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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 - A Year in Review

"Travel takes more than money. It takes the most precious commodity: time. Anyone can buy a car, handbag or shoes, but travel requires energy, bravery, curiosity, and a degree of adventurousness." - Andre Balazs, noted hotelier

I include this particular quote for the end-of-the-year entry not because I want to convey anything romantic or special about the ability and drive to travel, but because I happen to agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Owning nice things is good, but having the opportunity to travel and see new things, to escape your comfort zone and go somewhere special -- for everywhere is, in its own way, special -- is both a luxury and a requirement for a wholly grounded person.

In that regard, 2012 was a good year for travel. At least for me.

It wasn't so much the distance covered (from a mileage-only standpoint it was far from the record) as it was the number of sights seen across a beautiful spectrum of landscapes. At first glance there would seem to be a lot of repetition from previous years -- only two completely new destinations -- but 2012 was an opportunity to dig a little deeper under the skin of some spots, expanding both our knowledge of the places, as well as getting a chance to do some things which we hadn't pursued on previous visits.

I mentioned, in the preceding column on Joshua Tree, that maturity has brought me the understanding that the desert possesses all the intrinsic beauty of a lush forest or a vast seascape -- and this year allowed me the opportunity to see and photograph all three of these environments (plus!). In fact, simply from a standpoint of a variety of topographical destinations, 2012 has got to be considered one of the most diverse of my adulthood.


The year began, as it often does, with a weekender trip up to Las Vegas for my birthday. Believe me when I tell you it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be -- again,  not in the expense, but in the experience. And it's nobody's fault but my own.

Heading up the very familiar Interstate 15 -- the highway which connects Vegas to the LA metro area (though not LA proper) -- I began feeling very drained and not at all myself. To the point where I asked my wife to do most of the driving. (You should know, by now, that I love to drive, so this tells you how low I was that particular day.) Our reservations were at the Palazzo Hotel, one of the grandest properties on The Strip, and part of the stunning Venetian complex. That evening we were set for dinner at SushiSamba, a terrific little place in the hotel that serves a fabulous fusion menu of Brazilian and Japanese specialities in mostly tapas-sized portions. It can be quite a bit of fun, and the food is spectacular. During dinner I indulged with a couple of martinis, and despite my earlier exhaustion, my wife and I had a terrific time.

As we left the restaurant, I excused myself to make a quick run into the Men's room, where (as I was washing my hands) I felt the need to sneeze. Bad move. Suddenly all Hell broke loose in the form of a crimson fountain from my nose. I tried for a couple of minutes, but no luck in getting it to stop, so I clamped my nose shut with a paper towel and went out, where my now shocked wife looked at me and suggested we immediately go to the room. To make a long and unpleasant story shorter, five hours later I was in the Emergency Room being discharged with a pair of packing stents, one each nostril, looking as if I were a raccoon on the bottom end of a fight with Mike Tyson. Who knew you could overdose on blood thinners, a diagnosis my doctor made a day later when I saw her to have the stents removed -- and who knew doctors could go pale and recoil when they saw a patient with a bloody nose?

So the year didn't get off to the best of starts (though I did have a much better business trip to Las Vegas in October) but it was soon to get much better. Just a few months later -- and me securely off of anything resembling blood thinners and feeling substantially more human for it -- we got ourselves over to the Hawaiian Islands for a weeklong dive into our NO OPPORTUNITY WASTED agendas. 

In that single week we managed to accomplish four separate items in various places on our lists, several of which have already been mentioned and discussed here on the blog.


Southern tip of the U.S.
Manta Rays rock!
The first few days found us on the Big Island of Hawaii. Our primary purpose was to spend an evening swimming with manta rays off the coast of the island adjacent to the town of Keauhou. This was accomplished with stunning results, and is a memory we will keep and cherish for the rest of our lives. I detailed this in my blog entry from May of this year entitled NIGHT OF THE MANTAS. The evening was surreal and exhilarating -- there is simply nothing like floating on the surface of the ocean as these immense and somewhat intimidating angels of the deep perform an extraordinary ballet at times mere inches from your facemask. As a click off our NOW lists, this one rates among the best adventures we've had so far.

