samueldawson.com

June 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

New Website!

Please visit Sam’s website at www.samueldawson.com to see his complete writing and photography portfolio.

Thanks for reading.
Sd

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Winter Hunt

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

We stood in the low-lit borning room by the fire during my parents’ annual Christmas Party. Ozzy leaned elbow-on-hearth holding a New Castle, cowboy boots kicked out partially supporting his weight in a confident half brace stance that was accompanied by a concealed yet aware concern for the fragility of the antique mantle. The fire was hot, and my Mom had replaced all the bulbs in the sconces with red wax candles for the party. Baked brie with walnuts and apples, fig spread, pita chips and humus circulated between rooms. Over coats and scarves were checked by me and my youngest brother at the front when my parents‘ UVM friends arrived. But grain leather isn’t an often seen look in our vegetarian household, and somehow the pug had positively identified the man in the cowboy boots and leather car coat with a hair-raised fit of barking frenzy.

“Bill Nightengale. That’s a guy for sure you need to talk to,” Ozzy inclined as he drew back his beer. I had sought Ozzy out early in the party and introduced the pretense of my last weeks at Middlebury, my uncertain future after graduation, and my winter writing course. I told him I aimed to be invited on a few winter outings by some Vermont hunters, and that I hoped to explore the characters and reason of the hunt. A hunter, writer and entrepreneur, I knew Ozzy had much to say on the convergence of these three threads. I sipped my Guinness, swallowed, re-crossed my wrists at my belt line and adjusted my weight under my feet as he told me more about Bill in Woodstock. “He’s a true backyard hunter,” Ozzy continued. “The type of guy who keeps his gun by the chair and the ammo on the mantle. He’s the kind of guy you want to talk to.”

Understanding the patience of the hunt began with understanding the cadence of the hunter himself. Ozzy was my bridge between these two worlds. Everything I had ever heard about hunting came from Ozzy; his guns and his stories were as close as I ever got. My Dad’s cousin, Ozzy lived in my hometown Wayland MA and our families shared considerable time together between home and Little Compton RI, the vine-covered, ocean-side stonewall town where I spent my childhood summers. I always regarded him as the sportsman of the family with something of a revered respect that straddled a strange border between admiration and indignation. “He shoots innocent animals just for fun,” my Mom would tell us when we were kids. “He catches the biggest Stripers in town – on saltwater flies,” my Dad marvled. Indeed, he drove both a Prius and a Tundra, and was at once an educated and insightful writer and a competent and practiced hunter. Only years later, once I began to understand the beginning of the fly-cast, did I realize and appreciate that he simultaneously drove and positioned his boat by himself while casting onto rocks during these early morning striper runs. I always caught fish with my Dad growing up, with a keen respect for both the fish and the sport. The hooks were de-barbed and we always threw them back. Keeping the fish was cruel, in fact, catching fish for fun was wrong on some level; my youngest brother once ran down the dock to kick free a gasping fish another angler had left to die while he hosed down his boat.

Vegetarianism for the Dawson family is central to our identity. Well, it once was. We were the nice prep-school kids who lived on the farm and never swore and rarely had Honey-Nutt Cherios and always said thank you to the mothers who carpooled us. My Mom dressed the five of us in home-knit wool and obscure plaids while other kids wore turtlenecks and corduroys from Talbotts. When one of the ewes had a lamb with black wool one spring, my parents let the outcast live in our living room to protect it from it’s aggressive, rejecting mother. Hunting and killing, for whatever reason, was never in the question. My interest in the world of the Vermont winter hunter was at once a challenge of the morals of my upbringing and an expansion into a world of distinct and separate values.

My first phone conversation with Barry was an awkward stepping of mid-sentence toes. Like the moving pawn sequence at the opening of a chess game, each sentence was an important move absent of immediate consequence. I had yet to understand the art of the small talk conversation and the role of establishing a familiarity between conversers that is essential to this type of communication. I had a distinct feeling that this communication was a shared understanding amongst native born Vermonters, and that I would easily be identified as an outsider by any wrong or hasty move. There was no rush, no need to cut the fat out of a question or to be concise in speech. Rush the question and you certainly won’t get the answer you’re looking for – even when the questioned readily knows the answer. Speaking to Barry went against every foundation of communication I had learned through prep-school, Middlebury and any professional setting I had been exposed to. The mastery of a perfectly neutral conversation position was the first step in breaching the gap between myself and the hunters I was to accompany into the field.

