The Argentine Giant only blooms once per year, for less than a day. I was lucky enough to see it today while testing out a new camera!
The Argentine Giant only blooms once per year, for less than a day. I was lucky enough to see it today while testing out a new camera!
Note: Because of the air clarity, many of the shots in the post look fantastic full screen! Be sure to click on some of them.
It’s February and snowy in the North Country, so why not try a backpacking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
It sounded a bit mad, but it was absolutely wonderful weather for hiking! There were six of us on this trip and the plan was to arrive at the South Rim in the afternoon, check out Hermit’s Rest, Powell Memorial and a few other viewpoints, try some jib shots with the new Kessler Jib, and enjoy a quiet evening of star gazing before heading down.
We enjoyed a fantastic meal at El Tovar and then headed out to see what we could see in the evening sky. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy, so we bagged it early and prepared for a predawn start the next day.
About an hour before sunrise we packed up and headed out to see if we could spot the five planets: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter all in a view simultaneously – something that was last seen more than a decade ago. (Photo by Elliot Herman)
It was a chilly 17 degrees and the window of opportunity was tight – too early and we wouldn’t see Mercury rising over the horizon – too late and the light of the sun would wash it out… but there it was! All five planets lined up in the twilight! It was a cool way to start the hike.
At the Bright Angel trailhead, we stopped to put crampons on our boots – the trail was completely covered with snow and ice. As the sun started to peek over the far horizon, we began the descent down.
The morning air was still and quiet, with the snow muffling all sounds.
There was no one else crazy enough to be out this early so we had the canyon to ourselves. The air was crisper and clearer than I had ever seen it. The sun kissed the top of the canyons plateaus as we made our way very, very carefully through the slickest sections. It was quiet and meditative but at the same time, a bit scary and required full focus of every step.
After about the first two hours of hiking we had made it past the snow and ice section and were about to remove the crampons. From here we made good time all the way to the bottom, crossing the Silver Bridge across the Colorado River to the Bright Angel Campground, where we would stay for the next two nights.
Bright Angel Campground is an idyllic oasis near Phantom Ranch. The delightful Bright Angel creek runs along all of the campsites and the sound of the bubbling rapids was a very nice accompaniment to our time spent there.
In the evening, we all cooked up dinners (I made “Deconstructed Lasagna” washed down with some Green Spot Irish Whiskey) and then hiked down to the beach where George led a fascinating and ultra informative star gazing session. The sky was super clear and the stars were impossibly bright – probably the best I’ve ever seen!
We saw Orion, the Charioteer, the Twins, the Big Dog, the Little Dog, the Bull, the Hare, Perseus, Cassiopea, Cepheus, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Virgo, Scorpio, Leo, and the Herdsman, which contains Arcturus.
In addition, we saw shooting stars, satellites, the Milky Way and the moon even participated in the show by emerging up over the ridge, just a sliver but with Earthshine illuminating the dark side. It was phenomenal and THANK YOU GEORGE for the excellent information you imparted to us over those three nights.
It was a great night for sleep, with the temperature only getting down to 32 degrees, and we rose to another absolutely beautiful day. Bright, clear and cloudless – perfect for a day of exploring. After a breakfast of Whiskey Bacon Pancakes and coffee, we loaded up minimal supplies and headed out on the Clear Creek Trail – a superb trek that climbed high above the Colorado River and then followed it north toward Zoroaster Temple.
Along the way we spied many deer, ravens, coyote, scrub jays and canyon wrens.
The following morning we made breakfast and prepared for the long and arduous climb out. It was extremely challenging but made much easier by the spectacular scenery. It was a Sunday and we were now starting to see more people. As the first of the two arches on the Bright Angle trail came into view, I knew the adventure was coming to the end. I shot a few final photographs from near the top and then emerged to the trailhead and civilization.
An absolutely stunning trip with a wonderful group of guys!
The weather has been perfect for backpacking, so I took the opportunity to backpack in the greatest playground ever: The Superstition Wilderness, east of Phoenix.
Cholla with Weaver’s Needle in the background
From the First Water Trailhead, I set out on the Second Water trail, looping around to Dutchman’s and on to Boulder Basin, where I spent the night next to a nice little babbling brook. A wary coyote wandered by, keeping his eyes fixed on me the entire time, then skulked off into the brush.
I cooked up a Pho of beef broth, spring onions, snap peas and spicy summer sausage, then relaxed by the fire with a flask of Green Spot whiskey. The sky was clear and the stars were crisp. Early in the evening I saw a nice shooting star. With not even a breath of wind, there were no sounds or movement, except the low distant bubbling of the water.
Eventually the night air was to cold to be comfortable, so I retired to the tent, wrapped up in my trusty Montbell Spiral Hugger bag – probably the single best piece of equipment I own. I read for about an hour, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and it was somewhat of an epiphany for me to approach meditation in this way… more about this later.
After a great night of sleep, I rose late in the morning, had a relaxed breakfast and read a bit more. I hit the trail refreshed and ready and it was an absolutely gorgeous day.
