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

 

 

 

Lemmings?

 

The End is Near, or, "you got this!"

The End is Near, or, “you got this!”

I’m a big fan of cartoons, particularly the ones found in the New Yorker magazine.  Robert Mankoff drew a cartoon a few years back,  “What Lemmings Believe”, which showed lemmings going off a cliff and ascending skyward.  My marathon experiences are sometimes like that.

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

Pheidippides giving word of Victory, by Luc-Olivier Merson

To runners, the legend of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek’s victory over the Persians is familiar.  The battle took place in 490 BC (although they didn’t call it BC back then).  Pheidippides was said to have fought in the battle, then ran non-stop to Athens and collapsed and died after he delivered his message.  This was the inspiration for the creation of the road race called the marathon.  In 1896, the era of the modern Olympics began in Greece, and the marathon was run with Spyridon Louis winning in 2hr 58min 50sec.

Training for 1896 Olympics

Training for 1896 Olympics

John Graham, who belonged to the Boston Athletic Association and was the manager of the U.S Olympic team at that event, was himself inspired to create the Boston Marathon, which had its initial running April 19, 1897.  In the early days of marathon racing, the number of runners in this and other early marathons was small, numbering in the tens to hundreds per race.  The first Boston Marathon had 18 finishers.  Average times were quite fast, and have gotten slower as the number of marathoners increased.  Running USA, a non-profit company which is a joint venture of USATF and major long distance races in the USA, keeps statistics on number of marathon runners, median finishing times, and many other subcategories.  The most recent marathon reports shows that in 1980, of 143,000 marathon runners in the US, 90% were men and 10% women.  Their median finishing times were, respectively, 3:32:17 and 4:03:39.  In 2014, 550,637 runners, 57% men and 43% women, finished with median times of 4:19:27 and 4:44:19.  Since 1980, there has been a steady rise in the number of marathons in the US and the number of marathon runners.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

Number of marathon finishers in the USA by year.

What is the attraction for all these runners?  What were they doing before marathons got popular?  Will the numbers keep rising, or have we reached a plateau?  While I was not able to find reliable information explaining the phenomenon of ever-increasing participation in marathons, the trade site RunningUSA does an annual survey of runners which it sells for $159, and includes information from interviewing over 15,000 runners on topics such as demographics, running shoes and apparel, travel, and even sponsor recall.  From my personal experience, and speaking with runners I know, I can take some guesses.  The marathon is a premier event in many people’s minds, which takes guts and dedication to complete.  One who completes a marathon can, with justification, be proud of his or her accomplishment.  Marathons have become big city events, and get a lot of publicity, bring in money for hotels and restaurants, and show off the good side of most cities.  As marathons became more popular, and more of a mainstream athletic activity, more people knew someone who had run a marathon.  It became a sport that, like a ponzi scheme, fed on pulling more people into the fold.  The more people who run marathons, the more profit there is in running shoes, running clothing, GPS watches, books and training programs.  When marathons began selling out, the scarcity of the spots made them that much more desirable.  The fact that median finishing times have gotten much slower over the years shows that many people are joining in who are not elite athletes, but still have the desire to participate.  The marathon is marvelously suited to participation by people of different ages, abilities and fitness levels.  Training for a marathon, rather than being a solo venture, is often a group effort, and a very social one at that.

Struggling to finish Wineglass.

Struggling to finish Wineglass, 2013.

Left it all on the course.

Left it all on the course, Steamtown, 2012.

Yet, the marathon is a very demanding and grueling event.  It is run whether the day is warm or cold, dry or wet.  My first marathon, in Philadelphia, in November of 2008, the temperature did not rise above freezing, and there was ice on the ground at all the water stops.  So back to my initial thought, that to start a marathon, one needs a belief in oneself that is often unrealistic.  We train, but our training is mixed in with the rest of our daily responsibilities.  Like those lemmings, joining in the rush of the start of the race, one believes one will fly, when the sad fact is only a few truly do.  Most of us, myself included, will have a rough time finishing, and will, during the last few miles, ask ourselves why we are punishing ourselves so much.  But then, one crosses the finish line, gets a medal and a commemorative mylar blanket, and congratulations fly all around.  It is a very uplifting experience to finish this great race.  Shortly after the finish, in spite of how well or miserably I may have done, I start to think about my next one.  And, I’m back to the belief that as I start, I will fly….

 

 

 

 

Semi-Marathon International de Nice

 

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

I got the idea to run this race about three years ago. I was looking for a way to have a travel adventure combined with a race. I thought it would be nicer to my wife to pick a half marathon so she would not bear the burden of my recovery from a marathon, which is not always pretty. After searching on-line, I found this race, which seemed ideal. It is run right around the time of my birthday, is in a beautiful location, and it bills itself as international. Perfect! So, what took me three years to do it, and how did it finally go?

The race is run late in April, and when I got the idea, I was also signed up for Boston. So that year was out. Then it took another year to really decide to do it. Finally, it took about six months of planning for the time off, to figure out what was needed to sign up, and make plans for the whole trip. The website for the race, http://www.nicesemimarathon.com/v14/ did not have an updated site until around October of 2013, and then it was still French only. About a month later, the English version was up, although the instructions for filling out the registration were only in French. Not too challenging, though, as they were quite clear. The race required a doctor’s certificate stating I was fit to run, but none was provided on the website. If you are a French runner and belong to a running club, apparently this is required for the club, and only your membership is needed. If you are a foreigner, you need the certificate. I was able to find one on the Paris Marathon website, had my friend, an internist, certify me, and sent it in by email. Voila, I got confirmation I was registered. The cost was 17€ plus 2€ service fee.

As it turned out, this year’s version fell one day after my birthday, my 60th, so it could not have come at a better moment. Yes, an age bracket change. We booked tickets to Nice planning to arrive on the 25th of April, to give a day for orientation before the race. Never having been to Nice, we did not know the city layout, or where would be best to stay. After a bit of a search on line, and finding out a couple of hotels we tried first were sold out, we reserved a room for three nights in the Best Western Hotel New York Nice, a long name I know, but centrally located and not far from the start of the race.

Today, finding out information about how to get from place to place is relatively easy. On-line sources are plentiful, and one can usually tell the reliable sources. Keys to look for are good grammar, a recent date, and a reliable blog or website devoted to travel. We were able to discover the bus from the airport at Nice into town cost 6€, and there are two buses depending on where you want to wind up, the 98 and the 99. More interesting is that with the help of Google maps, one can plot the walk to the hotel, know exactly how far it is, and even see street views so the landmarks are recognizable. This is all part of the fun of planning a trip to unknown places. We easily got through airport customs, made our way to the bus station at the airport, got tickets, and were delivered to Gare Central, the main train station in the center of Nice. From there we were able to walk to our hotel, which took about 20 minutes, along the Av. Jean Médecin. We were pleasantly greeted at the hotel by a desk clerk named Nella, who registered us and help us get further oriented. Our hotel room was very attractive, and had large glass doors leading out onto a small balcony. Across from us was a Monoprix supermarket, and caddy corner was a very large outdoor café and bar.

After getting situated in the room, we walked towards the old part of Nice where the expo was, in order to pick up my number. The expo was small, and outdoors under tents, in the oldest part of Nice. This is now a spot for shops and restaurants. A large flower mart took up the center of the main pedestrian street, and restaurants and bars with plenty of outdoor seating occupied either side. There were also many small shops selling local specialties. One was entirely devoted to sardines in cans, with many variations.

