Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Downhill Run

     Preface:  We travel to destinations, but it is the journey that we remember.  Such was the case when my friend Steve, and I embarked on a ski trip almost 40 years ago.  We were college students looking for some excitement and adventure.  What transpired gave us the memory of a lifetime.

Monarch Pass, Colorado
Wikipedia photo

The Downhill Run
by Greg Larson

     “We’ll have a blast!” said my friend Steve. “This is the perfect time to go skiing in Colorado.  I hear they had a lot of snow before Christmas.  Think of all the college chicks on the slopes…good looking ones, too!”

     Home from college during the 1971 Christmas break, we were sitting in the local watering hole, The Keg, in Garden City, Kansas.  I took another sip of beer, trying to figure out how I could afford the luxury of a ski trip.  Disposable income was non-existent, except for a few dollars of Christmas money from my parents.

     “I don’t think I can afford it, Steve.  What little money I’ve got will have to last me ‘til next summer when I can get a job.”

     “No problem,” said Steve, “I’ve got us a hotel on wheels.  The only money we need is for an occasional meal, rental skis, and lift tickets.”

     “What? I don’t get it,” I replied.

     “We have a camper on the pick-up truck my brother uses at the farm.  He uses the camper sometimes for pheasant hunting.  We can sleep in it.  It has a kitchenette and bunks.  We’ll take most of the food with us…and some beer.  It’ll be cool!  We can drive from one ski area to the next, just park and sleep.”

     “Now you’re talkin’!  We can pull this trip off.”

     I couldn’t pass up the free lodging.  I was ready to go.  Anything would be more fun than sitting at home in western Kansas.

     The next day, we drove to the farm to get the pick-up camper.  We talked excitedly as our plans came together.  Dust billowed behind us on the dirt roads for several miles before Steve pulled his car onto the ruts at the edge of a field.  We headed toward a lone, metal barn set in the vast emptiness of a western Kansas wheat field.  He parked the car and we walked through the dusty wind to the barn.  Steve slid back the large corrugated door, making just enough space for us to squeeze inside.  In the dim stillness of the barn, the smell of the hay was overwhelming, and the sparrows chirped and flitted about.  The barn door rattled in the unceasing prairie wind.

     The old Ford pick-up rested near the stacks of hay bales.  It was covered with dust and the tires appeared under-inflated.  The mice scattered as we walked closer to the truck.  The camper shell sat on a frame just behind the truck.  I wondered if mice were inside, occupying the kitchenette and the bunks.

     “It’s got a V-8 in it,” Steve said. “We’ll have plenty of power in the mountains, if we need it.”

     A smattering of dried bird poop adorned the hood.  “Looks like it needs a wash,” I said.

     “Oh, we can just hose it off when we get it to town,” replied Steve.  “I need to back this up so we can drop the camper shell into the bed.”

     The truck door creaked as he opened it and climbed in.  He turned the ignition.  Nothing happened.  The battery was dead.

     “This truck probably hasn’t been used since the wheat harvest.  The battery is fine.  It just needs to be charged up,” he said.

     Steve drove his car into the barn, and we connected jumper cables to the truck battery.  The pick-up quickly came to life with a turn of the key.  We found an air compressor, and inflated the tires.

     I followed Steve back to town, where we spruced up the interior of the camper, using Spic-and-Span, Windex and a lot of elbow grease.  Finally, we loaded up the camper with food, bedding and clothing.

     A new pair of gloves and a ski cap were the only costly items I had to purchase.  My “ski pants” consisted of Scotchgard spray on blue jeans.

     The next morning, we pulled out onto the highway, ready for adventure.  Steve dodged the tumble weeds as we drove west, mile after mind-numbing mile.  Holly, La Junta, Rocky Ford…the towns passed by as we crossed the Great American Desert of eastern Colorado.  Finally, after four hours in the cab, the front range of the Rockies appeared.  I had visions of schussing down the slopes.  Ski country, here we come!

     The air was crisp and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the mountains in the late afternoon when we arrived in Breckenridge.  Steve found a roadside lodge with some parking spots for camper trucks.  The proprietor said that hook-ups weren’t available in winter, so he’d only charge us five dollars a night for the parking slot.

     By evening, we were already shivering inside the camper.  We noticed there was a cozy bar and lounge in the old lodge, so we decided to go inside and buy a bowl of chili.

