Archive for the ‘Trip Reports’ Category

Mr. Dynamite

Last month, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, exploring the city. I went simply out of curiosity. I knew very little about the place.

We Smiths, you see, are from Savannah, and we always dismissed Augusta as that other cotton town upstream on the Savannah River.

Silly us. As I discovered, Augusta is an interesting and attractive place.

But it wasn’t always thus. In the decades after World War II, the city had become seedy and rundown — bedeviled by trash, brothels, strip clubs, and the shells of empty mills and factories. Finally, in the 1980s, the city fathers acted.

Augusta invested heavily in cleaning up and modernizing the riverfront and the downtown district. Former factory buildings became condos. The worst of the strip clubs were zoned out of business. The brothels, I assume, went underground.

Augusta built Riverwalk, a beautiful city park that runs for a dozen blocks atop the levee and along the river.

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An art museum was built at one end of Riverwalk, a history museum at the other. Most of the downtown streets were landscaped and prettified.

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The key to understanding Augusta is geography. The city was built at the “fall line,” where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. This is the spot where upstream navigation on the Savannah River ends.

At the history museum, you learn that Augusta’s economy was founded on tobacco and later thrived on cotton and textiles.

You learn about the construction in 1845 of the Augusta Canal, which starts at the fall line and flows south through the city. For years, the canal generated power for factories.

And, no surprise, a large part of the history museum is devoted to the life and career of Augusta luminary James Brown.

Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite.

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Brown was born into poverty across the river in South Carolina in 1933. When he was five, he and his family moved to Augusta, where they lived in a brothel run by his aunt.

Brown had a tough childhood, and he was incarcerated by age 16. But he prevailed. And even though life knocked him around at regular intervals, he went on to gain fame and fortune in true Horatio Alger style.

Today, one of Augusta’s major downtown streets is James Brown Boulevard. The civic center complex is James Brown Arena. Nearby, in James Brown Plaza, is a life-size bronze statue of Brown at the microphone, wearing his signature cape.

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The plaza is a favorite spot for tourist photos.

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As it happens, the statue is across the street from K’s Buffalo Wings, where I had stopped for lunch. I emerged from K’s, wiping hot sauce from my beard while trying not to drop my lemonade, and walked over to the plaza.

The spot was shady, but hot, this being Augusta in June. Occupying the benches around the statue were half a dozen black guys ranging in age from 20s to 60s. Two were eating lunch, a few were chatting, one was reading. They all looked up as I approached, but quickly lost interest.

At the time, I was the only tourist in the plaza. I took photos of the statue from various angles, trying to avoid getting people and traffic in the shots. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, a voice behind me said, “No offense, man, but you don’t look like a James Brown fan.”

I turned around. It was a young man in his mid-20s, holding a takeout box of K’s chicken wings. He was neatly dressed, probably an office worker on his lunch hour.

“Well, I’m not a huge fan,” I said, “But he really had talent. He was quite an entertainer. I saw him at a concert in Macon once, back in the 60s. ”

“For real? You saw James Brown back when he was young?”

“Yeah, I was in college in Athens, and a few of us drove to Macon to see him. I was in my teens. He was about 30, I guess. Really in his prime. He was amazing.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “I saw him on stage a few times before he died. But he was pretty old, you know? Not James Brown like in the old days.”

“I don’t remember too much about the concert,” I said. “It was so long ago. But he was a trip — so much energy. Dancin’, struttin’, and sweatin’. One guy followed him around the stage to wipe his brow.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah, yeah, the cape routine. He falls to his knees, he’s exhausted, and they put the cape around his shoulders.”

“That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Man, I wish I coulda seen him in those days. I sure do.”

“If you’d seen him, you’d be old like me. You don’t wish that.”

“No, but I sure envy you seein’ him.”

The conversation stalled. Then the young man asked, “You from around here?”

“I live over by Athens. I just came to see a little of James Brown’s Augusta.”

“Well, you enjoy. Nice talkin’ to you, man.”

He returned to his lunch. I walked back to my car.


Here is the man himself, live in 1964, performing the cape routine.


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The Rio Grande begins in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and flows south through New Mexico, dividing the state neatly in half. From El Paso onward to the Gulf, the river is the border between Texas and Mexico.

About 85 miles north of El Paso, where the Rio Grande passes through the broad, flat Rincon Valley, is the little town of Hatch, New Mexico.

I love Hatch. Dearly love it. I’ve been there twice, most recently on my drive home from Arizona earlier this month.

To me, the appeal is the town’s fun, friendly vibe — due mainly to the charming small operations in town that grow, harvest, process, and sell the product for which Hatch is renowned: chile peppers.

Hatch bills itself as the Chile Capitol of the World. The valley surrounding the town is dotted with numerous chile farms — acre after acre of hardy chile plants lovingly irrigated with water from the Rio Grande.


You’ll notice that I use the term chile, not chili. Hatch is 90 percent Hispanic (or Latino; I never know which is proper), so chile, the Spanish name of the pepper, is considered correct.

No known connection to the nation of Chile in South America.

The word chili, I learned, is an American bastardization. A discerning person should use the word chili to refer to the restaurant chain and chili con carne, but nothing else.

For reasons that escape a journalism major like me, chiles thrive in the climate and soil around Hatch.

The local farms grow many varieties of the plant, each variety having a known degree of heat. Thus, when the chiles are processed into, say, chile powder, the packages can be labeled as mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or ¡ay, caramba!

Unavoidably, Hatch is a tourist town. Most of the processing operations I’ve seen are fronted by a retail store, where you can buy not only fresh, frozen, dried, and preserved chile products, but also chile-related souvenirs, Hatch t-shirts, and, usually, an assortment of Mexican pottery.

But somehow, the businesses haven’t morphed into tourist traps. I know of only one shop where the prices are high and the atmosphere is a bit mercenary. The rest are simple, casual, friendly places with reasonable prices. What’s not to like?

But enough blather. Here are some photos.










Lastly, a bonus: interesting facts about peppers…

— Peppers are flowering plants from the nightshade family. They are cousins to the tomato, potato, and eggplant.

— Peppers fall into one of three categories: bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot peppers.

— Green peppers have been harvested early, before they’ve ripened to yellow, then orange, then red.

— Red peppers have been on the vine longest and are the most nutritious. A red pepper can have 10 times more beta-carotene and almost twice the vitamin C of a green pepper.

— Peppers also are loaded with potassium, magnesium, iron, and B vitamins.

— Hot peppers get their heat from the chemical capsaicin, which triggers the pain receptors in your mouth.

— The degree of heat depends on the pepper’s rating on the “Scoville scale,” which assigns each variety of pepper a rating in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

— At the bottom of the Scoville scale are bell peppers, with zero SHU. Banana peppers and cherry peppers barely register, with a few hundred SHU.

