Lousiana - Thibodaux Cajun Music

by Kimp 2. April 2013 03:38
Cajun Music:
A number of years ago (about a zillion) , I attended the Kentucky Blue Grass Festival in Lexington Kentucky. Where I was introduced to Cajun music, by an awesome Cajun band that played a set there. I remember really liking it at that time. The main instrument was an accordion and it was all uptempo dance music with a unique rhythm. I didn't know it at the time, but the Cajun music I had heard in Kentucky, was influenced by the Louisiana Prairie Cajun people as apposed to the Louisiana Bayou people.
I was trying to figure out how Sam and I could see some Cajun music without going into a bar and I happened to find a Cajun Music Jam session that takes place every Monday in one of the small towns, that was the pioneer of the real Cajun music that came out of the bayou's.
is a small village that was at the intersection of two main Bayous - Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Terrebone. Bayou Lafourche was a major canal used for shipping Sugar Cane from the plantations in Louisiana and there were high banks in the area. That made it an idea place for a small town that supported the sugar industry. Cajun bayou people would converge on Tribodauxville to partake in song and to get their dance on. 
Cajun Religion:
Since most Cajun's derive from France and Spanish influences, the main religion is Catholic. However, since Cajun's are now a mixture of many ethnicity's, likewise there is also a mixture of religions.

Bayou Cajun Music:

In Bayou Cajun, the primary instrument is Fiddle, Guitar or Steel Guitar (in Prairie it's always the accordion).  In Bayou Cajun, Waltz's and two steps are in 2/4 time and are slower then their Prairie Cajun 6/8 cousins are.
It's a blend of French and Irish folk styles with Latin Rhythms and sounds a lot like American Country music sung in French.
Here is an example of Cajun Bayou Music.
Cajun Prairie Music:
is popular in Eunice Louisiana (northern Louisiana which will be on another future album) and it is like no other music. It may have been influenced by German immigrant's since all original players used German accordions. Later, when they could not get parts for their German accordions, they took them apart, studied them, and started making their own authentic Cajun accordions.
These are some dudes from Belgium who are playing a standard Cajun prairie song.
is my personal favorite.
It's is a fusion of Cajun Prairie with Rhythm and Blues. The dances often look like soulful versions of a 1950's sock hop.
I call Zydeco (Cajun Soul Music) and here is a good rendition of Zydeco with a dance (Starts at about 20 seconds in, but also check out the dudes handkerchief at about 3:30, that's a touch of Cajun class):
Zydeco is very popular in Lafayette Louisiana (the Cajun Capital which will be on another future album).
There were a number of French people who migrated to Nova Scotia (Northeast of Maine). The British invaded Canada, took control and exiled all of the French. The French were alienated from France and they didn't want to go back to France, so they moved to Louisiana which was mostly inhabited by French people, but was governed by the Spanish, at that time.
The derivation of the Cajun name:
The French renaissance (1700's) idolized a place in Greece, which they knew by the name of L'Arcadie. Ancient poetry, like Virgil's Eclogues described Arcadia (English name for L'Arcadie) as a place populated by primitive and idyllic shepherds, living in harmony with nature. Subsequently, Arcadia has remained the symbol of a golden age, a world where pastoral laughing are the main musical entertainment.
When the French colonized Nova Scotia they created a city by the name of L'Acadie (kind of like a new
Acadien was a person from L'Acadie.
Cadien was a person from Lousiana, who had decended from the Acadien's whom immigrated into Louisiana in 1765 when the British exiled them, but whom developed their own French dialect. The reason the dialect changed was because there were a lot of ethnicity's involved (French, Spanish, American and African) in addition to the Acadien immigrants.
Cajun is the English name for a Cadien.
The Acadien immigration was very difficult. There was a Spanish Governor in Louisiana and he did not like the Acadien's.  It took 10 years for them to be accepted and they went through, poverty, slavery, and imprisonment during that time. They could relate with the African slaves. That's why they took to the swamp land. They just wanted to be left in peace.
Cajun Jam:
Since this was an open jam session from a small town, I was expecting it to be pretty good but different. Like most Jam sessions, the instrumentation was varied from the norm. Often times there is someone at a jam session, who is in the process of learning, and might not be up to par with the rest of the group.
This one was a little on the rough side. The fiddle player was pretty good and he had a nice voice that was in tune. After that tuning skills went progressively down hill, all of the way to what appeared to me to be the most out of tune player. Many Cajun bands have someone playing a resonator guitar (Dobro) that they sometimes flip horizontally and play in a steel guitar fashion. This one, had an actual steel guitar player. Someone proudly said that this steel guitar player had been playing for 60 years. I was wondering in what year he went completely deaf, but didn't ask. Besides being way out of tune, I'm not even sure he was playing the same song, in the same key as everyone else. At times, the singers would break out into four part harmony. It kind of sounded like three hound dogs accompanying the lead singer. There were a few times, I'm pretty sure that my ears were bleeding.
The locals that were there, seemed to be digging it. Many were smiling, moving with the music and enjoying themselves. For me, this was a surreal experience.
A few months ago, Joe Walsh (Rocky Mountain Way, Life's been good to me) was telling a story about when he first started performing in public. It went something like this: Dude when I first started playing, I really sucked and I was considering giving up the dream of becoming a musician. Then something magical happened. There was this group called the Beatles, who came out with a whole bunch of songs that people loved. After that, all I had to do was play a set of Beatles songs and everybody loved me. they didn't even care at all, that I sucked. And when I got Beatle boots, wohoo, I was really something.  It took me a really long time to get good. Most of the time, I wasn't getting good, I was just bringing awful up a notch at a time.
This looked like to me, it was along those same lines. The people were connecting with the emotions that they had about the song and not with the sounds that were coming from the band. Many years ago, they were having a blast with their friends and a certain song was popular. They are reliving that good time, once again in their life.
Another funny Joe Walsh story: Dude, I started out playing trombone, then switched to clarinet. One day I decided that I was never going to get any chicks playing clarinet, so I switched to guitar. I found out that I could figure out song's on a guitar. Oh, I never really got any chicks playing guitar either, but I was having a lot more fun, so I stayed with it.



Lousiana - Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge

by Kimp 1. April 2013 02:55

Photo Blog

This year for Spring Break. Sam and I headed deep into Cajun country. We stopped at all of the cities and several small towns in the lower 3/4 of Louisiana.

Mississippi Delta:
It's thought that the Mississippi river was created at the end of the ice age. As the glaciers in the Northern part of the United States started melting.  The run off was slow, creating a slow moving, winding river that carried lots of sediment within it.  Even today, it's still eroding soil away and is always a shade of brown from all the sediment that's being carried down river. The sediment, which comes from fertile farm land, is nutrient rich and gets deposited at the end, where the river dumps into the gulf of Mexico.

This created the Mississippi river delta, which consists of nearly all of southeastern Louisiana. Much of Louisiana is at or below sea level. The highest land is only around 18 ft (6m) above sea level. As delta's are created, there comes a time when the land that is being created builds up enough that it diverts the flow of the river. Sometimes way upstream, the river finds a new path of least resistance to follow. The result of all of this, are the formations of swamps and marshes. A swamp is land that has enough stability and nutrition to support trees. A marsh, is an open non-wooded area, with lots of vegetation, that attracts many birds. Louisiana is a stopping or resting place for about 40% of North America's migrating birds and it contains about 60% of the worlds species of fish.

Lots of fish and lots of birds, makes living off of the land possible, and that's why Cajun's often stayed near home and lived in the swamps. They were a self sufficient society that didn't need any outside help to survive. There's always lots of good healthy eating in Cajun land.

At one time, Louisiana had many Cyprus swamp forests. Cyprus has two qualities that most wood does not have. It's highly rot and highly insect resistant. Cyprus groves still exist, but the large Cyprus trees have been over harvested. There are still some that sunk to the bottom of the Bayou during transport. When one of those is found, Cajun's will work very hard to try to free it. Large Cyprus logs are worth a lot of money and being under water for 100 years doesn't effect them at all.

My history:
I spent 4 years in the Navy with a young Cajun working for me. I'll never forget the first time I meet him. I asked him where he was from and he said in a slow drawl, "I'm from the land of tall trees and green grass, where all of the folks just call me Bad Ass!!!".  I said, "Dude you just earned your nickname, cause you are about as far away from a Bad Ass as anything I've ever seen.". That last year he worked for me, I got him started working with software. Ten years later, he tracked me down, just to say how grateful he was that I had started him down that path. All I had really done was show him a few things and told him I knew he had what it took to do it.

Cajun Jimmy:

Sam and I hung out with Cajun Jimmy for a day. Cajun Jimmy spent 4 years in the Navy, during the Vietnam war. I didn't ask him, but I assumed, since he was from Louisiana, that he was probably part of the brown-water navy, on a gunboat patrolling the rivers.

I've know a few Cajun's in my day, and for some reason, I thought all of the Cajun's who stayed in Louisiana, were people who lived in the swamp off of the land. We got to Cajun Jimmy's and I was surprised to discover that he lived in a beautiful house in a sub division. Turns out, that's fairly common in this day and age.

It's a type of man-made disaster. All of the levy building and flood control systems destroy the wet lands and its natural defenses from seawater intrusion. Saltwater destroys living plants and tree's, just like it does people who are stranded in the ocean. With more stable land available, the Cajun's end up building on the land instead of staying in the swamp. Then they need more flood control to protect all of the development and the cycle repeats itself.

Jimmy said that he grew up living in the swamp, but he didn't know he was very poor until he left Louisiana.  Growing up,  everyone he knew was just like him, and they all lived pretty much the same life. When someone needed something done, they all pulled together, pitched in, and helped each other.

Interestingly, Jimmy's wife wasn't a Cajun. She was from California, of all places. I asked Jimmy how that happened. He said that after he got out of the Navy, he moved to California to go to school on the GI Bill. Then he continues to quietly say, "I made a big mistake and stayed in one place for too long and got married!!!". Jimmy has a degree in software engineering and now he spends his time outside enjoying his modified Cajun lifestyle during the week and works on software mostly on the weekend. Sign-me up Jimmy, I know how to swab a deck and I can create software too.

A bayou is a natural waterway that's about 5 foot deep and where the bank is only about 1 foot higher then the water. The water is usually slow moving. The whole scene has the same aesthetic quality as a Venice canal. They are usually a shade of brown (nutrient rich). Some are very dark and are called bayou black. Some are very clear and are called bayou blue. The song blue bayou should have been named bayou blue. All bayou's start with the word bayou first, then the specific name. Like bayou Teche. It would never be called blue bayou. That lyricist has obviously never been to Louisiana.

It was a beautiful, sunny spring day and there were lots of Gators out sunning themselves. Cajun Jimmy said that gators are not aggressive to humans, so there's nothing to worry about. I believe him, but at the same time, I saw a lot of baby gators out sunning, and I have a feeling, if I got close to one of them, mama gator was going to dig deep and find some serious aggression. 

Cajun's kids:
My fear, didn't seem to stop or even slow down any of the Cajun teenage boys who were knee boarding in the alligator infested waters. As a general rule, Cajun kid's are healthy, are hard workers, are self reliant and are very respectful to elders. 


We saw quite a few neat birds while we were out. The most interesting for me were the Bald Headed Eagles. Bald Headed Eagles migrate here in January to mate. Actually, since Eagles mate for life, they bring their mate with them. The eggs hatch in March and in May they head back up North, to as far away as the Arctic circle. Eagles always use the same nest every year, so this is like their winter home.

Inland Waterway Billboard:
There is only one ugly thing in the wetlands. A very thoughtful lawyer bought some land near one of the major inland waterways. An inland waterway is a natural waterway that is wide and deep enough to support navigation by large ships and barge traffic. The land he bought was not zoned, so he put up a huge billboard advertising his specialty. Oil worker compensation claims.
Sense of urgency:
We were only supposed to be gone for about 2 hours. Four and half hours later we finally get back and Cajun Jimmy's wife looked a little disappointed. I could see it in her eyes from about 1/4 of a mile (400 m) away. I asked Jimmy what that might be about. He says, "Oh, I'm not sure? I was probably supposed to be somewhere or do something today. My wife is always telling me that I don't have any sense of urgency. But it's not that I don't have a sense of urgency, I just haven't owned a watch in over 20 years."
As we were departing, Cajun Jimmy's last words to me were:  "You sure take a variety of pictures.". That could have been a complement, like saying that I have a variety of interests. More likely it was a jab in the ribs, like saying I sure don't have a clue about anything. Not sure of which, I just politely smiled.



