How does one know?

How does one know one is dead?

I was in the airport in Munich. My flight was scheduled to leave in about three hours. I made my way to the proper check-in area, checked my suitcase and walked to the passport check. The line was very long, and I had a small concern about making my flight. As slowly as the line seemed to move, it did move, and soon I was passing through. I was traveling with a group, but oddly, they were not in line with me. I’m not sure how I got separated, but the people around me were all strangers. Once through, we all made our way to another waiting area. There were seats, but the room was remarkably devoid of other features. No wall posters advertising vacation spots, No overhead signs showing gate numbers. After a short wait, we were led through a door to waiting buses. People jostled with their belongings and carry-on bags for room. Our bus was tightly packed and had only standing room. There was a small half-sized bench seat for a few older individuals. The bus would take us to a boarding area away from the main terminal building. It pulled out and everyone tilted backward for a moment, then righted. There was some soft chatter in the background, in languages I could not understand. It wasn’t German. After ten minutes the bus slowly came to a stop in front of a concrete building, two stories high with the part facing us all glass. There was a glass door leading in, and inside one could see an escalator. There was a small standing desk inside a few feet from the door. A man was standing at the desk. He was wearing a blue uniform-type shirt and had a reflective safety strap at an angle from right shoulder to left hip. He was looking down at the desk, and did not appear to look up when the bus arrived. The bus doors did not open. I looked around the bus, and realized I could see out the windows I was facing, but not out behind me, as there were no windows on that side. I also realized the bus got here without a driver, some kind of automatic transportation system. In the bus, we waited for something to happen.

After ten minutes when nothing had happened, people started to rustle and look perplexed. Another ten minutes went by. The man behind the desk walked to the door and stepped outside. There was a man in a wheelchair rolling up, and he went through the door held open by the man in the blue shirt. Inside, the man in the wheelchair, who did not look young, by the way, demonstrated remarkable wheelchair handling. He spun the chair around to back on to the escalator, and held it front-wheels-up as he ascended. We could only see the bottom part of the escalator and he was soon out of view. Another several minutes went by, and I started to wonder where we were and what was happening. Was this it? The end? Was this our exit from our existence? Who was the guy in the blue shirt? Why did I not know anyone on the bus? Suddenly, the middle door of the bus opened, and we were led into the building, through the glass door, and onto the escalator. The escalator seemed longer than I expected, but it did end and we streamed off. In the corridor at the top, again, with no signs, no posters, just off-white walls and a tile floor, there was the man in the blue shirt. He was directing some people to the left and some to the right down separate halls. Again, I wondered, are we being directed according to our ultimate destination? And if I died, would I know it? Would it feel different? Shouldn’t I feel nothing, and not be aware? But there is no one to tell us.

We walked a bit farther and I came to my senses. There was a waiting area which looked familiar. We had to pass through another security check to get there. My traveling companions had already made it through, and there was a loading gate manned by airline personnel. A sign above indicated our flight and time, and through a window I could see our American Airlines Airbus waiting for us to board.

For Halloween, 2018.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 3

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Map from Pirate and Traveler

Decades ago, when my brother and I were kids, there was a board game we played called “Pirate and Traveler“.  The fact I still remember it today says something, that it stimulated a desire to travel the world, and a curiosity about foreign lands.  One of the destinations one could travel to in this game, was the city of Reykjavik, on a tiny island between Greenland and the British Isles.  We, my brother and I, always got a kick out of trying to get to Reykjavik, and figure out how to pronounce it.  No one we knew seemed to know, nor had they been there.

Today, Reykjavik is a hot destination.  Tourism has become the number one industry in Iceland, outpacing fishing and manufacturing since 2010.  As documented in this report from 2015:  “Iceland and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism” the concern is now that the numbers of tourists visiting Iceland today is having enormous and perhaps negative societal and ecological impacts.  Mentioned in the report is that Airbnb has been a major part of Iceland’s ability to accommodate so many tourists.  While the whole country has 350,000 people, most of whom live in Reykjavik, the annual tourist visits today are three times that, and growing.  The hotel industry is growing, but without Airbnb, Iceland could never house all those people.

This has been good for Iceland.  In the great crash of 2008, Iceland suffered as if a volcano had blown and destroyed the nation.  Due to extremely poor, and in many cases criminal, mismanagement of the private banks and their debt, the country fell into an economic crisis from which they are slowly but steadily crawling out.

What is Reykjavik like today?  It is an incredibly modern, forward thinking and ecologically conscious city.  While we flew into the airport at Keflavik, the main international airport for Iceland and near Reykjavik, we spent no time in the city until the last two days of our trip.  We drove back from Vík í Mýrdal through Selfoss, and then up a long steady climb through a mountain pass.  The scenery changed from grasses and moss-covered lava, to snow, very white and glistening snow in all directions.  We were on our way to visit the Hellisheiði Power Station, a geothermal power and hot water generator situated over an active volcanic ridge.  Thirty wells, 2000-3000 meters deep, extract steam from fissures in the rock, which provides steam to generate electricity and also hot water which is used to heat homes and businesses, and even some sidewalks in Reykjavik.  The superheated water is carried by high-tech pipes to the city and distributed by smaller pipes.  This and one other similar plant provide all of Reykjavik’s needs.  They are justifiably proud of their facility, and provide self-guided tours of the plant, with large diagrams and explanations of the complex operation.

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Entrance to Hellisheði Geothermal Power Station

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steam separators at the power station

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Steam driven turbines producing electricity.

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Display of minerals found around the power station.

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Icelanders have a sense of fun.

Moving on.  We drove on to Reykjavik and found our way to our hotel.  We stayed at the Fosshotel Reykjavik.  Here’s the address:  Þórunnartún 1 – Höfðatorg, Reykjavik.  I added that just so you can see how challenging Icelandic can be.  The hotel was wonderful.  The room was very comfortable, and we had a view of the bay.  The bathroom had a heated floor, due to the piped in hot water from the power station we just visited.  A feast of a breakfast was included, and it was beautifully presented.  There was a very good automatic coffee machine so one could get one’s choice of coffee style.  There was also an excellent beer bar with a happy hour which served many local craft brews, which turned out to be delicious.  We were within walking distance of the main shopping and dining street, Laugavegur.  For our brief stay in the city, we chose to visit the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, and the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.  The National Museum had many items to explore, particularly from the geological and anthropological perspective.  This includes bones of an ancient Viking skeleton and  a rather complex loom demonstrating how early settlers made cloth.  One very interesting exhibit from my perspective, was an analysis of the DNA of Icelanders.  A company called deCODE Genetics in Iceland, once independent but now owned by Amgen, has taken DNA samples from 160,000 Icelanders.  What makes this study unique, and very valuable, is that most Icelanders can date their ancestry to settlers from the earliest groups to populate Iceland, from 870 to about 1100 AD.  Not only that, but genealogical records in Iceland are very complete.  So, with a large database of DNA, and ways to compare with family and medical histories, there is an ideal combination of family information needed to understand the DNA results.  One fascinating finding in one of the studies shows the origin of Icelanders, with about 80% of the men having Norse genes, and about 63% of Icelandic women of Celtic origin.  One may interpret that as one chooses, but those are the numbers.  The museum had much else to offer, of Viking artifacts, furniture, and explanations of the geology of this singular island, and one could spend hours there.   We also visited the Settlement Exhibition, which is a museum housed around the ruins of an ancient Viking longhouse, discovered in Reykjavik in 2001, and inhabited from about 930-1000 AD.  The exhibit is part of the Reykjavik City Museum, but housed separately.  The theme of this museum is 871+/- 2.  One of the peculiarities of Iceland is that dates of settlements and major changes over the centuries can be related to tephra, which is ash layer that falls from volcanic eruptions.  Around 871, with a 2 year plus or minus range, a large eruption produced enough tephra to cover much of Iceland, and part of the wall of this exhibit was covered with tephra from 871.  It was very interesting to walk around the longhouse, examining the old walls and artifacts.

Restaurants in Reykjavik tend to be expensive.  A mid-price restaurant will run 3,000 to 6,000 Krónur, or about $30-$60 per person, not including drinks.  We chose a nice place called Apotek, a very forward thinking, creative restaurant with an Argentine chef.  Our dinner was excellent, and I can highly recommend this place.

On our second day in Reykjavik, we headed to the Maritime Museum.  While not on the top lists of museums in this city, and a bit on the edge of town, it turned out we learned a great deal here and considered the effort to find it very worthwhile.  It is all about the fishing industry in Iceland, from the early days of fishing for cod from simple rowed boats, with hand lines, to modern techniques of enormous fishing vessels which process fish as it is hauled aboard by giant trawler nets pulled in by diesel engines.  We learned of the Cod Wars, which took place over the late 1950’s to 1976.  These were confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights, involving warships in addition to fishing vessels, and resulted in the expansion of Iceland’s fishing rights to a 200 mile zone.  They are very complicated struggles, which involved NATO, African Nations, Russia and Europe, and even led to political science studies, as well as a report by Henry Kissinger.  Follow the link if you are curious.

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A stately house in Reykjavik.

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Wandering about Reykjavik on a chilly but sunny day in March.