Picking up my number.  Dossard is French for bib.

Picking up my number. Dossard is French for bib.

The people manning the tents for the expo were extraordinarily pleasant and helpful, and it was no problem to find my number.  I then went to the next tent to pick up my goodie bag with my T-shirt and the usual things they add, like advertisements for other races, and samples of sports bars and drink.  One odd standout, though, was a large jar of Tikka Masala, which is an Indian sauce of tomatoes, lemon, coriander, and other spices used to make curry.  While this may not be typical pre-race food, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, it does point out that the sponsors do get to show their wares.  We planned to enjoy it after we returned home.

After picking up my bib and Tee, we wandered through the old part of Nice.  We were hungry, and while late in the day in Nice, we were still on eastern standard time.  So, we stopped at a fish restaurant called “La Grande Voile”.  Our dinner there was just satisfactory.  I cannot recommend this restaurant, based on the fact that the waitstaff made themselves very scarce even though we were one of only a few couples dining at the time, and also they brought the wrong fish.  But, my appetizer, a bowl of mussels, was quite good.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

When we returned to our hotel that evening we were just amazed that our children had arranged for a bottle of Champagne to be brought to our room. Accompanying it was a card wishing me happy birthday and good luck.  It seems we have taught our children well!

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

We went across the street to the grocery store, bought some strawberries, and sat out on our little balcony, enjoying the view, and our bottle of Champagne.  I am aware that eating mussels and drinking Champagne before a race may seem foolhardy, but I thought I would at least have a day to recover before actually running.

The following day, Saturday, we awoke to warm sunshine streaking through our window.  Since this was the day before the race I wanted to get in an easy run to keep the muscles toned.  I put on my shorts, a shirt, and my running shoes and headed out to the large path along the ocean for a practice run.  It seems I was not the only one.  About a dozen or so other runners, some with Semi-marathon shirts on, were doing the same.  We ran along the Promenade des Anglais, the last half of the semi-marathon to be run the next day, where signs were being set up for the race, portable toilets were being set in place, and meanwhile the usual beach activity was still going on.  Artists were setting up their stands to display their scenes of Nice, beach denizens were hanging out chatting with each other, and, along the surf, many surf-casting fishermen and women had their lines in the water.

The day of the race came fairly quickly, although the race starts at a very reasonable 9:30 AM.  Our hotel had breakfast for twelve euro, not a small sum for cereal, pastries, ham and slices of cheese.  Normally, my wife and I would buy the same from the market, and have breakfast in our room, but for various reasons we didn’t get set, so I had the hotel breakfast.  Then, it was time to do the usual pre-race preparation.  I got on my shorts and singlet, pinned my number to the singlet, and got on my socks and running shoes.  In addition, I put on my rain jacket, since it had already started drizzling under heavy clouds.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

Walking down to the start, we passed through the beautiful Place Massena, bordered on both sides with spouting fountains from large rectangular paved areas.  Seven tall poles holding up sitting figures represent seven continents which are lit from inside with colors that change, representing conversations.  The centerpiece, a very large (7 meter tall)  nude statue of Apollo surrounded by his planetary helpers, was a controversial piece when first displayed and spent some time on the outskirts of town until it was moved back in 2011.  Finally, the buildings behind the statue are elegant, stately and make a striking backdrop.

Place Masséna in Nice.

Place Masséna in Nice.

We got to the start area, and got oriented.  With some time left before the start, I went for a brief warmup run.  The crowd grew, as the runners and their families gathered.  It was a typical pre-race scene, with lines at the portable toilets, lots of milling around, and at one end of the area, a couple of trainer types were leading an exercise routine to music.

The parcours of the race.

The parcours of the race.

The total starting the race, including both the semi-marathon and the 10K, which started together, was about 5,300.  The 10K runners ran the first half of the semi-marathon course which circled through the streets of Nice.  Then the semi-marathon course continued out along the Promenade des Anglais to the Nice airport, turned and headed back along the same route to the finish line.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

The race got underway in typical fashion, with the blast of a horn.  I made a small tactical error in not moving closer to the front for the start.  As with many popular races, the crowd toward the back is not really going for time.  With the narrow streets and large number of runners, that meant the pace when I crossed the start line was slow, and with a tightly packed group it was difficult to move ahead. Along with a number of other runners in the same predicament, I had to move to the sidewalks to get my pace up and move ahead of the crowd. This presented a problem with light poles, onlookers, and a few other obstructions. The runners were enjoying themselves, though, and as we went through the tunnel under the central train station, there were a lot of hoots and yells which echoed back. The first five kilometers passed back close to the start, then the second five were a loop through the eastern part of town, again heading back to the start. At this point, the 10 K runners peeled off to their finish, as the rest of us 21.1 K runners headed out the Promenade des Anglais for the second half of our race, a flat run out to the Nice airport and back. The finish was deceptive. As one got closer to the end, a large, inflated arch over the road looked like the end, but it was just an advertising banner. The real finish line was on a slight turn toward the ocean then along a carpeted finish over the line.

The stars of this race were the Kenyans.  A group of six Kenyan men finished in 1:01:31, 1:01:32, 1:01:33, 1:01:34, 1:01:36 and 1:01:38, the first of whom was Kennedy Kipyego.  The first woman to finish was also Kenyan, Janet Kisya, in 1:10:59.  Both of these runners ran personal bests in this race.

Of course, I didn’t see much of them, although the out-and-back nature of the second half of the race did give us commoners a glimpse of the front runners as they whizzed by heading toward the finish line.  All the other runners cheered these champions on as they sped by.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

As races often go, the last few miles, or in this case, kilometers, seemed to never end.  Finally, I could see the 20 K marker and new the line was near.  Racing in kilometers is great; the last kilometer is shorter than a mile!  As I crossed the line, I heard the announcer call out “États-Unis”, and I knew it was for me, since there were no others of my countrymen around me.  I raised my arms as I crossed the line, pleased to have made my goal of running this race.  My finishing time was a bit slow, which I justified by the slow start and the long plane trip to get here.  Never mind, though, I was quite happy and satisfied.  My ever-supportive wife, Kathleen, caught me right at the finish.

Just after finishing, catching my breath.

Just after finishing, catching my breath, arms akimbo apparently in the style of the race.

I was a bit dehydrated, dripping with sweat, and a little shaky.  I drank down one bottle of water and most of a second as I passed through the finish area and collected my medal.  I think the medals mean a lot for a marathon, perhaps a little less for a half marathon, but I was quite pleased to have this memento.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

As my wife and I walked together out of the race area and back to our hotel,  I told her all about the race course, the challenges and the beauty of the course.  We then started to plan our afternoon of sightseeing.  We headed back to the Place Masséna and on to our hotel, saying au revoir to monsieur Apollo as we left the area.

Apollo's back, passing on our way back to the hotel.

Apollo’s back, on our way back to the hotel.

Un détournement de Chamonix.

