Picking Pix: A Photography Story

It’s a wonderful thing, photography. At a push of a button we can immortalize anything or anyone we want: flower gardens; baseball games; birds in flight; bird crap on car windows; pals; lovers; favorite cousins; despised in-laws. You name it, somebody has taken its picture.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 2018)

Those obvious notions came to mind a few nights ago when I decided to green light an essay about photography, whose final form you are now looking at. I’ve written before on the subject. And that’s because I get a soul-satisfying kick out of shutterbugging.

Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 2018)

That kick had lain dormant for decades, but vigorously popped out of its coffin in January 2016 when I came into possession of my first smartphone. An iPhone, it struck me as miraculous. Hell, was there anything it couldn’t do? Well, the phone balked at fetching my dog-eared slippers and washing my dirty underwear. But other than that, it was primo.

Philadelphia’s Powelton Village section (February 2018)

And the phone of course came equipped with a camera lens that, despite its incredibly tiny size, took, for the most part, damn good pictures. Good enough for me, anyway. Within no time I was snapping away. And decorating my journalistic output with some of the results of those snaps (prior to that, my wife Sandy took the photos for the stories). Man, I had lucked out, if you want to look at it that way. Meaning, even though I was a whole lot older than I could believe, depressingly older, at least I had added two worthy creative endeavors (writing and photography) to the late autumn/early winter of my years. Excuse me for a moment, please, while I now resume watching those f*cking grains of sand continue to fall, fall, fall to the bottom of my hourglass. Oh, my breaking heart!

Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (October 2018)

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. Here’s the way I look at photography: Many of us, including yours truly, can’t draw or paint or sculpt worth a shit. But it’s not too hard for anyone to be pleased with their photographs. All you have to do is decide what angle you want to take a photo from and what person or object should be its focus. Then you frame the shot and, if needed, adjust the light level. At that point the magic moment has arrived in which to tap the camera’s button. Voila! Mission likely accomplished.

Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s an art form made for us all.

Coast Guard Beach, Truro, Cape Cod (October 2018)

So, what’s the deal with the photographs that I’ve included in this essay? Let me start by saying that all of them date from 2018 and that they are among the 1,000+ that I took during the year. None of them have appeared in previous articles. I suppose that my aim is simple: To publish photographs on this page that strike my artsy-fartsy sensibilities just right. Each has some combination of shapes, colors, angles and textures that I can’t deny. Yeah, these photos do something to me.

James “Blood” Ulmer, Philadelphia (April 2018)

Take the one of musician James “Blood” Ulmer, for instance. Ulmer, unaccompanied, performed deep, heavy blues in April in Philadelphia at the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. The golden hues of his outfit and the jumble of audio equipment nearly encasing him give the picture a techno/alien quality. “Prepare for blastoff,” the photo is announcing. “Destination unknown. Mysteries await.”

Tree in Santa Fe (May 2018)

And I like the grand grooves in the Santa Fe tree, and its thick, finger-like upper sections. But what gives the photo its distinctiveness is the modest yellow, black and red traffic sign standing contentedly next to the behemoth.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (May 2018)

The deeply pock-marked cliffs at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument are modern art taken to an elemental extreme. And the photo of trees, hills and houses in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico would have floored Paul Cézanne, so Cézanne-ish is it in its blocky composition. Talk about pure luck. I took that picture from a moving car. Nearly every other picture that I snapped from within the car that day was meh.

Cezanne-like scene from Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico (May 2018)

I’ll mention one more snapshot, that of the sunset at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. The picture appears almost theatrical in its lighting. The light on the picnic bench came from my car’s headlights. The car’s engine was running because it was as cold as a witch’s tit that night, and I jumped out only for a second, documenting the beautiful sunset with my phone’s camera and then admiring the view again from back inside the heated vehicle.

Mayo Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod (October 2018)

By the way, like every picture herein, the sunset pic is unmanipulated. Being a natural sort of guy, so natural that I prance naked in my dreams, I wasn’t about to crop, enhance, rotate or do anything else to my babies via the photographic software that came with my computer. Popeye The Sailor once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If my photos could talk, each would quote those immortal words.

Marshland near an Atlantic Ocean inlet, Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

In closing, I’ll add that all of the selections come from New Mexico, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, places that I’ve written about a lot this year. They are good places, fascinating and colorful and full of the unexpected.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

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We’ll Be Back . . . Probably: A Cape Cod Story

In the above photo snapped last week, the grubby guy with a confused look in his eyes and elegantly deep creases in his forehead is none other than me. The shot is a selfie, and I have to say that it came out a whole lot better than many of the selfies that I take. Half the time I can’t figure out how to angle my phone’s camera so that each person’s head is fully in the frame along with a decent amount of background scenery.

The severe terrain in which I was standing is a section of Cape Cod that doesn’t fit the seaside-y, romantic image of the Cape (a 65-mile-long peninsula in Massachusetts) that quite a few people hold. I was out among Provincetown’s enormous sand dunes, a wide and lengthy expanse that separates Provincetown’s village from the Atlantic Ocean. In a few days my wife Sandy and I would be heading home to the Philadelphia suburbs, after a two-week vacation on the Cape, and I didn’t want to leave without a dune walk, which to me always is a fairly otherworldly experience.

