Friday, May 24: Back to Santa Fe

Our trip back to Santa Fe from Vermejo was much simpler than the other drives we’ve taken in New Mexico: 45 minutes out of the Vermejo River Valley, and then 2:15 straight down I-25 to Santa Fe. I-25 runs along the western edge of the Great Plains and is lightly traveled, so I put the Caddy on cruise control at the speed limit (75) and, well, cruised.

Once in Santa Fe we dropped our bags at the the hotel and I went to return the car – we won’t be needing it this weekend in town.

Inn of The Anasazi, May 2019

We’re staying at the Inn of the Anasazi, located right off the central Plaza in Santa Fe. It’s very different than our other accommodations ; actually, all of our hotels have been very different from each other.

Holiday Inn Express (Alamogordo/White Sands) – your basic Holiday Inn; clean, a bit tired, excellent staff. I never actually took a picture there. Not even on my iPhone.

Inn of the Five Graces (Santa Fe) – exotic, colorful furnishings, large suite, attentive staff, but run as a hobby by the owner of a furniture store (1).

Historic Taos Inn – a motel dressed up in adobe and old school wooden furnishings; cramped even though we had a two room suite.

Vermejo Park Ranch – an early 20th century mansion on 600,000 acres with luxury pretensions operated by a bunch of amateurs.

Inn of the Anasazi (Santa Fe) – a Rosewood Hotel, luxurious and well run, but the room is smaller than you might like for the price (picture shows the hotel library).

Overlooking the Plaza, May 2019

Anyway, we’re here for two nights before flying home. We spent the afternoon wondering around a bit, and sat in a 2nd floor patio bar overlooking the main Plaza for some beers. Dinner was at the hotel (courtesy of a credit from our travel agent) and quite nice. There was a cocktail hour for guests before dinner, and we spent time talking with the GM, the Executive Chef, and the Food & Beverage Manager. The wine was nice, and the dinner was tasty.


(1) Sally disagrees with this characterization, and she’s the hotel maven in our team.

Thursday, May 23: Inside / Outside

Vermejo is all about outdoor activities. This time of year, the most popular activity is fishing – most of the other guests here seem to be doing that for part or all of their stay. In season, one can go hunting. There’s horseback riding (as I mentioned yesterday), hiking (which I did yesterday), mountain biking, archery and both rifle and shotgun shooting. This morning Sally and I tried clay shooting, which she had never done and I did once many decades ago (1).

We were with a young couple from southern New Mexico; he had shot enough to be semi-competent and she had not shot before.

Sally was – understandably- a bit nervous about this whole thing. We both are appalled by the level of gun violence in the country and the whole public debate about gun ownership. We grew up in an environment where guns were just not present (2). I was merely nervous about not hitting a single clay during our session.

Sally Shoots, May 2019

So we both exceeded our expectations. Sally fired a number of shells successfully, hitting her target a couple of times. I went through the introductory shooting and then the Five Stand “competition” (3) and hit a number of clays (4), which was satisfying enough.

After lunch in the restaurant (as opposed to the PB&J sandwiches in the truck drive yesterday), we split up. I went for a walk/hike (5), while Sally engaged in one of the only indoor activities here (6): a massage.

The Iog before the storm / muddy pants, May 2019

Her massage turned out well. My walk/hike, not so much. I did have time to take a couple of images before a wind-swept rain came on, forcing me to pack up and head back to the lodge. I didn’t feel that bad about getting wet and muddy, but was frustrated at having my outing cut short (7).

At least my pride wasn’t hurt, May 2019

When i was cleaning up, I discovered that the shotgun had left its imprint on me. Literally.


(1) I did rifle target shooting a number of times at Boy Scout camp, most recently probably 55 years ago. Sally had never touched a gun before.

(2) I had NYC cops as next door neighbors growing up, and never saw either of their guns. And then there was Boy Scout camp.

(3) Five Stand is a competition where you each move across five shooting positions, and shoot at clays thrown from a variety of locations and in different trajectories. There were four of us, and no one was keeping score. But the New Mexico guy won.

(4) My instructor told me after every miss – without fail – that I was very close.

(5) Remember, you can’t really go anywhere far away without a guide, at $350 for a half day. So I stayed pretty close to the lodge.

(6) The other appears to be cocktails in the afternoon.

(7) As I’m writing these words later in the afternoon, the sun is shining through the windows and the glare is making it difficult to see my screen.

Wednesday, May 22: Exploring Vermejo

Today was split in two parts.

Heading uphill, May 2019

In the morning, I went for a hike with my guide, Lee. I’ve never been hiking before with an actual guide, but Vermejo is pretty touchy about guests getting lost or hurt while wandering around their 600,000 acres. Pretty much all of the outdoor activities here: fishing, hunting, hiking, biking – require that you book a guide. Lee works at Vermejo full time, mostly doing light construction and general maintenance. He acts as a guide when there’s business.

It really is spring, May 2019

As we started the hike, I realized why a guide is a good idea – there aren’t any trails. We drove about 30 minutes on dirt roads and barely-roads and then started walking uphill across snow-covered meadows. As I wrote the other day, it snowed on our way up here and looked heavier on the mountain peaks. The ranch buildings are about 7,500′, but we started the hike around 9,000′. So despite having been in New Mexico for a week now, the air still felt thin to me.

Stunning view, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, May 2019

From time to time deer or elk would run across the open area, presumably spooked by us. And the views were stunning.

After climbing for about an hour, we turned back downhill. I set a new personal best, having hiked at 9,602′.

Lee, antlers and another stunning view, May 2019

On the way down Lee started finding elk antlers. They shed them in the spring, and are collected for sale. The value is pretty low, since they’re pretty common. Sally is considering having a pair shipped home for installation somewhere (1).

Wild elk, feral horses, May 2019

After cleaning up, we collected Sally and took a four hour tour of Vermejo Park, with Lee the guide driving. I know I keep repeating myself, but four hours doesn’t get you close to covering the 600,000 acres. But we did see a bunch of great scenery, elk, deer and turkeys (2). We also saw a herd of ferrel horses that are descended from horses freed after a flash flood on the ranch 100 years ago.

Wanna play?, May 2019

After we got back, I took a walk over to the stables. The horses there are fully domesticated and (obviously) available for riding. Today they all seemed to be in the coral, some munching on hay. They were quite friendly and all came over to inspect me.


(1) Update: we decided to not hav them shipped. They would just be clutter.

(2) Elk are fairly exotic to us. Deer and turkeys, not so much. They’re all over our town.

Tuesday, May 21: On the road to Vermejo Ranch

Sally built the centerpiece of this trip around our stay at Vermejo Ranch. Vermejo is a 600,000 acre ranch in northeastern New Mexico, as well as a small bit in southern Colorado. It’s the largest of the properties owned by Ted Turner, whose 2,000,000 acres make him the second largest private landowner in the US (1).

But first we had to get there.

Rt 64 north of Taos, May 2019

The road to Vermejo from Taos goes over the mountains and through narrow canyons. Waze, my preferred GPS navigator, said it would take more than 4 hours for the 135 miles. Quick math tells you that equates to about 30 mph, implying a set of very slow roads. And the first couple of hours met this expectation; narrow, twisty roads snake though the mountains and canyons north and east of Taos.

Storm at Angle Fire, May 2019

At one point, it was snowing lightly on us and quite heavily in the distant mountains we could see. After we came out of the mountains at Cimarron, we could see the Great Plains stretching off to the east, while the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were to the west.

We arrived in Raton, NM with Waze still projecting about 2 hours to complete the remaining 36 miles. So we grabbed a “meal” (2) at Micky D’s while I checked Google Maps for its estimate on the travel time. It showed 1:20, which meant we would be averaging about 30 mph rather than Waze’s implied 18 mph.

Turns out that Google Maps was also estimating our projected speed way too slow; it took us only 45 minutes to cover the ground. I’ve never seen these two navigation systems differ by so much, or be so wrong.

Vermejo Ranch main buildings, May 2019

The main buildings at the ranch are expansive, to say the least. As is the suite apartment mansion Sally reserved for us. It’s three rooms, including a huge sun room, a living room and a bedroom. Plus a two room(!) bathroom.

Bed, bath and beyond, May 2019

Living room and sun room, May 2019

Sun room, May 2019

After we settled in for a bit, I went for an easy hike. Tomorrow, I’m planning a more involved one with a guide, so this was a warm-up.

Afternoon walk in the woods. May 2019

Finally, we spent an hour chatting with Will the bartender, who carefully questioned Sally before preparing a heavily customized Mai Tai. My bourbon on rocks was much simpler. We both had onion bisque and bison for dinner, which was yummy. Much better than MacD’s.


