Northern Vietnam Trip Log.

Reading Time: 19 minutes

Day 1 Hanoi

Welcome to the chaos of Hanoi. The humidity and heat hang in the air like a wet blanket. 

Tube Houses on Hanoi Street

Welcome to the sidewalks: tube houses ten feet wide and six stories tall, scooter parking lots, pedestrian walkways, dining areas, shops, and places where people live out their days and work. I’m told the narrow tube houses arose because taxes were based on the storefront size. Post-trip research supports this, but the architecture lived on because the property is expensive and population density is high. It was and is cheaper to build up than buy more land. 

Traffic

Welcome to the streets: scooter traffic, pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, cart-pushers, car traffic, and places to sell things. The boundary between the road and the sidewalk has nothing to do with the curb. The streets are alive with the sounds of drivers honking at one another and the smells of food grilling on sidewalk barbecues. Intersections are mesmerizing, watching traffic weave its cross-hatched patterns without incident. The indoctrination to Hanoi is crossing a street without getting hit. It is an act of faith and strength, and the weak don’t survive. 

My indoctrination continued with a military jeep tour of the city. Our (Guy and myself) guides were Tring and Huyen, who both have excellent English language command. The famous Hanoi railway that runs within inches of houses was not operating because of an incident of nearly hitting tourists. We stopped by a bridge reported having been built by Eiffel, the same architect that built the Eiffel Tower. It looks like an Eiffel Tower laid on its side. We passed by the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Before going on display in Hanoi, his body survived seven years in a freezer in Russia.

We visited with a Vietnam war survivor, Duc, living in a building complex fronted by a downed B-52 left as a historical marker in a pool. He was born in 1960, the same year I was born. His house was decorated with urns and multiple-framed folk art prints, and he served us astringent green tea and peanut butter brittle. The conversation turned very intense in the tearful retelling of his memories of the war. He has memories of John McCain’s capture. I’m not sure of the translation, but the emotion was unmistakable. My memories of the Vietnam war are through second-hand stories and television reports: “a guy next to me was turned off like a light bulb,” the images of the helicopter lifting off the embassy during the evacuation, the reports of the Mai Lai massacre (they knew that only one man was convicted), and Nixon’s illegal carpet bombings of Cambodia. Duc’s message is that war is a lose-lose proposition. I like the symbolism of the B52 sheet metal that he has incorporated into his garden, literally picking up the pieces, building with them, and moving on. 

On the rest of the long ride, I learned from Huyen that :

* The people’s religion is respect for ancestors and local shrines.

* Water, energy, and communications are state-operated.

* The state provides public health and education but is augmented by private versions, sometimes in the same building.

* The trash all goes to a giant landfill outside Hanoi.

* She studied German; her favorite series is “Never Have I Ever.” 

* She is young enough (22) to never have lived in an occupied Vietnam.

* The youth are angry at inflation, which, while understandable, is not as bad as being angry at someone dropping bombs on your head.

Later that night, Guy had us on a brew tour. Our guide was Lan, an effervescent young lady that smiled for the entire four-hour excursion. She is absolutely adorable. She is five feet nothing tall and led us, and two other big guys, fearlessly about the city. She says she has no fear of walking around by herself at night. What is it with American cities? The night was my introduction to the sidewalk cafe, with its red plastic kindergarten seats, short tables, piss holes in crumbling cement closets, and street food. I can’t say I care much for fizzy, 3.5% beer, craft, or otherwise, but maybe it’s what keeps the streets safe from tipsy drivers in the chaos.  

Day 2 Ninh Binh

The bus for Ninh Binh was leaving at 7 a.m., about two hours before I was planning on getting up. We spent over five hours on a bus for three hours of activity. 

Trang An in Ninh Binh province was our introduction to the fascinating karst landscape of Northern Vietnam. We took a river ride down the Sao Khe River on Vietnamese woman-powered row boats. Unlike other row boats, the rowers face forward. It helps with the steering and lets them watch their passengers. Once I learned I could paddle, I laid into it for most of the trip, mainly for exercise but also to help our rower. I had heard that the daily two-hour rows take their toll on women’s bodies. They chew on some type of intoxicating leaf to ease their pain. The penalty for drug use and trafficking in Vietnam is death. 

We powered our way through the imposing karst landscape shrouded in rain clouds, visiting temples along the way. High water prevented entrance to the caves and flooded the temple grounds. The platform of the water temple was completely underwater. 

After the ride, our tour group dined in the restaurant. In the spirit of trying new things, I sample goat blood sauce. I’m not sure if because I knew what it was or not, but I didn’t like the texture or the taste. Blood of any kind is off my menu.

Running out of time, we had an abbreviated tour of the Buddhist Bai Dinh Pagoda complex, offering incense to giant gold-colored Buddhas and admiring the view of the surrounding Ninh Binh flood plains from the top of the Bao Thap Tower. When I asked how old the place was, the guide told me it was built in the early 2000s. It surprised me, expecting the answer of centuries, if not millennia, old. Post-trip research suggests there is an old temple and a new one, so maybe the guide misinterpreted the question narrowly, thinking I was referring to just the temple at which we were standing.

After the long and tedious two-and-a-half-hour trip back to Hanoi, Guy took us to an expensive 20-course tasting menu at TUNG (Twisted, Unique, Natural, Gastronomic) restaurant. It’s not my style: overeating food makes me feel dirty, and being served too little makes me feel cheated, so it’s a no-win scenario. The portions were small, and I didn’t throw in the towel until dessert. It was a bit overwhelming, and I only remember the foie gras because that is something I had written about in a book. Duck liver is another thing I will never order again. The wine was pleasing, each course was interesting, and the presentation was thoughtful. But would you ski for a minute, jump on a surfboard at a wave machine, skydive in a wind machine, hike up a trail for a tenth of a mile and say you had the experience? 

Day 3 Ha Giang Loop Day 1 Hanoi

Red River

On what would have been the first day of our transit of the Ha Giang Loop, while waiting for the delayed arrival of Chris and Hetal, I rode with Hoan, our guide, the leader of our trip for the next eight days, to Ba Vi National Park to the west of Hanoi. On the fifteen-minute walk from the hotel to the motorcycle shop, it felt like I was wearing the humidity like a winter coat in a heated car, so I rode without my motorcycle jacket, violating my ATGATT (All the Gear, All the Time) training. On the way out of the city, I only briefly negotiated the insanity of Hanoi traffic before Hoan led to a lightly traveled road that followed the red river. 

Huon and Yours Truly

We stopped at a restaurant where an expressionless young lady named Emily served us. I figured Hoan probably had some regular stops where he knew people and maybe even raked in a little commission for the effort. I asked Hoan about tipping, and he told me if I left a tip, that person would remember me for life. So I left a small tip, and as we were suiting up, a beaming Emily came out of the restaurant to see us off and thank us, still holding the dong (Vietnamese currency) in her hand. Her face had brightened from blank to supernova so she might remember me for at least a few days. The tip was worth every dong, unlike most, which feel like a tax. At each of the following stops, we met another Emily. I figured maybe the name Emily was a job requirement, but what I learned is that it is just a way of addressing a person, usually younger and female, em being the word for sister. 

