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People, Places, Stuff

Bragging Rights

Are you well traveled? Prove it.

That’s how Facebook introduces its Travel List Challenge. Contestants check off places they’ve visited from a list of 100 mostly obvious destinations like the Eiffel Tower and Forbidden City, plus a few unusual suspects like Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic. There’s no prize except bragging rights; once you finish you can post your results and compare them with those of others. Almost a half million people have visited the site so far, though the creators of the challenge predict most people will have visited fewer than 9 of the destinations included.

This inspired me to come up with my own travel challenge--shorter, but much harder. Want to try?

1. Borobudur, a 8th century Buddhist temple on the Indonesian island of Java

2. Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world, near Bowling Green, Kentucky

3. Valparaiso, a hilly port city on the west coast of Chile

4. Herculaneum, an archaeological site near Pompeii on the Bay of Naples

5. Great Wall of China at Mutianyu about 50 miles northeast of Beijing

6. Hanoi Hilton, a.k.a. Hoa Lo Prison built by the French in the late 18th century, later used for prisoners during the Vietnam War

7. Patan Museum outside Katmandu, Nepal

8. Essaouira, an historic, walled town on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco

9. Stromboli, an island-volcano in the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily

10. Crossing of the Fathers on Lake Powell in Utah

11. Uffington Horse in Wiltshire, England

12. St. Malo, France

13. Basilica of San Clemente, Rome

14. San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish mission south of Tucson

15. The Burren, Ireland

16. The delta of the Danube River in Romania

17. The summit of the Grand Monadnock in New Hamphsire

18. Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park

19. Harry Truman Birthplace and Presidential Library, Independence, Missouri

20. Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia

21. Kronborg, a.k.a. Hamlet’s Castle, in Denmark

22. Tonga Islands, South Pacific

23. Udaipur in Rajasthan, India

24. Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts

25. Anywhere on the Arctic Circle

The creator of this list—that would be me—predicts that most people will only get one out of 25.
Go ahead, prove me wrong. Read More 
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The spiritually-inclined often seek out mountaintops, standing rocks, sacred springs and other places that seem to have cosmic resonance. To that list should be added confluences, I believe, because to stand at the meeting place of two great rivers is to feel, if not metaphysical vibration, then geography at your feet, those features we pass by unheeding everyday that describe the singular face of this glorious planet Earth.
Such thoughts came to mind recently when I visited Shikellamy State Park at the southern tip of Packer’s Island in central Pennsylvania. The north and west branches of the Susquehanna come together there, about halfway along the main river’s course from around Cooperstown, New York, to its delta on Chesapeake Bay: some 464 miles, making it the longest river in the U.S. non-navigable to commercial boats.
Historical plaques nearby show the site a Native American village that was home to Shikellamy, an Iroquois Confederacy leader, and the high water mark during the big Susquehanna flood of 1972. You can walk right out to a little plaza at the confluence where the sound of traffic on two bridges connecting Packer’s Island to the towns of Northumberland and Sunbury dies down to a dull hum and ducks paddle in the muddy shallows, all ignorant of the site’s geographical significance.
Of course, this started me thinking about other great confluences I’ve seen at close hand: the narrow Chroy Changvar peninsula east of downtown Phnom Penh where the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers join; Belgrade’s old citadel in Kalemegdan Park overlooking the intertwining Danube and Sava; and best of all, perhaps, the meeting of the Green and Colorado, deeply-inscribed in the stark desert plateau of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. My brother and I once pitched tents at Willow Flat in the park‘s Island in the Sky sector overlooking the Green’s last lap before annihilation in the mighty Colorado. Read More 
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Never mind the “The Titanic” in 3D. Check out this disaster footage: disaster footage.

Its star, if you failed to notice, isn’t a ship but a bridge. A female bridge, Galloping Gertie, named for the way she bucked and bolted in a high wind.

The long-awaited first bridge to cross Tacoma Narrows, separating the east and west side of Puget Sound, was a marvel in steel cables when she opened to traffic on July 1, 1940. Designed by Leon Moisseiff, a consulting engineer for the Golden Gate, she was the third longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. And boy, oh boy, did Tacoma celebrate her arrival with bands, speeches and rooster races staged by Charles E. Shaw who’d developed the curious sport in the fishing village of Gig Harbor.

