Sunday, October 16, 2016

Everything went black

Last night, at about 7:15 p.m. -- as I sat in the living room, a cat on my lap, peaceably reading a book -- everything went black.  And silent.  As though death had caught me unaware, leaving my spirit to ponder the meaning of the situation.

I quickly realized, of course, that the power had gone off.  Not unexpectedly.  The news media had been full of stories about an impending storm that had been gradually working its way across the Pacific from the neighborhood of the Philippines, and had the potential of hitting Seattle with force seen only once in a decade. Winds up to 150 mph had been projected for the Pacific coast.

But within the past few hours, the weather reports had become gradually more sanguine.  There were suspicions that the brunt of the storm was heading more toward Canada.  Outside my house, it had been raining all day, but the winds hadn't been exceptional.

So the blackout caught me by surprise.

I prepare for emergencies by having a number of prayers at hand, suitable for all purposes.  And a flashlight.  I groped my way into the kitchen and got the flashlight.  I returned to my chair, and resumed sitting there in the dark, hopefully, while my cats -- I suspect -- studied my face quizzically.  I waited for a fast return to power.  I posted my neighborhood's plight on Facebook.  No one else on-line seemed affected.  They were babbling on about the political campaign, the Huskies, and the Seahawks. 

It's hard to confront an environmental crisis in the middle of a bustling city, while everyone else goes about their normal business.

By about 8 o'clock I was getting bored.  I wouldn't have done well, spending nights in the Underground during the London Blitz.  I did have my iPhone, but I worried about using up all my juice before first responders could arrive to rescue me from my blackness.  Finally, I gave up.  To my cats' consternation -- they have a fine sense of time, and the appropriate time for different activities -- I went to bed.

I woke up to the dawn, sunlight flooding the room.  Oh -- that isn't sunlight.  I had thought to turn the light switch "on" in the adjoining room, before turning in.  I was thus awakened by light at about 11 p.m. 

I got up, had a late dinner (at an appropriate hour for Barcelona, perhaps), read for an hour or two, and went to bed for the second time that night.

This morning, the Seattle paper congratulated Seattle on having escaped a disaster of epic proportions.  Seattle City Light reported that only 708 customers, citywide, had lost power because of the storm.  Wow!  I feel so special.  As though I'd won the lottery.

Life is back to normal.  The entire affair was de minimis, as we say in law.  Hardly bloggable.  Sorry about that.  Maybe next time I can report on a major earthquake.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hiking in Crete

Summit of Mt. Gigilos
The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.1 

Chania, where my plane from Athens landed, is a town on the north coast of Crete.  It lies in the far western portion of the island, far from Knossos and the Minoan sites about it, far from the island's capital at Iraklion (or Heraklion), far from most of the major events of the British resistance during the war, and far from the more frenzied portions of the tourist traffic.

But Chania is Crete's second largest city, and a sprawling town, whose sprawl is not immediately obvious to the newly-arrived visitor -- he finds his fascination focused on the compact and labyrinthine  "Old Town," clustered about the harbor in front of it, a harbor that sports an unbroken line of cafés and watering holes.  After three days in Athens, Chania gave me a pleasurable taste of the Greek isles, although Crete is by far the largest of those isles.

I had but a night's sleep and a few hours for exploration before meeting up with my hiking group back at the Chania airport -- there were 14 of us, all but me from England.  Our guide, a French native who spoke accent-free English, gathered us together.  We were herded into vans and driven a couple of hours due south into the mountains, to the rural "village" -- just several small hotels -- of Omalos. 

I had told friends repeatedly that I was going on a "Samaria Gorge" hiking vacation in Crete.  But the hiking organization labeled the trip as "The White Mountains of Crete," which was much more accurate.  The gorge walk -- one of those activities like climbing Kilimanjaro that end up on some people's "bucket lists" -- occupied only one day.  The trek as a whole introduced us to the entire White Mountains area of Crete, of which Samaria was but one dramatic feature.

The morning after arriving in Omalos, we began the climb of Mt. Gigilos, a good introduction to the White Mountains -- which are indeed constructed of white limestone -- and the most difficult day of the trek.  All the trails on Crete consist of loose stone.  My hiking boots lost so much tread by the end of the trip that they are now unusable.  We walked up steep, rocky paths -- greeted as we climbed by domestic goats which range free all over the countryside, obediently returning to their homes at the proper time -- and scrambled over carved limestone formations.  By the time we had returned to the trailhead, we knew we had signed up for a trek designed for serious hikers.

The next day, we departed from Omalos for good and began the descent into Samaria Gorge.  The descent was steep, but we were shielded from the sun by lovely evergreen forests.  We stopped for lunch at Samaria village -- a ghost town whose inhabitants had been evicted when the park was created -- where we discovered one of the hazards of hiking Crete in autumn:  hungry hornets.  The hornets were far more interested in our lunches than in us, but we moved on to windier areas where we could eat in greater peace.

After the village, we entered the gorge itself -- certainly beautiful and dramatic, but maybe not that much more dramatic than the similar but shorter and less deep "Narrows" gorge in Zion National Park.  At this time of year, the hike was entirely on dry land, but the creek clearly expands to fill the gorge in wetter seasons.  After ten miles of hiking, we reached the south coast at the small town of Agia Roumeli.  Agia Roumeli has no real history -- it exists to serve tourists.  Its streets and cafés gradually fill to bursting with hikers emerging from the Gorge, until about 5 p.m. when two ferries arrive to haul everyone off to either of two road heads for their return to Chania.  The town's entire character changes once the "day people" have disappeared.  Great views of the sea to the south and the White Mountains to the north.

After a rest day in Agia Roumeli, we headed eastward on a coastal path to the Finix peninsula, where we stayed at a tiny beach hotel just west of, and around the peninsula from, the thriving fishing town, cum hotels and many restaurants, of Loutro.  We stayed three nights at the Finix hotel (named, appropriately, "The Old Phoenix"), from which we climbed Pachnes, the second highest mountain on Crete.  En route, we visited a small chapel, marking the location on the south coast where some believe that St. Paul's ship was blown ashore during a storm while he was being taken to Rome pursuant to his "appeal to Caesar.".

Despite Pachnes's height, it was a far easier climb than Gigilos.  We were loaded into seated pick-up trucks -- similar to "tuk-tuks" in Southeast Asia -- and driven two hours up into the mountains.  We began the drive in heat and humidity, but long before we arrived we had added layers of clothes and even gloves.  From the road head, we hiked about two hours to the summit -- on a far more regular and gentle path than that ascending Gigilos.  Everything within view of the summit was brown, arid, and desolate.  The view has been accurately described as a "moonscape," and certainly had a haunting, other-worldly appearance.