“Oh just about a mile up on the left there you’ll see a black Jeep on steroids in the driveway.” This was the second time that Barry and I had spoken over the phone and the first time we would meet. His demeanor on the phone was patiently unassuming yet my nerves in meeting him were similar to those I felt before interviewing with Boston Consulting Group. Our lifestyles differed on polar magnitudes and he had no reason to invite me into his home never mind trust me worth a damn.

Barry kept 5 hounds in tall wire cages in his driveway next to his Jeep. The roof of the cages sometimes collapsed under a heavy snow and he lined his pups’ quarters with sawdust. “Yahp. She’s got a bit of a lift to her,” he said with a nod at the black and mud-tested vehicle. Ammo for four different guns could be found in his Jeep. A snowmobile for parts was propped next to his RV and a 4-man bass boat from sometime in the 80’s sat on a trailer and probably still made a respectable number of outings on the lakes in the area each spring and summer. I found it difficult to imagine the boat without red and white cans of Bud in the padded consoles.

The identity of Barry’s character was as much contained within the semi-circle paved driveway that connected his families’ homes as it was within the grin he bared from between the brim of his Browning hat and his under-bit cancer jaw. It was difficult to readily tell whether he shaved or grew no hair to his face at all. When he spoke he spoke evenly and he spoke quietly and his r’s faded from under his sentences. His green felt pants could only be found next to whole-sale cattle grain and commercial de-icing coils in farmer supply and field sport stores. There wasn’t much to speak of his hands, aside from the yellowed yet defined nails he used to sharply crush USA Golds between his fingers just before the burning ember met the filter. His small size enabled him to be nimble through tight brush and he ran distance in high school. Once he shot as many ‘coons in one night as he smokes cigarettes per day and he smokes a pack a day.

West Island

November 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

We had talked about it for years, and decided it was finally time to be about it: camping West Island. We didn’t know what terrain would be available for camping – but we knew it needed to be done. That and Hurricane Earl was due to ravash the place on Monday and school started shortly thereafter, so we penciled in Saturday night as the night.

West Island is a rock off of the point, about 1 km from the shore. The rock used to be home to the West Island Fishing Club, a private club reputed to be home of the best striper fishing on the Atlantic Coast. Distinguished guests to the highly exclusive fishing and shooting club included President Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleavland. The club was accessible only by boat, and members enjoyed the privilege of undisturbed access to the island’s many casting points by day and the company of the clubhouse pub by night. But, like everything else in town, the place burned to the ground, sometime in 1929 although the records seem to be a bit vague. Nine years later The Hurricane swept away all remains of the place except the stone-skeleton of the main clubhouse that still stands today.

Elike was obviously in on the adventure – despite his humble swimming skills. Well that’s not really true, the kid can’t really swim at all. So that was sketchy, being on an island and all. Other team members included myself, Abe and Hadley. Most of the usual suspects for this kind of adventure had already returned to school, or couldn’t make it down this weekend for some reason or another. Obviously my 13 year old brother Asher was primed and ready to go, head lamp in hand, but he didn’t get his hall-pass signed by those in charge back home. Too bad.

So we geared up on the front lawn. Cleaned out the old cooler. Got out the 16 person tent that Jed had bought a while back for camp-outs in the back yard. Despite a few holes, the tent proved big enough for each of our 4-man team to have their own room. Literally, you could unroll dividers and snap them down creating walls between rooms in the tent. And enough room to stand head high. Some real puertorican, I mean hardy, camping.

I obviously brought my tackle box and rods for each condition: surf-casting, bottom-jigging and spin-casting. And some live eels to entice the stripers which had skunked me all summer, those bastards. But more on that later. Other gear included the now traditional machette that comes along just because. Well really for sticking into the fire until it glows orange, then sabotaging various objects in the area. The cooler with some burgers, grille-grate, 30-pack Busch Lattes, and a bottle of Wild Turkey. Wild, Wild Turkey.