Shit, it was cold out there, about 45°F (7°C), and windy as hell too. My fingers were losing sensation, and my ears didn’t feel terrific either. That’s because your genius reporter had left his gloves and earmuffs in the car, which was parked at one of the very few official access points for the dunes. Sandy was in the car along with my gloves and earmuffs. She had taken a look at the access point’s mountain of sand that must be conquered in order to enter the wonderland, and declined to join me on the expedition. She just wasn’t in the mood that day. In past years, though, she joined me in several of my dune adventures.

It was great being in the wilderness, despite the raw elements. How often do I get to immerse in environments like that, after all? Not a lot. I’ve scampered about 15 times over the years in the Provincetown dunes, or in the equally imposing dunes within Truro, which is PTown’s neighboring area. It’s one of my favorite things to do on Cape Cod, where Sandy and I have vacationed nearly annually since our first visit in 1998.

Yeah, we fell in love with Cape Cod pretty much right from the start. Never in my life had I expected to find a locale that I’d want to return to over and over, one that would soothe my soul and whose natural beauty and man-made charms would make me sigh in a good way. I discovered all of that on the Cape.

But earlier this year, six or seven months after a Cape vacation in October 2017, I began to think that I needed a rest from Cape Cod, that everything there was taking on too much of an air of familiarity. “Yo, Sandy!” I yelled. “Something fishy is going on inside my hard head. Call my shrink! Cape Cod burnout might have settled in!”

Unfortunately, my shrink had problems enough of his own and wouldn’t take the call. And so, Sandy, stepping in for the good Dr. Wazzup, analyzed my emotional and mental states and concluded that a change of vacation scenery indeed might be in order. We thereupon began to investigate regions where we might happily deposit our bods in autumn 2018. Denmark seemed like a good idea. Ditto for Scotland. I believe that the latter would have been our destination were it not for the fact that we got derailed by various unexpected situations that sapped the energy we’d have needed to plan and mount that trip. We therefor reverted to Cape Cod, an easily arranged vacation for us. Virtually no planning was required, so familiar are we with most of the Cape’s nooks and crannies.

Well, Cape Cod in October 2018 turned out to be a delightful trip. Sandy and I did all of the things we enjoy: Walks on ocean and Cape Cod Bay beaches; walks in woods and marshlands; poking around charismatically quaint villages; visits to museums and art galleries and music venues and cinemas; and chowing down each night at a different restaurant.

Believe me, I know: I’m a highly fortunate guy to possess this sort of a life. And I often feel guilty and uneasy about it, what with all of the human misery and unhappiness on our planet. But, even if I make it into my 90s, I don’t have an amazing number of spins around the Sun left to me. So, having a good ol’ time while I’m physically and mentally able, and also giving back as best I can, seems like an A-OK way to live.

Will we return to Cape Cod in 2019? I don’t know. A break for a year or two probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. Although this most recent visit was a winner, I suspect that Cape burnout is still quietly festering within me. No relationship is perfect, that’s for sure. Some require temporary separations. Cape Cod will understand and forgive me if it comes to that.

And variety is the spice of life. What’s more, it’s a big world, to cite two of the duh-est of clichés. Sandy and I have done a good amount of non-Cape traveling during the 29 years that we’ve known each other, but spreading our wings even more might be where it’s at. I mean, going to Scotland would be cool. Denmark too. And Arizona and Colorado and Montana and Portugal and Spain. Not to overlook dozens of other places that I won’t bother mentioning.

Originally I was going to decorate this essay with photos taken throughout our just-ended Cape Cod sojourn, images of gorgeous ocean vistas, of forest trails, of quirky and fabulous Provincetown village, of a primo eggplant parmesan entrée that I scarfed down at Front Street (one of PTown’s best restaurants), etc.

But I’ve changed my mind. Instead, all of the pictures herein are from the aforementioned ramble through Provincetown’s dunes. The Provincetown/Truro dunescape is one of Cape Cod’s most remarkable features and is deserving of pictorial shoutouts. Will I be back in the dunes again in the foreseeable future? Hopefully. Probably. We shall see.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Or about sharing this article, for that matter. Gracias.)

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A Cape Cod Sunset That We Won’t Soon Forget

If I weren’t the lazy son of a you-know-what that I am, I’d examine this blog’s archives to see how many times I’ve written about sunsets. At least once, probably thrice or more. But it really doesn’t matter. Sunsets are phenomena that just about everyone oohs and aahs over. So, what scribe can resist immortalizing them? Not me, at least not the sunset that my wife Sandy and I recently caught on Cape Cod, that fine spit of territory in Massachusetts where we’ve been vacationing annually for the past 20 years. And it doesn’t bother me in the least that cyberspace is in dire need of a platoon of plumbers to unclog the gargantuan mass of sunset stories and sunset photos already in its bowels. Here’s what I have to say to cyberspace about that: Tough shit! I’m going to clog you up even more.

My wife Sandy and I try to fit at least one or two sunsets into our schedule while on the Cape. But viewing a sunset on Sunday October 14 wasn’t something that I’d anticipated doing. Because of the forecast that morning on weather.com — very overcast from mid-afternoon onward — I’d figured that sunset-gaping would have to wait for another day. The skies, however, were still clear at noon when Sandy and I were plotting our agenda. “Let’s go to the beach and maybe fly our kite. It’s nice out right now,” Sandy suggested. Duh! Why hadn’t I thought of that?

