Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mammoth Cave National Park

One of the largest cavern systems in the world is Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. On one of our road trips to Kentucky my travel buddy, I and our hostess decided to pay it a visit as it was just 2 hours away from her home on the Ohio river. We thought it would be fun, interesting, educational and allow me to add another National Park to my "been there" list.

The line between the Central and Eastern time zones runs down the center of both Kentucky and Tennessee. Our hostess lived in the Central zone, Mammoth Cave lies in the Eastern. Since that made us an hour late before we even got started we opted to take the 4 lane interstate there and afterward meander back along the smaller, more scenic state roads. As we neared the cave we entered a realm of delightful American kitsch. A Jellystone campground stood on a hillside. There are several of these spread across the country. Inspired by The Flintstones they contain fake rock buildings and concrete statues of the main characters waving at the passerby on the road below. A small, preserved retro amusement park, closed and vacant as it was early spring, accompanied it.

We had arrived between two tour times so grabbed a snack from the visitors center to fortify ourselves. While we were waiting, a van pulled up and a group of Mennonites, ubiquitous in Kentucky, emerged. Boys and girls in their mid teens and several adult chaperons. The girls and women wore the typical Mennonite mid calf dresses and white caps. The boys all had bowl haircuts and wore low rise pants with button front flaps, similar to the old Navy blues. Although their shirts were loose and bell sleeved one could sense their lean, taut muscularity, the result of long hours of hard physical labor on their farms. The adult men, all broad shouldered and powerfully built, wore the same bell sleeved shirts as the boys and loose black pants tucked into boots. One of the things I learned about the Mennonites that day, they do not wear deodorant. I discovered this as I followed one of the Mennonite girls down a staircase during the tour. Several people have confirmed since that Mennonites do, in fact, not wear deodorant and that this was not just an isolated case. Just something to think about if you see one waiting at your gate as you are about to board a plane.

Our forest service guide gathers our tour group together. We are led down a steep metal staircase inside the cave. The first thing I notice is a diminutive waterfall cascading down the cave wall. The water catches in one crevice, then spills over to the next as it travels down the wall to it's destination deep inside the cavern. It is at this moment that an albino bat appears. For some reason it decides to dive bomb my bald head. I instinctively duck down and cover my head with my arms just as it changes course inches from me. Occasionally someone still chides me about this reaction. My stock answer has become "Well what the fuck would you do if a fucking bat was dive bombing your fucking head?"

We are led into a spacious area inside the cave. We sit on benches as the guide relates the history of the cave, it's vastness and the unique subterranean creatures that reside there, many of them blind and lacking pigment after eons of adaptation to an environment completely devoid of natural light. He also mentions that the cave is completely earthquake proof since it has withstood several without incident. Being trapped underground in a collapsed cave in Kentucky as the result of an earthquake was something I had not even considered until he brought it up. Despite his reassurances, it was a vision that was difficult to put out of my mind until we returned topside.

The most spectacular portion of the tour is the "Drapery Room". Over the centuries deposits of water and minerals have created long wavy formations resembling drapes. A staircase carries you down to a landing where the length and enormity and sheer beauty of them can be fully appreciated.

Returning to the daylight we saw several of the albino cave bats emerge from a small opening created by a sinkhole and fly about flapping their opaque, fragile looking wings in the sun. The rangers were surprised saying that they had never seen the bats come out of the cave day or night. We were fortunate to be there at that time to witness this rare sight.

We returned to the car to begin our scenic country road trip back. This being Kentucky we passed horse farm after horse farm. From the looks of the large homes set back behind expansive gated lawns horse farming is either a highly profitable business or a hobby for the already wealthy.

As it was mid spring trees and shrubs were in full bloom, resembling puffy pink and white clouds floating along the roadside. The famed bluegrass of Kentucky, while not as blue as the name might imply, does indeed have an azure tint to it.

We stopped in Louisville for dinner. A small city famed for the Kentucky Derby and a baseball bat. Many streets are named for famous racehorses. None that we encountered are named for bats.

As we climbed the steep stairs up to our hosts home the scent of blossoming lilac added a soft spice to the spring night air.


First, let me make this statement. I have never put on a hat with a headlamp on it and wiggled around through tight spaces underground hoping against hope that I don't get permanently lost. This same fear of getting permanently lost is what compels me to keep a street map close at hand at all times when visiting an unfamiliar city. I have, however, clad in jeans, tee shirt and a light jacket taken several cave tours.

On one such tour, my partner and I were guided through a cavern located on a private farm in Wisconsin. Our guide was a member of the family which owned the land. She was in her mid teens and almost, but not quite, unbearably perky. In one of the underground rooms local teenagers over the years had written or carved their names into the rock walls. She pointed out her grandfather's signature, which dated from the 1950's. She also showed us stalagmites and stalactites and taught me an easy way to keep the two terms straight. "Stalagmites grow from the floor, stalactites hold tight to the ceiling." Mineral laden water dripping through the rock and soil above the caves create these fantastic underground structures. This same process created a massive block of black onyx worth thousands that was too heavy and too deeply embedded in the cavern floor to be moved.

In other caves we have experienced blind albino fish and amphibians inhabiting underground streams and, by dipping our hands into the dark waters, felt the icy chill of an underground lake.

A Short Note on Grecian Men - Circa 1973

I have previously written about the summer my family and I spent traveling through Europe. One of the countries visited on that trip was Greece. Over the years, many things have been written and said regarding the swarthy, hot, studliness of the Grecian man. If one is to judge using the criteria of their ancient artwork, this reputation is not entirely unwarranted. Allow me to share a couple of my personal recollections with you.

We are at a service station getting gas, standing just inside the mechanics garage. Through a doorway comes a rather short man, bare chested, wearing worn, tight jeans. His large full muscles are straining beneath his olive skin due to the fact that he is carrying, in his massive, strong, rippling arms...A CAR ENGINE! At the time I had not yet come to terms with my sexuality. The repressed part of my brain told me that I was merely impressed by his great strength and was admiring his mega pumped, chiseled physique from an aesthetic, almost artistic standpoint. Like the appreciation one has when viewing the before mentioned Grecian sculpture. The deeply buried, unrepressed part of my brain wanted me to run my hands and tongue all over him.

I recall a host of young men in Greece. Many with tousled ,curly, black hair and well developed bodies.

My other most vivid memory is of three men. They are thick,defined, powerful and all wearing the tiniest of Greek bikinis, sharing a shower beachside. Nothing homoerotic about that......

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yellowstone et al - Epilogue

My partner pestered me during the entire trip to mention that he did all the driving on this trip. Operating a car is a skill I have never mastered. You drove, I mentioned it. Are you happy now?

Race to Salt Lake City or We're not Lost, We Just Don't Know Where We Are

We left Jackson to catch our return flight to Salt Lake City before sunrise. By 7:30 the car was filled with gas, we had grabbed breakfast at the local McDonald's and we were on our way. The cabin resort had provided us with a map of Wyoming with what they said was the most scenic route back highlighted,. As long as we were in Wyoming we could pinpoint our exact location on the map. The tiny specks of towns showed up in the right order and all was well. We then crossed over into Utah. This is where things get a little fuzzy. Since we had a map of Wyoming, and only Wyoming, the information on Utah was vague at best. It was like two warring neighbors that refused to acknowledge the existence of each other. We knew route 89 would lead to route 15 which would in turn lead to Salt Lake City; we knew we were on route 89; we just had no idea where on route 89 we were.

As we left Jackson the sun was rising above the mountain ranges turning their snow dappled peaks red. One small town followed another.

Etna, Wyoming Population 200

You may be familiar with the term "one stoplight" to describe a small town. This tiny hamlet was so small it did not even have one stoplight. It did, however, have a sight which halted us dead in our tracks. One of the very few houses along the road bore a sign identifying it as an Art Studio and Gallery. From it's well kept porch proudly hung a rainbow flag. This type of flag is used as a symbol to express Gay Pride. It is also used to identify a business as gay owned or gay friendly. It was the only rainbow or rainbow flag we encountered in the state of Wyoming, or anywhere else on the trip for that matter. To me it served as a reminder of the old adage "We are everywhere", even in the middle of nowhere.

Afton, Wyoming Population 1100

This bustling, by Wyoming standards, metropolis possesses, as it's claim to fame, The Worlds Largest Elk Horn Arch. It spans the town's main street just down the block from Shelly's Cowboy Bar and Golden Spur Cafe.

It was outside this town where we had to stop and wait as a couple on horseback herded their cattle down the middle of the road. Picturesque indeed!

We then came to the town of Montpieler. It's place in history is due to the robbery, in 1896, of the Bank of Montpieler by Butch Cassidy and his gang. They made off with $16500 in cash and silver, a princely sum at the time. As they fled, the sheriff borrowed a bicycle to chase them down but was quickly outdistanced.

Throughout the trip my partner had remarked repeatedly about the absence of roadkill. This was definitely rectified by what we encountered out of town. On the opposite side of the road appeared a long bloody smear punctuated by equally bloody chunks of flesh. At the end of the smear lay a skinless, battered, almost unrecognizable cow's head. I gazed at my partner with a look that read, "So much for no roadkill. Are you happy now?"

We crossed the border into Utah. That is where the confusion began. Apparently the cartographer who drew the map decided when he got to Utah vague, seemingly arbitrary lines, directions and mileage to towns in that state would suffice. We had confirmed that 89 would lead to 15, we knew that we were on 89, but as I stated before, we just were not sure where we were on 89. Furthermore, we ascertained after a while that there was a route 89 and a route 89 scenic bypass. We figured this out when signs saying "89 Scenic Bypass" started appearing roadside.

