Category Archives: Travel

OverCapitalized

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.

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 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.

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Chicago Double Feature

September 12, 2012 update:  I made another trip through Chicago last weekend, so I added the wide shot now at the bottom of this post, and the mafia hit picture now in the ‘rotating’ gallery.  

Even if you’ve never heard of Chicago’s Second City comedy institute, you know its alumni.  People like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Amy Pohler, Mike Meyers, Bill Murray, Shelley Long and Dan Aykroyd.  It’s the Harvard and the Mecca of aspiring comedy writers and performers.

If it had never dawned on you that there was such a thing as a comedy training “school,” you’ll be doubly surprised that Chicago has two – spaced just a few miles apart near Lincoln Park and Wrigley Field.  “iO” is a symbiotic rival of Second City, with a slightly different focus but a comparable list of famous recent alums and a reputation for some hilarious shows.  (My favorite “iO” progeny is that guy who’s always in the passenger seat in the drive-thru window in Sonic commercials).

A few days back, my nephew Tyler’s comedic stars aligned on a Monday evening – putting him on the stage in separate shows at The Second City and at “iO” on the same night.   At Second City, it was sketch comedy like you see on Saturday Night Live.  There were several musical skits, too, with funny songs and goofy choreography.  I promise:  most of the other audience members were not blood relatives of a cast member, and they, too, were laughing and cheering.

At “iO”, the show was a “long-form” improvisation show known as a “Harold.”    Many improv sets often begin with a random “suggestion” from an audience member – like a place (e.g., airport, deli), or an occupation (librarian, jockey) – with the cast spending the next couple of minutes improvising something that has to do with that suggestion.  In the Harold show, Tyler stepped onto the stage and asked the audience for a suggestion “of anything at all.”  Someone yelled “unicorns,” so the 8-person team (“Trolley”) spent the next 25 minutes improvising a pretty-darn-funny show about escaped unicorns, distraught unicorn ranchers, master unicorn hunters with singing crossbows, and clever disguises for fugitive unicorns.

Any kind of show business is a tough business.  To get onto those two stages last Monday, Tyler had survived multiple layers of auditions and cuts that winnowed hopeful hundreds down to dozens, then dozens down to the few gifted folks we saw onstage.  So far so good for Tyler’s Chicago adventure.   Both shows are still running on Monday nights.  Also, over Labor Day weekend, he’s got a big role in a “live stage reading” of The Lockout: An NBA Musical — which has already been touted by an ESPN blog!  Go see it (details here)!

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Caitlin Parker (one of Tyler’s sisters), his proud parents and I made the quick trek to Chicago for the shows.  Long-sleeve shots above are at Second City; short sleeves at iO.   The outdoor “portraits” of Tyler and Caitlin are out on Navy Pier with the Chicago skyline in back.  The animals were safely confined in the Lincoln Park Zoo.  The sketches in the Second City show will change after this week, so I’ve already got my plane ticket for a return trip in September.

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September 10:

 

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. 

Rocky Mountain Highest: Leadville, CO

I’ve been without a WIFI connection for a couple of weeks!  Forgive the delayed posts.

 

If you’re looking for America’s highest post office, head for Leadville, Colorado —  America’s highest town.  Depending on just what and where you measure, it’s around 10,200 feet in elevation.  The town also boasts (literally) the country’s highest airport.  Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft), looms over the south side of town; Mt. Massive (the second highest at just 14,428) is just west of town.  Around here, thin air and isolation are selling points and badges of honor.

There’s plenty of evidence in Leadville of a past that was both grander and rougher.  The town started in the 1800s as a mining “boom” town.  It’s just got 3,000 or so people now, but it allegedly had 10 times that population (and 100 saloons!?!) in the 1880s.  Back then Oscar Wilde lectured in the city’s Tabor Opera House (probably with Leadville residents (unsinkable) Molly Brown and maybe Doc Holiday in the audience).  At the same time, thousands of men braved sub-zero temperatures, using mule and muscle to drag tons of silver-laden ore out of the mines that surround the city.