     The bartender actually served us drinks.  We were only twenty years old, and looked all of sixteen.  He must have felt sorry for us, since we had to sleep out in the cold.  The seasoned guests in the bar and lounge glanced at us from time to time, keeping their distance from the two of us in our ragged college jeans and sweatshirts.  We didn’t see the crowds of coeds that we had envisioned.

     An older woman, who looked all of thirty, walked over and asked us where we were from.  We explained our situation, and she gave us an odd look.

     “You guys are either crazy or brave…I don’t know which.  I hope you don’t freeze to death out there.”

     Steve and I bought some popcorn and another drink, trying to eke out some more time in the warm lodge before going outdoors, into the inevitable cold.  Finally, we forced ourselves to walk back to the camper.  I was shivering before we made it inside.  I shivered getting into the sleeping bag, and I shivered all night.  The high country was brutally cold on the clear, starry night.

     In the morning, we quickly ate grocery-store cinnamon rolls, pulled from the foil pan.  We washed them down with bottled juice, then jumped into the cab of the truck and fired up the engine.  The warm air began to fill the cab and I put my hands and gloves up to the air vents.

     “Let’s go skiing!” I shouted and clapped, just to get the blood pumping.

     We skied for two days at Breckenridge.  The cold wind at the summit pierced our clothes.  The fact that we were already cold just made it seem even colder.

     At the end of the second day, I made a suggestion to Steve, “Let’s go to Monarch Pass tomorrow and see if the snow is any good there. It’s farther south. Maybe it’s a little warmer.”

     “Sounds like a plan,” said Steve, “I’m ready for a change.”

     The drive through the mountain valleys was scenic and it was nice to spend the morning hours in the warm cab.  We turned onto U.S. 50 highway and climbed to Monarch Pass.  The roads were dry all the way to the top.  We pulled into the ski-area parking lot and went inside for hot chocolate.  As we sipped our chocolate, we watched the skiers on the slope and noticed the conditions were not good.  The surface looked rocky and slushy – not something we wanted to ski on.

     “Let’s drive down to Salida and regroup,” said Steve.

     “We can decide in the morning whether to drive back north or head back to Garden City,” I added.

     We left Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet) and drove east towards Salida.  Steve guided the truck through the curves and rock cuts, hugging the guardrail while braking to slow our speed.

     All of a sudden his eyes got big and he gasped for air.  He pumped the brake pedal, then glanced at me with a look of sheer terror.

     “HOLY SHIT!” yelled Steve, “There’s nothin’ there!  No brakes!  WHAT SHOULD I DO?”

     The truck continued to gain speed down the mountain, and a curve loomed about a quarter of a mile ahead.  The needle climbed on the speedometer…forty-five…fifty.  My mind raced, and then my instincts took over.

     “DOWNSHIFT!” I yelled. “Downshift again, if you can! If we pick up too much speed, just turn the truck toward the mountainside!”  I decided I’d rather survive a crash than launch through a guard rail and over a cliff.

     The engine screamed as Steve shifted to a lower gear.  We sped around the curve with the truck leaning precariously.  To our amazement, we didn’t tip over.  We continued down the highway, curve after curve, at about thirty miles an hour, with the engine whining in second gear.  The next ten minutes seemed like an eternity.  Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic, and the highway leveled out as we entered the valley near Salida.

     We’d survived the descent, but now we had another problem.  How would we stop the truck at the intersections in town?  Steve downshifted to first gear and guided the pick-up onto the shoulder when we approached a stop sign.  With the truck barely rolling at the intersection, he gently gave it some gas and we crossed to the other side.

    We crawled along the highway and crept onto the main street in Salida, looking for a gas station.

     “There’s a Standard station up ahead on the left,” I exclaimed! “I think we’re gonna make it.”

     We slowly rolled into the gas station and over the cable in the pump lane.  The familiar “ding-ding” announced our arrival as the truck came to a complete stop.  A short, stocky man, with “Bob” stitched on his shirt, wiped his hands with a rag as he appeared from the garage.  A chaw of tobacco bulged from his cheek as he spoke.

     “Regular or Ethyl?” he asked.

     “We have a bigger problem,” said Steve. “We have no brakes.  They went out on our way down from Monarch Pass.”

     Bob looked down at the wheels.  He gave out a low whistle and then said, “Hell, you’re lucky to be all in one piece!”

It was Saturday afternoon.  They were busy at the gas station, but they put the truck on the lift and raised it high enough to remove the wheels and look at the brakes.  After the inspection, Bob met us in front of the garage to give us his report.  First, he spat out some juice from the side of his mouth.