At the summit, about half the group accepted the guide's invitation to wander about and find a more interesting way down.  We more sensible hikers were happy to return the way we had ascended, a decision justified by the grumbling and rolling of eyes by the others as they arrived back at the trucks an hour or so after us.

Finally, we were picked up by a motor launch from our very pleasant harbor hotel and carried about a half hour to a major highway back to Chania.  We there boarded a luxurious bus that seemed like an intruder from an alternative universe.  The rest of the group was taken directly to Chania airport for flights back to the UK, but I had a late flight back to Athens, and time for wandering and lunching at the Old Town's harbor. 

The trek was a fascinating introduction to Crete, and certainly whetted my appetite for more.  Knossos and all things Minoan still await my exploration!

1This Saki quote has no relevance whatsoever to anything presented in my post, other than its dealing with Crete.  I just liked it. 

For those interested, here is a link that will let you view my Facebook photos of the trip. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Getting prepared

Descending Gingilos

I planned to bounce out of bed this morning, drive 45 minutes east, and climb the 3,500 feet up Mt. Si for an unprecedented third time this season.  But I didn't bounce.  I fixed coffee, thought of other things I might do (things that seemed of trivial importance last night), and now find myself at my accustomed spot in front of my computer monitor.

I leave Seattle on Monday for my trek on Crete.  But before reaching Crete, I spend several days wandering about in Athens.  My first day of actual physical activity won't be until Sunday, October 2.  My last exertion of any note was my hike to Colchuck Lake, ten days ago.  I need a little booster shot of exercise hormones about now to keep myself conditioned for October 2.

October 2 will be a climb of Mt. Gingilos, near the start of the walk through Samaria Gorge.  After studying whatever I could find out about Gingilos on-line, I conclude that our group will be climbing approximately 2,500 feet -- similar to other hikes I've done this summer.  But the climb is rocky, and the temperatures will be hotter than the near-perfect in all ways temperatures of the Northwest Corner.  Part of the climb will be on scree -- loose gravelly stuff that increases the effort required significantly -- and a small part of it will be a scramble over boulders requiring use of hands.

Have they begun the trek with this obstacle course for the express purpose of weeding out old codgers like me?  Unanswerable.  In any event, the next day is the red letter day of the trek -- the ten-mile descent through world-famous Samaria Gorge, over a trail composed of rocks, until we finally drag our bodies into the village of Agia Roumeli on the island's south coast.  The following day is a free day, with optional hikes to "ancient Turkish forts," and the day after that is a walk along the coast.

On October 6, we drive part way up the mountain called Pachmes, and then hike to the top.  Again, perusing the internet, this seems to be an easier, although higher elevation, climb than was Gingilos.  And again, about a 2,500 foot climb.

So, this is nowhere near as rigorous -- or long -- a trek as my high elevation walks in the Chinese Pamirs last year, or in the Fann Mountains of Tajikistan in 2013.  But it also means we jump right into it with no easy warm up days, as are usually planned for longer treks. 

I'll be surrounded by Brits, and therefore need to uphold America's reputation, if any, for pluck and determination.

And so -- although I'm not climbing Mt. Si today, I almost certainly will be tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ghost Medicine

Troy, Gabe, and Tom are three teenaged friends, living in ranch country, somewhere in California, probably.  Some place where open pastures have been carved out of redwood forests.

Tom, the joker, the trickster, the coyote.  Gabe, the shy, sensitive boy, the kind one, the saintly one.  And Troy, the silent narrator, the brooding philosopher.

Troy's dad and Gabe's dad had been best friends as kids.  As adults, they still called themselves close friends, but, as Troy tells us, they are polite with each other like "members of the same stamp club or something."

[B]oth of those men just seemed to me like they never wanted to show how things really affected them, and it always made me wonder about the cost of growing up.

Andrew Smith's earliest novel, Ghost Medicine, is about many things.  It's about the silence of the open spaces and of the people who live and ranch there.  It's about friendship.  It's about caring for the horse who is both friend and transportation, about protecting cattle and goats from predators, about the way the sun reflects from nearby granite peaks at a certain time of day.  It's about Troy's theory that what happens, happens; that you can look back and sometimes see how you caused events to happen, but can never know in advance how an act will "ripple like the surface of a pond once a rock has been skipped," disturbing everything it touches.

But it's also about the "cost of growing up."

Troy, Gabe, and Tom have very different personalities.  They aren't given to rambling conversations with each other.  They tease.  They speak by staying silent, by joking, by spitting tobacco, by changing the subject.  Several women or girls, commenting on the novel on Goodreads, denounce the story as just one more irritating example of guys who never even talk to each other, and just go through life oblivious.  But these three guys know each other, and each other's moods, and each other's feelings better than they'll ever know anyone again in their lives.  They don't need to speak in complete sentences to communicate their ideas or their emotions.

Troy falls in love with Luz, Gabe's older sister.  Their mutual love is another central theme of the book, but it never overwhelms the story as it might in too many young adult novels.  Luz, too, is from the ranch community, and they understand each other.

As the novel moves into its second half, its mood darkens.  Small incidents, especially conflicts with the thuggish son of the local sheriff, "ripple" outward, threatening the quiet lives of Troy and his friends.  The boys make decisions -- which, in retrospect, prove to be poor decisions.  They ride together up into the hills, chasing the sheriff's son and his equally thuggish friend. 

We had been warned of disaster from the very beginning, and disaster has been foreshadowed throughout the novel.  Not everyone comes back down alive.  And those who do return are no longer the same boys.

But all three boys had been changing throughout the novel, changing as they reacted to their experiences.  They had been losing their boyhoods, becoming -- for better or for worse -- men.  Much earlier, Troy had spun a theory that every animal had a form of "medicine," and that the blood from a cougar they had just killed provided them with "ghost medicine" -- medicine that made you invisible to the eyes of others.  Much later, he muses --

I told Gabriel that ghost medicine was everything we could ever want; that it was more powerful than we knew, more than we could reckon with.  And in the end, I guess, it did make us disappear.  But it wasn't like a cheap illusion in a magic show, because we didn't realize that it took us in pieces, not all at once, and others could see those bits vanish away and I, we, could only feel them in ourselves, thinking all the time This is what I want, this is what I want, until those lost pieces revisit us in dreams and make us thrash and grab for them only to swish our sweaty, empty hands in the air.

The fears, the guilt, and the desires of the surviving boys cost them the innocence of their childhood, leaving them as adults. Adults, kind of like their dads.

Troy, Gabe, and Tom are three kids with -- compared to suburban kids -- an enormous amount of independence, self-sufficiency, and competence.  They cuss, they drink, they chew tobacco.  They have easy access to guns -- an access that is necessary for people on a ranch, but an access that invites tragedy.  During summer, when the novel takes place, they are largely on their own -- they have no "helicopter parents."