 

 

130 years later, there’s still a lot going on in now-tiny Leadville.  The first weekend in August was “Boom Days,” celebrating Leadville’s past with gritty mining competitions (see the jackhammer and sledgehammer pictures) on one end of downtown and a lacy Victorian costume contest on the other.  These are two very different crowds.  Meanwhile, a 22-mile pack burro race shut down Highway 24 through the middle of town.  This being Colorado — there’s always a laid-back “hippie” crowd around town, too, and on most summer days there are a dozen or so leather-shrouded Harley riders cruising the streets.  Talk about diversity.

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Yet another crowd (this one with spandex shorts, carbon fiber bikes, and Gatorade) swarms the town in the summer, gearing up for  arguably the biggest mountain bike race in the country – the Leadville MTB 100 “Race Across the Sky”.  Like the Leadville Marathon I did a couple of months back, it starts at 10,200 feet and generally just goes higher and higher from there.  That’s why I was in town, along with a half dozen or so good friends.  More news on the bike race in a day or so when the pictures get compiled.

Topping it all off, camped out west of town were none other than Joyce and J.B. Cotner (my mom and dad!).  One day when we were doing a practice ride of the toughest climb on the bike race course (climbing up to Columbine Pass at 12,400 ft), there sat Mom and Dad at the summit on a red ATV, waiting for us.  To say that my Mom and Dad are troopers would be a terrible understatement.  I’d convinced my Dad to come to Leadville by telling him we needed to come up with a strategy to win next year’s burro race (me as runner, him a burro trainer).   Crazier things do happen — especially in Leadville.

In the photo grid above:  The big green rock is part of the mining competition.  Yes, that’s an attractive young woman operating the 120 lb. jackhammer.  Do not mess with her.  The two-man sledgehammer (“double jack”) competition requires more trust in one’s teammate than I have for any of my friends — no offense guys.  The two men in the sledgehammer pictures apparently set an unofficial state record — chiseling a 27-inch hole in 10 minutes.  You don’t ride the burros in the burro race — you lead/push/drive/drag them 22 miles.  The winner makes it back to town in about four hours.  Apparently Leadville is the second leg of Colorado’s “Triple Crown” of pack burro racing.  That’s my Mom and Dad above (in red and blue) downtown watching the burro race and parade.  And that’s also them with me (bottom) behind their ATV at the top of Columbine; they’re showing off their preferred means of high-mountain transport and I’m showing mine.  If you pay attention to such things: I do have a fabulous bike (Specialized Epic S-Works 26; full suspension and weighs less than many road bikes) — because I need all the help I can get. 

I threw in some shots of the mountains around Leadville.  I didn’t really dedicate the time it takes to get really good mountain photos (scouting locations then waiting on perfect weather and light), so these do not do Leadville justice in the “majestic views” category.  Hopefully you can still get a sense of the landscape. 

(Bottom photo by Peter Thomsen, using whatever little camera he’d stuffed into his bike jersey).

 

 

 

 

Siena Sunflowers

 

It’s a myth that big sunflowers like this turn to follow the sun all day.  They just face east.  Apparently when they’re tiny, they might turn (i.e., they’re “heliotropic”), but not when they’re mature.  So if you want to photograph them “head-on” and you want something else in the picture, that “something else” needs to be lined up precisely due west of the flower patch.  Thus, last week as I drove through a part of north-central Italy (near Siena) where they grow sunflowers, my goal was to spot some cool old building — a big church or something that made you think “Tuscany” — that looked good from the east, and that was situated exactly due west of a pretty sunflower field.  Hmmmm.

Even after finding a spot, I had to avoid an ugly fence — and an ugly sunflower farmer 100 yards up the road near the signs that said “proprieta privata.”   Thus I took all these pictures from a single spot in the middle of the road, with the Castillo del Cuatro Torres (“Castle of the Four Towers”) lined up on the hill due west of me.

These were the last shots I took before I packed the camera away for a while and headed toward the airport for my flight back to Houston.