— By contrast, Serrano peppers are rated at 10,000-23,000 SHU, and jalapeños are rated at 1,000-4,000 SHU.

— The hottest pepper in the world, according to Guinness World Records, is the Carolina Reaper, with an astounding 1,569,300 SHU. The Reaper was cultivated by the Puckerbutt Pepper Company of Fort Mill, South Carolina.

— India is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chile peppers. But the citizens of Hatch probably pretend not to know about that.


Stuffed Hatch green chiles with cilantro-yogurt sauce. ¡Se ve delicioso!


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Highlight 1 — Wrapping Material

On day four of my recent road trip to Grand Canyon, I pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated antique store in Clarendon, Texas. I needed to take a rest break and walk around a bit.

The place was old and shabby and packed with a jumble of merchandise that appeared to have been on the shelves undisturbed for years. Perfect.

The clerk behind the counter was a rotund, 40ish man with a flat-top haircut. He looked up from his magazine, welcomed me to the establishment, and returned to his reading.

Before long, I spotted a colorful piece of Mexican Talavera pottery high on a shelf. It was a small vase, about seven inches tall. Quite attractive and a functional size.

I took it down and checked the price tag. Ten bucks. I had no idea what I would do with it, but I liked it. Sold.

For the next few minutes, I browsed around the store, but nothing else caught my eye, so I took the vase to the cash register.

The clerk took my money and reached under the counter for wrapping material. He came up empty.

“Mama!” he yelled toward the back of the store.

“What?” Mama replied from somewhere out of sight.

“We got any bubble wrap back there? Ain’t none up here!”

“No, we’re out! I ordered some!”

“But I got a pot to wrap! It’s fragile!”

After a pause, Mama yelled, “Go back to the storage room and look in the closet! Papa’s things from the nursing home are on the shelf! Look in that big white box! There’s wrapping material in there!”

“Okay, Mama!” The clerk picked up the vase and departed.

A few minutes later, he returned and handed me a bulging, oblong package. He had wrapped the vase in the material, which was surprisingly thick and dense, added a double layer of plastic bags, and taped it up.

I thanked him, returned to the RV, found a safe spot for the package, and resumed my journey.

I didn’t think about the vase again until 10 days later, when I arrived home and was unpacking the RV.

Ah, yes, I recalled, the Talavera vase from Texas. The one protected by the substitute bubble wrap. I placed the package on the bed and unwrapped it.


Highlight 2 — The Raisin at Mather Point

Mather Point is one of 20 viewpoints along the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Being the closest viewpoint to the entrance station, and to the visitor center, Mather is the first stop for most of the hordes of tourists when they arrive at the canyon.

Most of the year, the place is a zoo, which is why I usually skip Mather in favor of other viewpoints. But when I arrived at South Rim Village on day seven of my trip, the Mather parking lot was unusually empty. I decided to stop.

The day was sunny, but windy and cold. Shades, gloves, and a hat were in order. I proceeded to do what I always do at Grand Canyon: take photographs of scenery I’ve already documented thoroughly on previous trips. I can’t help myself.

As I fired away, a raven, a particularly fat and handsome one, flew in and landed on a nearby rock.

Ravens are a common sight at Grand Canyon, especially where tourists congregate and leave things to eat in their wake. The birds are quite intelligent and are known to work in teams; one will squawk and dance to distract the tourists while another darts in to snatch an apple core or candy wrapper.

The raven at Mather that morning was only 10 feet away from the tourists, but safely out of reach beyond the safety railing.

All 20-25 tourists at the viewpoint took note and studied the raven with interest. The bird appeared to do the same in return. I proceeded to take photos of the raven as it assessed the food situation, strutting and looking hither and yon.

To my right, a child’s voice rang out.

“Mama! Mama! Look! A raisin!”

It was a boy of about five, bouncing with excitement and pointing at the raven.

“It’s called a raven, Eli. It’s like a crow or a blackbird.”

“Yeah, a raisin! I hope he don’t fly away!”

“Son, it’s ray-VEN. Ray-VEN. Not ray-ZEN.”

The raven chose that moment to squawk loudly, which delighted young Eli.

“Mama, that raisin is talking to me! Squawk, squawk, raisin! Squawk! Squawk!”

The raven answered in its signature deep, throaty croak. Eli responded with his best little-kid imitation.

The conversation continued a bit longer than I expected. But finally, the bird concluded that no food was to be had from the humans at Mather Point, and he flew away to look elsewhere.

“Goodbye, raisin!” Eli sobbed, choking back tears as he waved to the receding bird.

Then he broke down crying and ran to his mama’s arms.



Highlight 3 — The Canyon Gods

On day eight of my trip, a storm rolled into Grand Canyon from the west. At first, the blustery clouds made for dramatic photos, but then the rain began in earnest, and visibility was reduced to nothing.

That afternoon, I was trapped for half an hour inside Desert View Watchtower, 400 yards from the parking lot, waiting for a rather alarming deluge to subside.

By the morning of day nine, the storm had cleared out, and the rain ended. But that afternoon, another front came in, this time bringing heavy snow up from Flagstaff.

At 4:00 PM, I went to the General Store, bought a deli sandwich for supper, and, with some concern, retreated to my campsite at Trailer Village. That evening, I hunkered down in the RV and watched cable TV (South Rim Village finally has cell phone reception, too) as the snow piled up outside.

By morning, the sun was out again. The park roads had been graded overnight, and the remaining snow was beginning to melt. I checked out of the campground and drove out East Rim Drive toward the park exit.

One of my favorite overlooks along the east rim is Lipan Point. From there, you get a wonderful view of the Unkar Delta, where the Colorado River makes a dramatic “s” curve, culminating in Unkar Rapid at the base of a sheer cliff 400 feet high.

When I stopped at Lipan Point, I was delighted. I had the overlook all to myself.

I was further delighted by what I saw when I stepped to the railing:


Wow, I thought. Wow.

Being at Grand Canyon is awesome enough. What could possibly make the experience better?


I’m a huge fan of Grand Canyon and a regular visitor. I’ve been there 24 times, which is pretty excessive for a fellow from Georgia. I’ve seen the canyon in every season and in every conceivable kind of weather.

I’ve seen it from the South Rim, from the North Rim, and from both ends. I’ve seen it from the air, from the plateaus halfway down, and from river level. I’ve backpacked it, day-hiked it, rafted it, and ridden the mules.

But in all my trips to Grand Canyon, this was my first rainbow.

I stayed at the overlook for a long time, savoring the moment. I studied the color bands, watched the roiling clouds in the distance, listened to the wind whistling through the rocks, enjoyed the solitude.

