New York City and the Three Tenors in Concert

In July of 1996, Leslie and I traveled to New York City as part of a special American Express invitation to attend a rare concert by the “Three Tenors” (Pavorotti, Carreras, and Domingo). Our Delta Airlines flight from Ontario to New York, by way of Cincinnati was very enjoyable, especially the Southwest Lasagna served for lunch. After landing at La Guardia Airport, we were chauffeured downtown to the Sheraton New York Towers on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street. The hotel was in a beautiful location, just south of Central Park and on the edge of the Theatre District near Broadway!

Sheraton New York Towers on Seventh Ave

Having checked in, we headed downstairs to “Hudson’s Sports Bar” for a drink. While Leslie had an authentic “Old Fashioned”, I enjoyed a local beer brewed in Brooklyn. Then we joined a large group of people in the bar watching the last half of the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games being celebrated in Atlanta. The most emotional and inspiring moment came when the torch was passed to Muhammad Ali, who lit the final relay flame, despite suffering from a severe case of Parkinson’s Disease! It was a moment that brought cheers and tears from everyone in the bar. It was followed by an impressive video on a giant screen – the famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr, “I Have a Dream”. That really made an impact on all of us seated in the bar.

The next morning, Leslie and I took a long walk through Central Park under beautiful sunny skies. It was a perfect way to experience the peace and beauty of the park – a stark contrast to the chaos, grime, and grey concrete of the city outside the park. As we strolled among the trees, huge skyscrapers rose skyward from the very edge of the park. Inside the park, the noise and chaos of the frantic city faded away – it was like being in a desert oasis – peaceful, relaxed, and civilized!

Walk through Central Park
Central Park – looking toward Park Avenue
Relaxing by the lake in Central Park

On our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known as the “Met”, we passed many street artists and booksellers along Park Avenue, their works vying for our attention before entering the museum to see works of art that have stood the test of time. But seeing the artists in the park reminded me of strolling along the “Left Bank” of the river Seine in Paris. Once inside the immense museum, we had some time to study the map of floor plans in order to decide what we would like to see for the day.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

And among the things we saw, sometimes by design and other times by chance, included the “Temple of Dendron”, a small, very beautiful temple from 2000BC Egypt. It was saved from destruction during the construction of the High Aswan Dam. It had been disassembled into hundreds of pieces, transported to New York, and then reassembled in a remarkably realistic setting within a special hall. The temple was “highlighted” by a wall and ceiling of glass, flooding the entire space with bright, natural light! The entire display was very well documented, both its ancient history in Egypt, as well as the modern story of its relocation to New York. Many of the ancient “cartouches” carved into the face of the massive sandstone blocks over 4,000 years ago were still in perfect condition.

Other highlights of our visit to the Met included an extensive collection of old musical instruments, as well as a priceless collection of Egyptian art and antiquities. There were also several amazing displays of religious objects from tombs in ancient Egypt. Later we “discovered”, quite by accident, a wonderful collection of furniture from the American Revolutionary period, displayed in an original setting that was actually part of the old house where they had sat for more than 250 years. The furniture had been carefully moved piece by piece, board by board, to the museum – a very impressive historical display. One of the most “memorable” highlights of our experience at the Met was our discovery of a beautiful rooftop garden overlooking all of Central Park! It took us three elevator rides to reach it, but once we arrived, we were rewarded with some of the city’s most spectacular views of the park and famous skyscrapers of mid-town Manhattan! The clear, sunny warm weather provided a perfect occasion to enjoy a chilled glass of champagne. As we sat on a wooden bench, enjoying the view, I began to imagine what it must be like to live in a penthouse atop a tall building overlooking the park. The best part of the experience was the fact that we literally ‘stumbled” on to it!

After leaving the Met, we walked across the park to the Museum of Natural History, which was adjacent to the famous Dakota Apartment building, home to John Lennon. But being late in the day, we decided to leave the museum visit until the next day.

View from Tavern on the Green – Central Park

Instead, we continued to walk through the park, until we came to the “Tavern on the Green”, a famous spot for seeing “well known locals”, and so we decided to peek inside. We ended up settling in for a drink in the courtyard, a beautiful garden enclosure surrounded by a lovely old red brick structure topped by a heavy slate roof. Within the courtyard were many large trees with traditional Japanese lanterns hanging from their branches, sparkling in the late afternoon sun. As we sat next to an old stone planter full of colorful flowers, enjoying Leslie’s Campari and my Belgian beer, the scent of the nearby wood fired grill wafted over us. In the warm summer evening, it was a very pleasant and inviting smell – so much so that we decided to stay for dinner. While the evening sun slowly set upon Central Park, we enjoyed an excellent dinner of Caesar salad and a plate of wood fired grilled Swordfish. Dinner turned out to be a magical dining experience and a totally unplanned, spur of the moment decision! Later, as the sun slowly disappeared somewhere in New Jersey, we walked back to the Sheraton hotel and dressed for the concert, which was being held at Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey – home of the New York Giants football team. American Express had scheduled several buses to leave from the hotel, starting at 7:00pm until 8:30pm. With the concert scheduled to begin at 9:00pm, we chose to board one of the 7:30pm buses. Our journey to the stadium began with a trip through mid-town Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, and on into New Jersey. Seated up front, we listened to the “banter” of the bus drivers on their radios, with all the talk being about the heavy traffic, especially heading west to the Lincoln Tunnel. But as it would turn out, our bus driver John, was very “savvy” about taking different routes, and he proceeded to take several back streets to get us to the tunnel ahead of all the other hotel buses! (little did we realize at the time, just how great were John’s driving skills that would benefit us later in the journey) Once we were beyond the tunnel and into New Jersey, the heavy traffic became even worse, and as John put it, “we’re in a very long parking lot”. And at one point on the “expressway”, we crept along in a long line of bumper to bumper traffic moving barely 5 mph. Suddenly, a caravan of buses passed us on our left, following the shoulder of the highway, lead by two police cars. (VIP’s from the ITT Corporation!) Unfortunately, not even John’s creative driving skills could get our bus across two lanes of stalled traffic in time to “join” the VIP’s. But as we watched the VIP’s slowly disappear ahead of us, by a stroke of luck, or maybe serendipity, a fire truck with lights flashing appeared from an on ramp just ahead of us. John, being an ex-fireman (or so he claimed), quickly made a right turn and followed it, gaining many precious miles to bring us within sight of the stadium. But, being “in sight” is one thing and “being there” is quite another! It was now that John became even more creative and began to “slip” in and out of the stalled lanes, using the “bulk” the bus as an intimidating weapon. At times he would open the door of the bus to “beg” drivers to let him “cut in”, and at other times to “curse” those who refused to cooperate or be intimidated! John was very efficient and persistent, however. In the process, through what seemed to us as curious “wrong turns”, he got us to the stadium five minutes before the opening of the concert! It was truly an incredible feat, for which he received a well-deserved standing ovation from all the passengers on board.

As we rushed to our seats, the sun had long set and the blackness of the night sky had descended upon us. The stadium of 60,000 fans stood to welcome Jose Carreras as he opened the performance. Looking around us, there were many empty seats, despite the concert having been sold out months ago. From our seats on the upper level facing east toward New York City, we could see long lines of traffic backed up on the expressway – stretching far in the distance like a long white line toward the city skyline. It became obvious to us at that point, a great many people were still trying to reach the stadium aboard buses. Our appreciation for John’s driving skills began to grow immensely!

The opening of the concert was nothing short of “tremendous”! The sound system was incredible, especially considering the massive size of the outdoor stadium. And we soon found ourselves awash in a sea of superb operatic voice as Jose Carreras began with the famous aria from the great Spanish opera “Granada”! Then each of the three tenors came on stage individually to sing their favorite arias. Their performances were powerful and emotional – soon the sensation of being in a huge stadium began to quickly dissolve, being quietly replaced with a feeling of being on stage!

Concert Stage
The Three Tenors – Domingo, Carreras, Pavorotti

There were many times during the concert when the emotion of the experience brought tears, and tissues began to appear everywhere. Meanwhile, a lot of seats remained empty, as busloads of people continued to be stuck in the horrendous traffic and probably frustrated as they sat in sight of the stadium! As for us, we continued to enjoy the magnificent voices of the three tenors. Time seemed to stand still as the sensation of being almost “one” with them on stage began to overtake us. It is amazing how opera can touch the heart and soul – the power of the human voice is incredible! At the conclusion of the medley by the tenors, they took a well-deserved break. In a few moments, a rush of people flooded the stadium – those who had been delayed by the massive traffic congestion. As we listened to their conversations, we realized they had boarded buses that had left the hotel well before us! However, they had just arrived, halfway through the concert, and they were not at all happy – justifiably so too. Now Leslie and I really appreciated John’s tremendous driving skills! (There had been one place where he pulled the bus off the pavement to skirt around a traffic jam caused by a disabled limousine, and was able to reach to final exit to the stadium, enabling us to reach the concert on time) Among the “disgruntled” people seated next to us, was a couple from Little Rock, Arkansas who had come to New York just for the night, and apparently several others had done the same.

Soon, the second half of the concert began, and it was absolutely phenomenal!! Once again, many arias were performed with such emotion and power, that tears and tissues were in view everywhere. Only once was the emotional experience in jeopardy when a few stadium staff began banging dishes around a concession stand behind us. A swift rebuke from members of the audience quieted them. It was obvious to me that the staff were not exactly opera aficionados, and probably much more comfortable around football or baseball. As the evening came to a close, the finale was a series of four encores, including two renditions of the classic Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York”. The crowd of 70,000 went wild, refusing to let the three greatest operatic voices in the world leave the stage! It was truly a very “magical” evening – and a rare experience to be cherished for a lifetime. (even now as I write about it, more than 20 years later, I still get emotional thinking about it) The evening seemed like a moment in time when 70,000 people suddenly became as one – no thoughts of politics, religion, or philosophy, just a unity of the human spirit! (such a unique and special experience, but unfortunately so rare)

Slowly and reluctantly, we released our grip on the Three Tenors, and as they moved into the background, we were suddenly thrust into the reality of the late evening, and faced with the prospect of several hours of travel back to our hotel. However, our faithful driver John and his bus #5228 came through for us again, as he “bullied” his way through the seemingly “impenetrable” traffic to speed us on our way to Manhattan. He continued to find impossible routes around traffic problems – a side street here, a turn off there, and always saying to us “watch the traffic folks, watch the traffic”! We drove through some pretty “seedy” parts of the city, but we arrived back at the hotel well before any of the other buses, even those that had left the stadium before us!! (it was truly an amazing feat by John, for which he received a busload of hearty congratulations and another well-deserved standing ovation!) Later, as Leslie and I sat in the lobby bar with chilled glasses of fine Tattinger champagne, gazing upon the lights of Seventh Avenue, we watched the rest of the buses arrive – well after us! (we gave a toast to John) It was such a wonderful end to a beautiful and memorable day in New York.

The next morning, we awoke to another gorgeous sunny day. After a delicious breakfast buffet in the hotel, we rode the subway downtown to the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Then it was a long elevator ride up to the observation deck on the roof of Tower Two – 110 stories and 1377 feet above the city!

World Trade Center
View of Manhattan from the top of Tower Two

The views were absolutely stunning – more than 50 miles in all directions, which is almost unheard of in New York City. And the “feeling” of standing on top of the building with my face pressed against the glass wall was literally “breathtaking” – like being on the “top of the world”! The entire city lay at our feet – nothing higher for over a hundred miles. It was so exhilarating that I found it hard to pull myself away from the edge. The thought of someone having successfully climbed the tower was almost inconceivable. Once we had descended the dramatic heights of the city, we walked down to Battery Park, so named for the historic 18th century coastal gun battery that once protected New York harbor.

Leaving Battery Park on the ferry
View of Lower Manhattan from the ferry

From there, we boarded the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The ferry was packed with tourists from around the world. On the way to Ellis Island, the cramped quarters gave us the feeling of what it might have been like for the immigrants sailing to America in “steerage” class aboard the great ocean liners of the day. However, our short 30-minute voyage “paled” in comparison to their trip of several days across the rough seas of the North Atlantic. As we approached the Statue of Liberty, the view of the famous lady was very impressive – the sheer scale of the monument was staggering, especially standing at her feet and gazing skyward!

Approaching the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty – looking skyward

She is truly a magnificent monument, even more so when one considers how she was transported from France as hundreds of pieces and assembled on a small island in New York harbor over 150 years ago. As we disembarked, the view of the New York City skyline and the harbor of lower Manhattan was spectacular. Walking around, we saw many families enjoying picnics on the grounds surrounding the great lady.

Picnic on the grounds with view of Lower Manhattan

And after spending a very enjoyable time with her, we were back on the ferry headed for Ellis Island. As it approached the dock, the old red brick buildings came into view, much like it would have been for the immigrants and their first sight of America.

Docking at Ellis Island – Main Hall
Ellis Island

Although some of the historic buildings appeared rundown, the main hall was a far different scene. Inside it was filled with a beautiful story of the history of thousands of immigrant families who spent their first few days in America here, most likely wondering what they were about to experience – which I’m sure must have left many of them anxious and maybe even terrified. Several smaller rooms surrounded the huge hall on the perimeter, and here were displayed scenes and photographs of the island during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. There were countless numbers of old black and white photos of people from all corners of the world. And what made the historical exhibit so fascinating was listening to the recorded voices of immigrants as they talked about the time they had spent on Ellis Island. It was truly an emotional experience – a travel back in time. Meanwhile, all around us were crowds of tourists, many of whom were likely descendants of the immigrants who passed this way almost a hundred years ago!

The Main Hall – Ellis Island

Late in the afternoon, we boarded the last ferry back to Battery Park, and as the sun was beginning to set in New Jersey, we walked along the waterfront to South Street Seaport and the historic Fulton Street Fish Market. It was established in 1822 and was the largest on the East Coast.

South Street Seaport

The place was a fascinating collection of boats, shops, bars and restaurants neatly arranged on the old wooden pier, where sailing ships from the 18th century once docked to offload their catch. As the evening fell upon us, we chose a beautiful restaurant on the top level, with a very interesting eclectic menu of fresh seafood and classic American dishes. As we sat down to a table outside on the deck, we suddenly became aware of the incredible view of the Lower East Side waterfront stretched out before us. And “directly” in front of us was the massive Brooklyn Bridge – a magnificent view and a spectacular backdrop for dinner!

Brooklyn Bridge – view from South Street Seaport
Dinner at Fulton Street Fish Market – View of the Brooklyn Bridge

We enjoyed a chilled glass of Australian Chardonnay as the sun slowly set behind us, bathing the city in the light of a lovely orange “afterglow”. Gradually the lights on the bridge began to twinkle in the dark evening sky, and the warm summer evening made our dinner very special. We shared a marvelous Caesar salad, and while Leslie chose a roasted chicken breast in pesto sauce, I ordered a Monkfish filet sautéed in oriental sesame and lemongrass sauce – outstanding! We finished dinner by sharing a warm peach cobbler topped with a vanilla bean bourbon sauce. After dinner, we walked through the quiet streets of the Seaport neighborhood and boarded the famous “A train” for the return trip to our hotel in mid-town.

The next morning, we found the weather had changed overnight, becoming cloudy and wet. But having just enjoyed three glorious days of clear blue skies, we couldn’t complain. We began our day with a rather late, leisurely breakfast at the famous “Carnegie Deli”, a classic New York deli across the street from Carnegie Hall. It’s a favorite location for spotting some of New York’s celebrities, but none chose to join us for breakfast that morning. Leslie and I shared an enormous hot pastrami sandwich that was served with a big bowl of assorted pickles – delicious! The elderly New Yorker waitresses were very much in charge and rather “brash”, but in a fun and friendly way. After breakfast, we walked over to the 48th Street subway station in the light rain and took the train to the immense Natural History Museum in Central Park. Knowing that we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything, which could take several days, we chose to see a few beautiful exhibits including:

  • The evolution of the Dinosaurs
  • Endangered species of the world
  • A life-size Blue Whale over 160 feet long, suspended from the ceiling above the Museum Café
  • African animals in their native habitat, with exquisite 3-D landscape dioramas
Natural History Museum

Before leaving the museum, we watched a new IMAX film about the devastating fires in Yellowstone National Park and the remarkable re-birth of the land. The film was both spectacular and educational. Soon the time came for our return to the hotel, packing of bags, and checkout. A small shuttle van took us to La Guardia Airport, following a rather circuitous route through the back streets of Queens. Throughout the entire trip, I noticed the van’s speedometer never moved above zero, so it was impossible to tell how fast (or slow) we were travelling! Once we had arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight, we enjoyed an hour relaxing in the beautiful new Delta Airlines Crown Room lounge before boarding the flight to Ontario via Dallas. As the plane cruised above Pennsylvania at 37,000 feet, I reflected upon our once in a lifetime experience at the Three Tenors concert, together with three beautiful days that Leslie and I shared in New York City – it was truly memorable!

{Concert photos from Getty Images}

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Lebanon and Jordan – Ancient Lands in a Modern World

In the month of May,1999, I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to attend the annual Esri Middle East and North Africa Users Conference being hosted in Beirut by our Lebanese office. In addition, I was scheduled to conduct software training classes in Beirut, as well as Amman, Jordan.

Map of Lebanon

As I checked in for the Delta and Austrian Airlines flights at Ontario airport, I was upgraded to business class all the way to Beirut – a welcome perk for being a Delta Airlines “Million Miler” and Platinum Medallion member! On the flight to Atlanta, I watched the Robin Williams film “Patch Adams”, a very emotional and inspiring story that touched many hearts on the plane. I had very little time to make the connection for the Delta flight to Vienna, but once on board I found the seats in the new Business Elite cabin to be very comfortable, with electronically controlled movement five ways – and with the very generous space and almost lie flat recline, I was assured of a very relaxing flight. Soon after takeoff, we were served cocktails and delicious hors-d-oeuvres of crab cakes and goat cheese on toasted crostini. Then came the main dish of spicy vegetarian pasta, topped with grilled chicken in an incredible sauce of four cheeses and diced potatoes. I finished dinner with a selection of French cheeses and dried fruits, along with a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – a memorable dinner in the sky! When I landed in Vienna the next morning, the weather was miserable and cold, but I was just there to transfer to the Austrian Airlines flight to Beirut. After spending an hour in the Business Class lounge, I headed to the gate, only to find the departure delayed by a “labor slowdown” of airport staff. Then, once on board the aircraft, there was another delay when two Swedish passengers failed to show up, so their luggage had to be located and removed! However, once we finally departed Vienna, the 3 ½ hour flight was very nice, especially with a delicious lunch featuring pan-seared Arctic Char. Upon arriving in Beirut, a driver from the local office met me and took me to the lovely, historic old Summerland Hotel. The resort was built on a steep slope rising above the Mediterranean Sea. My room on the “ground Floor” was actually five floors below the lobby, but it had a spectacular view of the Sea from the patio! Virtually all the rooms in the hotel had magnificent views.

Summerland Hotel patio
Mediterranean Sea coast – Beirut

Access to my room was rather strange, being down five levels from the lobby and via a narrow corridor through the bar! Later, I discovered a shortcut through the Terrace Garden, across a pathway of large cement steps, molded in the shape of a giant’s foot, and past a large aviary of beautiful tropical birds.

Terrace Garden

The next day, my training class at the Electricity Company of Lebanon was delayed as a result of having to “re-install” ALL the software. But the journey to the training site followed the coast, known as the “Corniche”, and it was beautiful, despite many old buildings that had been damaged in the Civil War. There was evidence of numerous bomb craters and countless bullet holes, yet there were signs of renovation and reconstruction everywhere!

Bombed out building – Beirut

And all along the route, Syrian Army troops patrolled the area and many large, faded photos of Syrian President Hafez Assad were posted. After class, I joined my colleague Jerry in the hotel bar for a couple of local “Almaza” beers, and then dinner outside on the terrace. We enjoyed several small plates of traditional Middle Eastern “mezzes”, followed by a large order of fresh local seafood, including tiny finger-sized fish deep fried and eaten whole, tasting almost like French fries. (they were 3 inch-long Red Mullet) The next morning, we began the training class at the headquarters of the Electricity Company, with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, dispensed from an automated machine. Nearby the company was the American University of Beirut, located on a hill overlooking the sea. The classic old yellow sandstone buildings, built in the late 1800’s, were gorgeous, especially as they were surrounded by tall, deep green Lebanese Cedars. As I walked around the campus during a break in the class, I came upon the haunting sounds of a concert of classical Czech music coming from the 100 year-old chapel. Among other recollections of my time in Beirut was the “First Call to Prayer” every morning at 4:30 am, “blasting” from a loudspeaker at the Mosque next door! (Jerry said he never heard it!) One day in the hotel, I had some serious problems connecting my laptop modem to the hotel phone system in order to download my email. (there was no internet at this time) The hotel switchboard operator claimed I could only make a “collect” call from Lebanon, which was insane since there was no way a computer modem could call “collect”! Finally, I was able to reach an AT&T support person who told me how to connect using my AT&T calling card. Though I was successful in making the email server connection, it was very expensive at $5.00 per minute! (in today’s money that would be almost $8.00) As I traveled back and forth each day to the training site, I saw a lot of reconstruction taking place, incorporating some exquisite architectural designs, combining traditional Arabic geometric patterns with sleek, elegant modern styles, all using the gorgeous local yellow sandstone and brilliant white marble.

