Thursday, September 29, 2011

Disturbing Signs: Arizona

Sometimes I feel really at home when I visit America, making friends, enjoying the landscape, chatting to people. Then suddenly I stumble across something which is so different, so surprising, I realise that the cultural differences between us are vast! Two examples of this are here, above and below - both from Arizona.


Mount Lemmon

Tucson's mountain, Mount Lemmon on a hot, hazy afternoon; forest walks, cafe's, rocks, scrambling, and great view out over the desert..


Tucson Mountain Park: Arizona

Prickly Thing, Tucson, AZ

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Love Cactus

A Prickly-Pear

Arizona Desert.
(I'd always wondered what one was, since I heard "Bare Necessities"
in the Jungle Book movie...)

Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday

On the site where they took down the Sitwell gang, Earp and Holliday stand immortalised in iron. Their menacing expressions and aggressive body language are a fine greeting for anyone arriving at Tucson by train.

Old & New at Tucson Station

Trucks through the desert

Trains that are longer than the eye can see rumble through the Arizona desert. Six locos on the front are matched with several at the rear to drag these vast loads across the border. A hastily taken snap from the car-window!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Farewell, Old Boot!

For the last five-and-a-half years, my constant companions in the hills have been these brown leather Raichle walking books. The world's attention was focussed on the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, when I first climbed into these boots and battled great gusts of wind on the three Munros in the centre of the Fannich range near Ullapool. Since those first days on the likes of Sgurr nan Clach Geala, these boots have tramped countless Cairngorm miles, traversed acres of heather in the Tarf and Tilt, been scoured and scuffed with Skye gabbro, scrambled in Glen Coe. trekked out to lonely Ben Alder, stayed in hostels, tents and hotels, and borne the weight of babies in backpacks to far-flung corners of Scotland.
Now, sadly these boots are dying. The sole units on both boots are starting to disintegrate. Every time I use them, another chunk of Vibram seems to peel off, and another piece of leather separates from rubber.These have been wonderfully comfortable, versatile boots, but I do feel a little aggrieved that I have only got five years out of them. My previous Raichle boots (massive, indestructible 4season "Blaven" boots) lasted over a decade of very heavy use, and I had expected similar durability. I am told that as Raichle headed towards being bought out by Mammut, they produced a run of bad boots, and that their new ones are more like the quality of the old Raichle. We shall see!

Here below - a photo of my boots in happier times. This was taken on the summit of Carn a Chlamain above Glen Tilt, May 2008.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

West Lomond, Fife

A great day out yesterday with the neighbours on the westerly of the two 'Paps of Fife'.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reach for the Sky

Groovy Trees, San Diego

Sea World Photo-Man

One of the ways Sea-World makes money is by taking photos of you and your family when you are there, and then selling prints of them to you at eye-watering cost. After a while this became wearing, so instead of having our photos taken by the Sea-World staff, we started taking their pictures instead! This chap here was doing that photo-thang on the cable-car ride. The doors opened, and he started his, "Hey, wanna smile for the camera?"routine, when we shouted back, "Don't you think its your turn?" He seemed genuinely amused by the whole idea... and we kept our dollars!

Sunset Palms, San Diego

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sea World, San Diego

By the time we got to San Diego our kids had endured a lot; lots of walks in soaring temperatures, lots of waiting while we gazed at natural wonders for what must have seemed like hours. and lots of very, very long car journeys. So when we got to the West Coast we let them chose our family activities - and they were all very keen to get to Sea World.

I couldn't help but be impressed with the animals we saw performing at Sea World; dolphins and killer whales especially. These stunning creatures left an impression on the senses almost as vivid as the numbers on the display of the Visa/Mastercard machine at the entrance booths. The cost of getting in is matched by the systematic money-extracting machine that is a day spent at Sea World.

