Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Rich and Insipid Traveler

Mostly to feed our fantasies, I guess, a few years ago a friend who thought we should travel more sent our names to a travel company called R. Crusoe & Son. Several times a year, we get the R. Crusoe catalogs. Once or twice I’ve perused them seriously–one time they had an off-beat cruise that started in Chicago and went out through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence to Newfoundland and then on to Greenland. One of the stops on the tour was L’Anse aux Meadows, the single site in North America where physical evidence has turned up of a Viking settlement. Something about that appealed to me. But we’re talking luxury travel here, inviting people to drop five or maybe even six figures on a trip. When the time comes, I’ll get to Newfoundland for a lot less than that.

Sometime in the last few days, we got the latest R. Crusoe catalog. In format, in style, and substance, they look and read like J. Peterman gone into the travel business. Mostly the results are innocuous. A description of an upcoming trip through China includes these highlights: “Enroll in Shaanxi Normal University for a morning discussion with students. Hear their hopes for the future. … Don’t blush when we view the lesser-known Han Dynasty naked warriors. Emperor Jingdi died in 141 B.C., but he left behind earthenware figurines dressed in silk. The clothing didn’t survive, but the troops are exquisite au naturel.” (Italics Crusoe’s, throughout.)

One of the trips in the brochure goes through Southeast Asia. Vietnam, Cambodia, and other places we Americans have left our mark. The pamphlet acknowledges that we’ve got some history in that part of the world, and the tour will visit war sites. But the past is acknowledged in a bland, chatty, empty — insipid — way that makes you wonder whether the purpose of visiting the region is to remember what happened there or forget about it. Here’s the bulk of the description, which I swear is presented in context:

Begin in Hanoi, which blasts any old associations of the Vietnam War. The 21st century city is a rich stew of influences–Asian and French colonial brand-new and Old Quarter. Our investigation goes forward as it should, by the leisurely pace of a rickshaw.

To Ho Chi Minh’s old haunts. Then poke around in the past with a researcher at the Museum of Ethnology. … See the Hanoi Hilton, where downed American pilots spent more time than they would have liked. …

Emperor Gia Long founded Hue as his dynasty’s first capital. He even created his very own Forbidden City, part of the imperial citadel. Have a look before retooling your sense of romance at dusk aboard a private sampan on the Perfume River. Also here: seven tombs for seven emperors. …

Once Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City sizzles. Its War Remnants Museum presents us with an eye-opening version of the “American War.” Passing the U.S. Consulate, experience a flood of memories–the chopper on the roof evacuating the last Americans.

Over cocktails and dinner, an economics professor brings us up to speed on Vietnam.

Burrow underground in the Cu Chi Tunnels, the very ones that helped change Southeast Asian history for good.

Then Cambodia. Somerset Maugham arrived in 1930 on a languid journey. Jackie O dropped by, too. Like them, we see the country’s light and dark sides.

Touch down in Phnom Penh to dabble in local history at the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda (featured in Architectural Digest). Treasures collected from across Cambodia await in the National Museum.

Cruise the poetic Mekong River at sunset on a private boat.

Those who want a deeper understanding of the unspeakable horror of the Khmer Rouge can take an option drive to the Killing Fields and visit Tuol Sleng Prison.

Consider today’s Cambodia over lunch with a journalist at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. …

Our trip winds down with some options: Enjoy a cruise on Southeast Asia’s largest lake, with a stop to see creations of artists disabled by exploded land mines. Instead, head for the finely-carved temple of Banteay Srei. Or get a view of Angkor on a helicopter ride over the complex. …”

That last “instead” is a stunner. It’s as if the person writing the copy suddenly thought, “Amputees?! Get me out of here, Mr. Wizard!” For eight thousand or ten thousand bucks, depending on whether you’re sharing a room on this 17-day extravaganza, a quick extraction from reality is the least you ought to be able expect.

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More Smoke

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Around the Bay tonight–my part of the Bay, anyway, San Francisco, Berkeley and environs–it looks like we’ve gotten a little break from the smoke. It was cloudy at dusk, and you could actually tell there were clouds in the sky instead of it being a big flat mass of gauze. Out in the Central Valley, and particularly north, in the Sacramento Valley, the smoke is a real issue. The air is so full of particulates–fine, fine ash ejected from the fires burning in every direction–that it’s rated “very unhealthful” to “hazardous” to breathe (for anyone, not just people who have higher health risks because of heart and lung conditions). Hospitals and medical equipment suppliers gave away as many as 2,400 respirator masks in Redding and Chico. The number of fires said to be burning in California tonight: abour 1,200. The National Weather Service says that the mountains in Northern California may have another spate of dry lightning storms over the weekend.

