About Me

My photo
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.

Monday, June 18, 2012

We get around, round, round round...

(Ever have a time when you sit down to write something and come up with a piece entirely foreign to your first intent? This was such a time…)

Just recently, in honor of my 27th anniversary, my sister sent us a card with a photograph of my wife and I during our recent trip to New York. In Times Square. (Thanks, Jude!)

And it once again reminded me of my foundational travel philosophy, which is: don't be afraid of the adventure. In fact, I may adopt that as my official Thumbnail Traveler tagline. It seems to fit in nicely with what I'm trying to build as a brand. And it reinforces a philosophy I've advocated for years, and, in fact, my sister is a relatively recent convert to as well.

Watching Polar Bears in Churchill
I've made mention more than a few times of Phil Keoghan's book NO OPPORTUNITY WASTED. The book, for those of you too lazy to go back and find my comments, is essentially a "how to" for putting together a Life List -- or what has now been co-opted as The Bucket List. In other words, a list of things that not only would you like to do, but actually are going to take steps to accomplish.

My own NOW Life List is constantly changing and being updated -- you can see it here on my official website (http://mysite.verizon.net/res7n0zi/id48.html), or below,  -- but there are a handful of constants when it comes to my travel-related intentions.

The south Sawyer Glacier, Alaska
As I've noted, I tend to treat life outside the walls of my "pay the mortgage" cubicle as an adventure. My work pays for what I do outside the office, as I'm probably overly fond of reminding my boss. Photography and travel are my creative passions, and contribute enough to our income for a couple of nights out every few months. That noted, my long-term goals are set around seeing the large portions of the world I have yet to glimpse. 

Some are simply counting coup -- a term I use here to describe the arrival at, and appreciation of some object or monument, noting its importance and moving on. Examples of this might include the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It's a wonderful treat, and certainly fills you with the awe and significance of our 16th president, as well as the historical events surrounding his life. There is little to compare to standing at the foot of that famous statue, or gazing across the Reflecting Pond from the steps of the memorial towards the Washington Monument.

All of which takes a half hour or so to completely take in the experience. Absolutely worth it, no question. (Some people augment the experience by sitting down on the steps and watching the world go by, which is a worthy approach…and rife with photographic opportunities.) 

Doin' the Beatles walk across Abbey Road
The better goals, at least for my approach to life, are the more complex and immersive. I will build trips around a series of "coup counts" as necessary, so that I really can get that moment in front of Mr. Lincoln while still immersing myself in the overall Washington culture. One monument might be good for a small period of time, but add in the Vietnam Wall, the Jefferson Monument, the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian, Union Station, etc, etc, etc and you get the picture, figuratively (and literally) speaking. The Lincoln Memorial is one aspect of an overall "Washington" adventure. This is why, on my Life List, you see fewer "counting coup" sorts of things -- "See the Lincoln Memorial" -- and more of an overall approach ("Visit Washington, DC for a week").

There are, if you've bothered to take a look, a couple of specific "counting" adventures, largely because they are part of the NOW checklist. Phil's philosophy involves several different approaches to self-fulfilling adventures, some of them don't involve travel at all -- they're more personal challenges and accomplishments rather than sights and sounds. (#8 on my NOW list is "walk the Havasupai glass-bottomed horseshoe over the Grand Canyon". At first this seems like a coup-ish short term event, and it is. But it's also a challenge to my at-times insurmountable acrophobia. The purpose of this particular item is to Face My Fear -- one of the seven elements of the NOW philosophy.)

Swimming with Dolphins in Mexico
This year I've managed to knock three adventures off my "To Do" list, and all three occurred on the same one trip. Visually and spiritually I've always wanted to see the sunrise over Mount Haleakala. Ecologically, my wife and I are very much into seeing native species in their environment and have swum with dolphins, chased Orca in the Puget Sound, encountered polar bears on the Canadian tundra, seen wild bald eagles in Alaska, held turtles in the Cayman Islands, and alligators in the Everglades -- and now scuba dived with Manta Rays as part of the same trip as Mount Haleakala.

All of which is simply my way of convincing you that you need to put together your own list of things you intend to do. Star with eight and move upward as necessary (I'm right around 13). Figure out who you want to involve in your plans. You'd be surprised how many of your friends would want to help, and possibly themselves start their own programs. If your list involves eating at a Michelin three-starred restaurant (number 4 on my list), find yourself a foodie buddy with sufficient monetary pockets and figure it out. (No, I'm not suggesting they pay your way. It's your challenge, not theirs, but you can certainly go dutch.)

