The Journey of the Dead Man

“I 40 closed ahead. Seek local accommodations”.

This is not what you want to read on the interstate freeway sign. Nope. Especially not when you had planned to put in another hundred miles yet. Maybe it was a misprint? Surely they wouldn’t close a whole interstate freeway. Hm. Uh oh – there it is again and not a mile further. Well, the second time you read the same thing, there is unfortunately no denying it; face facts and exit. Not all was lost, though. There was a sign for my favorite el-cheapo hotel, the MicroTel, just on the right side of the road. Perhaps it was meant to be. Sigh.

After spending a whopping $52 (with tax) on my hotel for the night, I put in my earplugs, cozied up to my own pillow from home and hit the hay. That was fine for a while, but what to do the next morning? This is not a problem I have faced before. Evidently there is this thing called weather and it is responsible for all kinds of inconveniences. See, now, if you live in California, you put an umbrella in your car just in case. After that, you can safely ignore any additional weather concern. But we’re not in California anymore, are we Toto? Mere miles from my current locale, it was snowing, and heavily so. There were serious blizzards going through the mountains in New Mexico and the Texas plains. The weather line turned out to be as far south as Abilene. The only safe way around this severe winter storm was to turn right at Albuquerque and take the I-25 all the way south to Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas. That’s just steps away from the Mexican border and Juarez. It meant probably adding another 400 miles to my journey. But I didn’t have a choice. When the Interstate is closed, it’s serious. You’ve got to change your plans if you wish to continue.

Onward, then, into the New Mexico desert and the southland. I didn’t know much about this land as I’d never traveled south of Albuquerque but I was soon to learn that the road was built over what’s known as “La Jornada del Muerto”. For those of you rusty in Spanish, that’s journey or route of the dead man. Uh huh. Confidence inspiring, isn’t it?

It’s all desert once you pass the town of Socorro (Spanish for succor, which it provided to northbound men who’d made it that far). Called a xeric shrub zone by Wikipedia, it’s still uninhabited to the present day. Xeric seemed an understatement to me. It was rocks and dirt and creosote bushes as far as the eye could see for a long way. This is where the US detonated its first nuclear bomb, by the way, and I suppose I see why. They thought this land was as empty as it could get. In fact, it’s not, and there is more rodent and reptile life here than in all of Pennsylvania, they say. But you sure wouldn’t know it at first glance. According to an article in “The American Prospect”,,

The first American to survey these lands, John Russell Bartlett, described them in 1854 as an “unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless. … One becomes sickened and disgusted with the ever-recurring sameness of plain and mountain, plant and living thing.” A bookseller from New York with no formal education beyond high school, Bartlett traveled across the desert in a private coach, which he made into a bed at night. There, he found relief from the monotony of the landscape by reading Adolph Erman’s Travels in Siberia. Heading west from El Paso, Bartlett’s party lost its way in sandstorms, fought brushfire, and warded off hostile Indians. Bartlett himself was laid low with typhoid.

Talk about your negative reviews. Myself, I was tremendously relieved my car was reliable and that I had extra water. This place could kill you, fast, though it wouldn’t feel quick. It’s ninety miles through La Jornada. There are no springs, streams or reliable water holes. With temperatures soaring during the day and plummeting to well below freezing at night, most people unlucky enough to get lost here die of dehydration or hypothermia. A few hundred years ago, it’d have been the Apaches that would have finished you if the pitiless land didn’t. If that wasn’t enough, during Mexican times, the friars who ran the missions were quick to enforce the laws of the Inquisition. La Jornada is part of the (Spanish) King’s Highway that once ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

I first learned about the trail and the history of it at the rest stop. I noticed as I was driving that it looked bad outside, and I began to mentally inventory my water and gasoline. But having never been here, I didn’t know any more than my immediate sense of foreboding. I kept driving into the emptiness and wondering what on earth I’d stumbled upon. Eventually, there was something besides rocks, dirt and creosote: a building. I never saw a highway rest stop offer such temptation. Just the relief from the visual monotony was calming in itself. Still in its way, the Jornada is beautiful. It’s strong, stark, unforgiving and it goes on and on, without any care for you or your water-based weakness.

Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I saw a young dog, and he had no one to help him. I truly hope no one was cruel enough to abandon an animal here on purpose. Fortunately the little fellow was engaging and trying hard to make friends, and he got somewhere. Being highly allergic, I could not take him aboard, but another man did. As I was pulling out, I saw a man scoop the dog up, persuade the lady driving their SUV to go along with his plan, and they all got in the car together. I was forcibly reminded that in the Jornada, we have to help each other, because there is no quarter.

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It Might be Love

I am having an affair. It’s serious, I am head over heels and it’s got real potential. I think I’m in love with the National Park Service.

Had you going there, didn’t I? But really, I feel so uplifted – just wonderful. It’s hard to leave home and friends and family and move into a new part of the world. The National Park Service is making the journey easier, giving me something special and so nourishing to the spirit.

I couldn’t leave the American West without saying goodbye. That’s why I am driving across the country instead of flying to my new home. Flying just seemed too quick. First on my tour was the incomparable Big Sur coast of California. I think this is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I began my journey in a fine hotel on the edge of the west, and had lunch overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean. From there, I lingered and took my time along the way, stopping at the marked vista points and any other place that moved me. I spent the sunset on a stile in a cold sea breeze, saying goodbye to my ocean and the majesty of its coast.

From here, I soon had to turn east. Now, several years ago, I had to make an illegal left turn onto Market Street in downtown San Francisco, driving a manual transmission moving van at lunchtime on a weekday. That was, to date, my most challenging left turn. I think the left turn from the Pacific Coast Highway onto California route 46 eastbound was just as difficult. There wasn’t any traffic and I didn’t even have to slow down much for it, but it was hard. Rolling eastward into the night and into the future, paralleling and crisscrossing historic route 66, I kept on until I got to dusty Barstow around midnight.

