Friday, July 31, 2015

Whitewashing The Past: The Renaming Of Negro Bill Canyon



Near Moab, Utah, there is a popular hiking canyon currently named Negro Bill Canyon.  The name used to be one that is now extremely offensive (it also start with "N."  I think you can figure it out.), but it was changed to "Negro" back when "negro" was a polite and correct term for a person of African-American heritage.  Clearly, there are several problems with the name "Negro Bill Canyon."  One is that no one uses the term "negro" much now, and it sounds borderline offensive.  Also, the man in question was most certainly never called "Negro Bill" by anyone while he was alive, so it's sort of silly to name the canyon that.
The media is covering both of those reasons when they discuss the possibility of renaming the canyon yet again.
From the Salt Lake Tribune today we have this:

Amid Confederate flag scrutiny, Utah reconsiders controversial canyon name


The renewed national scrutiny of the Confederate flag has officials again considering changing the name of Utah's Negro Bill Canyon, a title that is offensive to some but a point of historical pride for the state's largest NAACP chapter.

Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann said the name of the picturesque canyon in southern Utah is outdated at best.
"We should evolve," she said Wednesday.
She is planning to ask the council to recommend a name change to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names as soon as Aug. 4.
The Moab canyon is named for William Granstaff, a black cowboy who ran cattle there in the 1870s. Landmarks named for white historical figures are not generally prefaced by race, McGann said, and the canyon should bear his last name instead.

*******

Naturally, there are some opposing views.  Jeanetta Williams of the NAACP of Salt Lake City does not like the idea of losing the part of the name which identifies William Granstaff (or possibly Grandstaff, as some claim the name was spelled that way) as Black.
Granted, this is also a good point in the argument about whether or not to change the name to Granstaff or Grandstaff Canyon.

Now, my point in this post is not whether or not the name should be changed.  My point is that everyone in the media is whitewashing William -- not by shedding a racial identifier, but by ignoring history.

Let me clarify something here: the Shafer family was among the first settlers of Moab, Utah.  And my grandfather, John Lloyd "Sog" Shafer, is quite famous there, having The Shafer Trail, Shafer Canyon, Shafer Basin, and Shafer Trail Overlook named after him.  (The Shafer Trail is one of the most famous Jeep/mountain biking trails in the US, possibly in the world.  People come from all over the place to try the thing.  My mother says they'll never know how scary it can really be, though, as they'll never have the chance to ride down it with my grandfather driving his pick up truck, pointing out cattle grazing grounds along the way and paying zero attention to the hairpin curves.)  My father is his longest-surviving child.  Dad's memory is good and sharp, and he remembers the local Moab history of Bill.
According to Dad, Bill was not, as the Tribune puts it, someone who "ran cattle."  Bill was a cattle rustler and a bootlegger who hid up the canyon to stay away from authorities.  Another man also had his stolen cattle up the canyon as well, but the other guy ran from the authorities first, leaving Bill as the main person living up the canyon.
Bill Gran(d)staff was Moab's own local outlaw, and all the locals knew he lived up that canyon, so eventually it came to be called by the name they had for the owner, "N--- Bill."  At the time, the name was sort of a mildly affectionate tribute to their own outlaw.  (Please note: it's extremely unlikely that Bill called himself by that racial epithet, but it is how he was referred to by locals from Moab at the time.  I'm not condoning that name; I'm merely explaining.)
So, to me, the problem with what's in the news is not that people are trying to whitewash William Gran(d)staff's skin color; the problem is that people are whitewashing the past.  The canyon was named for an outlaw.  That shouldn't be left out when people talk about Bill.  (He was apparently quite successful at what he did, also, but he eventually ran when authorities caught up with him.)  He was what he was: African-American, clever, successful, and an outlaw, a bit like Robert Leroy Parker.  (Parker is better known as Butch Cassidy, and nobody ever whitewashes his history.)
Personally, I think the canyon might be renamed Outlaw Canyon to reflect both men who were there, as well as avoid racial problems.  (However, I do think changing "Negro" to "Black" and thus having "Black Bill Canyon" has a certain piratical ring to it.  :) )
But whatever is done about the name of the canyon, the media needs to be truthful about the past.  Stop pretending Bill was something other than what he was.  It is not racist to admit he was a colorful character for more reasons than his skin tone.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The 2015 Utah Shakespeare Festival: Reviews of King Lear, Henry IV part 2, and Shrew

Yesterday I reviewed the three non-Shakespeare plays at the 2015 Utah Shakespeare Festival; today I present to you my reviews of the three works of the Bard they offer.
I must admit that 2015 does not have a most tantalizing line up: Lear is depressing, Henry IV part 2 is difficult if you haven't seen Richard II and Henry IV part 1, and Shrew is just not a work for the 21st century (the only one of Shakespeare's plays that was not forward-thinking and timeless).  However, that does not mean one should disregard the Festival this year.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's mid-life plays, written around the same time as such masterpieces as Hamlet and MacBeth.  It is based on a mythological man who may or may not have actually existed as a king of some small area of England before even Egbert in 827, rather like King Arthur, but with a much more depressing tale.

