Sunday, June 22, 2014

New Orleans

"Oh, we went to California once.  We slept with the windows open.  Can you imagine?"  The woman paused, lost in the memory, staring out the window of the Canal Street streetcar as it rattled past faded businesses in the one-time commercial heart of the south.  "Down here I seal the air conditioning in.   I don't want to lose a drop of it."

I can't blame her.  We were in New Orleans in late June, still weeks away from the smothering embrace of summer.  But it was hot and no fooling.  And indeed, part of our orientation at the bed and breakfast that was to be our home for five nights included the express instruction to leave doors and windows closed lest the proprietors find they are pumping cold air out to Esplanade Avenue, presumably at considerable expense.  So we too slept with the windows shut.  But we relished the heat at other times, let it slow us down and force a languid rhythm to the day, a rhythm perhaps common to the tropics but a bit foreign to us in Alaska.

We were in New Orleans with no agenda, meeting my parents for a chance to visit and catch up while seeing a new-to-us part of the world.  We spent the first four nights in the city, then set off for a two-day road trip around the lower Mississippi river, poking about isolated sugar cane in Louisiana and antebellum homes in Natchez, Mississippi before returning to New Orleans for one more night.  It was my first time in the area, and I'm wondering now how it took me so long to get there?  And when do I get to go back?

If the quality of a place is measured by the number of "good mornings" heard, or passing conversations about the weather had, on any walk taken further than the bathroom, then the deep south wins.  These people do friendly right.  Likewise if the unit of measure is brass bands.  New Orleans falls off the map entirely if the important factor is the quality of sidewalk repair and upkeep, but I'm not so sure that that matters to me.  What does matter is food, and this place takes food seriously and does food well.  Better than most.  And as near as I can tell, food is the single most important factor in the average resident's day.  After learning you are visiting, do the strangers you meet want to know what you did in their city?  No, they want to know what you ate.  "You had a po'boy yet?  Where at?  Parkway?  Yeah?  Now you liked you that po'boy."  The final pronouncement made as fact.  After all, there can be no question but you liked you a po'boy from Parkway.  Our cab driver on the ride to the airport summed it up nicely: "Going home? Oh, you're going to miss the food!"

I'll miss the brass bands too.  And Spanish moss.  And the stories about union soldiers haunting homes to this day, standing guard over stains of their own blood that have worked into wooden flooring and cannot be removed.  We saw the stains at a plantation near Cheneyville, Louisiana, though I couldn't tell you if they were really blood.  We never saw doors open on their own or hear foot steps crossing empty rooms.  But why muddy southern Gothic romance with observation?

New Orleans doesn't feel like any place else.  It is the kind of town where you can look up to see a devil, red face paint and horns providing the finishing touch to a body suit and cape, commuting by bike, waving with vigor at three gentlemen exiting a church.  I assume he was touring New Orleans' many houses of worship, but he may have just been on his way to dinner.  We couldn't find a Starbucks (though we didn't really look).  Unlike Anchorage, I can't imagine the city getting excited about news that an Olive Garden is coming to town.  It was a refreshing change of pace.

And the pace is likely dictated by the heat.  I'll miss the heat.  And maybe I'll miss the fact that we were on vacation, which is always more fun than going to work.  But definitely the heat.  Because sometimes you need the sensation of skin crawling away from the sun's relentless push, wiping sweat off of your face, welcoming a sudden breeze and a shade-draped sidewalk providing unexpected relief.  After all, we sleep with the windows sealed shut at home too, though it has nothing to do with air conditioning.

Some pictures and captions follow.

We hit the tourist high-points in New Orleans, like riding the St. Charles streetcar:

 And visiting Jackson Square:

And having beignets at Café Du Monde:

And finding all of those neighborhoods that haven't succumbed to gentrification:

We watched the moon rise above the French Quarter:

And we drank absinthe, which apparently put me and C in a reflective state of mind:

Outside the city, we went exploring beyond the levies on the way to Loyd Hall Plantation and found a community built on 40 foot stilts and a rotting paddle wheel boat:

And we admired the Big Muddy in both Natchez and New Orleans:

But mostly we drank coffee and sat in our rooms admiring the art work:

Until next time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hunting Runners With Glass - Photo Camp in the Desert

It takes a long time to get anywhere from Alaska further south or east than Seattle, meaning there has to be something enticing at the far end to convince me that the travel is worth the hassle. On the enticement scale--recognized by the International Society of Testing and Measurement and measured in units of "oohs" and "ahhs"--the Wingate Sandstone sits somewhere near the top. Something about massive red cliffs rising from the desert that satisfies a deep-seated aesthetic need. So when I learned that Trail Runner magazine was hosting its 2014 three-day photography camp north of Moab, Utah, where the Wingate finds its finest expression, I quickly committed.

