While hiking near the top of Mount Washington on an unusually warm September afternoon, we met this Hungarian couple eating their lunch after climbing for hours up Huntington Ravine. Carol Stack caught this image of the couple studying the map to plan their descent.
It means weather like what we see in this early twentieth-century photo of Amsterdam by George Hendrik Breitner. Somehow, the laundry and the grainy gray make the Netherlands look less tidy and perfect than we've come to expect.
Breitner's name entered the Dutch vocabulary in reference to a kind of weather--dark, damp, chilly, misty, gloomy--based on his well-known late-ninteenth-century paintings of the Dutch landscape. But in 1996, a drawerful of photos by Breitner (including this one) was discovered in somebody's attic in Amsterdam, and it turns out that the atmosphere in Breitner's photographic landscapes is just as in his paintings. Breitner-like.
The town of Clearfield in the hills of west-central Pennsylvania grew little or not at all between 1910--when a photo was taken from a nearby slope, painted by hand, and reproduced lithographically--and the 1960s--when a color photo taken from nearly the same spot was published as a picture postcard. Town population still stands at about 6,000 today. The dark church steeple in the upper right of the older picture is the white steeple in the center of the more recent view.
Apparently, the years have not been kind to Clearfield as far as the artistic level of its town boosters' bird's-eye views is concerned--but that's typical; a lively American artistic genre has been poorly replaced, first by Kodachrome and more recently by Google Earth.
Time marches on, however, in Clearfield. In 1977, the town became the home of Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, where the cook "enjoys making burgers bigger than your head, all the way up to the insane 123-pounder."
You know how it goes: one person slips in the marsh mud, and then the other person tries to help her up and loses her balance and slips in herself, and then the first one reaches out to grab the other one's arm and falls in even deeper. And soon enough, they and everybody else on the marsh that day have laughed till they couldn't laugh any more, till tears were spilling down their cheeks.
All this fun happened last fall to Schuyler Rowe and Addie Nammoun, in the salt marsh on Chewonki Neck, in midcoast Maine. Even today, just thinking about those girls in that marsh brings tears to the eyes of everyone fortunate enough to have been a witness. Schuyler keeps this photo as the desktop image on her laptop.
I'm not a New York person, but this view of the Savoy Plaza and other Midtown towers has got to be one of the most gorgeous cityscapes anywhere, ever. It was shot in Central Park in 1933 by architectural photographer Samuel Gottscho. Today, the view from the same spot would be dominated by tall glass office boxes; the Savoy and many of the other old towers have been demolished.
Gottscho worked as a traveling lace and fabric salesman for 23 years before he could work with his camera full time. He specialized in pictures of houses and gardens, but also branched out into nature photography.
A new novel by E.L. Doctorow uses a heavily photoshopped version of this picture on the cover.
A couple of nights ago, the season's first snow blanketed this meadow high on the shoulder of Mt. Washington, shown here in its August colors. But heavy rain forecast for today should wash away any lingering taste of winter. For now.
The boy in Winslow Homer's "The Hound and the Hunter" never saw the movie "Bambi," of course, so his relationship to forest and fauna was nothing like that of my generation.. This boy didn't grow up with that single gunshot trumping all other cinematic memories: What just happened? The hunters killed Bambi's mother? His mother?
Homer's boy, unburdened with Disney-fication, just went hunting. That's what you could do this time of year if you were a fortunate American boy. His dog hounded the deer into the water, forcing it to swim rather than run. Deer swim slowly enough that the boy was able to pick it off with the gun that is now in the bottom of the boat. He'll soon have the deer tied up, ready to drag home. Problem is: the dog is now swimming straight for the boat, and if it jumps in, they'll capsize. What should the boy do? What happens next?
Homer was particularly proud of this painting; he felt he got all the details just right--for example, the transition between the boy's pale forearms and suntanned wrists. But even back then in the late 19th century, deer hunting was becoming culturally problematic among a portion of the population; when this painting was first displayed, there were complaints that the deer was still alive, that the boy was trying to drown it. This interpretation is obviously wrong--a desperate deer, thrashing in the water, would swamp the boat, if the boy could hold it at all. No, the deer is not struggling, and the boy's attention has shifted to the dog.