My Current List:

1. Take a hot-air balloon ride over Sedona or Napa Valley. 
2. Go on a true African safari 
3. Swim in the Indian Ocean
4. Eat at a three-Michelin rosette restaurant 
5. Stay at every major hotel/casino property on the Las Vegas Strip (Still to go: Bellagio; Excalibur; Flamingo; Cosmopolitan; Aria; Imperial Palace)
6. Drink a glass of wine in every major wine region in the world (So far: Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, Loire, Tuscany, Veneto) 
Tanning in St Barth
7. Spend a couple of nights north of Arctic Circle and south of Antarctic
8. Walk the 4000 foot glass-bottomed horseshoe at the Hualapai reservation in Arizona. 
9. Visit Stonehenge at dusk. 
10. Cruise the Amazon
11. Spend the night in an Ice Hotel
12. Attend a performance in the Sydney Opera House 
13. Drive the Great Ocean Rd.

The fun part of this sort of thing is the involvement of others. Gather up your friends, your family, and any other "enabler" you can find and share your list and your plan with them. Solicit their help, their support. It's not a solitary endeavor -- well, not always.

Walking the glass horseshoe 4000 feet over the Grand Canyon is gonna be all me, regardless of who I have in tow.

Hiking through the British Columbia Rain Forest

Sunday, June 10, 2012

ROAD TRIP: Sea to Shining Sea

There is nothing like a road trip.

Getting into your car and just driving off to adventure can be, in and of itself, an exhilarating experience. It's a form of freedom with a long tradition starting with perhaps the first motorcar as it chugged it's way into the nearby mountains for a picnic, and culminating -- at least from a distance and endurance standpoint -- in the annual Dakar, an offroad rally race covering five to seven thousand miles across entire continents and through at-times hideously forbidding terrain.

Fortunately, we have well-paved roads if you stick to the main thoroughfares, but where's the fun in that? (Kidding.)

Meteor Crater
In addition to what must number in the hundreds of "regional" road trips, through New England, the Yukon, the Eastern Seaboard, up the California Coast and through the southwestern desert, among many others, I have driven or been driven end to end across the United States a grand total of six times. In cars that ran the gamut. 

The first trip, or at least the first I can remember and is generally accepted as such by the rest of the family, was in 1971 when my father and I trekked together in a 1968 Corvair Corsa from Newport Rhode Island to Seal Beach, California (a town just south of Long Beach). I was ten, just learning to properly use a camera, and at first bored by the long times in the car. It wasn't until a day or two into the trip that I realized the terrain was changing and that this, indeed, was something above and beyond a long time locked in a car.

Departing, O'Dark Thirty
At the behest of my grandfather, my dad and I kept a daily journal of the adventure, which eventually was paired in an album with photographs from our trip. My pictures could easily be identified by the shaky blur of ten year old fingertips on the shutter, an error my father noticed and corrected, but not until a number of "shaky Jake" photos were committed to film. I learned a lot on that trip, far more than a simply flyover would have permitted. Holding the camera steady and slowly pressing the trigger, for instance. Another was that you don't order hamburger steak rare, no matter that the word steak appears in its name. I learned about the petrification of wood at the Petrified Forest, and stood in wonder at the edge of Meteor Crater -- and even moreso on the rim of the Grand Canyon itself. I toured the interior of Hoover Dam, a marvel for a ten year old heavily into this sort of thing. And further down the road Interstate 40 was, at this point, still incomplete, requiring a side trip which first allowed me a glimpse -- in the distance -- of Las Vegas. We didn't stop, of course, but rocketed through and kept heading for the coast. By journey's end my mind had been expanded, and in all likelihood the event that began my love of the road trip.

My first drive solo across the country was in a 1976 Triumph TR7. Not the most reliable of cars in the best of times, it expressed some consternation at being lead through the paces, finally breaking down in Union, Alabama, which boasted a business day population of maybe ten people, including tourists. A gas station and a diner were the only visible buildings, and being a young and naive kid I managed to get myself squarely between two feuding service companies -- ending in my being thrown off the property by the station owner until he was calmed by a long distance call from my father. I should have been more aware of my surroundings and suspicious when the first mechanic eyed my car and its California plates, keenly observing that my Triumph was "one a them Japanese cars, ain't it?" 

Eight hours in Alabama's blazing August sun pretty much ended any desire to return to that state -- apologies to the Alabama Tourist Bureau, but trauma is trauma by any other name and is something that shouldn't be trifled. (Oddly enough the car experienced essentially the exact same problem three days later in New Mexico. Having gone through all of my cash to get my car out of Union, I was near panic as I pulled into a gas station off the highway. Three minutes after popping the hood, the mechanic reached down and shoved a loose plug into place. The engine immediately roared back and he sent me back on the road at no charge. "Sometimes those connectors come loose in these kind of cars". And yes, I know I was probably taken advantage of by the locals who spied a stupid kid in a foreign car with west coast plates. They saw me coming. Caveat Emptor.)