(1) John Malone of Charter Communications is #1 with 2.2m acres.

(2) I actually got a Happy Meal with Artisan Chicken. It’s still McD’s.

Monday, May 20: They say it never rains in Sunny New Mexico

Wrong, Bucko. The National Weather Service says 0.94″ of rain in an average May. We got a bunch of that allotment today.

We left Santa Fe under cloudy and breezy conditions for the shortest travel day of our trip, less than two hours to Taos. There are two routes to Taos: the High Road, and the Low Road. The High Road is reputed to be more scenic, so that’s how we went. Unfortunately, the clouds, wind and generally lousy weather killed most of the views. But it was a pleasant enough trip.

Historic Taos Inn, May 2019

Our hotel in Taos, the Historic Taos Inn, had our room ready when we arrived around 1:00, so we dropped our bags and went for some lunch. The hotel is a collection of adobe-style buildings, and looks nicer than it is.

We then went up to the Taos Pueblo, a traditional Native American settlement just outside of town.

Catholic Church and graveyard at Taos Pueblo, May 2019

The Pueblo has homes for over 1,000 people, but only a few dozen live there full time now. Other members of the tribe live in modern homes on the 120,000 acre reservation.

Taos Pueblo, May 2019

We paid for admission, and went to wait for a tour, but the guide never showed. We waited 20 minutes for the next scheduled guide, and started the tour, but it began to rain and blow shortly after she arrived. So that was pretty much a bust. And we had planned to walk around and visit some of the art galleries clustered in town near our hotel, but that didn’t look like a lot of fun in the cold, blowing rain.

Open mic night, May 2019

The hotel was having an open mic night in the lobby, we we watched a bit before dinner and then I went back after dinner again. As with all open mics, some of the performers were good, while others needed work. By the time I went back to the room, the rain had stopped. But it was pretty cold.

Kit Carson’s Taos, May 2019

The next morning I went out before breakfast just to see what the town looked like when it wasn’t raining. It’s a pleasant little place, but once you get away from the very center near the Taos Inn it devolves into strip malls designed like adobe buildings. What I learned is that Kit Carson, the famous frontiersman and guide, settled here and lived the last 25 years of his life in Taos. His home is now a museum.

Sunday, May 19: Art, Cars and GoT

One of the freebies we got from our travel agency was tickets to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum here in Santa Fe (1). As many of the shops and galleries are closed on Sunday, we planned to hit the museum today. A very nice museum.

Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, May 2019 (2)

And a very impressive woman. In an era when women were not expected to have independent careers, she became a commercially successful fine artist. By age 40, the Brooklyn Museum held a retrospective of her work. She profited from the support of her husband, the art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but clearly was her own woman, living apart from him for much of each year and creating an abstract style all her own.

Horse’s Scull With White Rose, May 2019 (2)

Her most famous work was based on objects and landscapes she found in and around Santa Fe, although she also worked in New York City and Lake George, NY and painted what she saw there. Yet while her work was based strongly on reality – her bones, flowers, mountains, skyscrapers all had origins in what she saw – she said that the first time she saw the actual images she painted was after she finished painting them.

Clouds 5 / Yellow Horizon and Clouds, and sketch, May 2019 (2)

By way of making the point, the image above shows the ink sketch she made of a landscape in the lower right corner, and the finished work. Those studying her work have found sketches and preliminary works under the paint on many of her works.

Petunia No. 2 and Gerald’s Tree I, May 2019 (2)

Her florals were, and continue to be controversial. Many believed that her pictures had sexual overtones, which she strenuously denied throughout her life. Sometimes, a flower is just a flower.

Replacing a broken table, May 2019

After the museum, we went and finalized the purchase of the table we looked at yesterday. This will replace one on our patio which I broke 20 years ago, but didn’t fall apart until recently.

VW, Dead Camero, and Ford Pickup, May 2019

After spending some time looking at jewelry and a late lunch, we wandered around a car show right outside the jewelry store and restaurant. More than 50 cars of varying eras and in varying condition were on display around the Plaza, Santa Fe’s central square while 60s music played on the PA.

Chrysler Roadster and Hot Rod, May 2019

Tonight we’re going to stay in. I don’t usually watch TV on vacation, or much when home, but it’s the Game of Thrones final tonight. Can’t miss that.

The end, May 2019

And it’s also the American Idol finale, which Sally will watch. So we picked up a nice bottle of wine and we’ll share that and eat in the room.


(1) $13 each, but I’m not one to sneeze at $26.

(2) Copyright is claimed for my photographs of O’Keefe’s images, not for her paintings.

Saturday, May 18: Downtown Santa Fe

Our plan for today was to stroll around sunny Santa Fe, looking at art galleries and some of the shops in the Plaza area which forms the major tourist/shopping area. Sally had found out that the colorful furnishings in our hotel – Inn of the Five Graces – were from a local store, so she wanted to take a look there.

Seret & Sons warehouse and stone tables, May 2019

We didn’t have the complete story: the hotel was owned by Ira Seret, the founder and owner of Seret & Sons, a renowned furnishings store and supplier which specializes in Central and South Asian goods. Ira, it turns out, was born and raised first in Queens and then Nassau County before spending ten years in Afghanistan, which is where he and his wife started importing goods to the US.

As we had need for a table, we spent some time in their chaotic storage area and Sally wound up tentatively selecting a table.

Art is big in Santa Fe, May 2019

After this success, we walked over to Canyon Road, which is lined with art galleries and restaurants. After stopping for a lunch salad, we came across a gallery that had familiar looking wind sculptures. After looking around and talking to the salesman, we determined that these were the same sculptures we had seen and considered buying seven years ago in Springdale, AZ while visiting Zion National Park. We both liked these sculptures, but couldn’t agree on which one. So it was shelved.

Sculpture Gallery, Canyon Road, May 2019

After going around and around and arriving at the same position we each held in 2012, we compromised and agreed to get the sculpture I liked. But I agreed we would get Sally’s favorite if we both were happy with the first one after we installed it at home.

San Francisco St., 8;30pm, Saturday night, May 2019

After dinner, I went out for a walk. After all, it’s Saturday night, and I expected downtown to be hopping, with the numerous bars and restaurants doing a booming business and people on the street. Maybe the restaurants were full (1) (2), but the bars I could see into were pretty sparse and the streets were downright deserted.


(1) I say “maybe”, because while I generally couldn’t see into the restaurants, we couldn’t get a reservation anywhere and would up eating in the bar at one. Not that that was a problem, as we had a large booth and the same menu as the restaurant section.

(2) What was a problem is the increased difficulty finding garlic-free dishes that Sally can eat. Our trip to Tennessee last year was exhausting in this regard, and this is turning out the same.

Friday, May 17: On the trail to Santa Fe

We left our not-so-luxurious digs at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Alamogordo (1) and headed north to Santa Fe. 240 miles across the high desert, gradually ascending from 4300′ to 7400′. I love the desert. We drove for hours, mostly in a straight line, with literally 2 or 3 no-stoplight towns along the way. I wasn’t bored in the least.

But I did need a rest stop.

Cline’s Corner, May 2019

After almost three hours, we came to the intersection with I-40, and there was a huge travel plaza where I pulled off. I didn’t realize until much later that Clines Corner is quite famous. I also didn’t realize that I-40 is also the historic Route 66, of fame and song (2). Clines has apparently relocated three times over the years as Route 66 has been rerouted through New Mexico. It’s everything a rest stop should be, down to having Zoltar to tell your fortune.

Lapis Suite, Inn of the Five Graces, May 2019

The Inn of the Five Graces in Santa Fe is … hard to describe. It’s located in the central section of town, a few blocks from the Plaza, shops and art galleries. The Inn is spread across building on both sides of a small street. Our suite is across the street from the main building, and consists of a living room, a bedroom and a huge bathroom.

It’s very colorful.

It also has large chairs in the bedroom, and the bathroom. And, like so many nice places we’ve stayed, large pieces of furniture with tiny storage space. Either we seriously overpack (I don’t think so), or I don’t know how you’re supposed to unpack in these places. The bedroom, while large, is overcrowded.

But it’s very nice.

Santa Fe style: lots of Adobe-style and rustic, and occasional gothic, May 2019

We had a late lunch and then wine & cheese late in the day, so Sally decided to skip dinner. I went out, walked around a bit, and had a mediocre grilled chicken sandwich. But the beer flight was interesting.

I didn’t eat at the Coyote Cafe, but had beer, May 2019


(1) My regular readers will know that I often post pictures of the great accommodations Sally finds us. I found the Holiday Inn, and it shows. So no pix.

(2) (Get your kicks on) Route 66, by Bobby Troup, first a hit for Nat King Cole.