     “Well, I got good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is that we can fix the brakes.  The master cylinder has gone bad and needs replacing.  The bad news is we don’t have a master brake cylinder for this truck.  If they have them at the Ford dealer in Pueblo, it’ll be late Monday or early Tuesday before they get here.”

     Steve and I looked at each other.  We had no choice but to wait for the repair.

     “You can park your truck on the street during the day, and at night, you can pull it onto the driveway in the station after we close,” said Bob.

     I looked around at the small town.  This was going to get old real fast.  I was glad we had a stack of newspapers and magazines in the camper.  Our trip of terror down the mountain had now turned into a boring wait for the repairs.  There wasn’t much else to do but read or walk around town.

     Steve discovered an electrical outlet in the phone booth next to the station, and we borrowed an extension cord from Bob so we could plug in the electric heater in the camper.  Even though the nights were still cold, we didn’t shiver quite as much with the heater.  By Monday, we’d had our fill of macaroni and cheese, beanie-weenies, and peanut butter sandwiches.

     “Steve, if we stay here much longer, we’ll need to put up an address and a mailbox,” I said.

     On Tuesday morning, Bob gave us the good news that the parts had arrived.  By mid-afternoon, Steve paid for the repairs, and Bob filled up the gas tank.  We were on the road again – this time back to Garden City, driving straight through, only stopping once for gas.

     When I returned to college, I bought a “ski kansas” poster to put in my dorm room.  Every time I looked at it, I remembered the frightful downhill run that Steve and I survived on the Colorado highway.  I was glad to be alive.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Brunelleschi's Timeless Masterpiece

     Preface: Bricks and mortar have always fascinated me. During my freshman year in college, I worked a part-time job as a brick tender and laborer at a gymnasium project. I erected scaffolding, hauled bricks, mixed mortar, and quickly learned that the masons were kings of the construction site. Their craft, which has been around for thousands of years, is highly respected.

When we planned our trip to Italy this year, we included Florence, a vibrant city, rich in history, art, and architecture. The essay below tells of our experience of coming face-to-face with Brunelleschi’s architectural engineering feat, the world’s largest masonry dome, built more than five centuries ago.

Cityscape of Florence

Brunelleschi’s Timeless Masterpiece
Non-fiction essay and photos
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
          I looked out the train window at the Italian landscape as the high-speed Eurostar approached Florence, Italy. A few minutes earlier, Gretta and I rocketed along the countryside and through the tunnels at 160 miles per hour, but now we were slowing down. While the train made its slow curve into the terminal, I strained my neck, looking in every direction. Ah, there it is . . . the Duomo (One of the Italian terms for cathedral). The large, red-tiled dome of Santa Maria del Fiore was a beacon with its white cap and golden sphere and cross for all to see. It would be our compass, our point of reference for the next four days. 

          The Duomo is a structure that defines the Italian Renaissance period.  It speaks of a time when the conditions were ripe for advancement in technology and art, and when Florence became one of the cultural launching pads for Western civilization.  The Duomo is the largest masonry dome ever built, a massive structure that overshadowed the city of Florence when it was completed.

 Florence Duomo
          We walked from the train terminal, rolling our luggage along the crowded stone streets and sidewalks to the piazza in front of the cathedral, and stood in awe of the church and dome. How was it possible for the Florentines to design and build such an enduring structure? How were they able to get all the material into the air and set it into the proper place, to withstand wind, earthquakes, wars, and gravity itself? Thousands of tons of carved stone, marble and brick have withstood the test of time and nature.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo)

     The current cathedral replaced an older church structure that had been built in the sixth and seventh centuries.  Construction began in 1292, and continued for over 150 years.  There were many architects involved in the different parts and stages of the project.  The design and construction was overseen by the Woolen Guild, a group of city leaders.

          Numerous design competitions had occurred, but a final master plan was eventually approved by the Guild and by city referendum. The plan included a large cupola or dome that spanned 140 feet. It would be larger than any dome in existence. The leaders and the city proceeded on faith that a solution would emerge, even if by divine guidance.

          Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was an artisan and a goldsmith; not the person one might expect to oversee the design and construction of the Duomo.  But, he was a true Renaissance man.  As a goldsmith, he learned intricate procedures for making jewelry and clocks.  He became fascinated with the gears and mechanisms that were required to make them function.  Born prior to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), Brunelleschi helped establish the tradition of sketches and coded notes when creating new inventions and machinery.
          In 1401, Brunelleschi lost the Florence competition to design and build the baptistery bronze doors to Lorenzo Ghiberti. Shortly thereafter, he went to Rome to further study art and architecture. After several years, he returned to Florence to win the competition to design and build the Duomo.