This is the second year that Trail Runner ran its photo camp, although its sister publication, Rock and Ice, has hosted a similar camp focused on climbing photography for over a decade. I have long harbored an interest in the making and taking of pictures, and left to my druthers would likely run trails eight-hours a day rather than go to work, so the camp appealed. The location simply shifted it far enough along the enticement scale to justify a plane ticket. So I contacted Trail Runner, paid my deposit, and waited patiently for late May.

The day arrived, and I first flew to Salt Lake City and second drove to Castle Valley, Utah, about 20 miles north of Moab along the Rio Grande. We were scheduled to meet at an ill-defined time in an ill-defined location: basically before dinner somewhere in Castle Valley. In the weeks leading up to the camp, we were given a link to a VRBO listing of a rental house where some of the camp staff would stay. The link included a map, albeit a map with the house location marked in the wrong place. But thanks to photos, I was confident I could find the place. And indeed I was confident I had found the place when, fourteen and a half-hours after leaving my door in Anchorage, I pulled my rental car in to the driveway of a historic homestead on a Tuesday late in May. After all, the note on the door read "Welcome Trail Runner campers. Come on in." And the door was unlocked. I just had to wonder, where was everyone else?

I did not wonder long. A short while after I traded long pants for shorts and sandals, a truck pulled in and MB, managing editor for Trail Runner, popped out to introduce himself. "We've got cold beer inside. I'm going to grab one if you want me to get you one too." Why yes, yes I would. The camp was getting off to a fine start.

The concept of camp, as near as I can discern, is pretty simple. Bring together four elements: eager students, experienced photo and publishing professionals, world-class athletes, and inspiring settings. I and four others made up the student part of the equation. We converged with different backgrounds and hopes for what we would get out of the camp, from those already using photography as a commercial vehicle and wanting to step up their game to those still figuring out basic camera functionalities and hoping to come to terms with the inter-play of aperture and shutter-speed. I just hoped to figure out which end of the camera captured light. After three days in the desert, I'm pretty sure it is the side with the glass.

The professionals included the previously mentioned editor of Trail Runner, free-lance photographer Cliffy, the Trail Runner art director and former free-lance photographer Randy, and DR, publisher of Rock and Ice. Collectively, these four were on hand to guide and answer questions or, in my case, to keep a sharp eye to make sure I did not fall off a cliff and kept the lens pointed at the athletes.
And with the athletes we had on hand, that was not much of a problem. Hoka sent two of its sponsored runners, Magadelna Boulet and Dave Mackey, a former Olympic marathoner (now running trails) and the 2011 Ultra-runner of the year, respectively. We also had Darcy Conover from Colorado on hand, who appears to be a Marmot sponsored athlete, probably better known as a skier than a runner. All three were incredible to watch. Magda brought foot speed, and, based on thousands of frames shot over two days, spends more time running in the air than on the ground. Mackey generated massive power with a mere quad twitch, angling into and exploding out of every turn, giving those of us with cameras interesting visual lines to work with. And Darcy has an amazingly photogenic leap, thanks, I assume, to powerful skiing legs.

The setting took care of itself. Wingate sandstone, remember? If it is worth fourteen hours of travel, you can assume it photographs well.

While the camp concept seems simple, I imagine the execution takes some work. It turns out that a handful of folks carrying cameras to shoot with commercial intentions on federal lands in Utah (and perhaps elsewhere; I never asked) require the same permits and must satisfy the same conditions as General Motors when it sling loads vehicles to the top of desert towers in order to film a commercial. This required fees, careful scheduling, and hiring a third-party compliance monitor to follow us around and confirm we did not trample cryptobiotic soils. But then none of that was my problem. On the hardship scale--not yet recognized by the ISTM, but measured in "d'ohs!"--my responsibilities did not even register. I just paid my fee and showed up.