Now two bridges cross the Narrows between the city of Tacoma and the Olympic Peninsula, one built in 1950 (known as Sturdy Gertie) and the other in 2007 (with a much-resented eastbound toll). It’s a blissful drive over the strait between forested Fox Island and historic Point Defiance, but I couldn’t go that way a few months ago without thinking of Gertie.

Soon after she opened people started to notice that the bridge wasn’t exactly stable; indeed, she twisted like scotch tape on windy days--the oscillation effect, produced by a then innovative design that didn’t use trusses, thereby making her lighter and more pliable than previous suspension bridges. Cables were added in an attempt to settle Gertie down, but no one thought she was dangerous. In fact, folks took to driving across just for the thrill.

But when 42 mph winds kicked up four months later on November 7, Gertie began oscillating and undulating so wildly that the bridge authority shut her down. From the banks people watched girders give way, suspender cables snap, the road bed heave and then collapse in pieces into the sound, followed by the two 420-foot towers that held her central span. The only fatality was a dog stranded in an abandoned vehicle. Miraculously, a local camera shop owner got the whole thing on 16 mm film, preserved by the Library of Congress and more recently YouTube.

There’s nothing left to see of Gertie when you cross the Narrows today; her rubble now rests at the bottom of Puget Sound. But the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor a few miles beyond the west side of the span displays pieces of her debris, not to mention photos of Clarence E. Shaw’s racing roosters.  Read More 
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Join Me at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.

Love Of Place
Travel Writing Appreciation And Practice

Susan Spano

Place: Politics and Prose
Dates: Three Mondays: October 15, 22 and 29, 1-3p.m.
Price: $75 ($65 members)


Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson
Travels with Myself and Another, Martha Gellhorn
On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal, Mary Taylor Simeti

This workshop introduces participants to the art and craft of travel writing, well known to readers of newspaper travel sections. But what draws writers to this genre? Call it love of place, an important ingredient in fiction, poetry and essays, from William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to Bruce Chatwin’s Patagonia.
We will begin in the first session by considering the practical aspects of travel writing: suiting ideas to publications, story pitches, trip planning, journaling and note-taking, on-the-road observation, writing and rewriting. We’ll also spend time on the thorny subject of ethics: traveling anonymously and the do's and don'ts of trip financing.
To prepare for the second session participants will be asked to read three books that exemplify great travel writing: Robert Louis Stevenson’s heart-felt Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes; war correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s sharply-observed Travels with Myself and Another; and the Mary Taylor Simeti’s paean to Sicily, On Persephone’s Island. Our aim will be to notice critical factors like choice of material, authorial voice, narrative and underlying theme.
Participants will have the opportunity to submit samples of their own travel-inspired stories, fiction, memoirs or essays which the group will discuss in the workshop's third session.
Reading and writing by participants is not required, but strongly encouraged as a stimulus to discussion and an opportunity for feed-back.


Author, columnist, and traveler Susan Spano has journeyed the world reporting on culture, nature and items of human curiosity. She launched the still-running “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times, then joined the staff of The Los Angeles Times which sent her to the City of Light from 2003 to 2006 to start the popular travel section blog “Postcards from Paris.” She spent 6 months in Beijing studying Mandarin and researching stories in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics before moving to Rome---her favorite foreign posting---where she wrote on everything Italian, from Caravaggio to mozzarella. Her work has also appeared in the Financial Times, Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler and Redbook.
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Taylor Camp Update

Should you happen to be on Kauai--lucky you--between September 1 and October 28, check out Taylor Camp: 1969-1977, an exhibition of photography by John Wehrheim at Art Café Hemmingway in Kapaa.

It tells the story of an encampment of flower children on the island's north shore that was part Robinson Crusoe paradise, part hippie commune and pot farm. For more on Taylor Camp, see Flower Children on the North Shore of Kauai, Smithsonian, July 9, 2012.

Here's how the photographer describes the show:
The exhibition design is unique. Each frame incorporates a silver print mounted on archival stock above a long caption/quote from the Taylor Camp book, hand written in beautiful calligraphy, informing and interpreting each photo. Every piece tells a story and becomes a direct link to the past and creates the feeling of "being there" within a single frame.