I took my time and followed the trails to Bull Pass, Calvary trail into Marsh Valley, Boulder Canyon to Second Water and numerous side trips to explore little nooks and crannies in the rocks (perhaps THIS is where the hidden treasure is?)… and I didn’t see a single person all day.
Late in the afternoon, I spied a big mound of snowy white fur moving along the banks of the wash in Boulder Canyon – it was a Hog-Nosed Skunk! The first time I had seen one out in the wild. He slipped away in the brush before I could get a decent shot of him, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to go chasing after him!
I found a nice little ledge on the side of the cliff with clear views to the south and decided to camp there for the night. I cooked up a really tasty dish of ham and rice with veggies in a cheese sauce, washed down with Green Spot of course. With no good source of firewood around, I decided to not have a fire that night and instead found a natural “easy chair” carved out of the solid limestone rock next to my tent.
I continued to read “The Miracle of Mindfulness” under the light of my headlamp and a lot of it resonated with me, primarily the concept of not stressing about the past or future, but focusing on the task or moment of the present, no matter what it is, from washing the dishes to writing a letter to a loved one, to hiking down a trail. I also learned some techniques for meditation that seemed to really work well, especially the high importance of focusing on breathing – the length and number of breaths and how often to meditate. I was so engrossed in the book that I didn’t realize how dark it had become and when I switched off my light it was absolutely pitch black.
Sitting high atop this mountain in the darkness, with not even a bit of wind, it was so quiet that my ears slightly ached from it. I sat still in the darkness for a long period of time, trying some of the meditation skills I had learned. The night air was remarkably warm, much warmer than last night. The stars were absolutely glimmering. I felt very connected to the planet, flattened against the rocky throne while hurtling through space. It was a surreal and sublime experience.
The winds picked up that night, making it tough to sleep despite walking for more than fifteen miles that day, and I rose early to cook breakfast in the predawn darkness.
Another fine day of walking and I was up and out of the Supes… a total of about 35 miles in three days. The Grand Canyon is next, in about a week and I’m ready!
My friend Matt and I just completed a challenging loop of about 25 miles through the Superstition Wilderness. We started at the Peralta Trailhead ad hiked the Dutchman’s Trail to Whiskey Springs. We hiked Whiskey Springs to Red Divide, camped just beyond the LaBarge Box Canyon and then took a side trip down the Hoolie Bacon trail. We then continued along the Red Divide trail, which really was not a trail at all, more of a collection of cairns and “suggestions”. We finished by taking Coffee Flat to Reed’s Water and camped there under an old windmill.
It was a difficult loop because of the lack of water, the overgrown catclaw that shredded our clothing and skin, and the challenging footing along the sides of the canyons. Still, the scenery was absolutely brilliant and we had the place to ourselves – wonderful solitude. Evening temperatures got very cold, well below freezing and our water was frozen solid. We had very nice fires each night though and that helped a lot!
Prickly Pear cactus that had been eaten by Javelina
Whiskey Bacon Pancakes with Maple Syrup!
Dia de Los Muertos is holiday celebrated in Mexico that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey.
This is also celebrated here in Phoenix, and these shots are from the Desert Botanical Garden.
Completed a super challenging hike of about 25 miles in the Superstition Wilderness. Dutchman’s – Whiskey Springs – Red Tanks – Dutchman’s – Peralta Loop.
I got lost several times, ran out of water, nearly nailed by a scorpion, fell three times, saw a tarantula, walked through swarms of bees, had a family of javelina walk past the opening in my tent, got torn up from cat claw, slept under the stars, saw sunrise from Fremont Saddle.
Other than that… nothing much happened.
Japan is an amazing multifaceted feast for the senses! This is a culture steeped in traditions dating back thousands of years, but also a society with shifting fads and fashions and technological advancements.
So it was with great excitement and anticipation that a small group of old HeSCA friends met in Tokyo for a ten day trip to cultural and natural settings, led by our hosts Tad and Minoru.
After the long flights and shuttle rides, we met high above Tokyo at the 40th Floor bar in the Hotel New Otani for drinks and a great view of the city. It was a great chance to catch up with each other and start planning for things to do during our stay.
The next morning, I met up with Aranka and Jo at 4:30am and we took a cab to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. We were hoping to catch the early morning auction, but even at this early hour, we were too late. Not a problem though because the area is an absolute cacophony of sights, sounds and aromas! We wandered through the vegetable vendors and small market shops. While Aranka and Jo shopped for handmade carbon steel knives, I caught a mushroom auction where men were bidding up to $200 for a single large mushroom.
Men were whizzing about everywhere on bicycles, motorized carts and trucks and it all seemed chaotic and dangerous but in fact is a well-rehearsed way of life that happens every single morning.
We had an early breakfast of tuna and salmon sashimi with rice and it was a bit of a shock to my system but very good. We then wandered over to the Fish Market, where things were being set up in anticipation of opening to the public in a few hours. The vast array of fish here is amazing!
