We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 12

Shelter-in-place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

An Old Fisherman. I took a long walk down to the harbor this morning. Highway 1 was completely bare of traffic in broad daylight, something I don’t remember having seen before.

On Johnson Pier, I ran into Cary and his dog, Boda. We greeted each other from 6 feet. Cary is an old fisherman who lives on his boat, makes a living working the trawlers that put out from Princeton in the mornings. He has a long beard with little braids in it, which he twirls together. He was blonde, once.

He must have really weird working hours, usually seems to be done for the day if I come around at 9 or 10AM. He hangs around the outside tables next to Princeton Seafood, before the place opens, drinking coffee with a half dozen other guys who look just like him. Cary keeps an ancient Mercedes in the harbor lot, uses it to bring in food. And coffee, sometimes.

I watched as he and Boda climbed up the ramp from the docks to the pier. They both struggled to make the climb, Cary bent over, encouraging the dog. I thought to myself, these two will die within days of one another. Such thoughts are not uncommon, lately.


Feeling the Heat in Japan. Here, we have a shortage of masks. In Japan, where the government is sending masks to every household, there is a shortage of thermometers. With fevers being checked at home and at work, the manufacturers can’t keep up with demand. There’s a call for any unused thermometers people might have at home. If they don’t work, they probably just need new batteries.

Japan must be a really tough place for foreign workers right now. Most of them have only a rudimentary understanding of the language, can’t follow the news. And Japanese apartments can be tiny. You think you feel isolated?

The NHK news service ran an article about a government outreach for these people. It was a headline piece, illustrated with the following stunningly bad photo. I present it here without crop or edit:

Is this the worst news photograph ever? No heads or faces, we have no idea what they’re doing. But, they do seem to be workers of some kind, foreign or not: they have tool belts and all that. The photo was clearly taken with a cell phone by the story reporter, suggesting that all the photographers in Japan have disappeared, probably plague victims. Are we photographers a high risk group for severe infection, like seniors and people with asthma? Stranger things have happened.

The Casino at the End of the Universe

Blackjack for Dummies

I have a friend who gambles. She puts money into slot machines and plays games at tables. She refers to Las Vegas as “Vegas” and seems to go there every other month.

I was amazed at this until I found out that these trips cost her nothing. To encourage gamblers to come, the casinos have programs that let you accumulate points for everything you do there, for every breathless bet. You can redeem the points for charter flights out of Oakland, for hotel rooms, meals, show tickets, all kinds of things.

Aileen has attained diamond status in one of these schemes, which means that she gets even more for her points. It also means that she has to keep going on these trips in order to maintain her status. And so it came to be that I was invited on an all-expenses paid jaunt to a casino in the middle of the desert in Laughlin, Nevada, USA.

Elite Airways

The flight was a charter out of Oakland on a Monday afternoon. In a remote corner of the airport, a tall guy with a curly mustache was yelling something about a gate change. I looked around and noticed that all the passengers for this  excursion appeared to be collecting social security. It was the midweek senior special to Harrah’s in the desert.

And so, our merry old group took off on holiday. The staff on the plane did their best to feed the festive atmosphere with free drinks and organized games. We played bag o bucks, a lottery game with twenty dollar bills. Wow, there are big spenders on this flight, I thought to myself, intimidated. I was appalled at the thought of betting twenty dollars at such odds. The other passengers looked like retirees who saved coupons and counted nickels at home, but on vacation in their comped luxury rooms they were prepared to be high rollers, it seemed.

Pretty soon, everyone was ordering a second round. The flight was starting to get raucus, laughter and conversation shouted above the engine noise. The senior citizen version of spring break in Cabo was on its way to Laughlin.


Across the aisle from me sat a guy named Tony, in his late fifties, basketball beer belly, black t-shirt and baggy shorts. He was loudly introducing himself to a guy two rows back while the stewardess helped him with a seatbelt extender. A large round watch with a complicated dial was on a plastic band around his wrist. He let everyone know he was a tile contractor from Marin. The quiet guy next to him was his partner, but Tony was the boss.

The guy in back was Buzz, balding with a bushy grey mustache. He was in a grey t-shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders. He had a gold watch and a drooping wife with freckles. We learned from his shouted response that he was a retired fireman from San Bruno.

Tony ordered a Jack and Coke and took charge of the conversation. He let Buzz know about his corner lot house, his SUV, his wife and dog. He tipped both stewardesses $5. When we landed, he stepped back to let us deplane first. Charming man.

