Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Planet Backpacker

Do you ever dream of taking a big chunk of time, say six to twelve months, and seeing a bit of the world? Does it seem like an impossible dream? Well, a guy named Robert Downes from Traverse City, Michigan had that dream all his life, and in 2007, he made it a reality. As he traveled through Ireland, England, Western and Eastern Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, he posted blog accounts of his trip from about 100 internet cafes. His trip took over four months, and he had many adventures along the way. He traveled by bike, plane, train, boat, camel, and elephant. He camped out some, but mostly stayed at hostels and hotels. He also did some of the rougher parts of the journey with a tour group, but not the swanky groups that most people think of when they travel. After his journey, he used all his internet postings to write a book: “Planet Backpacker.”

This is not backpacking in the sense of hiking the Appalachian Trail, but in the sense that he had to carry everything with him in a pack, including his guitar. My friend Bev gave me this book for my birthday last July, and I finally got to read it a couple of months ago. I really enjoyed his story, and it made me think of the wanderlust in most of us. Unlike most of us however, Mr. Downes did something about it, sacrificing income, comfort, and family ties for nearly half a year to have a grand adventure.

He saw some of the sadder and seamier sides of our species along the way: young girls in Asia living as sexual slaves, people existing in poverty that few of us can even imagine, scam artists, and people living with the after effects of terrible past wars. But for the most part, he met many interesting and friendly people from many different cultures and religious beliefs. Most of them were amazed to meet an American, because it turns out that despite being from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, Americans (and also Canadians) are not prone to travel to foreign lands unless there is a resort or tour involved. Apparently, this is not true of Europeans, Australians, Kiwis, or Israelis.

I enjoyed reading this book. This man made his dream happen, paid the price in some discomfort and loneliness, and had an adventure that he will always remember. At the end of the book, he tells the rest of us how to do it and gives lots of advice, hints, and specific do’s and don’ts. If you like to travel, whether or not you ever think of doing a trip like this, I think you will want to read this book.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

During the trip to Washington, D.C., we stopped by the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is one of the most beautiful religious sites I have ever seen. The mosaic art work is amazing. There is a huge main church and along the sides, numerous small chapels, each with their own themes. The day I was there was the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, and it was touching to see all of the people of Central and South American descent coming to the special mass, all dressed up and carrying flowers. There was even a mariachi band for the mass!

I took a few photos:

The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Mosaic of Mother and Child

Moasic in the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe of people coming to see Our Lady

People praying at the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Look at all of the flowers that people brought!

Fairyland at the Botantical Garden

Last weekend(12/12), we were in Washington and went to the National Botanical Gardens, which is just amazing - especially at Christmas. They do these incredible displays where the buildings are all made from plant materials - no wood, metal, or plastic. Some are famous Washington buildings, others are whimsical scenes from nursery rhymes or they have a fairy land theme. I wish I could take my granddaughter to this! Pictures are worth 1,000 words, and so here you go. I'll keep the words short and defer to the photos.
US Supreme Court Building
A train running along the tracks in Fairyland
There was an old lady who lived in a shoe
The homes of the three little pigs, with the wolf approaching
Look at the creativity and artistry in these two settings
A fairy flying in front of a waterfall
Part of the charm of this exhibit is the beautiful trains that run along. Everyone there is just enthralled
A gypsy camp, complete with wagon (right), fire (center) and cottage (left)
The oh so creative caterpillar train, complete with antenna
Old man cactus in the desert exhibit
A beautiful orchid
The rain forest room
The Smithsonian Castle
The Garden's beautiful Christmas tree
The White House
Replica of neighborhood around Capitol Hill
Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, and, in the distance, the Lincoln Memorial
The US Capitol
The real US Capitol, from just outside the Botanical Garden's entrance

Friday, November 20, 2009

Short Michigan Hikes

I was in Michigan for a few days for my granddaughter's third birthday, and we took a couple of short hikes. Unlike the last time I went hiking with her, she was happy and cheerful, and did not wail like an air-raid siren. It was a joy to be with her and to do some little hikes. Some year, I hope to take a truly long hike with her.

