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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.

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

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