About Me

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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.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Our deepest good wishes for the millions of people on the East Coast. Stay safe, stay secure, and stay dry.

As I watch news reports of Hurricane Sandy and its emergence as a "Frankenstorm", my mind jumps back to my own experience of the blizzard of 2010. I was on a business trip to Philadelphia, The storm had been predicted for days, but the true intensity didn't become known until I was well on my way. In fact, my first notice that there might be a problem came as I touched down in Dallas Forth Worth, making a connection to Philly from there -- only to receive an auto-notification from the airline that my return trip had already been cancelled. Not a good sign, since I (obviously) hadn't even GOTTEN to Philly yet. But, after a moment of consideration whether to keep going or turn around and return to sunny CoCal, I boarded the flight to Philly and mostly tried to forget about the whole thing figuring it might be a day, perhaps two, before things were cleared for my return home. That was, course, before the two-punch storm storm system dumped some three feet of snow on a chunk of America between Virginia and Boston...
Tuesday night: and so it begins

I learned some valuable travel lessons that week, though I consider myself a seasoned traveler who -- you would think -- wouldn't have been caught so badly off guard. 

FIRST: WHEN PLANNING, ASSUME THE WORST. While you might be tempted to tell yourself "how bad can it be?", doing so could put you at a serious disadvantage if the rose-colored glasses get broken. In the circumstances of a natural disaster, the best course of action is to prepare for it to be an extended event, and that you will not necessarily get on an airliner a day after the storm.

Wednesday afternoon
SECOND: EVALUATE YOUR RESOURCES. If there's ever any possibility of being locked in for a day or more, take steps and make sure you have a ready food source beyond the candy machine in the hallway. Many companies close down under such circumstances, which places food and other items beyond your reach even if you are able to get on the road and make your way to the market. Fortunately for the hotel's guests during the blizzard, a hardy team at a nearby pizzeria reported to work with a four wheel drive SUV. I gather they did stellar business that day, delivering pizzas to starving hotel patrons who, like me, hadn't done their homework. And that's only day one. What do you do about days two through four? Plan ahead. I made the critical error of going out the night before for dinner, but not thinking to stop in at the market for a few emergency supplies. 

Digging out
THIRD: EVEN BLUE SKIES MIGHT NOT MEAN EVERYTHING'S OKAY. Recognize that even if the airline and airport report a gradual return to business your flight may still be among those cancelled. I was actually on the car rental agency's shuttle headed for the gate when I received another auto-text from the airline, letting me know I'd have a few more days in Philadelphia. Fortunately I was able to round up a better (and closer) hotel, one featuring a restaurant -- and my car rental agency (National) was able to rustle up another car for my last-minute change of plans. Though the driving was still a bit treacherous, I was able to get to my hotel, check in and hunker down for the three additional days needed to get me on a plane.

FOURTH: RELAX. I saw a handful of frazzled travelers, in circumstances no unlike my own, losing their cool with both airline and hotel employees. It never helps, and is only called for in the event of a true mistake on the part of that employee. Not finding you a room in a booked up hotel isn't such a mistake. Nor is finding you a seat on a nonexistent flight. In difficult times, when you and virtually everyone around you, is a little stressed, the best option is to calm down and allow the person behind the counter to find you options. Fussing at them may have the opposite of the desired effect.

But the Sky is CLEAR!
FIFTH: FIND SOMETHING TO DO. Yes, I still had my daily work which, despite being trapped in a snowstorm on the opposite side of the country, still required my attention. But beyond that, recognize that the circumstances around you offer an opportunity as well as inconvenience. Certainly don't take undue risks -- and stay the heck out of the way of the clean crews -- but also take the time to do things which you wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to do. In my case, the storm came in two waves. The first was (relatively) mild and because of my schedule I was able to take a short trip up to Valley Forge and photograph the area encased in a fresh (but still manageable) coating of snow. Then, after the second and much more burdensome wave hit, and I had moved to a much more centrally located hotel downtown, I was able to walk the streets and shoot the city as it worked to clean up. Sitting in the hotel room, staring at tv, is a sure way to drive yourself nuts. You may not be able to leave the hotel, but leave your room. Sit in the lobby with a good book, or talk to some of the other guests who themselves are looking for distraction.

