On Being Manly (in which I go to Australia)

Robert Hughes, the late Australian-born art critic, wrote a masterpiece of history in 1987, The Fatal Shore, in which he called his native land a “…cloaca, invisible, its contents filthy and unnameable.”

He was referring not to his own, but to  English attitudes during the Georgian era towards his yet unsettled country as England prepared to empty its hulk ships and festering jails onto the First Fleet sailing off to Cook’s oversold Botany Bay in what would come to be known as the “Great Transportation” — the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of petty thieves, whores, and miscreants. They had formerly been sold into indentured servitude to America prior to Great Britain losing that convenient dumping ground because of the American Revolution. No more America meant England needed a new dump and that Hughes chose a scatalogical simile is all part of the global conspiracy to paint this great country with cliches perpetuated by Men At Work, the “throw-a-shrimp-on-the-barby” guy, Discovery Channel’s “Weird Things that Will Kill You in Australia,” Mad Max and the Great Humungous, and the unnamed wit (I suspect Jeremy Clarkson) who called the place the “Alabama of the World.” Crikey, let’s give Australia a break. I’d move here in an instant.

I myself was transported to Sydney earlier this week courtesy of a seat in economy class on United Airlines and an invitation to attend a press conference announcing my company’s relationship with the Australian Government. I managed to read Thomas Keneally’s A Commonwealth of Thieves as well as re-read Fatal Shore during the 15.5 hour flight (versus five months for the First Fleet), and arrived at Kingsford Airport on the shores of Botany Bay on a muggy day in the southern hemisphere’s version of late spring. The Sydney Opera House conveniently revealed itself during the descent, looking smaller than I imagined (a view from 5,000 feet will tend to shrink objects).

My colleague suggested a hotel at Manly Beach, an eastern suburb of Sydney fast by North Head, the northern promontory at the entrance of Sydney Harbor. Soaked in a funk of plane sweat, all I wanted was a shower, but of course the room wasn’t ready when I checked in so I staggered around the waterfront and the “Corso” in a jet lag fugue taken to an extreme by the International Date Line. Was it Sunday or Tuesday? I left California on Saturday night, but it was Monday. I think. As Hughes writes in Fatal Shore,  the poor bastards that were first shipped off to Australia could have been embarking on a trip to the moon, except for one difference: you can see the moon from England.

First thing I did was flush a toilet to see if the water drained counter-clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect. It did not. According to Wikipedia: “Contrary to popular misconception, water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilet drainage in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres can be observed.”

My colleague met me for lunch. He observed my wretched condition and asked if I might like to go for a swim, motioning out past the tall Norfolk Pines at the beauty of Manly Bay, the surfers riding the Cabbage Palm break and the infinite Pacific beyond.

“Box jellyfish. Great White Sharks. Stingrays. Saltwater Crocodiles. I don’t think so,” I said, beginning a five day recitation of every Australian cliche I could think of.

My room was (and still is) on the backside of the hotel, away from the beach, facing some place named with a lot of vowels in it, like “Woolooloogong” or “Baggahammas” and it was very thoughtful of the desk clerk to put me in a room overlooking a school playground filled with two hundred identically blue uniformed screaming children who seemed to be on perpetual recess. A cricket pitch is across the way where — I shit you not — they practice bagpipes at night. A weird bird that looks like a cockatoo flies by every five minutes and makes a noise like a pterodactyl that has gargled Drain-O.


I finally received my shower and then lunched with my colleague. After bidding him g’day I vowed not to break the first rule of coping with absurd jet lag: do not touch the bed while the sun is shining and don’t hunker down in a hotel room when you could be out walking it off. So I set out to explore Manly Beach. I  love a place named by the founding governor of Australia — Arthur Phillip — because he thought the aborigines on the beach looked quite manly. That they ran a spear through his shoulder next to a beached whale because they were tired of all his colonial incursions is besides the point: Governor Phillip survived and even accepted the locals had good reason to be miffed, what with the smallpox and pilfering convicts and what not and ordered the red coats not to go looking for revenge.

Where the governor was speared now stands the Manly Wharf, home of the “World Famous” Manly Ferry that connects to Sydney’s central business district in what I wager is the world’s most beautiful commute. I strolled down there on evening one, found a brew pub, and drank myself into a condition where sleep might be possible.

Tuesday was the big day, my reason for being there, a press conference in Sydney with the Chief Technology Officer of the Australian Government and 17 members of the local tech and business press. I like hanging out with reporters because I used to be one. I also know what I used to call ex-reporters with titles of “VP of Corporate Marketing. Flaks. Australia actually has a thriving press. There’s a half dozen actual paper newspapers in the hotel lobby every morning with lurid headlines about well endowed young women who died from Ecstasy overdoses. It was actually kind of great to schmooze with tech writers who had also worked for the late Pat McGovern at IDG, and in the published aftermath from the press conference they were more than kind even if one quoted me al s a company executive 11,000 miles away and another told me I looked like Jeff Bridges. The Big Lebowski version. Which means I must need a haircut.