A bit later we found ourselves at Nauset Beach, a hop, skip and a jump from our rented house in the town of Orleans. Nauset Beach is a long section of Cape Cod’s astounding oceanside coastline, a coastline that is minimally-developed and almost endless in length. Nauset’s sands, upon which we hadn’t trod since our visit to the Cape a year ago, welcomed us back warmly. The skies were clean and casually decorated with clouds, the waters relatively calm. A beautiful day at the moment.

Sandy and kite at Nauset Beach.

We walked for a while and then launched the kite, letting out about 100 feet of string. The kite did its thing, sprinting from side to side while fluttering like there was no tomorrow. You’ve got to love kites, right? They’re kind of like little kids, all happy and jumpy. And it might have stayed aloft forever, so steady were the breezes. But all good things must come to an end, or so they say. After 45 minutes we therefore began to haul in our pal, who resisted our efforts. Ultimately, though, we prevailed.

We then puttered around Orleans’ village section. Or, more accurately, Sandy spent time in a clothing boutique that’s been a favorite of hers for years, while I sat on an old wooden bench outside the store waiting for Sandy to emerge. The hard-as-a-rock bench was doing a good job of turning my sorry ass red, and the bright sunlight of an hour earlier was no more. Clouds were rolling in, just as weather.com had predicted.

At 5:00 PM, however, after a supermarket stop to pick up a few items, I took another look at the sky. Hey, it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was on the mend. “Look at those clouds, Sandy,” I said. “They’re all over the place, sure, but plenty of blue is peeking out. The sunset game is on!”

We killed a little time and then drove to Rock Harbor, a picture-postcard-worthy part of Orleans on Cape Cod Bay, pulling into the parking area at 5:45. We were not alone. At least 20 other spectators were on the premises, watching the spectacle begin.

The skies were majestic, dazzling us with as wide a variety of clouds as I could remember ever seeing. They were thick and striated where the Sun was heading downward, tufted in an enormous area directly overhead, and wide and ribbon-like to the east. A naturalist I’m not, definitely. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from admiring the wonders of the world over the last many decades, it’s that a cloudless sky will create an eh sunset. It is clouds, as long as they are not blotting out the heavens, that reflect colors and create patterns that sometimes can blow your mind.

Sunset at 5:55 PM, before the orange flames erupted.

Mine was partially blown right from the start, gently but firmly, as subdued, pastel hues spread from the sunset’s western core, filling much of the sky and contrasting very pleasingly with the greys of the clouds. Sandy and I happily took all of this in for about 15 minutes. And then we began to gather ourselves, preparing to bid adieu to Rock Harbor, the show seeming to have reached its peak.

That’s when I turned my head westward once again, for no particular reason. I came up short, stunned and amazed by what had happened since last I’d looked only seconds before. Bright orange flames had erupted, intense and wild, above the Sun, turning everything on its head. Not only was that portion of sky going electric, but pretty much everywhere else up above was reacting to its energy.

Orange flames erupted at 6:07 PM

There’s no doubt that I’m not in the running to do a photo shoot for National Geographic or Vogue anytime soon, seeing that I neglected to aim my iPhone’s camera at anything beyond the main attraction in the west. But that abstract canvas of orange, yellow and grey streaks and blotches sure ain’t bad, is it? I said to Sandy that this was one of the very finest sunsets I’d ever witnessed. She seconded that emotion.

The sunset at 6:14 PM

At home I almost never think to watch the Sun set. That’s largely because my home region is a concrete jungle. And concrete jungles, as we know, don’t exactly inspire you to commune with nature. Cape Cod, on the other hand, though not a stranger to concrete, has enormous areas without that hard stuff, areas where you can escape from our species’ semi-madness. I really like Cape Cod.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias.)

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My Favorite Season Is Nigh: An Autumnal Story

I don’t know about you, but shvitzing like a pig isn’t high on my list of things I get a kick out of doing. But shvitz like a pig I did on more than one occasion during the annoyingly hot and humid summer of 2018 that sneered at my section of the northern hemisphere. That’s because the grass on my lawn didn’t stop growing these past few months, nor did the bushes that border the lawn, nor did the God-knows-what-kinds-of-plants they were that sprouted up riotously wherever they could gain a foothold.

Somebody had to attend to all that vegetation, which meant that shitloads of mowing, pruning and weeding were in order. And that somebody was me. But, what with the steamy heat, I wasn’t eager to take on those tasks. Thus I let things slide as much as I could. Several times I had no choice though, as my neighbors were threatening to report me to my township’s Messy Motherf*ckers Aren’t Welcome Here department. And so, outside I would head to do the yard work thing.

Bottom line: Within 15 minutes each time, sweat was pouring off me in buckets, and my pale, white-boy face was pale no more. Into the house I’d have to repair to cool down. And then back outside to induce another round of sweating and reddening. Then back inside after 15 minutes, etc., etc.

Eventually the job would be completed.

Well, that’s a fairly long introduction, one that has only a tenuous connection to what I intended to write about when I sat down at my writing station. I need to get on track, as this essay is to be about the time of year that I like the best. Which is autumn. Of the four distinct seasons that my region (northeast USA) experiences, why autumn?  Well, summer, as is obvious from the complaints above, ain’t my fave. And winter is too damn cold. But what about spring? Everybody loves spring. It is, of course, terrific, a time of new birth and all that. But I pick autumn over spring, new birth notwithstanding.

