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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.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


“A wise man travels to discover himself.” 
                                             ― James Russell Lowell

It's a dark and misty morning as I trundle down the highway towards Minneapolis airport. I get there entirely too early…shades of Travel OCD, I think to myself…finding my way through security and to my gate in plenty of time. An hour an a half later, we're tucked into a relatively empty aircraft, each passenger essentially with their own private row.

I'm headed to Kansas City. Outside the window it's still dark and misty. As I remarked on an earlier column, it's reminiscent of the airfield at the end of Casablanca, only this is an unromanticised and chilly reality. The jet trundles down the runway gathering speed. It sways a bit before the telltale tilt that indicates we're leaving the tarmac. A light thunk as the rear wheels leave the ground and we're aloft. A slight wobble to the wings as the jet grabs air. And moments later, it seems, we ascend out of the dark mist, rising above the clouds into a spectacular sunrise. I move to the window seat and grab a few shots using my iPad. It captures, not unexpectedly, only a fraction of the beauty of pure sunlight across pristine white clouds. 

2014 has been a year of great changes for me. I transitioned to a full time job that now affords me a great opportunity to hit the road or air on a regular basis. It was a year of adventures, spectacular views, excellent travel companions, a good bit of history, a dash of education and not a little bit of air time.


One of my favorite destinations, of course, is Las Vegas. There is a lot to do above and beyond the city's traditional role as Gambling Capital, and we indulged in a good chunk of fun with my sister and her husband as they journeyed out to California and Las Vegas for his birthday amidst a weeklong celebration. We indulged in a number of things, including Cirque du Soleil's Mystere -- the first and still one of my favorite Cirque shows -- and the most recent iteration of The Blue Man Group. My guess is that they enjoyed the latter a bit more, but both were impressive and fun. The drive back yielded the below picture of my brother-in-law in an area of the Mojave Desert known as The Devil's Playground. Rumor is he's still wandering around out there somewhere…


Our second major trip of the year was in companionship with our longtime friends and newtime traveling companions Jim and Glenda. After many years of trying to schedule a trip together we finally managed to arrive at the same destination at the same time.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, has quickly instilled itself as one of our favorite destinations. Its innate beauty, ideal location, and easygoing lifestyle (with a heavily artistic bent) makes it "just one of those places", and assumes a status next to other long standing Favorite Destinations New York, Calistoga, Hanalei Bay, Vancouver, Sedona and Annapolis. While there we indulged in a new treat: sopapillas. Glenda introduced these to us and we spent a good portion of our time in NM "hunting" the perfect sopapilla. (We found several excellent examples.)

New Mexico has a deep history, particularly when it comes to Native American cultures. During this visit we took advantage of a couple of open days, traveling up the canyons to the beautiful art enclave of Taos -- but not for the art. We visited the millennium-old Taos Pueblo, a still-standing city within a city, kept as closely as possible to its natural pre-industrial state. It's possible to see artisans continuing to produce works in the classic manner, as well as try a few Native American breads and other items made the old-fashioned way. It's a highly educational site, visited with an open mind and willingness to understand an ancient and proud culture different from what we usually consider "our own".

Thematically similar, though with an entirely different form of presentation is the Bandolier National Monument, about an hour from Santa Fe and/or Taos. We discovered it nearly by accident. We had dropped Jim and Glenda off for a hike across a table mesa. The altitude prevented us from accompanying them, so we let them know we'd be back in an hour or so while we "checked out" the Bandolier listing on the map. Twenty or so minutes later were were in a beautiful land, following a curvy road through what I called the "swiss cheese" mountains. The entire area is a vast volcano, and much of the landscape is reflective of that sort of construction. As we arrived at an overlook, we could tell Bandolier was going to be something special. It's essentially a deep valley green oasis in the middle of the New Mexico northern mountains, with a lush green forest along the banks of the Bandolier River. The chief attraction is the abandoned Native American ruins, including a substantial example of cliff-dwelling residences along the north side of the canyon. Realizing we were up against a bit of a time deadline, we raced back down the highway, collected Jim and Glenda, dragging them back to our "discovery". Some shots of the area are below.

Skies above Arizona
The Sedona desert
The highlight of the trip, however -- if I may be permitted a small pun -- was the morning we floated majestically over the City of Albuquerque in a hot air balloon. This had been on our NOW list for some years and was finally, on this trip, accomplished. Being notoriously acrophobic I spent a few nervous moments, but shortly learned to enjoy it and even shot quite a few pictures and video of the adventure. There have been many attempts to describe the experience of hot air ballooning, but let me leave it as "you need to do it for yourself". 

