Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Rural America: The Desert Southwest   2 comments

The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.

We might as well face it.  America is no longer what it once was.  Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching.  They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies.  Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity.  Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation.  Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities.   To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes.  There are countless other examples.

Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated.  Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster.   And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas.  Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future.  But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot.  You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.

And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest.  This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.

It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.

Geography & History

The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau.  This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.  But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.

It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there.  Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension.  The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.

What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers.  It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other.  Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes.  One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel.  And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.

The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.

Appropriation

Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups.  Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century.  During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California.  Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe.  This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region.  Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).

But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that.  Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones.  Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years.  They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.

A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.

Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west.  That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century.  Santa Fe was founded in 1608.  That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil.  It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence.  It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico.  It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.

Taos to the north is also very old.  The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa.  They had eight children together.

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west.  Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country.  The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).

An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.

Mining in the Southwest

The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining.  While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache.  I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain.  If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.

When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued.  But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region.  For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find.  And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.

Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.

In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest.  Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country.  The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below).  Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.

Cowboys & Indians

One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective.  Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention.  In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang.  It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.

For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.

The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Road Tripping the Southwest

It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region.  You can too easily bite off more than you can chew.  And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation.  Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have.  Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.

In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips.  They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company.  The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest.  I’ll repeat myself:  whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once.  You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries.  That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset at Monument Valley.

Rural America, Part II: The Pacific Northwest   10 comments

Snowy Mt Hood catches the first rays of the sun as it presides over rural Hood River Valley, Oregon.

America is still largely a rural nation.  And not just in terms of area.  Many states lack major cities and most people still live rurally.  In states with metropolises, a well-documented trend, the return of Americans to city centers, has been going on for some time.  But another trend has continued unnoticed, and it involves far greater numbers of people.  Suburbs have expanded into more traditional rural areas, places once dominated by farming and ranching.  These so-called exurbs sit some distance from a city but are still connected to it in many ways.

While some of the exurbs resemble true suburbs and should probably be described as quasi-rural, many actually have a strong countryside feel.  They’re usually centered around small towns that retain much of their original character.  As mentioned in the last post, those living here are an important political force these days, as witness the last election.

In many exurbs it is only a matter of time before they lose any remnant rural feel.  A progressive expansion, fed in large part by retiring baby-boomers but also by steady population growth, is pushing aside America’s original rural character.  But this blog series is not about bemoaning that loss.  I prefer to celebrate what is left, which while inevitably changed from the old days, is still very much intact.

Western Oregon.

Seeing Rural America – The Pacific Northwest

Let’s start out in a part of the west that will always be special to me.  If you have read this blog for awhile, you know that Oregon is where my heart lies.  It’s a place I’ll always call home.  I was born and raised on the east coast, but I’ve lived by far most of my years there.  I’m currently living in Florida, in self-imposed exile.  But I’ll return someday.

A farmhouse sits in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.

DOWN (UP) THE WILLAMETTE

In order to see some of the prime farmland of that drew early settlers to this territory on the Oregon Trail (see the Addendum below), start in Portland and drive south up the Willamette River.  I know, south upriver sounds strange.  Avoid Interstate 5 wherever possible.  Instead take the back roads, hopping back and forth over the river using the few ferries that remain (Canby, Wheatland).  Visit Aurora, and Silverton, stretching your legs and being wowed on a hike in Silver Falls State Park near Silverton.  Continue south past Eugene, saying goodbye to the Willamette as it curves east into the Cascades.  The Cottage Grove area is famous for its covered bridges, so get hold of a map and enjoy the photo opps.!

Keep going south, making sure to stop at the Rice Hill exit off I5.  Here you should partake of Umpqua ice cream the way it should be eaten.  Delicious!  Visit the little town of Oakland just north of Roseburg, where I lived for a time.  Then divert west from Sutherlin on Fort McKay Road. to the Umpqua River.  Then wind down the river on Tyee Road.  Drive slow or better yet, do this on a bicycle!