Chamonix

Chamonix, and a view of Mont Blanc

On my return from Chamonix, the most common question asked of me was how I was treated by the French.  I said very well, but my friends weren’t buying it.  Weren’t they rude and dismissive? Or, do I speak French, and so had an easier time.  Or, if one just makes an attempt to speak French, is that enough?  Until one travels to a foreign country (foreign to the traveler, not so foreign to the people living there), it is difficult to understand the experience.   In the case of Chamonix, it is an international resort, welcoming adventuresome people from all over the world throughout the year. French is the native language, but English, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, and Polish, were among the languages I heard while there. There is no doubt about it’s French nature, though. This is evident in the super marché, or super market.  Generally, ski towns have very nice super markets, and here is no exception.  But the meats and cheeses were the best, the wines excellent for about $7-10, the alpine butter delicious, and the choices of fresh vegetables, superb.  It was a very busy place, and typically, around 4 to 5 PM, the locals were crowding the store to buy food for dinner.  It is not customary there, to stock up for a week or more.  How would the food be fresh?  There were boulangeries (bakeries) on every street, and the image of a person carrying a baguette or two sticking out of the bag or backpack is real.  The bread is devine, crusty, yeasty and just the right texture.  Pâtisseries, the pastry shops selling incredible raspberry tarts, eclairs, and other sweets are also common, their wares displayed in windows to lure in the customers.
I don’t speak French, at least not well enough to engage in a conversation, and I may never, but I took the time to learn a little, and have picked up some over the years. While this is an international town, not everyone speaks English, so it helps to know a bit of the native tongue.  Whenever I am in France, I am reminded of the brilliant essay by David Sedaris, “Me talk pretty one day” , in which he describes his attempts to get conversant in French. It is so funny and true, and dangerous to read in company. You’ll embarrass yourself.

I was in Chamonix for a ski trip with friends from Pennsylvania and the UK.  We are an interesting mixed group, thrown together by chance and acquaintanceship, and of varying abilities on the slopes.  Yet we invariably have a great time, and plenty of adventure to boast about.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

We arrived in Geneva on Sunday, March 2, and took a van to Chamonix.  We were dropped off at our elegant Chalet close to the center of town.  One advantage of going with a sizable group, there were eleven in ours, is that we can rent a whole chalet together, and get the benefits of a kitchen, nice rooms, and comfortable living areas.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet was, according to the “bible” left for our perusal by the owners, originally a home built for a physician in Chamonix, over 100 years ago.  It was solidly built, and the current owners upgraded everything to modern standards, with bathrooms in all the bedrooms, a huge, modern kitchen with an industrial stove, and even an outdoor hot tub, which we certainly did make use of.  A few peculiarities of local life:  recycling is done, but one must carry the trash and recyclables to receptacles in town, where there are big bins for trash, glass, plastic and paper.  Bags are not free in grocery stores.  They do sell reusable shopping bags, though.  Vegetables and fruits are weighed by the customer on a scale near the produce section, which spits out a label with the weight and cost.  Without this, one is sent back by the check-out person to fulfill one’s responsibility.

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Chamonix is famous for extreme sports, winter sports, and mountain climbing.  The mural above shows early, formative members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, an association for the guides in this region.  The woman depicted at the top, Marie Paradis, at the time a worker in a hotel, was the first woman to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc, in 1808.  Chamonix was the home of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.  Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, can be seen clearly from the town, and is a primary attraction here.  The Vallée Blanche is the ski route off of Mont Blanc, accessible from L’Aiguille du Midi, the highest reaching cable car in the valley.  It is unmarked, unpatrolled and quite a challenging run.  I did this run in 2003, with a group from Philadelphia, led by a guide named Christian.

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

Our guide, Christian.

Our guide, Christian.

Some of our group did this same run this year.  I decided not to go, having done it once and survived.  The skiing, though, in this region is not easy.  While there are slopes meant for beginners and intermediates, they are pretty tough due to their steepness and iciness.  Up high at the top of the multiple ski areas which surround the valley, the snow is good and the views amazing.  But the runs at that height are steep, ungroomed, and mainly moguls.  My friends Teresa and Kristine and I took on the second most challenging descent, off the top of Grand Montets, the Point de Vue run along the Argentière glacier.

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

During this trip we also spent a day on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the Monte Bianco side, in Courmayeur.  To get there, we took a bus from Chamonix through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel.  This eleven kilometer long tunnel runs under Mont Blanc, and was the site of a fire in 1999, due to a truck catching fire which was carrying flour and margarine.  Thirty-nine people died, and the tunnel was closed for three years after that for repairs and improvements.  Our bus left from the Chamonix train station and took us directly to the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, with no problems to report.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Skiing in Italy seemed a bit more fun and lighthearted than skiing on the French side.

Enjoying a break in Courmayeur.

Teresa, Christine, Simon, AJ, Drew, Eric, Jen, Paul, Kristine and Frank enjoying a break in Courmayeur.  Thanks, Will, for taking the photo.

The challenges were there, too, as we learned ascending to the top of the Youla gondola.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Traveling to really get away, to have an adventure, take some risks, and be out of range of work allows one’s batteries to recharge.  We had great food, some cooked by our chalet’s caretaker named Abdel.  He is Algerian by birth, with a Moroccan passport, and he loves to cook.  He prepared several dinners for us, including a Moroccan style dinner, and a fondue dinner.  Always he would include fresh salads and lots of vegetables, unlike what a restaurant meal might provide.  We played a truly bawdy card game called “Cards against Humanity”, which we learned from our UK representatives, was heavily weighted toward Americanisms.  Nevertheless, it had us rolling with laughter.  We drank plenty of beer and wine, and completely enjoyed ourselves.

I arrived home late Sunday night and had to be at work the following morning at 6:30.  It was a jarring reminder that I don’t live the holiday, jet-set life full time, only on special occasions.  I also have a half-marathon coming up, and the week of skiing is hardly preparation for a run.  I did run a couple of times in Chamonix, with Will, the eighteen year old who needs to stay in shape for lacrosse.  Good that I was able to keep up with him, although he did carry a backpack on our runs.  By the way, the French people I met were very friendly and forgiving of my grade-school French.  It was a great get-away, and I am looking forward to the next big adventure.

Why I Didn’t Run in Hawai’i (part one)

Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

To be sure, I did run, and I’ll get to that, but certainly not as much as I had planned. Since we, being my wife and I, were already on the west coast for my daughter’s graduation, we felt, “why not extend our trip a few days, and have a real vacation”. We decided to take a trip to Hawai’i. Never having been there before, we decided to visit the “big island”, because of the opportunities for adventure. It took a bit of reading to find there are two main airports on Hawai’i, in it’s capitol Hilo, and in Kona. Yes, Kona, the home of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. Kona is also the more touristy of the cities on Hawai’i, with more hotels, restaurants and bars than Hilo, and it is where we decided to stay. Our flight from San Diego took us eastward first to Phoenix, then we changed planes for Kona. We left San Diego at 6:30 AM, and arrived in Kona at 2:40 PM, a total of eleven hours travel time. It’s not a quick trip. The arrival in Kona, though, is other-worldly, though, as the plane descends over barren lava fields to the airport. Once on the ground, we we disembarked the old fashioned way, by a stairway rolled out on the tarmac. I felt like waving as I stepped through the doorway of the plane onto the stairs. The terminal itself is completely outdoors. No walls, just open air, with some overhead coverage for rain. Exotic looking plants and flowers were in abundance around the terminal. We collected our bags and rented our car without a problem. It was a short drive to Kona and to our hotel. We stayed at the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. This hotel is built on grounds of the royal court from the time of King Kamehameha I. It faces a beach, a rebuilt temple of the royal residence, and a pier. The first room they gave us did face the water but was adjacent to a busy street and parking area. They were kind enough to move us to a different room which was much more what I had in mind, overlooking the beach and a grassy area surrounded by palm trees.