And they happen to be three of the most decent, kind, and "good" kids that you're apt to read about in today's literature.  Which is why so much of what happens hurts so much.

Three boys rode up there.
Not one of them came back.
Maybe all boys die like that.

Many young readers found the pace of the novel too slow, the descriptions too detailed.  They are used to more "action."  For those with the ability to savor the slow, quiet pace of outdoors life, I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ill Met by Moonlight

With my visit to Crete looming in less that two weeks, I just completed a quick re-reading of W. Stanley Moss's 1950 memoir, Ill Met by Moonlight -- his blow by blow account of how he and Patrick Leigh Fermor, as members  of the British Special Operations Executive ("SOE"), successfully kidnapped the general in charge of the German occupation of Crete in 1944.

The "memoir" is more accurately the belated publication of Moss's actual day by day journal, written beautifully under the most dangerous and uncomfortable of conditions.  Moss wrote in 1950 that he had deliberately refrained from revising his journal -- aside from clarifying information, printed in italic font -- preferring to let the freshness and youthfulness of his emotions at the time be revealed through his actual words, rather than tidied up at leisure under more comfortable conditions.  All the more amazing the detail and length of his daily entries:  The observations of his natural surroundings.  His reactions to the many persons -- Cretan, British, Italian, Russian, and German -- with whom he came in contact during the 48 days of his adventure.  His reading of classical literature while bored.  His contemplations of philosophical questions while staring at the starry skies. 

How atypical of war zones appear some of his journal entries.

Paddy and I spent the morning reading short stories aloud to each other -- this, because we have only one book left between the two of us.  Stevenson's Markheim, King Arthur and the Green Knight, Saki's wonderful The Interlopers ... it was all rather fun.  Then Paddy recited snippets from Shakespeare in German, at which he is adept; and we talked of mythology and lore and wondered if General Kreipe would look anything like Erich von Stroheim.  Minotaurs, bull-men, nymphs of Ariadne, kings of Minos, and German generals -- a splendid cocktail!

All this while hiding in a dry riverbed, within a day of the actual abduction -- the failure of which would most likely result in their own deaths.

"Paddy" Leigh Fermor, who was in charge, left it to Moss to describe the details of their operation.  Leigh Fermor's own favorite story was of trading memorized Latin quotations from Horace with the captured general -- while they were on the lam from the Germans deep in the Cretan mountains -- in what must have been one of the more civilized exchanges between friend and foe during the second world war.

Moss points out that General Kreipe, once captured, was well-behaved.  He agreed on his honor not to make any effort to prevent his evacuation to British-held Cairo in exchange for good -- almost fraternal -- treatment by his abductors.  Although an "old man" -- Moss estimated he must have been 45 to 50! -- he did his best to keep up with the their long nightly marches, at times riding a mule because of exhaustion.  He shared their uncomfortable days in wet caves, and their near-starvation at times, with only minimal complaining but with major lamentations about his humiliation and his accidental loss of one of his Iron Cross medals.  The general observed -- with perhaps some surprise -- how willing the Cretan mountain residents were to aid and assist the British, despite routine murderous reprisals by the Germans.

Upon eventual evacuation by small launch from a southern beach rendezvous point, the general, along with Leigh Fermor, Moss, and a few others, were taken to Cairo.  General Kreipe was greeted by the commanding British brigadier general with salutes and full recognition of his rank.  Moss notes that Kreipe and his British counterpart talked long into the night, with much drinking and loud laughter. 

At least in those days, war was a game for the generals, and a true sport always respects his worthy opponent.

On the other hand, the successful removal of the general to Cairo was not met back in Crete with the same sense of sportsmanship.  The German High Command issued the following order:

From now on all enemies on so-called Commando missions in Europe or Africa, challenged by German troops, even if they are to all appearances soldiers in uniform or demolition troops, whether armed or unarmed, in battle or in flight, are to be slaughtered to the last man. ... Even if these individuals, when found, should apparently be prepared to give  themselves up, no pardon is to be granted them on principle.  ...   [I]t must be made clear to the adversary that all sabotage troops will be exterminated, without exception, to the last man.

After considering this barbarity, it is pleasant to realize that both Moss and Leigh Fermor were men of civilization, curiosity, and advanced liberal education, and that both possessed lively senses of humor. 

After the war, Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor published a number of travel books, still eagerly read, and a novel.  He also translated Greek works to English.  He died four years ago, at the age of 96, and was the subject of many news stories about his life.  W. (Billy) Stanley Moss unfortunately died at the age of 44, but nevertheless had time to write two non-fiction books about his wartime adventures, including Ill Met by Moonlight, and three novels.  He crammed a large number of adventures into his short post-war life.

While I'm not a fan of war stories, Moss's book reads as a boys' adventure -- lots of excitement with the necessary killings taking place largely off-stage.  Moss and Leigh Fermor were the kind of soldiers who make you feel there is hope for humanity, even in the midst of sordid warfare.

I left the book, also, with the realization that a short seventy years ago, the British Empire still ruled the world.  The battle for Crete was an all-British affair, and Cairo was under total British dominance.  The Empire and its representatives, despite cracks beginning to show between the two world wars, still showed the confidence and self-complacency that America and Americans show to the world today.

Makes you think.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Colchuck Lake

I'm not sure what September might be like in other parts of the country, but here in the Northwest Corner, it's a hikers' paradise.  The sun is bright, but the air is cool.  The leaves are changing.  Just walking outside your own house in the morning is invigorating.  And the crowds of summer are off doing whatever crowds do in September.

Yesterday, I decided to nibble at the northern edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.  The smartest way to do it would have beeen to stay overnight in Leavenworth -- that little ersatz Bavarian tourist Mecca, some 35 miles east of Stevens Pass.  But I opted to drive to and from Seattle, making a long, one-day adventure out of the hike.

It had been a while since I'd driven U.S. 2 over Stevens Pass.  The scenery is spectacular, even from the windshield of your car.  The Cascades in this area take on strange, bizarre shapes, jagged against the sky.  Among the evergreen forests, you can now spot just enough changing deciduous trees to add flashes of autumn color to the background green.  And you pass through strange little towns with strange little names -- Sultan, Gold Bar, and, my favorite, Startup.

My objective was Colchuck Lake.  From Leavenworth, you drive 8.5 miles south on Icicle Road, then turn left on the unpaved road marked "Stuart Lake."  Four miles of potholes and washboard surface later, assuming your suspension holds up, you reach the trailhead at the end of the road.

