Category Archives: United States

Hiking under and on the autumn leaves

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Wildwood Trail, October 2018.

Autumn is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, which means the return of plaid, empty patios, chilly mornings and beautiful, dry fall evenings.

Well, that’s what it’s felt like this year. And the season feels even more wistful when I think of what’s around the corner: rain, rain and more rain.

To fend off thoughts of winter we’ve hiked, strolled, sat and done just about anything else we can outdoors in recent weeks, before the short nights and soggy mornings arrive.

The highlight this year has been hiking in Forest Park, the 5,000-acre public area minutes from downtown Portland (and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.) More specifically, hiking the busy Wildwood Trail from Macleay Park up to Pittock Mansion, a five-mile round trip with 300m of elevation.

While the lower part of the hike is populated with runners, dog walkers and families, once you’re up in the hills large sections of the trail are empty, save for the shafts of fall light, the sounds of the undergrowth and your year-old miniature dachshund’s panting breath.

And leaves, countless leaves, of all depths of burnished yellow and orange and rust and brown, either fallen or falling or else making up part of an astounding seasonal canopy. It’s an incredible sight and an incredible landscape to hike in – a transient natural gift which we’ll have for another few weeks.

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My end of the world nightmare sounds like this

"I shuffle along an empty beach...ash in the air". Pic: Cormac Looney

“I shuffle along an empty beach…ash in the air”. Pic: Cormac Looney

When I picture the aftermath of a catastrophic event – a nuclear attack, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the “Big One” hitting the Pacific Northwest – I’m rarely focused on the soundtrack.

In my mind I picture something not unlike the closing scenes of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s movie of Cormac McCarthy’s novel: I’m shuffling along an empty beach, polluted waves washing ashore, ash in the air, everything a tundra brown. It’s raining, I’m hungry, I’m terrified. I hope my loved ones are safe, if not near. There’s an acrid scent on the shoreline breeze.

This is how I think the apocalypse would look, smell and feel. For a while I’ve wondered what it would sound like – having listened to the new Low album, I think I know.

Double Negative” sounds like an album recorded in the basement of the last, dilapidated house on that shoreline in my end-of-days nightmare. Huge, static bass, martial drums, vocals half heard, creeping in and out, broken radio transmissions, fragments of melody – it’s exactly what I’d expect to hear as I boiled my last leather shoe for soup.

The lyrics may be more personal than ‘death of civilization’, but the themes of disconnection and doubt fit the vast, jarring eruption beneath them. It’s the sound of something gone badly, hugely wrong, and the sound of its fallout.

I try not to think of a slow, tortuous Armageddon. But listening to “Double Negative”, challenging and, in equal parts, brutal and beautiful, it’s hard not to.

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Standing on West Street, NYC

One World Trade Center, September 2018

One World Trade Center, September 2018

Marking the passing of time by registering certain dates seems remarkably futile – after all, why should a one year anniversary hold any more meaning than a one year and one day anniversary?

And yet. As I stood on West Street in downtown Manhattan this weekend it occurred to me that – 20 years to the day – I also stopped on the same street, perhaps even at the same spot, to take a photograph of the Twin Towers.

Back then I could barely visualize 20 days into the future, let alone 20 years. Staring up at One World Trade Center, I wondered where they went.

What of the hundreds of people I’d known, or worked with, or briefly encountered during those years? Or the smells and sights of the places I’d been? Or the high highs and low lows of those intervening decades. How many of them could I recall? Were they already disappearing? Twenty years hence, would I even recall the day I first stood on West Street?

In other words, what is the point of marking the passing of time? Shouldn’t I take a hint from this most famous of forward-facing cities, and focus on the future, leaving the past to the past?

And yet, and yet – I still found myself standing on West Street, looking at the impossible skyward glass, absorbing its curious mix of hope and fear.

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Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

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In praise of rainy afternoons

Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon.

Grey and wet and cabin feverish – in my memory all the rainy afternoons of my childhood holidays merge into one.

Waking on a wet Saturday morning, usually at a grandmother’s house, we would wait and hope, through breakfast and the drizzly morning, over lunch and on into the afternoon, that the rain would stop. By 3pm, after hours of books and board games, and more than a bit dispirited, we would be dragged from the fireplace and out for a spin in my dad’s car.

If we were lucky, the deluge or drizzle would stop. But often it did not, and so another July weekend would be lost to the vagaries of the Irish weather.

The advent of the internet, and a longer concentration span, and my sheer bloody mindedness nowadays when it comes to getting outside and getting soaked, means that a rainy Saturday isn’t the complete write-off it once was.

After moving from one rainy city (Dublin – 29 inches per annum) to another (Portland, Oregon – 36 inches), I’ve finally got used to rain. It’s only taken 40 years.

Just as well, as my wife and I woke to hail, rain, thunder, lightning, and 55mph gusting winds last Saturday. We were visiting our friends’ beach house in Manzanita, Oregon, a very fine property located all of 200 meters from the (very loud and very windswept) Pacific Ocean.

We were away from home. There were no chores to be done, no emails to be checked, or calls placed. My phone was turned off. For the first time in years, I experienced a rainy Saturday on vacation.

What did we do? Well, the same thing I did with my family 30 years ago. We had breakfast, chatted, ate some more, read a bit, watched the fireplace, and read a little more. And ate a bit more. And then we bundled into the car and headed out to the village for a damp stroll.

Plus ça change, as the French say. And pass the sauvignon blanc. The only difference between a rain-soaked Saturday in 2018 and one in 1988 as the occasional adult refreshment, which eased us into the afternoon and, truth be told, into the early evening as well.