I returned to the hotel in time for second breakfast and then headed out to explore Tokyo with Debi for the day. More than 35 million people live in greater Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world. It’s a very clean and vibrant city, with busy people constantly on their phones, great food and quirky shops and streets.
That evening we had our Opening Dinner, where we were greeted by our hosts and guides for the next ten days. It was a delicious traditional Japanese feast with plenty of beer and saki.
Following dinner, a small group of us ventured out to Golden Gai in the Shinjuku District. Just six tiny blocks are lined by almost two hundred tiny bars. Each building is only a few feet wide, and built almost touching the one next door. Some establishments are so small that only five or six customers can fit in at one time.
I picked one randomly for our first drink of the night and it was a doozey! The proprietor was an ex Geisha and now runs this five seat bar, serving only Jack Daniels. She (or perhaps He?) served up our drinks with a scowl and certainly gave the impression that we weren’t welcome, so we decided to drink up and pay. And that’s when the trouble started… she handed us a bill of 10,000 yen, when the drink prices were clearly posted outside the door at 700 yen. So when Jo offered her 4,000 yen she exploded, throwing candies and a dish, snatching the money from her and wielding a threatening bottle of Jack Daniels! We rushed out the door and down the stairs as fast as possible and got away from there – thankfully no one got hurt. The rest of the night in Golden Gai was a joy – we met some very nice people who guided us to the best bars and we spent the night in conversation with many people.
The following day was jam packed with sightseeing: Imperial Palace, Meiji Jingu Shrine, Asakusa Shrine, 100 Yen Shop, Sumida River Cruise, Hamarikyu Garden and a cruise through the swanky Ginza district. The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan and built on the site of the old Edo Castle. Surrounded by a large moat, it’s a large park that contains the main palace, private residences of the Imperial Family and some administrative buildings.
Meiji Jingu is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine. Shinto is considered Japan’s ancient original religion, and it is deeply rooted in Japanese life. Shinto has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversion, but values harmony with nature and there is an unlimited number of divine spirits. This shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken.
It was here that we learned some of the customs regarding Shinto Shrines. How to walk through the gates, learning to cleanse our hands and mouths at the fountain, properly offering prayer and how to approach and pray at the shrine itself.
I felt a very palpable aura here and a feeling of serenity despite the numerous people wandering about. Everyone moved about carefully with respect for each other and the grounds. Some of us wrote prayers on small blocks of wood that were then hung near the entrance of the shrine.
Asakusa Sensoji is one of Tokyo’s most popular and colorful Buddhist temples. According to legend, two Brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy out of the Sumida River in the year 628. When they put the statue back in the river it continued to return to them. So this temple was built for the goddess Kannon in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
We entered through the massive Thunder Gate and walked down the very congested market street of Nakamise, laden with shops filled with souvenirs, local snacks, clothing and other goods.
Beyond the gate and the market street stands the temple’s main hall and a five-storied pagoda. The Asakusa Shrine, built in 1649, is located here as well.
We swung through the 100 Yen (88 cents) shop for a quick visit on the way to the Sumida River. A small group of guys were there playing with an incredibly detailed model railroad.
It was now a gorgeous sunny afternoon when we boarded the boat for a relaxed cruise down the Sumida River. We enjoyed views of the city and the many bridges and it struck me how massive this place really was!
We ended the day with a stroll through Hamarikyu Garden as the sun settled down behind the sleek towering office buildings. What a wonderful start to the trip!
The evening featured a beautiful meal at a restaurant owned by one of Tad’s friends. Eating out in Japan is as much about the experience as it is about the food. All of it is beautifully prepared and always an adventure! On this night we were treated to Shabu Shabu, thinly sliced beef boiled in a pot of water at the table.
The next morning, we rode the subway to the train station and then took the train to Nikko for a day of exploring. The subway in Tokyo is amazing! Very easy to use and navigate and it goes virtually anywhere. Everyone is polite and quiet and there were only a few times that I found it to be super crowded.
In Nikko, we had a traditional lunch of Yuba, or tofu skin. I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much but I ate it!
From there we made a stop to take in the view from above Lake Chuzenji, located high in the mountains at the base of the sacred volcano Mt. Nantai. It was another absolutely gorgeous day and it was wonderful to be outside in it.
We followed that with another natural wonder, Kegon Falls. The viewing platform for the falls is accessed by riding an elevator down through solid bedrock for about 200 meters, then a walk through a long tunnel. At the falls, the air is heavy with mist from the spray off the rocks and the falls themselves were quite dramatic – I just wish there was a way to walk down into the falls area – that would have been very cool.
Toshogu Shrine in Nikko was the next stop, just a short distance from the falls. This shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the originator of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for more than 250 years. Ieyasu is enshrined at Toshogu as the deity Tosho Daigongen, “Great Deity of the East Shining Light”. We wandered past a number of extravagantly decorated buildings set in a beautiful forest, then a few of us climbed the stairs high up the hillside to see the tomb. Interestingly, Toshogu contains both Buddhist and Shinto elements, even though across the country, the two religions were separated. At Toshogu the two religions were so intermingled that the separation was not carried out completely.