The next day was filled with the Mojave National Preserve, and a whole lot of driving before and after. The preserve itself was otherworldly, almost Martian in its feel. The only place I’ve seen anything like it is in Morocco, on the way to the Sahara between Zagora and Erfoud, although they have far fewer plants and more rocks. The Mojave is unforgiving, beautiful and strange. The first thought I had was “wow, this is some incredible landscape.” My second thought was “you could get dead in a hurry in here.” I continued down the desolate main road for 28 miles until I got to the visitor center, an old train station house in the town of Kelso. Kelso was once a fair-sized depot for soldiers and materials during World War II, because the Vulcan mine was nearby. Back then the trains had to stop more often for fuel and the little town of Kelso was one of those places, in the Mojave. Now they have a nice visitor’s center and not much else. After an enjoyable but hot afternoon, I continued east. Soon I would be leaving my home state. I admit I had a little cry when I crossed the border of California.

Fortunately, the land in Arizona got pretty before long and I had a good distraction. I was on my way to the Grand Canyon national park. I had a special place reserved at the El Tovar lodge, literally a few feet from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I drove on, and on and on, and eventually reached the turnoff for the Canyon. An hour late, driving in the dark and in the snow, I arrived. The El Tovar is an old traveler’s haunt, established in 1905 when the railway first came to the Grand Canyon. The railway depot is right in the park, not too far from the canyon’s edge. The hotel is a bit of a throwback even though it’s obviously been recently renovated. It’s noisy and the service is not luxurious, but everyone is nice and they do try. The reason to stay there though is the fantastic location. In the morning, I walked out the hotel door and was steps away from the rim of the canyon. Pretty awesome location, eh? Unfortunately, it was 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside, even after 10 AM with the sun shining. Oy. The wind blowing up from the canyon was so cold it made my face hurt. I bravely soldiered on with my camera anyway. There were some brave hikers in their winter gear headed down the canyon, and I imagine that during the spring and summer months, it is a beautiful hike. I think the Grand Canyon is better seen from inside rather than from the top. I bet you could feel like you were part of that miraculous structure by walking in it, whereas from the top, there’s sort of a lot of vertigo and marvel but nothing more. Maybe someday I’ll go down into it, but not during winter! Finally I got so cold that it was time for some shopping in the Hopi House, where I bought a Zuni bear fetish carving. The bear is supposed to offer protection and strength – always a good idea. Sadly, I had a schedule to meet. It was time to leave the canyon. I went back down to Interstate 40 and drove a long way east.

As I checked my route for the day, I looked for National Parks, and I noticed the Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) was on my way. I thought if I had time, I might stop. Around 4:00 PM, I saw the brown road signs indicating the park. Good! It was still early enough, in that beautiful late afternoon light. The park was a 20 mile detour, I’d guess, and about an extra hour of time out of the car taking pictures, but wow, was it worth it. It reminded me somewhat of the Badlands up in South Dakota, and the scenery was raw and breathtaking. The Grand Canyon is amazing, and probably much better if you’re hiking it in spring rather than trying to see it from afar in winter, but for my money, I’ll take the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert any day. While I was in there, it started snowing and the temperature was a balmy 29 in the sun, but I didn’t care. I took my time and enjoyed it. The things you’ll do for love, eh? I leave you with many images of the western parklands, hoping you’ll appreciate my new beau.

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A Pirate Took my Bicycle, and other Scavenging Stories from The Move

I am moving to Maryland. Yup, all the way across the country! I got a new job. I am very excited about this: it’s in my original field of study (astrophysics and applied math) and it’s a chance to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. But it’s 3,000 miles away. So I am moving – me, my car, my stuff and my grandparents’ stuff. Uh oh. That’s a lot of stuff. I’ve got to get rid of some of this stuff!

I heard that the CraigsList “free” section was pretty good, and I’ve also noticed a lot of “free” signs at my neighbors’ curbs that seem effective. I called the city for a dumpster and found out that their cheapest, smallest one was $675. After I caught my breath, I decided to take my three free “cleanup” days instead and improvise the rest. A cleanup day means you, the resident, have an 8x4x4 foot space (about three twin-sized mattresses) to fill up with your junk. It cannot include any toxic chemicals, cans of paint, or anything that is more than 4 feet long, though mattresses are okay. After a few remodeling projects, I had more than enough to fill that up, a few times over. And I had lumber that had to be cut down or otherwise removed. My ex-husband and my stepson came by and we got to work on the garage clean up that was still on the “to do” list from our marriage – it’s been that long since the place was clean.

As the end of our busy day rolled around, we put a bunch of stuff out to the curb. Before you know it, a gnarled man in a rusting white Chevy truck came by to ask if the bicycle still worked. As I came closer to answer him, I noticed he had a grey frizzy beard, one eye that was going in another direction, and he had a large Amazon macaw parrot on his shoulder. Yeah, that’s right, a live parrot. I told the man yes and that the bike only needed new tires, so he asked if one of us would put it in the back of the truck. It has me wondering if the reason he asked was because his wooden peg leg was bothering him and he didn’t want to put weight on it. The evening got even weirder from there. I put out a “curb alert” posting with a couple of photos and my address on CraigsList. I went out to lock up the garage a little while later and interrupted a few people hauling off my stuff in the dark. By the following evening, most of the pile had gone away. Wow. I had to take the ad down because there were too many scavengers picking through what trash was left. The junk pile attracted other neighbors’ junk, including someone’s rusty cans of paint (oh thank you for leaving me to dispose of your illegal old paint). The pile grew and then contracted as trash day neared, but by the time the garbage men came, it was within the allotted size. I took nearly 20 gallons of old paint to the paint shop for recycling, including the rusty ones, gave the woodpile to the carpenter who fixed my mantel, CraigsListed a bunch of stuff for free and sold several pieces of furniture over the following weeks. Finally, after packing, painting and a lot of home repair, it was moving day.