Reconstruction

At the conclusion of the training class, I joined a tour to the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and Anjar in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. The route took us over the High Lebanon Mountains, following the main highway to Damascus. As our bus slowly climbed the steep, winding road into the mountains, there were beautiful views of the deep green forests and snow-capped peaks. Along the way, I spotted some interesting signs beside the road, including:

  • “We are on sale – so prices are breaking down”
  • “Foody-Goody Store”
  • “We sale Kodak film”
  • “One Way Shoes Store” (so do you have to turn them in and buy a new pair for the return home?)

We also passed several huge Mercedes trucks laboring up the steep slope with their loads of massive blocks of white marble, headed for Damascus. Near the top of the mountain pass, we came upon a strange structure beside the road. It was the “Monument to Peace” – a very large pillar with several full-size tanks, trucks, and artillery guns “encased” in concrete – very weird and a bit scary! On the far side of the mountains were old stone terraced fields, several centuries old, and lovely green meadows. But all over the region were lots of multi-story buildings built haphazardly among the beautiful old white stone farmhouses – probably the result of no government control during the 17 years of Civil War.

Descending the mountains into the Bekaa valley

Descending the mountains, we could see the rusting remains of an old dilapidated railway line, once part of the old Palestine Railways that connected Beirut with Damascus. Several sections of the railroad were covered by long, concrete snow sheds. (the High Lebanon Mountains sometimes get almost 20 feet of snow during a winter) At one point, there was an old railway bridge that had been destroyed during the Civil War, leaving the tracks hanging in mid-air! As we entered the Bekaa Valley, we could see many Bedouin camps, tents covered with animal hides and floors lined with oriental carpets. Beyond were lovely green fields of wheat, produce, and vineyards, surrounded by steep, rocky, mountains.

Bekaa Valley
Lebanon Mountains – Bekaa Valley

And far to the south we could see the snow-covered summit of Mount Hermon rising above the Golan Heights. (it was such a peaceful scene amidst a turbulent part of the world) After traversing the heart of the valley, we finally arrived at one of the largest ancient Roman ruins in the world – Baalbek. Walking around the site, we had beautiful views of tall carved stone columns and facades, including four massive stone blocks, each weighing well over 200 tons. They formed the foundation of a massive gate – such an incredible engineering challenge to cut and move the blocks from nearby quarries. The highlight of our tour by far was the immense “Temple of Bacchus”, dedicated to the Roman God of wine. Except for the Cedar roof, which hadn’t survived the centuries, the temple was almost completely preserved.

Temple of Bacchus
Inside the Temple of Bacchus
Entering the Temple of Bacchus

It was a joy to walk among the ancient ruins and imagine being a Roman citizen enjoying the fruit of the vine. Our guide told us some of the history of the region, which was first settled by the Phoenicians over 4,000 years ago, and later by the Greeks who named it “Heliopolis”, following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 330 BC. The site was later occupied by the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Romans around 15 BC. The Romans renamed it “Baalbek” – in both the Greek and Roman languages it meant the “City of the Sun”.

Approaching Baalbek
Baalbek

After several centuries of Roman occupation, during which most of the large temples were constructed, the site would fall to the Arabs and more recently the Ottoman Empire. So, there was layer upon layer of ancient history beneath our feet – extraordinary! The ancient site got its name from the fact that it lies in the rain shadow of the 10,000 foot high (3,000 meters) Lebanon Mountains and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year. Before leaving Baalbek, we were invited to a small museum/visitor center/gift shop to see displays of artifacts recovered from Archeological excavations of the site. We were welcomed by the local Hezbollah Militia. It was very interesting to see the historical artifacts, but what struck me most were the items for sale in the gift shop, all of which required purchase with only US dollars! (not even the local currency of Lebanese Pounds was accepted!) And in the absurd irony of it all, the walls of the museum/visitor center were covered with anti-American posters and “Death to America” slogans!

Hezbollah Gift Shop – Baalbek

Leaving Baalbek, we stopped at a new hotel in the village of Zahle for a delicious lunch of traditional Lebanese food, including Kafta (spicy meat balls). The hotel was designed and built in a traditional Arabic style, using the beautiful local white limestone and pink marble. We finished lunch by toasting with a small glass of Arak, a strong liquor that tastes very much like Greek Ouzo. After lunch there was a stop at the Kasara Winery, where the caves have been used by monks for generations to age their wine. As we toured the caves, we saw several very old bottles still in storage, covered with thick black fungus! Storage of wine in the caves date back to the early 1700’s, shortly after the vineyards were planted, and the process of wine making continues to flourish today.

Kasara Winery

As we tasted the wines, the French tourists were a bit “snobbish” about the Lebanese wines, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. Our final stop, before returning to Beirut, was a tour of Anjar, another ancient Roman site near the Syrian border. It had been transformed into a fortress by the Umayyads after the first Arab invasion of the valley. The site had many beautifully restored ruins of Roman temples and palaces.

Approaching Anjar
Roman Temple – Anjar
Ancient Roman road – Anjar
View of Anjar

But of most interest was the ancient, yet sophisticated, Roman water and sewer system! It was very clear that the Roman engineers were incredibly talented. At one point, as I walked among the ruins, I came upon a long black line crossing the old Roman road, and the line was moving! Turned out to be thousands of harvester ants carrying tiny bundles of dry grass they had cut from the forest floor to take back to their nest. It was fascinating to watch them, totally oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, no one else in the group even noticed them. After a wonderful trip to the Bekaa Valley, we returned to the Summerland Hotel just in time to board the bus that would take me to the conference Gala Dinner Party at an historic old palace in the small mountain village of “Beit-ed-Dine”, located on top of the mountain overlooking Beirut. It was built by the Emir Bashir II, ruler of the Mount Lebanon Emirate, between 1788 and 1818. From 1943 it became the summer residence of the Lebanese President, and part of the castle remains so today. The beautiful architecture of the castle features several arcades, fountains, elaborate facades carved from local cedar wood, intricate inlaid marble and fine mosaics, as well as unique mandaloun balconies (two arched openings in a stone wall with a colonette in the middle and a decorative motif on top). The journey up the steep, winding road was slow and not very comfortable, but we were welcomed in grand style by the local community. The evening began with a visit to the “Marie Baz Wax Museum”, a small but elegant display of some famous people.

Marie Baz Wax Museum

Then we walked down the road to “Moussa’s Castle”, a beautiful limestone structure built entirely by one man, Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, in the early 1960’s.

Moussa’s Castle

Unfortunately, the display of scenes depicting local village life were disappointing “fake” reproductions, even though they were constructed of beautiful yellow sandstone. The “scenes” were poorly represented, in addition to being very dirty and dusty. Despite having an impressive collection of very old weapons, including pistols, swords, rifles, and even an old “blunderbust”, they were all displayed in dingy, dirty glass cases. And worst of all, were the ragged, moth eaten stuffed animals in glass display cases filled with ants – disgusting to say the least! While I admired the family enterprise, the display was very poorly preserved and not cared for – so sad.

Beit-ed-Dine Palace courtyard

Back to the Beit-ed-Dine Palace, we all enjoyed an elaborate and scrumptious Middle Eastern buffet, accompanied by entertainment from a fantastic folklore dance company that included a display of ceremonial sword fighting. And of course, no Gala Party in the Middle East would be complete without a traditional Belly Dancer! Even though the evening was very enjoyable, it was VERY late by the time we arrived back at the hotel – well after 2 am! The next morning, I conducted a Presentation Skills Workshop for the Beirut office training staff. In the afternoon, I spent a quiet day around the hotel, catching up on my email and my travel journal, while a “bevy” of beautiful young girls in skimpy outfits paraded around the pool. For dinner that evening, I went to the hotel terrace café and enjoyed a fantastic “Escalope Viennese” (grilled chicken breast topped with spicy tomato-basil sauce and melted cheese) I ended the evening sitting on my patio with a glass of wine and listening to the soft sounds of waves crashing on the beach below. The next day, after successfully resolving a problem with my laptop (lost the driver for the mouse), it was time to head for the airport and my flight to Amman. The check-in process went very smoothly and soon I found myself relaxing in the “Cedars Lounge”, which was brand new and beautifully decorated with Persian carpets and traditional Arabic artwork. The short one-hour flight on Middle Eastern Airlines took an unusual route north to Tripoli, and then east across the Lebanon Mountains where large areas of winter snow remained on the 10,000 foot peaks. Finally, the plane turned south across western Syria and over the city of Damascus to Amman – a route designed to avoid Israeli airspace. Despite the short flight, a very tasty snack and drinks were served.

Map of Jordan

As we approached Amman, I could see a large cloud of yellow dust hanging over the city – the result of a huge sandstorm in Egypt. Munir, the head of the Jordanian office, was at the airport to meet me and take me into the city. Alongside the highway were countless small vendors brewing and selling thick, black Arabic coffee in traditional tall silver coffee pots – very similar to the espresso stands one finds throughout Europe. Arriving in downtown Amman, I checked in to the newly renovated SAS-Radisson Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn. The new hotel was much more upscale and luxurious. (lots of dark tropical wood and brilliant white marble) As time for dinner rolled around, I discovered that it was “Gastronomic Week – A Taste of Belgium” in the restaurant. So, I felt compelled to order one of Belgium’s best beers, a pint of “Leffe”, brewed by monks in an old Abby since 1240! Dinner was superb, and I ended the meal with a strong cup of thick, black Arabic coffee, served “medium”, which referred to the amount of added sugar. The next morning, Munir picked me up and we drove north of Amman to the pine covered hills near the Syrian border, over looking the Jordan River Valley, nearly 4,000 feet below. On one of the highest summits was the historic Ajloun Castle – a 12th century Crusader -era fortress located on the site of an old monastery. It was renovated as a fort in 1184 by the commander of the army of Saladin (Salah-Ad-Din), first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The castle had a commanding view in all directions, which made it a very strategic location during the Crusades.

Approaching Ajloun Castle
View overlooking Jordan Valley from Ajloun Castle
Fortifications

It was later fortified by Saladin to counter further Crusader invasions. Over the following centuries, many additions and revisions were made as it changed hands between warring armies. From Ajloun Castle, we found a very nice restaurant at the base of the mountain for lunch, classic Lebanese food served by Egyptian waiters. And as always, Munir ordered enough food for a large family – such is the incredible hospitality of the Middle East! After lunch, we drove east toward Syria to visit Jerash, another very well preserved ancient Roman city. Among the ruins were several large temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Zeus, Jupiter, and Venus.

Entering Jerash on ancient Roman road
Ruins of Roman Temple
Roman Forum
Amphitheatre

Just beyond the temples was a huge circular forum and enormous Amphitheatre that seated over 3000 spectators and still in use today for summer performances by well known artists. Strangely, in one section of the old city was even a modern Byzantine cathedral, though it was still several centuries old! But something which struck me as most amazing was the old Roman road, paved with large stone blocks that still had the “ruts” worn in them from cart wheels over many centuries. And even more incredible were the stone “manholes” of the ancient water and sewer system – still functional even today, after more than 2000 years! Among some of the other ruins still very much intact, were the “Fountain of the Nymphs”, the four massive stone gates to the city, and the beautiful “Temple of Artemis”, where a massive stone column, weighing several hundred tons, was delicately balanced on its base.

Jerash

Amazingly, the huge column “swayed” ever so slightly in the wind! And everywhere among the ancient stones were large black centipedes, going about their daily business. On our return journey to Amman, we passed a most unusual sight – a taxi packed with passengers, one of whom was riding in the trunk of the old car! Back in the hotel, I joined Munir in the lobby bar for a local “Philadelphia” beer. He told me that modern day Amman was built upon an ancient Roman city called Philadelphia, hence the name of the brewery today. Meanwhile, a large wedding party was celebrating in the lobby. The music and dancing were fascinating, especially the “shrill” vocals of the ladies, which is so typical throughout the Middle East. [On a sad note: In November of 2005, a terrorist suicide bomber exploded a device in the hotel ballroom where hundreds of guests were attending a wedding, killing 60 people.] Later in the evening, we were joined by our colleagues Mazen and Maroun for a spectacular Arabic dinner at a beautiful old restaurant by the name of “Fahr-Ak-Din”, located in the former residence of the Spanish ambassador. During dinner, we dined on lots of traditional Arabic mezzes, along with a delicious mixed grill of lamb, chicken, and Kafta, a spicy mixture of ground beef and lamb. The evening was wonderful, but another very late night, since dinner didn’t begin until after 10 pm! Early the following morning, Mazen picked me up at the hotel for a trip to the ancient archeological site of Petra, about 3 hours south of Amman through the southern desert of Jordan. Access to the ancient site was by way of a narrow gorge through the mountains of Jabal Al-Madbah that form the eastern slope of the Arabah Valley which runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra was first settled as early as 9,000 BC and established as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century BC. Over the millennia, Petra’s importance as a trade route declined, and after more than 300 earthquakes that destroyed many structures, it lay abandoned for several centuries, occupied by only a handful of nomads. It remained unknown to the rest of the world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a passing Swiss traveler. In 1917, it became the site of battle against the Ottoman Empire, led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In 1985 it was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and gained popularity as a major tourist destination, which continues today. There were many huge temples and tombs carved from the stunning red sandstone, the largest and most impressive being the “Treasury”. Mazen insisted that we enter the site in the traditional manner, on horseback, through the narrow gorge. And as we emerged from the passageway, we had a spectacular view of the Treasury.

Petra Gorge
Riding into Petra
The Treasury

We spent the better part of the day roaming around the ruins and learning of the long history of the place. Despite having seen pictures of Petra, they did not prepare me for the experience of seeing it in person – it had a magical, mystical feeling about it that was hard to describe. At one point, we climbed a narrow staircase of 900 steps carved out of a narrow canyon to see the “Monastery”, another impressive building carved into the rock wall.

Staircase to the Monastery
The Monastery

From there we hiked a short distance to the highest point where we had a stunning view overlooking the Jordan Valley and the southern shore of the Dead Sea. Then, in the late afternoon, we stopped for a bite to eat at the “Al Khalil Tea House”, located inside an old Nabataean tomb!

Al Khalil Tea House
View from Al Khalil Tea House

As we enjoyed our cup of hot tea, gazing upon the beauty of the site, we agreed that it had been a wonderful day in one of the most incredible places on earth! The next morning, I joined Maroun for breakfast in the hotel, after checking my email once more and packing my bags. Then I enjoyed coffee around the pool, wrote some post cards, and caught up on my travel journal – very pleasant and relaxing. Munir picked me up around noon and we paid a visit to the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre to discuss a potential GIS project. Then it was time to head to the airport for my flight to Vienna. It was a quick check-in process and only a short delay at Immigration. As I waited in the queue, I noticed a Saudi family where the wife was completely covered from head to toe in a black robe, even including black gloves! It begged the question; how does the Immigration officer verify her identity? As it turns out, her husband must vouch for her identity. After clearing Immigration, I spent some time relaxing in the Royal Jordanian Airlines “Jerash” First Class Lounge. Later, before going to the departure gate, I went looking for postage stamps, but both Post Offices were either closed or apparently open but not staffed. Either way, I was unable to buy any stamps or post my cards. So, I decided to buy some Arak liquor in a lovely crystal bottle instead. When I got to the gate, I was surprised to find that everyone was body searched, despite having walked through metal detectors! But once on board, the flight was excellent, especially the lunch of chicken Provençale and smoked trout, accompanied by a delicious wedge of Danish Bleu cheese and a glass of crisp Austrian white wine. After lunch, we were served chocolate eclairs, Arabic coffee, and a glass of Drambuie, to finish a fantastic meal. Meanwhile, there were great views of the Bosphorus Strait, the city of Istanbul, the Black Sea coast, and the mountains of Bulgaria. As we approached Vienna, we had a gorgeous view of Budapest, straddling both sides of the Danube River. Upon arrival in Vienna, I checked in to the Sofitel Airport Hotel and had a very classic Wiener Schnitzel in “Café Wien”. (the only place in the world to get a true Wiener Schnitzel is either Austria or Germany!) Later, in the hotel bar, the service was very slow, so I ended up drawing a second glass of beer on my own from behind the bar. When the bartender returned, we both had a good laugh! The following morning, I boarded the Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta and on to Los Angeles, and it was another great flight in Business Elite Class. I returned home with copious travel notes, lots of photos, and wonderful memories of a fascinating part of the world!

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Egypt – journey up the Nile and Valley of the Kings

In November of 1989, I traveled to Egypt to conduct a software training class for the Egyptian Survey Authority in Cairo. My journey began with an airport shuttle ride at 5:00am to LAX, amid horrendous freeway traffic. Then it was a United Airlines flight to New York JFK airport to connect with a flight to Belgrade, Yugoslavia aboard JAT Yugoslav Airlines. (Why Yugoslav Airlines you ask? Well, they had a special offer of Business Class for less than the cost of an economy class ticket on any other airline!) Meanwhile, my head cold was getting progressively worse, not something anyone wants while travelling, especially on long haul international flights! The 5 ½ hour flight to JFK was quite comfortable, but once I arrived in New York, I found a very crowded terminal and a very chaotic scene. And it didn’t help matters when I discovered that the JAT check-in counter was in the Pan Am terminal on the opposite side of the airport! And of course, being Friday evening, it was “curbside mayhem” outside the terminal, with massive traffic jams, blaring horns, cars double parked, stalled buses, as well as policemen blowing their whistles and shouting “get it outta here”! Although I had been told to take one of the yellow terminal transfer buses, they failed to show up. So, I decided to “hoof it”, since nothing was moving. My hike to the Pan Am terminal was pretty chilly and a bit dangerous – certainly not “pedestrian friendly”, having to avoid the heavy traffic! Finally, I arrived at the Pan Am terminal and found the JAT Yugoslav Airlines Business Class check-in counter, located between Saudi Airlines and Czechoslovak Airlines. But the counter turned out to be closed and everyone had to fight their way to the one and only Economy Class check-in. As I stood in the long line, I overheard the airline agent say to all of us, “this is just the way we do things here”! (the beginning of my JAT flight experience was not very promising!) But once on board the new DC-10 aircraft, I found the Business Class cabin to be more like First Class – a welcome sight indeed. Service began with a chilled glass of champagne, followed by a superb dinner of poached salmon, topped with crab and grilled shrimp. Later, French pastries, fruit, cheese, coffee, and brandy finished the dinner service very well. Early the next morning, after 9 hours, we landed in Belgrade and I spent several hours in the JAT Business Class Lounge before boarding the 3 ½ hour flight to Cairo, via Zagreb. A light supper of cold meats, cheeses, and salad was served, along with a nice Yugoslavian white wine, before landing in Cairo. (Before the flight was called in Belgrade I couldn’t help noticing an unusual looking woman boarding the flight carrying a cat in her bag. The cat was sticking its head out of the bag and watching everything that was going on!) Once I had passed through Egyptian immigration and customs, it was well after midnight. But a driver from Giza Systems Engineering, the company representing ESRI in Egypt and Libya, met me just outside the terminal. Then it was a wild ride through the streets of Cairo to the hotel – constant flashing of headlights, honking of horns, and dodging pedestrians madly dashing across the busy highway! Having finally arrived at the “Safir Etap Hotel”, I was most pleasantly surprised to find it was a beautiful 5-star property in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Botanical Gardens and the Zoo.