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Fishing is still very important in Iceland, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t gotten easy.

This is supposed to be stories about running, given the name of my blog.  After strolling about, admiring the structural integrity of the houses and other buildings in this city, meant to stand up to vicious weather, grabbing a bite in a public park at a fast food kiosk, watching young children running about, we realized we needed to get back to our car to feed the meter.  Hence, the first of my runs in Iceland.  My friend and co-traveler Michael and I had worked this out.  Should we need to get back to the car before the meter expired, I would hand off my backpack to Michael and run to where we had parked, so to feed the meter.  Well, the moment came, and I did exactly that,  I think it was about 1.5 km, but it was a run.  I made it to the car in time, no meter maids were in the area, and I was able to get my credit card out, work the machine, get the slip to put on the dash, and protect us from what would surely have been a hassle from our car rental company.  I met up with my wife and friends, and we headed back to the hotel for a nice beer at the beer bar.  Later, we went out for another restaurant experience.  This was not quite as nice as the first night, in a place with loud music and tight seating.  I’ll not warn you away from this restaurant, but there are many excellent restaurants in Reykjavik from which to choose.

Our last morning before leaving, it was snowing lightly and a bit windy.  We took a walk along the bay, on a path built for strolling, running, cycling or whatever.  The walk was dotted with statues and tributes, to Vikings, to USA-Iceland friendship, and just to art.

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Michael and Lynne, dressed for the weather.

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Kathleen, with the bay of Reykjavik looking very frigid behind her.

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Frank, pretending he’s a Viking.

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An homage to the Viking past of Iceland. The ground was extraordinarily slick with ice, and this photo was a risk.

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Back when diplomats were diplomatic, and reason prevailed, this sentiment carved in stone makes a beautiful statement

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Art for art’s sake, along Reykjavik bay.

We wound up our stroll and headed back toward the hotel.  On the way, we stumbled upon the one place in Iceland where we met people who spoke only Icelandic.  It was a bakery, the oldest in Iceland by the sign, and it served absolutely delicious pastries and sandwiches.  We had a couple of croissants, and some sandwiches for the plane.

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While the sign may be in English, the bakery personnel don’t speak English. Not a problem, though, pointing works very well.

There was one other run.  We got to the airport in plenty of time.  We were on Wow Airlines, a budget carrier, but very efficient at moving people through their system.  We made it through security, passport control, the enormous duty free shop, and to the waiting area at the gate.  I had a hunch, though, that something was missing.  Looking in my backpack, I realized that my iPad was missing.  I figured I must have left it at the security area, since I had gotten waylaid by the agents who selected me for a random search of everything.  I bolted back, through the duty free shop, up an empty stairway, found a locked door, back down the stairs, finally found my way to the passport control, ran through there, then back the long haul to the security area.  I went to the aisle I had gone through, and spoke to the agents.  I, somewhat short of breath, explained my plight, that I thought I left my iPad when passing through.  At first they looked at my as if to say, sorry man, that’s not our problem.  Then, one of them spoke up, and said he thought he knew where it was.  It had been taken to the manager’s office.  He retrieved it for me.  Thanking him profusely, I started my run back to the gate, through passport, getting my passport stamped twice for leaving Iceland, and made it back to the gate with a few minutes to spare before boarding.  We had a very nice flight back to the USA.  We fortunately were sat in emergency exit seats, with plenty of stretch room in front of us.  I bought a $7 Heineken, and enjoyed the time in the air, and the sandwich I had bought at the bakery.  I would go back to Iceland in a flash.  There is so much more there to explore, and it is a fascinating and adventuresome place.  We’ve seen the major attractions of the southern part, but we didn’t get to see the northern lights, and there’s plenty to do in the northern reaches of the country.  Also, I’m sure there are some excellent microbrews I have not tried yet.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 2

Reynisdrangar, basalt columns off the coast at Vik í Mýrdal in southern central Iceland

Reynisdrangar.  Right off the water’s edge from Reynisfjall.  Two trolls were pulling their three-masted boat in, but it was slow going because of the rough seas.  Unfortunately, they got caught out in the water as the sun rose, and being trolls, this turned them to stone.  And, there they stay, out in the water, forever.

Vik is not a large town.  In fact, only about 300 people live here full-time.  This was our next destination on our tour of Iceland.  We left our cozy little cabin near Selfoss, put some diesel in the Skoda, and headed out along Iceland 1, the ring road that runs the circumference of Iceland.  Along the way, passing through Hvolsvöllur, we happened to see a sign on the road for the “The Saga Centre”.  As we drove by the sign, I asked my traveling companions if they would like to stop and check it out.  Yes, was the reply.  So, we turned around and searched for it.  It was not immediately obvious, but hunting off the main road took us to the low building with a painting of a viking ship, vikings with swords raised, on the side, and there we were.

The Saga Centre

Inside, a very nice woman explained the exhibit.  We paid the entrance fee and explored.  The Centre is devoted to telling the story of Njáls Saga, or the Story of Burnt Njáll.  Yes, Njáll meets an unpleasant end, but a lot happens in this, the most famous and one of the earliest of the Icelandic sagas.  It is a story first written down by an unknown author between 1270 and 1290, but taken from oral stories of early families, mainly concerning the sagacious Njáll and his friend the strong warrior Gunnar.  It is a long and complicated work.  The museum shows the saga from start to finish in dioramas with life-sized figures, dressed in period garb, with the writing in Icelandic and English, and allow for an understanding of the flow of the saga, the feuds, the insults, the vengeance, the trickery, the lustiness and the struggles of every day life in early, Viking-style Iceland.  After making our way through Njáls Saga, we moved to the mock-up of a Chieftain’s Hall, a meeting area built by the Vikings in early times.

Viking-era Chieftain’s Hall at the Saga Centre.

Today, it is used as a café, and is rented out for functions.  Beyond this, was another hall in which there was an intriguing project taking place.  It is called the Njals Saga Tapestry, and it is the work of three women who designed and created a 90 meter long tapestry in which panels depict the entire story of Njáls Saga.  It uses a Bayeux stitch, which was a type of tapestry stitch used in Viking times.  According to Christína, one of the creators of the project, 60 meters have been completed so far.  She is not certain where such a big artwork will be displayed.

Christína and her Njáls Saga Tapestry

 

One of the panels of the tapestry. The pinned papers show the name of the person working on that panel.

Once we had finished contemplating life in the time of Njáll, we sat outside and ate sandwiches we had prepared that AM.  It started out sunny and warm, but had turned cold and overcast, so we hurriedly finished and then went on driving towards Vik.  One thing in Iceland one can count on is the presence of waterfalls.  Our next stop was at Seljalandsfoss,  where water from the above plain and glacier plunge 60 meters to the flat land below.  A unique feature of this waterfall, is the footpath that leads behind it to a cavernous space from which one can witness the backside of water.  I came prepared for this.  I wore my waterproof jacket and ski pants, had my hiking boots on, and kept my camera under my jacket until I got around to the back.  There was a good breeze blowing, spraying water over the path which made it slippery.  I managed the path, and had a big grin on my face once I got to the relative protection of the cave.

Seljalandsfoss from the front.

 

Seljalandsfoss from behind (the backside of water).

A bit of a hike down the path was another waterfall, Gljúfrabú¡, also very dramatic, and hidden behind an opening in the cliff.

Gljúfrabú¡, the hidden falls near Seljalandsfoss

 

A sheep carcass along the path, in its “pre-fossilized” state.

 

Kathleen and Lynne, walking along the runoff from the falls.

 

The big picture view of the Seljalandsfoss area.

We then went on to Vik, and to our next Airbnb rental.  As we neared Vik, we climbed over a mountainous pass which then descended into the town.  It is a tiny town, with a population around 300.  But, being the only town of any size in this area, it is well stocked.  There is a nice grocery, a bank, and a liquor store.  Our rental was easy to find, as it was right off the main highway, and looked just like its photo on the website.  Once we made it into the apartment, we headed on foot to the store to gather up some wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres.  Our whole group of nine intrepid explorers were coming over to our place to eat, drink and chat about what we had seen and done so far.

Frank, Lynne, Bob, Gary, Niny, Kathleen, Michael, Sue and Ann; in Vik.

We prepared some Icelandic crustaceans similar to crayfish with seafood sauce, had locally produced salami and cheeses, and Kathleen made a delicious yellow split pea soup for some honest sustenance.  Grapes and Finncrisps topped off the delights.  There was no need for dinner that evening.

Overnight, it snowed.  According to one source, Icelandic language has 100 names for snow.  Snow is certainly part of their culture.  It made for a difficult drive the next morning.  While the road crews did plow the road, is was still very slick for the first third of the drive.  Our destination was 192 km away.  The drive got much better after we passed Kirkjubærklaustur.  The snow was gone, and traction returned. We were on our way to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with a rapidly running, short river to the sea.   Along the way, we crossed a number of one lane bridges, where, if no one is approaching it is clear sailing.  Otherwise, you give the other driver the right of way if they reach the bridge first.  No playing chicken, since the downside is a cold river.  The glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, is a tongue of a larger glacier called Vatnajökull.  It has changed dramatically over the centuries.  When the Vikings first arrived, the edge of the glacier was 20 km from the ocean.  During the little ice age of 1600-1900, the glacier extended almost to the ocean.  But over the last 100 or so years, it has receded, and now is about 6 km from the ocean.  The glacier hangs into the lagoon, and large pieces of it break off and float in the lagoon.  As we arrived, we stayed away from the main parking area and gift shop, and parked in a small lot close to some hills surrounding the lagoon.