The Painted Desert
Santa Fe
The next time I crossed the country, and the last time as of this writing, was in the company of my wife, who had never seen much of the interior. We made an outing of it, having gone back to purchase my father's Acura Legend in the DC area and needing to get it back to Long Beach. So, in many ways we duplicated the drive I took with my father so many years previous to this one, and took the time out to go spelunking in Virginia's Skyline Caverns just outside Front Royal, then driving a long stretch of the similarly titled Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Rather than race across country, we took our time. It was wonderful to just be together for the week, but also to take time to visit things from the sublime (a return, for me, to the Grand Canyon) to the ridiculous (yes, we've been to Graceland). During the drive we encountered a fierce Arkansan downpour, a wide blue sky through Oklahoma, and the blazing sun through the Petrified Forest. By this time I had discovered the camera, and while digital was still many years in the future, managed to pop out a few pretty decent 35mm shots from my old Pentax. At that point I was largely self-taught, and hadn't yet become proficient in post-work. But in spite of the odds, think I did pretty well representing the best of our trip.

The beauty of having crossed this nation so many times is that you become aware of just how spectacular our scenery is. There's a majestic beauty to the Great Plains, for example. It's an amazing landscape which many might find boring, but in truth is a profound demonstration of just how big this land is. Similarly, the grandeur of the canyons and mountains, the cultures encountered along the way -- everything from back country southern hospitality with restaurants like the Bean Pot in Crossville, Tennessee (or the other end of the spectrum, rednecked auto mechanics in Union) -- to native American Sky Cities; the arts scene in Santa Fe; from the gaudy leather in Graceland to the striking beauty of Sedona's red rocks. Only from the road can you see America at her most authentic best -- even if that authenticity is completely contrived. And only by taking the granddaddy of all road trips -- across this land from sea to shining sea -- can you discover the country far too many of us take for granted. 

A friend of ours from Britain made the trek with my mother and younger sister two decades ago, having visited them in Annapolis, Maryland and a week later now stood at our doorstep in Long Beach. As we walked the last quarter mile down to the Pacific Ocean, I asked what her impression was. 

She thought for a moment, leaned up against the railing overlooking Queensway Bay, and announced: "Big Country."

The Open Road

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Sense of Wonder

This entry is going to strike a few of you as "odd".  Stick with me, I'll make the connection to my usual topic before you know it.

Two days ago as I write this we lost author Ray Bradbury, one of the most profound and wonderful writers of the last hundred years. His work, whether novels, short stories, visualizations of some kind or simple commentaries, was nothing less than beautiful. Despite the continued insistence of the media in noting him as a science fiction author, in truth he was much more a "fantasist" in the classical sense. He knew, when he wrote The Martian Chronicles, that no such Mars existed. It was his own imagination at work, creating worlds where there were none. In its own way, his Chronicles were the direct lineal descendants of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars.

Bradbury came early to me. Unlike so many of my favorite writers I cannot recall which story was my first encounter, though I rather suspect it was one of his stories in his famed collection The October Country. That seems to meet my childhood sensibilities, and it certainly is an early recollection.The Scythe and Uncle Einar are among my all-time favorite stories of any writer, regardless of genre. 

Another, the name of which is missing from my mental database, involves a story being told by one legendary hunter to another. He is on the hunt for a lion, and Bradbury skillfully wove the story to the point where, when I arrived at the last line, it scared the jeebies out of me with a visceral kick -- an experience ingrained in my memory, and never quite duplicated before or since. Utterly brilliant.

Bradbury wrote about people, and monsters and aliens (or were WE the aliens?) and made them all…human. Of all the greatest writers of his genre and generation, Bradbury wrote about characters and characterization. They were the focus and heart of his tales. What happened around them was defined by their own perspective, their own fears and anxieties. Their relationships. Bradbury could see the heart of anyone and anything he chose to explore.

So, why am I noting the passing of one of my favorite authors here in a column dedicated to the art of travel? Not only because I can -- the absolute power bestowed upon me by the Gods of Blog allow for that -- but because there is a true and legitimate connection.

Bradbury took us places. 

In his writings he managed to transport me to the African Veldt; to a small midwestern town which, as writer Mark Tiedeman has already observed, never did and never could exist. But it did in my mind's eye, as it did for so many other people. In a very direct way, Bradbury fueled my lust for travel as no other writer did. He made these other places real and tangible, so that when it came my own time to go and see them, they had a familiar sense about them. My midwest is comprised of the farms of stories such as The Scythe, The Jar, The Lake. My cities are the cities of The Crowd. My sea coast holds fearful, magical things such as are found near The Fog Horn. Or in the visual manifestation of Bradbury's 1956 script adaptation of Herman Melville's MOBY DICK.

The Pedestrian, which warned us about television versus seeing the real world and the wonder it contains -- in a way a sister tale to the well-known work Fahrenheit 451 which warns us about the loss of books. 

Through his love of storytelling….not writing, but storytelling…Bradbury conveyed the innocence of the youth I wanted when I was young, and the youth I imagined when I grew much older. He encouraged me to think, to imagine, to experience. He taught me about a sense of wonder, of how we could see magic in the mundane, and how even the most innocent of scenes might contain an adventure, or terror, or love.

He gave me his worlds and his peoples and his wonder at the world. The ability to see these things informs me as both a traveler and a photographer.

And for that I am eternally grateful. 

R.I.P. Mr Bradbury.

A Personal Journey