We had missed a turnoff. We had made a mistake. A wonderful, wonderful mistake. One of the brown wooden signs which announce National Parks and Forests informed us we were entering the Cache National Forest. At first glance it looked quite like the other evergreen forests we had been seeing throughout the trip. Then the road narrowed and began to descend into a canyon. The road wound back and forth, up and down as it followed the natural topography of the land. Evergreens gave way to trees and brush showing off their brilliant fall colors. A kaleidoscope of hues collided with the stone canyon walls that towered over us. At the bottom of the canyon the road followed the bends and curves of the river that ran beside it, it's banks also overrun with fall's palette. On some hillsides, where thick stands of evergreens commanded most of the land, occasional leafy trees, wearing their mantle of fall, mixed with the evergreens in breathtaking juxtaposition.

The scene, lit by the early afternoon sun in the clear blue sky left us awestruck making us stop at scenic turnouts to take in and document it's beauty. The road began to ascend, twisting and turning it's way out of the canyon back to the more mundane roadside sights of strip malls, tract housing and characterless chain hotels. The same snow covered mountains we first saw upon our arrival towered above these and with their grace and majesty reminded us of the wonderful, memorable and remarkable places we had experienced on this trip as we continued to the airport and our flight home.    

The Grand Tetons - By Horse and By Foot

By Horse

I have ridden a number of times beginning in my early teens, including twice in the mountain jungles above Puerta Vallarta, on farms in Michigan and Wisconsin during fall color weekends and in Smoky Mountains National Park. It had been 7 years, however, since either my partner or I had been on horseback.

Once astride the horse does most of the work. At 5'5" tall my biggest challenge is getting on and off the animal. Chosen for me was a massive chestnut draft horse. Lifting my knee almost to my chin, I hooked my foot in the stirrup, climbed aboard and settled myself in the beautiful, vintage hand tooled leather saddle. The various colors of my horses mane made it look as if he had recently gone to a salon for foil highlights. My partner was given an equally large blond draft horse while our guide was astride a black and white quarter horse which he claimed was an idiot who he hated and hated to ride. The horse did not seem to mind and had the attitude that he was in charge since he was bigger than the guide and could throw him at any time.

We had picked up our guide at a staging ranch in Teton Village where the three horses were loaded on to a trailer attached to a pickup. Our guide got into the pickup and we followed him to a ranch 20 minutes away where we now found ourselves, in the saddle and ready to go. The ranch has 1200 horses. The sitcom "Modern Family" had used this ranch for the horses in this season's opening episode, set in the Tetons.

The promotional material promises the guides are real cowboys. They do not lie. Our guide was a young, lanky Texan who competed in the rodeo circuit during the winter months. In his cowboy hat, jeans and muddy boots he certainly looked the part. His habit of chewing tobacco lent him an added air of authenticity. Twice during the ride he got the horse he was on, the one he called an idiot, to spin  explaining to us how he managed to signal the horse to do so.

The air was cool, clean and crisp and the sky a brilliant blue as we started off. My horse seemed to enjoy taking a more leisurely pace then the horses of our guide and my partner. On occasion I would have to hit his sides with my legs at which point he would gallop to the point of catching up with the others. Each time, as soon as he accomplished this, he would return to his poky gait. We soon reached the first of several steep grades which had been made slick and a little treacherous by the rains of the previous night. My horse sidestepped the muddy trail and climbed the hill on the grass along it's edge. Judging from his panting at the top of this first hill it occurred to me that the gray in his mane may have been the result of age. At each  hill the poor guy seemed reluctant but resigned to carrying me up it.

At one point the guide, claiming Rick Perry was a family friend tried to engage us in a political conversation. We sidestepped this with questions about the local flora and fauna and the altitude we would eventually reach (7800 feet). At the summit we rested the horses and took in the expansive view. The winding Snake River cut through the valley below us. In the distance rose the snow capped Tetons. Magpies flew above our heads moving from treetop to treetop. Autumn gold grass mixed with dull olive sage and the bright yellow fall leaves and pure white trunks of aspens covered the hills which led down to the valley floor dotted with the homes, barns and outbuildings of the area ranches.

My horse seemed even more reluctant to go downhill then he had to go up. Eventually, he relented and caught up with the guide and my partner who were a little distance ahead of us.

Near the conclusion of the ride we entered a meadow where several white horses and an adorable Shetland pony were grazing. My partner asked if we could post the last few yards through the meadow. After eliciting a promise from us not to tell anyone we did this (a promise I just broke) he allowed us to do so. This is the point at which my horse came into his own. His unrestrained glee at running fast over flat land made it difficult for me to slow him down at the ride's end. After dismounting, I mentioned to the guide how beautiful I thought the saddle on my horse was. He shared my admiration for it and gave me a quick primer on how they hand cut and stamp leather. He expressed to us how much he had enjoyed the ride as he gave us a firm handshake. We tipped him and climbed back into our car.

Before returning to Jackson for dinner and a good night's rest we drove out to the Tetons one last time. We stood at a scenic turnout contemplating and admiring their grandeur and beauty before bidding them farewell, thanking them for the memories they would leave us with.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Grand Tetons - By Horse and By Foot

By Foot

We had been told by several people prior to our departure that the best hiking trails were those surrounding Jenny Lake, which struck me as a great drag queen name! Being somewhat experienced hikers we chose a 6 mile round trip hike described as having a difficulty level of moderate. It would take us through the Cascade Canyon, Hidden Falls and finally Inspiration Point. Compared to the cold we had been experiencing on this trip, this day the air was temperate and we began our hike under bright sun which filtered through the trees and brush and reflected off the still water of the lake. Chipmunks dashed about the edges of the trail, communicating with each other with their odd, clicking call.

You hear Cascade Canyon before you see it. Through the years the river has cut a gorge in the rock of the mountain. A small wooden bridge affords a birds eye view of he tumbling water.

When you hike you discover that hikers are polite, friendly and courteous to other hikers. Smiles and greetings are exchanged as you encounter others on the trail. Conversations flow easily as you experience the camaraderie created by the sights each of you see and the memories each of you are creating.

As you ascend higher into the mountains you find Hidden Falls. Water flows from a narrow crevice high above your head. The falls widen as they descend to the cascading river. A short distance further and you are at Inspiration Point which affords you a spectacular view of the serene waters of Jenny Lake surrounded by it's mantle of evergreens. Above you are the magnificent snow covered peaks of the Tetons, this day standing in stark relief against the bright blue sky. We have our lunch of sandwiches and string cheese sitting on a rock enjoying the beauty that envelops us.

Clouds seem to move in quickly in this part of the country. As we make our way back the woods on either side of the trail, sun dappled on our way up, have taken on a dark, almost brooding tone.

The one disappointment we had during our days at Yellowstone was that we had not seen a moose among all the wildlife we were fortunate enough to witness. As we are descending, we see a couple we had exchanged pleasantries with earlier standing off to the side of  the trail staring down at a meadow with a small body of water in it's center called Moose Pond. The name is especially appropriate this day as they point out to us a mother moose and her calf edging along the pond before crossing the meadow and moving out of sight. Another couple join us and relate how earlier they had happened upon the same moose along the trail they had been taking. The husband shows us the photos of their close encounter with this huge animal. My partner suggests to me that they are show offs. Actually, we find them to be friendly and interesting. After scrapping plans to visit Egypt due to the recent unrest there, they started out from their home in San Diego and were spending 3 1/2 weeks visiting as many National Parks as they could get to.  As we leave the wife is making sandwiches on the tailgate of their car in true vacation road warrior fashion.

On our way back to Jackson is the Chapel of the Transfiguration, which I had read about online during my advance research for the trip. I had not realized that it was part of a small complex of buildings called the Menor's Ferry historic district. In the early years of the 20th century a ferry crossed the river at this spot. At this late point in the season the buildings are locked and the small ferry boat is dry docked. Aside from the Chapel there is also a General Store. It now sells antiques during the tourist season in it's front section and has a period bedroom set up in it's back half. The store's small outbuildings include a smokehouse, cold house and on outhouse which gives the term primitive new meaning. The outhouse may explain the legendary mean temper of the store's founder.

The historic district also includes the Maude Noble cabin, a log structure where, in 1923, a meeting took place where the preservation of the unique western nature of the Tetons was first discussed. This meeting was the catalyst for convincing John D Rockefeller to purchase several thousands acres of the Tetons and donate them to the U.S. for use as a National Park.

We spent time peering into the windows of the locked structures. My partner rang the church's bell, which hangs in a small western style gazebo on the wooden boardwalk which leads up to the tiny chapel. He took a bow after his performance before we returned to the car and headed back to Jackson.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dining and Shopping in Jackson

Breakfast and dinner, lunch was generally a sandwich we made and carried with us, were taken at a Barbecue restaurant steps away from our cabin. The staff was friendly and fun, the food excellent, the portions generous and the price reasonable. At our first meal our waitress, young, heavyset, black eyebrows more pencil than brow with a piercing below her lower lip, was asked by my partner, "How's the corn on the cob?" Without hesitating for even a second she replied in a flat tone of voice, "I wouldn't". After a momentary pause she added, "I want you to enjoy your food". We did not order the corn on the cob. The half of a barbecued chicken I did order was divine except so heavily honey glazed that I felt compelled to wash my hands several times after eating it. I, let it be understood, am not complaining! Breakfast the next morning featured grits done to perfection, rich and creamy, not the least bit watery and a biscuit so large it looked as if it had been cut from the dough with a coffee can. My final meal there was topped off, at the suggestion of the young, blond, jewelry laden waitress by banana creme pie. Delicious, again rich and buried under a mountain of whipped creme.