You can keep going to the coast or return to I5 on Hwy. 138.  Another detour takes you east from Roseburg up the North Umpqua to Diamond Lake and the north end of Crater Lake.  If you’d rather stick with the rural theme and save nature for later, keep going south and visit the rather large but still charming town of Ashland, where a famous Shakespeare Festival happens every summer.

It’s difficult not to include Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak, in photos of rural bliss.

THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA

Let’s not forget the great state of Washington.  One of my favorite places in the world is the Olympic Peninsula.  It can be visited on a road trip that takes in both nature and rural charm.  The towns are spaced far apart here and Olympic National Park covers much of the northern peninsula.  But lovely farms still lap the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and talkative waitresses serve pie at cafes in towns like Forks, which retain much of their timber-town flavour.  Everybody still knows everybody in these towns.

Lake Crescent (image below) is incredibly scenic and a great place for a swim.  At dusk, in certain light, you can sit lakeside and easily transport yourself back to quiet summer evenings at the lake.  I wonder when vacations stopped being full of simple pleasures like jumping off a tire swing, fried chicken on a screened porch and word games in the dark, and became all about ticking off bucket lists and posting selfies?

Even areas quite close to the metropolis of Seattle retain much of their charm.  Take the back roads directly east of the city and drop into the valley of the Snowqualmie River.  Take Hwy. 203 north or south through Carnation, site of the original dairy farm of the same name (remember?).  Generally speaking you need to travel either east or, overwater via ferry, west of Seattle and the I5 corridor in order to experience rural western Washington.

Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula in very interesting dusk light.

HEADING EAST

I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the forgotten half of the Pacific NW.  It encompasses an enormous region east of the Cascades, one that retains in many places nearly all of its rural character.  The Palouse is a perfect example.  Lying in southeastern Washington and far western Idaho, the Palouse is wheat-farming at its purest.  It is an expansive area of rolling hills, backroads and picture-perfect barns.  Despite having become very popular with landscape photographers in recent years, its size means it always feels quiet and uncrowded.  I won’t say anymore about it since I posted a mini-series on the Palouse geared toward anyone contemplating a photo-tour.  Check that out if you’re curious.

There are so many other routes to explore in the Pacific NW that will allow you to experience the unique flavour of each region.  For example a fantastic road trip, again from Portland, is to travel east over Mount Hood.  But instead of continuing to Madras, turn off busy Hwy. 26 at easy-to-miss Hwy. 216.  Drop into the high desert and visit the little burg of Tygh Valley.  Continue east to Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its trout fishing and whitewater rafting.  Then drive over Bakeoven Road to historic sheep central, Shaniko.  Then drop east down twisty Hwy. 218 to Fossil and on to the Painted Hills.  This tour, by the way, is popular with motorcyclists in the know.  Thanks for reading and have a fun weekend!

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

Addendum:  Pacific NW History

I’ve always vaguely resented the fact that the Pacific NW is divided into two states.  I think the Oregon Territory should have been left as Oregon, no Washington.  To make 50 states we could have split off northern California (plus far SW Oregon) and called it the state of Jefferson.  I know a bunch of people who would be very happy with that!

Native tribes have occupied this region for thousands and thousands of years.  In fact some of the earliest remains of paleo-indians in North America come from eastern Oregon and Washington.  Now a semi-desert, back then it was significantly wetter, with large lakes full of waterfowl, and the rocky hills bursting forth every spring with all sorts of edible plants.

White Europeans began to take an interest in the area very early on in the 1700s.  But they only visited by sea.  To the north, British fur trading companies sent parties into the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest eco-region.  But it would not be until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a party of young, energetic men down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast near what is now the little town of Astoria, Oregon in 1804 that the young country signalled its intention to make the region part of America.

Edgar Paxson’s famous painting of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and Clark’s slave York at Three Forks.

In the mid-1800s mountain men of the west, with beaver all but trapped out in many areas, turned to guiding settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  The destination these hardy families had in mind was the rich farmland along the Willamette and other rivers of the Oregon Territory.  Some never made it all the way, instead stopping in cooler, drier areas like the Baker Valley of eastern Oregon and the Palouse, a dryland farming area in Washington.