The trail itself is pretty straight forward.  It starts out smoothly surfaced with a gradual ascent.  It becomes increasingly steep as you proceed, following Mountaineer Creek.  At about 2.5 miles, you come to a junction -- the trail to Stuart Lake on the right, and Colchuck Lake on the left.  Once past the junction, you cross a log bridge, and find yourself in a rock-strewn landscape.  I remembered my guidebook's admonition, kept right, close to the creek, and quickly found the path ahead.

The trail then becomes very rough, over rocks and tangles of tree roots.  Going up isn't so bad, but coming down I wished I'd brought hiking sticks (or a younger person's sense of balance!).  Once you reach the top, you have a great view of the lake below you, and of surrounding peaks.  I met a number of backpackers who were planning to camp at lakeside, and climb the next day over Aasgard Pass into the Enchantments.  Good luck to them!  The pass looked difficult and treacherous, from where I sat, munching on my lunch and sharing a few nibbles with a chipmunk who was practically sitting on my lap.  (I know, don't feed the wildlife.  But he pled with me so winsomely!)

I could have taken a snooze in the sun, but I hadn't started up the trail until noon, and didn't want to get back to Seattle at midnight.  The trail to the lake was about 9 miles round trip, about 2,500 feet vertically.  The climb took me about 2 hours, 20 minutes, and the descent -- picking my way down from boulder to boulder -- not much less.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Thunderbolt House

Time plays funny tricks on your memories.  You're sure you remember something, but later can find no evidence to support that memory.  Until, one day, something shows up.

When I was about 12 or 13, our teacher read us a story about a college boy who, aspiring to be a writer but not having any experiences in life to write about, signed aboard the crew of a tramp steamer.  It was a story that naturally appealed to all the boys in the class.  The author wrote a whole series of adventures at sea about that same kid and his adventures aboard ship.  I read a good many of them on my own, after listening to the one read in class.

I discovered that the same author also wrote a non-maritime book about a teenaged boy who inherited a collection of first edition books, books located in the mansion in San Francisco where the deceased uncle had lived.  The story ended with the great earthquake in 1906.  (For years, I've thought that it was this story that the teacher had read to us, but now, after re-reading it, I'm convinced that I discovered it on my own.)

From early adulthood, I've wanted to re-read some of that author's books, but I couldn't remember his name, or the exact title of any of the books.  I seemed to recall the earthquake book's being called Earthquake House, but no such book with that title seemed to exist.  Then, a week or so ago, a friend emailed me about a series of books he remembered reading as a kid, books about spooky ships with dangerous characters.  That wasn't exactly the way I remembered my series, but I decided to check out on Amazon the author whose name he gave me -- Howard Pease.

Amazon's summaries of Pease's seafaring stories were somewhat as I recalled them.  But, more convincingly, I saw that Pease had also written a book about rare books and the San Francisco earthquake.  The book was titled Thunderbolt House


All of Pease's books are out of print.  I paid an exorbitant price for a second-hand copy of a paperback edition of Thunderbolt House, a paperback bearing a cover price of 35 cents.  I've read it, and I'm glad I bought it.

Pease published the book in 1944 (although my paperback edition, with the tantalizing "Mystery at" added to the title, was published by Scholastic in 1961).  It's an exciting mystery, clearly intended for a young adult readership.  But nothing in the plot or characterization or language has been dumbed down for young readers.  The book is well worth reading if for no reason other than its faithful description of San Francisco and surrounding areas in 1905 and 1906.  The eponymous Thunderbolt House is located at a clearly identified spot on Bush Street, on Nob Hill -- an exclusive residential area at the time which was only then beginning to give way to Pacific Heights as the place to live. 

The "mystery" portion of the plot involves fall-out from the now almost-forgotten and controversial San Francisco Vigilante Committees of the mid-nineteenth century.

The teenager Jud and his family move to Thunderbolt House from their home in Stockton, after the uncle dies and leaves them his property.  Jud receives the entire contents of the uncle's library as a specific bequest.  The boy and his father gradually realize that the uncle had no interest in reading -- the books were primarily rare first editions, and they had all been purchased as investments.  They are worth millions (in today's dollars).

From being a middle class Stockton family, Jud's family overnight has become a wealthy family of San Franciscans.  Only Jud and his father keep their wits about them.  Jud's mother and sister, as well as their cousins, are painted like Elizabeth Bennett's female relatives in Pride and Prejudice.  All they can think of is shopping lavishly and twittering about becoming accepted by the "best people" in San Francisco society.

Pease may well have described their Chinese servants accurately, as such servants would have appeared in 1905, but his vivid description of their pidgin speech, exotic dress, "pigtail" hair styles, and "squinty eyes" bring to mind controversies over the use of Huckleberry Finn in today's high schools.  Probably not an acceptable book for mandatory reading lists in today's schools.

The family is beginning to come apart, drifting off in many directions, when the 1906 earthquake and fire occur.  The house is directly in the path of the fire moving up from Market Street, and adjacent areas are being dynamited, as the family escapes.  They try loading the best of the rare books into their car, but the military commandeers the car and dumps the books in the street. 

Jud's family loses its entire inheritance in the fire, but the father luckily had retained the home and business in Stockton.  The adversity brings out the best in everyone, they come together as a family, and they look forward bravely to the future.  Jud will return to his high school in Stockton, but still plans on heading to Stanford -- also severely damaged -- for college.  They aren't destitute.

The book reminds the reader -- without being heavy-handed -- that people and family are more important than money and possessions, and that books should be valued for their contents, not for their fancy binding or their market value.

Over the decades, I had forgotten many of the complexities of the book's plot.  What I didn't forget was that, as a 13-year-old, I had put the book down with tears in my eyes.  Not tears for the loss of beautiful Thunderbolt House, doomed by the fiery inferno, or for the family's financial losses.  But tears for all those beautiful ruined books.

Books.  Always books.  As they say, the child is father of the man. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Bleak lives

Although I've traveled a fair amount, there remain a number of large blank spaces on my travel map.  One of those spaces is Patagonia.  Unlike other blank areas -- say, Oklahoma -- the term "Patagonia" sometimes tempts me because of the spectacular hiking at the far southern tip of the South American continent, in both Argentina and Chile.  I came close to signing up for a Patagonian hike during this coming January, but backed off finally for various reasons.

Patagonia is a large area, of course.  It includes much, much more than the portion of the Andes where so many trekking companies organize hikes.  Most of the region consists of flat plains, grass-lands, and desert -- the pampas.

Looking for a good travel book to read, this past week, I happened on Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, the first successful book by perhaps the first great travel writer since World War II.  Unfortunately, Mr. Chatwin has diminished my interest in hanging out in Patagonia for any length of time, although I still wouldn't mind spending a week or two trekking in the southern Andes.

