Category Archives: Featured

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)*

Here’s the first of a handful of posts from a recent visit to Istanbul, Turkey. 

Napoleon once said that if the world had just one capital, it would be Constantinople – the city now known as Istanbul, Turkey.  Apparently lots of Emperors and Sultans felt the same way.  For over 1000 years, Istanbul was Constantinople – capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and named for the 4th Century Roman Emperor Constantine.  In 1453, the Ottoman armies of Sultan Mehmet II successfully laid siege to Constantinople and established Istanbul as the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sultan and the Ottomans were Islamic, so most of what is now Istanbul has been mostly Islamic ever since.  Grand Christian churches were converted to mosques.  The grandest of all was Hagia Sophia — originally dedicated in the year 361 and serving as a Christian church for nearly 1100 years.  When the Ottomans took over in 1453, the crosses and other Christian symbols that covered Hagia Sophia’s walls and ceiling were replaced with symbols of Muhammed and Allah.  A mihrab and minbar replaced altar and pulpit, and minarets (towers used for the daily call to prayer) were built on all four corners.  Fortunately, the enlightened Sultan only covered up – and did not destroy – many of the Christian religious icons.  Today the Hagia Sophia is a museum, showing off its immense and beautiful architechture and its odd current mix of Christian icons and Islamic symbols, and thus telling the story of Istanbul’s last 1700 years.


The tiny Church at the Chora monastery a few miles to the west saw a similar fate.  Today it’s a museum, and most of the amazing and elaborate murals have been restored.


*”Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is a goofy song about the re-naming of Constantinople.  It was a gold-record hit in the 1950s by the Four Lads, and was recorded again by the They Might Be Giants in the 1990s.  If you don’t remember it, watch the recent version on YouTube.  It’ll make you smile.  “All the girls from Constantinople are in Istanbul (not Constantinople); so if you’ve a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting in Istanbul.” 




Fall Leaves in the Upper Rio Grande

Ever wonder where the Rio Grande got its start?



If you follow the Rio Grande upstream about as far as it goes — to where the Rio Grande is still a rio muy pequeño — you’ll wind up a little west of Creede, Colorado.   Fortunately, most Colorado tourists have overlooked this area because it’s a long way from major airports and ski resorts, but there’s a loyal Texas and Oklahoma crowd that usually arrive in RVs for riverside camping, or in 4-wheel-drive vehicles for exploring the mountains.

It’s a great place year-around, but — until last week — I’d never been there for the real “peak” color of the aspen leaves in the fall.  They’re beautiful, but they’re quick!  In the space of a week, lots of the aspen leaves went from green to gone.  Fortunately, I got a few pictures before they all disappeared.


If you want to see several more fall leaves shots, OR if that slideshow above doesn’t work on your browser or device, click here to see them on a different page.


Pine beetles are a constant scourge in Colorado, and a few years back a wave came through and killed a bunch of trees.  The locals call it “Beetle Kill.”  The bugs eat the mature evergreens but don’t touch the aspen.  Lots of the pictures have at least a few obvious dead trees.  The shots below are of areas where the evergreens are essentially wiped out.  It looks as though the aspen will quickly take over the open space.





It’s hard to take pictures in Washington D.C. that don’t look just like the zillion images you’ve seen all your life.  And you spend a disheartening amount of time waiting for a little gust of wind so the flags will look better flying in the breeze.  

It’s a tough time to get excited about Washington D.C.  Washington is nothing if it isn’t a big symbol – full of smaller big symbols – of the federal government.  A very big federal government.  I suspect D.C. tourism rises and falls a little with the approval ratings of the President and Congress – making this a fairly uninspiring time to visit the capital.

Even so, walking among the monuments and museums and memorials and government buildings, it’s hard not to be impressed.  I remember my first trip to D.C. many years ago:  what struck me was that it was full of American castles.  I’d grown up thinking that the U.S. – unlike England or France or Germany – didn’t have castles, but there they were in D.C., one huge, lavish government “castle” after the next.




 I went to a seminar in Washington a few days back.  I got there a little early and stayed a little late so I could walk around the “mall” and take a few pictures.  Several of the pictures you see are of the Capitol just at sunrise (thus the pretty light).  There are a couple of shots – with the Washington Monument and reflecting pool – taken about 15 minutes apart, from the Lincoln Memorial.  One of those was taken as a nasty storm blew in, trapping me (and about 400 others) inside the Memorial watching the downpour.  A couple of shots (those from up high, and including the one of National Park Ranger Julia Clebsch) are from the clock tower of the Old Post Office.

That picture with the Capitol building in the distant, lower right and with the relief sculpture up close is at the Ulysses Grant Memorial, which is at a very prominent spot between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.  It was striking to realize that it’s a tribute to General Grant (as opposed to “President” Grant).  It’s a war momument:  He’s on a horse, dressed as a Union general, and flanked on all sides by dramatic sculptures of Union soldiers on the attack.  As a de facto Southerner, somehow that ongoing granite-and-bronze celebration is a little unsettling (To be clear, though:  I’d never suggest it be removed.  It’s real history.).  It reminded me of my lifelong observation that many Americans have been much quicker to embrace our former foes from international wars and conflicts than their fellow citizens from opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon.


Great Sand Dunes National Park

Quick:  Where are the tallest Sand Dunes in North America?   Hint:  They’re not in a desert, or at a beach.  The Answer:  Southern Colorado — surrounded on all sides by the Rocky Mountains.    Somehow a combination of prevailing winds, mountain winds, and the sandy remnants of an extinct high-altitude lake have formed a 30 square mile sand dune field just west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Alamosa, Colorado.  The big dunes rise over 700 feet above the surrounding terrain — roughly the height of a 60-story building.  (Notice the tiny little people way up on the top).