Other things were less impressive. The "shows" in different arenas around the park were supposed to show the wonder of the animals (and I thought, maybe tell us something about them). In fact the shows used the animals as a sideline for the kitchest, tackiest Disneyfied, orgy of ribbon-twirling, singing and dancing I think I have ever seen. While my younger kids were seemed to accept the leotards, grins and prancing about without much thought, my older son looked at me and raised a quizzical eyebrow on several occasions, not least during the Dolphin show.
The disappointment wasn't so much the fact that the music wasn't my taste, or that synchronised swimming leaves me cold, it was rather that as a result we saw comparatively little of the animals and learnt nothing about them. I had hoped for a little education. What we got was raw showbiz, with few concessions for taste. It was like Michael Jackson's earth song, crossed with High School Musical, plus fish. And all taken desperately seriously...

This wasn't the strangest thing however. What really made me feel uncomfortable was the fact that the first show of the day begun with a rousing hoorah-speech for the US military, followed by all the service personnel being asked to stand for a pro-longed standing ovation, to swelling patriotic music. The divide between US and UK culture was never more apparent. I suspect that my failure to unquestioningly follow the cheerleader may have irritated some of my neighbours, but I felt that I wanted to know a little more about the organisation I was being asked to publicly endorse before being swept along by the hype. I mean if Eisenhower was right about the Military Industrial Complex, then this vast machine, this uncontrollable state-within-the-state, might need to be tamed as much as applauded. Ultimately though, it wasn't so much the fact that while I was in the States, some of the recordings of reported US war-crimes in Iraq had been broadcast by Democracy Now; it was more that I had brought my family for a fun day out, and had unwittingly stumbled into a political rally. Very strange!
Our day at Sea World did have some redeeming features however. The first was the Sesame Street "gang" were there, including Bert and Ernie. There are some things which are good, lovely, and true and incorruptibly splendid, and getting to see my heroes miming live on stage was marvellous. The second was the Sea-Lion show at the very end of the day, which featured hilarious parodies of some of the cheesy shows we had seen in the park earlier in the day. The sense of relief we felt when we realised that the place was able to laugh at itself, was palpable and enabled us to leave in a much happier frame of mind. The third (and best) thing was that the kids loved it. They were tired, and had had a long exhausting day, but were really, really happy - which I suppose is really the point!

Film Notes: Che - A Revolutionary Life, Part One

This film is the first of Steven Soderbergh's two-part biopic of the iconic Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara. When I was at University, *that* poster still adorned a few bedroom walls and was still available in the shops, but had long since been replaced by the REM flag as the trendiest undergraduate wall decoration. Nevertheless Che Guevara's image and status, (and what he had come to represent, as much as what he was) have loomed large over the last half-century making him a worthy subject for a biographical film.

This film has got a lot going for it too; some good acting, some excellent filming and direction, nice cutting back and forth in time between planning the revolution, the post revolutionary situation as well as nicely filmed action scenes from the war itself. In all this, the later scenes were by far the most convincing, when Che, by then a Cuban government minister, visits the USA and debates at the United Nations.

Despite all this, there is something missing in this movie. It somehow lacks 'bite' or anything to draw the audience in to an emotional engagement with either the characters or the narrative. I suspect that this happens for a number of reasons. Firstly we are given no clue as to why the young doctor is so radically politicised (so you have to watch The Motorcycle Diaries yourself first!), we are given little clue, save for few lines of dialogue, as to the conditions and practices that made so many South Americans embrace Marxism in that era. Therefore we never discover the source of the revolutionary anger that drives the movement. Che's rejection of peaceful revolution via Civil Disobedience, General Strikes and so forth is documented alongside his absolute commitment to armed revolt; but we never discover his reasons - which are therefore sloppily left in romantic warrior-myth genre.

While this is certainly an engaging and interesting film, it seems to depend too much on that much-vaunted 'iconic' central character to carry it. A more satisfying film would not have tried to piggy-back so much on that; but probed it and analysed it to see if the iconography was justified. I notice that the second film in this series, charting his final battles in Bolivia received much better reviews that this - perhaps it will address some of the faults of Part One.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pacific Sunset 2, La Jolla, San Diego

The next thing in that direction, is the 'land of the rising sun'..

Monday, September 19, 2011

USS Midway

The USS Midway is an immense aircraft carrier that was a key part of the US Navy from 1946 to 1992. Now, moored at San Diego, it is a vast floating museum which gives the public a glimpse into the realities of Navy life, recent military history, and the constantly developing military hardware on board. This museum was really impressive, but also left us with a sense that something was slightly wrong too.