AND SIXTH: FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. Yeah, I'm as difficult a person as anyone at giving up control and letting other people tell me what to do. But in most circumstances, listening to what the locals say is better advice than wandering about on your own. Chances are, they know the drill (if they don't, or seem to be foundering, of course you should step in. I'm not saying to be a sheep here). But if a hotel employee tells you it might be a bad idea to wander the very icy streets in the dark, DON'T send for your car. It's just a bad idea.

If all the above sounds like common sense, it's because it is. You never know what might happen on a trip, and we've experienced just about every one of them. But if you take a handful of precautions and are flexible enough to roll with the punches, you're better equipped for whatever nature might throw at you. It might not be the greatest of circumstances, but taking the necessary precautions when bad weather of other natural events occur, you can minimize the impact of your own experience, and even turn a problem into an opportunity.

Valley Forge in the snow

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ROAD TRIP: Things that Went Bump in the Night

It's early morning, the week before Halloween. 

I'm sitting here in the dark, wondering if there is a halfway finished blog somewhere I can wrap up, add a few pictures and post. Then it occurs to me that I've never posted my "Bohemian Hedonist" essay here in the Thumbnail Traveler, which is really more of a lifestyle essay than one oriented on the subject of "being somewhere else". Maybe I'll republish that at a later date, but not this morning.

So, it being o'dark thirty, I figured I'd just launch into things and see where we go.

This being the Halloween season and all, I've been looking up all sorts of scary and haunted information on the web. Just up the road sits the Queen Mary, reputedly one of the most haunted places in America. And no wonder, really, given her history. A number of deaths, accidental ones, have occurred on the ship, giving rise to her reputation. Many people, including a few film crews, have seen and/or heard things which cannot readily be explained, at least by those people who want to believe in ghosts.

(I'm personally on the fence. While my romantic and fantasy-oriented nature make we want to believe such things exist in this world, my logical side hoots in derision. And my imaginary HATES being hooted at.)

But I have to keep an open mind, particularly in light of something that happened to us in the small -- and very haunted -- town of Jerome, Arizona. 

Located a few miles west of Sedona, itself the center of a mystical mythology, Jerome is a former mining town. It clings to the side of a mountain, giving the townspeople a sweeping view of the Verde Valley, and in the distance, Sedona and her famed red rocks.

Being a former western mining town, the history of Jerome is rough and tumble. A real boomtown after the discover of copper under Cleopatra Hill, the mountain upon which Jerome is situated. And, like all towns built upon the hope for vast riches, there were more than a few gruesome deaths (both deliberate and accidental) over the years.

Today Jerome is a small community of some 500 people, mostly based around the arts community. There are many galleries and artisan shops throughout town. The hotels are rustic and fun, and there are a number of places to get a good meal.

Sitting at the highest point in town is the Jerome Grand Hotel, built in 1926 as a hospital to care for the sick and injured -- again, in a mining town there were ample volumes of the latter. Being a hospital, the building is full of history. And death.

So...bearing in mind my logical side is openly rebelling, I have to relate a story which, to my imagination, leaves the subject of ghosts very much in the air.

A handful of years ago, we were on a moving vacation, visiting some of our favorite spots in Northern Arizona. The Grand Canyon, Route 66, Sedona, Flagstaff. And in my pre-trip planning, I found the Jerome Grand. My wife was game, so we made reservations and planned for a fun afternoon and evening in a town marketed as Arizona's Largest Ghost Town.

We checked in, getting a balcony room on the fourth floor, and confirmed reservations at the hotel's wonderful ASYLUM restaurant. However, it still being relatively early, we decided to go into town and look around. 

As we were getting ready, my wife went in to check her makeup in the bathroom mirror, calling out to me a moment later, saying the room smelled like rubbing alcohol. I went in and could smell it too. A strong scent, and very identifiable. I opened the door to the balcony and after a few minutes the smell went away. It hadn't been there when we first got to the room, indicating it hadn't been left over from a cleaning crew. We soon forgot about it and went about our business contributing to the local shops and buying several pieces of art for our walls at home.

We got back to the room in time to watch the spectacular sunset. Being that the room balconies face East, you're able to see the effect of the setting sun on the distant rocks near Sedona. 

