Saturday, November 17, 2012

Finally Made It

Well, I finally made it to Prague. Nearly a year in the planning and over sixteen hours in the traveling. I had not really experienced this level of jet lag before since the longest trip I'd ever taken was from Connecticut to Hawaii with my parents when I was around five and I don't think five year-olds get jet lag. Anyway, here is how it went.

The first leg was from Phoenix to Chicago. That took about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I arrived at the airport nearly four hours early for my flight and was glad I did. I had a little bit on an issue with a very heavy suitcase.
I had thought, wrongly, that one over-weight suitcase was cheaper to fly with than just two suitcases. Boy was I wrong. Here's a tip, take two suitcases. My over-weight bag was going to cost $400 to check. Evidently it is a "safety issue." I'm thinking, "yes, okay safety is a concern with a heavy bag but this seems more like a union rule to me." Either way it turned out to be much cheaper for me to run to the airport gift shop, pay way too much for another suitcase and check two bags.
That is what I did. I bought a suitcase for $100 and commenced to repacking, in the airport. I did pretty well to. At the end of my session I had to make some really difficult choices and I threw away the extra pairs of shoes I wanted to bring with me. Women beware, shoes weight a lot. In the end it worked out well. I had two bags within weight specs and only had to toss three pair of shoes and a sweatshirt. Not bad and I got out of it only having to pay a $160 penalty for having too much crap. The whole repacking episode only took about 30 minutes and the people at the United check counter were really nice. They didn't even mind me frantically throwing my bag on the scale over and over.

From there it was a little bit of a wait at the gate and then I was on a completely packed plane. Overall the flight was not that bad. If you don't mind giving birth to the person in front of you while the two year-old sitting on his mother's lap behind you kicks the seat for nearly three hours.
The two year-old sitting to my right was actually well behaved and used the seat for almost 75% of the trip. She did of course use the whole seat and kicked me in the leg a few times when she was curled up on it playing with her mother's ipad. Other than the fact that she needed to be changed three times in the span of nearly three hours she really was great. The kid needed to be changed, not the mother.
The two year-old next to me was traveling with her two sisters and parents back to France. Her mom was on the isle seat and a really nice lady. She was originally from Phoenix and married a Frenchmen. They have a business selling bamboo things for people's homes. Evidently they travel to Vietnam a lot to buy bamboo stuff, but they are a pretty big company since they sell stuff in 23 countries. Don't look for them in the U.S. anytime soon, it's too expensive to get stuff there.
We arrived in Chicago around sunset and the sunset was less than inspiring, but it was really cool to fly over the city, out over the lake and back to the airport. I'd never seen the Sears Tower from the air, I know it's not the Sears Tower anymore, and that was awesome. The skyline really was pretty in the light. Sadly I'd already turned my phone off and didn't take a photo. I did take one a little before we got in to the city.

At Ohare I had to check in again, since I was changing carriers. I booked my flight the whole way via Aer Lingus but the first leg was serviced through United. At least I didn't have to go to baggage claim and recheck my bags. The big problem with Ohare is that the international terminal is not attached to the rest of the airport, it is very far away. I had to take a train from my arrival terminal to the international terminal. I wasn't really sure if I was on the right track, even after asking the guard for directions after I left the security zone, but then I heard a few guys speaking German and saw a group of Indian people and followed them. I figured following the foreigners was a safe bet, it was.
I checked in at the Aer Lingus desk and the attendant informed me that he needed to change my booking name on my ticket. I have a long name and a suffix which routinely screws up documents for me. It almost got me out of jury duty once though, so it's not all bad, I really did want to sit on that jury. Anyway the name change was to make going through customs easier when I got to Prague, so the attendant said. It didn't take that long.
I still had two hours or so before my flight across the Atlantic left, so I figured I'd get something to eat and have a drink before I left. I had a crappy, over-priced wrap then headed for the bar.
I sat down and ordered a draft Budweiser and a shot of Jim Beam, I asked for Wild Turkey but they didn't have any. I figured, what the heck leave the States with an American Boiler Maker in my gut and all would be good. I would have taken a photo of it, but I made the mistake of sitting next to a buzzed ex-marine on his way to Abu Dabi to be an instructor for dismounted ariel assault operations or some such. Basically, he was going to teach people how to hop out of helicopters and shoot things. I told him I'd seen that a bunch of times when I was covering the military and he was then very excited to have someone at the bar who understood what he was talking about when he brought up crew-served weapons. The only sentence I was really able to get out after he started going was, "cool, I have a friend who just got a job at Ferrari World in Abu Dabi."
I finished my drink with 15 minutes to get to the gate and proceded to go through security.

