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.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Days Gone By

"When the plane is delayed, it's not the fault of the girl at the desk. I'm resigned to the fact that everything is out of my control and that air travel nowadays is barbaric."
                                                Tom Conti 

I am on US Airways Express flight 2831, en route from Austin, Texas to Phoenix, Arizona where I will make a connection on my way home to Long Beach.

The evening takeoff out of Austin is spectacular. The sky, a mix of the last remaining crimson shadows of the sunset silhouettes dark but nonthreatening clouds off to the West. The old sailor's rhyme regarding "red skies in morning, sailor take warning; red skies a

t night, sailor's delight" comes to mind as I gaze out the CRJ-900's porthole watching the last sight of the runway drop away out of my view.

As we climb, up ahead the glittering skyline of downtown takes shape, passes regally by a thousand then two thousand feet below and several miles away before itself crawling back beyond my ability to crane my neck and watch. The outline of the river -- reflecting the last remaining brightness in the sky -- is clearly framed against the dark of the land, while the bright lights of the streets illuminate the towers and, at one end of a long boulevard, the capital dome of the Texas State House. All of it drops out of view.

This is the sort of takeoff it love. It gives you a last and final glacé at a place you've been and is something of a final wink from somewhere you will miss when you're gone. It's not the sort of thing you get everywhere, nor every when. I can count on perhaps two hands the number of times I have had this sort of "magic moment" on liftoff, and it's a special thing.

As the sun sets and the outside of the plane grows further dark there is a friendly, convivial laughter in the plane a couple of rows ahead of me. The drone of conversation, a rarity on most flights these days, is in full swing throughout the aircraft. Perhaps sensing the mood, the flight attendants are joking with the passengers during the standard drink service, keeping things light.

I am seated in an exit row, and the seat next to me is vacant, affording me a pretty roomy and leisurely arrangement. My coffee, hot from a just-made pot, rests on the tray intended for the passenger next to me, were there any such person on the plane. The setting, in its entirety, reminds me again of the days in which flying was an adventure and not simply taking a bus from point A to point B.

It's nice to rediscover these things, to touch them, however briefly, every once in a while.

Monday, October 14, 2013

October Country

“Suddenly the day was gone, 
night came out from under each tree and spread.” 
                     Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

"Tombstone" -  Concord, Massachussets
October is one of my favorite months of the year. 

Not only has the heat of summer largely dissipated -- at least here in Southern California -- but the slight chill in the air means it's almost Halloween. There is a dimming of the sun's glow, just a bit and not quite to Winter's cold glare. A few yards in the neighborhood sprout tombstones and gourds and ghosties and goblins and other spirits of the night. Television channels turn to the macabre for days at a time and the Travel Channel explodes with specials related to getting a good fright.

For as long as I can remember, and reliably even before that, Halloween has been among my favorite holidays. It's a time of year that, back in my boyhood on the Eastern Seaboard, was full of the charms only a boy's mind could create. The cold chill of the wind as it blew down from the hills. Ray Bradbury's October Country stories resonate with me to this day. As a boy I was a voracious reader. And much of the material was related to those things that go bump in the night. I'm not going to comment much on the current state of what is called "horror" these days -- too many of these things are built mainly out of ways to dispatch teenagers in the most gruesome possible ways. I understand that not one of us hasn't wanted to carry through on our nefarious thoughts regarding teens at least once in our lives, but that's not the sort of thing that keeps you in suspense over the long term.

For me it's all about mood. Imagery. This comes as no real surprise given my love of the visual arts. But real chills don't come from the visual scene of an axe-wielding murderer chopping down on the victim. True horror comes from those moments right beforehand when you, as an audience member, are aware that there's something lurking in the dark behind the victim. The murder is the follow through, the gore. It's the tension of "what if" right beforehand that is the crux of what scary things ought to be.