River guides say that the success of a raft trip depends on how the River Gods judge you. Be nice, and the trip will go well; be a jerk, and they will punish you for it.

Maybe I was good, and I pleased the Canyon Gods, and the rainbow was my reward.


In my next post, one more highlight from the drive home: a stop in Hatch, New Mexico.


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Before I get to the post, a brief note…

I started Mr. Write’s Page on February 3, 2009, nearly six years ago. My first post was a story about pet goats wreaking havoc in my neighborhood.

Back then, I had no idea how long I would keep the blog going, or would want to. But so far, I still feel compelled to speak up about stuff, and I have no problem finding material. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of it.

Okay, fine. But, why, in December 2014, do I harken back to the beginning of this blog? Because the nice folks at WordPress keep precise statistics, and you are reading my 1,000th post on Mr. Write’s Page.

Pretty cool.

And now, on with the blog story.


A few weeks ago, the polar vortex discharged an arctic blast in this direction, and the weather forecast for where I live was grim: lows in the 20s, highs about 40.

Okay, that isn’t horribly terrible, but I wasn’t ready for it. In Georgia, winter isn’t supposed to arrive for real until the first of the year. I was still in the frame of mind for shorts and sandals. I wanted none of it.

So, I packed a bag, checked Paco into the doggie spa, strapped my kayak to the roof of the car, and drove to Florida.

I had been thinking about going south for a kayak trip anyway. North and Central Florida are loaded with rivers and springs that are great places to paddle, at any time of the year.

Last March, for example, I went kayaking at Crystal River, where the manatee herds congregate. The weather was perfect, the trip sublime.

So anyhoo, with the arctic blast on my heels, I drove south on I-75 with a goal of outrunning the cold weather and enjoying a couple of balmy days on the water.

As it happened, I didn’t outrun it. The cold front followed me deep into Florida. When I stopped for the night in Ocala, the news media and the citrus industry were freaking out about the cold.

The next morning, I was pretty alarmed, too. I walked outside to find overcast skies, a brisk wind, and a temp of 28 degrees. That, plus the car and the kayak were covered with a thin, but very real layer of ice.


At that moment, a day of paddling didn’t sound too appealing.

But it was okay. The cold spell was spent. Afternoon highs would be back in the 60s. All I had to do was wait.

By mid-morning, I arrived at my destination, Manatee Springs State Park, ready to do my thing.

The park is located in north-central Florida, where the Panhandle meets the Peninsula, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. That region, where the coast curves and turns south, is sometimes called “the armpit of Florida.” You can draw your own conclusion about that.

Manatee Springs is a “first-magnitude” (high-flow) spring. The water emerges at a constant 72 degrees and flows into the Suwanee River, which passes a few hundred yards from the spring. 30 miles downstream, the river meets the Gulf at Cedar Key.

The park gets its name from the manatees that, in the colder months, swim upriver to bask in the warm water flowing from the spring.

In the warmer months, Manatee Springs is a teeming mass of humanity. Hoards of tourists gather there to swim and paddle in the crystal clear water. Frequently, the parking lots fill up and the gates are closed. When someone leaves, the next carload of visitors is allowed to enter.

But in the off-season, such as November after a spell of cold weather, you can count the tourists in the park on one hand. The day I was there, I was the only kayaker.

That was fine with me. When it comes to non-whitewater kayaking, silence and solitude are the big attractions. That day, it was just me, the shorebirds, and the manatees.

And I’m here to tell ya, the place is incredibly clean, serene, and beautiful.

From the put-in at the spring, I slowly paddled down the run to the Suwannee River. For the next few hours, I explored both sides of the river, upstream and down.

Along the banks were a scattering of homes, some new and opulent, some old and modest, and several boat docks, but I saw not a single soul.

The only other vessel on the river was a small motorboat with two local fishermen, trying their luck along the east bank.

As predicted, the day was sunny, calm, and 65-plus degrees. I drifted, paddled, and drifted some more. I tied the kayak to a cypress knee while I ate a ham sandwich for lunch. It was idyllic. Blissful. Restorative.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

At the mouth of the spring run was a group of manatees — two large adults, two juveniles, and two four-foot babies. As long as I drifted quietly, they tolerated me just fine.

This video tells the story.

I was, of course, taking photos constantly, using my camera and my cell phone, both of which I kept in easy reach.

The cell phone was in front of me inside the open deck bag. The camera (a small Canon Powershot) was at my feet, on the floor of the kayak, on a folded golf towel.

On the water, kayaks drift in unwanted directions as soon as you stop paddling. So, I would pick up the camera, take a photo or video, and quickly drop the camera onto the towel so I could get back to paddling.

Although I didn’t know it until I got home and reviewed the photos and videos, it appears that on two occasions, I dropped the camera onto the towel from too great a height, causing the shutter release to fire accidentally.

The first time, the camera took a photo straight up from the floor of the kayak, with me as the subject:


Remarkably, the shot is in focus and relatively well composed. The ivory-colored curly thing is my paddle leash.

Wait. There’s more.

A few minutes later, as I was paddling back toward the take-out point near the spring, I dropped the camera onto the towel — and again accidentally triggered the shutter release. And this time, the camera was in video mode.

The accidental video shows me paddling for a few seconds, then reaching down for the camera, then holding it in up and composing a shot of the spring, then pressing the shutter release — which, of course, stopped the recording.

Wait. There’s more.

Back at the take-out, I beached the kayak and secured my gear. I put the paddle in its holder on the side of the deck, zipped up the deck bag, and prepared to get out.

Then — oops — I remembered the camera on the floor of the boat. I picked it up, placed it in the left pocket of my paddling jacket, and proceeded to disembark.

As I leaned over to do that, I felt the camera slip from my pocket. I heard the kerplunk as it hit the water.

Wide-eyed, I looked over the left side of the boat, down through eight inches of crystal-clear spring water, and saw the camera at rest on the sandy bottom. Tiny bubbles of air were rising from the housing.

Then my left hand flashed down, seized the camera, and brought it dripping to the surface.

That night at my motel, upon further inspection, I sadly concluded that the camera was, in fact, officially kaput. Toast. History.

The battery, being a sealed unit, was fine. So was the SD card. I may have lost a perfectly good camera, but at least the day’s photos and videos survived unscathed.

And, optimist that I am, I chose to look on the bright side: I was free to go out and buy a replacement camera (the latest and most advanced Powershot) with a clear conscience.


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“Fang, Where You At?”

I just got back from one of my periodic road trips. Every month or two, I load up my RV Old Blue and head out for a few days, just because I can.