I have to say, all my suffering on the first leg of my flight was compensated for on the flight across the Atlantic. There was no one in the seat next to me so I could stretch out. The nearest smell kid was at least 20 rows away and the in flight entertainment options were excellent. If you ever have to fly across the Atlantic I can't recommend Aer Lingus enough.
I had rented a movie on my iPad so I'd have something to watch and totally didn't need it. The little screen in the back of the seat in front of me had everything I needed. There were some pretty new movies on there, some tv shows, which were pretty old and some basic video games. I watched Men in Black 3 and played Centipede. Talk about awesome.

This awesome little screen had everything; movies, tv and video games as well as telemetry about the plane. There were more control options via a remote stuck in the arm rest. 
The food on the flight wasn't bad at all and they even had a little breakfast croissant for us as we got closer to Ireland. The sun was rising as we got in to Dublin, but it wasn't really that inspiring at all mainly because it was super overcast.

The most amazing thing about the flight across the Atlantic is that we had a huge tailwind and the pilot took full advantage of it. We were due to arrive in Dublin at 9 am, instead we arrived at 7:30. I can't remember the last time I was on a plane that arrived that early. I was a little groggy since I didn't sleep so well on the flight, although I did sleep some, so after I got off the plane I headed for the bar. 

I dont think I would ever be able to forgive myself if I had not had Guinness in Ireland as well as Jameson. That glass of whisky is a double, a little small in my book but whatever. Anyway, I took my time drinking this and listening to all the Irish brogues around me while I update my Facebook and sent messages to friends keeping them apprised  of my progress.
Even after I finished this "breakfast" I still had several hours to catch my flight but I decided to head to the terminal to be safe. I went through security -- again. My gate was not open, but the bar next to it was. I had another Guinness.

My flight to Prague was pretty uneventful. It was packed but not too bad and I had an isle seat. The man next to me was reading some sort of article on his iPad which was all about finding and ordering beer in Prague. I thought that was kind of funny. The jetlag was catching up to me so I really just slept the whole way.
I made it safe and sound, got some currency and headed for passport control. I was a little worried about what passport control would be like but the ridiculously beautiful blonde customs officer was involved in some very important telephone conversation and never even spoke to me, she barely looked at me. 
I collected my bags and walked over to customs. There was an attendant there and I walked over to him and asked him if I needed to do anything. He looked at me like I was a moron babbling in some sort of made-up language and nodded at the exit door. I walked through it and then I was in Prague, so much for the need to change the name on my ticket and stuff. No one even checked my baggage claim tickets. 
From there is was about a thirty-minute cab ride to where I'm staying. Judging from the driver's frustration it was rush hour. He was a pretty awesome driver. He ducked that Skota estate car in and out like a pro. While I was looking around I thought two things, "this place looks like a cold-war movie set with strange modern bits tossed in," and, "wow, looks like 'FUCK' is universal in graffiti."

Then I made it to where I'm staying and figured I'd take a nap for a few hours and woke up twelve hours later. It's probably better to explore the city for the first time during the day anyway.


Friday, November 9, 2012

White Sands Trip

Today I went to the White Sands National Monument. It is a place I have always wanted to visit. I was supposed to have a friend tag along, but she bailed on me so I got to spend the seven hours in the car with my thoughts -- all three of them.

What is pretty amazing and the first thing I will talk about is the route I took. There are lots of really amazing things along the route which make great things to visit in their own right.

I took Route 2. This route took me down I-25 to San Antonio, New Mexico. San Antonio is where the Buckhorn Tavern is. The Buckhorn really does have the best green chilie cheeseburgers in the state, possibly the world. In fact you turn left at the Buckhorn to get to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is an awesome place to see hundreds of thousands of migrating water fowl like cranes and egrets and whatnot for a large part of the winter. Lastly, San Antonio is the home town of Conrad Hilton. If you think the name sounds farmiliar, it does. Conrad Hilton is the reason Paris Hilton is making sex tapes and "reality" T.V. shows instead of working at the Deny's in Socorro trying to eek out a living.

After you get through San Antonio there really isn't too much between there and Carizozo. There is a turn off for the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Don't bother taking the turn off though because the site is on a VERY secure military instalation and it's only open to visitors twice a year. Click the link and there should be some information about that. I've been to it, it's worth seeing but not what I would call exciting.