Safir Etap Hotel lobby

And at last I got to bed at 2:00am Sunday morning. (my training class was to begin in less than 6 hours, since Sunday was the beginning of the week in Egypt)

Over the next five days of teaching the class, there were some notable highlights that included:

  • Two students from Finland, in Egypt on a Finnish government aid project, created a clock with Arabic numbers on the computer by developing a program using the ESRI software. But, in order to advance the hands on the clock, the return key on the computer keyboard had to be pressed each time. So, their “low tech” solution was to place a book on the keyboard that kept the return key pressed!
  • Virtually everyone in the class understood my English quite well, but they had a very difficult time using the English language during the computer exercises – constantly making spelling mistakes, and it was almost impossible for them to see their mistake. I could only imagine how it might be for me to use the Arabic script – first and foremost, I would have to write “backwards”, and secondly, none of the characters would even remotely resemble anything in English. So, I really had to sympathize with the Egyptian students.
  • The Egyptian Survey Authority employed people to spend their entire working day serving coffee and tea for our training class, in addition to running errands for the students, such as going out to buy cigarettes. And it seemed that everyone in the class was a heavy smoker – by the end of the day, the classroom was filled with smoke and the floor littered with cigarette ashes!
  • Several times a day the electricity would go off, but luckily, the computer room was connected to an uninterruptable power supply – so although the lights would go off, my overhead projector was also connected to the computer power supply, and I was able to continue with my lectures.
  • Near the end of the training class, the government announced that the “weekend” would be changed from being Friday and Saturday to being Thursday and Friday! (the same as a majority of countries in the Middle East)

 

Finally, my last day of work came and I prepared to leave for a trip up the Nile River to visit the ancient sights of Luxor and Aswan, something I had really been looking forward to ever since I had arrived in Cairo.

Map of Egypt and the Nile River

Before leaving Cairo, my colleague Khaled, took me on a tour of the old city, including President Mubarek’s Presidential Palace, a centuries old Islamic cemetery where people were living among the graves, and a neighborhood of many old, ornate stone houses of a strange, yet beautiful combination of Arabic, Indian, and Victorian architectural styles. Then we headed to Ramses train station in the center of Cairo, where I encountered the usual crowds and chaos, especially now since it was the beginning of the weekend. Upon entering the huge station, I saw no directional signs for the train to Aswan, but there was an information desk where I asked about the location of the 7pm train to Aswan. I was told it would be departing on platform 8. As I headed to the platform, there was a train standing on the track. But as I walked along the platform, passing crowds of people carrying bags, sacks, crates of chickens, etc., I could see no “sleeping cars” – rather mostly 3rd class carriages stuffed to overflowing with people. There were even people sitting on the roof, hanging on to the outside, and in between the carriages! They were going to be in for a very long, cold ride to somewhere up the Nile. Obviously, this was not my train – thank goodness! Later, another train arrived on platform 8, with several “Wagon-Lits” sleeping cars, the French equivalent of Pullman. But as I approached one of the train porters, he said this was not my train, which would arrive in about 30 minutes. I waited on the platform, along with the “masses of humanity”. Soon after the train departed, another train pulled into the station, and as I watched several other travelers attempting to board the train, they were told to wait for the next train.

Sleeper train to Aswan

So, as I also waited, I struck up a conversation with a young Frenchman who worked for the BNP Paribas bank in Paris. He told me about his experiences with the station porters and their demand for beaucoup “Baksheesh” (tips in Arabic). Just about that time, the train began to move slowly, and I said, “I wonder if this is my train?”, to which he replied, “are you on the 7:10pm train?” – “No, I’m on the 7pm train”. Suddenly, he said, “it’s 7pm and I think this is your train”! I turned around and quickly looked for an open door as the train slowly passed by me. Luckily, I spotted a single open door, and as I jumped aboard, the porter grabbed my bag. He asked to see my ticket and then directed me to my compartment in carriage number 5. I had come with a few seconds of missing the train, but I didn’t have a chance to thank the guy from Paris. Soon after leaving Cairo to follow the Nile River south to Aswan, the porter delivered dinner to my compartment, along with a couple of cold beers I had ordered earlier. Meals were included in the First-Class fare. After dinner, sleep came easily as the carriage rocked slowly back and forth, and the train sped into the dark night. The next morning, I awoke early to catch the sunrise over the river, as the train passed countless green fields of date palms, sugar cane, cotton, and all kinds of produce.

Green fields along the Nile River

Shortly before arriving in Aswan, after 12 hours aboard the sleeper train, breakfast was served, once again in my private compartment – certainly a luxury aboard the train. At the railway station I was met by a man from American Express Travel, who would be in charge of arrangements for my hotel accommodations and local tours. Meanwhile, a large group of tourists from Finland were gathering nearby, awaiting the arrival of their guide. As we left the station, my guide informed me there was a problem with my hotel accommodations. It seemed now my hotel would be some 26 km (16 miles) outside the city! When I expressed surprise and disappointment, I was told that maybe a closer hotel could be arranged, but that this time of year was a high season, and everything was fully booked. So, we went to the local American Express office in the elegant old “Cataract Hotel”. The hotel was a beautiful classic 19th century property, with a gorgeous terrace overlooking the 1st cataract (falls) on the Nile.

Cataract Hotel lobby
Cataract Hotel

Beyond, on the far shore, the endless, barren Western Desert loomed on the horizon.

The Western Desert

While I waited for the new hotel arrangements to be sorted out, I sat on the terrace with a cold Egyptian beer and took in the beautiful scenery. I watched the “Feluccas” (traditional Arabic sailboats) with their brilliant white sails as they plied the deep blue waters of the Nile River below, each boat being filled with a full load of tourists.

Cataract Hotel terrace
View from the terrace
Feluccas sailing on the Nile

It was a truly beautiful, warm day and a very peaceful, relaxing scene. I began to understand why the Pharaohs chose to spend their winters here – but now the tourists have replaced the Pharaohs! Finally, after much discussion, it was decided that I would stay at the Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island, located west of the city in the middle of the Nile.

Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island

Then I was driven by car to the dock where I boarded a small boat for the short ride to the island. As I went to check in at the hotel, I was told I would actually be staying in a room aboard the large “Nile River Cruise” boat docked beside the hotel. My room/cabin turned out to be clean, comfortable and quiet, although a bit small. After unloading my bags in the cabin, I decided to walk around the island and take photos under the bright, sunny skies. But quite unexpectedly, I found that my camera battery was dead! When I enquired at the hotel bookstore/gift shop as to where I could buy a new battery, I was pleasantly surprised to find they had two smaller batteries, that when put together did the job! (many beautiful photos were saved that day) Later in the afternoon, I explored the hotel grounds and discovered that the hotel had a high tower on one corner, that looked as if it had a restaurant on the top floor. As I got into the elevator, I pushed the button that I figured must be the top floor – “T2”. The elevator stopped at floor 3, two women entered, and then it went back down to the lobby! So where was “T2”? So, I pushed button 4, the highest number and got off on floor 4. Looking around, I spotted some stairs, so I started climbing, only to find a door with a lock that had been broken. Proceeding further, I passed an old mattress lying in the stairwell, and a pretty dirty one at that. I forged ahead, cautiously, only to find more dirty old mattresses and broken bottles. It became abundantly clear by now that many people had been living there. When at last I reached the top floor, 15 floors later, I came to a “construction area” littered with old broken furniture, piles of trash, unfinished walls, and an old sewing machine in one corner with a single, bare light bulb hanging above it! (very weird) The unfinished space looked like it might have been designed to be a penthouse suite, but anyone who was living there now was anyone but the “penthouse” type! Fortunately, I was able to take some beautiful panoramic photos of the Nile, the city of Aswan, and the ancient ruins atop the cliffs on the far shore.

View from Aswan Oberoi Hotel tower
View of the Nile river from the tower

As I returned to the 4th floor, another man with a camera was “eyeing” the stairs, and I couldn’t help wondering if he had also tried going up to “T2” like I did? That evening, I had a delicious dinner in the hotel, a dish called “chicken Korbashi”, cooked in earthenware with lots of Middle Eastern spices, especially coriander – it was excellent! I finished dinner with a cup of strong, thick Turkish coffee. Later, in the hotel bar, a band of “heavily” electrified and synthesized music played what I could only describe as “Italian Boss Nova”! It sounded like what one might hear on a soundtrack for a low budget film – the kind with bad “dubbing”. Virtually nobody in the bar was listening.

The next morning, I met up with the man from American Express for a tour of Aswan. It was a “private” tour with just two of us – me and a girl from Hong Kong. But we were to be in two separate cars – in effect, two different tours, which meant more “baksheesh” (tips in Arabic) for the drivers and guide! Our first stop was a view point overlooking the massive High Aswan Dam, one of the largest earthen dams in the world. It created Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world with an area of over 2,000 square miles. Then we boarded a small boat to visit the Temples on the island of Philae, where our guide told us of the many legends about the myriad of Egyptian Gods. (Isis, Osiris, Hather, Ra, Horis, among many others) I wasn’t able to keep all of them straight in my mind, and I’m pretty sure most Egyptians these days couldn’t either.

Temple of Philae
Temple of Philae

Once back on shore, we drove to the beautiful old Cataract Hotel for lunch outdoors on the terrace overlooking the Nile. After lunch, we joined another tour group of two people from Singapore – an English lady originally from Wimbledon and Mr. Randy Dillon, an Indian doctor of British citizenship residing in Washington, DC. (Both the English lady and Randy were high maintenance, requiring constant hand holding by the guide) That afternoon, I chose to take a ride to Elephantine Island aboard one of the Feluccas, classic old Arabic sailing boats, to visit the ornate mausoleum of the Aga Khan.

Steps leading to the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan
Mausoleum

It was built of gorgeous pink sandstone and covered with elaborate carvings of Arabic scriptures. Afterwards, we sailed to Kitchener’s Island, known locally as El Nabatat, as a beautiful sunset bathed the river.

Sunset on the Nile

The island was named for Lord Kitchener, who served as the British Consul-General in Egypt from 1911 until 1914. It was also home to the Aswan Botanical Garden, a collection of rare sub-tropical plants that Lord Kitchener established. Sailing quietly on the river was so peaceful – just the sound of the warm evening wind in the sails! Back at the hotel that evening, I joined the group again for an incredible sound and light show at the Temples of Philae. It was very impressive as we walked among the huge stone pillars and statues bathed in brilliant colors of light.

Sound and Light Show

At the same time, we were told the ancient stories of the Pharaohs. As we returned to the hotel, I was moved to a new room, one with a private terrace and a spectacular view overlooking the Nile!

View of the Nile from my balcony
View overlooking the Nile from my room

And for dinner in the hotel, I savored a delicious leg of lamb roasted with Middle Eastern spices, served with rice pilaf and a huge assortment of Arabic sweets.

The following day, I spent the morning exploring Elephantine Island before taking the little ferry to the old city of Aswan. I chose to have lunch at the elegant Oberoi Hotel overlooking the Nile. The restaurant was in a stunning setting, with elaborate wooden lattice work, tables set with brilliant, crisp white linen, sparkling silverware, and fresh roses! All the waiters were dressed in starched white tuxedos.

Lunch at the Oberoi Hotel

Lunch began with “Red Sea Gumbo” (spelled “Jumbo” on the menu), followed by grilled giant prawns marinated in Indian spices and served with a very spicy Indian vegetable curry, grilled onion, roasted potato, and Egyptian flat bread fresh from the oven. I finished lunch with a lovely creme caramel and a small cup of dark Turkish coffee. On another note, shortly after my food was served, the resident “hotel cat” came up to me and put her head in my lap, obviously asking for a handout.

“Hotel Cat”

Later in the day, I joined my guide again for a walking tour of the old city, especially the exotic old bazaar, where literally everything was for sale.

The Bazaar in the old city
Market in the Old City

As evening approached, we headed to the railway station for my short trip from Aswan to Luxor. I was about to board the train, when my guide, a Nubian from southern Egypt, invited me to stay with his family in their small village when I returned to Egypt the next time – such a kind gesture! As the train pulled out of the station, there was a gorgeous sunset that silhouetted the palm trees against the dark night sky, while a brilliant crescent moon and bright evening star shone above!

Night sky on the Nile

The slowly fading evening colors of orange and blue stretched upwards into the night sky. Along the way, as the train followed the Nile River, we passed a multitude of cooking fires glowing in the night alongside the railroad tracks. I was really surprised that all the announcements on board the train were in German, though I was seated in a compartment with Italian tourists – who knows how many different nationalities might be on board. I spent some of the time during the journey reading my copy of “Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt”, trying once again to sort out all the Gods! Upon arriving in Luxor, there was another man from American Express to meet me and he began to ask me for my tickets and tour vouchers, none of which I had been given at the start of the trip! Immediately, I felt a “snafu” was about to happen, but he didn’t seem to be bothered. However, I still didn’t know where I would be staying that night. Then we got into the car for a wild ride through dark, narrow crowded streets, barely missing all manner of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and even donkeys! As we drove past the Sheraton Hotel and the Winter Palace Hotel, I started to wonder where on earth I would be staying? On and on we drove into the dark night, and eventually we were driving out of the city – now I really began to get worried! Finally, we crossed over a narrow bridge and I saw an illuminated sign for the “Movenpick Hotel Jolie Ville on Crocodile Island”. Then suddenly the bright lights of the hotel lobby came into view, and as I entered the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful 5-star property, with individual bungalows arranged around the shore of the island. My bungalow was “J-1”, near the far corner of the property, surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. In my room I found a copy of a guide book on the birds and plants of Crocodile Island, as well as a nature trail map. These were very nice accommodations, especially after so much anxiety about where I would stay. For dinner that evening, I enjoyed the huge buffet in the hotel restaurant – a delicious, grand affair of an amazing array of Middle Eastern and Western dishes. Dinner put to rest any lingering anxiety about hotel accommodations that night.

Movenpick Jolie Hotel on Crocodile Island
View from my bungalow

Early the next morning at sunrise, after a quick breakfast, I prepared to leave for a day trip to Abu Simbel Temple in southern Egypt on the Sudanese border. As I entered the hotel lobby to meet my guide, I encountered a large Japanese tour group, which I found out later was on the same itinerary as me. Joining my American Express driver/guide, we headed for the airport, up the hill and west across the High Aswan Dam, into the great Western Desert, which extended for over 2000 miles through the Sahara to the mountains of Morocco. Reaching the airport, I was given instructions by my guide about what to do upon arrival at Abu Simbel. (Abu Simbel Temple can only be reached now by plane. The Immense monument was moved piece by piece from the Nile River valley when the High Aswan Dam flooded the valley.) As usual, it was a scene of chaos during the boarding process, as there were many large groups trying to board at the same time. After passing through the security checkpoint, we all made a mad dash to the plane in hopes of getting the best seats on the left side, to catch a glimpse of the temples. As I boarded the plane, along with the Japanese contingent, I found it to be an aircraft from a Yugoslav company called “Aviogenex” and leased to EgyptAir. But to our dismay, as we boarded, most of the best seats had already been taken by people who had previously boarded the plane in Cairo! Luckily, I was able to find a seat on the left side at the very rear of the plane. The flight was fully booked, but during the short 30-minute flight I had some wonderful views of the High Aswan Dam and massive Lake Nasser that stretched all the way to the Sudan. The contrast between the deep blue water of the lake and the surrounding shifting sands of the desert, was dramatic. Just before the plane landed, we had a glimpse of the massive temples of Pharaoh Ramses II, and it was a magnificent sight to behold! The immense statues of Ramses were exceptionally clear, even from 3,000 feet above. They were on a totally different scale from the surrounding flat desert. As the plane slowly descended to the airport, my heart stirred with excitement, for in a few moments I would see them up close – almost hard to believe. Upon landing on the one and only runway, surrounded by shifting sand, it was a mad dash to the EgyptAir counter to check in for the return flight to Luxor, as I had been instructed to do by my guide upon leaving Luxor. I forced my way into the queue to get my boarding pass, amidst the many tourist guides who were getting them for their group. (the downside of being an independent traveler) With boarding pass in hand, I boarded the EgyptAir shuttle bus for the short 10-minute ride to the temples, together with a large group of Germans. Along the way we passed “Pharaoh’s Village”, a new tourist hotel, and the “New Tourist Supermarket”. Finally, the bus arrived at the temples, literally the end of the road. Once again, I had to stand in line with the tourist guides to buy a ticket to enter the temples. (at this point I began to wonder why American Express didn’t do this for me?) Then I joined the rest of the crowd as we followed a path down toward the edge of the cliff overlooking Lake Nasser, and suddenly, I found myself amongst a British tour group – luckily. Maybe it was the sound of the English voices that caught my ear, or maybe it was the cute girl wearing the “City of Oxford” sweatshirt? We approached the base of the temples from the east, where there were beautiful views of Lake Nasser stretching south into the Sudan – the land of Nubia. Our first sight of the colossal stone statues of Ramses was nothing short of unbelievable! And the closer we got to them, the more enormous they became, being at least 70 feet tall.

Abu Simbel – Temple of Ramses II
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Inner Temple Statues

Inside the huge temple were eight more massive stone statues in a row, four on each side. In addition, the 20-foot-high stone walls inside the temple were covered from top to bottom with colorful hieroglyphics carved into the stone more than 3000 years ago. The inner chamber of the temple was equally impressive, especially considering the entire temple had been raised more than 200 feet up from the valley floor to the top of the cliff above the river before the High Aswan Dam was constructed and flooded the valley. The entire stone temple had been cut into small blocks, each numbered according to its position, transported to the top of the cliff and “reassembled” piece by piece! Even upon close examination, it was virtually impossible to see where the cuts in the stone had been made.

Abu Simbel – Inner Temple
Hieroglyphics – Inner Temple

As we stood in the innermost chamber, our guide told us the temple had been designed so that on just two days of the year, the rising sun reached the innermost sanctuary where the statues of Ramses II and three Egyptian Gods sat on thrones. (Ramses II had “made” himself a God as well) The sunlight reached only three of the four statues – the fourth, the God of Darkness, remained without illumination. The phenomenon occurs only on February 22, the birthday of Ramses II, and October 22, the date he ascended to the throne. Outside the temple, as I stood at the feet of Ramses II, I felt it to be a very humbling experience, and very likely that was his intent when he ordered the temple built. Up close one could see some names and dates of travelers, carved into the stone, who had passed this way long ago, such as “H.J. Clarke – 1837”. But our tour of the temple was not complete until we were ushered inside the enormous concrete dome that protected the inner temple – a very impressive feat of engineering that supported tons of rock on top, designed to make the structure look natural in the surrounding desert. As we entered the massive dome, I had the feeling of being “backstage”, or was it more a feeling of somehow being “inside a body”! It must have been a very exciting moment when the temple was “rediscovered” some 200 years ago, having been almost completely buried in the sand for thousands of years! Our tour also included a visit to the Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari, a smaller version of Ramses II temple nearby. She was the first of the “Great Royal Wives” of Rameses the Great, and her name means “beautiful companion” or “beloved”. Also, among the Great Royal Wives was the most famous and well-known Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra!

Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari
Summer Temple

In the late afternoon, we all boarded the shuttle busses for the return to the airport and the flight back to Luxor. Dinner that evening in the Movenpick Jolie Ville Hotel was delicious, and afterwards, I sat outside on my private terrace in the warm evening air, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the soothing sound of crickets.

I was up early the next morning to check out of the hotel and meet my tour guide for the days’ tour. I really hated to leave such a beautiful hotel. At the American Express office, we met up with Randy Dillon again and then boarded a ferry that took us across the river to the west bank for a tour of the “Valley of the Kings”.

Valley of the Kings

Our guide was a very pretty “Coptic” lady named Mrs. Selwa, and she was very knowledgeable of ancient Egyptian history. Our first stop was the “Colossi of Memnon” – two gigantic statues in the middle of the desert.

Colossi of Memnon

They stood over 60 feet high, representing Pharaoh Amenophis III seated on his throne and were once located at the entrance to the King’s temple. Then we walked a short distance to the “Valley of the Queens” and the “Temple of Hatshepsut”, the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (1507 – 1458 BC).

Temple of Hatshepsut

She was considered one of the most successful Pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman in Egyptian history. The temple was most famous for its impressive murals that were several thousand years old, and in the process of restoration by an archeological team from Poland. Mrs. Selwa also told us the story of Queen Hatshepsut, one of intrigue and scheming as she “ruled” her son, the young Pharaoh. With Mrs. Selwa pointing to the hieroglyphics on the wall of the temple, she showed us how the Queen had “invented” a story that she had been born of the Sun God Ra! From the Queen’s temple, we visited three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the first and most famous of which was the tomb of Tutankhamun. Though it was relatively small, because he had died suddenly at a young age, it had contained enormous treasures of gold and precious jewels, all of which were moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. At that point, I had to wonder just how incredible the treasures must have been in the tombs of the most important Pharaohs, before they were plundered by grave robbers? And then I began to wonder if succeeding Pharaohs had “orchestrated” the grave robbing to ensure wealth for their own tomb and the afterlife? That’s a question that is bound to remain unanswered. Our next stop on the tour was the elaborate tomb of Ramses VI, adorned with beautifully preserved, richly decorated paintings and hieroglyphics on the stone walls. Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld, depicted in the paintings and hieroglyphics.