Timber harvesting, farming and ranching have long been the mainstays of the Pacific Northwest.  If you’ve never read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Keasey you should do so.  It is expertly written and imparts an authentic look at traditional family-based logging in Oregon.  The movie is top-notch as well.

But times have changed.  The mills are shut down in most places.  Private timber lands are still harvested but with few exceptions federal National Forests are for reasons both environmental and economic no longer being cut.  The ways in which people here make a living have largely changed from natural resource-based to a mix of technology, tourism and a variety of service jobs.

 

Broken Dreams   10 comments

Oklahoma_Panhandle_6-2014_S95_004

I’ve been working on the southern Great Plains lately away from my beloved Oregon.  I don’t know why I miss home more now.  After all, I’ve been here in Oklahoma  for no longer than I’ve been away on my long photo safaris of the recent past.  But I do miss home.

That’s why I”m writing this post at the airport waiting for my flight.  I have about a week and a half off so I decided on the spur of the moment to cash in frequent flyer miles and fly back to the Northwest.  I need a break from the monotony of treeless plains and fields, from a river-less place that gets its water from an enormous underground store created by rains of the distant past.

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest of its kind in the world and has supported the American bread basket for generations.  Now of course it’s being “mined”.  We’re steadily depleting it, forcing us to continuously lengthen our straws, drilling deeper and deeper for precious water.

I’m posting a few photos from an old farm that I passed on the long highway that runs the length of the Oklahoma panhandle.  This stretch of loneliness juts westward between Kansas and Colorado on the north, the bulk of Texas to the south.  It seems as if it takes forever to drive far enough west to leave Oklahoma, either continuing west to New Mexico or north into Colorado.  The highway never strays.  It points west like an arrow.

Oklahoma_Panhandle_6-2014_S95_007

It’s inevitable that you pass or parallel a few historic pathways.  One is the old Santa Fe Trail.  Kit Carson and countless others rode horses over this trail in that golden time of westward expansion in America.  But this series of photos speaks to a more recent time.  Although the farm was abandoned sometime in the 1960s judging from the vehicles left behind, it very likely was used in the decades before that.  Maybe even during the wet years before  the dust bowl swept through in the 1930s.

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath documents the lives of those hard-working souls who left Oklahoma during the dust bowl and traveled to California in search of work.  These are the kind of people who built this country.  The story of westward expansion has fascinated me for a long time.  It was the first historical writing that I devoured while still quite young.  At least by choice; I don’t count anything I was forced to read in school.

Oklahoma_Panhandle_6-2014_S95_009-2

It was a warm late afternoon with very sparse traffic on the two-lane highway.  A few flies buzzed around the old buildings and automobiles.  The old windmill had been stripped long ago by relentless winds.  On that day the wind was calm.

Heeding the warming someone had painted on a door (see picture), I didn’t go into any of the buildings.  I just walked around shooting pictures, stopping to picture children playing in the yard, a weather-beaten woman hanging laundry.  A man bouncing to a stop in one of those old pickups, drunk on moonshine.

I wonder why they left?  Was it one of the droughts that routinely plague this region?  Too many failed crops of corn?  Did they just up and move to California one day?  Did they start over from zero?  I look and wonder.  Did they miss home?   Now it’s time for me to go home!

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Friday Foto Talk: Travel Photography Tips, Part II   3 comments

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

This is the second of three parts on travel photography.  Check out Part I, which covered gear & packing issues.  Given the time of year, this subject may be “right in your wheelhouse” , as they say.  So here are tips for when you hit the ground running (or jetlagged?).  Exciting stuff that first day on a long trip!  But how to go about getting your best shots?  Read on…

ON TOUR

      • Be ready:  While traveling, always be on the lookout for interesting photos.  This sounds obvious I realize, but many people seem to think their camera comes out only when they reach their destination.  As it is often said, it’s about the journey, and so should your photos be.  Many people get this of course, and I don’t want to preach.  Just keep your camera handy and ready to shoot from the time you leave home; that is my advice.
A common bird along Africa's waterways, the darter, is also known as the "snake bird" because of its sinuous neck.  I took a boat on the Chobe River to get this shot.