View from our balcony, King Kamehameha hotel

View from our balcony, King Kamehameha hotel

While we had investigated the various things to do on the island, we had not yet made any plans. So, once settled, we began making some reservations. This island is the home of the famous Kona Coffee, and we put visiting a coffee plantation on the list. Most dominant on the island are the two major mountains, both volcanos, and both reaching close to 14,000 feet high. The higher of the two, Mauna Kea, is the home of the largest observatory in the world. There are a number of zip line opportunities, through rain forests and over waterfalls. Hawai’i is known for the opportunity to see giant manta rays doing ballet on nighttime snorkeling boat trips. Of course, there is Volcano National Park. With five days to get this all in, it took a lot of calling, reserving spots, and adjusting plans when one tour was filled and we had to shift things around. While I had the job of getting us to the island and finding a hotel, my wife, Kat, handled most of the engineering of the schedule. I should add, all these touristy things do not come cheap. We anticipated that, and while there are plenty of free or reasonable things to do in Hawai’i, organized activities are expensive, but, as we found, very much worth it.

The next morning I awoke feeling frisky and ready to run. I got out at 6:00, which was no problem given Hawai’i is three hours behind west coast time. There are few roads on which to run, so I followed the path most of the runners in this area seem to take, which is along Ali’i road, which runs south along the coastline from Kona. The road is narrow, but does have a shoulder/bike lane, and there were other runners along the route. It is a beautiful route, since there are frequent areas where the waves crashing against the lava rocks are in view. Getting out early, it wasn’t too warm, about 74˚F, but it was very humid.  I ran out a bit past the 2.5 mile mark, then turned around and ran back.  The road is undulating, with a few hills of significance over that distance.

Ocean view while running along the Ali'i Highway

Ocean view while running along the Ali’i Highway

Another beach view along Ali'i Highway

Another beach view along Ali’i Highway

Big Island Running Company

Big Island Running Company

End of the run, quite sweaty.

End of the run, quite sweaty.

After running, I took a quick shower and joined my wife for breakfast at Honu’s, the hotel restaurant.  It is such a temptation to want to fill one’s plate with every tasty item available at hotel breakfast buffets.  I held the line at a made-to-order omelet, a mini Belgian waffle with coconut syrup and blueberries, loads of pineapple, and coffee.  I may have added a few other items as well….  After breakfast we headed out for the coffee plantation.  While there are several dozen on the island which give tours, we chose Mountain Thunder.  It had been featured on an episode of “Dirty Jobs”, and it was located high up Mauna Loa.  It also grows organic coffee, and seemed like a good bet.  We not only took a tour of the coffee growing and roasting operation, we arranged to roast our own organic Kona coffee.

Here is our bucket of 5 pounds of raw, organic Kona coffee

Here is our bucket of 5 pounds of raw, organic Kona coffee

Unto the roaster it goes.  This is a small roaster for the visitors.

Unto the roaster it goes. This is a small roaster for the visitors.

It doesn't take long to get the beans to the proper temperature.  There is a very narrow range between not roasted enough, and over done.

It doesn’t take long to get the beans to the proper temperature. There is a very narrow range between not roasted enough, and over done.

A wandering rooster with a tiki statue in the background, at the coffee plantation

A wandering rooster with a tiki statue in the background, at the coffee plantation

We found that growing and roasting coffee, at least here, is a very “hands-on” job.  The trees are very productive but take a lot of care and feeding, and as we discovered, donkey dung and the outer skins of the beans make for good fertilizer. The beans are picked by hand, since on one branch there can be many beans in different stages of ripeness.  The roasting, too, requires close attention to get the degree of roasting exactly right.  I’m sure at big operations this is all done without human intervention, but here, it was all done by well-trained and obsessive people.  In fact, we detected a note of competitiveness among the roasters, regarding who gets it exactly right.  Five pounds of raw coffee made four pounds and a bit of roasted coffee.  No doubt it’s the most expensive coffee we’ll ever buy, but looked at from the standpoint of price per cup, it still beats the local higher end coffee shop.

That afternoon, our next adventure was to head up to Mauna Kea, to go to the visitor’s center of the Mauna Kea (means “white mountain”, because it gets snow!) observatories.  The visitors’ center is at 9200 feet elevation, while the summit, with the telescopes, is at 13,796 feet.  We stopped at the visitors’ center and did not go to the summit, the drive for which a four wheel vehicle is recommended.  There are summit tours on weekends, when one can go inside one of the observatories, but during the week they are closed to visitors.  Many people do go up to the summit for the view of the sunset, but we decided to listen to the ranger’s talk at the center, and then do some viewing through the many telescopes they had set up.

Visitor's Information Center at the Mauna Kea Observatories.

Visitor’s Information Center at the Mauna Kea Observatories.  Note the winter coats.  It gets cold up here.

The ranger gave a laser guided sky tour once it got dark enough, and we saw the Southern Cross, alpha and beta centauri, and many other constellations.  We were able to get amazing views of Saturn and Jupiter through the telescopes, and a view of a star cluster called omega centauri, or “the jewel box”, because of the different colored stars.  After about two hours of viewing, and getting thoroughly chilled, we headed back to Kona.  The road to Mauna Kea is an adventure itself.  It is called Saddle Road, because it goes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Lea.  It is a very narrow, twisting, rising and falling road over bleak and dangerous looking lava fields, often with no shoulder, and with the occasional one-lane bridge.  There are signs posted regarding which car should yield when two approach these bridges.  It was challenging on the way to the mountain when it was still light out.  In the dark, it was scary.  We were told later that this road was built this way on purpose by the army, as a way to foil an enemy that might try to use it.  But, I have serious doubts about that story.

The next morning we planned to get in some snorkeling.  After another scrumptious breakfast at Honu’s (which is the Hawaiian word for sea turtle), we walked into town to rent some masks and snorkels.  Also, Kat was very interested in getting a henna tattoo.  She stopped in at Kona Henna Studio, where a delightful and artistic young woman put a very nice, temporary tattoo on her left shoulder.  I’m not sure if the side has any meaning, but it did look nice, and included a honu, which I requested.  Meanwhile, I went across the street to Boss Frog’s Dive, Surf and Bike shop to rent the gear.

The henna goes on at Kona Henna Tattoo.

The henna goes on at Kona Henna Tattoo.

Kat needed to let the henna paste dry, so she couldn’t go in the water right away.  But after a few hours she would be able to get it wet, once the paste fell off, as long as it was not in the swimming pool, since the chlorine would bleach it out.

We drove along the coast, looking for the passageways to the best snorkeling beaches as recommended by Boss Frog’s.  About thirty minutes drive down the coast we headed for Honaunau Bay.  We found our way to the bay, but wound up in a National Historic Park, where snorkeling was not allowed.  We were directed back to the road we came in on, but missed the turn for the cove.  Instead, we wound up on City of Refuge Road, a four mile long, single lane (that’s right, just one lane, not two, and traffic goes both ways), road along another bleak, sharp-rocked lava field.  Turning around was not an option.  I was starting to think that, aside from a few main roads, driving in Hawai’i is a huge driving challenge.  We finally reached the end of the road, where it joined with another which took us back up (about a thousand feet up) to the main highway.  It took looking back at the map later to realize where we had gone wrong.  Instead, we headed north, to check out other possibilities.  The walkways to the beaches are marked as public access walkways, but often there are no areas to park, and the hike out to the water can be a few miles.  We finally found our way to a beach near the Honokohau Marina, north of Kona.  The walk to the beach was a challenge, and the beach itself was tiny and rocky.  But, I was able to get in and see some beautiful fish.  No turtles, though, even though this beach is known for them.  The water was uncharacteristically pretty rough.  Getting in the water was no problem, but getting out, I needed to find my way to the least rocky egress in order not to get hurt.