Following our time in Santa Fe, we left Jim and Glenda behind (they were flying back to LA) and drove back across the desert Southwest to Sedona for a couple of days. It seems that more and more our trips have an offroad element, and this visit was no different as we signed up for a Safari Jeep Offroading tour which took us to a fairly remote area west of town. It was a really enjoyable (if slightly backbreaking) adventure. I recorded a video of the tour, a short portion of which you can see here, including the at-times hysterical narration from our driver/guide: 


View from the U.S.S. Midway
June found me in the midst of a job transition which, eventually, would feed my passion for travel considerably. But during the transition my wife and I spent a few days in San Diego for our anniversary. Intended as just a short distance vacation it definitely fulfilled our need to "get away". This is something I've been harping on for years: getting away doesn't require a long journey, it can be just a couple hours down the road in a completely different place. The change of scenery can be all that you need, but still secure in the knowledge you can be home shortly should the need occur. In this case we discovered San Diego's Gaslamp District and Old Town areas, both of which are excellent ways to spend some time blowing off steam. The Gaslamp is more of a party atmosphere, not unlike Bourbon Street in New Orleans though cleaner and without alcohol being spilled/consumed in the streets. Old Town, on the other hand, is a more subdued cultural experience with a Mexican flair to it (San Diego, and all of California, were once a large part of Mexico).

As my work travel ramped up -- return trips to Albuquerque, Las Vegas and San Diego, multiple trips to Phoenix, and one each to Tucson, El Paso, Carlsbad and Austin -- our personal travel decreased a bit temporarily.


The so-called "False Creek" at sunset
In October we headed up to British Columbia for a few days in Whistler and Vancouver. This visit demonstrated my long held theory that day trips -- escorted professional tours -- can be useful in determining future destinations. In this case we had been on exactly such a trip to Whistler four years prior and made a mental note to get back at some point. This was it, and we thoroughly enjoyed the time spent there. The shoulder season isn't usually the best time to visit, but the weather not only held but was spectacular. We took not one but TWO offloading trips, exploring some of the rugged countryside surrounding Whistler looking for bears (didn't see any) and a sunset trip up the vast Backcomb Mountain to watch dusk from the top of the peak. Just an amazing sight.

Sunset atop Blackcomb
From an educational standpoint you cannot be in this part of the world without a nod to the First Nations cultures. We spent some quality time at the Squamish Cultural Center in town, gaining an appreciation for the culture and heritage these people can offer our history -- a nice complement to our earlier experiences in Taos and Bandolier. There is a tremendous history in these peoples that most Americans view through the lens of Hollywood, and worth a second look to better appreciate our own culture and the land we inhabit.

Vancouver, on the other hand, was as much fun as always. This reinforced our love of the city quite a bit, convincing us it is on the short list when and if I ever get the chance to retire. On this trip we took advantage of the end--of-October timing and spent a really fun evening at the Haunted Train event in Stanley Park. 


November is certainly well ahead in the running as my most heavily traveled month ever. Getting home from BC was followed just a week later by a short business jump over to Phoenix, then a much longer trip up to North Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas City. The morning after I got home from KC we were off again on a personal trip to Annapolis for the Thanksgiving holiday. That entailed side trips to Alexandria, Washington and a day trip up to Gettysburg -- where neither my wife nor I had been before -- to pay respects to the fallen (picture left).


I've mentioned the destinations above, but for a quick recap: San Diego, San Fancisco; Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, El Paso: Carslbad, NM: Austin: Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota; Fargo, Belcourt, Devil's Lake (all North Dakota); Kansas City and Overland, KS.

December is finishing the year out nicely with a two day business visit to Seattle, and later today I'm headed up to Sacramento for a short overnight meeting.

All in all, a massive year on the road, full of adventure, full of fun and certainly one which was worth the effort. Looking forward to 2014, in which we already have planned the next trip to Las Vegas, a couple of weeks in Hawaii and a three week sojourn Down Under.

Stay tuned, it ought to be a rocking' year!

Thank you all for following and continuing to read The Thumbnail Traveler.

Happy New Year, and may 2014 take you where you want to go.

Where Next?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Right. Late on that....

