Posts Tagged With: mountain

Volcanic Vistas

First off, I am obliged to report the more or less total failure of our second attempt at aurora viewing. The skies indeed cleared somewhat late last night, but not enough. We did see an auroral glow on the horizon, but it was nothing to write home about. (So I am writing to 500 strangers about it instead. Oh well.)

Today was a long day of driving today, with a couple of stops along the way. I’m too tired to exude my usual effervescent narrative, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking in this short post.

First stop: the Myvatn thermal baths. You may have heard of Reykjavik’s famous Blue Lagoon, and this is that, minus the “Blue” part and about half the admission fee. It’s a natural thermal spring with a large wading pool architected around it; its temperature varies somewhat from place to place within the pool but averages about 39 C (102 F). Here’s the scene, plus Alice, Tim, Janet, and a complete stranger in the background enjoying it.

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We were still in Geothermal Mode for our next stop, the Hverir mud pots, basically a scale model of Yellowstone. There’s a short walking path around the area, lined with boiling mud, fumaroles, cracked mud fields, brightly colored mud, and, well, mud. It’s a fun place to visit for perhaps a half hour unless you are ambitious enough to hike up to the top of adjacent Namafjall mountain. We weren’t.

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Further down the road — much further — was the Dettifoss waterfall, accessible by a 30 km long unpaved road, which made for some bone-jarring driving. Dettifoss is situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. But of course, you knew that. More interestingly, it is about 45 meters (150′) high and, at about 193 cubic meters per second (over 50,000 gallons per second) is one of the most voluminous falls in Europe. (Tim asked huffily why Europe claimed it, but there’s a real answer: it lives on the east, i.e. European, side of the rift separating the two continental plates.)

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What I found even more striking than the falls themselves is the canyon downstream from them, which looks a little like a pint-sized Grand Canyon. See for yourself:

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See what I mean?

About a mile upstream from Dettifoss is Selfoss, one of the most famous falls in Iceland. But the path to it is rocky and uneven, and by late afternoon we were not feeling that ambitious. Janet and Tim started out for it for turned around about halfway there; Alice and I wimped out altogether. (Anyway, I was busy taking pictures. Pictures, yeah, that’s the ticket.)

We had about a 2 1/2 drive ahead of us after Dettifoss, past remarkable terrain, sometimes an arid volcanic rockscape, sometimes a flowered tundra. There were eroded cinder cones everywhere, rounded by the ages, that made the area oddly resemble the northern parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s not as unlikely a pairing as it sounds: both islands are essentially giant volcanoes, both roughly a million years old. So here’s a panorama of that tectonic terrain:

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This particular area has a lot of ground cover; when it is absent the land is a featureless gray desert that goes on for miles, limned by distant mountains. But some areas are wild with ground cover: yellow and orange grasses and tiny wildflowers that give the otherwise bleak terrain an oddly benign prairie-like appearance, like this:

Iceland Terrain 2018-013

Rising above it via drone gives an even more majestic perspective: the color goes on for miles, with nary a car in sight. I’ll post a video of the drone flight later, but for now, to end today’s post, here’s a striking drone’s-eye view from about 100 meters up. You can see that the road is not so great, but the vista makes up for the bumps.

Iceland Terrain Drone 2018-001

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Salton Sea: Only the Weird Survive

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
                                                             — Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Driving through the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona is more than a little hallucinatory on its own, even without a pharmaceutical assist. The Chocolate Mountains gaze invitingly across the Salton Sea, but the landscape between you and them is anything but. It’s a sere, unwelcoming rockscape, a coarse desert of scrub brush and stunted palms, not as homicidally hostile as Death Valley or the Sahara but rather more like an unwelcoming failed xerogarden. And despite the distant mountains, the land through which we drive is as flat as the surface of the alkaline water itself, so unvarying that even on a cool day the air shimmers, mirage-like, above the road surface ahead.