We loaded our gear into the Parker, stole a dingy from the yacht club and headed out to West Island dingy in-tow. We were actually pretty much the only boat in the harbor except the lobster boats at this point because the harbor master had issued an evacuation order for the hurricane that was due to hit Monday. What of it? Subtle signs of the storm were starting to present themselves, however. Which was exciting. A change in the wind, now blowing pretty strong out of the south-west put up some pretty good chop which made unloading the gear and Elike to the rocky shore a bit suspect.

Jed looked on with valid concern as Elike joined me in the dingy. Original plan was that I would row from the middle and Elike would sit in the back. But, Elike’s a big dude, and his presence in the stern put our bow about 3 feet too far out of the water, and the stern a bit wet. So Abe joined us in the bow to balance us out. The dingy is rated to 320 lbs. Elike weighs 300, Abe and myself each around 160 means we were…over the weight limit. With 1 cm to spare above the water line, we took on some waves on our paddle in. Alas, a safe landing with the Freak on shore and we could unload the rest of our gear in 2 or 3 trips with no real trouble.

We picked a spot in the gravel just above the high water mark and set camp. We set out to do a quick scout of the place, and check out the cliffs. West Island is where seagulls come to die. I took a few casts from the cliffs and from the rocks around the shore, with no evidence of bass anywhere. Something of a trend this summer. The epic Rhode Island sunset was beginning to take shape, so beer in hand, seated atop the 40+ foot cliffs overlooking the Lighthouse, we watched the sky shift from pale-blue to feint orange to blood red.


The night was a wild success. We brought ample wood and booze to keep the fire and laughter going all night. The first victim of the red-hot machette was my right Croc. Stuff cut like hot butter. Next was the cooler. Then some seaweed. After enough destruction, we stood up for a flashlight exploration of the island, only to quickly realize how drunk we were. Didn’t make it too far.

We awoke with the sunrise to the spray of the crashing waves which had grown considerably overnight. There is something very rewarding about waking to the sound of moving gravel through the tide. And the smell of the ocean. And the tall skies of the storm about to hit.

Royal Gorge

July 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our weekend on the trail began with a 3 hour drive from Santa Clara to Soda Springs, CA.  Positioned north and west of Lake Tahoe, Soda Springs gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the continental US: an average 470″ per year.  39 feet.  Ok Sugarbush.  The maximum recorded snowfall in one winter was 884″.  Almost 74 feet.  Mind you that was 1906 when steam shovels were clearing the roads.  Thats not a winter wonderland – thats downright scary.  Even in late July, needle covered snowbanks were visible under the eaves of the tried-and-true high rooflined cabins that ‘populated’ the small town.

Abe and I drove up with Quinn (OnQ what does it do?) and his dad, Walt, to meet up with Walt’s childhood and present-day best friend, Kelly.  Thanks to Quinn and Walt’s generosity, Abe and I were outfitted with sufficient gear this time, somewhat unlike our trip to Tahoe a few weeks back.  We bought our fishing licenses and made it up to Kelly’s place in good time to meet his daughter, Molly, and her boyfriend, Dylan – the 7 of us to make up our camping group for the weekend.

A brief introduction of the characters: Myself, soon to be graduate (fingers crossed) of Middlebury College, VT.  Abe, younger (no longer little) brother – Junior at Santa Clara – whose spot I am staying at for the summer with his roommate Quinn.  Q is from Oregon, an Engineer, badass chef who spends his free time producing beats in the studio he and Abe built for OnQ Productions.  Walt, his old man is also an excellent chef, kind spirited; grows many vegetables in his garden in Portland.  Kelly: photographer by trade, adventurer by nature (has been camping, skiing and exploring the Soda Springs area for 20+ years); childhood best friend of Walt.  Molly is Kelly’s 22 year old daughter, recent grad and yoga teacher.  Dylan, her boyfriend, also a recent grad: 8th grade teacher in Oakland.  Great people.

