The photos at left and right are of me on a hiking trip near Blacksburg, Virginia, in the fall of '99. Speaking of the fall, I think heights are exhilarating, hence all this business with me sitting on cliff edges. In both of these photos, I'm inches from a sheer drop-off of a hundred feet or so. To get to the top of the rock in the photo at left, I had to clambor on my hands and knees on the narrow ledge in front of me, which was a little scary. The greatest danger in such a situation? Fear itself!
Bar Harbor, Maine
At left, a beautiful view looking down at Bar Harbor from Champlain Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine, 1993. Immense clouds cast shadows over the rolling hills and ocean far below. From the commanding position atop these rocky mountains you could see everything from ships floating amongst tiny islands in the sun, to dark storm clouds and sheets of rain undulating over the sea. It was amazing to see and feel how all these parts of nature were interacting on such a gigantic scale. We hiked up into the hills several times, and I loved it.
Whitewater rafting on the New River in West Virginia. In the yellow helmets, my sister Johanna is on the left and I'm on the right.
The morning was bright and still with a tiny fog resting over the surface of the water. It felt good to be out on a nice big river in the middle of the mountains at 9:45am. They day would be clear and 75 degrees. They gave us instructions, and I was surprised at how easily you could fall out of the inflatable raft. You sit on the big wide edge of it, ready to topple backward, so tucked my foot under something and decided it might be okay if I fell in. With all the west suit gear I was wearing and a helmet I felt pretty safe.
It turned out to be pretty fun to read the waves you were about to hit and keep your body centered over them. After the first couple rapids, I figured out how to stay balanced, and I was leaning way out over the edge of the boat at times, confident the boat would soon be back underneath me. They said to not grab onto anything but use your paddle in the water to push you back up if you felt yourself falling out. I was amazed at the whole experience.
After a couple rapids, we rowed into a wave and surfed it, which means you get sucked into a spot at the bottom of a rapid, where the waves are rushing upstream. Surfing was the best part of our trip! Water spilled from the rapids into the boat on Johannas side, the boat dipping down steeply and rising back up and throwing you around. That was fun! We were flooded and thrashed about in one spot, like a human washing machine! The only time someone fell out, though, was when we hit a rock over a falls and one of the other two guys in our raft flipped out into the water and had to swim back!
It was a a four-hour trip with a lunch break on a beach. We were in a 14-foot raft. The trip was classified as having Class III-IV rapids, which were what a majority of them were. They were fun and werent scary after a while, even the Class V ones we hit (one was 20-25 feet total drop). This was partially from the low river level, a few feet below normal, and no doubt also because of our guide's experienced handling. Also, it seems like that boat is pretty much just going to plow through all those waterfalls and take you out the other side no matter what, and as long as the guide picks a route that wont flip people out of the boat, the end result is you just get thrashed and bounced around but come out fine, sometimes facing backwards. We would go over the rapids in all different orientations, and it didnt seem to matter. Usually our guide would have us keep rowing the whole time, until we got to a calmer part. But between the 15-25 rapids we hit, there was a lot of resting time as we drift down one of the oldest rivers in the world, among the green West Virginia mountains.
California was named by the Spanish after Califia, a mythical island paradise in a Spanish romance written in 1510. California probably offers the largest collection of paradises of any U.S. state. I think the foothills east of Silicon Valley are some of the most beautiful surroundings I've ever been in. The hills are covered with rolling grassy pastures and dotted with lone shady trees. I can imagine running through the tall grass, feeling the wind and watching the birds. Over the next hill might be a stunning panorama of more hills extending for miles, or a dirt trail winding past a farm or orchard.
Northern California is home to Yosemite Park, a deep valley surrounded by sheer rock of beautiful shapes, with waterfalls plunging over their edges. Yosemite is also contains vast alpine meadows which spring to life and burst with color when summer arrives and crystal clear brooks swell from the melting snow.