If you have ever wondered what it might be like to work in a beehive, I think working in the house with the movers and the packers is a near facsimile. So much going on and lots of people busy in a small space. I was worried if I sat still, they’d put me in a box and put me on the truck! When the movers had loaded my stuff partly on board, one of the men invited me to have a look. I couldn’t identify a thing! It was all wrapped in blankets and the truck had no unpacked areas – these guys must rock at Tetris.

At the end of the day, after two hours spent taking apart and moving my rather large refrigerator, it was time to say goodbye to my little house. I spent 14 years there, trying to make a life for myself and my family, only to start all over again. But then, I suppose the universe opens a window when it closes a door. I was sad to leave, but it is all part of the greater adventure. And, after all, there is a cross-country drive ahead and fresh crab cakes at the end. So, away we go!

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Never Smile at a Crocodile

I had a neighbor once who spent his teenage years dealing cocaine and watching a man shot dead in the Everglades. After the shooting, he made a break for it, running for his life, and spent a few years namelessly following the Grateful Dead. That is not a story you easily forget. It came back to mind when I looked at my map of Florida’s national parks and noticed “Everglades”. I love nature and the fecund life force of the swamps appealed in January, but then I remembered my neighbor. Even so, I was still thinking about going. I know, I know…

I asked the guys at the car park whether it was a good idea. In their very limited English, they shook their heads hesitatingly and said “No, I think… no. You… no.” I could tell they didn’t want to discourage me, but at the same time, figured it was unlikely I would come back should I venture into Everglades National Park. It is, after all, huge. It’s one of the largest parks in the US, at nearly 1.5 million acres, according to the web site. And we already know it’s dangerous.

If a naïve white woman with a camera shouldn’t go into the Everglades, her only other choice is to see what’s safe nearby. Maybe that’d be good enough. And, hey, look – there’s an Alligator Farm just a few miles from the entrance to the park. And an orchid farm not too far away from there? Perfect! It took me a little more than an hour to drive down from Coconut Grove, but it was an enjoyable route and it was interesting to go down a gravel road that dead-ends in an Alligator Farm. I mean, how often does that happen, really?

The crocodile is not a reptile I am very familiar with, unless you count buying belts and handbags in foreign countries. Still, the live variety was new to me. I’d heard they were fairly harmless as babies, and the adults had a reputation for dragging people under and eating them, but otherwise, I had no information. Here’s what I learned at the alligator farm:

1) People usually get killed by alligators (and caymans and crocodiles) by making stupid mistakes. The primary mistake is assuming the alligator is not real, is a statue or a stone thing, and getting close enough to be in range, or even throwing things at it or touching it to wake it up. The reptile is then interested in eating us. The second big mistake we make is slightly less stupid: we don’t notice our surroundings or the hungry alligator, and then we panic once attacked, which means we tend to lose the ensuing fight.
2) Alligators don’t eat very often. They don’t need a meal that frequently. The alligator farm feeds about 1000 pounds of meat total to their 200+ alligators about once a month. Then daily, there are snacks for the motivated reptile in the form of “feeding time” for entertainment of tourists. This happens at 3:00, and I was there to see it.
3) Even behind a chain link fence, they are scary. I suspected this would be the case. I had it confirmed when one of them clawed with gusto at the fence in order to get to me. I was the only thing on the path, so I am sure I was the target. I am grateful for superior technology.
4) A swamp boat is only two feet off the water at best. An alligator can vertically leap out of the water to a height half the length of his body. They are more than four feet long. You are doing this math, right? I did not take the much-touted swamp boat tour.

After a wander around and then watching the feeding and learning a little about alligators, I had a look at the reptile house. They had anacondas, pythons, a king snake, and a few others. Only a couple of them were awake and moving much, but it was neat to see. I like snakes as long as they are not hungry or irritated. After the snakes, I had a look at the baby alligators (at various stages of growth), the tortoise, the cayman and a couple of other rare creatures, including an African Nile Crocodile. Then I spent some time photographing the many pretty tropical flowers in bloom, and I suppose that’s no surprise to you if you’ve been following my blog.

From there, it was on to the orchid nursery. They made a movie after a book called “The Orchid Thief”, some years ago. It had to do with the vast number of orchid species that are only found in the Everglades, some of them still uncataloged. The nursery was no disappointment, with many exotics for sale and a number of beauties in bloom. The sun was starting to go down so I hurried to catch what light I could use to photograph the flowers. I wished fervently that I had enough of a green thumb to buy some smaller bare-root plants and raise them. Of course, the State of California would have laws against such importation, so I didn’t try it. But I doubt I would have succeeded given my track record with rare plants. I’ve gotten an orchid to bloom more than once, but I suspect it was luck.

Finally, after all that time in the Florida sun, it was time to pack it in and get on back. After all, the parking guys might be worried. I leave you with a final thought from Peter Pan, and a few extra pictures from Keys.

Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never dip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away, say good-night, not good-day
Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile
You may very well be well bred
Lots of etiquette in your head
But there’s always some special case, time or place
To forget etiquette
For instance:
Never smile at a crocodile
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin
Never smile at a crocodile
Never dip your hat and stop to talk awhile
Never run, walk away, say good-night, not good-day
Clear the aisle but never smile at Mister Crocodile

–Lyrics from

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Magic City

Sometimes you need to start over. For me, anyway, this is that time. On New Year’s Eve, the last day of a terribly challenging year, I put myself on a red-eye flight out of California due to land at dawn in Miami, Florida. As far as I was concerned, I couldn’t fly east fast enough to meet the New Year. We crossed over into Mountain Time somewhere near midnight, so I am not sure if I missed the changing of the calendar to 2013. It was still dark when I landed, but the sky was getting grey and it was definitely dawning on a new day: January First. The sun was rising and I couldn’t wait.

On the more practical side, what to do when you arrive on New Year’s Day in the wee hours of the morning? Don’t bother going straight to your hotel because it’s bound to be fully booked with last night’s crowd. Instead of waiting in the lobby for several hours for check-in, I thought it might be wiser to take advantage of the early morning light in Florida. But where? Where the pros go: Crandon Park beach. Crandon Park used to be part of the largest coconut plantation in Florida, before the land was donated to Miami-Dade County in partial exchange for a causeway to connect Key Biscayne to the mainland. Speaking of which, the Rickenbacker Causeway is a beautiful stretch of road if you have the chance to take it.