Thursday, May 16: Evening dunes

I wrote earlier about my frustration at not being able to enter White Sands until an hour after sunrise, making capturing the great dawn light impossible. The evening hours work better: it’s open until 8:30, and sunset was was about 8:00. Bingo!

I joined a Ranger walk to watch the sunset (and learn more about White Sands). Here are some shots taken in the softer light.

Receding dunes, May 2019

(Almost full) Moon rises above a falling yucca, May 2019

Yuccas have evolved a unique survival strategy. The dunes they grow on are constantly moving and burying them. So they send tall shoots out which will grow as the lower portion gets smothered. If the dune moves on and exposes the buried plant, the trunk can’t support the weight and falls over.

Glowing yucca, May 2019

We leave Alamogordo this morning and head up to Santa Fe. It’s been really hot here – it was 95F Thursday afternoon – but promises to be a much more comfortable mid-60s in Santa Fe.

Sunday, February 17 – Homeward bound

I mentioned that we had our final class yesterday, Saturday.  This class was a little different than the previous ones.  Rather than bring in a set of images from the prior day’s shooting, we were told to bring in our Top 10 for the week.  It was interesting in a number of ways.

No one actually arrived in class with their homework assignment complete.  All of us – including me – spent the first part of the class trying to get this set collected.  I got mine done a bit more quickly than most people, but was still late.  Here they are (1):

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My “Top 10” (in no particular order), February 2019

Then, for each of us, Steve  showed his selection of our Top 10 images.  For me, as well as for the others, there was substantial overlap but not complete agreement.  He and I agreed on six, and chose four different images to complete the set (2).

I think we all enjoyed seeing each others Top 10, as well as Steve’s Top 10 for each of us as well as his own Top 10 images.  The conversation around the selections was enlightening.  He’s developed into a good teacher, and provides feedback in a very constructive and non-threatening way.


 

Today, Sunday, there’s no class.  I went out to shoot for an hour, and took some tourist snaps.  We all said goodbye, sometimes several times, as we kept running into each other in the hotel lobby or at breakfast.

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It’s not easy being Cubano, February 2019
My flight leaves this afternoon, bringing this great trip to an end.  I go back to the cold northeast.

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Heading home, February 2019

 


 

Saturday, March 1, 2019 – Postscript

Looking at these Top 10 (or 11) images as I write this, I realize that I would make different selections now.  Some of these would make the cut, but not all.  I’m also pretty sure that if you ask me a year from now, I’ll again make different selections. That’s okay, as art is not really a competitive activity.

But none of that really matters.  This week was an intensive exercise in shooting, editing, processing, receiving and giving criticism, and working hard on finding and making the best images I could.  While I’ve photographed shows and sports before, nothing compared with the speed and action from either the boxing or ballet shoots.  The street shooting was as fertile as anywhere I’ve been.

This week was also spent with an interesting group of new colleagues from across the country (plus Canada and Cuba). As I’ve experienced in previous workshops, each of the participants made images that I wish were mine – regardless of their so-called skill level (which ranged from beginner to professional) or equipment (which ranged from pocket cameras to the newest and most sophisticated cameras on the market).  And I’m still struggling to figure out how I never saw some of those images, despite walking the same streets at the same time as they did.

This week was also a fascinating look at a city and a culture that has been made into an evil place by our leaders for more than 50 years – since I was a child.  The people I met were certainly not evil.  The Cuban embargo is way past it’s sell-by date.  These are just people, trying to get by, and living their lives.  The embargo affects them much more than it affects the political leadership of the country.  We may think those old cars are cute, but I’m sure most Cuban car owners would trade them for a boring new Toyota in an instant.  The limited availability of various types of food and manufactured goods is obvious and extreme.  The infrastructure, despite construction all around the city center, is crumbling and they can’t keep up. Municipal services, such as sanitation and water, are not what we would be happy with.

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Just people, February 2019

 

So there you have it.  A week in Havana, spent well.

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(1) Yes, I know there are 11.  They’re all my children.  I got it down from 6,000 to 11, but don’t make me go any further.

(2) You’re probably wondering which of my images he preferred, and which he didn’t select.  I can’t tell you.  Due to technical difficulties, I’ve lost his selections.

Saturday, February 16 – Cars and the city

Saturday was our last full day in Cuba. So we took pictures around the city and had a class. A big surprise, I know.

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Colorful cityscape in Havana, February 2019

We went over and looked at the University of Havana and the neighborhood surrounding it.  While the University was sort of impressive from the street, we were unable to gain entry to the grounds and so I took a couple of forgettable images.  But here it is anyway.  I have no idea if the interior portion of the campus was also impressive, or vacant, or a ruin.

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University of Havana, with photographers, February 2019

What I was able to do was shoot a few more of the classic cars that roam the city.  I know I’ve already shared lots of images of them, but the cars are really something to see.  Also, Sally’s last words to me before my flight took off last week were “I love you.  Get lots of pictures of cars”.

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City in motion, February 2019

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Cars at rest, February 2019

I also got some more images of life in the city.  This cute little girl was playing in an empty playground.

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More street scenes, February 2019

I’ve mentioned before that the streets are remarkably empty of cars, which makes the pollution levels even more surprising.  Here’s a shot of a main street on this Saturday.

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Empty city streets, February 2019

That night we had dinner in a (really) fine restaurant.  Afterwards we went to watch two street performers put on a fire-eating show.  Some of my classmates got great images; I did not.  So I’ll leave you with my mediocre image.

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Mediocre fire eater (1), February 2019

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(1) The image, not the fire eaters. They were quite good.

Friday, February 15 – Dance, dance, dance

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Escuela Nacional de Ballet, February 2019

The headline activity for today was another exhibition of sorts: we went to the Escuela Nacional de Ballet (National Ballet School) to observe and photograph the students in class. We were on a precise schedule, waiting at our hotel (only a few minutes away by bus) from the school until they were ready for us. We arrived around 9:00am, and spent a few minutes in the beautiful lobby of the predictably run-down building for a formal introduction to the Director.

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Men at work, February 2019

After that, we all split up and wandered around, popping into classrooms and rehearsal studios at will. Classes changed at 10:00, and we all somehow found ourselves in a very large studio that seemed to be gathering students, teachers and other guests. What we soon figured out was that there was a graded recital for some of the advanced students taking place, and so we spent the next two hours photographing the best as they tried their best.

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Women’s work, February 2019

Much like the boxing gym yesterday, photographing these students – despite knowing more or less where they were going to be, and having the freedom to move anywhere in the room (not on the dance floor, of course) – was a huge challenge. I left exhausted. I thought I had reached a personal high at the boxing gym with over 1,000 images in about two hours; I left the ballet school with 2,000 (1). Lots of material to review.

 

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Class exam, February 2019

 

After lunch on my own and after the class, I hit the streets again for some more relaxing photography. Havana is really a great walking town. A mile in any direction from the hotel covers a lot of the center city. There are so few cars that you can easily walk in the middle of most of the side streets without much problem.

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Street scenes #3,487, February 2019

People are friendly enough if not always thrilled if you take their picture. On the other hand, those side streets are often in disrepair, there are open dumpsters where people deposit their household trash, dogs and cats roam freely and do their stuff anywhere.

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You can hear the music playing, February 2019

We had dinner in the “formal” dining room at the hotel. Formal, in this case, means I wore a shirt with a collar. People were still in shorts, though not I. After dinner, I think some people retired for the evening. But I couldn’t resist going out and shooting the night scenes again. I mentioned to Sally that there are two aspects of these photography workshops: the formal and informal learning parts, and the opportunity to spend large amounts of time photographing interesting subjects. This particular workshop has certainly hit a home run in both aspects.

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Late night mystery, February 2019


(1) These four hours of shooting – boxing and ballet – represented fully 1/2 of the images I captured during the entire trip. However, they represented a much smaller percentage of the images I have elected to show.

Thursday, February 14 – Boxing Day

This morning started in the usual way – breakfast, then walk around a bit to take some pictures. At 9:00 we boarded our bus to go to the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym to try our hands at shooting some action.

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Gloves and tape, February 2019

The first part of the shoot was watching them warm up with some group exercises, and then watching some of them suit up to spar. The equipment in this case is pretty simple: they “taped” their hands, wrapping them with long strips of cloth, then downed boxing gloves. No headgear or special footgear, just whatever shoes they were wearing. A few of them used mouthguards.

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Scary and scared, February 2019

Some of the boxers also took turns on the heavy bag. This doesn’t look like much, but the biggest of them were exhausted after hitting for 5-10 minutes.