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
                                    ― Douglas Adams

Hmm. Hello. You again. End of year review. 2013. I've promised that for a couple of weeks, haven't I?

Yeah. About that. Turns out having a heckuva travel year means you got a heckuva lot of material to weed through, edit and make some sense and value out of. So let me dazzle you with some pretty pictures and assure you we've got the review coming soon. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon.

Plus, to whet your appetite: we're starting a slightly different format come January. Instead of a general multi-topic open forum for my thoughts, I'm going to begin doing a lot more specific recounting of trips and adventures. I've discovered those seem to be (historically) the much more viewed topics -- though the Ten Rules for Pinheads seems to acquired a bit of a life of its own, which is nice.

But expect a lot more Road Trip type entries as we move into 2014 and beyond...I think we'll all have a lot of fun. 

But until then, Happy Holidays (whichever you may choose to honor), and looking forward to one more entry before the new year. 

Some of our previous years' adventures:

Sunset in the Hawaiian Islands

Grabbing a burger at Le Select in St Barth

Watch for Flying Fish in Seattle

More burgers, this time Lake Tahoe

Casino Monte Carlo

Dog-carting in Churchill

A blizzard in Philly
Shopping in Cortona, Italy
We're going to Disneyland!

Dinner in Las Vegas!

Sunrise in Long Beach

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Thumbnail Traveler's Ten Basic Rules of Travel...for Pinheads

“Travel is the best teacher. The only way to an open mind is by taking a plane out into the open world.” 
                                                            ― C. JoyBell C.


(Okay, dear friend, lean in just a little. It's about time we had a discussion, you and I. We've been talking about a lot of aspects of travel for the last couple of years, so I think we can have a frank and open discussion about something that needs to be addressed, and you've probably wanted to be the one to do it yourself. But I'll save you the trouble and take the heat. I'm talking about stupid passengers. We both know who I mean.)

I am not sure what happens -- or why it happens -- but something happens to a small group of people when they are dropped off at the front entrance of an airport terminal. They change. They become something...different. 

It's as if this small group of normally quite respectable Doctor Jeckyl upstanding citizens become sniveling, distasteful and sneering Mister Hydes when they walk through those front doors to the terminal, and they begin to behave in ways they would never think to do in other aspects of their lives. 

Their friends would never allow it, and even their children might be tempted to kick them in the shins if they ever did this sort of thing at home. Certainly their parol officers would find it cause to send them back to prison, and divorce attorneys could use to collect a far greater share of the estate from any judge with a frequent flier plan.

And that person is now and forever to be labeled The Pinhead.

Yes, yes. I see your hand fluttering, trying to keep me quiet. It's not politically correct, and you might say I'm being rude, but you know exactly the sort of person I'm referring to. In light of day they are nice, for the most part thinking, people. But when the suitcases are pulled from the back of the car and deposited on the sidewalk, they metamorphosize, Hulk-like, into...well, oblivious, mean and entitled wretches who put Ebenezer Scrooge to shame in even his most foul of pre-transformational moods.

Don't shush me, you know I'm right. 

None of the major media travel mavens would be so blunt, but trust me they're thinking it. Wendy Perrin, JD Andrews, Andrew McCarthy. They would gently tsk, tsk and roll their eyes and think dark, but private, thoughts. TV hosts Samantha Brown, Andrew Zimmern, Phil Keoghan and all the rest would turn away, silently dismissing the offender as an amateur, a rube.

A Pinhead.

Okay, Bourdain would say something. And Todd Carmichael. They would certainly react. The authorities might not even find the Pinhead's body. I grant you that. Barbecue and coffee, anyone?

But for me, it's gotten to the point I have to speak up. I have to call a Pinhead a Pinhead.

I am optimistic. I think they can be cured, if given enough love and support from the rest of the travel community. Perhaps the issue is one of ignorance, or a lack of love in their lives. All that may be required is that we hug them to our collective bosom, where they can be educated or, as necessary, gently snuffed.

So. In honor of that optimism, I want to do my part. To do my duty. To God and...wait. That's the Boy Scout oath. Sorry.

It's basic stuff. Follow the Rules. You, gentle reader, will recognize them all. But we, you and I, understand them and follow them already. We're the people who exchange the glances, the long-suffering rolls of our eyes, when the rubes, the Pinheads, begin their antics. They, in turn, don't see us as anything other than obstacles in the direct path of their self-absorbed and usually frantic wrestling of Subaru-sized Samsonites down the aisle or into the overheads or out of the hands of a particularly dedicated airline employee who is begging them to understand that a sailor's steamship trunk is really, really, really NOT a carry-on.

