May Gray and Illusions of Other Places

It’s May in Southern California. The usual sunshine has given way to the annual display of overcast skies that linger for days on end. Some say the clouds show off the jacarandas in all their purple glory. I’m not so sure about that, I think they sparkle in the sunshine. But the change in atmosphere creates photographic opportunities.

Southern California can be a bit barren. Many of the trees in the greater area were planted by Angelinos to make the landscape more appealing. Like so many other things in the land of Hollywood and the perspective of the person behind the camera, May Gray provides opportunities to create an illusion, a portal to another place.

Today’s photos are at Lake Matthews, a storage reservoir for the many houses and businesses in this semi arid landscape. The lake has two earthen dams making it obvious that the small canyon the waters have flooded could not possibly be a natural body of water. It has a fence around it to block access and stop the public from contaminating its waters. Being fenced off there are no facilities, boats, or beaches that might make it look like a developed space, a fiction all by itself. Over the course of this unusually vibrant spring bloom I have watched the lake go from a bright yellow, green, and orange wildflower carpet to the golden brown that characterizes California throughout the late spring, summer, and fall seasons.

The muted colors from the low clouds of May that block the typical cloudless blue or brownish skies opened my eyes to a landscape from another world. In place of the skies and brown hills behind the lake, the cloud cover created a scene reminiscent of the lochs and fjords of Norway or Canada, or maybe the brief mating season David Attenborough shows me in the artic tundra on Nature, my favorite Wednesday TV show.

I haven’t left the climate of Southern California, didn’t buy a plane ticket or drive many miles, but my camera has allowed me to take a vacation to a foreign and distant place, even if it’s only in my imagination.

Happy Memorial Day 2023

Spend some time this weekend to honor those who protected our freedoms. Not limited to a geographical area or specific ethnicity, the US is an ideal that all men (mankind) are created equal and that they can participate in governing themselves. A worthy ideal to strive for and protect.

And while your at it find some time for a little R&R.

Blizzard Conditions in Southern California

The weather is all over the news. I guess it’s bound to be with the every little change being linked to global warming. For those of us who don’t do the science we must take the word of others. Hopefully your “others” are experts in the field of climatology and the study of greenhouse gases.

Here in Southern California my local weatherman on KABC, Dallas Raines assures us viewers the recent blizzard is not the consequence of climate change. It is due to regular atmospheric conditions. This storm pattern that brought snow to as low as 500 feet in some places is an occasional but regular event. The last time it happened was 1989.

Any big weather event is a good excuse to go take some photos. I can tell myself I do it to document the event but the truth is I just want an excuse to take some photos. It worked! I took my gear to the Cajon Pass along I-15. At forty miles it wasn’t exactly close by but by LA traffic standards it wasn’t far either. The area known as Mormon Rocks has several things going for it. First, it is right off the freeway. Second, there are several very busy train tracks that transport material from the greater LA area including merchandise from the twin ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach to all points east. The climb up the hill to the high desert requires multiple engines to push and pull the long trains up the incline. Third, the area is mostly devoid of the trappings of suburban life. The rocks, the trains, and the empty or clouded sky are wide open.

From a photographic standpoint, light and shadow are my friend when it comes time to show off the rocks and trains. The golden hours of the day are always ideal to get the warm tones of the red rocks. The contrast of the yellow train engines against the speckled desert landscape and the moonscape red boulders can make for some beautiful pictures. However, snow can level the playing field of light and expand the time of the day for contrasty photos. The starkness of the white snow creates a contrast with everything else in the frame. In addition, the contrast can save the otherwise flat lighting. These photos were taken at midday, a time I usually avoid.

I like the train. If I had my druthers it would have been a steam train with a high plume coming from the boiler.

I’m currently reading about Custer’s Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrook. Custer’s troops had to camp in their pup tents without any heating beyond uniforms and blankets they had taken with them. In the run up to the battle at Little Big Horn, they ran into some spring snow. It was cold. Relying on black and white, I took this photo that reminds me of images I have seen of the badlands in the Dakotas.