The other thing worth checking out is the Valley of Fires Recreation Area. It's a really cool park situated in the middle of a huge basalt lava flow field. There are black rocks for miles and the recreation area has a few trails through the lava field. I gave it a drive by and really just saw a few hunters in campers. I did check out the view of the Tularosa Basin from a high point there. I didn't read the signs there about the basin, so just click the link if you're interested.

I guess there is one more fairly interesting thing before you get to Carizozo, you cross into Lincoln County. You stay in Lincoln County for a while. If you don't know, Lincoln County is where Billy the Kid raised quite a bit of hell in his day. Lincoln County is also home to Smokey Bear. Evidently a really freaked out young bear was found alive in the rubble, called "the black," of a forest fire in Lincoln County. Before you tell me I have the name wrong and it is supposed to be "Smokey the Bear" calm down. I have the name right, and it's Associated Press style, so deal.

Now I want to get to the point of the trip, White Sands.

I have always wanted to visit this place and never have. I don't know why, I suppose it's because I've seen all the cool photos of Yucca plants with white sand behind them and nice light on them. Whatever, I made it even without a buddy to keep me company.

I will also apologize right now for the obscenly dirty sensor on my camera. It's really better to spot the photos using a computer and I'm trying to get as used to using an iPad for this blog and the spotting tool on the iPad photo editing software I use is a bit tricky. I might clean the photos up in photoshop later.

Once I got there it looked pretty much like the photos. The nice thing was the temperature. It was around 50 degrees when I left Albuquerque. It was around 80 at White Sands.

I drove around the loop of the park and really didn't know what I wanted to do, other than get myself one of those cliché photos of a yucca. I chanced upon the Alkali Lake Trail and figured "what the heck at least there won't be many people on it." There weren't really that many people in the whole park, just a few families sledding on the dunes. That's right sledding. I took a quick look at the sign board with a map of the trail on it, grabbed my water and headed out.

Soon after I started I realized right away I wasn't going to get my yucca photo on this trail, for a few reasons. The sun was too high, when not behind clouds and the light was HARSH. When the sun was behind clouds the light was kind of boring, but a bit nicer for a few things, the problem with that, I soon realized, was with no objects to use as a point of refrence where there are no shadows you have zero depth perception. I prefered to have the sun hidden because the temperature was perfect when it was, but when I tried to walk away from the "trail" and check out other things I had a very difficult time trying to figure out if I was going to go down hill or up or what. Keep in mind this was for small depressions or bumps a 100-foot tall dune I could tell. Also, there were exactly zero yucca to be seen along the whole hike.

So now a little more about this "trail." I quickly realized the farther I ventured down the five-mile trail the less stuff there was. There was hardly any sign of life, or anything else for that matter. The "trail" is marked by blazes stuck in the dunes and human tracks going between them. When you're two miles out in a dune field and you forget what you're doing because you're laying on your belly photographing a weed only to stand up and not see a blaze or a landmark you want to have a little previous orienteering skills. A few times I lost the "trail" but that was okay I think a lot of people got off of it to make travel easier. The commonly traveled area was a bunch of soft churned up sand and it was difficult to walk on, so I moved to the outskirts of to some crustier stuff than wasn't like walking on a soft beach. Then I would come to an area where the next blaze was on the other side of a series of steep obstacles. In that case I figured it was perfectly acceptable for me to take a more meandering, yet less-steep, route. I was just very careful to mark a landmark on the horizon and try to keep the blaze I was heading to on a good bearing. I did fine, I'm not an idiot. I even completed the whole loop in 2 hours and 15 minutes, with dilly dallying for photos, record time for me.

The few signs of life I did see were almost always near the inter-dune flats. These flats are low spots in between dunes, duh, where water pools and stuff can grow. In these flats there were all manner of small animal tracks for lizards, mice, birds and other stuff. The one thing I did see on top of a dune was some sort of butterfly. I chased this stupid thing for like 200 meters trying to get a good photo, the poor contrast conditions wreaked havoc on my autofocus and chasing a butterfly and manual focusing is harder that it sounds.

I took some other photos along this hike and it was a great experience. I was amazed at how the sand was cool to the touch and it was actually quite nice to let it fill my shoes when my feet got hot. You could tell by the tracks that many people chose to go barefoot, totally possible with the cool sand.