The Very Direct Rules are common sense which, as more than one comedian has observed, is rarely either with some people. But you will know, my friend: these are rules we recognize, we understand, we appreciate. 

I suggest printing them out, keeping them handy to offer, helpfully, as a kind gift to the oblivious, the rubes, the Pinheads.

Or roll it up and whack 'm with it. Same net effect, in the end.

Let's get to it. 

Here are -- for those miscreants who insist upon treating the airline industry as their own transportation system and the rest of us unfortunate fellow travelers as inconveniences along for the voyage -- a set of Very Direct Rules for Pinheads to follow. Ten of them. I wanted to do more, but am not sure these folks can count higher than ten, so we need to keep it simple.

I see you nodding in understanding. Let's begin.


1) COURTESY: Be polite to the flight attendants. Listen to their instructions. They have flown a lot more than you have and seen things that would make you drop into a fetal position and suck your thumb. They also know karate. If they tell you to stop wrestling with your bag and check it, or sit down and let other people pass, do it. Now.

2) BEHAVIOR: Be professional and courteous at airports and on planes. Follow established travel protocols and be thoughtful of your fellow travelers. We outnumber you.

- BOARDING THE AIRCRAFT: Board in your group, not whenever you damned well feel like it. They announce these things for a reason. Listen to the announcements. All of them. Yes, you might be far more interested in watching Sarah Palin's learned Fox News exposition on shooting dolphins from a helicopter, but trust me, the gate attendant is going to have a much more immediate and profound impact on your short-term future.

- Don't take oversized baggage on the plane with the fanciful expectation no one will notice you trundling down the boarding tube with the equivalent of two fifty pound sacks of grain under each arm. Everyone sees you and it immediately brands you an amateur traveler. A pinhead.

- If, once you've pummeled your way onto the aircraft and down the aisle, neatly connecting with the arms or heads of everyone politely seated to both sides of the plane, you realize you're having trouble getting the bag to fit, guess what? That's your first clue you should have gate-checked the damn thing -- go back, offer your apologies as you connect again with the collective noggins and shoulders of First Class, take the bag back to the front -- or follow flight attendant instructions, whichever is the least likely to get you throttled. Don't try to smash it into the bin. Don't shove everyone else's luggage around in an attempt to get more room. Don't begin rearranging things as if you're the Head Interior Designer at Macy's New York. Even if YOU don't care about the condition of the cra...er, stuff, in your bag, crushing it into the bin may damage somebody else's property and genuinely angers the people who are losing patience in line behind you as you make a public spectacle of yourself.

- When you're finally on board -- and have put your properly-sized bag in the overhead compartment quickly and cleanly -- sit down. Let the 57 people you've kept waiting board the plane, find their seats and stow their stuff now that you're done.

- EXITING THE AIRCRAFT: Wait your turn. Don't leap out of your seat like a member of the Joffrey Ballet as soon as the seatbelt light is extinguished. There's a polite protocol in allowing rows ahead of you to get off the plane before you begin barreling for the exit. This sort of behavior makes other passengers silently vow that if they ever see you again you're not likely to make it to the exit in event of an emergency. Just sayin'. Lots of chaos in those situations and someone just might get body blocked by the Big Guy in row 10. See the comments above and below marked "amateur" and "spectacle". Big Guy doesn't look too happy at the moment.

3) SAFETY FIRST: Speaking of which, if the seat belt sign IS lit, at any time, sit your ass down. Don't get up. Don't move about the cabin. Don't suddenly remember your video game is in the overhead and get up to retrieve it. Doing so immediately confirms you're an amateur. Or a self-important idjit. And an annoyance. An amateur annoying self-important idjit. Is this what you want on your resume, or is it already there in sparkling red letters? Oh, you need a restroom break? Too bad. Siddown.

(An exception would be a small child. They rarely plan ahead. But you're a full grown adult. Why would you want to effectively announce to the entire plane that you can, or won't, control your own bladder? YOUR Mommy and Daddy always told you to go before leaving the house. Or the airport. Whichever.)

4) A REWARDING EXPERIENCE: Enjoy yourself. Being a royal pain in the ass does nobody any good, nor does it win you friends. And believe me, with the way Big Guy is glaring at you, the flight attendants are the best friends you've got on this plane. Rude people get rude service. If someone is arguing with you, perhaps you ought to consider that maybe it isn't that person who is being obtuse.