Harrah’s House of Horrors

An old woman with hennaed hair was chewing gum on the bus that took us to Harrah’s from the airport. In the hotel lobby, she looked unhappily at a long line of Japanese tourists waiting to check in. But our group’s check-in had been handled by the airline and we were able to go straight to our rooms. A view of ducks swimming on the Colorado River nine flights down, and the Arizona mountains in the distance. Every day a cornucopia of brownies, cookies, and chocolate was left on the counter. Abstinence is not encouraged at Harrah’s.

Like the flight, the hotel was filled with senior citizens, and seemed to be set up to cater to them — while separating them in the friendliest way possible from any excess cash. Wide aisles facilitated the passage of walkers and wheelchairs, and Lipton tea was served at the Fresh Market Square Buffet. The ATM machines dispensed only hundred dollar bills, with a $6 fee.

Slots and Blackjack

Next to the lobby was the main casino, an enormous emporium of fifties gilt and  neon, slightly yellowed with cigarette smoke. A large, inimical room with flickering lights and  incessant  klaxons, it contained rows of noisy slot machines and quieter tables of green felt manned by friendly dealers. Baleful money men lurked in the space behind them and cameras watched from above. There were ashtrays everywhere.

Slot machine bets starSlot Machinet at thirty cents. Each machine has a slot where you insert a twenty dollar bill for credits, and another slot for your frequent-gambler points card. People carry the cards on chains, clipped to their belts or collars. Chaining themselves to the machines, they engage in Pavlovian button-pressing behavior and are rewarded with flashing lights and snatches of TV situation comedy footage.

And occasionally with money. I lost a few dollars, but Aileen made a few, so I figured we were even.


After that, we went to play blackjack.

We sat down at a table with a sign reading “$5 minimum bet”, the cheapest table they had. Aileen bought 20 red chips for $100 from the dealer, a young woman dressed like an usher, and made two little piles on the table.

Now, before going into this gambling thing, I had decided to set a strict limit on the amount of money I could lose. Should I reach that limit, I would immediately stop gambling and just enjoy the free drinks.

The $5 minimum was, in fact, a bit more than I had anticipated. But I knew that you have to be firm in these situations, so I decided I had to stick to my original plan. I peeled a twenty out of my wallet and handed it to the dealer. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before giving me four red chips.

My plan was to bet these one at a time, making them last as long as possible before being forced to quit. Aileen was betting two chips at a time, but she was Diamond level. I suppose it was expected of her.

Unfortunately, my stake did not last very long. I agonized over every decision to hit or stand, the dealer cheerfully encouraging me to make up my mind.  But even though Aileen was helping me with strategy and arithmetic, my chips lasted less than an hour. Much less, actually.

I realized it was time to quit, but then I looked over and saw that Aileen had now arranged her chips into a little model of the Great Wall, flanked by two big towers, with some green ones piled on the side like an outpost.  It turned out that she was doing well and was less than eager to leave.

Reluctantly, I reached for my wallet, wondering if I had another ten. But then Aileen pushed one of her towers over to me and told me I could gamble with that.

Things went better after that. I even won some hands, but the game moved fast and it was hard to keep up.


After a while a guy sat down on my right. His name was Bill and he was from Houston, tall guy in a plaid shirt and jeans. He was betting piles of 4 chips.

Seeing that I was a novice, Bill volunteered to give me advice. He told me that he gave Blackjack lessons back home, and I pictured an after-school program for card enthusiasts or maybe a church group. Bill was kind enough to help me through several hands.

After a while, though, he got a little frustrated at my performance. When he got up to leave, he told me, “I don’t think you’re stupid. You’re just unlucky.” I’m not really sure if he was right.


Despite Bill’s coaching I ended up losing half of Aileen’s tower. I was upset about this until I saw that she had managed to accumulate another one. And another green outpost.

But now one of the ceiling cameras had swiveled around toward her, and at last she looked ready to leave.


Fortunately, we didn’t gamble all the time. There were other things to do. Things that points could be applied to.

One night, there was a concert with three country singers (a trucker and two cowboys — you could tell by the hats). Two of these minstrels carried acoustic guitars but did not play them. One of them encouraged the old people to get up and dance, and finally one couple did get up, but no one else joined them. Boy, did they look dumb.