Sunday was an open day for everyone and I began with a visit to Ueno Park, a large urban park that contains a spectacular lotus pond, and thousands of cherry trees. The Art Museum and National Museum which houses the world’s largest collection of Japanese art and archaeology are also located here. It was crowded though, so I carried on the spectacular Skytree Tower.
The Tokyo Skytree is a television broadcasting tower that houses the world’s highest observation deck. The building stands at a height of just over 2,000 feet high, with two observation decks – the highest at 1,476 feet. Jo and I went to the upper deck and the views from here are absolutely stunning – looking out at the surreal sprawl of Tokyo in all directions!
From there we found a terrific crab house in Roppongi and enjoyed cheap beers and good crab for the afternoon – perfect HeSCA Happy Hour!
Our next stop was Hakone, situated in the southwestern part of Kanagawa, and is part of Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. Hakone is internationally known for its Ryokans, a type of traditional Japanese inn. Hakone Shrine is located along the shores of Lake Ashi. The buildings are tucked into a dense forest but the huge Torii Gates stand prominent on the grounds. One of the gates is actually in the lake itself and provided a dramatic backdrop for photos. The shrine itself was beautiful and peaceful – far fewer people in this area of the country.
After a beautiful lunch of soba noodles, we then explored Hakone Sekisho – a collection of buildings and shrines along the lake with wonderful walking paths. I kind of lost the group here, so I wandered freely through the dense moist forest, taking in views of the lake along the way. It seemed like I had the place to myself, as I didn’t see any other people for more than an hour of walking.
From there we boarded a crazy looking replica of a Man-of-War pirate ship and cruised across the lake to the Komagatake Ropeway.
Hmmmm – let’s go to an area of volcanic activity, climb into a cable car that looks like it hasn’t been maintained since the cold war era, jam as many people as we can possibly jam in the car and ride the rusty cable to the top of a misty mountain… seems like a great plan!
The views here were nice, but the fog kept us from seeing the entire valley and lake below. Still, it was a bit of a rush and a cool experience!
After this long day of adventure and travel, we were all eager to check into our rooms at the Hotel Kara Kara and have a soak in the hot springs. The rooms here are very traditional and feature tatami-matted rooms with futons on the floor. We all enjoyed the Onsens, which are communal hot springs baths (gender separated), and everyone wore yakatas – a traditional robe. An epic dinner followed and we drank and ate and celebrated our trip to this point – all of us still in our yakatas! Later that night we enjoyed a shiatsu massage in the room from one of the locals – she didn’t speak a word of English and we know very little Japanese, but it was sublime and a perfect way to end the day.
We reluctantly departed from the hotel in the morning and drove directly to Mt. Fuji. When the bus rounded a corner and we all saw the first view of this majestic mountain, everyone exclaimed in awe! I’ve seen photographs of this iconic symbol of Japan many times, but seeing it in real life was stunning and a bit surreal. We were very fortunate on this day to have a clear view of the mountain because it’s often shrouded in clouds or mist.
We drove to a point about halfway up the mountain and had a chance to wander around a bit. It was crowded with tourists, but the views were fine and the fall colors were just starting to change, creating a beautiful frame for the mountain peak.
From there, we boarded the Shinkansen – Bullet Train to Kyoto. That first moment of standing on the platform and seeing – feeling – hearing the first bullet train whiz by was absolutely ASTOUNDING! Our mouths dropped and we yelled in glee as the train shot past at close to 200 mph. Riding the train was a very comfortable experience as it zipped smoothly along the tracks. The engineering of this system is amazing and a privilege to enjoy.
We had one slight mishap at the Kyoto station when a few people in our party got separated from the group and subsequently stranded in the station – but that was quickly resolved and we checked into our hotel. That evening, we all enjoyed a show featuring perfomances of seven traditionial arts of Japan: Tea Ceremony, Kyo-mai Dance, Flower Arrangement, Koto Zither, Gagaku Court music, Kyogen Theater and Bunraku Puppet theater.
This was followed by a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant owned by one of Tad’s friends, and we then strolled through the narrow alleys in the Gion district.
A full day of touring Kyoto was on the agenda for the day, starting with a visit to Nijo Castle. This castle was built in 1603 as the residence of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and later used as an imperial palace before being donated to the city and opened to the public. It’s a wonderful example of castle palace architecture and is very well preserved.
Yasaka Shrine was our next visit, a collection of small shrines and park-like paths with the main hall standing in the center of it all. It’s another gloriously beautiful day and perfect for walking and exploring!
We ride the bus into a very congested area of the city and decided to make our way on foot to the next destination: Kiyomizu Temple.
Halfway up Otowa Mountain in the eastern part of Kyoto City, Kiyomizu-dera is a historic temple that was established in 778. The street leading to the temple is narrow, lined with shops and jammed with people, but the view from the top is spectacular.