5) FRUGAL IS AS FRUGAL DOES: If you're on a short duration flight and have paid economy rates, don't expect a full meal. You may not even get peanuts. Sip your cola and understand that if you're in the main cabin you've already traded economy for service.

6) CONVERSING WITH THE LOCALS: When you're boarding, and you approach your designated row to take the middle seat, if you find the two people on the window and aisle are already engaged in friendly chatter, do not sit down and cut off the conversation. Smile, excuse yourself and at the very least offer to exchange seats if you're not interested in talking.

On the same note, if you're doing 90% of the talking in a given row it might be a clue that the other passengers don't need to see every single photograph of your grandchildren all through the duration of the flight.

7) WHIPLASH ARISING: If the coast is clear, the seatbelt light is dark, and you want to get up from your seat, DO NOT grab the back of the seat in front of you and use it to haul yourself to your feet. The person in front of you suddenly feels their seat slip away and it's a disconcerting experience at the very least. Gravity tends to work, even at 33,000 feet -- so while you're casually leveraging yourself into the aisle, your unfortunate fellow passenger is enduring a roller coaster ride of backwards and forwards motion ideally suited to spill their coffee, the contents of their last meal, or disrupt a particularly pleasant dream.


For ANKLEBITERS: Control your children. Please. If you do nothing else. Control your children. This does not mean letting your four year old play in the aisle, nor does it mean it's cute when they kick at the seatback in front of them. Control your children, or at least have the courtesy to gate-check them.

For ADULTS -- WATCH THE LANGUAGE: And you, adults: control your language. I've heard pretty coarse words coming from seats next to and directly behind young ears. Not from guys, usually and somewhat startlingly, but from younger women traveling together and snickering not so quietly about some poor girl who's evidently not near enough to defend herself. Even if someone IS a bitch (or worse), don't announce it where little ears can hear and little mouths repeat. (You may find this amusing, but trust me you're in the minority opinion.)

9) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: If you're in the first two groups boarding, put your damned right-sized luggage in an overhead near your seat. Don't put it in the bins over the first ten rows, figuring you'll just grab it on the way out. Use the one you're supposed to use, not the first one you run across.

(If you're in the latter groups boarding you're on your own, unfortunately, because some pinhead in row 28 popped their bag into row 10's bin. Also unfortunately, your bag is now over Row 28 and you need to wait out the debarkation to be able to get back and grab your bag. In the other hand, if you recognize the pinhead from row 28 grabbing his bag from the bin over your head, it's an ideal time to Accidentally head-butt them in the gizzard. Or the groin, whichever is handier.)

(Big hint for both of you: if it's bigger than a briefcase or computer bag, gate check it. Seriously, you're an idiot if you don't. A rude idiot. See rule #1 above. Yes, I'm being repetitive.)

10) GROUP THERAPY: Accept that this is a group experience, not an individual one. Under no circumstances should you ever -- ever -- have cause to stand on your seat. At the gate. In flight. While taxiing. Are you kidding? Ask a taller person for help, sure, but stand on your own chair? I rarely pray for turbulence, but you can bet your ass this is one of those times.

So, there you go. The Thumbnail Traveler Very Direct Ten Basic Rules of Travel for Pinheads. Hope you found this enlightening and amusing and something you can use to batter the pinheads with the next time they rear their ugly heads on a flight near you.

Next week, the year in review.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

"I every conceivable way, the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future."

                                --Alex Haley

It is Thanksgiving Day here in the states. Traditionally a day for families and friends to gather to express their appreciation for the lives we have and those people who we are surrounded with.

It is, no doubt, in some circles a controversial holiday built upon a largely inaccurate view of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to a friendly feast to celebrate the harvest. Yes, we all know what horrors our ancestors then set upon the locals. No forgiveness for the white men who did the deed, but perhaps today we can seek a new way and appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the tapestry of modern America.

I am thankful for a job and lifestyle which afford me the opportunity to travel, to experience so much of that American tapestry as well as the fabric of other societies around the world. 2013 has been a remarkably traveling year, as I will cover in a future blog entry, and several of the places I have visited have given me a glimpse into Native American and First Peoples cultures. Plus, in my new job I get to work directly with America's Indian tribes, which is a new and exciting opportunity to see the culture as it currently stands, not just the history as contained in a tourist attraction or historic site.