(Note: this photo is from the Salt Lake Tribune, as bard.org now prevents people from posting or pinning their photos. I must laugh at the Tribune review of this play, however, as the ignorant journalist called it "full of sound and fury," apparently unaware that that line is from MacBeth, not Lear.)
The play begins with Lear's dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Reagan, and Cordelia, based on which woman will make the best public declaration of her love for him.  His youngest daughter, Cordelia, displeases him, and he withholds her portion.  Later, his two other daughters, sick of dealing with Lear's entourage of 100 boisterous, filthy knights, end up pushing him into a tantrum in which he stomps off into the wilderness.  There he meets Edgar, legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who is pretending to be mad because his half-brother, the bastard Edmund (played superbly by Brendan Marshall-Rashid, who was not very good in Charley's Aunt but who clearly does better at tragedy than comedy), has tricked their father into thinking Edgar wants to depose him.
The play is gory: Gloucester's eyes are dug out on stage (this looks pretty convincing in the Festival's version; squeamish audience members may have to close their eyes for this part), Cordelia is hanged, Lear dies of heart problems.
It is very intense and probably not for everyone.  But if you like Lear or you like tragedies, this is an excellent production.  There are no weak actors in this version (even Melinda Pfundstein, who is usually so boring, has found a role that fits her as Goneril).  David Pichette (whom we saw last year as Malvolio) is an amazing fool to Lear.  Drew Shirley makes Oswald physically deformed and memorably wimpy and despicable.  And Tony Amendola is an incredibly convincing Lear.
This is a tough play, but it's done well.

Henry IV part 2 is also superbly done.

(Photo from the Tribune again.)
But the problem with this play is that it's in the middle of a series.  In Richard II, a weak king is deposed by Henry Bollingbrook, who really was just trying to reclaim lands that were rightfully his.  This Henry becomes king in Henry IV part 1, but he's wracked with guilt over killing Richard, and worried about his son Prince Hal, who spends far too much time partying with the fat and funny Falstaff for the king's liking.  Later, however, Hal goes to war to defend his father from the traitorous Hotspur, even killing the young man in the end.
Henry IV part 2 continues the tale, beginning right after the death of Hotspur, showing Hal dealing with the war, his younger brother who double-deals with prisoners, the death of Henry, and putting away his friendship with his old buddy Falstaff.  But the play clearly needs a sequel, which is the glorious Henry V.
The problem with seeing JUST Henry IV part 2 as a lone play is that it would be like reading JUST The Two Towers or JUST Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or JUST watching The Empire Strikes Back.  It's a middle play, bridging between other plays in the series.
The best thing about seeing Henry IV part 2 is Sam Ashdown, who plays Hal.  Handsome and intense but also believably mischievous with Falstaff, Ashdown is perfect for this role.  (And both this year and last, he elicits gasps and/or nervous giggles from every straight female in the audience between 12 and 90 when he enters the stage shirtless.)
Falstaff is played by a different actor this year (from last year's Henry IV part 1).  John Ahlin isn't quite the same, but he is funny.
Overall, I would recommend this play only to those who are at least familiar with either Henry IV part 1 or Henry V.  To a total Shakespeare newbie, this play would be a bit confusing, I think.