The Main Hall of the temple is the shrine for the Eleven Headed and Thousand Armed Kannon Bodhisattva – which is famous for the power of answering prayers – and we saw many people praying here. The veranda of the Main Hall extends over a precipice and looks down upon a large cleansing fountain. The temple grounds also include the impressive Deva gate, a beautiful orange three-storied pagoda and bell tower.
Nishiki Market was the next stop, and it looked like a super place to shop, but I wasn’t in a shopping mood so a few of us found a little bar and drank a few beers.
In the evening, a small group of us returned to the Gion District and had a fine meal followed by a session in a Karaoke club! Karaoke is very popular and very different than here in the states. Groups are given their own private room, completed with multiple microphones, tambourines, lighting effects and the Karaoke system. It took a little while to figure out the controls – all in Japanese, but we got it and were soon bellowing out classic songs!
Kinkakuji (which is my favorite name of any place we visited) is a Zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It was originally the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and then became a zen temple in 1408, in accordance with his will.
The temple is situated dramatically overlooking a large pond and is easily the most scenic of all temples we visited. The grounds are beautifully maintained and we saw gardeners working everywhere. Walking along the paths through forest and along the ponds was a serene experience indeed.
The theme of serenity continued as we then visited Ryoanji Temple, the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by low earthen walls, with 15 rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer. The garden’s designer and date of construction is unknown. Along with its origins, the meaning of the garden is unclear, so it’s up to each person to find meaning for themselves. Some believe that it represents a tiger carrying cubs across a pond or of islands in a sea, while others claim that the garden represents an abstract concept like infinity. For me, the experience of sitting quietly and contemplating and making sense of the negative space, was challenging but an interesting exercise in visualization.
Our wonderful day of Zen continued with a trip to Tenryuji, considered the most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. It’s registered as a world heritage site and we enjoyed a lovely vegetarian lunch here, the highlight of which was the roasted eggplant topped with miso – yum!
Tenryuji’s garden has survived for centuries in its original form. Created by the famous garden designer Muso Soseki, the beautiful landscape garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested mountains. Inside the main Drawing Room was a perfect place to sit and meditate and look out upon the pond.
In heavy contrast to our day of nature and reflection, we then made our way to Osaka’s Garden in the Air at the Umeda Sky building – a gleaming metallic high-rise with stunning architecture and a rooftop viewing platform.
The evening in Osaka brought one of the absolute highlights of the trip for me – a concert by one of my favorite acts !!! (Chk Chik Chick) at a nightclub in Ame-mura. It was a hot, dark and intimate venue and we were certainly the only non-Japanese there, except for one couple (from Phoenix!) who joined us. The opening act was “Hungry for Saki” and they were great – a perfect opener for the rowdy dance party to follow with !!!. Fantastic night out.
Our final day of touring was spent in Nara, about an hour from Osaka. Hundreds of tame deer roam freely in this town – walking along with people and napping by the road. We visited Todaiji, one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and were immediately met by more deer – everywhere!
This temple was built in 752 as the head temple of all Buddhists temples of Japan. The main hall, Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. The massive building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha at 50 feet in height and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. On this day, the place was absolutely mobbed by small school children on field trips – all extremely well mannered and friendly!
Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid August. Again, the deer roam freely here and are quite tame. I wandered up a side path to find a prayer session starting – eerie music playing from musicians in a small pavilion as priests walked in single file line to the altar area and began rhythmically chanting.
Lunch was an epic affair, orchestrated by Minoru. There must have been at least nine courses, and all of it was delicious and interesting! We followed that up with a walk through a shopping area and then up more steps to the final temple, Kofukuji. Kofukuji was originally the family temple of the Fujiware, the most powerful clan during the Nara and Heian periods at around 710. At the height of their power, the temple consisted of more than 150 buildings, but today just a few remain, including two impressive pagodas.
After a trip like this, it was a bittersweet walk to our final event, the Closing Dinner. Our hosts had set up a grand farewell evening for us indeed! A huge banquet of food was laid out for us – sushi, sashimi, steak, chicken, pizza, roasts, vegetables, salads, noodles – anything you can possibly want! Huge bottles of Saki were brought out and served in small wooden boxes. Bottles of beer were stationed everywhere. It was a fine party! Tad, Minoru and Rick gave moving speeches and Fran delivered the evening’s toast. Carol wowed us all by reading an extended haiku she had written that was absolutely gold. We finished with a stroll back toward the hotel, stopping in a small bar along the way before finally and reluctantly calling it a night.
This was certainly one of the most fascinating trips I’ve ever been on and I’ll cherish it forever. The people we met were the kindest, most helpful people ever. The deep respect for customs and history was inspiring. The food was adventurous and delicious. And of course, my colleagues were wonderful fun traveling companions who amplified the entire experience. I feel absolutely privileged to have visited the places we saw and know the people we met along the way. Domo arigato to Tad, Minoru, Rick, Fran and everyone else who assisted on this amazing journey!