Others not already identified showed up too, but should not be given short shrift as they contributed equally to the success of the program. They included Yitka, assistant managing editor of Trail Runner, offering another publishing perspective. Yitka also took turns modeling alongside the athletes and a small army of current and former Trail Runner interns. The interns, Brandon, Tyler, and Nina, runners, climbers, and dancers, moved across rock, dirt and trail like seasoned pros, athletic models all. And Laura showed up from Gu to cover our nutrition needs. There, did you catch that? Before the camp, I would have said Laura showed up and gave us a bunch of gels. But after only three days, I've already learned that gels are "nutrition" in the ultra-running world. That is the kind of insider information I never would have picked up on my own, and I assume it will open countless doors next time I meet a sponsored athlete. I figure the conversation will go something like this:

"Hi [insert name of world class athlete here, say, Killian Jornet]. It is pleasure to meet you. Impressive result in [insert recent race name here]. By the way, who does your nutrition?"

"Why [insert nutrition company] provides my nutrition. Hey, here is a business class ticket to Italy and an advance on your substantial day rate. Solomon needs someone to shoot promotional photos for two weeks in the Dolomites, and I have final say on naming the photographer. You are clearly my man, based on your solid mastery of the lingo. Ciao."

Any camp, photo or otherwise, lives or dies based on the strength of its food. MB and crew lined up Andrea, who kept as fed and happy. She was fresh off a season catering for a heli-ski operation in Alaska. Heli-ski clients can potentially spend long hours (stretching to days) waiting for storms to clear, which translates into long hours sitting forlorn in a damp lodge with the stink of polypro underwear and ski socks. The chef for a heli-ski operation had better not fuck around. He or she better be able to give the clients something to look forward to on a day where food might be the only pleasure to be had. Andrea did so in spades, as we discovered the first night, spent getting to know one another over perfectly medium-rare beef with chimchuri sauce.

The pleasures of eating could not be savored long, though. It was early to bed because the good light waits for no straggler. Breakfast on the table at 6:00 the next morning, we ate and hurried to the first location, which... what the hell? The first location featured not a grain of Wingate, at least not in the foreground. I guess we were going to just have to work with the alien chocolate drop-biscuits of the Fisher Towers, geologically the Cutler formation capped by the Moenkopi. And the light. We were going to have to work with the light too.

After a short hike, we got to the first setup. The way it worked is as follows: we arrived on a location, picked as we hiked along because someone identified a striking visual (not hard to do in southern Utah). We sent the models--athletes and interns--out to run laps, back and forth and back and forth and back and so on, well past the point where the runners started shaking their heads, presumably thinking, "What? You don't have the shot yet?" I say presumably because the models did not complain once. Just smiled. "One more? Sure." Heels turn, charge back down the trail for the tenth "one more time" in a row.

We hit the ground firing on all cylinders. There was no lecture or example slide show. We learned by doing and making mistakes, finding the shot, hitting the shutter release, realizing the lens cap was still on. We chased light down the trail, working the models hard when conditions came up perfect. An amazing slice of sun cut between towers, demonstrating why the mornings (and evenings) are called the magic hour. As the sun got higher, the light harsher, and the temperatures hotter, we returned indoors to eat lunch, process the morning's work, and prepare to run through the first critique slide show.

To the extent I have considered myself a photographer at all, it has always been as a landscape photographer (with an interest in architecture because I'm drawn to the patterns). What did I learn the first morning? The biggest challenge shooting runners is getting your subject in focus. Runners move faster than mountains, which is why they win races, I guess. But that speed makes it hard to achieve the "tack sharp" holy grail. I shot many hundreds of frames the first morning, rejecting most out of hand because the subjects were fuzzy. But in the mix were some strong shots, shots I was happy to throw in for judgment during the daily slide show.

Another aspect of coming from an enthusiast's landscape background is that I have always thought of photos in terms of what looks pretty. I've never thought in terms of layouts. But we were presenting to a magazine and publishing group with an eye for copy. Where will the text go? Can I make this a cover? The fine art print has a place; think the "gallery" or "parting shot" portion of magazines. But the bread and butter is all of the other pages, images interacting with text and images telling a story. Trained eyes looked at our pictures with that filter and let us know what they thought worked and what was lacking.

Come late afternoon, we shot and the models ran, pushing until the sun went down. Our permits allowed us to only shoot one location per day, so we were back to the Fisher Towers for a back drop. There are worse places to spend an evening. Many hundreds of frames later, we had piles of digital files to sort and process. It was a long night.