Orcas in Monterey Bay

Courtesy of Captain Kate from Blue Ocean’s High Spirits

I’ve got about three weeks before I move out of the bay area. It’s an ending and beginning all in one making the experience bittersweet. I’ll miss the people, the redwoods, the climate, and the whales. While it is possible I’ll see whales in Southern California, when I lived there before I never did. I remember paying to go on a whale paparazzi boat and getting excited that we saw a footprint of a whale. We never saw a whale. That experience is in stark contrast to the Monterey Bay where sightings are so common, I am not surprised to see a whale anytime I’m out on the bay. With three weeks to go one of my buddies who likes to paddle beyond our regular Saturday route from Santa Cruz harbor dropped me a line to see if I’m interested in a whale hunt in the middle of Monterey Bay just outside of Moss Landing. One of the premier locations to whale watch is the middle of the bay directly over a deep underwater canyon. The canyon causes an upswelling of warm water which draws animals the whales like to eat. Anyway, when he asks he knows I’ll say yes.

The sky was overcast when we arrived at Elkhorn Slough to launch. The air temperature was about 65 degrees under cloudy skies. The forecast said it would clear up and be partly sunny by the middle of the day. It was wrong. But we didn’t care, we didn’t go for the weather. Our adventure started out with an ominous note; my buddy cracked his carbon fiber paddle pushing away from the sandy beach landing.  I didn’t bring a backup, so he is stuck with a faulty paddle. Sure enough, before we reached the mile buoy the small crack sheared off the tip leaving him to paddle the day with a lopsided paddle.

Moving straight out of the harbor mouth, we glided past a bob of juvenile seals swimming and carrying on, when I saw in the distance what looked like a tall dorsal fin. What is tall? A male orca could have a dorsal fin up to six foot tall. Hard to miss even at a distance. Could it be an orca? I know orcas are in the bay, but I’d never seen one. In fact, one of the reasons I like to go to the San Juan islands is to see the orcas. My friend says “Maybe it’s a risso”, referring to a dolphin. He was hardly done making his suggestion when we saw two then three other big dorsal fins and then two of the whales came to the surface for a breath. Orcas closer than two miles from the mouth of the harbor. Amazing! We weren’t alone. In a matter of minutes other whale paparazzi boats came over by us to see the orcas. Seeing them I imagined they had in mind a gruesome scene from about 10 years ago where a pod of orcas battered and separated a gray calf from its mother. I imagined they might be hoping for some similar footage. On the other hand that is what the patrons on the boat paid for, whales. Together, the flotilla of commercial boats followed or pushed the pod out towards the open sea, and we lose site of the orcas. But it didn’t matter. We saw orcas!

In the next two hours we observed at least eight other humpbacks. They were feeding, tail slapping and to me, swimming in circles. Lucky for us! As we paddled around we respect the animal’s space and never forget they are wild. This isn’t Sea World and my friends, and I am well aware that this is their natural environment, not ours. We had two occasions during our paddle that illustrate this. We were sitting on the water looking for the next breach and listening intently for the characteristic blow when they surface to take a breath when two humpbacks surfaced right in front of us. Backing up and moving sideways to avoid their path, we had the feeling we had mistakenly parked on the railroad track with the train approaching.

A little later we realized we seemed to be constantly in the pathway of a bob of juvenile seals. We had experienced their behavior during a previous whale hunt. A large group of perhaps 50-60 seals move like a flock of birds quickly swimming, jumping and barking. I’m sure they are following a food source and I suspect they are just letting off some steam and being social. In my mind I think of them like teens who need something to do. Every time we moved around in the area this bob of seals seemed to be moving toward us, from the left, from the right, or coming from behind. After the third or fourth approach it dawned on me that perhaps we were sitting on top of a bait ball. This realization reminded me of a You Tube video I saw of some kayakers in Avila, California who were in the way when a humpback surfaced lunge feeding and they appeared to have been swallowed. As much as I would like to have seen the lunge feeding, I didn’t want to be the lunch. “Maybe we’re on top of a bait ball”, I said. We moved away and continued our viewing from the side.

We observed about a dozen unique whales including the family of orcas. The others were all humpbacks. I had a brief exchange with a sailboat during our humpback encounter. He mentioned to another boat the whales were over by the kayakers and relayed a story of being brushed by manatees when he was in a kayak. He didn’t know I was tuned into his channel so when I responded to him “I don’t want to be brushed against”, he asked who I was. “I’m one of the kayakers”, I replied. “You guys are hardcore”, he said. I don’t know about that; his sailboat was still shorter than a humpback, so I think he was pretty hardcore himself.  

Later when we returned to pack up and clean up the Kate, captain of the Fast Raft boat came over to talk with us. We talked about the experience, and I picked up a few tips about following whales. Later that day she sent us this photo. The captain of the High Spirit got in the act later that day and also sent a photo.

It seems like we often look to other people having fun or unique experiences and say to ourselves, “I’d like to by that guy.” Occasionally I have to pinch myself to be sure it’s really me, as in “Hey, I am that guy”. In this case the guy in the kayak watching wild whales with a friend.