Ascending the gravelly hill overlooking Jökulsárlón.

We were amazed by the view.  To the left was a mountain range, part of a large national park in this part of Iceland.  Directly to the north, there was the immense glacier, with its edge dropping into the lagoon.  And the lagoon itself was filled with large chunks of ice which had broken free of the edge of the glacier.  They would eventually make their way to the sea.

The mountains of the Vatnajökull National Park

 

The Breiðamerkurjökull (glacier) at the far side of the Jökulsárlón (lagoon).

 

Tracks from giant-wheeled four wheel drive vehicles are evident on the glacier, where expeditions of tourists go to explore the surface.  We moved down to the shore line of the lagoon.

Heading to the shore line of the Jökulsárlón.

 

Bits of the glacier had landed on the rocks, forming interesting artistic pieces.

We had gotten a tip from a local in Vik that we could break off pieces of ice from the glacial ice and taste it.  That we did.  It was crystal clear and tasted fine, and, glad to report, did not cause any illness.

Frank and Kat, exploring along the edge of the lagoon.

You may notice that a lot of the floating ice contains layers of black.  These are layers of volcanic ash which coated the glacier over many years.  The amount of ash differs from eruption to eruption, so glaciologists can determine the age of the ice based on the volcanic ash layer.

Glacial ice with volcanic ash layers.

 

Rocks and pebbles deposited on the shoreline by the glacier.

We then drove to the beach where the outlet river met the ocean.  After almost getting trapped in a low, icy patch, we managed to park safely and got out to wander amongst the beached icebergs.  The beach, a black sand and gravel beach, had dozens of icebergs to wander around, and dozens of tourists doing just that.

Some icebergs made it out to the ocean.

 

Beautiful translucent blue of a slowly melting iceberg, with birds circling behind.

 

Some icebergs got stranded on the sand.

 

We were able to walk around the stranded icebergs.

 

The outflow of the lagoon, rapidly running water and jammed up icebergs.

As we looked at the glacier, and the large chunks breaking off and floating by, I thought of Sveinn Pálsson.  Who, you say?  Sveinn Pálsson was a Dane, trained in Copenhagen to be a physician, who came to Iceland in 1791.  His home, a farm, was near Vik.  He was the only physician in a large part of southern Iceland, where travel was very difficult due to the many rivers and lava fields in this area.  He was also a naturalist, farmer, fisherman, father of 15 children by wife Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, 10 of whom survived infancy.  He studied glaciers and volcanoes, and was the first person to propose that glaciers move by “creep, analogous to the flow of pitch”, per the Wikipedia article about him, which was the only source I could find.  He wrote a treatise and submitted it to the Danish Society of Natural History in 1795.  It remained unpublished there until 1880, when part of it was published.  The whole treatise was finally published in Icelandic in 1945.  He also wrote extensively about medicine.  He must have been an amazing, brilliant and very tough person who loved life.

We could not get enough of watching the water sluice around the ice, staring at the many shapes and sizes of icebergs, and the beautiful views of the mountains and glacier in the distance.  But, eventually we tore ourselves away and headed back to Vik for the evening.  On arrival back at our apartment, Michael and I walked down to the grocery store intending to buy some lamb to cook for dinner.  The meat section had a variety of cuts from which to choose, but all labeled only in Icelandic.  We stood there, picking up packs of meats in one hand, our phones and Google translate in the other, trying to figure out what animal these cuts had come from.  None seemed to match the word “lamb”, “lambakjöt”.  But the  words written on the packages kept coming up with no translation.  We made a choice based on looks alone, bought some carrots, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and salad makings and headed back.  We had a delicious dinner that night, enhanced by the collection of spices available in our apartment, but in no way was it lamb.  It may have been veal, but no one was certain.

The next morning, Kat and I had planned to ride the Icelandic horses on the beach.  In Vik, there is a stables which advertises horse back rides on the black sand beach of Vik.  We made a reservation before our trip with Vik Horse Adventures.  Early that morning, I got up ahead of everyone else, like I usually do, and made some coffee.  I was cleaning a beer glass from the night before, a very thin, narrow glass, which broke in my hand as I was washing it.  Suddenly, there was blood all over the sink, and I looked at my hand.  I saw a very neat slash at the base of my fourth finger, down to the tendon, bleeding profusely.  I applied pressure with a paper towel, cleaned up the blood as well as I could, and sought the help of Kathleen.  We were able to fashion a nice, tight bandage of paper towel and plastic wrap, which stopped the bleeding and seemed to keep everything under control.  I did not want to miss the opportunity to ride the Icelandic horses.  These are a unique breed.  Their ancestors were brought to Iceland in the early days of settlement, 870 to 1100, mostly from Norway, but also from Scotland and the Shetland Islands.  After that, no new horses were allowed into Iceland.  The characteristics of the breed developed from selective breeding and from natural selection, creating the breed as it exists today.  It is known as a strong breed, well adapted to the weather and geography of Iceland, and also as a five-gaited horse, with two gaits which many other horses do not have.  These are the tölt and the skeið.  These are unusual, flowing gaits not usually seen in domestic horses in the USA.

Hjördis readying the horses at Vik Horse Adventure

 

Frank and Kathleen riding Icelandic horses on the black sand beach covered in snow in Vik.

 

Heading out on our ride.

We rode along a path which led to a little stream.  We forded the stream, which was fast running and came up to the bottoms of our shoes.  The horses seemed comfortable in the frigid water.  Crossing to the other side, we headed for the beach and the black sand.  There, we were able to get, briefly, into a tölt, which, while slow by tölt standards, felt fast and remarkably smooth.  We could not go for long, due to the snow, which would pack into the horses hooves and cause them injury.  Nevertheless, it was a remarkable experience on beautiful and unique horses.  Getting back to the stables, I had to take my horse on a few more turns around the paddock.  Reluctantly, I dismounted, removed the bridle and saddle, and turned the tack over to Hjördis, promising I would be back for some more riding.

My wife, Kathleen, and I then met up with Lynne and Michael.  We took the road up to the Church overlooking the town of Vik.  Vik is, for the most part, low and close to the ocean.  High above it is the massive Mýrdalsjökull, an enormous glacier which covers the Katla volcano.  Should the volcano blow, it could melt enough ice to flood the town of Vik.  So, they have regular drills in Vik when everyone in the town gets themselves up the hill to the church, the only building in the area which could potentially survive such a flood.  This in mind, we headed out of town, towards Reykjavík, and part three of our saga.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 1

At the entrance to the Blue Lagoon.

Everything I tell you is true.  This is the way it happened.  So began one of many sagas we would hear in Iceland, this one coming from Christian, the owner of a small café called Café Bryggjan.  Bryggjan means “pier” in Icelandic, and this fisherman’s café is in a small seaside town called Grindavik at the water’s edge of a harbor.  After landing at the main Iceland airport in Keflavik at around 4:45 AM, we got through customs very quickly, picked up our bags, and got our rental car.  I rented from Budget, yes, the same as in the USA.  Our car was a Skoda, made in the Czech Republic, very comfortable, well-built, full-time four-wheel drive (important in Iceland), and large enough for four with our suitcases.  It happened to be a diesel automatic.  We then drove off to find our way to Grindavik and the Bryggjan Café.

You may wonder, as I did, why many place names in Iceland end in “vik”.  As it happens, “vik” means “bay, inlet or cove”  in Old Norse.  So, Reykjavik is Reykja Bay, and so on.

When we arrived in Grindavik and found our way to the restaurant, we were impressed by the plainness of the buildings, and the location of the restaurant, practically at the edge of a large harbor.  We, the four in my group, and the rest of our group, another five traveling with us in another car, met up at the café.  They had rented the very same Skoda we had.  Popular car, that Skoda, in Iceland.  The café was still closed, as it was only 6:30, and it opened at 7:00.  There was another couple waiting for the place to open, a mother and daughter traveling together.  We chatted a bit outside, checked the hours on-line to be sure we were not mistaken about it opening on Sunday, and milled about for a while.  It was cold, slightly raining and windy, so before long, our group made their way back to the cars to sit out of the weather.  Then, a slightly portly looking gentleman dressed in clothes more appropriate for a warm spring day, headed to the back door and opened up the restaurant.  He was very friendly and welcomed us all in.  He explained there were two breakfast options, the light plate, and the full fisherman’s breakfast, which included smoked fish in addition to Icelandic bread, butter, tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced ham and sliced cheese.  Coffee was in the works, and we were also offered Skyr, the Icelandic version of Greek style yogurt.  After all the breakfasts were served, Christian, the owner, came to the center of the room, and started to tell us of the history of the building, the fisherman and the fishing boats, showed us photos on the walls of many boats which had sailed from Grindavik, some of which had not returned, and of course, explained a lot of accidents and incidents as the work of trolls who play a large part in the folklore of Iceland.