A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter, is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck. I took a boat on the Chobe River to get this shot.

      • Start Slow:  If you fly a long ways, this is more important.  You will be jetlagged and/or adjusting to a completely different environment.  This is not a good time to be lugging all your photo gear around trying to imitate a crack photojournalist or Nat. Geo. stud.  In fact, this is a good excuse for pocketing your little point and shoot (which I recommend taking if you’re a DSLR person) and just wandering around shooting only when you see something you like.  Colorful murals, sculptures, you know, the easy stuff!  Beware:  that first day or so is by far the most likely time for you to be ripped off, or at least persuaded to buy something way too expensive.  You’re tired, naive and trusting.  It can be a good thing, just be careful.
Colorful murals like this one in Guatemala are an easy target for your camera while traveling.

Colorful murals like this one in Guatemala are an easy target for your camera while traveling.

      • Light is still important:  Get out early and be out late.  I see so many travel photos taken in horribly harsh light, even by people who usually shoot in great light near home.  The rules for good light, good photography, they don’t change because you are on the opposite side of the world.  Just because you are in front of a gorgeous and iconic sight like the Grand Canyon doesn’t mean your photo will turn out great if it is taken in bad light.  That said, when confronted with an amazing subject or event, shoot away, to heck with the light!
A young Mayan lady high up in the Guatemalan highlands, in the village of Todos Santos, one of 3 friends I met & had a barrel of laughs with.

A young Mayan lady high up in the Guatemalan highlands, in the village of Todos Santos, one of 3 friends I met & had a barrel of laughs with.

      • Wander:  There is nothing more exciting about travel than to head out with not much of a plan and an open attitude.  Seems obvious; that’s why you travel, right?  If I’m driving, I head down random side-roads.  In other countries, I will get off the bus if I like what I’m seeing and catch a later one.  Wandering the streets of a new town, especially in the early morning hours, gives you a different take on the place from those tourists who are sleeping in or doing the pool scene at the hotel.
Chili Peppers dry on a windowsill in the Himalayan village of Khumjung, Nepal.

Chili Peppers dry on a windowsill in the Himalayan village of Khumjung, Nepal.

      • Experiment:  You are traveling and in a strange place.  This is the time to take chances with your photography.  Try panning in colorful cities.  Look for unusual and gritty subjects.  Just take care to not exploit the locals, no matter their economic circumstance.  Another way to look at this is experimenting with your point of view.  Try new things!  It will get you into places from which you can take photos from a perspective that will definitely liven up your collection.  You might also meet interesting people you might never have run into had you not stretched your boundaries.
Experimental sunset, shot from a speeding boat in Sian Kaan lagoon in the Yucatan, Mexico.

Experimental sunset, shot from a speeding boat in Sian Kaan lagoon in the Yucatan, Mexico.

I climbed higher than I've ever done before while in Nepal - 6200 meters (20,350 feet).  Seemed like the thing to do.

I climbed higher than I’ve ever done before while in Nepal – 6200 meters (20,350 feet). Seemed like the thing to do.

      • Attend Local Events:  Related to the above point, be on the lookout for special festivals and events.  When the locals party, you can be sure there will be great pictures to be had.  If you have a little lead time, you can even chat up people you meet and offer to take pictures of them during the event.  You can even trade copies of the pictures for model releases.  I did this in Nicaragua for the family I was staying with, and oh boy what a party it was (see image below)!  I even ended up having my photography pay for my lodging and food too.
A wild and wooly Nicaraguan rodeo on the island of Omotepe was a riot of parades, parties and drunken bull-mania!

A wild and wooly Nicaraguan rodeo on the island of Omotepe was a riot of parades, parties and drunken bull-mania!