A reporter interviewed me with an iPhone. I realize my mouth was hanging open, slack jawed, for most of the interview.


Wednesday morning I decided to check stuff out and went on a hike to North Head, a national park south of Manly that encompasses an old World War II artillery fortification for the coastal defense of Sydney. After a monster hill climb that turned me into aquaman, past the ubiquitous Crossfit box, I turned onto a trail and started getting lost in the outback of Manly. Signs warning of the endangered Bandicoots, bizarre birds, bees without stingers, skinks, gowannas, unseen marsupials, all of a sudden I was conscious that I wasn’t walking on the paved esplanade past the hotels and schnitzel shops, but in the bush where even the plants might kill me.


I found an army observation hut, went inside, expecting a gigantic spider attack, looked out the window for the Japanese Fleet, and seeing nothing but ocean all the way to the South Pole, went on my merry way, poking around a massive gun battery with a really big gun, then onto a very sombering memorial walk commemorating the Australian military a day after Veteran’s Day, the inscribed paving stones dotted with red paper poppies.

Then the pay off. The big view. A REALLY awesome view. Cliffs like you don’t want to fall off of. Surf booming 100 feet into the air. Time to break out the cellphone and take some pictures.clifs



After that expedition what is there to really say?  The people are really nice, healthy, drink in pubs they call hotels. Like their beer cold. Drive on the wrong side of the road. Are cheerful to strangers. Don’t push in lines and smile a lot. I couldn’t find “Australian cuisine” — but pieced together that “bugs” refer to lobsters of some sort, there is kangaroo meat on some menus, they are keen on Mexican food, the Thai is outstanding, and lamb on a pizza is a common thing.

Sydney is gorgeous, clean, cosmopolitan, and I even heard a didgeridoo by the ferries at Circular Quay.  Now I get to fly back to the dank cold darkness of New England and wonder what cliches we’re known for. Oh, and the English dumped a ton of criminals on the Puritans, so we Americans can embrace our convict heritage too.



On trains

Cape Cod has been served by limited weekend train service this summer, the Cape Flyer, and initial reports are very positive with the operating costs close to being covered and the passengers “liking” the hell out of the thing on Facebook. It’s not the fastest train in the world, but it certainly is gaining in popularity after the nightmarish off-Cape traffic on the Fourth of July weekend that apparently backed up 25 miles from the Sagamore Bridge. The Cape has no daily passenger service to Boston or Providence, with commuters to those cities forced to drive or take the bus. The bulk of the train activity seems to be the scenic dinner train out of Hyannis and the trash train that hauls the Cape’s detritus to the generators in Rochester.

I would certainly reconsider my weekly drive to Manhattan if there were a dependable and speedy train from the Cape to NYC via Providence, but I won’t go into the terrible state of the Acela (over-priced, over-crowded, and too slow) and the general scandal of the American railroad infrastructure along the busy northeast corridor from Boston to Washington.

Two things have trains on my mind this week. First is a book by Tim Parks, an expat living in Verona, Italy who writes about his love-hate affair with Trenitalia in Italian Ways, an account of the Italian rail service he depends on for his commute between his home and his professorship in Milan. I like Italian trains — I’ve taken the Cisalpina Eurostar from Zurich to Florence and then Florence to Venice and back again to Zurich — they are slightly funkier than their French or German counterparts and Italian railroad stations are nicely chaotic. I like train-based travel accounts. Paul Theroux is the master in my opinion, largely because he’s so judgmental of his fellow passengers and makes his tales more about the eccentricities of the people on the trains than the scenery out the windows. Parks isn’t nearly as nasty and mean-spirited, I suppose because he’s lived in Italy for 30 years and doesn’t want to give too much offense. He spends an inordinate amount of time carping about the illogic of the Italian ticket/time table system and the atrocious layout and lack of directions in an Italian train station. But when he takes a cue from Theroux and describes his fellow passengers in a Sicily-bound train, all yapping away in their mobile phones, the book becomes interesting.

And the second thing that has sparked my recent interest in trains is Tesla-founder Elon Musk’s forthcoming announcement of his “hyperloop” concept — a combination of the Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table — that would make travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco faster than a jet.

Five Days in New Orleans

by Daphne Churbuck

I just returned from five days in New Orleans — my first visit to the city — and wanted to share some random experiences and photos from a very condensed and exhausting introduction to one of the coolest places I’ve been anywhere. Period.

I stayed with my wife in the French Quarter in a nice three-star hotel on Royal Street — the Andrew Jackson. Immediately upon arriving she dragged me out into the Vieux Carre (it being her second visit) and introduced me the Cafe du Monde for chicory coffee and beignets covered with powdered sugar, so covered with powdered sugar that I left the place looking like Tony Montana. Then to Antoine’s Hermes Bar for a Sazerac (rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud bitters chilled in a glass rinsed with Herbsaint and garnished with a twist), Arnaud’s for gumbo, shrimp and grits, and a table-side serenade of “I Only Have Eyes For You” by a banjo, trumpet and bass trio who talked about playing My Father’s Moustache on Cape Cod and the late Dave McKenna of Yarmouth, arguably the peninsula’s most famous jazz musician.