Sail due north from the island of Crete, and you'll get to Athens. If Daedalus and his son Icarus had only had a boat, that is what they might have done. But King Minos was holding them prisoner in Crete--he was enraged because Daedalus had helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and run off with the princess. And King Minos controlled the waters all around Crete, so escape by sea was out of the question.
Daedalus, a native of Athens, had been banished from the city for murdering his apprentice/nephew, a twelve-year-old boy who was so clever that Daedalus was afraid of being overshadowed. He fled to Crete with his son, where he built the labyrinth that Minos eventually used to imprison the two of them. Of course having built the maze, Daedalus knew how to escape it. But escaping the island was a whole nother ball of wax.
He built wings for himself and Icarus from feathers and wax. They flew northeast, toward Troy. We all know what happened next: despite his father's warning, Icarus flew too high, too close to the hot sun, and the wax holding the wings to his arms melted in the heat. He fell to his death in the blue waters now bearing his name, the Ikarian Sea.
His body was retrieved from the sea by Hercules, and he was buried on a hillside overlooking the Ikarian Sea, on the Greek island now known as Ikaria.
This satellite image shows the Ikarian Sea and a hillside on Ikaria, a terraced olive grove. Not much in this scene has obviously changed in the thousands of years since Icarus got too uppity. Although the island is beautiful and the people there are known for their longevity, they have not prospered. Many of the children of Ikaria have fled to far corners of the globe, in a twentieth-century diaspora. They publish a newsletter to keep up with one another, and in the 1960s they held a reunion back home, on the island. There was no place to house all the returnees, so they rented a cruise ship to use as a hotel and parked it just offshore.
That's me with the chisel in my mouth, some summers ago, during geologic field work in the North Cascades, in the state of Washington. I'm climbing a hill called Lincoln Rock that rears up about twelve hundred feet above the apple orchards along the banks of the Columbia River. We'd been told there were some good garnet coronas up there--garnets with white rings around them---the metamorphic feature I was trying to interpret for my thesis project.
We'd also been told that Lincoln Rock was the one place in the North Cascades where a geologist named Bob Miller--a man who climbed cliffs for fun when he couldn't think of an excuse to climb them for research--fell badly and almost cracked his head open. This was my last day in the field that summer, and though I'd had wonderful fun, I was beginning to shift gears mentally, to look forward to getting back home so I could stop worrying about slipping and falling and leaving five children motherless.
Perhaps because of Bob's misadventure, but surely also because I was old and out of shape, I was by far the slowest climber. While I toiled upward inch by inch in the August sun, the rest of the gang was already lolling about in the shade of an overhang at the top of the hill, eating lunch and making fun of me. As I finally approached the scene of this snapshot, a Ph.D. student named Carlos Zuluaga asked if I wanted my picture taken. Then he suggested I put the chisel in my mouth. It seemed like a good idea at the time, it really did.
Anyway, there were indeed nice-looking garnet coronas all over the hilltop, and Carlos and the others kindly helped me smash them out of the outcroppings. We all made it down safely, with rocks in our backpacks. When I got a look at my Lincoln Rock samples under the microscope, however, I discovered that the garnets were rotten; they'd cooled too slowly after their metamorphic odyssey, and a mineral named chlorite had replaced much of the garnet. My thermodynamic models wouldn't work on rock with rotten garnet, so I put the Lincoln Rock samples in a drawer in the basement of the geology building, and maybe they are still there today.
Fortunately, I had plenty of other samples. And I'd love to be back up there again.....
Ivan Shishkin painted this field of ripened rye in 1878. The grain is so tall it almost hides a couple of people way in the distance, on the road near the middle of the picture. I'm pretty sure that they are hunters; there are two dead birds at the edge of the field in the foreground, and a big flock of birds still in the sky.
I love this painting. I might not have fallen for it so completely if I'd noticed the dead birds first, but it's too late now. I love how simple it is: field, trees, road--something we might see any time we go out into the country. Not a specially scenic spot. But the trees are super trees, bigger and more dramatic than ordinary trees. The crop in the field is golden, bursting-ripe. The road reels us in, winding mysteriously. They say Shishkin painted this way to celebrate the bounty of Russian nature. He knew what he was doing.
Tsingys. Which means: the kind of place where you don't want to walk barefoot.