Then, that night my wife kept tossing and turning and woke early the next morning complaining that she'd been dreaming all night that people kept rushing by her and making a lot of noise. I'd been unable to sleep well myself but it was because the room and hotel were actually pretty quiet -- which I found to be too quiet for me to drift off very well. Nothing scary, just too much city in me I guess. I need ambient noise.


No real spooky stuff. Certainly no orbs or visions or other manifestations of things that go bump in the night, right? 

Four weeks later, as I was reading a book I'd picked up on Arizona hauntings, I discovered the floor we were occupying was, in fact, the surgical center for the hospital. 

Over the years a number of people had reported the strong smell of ether and alcohol on the floor, and that many people couldn't sleep because they had a sense of being in a chaotic environment...something like an Emergency Room or surgical center. *Ahem* 

None of which we'd read prior to the book, and none of which we noted or reported to anyone else. No chance anyone could have dropped a suggestion or otherwise influenced our experience. I was shocked, and both my wife and I got goose bumps. The descriptions in the book were so close to our own night that it was more than just uncanny, it was freaky.

So ghosts? Maybe, maybe not -- but there's no way I can dismiss this sort of thing as having a degree of credence. Been there, done it.

Can't explain it away.

Happy Halloween.


Sunday, October 7, 2012


So here we are, fifty years and twenty-two films into James Bond's onscreen exploits. (Twenty four if you're not a purist and want to include David Niven's hysterical take in the original Casino Royale, and Sean Connery's subversive older Bond in Never Say Never Again.) As a boy growing up, Bond was a particular favorite of mine, and had an obvious influence on my approach and attitude towards travel. (Ah, you KNEW there was a connection!) Even today, I can count a number of destinations we have been among places I've wanted to go since childhood, seeing them first in one of the Bond films. And yes, there are still places I want to go, simply because Bond was there first.

If you're not familiar with the Bond films -- and I have to ask what planet you've been on if this is the case -- each one features three or four international destinations, many of them quite exotic and beautiful. Taken as an entirety, and ignoring the action packed races through the streets, dark alleys and sometimes deserts of the stories, the series is an excellent travelogue of the world -- for obvious reasons with a particular emphasis on the lands of the former British Empire. India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean -- in addition to classical Europe in all its splendor. In each film the location often plays as significant a role and most of the characters. This, in and of itself, helps to create the mood of the story. Would Bond be as truly global a character if the adventures were simply stock shots of a local, with the scenes themselves filmed upon a back lot? I doubt it. To do so would have given the movies a sense of being little more than a globe-trotting television show, where the Caribbean Islands have Palm trees more commonly found in, say, Southern California.

No, the fact that the Bond series has taken advantage of shooting in such far off lands as Pakistan, India, Columbia simply adds to the texture and reality of the movies -- a reality made necessary by the fictional nature of the story itself.

So, for myself, seeing these grand locales, and seeing the story unfold against the backdrop, helped goose along my natural tendencies to want to see the world. (With the exception of a couple of years during my adolescence, I have always enjoyed going new places and seeing new things. Almost to the point nowhere it's become a checkoff against some sort of tote board. "Yep, been there, done that!")

As an adult, I will admit that some of the films suffer in my memory precisely because of the backdrop. You may laugh, but I was uniformly unimpressed when Bond came to the States. I didn't want to see him in New York, Miami, San Francisco or LA -- those were already familiar to me, even though I now count New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas as three of my favorite towns. But their appearance in a Bond film made the movie itself more mundane in the process, at least to my younger mind. (The exceptions to this are Las Vegas in Diamonds are Forever, and New Orleans in Live and Let Die. Both films made me want to visit those places as much as the more exotic destinations.)

This is an indication of two things. The power of media to influence one's perception of the world, and my apparent willingness to go along with that. I watch a lot of films and TV shows with equally spectacular settings, but they do not have the same resonance emotionally when it comes to my impressions of the world. Thanks to James Bond, I've now been to the previously mentioned places, as well as Venice, Paris, London, the Caribbean, Key West and -- in particular -- Monte Carlo, as well as several other spots that got their first introduction to my consciousness through a Bond movie. And, also courtesy 007 (and other cultural references) such places as Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Berlin, Vienna, Cairo and Istanbul are still on my to-do list. 

So, being a year and a half younger than me, my hats off to a half-century of Mr James Bond, showing me the world and giving me the impetus with which to explore it.

Now, where'd I leave my martini?
Shaken, Not Stirred