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Our destination was the Salton Sea, a major geographical oddity insofar as it is the product of a mistake. In 1905 engineers from the California Development Company dug some irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the nearby farming valley. The canals silted up, so in their wisdom the engineers decided that they could essentially flush them out by breaking through the banks of the Colorado itself. Bad move. The torrent from the Colorado overwhelmed and overflowed the canals, flowing unchecked into the nearby Salton Basin for two years, filling up a previously dry ancient lake bed and creating a whole new sizable body of water. The newly extant Salton Sea — which is actually a lake — is about 15 x 25 miles long (24 x 56 km) and averages about 31′ (9.5m) deep. That’s a 2.2 trillion gallon mistake if you’re keeping score. (Or 8.5 trillion liters if you’re keeping score outside the USA.)

For a while this looked like not too bad an outcome. Birds moved in, the lake was stocked with fish, and for decades fishing and boating became popular activities there.

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Thing is, when Mother Nature creates a lake she generally supplies a continuous source of inflow as well as some kind of exit port, generally in the form of streams or rivers, to keep things all fresh and clean. Absent any of those, your shiny new body of water just sort of sits there, collecting runoff from the land and otherwise evaporating. In other words, it is not so much a lake as a gargantuan stagnant puddle.

Which is exactly what the Salton Sea is. Lacking any inflowing rivers, the only source of water is salt-rich, phosphate-rich runoff, and the only way that water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Consequently the lake becomes increasingly salty and toxic. Today, the Salton is about 25% saltier than the ocean and a rich source of heavy-metal goodness like arsenic. Adding to the fun, the desert winds kick up the toxin-laden dust on the shoreline and spread it around for all to enjoy: the surrounding Imperial County has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state of California.

So in other words, despite those two pleasing photos in the above paragraphs, you do not want to plan a camping trip here. For one thing, it stinks. Literally. The air is rank with dead fish, and the shore is lined with them, mummified in the desert sun and so numerous that they crunch as you walk around. So as a counterpoint to the soothing landscapes that I gave you above, here’s what much of the beach looks like.

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And here is Steve once again, experimenting with found art and asking the eternal question, “Do these earrings make my head smell bad?”

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(Answer: no, not by the time they get to that stage. So wait till Thumper sees her next birthday present!)

But go back up to the fish photo for a second and look at the ground around the skeleton. Interestingly, it’s not sand, but rather a vast collection of billions of delicate fish bones and barnacles, each a few millimeters in size. Here’s a close-up.

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Upon close inspection it is ironically beautiful, considering that the whole place is basically a poisonous witch’s brew. All of which leads to the obvious questions, “Does anyone live here and, if so, why?” And the answers are (1) yes, and (2) because they don’t fit in anywhere else.

Case in point is the waterfront town — such as it is — of Bombay Beach. I am not quite sure how to describe Bombay Beach. In fact, I am not quite sure how to describe any of the human settlements in the vicinity of the Salton Sea, because they all reside in some alternate universe that melds the shantytowns of South Africa, a trailer park designed by Salvador Dali, and Mad Max’s world.

As I reread that last sentence I am pretty satisfied with the description, with the exception of the word “park”, which implies that — somewhere — there is at least a measurable plot of green space to be found. There is not. Bombay Beach is all dirt and rocks and corrugated metal, broken-down trailers and RVs and the occasional land-bound boat whose hull hasn’t been wet in years and never will be again.

But there is nonetheless an ineluctable cheeriness to what objectively resembles a collective of post-nuclear-war survivors. Because practically every structure has been transformed to some kind of  found-art installation. Rusty bicycle wheels spin on the end of car springs; Christmas lights festoon sheets of corrugated aluminum with odd nongeometric shapes cut into them; stuffed animals are duct-taped to arrays of old car antennas.  It’s beyond weird, but curiously whimsical given the harsh surroundings. And even though situated 50 miles into the desert away from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach has embraced Mid-Century Modernism, in the form of a nearly full-sized parody of a 1960’s drive-in movie theater populated by an impossible collection of derelict cars: Studebakers, AMC Pacers, and God knows what else.