Then down Bourbon Street and its crazed chaos of Giant Ass Beers, Larry Flynt’s Underaged Strippers, the cloying miasma of upchucked stomach contents, and a louche doorman who told me, as I walked hand-in-hand with my wife of 30 years that he could show me “Lots of Ho’s in No Clothes”

That was night one.

Day two — more beignets and coffee and then a cab ride out to the Garden District and Commander’s Palace, the foodie mecca that lists Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme among its ranks of alumni chefs. I cannot argue with $0.25 lunch time martinis (and a perfectly made Ramos Fizz, the drink that always eluded me as a bartender), and some of the most exquisite cooking I’ve ever tasted. A poky, langorous street car ride back down St. Charles to the city center, a walk back through the French Quarter, teeming with pre-St. Patrick’s day revelers, then a brief rest before an evening at the Rock N’Bowl — a combination bowling alley/hamburger joint/bar/music venue off of Carrolton Avenue where we saw (or is it “heard?)  Bonearama, a wild jazz-funk bank fronted by three trombone players who killed the best cover of the Beatles’ Hey Bulldog I’ve ever heard.

Day Three was mostly spent on the banks of the Mississippi, sitting on a park bench watching the barges and tankers and jazz boats go by while eating a muffaletta from Central Grocery and washing it down with a Barq’s and a bag of Zapp’s potato chips.  Bluebird skies, clement breezes and the amazing spectacle of humanity that marched before us on the riverside Moon Walk (named after former New Orleans mayor “Moon” Landrieu). Between the bells of the St. Louis cathedral (the oldest continuous church in the USA), the cartoonish sounding calliope on the decks of the sternwheeler Natchez, and snatches of buskers’ music floating over the levee from Jackson Square came the sound of a Second Line, that wonderful New Orleans tradition of a brass band marching along, followed by a dancing and jiving mob of umbrella-pumping, hanky-waving fans. As it got louder and crossed the street car tracks, it became apparent it would proceed down the promenade past our bench. This is what we saw:

I managed to completely fry my face sitting in the sun all day, and spent the rest of the trip looking like a suppurating lemur with bright red cheeks and forehead and pale Cape Cod white eyes. That didn’t deter me from doing my best to damage my liver and fail my pending cholesterol test with too many Abita Ambers and boatloads of steamed shrimp.

Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, I attended the 9 am Mass at St. Louis cathedral in an attempt to revive my somewhat moribund “52 Churches” project of 2008-09.  Other than looking like I was suffering from an incipient case of lupus, with my blistered cheeks and nose, I sat through the service marking the fifth Sunday in Lent, listened to the deacon’s reading and interpretation of the story of Lazarus, and as always, slipped out the back  during Communion due to the first rule of 52 Churches which is not to participate in any rites or reading foreign to my non-denominational, ecumenical, atheistic beliefs. Nice church, packed with tourists and locals, again the oldest continuously used church in the country, declared a “minor basilica” by the Pope during his visit in 1987. At night, from Bourbon street, an immense shadow of Christ is projected onto the back of the nave by a spotlight silhouetting a statue of Jesus, arms outstretched. The incongruity of sinner/saint is, I suppose, quintessentially New Orleans.

Later that morning we headed out to Central City and the A.L. Davis Park for Super Sunday — the annual gathering of the Mardi Gras Indians on the Sunday nearest St. Joseph’s Day. This was mind blowing to say the least. As a fan of the HBO series Treme, I’ve been fascinated by the Indian culture through the great portrayal of a “tribal Chief” by Clarke Peters as Big Chief Lambreaux. Sunday I got to experience about twenty of the tribes as they marched with their contingent of be-feathered warriors around the streets of the Central City.

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Indians were followed by Po’ Boys at the Parkway Bakery and Tavern. I did my level best to kill myself with a large “surf & turf” which combined roast beef and gravy with fried shrimp. This was frightening and will drive all pentinence post-trip.

St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans puts St. Patrick’s Day in Boston to shame. The city has a big Irish immigrant population, but the degree to which a holiday centered around alcohol is taken by Bourbon Street is beyond crazy. From bodypainted 60-year old ladies to frat boys shouting at their shoes on the side streets, it was a scene out of out of some demented painting of post-apocalyptic hell. So we took refuge in the oh-so-classy French 75 bar, and wheezed back a couple Sazeracs before calling it a night.

All in all, an amazing place that I had to experience to get beyond the usual cliches of mardi gras beads, masks, and gumbo.

A Tour of the Land of the O’Neill, the Pequot, Mohegans and Nuclear Submarines

My interest in native American issues has grown over the past few years, fueled in part by Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the King Philip Indian War in The Mayflower, and because of my close proximity to Mashpee and the efforts/strife of the local Wampanoag tribe to achieve tribal recognition and restore their language.