Sweden - Dog Sledding North of the Artic Circle

by Kimp 16. February 2013 01:08
Some of the pictures didn't come out very well. I had my camera on Manual focus for a few shots, then got distracted and didn't put it back in Full Auto. I eventually figured it out. Also, going between extreme cold and warm fogged up the lens and I didn't realize that for a while either.
No matter where I've lived in the Northern Hemisphere, every February, there's an entire week of the most bitter cold I've ever felt. The days have been getting longer and the sun has been getting hotter for two months, yet it just keeps getting colder outside. When I hit that week, I just want to pack my bags and head for the tropics. The problem with that is: when I get back, it still feels cold.
This year, I decided to try something different. I figured if I went into the extreme cold, instead of the tropics, when I got back, it would feel warm. So I headed up North of the Arctic Circle in the middle of February. Now that I'm back, I can attest to the fact that, that was "a good idea gone bad".  I concluded that when I go from hot to cold, it feels just as cold as when I go from colder to cold. It's just plain cold and that's all there is to it. Anything less then the Spring that I've been anticipating since winter started, just doesn't cut it.
Arctic Circle:
When standing directly on the arctic circle at the winter solstice (shortest day of the year), we're guaranteed to have 24 hours of darkness from midnight to midnight, for exactly one day. Polar night is the term for that. When standing directly on the arctic circle at the summer solstice (longest day of the year), we're guaranteed to have 24 hours of sunlight from midnight to midnight, for exactly one day. Midnight Sun is the term for that. The farther north of the Arctic Circle, the larger the number of polar nights and midnight suns.
Night time is kind of deceiving in the polar region. The snow is very white and pollution free, so it reflects any light that is hitting the Earth.  When the sky is clear and the moon is out, we can see pretty good at night.
The land mass in Sweden and Finland above the Arctic circle is known as the laplands. The indigenous people of Scandanavia and Russia are called Sami and the laps are the tribe of Sami's that inhabited Sweden (Finland was once part of Sweden). That's were the Laplands got their name.
Lapp's are nomadic people, who did and who still do, follow the reindeer herds as they migrate to different areas. The reindeer are their sole source of subsistence. They hunt it and use every part of it. Lapps do not have horses, they tamed a few reindeer and they use them for transportation. Reindeer also haul goods from place to place in sleds that they pull. In fact, one can take a trip with the Lapp's all of the way across Sweden in a sled pulled by reindeer. It takes 8 days and we sleep in tents.
This is the only place in the world where that is done, so I know Santa Claus lives somewhere in Lapland. Plus elves deliver the Christmas toy's via sled in Scandinavia. Santa, the elves and the workshop all must be somewhere in Lapland. 
Aurora Borealis:
Lapland is the best place in the world to see the aurora borealis. A mountain range in the northern part of Lapland makes it difficult for the clouds in the prevailing wind to make it into the Laplands, so there are many cloud free nights. The aurora kind of looks Alien in nature. As a result, there are lots of people who believe in Alien's in Lapland. A young Swedish women told me, "When you see the aurora borealis, make sure that you don't say 'Bleep Bleep'.". She said 'Bleep Bleep' in a high pitch with a very serious look on her face. I started to laugh as she went on to explain, "Cause if you do, you will be sucked right up into the alien spaceship". Whoa!!! Can we go over that again, I sure don't want to get sucked up into an alien spaceship.
Funny, I never would have even thought of saying 'Bleep Bleep', until after she told me that. I wander why the pilot didn't announce that as the plane landed. I mean, what if I got off the plane, saw one right away, said 'Bleep Bleep', got sucked up into the stratosphere and became some Aliens sex slave. I'm pretty sure, I'd had a bulletproof lawsuit against the airline, over that.
The aurora borealis comes from a weakness in the Sun's magnetic field, that lets lots of radiation escape. The sun is very fluid and its magnetic fields are constantly in movement. Every once in a while a big weak place is exposed and radiation spews from it. That's the single ingredient needed for a great aurora experience.
Solar radiation hits the earth all over, but since the atmosphere is weakest at the poles, it makes it into the earths upper atmosphere where the radiation interacts with the atmospheric gases and turns into visible light. The colors can vary depending on which molecules they interact with, but green (oxygen) seems to be the predominate color in lapland.
The intensity of these solar flares vary from year to year and there is a 20 year cycle of activity that repeats. This year is a peak year, which means 20 years ago was a peak year and the next peek will be in 20 more years. Another major factor is that the weak spot on the sun has to be pointed directly towards the earth as the sun rotates, if it isn't then some of the radiation will completely miss the earth.  It takes 3 days for light from the sun to reach the earth. Science will tell you three days in advance if you have a good change of seeing a really good one.
It takes about 8 days for the sun to rotate one time, so 8 days from the last good sighting, there is a good chance for another good sighting. I missed one of the best in the last 20 years by about 3 days. also on the day I was leaving the weak spot was rotating back around and just after I left, it was expected to be even better then the last one. When I was there, cloud cover was pretty heavy much of the time, which would have obstructed it from view (it happens above the clouds). It would have really sucked, if I was there on the right day and all I saw was clouds, knowing it was awesome right above them.
My history:
My grandfather on my mom's side emigrated from Sweden when he was very young. All he knew of his ancestor's was that they were Swedish, but his family name was Ostling, which translates to person from the East. The only thing East of Sweden in those days was Russia (Finland was part of Sweden at that time), which leaves me skeptical. Assuming some of his ancestors came from elsewhere in Europe, person from the East could have referred to somewhere in Asia, but I sure don't look anything like any of the Asians that I know.
If my grandfather's ancestor's really were from Sweden, then there's a chance that I am a direct decedent of Santa Claus. So I wanted to see if I could find him and get a DNA sample.
Trip Preparation:
My plan was simple. I was going to fly to Lapland with one of my recent Christmas gifts. Give a good whiff of the scent that was on it, to the lead sled dog . And he should take me right to the workshop. This plan was so simple and elegant, how could it possibly fail. It was borderline Genius.
I spent quite a bit of time preparing for this trip. A full month of acclimating myself to the cold,  in the rare event that I ended up stuck outside for a whole night. Acclimation only takes two weeks, but I wanted to get used to being pretty cold. As long as we stay dry, our body can easily handle cold temperatures. Acclimation just trains our mind not to fear cold. Once acclimated I can walk in 40 degree F (5 C) wearing shorts and a t-shirt . I can still feel the cold, but since my body doesn't go into shock over it, the cold is easy to tolerate.
When I was a kid, I often sleep in an unheated attic room in Northern Ohio, where I could see my breath as I exhaled at night. That was by choice. I had a heated room down stairs in the house. I just liked it because it was a large open space and very private. Also, the heat in the room downstairs was debatable. My mother has always been very frugal and she kept the heat at 65 during the day and turned it down below 55 at night (in the downstairs). My mother is very proud that her electric and heating bills which are always the lowest of anyone she ever compares them with.
I never felt cold during the night, but in the morning when I got up and my bare feet hit the small throw rug that was next to my bed, that's when the cold would hit me. From the bed to the stairs was 30 feet of freezing cold linoleum. That was like running across an ice pond in bare feet. I didn't wear sock's because the floor was to slippery with socks on, and I ran the risk of wiping out into the wall, while trying to round the U-turn corner at full speed, to head down the stairs. Even if I navigated the corner in socks at high speed, I still ran the risk of the double whammy. There was door at the bottom of the very smooth and polished wooden stairs. One slip coming down the stairs and not only did I bust my ass, but I slammed straight into the very solid wooden door at the bottom.
The best guide in all of Lapland:
Someone had pointed me in the direction of an old dude in Lapland, whom they said, was the best guide in all of Lapland. He was expensive, but I ponied up and hired him, sight unseen, on the spot, way before I got up there. I meet him for the first time, the day before I went dog sledding out into the open and vast wilderness. I had pictured some big burly, hardy lumberjack, like Paul Bunyan with blonde hair. The guy I meet, looked like a slim hippie from the 60's, who hadn't quire grown to full height. He was sporting slightly kept hair and an unkept beard. His personally carried him as someone who was tough as nails, but really fascinating and easy to talk with. He had a swagger that was kind of like a short, slim Buffalo Bill Cody. He had on a pair of the most awesome snow pants I'd ever seen. They were finally crafted, very smooth, tanned leather with American Indian like frays in the outer most seams. The Frays were about 2 inches long and angled instead of hanging straight down. They kind of looked like cowboy chaps, but were full pants that were big enough to go over other pants. On him, they looked pretty bad ass. If I were a fashion designer, a variation of those would be in my line.
I hung out with him for a while the day before. He talked a lot about dog sled racing over the years and how he got to where he is today. I shared quite a few laughs with him, but I don't think he owned a smile. He said, his business was doing great this year and he had way more opportunity, then time on his hands. In his speech, I could see the signs, of a man, who had worked very hard this season. As we parted, he was stressing over whether or not to enter a 3000 km (1800 mi) Dog sled race. Those long races are arduous and very expensive. Driving hard for 20 hours a day and sleeping less than four. A person has to win the race, just to break even on expenses. The full entrance fee was due by midnight, so he had to pay or pass, and it was looking to me like he was probably going to pass. I hope he paid, cause I could also tell that he was the type to regret passing, at a later time.  I couldn't wait for the the next day, to find out.
Anna and North Pole expedition:
The next day I was picked up in a van and dropped off at a different location. An amazing house on a hill overlooking the Torne river. Wild Bills residence I presumed. Stepping inside, I meet a very kind, warm and beautiful women in her mid thirties, who introduced herself as Anna. Surmising that was Wild Bill's wife, I gave a kind smile and thought, "Man, Wild Bill sure is a sly old dog. I wish I had one tenth of his swagger."
Shortly thereafter,  a very health and happy man in his mid Thirties appears with a few young kids in toe and kisses Anna right on the lips. He smiles and he turns to me with a big smile and introduces himself as my guide. It took me about a half of a second to figure out that Wild Bill had betrayed me. He took my money and sold me to another guide for a piece of the pie. At the end of the day, Wild Bill is a shrewd businessman. I was probably the only person he had that day, so rather then bust ass and make a meager profit, he could pawn me off to someone who had more people and probably make the same or more profit.
I fought to suppress the bitterness that was quickly taking over my sole, until I got to know this jovial sole. Good thing I did. He turned out to be full of energy and was very accomplished for this young age. Around him, where pictures of him, Anna and some of his dogs on a North Pole expedition. That takes a hearty person, with a lot of money and a lot of guts. Usually they helicopter to around 2 degrees from the Pole in April, then sled the rest of the way. They have to carry all of their supplies with them and sleep in tents for about 2 weeks. And they still run the chance of getting stuck in a storm that could be -80F. At that temperature, urine freezes before it hits the ground, and your exhale crystallizes into ice crystals that quickly fall and collect on your sleve. I was feeling pretty comfortable in his presence.
Another dude who was with us, was a brilliant college student, enrolled in a civil engineering program at the University of Calgary in Alberta Canada. I 'm pretty sure Marc is one of the top in his class and also received very strong evaluations from his professors. This dude was awarded a one year Internship at Asea Brown Boveri in Switzerland. That's the biggest Engineering Company in the world. Not only that, but he got to go to their coveted Switzerland lab. And get this, his field of study was civil engineering, but they awarded him an internship in Electrical Engineering. No doubt in my mind, that they want to recruit him, and if he puts a few years in there, he can pretty much write his own ticket after that. Swiss ABB on an engineers resume is like having a royal straight flush in poker.
All that going for him, and yet he was as humble as they come. I had to coax all of that out of him over the coarse of 24 hours. I made sure he stayed humble too. "Hey Marc! Just as soon as you're done shoveling that dog shit and dumping it over there, we can hook these dogs up and get out on the open trail."
Sled Dogs:
Most sled dogs are Huskies. There are many pure Huskie breeds, but the pure breeds are all big and slow. They're more suited for carrying heavy loads and moving at a slow pace. They have all of the attributes, of a semi truck. Alaskan natives mixed Huskies with other breeds to create the Alaskan Huskie. It has a double coat, so the dog can easily withstand the bitter cold, but its much lighter. Its legs are longer and its butt is rounder. All of those traits, result in a speed that is about twice as fast as pure breed Huskies and gives them high endurance qualities as well. The fastest sled dogs are breed from beagles, but Beagles only have one coat of fur, so handlers need to put coats on them as soon as they stop pulling. Still, Beagles are only about 5 percent faster then Alaskan Huskies.
All sled dogs have one trait in common. They love to air it out and run. The urge to run is very strong. Taking too long to hook all of them up and get on the trail, gets them really antsy and tense. To the point that one of them will do something to piss another one off, then they start fighting.  The huskies picked up on subtle clues that I was about to get on the trail (like putting on my jacket, just before stepping on the sled), then they start barking hysterically. It's like they are saying, "Dude, come'on, what the hell's taking so long. Lets go!!!"
The front dog (sometimes two in tandem) is called the lead dog. He's the smartest one and is usually calm and reserved, plus the other dogs trust where he's taking them. The dogs directly behind the lead dog(s) are called swing dogs. They're smart as well and are put there by the trainer, in hopes that they will gain some experience and become good lead dogs one day. The dogs closest to the sled are called wheel dogs. They're the strongest and usually biggest dogs. Not only do they pull the sled forward, but they also need to turn the sled when cornering. All of the other dogs are called team dogs.
There are only four commands, but you really only need to know two of them.
Forget about mush, that's a silly movie only command. To start the dog's you yell "Hike", just like in American Football. But really they're going to take off without a command. GEE (that's with a hard G, like the first part of go and the last part of whee) to turn right. Haw (like the sound of a crow only with an H) to turn left. Whoa is to stop, but they really don't listen to that one (maybe the lead dog does, but they rest just keep pulling). You need to hit the serious brake if you want to stop.
Really though, dogs respond to the pitch and not words. Hike is the highest pitch, Gee is a little lower, Haw is still lower and Whoa is the lowest. I truely believe that  can yell anything, you just need to yell in the right pitch.
Before hooking up the sled up, it needs to be preped. The last thing North Pole wants is a sled taking off without a human at the helm. The sleds that we used were very light. They had kind of a small storage compartment. Just enough for a small pack and a few provisions. And we always leave enough empty room in the storage compartment to carry one of the dogs, should they get injured on the trip.
The sled has two brakes and two anchors. The most sturdy Anchor is a one inch thick rope (called a snub line) that is tied around a sturdy tree. Just make a slip knot in it, so it can be quickly released, whilst standing on the sled runners. Just let the rope drop to the ground and drag. We are going to be going too fast to coil it up and secure it. Especially when the dogs are fresh.
The other anchor is a metal u-shaped ice clamp that digs about 4 inches into the ice when my 250 pounds steps on it. It's  used, in addition to the tree. Or for a short stop, when a tree isn't around. The dogs are more interested in cooling off then running when stopped during a run, so there isn't a need for as much force to keep them from running.
The normal Sled brake is kind of like a brush. It's between the runners in the back and stepping on it, slows the sled down a little. The brush bristles are not strong enough to stop, it's just for slowing down. It's like a car brake, a little weight and it slows a little, more weight slows it more. Normally this brake just rides on top of the snow/ice when no weight is on it. However,when in new snow, it kind of digs into the new snow and slows us down. So there's a small rope loop on it, that can be attached to the top of the sled which picks it all of the way off of the ground.
The other brake consists of two, two inch long metal spikes on a spring loaded bar. Normally this bar is held by the spring, and is several inches off of the ground. Putting weight on it, digs the spikes into the ground. This will bring the sled to a stop much faster then the brush brake.
After tying my sled to a nice tree and burying the ice anchor into the ground, I was ready to hook up my dogs.
My dogs:
North Pole dude says, "I have a race coming up in a week and my best race dog kind of gets bored just sitting around, so I'd like you to take him out. It looks like you'd give him a good workout." I'm pretty sure that was a reference to my weight. Which I translated into: yea he'll get a great workout hauling your big ass around. Them's fight'in words, but at this point, I was more concerned that his prized dog was going to get hurt and I was going to get stuck with the bill.
"Are your sure? Cause I'm not sure I'm ready to handle that.", I said in a concerned tone.
North Pole grins and says, "Wild Bill gave you an endorsement. That's good enough for me. I'm sure you can handle it."
Gee, I guess betrayal wasn't enough, now Wild Bill's trying to kill me.
The four dogs that I had were named William, Utter, Otter and Tyson. Its important to remember their names, because that's how dogs know they are being acknowledged for their hard work. They want to please me, and hearing their names when I'm happy, lets them know that they're pleasing me.
However, to remember their personalities, I needed to give them nick names. A nickname is always a personality trait. It's awarded by someone else as a code word to describe the biggest personality trait.
The personalities of my dogs:
William was the first dog I hooked up. I nicknamed William, Lieutenant JG (junior grade). William was a smart dog, but also a lead dog in field training. He was lacking street sense and street discipline. In the US Navy, a person in the Naval Academy is called a Midshipman. As soon as they graduate from the Academy, they are promoted to the rank of Ensign. An Ensign probably did very well in school and they're disciplined, but they lack street smarts. The rank of Lieutenant JG is given to an Ensign after they are fully qualified. They have all of the signatures in their book that proves they have learned something in the field. They still lack street sense, but for some reason, that rank usually goes straight to their head. What they haven't learned yet, is that it's best to yield to someone with a lot of street sense. They usually end up getting their ass handed to them (in a political manner) by a chief (blue collar supervisor) a few times, after giving a direction that is detrimental to work being done. When JG's prove that they've learned that lesson, they get promoted to Lieutenant.
William had some smarts and lots of potential, but he was full of unharnessed energy and was be-bopping all over the place. Most lead dogs are reserved and stay put. Staying put is important in a lead dog, because I don't want to have to untangle the lines while I'm trying to hook up the other dogs. I was quick to regret making that rookie mistake.