A link in the great anchor chains that held all 74,000 tons of the ship in place.

On the way into the ship visitors are given a headset for the audio tour. This provides a detailed and fascinating commentary on every aspect of the vessel, from the bridge with its command and control systems, to the engine rooms, the living areas, decks and even the brig. Even better than the recorded information were the live talks from former sailors and pilots about life on board - and the technical difficulties of landing planes on a moving boat in a high sea. Their experiences of the various aircraft were good to hear too, although I seemed to find their recollections of combat more chilling than exultant.

The ship's unusually long active life meant that it experienced several re-designs to cope with the changing needs of the aircraft it served. The vast 'slewed' runway was, for instance, not original. The first places that flew from its decks in the 1940s were, of course tiny piston-engined fighters; but the history doesn't stop there - planes representing each era of the ship's operation life are also displayed. Some of these aircraft are truly beautiful, sleek structures, with power inside them as raw as their shape is graceful. Underneath their wings of course, they are bristling with weaponry...

And this is where we began to feel a little uneasy. There was such an overpoweringly gung-ho attitude about war, about conflict and about America's undisputed right to use force where and when it liked, that I felt slightly agitated. The attitude that every single US military intervention over the last 60 years has been without doubt right, good, moral and necessary; seemed to be the requirement to glory in every new development in technology described. There was no sense of critical self-reflection, no glimmer of pity for the enemy or their families, no questioning whether (for instance) Nixon's plan to bomb the crap out of the North Vietnamese cities was right, or criminal. Sadly, there was not even a humble sense that all this firepower was a sad necessity in a mixed-up dangerous world. Rather, there was a rejoicing in the ability to kill which I found unnerving, perplexing and difficult.

The movie "Top-Gun" is appalling on many levels (they quote it with great affection on the Midway though). The most dreadful aspect of the film is that while the death and loss of white Americans is mourned in the context of family, friendship and grief; every Asian looking, Mig-flying communist that goes down, descends to their death with cheers - and is forgotten. They are presented as "other"; they do not matter, they have no humanity, no back-story, no family, no friends, and so their deaths can be hoorah'd as the triumph of American bravery and skill. If this is not offensive film-making I find it hard to imagine what is. Yet, for many of our guides, in their reminiscences and in several of the audio and visual presentations we heard - history according to 'top-gun' is all we got.

Now this is worrying. Don't misunderstand me, I am not for one moment suggesting that all US interventions have been wrong (they haven't). The Midway was active, for example in the First Gulf War, a war in which there was no question of the legality of the combat operations it undertook to liberate Kuwait. Nor am I suggesting that a revival of extreme isolationism by the USA is in anyone's interests, least of all their own. What I am saying is that there is an urgent need for more reflective, critical public discourse than the simple regurgitation of the 'my country right or wrong' myth that is allowed at places like the Midway.

If you are willing to get swept along by the jingoism of the presentation; then this kind of one-sided view of history will make the heart swell with pride, bring a tear to the eye and flag raised skyward. On the other hand, if you are left thinking that you are only being told a fraction of the story - it starts to make you doubt the bits you are being told.

This is a great museum, and an excellent (and good value!) day out for the family too. The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and it does open up some important aspects of the recent past. A little more mature debate, less flag-waving and honesty about the past, and about the horror of war and killing would make this a great deal better though.

Friday, September 16, 2011

My point exactly: Blubber Sign, San Diego Zoo

Ben Wyvis

Ben Wyvis is sometimes dismissed with adjectives such as "dull" or "featureless". Such derision from the guide-books is perhaps one reason why I have never climbed this Munro, despite its straightforward route of ascent, and ease of access. The road from The Black Isle across to Ullapool is one I have travelled many times for family holidays and hill-walking trips, and while I have stopped and walked in the Wyvis areas before; woods, lochs and waterfalls had been the backdrop for my walking, rather than the Munro which overlooks them.