Until this past weekend I’d never visited the southeastern corner of Connecticut, home to the Mohegan and Pequot tribes and their better known casinos — Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. Both have been in operation for more than a decade and are excellent examples of sovereign indigenous rights and, to some poetic extent, ironic revenge for past atrocities by the English settlers and their descendants.  Fleecing the locals and using the cash to better themselves and buy back their ancestral lands seems fitting once you put into context the events of May 26, 1637.

My interest in the Pequot followed a visit to the site of the Great Swamp Fight in Kingstown, Rhode Island during the winter of 2009. Philbrick brought this neglected piece of American history to light in the Mayflower, telling the grim story of the battle when an army of colonists massacred hundreds of Narragansett Indians in their hidden swamp redoubt one cold December evening.  My post on that visit is one of the most visited and commented on this blog.

The Great Swamp Fight of December, 1675, while interesting because of its senseless violence (it drew the peaceful Narragansett tribe into the bloody three-year war between the whites and the Wampanoags), was not the first nor the worst of the colonial era massacres.  Forty years before and only 20 miles to the west, near what is known today as the village of Mystic,Connecticut an English force (which included Mohegan and Narragansett warriors) led by Captain John Mason attacked and massacred an encampment of Pequot Indians inside of their fort on the western shores of the Mystic River. I’ve rowed on that river at the annual Mystic Coast Weeks regatta hosted out of the Mystic Seaport Museum of American maritime history, unaware of the atrocity that took place only a half a mile away. That 400 to 700 women, children and old men died there has been a source of macabre curiosity and is definitely not something on the typical Mystic tourist’s agenda between the aquarium and its beluga whale and ye olde quaintness of the Seaport (which is an excellent maritime museum and experience).


One recent January weekend, with the prospect of nothing to do but sit on the couch and watch football,  my son and I woke early and drove the 125 miles from Cape Cod to New London ostensibly to visit the submarine museum in Groton where the first nuclear submarine Nautilus is moored. We talked about zombie issues during the drive, remarking about the relative attractiveness of various structures as being zombie-proof or not, and listened to internet radio kludged through his iPod and an FM radio adapter. Our first stop was in downtown New London, home of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, for a healthy organic brunch at a crunchy little café off of State Street recommended by Yelp.

My son, unimpressed with my dietetic eccentricities, extracted a promise that the day would end with a hamburger from the nearby Five Guys in Mystic.

We recrossed the Thames River and found the United States Navy’s submarine base off of Route 12 in Groton. This was familiar ground to me as I had spent one grueling May in the 1970s rowing on the Thames with the Yale heavyweight crew preparing for the annual Harvard-Yale race, the oldest collegiate competition in the country. My father sent me a new Laser sailboat as a birthday present, having it delivered to the crew house at Gales Ferry. One day I decided to try the Laser out by myself and tacked it downriver towards the Route 95 bridge. It was very breezy day and I capsized in front of the submarine base’s sub pens. As I drifted perilously close to the warning line marked by a string of orange buoys I tried to right the boat and get going again as a group of alarmed shore patrolmen jogged down the dock, white rifles in hand yelling that I was invading off limits territory. A friend who attended Connecticut College on the other side of the Thames told me once about getting arrested for bird watching in the woods with a set of binoculars. A car pulled up, some Navy personnel hopped out, and he was questioned.

New London and Groton were definitely high on the Soviet missile target list during the cold war. The fact that General Dynamics, the shipyard that builds the massive nuclear submarines, is sitting right on New London Harbor and that New London is also home to the Coast Guard Academy makes it a very attractive target.  There’s something strangely functional and sad about a military base. I felt it on the Presidio in San Francisco during the recent holidays, and again last weekend in Groton as we drove past the gates of the sub base, the rows of enlisted personnel barracks, the retired Polaris missile standing sentry.

The museum was fantastic, a relatively new museum that I’d never seen before. We toured the exhibits, marveled at the display of American military technology and heroism, and eventually boarded the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered “vehicle.” My claustrophobia immediately kicked in, making me realize I would make a neurotic submariner.

We took a left out of the museum and continued north on Route 12 along the Thames to Gales Ferry, home of the Yale crew camp. I felt very old and blue and nostalgic and boola-boola standing on the old croquet pitch looking down at the boathouse (trivia: the saying “paint the town red” was uttered by a traitorous mayor of New London who exhorted the Harvard crew to paint his city Crimson if they beat Yale)

Junior was impatient, honked the horn, so we hit the road and continued north in search of the mystical Mohegan Sun, casino of the Mohegan tribe in Uncasville. I’m a moron when it comes to gambling, so I have no affinity for casinos (and am profoundly happy not to be in Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show this week) and the alleged glamour associated with them.  We used the GPS to find the way, and suddenly astride the Thames, was the most out of place building I’ve ever seen — a shining metallic rectangle looming above the brown sere winter woods.