This is something the masters understand. In Ray Bradbury's classic story "The Scythe" he describes the horrible and painful loss of a loved one, and yet in his also-classic story "Obstinate Uncle Otis" he is able to turn the tables and make it an amusing little tale of obstinacy and its impact on the unwitting. In my friend Harlan Ellison's brutal tale 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" it isn't the brutality of the deaths which frighten us, it's the fear of the things in the darkness around the five human characters in the piece -- and of the hatred, the visceral hatred for the main characters expressed by the electronic pseudo-God AM.
"Nightmare" - Skagway, Alaska

Lazy directors and writers have come to equate body count with horror and it's unfortunate that we are losing that fear of the dark itself which is the basis for all horror around us.

What does any of this have to do with travel? I love visiting those places which give us the heebie-jeebies. The scary and spooky places which, by their simple nature, bring out that dark part of ourselves and let us play with it. It's a form of therapy, really, this focus on the things which frighten us. And so it stands to reason that I often seek out the scary stuff to expose it and play with it and understand it a bit better both as an artist and as a human being.

The Jerome Grand Hotel, Arizona
In my wandering I've been underground in Salem, Massachusetts. Stayed a night in a haunted former hospital on a mountainside in Jerome, Arizona. Wandered the dark below decks of the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach. Felt a chill walking a hallway at the Hotel del Coronado. Stood in the crypt of John Paul Jones at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Wandered cemeteries in places as diverse as Newport, Rhode Island and Kennebunkport, Maine; in Skagway, Alaska; in El Paso, Texas and Taos, New Mexico; in Paris; Saint Barthelemy; in New Orleans; and Williamsburg and Arlington, Virginia. New York City. Places of history, of legend.

The Garden District, New Orleans
To me it's simply part of being a seasoned traveler. Yes, the element of fun is unquestionably there, but how can you properly respect a place without taking a moment to honor the dead, the legends, the history of a place. Some places, like Salem and Jerome, embrace the spooky parts of their past. And that's all right. Others prefer to leave it to the traveler to find that place, that history that scary spot and to understand and appreciate it for what it is: a dark part of our ancient selves come out to play.

The illustrations for this blog entry, in honor of Halloween, are more directed towards otherworldliness than pretty pictures of places I've been and am able to recommend. These are not stories of delicious treats in Sicily, or the spectacle of mountains along the California coast…no, these are the places that are eerie and fun and reach a part of our collective psyche to jump out of us and shout "boo". It's the fear of the dark and the soothing nervous giggle when you discover it was a cat that knocked that can off the shelf and not something horrific coming for your soul. It's a part of our ancestral heritage which we ought to cuddle and nurture and reassure, here in our modern world.

Our ancestors feared the dark and created the supernatural as a way to explain it and handle it as they gathered around campfires and pulled their children closer to the family bosom. For that is the nature of our fascination with the unknown. It's a way to understand the fear, give it context. Let us, when the mood strikes, have some fun at our own expense.

Happy Halloween.

Boot Hill. Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Word About Our Sponsor

 "When traveling with someone, take large doses of patience and tolerance with your morning coffee."
                                             - Helen Hayes

Las Vegas is the sort of place you go when the rest of the world becomes boring. 

Okay. Not entirely true. When the rest of the man-made, modern sterile downtown districts and suburbs become boring.

Okay. Las Vegas is a very fun place to go. Argue with that. 

Okay. Wow. Rough crowd. How about this: Las Vegas is a really fun place to go, relax and have a good time, besides it's closer and cheaper than Monte Carlo.


Okay, good. I knew we saw eye to eye.

I'm at the massive Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino complex in Vegas so that my wife can attend the semi-annual Organo Gold distributors' conference -- OG is the brand of pre-packaged packetted coffee now sponsoring the Thumbnail Traveler sites through my wife's distributorship -- and I can visit my full-time employer's local sales office for a couple of meetings. Travel is better when someone else is paying the tab, yes?

But it's the former I want to talk about with this post, and forgive me if this is a bit of an aside versus a real travel column. With the kind sponsorship from Organo Gold -- again, through my wife's good offices -- I think it's only fair I give them a solid mention here in the blog. You may have noticed the appearance of their link to the upper right of this post. If not, please check it out. It's a very cool thing and we're thrilled to be on board with them.