Ba Vi

We rode up the mountain on curving and usually wet roads to a saddle between the summits. I made Hoan hike up the 1200 stairs to the top of the taller twin peaks to admire the Buddhist temple and the view. 

On the way back, we stopped for a half hour to sit out a downpour. 

Hoan wanted to make it back before rush hour to avoid the traffic, but delayed by the rain and the hike, we hit rush hour traffic dead on. I can only describe that experience as a two-hour bike walk and balancing act, trying not to hit the person in front of me and not step on the toes of the people on either side of me. A scooter, bus, or car immediately filled the slightest gap in front of me. Traffic signals are mere suggestions and not rules. While Hoan explained that honking is their way of saying hello, clearly, there is a set of drivers that bully their way through traffic, laying on the horn and riding inches off the back tire of the vehicle in front of them. It took us about two hours to go that last ten kilometers.

Comparing the five-hour bus ride to and from Ninh Binh against the eight hours of riding on the motorcycle to and from Ba Vi was the difference between impatient boredom and exhausted exhilaration.

Day 4 Ha Giang Loop Day 2 Hanoi to Vinh Linh Family Homestay

On the following day, with the full complement of our motorcycle gang now assembled, we headed north out of Hanoi to Yen Binh. Because of the one-day delay, we had to make up time. The drive out of Hanoi followed the Red River. Hoan took us down side roads to the main highway. Farmers use the streets to dry rice on tarps, spreading and turning the seeds with wooden rakes. We had to drive through drying hay completely covering the road. The day’s lesson was that no road is too large for agriculture nor too small for a truck. 

It’s always interesting to see what people will carry on a scooter or how many people can fit. A typical configuration would be kid, dad, kid, and mom all squeezing together on one bike. The craziest carry-on of the day was the guy carrying torpedo-sized propane tanks. I couldn’t help but wonder what his hazard duty pay was. 

A typical “restaurant” stop was a sidewalk cafe with traditional red plastic foot-high chairs and a low table to match. We quickly fell into a routine of ordering a 333, Hanoi, or Saigon beer, drinking the 3.5% beers more like water than alcohol, along with our multi-course lunch of rice, wraps, tofu, soup, boiled chicken (not a fan), and the specialties of the house.

With daylight fading, we ended up at Vu Linh’s family homestay (Hoan’s family homestay), working our way around the workers, blocking the dirt road to the house with a hay shredder. Hoan invited us to dinner with family, including daughter, wife, mother, and father, serving us a multi-course buffet. Dad tried to drink us into the ground toasting each shot with Howmedo’s (Thank you in the local language) with the local homemade rice wine. Mom, daughter, and French lady dressed in traditional garb. Hoan shared his father’s writing of local customs, which is impenetrable in the local language. I love the homestay concept. It’s a beautiful venue for having an intimate and unpretentious encounter with a Vietnamese family.*

Day 5 Ha Giang Loop Day 3 Vinh Linh Family Homestay to Hi Giang City

In the morning, we headed north to the city of Ha Giang, following scooter trails around the eastern perimeter of Thác Bà Lake, crossing narrow bridges, viewing the placid lake with its mountainous backdrop, and driving through agricultural obstacles of drying rice and hay covered roads. The hay covered the entire road for short stretches, leaving no choice but to drive right through it. A man dragging thirty feet of rebar was the strangest cargo of the day.

Leaving the lake and the flat terrain, we rode the busier main highway to take us into Ha Giang. I had one flat tire obtained inbound to the city. I’m not exactly sure where it went flat, but I was riding on a nearly deflated tire when we pulled up to the hotel. My attention on the way in was distracted by another problem. A biting insect managed to land and sting me through my kevlar riding jeans, leaving a welt about four inches in diameter. 

We stayed at Khách sạn Yên Biên Luxury catching up to the non-motorbike contingent of our tour, giving me a nice view of the city from my eighteenth-floor room. As the name suggests, it is an actual hotel, not a homestay. Taking a respite from the Vietnamese cuisine, we convened for pizza and beer at a place called “Pizza Here.”

Day 6 Ha Giang Loop Day 4 Ha Giang City to Phố Cổ

Because the flat was a rim flat, Hoan couldn’t fix the tire. He traded out the spare bike on the back of the support truck. We crossed over the river in the town, then rode out into mountain country and karst formations. On the rural road, I stopped to photograph a woman harvesting rice with her baby on her back, protected from the sun by a purple umbrella, and her mom. Hoan engaged her, and I learned the proper technique for slicing and clumping rice stalks: cut low at an angle, putting three or four handfuls together. Of course, doing that a couple of times is a lot different than cutting down the whole field.

Hoan advised us not to pay or tip the lady, explaining that it is not good to make it an expectation. I agree. Once such an experience becomes transactional, then I think it becomes significantly less authentic. Is it genuine culture when you sell it? When does the product become what the consumer wants it to be rather than what it is? Commoditizing culture is an essay for another time.

While I am on the subject, kids would wave to us as we rode through tiny villages. Some would reach out their hands for a slap. During the trip, I received the finger six times. One little girl with a big grin gave me the finger. Her finger followed me as I passed her. Given the big smile, I don’t think she understood what she was doing, but someone told her to do it. Other faces had scowls and disdain written on them. It was a tiny minority. I can understand why someone would not be excited about foreigners racing through their town on noisy bikes, stirring up the dust, the dogs, and the roosters. 

From here, the ride headed into the picturesque karst mountains. We stopped for a bathroom break at a spot with an overlook of a Hmong village, people working their gardens and yards. We drove to an incredible overlook of a verdant u-shaped valley split by a ridge terminating into a karst cone. On this narrow, mountain-hugging road, a woman passed me on a scooter, keeping my ego in check. Hetal bypassed this section of the motorcycle ride to go straight to Dong Van. Unfortunately, the driver got lost. She ended up visiting the Nho Que river early but arrived at the homestay much later.

Phố Cổ is built right up the base of the karst mountains. They even use the wall of one as a billboard to advertise the town. I wondered how many advertisements would adorn the mountain if something like this existed in America. All the karsts would probably be named after companies. Our homestay was right across the street from a square with outdoor restaurants and a few storefronts from the karaoke bar. Vietnam will never be the same. As Chris says, you can never unhear that sound.

Day 7 Ha Giang Loop Day 5 Phố Cổ to Coa Bang

Rain. Slick conditions. And heading up the mountain passes on ribbon-thin roads. We stopped at a pass between two karst coneheads for a view. The brave climb the conehead. The courageous step out onto an unprotected black rock tongue. The crazy do it in white clogs and an evening dress.

We continued down this path, my back tires sliding on the hairpin turns onto a paved path, maybe two feet in width, until we reached my point of fear. I don’t have the skill to negotiate ninety-degree downhill turns on a slick path. So Huan, Chris, and I walked the bike down the thirty foot with me not on it. 