Formerly known as a lifeguard tower, at Honokohau beach.  I think this was put up with tongue in cheek.

Formerly known as a lifeguard tower, at Honokohau beach. I think this was put up with tongue in cheek.

The sand and palms at the little Honokohau beach.

The sand and palms at the little Honokohau beach.

Testing the water, in a sandy spot.

Testing the water, in a sandy spot.

Our search for an ideal snorkeling experience did not turn out as we hoped.  The next time we are in Kona, we’ll know how to get to the “two step” beach at Honaunau Bay.  That evening, though, we had plans for another expedition.  Kona is well known for night time viewing of manta rays.  In fact, the guy at Boss Frog’s said if we see the Mauna Kea, see lava, and see manta rays, we’ve done the big three items on his list of the best of Hawai’i.  We arranged to go out with Sea Paradise tours, for the boat ride out to what they call “Manta Ray Village”, out of Keauhou Bay.

Awaiting darkness in Keauhoa Bay, before boarding the Hokuhele for our trip to see mantas.

Awaiting darkness in Keauhoa Bay, before boarding the Hokuhele for our trip to see mantas.

The boat trip is a short one, only about 20 minutes.  One checks in at their office about an hour before the trip, to sign the inevitable legal release and get fitted with a wet suit.  Everyone shucks their shoes before getting on the boat.  As they motor out to the spot, one of the hands on the boat gives a brief lecture about manta rays.  It turns out they eat only plankton, can be quite large in size with wing spans up to 14 feet, and will often turn flips as they eat up the plankton.  The plankton are attracted to the lights attached to a boom, similar to moths being attracted to light, which then pull in the mantas  The boom is a long contraption with floats and attached lights.  The thirty or so members of our party were provided  masks and snorkels, and led down a stair into the water.  We were directed to line up along the boom, with our hands outstretched on the boom and a “noodle” float under our feet to keep us suspended, so we wouldn’t touch the mantas.  It was a bit eery being out in the dark water, with only the light from the boom shining down.  True to our captain’s word, the plankton massed under us, their tiny bodies in constant motion as their cilia propelled them.  After watching and waiting for about thirty minutes, while all those delicious plankton cavorted like a Vegas stage show, no hungry manta rays wanted to show up.  We gave it another twenty minutes.  A woman opposite me on the boom had a very large underwater camera, the type professional divers use, but it was of no use that night.  Before the hour was up, we were all back on board the boat, stripping out of our wet suits, and trying not to be upset that we had not seen a single manta ray.  The captain and crew were very nice, and assured us that this is a rarity.  In fact, they had just seen several mantas the night before.  One let slip that their hit rate for mantas was 88%, so one in eight trips is a dud.  No matter.  Kat and I realized that these are wild animals and cannot be commanded to show up.  The company did allow us to sign up for another trip, which would be two days later.

After disembarking, we headed back to our hotel, then went out for a late supper.  We wound up at a Thai restaurant which was okay, not great, but did know how to make a passable green papaya salad, although the papaya was not really green, more ripe.  We then walked back to our hotel, passing along the sea wall where the waves splash over onto the sidewalk, tired from a very active, if not so productive, day.  The next morning, we needed to get up very early for the trip to the other side of the island, and our first encounter with a zip line, which will be covered in part two.  Stay tuned….

Daytime view of the sea wall and the Kamakahonu Bay

Daytime view of the sea wall and the Kamakahonu Bay

Vermont Redux

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Looking up Route 100a towards the Calvin Coolidge Homestead, in Plymouth Notch, VT

Heading east on NY route 7, towards the Vermont border, the sky had the appearance of an expressionist painting in shades of gray, with streaks moving in different directions, slightly distracting me from driving.  The trip so far, up the New Jersey Turnpike, up the Garden State Parkway, then on to the New York State Thruway to Albany had been wet and dreary, but uneventful.  I was heading up, for the second time in a month, to spend a few days with friends in the Green Mountains.  Passing through Troy, I got a sense the weather might be changing.

One day earlier I had a new set of tires put on my 2008 Saab.  I only have 34,000 miles on it, but I had noticed lately my anti-lock brakes activating even on light rainy days.  I’m a careful driver, so it concerned me that even though it appeared sufficient tread was still on the Pirellis which were original with the car, they seemed to have lost the ability to grip the road.  Heading into the mountains and snow, I didn’t want to deal with unreliable tires.  I chose Michelin MXV4’s, which my local Tires Plus had to order in for me.  They are a four season touring tire, meant to handle well in rain and light snow.  I considered real snow tires, but felt that I would need them for one trip, then not for another year, and I would still want to replace the ones I had.

Crossing from New York 7 into Vermont, the route changes to Vermont 9.  Having driven four hours, I needed to take a break, get a fill up, a snack, use the rest room, and stretch the legs.  I usually stop at a Shell Station in Bennington, at the junction of Vermont 9 and 7.  Yes, I would be heading up route 7.  You would think Vermont and New York could work out these numbers so that 7 in NY was the same number in VT, but no, they are two recalcitrant states.  I got out of my car, and started to pump the gas.  In New Jersey, all the gas stations are full service.  Only when I leave the state and need a fill up do I actually have to, or get to, pump my own gas.  Who doesn’t love the smell of petrol on the hands?  Stopping in at the convenience store attached, there was talk among the locals of how bad the driving conditions were in the mountains, the very area I was heading.  In Bennington, the streets were dry and it was around thirty eight degrees.  When Vermonters mention how bad the roads are, though, one ought to listen.  Full of confidence, and desperately wanting to get to see my friends this night, I headed back onto the road and up Vermont 7.  I popped open a short can of Pringles to keep me entertained as I headed north.  Driving up to Manchester, I finally started to see some snow on the side of the road.  It had been pretty much absent up to that point.  But still, the road was clear.  The real test would come when I reached the turnoff at Manchester, where,  instead of heading into town to wisely wait until morning, I bravely ventured east into the Green Mountains.

The guy at the gas station in Bennington got it right.  Very quickly, as I headed up the mountain road, ascending as I went, the snow was already coming down.  It gets tricky driving in these conditions.  There is a long climb out of the Manchester region as the road heads east, and several large trucks were pulled to the side, their drivers putting chains on the tires.  The road had not been plowed, and snow was accumulating at a rapid rate.  My jaw muscles were tightening as I continued to climb, staying within the car tracks of whomever had passed before me, my  wipers trying to keep up with the accumulation of snow on the windshield.  I had the defroster blowing to keep the windshield warm so that the wiper blades could still work.  Up to this point, I had made very good time, staying ahead of the speed limit and avoiding the speed traps.  But now, I was slowing way down, and the last forty three miles of the trip were going to take considerably longer than an hour, judging by my current speed of around twenty miles per hour.  While the road mostly went up, there were the occasional downhill segments as well, which felt very treacherous, especially if they rounded a curve.  I tried to keep myself focused, and avoid imagining the car sliding off the road.  I thought, at least there were snow banks on both sides of the road which could keep me from winding up plummeting down an embankment into a freezing stream.