In the Bryggjan Café

In the Bryggjan Café

Christian and Gary at the Bryggjan Café, Grindavik

Iceland is a hard place to live.  It is a volcano, or multiple volcanoes.  By one Icelandic blogger’s account, Jón Frímann, volcanic eruptions have occurred over 160 times from 870 to 2014.  Some have been little puffs and some major eruptions.  Iceland was created by a “hot spot”, where lava flowed from out of a crack in the floor of the ocean, at the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  This is the same manner in which the islands of Hawaii were created.  In Iceland, when the volcanic activity has calmed, glaciers form over the calderas of the volcanoes.  When they blow, heavy volcanic ash rains down destroying living things, and the glacier becomes a massive flood flowing down to the sea.  So one might wonder, what attracted the Vikings to this little island?  The story of the Icelanders, how Iceland was discovered, who first settled, and the history of the country is documented from early on in sagas from early settlers, and from stories from the middle ages to the present day in vivid detail.  My intent is not to relate the history of Iceland, but to give a sense of our visit, what we saw, and the adventure of exploring this place.

After breakfast, we drove to the Blue Lagoon, one of the famous tourist stops in Iceland.  It’s played up as an ultimate spa experience.  In fact, it is the silica-rich water run off from a geothermal energy plant, collected in ponds created in lava fields.  The water is said to be helpful for skin conditions, and just generally a nice experience.  It is a very popular place, and one needs reservations to go.  At check in, a wrist band is provided which is used to open and lock a locker, and also to pay for food or drink.  The water is hot, but not too hot, and there are multiple connected pools to explore, as well as a bar in one of the pools from which to order a drink.

Some of our group, with their silica face paint on.

The Blue Lagoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a very high-style place, with a fancy restaurant, a café, and, of course, a gift shop, selling skin products and Icelandic clothing, all at extraordinarily high prices.  But go, you will not regret it.

Skin tightened, it was time to move on to our next challenge.  We needed to find our way to our AirBnB rental.  The four in our group drove off in search of our cabin which we rented for the next two days.  It was located about 15 minutes drive north of a medium-sized town called Selfoss along the southern part of Iceland.  The owners live in Reykjavik, and use it as a getaway for themselves.  It was a very charming, small, but well-equipped cabin in the woods.  Not that there are a lot of trees in Iceland.  Apparently, there were birch forests when the Vikings first came.  Those are long gone from changes in temperature, volcanic activity, and harvesting of the trees for buildings and firewood.  We managed to find our way to the cabin and settle in.  We shopped in a large, well-stocked supermarket called Kronus in Selfoss for our meals.

Our Cabin in the Woods

Michael, in repose, in the cabin.

Kathleen in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from the cabin.

Our cabin was located within short striking distance of three of our goals for sightseeing.  The first is a fascinating place, both geologically and historically.  It is called Þingvellir (or Thingvellir, in our alphabet).  It is the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet.  These two land masses separate from each other at 2 cm per year.  They roll like conveyor belts, and as they slowly move apart, they create fissures and cracks, and steam, lava and water move upward.  The split can be seen as a massive wall with waterfalls flowing over it, with gaps in the earth, and south of this area, the largest lake in Iceland.

At Thingvellir, the break between Eurasia and North America tectonic plates.

 

Another view of the split between continents.

It was cold but not frigid. Author Frank and wife Kathleen.

 

Looking off to the Eurasian plain.

The early Viking settlers found this area special, too.  They established a general assembly in the year 930 called Alþing (Althing), a meeting place for the chieftains of the various settlements, and the overall leader known as the “law speaker”.  Early on it was pretty crude justice, but the concept held, and this location was used until 1798.

Where the council met. Kathleen, Lynne and Michael holding court.

After thoroughly exploring the Thingvellir National Park, we drove off to our next sight, Gullfoss.  Gullfoss is a waterfall, part of what is called the Golden Circle, which is a group of sightseeing destinations popular with tourists and in striking distance of Reykjavik, where many tourists to Iceland stay.  Why do we enjoy seeing waterfalls so much?  A river, flowing along the countryside, may have bends and rapids, but the abrupt falling of water over a cliff can demonstrate the enormous volume of water moving through, and the power of that movement.  Waterfalls are dangerous, and cannot be navigated by boats.  And, they tend to be quite stunning to simply watch.

Gullfoss in March.

Gullfoss, looking downstream

Another saga, this one very recent, tells the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas, whose family owned the waterfall.  Sigríður was said to have walked barefoot to Reykjavik in order to prevent the waterfall being sold to investors who wished to dam it and use it to produce electricity.  Or, perhaps not.  Apparently the legend is much greater than the real story, in which she was helpful in convincing Icelanders to keep the waterfall as a public park.  The investors actually never could put the money together to get the project going.  And Sigríður?  She got a sculpture of her visage placed at the waterfall.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir

After marveling at the dynamic waterfall, and getting cold from the now-falling snow and wind as we stood at the upper part of the falls, we walked over to the Gullfoss cafeteria and gift shop.  Of course, there’s a gift shop at every tourist stop!  The cafeteria is noted for its lamb soup, and is a nice respite when it is raw outside.  The gift shop is very well stocked, and fun to browse through.

After our meal, there was one more stop on the Golden Circle route we wished to see.  It is a tiny town called Geysir, and happens to be the source of the word geyser in English.  Unlike the well-known “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone National Park in the USA, the Great Geysir in Iceland is very unfaithful.  It has been gushing forth (geysir comes from the old Norse “geysa”, “to gush”), for about 10,000 years.  Sometimes it blows about every thirty minutes.  Sometimes a few years go by without any eruptions.  Engineers have learned to trick it into erupting, and can use their engineering magic to make it erupt on cue.

The Geysir erupts.

In Iceland, safety is a suggestion. A mere rope and little sign tell one to not step in the boiling cauldron.

In a superheated pool, the water and steam flow out, and sinter, the gray silica depost, forms around the edges.

The distant volcano lies waiting, while the ground bubbles up with the heat from inside the earth.

We returned to our cabin near Selfoss, having fully explored the Golden Circle area.  We sent a couple out to the supermarket, bought some lamb and vegetables, some salad makings, and some snacks.  We made a delicious dinner and chatted about our adventures.  The next morning, we made use of the shower in the cabin.  It was located in the entryway, a space heated by a plug-in free standing oil heater which was definitely up to the task.  The shower was a rustic design, a pipe going up to the shower head, and a corrugated side panel as the wall.  We packed up after breakfast, cleaned up the cabin so we would be looked upon as worthy renters by the AirBnB owners, and headed out for our next stop.  Coming up, riding Icelandic horses, an watching icebergs flow out to sea, all in Part 2.

Frank, Michael, Lynne and Kathleen saying so long to the cabin near Selfoss.

 

 

 

Train in Missoula

Missoula, Montana has a nice ring to it.  A bit alliterative, it is a slightly liberal town in an otherwise very conservative state.  The region of Missoula is a relatively flat area which was once a glacial lake.  Remnants of that large lake exist today, in Flathead lake and Lake Pend Oreille.  As long as 12,000 years ago, people inhabited this area, including Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet and Shoshone tribes, although known settlements date from around 3500 BCE (Before Common Era).  French fur trappers discovered it and found that they were not necessarily welcome.  In fact, the eastern valley entrance to the region was referred to as the “Porte d’Enfer” or gate of hell, due to the many human skeletons lying about from killed trappers and explorers, and aboriginal people embroiled in battles.  Lewis and Clark explored this area in 1805.  By 1860, a small settlement was established five miles west of present-day Missoula, with the name Hell Gate Village.  In 1866, the center of town moved east five miles to be closer to a water source for lumber and flour mills.  The name Missoula comes from a Salish word, “nmesuletkw”, apparently pronounced “Nemissoolatakoo”, and meaning “the place of frozen water”.  The area was seen as an ideal route for a train to pass through to the west coast.  In about 1870, construction of the Northern Pacific Railway began and the final golden spike was driven by Ulysses S. Grant in Western Montana, September 8, 1883.  It extended from the great lakes through Missoula and ended at Puget Sound near Takoma, Washington.  The story of the railroad is filled with adventure, hardship and conflict.  The railway led to rapid development along the entire line.

Missoula was granted the right to become the home of the University of Montana by agreeing not to challenge Helena to be the state capitol.  It was established in 1893 on land on the south side of the Clark Fork River.  When I visited in June, 2016, I was told by a number of locals that the university is what makes the town different from other places in Montana.  Of particular note, the first woman elected to US Congress was from Missoula.  Jeannette Rankin, born in Missoula in 1880, was elected to congress in 1916, before women had the right to vote.  She was a pacifist, and during both her first term, and again after election again in 1940, she voted against entering the first world war and the second.  She stated that she could not go to war, and so she would not vote to send any one else.  She was a fighter, though, for the right for women to vote.