Autumn will officially begin the day after I hit the Publish button for this story. Yet I hadn’t given autumn, fall if you will, much thought until recent days, days in which I downed two bottles of beer that set visions of my favorite season dancing in my head. The first to warm my innards was Smuttynose brewery’s Pumpkin Ale. Man, it was so rich and malty, and kissed with goodness by the pumpkin puree, cinnamon and other Thanksgiving-y spices that were tossed into the brewing vats.

Two nights later I finished off a bottle of Festbier, which came all the way from Germany’s Weihenstephaner brewery. Festbier goes hand in hand with Oktoberfest, a time for fun and getting soused that began in Germany in the early 1800s and has since spread to other parts of the globe. Festbier is one of many strong, tasty lagers that reach some of the world’s marketplaces a bit before the Oktoberfest season begins.

Those beers reminded me that the time of turning leaves and Thanksgiving dinners is approaching. And I felt mighty good about that. Not only do I love the colors of turning leaves, I love the whole idea that oceans of green morph into something very different, something very spectacular. What a show! It’s astonishing to me that the extravaganza takes place at all, and it undeniably is something to look forward to again, once it’s over.

And I’ve always been into Thanksgiving, a holiday of simplicity and, for those of us who are fortunate, one of being with people you want to be with. Not to mention Thanksgiving dinner’s crown jewel, pumpkin pie, which, when prepared correctly, is even better than pumpkin ale.

But that’s only part of the picture for me. I’m also drawn to fall because my birthday is in late October, the heart of the season. And though I no longer get thrilled when my birthday comes around, I don’t get depressed either, despite my hourglass becoming awfully damn low in the grains of sand department. That’s because I’ve built a psychic connection to my youth, when October was the greatest month of all. That link softens the blows of frigging Father Time.

More than anything though, I think my attraction to autumn is a reflection of my emotional structure. There’s something wistful about autumn in the falling leaves that follow the color explosions. And the sense of slowing down that comes with the season, as the amounts of daylight noticeably shorten, is comforting. As are the cooler temperatures that pretty well guarantee that shvitzing like a pig won’t be happening again anytime soon, unless I move to Florida in a couple of months.

Wistful . . . that’s a side of me that’s always been there, one I’m very much at ease with. And taking things somewhat slow . . . rarely a bad idea. Yes, fall is an extended occasion in which to flow soothingly, to get my oh-wow groove on, to smile internally.

Next month my wife Sandy and I will spend some days on Cape Cod. Going there in autumn has become a ritual for us. The Cape’s summer crowds will be long gone. The incredible Atlantic Ocean coastline will be ours to hike with relatively few members of our species around to break the spell of water, sand and sky. As always, I’ll feel happy, decently centered, wistful and relaxed all at the same time while on the Cape. The sunsets will be lovely and the nighttime air will be crisp. And, oh yeah, the lobster rolls will taste great. I can’t wait.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments. Mucho gracias.)

A Better-Than-Usual Walk Around My Hood

It was hot as hell two Fridays ago, as in 90°F (32°C), a temperature that usually makes me want to stick to the comfort of my air-conditioned house. But come 2:30 PM I was getting restless. And so, grabbing a cap to shield my hair-challenged pate and a pair of sunglasses to make me look like a movie star, I unlocked the front door and stepped outside. Ordinarily I don’t particularly like walking around my neighborhood, part of a suburb a few miles from Philadelphia, because I’ve seen it a million times and because there’s nothing much here that’s going to knock your socks off. But what the hell  . . . I needed to stretch my legs.

And stretch them I did on that tail-end day of June. For an hour. Under a summer sun that was sending down heat rays as if there were no tomorrow. Luckily, it turned out that there was a tomorrow. If there hadn’t been, then I wouldn’t be at my writing station right now, pecking out this ultra-fascinating tale.

What with the heat, a lesser man might have decided quickly that he’d made the wrong decision, that he’d be better off back inside his cozy house where he could resume reading the collected works of I. C. Fairley-Farr, the all but forgotten British existentialist whose philosophy is best summed up by a simple phrase. To quote him: Life is for living, water is for drinking, and . . . shit, where’d I put my distance glasses?

Stumps I, II And III

But on that day I wasn’t a lesser man. Nope, for some reason the brutal ball of fire in the sky wasn’t bothering me. And for some reason, right from the get-go, I found myself enjoying the walk. Why, only half a block from my house I noticed something that on another day might not have registered at all — three neat and concise tree stumps on the lawn of a church. Transfer them to the grounds of an art museum, give them a title such as Stumps I, II And III, and they’d gain esteem as a fine piece of minimalist outdoor sculpture. See? There’s always an alternative way of looking at things.

And how about the township park and playground behind the church? There wasn’t a soul there, not even on the basketball courts. Yeah man, I had the neighborhood to myself!

Well, not really. Still, during the walk I came upon only 25 or so people, many of them unloading this or that from their cars, and not a one of them out for a walk. And I crossed paths with but one dog. I exchanged hellos with its master who, positioned on his home’s front path, was eyeing me with mouth slightly agape. It must have been my sunglasses. In them, I’m a ringer for George Clooney. Or so I’ve dreamt.

Suburban jungle

Block after block I wandered along, going downhill on some and uphill on others. My area is seriously hilly, almost San Francisco-worthy in places, and the upward climbs got me decently sweaty. One thing I realized was that I should have a much better working knowledge of the layout of my hood than I do, because I trekked upon a couple of streets whose names I didn’t even vaguely recognize. And I also realized something that I knew but hadn’t experienced in a healthy while. To wit, parts of my neighborhood are very, very heavy with trees and other foliage. Those blocks are a suburban jungle, a dreamscape in shades of green.

