Category Archives: Adventure

Dinosaurs and the Martian Canals: From Tucson to Tuba City

Road trip! Day one, a long driving day to get up past the sprawling monster of Phoenix, up up to the top of our enormous state. This all used to be two lane highway when I was a kid, but it’s four to six now most of the way…and has traffic to fill it. If you build it bigger they will drive it say the planners, and they are right.

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I just realised there is almost no traffic in this picture. But honestly. It’s there. It is anything but carefree. I kind of admire the effort some planner put into this though:

Tucson to Phoenix

We put a lot of effort into destroying the desert too… sucking up the groundwater reservoirs to grow crops, leaving the rest of the valley dry as dust edged with an unbelievable green:

Tucson to Phoenix

Like the efforts of a corporate chain pretending they have any kind of authentic history, but without making too much of an effort:

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Enough of that kind of effort though. Getting up to Flagstaff, cooler air, and the Lowell Observatory, now that was amazing. Lowell — built in 1894 by millionaire Percival Lowell of the Lowell, Massachusetts mill owner Lowells. You know. Those fucking Lowells. Which makes this a place that combines a quixotic history with quite a lot of space-exploration awesomeness.

So…I was excited to come here because Lowell believed — and tried desperately hard to prove — that Mars was covered by immense canals being built by martians in an immense hurry to channel water from the poles to held save their dying civilization. That is my all-time favourite Mars theory, and yes, yes it was inspired by reading a lot of science fiction (it also inspired a lot of science fiction, as you can guess). But also because a famous Italian astronomer by the name of Schiaparelli wrote a book about the canali of Mars, which should simply have been translated as channels (natural), but were instead translated as canals. And Percival Lowell being one of those fucking Lowells and the guy who funded and ran the observatory, there was no one who could really budge him from that hobby horse. So he spent a lot of years working on these maps, drawing canals that no one else could see because they just weren’t there given the low resolution of the telescope.

lowell mars map2bI still love them. Especially as there are apparently three theories about where these lines actually came from. The first is — his own eyelashes. The second — shit, I have forgotten the second. The third — that he spent a lot of time staring into bright skies and he was actually seeing the patterns of his own retina reflected back the way you sometimes do when getting your eyes checked. That was my favourite.

But back then he had some credibility — this from the New York Times on August 27, 1911 (105 years ago yesterday! That’s a bit of a coincidence).

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The Clark observatory today:

Lowell Observatory

Inside it’s even better:

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

Lowell hired two guys to build this dome who had never built a dome before — and you can pretty much tell. But it works. It needs to move of course, so originally that dome sat on great castors and two men with ropes had to move it according to Lowell’s instructions. The next attempt was my favourite — to set it floating on a course of salt water (to prevent it from freezing). Our tour guide (who was awesome) noted that it worked great. For all of two hours. All kinds of things went wrong, some of the stains are still visible on the wood. So they went back to castors and two guys pulling it with ropes, but then the next director came along and had the bright idea of using tires. So it is now cushioned on original Ford 1957? steel rims and hubcaps — the tires themselves have to be replaced frequently given the weight of the dome.

Lowell Observatory

I haven’t even gotten to the more exciting parts, like the way Vesto Slipher (!) actually discovered from his observations here that the universe was expanding, though his measurements of the various spectrums of stars and the realisation that most of them were moving away from us. Spectrum analysis also proved that those spiral things people were seeing were actually entirely separate galaxies. This meant that universe was actually much bigger than just our galaxy. Imagine that jump when the two had always been conflated. Imagine how the universe expanded then (not literally you understand, but our understandings of it).

Vesto presented his findings and had astronomy’s first ever standing ovation in 1912 — in the audience sat the not-yet-Doctor Hubble, who would first try to put a number to the expanding universe.

Then in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

That turned out trickier than expected of course, given it was not a planet at all, but still.

I loved the Rotunda too, though we didn’t get enough time here as we still had far to go.

Lowell Observatory

Inside we had a little fun with spectrum analysis ourselves. We got to wear glasses.

Lowell Observatory

And these simple and flimsy things revealed wonders when staring at tubes of neon or mercury. Not quite this good, but close enough. This is neon:

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We got a quick look at everything else…I wanted more time but we couldn’t wait until evening when they were opening it up fully.

Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

From there we drove up to Tuba City…and a sign on the side of the road said dinosaur footprints and mom said ‘hell yes, let’s do it’ (or something to that effect). We had seen a dinosaur earlier of course:

Tucson to Phoenix Dinosaur

But look at these things, they are amazing…

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

I’m not sure I can say the same about this toenail polish which I bought on a crazed whim — I am never colour coordinated like this.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

This place is one of my favourite in the world. Mum says it took her forever coming from England to get used to the space, it made her feel so small, so insignificant. Me, I feel like this space makes you humble and at the same time opens you up, gives you a spirit big enough to fill it. It makes me so happy to be back here again in the red rocks. Especially staring across an ancient seabed at dinosaur tracks.

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

Tuba City Dinosaur Footprints

We gave our guide and her partner a ride into Tuba City, it being the end of the day, and then found a hotel. An expensive hotel. Damn. But the Hogan Restaurant next door? The best waitress ever and they had mutton stew with frybread on the menu which probably gave mum more joy than anything else through the day — she grew up on that in postwar England don’t you know.

Hogan Cafe, Tuba City

Me, I had a cheese burger — on fry bread. Which was delicious but oh. my. god. Filling. I can’t tell you how filling. I could eat almost no fries, but that was probably a good thing. As it is, I feel I should run the first ten miles tomorrow alongside the car…

Tomorrow, Anasazi ruins! Chama! So exciting.