Happy handshakes and greetings started the weekend off on the perfect note.  New, exciting – adventerous.  Kelly’s place was very cool – a cedar cabin he built himself about 15 years ago – complimented the other high, steep rooflined cabins in the area.  With that much winter snowfall, the high peaked rooflines really are the only form that can withstand so much Sierra Cement.  The cabin had high ceilings, few walls, a woodstove to heat it and a 20′ dining room table that Kelly had salvaged and milled out of old snow embankment timber.  The place also served to be a spectacular spot to kick it on the porch under the the hot, hot and dry summer California sun.  For me, it was one of those places that the first time I saw it, I instantly knew that I could be happy there for a long time.  Simple, rugged yet beautiful, and with access to seemingly every variety of nature’s grandeur.  At least from this perspective on my life ahead of me, it is the type of place I would like to put priority on to spend considerable time at.

With a 7 mile (4 hour) hike ahead of us, we spared little time to sort and organize our gear for the weekend.  We divided up food rations – including 10 bottles of McManus Vineyards wine (Kelly’s vineyard) – put on some sunblock and threw our gear in the car.  A 20 minute drive from the cabin landed us at the trailhead.

For those on the east coast (probably everyone reading this), I should paint a picture of the landscape.  Well, you can also look at the photographs.  The climate is dry: it hasn’t rained since I arrived in CA and that was 5 weeks ago.  The trailhead was just off Donner Pass road – yes, where the Donner Party cannibalized each other in the winter of 1846-7 – and sits a pretty 7000′ above sea level.  You can see for miles; the mountains are of granite, carved between deep valleys by ancient glaciers.  The trees are enormous – Aspen, Cedar, Red Woods, Ponderosa Pine and Fir.  Jed, jump in here.  The landscape is primarily three colors: dust, blue (sky) and green (trees).  With such harsh winters, it takes decades for trees to reach even head-high, and consequently, there isn’t much wildlife.  It is a difficult place to make a living.

The hike in was almost all down-hill.  We crossed a low-peak of exposed granite and bright sun, before starting our descent into the valley that would lead us to our campsite at the North Fork of the American River: The Royal Gorge.  We covered enough vertical to change the pressure in our water bottles several times; we stopped 4 times to refill our water DIRECTLY FROM THE STREAMS, which were pure enough to drink, lips to water.

Hiking in the packs were heavy (laden with food and wine), and we stopped on the hour(ish) to re-hydrate and eat the occasional bag of homemade jerky.  Actually, we ate an entire bag of homemade jerky every time we stopped.  I brought my own recipe: Sweet and Spicy, and Kelly brought some of his friend’s, Original Teriyaki.  I would say that we all got to know each other during the hike in, but it wasn’t really like that.  No one asked too many questions; we were there for a weekend of camping and adventure.  It didn’t really matter where you came from – this was a static weekend, never to be created again, and everyone knew it.  We spoke comfortably as if we had known each other for weeks.  They didn’t even ask if Brot and I were brothers until day 2.  One of the many beauties of camping.

After the physical exertion that is required to hike 7 miles with 60 pound packs thru the hot California sun, it is difficult to describe the excitement, awe and respect for coming upon our campsite in the Royal Gorge.  I think the following two photographs do better justice at describing what it felt like to cross the river and hear the roar of the falls.  We camped directly below the falls.

Our site was positioned next to the pool below the falls; it was protected by massive Pines and enclosed on most sides by huge erratics, deposited by the glaciers.  It is a site that Kelly has been coming to for 20+ years, and thanks to it’s remoteness, for the most part the only people who enjoy it’s majestic location respect it enough to keep it in good shape.  We did find a bit of gear dumped by previous hikers, but on the whole the site was as close to pristine as you can reasonably come.

We collected wood, set the fire and established camp.  Arriving close to 8pm, we had little time to fashion a dinner of a tri-tip, chicken and a mash of potatoes, carrots and onions.  Needles to say, it was the best food ever.  Again, Abe and I picked sides of our one-man tent, bid goodnight, and anxiously awaited the day ahead of us.