The shops in the historic district teem with average to outstanding Native American, western and western inspired goods of every sort. One shop specializes in lush wool Pendelton blankets, shirts and jackets. In another beaded fringed garments are featured whose level of beauty and fine workmanship are matched by the level of the price on their tag. One store carries an assortment of mounted animal heads, animal pelts, antlers and an 8 foot tall stuffed Grizzly bear priced at $22,000. I neglected to ask whether it was guaranteed not to molt. Art galleries abound catering to the more well heeled visitors. There are also the stores, ubiquitous in any resort town, filled with tee shirts, fleece, baseball caps and magnets all bearing the name of the town or the sights that surround it.

The cast of characters manning the stores were as fun and entertaining as the waitresses in the restaurant. In one store specializing in Native American goods an immaculately groomed woman launched into a long conversation with us regarding the prices of gold and silver and how they related to the economy in general. I felt, for a moment, that I was part of a round table discussion on CNN. Later, another, somewhat hefty woman with large, unnaturally black hair, wearing out sized jewelry to match her heft and hair suggests we look at her Native American pawn pieces. Before long I have a vintage silver and turquoise ring on my finger and my credit card out of my pocket. A perky blond leads us into the dingy "sale" area of a shoe store to retrieve the leather soled socks my partner had been searching for all afternoon., In the single antique store in the historic district the proprietor tells us about her picking methods and the stories behind some of her goods She keeps us in the store with a one sided conversation for a full twenty minutes even though after 5 minutes it was obvious she did not have what we were looking for and that we would be leaving empty handed.

Then there was the woman of European extraction, judging from her accented english, in the store specializing in cooking oils, vinegars and spices. I lost count of the number of things we taste tested off of tiny white ceramic spoons before settling on a vinaigrette marinade and spices for us and my cousin who we would be visiting for Thanksgiving.

Somewhat poorer that we started out that morning we returned to the cabin with our purchases and relaxed enjoying the gentle patter of the rain on the roof.


Jackson aka Jackson Hole Wyoming

The town of Jackson is small, under 9000 people, and tall, over 6000 feet above sea level. The adjective we decided best describes it's historical center, most of which dates form the first three decades of the 20th century, is cute. As in West Yellowstone, log structures mix with traditional "Wild West" architecture. Most of the sidewalks in the central district, many of them wood, are protected from the weather by the eaves and balconies of the buildings that line them. On each of the corner entrances of the town square is a large arch constructed of the antlers shed each spring by the local population of elk. An annual event in Jackson is an auction  of these antlers, collected by enterprising Boy Scouts, from the nearby elk preserve. A war memorial, topped with a statue of a cowboy on a horse, rearing up, front legs in the air, stands in the center of the square. The cowboy and the rearing horse seems to be a trademark of Jackson as it can be seen in several different incarnations throughout the town.

At one point, we get an old meets new moment when we see a long, lean man in traditional cowboy hat and boots, jeans and a sheepskin jacket, standing under the antler arch talking on his smart phone.

Among the sites of note in the historic district is St John's Episcopal Church. Constructed in 1915, it, like several other buildings in the town, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. As you explore the small historic district you see many buildings bearing plaques giving recognition by the town for renovations of structures over 50 years old. St John's is a small log structure. Inside, sunlight is filtered through diamond pane and new and original stained glass windows,. The warmth of the natural log walls and the soft light give the diminutive sanctuary an atmosphere of peace and serenity.

Our accomadations are in the "Cowboy Village Resort", a name that manages to sound butch and gay at the same time. It's logo is a cowboy, in full regalia, hat, boots and wide chaps, a cowboy queens fantasy man! It is a development of log cabins set side by side on the outside and in the center of a circular drive. It reminds me of a 1950"s era motor court.Our cabin is clean, compact but adequate, with a certain rustic charm. A small alcove contains a mini refridgerator/freezer, 2 burner stove and kitchen sink. The up to date bathroom contains a small window, which, unfortunately, looks directly into the cabin next door. Out the front door, from under the wide porch that runs along the front of the cabin, there is a view of one of the small hills that surround the town. It's chair lifts and ski runs are visible awaiting the snow and skiers which will arrive in droves later in the season. The sound of rain showers on the roof create a soothing white noise as we lie staring up at the large logs which support it.

The resorts anemnities include an indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness center. Magpies flit through the trees and potted petunias hang from the eaves and lampposts still in full blossom even this late in the year.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Grand Tetons - Our First Glimpse

We drove out the south entrance of Yellowstone towards our second destination, Grand Tetons National Park and Jackson, Wyoming. As we leave a series of signs, erected by the park Service, proclaim:

We Saw Wildlife
From Afar
Until We Hit Them
With Our Car


Spying the sign announcing the entry to the park we slowed down and stopped for a photo op. Stepping out of the car the first thing we noticed was the heavy pine scent to the cold mountain air. A man stopped at the same spot offers to take our photo together and also gives us news of the roads ahead. All are open except one which is closed due to a mother grizzly and her two cubs having taken up residence in the area. This road remains closed for the duration of our visit.

As we continue the glorious yellow leaves set against the white trunks of Aspens fill our view. A brilliant blue lake forms a backdrop to the leaves, white wood and evergreens. Then, we get our first look at the Grand Tetons mountain range. Magnificent, snow covered peaks rise straight up from the meadows that surround them as if dropped there by accident by some massive hand. Glaciers nestle near their craggy summits, waterfalls drop from heights that seem improbable. "Purple Mountains Majesty" could have been written with this range in mind as these peaks are truly majestic.

We pull into a scenic turnout and gaze in awe at this sight. It is a view we will return to several times over the next few days. At each return visit the sense of awe does not diminish.

We have been on the road for several hours. Fatigue and hunger are beginning to overtake us. Since we have several days here we bid the mountains farewell for the moment and head towards the ski resort town of Jackson.

Thanks Teddy R!

We have Teddy Roosevelt to thank for creating this first of our National Parks and ensuring that it's wonders and beauty are preserved for the enjoyment and enrichment of all.

Discovering the Unexpected - Yellowstone's Waterfalls

While fooling around on the Internet one Sunday prior to our visit, I came across a website detailing the waterfalls of Yellowstone. I had never associated the park with waterfalls. I now stand informed. They range from tall, softly flowing ribbons of water to short powerful cascades. Hunting them out was a high point of our visit.

Kepler Cascades

This was the first water feature we visited. As the name implies, cascades of water flow into a river creating rapids at their base. They are viewed from a bridge built over the swiftly moving river.

Gibbon Falls

This waterfall is on the shorter side. It is split into two distinct parts. A gentle flow on one side, while the other side, forced through a more narrow opening, gushes powerfully before mingling in the river below with it's more placid other half.

Lewis Falls

Serendipitously discovered while we were on our way out of the park, this 30 foot high majestic cascade empties into a river which winds through marshes and a meadow clad in the beautiful golden hues of autumn.

Undine Falls

Set against a craggy rock wall, 3 large tiers of water empty into sloping rapids rumbling down a deep narrow channel.

Tower Falls

A beautiful and graceful lady, tall stone pinnacles stand along her sides like sentinels before her extremely long, narrow ribbon of water plunges to the valley far below.

Wraith Falls

This one requires a 1/4 mile stroll down a meadow trail and across boardwalks erected over fragile marshy wetlands. A thin sheet of water first slides down a sloping rock face and than a winding staircase cut by nature into the stone wall before disappearing into the small stream at it's base.

The last two mentioned here are the most powerful and best known falls in the park.

The Upper Falls

Strong, quickly moving rapids lead up to this muscular powerhouse of water. Caves have been carved into the red lichen spotted rock wall along one side of the top of these falls by the force of the river before it makes it's roaring plunge. The viewing platform at the brink of this waterfall is remarkably accessible. At it's base a river flows leading to -

The Lower Falls

Although reaching the brink of these falls could be difficult for some, it is well worth the effort. The falls, although beautiful, full and powerful, are not as awe inspiring as what they have created over the years, the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone". A deep channel whose steep walls are shades of yellow, orange and gray. Evergreens line the canyon's top and sprout along the walls in crevices and outcroppings. The canyon is a place of supreme beauty which should not be missed. 


Yellowstone - Mammoth Hot Springs Traps Tourists

Mammoth Hot Springs is a small, very historic settlement at the far north end of the park. It is dominated by a huge white mound created by the superheated thermal features it contained within it which hiss and steam. A boardwalk, again, carries visitors who wish to view these around and over the massive mound. Nearby, mid and late 19th century buildings mingle with more modern structures and the elk herd which resides in the settlements central square.

This is the site of Fort Yellowstone, built to ensure law and order in the park before the founding of the National Park Service. The current Park Ranger uniforms are a holdover from that era. The fort, troop and officer quarters, constructed of limestone, which abounds in this area, still stand. The bachelor barracks are a dormitory like structure while the officer quarters, now private residences, form a line of gracious homes standing along the square. There is also a general store, now a gift shop, which, like many of the buildings, also dates from the late 1800's. Inside the former fort headquarters are exhibits detailing the history of Yellowstone. A modern hotel and restaurant, operated by a corporate concession, also sits here, somewhat out of character with the older architecture. It is apparent that many park visitors do not venture much farther into the park than this judging from their excitement regarding the elk herd grazing in the square. At this point, we had viewed scores of the animals in much more natural environs. We later saw a small group of modest, modern homes nestled in a valley nearby. Presumably these are the homes of the service personnel at the exhibits and concessions. As the saying goes; if you love nature and the park "It's nice work if you can get it."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Yellowstone - Geothermal Wonders or God Dropped Acid

Perhaps the thing that Yellowstone is most known for is it's geothermal features. When we got close to Old Faithful it's next eruption was predicted to be at 1:37. I wondered how they could be so precise. We soon found out that the predicted time is not always the time of the actual eruption.

