Death Valley days

Near Furnace Creek, Death ValleyFuneral Mountains. Starvation Canyon. Deadman Pass.

The names are not subtle, as Death Valley is not a hospitable place.

Hottest, driest, lowest–it is a land of extremes. In July 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere, 134 degrees, was reached at Furnace Creek. Daytime summer temperatures of 120 or greater are common. On summer nights, the temps cool down to the nineties.

I chose to enter it in the dead of winter.

The valley was named by a group of Gold-Rush speculators who got lost while attempting a shortcut to the mining fields. After facing numerous topographical obstacles, the so-called Lost ’49ers arrived near Furnace Creek.

In treacherous terrain,  the miners’ covered wagons were of no further use. Some walked out. Some waited for help. Eventually, all but one escaped the valley alive.

Upon leaving, one survivor provided the epithet, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” Continue reading

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Town and gown

King's College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

English cities York and Cambridge were both settled in the Stone Age and ruled in turn by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

Over the centuries, a fascinating cast of characters walked their streets while making history.

York, a quintessential market town, served as world headquarters for four different Roman emperors.

Cambridge, home to one of the oldest and finest universities in the world, inspired both Isaac Newton and Pink Floyd.

Oddly, its founding was prompted by a spate of killings. Continue reading

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Mersey beat

Cavern Club, LiverpoolSo ferry, cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay.

–Gerry and the Pacemakers, 1964

My daughter, Allie, called going to Liverpool my pilgrimage. Maybe it was.

In the summer of 1963 I was 12-years-old and on the cusp of entering junior-high school. Most people recall those transitional years between childhood and adolescence as awkward. Many, including me, struggled to manage more freedom, new social skills and raging hormones.

One evening that summer, I walked with a friend to a party at a swimming pool in my neighborhood. From a distance, we could hear strange electrified thumpings and twangings. A high-school group, the Vandals, performed, playing garage-band nuggets by the Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”), the Safaris (“Wipe Out”) and the Beachboys (“409”).

The musicians were only two or three years older than me, but seemed like grown men. Girls fawned over them. I was mesmerized by it all–the music, the swagger, the adulation. It had never occurred to me that someone close to my age in my hometown could do what they were doing. Continue reading

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Castles and dragons

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The legend of Gelert, the hound, goes like this: During the early 1200s, the ruler of what is now Wales was Llywelyn the Great. (Like Smokey the Bear, the was Llywelyn’s middle name.)

One day he went hunting, leaving his newborn son at home in the care of an inattentive servant. Upon Llywelyn’s return, he was greeted at the door by his favorite hound, Gelert. The dog was covered in blood and Llywelyn’s son’s cradle was empty.

Believing the worst, Llywelyn drew his sword and, in a rage, killed the dog. As the hound’s final yelping died away, Llywelyn heard the faint cries of his baby son, lying unharmed beneath the cradle. Nearby was the body of a dead wolf. Gelert, the hero, had defended the baby and killed the wolf.

Overcome with remorse, Llywelyn buried his faithful hound with great ceremony and, so the legend goes, was never able to smile again.

Llywelyn the Great, unsmiling, greeted me as I stepped from the train in Conwy. Continue reading

Posted in Wales | 6 Comments

Walking the Mother of Wales

Penmon Point, Wales

Penmon Lighthouse and Puffin Island

A year ago I hiked a loop through the Cotswolds, an area in England known for its rolling farmland and quaint villages. This year, I traipsed a section of the coastal path around Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales.

The Isle of Anglesey was known as Mam Cymru (Mother of Wales) during the Middle Ages because the island’s fertile fields could feed the whole country.

The trail around Anglesey is 128 miles long, passing through green pastures, scrubby heath, sand dunes, salt marshes, pebbly beaches, mud flats, towering bluffs and the occasional woods. Along the way I visited castles, ate fresh seafood and attempted to field questions from the Welsh about the US presidential election, a topic which endlessly fascinated them. Continue reading

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Island cities

Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Gamla Stan

In the climactic scene of The Goonies, the kids stumble into the grotto where One-Eyed Willie’s treasure-laden pirate ship is stranded. They gaze at their discovery in wonder.

I felt the same amazement when I came face to prow with Vasa, a nearly 400-year-old, four-story warship in near-perfect condition on display inside Stockholm’s Vasa Museum. Ninety-eight percent of her wood is original! The multi-level museum spirals around the ship, allowing her to be viewed from every angle.

Vasa was built and launched in 1628. In her day, the 226-feet ship was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world with two decks of cannons. However, upon launching, Vasa proved top-heavy. The ship foundered and sank just forty minutes after leaving the dock. Continue reading

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Fjord country

Balestrand, Norway

Balestrand

The Vikings had nowhere to turn but the sea.

Their home, the ragged west coast of Norway with its deep fjords, sheer cliffs and countless islands, is unsuitable for farming.

And so, the Norsemen developed sophisticated longships and advanced navigation techniques, which enabled them to expand and dominate their world.

They raided and colonized northwestern Europe, including parts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Iceland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia and Newfoundland in North America.

Over the centuries, their influence waned as various empires rose and fell. Today, the Kingdom of Norway is slightly larger than New Mexico with a population of over five million.

Again, however, the sea provided Norway with a pathway to wealth. Continue reading

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