Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Attractive Neighbor

Snake River at Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park (photo by Sally Reeder)

If you want to get noticed, don’t stand next to an international superstar.

That thought occurred to me as I considered why Grand Teton National Park doesn’t seem to get as much worldwide buzz as Yellowstone does.  The two scenic U.S. wilderness areas in Wyoming are only ten miles apart, but Yellowstone has a much bigger reputation.

For that matter, Yellowstone is a much bigger park than Grand Teton — something like 7 times as large.  Yellowstone was the world’s first national park and has the world’s largest collection of geysers.  It is on the official list of World Heritage Sites.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that Yellowstone doesn’t deserve all the attention it gets.  It’s just that Grand Teton National Park can make your jaw go slack, too.  It is a high-altitude plateau (6,000 ft.+) that is surrounded by mountains and glaciers; the Snake River slithers through it.  Everywhere you look seems postcard-worthy, so if you go home from GTNP without at least a few good photographs, you might as well stop taking pictures.

The first non-natives to find this region arrived in the early years of the 19th century.  One of them was John Colter, who had been with the Lewis and Clark expedition, but on the return trip Colter stayed in these parts to try his hand at fur trapping.

By the way, it was French-speaking fur trappers who are apparently responsible for the name.  They called three distinctive mountain peaks les trois tetons, which translates (politely) to “the three breasts”.  This would indicate that these fellows had a flawed understanding of basic female anatomy, or had not seen a woman in a very long time.  Probably both.

At any rate, Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton are dramatic features on the horizon as seen from Jenny Lake, a gorgeous body of water formed by glaciers.  There are a lot of hiking trails in the area around Jenny Lake, and there’s a ferry boat that will take you across the lake to reach the ones on the far side.

One leads to a beautiful cascade called Hidden Falls.  From there, an even steeper trail leads to Inspiration Point, which inspired me to sit down and catch my breath.

The largest body of water in GTNP is Jackson Lake, which is fed by the Snake River.  It’s a good spot to stop hiking and regain your inertia while you admire the view in all directions.

Particularly in the early morning or late afternoon, though, it’s worth grabbing your camera and traveling a couple of miles east from the Jackson Lake Lodge to a spot called Oxbow Bend.  Pull off the road and walk down to the river’s edge to get excellent views of Mount Moran, which sometimes has a shawl of clouds around it (see photo).

There are lots of scenic viewpoints along the highway that winds through Grand Teton National Park.  At one we saw a grizzly bear wade into a group of foolish tourists who barely managed to get out of his way.  At another, a bald eagle circled overhead.

We eventually drove the few miles north to Yellowstone, of course, and it’s as glorious as you’ve probably heard, but its next-door neighbor deserves its share of raves, too.  What I’m saying is, Grand Teton National Park is spectacular.  Pass it on.

Off the Charts

Where Captain Cook died — Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii

“George Washington slept here.”  That claim is made by the owners of countless inns and houses (and their realtors) on the east coast of the United States.  Some of those claims might even be true; after all, General Washington had to sleep somewhere while he was on the move.

In London, a similar assertion is made about many pubs:  “Charles Dickens drank here.”  He probably did, too, since writing is an activity that can make one very thirsty.

Although he traveled far more extensively than Washington or Dickens, James Cook’s exploits didn’t spawn that kind of slogan, even though they are facts.  In an astonishing number of places in the world — particularly around the Pacific Ocean — it can be said, “Captain Cook was here.”

For instance, there is Cook’s Strait, the passage between New Zealand’s North and South Islands.  James Cook was there, 1769.  (He drew the first nautical charts of New Zealand, too.)

In 1770 he came upon Australia and charted its eastern side.  There’s a place called Cooktown where his ship, the Endeavour, was beached for repairs after a close encounter with the Great Barrier Reef.

There are the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.  As you probably guessed, they weren’t known as the Cook Islands before he arrived in the 1770s.

Much farther north is Cook Inlet.  It’s near present-day Anchorage, in the Gulf of Alaska.  The Captain charted that area in 1778.  Earlier in his naval career, young James Cook had drawn charts on the other side of the North American continent, surveying the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, and a little later, Newfoundland.

Basically, the Royal Navy dispatched Cook to places for which no navigational charts existed, and even to places that no one was sure were actual places.  He was sent off to the unknown, and came back with lots of useful knowledge.

Another of Captain Cook’s remarkable accomplishments was that when his ships returned to England after years-long voyages, none of his men had died of scurvy.  That just didn’t happen back then — that particular debilitating illness was an occupational hazard for seamen, more than drowning or cannonballs.  Consider this:  During the 18th century, more British sailors died from scurvy than from enemy action.