Hieroglyphics depicting the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld

As we descended deeper into the tomb, we passed through 12 doors, each one representing a stage in the Pharaoh’s journey. It was as if we were taking the journey as well! Finally, we came to the burial chamber, carved deep inside the mountain, hewn out of solid rock. The enormous granite sarcophagus had been broken into several huge pieces and turned on its side. The grave robbers had stolen everything, even unwrapping the mummy of the king, leaving it lying beside the sarcophagus. Then Mrs. Selwa pointed to the ceiling of the chamber, a rounded arch with a gorgeous painting of two giant serpents, one carrying the sun on its back and the other serpent carrying the moon and stars. The colors of blue and gold were incredibly brilliant – even after 3000 years! But despite all the beauty and timelessness of the tomb, it did little to protect the Pharaoh, who now resides in the Egyptian Museum. From the tomb of Ramses VI, we walked up the hill to another lesser known tomb of Tuthmosis III, that Mrs. Selwa highly recommended for its unsusal design. The tomb was relatively small, but with a deep shaft that was crossed by a single wooden bridge, and then a steep sloping tunnel at a sharp right angle leading to the burial chamber. Apparently, this was intended to deter grave robbers, but once again had failed to prevent the loss of the Pharaoh’s treasures. As we made our way down the dark, narrow tunnel, I couldn’t help but recall scenes from “Indian Jones and the Lost Ark”! Upon reaching the burial chamber, we discovered several stunning deep blue murals covering the walls and ceiling, with bright white stars representing the celestial sky to guide the Pharaoh on his journey to the underworld. (if only I could have taken photos!) After Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh and his rule over Egypt almost 4000 years ago, we exited the tomb and walked down a dusty path to the “Rest House”, a small café/snack bar, before continuing down the valley to the main entrance gate.

Valley of the Kings

Just outside the gate, the usual flock of vendors were eagerly hawking their wares. Soon a very chaotic scene ensued as they all vied for the attention of the tourists, many of whom were trying desperately to avoid being trapped in the melee. One of the vendors even had an Italian woman by the arm, trying to drag her back into his shop to buy an alabaster statue in which she had undoubtedly expressed some interest in buying! But now, she and her friend were trying to discourage the guy, even as he kept following them, constantly yelling another lower price! In desperation, they broke into a “run”, with the shopkeeper in hot pursuit, waving the statue. He ran after them all the way to their bus! What a mad, hilarious scene – as the bus pulled away, he just turned around and threw up his hands in exasperation. At that moment, I wished I had a video camera! Thankfully, our tour group, led by Mrs. Selwa, was able to avert the vendors. Despite their efforts to “trap” the tourists, in all honesty, they were “well mannered” in comparison to my experience with vendors in Morocco. It was a short walk to the ferry landing for the journey back across the river to the East Bank, the side of the living. There I was met by my American Express guide and driven back to the hotel to check out before the afternoon tour, which began with lunch on the terrace of the beautiful and historic “Winter Palace Hotel”, the oldest in Luxor. It had the faded elegance of a grand old lady. I savored a delicious dish of lamb shish kabobs and a cold beer, as I watched the sailboats on the river below. As soon as my lunch arrived, I was “mobbed” by a group of “hotel cats” looking for a handout. After lunch, I sat on the terrace and caught up on my travel notes about the trip to Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings, before joining the tour to the Temple of Luxor and the Great Temple of Amun/Karnack.

Approach to the Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor

As we approached the temples, we were struck by the sight of tall, massive stone columns, some of which were topped with enormous pylons inscribed with hieroglyphics. The columns formed a gateway to the inner temples where giant stone statues of Ramses sat in silence.

Temple of Amun/Karnack
Columns at the Temple of Luxor
Obelisk
Statue of Ramses IV

Near the perimeter of the temples were several tall obelisks and the remnants of many ancient stone walls which had formed the foundation of a large village, long since passed into history. Strolling among the giant columns and statues was a humbling experience, as well as a testament to the exceptional building skills of the ancient Egyptians.

Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor
Giant Columns in the temple
Hieroglyphics carved in the stone 3000 years ago

As evening approached, it was time to head to the railway station for the journey back to Cairo, another 12-hour overnight trip. Once again, I had a very nice private compartment aboard the Pullman train, including a delicious dinner served by the car porter.

Train to Cairo

The train followed the Nile River north and rolled quietly into the night, passing numerous small villages and extensive fields. Sleep overtook me somewhere north of Asyut, and I awoke early the next morning as the train approached the outskirts of Cairo. While I enjoyed breakfast on the train, I reflected upon the amazing and spectacular ancient sights I had been fortunate to visit over the past three days. I knew for certain, from now on, I would have a much deeper knowledge and appreciation of ancient Egyptian history and culture – a truly remarkable time in the history of the world!

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Alaska’s Dalton Highway – Gateway to the Arctic

In mid-August of 1997, I boarded a Delta Airlines flight to Anchorage for a vacation, following another very successful Esri User Conference. After checking in to the Regal Alaskan Hotel that evening, I took a long walk around Lake Hood and watched the seaplanes taking off and landing. Lake Hood is the world’s busiest seaplane base!

Lake Hood Seaplane Base – Anchorage

For dinner I had a superb, fresh pan-fried trout served with a tart lemon cream sauce over wild rice. A chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc complemented dinner very well. The next morning, I started the day with a delicious breakfast of Dungeness crab cakes and eggs, along with sourdough toast and huckleberry jam. Then it was time to return to the airport to board the Alaska Airlines flight to Deadhorse, the northernmost airport on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. The route of the flight took us directly over the summit of Mt McKinley, affording us absolutely spectacular views of the 20,320 foot high peak, as well as the surrounding 18,000 foot mountains of the mighty Alaska Range, extending over 300 miles southwest to the Aleutian Islands! The mountains were covered in a brilliant, thick white carpet of snow and ice, as well as numerous glaciers. The captain told us that we were very fortunate to see the mountains so clearly, since thick clouds normally obscure them over 75% of the year!

Leaving Anchorage – Chugach Mountains
Mt McKinley and the Alaska Range
The North Slope from the air

Upon arrival in Deadhorse, I checked in to the “Prudhoe Bay Hotel” – essentially a collection of modular “bunkhouses” with shared toilets and showers. It mainly houses oilfield workers and the few tourists who venture this far north. In years past, it was part of a larger complex of accommodations for workers employed in the construction of the “Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline” that stretches 800 miles across the state from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Prince William Sound in the south.

Prudhoe Bay General Store – Deadhorse

While the hotel rooms were small and spartan, the “Dining Hall” served massive amounts of hearty, basic food 24 hours a day – all included with the room! The only downside was the lack of any beer or wine, since the entire North Slope, including all the native villages, is dry! Before sitting down to dinner, I joined a small tour of the massive Arco/BP oil field operations complex – a huge construction and operational challenge, where literally everything must be built on gravel pads 3 to 5 feet thick, so as to avoid thawing the underlying permafrost, which is only 1 to 2 feet below the surface. However, it can be over 1000 feet deep.

Arco/BP oil drill rig on the tundra
Arco/BP operations at Prudhoe Bay
“Tundra Trucks” used for oil exploration on the North Slope

Not far from the “hotel” was Mile 0 of the oil pipeline and the beginning of the Dalton Highway, extending 445 miles south to Fairbanks. A few hundred yards to the north lay the Arctic Ocean, and as we approached the coast, the massive ice pack was visible about a mile offshore. Suddenly, while we stood on the “beach”, an Aussie in our group stripped down and dived into the icy water for a “quick dip” in the ocean! (No one else followed his lead however)

Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline – Mile 0
Arctic Ocean

By this time the dinner bell sounded and we all headed to the dining hall for a huge meal of steak, BBQ ribs, shrimp, potatoes, and an array of salads, as well as numerous dessert options. No one left the dinner table hungry that night!

Early the next morning, after a hearty Alaskan breakfast, our tour group of six people and our driver/guide,” Andy”, piled into the 4WD van and began our two-day journey south on the Dalton Highway. (During the construction of the oil pipeline, it was simply known as “The Haul Road”, where every year hundreds of huge trucks hauled everything north, from heavy pipe and gravel, to everyday essentials like food, office supplies and even toilet paper!) On the North Slope, the highway is a 6 foot thick pad of gravel 18 feet wide that lays on top of the Arctic tundra for over 100 miles, from the Arctic Ocean to the foothills of the massive Brooks Range. Light rain was falling as we left Deadhorse, yet the snow covered peaks of the Brooks Range to the south shimmered in the distance.

The Dalton Highway – Mile 0 (Next Services 245 miles)
Brooks Range in the distance
Big rig with heavy load headed north
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline parallel to the Dalton Highway

As we travelled across the perfectly flat tundra, parallel to the oil pipeline, we began seeing lots of wildlife. Among the hundreds of birds, we saw snow geese, loons, and jaegers, as well as some marsh hawks and a great snowy owl – all of which were within the extent of the massive oil field! As far as animals were concerned, there were arctic fox, grizzly bears, and caribou, the dominant animal of the Arctic. As we approached Pump Station #1, it could be heard at least several miles away, as the huge Rolls Royce turbines powered the massive pumps that were necessary to move the vast volume of oil up the steep slope of the Brooks Range. Yet, despite the incredibly loud noise, we continued to see wildlife not far off the road, including two young grizzlies digging for lemmings and ground squirrels, with the oil pipeline in the background! Meanwhile, a couple of stupid tourists were “stalking” the bears ! (would “tourist” also be on the bear’s dinner menu tonight?)

Young Grizzlies digging for lemmings
The beauty of the Arctic tundra on the North Slope

Further on we spotted a beautiful lone caribou bull with a huge rack of antlers being stalked by a bow hunter. To be sure, it was tough stalking across the flat, treeless wet muskeg. It would be no understatement to say the odds greatly favored the caribou! Soon we encountered the foothills of the mighty Brooks Range and it was time to stop for lunch – a cold one of fried chicken, as we stood at the foot of the mountains, in sight of a lone glacier.

Lunch along the road approaching the foothills of the Brooks Range
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline at the base of the Brooks Range

Back on the road, we began the long, slow climb up to Atigun Pass, among the rugged, barren mountains, the highest peaks being covered with fresh snow. Just as we began the ascent of the 4,700 foot high pass, we were instructed by radio to pull over and wait for a very wide (20 feet) load to descend down the steep grade. Meanwhile, there were lots of truckers chattering away on their CB radios. As the wide load passed us, Andy got on the radio and said “northbound lowboy, this is the tour van – how’s the weather to the south? Have safe trip”.

Approaching Atigun Pass
View from Atigun Pass

As we crossed over Atigun Pass and began the long descent down the south slope of the Brooks Range, we suddenly became aware of the tree line, marked by the “northernmost” spruce tree, on the edge of the road, along with a large sign marking its unique place in the world.

Northernmost Spruce Tree

Atigun Pass marks the “other” Continental Divide which separates rivers flowing south to the Pacific Ocean from those flowing north to the Arctic Ocean. As we descended from the Brooks Range, we entered the broad Chandalar River valley, and as evening approached, we came to the tiny community of Coldfoot.

Entering Coldfoot, Alaska

Although originally established in 1902 as a mining camp called Slate Creek, it got its present name when some gold prospectors coming up the Koyukuk River would get “cold feet” and turn around. At its height in 1912, Slate Creek (Coldfoot) had two roadhouses, two general stores, post office, seven saloons, and a gambling house. Much later, during the construction of the Dalton Highway and Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, Coldfoot became a huge truck stop, being the only services for 245 miles. So, it was pretty clear that this would be our overnight stop, along with a couple dozen truckers. A sign outside the one and only café/hotel read: “lowest recorded temperature – 82 degrees (with a picture of the thermometer) and highest recorded temperature +97 degrees (an amazing range of 179 degrees!) Our tour group checked into the only hotel, named the “Arctic Acres Inn” – a collection of typical “modular” units, the same as were used extensively on the North Slope during the pipeline construction.

“Arctic Acres Inn” hotel and cafe
Moose hunters and truckers in Coldfoot

The café/hotel also advertised itself as the “farthest north bar in North America”, but on this day it was closed for lack of beer! Rooms were very small for $125 a night, but there was no competition for at least 135 miles in any direction! After finding my room, a small 10ft by 10ft unit with a tiny 2ft by 4ft cubicle that was the toilet and shower combination, I walked around the area, taking photos of the gorgeous forest floor. It was covered with beautiful wild flowers, colorful mushrooms, and delicate lichens.

Wild cranberries and lichens
Mushrooms on the forest floor

Meanwhile, dozens of idling big rigs were lined up in the muddy parking lot outside the café. Inside the café it was very busy, as the dinner hour approached. The food was basic but very good, and my order of baked halibut was excellent, despite the canned green beans alongside. For entertainment, there was a single TV set in the café, but judging by the blank screen, it appeared to be out of commission. So we were invited to the BLM/NPS/USFWS Visitor Center nearby to watch their new slide show about the national parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges on the North Slope and in the Brooks Range. It was essentially the only entertainment in town, but it turned out to be fascinating! I retired to my room for the night at 11pm, though it was still daylight outside.

Early the next morning, we began with a huge breakfast buffet that would last us all day. Then we piled into the van and drove back north for 13 miles to the tiny old mining town of Wiseman, population 22! It was in fact divided into North and South Wiseman by an old feud that everyone had long since forgotten.

Map of downtown Wiseman, Alaska

The old abandoned post office was a log cabin that had sunk halfway into the permafrost. Inside, old books and official records still sat on the counter – as if time had stopped in 1956 when the Postal Service closed it. As we toured the old cabin, I spotted a telegram preserved from the early 1950’s that protested the “atrocious” mail delivery service from the village of Bettles. Leaving the old post office cabin, we paid a visit to a long time resident, George Lounsberry, who still mined for gold, together with his brother. (Well known author Bob Marshall once wrote a book about the town, titled Arctic Village, and gave each of the residents a share of the royalties, which ended up to be $18 each) Besides mining for gold, George managed a small “museum” in the town’s old saloon. He was especially anxious to show us some of the original bar credit tabs for regular customers, many of whom were prostitutes, whose names were recorded as “sports”. (Mamie Sport, Lucy Sport, Amy Sport, and so on!) George was a most interesting old fellow, but he refused to say how much gold he had found! Before we left George, he insisted upon showing us where he kept his beer, a small cellar dug into the permafrost beneath the floor of his cabin. On another historic note from George, the very first airplane to land north of the Arctic Circle was flown by Albert Wien, who later founded Wien Air Alaska, that eventually merged with Alaska Airlines. He landed the plane on a narrow gravel bar in the Koyukuk River near the town in 1928. Up until the late 1940’s when a permanent landing strip was built, all the food and supplies for the town had to be brought up the river. In summer, shallow draft boats were pulled by horses, and in the winter, tractors and sleds brought supplies over the ice. In 1979, the town was finally connected to the rest of the world by the Dalton Highway. As we left Wiseman and continued our journey south, I was able to photograph some Moose, not far off the road near the Kanuti River, with the ever-present oil pipeline in the background.

Moose along the highway

A short time later, we crossed the Arctic Circle and celebrated with a group photo beside the new sign marking its exact location! Then our driver/guide Andy brought out “tundra and perma-frosting” cake. (pieces of dark chocolate cake topped with Cool Whip!) Before we departed the Arctic Circle, Andy recited the complete classic Robert Service poem, “The Spell of the Yukon”, entirely from memory! (he also had a large collection of stories in memory, including a hilarious one about a “dancing Moose”)

Crossing the Arctic Circle

Continuing south, we finally reached the half mile long Yukon River bridge that carries the highway and the oil pipeline across the mighty Yukon River. On the far shore we passed a large “fish wheel” and stopped at a small Athabascan fish camp where members of the local Koyukuk tribe were drying and smoking fresh caught salmon to feed their family and sled dogs over the long winter.

Yukon River bridge
Yukon River
Athabascan fish camp on the Yukon River
Smoking and drying Salmon for winter

We were invited into their camp to watch them work, and while we were there, a cute little Athabascan girl showed us some of her art work. There were some really beautiful pieces, and I ended up buying a lovely “sun catcher” that she had made that morning. She was quite surprised when I said that I wanted to buy it. I found out that she spends the summer months with her family on the Yukon River, and the winter months at an Alaska native school in Fairbanks, almost 100 miles to the south. As we left the fish camp, the family resumed their activity of preparing for winter. Further south, we reached the junction with the Elliott Highway and mile 0 of the Dalton Highway. We stopped to take a photo of the sign “Dalton Highway mile 0 – Deadhorse 445 miles”.

Dalton Highway south of the Arctic Circle – Deadhorse 445 miles north

A few miles further south, we pulled into a very small homestead called “Joy, Alaska”, where we found the “Wildwood General Store”, an old log building in a small forest clearing. The Carlsson family homesteaded the property in the mid-1950’s and adopted 24 children over the following 30 years!

Welcome to Joy, Alaska
Wildwood General Store

It was a place of fascinating history, and one of the Carlsson children, who came to Alaska at the age of 4, took us on a short tour of the homestead. All of the buildings were constructed of logs from the surrounding forest. At one point, he stopped to point out a classic “permafrost refrigerator” – a 55 gallon oil barrel buried 24 inches below the surface. It maintained a constant, year-round temperature of 38 degrees, and included an ingenious pully system for access. As we were returning to the General Store, one of the Aussie ladies in our group insisted upon taking a photo of the outhouse, with her friend posing in it as the “model”! (Perhaps there are no outhouses in Australia?) Then it was time to continue our journey to Fairbanks, our final destination. Not far from the city, we spotted a couple of Moose, casually grazing in a meadow close to the road. Arriving in downtown Fairbanks, I bid farewell to my tour companions and checked in to the “Captain Bartlett Inn”, a classic Alaskan log structure. Within the hotel were two of Fairbanks’ historic places, the “Sled Dog Saloon” and “Slough Foot Sue’s Café”. Here is where I enjoyed an excellent, fresh King Salmon broiled in lemon garlic butter and served with wild rice. The cold pint of local Fairbanks Ale went very well with dinner. After dinner, as I sat at the bar in the Sled Dog Saloon, I noticed all the log walls were covered with dollar bills stapled to them, each having been signed with a unique name, such as “Buckeye”, “Pixie”, “Mixer”, and so on. In addition, there were several bras hanging from the ceiling, all of which were quite large and, also personally autographed!

Alaska Railroad Depot – Fairbanks

The next morning, I rented a car for the one-way drive to Anchorage, via the spectacular Denali Highway. But that’s another story to be told.

Denali Highway

As I reflected on the amazing journey to the North Slope and the long gravel road from the shore of the Arctic Ocean, across the Brooks Range to Alaska’s second largest city, I had to marvel at the incredible numbers and variety of the wildlife I had seen along the Dalton Highway – the northernmost road in North America! It was a trip of a lifetime and one that I will not forget!

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Around the World in 12 Days – Los Angeles/Tokyo/Singapore/New Delhi/Zurich/Los Angeles

In February of 2000, I made another “Around the World” business trip, which began with a non-stop flight to Tokyo on Delta Airlines in their new Business Elite cabin. As I relaxed in my seat on the MD-11 aircraft, I enjoyed a chilled glass of champagne before takeoff. In the meantime, many other flights were delayed, due to a massive snowstorm in the Midwest and Northeast. After takeoff, I put on the Japanese slippers provided by Delta and ordered a cold gin and tonic as the plane began the 10 hour flight across the North Pacific. Lunch soon followed, beginning with a selection of sushi, along with a plate of smoked salmon and a tortilla filled with creamed spinach. Next came a fresh garden salad and the main dish of Maryland backfin crab cakes. I finished lunch with a nice selection of cheeses, accompanied by a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – fabulous!

Menu – Los Angeles to Tokyo

After lunch I watched a film titled “Flawless”, starring Robert DeNiro as an ex-cop who suffered a debilitating stroke and was befriended by a group of “drag queens” – very interesting story! After the film, sleep overtook me for several hours before landing at Narita Airport. I passed through Immigration and customs quickly, and then boarded a bus to downtown Tokyo.

Map of Central Tokyo

I had booked a room for two nights at the luxurious 5 star “Palace Hotel”, situated across the street from the Imperial Palace. As the bus made its way into the city, we passed Tokyo Disneyland, with the world’s largest “indoor” ski area! As the bus approached the city center, I noticed several large signs along the highway displaying the current traffic conditions for different routes. (Yellow for moderate traffic and Red for heavy) As the traffic suddenly came to a slow crawl, a “red” condition, a very pleasant, sweet female pre-recorded voice announced, “there is a traffic jam ahead, so we are going to take a detour”. Finally, we arrived at the hotel, and after checking in to a beautiful room on the top floor, with a commanding view of the Imperial Palace Gardens, I headed to the “Summit Lounge” for a cold glass of Sapporo beer.

