Friday, September 30, 2011

San Juan Postcard with an Excuse

Ouray, CO. So why would a reputed curmudgeon, who typically belittles postcard scenery, bother with this postcard, taken today on a hike with both of my dogs? The key word is 'both'. My little poodle is acting older now that he is almost 16 and a half years old. That's like a person in their eighties. So I haven't been taking him on hikes with my younger dog, Coffee Girl.

Today we actually drove (blush) the van up to a trailhead. The little poodle was so frisky that he wouldn't stay in the van and sleep like I expected. He insisted on going on the hike. I had to improvise a leash, since his collar wasn't even installed. Instead of tiring in five minutes, he charged the leash, and acted like he could go for hours.

This isn't the first time that I've underestimated him. By the time we crossed the creek and got back in the van, I was getting pretty misty-eyed just thinking about the wonderful life we've had together and how, miraculously, there's still some left.

Back at the van, he didn't want to get in. He was on an endorphin high.

As usual it seems that dogs are necessary for a hike or outing to make a strong impression on me. The scenery, fall colors and all, just doesn't cut it, by itself.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tablet philia or phobia?

It's rare for me to experience gadget lust. Normally all the sex appeal has gone flat for the boring ol' gadget by the time this late adopter gets one. But recently I've gone crazy reading about Tablets; not the iShackle line of products made by Apple, of course. Their gadgets are for aspirational consumers, whereas I am a maximum bang-for-the-buck, no-nonsense type of customer.

This is about the Toshiba Thrive tablet, 10 inches, with the Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) operating system. The Thrive is distinguished from all the other Android tablets by its user-removable battery and its ports: it has a full-sized USB port, a slot for a full-sized SD card, and a full-sized HDMI port. Thus, the Toshiba Thrive tablet is the one most suitable for functioning as a substitute for a mini-notebook computer.

So you can see why I got excited. Then I searched for Android versions of the programs that I use now on my Paleozoic laptop: Firefox with AdBlock, Picasa on disk (not in the cloud) for editing photos, and a word-processor for text files. But when somebody mentioned that Adblock can't block the ads in apps, my bubble burst. So that's what this bandwagon of mobile gadgets and apps is all about!

I absolutely insist on blocking ads from my internet experience, not because I'm an NPR/PBS stereotype, and not because I can't see value in ads -- respectable, non-flashing, non-dancing-bimbo ads, that is. I just don't want the internet experience to fall into the same sewer as the boob toob.

I've just begun to read about Firefox and AdBlock for Android, so forgive me if my fears are exaggerated, but it appears that Firefox-with-Adblock hasn't gotten too far on (Honeycomb) Android systems. I wonder if they're even trying that hard. Perhaps they've already surrendered to the eventuality of Google's hegemony over tablets and smartphones through its Chrome and Android browsers and operating systems. Obviously Google is not in favor of ad-blocking features in browsers.

Once again I'm just guessing here, but is it possible that all this hoopla and hype about the latest mobile wunder-gadget really isn't about technology per se. It's about pushing the suckers towards apps just so the industry and its advertisers -- and not the ad-blocking browser -- control what's on the screen. It has been difficult for companies to monetize their websites, since readers expect everything for free on the internet. So the internet world needs to turn the readers of freebie websites into the viewers of apps, which either cost money to buy, or bombard you with noisy, filthy ads. Eventually they'll do both, just like the boob toob.

Advertisers must also be excited about every driver in America paying more attention to their smartphone or tablet than the road. Think how easy it will be to see some provocative ad on their gadget, and then surrender to their most juvenile desires for instant gratification by pulling over to a store or drive-through in the next couple minutes.

Thoreau would be impressed with the great progress we are making. The same ad, aimed at a couch-potato in his easy chair, can't produce any sales until the guy finds his car keys, his shoes and coat, etc. It could easily be 20 minutes between an ad and a purchase at a store, provoked by that ad. A modern economy can't work in slow motion like that!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Count Tolstoy Versus the Colorado Arts Scene

Artists, artists everywhere! From the northern Rio Grande Valley, Sante Fe, Taos, Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, and into Colorado, the whole region is infested with artists. I'm even squatting on the driveway providing driveway security services at the home of a couple Colorado artists. You'd think that art was a major part of the economy. Since when did Americans become so arts-oriented?