Good for the Indians, I thought. Getting back at the civilization that boned them and using the proceeds to better themselves and buy back their ancestral lands. The Mohegans and Pequots had been screwed, utterly so, and their history is fascinating, particularly in the 20th century as they struggled to preserve their language (banned by the state of Connecticut at one point) and culture. But they did, and by the 1990s had achieved Federal recognition, investors, and eventually prosperity.

We didn’t stop to visit, just drove through the valet area and back to the highway and eventually the creepiest place I’ve seen in years, the campus of the abandoned state mental hospital in Ledyard and Norwich. This place was amazing. You can get a great sense of it at the website, Forbidden-Places, a catalog of abandoned factories, hospitals and power plants hosted out of Belgium. I’d film a horror movie here in an instant. Make that a zombie movie.

We drove silently through the edge of Norwich, past the tired millworker housing and shuttered mills, Asian groceries and check cashing stores. The place was sleepy and stagnant and so evocative of the death of the industrial revolution in countless other New England mill towns. It made me think of my friends the Lotuffs, and their efforts to revive the American manufacturing tradition with their high-end leather working company, Lotuff Leather (whose briefcase I lust for). What will restore manufacturing to America? A drive through Fall River or Pawtucket or Norwich is like going to a drive-in wake.

We gazed upon the Pequot casino, Foxwoods, just as garish and out of place as the Mohegan version, and taking a back road, happened upon the actual reservation where the surviving Pequots live in a gated community with very nice houses in the middle of the glacial moraine crossed by rows of colonial stonewalls snaking through the Connecticut woods. Given that the Mohegans under their sachem, Uncas, participated in the Mystic Pequot massacre, I wonder how cut-throat competitive the two casinos are today.

The Five Guys burger ended the adventure — me eating mine like a caveman out from in between the paleo-forbidden bun, Junior inhaling his along with a massive greasy paper bag of fries. All was well with the worlds, the Pequots and Mohegans were making bank, our Navy is keeping us safe, but nowhere in Greater New London can one find a Eugene O’Neill play.







Dead Stuff on the Beach: Mola Mola

I took a hike around Great Island hike in Wellfleet yesterday with a college friend and his wife. A mere 14 mile, four hour slog to the tip of Jeremy Point under scudding purple December clouds with the Pilgrim monument in Provincetown a prominent finger to the north. Our only company was a half-dozen orange coated hunters with shotguns — one of whom told us to stay out of the woods unless we too were wearing orange, which we were not. So out of the woods we stayed and to the beach we went.

We walked down the bay side beach, made it south to the point, and then returned along the inner beach facing Wellfleet Harbor, stepping over countless clumps of wild oysters sitting on the sand, begging to be picked up. Near the end of the walk, inside the cove and marsh, we came upon a large, white, grey blob the size of a table laying in the wrack and flotsam.

It stank. It was gelatinous, and in an advanced state of decay. I looked for a minute and deduced it was a dead ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, one of the weirder fish in the sea.

from the Wikipedia

First — they are all head. Seriously. No body to speak of. Just a massive head with fins.

Second — they are the heaviest fish in the sea, weighing up to 2,200 pounds.

Third — they swim very very slowly, preferring to drift on their side, right on the surface, sunning themselves as befits their name.

Fourth — their fin flaps lazily overhead in the air as they bask and some people mistake that fin for a shark.

This one is one of the dozen or so that have stranded on the Cape this fall. When the temperatures plunge the fish are stunned and can’t survive. According to the Cape Cod Times:

“The Mola mola is a frequent visitor to Cape waters and the season is under way for finding them stranded on the shores of Cape Cod Bay, Carson said. Although there are three types of ocean sunfish, the Mola mola is the one most likely to be sighted off the Cape’s shores.”

Here is link to a gallery of photos at the Time’s website of a marine biologist examining a dead Mola mola on a Cape Cod Bay beach in Brewster in October.



That Midtown Halal Cart With The Monster Lines ….

For years, whenever I found myself in the vicinity of the New York Hilton at 53rd and Sixth, I would be re-surprised by the monster line of people standing next to a corner food cart. Others would comment on the weird popularity of the spot. Was it the neighborhood? Dense with publishing houses, the Museum of Modern Art, Rock Center and the hotel? Or was it the food? Some strange attraction that had to be tasted to be believed.

Working as I do now on 54th between Sixth and Fifth, this cart is pretty much across the street and hard to miss. Today I worked up the gumption to try it after reading some glowing reviews on Yelp and checking out the cart’s website. Yes, they are at www.53rdand6th.com




Here’s the deal. It’s a Halal cart. Think Islamic Kosher. There’s a gazillion of them. They serve chicken and gyros and rice. Your basic Bourdainian stoner street food.I usually avoid street meat for the same reason I take lots of Immodium with me to Bangalore. Dirty water hot dogs — not my thing. But street food can be awesome, especially in places like Istanbul, and being a fan of the grey mystery meat known as gyro, I am not above finding my food in the great concrete canyons.