Tiger Lillies

On the other hand, most of my hood’s blocks, though cute in a comforting way, are kind of vanilla in appearance, including the street on which my house sits. But I found myself getting into the vanilla, grooving on those blocks’ occasional good-looking flower beds and other decorative touches that homeowners here and there have added to increase their residences’ wow factor. When I passed one abode with a fine grouping of Tiger Lillies, naturally I stopped to admire them. And to take their picture. I couldn’t have done otherwise, seeing that the house in which I grew up, forever ago on Long Island (near New York City), was blessed with large patches of Tiger Lillies. My heart since then has maintained a very soft spot for that variety of flora.

And the walk turned out to be a learning experience too. Only two blocks from my house are extremely tall metal towers. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 13 years, yet I’ve never known what the heck those towers do, if anything. For all I knew, they might have been decommissioned years ago after serving one purpose or another.

As it turns out, they are important pieces of equipment. They transmit messages to and among personnel of police departments, fire departments and 911 emergency systems. I know that now because, early in my walk, there was a worker at the towers as I approached them. I stopped to ask him what the towers’ functions are, and he told me. Yes, opportunity had presented itself, and I took advantage of it. Too bad I haven’t applied that principal consistently over the course of my life. Oh well.

As far as I can recall, this walk was the longest, time-wise, that I’ve ever taken in my neighborhood. I don’t expect my next venture into the hood, whenever that may occur, to resonate with me as satisfyingly as this one did. But that’s okay. I returned home mentally refreshed, feeling pretty chipper and somewhat seeing the brighter side of life. Not every walk is a keeper, but this one was.

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Clumsily Wrapping Things Up: New Mexico, Part Three

Hey, you in the back row! I see you rolling your eyes! I know what you’re thinking: “What’s wrong with this guy? Enough already about New Mexico. It’s time to move on, fella! Give us an article about your lifelong quest for the perfect jockstrap, or about your failed attempts to launch yourself to the Moon by using a mile-long rubber band. Anything except New Mexico, Part Three!”

Well, cowpoke, you’re plum out of luck. The conservation-minded Boy Scouts organization, in the early 1960s, taught me to waste not. And so I’m plowing ahead, about to squeeze New Mexico like a boa constrictor until a few ideas pop into my head. Take some deep breaths, Neil, and squeeze! Squeeze!

Oh man, it’s working. Something’s happening! I don’t know where this is going to lead but we might as well find out. Part Three, here I come!

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Okay then. As I indicated in Part Two, the grandeur of wondrous landscapes and seascapes is hard to appreciate fully, at least for me, when legions of your closest total strangers are practically breathing down your neck. That was the situation at Frijoles Canyon last month when I visited its gloriously pockmarked cliffs with my wife Sandy and brother Richie. Part of Bandelier National Monument, Frijoles for centuries was home to many indigenous peoples, who now are referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo. Due to a variety of circumstances they left Frijoles Canyon around 400 years ago, moving to other locales.

Frijoles Canyon/Bandelier National Monument

Sure, I thought the cliffs were magnificent. Heavy erosion over almost countless millennia has turned them into rutted works of glory. But their beauty never fully sank in because I kept getting distracted by people sharing the trail with me. “Get a move on, asshole. You’re holding up progress,” I could swear one of them had to restrain himself from saying to me.

And things became really crowded near and at Frijoles Canyon’s most famous site, Alcove House. It’s a large opening in a cliff wall, 140 feet above ground. According to the literature I read, about 25 Ancestral Pueblo used to live in the cave at any one time. Others lived in smaller elevated holes in the cliffs, though the vast majority of Ancestral Pueblo occupied tidy housing built at ground level, Frijoles Canyon and nearby lands having been home to several settlements.

The final ladder leading to Alcove House

Bandelier National Monument’s personnel have made it possible to climb up to Alcove House. They’ve done this by bolting four wooden ladders into the cliff wall. Rock steps separate one ladder from the next. Climb a ladder, climb some rock steps, repeat, repeat, repeat. Voila! You now are inside the alcove, looking out at, and down upon, the various landscapes.

The views from up there were great. And I got a kick from the ascent that had brought me to the aerie, and later from the descent. But not as much as I should have, because both directions involved a lot of waiting — there were at least 20 people in front of me. What the f*ck was this? Disneyland?

A paucity of people: That’s one reason why I liked Plaza Blanca, my focus in Part Two, a whole lot better than Bandelier. There are times in life when I just don’t want to be around many members of our species. They can spoil the picture.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

And speaking of pictures, I’ve studded this story with some photographs that please my eye. Shots of the Frijoles Canyon cliffs, as you’ve seen. And one of a home in Santa Fe so intriguingly constructed that its exterior seems to be on the verge of turning to gel. The house is one of several in that same pliant condition that I noticed during my walks around New Mexico’s capitol city.