The Big Island has been a source of several NOW items, in fact. From the major to the minor. A few years ago we stood overlooking the primary Kilauea caldera, just a month before a significant eruption took place. (On the minor check-mark side, we've visited the black sand beach at Punalu'u, watching sea turtles come ashore to bask in the warm sun. This time around we journeyed to the southernmost point in the United States, then on the way back indulged in a cup of Kona coffee on one of the many private plantations which dot the western slopes of Mauna Loa. 


The second half of this year's Hawaiian voyage was to the island of Maui. After a harrowing flight between islands aboard a single-engine plane through blustery skies, we settled into our hotel on the western side of the island and prepared for a few more adventures. The resort -- the Westin Ka'anapali -- is beautiful, and has an excellent location virtually centered on the island's west facing coast. This gave us plenty of accessibility to our favorite town of Lahaina, a place we love to visit whenever the opportunity arises. From an artistic and historic standpoint, the town is full of things to do and see.

House of the Rising Sun
Maui is home to the ten thousand foot dormant volcano, Mount Haleakala. The sunrise from atop the mountain is commonly included in most lists of the most beautiful natural sights in the world, and I have no reason to disagree. I awoke early our first morning for a 3am rendezvous with a small tour group for the two hour drive to the summit to view the dawn. My experience was recounted in my blog entry of April 29th entitled THE VIEW FROM ABOVE. There is nothing I have ever experienced quite like standing on the edge of an immense valley, facing east to watch the sun rise over the clouds. Utterly astounding.

The time on Maui yielded a few more special events which will live in our memories for years, if not the rest of our lives. We braved the waters of a perfectly safe inlet to finally learn how to SNUBA. (SNUBA is a combination scuba tank and snorkel which doesn't require a series of classes to learn. The primary difference between SCUBA and SNUBA is that the tank is not strapped to your back. It floats on the surface with a long tube connecting to your regulator.) For the forty minutes we spent below the surface was wonderful and educational -- I can see why people take up SCUBA diving, though I'm not yet sure I'm ready to make that particular leap.

Mother and child
Later on that same trip, the captain of the tour boat caught sight of a pair of whales swimming not too far from our location, and as we pulled as close as is legal he noted that it appeared to be a mother and calf. The calf, undoubtedly to the consternation of its parent, was enthralled with the boat, playfully swimming around us and letting everyone on board get their fill of "glimpses" of a young whale. Mom was patient with all of us, but after five minutes she decided that junior was done and led him under. But for those five minutes we all enjoyed the interaction -- and someday I promise to use the video footage, in addition to the still shots shown here.


Calistoga in the early morning
August found us on the road again, this time with our friends from Perth, Australia. We have begun a tradition of spending a few weeks together in some exotic part of the world -- in the past this has included Mexico, Las Vegas, Italy and Croatia. On one of the days the subject of wine came up -- a natural enough occurrence, given our proximity to Italy's famous winegrowing regions -- and our friend noted how significant Australia had become in the wine world. I agreed, but when I mentioned California's own claims to fame I was met by, essentially, a vacant expression. Australians, as we have come to find out, are not at all familiar with California's wine growing prowess. This stands to reason, if you stop to think about it. California is the prime winegrowing region in a nation of some 330 million people. Not a huge need to export the product when we have a constantly parched American palate to entertain. 

So the gauntlet was thrown: come back to America and we will give you a tour of the Napa Valley that will rock your senses. Gauntlet thrown, and gauntlet accepted.

Satisfied that were going to have a wonderful time, we bundled ourselves up in the car and headed, as a foursome, to Northern California for a few days in the wine country. 

We stayed in the northern Valley town of Calistoga, one of my favorite places in the world. It's not stuffy. It's not pretentious. There's only one main road through the middle of town, and I trull believe that it's not significantly different a place than it was ten, fifteen, maybe even thirty years ago. I wrote extensively about that visit on my blog entry THE GOOD LIFE, below.

The Napa Valley is a tremendous experience, provided, of course, you like wine and can appreciate the finer things in life. Good restaurants, excellent wines, spas, luxurious hotels (and a few not so much for us budget-minded folks) -- but generally an enjoyable time for adults who want something fun and delicious. If you're more into scenery and the sights, the Valley will keep you occupied for days. There's a significant difference, visually, between the south end and the north end. The west is significantly more populated and touristy than is the Silverado Trail on the eastern side. Driving is a major pleasure in this part of the world, though if you plan on visiting a few of the wineries make sure someone is the designated driver. No point in ruining a trip with an accident (or worse).