Another day we went for a boat ride to Lake Havasu, 60 miles down the Colorado River. At the hotel dock, passengers embarked on a 60-foot speedboat powered by two nuclear reactors. We were welcomed on board by Denny, our blonde, crewcut captain, an erstwhile surfer from Modesto who had moved here to enjoy the quiet desert life, the small town charm of Laughlin and its ten casinos.

“Your life vests are under your seats. They may still be damp from the incident on Monday.” Denny was a comedian, in addition to being a captain.

But you could see that he savored the serenity of his idyllic riverine life: roaring downriver in the boat at top speed, slamming over the wakes of other vessels to give his elderly passengers a bouncing thrill.

He was particularly fond of cutting suddenly across the channel to attack groups of resting ducks. The innocent birds thrashed frantically, trying to get airborne and out of the way, but some just weren’t fast enough. Every hull-to-duck slam of mallardicide made Denny whoop with excitement, booming along downriver without pause as a red patina spread gradually across the windshield.

At Lake Havasu City we got to see the London Bridge, which was moved there brick by brick to provide an attraction for tourists who don’t like deserts or gambling. Then we had lunch in a diner and came back. It was a fun day if you weren’t a duck.London Bridge

The International Fun Place

It was 7:30 in the morning when we piled off the bus at Laughlin International Airport for the flight home. I thought about Howard Hughes, as the ramshackle aluminum terminal brought to mind the early days of commercial flight. There were four ground-level gates in one big room, and a sort of café where you could buy shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a woman whose name badge read “Kate”.

Our flight was delayed. The passengers milling about were the same group we had come out with. They seemed somewhat more subdued, this time, maybe because of the early hour. Several people carried shopping bags filled with brownies, room booty for their grandchildren. A bouffant octogenarian with a honey drawl was lobbying the other passengers to support her idea for reorganizing future trips to allow for a proper breakfast at the casino. It wasn’t clear what she wanted us to do about it.

It was true that there weren’t very many breakfast options at the café. I bought a bottle of water for $2.96. At the counter, Kate asked me if I had anything smaller than a twenty. I dug around and found a five. “You’re a nice guy,” she said to me. “I don’t care what other people tell me.” Another comedian. “Do you want your 4 pennies?” They ended up in the tip jar.

In the next half hour, she waited on a few customers at the counter, helped an old man with a walker to a table and brought him his coffee, interceded to calm a boisterous three-year-old, kept cleaning the tables and counter. After a while, I tried to buy a sandwich, but she told me the casino was sending over free lunches because of the delay. When the plane finally arrived, she stashed the tip jar under the counter, put on a reflective jacket, and ran out to help guide passengers across the tarmac.

Kate told us that the airport code for Laughlin is IFP. It stands for International Fun Place. She thought the name was ridiculous.

See more photos of Laughlin at http://www.pillarpointposter.com/p102380383

Toronto Travel Notes

Toronto is a big city in Canada, which is a foreign country. I went there and survived. This is my story.

I went to Toronto for Asha’s wedding. Asha is my grand-niece, and she married a guy in the RCAF. His military status allowed them to hold the ceremony in the officer’s mess of the Canadian Forces College. It was all very formal and British, if in some ways unconventional. Polished floors and coats of arms on the walls. There was even a sword. It was held during the ceremony by the the groom’s sister, who was the best man. The parents conducted the ceremony.

Lake Ontario

The Toronto Beaches

After that, I had a day or two to look around Toronto. Canada’s largest city manages to be both cosmopolitan and reassuringly colonial, not unlike the wedding. A freewheeling modern multiculturalism is fused with a bit of Anglican staidness. It’s a civil place where transit runs on schedule, even if some of the new trams can’t get through snow.  A place where people debate a fair price for top-quality weed, expected to be legalized shortly. A cab driver named Mohammed told me real estate is skyrocketing, and people pay for things with polymer currency , the notion of paying with plastic having become universal.

I stayed at a BnB in my niece’s neighborhood, The Beaches, near Lake Ontario. The marketing drivel you find online describes it as a “relaxed neighborhood” with a “small town vibe”. My place was on the block between the beach and a commercial strip on Queen Street (“vibrant”). So, I decided to walk a loop down Queen and back up the boardwalk that follows the beach.