The first hike was in a protected conservation area along East Traverse Bay, one of the many large bays along enormous Lake Michigan. A short hike through a pretty northern woods led to the bayshore. We explored the shore, looked at swans, and skipped stones. Here are a few photos.

Clouds along the bay shore

Conquering a rock

The shore was littered with thousands of freshwater clam shells. My guess is that raccoons eat well here.

At one point, there were seven swans a-swimming here, but I couldn't get them all framed

Looking north along the bay shore

Our other little hike was more of a romp. We went to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and climbed (and reclimbed) one of the dunes, then ran back down. She liked doing this, but was tired out from climbing in the soft sand and slept soundly on the way back to town - after eating some ice cream, of course.

My granddaughter and I rest during the dune climb. Today, she was the one needing the rest. Someday, it will be her waiting for me.

Running up the dune and having fun

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Philadelphia Zoo

Last Saturday, I made the 4.5 hour drive to Philadelphia, my home town, for my high school class reunion. Since I had the afternoon free before the party that night, I decided to go to America's first zoo in the City of Brotherly Love. I had not been there in probably 25 years, and was amazed how much it has changed. I've always been fascinated with animals, and a trip to the zoo as a child was always a favorite treat. But looking back, the animals were in cramped concrete pens for the most part. Now, there are fewer animals, but they have more space and more natural and interesting settings. No more do big cats nervously pace in their 15 foot square cages. No more do bears live at the bottom of concrete pits. I know that zoos are controversial, but when you hear young girls looking at a huge silverback gorilla and saying "he's so awesome," you realize that this is the only chance some people will ever get to connect with different animals. What we don't know about, we don't care about. I think that zoos, good zoos, are vital in the often losing battle of wildlife conservation.

Here are a few photos from my afternoon.

This land tortoise is massive.

Two female hippos relax in their pool.

My favorite exhibit was Big Cat Falls. It is beautifully designed. These are Amur tigers. Not long ago, only 50 survived in the wild, but now there are 400. This is an improvement, but still incredibly precarious. In my lifetime, at least two subspecies of tiger has gone extinct, and every other tiger subspecies is severely endangered.

This perhaps the world's rarest cat. Only 30 Amur leopards currently exist in the wild.

The world's fastest mammal is the cheetah. They are so sleek.

Giraffes are simply amazing. I would love to go to Africa and see them in the wild. What a beautiful creature they are!

The birds in the bird house are so fascinating. This is a pair of African hornbills. They are magnificant!

Proud as a peacock!

The Asian black bear is similar to our black bear, but with a much different face. The last time I was here, the bears lived in pits. Now they have spacious and naturalistic looking habitats.

The aardvark has to be first on the list when the roll is called. They are much bigger than I realized.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lunch Walk at Tredegar Iron Works

During the Civil War, Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was one of the most important industrial sites in the South. It turned out artillary, rail ties, and iron plate - including the iron plate that shielded the CSS Virginia. This ironclad ship, build on the hull and engines of the USS Merrimack, fought the USS Monitor in the first battle of iron ships in 1862. Now this site hosts the Civil War Center in Richmond.

It was a nice day Wednesday, and so I walked the seven-tenths of a mile here on my lunch break and walked around the outdoor portion of the site for a while. Here are some photos.
View of Tredegar Iron Works across the Haxall Canal
This rifled cannon was cast here and could fire an 80 pound shell 4 miles.
View of some of the TIW remains on a fall day
President Lincoln and his son, Tad, visited Richmond a day or two after it fell to Union forces in early April, 1865, just days before the first presidential assassination occurred in Ford Theater in Washington. This statue commemorates their visit to Richmond. Believe it or not, it was incredibly controversial to erect this statue in the former Capital of the Confederacy a few years ago. Some people got all wound up about it! It is amazing how many people are still fighting the Civil War more than 140 years later. Get over it, people! We are one country.
Old and new
Remains of Rutherford's flour mill, which was at this site. I think this is the mill race, which brought water downhill from the Canawa Canal just over the ridge to power the mill. This historic canal was proposed and funded in part by George Washington to connect the James River to the Ohio. It was dug all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains before the railroads made it obsolete. It is dry at this site, but contains water starting just a few miles from here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two Hours in DC