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Steve returns to his youth.

A little ways down the coast from Bombay Beach brings us no respite from the oddness but rather eternal redemption instead, in the form of the gaily-colored and transcendentally earnest monument to brightly-colored religion that is Salvation Mountain.

Salton Sea 2018-061 Salvation Mountain is the multi-hued brainchild of one Leonard Knight, born in 1931 and metaphorically blinded by the spiritual light in 1967. In that year, while working in Vermont, Leonard was suddenly struck by the revelation that religion was way too complicated and could be boiled down to a single sentence: “Accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved.” This 11-word sentence represented a substantial 99.9986% savings over the official 783,137 word count of the King James Bible, but the staid New England clergy were unimpressed by his eschatalogical efficiency. So Leonard decided to spread the word on his own by building his own gigantic hot air balloon, which failed to get off the ground.

Leonard relocated to the Southwest, where he tried to build yet another hot air balloon, which also remained stubbornly earthbound. In 1984 he fetched up on the banks of the Salton Sea and decided to paint a hillside instead. This saved a lot of time on the road as an itinerant preacher, not to mention gas and tolls, although the latter savings are substantially offset by the coast of 100,000 gallons of latex paint.

You can walk around — and up — Salvation Mountain, which is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the main mountain, there is also a hogan-like adobe structure — another riot of primary colors — where you can walk through precariously-supported tunnels plastered with variations on the same inspirational message and biblical quotes. The tunnel through the hogan looks like the interior of the guy’s brain in the movie “Fantastic Voyage“:

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…although as I look at the photo now, it also reminds me of a brightly colored, slightly less ominous version of the creepy parallel world (the Upside Down) in the TV series “Stranger Things“.

Several derelict vehicles dot the grounds at Salvation Mountain: a couple of trucks, a motorcycle, and even a front-loader. The trucks in particular have a certain 1930’s Dust Bowl look about them, which I tried to capture in this photo.

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The John Steinbeck “Grapes of Wrath” model

The vehicles all have that same design scheme, i.e., they look like they were driven by a crew of drunken Okies through the wall of a paint factory, and then caromed, Wile E. Coyote-style, into an evangelical revival tent meeting.  I can imagine the scene: horn honking frantically — AH-OO-GAH! — the out-of-control vehicle, shedding paint cans and splattering latex blobs everywhere, tears through the canvas wall of the revival tent! The crowd screams HOLY JESUS and scatters as the truck careens across five rows of folding chairs, skidding 90 degrees and sending airborne a little old lady who, crippled by arthritis, had only one minute earlier stood up from her wheelchair for the first time in 17 years after a laying on of hands by the preacher! The truck crashes to a stop at the altar, and the enraged crowd charges the vehicle, deciding spontaneously en masse to use it as a billboard of their faith and smearing the paint with their hands into words of holy praise! Then they drag out the Okies and tar and feather them.

It was definitely inspirational. We donated a dollar.

Which is why our next stop was East Jesus. Well, technically, East Jesus is part of Slab City, another outpost of creative desolation very similar to Bombay Beach. (It gets its name from the concrete slabs which once supported snowbirds’ vacation homes but which are now occupied by rusting mobile homes, tents, and other semipermanent residences.) But whereas Bombay Beach acquires its actuarial risk factors by being situated on the shore of the Salton Sea itself, Slab City is a few hundred yards inland, adjacent to a US Army artillery range. It’s very easy to find the official town limit: it’s the barbed wire fence that says “Do Not Enter. Unexploded Ordinance.” I am not making this up.

