Monthly Archives: February 2012

Iceland, a Singular Place

One of the travel essays in Book of Unforgettable J0urneys is “The Loneliest Place on Earth” by Pico Iyer.  Reading it the other night brought back memories of a place I learned to love–Iceland.  Iyer gets it right when he notes Iceland’s “golden quiet” and “epidemic oddness”.   It’s a truly singular place.

Just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s closest neighbor is Greenland.  There for the first time in March, I passed the Tjorn, a lovely lake in the middle of Reykjavik’s old section, several times each day. When I first saw it, locals were feeding ducks at one end while others strolled on the ice at the other end.  On day two, surface ice had melted.  On day three the Tjorn was again completely covered with ice.

Reykjavik is a low-slung, colorful, sophisticated city best seen from the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja, its landmark Lutheran church and the tallest building in Iceland.

Iyer notes that Icelanders complain of a heat wave when the summer temperature gets into the mid 50s.  In heavy coat with a numb face in early spring, I watched a jogger in sweats trot along the Tjorn.  He slid precariously on ice patches and recovered his balance with great difficulty, but he persisted.  I felt sorry for smokers who stepped outside to light up even though they didn’t seem to mind.

The people have adapted to harshly changeable weather over the more than a millennium that they have lived here.  Their parliament, the Althing, dates from 930, making it the oldest, continuous government in the world.

What seems like emotional coldness in native Icelanders is actually a natural reserve almost assuredly influenced by the difficulties caused by living in a place where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are routine.  They are inherent humanitarians.  Prisoners are sometimes allowed to go home for the holidays.  The literacy rate is 100%.  Turning extreme disadvantage to advantage is routine. Almost all homes are heated geothermally.

Icelanders enjoy a high degree of culture and great standard of living in one of the world’s most inhospitable places about the size of Kentucky.   The Iceland Symphony Orchestra is world-renowned.  Chamber recitals and an opera company are well attended.  Then there’s Sigur Rós and Björk.  I counted twenty-five live theater productions in Reykjavik, a city of 120,000.

My first time there I devoted an entire day to Gullfoss, a pair of frozen waterfalls sixty miles from the capital on the very edge of civilization and a tourist attraction about as far into the interior as winter visitors usually go.  The weather forecast was dire, so I figured that if I were going to sightsee outside of the capital, it had better be RIGHT NOW.

If you look at a map of Iceland, you can’t help but notice that no roads cross its interior. Iceland’s entire center is uninhabitable because it’s 100% sand and mountain with 3 major glaciers.  One, Vatnajokull, is the largest in Europe and the scene of frequent  volcanic activity.  Grimsvotn volcano simmers under glacial ice, ever ready to erupt and cause  havoc.  Eyjafjallajokull, you’ll probably remember, erupted in 2010, causing aviation havoc all over Europe.

On the road to Gullfoss, I watched galloping Iceland horses, incredibly fleeced sheep munching something beneath the snow, and ubiquitous greenhouses in every tiny settlement.  At Gullfoss, the Hvita River flows from a nearby glacier and drops 105 feet in two spectacular torrents…in the summer.   Nearby, but not contiguous, is Strokkur Geyser (or geysir, one of the few Icelandic words that has found its way into the English language).  Erupting about every 3 minutes, I judged it smaller than those in New Zealand and Wyoming (Old Faithful) but still impressive.

On the way back to Reykjavik, I visited a greenhouse.  Icelanders grow everything from exotic houseplants to tomatoes in impressively large facilities made necessary because only 21 percent of the land is suitable for growing anything. Wheat, rye, and potatoes are about it.

One of my travel goals is to rent a car and drive the ring road around Iceland…in the summer.


Australia, Part 24

We continued mostly eastward on the Great Eastern Highway to Coolgardie which one brochure called “one of the best ghost towns in Australia”.  This was only partially true since about 800 people still live there.  However, in 1892, the same year that gold was discovered in the area, its population rapidly reached 15,000. Coolgardie had 3 breweries.  Gold played out in 3 years and practically everyone left.  Actually the current numbers are up since in 1985 Coolgardie’s official population was 700.

Being there was a lot like being in one of the towns on spectacular old Federal Highway 50 from Fallon to Ely, Nevada, one of my favorite drives.  In other words, you felt like you were visiting a moon colony far from services and civilization.  We only stayed long enough for a quick browse of a fairly good gold mining museum. Makes sense.  Gold was actually discovered here in Coolgardie.

By afternoon we were staring down into the Golden Mile pit at Kalgoorlie.  The world’s largest open-pit gold mine in what is said to be richest square mile in the world, this dig at the time of our visit was 1,345 feet deep and more than 50 million ounces of gold had been extracted.  Operations occur 7 days a week, 24 hours each day, 365 days per year.  Nevertheless, Australia produces only about 8% of the world’s gold.  It takes seven 220 ton truckloads of rock to produce one two-ounce nugget.  The Golden Mile mine has a remaining life of less than 10 years.