And then we have Taming of the Shrew.
The problems with Shrew have nothing to do with the Festival; their production of the play is about as good as it can get.
No, the problem with Shrew is that it's one of Shakespeare's early plays and that, while several of his plays show racist or sexist characters, this is the only play that glorifies and romanticizes abusive relationships.  If Shakespeare had written Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, it would have come out as Taming of the Shrew.
The plot of the play is that Baptista Minola has two daughters, Kate and Bianca, and he refuses to choose one of Bianca's numerous suitors (note that he's the one who chooses, not her, even though she does get her first choice, simply because that man has a very clever servant who makes it work out) until Kate is married off.  Kate's problem is that she's sassy and says what she thinks; she will not obey her father or any other man.
One of Bianca's suitors has a friend, Petrucchio, who has come to town in search of a wife who is rich. Petrucchio is honestly informed about Kate, but he decides her huge dowry is worth it, and he likes the challenge of taming her.
Her marries her with her father's permission but against her will.  He shames her publicly.  He abuses her emotionally, mentally, physically, -- and it's hinted sexually -- for days, depriving her of food and sleep, contradicting what she says and pretending it's for her own good, isolating her from her family so they can't rescue her.  And when he has finally broken her spirit, he brings her back to show her off as a trained animal, winning bets on her obedience, as if she were a dog.  In the end, the much-changed Kate gives a speech about how women must obey their husbands; she's explaining how she intends to survive this abuse for the rest of her life.
And this is supposed to be funny.
Granted, Brian Vaughn does his best.  The man is funny, but there's only so much one can do with making a sadistic narcissist funny as he abuses his captive.
Fortunately, there is true comic relief in Petrucchio's most amusing set of servants.  And the subplot with Bianca's suitors is funny without the abuse.  Sam Ashdown proves he can be funny as Lucentio, and Michael Doherty, whose silliness falls short of real comedy in Charley's Aunt, is truly a funny Tranio. Eric Weiman also makes even the scant part of Biondello into something delightful.
So, who should see Shrew?  Well, since there are so very, very many women who are not bothered by abuse in Twilight and 50 Shades (NOTE: I have not read 50 Shades.), I suppose there are many who will find the abuse in Shrew to be equally romantic here.  And men who are comfortable in roles of benevolent patriarchy may not even notice anything wrong with the plot.
In other words, this play should go over very well in Utah.
Now, those bothered by abuse, well -- you might well enjoy the servants and the subplots; I know I did.

And thereby hangs a tale... a review. :)
(PS. that's a line from Shrew, just in case you didn't know.)


Addendum: More info about the plays and tickets can be found at bard.org.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The 2015 Utah Shakespeare Festival: Reviews of Charley's Aunt, South Pacific, and Amadeus

I go to the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, Utah, almost every year.  (I missed 2012 when I had two surgeries and a relative's wedding taking up my summer.)  I love it.
And every year I post reviews, all of which end up getting many hits, so I know people are searching  for this information.
I usually go to the Festival during preview week, which means my reviews are up just as the true season opens, but this year I was in Iceland at that time, so I went to the Festival this week.  But it's still early in the season, so I'm going to review the plays anyway.  Today it will be the non-Shakespeare plays, tomorrow the Shakespeare plays, and Sunday or Monday I hope to have a review of other things to do at the Festival.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1961 by Fred Adams (who's still going strong and very visible at the Festival).  Now in its 54th season, it offers a mix of Shakespeare, a musical, and comedy, and a non-Shakespeare drama most years.  (This will change next year, as they will have new facilities and will be offering a slightly different mix.)  All play and ticket information may be found at the Festival website, bard.org. (Hint: if you wish to buy tickets online, the new website still has a lot of issues with Safari, so either call them or use Firefox if you get desperate, although it's beyond me why website developers cannot seem to make pages work for more than one browser.)

The non-Shakespeare comedy for 2015 is Charley's Aunt.
The new festival website will not allow me to post a photo to this blog, so all I can do is give you a link to see photos.  (Can you tell that I don't like the new website?  It won't let me pin the photos to Pinterest, either.)
Ah, ha!  The Salt Lake Tribune had this one photo I managed to get off their site -- not the best one from the play, but at least it's a photo!


This play was written in the 1890s as a farce.  I expected it to be as funny as the festival's 2014 production of Boeing, Boeing or their 2011 Noises Off! or 2010's 39 Steps, but it wasn't.  I suppose a big part of the reason for this is that Michael Doherty, who has the biggest comic role in the play as Babbs, plays it in a way that my grandmother would call "soft."  He acts like a 12-year-old showing off, and it's just nowhere near as funny as the humor we've come to expect at the festival from actors like Brian Vaughn, David Ivers, Quinn Mattfield, and Aaron Galligan-Stierle.
The basic plot is that two Oxford students, Jack and Charley, are in love with a couple of girls and want the girls to come to lunch so they can declare their feelings of love before both girls must leave town.  The problem is that the girls will need a chaperone.  Charley's aunt, the Lady Lucia, an English woman who married a Brazilian man of wealth and who is now a widow, is coming to visit Charley.  The boys arrange the lunch, assuming that the aunt will be a fine chaperone, but she sends a telegram announcing her delayed arrival.  The boys are desperate -- until they realize that their buddy Babbs just happens to have a woman's costume for a play he's in.....  Babbs has to be Charley's aunt -- even when the real Lady Lucia shows up.
Even though this production is not as funny as it could be, it is still delightful.  Lady Lucia, played by the lovelyChristine Jugueta, and Sir Francis Chesney (Jack's father) are both very funny.  It is still very well worth the price of the ticket.