Apparently the barbed wire and expanse of corrugated aluminum was insufficiently unsettling to the local artistic community, which as a result created the outdoor art installation/museum/portal to Hell dubbed East Jesus. Here is the entrance:

Salton Sea 2018-077-Edit

…and here are some cheery scenes from around the grounds:

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Take a close look at the doorway of the collapsed house in the middle photo. There is a pair of legs wearing striped red and yellow stockings sticking out of the doorway, with a red shoe on one foot. Seems familiar. Where have we seen that before… striped stockings and a red shoe sticking out from under a collapsed house? Holy moly! Dorothy’s house has apparently migrated from Oz to East Jesus!

It’s that kind of place, weirdly fascinating but best avoided if you’ve recently been on the fence about committing suicide. Other objets d’art scattered around the grounds include a crashed Cessna, protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle, and a toilet whose seat is ringed by 6″ glass shards, all pointing straight up. Ouch. We wandered around until we had had our fill of good-natured existential angst, then moved on.

Our last stop of the day was a more natural phenomenon: boiling mud. California is tectonically active, as you know from endless dire warnings about its eventual doom by earthquake. There is a geothermal power plant near the shore of the lake, and on its property is a mini-Yellowstone, a small field of boiling mud pots perhaps 100 meters off the road. They look like anthills or African termite mounds from a distance, blobby grayish cones sticking up out of a sparse brown field.

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Some look like mini-volcanos, perhaps two meters high, with small craters at the top where you can peer into the pool of bursting grey mud bubbles going bloop – bloop – bloop, like this:

Salton Sea 2018-mud bubble

You can stick your hand into it. It’s a little sticky (being mud) and is about as warm as a hot shower. It’s not unpleasant, especially if you’re into spa days.

Some of the mud flows are curiously artistic. Squint at this one (below): Steve observed that it looks like any number of Renaissance Madonna-and-child paintings.

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I have deemed the photo “Mudonna”. And that was our day at the Salton Sea.

We left Palm Springs the next morning and arrowed across the desert at 80 mph (140 kph), a straight shot of 260 miles (420 km) to Phoenix, and thence to Scottsdale directly to the east of it. We’re staying with our old friends Larry and Jean for a few days before heading home for real next Tuesday. We’ve been away for nearly six weeks… time to have some down time with the grandkids!

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

We Receive Our UNESCO Merit Badge

You know, there probably ought to be an island somewhere where all the people who have vanishing, obsolete, or traditional but obscure skill sets can all live together in peace and harmony. You know: geishas, blacksmiths, slide rule designers, coopers (when’s the last time you had a barrel made?), roof thatchers, that sort of thing. If such a place existed, you can bet that a disproportionate segment of the population would be Japanese. We saw a bunch of them today.

Today’s destinations were all in the UNESCO World Heritage locales of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go and a few of the neighboring towns. They are characterized by a number of attributes: stunning valley settings, gassho farmhouse architecture (which I’ll explain in a moment), and the preservation of what to our philistine Western sensibilities are obscure but colorful arts and crafts. Let’s start with the settings and the architecture.

“Gokayama” means “five mountains”. (Remember that -yama is a suffix meaning “mountain”, as in Fujiyama.) This part of the country is mountainous, which means two things: striking vistas and a lot of snow in winter. Our first stop was the village of Ainokura, a settlement of 1000 people or so nestled in a Shangri-la-like valley (I wish there were some way of typing that without two hyphens) ringed by cloud-misted green peaks. The building roofs are all thatched — very thick thatching, perhaps two feet through, mounted on a steep A-frame with about a 60-degree cant to prevent snow accumulation. And that, gentle reader, is more or less the definition of gassho architecture. The word itself means “praying hands”, which more or less describes the shape of the roof. There are a couple of things to pray for, e.g., that the village won’t get six feet of snow again this winter, because, tradition or no tradition the locals are sick of shoveling the stuff. The residents might also pray that no moronic tourist lights up a cigarette, since a wood frame house with a thatched roof is a conflagration waiting to happen. All of the houses in Ainokura are like this, giving it the feel of a 16th century Colonial Williamsburg. (And the brochures and signs do indeed ask you not to smoke.) We enjoyed a woodcut-worthy photogenic overlook of the town, and ambled around the streets for a while.