I had a great day on the bay. I had two cameras with me, an Olympus Tough 6 (waterproof) and an Olympus OMD-EM10 MII but I guess I was having too much fun watching and wasn’t able to capture many photos. As you will see in the photos, I could not possibly have been the photographer as I am in many of them. I want to give a thank you to Chris, my fellow kayaker, and Kate, captain of the High Spirits,  who forwarded photos.

Bourton-On-The-Water Tourist Trap!

It’s a tourist trap. Hang on to your wallet! I’m sure you’ve received similar advice when you announce to your friends and co-workers that you’re headed on vacation. Bordon-On-The-Water is one of those places and despite the good advice we received from friends and colleagues we went anyway.

To be fair it was a scheduled stop on our walking tour of the Cotswolds, right after Stow-On-The Wold. Fortunately for us it we descended the hill all day and we didn’t add on extra miles due to a misunderstanding of the directions. Our tour coordinator, Macs Adventures had made the sleeping arrangements for the night weeks before we even arrived at Heathrow airport. Because we walked downhill from Stow on the Wold into the valley we arrived in plenty of time to explore the town with its creek flowing down the middle. We arrived so early the first thing on the “to do” list was lunch.

The little bakery we choose was situated next to the creek. After we watched them make our lunch, we watched the line grow and proceed through the store. I guess we arrived just in time. Across the creek was a little private motor museum. The guys decided to return later and visit.

Our country trail ended at a street that took us the last half mile into town, but I would say the street detracted from the quaintness of this little town with the stream gently flowing along the commercial avenue at the center. With the tree lined creek and shops the whole place invited us to slow down and take it easy. While we did cross the creek and the street to see the shops on the other side, the creek, shade trees, foot bridges, and cool breeze were all the stars of the show at Bourton-On-The-Water. 

I’ve included some photos to give you an idea of the mix between the old village with tiny streets and the modern mix of buildings for cars, tourists and the 21st century. The water was crystal clear, and the multiple foot bridges called out to our fellow tourists to stop and take a picture, lovers to take a stroll, and everyone to either bring a picnic lunch or stop at one of the many eateries. If New Orleans is the Big Easy, Bourton-On-The-Water is the Little Easy.

One highlight of the day was a small perfume shop that made the fragrance for the Queen. Set off the water on a small street that looked like it had been in existence since the days when this was the market town for the surrounding area, all the fragrances were unique and made from local materials. In addition to helping with the “right” perfume choice, the clerk behind the counter saved us VAT money with some timely advice about sizes and border declarations. 

A small wildlife attraction used part of the creek within its fences and some clever signage called to families to spend some time and money looking at the offerings within. While we enjoyed the atmosphere we didn’t visit. On the other end of town was the motor museum and the guys had to beat the clock to see what jewels awaited us inside.

After the ladies left the guys to their ogling agenda, Ken and I sauntered, well nearly ran over. I’m sure the Triumph 650 twin outside the door had nothing to do with my interest! (You might notice the photos below are mostly of motorcycles.) We paid our fee and were greeted by this door. If you’re a fan of Dr. Who you already know what this door is about. Even though the street footprint of this little museum was small there were five buildings to hold the collection of motorcycles and cars. If you’re not a fan of Dr. Who, a running gag on the show is that the Tardis, a blue phone booth/space ship, is bigger on the inside, a line that is often repeated by visitors. As you can imagine with five total buildings this too was bigger on the inside.

What treats awaited us on the inside! Jaguars, MGs, various motor related toys from the 30’s-70’s were interspersed among gas cans, motorcycles, repair machines, old oiling cans and other assorted historical references to the glory days of British auto and motorcycle manufacturers. Rarities such as a Superior Brough, a Vincent Black Shadow, Norton, Triumph, BSA, Royal Enfield, and various Sunbeam motorcycles were on display. A variety of MG sports cars stood next to Jaguars and made for the war marques. Truly eye candy for car guys and gals. Most of the cars and motorcycles in the museum wouldn’t touch any modern transportation in terms of speed, comfort, and safety. Built by hand with mechanical tolerances that were more in the neighborhood of the specifications instead of the computer controlled spot-on machining of our day, many of these old machines were either designed to be total loss (using all the oil and in need of frequent additions) systems or lost oil as part of the operation. To own one of these old beauties today requires a person whose ownership is part driving and part maintenance/repair. For example, the owner of a motorcycle in the 1930’s-1950’s was expected to go around the bike and retighten nuts and bolts, check the valve clearances, adjust the chain between the gearbox and rear wheel, and add oil to his/her machine before taking the Sunday ride. Every time! Long after cranks were gone from automobiles and replaced by electric starters, British motorcycles still had a foot crank into the 1970’s. 