The musical this year at the Festival is South Pacific -- and they've done a practically perfect job.  (The only downside is that the director chose to cut the song "Happy Talk," which leaves an obvious and gaping hole in the show.)


(Again, this photo is courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune, the only one I could get to work on blogger.)
The set, lighting, and sound of this production are done very well.  I was very impressed.  (Can I tell you how fun it was to see the chair in the military office scene be identical to the chair I have used at school for years?  My chair was a vintage 1950, and this set piece looked just like it!)
Nearly every character in this has been cast very well.  Nellie, Emile, Joe Cable, and Bloody Mary are perfect!  And they sing so well!  Luther is hilarious.  The officers are convincingly rough.  The only casting that doesn't work is Liat.  For Emile's two children, the festival managed to get local Tongan children to play the roles, and Bloody Mary is played by a woman of color who looks possibly African American in the interviews but who makes a fine "Tonkenese" woman in the play.  But Liat, her daughter, looks Korean.  In no way does she look Polynesian.  It's not a big deal, but since they tried hard to get a Polynesian look for the others, Liat looks off.
Anyway, this is a fabulous version of this play -- and I've seen numerous versions.  Don't miss this one!

The serious, non-Shakespearean drama for 2015 is Amadeus.


(Photo from the Tribune again, because bard.org is not letting me use their photos.)
Like most people, I'd seen the movie Amadeus years ago.  But this is not the movie.
In the movie, Mozart is still the focus of the play, and his rival composer Salieri is a Disney-esque villain.  The movie is, as described by David Ivers, Festival artistic director and the actor who plays Salieri, a "thriller."
But the play at the Festival has evolved; it's now a tragedy.
According to Ivers this is the fourth new version the playwright has created since the movie.  The end is very different.
And this is Salieri's story now, not Mozart's.  Salieri has Hubris and the tragic flaw of not realizing that the contract he's made with God is one-sided; God is not part of the equation.
David Ivers is fantastic in this!  And Tasso Feldman is a superb Mozart with an amazing array of emotions.  This is a gem of a production.  Do not miss it!

There you have my reviews of the three non-Shakespeare plays.  Drop by tomorrow for the rest.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oslo: The Folk Museum

By my second day in Oslo, the stenosis in my back was making it so that I had to stop and rest every 10 minutes or so, which severely limited what I was able to see and do -- and it also made me scared, sad, and downright grumpy.  I really wanted to see the Viking Ship Museum, but it was just too far of a walk from the ferry boat dock; I could not do it.  (I cried.  Really.  This was very frustrating for me; I am currently limited to the activities of someone 30 years older than I actually am.)
I did, however, manage to walk to -- and around a small part of -- the Norwegian Folk Museum, which is an open-air, living history museum.
Apparently, sometime in the 1880s, King Oscar II of Norway had a few older, traditional Norwegian buildings moved to near Oslo in an effort to preserve the country's past.  This was the beginning of the museum.
The most famous and most striking of these buildings is this stave church.


(Click to enlarge the photo.)
The church dates from the 13th century and was built in Gol, Norway.  It was moved in 1884.  It seems to be entirely made of wood, much of which is beautifully carved (around the doors and post supporting inner parts).  It's small and dark inside, but it's very lovely.  Unfortunately, it's also very popular and jammed with tourists.  (I had to wait a long time to get this shot with so few people in it.)

There are various other buildings with handy, costumed guides (mostly college students) in them.  Here's a street of buildings with the traditional sod roofs.


The school house was very tiny.  Unlike the school house in Old Deseret Village (the open-air, living history pioneer museum in SLC), where I was often slotted during my volunteer days there (terrorizing cub scout troops who didn't know that I couldn't really switch them for being disruptive), there was an actual grating put in to separate the tourists from the docents.  This made things absolutely jammed in the closet-like area where everyone wanted a chance to see.