Luckily, we got to sleep late the next day. Clouds moved in; no magic hour to be had. We shot in the morning near the lodge, then prepared for a date with the Wingate, finally. But the good shots don't come to you. You go to them. Sometimes that means 1,500 vertical feet over 1.5 miles in the heat of the day. The payoff? Towering walls of red sandstone. The world dropping off to the void. Drama. We got back to the cars hours later, tired but excited to see what we captured. Laura had her hatch-back up, recovery nutrition (see, I'm totally in the know) mixed and ready to serve. One glass down before recovery was trumped by MB standing by a cooler. "Anyone want a cold beer?" Why yes, yes I would.

Sitting hunched over our laptops that night, working on photos following day two's critique slide show, one of the other students casually asked, "Well, was it worth it?" meaning, of course, was the camp worth it. And it was a valid question. The camp is not cheap, although I think it is a good value. The travel is not cheap. And the time away is a commitment. But it was a great opportunity to get to know people whose job is, in part, soliciting and paying money for pictures, and who all turned out to be people I was glad to spend time with. And an opportunity to shoot Zeiss glass, which my wife will probably regret when she sees how much Zeiss lenses cost. And it was an amazing opportunity to have three days with world-class athletes at your disposal in a truly world-class setting. When does that ever happen? I assume it was just another day at the office for Cliffy, but to me? Never. And you know what I found in my files from the second day? Pictures of runners that were tack-fucking-sharp. And, at the risk of immodesty, some of them rock. Can you really put a value on that?

We shot again on the third day, and processed more photos for the final critique session. But then the cook, Andrea, packed her bags and left, which meant none of the rest of us had any reason to stay. So we said farewell and went our separate ways, with submissions due soon to the magazine for consideration as part of a later feature. And I started the 14 hours of travel home by driving back to Salt Lake City.

For a camp sponsored by Trail Runner, there was little time for trail running (though the athletes, who did not have to process photos, continued to train). There were just too many files to work through. An embarrassment of riches. So, with a few hours to spare before my flight, I took advantage of the trails in the Wasatch and went for a two-hour run, which was plenty of time to reflect on the fact that capturing great images is a work of brute force. Getting a great shot while out on a run with friends and pulling up for a single snapshot would be capturing lighting in a jar. Part way up the trail to Mt. Timpanagos, I started cataloging locations and people who might want to spend early mornings and late evenings running back and forth and back and forth and back, right through the veil of reasonable and into the ridiculous. Any interest? Give me a call. But keep in mind that there is no business class ticket or substantial day rate available for you. I keep that in my back pocket for those who demonstrate a mastery of photographic lingo.

P.S. - For a post on a photo camp, you may by now have noted an incredible absence of photos. I'm still working through files and determining what will go to Trail Runner. Nothing is being posted here anytime soon, but keep an eye out for the Trail Runner Feature. Also, Magda left the camp on Friday morning to travel to New York and race the Cayuga Trails 50 race in the Finger Lakes region, this year's USATF 50 Mile Trail National Championship. She won (first woman and sixteenth overall). So it appears that modeling is a great taper. Keep that in mind if you have a race coming up and I call you for some back and forth and back and so on.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Top Tips for a Successful Blogging Career

If you read at all about the secrets to a “successful” blog, you will find the following tips among many others. First, you (the soon-to-be successful blogger) should find a subject niche, the narrower the better, and hopefully one a) for which there is a ravenous and large population waiting to consume; and b) that no one else is serving. Better to cover a single topic in great and painful detail than to write aimlessly about whatever crosses your mind. Second, update frequently. You people are insatiable, demanding fresh content by the minute, and you have an attention span bordering on a medical disfunction. At the very least, the blogger should post consistently. Third, engage on social media. Get out there, press the digital flesh, and drive traffic to your site. Comment on others' blogs, always including a link to some value added prose you recently posted on your own site. Meet, greet, tweet. And fourth, try not to gloat as you sit back counting all the cash pouring in from corporate powers desperate to have just a skiff of your digital savvy rub off on their brands. (Note, there is a possible fifth tip that should be mentioned: ignore the fact that the blog is dead, killed by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al.)