If you want the whole foodie obsessive take on the 53rd and Sixth chicken and rice thing, I suggest you read this guy. People get worked up over whether the day guy is the same as the night guy and whether the mythical “white sauce” is the same. I couldn’t tell you. I ordered a round foil plate of orange rice, chopped up chicken and gyro meat covered with the white goo and a splash of what is allegedly the hottest hot sauce in food cart land. A little sad chopped up iceberg lettuce, some sliced pieces of pita, on went the cardboard lid, into a bright yellow  bag it went, and five minutes later I am in my office tempting the e.coli/shigella gods.

Verdict: not bad for $6 bucks, but will give me a fat ass if eaten too often. The rice and pita are decidedly not “paleo” (which makes them all the better for being forbidden). The line, at 11:45 am, was nonexistent, apparently the fun is after the bars close at 2 am. I’m amazed at how people worship the place. Just Google “53rd and 6th”

And people have been killed for cutting the line.

Climbing Mount Madison

I’ve done some casual hiking in Switzerland  (an ascent of Mount Tendre, the highest peak in the Jura canton; and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller above the Rhine River valley) but I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never climbed anything substantial in New England, especially the region’s tallest peak, Mount Washington (6,288 feet) in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hailing as I do from Cape Cod, a flat sandbar, my outdoors pursuits have been monopolized by the sea and sand, yet the urge to scale something tall in the woods has been growing for years.

Last winter’s literary obsession with mountain climbing tales led me to join the Appalachian Mountain Club, buy a backpack, a stack of maps and drag a nice pair of mildewed Asolo hiking boots out of the closet. While I have positively no Mittyesque desires to ever bag a 8,000 meter peak (e.g. Everest) as the odds are bad enough for experienced climbers in their 30s let alone abject amateurs in their 50s; I do love a challenge, particularly one that kicks my ass, and over the past few months that challenge looked like a Presidential Traverse — a visit to all of the peaks named after Presidents in the White Mountains, an expedition traditionally accomplished on or around the Summer solstice when daylight hours are at their max. This post is not about such a Traverse, but a warm-up to one.

My good friend, extreme sport fiend, and CRASH-B sprint coach: Marta, is renting a place at the foot of  Mount Washington in Jackson, New Hampshire on the banks of the bubbling Ellis River. She’s an amazing athlete and mountaineer, especially when it comes to backcountry skiing, telemarking, winter climbing, and the real hardcore New England winter sports that hark back to the early days of skiing before chairlifts, bunny slopes and ski chalets.  Marta, like me, is into doing stuff the hard way, a fellow hater of luggage with wheels. She’s been up and down the White Mountains countless times — running the trails, cycling up the Mount Washington Auto Road against the clock, a few Presi Traverses — and hence was the ideal guide for my first ascent.

We left her place at 6 am and drove north on Route 16 accompanied by spectacular views of the eastern slopes of the range. We parked at the Great Gulf Trail trailhead, paid $3 for a self-service parking permit, shouldered our packs and set forth down an abandoned road to a suspension bridge pocked with crampon marks over the West Branch of the Peabody River and then west, upstream, along that river on the Great Gulf Trail (which eventually reaches the summit of Washington). After two miles of relatively flat walking — which was enough to start me, the original Mr. Aquaman, sweating under my 30 lb. pack — we split off on the Madison Gulf trail to the northwest up an increasingly steep trail that forded Parapet Brook several times. Marta’s dog Gus balked at one stream crossing, but was generally kind of astounding to watch work up the trail with his four-paw drive. The air was cool and as since we were shaded in the spring canopy, the conditions made for relatively easy going as we worked uphill through the trees, with no views to give an orientation of altitude or progress. Finally, after an hour and half we popped out of the trees on a rocky knob and had a great view into the Great Gulf and the northeastern flank of Mount Washington.

After that tease the trail ducked back into the trees and the climb got steadily steeper to the point that I was basically drenched in sweat, stopping at one point to take off my shirt and wring out about a cup of fluid. Hydration was obviously going to be the first order of the day, and anticipating that I had 100 ounces of water in my pack’s Camelbak, and two additional liters in the side pockets. The Camelbak kept me going through its hose and bite valve and Marta continuously hounded to drink, drink, drink.  All told I pounded down over 200 ounces of water during the day  (and one RedBull) and micturated exactly once.

In a bit of a surprise, we came upon a pair of fellow hikers, a husband and wife in their 50s or 60s, making a descent — something unique as the AMC guidebook explictly says the Madison Gulf trail “is not recommended for the descent, for hikers with heavy packs, or in wet weather.”

They explained they had lost the trail the day before on their way uphill to spend the night at the AMC Madison Hut. Instead they were forced to bivouac in the open forest, in very chilly temperatures, pulling on all their clothing and cuddling for warmth. They asked us to pass along their names to the Hut staff because they had a reservation and didn’t want to kick off a search and rescue effort on their behalf. We offered them food and water, but they declined and passed behind us.