I was lucky to get this shot by shoving my camera lens through a gap in the wire.  However, a shot a few seconds later (while my poor camera batteries were recovering from having to light up the darkness of the building) would have been better, as the "teacher" actually grabbed the girl by the ear and dragged her to stand in the corner!  (I couldn't have done that with the cub scouts!)
I later learned from another docent that these children were there for a week of summer day camp.  They go to school for part of the day and then return to their assigned "families" to garden, spin wool, chop wood, etc.  This adds to the realism for the tourists and helps the kids learn quite a bit -- more than just visiting for an hour or so.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oslo: A Day at the Museums

After I left Iceland, I flew to Norway and then spent a few days in Oslo.  By this time, my back, hips, and legs were really giving me problems, so I could not walk very far or do anywhere near as much as I wanted to.  This was very scary and frustrating.
However, this post is not the place to go into all that.  Let me share with you a few of the things I was able to see.
(Remember to click on the pics to enlarge them.)

The Castle was closed for some state function during the three days I was in Oslo.  I did manage to walk around the grounds a bit.  It was humid and miserable, but the sun was making for great lighting.  This is Oslo Harbor as seen from the castle grounds.

And this is the Castle as seen from Oslo Harbor. :)
I took a small ferry boat across the harbor to the small peninsulas where the main museums are.  I managed to see two of them in one afternoon: the Kon Tiki Museum and the Polar Ship Fram museum.  ( I attempted a third: the Maritime Museum, but I was just in too much pain and could hardly navigate -- excuse the pun -- through the preserved cruise ship there.)
The former houses both the Kon Tiki and the Ra II, which Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl used to make his famous raft ocean crossings in the mid-twentieth century.  I was very impressed with the museum and its displays.  (It also had plenty of benches scattered about, which I really needed.)  The Polar Ship Fram museum housed two small ships of which I'd never heard before, so I had a harder time figuring out what was going on.  The ships were amazing -- and the museums were built so you could walk around the ships on several stories, then board them.  The trouble was that all the charts, dioramas, interactive videos, and hands-on displays were arranged by theme (food, sled-dogs, Norwegian vs. British exploration, history of the ship, etc.) rather than by chronology.  There was no big overview anywhere that told the ignorant observer why there was a museum for these ships.  Plus, in the large museums shop, they had all kinds of books on arctic exploration, but not a single guidebook to the museum or a book about either ship.  That was SO weird.  Thus, I enjoyed that museum, but I came out of it still rather confused.  In fact, I learned a lot more about the Fram Museum and the Fram itself from Wikipedia than from the museum, in spite of all the museum's spectacular displays.

Unfortunately, the dim light necessary to preserve everything in the museums led to crappy photos, so I won't bother to share them with you. (Remember: I only have a point-and-shoot camera, and the flash just isn't bold enough to light up a whole freakin' ship.)

This is taken from the dock right by these three museums.


I liked this shot of the polar explorers' monument with the flags flying in the background.
I got a lot of good shots of the harbor that day as well, and the ferry ride itself was quite enjoyable.  If you're ever in Oslo, I definitely recommend a ferry ride over and a day at these three museums; they're all right next to each other, which really helps a visitor.  There's parking as well, for those who drive around from Oslo.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cozy Mystery Review: If Onions Could Spring Leeks by Paige Shelton

Disclosure: This book won't be released until 8/4/15.  I snagged a copy from an out-of-state friend of mine who got it from the publisher -- and passed it on to me (because she knows I love cozies!).

Yes, I am a cozy connoisseur.  Cozies are my go-to books for recreational reading.  I go through dozens of them every year, mostly from my local library and from the free kindle e-books.
And I'll be honest; al lot of cozies are crap.  Plots are usually pretty predictable, characters are often so thin they could be suncatchers, and copy editing is non-existent.  (For a full-length rant with examples on poor copy editing in cozies, check out this post and read item #8.)
But Paige Shelton's cozies are a cut above the average.  Really.  I've read every single one she's got out there, and I can tell you.
OK, they're not perfect.  First of all, a cozy isn't meant to be fine literature.  When I rate If Onions Could Spring Leeks with five stars, I'm comparing it to other cozies, not to Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman.  Cozies aren't supposed to be Pulitzer Prize material, so I'm not judging them by the same standards.
And it's true, Shelton's copy editor is simply NOT catching the problems with compound nominative and objective case pronouns; they're wrongly used nearly every time in this book, and I want to green pen the things!  (English teacher habits.  What can I say?)  And we won't even talk about the "...if we'd swam through the water..." on page 165.  (Wait.  Yes, we will.  It's "swum," dangit!  Use the past participle form with a helping verb!!  Oh well.  At least Shelton knows how to use the correct tense when a character is speaking in the past about something that has happened further in the past; so many, many writers don't.)
So what does stand out with Shelton's works?  Characterization.  She's a star at creating super-realistic characters (even when they're ghosts).
Let's talk about Onions specifically.  Betts, Gram, Teddy, all the ghosts, Opie (Teddy's annoying girlfriend) are all separated and distinct from one another.  The only boring character is Cliff, Betts' "nice-boy" cop boyfriend.  He's dull beyond words, but I suspect he has to be that way so we can feel Betts tension with her love triangle.  And I must add that Betts' other guy, Jerome, who is a ghost cowboy, is simply the hottest boyfriend character ever in a cozy!  (Usually, I don't like paranormal cozies, but this one works for the most part. I'm willing to forgive Shelton's nebulous rules about ghosts because her plots work.)