When I landed, I had no idea what I would do. I knew I needed to go somewhere, but I just hadn’t managed to prepare. This isn’t like me, but as I said, it was a rough year. So I sat in the Hertz Rental Car parking lot searching my smartphone for a place to go. I found Crandon Park thanks to a new phone app named EveryTrail. It had a nice driving tour lined up for photographers with excellent advice for scenic places. The author even wrote about which specific parking lots to turn into depending on what you wanted to see. How nice! There was a time when you could never have gotten away with this lack of planning. You’d have had to ask other photographers, look at magazines or call the hotel and ask the concierge to ask around. If you hadn’t planned, well, all you’d have gotten would have been some shots of palm trees and the highway. Not anymore. It’s amazing to me how much the smartphone has changed things. I am so much more likely to get exactly what I need. It makes me more adventurous, more willing to try something new because I know what it’s about, what people thought of it, and how to get there – all at the touch of a button and done in less than twenty minutes. Really, it’s fantastic.

After a short drive and a couple of low-priced toll booths, I arrived at the beach. I felt a little silly in my black wool pants and my leather dress shoes, but since there was literally no one else there, I ignored the feeling and walked onto the sand with my camera. As I went, I noticed a lot of vultures in the park. Big, brown and ugly birds that flew away once I’d come within about 15 feet. There were some small white waterbirds as well, with long pink beaks, and also peacocks. When I went back to the car later, I noticed there were four male peacocks walking slowly in my direction, eating as they came. I tried to get some good pictures and they did let me get within about three feet, but they are hard to photograph as they are very long birds and they keep moving with no thought to posing. Still, it was fun to try. On the beach itself were coconut palms (lots of these), and the occasional broken coconut in the sand. The ocean was that lovely blue-green one finds near the Caribbean and there were cheerful yellow lifeguard stations all along the stretch of the shore. It was so beautiful and so peaceful. And it was empty; there was not another creature except the birds. There was only me and rays of glorious golden sun breaking through the clouds. The tranquility was exactly the reassurance of hope and grace that I wished for. What a wonderful beginning. My advice? If you must face the dawn of a new year alone, face it seaward in a southerly clime.

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Contention in Ireland: a Cathedral and a Gaol of Dublin

The thing about a Dublin church, it’s there to stay. No matter what you do to it, nobody forgets about it. The same place, over time, can be a church, or a cathedral, or sometimes even a ruin, but it somehow stubbornly remains the location of worship and community. Take for instance Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest mediæval cathedral in Dublin. It was wood, then it became stone. It was a priory, then a cathedral. It’s changed religion a couple of times. The place has fallen down more than once and been condemned, too. Doesn’t matter. It’s still Christ Church Cathedral.

The church, well, one version of it anyway, was built in 1038 by King Sitric Silkenbeard, the Viking King of Dublin. It’s been the seat of the archbishop of Dublin (initially Roman Catholic, then Church of Ireland) since its early days. It also contains the largest cathedral crypt in Britain or Ireland. History records a lot of back-and-forth between it and St. Patrick’s cathedral regarding which is premier or whose is the seat of the local big-wig. When St. Patrick’s was formally suppressed by the English King Edward VI, her silver, jewels, goods and chattels were commanded to Christ Church’s care.

Suppress a church you say? Yes, I did, and I didn’t know you could do that either. I’m learning new things every day in this country. Especially during the English reign of the country, there seemed to be a lot of politics to do with churches in Ireland. There are the Roman Catholics, the Church of Ireland, Church of England – it boggles the mind how much rebellion and religion have mixed together here. Even James Joyce wrote, “We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!” I can’t even pretend to understand it all, or to have anything educated to say about it. But it begins to make sense why there was so much resentment against the English when you think about having your church arbitrarily demoted, or even taken away. And it helps explain the American founders’ design for separating church and state. Imagine what it might be like living under a ruler who could strip your church and shut its doors because he was irritated by your city.

Fortunately, the Irish are nothing if not resilient. The church’s official status was not the final word: they were still going to use the edifice as they needed it. Christ Church Cathedral came and went and came again as a named cathedral, but always it was a place of baptisms, funerals, weddings, fellowship, recordings and the swearing of oaths. It fell down and was built again, it fell into great disrepair and was extensively renovated, always remaining a servant of its people. A champion of improving Christ Church was the great hero Strongbow; he is buried here. Mind you, Strongbow (aka Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke) is not a hero of the Irish, but rather of the English. You see, it was Strongbow’s army that gained the first English foothold in Ireland, including conquering the Viking city of Dublin (yes, that’s right, Dublin was originally founded by my Norwegian ancestors). It was Dermot MacMurrough, the Gaelic king of Leinster, who in the 12th century, after losing his kingdom in a war with another Irish king, solicited the help of English King Henry II. Since Strongbow needed to regain the king’s favor, he carefully got royal permission to bring an army to Ireland and “help” king MacMurrough. After Strongbow’s army successfully regained the MacMurrough’s lost territory, Strongbow personally held that territory by marrying MacMurrough’s daughter as per his private bargain with the Irish king. Thus was the Norman/English toehold gained in Ireland, making MacMurrough forever reviled in history books as the man who sold Ireland for personal gain. Evidently once you let the English and their army near your country, it’s all downhill.

But getting back to Strongbow’s tomb in Christ Church. The cathedral since its inception was a central place for recordkeeping and civic matters, and if you were making a deal, over Strongbow’s tomb was where your final word would be given. In fact, this oath-taking was such a binding ritual that when the original tomb was damaged by the cathedral’s roof falling in, another effigy had to be built so that the oaths could continue! There is a rumor that Strongbow is no longer buried here and was re-interred in Ferns, but I think he’s still here – at least in spirit!