If a traveler takes travel seriously -- that is, if travel is more than trivial sightseeing and generating digital postcards -- he needs to ask: what is this place good for? What is special about it? Then he needs to do some thinking about a topic that the location brings up.

I reread Tolstoy's What is Art? (*) Before showing some juicy quotes from that book, let's first try to imagine an elderly Tolstoy -- with his beard and earnestness, now an ex-novelist, working to reform Christianity, and totally outside the intellectual mainstream of Europe -- walking through an art festival in summer in Colorado. I'll bet he would be scowling the entire way. You don't have to sympathize with the Prophet Tolstoy's views to believe that his ideas about art are worth listening to. From Chapter 2:

But the ordinary man either does not know, or does not wish to know, all this, and is firmly convinced that all questions about art may be simply and clearly solved by acknowledging beauty to be the subject-matter of art. To him it seems clear and comprehensible that art consists in manifesting beauty, and that a reference to beauty will serve to explain all questions about art.
But what is this beauty which forms the subject-matter of art? How is it defined? What is it?
It is taken for granted that what is meant by the word beauty is known and understood by every one. And yet not only is this not known, but, after whole mountains of books have been written on the subject...the question, What is beauty? remains to this day quite unsolved, and in each new work on aesthetics it is answered in a new way.
From Chapter 4:
Instead of giving a definition of true art, and then deciding what is and what is not good art by judging whether a book does or does not conform to the definition, a certain class of works, which for some reason pleases a certain circle of people, is accepted as being art, and a definition of art is designed to cover all these productions.
No matter what insanities appear in art, when once they find acceptance among the upper classes in society, a theory is quickly invented to explain and sanction them;
So the theory of art, founded on beauty, expounded by aesthetics, and in dim outline professed by the public, is nothing but the setting up as good of that which pleases us, i.e., pleases a certain class of people.
People who consider the aim of art to be pleasure cannot realize its true meaning and purpose, because they attribute to an activity, the meaning of which lies in its connections with other phenomena in life, the false and exceptional aim of pleasure.

Therefore, however strange it may seem, in spite of the mountains of books written about art, no exact definition of art has been constructed. And the reason of this is that the conception of art has been based on the conception of beauty.
The chapters that I condensed are concerned about What Isn't Art?, rather than what is, which was in later chapters.

(*) I wasn't able to find a text file version of this on the internet, but only the Google books version

Friday, September 23, 2011

He Came to the Mountains, in His 57th Year...

...comin' home, to a place he'd never been before.

Or something like that. Being back on the road I am mindful of doing things better; hence all the preaching about being flexible and avoiding rigid habits when traveling.

There is a fair bit of adaptation necessary here in Ouray, although the deck was stacked in my favor by the generosity of my "clients", Mark and Bobbie Johnson, over at Box Canyon Blog.

When walking the sidewalks in downtown Ouray, it is fun to imagine what various people like best about a scenic mountain town. I almost feel sorry for the bourgeois matrons from a big city; they must be bored to tears with nature and scenery, after a few minutes.

When I watch them it is always with an impish smirk on my face. Think of the classic Disney movie, Homeward Bound (The Incredible Journey), in which a cat, Sassie (voiced over by Sally Fields), and two male dogs try to make a long distance journey over the mountains to get back to their people. At one point Sassie the cat says, "I'm so sick of nature I could puke. After this I intend to live indoors on a velvet cushion, filled with bird feathers."

Restaurants are the other big thing for mainstream tourists. No wonder vacations to Las Vegas or stay-cations at luxury hotels back home have become popular. A lot more people come to a town like Ouray than really should: very few tourists walk the marvelous trail system around town.

But let's ask what people look at most fondly when they do stay away from the shops and restaurants. The mountains is the obvious answer; but it's not that simple. It could be running streams, old mining culture, snow, slot-like canyons, waterfalls, or cliffs. I was surprised when a passerby in town wanted to know about a grassy ridge that sits at the top of the southern face of one mountain. I too have been obsessing over this. Maybe ridgeline fans are more numerous than I thought.