This time, it was a leisurely drive from Panama City west along the Gulf coast. I took my time, walked on the beach, strolled along the docks, took photos, ate seafood. The weather was idyllic.

The trip had its high points, as do they all.

In Panama City, I went to see the house where I lived in the 1950s, during junior high school. The old place has been renovated and looks really good.

In Alabama, I took the 30-minute car ferry ride across the mouth of Mobile Bay. The ferry was escorted by assorted dolphins and swarms of seabirds.

And, in Mississippi, I took my first-ever ride through the swamp on an airboat. You know, one of these things:


The experience was as wild and as loud as I expected.

The Gulf coast turns swampy west of Mobile Bay, and all along coastal Mississippi and Louisiana, airboat tours are everywhere. They all claim to offer the best and most exciting airboat rides on earth. That being the case, I chose one at random, and it worked out fine.

The place I picked was Gulf Coast Gator Ranch in Moss Point, Mississippi.


In addition to airboat tours, they offer a self-guided tour of the “gator ranch,” which is a fenced compound full of hundreds of alligators of all sizes.



For the gators, the ranch is a sweet deal. They have plenty of space in which to live and socialize, and they all get fed regularly. True, humans are constantly hovering nearby, but the people are fenced in and don’t pose a threat.

The airboat ride was a blast. The craft, which held the operator (a friendly fellow named Rob) and five tourists, was spacious, lightweight, stable, and very agile.


Rob gave us a few instructions as we eased away from the dock. The six of us donned our ear protectors, we reached open water, and Rob gunned it.

I wasn’t worried that the craft might flip, but the possibility certainly occurred to me. The airboat was going crazy fast, cutting trails through the marsh grass, making tight circles around the mud bars, and sending out rooster tails of swamp water as we banked hither and yon.

Rob was performing the nautical equivalent of doing donuts and leaving rubber. He stopped short of popping a wheelie.

I was trying to protect my camera from the spray, so I didn’t turn around to see, but I’m sure he had a huge grin on his face.

Finally, in a narrow channel next to a railroad trestle, Rob brought the airboat to a stop. He cut the engine. We all took off our ear protectors.

Rob stood up and bellowed, “Nuisance! Nuisance, old gal! Where you at?”

Thirty yards away, next to the trestle in a small cove, an alligator slid into the water and headed our way.

“Here she comes,” said Rob. “Nuisance is an adult female, about nine feet long. This inlet is her spot. She staked it out last year.”

Rob reached behind his seat and emerged with a bag of marshmallows. “Come on, Nuisance!” he yelled again. “Hoo, girl! Come and get it!”

When Nuisance was within 15 yards of the boat, Rob tossed a marshmallow into the water. Nuisance cruised forward and deftly glommed it up.


After feeding Nuisance several more marshmallows, Rob pointed out a second gator in the distance on the far side of the trestle.

“Over there, that’s Big Mac,” he told us. “He’s been hangin’ around for about a week. Nuisance don’t like it one bit.”

Rob yelled out for Big Mac to come get his marshmallows. Big Mac slipped into the water and came toward us. As he did, Nuisance retreated a discrete distance from the boat.

“Right now, the weather is warmer than usual,” said Rob, “So Mac thinks it’s matin’ season. Nuisance knows better, but Mac is confused.”


“You’re confused, ain’t you boy?” said Rob. He tossed a marshmallow into the water. Big Mac picked it off with practiced efficiency.

Several marshmallows later, Rob cranked the engine, and we donned our ear protection, and the airboat was off for another wild ride.

At one point, I gingerly lifted the protector away from one ear to check the level of the engine noise. I covered my ear again immediately.

A few minutes later, Rob stopped the airboat in another channel opposite a small cove. He stood up and cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Hoo, Fang!” he hollered. “Fang, where you at? Come on out, boy!”

Moments later, the grass swayed on the bank of the cove, and an alligator, this one noticeably larger than Nuisance and Big Mac, slipped silently into the water and swam toward us.

“We call him Fang ’cause he’s snaggle-toothed. Lost a few teeth at some point,” said Rob. “He’s an old fella. Been here a long time.”

Fang arrived next to the boat and collected a marshmallow. As he cruised alongside us in pursuit of another one, Rob reached down and patted Fang on the top of his massive head.

“Gators like bein’ patted and scratched on the top of their heads,” said Rob. “It relaxes ’em.”

“Fang, come over here, boy!” Rob yelled. Fang swam alongside the boat.

“Roll over, boy! Roll over on your side and show me them teeth!”

Fang rolled onto his side and executed what I can only describe as a grimace, his jaws slightly apart and his teeth on full display.

“Attaboy!” said Rob. He reached down and, much as I would affectionately scratch my dog, he rubbed and patted Fang on the belly. “Yeah, look at dem big shiny teeth!” he cooed.

“I can’t believe you’re doing that!” said one of the passengers. “That alligator could bite your hand off!”

“Fang?” Rob replied in mock dismay. “Fang wouldn’t hurt me! Me and him is pals!”

“But he’s a wild gator!”

“Well, Fang has been here a long time, and he ain’t that wild any more.” said Rob. “I trust him. He knows me, knows I won’t hurt him. I bring him snacks, and we keep him well fed. I ain’t worried about Fang.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “You didn’t see me puttin’ my hand anywhere near Big Mac or Nuisance.”

After another high-speed ride through the swamp, Rob took us back to Gator Ranch. With the drive in neutral, he ran the engine at full throttle. The tremendous wash of air caused us to drift sideways into place against the dock.

I walked next to him up the long pathway back to the office.

“I haven’t seen any ‘you-drive-it’ airboat rentals,” I said. “That must mean they take practice to operate.”

“They sure do,” he said. “You know that lady inside who took your money? Last year, she was pesterin’ us to learn to drive. The first time, she got stuck in the mud. The second time, she blew out the engine. There wadn’t no third time.”

Back at the ranch, Rob assembled his five passengers and asked, “Any of y’all ever held a baby gator?”


He opened the lid of a large cooler, reached inside, and brought out a docile, two-foot-long alligator with a rubber band around its jaws. He handed the gator to the nearest tourist.

“Dang,” said the tourist, “He feels cold, like a snake.”

“What’s his name?” asked another.

“We don’t name the little ones,” said Rob.

When my turn came to hold the unnamed gator, Rob asked for my camera. This is the shot he took.



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My previous post was about a boat tour I took earlier this month into the beautiful and fascinating Atchafalaya Basin, a sprawling wetland in southern Louisiana. The trip was a mere two hours long, but it was enough to give me the flavor of the place and make me resolve to go back another time and explore further.

My tour guide that day was Captain Don, a jovial Cajun fellow who regaled us passengers with (1) fascinating facts about the history and inhabitants of the Atchafalaya and (2) Cajun jokes.

