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  • Embracing Seattle in February

    Most people would agree that August is the best time to visit Seattle, when the temperature can get as high as 77 °F and chances of rain fall to near 0%. It’s true. Riding a ferry under blue skies, walking the waterfront, and eating outdoors in August is glorious. But if you want a more authentic Seattle experience, visit in the winter. In February, I set out to embrace Seattle. Fortunately, it was one week after a debilitating snow storm. I was prepared for rain and cold, but not snow.

    The Pike Place Market is one of the most iconic Seattle sites, so I booked The Inn at The Market with a view of Puget Sound. When I arrived, the sun was shining and the Olympic mountains revealed their snow-capped splendor. But within 24 hours, the scenery disappeared and I found myself pressing into a bitter cold head wind and pelted by rain. This was not the day to hang out in Myrtle Edwards Park. I headed back to the Market for an indoor walk.

    The main arcade of the market is covered and sheltered from wind. There are not too many people out on a nasty day in February, which makes it possible to stroll through the market without fighting crowds. Seeking warmth, I explored the levels below the arcade. I’ve been to the market on many visits to Seattle, but only on this visit did I discover a level lower than I’ve ever been. From the looks of the shops, I’d guess the rent decreases proportional to the level. 

    Shops included:  a flea-market full of things not likely to sell, several budding artists’ studios, a sous-vide culinary school, a few collectibles shops, and a book publisher. The market provided benches in the center of the floor, with signs stating that proper behavior is required at all times. These benches were popular with some of Seattle’s homeless. I was happy to see a place where people can get a brief respite from the winter weather. When I finally made my way to an upper level, I ended up popping out of an unmarked door next to a restroom. I have no idea whether I will be able to find that lower level again! 

    Now I was hungry. I grabbed some butter from De Laurenti’s, ginger beer from Rachel’s, a loaf of bread from Three Girls Bakery, and a crab from one of the seafood stalls. I devoured this feast in my hotel room, watching the ferries cross Puget Sound. Winter IS a good time to visit Seattle.

  • Sahara Sunrise Breakfast

    I stood outside my tent after waking up from a night in the desert and noticed the camp staff scurrying about with tables and chairs. They were moving everything from the dining tent to a nearby sand dune. Unlike previous mornings when the air was a bit cold and breezy, today was warmer and still. It was a spectacular day to eat al fresco.

    When the desert sky is cloudless, the sunrise and sunsets seem faster, as there are no clouds to catch and prolong the glow. Still, it is an amazing sight to see the yellow-orange glow just before the round edge of the sun pops over the horizon. Once the sun was fully risen, breakfast treats appeared. Besides coffee, my faves were hard boiled eggs and Moroccan bread with fig jam. What a great way to start the day!

  • Riding a Camel

    Camels are too tall to mount while they are standing—either by flying leap or stirrup as you would mount a horse. The camel has to be seated. Then you must hop on as quickly as possible because some camels stand up as soon as they feel pressure. 

    A camel first gets up on its front “knees”, then it works on raising its back half, which turns out to be a two-step process given it has two bendable joints in each back leg. Then it fully extends each front leg separately. From the rider’s perspective, you rock forward, backward, and forward in rapid succession. Although it feels as if you are getting tossed about, most people in our group did a great job keeping their body perpendicular to the ground despite the forward and backward motion of the rising camel. 

    Riding is a different experience. Camels tend to rock side to side. They are also wide. During my first ride, I felt as if I was stuck in a weird yoga pose designed to widen my hips at the same time it pulled apart my vertebrae. Unlike most yoga poses, which end after about a minute, I held this “pose” for over an hour. I kept wondering: Is this good for me? 

    The view from a camel is spectacular. Perched high on the hump, you can see far to the horizon—red dunes, fossil rocks, scattered plants, and blue sky. The camel plods forward, its padded feet impervious to the hot sand and rocky surfaces. It’s easy to see why camels were key to trade in arid regions. 

    When I finally dismounted from my first ride, I was ecstatic to feel the earth beneath my feet. All that hip widening and spine jingling caused me to walk oddly. I now understand why a camel trek includes the option to hike next to the camel. 