As I write this I am with family in Maryland, up early to get the traditional turkey into the smoker in time for a late afternoon meal. My brother in law sets it in place above a small pile of coals and cherry wood, and we all retire to the family room for coffee and bagels.

Today is the day Americans have set aside to give thanks, but there's no reason we cannot affirm that sentiment on a daily basis. And no reason other lands cannot share the sentiment with us. It's not about the history or the traditions, it's about looking at our lives and realizing that -- no matter the challenges -- there is hope and love and promise in the world.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it, and this year also a special Happy Hannukah to our Jewish friends. And to everyone else, please give a moment for thanks for what you have, and what the future holds.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ad Astra

On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet's eye"

                                 - Neil Diamond

I fly a lot. Easily hundred of times in my lifetime. Thirty flights this year alone, ranging from 40 minute regional hops to cross-country hauls. In the past -- and upcoming in the next six months -- intercontinentally.

You would think this would have caused me to become very blasé about flying. And while airport terminals have certainly lost their luster and wow factor for me, I am still excited by airport operations (watching the aircraft move to and fro) and the airline industry itself.

I am reminded of this because as I write this entry I am aboard a short haul flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City. It's a relatively empty aircraft, giving the assorted passengers our own rows for the most part. I move from the aisle to the window and get a momentary thrill by looking out the window as we taxi and then take off. It is something I've felt since childhood, and isn't present on all flights. But often enough for it to be fun and different.

It's an early morning flight, with a heavy misting rain that contributes a mysterious overcast to the Tarmac (shades of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, perhaps?) (Or maybe Bogart and Claude Rains?) It's very cool and alluring.

After takeoff, I am treated to one of my all time favorite views as we ascend out of the clouds. I am facing east. The sun is barely up, casting a bright thin red-orange glow against the horizon's cloud cover. It's magnificent. Were our ancestors of two hundred years ago able to see this scene it would invariably invoke their perception of heaven and it's hard not to argue.

The flight settles in to more of a routine. Coffee, reading, a game or two on the iPad, and a wee bit of turbulence...but it's hard to escape the leftover sense of fun and adventure of the first few minutes. I was a kid again, experiencing flying from a more innocent, less jaundiced perspective.

Yes, I've flown hundreds of times. But sometimes, every once in a while, I'm reminded what it's like to truly experience travel.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Abre los Ojos

"80% of the information we receive is through our eyes."  -- filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg

Any photographer worth their salt will tell you dramatic lighting is the key to most great shots. Sharp angles, shadows, a depth of field that this gives the final image. The combination of dark and light can also convey a sense of scale, of texture to an otherwise uniform image.

This may explain the frequency with which people want to see and shoot sunrises and sunsets. Over the years I've photographed hundreds, ranging from sunsets in places like Key West, Hudson Bay and the Mediterranean, and sunrises in Hawaii, Mexico and a lot of major cities around the world. There is a context and story for each of them.

A week or so ago as I write this my wife and I joined a Canadian 01 Adventures tour up the side of Blackcomb Mountain, just to the east of Whistler Village in British Columbia. We were in town for a few days, and you can expect a full trip report in the coming weeks. Blackcomb, along with its sibling Whistler Mountain, is one of the most popular and respected ski destinations in the world. But in the off season, other than hiking there's little to do other than take in the view. But…and this is important…it's one helluva view.

We met the tour guides, Nick and Morgan, in the large plaza in front of the Carleton Lodge in Whistler, just a couple of minutes by foot from our hotel. (Whistler is imminently walkable, with plenty of shopping, eating and coffee to make any visitor happy.) Nick was to be our driver for a group of six, with Morgan taking the second vehicle with four passengers. Our small band together marched a block or so over to the Jeeps -- bright red and easy-to-spot -- where they were parked on Blackcomb Way, facing the mountain and ready to go.

A pause for a short description. 

Blackcomb, for the vast majority of wintertime visitors, is a smooth, sloping giant of a hill with a hundred different possible ski routes. What most people never experience or realize, is that Blackcomb is a rugged, rock-strewn, steeply sloped monster when it comes to travel during the off months. A raw band of switchback roads and dirt pathways comprise the majority of routes to the top when the slopes are not active and the lifts engaged. The top is just shy of 7500 feet, and a rapid ascent, by road, takes a half hour or so of a fairly rapid near-offroading race along the switchbacks and cliffhanging turns. Not for the automotive faint-of-heart. To realize that a portion of the trip back down would be in the dark, and you can see the challenge and, frankly, the excitement.