Two last little notes about motorcycles before I sign off. We met a couple of young guys chewing the fat behind a bar (imagine that motorcycles and bars). One of them had a bike I didn’t recognize, and I asked him about it. It turned out the frame was designed to take several different sized motors. The idea was to change the configuration of the drivetrain as you became a more proficient rider. Lastly, while walking around looking for breakfast the following morning I saw an Ariel Square Four two pipe go by on the way to work. What’s the big deal? The bike was built in the early 1950s and this guy was using it as his daily rider. Amazing!

I’d love to hear any unique experiences you have had in a tourist trap town or village in the comments. If you’d like to get reminders of future posts why not subscribe?

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It’s the People

It’s fun to see things, especially old things. It makes me think of the old saying, “if these walls could talk.” Often they talk to me. Walking in the steps of famous or infamous people from the past presents an opportunity to learn with OPE (other people’s experience) instead of at the school of hard knocks. It also affords a chance to look at things from a different and larger perspective. 

At Stow-in-the-Wold we met a retired man while we were eating our full English breakfast at The Bell. Having rubbed shoulders with Californians who get dressed up and participate in Renaissance Faire and Dickens Christmas in South San Francisco, I recognized a gentleman whom I suspected might be involved in some historical reenactment society or group. It only took a question about his costume (I think I ussd some other word) and he was off. He was headed to a high school to talk about the English Civil War. (How appropriate since it was at Stow-in-the-Wold that the Parliamentary forces defeated Charles causing his flight through the woods on the pathway now called Monarch’s Way.) Acting as a soldier for Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces, he was armed with details about his weaponry, life on the road fighting the King and his forces, and whatnot about the 17th century. The more he talked the more animated he became. It didn’t seem to bother him too much that fourteen and fifteen year olds in 2022 would be more interested in everything on their phone than his yarns. He was on a mission.

Speaking of yarns, onboard the Cutty Sark we met a docent who had served on a merchant ship. As he and I traded tales about tall ships he shared this tidbit. On a sailing ship cordage or rope is always in short supply. Big winds and big seas pull on the rigging and sails leading to the inevitable need to splice and replace part of the line so necessary to the propulsion of the ship. Rope is made of small strands of plant material, often the stem of a plant. These need to be twisted into small string which is then braided or twisted into larger diameters of rope.

While spinning the raw material for the replacement rope, the sailors would tell each other stories. (I like to call these modern sessions “can you top this” or “mine is bigger than yours.” In the kayaking world it often begins or ends with “You shoulda been here yesterday.”) While based in some small kernel of truth these stories are often embellished. Like the work they were engaged in, their stories became known as “spinning a yarn.” 

One day we ended our walk at Winchcombe. Due to some COVID caused changes, we were to be picked up by taxi at an old tavern. The tavern was over six hundred years old. The doorway was low and there wasn’t a straight wall or square corner in the place. No one cared and I’m sure that on certain days and certain times it became a topic of conversation. This afternoon a couple was discussing a house they had just sold that had a thatched roof. The composition of the roof came up because I had mentioned what passed for “old” in California was much different than in Winchcombe, a seemingly appropriate comment in a place as old as the pub.

They refused to have their 18th century house designated as an historical place so he could keep his freedom in repairing and designing a livable abode in the 21st century. Apparently, his neighbors were of the same opinion. It would seem the designation of an historic place results in higher building costs and additional regulations on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m not sure what he did to earn a living. He and his wife having a glass of wine at four in the afternoon seemed to be a regular routine. He thought I had a funny accent.

While the buildings and history are interesting and usually garner most of the digital sensor space on my camera, it’s the people that interest me. Incorporating the past into the present is something we all do to one degree or the other. How and when it comes out is, perhaps, the best part of travel.

Chalk Art-Postcards from London

A couple of summers ago I posted a recollection about some chalk art from Palo Alto, CA. ( I had fun talking to the artists and viewing their creations. One thing that caught my interest was the temporary nature of the art. The artists didn’t work quickly because their creation would be gone in a week. They took the time each drawing required. I stumbled into another two artists in Trafalgar Square this past summer. 

