Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mount Mazama

As of July 2018, there are 60 true National Parks in the United States. Not properties managed by the National Park Service like National Monuments or National Historical Parks or something like that; I mean real full unqualified National Parks. Some folks, I imagine, are out to see them all. If they are, they better spend a lot of time in Alaska, which has eight of the 60.

My own National track record is not that stellar. In my first 45 years on this planet, I'd logged a grand total of nine. I can give myself a little bit of a pass on this one since I spent my first 11 years in a complete other country, but I feel there was more than enough time to see double digits National Parks after I moved here in 1979. When I started writing this blog, I didn't think much about boosting my Parks total, although I have (I've added ten since I turned 45). But if I'd thought at that time about where I'd like to go in the future I would probably have rolled out Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Crater Lake in Oregon and Yosemite in California.

Last year, I made it to Carlsbad Caverns. I took the easy way (the elevator) down to the caves and then took the hard way (my two feet) out. Last month, I added Crater Lake to my parks visited list.

Crater Lake National Park sits towards the southern end of the Cascades, a mountain range that extends all the way from northern California in the south to just over the Canadian border into British Columbia. The mountains form part of the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire, a belt of volcanoes that stretches all the way from the tip of Chile up north to the Bering Sea and back down the globe again to New Zealand. 

This Ring of Fire thing sounds scary and it really pretty much is: most (like 80-90%) of the largest volcanic eruptions over the last 12,000 years or so on this planet have occurred in the Ring of Fire. Here at home in the continental United States, the only volcanic eruptions in the last 200 years have been in the Ring of Fire. And they have both been in the Cascades. Those would be the 1914 through 1921 explosions that rocked Lassen Peak in northern California and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington.

Mount Shasta seen from the side of I-5 on the way to Oregon.
As a mountain range, the Cascades are pretty impressive. They boast two 14ers, or mountains over 14,000 feet at their tops, in Washington state's Mount Rainier (14,411 feet) and Mount Shasta in California (14,180 feet) as well as one (Washington's Mount Adams) topping out at more than 12,000. They used to have a second 12,000 foot mountain in Mount Mazama, but in 2018 that peak sits at just a little over 8,150. So what happened to Mount Mazama?

Well, about 7,700 years ago or so, Mount Mazama, which coincidentally sits right about where Crater Lake is now, started to develop a problem. Down beneath the belly of the mountain, an underground lake of lava was forming. As this lake bubbled away, it generated expanding gas that ultimately needed to find a way out to the surface of the Earth. It was only really a matter of when, not if, Mazama would erupt.

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened and when the eruption occurred, the gas escaped any way it could. Some of the explosion blew pumice and ash out the top of the mountain but the gas made its way out in other vents and fissures further down Mazama, more or less perforating the surface of the peak in a circular pattern. The main explosion was massive by the way. It is estimated that there was enough ash discharged to cover the entire state of Oregon with a layer 8" in depth. If you can remember the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, this one was likely 40 times as powerful.

What happens to a mountain that finds itself shredded by escaping gas and sitting on top of a void that used to be filled with molten rock? Well, in the case of Mount Mazama, it collapsed in on itself, losing a mile or so of height and leaving a crater about a mile deep and five miles across. Goodbye Mount Mazama; hello, Crater Lake!

The obligatory national park panorama shot from the iPhone. Had to do it.
Now, the Lake didn't exactly appear instantly once Mount Mazama had collapsed. Sure the shape of the bowl was pretty much taken care of but there was no water. The Lake would fill over the next few centuries (yes, centuries!). Hey, it takes a while to fill a hole with five trillion gallons of water even in a place with an average annual snowfall of 533 inches. Remember, there are no rivers flowing into this part of the world; just moments before its creation there was a mountain in the exact same spot. Fortunately for us, the crater was mostly watertight, which I find amazing.

The Lake today is fully filled. It leaks, but only enough to keep the water level stable. It is the deepest lake in the United States. It's also the clearest, the result of all the water coming from rain and snowmelt. There are no rivers dumping running water into it and there are almost no creatures in there to make any waves or stir up silt at the bottom. There are fish in the lake by the way. How do fish get into a lake caused by a collapsed volcano? Let's come back to that.

Oh, and by the way, it's absolutely gorgeous. The water is about the deepest, clearest blue color you can imagine and the air is clear and the place is pretty well isolated so there's just about no noise or light pollution or anything to take your attention away from the Lake. It really is a spectacular sight.

Want to go? Get ready for a drive. Being pretty much in the middle of nowhere takes a while to get there. We drove up from Redding, California and it took us about four hours. From Portland, it's probably a little more than that and from Eugene let's figure two to two and a half hours. There's a pretty good series of roads and interstate highways to the north and south where you can move along a pretty good clip, but get close to the park and you'll start to slow down as the roads become smaller and twistier and generally without guardrails.

Want to stay near or in the Park? Sure you do! The historic Crater Lake Lodge is right on the rim of the Lake and there are a few campsites and cabins inside the Park's boundaries. If you don't want to stay inside the Park or don't book early enough, you might be driving a while to get in and out. The nearest true hotel or motel is a 30 mile drive to the north and east in Chemult.

Can't plan ahead or thinking of showing up in the off season to avoid the rush? There is no off season. Off season is winter. And it lasts some years from early September to early July. In those extended winters, you can't even get to the lake in a car because the roads are closed under feet and feet of snow. Can't imagine what 533 inches of snow looks like? Check out the height of the poles on either side of the road in the photograph below. Those sticks mark the edges of the roads for plows. They are maybe 12 to 15 feet high each. It snows a lot in the mountains!

We timed our visit for the last week of June, right about the time the boats start taking folks for rides on the Lake if it's not still extended winter at Crater Lake. We figured a little hiking, a boat ride, maybe a bear or elk encounter from afar (or even better yet from the car) and a nice couple of evenings chilling at the Crater Lake Lodge with a beer or two looking at the Lake before hitting the sack for a very quiet night. Yeah, some of it worked out that way, but not entirely.