      • Variety is the spice with travel, so mix it up!  Get up close for detail shots, find expansive viewpoints, seek out very colorful abstracts (street murals are a gimme) and find good subjects for black and white.  Don’t eschew the over-photographed classics, just try to get a different take on them.  The goal is to not have any two or three pictures look very much alike.  Take a lot of pictures, yes, but make sure they aren’t all the same.
When on road trips, take pictures of the road!  But make it an interesting point of view.  This shot I got by climbing up well above this tunnel in Zion National Park, Utah.

When on road trips, take pictures of the road! But make it an interesting point of view. This shot I got by climbing up well above this tunnel in Zion National Park, Utah.

That’s it for now.  Stay tuned next Friday Foto Talk for the final segment, Part III.  If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them to get pricing options for the high-resolution versions.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission, sorry.  Questions?  Just contact me.  Thanks for reading!

A beautiful summer evening in Cape Town, and an illuminated Table Mountain looms over the city.  View from Signal Hill.

A beautiful summer evening in Cape Town, and an illuminated Table Mountain looms over the city. View from Signal Hill.

Wordless Wednesday: Back-Streets of Granada   2 comments

Two residents of Granada, Nicaragua slow down on one of the city's back streets as the day does the same.

Granada, Nicaragua

Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

Cannery Row   Leave a comment

The row of fish canneries at Monterey, California was the subject of a famous novel by John Steinbeck.

The row of fish canneries at Monterey, California was the subject of a famous novel by John Steinbeck.

At a formative time in my life, I read John Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row.  I really loved this book, but it might have made me a bit of a wino.  I should probably explain.  But first, let me note that this is really a travel post about Monterey and its wharf area.  Monterey surely is on the tourist map, but it’s not over the top.  It has its share of history, and is a superb place to eat fresh seafood.  In addition, the waterfront offers some pretty good photo opportunities.  Let’s face it, photography is always better near water.

An old fishing float on Monterey's commercial wharf tell's stories of the storms it has seen in the form of barnacles and rust.

An old fishing float on Monterey’s commercial wharf tell’s stories of the storms it has seen in the form of barnacles and rust.

In our early twenties, a couple of friends and I read Cannery Row.  W were caught up by the atmosphere masterfully created by Steinbeck.  The desperation, the hard days of manual labor followed by evenings which featured friends reflecting on the meaning of it all…all over jugs of cheap red wine.  It struck a chord with us, since this is the sort of life we were living as very young men in Alaska.  On one occasion we found ourselves at Seward’s harbor, where the atmosphere is similar enough to the Cannery Row of Steinbeck.  A jug of wine and hijinks on an icy evening were the result.  Another time the Homer Spit was the site of our debauchery (I mean fun!).

View of Monterey, California's harbor from its famous Fisherman's Wharf.

View of Monterey, California’s harbor from its famous Fisherman’s Wharf.

 Monterey is located south of San Francisco on the California Coast.  It’s fishing harbor is sandwiched between two wharfs, or piers.  The western pier, called Fisherman’s Wharf, is for tourists, while the eastern one is the original “Cannery Row”.  This one’s appearance is definitely more rough and ready than the other, and fresh seafood can be purchased by the public.  You’ll find few people on the commercial wharf, while Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist promenade lined with shops and restaurants.  The commercial wharf sits far out in the harbor and offers nice simple photos.  I find it refreshing that the actual cannery row is still intact and in no way prettied-up for tourists.

Crabs, oysters and lobster fresh from the sea are offered up on Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf.

Crabs, oysters and lobster fresh from the sea are offered up on Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf is loaded with seafood restaurants, along with a few gift shops and a bar or two. It’s a fairly short walk to the end.  Most restaurants station someone outside to offer free samples.  When the light is good, it is an excellent place for a photo walk, followed by oyster shooters or fresh steamed crab.  You can walk between the two piers in short time, and there is a parking area between (or park in the nearby downtown).

A fishing boat lies in Monterey, California's harbor.

A fishing boat lies in Monterey, California’s harbor.

 Downtown Monterey is also a nice, walkable place.  All in all I liked this place much better than nearby Carmel by the Sea (which is more crowded and upscale).  True, Carmel has Clint Eastwood as a resident, but that’s one of its few advantages.

The famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is nearby, but I did not visit this time.  It’s just too popular a place to visit during the week before New Years, so I’ll have to see that some other time.

Barrels of salt water taffy tempt visitors to the candy shop on the wharf in Monterey, California.

Barrels of salt water taffy tempt visitors to the candy shop on the wharf in Monterey, California.

 That’s all for now.  If you are interested in any of the photos on my site, don’t hesitate to click on one and check out my website.  The photos will be there very soon, but contact me if you want immediate gratification. Please don’t try to download these copyrighted images . These versions are really too small in file size to be of much use anyway.  Thanks very much for your cooperation and interest.  And Happy New Year!!!

The harbor at Monterey, California is dominated these days by pleasure craft.

The harbor at Monterey, California is dominated these days by pleasure craft.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter's late afternoon light.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter’s late afternoon light.

 

Visiting the California Coast near Big Sur   3 comments

In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur.  Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years.  I would think much of summer would also be too crowded.  First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS

I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am.  They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes.  So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after.  With some exceptions, this is what they get in California.  Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight.  In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant.  In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public.  You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.

Anna's Hummingbird Feeding

Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast.  There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area.  But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.

I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands.  This is harder to do here than in Oregon.  Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult.  The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

PROS: 

Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees.  This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south.  Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.

Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport.  Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land.  By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.

Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures.  I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast.  Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.

Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines.  In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special.  I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.

Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University.  Talk about being thawed out!  The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.

An Anna's hummingbird rests in the sun before an incredibly energetic feeding session.

An Anna’s hummingbird rests in the sun before an energetic feeding session.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.

  • Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
  • McWay waterfall:  A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself.  See image below.
  • The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe:  Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants.  Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee.  There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden.  But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
  • Point Lobos:  Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve.  Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots.  This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
  • The headland just south of Point Lobos:  If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach.  There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway.  A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench.  South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
  • Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel.  Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play.  You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
  • Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy.  This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays.  There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name).  While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
  • Carmel Mission:  Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos.  It is well preserved.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium:  A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world.  It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
  • Garland Ranch Regional Park:  This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1.  Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park.  It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise).  There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan.  You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths.  There is also a visitor center.
A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

So that’s it for now.  It’s a pretty subjective report I know.  If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites.  Just try to visit during an off week.

The rocky Monterrey County, California coastline includes some granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

The rocky coast of Monterrey County, California includes granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Adios Mexico!   2 comments

 

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

This is goodbye to Mexico, for now.  It’s a long drive to make it all the way home by Christmas.  I really like Mexico, and have to wonder about the reputation it has for not being safe.  While that might be true in Ciudad Juarez, and perhaps a few other places, it is most definitely not true in any general sense.  It is as safe as any country in the world, and the people are generous and friendly.  The food is good, the sun smiles nearly every day, and the girls are very pretty (I can’t speak for the guys, sorry ladies).  So if you haven’t been here yet, what are you waiting for?

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

I am leaving via Tecate, my preferred border crossing for Baja.  It is more direct to go through Tijuana, but that crossing is very crowded and this is a more scenic route.  The mountains just over the border in California are quite beautiful too.  I have decided I could be happy living in Ensenada.  I  met many nice people there, and I came close to tearing my heart a little bit in leaving one particular person.  A little longer, and…

Frequent any town square in Mexico and you will see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

Frequent any town square (zocalo) in Mexico and you’ll see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

So Adios Mexico, volvere algun dia (I’ll return someday).  Feliz Navidad everyone!