Utter's nickname of Chief came quickly. In the US Navy a chief is a seasoned Blue Collar supervisor, who pretty much runs all of the real work that gets done. They have the street smarts and can handle any situation they're in. When an officer really wants to get some work done, they usually consult the chief.
Utter fit this perfectly. He guided me directly to the correct position, sat down and let me round up Lieutenant JG so I could tether them together. He then kept JG anchored in place, while I tended to the other dogs.
Next I hooked up Tyson. Tyson didn't show his personality as first, so his nickname came later. Tyson was much bigger then the other dogs. He was muscular, but very laid back. If dogs wrestled, Tyson would be in the ring. He had that kind of size and muscle, but his demeanor has very kind. I thought Tyson was a pretty good name, cause he kind of reminded me of Iron Mike Tyson. Bit I had to coax Tyson to the front of the sled. He was acting sluggish and I was wondering if he was going to run or not.
I had saved Otter for last. He earned the instant nickname of race dog. Race dog had some insane muscle definition. That dog was ripped. He looked, like someone had carved a statue of a very athletic dog, out of Marble. And it came to life. I had to grab race dogs collar with two hands, cause it was immediately evident that one was just not going to hold him. We cleared the pens gate, and was ready to take off at full speed. He's like, "Hell, I don't need any dogs helping me, nor a sled.  Just hang on tight. I'll take you all of the way there. Myself."
In nothing flat, my ass is on the ground, my legs were fully extended, and I was back peddling as hard and quick as I could. He's still not slowing down much. The only reason he slowed down, was because my grip on his collar, was choking him. He figured out, if he wanted to breathe, then he needed to follow my lead. I wheeled Race Dog into position and hooked him up. Then, after I let go of his collar, he started choking even harder. What a faker, it was obvious to me. He was trying to make me feel bad.
While race dog was recovering and I was resting, I walked over to North Pole and inquired about Tyson. North Pole say's "Once that sled gets in motion, you don't have to worry about Tyson pulling. That dog has more work ethic then any dog I've ever seen. Damn, I wish I could breed that work ethic. Tyson's a machine, he never quits.". Henceforth, I crisoned Tyson with the nickname: "The Machine".
Chicken Fat:
Earlier, North Pole had told me, that he just got done feeding the dog's some high quality chicken fat. He exclaimed that chicken fat is a source of very high energy to sled dogs.
By this time, they're all hyped up and ready to take off, plus they know this is the last run of the day. After this run, it's supper time. The dogs see me heading towards the back of the sled and start barking at a frantic pace, which gets faster and faster the closer I get. I put both feet on the rungs, they hear me step on the spike brake, see me pull the ice anchor out of the ground and secure it to the sled. Now they're starting to jump up and down. I pull the slip knot out with my right hand, and let the one inch rope hit the ground with a smack.  They hear that and immediately start jerking the sled forward. They're jerking so hard, the ice brake is loosing traction and the sled is jumping forward.
The Run:
I grab on tight with both hands and let the spike brake disengage from the ice.  I didn't even need a command to start. As soon at the spike break released, that sled took off like a dragster pulling a wheelie out of the traps at the drag strip. I nearly fell off of the back.
The dog's are a drugged out on chicken fat, their legs are fresh and they've been anticipating this run for a while. North Pole's house is on a hill and out of the gates, we are headed down the hill, on a trail that looks like ski jump. But when you get to the bottom there is a 90 degree right as the path heads down the frozen river. It's dark out, my eyes haven't full adjusted, it's hard to see, and I'm still trying to get a feel for what I'm doing.
We're going really fast by the time we got to the bottom. The dogs took a sharp right and the sled turned with the dog's, but my big momentum kept going straight. It was like being on the end of a whip lash. The sled was sliding sideways, which wasn't to bad, until I hit the hard snow ridge that borders the sides of the trial. The edges of the trail make a natural ramp caused by sleds passing other sleds. I went airborne. With me and the sled in the air, pulling the sled got a lot easier and the dogs picked up speed. God must have helped me stick the landing, which was anything but graceful.
Going down a frozen lake with fresh dogs is like riding a jet ski. Hit a bump, spend some time in the air, then touch down and repeat. I was convinced that the dogs were keeping me in the air, because it was easier to pull that way.
We went down the lake for a while then headed up into a fairly dense forest. There was a path through it, but it was pretty tight and in the dark some smaller branches were smacking me in the face. I wasn't paying any attention to looking at the small branches, I was concentrating more on looking for the low hanging large limbs that could decapitate me. Dogs are like horses. They'll go under any limb that their head fits under without even considering that the rider might not be able to contort enough to get under it. My ass was sitting in the snow between the two back runners to get under some limbs.
Letting go isn't an option. If I let go, the dogs will run even faster without my heavy weight on the sled, and in less then a minute it will just be me and pitch blackness. The moon would be my only companion, until the abominable snow man finds me and makes me his mate.
Got a peek at the Aurora:
We ran through the woods for a quite a while, then went up a steep hill. When we got to the top of the hill, I could see the Aurora kind of breaking through gaps in the thick clouds. The dogs were slowing down, so I stepped on the ice brake and stopped to observe for a few minutes. I got my camera out while the dogs were rolling in the snow to try to cool off. After a short while, I decided it would be a crappy picture, so I just left my camera around my neck.
We took off again and I could tell that the dogs were fresh from resting. I didn't think about it at the time, but we had rested on the top of a hill. The next section was straight down the hill and back onto the frozen river. We were hauling ass at full speed down the river again, when JG suddenly takes a sharp right turn, but there wasn't any path there. He had turned right into the deep fresh show. Wow, he's either following Santa's scent or he saw a rabbit run across the trail and took off after it. With the thick clouds, it was so dark out and I couldn't see much at all.
It was like; one minute I'm going full speed down the German sled autobahn in my Beamer, and the next I'm four wheeling in a race truck through Baja. Them dogs just keep churning as hard as they could. "The Machine" was digging in and doing much more then his share of the pulling. The dogs didn't even give a damn that their head was all of the way under the snow. They looked like dolphins. Running under the snow and then jumping up, just long enough to get their head above it, take a breath, then go back down, and start pulling again.
Quick Snow:
The term for this, is "making your own path". The sled has a flat bottom, so it rides right on top of the snow. I picked the brush brake up off of the snow, secured it to the sled and only had to help the dogs a little in the deepest parts. I was a little reluctant to step off the runners, because a few day's before, I had stepped off of a path, and sank chest deep in the fluff. In one tenth of a second, my nipples were even with the top of the snow, while I was standing erect. The only way for me to get out, was to twist and roll, until my body worked its way out of the hole. Then I had to roll, until I got back onto the path were I could finally get enough solid footing to stand. That's what I call "quick snow".
I gingerly tested the snow depth and discovered that this snow was only about knee deep. So, with a death grip on the sled, I took both feet off of the runners at planted them on the ground. Big mistake!!! The sled took off and to keep up with it, I had to pick my knees up to my chest while running as fast as I could. God must have guided one of my feet back onto one of the runners in between strides. After catching my breath, I just used one foot to help.  Kind of like hoping with only one foot hitting the ground.
It had looked to me like the sled was kind of going in a zigzag pattern. Like JG and chief were arguing over which way to go. Finally chief took control and we starting going around a mountain to the other side. I started praying to God to please make the sun rise 10 hours early, just this one time. I was promising, that if he did, I would be a faithful follower of the word for the rest of my life.  About that time, I could see what looked like a camp, just up ahead.
I've heard, that guys who have run the Ididarod, have been so tired, that they hallucinate. Just, ask any distance sledder, how many grey elephants he's seen North of the Arctic circle. He'll give you a solid number, without even having to think about it.
Santa's Camp:
Sure enough, it was a camp. When we finally stopped, the dogs were diving back into the snow to try to cool down. I praised all of them, then tended to their health. After that, I took a quick look around. A little investigation and I was thinking, those dogs were great. This might actually be Santa's camp, but it was deserted. Inside one of the cabins, I found some pictures. One was of a big fat jovial guy, with a full head of white hair and a long white beard with a grin from ear to ear. It looked like he was on a tropical beach and all he was wearing, was a bright red speedo. I turned the photo over and written on the back was, "Ho Ho Ho, February 2012, St Tropez, Caribbean Islands". Damn it, he had done the smart thing, and headed to the tropics.
I sure hope Santa boarded all of his reindeer at a good reindeer kennel before he left. Cause, someone had slaughtered all of the reindeer that were around here. There was nothing outside, except a bunch of reindeer pelts. I didn't see any with a red nose, so I'm hoping that Rudolph had escaped the massacre. If he didn't, I'm sure JG will step up to the plate and guide Santa's sleigh, next Christmas. Lieutenant JG had seen all of those pelts and he was already working on rewriting the lyrics of "Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer". How does, "JG, the red eyed Husky", sound.
Lucky for me, Santa had left behind his Swedish cook. One of the best host's I've ever had. The first words I heard was, "Would you like a cold beer?". "Absolutely" escaped my lips, along with my next exhale. The host headed outside and said, "I'll show where there are, then I'm going to check on the Sauna, it should be good an hot by now."
Santa's beer cooler:
I was taken to the edge of a small stream. The water runs kind of fast through there, so it's always unfrozen under the ice. Near the edge was a hole in the ice. I was told that the beer was resting on the bottom. It was dark and I couldn't see anything in the water. So I just suck my hand in it, until my elbow was under water. My arm just about went numb while I was searching a beer. I pulled my arm back out and all I had was a wet and very cold empty hand.
The cook, laughs and says, "Dude, if you want a beer, you need to get a lot more aggressive then that. They're in the deep part, where it's really cold. Trust me, they're down there and you can reach them.".  This sure smelled like a set up to me. I was pretty sure, I was going to reach way down and the cook was going to push me in. Then the next scene was going to be me chasing the cook all of the way to the sauna.
I wasn't scared of falling in, because I've fallen through ice before, into waist deep water. I remember it being difficult to climb back out, because there aren't any handles on the the ice and it kept breaking as I was climbing out. I would start to get up on the ice, it would break, and I would be right back in it again. I learned to kept breaking it towards the land. Ice is always deepest near the edge of land.  Eventually, I was able to climb out. I then had to walk half of a mile in the snow to get inside. No other problems, except lots of shivering on the walk. I remember that it was very hard to get the cold wet pants off, because my legs were violently shaking. After I soaked in warm warm water for a while, I had a full recovery. If it ever happens again, I think I'll just soak in warm water with my pants on and take them off after I've warmed up.
I laid down on the bank of the stream and stuck my arm all of the way in, until my armpit was wet. I moved my arm around frantically trying to keep it warm, until it hit something that felt like a bottle. I pulled it out and sure enough it was an ice cold beer. After running through the snow with the dogs, that beer was the perfect temperature. Santa has the best beer cooler in the world. Now, that's my kind of ice fishing.
Nearly everything at Santa's camp runs on wood. Wood heat for the cabins, wood heat for the hot water and wood heat for the sauna. Most light is by candle. There are a few 12 Volt lights that run from a tractor battery and there is a small gas generator for recharging the battery's. Candlelight and wood heat sure makes makes for a nice, cozy existence. Santa lives a pretty excellent life.
Santa's Sauna:
There isn't any running water, All of our water is directly from the quickly running stream next to the camp. The water heater is inside of the Sauna. It's kind of a double whammy. The water heater heats the sauna and the sauna heats the water. After fetching the water from the stream with a bucket, we put some water in the water heater and leave the rest in a bucket next to it. The floor of the sauna is slightly sloped towards the middle. Cutting directly through the middle of the floor is a 1/2" wide space that acts as a drain.
When we are ready to take a shower, we mix some the hot and cold water together, until it's a temperature that we like, then we just put the bucket over your head and get wet. We leave your bath products in the Sauna, while we are relaxing before our shower. I gotta tell you, once you've had a shower in a sauna with sauna hot shampoo and sauna hot soap, you're spoiled for life. There isn't any cold draft at all, just warmth everywhere.  After the sauna shower, we lightly towel off, put nothing but our boots on and step outside in the snow to cool off on our way back to your cabin.
Once in the cabin, I got dressed for dinner and stated the wood burner, so it would be nice and toasty at bed time. Then I went inside to read, drink some beer and wait on supper.
Santa eats pretty good:
Santa has an excellent cook.
Both dinner and breakfast were 5 star. I can see how he easily maintains his weight.
The appetizer was new potatoes stuffed with crab meat salad. A traditional Swedish salad (used with meat dishes), which is sugar, water, vinegar, salt and pepper with tossed cucumbers and onion slices, then garnished with parsley
Swedish Salmon Soup - A cream base, salmon, potatoes, onion, dill and parsley.
Fresh fish (the kind with the head and skin still on it - just the way I love it) seasoned and cooked over an open flame.
A variety of breads. Swedish Rye and unlevin bread is fairly popular in this region.
Swedish mashed potatoes - These are cooked potatoes that are run through a hand press. On the plate it looks exactly like rice, but its mashed potatoes.
White wine with the meal
Desert was Swedish cookies (like a molasses cookie with lots of ginger and cinnamon in it) and very strong Swedish coffee.
Breakfast is:
Lingonberry juice (most popular) and lots of other very tasty berry juices. Would also be real berries when in season.
A variety of breads. Swedish Rye and unlevin bread is fairly popular in this region.
Kalles Swedish caviar in a tube - it takes like very sweet fish and goes good with either bread or eggs. I put it on top of my hard boiled eggs and that seemed like a great combination to me.
Swedish pancakes. These are pretty high in cholesterol. Lots of fresh cow milk, lots of butter, lots of eggs, mixed with some flour and baking soda. They are much thicker then most other pancakes.
Swedish sausage (probably reindeer sausage).
And very strong Swedish coffee.
Dinner with Marc:
Marc and I had supper by candlelight next to a nice, hot wood burner.
Marc was about 10 years more mature then his chronological age, but I could still see the youth in him come out every once in a while. Because of the age difference, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to connect with Marc on any topics, but he was very interesting and conversation just seemed to flow. We shared a common thirst for both experiences and education.
Many years ago, I had worked with three civil engineers for about a year. I was working on computer aided design automation functions that tied into differential GPS.
GPS was the vision of Howard Hughes, but the technical details were figured out by Roger Easton in the 1950's. The problem with regular GPS is that the satellites are 12,000 miles out in space and are in motion, so they kind of drift off course from time to time and need to be corrected. Their orbits are never perfect. On Earth, we can get an idea of where we are, but it could be off by by as much as half of a football field. With differential GPS, we set up some fixed points on the earth, so we can calculate how far the Satellites are from a perfect orbit. I know exactly where the fixed point is and I also know where the satellites are telling me it is. I can use that difference to correct the misinformation that the GPS satellites are giving me.  With differential GPS, the accuracy can be dialed into about one fourth of an inch. That's the kind of accuracy that civil engineer's need.
A mistake in civil engineer is likely to be huge. Every time we drive over a bridge, or through a tunnel, or the flood rains start coming, many lives are counting on the civil engineers who built those systems. Marc, has never been in the field, so he didn't know what differental GPS was, but he told me that race analysts use that type of GPS at race tracks, to track the exact position's of race cars. They can watch a race without the use of any fixed cameras. The analysts can effectively see any part of the race, by just using the positional information and projecting a fake car onto the screen.
The token Asian:
Marc was a member of the University of Calgary's Motorcycle Engined Race Car Engineering Team. That's an engineering competition, where each team is given a set of rule's and a set of challenges. They design and build their cars, then meet somewhere to compete. I asked Marc, if it was like in horse racing, where the jockey is always like 80 pounds. Marc said the driver has to be a member of the engineering team, then he went on to say that the only challenge where weight is a factor, is the acceleration challenge. That statement was followed that up with, "Yea, every single team recruits the tiniest token Asian girl that they can find for the acceleration challenge.".
Seemed like only thirty minutes had gone by. I looked at my watch and 3 hours had gone by. Headed back to by cabin and by then, it was about 80 degrees inside. Nice and comfy, I turned in for the night. Woke up at around 2 A.M. My body had already processed all of the beer and wine in me, and my bladder was so full that my back teeth were floating. The cabin was a little on the cool side. I put my boots on, went outside in just my boxers and boots to get some more firewood. Got the fire blazing, then headed to a place called the pee tree in my boxers and boots.
Every camp site has a place called the pee tree where guys full of beer and wine go to hang out. It needs to be a designated place, at the edge of the camp, away from where the people are. That's called camp etiquette. The pee tree at Santa's camp wasn't really a tree, it was just a small opening near the far edge of camp. About a half of a football field from my cabin.
The real Aurora:
As I am trekking to the pee tree in my boxers and boots, I'm admiring a fairly clear sky with lots of stars. The clouds had cleared and it had dropped to about -30F (0C). As I got away from the cabins, I could see much more of the sky and there was kind of a large grey haze off in the distance. Just after I opened my body drain and let the processed beer start flowing, this cloud starts to turn green. I'm thinking, wow that's really weird. Then the green stuff starts moving so it is more green in parts of it. Holy smoke's, that's the Aurora Borealis. Damn it, my camera's back in the cabin.
Seemed like 10 minutes before I stopped peeing. During that time, I was dying to try out the 'Bleep Bleep' I was told about, but I chickened out. I quickly ran back and got my camera, which I had already packed away for the night. When I got back it was almost over. I did manage to get a few shots off before it disappeared. Then, I hung around for a few more minutes to see if some more activity was going to follow. But it didn't, so I went back in and back to sleep.
The next day we went on a day light ride. The sky was clear, the sun was very bright and it felt good to be able to see my surroundings. It's very beautiful up there. Lots of pine forest, some rolling hills and some pretty big mountains. At one point, I saw a very tiny one man helicopter in the air. I asked someone later and was told that the Sami use that to find the reindeer herds. Their ancestor's used to have to trek through the wood's in search of them. Sounds like they live rather primitively, but still embrace technology for the sake on convenience. 