I couldn’t resist adding the photograph of a bright yellow newspaper box in Santa Fe. It was the first of about 180 pictures that I snapped during the eight days spent in New Mexico. Nor could I resist the allure of a snazzy blue newspaper box in the town of Taos. Sandy, Richie, my sister-in-law Sara and your humble reporter visited Taos during a day trip from Santa Fe, where Richie and Sara live. Hell, newspapers have been having a hard time of it for the last 25 years. The day may come when newspaper boxes will be found only in antique stores.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

As for the remaining photos, something about their colors or off-kilter arrangements or juxtaposition of objects convinced me to immortalize them in cyberspace. They’ll thank me some day. They better.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Gentle (or not) readers, I am going to conclude my New Mexico trilogy with these notes: I did virtually no research in advance of or during this trip. I’ve become a lazier and lazier son of a bitch as the years have elapsed, so my dearth of research wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nevertheless, I believe that the trip was a smashing success. Sandy concurs with that judgment. I thought, correctly, that Richie and Sara would have a fine stash of ideas as to how we all might spend our time together. And everybody left plenty of room for wandering, whimsy and improvisation.

Chimayo, New Mexico

I’m not suggesting that anybody reading this story should skip doing research for their future journeys. You’ll need to do plenty of it, unless your tour guides are as good as Richie and Sara. But I am saying that there’s a lot to be said for frequently allowing gentle breezes to carry you here and there.

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Plaza Blanca Knocked Our Socks Off: New Mexico, Part Two

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about what I should include in the second installment about my recent adventures in sun-drenched New Mexico. Climbing up ladders attached to the sides of cliffs in Frijoles Canyon (part of Bandelier National Monument) — to reach niches within which indigenous peoples lived centuries ago — seemed a natural, as did viewing the deep and dangerous Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos village. But you know what? No more will I now say about those experiences, as excellent as they were, because wafts of inspiration caressed my face a little while ago. And, as I’ve learned over the last few years, one shouldn’t argue with inspiration. This story, therefore, shall be about Plaza Blanca.

Plaza Blanca

May 29, the last full day of my wife Sandy’s and my visit to New Mexico, found the two of us inside a Honda Accord being driven by my brother Richard. We were on our way from Santa Fe, where Richie lives with his wife Sara, to Abiquiu, an area famously known as the one-time home of the late, great painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Richie had printed out some information about the sights in the Abiquiu region and, 10 minutes into the journey, asked me to take a look. Scanning the pages I noticed a paragraph about Plaza Blanca (The White Place), described as unusually beautiful. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said. Nobody objected.

Luckily I found a website that provides precise driving directions to Plaza Blanca, because it’s not the easiest locale in the world to find. The final leg of the motorized segment of the journey was upon a dirt road. Expecting numerous ruts and holes, we were relieved to see almost none. Richie parked the car in Plaza Blanca’s small parking section. Then the three of us got out and looked around. From first glance we knew that we were in a special place.

We spent an hour hiking through Plaza Blanca, a masterful collection of rock formations not far from forested mountains. The sun was high in the sky, clouds were few, and the views, to employ a cliché, were awe-inspiring. I’ve gone limp now and then over the years from the beauty of what was in front of my eyes, but that hadn’t happened in a good long while. And, now that I think about it, I hadn’t been as stunned by a natural landscape or seascape since 1982. That was the year of my trek through the high Himalayas in Nepal, the one truly astonishing adventure of my life.

And I wasn’t the only one to gaze in wonder at Plaza Blanca’s cliffs and columns, or at its other wildly surreal sculptures. Sandy and Richie were as spellbound as me. We were in a stark fairyland where strange, beguiling shapes reigned supreme. The formations sat stoically, yet pleased with themselves. They knew that they are remarkable creations. I caught Richie staring unbelievingly at one vista, imperceptibly shaking his head and not quite knowing what to say except for the obvious: “This is incredible” were his words.


As for Sandy, she agreed when I suggested that Plaza Blanca likely was the most beautiful and fantastic landscape she’d ever set foot in. A compact expanse of desert, Plaza Blanca is where one might go to let the problems circulating within one’s head fade away for a bit of time. It’s where you likely will be able to engage undisturbedly with the powers of nature, since Plaza Blanca is off the beaten track compared to many other spectacular sites. Only two other souls crossed our paths as we made our way around. That was two too many, but it was far better than the hundreds you’d encounter at the Grand Canyon or at Yosemite.

A geologist I’m not, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, Plaza Blanca is the result of volcanic activity that took place roughly 20,000,000 million years ago, and of the subsequent effects of heavy erosion. Its cliffs and other structures are composed of varieties of sandstone and of other types of rocks. The place was drier than the driest bone the day that my trio was there. But I’ve read that flash floods sometimes develop during heavy rains, racing mightily between the giant pieces and with the potential to sweep incautious visitors away.

Georgie O’Keeffe, From The White Place. Image copyright: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe was smitten with Plaza Blanca (as she was with much of New Mexico). She wandered around and painted in The White Place many times. Her desert homestead was about 15 miles away. I wouldn’t mind owning one of her renderings, From The White Place, pictured above, which she painted in 1940. It would look smashing on a wall beside my living room sofa. I doubt if the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where the painting is housed, plans to put it up for auction anytime soon. If they do, however, I’m ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $20,000,000 or more that will be required to make it mine.

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

As I mentioned in my previous essay, staying very hydrated in New Mexico is the thing to do. The Sun there can be brutal. I’d been downing water conscientiously before arriving at Plaza Blanca and continued to do so during my hike on site, but there was no point in taking any unnecessary risks. My companions must have felt the same way. Without discussion we took our last looks at Plaza Blanca, immersing ourselves in its glory. And then we made our way out from between the art works and headed back to the car.

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(All photos are by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin, with three exceptions: Richard Scheinin took the photo of Sandy and me. I took the photo of Rio Grande Gorge and the one of Sandy and Richie.)