We use the German word, karst, as a general term for tsingys and other less extreme landscapes carved by the chemical interaction of limestone and rainwater. Limestone is oceanic in origin, formed at the bottom of the sea from the shells of dead sea creatures. When tectonic forces thrust the seafloor up onto dry land, rainwater immediately begins chewing away at it, in a chemical reaction something like the vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano of an elementary school science project.
Monsoon rains have been attacking the Jurassic limestone bedrock of western Madagascar for millions of years, dissolving channels in the surface and opening up caverns underground. Eventually, as the caverns expand, the rock above tthem collapses, forming sinkholes. The sinkholes enlarge along fissues and underground drainage channels, eventually forming steep-sided "solution valleys." The rains continue to eat away at the rock between the valleys, until all that is left is raggedy spikes. Tsingys.
It's so hard to get around in this landscape that the flora and fauna have yet to be catalogued. Even animals and plants have a hard time traveling here; they live in micro-ecosystems that have evolved in isolation from one another as well as from the rest of the world.
Ten percent of the earth's surface is karst, but most of it is too young or too arid to develop the extreme features of the tsingys. But all karst is evolving slowly or rapidly toward the kind of landscape seen here. It will be kind of a shame in a few million years when Florida gets to looking like this; who's going to want to visit beaches where you can no longer walk barefoot?
Photographer Trey Ratcliff is known for his high-dynamic-range techniques, which pump up the drama in his pictures, producing weirdly wonderful, or just plain weird, results.
The idea is that when shooting a scene that is partly bright and partly shadowed, a camera can properly expose the picture to show color and detail in the bright areas or in the dark areas, but not both at the same time. Ratcliff shoots the same scene over and over with different exposure settings; he then uses fancy software to blend together parts of the image from all the different shots.
Our eyes naturally have a much wider dynamic range than any camera, so in theory Ratcliff's pictures should be more natural-looking than regular photos. In practice, they look less natural--often interesting, sometimes beautiful, but almost always somehow artificial and extreme. I have mixed feelings about his work; here, for example, the sky looks spooky or fake to me, but overall, it's really, really pretty.
Winter is sneaking up on us fast--in fact, these last couple of days here have left the impression that it's done snuck up already, and snagged us in its clutches. Anyway, here are a last couple of fall pictures, from last month. The first one is of Rye Beach, New Hampshire, by Tanja Baker. The other one shows a hydrangea bush on my street in Portland.
About twelve summers ago, we made it to Idaho Peak, above New Denver, British Columbia, in the Selkirk Mountains. That meadowful of flowers up there is as good as it gets for flowers.
The trail isn't as sketchy as it might look; it meanders gently around the bend up ahead toward a fire tower that overlooks Slocan Lake and the tiny lakeside towns of Silverton and New Denver. All the settlements in this neck of the woods were late-nineteenth-century mining towns; when the silver and gold gave out in the early to middle years of the twentieth century, the towns struggled, and some vanished. A revival began in the 1960s with U.S. draft dodgers and Canadian and U.S. back-to-the-landers, who were attracted by the scenery and the lack of twentieth-century sprawl.
Best thing about the flowers on Idaho Peak: it's always summer up there. The flowers are always in full bloom. I can't remember it any other way.
The sun in Namibia is so harsh, according to photographer Vincent Mounier, that picture-taking during the day yields nothing but bleached, blasted-to-white landscapes. At dusk and dawn, however, the earth reclaims its colors, and the eyes can open wide for a long, calm look.
This salt marsh at Seabrook, New Hampshire, is now the backyard of a nuclear power plant. When this area was first settled, the marsh was the town hayfield, cut over every August or September for animal bedding, mulch, banks of insulation against the sides of houses, and packing material for shipping fruit, pottery, and other fragile items, back before foam peanuts and poppable plastic. After cutting, the grass was left in the marsh till wintertime, when the frozen mud would support the weight of horses to haul it out. If hay was needed before winter, horses could be driven in on unfrozen marshland by equipping them with huge wooden shoes that spread their weight.
But in the twentieth century, when marsh grass began to lose its value as a cash crop, the marsh was regarded as a nuisance. Drainage projects were expensive, but they were often justified on public health grounds, as mosquito-control measures. The Seabrook marsh, like many, was "ditched" with narrow little canals to dry up mosquito habitat. The project failed because the ditching destroyed habitat for important species of mosquito-larvae-eating fish.