We got to the geyser early. We watched, with about 35 other people, as the famous geyser erupted at 1:15. As the crowd grew and 1:37 came and went, an unfortunate park ranger was sent out to tell the crowd that the eruption had already happened and the next one was not predicted to occur until 3:00. The geyser does not go very high, although the coldness of the ground this day may have dampened it's power. It did go on somewhat longer that I had expected however.

Other features are scattered about the park. The first of these we encountered required a short walk to a small pool of boiling water spouting a thick cloud of sulfurous steam. Boardwalks surround most of the sites as the geothermal features are very fragile and the earth around them is thin and can give way easily which would result in  quite a nasty injury. Grisly signs repeatedly inform visitors of the dozen people that have burned to death.

At another point there were bubbling pots of mud. A small geyser spit water out of a diminutive cone. A somewhat larger geyser spouted off in the corner of a scalding pond. The ground was orange from the lichen growing around the boiling pools.

The colors of the Finger Paint pots look as if God took acid or a healthy dose of mushrooms before creating them. Brilliant blue, translucent pools reveal the white rock formations inside them. Around them grow various shades of green lichen. Here the orange color of the ground is the result of the sulphurous emissions from the pools. One very renown pool contains eye jarring, otherworldly bands of colors radiating from it's center to it's edge. Green pools remind me of Easter egg dyes.

Viewing the Artist's Paint Pots requires a walk through  grove of evergreens which reminded me of a Christmas Tree lot. In this spot the sulfur steam has not only stained the ground orange, it has also turned the ferns growing in the area a bright red. There are bubbling pots of water colored white, pink, blue and green. Again, various shades of lichen thrive in an atmosphere that would be lethal to other plant life. The total effect is a mad kaleidoscope of colors, textures and motion.

Then there is the Mud Volcano. A boardwalk takes you past boiling pits of mud and steam. A crowd pleaser and my personal favorite spot is the Dragon's Mouth where steam escapes from a cave as scalding water simmers and leaps outside it's mouth.

The Midway Geyser basin contains some of the largest of the geothermal pools in the park. They are also some of the most difficult to view due to the enormous amounts of steam and sulfur emitted by them. The Opal Pool located here has an iridescent red edge that surrounds a deep blue center. There is a crater created by a massive geyser eruption with steaming water in it's deep basin. These are all set in a barren, almost lunar landscape where magma heated water streams in a thin sheet across the earth. This water eventually runs off into the Firehole River at the rate of 4000 gallons per minute.Waterfalls of the boiling water descend into the cool river down a riverbank stained orange and green. One waterfall appears to travel down a set of emerald green steps, the rock stained by lichen and eroded by time.

Steam rising from the numerous other hot spots in the rivers, creeks and lakes are a constant companion as you travel through this wondrous landscape.


Yellowstone - Senic Beauty

The wildlife of Yellowstone wanders through a place of awesome scenic beauty. Our first day the trees and ground carried a blanket of brilliant white snow. When it melted autumn gold meadows with patches of purple sage were revealed. Rising high above them were sheer rugged cliffs of limestone and prehistoric volcanic rock dotted with evergreens. In the distance, majestic snow covered mountains could be seen . Sulfurous steam from the park's geothermal features floated across the fields and meadows. The high altitude allows one to cross the Continental Divide several times as you travel the winding roads.

A massive wild fire in 1988 burned 40% of the park. Some mountainsides were untouched by the fire and boast large stands of old growth forest. In the fire affected areas young trees have taken root among the remains of their charred ancestors, growing thick and lush. Occasionally you can see a more mature tree, miraculously spared by the fire, standing tall among it's younger brothers.

Lakes, wetlands and the rivers that snake through the meadows complete the visual feast of this very special place. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Yellowstone Wildlife

The first stop we made after entering the park was to observe a herd of elk grazing along the roadside. This was only the beginning of a wealth of wildlife we had the privilege of seeing. The stag kept watch over his harem and their young in the golden meadow. On the opposite side of the road, extremely close to us, was a member of the harem and her baby. We quickly learned to keep a lookout for cars stopped along the road. This usually meant an animal sighting. We had gone only a short distance further before a line of cars alerted us to a large herd of bison across a river. We traded photos with a young couple who had also stopped to observe the bison. Although they currently live in Manhattan the husband told us, with a nod to the herd, that he was originally from Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. They mentioned how they had expected to be disappointed due to the road closures but so far were pleasantly surprised.

Further down the road, on a short hike to the first of the geysers we were to see, a single bison wandered between the trees no more than 40 feet from us. As we were returning to the car, congratulating ourselves on such a close encounter, we saw another bison standing in the center of the parking lot 5 feet from our car seemingly posing for the awestruck tourists and their cameras.

Ducks and geese were omnipresent in the river and wetlands.

The first encounter with bison was by no means the last. At one point, 2 came trotting down the road, followed by 3 others moving at a more leisurely pace. A traffic jam was caused by a mother and her calf standing in the middle of the road. Obviously, this bison mom, unlike my human one, did not give her child the lecture about playing in traffic. Or perhaps the young bison was particularly headstrong and refused to listen.

We spotted two juvenile male elks pushed out of the herd by the stag searching for females to start their own herd. After a time, elk and bison sightings became almost routine.

Wolf sightings were more rare. The first we saw moving through a field. The second we watched for some time hunting and catching small prey in a meadow. The third crossed the road just ahead of our car.

Driving down another road we watched a herd of deer ford a river and climb up the opposite bank.

Noticing a car pulling into a scenic turnout lead to our most exciting and memorable animal sighting. In a field we spotted a grizzly bear, which is very rare. As we watched, a bison ambled by seemingly wondering what all these people were so excited about. Then a man, who bore an almost uncanny resemblance to a young George Clooney, his large,  muscular arms filling out the sleeves of his black tee shirt, pointed out a small herd of deer crossing the far edge of the field. We marveled at our good fortune in seeing 3 different types of animals, including the elusive grizzly, in this one field.

Yellowstone - We Came All This Way and We Can't Get In

The snow continued through the night. We attempted to enter the park at 8:00 a.m. the next morning only to be informed that it was closed due to hazardous driving conditions. We were told to try back in an hour and a half. We killed time, along with several other tourists , in the one store that was open at that hour, the log cabin Western Store/Service Station. When we returned to the park we were told that only one 30 mile stretch was open from the western entrance, where we were, to Old Faithful. We paid the entrance fee and made our way into the park. People told us later how lucky we were to see the park covered in snow by car as the roads close in early November before most big storms arrive. Due to the amazing, sometimes otherworldly nature of the features of Yellowstone, traveling those 30 miles took us over 2 hours.

Eventually we arrive at the historic Old Faithful Inn with it's beautiful, soaring, almost cathedral like log walled lobby and the iconic geyser located just outside it's doors. Old Faithful and the other sights we saw over the 3 days of our visit were some of the most remarkable I have ever had the pleasure and good fortune to experience.

Yellowstone, Jackson, Wyoming and The Grand Tetons

I had been sick with a flu for several days prior to our trip. The day before, sick enough to leave work early, which I rarely do. So, I was somewhat vague as we woke early to get to the airport. After applying a liberal coating of Mormon repellent we boarded our flight to Salt Lake City.

My partner had airline miles that were about to expire. We had also, over the years, built up a number of miles on an AA Advantage card that we had never used. The flight and rental car were paid for with these. All we would have to pay for was lodging and food, plus incidentals. One of the incidentals was taxes and insurance on the car. At the rental car counter sticker shock set in when I realized how much a car upgrade, taxes and insurance amounted to. Collecting myself, we collected the car and set out for Yellowstone National Park.

Salt Lake City, dominated by the state capitol building set high on a hillside and the famous Mormon Temple, would be a beautiful setting were the view of the spectacular snow dusted mountains not marred by strip malls and some rather ordinary, verging on tacky, housing stock. It was cold and snow flurries drifted down as we traveled.

To get to Yellowstone we had to go through Idaho. Midway through the state the flurries turned to steady snow and finally a storm with fat wet snowflakes the size of Idaho's legendary potatoes making the roads hazardous, adding to our estimated driving time.

Prior to arriving at Yellowstone you pass through the Targhee National Forest. By this time the lodge pole pines that make up the forest sported a thick coating of snow giving the surroundings the breathtaking beauty of a winter wonderland. We arrived at the small town of West Yellowstone just before sunset.

West Yellowstone is the perfect entry point to the park. A tiny town,charming and quaint bordering on kitschy. The log cabin service station and western shop on one corner stands alongside other log structures and classic western fake fronts. They have a summer stock theatre called the "Windmill Playhouse" whose facade features; well, a windmill. The mundane hotels look like those found along any American roadside save for the wooden bears hugging the carriage entrance pillars, or, in one case, attached to the wall as if they were attempting to attack the inhabitants through the windows. One restaurant has old style Christmas lights wrapped around the railing of it's outdoor seating area. Indoors, the seating is in miniature covered wagons surrounding a tableau of bison with a bird on it's back standing next to a fake campfire while stars are projected on the ceiling. The extremely young waiter was properly "duded up" in cowboy boots and a hat almost the size of his entire head.

Many of the businesses were closing or had already closed for the winter due to the dwindling number of visitors this late in the season. The only people we seemed to be sharing the town with were elderly bus tour travelers. The upside to this was the quiet, plus, the obligatory souvenir tee shirts we purchased were all 50% off. Prior to checking in at our hotel we stopped by the Yellowstone National Park sign at the entrance to the park for a photo op.

Our hotel attempted to create a "woodsy" atmosphere with pine cone patterned carpet and bed spreads and western inspired upholstery on the wing chair in our room. The lamps featured metal woodland animal silhouettes. My personal feeling is that this was taken one step too far when it came to the pine cone patterned shower curtain. I was somewhat distracted wondering where one would even find such a thing. Exhausted from the flight and the snowy drive we turned in.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cincinnati - An Epilogue

As I stated at the beginning of this series, my roommate from that period remains one of my most cherished friends. Because of AIDS some people mentioned here, as well as many other friends from that period have long since passed away. I am grateful that I am still here to write this. I am also grateful that my friend with whom I shared this adventure is still with me. I will always miss those that are gone. It is my wish that their spirits have found a place that is peaceful and tranquil.