When we awoke (with the sun) we set to have a better look at our surroundings .  For anyone who has been to Warren Falls in Vermont, imagine that, surrounded by huge vertical granite peaks, extending for miles.  It was literally miles of Warren Falls.  If that isn’t pure, get at me with what is.  We made some cowboy coffee and oatmeal, assembled our fishing poles, loaded on the sunblock (Mom), and packed 2 lunches for a day on the river.  Doing what you ask? Catching wild Rainbow Trout, hundreds of them.

All geared up (not really tho, just a rod, forceps, knife and spare sunblock) we all set down river to fish the endless holes.  The wild trout were considerably smarter than the stockers up in Middlebury, and they hit much harder, even the little guys.  I landed probably 20% of the fish that hit – many spitting out the hook or hitting so fast that they never got hold.  Still, I landed probably 35 fish on my first day out – including a 5-kill streak (5 casts, 5 fish).  We fished, swam and climbed our way down the river in the morning, and on the return we kept those big enough to throw on the fire.

I also tried my hand at smoking trout, constructing a chimney out of an old steel bridge support and some rocks.  It worked perfectly: the salted and smoked trout was quite fresh and tasty.

And such it went for two full days.  On Friday we went downriver; Saturday we explored upstream.  We didn’t see another person until Saturday afternoon on our return hike to camp, when we encountered an older couple lounging by the river.  I think we gave them a pretty good surprise.  Dinner each night comprised of 3 fresh caught trout each, plus a side of rice, pasta, carrots, etc.  And wine.  3 bottles each night.  Fairly perfect if you ask me.

Sunday we made up our minds to get up early and hit the trail.  We were on foot by 7:30 am, and passed the time and task ahead of us with considerable ease by playing the word game GHOST – 4 and a half hours of it.  Up and out.  Leaving camp was tough, but we all knew it was time.

The weekend was mind-clearing, cathartic, pure.  Working hard for such a basic and essential interface with nature is probably the most rewarding thing I can foresee for myself.  Rewarding works, but pure is really the word to capture the experience.  My one regret is having my camera in the bottom of my pack while hiking, or in the tent while out on the river.  There are so many other places along the river and trail that I would have liked to share with you all.

I hope to have many similar experiences in my life yet to come.  Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible.  Mom, Dad, Abe – Walt, Quinn, Kelly: Thank you.  That was a trip that will not soon be forgotten.

Sd

11.20 Denmark and Sweden

November 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

denmarks-purple
Northern Europe is where it’s at. Like the Swiss, the Danish are smart, clean, great looking, well dressed and wealthy. Dickie, Matty and I headed up to Copenhagen on Thursday for the weekend, without any real plans or agenda. All I knew was that it would be cold, and I was right. Damn cold. We spent the majority of our time there just wandering through the city seeing the sights as they came upon us. We met up with our buddy Doug who is also studying abroad and chilled with him pretty much all weekend, which was fun.

Denmark is kind of an interesting country in that their progressive taxes can run up to 70% of income. The public has free healthcare, education, etc – and consequently, the middle class is enormous, and wealthy. It was virtually impossible for an outsider like myself to tell the difference between middle and upper class. That is to say, the difference between a †1000 winter coat and a †6000 winter coat. Everyone was very well dressed, but the Swedish win that category hands down. More on that later.

There also existed something of a counter culture, seemingly rebellious youth in Copenhagen. I am not sure if they are motivated by rebellion or simply a form of artistic movement – but the youth dressed and socialized in a way quite unlike anything else I have seen. There is one part of town called Christiana (Freetown Christiana), which was originally an old military area. In 1971 a small rebellion lead to the take over of Christiana by nearby residents as a response to lack of affordable housing. Since then, the residents have somehow established a semi-legal, self-governing province within downtown Copenhagen. It is a crazy place. There are no street lights, all the metal trash cans are stoked with wood and burning 3 feet tall flames, the buildings are in their original 1970’s military form, covered in graffiti. The police have an agreement that drugs can be sold in Christiana, but nowhere else in the city. It seems to be an effective policy, eliminating the demand for drug dealers to roam the streets: everyone knows to go to Christiana. We heard it was a cool spot in town, so we wandered around for a bit Thursday night, ending up in a concert venue with every inch of the concrete walls covered in spray-paint murals. Of course, Dickie somehow knew the band that was playing and ran in and bought a ticket. We were out of place, for sure. Think: they were wearing skinny jeans, big glasses, pointy shoes and thick scarves, and I was wearing my mountain hardware shell and Carharts. We stood out. We hung around for a bit and waited for the band to open, watching as people entered past us at the door. I think the rebellious nature that inspired the take-over of Christiana in the early 1970’s is no longer intact – rather now it is a free space for an alternative youth culture – who are10 years ahead of us in fashion. Seemed like it.