Specifically, Captain Don introduced us to Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, the central characters of much Cajun humor. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are a disreputable, but lovable duo whose antics get them into constant trouble.

The jokes, of course, are universal. But, when told by a Cajun about Cajuns, they have an undeniable panache.

Every time Captain Don reeled off a joke, I quietly made a note, so I could reconstruct the tale later. As it turned out, he told quite a few. That’s why I felt obliged to make this report a two-parter.

Here are the jokes Captain Don told us…


Boudreau is drivin’ in da city one day, all in a sweat. He got a very important meetin’, and he can’t find a parking place.

Lookin’ up to Heaven he says, “Lord, take pity on me! If you find me a parkin’ place, ah will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of ma life, and ah’ll never take another drink as long as ah live!”

Like a miracle, a parkin’ place appears around de next corner.

Boudreau looks up at Heaven again and says, “Never mind, Lord, ah found one.”


Thibodeaux is layin’ on his deathbed with only a few days to live. He calls his wife Clotile to his side and says, “Make me a promise, Clotile. Swear to me dat after ah’m dead and gone, you will marry Boudreaux.”

“Boudreaux?” she exclaims. “You always say you hate Boudreaux, ’cause he’s low down and no good, and you wish nuttin’ but BAD on him!”

Thibodeaux says, “Yeah, ah do.”


One day, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux fly north to Yankee country on vacation. As dey come in for a landin’, Boudreaux yells at Thibodeaux, “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway!”

So Thibodeaux pulls up and goes around for another try. As he attempts another landin’, Boudreaux yells at him again. “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway already!”

Thibodeaux pulls back on da stick and goes around again. As he comes in for a third try, he says to Boudreaux, “You know, dese Yankees is pretty stupid! Dey made dis runway way too short, but look at how wide it is!”


Pierre is drinkin’ at de bar, when Thibodeaux comes in. “Pierre, you heard the news?” says Thibodeaux. “Boudreaux is dead!”

“That’s terrible!” says Pierre. “What happened to him?”

“Well, Boudreaux was on his way over to my house the other day, and when he arrived, his foot missed da brake pedal, and BOOM — he hit da curb! He crash troo da windshield, go flying troo de air, and smash troo my upstairs bedroom window!”

“What a horrible way to die!” says Pierre.

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he’s lyin’ on the floor, all covered in broken glass, and he tries to pull hisself up on dat big old antique chifferrobe we got, and BANG — da chifferrobe comes crashing down on top of him!”

“Mais, that’s terrible!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he gets de chifferrobe off him, and he crawls out onto da landin’, and he tries to pull hisself up on de han’rail! But de han’rail breaks, and BAM — Boudreaux fall down da stairs to da first floor!”

“Dat’s sure an awful way to go!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! Boudreaux, he even survived dat!

“So, he’s downstairs, and he crawls into de kitchen and tries to pull hisself up on de stove! But he tips over a big pot of hot gumbo, and whoosh — da whole thing come down on him and burn him real bad!”

“Thibodeaux, dat’s an awful way to die!”

“No no, he survived dat too!”

“Wait — hold on now! Just how did Boudreaux die?”

“Ah shot him!”

“You shot him? Why you shoot him?”

“Mais, he was wreckin’ mah house!”


Boudreaux is workin’ on his cabane, which is what we call a cabin in dese parts, when his little grandson runs in.

“Papaw,” says da boy, “How far away is California? How far is California, Papaw?”

Boudreaux answers, “Boy, ah don’t know! Go away, now, ’cause ah’m busy!”

A few minutes later, here comes de boy again. “Papaw! Make a noise like a frog! Make a noise like a frog, Papaw!”

Boudreaux yells, “Boy can’t you see ah’m workin’? Get on outta here, like ah tol‘ ya!”

Da boy goes outside, but he stays near de door, lookin’ in at Boudreaux.

Finally, Boudreaux stops what he’s doin’ and says, “Boy, why you wanna know all dat?”

Da boy says, “‘Cause Mamaw told us — when Papaw finally croaks, we goin’ to California!”


One mornin’, Boudreaux goes fishin’, and he’s doin’ real fine until da game warden pops up. Da game warden been watchin’ from the bushes, and he waits ’till Boudreaux catches a mess of fish. Den he steps out and says, “Ok, boy, lemme see dat fishin’ license!”

Well, Boudreaux, he ain’t GOT no fishin’ license, so da game warden arrest him and take him to court.

Da judge looks at da charges, and says, “Boudreaux, you got a clean record, son. You ain’t never been in dis court before.”

“Das right, Judge,” Boudreaux says. “Ah ain’t never been caught till now.”

“How ’bout dis?” says the judge. “If you promise to get a fishin’ license and not break the law no more, ah’ll let you go.”

Da game warden lets out a howl of protest. “Dat ain’t fair, Judge!” he yells. “Boudreaux, he do dis all da time, but he always get away! I finally catch him, and you lettin’ him go?”

“Well,” says da judge, “Maybe he done learned his lesson. Have ya, Boudreaux?”

“You bet ah have, Judge,” says Boudreaux.

So da judge slams down his gavel and tells Boudreaux he’s free to go. Da game warden turns to de judge and says, “Judge, what about dis? One time, ah came up on Boudreaux in de swamp, and he done cooked and eat a brown pelican, da Louisiana state bird!”

“Is dat true, Boudreaux?” says da judge.

Boudreaux stops at de courtroom door and turns back and says, “Yes, Judge, ah done what he said, but de bird was already dead, and ah hated to see de meat go to waste!”

Da judge thought for a minute and den says, “Ah’m curious, Boudreaux. What do brown pelican taste like?”

“Funny thing, Judge,” says Boudreaux. “It taste a lot like bald eagle!”


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Earlier this month, on the way home from my ill-fated trip to Grand Canyon, I took the southern route, along the Gulf coast. When I stopped for the night in Lafayette, Louisiana, I went online, found an outfit that runs boat tours into the Atchafalaya swamp, and made a reservation for the following day.

You probably know that much of southern Louisiana is swamp and wetland, created most famously by the Mississippi River and its delta. But there is another river there, and another delta, that is nearly equal to the Mississippi in regional impact: the Atchafalaya.

Just below Natchez, the Atchafalaya River peels off from the Mississippi and flows south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya delta is 50 miles or so west of New Orleans.


The river corridor and its associated wetland is known as the Atchafalaya Basin. It constitutes the largest river swamp in the United States — about 20 miles wide and 150 miles long.

The Basin is largely unpopulated. The few roads there follow the tops of levees, which were built over the years to corral the river and minimize flooding in adjacent areas.