Sweden - Kiruna

by Kimp 13. February 2013 20:33

Photo Blog

In the 1700's, a large Iron Ore deposit was discovered in Sweden, 120 miles (200 km) above the Arctic Circle, however, there wasn't any way to transport the ore. Around 1900, Sweden built a rail line to Kiruna and sent several mine engineer's and miner's there to start the mining process. The government of Sweden has always owned and operated the mine. In the early days it was above ground strip mining.

During WWII, the German's had taken Norway and the Russians had taken Finland. Kiruna is close to both of those countries and during the war, Iron was an important resource for both sides. Sweden was scared that one or both would come after the mine (There was a short period in WWII when Russia and Germany were secret allies). Sweden sent troops to Northern Sweden and some poor soldier had to stand watch at each bridge, at the ready, to blow it up if the enemy was coming. Them winters are long, cold and lonely when you're inside. I can't imagine standing watch up there for a whole winter. Sweden continued to sell their ore, but put up the illusion that they weren't allowing any German troop transports inside of their borders. Discretely, Germans were allowed to transport soldiers from Denmark to Norway via Swedish rail. Sweden remained neutral for all of WWII and was never attacked.

It's the largest Iron Ore mine in the world and even after 100 years of mining it's still going strong. Now there is one big problem. Strip mining, eventually became no longer an option. So underground mining was undertaken. Apparently the city of Kiruna was built on top of very large underground Ore deposits. Now Sweden is getting ready to move the entire town of 20,000+ several miles away. The current plan is to salvage a few key items, like the city hall clock tower, which is made of Iron, and an Iconic church that is similar to a Sami hut.The rest will either be moved or rebuilt. People will be relocated, the old building's will be demolished, and the land will be reclaimed.

Snow Festival:
Kiruna hosts a large week long snow festival, the last week in January of every year. It features a snow sculpture competition that brings artists from all over the world. They add reindeer racing, crafts and drinking to the mix, and everybody has fun.

Summer Festival:
Kiruna hosts a large week long summer festival as well. I asked a young native what was at the summer festival. He gave me a one word response with a big smile, "Drinking!!!". I asked a few other people and was told that its a music festival, that brings in some pretty big names. I'm guessing, big names to them, that I have never heard of myself.
Before the Ice Hotel:
Jukkasjärvi is a town about 12 miles (20 km) away. They have a sami museum, some great local people and at one time had an art gallery that was built out of ice. In 1990 a French Artist gave an exhibition there and so many people showed up, that there wasn't enough space in the single small hotel to house them all.

The guy who owned the Art Gallery Igloo, called around to a few good friends, who showed up with sub-zero sleeping bags and showed them how to camp, in an igloo without freezing. The men then took shifts, all night, to make sure their guests were comfortable.

The next day, all had said, "That was an awesome experience that you should start selling."
Ice Hotel:
The biggest problem was talking the bank into believing that enough people would actually show up, to turn a profit. Each year, it has grown in size and 23 ice seasons later, it's about 50 very expensive rooms.

I talked to an attractive young Swedish women, who proclaimed that her father was so inspired by the first one, he built his own igloo in the front yard. She was proud to say that she had stayed in it, when she was 5 years old. One young women who worked in the restaurant, said that she held the record amongst all of the staff. I forget the number, but it was pretty high. Workers get to stay in the unused rooms for free, so that they can calm the scared first-timers. "Oh, its not bad at all. I've stayed there like 30 times. I love it !!!".

To bring in the most profit, they needed to build the hotel early in the season, before the ice freezes thick enough to make the walls. Sounds like a good engineering problem.

Torne River Ice:
The Ice hotel is located next to the Torne river.
The speed of the Torne is perfect for making clear bubble free ice. If water is flowing too fast, water doesn't freeze, and if it's flowing too slow, bubbles freeze in it and its also murky from the sediment that is settling to the bottom. The right speed removes all of the bubbles and washes the sediment away with it. The Ice is harvested in April (when it's thick enough), so in order for the Ice hotel to be built in the fall, spring harvested ice needs to be stored all summer. On sight are two huge ice warehouses just for storing ice. They also make a million ice glasses out of this ice, for use at all of their year around Ice Bars. Several large cities in Scandinavia, have ice bars, that are built inside of large freezers and are open year around.

The hotel is far too large to be made of only ice. Much of it is made of snice. Snice is frozen water whose physical characteristics make it an intermediate between snow and ice. It looks like snow, but has the same physical characteristics of ice. This can be made before the ice freezes, and it is strong enough for construction. The Ice is used mostly for walls that need outside light to provide ambiance, and for ice sculptures.

There are about 20 rooms called artists suites, that artists from around the world compete for, to have a chance to design. The Ice hotel also employs a team of four staff artists, who travel to some Ice and snow sculpture competitions, around the world and complete. There is also one luxury suite. This year the luxury suite was a variation of kind what I would call an "Alice in Wonderland" theme. It was called absinthe. Absinthe is 150 proof alcohol that is usually green from a medicinal herb that is added to it. It has a mild psychoactive quality to it, that has been much exaggerated.

During your stay in the Igloo, you are provided with a locker in a heated building next to the hotel, for your belongings. In addition to the locker, this building contains the toilets, changing rooms, a sauna, showers and a lobby with a nice wood burner for warming up.

Ice Fire alarm:
Swedish law now requires all hotels to have fire alarms. This is the first year that they were installed in the ice hotel. One of the guy's who works there, said that they are not designed for the cold, and have gone off about 20 times this year.

The hotel is rented out until it starts raining on the inside. At that time, about 10% of the Ice is reclaimed and stored for next years hotel, and eventually the rest melts and goes back into the Torne river.

The beds are made of wood, which is placed on top of the ice. The wood is covered with a sheet, then topped with Reindeer pelts. The hotel provides the same sleeping bags that the Swedish army uses. They are good to about -40 F (-40C), but it's always about 23 F (-5 C) inside of the ice hotel rooms. In the evening, the staff provides instructions to keep first timer comfort levels up.

I slept in just long johns and was too hot. I was considering taking them off. Rob and Linda (from the wedding album) meet me in Jukkasjärvi and we all stayed in the same ice suite. The hardest part was the trek to the bathroom and back. The bathroom is in a warm building next to the hotel, which is a walk of about a football field (in my long john's) to relieve myself. Plus my boots were freezing because they were in the freezer with me, all night.

I get back from going to the restroom, and a bigger pain then the walk, was adjusting the reindeer pelts that I was laying on. Very slippery and have lots of abnormalities in them. I can't use my hands to move them, because my hands are inside of the sleeping bag. I needed to use my body weight and butt to move them around. About 20 minutes of jostling and I finally had them just right. Relieved, I closed my eyes and that was when Rob says, "Hey dude, you got any aspirin?". My reply, "Dude!!! Why couldn't you have asked me that, like 20 minutes ago???". But there was no way I could go to sleep without helping him. So I got back up, made the 100 yard trek to the warm storage and back for him. I brought him a glass of water. He drank a little and by morning the water was frozen solid. Satisfied with a deed well done, I jostled the pelts around from another 20 minutes, then passed out.

Linda slept in about 15 layers of clothes (coat, hat, scarf, gloves and all). Rob and Linda were exhausted both went to bed several hours before I did, so I didn't see her until she got up to use the rest room. That was so funny. It looked like she was too worn out, to take her coat and hat off.
When I went in to use the rest room, there were several people who could not take sleeping in the igloo. They had brought their sleeping bag into the warm building and slept on the floor in there. The next time they feel like spending a lot of money to sleep on the floor, I'll put them up at my place. All I need to do, is put two people up for one night and my whole months rent will be paid.
The best part of that experience for me, was the attractive Swedish women who woke me up. She comes trotting in very jovially, with a big smile on her face, and says, "Good morning :) :) :) Would you like some hot lingonberry Juice?", as she is pouring the piping hot liquid into a cup. "Why yes, I would!"  Later in the day, another dude was telling me, "Dude? Oh man! I need to get woke up like that every day!!!"
The next morning, we meet an older couple (60+), who were from a small town near Stockholm. The male didn't have any problem sleeping in the igloo, but his poor wife said she was claustrophobic and the sleeping bag was bothering her. They were in an art room called "cube cubed" Sticking out of the wall over the bed, the snice was carved to look like a bunch of stacked ice cubes.  She was sleeping on her back, looking up at those cubes and said she couldn't sleep because it looked like they were going to fall on her. I couldn't help, but laugh.

Her husband said that when he was in the Swedish Army.  They would go on training exercises, where they would climb an ice wall, carve out a small cave in the side of it, and set up camp there for the night. I would definitely be up for that experience, but with my size, I don't have the upper body strength to do anything like that.
Ice Chapel:
One of the out buildings near the hotel, is an ice chapel. It's main purpose, is for weddings.  Not sure what the attraction is, but maybe if you start the wedding cold, it gets hotter, the longer it goes on. I would be in for that :)
A very funny Swedish women I was talking to said, "Sometimes they just wear normal dresses for the wedding service. That tends to make the ceremony very short. "They just kind of say, 'I do' and it's over".

A Slovakian women there, kept calling me Craigish. I have heard a lot of bastardizations of my last name over the years, but that and Sicily where the only attacks on my first name. Both were what I would call, on the cute side, and were wearing favorably on me.

Dog Sled Luncheon:
Rob, Linda and I went on a lunch time dog sled ride. That was a great ride. We stopped at a camp for lunch and Rob was telling another couple who was with us, about a guide in Iceland, back in the 1800's, who would take people on trips, then kill them out in the middle of nowhere. Keep this in mind, because a variation is coming up later.
Snowmobile ride:
Rob, Linda and I went on a night time snow mobile ride as well. Our guide was about as red neck as they come. Everything he did was slow. He talked slow, moved slow, and thought slow. It was like being in slow motion. He also said lot of quirky things. He said, he doesn't care much about the weather outside, because he is always down in the mine, where it is the same temperature year around.

Rob, says to him, "So, I hear at there are 24,000 people in Kiruna.", like he's asking a question and trying to get a local dissertation on the subject. Red neck thinks for a minute, then replies with, "If you say so.". Linda and I just about fell on the floor laughing under our breath. Rob, the perpetual nice guy, still trying to get some conversation going, say's, "So, is this a town, where like, everyone knows each other?" Red neck, thinks for a few seconds and just say's, "No !?!?". The look on red necks face was one of like, "Dude, do you know 24,000 people by name?" I'm not sure who was funnier, Rob or Red neck? Cause, they both had Linda and I laughing.

That was a really bad night to be out on a snow mobile. Lots of cloud cover and very dark. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Everything was black around us. The snow was seriously deep and some of the trails had been drifted over, nearly to obliteration. I could tell the guide was having a difficult time seeing the trail markers. For some reason, the red necks had taken a black trash bag and shredded it to make the trail markers. They probably thought that was a good idea, since it contrasted with the snow. To me, that didn't look like a good idea at all. Like, maybe bright orange, which contrasts with everything in nature, would have been a much better choice.

After about an hour, the guide stops his snowmobile and shuts off the light. Rob and I stopped 50 yards back, because I wasn't sure what was going on. Red neck signaling to Rob and Linda and I to shut down, and turn off our light. Then he motioned for us, to move up where he was on foot. It was so black, I can hardly see him.  As we are trying to moving up to him in the pitch dark, he say's, "It sure does get kinda derk ouch here! Don't ya think?" and lets out a freaky, distorted laugh. All I'm thinking about, was the story Rob had been telling earlier in the day. About the Iceland Axe Murderer who doubled as a Guide. Damn it Rob, did you really have to tell that story!

Turns out, he had some sandwiches and juice for us. To me, that seemed like a really odd place, to have a picnic.

After that, we saddled up and made it back safe and sound. But I don't think any of us had a great time on that trip, other then the awesome Swedish red neck experience. 




Switzerland - Zurich

by Kimp 18. January 2013 05:49
I've been in nearly every city and a sizable number of small towns in Switzerland. I saved Zurich, because I didn't have very high expectations. It's a fast paced, rat-race type of place. Most people are there to work hard, make money, sleep, get up, work hard again and make more money.
I've been in Zurich city limits many times, yet had never stayed a night. There's some kind of crazy aura around Zurich. For some reason, when I'm passing by it, by GPS goes nuts and ends up routing me directly through the middle of it, even though that's out of the way, then it just keeps taking me in zig zag patterns, switches to backtracking, then circles. It then lets up and yields a little tease, I think I have just about broken out of the vortex, only to get sucked right back in again. I learned to eventually give up on the GPS, ignore it, decide to drive in only one direction until I am a few miles out of Zurich, then look for road signs for a city that's in the right direction, until I am away from Zurich.