Friday we cruised the streets of Copenhagen, wearing literally every piece of clothing we brought with us. It was cold. We walked through all the parks in town and also visited the Royal Gardens at the palace – but were too intimidated by the guard with the bayonet mounted M16 to try to enter. We ate at pretty much every vendor we passed (China Box being the best) and sampled every variety of roasted nut available in Copenhagen. That is a true story.

neon

Saturday am we decided – let’s go to Sweden. We walked to the train station, boarded a train and were in Molmo about 35 minutes later. Sweden is colder than Copenhagen, fact. Copenhagen and Molmo have a very similar feel, in that they each have two of the longest walking-streets in the world, in neighboring cities. At one point we found ourselves stopped in the middle of the street, watching people walk past – the three of us in absolute silence. After who knows how long – maybe 15 minutes, Dickie broke the silence with the perfect revelation of what we were all thinking. They’re beautiful. And he was right. The Swedes have blonde hair paired with smooth, dark skin, and are dressed to kill. Hands down the best looking, best dressed people I have ever seen. I had heard good things about the Czechs, and the Danes in Copenhagen – but the cake goes to Sweden. We continued to watch people pass, each one more beautiful than the previous until one of us decided we were probably being pretty awkward, just stopped in the middle of the street like that. True, but we didn’t really care.

We have Thanksgiving in Prague this weekend, then off to Paris with Diego the following week. Hope all is well back home and that everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Sd

11.13 Interlaken, Switzerland

November 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

mountain-buildings
Traveling in Europe is a 3 part handshake: Where are you from? Where do you go to school? Where do you study abroad? Thus, our trip started in Interlaken. We stayed at an apparently wildly famous youth hostel in Interlaken called Balmers. The place was started in 1905 by Mom and a Pop who setup a little ski lodge for backpackers. Their son, Erich, took over and has since transformed the place into an internationally recognized establishment. The place was decorated with all sorts of Swiss memorabilia – ranging from antique crampons, cow bells and horse drawn sleighs to letters from the Queen of England and photos with President Clinton. Needles to say, the place was awesome. Our bunk mates in our mixed 8 bed dorm, however, were quite the opposite. Our first nights’ sleep couldn’t have been worse – and was culminated by Matty balling up the newspaper under his bed and pelting it at the face of the ‘snoring guy’ at about 3 am. I mean, this guy could snore like nobody’s business. He kept up the other 7 guests with his snoggled nose-breathing with ease. The newspaper did the trick though, and the perpetrator packed up his things and left. That left us with about 5 hours of sleep after traveling all day.

We awoke Friday determined to ditch the roommates and see the mountains. The clouds were low, the sky overcast. We came to Interlaken at a bit of an awkward time – the summer activities had just drawn to a close (think: bungee jumping, canyoning, white water rafting) and the winter activities had 3 or so more weeks until startup (think: skiing, glacier trekking). We opted on Friday to take a risk and try to beat the overcast. We walked to Interlaken Ost, the train station, and bought a ticket that included over 2 and 1/2 hours worth of trains, funiculars and gondolas to the ‘Top Of Europe’ – a research station and observatory (also a filming location of James Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies) located at an impressive 3545 meters. The gamble worked out, brilliantly. We boarded our trains and positioned ourselves next to the biggest, cleanest windows.