Chatwin tells us of a grandmother's cousin, Charley Milward, a sea captain who lived the last years of his life in Punta Arenas, Chile, and who claimed to have discovered a perfectly preserved brontosaurus  Chatwin recalled seeing a tiny portion of the beast's alleged hide as a child.  The ostensible purpose of his pilgrimage in 1974 was to learn more about both Charley and the brontosaurus.

The last chapters of In Patagonia recapitulate the sad life and career of Charley, and offer some insights into the true identity of the "brontosaurus."  It's an interesting story, but almost an afterthought to the rest of the book, a last-minute attempt to fulfill the promise of the opening chapter.

The bulk of Chatwin's book is a series of vignettes of human lives, from the days of the Spanish conquest up until the twentieth century.  He tells his tales as he travels -- largely on foot or by hitchhiking, talking to locals living in great isolation -- from the Rio Negro in the north to the Straits of Magellan in the south. 

Patagonia, at least as described by Chatwin, was until recently dominated by European landowners (especially the British) -- marginalized men at home who came to Patagonia to seek their fortune.  The Spanish-speaking Argentines and Chileans -- so far from their national capitals -- play a minimal role in his narration, and the indigenous Indians appear as little more than nameless serfs.

It is lives of those European emigrants who most pique the author's interest.

I've heard speculation that suicide rates on the American West Coast are unusually high, because Easterners, tormented by failure and personal problems, kept moving west to build new lives.  When they reached the Pacific, unable to escape their own weakness of character, there was no place to go but the grave.  Similarly, as viewed by Chatwin, Patagonia is now, and always has been, a place where Europeans come to escape their own incompetence and/or bad luck, and where they find only ultimate disaster.

His stories are often amazing, sometimes humorous, sometimes gruesome, sometimes frightening.  They virtually always end in despair, loneliness, self-recrimination, bitterness, hopelessness, futility, and -- ultimately -- madness and/or death. "Bury me not on the lone prairie," is the final wish -- literally or metaphorically -- of so many of his characters.  They rarely get their wish.

I may still visit Patagonia, someday.  I still have Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express to read, possibly as an inspiration, although Theroux's travel narratives usually produce their own sense of depression.  Mountain Travel/Sobek and other trekking companies offer marvelous, expensive treks with names like "Patagonia: Trekking the Paine Circuit," illustrated brilliantly with beautiful photographs.  Those itineraries are tempting.  But they would not show me the "real" Patagonia. 

Not, at least, Bruce Chatwin's Patagonia.  Similarly, I'd love to visit and hike the mountains of Jackson Hole National Park.  That doesn't mean I'd care to hike across the Wyoming steppes, hanging out in small town bars and hearing stories of the bitter, lonely lives of its residents.  But that's another hike that, for Chatwin, would have been food for literature.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of NBC's broadcast of the first episode of Star Trek. The show was canceled after only three seasons, but has been in syndication ever since.  The world still abounds with faithful trekkies.

As with acid rock, bell bottoms, light shows, university sit-ins, and other phenomena of the '60s, Star Trek touched upon my world but never exercised a transformative effect on my life or personality.  Although a fan of science fiction since childhood, Star Trek, Star Wars, and the more extravagantly-filmed sci fi movies that followed, weren't really what I looked for (and look for) in science fiction.  I'm not quite sure how to describe what it is that I do look for, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

I actually watched quite a few of the episodes of the first and second Star Trek seasons, however, because some friends in my university dorm had a small TV and insisted that I join them each week.  As a result, as I began preparing this post, I planned to brag that I had watched the original televising of what is perhaps the best known episode of the entire three-year series --  Episode 44, "The Trouble with Tribbles."  But I now discover "the trouble with memory."  Episode 44 was first broadcast on December 29, 1967 -- during Christmas vacation. 

That episode must have been rebroadcast shortly thereafter, because I'm certain I saw it with friends while in the dormitories.  And by the time Star Trek went into syndication, in March 1969, I would have been out of school.   It's perplexing.  All I can say is that I remember what I remember.

In any event, "The Trouble with Tribbles" is the only episode of Star Trek that I actually remember in any detail.  You'll recall that, while the Enterprise was docked at Deep Space Station K7, a trader gives a tribble to a member of the crew, who takes it on-board as a pet.  Tribbles, of course, reproduce rapidly, asexually, and as frequently as the available food resources permit.  And they eat virtually anything, including organic portions of the space ship and the grain cargo in the hold. 

Like rabbits in Australia, only far cuter and cuddlier and more lovable, and far more devastatingly reproductive.

All ended well for everyone by the end of the episode, except for a Klingon spy who was done in by the tribbles' natural antipathy to Klingons, and for the tribbles themselves who all died from ingesting the cargo, which turned out to have been poisoned.

Life was often cruel in outer space.

The fact that I remember this one episode is not strange.  While many true trekkies turned up their noses at the intrusion of cuddly pets into the hard-edged world of space travel, "The Trouble with Tribbles" was a hit with the general public, and is probably the best known episode of the three seasons of the Star Trek franchise.  The New York Times calls it one of the "best-remembered moments" of the series.

Life is short, and one can't do everything.  And Star Trek's appeal isn't that of great literature -- not even great sci fi literature.  And yet, one should maintain some connection with the life of his own generation.  If someone offered me free access to the show's three seasons, I'd probably lock myself in my house, stock up on food, close the shades, and binge.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Indian Henry's Hunting Ground

Ranger station at Indian Henry's 

Indian Henry's Hunting Ground is the picturesquely-named destination of a beautiful (but lengthy) day hike out of Longmire in Mount Rainier National Park.  The elevation gain is about 2,500 feet.  The Park Service's flyer gives the round trip mileage as 13.6 miles, but the on-the-ground signage gives it as 14.0 miles.  

We, of course, will call it 14.

Indian Henry really existed.  He was a Klickitat or Yakima tribe member, whose Indian name was So-To-Lick.  He was comfortable in the worlds of both the Native Americans and white settlers.  He was fluent in English, and wore the same clothes as the settlers.  His sons were named Thomas and Wickersham.   He acted as a guide during the late nineteenth century, and apparently died shortly after 1913.  The meadows named after him were one of his favorite places, before creation of the national park.

Bridge over Krautz Creek

To begin the hike, I followed the Rampart Ridge hike, discussed a week ago, in reverse.  This means that I found the sign indicating the Wonderland Trail at the east end of the Longmire parking lot, followed it a quarter mile until it crossed the highway, and then climbed approximately two miles to the intersection with the Rampart Ridge trail.  This time, I turned right -- staying on the Wonderland Trail -- and headed for those magical sounding destinations mentioned in my earlier post: Pyramid Peak, Devil's Dream, and -- ultimately -- Indian Henry's Hunting Ground. 