Flowering Trees Were Calling Me: A Stroll Through Chestnut Hill

On April 9 of this our present year, I went out in search of signs of spring, which was damn well taking its time in arriving. Though I didn’t come up empty-handed, the cupboard indeed was awfully bare. Naturally, having donned the hat of writer a few years ago, I wrote about the expedition, publishing the story six days later.

In the interim, however, nature began bubbling halfway decently in my region. To wit, two or three days after the 9th I began to spot some flowering trees in bloom. Finally! Spring was coming out from behind the curtains.

Now, I had no particular plans to place a second springtime-related opus into the ethers of cyberspace in 2018. Believe me, more than enough of those bad boys are already up there. But it turns out that I couldn’t resist. Last week’s Monday clinched the decision for me. Conditions-wise the day was ideal. The skies were so blue, my knees went weak looking at them. The temperature was 68°F (20°C), one of my favorite numbers on the dial because it meant that if a stroll around town would cause me to break a sweat, the sweat would flow only minimally. Ergo, a stroll was in order. But where to? I hadn’t been in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia for a while. It’s a large, beautiful area, countrified and quaint and pretty hip. A village unto itself in effect, Chestnut Hill is almost always a good place to pass your time in.

Callery pear tree

At about 2:00 PM I jumped into my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. Eight miles later I was in Chestnut Hill. I was psyched for the impending walk. And I knew what my focus would be, photographically anyway. While enjoying the pleasures of the day I, for no brilliant reason, would take pictures mostly of flowering trees.

Saucer magnolia tree

I spent an hour and a half in Chestnut Hill, walking along all nice and relaxed. Everything was quite peaceful. I heard but one barking dog, unlike in my suburban nook where barks are as common as dandelions. And though lots of cars were on the roads, not a one of their drivers honked within my range of hearing during my excursion. I don’t know, maybe Chestnut Hill is a magnet for good quality canines and humans.

Getting back to spring, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that it had a long way to go. I mean, 90% of the non-flowering deciduous trees (maples, oaks, whatever) had no leaves on them whatsoever, though the budding process was under way.

But the flowering trees were another story. Though there weren’t as many of them as I’d have liked to see (and I assume that all members of the flowering varieties were in fact blooming), there were enough. And I took a good look at every one I passed. Who can resist gentle creations aglow in creamy whites, pretty pinks and other reddish shades? Not me.

Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking west
Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking east

One block in particular was a wonderland of sorts. I speak of W. Southampton Avenue. I was heading downhill on Germantown Avenue, the steeply sloped main drag filled with clothing boutiques and restaurants and other shops, when a marvelous mass of white blossoms caught my eye. They were attached to a series of cherry trees that occupy a good bit of W. Southampton, a residential block. I crossed Germantown Avenue and dove into the milky white scene. From Germantown Avenue I hadn’t noticed it, what with my strong case of myopia, but a petal storm was going on. Dropping from the trees in big numbers, petals were floating through the air rhapsodically. Man, it was beautiful. I was all set to lay myself down on the sidewalk and go blissful. But then I remembered that I’m not so good at going blissful. Shit, I knew I should have enrolled in a Zen Buddhism program years ago! You live and you learn. Sometimes.

Well, I snapped some pictures of W. Southampton, hoping like crazy that I’d capture some mid-air petals. If you look closely at the photos that I’ve included you’ll see a few. They and their siblings were a sight.

Saucer magnolia tree

Ah, the mystery of petals. Towards the end of my walk I found myself ambling along a stretch of sidewalk covered with pink ones. They had fallen from a saucer magnolia tree, which nevertheless was still grandly laden with flowers. The next day, at home, I gave a bit of thought to those and the other petals that I’d encountered in Chestnut Hill. So many already were off their trees, even though the trees had been in blossom for less, probably, than two weeks. Seems a shame that the great flowering-tree show comes and goes as quickly as it does. If its design had been left up to me, I’d have commanded that it last for two months or more. A magnificent extravaganza, it’s worthy of that, without question.

Not long after stepping through the carpet of magnolia petals, I found myself back on the block where I’d parked my old Civic. I liked the way my car looked, demure and cute despite the large blotches on its trunk and roof, as it waited patiently for me in front of a small, adorable cherry tree. The tree’s bone-white blossoms contrasted righteously with the Honda’s deep green paint. A photograph of the scene cried out to be taken. A few minutes later I got into the Honda and made my way back to the burbs. A flowery excursion had come to its end.

P.S. I’m indebted to Karen Flick, landscape manager at Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to flora. I sent some of my photos to her, and she identified the trees for me.

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A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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He Whose Thumbs Are Anything But Green Visits The Philadelphia Flower Show

I’ve a close friend who oohs and aahs and maybe even finds her reason for being when she goes to the Philadelphia Flower Show, a massive and annual event that attracts numerous gardeners and other assorted nature lovers. Yeah, the Flower Show means a lot to her. She attends every year with her sisters, excitedly looking at exhibits both grand and small and sniffing out ideas that might be applicable to her garden. Basically, she loves to get her horticultural groove on. She was there with her female siblings two Mondays ago, devoting five hours of her life to the enterprise. And, I’m sure, had a remarkable time.