There was for sure hiking. Plenty of hiking. You could spend days hiking if that's your thing. We went walking through the woods and to some waterfalls and to see the strange rock formations called The Pinnacles and up towards one of the higher peaks around the Lake (note I said up towards, not up to the top of). We also hiked to the edge of the Lake. Before I got to the Park, I didn't know you could swim in the Lake; if I had I might have taken some trunks with me and taken a plunge.

There was also some sitting lakeside with beers. The Lodge has a fantastic extended front porch with rocking chairs and drink and food service. It is sort of romantic looking out over the water while sipping a beer watching the sun set to the west and realizing that it's way colder in the mountains than it was in the Napa Valley where you were just a couple of days before. Bring warm clothes, even in summer.

But the boat ride? And the wildlife spotting? Well, not so much. We get lucky so often on our trips to wherever we go so it's difficult to complain too much but I guess you could say our luck abandoned us at Crater Lake a little. There are bear and elk and porcupines and mountain lions in the Park. We didn't see any of those. We did see some marmots and a few Clark's nutcrackers and one or two (surprise! it's not a chipmunk) golden-mantled ground squirrels. I'd never seen these animals in the wild before. Now I have.

I get the wildlife being shy. We're not in a zoo. The fact that the animals can go where they please (including places we can't) is both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful to see creatures free in their natural environment but a little disappointing when they don't come out and show themselves. But the boats not working? That was a little more than disappointing.

Yep, the boats were not working. None of them. Both broken. Mechanical difficulty. I came all the way across the country to take a ride on Crater Lake in a boat and nothing. We were told the news just about the moment we walked into the Steel Visitor Center on the south drive in a very cheery way. No apologies. No sympathy. Just they are not working. Have a nice day! 

Marmot. Nutcracker. Ground squirrel.
Enough complaining. Probably. There were some highlights. I swear. 

In the summer months when it's not extended winter, you can drive all around the perimeter of the Lake on the East and West Rim Drives. It's about a 33 mile or so long loop. Along the way there are spots to hike, picnic or just get out and gaze at the still, blue water and the coniferous forests of the Cascades that are all around you when you get out of sight of the Lake. It's worth making the complete drive. The Lake changes as you move around it and if you've gone all that way, you may as well get as much looking at it in before you leave.

There are two islands in the Lake itself, one (Wizard Island) big enough for a little mini-hike (if the boats are working, that is) and one not so much bigger than a large boat or ship (hence the Phantom Ship name given to it). Wizard Island (which was actually formed by a later eruption after the collapse of Mount Mazama) is visible on most of the drive. Phantom Ship is not; make sure you stop at the right spots.

One of the more fascinating stops we made was at Cloudcap Overlook on the east side of the rim. There we found a stand of flag trees, so named because their branches are all on one side of the trunk, as if they are a series of mini flags blowing stiff in the breeze. That is, in fact, exactly what happened to these trees. The wind is so fierce in winter in that area of the Park that the trees are blown to grow in just one direction; literally all the branches are growing on the east side of the tree which is the direction the wind blows in the colder months.

Scenes from Rim Drive: Wizard Island...
Phantom Ship...
and a stand of flag trees. Finally a picture without the Lake in it!
Hikes are funny things sometimes. Walking from one spot to another and then back to where you started is sometimes an odd thing to do. Every once in a while you'll do or see nothing that merits the kind of effort you made to make it there and back again.  The one hike we made that clearly didn't fall into this category was the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which is the only path that leads down into the bowl of the old volcano to the surface of the Lake.

The Park warns you quite explicitly that the Cleetwood Cove Trail is a "strenuous hike" and the numbers are sure to scare off some folks. A little more than a mile each way on a path that looks like it's about almost straight down in some spots with a total change in elevation of 700 feet. That's like walking up the stairs in a 65 or 70 story building, only with more walking. But it's the only way down to the Lake. We had to go. And it was totally worth it despite the lack of board-able powered craft at the bottom to get us an up close and personal look at Wizard Island, the Phantom Ship and the walls of the collapsed crater.

The way down is pretty easy. The reflections and pollen patterns on the still water were fascinating on the descent, especially since the closer you got to the bottom of the slopes, the deeper you could see into the water. It really is super clear. I also appreciated the reward of dipping my hands into the water and getting a different perspective on what it's like from the bottom of the bowl. This is not necessarily some life-changing experience. Every once in a while it's good to slow down for 24 hours, even if 24 hours is about all I can stand slowed down at any one time.

The trek back up? No fascinating patterns. No watching the (again, inoperable) boats getting closer. No cool reward at the end of the walk. Just targeting the next pocket of shade and taking it slow. Really slow. In the end, we got right back to where we started and richer for the experience. Strenuous? OK, I can see it but I think it's erring on the side of caution on the Park's part. The Lake is a draw and walking down this one trail is the only way down. I'm sure the Park wants to make sure they scare some folks off who might need an emergency rescue. After all, nobody wants that.

Scenes from the bottom: I love how perfect or near-perfect all the reflections are in the photographs...
and how much you can see beneath the surface, at least to a certain depth.
Our stay at Crater Lake was intended to be two nights long. But perhaps in a sign that this particular National Park really wasn't meant for us (as if the boats not running wasn't enough and I promise that's the last time I'll mention that; probably) and after we spent about an hour or so recuperating (with a beer or two) from a day of hiking, the Lodge lost their water. No, the Lake didn't drain, but there was no running water when we were ready to shower. No running water also means no toilets and no dinner service. With a blessing from the Lodge and a bill for $1 for our second night in hand, we high-tailed it out of there and ended up in Eugene for the night. Done. And done.

If it seems like I've spent most of this post complaining, I apologize. My primary memories of Crater Lake will forever be focused on the water and how gorgeously peaceful it was. I hope the few pictures in this post demonstrate what a beautiful place it is. Unfortunately for me, I'll probably never ride a boat around the shoreline or swim the 55-65 degree water in my life. The second of those is my fault. 