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It’s in the eyes, February 2019

One would think that taking pictures of two people at close quarters in the confined space of a boxing ring would be simple. And one would be wrong. We had total freedom to position ourselves around the ring, either standing on the ground and peering through the ropes, or standing on the mat outside the ropes and looking over them. While this enabled me to actually get some good images, I shot over 1,000 frames in the process.

After a couple of exhausting hours, we went for lunch and then our class.

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Wild and crazy photogs, February 2019

After class, we took another ride in the classic convertible cars.  You’ll recall this was originally planned for Wednesday, but was called on account of rain.  Along the way we saw even more classic cars.

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Even More Cars, February 2019

As the sun went down, we were back on the bus for a visit to the giant Jesus statue that overlooks the city.  The views were nice, and the park was filled with couples enjoying a romantic Valentine’s Day evening watching the sunset.  Of course, we were there with our cameras to document their PDA.

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PDA in Havana on Valentine’s Day, February 2019

The Jesus statue was pretty impressive.  And if you looked closely, he was holding the moon in his hand.

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He’s got the whole moon, in his hand, February 2019

 

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Wednesday, February 13 – When the rain comes

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El Capitolio, February 2019

We were supposed to take another ride in the convertibles today, but it was drizzling in the morning.  And that turned into a heavy downpour by late afternoon.  But while this interrupted our riding plans, it most definitely didn’t stop us from taking pictures.  We started out as a group, which is a real no-no.  A large group of people carrying big, intimidating cameras is a sure way to scare your subjects.

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Why are Street photographers looking at the sky?, February 2019

We walked past the capital building (cleverly labeled “CAPITOLIO” so you couldn’t mistake it for anyhing else) to a section of the city where people were hurrying to work and dong their morning shopping.  At this point, we scattered.

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Morning commute, February 2019

Of course, not everyone who commutes walks – sometimes you have to go too far to walk.  Havana has every form of ground transportation you could imagine – walking, bikes, peditaxis, motorbikes, cars, buses, mopeds, etc.  The little yellow things are apparently classified as motorbikes, as the drivers all wear helmets. The passengers don’t.

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Rainy transportation, February 2019

 

The rain got harder, which lead me to try and stay under cover somewhat.  But others didn’t always have that choice.  And it was pretty hard on the laundry hung out to dry.

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Caught in the rain, February 2019

That afternoon we had another class, then a bit of free time, then dinner.  After dinner, I went out again to enjoy the night and take some pictures.  When I got back to the hotel, a band was in full swing, killing it with Motown, Tina Turner and other American music covers.

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Evening in Havana, February 2019

 

 

 

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Tuesday, February 12 – Classes and Old cars

One of the most visible aspects of Havana is the collection of old American cars that roam the streets, primarily as taxis. Today we went for a ride.

We fell into a sort-of routine starting today: breakfast at the hotel buffet, photography in the street, class, lunch, more photography, dinner and more photography.

The daily class on this workshop has a regular routine. Steve talks for a bit, trying to give us eager students some insight into an aspect of street photography we might not otherwise have. This included examples of work, discussion of how well-known and successful photographers worked, and sometimes technical details. The technical stuff generally was the least of it; most of the attendees are competent camera operators.  But as I wrote earlier, I learned from this segment.

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Breaking the rules: slow shutter speed blurs an old car, February 2019

The bulk of each class, and by far the most interesting, was the review of each participant’s work from the prior day. This being the first day, we each were asked to submit some of our prior work for review. The review went like this: Each of us would give Steve a USB stick with 5, 10 or even 20 images. He would create a slide show for each, and project it on the screen for all to see. He would then critique each image, pointing out what he liked, what he thought didn’t work, and how an image might be improved if appropriate. He would solicit comments from the entire class. Not surprisingly, the comments from the audience were a bit tentative at first, but became more definitive as the week progressed and we got to know each other better.

I found these critiques – both from Steve and my classmates – extremely useful.  I didn’t always agree with their perspective, but I always tried to understand it.

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Our fleet, February 2019

The focus of the day was a ride in three colorful old American convertibles. Seen from afar, these convertibles gleam in the sun and seem like carefully preserved historical artifacts. Up close, however, they are wrecks. Most of the convertibles are chop jobs that started life as sedans or hardtops and have had a very rough conversion. The springs and shocks are worn, the doors creak, there are (of course) no seat belts, the engines roar through muffler-free exhaust systems.

 

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Along the Malecon, February 2019

Speaking of exhaust, the air in the center of the city – where we were – is awful. Between the belching cars, buses and trucks, and all the other sources of pollution that are present, the air is bad. Adding to the pollution is a refinery across the harbor that is constantly burning off waste with a big flame atop the smokestack, visible for miles.

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Red Cars, February 2019

We got to ride in nice shiny convertibles.  Most of the cars in Havana are not topless; many are not shiny.  In fact, quite a number are visible wrecks.  Even the ones that are running and in use look like there’s not a lot of metal left in the body; they appear to be made of putty.  And they are not a rare sight – these ancient artifacts are everywhere.

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Blue Cars, February 2019

I’ve included a sampling of the cars I saw here.

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Black (and gray) Cars, February 2019

 

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Yellow Cars, February 2019

 

….

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Green(ish) Cars, February 2019

 

During our ride around town in the convertibles, we stopped to take a quick look at a statue of a most surprising historical figure.  I don’t really have a good handle on why he was memorialized here.  I was impressed with the fact that this poor country pays a woman to stand around and put spectacles on his face whenever tourists show up.

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And Lennon read a book by Marx, February 2019

 

February 11, Monday – A Havana Workshop

After landing yesterday, checking into the hotel, and meeting up with the rest of the group, we all set off on a walk down the Prado.

But let me back up.

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The Passionate Photographer: New York, October 2015

I’m here on a photography workshop entitled “The Passionate Photographer: Havana” led by New York photographer Steve Simon. Steve has published books, photographs events and spends a fair amount of time running workshops. I went on one with him several years ago in New York City, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  So when I noticed this Havana workshop, I immediately decided to go (1) .

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First workshop meeting, February 2019

This particular workshop had an interesting cast of characters. Along with Steve, we had a tour guide Rei and facilitator Vladimir (2). In addition to me, there were five other participants: two couples and one other guy. As a bonus, two of Steve’s friends, professional photographers from Toronto, happened to be in Havana this week and joined us for many of the activities. So we were a merry band of 12 traveling around.

Photography workshops are two things for me: instruction in some aspect of photography, and the opportunity to spend a lot of time photographing somewhere interesting. In this case, the subject is Street photography, and the place Havana.

(Geek alert – feel free to skip)

A note on technique (3).

A main theme in street photography is all about capturing the juxtaposition of people and objects as they go about their business with no intervention from the photographer. Street photography can be other related things, such as portraits of people you run across with their consent, but it generally involves limited interaction between the photographer and subject. This in contrast to, say, landscape or cityscape, which typically does not show any people and where the photographer carefully frames a relatively static subject. Or wedding photography, a combination of carefully posed and lit formal images combined with the choreographed chaos of the ceremony and party.

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Havana street, February 2019

Since the street photographer is often trying to photograph people in public places without their knowledge, one will often choose simple and small equipment. Many of the pictures in this blog series were taken with a prime lens (with a fixed field of view, like your phone camera) so that you don’t have to waste precious moments zooming your lens and deciding on where to stop. Smaller equipment is thought to make you less intimidating to any who sees you; you’re just another tourist. And a relatively wide field of view – again, much like a phone camera – forces you to get closer to your subjects, often making the resulting image feel more intimate.

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My primary camera & lens this week, February 2019

Modern digital cameras offer some tremendous advantages for the street photographer. One is unlimited image storage – film photographers had to deal with rolls of film with 12, 24 or 36 images before changing. Digital cameras can autofocus more quickly than most people, if used properly. Shutters can be set to fire continuously, increasing your chance of capturing the exact moment you are seeking (I set my camera to 8 frames per second, one of slowest speeds it offers). Exposure is set automatically, and digital images offer a wide latitude for mistakes in this area.

Things I changed in my settings for this workshop were

  • the previously mentioned frame rate
  • I set the focusing mode to track subjects as they moved (sometimes)
  • I set the shutter speed faster to “freeze” action, as the subjects were usually (sometimes)

The faster frame rate I set resulted in my capturing thousands of frames over the course of the week – over 6,000. And needing to review them all.

(Geek alert off)

I wrote about our afternoon photo walk yesterday.  After dinner, we all went out again to explore the streets.  Since most of us were in Havana for the first time, we started out walking together.  Of course, a group of photographers with big cameras is not condusive to inobstrusively taking pictures.  So we gradually spread out, walking a block or two ahead or behind the others as we made our way around the neighborhood.