  • Sleeping in the Sahara

    After almost a week of touring Morocco and sleeping in wonderful hotels, I arrived at camp on the edge of the Sahara desert. This would be the first of five nights of a camel trek.  I dropped my dusty bag and bedding into the white canvas tent our crew had set up already, and crawled in. What a change from the hotels! I was delighted to see a mattress, but decided it was best not to inquire about the dark stains on it. I hoped they were coffee. The pillow had no pillowcase. Had it been washed? The sleeping bags most likely had not been cleaned because our camp crew gave us a sleeping bag liner and advised us to use it.  

    The liner was designed for a person of beanpole build—narrow and very long—so it turned out to be a bit constraining for me. I opted to make sure I was completely clothed when I slept. That way I didn’t have to concern myself with stains, unclean pillows, and sleeping bags of questionable origin. 

    I heeded our guide’s warning about snakes and scorpions and zipped up the tent completely before setting out for the dining tent. After a delicious meal I took a short walk to see the camels and camel handlers arrive. The sun set, the Milky Way glowed, and I slept well in my little tent despite the dicey bedding. The silence of the desert was divine. This was the first of five nights.

  • A Moroccan Medicine Show

    Traveling medicine shows became popular in the United States in the mid 1800’s and continued in popularity into the 20th century. The “Medicine Man” would bring a variety of entertainers with him to attract a crowd. Once the crowd assembled and was enjoying the acts, the Medicine Man would step up and entertain the crowd with his storytelling ability and his pitch for an elixir with a miracle cure.

    The Medicine Man was not a doctor, although he often referred to himself as Doctor or Professor. He claimed his product would cure everything—from baldness to arthritis to physical disabilities. Unbeknownst to the audience, Medicine Men had sidekicks posing as audience members who would step forward with an ailment, like a limp, ingest the medicine and be cured instantly. 

    As I was sitting in a spice shop in a Marrakesh market, I couldn’t help but to think of traveling medicine shows. The elixir—Argan Oil. The Medicine Man—a very articulate sales person in a white lab coat. A small group of us were seated  in rapt attention as he described the curative powered of the oil. He passed samples around for us to rub on skin spots. Yes, this will make then go away. Arthritic pain? No problem. And on and on.  While I don’t dispute the benefits of argan oil for dry skin (it really is a nice oil), the pitch was a bit over the top. He was a great storyteller—quite entertaining. 

    I later learned that the traditional method for making argan oil is to collect the feces from goats who eat the fruit of the argan tree, pick out the indigestible seeds, and crack the seeds to get oil.  Modern production of argan oil is turning more and more to collecting the seeds directly, thus bypassing the goat. If you want to try argan oil, you don’t need to go to Morocco. It is widely available in the US and Europe. However, Morocco is an amazing place, so you might want to get your argan oil at the source!

    More reading: 

    The Luxurious Poop From These Tree-Climbing Goats Produces Argan Oil

    Liquid Gold in Morocco

  • Our Great American Eclipse Adventure 2017

    Why Wyoming?

    The most important player in a total eclipse is the sun. It has to be visible in all its glory. Otherwise you won’t see the spectacle of the moon moving in front of it. Wyoming had the best chance of cloud-free skies and not-so-congested roads. (Wyoming’s population is 585,501.)

    In January, after deciding on Wyoming, I went on a lodging quest. Most places on the centerline were already booked, so I chose the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne as our base.  It is only 90 minutes from the centerline, the small town of Glendo (population 205), and Glendo Resevoir State Park.

    It’s About Calories

    The Internet and 24-hour news talked so much about possible food, water, and cash shortages during the eclipse, that we stocked up. After hitting the ATM, we bought all the nonperishables we thought we’d need, including toilet paper. As you can see, nothing is gourmet or particularly healthy. Our criteria were:

    • Must not require refrigeration
    • Must not need to be cooked
    • Must be openable without a can opener or cork puller
    • Except for water, must be transportable home in case we don’t eat it
    • Must have enough calories to sustain us for two days




    We didn’t necessarily intend to eat this stuff, as we were hoping to find local vendors selling something delicious, like BBQ chicken for dinner and brewed coffee and fresh rolls in the morning. If there weren’t vendors, or if they ran out, we would be prepared.


    Scouting the Site

    The day prior to the eclipse, we set out at 5:30 AM to scout the Glendo State Park site. We wanted to get a look at possible viewing sites and assess how many people the park could hold. We figured that on eclipse day, we’d leave Cheyenne at 3:00 AM, beat the crowds, and arrive at Glendo when the park opened at 4:30 AM. Our scouting day started with a beautiful sunrise.



