Monday, August 29, 2011

Lake Tahoe

I wonder if it's possible to appreciate beauty in a vacuum, without reference to other things one has seen or read or heard. I imagine that it is, in large part because of scenery like that around Lake Tahoe. It seems to me that the splendors of Lake Tahoe would be perceived as gorgeous by everyone, no matter his or her frame of reference, experience or aesthetic preferences.

Huge (192 square miles), deep (at 1,645 feet deep, the second deepest lake in North America), high (surface elev. 6,229 feet), with cobalt blue water of extraordinary clarity (it's said that a white dinner plate at a depth of 75 feet would be clearly visible; I don't know if that's true since we didn't toss one in to find out, but glacial lakes are always astonishingly pure) and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Lake Tahoe is quite an eyeful. Glacially carved Alpine scenery is my favorite: its pristine magnitude is all at once majestic, serene, spectacular, evocative, and profound. There is no better example than Alaska, and the Lake Tahoe area is reminiscent of our 49th state, although on a far smaller scale (and with a lot more sunshine).

In fact, our first impressions of Lake Tahoe were somewhat spoiled by our memories of Alaska. It was rather like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time: the small, dark painting tucked away in a corner of the Louvre was underwhelming until we got ourselves intellectually revved up over it and examined it more carefully. Similarly, Lake Tahoe struck us primarily as not-Alaska until we adjusted our brains and used our eyes to take in what it was, rather than what it wasn't.

Don't miss the moon in this last picture. (Click on the pic to make it bigger.) These photos are all from the area around Emerald Bay. For some reason, I didn't take pictures of the craggy mountains surrounding the lake this time; if you'd like to see some of those in a different glacially created setting, click here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Unexpected Passion

No, that's not the title of a bad romance novel (although, plainly, it could be). Instead, it's meant to reflect the surprise I feel at having developed a little passion for hiking. When I first realized hiking was just walking with a fancy name, I was disappointed. But then I tried it to impress my daughter and discovered it could be delightful. Basically, it's walking amid great scenery with the addition of cool gear. What's not to like?

This year, I've gone from someone who disliked walking from the house to the garage to someone who can hike for up to six miles before I get tired and start visualizing Diet Cokes and comfy sofas. I figure that's really the same as being able to walk indefinitely on level ground at reasonable altitudes inasmuch as nearly all my hikes have been hilly and at high-ish altitudes - from the 2500 feet above sea level where I live to as high as 9500 feet. (Yes, that high-altitude hike was really hard; my lungs felt like they were gathering themselves up in preparation for exploding right out of my chest.) The two June hikes I enjoyed at just above sea level in Chicago were the easiest I've done - and I didn't even have SmartWool socks or hiking poles at the time.

There are only two things I don't like about these treks. One is loose-rock terrain that requires one to emulate a mountain goat, a difficult feat I don't handle well, probably because I am bipedal. The other is heat. It's way too hot in Las Vegas right now to hike at any time other than just before sunrise.

It's a testament to the sincerity of my new passion that I actually get up at 5:40 every other morning to walk a 1.25 mile loop around my hilly neighborhood. I hate getting up early even more than I used to hate walking; my preferred schedule is to go to sleep well after midnight and to get up around 10:00. I started this ridiculous (and in my opinion heroic) crack-of-dawn walking because it's impractical to head up to the mountains every day and I didn't want to be out of shape once it cools down and we have nine months of fabulous weather during which to hike the myriad trails around here any time we feel like it. I've continued it, though, because I find I crave it. I've felt this way about swimming for years, but it's astonishing to me that I now feel similarly about repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other.

As it turns out, the lower temps at higher altitudes are disappointingly still not low enough to make hiking a non-sweaty enterprise. We were on the Mount Charleston trails and at Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks in July, and we just got home from a week in Lake Tahoe. All were spectacular in terms of scenery, and Lake Tahoe provided the additional pleasures of staying at a super-deluxe resort, but for me at least, the brilliant sun in the thin air at 6000-9500 feet made even 65-degree air feel overly warm.

The only place it felt cool enough to hike enthusiastically was Wheeler Peak (elev. 13,065 feet) in Grand Basin National Park, which we drove up to on the way home from Lake Tahoe. The parking area at 10,000 feet was beautifully cool, and the splotches of snow on the peak itself also contributed nicely to the overall sense of chill. But it was hard enough
up there to breathe and walk from spot to spot to take pictures, and my hiking companion had a little stress fracture in his foot by then, so we lazed and gazed instead of exerting ourselves.

I've written about the beauty and geologic glory of Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon in other posts, but here are a few new photos from there:


(More on Lake Tahoe and Great Basin, including photos, in subsequent posts.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ode to a Friend

I'm mourning today. I learned this morning of the sudden death over the weekend of my friend Molly. Molly and I never actually met. But the memories of her that flood my thoughts today, and the sorrow I feel, make it plain to me that she was indeed a true friend.

We met on Twitter, early in my career there. It's easy to dismiss social media as frivolous and shallow. I have often done so myself with respect to the great majority of the tweets I read. But it turns out that a genuine connection made via Twitter is as real and wholehearted as one made anywhere else. A connection is a connection is a connection, I guess.