The scenery took a turn for the spectacular at the overlook of the Nho Que river. The river is aquamarine and does a near-horseshoe bend around a karst formation. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to get on one of the boats to see the spectacular gorge from the bottom up.

Hmong Outfits

Hmong women sold organics outside the Panorama bar at the overlook. Someone told me the Hmong refused to move to cities at the demands of the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. The story sounds inspirational, but I haven’t been able to verify it. There are Hmong in Wisconsin. A diaspora.  

We completed the day with a ride to the Pac Bo Homestay in Cao Bang. For dinner, we sampled fried bees and bamboo, an unusual combo. 

Day 8 Ha Giang Loop Day 6 – Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfalls

In the morning, the woman proprietor tried to refund us money because we didn’t eat all the bee and bamboo, and the dinner roll was rock hard. We never complained, but actions speak louder than words. The place doesn’t receive many Western visitors, and she wanted us to have a reasonable opinion of the home. I’ve never heard of such an action before, so I have an excellent opinion of her business ethic. 

The weather took a turn for the worse with a promise of rain. I watched a touring Vietnamese girl in pumps and hip-flexor high shorts double up on her scooter with a transparent rain jacket. NTGNTT (None of the gear, none of the time).

To start the morning, we visited the Ho Chi Minh memorial park. With limited time, we bypassed the museum attractions and only took a short river walk to the cave where Ho Chi Minh reportedly hid and worked at a cave office and desk. While waiting on the stairs to the cave entrance, as about thirty Vietnamese men paraded by, I learned that the preferred shoe of men is the black leather penny loafer.

Young women come to this spot to enhance their beauty in the idyllic setting of the river, posing on the rocks with the river and thick trees as a backdrop. We watched a young artist parade all her friends, Ferris Buehler Chicago Art Institute style, down the river bank. Another posed La Grande Jatte style with an umbrella, a pointillist painting also found at the Art Institute.

Hetal made friends with two charming and well-educated English-speaking Vietnamese kids from Hanoi. Many people said “Ha-lo” as they passed, but that is about as far as they go with the English language. 

From the park, we rode in the rain for two solid hours, splashing through orange rivulets crossing the road and avoiding mud orange water buffalo. The rain and splashing soaked my socks and gloves, but otherwise, the rain gear did its job.  

We came to Ban Gioc the back way, down a dirt road paralleling the barbed-wire border. When we arrived, the authorities locked down the town for a fall festival. Only official cars were allowed in and out. So we had to backtrack to the front of the town. We found a very distraught Hetal, having sat with the driver and truck outside the barricade in a questionable spot with suspicious police wanting to know why they were there. Finally, we devised a plan to park the bikes and walk in. 

We checked into our hotel at Ban Gioc with enough time to walk down to the festival at the waterfall. We shared the view and celebration with five to ten thousand of our closest friends, still somehow managing to take a boat ride right up to the waterfalls, illuminated by a changing color palette of lights. After the boat ride, we ordered sausage and meat on a stick from a sidewalk vendor before retreating to the hotel for dinner and later drinks with our late-arriving companions.

Day 9 Ha Giang Loop Day 7 – Ban Gioc Waterfalls to Ba Be National Park

Rushed in the morning to meet a riverboat deadline, we took a no-nonsense ride to Ba Be NP. The conditions were sloppy and wet but without the previous day’s downpour. We saw one truck in a ditch, but the driver appeared to be squatting on the side of the road, talking into his cell phone, uninjured.

We made a brief stop at a knife shop. We watched the men work to make the knives while Hoan bought one for his wife. Talk about digging your own grave.

At Động Puông, we loaded the motorcycles on a river boat and cruised to Ba Be the back way. The river road traveled down a beautiful jungle-coated karst valley, passing through a karst cave on the way to the lake. From the south end of the lake, we road the short distance to the Minh Quang Homestay. The homestay overlooks fields on the south end of the lake. 

We dined with the proprietors on the upstairs patio, participating in the traditional Mot! Hai! Ba! Yo! ritual, drinking plenty of wine to close out the evening. 

Day 10 Ha Giang Loop Day 8 – Ba Be National Park to Hanoi. 

The trip back was fast and direct, attempting to beat the rush hour traffic. We achieved the goal, but Hanoi traffic is still Hanoi traffic, chaotic and close, yet somehow predictable. We said goodbye to Hoan with a few beers at an intersection-facing cafe, watching others negotiate the hazards of the street to their ends. The ride was everything I could have asked for and so much more. **

Day 11 Hanoi.

It’s the one too many. I didn’t have a plan. I went with Jake, his uncle, and his cousin to the Imperial Citadel at Thang Long. The Imperial Citadel has a history of a thousand years, serving many dynasties and kings in the past. Recently, it served as a command center and bunker for Ho Chi Minh during the wars.

After that, I wandered the streets of Hanoi for one last time. Interestingly, I found a Black Swan, a highly improbable event according to the literature. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Well, I proved to myself once and for all that black swan events, well, black swans, in any event, are real. I don’t know if I would call the trip a Black Swan Event, but it certainly was a very memorable one.

All trip pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1QRPSLT2RHgrHL0EvuPIVSui34fCVH6Rn?usp=sharing

  • Review of VuLinh Family Homestay

Beautiful home and accommodations. Spending an evening with the Vu Linh family was one of the trip’s highlights. Hoan welcomed us into his family with an intimate dinner and evening with his family and the other guests. Fantastic food and bottomless shot glasses of rice wine served with pride and enthusiasm. They are sure to make your trip to Thác Bà Lake memorable.

** Review of Offroad Vietnam

If you are brave enough to take on the traffic and back roads, riding a motorcycle in Northern Vietnam is as good as it gets. An unforgettable adventure of spectacular riding from the mayhem of Hanoi traffic to the hidden lakeside byways to twisting ascents over mountain passes to mountain-hugging ledges. Offroad Vietnam tailored the trip to our requested itinerary and provided excellent motorcycles and support throughout the journey. Our Offroad Vietnam guide Hoan is a skilled rider with a decade of riding experience. He showed us roads and trails we would never have found, considered, or negotiated if we tried to ride by ourselves using Google maps. He bridged the language gap for us, making our encounters with the friendly people of Northern Vietnam more personal and rewarding. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Offroad Vietnam again if and when I make it back.

Living the K-drama

Reading Time: 8 minutes

While the missiles were flying from North Korea and the weather forecast for Seoul predicted temperatures somewhere between 25 and a thermonuclear 250 million degrees Celsius, my attentions were more focused on soaking up the K-drama culture in Gangnam and Jeju Island. I knew Kamala Harris had my back with her visit to the DMZ.

Gangnam-gu


My real intent was to spend time with my son Max. He has been living in Korea on and off for a couple of years to pursue his e-gaming career. Max was effectively more jet-lagged than I during my visit since I interrupted his stay-up until 5 in the morning and sleep until mid-afternoon gaming schedule. By the way, he told me Gangnam is pronounced pretty much as you would expect. To me, that was gang-nam, as in street gang and Viet-nam. Of course, it is pronounced nothing like that. Gahn-yum is the closest I can get.