Organo Gold is a coffee distributorship for flavored coffees presented in packets which, perfectly enough, are well suited to travelers and outdoor adventurers. The company's product distribution path is structured not unlike Mary Kay or Herbalife or Tupperware or any other solid and recommendable product represented by a local distributor versus a chain store. It's network marketing, which unfortunately makes a lot of people cringe in fear whenever that term is used. Relax. 

 Organo Gold is like any other consumable product: it's good, it's safe and more than anything else it's worth the cost. Good product at a fair exchange. And frankly, I love the flavors.

Unlike some of the less savory network marketers -- more Ponzi schemes than sales organizations -- we have met and truly like a lot of the people currently engaged with us. They are, to a one, professional and honest. For me a fundamental aspect of any business relationship is the quality of the people you work with, and these guys are great. (Trust me. I've dealt with some true losers in the traditional business environment. Nobody is immune to the jerks, whether it's network marketing or traditional chain stores or multinational corporations.)  

A major reason, in fact, we like this company not only because of the product and convenience, but in working with her sales channel we have found the people my wife works with, works as team -- that everyone supports each other, as they do the best of organizations. For us, it's the people you work with as much as the product they represent, and this is true pretty much however and wherever we are.

The product is terrific for anyone, particularly those of us who travel more than the average bear. In addition to a packet that makes a traditional cup of coffee, the OG flavors extend to a latte (more of a cafe creme, since there's no foam involved), a mocha, hot chocolate, several types of teas and other products... Including black coffee.

Since I spend a fair amount of time on the road, I often fall victim to that hateful cup of coffee we've all encountered from time to time. You know the type I mean. It's either so weak that the flavor is less coffee than the warmed over remains of leftover coffee with water added, or it has an indescribable flavor something akin to bourbon but without the kick. Ugh.

So coffee packets are a terrific idea, letting me add a few ounces of water to get a consistently good cup without having to hunt down a Starbucks or other brand name -- not always available on the highways of life. Just last Tuesday I found myself on a 130 mile stretch of highway in West Texas where the closest thing to real coffee was a slight brownish tint to some of the groundwater.

So, please. Check out our sponsor and let them know you saw them here and appreciate the support. I wanted to make sure our first 
sponsor was really, truly something that would benefit our fellow travelers, and luckily uncovered this one just a few months ago. Now, after some vetting of the company and the people up line from us, and my own usage of the product while on the road (and at home, for that matter -- they have an excellent brewed coffee product as well), we can fully recommend their product. 

Which is why you now see their ad in the upper right. Good stuff, from good people and at a good price. They're our first sponsor, and we're proud they're here.

Somebody has to pay the bills, right?! And its still all about travel. Hence the Las Vegas pictures to keep you occupied.

And keep you coming back.

Pass the word.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Explicking the Inexplicable (a mini entry)

“The simplest explanation is that it doesn't make sense.” - Wiliam Beuchner

There are times when, as a travel blogger, you uncover the inexplicable. Lousy hotels with great reviews. Terrific destinations being denigrated by tourists. Snooty dismissals of perfectly passable things to see and do.

Then there are the stunning errors.

As I write this I am sitting at the bar in the simply magnificent Dome Bar, in the Hotel Camino Real in El Paso. Yes. You read that right. El Paso.

The stunning glass dome itself
The architecture is just amazing. A vast, open area, topped by a Tiffany-esque (if not Tiffany itself) ceiling. Finely appointed decoration, hailing from a different era. Good food, from the nearby Huerta restaurant (in the hotel), and a perfectly passable martini.

And yet, until just moments ago I was the sole denizen of this treasure. 

Then, reading entries in Yelp and other sites, I am told how bad the service is at Huerta. How boring the bar is. How service itself suffers at the Hotel Camino Real.

And yet...I see none of it.

Staggeringly beautiful. Solid if unspectacular food (reasonably priced by hotel standards), and a really tasty martini.

What have I missed....?



The beautiful woodwork and design of The Dome Bar