 

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Havana housing, February 2019

 

The area directly west of our Centro location is no longer the nicer tourist or Habana Viejo district.  Here you can find low income people living in low income housing and conditions.

As the space inside the homes is so small and probably warm even at night, there are always people on the street and in the numerous small bars and cafes.

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Some street scenes, February 2019

Subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and even more since 2011, Cuba has been gradually moving away from strict state ownership of everything and allowing more private enterprise.  There are many “paladares” or privately owned restaurants now.  And people can open small businesses – groceries, bars, tailors, auto maintenance, etc. – in their homes. Today 181 official jobs – taxi driver, construction worker, shopkeeper – are no longer under government control.

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Privately owned Havana bar at night, February 2019

Our walk continued after dinner – the night scenes are particularly compelling.  Much Street photography is done in B&W, harking back to the days of film.  But I found the colors of Havana seductive.


 

(1) After consulting with Sally, of course. Who was, as always, very supportive.

(2) Yes, he is Cuban.

(3) Only so you can fully appreciate the excellence of my photography in this blog.   Or you can just decide whether you like something or not on your own.

February 11, Monday: Off to Havana

Editor’s Note:

This blog is being posted more than a week later than it happened.  For many reasons, I wasn’t able to post in real time from Havana.  In fact, I wasn’t even able to write in real time.  So treat this as a memoir, or treatise, written in the fullness of time and with the limitations of memory.

Enjoy.

The Bassman


Got up at 4:00 am.

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Up in the morning, just about 4:00 (1), February 2019

Called for an Uber at 4:45 am.

At JFK Terminal 5 at 5:40 am.

Through check-in and security by 6:00 am, complete with my boarding pass, Cuban visa and proof of medical insurance stamped on the boarding pass.

Finished a leisurely breakfast by 7:00 am. By airport restaurant standards, not merely leisurely – I basically encamped in the restaurant until I was bored enough to leave. The service was lovely, I have to say.

Sauntered down to the gate to check it out for the 9:06 am departure. Yup, it’s there. No plane at the gate yet, but that’s not unexpected – we don’t board for 90 minutes yet. Took a walk around Terminal 5, which seems to be about 3/4 of a mile. Okay, I can do this a couple of times while I wait.

Called Sally at 8:00 am. Fortunately, she wasn’t wakened by my getting ready this morning (last night?). As we were chatting, got an alert that my flight is delayed to until 10:30 am. Arggghhh! I was psychologically prepared for killing an hour; killing 2 1/2 is a horse of a different color.

Sit for a while near the gate, then do a couple more laps around the terminal. Come back and sit again, and watch as the ground crew tows a plane over at 9:00 am. Progress!

Watch the crew board at 9:30 am. The gate attendant excitedly announces their arrival, suggesting that departure can now be forecast.

Start pre-boarding (2) at 10:00 am. As usual, there are a few people who don’t “understand” the procedure and try to board with the people with young children, or the people in wheelchairs. They are politely shoo’d away by the staff.

I flaunt my privilege by boarding in Group A, the first group that isn’t pre-boarded. I also got to sit in an Even More Space seat. I paid for this privilege, $30 I think.

(Yes, I know you’re getting bored.  I was bored, too.)

This is a smallish plane, about 100 seats in a 2+2 configuration. That means the overheads are unusually small; my suitcase fits only sideways. A number of passengers seem to have the spatial relationship skills of a toddler, as they insist on trying to fit bags that have no possibility of fitting into the overheads. They struggle; the bags are by definition pretty heavy (because they are big) and they try them in each orientation. But each one of those orientations exposes a dimension that is too big by half for the height or depth of the overhead. They finally give up, and the bag gets passed up to the front of the plane past everyone who is standing and waiting for this adult-sized toddler to give up trying to fit the giant square block into the small triangular hole. The cabin crew passes the bag off to someone who might be putting it into the luggage hold, but who knows?

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Even More Space, February 2019

As we board, I sit alone in my Even More Space seat. There are three rows of 4 such seats and I am alone. Other passengers notice this vacuum and rush to fill the void. One of the attendants comes by with a credit card machine and tells them they have to pay. They return to their assigned places, but then one comes back a few minutes later to try again. He gets chased again (3).

We depart at 10:20 am, about 1:15 late. According to the captain, we should arrive around 1:45 pm, only 30 minutes late. Are they flying faster? Was there less ground traffic than expected at JFK? Is there fluff in the published schedules so they can claim better on-time rates? Hmmm ….

Time passes ….

Later that afternoon I meet up with my group at the hotel and we take a stroll down La Prado, a wide boulevard with a raised pedestrian mall in the middle.  The weather is warm and humid (my favorites!), and people are enjoying it.

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I don’t care what you say, it’s too damn hot, February 2019

La Prado ends at the sea by start of the Malecón, a five mile esplanade and seawall along the coast.  Again, people are out enjoying themselves.

 

 

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Kids by the sea, February 2019

 

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The Captain and Tennille?, February 2019

Finally we return to the hotel and have a pleasant dinner by the rooftop pool.

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View from the Hotel Parque Central, February 2019


(1) Apologies to Spanky and Our Gang’s song Commercial

(2) This makes no semantic sense. A person getting on the plane is “boarding”. “Pre-boarding” could mean getting your stuff together in anticipation of boarding, or having your boarding pass and ID checked at the gate, or any number of other things that you do before you board. But it shouldn’t mean “the group of people who get to board first.”

(3) This all reminds me of sneaking down from the nosebleed to the box seats at a Mets game as a kid. We hoped the ushers either wouldn’t notice us, or (more likely) wouldn’t care. It worked sometimes. JetBlue is more obsessed with revenue than the Mets were, I guess.

Tuesday, October 2: Th. Jefferson

One cannot visit Charlottesville without paying attention to Thomas Jefferson. But before that, I neglected to include a picture of the exterior of The Clifton main building.

The Clifton, October 2018

Architect, scholar, farmer, educator, inventor, statesman, author of the Declaration of Independence, and President of the United States – those are some of the things he is known for. And I’ve undoubtedly left out a few of his fields of accomplishment.

The classic view of Montecello, two ways, October 2018

Anyway, Jefferson was a incredibly accomplished individual. We all know he was author of the Declaration, but he either drafted or assisted in the drafting of many laws. He designed Monticello, his home on his plantation here. He invented a machine that made an exact copy of the thousands of letters he wrote in his lifetime. He wrote a book describing everything known about Virginia. His home had extremely large windows and skylights, very unusual for the time.

Food prep at Montecello in the basement, October 2018

We took two tours at Montecello. The first took us through the first floor of the house, which included the public rooms and Jefferson’s bedroom, study and library (1). The upper floors are an extra cost item (and extra time), so we passed. And we took the Slavery tour, which was really more of a lecture and a tour. It was interesting, and like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, depressing.

Inside the Rotunda, October 2018

After leaving the Presidency, he founded the University of Virginia, given his belief that only an educated citizen could effectively contribute to public life. He not only founded it, he was the first Regent, and he designed the original campus which is still in use today. It’s quite beautiful. Sadly, it started raining when we left the parking garage on campus, continued until returned to the garage later.

The centerpiece of the old campus is the Rotunda, which was inspired by the Panthon in Rome. It was designed to be a library for the students, and the upper floor still serves as perhaps the most beautiful study hall in the country (2).


As I write this Wednesday morning, we’ve packed up our stuff and we’re about to head home. We should arrive before dinner tonight.


(1) So where are the pictures of the first floor? No pictures allowed there. Only the exterior and basement.

(2) So where are the pictures of the campus? It was raining …

Monday, October 1: Blue Ridge Parkway finale

Our fourth day on the BRP was our biggest mileage day, and our shortest time day. The mountains in northern Virginia were lower, the valleys on either side of the Parkway extended further, atmospheric haze made the distant scenery less interesting, and we were Scenic Overlook’d out.

Hazy view across the Great Valley, October 2018

The day started as they all have, leaving the hotel in Roanoke to hook up with the Parkway a few miles away. The weather finally turned nice, with mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures. So we drove with the sunroof open and the A/C off all day. We were surprised by the lack of traffic, especially today, but actually all four days. We had heard horror stories of long backups and congestion, combined with 20 to 45 mph speed limits. We found little to no traffic, and the speed limit was 45 for most of the trip. In fact, we stopped for a roadside lunch (2) and not a single car passed us in the ~20 minutes we were there.

Sharp Top in the Peaks of Otter, October 2018

We stopped in the Peaks of Otter region and took a walk around a small lake. Turns out there are no Peaks named Otter; it’s just a regional designation.

The beginning and our end, October 2018

After that, we pretty much drove straight through to the north end of the Parkway, which is actually designated the beginning. We passed about 380 mileposts along the way – actual stone posts in the ground with numbers on them – so I was anxious to see MP 0. Sadly, it was not to be found.