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Our next stop was the village of Taira, where they, um, pound rice. Not quite sure how else to describe it, really. The desired end product is mochi, or Japanese rice cake. “Cake” hardly seems like the right word, though: mochi is a essentially a little ball of rice gluten, which you can flavor by rolling it in a little sugar and soy powder or dipping it in soy. It’s gummy, sort of like an edible ball of doughy Silly Putty, though gooier and much easier to chew. It’s considered a special treat because making it in the proper fashion is labor-intensive: one person repeatedly pounds a bucket full of rice with a wooden sledgehammer while a second reaches into the goo between hammer strokes to add a bit of water and do a very quick knead. Time it wrong and the second person is looking at five broken fingers. (I asked Mariko how often this occurs among practitioners; she translated the question and was informed that it never happens.  However that is only because I don’t attempt to make mochi; otherwise the local hospital would have to hire a new full-time doctor just to apply splints.)

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Like everything else in Japan, mochi is steeped in tradition. You can’t just whale away with your Sears Craftsman hammer into a bowl of Uncle Ben’s Rice. You need just the right kind of rice, soaked for the right amount of time, pounded with the right wooden sledgehammer, and so forth. It’s all very traditional and precise, though the end product is very enjoyable. (At least for me; Alice was not so crazy about it.)

This ethos of doing things just so, using the ancient ways, is certainly a core part of Japanese tradition. We saw it again a few minutes later just down the road, where we made “Gokayama Mashi” paper. Or so they told us; would be more accurate to say that we participated in the final two steps (out of about 20) of making the much-prized, high-fiber paper. A traditional plant must be harvested, and the wrong kind of fibers removed, then boiled, and have other stuff added to it, then this, then that, then something else, and if I remember the informational video correctly then about two months later you have a sheet of very nice paper indeed, which you damn well better use for something important.

Our role in the process was to repeatedly dip a small screen about the size of a dinner tray into a trough of white liquid fibrous pulp, rather like rice pudding. You dip the screen into the pulp in a scooping motion to avoid trapping air bubbles, then lift it out and hold it horizontally to let the water drain. Repeat two more times. Decorate with colorful cutout bits of paper: cats, moons, fish. Hand the screen to a guy who carefully peels out the wet paper-to-be and sticks it flat against a hot drying surface, which is just a vertical panel of heated sheet metal. Twenty minutes later you have a sheet of paper with your decorations embedded in it.

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We moved on to a traditional lunch (do you sense a pattern emerging?), “tradition” in this case being an unusual vegetarian lunch of what of what are called “mountain vegetables”, which included items like fiddlehead fern. It was interesting, not at all bad, and a source of nostalgia for Mariko, who remembers her grandmother going into the mountains to gather vegetables for such a meal. Now it’s uncommon; it is hard to find the ingredients in a supermarket, and they are quite expensive.

Lunch concluded with a musical interlude. Two of the ladies who staffed the restaurant did a simple traditional dance while playing the binzasara, a bizarre percussion instrument that is basically a row of clappers strung tightly together.   You hold the two ends and snap your wrist, which causes a wave to propagate down the row of clappers, like tightly-spaced dominoes falling. It makes a clattery buzzing sound, indeed rather like what you’d get if you recorded a bunch of falling dominoes and then played back the audio at high speed. We all tried it; it’s a little tricky but you get the hang of it quickly. The instrument is a big deal around here: as you drive into this village of Taira, you pass under an archway shaped like one.