It's pretty much universally agreed -- among those who tend to agree and pontificate on such things -- that the drive along the Pacific Ocean between Monterey and Cambria is one of the most beautiful and unique drives in the world. The hundred miles or so of stunning seascapes, cliffs, forests and artsy little towns make for a spectacular few hours as you transit from one "ohmigod!" vista to another through areas well-known to connoisseurs of automotive commercials (your choice of sporty car of the month winding along the seacoast across serene and photogenic bridges). This section of the state deserves its reputation and is worthy of a trip in and of itself.

Our own visit came as we headed south again from the Napa Valley with friends, knowing that this would prove to be one of the more memorable experiences of their visit.

Monterey Bay at low tide
The city of Monterey, at the north end of the drive, is a rich, beautiful seaside resort spot with a tourist-driven economy. Shops filled with tchotchkes dot its streets, and overly-priced restaurants offer beautiful views of the ocean. If you arrive with this as your expectation, the town can be a wonderful spot for a side trip -- a lot of fun, in fact. But if you arrive expecting to find the rustic and roughneck "Cannery Row" of John Steinbeck's novels you will be greatly disappointed.

At the other end is the far more charming community of Cambria, which still enjoys a bit of rustic rough edging though Moonstone Beach, the main hotel and seaside section of town, is greatly grown up. Fortunately the ocean side of the strip is protected from development, and thus maintains the beautiful views and largely unpolluted beaches the town is known for.

Heading south from Monterey where we found rolling hills that eventually spill off onto the edge of the ocean-hugging cliffs seen in the shots to the left. There are plenty of viewpoints, and we stopped at a number of them. There are a number of good places to eat, though we had already had lunch in Monterey before heading south. (If you're going to drive this section of the coast, be forewarned that gasoline is at a premium. Filling up in Monterey or Cambria will save you from getting royally gouged by the station operators who enjoy something of a monopoly in their section of the coast -- we payed roughly a dollar a gallon premium by forgetting to gas up.)


It must be regarded as a singular state of failure (pun intended) for us never to have been to Portland -- or even Oregon -- before. Yes, there are still a handful of states I've never set foot in (outside the airport...this being a personal element to counting whether or not I can claim a state as "visited"). But Oregon is a relatively close one, and certainly has a fair share of things on my "to see" lists that it should have merited a visit long before now. Gladly, this is rectified.

The second half of our voyage with our friends from down under took us to downtown Portland for a few days to explore the city, as well as the surrounding areas (most explicitly the Willamette Valley and the Columbia River Gorge).

Downtown, we discovered, deserves all of the decades long tributes as being one of the truly fine cities in America. A vibrant downtown district that has a cosmopolitan and urban flair, while being just short distances from historic neighborhoods and dense forests. Oregon in general seems to have created a sometimes uneasy truce between urbanization and nature. Between technology and beauty.

The first thing that strikes you about Portland is that it's clean. Secondly, it's got a lot of trees. Thirdly, the people are friendly. (All three of these are surprises for anybody used to, say, Los Angeles. Or New York. Cities I love, but I have to recognize the difference in overall impact to the visitor.) Essentially, Portland is a smaller, more cohesive Seattle.

After a day in the city -- sufficient for a short bus tour of the highlights, followed by a walk along Water Front Park. (Okay, maybe they could use a little more imagination with the naming of things, but I digress.) We did a fair amount of shopping -- a.k.a. "Contributing to the local economy" -- and followed this up with a drive out of town down to the Willamette Valley for a couple of wine-tastings.

(Our friends from Australia are also wine lovers, and since one of my stated goals on my NOW list is to take a drink of wine in every major wine district in the world, Willamette needed to fit in somewhere on this stopover.)

The following day we bundled ourselves into the car and set off for a drive through the Columbia River Gorge, commonly described as one of the most beautiful natural settings in the northwest.

And I'm not going to dispute that the area is one of a great deal of natural wonder -- but the hand of Man has been unusually heavy in this otherwise pristine region. Maybe I'm just too used to going to area where humanity's impact on nature is not quite as profound, but while I had been expecting pristine vistas, I was often met with large reminders of the shipping which uses the river, and the Bonneville Dam which is a large gray scar in the middle of the gorge.