As a result of this and other area mining operations, Perth, not Sydney which is 3 times larger, has the busiest airport in Australia with a lot of its business being 20-year-olds on their way to jobs in and around Kalgoorlie where they can easily earn $100,000 a year.  The population of Kalgoorlie-Boulder is over 32,000, making it the largest city in The Outback by far.

After seeing the pit, we had a tour of Kalgoorlie, the town where I had the Aboriginal encounter in the park when we passed through going west the previous week.  As we drove down Hay Street, we were told about another tour we might be interested in.  The bus was passing Kalgoorlie’s brothels, and a daytime tour of them is not only possible, it’s quite popular.  No tourists can traipse through in the evening when the girls are especially busy.  If there are other places in the world where visitors are openly encouraged to include whore houses along with the local museums, I don’t know about them.

Open pit is better if you’re a miner.  The next morning we want to the Mining Hall of Fame, actually a theme park devoted to all things mining.  Rob and I opted for the underground tour with an ex-miner who told great, if horrifying, stories. He and his buddies would blast, have lunch while the air sorta cleared, and then they’d move in with drills that, on low, operated at 135 decibels, only 15% of what was possible. He told us that they used to stuff cigarette butts in their ears.  At one point he instructed us to cover ours and he activated a drill.  My protective hands made no discernible difference.  The noise was drum-shattering but mercifully short.   After a few years below, miner’s lungs were full of quartz and other shards that cut lungs to pieces.  The average career was 3 to 4 years, and most miners died between the ages of 17 and 25.  However, they got a job up-top during their last year as a bonus.

Because of the tour, I only had time for a quick breeze through the rest of the exhibits, a  pity since they were so interesting and well done.  While looking, I was very distracted.  I kept thinking about how lucky I was not to have been a miner.


Nelson, British Columbia

Only 31 miles from the US/Canada border, Nelson, British Columbia, is a time-traveler’s delight.  Main town of the incredibly scenic West Kootenays, Nelson is one those places that looks as if it went to sleep about the time Queen Victoria ruled and recently awakened, very slowly.

Nelson’s a brick and granite town of elaborate turrets and 19th century cornices in the rugged Selkirk Mountains that pleases outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers, naturalists, and especially shoppers if Ruth’s reaction is any indication.  Hiking trails abound, many commencing right in town.  Skiing is just fine about 30 minutes south at Whitewater.   The proximity to water and mountain accounts for the presence of many bike and sporting goods stores, like Roam, mostly all within walking distance of each other on busy Baker Street.  Baker is a pedestrian filled corridor lined with shops like the ones your grandmother describes when feeling nostalgic.  More than a dozen sell gifts and crafts. You wont recognize a single store name.  Nelson doesn’t even have a McDonald’s.

More than 350 heritage buildings, many looking like French chateaus, dot the lower portion of Toad Mountain.  The significant ones can be seen by following the Architectural Heritage Walking Tour brochure available in several places, most notably the Visitor Centre on Hall Street.  Nelson is compact enough that all that’s required to experience the past is comfortable shoes and some hill climbing ability.

Named for a 19th century Lieutenant Governor, Nelson rushed into existence when the Silver King Mine opened where the Kootenay River begins to widen out to become the West Arm of visually splendid Kootenay Lake.

Tourist magazines about the West Kootenays are full of photos of enormous trout, golf carts fronting mountain backdrops, people with closed eyes enjoying hot springs, and real estate opportunities.  However, The Recession wasn’t as deeply felt in Canada and a housing shortage increased prices in and around Nelson.

Population about 10,000, Nelson got kick-started into rapid growth when some Washington State mineral seekers stumbled upon a deposit that became the Silver King Mine in 1886.  By 1899 Nelson was large enough that urban mass transit was needed, and subsequent miles of track caused it to become the smallest city in Canada with its own streetcar system.  In the summer, Streetcar #23, built in 1906, still chugs along the waterfront reminding everyone of Nelson’s blink-and-you-miss-it big city in miniature past.

Nelson has been dubbed “the best small arts town in Canada” and the  impressive Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History proves it true.  The art deco Capitol Theater, which began its existence showing silent movies, now attracts audiences to live music and theater productions.

When Ruth and I were at Touchstones, the second floor was devoted to the quite fascinating history of the area and I learned that the Silver King played out after only 20 years, ceased operation, and Nelson dozed off.  In the 1940s the Nelson and Los Angeles hockey teams, however, were in the same league.  Canadian William Henry Pratt made his acting debut in Nelson and went on to Hollywood to achieve fame with a new name—Boris Karloff.

Steve Martin came to town in the 1980s to make Roxanne.   The entire movie, still a readily available classic, was shot here.  When she saw the film, critic Janet Maslin called Nelson “a gorgeous, homey-looking, little town” getting it just right.  If some Hollywood studio decides to remake It’s a Wonderful Life, Nelson would be wonderful as Bedford Falls.