swiss-trains

The tracks that these trains went up were on such a steep grade that the trains were powered by a gear-in-track system, using the wheels as a guide rather than a driving force. It was steep. We boarded train 1, then train 2 then train 3 – until we eventually started to work our way into the cloud line. As we were approaching, you could clearly see the thermocline where the temperatures dropped below freezing – as the ground and trees were frozen in a permafrost. The last train we took (these are 2 car, tiny little cabooses) literally tunneled through the mountain. The tunnel walls were solid rock the whole (45 minute) ride through the mountain. Em – this was quite the demonstration of man vs. geology (well, man vs. nature – but it certainly made me think of you…you need to check this place out.). It blew my mind to think that these tunnels were built over 100 years ago. The train stopped twice in the mountain – and we were allowed 5 minutes to take in the view through a little hole carved out for a viewing balcony. The picture below is from one of those viewing terraces – not from an airplane.

window-mountains

At one of those stops there was a little poster/sign documenting the construction process – it looked like the workers had just left a black tie fundraising event and went off to work in the tunnels. They were all wearing collared pea coats and bow-ties, operating heavy drills and sledge hammers. Great style. The train continued to wind through – literally through the center of the mountain – until it came out at the base of the Sphynx Observatory. This place was dope. It literally looked like the top of the world.

dickie-top-of-world

After an hour so of taking in the impressive and belittling views that the Swiss Alps provided, we made our way into the Ice Caverns…also dope. This place was basically a small network of tunnels dug through the center of a glacier. Kept below freezing by natural forces (obviously, it was a glacier) these tunnels were smooth and cold, dry ice with really cool lighting illuminating the multi colored ice. The little statues carved of ice had a similar feel to the Polish Salt mine, except these were carved in a glacier atop one of the tallest mountains in the Swiss Alps – not out of salt in a hole in the ground in Poland. Switzerland +1.

matty-dickie-ice-wide

We took the trains back down the mountain, through the cloud line and thermocline and back to Interlaken. Over 3000 vertical meters.

Friday night’s sleep was infinitely better than Thursday’s, and we awoke on Saturday eager to see more of the Swiss Alps. Balmers (our Hostel) offered a slew of activities – all very highly priced, yet equally tempting. Skydiving, hang gliding, canyon bungee jumping, and glacier trekking were all offered for groups of 5 or more. Aerial glacial tours were also offered – with a complimentary ‘champagne picnic atop a pristine and untouched alpine glacier’ after landing. How’s that for a date? As hard as it was to say no (or to convince Matty to try) any of the offered activities, we opted instead to explore the area on mountain bikes – our best decision to date. We had an unrestricted and complete adventure of biking through the alps. We started off our exploring around the Brienzersee glacial lake (one of the two lakes in Interlaken, located at 567m). From there, we climber over 300 vertical meters to Lauterbrunnen, a small Swiss town with a few houses, cows and a cable car servicing Murren. The ride up the mountain to Lauterbrunnen was a well needed work out after 2 months in Prague. Twice we had to unhook an electric fence and bike through a cow pasture – full of cows – to follow our bike trail. We made it to Murren after a few hours, and boarded the cable car with our bikes. Best idea ever. We rode the cable car from Lauterbrunnen to Murren – 986 vertical meters. Murren is unreal. A small, car free ski town – accessible only by cable car and train. The town services a slew of world class ski resorts (and hotels). We explored Murren until we realized that the sunlight was fast fading, and we had at least 2 hours of biking left ahead of us. The ride down from Murren to Interlaken was incredible. Think: no peddling, high speeds, cold mountain air, winding mountain roads and gravel paths, hands sore from braking, stopping to let cows cross the path, tearing from your eyes your going so fast for so long. The views were unreal – the speed equally unreal. If you ever find yourself in Interlaken, rent a mountain bike and get a map. You will not regret it. Unless you wipe out on the ride down from Murren, you’d regret that.