Any long-time readers know I don't hew too closely to these guidelines, which might explain my blog statistics. If you are reading this I probably know you on a first-name basis, and since I only know, like, four people, I don't think the laws of physics allow but so many page visits to accrue. But Google never-the-less provides me with analytical tools. You may recall a prior campaign on my part to collect readers from as many countries as I could based on those statistics, which purport to tell me the country of origin for each page visit. I've since learned that most of those visits are probably attempts at reverse phishing, explaining the numerous page visits from Russia. But the truly curious aspect of the Google analytics is that the vast majority of my page visits appear to have occurred three-years prior to my first post.

While I appreciate those 897 page views in August 2007, I'm left questioning the accuracy of Google's reporting.

In any case, this is all a long way of saying that, in an earnest campaign to get my fair share of all that sweet, sweet, corporate blogging money, I have decided to get back to basics. This all started as what could be called a cancer blog, and it is time to revisit my roots. Luckily, I just had the pleasure of a PET scan. The good doctor wanted to take a look at my insides as he can only with the help of a radioactively tagged sugar injected into my circulatory system, so I took sedatives and emitted gamma rays for a half-day or so, some portion of which were captured by what I suspect is a very expensive scanner. Last week I met with my oncologist to discuss the scan, and I left disappointed that I will not have an excuse to just stay home, nap, and catch up on the Wire now that HBO's original programming has been added to the Amazon Prime service. But, silver-lining to every cloud and all, at least I'm still free of cancer cells. So there is that. But I may never see the Wire.

And now bored of the laser-like focus of a single subject blog, I'm moving on to a bunch of other topics that I occasionally touch on here, like: traveling somewhere that I expect to be warm, but it is instead cold. (See here and here, for example.) We have been having an incredible spring in Anchorage, with lots of warm days and opportunities to legitimately wear shorts and sandals because they are more comfortable than the alternative (and I'm thinking long pants and shoes, here; nudity is no longer a legitimate alternative for me), and not only as a chilly act of defiant hope, which is the best I can muster many years. Last weekend was more of the same. We woke up early on Saturday, the sun stroking skin to life. To take advantage, we packed the car and drove north to Denali National Park, adding the pleasures of a road trip to the pleasures of a warm breeze on a blue-bird day. The drive was stunning. The Alaska Range erupts from its southern drainages in cascades of topography, peaks etched against the sky in high contrast. The road north frames views that pull instinctive exclamations and lead to impromptu high-fives, and we drove with jaws appreciatively dropped in our laps. But the mountains do what they do. Clouds started to build. Late afternoon, the skies opened up, rain coming in roving downpours that organized into a night-long drizzle. By morning, we climbed out of our tent and got to walk in a combination of sleet and snow.

Or another topic I frequently explore: running. My first race of the season, the Race Judicata, came and went, a 5-k at which I hoped to, but did not, crack 20 minutes. Instead, I ran a 20:27. Or a 51:35. I can't be sure. The official results have me listed twice. Which makes me wonder if the race director relied on Google for the statistics.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More Things in Heaven and Earth

I have had the dubious pleasure over the years of registering vehicles and/or licensing myself at DMVs in five different states. New Jersey was the worst. Bad enough, in fact, that I can say with some confidence—even absent experience in the other 45 states—that New Jersey's DMV is the worst in the country. Of all the things I love and miss about New Jersey, spending 16 hours over three days to finally register a truck is not among them. But despite its flaws, the New Jersey DMV was a great social equalizer. As a state, New Jersey has extremes of wealth and poverty, and New Jersey required you to come and sit with a “now serving” number pinched between your fingers for hours on end whether (very) rich or (very) poor. In a country marked by a shrinking middle-class and an ever-widening wealth gap, the DMV may be the last public space dedicated to bringing disparate people together under one roof to share a common experience.

A close second might be commercial air travel. Lets face it, the (very) rich are unlikely to be found flying commercial, and the (very) poor might find more pressing things to spend money on, but a pretty wide-swath of our population comes together on planes. Where else would the two men sitting behind C and I on our way to Reno for a quick Easter weekend getaway have met? The exchange started off as they often do on planes: “So, where are you headed?”

“New York.”

“Oh yea? Business of pleasure?”

“Well, I am proud to say my son is currently at West Point and serving this great country. He plays football and has a game in New York this weekend, and I'm going to support him.”

“Wow, man, that is great.”