We now know that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, but fruit smoothies weren’t part of sailors’ diets back then; they mostly consumed some combination of biscuits, beer, beef and bugs.  Captain Cook didn’t impose doses of lime juice on his sailors, as the story sometimes goes, but he did insist on high standards of cleanliness aboard ship, and laid in fresh provisions as often as possible — which apparently included fruits and vegetables.

The Captain was occasionally annoyed by Tahitian and Hawaiian attitudes about sharing property.  Specifically, they tended to want some of his stuff and he didn’t always want to let them have it.  In a dispute over a small boat that technically belonged to the Royal Navy but had been appropriated by locals, Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island in 1779.  He was fifty years old.

With that unfortunate exception, Cook had, as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “peacefully changed the map of the world more than any other single man in history.” The down side, in terms of his reputation, is that he didn’t spend enough time in London for any pub owners to claim that Captain Cook was a regular.

Still Modern

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) — Museum of Modern Art, New York

When an artist began painting pictures of horses and bison on the walls of his cave during the Paleolithic era, reaction was probably mixed.  Some cavemen preferred the more traditional depictions of animals, scratched into the dirt around the campfire.  Others were captivated by this new approach — “It’s very modern,” they told each other.

Using paint on walls didn’t stay modern very long; the next new thing was decorating one’s cave with flocked wallpaper.  OK, that part isn’t true, but you get my point:  “modern” is usually construed to mean up-to-date; characteristic of present time; contemporary.  The general idea is that something modern is relatively new, and therefore good.  That’s until something even better is introduced and becomes the new version of modern.

In the 1400s, the Renaissance was modern art — it was quite different than medieval art.  A couple of centuries later, Caravaggio and other Baroque artists came along with their untraditional approaches; like that cave painter they scandalized some critics, but made others say, “Wow, that’s cool.”  It was the modern art of the 17th century.  Until it was Rococo’s turn to be modern, and so on.

As you are undoubtedly aware, though, there are a number of art museums around the world that refer to their collections as modern.  The best-known is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, which has several paintings that I happen to know are over a hundred years old.  So what’s the deal with that?  Shouldn’t they throw out all that old stuff and get art that’s more modern?

Well, no.  That’s because art historians have applied the designation Modern to art in a way that doesn’t exactly correspond to the dictionary definition of modern.  To them, it generally means art created between the mid-19th century and 1970 or so.

Scholars have differing opinions on when Modern Art began:  Some say 1863, with Edouard Manet’s scandalous painting Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.  Others point to the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Degas) or the Post-Impressionists (Gauguin, van Gogh, Cezanne) as being the founders of Modern Art.  They all agree that by the time Pablo Picasso was producing paintings that looked like broken pottery, the era of Modern Art was upon us.

The 20th century brought not only Cubism, but Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and so many other “ism”s that critics and historians threw up their hands and lumped them all together as Modern Art.  What many of those movements have in common is a return to a less refined, more primitive style — not unlike the cave paintings of long ago.  The very old became new again.

Professor H.H. Arnason said that the modern approach to painting was to no longer create works that were “imitations of nature”, but that the painting “became a reality in itself, not an imitation of anything else; it had its own laws and its own reasons for existence.”

After Modern Art came Contemporary Art, which is the phase we’re in now.  It dates back to approximately a month after your birthday in 1983, depending on which scholar’s opinion you choose to accept.

The dictionary says that contemporary means the present time.  So what comes next?  What will we call art that’s produced when Contemporary is no longer in the present?  I say we hit the reset button, and call art created after New Year’s Eve “Prehistoric”.

What’s the Good Word?

And on a double word score, too!

Have you noticed that everybody seems to be playing word games these days?  Electronic variants of Scrabble are all over the internet; people can even use their smart phones to play games while they’re driving.  (Just because a person has a smart phone doesn’t make them smart.)

Some scientific studies suggest that forming words by using an assortment of random letters is beneficial because those mental exercises stimulate the… oh, you know — that thing where your memory… the brain, that’s it.

One of the things I’ve noticed, though, is that people tend to repeatedly play the same few words, especially in the on-line versions.  “Not” appears frequently, as does “ox”, and “time”.  It seems to me that to really get the ol’ neurons in the brain firing, one needs to rummage through the vocabulary and come up with more unusual words.  Obviously there is the limitation of which letters a player has drawn, but here are a few suggestions for more creative plays.