I almost laid on my belly to shoot this, but opted to just kneel for this angle. I saved the belly shot for some dead piece of grass.
The sand at White Sands is white, imagine that. The white sand plays all sorts of tricks on your camera's guts it would be smart to actually know what you're doing or not really care to get ok photos. I thought it would be like shooting in snow, but it was different.
The scale of the place once you get a few miles into the dune field is ridiculous. This photo doesn't begin to show it, if you didn't have some sort of marker to help you get out you'd be a gonner.
I made a self portrait of myself. I hope the department of redundancy department doesn't read this.
Here is my belly grass photo. I like how the flopped over blade has carved a little sand off the surface .
After I made the self portrait I was pretty near the end of the Alkali Lake Trail and didn't really shoot too much more there. I made it back to the car and started my mission for a cliché.

This pretty much fits the mold for yucca photos at White Sands.

I even photographed one that didn't have the ting on top. I think I like this one the best.
So there we have it. I think I did a pretty good job of getting a nice photo of a yucca in a sand dune. I had a nice drive and made it home by 10 p.m. I will say when I left the park I thought to myself if I had had my passport with me I would have gone to Juarez for dinner. Probably a good thing I didn't.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Unplanned Mission Trip

Today I went on a small expedition. The plan was to meet a friend of mine at his property near Torreon, NM to help him gather wood for the winter. I was armed with a well-drawn map and ready to go. I arrived at his property and he was no where to be found. Also there were no tire tracks on his property and it had been weeks since anyone had been out there. So, while I made it he did not.

I figured I had driven 50 miles from the city to a part of New Mexico I had never seen before so I might as well explore. I heard of a ruin near Punta del Agua so I went to check it out. What I found was the ruin of an old Spanish mission, the Quarai Ruin. The ruin is part mission, part Native American pueblo and both are part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. The monument consists of three ruins of three missions all with pueblos around them. They are all from around the 1600s. I went to two of them today, totally didn't plan it but they are pretty close to each other.

I have to say the Quarai ruin is really a nice place, especially this time of year with the leaves changing. You first see this massive structure popping out of the landscape as you drive in to it and are left wondering how exactly you are supposed to get to it. If you just keep following the road you will get to a little ranger station and be right there. Then all you have to do is follow the paved path around the ruin and read the signs to learn about it. You are allowed to walk into the mission and all around it. Mounds of earth with rocks sticking out all around the mission indicate where more of the pueblo buildings used to be and give you an idea of how large the place once was.

This is the view from the front of the mission. The mound of earth off to the left is part of the old indian pueblo.
This is a photo from inside the main building of the mission. It's impressive. The walls are eight feet thick at least.
I was amazed at how peaceful this place was and how pretty the layout of the whole thing was. The paved trail looping around it was really pretty with the changing trees and the picnic area was very quiet and scenic under a giant cottonwood tree. The only other people there with me were the ranger and a man with his six year old son. I got to overhear the man trying to explain the Spanish Inquisition to his son, that was amusing.

The paved trail around the monument was picturesque in the fall light with the changing leaves.
Enjoy a picnic under a massive cottonwood with a 400 year-old Spanish mission in view. Yes please.
From this ruin it is something like 20 miles to Abó which is part of the same national monument. It is on the way back to Albuquerque, so I decided to check it out.

Abó is a lot more of what I am used to when it comes to Spanish missions and ruins in New Mexico. It is more dry and deserty. Quarai was amazingly green for a New Mexico ruin, so I liked it better because it was so different than what I'm used to seeing. Read the National Park information I linked to at the beginning of the post and you'll probably be surprised at how well all three elements of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument were linked in the 1600s. The indians who lived in these pueblos were trading all the time with each other and other large tribes. It's funny because hardly anyone live out where these places are now. I'm willing to be more people were living in the pueblos than live in the areas now.

This is a view of the mission ruins at Abó. The large structure is the church and the mounds of dirt contain unexcavated pueblo ruins.
While not a scenic, to me anyway, as Quarai the path around Abó still has its more traditional New Mexico scenic points.

There are some more complete buildings surrounding the Abó ruins. Some of the buildings are a little more modern, mid 1800s, and the vegas are still in tact which makes for some nice shadows.
So the trip went well. I saw some great ruins I never knew existed. Both of these missions included kivas, which makes no sense to anyone but proves the Catholic missionaries and native peoples were willing to make some compromises on both sides. I didn't even have to cut any firewood.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Battle Buddies and Art

A few months ago I traveled to Virginia to see some good friends. Turns out many of the people who are my best friends live in the Washington D.C. area. I stayed with a very good friend of mine and spent most of my time wandering the art museums and other great places around the city on my own. Many of my friends who live in the are are military and it's always great to visit with them. One day I stopped by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just to take a look around. I remember from trips to the wall as a child that there is only one Bowersmith listed on the wall and I have no clue who George Bowersmith is, neither does anyone else in the family. Logic would tell you I'm related to him.
What I did see was this:

It inspired me, as many things do, and made me think, once again this is not rare for me. Anyway. It's not rare for people to leave items for fallen comrades in arms along the memorial wall. I suppose it is what you do for your battle buddy. I really don't know, because I'll never have one. What I do know is even though I have not been terrified to the point of paralysis next to any of my military friends in an actual combat situation they all support me and back me up as if I had. Is everyone I know who is in the military this way? No. Am I misunderstanding something? Who knows. What I do know is that a select few of my friends are this way, like good family, and most of them are military. Would I leave a boonie cover and jungle boots on a grave for them? You bet, and nearly anything else I could do for them. After all, one of my only regrets in life is that I have never severed my country. The least I can do is serve my friends who have.
As I mentioned I did spend a lot of time at art museums. I've been to DC many times and I've done all the typical stuff. I'd pretty much seen all the touristy stuff there is to see, so I wanted to get a new perspective and see art. This has a lot to do with the fact that in the last ten years I have discovered I really like art and want to explore my own ways to make it. On this trip I specifically learned I like Impressionist art. I didn't know that. Possibly because I had not seen much of it in person. One of the things that struck me is that a gallery isn't JUST a place to look at art. It is a place to be inspired, and in the case of these huge national galleries; create it too.
While in the National Gallery of Art I saw this:
This beautiful woman was copying a painting. It really struck me. I'd been wandering though the galleries wondering why nearly every one had an easel in it, this woman showed me why. She was doing a great job too. I don't remember what she was copying, but I don't really think it matters.
I only spent a day in the National Gallery of Art, but I could have spent 100. I started at the ground floor and was examining every painting and sculpture. Every Rodin, every Monet sadly the only Van Gogh. Then I realized there was no possible way for me to examine every since piece the way I wanted to, so then I commenced to speeding though the gallery so I could see it all. The National Portrait Gallery is another story.
At first the National Portrait Gallery may seem like a pretty boring place. Yippie, thousands of paintings of mostly dead dudes. That was not the case. It made history seem so much more real to me. I was able to look at paintings of Oliver Hazard Perry made when he was in his 30s and again when he was in his 60s; truly amazing. I saw paintings of General Farragut and thought, "hey, I was just at his subway station." Things like that make the past seem so much more real. The other advantage to looking at all those portraits is inspiration. With any luck my own portrait work will improve after having seen so many successful portraits. Of course I will have to keep looking at the work of others to improve my own. It's like they say, "If you want to be a better writer, be a better reader."
Of course the National Portrait Gallery doesn't just have old paintings of mostly old dudes in it. Other art is about and there was some modern art on the top floor. Particularly an exhibit called "Video Games as Art" it was very cool and I missed it the first day so I went back to check it out.
At the end of my fist day in the portrait gallery though I did see this and decided to make a quick frame. I call it Art Lovers:
While I was perusing the top floor of the portrait gallery, and quite honestly passively following a beautiful woman trying to muster up the juevos to talk to her, I kept hearing music coming from the street. So I finished up the impressive exhibit about video games, sadly there was not anything about the Moder Warfare franchise, abandoned the girl and went to the street to check out the commotion. Turns out is was a street band, they were really good and they played until another band showed up across the street and then they left; some of them joined the other band.

Of course I took more photos and did more stuff, but I close with the tail end of my time in Virginia. On my way out I intended to visit Appomotix to see where the Civil War ended. The plan was to swing by there on my way to visit a good friend in Fredericksburg. I suppose you could call her my battle buddy, we were in something you could call combat together, it's complicated but I'm sure she'll agree to being my battle buddy. When I was paralyzed once she drug me to a defilate position so I could collect myself and get back to the fight. Anyway.
Rather than see where it all ended it was faster to see where it all started. So I went to Bull Run. Of course history tells us that the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, but the first battle was at Bull Run. As was another battle about a year later. The ground was solemn and I did my best to be reverent. I felt in awe of the scene and was amazed at how close the opposing forces were to each other. I learned that there were dozens of different uniforms in use during the battle because the forces were newly-collected units and I can not even begin to imagine a situation so confusing, terrifying and deadly all at the same time. After spending a few hours wandering the battlefield, which I'm told is much different today because there are no crops being grown on it, I stopped at the Confederate artillery position and took this photo of the Stonewall Jackson memorial:

I want to Graceland on this trip too, since I drove, but really Graceland deserves its own post. It took me over six weeks to get this one done, so don't hold your breath for Graceland.