As we continued to climb I saw the granite face of the Madison Gulf headwall to my left, a green-grey monster that rose 1,000 feet from the floor of the cirque. Things were getting steeper and I was forced to use my hands for propulsion, wondering how we were going to scale what was obviously a very serious gain in elevation.

The answer was the Chimney, a sheer stack of white boulders and rocks that goes straight up the face, a gurgling stream/waterfall bubbling unseen underneath. Marta went first, Gus scrambling with her, and I watched her foot and hand placements before making my own moves on the face. Keep in mind I have an unreasonable fear of heights, but for some reason I was okay with the first part of the Chimney,  and actually felt very impressed with myself thanks to four months of  training at Cape Cod Crossfit which has given me a whiff of the upper body strength and flexibility needed for rock climbing.

I was nervous as a slip would have meant a serious disaster, maybe not instant death but definitely a bad injury. Marta later said the Chimney might be categorized as a Level 2 climb, meaning a fall would result in injury, but not a Four or Five which would lead to death. Pitons, rock nuts, and other classic protection are definitely not needed on the ledges, but there were some “interesting” moments when I was pressed flat on the face, very conscious of the weight of the pack on my back, looking for my next handhold and ledge for my toes. Gus the dog was not into some of the sections and started back tracking down to me, leaving the Chimney route in search of another more dog friendly one. Marta had to downclimb to get him, and her theory of why he was balking on a climb he had done before seemed very prescient — my silent anxiety was giving off a vibe that was causing him to doubt himself. In any case, he made it, I made it, and the feeling at the top was pretty awesome, giving me my first empathy with the lunatics who risk death to climb Annapurna or K2.

I have to give Marta credit, she didn’t quote this passage from the AMC’s White Mountain Guide Book to me before the climb:

The section of this trail on the headwall of Madison Gulf is one of the most difficult in the White Mountains, going over several ledge outcrops, bouldery areas, and a chimney with loose rock. The steep slabs may be slippery when wet, and several ledges require scrambling and the use of handholds — hikers with short arms may have a particular problem reaching the handholds. Stream crossings may be difficult in wet weather. … Allow extra time and do not start up the headwall late in the day. The ascent of the headwall may require several hours more than the estimated time; parties frequently fail to reach the hut before dark because of slowness on the headwall.”

Once out of the Chimney we climbed above the tree-line at 4,500 feet (Madison is 5,367 feet). The deciduous birches and cathedral of the pines flora from at the foot of the climb had given way to stunted evergreens, and then, above that, a barren rock pile interspersed with arctic tundra and cheery bunches of blooming alpine flowers. Signs warned us to stay on the trail and off the sensitive vegetation (what little there was). The air temperature above the tree line dropped dramatically from the 60s in the valley to the high 40s and my soaked shirt and shorts suddenly became a bit of a liability. Hypothermia kills a lot of hikers in the Whites (an excellent book about Mount Washington fatalities is Not Without Peril, by Nicholas Howe), and the unofficial motto of the White Mountains is “cotton kills” — meaning a person in a t-shirt and bluejeans caught in the wrong weather will see all their body heat wicked away from them. One either wears performance synthetics or wool if they want to survive a bad turn of the weather on the summit.

I dragged a polar fleece out of my pack, put it on over my wet shirt, and followed Marta up past Star Lake in the col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison, and down a short rock trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Hut, the oldest of the hut system in the range. A work crew was busy digging out rocks around the recently renovated bunkhouse and dining room. We said hi, popped inside (where Gus was immediately banished), refilled a water bottle, and inspected the bunk rooms where beds stacked four high with ladders offer a place to spend the night for a modest fee (reservations are necessary as demand is very high).

“They’d evict me for snoring, ” I observed, but Marta said the place was a “symphony”  when filled to capacity.

We decided to eat our lunch on the peak of Mount Madison, a few hundred feet above us to the east. We climbed to the summit via a segment of the famous Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine,  slowly picking our way up the boulders and scree to the summit, a very stark and exposed knob with magnificent vistas all the way around. I shucked my pack, unwrapped a turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich, and shooed away bee after bee homing in on the only food for miles around.

Stopping for lunch was not my best move. The four-hour ascent had thoroughly worked my legs and suddenly stopping caused them to cramp and go beserk with lactic acid. Sweating and drinking as much as I had during the morning had washed most of the salt and electrolytes out of my system. I started to see the symptoms when my hands  began to cramp into claws and my hamstrings went into knots.

It was going to be a long descent.