Bland Virginia

I did a blog a couple of days ago about the most common town names in the United States with Greenville being the champ. It got me to thinking about the opposite–towns with unusual names. This sent me to maps and deeply into yet another obsession.

The first one I thought about was boring. Yes. There’s a town with this name just outside Portland, Oregon. I see it on signs all the time when I’m heading south from Washington, where my favorite town name is Twisp. It’s fun (for me) to learn the origin of unusual names and not too hard with search engines like Wikipedia so accessible and, hopefully, correct. Boring, not so strangely, is named after a settler, William Boring, a Union veteran of the Civil War. Twisp derives from a Native American word for wasp.

A lot of towns with odd names honor early citizens. Bar Nunn, Wyoming, owes its existence to rancher Romie Nunn, which is probably also true for Reagan, Tennessee, and Romney, West Virginia. By the way, West Virginia has the distinction(?) of having the largest number of unusual town names–Lefthand, War, Rumble, Cucumber, Duck, Replete–all towns in that state.

Then there’s Intercourse, Pennsylvania, Climax, Michigan, and Hooker, Oklahoma. I’ll let you play mix and match with these and draw your own conclusions. But it’s probably not a good idea to ask the folks in Embarrass, Wisconsin, what they think.

Some town names come with a funny story. A newly settled Missouri town’s postmaster was having trouble getting a name approved and wrote to his boss, “We don’t care what name you give us so long as it is sort of peculiar.” Hence, Peculiar, Missouri. It’s said that Civil War Captain Prosper Parker was settling near Canada “to show you that we can do it.” Result? Cando, North Dakota. I didn’t find out, and maybe don’t want to, how Colon, Nebraska, got its name. Same with Oblong, Illinois, Culdesac, Idaho, and Motley, Virginia. And, yes, there really is a Bland, Virginia.

Ten Sleep, Wyoming, comes from practicality. It was exactly ten nights between some Sioux camps and the Platte River. Pie Town, New Mexico, is named after a dried apple pie business established there. Cut Bank is another term for a gorge and a town in Montana. Two Taverns, Pennsylvania, is pretty obvious.

Maybe Worstville, Ohio, Gross Tete, Louisiana, Show Low, Arizona, and Cope, Colorado, residents are curmudgeons who want to discourage curious travelers from visiting.

Enough, Right?


Busted in Dallas

Last March I wrote about a store called The Women’s Exchange but didn’t say much about its location.

It’s in one of the best tourist attractions in Texas that’s not mentioned in its travel literature.  When I  finally spotted a brief reference to it, Ruth and I headed for the intersection of Mockingbird Lane and Preston Road.

My usual 15-minutes-and-out attitude toward shopping in any store or center evaporated like a rain puddle in the Texas sun within two minutes at Highland Park Village.  We were there for 3 hours, which wasn’t nearly enough time.

Like most men, I don’t like either shopping as entertainment or the behemoth centers that circle American cities.  But I really liked Highland Park despite the fact that I got in trouble for taking pictures of its design details like the classy lion above. I was approached by security and sent to the corporate office to present credentials and get permission.

Highland Park was envisioned way back in 1928, the go-go year before the Stock Market crash, and officially opened in 1931 when the US was near the depth of The Great Depression.  I can only conclude that Dallas residents loved this brand new concept, the shopping center, and made Highland Park successful despite the economy.  It’s still there, still thriving.

Because Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza also opened its first store in 1931, both centers  claim to be first.   Whichever was the tortoise to the hare, Highland Park has three advantages over admittedly historic and fun Country Club Plaza, which we also visited in 2011.  With 105 stores and restaurants, it’s 1/3 smaller than The Plaza, so it has an intimate, more self-contained feel.  Secondly, all of Highland Park’s deluxe shops face inward from that busy Dallas intersection, so shoppers enter it like an exclusive enclave.  Christian Louboutin and Diane von Fürstenberg are fairly new tenants, joining retailers who frequently go by single names like Escada, Hermés, and Chanel.  But there are plenty of local stores too, like the Women’s Exchange that’s worth a trip all by itself.  HP’s newly renovated Village Theater is host to the Dallas Film Festival, which is growing a national reputation. Thirdly, Highland Park  offers over 1,100 spaces for convenient parking in front of or at least near your destination store.   And what fills those spaces will be of interest to men like me with browsing wives who appreciate high-end wheels while sipping a Starbucks.

Focused on a town square concept from the get-go, Highland Park’s developers went to Mexico, California, and Spain to study Hispanic architecture.  It shows.  They were especially inspired when they visited Barcelona’s 1929-30 World Expo where the prevailing styles were Spanish Baroque and Art Deco.  The Village’s overall architecture, however, is a bit hard to pinpoint—a bit Moorish with tiles and turrets, a bit like something a returning Crusader who wandered through Spain might erect in his castle upon returning home.  Whatever you call it, it’s definitely and harmoniously Spanish, and Highland Park is now a National Historic Landmark that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.