View of the Imperial Palace Gardens
Palace Hotel Lobby

Meanwhile, at a table nearby, a group of Brits were talking about their trip to China the week before. The conversation centered on the topic of “exotic” Chinese food, especially monkey brains, as well as small live crabs that had to be smashed with a wooden hammer before they could be eaten – ie. they had to be killed first! Then I went to the hotel restaurant for a fabulous dinner that included lots of small dishes with fresh vegetables and varieties of seafood, all beautifully presented with small flowers and exotic garnishes.

The next day I bought a ticket on the famous “bullet train” (Shinkansen) to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. As I entered the huge Tokyo main station, I saw that all the platforms had clearly marked “lanes” for passengers to queue for boarding each car of the train – very organized!

Tokyo Main Station
Aboard the “Bullet Train”

The train to Kyoto departed precisely on time, was exceptionally clean, and an extremely smooth ride at 175mph. We arrived in Kyoto less than 2 ½ hours later, after making only two short stops, Yokohama and Nagoya. Once we were out of the dense urban area of Tokyo and the massive industrial port of Yokohama, I began seeing extensive fields of rice, dark forests and distant mountains shrouded in mist – a lovely pastoral scene. Further south the heavy dark clouds gave way to occasional sunshine. As the train approached Nagoya, it climbed into the foothills of a high mountain range, and suddenly entered a landscape covered with a thick blanket of fresh snow! Beyond Nagoya the snow gradually gave way to rice fields and forested hills. Along the journey I made note of some unusual advertising signs that used common English words in a strange way, such as:

  • “Pocari Sweat” (a sports drink)
  • “Yamamoto Mannequins”
  • “Foot Up Shoes”
  • “Nice Day Cards”

And besides the interesting signs, we passed lots of golf driving ranges everywhere! Eventually we arrived in Kyoto, and as I left the main station, I consulted my small map of the city and headed north toward the famous “Ni-Jo Palace”.

Map of Kyoto and my walking tour
“Ni-Jo Palace”

It was the ruling seat of the first Shogun to unify Japan centuries ago. I found the ancient palace to be a fascinating glimpse of 17th century Japan, during the height of the Samurai period, a very violent warrior society. That period of Japanese history ended when a powerful Shogun united all the feudal lords who had ruled their lands for hundreds of years, like tribal chiefs. The huge palace was a collection of many old interconnected wooden buildings, amid several beautiful gardens and surrounded by a deep moat.

Ni-Jo Palace – Main Gate
Ni-Jo Palace Gardens

Most of the palace rooms were simply furnished, built from warm Japanese Cypress wood, delicate bamboo, and with rice paper walls that were elaborately painted with beautiful scenes of tigers, exotic birds, and colorful flowers. The paintings were more than 400 years old, yet as bright and colorful as the day they were painted – amazing!

Inside Ni-Jo Palace
Ni-Jo Palace

Another fascinating feature of the palace was the “nightingale floor” – so named because it squeaked with the sound of the bird as one stepped on it, however so gently. It was designed that way to alert the Samurai guards of any intruders! Really clever, as well as having a beautiful, soothing sound.

Nearby was the “Higashi-Hoganji Temple”, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, and a spectacular example of the very best in Japanese woodworking craft from the 17th century. Every joint in the massive structure was held in place solely by huge wooden pins and complex carved joinery.

Higashi-Hoganji Temple
Higashi-Hoganji Temple
Map of the temple

Leaving my shoes at the base of the temple, I gently stepped into a huge room whose floor was covered by soft bamboo tatami mats and framed by walls of delicate rice paper wooden panels. The high ceiling was elaborately painted in gold relief – such a beautiful and peaceful place! As I left the main hall and stepped outside on to a massive wooden plank deck that surrounded the temple, I was almost overrun by a group of “pilgrims” rushing past me, chanting loudly and pushing white robes across the floor on their hands and knees! I speculated that it must have been some sort of religious ritual, and they seemed to be having a grand time “racing” each other!

Pilgrims in the temple

As I left the temple, the sun played tag with the clouds, and walking along Karasuma-Dori St, I seemed to hit every traffic light “out of step” and had to wait for the walk signal. Each time as I waited, I observed that the Japanese strictly obeyed the signals, even on the one lane, one-way streets no more than 6 feet across, despite the absence of any oncoming traffic! By the time I returned to the main station in Kyoto, I had walked about 10 miles in 5 hours around the city. But now it was time in the evening to board the bullet train back to Tokyo.

The following day, I changed hotels to a “business man’s hotel” which had been arranged by Esri Japan so as to be close to their office, in preparation for the training class I would conduct over the next few days for their staff. “Hotel Suave” was a small place directly beside a huge overhead expressway! I was lucky enough to get a room on the opposite side, though it had only one small opaque window – but there would not have been much to see outside anyway. The room was incredibly tiny, with a single bed, small desk, tiny closet, a TV mounted on the wall, and a self-contained bathroom made of one single piece of molded plastic!

Single Room – Hotel Suave

There was barely enough space in the shower to turn around. Outside the room, in the hallway, were a number of vending machines serving hot coffee, chilled sodas, cold beer, and small bottles of Japanese whiskey – probably the hotel’s “bar”. There was also a vending machine to dispense Pay-TV cards, which were required to watch the one and only English language channel, as well as a movie channel and two soft porn channels. Otherwise, the other 12 Japanese language channels were free to watch. So that evening I settled into the tiny room with a cold beer and a Pay-TV card!

During the next few days, I walked to the office along very narrow streets, passing small shops and traditional houses. On the first day I stopped at a local branch of Fuji Bank to change some money, and as soon as I stepped through the door, an old man came forward and assisted me with the whole transaction – he was the bank’s “concierge”. That evening, after class, I had dinner in the small hotel restaurant – a very nice meal of fresh scallops sautéed in marinara sauce, along with an ice-cold bottle of Kirin beer. The following evening, I joined three of the Esri Japan staff for dinner at a small, traditional noodle restaurant near the office, where we shared a huge bowl of rice noodles, spicy broth, fresh vegetables, onions, and thin sliced beef. It was hot and delicious on such a cold, windy night. As I walked back and forth every day between the hotel and the office, I noticed many people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves against the spread of germs. And during the class, I found out that most of the staff commuted at least 1 ½ hours each way by train, and judging by the staggering crowds at rush hour, it made me appreciate the leisurely 15 minute walk I had every day! And as for breakfast at the hotel, it was the same every morning – scrambled eggs, Vienna sausages, slices of boiled ham, and fresh sliced cucumber. Meanwhile, as I sat in the breakfast room, massive numbers of pedestrians and vehicles rushed by outside on the street. After class one evening, the staff invited me to join them for dinner at a very traditional Shabu-Shabu restaurant in the busy Shibuya district.

Shibuya District – Tokyo

We had a great time sitting around the table, each of us cooking our thin slices of Wagu beef in the huge pot of boiling water, along with fresh vegetables and “Glass” rice noodles – delicious! Later, the hot broth was mixed with thin egg noodles to make a fantastic soup. And the entire meal was washed down with lots of cold draft beer and small cups of warm Sake – really a fun evening!

At last came the final day of the training class, and to celebrate the occasion, we all went to a very small restaurant that specialized in dishes prepared with eel. We shared a large plate of grilled eel, served with bowls of steamed rice, several small vegetable dishes, and lots of cold beer! I found the grilled eel to be surprisingly delicious – delicate and sweet. Meanwhile, on the TV in the corner of the restaurant, was a Japanese game show in which contestants had 60 seconds to build a 3 story house of cards! No one was a winner that evening, but all of us in the restaurant had a fun time watching them. The following day, I grabbed my camera, consulted my map of Tokyo, and headed to a large park northwest of Shibuya train station. Yoyogi park is the site of the “Menjji Shrine”, dedicated to the first Shogun who united Japan.

Menjji Shrine

As I approached the enormous train station, a major junction of subway lines and the extensive Japan Railways Yamamote system, I encountered large crowds and huge neon signs, which are so typical of Tokyo. But once I was inside the park, the sights and sounds of the bustling city began to fade away. There were many food vendors with their carts surrounding the main entrance to the park, and surprisingly, I also saw a few elderly “bag people” (homeless) setting up their cardboard “houses” for the night. A broad path through huge old trees led me to the shrine, as the sun was beginning to set.

Yoyogi Park – Tokyo

As I stepped over the wooden threshold and into the large courtyard that surrounded the temple, several young monks dressed in white robes, scurried around attending to whatever duties young monks do. Meanwhile, people entered the temple and clapped their hands 3 times before offering prayers. Off to the right of the alter was an enormous drum that was probably beaten during important ceremonies and rituals.

Menjji Shrine
Ceremonial Drum – Menjji Shrine

I felt the whole temple had a sacred and peaceful atmosphere, even as recorded announcements informed us of the park’s closing. As I exited the park on the opposite side, I walked through dense woods into the fading daylight, past large flocks of ravens who had arrived to roost for the night, squawking loudly. And at the same time, the endless, muffled roar of the trains could be heard in the distance. The air became chilly and a soft breeze made its way through the trees, signaling the approach of the night. Once outside the park and back on the crowded streets of Shibuya, I watched countless commuter trains pass by, literally “jammed” with people, anxious to head home for the weekend! (definitely not the time for a tourist to be on the train)

Shibuya District

As I continued walking through Shibuya, I suddenly realized that I did not have enough cash for the taxi to the main train station or the bus to Narita airport in the morning! So it became necessary to try and use one of the multitude of cash dispensers (ATMs) on virtually every street corner. My first few attempts were totally unsuccessful – my credit card having been “spit out” with a nasty note stating that my transaction had not been accepted, despite the sign above the machine clearly indicating that Diners Club and American Express were “welcomed”! (as it turned out later, only the Japanese issued cards were accepted) Finally, at a “Cash Corner” machine, a kindly old gentleman on “guard duty” saw my dilemma and offered his help. He pointed to a small sign that showed the location of an ATM nearby that would accept my American Express credit card.

“Cash Corner” machine

He proceeded to give my profuse, explicit directions, none of which I understood. But fortunately, there was a map beneath the sign. So luckily, I was able to find the Fuji Bank cash machine that would accept my American Express card. But without realizing it, on my first attempt to withdraw cash, I had mistakenly entered 500,000 Yen ($5000 USD) – thankfully it didn’t go through! Having successfully withdrawn my money on the second try, I continued on my way back to Hotel Suave, along a narrow street beside the railway. I discovered a very interesting collection of “tiny” eating establishments, some of which could only seat 2 or 3 people. The street was beautifully illuminated by old traditional Japanese lanterns.

Narrow street in the evening

Eventually hunger caught up with me and I began a search for a place to have dinner. As I rounded a corner, just off a busy street in Shibuya, I spotted the “German Farm Grill”. I was intrigued by the name of the place and decided to check it out. What I found was a fascinating little restaurant with a menu printed in Japanese and German, soothing background music, and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Luckily, I could read much of the German side of the menu. Just after I sat down at a small table beside the fireplace, a tall black man came up and said “welcome man”! After I ordered the bratwurst and a glass of German beer, I asked him about the restaurant. As the story went, he and two other black American soldiers stationed in Japan fell in love with the country and decided to stay after leaving the military. And having also served in the US Army in Germany, they chose to open one of the very few German restaurants in Shibuya. The food was delicious and authentic, the atmosphere relaxing, while the chaos of traffic rushed by outside.

German Farm Grill – Shibuya

A small group of young Japanese came into the restaurant to celebrate a birthday with several rounds of champagne. The young man being honored had two severely deformed arms, perhaps resulting from exposure to Thalidomide. It was obvious they were having a really fun time. It was such a unique and fascinating place – a wonderful “discovery”. When I left the restaurant, it was full, whereas there had only been two other people when I had first arrived.

The next morning, when I checked out of Hotel Suave, the young desk clerk hailed a taxi for me. When I told her I wanted to go to the City Air Terminal, she gave me a strange look and said it would be very expensive. (as if there was anything in Tokyo that was cheap!) When the taxi arrived, she asked me if I was going to terminal 1 or 2? At that point I realized she must have thought I had meant Narita airport, which would have cost $250 – $300! So I had to make it very clear that I wanted to go to the “City Air Terminal”, from which I could take a bus to the airport, the cost being around $25! Once I arrived at the City Air Terminal, the check-in for the Singapore Airlines flight was very efficient, so that I could board the bus without having to drag my luggage along. There was even a place to complete the customs and immigration formalities before arriving at Narita Airport. Once at the airport, I spent some time in the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge before boarding the flight to Singapore. The lounge overlooked a gorgeous tropical garden with huge, colorful Japanese Carp swimming in a clear pool amid beautiful flowers. It was very peaceful and tranquil, with lots of tall, deep green ferns – like a small jungle in the middle of a busy airport!

Silver Kris Lounge – Narita Airport

Shortly after takeoff, lunch began with a delicious assortment of satay and spicy peanut sauce, followed by a small plate of sashimi and a fresh garden salad. Then came the main dish of pan fried giant prawns on a bed of Japanese noodles, accompanied by a chilled glass of French Chardonnay. Lunch service finished with a selection of cheeses and a glass of port – superb food and service!

Airline Menu – Tokyo to Singapore

The 7 hour flight was very smooth and relaxing as I listened to some New Age music. We landed in Singapore on time and I breezed through immigration and customs. During the taxi ride to downtown, the Indian driver gave me several recommendations for famous “fish head restaurants” in the Indian Quarter near the port. The name of the company was “Comfort Taxi” and posted on the dashboard was a sign that read – Caring, Observant, Mindful, Friendly, Obliging, Responsible, Tactful. Meanwhile, a local radio station played music by Buena Vista Social Club! Upon arriving at the Le Meridien Hotel on Orchard Road, I was very fortunate to be upgraded to a room on the President’s Club Level for having checked in using my American Express Platinum card.

Lobby – Le Meridien Hotel
Le Meridien Hotel

And I was just in time for the complimentary evening cocktails and appetizers in the club lounge. As I sat with a cold local Anchor beer, I watched the final match of the International Ping Pong Championship between China and Sweden – surprisingly won by Sweden!

The next morning, I grabbed my camera, slipped into my hiking boots, and headed to Fort Canning Park, an old British military site near the port. On the way, I passed the Presidential Palace, with its beautifully manicured tropical gardens and immaculately groomed deep green lawn – definitely off limits to tourists! I found that Fort Canning had a long history, dating from the 14th century, having been the royal residence of many Malay kings. Later in the 19th century, the British arrived and made their indelible mark on the fortress.

Fort Canning Park

As I hiked up and down the hills, I passed several groups of people engaged in various cultural activities, such as the Chinese in a Tai Chi class, Indian dancers practicing for a wedding, and some Malay pilgrims paying homage to the ancient tomb of a Malay king. Further along, near the old post headquarters building, I heard a group of local musicians rehearsing for a performance – banging large gongs and drums in a rhythmic beat. It was a beautiful sound to listen to, but I was never able to see them. Meanwhile, by this time of the day, I was totally soaked in sweat, with the temperature in the upper 90’s and the humidity near 100%! As I exited the park, I came to the central business district, where I spotted a lovely old turn of the century building on a street corner, surrounded on three sides by tall, modern skyscrapers. I decided to venture in for a look and I was rewarded with views of the beautiful restoration, and cool air conditioning! The gorgeous dark tropical woodwork was highly polished and the pure white marble floors were sparkling.

Downtown Singapore
Restored old building – Singapore

One entire floor was devoted to the “Pennsylvania Country Store” – an outlet for traditional Early American furniture. Then I walked to the nearest Metro station and rode the subway to Jurong East to visit the Singapore Science Center. The subway was very modern, efficient, and exceptionally clean – especially since chewing gum was forbidden on the subway and punishable by a hefty fine! Despite the sold out showing of the new “Fantasia 2000” film in the IMAX theatre at the Science Center, there was a fascinating exhibit on the history of the making of the original film, alongside with details of the production of the new digital version of the film. The exhibit included the computerized scenes of the digital version of the musical instruments in the animated orchestra – absolutely fascinating! Returning to the Metro station, I decided to take the longer, scenic route back to downtown. Essentially, the route “circled” the entire island (aka country), and along the way we passed vast complexes of high rise apartment buildings. At one station, four US Navy sailors, dressed in shorts and carrying backpacks, boarded the train – looking very much like they were on a mission to see Singapore. When I got back to the hotel that afternoon, I packed my bags and got a taxi to the airport, just before a tropical downpour hit the city.

View of Singapore from Le Meridien Hotel

Country music was playing on the radio as the taxi driver sped along the expressway, ignoring the speed limit. It meant that I had to listen to a very annoying “Ding Dong” speed limit warning alarm bell for the entire 30 minute trip! It went something like this – “on the (DING) wings of a (DONG) snow white (DING) dove … (DONG)” Finally we reached the airport, just before I reached the limit of my tolerance! Once on board the new Singapore Airlines Boeing 777, I settled in to a comfortable Business Class seat and ordered a cold Gin and tonic before takeoff. As the plane reached its cruising altitude, a superb dinner was served, beginning with a smoked salmon and sashimi appetizer, along with a crisp garden salad. Next came a small bowl of soba noodles, followed by the main dish of grilled tiger prawns, fried okra, and steamed rice. The dinner service concluded with a selection of international cheeses, fresh fruit, and a glass of Port. Later in the flight, chocolates, coffee, and Drambuie were served.

Airline Menu – Singapore to New Delhi

During the long 6 hour flight to New Delhi, I watched the “World’s Strongest Man Competition” on my personal entertainment device. The competition was won by a hulking brute from Finland for the third year in a row. I also had time to catch the conclusion of the film titled “Stir of Echoes”, which I had first started watching on the flight to Tokyo a few days before. Around midnight we landed on time in New Delhi, and then began the incredibly frustrating ordeal of the Indian immigration and customs process, where even the simplest of tasks often takes forever! It was particularly annoying when some people were “escorted” (shoved) into the long queue ahead of me, supposedly being “diplomats”! And as for the “machine readable” queue that I was standing in, there was no sign of a machine anywhere. Finally, after 45 minutes, I was close enough to be able to slap down my passport in front of an agonizingly slow, stone faced Immigration Officer, who painstakingly pawed through my passport, page by page. Then at last, he stamped it and I was allowed to enter the country. But then came another frustration, no luggage trolleys to be seen anywhere, nor any porters. So I dragged my bags through the crowd waiting outside the customs area and headed to the “pre-paid” taxi counter, where I had to fight my way to the front of another long queue to secure a voucher, which I surrendered to a taxi driver in the shadows. By this time, it was well past 2am as the taxi began the journey, amid lots of noise and confusion, to the Park Royal Hotel near Nehru Place. As the taxi bounced along the rough road in the dark of night, dodging an amazing array of bicycles, Tuk-Tuks, trucks, buses, pedestrians and cows, I felt as if it could almost be a plot for a film noir – “The eternal hell of an Indian taxi ride through the dark streets of New Delhi”, with no beginning and no end! At last my ordeal came to an end as I checked into a lovely room at the beautiful 5 star luxury Park Royal Hotel, which had been arranged by Esri-India.

Park Royal Hotel – New Delhi
View of New Delhi from Park Royal Hotel

The next morning, or more like later in the day, Dinesh from the Esri-India office picked me up and drove through the crowded, chaotic traffic to the new training facility. It was located in an old farm estate that had once been outside the city but was now surrounded by it. Besides the new, well equipped classrooms, there were residences for students travelling from distant parts of the country. The small cafeteria served simple, but very tasty vegetarian dishes, some of which were quite spicy.

Esri- India Training Facility

After class, I returned to the hotel, went down to the lobby bar, and ordered a large, cold Black Label Beer, a popular Indian beer brewed in Bangalore. As I sat in the bar, I finished transcribing the notes from my recent trip to Syria and Greece. Later in the evening, I went to the hotel coffee shop for a delicious dinner of chicken Tikka Masala, my favorite Indian dish. The following morning it was back to the training facility for another long day of lecturing and computer exercises for the Esri-India technical staff.

Students during a class break

Many of the students were young women, dressed in beautiful saris made from brilliantly colored silk. Lunch with the students in the cafeteria featured a very nice spicy potato dish, along with cold fresh yogurt. That evening, back at the hotel, I had another ice-cold bottle of Black Label beer as I wrote notes in my journal. For dinner I had a luscious south Indian chicken curry served in a thick, richly spiced tomato sauce. As I enjoyed dinner, I watched a large table of two Indian families, where all the men sat on one side and the women on the opposite side. Later, a young man and young woman rose from the table and strolled off together. I speculated that they were on a “date” and the two families were there as “chaperones”! Meanwhile, another group bearing gifts and flowers celebrated a birthday that included several versions of “Happy Birthday”. And at the same time, a large tourist group of Scandinavians “attacked” the enormous dinner buffet! It was all very fascinating to watch, almost as if it had been “staged” for my entertainment that evening.