Cincinnati - Some News From Home

The next morning my roommate and I were sitting in his mother's kitchen drinking coffee and nursing another in a series of hangovers. His sister, who also lived in San Francisco, was also spending the holidays in Ludlow, staying with her in laws. She came into the kitchen with the local Kentucky newspaper. "Have you boys seen the paper this morning" she asked as she dropped it on the table in front of us. On the front page was an aerial photo of our neighborhood in San Francisco totally blacked out. Apparently fierce Pacific storms had come through knocking out the power in several areas, our neighborhood included. We had a third roommate living with us, however, by this time he and his boyfriend were supposed to be away from our flat on their own family Christmas visit.

After several calls, friends assured me that there had been no looting, we lived in an area best described as "edgy", and our flat was secure. One friend even drove by it to make sure. What we didn't know was that our third roommate's trip had been delayed a couple of days and he and his boyfriend had been there the entire time. They even entertained friends with dinner by candlelight the night of the blackout.

As it was the holiday season there was gift shopping to be done. My roommate, at a total loss, had settled on a nightgown for his mother. We went to the lingerie department at Cincinnati's major department store. My roommate said to the saleswoman, "My mother is short and really, really fat. I was considering giving her a nightgown." After showing us several options, none of which seemed to be "it". We decided to take a time out and have lunch; with cocktails. During lunch, the light bulb went off and I suggested drinking glasses as she had been complaining all week about how many she managed to break. We headed to the housewares department where he purchased a large box containing sets of several varieties of glasses. He reported to me later that on Christmas morning they were well received. On our way back to his mother's home I bought a poinsettia as a thank you/Christmas gift for her. It was also well received.

On my final night we went our drinking, again.

The next day my roommate, who was staying on with his family through the holidays, dropped me off at the airport. I returned home on Christmas Eve, contemplating the unemployment which faced me at the dawn of the New Year.

A Cincinnati Sunday

Somehow my roommate and I decided to do Sunday brunch in the revolving restaurant atop one of the city's hotels. We were led to a stationary table in one of the corners of the restaurant. This worked out well in 2 ways. First, my roommate remarked that he didn't like taking a ride while he ate. Secondly, as we were stationary and the buffet was revolving, essentially the food was brought to us, as opposed to the patrons at the revolving tables who were forced to run around in a circle to sample their preferred dish.

We had a view of the art deco train station and, unfortunately, the stark public housing projects that had been built next to it. My roommate informed me that inside the station the arched front  of the building was constructed in such a way that if a person stood at one end of the arch and another person stood at the opposite end sound would be funneled and channeled along the arch and the two people could carry on a conversation. After brunch we sped, in our champagne haze, to the train station to check this phenomenon out.

As train service was no longer available to Cincinnati an attempt was made to convert the solid, art deco station into a mall. At this point this concept was not faring terribly well. There were large swaths of empty space. We sat on one of the worn wooden benches that had been there for decades and imagined the station in it's heyday. Men and women, dressed in brown, the proper color for traveling back in the day, suitcases in hand, heading off to the tracks where trains would take them to their various destinations.

In the spirit of the season, a Santa, looking lonely and forlorn, sat on a throne, looking like he was counting the minutes until his Santa shift ended.

We proceeded with our plan to test the voice channeling arch. My roommate went off to one end, I to the other. He and I had many longstanding and recurring jokes between the two of us. In deference to one of these we began, utilizing our best Katherine Hepburn impressions; a voice we both did extremely well; to recite lyrics from the Broadway show "CoCo". Giggling like little girls, we met back in the center. We happened to glance at the Santa. He was staring at us with a look that was a combination of confusion and terror. It took us a couple of seconds to realize that the Cincinnati Santa had heard our entire arch conversation, and, obviously, couldn't quite figure out what to make of it. At least we gave him something to ponder while he sat there.

We spent the remainder of the day seeing the "Cincinnati Sights". This amounted to a photo op in Fountain Square, and wandering into the Nederlander Hotel lobby. The hotel was in the process of being restored back to it's original splendor, which was still evident beneath the dust, debris and neglect. In the lobby the furnishings from the hotel rooms was being sold. Cheap, imitation leather chairs and headboards stood in rows with beat up bedside tables in the once grand space. The hotel's opulent past was evidenced by the tiered fountains, now dry and partially dismantled, presided over by demonic art deco figures, which stood on either side of a shabby staircase of grand proportions.

We returned to Ludlow to rest and change before returning to the city that evening for dinner, and more drinking. When I stop to consider it, with all the self abusing behavior we engaged in, it is truly remarkable that I have any memories of this trip at all.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Artfully Armed in Cincinatti

During our stay the Cincinatti Art Museum hosted a special exhibition entitled "Arms and Armor". It was an array of armor and armaments on loan from the collection of the Tower of London. One of the centerpieces of the exhibition was a suit of armor worn by King Henry the Eighth. It was housed in a glass case which sat on a raised dias. Wondering how our stature compared to King Henry's each of us stood nest to the armor on the platform. Apparently this was not allowed, as we were told by a guard in language that could not possibly be misunderstood.

A small group of unmistakeably gay men wandered through the exhibit. My roommate exclaimed "Boys!" When my date told him to return his tonuge to his mouth my roommate went on to say "Common garden variety. It was just so refreshing to see." We lived in San Franacisco at the time which teemed with gay men of every variety, Cincinnatti did not.

We dined that evening in a resturant just outside the city. As we stopped for gas the young kid working at the station gave us an odd smile as he handed my date his credit card slip through the driver side window and said "Have fun guys!" A few moments later my date realized "He saw the pot" which was in a bag plainly visible on the armrest between the two front seats. My roommate, sitting in the back seat, scanned our animal trimmed attire and said, "Oh great. Now there's going to be an APB for 3 queens in fur coats." I am happy to report that we reached the resturant without further incident.

Once there, we watched and waited as my roommate cracked and ate an entire crab. This evening my roommate paid his own way. I, however, was still the guest of the well to do doctor. Albiet, after bidding him farwell the next morning, I was back on my own dime.

Trouble in Cincinatti - Circa 1980's

I had met a doctor from a small town in Indiana while he was at a medical conference in San Francisco. He had flown me out to the Midwest for a long weekend over Columbus Day that year. We had road tripped visiting Indianapolis, Nashville, Indiana, an old artists community, and, for the first time, Chicago, now my home of the last 27 years. I contacted him to let him know that I would be in Ohio during the holidays and he consented to take the 4 hour drive and come to Cincinnati over the weekend we would be there. We had asked my roommates friends, prior to them leaving for Mexico City, for restaurant suggestions. They referred us to Delmonicos in the Stoffer hotel.

We drove into the city and met the doctor in his hotel room. He greeted us, asked where we were going for dinner and then lit a joint. My roommate rarely smoked pot but on this evening he said,"Oh, what the hell. Darling, give me that."

I knew we were headed for trouble.

We left the room and went downstairs to retrieve the doctor's car from the valet. He was told when he checked in, that this would take 20 minutes. He handed me cash, told us to order drinks in the bar and he would join us after he had ordered the car. The waitress brought our drinks. The doctor came into the bar slightly out of breath. "It only takes 5 minutes to get the car", he informed us. We looked at the drinks on the table, looked at each other, picked up the drinks and downed them like water.

I knew we were headed even deeper towards trouble.

My roommate surveyed the glasses, looked at the waitress and noted "She's gonna' faint when she sees how quickly we did that." We left the bar and walked down the long hall of the lobby.

Outside the doors of the hotel, waiting under the carriage entrance canopy, sat the car. It was brand new, long and black with lots of chrome. My roommate, unaccustomed to such rides, whispered to me "Is that the car?" "Shut up and get in the back seat", I hissed back. He did as he was told. Once on the road he discovered the light over the touring window in the back seat. "I'm going to turn this light on, just in case we see anyone I know", he said, flicking the switch and taking on his grandest air as he peered out the window at the ordinary people in their ordinary cars.

Trouble, trouble, trouble.

Upon arriving at Delmonicos we were seated by ourselves, off in a corner of the restaurant at a table overlooking Cincinnati's landmark Fountain Square. From behind the floor to ceiling windows we returned the waves of the people in the horse drawn hay wagons and carriages, decorated for the season, that circled the square.

A stiffbacked, snobby somolier was the first to approach us. Goodlooking, gay and insufferably uppity, he took our drink orders and left the wine list for us. My date had informed us early on that this dinner was to be his Christmas treat to us.

The waiter appeared. Also gay, also goodlooking with sandy brown hair, his fingers sporting numerous rings. After taking the order for his entree he asked my roommate "Would you like a salad with that?" To which my roommate replied "Could I wear it as a hat?" The waiter, not missing a beat, suggested "If you tilted it to the left it might look very smart."

The trouble had begun, the waiter appearing ready to aide and abet it.

Excellent, expensive wine was served, along with appetizers and an outstanding creme based soup. My date excused himself to go to the men's room giving me my opportunity to quiz my roommate,"What do you think of him." "He's nice", my roommate answered in a noncommittal fashion. "No really", I pressed. My roommate paused a moment, then stated, "How can I talk about a man who is paying for this meal?" Between the pot and the alcohol this struck both of us as extremely funny and we burst into peals of laughter., We had somewhat collected ourselves by the time my date returned to the table.

Our raucous, rowdy verging on inappropriate behavior during the course of the meal cannot be overstated. It reached it's zenith at 2 points. Once when my roommate asked the waiter for directions to the "vomitorium". Second when my date stated loudly, "I want more wine", and brought his glass down on the table with more force than was wise as the stem broke in half in his hand.