I and my whole extended family traveled to Missoula in June, 2016 for the wedding of my nephew, Greg.  I had not been to Montana before, and did not know what to expect.  While there is an airport in Missoula, my wife and I decided to fly in to Spokane, at the eastern edge of Washington.  We drove north from Spokane, around the northern shore of Lake Pend Oreille and the town of of Sandpoint, Idaho.  From there, we drove southeast, following the course of the Clark Fork river all the way to Missoula.  This is a beautiful drive, with scenic mountains in the background, some snow-capped, and the rushing river to our right.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Scenic view of Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula.

Even though Greg would be getting married in a couple of days, he was very happy to go for a run with me the morning after we arrived.  Our first run was along the Clark Fork river, and past the campus of the University of Montana, home of the “Grizzlies”.  There is a nice trail along the river which goes for miles, and makes for a great running trail.  There is a very large “M” on a hillside above the campus, with a switchback trail leading up to it.  It is a favorite of visitors to the campus to go for a hike up this hill.  We, my family, considered it, but thought it looked a bit unrewarding just to go see the “M”.  We still wanted to enjoy the trails around Missoula.

University of Montana "M" trail.

University of Montana “M” trail.

Instead, we decided to climb up Waterworks Hill, a not-too-steep trail on the north side of Missoula overlooking the town.  We all gathered together, no small feat for us, and headed through town to the base of the trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

At the entrance to the Waterworks Hill Trail.

The trail goes up a rolling set of hills, with grass and native flowering plants along the way.  One gets the feeling this is a sensitive ecologic zone.  The hillside is covered with these plants, but if they were not there the whole side of the hill could come sliding down in a heavy rain and inundate Missoula.  It is also a risk for avalanches onto the the homes below during the winter months.  Sheep are used at various times during the year as a means of keeping some of the invasive species down.  How the sheep know the right plants to eat, I am not sure.   As we ascended, the surrounding hills came into view.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

On the way up Waterworks Hill.

A few man-made objects presented an opportunity for the group to look like the cast of a Shakespeare Play.

The cast of the play.

That guy in the middle is the main character.

Nearing the top of the first hill, one is greeted with a great view of Missoula and the surrounding mountains.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

Missoula as seen from Waterworks Hill.

This brings me to my main topic.  One can see the train stretching across the scene in the photo.  Trains of several hundred cars up to a mile and a half long pass through Missoula many times a day.  When the Northern Pacific Railway began, the freight was wheat, farm equipment, and passengers.  Since 1970, it was incorporated into the conglomerate known as Burlington Northern, and it carries a different cargo today.  On our way back into town, we were stopped by the train heading eastward back to its origin.  Empty coal cars rattled and screeched as the train passed eastward through the town, and automobiles idled at the railroad crossing.  Finally, the caboose was in sight, passed by, and the gates opened.  I was moved to find out more about these trains and their cargo.  I asked my cousin, George, who moved to Montana a few years ago from Los Angeles, and now lives in Missoula.  He told me the trains were coming from Wyoming, from an area called the Powder River Basin.

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

Pronghorn, Bison National Reserve, Montana

The Powder River Basin is a geologic area in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, 200 by 120 miles in size.  It is the largest coal mining area in the United States, and produces a type of coal called sub-bituminous.  About sixty million years ago, this region was largely a shallow sea, and received three meters of rainfall per year.  There was a large amount of plant growth, and due to the geography, dead plants did not wash away.  Instead, they became peat bogs which were eventually crushed under dirt and rock to become coal, as the region dried up.  It is estimated this area contains enough coal to light the U.S. almost to the twenty third century.  It was not of great importance compared with coal from Appalachia, until concern was raised about sulfur dioxide, or SO2.  The coal from this region produces about 8,500 BTU’s per pound, versus 12,500 BTU’s per pound for Appalachian coal.  But the SO2 content of the Wyoming coal is very low compared with the coal from Kentucky and West Virginia.  Sulfur dioxide is widely used as a food preservative, in wine making, and in medicine.  It is considered safe for human consumption, except for young asthmatics in whom it may precipitate an attack.  It is a part of normal plant and animal physiology.  However, released into the air from burning coal, it can become sulfuric acid, the cause of “acid rain”.  As acid rain became recognized as a serious threat to the environment, the US government in 1995 developed the Acid Rain Program, a market-based approach to reducing SO2 emissions.  This made coal from the Powder River Basin very competitive with Appalachian coal, since “scrubbing” costs were much less to burn Powder River Basin coal, even though it had less heat output.  The coal in this area is mined by strip mining techniques, and it is done on a very large scale.  An overview in a website called The Daily Climate describes the operation very well.  Of the one billion tons of coal used each year in the United States, about 400 million tons comes from the Powder River Basin.  The amount exported to Asian ports is relatively small, around 10-20 million tons per year.  However, the price offered can be up to ten times the domestic price of about $10 per ton for Powder River Basin coal.  The cost to the mine companies, though, is very cheap.  The coal is owned by us, the people.  It is sold via the Bureau of Land Management to the coal mining companies for around 20 cents per ton.  Since the price received from Asian countries is quite high, as high as $100 a ton in the last few years, the mining companies are doing quite well.

missoulatrain960x200

Like all energy production, though, these prices can change radically and quickly.  If China or India slow their use of energy due to a cooling economy, as has happened over the last two years, the production of coal exceeds demand.  Also, if prices are high, other producers around the globe including Australia, Russia, Indonesia, India and South Africa up their production.  All this has happened resulting in lower prices for coal in the Pacific Rim.  However, as seen by the steady train traffic through Missoula, the coal from Powder River Basin, because of its low sulfur content among other attributes, is still considered desirable, and is still being exported.  One of the factors in exporting this coal is the limited port availability near San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.  These areas are reluctant to invest in increased port capacity due to the market volatility.  Other factors influencing the building of these facilities include the rights of native American tribes.  In some cases, the tribes come down on different sides of the argument.  Producers of the coal feel limited by the port capacity, and would like to see it increase.  Of interest, too, is that while a large amount of coal is exported from the Powder River Basin, it is a tiny fraction of the coal imported to China, South Korea, and other parts of Southeast Asia, currently about 4% of these area’s imports.  While coal demand in the US is falling due to the increase in natural gas from new production, it is difficult to transport gas overseas, and so coal use is still a major source of energy in Asian countries.

Naturally, Missoulans and others on the paths of these coal trains are concerned about the environmental impact.  There have been a number of protests in Missoula like that seen in the video below.  Diesel fumes and dust from the coal cars are concerns.  The Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with studying the environmental impact of the train traffic through these areas.

I knew nothing about the Powder River Basin, and very little about coal, before researching this topic.  As I dug deeper into the issues surrounding the use, mining and transport, and sales and world market for coal, the issues and side branches of this topic became exponentially more complex.  I do hope Missoula stays as livable and beautiful a place as it was for my very short visit in June.  For anyone who wishes to do their own reading on this interesting topic I have listed a few of the resources I used.

A very informative and detailed analysis of coal exports from the US, by Sylvie Cornot-Gandolphe, Research Associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies:  https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CL-21.pdf

U.S. coal prices by region, from U.S. Energy Information Administration data:  https://www.quandl.com/data/EIA/COAL-US-Coal-Prices-by-Region

U.S. Energy Information Administration coal export analysis:  https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11791

The Daily Climate essay with impressive photos on the Powder River Basin and coal production:  http://www.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2013/12/western-coal-development

Wikipedia articles on Sulfur Dioxide and Acid Rain:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulfur_dioxide

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain

 

 

 

Explain Tango

I recently returned from my first trip to Buenos Aires, accompanied by my wife, Kathleen, an ardent tanguera, and another couple, Roger and Claire, both tango devotees of the highest order.  I will attempt to explain tango.

Not an easy thing to do.  I think it’s like trying to explain Argentina.  That’s where tango began.  It’s why it is called the Argentine Tango.  It is a social dance, since people who dance tango gather at milongas and ask others, not the “one who brung ya”, to dance.  Mostly men ask women, with a certain glance known as a cabaceo, to which the woman responds with a nod, or turns her head away.  This allows two dancers spotting each other across the room, then making their way across the dance floor to each other, assuming the embrace, then starting to dance, with few or no words said.  The music is of three basic styles, called tango, milonga or vals.  Yes, it can get confusing.  One goes to a milonga to dance tango, and might dance to a tango, or a milonga or a vals, which is a waltz, but not danced like a waltz, but like a tango but with a few syncopated steps thrown in.  If a couple want only to dance with each other, that is okay, but they are sat with other like-minded couples.  If the thought is to dance with others, one needs to sit separate from one’s mate, and be available.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Learning tango is like learning another language.  The vocabulary consists of different progressions of movement, and the communication is between the leader and the follower.  In general, the male leads and the woman follows, but men can follow, women can lead, and men can dance with men, women with women.  But a leader and follower are still essential parts.  Done well, it can be quite beautiful, but everyone needs to start at the beginning, so entry-level tango is necessary.  In fact, when one attends a milonga, which is what the gathering of people to dance tango is called, it usually starts with a lesson.  The lesson is taught by masters of tango, who show basic steps very slowly, building on one turn into the next, and then the students try to emulate.  Good teachers will watch all the students and closely interact with them until they get the movement being taught.  They also encourage the students to frequently change partners, so they get the opportunity to learn how different leaders lead, and different followers follow.  Some followers need a very strong lead and move like a barge, while others are like cutting horses; give them a bit of a nudge and they’re off into a crazy boleo or some other risky maneuver.

