Category Archives: Travel

Lost memories of Death Valley ’99

Death Valley, August 1999.

Death Valley, August 1999.

The older I get, the more I forget.

What was the 21-year-old guy standing near a small copse of joshua trees in Death Valley thinking about, as the shutter clicked on an August afternoon in 1999?

For a kid from drizzly Athlone, Ireland, visiting the area, aware of some other Irishmen who claimed the joshua tree for themselves, must have been a big deal.

It was, but all that remains now is an ageing print, the negative lost, which is itself decaying. Is that a moon over my right shoulder, or just a mark on the print?

My shadow indicates that it was shot in the late afternoon. I can’t remember who took the picture – it was one of a group of friends I was travelling across the States with at the time. More to the point, I can’t recall where it was taken – though, given the heat, I’m sure it was just a few meters from the blacktop of highway 190.

Hindsight might tell me that is a photograph of a young man staking a claim of some sort – to an interest in the outdoors, or to a love of travel, or to the country where I would relocate to 17 years after this shot was taken.

It’s nice to think of such explanations, but, in truth, I’ve no idea. It’s more likely I wanted to get out of the 110 F heat and back into our air-conditioned van. (The only clear memory I have of this day is from hours later, when we approached Las Vegas as a lightning storm broke over the city.)

Looking back today, on finding the picture in an old folder, I see a kid starting out – on a journey across both a country and something vaster. I still feel like I’ve just started.

Which puts me in mind of a song we listened to in the van that summer:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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More Perry Como than Kurt Cobain

Headed to Bainbridge Island

Headed to Bainbridge Island

Rain. Grunge music. Starbucks. The G8 Protests. Sleepless In Seattle.

In a few words, this is what Seattle meant to me. Until last weekend, when I visited the city for the first time.

Of these signifiers, there’s no doubt which was the strongest. Growing up in 1990s Ireland, where rain was the standard weather and Starbucks unheard of, grunge was our default listening.

Rainless in Seattle

Rainless in Seattle

From the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, to the death of Kurt Cobain less than three years later, Seattle was the center of the world for a music-obsessed kid like me.

Little did I think I’d ever get there. But when I did, 25 years later, I encountered a place a million miles from the rain-lashed slacker-town of my teenage mind.

Over the course of a 48-hour stay, my wife and I took a ferry to Bainbridge Island in blistering sunshine, drank horchata amidst the madness of the tourist-jammed Pike Place Market, saw the first Starbucks store (turns out it wasn’t, actually), and ate some of the best pizza and potatoes in the Pacific Northwest (at Delancey and Heartwood Provisions respectively). And there wasn’t a plaid shirt in sight.

What would Kurt Cobain make of all that? He might complain that it hardly reflected the mournful, disconsolate side of the city. To which I’d respond: well, I also went for a morning run, wound up in a big graveyard, and found myself standing at the last resting place of Bruce and Brandon Lee.

Away from the cemeteries, and the gloomy final morning, when the clouds rolled in over Puget Sound and city was delicately drenched in mist, Seattle lived up to expectations but being…nothing like them.

Put it another way, I went in humming Nirvana, I came out singing Perry Como.

 

 

 

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Four million people at our feet

Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Downtown LA from Debs Park, Los Angeles, May 2017

Los Angeles is not a great hiking city. A mesh of sprawling, strangling freeways that cross a vast, concrete-laden, urban area, it’s hardly known as a spot for a hearty outdoors ramble.

This was my attitude before I first travelled to the city. On that initial visit I scratched off the idea that I’d get outdoors at all, given the daytime temps in the 90s.

This was despite the imposing presence of the San Gabriel Mountains, which overlooked my wife’s hometown of Temple City. From a distance though, they appeared smog-choked and dusty.

But luckily my wife’s family know LA, and know where to hike. Slowly but surely, subsequent visits introduced me to hill and mountain paths, most of which were within 30 minutes of Downtown (presuming traffic’s light, which is always a risky presumption in the City of Angels).

Hiking Topanga Canyon

Hiking Topanga Canyon

And so I’ve hiked up through Eaton Canyon to the falls at its head, spent an early morning walking the Los Liones trail in Topanga State Park, and filled the best part of a day traversing the trails above Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Last weekend saw me add another route. Waking early, we travelled to Ernest E Debs Regional Park, a set of small hills and paths overlooking central northeast Los Angeles.

Unlike previous hiking spots I’d been to in the city, Debs Park is surrounded – or so it seems – by urban LA. The 110 freeway skirts the park’s northern edge; LA’s Eastside sprawls in one direction, with a view towards Downtown in the other. There’s graffiti on the tree trunks, and desolate, burned brush on parts of the hills.

But 20 minutes, and a steep tarmac roadway, later saw us perched on a dusty trail above the city. A slight breeze kept LA’s yellow smog haze at bay, and – despite the fact that it was a weekend morning – there was no-one else around.

For a few moments we had our scrubby, green-brown, hilly oasis. A city of four million people lay at our feet, but the only movement was the sparrows flying over our heads.

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What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Every picture tells a story, or does it?

New York, 2003.

New York, 2003.

The past picks curious times to come back and haunt you.

As I picked through boxes of old paperwork last weekend a picture fell out. There I was, back in the early Noughties, looking bedraggled as I perched on the edge of a bunk bed in a divey hotel room.

The image is black and white, which suits the grimy surroundings of the place – a fleapit hotel north of 100th Street on New York City’s Upper West Side.

At least I think it was.

I’d like to write that the picture brought me back, unlocking a store of memories from the time. But this room’s closed to me. I’ve no idea what circumstances led me to the hotel, though a shortage of money on a trip to the city was surely the cause.

Likewise this was – I think – taken on a visit during which my friend S and I played a series of open mics, but in the absence of any instruments I can’t say for sure (is that a leaning guitar case on the right hand side?)

As for my shoeless tee-shirt look, I’d most likely put that down to a late night – of which there were a few at the time. Or, more charitably, it could be the sweat of humping a backpack and a guitar case uptown on the subway. Or the absence of AC in a $50-a-night room.

It’s the sort of image that calls for a good backstory, that cries out for a New York anecdote to put Patti Smith’s Just Kids to shame. But if there was one, it’s gone.

That’s sobering. How many more days, weeks or months have I lived and lost to memory? Conversations, experiences, thoughts and emotions that will never be recalled? All pushed out by a new password or a shopping list or an email I’m writing to a colleague.

At least it looks like I had a blast, somewhere in New York, sometime in 2003.

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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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What a two-decade old photo taught me

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Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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