The remaining five miles of the trail alternates between gently ascending and steeply ascending.  The major disruption occurs when the trail crosses Krautz Creek, just before you reach the Pyramid Creek campground.  At this time of year, at least, the creek is a small but fast moving steam.  But the stream occupies the center of an enormous swath of cliff slides and destruction, rocks and boulders, sand, and debris. 

You pick your way through all this debris for a considerable distance before reaching the creek itself.  This portion of the trail is largely washed out, but you can follow the footprints of other hikers, together with a number of small but helpful stone cairns.  The bridge itself -- which washes out most years during the high water season -- is a simple log, flattened slightly on top, with a single hand rail attached.  There is actually another similar bridge about a half mile farther up the trail, crossing what must be another branch of Krautz Creek. 

Crossing this canyon area is a bit of a challenge, but an interesting novelty after miles of hiking in dense timber.  Unfortunately, you lose elevation to reach the creek, which you then must regain.

Misty lake above
Devil's Dream

Devil's Dream, at about the 5.9-mile mark, is a relatively well-developed campground, with about seven tent sites and a latrine.  Not long after passing Devil's Dream, you emerge from forest into the first intimations of alpine meadows.  The trail passes along one shore of a small lake, which was enshrouded in mist on my way up.  The scene was both beautiful and haunting. 

Once I reached the lake, I assumed the trail would be roughly horizontal the rest of the way to my destination.  I was mistaken -- it ascends rather steeply, alternating between forest and meadow, until finally it reaches a plateau and Indian Henry's cabin is visible across gorgeous grass meadows.  Actually, the cabin is a park ranger residence -- unoccupied and shuttered when I was there -- but after seven miles I felt entitled to romanticize a bit.

Rehydrating at the cabin

The cabin has a pleasant covered porch with several feet of bench on which you can sit and eat your lunch, stare across the meadow, and fanaticize about visiting Indian Henry.  I shared the porch with only one other couple who arrived a few minutes after me.  The entire trail -- even near Longmire -- was surprisingly unpopulated.  I guess that for many people, hiking season is over before Labor Day.

As the trail approaches the cabin, there is an intersection with another trail coming up from the Krautz River Bridge, down on the main highway.  This trail is only 5.7 miles one-way.  I know nothing else about it.

The second half of your 14 mile hike is a simple reversal of the first.  The good news -- you're generally (but not always) walking downhill.  The bad news -- if you're like me, your legs are becoming rubber-like in stability, and your feet hurt.  But even the "bad news" means you are building up muscle strength and endurance for future adventures.

Whatever your rationalization for pain, the parking lot at Longmire looks wonderful as it comes into view.  And you congratulate yourself on a day not wasted.

Time for hiking up and back was about 6 hours, 30 minutes, which includes about 20 minutes for lunch at the top.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Opiate of the people (updated)

College football is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.   
--Karl Marx

So, yeah, now it's September.  Today was the first full day of a holiday weekend.  Seattle's brief rainfall was over almost before it began, barely touching the roots of the desiccated lawn in my back yard.  So -- I faced a beautiful day, happy people biking by in the streets, plenty of time to do anything I wanted.

I began the holiday weekend last night, watching my vaunted alma mater edge out a team that I now suspect had been underrated.  We beat 'em, but not in such a way that I felt happy about the game or the team's future.  But check, got football out the way early, right?

This morning, I got up, read the paper at breakfast, went for a walk,and then ...  I can't really remember.  Somehow, I ended up sitting at my computer, but staring at the TV.  I have faint memories of a number of games I watched briefly, involving teams I cared nothing about.  Then came the local heroes, the Washington Huskies, who vanquished a team, nominally from the Big Ten, satisfactorily.  I got a big laugh out of watching highly-ranked LSU "coug" a game (as we say here in the Northwest).   UCLA (who I'd usually never root for -- but playing Texas A&M?) lost a squeaker.  And I finally turned off the set as USC showed that it wasn't going to give Alabama much of a struggle.

I recite all of this to show how easy it is for a day to pass -- it's now 7:15 p.m. -- doing nothing but sitting slack-jawed in front of the tube.  What have I gained by today's football viewing, even assuming without deciding that watching my alma mater's game last night was an acceptable and understandable use of time?  Nothing.  Neither I nor humanity has profited from my totally wasting one of the dwindling number of days stretching out before me.  If I wanted to float along passively for a day, far better that I sat outside watching the birds chirp and the leaves fall.  Or listened to a Beethoven quartet.  Or even read some trashy, non-demanding fiction.

My life's not so "oppressed" or my soul so "soulless" that I need to dull myself with opiates.  I know that fact instinctively, which is why I daily consume great quantities of caffeine, rather than drugs or alcohol.

So tomorrow, I pull myself together and return to Rainier National Park.  I have a 12.6 mile hike in mind.

Unless, of course, I can't resist just sneaking a peek at an NFL game before leaving the house.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

City of Djinns

Chandni Chowk (2005)

Delhi ... was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.
--William Dalrymple, City of Djinns (Prologue)

So the ancient Indian capital appeared to writer William Dalrymple when he first visited the city as a youth of 17.  In his 1993 book of travel and history, City of Djinns, Dalrymple writes of his year living in Delhi, as a married man, several years later. 

I've visited Delhi only once -- before and after a trek that I went on with Pascal, the teenage son of family friends, through the Indian Himalayas of Ladakh.  We were there in August 2005 -- a fine month for mountain trekking, an appalling month to be wandering about in the heat, humidity, and chaos of Delhi.

Nevertheless, the city was fascinating.  We walked long distances from one monument to another, and took tuk-tuks where distances were unwalkable.  We saw a lot.  What we lacked, however, was context.  I knew that the Muslims and the British had each once ruled Delhi, but that the city was now part of a Hindu nation.  I knew of the calamities and dislocations resulting from the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan.

Beyond that, like perhaps most Americans, my sense of the city was fuzzy.  After our first day wandering about, I might well have written something in my journal echoing Dalrymple's confused impressions as a 17-year-old.

Several years after his teenaged introduction to the city, Dalrymple, recently married, returned to Delhi, rented a ramshackle room from an interesting Sikh couple, and began shuffling about the city, trying to figure it out.  From that experience, City of Djinns evolved.