The waiter quickly replaced the glass and we watched the somoliers aforementioned snobby veneer crack as he approached the table, stared down at my date and in a flat, even, scolding tone said "You broke the glass?" Laughter often begets laughter and this statement made us laugh some more.

We composed ourselves enough by the end of the meal to apologize to the waiter for any embarrassment we may have caused him. He set our minds at rest by stating "This is just the way I am when I go out."

For dessert we ordered crepes which were prepared tableside. As we were the last guests left the waiter sat with us as the crepes were made. We learned that he was an actor, although where he would have plied this trade in Cincinnati remains a mystery to me, and waited tables when he was not working in his preferred profession.

It remains one of the most expensive meals I have ever had. Although me and my roommate had no idea what the final tab was the liquor and wine bill came to $250, a considerable sum at the time.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Gay Cincinatti - The Early 1980's

That evening my roommate was determined to show me gay Cincinnati. His mother said several times that she did not want my roommate to drive the car when he had been drinking. I insisted that this would not happen. I lied.

We visited several bars that night. At one point, walking to one bar, it began to snow very lightly. Growing up in California this was new to me. Now living in Chicago, it was a snow not worth mentioning, a late October snow by my present standards, and easily ignored. However, in that time and place it gave a pleasant holiday glaze to the evening.

The bars were average. Particularly when compared to the hedonistic, drug fueled gay bar and club scene ubiquitous in San Francisco in the early 1980's. Accustomed to either new wave kids in bright, inventive fashion or thickly muscled, sweaty, shirtless men in tight levis, a smaller cities bars were given a high bar to jump.

After a couple of hours of flirting and playing the fool, we returned to Ludlow and went to bed after the long day.

A Quick Visit - An Awesome House

Our first order of business is to drop in on one of my roommate's best friends and his partner. I had slept with the partner when he stayed with us on a job related trip to San Francisco. As it was the 1980's, this situation was not as awkward as one might think. Rumor was, that in the past, my roommate had also slept with him, however not with his best friend.

We pulled up to their home, a turn of the century mansion on a corner lot. The large' immaculate green lawn surrounding the house sloped gently to the street. In the side yard a large fountain held court. The elegant and stately appearance of their home was not confined to the exterior. Inside, on either side of the entry, were twin parlors. Each held a massive piano in scale with the generous proportions of the two rooms. The wood floors were layered with oriental rugs. In the rear of the house, adjacent to the kitchen, was a conservatory. Used as a media room, it's ceiling was composed of stained glass panels edging the leaded opaque glass making up it's center.

Upon meeting the friend, he immediately insisted we stand back to back as there had been an ongoing, long distance conversation regarding which if the two of us was, well, shorter. This started because I was able to fit perfectly into a pair of overalls he had forgotten and left behind in our San Francisco flat prior to my residence there. We called it a draw. I did not return the overalls.

We had only a short time to spend with then as they were boarding a flight to Mexico City for their annual holiday visit there in just a couple of hours. In a celebratory mood, they opened a bottle of champagne. It was 10 o'clock in the morning. He and my roommate chatted and giggled together like 15 year old girls. The giggling continued as we drove them to the airport. Dropping them off, after declining the offer of yet more alcohol, we returned to Ludlow and got some much needed rest.

Christmas in Cinncinatti

It is the early 1980's, the holiday season and I am living in San Francisco. At the first of the year I will become a victim of downsizing, although that term was not coined at that time. Due to a merger our department had become "superfluous" and had been "deleted". My roommate at the time, and dear friend to this day, is going to visit his family  in Ludlow, Kentucky. It's a small town just across the river from Cincinnati. Since, depending on the job I may eventually land, it could be some time before I have another opportunity to take a paid vacation, and I would have a free place to stay, I decide to join him for the week leading up to Christmas. I plan to return Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with my family in the sprawling suburbs of the East Bay.

My roommate's sister and brother in law, who will be flying out a couple of days later, drive us to the airport. This Christmas trip is something of a pilgrimage for them. My roommate's father is quite ill and in a steep decline.

We arrive at the airport, check our bags and stop at one of the restaurants there for a celebratory dinner of crab and white wine. We then make our way to the gate and arrive at the plane...three minutes after they have closed the door. After pulling out our diva personas; long before the slang term "diva" was coined; at the desk we are booked on the next flight out. This will have us arriving quite early in the morning. We go to a bar and get drunk waiting for our replacement flight.

Thankfully, between the late hour and the alcohol, I sleep through the majority of the flight and have most of my wits about me as we land. My roommate's mother picks us up and drives us the short distance to her home giving me my first look at the Cincinnati skyline across the river.

Her home is well kept and modest, as is the town of Ludlow. The town's one claim to fame is that Adrian Belew, a somewhat noted new wave musician, lived there and attended the same high school as my roommate and his sister. As soon as we are inside she insists on doing our laundry. Being a very fastidious traveler, my clothes are all fresh washed and pressed. My roommate is somewhat less fussy. He opens his suitcase and hands her everything therein. To pack for this trip he had opened a suitcase on his bed, picked up all the clothes and shoes that were strewn about his room and dumped them in it. This resulted in the tangled mess he presented to his mother that morning. That he did not end up in Ohio with mismatched socks or shoes is still a wonder to me. I point out that the only thing I have with me that is "dirty" are the jeans I wore on the plane, which I still have on. "Give them to her or she will never shut up" advises my roommate. I changed my pants and handed over the jeans. 

A Short Turkish Trot

The most vivid memory I have of crossing the border into Turkey is of a soldier on patrol on a short rampart. He strode back and forth carrying a rifle with bayonet attached, a knife in a sheath on his hip. I had never seen anyone so heavily armed. I found it somewhat unsettling. We went through the border crossing procedures and started up a hill. Upon reaching the crest the silhouette of the low lying city appeared. It was dominated by the great domes of the mosques, their minarets piercing the afternoon sky.

Most of the city seemed no taller than two floors. The ground floor was generally given over to shops, cafes and coffeehouses. The upper floor appeared to be used for residences. Wooden latticework screens shielded the windows of the upper stories from the hot sun. Vendors sold food cooked on low grills along the sidewalks.

The region was experiencing the beginning of one of the most severe heat waves in years. I recall seeing a young Turkish man crossing the street in a skin tight black satin short sleeve shirt, unbuttoned to a point low on his chest, his legs encased in equally tight black pants. I remember thinking, "At least it's short sleeve and unbuttoned." My mother mused "I guess they're used to the heat here."

We made our way to a mosque. Within it's thick walls the air felt comfortable in comparison to the torrid conditions outside. We removed our shoes and entered. Prayer rugs covered much of the floors. On them men knelt and bowed towards the east. The days heat rose from the floor and worshipers to be gathered and trapped in the dome high above our heads.

We returned outside, put our shoes back on, and after refreshing ourselves at a small cafe with cold cokes and pastries, continued to the bazaar. We were not aware, but were soon to find out, that bargaining in the bazaar is not only commonplace but expected. We were schooled in this by a shopkeeper. I had decided to buy some scarfs as gifts for friends at home. The shopkeeper wrote down prices, which seemed reasonable, but as I attempted to pay he crossed out those figures and changed them to slightly higher ones. This clued us in. After a bit of the apparently customary haggling, a price was agreed upon. We paid and left, purchase in hand.

We returned to the van, gratified by our short Turkish adventure and headed for the sand, blue sea, occasionally stunning Greek God men, olive groves and antiquity of Greece. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bulgaria - In the Way to Greece

To get to Greece required that we travel through Bulgaria. To traverse the country would require an overnight stay. A campground was found and we pulled in for the night. There was a small, ancient church within walking distance of the campground. It's venerable walls were decorated with equally venerable, highly stylized murals bearing a distinctly Near Eastern influence. As we surveyed the paintings a group of men beckoned my father over. They attempted to trade U.S. currency for
Bulgarian money at a much higher rate then that offered by banks. My father smelled trouble and declined. Again, the dollar was viewed as "hard" currency. As in Romania and Yugoslavia, Bulgarian money had no value outside the borders of the country.

We returned to the campground for dinner. After dinner, with dishes washed and hand laundry done and hung up to dry, my parents called us together to discuss the next day's travel plans.

A map was laid out in front of us. Showing us the routes my parents informed us that there were two ways to get to Greece, our next destination. We could either cross the border directly from Bulgaria into Greece, or, by taking a very slight detour, we could spend the next afternoon in the Turkish border city of Edirne. A vote was taken and the Turkish detour was approved unanimously. 

Romania, Translvania & All That Jazz

Crossing the border from Yugoslavia to Romania was like, well, leaving one country and entering another. Although all countries bear distinct and unique characteristics, in many border areas these transitions are gradual and subtle. Between Yugoslavia and Romania it was as if someone had painted a line in the middle of the road. The ragged feel of Yugoslavia was immediately replaced by an almost intimidating level of cleanliness and order. Neat, tidy houses lined the roadway. The trees which  also lined the road had been painted white to the exact same height on each trunk and the grass around them trimmed to a evenness whose precision bordered on obsession.

It was a campground night. My sisters and I went off to do hand laundry. Washing machines were rare, dryers even rarer. While my mother began to put dinner together, a tall, muscular, extraordinarily handsome young Romanian boy approached my parents. He was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. He wore the extremely short basketball style shorts and tank top popular among U.S. youth at the time. Hearing my parents speaking English to one another he asked "Are you American?" When my parents answered yes he looked about and after assuring himself that there was no one around to hear the conversation, began to talk to my parents about life in Romania behind the Iron Curtain. What he stressed most was that the people were not to interact with or speak to foreigners, particularly Americans. He also mentioned how much Romanians desired American and Western European goods.
 We experienced this later in the trip when stepping out of our car in a city. The people were pawing us, offering to buy our clothes off of our backs. As he departed, he said he would stop by the next day with fresh picked berries.