The Clifton Carraige Hojse, October 2018

The Clifton (1) is a charming property which I understand changed owners and was renovated in the last year or so. Our suite is the Carraige House, which presumably was a carriage house at some point in the past. While the multi-level layout looks cute, it’s highly impractical. The loft ceiling angles in so sharply that I need to be careful getting out of bed, and the bathroom down a narrow flight of stairs makes those nightime visits risky. The top step is unusually small, and the next one has a longer than expected riser.

Downtown Mall, October 2018

We went into downtown Charlottesville for dinner. They have a several block long pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. We opted for simple, and had burgers and beers.


(1) Not “The Clifton Inn”, although the address is Clifton Inn Road.

(2) Sally points out “lunch” is a generous description of the power bars, chips and water we ate.

Sunday, September 30: Blue Ridge Parkway, Day 3

Today was the shortest of our BRP segments, at about 80 miles from Fancy Gap, NC to Roanoke, VA (1) (2). We headed north, stopping at a few cutouts and exhibit points to see what there was to see.

Overlooking what?, September 2018

Like Saturday, we traveled at a lower altitude and over less mountainous terrain than on Friday. Again farms dominated the landscape on either side. I took a short hike – 15 minutes – to a promised overlook, which turned out to be a small stream with no discernable overlook. But it was nice being in the woods, even for a few minutes, and I got an interesting picture of the highway bridge we had driven over.

Puckett Cabin, September 2018

We passed a number of sites that had either old cabins or re-creations of old cabins. One of interest was Orleana Hawks Puckett, who lived in or around the spot from 1837 to 1939 – 102 years. At age 50, she took up midwifery and reportedly delivered upwards of 1,000 babies until her last year. Pretty amazing.

Mabry Mill, September 2018

Our next stop was Mabry Mill, the self-proclaimed “most photographed site” on the BRP (3). Regardless of the veracity of that claim, it was both interesting and photogenic. And fairly busy, with cars being directed to the overflow lot (4).

Wool for weaving, and basket weaving, September 2018

The mill itself was built by E.B. Mabry between 1903 and 1910. E.B. operated a sawmill and woodshop, while his wife operated the grist mill. All three were housed in the structure above. Rangers give interactive talks and demonstrations about the mill and rural crafts. We saw a ranger weaving a basket.

Yes, my camera lens was clean, September 2018

We planned to make another couple of stops, including climbing up Roanoke Mountain (in the car). But the weather, which had been overcast, descended and we found ourselves driving through heavy fog for quite a while. Even after we arrived into Roanoke Valley, the clouds remained low. So we bagged that plan and checked into the hotel.

Hotel Roanoke, September 2018

The Hotel Roanoke is a structure that the railroad built in the late 19th century and donated to Virginia Tech in 1989. It was subsequently remodeled and enhanced into a conference center. The room is nice (5) but small. Our Hampton Inn room last night was much larger, but more simply furnished.

View from our room, bridge to downtown, September 2018

After depositing our bags in the room, we walked across the tracks on a pedestrian bridge and had lunch downtown in a Thai restaurant. It wasn’t great Thai food.


(1) We also drove about 20 miles from our hotel in Dobson to the Parkway, and 7 miles from the Parkway to our hotel in Roanoke.

(2) I recalled that Roanoke was somehow a part of the early settlement story of our country. Turns out that the Roanoke Colony was by the Outer Banks, about 250 miles from the city of Roanoke.

(3) How could anyone know that? Is there an official registry somewhere? No one has asked me for a count of my pictures along the Parkway.

(4) The overflow lot was actually closer to the exhibit buildings but farther from the gift shop.

(5) Sally didn’t like the room at all; I did.

Saturday, September 29: Blue Ridge Parkway, Day 2

Yesterday’s trip on the BRP was all about mountains. Today, while the Parkway stayed it’s course along the Blue Ridge, the landscape changed. It became less hilly, and there were farms along the sides as we continued north. There were also fewer “sites” to stop at. Despite that, the vistas were beautiful.

Capturing the view, September 2018

It’s clear that I like to capture that beauty in photographs. But others have their own approach. Most people do take photographs, of course, and most of them use their phones. But a few do it the old school way – using paint, ink or pencil to capture their vision.

Pastoral scene, September 2018

My favorite “big picture” from today was smaller than yesterday’s.

We stopped at a cutout labeled “Cascades” (1), which had a sign promising a gentle 30 minute round trip walk. So off we went. We came to a stream and a small wooden footbridge after about 15 minutes, but the path continued on, down stone steps. And we could hear the water falling below. Sally headed back up, while I continued down.

Falls Creek rapid, September 2018

At the bottom of the steps I was about midway down a cascade of perhaps 100′ (2). Sadly, there was no good photo to be had there. Instead, I took a more intimate picture back at the wooden footbridge.

We were starting to think about lunch by now, and decided to head to the Blue Ridge Music Center at MP 213. Since they promise live music all day and an exhibit on music development in the Appalachian region, we assumed they would have food.

No such luck.

The museum was interesting but very small. The blue grass music was decent, but the musicians looked ready to fall asleep any minute. So we left and headed onto Mt. Airy, NC. Why Mt. Airy, you say?

Mt. Airy or Mayberry?, September 2018

Mt. Airy is where Andy Griffith grew up, and it was his childhood memories of a small, rural town that informed his first TV shows, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Andy in Mayberry”. Mt. Airy is Mayberry.

Barney Fife doppelganger, September 2018

Mt. Airy has taken Mayberry to heart: the are stores and shops named after all the main characters. There mid-60s sheriff’s cars crusing the street. There are at least two Barney Fife’s walking around, and we saw one Gomer Pyle. Quite kitchy. We passed on the theme restaurants and found a wine bar where we got some tasty food.

Hampton Inn, September 2018

We found our hotel down in Dobson. It’s a Hampton Inn, quite nondescript, but clean, spacious and comfortable.


(1) Cascade Falls is located at MP 272, and is in E.B. Jeffress Park.

(2) The Wikipedia entry says 250′, but I’m sceptical.

Friday, September 28: Blue Ridge Parkway, Day 1

We left our B&B in Asheville this morning. We’ll miss some aspects of the Inn: the cozy feeling, the bright room, the friendly hosts and other guests. We won’t miss the breakfasts served family style; not the family style, but the food itself. This morning was some sort of quiche or omelette with corn. I ate it, Sally pretended. And not the uncomfortable chairs in our room, which were okay for lying back and sleeping but not for sitting and reading, watching TV or eating.

Today’s plan was simple: drive about 100 miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Blowing Rock, NC. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a “National Parkway”(1) that runs 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia. It is two lanes the whole way, with numerous scenic overview cutouts and other places to stop and enjoy the outdoors. It has been the most visited unit of the National Park Service almost every year since 1946. It mostly follows the Blue Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.

We entered at Mile Post 385, and plan to follow it to MP 0.

Great tree along the Parkway, September 2018

As this was our first time on the Parkway, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. My best guess was that it’s like driving through any of the big National Parks out west, only longer. We stopped at some scenic turnouts, and then at a couple of specific sites.

Craggy Gardens looking east, September 2018

Craggy Gardens was the first stop, and the first time I went to the wrong viewpoint initially. I stopped at the picnic area, and saw a sign for a trail heading to the viewpoint almost a mile up the hill. Fortunately, I turned back after a short while as the sky looked completely socked in. After heading back out on the Parkway, we came to the viewpoint – right on the highway. No hiking required!

Looking west from Craggy Gardens Viewpoint, September 2018

Our next stop was Mount Mitchell, which at 6,684′ is the highest peak east of the Mississippi (2).

View from the top (of Mt. Mitchell), September 2018

On our way up to the peak, we stopped for lunch in the state park that surrounds the mountain. It was simple and edible. The views from the peak were very nice (3).

Linville Falls, September 2018

The last major stop was Linville Falls. Again I managed to go to the wrong viewpoint first. In fact, I managed to go to both of the viewpoints I didn’t want before finding the one I wanted. And believe me, the trail signs couldn’t have been more clear. I was just not reading them correctly.

We finished today at our stop for the night, the Chetola Resort. To get this far on the trip, we’ve driven just over 2,000 miles, averaging almost 60 mph and 28.7 mpg. Today we averaged 34 mph and 19.5 mpg over 110 miles. To say life moves slower on the Blue Ridge Parkway is an understatement.

Chetola Resort, September 2018

The resort is a pleasant surprise. Their online pictures don’t do our room justice (4). There were drinks and snacks on the hall when we arrived, and we had a nice dinner in the restaurant downstairs. No need to search for a place to eat!