Just returned from a 10 day tour of Japan and was privileged to enjoy incredibly diverse and beautifully prepared meals! Soooo many new flavors and textures – each meal was an adventure!
Under the Rim and Rigg’s Spring Trails
Conor and I have just returned from a five day backpacking trip through Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. The landscapes were spectacular, the wildlife abundant and the trail was incredibly challenging – this is NOT AN EASY HIKE!
We parked the truck at the trail end, Bryce Point and from there we would need to find a way to the trail head, Rainbow Point, about twenty miles away. We hopped on the free shuttle, which took us to the main road, and from there we started hitchhiking. After just fifteen minutes or so we were picked up by a young couple Noah and Gal, who were visiting from Israel. We jammed ourselves and our giant packs into the backseat of his Prius and headed down the road.
They were a very interesting couple on a three month trip to various countries and had already been to Cuba, Mexico, South America and a few places here in the states. It was a gorgeous afternoon when we hit the trail at Rainbow Point (9115 ft) and our plan was to take an easy stroll to the bottom of the canyon and camp near Rigg’s Spring.
Bryce Canyon is known for its Hoodoos – dramatic pillars of rocks that have eroded into fantastic shapes and pastel colors. There are thousands of these pillars throughout the length of the park and we were privileged with the opportunity to wander amongst them.
The trail was beautifully graded and meandered through lush stands of pine and we arrived at the first campsite after just a few hours of hiking. Everything was going smoothly but there were a number of things that gave me an uneasy feeling… first, there were NO PEOPLE – anywhere – we hiked for five days and only saw two small groups on day three and one couple on day four. There was also no cell service anywhere along the trail.
And then there was The Silence.
This is the quietest wilderness I have ever been in. Perhaps it’s the way the canyon is situated, but the soundscape was eerily quiet… no wind, no birds, nothing.
The wildlife – we had heard numerous reports of bear and mountain lion activity in this area and we saw numerous signs of both, with warning signs posted at every campsite.
We made camp at Rigg’s Spring (7514 ft) and it was just barely flowing, I laid a pine needle in the flow to create a little stream and it took about five minutes just to fill a one liter bottle… but it was water, something very scarce on this trail.
I started smelling a very strong and pungent musky aroma from the nearby dense stand of trees. Something was in there – something big!
I whiled away the afternoon practicing snare setting and doing a bit of exploring, then settled in with a whiskey and early dinner. The first night was a bit rough – it rained about five or six times and I kept smelling the musky odor. Every rustle of the branches or flap of my tent fly was putting me on edge. By morning we were very ready move away from this area!
The next day brought a very tough climb back up to above the treeline and then down along the spine of the canyon, dotted with amazing hoodoos.
As we walked along, I was struck by how the landscape was constantly changing due to the erosion, and how the hoodoos catch the light and change colors while casting shadows that look like some sort of giant mythical creatures.
The weather was perfect and we set up camp at Iron Spring (7925 ft). Iron Spring was murky and brown and barely flowing, but it was water – the only source we would have until at least twelve miles. We filtered it as best we could, but it was still the ugliest water I have ever drank.
The night was spectacular and clear! Because of the remote location of the park, the high elevation and the clear skies, Bryce is famous for its night skies. I slept out in the open and just let the awesome cosmic blanket of stars envelope me – staring straight up for as long as I could keep my eyes open – what a treat! The morning brought a symphony of bird songs – the forest was alive with their calls and I saw four massive hawks, one could have even been an eagle, flying impossibly high overhead.
The third day was the toughest hiking day – up and down and up and down – a rollercoaster of a trail that left us absolutely exhausted. At one point we discovered bear tracks that looked fairly fresh. All the while, the dramatic canyon of pink and orange cliffs and hoodoos, made even more striking by the mantle of green fir, pine and spruce trees at their base, kept us company off to the left. The views over each pass were wonderful and spurred us along this very very difficult trail.
Throughout the length of the trail we saw abundant wildflowers, Manzanita and chaparral, studded with weathered deadwood.
We made camp at Right Fork Swamp Canyon (7515 ft) and there we saw a couple other groups for the first time. The campsite was situated in a dense muddy portion of the forest and not the greatest or most scenic location, but we were so tired it really didn’t matter. I collapsed into my tent at around 8pm and didn’t wake up until sunrise.
The fourth day brought us closer to the cliffs, through some stretches of very harsh, parched desert and then along the Yellow Creek. This section of the trail had a lot of cat sign – bobcat and mountain lion, and there were notices posted along the trail of recent activity – it was a bit unnerving, but there’s not much you can do about it.
We made it to our final campsite, Right Fork Yellow Creek (6980 ft) and it was the nicest of all the campsites on this trip! Plenty of shade and a little creek running nearby. It was a terrific place to relax and rehydrate before tackling the big climb out the next day. A young couple from Chile arrived late in the day and shared the site with us – Daniel and Paz – they had hitchhiked here all the way from San Francisco and were on a three month visit of the National Parks. Their platypus had sprung a leak and so I gave them mine – I know how frustrating that can be because it happened to us on the John Muir Trail!