I did manage to stay on the road, past the entrance to the Bromley Ski Resort, up and down a few more hills to Londonderry.  Here, the relative ease of traveling Route 11 was left behind, and I needed to turn north up Route 100.  The first challenge is in the first quarter mile, as the road twists its way up a short but steep hill.  With the Saab still staying on track, I continued this adventure at a very modest pace, still needing to drive in the tracks in the road which were now filling with new snow.  Before, on Route 11, while I shuddered as each logging truck and four wheel drive SUV passed in the opposite direction, at least someone would have noticed me go off the road.  Here, on Route 100, I seemed to be alone.  This was more frightening, not having any witness available should I slide.  In the dark, snow coming down, I managed to continue on the windy course of Route 100, holding a steady 15-20 miles per hour.  I knew that up ahead, there was a sharp right turn to stay on 100 north.  I’ve driven this route many times before, but I didn’t remember exactly where this turn comes.  One thing about snow, though, it does reflect light, and make even a dark night seem a little brighter.  I passed through the little village of Westin, with its classic New England B&B, the Westin Inn.  It beckoned me to just pull in and take a room for the night.  Yet, I continued driving, knowing there would be good food and beer and good friends when I reached my destination.  Driving on,  I noticed some familiar landmarks, a barn, a curve in the road, and noticed a signpost up ahead.  The signs were completely caked with snow so that they were unreadable, but I recognized the turn to stay on 100.  I slowed to quite a crawl to negotiate the turn, and kept on.  This, I knew, was the most challenging part of the route.  The road climbs and descends at pitches up to 19% grade, and I knew my front wheel drive sedan was not designed for this.  If I did slide into a ditch, I knew the response from whomever would rescue me would be one of derision, that I was foolhardy to think I could handle this road in these conditions without a serious four wheel drive ve-hic-le.  I finally crested the last hill leading down to the town of Ludlow.  As I again slowed so not to skid off the road during my descent, for the first time in many miles I started to get a cue of drivers behind me.  I hoped they wouldn’t drive too close, since I knew I would be going very slowly on these last few miles into Ludlow.  As I neared the town, the road showed signs of recent plowing.  My jaw muscles, now tetanic from being contracted so long, were starting to relax.  I made it onto the main street in Ludlow intact, thankful I had not lost control on that snowy ride through the mountains.

In Ludlow, I had a few items to pick up.  First and most important was a stop at the Brewfest Beverage Company, conveniently located at the junction of Routes 100 and 103 in Ludlow.  The parking area was thick with snow, but I didn’t care.  I pulled in and walked in.  It felt very good to stretch my legs after the drive.  I picked up a sixpack of Long Trail Double IPA, a four of Long Trail Triple Bag Ale, a sixpack of The Shed Mountain Ale, and a Silverado Cabernet.  Back in the car, I had a bit of trouble getting through the thick snow which had piled up in the parking lot, but managed to blast my way through and get back on the road.  Another block and I stopped at Shaw’s market to pick up some food for my hotel room.  There was a fair amount of traffic along this road, and the plows had come through, making it easily passable.  A couple of miles down the road and I again headed north on Route 100, for the last few miles to my destination, the Salt Ash Inn in Plymouth Notch, at the junction of 100 and 100a.

The Salt Ash Inn

The Salt Ash Inn, a unique, rustic experience in Vermont

As I pulled up to the inn, I realized I had made it intact, and was thankful I had made the decision to get the new tires.  I don’t think the old tires were up to the task, and there were definitely points along the way I would have lost control had the old tires still been on the car.  I stepped out of my car, and went in.  This inn, the Salt Ash, is unlike any other I’ve stayed in before.  While it has a very nice Vermont country feel to it, and it is certainly charming visually, it is very rustic in that one is mostly on one’s own in this place.  There’s a sign in the hall to ring the innkeeper on an old fashioned handset phone, all in black.  Al, the innkeeper, showed up a few minutes later to give me my key, a regular dead-bolt key on a key ring, and clue me in on my room’s features.  It was the Union room, a small, one-bedroom room with a bit of a slant to the wood floor.  The bed was very comfortable, but it was squeezed into the small end of the trapezoid shape of the room.  It had a thermostat to control the radiator, a sink which had very slow flow, and a toilet and small shower.  Perfect for me, traveling on my own.  It would work for a couple, too, but no room for an extra bed.  The one homage to modernity in the inn was free WiFi, which was quite welcome.

living room with wood stove

Unlit wood stove in the living room of the inn.

After dumping my bags in the room and skis in the front room of the inn, I joined my friends who had been here for several days already.  They were staying in the inn’s annex, which is a converted out building, with a large one bedroom apartment on the first floor, and two smaller rooms on the second.  We used the kitchen and living area for meals and hanging out.  The group consists of friends from both sides of the Atlantic, the U.S. East Coast contingent and the Londoners.  We planned to ski at Pico the next day, which was a Thursday.  That’s significant because Pico is closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and with the new snow that fell, we were looking forward to a day of fresh powder, or at least what passes for it in Vermont.

The gang in the annex, planning our day at Pico.

The gang in the annex, planning our day at Pico.

This was my first time at Pico, the smaller sibling of Killington.  While smaller, it has some very nice runs, and, as we would find out, there is the possibility of finding some unskied areas to make fresh tracks.  We happened to meet up with a local skier, a friend of one in our group, who took us on a tour of the ski area we would never have known about if not for him.  We traversed through the trees several runs over, making our own trail, until we came to an unused run served by an ancient lift which was not in service.  There we had the pleasure of an untouched slope all to ourselves, with about 12 inches of new snow on it.  Skiing it wasn’t easy.  It made me look pretty awkward, but the others in the group handled it very nicely.  This tour of the mountain brought us to several more unused, or little used, slopes, so we had quite a good day of it.

Fresh snow on a hidden run at Pico.

Fresh snow on a hidden run at Pico.

That evening, one of the women in our group, Christine, made a concoction of eggplants, zucchini, potatoes and onions to go with some spicy sausages we cooked in the oven.  I found out that the English, ever teaching us the right way to speak, say aubergine and courgette respectively for eggplant and zucchini.  Regardless, it was delicious and went well washed down with the local Vermont beers.  We also had some blueberry pie and the famous Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla ice cream, without which a trip to Vermont would be incomplete.

The following day we had plans to go cross country skiing.  Being a runner, I was looking forward to this, as I had no hope of getting any running in, given the road conditions.  In German, cross country skiing is Langlaufen, or “long running”.  I’m sure there’s supposed to be a “ski” in there too, but it’s understood.  We drove about 30 miles south to Grafton Village, home of the Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center.  There they have cross country ski trails and ski rentals.  Our group, being very much an alpine skiing group, was bold to try this form of the sport.  I had done two days of cross country about three years ago, and that was the extent of my  experience.  Of the others in the group, one, Simon, had the most experience, having gone several times, up to a week at a time.  The rest were all newbies.  Since I brought my own skis with me, I didn’t have to rent equipment, but the others did.  The rentals are much cheaper than downhill equipment, and the pass for the trails is likewise a lot more reasonable, about $14 for a half day.

cross country skis

My practically unused cross country skis.

The area has a flat trail which runs around a large pond, and trails leading uphill into the woods.  At the top-most trail there is a cabin.  Reaching it is proof you were able to make it up the most difficult climbs.  What I discovered, but actually already knew, is that descending is a lot more difficult than climbing.  Climbing takes some strength and conditioning.  Descending takes knowing how to slow your descent using ridiculously skinny, edgeless skis on a narrow trail which has hair-pin turns.  After a run around the pond to get used to the skis, the intrepid Simon and I headed up the trail in the woods to the cabin, naturally.  Getting there was addictive.  As we went along the trails, one got the wonder of cross country skiing, shushing along the quiet flat parts, enjoying the solitude in the woods, and using the herringbone technique to climb to the next level.  We ultimately reached our goal, the cabin.  It was small and unassuming, but probably welcome under colder conditions.  As it was when we were there, the temperature was close to 40 degrees, so we hardly needed warming.