    When we arrived at Glendo State Park at 7:00 AM, we discoverd there was lots of space. Some were marked for parking, some for viewing, and some were established camp sites. We had been under the impression that the camp sites were sold out, but now we saw that our information was wrong. We looked at each other and knew what we had to do. Drive back to Cheyenne, pick up our gear, and immediately return to get a camping spot. That would save us from driving at 3 am on eclipse day, a safer alternative than driving while sleepy.

    But first…breakfast! We set off for the town proper.

    In this town of 205 people there are a few bars but exactly one choice for breakfast. The restuarant featured “eclipse specials” which turned out to be the typical breakfast egg dishes rebranded with eclipsey names. The restaurant gave us the opportunity to experience a few things that we don't normally encounter. It turned out to be a true cultural experience.

    A gentleman at the lunch counter was smoking one cigarette after another. There was a Trump-Pence sticker by the cash register and a Trump:  Make America Great Again hat next to that. To complete the scene, a  TV at the front of the room was blaring FOX news. Its commentators were talking about the massive food shortages and traffic problems that the eclipse was going to cause. Some locals remarked “Where are the people they keep talking about?” So far, Glendo was calm.

    We arrived back in Cheyenne and packed up our viewing gear. But we also needing sleeping gear. I stripped the bedding and snuck it out the patio door to our rental car. I put the Do Not Disturb sign on our hotel room door so our deed wouldn’t be discovered. But just in case the maid ventured in while we were gone, I left a note on the bed: “We went to see the eclipse. We will return with the bedding on Monday night.”

    We headed north once again.


    No is Not an Option

    When we arrived back at Glendo Park shortly before 11:00 AM, two volunteers posted at the fee receptacle informed us there were no camping spots. The place still looked relatively empty to me, so I explained that we had driven to Glendo, back to Cheyenne, and back again to Glendo all this morning. Going back was not an option. I thrust the fee envelope into the receptacle and said that I now paid for a spot and need to get one. Fortunately these people were volunteers and had no authority to enforce anything.

    Seeing my eclipse passion, one of the volunteers said …”Just saying, but if you drove up the road a bit you would find open space, but I don’t mean open space for camping, but space that is open, if you get my meaning.” So off we went. We couldn’t camp in what was designated as Eclipse Central, but we found a stand of trees, pulled in, and placed the “permit” we paid for on the dash.



    This is where Wyoming’s small population comes into play. With just over half a million people in the entire state, we figured that at most they have two park rangers for 100 square miles. Wyoming simply doesn't have the people power to visit each car in the park to see if it is authorized to be there. We vowed to keep a low profile and not move the car for any reason.

    Staying parked in one spot had its drawbacks because those vendors making delicious food were now about 2.5 miles away. It was hot and dusty. We were not going to walk that far for food, especially not knowing if, when we got there, anything would be left. The pile of nonperishables was looking very good at this point.

    We were in. We had food, water, pillows, sheets, and a little place to curl up in until eclipse day.

    The "Crowds"

    On the day of the eclipse we took an early morning walk to the area designated as Eclipse Central. We climbed a small hill so we could see how many people had arrived for the eclipse. We were surprised that the park was not full. The day tripper areas had a good number of cars, but as you can see, they were not anywhere near capacity.



    We walked back to our car, grabbed our gear, and set out for a spot near the Glendo Reservoir shoreline. We brought two telescopes. Our small $99 special solar telescope is best for looking at the sun during the partial phase. Our red Astroscan is only for looking at the sun during totality, when we would be able to see prominences. We also brought two pairs of 2x solar glasses. Glen set up his iPhone to try to capture the shadow that rushes over the Earth just prior to totality.



    Projecting Shadow Creatures

    We were able to see the very first bite out of the sun by looking through the solar telescope. When the bite got a bit bigger, we could also see it in our 2x solar glasses. As it takes over an hour to go from first bite to totality, we entertained ourselves by making shadow creatures. If you look carefully, you’ll see “eyes” created by projecting the partially occluded sun through our fingers.



    Using our solar telescope, we could see the sunspots in the center of the sun One by one they disappeared. Then two new ones showed up at the bottom. We were pleasantly surprised to see so many sunspots because this is a solar minimum year.

    Sunset All Around

    This eclipse was to last about two and a half minutes. Not much time. My goal was to experience it myself—not through a camera. So I allocated about 5 seconds to taking a panorama photo and about that much to taking a photo of the sun.  