The final day was all uphill, past the ethereal rock formation called “The Hat Shop” and then weaving in and out of the hoodoos all the way to the top of Bryce Point, where my truck was waiting for us.
The total distance was only 32 miles, but with 10,000 feet of climbing at this elevation, it was much more difficult than we expected! It was a fantastic trip – so rewarding on so many levels and I’ll cherish the amazing views of the hoodoos and night skies forever.
With the temps climbing into the upper nineties here, I took the opportunity for a quick jaunt into the Superstions one more time before it gets too dangerous. The heat was certainly high on my list of concerns for this trip, but I was also a bit worried about rattlers. I knew they would be out there and I did indeed run into a couple of them.
I arrived at the trailhead just up the road from Apache Lake to find the place empty – I had the desert to myself! in fact, I didn’t see or hear another person during my entire time out in the wilds (no one else was dumb enough to be out there!) It was HOT but the cacti were in bloom and the wildlife plentiful.
I saw Engelmann Prickly Pear in bloom everywhere – beautiful vibrant yellow flowers against a background of nasty spines.
Buckhorn Cholla were also flowering.
Although it was quite warm with temps now approaching 100, there was a nice breeze blowing and the hiking was actually quite comfortable. I was trail testing a new pack, the Osprey Stratos 36 and carrying my lightest load ever – just 14 pounds before food/water/camera!
I had the entire place to myself and walked along in silence, scaring up some beautiful and large Whitetail Deer, gopher snake, rock squirrels, a rattlesnake who quickly slithered under a rock before I could get a good shot if him, hundreds of Chuckwallas and other lizards.
I followed the Reavis Ranch trail for a couple miles, then veered off to the north and descended 1,700 feet down into a canyon, and across the bone dry Reavis Creek.
Along the way I found a mysterious box chained to a tree, with a note to “take something and leave something, and write something in our book” – what a cool idea! I sat down and rummaged through the entire contents of the box, taking a much needed rest and getting a nice boost of joy from this interesting diversion. I wrote my entry in the book, took the toothbrush/tootpaste kit, and left a little Montbell tent lantern. The person responsible for this was listed only as “Mr. E” – a mystery indeed! Thanks!
I continued along the trail and up to a little rocky knoll overlooking an impressive vista of Saguaros and canyons, about eight miles from the trailhead. I made camp there and found a shady spot for a rest.
While lying on my back relaxing, I heard the buzzing of a hummingbird approach. He flew right up next to my face, perhaps just a foot away and hovered there as though he was wondering “what kind of flower is this?”
He left and kept returning – three more time he came back and curiously buzzed around my head! It was a lovely moment of nature.
When the sun set, I climbed to a rocky tor overlooking the campsite and setup for some night photography – I wanted to capture the iconic shot of “illuminated tent at night in the wilderness” and got some nice shots! I was also testing out another piece of gear, the Big Agnes Mtn Glo tent light system – basically a little string of Christmas lights encased in a luminous fabric – what a great idea! And it uses 3 AAA batteries, just like my headlamp, so serves as kind of a backup battery storage as well.
The heat and the hike eventually took its toll and I crashed hard, despite the bright moonlight coming through my tent mesh. At around midnight, the moon settled beyond the horizon and revealed a massive and bright starfield, and I laid there staring up at the sky for as long as I could until sleep came again.
I woke at first light and started the long and brutal hike out of there, passing by an impressive stand of Saguaros with beautiful blooms. It took about four hours to make it back to the trailhead and my truck was still the only vehicle there.
It was a terrific trip and I can’t wait for the fall temperatures to arrive so I can return!
For the sixth time in the past five years, I caught the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. As always, it was a feast of music, arts and celebration while connecting with many old and new friends! Here’s a little video montage of the festivities…
Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day? Why not!
We’ve just returned from another wonderful trip to the magical island of Ireland. As always, the people were incredibly friendly, the food amazing, the landscapes jaw-droppingly beautiful and the pints creamy and sublime. But this trip was a bit different from the previous ones in that we found ourselves in fortuitous places at the most opportune times…
We began in Belfast, a city that is quickly becoming one of my favorite places in the world. There’s an unusual energy here… edgy, but interesting and fun and the locals are extremely gregarious!
Our first stop was the famous Crown Bar, just across the street from the hotel. Emma and Steph scored a prime snug and we relaxed there, decompressing from a long day of travel and enjoying their famous fish and chips. That night was spent wandering the city for just a bit, but exhaustion hit us all and sleep came early.
Day Two: Today is Steph’s Birthday and Ireland’s Mother’s Day! We strolled past the impressive City Hall that stands as the centerpiece of the city and through the pedestrian walkways on our way to a fabulous celebratory brunch at the Bar and Grill at James Street. From there we ascended to the top of the viewing platform at Victoria Square to see impressive views of the city, the River Lagan and the signature Samson and Goliath shipbuilding cranes which were used in the construction of the Titanic.