It's as if the Swiss have some kind of control over the GPS satellite signals in that area and are doing that on purpose. Some dude's probably sitting up in his Zurich apartment, watching me on traffic cameras and taking control of my GPS, just for the fun of driving me nuts. "Hey Christan, come quickly.  The facial recognition software I hooked up to the traffic cam, just alerted on that long haired dude in the old Beamer again. Oh man, that crazy route that we took him on last time, nearly drove him nuts. Can't wait to see how he handles the latest one we've been working on."
The Zurich Driving Experience
The Zurich driving experience, should be a ride at Disney world. It is by far, the most complicated place I have ever driven. It has characteristics similar to driving in a video game. Very narrow streets, dense traffic, and lots of people riding bikes near the road. Dense parked traffic on the sides of the road trying to get on the road. Lots of people on foot. Lots of beautiful distracting women on foot (places with high incomes seem to attract beautiful women). And, if you have dudes in the car, there's a lot of loud voice traffic centering around all of the beautiful women on foot. Street cars in the same lane as me. Motor cycles going between cars and jumping in front of me. If I'm concentrating on not hitting the foot traffic and bikes, I might hit a moving vehicle, and if I'm concentrating on the vehicular traffic, I might hit someone on foot or a bike.  I have to constantly scan everything, not concentrate too much. If anything hints of moving out of its place and into my path, I'm prepared to brake with whatever force is necessary. Hopefully the dude behind me has my ass in more then just his peripheral vision.
To avoid all of that stress, I decided to visit and slow travel. I almost never travel slow, but I have been in the Zurich fast lane far to many times. Slowing the pace to a crawl, just seemed to feel like a welcome experience.
Peace and Quiet
I found an awesome refuge to hold up in. It was a short jaunt outside of the city, the family was just as great as all Swiss families are, and as such, I felt like I owned the place. I was in a large loft with a bunch of sky lights. Very artistic and felt as pleasing as being outside in the nature. I had a full kitchen, clothes washer and drier, a cozy wood burning stove, and lots of peace and quiet, all for cheaper than I would've paid for a normal hotel room in the states. I brought my food in from Germany which was much cheaper then Swiss food and I was all set to take it nice and easy.
A local women asked me if I was going to the basketball. I said, "Sweet!!! Oh man, I love basketball. Do you think I can still get tickets? Where's it at? ". She gave me directions and the time it started. I didn't ask, but I figured maybe there was some kind of European Basketball Tournament or a big game going on in town. I mean, why else would anyone ask a complete stranger, out of the blue, was he going to basketball. I was psyched.
I got there plenty early, but things didn't look right from the very start. It didn't look too much like a basketball arena. However,  I'd never seen a Swiss basketball arena before, so what the hell do I know. It was deserted, I assumed that Europeans probably show up late and it starts late too. I looked around for a bar to duck into. Found one a little ways away and stepped inside. I was expecting to see some people in Jerseys engaged in a little pre-game cheer. All I found was 5 dudes all glued to stools at the far end of the bar and all looking at me. With that "who the hell is that strange dude" look on their face. Obviously regulars who have been dedicated patrons at that fine establishment, several times a week, for several years. They probably visit so often, that they now have defacto assigned seats with permanent imprints that conform exactly to the shapes of their butt cheeks. Not wanting to seem unfriendly, I closed the gap, but keep one bar stool of buffer between me and the closet regular. I didn't want to look to friendly either. I ordered up a few beers, sat in silence, paid the tab, found the restroom, then headed back out into the blackness. By now, I decided that I had misunderstood the directions, was in the wrong place, but decided to head back for another look see, just in case.

Way off in the distance, I could see a few women in what looked like 18th century dresses going into the gym. I thought, wow, there sure are some strange people in the world. A little closer and I see some dudes carting instruments inside. Sweet, that must be the pep band, maybe this is a college game.  As I close in, I see a few more of these 18th century women. That was when things started to get really weird, really fast. I get near the door and a whole stream of them are going inside. I'm thinking, maybe its a sorority challenge, or a tradition, or? Oh man!  It could be some kind of freaky cult. Maybe, its like, some kind of, freaky cult basketball? Or maybe, it's like some kind of, freaky cult, that worships basketballs? Or maybe, its like, some kind of, freaky cult, cult, and I was singled out earlier today as their next victim?

I'm a little scared, my senses are telling me to flee, but intrigue got the best of me. I absolutely have to go in and see whats going on. I pull my hood up over my head, hide my face as best I could and quietly slipped inside. I looked at the nearest wall and followed it into a corner of the lobby before turning around the looking. Not only are they wearing 18th century dresses, but they are also wearing elaborate masks. There were men in period dress and masks as well. I felt like I was in that Tom Cruise movie, where he belongs to a men's club. Everyone in the club dress up and wearing masks. But Tom can't figure out what's going on, until he is in it, too deep.

On the other side of the lobby, lots of people were going through several open doors, so I inched my way over, trying to be inconspicuous. That is when I saw a sign that read "Maskenball". Turns out, that is the German word for Masked Ball. Later, I looked up that word and did a little research. Those are very popular in February, in the German 1/3 of Switzerland. Just about every weekend in February a different small town hosts the maskenball event. Since I wasn't dressed right, I didn't stay long and I didn't feel right taking any pictures. If I'm here next year, I'll probably look one of these up, get me a period costume and do it up right. I might even shave and dress up in an 18th century dress. I got the hair. "Damn, who's that huge women, she's bigger then most of the men."
Swiss Traditions
The Swiss have several traditions that involve elaborate costumes and masks. There is another kind of cool winter event, but it is only one day a year and I can't remember what it's called. Adults dress up in very expensive monster costumes (kind of like, different variations of a Yeti theme). Then around dusk, they all take to the streets, scaring young children. The kids try to run and get away. It's kind of like a reverse Halloween. Or a haunted house, but its free, it's out in the streets and alleys, instead of inside. I believe that's in February as well.

The Monday after Ash Wednesday, in Basel Switzerland, is one of the biggest masked carnivals. It's called the Basel Carnival and it starts at 4:00 A.M. All of the town's lights are turned off.  Then way off in the distance, the faint sound of drums can be herd and faint light can be seen. It is a parade where all of the musicians and performers are wearing masks. The floats provide the only light. That event goes on for 3 days and is one of the biggest parties in Europe.

My primary reason for going to Zurich, was to purchase some serious winter gear. Being King sized and in Europe, I've looked for clothes before and usually all I'd found was frustration. So, I knew that I had to go, where winter sporting activities are abundant. A place that is visited on a regular basis, by hoards of people of all sizes. There's lots of money in Zurich and lots of shop keepers competing to take it.

I found the mother load of winter sports stores, directly beneath the train station. The train station has an underground complex the size of a mall with zillions of stores. Within an hour of being there, I had already accomplished everything that I had came for. With that out of the way, I decided to fire that camera up and see what's happening in Zurich.

In my journey, I  had one of those epic epiphanies. Over the last two years, I have amassed a plethora of all things Swiss, yet I wasn't able to connect many of the islands of information, until I had the Zurich epiphany. 

Swiss History

Switzerland is at the cross roads between France, Italy and Germany. Over the course of more than a thousand years, it has adopted so many people from each of those countries, that it kind of has three distinct countries inside of it's borders. The northern 1/2 is primarily German and industrial, the Southwestern 1/4 is primarily French, artistic, and agricultural, and the Southeastern 1/4 is primarily Italian, laid back and Mediterranean. When I drive through Switzerland, I can tell which section I'm in, because the language on the road signs and street names change.

It has all of the ingredients of a very large problem. Those are three countries, who've never all been on the same side of any issue. If the politicians try to move them in any direction that upsets this delicate balance. That keg of dynamic would likely explode, in a chain reaction, that would rip Switzerland into shreds. So how did they manage to not only survive, but to continue to thrive, while countries that don't have those problems, waver.

Here is my surmise, that has no backing, other then my best shot at deductive reasoning.

Around 1000 A.D.  Switzerland was mostly peaceful farmers. It was a mountainous country and the lack of infrastructure made it a difficult place to live. The countries that surrounded Switzerland all wanted to trade goods with each other. They all had their own specialties that were export worthy, but Switzerland didn't have any infrastructure to move goods. At that time, people who could build an infrastructure to support this trade were in high demand. Trade was very big business and road tolls brought in lots of revenue. This attracted very hearty people, and very intelligent people to Switzerland. They needed the hearty people to build the infrastructure and the intelligent people to build tools that were a lot better then could be purchased anywhere else. They also needed to solve big engineering challenges.  

In 1291 A.D. the Roman empire was weakening.  The people in central Switzerland started tooling up exceptional weaponry, to be used by their abundance of hearty people. They started pushing the Roman's, then the Habsburgs out. This created and expand the country that was to be called Switzerland. 

In 1515, France the Italy were fighting and Switzerland got involved. The politicians intended to fight on Italy's side. But their people were divided on that issue. Some ended up fighting for France and some for Italy. France won a decisive battle which forced the Swiss politicians to signed a treaty with France. The Swiss were some of the best close quarters and infantry fighters, but they lacked heavy artillery. Heavy artillery is difficult to move in mountainous terrain, so the Swiss stayed light on their feet. France brought the big heavy guns.

Huldrych Zwingli

In 1520 Switzerland went through a much more difficult protestant reformation than Germany had. Swiss people in the area near Italy and France were not going to abandon Catholicism. The Swiss reform movement was led by a pastoral dude from Zurich named Huldrych Zwingli. Huldrych basically denounced anything Catholic. You can read my writeup on him, in one of my photo captions. The Catholic side then started counter-reformation tactic's. Interestingly the Catholic counter-reformation centered on building colleges, called Jesuit colleges. Not to teach Catholicism, but in an effort to educate people. I took two classes at the Jesuit college of Regis University in Denver Colorado.  I enjoyed learning the Jesuit traditions. For the most part, they stressed three keys: you should engage your mind, you should reflect on your actions and you should strive to be a good citizen.

This religious struggle persisted for 200 years. This period is when the miracle occurred. The Swiss politician's discovered, that if they just stayed out the struggles and didn't take either side, they could still run a strong country. Rather then try to fix the problems, they concentrated on strengthening the country amidst all of the dilemma's.

The religious wars continued in other countries and the Swiss discovered something else. They had excellent fighter's who were willing to fight for a price. They sold their services as hired guns to other countries military's. That service is called mercenary. Swiss mercenaries were in high demand and while the other countries were going bankrupt fighting, the Swiss were raking in the cash. In the Armory section of the Swiss national archives, I saw musket loaders that were of very high machine and material quality for that time period. Their precession craftsmen built the most awesome guns of the time.

After the 30 years war, all of the countries around them were bankrupt and Switzerland was thriving. Now the other countries need to rebuild and they needed someone to supply them with high quality machines to to that quickly. The Swiss machinery export business was booming.

In order to support their thriving export business, and get more people to come through Switzerland for other destinations, they needed to create a train transportation infrastructure and system thorough the alps. In order to do that, they needed lots of great Engineers. So they built Europe's premium poly technical institute in Zurich. Now the brain trust was flocking to Switzerland for an education. 25 Noble prize winners have been graduates of that institution.

Once the rail system was in, there was so much money in Switzerland that their brain trust started focusing on banking. They put another big one in the win column with that as well. They started exporting other high quality items as well. First they focused on textiles. High quality textiles needed high quality dies. Enter the polytechnic institute to help with that as well. The institute was now attracting lots of chemists and a huge Swiss chemical business was spanned off of that new chemical brain trust.

Enter WWI and WWII. There was absolutely no way Switzerland could have gotten involved in either of those wars. Whose side could they take without upsetting 1/2 of their country? Instead, they exported to the same countries they always did (pretty much whomever had the money). Nobody attacks the country who is supplying them. Hey I'm neutral, we don't have a problem with anybody, and this weeks special is...

When times got better for the countries around them and money was abundant,  the Swiss starting making high quality watches and cashing in, in the good times as well. People also had money to travel. Gee, maybe if we made Switzerland a great travel destination, people will just bring all of their money to us. We won't even need to export, cause consumers are going to bring their money to us. This would allow Switzerland to pump up their dairy and chocolate industries as well.



Culture | Travel

California - Death Valley

by Kimp 27. December 2012 17:12


Photo Blog

Death Valley is one of the places my son and I went to during Christmas Break.

It's a great place to become one with yourself, with your family and with nature. It was much larger then I expected, we could haven driven for more then an hour in any direction at highway speed and still never have left the park. The only Cell phone coverage is in a very small village known as Furnace Creek. No TV, No Internet. Just peace, quiet and lots of breath taking nature. The prime time for visiting is in March or April when the desert wild flowers are in bloom, but December was pretty nice as well.

Getting There

When we arrived, I was still recovering from a full day of sickness the day before and I was still a little jet lagged. Jet lag is like being in a bit of a haze. My eyes are telling me something, like it should be time to eat lunch, but my body is saying that I should be sleeping, and my mind can't quite figure out what to do.

I had a reservation at a resort that I knew was inside of the National Park, but I didn't write the name of the resort down. All I had written down was CA-190 Death Valley National Park, which I assumed was probably on the reservation.  I know better from my travels in remote places such as Switzerland, but circumstances got the best of me this time. Before arriving, I figured, how many resorts can there be on that short park road? There are probably plenty sign's.

I fired up my GPS and looked at points of interest in Death Valley National Park, and there is only one lodging place which happened to be a resort, and it is on CA-190. The name didn't ring a bell, but gee, that sure looks perfect. We entered the park and drove for another 45 minutes to the GPS location, and heard the GPS announce, "You have reached your destination!". We looked around and there was nothing but desert, in every direction. I had thought that the resort happened to be named after a small town that I saw a sign for, which was another 25 miles ahead, so we drove in that direction. We are reluctant to go all of that way, but head that way anyway.

I tried my cell to look up the reservation, but there wasn't any cell coverage, in nearly all of Death Valley, nor within 100 miles of it either. We get about 10 miles more towards that town and I remembered passing a gasoline truck that had broken down on CA-190 about 20 miles in the other direction. There were park rangers on both sides making sure that cars slowed down to about 10 MPH as they passed,  and there was a fire truck standing by, just in case. I figured they were still there, so I turned around to go back and talk to one of the park rangers, thinking that he would know exactly where the resort was.

We get there, and the truck and the rangers were still there. By this time, another empty gasoline truck had showed up and they were busy pumping the gasoline from the broken down truck, into the other truck that was now there. So we pull over, off of the road and walked up to talk to one of the park rangers. I get up to the nearest ranger, who at this time, has all of the traffic stopped. He said, "Sir, it's going to be a few moments before I can let any traffic through.". I said "That's fine, I just needed to ask a question, but I can wait until you aren't busy.". He looks down the road at the short line of cars and asks me which car is mine. I pointed at the white one that was off the side of the road on the desert shoulder. He's gives me that dumb tourist look and says, "Do you mean that white car, that's parked on the other side of the Large Orange Triangle sign I put up, to warn people to slow down as they approach. The car that is completely obstructing on-coming cars views of that sign?".

"Yes, sir, that would be my car. I'll move it immediately." About 10 minutes later, after the traffic cleared and nobody was coming, he hands me a park map and tells me there are three resort's in Death Valley National Park. One where I was originally headed, one 10 miles in the other direction from where we were now standing, and one 35 miles from where we were now standing. Not knowing which one I needed, I started at the far end and worked my way back.

"Excuse me, Ma'am, I have a reservation at one of the resorts in the park, but I can't remember the name. Would you happen to have a reservation in my name?".