Back to our story.

Nick piled us into our Jeep, the lead vehicle, and my wife and I clambered into the back -- knowing full well it's usually the bumpiest (and hence, fun) seat in the house. On the other hand, in this case there was almost no legroom, which came close to resulting in serious muscle cramps during the bumping and grinding that followed. The other four passengers in our Jeep were a Middle Eastern family comprised of two parents -- just a little older than we are -- and their sons, who looked to be in their early twenties or late teens. Very nice couple, and later on the boys (thankfully) offered to take the "rumble" seats on the trip back down. Up is one thing, but at 53 my hips weren't sure they were up to another round in the back. (Being fair, we had already been out on a 5K cliffside hike earlier in the day so the joints were already a bit sore.)

The first quarter mile was pretty smooth, but soon we veered off the main gravel road onto a series of dirt pathways which would get us to the top a little faster. The ride was quite a bit of fun, though not as bumpy -- or slow -- as our trip in Sedona. Still, a very good good "e-ticket" attraction. Nick did a terrific job of pointing out various sights, and letting us know the differences between what we were doing on this trip and what we might find a few months later, or earlier, on the same route. He made the observation I reference above, regarding the mountain's terrain under the snow -- that most skiers have no idea about the rocks and boulders they might be blithely sailing across, while we in the Jeeps would be feeling every one of them.

We continued our journey, noting how quickly the village kept falling away with each successive switchback until the view was almost dizzyingly immense. The air was pristine and the sky was completely clear -- we were told this is a rarity for mid-October. which is typically overcast and quite wet. No rain during our five days, which the locals assured us was "unusual". But it was unbelievably clear, and the air held that kind of cold dampness that adds an aspect of clarity and chill to the world. The sky was a deep blue by the time we reached the summit -- our Jeep went beyond the lookout point to take a quick look at the glacier itself before returning back down to meet the other group and watch the sun set.

As we piled out of the vehicle, the sun was just above the horizon. The valley below was already dark, and the lights of Whistler were already on and visible from the slopes. The boys from our Jeep started a snowball fight with Dad (who lost, pretty badly), while Mom took pictures of the family, the scenery and just about everything she could see. The boys feigned falling (or pushing themselves) off the edge of the cliff, and finally they all settled in and asked me to take their picture against the snowy background of Whistler Mountain just to our south.

As often happens, we all stopped talking and moving about as it came time for the sun to go down. Nick and Morgan quietly went person to person asking if anyone wanted their photograph against the view -- which you can see the results of our own shot to the right.

Gradually the sun disappeared behind the peaks opposite us, and we began packing ourselves back into the Jeep for the ride back down, drawing up to the drop-off point just after the darkness fell completely. (Along the way back down we saw the bobsledding trail set up for the 2010 Olympics and followed a part of its path down. Even devoid of snow, it looks terrifically challenging for the athletes.)

Nick and Morgan did a great job, and we recommend the sunset tour up Blackcomb for anyone who doesn't suffer from altitude sickness or a medical condition that makes a bumpy ride a bad idea. For everyone else, the view and the experience are highly worth it. 

(Canadian Wilderness Adventures can be found at: Canadian 01 Tours ) 

There are times in life when all you can do is stand, awestruck, staring at the immensity of the world which surrounds you. We, as humans, tend to get wrapped up in ourselves and our surroundings, and lose sight of the fact that Mother Nature is an immense and beautiful creature, putting our greatest achievements in humiliating perspective. This was one of those moments. Surrounding by a tremendous vista of mountains and glaciers, with the lights from the tiny village of Whistler blinking in the shadows, we got a true sense of the enormity of the world around us. As the sun set behind the Pacific Range of mountains, you can't help but put things in perspective in your own mind. We become so obsessed with the micro that we completely lose sight of the macro. Literally, not seeing the forest for the trees.

As I remarked above, there is something about a sunset that is beautiful no matter what the setting. So when the setting is itself a spectacle, the combination of setting sun and view below create stunning vistas which I can only hope to convey slightly in my words and pictures. Below are some of additional images that struck me as representing the experience. I hope you enjoy.

More about the rest of the trip in a future post.
A Road Less Traveled

Nick in his office

Moment of Truth