But California being California, we like to share. The image above (click for larger version) is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fire Detection Program page. The red dots are hot spots detected by NOAA satellites. The gray areas are smoke plumes. Here’s a snippet of the text that goes with the image:

California:

Several large wildfires and numerous smaller wildfires in northern

California continue to emit large amounts of moderately dense to dense

smoke which covers much of California, north of 35N, and extends to the

west over the Pacific Ocean.

Central US:

Light smoke remnant from the California fires … can

be seen extending across much of the central United States. States over

which the light smoke can be seen include: central Nevada, northern

Utah, southern Wyoming, northern Colorado, southern Nebraska, most of

Kansas and western Missouri.

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The Smoke of Ought-Eight

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Firefighting agencies say there are over 1,000 wildfires burning in California right now. About 800 of them started last Saturday and Sunday as dry thunderstorms swept over the northern two-thirds of the state. We’re a long way from any fires here. There’s a big one burning about 125 miles north of us, near Clear Lake, and two very large blazes in the mountains that rise up from the Big Sur coast–maybe 150 miles south-southwest of here. Still, the smoke is everywhere. Morning, noon, and evening, the sun shines with a filtered light, and the acrid smell of scorched brush hangs in the air. The picture above is out in front of our house at 7 a.m., after the sun had been up nearly two hours. I’ve been here long enough that I can spin graybeard yarns, but still it’s true: There’s been nothing quite like this here–this pall of smoke that just hangs here day after day–in the 30-some years I’ve lived here.

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California Fires

Just briefly: I flew home from Portland today. As soon as we crossed into California, smoke became visible from the scores or hundreds of fires ignited by lightning over the weekend. I managed to roughly match three images I took from my flight to three satellite images of the same general region shot yesterday by NASA. I’ll try to refine later, but the sight of all the smoke–so much that everything here in the Bay Area reeks of it–was truly stunning.

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Mount Tabor

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In Portland on Monday evening, Pete took me on a favorite walk from his place in northeast Portland, up to Mount Tabor (two or maybe three facts he alleged on our stroll: Mount Tabor is an extinct volcano, and Portland is one of two cities that has an extinct volcano inside its municipal boundaries; the other is Bend, Oregon). Anyway, it was beautiful up there with the late twilight. Lots of people picknicking, walking, taking in the views; we happened upon one group sitting in a meadow, playing guitars and singing. We spotted the two guys above at a west-facing view near the summit. What got our attention was their smoking: they were seriously attending to smoking pipes. Of course, I wanted to capture smoke curling up from their inextinguishable briars. Alas, I couldn’t get an angle on my subjects that wouldn conceal my intentions. This angle was OK, though, especially after I noticed the little dog under the bench. (Below: Mount Hood, seen from the eastern crest of Mount Tabor.)

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My Triathlon

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As mentioned in a previous installment, I’ve been up in the Pacific Northwest (broadly defined) to see my friend Pete do the Ironman Coeur d’Alene triathlon. Pete started into this swim-bike-run business about six and a half years ago, the year he turned 40. He went into it as a strong cyclist and runner (though not a distance specialist) and a non-swimmer. After a few months, it became apparent to him that a) he found the sport not only challenging but intriguing and fun and b) that it would take far longer than the half year or so he and another turning-40 friend had allotted themselves to adequately prepare for a race that consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim, 112-mile bike ride, and full-distance marathon (26.2 miles, if you don’t have that distance tattooed on you somewhere). So he shelved the full Ironman plan for the time being and did “half Iron” events where each event is half the total length of the full version. Somewhere along there, he started running marathons, too (last year he qualified for the Boston Marathon, and this year he ran that event). Since the only thing harder than finishing an Ironman is getting into one–each even admits about 2,200 racers, and each seems to be fully subscribed, at 500 bucks or more a head, within hours or days of opening for registration–he signed up for Coeur d’Alene last June. Yesterday was the day.

Short of a disaster–something possible but unlikely such as a bike crash or something like a debilitating injury during the run–I didn’t have any real question that Pete would finish. The question for me was more about what the full day, and especially the long, long concluding run, would take out of him. The one thing I have noticed from seeing shorter triathlons is that many very strong athletes whom I imagine look imperturbably graceful running under normal conditions are reduced to a painful-looking shuffle in the tri marathon. And it’s a shuffle that goes on and on and on.

I saw some of that yesterday. Pete hit the (60-degree F., wetsuits required) water at 7 a.m. with 2,000 other swimmers. The scene was beautiful mayhem. I saw him in the wild scrum in the swim-to-bike transition area, where volunteers helped peel wetsuits off the athletes, and then as he headed out on the bike. I saw him come in and out of town on the two 56-mile cycling laps, and then early on his run. In the long periods between sightings, I was walking back and forth to a Coeur d’Alene cafe and cheering on every triathlete I saw. When I first saw him on the run, I told Pete that he was looking great. He said he felt pretty good. I saw him coming back in from his first of two running laps. He smiled, but said, “The pace has slowed considerably.” He was out long enough on the second lap that I started to wonder if everything was OK. It was–I was simply stuck in spectator time, while he was slowing but moving forward in competitor time. Finally, I spotted him less than a mile from the finish, ran ahead to snap one last picture, and then watched him run the long, downhill and beautifully sunlit finishing stretch down Sherman Avenue to the lakeshore where the whole thing began.