Yesterday I discovered that the withering criticisms of the guides are wrong, and that I had missed out on a thoroughly enjoyable mountain walk. The path which leaves the A835 at the marked car-park is well-maintained, and follows the Allt a Bhealaich Mhoir first through woodland, and then out into open country, before leaving the stream to ascend the steep slopes of An Cabar. Measures taken to restrict footpath erosion are usually not easy on either the eye or the feet - and the huge rocky steps built into Wyvis' flanks are no exception. These 'big-striding' steps lead to the first top, An Cabar. Once beyond An Cabar the wide mossy ridge leading to the summit is gained.

Dr K. and I stopped here for some lunch, sheltering from the cold wind inside a small circular stone-wall; sharing the moment with a curious little Buddha statue perched in its walls. The walk along the broad ridge is wonderful, while the soft, springly moss provides welcome relief after the bruising rock-path, the views in all directions were stunning. The Cairngorms loomed large in the South, with the distinctive 'notch' of the Lairig Ghru just visible through the haze, the Black Isle and Dornoch Firth were laid out to the South East with Norbord's belching smokestack at Nairn clearly visible beyond it. The most dramatic views (and the ones which make the whole trip worthwhile, were those to the North and West. Mighty An Teallach filled the Western skyline beyond the Ullapool road, while the Fannaichs beautifully caught alternating sun and shade in and out of all their rolling switchback ridges. Beyond them, remote Fisherfield and fortress-like Slioch could be picked out, while to the North the unique shape of Suilven domed upwards.

A clear day spent in the Scottish Highlands, can be bettered by few things. One of those things is a clear day spent in the Scottish Highlands in good company. It was great to be in the hills with the legendary Dr K. again. The business and complexities of life have meant that we haven't climbed a hill together since our trip with The Rogers Character to Gerry's Hostel in the Spring of 2009.

Great Days!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Polar Bears: San Diego Zoo



Easy, Tiger!

Baby Tigers, San Diego Zoo

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lightnin' Hopkins: Cotton

I recently blogged a review of a biography of Sam Lightnin' Hopkins. While I attached a picture to the review, I hadn't found a really great YouTube clip of the man himself in action. To remedy that, here he is singing "Cotton", which someone has rather nicely set to a slideshow of pictures of Lightin' and the Deep South.

Fort Verde Arizona State Park

As the mining industry drew more and more people away from the cities of the East, to the still fairly 'wild' West; support industries grew in the wake of the demand for produce that this burgeoning population required. Of these, the most controversial was farming - encroaching as it did on the land and livelihoods of Native Americans. When the inevitable conflicts arose, the US Army was dispatched to build forts to protect the white farmers. To the Native Americans this was perceived as an armed invasion; to the army and farmer-settlers, this was a justifiable 'war on terror'.
Fort Verde was established in Apace territory in the 1880s, and has been remarkably preserved, with many of its original buildings intact around its parade ground. They have made it into a great museum, stuffed full of information and artefacts, detailing the difficulties of life on the frontier for these soldiers and their families. Excellent worksheets for kids, got our three really engaging with the history, one element of which got them to work out which 'facts' were real history and which were 'movie-myths'. The most glaring myth was the idea that US forts had stockade fences as a defensive shield for gun-fights. The reality was that the Apache never attacked the fort, never would, and so it had no need for a fence. Army patrols in small numbers in remote areas were far more likely to become involved in skirmishes.

On completion of their worksheets, the unbelievably enthusiastic park ranger signed the children up in the junior ranger programme, and managed to make them say a pledge to 'protect the park' with undimmed ebullience and no hint of irony. Our two younger children were very taken with this, while older son (while co-operating) had a "I don't quite believe I'm actually doing this" look across his brow!

Despite the almost suffocating heat, we had a really enjoyable and educational couple of hours at Campe Verde -which very nicely fired-up our whole family's historical imagination.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good Friends, Good Wine, Good Times..

Sign: Adobe Village Graham Inn - Sedona.
The sun descends on Sedona's beautiful red rocks. It's a lovely little town, where I went to the shops and got hopelessly lost, couldn't find the way back to the B&B. Thankfully I found the SatNav and managed to follow it back to the rest of the family.


Tiny, brilliant, and unbelievably fast. Hummingbirds at Sedona.