Interstate 10 crosses the Basin on a massive, 18-mile-long bridge, the 2nd longest in the United States. The longest is its neighbor, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway north of New Orleans, which is 46 miles long.


The Atchafalaya Basin is a rich combination of marshes, bayous, islands, and forests. Its waters range from fresh in the north to brackish closer to the coast. It is prime habitat for numerous species of waterfowl, fish, crawfish, shrimp, and crab.

It is home to deer, black bear, alligators, beaver, mink, otter, nutria, and foxes. Not to mention turtles, snakes, raccoons, armadillos, and opossums. It is incredibly beautiful and serene. Which is why I was shopping for a boat tour.

The Basin is in the heart of Cajun Country, and most of the fish camps, marinas, and tour companies around its edges are Cajun-run. As you soon discover, the natives are a naturally exuberant, energetic, and entertaining folk.

For the record, Cajuns are the descendants of French-speaking people from the Acadia region of Eastern Canada. They settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s after being booted from their homeland by the British. The Louisiana Cajuns have developed a rich and unique culture, with its own dialect, traditions, music, and food.

The next morning at the levee in Henderson, Louisiana, I boarded the Katherine Grace, a flat-bottom tour boat under the command of Captain Don, a friendly fellow of the Cajun persuasion who knows the swamp as thoroughly as do the herons and the gators.


Captain Don.

That day, I was one of a dozen-plus tourists aboard. Captain Don took us on a leisurely cruise into a small corner of the Basin, pointing out the flora and fauna and informing us about the history of the place. But as soon as we left the dock, Captain Don took us passengers to Cajun school.

“First of all,” he said, “Y’all gotta learn to say da name of dis place proper! Dis is de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh! Now y’all say it.”

“Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh,” we repeated in unison.

“Das real good,” he said. “And, man, we got us a beautiful day here in de Bay-SEEN Uh-CHAF-uh-LIE-uh!”

And it was, indeed, a beautiful day — mild, calm, and sunny. For the next two hours, we cruised slowly among the islands. Captain Don showed us the remains of old bridge pilings and abandoned oil platforms. He told us which plants were native and which were invasive.

He pointed out the numerous shorebirds and informed us that the Great White Egret has black legs and black feet, whereas a Snowy Egret has black legs and yellow feet.

Captain Don would inch the boat slowly around a bend so we could get a quick look at a massive alligator sunning on the bank before the gator got spooked and slipped away into the water.

And, in addition to dishing up factual information, he told us Cajun jokes.

I knew at the time that I would write about my swamp tour with Captain Don. So, resourceful fellow that I am, I made notes so I could reconstruct his jokes when I got home.

More about which in my next post.


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In December 2005, after Death Valley National Park had cooled off for the year, I drove to California and spent a fascinating four days exploring the place. Memories of that trip still pop into my head from time to time. Apparently, I was impressed.

You probably know the basics about Death Valley, even if you haven’t been there: it’s the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America.

In July 1913, an all-time world record high of 134°F was recorded on the valley floor. In July of the year I was there, the temperature reached 129°F. Best to avoid Julys.

Rainfall-wise, the valley has averaged about two inches per year over the last 30 years. That’s an improvement. The historic yearly average is 1.6 inches.

Altitude-wise, the lowest point in the valley is the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley got the way it is because of its unique geography; the valley is a long, narrow basin walled in by mountains. On the west side, the Panamint Range blocks storms moving in from the Pacific Ocean. The western slopes get the rainfall, and almost none reaches the valley.


Deprived of moisture, the desert air becomes steadily hotter and drier. The heated air rises, but is trapped by the mountains on both sides. It cools a bit, falls again, and compresses the air below it, heating the air further. You learned that in high school physics, right?

If you look at the daily high and low temperatures in Death Valley over the course of a year, you get an average high of 90°F and an average low of 62°F.

So, Death Valley is a hot, dry, low-lying desert. Those fundamentals, I knew. But when I finally got there, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity.

For one thing, I didn’t expect to find heavily-forested mountains that are snow-capped in winter. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamints, rises 11,049 feet above sea level. Badwater Basin is a mere 15 miles away.

The Park has plenty of other surprises…

A giant salt flat on the floor of the valley covers 200 square miles. The salt has accumulated over thousands of years, washed down out of the mountains by periodic floods. Because the valley is an enclosed basin, the water is trapped in temporary lakes. When they evaporate in the arid climate, another layer of salt is added to the crust.


In the surrounding mountains, countless canyons and dry washes deliver a steady supply of sand to the valley floor. Most is dispersed by the constant wind. But in a few places, sand dunes accumulate. Death Valley has five sets of dunes, the largest standing over 700 feet tall. The sprawling dune field at Mesquite Flat is conveniently located next to the Park’s main road.


Salt isn’t the only mineral buried in the valley floor. In 1881, large-scale borax mining began in Death Valley. The operation at Furnace Creek became famous for using teams of 20 mules to haul double wagons of borax 200 miles over the mountains to the nearest railroad. The site of the old Harmony Borax Works, closed since 1889, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.


One of the most incongruous sights in Death Valley is “Scotty’s Castle,” a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson as a vacation getaway. When construction started, Johnson’s friend Walter Scott, a free-spirited prospector of questionable repute known as “Death Valley Scotty,” told the locals that he was building the mansion himself, using proceeds from a secret gold mine. Amused, Johnson let Scott have his fun, and the name “Scotty’s Castle” stuck. The mansion was turned into a hotel for a while, and now the Park owns it.


Another odd sight: high in the Panamint Range are 10 masonry charcoal kilns, beehive-shaped and 25 feet tall. The kilns were built in 1877 by rich mining expert George Hearst (daddy of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst). The charcoal was used to fuel the smelters at Hearst’s nearby lead and silver mines. When the mines played out, the kilns were abandoned. You can go inside them, but mind the soot.


Death Valley is home to eight ghost towns, most founded by miners or outlaws between the 1870s and the 1920s. The largest of the towns is (was) Rhyolite, located just outside the Park on BLM land. Rhyolite lasted from 1905 until 1916. In its heyday, the town had over 5,000 residents, two churches, and 50 saloons.


The “Bottle House” in Rhyolite was constructed using 30,000 empty beer bottles. Except for the bottles, it’s just an ordinary building. The Bottle House was badly vandalized after Rhyolite was abandoned, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the building as an investment; by then, the place was being used as a movie set.

Rhyolite Bottle House

There’s plenty more to see in Death Valley. Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) is a volcanic crater, age uncertain, that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Ubehebe (a marvelous word that should be spoken with feeling) is a Shoshone word that means “big basket in the rock.”

Elsewhere, tucked away in a remote canyon, is a massive natural bridge. You are not surprised to find such a thing in this rocky, bone-dry country.