According to the K-drama “Glitch,” food always comes first in Korea, even before alien abductions and end-of-the-world scenarios. Why get abducted or vaporized on an empty stomach? So in the most pleasing “My Mister” style, Max and I visited restaurants with wooden picnic benches, stoves, kimchi bars, and Soju in the restaurant row of the trendy Gangnam District in Seoul. Max did all the ordering, so not entirely sure the names of all the dishes we consumed. It was fantastic watching Max converse in Korean. On the first night, we had Korean beef with lettuce wraps, which I think are called Ssambap. There was a spicy crab side dish that we didn’t know how to eat, so I had our waitress coach us on the finer points of dining. Despite her above and beyond the call of duty effort, we didn’t leave a tip. Tipping is considered rude and frowned upon. Service is always expected to be exceptional. The custom seems so much more civilized to me.

On the next day, after wandering about the streets of Gangnam and pedaling along the Han riverfront, we stumbled across a Kyobo bookstore in the underground Sinnyeon subway shopping mall. I picked up “Crying in HMart,” a memoir by Japanese Breakfast. She takes her name from the orderly perfection of a Japanese breakfast, something that her young life was not. The book is a tribute to her mom, who died young of cancer, and recounts the author’s troubled formative years, often at odds with her mom and frequently through the memory of the Korean dishes her mom prepared. I couldn’t keep up with all the different recipes, but I’m getting smarter. Gimbap is seaweed (gim) rice (bap), the preferred dish of the Extraordinary Attorney Woo. It’s not much different from a California roll. Bibimbap is mixed (bibim) rice (bap). Ssambap is a rice (bap) ssam (wrap).

Underground Subway Mall

Later at night, we had Korean pork and potato soup with enoki mushrooms while watching K-drama customers enjoying each other’s company, sucking down their Soju from green bottles on a Tuesday evening.

After a few days in Gangnam, we headed to Gimpo airport to fly to Jeju Island on Korean Airlines. In my K-drama series and movie experiences, Jeju Island is an out-of-the-way Korean escape from the demands of big city life. In the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (EAW), Jeju is a Korean retreat for an office team-building exercise based on the pretext of taking on a case involving 3000 won (about two dollars). The team quests for the best Haengbok noodles in Jeju. In the extremely dark and twisted love story “A Night in Paradise,” Jeju serves as a rural hideaway for a double-crossing young hoodlum. If the movie is any indication, there is quite a gangster population on the island.

For Max and I, the side trip was a two-night gangster-free stay in Jeju City. I wanted to rent scooters since it seemed like an excellent way to tour the island, but it’s surprisingly hard to rent a scooter there. The scooter rental websites aren’t foreigner friendly. Google translated the pages from Korean into English, but that doesn’t work so well on the date picker widget. My forty-eight-hour rental somehow translated into something like four hundred thousand hours, and at 40000 won per day per scooter, that worked out to something thirty-two billion won, just a bit outside my budget. Max wasn’t too keen on learning how to ride anyway. He tapped into his Korean knowledge base, and his friend assured us that we would be able to rent a car without a reservation.

We did manage a car but had a little trouble catching the correct bus. The rental companies provide their private buses to their not colocated remote lots. The lady at the rental counter sent us to area 3, station 8, but everything was labeled as a zone. We stood at zone 8, station 3, for a few minutes until we realized we should be at zone 3, station 8.

Transported to the correct lot, and having acquired a car, I wanted to drive. We headed east along the island’s north side to Hamdeok Beach, a destination chosen because it looked like the first decent thing to see in that direction. Max figured out how to program the Korean Language GPS navigation. The navigation persona insisted on warning us of “Danger Ahead” and advised us to drive at a “Safe Speed.” We saw no accidents and no construction, but after an hour or so of driving, we realized that our Korean Map female voice was warning us of speed monitors. The island is booby-trapped with what Max called “Speed Bumps,” but I call them tourist snares because I’m sure only inexperienced visitors like myself who can’t read the signs or operate the GPS unit get tickets from these traps. The lady should have said is drive at “Legal Speed,” so we would have realized much quicker that the danger was financial rather than physical. As far as I know, I did not get caught, probably because the savvy traffic ahead of me forced me to slow down at the right spots.
Jeju turned out to be surprisingly built up and congested. The driving scene to the Buddhist temple in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is only shot in the scenic Hallasan Mountain area, probably the only road on the island without a stop light every half mile. The scene and others led me to believe the island was more isolated and remote than it actually is. It took a long time in Jeju City traffic to reach Hamdeok Beach.

Hamdeok Beach

Jeju Island is volcanic. Hamdeok Beach has nice contrasts and a spectrum of colors, ranging from the white sand beach to shallow turquoise waters, deeper blue waters, and black frozen lava flows. We also encountered our first grandfather statutes (Dol Hareubang) working as end posts on a small bridge out to a viewpoint of the ocean.

Bridge Guarded By Grandfather Statues

We stopped for a drink and snack before pushing on.

Incredible Pastry

Running out of daylight, we missed the lava tubes, so we headed back to Jeju City to check in to the hotel by an inland route. The eighteen-story hotel thoughtfully (sarcasm) changed its name from the Avia to the Asia hotel to make things confusing.

Jeju City from the 18th Floor

Later, we ate barbecued beef, mushroom, and cabbage at 숙성도 F&B 별관.

Beef and Pork Stock

The server grilled our beef and mushroom dish in front of us over a pot of hot coals.

At the same time, Max and I observed my favorite K-drama tradition, drinking the bottle of Soju, following the excellent practice of keeping the other person’s Soju glass from going empty.


We picked up the trip the next day at the Manjanggul lava tube cave. The lava tube is an impressive underground cave paved and lit for a kilometer in one direction but continues several kilometers in both directions. The public trail terminates at a lava chimney of twenty-five feet, billed as the largest in the world.

World’s Largest Lava Chimney

From there, we drove to the island’s east end to see Seongsan Ilchulbong,” a volcanic caldera with a five-hundred-stair climb. I contemplated the entrance sign warning hikers not to attempt the ascent if they have a heart condition or if they have drunk to excess the night before. On the previous night, we managed to drink a bottle of Soju, but I fell asleep before making much of a dent in the second. The climb rewarded us with views over the “Sea of Japan” and the town of Seowipo.

Sunrise Peak

On the way down the trail, we were treated to the ritual dance and drumming of the mermaid women. The women divers of Jeju Island are famous for their cold water surface dives for sea critters.

Mermaid Women

From there, we drove south for a hike and a view of Seongsan Ilchulbong from the other side.

We drove some sixty stoplight-riddled kilometers along the island’s south side to Cheonjiyeon Falls. The falls are nestled inside the city of Seopwipo. Empirical observation on the short hike to the falls suggests it is a popular tourist destination. In other words, it was crowded.