Queen Street

The neighborhood on the slopes above the lake is made up of large brick houses with chimneys and small, damp yards. It is at once cramped and roomy. I walked along Queen Street’s safe, narrow sidewalks among polite seniors and past crowded coffee shops and sushi bars that alternated with old brick apartments. The apartment houses had small patches of grass by their entrances where narrow lawn sales sometimes took place. On my corner, one of these yards had accumulated a more or less permanent contingent of lawn chairs and ashtrays. I ran a gauntlet of smoke each time I passed.

Along the lake shore there is a park full of black squirrels and dogs. The two species appear to have overlapping habitats that also include the streets of the town, but only the dogs venture onto the beach and into the intertidal, where they fetch atlatl-flung sticks and leave feces. Along the boardwalk aging blondes stroll among Chinese couples and accented European professors. Piles of rocks form scenic jetties along the gravel beach. The lake waters glisten. The public restrooms are actually unlocked, and families getting out of parked cars make use of them before heading to the beach.

Something Like Graffiti

Kensington Market

Later on, I went closer to downtown and the vibe was different. The sidewalk on Spadina Avenue was busy with office girls chatting on their way to lunch. A blonde and a fat brunette with a baby stroller were leaning against a doorway smoking. At the corner of Dundas, a Chinese woman stood alone screaming at her phone. Dundas separates Chinatown from an area called Kensington Market.

Kensington is a neighborhood of turbocharged bohemian kitsch. The buildings are completely covered with an amalgamation of contrived graffiti and painted urban mural. There are several blocks of this, a massive chamber-of-commerce retailing ploy spawning a made-to-order bohemian market. “Indie shops” and “cheese shops”. Souvenirs and coffee. There are Indian textiles and incense burners, and of course there is reggae. You can’t sell souvenirs of Toronto without reggae.

Further on there is Graffiti Alley, literally just a random garage-lined back alley nearby that has been spray painted mercilessly until the camera-bearers came. Is the usurpation of urban graffiti by commercial entities to be detested as cultural appropriation? A good thought to put before the accented professors, but I was too tired for such liberal angst. It was hot. I needed food and beer, and not the gluten free nonsense they were serving around here. I headed toward the neighboring downtown area in search of something more upscale. Colonial, if you will.


Downtown Toronto

Downtown is a forest of towers, just like every other city. Some of them face right onto the sidewalk, while others cluster behind lawns on little campuses. Out in front of the smoke-free office blocks, guys on break congregate, lighting up and talking on their cell phones. You have to go inside for fresh air. But Toronto also offers many small parks, where you can go to escape the glass walls.


I found my way to a very spacious bar where I was given a table in a shaded courtyard and a pint of ale and left alone with my thoughts. I looked around the room, saw businessmen in suits, and recalled the darker suits at the Britannically-tinged wedding. In both cases ties had been loosened once the formalities were over. At the bar, a big Bulgarian with a small head was telling stories to his long-haired friend. Above the open collar of his pink dress shirt, a small bubble of chin with a thin fringe of beard looked like graffiti on a bowling pin. I ordered the fish and chips for lunch and waited ‘til the time came to meet my niece.

Click on any image to enlarge. More photos of Toronto can be seen here

I, Grebe

As part of my naturalist training at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve I was asked to write a paper about one of our local marine birds.

Professor Evans, I want to apologize. I simply couldn’t find the time to do a report on grebes, with all the research and writing and everything, so I just went down to the harbor and looked around until I found a bird. In exchange for half an order of fried clams from Princeton Seafood, I got the damn thing to tell me about itself. I just transcribed what it had to say. I hope it’s okay.

I am a grebe.

That is to say, I am a member of the order Podicipediformes, from the Podicipedidae family. Our family includes 22 species in a half dozen genuses, but if you see one of us on the Coastside, chances are it’s a Western Grebe, like me.

My ancestors appeared in the fossil record 25 mya, during the late oligocene. We diverged, at that time, from our cousins, the flamingos. We know this from studies of our DNA and anatomy, which have shown that we have genes in common with flamingos and share eleven morphological traits. Birds cannot count to eleven, though, so I am unable to tell you what those traits are. But we grebes are not proud of the flamingo branch of the family. The Podicipedidae would never be burlesqued as pink lawn statuary. And then there are those ugly flamingo feet. More about feet later.


I am a 2 kg waterfowl with ducklike build, black and white markings, a yellow bill and bright red eyes. Some of my cousins, like the pied-billed grebes, have evolved thick bills that can be used to crush shellfish, but mine is long and sharp and is used to spear small fish. My lifespan is 3-4 years. I want to make every minute count.