Frank at the hut.

Frank at the hut.

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Simon at the hut.

Inside the hut.

Inside the hut.

As predicted, the descent back to the center was treacherous, mainly for me.  Simon, with his advanced cross country skills had no trouble negotiating the tricky downhill segments.  I, on the other hand, had all sorts of trouble, basically controlling the descent about three quarters of the way down each switch back turn, then wiping out.  The conditions were not ideal for a newcomer to the sport.  The warm day left the snow soft and wet, not dry and crisp which would have been manageable.  At one point I had to take off a ski to get back up, and quickly discovered the idiocy of that move.  The ski slipped out of my hand, and with no ski brake as on an alpine ski, it easily skittered off into the woods.  Fortunately, it hit a tree and stopped.  I went tromping after it in deep snow, almost up to my hip, but managed to get the ski back and crawl back up onto the trail.  I walked about fifty feet downhill, to a flatter segment, and put the skis back on.  Amazingly, Simon had patiently waited for me, and we went together the last kilometer or so down to the ski center. As we descended further, a tall, somewhat natural looking woman, dressed in sweat pants and a long sleeve cotton T-shirt, who had been skiing circles around us, passed in the opposite direction and said, “congratulations, you conquered Bear Hill,” and flew by for another loop.   The others in our group had long since finished their experiment with cross country, and were ready to depart.

The gang at the Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center.

The gang at the Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center.

We were eager to try some of the famous Grafton Village cheese, made locally.  We stopped in at the cheese shop, sampled about everything we could sample, and contributed a bit to the local economy.  We then headed off to Manchester Center, to allow for a little shopping at the outlet stores.  I went to my favorite bookstore in the world, Northshire Bookstore, an independent and thriving bookstore which is a treat to visit.  I bought Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk, a detailed and well researched work debunking the myths around the new fads of “paleo” living.  I also picked up an Alan Furst novel about spies in the pre-world war two era, Spies of the Balkans.  It promises to be an exciting read.

That evening, we had dinner in the Echo Lake Inn, for their Friday night, three course, $23 special.  We had a wonderful dinner, a great value for the price, since the quality was very good, along with some very nice wines from California.  The next morning, we had breakfast together, and then I took off.  I left the key of my room on the table with the phone, figuring Al would find it.  The ride home would be a lot less dramatic than the ride up.  The sun was out, the road was clear, and the traffic, light.  I always enjoy my time up here in Vermont.  Vermonters are a tough lot.  They survive severe weather, and in the case of the recent hurricane, Irene, some pretty damaging flooding from which they are still recovering two years later.  Most of the local people we spoke with here had stories to tell of homes and business flooded, or even completely washed away, along with roads and bridges.  But, they have managed to rebuild and enjoy their mountain home, clearly very dear to the people of this state.

Next up, back to real running, with the Caesar Rodney half marathon.

A Winter Trip to Vermont

Sunrise in the Green Mountains

Sunrise in the Green Mountains

Our family took a nice break from work and headed north to Vermont. There are plenty of big, industrial northern cities, in the US, Europe, Russia, and Asia where they deal with cold and snow very well. Take Minneapolis, for example. Subzero temperatures, cold fronts, snow drifts, and frozen lakes and rivers just means you use an electric warmer for your car’s engine block, you have a snow blower, the streets are regularly cleared, and the tough UPS guys still wear shorts, although they wear snow boots. Russians almost don’t know what warm weather is like. Swedes and Norwegians, and particularly Finns act completely nonplussed going about their lives in the cold north. But in Vermont, snow, ice and a long, protracted winter are somehow different, in my mind, probably because I go there to enjoy myself, not to work.

There are more dairy cows per people in Vermont than any other state. So, naturally, milk, cream, butter, cheese and of course, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream taste wonderful. We once visited a dairy farm in northern Vermont in February. The farmer’s son showed us around, taking great pride in pointing out how happy the cows were in the long dairy barn, how clean the milking equipment was, and how equally clean the cows were. And he was quite right. His cows’ milk was used to make Cabot cheese, produced in Cabot, VT, as you might have guessed.  One of the pleasures of visiting Vermont is enjoying the local products such as artisinal cheeses which are hard to get outside the state.  Each year we go to Vermont, we are sure to bring home a gallon of Vermont maple syrup.  Kept in our basement, it lasts for a year, and is very tasty.  It is fun, knowing it came from the trees in the woods where we were staying.

Interior of condo in Okemo.

Warm and comfortable condo high up Okemo Mountain.

We stayed in a lovely four bedroom condo high up Okemo Mountain, along the Sachem Trail. Two of our three grown children, a friend of ours, Lynn, from Philadelphia, and my college friend Keith and his wife Lisa stayed with my wife and me. We made some truly great meals, had some very nice Vermont beers, some excellent wines we brought with us, and thoroughly enjoyed the condo, especially the fireplace.

Eating area and kitchen.

Lynn, who cooked the first dinner, a delicious chicken stew, observes breakfast in the making.

Carrying wood in for the fire.

To be fair, my son did offer to carry the wood. On the other hand, my wife does Brazilian Jiujitsu, so this was her opportunity to get a little lifting in.

This year, fortunately, the snow gods smiled on Vermont, and laid down some real snow. It’s just not the same skiing on the man-made snow, although it will do if necessary. Recognizing that it is not, perhaps, as eco-friendly as one would like, to make snow so skiers can ski on it, the resorts do their best to adhere to ecologically sound practices. Without snow to ski on, the skiers would stay away, which would seriously affect the economy of the communities who rely on the ski resorts for their livelihoods.

Getting out to the ski slopes was very convenient.  We walked about one hundred yards, climbed up a little hill, clipped in and skied.  My kids, Craig and Katie, snowboarded.  While conditions were not the greatest, they were far from the worst, and we were able to get in several days of fine shushing and carving.

At the top of Sachem Trail.

Craig and Katie pose at the top of Sachem trail, were we got on the slopes from our condo.

Something that made this trip particularly special was getting to ski with Keith, my friend from college.  Keith introduced me to skiing about forty years ago, when we were at UCSD.  We went on a long bus ride from San Diego, to UCLA to pick up their ski club members, then on to Telluride, Colorado.  It was a memorable trip, not least for being able to learn how to ski.  My one prior experience was a weekend at Heavenly, at Lake Tahoe.  With too few funds to pay for lessons, and not knowing what I was doing, that was a big challenge.  But at Telluride, I was able to pick up some pointers from Keith, and with the fact of being young and able, I managed to learn to ski.  Since then, while never achieving the kind of graceful and skilled skiing of someone who learns as a child, I have become a devoted skier.  Keith and I don’t get to ski together too often, the last time being some time in the 1980’s.

Frank and his friend Keith at Okemo.

Keith and Frank at Okemo, Feb. 2013.

Skiing is an activity that the whole family can enjoy, no matter one’s age.  It is a little tough at first with young children, carrying their skis, supplying them with mittens, scarves and face protectors, and dealing with the frequent wintertime illnesses which always seem to hit the day one leaves for the mountains.  But, once they learn and become more independent, they love it.  Since they are grown, the family ski trip continues to be a way for us to get together and enjoy each others company.  My oldest daughter, away at graduate school, could not join us for this trip, but would have in a flash had her schedule allowed.