The girls split off to do some shopping while Conor and I sampled the pints at Bittles Bar. In the afternoon, we met up with some old friends, Garvan and Adrian, two Belfast natives that I met while working on the Pub Project film. These guys are mad and fun and we enjoyed a rousing session at the pub with them!
The first of many amazing opportunities presented itself to us that night, as we had learned that the legendary Van Morrison would be playing at a small club in our hotel that evening! Playing in a small venue in his hometown of Belfast, I expected a stunning performance… and he was great… but certainly lacked in his interaction with the crowd. Still a good night though!
The next day was a long day of driving. We crossed the country (with a stop in Adare for lunch) all the way down to Dingle, where we would spend the next three days.
Dingle is a happy and colorful little fishing village at the south west tip of Ireland. Numerous pubs, almost all with live music, line the streets.
They have a mad tradition here of marching at 6AM on St. Patrick’s Day, claiming to be the first parade in the country! So of course we just had to join in and march with the Dingle Drum and Fife Band. It was an awesome way to start the day and my most memorable St. Patrick’s Day ever.
Later that day a wonderful community parade marched down the street, all of the signs in Gaelic, the most common tongue here.
We spent three nights in this wonderful village, getting to know the locals, exploring the pubs, shopping and walking the piers. We also journeyed out into the country just a bit, stopping at Inch Beach and later attempting a hike to Anascul Lake. (We bailed partway there) Sullivan’s, Dick Mack’s, Ashe’s Pub, The Dingle Pub, J. Curran’s, Foxy John’s, Lord Baker’s, Brennan Hotel… all were terrific pubs and there were many more!
From there we traveled up and over the one lane road to Conor Pass, high enough to look down upon the clouds below!
Then on to Ennis and explored this vibrant little city. Numerous old shops and pubs line the impossibly narrow streets, mimicking the street scenes from the Harry Potter movie. We stopped at the Monastery and visited with an old friend, Father Gerard, who was giving a retreat to the Poor Claire Nuns there.
Now through the countryside and on to the Burren, my favorite area of the country. We stayed with Father Richard in Ballyvaughan and enjoyed his joyous hospitality and a raucous night at O’Loclainn’s Bar!
Our next day in the Burren might have been the best yet.
Richard and I were up early and on the road to view the solar eclipse from the base of the Poulnabron, a 5,000 year-old tomb high on the barren hills. A 92% solar eclipse, it was eerie and strange but entirely wonderful with light so surreal and impossible to capture. I’ll never forget the experience of being there and feeling the aura of something almost spiritual and all-engulfing. Yet another example of being in the right place at the right time, it was certainly the highlight of my trip!
After a quick stop at Newtown castle for some photography, we returned to the house and gathered the group for a day of exploring the Burren. We drove along the Wild Atlantic Way coastal road to a field of llamas, yes, a magical field of llamas.
We then stopped at my friend Donal’s farm because he was smack in the middle of lambing season – about half of his eighty head of sheep had already given birth in the past week and the rest were due to come within the week. He allowed us to play with and feed some of the three-day old lambs and the girls loved it of course. In a gesture of classic Irish hospitality, he and his wife invited us in for tea and they treated us with gingerbread, scones, muffins and some of Donal’s homemade (and highly potent) Poteen! (Irish Moonshine)
Of course a trip to Ireland is not complete without a trip to a castle! This one is a beauty – Gleninagh Castle sits perched on the edge of the sea, just down the path from Donal’s farm and certainly not easily accessible to the general public.
It was a beautiful day to be outside, but now we were getting hungry and it was time to feast! Linane’s Lobster bar is THE PLACE to go for fresh seafood. We enjoyed mussels, clams, oysters, crab claws, crab cakes, crab salad, seafood chowder, and washed it all down with pints of Guinness.
That night we screened my latest film, “A Proper Pint” at Richard’s house and then wandered back down for a few pints at O’Loclainn’s and then to the Burren Hotel that was opening for the first time in many many years that night. It was a big deal in the small community and it was cool to be part of the history.
We ended the night with a quiet brandy and port at Richard’s house and sleep came easily.
We finished the trip with a short evening in Dublin, where we enjoyed seeing Ireland win the Six Nations Rugby Tournament! The entire town was celebrating and we wandered just a bit before enjoying another epic meal at the Boardwalk Café. We finished the night by catching some live music at Whelan’s, one of Dublin’s best live music venues. Conor and I saw One Horse Pony, a five piece acoustic Blues band and they were really cool and tight.
It was a trip of incredible timings: Van Morrison, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Solar Eclipse, lambing at Donal’s farm, opening night of the Burren Hotel and the Six Nations Rugby Tournament… all under wonderful weather!
Thank you Ireland. You are a wonder.
My latest painting, inspired by Dinosaur Mountain in the Superstition Wilderness, Arizona.
Acrylic, 24 X 36
A website has been created for my latest film, “A Proper Pint” at: www.aproperpintfilm.com – I’ll be using that site to announce screenings and news about the film!