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I am happy to report that we were able to answer this particular Japanese musical tradition with an American musical tradition. Joe, one of our travel group, is a “sonic afficionado”, if there is such a term, who delights in whistling, making sound effects, and generally utilizing whatever is at hand (e.g., a blades of grass) to make noise. He travels with a pocket harmonica at all times — a practice that I recommend on philosophical grounds — and so responded to the binzasara performance by standing up and playing a long, impressive blues piece on his harmonica. It was quite a performance and he brought down the house. (I had told him earlier that I was planning on sending him a USB stick with all my photos; he said that in return he would send me one of his harmonica instructional videos. Seems like a very fair trade.)

We had two more stops to make after lunch, but i will be brief since it is getting late and this post is already somewhat longer than average. The first was the 500-year old home of the Iwase family, who have occupied it for 18 generations. The house dates back to the samurai era and has variously been used to store gunpowder, silk, and other commodities. I’m not sure if it is technically in the gassho style since the roof is not as steeply tilted as the other buildings. But the thatching was thick and robustly bound to heavy circular beams on the upper floors. Now the is just a family home, but the Iwases use it to (you guessed it) keep some of the old traditions alive, notably the kokiriko dance.

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Kokiriko is the oldest traditional Japanese dance, accompanied by a binzasara and percussion sticks. Though performed by women now, it was originally a dance performed only by the nobles and was used to celebrate the hunt. The costumes are said to be silk versions of a hunting outfit; I infer that the role of the hat (see photo above!) was to facilitate the hunt by making the animals convulse with derisive laughter. (“Look at that stupid hat!  You can’t even see anyth…OUCH ARROWS! OUCHouchouchouch…”) The Iwases served us tea after the dance, and we explored the house for a while.

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Our final stop of the day was Shirakawa-go itself, essentially a larger and more touristy version of the village of Ainokura that we saw first thing this morning. Like Ainokura, it sits serenely yet strikingly in a valley dotted with rice paddies and ringed with mountains. We admired the view, walked down into the town, then headed back to Kanazawa for a decidedly non-traditional Japanese dinner: Chinese food

shirakawa-012 shirakawa-008 shirakawa-009 shirakawa-010.Thus concludes our stay in Kanazawa. Tomorrow we head off to Kyoto for five nights, the final leg of our trip.

 

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fujiyama

It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of  Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

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Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.

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Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).

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You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Tallest Mountain on Earth

…is not Mount Everest. Though it is a bit of a cheat: Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft (8848 m) is indeed the highest mountain on Earth above sea level, but it sits on a plateau that is itself at an elevation of a  good 15,000 ft (4500 m) or. So measured from its base to its summit, Mount Everest is a surprisingly second-rate 14,000′ (4300 m) tall. That statistic, of course, is rather cold comfort — emphasis on the “cold” — if you are actually standing atop Mount Everest trying to breathe.

No, the tallest mountain on the planet, as measured from its base to its summit, is Mauna Kea here on the Big Island. Again, you’ve got to be a little flexible with your definitions, because the base of Mauna Kea is the ocean floor itself, a good 15,000 ft (4600 m) below my feet as I type this. Mauna Kea’s summit is at an altitude of 13,796 ft (4205 m), which means that measured from base to summit it is roughly 29,000 ft (8800 m) tall.

Mauna Kea also has the more personal distinction of being the most important geographical feature in my life because of the many observatories at its summit and the many nights (~200) I spent using them early in my career. At that time, in the early 1980’s, there were four major observatories plus a couple of much smaller telescopes. Today, there are a dozen major observatories and a whole lot of controversy about whether building any more constitutes a desecration of the summit, which has Hawaiian religious significance. But the current controversy aside, the mountain holds a lot of history and emotional resonance for me, and so it was important that we make the pilgrimage to the top.