However, in another remote canyon is beautiful Darwin Falls, hidden in a fern-covered glen. Totally unexpected.

Then there is “The Racetrack,” where rocks mysteriously slide across a dry lake bed, leaving tell-tale tracks behind them. No one has seen it happen, but the speculation is that after a rain, the surface becomes slippery, and the wind is able to push the rocks slowly along.

And there is “Devil’s Hole,“ a hot water spring inside a limestone cavern, fed by a vast aquifer. The pool is known to be an indicator of seismic activity around the world. Earthquakes as far away as Japan have caused the water in Devil’s Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub.

All of the above is tourist stuff. Anyone can see it, photograph it, write about it, and plenty of people do.

But my trip to Death Valley that year had an added benefit that was private and personal and intimate.

Well, maybe someone else experienced it, but not from my vantage point. Let me explain.

The morning I left Death Valley to start the drive home, I was on the road before dawn. I left early because the motel dining room at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open for another two hours. Hungry and irritated, I drove off in hopes of finding breakfast somewhere else.

What I found was a spectacular sunrise.

I remember it vividly. I had just left the Park and was driving south through Panamint Valley, heading for the little town of Ridgecrest and civilization once again.

For miles, the road was arrow-straight. Beyond my headlights, everything was black. I knew from the absence of headlights and taillights that it was just me and the stars and the desert.

Then slowly, the predawn light began to reveal the landscape. I could make out a few mountain shapes in the distance. I could see faintly the outlines of ocotillo and saguaro cactuses. I became aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, revealing where the sun would rise.

Soon, I came to a place where the highway climbed a small hill. On the right, at the top of the rise, was a large, level pullout. I coasted in and turned off the engine.

For the next 20 minutes, I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the sunrise, enjoying the solitude, contemplating what a fortunate fellow I am.

When the sunrise came, it was glorious.

The photos I took that morning are among my all-time favorites. A 30” X 40” enlargement of this one has been on my living room wall ever since.



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The Petrified Forest

It’s funny how things work out. Last month, I spent the day at Petrified Forest National Park — my first visit there since the late 1990s — and my most vivid memory is of getting a lucky photo of a passing train.

Let me begin at the beginning.

Petrified Forest NP in east-central Arizona sits astraddle Interstate 40, not far from the New Mexico border. The region is classified as “native Arizona grassland,” which you can take to mean a parched, treeless, windblown desert populated by rocks, tumbleweeds, and a suitably hardy selection of plants and animals.

In the hierarchy of national parks, Petrified Forest is not a hugely-revered national jewel or a top-tier destination.

In fact, the Park is a bit of a one-trick pony; you go there to see the countless petrified logs, sprawled at random across the barren landscape — which now, ages after they were formed, ironically is treeless.

In fairness, if you count the considerable number of petroglyphs on view among the rocks, maybe the park is a two-trick pony.

Really, I don’t make these observations with malice. The Park has limited interest, but that’s okay. It is what it is, and that, in fact, is pretty remarkable.

The Park does a good job of presenting itself to visitors. It covers roughly 150 square miles and features a main north-south road 28 miles long.

The place is designed around a succession of parking lots, where one leaves one’s vehicle and sets off down paved loop trails to see the namesake logs up close. The system works fine.

Except in the rain.

Due to its desert location, the Park experiences precious few rainy days. But, as I learned last month, a rainy day there leaves you car-bound and seriously bummed out.

Let me set the scene about Petrified Forest NP and the abundance of fossilized logs it protects.

Most of the petrified trees in the Park are from the pine and fern families. They lived during the Late Triassic period, about 225 million years ago.

At the time, that region of the globe was located near the equator, on the supercontinent of Pangaea. The first dinosaurs and the earliest crocodiles were evolving. The climate was sub-tropical and humid.

The trees became petrified via a process called permineralization, which worked this way:

— When trees in the huge forests died and fell, some were carried downstream by creeks and rivers. Along the way, most of the logs were stripped of bark and branches.

— Eventually, the trees became wedged in great logjams and could go no further.

— Wood lying on the Earth’s surface will deteriorate, but some of the logs became buried in sediment, where, deprived of oxygen, the wood was preserved.

— There underground, water in the sediment percolated gently through the cells of the wood.

— Under the right conditions, minerals in the water — silica, quartz, manganese, carbon — slowly replaced the organic material of the tree, while the plant retained its original structure and appearance.

— The result was petrified wood: trees with cells of stone.

All of this, of course, took place below the surface. It took ages of uplifting and erosion to bring the petrified logs, some whole, some in chunks, some in fragments, to the surface.

The area was well-known long before it was established as a National Monument in 1906. How well-known was it? Well, the NM designation was intended to stop the systematic removal of petrified wood in large-scale commercial operations.

Petrified wood rapidly became a hot commodity, valuable enough to attract hoards of well-organized profiteers who mined it and sold it around the country.

In 1962, the NM was elevated to National Park status. By then, the commercial looting was more or less under control.

But the Park has continued to rail about the consequences of visitors illegally pocketing souvenir pieces of petrified wood. They say tourists steal about 12 tons of it per year.

Clearly, walking off with souvenirs is destructive and wrong. But is 12 tons annually all that consequential, out of a Park of 150 square miles? Remember, in the early years, countless wagonloads of petrified wood were stolen from the region daily.

Is it consequential? Maybe so, when you consider that most thefts by tourists occur from the most important, most visited sites in the facility.

Personally, I have resolved to be a good citizen who does not purloin artifacts. On this trip, I avoided the temptation of illegally taking home a piece of petrified wood by purchasing a souvenir chunk at the Visitor Center.

My prize is a nicely polished $2.00 specimen with a magnet glued to the back, which now resides on my refrigerator.

My day at Petrified Forest National Park did not begin well. It was a gloomy Wednesday morning when I left my hotel in Winslow and drove to the southern entrance to the Park.

By the time I arrived, so had a light rain.

I pulled up to the entrance station and reached for my Golden Age Passport, the lifetime National Parks entrance pass to which us old-timers are entitled, and to which the rest of you can only aspire.

The pass wasn’t there. I had left it in my hotel room.

The ranger lady at the gate listened to my sad story.

“I really do have a Golden Age Passport,” I moaned. “In fact, I have two of them. I went to Grand Canyon a few years ago, and I left my parks pass at home, so I had to buy a second one. I keep one in each car now, but I only brought one on this trip, and I left that in my room at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow. Please don’t make me buy a third one.”

The ranger lady stood with her forearm resting on the sill of the open window with practiced ease, nodding.

“Well,” she said finally, “With this rain, it ain’t much of a day for seein’ the place.”

She handed me a map of the Park. “But go ahead in.”