The name Podicipedidae means “feet on ass”. It sounds better in Latin. But that’s what I have: big, beautiful, flat feet. They are well adapted for swimming, which is what I use them for, since I don’t walk on land very much and they don’t help at all when I fly. They don’t help that much when I walk, either, because they’re placed so far back under my belly that I keep falling over like a drunk.

You will notice that my toes are in the shape of rounded lobes, another helpful swimming adaptation. Because of this, people used to think we Grebes were related to the Loons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Loons are boring birds, they’re all from Canada, and they can’t build a proper floating nest. But it turns out that they evolved lobed feet independently of the grebes. It’s an example of convergent evolution. Of course, the Podicipedidae did it first and the loons just copied. Happily, grebes and loons are now classified separately, in the orders Podicipediformes and Gaviiformes.

In addition to my feet, you may wish to admire my feathers, which are beautiful and functional. So beautiful that you idiots used to hunt us to make hats with them. (They are quite tasty, too, and I often eat them while I am preening. I like to give some to the new hatchlings, as well. You can never get enough fiber.) We Grebes have unusual bottom plumage that sticks straight out from the skin, bending backward to form a dense covering that traps air under the body. By flexing the feathers we can adjust our buoyancy. We can even swim with our bodies submerged and just the head and neck exposed. I’d like to see a loon do that.


In the summer, I put on my fancy mating feathers and go out looking for girl grebes (grebe cruising). This usually involves an elaborate mating ritual during which my honey and I caress each other with pieces of seaweed held sensuously in our bills (grebe foreplay), after which we rear up and charge across open water together and then dive in (grebe synchronized nuptials). A loon would be too tired to mate after all that. A clutch of 3-4 eggs is then laid (grebe consequences) and must be incubated for 24 days.

Anyway, you guys won’t get to see any of  that, because we grebes don’t mate on the coast. I just crash on the beach out here during the winter months, and then I migrate home for the summer to mate. Who needs the fog, anyway? My real home is a mound of twigs floating in the middle of a fresh water lake near Livermore.  (We have a view of the trailer park.) It took us 3 days to build and it floats out on the water, so the eggs are away from predators, not like the dumpy loon nests on the shore. After the kids hatch, they ride around on our backs for a few days ’til they learn to fish for themselves. Then I can come back to the coast and chill.

So we grebes are short-term visitors from over the hill. Some of my fishing buddies fly in from Oregon or the Sierras. Here’s a map of the places grebes hang out. Not all of us winter near the ocean, by the way. Many older grebes enjoy their retirement year in Mexico’s warmer climate (snowgrebes).

grebe range map
South America demonstrates continental podicipedidopenia


Like other tourists, grebes come to the coast for the water sports and seafood. I enjoy paddling around the harbor, diving, and spearing anchovies with my beak, though occasionally I’ll take a break from that and eat a crustacean or some insects.

I am not pressured very much by predators when I am out here on the water. The local raptors get plenty of field mice on the farms. If one becomes interested in me I may dive underwater to escape it, sometimes with a dramatic splash. A grebe is most vulnerable to predation while it is still an egg.

But all is not completely well in Grebeland. Our population is thought to be in decline. This may be due to pesticides, fishing lines, boaters disturbing our nesting colonies. On the coast, we are vulnerable to oil spills and netting.  It’s not easy being grebe. So please do what you can to protect our habitat. Leave the french fries, not the wrapper.

And thank you for your interest in grebes.


While waiting for the doctors to be done.

I am sitting in the lobby of the hospital at UCSF’s new campus at Mission Bay, waiting. This place is the strangest blend of the elegant and the crude. In the surgery waiting room, a relatively small space that seats a couple of dozen people, there are three wide-screen TVs along one wall. They sit about 3 feet apart. All three are turned on, to different channels, three different action movies. Thus, I find myself downstairs in the quiet lobby, where I shall spend the next 10 hours.

These buildings are beautiful, their fixtures state-of-the-art. There is artwork all over the place, some of it stunning, some obviously the output of physician-photographers. Or their friends. The city of San Francisco, in its wisdom, has decreed that new construction must include a budget for art. From there to selection committees is but a short step.