          In the autumn chill, we bought tickets to climb to the top of the Duomo, and began the long process of climbing the equivalent of a 25-story building, one step at a time. The stairs at the beginning of the climb were wrapped around the columns, or internal piers of the dome. While we climbed the stairs, I thought of the arguments that raged in the early design process, when the leaders debated whether or not to have exterior flying buttresses, which evoked the gothic architecture of the north, or a more Romanesque design which would internally support the weight of the tall structure, and would be more representative of the designs in the regions around Florence. The internally-supported structure was the more popular choice.

          Eventually, we arrived at the base of the dome, and our path opened to a balcony walkway that was inside the cathedral.  The frescoes of biblical characters, frozen in their baroque poses, hovered on the dome above us.  In the hushed atmosphere and the mellow light, we looked down at the church tourists who appeared like ants moving across the inlaid stone floor 171 feet below.

Frescoes on the dome interior

View to the cathedral floor...171 feet below
          I tried to imagine what the masons thought centuries ago as they climbed the stairs each day, with their trowels and tools, along with their lunch and wine in their bags. It must have been a surreal environment for the workers, perched high above the church floor, with the sun above, and the pigeons landing nearby on the newly-set bricks and mortar.

          For such a large dome, Brunelleschi had many challenges to overcome in the design and construction.  Most domes built in that period had a temporary understructure to hold the stone and mortar in place until it was completed.  The Duomo’s size prevented any temporary framework.  No trees existed that were large enough, nor was there any way to lift and hoist the trees above the cathedral piers and walls.  The dome was too high above ground to build any wooden scaffolding from the ground below.  The masonry would have to support itself as the dome construction progressed upward, and the workers would have to trust that Brunelleschi’s design would support them as they built the inward-curving masonry walls.  The scaffolding was anchored to the masonry construction, and was moved upward as construction progressed.  Brunelleschi specifically designed a platform below the masons’ perch to prevent them from looking down while they worked.

          Gretta and I continued upward on the narrow stone stairway.  We climbed in the sandwich space between the inner and outer shell of the dome.  I was able to touch the individual bricks and see the masonry ribs between the two dome shells.  Every so often, I peeked out through one of the nine vents that are located in each exterior dome section.

          For Brunelleschi and the workers, the construction logistics were staggering.  Over four million bricks, along with the mortar materials, had to be lifted hundreds of feet into the air and precisely placed at the proper curve and elevation.  Brunelleschi’s watchmaker skills were put to use as he secretly developed sketches and plans for lifting and positioning devices.  He is credited with inventing an ox-driven hoist with a reverse mechanism that allowed the crane operator to raise, lower, or stop the suspended load without requiring the oxen to change directions on their circular path.  His hoist designs were a major breakthrough for large construction projects and are considered the first inventions of modern-era construction cranes.

          We gasped for breath and our calf muscles burned as we climbed the last rise of steps along the curve of the dome to the top.  The bright sunlight pierced the opening as we stepped out onto the observation deck at the base of the lantern, or the dome’s cap.  At a height of 295 ft., we were at the top of the crowning achievement of Florentine history.  The only portion of the structure above us was the spire with the eight-foot diameter sphere and crown at the very top of the dome.

Observation area at the dome's lantern

          The dense city of Florence lay before us, with patches of sunlight and cloud patterns washing the streets and buildings in the cool, steady breeze.

          Sprinkles of rain began to fall, and my thoughts turned again to the workers who constructed the dome in all types of weather.  The tramontana, or the severest storms from the mountains, caused them to cease work. The project was also halted when leaders were concerned that city-state skirmishes were imminent. The masons were asked to travel to strategic outlying castles to fortify the stone walls.

         The dome construction continued from 1421 to 1436.  There was a lantern design competition, won by Brunelleschi.  The ball and cross at the very top were designed by Verrocchio.  Construction of the lantern, built with white Carrara marble, was completed in 1446, barely a month before Brunelleschi died.  His remains now rest in a crypt below the cathedral.
          For the remainder of our four days in Florence, I continually peered towards the Duomo, my anchor.  It was the dominant feature on the cityscape from places such as the Boboli Gardens, the Piazza Michelangelo, and the Ponte Vecchio.