Cheonjiyeon Falls


We drove through the volcano national park to return to Jeju city, I believe on the same road as Attorney Woo on her field trip. I recognized the tree-canopied, traffic-light-free and danger-free highway from the episode.
For the EAW crew, they came up with a solution of the case to resolve the problem of the 3000 won charge for passage over a road that incidentally routed over monastery land. The team finds a revered chef working in obscurity in a local monastery, having been outmaneuvered and run out of business by a competitor that stole his business but serves a substandard recipe of Haengbok noodles endured by the team. The EAW team always gets their noodle and wins their case.

In the end of “A Night in Paradise,” the vengeful gangsters catch up to the double-crossing hoodlum in Jeju with dire consequences for everyone involved. Spoiler alert, things didn’t work out well for the guy, the gangsters, or the love affair. The ending was perfect for such a dark movie, but that is all I will reveal.

For my ending, I managed to read the entire book, “Crying in H-mart,” while Max slept off his jet lag. I enjoyed volcanic wonders in Jeju and biking along the Han river, people-watching in Gangnam, eating Korean, drinking Soju, and watching Max work magic with his adopted country. I managed to fly from Jeju to Gimpo and take a train from Gimpo to Incheon for the next leg of my trip without incident. It was easier getting out than getting in, but that is another story.

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

Reading Time: 9 minutes

We backpacked forty miles in four days, with an elevation gain of five-thousand-five-hundred feet, and in many ways, I consider it a failure, or at least more of an ordeal than an adventure. I suffered dehydration, hit the wall, and failed to complete the originally planned Rae lake loop trail.

We drove up the day before to Sheep Creek campground, listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s (KSR) “The High Sierra: A Love Story” to pass the time and set the mood. One thing I know for sure, the title of this article will not include the words “A Love Story.”


The following day began discovering that a bear had violated my Prius. I heard something loud in the early night that woke me. I cowboy camped the whole trip, so I glanced over to look in the car’s direction, but a bear container obstructed my line of sight. I chalked it up to something at one of the other campsites in the distance. In the morning, the trunk was open. The doors were opened. The heavy battery charger was on the road, and the access to the spare tire was strewn about. But my expensive camera and my buddy’s cell phone and wallet were unmolested. I was lying in the open just twenty feet away. I’m curious what I would have done if I had seen a bear sniffing around in the trunk of my car. We reported the bear incident to Morgan, the Park Ranger that checked us in at Road’s End. She told us to act big and yell, “Bear Away!” They are trying to condition the bears to recognize the word bear as a warning. Although we heard reports of a bear on the trail on the last stretch just below Mist Falls, we never had a sighting of a bear.


The first-day hike began at 5000 feet altitude and ended nine hours and ten miles later at 7000 feet. Mist Falls put on a great show at the four-mile marker, with mist drifting down the river for hundreds of yards raining on everything in its path. During the last visit, another buddy reclined dry and comfortably on a stone in front of the falls. With significantly more volume in June than in late August, the rock was barely visible through the volume of water and spray.


KSR introduced us to psycho-geology as a way to explain the love of backpacking. KSR informed us that the Sierras are written in the language of glaciers. The whole valley is the remnants of glacial action. Aside from all the problems mentioned below, there is something special about looking down a glacier-carved canyon surrounded by spires three thousand feet over your head. One of the prominent features in the main valley is the horns left by a melted glacier.


The hike above Mist Falls is a stair-climbing and exposed grind. I stopped to talk with a girl and two guys sitting on a rock on the way up because that is what you do when you are getting your ass kicked by the hike. She complained about her short legs and climbing over the two-foot stone stairs. I told her I would trade my old body for her short legs. She asked about our backpacking experience. When my buddy mentioned this was his first one, she told us it was a hell of a hike on which to pop your backpacking cherry. Indeed.


By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley, my ass was officially kicked. The heat wave had something to do with my dehydration, but so did the thirty-five-pound backpack, the exposed trail, the 2000 feet of elevation gain, old age, and the simple failure to drink enough. By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley camp at the end of the day, my red shirt was stained with white salt streaks, and I hadn’t pissed since I left the campground and experienced mild cramping in my feet while trying to sleep. I wasn’t the only victim. Later, one of the guys of the cherry-popping trio, an experienced backpacker we were told, was puking but still made it all the way to Woods Creek. A couple of women hikers told me they lost a buddy to the heat and wasted most of the day waiting to figure out if their friend would make the hike or not. On the flip side, we passed by an older lady with more wrinkles than the canyon itself, covered from head to toe in clothing, making her way up to Woods Creek. Either she was more dehydrated than a raisin, or one tough old cookie. I am humbled.


I had already dug a deep hole for the rest of my trip, not the kind you take a crap in. I didn’t expect eighty-degree heat in the June mountains, but dehydration was mainly on me. After that first day, I forced myself to drink more, even when drinking water became almost repulsive.


The second day started with a river crossing. I watched Amanda cross with her backpack, poles, and swimsuit. While my buddy explored for a dry crossing downstream, I stripped to my skivvies, donned my water shoes, and followed her lead. Even at the widest point, the current was strong and the water cold, but I prevailed. When he saw me on the other side, he flipped the bird at me but found his dry log bridge.


After, we hiked the fifteen-hundred-foot climb from the Upper Paradise campground to the dully named Woods Creek, most of the ascent occurring in the first three miles. We trekked through pure KSR psycho-geology swallowed in the immenseness of the canyon. Vertical rivers cascaded down the sheer sides of mountains. A spire towered over, reminiscent of the Matterhorn. The distant mountains had a hazy view as if from an airplane window.


At about the end of the three miles, I hit the wall for the first time. If I were hiking solo, I would have turned back at this point, but my buddy said he wouldn’t make the decision for me. So stubbornness trumped common sense, and I pushed on. I wasn’t eating enough. In retrospect, my meal planning was downright foolish. I figured on two packs of dehydrated food daily and some snack bars. My total (un)planned packed calorie count was about fifteen hundred calories. I didn’t really do the math until after the fact. In reality, I should have planned on something like four-thousand calories for each day of the ascent. I don’t offer a defense for my abysmal planning, but those packets of dehydrated food are essentially worthless. They pack five hundred or so calories per meal. The containers claim to contain two servings. That joke is on me.


Two packets a day is only a thousand and some calories. Using those numbers, I should have packed eight packets per day for the ascent and four packages per day for the descent. I stuffed my bear canister full with only six meals and eight energy bars. If I had packed appropriately, at ten dollars a pop, I would have paid two-hundred and forty dollars for a four-day outing. On previous one or two-night backpacking trips, a couple of meals per day worked out fine, considering that I started the one-day uphills on a big-bought breakfast, spent the next day at location, and the last day coming down. My novice was showing, and it was embarrassing. The lack of proper food planning was entirely on me.


I suspect another downside of the heat was a mosquito and gnat bloom. I choked down a handful of gnats that got caught on deep inhales. On the upside, I’ve never seen so many bugs. Butterflies alighted two, three, and four to a flowerhead. Bees, flies, and bee flies buzzed about. Lizards sunned themselves on rocks and the trail, narrowly avoiding the tips of poles. If there is a psycho-geology, there ought to be a psycho-biology brought about by immersion in the wildflowers, insects, pine-scented trees, and animals. I was fortunate to spot deer, marmots, grouse, and a pika.