Another day of training followed the next morning, which began with the usual chaotic, “white knuckle” drive through the crowded streets of New Delhi. That same evening, back at the hotel, I received an invitation to join the General Manager for cocktails in the Club Room, a beautiful old English style library. The GM was a large man from Austria, and we had a lively, fascinating conversation about our various travel experiences around the world. We also talked about President Bill Clinton’s upcoming trip to India and all the preparations being made for him in the hotel. Meanwhile, the Sheikh of Dubai was staying in the Presidential Suite, along with his large delegation. They were in New Delhi for an International Shooting Competition, and the Sheikh was the team captain. The GM was also proud of the new nightclub he had just opened in the hotel, especially now that it was the most popular venue in the city. Later, I finished the evening watching a fascinating video about the world famous Indian luxury train “Palace on Wheels”. The following morning, I joined Dinesh for another hair-raising ride to the training facility, the car radio having been tuned to a morning show that gave up to the minute traffic reports.

Negotiating New Delhi traffic

The reports included the average speed of the traffic, the presence or absence of “diversions”, and the maximum “stopping time” at major traffic lights! In between the traffic reports, a young female DJ spun the very latest American pop music. At the end of every traffic report, she gave a “driving lesson of the day”. And as we negotiated our way through the chaos, it was obvious that her driving lessons were having no impact on the traffic, judging by what I could see around me – or perhaps, Dinesh and I were the only ones on the road tuned in to the radio station? For the second day in a row, a very large, vicious looking yellow wasp continued to wander around the classroom. No one seemed to be concerned, nor in any hurry to find a way to get it out of the room. But I kept my eye on it as best as I could while I was teaching. However, at one point, as I was helping a student with a computer exercise, another student suddenly “flicked” the hair on the side of my head, chasing away the giant yellow beast that had just landed there! Fortunately, I was not aware of its presence, but I was almost sure it would still be in class the next day. Later that afternoon, the ride back to the hotel with Dinesh was a bit scary, with him “babbling” away about something of no importance, while huge, battered buses came screaming up beside us on both sides. As I look out the car window, all that I could see was a large bald tire, a crumpled fender, and a bus driver who looked as if he was “barely” in control of the speeding vehicle! At that moment, I had no choice but to place my trust in God and Dinesh! All the while, the cows rested sublimely on the narrow median separating the lanes of insane traffic. They just gave us a very nonchalant, casual glance – they must know more than I know! At last we arrived at the hotel and I retired to the lobby bar for a cold bottle of Taj Mahal beer. The bar was decorated in rich, dark tropical wood paneling, gorgeous oriental carpets, a huge stone fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and paintings depicting 18th century English country scenes – very much a classic English gentlemen’s club. Afterwards, I had a superb dinner of delicately spiced lamb curry and rice in the hotel coffee shop.

Park Royal Hotel garden

At last it was the final day of the training class, and when Dinesh picked me up in the morning, I had my camera with me, in an “attempt” to capture something of the indescribable, chaotic, insane traffic. But I found it hard to record the scene of hundreds of people on bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles, all positioned at the head of a long line of traffic stopped for a traffic light at a major intersection. Well before the light changed, they all began “creeping” forward, with bicycles first. And then all of a sudden, they were in the middle of the intersection, fighting their way through the cross traffic still passing through the intersection. And when the light changed, the rest of the traffic ”bolted” forward, clashing with the “stragglers” in the cross traffic, as well as the bicycles that had gotten a bit of a “head start”. It could only be described as “anarchy on wheels”! The head start was necessary for the cyclists, otherwise they would have been mowed down by the multitude of buses, trucks, Tuk-Tuks, and cars behind them. For the uninitiated, it was an absolutely crazy, insane scene, as all manner, size, and mode of transportation jostled and jockeyed for position in the center of the intersection. And in the midst of all the insanity, pedestrians darted in and out, while the cows sat peacefully on the side of the road, observing it all! My impression was of a modern Indian version of the ancient Roman Gladiator games. Later in the morning, during a short break in the class, I sat outside in the delightful, warm winter weather and watched a pair of beautiful, but noisy green parrots in the trees above me. Then I joined the class for lunch in the cafeteria for the last time before concluding the class. Though it had been an exhausting five days, the students were very engaged and appreciative. Later in the afternoon, on the way back to the hotel, once again we encountered the monotonous sounds of the traffic – horns of various tones and volume, incredibly loud mufflers (or maybe none at all) on the trucks and buses, all of which spewed out massive clouds of black, choking diesel smoke! And most disturbing of all, the continuous, eerie screeching of brakes from the old, battered, overcrowded buses as they came to a sudden, agonizing stop! The sound was like a tribe of screaming “banshees”. Every time I heard that awful sound, I couldn’t help but envision a spectacular and gruesome accident about to happen, but the same scene seemed to play out every day I was in New Delhi. And yet, it must be noted that during my entire time in New Delhi, I never saw an accident, just hundreds of “near misses”! That evening, as I sat in the hotel bar, the staff greeted me with “good evening sir, a Black Label?” Later, Rajesh and Dinesh joined me for dinner in the hotel’s “Dehuli Indian Restaurant” for a wonderful meal of grilled jumbo prawns smothered in delicious, spicy mango chutney. It was a delightful time of conversation and shared experiences that brought my time in India to a very pleasant conclusion. And for all the uncomfortable and frustrating times, there were just as many or more memorable and unforgettable times. Such is the “unique” experience of India!

Early the next morning, at 4:00am, I boarded the SwissAir flight to Bombay and onward to Zurich. There was a light meal of chicken jhatka and fish cake served on the way to Bombay, and before landing in Zurich, we were served an Indian breakfast of pancakes filled with masala, along with scrambled eggs and chicken shashlik.

Menu – New Delhi to Zurich
Swissair Business Class Lounge – Zurich Airport

In Zurich airport I had enough time to take a shower and have coffee in the Business Class Lounge before boarding the SwissAir flight to Los Angeles. Shortly after takeoff, lunch was served, beginning with smoked marlin and trout with horseradish sauce and red beet salad. For the main course I chose the grilled scallops and jumbo shrimp in a delicious Pernod cream Sauce, along with spinach and fennel.

Menu – Zurich to Los Angeles
Swissair Wine List

Nine hours and two movies later, we landed at LAX – twelve days after leaving home, I had travelled around the world again!

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Images of Tokyo

Shibuya District
Entrance to Yoyogi Park
Yoyogi Park
Old Tokyo

 

Images of Kyoto

Ni-Jo Palace
Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Modern Building in Old Kyoto
Ancient Cemetery – Ni-Jo Palace
Gardens of Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Traditional Rain Spout
Map of Ni-Jo Palace

 

Images of Singapore

Orchard Road

 

Images of New Delhi

Garden – Park Royal Hotel
Garden Fountain – Park Royal Hotel
Evening in New Delhi from Park Royal Hotel

Arkansas and Montana – From Little Rock to Yellowstone (part 2 of 2)

Having arrived from Little Rock the night before, I was eager to hit the road and explore the area around Bozeman. It was a beautiful, sunny morning with gorgeous views of the Bridger Range to the north of town.

Bridger Range – Bozeman

I stopped in Livingston to pick up a breakfast sandwich at Hardee’s, and written on their menu board was the following, “California Raisins Murdered! Cereal Killer Suspected – Heard it on the Grapevine!” Downtown was the historic old Northern Pacific Railroad depot, which used to be the main departure station for passengers going to Yellowstone National Park. Heading north from Livingston I cruised along US highway 89 at 75 mph, the legal speed limit in Montana, toward White Sulphur Springs, passing vast expanses of golden grassland.

On the way to White Sulphur Springs
White Sulphur Springs

At times, the landscape remained unchanged for so many miles, that it almost felt like I was standing still! Amid the grasslands were some huge irrigation systems that turned parts of the dry brown landscape into lush green fields of clover and wheat. Beyond White Sulphur Springs and the Little Belt Mountains, was the small ranching community of Townsend, dominated by tall, massive grain elevators beside the Burlington Northern Railroad mainline. Turning southwest, I came to the historic town of Three Forks, so named for being located at the confluence of three rivers (Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Madison) that gather together to form the mighty Missouri River.

Three Forks
Tobacco Root Mountains – Three Forks
Sacajawea Inn – Three Forks

In the center of town was a monument honoring Sacajawea, the Indian guide who lead Lewis and Clark to eventually discover the headwaters of the Missouri. Across the street from the monument was the grand old “Sacajawea Inn”, a hotel built by the Milwaukee Road Railway (Chicago, Milwaukee & Pacific Railroad) in the late 1800’s. The railroad abandoned Three Forks decades before, but the old hotel lived on. Just outside of town, I spotted a lot of people floating down the Madison and Jefferson rivers on everything from large rafts to inner tubes, basking in the warm late summer sunshine.

Floating down the Jefferson River

Not far from Three Forks, I discovered a small state park that had preserved the “Parker Homestead”, a lovely old log cabin that had been settled in the mid-1800’s and occupied until the early 1920’s. The old cabin was surrounded by huge Cottonwood trees and golden grassland – a stunning landscape!

Parker Homestead State Historic Park

Eventually, when evening approached, I headed back to Bozeman. As I sat in the lounge at the Holiday Inn, drinking a cold pint of local “Bayern Trout Slayer Ale”, I watched a fascinating PBS TV program about King Henry VIII – anywhere else I’m sure we would have been watching some sports channel. (the beer was promoted as “a bigger tale with every ale”) Later, I had a delicious dinner of Asian grilled chicken and steamed broccoli alfredo pasta in the hotel restaurant.

I awoke the next morning to another beautiful clear, warm, sunny day. After a hearty breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and headed southwest to the historic mining town of Virginia City, which at one time was the Territorial Capitol of Montana. A great many of the old original buildings from the 1800’s had been beautifully restored. I walked down the old wooden boardwalk that followed Alder Gulch, to “Boot Hill Cemetery”, the final resting place of many “road agents” (aka bandits)! At least now, they had a spectacular view of the entire valley below.

Virginia City
Boot Hill – Virginia City

From Virginia City, I continued up Alder Gulch to the old mining town of Nevada City, where there was an extensive collection of turn of the century locomotives and railroad cars from many historic railroads. They included The Great Northern, Montana Southern, Milwaukee Road, and the Florence & Cripple Creek, better known as “The Gold Beltline”. Many of the old passenger cars were open and still in their original condition – fascinating, like a walk through time. Nearby was a large display of old mining equipment, including a huge gold dredge that had mined gold from the local streams until well into the 1920’s. According to a historical monument, more than $80 million in gold was dredged in southwest Montana by 16 dredges, among them the largest in the world!

Old Railroad Cars – Nevada City
Steam Locomotive – Nevada City
Gold Dredge – Nevada City

Leaving the fascinating mining history of Virginia City and Nevada City, I headed south to the small ranching town of Ennis to pay a visit to the Madison Ranger Station where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on the Beaverhead National Forest. As I walked down Front Street, the scene looked very much the same as I remembered from 1968,especially the “Longbranch Saloon”. On the night of July 4th, 1968, I partied with my Forest Service colleagues and the local cowboys until the wee hours of the morning. And as I was leaving the saloon to head back to the bunkhouse, I happened to find a full set of false teeth lying on the bright red carpet in the men’s room. Later I discovered that they belonged to a summer employee named Lonnie from Yazoo City, Mississippi, who had no idea they were missing until he woke up with a hangover the next morning. It’s a story never to be forgotten! From Ennis, I drove south, following the beautiful Madison River, spectacular mountains rising thousands of feet on either side of the valley. I made a short stop at the Madison River Workstation , where I had spent the summer of 1968 working on a timber survey in the Gravelly Mountains, before being drafted into the Army at the end of the summer.

Madison River
Cliff Lake – Beaverhead National Forest
Abandoned Town of Cliff Lake – Madison County

From there, I drove over Targhee Pass to Henry’s Lake, Idaho, and then on to a rough gravel road up to the summit of the Centennial Mountains at Red Rock Pass, and back into Montana. The 70 mile long unpaved road took me through the heart of the spectacular Centennial Valley to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Centennial Valley Road
Centennial Mountains

The refuge was established in 1935, covering 76,000 acres of wetlands in the Centennial Valley to provide a breeding ground for wild birds and animals, in particular the endangered Trumpeter Swan. In 1932 there were fewer than 200 of the birds known to exist in North America. But due to the sustained efforts to save them from extinction, an estimated 3,000 swan were nesting on the refuge by 2002. It is the most remote of any refuge outside of Alaska, and has often been called the most beautiful in the country.

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Historically, the Monida – Yellowstone stagecoach line passed through the Centennial Valley in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, transporting over 10,000 passengers between the Union Pacific Railroad station in Monida and West Yellowstone. The grand era of stagecoach travel to Yellowstone National Park ended in 1917 when motor cars replaced the stagecoaches. These days, the old unpaved road still exists, but it sees very little traffic, as new and faster routes of travel to Yellowstone were developed.

Monida, Montana

In the middle of the beautiful warm day, I was suddenly aware of a problem with the new Ford Excursion – a flat tire! And here I was, 30 miles from the nearest town and I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road the entire time. So as the swans watched me, I began the task of changing the tire, in the middle of the road. (note: there was absolutely no danger from oncoming traffic!) Back on the road again, I drove to Dillon, the next town, and the county seat of Beaverhead County. (On a side note, Beaverhead County is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, yet there are less than 9,000 people in the county – that’s less than 2 people per square mile!) The town was also home to the University of Montana Western, founded in 1893 as Montana State Normal College. I checked in to the new Guesthouse Suites Hotel on the edge of town and then dropped off my flat tire for repair at the nearby tire shop. By now it was time for dinner, so I walked downtown to the “Longhorn Saloon”, still very much an old cowboy bar where the steaks were legendary – as was the clientele! Later that evening, I sat on my balcony, as the fresh fragrance of sagebrush was carried on the cool evening breeze. The soft sound of crickets filled the air, as well as the distant howling of the Coyotes – a most pleasant night.

The next morning, I was up early, and the hotel’s breakfast of hot biscuits and sausage gravy prepared me well for the day. I picked up my tire at “Marv’s OK Tire Shop”, bought some provisions at the local Safeway, and then fueled up at the Exxon station. Before leaving Dillon, I took a look at the university campus, where many of the old Victorian era red brick buildings had been beautifully restored.

University of Montana Western – Dillon

Then I headed northwest on state highway 278, up a long steep grade into the heart of the rugged Pioneer Mountains – a gorgeous landscape of lush green valleys, Ponderosa Pine forest, and old ranches, in the shadow of towering peaks. Along the way, I came to the historic “Elkhorn Hot Springs” at an elevation of 7500 feet, with a huge swimming pool fed by the hot springs.

Pioneer Mountains
Pioneer Mountains

Several miles north of the hot springs, I spotted a small sign pointing the way to the old ghost town of Coolidge, so I decided to investigate. After a long five mile drive on a rough, narrow, winding unpaved road, and another mile and a half on foot, I finally reached the old mining town. At one time, as late as the 1930’s, it had a population of several thousand, but these days, nothing remained except for a couple dozen old wooden buildings and log cabins, slowly crumbling under the weight of many winters’ snow.

Remains of Old Mill – Coolidge

In 1917, one of the world’s last narrow gauge railroads, the Montana Southern, was built from Coolidge, 40 miles down to the town of Divide, where it joined with a railhead of the Union Pacific Railroad. A post office was established in 1922, and later that year, construction of a new mill was completed at a cost of over $1 million, including a huge 65,000 volt power line from the town of Divide. The mill became the largest in Montana and had the capacity to process 750 tons of ore per day! However, by that time, silver prices plummeted as the nations’ economy took a downturn. As a result, mining operations were being shutdown, and the mill never approached its full capacity. Then in 1927, twelve miles of the railroad, including several bridges, were washed out by the failure of the Wise River Dam. The disaster spelled the doom of the mill, as well as the town. Since then, the old mill had collapsed, though the Forest Service apparently had plans to reconstruct is as a historical exhibit. There were several displays of historical information, and I was able to follow the old railroad roadbed for almost a half mile before it disappeared into the forest. Back on the main highway again, I drove down to the small town of Wise River, where there were several rafts of fly fishermen floating lazily down the Big Hole River, in their quest for legendary Golden Trout.

Big Hole River
Big Hole Valley
Big Hole Valley and the Bitterroot Range

From Wise River, I drove up the Big Hole Valley to the town of Wisdom, which just happened to have had the nation’s lowest temperature the night before (36 degrees), but now, in the mid-afternoon, it was a comfortable 85 degrees! As I continued south up the Big Hole Valley, in the shadow of the rugged Bitterroot Range, I saw massive amounts of hay being harvested, much of it still being stored in traditional tall haystacks. Historically, the Big Hole Valley has been known as “The Valley of 10,000 Haystacks”! Further south, I came to the tiny community of Jackson, best known for the beautiful Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, and a popular center for winter sports. Then I turned southeast to Bannack State Historic Park, the location of Montana’s first Territorial Capitol. I spent some time exploring the old ghost town that had remained virtually unchanged since I first visited it the summer of 1966. Bannack was founded in 1862 and named for the local Bannock tribe. It was the site of a major gold discovery that same year, and served as the Territorial Capitol briefly in 1864, until the capitol was moved to Virginia City.

Main Street – Bannack
Masonic Hall – Bannack

At the height of the mining activity, it had a population of nearly 10,000. Though it was very remote, connected to the rest of the world only by the primitive Montana Trail, there were three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, restaurant, billiards hall, brewery, and of most importance to the locals, four saloons! The majority of the buildings were log structures, but a few of the more important buildings were built of red brick. As I walked down the unpaved main street, many of the old buildings were open, including the Masonic Hall and the schoolhouse, which was strangely eerie, as if the students had just left for summer vacation!

Schoolhouse – Bannack

Another fascinating building that I hadn’t seen inside before was the elegant Hotel Meade, which had served as the State House when Bannack was the Territorial Capitol. As I entered the old hotel lobby, with its grand wooden staircase and magnificent wall safe, I experienced a very eerie feeling, as if the walls had many ghost stories to tell, if only I had the time to spend with them. I climbed the old staircase and looked into some of the hotel rooms, all of which had ceilings at least 18 – 20 feet high, but I failed to find a room that could be called a bathroom or toilet – perhaps that was another building out back!

Hotel Meade – Bannack
Lobby – Hotel Meade
Bannack

All in all, Bannack was truly the most “authentic” ghost town I’ve ever encountered – the epitome of the “Old West”. Some of the most infamous Bannack history involved Henry Plummer, the town’s Sheriff in the early 1860’s. He was accused of secretly leading a ruthless gang of “road agents” (aka bandits), that people claimed was responsible for over a hundred robberies and murders throughout southwestern Montana. (Modern historians have called into question this account of Plummer’s gang) In January of 1864, Sheriff Plummer and his compatriots, both deputies, were hanged without a trial – typical of vigilante justice in the old west! Leaving Bannack, I drove south through the vast expanse of the “Cross Ranch”, passing beautiful golden wheat fields and deep green fields of hay. Then I came to the little town of Grant and the junction with the road from Clark Canyon Dam. As I passed through the little town, there were a few more buildings that I remembered from 1966, but it was still a sleepy “one horse” town, despite the one and only motel having been renamed the “Horse Prairie Hilton”! I head west from Grant 20 miles to the junction with the Forest Service road to Reservoir Lake Campground, a narrow, very rough, twisting dirt road. It was a very long 18 miles of rough road at 15 – 20 mph before I reached the campground, and as soon as it came into view, the surrounding landscape began to jog my memory of the summer of 1966.

On the way to Reservoir Lake Campground

The sight of the old split rail fence on the edge of the campground was an especially poignant memory of the long days I had spent “debarking” the Lodgepole Pine rails. As evening approached, I began looking for a nice spot to camp for the night. But before doing so, I decided to pay a visit to “Bloody Dick Guard Station” across the creek from the campground. As I approached the old cabin, deep in the forest, memories of my time living there came flooding back.