To their credit, however, Northwesterners do know how to overcome such things, and several of the feature did an excellent job of blending in with, and even enhancing, the natural wonders. Of particular note is the footbridge which leaps across your view directly in front of Multnomah Falls, a two-leap cascade off the high plateau on the south side of the river. As you can see on the photograph to the left, the bridge designer did a brilliant job of creating a structure which quite literally enhances the view of the falls, giving it both perspective and a sense of grandeur which might be missing if the bridge were not present. Likewise, Vista House, set high on a promontory surveying the central part of the Gorge, accents the views rather than distracting from them.

But there's a strong line between structures which add to an environment and those which do not -- and as you can see in the shot to the right, there are large scars of highways and constructions which detract from the view of the Gorge.

(Don't get my criticism wrong, however, the Gorge is certainly worth the day trip, and the wonders outweigh the distractions -- my only issue were preset expectations, and for that it's entirely my error. I noted above the mistake of presetting expectation, but even now I still can do it upon occasion.)


A side trip during our drive from Portland to Seattle was a revisit (for us) to Mt St Helens, the volcanic mountain which exploded in 1980, destroying a good portion of the land surrounding the mountain. In the nearly eight years since our previous visit there has been some regrowth, but the area immediately surrounding the cone is still a ruined wasteland.

I've detailed my love of volcanoes, as well as previous visits to St helens elsewhere, but it was, and is, certainly a highlight of any trip in the area, and worthy of the hours-long detour to anyone who is simply passing by.


With this visit, Seattle has moved up into what I would call our "middle group" of destinations. This is, by my count, the fifth time I've been to the Emerald City. Meaning that I am familiar enough with the layout to get around with no problem, and have a solid understanding of the activities and opportunities available.

On this particular trip we were still with our friends from Australia on our "Grand Tour" up the West Coast. Seattle was to be our final destination as a foursome -- ending with our delivery of our friends to a cruise ship so that they could continue up the coast to Alaska, the final leg of their years-long effort to tour the western edge of North America. (We first met them on a cruise to Mexico.)

Good place to eat after lurking Down Under
Seattle, of course, offers quite a bit from cultural and historic standpoint, and we were determined to take advantage of this during our stay. This made for a rather hectic schedule, but we worked in a number of tours (the Seattle Underground and the Boeing plant in Redmond), as well as some classic Seattle touchstones such as the Experience Music Project and the recently opened Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition at Seattle Center.

In my blog entry of September 9th, entitled "Lurking Around, Down Under" (get it? We were there with Australians, Get it?), I described the Bill Speidel's Seattle Underground Tour, a genuine way to really see and feel history from a hands-on perspective. As I noted in that column, it's a terrific, well run and well told tour that is worth the time and money to attend. Far from being a dusty old recitation of facts and figures, the tour operators have done a terrific job of detailing the achievements and failures of Seattle's early European settlers.


No visit to Seattle is complete without a walk through the Pike's Place Market. A literal hive of activity, it's an environment which is fun and entertaining -- though can be quite expensive if you're the shopping or cooking kind of person. Both sorts will find ample things to keep them occupied. The place, however, is worth a visit for just about anybody who enjoys the street scene -- and should not be missed by coffee lovers as it is the site of the original Starbuck's store (well, technically second location for the first shop). Or energetic busking amidst flying fish -- but...that's a story for another time.

Seattle Center continues to grow as a cultural destination. The site of the famous Seattle Space Needle is also home to a variety of museums and theaters, including Paul Allen's Experience Music Project. The EMP (and its relatively recent addition The Science Fiction Hall of Fame) is an interactive museum featuring exhibits and features from the history of rock and roll. Instruments from famous bands and legendary musicians are shown alongside performance videos, while in the more interactive rooms allow visitors to learn to play an instrument, or explore the thoughts and visions of people who have had a profound impact on popular culture. 

Just across the plaza from the EMP is the new Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit, which is one of the very best displays of its kind, anywhere.

Dale Chihuly is one of the premier glass sculptors in the world, and this exhibit shows the power of his vision in often spectacular fashion. An indoor and outdoor exhibition, the display ranges from a history of Chihuly's efforts through a whimsical undersea reef and out into a garden of glass-and-nature sculptures of a fantasy-like nature. The visuals are simply stunning, with each room opening to yet another "oh my God" moment. Highly recommended.