If you’ve got enough space to lay this down, go for philtrum.  Yes, it’s a real word — it’s the name of that vertical groove we all have on the upper lip, just below the nose.  When you tell your opponents what the word means, watch their reaction — they won’t be able to keep from touching their philtrums. It’s like saying to someone, “Hey, what’s a goatee?”  No one can describe it without stroking their chin and philtrum.

Another good word is quay, which means a dock or wharf, and is usually pronounced “key”.  This word has the virtue of allowing you to get rid of the letters “q” and “y” in the same play.  Query is good for that, too.

After you lay down tiles that spell louche, your competitors may look askance at you, but you can inform them that it means disreputable; shady.  If you’re missing the letters “c” and “h”, you could play loupe, which is one of those little magnifying glasses that jewelers put in their eye socket.

If you get stuck with the dreaded “z”, you might be able to play zeal, which Ambrose Bierce defined as, “A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced.”  Other desperation plays with a “z” include brazier (a container for hot coals, not an undergarment), adz (a tool similar to an ax), zap, zig, and zoa, which as you’ll recall, is the plural of zoon.

In the right place on the game board you can get a good score with vole, a rodent that resembles a mouse, only stockier.  Vole can also be useful if you happen to be a songwriter, because it rhymes with mole, tadpole, foal, coal, and patrol.  This assumes you’re writing Country music.

Vole is no relation to vowel, and among the stressful moments in word games are those when you are chronically short of vowels.  Don’t forget — sly doesn’t require one, nor does fly or dry.  Oh, and pyx is in the dictionary; it’s what the box that contains the Eucharist is called.

On the other hand, if you have a plethora of vowels, there’s aerie (the nest of an eagle or hawk), iguana, oboe, nausea, audio, and toupee.

So that’s just some friendly advice to add variety to your word plays.  I know how stressful those games can be, and my intention is not to perplex, but to give succor (help; relief; aid).

A Long, Long Way to Run

Replenishing fluids at Mile 25, Central Park

It’s almost marathon season again, so if you’re planning to enter any races, you might want to start training now.  While you’re plodding along, mile after dreary mile, you can take your mind off your discomfort by thinking about fascinating marathon facts like these…

The name is derived from a battle in 490 B.C. between the Athenians and Persians at a Greek village called Marathon.  In one version of the story, the Athenians sent a messenger to Sparta to request help in the upcoming battle.

The more well-known myth, bolstered by a Robert Browning poem, is that the messenger Pheidippides (Fy-DIP-eh-deez) ran from Marathon back to Athens with the news that the army of Athens had been victorious.  Supposedly Pheidippides burst into a council meeting, gasped, “Hey, we won!” or words to that effect, and then dropped dead.  Try not to think of that dying part while you’re training.

Depending on which route a runner takes, the distance from Marathon to Athens is between 24 and 26 miles.  So how did the official distance for today’s marathon races get fixed at 26 miles 385 yards?  Obviously the answer is not “Because it’s a nice round number.”

Marathons were run at various distances — 40 Km (24.85 miles) in the 1896 Olympics, for instance — until 1921, when the International Association of Athletic Federations adopted the 26-mile 385-yard standard.  That was based on the distance used for the marathon in the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

For that event, the race started at Windsor Castle; according to some sources, that was done so that the Princess of Wales and her offspring could watch from their window in the Royal Nursery.  Officials intended the race to cover approximately 25 miles, but several detours had to be made due to trolley tracks and cobblestones and other obstacles on the proposed course.

The plan all along was that the race would end in the stadium at Shepherd’s Bush, with the competitors crossing the finish line right in front of the Royal Box. Shortly before the Olympics began, though, someone noticed a flaw in the plan:  The runners wouldn’t be able to use the Royal Entrance into Great White City Stadium because the opening wasn’t at ground level.  It was raised so that their Royal Majesties could step out of their carriages more easily.

It was agreed that the runners probably wouldn’t be able to leap up to the Royal Entrance, so the path was amended again, with the track winding around to another stadium entrance.  The length of the course eventually became — right, you’re way ahead of me.

The race itself was quite dramatic:  An Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, staggered into the stadium well ahead of the other racers.  He was exhausted, though, and  turned the wrong way on the revised course, then stumbled and fell several times.  He was helped across the finish line by officials, which didn’t seem fair to the second-place finisher, American Johnny Hayes.  Pietri was eventually disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

They both became celebrities, ran a couple of subsequent match races, and generally popularized long-distance running.  Their famous race in the 1908 Olympics helped lock in the arbitrary distance of 26 miles 385 yards.

So that’s something to think about while you’re training, and maybe you can also muse about how your blisters wouldn’t be as bad if Marathon had been, oh, 20 miles closer to Athens.  Or if they’d had cell phones in 490 B.C.