True to his word, he returned the following morning with a country style jar filled with berries. My mother later said that she liked the jar more than the berries. When my parents asked how much he replied "Three American dollars." My father took the bills out of his wallet. The young man lifted up the corner of the napkin lying in the bottom of the basket he was carrying and my father slipped the bills underneath it out of sight.

During this period in Eastern European Iron Curtain countries, their currency was valueless outside of their borders. When traveling you needed to take notice of how much you carried as you were preparing to depart the country since exchanging it for another currency was not possible., Some countries, Poland, Hungary, the former Chekoslovakia, required tourists to exchange a certain amount per person per day as a way to get "hard" currency into their economies. Certain state run tourist shops would give you a discount based on proof of how much you had exchanged while visiting.

Before departing, the young man asked where we planned to go while in Romania. When my mother replied Transylvania, he was insistent that we should go to the Black Sea instead as it was a much more scenic and beautiful region. We were unsuccessful in translating "Gothic Horror" into Romanian

Transylvania appears much as it does in horror films, mountainous and rugged. On the day of our visit to Castle Bran, we were greeted by heavy black clouds, hard rain and nearly constant thunder and lightening. The storms intensified the atmosphere of the already rather macabre proceedings. We all returned to the car dripping wet. My mother, dripping wet and happy at having fulfilled her desire to visit "Dracula's Castle".

We found a meadow to park in that night. We could see a gypsy wagon on a hillside in the distance. The next morning found me and my sisters picking wild berries with local women in their kerchiefs, hand knit cardigans and ankle length skirts.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chakor Pass

Traveling in a camper van we were somewhat self sufficient within our vehicle. Our routine, to this point, had been to pull to the side of the road one night to eat dinner and sleep, not unusual at that time when traveling in Europe. Then, in order to clean up and resupply ourselves, stay in a campground the next night. Sleeping, 2 adults, 1 teenager (me) and 2 tween girls in the van was cramped but doable as our family runs a little on the small side. I top out today at 5 foot 5.

Chakor Pass, we soon discovered, was a 2 lane gravel roadway that twisted and turned through some of the most visually stunning and rugged territory I have ever encountered. The narrow roadway hugged the edges of mountains that on one side rose straight up and on the oppisite side led straight down., Once you commited to the pass you had to follow it thorugh to the end. There were no turnoffs or any way to turn back.

At times the road skirted the border with Albania. Albania, at the time, was the most politically and socially isolated European state. Where the borders met, signs had been erected depicting a camera in a red circle with a slash through it indicating that picture taking was not allowed at these points. I found myself wondering who would stop to take a pictrue of the mountainside or modest farmhouse just across the border. Given the narrowness of the road how would they manage to do that and, with this in mind, who felt these signs were necessary considering the effort that must have been excerted carting them up there and installing them.

Small villages were nestled in the valleys between the mountains. Each so isolated from the next the the architecture and dress varied slightly from one to the other. Electrical power seemed nonexistent. The local people traveled between the villages using goat carts. The area was largely muslim. Women sat along the back edge of the carts, feet dangling as they bounced along. Being in the company of women, their veils were down as they chatted and gossiped with one another. However, when a car approached, they would pull up their veils and avert their faces.

The other mode of travel was by bus. We soon discerned that, if you encountered one, it was your responsiblity, not the buses, to back up to a point where the bus could pass you. This occsiaonlly left you inches away from the precipitous drop at the edge of the roadway.

As late afternnoon approched, it became apparent that this would be a night we would be locking all the doors and sleeping in the car. The challenge became finding a place big enough to pull over. We came upon a meadow alongside the road with enough room to accomadate the van and stopped for the night. The night became inky black. The only illumination was provided by the moon and the multitude of stars visible though the crisp, clean, clear air of these high mountains.

The following morning my mother rose early, as was her custom on this trip, and explored the area where we had stopped. She returned to the car and roused us telling me and my sisters to put on our shoes and follow her. She led us to a small stream and had us wash our hands and faces in it to experience the icy cold snow fed water. We returned to the car, refreshed by the cool water of the stream and resumed our travel through the pass.

Late that afternoon we arrived in Pec. We watched the local people, the men in long colorful tunics and the momen in vibriant traditional harem pants, going about their daily business as we strolled through the city.

Behind the Iron Curtain - 1973 - Yugoslavia

It is the summer of 1973 and I am traveling with my family through Europe. Both my parents being, at that point, teachers, we had all summer to explore. My parents have purchased a VW camper van and we are driving, they, 2 younger sisters and myself, an older brother stayed at home, sans itinerary, for three months.

We had our list of "must sees". Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Venice, Athens. To this list my mother, being a Gothic horror fan, had added the region of Transylvania in Romania. This was to include a visit to Castle Bran, a reputed castle of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula.

Between us and Romania stands Yugoslavia. At this time the countries that have reemerged since, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro were all united as Yugoslavia under the leadership of Marshall Tito. As we neared what was then Titograd, we encountered a series of modular apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city. The hexagon shape of the prefab units made them resemble beehives. My mother was aghast, ourselves living in a suburban ranch style home on a 1/4 acre lot. I, being an ardent socialist even at that age, considered them a remarkably efficient and relatively inexpensive way to house your population. The stacks of units included setbacks giving some of them access to small outdoor spaces.

The city itself seemed dark, even dingy, as many Eastern European cities did at that time. Photos of Tito were prominently displayed in every shop and restaurant. In the country, the roads were littered and fields and yards looked ragged and unkempt. It seemed, at the time, that the whole country suffered from fatigue.

We reached the city of Split, renown for it's well preserved Roman ruins. We visited the flea market there where I purchased a heavy, antique wool and horsehair vest with beautiful, intricate embroidery along it's hem executed in a tiny chainstich. Today, it is displayed on a vintage dressmakers dummy in our living room. It remains, after all these years, one of my favorite possessions. After Split, our next destination was the city of Pec. After consulting a map, we decide to travel there via a route called Chakor Pass. We begin an arduous, sometimes terrifying and incredibly fascinating 2 day adventure.

Montreal - Our Last Night

Our final night we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner in the old town. We dressed in the best we had with us and took the short walk there. After perusing several menus we chose a spot and sat at one of the outdoor tables as the night was warm and comfortable, as sometimes September nights can be.

There was a convention in town so a number of business dinners were taking place in the old town that night. With the advent of casual office attire, many men look uncomfortable when forced into the unfamiliar confines of a suit and tie. This feeling was evident in many of the men in the area that evening. They appeared like young boys tugging at their collars and shifting their shoulders inside jackets that no longer fit well as they were purchased several years, and pounds, ago.

The food was excellent and the waiters charming and efficient. One was telling his table about the lovely old building across the street. He described the wealthy woman who owned it as resembling Cruella De Ville. As we all broke into laughter he tried to explain that he meant the comparison in a good way. I have thought about this several times since then and have never come up with a way to make a comparison to Ms De Ville a compliment.

After dinner we strolled through Old Montreal one final time, discussing the sights that we had seen and also the ones we had not, giving us an incentive to return.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Montreal - Ain't no Mountain High Enough!

Monday morning came on dark and wet. The weather channel radar suggested that the rain would end and so we left our room with the goal of conquering Mt. Royal. The clerk at the desk provided us with a map and info about transportation and the location of the foottrail if we wanted to hike to the summit. He seemed to suggest that the hike would be a walk in the park. We later discovered that the park had a steep vertical grade.

We ate a light breakfast while watching a workman dismantle the coffee shops deck as the seasonal closure of St Catherines Street had come to an end.

After a metro trip and 2 buses we thought we were well on our way. It is an unfortunate oversight on the part of Montreal that there are no signs or indications that the bus has arrived at the summit and you should get off if that is your destination. We figured this out when we found ourselves at the base of Mt Royal on the opposite side from where we had started. We managed to find our way around the mountain's base and located the stairs pictured on our map that would start us up to the summit on foot and began our assent.

The trail, as I mentioned, had a steep grade. The skies had begun to clear and the day began to warm up. However, the Olmsted landscaping, he also designed New York's Central Park, kept us shaded and cool.  We reached a small pond with restrooms, which were welcomed, and picnic tables. We ate the lunch we had brought with us and continued on. We soon came upon a large expanse of lawn peppered with modern sculptures. After exploiting this photo op we found an arrow sign pointing to the summit.

A large plaza with a stone balanstrate along the mountain's edge greeted us. It afforded a panoramic view of the city below. Modern, muscular highrises shared the streets with smaller buildings whose copper clad mansard roofs wore the bluegreen patina of age. My friend remarked "This is more that I thought it would be. I thought we might find a wooden platform reached by stairs."

After we departed, a short walk found us at one of the bus stops we had rode past earlier in the day. As we waited for the bus that would return us to the metro station and more familiar environs my friend noted "There appear to be two ways to get to the summit. We took both."


Montreal - On Sunday We Went to Church

Sunday we decided we would investigate the historic architecture of the financial district and visit the cathredral,which we were informed was a "must see" destination.

As we left the hotel that morning, we asked the desk staff for recomendations for breakfast. As it was prime Sunday breakfast hour, the resturant that they suggested was running at capacity but we were seated quickly and placed our orders. When our meals arrived they were accompanied by mounds of fresh fruit. There were fruit slices over the straws in our drinks. Strawberries, slices of melon and pineapple and apples cut to resemble curling ribbon almost buried the traditional eggs, toast and potatoes. Waddling out of the resturant and full of vitamin C we boarded the metro to head to the business district.