One of the things that makes Crater Lake so special is its remoteness and unfortunately, that's probably the same thing that's going to keep me away from it probably forever. And I'm really OK with that. I'm glad I came and saw it. I got some good memories out of our 24 or so hours there and I slowed down for a day, which is sometimes worth something. Now all I need to do is figure out when I'm going to visit Yosemite. Might be a while.

Finally, I need to keep a promise I made earlier in this post. There are fish living in the Lake. Salmon and trout actually. How did they get there? Why, of course, man put them there so they could fish in the Lake. The problem? There's nothing for the fish to eat. So they also added some crawfish, which are now destroying the natual ecosystem of the Lake. So we are now spending money to eradicate the crawfish. Will we ever learn?

Plaikni Falls. Worth the mile hike.
The Pinnacles at the southeast corner of the Park.

How We Did It
Crater Lake National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But depending on where you are coming from, it may be a little complicated to get to. 

There are two entrances to the Park: one from the north and one from the south. The south entrance is open year-round and road crews work throughout the winter to keep the roads to the Park Headquarters passable. However, the Park Headquarters is not at the Lake; it's at the intersection where the south entrance meets Rim Drive. Under most conditions, the road to Rim Village (which is at the Lake) will be open but the rest of Rim Drive, which is pretty much 95% of the loop, and the north entrance, are closed in winter due to snow.

As I hope I've made clear, winter at Crater Lake is not like winter where most of us live. Rim Drive has opened as late as July 13 just last year (2017, in case you are reading this in 2019 or beyond). Check the Park website or call for more information if you are planning a visit. We got to Crater Lake on June 25 this year and we got lucky because they had a mild winter. Like just 29 feet of snow mild.

There is only one hotel in the Park, the Crater Lake Lodge. This place fills up. We booked 53 weeks in advance and the lakeview rooms were sold out. Plan early if you want to stay in the Park. If there's some good news for people who don't like planning that far ahead, our reservation when we made it was fully refundable up to 48 hours ahead of the date of our stay. So if you think you want to go, you can always make a reservation and then cancel later on. Just check the terms when you make the reservation in case they ever change them up. Reservations can be made through the Park website.

Boat tours (when the boats are operable) are sometimes available to book in advance. At the beginning of the season (like the days we went), it's first come, first served. I can't comment on how quickly the boats fill up and the wisdom of showing up without a reservation for reasons which I hope are obvious to you if you've read this entire post. Reservations for the boats, just like lodging, can be made through the Park website.

Friday, July 6, 2018


The first time I visited the Napa Valley was in 1998. I went alone; stayed at a brewery in Calistoga for about $35 per night; drank no wine; but had plenty of beer. I was really there to visit the Michael Graves-designed Clos Pegase Winery and the Fernau and Hartmann-designed Napa Valley Museum because visitng buildings is what I did with my vacations 20 years ago.

The second time I visited the Napa Valley was 10 years later. I went with someone who I thought loved me; I stayed outside the Valley in Sonoma; found out I liked chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon; and got food poisoning. Needless to say, my first trip was better than my second. In the end, I survived.

Now it's 2018 and I've just finished my third trip to the Napa Valley (something about years ending in "8" I guess). This year, I went with my wife whom I am very much in love with (and who I know loves me); stayed in the actual town of Napa; and came to not just drink wine but find out if I really love wine. This time, I tried to do it right from start to finish.

But before we start talking about 2018, let's talk some history.

Once upon a time in this world (like in the early 1970s), nobody who really knew anything about wine thought much about California. In fact, when anything other than some sort of cheap table wine was desired, nobody really thought about any other place other than France. Sure, people in California had been making wine at that point for over 100 years (if you include the somewhat reduced output during that dark period in our history called Prohibition) but if you wanted a really really good bottle of wine in the late 60s or early 70s for a special occasion, most people who knew thought about appellations or premier crus or burgundy or bordeaux.

About that same time, there were some winemakers setting up shop in the Napa Valley who were aspiring to make something different than the table wine or fortified wine most California growers were cranking out at that point. Some of these vintners patterned their product after French wines; others were trying anything and everything that would not be tried in France (or anywhere else) to get a superior product. In other words, not competing against anyone other than themselves.

Some of these wines started to attract the attention of a few people outside the United States. One of these people was Steven Spurrier (not the football coach), a British wine merchant living in Paris who was still trying to figure out what to do with his life while living off his inheritance. Owning a wine shop that also conducted wine appreciation classes seemed to Steve I guess to be an appropriate way to spend his time. At least until something better came along.

Then Steve Spurrier had an idea: why not conduct an independent blind taste testing of California and French wines tied in with the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? His thought was that this might provide some buzz about his own business and enhance his status a bit while also giving some credence to his own idea that wines being made in California weren't half bad sometimes. Not French. Just not half bad.

The blind taste test was held on May 24, 1976 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. It was an event that was about as un-buzzworthy as you could get since most people assumed the French wines would wipe the floor with the new world wines. It was so un-notable from a coverage standpoint that only one journalist (George Taber from Time Magazine) even bothered to show up to cover it. After the fact, the event became known as The Judgment of Paris, a reference to the choice the Trojan man, Paris, made that led to the Trojan War. Of course, the event only acquired a name after the fact because the unexpected happened: the American wines won and turned the wine world upside down.

Chardonnay, cabernet, cabernet, cabernet. At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
I like wine. Before this year's trip to Napa I'd have a hard time saying I loved it which was exactly the point of going back. Since my last trip there in 2008, I've tried many different kinds of wines and I can clearly say that I tend to gravitate towards wines that carry a lot of flavor, preferably with a good amount of acidity. But through all the glasses and cups and whatever else I've drank wine out of in the last 10 years, I've only really loved one wine and that was made in the basement of an old firehouse in Pittsburgh. It was a zinfandel made with California grapes and I loved it as soon as I tasted it. I wanted more of that same experience this year.