Dalrymple is an outgoing and adventurous sort of guy -- he wrote In Xanadu, which I discussed in June 2015, about his attempt as a Cambridge student to replicate Marco Polo's travels from Palestine to Beijing.  He likes people, has a talent for languages (he speaks, for example, Hindi, and seems to have some knowledge of Persian), is comfortable with persons from every station in life and enjoys listening to their talk and ideas.  And he has an enviable sense of curiosity, one that sometimes leads him to cloister himself in a library for days on end seeking the answer to some obscure question, and at other times to search barren land for some trace of a city that an ancient saga indicated might have once existed in that area.

Delhi is a palimpsest, an area on the Jumna river that one invasion after another tried to wipe clean of earlier civilizations -- but never completely succeeded.  (Indians claim that only with the help of djinns could the city have been reconstructed after each of its many destructions.)  Working backward from the present, Dalrymple shows how partition radically changed an Urdu-speaking Muslim city to a city filled with Hindus and dominated to some degree by energetic Punjabi Sikhs.  In the years before partition, the British had built a modern New Delhi -- adjacent to the old Delhi -- filled with architecture that was a fusion of Western classical and traditional Indian styles.  Similarly, each chapter leads us back further -- to the Muslim Mughals who brought Persian languages (like Urdu) and civilization, to pre-Mughal blood-thirsty Hindu tyrants, and back ultimately to the legendary times described in the great Hindu sagas.

But Dalrymple does not impose on us a dry summary of Delhi history.  We learn Delhi's history as a by-product of Dalrymple's adventures in the modern city, the people he meets, the weather that appalls him and his wife, the foods they eat, the disturbing sights that he happens upon.  Dalrymple's book is presented as "the cool year my wife and I spent in Delhi"; the history is the medicine we swallow -- always willingly -- along with the sweet syrup.

My only complaint with the book is a complaint I also had with In Xanadu: Dalrymple is an amateur student of architectural and art history.  We often hear far more detailed descriptions of rather obscure monuments than we can absorb.  It's tempting to skip over those portions of the book -- with which the late chapters are especially filled -- but it's better to read the book as a whole, as the author intended, and do one's best to follow his discussion.

Also, Dalrymple uses many Hindi and Urdu and colonial British expressions (and common contemporary Indian idioms) in his text.  Some were defined by my Kindle dictionary, others could be deduced from their context.  But I wish I hadn't waited until I'd finished the book to realize that he has appended a very extensive glossary of terms at the end of the book. 

I'm ready for a return to Delhi -- not to experience the city as Dalrymple did, which would be impossible without his background -- but to visit the Red Fort, the Viceroy's Palace, the Chandni Chowk, all the many tombs and other monuments, with some understanding of who build them, and why, and the historical reasons for their being where they are in today's Delhi.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Rampart Ridge

Monday, I did something of a speed walk to the top of Mt. Si, trying to make a better showing than I had earlier in the summer, as reported here on June 26.  (I succeeded, bettering my time by six minutes.)  Since then, I've noticed a pain in my back, above my left hip, whenever I walked uphill. 

I wanted to continue preparing for my short trek in Crete, a month from now, but not at the price of worsening any injury.  So, today I selected a hike that would include uphill hiking, but not one as stressing as was Mt. Si.

From my Rainier National Park guidebook, I selected the Rampart Ridge loop trail, starting and ending at Longmire lodge.  The trail ascends about 1,200 feet to Rampart Ridge, north of the lodge, continues eastward along the ridge until it meets the Wonderland Trail (which circles Rainier), and then descends again via the Wonderland Trail back to the lodge.  The loop is about five miles in length which, together with the moderate elevation gain, seemed to make it an ideal candidate.  And today proved an ideal time for it -- the first moderately cool day we've had in the Northwest in some time.

To reach the trail, you cross the highway from Longmire, where the "Trail of the Shadows" begins.  This is a nature trail, and also a trail that reveals and explains the remains of various structures from the "ancient" (nineteenth century) history of the Longmire settlement.  The trail loops one mile around the edge of a small lake.  I began walking the nature trail counter-clockwise, but you can reach the beginning of the Rampart Ridge trail a bit sooner by walking clockwise.  The point where the trail takes off from the nature trail is clearly marked -- and, in fact, the Park Service has done an excellent job with its signage at every junction I passed.

The Rampart Ridge trail proper commences with a lengthy series of moderately steep switchbacks -- about the same steepness as the typical climb on the Mt. Si trail, but with a far more forgiving trail surface.  You are not in danger of twisting your ankle on rocks with every step, as you often are climbing and descending Mt. Si.  The climb is through beautiful, dense, old growth timber.

Eventually, the trail becomes more horizontal as you approach the ridge.  You get one look down a very steep cliff on the north side of the trail, but the ridge then becomes broader and all you see are trees.  I had hoped that the ridge itself would be above tree-line, at least part of the time, so I could observe Mt. Rainier and other peaks while hiking.  But it's not.  At one point, about 1.7 miles from the start, you walk into a clearing with an impressive view of the mountain -- which was partly concealed by a cloud today (see photo). 

You then continue walking -- still on an excellently groomed trail -- nearly horizontally for another 1.2 miles, until you intersect the Wonderland Trail.  Another set of signposts suggest more ambitious destinations ahead, if you choose to walk eastward on that trail -- Pyramid Peak Camp (1.7 miles), Devil's Dream Camp (3.9 miles), Indian Henry's (5.0 miles).  I felt my hike was nearing its conclusion all too soon, and was tempted to head eastward at least some distance, hiking to destinations that post-hike research reveals as magnificently alpine.  But I recalled my reasons for choosing this hike originally, and stuck with my conservative plan.   

From the intersection, I therefore turned the other direction and followed the westbound Wonderland Trail down -- fairly steeply in places -- to the highway, crossed the highway, and followed a path parallel to the highway another quarter mile back to Longmire.

Not a terribly ambitious hike, but enjoyable.  And my back?  Didn't bother me a bit while hiking, either up or down.  Hasn't bothered me since I returned to Seattle. 

Of course, I did take some Tylenol before and after the hike.  So maybe I cheated.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Balkan Express

A modern photo of refugees
on a Macedonian train -- but
it shows how we felt!

After publication of my last blog entry, two days ago, crazed fans have been begging me to expand on my reference to my 1961 trip, via "Balkan Express," from Belgrade to Athens.

By "crazed fans," I refer to my sister.  I thought she would know all about the experience, just from absorbing our family's oral traditions.  But I'll refresh her recollection.  Memories do fade over 55 years, however, especially when not reinforced by any written letters or journal entries that I can locate.

As I mentioned earlier, three friends and I, left to our own devices in Belgrade, decided to take the train to Athens.  In those days, few people bothered with reservations.  You simply bought a ticket and hopped on the next train.  Like riding the subway, and -- as with the subway -- if there weren't enough seats by the time you scrambled aboard, you stood.

We stood.