At the Waffle Cabin on the slopes at Okemo

Craig, awaiting a bit of sustenance in the form of a Belgian waffle.

Skiing is a way to embrace the cold and snowy days of winter, get outside and revel in it and work up an appetite for good winter food.  The dark comes quickly in the winter in the mountains, and that means gathering around the fire, reading, playing Scrabble, and even playing a little music, with chords and lyrics courtesy of the internet.

Craig and Frank playing guitar

Playing some Velvet Underground, Craig and Frank.  Photo by Katie.

Relating this all to running, I did bring my running shoes, and had planned to get in a run or two in the later afternoon.  What I found, though, was the road to our condo was narrow and icy, so it would have been dangerous to try running along it.  Instead, I just relaxed, knowing I wouldn’t miss a few days running, and just enjoyed being in Vermont.

California Trip

Arriving home late Sunday night one week ago, after my four days cycling in Vermont, I had a crammed schedule for three days at work, then I was on my way for another trip. This time, it was out to the coast, the other coast, the one where the sun sets over the Pacific, where palm trees are everywhere, and when running, hills play a major role. Having lived so long on the east coast, I get confused when I return to San Diego. It seems that east and west are reversed, and I must consciously think about which way it is towards the ocean. I took this trip to visit my daughter, who lives in the University Heights neighborhood, and to work on our family’s house in Poway, which we are maintaining and repairing to get it rented. I also planned to attend the fortieth reunion of my high school graduation. Forty years seems to me a ridiculously long time ago.

I had not run for three days due to my need to recover from the cycling, but it was also a forced break due to the work schedule, and travel. So, on arrival in San Diego, I was eager to get out there and run again. I landed in San Diego late Wednesday night, with my daughter Audrey and her boyfriend Evan there to greet me. I wanted to get in a ten miler as a start, so I looked at the map with Audrey and planned my route. On previous trips I ran around Balboa Park and back to her apartment, a five mile route. So, to add another five miles I added a loop from Balboa Park down to Harbor Drive, out to Harbor Island and then back. The next morning, after a quick breakfast of raisin bran, I headed out for my run. As practice for Steamtown, this is a great route. After about a mile of gentle rolling hills, it goes in and out of a canyon in Balboa Park, for a sharp descent and a steep climb. It levels for a bit around the park, then turns down to Harbor Drive dropping several hundred feet over a mile or so which really stresses the quads. Along Harbor Drive is a multi-use paved path which passes by a coast guard facility and the airport, and is completely flat. Once I hit five miles (plus a little extra, to be sure) on the trusty Garmin, I turned around and did the return trip. I took basically the same route, except went down El Prado in Balboa Park, past the museums, the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, and the Old Globe Theater to the other side of the park and made my way back. The climb back up from Harbor Drive to the park is a real beast, seemingly unending and very steep. Once at the park, though, it is a relatively easy run back to the start. I got in my ten miles, and it felt alright, though the quads had suffered, especially on the downhill segments. My average pace was about 8:54. The rest of the day was pure vacation. We spent two hours at Ocean Beach. Audrey and Evan played Frisbee and went swimming, while I was content to sit on a folding chair, taking in rays, and reading a book. Later, Audrey and I went shopping at Horton Plaza in San Diego. When I was in high school, Horton Plaza was where the navy and army recruits got into fights and went to massage parlors. Now, it is an upscale shopping area, with elegant stores and restaurants. In fact, the whole downtown area of San Diego has been upgraded, and we saw many tourists and locals making for a busy scene. That night, Audrey and I ate out at a sushi restaurant within walking distance of her apartment.

The following day, we planned to go out to Poway to work on the house. I ran the shorter route that morning, the five mile loop around Balboa Park, which still includes the canyon for a steep descent and climb, ever thinking of the Steamtown profile. Again, my pace was around 8:55, still feeling sore quads from the day before. We drove up to Poway, and spent about five hours on the house, repairing a split rail fence around the property which had gotten dilapidated and was falling over in many places. The house looks better than it has looked in a long time, with help from Ray the landscape guy, and Audrey and Evan’s impressive efforts. After the fence work, taking down some overgrown bushes, and installing a new light in a bedroom, we took ten minutes to jump in the pool before we had to head back to get Evan to work. The pool is being cared for by a pool service, so it was clean and felt great. That night, Audrey and I put together a pasta dinner with “home made” sausages from her local Sprouts supermarket. Sprouts is a very health-oriented grocery store, with mostly organic and locally grown foods.

PowaySplitRail

Evan and Frank and the Improved Fence

PowayPool
Frank cools off in the pool.

The following day, Saturday, I was feeling good, and wanted to run another ten miler. I did essentially the same route as on Thursday, except on reaching Harbor Drive I turned left instead of right. This brought me past the sailboats docked in the harbor, the Maritime Museum of SD with it’s historic sailing ships, and the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier launched the 20th of March, 1945. After service in Viet Nam and Operation Desert Storm, with many missions in-between, she is permanently docked in San Diego as a museum. The last stretch along Harbor Drive reached Seaport Village, a collection of cutesy shops and theme restaurants, built for the nearby convention center and hotels. With the large number of tourists walking the cobbled paths, and the enviable weather of San Diego, it is no surprise that innumerable homeless denizens call this area “home”. On a historical note, this village is built on landfill over Punta de los Muertos, burial site of sailors from Spanish expeditions of the mid 1700’s, many of whom died of scurvy. Again turning around at the five mile mark, I headed back to the climb up Laurel Street, past Solar Turbine Corp. and the leading edge of the airport runway, under “the 5” as Interstate 5 is known in California, and up the incline to Balboa Park. Then it was over “Suicide Bridge”, the bridge over the Cabrillo Freeway. Apparently, suicides there were popular until the Coronado Bridge was opened in 1969. Contrary to this theme, I was feeling strong and upbeat, and managed to keep a good pace right up to the finish, around 8:35 average for the ten miles.

After the run, I got my hair cut at Axle Hair Labor by Jackie. I mention this because this place epitomizes west coast vibe. Jackie was very nice and did a great job with what hair I have. We then headed out to Ramona, to the Milagro Farm Vineyards and Winery where my daughter is the marketing manager. It is a beautiful winery on a rocky hillside, surrounded by mountains. It’s owner, Kit, and his winemaker, Jim, create wines equal in my mind to some of the better Napa wineries. I realize I may be biased, but trying to be objective, I was very impressed. I got a tour of the vineyards, learned how to measure sugar content of the grapes and when to pick, and tasted their wines in their nicely appointed tasting room.

Hummingbird

Hummingbird at Milagro Farms

AudreywithVines
Audrey and Sangiovese Grapes at Milagro Farms

That evening, I had tickets to attend my fortieth high school reunion, as I mentioned. Having only attended Poway H.S. for two years, being in Scottsdale, AZ, for my first two years, I did not grow up with these folks, and I did not feel I knew them very well, or that they would even remember me. With that thought process, I decided to skip the reunion and instead spend the last night of my trip going out to dinner with Audrey and Evan. We went to a tiny restaurant called The Farm House Cafe, on Adams Street. We talked, ate delicious provincial French fare, had good wine and beer, and it was to me much more valuable than the reunion possibly could have been.

The next day, back on the plane, I flew back to Philadelphia, thinking wistfully of the last two weeks spent cycling in Vermont, running in San Diego, and generally enjoying myself.

Frank

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