If you had two hours - only 120 minutes - in Washington DC, what would you do? That was my dilemma yesterday. My job sent me there for the day to attend a seminar, and I left on the 5:08AM Amtrak train, arriving at Union Station at 7:20. I hopped on the Metro and arrived at the seminar site at 7:45. With 15 minutes to kill, I walked from Federal Triangle to the Washington monument, its soaring white obelisk magnificent against the cerulean sky. As I walked back to the Ronald Reagan Building where the seminar was, I began thinking about what I would do at 3PM when the seminar ended. I would have about two hours before needing to head back to Union Station to catch the 5:50 train.

Our Nation’s Capital is probably my favorite city. There is so much to see and do. So what could I do in two hours? The American History Museum was right across Constitution Avenue from the Reagan Building. Then there is the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, or the National Gallery of Art, all wonderful. I could catch the Metro to the Zoo, or head over to the Museum of the American Indian, or the National Botanical Garden.

Or I could do a walkabout, a sort of urban hike. What if I told you that it was a beautiful late fall day, with cool but comfortable temperature and the bright hues of autumnal colors? Would that influence your decision about how to spend your time? It did mine, and even if it sounds dorky, the walk is what I choose over all of those other grand options.

In two hours in peak walking condition, I can cover about 9 miles if I don’t have to stop for traffic or sight seeing. I am not in peak walking shape right now but could still easily walk 8 miles under those conditions. But I would be stopping to look at things and, of course, for the legendary Washington traffic. So maybe 5-6 miles was more realistic. During breaks, I plotted out a route, and after the seminar, I pulled my running shoes from my daypack and laced them on, business shoes consigned to the darkness of my pack after a full day of use.

I headed out towards the Washington Monument again, hoping to go to the top, but the tickets were sold out. From there, I walked down the Mall to the amazing World War II Monument. I went there with my late stepfather in 2005, and will always remember how moving it was to visit this long-overdue memorial with this proud WW II vet.
Next stop – the Jefferson Memorial, my second favorite monument in DC (and actually my favorite until a few years ago). As I walked along under the cherry trees, I remembered the day a few years ago when I was here when the Japanese cherries were at their absolute peak blossom. It was like walking through a forest of soft pink, and was incredibly beautiful. Yesterday, I was treated to the autumnal yellows as their leaves were changing color.
I lingered at the Jefferson Memorial for a while, savoring the architecture and the views back to the White House. Then, I started walking along the west side of the Tidal Basin, and reached my current favorite spot in Washington – the fairly new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Monument. Unlike the others, this Memorial is not a single spot, but essentially a journey through FDR’s presidency. Just like every other time I’ve been here, I was so moved by some of the displays. I find it a very emotional place, this tribute to a man long gone when I was born, and the artists and designers have done an incredible job with it.
Next on my walking tour was the Lincoln Memorial, also always inspirational. This man, like FDR, saved our nation in a very perilous time. Now, I had a decision to make, and a difficult one at that. I had wanted to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge and go into Arlington National Cemetery to see the Kennedy gravesite, but had run out of time. I could still cross the bridge and catch the Metro there, or I could swing through the Vietnam War Memorial and walk back to the Federal Triangle Metro stop. The latter was a longer walk but I choose it because the Metro ride would be shorter, and I didn’t want to risk missing my train. Plus, it was my older brother Chris’s birthday yesterday, and he is far away right now. So I could honor him by visiting the Vietnam Memorial on his birthday. I am thankful that his name is not on the dark, black wall, but am sure that some of his comrades’ names are.

My walk ended with me hoofing it back up the Mall, past the WW II Memorial again, past the Washington Monument, and back to the Federal Triangle stop. As it turned out, I had plenty of time, as the train was 45 minutes late. Combine that with a snails pace due to some kind of trouble for the first 15 miles of the trip home, and I arrived home nearly at 10PM instead of the planned 8:15. But it was a fun day, and a nice little walk in our Nation’s Capital. Oh, what more I could have seen with just one more hour!

That is how I chose to spend my 120 minutes (actually it was 110 because the seminar ran late) in Washington, DC. What would you have done?