For the next hour-plus, I drove north through the Park, stopping at each parking lot/loop trail on the map. I peered wistfully into the gloom at the vague outlines of petrified logs dotting the distant hillsides.

Several times, I lowered the car window and took a photo, or pulled close enough to a roadside display to read it. But the drive, all in all, was hugely depressing.

However, by the time I reached the north end of the Park, the rain had stopped.

My plan had been to exit the Park at the north end, return in defeat to Winslow, and have a beer. But, hey — why not turn around and drive back south through the Park to try again?

Figuring I would get some lunch and stretch my legs first, I stopped at the North Entrance visitor center.

At the front door, I was greeted by a sign that said, PAY ENTRANCE FEE OR SHOW PREPAID PASS AT FRONT DESK.

Instead of going inside, I pretended I forgot something, went back to the car, and drove away slowly.

My second drive through the Park was as satisfying as the first had been dismal. I stopped at the same parking lots again — all of which I entered backwards, so they seemed new — and I walked the loop trails and took photos like a proper tourist.





In that last photo, the various colors are created by different minerals. Yellow, brown, and orange come from goethite, a common iron-rich oxide. White is produced by pure silica. Red is created by hematite, a form of oxidized iron that develops with minimal oxygen. (Think of iron stains in a porcelain sink.)

At the beginning of my tale, I mentioned a lucky photo of a passing train.

I took the photo from atop a bridge where the main park road, going north-south, crosses over the east-west tracks of the BNSF Railroad.

That afternoon, while returning south, I saw the train on my left, approaching from the north, still a great distance out. I was alone on the road.

Idling in my car on top of the bridge, I got out my camera (a Canon point-and-shoot that performed better than I expected on that trip) and zoomed in.

No, too far away. Not a good shot.

I hesitated to step out of the vehicle to get a photo, so I pulled the car over into the wrong lane, next to the north side of the bridge. If a car came along, I would have time to move.

The train came steadily closer. It was a diesel freight train, the kind you see regularly crossing the country, loaded with double-stacked containers bearing the names of companies — Maersk and Hanjin and such — that we don’t know beans about.

I zoomed in slightly, held my camera in the air to avoid the bridge railing, and fired off a shot.

Drat! I cut off half the engine.

The train was getting closer. I backed off on the zoom and repeated the procedure.

Dang! Out of focus.

By then, the train was looming in front of me, just short of the bridge, traveling at whatever hair-raising speed trains travel on a straightaway in the desert.

I had one last chance to get a photo, and I was rattled. I didn’t have time to think or to adjust the camera — only to fire. I raised my left arm out of the window and pointed the camera at the train.

The engineer, seeing a car paused on the bridge, gave a deafening blast of the horn. The sound buffeted the car as the train rumbled under the bridge.

As the train receded to the west, I snapped two more photos, both forgettable.

Then I checked the camera and found this photo — level, sharp, and well-framed, but owing entirely to blind luck.


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My trip last month to northern Arizona began and ended in Las Vegas.

The reason: the air fare. From Atlanta, flying to Las Vegas was cheaper than flying to Phoenix. Also cheaper than Birmingham to Phoenix, Greenville to Las Vegas, etc. I checked all the possibilities.

My son Dustin’s reaction was emphatic. “I hate Las Vegas,” he said like he meant it.

An understandable position. But I find Las Vegas entertaining — fascinating like a train wreck, if you will — and I hadn’t been there in a number of years. I was okay with how things worked out.

Not only that, I decided to hang around town for an extra day, rather than head to Arizona right away. My eventual destinations, Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly and so on, weren’t going anywhere.

So I booked two nights at my motel (an ordinary Best Western, thank you, not one of the resorts on the Strip), which gave me a full day to do the tourist thing.

In my case, doing the tourist thing means trudging along the Strip, meandering in and out of the casinos and resorts, playing the dollar slots now and then, taking photos, dining at my short list of favorite eateries, and observing that highly entertaining parade of Americana, the vacationing tourists.

In the course of my meandering, I came to The Mirage Hotel and Casino.

For the uninitiated, The Mirage is a fancy property owned by MGM Resorts International. That conglomerate also owns Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, New York-New York, Luxor, Excalibur, Circus Circus, and a bunch of others.

With that kind of resources, The Mirage has become the permanent home of a huge theatrical production entitled LOVE — the music of The Beatles as interpreted by Cirque du Soleil.

One ad describes it as, “The timeless music of The Beatles(TM) meets the magical imagination of Cirque du Soleil(R).”

Now, there’s an odd juxtaposition for you. What’s next — Rumpole of the Bailey as read by Willie Nelson? Leonard Cohen sings your Lil Wayne favorites?

Whether the thing works or not, I can’t say. I didn’t have the time or the desire to attend the show. I certainly wasn’t coughing up $150 for a ticket.

But inside The Mirage, I came across a light show advertising the performance that was pretty amazing in its own right.

The light show is located in the hallway in front of the LOVE box office. It consists of coordinated lights in the floor, ceiling, and walls that run automatically, 24/7.

The lights are strobes that slowly change color, from red to green to white to blue to red again. The display incorporates a back-lit British flag in the ceiling. In the center of the back wall are the stylized silhouettes of four dancing figures, representing the Beatles.

Music, of course, plays in synch with the lights. I remember the thumping beat of a drum machine, but whether an actual tune is involved, I can’t recall.

Up close, you are surrounded by the color and the beat and submerged in the spectacle. It’s a bit overwhelming.

From a distance, however, you can maintain your perspective, observe the light show, and appreciate the art of it all. The effect is really quite beautiful.

I knew immediately that I wanted a photo. And I wanted it during the red phase, which was the most dramatic.

Out came my camera. The hallway was empty. I composed the shot horizontally, rejected that, and switched to vertical. Better.

While I waited for the lights to cycle back to red, a young mother came toward me into the frame, leading a little girl by the hand. The child was about three or four years old.

Drat, I thought. Go away. But I quickly realized that having figures in the photo added to the scene — gave it scale and interest.

Stay where you are, little girl.

And she did. More than that, she stopped walking, yanked her hand away from mom, and stepped toward the center of the hall. She stood there, looking down, studying the lights.

As the strobes transitioned to red, the little girl looked up at the four silhouettes on the back wall, paused — and broke into a vigorous dance.

It was an impromptu jig, sort of an Irish stepdance, à la Michael Flatley in Lord of the Dance — arms motionless, feet flying.

As the little girl danced to the beat, and her pigtails jerked crazily in the air, her mother stood on the left side of the hall watching.

Then at the last second, a woman came down the hall on the right side, adding balance to the scene. Bingo.

Below is my photo.

What’s not to love?


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