Nowadays, we are beginning to understand the critical importance of marshes and other wetlands, for wildlife, storm-buffering, and many other functions. A handful ofl New England marshes have been restored to something approaching their pristine condition. And many others, including Seabrook, are slowly recovering thanks to protective legislation.
This is an ibex, photographed by Ruggero Barsacchi on safari in . . . Italy.
I guess I didn't know my ibex from my keister. To me, this guy looks like African big game, maybe an antelope sort of creature that might even give a lion a hard time. Nope. You're looking at lo stambecco, the mountain goat of the Italian Alps.
Ibexes are not really big enough to take on lions, but at 100 kilograms or more, with horns up to a meter in length, a full-grown male ibex can do a number on a wolf. Prized medicinally--almost all its body parts and also its excrement were said to cure whatever ails you--by the early nineteenth century it had been hunted almost to extinction. Ibex herds are now protected and have grown dramatically; the species is no longer considered particularly endangered.
A few months ago, the New Zealanders among us were out touring their island--New Zealand's North Island--when they stopped for the night at the Okopako Farm Lodge in Opononi, Northland, a backpackers' hostel at the end of a primitive gravel road--a road so narrow and winding and twisty, we're told, that it can't be driven after dark. The people who run the lodge, which is off the electrical grid, offer "fresh organic produce, homemade bread & farmhouse meals," and they also promise a nice view.
This is what dawn looks like from the deck of the lodge.
"I shot photo after photo," recalls A., "as the sun rose. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in the scenery I left bread on a burner on one of those camp toasters until it thoroughly burned, and its blackened remains released a massive amount of smoke that set off the fire alarm. The fire alarm rang for about 20 minutes, which did not thrill the few other inhabitants of that place.
"The upside was that they were awakened in time to enjoy the sunrise, too."
You may recall that it was in the mountains here above the village of Maienfeld, Switzerland, that Heidi and Peter used to take the goats to pasture. The cows, which didn't really figure in the Johanna Spyri novel or in the Shirley Temple movie, presumably stayed down below in these pastures in the Rhine River Valley. Heidi and Peter climbed up the goat paths every morning, frolicked in the meadows, and lived happily ever after in the bright clean air, curing the invalid Clara, bringing the old hermit back to the church, and spreading joy and good cheer and etc.--even so, it was a nice book, a nice movie, and there's no denying it's a beautiful piece of the world.
Today the people of Maienfeld mostly tend vineyards and host tourists looking for Heidi. An hour's walk up the valley is the spa town of Bad Ragasz, where tourists come looking for Roger Federer.
Something I learned today about the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's blown-out well got me thinking about all the oil that didn't get away, the oil that BP and the other companies have managed to pump and sell over the past century or so, without "wasting" much through spillage.
What I learned from TV news this evening was that one reason BP has sought to downplay the amount of the Deepwater spill is that the company will likely have to pay agreed-upon royalty fees to the government for every gallon sucked out of the earth, including all the gallons spilled into the Gulf. Of course, when BP signed that contract, it was planning to harvest all the oil, not let millions of gallons of it float away.
And what about the oil that gets pumped up properly, refined, delivered to gas stations and power plants and heating oil companies, and eventually sold to us customers. What do we do with it? We burn it, of course (except for the portion we use to make plastic). Some small amount of residue from the burning gunks up our cars' engines and catalytic converters and slimes up the surface of our roads, but modern cars burn fuel pretty efficiently; the vast majority of what was gasoline when we paid for it goes out the tail pipe and into the air. You can see the oil in the air in this picture, which shows the view from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, looking westward toward Salt Lake City. The exhaust from a few hundred thousand cars has become thick smog, completely hiding the city.
The twentieth century was the age of oil; Saudi Arabia's wealth was discovered in 1900. By approximately 2000, we'd burned up half of all the oil believed to exist, including almost all the oil in Texas and Oklahoma and most of the oil in Alaska. Much of that century's worth of oil smoke is still in the air, doing its greenhouse-gas thing, but much has fallen back to earth by now, often washed out by rain and snow. We say that a rain shower has "cleared the air," and it has. Back on the ground, the chemicals that perhaps recently floated in the air as smog and once upon a time rested deep underground as oil now leach down through the soil into our groundwater or wash directly into creeks and lakes and rivers and of course oceans. Either way, we drink that oil. And it's nasty--carcinogenic and flat-out poisonous.