Actually you can just barely see the ridgeline at the top of the photo; it inclines toward the right. (As always, clicking the photo enlarges it.) But I can't keep my eyes off of it. I got closer to it on today's hike:

Recall Oscar Wilde's words in An Ideal Husband: 'To look at a thing is quite different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty.' There is no shortage of land-forms to practice that wise saying on, here in Ouray; but in the case of ridgelines, this wise saying is upside-down. Looking at a ridgeline, you must admit it is subtle and unspectacular. It's beauty doesn't come from looking at it, but rather, in appreciating how the rest of the world looks when seen from a ridgeline; better yet, imagine the experience of being on the ridgeline, moving along it, rather than looking at anything.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rounding the Bend

On the trail to Upper Cascade Falls, Ouray CO. Unlike my little poodle, who would pose for the camera at the slightest suggestion, Coffee Girl is difficult to photograph. Her mostly black color restricts the photographs to silhouettes. Even worse, the second she hears the camera click on, she obediently runs back to Daddy to see if she can help. Herding dogs are so attentive!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When Night's Candles Burned Out

It was a rough night. Once again I fell asleep to a DVD movie, Roman Polanski's MacBeth. No director understands cold rain, mud, and peasant agriculture as well as Polanski, perhaps because of his early life in Poland. Watching this movie is a great thing to do when you want to glory in the misery of unpleasant weather.

Around 1 in the morning I awoke to find the electricity off in the RV. I was curious, so I walked out to the edge of the rocky shelf that serves as a driveway here and saw -- not just another hateful night of cold, stygian rain and gloom -- but the entire town of Ouray CO pitch black. Another Colorado summer: Out, out, brief candle. Against this visual emptiness, the noise from the Uncompahgre River stood out alarmingly, enraged as it was by a night's rain.

The movie overwhelms the viewer with oppressive rain, mud, and cold. Remember that special efforts were required in that pre-CGI era to make rain register on a movie screen. Just before MacBeth had his best friend Banquo murdered, there were two remarkable speeches back to back. (The movie screenwriter changed Shakespeare's play to put these speeches back-to-back, and in a different character's voice.)

The two speeches referred to ambiguity and confusion about the sky at sunset in the northern latitudes of Scotland, combined with a little late medieval superstition. The moody cinematography of a northern sunset accentuated the Bard's words, or was it the sad and ominous cadence to the actors' delivery of those words?

The worst thing about this miserable, socked-in weather that we've been having lately is the lighting of the sky in Ouray, because the town is nestled into a hole in the San Juan Mountains; and now suddenly, this disturbing ambiguity of night and day seemed like a thing of great beauty. I remember a great load being lifted from my shoulders when this realization hit me, and broke out into a smile and sigh.

In the Southwest proper, each day starts exhuberantly the second the sun cracks the horizon. You hurry to get out and enjoy a perfect morning before the heat and wind of mid-day. So it was natural for a Southwesterner to be bothered by the pale and extended dawns and dusks of Ouray. But no more. Only in the uncomfortable here and now, high above the enraged, black roar of the Uncompahgre, would these things have combined into an awful beauty.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Last Dance for a Laptop?

My circa 2004 Toshiba laptop doesn't like to boot up on cold mornings, and I thought that was the problem today. But instead, it gave a message about a hard drive crash being imminent. I wonder if it meant it.

I have mixed feelings about this. It's nice being the Second Chance Store for the surplus gadgets of an RV friend, and this laptop has been a winner. But I've been impatient waiting for the oldie to die so I could get something modern.

Unless somebody knows of a stupendous deal, I will probably go with a 12 inch Asus mini-laptop, with an AMD E350 processor, Windows 7 Home Premium, 2 GB of RAM, $440. I couldn't care less about how big the hard drive is; in fact, I wish it didn't have one. The 12 inch size should be just perfect for easy reading plus portability; after all, I will need to cart it into a wi-fi spot on occasion, and I hate dragging in a larger laptop since they're like a patio flagstone.

I wish that the gadget write-ups mentioned how many watts are used under normal web surfing conditions. How nice it would be to drop from 3.5-4.0 Amps DC to 2-3. I've always wanted to just leave the laptop on most of the day when I'm camping without hookups.