    I didn’t look at the screen when I took the pano. I swept the phone and hoped for the best. The Camera app made my crooked sweep as straight as possible. Compare the before and during photos and you’ll see the eclipse one is a bit off. That’s because I was jumping for joy!  



    The Black Moon

    I placed the lens of my iPhone camera on the eyepiece of our Astroscan telescope. I looked at the screen for one second and snapped. Once again, I hoped for the best as I didn’t want to waste time lining up a shot. No photo can communicate the profound experience of being in-person at a total eclipse.



    It was exhilarating to be there, in the moment, taking in the scenery around us. We each alternated between oohing and ahing at the extent of the corona, looking through the Astroscan to see the animated prominences, and basking in the darkness. All the while crowds were cheering in the distance.

    We are already planning for our next eclipse adventure!

  • Contemporary Art in a Spectacular Setting

    In a quiet corner of Sonoma, on a private ranch, you’ll find some amazing works of art. It is not that easy to see these works because Oliver Ranch is a privately owned estate. Over the years the owner, Steve Oliver, commissioned  site-specific art installations, working with each artist to ensure the pieces fit well with the land. He allows nonprofit organizations access to the land for several weeks during the year. I was lucky enough to secure a spot on a fundraising tour for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

    The two-and-a-half hour tour covers 18 artworks, from a very disturbing sound installation to a concrete tower/performance space whose interior consists of a double-helix staircase. 

    When I arrived, I was drawn in by the peacefulness of the small lake and the abundance of yellow flowers, but I was also disturbed on a visceral level. I sensed that Mother Earth was angry, as I heard intermittent grumbling from the ground, similar to the violent fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park. That sound turned out to be one of the art installations. Although a clever idea, I wished that the sound were more tonal and musical—something that soothed rather than disturbed.

    The other art pieces were unique and wonderful to experience. Each has a story of how the artist was commissioned by Steve Oliver and how the piece was constructed. Fortunately Mr. Oliver is in the construction business, so making white concrete or super dense steel or building a concrete tower were challenges that he was able to solve for the artists. This gave each artist tremendous freedom to create. (Photo: The reflection in the pool at the bottom of The Tower.)

    Because each piece is so unique, it’s difficult for me to rate one over he other. Rather, each allows you to explore the background of the artist and the artist’s perception of the ranch. It is difficult, though, not to be drawn in by the Tower, a piece you can experience inside and out. I hope to return one day for a performance in this space. 

    The ranch also as an award-winning guest house. The clever design gives maximum privacy to guests while still enabling them to experience the serenity of the outdoor landscape. (Photo: Looking inside the guest house, with reflection of the tour group.)

    I had the option to take the stairs to the main road or ride the bus. I, along with most of my fellow travelers, chose to take the 300 stairs of uneven height, and without a handrail. Like all the art at Oliver, the stairs are designed to complement the land. When the slope calls for a tall step, the step is tall. When the slope is more gentle, the stair height is shorter. The varying height made me focus on each step, slowing me down to appreciate the artistic aspect of the stairs as I was delighted by the verdant landscape.

    If you love contemporary art, find a way to secure a spot on an Oliver Ranch tour. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, otherwise you might end up in the same position as this woman.

  • A Cosmic Adventure

    More than 20 years ago Comet Hyakutake graced the skies of Earth, passing closer than any other comet had passed in 200 years. It was a spectacular sight, made even better because it appeared to pass through the handle of the Big Dipper. This photo, taken by Glen Gould and stitched together by me, is the result of quest that took persistence and creativity.

    Seattle is not a very reliable place to see stellar events and March 1996 was typically cloudy. We knew we had to travel somewhere to photograph the comet. But where? Many of our usual viewing sites in eastern Washington were covered in snow, so we decided to head to Othello. To our surprise, there was as much light pollution in this sparsely populated area as in a big city. Each small farm had two to three unshielded mercury vapor lights perched on tall poles. Light lessens the ability to see the stars and makes it impossible to capture a comet on film. 

    Defeated, we spent the night in a hotel and set off to eastern Oregon the next morning, hoping that the rain shadow of Mt. Hood would be clear and dark. That night we found a small spot by a river to pitch our tent. Soon after, light clouds started to gather but our hope did not wane. We set an hourly alarm so we could jump out of the tent and assess the sky throughout the night. No luck. By the morning snow started falling. Disappointed, we headed back to Seattle.