Onions is the fifth book in Shelton's Country Cooking School series, the basic idea of which is that Betts Winston has come home from law school, back to Broken Rope, Missouri, where she now assists her grandmother teaching cooking classes.  The catch is that the ability to see ghosts -- and sometimes travel to a parallel plane of past existence -- runs in the Winston family, at least while they're in Broken Rope.  Thus, former inhabitants of the town get mixed into all Betts' mysteries.
In Onions, it's high tourist season, and Betts has volunteered to drive a motorized wagon to shuttle tourists around town during the days (as the cooking classes are on a summer night schedule).  She finds the body of an annoying, unlikeable man in the barn which houses the wagons -- and then someone knocks her out.  The trouble isn't finding suspects; the trouble is that far too many people had a reason to get rid of the man.  But Shelton also works in a side plot involving ghosts-- one of whom was murdered and several of whom might have been murderers.  The murder from the past is tied by various locations to the modern murder, so Betts is stuck in the middle of both.
And let's not forget that sexy Jerome! ;)  Betts' ghostly boyfriend is so much more interesting that her live one!
I would recommend that readers take the whole series in order to make things less confusing, but I suppose one could just "drop in" and read this book and still enjoy it.  (The problem would be that because Shelton is so much better than average cozy writers at developing characters, a reader who has not seen the growth of Betts, Gram, Teddy, Jake, and Jerome might lose quite a bit of the depth that's actually there.)

PS.  Shelton gives recipes for nearly every food item mentioned in the book -- except for green bean casserole (but then everybody knows how to make that!)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Iceland: The Food And The Water

I happened to mention pizza and hot dogs in yesterday's post about Iceland -- and that's all anyone latched onto.  :(
Look, folks, I've traveled to 25 different countries, 25 different states in the US, and two territories (one US, one UK).  I can assure you that not every place has haute cuisine or even a decent greasy spoon.  Before I went to China, for example, I always told people that I really liked Chinese food.  Well, after three and a half weeks in China, I was ready to say that what I actually liked was Chinese American food.  In fact, I'd never been so happy to eat at a McDonald's in my life as I was the time they dropped us off at one three weeks into the tour.  Sure, I liked lotus root and the Asian pears in China. And I'm not a picky eater, but after having to eat cubed, cold goose fat; hot camel hoof soup; stewed duck tongue; fried duck tongue; and various meats I couldn't identify, I was gravitating (when I was given a choice) toward noodles and whatever mystery veggies I could find.
English food is pretty grim as well: seriously overcooked vegetables, salads that were more mayo than lettuce, bland meat.  And the Scots?  Well, as much as I love that country, the only native foods I actually liked were haggis, neeps, tatties, and IRN-BRU.  Sometime I'll post on some of the weird things I found there.
In contrast, Germany, Austria, and Italy have great food.  And Spain's not bad either.  Hungary was a tasty place, and Finland was pretty good.
France -- ugh!  I have no idea why people talk about French food like it's good.  Every single thing I every ate there on two different trips was mediocre at best.  I remember one "salad" with dandelion greens, chunks of "bacon" which still had skin and bristles on it, and a poached egg on top.

All that being said, let me sum up Iceland this way: Go for the scenery, not the culinary experience.

Lonely Planet raved about the lamb soup at the hot pots.  Sival, our guide raved about the lamb soup at the hot pots.  I tried it; it was mediocre at best.  (I did find a deli sandwich of lamb, mayo, and cooked peas which was quite tasty, however.)
Sival also raved about Icelandic tomatoes, which are grown in hot houses from supposedly virgin soil (never used for plants before, so therefore theoretically packed with minerals).  Every tomato I had in Iceland was mealy. I was unimpressed.
So, what was good to eat in Iceland?
Well, Lonely Planet recommended this hot dog shop in the city center of Reykjavik.