So, Seattle was the last of our stops on the Grand Tour, and the last of our big trips for the year. In December my buddy Jim and I raced up for a weekend to...


I include a few shots from the park here, but seeing as my last entry focussed on the highlights of Joshua Tree, anything I could write would merely be redundant to what is below. Enjoy the pics on the just-below blog entry.

So I offer a little toast to 2012. A year that was reputed to end in Apocalyptic catastrophe, but is satisfied instead settling for a fast run full of vivid memories.

See you in 2013.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Joshua Tree, Ve-ry Pretty"

"A desert is a place without expectation" - Nadine Gordimer

Where no Honda has gone before...
It's interesting -- at least to me -- how things change as we grow older. As a teenager and young adult, I used to proudly proclaim that anything "outside a million metro population" made me nervous. It was my way of looking down my nose at small towns and, in particular, the desert. Small towns in the desert most specifically. 

This was largely, and unfortunately, due to the fact that my maternal grandparents lived well out into the desert outside of a town called Apple Valley. At the time it was a spot many miles off the beaten path, and this was an era before things like satellite and cable brought the world to our doorsteps. So, for me, a visit to my grandparents' house was often a lesson in a typical kid's boredom of "nothing to do". (And, being the imaginative kid that I was, the desert also represented a lot of scary things -- I had, at this point, seen enough old 1950s horror films, and more than a handful of episodes of The Twilight Zones and The Outer Limits (in which scary things lurked in the desert) to be more than just a bit nervous at things that went bump in the night. For some reason undoubtedly explainable by an electrical engineer, the only channel that came in even reasonably clearly was the one broadcasting reruns of those shows, reinforcing the desert's aura even that much more. 

Jim goes exploring
Things that go bump...

If you were to visit the old "Circle K Ranch" these days, you would wonder at it ever being remote. The city has, unfortunately, grown up around it, making the home's isolation a thing of the past. And at the same time, I too have grown in the opposite direction, finding an amazing and majestic beauty in the remote regions of the desert. I find the stark, unadorned landscape to be, in its own way, as beautiful as lush forests or dramatic seascapes -- while at the same time at a more rugged and spectacular scale than virtually any other setting. (If there are no trees, they do not block your view of the forest.)

Perhaps it's a result of ever-increasing pressure at my day job that makes the open isolation appealing to me. The desert affords a true getaway, a true escape from the workaday world. If your cellphone doesn't work, you have to just sit back and accept it. Railing against the lack of dial tone does little more than echo off the granite walls, or dissipate amongst the desert sage. There is a quiet serenity there. A lack of sound, even wind through the brush at times. How often are we in a wide open area with virtual silence as a companion. Not often, and not often enough. 

(Craig Fucile, one of the very best nature photographers in the Western U.S., once told me that the desert was one of his favorite places. And for good reason, as I now know. The night shot top right is a deliberate attempt to echo some of Craig's wonderful time-exposures of the Death Valley. I wish I had a website to refer you to. His work is outstanding, and he's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.)

As usual, I digress.

This last weekend I took a weekend and went up to the Joshua Tree National Park with my desert travel buddy Jim, mentally convinced I'd never been there before. 

As Jim and I drove the roads and pathways of the park, however, something struck me as familiar, and not because other areas of the California desert look similarly -- quite the opposite, in fact. 

For years I have been trying to summon an idea of where I once hiked when I was a member of a local Boy Scout troop. The adult who headed our group was fond of the outdoors, and we would, on a regular basis, trek up into the Angeles Crest mountains or The San Bernardino Mountains, or, well, you get the point. 

But there was one very particular overnighter we took one long weekend which was through the middle of the desert. It was -- or must have been -- wintertime. I explicitly remember the night being particularly cold, both in our sleeping bags as well as in the army transports which the leader had managed to conjure for the trip to and from the desert.

It's this latter which gives me the biggest clue that I may have already been to Joshua Tree. You see, not only is the terrain quite vividly reminiscent in my memory, but the military transports -- such as those which would be used by the Marines at TwentyNine Palms Marine Base (directly north of Joshua Tree National Park). Given those two elements, it's entirely possible our troop leader took us on a hike through one of the many remote areas of the park. (There is even one trail marked as "Boy Scout Trail" -- so the clues are certainly lining up!). I am convinced, just shy of certainty, that Joshua Tree or something nearby, was the setting for that particular scout trip.