I get to a place named "The Furnace Creek Ranch", the last resort that the ranger had told me about, and they didn't have a reservation for me either. But they directed me to the "The Furnace Creek Inn", which did have my reservation. I tell them the story and the dude say's to me, "So that's why we don't have any gas at the only gas station in death Valley." I said, "Well, I sure hope they have gas tomorrow?" I ended up driving an additional 100 miles because I didn't write the name of the resort down. That's right, I've been to 28 European Countries, 46 States, 3 Central American Counties and 2 African Countries, and I still make dumb tourist mistakes.

Death Valley

Death Valley is a land of extremes. The valley is very low (below sea level) desert and very hot in the summer, yet it is surrounded by mountains. Some of which peak at around 11,000 feet (3500 m) (over 2 miles). It has several different climates in the same location at the same time. The native Indians (Timbisha Shoshone) lived a very good life here for over a thousand years. They lived in the valley in the winter and in the mountains in the summer. The native women could weave a basket so tight that it held water. They were devastated when they discovered that the white man named it "Death Valley". 

Despite its name and its summer heat. Death Valley is full of life. There are actually some species of fish that survive here and are only found here. Despite only 2 inches of precipitation per year, , there can be flash floods in Death Valley and in 2005 one of the lakes here filled with water (for a short time), for the first time in recorded history.  Check out all of the wild life at this government site.

How it got its name

Death Valley's name originated from a 20 wagon California Gold Rush party who broke off from a 100 wagon party and decided to veer off of the old Spanish Trail. They had taken this route because it was to late in the year to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range and this was a 500 mile short cut to the California gold area, known as Sutter Mills. They didn't have any guide, but it was December and around a pleasant 60 degrees there, so what could possibly go wrong. Well, the terrain here is very rocky and the mountains around it are very steep. They made it across Death Valley, but could not find a pass through the mountains on the other side. They might have died of thirst, but a snow storm arrived and solved that problem.

With broken wagons and almost no food left, they descended back into the valley and burned their wagons, cooked what they could, and sent two men on foot over the mountains to look for supplies. Those men found supplies and returned a month later to find a nearly empty camp, because most people had decided to go their own way, to look for a way out. When they arrived, they found two families and a dead man. They lead the remaining people out of the valley, and as they were leaving one women proclaimed "Good-bye Death Valley". 


I had heard Death Valley is very colorful when the desert wild flowers bloom. The bloom comes very quickly and is so intense in good years, they can attract large numbers of pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bees and hummingbirds, that might not otherwise venture to Death Valley.

They don't bloom well every year though. The biggest factor is, there needs to be enough moisture spread out through the fall and winter for them to bloom. Some flowers are all yellow, some all purple, some are purple with a yellow center, and some are green. The desert floor bloom is Feb - April and the best blooms have a heavy rain in Sep or Oct of the year before. Check out this government site for more details.

Even without the colorful flowers, Death Valley is still a land of color. The mountains are rich in many different minerals, all with their own unique color. Yellows, Reds, Browns, Blacks, Whites and zillions of varying shades. It was cloudy while I was here, but when it is not, I've head that you will see more stars in the sky then you ever had at night, since there are not any big light sources within a 100 miles of Death Valley in any direction. I had also heard that the star light, lights up the valley with different colors as well.

Ghost Towns

Rich in minerals, there has been a lot of mining in Death Valley. The park service no longer allows new claims and old claims are very closely monitor to ensure the rules are being followed.  A small gold deposit and silver deposit were found here, near a location known as Wild Rose.  That brought lots of people here who didn't find much of anything, and it means Ghost Towns exist here. Some with standing structures and some without. I didn't have the time to go to any, but even the ones without any structures look pretty awesome on paper.

Extreme Foot Race

Every year, Death Valley is host to the most extreme foot race in the world. At 146 miles (235 km), Bad Water ultra marathon, is ran in mid-July when the temperatures are 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Degrees Celsius) even in the shade (but there isn't any shade anyway). It starts in Bad Water, the lowest place in Death Valley and goes to the 14,505 ft summit of Mt Whitney. Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 states. It is by invitation only and slightly more than half of the ultra marathoners, ever complete it. Now it's an officially sanctioned race and ends at the trail head to Mt Whitney's summit, which is at 8500 feet.

It was first completed in 1977 by Al Arnold on his 3rd attempt. It took him 80 hours (the record for that course is a little over 33 hours, the record for the official course which doesn't climb the summit is just over 22 hours.). Al had to go through Sauna and Desert acclimation training to do it. I can imagine it started as something like this. Al and some dude are sitting in a bar conversing over a few beers. Al's buddy says to him, "Al. What do you think the most extreme marathon would be? I would say it would be one run through Death Valley on the hottest day of the year.". Al, say's, "Oh hell no, that would be nothing!" "It would be an ultra marathon ran all of the way through Death Valley, starting at the lowest point, climbing the mountain ranges all of the way to Mt Whitney 85 miles away as the crow flies, which is 146 miles by shortest road path."

Runers have to supply your own support team for the race, nothing is provided and the runner has to run it in under 48 hours to get the coveted (I am an Ultra Man) belt buckle. There isn't any prize money.

There are some race variations. If you reach the summit and turn around and run all of the way back, that's called the Death Valley 300 and if you run it unassisted, pushing a modified baby cart with all your supplies, stopping at check points every 20 miles to refill, that's called the unassisted solo. Some dude even ran it three times (Started at the Summit, went to Bad Water, ran back to the summit then back down. It took him 10 days. Seems like some men, always have to "one up" everything. "Oh, you only ran it one way? Dude, you're such a wimp!"

Scotties Castle

Scotties Castle is a very beautiful Spanish style villa in Death Valley National Park (up in the mountains on the north east side). In the style of a romantic Castle. Built by a very rich Chicago Insurance man as a winter home, who's name was not Scotty. Scotty had been a lesser known member of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show for 12 years. He was very flamboyant, and had conned rich business man into investing in his fake gold mine in Death Valley. Scotty spent the seed money frivolously, and had become very well know for his spending habits. Skeptical of Scotties spending habits, this business man asked Sotty to see the mine, and the con was revealed.

However the business man had the time of this life out there and enjoyed Scotties company so much, that he decided to use him as a Death Valley guide and entertainment after he built his castle. He even made a room for Scotty in it, and let Scotty play like he owned it, to all of the visitors (and later tourists). Built in the 1930's with lavish furnishings (which are still there), and can be toured with a guide, for a small fee.

Furnace Creek 508 mile Ultra Marathon

The midpoint of the Furnace Creek 508 ultra marathon race is in Death Valley at Furnace Creek. It starts near Los Angles, goes through Death Valley and the Mojave desert and ends after 508 miles in Twenty-Nine Palms California. 

Furnace Creek

We stayed at a beautiful resort named Furnace Creek Inn, inside of the National Park. The most expensive place I've ever stayed. I'm pretty sure that I single handedly paid off California's debt during this visit. Most of the places in Death Valley National Park are very rustic and I didn't know how my son would like that. The "Amergrosa Opera House" in Death Valley Junction (outside of the National Park), for a lot cheaper, would be more like what I love. No TV, No Internet, is very western looking, has lots of real art and is run by artist Marta Becket who donates all proceeds to charity. You can read the captions to learn about the resort were we stayed. Very nice, but only worth the price to me, if they threw in two Swedish Massages from a real Swed, a case of Heineken, and a good night kiss from a beautiful Timbisha Shoshone native woman.

What I think would be a great vacation

If I had a family who loved the outdoors (which I don't), what I would do for an awesome Spring Break Vacation is. Get some cheep flights into and out of Vegas or into Vegas and return out of LA (call the airlines, do not book two one-ways). I'd pack a small tent and some summer sleeping bags in a large duffel or sea bag and check it. After arriving, I'd go to the nearest super Wall-mart or similar and get a cheep Styrofoam cooler, some ice, cold cuts, bread, etc. Rent a car and hit the follow places camping out at each. First day, Hoover dam, only 25 miles from Vegas. 2 to 3 days in Death Valley (about 2 hours out of Vegas), camp in the middle near Stovepipe wells where there is a tent only section with nothing else around for about 3 miles. No TV, No Internet, No radio (a few static AM stations). Nothing to do, but enjoy nature, and your outdoor loving family.

One day in the Mojave Desert about 2 hours from Death Valley. A few days in the Sequoia national Forest about 3 hours from Mojave. A few days near LA (maybe long beach). Not sure where the camp sites are, but a hotel would be cool too. Check with rangers before leaving to find out the open fire rules. 

An alternative would be to rent a mobile home for 10 days in Vegas and not rough it. A little more expensive, but pretty convenient and not as expensive as hotels. Either way, fill your tank up in Nevada just before hitting California. Gas was 40% higher in CA then NV on my trip. Car rentals often charge a fee for a drop off location that is different then the pickup location, but they will allow that.




Nevada - Las Vegas

by Kimp 23. December 2012 06:25
Las Vegas was one of the other places that my son Sam and I visited over Christmas.

Vegas has a nice history. Nevada was the last state to outlaw gambling in 1910, however the Hoover Dam construction (about 30 miles away) started in 1920, during the depression. That brought a large number of single men into the area, from all over the place, they were making decent money and had money and no place to spend it. With a large diversified population and money to spare, creating a large Vegas entertainment industry came naturally. In 1931, the city decided to legalize gambling.

Interestingly, most of the casino's and the airport, aren't even in Vegas. They are in an unincorporated township named Paradise. In the 1950's, the business men who ran the casinos thought that Las Vegas government was going to annex them into Las Vegas, and tax them heavily. So they got some local politicians to form an unincorporated township named Paradise. Nevada law, then and now, does not allow an incorporated city to annex an unincorporated township.

Bomb Testing
Above ground Atomic Bomb testing started in the desert south of Vegas, in the 1950's. At first the casino owners thought that would be bad for business. However, even though the date and time of testing was classified, word would leak out, and people would flock to Vegas to see the flash and feel the shock wave. Sometimes the shock wave was strong enough to blow out some windows in the casino hotels.

My History
My Catholic step Grandfather started me gambling when I was very young. Any game we played had money on it. When it was a low scoring game, we played for a dime or a quarter depending on the length of the game. When it was higher scoring, we played a penny a point, and if it was very high scoring we would play a penny for every 10 points. The funny part, was that my grandma would bank roll me, because she liked seeing me win.  It was always very small stakes. Not sure if he was trying to get me to get gambling out of my system, or teach me to always go small. But I'm certain that behavior drove my mom nuts. My roll model mother, has never approved of gambling under any circumstances.

25 years ago, I worked on a game that an entrepreneur was trying to market in Vegas. He had created a simple stock market game that fit right into the gambling atmosphere. He hired me to create an electronic version of it and sent me to Vegas to see what it would take to get it approved for Casino use. At that time, it was too early for electronic games and would have been a battle to get approval for one, plus trying to sell the casino's on both a new and electronic game. What I did retain out of that was all Casino music is in the key of C. That way the machines are all in the same key which eliminates discords. However, now many casinos pipe soft rock music onto the floor which does clash and drives me nuts. He wanted me to stay on and try marketing the game to the casino while we waited on someone to pave the way for electronics, but I wasn't interest and moved on. I heard he had some success in his game, but it never quite made it big.
About 15 years ago I worked on an application that had some very cutting edge statistical analysis functions in it. I worked on that for 7 years in my spare time. The last two years I was working with a guy who had gotten his Phd in statistics 20 years earlier and taught statistics in college since then. We needed him and his name to validate what we were doing. He was pretty good in Vegas and his game was video poker. Two of the other guys that I worked with got very greedy which was a negative motivator for me, and my family at that time, needed me to devote all of my spare time to them. So I did what was right and quit that project.
Though I have dabbled in several legal gambling activities and was usually successful, I didn't gamble much ever and I never gamble anymore. The constant roller coaster ride never appealed to me. Plus, in the Navy, I think I saw just about every gambling game ever invented, so there aren't any more that peak my interest.
Mr NY State
About that same time, at a different job, a man who had been Mr. New York State twice, worked for me. Its amazing how many idiots tried to prove their masculinity, by challenging a dude with 28 inch biceps. It was a such a shame, because he was a really nice guy until something like that would happen. He had a few law suits from taking action a few times. I remember some dude, in a parking lot, said something nasty about Mr NY's girlfriend, then tried to roll up the window really fast and drive off. Mr. NY put his fist through the window and pulled that dude all of the way out of the car. The car kept going and hit a phone pole. The dude apologized and was let go with nothing more then a busted car. He left in his broken car and never pressed charges.

Anyway, I had heard that Mr. NY, was a bookie. I can't confirm that, but he did get a lot of strange phone calls, where he pulled a 3x5 notebook out of his back pocket, flipped it to a page titled with an upcoming sports game and scratched some numbers down next to a persons name.


Many years ago I had a friend named Casey. Casey was a very aggressive gambler. He would win big and buy a brand new car from the winnings. A month or two later, I would see him in an old beater and ask what happened. "Well, I took a huge loss the other day and had to sell my car." He finally gave up gambling, but when we played non-gambling card games, he was very aggressive in those as well and hated to lose.
My game was always Spades. Casey quit playing against me in Spades because he couldn't stand the constant beating and I never took Casey on as a partner, because I liked beating him too much. I could win with most partners because I played it enough, to know how all of the regulars played. Except there was one dude named Ike who was just completely unpredictable. He made the craziest bids and played the craziest hands. I would partner with him once in a while, just because, if I could figure out how to win with him as a partner, I could win with any partner.

Then there was Daryl. Daryl was a very intelligent kid from Harlem NY. Daryl and I would partner for a tournament and be collecting the first place prize at the end. We would lose a game here and there, but I can't remember ever losing a series with Daryl. In the last few series in the tournaments, we often just barely squeaked out the win. I remember that being about as big of a rush as I have ever felt. I said something once that wasn't directed toward Daryl, but he thought it was. It really upset him, and he held that grudge against me forever. After that, I lost the passion for playing spades and pretty much gave up cards all together.
I used to work with a man named Jack who gambled constantly. He gambled so much that he would make up gambling games. We would be on the golf course (playing a dollar a hole ofcourse) and he would say "Dude, you see that flock of birds on that hill 150 yards away, over there? I'm going to hit a ball right in the middle and I'll bet you 5 dollars, that one closest to the puddle moves first." "Jack, are you nuts, there are at least 50 birds over there, that's like a 1 in 50 chance that you'll win." "Yeah, your right, if you win you get 5 dollars, if I win I get 50."
Then there was Patricia. Patricia was an Italian girlfriend of mine, who came from a very large Italian family. Every other week someone in the family would host a family get together, all 50 would show up, and all 50 gambled. Sometimes all 50 of us would show up for the same Catholic service and fill up a whole section. When the first Niagara Falls casino opened, we all went on vacation there together, for the Grand Opening. Her dad would take her and I to Atlantic city and everything (flight, room, food) was always comp'd. We never paid for anything.

I messed that up one time though. Instead of starting out gambling in the casino who comp'd us, I started in another Casino and got on a pretty good streak. I was up $4000 there, before I decided to gamble at the hotel that had comp'd us. Then, out of boredom, I started trying some really crazy high risk things, and got on a losing streak. I wanted to take Patricia on a trip that I knew was going to cost around $1600, so I told myself that when I hit $1600, I was quitting, no matter what. With what I was doing, that happened fairly quick, and I stopped.