Art at Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is in London. Commemorating the famous naval battle at Trafalgar and the Admiral Horatio Nelson who made the victory possible (with his ship HMS Victory), the public square is in front of the Royal Navy’s headquarters (also known as the Admiralty.) On a very warm and sunny day we observed two artists drawing flags from various nations around the world. Everything was in a neat grid. I didn’t take the chance to speak with them but rather enjoyed their work and how they set about to accomplish their self-appointed task. Every now and again someone would put some coins in a nearby hat (I assume they were pounds.)

Art, it seems, is a universal activity regardless if it is chalk on the sidewalk or music that fills the air. The music part of the day which came from Saint Martins in the Field, just across the street from Trafalgar Square, is a story for another day.

Trafalgar Square, London


The Norman style of architecture is all around England

There are a few dates that come up over and over again when visiting England. It’s not the dates so much as the events from the dates. One of those important dates is 1066. William the Duke of Normandy came across the channel and with his French forces, beat Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings. More histrivia? Why is this important?  Let me highlight a few reasons.

In the United States we are used to borrowing things from other cultures. Our capitol building’s style is borrowed from the Romans and Greeks. In the Southwest we borrowed and kept a building style from the Spanish. Even our food comes from everywhere. It all becomes American because we mold the original idea into something we like. But the English are just English. Aren’t they?

As a language English borrows words from other cultures when it seems appropriate. The English are a combination of three main people groups in Europe. Isolated by the sea and ocean, the original inhabitants of the main island were English, Scot, and Welch. After the Romans invaded the island, the Anglos or English, were overrun by the Vikings, known as the Saxons, beginning in the 5th century. The new culture they created is known as Anglo-Saxon. During this time Christianity was accepted and the idea and foundation of what we know as England was established.

This was King Arthur’s time and his task was to stop the Saxons. The Norman invasion changed the structure of England’s Medieval government. William the Conqueror brought with him the Norman architectural style that is common throughout the island. The Norman style is most obvious in the country churches we saw walking through the Cotswolds. 

Perhaps you carry an idea from the movies of an English castle. Hollywood perhaps etched a typical castle from one of the many tales of King Arthur. The Lego-like battlements at the top of the walls (called crenels and merlons) and stairs within the Keep were great props for Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner or even Sean Connery to fight the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham and his corrupt King John with swords and who knows what. Even though the legend of King Arthur is set in the Saxon invasion of England in the 5th and 6th centuries, his Hollywood castle is always Norman. 

Perhaps you carry an idea from the movies of an English castle. Hollywood perhaps etched a typical castle from one of the many tales of King Arthur. The Lego-like battlements at the top of the walls (called crenels and merlons) and stairs within the Keep were great props for Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner or even Sean Connery to fight the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham and his corrupt King John with swords and who knows what. Even though the legend of King Arthur is set in the Saxon invasion of England in the 5th and 6th centuries, his Hollywood castle is always Norman. 

The Tower of London (William the Conqueror’s Keep and symbol of power.)

I don’t want to sound too much like your high school history teacher and so I’ll leave it to you to dig a little deeper into how William the Conqueror incorporated his French way of life into England. The architecture he brought with him served both a practical and political purpose. Politically, the presence of these blocky structures were symbols of the new boss and a reminder to do things his way. He set the tone with his new castle known to us as the Tower of London. Bringing with him the bailey, keep, moat, curtain wall, battlements and arrow slits in the design of his house, The Tower of London served as his house and a great impregnable jail to hold and torture those who were disloyal. 

We visited the Tower, really a small village by itself, and were treated to a look at medieval ideas and actions up close. Of course there were little updates for us 21st century dwellers. The first of those adjustments was a change to the moat. Instead of William’s first obstacle an army had to overcome in breaching his fortress, it is a man made super bloom. 

We saw the Crown Jewels kept here at the Tower of London. No pictures were allowed but a web search will reveal a couple of crowns. We saw jewels from around the Empire, perhaps the most stunning were stones from India and the Cullinan Diamond, the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found from South Africa.

I’m sure the modern security is much more thorough than this lone sentry

That takes us back to those Norman churches that were built in the style of the Tower. Here we saw the culture William brought with him and adopted by the commoners. These churches have a common square stepped top (replacing the steeple of the Anglo-Saxon times) and some even have gargoyles. (Perhaps the most famous gargoyles are those at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The origins of these “protectors” and why they were needed on a Christian church is a bit confusing.) For us the gargoyles help us see the French influence on everyday life of the English. 

Enough of the history lesson. Here are some photos of various Norman style churches we came upon in our Cotswolds walk. While the churches were open, we never saw a church official at any of the buildings.