All that, of course, is prologue to this entry's photographs.

A trek into the isolated desert, for me, is a short duration thing. I have yet to venture up for more than a couple of days at any given time, and this does two things for me. First, I tend to be a reactive photographer. That is to say, I am sensitive to the surroundings and find my subjects rather than planning ahead for them. Some photographers will predetermine what they're going to shoot, and under what conditions. It works for them, but my eye is one which wanders around the landscape to pick what most interests me from a compositional standpoint. This is true whether I'm shooting in the desert or downtown Manhattan. For me the ideal is to go walkabout (driveabout in some cases) and let my eye fall on my next subject -- THEN I will determine how to shoot it and the intent behind the shot. 

In that regard, I'm a spontaneous photographer, which for some professionals in the field is a fault. I consider it an asset. Thus endeth the "Methodologies" seminar. (My blog, my rules.)

So please enjoy this short trip to Joshua Tree, and as always, thanks again for coming along to Share the Adventure

Welcome to Bedrock

(One final thing - I always love to visit local restaurants when I'm on the road, particularly those with terrific breakfasts. If you're in the town of Joshua Tree, or simply going through it to get to the park's main entrance, I highly recommend The Country Kitchen, which is near the corner of Highway 62 and Park Blouevard. Excellent food and a real homey cafe feel. Nothing fancy, just a "good eats" sort of place.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

High Times

John Muir 

I have for years advocated the idea that the best way to get people to understand one another and understand their place in this universe is to get them out of their normal frame of reference. I travel to learn about other places, other people and other cultures -- getting out and away from the familiar and exploring the options of a place different from my own. It is beyond me why someone would travel all the way to New York City, Times Square, only to eat at The Olive Garden or Bubba Gump. There are fabulous delis and restaurants just across the street from these establishments, and yet the lines continually range to an hour or so wait.

So much of my thinking when it comes to a trip is seeing the new stuff, the unique stuff. And the best place to see that stuff is usually from well above, looking down and gaining a humbling perspective on our world. If you want a feel for New York City's vast scale, look down upon it from the Empire State Building, or 30 Rock. Toronto has its CN Tower. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Despite an annoying recurrence of acrophobia, I've ascended these and many other towers and buildings to gaze down upon the cities below. But when it comes to views of the world, there's nothing like the summit of a mountain to give you a true feeling of the scale of mother nature, and the small size of man in relativity. I've been fortunate to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I've looked out over the vastness of Mount Etna in Southern Sicily from the edge of the town of Taormina, itself perched atop a spectacular cliff over the Mediterranean Sea. I've seen the lush landscapes of Virginia from atop Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park. And the Rocky Mountains from Deer Ridge. 

It occurred to me recently that 2012 has been a terrific year for my own "perspectives from above". Below are five different places with stunning landscapes of their part of the world. Each has a well-deserved reputation for beauty, as well as a vista that is difficult to duplicate nearly anywhere else in the world -- in other words, unique. The phrase "looking down on" is usually reserved for a dismissiveness or a kind of arrogant egoboost -- but in this case, the phrase means "gaining perspective" -- because looking down at these natural wonders will certainly put you in mind of truly how humble we should be in the face of creation.


This last weekend I was on a short trip up to the Joshua Tree National Park, which is one of the most amazingly special places on Earth. Driving through sections of it are as close as we can get to traveling on another world. The images, the vistas, are so unlike anyplace else you've been that it almost defies description. It's as if you've gone through a temporal hole and found yourself in Bedrock, the stone city of Fred and Wilma Flintstone -- in fact, the rock formations almost look like a setpiece from the 1994 movie (I don't believe they are, but they have that distinct look of a man-made object fabricated from rocks).

Despite a smooth road and ample facilities, a little-visited section of the park is at the summit of one of the peaks overlooking the Morongo Valley. The area is called Keys View, a remarkably modest name for what is, in fact, a spectacular overlook with a view looking down upon a long valley stretching southeast to northwest through the California desert. You cannot see it in this shot, but far to the left down the valley is the Salton Sea, an inland lake easily seen on any map of the state. Directly across from Keys View is the city of Palm Springs and its varied suburbs. So small it's invisible here, tucked back against the base of the mountains on the far side of this shot. The tallest peak, Mt San Jacinto, is ten thousand feet in height. The dark line of hills running through the middle of the valley is a surface manifestation of the dreaded San Andreas Fault -- the hills were thrust up as a result of the two tectonic plates running parallel to each other and forcing the rocks between the two upward to relive the pressure below ground.