Here in the lobby atrium there is a mural, two stories high and about 10 feet wide, a digital photo printed on glass. It represents tree branches with leaves and buds and is comprised of five panels, assembled to form a vertical pent-tych, if that is a word. At this scale, you can see the sharpening artifact from across the street. Some of the buds must have moved during the exposure: they are outlined in blue, something the photographer apparently did not see a need to fix, it’s become part of the art. Having nothing better to do, I examine it from close up, noticing that the luminance noise has been removed, replaced with a fine Photoshop grain. Earlier today, as the patient was being prepped, I saw less ambitious, framed photographs and paintings upstairs in the waiting rooms and hallways. I really liked some of them. Maybe I’ll walk around later to look.

A couple of visits ago I tried the cafeteria, but it wasn’t very good. There are also two coffee stands on the ground floor that serve a decent-tasting beverage that just fails to wake me. It’s not labelled decaf…I don’t know what the problem is. Fortunately, I discovered a cafe two blocks down with good coffee and decent sandwiches. I sat there this morning and fed a pigeon. I’ll probably go hang there this afternoon when I get tired of looking at artwork. The doctors all wrote down my cell phone number, are supposed to call me with updates. I would go home to sleep, but I have been asked to contribute karma from closer range. Om.

Extended Vacation Rentals in Japan

We found long term rentals in Kyoto and Fukuoka.

If you’re traveling abroad for any extended period of time, hotels and endless restaurant meals can take a toll on your budget. When you want to spend a few weeks or more in a single place, one idea is to look for an apartment with a kitchen that can be had on a short term rental. Vacation rentals by owners (VRBOs) and airBNB sublets are common solutions, but in Japan, and especially outside of Tokyo, such places can be hard to find. We found one that caters to tourists in the Kyoto suburbs, and another in Fukuoka that is used mostly by Japanese salarymen.

Apple House is a tiny cottage operated as a vacation rental by Hiroko and David James.  Apple House KyotoWe rented it in February as a cheaper alternative to hotels for our monthlong stay in Kyoto. David met us at the train station and showed us there the first time. We had to walk the last part of the way: Apple House is located on a street too narrow for cars (deliveries come by motorcycle), flanked by a narrow canal.

Downstairs, a minuscule kitchen led to a freezing porch with a clothes washer and a couple of clotheslines. These were a bit tricky to use: we would put our washed underwear on them and it would freeze and become rigid overnight. In the summer humidity, I was told, it would simply remain wet. We spent very little time on the patio. Inside, there was a living room with a propane heater. A steep staircase led upstairs to two bedrooms with tatami floors, and futons upon which we slept.

 Apple House Tatami Room

_FireTruck100223_0046_LRWe shopped locally in Sugakuin for food. We were eating salmon every night: you could buy a steak in the market for 3 bucks. We got to know our neighborhood, a bedroom borough mixture of new houses and brick apartments in close proximity, and old truck farms interspersed on a hillside above the city. There were hidden treasures: an old temple on the hillside, with an ancient fire truck in the yard; a country residence belonging to the emperor, with manicured winter gardens. And a half hour ride on the number 5 bus got you to downtown Kyoto.


In Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu, we could find no similar VRBO. But we did manage to unearth Tenjin Success, a large tower of efficiency studio apartments which seemed to be part of a nationwide chain. Japanese companies often station employees far from home for long stints, and these apartments, designed for single occupancy, meet their need for cheap housing. Since the units are not marketed to tourists at all, enquiries in English may frighten the staff and be ignored.

Fukuoka towersThe Tenjin area was a congested nest of apartment towers, with restaurants and nightclubs on narrow streets by another river. On the fringes of more fashionable areas, it was in walking distance to everything and had a couple of great izakayas. Fukuoka, a far more autochthonous city than Kyoto, is more attuned to  tourists from Korea and China than from the west. It’s attractions are limited, but it made an excellent hub for rental-car explorations of the island of Kyushu.

Astoria (Oregon)

Oregon’s down-at-the-heels port city on the Columbia

Astoria Column detail
Native Lives

I was a kid who would look on maps and see another Astoria, on the other coast, the Pacific, and who wanted to go there. The map showed a port city, some distance downstream from Portland, and I imagined there were ships in addition to brick buildings like the Astoria I was growing up in, on the Atlantic. This year, finally, I went to that other Astoria.

Fort Astoria was a fur trading post built by the John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company in 1811. There is a 125 foot column in a park on a hill that overlooks the city. It was put up by the Astor family in honor of themselves and sports a mural depicting  scenes from the lives of the natives that their ancestors displaced. Those who climb the interminable spiral staircase are able to see all the way to Megler, Washington (unless there is fog), which is said to be inspiring.