Actually this is great timing, since a recent birthday gift card for Walmart is burning a hole in my pocket. Unfortunately they won't let you order over an 800 phone number anywhere. (See the Decline and Fall of Walmart, posted a couple weeks ago.) So when the old laptop crashes, how do you order a new laptop online? Answer: you spend $40 driving to the nearest Walmart store and use their computer to order a new one. Of course, there's always the pre-emptive approach.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Colorado Outdoor Culture

This driveway in Ouray CO is crawling with milkweed tussock caterpillars. Earlier I tried to photograph how "punk" they look. Today I followed it around for a couple minutes and photographed it showing off its technical climbing skills. And this little bugger was fast! He seemed so intelligent: he'd look (?) at one angle of attack, feint towards it, and then change his mind to an alternative route.

I won't be here in winter when the ice climbers show off their death-defying skills in the Uncompahgre gorge, so this caterpillar will have to serve as substitute.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The "My Way or the Highway" Syndrome

In their heart's heart, don't most professional travelers know they are spoiled brats? The idea used to gnaw away at me, quietly and in the background.

In the real world there are many things about the job, family, weather, etc., that people wish were better; but they're not, and an individual is usually powerless to change them, at least in the short term. All he can do is try to keep them from bothering him by using some mental discipline and creativity.

Most adults accept platitudes like this, but practicing them isn't so easy. For instance I currently enjoy a rare driveway-sitting gig in a uniquely beautiful area, Ouray CO, while enjoying house amenities. Most travelers would consider themselves extremely lucky to have an opportunity like this.

But the weather has turned against Ouray, for about ten days now. Remember that most people yearn all year for September and October, since autumn is usually the best time of the year. But this year, I'm missing it. Yea I know, boo-hoo.

I haven't even been back on the road for a month yet, and I'm already backsliding into spoiled brat mode. This shows that a 3-year attempt at residency didn't bring me back to the real, adult world.

So why did my hiking partner take off this morning, guilt-free, for warmer and dryer climes? Let's do a little "wandrin" about that. I claim that comfort, ease, and perfect weather are insipid and bland on a permanent basis. Far more interesting are challenges of one type or another. The roller-coaster of Agony and Ecstasy is also quite interesting. Perhaps my hiking partner thinks, "Agony? I've done that. It's over-rated."

Agony might indeed be over-rated when it is imposed arbitrarily from the outside. But when it is played at, voluntarily, it adds spice to life. It is even noble.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On Perfecting the Human Sole

There is supposed to be at least a grain of truth in old adages and proverbs. Take, as an example, 'Invent a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.' Sigh. I'm still waiting for Nike or some other big shoe company to beat a path to my door and offer a six-figure buy-out for my invention of the ultimate bicycle footwear.

Cycling footwear is better at its job than hiking footwear. You'd think it would be just the opposite, since feet are far more likely to be problems for hikers than for cyclists. (A certain blogger claims that the weak link is about halfway down the body, for cyclists.) But since the situation is upside down, perhaps the hiking footwear industry could learn something from the cycling footwear industry.

For instance look at these upscale cycling shoes carefully:

We can laugh off the toeless innovation as being inappropriate to hiking. But look at the ratchet-strap. What a marvelous device for footwear: you could build shoes extra wide and then let people cinch them up, in seconds. A shoe that fits a wider variety of foot widths could easily lead to more comfort and cost-savings, across the shoe industry.

For hiking shoes, I would guess that the ratchet-strap needs to be in the lower, toe-box, position.

Although traditional laces can offer a lot of width adjustment, they are slow and cumbersome, so you tend not to do it when you're on the trail. It's important for the tongue to go down close to the toes, so that the toe box stays adjustable.

I'm convinced this would revolutionize hiking footwear. But what good is it for customers to be happy? Let's talk about making the industry happy. Look at the two screws at the toe in the bottom of the cycling shoes:

Although I've never had a pair of them, you are supposed to mount toe pegs with these two screws, in order to climb steep hills after stepping off the bike. (Some bloggers prefer to dismount the bike with more unconventional techniques.)

But why wouldn't such toe-pegs be advantageous to hikers on steep climbs? The industry could offer hard rubber, steel, titanium, unobtainium, and metal matrix composite toe-pegs. Equipment forums would hum with the polemics of tech-weenies arguing for their favorite. As the industry evolves, the metal toe-pegs could be improved to foam rubber, which would be ultra-light and wear out in two weeks.

A shoe company, with the same business model as Apple Computer, would offer toe-pegs with eccentric, seven-sided screws that were incompatible with the rest of the industry, and cost three times as much.