Her dad told me after he checked out, that the hotel was upset because I didn't gamble in their casino long enough. I said, "You've got to be kidding me. I just took $4000 from a competitor and gave $2400 of that to them. They should be shaking my hand and offering to comp me a few more times."

Patricia fell on some hard times, had to take another job an didn't have any time for me after that. That was a double hurt. I was missing Patricia and it was like losing an entire family. But, in hind-sight, that probably wasn't the best environment for me.
What I learned over time, is that gambling addicts all seem to have the same story. Whatever game they are addicted to, is the only game that anyone is ever going to be able to make any money playing. Yet, they never seem to hold onto those winnings for very long.
Vegas Distractions
There are two things in Vegas that really mess with my Psyche.
One of them is that bright coating on the outside of many of the resorts windows. It's there to reflect the sun and heat away from the building, plus it provides an nice insulation barrier. However when I'm inside a hotel room that has that glass, there never seems to be much light coming in and the light that does get through is altered to the point that it bothers me.
The other are the temperature differences between inside and outside. In December, it is in the 80's inside of the casino's and in the 30's outside. Every time I went from inside to outside, or vice versa (which is often), my body goes "Dude what are you doing to me! Make up your mind.". After a while that constant transition started to make me sick.
All of the casino resorts are pretty much the same layout. The casino is on the ground floor and is about the size of a super wall-mart. There will be lots of expensive restaurants around the the outer walls and there will be a walkway on the second level that leads to the outer most extents of the hotel, which will have lots of shopping places, and a few cheap food places in it. Most casinos will have a very overpriced buffet that has a huge selection of food. Stay away from the buffet Sushi, my boy got really sick at the one we ate at, and I am pretty sure it was the Sushi.
Getting around in Vegas is about as big of a headache as they get. The first person to build a decent public transportation system up the strip is going to be a billionaire. Everyone would take it. The strip is only about 3 miles long. A healthy person should be able to walk from one end to the other in about 30 minutes. But since the they route most of the pedestrians in a snake like traffic pattern inside of a casino hotel on one end, then back out the other, then up to a bridge over the street and back down. It takes about 3 hours to walk it one way.
Forget about taking a cab, it's usually quicker to walk. Driving is slow and parking takes lots of patience. There's a monorail on the west side, but it snakes all over the place and only stops at a few casinos. The east side has a few trolleys, but they only go short distances.
Since all of the resorts are huge, distances become hard to judge in Vegas. A casino that's a mile away looks like its just a few hundred yards down the road.
Steve Wynn
I think the smartest person ever to hit Vegas is Steve Wynn. That dude has an amazing history which is detailed in the caption of the picture of the Wynn Resort, so I won't repeat it here.



Belgium - Brussels

by Kimp 15. December 2012 04:25

Photo Blog

Throughout History, Belgium, like Poland, was in an unfortunate geographical location between several strong world powers. Belgium is a natural stepping stone for any England, France, Germany or Scandinavian Army wanting to go make a move on the others. However, being flanked by France, Germany, and being close to England and Scandinavia which are all historically strong economies, also has its benefits. 

After World War II, Belgium initiated a free trade zone between themselves, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (two of their neighbors). Before that, trading goods between them would have been costly due to excise taxes levied on foreign goods. That agreement proved to be very beneficial to all three countries and soon after, eight more European countries wanted into the same agreement. That worked out so well, that they decided to expand the agreements beyond economy and into a Union of European Countries. Belgium being central, relatively small and great at negotiations, put them in the drivers seat to host the European Union and Brussels is now the seat of the EU (much like Washington D.C. in the US).

The EU is a standard set of agreements, and not a complete governing basis. All of the countries in the EU maintain their own governments and may or may not participate in all EU agreements. Some agreements are mandatory, such as the need to support human rights, but some are optional, such as the adoption of the Euro and the Schengen agreement. Being an EU member representative sounds like a pretty good job, because they are only in session for two days each month.

The UK is an EU member but still uses the pound for currency.

The Schengen agreement (it is called Schengen because it was created in Schengen Luxembourg) is what allows travel between some European countries without displaying your passport nor going through any other border controls. The concept of Schengen is that if a country does not need to protect all of its borders, then they can devote more manpower and controls to protecting international airports, international shipping commerce and illegal foreign workers. Before Schengen an expatriate could work illegally in one European country for 3 months, then migrate to another for 3 months and so on. All of the time using their tourist passport as a cover. With Schengen that is no longer possible because the countries share tourist entrance and exit records. As a general rule a tourist (anyone without a working Visa) may only be in Europe for 100 days out of ever 6 months. Ireland and the UK are a members of the EU, and neither participate in Schengen, but they have a pact between themselves that is similar in nature.

Finding an English speaking person in Belgium is very easy, since it is close to England and English is the common language between most European diplomats, their support team, lobbyist and many businesses. There were a few English channels on TV in the hotel where I stayed. With that and being a very friendly country, I believe that Belgium would be a great place to ease into European culture.

Belgium cuisine is something that most American's would take a liking too. They love french fries (there is no such thing as a small order of fries there), sausages and Belgium Waffles. Have the most flavored beers (about 150 produced locally). They produce a very high grade of chocolate and many varieties of very colorful sweets. Yet Belgians consume those in moderation and have the lowest obesity rate in both Northern Europe and Western Europe.  In my opinion that might be due, in part, to the large consumption of shell fish. They love any kind of shell fish and besides being the main course, they put it on or in just about every prepared meal. Shell fish has a lot of taste and I tend to not eat so much of it, but I do enjoy it. It might also be due to the high cost of items. They are more about high quality and less about high quantity.

Brussels star attraction is a little 2 foot tall dude named Mannequin Pis. You will see him everywhere. Water systems were introduced there in the 10th century, and to showcase that, the Belgium King built a fountain with a little boy peeing. The boy has manly features, but a pudgy boy face, posing in a very indiscreet and in your face posture, and he has been constantly relieving himself for the last 1000 years. That statue has been stolen twice, but was reconstructed and lives on. Visiting foreign dignitaries, bring costumes to display their countries heritage and the statue gets a costume change several times each week, which adds to its appeal.

Belgium is famous for its cartoon artists. While much of the rest of Europe has put their artistic landmark in a serious art form, Belgium choose to express their artistic appeal through cartoon. The most beloved in all of Europe is TinTin. TinTin was created in 1929 by Georges Remi. TinTin was a very adventurous young teenager with a trusty dog named snowy and his adventures had a lot of variety.  They were intermixed with mystery, political satire, humor, fantasy and fiction. Later on a character named Captain Haddock was introduced. Captain Haddock was a very wise adult figure who helped TinTin in very tough situations.

Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928. As I was surveying some of Georges Remi's work, I kind of wondered if they knew or knew of each other. Perhaps, but they took completely different paths. Walt Disney wanted to capture the imagination of young kids, while Georges Remi wanted appeal from a much more intellectual crowd. They could have probably been good friends and collaborators, as there would not have been any competition between them nor the development of their characters.

Belgian has a famous surrealist painter named Rene Magritte. I really enjoyed Magritte's works on display at the Royal Museum of fine arts. There was a whole section of the museum devoted to him. Most of the female figures that he painted were of his child hood sweetheart and wife Georgette, so I could see her age over time and I also saw what Rene saw in her. Rene and Georgette, also dabbled in Surrealist photography for a short time. Some of that was on display and it appealed to my imagination as well.

Brussels is the home of the Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx meet Frederich Engles in Paris and founded Socialism. His work there was controversial, so he took exile from Paris in Belgium. There he became a leading person in a political party named the Communist League.  During that time, he and Engles created the Communist Manifesto in a bar in Brussels main square. Publication of that, subsequently kicked off revolutions in several European countries and he ended up taking exile again in his native country of Germany (Colone). He started a newpaper in Colone and a few years later he had to seek Exile again. This time he went to London with his family, where they were reduced to a status of poverty. He died long before any of the revolutions ended up in a Socialist government, so he never got to really participate. I wonder what he would think of its use today? 

Many tourists do not even stop in Brussels, most head for the coastal town of Brugges which has more ancient history. I enjoyed Brussels very much, but the main reason I was there was to visit with a very good friend and his wife, whom I haven't seen in a few years. Brussels is a great place to go around Christmas time. Brussels is one of the best pedestrian cities I have seen, the Belgians are all outside in large numbers and they really know how to do up the Christmas season the right way. It is like a giant people magnet, with lots of food, lots of crafts, lots of street entertainment and lots of good cheer.

My siblings and parents have always gotten along very well. We are a good mix of traditional but progressive and everyone enjoys each others company and always have. 

However, Christmas has long been a very difficult time for me. Despite what I feel was a good earnest and responsible effort on my part, I have had several train wreck relationships in the last 30 years. A train wreck relationship, is when things appear to be going along fairly well with a few manageable bumps in the road, then one day it ends abruptly and life as we knew it, takes a drastic change in course. I used to use the 1/7 rule (repair and rebuild my life for 1/7 of the time the relationship lasted) and retry, but now I am content just living day to day and not putting much thought into it. If I do something that I have done before or are around familiar places that remind of some that have hurt me, Christmas tends to bring some of that pain back into my life, so I try to only lightly involve myself in those types of activities.

This was the perfect Christmas season interaction for me. It was something completely new and spent with people I enjoy and whom enjoy me.



Sicily - Bagreha

by Kimp 23. November 2012 04:20
My favorite Italian expression is "Breve orazione penetra" which translate to "God listens to short prayers".
There is also two hidden meanings as well, "Please don't waste God's time, just get straight to the point." and "Pray quick, before the supper gets cold.".
Bagreha is an upper class suburb of Palermo Sicily. In the 1600's and 1700's wealthy citizens built large summer villa's there, to get out of Palermo's sweltering summer heat. If you had a house up there, then you were somebody.
Most of those villa's are still there, but many fell into disrepair over the years and are now closed. Other than that, it's very clean, fresh and a refreshing place to visit. Especially if you want to get in touch with real Sicilians, since most tourist's go right on by it. I would consider it an affluent Sicilian community, full of a lot of great people.
One of the villa's that was partially restored and opened recently to the public, is the Villa Palagonia. A Famous Spanish Knight and Duke named Don Ferdinando Gravina (Carlos Ferdinando of Gravina) built this as his summer home, but died shortly after it was completed. He had willed it to his grandson. The grandson was a hunchback and his wife was a philandering women who had many lovers. He decided to commission a lot of crazy looking statues (more than 200), supposedly aimed at scaring away this wives lovers. Some are Musicians, some are caricatures, and some are monsters with human heads. The slang term for this house, is, the villa of monsters.
I had herd that there was a great Sicilian toy museum in this town as well, but I was only here for a short time and didn't make my way over to it. I mainly came to see the people. The captions in these photos, are meant in good humor, and I hope nobody is offended by any of them.
Some of the scenes in Godfather III, were filmed in Bagreha. There may or may not be mafioso living her now, and there may or may not be money laundering going on in some of the businesses. Either way, it is a great place for people watching, even if there may or may not be a bunch of people watching you, because you will definitely look out of place in this town.



Sicily - Palermo

by Kimp 22. November 2012 04:13

Photo Blog

Palermo Sicily is a town of around 1,000,000 people, yet it has a small town feel to it. Many tight family ties and many extended family ties.

Sicily was the first melting pot in the world. Over the years it has been ruled by many different nationalities (Romans, Greeks, Spaniards, French, Arabs, Italians). But when a new ruler took over, they didn't try to cleanse Sicily of the other nationalities, instead, they learned to live with them in peace. As a result Sicily is now very diverse, in culture, history, architecture, food, and art. Sicily is also very geographically diverse with many different types of landscape. I found it to be one of the most interesting places that I have visited. Today, 98% of Sicilians are of Sicilian decent, but there decedent blood lines are all over the place.  There seems to always be something different and intriguing around the next corner. Sicily came very close to becoming the 49th state of the United States. After WWII, in 1946, Italy was changed from a Monarchy to a Republic. Sicily wanted to remain under the Monarchy and was very displeased with the new Italian government that was being set up. So they wanted to separate from the mainland. They were lobbying heavily for the US to take them in. In a stroke of genius the new Italian government allowed Sicily to have their own president and congress if they would remain a part of the new Italian Republic. After that happened, they got excited and accepted that proposal with open arms. Now it is technically a part of Italy, but it has its own president and governing body.

Sicily is a large island and it functions like an island. It is pretty much on island time and they practice siesta. In other words don't count on anything being on a schedule and do count on things being really slow from around noon till 5. Island time also means that the start of the day is always after sun-rise. In fact in ancient Sicily, time was always measure from sun-rise, midnight was always at sun-rise in the location where you were, so no two places in Sicily were ever on the same time.  Things don't change very fast,  the people are pretty laid back for the most part and they party pretty hard. The party starts about 8:00 P.M. and doesn't die until around 4:00 A.M. It looked like the influx of cash from the European Union is trying to change its appearance, as there are a lot of renovation projects currently underway in Palermo. In about 20 years, I think Palermo will be have a completely different atmosphere. For me, Palermo is perfect just the way that it is now. Dude, don't change a single thing.

Sicily is known for it's pastries which are deep in its tradition. In ancient times, each convent had its own pastry shop, where the nuns would make sweets, sell them and donate the proceeds to orphanages. The most popular are the Almond ones made of marzipan (an almond paste made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites). Marzipan is freshest and best in early November. It also has lots of wine bars that usually have buffet style meals in the evening. Those seemed to be very popular with Sicilian females.

I love the traditional Sicilian male attire. The shirt is always long sleeved with the sleeves crumpled up above the elbows, opened to the second button above the navel displaying the perfect tan and the dark or grey hair on their chest. A nice double breasted business suit vest that is always completely unbuttoned, the dress pants that go with the suit are clean and pressed, but never the suit coat. Always topped off with a tascu hat. And for some reason, it always looks like they last shaved yesterday. I think they shave and their hair immediately jumps out an 1/8". In the winter they usually wear 3/4 length overcoats.

23% of Sicilian Adults are unemployed, but it is largely a cash society and I have a feeling there is a prevalent underground (under the table) economy here as well.

Palermo was founded by the Greeks around 800 B.C., but today it is the capital of Sicily and one of the most difficult and unforgiving places in the world to drive a car. Technically it is called uncontrolled traffic, but my term is "Drive and park by your own rules". In a town of over a million people, there are only about 10 traffic lights, zero traffic control (stop, yield or priority) signs and speed limit signs are just for decoration. If you are not comfortable being a very aggressive driver with only about 2 inches of clearance on all sides, and cars stopping and turning and weaving without any advance notice, then you need to find another mode of transportation. A car without multiple dents and at least one broken taillight looks out of place. I have a feeling, when someone hits you, they you don't even bother to stop and exchange insurance.

The scooter's here have big engines, so they can drive them aggressively. You will not see any of the wimpy 80cc scooters that are popular in many parts of the world here. Most scooters in Sicily are around 300 - 500cc's.

Parking is at will. If you need to park, you just stop and get out of your car at whatever location it happens to be in. As long as it looks like one car might be able to get by in at least one direction, your good. If you are the unlucky person who is parked and blocked in on all sides when you return, you just find another way to get where you are going and come back for your car later.