Having made it to Woods Creek at 5.1 miles and eighty-five-hundred feet elevation and eating a meal, I decided to shoot for Dollar Lake, a mere (haha) four miles and two-thousand-foot climb. My buddy took on my bear canister to lighten my load. Embarrassing.

On a four-foot creek crossing, I managed to step on a log that gave way and I ended up soaking my right leg. About a mile and a half up, I hit the wall again. For the first mile and a half, I would take a hundred steps and then stop to check my heart rate and take a second to get my breathing back to a normal rhythm. For the last two-and-a-half miles, I would take about twenty-five steps before being forced to stop to catch my breath. The air became thinner. The pauses became longer and the sit-downs more frequent. We passed a sign that said no fires above ten thousand feet. Near the top, when my buddy disappeared out of sight, I took a full-on, sprawled-out lay down on the rocks, entirely spent. My buddy reappeared a few minutes later without his backpack, bearing the good news that I was only a few minutes from Dollar Lake. He carried my backpack the rest of the way. Double embarrassing. The four miles from Woods Creek to Dollar Lake took five hours.


We made camp at the trout-leaping and beautiful but mosquito-infested lake donning the netting and Deet to ward off the blood-sucking brutes that wanted to drain what little energy I had left. Strangely, I had to force myself to eat my chicken and rice packet, the tastiest meal in my grocery bag of dehydrated food.


This brings me to my original mistake. I should have planned on a five-day trip instead of four. I overestimated the value of my training. I was routinely hiking eight to ten miles a weekend in my peak-a-week training hikes but at sea level and with a light ten to fifteen-pound pack. Of course, I expected the backpacking trip at altitude would be more difficult, but I did not expect it to push me beyond my limits. Given that I corrected my other mistakes, a five-day trip with one major climb per day might have been manageable for me. A good trip would be from Road’s End to Middle Paradise Valley on day one, from Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek on day two, and finally from Wood Creek to Rae Lakes on day three. Each segment is about seven miles and includes one major climb per day, leaving two days of ten miles downhill each.


In the morning, my buddy wanted to go back the way we came. Thank god. Just squatting to take an outdoor crap left me breathless. I don’t see how I would have survived the one-thousand-plus feet ascent over Glen’s Pass. If I did manage it, it would have taken me four or five hours to make the two miles with another seventeen miles of travel. Extending the trip to five days was out of the question because I would be out of food and out of TP.


We packed up and headed down the way we came. We met the two healthy members of the cherry-popping trio headed up as we were headed down. They left their puking buddy down at Woods Creek while they made a long day hike with light packs to Rae Lakes. She told me the whole point was to see the beauty of the lakes. Thanks. Yes, I have a regret. It was a disappointment to not make the round trip and see the lakes, but it was the right decision.


As it was, we made the trek back to Woods Creek in just over three hours, down to Upper Paradise Valley in another four, and to Middle Paradise Valley in less than two for a total downhill distance of thirteen miles in yet another nine-hour day. On the last day, we hiked out the remaining 6.8 miles in less than four hours, stopping briefly again at Mist Falls, powered by the self-promise of a Diet Coke at Grant Grove Market and a burrito in Visalia.


Of course, downhill was much easier than up, but it was not without pain beyond mere fatigue for me. During my training hikes, I suffered from sprains and foot issues. On one hike, in particular, I experienced a knife-cutting pain in my right knee. I wore a double layer of socks, a knee brace, and ankle supports to combat these mechanical problems. I had no issues at all, possibly owing to my countermeasures. But on the ups and downs, I experienced burning pain in my hips. I tried to counter this with an Ibuprofen diet starting at two pills a day and increasing to six. Even though I had the energy and stamina to make it out, I still found myself frequently breaking to let the burning subside, to make the walking bearable, if only for a short distance.


We finally made it out. My buddy’s backpacking cherry was popped, and my backpacking naivete was exposed. Grant Grove Market didn’t have a Diet Coke, so I settled on a quart of Gatorade, which I made short work of. It turns out I hate plain water as a drink. Visalia came through with the best burrito. And I ended up at home, back to wearing my comfortable blue jeans, which KSR says are absolutely worthless. And loving it.

Pura Vida

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pura Vida: being happy where you are at in the present moment and finding life as precious for precisely what it has served you. 

Author’s Note: I don’t entirely agree with the definition. Read the Im-Pura Vida entry. But I would go along with appreciating the bright spots no matter how bright or dark the times.

Pura Vida is…

… riding with flashlights on a golf cart for an improvised night tour of the resort property led by Andresen. It is photographing the coveted red-eyed tree frog, an armadillo, a sleeping bird perched on one leg in a tree, and a dozen other frogs in the ponds and creek.

… walking five kilometers in the misty shadow of the volcano on the El Cabo trail in the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal to the overlook of Lake Arenal from the top of a lava flow. It is poking your head over the extended roots of a 400-year-old ceiba tree looking for velociraptors. It is finding pixels of color in the flowers of the otherwise dark and gloomy canopy. It is an orange butterfly and a red-striped butterfly sipping nectar with their nose straws from red berry-like flowers. It is hearing howler monkeys barking in distant trees. It is seeing my brother get insufferably pleased with himself when we walk by the re-parked car, letting us think it is still parked in its original spot at the end of a long lot. It is seeing cautionary crocodile signs of Peligro at the terminus of the Los Miradores trail on the shores of Lake Arenal.

… walking the five hundred steps down the side of a canyon wall to see La Fortuna falls. It is admiring the falls from a distance, then the mid-distance, and again right in our faces. It is swimming in the mildly chilly pool with falling water pounding its way to the bottom. It is spotting a school of fish stationery in the current hovering in the crystal clear water of the river. It is climbing back up the five-hundred stairs counting each one along the way.

… sitting under the roof of an outdoor patio listening to the rain change the notes from isolated drops to the orchestra of a downpour.

… drinking hot-pressed Costa Rican coffee for breakfast and eating fried ripe plantains.

… trying to figure out how to answer my niece’s poignant questions like, “When are you going to die?” and “Do you have any friends?”

… finding a moss-covered sloth up close instead of a distant clump of brown high up in the canopy.

Perisosa moves so slow an entire algal ecosystem grows on it.

… sitting in hot springs with the family drinking Imperials under cover of night.

… seeing the bright yellow flower foliage of the “Cortez Amarillo” dot the hillside on the frustratingly sluggish descent down the Pan-American Highway from San Ramone to the coast.

… driving up the twenty-five percent grade to get to the Casa Latte. It is talking to the two housekeepers in broken Spanish. It is checking out the incredible view overlooking the Pacific Ocean, watching yellow-billed black-bodied toucans fly from tree to tree, and once even right over our heads while stretched out on lounge chairs.  

… swimming in the Nauyaca waterfall-created pool after a treacherously steep and hot descent on a slippery dusty road booby-trapped with marble-sized rocks. It is admiring the two-tiered waterfalls from the steeply-cascaded lower tier. It is watching cliff divers flip into the lower pool without maiming themselves. It is about not making lethal choices at a river crossing on Google Map’s proposed shorter route to get back to the main road.