Molly and I started with each other's tweets, moved on to include each other's work, and emailed occasionally as well. We shared a lot of interests: books, photography, the foibles of US, UK and Italian politics, feminism, the scenery and history of the Western United States. Her comments, unfailingly kind and supportive, are sprinkled throughout my travel posts and photos.

We knew the bare outlines of each other's lives - husbands, kids, backgrounds - but only as they came up in conversation. And what a conversation it was. Molly was old enough and sharp enough to have no qualms about voicing her strong opinions on a wide variety of subjects; conversing with her was alternately hilarious, touching, profound and validating, and it was always fun. For three years, we exchanged ideas, opinions, befuddlement, poignancy and even a recipe or two over Twitter, sometimes daily for weeks on end, other times sporadically. Nothing made me happier than to open Tweetdeck and see she was "in the room."

Molly was a writer, as am I, so perhaps it's not surprising that we formed a true connection via written words. It's interesting to recollect that we never actually spoke because I know her voice well. Her turns of phrase, the smatterings of Italian and French interspersed in our tweets, the personality that was so evident in her intelligent, articulate writing all accumulated into a voice I could hear. I can hear it as I write these words. And although Molly herself is no longer here, I think I will hear it for a long, long time to come.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Sunday

In a great break from tradition, yesterday's Super Bowl game was not boring. Yes, I was rooting for the Packers (and, once the game started, wishing I'd decided to bet the season's winnings on them instead of sitting this last game out, gambling-wise). But it wasn't only that. The game was not the plodding, conservative, try-not-to-lose-instead-of-play-to-win non-spectacle of most past outings. The Steelers and the Packers actually played. Except for a quarter-length stretch starting in the middle of the third quarter, when I did...let's say, multi-task...a bit, the game held my riveted attention. As it should have, given that it's the last football I'll get to see until I'm literally starving for it - ravenous enough to watch even the lame pre-season games in August. I'm already wistful.

I thought I might be projecting my bias as I watched the teams file through the tunnels to enter the field - the Pittsburgh players flat, unsmiling, sedate, possibly nervous; Green Bay hopping around, giddy, all but bursting with excitement - but it was obvious even then how the game would play out. Is there anything in football more graceful, magnificent or eye-popping than the passes Aaron Rodgers throws when he has time in the pocket? Anything more certain than Ben Roethlisberger's chances of throwing a perfect strike as he thuds to the ground in a thicket of defensive tacklers and then, soon after, standing tall and tossing an inept, brain-dead pick?

The melodic mangling of "America the Beautiful" and the verbal mangling of "The Star-Spangled Banner" struck me as right in line with the apparent belief of younger generations that meticulousness and accuracy are obsolete traditions of the past. The flyover above a closed stadium roof perfectly encapsulated the blithe, wasteful, out-of-touch-ness of Jerry Jones and his ilk. John Madden texting while sitting at a football game next to a former President of the United States was priceless. Whimsical and iconic, it was a beautiful blend of old and young, traditional and modern, the past and the present. (I adore John Madden.)

And throughout the game, I kept wondering what another football icon might be thinking and feeling. A persistent image of Brett Favre sitting in his Barcalounger, nursing his sore muscles, broken bones and equally banged-up spirit while he watched TV, flitted through my head. Was he thrilled for the Packers, for so long his team? Bummed about his own whimper of a final (I presume) season? Texting with John Madden? Or was he, like me, relishing the game and already sad that there will be no more NFL football until August?

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Hike Through Zion

I am not a fan of the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mode of transport. Except when I'm sightseeing in European cities or making my way through vast casinos to the double-deck pitch blackjack tables, walking provokes in me all the mental and physical sensations commonly associated with the word "trudging." So it should come as no surprise that I am not a hiker.

But last week we visited Utah with our daughter, and she suggested a hike through Zion National Park. The hike in question, she noted, was mostly paved, relatively flat and only (only!) 3.5 miles round-trip. I didn't want to disappoint her or cause her to think I'm a wimp, so I agreed. Do kids have any idea how much their parents do to avoid falling short in their eyes? I'm guessing not; I surely never sensed my parents were making any such efforts.

Anyway, hike we did, and it was wonderful.
Zion is the middle rung of the so-called Grand Staircase that starts in Bryce Canyon and ends in the Grand Canyon. The whole thing was, and continues to be, created by the rain that falls on the 11,000-foot-high Colorado Plateau and then rushes downhill, slicing through and carving layers of rock. This rushing and carving creates glorious scenery, which you get to see from an entirely different perspective when you're walking instead of driving. Frequent forays from the car to see a slightly hidden sight up a little closer or to get the best angle for a photograph aren't the same, I've learned, as experiencing the whole thing on foot.

Zion is spectacular, possibly even more so in winter than in summer. Snow highlights crags and striations in towering cliffs. It contrasts gorgeously with red rocks and creates a charming visual oxymoron with green cacti. There's more visible flora and fauna than in the summer, too, and the cold, cold water in the streams and rivers sparkles with extra extravagance. It could be the ongoing adrenaline rush talking - I'm still thrilled and impressed with myself for having actually hiked - but the park may well be at its pinnacle of beauty when seen on a crisp 40-degree day from a trail that winds through its snow-painted cliffs under the blazing sun.