(1) A National Parkway is like a National Forest or National Monument. It is administered by the National Park Service.

(2) Mt. Washington is #11 at 6,288′. All of the top ten are in the Blue Ridge area.

(3) I actually stopped in the parking lot below the peak. But not very far below.

(4) I think mine are better, but you can be the judge.

Thursday, September 27: The rain held off (mostly)

We had two or three objectives for today: See Biltmore, walk around Asheville, and have a decent dinner. We accomplished all three, though not without a bit of juggling.

(A portion of) Biltmore Estate, September 2018

Biltmore is the massive estate of George Vanderbilt, grandson of the Commodore who built and made a fortune from the New York Central Railroad (1). The statistics of the place are staggering: 250 rooms, 180,000 square feet, 7,000 acres, … . One can go on and on. George built it starting in 1895 as a summer place to escape the heat of the city. It is still owned by his descendents, the Cecils. Between the Great Depression and increased taxes, his heirs were forced to open it to the public starting in 1930.

Today it is a major tourist attraction, including hotels, restaurants and shops along with the tours. Sally and I both found it interesting and well run (at least the portions we visited and one restaurant as well as crowd management).

Interiors at Biltmore: ornate, September 2018

The architecture and decorating is over the top, although not nearly at the level of Hearst Castle. Vanderbilt literally spared no expense in creating the house and furnishing it. Even the servants’ quarters and work areas were spacious and airy.

Chihuly was here, September 2018

The 7,000 acres remaining today are a small piece of the 100,000+ acres that were originally part of the estate. In 1914, Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, completed the sale of 84,000 acres to the Federal government to form the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest. The grounds that remain today were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted (2), and consist of formal gardens and a larger park area. There is a Chihuly exhibit in the gardens area – this guy is everywhere we go.

A bit of Broadway in Asheville, September 2018

We were hungry by the time we finished the house and gardens, so we went into the nicer restaurant in the old stable building. I wasn’t expecting much, just high prices, mediocre food and lots of garlic. But the prices were reasonable ($13.95 for a roast chicken dinner), the food was fresh and tasty, and Sally had several choices free of poison. And like the rest of our experience at Biltmore, it was efficient and friendly.

We drove back into downtown Asheville (after a 20 minute drive just getting out of the estate) and walked around a bit. But the weather was gloomy with periodic drizzles, so we went back to the Inn. I made an executive decision not to fight another restaurant battle (i.e. calling around to try and find a garlic-free option) but went to the Whole Foods, bought some wine and prepared food, and we ate safely in our room.


(1) There’s a statue of the Commodore on the south face of Grand Central Terminal looking down Park Ave South.

(2) Olmsted famously designed Central Park in New York City.

Wednesday, September 26: Wet again, yet again

For our last morning at Blackberry Farm, the tentative plan was to spend some time going around the grounds. Either an easy stroll in the woods for Sally & me, or maybe driving our golf cart to look at some of the things we passed during the geocaching hunt yesterday.

It was not to be.

Rain, rain go away, September 2018

We woke up to rain. Enough rain that we called the desk to have a real car (1) pick us up and drive us down to the unformal dining room for breakfast.

Unformal enough for you? (2), September 2018

Enough rain that driving the golf cart anywhere was not just unpleasant, but unsafe – they don’t brake very well on wet pavement. In fact, I found they can barely keep from sliding down some of the steep pitches on the cart paths. Enough rain that the thought of any outdoor activity was shelved.

Smokey Mountains looking smokey, September 2018

So we had breakfast, looked at the clouds hanging over the mountains, enjoyed the hunt paintings in the dining room, packed and headed out for another rainy drive in Tennessee.

Zen Room, Chestnut Street Inn, September 2018

When we got to Asheville, we were hoping to leave our bags at the Inn and go for a walk in town. But – it was drizzling, so we took a look at the town through the windshield wipers and went back to the Inn to listen to our Fearless Leader ramble (3) for an hour.


(1) One of the Lexi.

(2) They use white table clothes for dinner. This is the breakfast/lunch setup.

(3) He did much more than merely ramble, none of it good.

Tuesday, September 25: The tour

Blackberry Farm really is a very nice place. Nothing is a problem – except the weather.

It rained, I know it did, September 2018

We woke up this morning to another wet day, with high humidity and evidence of rainfall. It didn’t actually rain while we were out, but I had to dry off the seat in our golf cart and put a blanket down before we ventured out to breakfast (1) (2).

Geocaching gear, cache box in middle, September 2018

We had planned to try geocaching before lunch. Geocaching is a games where you attempt to locate a cache based on geographic coordinates and perhaps a clue. In the larger world, a cache can be established by anyone, who then publishes it. They will often leave a small notebook for geocachers to sign, and hide a trinket or charm in the cache.

We found the cache near this scary turkey, September 2018

Here, we were given a small stamp and a booklet to record our finds, and each cache contained a stamp and a booklet to stamp and sign. We were also given a Garmin GPS preprogrammed with the coordinates of each cache. The GPS only gets you within a couple of dozen feet of the cache. then it’s up to you to find it. The picture shows our equipment and the small metal box which is hidden at each location.

We found the cache near this gardeners’ shed, September 2018

We expected to spend an hour or so, but after 1 1/2 hours we broke for lunch. It was 3:30 when we finished, having found all but one of the eight caches.

We failed to find the cache near this chapel, September 2018

Part of the fun in this context is that you are forced to travel around the entire property (in your golf cart), as the caches are hidden by the various activity sites.

Faux-old paintings as the decor, September 2018

We had a nice dinner in the un-formal dining room. You’ll recall the formal dining room required men to wear their jackets into the dining room; this one does not. The food is similar, although the menu is different. The wine list is only a dozen pages long, rather than 100. The decor was old English, meaning lots of bad paintings of fox hunting on the wall. The formal room was rustic – it’s built as a large barn, with open beam construction and a very high ceiling.

Can you have too many extra towels?, September 2018

Many people, including us, periodically ask for extra towels from housekeeping. This being Blackberry Farm, they just kept coming.


(1) In typical Blackberry Farm style, our cabin comes with special hand towels to wipe down the seats, and a special blanket to place on the still damp seat.

(2) Truly first world problems, I know.

Monday, September 24: Soggy Blackberry

Our streak of not-great weather continued today in Walland, although it actually didn’t prevent us from doing what we wanted.

Little cabin in the woods, with a little golf cart in the woods, September 2018

Blackberry Farm is very spread out, and our cabin comes with a golf cart. Our first excursion was last night, when we had to find The Barn (the so-called formal dining venue) in the dark, after checking into our cabin in the afternoon and not leaving until dinner. Suffice to say we made a few wrong turns.

But this morning we had no trouble driving to a different part of the property for breakfast. After a bit of thought we elected to eat outside, as did most of the guests.

Blackberry scenes, September 2018

After breakfast I took a soggy walk in the humidity. The grounds are beautiful, even with overcast skies.

Chef Rachel, September 2018

Our planned activity for the day was a cooking demonstration with one of Blackberry’s chefs. While it is advertised as a group activity, the group today was just Sally and me. And Rachel, our chef-instructor. She gave a great explanation of how she was preparing our customized three course meal, and the three of us had a great time chatting for 2 1/2 hours. And the meals she prepared for us were delicious.

Fungi at Blackberry, September 2018

We are right on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park with it’s extensive outdoor activities and 900 miles of trails. Blackberry has their own hiking trails, about 9 miles worth. I used about 4 of them this afternoon, which was plenty for me. The hike wasn’t that hard, and the temps were in the low 70s, but the humidity was about 100%. I was soaked by the time I got back – and the drizzling rain didn’t help.

Fly fishing shack and instruction, September 2018

They have plenty of other activities: archery, skeet, tennis, fly fishing, biking, etc. We’ll concentrate mostly on the gourmet food. Which is how we finished the day, with another great meal in the Barn.

Marred only by having to drive the open golf cart back to our cabin in a light drizzle.

Sunday, September 23: Back to Black (berry Farm)

After ten days of never using the gym facilities at any of our stops, I decided to use the gym at the Hermitage. Unfortunately, the hotel leased the gym and spa to Netflix for filming today, and it was closed. Rather than take their offer to use a nearby public gym, I decided to take a walk outside. It was almost-raining, and I figured even if it started drizzling, I’d wind up less wet than if I used the treadmill.

Nashville City Hall and Courthouse, September 2018

Well, I figured right. I wound up less wet, even though it started raining pretty steadily about 15 minutes before I got back. While I was out, I did come across Nashville’s government plaza. The architecture and layout was quite impressive.