Practica:  teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without.

Practica: teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without being too formal.

Tango started sometime around the mid-1800’s, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  While the origins may be obscure, it seems the early dancers were mainly men, sometimes dancing with each other, sometimes with prostitutes in the poorer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.  It caught favor with a classier crowd, and towards the end of the century into the early 1900’s it became very popular.  The bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument, was adopted from Germany and became a basic part of tango.  The popularity of the dance spread, first to Paris, then other parts of Europe, New York and eventually world-wide.  But the only true capital, and the place where tangueros and tangueras go to experience the essence of tango is Buenos Aires.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

The music of tango has certain style and sound that make it unique.  For straight tango, it has a very strong rhythm with two or four beats per measure, and a pronounced down beat.  There is usually no percussion, although the bandoneon or the bass can be used to keep the rhythm. The music can change tempo, giving dancers the opportunity for dramatic acceleration or slowing, even pausing.  The most famous tango song, and the one which is often used to wrap up a night at a milonga, signalling the last dance, is called La Cumparsita.  It was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriquez, an 18-year-old Uruguayan from Montevideo, in 1916.

Tango in Argentina has gone through periods of decline, then resurgence several times.  But now it is a world-wide phenomenon, one can find milongas most nights in most major cities, and it is popular with more people now than ever before.  The mystery, though, is what drives the desire to spend years, huge amounts of money, and great amounts of frustration to learn tango.

It is a dance of intimate contact.  It is danced chest to chest, sometimes with a bit of separation, in salon style, and sometimes pressed up against each other in close embrace, feet and legs a bit outward, moving in concert in milonguero style.  This is with any partner one happens to lure to the dance floor.  The intimacy is counteracted by the serious nature and intent of the dancers, in other words, if you are enjoying that close contact, you must not show it.  But, the milongueras know.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

It is also a dance of strict lead and follow, requiring close attention on the follower’s part, and very clear intention on the leader’s part.  The leader must maintain the proper posture and embrace, without using force, to let his follower know what to do.  The leader must also get cues from the follower, to allow her time to respond, to pivot, or to perform embellishments.  The signals are conveyed chest to chest.  It is a dance requiring a connection between two people which is unlike any other social interaction.  Songs are played in groups of three, or sometimes four, called a “tanda”, and are of the same type, tango, or vals, or milonga.  Once a connection is made, one is expected to dance the entire tanda with the partner, then switch partners.  Between songs, the partners may make light conversation, then wait as the next song starts.  They will often wait until a minute or so into the song before starting dancing.  Between tandas, a bit of utterly non-tango music is played, such as swing, or cha-cha, and the dancers chuckle, briefly showing they may know how to do those dances, too, before getting to the next tanda.

Afternoon tango at Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue.

Matinee (until 9:00 PM) tango at La Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue in Buenos Aires.

Tango has it’s own verbal language.  There’s abrazo, boleo, cadena, desplazamiento, entrada, fanfarron, gancho, lapiz, molinete, ocho, planeo, and many more, all in Spanish, all which one must learn as part of learning the dance.  Naturally, the tango teacher comes from Argentina, speaks mostly or only Spanish, so one either gets with the language or is totally confused.  Tango dancers enjoy learning this secret language known only to them.  The Spanish words by themselves are common, but what they mean in the dance is the key.

Making shoes for tango.

Making shoes for tango.

Particularly for women, there is the excitement of the shoes.  Tangueras (the ladies) get absolutely obsessed by the tango shoes, stylish high heels costing hundreds of dollars, built by hand in the shoe salons of Buenos Aires.  If a woman enjoys tango, she may go to Buenos Aires for the sole purpose of buying shoes.  Of course, they need to fit just right, and be supportive for dancing in addition to making the other women furious with envy.  We spent one afternoon chasing this dream on our recent trip.  The address of the salon led us to a tall, narrow building on a busy street with a locked door and the typical push button list of occupants.  There was no sign indicating a shoe salon, and no labels on the brass plate with the buttons to show which one to press.  We were wondering if we were in the right place, when another customer came up, pressed the right button and got buzzed in.  She indicated we were indeed in the right place.  The building inside was old with a very high ceiling and elegant, but with the look of an office building.  The elevator was a classic ancient elevator, tiny with glass doors.  There was room only for our wives and the other customer, so my friend Roger and I ascended the stairs and met the women on the third floor, which was, English style, three flights up.  Through the unmarked office door we went, and were greeted by a young woman in charge of her shoe salon.  She had samples on shelves around the waiting area, with thin leather straps, colorful combinations of prints and designs, and very long slender heels.  Several other women were there trying on shoes.  This is the ultimate in shoe buying experience.  We went to several other shoe salons during the trip that were not so secretive, but this one topped them all.

One of Kathleen's new pairs of tango shoes.

One of Kathleen’s new pairs of tango shoes.

Tango starts and ends very late at night.  The typical time table starts with a lesson around 9:30-10:30.  The milonga itself does not start until 11:00 PM, and goes until 4:00 AM.  The better dancers don’t even show up until 1:00 AM, and stay until the end.  So if you like to sleep in late, rise say at noon, and hit the dance floor around midnight, tango is for you.  Some people like this.  This life is not for the hard core early riser, the sunrise worshiper, the early to bed, early to rise type.  Nope.  This is for the person whose life runs on their time, who likes to consider dinner at around 10:00 PM, and uses the later morning hours for a good sleep.

Learning tango may take years, and a lot of dedication, but it offers the excuse, if one was needed, to go to Argentina and experience the dance in its element.  Certainly, Buenos Aires has much to offer beyond tango.  The various neighborhoods are very colorful, with beautiful architecture, and a style of painting in many areas known as fileteado.

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

There is San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, characterized by small cafés, bodegas, book shops, art galleries, antique shops and elegant old buildings.  It is where we stayed in a very unique apartment while in Buenos Aires.  La Boca, where many Italian immigrants from Genoa settled, has typical tourist shops, and the old port.  Microcentro is the central business district, with office buildings, shopping, restaurants and hotels.  There is a pedestrian-only street in Microcentro called Calle Florida, jammed with shops and shoppers, also young men quietly calling out “cambio”, (“change”), seeking to have you change your dollars for their pesos.

Street tango performers

Street performers on Calle Florida in Microcentro.

Palermo is a chic, upscale barrio, with earth-friendly but costly cafés, expensive clothing stores, and lots of bikes.  It is a very pleasant area to wander in the afternoon, window shopping, and stopping for an espresso, or lunch.  We did not make it to Recoleta on this trip, but it is the highest end neighborhood.   In every barrio, every night, there are several milongas from which to choose.  There is, of course, a smart phone app to help, called “Hoy Milonga”, which will let you know what is happening where.

I will leave you with a link to a video of a typical milonga, but to truly understand tango takes years of practice, lessons, milongas, mistakes, overcoming shyness, brusqueness, close human interaction, embracing the challenge and opening oneself to new friends and relationships.  I am told that once one is bitten by the bug, there is no turning back.  Perhaps I sound a bit on the fence,  but I am enjoying my foray into the world of tango.

Skyline Trail Ride, with Ride Noho

The brilliance of Aldo, is that he knows just how much to challenge his cycling guests without pushing them over the precipice.  He forewarned us that this ride was hard, but that we would have no trouble completing it.  Of course, this is all relative.  If you ride every day, and have a good climbing physique, well, it’s no hill for a climber, as they say.

We started the day as every day starts at this cycling camp, with breakfast at Sylvester’s in Northampton.  Keith, Dan and I walked down from our motel, the Quality Inn on the outskirts of Noho, and joined Aldo, Elaine and Jan at the restaurant.  Aldo and Elaine run Ride Noho.  Jan was a guest, who is a regular and one of the few who have ridden with Aldo every year since he started his cycling camp.  Jan is an automobile design engineer and a superb cyclist who races cyclocross, among other events.  Keith, my friend from college, is a primary care physician in the Boston area who cycles regularly and had recently completed the Pan-Mass challenge.  Dan, who flew in from San Francisco, is a researcher at the world’s most famous search engine, and besides riding regularly also races.  In fact, he has competed in the Green Mountain Stage Race.  These were the boys I was to join on this long, arduous ride through the Berkshires.  We engaged in our usual breakfast banter, talking about the ride, but also just chatting about the news of the day.  I had a single pancake for breakfast, loaded with blueberries, although the pancake was plate filling size.  After breakfast it was back to the motel to don our cycling clothes and meet up for the ride.

We met in the parking lot of the Hotel Northampton, also an option for camp riders.  Joining us was Bob Johnson, the ex-marine I mentioned in my previous blog.  He is a combination ride leader and tour guide, with detailed knowledge of the area in which we would be riding.  It’s basically his backyard, where he rides regularly.  Bob always shows great compassion for those of us who can’t ride like he can, which is everyone else.  This ride was to be a supported ride.  Either Aldo or Elaine would be driving the van while the other rode, to provide water and food as needed.  There were few options otherwise for us along the way.   It was also going to be a hot and steamy day, with temperatures into the high eighties and high humidity.  It’s not like running, though.  For one thing, it’s no problem to take a water bottle or two on the bike.  Also, after every climb, with the sun bearing down and sweat dripping into one’s eyes, there’s the marvelous relief of the fast downhill, with a cooling breeze in the face.