To repeat what I said yesterday to hundreds of people I didn’t know: great job, Pete. (And yeah, he did well: 12:26:07 total time, 73rd of 209 starters in his age group.)

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(Pictures: Top: The field finishes first of two swimming laps. Bottom: Pete, on the second-to-last turn before the finish. Click for larger versions.)

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Solstice and After

Well, I see I’ve missed our summer solstice by a day. It was too hot here to pay attention. Yesterday, the unofficial Holly Street high was 101–the hottest I’ve seen it since we moved in 20 years ago. The bonus: It stayed lovely and warm out all night, no sweatshirts needed. More of the same today. Just 9:30 in the morning, and it’s already in the 80s. One of the toughest bike rides in all of California, maybe the entire United States, is being held today: the Terrible Two. A series of precipitous climbs and descents through hot interior Sonoma County (mostly). My heart goes out to the 250 or 300 people who are out there; I’ve done daylong rides through heat like that, and for me it’s just something you have to survive.

And now: Running to Oakland airport to get on a plane to Spokane, Washington. My friend Pete is doing the Ironman Coeur d’Alene tomorrow, and I’m there as his official rooting section and post-event driver. Go Pete!

More from up north.

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Valley

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Sunday evening, on the way home from Eugene. We were in the Grand Caravan (174,000 miles); Thom and his friend Elle were driving a U-Haul truck somewhere ahead of us. We got down into the Sacramento Valley just before sunset. On the way north Friday, we had seen a big fire burning in the mountains to the west. A northerly wind had been blowing for several days and carried the smoke well down the valley. By Sunday, the wind had shifted to the southwest, and a long tail of smoke was visible in the northern valley. Just after sunset, a big tower of smoke came up from the fire, and we pulled off to take pictures. This is on Road 7, in Glenn County, just south of the Tehama County line (the “tower” or “puff” or whatever it was is visible in the left center; the clouds in the distance are smoke from the blaze, which I later learned was called the Whiskey fire, near the town of Paskenta, in Mendocino National Forest. It burned about 8,000 acres–a relatively small fire by California wildland standards).

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My Spam Friends

Here’s an “is it just me?” question: Over the last three weeks or so, I’ve seen a blitz of spam to my main email address that I have never seen before. The come-ons are the same, mostly, but with one significant difference: They’re addressed to me by name, and they use my middle name. Some use my home address as well. I find this vaguely disquieting, even though I know that information is public, somewhere or other (but not on Google. There are zero matches for my full name on Google). Associating my full name with my email–not such an easy trick, which leads me to believe that somewhere or other I made this information available (or perhaps some “secure” database somewhere was compromised).

Anyway, back to the question: Anybody else getting personalized spam.

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Graduation Day

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We’re in Eugene, Oregon, for the weekend. The big event is our son Thom’s graduation from the journalism and communications school at the University of Oregon (after three years).

We spent a couple hours this morning at the campus’s famous basketball arena, McArthur Court, and watched the new doctorates, masters, and bachelors (of arts) strut their stuff. The speaker was an alum named Dan Wieden, a 1967 graduate of the journalism/communications school. He went on to cofound Wieden+Kennedy, a PR and marketing firm that started out in Portland with a card table, four chairs, a file cabinet, a green lampshade and the stub end of a pencil. Oh, yes, and one client: Nike. Mr. Wieden has done OK for his clients and himself since then, and the firm is now international. He spoke briefly about barely graduating, about dating the professor in the French class he was failing, and about the accelerating pace of change in our world (citing Moore’s Law and Ray Kurzweil’s singularity).

OK. Then the diplomas were handed out. The ethics in journalism professor mangled Thom’s middle name (Cuchulain came out as KOOSH-a-lin), but that was OK. Then we were leaving campus to come back to Thom’s to pack him up and move him to Berkeley.

Thom had something he wanted to show us on the way back to the house. The tree above. More specifically, two residents of the tree that would be nearly invisible to all but the most attentive passers-by: a pair of nesting western screech owls. They’re little things, well camouflaged; they looked like they were asleep, but their heads pivoted to follow our movements. Below is a cropped version of the top photo in which they show up a little better. (Click pictures for larger versions.)

So that’s it. Packing this afternoon. Dinner tonight. Driving home tomorrow. It wasn’t long ago Kate and I were dropping Thom off up here. The three years have gone very fast.

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