Getting to the summit is a lot easier than it was 30+ years ago because more (though not all) of the summit access road is paved. Even so, at that altitude you’re breathing only about 60% of the oxygen that you’ve got at sea level, so you’ve got to be very careful. Most of the car rental companies on the island forbid you from taking their vehicles to the top, a restriction that is frequently ignored by tourists, often without consequence, but sometimes to their extreme detriment when either their oxygen-starved engine conks out or their wheels lose traction on the unpaved lava gravel. (I should add that at that altitude your oxygen-starved brain and cardiopulmonary systems also lose traction; many people feel woozy and headachy and have difficulty concentrating; a few experience much more serious health consequences.)

You first ascend via paved road to Hale Pohaku, the mid-level facility that serves as a visitor center and dormitory for the observatory engineers and astronomers. Hale Pohaku sits at 9000 ft (2700 m) which, given the weather patterns of the island, is typically where the cloud layer lives that traps the island’s heat and moisture below. It’s cold and dry above that point, which is why the site is the best astronomy observing locale in the world. But that also means that you drive up through the clouds to get there.

Mauna Kea Summit-016

That makes for a nasty and dangerous drive, especially on the unpaved portion of the road, but also serves up a (literally) breathtaking panorama when you break through the clouds at the top and find yourself on a sunlit Martian dessert. As you approach the very summit the road is paved again; this is to prevent vehicles from kicking up dust that could get onto the telescope mirrors. (Which, needless to say, are exquisitely precise.)

Mauna Kea Summit-018That’s Mauna Loa sticking out of the clouds at the center of the frame. It’s the same height as Mauna Kea, about 25 miles ( 40 km) to the south. It does not host any telescopes for the very sensible reason that it is an active volcano. The dome at the right side of the frame is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), where I worked for three years. It houses a 3.8 m diameter telescope.

I’ll close with a few more scenes from our visit to the summit.

Mauna Kea Summit-002 Mauna Kea Summit-020 Mauna Kea Summit-017 Mauna Kea Summit-001

The white dome at left in bottom picture is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the older observatories on the mountain. The silver dome is the more recent Gemini telescope, so named because it has an identical twin sibling on an Andean mountaintop in Chile.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Winter

As I type this, here is the view out our front door:

snow pan

Snome, sweet snome.

…and it is still snowing. All of which will become irrelevant, if all goes according to plan, since in about a week we will be exchanging it for this view out our front door.

2016-01-23 13_49_57-An Artist's Home on the Big Island - Houses for Rent in Kailua-Kona

Now we’re talkin’.

This is because we have decided to transform into snowbirds this year, about to sojourn in Hawaii for nearly six weeks. Our goals are to escape the winter, do a lot of snorkeling, visit the volcano, hike around, and make our friends jealous.

There is an element of homecoming on this trip, as I lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s as a postdoc at Mauna Kea Observatory. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Hawaii, here’s the picture:

2016-01-23 14_28_01-Hawaii - Google MapsWe chose Kona because it is on the sunny, leeward side of the island. The Big Island is far and away the most diverse of the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. Its size is one reason, though at its widest point it is only 93 mi (150 km) across. More importantly, the presence of two 14,000′ (4300m) mountains in the middle of the island, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, break up the terrain into a remarkable number of distinct climate zones. For our purposes the important fact is that the trade winds blow from the east, pick up lots o’ moisture from the Pacific, and collide with those two mountains when they get to Hawaii. That causes the winds to dump all their moisture on the eastern side of the island. Result: Hilo (where I lived) is very rainy, averaging (wait for it) 156″ (4m) of rain a year, whilst Kona gets about 1/3 as much. The temperature is pretty steady throughout the year, with lows of about 70F (19C) and highs of about 82F (28C).

This is an El Niño year, as you may know – one of the most powerful on record, as it happens. What that means for Hawaii is slightly warmer water temperatures than usual (about 80F/27C) and more cloudy days. But we can live with that.

We’ll be enjoying a pretty steady stream of visitors during our stay, and I hope to take a lot of photos, a sampling of which I’ll post here along with the occasional brain dump about Hawaii’s history, geology, etc., along with our own experiences.

 

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

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