Lonely Planet was right: these hot dogs were awesome!
At the recommendation of LP, I ordered what appeared to be the house specialty dog.  I forget what it was called, but it was huge, sausage-like dog, grilled and served with bacon, wilted red cabbage, fried onion, and mayo on a pannini-type "roll."  It was absolutely delicious!
It was also about $10.00.  But then everything is over-priced in Iceland.
Another food item on which LP was spot-on was Skyr.

Skyr is an Icelandic yogurt so thick that it makes Greek yogurt seem soft and runny in comparison.  It comes in flavors appealing to Americans: strawberry, banana, vanilla.  (Not like yogurt in the UK which comes in flavors like gooseberry.)  The sample in this photo was "banana split," which was a banana/chocolate/vanilla combo.
Skyr is wonderful stuff.  I hope some ambitious American company will start importing it soon.

So, lamb, the hot dogs, and Skyr.  That was about it for tasty stuff in Iceland.  The rest of it ranged from mediocre to ... well, mediocre.

And then there was the water.

I don't think anyone in Iceland has a hot water heater.
The cold water tastes very good; the hot water smells like the hot pots.  And it comes out SCALDING!  You have to be super-careful.  It's also so soft that it's impossible to tell if you've washed all the soap off or not.
I didn't mind the water situation, but it certainly was different.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Iceland: The Golden Circle Tour

On my last day in Iceland, I did the popular Golden Circle Tour.  I was fortunate to have Sival as a guide, as he was well-educated and knew a great deal about geology, energy, and history.

Let me share with you a few photos of some of the stunning things I saw.  Remember to click on the pics to enlarge them.

One of the first things we did was to tour a geothermal power plant.  Did you know that Iceland runs its electricity, gets its heat, melts snow off the roads, and gets all its hot water from drilling down into the ground near earthquake fault lines?  I only knew about the heating system before my visit there.  I was also stunned to learn that Utah could do the same thing.  However, since it would be good for the environment and not require a whole lot of people to run the system once it was in place, it's unlikely that the Utah legislature would even consider such a thing.  After all, Utah's government officials passed laws to force teachers to teach the importance of coal mining because they (the legislators) believed we were teaching kids too much about alternative energy forms which were better for the environment.

We then got to see this waterfall nicknamed Faxi.  We also learned about salmon fishing in Iceland.  (See the salmon ladder on the left of the falls?)


It was then on to Kerid, a volcanic crater used in Goldfinger.

This is Gullfoss, a powerful, two-tiered waterfall that the British were going to dam for hydro-electric power.  Fortunately, they were interrupted by WWII, and then they lost their rights to the land.  It's hard to imagine what the world would have lost had they succeeded.  (Notice the people on the path and ledge and you'll get a feel for the size of this thing.)

Eventually, we made it to the Geyser Hot Springs area, which is sort of a mini-Yellowstone.

Hot pots and wildflowers.

This is Geysir, "The Gusher," which is the original geyser that gave us the word.  However, it's no longer a geyser, but just a hot pot now.

This geyser is Strokker, the churn.  It goes off about every five minutes, usually in two blasts.  It's only about 50 feet away from Geysir.

Our last stop was Thingvellir National Park.  This is where the North American and Eurasian plates are moving apart at the rate of an inch per year.  The fault lines are pretty obvious here.  Also, the water here, both in the streams and in the lake, is so pure and clear that you can see everything in it.  The lake is very popular for scuba diving.
This park is also where the ancient vikings held parliament, as there is a rock formation here which makes a perfect podium on a ledge.  (I wanted to hike up to it, but my back was giving me too much trouble.)  It was at one of these parliament meetings in about the year 1000 that they voted to switch from paganism to Christianity.  The Thingvellir Church is a reminder of that event (although the church isn't all that old).


After a long day of touring, I was dropped back at my hotel.  Unfortunately, as this was a weekend, all the local (and by "local," I mean about 3/4 a mile away) cafes were shut up but one (as they catered to employees in the area, not to tourists).  This Icelandic pizza was my best option for dinner.