I enjoyed the cathedral. It had a nice, airy feeling inside, and yet it was distinctly Irish with its cheery tile floors and its pillars adorned with clover carvings. It was a place you could feel cozy and comforted, a place of family services and heartfelt prayers. At first I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to take the time to go in, but I am very happy that I did. I lit a candle for a sick friend, sat and reflected quietly, and was comforted by the steady warmth I found in the church.

Later that day, I moved on to a less comforting Irish monument: Kilmainham Gaol. It was an important site to see, but hardly pleasant. Kilmainham was originally designed to be a modern, reformed prison. It was meant to encourage people to better themselves rather than throwing them into a stinky, overcrowded, disease-ridden pit. People actually were intended to have a place for quiet reflection and reformation. This was a different idea than the previous practice of simply killing time in anarchy and filth. However, all of this fine theory didn’t quite come to reality. Even children were sent here for the slightest of crimes (the youngest prisoner recorded in Kilmainham was five years old), and you could be sent to prison for several weeks simply for knocking loudly on the wrong door in the wee hours, so Kilmainham was pretty crowded. The building itself was put together badly, too, so conditions were wet, filthy and miserable after all. During the famine, things got so bad that people contrived to be put *into* the gaol so they would at least perhaps not starve to death. During the Irish rebellions, it was here that many of the important political figures of the day were quickly executed in the yard, with only the barest nod to due process of law. Even now, a flag and a plaque recognize the many heroes who died at Kilmainham.

An important hero of the Irish Rebellion (one of seven separate rebellions over the years), executed at Kilmainham, was Mr. Robert Emmet. His statue stands in Washington D.C. and in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for his patriotism. On Monday, 19 September 1803, in Dublin, Robert Emmet was tried for high treason by a British Court after his rebellion failed. He was convicted and when asked what he had to say for himself, he had plenty. His indictment is recorded in “From the Dock”. Here’s a piece of it, courtesy of

“Let no man dare, when I am dead, to charge me with dishonour; let no man attaint my memory by believing that I could have engaged in any cause but that of my country’s liberty and independence; or that I could have become the pliant minion of power in the oppression and misery of my countrymen. The proclamation of the Provisional Government [of Ireland] speaks for my views; no inference can be tortured from it to countenance barbarity or debasement at home, or subjection, humiliation, or treachery from abroad. I would not have submitted to a foreign oppressor, for the same reason that I would resist the domestic tyrant. In the dignity of freedom, I would have fought upon the threshold of my country, and its enemy should only enter by passing over my lifeless corpse.”

The passion of home rule for Ireland by the Irish has never ceased. The Troubles continued even until my generation. Thankfully, nowadays Ireland has a peace settlement with her neighbors and seems to be in a state of economic health, despite the setbacks of late. It is a friendly place for businesses and immigrants, and the people are getting by. At the bottom of it all, isn’t that what we each want: happiness, a little industry and a warm home? Add a song and some ale to that, and you might well be in Dublin.

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All Hallows’ Eve in Land of the Druids

Here I was, in Ireland on Halloween. You cannot stay alone in your hotel room on a night like this, no matter how cold it is outside. It was below freezing, but come *on*. I knew I’d need to do some advance planning or I’d probably give up and stay inside. So plan I did: enter the Historical Walking Tour of Haunted Dublin. Ticket for one, please. It had potential: city of Celts founded by Vikings, sentimental inhabitants who love storytelling, and a long history of poverty and suffering. How could there not be ghosts, or at least fantastic ghost stories?

Daylight was spent walking around the shopping district, looking at Irish crafts and seeing some of the town. Come evening, it was time for something a little darker. I put on my long underwear and every other warm thing I had and made my way to City Hall. There were about 40 people waiting there for our tour to begin. Our tour guide was a young lady with a flair for the dramatic and a voice to match. As you may know, I am a trained scientist, so I don’t particularly believe in ghosts or the finding of the paranormal. On the other hand, there’s a lot about the world that we don’t fully understand. Years ago, I spent a summer on the night shift alone in a funeral home (yes, really, I did have a job with the dead). After working in a mortuary, I have come to understand that I personally don’t know all there is know to about death and an afterlife. That said, while I thought it unlikely I’d feel anything spooky, the historical aspect of the tour appealed. And hey, it was a fun thing to do on Halloween night.

I learned a bit about old Dublin, particularly life in the 1700s under British Rule. Talk about unpleasant. To say the least, times were hard, and the disparity between the rich and the poor was wide and deep. This sort of gulf lends itself to desperation and the crimes that follow, and that leads to ghost stories.

A gentler story is about Jonathon Swift, once the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He is well-known for his tale Gulliver’s Travels and the satirical A Modest Proposal (wherein the author suggested that the poor sell their children as food stock), and he’s considered an Irish patriot. In life he would always leave a coin with a beggar en route between St. Patrick’s cathedral and Christ Church, a path he walked every day. While it did increase the number of hopeful beggars along that route, it never discouraged Mr. Swift in his kindness to the poor. They say nowadays that sometimes, a beggar on Jonathan’s route will wake up with a strange old coin in his hand. Unfortunately along that same alleyway, there were once many prostitutes. It was a desperate time for women as well as men, and it seems that the world’s oldest profession was practiced in spades in old Dublin. They say that even now you can hear the misery of the alley’s ghosts – all ladies of the evening who got more than they bargained for.

As is often the consequence of prostitution and poverty, there were many orphaned babies and children in Dublin. Sadly, the stairs and alleyways of St. Auden’s church were a well-known place to leave children that had no one to care for them. It was so bad that the church staff needed to check two to three times a day for little ones left alone. They say it’s still haunted by a few youngsters who died on the stairs, but they are hardly the worst of the ghosts of St. Auden’s. Evidently the ghost of Darkey Kelly is the real tale to tell. Ms. Kelly was the madam of a successful brothel known as the Maiden’s Tower, and a wealthy woman in a position of some influence. She swore celibacy once she’d gotten out of prostitution herself (and moved on to pandering), but that did not last long. She took up with a married man in a powerful position, and before long, found herself pregnant. Once it became clear that Darkey expected support for the child from its father, well, he decided that something had to be done. Ms. Kelly had long been the subject of gossip and envy, and in the end, it was her downfall. The father of the child stoked up some rumors and the next thing you know, a posse was formed and justice was immediate. Darkey Kelly was dragged from her place of business, accused of witchcraft, hanged and if that wasn’t enough, taken down and burned to death at the old city gate entry to St. Auden’s. Whether she died pregnant or delivered before her murder is unknown. They say her ghost still haunts the gate at St. Auden’s. And I must admit it was creepy in there, even before we heard the story.