Before we really get this post rolling, let me also say that I'm probably never going to be a wine guy in the sense of someone with a sophisticated palate that can articulate all the strange flavors that wine experts and literature list off. I will never understand how a winemaker would want someone talking about the results of their labors tasting like wet stone or old leather or fresh mown hay or something like that. My sense of taste and smell are poor. All I'm likely to be able to describe in this blog post or any other forum is big picture concepts or familiar tastes like spice or acidity or apples or cherries or something like that. On the grapes side, I think I've had enough to know that I like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel above everything else I've had. Just explaining so you know where I'm coming from.

So we had a plan to go drink wine, we found a hotel and booked a flight. Now what? How the heck do you pick a winery, let alone three or four per day, in Napa Valley? I mean there are only 400 or so to choose from and that doesn't even include the 200 or so that are in the neighboring Sonoma Valley. You clearly can't choose based on the recommendations of the wineries themselves because they all seem to think they are good. This to me seemed to be the first challenge of a long weekend tasting wine. Without the right selections, there would be no chance of finding something I loved.

To make things worse for us, we were told over and over again at the places we ended up visiting that the best wine is the one you like. There is no one single best wine. You have to go find the ones you like that are the best for your palate. This would take a multi-pronged approach to solve this problem. Throwing a dart at 600 wineries clearly wasn't going to work.

The Greeter. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
Back to Paris
We decided the backbone of our 2018 wine experience would be the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Sure, it was 42 years ago but we thought why not just pick the two winners of that contest as the first winery in each of our two full days in the Valley. That meant Chateau Montelena one day (they won the white category in the 1976 tasting) and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (which won the red category) on the other. Both wineries still exist today; why not give them a shot. Both turned out to be excellent choices but the differences between the two were striking.

Both wineries can trace their roots to men who arrived in the Napa Valley in 1968. Warren Winiarski moved his wife and kids to the Valley that year and two years later bought a 44 acre lot next to a parcel of land used for growing grapes after tasting the wine those same grapes produced. Jim Barrett bought into a property in Calistoga at the north end of the Valley the same year Winiarski moved his family. Barrett's purchase included an intact winery surrounding an historic 1888 home. Winiarski was a winemaker; Barrett was a lawyer who hired a winemaker to work his land. Both wineries began producing wine in 1972 and both had two bottles of their wine produced the following year entered into the Judgment of Paris. And, of course, both won.

Since that time, Chateau Montelena (its name is a smushing together of Mount St. Helena which can be seen from the still standing home) has remained in the Barrett family, which uses the chateau at the center of the property as their welcome center and tasting facility. Further down the Napa Valley, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars has been sold to The Altria Group, a tobacco company that obviously dabbles in other things; their hospitality center is brand new and cutting edge, a facility that is every bit as gorgeous as Chateau Montelena's without maybe having anywhere near as much character.

Chateau Montelena's historic house.
We decided to go all in at each of these places and book what we saw as a top end tasting experience. That got us a taste of chardonnay and three or four tastes of each winery's signature cabernet, although honestly we got a little extra taste or two at both places. I thought both wineries served us incredible wines. Appropriately enough I thought the best we were served at Chateau Montelena was their chardonnay and the tops at Stag's Leap was one of their cabernets, although both impressed me with some of their other wines too.

At Chateau Montelena we learned that the fruit and acid in their chardonnay is a result of them not using malolactic fermentation, a process that turns the malic acid (which I guess I love) to lactic acid which produces a fatty or buttery taste on the wine (which I don't necessarily care for). I also learned (and maybe much to my chagrin) that I probably prefer lower alcohol wines like the kind Chateau Montelena produces in the style of the great French houses. We managed to get on a four person tasting which also significantly improved the quality of the tasting experience. 

At Stag's Leap we had probably the best cabernet we had on the entire trip, a small taste of the not-available-for-purchase-except-to-members (we are not members) S.L.V. Block 1. We also had one of those I-don't-get-why-people-like-wine-sometimes moments. The last glass we had on our tasting was a 2015 CASK 23 cabernet, a wine that is only made by the vineyard on years when there is sufficient fruit of the best quality. I got the impression that this is one of the most exclusive wines Stag's Leap produces. One of the tasting notes for this particular wine was "cigar box". Now I'm not sure if this was supposed to be a mark of pride or something but that's exactly what it tasted like. And pretty much nothing else. If there's one thing I don't get about wine it's why people want to drink things that taste like the insides of cigar boxes. We moved on. Satisfied but still puzzled about that last one.

Young zinfandel grapes, Storybook Mountain Vineyards. 
Quest for Zinfandel
With chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon sufficiently (and likely excellently) covered in my view by the two Judgment of Paris champions, we needed to seek out a spot that specialized in the grapes that made up the best wine I had prior to June 2018, zinfandel. While there are generalist wineries up and down the Napa Valley that cover a range of grapes and tons and tons that specialize the super popular chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel represents a minority crop in the area. I wanted to find a vineyard that treated zin like the special and beloved wine that it can be.

Right or wrong, I turned to an internet search engine and typed "best zinfandel napa valley". I swear this was a well intentioned search but all things considered this was probably not the way to go, even if most of the results came up with the exact same name over and over again. Considering the mantra that the best wine is the one that you like best, I'm not going to discourage you from visiting anywhere in the Napa Valley based on my experience so I'm not naming names of the places that I was not impressed with. I'm also very cognizant of the fact that I was chasing a ghost of sorts having already supped what I considered to be a masterful zinfandel. Yes...from Pittsburgh.

Overall, where the internet search engine steered us was not bad. The atmosphere was pleasant enough and the wine was good enough I guess. It just didn't make me want to buy bottles of the stuff or really any at all. Considering this was supposed to be a zin place, I asked for another zinfandel recommendation on my way out and got the exact same name that I would get from Chateau Montelena the very next morning: Storybook Mountain Vineyards.

Mount St. Helena seen from the Storybook property with a field of zinfandel in the foreground.
Storybook was probably the smallest winery we visited on our long weekend trip and it for sure had the best story. The former Grimm (Brothers) Vineyards and Wine Vaults on the eastern side of the Mayacamas Mountains (the Napa Valley is formed by the Mayacamas range to the west and the Vaca Mountains on the east side) was purchased by Jerry and Ingrid Seps in 1976. They've held it ever since. Jerry even drove by us on our way out of the property and waved. And I didn't add the Brothers in parentheses to be cheeky; the original winery was actually owned by two brothers Grimm. Hence the Storybook name today.