All day every day, we drink oil and breathe it; after a century of oil-burning, we and all the other plants and animals on the planet probably have traces of oil in every cell in our bodies. A century is a very short time, evolution-wise; homo sapiens evolved in a world where almost all the oil was trapped deep underground, and hardly any of it was in the air and the water and the food chain.
We've been able to eat and drink and breathe oil and still get by, so to speak, because most of the time the burnt-up oil is diluted before we ingest it. The life in the Gulf of Mexico won't be so lucky.
As the latest entry in an irregular series on places I've never been and know next to nothing about, consider this image of Moroni, capital of Comoros, an island nation in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique.
About 60,000 people live on the volcanic islands of the Comoro archipelago. Although the country is among the poorest on earth, armies have fought ferociously to control it, leading to twenty coups or attempted coups since the end of French colonial rule in the 1970s. Beginning in 2002, however, elections have produced governments that are said to be "more or less" stable.
Comoros is characterized by stunning volcanic scenery and spectacular, uncrowded beaches. But outside of Moroni there are no roads or tourist facilities. Government promotional literature recommends a visit only for visitors with "independent means."
Members of Deering High School's Outdoors Club head back down the hill and into the weather after summiting mile-high Mt. Katahdin recently, the highest peak in Maine and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
As they followed the trail on down into the clouds, they got rained on but good. Fortunately, their youthful high spirits proved to be waterproof.
The White Mountains National Forest parking lots were jam packed on this hot Fourth of July, and dozens of the cars in those lots held people eager to hike the trail up to Champney Falls, high on the north slope of 3500-foot Mt. Chocorua. But nobody challenged us when we claimed swimming rights in the pool beneath this little cascade of the falls. The water was cold up there, the walk through the woods was shady and occasionally breezy, the sun was summery, we had cherries to eat, and there's really nothing else to say. Left to right: Susan Wiggin, Emily Wiggin, Joe Stein, Joshua Wiggin.
There is a webcam at the North Pole. It's a security camera, basically, keeping an eye on all the scientific instruments that monitor weather, snow, and ice conditions at the Pole. The camera is solar powered, sensibly enough, so the picture-taking begins each year in April and continues into October. Today, polar weather is dry and sunny, perfect for snapshots, but I chose to post this image instead, from July 5, because of the hint of a rainbow in the sky.
The puddles are meltwater ponded on top of the sea ice; the Arctic Ocean itself is still completely ice-covered in this photo. Since 2002, when the first webcam recorded this phenomenon throughout the Arctic summer, meltponds have first appeared as early as mid-June and as late as August. Most years, the ponds have spread to cover most of the sea ice by mid-August, before freeze-up begins again in late August. But in 2008, for reasons unknown, only a few small ponds appeared, and they'd barely begun to spread at all when freeze-up started.
So far, melting in 2010 has followed a pattern typical of the average North Pole summer--at least average for recorded North Pole meltpond history, which dates back only to 2002.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the webcam, has assembled the snapshots into videos, which are posted on Youtube. You can see the snapshots and access the videos from NOAA's Arctic Gallery website.
It was a while ago, close to fifteen years ago, but I think I remember how to get there: walk down the hill and through the fields of brussels sprouts to the edge of the cliffs above the sea. Follow the clifftops for a mile or so, till a narrow squiggly trail branches off the main track and maneuvers down through a gully in the cliff face. Scramble down to the bottom, and there you are, in the sandy little cove, sharing your beach with the ocean and the sky.
I hope I remember this place right. It seemed memorable for three reasons: the seclusion of the cove, the scenery surrounding the walk to the cove, and the brussels sprouts. The beach is in Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz, California. And for what it's worth, almost all of America's brussels sprouts are grown right there along the Pacific coast of Santa Cruz County, where winters are mild but the fog keeps the summer heat away.
If you drop the first two letters of the name of the nation of Mexico, you get Xico, the name of several towns and landmarks around the country. There is, for example, the small hill town of Xico near Veracruz, where it is said that people do very little besides growing coffee and hosting bullfights. And here we see two other Xicos: a volcanic crater and the fast-growing city that surrounds it.
Xico volcano sits at the extreme southern end of the Mexico City megalopolis. For a geologically significant chunk of time, this area was underwater, drowned by Lake Chalco. The lake began to dry out in the 1300s, and Aztec fishermen settled along its coastline hereabouts. In the nineteenth century, the government drained the lake entirely; the fishermen were awarded communal land grants and told to become farmers.