There’s also the goddess that still lays claim to the upper courtyard of St. Auden’s above the steps, in the trees. And if that isn’t enough haunting at the church, the entire present day “picnic ground” is really the old potter’s field of graves. I am afraid nothing went unused in a city this old; every square inch has been put into service at some point or another.

We ended our tour near Christ Church cathedral, home of the largest crypt in Ireland and Great Britain. It was dark and cold but I was brave enough to walk a few blocks for a taxi. Of course, I wasn’t alone. There were plenty of people in costume to keep me company. They were white and shivering, but I am sure they were all alive and well…

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The Way to Dublin

Land Sick: What happens when you’ve sat in the same place for too long.  Typically characterized by squirrelly and restless behavior.  Often accompanied by feeling of days running together and lack of productivity. 

I include this definition because maybe you haven’t heard it, and it’s relevant to today’s post.  As you can see from the quietude here at my blog, I’ve been staying home.   It’s overrated, and it’s made me land-sick.  Right then, time to get out of town!  Where to this time?  Ireland.  But before I can tell you about Ireland, I have just got to tell you about the trip over.  I couldn’t make this stuff up. 

What follows is an awkward tale of people-watching, and  Brits behaving badly.  Usually it’s the Americans making all the trouble, but not in today’s story (unless maybe you count me)!  It all started on a British Airways/American Airways code-share flight.  Thanks to poor computer communications between the two airlines, I could not check in until I got to the airport.  Therefore, I had a middle seat the whole way to London.  Oh boy.  Not exactly a great start.  Next to me on either side were two men who were of reasonable size and hygiene, luckily.  But in front of us were a couple who were loud, rude, argumentative (found this out first hand), lusty and probably alcoholics.  The rows of seats were really close together, and almost immediately after take-off, the woman (seated in the window seat, in front of the man to my left) decided to go into full recline.  Strangely, she was sitting far forward and not using any of the space she’d taken up, instead simply putting my neighbor into misery.  Me being me, I decided something should be done.  Cue the music, the poop is about to hit the fan.   

When I asked her to put her seat forward a bit so my neighbor could eat, she exploded.  Oh dear.  But I stood my ground and said that we had over nine more hours together and we needed to work it out.  She continued to be belligerent and so did her boyfriend.  Mostly they yelled at the gentle Swiss Balinese man next to me – he hadn’t said a word!  I interrupted and insisted they take it up with me since it was my idea to say something.  They got less brave at that point, since I am a bit scarier.  Eventually, after more persistence, I found out she had terrible back problems and was allergic to medication, and was trying to put some physical distance between her and the person behind her.  This finally enabled my neighbor to understand the problem and get his personal space returned, and hopefully the woman was in less pain since the nudging desisted.  Overall, the argument seemed worth it for a ten hour flight, and my neighbor was able to physically eat his dinner thanks to the seat movement, but still, it was hard won and created  tension.  My neighbor and I went on to have a nice conversation about Indonesia and politics.  Mostly though, we enjoyed some guilty pleasure at the stupidity and complete tackiness of the people in front of us.  Because the flight got more interesting as time wore on.  

The woman’s back problem grew puzzling because we could see that she was contorting in all kinds of ways for the man.  How could she maintain such positions and still have a bad back?  Specifically, we saw her stocking feet up in the air above the headrests and his body clearly over on her side of the seat.  Her badly bleached hair was spilling down the side of the window seat armrest, and there was some evidence of slow gyrations.  We began to wonder if perhaps a child was being conceived.  When they were in the aisle (together, of course) they could not keep their hands off each other.  They did take a break to argue loudly about his wife (!!!) who did not seem to be present.  Oh my, oh my.  I suspect they would have been quieter had they not been so drunk, but who knows?  The empty mini-wine bottles eventually began to roll back down the floor of the aircraft in a steady stream.  The stewards were taking their time about delivering more booze to the couple, and were reluctant to sell them bottles of whiskey from the duty-free sales trolley.  No apparent reservations about the big box of cigarettes, though.  By the time dinner service was over, the woman was so drunk she couldn’t figure out how to turn on and off the light, or how to call for the flight attendant, so she took to pushing the light bulb overhead repeatedly and eventually asking anyone who’d listen to buzz the attendant.  I was so tempted to mess with her.  The real problem was that the armrest control was unavailable since they’d raised the armrest between them (for that baby-making mentioned earlier).  The controls were right in front of me, as it happened.  I totally wanted to push the light bulb control to mess with her as she pushed on the light bulb overhead.  Then I could maybe turn it off again, just to make her wonder what was happening.  But it would have been like poking a wasp’s nest.  I restrained myself with difficulty.  A little while later, the two of them were sleeping like the dead. At a time like this, what does one do? Break out the Sharpie markers? Shave off eyebrows? As adults, we’re no longer allowed these juvenile pranks. I know, I know – our plucky heroine should triumph over the obnoxious drunks. But no. I am afraid there is no satisfying climax to the story; the rest of us behaved in a genteel fashion. The woman in the seat next to them had her sleep mask on the whole way, and who could blame her?  What a show. I haven’t had a flight like this in years.