The coastline is a wonderful place to climb on rocks! I always like doing that. California has some really big cities, and a pretty strong dose of suburbia, but the state is so large there is quite a lot of rural land in betweenmountains, fields, farms, orchards, vineyards, ranches, desert.
As I arrived at the Bay Area in March 2001, I described the countryside:
The plane is slowing down for a landing as we pass over tree-covered mountains yet still with many natural open grasslands along their western slopes, especially near their tops, and dirt roads meander through. Oooh, and a big cool, dark, deep lake. For a split second I saw a tree on a grassy hillside I would love to sit under. Ive seen so many places Id like to visit, if only I knew where the heck they were. Then the urban sprawl starts, turned on like a light switch as soon as the land becomes flat again, and cars jam up on the freeway like in Sim City, just blocks away from this peaceful landscape.
As for San Francisco, well, I've got a few things to say about that city.
A good way to get hit with San Francisco's charm is to leave behind the crowded downtown skyscrapers and get on the creaky old Powell Street trolley at Market Street. In 1999 a trolley car ratcheted me up a precariously steep street, and I got off near the top of the world. I was surrounded by friendly old town houses on a hill overlooking the now distant skyscrapers of the Financial District. I stood and took in the view. To my right was a road that went straight up. To my left was another road that fell off the edge of the earth. In front of me was a huge dip that contained nothing less than all of downtown San Francisco, blazing in the sun. For $1.10, a passing bus wisked me further upward, and I hopped off and continued on foot. There were lots of great pictures. I walked down a street that ended at a wall, with a cliff on the other side. At the bottom of the cliff, the street continued at a crazy angle, almost straight down. And cars were still parked on it. This was Russian Hill.
A few blocks further and I came to Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world, and apparently built exclusively for tourists to drive down and walk up, forever. After two hours I'd taken about sixty pictures. Then I started going down all the steep hills I'd come up, in the opposite direction. Alcatraz island was way out in the bay, and I dodged trolley cars and dazed tourists pointing at things. Triumphantly, I found a phone booth and called my parents. They seemed to know exactly where I was. The sun was setting so I headed down into North Beach and then climbed a hill again to reach Coit Tower, on Telegraph Hill, in the northeastern part of the city. For $4 I rode up an old elevator to the top of the tower and watched dusk fall over the neighborhoods I'd just explored.
On New Year's Day 1999, I found myself partying it up in an abandoned warehouse in Munich. When midnight arrived fireworks lit up an alley packed with young people cheering wildly. Thus began a two-week excursion with my friend Andy through Germany, Austria, and Italy.
Several hours of wandering the Englishergarten of Munich revealed the residents' immunity from the cold and affinity for gathering together in public places. Outdoor beer and food stands attracted small crowds, even in the frigid weather. While staying with my friend Roland's family, we observed the lively main streets of Ebersberg. The small village contained dozens of tiny shops thriving by selling bread, meat, cheese, drinks, and other groceries. They were frequented daily by residents.
Our first day in Salzburg set a pattern for the rest of our trip. We slept in a hostel room with four other travelers, got up around 9 a.m., stowed our heavy backpacks in a locker, bought bread and cheese and bologna at a grocery store, and set out to explore the city on foot. That day we climbed a steep ridge (Kapuzinerberg), sliced up some bread, and ate our lunch on the wall overlooking much of Salzburg in the valley below. Across the valley, the Hohensalzburg castle sat on a hill, and behind it loomed snow-covered mountains which glowed pink at sunset.
In Italy we explored the cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome. I enjoyed Venice the most and took my best pictures there. Our hostel, the Foresteria Valdese, wasn't too far from the enormous San Marco Plaza. Venice is an utter maze of stone sidewalks, canals, and bridges, squeezed among beautifully aged brick buildings with green shutters, big doors, orange shingles, and flower boxes. There isn't a single road for cars, lending an eerie quiet in the evenings as residents and tourists shuffle past shops and disappear down narrow alleys.