Then head up to the site of the old camp at Ha’ena State Park, a gorgeous beach in the shadow of the Na Pali Cliffs on the island's impregnable west coast. Those flower children really knew how to choose a place to squat. Read More 
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Lotusland, CA

To drive the back roads of Montecito--a quiet, polished little community immediately east of Santa Barbara--is to wonder what’s behind the walls screening estates owned by the reclusive rich and famous. Oprah Winfrey lives there; JFK and Jackie honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch at the edge of town and scads of who’s whos have checked in at the historic Biltmore Hotel, now a Four Seasons, on the Montecito coast.

Recently, I discovered that there’s a way to experience the Montecito lifestyle by touring Lotusland, an estate and garden created by the opera singer Ganna Walska. You have to book a tour in advance; groups are small to preserve the quiet residential character of the neighborhood; and tickets don’t come cheap at $35 per person. But for those of us in the hoi polloi who yearn for a peek through Montecito gates, touring Lotusland is a golden opportunity.

The estate dates back to the late 19th century, the pink Mediterranean Revival style mansion to 1919 when then owners engaged Biltmore architect Reginald Johnson to design it. But Walska, who bought the property in 1941, put the deepest stamp on the place by creating its remarkable gardens featuring everything from topiary dinosaurs to Boojum cacti (or Fouquieria columnar, native to the Baja peninsula in Mexico).

Beside being a passionate plant collector, Walska was a character. Born in Poland--with the far less glamorous name Hanna Puacz--she grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, then studied voice in Paris. Her real talent, though, seems to have been finding rich husbands--5 of them in a row, followed by an impecunious guru 20 years her junior, for whom she bought the estate, originally called Tibetland. When they divorced Walska turned her attention to her garden, expanded and now managed by the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation.

It takes a good two hours to see the whole thing, beginning with an Australian garden set in an old eucalyptus grove, featuring plants from down under equally at home in the Santa Barbara climate. A mature Japanese garden follows, with a pond and small Shinto shrine; then dense enclaves of bromeliads, ferns, succulents, aloes and cacti, all dramatic and showy, to suit Madame Walska’s nature. She preferred large, unusual, tropical specimens, not pretty flowers, though there‘s a colorful horticultural clock and nothing can stop springtime azaleas in the Japanese garden.

Lotusland’s stars are towering, thick-trunked bottle trees (Brachychiton, native to Queensland, Australian); a massive old Monterey pine; and rare, cone-bearing cycads, including Encephalartos woodii, thought to be among the oldest plants on earth, a delicacy for dinosaurs, now extinct in the wild.

The house is closed to visitors, but when I was there in April the pavilion next door had a special display of opera costumes, hats and jewelry owned by the remarkable Madame Walska. It’s fun to imagine her presiding over a cocktail party on the lawn in a bedizened evening gown, maybe crooning a few bars from La Traviata. Read More 
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What Do You Get When You Cross a Cow with a Buffalo?

To look into the Grand Canyon--with its extraordinary mesas and buttes and age-old layers of rock--is to believe almost anything. If a river can do that, anything is possible.

That said, I was pretty sure I was hallucinating when I saw a buffalo on the North Rim. In Yellowstone, sure, you see buffalo, but not at the Grand Canyon. My brother and I had just climbed off Powell Plateau, a chunk of canyon country about half the size of Manhattan that cracked off the North Rim. Just a tenth of the people who visit the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon make the 4.5-hour trip around the Big Ditch to see it from the north, which is only open from mid-May to mid-October. Fewer still know about Powell Plateau, reached by a maze of dirt roads west of the North Rim Lodge and visitor center.

We’d left our car at the end of one of them, Swamp Road, and hiked across a saddle leading to Powell Plateau where we camped, explored and spent a blissful afternoon on a rock ledge with a 180 degree view of the canyon and river 8,000 feet below. But when the weather turned ugly we knew we needed to get off the exposed plateau fast which is why were both sweaty, tired and light-headed by the time we made it back to the car. Thunder cracked, daytime darkness descended and the rain was coming down in sheets, turning Swamp Road into a quagmire mined by mud traps and running water.

That’s when I saw it--a buffalo standing in the middle of the road as if he owned it, unfazed by the storm, without the least inclination to give way, about as out-of-place as a camel. Amazed, we stopped, looked and wondered, then carefully went around, knowing that only fools mess with buffalo.

