Category Archives: WORLD

Enchanted Rock

Brilliant red Indian paintbrush wildflowers below the Enchanted Rock batholith
Indian paintbrush below Enchanted Rock

In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas.  I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.

Alexis wearing backpack
Me and my backpack

When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.

We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep.  My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree.  Problem solved.  I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.

And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.

At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape.  We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith.  From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country.  After that we hiked around the Rock.

Eroded granite menhirs framed by aloe plant in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, TX
Rock formations near the trail around Enchanted Rock

After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs.  It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.

The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails.  He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.

Alexis looking back over her shoulder from her seat on a railroad motor car
All aboard!

It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!

Return to Flight

Finally the stars aligned for me to regain my currency as a sailplane pilot.  The weather, the gliderport runway conditions, the two-seat sailplane and the instructor all became suitable or available at the same time!

While flying with an instructor at the start of a new season or after a long layoff isn’t really mandatory, it IS a good practice.  In this case, I took advantage of the excellent instruction provided by CFIG Keith Miller and under his watchful eye performed two complete flights and one simulated emergency:  a “rope break” at low altitude, necessitating an immediate return to the runway.

It was a good workout and Blanik 5 (a Czech-made Super Blanik L-23 trainer) is a good ship.

 

Seen from the flight line, this is SCOH’s L-23 “Blanik 5” on final approach.

Sign for the Times

A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument.  This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning.  So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park.  The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.

This spirited artwork caught my attention.

wishing-well decorated with flowers and Day of the Dead skull art

How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.

All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.

This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.

 

Ubiquitous Pets

While revising my story for the upcoming anthology Pets in Space, I’m thinking about pets of all kinds.

Pets are everywhere in this country and probably other Western countries too.  (From what I’ve read, even in China, where people have long been more likely to eat dogs than befriend them, a culture of dog-owning is showing up in the cities; and some folks in Muslim countries are going against the cultural grain to have pet dogs too.)

Dogs seem to have the most elaborate culture of any.  Their care, feeding and other aspects of ownership occupy rather a lot of bandwidth in our society.  Cats are probably close behind and horses – a lot fewer of them, but much more infrastructure per animal – a close third and then maybe birds.  But there are accommodations for pet rodents, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, arachnids, and insects. (Yes, insects. A young friend of mine had a pet Madagascar Hissing Cockroach – a rather magnificent creature.  When I was a kid I had a pet praying mantis named Monty in a terrarium.  I fed Monty cabbage butterflies from the back yard: I’d offer Monty dinner by holding the butterfly by the wings.  Monty would sway back and forth and then snatch the butterfly with his forelegs.  I don’t remember sticking around to watch Monty devour one.  The ones who got away fluttered and perched around the terrarium and Monty got to hunt them.

The U.S. post office has just issued Forever stamps celebrating pets, with quite nice renditions of creatures ranging from horses to hermit crabs.

gerbil_stamp

 

Mountain Wave

Soaring in mountain wave is magic.  A sailplane flies forward while ascending rapidly, smoothly, silently and possibly to very high altitudes.  (For the technically inclined more info is here.)

I wrote mountain wave into my novel Downfall Tide without having experienced it until very recently.  That was at SoaringNV in Minden, Nevada. Because of wave and strong soaring conditions generally Minden is one of the premier soaring sites in the world.  Still I was lucky to be there when there was wave.

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21,200′ high in a Duo Discus sailplane – with instructor Elizabeth Tattersall.

 

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Lake Tahoe off the left wing

 

The atmospheric conditions that produce wave often produce lenticular clouds, which are peculiarly lens- or pancake-shaped:

Minden_lennies

Lennies in Carson City the night before.

Sugar House, Salt Lake City

 

Sugar House Park3

Beautiful place, Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City: a really nice urban park with magnificent views.  The early Mormons tried to raise and process sugar beets here, which didn’t work too well, and the sugar factory became a prison.  It had to have had as much sorrow and anger as any other prison, and on at least one occasion it was the site of a gross miscarriage of justice – when Joe Hill was executed for murder as likely retaliation for his labor organizing activities.  Now the former prison ground has trees and ducklings and kids on bikes and couples picnicking on the grass. A stream runs through it that’s cold on the hottest days, because it’s snowmelt. Places can be redeemed.

. Sugar House Park5

 

Piping Down

There’s one sure-fire way to get Episcopalians to pipe down and listen up. I’ve seen it work at potlucks and now at an organ concert Friday night. The concert was by Dr. Philip Kloeckner, who teaches keyboard at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and directs the choir at my church, which is why the Shepherd School organ hall filled up with Episcopalians happily and loudly nattering. When it came time to begin, the emcee said, ‘THE LORD BE WITH YOU!” The audience instantly chorused “AND ALSO WITH YOU!” and awaited the emcee’s next words in perfect silence!

And what a concert it was.  The Shepherd School organ is a magnificent instrument with 5,000 pipes. It can sound like any of several eras of historical organ.  Philip gave us at least three distinctly different organ sounds in music by various composers.  His last piece was an improvisation on two Christmas carols given to him on the spot.  After thinking about it for all of half a minute,  he wove “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” into an incredible fabric that seemed to involve pulling out every stop on the organ and sounding every pipe from the tiniest tinkling one to the massive pipe that sends a vibration through your chest if you’re in the audience.

Comfort, Joy and Creativity

Per today’s New York Times, you can rent live potted Christmas trees in Southern California. It isn’t cheap, but it gets you a quite nice tree that does not proceed to die in your living room. And: “Families can even order the same tree year after year to see how it has grown. ”  Somehow this seems as touching as it is silly.

And so is this:  my craftsy colleague Sarah not long ago informed me that earlier this year a call went out to the knitting community for wool sweaters for lots of little penguins rescued after a bad oil spill Down Under. There was a knitting pattern online.  Knitters the world over responded with a flood of tiny sweaters.  With some of these the knitters got really creative – bright colors, colored borders, even tuxedo patterned knit jobs.   The results, as reported in Fashionista (!) online, were adorable. And it worked.  The wool sweaters kept the birds warm until their oil-soaked, cleaned-up feathers regained their natural oils, by which time the sweaters shredded off.

Speaking of adorable, one of the Circulation student assistants here at Fondren Library, unbeknownst to us,  created a YouTube video of herself and several confederates studying in the Library in Finals to a soundtrack adapted from a pop song and with full-bore choreography.  That video has been a big hit around here.

Meanwhile everything else that’s going on in the world is going on.

Penguins strike us as lovably odd species, but it’s Homo Sapiens that’s genuinely peculiar – in ways that are good and bad and indifferent and profound and never more so than at this season.

Smart City

Growing up I thought Columbus had to be the biggest small (-minded) city in the state of Georgia.  Things have changed!  Besides renewing the historic downtown and many other achievements, Columbus is working with Phenix City Alabama to create the world’s longest urban whitewater course.  They’re taking out two old mill dams and giving the Chattahoochee River back its natural undammed flow, plus sculpting the rapids so as to attract paddlers ranging from the church-excursion level up to world class.  Way to go!