Bloody Dick Guard Station
Inside Bloody Dick cabin

The old cabin looked very much the same as in 1966, except for a new roof over the small porch. I peeked in the windows and things looked just as if I had left them 37 years before, even the old army style bunkbeds, the old propane gas cookstove, and the kerosene lantern on the kitchen table. Even after almost four decades, electricity had still not found its way to the cabin! Just a few yards away was the spring where I used to fill my water bucket by dipping from the open wooden trough – carefully avoiding the frogs! After a sufficiently long period of reminiscing and some photos, I left the guard station and found a lovely grassy spot under the pine trees beside Bloody Dick Creek to camp for the night.

Camped on Bloody Dick Creek

As evening descended on southwestern Montana, I sat on a log, sipped a cold “Old Faithful Ale” and enjoyed the quiet solitude of a cool summer night, not far from where Lewis and Clark probably camped the day before they crossed the Continental Divide over Lemhi Pass. From there they first discovered the “waters of the Pacific”. Slowly, the daylight faded, the air cooled, and the frogs and crickets began their nightly serenade. Then suddenly, a young mule deer buck jumped out from the brush and dashed into the forest, just a few yards from me. Later, I woke up around 2am and was amazed to see an absolutely spectacular black night sky, filled with billions upon billions of stars and the most beautiful view of the Milky Way Galaxy I had ever seen! (note: there was definitely no light pollution anywhere within a hundred miles) It was a night never to forget!

The next morning, I was up early in the chilly air (39 degrees), dressed quickly, and had a cinnamon oatmeal bar for breakfast. Then I headed back to the campground to find the trail leading to the summit of Selway Mountain and the old fire lookout tower where I had lived for eight weeks in the summer of 1966. After searching around the shore of the lake for a while, I finally found the trail, now just a faint “track” through the sagebrush. It wasn’t long before it turned into a very steep, unmaintained trail through the dense Lodgepole Pine forest – a lot steeper than I remembered, but I was surely in better shape 37 years ago! It was a long five and half miles, 3000 feet up the side of the mountain, and as I climbed along the ridge, the trees became shorter, until the landscape eventually became very rocky and pretty much just alpine tundra.

View of Selway Mountain from Reservoir Lake Campground
Trail to Selway Mountain

When I reached the 9,000 foot summit, many fond memories of my life on the old lookout tower flooded my mind. As I looked around, everything seemed just as I remembered it 37 years ago, except for one thing – my beloved old wooden tower was no longer there! It was in 1942 that the Forest Service built the 50 foot-high wooden tower on the 9,000 foot summit of Selway Mountain. It was staffed intermittently for 29 years, as needed during seasons of high fire danger. Finally, in 1976, it was demolished and burned, having been abandoned, along with a majority of the lookout towers , when the Forest Service began relying on aircraft for spotting fires.

Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966
Selway Mountain Lookout Tower following snowstorm – August 1966
View from Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966
Charred remains of Selway Mountain Lookout Tower

Views from the summit extended 360 degrees, from the Pioneer Mountains 50 miles to the northeast, across the Big Hole Valley to the Anaconda-Pintler Range 70 miles to the north, the Bitteroot Range on the Montana-Idaho border, and 100 miles west to the jagged Lemhi Range in Idaho. Standing on the summit, it was easy to see why the Forest Service chose it for the site of a fire lookout tower – with wide vistas of southwest Montana.

View from the summit of Selway Mountain – Reservoir Lake below
Storm at sunset on Selway Mountain Lookout Tower – Summer 1966

All that remained of the tower were some charred pieces, and I scavenged a few “memoirs” – bits of glass, a small piece of the wooden door frame, and a steel latch bolt from the door. As I surveyed the scene, views of the distant mountains were once again familiar to me, but now, all that remained of the tower were memories that I will cherish forever. Living alone for eight weeks on top of the highest mountain around, in a 12 ft by 12 ft room, surrounded by large windows, with no electricity or running water, and only a wood cookstove, was one the best experiences of my life. Despite the basic facilities, I remembered the daily activities of chopping wood for the stove, hiking half a mile down the mountain to get water from a spring, listening to scores of radio stations throughout the country late in the evening, and reading a collection of old Life Magazines from the 1940’s that someone long before me had left in the tower. I had six visitors all summer, five of them on one day, but I was far from lonely. Another fond memory was the discovery of a copy of the “Lookout Cookbook” from 1954.

The recipes in the book were compiled by Forest Service wives and were designed to use primarily canned and dried foods, since few, if any Montana lookout towers in 1954 had any electricity or means of refrigeration. The variety of recipes was quite extensive and occupied over 60 pages. There were recipes for everything from breads, pies, and cakes to various meat dishes, soups, and sauces, as well as recipes for using leftovers. Included in the 75 page book were explanations of cooking terms, definitions of weights and measurements, guidelines for meal planning, and “helpful hints”. One of the most useful hints involved a technique for determining the oven temperature of a wood burning cook stove, without a thermometer. Instructions: set a flat pan sprinkled with flour in the oven for five minutes. If it becomes a delicate brown, the oven is “slow” [250 – 300]. If the flour turns a golden brown, the oven is “moderate” [350 – 400]. And a deep, dark brown means the oven is “hot” [400-450]. Of course, the next step was to try and “adjust” the temperature of the oven by adding or removing wood – easier said than done! Another helpful hint was “don’t put macaroni in cold water and allow to start cooking, because it will stick”. Then there was “tough meat may be made tender by pounding, slow cooking, or laying it in vinegar water”. And finally, this one was pretty important at times – “to get rid of ants, place lumps of camphor in their runways and near sweets infested with them”. Among the most unique and unusual dishes in the book was something known as “shipwreck”, a hearty stew of onions, potatoes, celery, canned meat, canned tomatoes, canned beans, and whatever spices and seasonings were on hand! Another popular dish was “scrapple”, a fried mixture of bacon, corn meal, onions, salt and pepper. The vast majority of recipes were for simple, traditional comfort food, and tailored to meals for one or two people. Since food supplies were delivered to the tower only every six weeks, one couldn’t just run down to the local grocery store if an ingredient was needed at the last minute!

After an appropriate time of remembrance on the summit, I began the long descent down the trail to the lake, and more adventures following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. From Reservoir Lake campground, I drove back down the rough gravel road and then west up to the summit of Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide, where I found a beautiful, historic site that commemorated the discovery by Lewis and Clark of the “headwaters” of the Missouri River in the summer of 1805. But in reality, it was a small spring just a hundred yards below the pass, and barely wide enough to step across!

Lemhi Pass – Continental Divide
Western most source of the Missouri River

While it’s not the most distant source of the Missouri, it is certainly the westernmost. (The most distant source is a spring in the Centennial Valley below Red Rock Pass far to the east.) Upon reaching the summit of Lemhi Pass, I encountered a “living history” member of the National Park Service, dressed in clothing of the early 1800’s. He told me about the life and times of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they looked out to the west and discovered the waters that flowed to the Pacific Ocean – fascinating stories!

The 7,400 foot-high pass in the Beaverhead Mountains, part of the Bitterroot Range, gained importance in the 18th century when the local Shoshone tribe acquired horses and used the route to travel between the two main regions of their homeland, the present day states of Montana and Idaho. From the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, until the Oregon Treaty with England in 1846, the pass marked the western boundary of the United States. When Lewis and Clark crossed the pass in August of 1805, they were the first white men to see present day Idaho. For many years it was known as “North Pass”, to distinguish it from “South Pass” in Wyoming. Its present name was derived from nearby Fort Lemhi, established by Mormon missionaries in 1855. During the mining era of the late 1800’s, the pass was used by stagecoaches, but the route was later abandoned in 1910 when the “Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad” laid track through nearby Bannock Pass to the south. However, the single-track dirt road across the pass still exists today, in much the same condition as in the past.

Meanwhile, modern heavy equipment worked nearby, maintaining the old road. Later, I descended the very steep mountain road to the tiny Native American village of Agency Creek, on the banks of the Lemhi River. Then I joined Idaho state highway 28 north to the small one store town of Tendoy, Idaho, near the historic site where Sacajawea was reunited with her brother, a chief of the local Shoshone tribe. (She had been captured by the Blackfeet nation several years earlier while on a buffalo hunt in Montana) As I continued north toward Salmon, Idaho, I stopped frequently to view the numerous historic exhibits recalling the experiences of Lewis and Clark, as well as the sad tale of the Nezperce tribe as they were forced from their homeland by the US Army in the late 1800’s. (Although they avoided capture for several years, they finally ended up being herded on to a reservation in Northeastern Washington state, far from their ancestral home.) All along the highway, I passed many large ranches harvesting immense fields of hay, in much the same manner as the ranchers in the Big Hole Valley on the other side of the rugged Bitterroot Mountains.

Salmon River – Idaho
Valley near Salmon, Idaho

As I entered the town of Salmon, I discovered a really nice, new brewpub called “Bertrams”, which surprised me, being in such a small town, a hundred miles from the next largest town. I ordered a cold pint of their Pale Ale and a Monte Cristo sandwich (turkey, ham, and cheese on grilled egg battered bread) It was huge and came with a large garden salad of fresh greens and Huckleberry vinaigrette dressing – absolutely superb! As I pulled out of town and continued north, the temperature sign on the Idaho State Bank read a blistering 106 degrees – and yes, it felt hot! Further on, as I approached Lost Trail Pass, I encountered a Forest Service roadblock, due to several forest fires burning in the Bitterroot National Forest. It meant that all traffic had to follow a pilot car for more than 14 miles to the Idaho/Montana border. Once over the pass, the Bitterroot Valley was pretty much filled with smoke from the fires, and at times it blocked out the sun, almost turning day into night. At the small town of Granitesville, Montana I turned east on Forest Service road #38, up to Skahalko Pass, on my way to the copper capitol of Anaconda. Along the way, through lush pine forest of the Deerlodge National Forest, I suddenly came upon a couple of old bikers who were obviously in need of help. Their huge Harley and its trailer had slid off the road, most likely a result of the rough gravel. It was sitting at an awkward angle on the steep slope, and almost into the trees. The old grey bearded biker and his “mama” were unable to push the heavy bike up the slope and get it upright on the road again. So, I stopped to lend a hand, easier said than done – that bike was very heavy! (There was no way the two of them could have gotten it back on the road) Looking back on the situation, I was one of the very few vehicles on the road, so who knows how long they would have had to wait for help! Later in the afternoon, as I approached the old mining town of Anaconda, the landscape suddenly became treeless, a result of decades of disastrous effects from huge copper smelting operations. And strangely enough, several miles before entering the old town, the speed limit suddenly dropped from 75mph to 35mph, for no apparent reason, especially since I was almost alone on the highway! Once I got into the old town, I found it to be almost a “living” ghost town, with scores of empty, deserted buildings and houses. Yet evidence was everywhere that pointed to the importance of the town many decades earlier. Now it was only a lonely memory clinging to life – so sad to see. As I headed east out of town, I saw a gorgeous sunset behind me and the dark silhouette of the world’s tallest smokestack, clearly outlined against the deep orange glow of the sun! A short time later, I pulled into Butte and found a nice Red Lion Inn for the night.

Anaconda smokestack at sunset

The following morning, I visited the historic “Uptown District” of the city, where some of the beautiful old stone and red brick buildings were being faithfully restored. Basically, the whole town sat on a high hill, barren of any trees, and studded with the rusting remains of old, abandoned “headrigs” marking the site of dozens of old copper mine shafts. The city was also surrounded by massive open pit mines – needless to say, not a very scenic location. And yet, beautiful old Victorian houses from the 1800’s were scattered among crumbling old mining shacks – what a contrast! It had the appearance of an overgrown mining camp.

Butte, Montana
Victorian home – Butte
Elegant 19th century mansion – Butte

Among the most significant historic sites in Butte were three old railway stations that had been beautifully preserved from the era of elegant passenger rail travel.  (Great Northern RR, Northern Pacific RR, Milwaukee Road RR) Another fascinating site of historical importance was the “World Museum of Mining”, an authentic re-creation of an old mining camp from the turn of the century, with lots of old mining equipment. It was located on the site of the recently closed “Orphan Girl Mine” – a real “gem” in Butte and well worth a visit.

Great Northern Railway Station – Butte
Old mine “headrig” – Butte
“Orphan Girl Mine” – Butte
Museum of Mining – Butte

Later, as I headed south out of town, I saw a huge roadside billboard promoting “Evil Knieval Daze”, a local festival honoring their hometown son. Then, I drove down to Dillon and made a short stop at the Dillon Ranger Station to enquire about the story behind the demolition of Selway Mountain Lookout. But there was no one now working at the station who was around at that time, so they had no information to share, sad to say. Several miles south of Dillon, I turned on to a narrow, winding gravel road leading up Medicine Lodge Creek and down Big Sheep Creek. It was a beautiful, but lonely drive, with spectacular views of the rugged Centennial Mountains.

Medicine Lodge Creek Road
Medicine Lodge Creek
National Sheep Research Station – Dubois, Idaho

Eventually the road lead me over Bannock Pass and the Continental Divide once again, to the small town of Dubois, Idaho – home of the National Sheep Research Station. East of Dubois was the lovely resort town of Island Park, on the shore of Henry’s Lake, in the shadow of the magnificent Teton Mountains. After a short stop for photos, I headed north over Targhee Pass (and the Continental Divide once more) toward West Yellowstone, Montana. The highway followed the shoreline of Hebgen Lake, which was formed over 50 years earlier as a result of an enormous earthquake that dammed the Madison River. A few miles from West Yellowstone, I saw a sign for cabins at the Bar N Ranch, so I decided to investigate lodging for the night. What I discovered was a huge, gorgeous log ranch house, along with a half dozen rustic log cabins along the shore of a small lake. An old cowboy showed me one of the cabins, beautifully furnished with Southwest Indian artwork – perfect for the night.

Bar-N-Ranch – West Yellowstone, Montana
My Cabin at Bar-N-Ranch
Inside my Cabin

However, the ranch did not accept payment by credit card, so I had to drive 6 miles into West Yellowstone to get cash from an ATM. (But it was definitely worth it) The next day I went into Yellowstone National Park and hiked part of the North Rim Trail above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The views of Upper Yellowstone Falls were nothing less than spectacular!

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Upper Yellowstone Falls – Yellowstone National Park

Then, as I drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs, I saw an abundance of wildlife – Elk, Bison, Osprey, Eagle, Whooping Crane, Black Bear, and Marmot. The days were very warm (85 – 90 degrees), but nights were quite cool (38 – 40 degrees).

Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs

The sight of Mammoth Hot Springs was absolutely incredible, with the waters being every color of the rainbow! (“spectacular” hardly did them justice!) The site is actually a large complex of many hot springs that were created over thousands of years as the hot water cooled and deposited calcium carbonate, at a rate of two tons per day! The source of the hot water, several thousand feet below the surface, travels to the surface via a major fault line that runs through a massive layer of limestone. The superheated water emerges at a temperature of around 170 degrees. Along the edges of the hot pools, various species of algae flourish, tinting the water brilliant colors of brown, orange, red, blue, and green. Over millennia, as the thermal source of the springs slowly migrated north, the deposits of calcium carbonate formed travertine terraces, one of the most striking features of Mammoth Hot Springs! As evening approached, I headed back to my cabin at the Bar N Ranch, and sat outside on the patio overlooking the lake, with a cold glass of local Yellowstone Pale Ale. The night sky was filled with billions of stars and the Milky Way, as a beautiful “Harvest Moon” slowly rose above the Madison Mountains to the north.

Sunset on the lake with Madison Mountains beyond
View from my Cabin

As I sat quietly, the distant sound of Whooping Cranes reached my ear, and at the same time, I suddenly became aware of something “swooping” past me in the night. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was being surrounded by bats as they were feeding on flying insects around the lake! Later, I saw hundreds of swallows nesting in the eaves of the lodge – they also helped control the mosquito population around the lake. The next morning, I had a huge “cowboy breakfast” in the lodge before heading back to Bozeman airport for my return flight home. It was a lovely drive following the Gallatin River under bright, sunny skies and surrounded by rugged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains. There were lots of fly fishermen trying their luck to land a large Golden Trout, for which the rivers of Southwest Montana are justly famous. I had time to pay a short visit to the Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks, Montana. In July of 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the site on their historic journey to find the source of the Missouri River. They were very likely the first white men to enter the region.

Missouri Headwaters State Park – Three Forks

Faced with the junction of three different rivers, they were uncertain as to which of the “forks” to follow. But after some discussion, they decided to explore the southwestern most branch, known to the Shoshone tribe as the “Beaverhead River”. Eventually it would lead them to a small spring near Lemhi Pass on the Continental Divide. Later, their decision not to name the Beaverhead River the Missouri, raised debate about which was the longest river in North America. Although the Missouri and Mississippi were almost identical in length, the Mississippi was a few miles longer. Had the Beaverhead River been named the Missouri, it would have won the debate! Ironically, Lewis and Clark thought they had discovered the ultimate source of the Missouri below Lemhi Pass, but they had only discovered the western most point. The most distant source was actually much further east at the headwaters of the Red Rock River, around 8,000 feet elevation in the Centennial Mountains of southwestern Montana.

From the state park, I drove to the Bozeman airport and checked in for the Delta flight to Salt Lake City and onward to Ontario airport. As I reclined in my First Class seat and sipped a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, I looked back on two weeks of fun and adventure in two very different and unique regions of America. I returned home with a wealth of fascinating travel stories and amazing photos to share with family and friends. Such is the lure and pleasure of travel that I enjoy so much! And I hope you have enjoyed the trip with me.

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Arkansas and Montana – From Little Rock to Yellowstone (part 1 of 2)

Following another successful User Conference in July of 2003, I embarked on my annual post-conference vacation. This year I decided to combine a visit to Arkansas, a state which I had only seen on the map, with a trip back to one of my favorite places in the country, southwestern Montana. My journey began with a 5:00 am limo ride to Ontario Airport for a 6:30 am flight to Salt Lake City. My driver, Keith, drove the almost empty freeway at 85 – 90 mph, and he was very proud of the fact that his 1998 Lincoln Town Car had over 533,000 miles on it, with no major breakdowns. Despite the fact, that I arrived at the airport over an hour before departure, the lines for baggage check and security were incredibly long and slow, due mainly to a large tour group traveling to Seattle to join an Alaskan cruise. I ended up getting to the gate with only five minutes to spare! From Salt Lake, I flew to Dallas and along the way, enjoyed a delicious cold plate lunch of grilled chicken, Portobello mushroom, eggplant, and pasta. I spent four hours in the Delta Airlines Crown Room at DFW before boarding the flight to Little Rock. As it turned out, the flight was seriously overbooked, so I volunteered to take an American Airlines flight an hour later for $200 in compensation. (Ironically, the American flight was also overbooked, but this time I did not volunteer!)

Welcome to Arkansas

After arriving in Little Rock, I picked up a rental car and headed downtown to find the historic “Capitol Hotel”. After searching high and low along the full length of West Markham Street, I was surprised to discover that the street suddenly became 3rd Street for 2 blocks, before returning to West Markham Street a block further north! But when I finally arrived at the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful, old late 1800’s pink granite building – classic splendor!

Capitol Hotel lobby

By this time, dinner called and I went to the Capitol Bar and Grill, wonderfully preserved in the elegant style of 1880. My server highly recommended the grilled pork tenderloin au poivre, served with a brandy demi-glaze, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh steamed local vegetables. Dinner was absolutely excellent, along with a cold pint of local “Boulevard Pale Ale”!

I was up early the next morning to visit the Arkansas State Historical Museum, which included a guided tour of three original houses from the early 1800’s.

Arkansas State Historical Museum
Little Rock Railroad Station

The first house had also been the first printing shop west of the Mississippi. As we entered the old house, we encountered a large, young black slave, bound in chains. He asked why we had come, since his master was not at home. Then he told us the story of his escape and subsequent capture, following the printing of a notice offering a $50 reward for his return. (He also read the notice to us!) In reality, he turned out to be a local actor who had just received an invitation to join the company of the musical “Chicago” – in Chicago! He was very excited – it was a role far removed from that of his “living history” role in the museum. Then he explained that in the old print shop, the “capitol” letters were stored in the upper wooden cases and the small letters were stored in the lower wooden cases – hence, the origin of “uppercase” and “lowercase” on our computers today! In the merchant’s house next door, our guide explained the origin of the traditional children’s game called “Pop goes the Weasel”. In the past, the task of rolling up a skein of wool on the spinning wheel was given to the children. It took 40 revolutions of the wheel to make one skein. But since the children often lost track of counting as the wheel spun, a wooden “counter” was installed that made a popping sound when the wheel had turned 40 times. And being that the spinning wheel was known as the “weasel”, the sound of the counter became “Pop goes the Weasel”! As we entered the third house, our guide pointed out a large mirror built into an old wooden coat rack in the hallway. The bottom of the mirror sat just 6 inches above the floor. Then she explained the purpose of the mirror, which enabled women to check their feet before leaving the house, to ensure that their petticoats were long enough to cover their ankles – hence the origin of the phrase “Mind your P’s and Q’s”! Later in the afternoon, I encountered the ban on sales of alcohol on Sundays in Arkansas, even though the supermarket shelves were fully stocked! And to make the issue even more strange, exceptions were made for restaurants and hotel room service, but not bars! That evening, I dined in the Capitol Hotel, and once again enjoyed a fantastic dinner. I began with a bowl of delicious “five onion soup” topped with melted Gouda cheese, followed by the “Asian Special” – thin strips of beef, grilled shrimp, and filet of Grouper in a light, flaky pastry shell, along with a savory Teriyaki ginger sauce, white rice, and steamed vegetables. It was fabulous, and not what I expected to find in Arkansas ! Back in my hotel room, as I watched the local TV channel, an advertisement aired for a furniture store in Fort Smith. The store owner came on the screen to promote his special deals and ended with the line “… and you’ll have more fun here than a fat man locked in a donut shop!” Doesn’t get much more “local” than that.