Psychologically, one thinks a lot about the descent during the climb, comforting oneself with the thought: “Hey, once you hit the summit it’s all down hill and no more climbing the perpetual stairmaster.” The bitter reality is that descending is worse than climbing. The mountaineers adage that one hasn’t really climbed a mountain until you get back down to the bottom, and that most mountaineers die on the descent stuck in my mind. The problem in descending is that one is constantly arresting one’s momentum, fighting gravity, using the legs and hips to slow things down. This immediately causes bad things to emerge around the hips, knees, ankles and toes as one’s foot is repeatedly rammed forward into the boot. I broke out my telescoping trekking poles and with a hi-h0-away-we-go, began to follow Gus and Marta down the Osgood Ridge Trail, the continuation of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that would loop us down and back to the Great Gulf Trail and eventually the trailhead on Route 16.

The Osgood Ridge is completely exposed buttress that runs above the treeline from cairn to cairn with an occasional white painted blaze to mark the AT.  The going is horrible: a constant descent over lichen covered rocks (I hated those rocks, told them they were shitty rocks on several occasions), painfully picking through the maze with only great views and a cool breeze to alleviate the suffering. I click-clacked along with the trekking poles, moving slowly as Marta and Gus flew away ahead of me, always in sight but seeming to descend effortlessly as they moved to the southeast down to the treeline unseen beyond the final knob.  Add to the misery a swarm of gnats and blackflies, and I was quickly losing the exhilaration of the summit to a serious case of self-pity and trudging drudgery. Eventually I stepped on a loose rock, the trekking pole slipped and I pitched hard onto my shoulder and face. That sucked, but no harm done, no bruises or abrasions, just a miserable feeling of being old and tired and embarrassed.

“I fall down,” I joked. Creaked back to my aching feet, and asked Marta to stick a lost water bottle back into my pack. “Falling is not a good idea,” she said. I got the point.

I smeared DEET over my ears and neck (and immediately tasted copper in my mouth, such an encouraging trans-dermal reminder that I had just smeared poison on my skin) to keep the blackflies from having intercourse with my ear canals. After an hour that seemed like two, finally stepped off of the ridge and down into the treeline. Marta warned me — its either rocks or roots — and apparently the Appalachian Trail, because it is so heavily trafficked, is always in rough shape, with very little soil, and as far as the Osgood Trail is concerned, a steep straight-down-no-switchback descent down a chute of rocks and boulders.

The descent of the Osgood through the trees was the worst segment of the day in terms of pain and tedium. It was a never-ending exercise in looking down at the trail, picking a rock to step onto, planting the poles, painfully bending a knee and side stepping downwards. My knees were so trashed I started fantasizing about asking my orthopedic surgeon for a knee replacement.  Eventually I met a trio of hikers coming uphill and had a flash of schadenfreude that at least I was leaving the mountain while they had the flies and rocky ridge well above them to contend with. A man about my age at the back of the string of climbers puffed “Fucking rugged climbing” as he passed me.

The terrain gradually turned more forest-like, the bugs vanished, and up ahead, was Marta and Gus standing by the base of the trail. My knees and hips were trashed. Beyond salvation, and somewhere inside of my right boot I imagined my middle toe had turned black from the constant ramming of my foot. It was an understatement to say I was exhausted.

“Say I fell and broke my leg. Like a real compound fracture. Who would come get me and how the fuck would they get up here?” I asked Marta, beginning to explore my options.

“Helicopter. Definitely a helicopter for someone your size.”

I wanted that helicopter ride. I also wanted a beer. So, not wanting to dawdle and let my cramping legs twist themselves to the point that I couldn’t move them, I drained the rest of my water, leaving a cup in reserve to wash down a handful of Advil back at the car. We descended to the Great Gulf Trail, and backtracked on the same trail we used to start the climb seven hours before. I was aware that my capacity for conversation had ended, but made an effort to be sociable as I over-thought every painful step. At least there were no blisters, a testament to the mighty Asolos, a darn fine pair of Italian hiking boots. Soon I heard the encouraging roar of the Peabody River down below,   and gradually, as we passed hikers headed to the tent platforms with coolers full of beer, I could see the end of the expedition ahead.

Sounds of traffic on Route 16, then there was the suspension bridge … almost …. there ….I creaked up the three wooden steps, swayed across the bridge thinking of the 1938 K2 expedition fording a Pakistani cataract, and then, before I realized it was over, I was sitting on the tailgate pulling off my socks and remarking on how good my poor feet looked. Half an hour later and I was slumped in a chair outside of the Jackson Store with two Gatorades and a bag of salty Fritos, doing my best to get some electrolytes back into my freaked-out thigh muscles. I was cramping so badly that when I yawned my  jaw and lower face cramped into an excruciating spasm. Next time, bring salt pills.

In conclusion: I’ve raced in the Harvard Yale race (rowing) when I was 20 and thought that was the hardest thing I had ever done. I’ve sprinted 2,000 meters on an ergometer in under 6 minutes and 30 seconds and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve ridden my bicycle a century, or 100 miles (with Marta) and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But nothing compared to eight and half hard hours on “one of the most difficult trails in the White Mountains.” My respect for people who climb BIG mountains has rocketed.

Would I do it again? Definitely. I still have yet to climb Mount Washington.

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