It was a soggy crust with chicken, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and peanuts.  The school lunch pizzas are more appetizing than this.  Ugh.
(The best meal I had in Iceland was at the hot dog shop in the town square on my first full day there.)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Iceland: The South Shore

Iceland is a country with desolate lava deserts and incredible, glacier-fed waterfalls.  I took a bus tour along the south shore of the country on my second day there.  Here are a few of the highlights.
(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

This is the majestic Skogafoss, some 200 feet high and producing a enough spray to make visitors need rain gear.
I found this awesome, in the original sense of the word.

The rock formations look like those along the Oregon Coast, but this is the black sand beach of Vik i Myrdal, with tremendous gusts of wind and dangerous waves.  Backing the beach are basalt columned cliffs and small caves.  It's no place to put down your beach towel and go for a dip, but it is very dramatic.

This is a corrugated metal bridge over what amounts to a huge arroyo from glaciers and lava.  At this point in the tour, I had been handed off to a 20-year-old employee of the tiny Hofn airport, as the tour company had made a mistake and had not put me on the correct tour.  The upside of this was that the girl let me stop wherever and take photos; the downside was that she had no college education and really didn't know much about a lot of things, including place names (even in Icelandic).  Therefore, I haven't yet been able to figure out exactly which glacier that is which we're approaching in this photo.


Here's a closer view of the glacier.  We drove right up to the base, but it didn't look as dramatic up close as it did from a distance.

Here's another waterfall by the side of the road.  I don't think this is a famous one, so I'm not sure if I'll ever learn if it even has a name.
But don't worry; I plan another post with photos of more really spiffy waterfalls from my tour into Iceland's version of Yellowstone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Iceland: Reykjavik Harbor

On my first full day in Iceland, the weather cleared up to be gorgeous in the afternoon.  I took a boat tour of the harbor.
Here are a couple of the best photos for you.  (Remember to click on them to enlarge them.)

Here's the harbor itself.  It's not very big, but then, Iceland doesn't even have half a million inhabitants in the entire country.  That dark building in the back is an arts/concert center designed with faceted glass blocks that resemble the basalt pillars so common on the island (also in Northern Ireland and the Hebrides of Scotland, such as on Staffa).  It's a very pretty building.


The Icelandic flag is in the foreground, and Reykjavik (as viewed from the back of a boat) is visible behind.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Iceland: Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon

At the end of June, I went to Iceland.  I'd never been, and it had been in my mind ever since I'd had two Icelandic kitchenmates when I lived in Scotland.  In fact, I even had a trip all planned before the volcano blew in 2010.
At any rate, I finally made it.  And, in spite of my back's acting up and causing me lots and lots of scary pain, I did manage to see quite a lot.  
I took 1057 photos, which is hardly what Max would have taken, but I do think it's a bit much for a single blog post. :)  So I thought I'd just do a post on my very favorite thing that I saw there: Jökulsárlón, or the Glacier Lagoon.

I'd seen glaciers before in Canada and Switzerland -- and I saw more in Norway later on this same trip. But I'd never seen an iceberg before this.
The  Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (no, I can't pronounce that either) melts into a lake, which, in turn, flows out to the sea from a very short (like, 2 blocks long) river.  The lake, the river, and the black lava sand beach are filled with small icebergs.  Some of the icebergs have a layer of ash from the 2010 volcano.  Arctic terns, which look like mini seagulls, are everywhere.  It's desolate but totally beautiful. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

Here are a few photos so you can glimpse what I saw.  (Remember to click on the pics to enlarge them.)


This is the lagoon with the glacier in the background.  You can see a man and a small boat on the shore for size reference.

Notice the volcanic ash on some of the icebergs.  And isn't that blue just such an attractive color?

Again, people on the shore give you a size reference.  These are not icebergs like the one that sank the Titanic; they're tiny by iceberg standards.  But they are lovely.

Here are the small remains of icebergs on the black lava sand and gravel beach.

Naturally, I plan to post more Iceland stuff later.  Stay tuned. :)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Writing Prompt Photos: Great Salt Lake

I occasionally like to pull photos out of my collection and post them as writing prompts.  Here are a couple of Max from one of our trips out to the Great Salt Lake.
Remember to click on the photos to enlarge them.

What comes to mind with this one?  Camera nut?  A humorous tale involving rising tide and/or an ATV?  Seagull attack?  Or perhaps the desolation of the place (it's actually Black Rock Beach) will inspire a post-apocalyptic tale.

No, he's not in the Arctic, but feel free to write an exploration tale of the frozen north.  :)
Here Max was actually standing on a large "lake" of salt crust.  The salt layer was about an inch thick over smooth sand, but it was tough and did not crack under our weight as we walked.

Saturday, July 4, 2015