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Hamburg in the Lovely Month of January

Hamburg was beautiful, even in January. Cold, though. Cold, and raining. So a lot like London, really. But London doesn’t have this:

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The Speicherstadt, or City of Warehouses. For an urbanist that is pretty damn exciting. Started in 1883, they kept on building for decades. But we should back up. Hamburg existed for ages as a city state, formed a part of the Hanseatic league and looked like this once upon a time. Just look how it has transformed itself over time:

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HamburgI am so sad those amazing ramparts are gone long gone, wonder what it must have felt like to always live within walls. In a fraction of the area of the modern city.

But to return to the present.

Jesus was it damp and cold. The wind whipped down that scenic canal of warehouses, and also this one.

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It also whipped down these canals:

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Hamburg is built around water, as you can see. Good for shipping and the movement of goods and quite beautiful. Cold though.

It was possibly even colder when we stood along the mighty Elbe, and stared at the massive port — now the leading port in continental Europe despite its distance inland. Those were some pretty farseeing rich merchants several hundred years back who engineered that trick. There was also that time they managed to get Frederick the Great to give them the right to trade freely…or did they? Suspiciously he signed it right before heading off to the crusades, and he never did come back. There’s a document, but that was forged a few hundred years later.

But did I say it was cold? So we got into a boat quick as we could and tried to see things through the rain. We though we would be alone in this wet January tourist jaunt, but there were about ten of us. We were not the only tourist boat.

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The port was cool. Might have been better if we had realised we could have gone out the back door to stand on deck and actually see everything we were passing. Of course, that would have meant being outside.

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I wanted a sense, some sense of how it once felt to approach Hamburg, almost everyone arrived this way…

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This is a quote from the one book I found on the culture and history of Hamburg, titled quite appropriately Hamburg: A Cultural and Literary History.

With beating heart we caught our first sight of Hamburg. At last she lay before us, this stony world of palaces and towers. The location of the harbour was indicated by a forest of soaring masts, thousands upon thousand…
–Joseph von Eichendorff

A lot has changed, but there are still a few masts and one or two beating hearts.

Speaking of beating hearts, Marx’s publisher Otto Meissner (published Capital and all) was based here. That building is long gone of course.

I digress. We thought the old Elbe tunnel would be nice to see, warm you know, and dry. Samuel Beckett liked it. It was in fact quite stunning, finished in 1911 to allow 2000 dock workers to more easily get to work (those jobs are long gone of course, as much of the docks are automated now. There is a tour of that but not running in January for some reason):

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It’s lined with art deco tiles showing various creatures of the river. Unaccountably there is nothing with tentacles, but there is an old boot and some kind of rodent life.

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I do love tunnels, but there is only so long you can spend walking to one end and then back to the beginning so you aren’t on the wrong side of the river. We returned to our outdoor wander.

We thought the streets would be warmer. They were not warmer. The wind whipped down them. We found Deichstrasse, one of the oldest streets whose homes escaped the great fire of 1842, and show a little of what Hamburg was once like. The dedicated tourist will take pictures of how beautiful it all is from the water, but we weren’t that dedicated.

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The city is full of contrasts — burning down through an accidental fire in 1842 and then being burnt down in a firestorm by the Allies in 1943 during Operation Gomorrah, killing over 42,000 people in the last week of July. So now it is a whole lot of modern alongside the various styles of the old.

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Above all it is a city of brick, and most proud of that. I do love these buildings, the warehouses in particular. Above all I loved the Chile Haus (commissioned for a dude from Hull who made his money in Chile as an exporter of Saltpetre). I think Mark was all right about being dragged here.

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Hamburg is not, of course, free from absurd Baroque and the smell of more ostentatious wealth. The Rathaus for example, had to be rebuilt after the fire, and it took 44 years for agreement on its rebuilding. Seven architects were involved in its designing, and you get the feeling they were all working independently.

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Then there are the Colonnades — I do love colonnades I confess, and walking through them they are lovely:

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By god, though. You look at the other side of them and realise someone somehow thought it a good idea to stick four heads on each arch, and in addition to put a lion at each arch’s peak and trough.

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Saving grace? If you need a pipe, this is definitely where to come.

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I don’t know what the fuck the queen is doing there really.

There was a couple of arcades as well, I do love them too. Just not shopping.

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It is a beautiful view across the Alster. But damn cold. You just can’t get away from it.

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High culture, yeah we did that. Saw Emile Nolde, which made us uncomfortable having really loved many of his ink drawings, woodcuts, etchings of the harbour only to find he voluntarily joined the National Socialists in 1933 and was devastated when his works were put on the degenerate art list. He wrote to Goebbels and everything. We went down to St Pauli too, and the Reeperbahn. Didn’t take many pictures, because, you know, we’re wild and crazy like that. But Hamburg’s all right at night.

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Some of the most poignant things were the Stolpersteine, literally stumbling blocks, though sadly they were plaques that you would never stumble over. Still, they mark the homes of those killed by the Nazis.

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They are very unobtrusive, I am glad I knew to look for them and can’t quite believe they caused a furor. I have been thinking a lot about how you mark what is no longer there in a city, people who have been erased, buildings erased, lives erased. These do that to some extent, and the website is wonderful.

I still wish you stumbled over them.

It was nice to see Heine though, I loved the statue. His uncle Saloman lived here in Hamburg and Heine spent time here. Schopenhauer grew up here — that’s not quite as exciting. Depressing really. But Brahms was born and raised here as well. Inspired me to read a biography, but that’s for blogging later I think, I quite loved it.

And it was a pleasure to be in Hamburg.

But damn it was cold.

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