It could have ended there. But the West Point dad with a close haircut, a lineman's build, and West Point jacket, did the polite thing and asked his twenty-something neighbor with unkempt curls sticking well out from underneath a hat the follow up: “So, what about you? Where are you headed?”



“Sort of. I've got an entry in the Cannabis Cup and have some meetings set up with some growers.”


And that pretty well killed the conversation. I don't know if West Point Dad knew anything about the Cannabis Cup. (I didn't, but learned a little with a quick on-line search. See, e.g.,this article.) But he probably knew enough to know he didn't have much interest in pursuing the conversation much further. In any case, I hope the two of them learned a tiny bit about a world broader than normally dreamt of in their philosophies. And at least they were both nicer than the guy who yelled at me during boarding.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Elusive Six Minute Mile

This is the time of year I usually write at length and in painful detail about how a 12 year old beat me—again—in the Tour of Anchorage, our local ski marathon. Historically, regardless of the distance I sign up for, I find myself toiling up the final climbs to Kincaid stadium quick on the heels of some kid who, with a quick glance over her shoulder, smirks and accelerates away. I was determined this year to put the trend to rest. But rather than train harder I decided to not participate, which turned out to be a lot easier. Ha, little twelve year olds! Just try to beat me as a I amble back and forth between the couch and the fridge! Your little pre-teen hands will be too tired from all of the skiing to steal the last cookie from me like you have stolen the sweet taste of victory oh these many years!

Really, though, if there was a year to skip skiing the Tour, this was it. While the lower 48 states have been struggling through the coldest winter in recent memory, we transitioned into spring sometime last January. What snow that fell melted to ice, or disappeared all together. The Tour race directors ended up shortening the Tour course, unable to work with the available base over much of the usual trail. And rather than getting in the necessary base miles on skis, I made the early mental transition to running. In this case, that meant signing up for a weekly coached speed session on the track.

I've never run track and never done speed work, so I didn't really know what to expect. What I was not expecting was the 12 year old who weekly leaves me choking on his dust yet still manages the energy on every lap to spring and try to touch the banners dangling from the pedestrian bridge. I just can't escape it. Where do these kids come from?

After a few weeks of intervals at various distances, last week we did a timed mile to check current fitness and better determine what pace we should each be running the workouts at. This was probably my first timed mile since . . . middle school? I was not sure how to pace over such a short distance, but assumed I would figure it out, and I headed off at the gun at what I hoped was a speed I could just maintain over four laps. I finished in 6:11, a few seconds behind the 12 year old. I paced well, doing a one-second negative split over the first- and second-halves of the run. And I feel confident that I could have done it faster. I wasn't at my limit, and next time I know I can push a little harder, shed some seconds, hopefully break 6:00. But I felt good about my effort just the same.

Or I felt good about my effort prior to doing some research that put the whole thing in perspective. The following table may help.

Let me summarize. That 6:11 mile I ran? The one that I think I could improve upon by, say, 11 seconds or so? The pace that left my breathing ragged and in the red zone after one quarter mile? That same pace—if I could have maintained it—would have found me stumbling across the finish line some 23 minutes after the world record holder in the 100 km. But here is the thing. I couldn't have maintained it for another mile, much less another 61. It frankly astounds me what people can do. Some folks run 26.2 miles at an average pace that I can't even reach for fractions of a mile. Mind boggling.

Maybe it isn't fair to compare myself to world record setting runners. Let's face it, if your name appears on the same line as the world record in, say, the 10k, you're orbiting in an elite sphere peopled by a distinct minority. What makes the record special in the first place is the very fact that the vast majority of people—people like me—can't get close to that level of performance. But that is the neat thing about running. A 400 meter track is a 400 meter track the world over (disregarding, if you please, any differences due to elevation), giving each of us an opportunity to measure ourselves against the best in the world each time we set off for a lap.

It also might not be fair to measure myself against younger runners in the prime of their fitness. After all, I would be willing to wager that half or more of those records were set by 12 year olds. And if the last few years have taught me anything, it is that you can't compete against a 12 year old. Best just keep my head up, run my own race, and hope for the best.

