a winter morning reading, talking, or just looking at this historic building.

Playing in the snow will come later, or tomorrow. Right now, and for a good long time, it is time to appreciate the craftsmanship of these beautiful, artistic old chairs. Rest a while by the fire on a winter day. Close your eyes. Listen to the fire. Feel the heat. Let it snow. Happy winter!!

Cloud Museum

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Museum in the Clouds, Messner Mountain Museum, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

“They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.” A classic line from the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi.

In it she complains, “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The Museum in the Clouds in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy is the opposite of this. The village cooperated with world-famous climber Reinhold Messner to rebuild a former army fort into a mountain museum, dedicated to honoring the spectacular Dolomite Mountains and the people who live and recreate there.

The army fort was built on the top of Monte Rite between 1912-1914 and gave a commanding view over any movements of troops below. It withstood World War I and II, despite attempts to blow it up. It is embedded into the mountain top and is built of stone.

Now it gives unrivaled 360° views of the major peaks of the Dolomite Mountains. And they are simply amazing. The museum building has been completely refurbished and houses a world-class collection of paintings, drawings, notebooks, gear, and memorabilia from the exploration and climbing of the Dolomites. It is prepared as an art exhibit and classic museum experience. All of the equipment and notebooks are archived and presented in display cases and wall displays. The paintings range from romantic period oil paintings to modern art. There is also a video presentation room.

The roof of the museum is flush with the summit of Monte Rite (2181 meters-7153 feet) and you can walk over the entire structure and see the view in all directions. Protruding through the roof are three polarized glass enclosures. They allow light into the museum but also provide views of the sky, mountains, and clouds from within.

I rode the first shuttle van up to the museum in the morning. It was a chilly, cloudy, and foggy day in October. I was the only tourist in the van with all of the museum and café staff. The road is closed to public traffic.

I spent the entire day around the summit trying to photograph the highest peaks as they emerged from the clouds. Except they didn’t emerge for several hours and even then not entirely. I waited by my tripod and tried to stay warm. I photographed a hikers’ bench and interesting rock outcrops. Every once in a while I could faintly see the imposing walls of the high peaks through thin spots in the clouds, so I would get ready and…then the clouds would close in again. Eventually most of the clouds dissipated, but the sky remained hazy all day.

During the day I also photographed the museum and the glass enclosures. I had a circular polarizing filter on the camera and the glass of the enclosures was also polarized. The cross-polarization made some interesting patterns in this photograph in the late afternoon. I had very little success with other photographs which was frustrating.

At the end of the day I walked down the four mile access road. The low evening sunlight highlighted nearby peaks and brightened the autumn colors. I was the only person walking down the hill and it was a very enjoyable quiet walk. Sometimes you have to keep the images in your own memory even if you can’t capture them to share with others. It was just about dark when I arrived back at the parking lot. It was a great day in the clouds and bright sun looking at the high Dolomites.

There is a network of these Messner Mountain Museums. They are dedicated to exploring, climbing, and living in mountain landscapes around the world. There is an emphasis on the historic relationship of humans to mountains.

You can see more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Firewood or Art?

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Artistic Stone House, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Life in the Alps is demanding. Weather is extreme and economic conditions are a challenge for most.

But still, in some mountain villages homeowners take the time to stack their firewood as artistic creations. They know that tourists will be strolling through their town and that their homes are on display. My firewood is stacked in rows in my shed, but I don’t take the time to make an artistic statement with it.

We first noticed this in Wengen, Switzerland in the Bernese Oberland. The stacks of wood outside village homes were more like sculpture than fuel. It looked like some of them had been there for years, for viewing. Tiny pieces of wood were arranged carefully to form intricate patterns.

This beautiful stone house in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy has a very carefully prepared firewood stack with flowers and artwork included in the display. Cibiana is filled with outdoor art.  Many of the older homes have murals painted on the outside. The villagers are aware that people enjoy looking at their well-tended homes.

It is a great place to photograph doors and windows.

Cibiana di Cadore is an ancient mountain town in northern Italy that has evolved from being a manufacturing center for heavy steel skeleton keys to become a beautiful, artistic place to visit in the Dolomite Mountains. The people are friendly and lodging is economical. It is a good base for driving throughout the Dolomites or even down to Venice. But you have to be comfortable with narrow winding mountain roads. It is a quiet place in October and the spectacular mountain scenery is enhanced with fall colors and cool temperatures.

You can see other Dolomite Mountain photos in the Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.




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