The route, from Northampton to Skyline Trail and back.

The route, from Northampton to Skyline Trail and back.

We checked tires and equipment, then hopped upon the bikes and headed out.  First thing I noticed was that my backside was still terribly sore, as it had not yet gotten used to the saddle.  This would be a problem the whole ride, but one I was willing to endure.  As we left Northampton, we traveled a familiar route for the first few miles, then started in to the mountains.  There really was no flat riding for most of the ride.  We were either climbing or descending.  Mostly we were climbing the first half, and some of the climbs were fairly challenging, getting over 10% grade in spots.  The descents proved to be fast and fun, with good pavement and no sharp turns.  Elaine rode the first half with Aldo driving the van.  They switched at midway along the route.

One of the remarkable aspects to Western Massachusetts is the number of small farms throughout the area.  One often hears how small farms are dying, that the cost of running the farm exceeds the returns, that big supermarkets and clubs like Costco have ruined things for the small farmer.  Running contrary to those trends, the small farmers of Western Massachusetts have strong support among people living in this area, who enjoy the benefits of locally grown, seasonal farm produce.  This is according to articles on the U Mass website and agriculture associations in the area.  One issue raised by a number of articles, that of the average age of farmers, and whether young people are willing to go into farming, seems to rely on the profitability of the farms.  For the last twenty years, the profits have been good, and young, sometimes inexperienced, farmers are willing to take over.  This is aided by government support, in terms of tax benefits if land is committed long-term to farming.  During our ride in this decidedly rural part of the state, we passed dozens of farms which, by appearance, seemed quite productive.  We also passed a unique instillation along Skyline Trail in Chester, a solar farm.  Doing a little research, it seems this very large instillation of solar panels covering many acres and capable of several megawatts of electricity production, is a project of Solectria Corporation, a subsidiary of Yaskawa America.  It is a subsidiary of Yaskawa Electric Company of Japan, a giant company started one hundred years ago as a motor manufacturer, and expanded globally into many businesses.  Apparently, they think it is a good idea to own solar electric production in rural areas.

Back to the ride, though.  As we tooled along Skyline Trail, the riding was very enjoyable, with rolling hills and a temperature definitely cooler at around 1800 feet elevation, than back in Northampton.

Beautiful view along the Skyline Trail in Western Massachusetts.

Beautiful view along the Skyline Trail in Western Massachusetts.

We got to the end of Skyline Trail and plummeted back down to Hinsdale, where we stopped for a bite and some water.  We then set out, at around mile 45, for the big climb of the day.  Starting in Hinsdale we rode up to Peru, a tiny postage stamp of a place along the road.  The climb was 4.8 miles long, started fairly steep, in the 12-14 % range the first half, then eased a bit to around 5% the rest of the way.  Since my climbing skills had suffered being off the bike for so long (since last year at this time), I was being given encouraging words, such as “you want a ride up in the van?”, and “shall I push you as we hit the steepest part?”.  Needless to say, this kind of encouragement, while said in earnest, can only be taken as reverse psychology.  No, I didn’t want to get in the van or have a hand on my back, but thanks anyway, I can handle it.  So, off we went.  The faster riders ascended quickly and I have no idea if they suffered a bit or a lot.  Any climb can be a killer if one races up.  I took my time and made it up very nicely, and was pleased to have done so.  I did stand a good part of the way, due to those old ischial tuberosities making themselves known.  We still had another 3o miles to go before getting back to Noho, including a few lesser climbs, but the hardest part was over.  In total, we went 79 miles and climbed around 6800 feet.

After our return, we all congratulated ourselves for a ride well done, and very enjoyable.  The van support was critical given the heat and humidity, although on a cooler, dryer day in the fall this would be doable without the van.  In fact, it would be quite stunning as the leaves turned colors.  Aldo, Elaine and Bob did a great job leading us.

Our group headed back to our respective hotel rooms for some rest and a shower.   That night we celebrated, not just this ride, but having the opportunity to enjoy escaping from work for four days and go cycling with good friends.  We went to the Sierra Grille in Northampton, had a fine meal, and after dinner and desert, even went to Herrel’s Ice Cream Parlor, ranked as the #1 restaurant in Northampton on TripAdvisor.com.  They don’t serve dinner, but they do desert very well.

Sit Bones

Ischial tuberosities.  Yes, that’s what they’re called.  Mine have had an awakening the last two days.  In past years, cycling had been my major sport and recreation.  Almost daily, from early spring to late fall, I would gather all the accoutrements needed to mount up and ride, getting in anywhere from a weekday twenty miler to a long 60 to 100 mile ride on the weekend.  Lately, since I grew in my devotion to running, cycling has shifted from prime sport to an event reserved for one week during the summer.  That is when I make my way up to Northampton,Massachusetts, and join my friends for four days of intense cycling with Ride Noho.  Ride Noho is a cycling camp run by Aldo Tiboni and his wife, Elaine.  They find beautiful routes around the back roads of western Massachusetts, and lead their guests on rides suitable to their abilities.  Accompanying them, and providing a cycling engine of enormous power, is Bob, ex-marine, and now a super-fit, white-haired, pony-tailed, vegan who is a ride co-leader.

I make this trek annually because I still have a love of cycling, even though I’ve essentially given it up for running, I may want to get more into triathlon, and it makes for a great get-away when I can spend four days with friends, pretending I have no way to check work e-mails.  One little downside of not cycling regularly, though, is one must break in the ischial tuberosities, among other bones and muscle groups peculiar to the cycling experience.

 

Jan, Bob, and Dan in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Jan, Bob, and Dan in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

The seat on a road bike is designed the way it is to provide unfettered motion of the legs and thighs as they turn the pedals, and at the same time, support one’s backside.  The points at which this support is provided are the ischial tuberosities, or the “sit bones”, as they are called in some reference journals, like Bicycling Magazine.  Our first day on the road, Monday, we did a 57 mile ride including 4,000 feet of climbing.  Since it was the first day, the old ischial tuberosities were in a naive state, hence did not announce their presence very loudly.  Yesterday, we did a more modest 46 mile ride with only 2000 feet of climbing, the idea being to go easy before our herculean effort of today, a planned 70+ mile ride (closer to 80 I hear), with over 7000 feet of climbing.  Well, yesterday, those tuberosities made it clear they were not going to take this kind of punishment sitting down.  Yes, they announced to me in a very clear message that they were sore and swollen, and what right did I have to punish them in that manner?  Right from the start of yesterday’s ride I received this feedback as I gingerly set my butt upon the saddle as we were heading out, but it was not until the last ten miles of the ride, as Bob pulled us along at a steady clip in a pace line, requiring concentration and steady pedaling, that the message really came through, my ischial tuberosities were in revolt.

Rewards of the ride include a great lunch at Elizabeth and Paul's in Noho, including their modest version of blueberry pie.

Rewards of the ride include a great lunch at Elizabeth and Paul’s in Noho, including their modest version of blueberry pie.

Perhaps today the bones will have backed off on their message of pain.  I hope so.  This ride we have planned today is a huge challenge.  Maybe all my other parts will complain loudly enough to drown out the whimper from where the chamois meets the leather.

The Salt Flats of San Francisco Bay

newarksalt

 

In 1850 in San Francisco, there was a commodity almost as valuable as gold, and it was plentiful. Not that it brought in the same reward, ounce for ounce, but it made a few individuals very rich. That commodity was salt. It was in easy reach, wherever the briny water of the bay lay very shallow, lapping on the littoral edge and drying in the sun. A white crust of salt on the sand and dirt was the result. The gold rush brought thousands to this mecca of fortune, but they needed to be fed, and salt was in high demand. To get it to the boarding house kitchens, though, took some ingenuity and very tough men. The southern and eastern part of the bay is a large flat expanse, and creating drying ponds for the salt crystals to grow was a natural for this area. Acres of space was available, and the early inhabitants of the area, the Ohlone tribe, had harvested salt here for centuries.  Former sea captain and failed gold miner John Johnson started commercial mining of salt in this area in 1854, selling it for $50 a ton, according to a Wikimapia article on the subject.  Competition developed, bringing the price down to $2 a ton, but still it was a profitable venture. Eventually, the ownership of the salt production passed through the Leslie Salt Company, and finally to Cargill, Inc., the largest, privately-held corporation in the U.S.