Once off the plane in Heathrow, having carefully put some distance between me and the crazy people, there were busses to take and queues to stand in.  I was very sleepy and a little punchy, having had no sleep in that middle seat, but I wasn’t in Ireland yet, so I had to stay upright and keep moving.  Eventually, I got to the correct gate area, and it was old, run down, and looked like a different airport than the rest of Heathrow: smaller, dirtier and closed in.  Then, perhaps in remembrance of the Irish Republican Army, I went through personal inquiry, biometric inspection, and X-ray security, all twice, with lots of direct questions and a hand inspection of my luggage and its contents.  Even on the way out of the Dublin airport, customs wanted to talk to me.  Everyone seemed concerned that I was arriving alone and found that rather odd.  Maybe middle aged women don’t travel by themselves in the UK or Ireland?  I don’t know.  But the Irish immigration lady was great, and I got a big green stamp in my passport.  The taxi driver was a chatty fellow and we got on beautifully.  For the first time ever, I was in the company of people more talkative than me.  It was a taste of things to come in Ireland and a warm, welcoming feeling.  It might not have been easy to get to, but it was worth the effort. 

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Remember the Alamo

On hearing that expression, a lot of non-Texans think, “Huh? Why?” Not having had that much education in history, I wondered the same. I mean, I knew there was one hell of a fight in Texas somewhere along in their revolution for independence, at someplace called “the Alamo”, but I really didn’t know any more than that. I presumed the Alamo was some large battlefield plain, sort of like the ones you visit in Pennsylvania or the Carolinas that were host to Civil War battles. I didn’t think it’d be a small mission in the center of town! After many years of ignorance, I learned why the battle mattered. And I think you should know too, at least a little bit, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Here’s what I found out. There was once a Spanish church compound originally named Misión San Antonio de Valero that had fallen into some disrepair and disuse. Eventually the Mexican army stationed some cavalry there and the place became known as the Alamo. There was a barracks in place for many years, as it had stone walls and was the only real fort-like structure in the area. During the Mexican war for independence, it was taken and retaken by opposing forces. After gaining independence from Spain, prosperity reigned and Texas was opened to all for immigration, especially to US citizens. But sometime in the 1830s the Mexican military “temporarily” took over Mexico (and therefore the Mexican state of Texas) until a new constitution could be written. Uh huh, yeah, sure. Texans believed this takeover was against democracy, against the rule of law and it was uncertain whether civilian democracy would ever be restored to their land. Things had gotten ugly and for some, it was clearly time to fight or live under tyranny. But for a lot of people, just trying to make a living and feed their families, a need for bloody rebellion was an ugly thing to accept. People were ambivalent. Eventually when some rebel Texans fought for independence, the Alamo was taken by the rebels and the Mexican army was forced out. Well, the army wasn’t going to take rebellion lying down (no surprise here) and regrouped to re-take the Alamo and punish those who had affronted them. On February 23, 1836, the Mexican forces, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, attacked the Alamo, with further troop reinforcements on the way. The insurgent Texans held out for 13 days against Santa Anna’s army, but they knew they were in deep trouble and up against superior forces (especially knowing that the enemy had more men coming). William B. Travis, the commander of the Alamo sent forth couriers carrying his earnest and beautifully written plea for help: specifically, reinforcements. If the strategic position of the Alamo was allowed to fall back into Mexican hands, it would be a terrible setback for Texan independence – maybe an unrecoverable setback. He also knew if they didn’t get reinforcements, they weren’t likely to survive. Here’s Travis’ letter, one that was later reprinted in newspapers across the United States and Europe:

Fby. 24th 1836
To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world—
Fellow citizens & compatriots—
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a Surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the wall — I shall never Surrender or retreat
Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt

A week later, after receiving Travis’ plea for help, a mere thirty two soldiers from Gonzales would slip through the Mexican lines arriving safely to the Alamo. This made for about 200 guys to defend a low stone fort against thousands of armed soldiers. Not exactly good odds, and Travis knew it. He knew they were likely to die at this fort if they would not surrender, and he was honest about it with the men. He drew a line in the dirt with his sword, said that anyone willing to continue the fight should step over it. They all did but one. Predictably, death followed at the Alamo. A few women, young children and slaves survived the aftermath when Santa Anna eventually took the fort, but mostly the Mexican Army put everyone to death. Some of the men who died at the Alamo were already heroes, including James Bowie and Davy Crockett. Their bravery in the face of certain death moved the people of Texas and indeed the western world. The battle at the Alamo galvanized public opinion and became a rallying cry; it was the event that united Texas against Mexico and became a symbol of the cost of freedom. The Alamo is remembered as “a heroic struggle against impossible odds — a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.” For decades, the Alamo has been quite effectively preserved by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas – the quote is from their web site,

Weighty stuff, eh? You can see how the people of Texas would take this site very seriously, to the point where it is considered a shrine. The site itself is very well-presented but does not allow photography (bummer!). You get a good feel for the history of the place and for Texas in general, and I enjoyed it. I happened to be there at Davy Crockett’s birthday and there was a *huge* party that night in town despite a big thunderstorm. The fine hospitality of San Antonio continued to display itself all day. For example, there’s a courthouse and post office building next to the Alamo that had recently been restored and I was given the chance to have a look around it and take some pictures. You may recall that in a couple of situations when I have photographed a courthouse, there’s been a suspicious inquiry afterwards. Not this time – in fact, there was a kind invitation to come on in and look around since the restoration work was so pretty. Now that’s a welcome. And that’s Texas.

Sometimes I hear from my Texan friend that we in California are a bit self-centered and rude. I never really thought so until I went to San Antonio. But now, I think I see his point. After the proper reception I experienced, California seems an inconsiderate place. On the other hand, those Texans have an ornery side: In 1982 while wearing his future wife Sharon’s dress, Ozzy Osbourne drunkenly urinated on a cenotaph erected in honor of those who died at the Alamo, across the street from the actual site. A police officer arrested him, and Osbourne was subsequently banned from the city of San Antonio for a decade. Eventually, he apologized, donated $10,000 to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and was granted forgiveness. Don’t mess with Texas, eh? Still, I liked San Antonio and I hope to visit again. If you get there, check out the Alamo –it’s worth your time.

