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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.

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The World is Ours to Explore

Oh, the places we've been.

This is officially The Thumbnail Traveler 100th blog entry. I started this blog in February of 2011, nearly three years ago. Not a huge achievement by many standards, but a really cool one for me personally. And that little by little, week by week we're actually getting more people to log on and follow our exploits is a gratifying experience.

This year has been a tumultuous one by any standard. Alternately exhilarating and crushing. Fortunately much more of the former and the latter is being held to arms length, sort of like an irate badger who would love nothing better than to sink his teeth deep into your forearm.

We've had some startling adventures over the last three years, been to several staggeringly beautiful places and experienced deeply profound cultural institutions which make you examine the world as it exists today. Our exploits have taken us from Hawaii to Croatia and many places in between. Yes, there's a much wider world to explore, but not bad for less than 36 months.

But more than the destinations themselves, it's the adventures we have while on the road. (I'm not being imperial with the we. It refers, mostly, to my wife, who is with me for my personal voyages. My business trips tend to be closer to home and singular. Other trips are with friends we have acquired over the years.)

My memory jumps back to a handful of particularly outstanding experiences, not the least of which was  my viewing the sun as it rose over the vast crater of Mount Haleakala in Hawaii ( View From Above ). Hawaii has been a source of a number of fun things, such as snorkeling on the Na Pali Coast, swimming with mantas off the Kona shore ( Night of the Mantas ), and seeing a mother whale and her calf cavorting off the coast of Maui.

We discovered Windstar Cruises, and through them had the chance to visit the gorgeous coastlines of Croatia and Italy. One of the "outstanding meals of my life" was consumed on the stern deck of the Wind Surf eating a wonderful dinner with the sun setting over the heal of the Italian boot. ( Windstar )

We got to Venice for the very first, but not the last, time.

Here on the blog I've discussed those things which had an impact and led me to have a lust for exploring the world. Being a Navy brat is, and was, an obvious fundamental. James Bond, and the whole litany of other films and television programs with globe-hopping, exotic settings. THE PINK PANTHER; I, Spy; ROMAN HOLIDAY; The Avengers. ( James Bond ) ( Doctor Who )

Equally, if not more, important to us is the absorption of local flavors and culture. Yes, we take day trips and tours and other touristy things, how can you not? But more often we're the types who prefer to find a quiet little cafe in a back alley and watch the world go by. Despite having done it a few times ourselves, I openly cringe when the large busloads of cruise ship tourists roll up to some famous site, drop their passengers off and leave with them again in an hour. We vastly prefer smaller, more intimate day trips and tours and have only packed ourselves into a Trailways-sized tour bus on three occasions, and each of the experiences was based on a cultural education, not simply riding from one landmark to another. But I acknowledge that such trips can often lead you to a future destination, even though it doesn't work that way for the vast number of participants.

(As I write this I am roughly two-thirds done with the trip report from British Columbia. I promise that by this upcoming weekend. Several grand expeditions to recount, each of them occurring on exactly those sorts of intimate and personal tours, not the big bus variety.)

But to recap the year so far, and perhaps of the couple that preceded it, seems a better fit for this, our 100th entry.

So rather than gobble on about how cool this was, or that was, or some other thing was...or how I loved some bit of chocolate, or a martini, or...well, fill in the culinary blank...it seems appropriate to let some of my photography speak for itself. It's the best record of our exploits.

Thank you for following, whether it's your first toe dip into reading The Thumbnail Traveler, or you've been with us since the start (you poor sot), you're a welcome part of our family of friends. And thank you for coming along on this little adventure we've got going.

So...where we goin' next?

Steve Barber
The Thumbnail Traveler

A gallery of some of my favorite images and memories.

Snowed in by a blizzard in Philly

The sunset festivities in Key West
Sunrise on Haleakala
One of many U.S. Airways gates
Annapolis, MD, near Christmas

Mantas off Kona

Breakfast in Calistoga

The Vatican


Sedona sunrise
St Marks Square in Venice

Valley Forge in the wintertime


Disney World

The beach in Positano, Italy
The beautiful Columbia River Gorge

The California Coastline
Back roads on Maui

The California Desert, Joshua Tree NP

The Napa Valley

Mother and her calf

Multnomah Falls

Add caption

Wine tasting 
Road Trips!!!

Ballooning over Albuquerque
Wine Regions

Tools of the Trade

Coffee and a map

Offroad Adventures, beautiful landscapes
Fashionable Destinations

Once in a lifetime visits
More wine
Respect for those who came before

Lots of flight attendant speeches about exit doors
Off to another adventure
Words I believe wholeheartedly