Farming became intensive in the 1970s, when corporate agriculturists and desperate landless peasants struck illegal or quasi-legal deals with the communal organizations and wrested control of the rich volcanic soil. Thousands and thousands of families poured into the region, hoping for work. Farmers climbed over the rim of the volcano and plowed fields inside the crater. Xico the town sprawled right up to the ramparts of Xico the crater and appears likely to soon engulf it; in 2005, the population of the municipality was 330,000.
The urban fringes seen here lack the services and amenities taken for granted twenty miles away in downtown Mexico City. Xico's roads are mostly unpaved, schools are few and far between, and the people are almost all very poor. Now that NAFTA has dismantled the remains of the communal farming system, it seems to be increasingly the case that even the rich volcanic soil here in Xico is worth more as slumland than as cropland.
On December 29, 2010, sunrise in Reykjavik, Iceland, will be at 11:23 a.m., and sunset will come just a little over four hours later, at 3:36 p.m. So if this road into the mountains outside of town is the route recommended by the GPS . . . well, maybe try again in a few months, when the daylight last a little longer?
The Icelandic word on the warning sign translates into English as unable, more or less.
Those of us of a certain age take one look at what's going on here and think: things are about to get very bad. We know the scene is set in an isolated spot along the coast of northern California. But actually, the flocking here is on the coast of southwestern England, in Devon, where starlings fill the sky like this all winter long, and it's not a problem at all.
Last night, senior midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy participated in Ship Selection to determine their first assignments after graduation in May. The names of ships in need of junior officers were posted on the wall, listed under the names of their home ports. One at a time, beginning with the midshipman at the top of the class, the students walked up to the wall of options and claimed their billets.
Allen chose the USS Ingraham, pictured here at its home port, Naval Station Everett, on Puget Sound north of Seattle. This year there were only nine billets available in Everett, which is generally a popular home port option; it was Allen's first choice. Many of his classmates chose ships in Florida, Hawaii, or San Diego.
The Ingraham, a frigate, is the gray ship in the middle. Mount Baker is the snow-covered volcano in the background.
It is obvious to some people that Nepal's Gorek Shep plateau--the world's highest sizeable plateau, abutting Everest Base Camp at 5,165 meters above sea level--is shaped exactly like London's famed international cricket ground, the Oval.
British mountaineer Richard Kirtley, for example, took one look at the Gorek Shep and concluded that it was so "perfectly cricket-field sized and shaped" that "the locals" must be using it as a pitch. He was wrong; nobody ever played cricket there, presumably because few people remember to bring their cricket gear along for nine extremely arduous days of trekking en route to Everest Base Camp.
But some people really like cricket. Kirtley organized a 50-man expedition that trekked to Gorek Shep in April 2009, cleared the pitch of rocks ("sometimes with pickaxes"), and contested the world's highest game of cricket, the Nokia Maps Everest Test. Team Hillary beat team Tenzing by 36 runs, with 6 balls remaining.
I wouldn't know a cricket pitch if it jumped up and bit me, and I am way too old and timid and out of shape to imagine venturing to Everest Base Camp. Still and all, I'm leaving for Nepal in a couple of days, and I'll be away from the computer and off trekking till the middle of March. It was my sister's idea, and also her frequent flyer miles. Details and pictures to come.
I had hoped that our days on the trail in the Himalayan foothills would include views like this, and such expectations were fulfilled many times over. This is Machhapuchhre–Fishtail–a holy mountain that no one is allowed to climb. The flowering tree is a rhododendron, Nepal's national flower, which was just coming into bloom in early March.
But the scenic vistas were really the least of the experience. Nepali footpaths are essentially highways for the villagers who live in the hills; they have no railroads, no cars or trucks, certainly no airports, so if they want to order a little refrigerator from town and bring it home, somebody will have to walk up the trail with the refrigerator on his back.
If they want to bring a squawking chicken to a nearby village, somebody will have to tuck it under her arm and walk with it. If they want to bring in sacks of rice, or buckets of sheetrock, they will have to load up a donkey caravan and walk behind it with a loud voice and a big stick. They may have to walk for days and days and days, first on the floor of the valley, trudging upstream alongside a river, and then steeply up the side of the hill, on a rocky staircase of sorts built up over the centuries with rocks pried loose from the soil of terraced hillside fields and vegetable gardens.