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

Ensenada City Guide II   4 comments

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

This is the second of two parts.  Scroll down for the first post.   Ensenada is not a big city.  I don’t know about the statistics, but it feels like a modest city or very large town.  I have always loved places of this size. Having been here a week, I am starting to see the some of the same folks.  They show recognition and are starting to wave and say Buenos Dias.  They probably think I’ve moved here. The citizens are good people here.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

 The city center (el centro) is basically divided into two sections.  One is the waterfront, which extends a few blocks away from there towards the east.  This is the “Zona Turistica”, an area with signs in English, high-end shops, and restaurants with food that suit the palettes of Americans and other Anglo Saxon types.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The city’s prostitutes operate out of this section too, though streetwalkers are very rare. Instead, they hang out in strip bars and massage parlors. If you’re a man walking through this area, be prepared for local guys to offer you the services of young girls. I wonder why so many people assume that middle-aged white men want to make it with girls who could be their daughters, or even granddaughters. It’s very true in Asia as well, Thailand being infamous for it. Very disturbing.  All of that said, I very much enjoy seeing and photographing the pretty women of Mexico, both young and old.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

The great thing about the tourist section is that, being the waterfront, locals use it heavily. Even when cruise ships arrive and disgorge their passengers, locals outnumber tourists.  This means there are taco stands, great local restaurants, and even a local coffee shop or two.  I’ve been frequenting a delightfully cozy little cafe in the same mall where Sanborn’s Cafe is located (look for their sign).  Called Cafe Italia, it’s mere steps north of the town’s Starbucks.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront.

Sadly, the Starbucks gets much more business, perhaps because it is streetfront on Lazaro Cardenas, the road that runs right along the waterfront.  My little cafe is sort of hidden away, but it’s worth finding.  Sanborn’s Cafe is a nice restaurant as well, with traditionally dressed waitresses.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja California, Mexico.

Cruise ship passengers seem not to wander beyond the Zona Turistica.  Granted there is plenty to keep you here.  The malecon passes the fish market, which is alongside a row of seafood restaurants (convenient!).  You will be offered boat rides here, from whale watching to fishing trips.  There are the requisite tours that go to various places that I am not familiar with, but I have not heard of anything that really piques my interest.

Ogla, the waitress, dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

Ogla, the waitress, who is dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

 If you simply walk a few blocks further from the sea, you come upon cheaper shopping and a much more traditional Mexican vibe.  There is a Sears and a couple other department stores, but there are also many small shops where you can pick up clothes and other stuff at good prices.  I bought myself a sombrero, my very first cowboy hat, for only $17.  It’s very nice, and the same shop has high quality leather cowboy boots for much cheaper than you’d find them in the U.S.  Further down south, a little ways from the city center, American big box stores have opened (Walmart, Home Depot, Costco).

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

 In amongst the shops in the city center are a plethora of streetside eateries.  This is a big part of Mexican culture.  Walk down the street around lunchtime and pick a popular taco stand.  You’ll get tasty fresh-fish tacos for about a dollar.  And you will likely be serenaded by guitarists singing traditional Mexican songs.  Most everybody eats standing up in the shade of the stand.  Very often it is grandmothers making the tacos, and their grand-kids will usually be there if school is not in session.  Catch a Mexican when they are eating and you will always get a friendly attitude.  Food is the glue that binds people, especially families, together here.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

 As far as nightlife goes, there are local favorites, such as Hussong’s Cantina a few blocks inland from the harbor.  Then there are the touristy places like Papas & Beer.  Dance clubs are also in this same area.  At about 10 p.m. on a weekend night, look for the lines to get in, young (and gorgeous) girls along with guys trying to be cool about it all. Policia are all about the area, but truth be told, this is a perfectly safe area, even at night.  Ensenada is not Tijuana.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

Plenty of people from California take vacations down here in the summer.  But I really think Ensenada is by and large overlooked in favor of La Paz and Cabo to the south.  Many visitors to the Baja Peninsula fly to the southern resorts, and I can’t say anything bad about a quick and easy winter escape down there.  But if you have the time to drive down, or if you’re going by bus down the peninsula, Ensenada and the deserts of northern Baja California are certainly worth some time.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A young Mexican couple in love.

Moving on from Ensenada, you can head south via San Felipe over on the eastern side of the peninsula.  This involves some gravel road south of San Felipe, but it is very scenic and unpeopled.  And you get to see a lot of the Sea of Cortez, a more beautiful coastline I think than this part of the Pacific Coast.  You can always return north via the main paved highway, so as to visit Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir (see previous posts).  That’s all for Baja (I think). Hope you enjoyed it!

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

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