Pine Bluff – Downtown

The next day I checked out of the hotel and drove southeast to Pine Bluff where I discovered the Arkansas State Railroad Museum and the “Gilford Wheel Services  Company” that repaired and resurfaced railroad car wheels for many private railroad car owners across the country. The large museum occupied the former “Cotton Belt” railroad (St Louis & Southwestern Railroad) yard and maintenance shops, which had closed in 1992. The museum was most famous for having the last steam locomotive built by the “Cotton Belt” in 1943 and restored to operation in 1986. The old repair shops had preserved the massive overhead cranes and tools used for servicing heavy railroad cars and equipment, including a huge transfer table that was used to move the massive steam locomotives around the shops.

Arkansas Railroad Museum

In addition to more than 50 vintage locomotives and railroad cars, there was a very interesting exhibit about the origin of the Cotton Belt Railroad. It had begun as a small short line railroad in Tyler, Texas in 1877, and eventually gobbled up over 17 other small railroads in eastern Texas, northern Arkansas and southern Missouri before being taken over by the Southern Pacific Railroad. From the railroad museum, I drove downtown and discovered a fascinating collection of 12 huge murals depicting the history of the town and the surrounding region. There were beautiful, colorful painted scenes of activity on the riverfront during the late 1800’s, a view of the Main Street from 1888, and a scene from the history of the timber industry. But the most unusual and fascinating mural was that of native son and filmmaker Freeman Owens, who changed the movie making industry forever when he perfected the process of putting sound on film for the Eastman Kodak company.

Pine Bluff Mural – Main Street
Pine Bluff Mural – Cotton Belt Railroad
Pine Bluff Mural – Freeman Owens

A historical monument near the Jefferson County Courthouse detailed the story of the old town when it was a thriving port on the Arkansas River, which saw large steamships transporting cotton and rice downriver to New Orleans. But today, those shipments go by rail and the old port is just a faded memory preserved by one of the large murals. From Pine Bluff, I headed north to Stuttgart, Augusta, and Batesville, passing huge fields of rice, corn, sorghum, and cotton. Along the way, I spotted quite a bit of wildlife, including black vultures, white egrets, coyote, and even a couple of Armadillo, who were unfortunately the victims of road kill! As I drove through many small towns along highway 79, I passed old, dilapidated downtowns that had long since died out as people had migrated to larger towns, and businesses had relocated to shopping malls outside of town. It was sad to see what surely had once been lively towns that are now just names on the map. Lovely old buildings stood vacant and decaying, awaiting the wrecking ball, or perhaps a new life someday. As the day approached late afternoon, heavy dark clouds began to appear, signaling the inevitable thunderstorms that characterize mid-summer weather in the South.

Thunderstorm -Batesville
Evening Storm – Batesville

With them, the thunderstorms brought a temporary cooling relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. So they were welcome, unless of course, a tornado or two should happen to join the storms! That evening I found a nice room at the “Dogwood Motel” on the edge of town. As I walked around the town, I discovered that it was the oldest town in Arkansas, having been the first territorial capital. It had also become an important port on the White River and a gateway to the Ozark Mountain region to the northwest.

Plantation Museum – Batesville

The next morning, heavy thunderstorms lingered, before eventually yielding the day to sunshine. At least the weather was noticeably cooler, but still quite humid. Leaving Batesville, I made my way to the tiny town of Cave City, and as I entered the town, there was a huge sign on the side of the road that read “Home of the World’s Sweetest Watermelons”! Further down Main Street, I spotted a very strange and unique looking motel, the “Crystal River Cave Tourist Motor Lodge”, built of rock from the cave located near the center of town.

Crystal River Cave Tourist Camp – Cave City

The cave, which was formed by the Crystal River, had served as a veritable “town refrigerator” where local people stored their milk, butter, and produce. Apparently, various attempts had been made to explore the cave to determine the origin of the Crystal River that flowed under the town. While no one has ever been able to show where the river begins and eventually ends, it’s said that the river rises and falls with the level of the Mississippi River, more than 150 miles away! These days, Cave City is most famous for the annual Watermelon Festival in July. Beyond Cave City was the old town of Newark, once the county seat, but now virtually deserted, except for a couple of old red brick buildings on Front Street, and a huge grain terminal alongside the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. The next community I came to on state highway 14 was the old village of Jacksonport, with its historic red brick county courthouse dating back to 1872. At that time, the town was an important steamboat stop and trading center at the confluence of the White River and Black River, until it was bypassed by the Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad in 1890. But the most memorable historic site in town was the old sternwheel steamboat named the “Mary Woods No.2”. She carried passengers and cargo up and down the river from 1831 well into the 1960’s, before being retired and opened as a museum in 1976.

Mary Woods-2 Steamboat – Jacksonport
Mural – Jacksonport

Leaving Jacksonport, I followed state highway 14, parallel to the White River, through many small towns, with curious names like Oil Trough, Pleasant Valley, and Evening Shade. And along the way, I went from a dry county to a wet county and back to dry again! Just outside the small town of Mountain View, on my way to the Ozark Folk Center State Park, I spotted a large billboard on the side of the road that was quite a curiosity. On it was a picture of a bag of chewing tobacco named “Stench”, side by side with a pack of cigarettes named “Fool”. And in big bold letters above them was the title “Dumb and Dumber” – sponsored by the Stone County Health Department. Gradually I began the slow ascent into the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and the Ozark – St Francis National Forest.

Ozark Mountains
Ozark – St Francis National Forest

There I found the Ozark Folk Center State Park and the Dry Creek Lodge, a beautiful old log structure that looked like it had been built from the surrounding forest. Luckily I was able to book a room in the lodge, and then I grabbed my camera to take photos of the traditional mountain arts and crafts being demonstrated by local artisans in the adjacent village. It was fascinating to watch and listen as the artisans and craftsmen worked in the same way and with the same tools and materials as their ancestors had done 150 years earlier.

Ozark Folk Center State Park
Ozark Folk Center State Park

As evening approached, I headed to the “Iron Skillet Restaurant” in the lodge for a huge traditional southern dinner, that included two thick slabs of salt-cured ham, beans, mashed potatoes and white gravy. As I savored the delicious meal, I watched a host of wild critters outside the window – squirrels, chipmunks, hummingbirds, doves, cardinals, and one incredibly fat woodchuck! That evening, after dinner, I sat outside on my balcony in the warm summer night, listening to the crickets, and watching a skunk prowling around the edge of the forest in search of food. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, a southern tradition, I headed north to Blanchard Springs Cavern. There I joined a small tour group, lead by a Ranger from the Ozark National Forest, and followed him into several huge underground rooms, whose ceilings were covered in beautiful “drapery” limestone formations.

Blanchard Springs Cavern
Blanchard Springs Cavern

Apparently, the cavern was only recently discovered, so much of it remained unexplored. Continuing west on state highway 14, I passed “Branscum’s Grocery Store” in the tiny village of “Fifty-Six, Arkansas”. It seems the town’s name originated from the number of its school district when the US Post Office was established there.

Downtown “Fifty-Six”

Further on there were very impressive views of the rocky bluffs rising several hundred feet above the White River near the old town of Calico Rock. The town was once a bustling steamboat landing and railroad junction in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But those days had disappeared, leaving it a very quiet shadow of its former self.

Welcome to “Flippin”

As I continued west through the heart of the Ozark Mountains, I passed several small settlements with some odd names, like “Flippin”, “Yellville”, and “Blue Eye”, before coming to the spectacular Buffalo National River. It was over 150 miles long, with a steep gradient and fast water, bordered on both sides by 500 foot high sandstone bluffs, making it very challenging and exciting for white water enthusiasts.

Buffalo National River

The area, managed by the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, spanned four counties in northern Arkansas. Portions of the region had also been designated as wilderness area. It was the nation’s first National River and remains a true gem in the state, that almost became flooded by two proposed US Army Corps of Engineers dams in 1972. Northwest of the river I came to the fabled town of “Dogpatch, Arkansas”, where the post office had closed many years before, as had virtually everything else in town, including the crumbling remains of the “Dogpatch USA” theme park! (which at one time had grand dreams of being the Disneyland of the south!) As I looked around at what was left of Dogpatch, I remembered the time when I worked at the Republic Ranger District on the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington State. While I was there, I had supervised some tree thinning projects being done by a family from Dogpatch. (I still have the letter from them with the postmark from Dogpatch!) So, yes, Dogpatch does/did exist. Later that afternoon, I drove to Petit Jean State Park and the beautiful Mather Lodge, situated on the edge of a thousand foot high escarpment, overlooking the spectacular Arkansas River.

Petit Jean State Park

The name of the state park originated from the legend of a young 18th century French woman who disguised herself as a boy in order to find a position as a cabin boy on a ship sailing to the Louisiana Territory. Once the ship’s crew had reached the upper portion of the Arkansas River, she became very ill, and on her deathbed she revealed her true identity to her fiancé whom she had tried unsuccessfully to join earlier on the voyage. By her last request, she was buried on the top of the bluff under the name she had been given on board ship, “Petit Jean”, meaning “Little John”. That evening I was able to book one of the rustic cabins near the lodge, which had been built of local river rock and stone in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I spent a lovely, quiet evening sitting on the porch of the cabin, as the music of the crickets filled the air and the light of the fireflies illuminated the dark sky. The following morning, I hiked to the Cedar Falls Overlook for a beautiful view of the water tumbling over 120 feet into the river below. From there I drove to “Stout’s Point” on the top of the bluff, with sweeping views of the river and the entire valley over a thousand feet below.

Stout’s Point – Petit Jean State Park
Petit Jean State Park

Nearby was the gravesite of Petit Jean and views of Mount Magazine in the distance, Arkansas’s highest point at 2,753 feet. As I admired the spectacular view, I had to admit that I had not expected to see this kind of magnificent landscape in Arkansas. Later in the morning, I headed west into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, where I discovered several old vineyards, some dating back to the mid-1800’s. Just outside the small town of Altus was the “Chateau Aux Arc Vineyard”, where a Swiss family had been making wine from the native “Cynthiana” grape for generations! It was here that I came to realize the origin of the name Ozark, which comes from the literal pronunciation of the French term “Aux Arc”, meaning “Big Bend” – the name the early French explorers gave to the distinctive bend in the Arkansas River. The French were among the first European explorers in Arkansas and Louisiana, which accounts for the abundance of French names of places in the state. Further to the southwest, on my way to Fort Smith, I traveled through a small portion of eastern Oklahoma and the Ouachita Mountains.

Eastern Oklahoma

It was a lovely landscape of high rolling hills and dense deciduous forest, mixed with large expanses of beautiful meadows – all part of the Ouachita National Forest. Later in the afternoon, I crossed back into Arkansas and came to Mount Magazine State Park, the state’s highest point. There were some spectacular views of the river from the high bluffs, a popular site for hang gliders.

Mt Magazine State Park
View of the Arkansas River – Mt Magazine State Park

That evening I found a nice old hotel in Van Buren, across the river from Fort Smith, and as I searched for a place to have dinner in Fort Smith, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large number of tasty oriental restaurants. There was everything from Chinese and Japanese to Thai, Malaysian, and even an Indonesian restaurant.

The next morning, I walked around the historic downtown area of Van Buren along Main Street, from the old “Frisco” Railroad Depot (St Louis & San Francisco Railroad) down to the riverfront.

“Frisco” Railroad Station – Van Buren
Old Anheuser-Busch Brewery Building – Van Buren
Entrance to the Brewery Building

At one point, I came across the old “Anheuser-Busch Brewery” building, where the company name was still inscribed in the floor tile at the entrance. By this time, I was ready for breakfast, and as luck would have it, I was standing across the street from the “Cottage Café”. As I entered the small café, it was very obvious that it was a “local” favorite. Even before I sat down at the vintage counter, I was greeted by a mother and daughter waitressing team with “have a seat hon”. They were a couple of “brassy, bleached blondes”, who smoked constantly and called everyone “hon”, regardless of gender. It was a classic local diner, and the huge portions of country ham, eggs, homemade biscuits, red eye gravy, home fries, and coffee were delicious – and kept me going for the entire day! After a huge breakfast from the bleached blondes, I bought a ticket on the historic “Arkansas and Missouri Railroad” for a trip through part of western Arkansas and the Ozark National Forest to the small town of Winslow, a distance of 70 miles.

Aboard the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad

During the scenic journey, the onboard crew entertained us with many interesting stories and fascinating local history. The train made a short stop in Winslow at the Chester Railway Hotel, where our guide told us about a ghost in room number 4, who was a man locked out of his room late at night over 100 years ago, after having drunk too much at the saloon on a frigid winter night. Apparently, as a result, he froze to death that night, and it was rumored that if you booked room number 4, your blankets would often be pulled off in the middle of the night! On the return trip, I spotted a lot of deer grazing at the edge of the forest, and at one point, the train crossed three old wooden trestles, one of which was over 700 feet long and 125 feet high, before entering the ¾ mile long Winslow Tunnel. All in all, it was a very interesting and scenic journey on a historic old railroad. After returning to Van Buren, I drove south on US Highway 71 and state highway 270, through the beautiful Ouachita National Forest, to the tiny town of Pencil Bluff. According to historical accounts, the town started out as two small towns by the names of White City and Sock City before merging into the present-day community. Apparently, the origin of the name Sock City came from the fact that men often hid money in their socks when they went to play poker at the local saloon. The town sat at the foot of a high bluff overlooking the Ouachita River. Leaving town, I continued southeast on a narrow country road into the backwoods of Arkansas, near the town of Cherry Hill, and then on to Polk County Road 67, a gravel road that crossed over the Ouachita River. Suddenly, I came upon a large flock of Wild Turkeys beside the road, as well as an old dog lying smack in the middle of the road and totally ignoring me!

Murals on the levee wall in Caddo Springs

Eventually I made my way northeast, passing through the village of “Caddo Springs”, in the “Caddo River Valley”, the names of which derive from a misspelling of the French word “Caddeaux”, meaning gift. It was another of the many misspellings of French words in Arkansas, the pronunciation of which were very much French, despite the misspelling. (A fascinating historical aspect of my journey through the state of Arkansas)

The sign says it all!
Welcome to Hot Springs National Park

Finally, I arrived in the historic tourist destination of “Hot Springs National Park”, a popular spot for both American and European visitors in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I was able to book one of the last available rooms at the historic, grand old “Majestic Hotel”, not far from the famous “Bath House Row”. (on a sad note, the Majestic Hotel was destroyed by fire and demolished in 2016)

Majestic Hotel – Hot Springs
Bath House Row
Downtown Hot Springs

Although the National Park was established in 1921, one of the nation’s oldest, the region of Hot Springs had been used for therapeutic baths by the indigenous people for over 8,000 years. Geologically, the springs water originates from rainfall in the surrounding mountains, which seeps very slowly through sandstone at a rate of about one foot per year, to a depth of almost 7,500 feet below the surface, a trip that takes about 4,000 years! At that depth, the water encounters rock heated by the earth’s core. Then the heated water begins to rise along fault zones, as a result of artesian pressure, to emerge at the surface as hot (140 – 150 degrees) spring water containing a wide variety of dissolved minerals – a pleasant tasting solution, mildly alkaline composition of mostly Calcium Carbonate. Legend has it that the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto received a gift of the healing water from the local Quapaw tribe in 1541.

Hernando De Soto statue – Fourdyce Bath House
The “Grand” Bath House
Entrance to the “Fourdyce” Bath House

Beginning in the mid-1800’s and into the early 1900’s, several large, elegant “bath houses” were built over the hot springs to offer treatments for a wide variety of diseases of the skin and blood, nervous affections, rheumatism, and “various diseases of women”! Later, during the height of popularity for “seeking the waters” in the 1930’s, many “modern” therapeutic treatments were introduced, often under the supervision of a physician. These new treatments included being placed in a steam box, a German “needle shower”, and something called a “Scotch Douche”.  (a needle shower surrounds the body with a strong spray of water from dozens of very small nozzles, whereas the Scotch Douche involves strong jets of alternating hot and cold water) During my tour of the National Park Visitor Center Museum, some of the “equipment” used for these treatments bordered on resembling instruments of torture during the Spanish Inquisition!

“Instruments” for therapeutic treatments

Often, the “treatments” would take several weeks, consisting of daily baths and therapy. The bath houses remained racially segregated until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Today, only two of the old, original bath houses are still operating – the Buckstaff and the Quapaw. The remaining bath houses have been renovated and repurposed as the Visitor Center/Museum, a Contemporary Art Museum, and even a craft brewery/restaurant. So Hot Springs has changed a great deal over the past century, but it remains active and a popular tourist destination. After a short walk down the “Grand Promenade”, I went back to the hotel for dinner in “Grady’s Bar and Grill”. The filet mignon, grilled rare and served in a wild mushroom ragout, was truly incredible, along with a glass of “Chateau Aux Arc Cabernet Sauvignon”. And the “Louisiana Bread Pudding” in Bourbon sauce was an outstanding finish to a wonderful dinner. But later that night, I was rudely awakened at 2:30am by the loud noise from a TV blaring at full volume in the room next door. After repeated knocking on the door and three phone calls to the room, there was no response! Finally, I went down to the front desk and requested the assistance of hotel security. They unlocked the room and found no one there – unbelievable! As I checked out in the morning, I hung the “Make Up My Room Early” sign on their door, silently bid them farewell, and wished them a lousy day! Then I took a long leisurely walk along the “Grand Promenade”, past many of the old hot spring bath houses, most of which had been closed for many years.

Grand Promenade
Hot Springs National Park

However, the National Park Service had restored the “Fourdyce Bath House”, one of the most classic and luxurious of all the old bath houses and developed it as a Visitor Center/Museum. I had arrived just in time to join a tour lead by one of the Park Rangers. During the tour, she explained the unique geological conditions that yield the constant flow of hot spring water that made the town a mecca for people from all over the world seeking to “take the waters”. The bath house was divided into separate areas for men and women, although both had the same equipment and services. She also pointed out some of the really weird “instruments” that were used for “therapy”. In the main rooms were beautiful stained-glass windows and skylights that illuminated the brilliant white marble floors and walls.

Stained-glass ceiling – Fourdyce Bath House
Classic old porcelain bath tub

All too soon, it was time to leave Hot Springs and head to the Little Rock airport to catch my flight to Montana, and the beginning of the second leg of my journey. Along the way, I had time to briefly visit “Toltec Mounds State Park”, where huge earthen mounds were burial and ceremonial sites dating from 400BC. Several of the mounds were located so as to mark the dates of the summer and winter solstice. It was a short but fascinating look at Native American history and culture in Arkansas. Upon reaching the airport, it was a quick and easy check in for the flight to Dallas, so I had time for a cold glass of local “Diamond Bear Blonde Ale” in the Delta Airlines Crown Room before boarding was called. Arriving in Dallas, I waited in the Crown Room and watched TV as Lance Armstrong won his 5th straight Tour de France. As he was cycling through cold, pouring rain in France, it was very hot, muggy 100 degrees outside in Dallas! On the flight to Salt Lake City, my seatmate was a man from Montgomery, Alabama on his way to Edmonton, Alberta to oversee the installation of new carbon bearings in an oil rig. I had a short break in the Salt Lake airport Crown Room, before boarding my final flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I arrived just before midnight. I picked up my Hertz rental car just minutes before their office closed for the night! To my surprise, they handed me the keys to a brand new, bright red Ford Expedition – not exactly the “mid-size” SUV I had reserved. But it drove very well, though it “felt” huge! Then I checked into a nice room at the Holiday Inn and settled in for the rest of the night. Tomorrow I would begin the second week of my vacation in southwestern Montana. [Stay Tuned!]

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