By the time we left left Nashville it was raining lightly, but as we headed east on I-40, it turned into heavy rain. Visibility was poor, the road was slick, and cars (and trucks) were staying below the speed limit. About halfway to our destination, the rain eased, the road dried, and we all resumed the national speed limit of 10% above the posted limit.

Between the rain, the 200 miles, and the one hour time change as we came back into Eastern Time, we didn’t arrive at Blackberry Farm until after 4:00. This is one of those places where they spare no effort to cater to your needs. Once you pull up and walk into reception, your car disappears and all of your bags are quietly put into one of the house Lexuses (Lexi?). You sign a bunch of waivers, payment agreements, cancellation policies, etc. on an iPad (1), and then you get driven to your cabin in the woods.

A cabin at Blackberry Farm, September 2018

Which is very nice. But designed for the twentieth century. The room actually has a fair number of outlets, all in the baseboard along the floor, and none close enough to any table to be able to charge your devices without placing them on the floor (2).

There were other initial problems in the cabin which needed attending. There was some very nice cheese left as a welcome snack, and which contained garlic (3). The soap and shampoo were laced with lavender, which we also had to call about (4).

Dinner was at their “formal” restaurant. Formal has a silly definition: jackets required for men. Now, you’re thinking ” what’s silly about that?”. But grasshopper, you are thinking the colloquial use of that phrase, which is shorthand for something like “men should wear a jacket, some nice slacks and a button down shirt or the equivalent”. But here it means exactly what it say: the gentleman who escorted us to our room said one merely must wear a jacket. Jeans and a t-shirt with it are perfectly acceptable.

That’s what the man said.

And that is silly.


(1) I felt like I was at the Hertz counter: “please initial the CDW, please initial here to decline buying a full tank of gas, please …”.

(2) Which they were happy to rectify by sending someone over with an extension cord.

(3) Which they were happy to rectify by sending someone over with a fruit plate, and removing the poisonous cheese.

(4) Which they were happy to rectify by sending someone over with Bars of Dove soap.

Saturday, September 22: Some Nashville sights (and music)

Today we did two touristy things (1): we went to the Gulch, and we went to the Parthanon.

The Gulch is your typical trendy redevelopment zone. Once the site of Nashville’s train yards, it was mostly vacant for the second half of the twentieth century. About 10 years ago, much of the land was bought by a developer and it is now a “hip and trendy neighborhood”. There are high-rise condos, boutique stores, and restaurants. we walked around for an hour or so, and I had lunch (2).

Look, I’m a butterfly, September 2018

At a couple of spots we saw people queuing for something,. One was a bakery. The other was a mural where people, wait in a (long) line to take their picture in front of. It’s even featured on the cover of one of the promotional books in our hotel room, featuring a current country music (3) star.

Women’s power, September 2018

From there we ubered over to the Parthanon in Centential Park. Not the actual Parthanon, as that’s in Athens. We saw what’s left of that one when we were there. This full sized replica was built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centenial Exhibition. Inside is a massive statue of Athena, which is alleged to be a reconstruction of the statue which stood in the original Parthanon. This is mere speculation (4) of course, as the statue in Athens was destroyed millennia ago.

Also nearby is a monument to the suffragette movement, as Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, giving woman the right to vote in 1920.

Justine Blazer poses for the camera, September 2018

After we returned to the room, I went for my daily fix of music on Broadway. Damned if I didn’t hear yet another rendition of (wait for it …) Don’t Stop Believing. Enough already!

We had dinner in the Capital Grill in the hotel. To my surprise, it is called that because we are located right by the state capital, and not because it is part of the world-class Capital Grill chain. It is also not as good as any restaurant in that chain. But it was okay, and I had a single barrel Jack Daniels after dinner. That was quite good.

It turned out to be a good decision to hit the bars on Broadway earlier, as a steady rain developed by dinnertime. So my Tennessee music experience is over, at least for now.


(1) As if everything else we’ve done on this trip wasn’t “touristy”.

(2) Sally wasn’t hungry.

(3) She’s wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and holding a guitar. I assume that makes her a country artist. The book doesn’t specify.

(4) Slightly more than speculation, perhaps. There are contemporary descriptions of the original, as well as likenesses on coins and elsewhere to use as guides.

Friday, September 21: More better blues (and country, and rock, and pop)

Friday we went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

I took no pictures.

I usually don’t take pictures in museums, not because they don’t let you, but for one of two reasons:

– the scenes are usually uninteresting

– taking a picture of a picture (or sculpture, or …) doesn’t appeal to me

The museum itself was moderately interesting. If you are a real fan, then they have a pretty solid collection of artifacts related to your favorite artists: guitars, shoes, boots, belts, costumes, hats, suitcases, etc. There are a few interpretive displays to help understand how the blues combined with Irish music to create traditional country music. There’s little interpretation of how country morphed into today’s blend of country, pop and rock.

Don’t stop believing … how crowded it gets, September 2018

In the evening we went back to Broadway to see some more music in the bars. Like last night, what we heard was far from the music that used to be broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry. The song we heard more times than any other was (wait for it …) Don’t Stop Believing. I always liked this song back in the day (it was released in 1981), but I’m suffering from severe over-exposure now. It’s everywhere – weddings, bar mitzvahs, political rallies, Memphis, Nashville, on my Pandora mixes. Enough already!

A really good, really loud band in a really crowded venue, September 2018

Here’s some more of the playlist from last night:

  • Play That Funky Music (Wild Cherry)
  • Country Road (John Denver)
  • My Girl (Tempations, Rolling Stones, and everyone else)
  • Everybody Wants To Rule The World (Tears For Fears)
  • Drops of Jupitor (Train)
  • Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond)
  • You Shook Me All Night Long (AC/DC)

There were also straight country songs, but they were outnumbered by the rock and pop stuff

I really don’t mean to criticize the musical tastes of people around here. I liked most of the music I heard, country and not-country. I just find it amusing that Don’t Stop Believing is the most popular (by the number of performances I heard) song in the home of country music. In one bar, the band (who were very good) asked the audience “do you want to hear more country, or pop, or rock” and rock won by a substantial margin.

The crowds are out of control, September 2018

It was crowded Thursday night (don’t these people have to work?), and Friday even more. And by 11:00, people were losing their inhibitions somewhat.

Thursday, September 20: Music City, USA

We left Memphsis, Home of the Blues, and headed on up to Nashville, the center of that music juggernaut known as Country Music. This ride was much shorter than the six hour trek down to Memphis: an easy three hours.

We’re staying here at the Hermitage, the old-school fancy hotel downtown. The first thing we noticed when we walked into the room was the Tennessee state capital outside the window.

Tennessee State Capital, September 2018

The room itself was lovely, as it was hand-picked by Sally. While the style was similar to that of the Peabody in Memphis, this was superior in every way: size, fit & finish, view, and of course price.

Hermitage Hotel, September 2018

After another exhausting but finally satisfying dinner trying to find some food that didn’t contain forbidden substances, we walked over to Broadway to find some music. The contrast with Beale Street was immediate and huge.

The bluesmen (1) on Beale Street appeared to me to be playing for tips and fun, with no expectation of making a career or living from it. In fact, most of them appeared to be fairly well along in years, past the time when they’re thinking about any career at all. In contrast, what we saw this evening were much younger musicians, with a high caliber of musicianship, and either working as musicians or trying to make a career (2).

Nashville’s Broadway crowds, September 2018

The demographic differences for both the musicians and audiences is also pronounced. In Memphis the musicians are mostly black, with an occasional white guy thrown in. The audiences are mostly white, but also mostly older tourists (3).

In Nashville the musicians we saw today were all white. The audiences were all white and ranged from youngsters who needed to show ID to a small number of older folks. While some were no doubt tourists like us, most appeared to be relatively local folks in town to party. And both the street and the bars we walked past were all very crowded, although we only made it one block before we settled into Dierks Bentley’s Wiskey Row.

The band was quite good (and loud), and they were playing what passes today for country music. Here’s part of the setlist we heard (4):

Don’t Stop Believing (Journey), Summer of 69 (Bryan Adams), Space Cowboy (Steve Miller Band), Living On A Prayer (Bon Jovi), Ring Of Fire (Johnny Cash), Magic Carpet Ride (Steppenwolf), Santeria (Sublime), Should I Stay Or Should I Go (The Clash), Before He Cheats (Carrie Underwood), The Grange (ZZ Top).

We liked all the music. And they sang it with southern accents, and put in a few country licks. But the definition of country has been stretched beyond recognition.


(1) I saw exactly two woman singing on Beale Street.

(2) Women were also much more represented, although still a minority of the performers.

(3) Like Sally and me.

(4) There were a couple of songs I didn’t recognize, which I assume were “country” hits.