But it was time to stop making fun of the footwear industry and buy a new pair of waffle stompers. Weighing all the pro-s and con-s, I decided in favor of the prestige brand offered by Walmart, Ozark Trails ($20). My guess is that they're made out of the same materials -- and in the same country -- as $130 boots with labels such as North Face, Salomon, Keen, etc. I'm still wandrin how my hiking partner controlled the green-eyed monster when I broke these boots in, on our first hike. He refused to be impressed, even by the perfect match with the hiking socks.

Maybe I should try harder: say, Smart Wool hiking socks at $20 per pop.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Plastic Art of Travel

Ouray CO has an "Art Walk" on a certain evening, once per month. Many boutique towns do something like that. But I didn't go. Why not? Wouldn't it be to my advantage -- especially as a traveler -- to make my life a little more varied and pleasurable by taking advantage of all the talent that is offering its wares to the general public?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Art and Travel

People who have experienced little sickness or injury in their lives should be expected to over-react to some bad luck. The other night I felt dizzy and nauseous, and am still not sure what it was about. The next day I felt better by the hour, but was still unnerved by being sick for a change.

During the afternoon siesta I grabbed the mp3 music player and punched in some of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack music. It was so medicinal to have something for the mind to focus on, besides discomfort. Some music must be hoarded and rationed, lest repetition destroy its power. It was strange how this familiar piece of music had a different and more powerful effect on this particular day.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Oddities of Ouray

The long hours of dawn and dusk would be the hardest thing about living in Ouray long term. Should we call it "sunrise" when the morning sun finally clears the mountains that are 2000 feet over the town, or should we call it "cliff-set"?

I follow the trail information left to me by Box Canyon Blog. On the approach, it always seems like there has been a mistake: there's no way that a hiking trail could go up that cliff. Surely only a serious rock climber with all the equipment could do it. But the trail does make it up.

Yet, a hiking trail is so simple: it's just a triangle cut transversely to a steep slope. How could it work as well as it does?! If the trail wasn't there you would never bushwhack it; it would be too daunting.

How was the trail built in the first place? They didn't look up the terrain on Google Earth and run a software program that told them to put a switchback right here or right there. As usual, I feel humbled by the hardiness of miners in the 1800s. What softies we are today!

Coffee Girl and I have hiked quite a few of the trails that can be done from our front door. (My gasoline "fast" is on Day 10 or so. There is no better way of traveling economically.) The odd thing is that we only see a couple other hikers each day, usually on the way down of course. There must be a couple thousand tourists in town on a Labor Day weekend. What the heck are they all doing?

Sunday, September 4, 2011


You'd think that the caterpillar I showed a couple days ago would turn into a moth like this instead of a boring moth. If there's any justice in the world today's polyphemus moth started off as a plain ugly caterpillar.

This photo (click to enlarge) was taken by my nature consultant in the American Midwest who saw the moth out by the mailbox at the street, walked back to the house to get a camera, and returned to the mailbox to find the moth still there. Then the nature consultant tickled the moth with a blade of grass, he/she claimed, to open its wings.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sole Brothers

It's fun to meet other bloggers and I've been lucky enough to do a lot of it lately. I learned of Ed Frey from the Bayfield Bunch when the latter when through Silver City; but Ed, I missed. He came through Ouray CO recently, where we had breakfast together.

Ed walks 4-5 miles early every morning and usually has breakfast along the way. He certainly has a powerful and graceful stride, no doubt because of his methodical walking.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Punked Out

I was laboring in the dirt under the hot sun like a peasant in the fields: shoveling, jerking weeds, carting them away without a burro to help. Geesh, the sort of things a guy has to do to get world class scenery, ideal weather, and eye-popping hiking trails, with free camping and amenities in Ouray CO.

But my back-breaking toil and suffering momentarily abated when I saw this little guy in the newly disturbed ground.

I've never seen such a spiked, punk caterpillar before. Even more than his interesting appearance was his attitude: he was frisky. It's not exaggerating to say that he was a sentient being, instead of the usual slug-like personality. When I brought the camera in, he seemed to look (?) at it: who the hell are you and what's your problem, the look seemed to say. Then again, maybe it was the other end that was aiming.