… returning to the property each night to watch and photograph an incredible sunset replete with dramatic clouds and horizon-banded sunset bows.

A Horizon Bow at Sunset.

… taking an hour and a half ride from Uvita to the beaches of Corcovado on a boat with two outboard 200 horsepower engines, stopping along the way to see white-spotted dolphins, squid-catching boobies, and leaping rays. 

Boobie with a Squid Catch

… satisfying my niece’s ambition to see monkeys as we watch spider monkeys migrate through the canopy in quest of mangoes even though one of the pits hit me in the head (aimed or dropped?) It is watching an anteater swing from limb to limb with its prehensile tail negotiating the canopy almost like it was a monkey. It is watching macaws chatter back and forth in a tree at the edge of the rain forest overlooking the rocky beach. It is seeing two Jurassic Park compies scampering on their two hind legs. It is sitting in a pool downstream of the waterfall, getting a nice back massage from a small cascade while admiring bottomless bikinis.

Find a Mango Tree, You’ll Find a Monkey

… leaving Corcovado as two Macaws fly wing tip to wing tip over the sandy beach to the backdrop of palm trees in the near distance and cloud-shrouded mountains in the far distance.

… walking out onto the sand and rock fluke of a whale at low tide for a swim in the salty, warm water of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. Oh yes, and to surreptitiously look at bottomless bikinis.

Fluke of the Imagination

… imbibing a 750 ml bottle of Imperial at Las Delicias Bar Y Restaurante.

… seeing the other three kinds of New World monkeys at Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio: white-faced, howler, and squirrel monkeys. It is listening to a white-faced monkey crunching on the bones of an identified and unfortunate rodent. It is watching brazen white-faced monkeys put on a show close up in the shade of Manuel Antonio Beach. It is observing an iguana sunning itself in the sand, a helmeted basilisk clinging to the trunk of a tree, leaf-cutter ants marching in line waving their green flags, and a tree frog peering out of a knot in a tree. Let’s not forget to mention surreptitiously looking at bottomless bikinis.

… watching the lights of Alajuela from our patio at the Xandari Hotel while finishing off the second bottle of wine.

Leaving Costa Rica through the Worm Hole

… having the good fortune to break down in front of the Casa Antigua Hotel, where Henri and his Chinese partner (woman) helped us get ahold of the rental car agency, held onto the key until the repair truck arrived so we could get to the airport before our flights departed, and called a taxi to take us for the airport. It is returning later after a missed flight to get served a late-night dinner and beer after the kitchen was closed. It is sitting around a scenic outdoor garden and pool instead of in a stuffy airport with no access to a restaurant or bar. It is finding a ray of light in an otherwise miserable couple of days.

http://www.casaantiguahotelcr.com/

… reading the entire “Ice Crash: Antarctica” novel while stuck in airports in two different countries. It is chatting with Jeany who chose to return to LAX by way of Panama City instead of Aeromexico.

Muskoxen

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From my youth, I remember the photos of snow-bearded muskox huddled together in an outward-facing circle to protect one another from the arctic blizzards. They are to the cow as the wooly mammoth is to the elephant, a stringy-haired relic of the ice age that didn’t get the memo to go extinct. They only live in the tundra of the far north latitudes surviving on lichen and moss during the harsh long winters.  

One of my ambitions was to watch and photograph these beasts in their native habitat on our trip to Deadhorse, Alaska.  From our ship container(-ish) hotel room, the hotel manager told me that they were on the river’s edge earlier in the day before we arrived. He peered out the window across the road and toward the river but didn’t see any. He said they might come back later in the day, although that might have been a trick answer because the day in the Arctic summer is two months long. So I checked every couple of hours through the course of the nightless day during our twelve-hour stay and on the trip in and out, but the ice age creatures failed to reveal themselves.

Two days later, back at Fairbanks, we overnighted in an Air BNB place that was interestingly called the Musk Ox house. In the morning, looking out the back window onto a field behind the house, I saw a large black mass of fur which I guessed to be a grizzly bear. So I bravely or foolishly grabbed my camera and ran out to capture a photo trophy. You have probably guessed already that the grizzly bear was in fact a muskox. It turns out one of the few herds of captive muskox live at the U of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station which just happened to be in the backyard of the overnight rental.

So I saw muskoxen although not really on my terms. Which now that I think about it, might actually be the underlying theme of our trip. Hashtag on #prudhoe for more on the trip, if you are interested.

Author’s note: subsequent research tells me that muskoxen are more closely related to goats and sheep than cows. (https://uaf.edu/lars/animals/muskox.php)

Photo Finish

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The two racing rocks rush towards the finish, nose-to-nose, bump-to-bump, head-to-head, toe-to-toe, or whatever feature one ascribes to bowling ball size rocks engaged in a heated race over a temporarily undry, ice-glazed lake. All that we spectators get to see is the final moment frozen in time in the wind-eroded tracks in the rehardened and now dried mud, stretching back to the starting point seemingly out of nowhere. Not every rock at the race track is hell-bent on winning. Some have an artistic bent painting lazy loops or perhaps engaging in the calligraphy of secret rock words.

The excitement of the events takes place largely in my mind, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the sights of Death Valley. The ruggedness of the mountains expresses itself in folded contours of chocolate brown, rust red, sandy tans, lava blacks, and bruised purples. The ruggedness of the valley expresses itself in a snowfield of salt flats, a lone creosote bush defying every effort to squelch its life, a naked caldera reminding us that Death Valley can add injury to insult at its whim and ever-shifting sand dunes that quickly erase all traces of its visitors.

A man tells me the racetrack is the most overrated attraction in the park, hardly worth the sixty-mile off-road trip (on motorcycles battling loose scree and dehydrating ninety-degree temps. I added that last part.) Barely visible rock tracks might not have the glamor of the artist palette, or the excitement of finding pupfish in a spring-fed stream, or the challenge of summitting a dune, or the admiration for carpets of defiant flowers, but the racetrack has the challenge of the trip, the rocks have the mystery of their movement even knowing the explanation, and it doesn’t hurt to indulge your imagination in a place that absolutely inspires it.

Besuty or Not Besuty? That is the question.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I meant to type beauty but I fat-fingered besuty, instead. I was going for the thought of subtle beauty but the sound of the malformed word seemed to capture the idea I was trying to express better than the original. Why not have an explicit word for subtle beauty? Serendipity is the bastard father of many an idea.

Well, any decent word should have an antonym and the opposite of besuty is the opposite of subtle not beauty. The phrase “raging beauty” comes to mind. So the antonym of besuty, in the interest of symmetry, must be beruty. So there you have it, besuty and beruty, my two attempts at new contributions to the English language. And as a kicker I’ve extended the grammar with the idea of an infix, meaning a change of root directly and systematically as an alternative to using a prefix or a postfix, as fitting to modify the root beaut-, a new twist on the expression of inner beauty.