Of course, the first thing we asked when we finally reached the national park visitor center was what it was doing on the North Rim. A story in itself. Turns out that a hundred years ago a rancher named Charles “Buffalo” Jones crossed a bison with a cow, hoping to produce a meatier creature he called a cattelo. The experiment failed, but a herd of the cross-breeds persisted in the House Rock Valley east of the national park, managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department which tries to limit their numbers by selling fall hunt permits for $1,000 and up. It’s big game. We‘re talking 1,400 to 2,500 pounds for a bull. But they‘re no sitting ducks, hard to track, fast, nimble and intolerant, with no predators on the North Rim, except for sportsmen.

Hunting worked for a while, but lately the beasts have strayed into the national park where they wallow in clearings and trample sensitive areas around seeps and springs. Officials wouldn’t mind rounding them up--the way they did with burros in the Grand Canyon--and herding them back to House Rock, but have not been able to reach an agreement with Arizona Game and Fish which considers them free-roaming wildlife like bighorn sheep and mule deer.

So for the meanwhile you might run into a buffalo on North Rim back roads, and I mean that literally. Read More 
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French Pilgrimage

Sometimes, casting around for the next destination, I find it between two covers. When the book is deeply-felt, closely-researched and beautifully-written, there can be no better inspiration for a trip, no better guide; in rare instances a satisfaction as complete as taking the journey.

I have never been to Conques, nestled in the uplands of south-central France, but I feel as if I have thanks to Little Saint, an exquisitely tender book by Hannah Green about the medieval hamlet and its patroness, St. Foy.

In the 4th century A.D. she converted to Christianity at the age of 12 and held firm even when her own father turned her in to Roman authorities. Afterward, the girl saint’s reliquary in the abbey church brought a steady stream of pilgrims who, as Green put it, “pray for her help, again and again in their devotion renewing her life, this eternal girl-child, daughter becoming woman, who held within herself the promise of all that is good and beautiful and healing."

Green and her husband, the artist Jack Wesley, discovered Conques in 1975, shortly after the publication of her first book, The House of the Dead--reading it was “like falling in love,” wrote critic Richard Ellman in the New York Times. But Green was a painfully slow writer who died in 2000, leaving Little Saint behind to be published posthumously.

The book unlocks the town, with its narrow streets and half-timbered houses in the Aveyron, a part of France famous for blue cheese but otherwise not especially favored by tourists. French people on the way from Paris to the Riviera zoom across the region on a remarkable new highway suspension bridge, the Millau Viaduct, designed by Norman Foster; others sightsee on the gorge of the River Tarn or hike in the Massif Central à la Travels with Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson (but that’s another posting).

For those who find their way to Conques, Little Saint describes sites and diversions: dinner at the 17th century Hotel Sainte Foy, a bike ride past vineyards, springs and prehistoric standing stones in the surrounding countryside and, above all, a visit to the Abbey Church of St. Foy with its treasury museum and beguiling tympanum depicting the Last Judgment where St. Foy prays for sinners and the devil tries to tip the scales of justice his way.

Every place has a meaning, from Minnesota’s Mall of America to St. Foy’s Conques. Let us all stop for a moment to praise the books that tell use what it is. Read More 
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Beijing Ivory Tower

First time visitors to Beijing spend their time visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, then take a day trip to the Great Wall. Of course, with a population of 20 million and massive urban sprawl now encompassed by a half dozen ring roads, there’s much more to see in Beijing. One site usually passed by on the obligatory trip to the Summer Palace is the Peking University, China’s Harvard or Yale, occupying a beautiful, leafy-green campus in the city’s far northwest corner.