The original winery dates from the 1880s, including the caves, which were blasted out by Chinese immigrant labor more than 125 years ago. You'll end up tasting in those caves if you visit. Storybook is almost completely a family affair; it's run by the Seps family and cared for by the sons and nephews of Mexican laborers brought to the property by Jerry just after he bought the property and needed some help harvesting. They are a true estate vineyard, meaning the grapes used in their wine is farmed on the same property and they let no more than 40 minutes elapse from the picking to the fermentation tank. That's pretty incredible considering when I say the two families run the place I mean there's no outside labor brought in for the harvest. Our guide Pam told us the wine was made with love; she appears to be right. We didn't see quite this much personal care anywhere else.

By the way, there's a lot to be said for the hard work and labor of immigrants. Just saying...

The mountain slopes at Storybook are planted carefully, almost like a science experiment. Grape varieties aren't forced to grow in spots where they don't grown best. That's the primary reason the focus at the vineyard is zinfandel, because that's what grows best there. We had some good zins in the caves of Storybook and if we had been traveling locally, I likely would have come away with a bottle at the super reasonable price set by Jerry Seps. I didn't think it was worth shipping. Great story; great people. I'm sure it's worth a visit. Our palates just didn't fit the wine quite perfectly enough.

Bunny Foo Foo. Lawrence Argent, artist. HALL Wines, St. Helena.
More than Wine
Now all this wine drinking can get a fella a little tipsy, and like the typical non-wine person I am, I just refuse to spit in the spit buckets. If wine enters my mouth, it gets drunk. I'm not wasting sips of wine that cost more than $150 a bottle, even if it tastes like cigar boxes. So considering my refusal to spit, we needed a method to pace my intake (for me) and break the boredom of watching me drink wine (for my non-drinking and graciously designated driver-ing wife). Fortunately there are a number of vineyards that offer more than wine.

For our homage to the 1976 Judgment of Paris, we deliberately chose tastings that lasted longer than it took to just swallow five or six quarter-full glasses of wine. These involved a tour around the historic chateau in Calistoga and a look inside the caves at Stag's Leap. We also got an almost two hour stop at Storybook which got the wine I had earlier in that day nicely out of my system. This is a good way to introduce pace into your day. There are other more interesting ways as well.

There are a number of wineries in the Valley that farm olives as well as wine; a few that have on-site bocce or (depending on how French you want to be) pétanque courts; and some that have art galleries of varying quality. You can also grab a bite to eat at some wineries and by this I mean a full meal, not a cheese board with a tasting. We chose a number of wineries on a non-wine basis to break up our day, although we ended up ditching pétanque (I am wanting to be quite French today) and olives in favor of Storybook. The results of our non-wine based wine selections were, shall we say, of varying quality. 

Food from Bruschetteria Food Truck alongside a glass of Clif Family Chardonnay.
You can spend a lot of money eating in the Napa Valley, and I don't mean by getting a $300 plus (without wine or supplements for special orders) per person prix fixe meal at Thomas Keller's famous French Laundry restaurant. There are some seriously expensive plates of food available at some wineries. We passed on all of these, choosing something way more casual than all the set price menus that we found something objectionable about. And by way more casual, I mean like food truck casual, courtesy of the Bruschetteria Food Truck on the Clif Family winery property. Yes, the main dishes are, as the name suggests, bruschettas, but like pizza sized pieces of bread loaded with mushrooms or brisket and plenty of cheese and herbs. This was one of the best meals we had on our ten day jaunt through Napa and all the way to Portland, Oregon. Seriously good stuff. The Clif Family (yes, the same family that makes the bars) chardonnay was pretty darned tasty too.

We also picked a couple of wineries that had art galleries. We love looking at and collecting art and figured this would be a great way to slow down the day, maybe with a small glass of wine to sip over a 30 to 45 minute stroll through a gallery or garden. I said slow down, not cut out entirely. We chose HALL Wines in St. Helena as one of two art-plus-wine stops. HALL has a world class collection of sculpture spread around its property and offers a guided tour plus a tasting after. Sounded great except for the 100 plus degree temperature which turned our well-planned detour into a standard tasting. 

The good news about HALL was that we managed to find a cabernet sauvignon (their almost lowest priced Ellie's) that I really liked despite the points-focused narrative we got from our guide. HALL seems obsessively focused on points assigned to their wines by third parties, typically Wine Spectator magazine, which came up with the system to apply what seems like an objective rating system for wine. As I've mentioned already, the best wine for you is the one you think tastes best, not the one someone else (or a magazine) thinks tastes best. At HALL, I far preferred their 95 point Ellie's to their 98 point Kathryn Hall. Drink the wine that tastes good to you, people.

Our other art gallery / winery pick? Not so successful. In fact, I'd probably never go back for the wine, although I did enjoy some of the art. Again, I'm refusing to name names when I've disapproved of what I've had to drink. There may be some folks out there who love this stuff. There also may be someone (God forbid) who might be basing their own decisions on where to taste based on reading this blog post. I'm even refusing to say the name of the town where we found it.

HALL Wines offerings, including the excellent (to me) Ellie's cabernet sauvignon in the foreground.
That's a lot of writing about wine. Let's bring this thing to a close shall we. 

The point of this trip was to find some wine that I loved. I'm not saying that I would have given up on wine if I hadn't found at least something better than palatable but I might have ended up buying a lot more zinfandel from Pittsburgh and I might never have deliberately visited another winery I wasn't familiar with ever again. Our method of choosing wineries was perhaps key to finding some great wine; pick the wrong ones and you could reasonably blame it on the planner (me) for picking some places that weren't that good. So did that work?