But I digress and enough neology and cleverness for the moment. Let’s get to the hypothesis I originally intended. In this time when so many leaf-peepers are posting the beruty of fall foliage in four-season climates, those of us living through the hot and dry season of our two-season Mediterranean climate still have much in the way to offer with besuty, but we will have to work harder for it. It’s there. It may be small. It may be hard to see. It rarely reaches out and grabs us like the radiant colors of pre-dormant trees or the mega-blooms of spring or the majesticness of a mountain. As besuty suggests, it’s subtle and easy to miss.

Given the alternate hypothesis, I now state the null hypothesis as, “Hot and dry is not beauty. It is common and dull.” Let me see if I can change your mind. What do you say?

The first capture is a dried-out fern I found under a bush. The sunlight lit up the fern like a revelation. I post-processed it to black and white. I think black and white shows off the interplay of light and shadow better than color.

Fern Tree

How about this star-shaped flower carcass? It inspires images of weathering windmills that have lost their willpower to wait any longer for the winds.

The Windmill

The curtain hangs in Hellhole Canyon, consumed in Paradise and Witch fires in 2003 and 2007. The black char has faded to grey and new foliage grows slowly out of the base of the post-fire stumps. The wavy arms of the gray limbs could very well be the skeleton of the flames themselves.

Curtain

The dark centered circle gives this the appearance of a bush of eyes, the all-seeing tree in the chaparral. It’s quite common along the trails in the area, but does common preclude besuty? Or is it exactly the reason we fail to see it so often?

The Tree of Eyes

I love the abstract pattern of the whorl, the contrast of purple and green in the blades, and the threat of sharp-tipped barbs.

Whorl

How about the forest of fronds? The brown and gray make one last stand before crumbling back into the ground. Does it remind you of an above-water coral reef?

Frond Forest

Besuty or not besuty, that is the question? My brother would ask, art or not art? I enjoy the thrilling beruty of grand images and intoxicating colors as much as the next photographer but don’t forget to look for the besuty in the common as well.

High Rises (in a Dr. Suess book)

Poetry in a Picture

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Freeway Bird

Bird still, on a chain-link fence,
Its backyard interstate, racing whence.

Shimmy of shiny reflection exposed,
Disappears menacingly into dark holes.

Goldfinch Pair

Finch pair perches, differences abide,
Surveying the same differently, side by side.

Golden Puffball

Golden downy tuft of fluff,
A thorny thistle once sheathed it tough.

Diamond Back

Diamond-studded viper lies in wait,
serpentines away when I don’t take the bait

Scrub Jay

Jay chased from its day,
squabbles at me, “Get out of my way”

Orb Weave Spider in Web

Cross king centered on its thrown,
the threaded palace is its home.

Kit Rabbit

Wide-eyed kit sits alone,
Naive to a world, it’ll barely know.

River lake to the ocean wends,
Under a sea of fog, it ends.

Taking photos, leaving only prints,
You now have the record of my stint.

Night Splatter

Reading Time: < 1 minute

How about a whole new genre of photography? Night splatter photography. I call the abstract one you see, “Particle Chamber.” As my brother would ask, “Art or Not Art?” If it says more to you than I should invest in a better tripod, I say “Art!”

Gitten’ Any?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In my head, I planned on a challenging hike but as the day wore thin, I settled on the familiar territory of the North Shore of Lake Hodges choosing to focus more on exercise than on photography. Nevertheless, I follow the first rule of photography, always have your camera ready, even though your expectations are low.

As I start the hike, a man passes by asking me if I am “Gitten any?” My camera is strapped over my shoulder, and I know what he means, but the immediate in-my-head response is, “not in a long time.” I actually respond with the truth from all perspectives. “Trying.”

I have a couple of hours before sunset, so I decide to walk the upper rim of the Lake Hodges Canyon to see if it meets up with the trail to the summit of Bernardo Mountain, which I know would take me back to the main trail, preferring a loop trail to an out-n-back anytime. I tried once before but ran out of daylight and had to head back the same way I came.

The problem with the overlook trail is that it is marked obsessively with “No Trespassing” signs. According to the signs, the truck trail is for access to sewage lines by the water authority people only. The tire tracks of a hundred mountain bikes say otherwise. So do other signs that say we grant you passage as long as you don’t sue the pants off us for your issues. So I pin my water authority badge to my chest and march on.

A turkey vulture circles overhead playing tag with the sun, at least from my ground perspective, as he rides the thermals. A small two-foot gopher snake, with its spotted backside, almost matching the dimpled patterns of the bike tread stretches across the truck trail. It doesn’t seem too perturbed by my presence, which is a little bit worrisome, because if it stays stretched across the road for any length of time, the patterns on its back will become an exact match to the treads of an unwary mountain bike. I try to get a picture of it forking its tongue at me but the critter is uncooperative. I held the camera in place for a hundred count a couple of times. Of course, as soon as I gave in, the uncooperative creature forked its tongue at me. I finally gave up and moved on, the day not growing any longer on my account.

A little way down the trail, the sparkling sunlight off the lake catches my eye, inspiring me to try to capture a blurred bokeh with the glint of the snaking lake in the background. Lake Hodges is a dam lake that follows the curvature of the San Dieguito River canyon.

On a previous outing, near this spot, I came upon a roadrunner being harassed by a mocking bird. Instead, I find a tree full of lesser golden finches. Lesser than what and by whose standards, I don’t know and they are not telling.

I push on. As I round a corner, I see a mule deer on the road. It surprises me to see one so out in the open. His antlers are just starting to come in. This is the second sighting of mule deer I’ve seen in two weeks. I’ve been hiking in San Diego County for forty years and I’ve seen at most twenty-five in all that time. I’ve never seen any in this area before. He lets me get a little closer before diving into the bush. He gives me one last look over the shoulder to see what my intentions are. My intentions are to take advantage of the photo op.

The sewage access road turns into a driveway but a single track trail dives into the riparian woods surrounding a small creek that feeds into the lake. I take the trail and I’m pleasantly surprised when I end up on the flank of Bernardo Mountain, not quite as far into the mountain access as I envisioned but happy when the trail emerges onto the Bernardo Mountain trail. I don’t have to do an out-and-back. I snap a few thistle remains, still photogenic in my mind, even without their brilliant neon blue day-glow flowers.

I rejoin the main trail that traverses the length of the North Shore interrupted only by a couple of crayfish, or do you say crawdaddies, at the creek re-crossing on the main trail. I didn’t expect much on the way back other than a lot of bike traffic. I stopped to take a failed photo of a very Suessian orange and white buckwheat flower shaped like a soccer ball or a flavorful dangling lollipop.

As I walked under the I-15 expressway, I checked under the bridge to see if any swifts were out and about from their mud nests that hang under the eaves. Instead, I had an encounter with a praying mantis hanging out on the top of a post of a chain-link fence. He thrust and parried a few times to chase me off but then went back to his praying.

With a snake, a deer, a praying mantis, some landscape, and some previously undiscovered trail, I remembered the guy I met when I started the hike. Yeah, I got me some!