One of these staircases had more than 4,000 steps–think four or five Empire State Buildings on top of one another. More of which to come.
The villages are agricultural in character, but they all have commerce now, thanks to the trekking trade. Restaurants feed the visitors, souvenir stands sell them stuff, and lodges put them up for the night–accommodations are "basic," with outdoor facilities, but tourists don't have to carry their own tents or food. To feed us trekkers, somebody from the village walked down the hill with an empty basket on his or her back and then walked back up again with a basket full of bottled water and other Western goodies. Nepalis don't use backpacks; they carry even the heaviest loads with the aid of straps across their foreheads.
At least one inn in every village is called Shangri-La. Rooms go for about 200 rupees–$3–a night.
After walking three days uphill from the nearest road, my sister and me, we reached Ghorepani, which as you can see is just one little valley over from the sacred mountain called Fishtail. We'd started out in subtropical rice-and-banana-growing country and climbed up into just-barely-spring-with-patches-of-snow-and-ice country.
I am blessed with a sister who can make this sort of thing happen, who can move Himalayas if necessary to get stuff done. If the arrangements had been left up to me, I'd probably still be sitting at home fretting over the possible significance of Nepal's time zone (15 minutes ahead of India). I really, really lucked out in my choice of a sister.
At 26,040 feet (8091 meters), the summit of Annapurna, tenth highest mountain in the world, is more than half a mile lower than the peak of Everest. Even so, Annapurna is the most dangerous mountain in the world to climb; only 153 climbers have ever made it to the top, and 58 have died trying.
Annapurna is a huge massif with five major peaks. Here, at left above the village of Ghandruk and its green fields of millet, is Annapurna South, elevation 23,684 feet (7219 meters). The spur to its right, known as Himchati, just under 23,000 feet high, was first climbed in the 1960s, by a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Nepal.
The name Annapurna is Sanskrit; a literal translation is "full of food," or "well-rounded." It is associated traditionally with the feminine form and with goddesses of the kitchen and the harvest, and more generally with Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth.
The rightmost mountain in the picture above is Machhapuchhare–Fishtail–sacred to the god Shiva and off-limits to climbers. It has never been summitted.
The village Ghandruk is a day's walk uphill from the nearest road, including a climb up a staircase containing–if the trail sign is to be believed–more than 8,000 stone steps. My sister struggled diligently to keep count but could neither confirm nor disprove the official number. I was much too winded to try anything as complicated as counting; all I could do was huff and puff and sweat and whine.
Ghandruk is a village of Ghurkas, the renowned warriors. Military service has entitled some of the Ghurkas to emigrate to Britain or to work in such far-flung places as Singapore, and it is said that the village's main source of income is remittances from abroad. One man told us his son was working as a policeman in Singapore; he also told us that in Ghandruk his son went by the name "Big Sexy."
A day's walk uphill from Ghandruk is a village called Tadapani, where Annapurna seemed much bigger and closer (below). The solar water heater on the roof of our inn was working fine, but there were way too many of us hoping for hot showers. We saw solar heaters and panels all over Nepal, even in places where poles and wires brought in power from the grid.
Also, everywhere we went, even in Kathmandu with its three million inhabitants, the practice of "load sharing" shut down the electricity every few hours. We were told that outages were according to schedule and that a schedule for the coming week could be read in the newspaper, but we never saw a schedule and were always caught by surprise.
That's my sister's boot toe and walking stick probing for the next step as she prepares to work her way down a mountainside in Nepal.
Nepali trekking trails, at least in the vegetated, more or less inhabited zones of the Himalayas, are mostly paved with stones, and the steep stretches are fashioned into endless rocky staircases. Donkeys can climb the staircases with ease, as can most Nepalis and probably even fit young Americans.
Building the staircases was part of the terracing project that has occupied Nepalese farmers for centuries. Rocks were pried up out of the soil and redeployed into retaining walls for thousands of tiny terraces, holding back the hillsides so that plows pulled by buffalo could work the land. Over the generations, as plows and hoes and hoofs and toes have continued to kick up rocks, farmers have built themselves stone houses and connected the houses to their fields with steep, stone-paved, stone-staircased trails.