I was en route from Leadville to Houston recently, and detoured a few miles to see the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.  I didn’t expect much, but it was actually more interesting-looking than I’d imagined.  Unfortunately, heavy cloud cover made the light flat and limited the photographic possibilities.  Then some approaching lightning convinced me that I’d picked the wrong day to climb up on the high, isolated dunes.


The National Park Service’s descriptions say the former gigantic Lake Alamosa disappeared due to “climate change,” but the change to which it refers is not one caused by my Chevy Tahoe or the plastic bottles from which I drink Diet Coke.  Apparently it happened a few hundred thousand years ago, so I have a pretty good alibi. 

Race Across the Sky: The Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race

If you can finish Leadville’s 100-mile mountain bike race in less than 12 hours, they award you a belt buckle.  And the faster you finish; the bigger the buckle*  It’s a great tradition and a fun souvenir that’s a nice reminder of the town’s rugged western past.  A half dozen or so great friends and I earned buckles in Leadville last weekend.  Though none of us ordinarily wear big belt buckles, that hard-earned hardware is now among our most cherished possessions.

I just had one of the best weeks of my life.  More than once, I was positively giddy.  More than once, I was misty-eyed.  And more than once, I was in a fair amount of pain.  Starting something like a 100-mile mountain bike race can be overwhelming.  It’s a strange mixture of fear and dread, excitement and adventure, camaraderie, competition, and adrenaline.  I was expecting at least 11 hours on the bike, which was longer than I’d ever spent on a tiny cycling saddle.

After several days spent preparing for the race with an amazing group of close friends, we all crossed the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100 last Saturday morning with 100 miles (and several hours) of mountains, trails and rocks in front of us.  By dinner time, we had all finished – mostly-safely and mostly ahead of our self-imposed goals and schedules.  For us, that’s victory.

Leadville, Colorado is the highest-elevation city in America, and its annual 100-mile LT100 race is considered one of the toughest in America.  Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong have come here and lost, though Lance came back in 2009 and won the thing.  Last week, Lance showed up in Leadville on Friday and told us that the Leadville race may be the hardest thing he’d ever done (which is saying a lot).  I can relate.   As I said after it was over, I had seven hours of the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike (bear in mind, though:  my race lasted eleven hours).

We were TEAM MRE, sponsored and outfitted by MRE Consulting — the company founded by my friends (and fellow riders) Mike Short and Shane Merz.   That’s Shane in the first picture below (I grabbed a camera and took this shot just seconds after he crossed the finish line).   Don’t worry; he recovered just fine.  Mike is pictured a little further down with his teenage daughter Emily.  I’d never seen Emily smile as big as she did when her Dad came across the finish line.  Somehow Mike had lost his helmet out there somewhere.  Some MRE executives (including COO Bjorn Hagelmann, pictured in the safari hat) were even on hand as a support crew, selflessly delivering Gatorade and food to us at key spots on the race course.  Spouses, friends and kids were on hand to help, clap and cheer.


As with most of the crazier things I get into, longtime friend Scott Humphries was on hand.  He usually beats me in races, but this time the acclimation from my high-altitude summer gave me a tiny 65-second advantage at the end of an 11+ hour day.  Since that’s about the time that it takes to stop and pee, or drink a Gatorade, or hug your kids (him) or parents (me) on the roadside, I think we’ll call this one a dead heat.  Ned Barnett led all Houstonians (me, Scott, Shane, Mike, Caj Boatright and Greg Binion) on our team, improving his 2011 performance by more than an hour.


 We had a couple of ringers:  last winter in Costa Rica, I’d met and hung out with Peter Thomsen and his wife, Jana, both of Santa Cruz, California.  It turns out that Peter is a stellar mountainbiker.  Crazy good — something I didn’t even fully appreciate when I invited him to join us in Leadville.  Then when a last-minute opening came up on our Team, we called Peter’s Santa Cruz buddy Zach Brown.  Zach bought a new bike, flew out, couch-surfed, saddled up, and turned in an impressive bike performance — all while adding plenty of fun and class to the mix.

Once again, my loving Mom and Dad were my heroes.  Remember what I said above about getting misty-eyed?  They had their truck and ATV lined up to chase and cheer me every hour or two along the course.  To help me spot her quickly, Mom sported a feather boa in MRE Team colors.  It’d be impossible to quit trying when you know your Mom and Dad travelled 1000 miles to watch you cross the finish line.

Truth is, a little more than a year ago, neither Scott, Shane, Mike, Ned or I even owned a mountain bike, or had much of an idea how to ride one in real mountains.  We were road bikers and triathletes.  In a celebratory mood the day after the race, Scott announced:  “Jeffry, I believe we are now ‘mountain bikers.'”  I had to agree, but then asked the critical question:  “Yup, but what are we gonna be next year?”


Photo Credits:  Obviously I was mostly biking, not photographing.  I regret that I don’t have more pictures of Ned, Caj, Peter, Zach and Greg — they finished before I did and had already changed out of their jerseys before I got ‘hold of my camera.   Fortunately, Jana Thomsen, Stacy Humphries, and the on-course photo service “Zazoosh” got several good pictures.  Lots of the shots in the grid above are by those guys, and I think all the cameras got passed around after the finish — even pro-photographer Peter took a few after his finish.  Forgive me for not sorting out exactly who took which picture.  And forgive me for including more pictures of myself than I’m usually comfortable with. 

* Full disclosure:  The faster you finish, the bigger the belt buckle you’re awarded.  The very-big buckle in the close-up picture above belongs to friend/teammate/Californian Peter Thomsen, who is a mountainbiking badass — a whole order of magnitude above me.  The rest of the team earned buckles a bit smaller and with less gold.  Of course ours are waaaay more tasteful….but his made a better picture.