I think in the end, our method worked. We got some hits and we got some misses. But the real point of the trip to find some wine that I loved was satisfied. I ended up shipping back 20 bottles of wine for myself (16 chardonnay and 4 cabernet sauvignon if you must know). Don't think that sounds like a lot? Some of the stuff is pretty darned expensive, although I didn't break the $100 a bottle barrier on any of my purchases. I only shipped three different types of wine back home and only bought at three wineries, meaning I have a lot of some of the same kinds of wine. More than anything else, this trip proved to me that I do, in fact, love some wine. Now Napa Valley is on my list of places to go back. Hey, a long weekend every couple of years couldn't hurt, right?

How We Did It
As I hope comes through in the post above, finding wine in the Napa Valley is not difficult. All you really need is some form of transportation and a designated driver. Below is a list of all the wineries referenced in this post, listed in the order of our visit. Click on the name of the winery to access their website. If there is other information I think you need to know, I've included that next to the address.

A lot of wineries in the Napa Valley offer walk-in tastings for a fee. If you want something more deluxe than a couple of glasses of wine at a bar, I'd suggest making a reservation in advance. In fact, in some cases you may need a reservation to get in the door. If you've decided you really want to taste at a specific winery, I'd make a reservation. Some of these properties are packed with people. Don't like being tied down to a specific time? Pick just one reservation a day or something like that. Don't lose out on some place you really want to try because you refuse to schedule.

Chateau Montelena Winery, 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga CA. We took The Barrett Dream tour here which got us the super private (four people) tasting referenced earlier in this post. The personal attention this tour offered was appreciated.

Storybook Mountain Vineyards, 3835 Highway 128, Calistoga, CA. Storybook is a reservations-only winery. Don't have a reservation? You might have to try talking your way in at the gate. No guarantees that works.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA. Note there are two vineyards in the Napa Valley with similar Stag's Leap names. We visited the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and not the Stags' Leap Winery. The latter did not win the Judgment of Paris in 1976. And yes, the apostrophes are correctly placed in each name. Apostrophes are important here.

Clif Family Winery, 709 Main Street, St. Helena, CA. Wonder where my advice about reservations came from? I wanted to taste at Clif Family and was told (just after noon) that they were sold out for the day. I settled for a glass of wine from the bar. Make reservations if a property is important, folks!

Hall Wines St. Helena, 401 St. Helena Highway South, St. Helena CA. Note that Hall has two properties: one in St. Helena and one in Rutherford. The one in St. Helena has the art collection.

Friday, June 22, 2018


Today is my 50th birthday. For the first time in a birthday post (there are five more before this), I'm not holding a beer and smiling at the camera. Instead, I'm holding a glass of wine and smiling at the camera because I'm in the Napa Valley in California celebrating my first half-century on the planet before heading north to Portland, Oregon to do some more celebrating. Only this time with beer.

This date was supposed to be the last day of this blog. It won't be. I'm having too much fun and growing and learning too much. I'll get to all of that in a minute or two.

This past year I traveled in many respects less than I have in either of the four prior years. In years one through four, I made at least two trips out of the country and set foot in Europe each of those years. This past year, I traveled abroad just once and I skipped Europe entirely. Some of that was due to timing. I traveled a ton between my 48th and 49th birthdays (including making it to four continents) and so had to save up some time off this past year. Some of it was due to going all in on a two week trip to Africa; I hadn't taken two full weeks off from work in almost seven years.

That doesn't mean that this year wasn't incredible because it certainly was. For a start, we saw a ton of different wildlife; three of my four trips this year were centered around birds and mammals large and small. Only a long weekend in Detroit saved us from a full year of animal-focused trips. We also checked a number of things off my non-existent bucket list, including some things that we didn't even know were on there. Seeing the Big Five in Africa, jumping with the Masai, seeing Denali (even though we didn't really see all of it) and visiting Detroit all fit into this category. That last one's not a typo; Detroit is still on my list. One weekend in the Motor City just isn't enough to do everything I want to see in that city.

On top of all that stuff and so much more that's made it into this blog and plenty of stuff that hasn't, I managed to lay eyes on my favorite building in the world on a seven hour or so layover in Amsterdam on our way back from Africa. It's the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and it's shown in the photograph below. I love this building!

So now what? Well, as I mentioned in paragraph two of this post, I am not stopping. I've already modified the subtitle of this blog from "a 1,827 day project dedicated to broadening my horizons" to "a 1,827 day project dedicated to broadening my horizons that just kept going". I'm also today committing (God willing) to extend this journey for a further five years. No I'm not changing the title of the blog to Ten Years. Get over it.

When I started this blog, I set out a series of goals for personal travel and I completed all of those by age 49 at the latest. It's time for a new set of priorities to measure my success; not that these will cover all the places I'll go, because I don't have a clear vision of the next five years right now. Big picture-wise on my 45th birthday, I'd visited just two continents. Now I'm at five. There are two left, one inhabited (Australia or Oceania, if you prefer) and one is not really (Antarctica). The first commitment I'm making today is to add Oceania (I'm going with political continents, not geographical) to my continents visited list.

The second commitment I'm re-making is to visit the one city in Europe I've thought about visiting more than any other. Five years ago, that place was Barcelona, Spain. Today, it's Cologne, Germany. Enough talking about wanting to drink kölsch and see the cathedral. Go do it!

Closer to home, I'm also committing to complete my quest to visit all 50 states. Right now, I'm at 46 with Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma remaining. I intend to get two of those by driving the length of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. That's a trip I've wanted to take for a while but I just keep putting it off. That has to get completed before I turn 55. I have no idea how I get the other two. I'm still searching for what the heck I would even do in Arkansas (although I have some preliminary ideas). I'll figure it out.

Finally, there have to be some wonderlust-type spots on the next five years list. There are. I have to make it to either Easter Island off the coast of Chile (like, waaaaaay off the cost) or Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. And I absolutely have to, no question about it, no excuses accepted, make my way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I've wanted to visit that place since I was a sophomore in college which at this point is more than 30 years ago. And that's just way too long to want to go to one place without going.