During the ride we noticed a very handsome and well built Canadian lad texting. My friend murmered "Oh baby, text me in French." I suggested that his text probably read "There are 2 stupid Americans on the train" in French of course.

The older buildings of the financial district were beautifully ornamented and also showed the French influence evident in many of the older portions of the city. As it was Sunday, the streets were quiet and almost deserted. Our footsteps echoed in the urban canyons as we wandered admiring the architecture of the area.

The cathedral is a jewel box of stained glass, carved wood and soaring organ pipes. The windows, depicting scenes from Canadian history in rich lush colors, look medeival in their design and inspiration. There is also a smaller chapel with a ultra modern motif, but it pales in comparison to it's larger cousin.

After lunch on the outdoor deck of one of the resturants on the main square in the old town, we visited a 19th century shopping arcade. One of the vendors suggested that since the following day was Monday and most museums and state run historical sites would be closed, that we should take in the view from Mt Royal, the highest point in the city.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Monteral - An Aside

No trip to Montreal should be considered complete without ogling the handsome and virile looking members of the local Police force. As we admired them, in their uniforms which seemed a trifle more snug than absolutely necessary, we constantly wanted to ask "Exactly what crime would I have to commit that would compel you to pat me down?"

Montreal - The Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens

Saturday dawned bright, warm and with a clear blue sky. Now, least you think all we did was drink alchohol and watch naked men dance, after breakfast we headed off to the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens.

The Stadium, with it's soaring observation tower, is monumental enough that it can be seen from many, if not most, parts of the city. A short distance up a hill are the Botanical Gardens.

They are divided into themed areas. Traditional English and Asian gardens. Another area exhibiting plants native to harsh, cold, rocky terrain. Looking for the restrooms I came upon a hidden courtyard filled with a large variety of Bonsai trees. A tram runs along the road connecting the various displays to carry visitors from one area to another.

We had lunch in another courtyard area, this one with a fountain in it's center, across from the greenhouses. After lunch, upon entering the greenhouses, we found ourselves in a world of foliage so lush it seemed to have the ability to absorb the sounds and voices of the people around us.

After our visit to the gardens, we headed back to St Catherine Street to check out some of the shops we had seen on our earlier visits. We ended the afternoon, shopping bags in hand, at the rooftop deck of one of the bars on the street. As it was Saturday afternoon with pleasant temperatures and a sunny,  clear blue sky the deck was busy and crowded. We found a table, ordered drinks and relaxed as the beautiful afternoon waned.

Montreal - Old Town and Beyond

Our first stop was a church. The oldest in  Montreal. It had been built, burned, rebuilt and modified a number of times over the centuries. A wall in a side hallway told in detail the history of it's various incarnations. After our visit to the church, we wandered though the old city. It's narrow streets and broad plaza all showed the influence of it's French origins. Perhaps inspired by this we stopped at a creperie for lunch and then headed back to the hotel.

Our room was spare but spacious, comfortable and we were to discover, ideally located for our activities over the next few days. A metro hub station was 2 blocks away and there was a wide choice of restaurants, not to mention gay bars, in the area.

We soon discovered St Catherine Street strung with banners depicting red roses and closed to car traffic with it's, as I mentioned earlier, restaurants, shops, clubs and bars, their decks extending across the sidewalks into the street. We were to do much of our eating, and most of our drinking, there during our stay.

Friday night after dinner, we decided to explore some of the gay establishments in the neighborhood. After brief stays at a couple of places we wandered into one of the areas stripper bars.

We found ourselves in a nicely appointed room with tables, chairs and a stage with a pole. Pretty much what one would expect. A rather young, barechested man was cavorting onstage. He left and another man came onstage, tattooed and thickly muscled. After a few moments of suggestive movements, he did a back flip much to the delight of the crowd. He also left the stage with his pants zipped up and intact. We were soon to discover that each entertainers first dance was an appetiser - we were about to experience the main course. Apparently, there are no laws prohibiting completely nude male dancing in Montreal. As some dancers, all appeared to be well under thirty and with better than average physiques, took their turns on the stage, others worked the room, while two, inexplicably, played a game of barechested pool. A tall blond came to our table to suggest a "private dance". We politely declined. It was then I noticed that even when completely naked, the dancers still wore their watches. We decided it was probably to ensure the "private dances" did not exceed their allotted time limit.

As we strode down the street towards our hotel, my friend noticed a sign reading "Campus" spelled out in rainbow letters over a door that led to a steep flight of stairs.; He suggested that we add it to our agenda for the next evening. The next night we found, up the flight of stairs, another stripper bar. It was somewhat seedier than the first but some of the same dancers seemed to work at both places. At this venue, however, they did not wear their watches.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Montreal = Too Much Fun

Every summer Montreal's St Catherine Street, which is lined with restaurants, gay clubs, bars and bathhouses and a variety of small shops, is closed to car traffic for the season. The restaurants and bars build temporary decks which reach into the middle of the street and evenings bring a wealth of people watching. We were unaware of this tradition and just happened to plan our visit during the last weekend of the street closure. Our hotel was 3 blocks away.

While we did avail ourselves of the excellent food and a certain amount of drunken revelry we discovered there is more to recommend Montreal than just this.

Charming old Montreal makes one feel as if they have been transported to provincial France. The city's financial district, with it's mix of modern highrises and late 19th century office buildings feels like Chicago's loop. The botanical gardens with their rich variety of themed plantings and excellent greenhouse displays is well worth the price of admission. There is also the view of the city from the summit of Mt. Royal.

As memorable and enjoyable as the trip turned out, things did not begin well. Due to a problem with my name my airline ticket was declared invalid. After several phone calls and much back and forth with a very disagreeable desk agent plus $150 in fees to correct the name on the ticket we were allowed to board our early morning flight.

The flight itself was uneventful. Even the sometimes chaotic procedure of getting on and off the plane and stowing and retrieving carry on bags went smoothly due to the small number of people traveling that morning. Upon landing we collected our luggage, purchased transit tickets and boarded the bus for the trip into the city. We got off the bus and after a very brief period of disorientation and confusion, found our way to our hotel.

That is where our next problem began. Due to past issues there was a flag placed on the credit card that had been used to reserve our room. After another fairly lengthy phone call (at roaming rates) this too was resolved. Our room wasn't ready so we stashed our luggage in a locker located in the basement of the hotel and headed out on foot, city map in hand, towards old Montreal, a pleasant 20 minute walk away.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why I Call Chicago Home

At the age of 27, I left San Francisco and moved to what I consider to be one of the great cities of the world. It is a metropolis, but, unlike some cities such as New York, Paris and London, a metropolis where a comfortable life is affordable. Our home is modest but entirely adequate for our needs. Most of our closest friends live nearby. In our neighborhood of streets shaded by massive overhanging trees, lined with vintage courtyard apartment buildings and victorian four square homes there is a sense of community. Friends and neighbors meet at the grocery store, bars and restaurants and on the street. Not only friends but strangers acknowledge and greet each other.

We are fortunate to live steps from a beach on lake Michigan in one of the midcentury highrise buildings that line the lakeshore like sentinels. A 30 minute bus ride carries me to a wealth of theatre world class museums and architecture and an occasional concert in Millennium Park. It's Frank Ghery designed bandshell resembles unspooling ribbons of steel. The state of the art sound system hung on a trellis above the lawn gives crystal clarity to every stroke of the piano keys and vibration of the strings played by the musicians within. The park's mirror like Cloudgate sculpture reflects the changing sky and cityscape as well as the crowds surrounding it.

There is the Lincoln Park Zoo which charms not by it's collection but it's lushly landscaped setting. At it's entrance, across an expanse of lawn, is the conservatory, a classical glass structure filled with a collection of plants that vary by the season. Ther is the Lily Pond behind the zoo, a quiet, secluded spot with Frank Loyd Wright inspired pavilions and natural landscaping. These venues are free and offer friends and family an opportunity to while away an afternoon sharing time with each other in the beauty of the park.

The city is known for it's restaurants and although we do not eat out often we have our favorite neighborhood places. The "burger joint" with the treefilled garden dining area or the tiny pizzaria with it's beautifully restored Art Deco interior.

All but one small portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline is public property. Beaches and rich green parkland dotted with playing fields, tennis courts, bird santuaries, fountains, statuary and winding jogging and biking paths all sharing views of our spectacular architecture form the eastern boundry of the city.

Michigan Avenue, the part of the city most familiar to tourists, holds a bounty of greenery, which again varies by the season, on either side of the street and in the median strip that runs down it's center. Jazz age skyscrapers, with influences ranging from gothic to art deco, abut more modern steel and glass highrises along it's broad airy expanse.

By contrast, our financial district is a grid of narrow streets made canyon like by the buildings that line them. I find myself, even after this many years, dicovering ornamentation and textures in these buildings I had not noticed before.

Our museums also have the ability to startle with new discovery. Wether you find yourself wandering through the galleries of the Art Institute, with it's amazing collection of impressionist masterworks, or the Field Museum, housing the world's largest collection of Native American artifacts, as well as the massive skeletal remains of a T-Rex affectionately named Sue.

The city boast an impressive colleciton of public art well. Our famous Picasso is a Chicago icon. There are also sculptures by Calder, Miro and Oldenburg, and a four sided mosaic by Chagall.

Ther are hidden, little know treasures. The Stained Glass Museum tucked into the back corridors of Navy Pier, many pieces rescued from homes, churches and public buildings. The world's largest Tiffiny Glass dome can be found in the Cultural Center, once Chicago's Public Library. There is also the Tiffany mosaic tile dome in Marshall Fields (now Macy's) landmark State Street store. At Christmas the 7th floor Christmas tree in Macy's is well worth a visit.
I feel both fortunate and grateful to make my home in a palce that constantly and consistently has the ablilty to surprise me, igniting my senses and replenishing my soul.