Why bring this up on a blog purportedly about running?  I had the opportunity to attend my nephew’s wedding two weeks ago, in Newark, California, located in the heart of the salt flats.  The San Francisco Bay area is an amazing mix of have and have-not, beauty and ugly, ultra-high tech and grunt labor, old and new, the arts and sport, and academic and common knowledge.  I flew in from Philadelphia to San Francisco and headed for the car rental area.  This is reached from the terminal by a very modern, automated rail line.  On arrival in the car rental pavilion, where all the rental companies have counters, I was amazed at the huge number of people waiting in line to get a car.  Clearly, this would be a major week for tourism in the bay area.  I was impressed how the lines moved, and the rental process was very streamlined.  Thousands of people were renting cars while I was there.  Once one’s contract is complete, a walkway leads to the garage where, on multiple levels, the cars are parked.  I waited in another line until a young man escorted me to my car.  We took the usual tour of the car to note scratches and dents, he gave me his card and told me to call him if I had any problems (a nice touch, Enterprise), and I was off.  Instead of heading north into San Francisco, I headed south on Highway 101.  This is a famous road, known in the early Spanish settler times as El Camino Real.  Today, it passes through Silicon Valley, home to such major corporations as Oracle, Apple, Google and Adobe, to name but a few.  Silicon is an element.  It is the basis, due to its semiconductor properties, of transistors, diodes, and integrated circuits.  From these came computers, and thus, eBay.  The companies in this area have been enormously successful in recent years, and their employees are very well paid.  The homes in this area are absurdly expensive.  For example, a two bedroom, two bath ranch style house in Mountain View, 1953 sq. ft., with very little style on a quarter acre lot, is listed at $1,875,000.

Bathroom in the 1.875 million dollar rancher in Mountain View.

Bathroom in the 1.875 million dollar rancher in Mountain View. (from the Zillow listing)

Heading down route 101, I made a turn onto route 84, which becomes the Dumbarton Bridge over the southern end of the San Francisco Bay.  Along this road I could see the salt drying along the roadside as the east bay area is reached.  This took me into Newark, home of Cargill’s salt headquarters and the site of the wedding.  I checked in to the Courtyard Marriot Silicon Valley.  They refer to it as Silicon Valley, but it is really on the wrong side of the bay.  It is hard by the salt ponds.  I arrived later in the afternoon and needed to get to the pre-wedding family dinner at my sister’s house in Livermore.  This was a very pleasant dinner with lots of wine and good food.  For the most part, everyone was in a good mood.

The next day, Saturday, was wedding day.  Since the wedding was not until 6:30 P.M., I had plenty of time to get a run in that morning.  Newark does not seem to be a runner’s town.  I asked at the hotel desk for advice where to run, and the desk person suggested a loop around the Lakeshore Park.  I asked how long the loop was and was told it was about 2 miles.  I went back to my room to check this out on the map.  It turned out the loop was a bit under a mile, and was about a mile from the hotel, so I needed a little bit longer run.  I put on my running clothes and headed out, trusty Garmin on my wrist.  My route took me past the park and over a freeway to the wedding venue, a very pretty park called Ardenwood Historic Farm.  It was where George Patterson, another unsuccessful gold seeker in 1849, was able to buy property in 1856 after working as a farm hand.  He had a house built on the property, and started his own farm.  Apparently, it was a very productive farm, as he was able by 1889 to rebuild the original humble farm house into an elegant Queen Anne style mansion.  Today, the farm continues as a working museum, owned by the city of Freemont, and host to many weddings, day trips and farm experiences for students.  Unfortunately, on my run, the whole park was locked up tight, and I couldn’t progress through it’s dirt roads.  Turning back, I made my way to the Lakeshore Park, a man-made doughnut shaped pond with a paved path around it.  I ran two laps around the pond, and marveled at the variety of birds that were attracted by this small body of water.  Many different breeds of ducks, geese, herons, snowy egrets and numerous other species had made a home here, and it made for an entertaining couple of laps.  On my way back to the hotel, along Cedar Boulevard, I made note of the homes along the road.  Again, they were small, ranch-style houses with car ports.  A number had for-sale signs.  The last leg of my run was through a very long strip mall of shops, which seemed to be not the original intent for the stores.  There were karate studios, hair salons, and a Chinese diner, to name a few, with empty shops between.

After I got back in my hotel room, I was again curious about the houses for sale in this area.  Looking up some prices, here the prices are much more reasonable.  Offered for $899,000 was a five bedroom, three bath house with 2500 square feet.

5 BR, 3 BA house in Newark.

5 BR, 3 BA house in Newark. (from the Zillow listing)

Still no bargain, but more living space than in the highly desired parts of Silicon Valley.

Of course, I was there for the wedding, and it went off without a hitch.  Well, not exactly, as my nephew and his new bride really did get hitched.  The wedding venue was just beautiful, the outdoor ceremony was quite nice, and the after-wedding party was very enjoyable.

My nephew and niece-in-law say their vows.

My nephew and niece-in-law say their vows.

George Patterson house at Ardenwood Farms.

George Patterson house at Ardenwood Farms.

On my way back to the airport the next morning, I again passed the salt encrusted shoreline, then passed a very large building being built along Route 101 with a Facebook sign in front.  I stopped for gas and turned around in front of Oracle headquarters, a collection of rounded steel and glass tall buildings aside another man-made lake.  I see it is thanks to these pioneers of computing and the internet that I am able to express myself on a WordPress blog.  We’ve certainly come a long way from George Patterson building a farm.

 

P.S.  Robert, from Zillow, Mountain View, can provide more information on the surrounding area properties:

http://www.zillow.com/mountain-view-ca/

Three Times the Fun

NFL news today is not about the game, but about lawsuits, contracts and other off-season minutia. Baseball is now mid-season, and in the hot days of summer, it really is a pastime. NHL hockey is done for the year, after the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup. Los Angeles is a real natural for a top hockey team, with its long tradition of ice sports. The NBA finished its season last month with the San Antonio Spurs taking the top spot, another city known as a hot spot for development of its winning team’s future players.

If like me, you are not a big fan of these big sports, this may be your weekend. We have the quarter finals of World Cup Soccer (or football), the finals of Wimbledon, and the start of the Tour de France. For me, its an opportunity to spend some serious couch potato time glued to the set, ignoring the lawn, and watching my favorite professional athletes battle it out.

World Cup play began Thursday, June 12, when Brazil took on Croatia, beating them 3-1 in a game that showed the Brazilian team’s typical style of play, non-linear, dance-like and taking advantage of their ability to confuse the other team.  The World Cup has exceeded all expectations so far.  The threats of protests melted as play got under way, and the matches got under the locals’ skin.  The venues, while some had Amazonian jungle conditions, were all in good shape and seemingly prepared for the crowds.  The fans have come from around the globe to cheer on their teams, and it appears that Brazil has played excellent host to the visitors.  My USA team rose to the challenges facing them and managed to win one, tie one and lose one in the first round, making out to the knockout round.  There, they got knocked out by an organized and efficient Belgian squad, but they performed admirably, gave us some thrilling moments, and showed that the USA team can play soccer in the world’s stadium.  Other matches of the first round have been equally exciting, with strong showings by such teams as Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, and Greece.  I love the fact that World Cup Football brings together such widely placed teams from around the globe, along with their cheering fans, in the same stadium.  No other sport does this, and its a great boost for mankind.

At the same time, Wimbledon started play Monday, June 23, and we are now in the last two days.  While the women’s singles play is finished as I write this, the men’s singles will be tomorrow, and should be a real classic battle.  Roger Federer, who has been struggling lately, and did not make it out of the second round at Wimbledon last year, will take on Novak Djokovic.  Federer first played Wimbledon 15 years ago, and has taken the top prize seven times.  He has mastered every aspect of singles tennis, can prevail on any surface, and has a style of play that is efficient and surprising, when he whips out a passing shot that does something that seems physically impossible.  His opponent in the finals tomorrow, Djokavic, is also an all-around player, currently rated number one in the world.  He is younger (32 vs 27) and possibly fitter than Federer, and he has proven himself able to beat Federer.  The record favors Federer, though, with Federer leading 18-16 in head-to-head matches with Djokavic.  The match starts at 9:00 AM EDT, and should be very exciting to watch.

The third of the three big sports this weekend is cycling, and the opening stage of the Tour de France.  While one might expect this race to take place in France, and mostly it does, it starts this year in Leeds, England with the riders doing a 45 minute slow paced tour through the town before heading out to the countryside as they race to Harrogate.  Usually, the tour starts the first day with a short time trial, but this year the race starts with a 190.5 km stage made for the sprinters.  As I write, the finish is unfolding with the teams of the sprinters driving the race at unreal speeds, with the pace line of the teams straining to carry their sprinter to the line first.  Heart in throat I watch, seeing if the riders can hold their lines, go through turns fearlessly, not touch the brakes or the wheel of the rider in front.   As it happened, Mark Cavendish was not able to hold things together and wound up hitting the pavement in a high speed crash, denying him the thrill of winning this stage in his hometown in front of the royal family.  Instead, the honor went to German Marcel Kittel of team Giant-Shimano.  In the odd world of cycling teams, this team is a Dutch team sponsored by Giant bicycles, a Chinese company which does have a manufacturing facility in the Netherlands, and Shimano, a Japanese maker of bicycle components.  The race will continue two more days in England before moving across the English Channel to the French mainland.  Watching the tour can be rewarding even if you are not a cycling fan, since the coverage from the helicopters and motorcycles shows the amazing and beautiful scenery of the route.

So, it’s time for me to go watch Argentina take on Belgium.  Maybe Messi will show us some of his brilliant moves and score a goal.  Happy watching, sports fans.

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