But enough of the future. Today is day 1,827 of this blog. I made it. And for the next two days I'm kicking back in the Napa Valley and doing absolutely nothing except drinking wine and eating food and enjoying the last day of my five year commitment, and the first day of my next, with the person I love most of all in life. Happy birthday to me!

Oldupai (not a typo) Gorge, Tanzania. Somewhere out there the Leakeys discovered early man.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Giant Roadside Sculptures

What is it about North Dakota and giant sculptures by the sides of their roads? Never thought I'd start a blog post that way but here we are...

Over the Memorial Day weekend this year, we headed out to North Dakota for a couple of nights. I figured three days in some wide open spaces with a little wildlife watching thrown in would be good for me over the long weekend. Plus I'd never been to North Dakota before and you know I'm focused on making it to all 50 states. After landing in Bismarck, I've got 46 in the books and just four to go. No idea how I'm getting Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma but that's a problem for another day.

Our must see list for the long weekend? Covering both parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park looking for bison, wild horses, prairie dogs and whatever else we could find on four or two or six or no (rattlesnake!) legs and trying to find something cultural that was uniquely North Dakota. While we kept a keen eye out for culinary delicacies like tater tot hot dish and taco in a bag at lunch and dinner times, we made the decision pretty early on to spend the highbrow part of this trip checking out some giant statues of whatever we could find. I'm totally serious. It's a thing there somehow.

The centerpiece of our quest for massive works of folk art or whatever else really big and manmade that we could find by the sides of the roads was the Enchanted Highway, a 34 mile long stretch of road running north-south between Gladstone and Regent in the western part of the state. Since 1991, artist Gary Greff has been erecting huge installations on other people's land (he had permission) as a tribute to things that make life in North Dakota uniquely North Dakotan. And it totally works. Want to understand a little bit more about the state bounded by Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota? Spend an hour and a half or so making your way from Regent to Gladstone and stopping along the way.

Tin Family, Enchanted Highway, 1991.
If you decided to make this pilgrimage of sorts, I'd recommend you start from Regent and head north. That's because if you go that way, you can pick up a brochure at the visitor's center at the south end which tells you a little something about each one of Gary's works along the way. We didn't necessarily plan it that way but that's how it worked out for us. We were headed to the Highway from Medora and we figured why not take the fastest way to get to Regent and go from there. If the fastest way had been riding down 102 Avenue SW (that's the name of the road that is the Enchanted Highway), we'd have seen everything twice, but our navigation app took us across rural North Dakota to get to the starting point. It worked for us.

Make it all the way from start to finish and you'll take in all seven of Gary's sculptures in place which include one devoted to the farmers that drive the economy of much of North Dakota; one tribute to Theodore Roosevelt who made North Dakota his spiritual home; and five others featuring wildlife found in the Peace Garden State, although one of the five is really a nod to the farming community of North Dakota also. They range in age from 27 years old (Tin Family, 1991) to the most recent in 2006 (Fisherman's Dream).

These things are absolutely enormous. Tin Pa of the Tin Family is 45 feet tall and supported by 16 telephone poles (presumably inside his body). He is easily bested by a 51 foot high Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, a 75 foot tall buck jumping over a fence and the entire Geese In Flight sculpture just north of I-94 which is a truly impressive 110 feet tall. Each sculpture is attached to the ground and stabilized by a network of cables and stays. The taller and more surface area in a work of art, the more cables necessary to keep it standing upright.

Teddy Rides Again, Enchanted Highway, 1993.
The Deer Family, Enchanted Highway, 2002.
Seeing all seven pieces in one car ride allows you the chance to compare each work and you can see the technical sophistication increasing as time goes by. Tin Family has zero cables anchoring Tin Pa, Tin Ma and Son; that's because the three family members, constructed primarily from used farming equipment, are standing up by fairly traditional methods, meaning gravity and some sort of long anchorage into the Earth, meaning the telephone poles referenced in the previous paragraph.

The next sculpture north of Tin Family, Teddy Rides Again, is stabilized by a number of cables, but Gary made the standing up part about as easy as he could make it by using well pipe with about zero surface area so there's relatively little to no wind force to resist. I say easy here meaning supporting a 9,000 pound welded work of art that stands five stories tall. You know...easy. It's only when you move on from Teddy Rides Again that you start to understand what Gary has learned along the way and how it's improved what he's made.

By the time you get to Fisherman's Dream, you understand how difficult Gary's later works are just simply to stay erect. The entire assemblage here include seven enormous fish, a variety of plant life and a fisherman in a row boat on a choppy water surface with a 70 foot long rainbow trout on the line. The fish are supported by the reeds and greenery "under the water" and are mostly perforated to allow the wind to pass right through them rather than having them act like sails in the gusts blowing across the very flat landscape. We felt some wind in late May. I can't imagine how forcefully the gales blow during a real storm. No deep foundations and mass in this panorama. It's all skill on the sculptor's part.

Fisherman's Dream, Enchanted Highway, 2006.
Of the seven works, my two favorites are Pheasants On The Prairie (first favorite) and Grasshoppers In The Field (second favorite). Grasshoppers is a series of different sized grasshopper sculptures symbolizing the hardships that famers in the midwest endured to make ends meet for their families. There were infamous grasshopper plagues that descended upon North Dakota in the 1870s and again in the early 1930s. Grasshopper populations are typically kept in check in moist conditions because fungus in the soil destroys the insects' eggs. When there's no rain, there's no limits on these pests and their populations explode. The subsequent swarms generally devour everything they come across. I love the purpose and symbolism of this group of sculptures while also being grateful that I've never had to deal with a real mass of these creatures. 

Pheasants On The Prairie, though, takes the top prize for me because to me it's the most impressive group of constructs along the Highway. The pheasant rooster, hen and chicks are all constructed of wire mesh (to allow the wind to pass through; I'm obsessed with the wind, I know) and painted to resemble real pheasants (albeit 60 foot long ones) which makes them the most colorful of all Gary Greff's works with the probable exception of the Tin Family. The pose of the parents compared to the babies who are busy scarfing down some seed on the ground is perfect. This stop was the most anticipated for me before we got started looking at these things in person and while they are less impressive right up close than they are from a short distance (kind of messy up close), they are still my favorite of the seven. Apparently pheasant hunting is a thing in Dakota.