    After arriving home around 2:00 PM, we decided to look at the national weather map to find a place with clear skies. We chose Las Vegas. That might sound strange given the vast amount of light pollution, but we know the area outside Las Vegas well. The desert is deserted and there are enough mountains around that is it possible to mask the glow of Las Vegas lights. Besides, there are not many places where there are frequent flights and seats available on short notice. We packed up the camera equipment and headed to the airport.

    At the ticket counter we explained our desperate need to get to Las Vegas. The agent assumed we were eloping, took pity, and got us the last two seats on the plane. Fortunately all this happened in the pre 9-11 days, as the apparatus needed to photograph the comet would never have gotten through security. 

    Photographing stars and comets requires a long exposure. The Earth is constantly rotating, so it is necessary to compensate by using a device called a star tracker. The tracker moves the camera to match the rotation of the Earth. The photo will then capture stars as pinpoints and not as smears of light. 

    We didn’t have the money to buy a motorized star tracker, so Glen built a manual one. He used a very large barn door hinge, a paint stick, a small LED clock, the numbered part of a mechanical kitchen timer, a small battery-operated gooseneck lamp with a red filter, a straw, and some assorted screws. The camera gets mounted on the hinge. The paint stick becomes a crank. The numbers on the timer guide the manual turning of the crank. The turning rate is monitored using the LED stopwatch and the lamp. Turning the crank causes the hinge to open, thus changing the angle of the camera. With a steady hand, it is possible to match the rotational speed of the Earth. (Build your own, see these instructions.)

    We arrived in Las Vegas at 10 PM, rented a car, and drove north for an hour an a half. Then we pulled to the side of the road and set up the apparatus. Glen positioned himself on the ground in cranking position and I stayed on the lookout for the occasional car. Each exposure took up to 10 minutes. When I announced a car in the distance, Glen put a black card in front of the lens until the car passed. All the while he would continue to crank the apparatus. 

    It turned out to be an beautiful night and the end to an amazing cosmic adventure.

  • A Surrealistic Afternoon in Monterey

    Salvador Dali spent several years in Monterey, California during the 1940’s. Perhaps it is fitting that the largest private collection of his works in the US are available for viewing in a permanent exhibit only steps from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. 

    Like most people, I am quite familiar with Persistence of Memory, with its melting watches. What I didn’t know was that Dali illustrated a wide variety of stories from the Bible to Alice in Wonderland to Dante’s Inferno to a few stories with sexual themes, including copulating beans. I hadn’t realized what a creative illustrator he was.

    Dali also created illustrations for Tarot cards and another series for the Apostles which look instead like the Knights of the Round Table.

    It is an amazing exhibit that is not to be missed if you go to Monterey Bay.

  • Where Neon Signs Retire

    The Neon Boneyard is home to more than 200 signs from Las Vegas hotels, motels, and businesses. As neon gave way to LED signs and uplighting on buildings, the signs disappeared one by one. In 1996 the Neon Museum formed and started rescuing old signs, preserving them from further decay and restoring a few of them. 

    The outdoor boneyard has more than 200 signs on display in a site that is two acres. The signs sit on the ground arranged closely to each other. The huge signs at eye level in a tight space provide a warped perspective that makes the signs look like pop art. At night, the color-wheel spotlights further enhance the effect. 

    The collection has a few signs that aren’t neon. One is the pirate head from the original Treasure Island Hotel, which opened in 1993. That’s the decade that casinos started to turn from neon to other ways of attracting attention—the Treasure Island pirate head and ships, the Excalibur castle architecture, the New York New York iconic skyline, the MGM Grand lion entrance. So far, the pirate is the only sign of that era in the boneyard. The head is so large that its smiling teeth are visible in maps apps using satellite view.

    Old neon signs require a lot of money to restore, which is why only a handful in the boneyard are working. Some signs, like the Yucca Hotel, have intricately arranged, hand-bent neon tubing that would be difficult to fix. Others are salvaged parts of larger signs and will never be seen whole again. 

    The museum has a number of signs that are fully operational so they haven’t been retired to the boneyard. You can see these at various locations on the meridian of Las Vegas Blvd. The Sliver Slipper slipper and the Bow and Arrow Motel sign are closest to the museum’s visitor center. 

    Check out my photos of the boneyard. If you decide to visit the Neon Museum, you must book a tour in advance. Night tours are best. These sell out two weeks or more in advance. Don’t just show up at the museum hoping to get on a tour. When I was there, I saw 11 people get turned away.