As for me, on the other hand, I never entertained the idea of going to the PFS until two years ago. It’s not that I don’t like to look at flowers and other plants  — I do! — but I guess the notion of seeing them indoors in artificial settings never rang my bell sufficiently. What’s more, I’m not in the market for floral or other gardening hints that undoubtedly would aid the small patch of land upon which my suburban abode sits. Hell, the subject just doesn’t interest me. And, I’m not embarrassed to admit, my thumbs are so far from being green, flowers and shrubs sprint down the block faster than Usain Bolt when they see me coming.

But in 2016, after having dwelled in or near Philadelphia, my adopted city, for about 40 years, I had a change of heart. Why not go, indeed? The Philadelphia Flower Show is enormously popular (200,000 or more bodies take it in each year) and known around the world. The time had come to check it out. Which my wife Sandy and I did. We had a pretty good time.

One thing I learned at the show in 2016 is that flowers hardly are the only focus. Maybe it once was strictly a floral endeavor, but those days are in the far away past. Now pretty much all of nature is fair game. In the interests of accuracy it wouldn’t be a bad idea, I’d therefore say, if the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, which has been putting on the extravaganza since 1829,  changed the event’s name. How about Flowers N More R Us? No? Well, I’ll give it some more thought.

Anyway, for many years now the Flower Show has had a theme, a different one each go-round, to which about a third of the floor space is devoted. The displays within the themed section are the event’s biggest draw. The rest of the square footage is taken up by that to which the theme does not apply: small-to-medium scale floral and other plant displays, flora competitions, horticultural product vendors, and by refreshment stands. Two years ago the exhibits in the themed section had nothing to do with cultivated flowers at all, or with any other examples of horticulture for that matter. That’s because the topic at hand was the USA’s national parks, which, duh, are wilderness or near-wilderness regions.

This year, though, cultivated flora was a part of the story in the themed district, which was dubbed “Wonders Of Water.” Still, the untamed substantially ruled, as a recreation of a tropical rainforest — rainforests, duh, being environments in which human hands play little part (except when man is leveling them, which is what our blighted species loves to do) — held 2018’s center stage position.

I’m not complaining, by the way. It’s all to the good that the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has expansive viewpoints that encompass much of nature, not just the human-tailored parts of the picture.

Admirably, I’ve now attended the Flower Show twice. Because on March 6 of the present year, the fourth day of the show’s nine-day run, Sandy and I entered the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which is in downtown Philly and only inches away from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Flower Show took up a whole lot of the enormous structure’s acreage. I’ll say this about the quarters in which the PFS was staged: If you’ve seen one airplane hangar, you’ve seen ’em all! If I owned a hat I’d tip it to the Horticultural Society for having given it all they’ve got to transform an antiseptic mega-space into something more than decently attractive.

Getting back to that rainforest, it was a beautiful, sprawling installation. Colorful, fragrant and dense, complete with misty rains dropping from on-high in one (or was it two?) spots, and a not-bad facsimile of a waterfall, it dominated the Wonders Of Water area in nothing but good ways. Truckloads of show-attendees clogged the pathways that wound within and around the rainforest. The Flower Show clearly is not the place to go for anyone seeking to get away from it all. Not that the crowds were unpleasant. They weren’t. Everyone seemed relaxed and respectful of their fellow tribe members, whose numbers included high quantities of young children and individuals who needed canes, walkers or wheelchairs to get around.

Of the sizeable number of displays other than the rainforest in the Wonders Of Water zone, three grabbed me more than the rest. How cool was the Spring Thaw exhibit, its pretty flowers abloom in a meadow being fed by melting waters from mountain peaks. And how aridly spot-on was the desert mock-up in which cacti and other life forms thrived in their own stark way, making do with very little of the wet stuff.

Plenty of water (in an irrigation ditch), however, was present in the tulips field display. Those flowers jolted the eye in washes of yellow, purple, red and other members of the spectrum. I’m a sucker for splashy swaths of color, so I spent quite a lot of time letting them raise my spirits. There, more than anywhere in Wonders Of Water, the name Philadelphia Flower Show truly applied.

Sandy and I passed many minutes together in the themed section. Then we separated for a while, she investigating the sections of the show outside the Wonders Of Water boundaries. I however stayed within those boundaries. The creations there satisfied me very well, and I felt little desire to stray.

Before we knew it, two hours had passed. Sandy by then had rejoined me and we decided to call it a day. Our visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show had been a good one.

But that’s not the end of the story. I’ve given the visit some thought in the process of composing that which you now are reading. And I’ve come to realize that what the show had to offer me, beyond its immediate delights, was the impetus to get out into, and explore, nature. I imagine that such is one of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s main aims in mounting the exhibition each year.

I have plans to head west to New Mexico in 2018, where my brother and sister-in-law recently moved. There I’ll mosey around the deserts, remembering, of course, to lather on sunscreen beforehand, as all good little boys and girls should do. And, closer to home, in fact only seven or so miles away, I’ll hike the trails inside Pennypack Park, a nine-mile long forest, bordered by residential streets, that runs through Philadelphia’s northeast section. Call me crazy, but I plan to try and hike the park’s entire length in one session. The last time I walked that far in one day was when I was in my 30s. I’ve recently tiptoed into my 70s, so who knows if nine miles is within my engine’s capabilities. If I make it all the way, and even if I don’t, you can bet your sweet bippy that I’ll be writing about the expedition on this blog’s pages.

Thanks, Philadelphia Flower Show. I enjoyed you quite a lot this year. If I remain above ground for a good while longer, then I’ll see you again.

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(All photos are from March 6, 2018. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)