Yet, amongst all of the driving chaos, it is a very friendly pedestrian place, where drivers are very cognizant of citizens on foot and always yield right of way to them.  

Of course, I arrive a the airport, completely unprepared for driving in Palermo. I pick up my rental car, and the agent say's to me in a thick accent, "Its a smart car!!!". At first I am completely confused. What was he trying to say??? Then it dawns on me, it's one of those super lightweight cars that is safe only if you are in an accident with another super lightweight car. I almost asked for another car, but I hadn't driven one yet, so I kept it. After all, I was only going to have it for a few days, so how bad could it possibly be? When I got in, saw the strange controls and couldn't figure out how to start it, that should have been the Omen that clued me in to the many issues that were ahead of me. I should have know to turn right back around, go back in and ask for another car. By that time, I just wanted to get on the road. The guy had just handed me the keys, without any instructions at all.

A smart car has an automatic fluid clutch, but you have to tell it to shift (at least up shift, the down shift is automatic or at will). So it kind of works like a golf cart. You floor the pedal and some time next week it starts rolling forward slowly at first. It has both Formula 1 (that's a laugh on this car) shift paddles on the steering wheel and a floor shifter. The left paddle shifts down and the right shifts up. That's great if you like to drive with both hands on the wheel at 3 and 9 o'clock all of the time and don't need to shift in a tight corner (in other words the shifter's on the wheel are really only good for looks). The floor shifter ratchets, bump it forward to up-shift and bump it backward to down-shift, then it returns to the middle. The middle position is not neutral, it is what ever gear you are currently in. The trick to starting it, it to push the floor shifter all of the way to the right (which is really neutral), then put your foot on the brake, then turn the key. After I got to the hotel, I then had another wonderful surprise, in that I cold not figure out how to get the key out of the ignition after shutting the car off. I ended up breaking the plastic head off of the metal key before I figured that one out. To pull the key out, you have to make sure that the shifter is in the middle (in neutral and not in gear?, which makes no sense to me at all). Same thing, shifter in the middle and all of the way to the right. The smart car also does not have a very tight turning radius and to make a U turn on a busy street in traffic takes about 3 days. Reverse is hard to fit on the first try and the clutch is really slow figuring out what you want it to do.

There were two more wonderful surprises in store for me as well. The driver before me had the front wipers on intermittent. In a hurry to get going I decided to work on that while going down the road in very difficult traffic. In all of the confusion on the road, all I could figure out was how to put the front wiper in intermittent, slow and high speed, I could not find off. That same switch also controls the back wipers (it is like the gear shift in that it goes all over the place,nothing turns on it, you have to move the lever for all actions. Somehow I managed to turn on the back window wiper and could not figure out how to shut that one off as well. Messing with the wipers looked like a robot out of control. Wiper speeds and combinations and windshield washers are rapidly changing as I was going down the street. I finally found the magic combination that had both front and back wipers on intermittent and decided I was happy with, even though it was completely dry out. When I got to the hotel I figure it out. For some stuipd reason, the old position is the second position from the bottom, instead of at the very bottom. To work the back wipers, you need to push the wiper lever to the back then up and down, again second from the bottom is off. There are two more magic pushes that work the washers, I am not sure what they are, because I found them on accident and didn't care after that. 

The other surprise is that there is something called Eco mode. Eco mode is where the engine shuts off when you are at a complete stop. Then to start going, it has to start the car, put it in gear, then go. This takes two weeks to get going. If you are going slow, like in stop and go traffic, this Eco mode doesn't know what to do, the car stops when you want to go and goes when you want to stop. It feels really sluggish and drives you nuts as the cars are closing in around you. This is the absolute worst car to drive in a country where aggressive driving it a must and it is pure hell when you are also learning about the idiosyncrasies of the car at the same time. I only have a split second to fill a two inch gap, or someone is going to fill it and I will go nowhere. There was a switch to shut that off the Eco mode as well, but I needed to figure out what it was first and then where it was to solve that problem. That was like 20 minutes of real hell, but luckily the windshield wipers were keeping my dry windows clear every 4 seconds while I was messing with that.

With Eco finally off, I could concentrate on actually moving in a somewhat forward direction. At first I was trying to anticipate, when the traffic in front of me was going to open up, so I could floor the gas pedal and get the car to think about moving before the traffic did. I got pretty good at that, but the concentration I had to use was wearing me out. I was going to try power braking (holding the brake and gas on at the same time while stopped, but didn't know if the clutch could handle that for extended periods. So then I decided just to try to keep my smart car always rolling and leave it in first gear for as long as possible. When traffic opened up, it was screaming down the street, seeming to say, "Please shift me.", but I was content to just listen to the scream. That worked really well, because I was able to power hard into the roundabout's, which get really aggressive and I was also able to be agressive when going slow because I wanted to keep it rolling. By the second day, I had that technique mastered and was getting around pretty quick. I felt like a Sicilian native, completely comfortable in all of the Kaos and just going about my own business impervious of all that was around me.

Palermo has four ancient sections. I absolutely fell in love with one named La Vucciria (locals say that it translates to the word mayhem or confusion). It was almost love at first sight. It happened about two hours into the first night I was there, and I was back every day and night after that. There are no words in any language that accurately describe it. About all I can say, is that it is the only place I have been, where heaven and hell coexist in the same place at the same time. It was damaged in WWII and some of that damage was never repaired. In the 1970's the maffia waged war on pretty much everyone, each other, the courts, the politicians, the policemen, and anyone else who looked like they might possibly get in the way. Some of that happened here.  In the 1990's it started getting Razed by the Maffia and corrupt politician's who wanted to reclaim this land for new builds and apartment's, because it is very close to the Marina. The place is ancient, very weathered, missing pieces of buildings that were never replaced after WWII bombings. It is a clean market place by day, but by the end of the night, the liter is ankle deep and broken glass is a common sight. Then, as soon as the sun breaks the horizon, the city workers thoroughly clean it, the markets open and it is transform into a fresh start on a new life. It's so symbolic of the many changes my life has been through, that I felt completely at home. To me, and many other musicians and artists, it was pretty comfortable.

I first arrived in La Vucciria around 8:00 P.M. I was just looking for a place to start winding down from a full first day of exhaustive driving experience and many other activities as I wandered around and got my bearings.  Businesses were in full swing for the night time activities. Vendors were preparing food, workers were setting up the tables and chairs out into the streets, wiping them all down, sweeping and cleaning everything, and beer deliveries were in rush hour mode.  I went to the main square, stopped at the first vendor who looked like he could get me a cold beer the fastest. I pointed to one in a brown bottle (didn't even look at the label), the dude opened up the cold fridge, popped the top, and thrust it into my handed, all in one motion, with a big smile. I saw a burst of moisture condensing immediately as its coolness escaped into the night air, and had a 1/4 of it down before I even paid for it. I affirmatively stuck the coins in the vendors hand, let out a noise coming from the rapid relaxation of my chest muscles, my lips burst into a smile and my thumb extended upwards in the universal seal of approval.  

My dogs were worn out, so I made my way to the nearest table and plopped down in the nearest seat to take the weight off of them. Immediately a young and eager worker (Italian's and Sicilian's who feel the need to serve, are the most subservient people in the world), comes flying over with the cleaning supplies to spruce up my table and unfilled chairs. All of the hustle and bustle, was just too much for me take while I was in wind down mode, so I slowly turned my chair, and faced by back to the table. I quickly decompressed, looked up, and what I saw, immediately filled my heart to the brim with love.

It was a very old four story, scared building, that appeared to have been re-purposed many times. It was vacant, very disheveled in appearance, and probably should have been torn down years ago. Yet it was still there, standing proud, like it had even more worth then the grandeur it had when it was a brand new piece of prime real estate in the 1600's. After that it was probably a high end hotel. Now there is a sign near the top that identifies it as a member of the national bank chain (probably many years ago). At this time, there aren't any banks at all in La Vucciria. But a meteor must have hit that sign and bent it down slightly off center, into a broken V shape. It is kind of broke, but kind of still functional at the same time. Under that was a PVC roof drain pipe (obviously a newer addition) sticking through the middle of the front of the building about 5 feet from the top. Looked like the worker realized that was an eye soar after punching the hole, but instead of removing it and filling the hole, he just rerouted it past one window left of center, then ran the down tube straight down to the street, way left of center. It was really out of place, but since it broke up the symmetry, it added yet another layer of character to this un-destructible piece of Sicilian architecture. It had been white washed at one time, but the white wash must have been cheap, because now it only clung to parts of the stone near the center and was completely removed from all edges. It kind of had a stone washed jeans look to it. There were two windows on the left side that had been boarded up with 2"x6" boards about 40 years ago. Those boards must have gotten loose, so somebody else sloppily nailed a couple 1"x2" boards across them at different angles to try to hold them in place, but those are sort of falling off now as well. This is accented by a few 2"x6" boards that are missing and several others that are crooked or in the process of falling off. Two of the other windows had been boarded up with corrugated roofing metal and one was actually boarded up with stone blocks that someone tastefully whitewashed to match the building. The other windows remained un-boarded, but none of the windows had all of their glass, some had no glass and some hand no glass nor window frame. On one side was some rickety makeshift scaffolding. As if the person creating it ran out of materials, so just kind of made due with what they had and added some non-scaffolding parts as well. Looks like putting up the scaffolding must have worn them out, because there wasn't any evidence of any work having ever been done on the top of that scaffolding.

On the ground floor were a few sole proprietor shops and one of them was very nicely constructed and very clean. Another really nice feature was a bright red cross that someone had painted recently with its center directly where the out of place PVC drain pipe stuck through the buildings facial crown. To the left of it were the letters UWE and to the right of it it TI AMA (translates to loves you) in the same color red as the cross. 

What I fell in love with was, that all of that dead mass still had purpose. It supported a pretty good life for a few people, the hopes and dreams of an entire community, and the passion of an unknown artist. The whole building had a very artistic appeal to it, but only because of the placement of the cross and the few simple yet every effective words. I sat there for the longest time (another 2 beers) trying to figure out what the letters UWE stood for. Was it some kind of acronym for a worker's union, a symbol of Jesus, an acronym for a symbol of Jesus, God in another language, a symbol of God, somebody's initials? Do I even know any human first names that start with U ??????

As I am sitting there basking in all of its beauty and mystery, I notice that there are quite a few people outside now, and the place is starting to come alive with the night crowd. There is a man near me who is extremely stressed out, the kind of stress that only comes from a tumultuous love relationship. I have seen and had those same symptoms a few times in my days. I felt really bad for that guy, but was slightly more interested in the full liter bottle of water that he was about heave with all of his might. He had just filled it up from the fountain that was in front of me and didn't realize it was leaking until it leaked all over him. That water leak, was the trigger that set of the general explosion, which sent the full liter of bottle hurling at high rate of speed in my general direction. He clearly didn't throw it as me nor anyone else and I didn't get hit with the bottle, but as the bottle busted open when it hit the side of the fountain in front of me,  the water was released from its confines and started searching for a new place to go, with a great deal of anxiety. It found a new home on my pants. That guy, then jumped in his car and was about to take of rapidly, when another bystander walked over and kindly extended a hand in helping his guy calm down from his troubles. Some strangers are so nice, it makes my heart feel good.

I was observing this random act of kindness, when a gorgeous Italian women, stopped right in front of me, and immediately caught my gaze. She was trying to get the attention of someone a few floors up. She appeared to be shouting something like, "Maria!!! Are you there? Come to the window!!!" in Italian. I look up just in time to see a floor length curtain, outside of an open window, part, revealing another attractive young women, dressed in her flannel night clothes, and wiping the sleep out of her eyes. I don't know much Italian, but I am confident the conversation was something like this. "Awe gezz Aria. Did you have to wake me up? I told you I was beat from work today and I wasn't going out tonight!!!". "Maria! Just throw a little something on, get your face on, and get down here.  I want to go meet Antonio down at the piazza, and I don't want to walk down there myself.". Maria shaking her head, "Aria, shake that nonsense out of your head. Girlfriend, you really need to forget that Antonio, you know he's just playing you. I heard he hooked up with Adriana last night and they disappeared kind of early. Besides, the last time I went down there with you, you took off with Nicolo and I had to walk all of the way home by myself.". "What? Adriana? She's such a skank! What would he want with her?"

Out of my peripheral vision I see a plastic bucket come flying out of a fourth story window down the alley a ways. Wow, whats that all about? It quickly drops down two stories then abruptly stops to reveal the rope that was restraining its free fall. I can just barely make out see two arms flailing frantically out of a window, as they lower the bucket, via the rope, down to the street. The bucket stops about chest high to some guy who is standing in the street. The arms disappear back into the window and are replaced by a women's head. The man puts something that looks like a loaf of bread in the basket, looks up, and smiles and waves. The head goes back in the window and is replaced by two arms, flailing frantically out of the window as they are now raising the bucket, via the rope, back up to the window. Then everything disappears inside of the window. This all happened within 30 seconds and with the speed and precision of a well run military operation. After that I noticed this exact same delivery system being used all over La Vucciria. I have just discovered a new term to start using.  "La Vucciria delivery", referring to "Any delivery of a manic nature, that miraculous achieves success.".

I got up and walked around , thoroughly enjoying all of the life that was out in the streets of La Vucciria. I meet a woman who asked me my name. I said Craig, but she Sicilianized it a little when she repeated it. It came out like, "Ah Cr-ahhhhh-g, let me tell you..." with a very soft g sound at the end. I calmly and slowly said, "That's perfect.", and hid how much my ears were smiling at that sound. That was pretty hot.  I was really enjoying myself for about 45 minutes, when I realized, it was 15 minutes past a dinner reservation I had made, at a beautiful restaurant named "Gagini, Social Restaurant (Vucciria)" not far from the port in La Vucciria. 

On my way to the restaurant I passed by Maria and Aria once again. By this time, they had made up, and were just talking normally with Aria still alone in the street and Maria still in her bed clothes a story higher in the window.

Gagini, Social Restaurant (Vucciria) was the perect place for me. Kind of high priced for the area, but moderate priced to me. About a block from the Marina, in kind of an old area, but really nice inside. Of course I ate outside on the patio at always. They played some moderate jazz music and later a jazz pianist that reminded me a lot of me, several years ago, came later. He played fairly complex flowing harmonies and just kind of loosely chanted a melody over the top. I was only about 3 feet from him, but on the other side of the wall, so he could see me digging it, but I was. Another dude (who was sitting behind me) noticed me getting into it discreetly and as he was leaving, he and I exchanged a common secret and non-verbal seal of approval.  The chef there was world class in my opinion. He knew how to pick the freshest items given the time of year, how to cook it for full flavor and texture, and how to keep the portions small so you wanted to come back for more. Which I did, three days in a row (and I never eat at the same place twice when I travel). The owner came out to meet me with a free glass of sweet wine when I sat down the first day and I think his daughter did the same on the other two nights I was there. Service was second to none (which it always is, in Italy and Sicily).

After I left Palermo I was doing some research and it turns out that UWE is the first name of Austrian artist Uwe Jäntsch who spent 8 years in Palermo creating outdoor art like this. Much of it was later dismantled by police citing that it was unsafe (I had heard that claim was justified), but some of it is still around to enjoy.