Grasshoppers In The Field, Enchanted Highway, 1999.
Pheasants On The Prairie, Enchanted Highway, 1996.
The drive all the way along the Enchanted Highway is definitely worth making yourself. These labors of love are complex constructs and there's much that can only be truly checked out by stopping at each one along 102 Avenue SW and getting out of your car and walking around and through these and looking at them from as many different perspectives as you can. It's not difficult to do. There's a good sized parking lot next to each one that will likely seem grossly oversized for the traffic you'll encounter if it is a slow day like it was for us. We saw just two other cars pulled over doing what we were doing in the 90 minutes or so it took us from start to finish.

I've tried to capture each work in pictures for this post which are perhaps less traditional than other photographs I've seen online. In addition to the main sculptures themselves, there are wonderful little details or follies that Greff has added to enhance the experience of visiting in person. These include the stagecoach you can climb aboard in front of Teddy Roosevelt and the geese-themed and wheat sheave-looking fences at the perimeter of Grasshoppers In The Field and Geese In Flight. If you've got kids with you, they can ride the smallest grasshoppers at the Grasshoppers stop or check out the Maze of Enchantment at The Deer Family. The maze works for grown-up kids too, even if it's not especially challenging.

If you make the trip from south to north and have enjoyed stopping off at the first six along the way, get ready for disappointment when you get to Geese In Flight. That's because the owners of the land, who purchased it after Gary had already worked out an indefinite lease with the prior owners, don't feel they need to honor the agreement they inherited when they purchased the property. I can't imagine anyone is doing their land any harm; some people are just out to spoil the fun of others I guess. If you want a good picture of this northernmost sculpture, you'll have to get one from the on or off ramp of I-94.

Geese In Flight, Enchanted Highway, 2001. Photo taken from the on ramp to eastbound I-94.
That's a whole lot of words about the Enchanted Highway. If you can remember all the way at the beginning of this post, I marveled at how giant sculptures were a North Dakota thing. Surely, I'm not basing this opinion on just one dude building stuff out of scrap metal for a 15 or so year period, right?

Trust me, there's a lot more.

Want to see the world's largest buffalo? Head to Jamestown, North Dakota where you'll find one that's 26 feet high. And yes, I'm using "buffalo" because that's what folks in Jamestown call it, even though it really should be a bison.

Like big fish (other than Gary Greff's Fisherman's Dream)? Wahpeton has a 40 foot long catfish and Garrison has a 26 foot long walleye. How about turtles? If those are your thing, you have to  pay a visit to Dunseith and Bottineau, where you'll find a regular turtle and one riding a snowmobile, respectively.

Viking? Pyramid Hill. Horse? Minot. World's largest sandhill crane? Steele. These things are everywhere. It's like an epidemic, only in a good way. I can't think of any place other than the United States where people would dare to do this sort of stuff and it's part of what makes this country so great. I'm not being facetious, here. I love it. Every single one of them.

We didn't make it to any of these other roadside sculptures, although we intended to make it to Steele to see the sandhill crane and would have if Delta had told us an hour or so earlier that we weren't making it out of Bismarck on time that afternoon (or Minneapolis for that matter that night). But I couldn't credibly write a blog post about oversized works of art along the highways of North Dakota and only visit the Enchanted Highway.

Enter Salem Sue.

Salem Sue. All 50 foot long of her. New Salem, North Dakota.
Salem Sue is a cow. A Holstein cow, to be exact. She's 38 feet high, 50 feet long and can been seen for miles each way on your approach to New Salem, North Dakota from the east and west on I-94. She's been keeping watch over New Salem since 1974 when she was erected by the area dairy farmers at the low low price of $40,000. That's about $210,000 or so in today's dollars. I'm telling you: only in America would we find a town with 938 residents spending the equivalent of about a quarter of a million dollars on a 38 foot high cow. I love it.

The history of the Holstein breed of cow is a rich one around New Salem. They were introduced to the area around the turn of the twentieth century and the folks around town got so proud of their particular breed of cow that the local farmers organized in 1908 into the Holstein Circuit, a trade association and traveling show of sorts that was dedicated to the breeding and care of these animals and the milk, cream and butter they provided to the townspeople. The town is so focused on this breed of cattle that their high school teams are called the New Salem Holsteins. That's commitment, folks.

Like the Enchanted Highway, Salem Sue has a sculptor. His name was Dave Oswald. Unlike the Enchanted Highway, there's not much searching for meaning in this statue. Plain and simple, she's a Holstein cow. But she does have a theme song called Ballad of the Holstein, which is apparently set to the tune of "Joy To The World" which no scene along the Enchanted Highway has. You can pick up a copy of this ditty's lyrics and other fun facts about Sue and the town of New Salem at the Tesoro gas station just south of I-94 at Exit 127. Keep going south and hang a right to get to the top of Sue's hill. The view is pretty cool, although it's all pretty much dead flat.

Udder-ly gorgeous view of the North Dakota landscape. Told you it was flat.
The weather was gorgeous when we visited Salem Sue; not so much when we made our way from Tin Family to Geese In Flight. You can't have great weather all the time when you travel, I guess. Ultimately no matter what the weather, I'm a fan of any sort of large roadside sculpture. There's no other country on Earth that does stuff like this quite the way the United States does it. I know there are similar attractions all over America, including some we have passed in the last 18 months near Detroit, Michigan (giant tire) and on the road from Albuquerque to Roswell in New Mexico (giant gunslingers). Maybe I haven't looked hard enough but I don't think I've found a place that offers the variety and scope of these things offered by the State of North Dakota. 

If you're a fan, go. If you don't much care one way or another and are in North Dakota, go anyway. You might find something you love. All I know that I'm not even halfway done with that state's roadside attractions. Curse that Delta flight! Could have had one more if I'd have known earlier. Oh well!

Fence posts lining the drive to Geese In Flight, unfortunately blocked off right now to cars.