Opened in 1898, during a brief period of Western-style reform cut short by a coup d’etat that gave the power behind the Peacock Throne to ultra-conservative Dowager Empress Cixi, its past is brief compared to that of the nearby Summer Palace. But the university--Beida, for short--played a signal role in the tumultuous modern history of China, breeding dissidents who fought for modernization in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square; others helped to launch the Cultural Revolution which began as an ideological cleansing of the Communist Party before it spun out of control. To tour the campus now is to remember the country’s wild ride through the 20th century, from fabled Oriental empire to revolutionary Peoples Republic built by Mao.
Start by taking the Metro from central Beijing to Wudaokou Station in Haidian, home to Tsinghua, Renmin and other smaller universities that make the district the Cambridge, Mass., of China. Wide Chengfu Road goes west from there past student-friendly cafes and apartment complexes, bookshops and movie theaters, finally dead-ending at the walled campus of Beida. Apart from its fascinating past and current educational importance, Beida is one of the loveliest places in the capital, a quiet oasis with trees labeled in the nomenclature of Linnaeus and ornate Ming-style architecture.
Walk northwest from the gate, past intriguingly-named buildings--for instance, the Research Center for Deng Xiaoping’s Theory at the College of Marxism--to Weiming Lake, circumscribed by a network of paths and overlooked by Boya tower, a replica of the capital city’s oldest and tallest pagoda built in the Tongzhou District across town. The lake is decorated with pillars and fish sculptures removed from the ruins of the nearby Old Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan, looted by English and French soldiers.
On the south side of the lake it isn’t hard to find tomb of journalist Edgar Snow, marked by a tablet that calls him “a friend of the Chinese people from America.” He earned that epithet by writing, among other books, “Red Star Over China,” one of the first accounts of the nascent Communist movement and its long battle with the Nationalists before and after the Second World War.
Walkways lead from there to Beida’s west entrance, a striking, classical Chinese red gate guarded by stone lions, Qing Dynasty gardens, the traditional courtyard-style China Center for Economic Research and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, built by the American physician and philanthropist in 1986 to house the university’s extensive collection of artifacts and train students in museum management. Its galleries are open to the public, displaying bronze, jade, ceramic and bone artifacts, some almost 300,000 years old.
America’s contributions have continued since Snow and Sackler with partnerships between Beida and U.S. universities. Completed this year near the Art and Archaeology Museum, the new Stamford Center at Peking University serves as a headquarter for 7 foreign study programs in fields ranging from medicine to sustainable development.
There’s even a conference center hotel on campus, Shaoyuan Guest House where no-frills doubles cost under $50--not a bad choice for travelers who want to stay in a Chinese ivory tower. Read More 
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A Tale of Two Swimming Pools

Among the many blandishments of Santa Barbara are two remarkable beachfront swimming pools that book-end the town’s long, lush stretch of Pacific Coast. One, the Coral Casino on East Beach, is the very private province of the California Riviera rich and elite; the other, Los Banos del Mar on West Beach, has been a glorious public facility, operated by the city, since it opened in 1937.
In town recently--and as constant about swimming as about travel--I went looking for a place to do laps. I stopped first at the Coral Casino just across Channel Drive from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, a Spanish Colonial beauty shaded by tall Monterey cypresses that opened in 1927. Marked by a graceful white Art Deco tower, the 51-meter pool--famously one meter longer than Olympic size--became a haunt for movie stars like Lana Turner and Clark Gable when it was added to the hotel in the mid 1930’s. It overlooks Bonnymede Shores where surfers challenge roiling breakers and chat up pretty co-eds at work on their tans between classes at UC Santa Barbara.
By the front door I looked yearningly at the pool’s glistening water, wide lap lanes, Jacuzzi and cabanas where waiters were delivering drinks. But you have to be a hotel guest or club member to enter and the front desk clerk wouldn’t even let me take a picture. I stopped a nice lady with plenty of jewelry on her way in who told me she paid big bucks for membership although she didn’t even swim.
Then, leaving behind the land of BMW’s, I drove along the waterfront to West Beach where I found Los Banos del Mar near the harbor at the foot of Castillo Street. Honestly, it’s almost as gorgeous as the Coral Casino and arguably more historic. The first swimming facility on the site opened 1901 with segregated steam-heated pools for men and women.
Now there‘s one big 50-meter pool with 7 lap lanes, heated to 80 degrees and open year round. The young woman at the front desk said I could do laps there for $5 and invited me to stay on for an afternoon pool party. The women’s locker room was immaculate, the pool deck surrounded by tall palms with an adjacent weight room for the most dedicated members of the Santa Barbara Swim Club, which makes Los Banos del Mar its home.
I dove right in. The water was delightful and the lanes so long that there’s never a traffic problem. Aquatic bliss for populists, grace à the bountiful and charming city of Santa Barbara. Read More 
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