Friday, February 14, 2014

All I Want for Christmas is a Coin Operated Horse

Let's face it.  To the extent you come to this blog at all, it isn't to wade through my written words.  You could probably care less if I craft a perfect metaphor describing the vast waste of winter that is fifty degree temperatures and melted snow.  You may not even bother to read my attempts at capturing accurate and colorful dialogue, your eyes glazing over at the first sight of an opening quotation mark.  You certainly don't laugh at the quirks I find funny.  No, if you bother to come to this blog at all, it is very likely because you hope I'll post up pictures of cowboy hats.

And now I have.  That sound?  It is most of my web traffic heading to the door with no reason to stick around any longer. 

But really, why I am going on about cowboy hats at all?  Well, C and I were knocking about the house in early December, unsure of how to fill our days, mindlessly surfing the web, when we saw that the world's largest collection of cowboy hats was descending on Las Vegas, Nevada.  In what appears to be an annual migration, the hats are drawn from far and wide to attend the National Finals Rodeo.  Intrigued, we loaded up the car, drove to the airport, and arrived in the southern Nevada desert ready for the kind of excitement you can only find by combining raging bulls with Wranglers.  But alas, tickets to the National Finals Rodeo were expensive.  And it turned out we didn't really care all that much.  So instead we went and played in the dirt.

In what is becoming something of a frustrating pattern, it was quite a bit colder in Las Vegas than it was in Anchorage at the time of our visit.  Every time in 2013 we tried to duck the cold and absorb some heat, we walked right into unseasonable chills.  Really, how did we get snow in Tucson and temperatures in the teens in Las Vegas?  We under packed, and ended up hiking around Red Rocks in every bit of insulation we had on hand.  At least the sun was bright.  And, as advertised, the rocks were red.

And while the rodeo itself was expensive, a rodeo affiliated Christmas market had taken over the Vegas convention center.  The Christmas market was free.  So we wandered to the convention center, not sure of what we would find.  It turns out, they were selling coin operated bucking broncos.

How cool is that?  I remember the coin operated horse outside of the Super Mart in Socorro.  I would beg off following my mom around the store and sit outside on the horse, pretending I had the kind of cash needed to make it work.  One day, some kind man came out of the store and found a forlorn little boy slumped over on a stationary horse, chin resting on his fist, muttering an occasional and uninspired “Giddy Up.”  The man reached into his pocket and pulled out . . . A quarter?  A nickel?  I have no idea what that horse used to cost.

“Want to take a ride, son?”

“Hell yeah!  Fire this thing up old man!”

The coin dropped into the slot and the horse started its stationary gallop without an ounce of the drama I had imagined.  The man wandered off, probably pleased with himself.  And at that moment my mom came out with groceries in hand, horrified that I was accepting money from strangers.  And so we all learned a valuable lesson that day.

Suffice to say, I did my best yet failed to convince C that we should take a coin operated horse home.  But we did wander the vendor halls, admiring all stripes of western themed bric-a-brac.  The whole thing was a little like visiting a foreign country.  People talked different, dressed different, and embraced a whole different cuisine built around the flavor profile of Coors Light.  It turns out about half of the U.S. population is more exotic then, say, the French.

The most awkward cultural exchange probably occurred at the Ducks Unlimited booth.  A lot of the various vendors had games with promotional prizes: “Step right up to spin the great wheel for your chance to win cheap crap!”  The Ducks Unlimited folks were set up in front of a long row of what looked like a carnival shooting gallery, with pictures of large game behind shooting blinds.  A man was standing nearby with a  rifle in hand, motioning me over, offering me the weapon.  I jumped to conclusions, assuming he was enticing me in to play Duck Unlimited's little game for my chance to win a hat or pamphlet.  And so I walked right over.  I stuck out my arms and he set the rifle in my hands.  It didn't take long to figure by the weight that this was a real gun.  Ducks Unlimited was raffling a limited edition rifle, and I was being given the opportunity to admire it in person before, Ducks Unlimited hoped, breaking out my wallet and buying multiple chances at being a winner.  I stood there for a minute with no idea what a person should do to admire a gun.  Swirl it and sniff, like a glass of wine?  Give it a good shake and see if it rattles?  I did neither, but just stood with the rifle at arm's length, like a young man handed someone's baby for the first time, praying someone will come by soon and relieve me of the burden.  In due course the Ducks Unlimited representative recognized that I am something of an idiot with firearms and wisely reached out to take the gun back.  I thanked him and scuttled off to find someone offering a chance to win a Dodge truck.