Terraces and paved trails minimize soil erosion on steep slopes. Also, if the stones are cobbled together into stairsteps along the steepest stretches, the trails can head straight up and down without switchbacks, thus facilitating travel while minimizing the amount of land removed from cultivation.
On the other hand, straight up and down the stairs is . . . well, one elderly Nepali, who was scampering up the trail as we were struggling down, paused briefly to bless our knees.
One of the staircases we struggled up was said to contain more than 8,000 steps. My sister kept count, but irregularities in the size and shape of the steps led to uncertainty as to the exact number.
Every million billion steps or so there is a rest area, also built of stone, backed up by a stone wall with a low shelf. The shelf isn't actually low enough for sitting on, but it's about the right height for resting a backpack or other burden.
Below are three more pictures of stair-stepping in the Himalayas. The terraced fields look brown and barren, not because they have been abandoned but because we were traveling early in the springtime, before most crops had sprouted.
The last picture shows a rest stop in a village, with a trail that climbs onward and upward via the staircase at the extreme right of the scene.
The snowline has retreated most of the way up the hillside above the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula, and the well-tended campus lawns have turned seriously green.
Still, the sky sometimes spits snow, and the trees daren't yet display a hint of green. If on some afternoons the spring air is gentle enough to warm an upturned face, you can take it to the bank that a few minutes later the wind will stir and whip and sting, and push the people back indoors.
Trekkers come from literally all over the globe to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas from the top of Poon Hill. And then, as soon as the sun is bright enough, they all take pictures of each other.
We met trekkers from the Netherlands, Australia, Israel, France, Japan, Ireland, Germany, and probably some other countries I've forgotten. The group in the foreground here was from China.
Very few came from the United States. Americans generally don't have the vacation time or the "hillwalking" tradition shared by the Europeans. However, patterns of tourism are changing; in the resort city of Pokhara, which we visited after our trek, we met a tour group of senior citizens from New Jersey.
Rarely do we get to say good morning to the folks in one of these pictures while they are still there, where they are pictured, in real time.
Allen just sent this phoneshot of Hank stirring the embers at their campsite in the sandhills of western Nebraska. The boys are westward bound, crossing the country from Maine to Seattle via Colorado. Wednesday morning, they'll wake up here at the lake, break camp, and hit the highway, aiming straight for the Rocky Mountains.
Glenwood Green Acres sits hard by the railroad tracks in north Philadelphia, on a strip of land where abandoned warehouses burned down in 1984. Ninety-six families in the neighborhood till plots in this community garden; some of them work at it full time, selling their produce or giving it to the hungry.
Their crops include: collard greens, peppers, eggplant, squash, string beans, okra, blackberries, cotton, and tobacco. The southern character of what is grown reflects the southern roots of many people in the north Philly neighborhoods surrounding Glenwood. People like to grow what they grew up growing.
Room to garden in is hard to come by in most of Philadelphia, where row houses line the streets with little or no yard space. There are community gardens all over town–an estimated 400 active ones–but most are tiny, typically occupying just a few hundred square feet in a vacant lot that the gardeners don't own and can't protect from development.
Glenwood is huge by comparison: 3.5 acres. And it's owned by a citywide land trust and operated by a neighborhood organization. The garden is deeded as public green space forever.
The number of vacant lots in the city is thought to be well over 30,000, and most of them are derelict. But after twenty years of struggling to purchase and protect land for Philadelphia's community gardens, the trust now owns just 22 parcels totaling less than 10 acres.
Meanwhile, for what it's worth, in my little one-pot garden, I have a golf-ball-sized tomato, plus 4 flowers on the plant and more buds than I can count. I'm so optimistic I'm not fit to be around.
When I imagine a perfect Fourth, there would be water splashing in the afternoon, then hot dogs, watermelon, blueberry shortcake–or maybe boiled crabs, potato salad, corn on the cob–and finally sparklers and fireworks. In the air, at some point, there could be band music and lightning bugs and American flags.
And a little bocce would be very, very nice. I don't know the people in this picture, who claim that they went up and down the coast of California playing bocce all along the way; this scene is from their stop in Sonoma County. A whole road trip of bocce is excessive–there's something way too over-the-top-West-Coast about it–and the guy on the right does appear to be wearing his beer can on top of his hat.
But the guy on the left has perfect form: bocce ball in one hand, beer in the other. Happy Birthday, America!