View of Astoria-Megler Bridge
View from Coxcomb Hill

Down below is the town, a riverfront harbor city hit hard by recession, dog-eared home of the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival. There are a few brick warehouses near the docks but, unlike the Astoria of my eastern provenance, the buildings here are mostly paint-starved wood.


Megler-Astoria Bridge at dusk
Evening Fog

Freighter passes under the Astoria-Megler Bridge

The Astoria-Megler Bridge across the Columbia dominates the town, towering over the main road whether you’re coming from east or west. A tiny park at the river’s edge clings to the base of the final tower on the Oregon side. It features plaques welcoming visitors to Astoria and more murals celebrating displaced aboriginals.

When in Astoria, one simply must take pictures of the many wooden posts in the river, soulful remnants of rotted docks. I learned this by researching my trip on Flickr, where enthusiasts may find many excellent contributions to the genre. These are mine. Click to embiggen.

River Posts
Soulful Remnants I

Posts in Columbia River
Soulful Remnants II

Hayden Bridge

A covered bridge in Oregon offers a photo opportunity

On a back road in north west Oregon, this old bridge spans the Alsea River. Every online resource that I consulted (2) assured me that it is of Howe Truss construction, so I want to be sure to pass that information along. The trusses are the triangular shapes that bear the load. William Howe came up with a design made of wood and metal, handsomely executed here.


The bridge was first built in 1918, at which time it was smaller, with rounded openings. These were enlarged in 1946 during a refit to accommodate heavier traffic (lumber trucks; the Cascades were/are being raped). The plaque says it was refurbished again in 2003, and my exhaustive research on Google revealed that it needed extensive repairs after a lumber truck ran into it in 2006. Can’t seem to make these things wide enough for lumber trucks.

There was no one around on the day that we happened by, so I set up my tripod in the middle of the road and tried to take a picture of the inside, which shows a really neat ceiling and the triangular trusses. Not that I had any idea what they were at the time.

Shot at 1/4 sec, f11 with the Nikon 28-200 zoom at 28mm. A speedlight just out of sight on the right threw additional light on the ceiling, The trees in back were almost blown out on the raw file, burned them back in photoshop.

The Water Tower

Inside the dome of the Capitol Hill water tank

The water tower sits on top of a hill in Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. I hiked up there early one morning hoping for pictures from its vantage above the city, but the fog was thick and I couldn’t see 5 feet. The place was deserted. I climbed a winding staircase to the gallery at the top of the tank, a small, domed chamber. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department refers to it as an observation deck, however, since the windows appear not to have been cleaned since the tower was built in 1906, I suspect that observation is difficult even on clear days.

The room is only a couple of dozen feet across. I squeezed the tripod into the narrow passage on one side of a fenced-in central area. With the camera in vertical format, I took sets of 12 exposures, six across the top and six below. Later these were assembled in Photoshop. Shot with my widest angle lens, somewhat anemic in this regard, the Nikon 28-200 at 28mm, 2 sec at f/22, ISO 200.


Water tower panorama

Chihuly Gardens

Dale Chihuly’s followers have produced a colorful forest of similar forms.

chihuly glass sculpture Last summer we spent a few days in Seattle, a grunge-hipster city of street markets, art, and a whole lot of beer. One of the attractions we visited was Chihuly Gardens, a museum of forms created by students of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. It’s located in the Space Needle complex downtown and was predictably overrun with camera-laden tourists like me.

The exhibits consist of dark mirrored spaces filled with brightly colored plant-like forms. These are arranged in large arrays punctuated by the occasional bowl, with dramatic lighting to enhance the effect. There is also an outdoor garden, where the lighting is less dramatic, generally a bleak sun filtered through Seattle’s rain. A few species of glass frond seem to thrive in the fog.

InChihuly glass sculpture garden fact they are the same few species that also dominate indoors. Although the initial impression given by the museum is one of diversity, this is achieved mostly by the use of color. Probably only a dozen different glass forms populate the whole place.

After visiting the museum, you can grab lunch next door at the Collections Cafe, where an erudite clientele takes part in a fare heavy on blue cheese burgers and garlic fries under a ceiling lined with hanging accordions (are they playing suspended chords?). Seattle, it must be noted, is also home to the Petosa Accordion Museum. The name of the cafe is probably an allusion to what seems to be the pervading ideology of the complex: admission to the museum is $19. It’s free if you’re under 3, but if you break it, you buy it.