How wonderful it was, to sit and sip and chat and attempt another two pages of the ‘Nighttown’ chapter, and then nibble and sip and chat some more. On occasion, I’d even forget the raging tumult flinging torrents of water on the windows. Until the next thunderclap.

Could I do it every weekend? The 10-year-old me from 1988 would probably give you a short, sharp answer to that – which I’d agree with today. But once in a soggy blue moon? Let it rain.

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Feeling Irish abroad – but maybe not today

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Poet Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

What’s makes up an emigrant’s St Patrick’s Day?

Wearing green? Hitting the Irish bar(s)? Calling home? Listening to the Six Nations? Or none of the above?

It’s probably the latter for me. The most Irish thing I’ll do today is have a glass of Jameson this afternoon. The most Irish-American thing I’ll do this weekend is the Shamrock Run, a 5k in downtown Portland tomorrow morning, which attracts thousands of participants, many clad in kelly green (one of the 40 shades I’d never heard of until I moved here).

But Portland isn’t Boston or New York or even San Francisco. On a run today I spotted, in the early morning murk, a single tricolor hanging outside a house on NE 33rd Street. Yesterday a couple of colleagues wore green (as did I).

But that is the extent of St Patrick’s Day, for me. I’m tempted to pop into the local Irish bar, which is making the most of the weekend, but it looks like rain, and it’s chilly, and I’ll have to walk the dog later, so I’m not sure.

Not that this represents much change from when I used to live in Dublin. As a journalist, I worked every St Patrick’s Day, negotiating the alcohol-fueled mess of Talbot Street and the DART to get home at the end of the day. I’d wade through thousands of pictures of parades, but never bothered going to one.

Living abroad, I feel more Irish in certain moments than on certain days. A particular light in the evening will remind me of the sky over St Anne’s Park in Raheny, or a damp, clear morning will bring to mind stepping out of my dad’s house on a spring weekend. A Planxty song or a Patrick Kavanagh line or an Irish accent in the coffee shop – all of these prompt a certain small twinge, a reminder of my Irishness.

But I’m not feeling any of this today. Maybe next year, until then – go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís.

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Gate 67, SFO

SFO, February 2018.

Back to the place where I first set foot, 20 years ago,

And feeling as tired today as I was then, and bearing the weight of the years too.

But it’s always good to be back, even briefly, to a city of ghosts and memories.

These days it’s just for a short time, en route to somewhere else.

But wasn’t that the way it was then too?

San Francisco is always there, though. It’s where it began.

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Of reeds and rhymes and religion

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Where I’m from, Spring began today. Where I live, it won’t start until March 20.

In the Celtic calendar, February 1 is known as ‘imbolc’. The midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s seen as the first day of the earth awakening from winter.

In Ireland it was, and is, Saint Brigid’s Day, a celebration of the pagan (later Christianized) St Brigid of Kildare, a patroness of medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and sacred wells.

The sacred bit is important. As a schoolkid in Ireland, we’d make St Brigid’s Crosses from reeds – a plentiful resource in my then-hometown of Athlone, on the banks of Ireland’s longest river. The crosses would be pinned up at home – a religious talisman of sorts, ahead of the spring season.

Today I’m a long way from the River Shannon, or from spring – that won’t happen until late March in Oregon.

But, after the dreary month of January, I’m trying to get in the spring mood. So I’m seeking out seasonal verse.

St Brigid was known as “the goddess who poets adored”, but I’m not aware of Philip Larkin’s thoughts about her. However I do know – and enjoy – his take on spring, which contains the wise call, despite some cynicism, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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Reaching the dizzy heights of Hollywood

The view south from summit of Mount Hollywood

The view south from summit of Mount Hollywood

It isn’t the biggest mountain I’ve climbed, but it’s probably the most glitzy.

The clue’s in the name. Mount Hollywood sits among the hills in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, overlooking the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign and within squinting distance of film stars’ luxury pads.

It has to-the-horizon views of the metropolis of L.A., including its downtown and, to the southwest, the waters of the Pacific and Catalina Island. Just beneath the summit lies Griffith Observatory, a stunning 1930s landmark, itself perched high above the city.

The trailhead.

The trailhead.

Even the trailhead itself has a little showbiz sparkle – hikers take their first steps past the George Harrison tree. (The second of its type, after the first died following an onslaught by beetles in 2014 – I kid you not).

It’s not all glamour though. The four mile (with diversions) round trip up and down the Mount Hollywood Summit trail is a dusty outing and, on many days, the views are obscured by the city’s notorious smog. Beware the heat too – hiking it last weekend meant temperatures in the low 80s, even near the summit saddle, and a searing sun, with zero foliage cover.

That said, for someone who’s spent most of his hiking hours in rainy Ireland or soggy Oregon, the hot, blue sky was a welcome relief.  The heat was also worth enduring for the scenic payback that followed a 45-minute workout, and 262m ascent, up the trail.

In recent years I’ve hiked a number of the popular routes in L.A. – traversing trails in the San Gabriel Mountains, Debs Park, and Topanga State Park. Each has its own charms, but Mount Hollywood is the best all-rounder for taking in the view and vibe of the city.

It won’t tax a hardened outdoors person, and fitness freaks will prefer to jog rather than walk, but it’s worth braving the  hordes who start from the Charlie Turner trailhead, near Griffith Observatory, each Saturday morning. Just bring some water – and a camera for that photo.

 

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