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The Great State of Texas: Cotton Fields, Pecans and Barbecue

It’s not like me to run through the airport, but it’s been happening more and more. Moving fast with luggage is an emerging theme. First Norway, now Dallas. We’re not even going to discuss that train station in Paris. No way. Now, as an American Airlines hub, Dallas hosts a lot of connections and there’s a strange ring-like train on the outside of all the gates to get you around, but it only boards at a few places. My experience with the Dallas airport train was years ago, and I remembered it was not very good. Since I look askance at unknown transport, particularly when I’m in a hurry, I trusted my feet. Bad idea. To make matters worse, at the last minute they moved our gate about ten gates further away from my next connection. Man. By the time I got to the next plane, with a whole 10 minutes to spare before they closed the door, I was blown, sweating, my arch was killing me, and I could barely remember where I’d put my boarding pass. It was a first class ticket too, but could I manage to look cool, organized and professional? Of course not. That was too much to hope for. Hardly the glamorous and auspicious beginning I’d planned, but lately, that’s been the way of it. I learned later that they’d updated the train to a fast and efficient model. Perfect…

My final destination was San Antonio, Texas. I’d never been here before, and I liked it. People are generally nice and polite all over Texas. Of course, this is a visitor’s perspective and I don’t know what it’s like if you’re not a white lady with no obvious regional accent. You’d have to live in a place to find out that sort of thing. However, I can report that not once have I been required to lift my own suitcase in this great state, nor has anyone been even slightly less than considerate to me, even on the highway in seven hours’ driving. I think that’s pretty neat. There’s something about the Midwest, a conversational pause if you will, where there’s just a half a second extra left for courtesy, kindness, or a chance for help (either giving or receiving). It’s all over the middle of America and it’s something we tend to rush past in California. We might want to rethink the rush. As they say, it’s nice to be nice.

You might be wondering why I flew to San Antonio to then be driving seven hours. Me too. You see, I had to go to Houston and I didn’t realize just how far it would be. Things are bigger in Texas. And further away. My oldest boy had been staying with a friend in Houston, he had to move in a hurry, and he left a bunch of things. Since I was going to be in Texas anyway, I thought I’d stop in, pick the stuff up and ship it home. I didn’t fully understand it would take all day. But he’s worth it and it was a cool little adventure. I plotted out my route, checked the Internet for fun things to do along the way, located the UPS store and got on the road bright and early. And then I stayed on the road. And stayed some more – until I got to the outskirts of Houston. “Finally,” I thought, “I’m here!”. Nope. I still had to get to the other end of town. That took 30 more minutes (!). Houston, like everything else in Texas, is kinda big. After stowing his boxes in the trunk, I was happily on my way to the Cockrell Butterfly Park in the Natural History Museum. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I try not to miss a good bird or butterfly park , but I had not counted on how cool this museum would be. They had an IMAX theater, all kinds of fun things for the kids to do in the lobby, and even a little McDonalds restaurant inside, in addition to some great exhibits and the butterflies. Everything was so well-presented that I didn’t hear one kid complaining. In August with hundreds of children roaming around me, there was not one complaint. My Texan friend later told me that good behavior is expected from kids, and that there was capital punishment still in force at his elementary school. Hmmm. The butterfly park had lots of beautiful North American specimens, including one very strange large insect and an orange iguana the size of a medium dog. See the pictures below.

All good road trips need to be punctuated with quirky stops, so after a soft-serve cone at McDonalds (hey, it was 100 degrees outside), I got into the oven – err, car –shipped my boxes and headed for the Pecan Shack outside of town. Pecans are big here. I noticed that in Texas towns there always seems to be a Pecan Street not far from Main Street, Mary Street, Travis Street, Houston Street, Austin Street and Commerce Street. Most places in the US have First and Second streets, but Texas has other names for its primary avenues, with pecans getting pride of place. I’d seen the large yellow Pecan billboard on the way into Houston and resolved to check it out later. There were several meat and sausage shop billboards, too, but that would have required shipping and/or refrigeration. Mind you, in farm country like this, the meat is usually delicious. Speaking of delicious, the pecan people were ready for first-timers like me. They had my number all right: warm, sugar-coated nuts. Resistance was futile. I bought the cinnamon sugar ones almost immediately. I was tempted to ask if they’d ship a large pecan package for me, which meant it was time to get out of there while I still could. Safely in the car, my food odyssey continued in the city of Lockhart, Texas. It meant another hour or so of driving, but yum, what a detour. Lockhart’s city politicians voted to name their town the BBQ capitol of Texas due to all the outstanding restaurants, shacks and grocery establishments dedicated to the Big Smoke. A lot of the great barbecue in the southern US is sold by the pound, sort of deli-style, from grocery stores. Lockhart’s no exception, though some places have dropped the dry goods, put in picnic tables and serve side dishes. After an hour’s research on the blog-o-sphere I decided on Black’s barbecue, the oldest family-owned restaurant in Texas. Oh my Lord. It is possible that this is the best $10 meal I have ever had. I tried a little of the moist beef brisket (fatty, but totally rendered fat), the turkey and their original sausage, along with coleslaw, baked beans, green beans, devilled eggs and corn pudding. They had barbecue sauce at the table and sodas on tap, though I think they call it “pop” here. On the table were industrial sized rolls of brown paper toweling in case you were having ribs – your choice of beef or pork. My turkey was moist and flavorful all the way through, the sausage was peppery and uniquely good, and the brisket was a melting little slice of deliciousness. I was pleasantly surprised by the perfectly cooked green beans. Given that the reputation here is the meat, I was impressed by how tasty all the side dishes were. Clearly these folks take pride in their food. After dinner, I walked around the old part of town for a few minutes, learning that it was the county seat and photographing the pretty court building. It was still so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk, so I didn’t linger.

A scant hour later, after passing a few cotton fields on the back roads and several mega-churches along the highway, I was back in San Antonio. I climbed into the fine bed at the lovely Hotel Valencia, edited my photographs, and called it a night. Tomorrow, the Alamo!

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