At the time, all European passenger cars consisted of a series of compartments, each seating eight passengers (in second class), with a corridor running along one side of the car.  When there were no seats, you stood in the corridor.  The train stopped frequently.  The passengers were not, for the most part, Western tourists -- they were Yugoslavian country folk and poor workers.  Tito's Yugoslavia was no doubt a socialist paradise, but not quite yet a developed country.

The train reached Skopje, in present day Macedonia, and stopped.  A train today covers the route from Belgrade to Skopje in ten hours.  It was certainly longer in 1961.  Our train not only stopped in Skopje, but stayed stopped.  No explanations were given.  No encouraging words were provided.  The train's toilet facilities were not available while stopped in the station, for reasons left to your imagination.  The station WC consisted of a room with a large concrete floor.  At the far side of the room was a hole in the floor.  Many, many people had used the facility.  Few of them had bothered to make it to the hole.

We still had no seats.  When not using the WC, we stood in the coach aisle or, most of the time, sat on the aisle's filthy floor with our knees tucked under our chins.  We four were not, by any means, the only occupants of the aisle.

We remained stopped in Skopje for at least twelve hours, anywhere up to 24 hours as I recall.  My subconscious has repressed some of the details.  But eventually, the fabled Orient Express pulled into Skopje, and we were transferred to that train.  The Orient Express had sadly declined since its golden days of Agatha Christie fame.  But it had seats -- every one of us had his very own seat.  Padded seats.  And the only repulsive odors in the cars of the Orient Express were the ones we brought with us on our own clothing.

The Orient Express proceeded to Thessaloniki, across the Greek border, whence the majority of the carriages continued east to Istanbul, and the rest of them -- we students included -- went by separate engine to Athens.  I don't even recall crossing into Greece -- I think I slept most of the way to Athens, where we arrived early in the morning.  How many mornings after leaving Belgrade?  I have no idea. 

On arrival, we quickly found a cheap hotel and then immediately headed on foot to the Acropolis.  As I noted in a letter home, it's great to be young.

Train fans may be interested to know that  a modern "Balkan Express" operates today between Belgrade and Istanbul, with sleeping facilities and dining car.  This train follows a route through Bulgaria, stopping in Sofia, rather than south through Skopje.  From the on-line photos, any resemblance between it and the Balkan Nightmare Express of my memories is limited to the fact that both operated on rails.  There is also a Belgrade to Athens route -- temporarily suspended for track maintenance -- that requires a change of trains in Thessaloniki.

And finally -- a marvel undreamed of in 1961 -- within the next two years, a high speed train running at 200 km/h (125 mph) will begin service from Thessaloniki to Athens.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Before meeting up with my trekking group on Crete on October 1, I'll spend three nights on my own in Athens, reacquainting myself with a favorite city that I haven't visited for 37 years.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this will be my fourth visit to Athens.  I first visited it in 1961, as an overseas college student.  Our school had completed a field trip to Belgrade, after which we were free to do whatever we wanted for several days before classes resumed in Florence.  Kids headed in all directions -- Vienna, which still had a Graham Greene-esque Cold War appeal, seemed a favorite destination.  But three classmates and I chose to hop the Balkan Express to Athens.  The Balkan "Express."  The horror, the horror!  But that's a story for another time ...

In 1961, most Americans really didn't visit Europe unless bundled together on an American Express tour bus -- and then only to the "safe" precincts of Western Europe.  So much the better for us.  Back then. the Acropolis was just a hill covered with ruins.  You wandered up, climbed all over the Parthenon, took  photos of each other leaning against the columns, stayed as long as you liked.  Now, I understand, it's an "attraction" for which you -- along with huge crowds of fellow tourists -- pay a hefty admission fee. And it's "look, don't touch."

In any event, we were in Athens for only a day or so.  But in 1970 -- older, presumably wiser, certainly scruffier in appearance -- I returned with a backpack for a stay of several weeks in Greece.  About a week of that time was spent in Athens. 

If I had been somewhat aimless in my sightseeing while a college student, nine years later I was much more definite in my interests.  I had developed, I thought, a good feeling for the history of ancient Greece, and of ancient Athens in particular.

Why?  Well, I'd taken undergrad courses in Greek history. But mainly because I had read and re-read, like a bible, what may well be the best fictionalization of the Greek classical period ever written -- The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault.  Ms. Renault is perhaps most famous for a trilogy of historical novels reconstructing the career of Alexander the Great.  She also wrote two novels -- discussed in posts I wrote last winter -- attempting to ground the legend of Theseus in some form of historical reality.

In her Alexander novels, she dealt with an historical figure about whom much is known.  In the Theseus novels, she constructed an entire pseudo-historical reality based on shadowy and often inconsistent legends.  In The Last of the Wine, she was less interested in interpreting the life of a person -- real or legendary -- than in helping the reader understand a city and civilization, its politics and religious beliefs and culture, and its people.  She succeeded masterfully: If the Athens portrayed in her book isn't a perfect portrayal of the actual fifth century Athens, it's probably as close as anyone could come, in popular rather than scholarly form, given the historical record available to us.

The book is narrated by a fictional young Athenian in the late fifth century B.C., from his first memories near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants about thirty years later -- the period during which many of the most famous Athenians were alive and kicking -- Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Alcibiades, Kritias.  To me, as a tourist, my reading of The Last of the Wine -- which I carried in paperback in my backpack, along with my trusty Greece on $5 a Day -- was my introduction to ancient Greece, and my inspiration for the places I planned to visit.

Fascinating places I would never have thought of visiting -- like the hill of Lycabettas -- became my destinations because of their place in Mary Renault's story.  I was the proverbial country hick, wandering around a big city, starry-eyed because he was seeing all the places he had read about in books.  And I loved it.

So, many years later, I'll return to Athens.  My small hotel is in the Plaka, in the shadow of the Acropolis.  Swooning less this time, no doubt, but still filled with an eagerness to gain, so far as possible in the two or three days I have available, a better understanding of Athens -- both the city as it is today, and the city that provided so much of the foundation of our Western civilization.  

(And I still have that dog-eared Mary Renault paperback. I'll be reading it again before I leave.)

I've been to the Acropolis three times -- each time at sunset when it was balmy and golden. The second was my tour-book visit. The others were just for mood and daydreaming. I think I could visit it indefinitely and never tire of it. The last time, I walked down to the Areopagus after they chased us off the Acropolis, and watched the light fade and the lights come on all over the city -- and the Son et Lumiere light up the Rock. Everyone around me was French, and their voices were like music in the warm late twilight. The Areopagus is a gathering spot for young people -- some with guitars. I've walked by it at 11 p.m. and seen its silhouette serrated with heads staring off across the city.
--Journal, July 27, 1970