MOUNT SAINT HELENS - Southwestern Washington State

Volcanos fascinate me. I've visited Mount St Helens twice now, and the scale of the mountain (and devastation) astound me. When you are standing on at the Johnston Ridge Observation Center, a beautiful vantage point made notorious when, at the onset of the mountain's 1980 eruption, volcanologist David Johnston radioed the chilling words "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it". Johnston died seconds later as the full blast of the event annihilated the viewpoint. The eruption is one virtually everyone has had seared into their memories. 

The experience of standing in generally the same spot of David Johnston, looking out over a once-green and forested valley which, even three decades later, is a barren desert. The annual rainfall has carved deep channels into the side of the mountain, through the soil thrown down by the volcano's lateral (sideways) blast. A massive landslide, viewable in several videos available to watch at the Visitors' Center right behind you, literally covered the valley below as the entire north flank of the mountain collapsed. The scale is staggering, and a good part of your visit will probably be spent trying to understand the true scope of the scene before you. Our minds just aren't used to thinking of events of this size, so we're tempted to reduce it to a more comprehensible scale.

But, true to its nature, St Helens isn't satisfied to be thought of in our perspective, she requires us to open our minds and deal with her on her own scale.

 THE COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE - Border zone between Washington State and Oregon

Like the other locations in this essay, The Columbia River Gorge has a well-deserved reputation for natural beauty. Multnomah Falls is one of the most picturesque falls in the country, and, oddly enough, the man-made bridge which straddles the cliffs directly in front of the falls adds to the beauty of the scene instead of detracting. That's a very rare occurrence in this world. Normally man's creations mar the scenery, revoking the pristine and raw beauty of nature. Likewise the Vista House, pictured left against the central part of the gorge. It seems to have a well integrated beauty of its own, with a care taken to ensure that despite the indisputable presence of the building. Like the Grand Canyon, care seems to have been taken to ensure that the presence of man doesn't detract from the natural wonder. 

Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the Bonneville Lock and Dam, a giant project which, though necessary for the region's power generation, is a scar across the middle of the gorge. Also unlike the other viewpoints I'm discussing here, the presence of mankind in the gorge is easily and constantly visible, from the dam, to the tankers and freighters traversing the river, to the highway running up the southern shore, the gorge cannot be considered pristine or fully natural, and perhaps its because of the extreme beauty with which it started, the scars inflicted upon it by mankind might diminish but cannot destroy its impact on the eye.

THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY - Central California coast

The central California coast is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, rivaling scenery from around the world for raw beauty and ruggedness. Despite its residence in the most populated state in the Union, the Pacific Coast Highway's journey from Carmel to Cambria is one of stunning overlooks, cute towns, tall forests and seaside flatlands all in the range of a hundred miles. There are few places in this world with this kind of a combination landscape, but without a doubt the premiere views come from the seaside cliffs as you drive the winding road along a narrowly cut notch is the side of the mountain. The Pacific Ocean thunders against the base of the cliff, and the road meanders from hundreds of feet up in some sections, to barely skating above the rocks in others. Along the way there are multiple stopping points to get out, stretch your legs, and marvel at the majestic sights all around.


Sunrise atop Mt Haleakala is one of those things that once done stays with you for the rest of your days. The gradual glow appearing in the east. The initial tic of gold, brilliant and bright, along the cloud's edge on the horizon. The absolute grandeur of light as it touches the volcano's valley, which until moments after sunrise has been nothing more than an inky darkness on the far side of the cold metal bar railing. As the sun rises you feel its warmth on your skin, a welcome relief from the cill night air. You're in Hawaii, but you're also at 9,500 feet where the air is cold and thin. Behind you gather perhaps a hundred other pilgrims to this, one of the world's most beautiful moments. Off to one side a singer begins the customary native Hawaiian chant to welcome the new day, adding to the ambiance and authenticity. For an instant you are transported back to Hawaii as it was hundreds of years in the past. Haleakala means "House of the Sun" , and it is easy to see why they felt this way. There is a newness, a pristine beauty and moment when the world itself seems to stop, hold its breath and finally give way to the new day.

The View from Above