I did find a chance to win a truck, by the way, but won neither a truck nor a hat.  I did get a lot of pamphlets to read up on in preparation for the next time I visit the other half of the country.  And I'd be happy to share if your thinking of your own visit.  Just remember to exchange your Euros for Coors, which appears to be the real currency of the realm.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Finding History in the Bottom of my Beer

I recently stumbled across an online repository of digital article reprints collecting local history stories originally printed in El Defensor Chieftain, the venerable twice weekly source of news for the residents of Socorro, New Mexico. I won't bother trying to catalog the maze of hyper-linked rabbit holes that brought me to the website, though I will grant you that I probably should have been spending my time more productively. In any case, I learned some interesting things about what I consider my home town.

Born in Virginia, my folks moved to the high desert when I was three. My first and haziest memories are of scenes and events in the east, but for all practical purposes I grew up in Socorro, completely unaware of and uninterested in the historical significance of anything I saw around me. Sure, I dutifully went on field trips to the San Miguel Mission, built between 1615 and 1626 (the church was founded in 1598, but the original building was replaced starting in 1615), and looked through the glass at the example of the original adobe, but I don't recall being particularly excited by it. I suppose that is the natural order of youth. The significance of the past pales against the prospects of the afternoon.

But San Miguel never held reign as the only historical building of note in Socorro, some of which were never recognizable to me as anything more than blight. Like the multi-storied structure east of California Street on the south side of town? Turns out it had been a flour mill, the Crown Mill, first opened for business in 1893 in an environment dominated by two existing mill operations. The mill flourished for a time, but fell victim to the vagaries of capitalism and the market power of Pillsbury. The Crown Mill closed in 1938. Other businesses operated from the building up until 1965. I only knew the building as an example of industrial ruin, a structure subject to rumor. Kids I knew in turn knew other kids (always several times removed) who had broken into the mill, reportedly finding the place booby trapped and inhabited by a crazy man who leered out at them from behind a pile of rubbish—or perhaps bones. It turns out a local man bought the building in 2003, and has since done some renovation, rebuilding the third story and roof which had fallen into disrepair. I hope he made provisions for the crazy man. You hate to see gentrification chase out a neighborhood's original residents.

I was most interested in an article detailing the long history of the Capitol Bar. The Cap sits today on the plaza where it did when first built in 1896, Socorro's only surviving bar from back when New Mexico was a territory. I had a vague awareness of the place growing up as a den of iniquity near the Junior High and Edward's barbershop, but never saw the interior prior to a remodel following a fire in 1993. Now it has been bestowed the honor of “Bucket List Bar” but none other than YouTube contributor “drunkenhistory.” If there is a higher honor, I know it not. There were two points in the article, however, that I found particularly striking.

First, the article notes that as of its publication date (2010), the Capitol was one of only three bars left in Socorro (the other two being the Roadrunner Lounge and the Matador Lounge at the El Camino, but a quick online search suggests the Roadrunner may have since closed). Are you seriously telling me that Socorro can't support more than three (maybe two) bars? What happened to the rest? And in particular, what happened to that sketchy little bar west of California Street on the south side of town, kind of across from the then-deteriorating Crown Mill? The little rectangle of a building, made out of cinder blocks, with a dark door and seemingly no electricity? This place too was subject to rumor amongst the kids. There it was rumored that murder occurred nightly (most of which must have gone unreported; looking back I do not recall reading about these frequent killings in the Chieftain). Indeed, you were guaranteed to, at the very least, be stabbed, if not shot, within minutes of walking through the dark doors. Maybe the rumors were true, which would account for its closure. It is hard to build a stable clientele if you keep knocking them off soon after they pass through the doors.

Second, the article told the story of the Emillio family, which was involved in the Socorro bar business from the repeal of prohibition until approximately 1960, at which time the son, Willie Emillio, decided to try his hand in other lines or work. Notably, the local college, the New Mexico School of Mining and Technology, made Willie an honorary member of the alumni association, and on his death Willie left the school money to start a scholarship fund in his name. All of which suggests the Tech students were perhaps spending more time (and money) at the Capitol than they were in their classes. Having spent time as a student in geology programs at three different schools, I can just think that, yes, that sounds about right. So, next time I'm in Socorro I'll need to stop in for a beer. And I will expect to see the geology students working away on homework, absorbing (I'm sure) the historical significance of the place.