I never thought I would have the privilege of seeing the Swiss Alps at such a young (and ideal) age. It has always been something I wanted and imagined I would do, and I am so happy that I was able to experience this beautiful part of the world in the manner that I did. The Swiss – are awesome. They are a small population in an even smaller country – yet they kill it in nearly every regard. Politically they are essentially entirely neutral, they are one of the cleanest countries in the world and are internationally regarded for a number of their services and industries. The bank notes were the most secure and coolest bills I have ever seen. Bean, I brought you home a few Swiss Franks so you can see what I mean. Victorinox, Swatch, Toblerone and Sigg (to name a few) are all brand names that dominate their respective markets – all Swiss. Further – the train, funicular and cable car networks that connect the absurdly steep mountains are nearly all Swiss engineered and constructed. The Swiss definitely command the most respect of any culture / country I have seen thus far.

swiss-trees

Just as I did when I left Eleuthera, I made a promise to myself that I will return to the Swiss Alps at least once more during my lifetime. Hopefully in 3 weeks, when the snow falls on Zermatt…

11.06 Istanbul, Turkey

November 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

After a stretch of 2 straight weeks of life in Prague, I was itching to get out of the city and for a change of scenery. Istanbul was the perfect remedy. The city – 3rd largest in the world, is home to over 13 million people and is international in every regard. The English spoken was better than in Prague, the food was beyond comparison and the culture was incredible. The city itself spans two continents – Europe and Asia, and has elements of seemingly every culture incorporated into it’s (very) busy streets.

mosque-square

After landing and settling into our hostel, Dickie, Ellimans and I set off to find one of Istanbul’s famous a rooftop bars. We found a perfect spot on a side street off the main drag which over looked the bustling square. Five winding stories up, this hole in the wall spot served beer and world music and was the ideal Turkish place we were looking to find. We three sat and enjoyed a few drinks as our other comrades started trickling in (8 in all) as their flights landed and they connected with us. Once the entire 8 person crew was assembled, we made our way down the treacherous stairs and found a hookah bar and restaurant for dinner.

The nightlife in Istanbul was much more western than I had expected – and proved to be a great deal of fun. We employed Diego as our trilingual club-guide as we figured that if he spoke English, French and Spanish – that he might as well know Turkish as well. It worked out, sort of.

The Mosques in Istanbul were the highlight of the trip – well, those and our drunk shenanigans in our hand-made hostel, but more on that later. The oldest and most impressive mosque was the Hagia Sofia – which was originally built over 1,500 years ago. It remained the largest cathedral in the world for over 1000 years after it’s completion. The structure is overwhelmingly large – comprised of 6 or so domes which support the main, massive dome. The main dome is currently under restoration, and requires literally 14 stories of scaffolding to reach the top. To think that this construction took place over a thousand years ago was mind blowing. Most of the photos (yellow, gold and green) are from the Hagia Sofia. We also visited the Blue Mosque and the Royal Palace. Of all the religious architecture I have seen in Europe and abroad, the mosques of Istanbul are the most impressive by a long shot. Their architectural style has influenced religious structures for over a thousand years – and been the basis for nearly all recent Muslim architecture.

diego-water-sofia

The hostel: A little place near the center of town, located on an impossibly steep hill. It is no exaggeration when I tell you that Neverland Hostel was hand-made. The walls were shoty brick-and-mortar (not even leveled) construction, the doorways were glued into the drywall (usually unevenly), the walls were hand painted by a local kindergarten (it seemed) and the light fixtures were all improvisations. My personal favorite: a 3 dozen egg carton turned on it’s side with holes punched in the bottom to let the light through. Cost of construction materials, $300; The feng shui, Priceless. Our group of 8 proved too much for the paper thin walls, and we were banished to the basement whenever the staff saw us with a bottle of alcohol – so basically every night after sundown. This, however, was not a bad thing. Save the head spinning aroma of cat piss, the basement was a great place to sing along to Dickie and Ellimans guitar playing and make new friends. We met a few guys on Saturday night who had been backpacking around for the past few months and immediately started swapping travel stories, do’s and don’ts. We spent the rest of Saturday night drinking vodka-fanta cocktail in the basement with our new buddies. DJ Bring the Noyes (Andrew Noyes Elliman) took over the iPod speakers and something of a dance party began to take form circa 3 am. Great night.

dorm-beds

Sunday morning came and the Istanblue vodka snuck up on some of us faster than expected. We all began making our way to the train station en route to the airport, and gradually lost member by member due to some form of hangover symptom. We did, however, all make our flights back to our respective destinations. In all, I highly recommend Istanbul to pretty much anyone looking to experience culture, nightlife and history all wrapped up into one enormous city. You need to see it for yourself.

dark-gate