          I looked out from the windows in our room on the piazza in front of the cathedral and watched the townspeople and tourists scurry about. I imagined the pride of the fifteenth-century Florentine citizens had in their city and church, as they went about their daily work in the shadow of the massive dome. It is a pride that still exists in the hearts of the townspeople today.
Brunelleschi's Timeless Masterpiece

King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Prager, Frank D., and Scaglia, Gustina. Brunelleschi – Studies of His Technology and Inventions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1970.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened After a Day at the Forum

Via dei Fori Imperiali

      Preface:  The Gretta Factor (when good things happen unexpectedly) was in full force on our first day of our 2010 trip to Italy.  When we arrived in Rome, little did we know that by the end of the day, we would witness “East meets West,” and see some international diplomacy in action.

A Funny Thing Happened After a Day at the Forum
Travel Memoir and photos
by Greg Larson

     The big europlane landed softly at the Rome airport early in the morning.  After a shuttle into the city, Gretta and I checked into our boutique hotel near the Termini (main train station in Rome).  The hotel was located across the street from the Opera House, within walking distance of many sites and attractions in the old city.  The quaint elevator with the stairway that wrapped around it seemed like something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie.  For us, the elevator was a novelty, an amusement ride when we entered and exited the hotel.

Hotel elevator and stairway

     Gretta and I decided to shake off our jetlag and walk in the warm autumn sunshine to the Colosseum and the Forum.  We strolled along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and noticed big red decorative Chinese lanterns hanging from the street lamps.  They seemed a bit odd, but festive, and we didn’t give them much thought until later in the day.  Our goal was to tour the most famous of the seven hilltops in Rome…the Palentino or Palentine Hill, which overlooks the Forum ruins.

Carved cornice on Palentine Hill

     Our tour guide told us about the hedonistic emperors of Rome who took opulence and extravagance to new heights on the hill, while the citizens below dealt with the muck and mire along the banks of the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River).  Statues, floors, and walls of every type of granite and marble available were designed into the palaces and gardens to create peaceful settings among the pines and the olive trees.  The emperors installed polished granite walls in the courtyards, not so much as vanity mirrors, but as a security measure to allow them to look out for possible assassins behind them.  Today, bits and pieces of the carved stone remain strewn about for the archaeologists to study.

     I looked out over the city and saw St. Peter’s Basilica shimmering in the sunlight.  The Palentino hilltop was our respite from the polizia sirens and the hubbub of the city below where the Ducati motorcycles and the Vespas swarmed like hornets along the Via di San Gregorio.  After our tour was over, we lingered along the paths, and looked out over a city layered with centuries of temples, churches, meeting places and commercial centers.  It is a city that tells the story of Western Civilization without speaking a word.

Roman Forum below Palentine Hill

     We quickly walked past the Colosseum, to get out of the path of the hucksters, beggars and pick-pockets.  Then we found a sidewalk café across from the Forum. It was time to relax and have some birra and pizza, and enjoy the warm day in the shade of overhanging vines.

     After lunch, we wandered past ruins and churches and found our way up to the Via Nationale.  I thought we might find a bancomat at the Bank of Italy, and then realized it would be like looking for an ATM on the front of a U.S. Federal Reserve Building.  Our best luck in finding the bancomat was to look for gypsies gathered on the sidewalk.

     Later in the day, after a short nap at the hotel, we decided to go out for an espresso.  As soon as we exited the elevator, I saw a crowd outside the hotel.  On closer inspection, the polizia and Caribinieri (state police) cars and vans were askew in the street, and police tape was strung all along the curbside.  Has there been an accident?  Was a crime committed?

     The crowd was focused on the Opera House.  It was then that I noticed the large red banners and the Chinese lanterns.  The banners proclaimed the beginning of Italy’s celebration of a year of Chinese culture.  Word was going around that Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, were attending a performance that marked the beginning of the cultural exchange, and that they would be leaving the Opera House very soon.

Rome Opera House

     While we waited, I looked at the architecture of the Teatro dell’ Opera.  It wasn’t what I expected in the historical city of Rome.  Although it was built in 1879, the exterior has been revised numerous times, with the most recent changes made in 1958.  With the red decorations on the columns, the recipe for the façade appeared to be cheesy Italian moderne with tomato sauce, a touch of Lincoln Center, and a dash of Sunset Boulevard.  It wasn’t exactly dripping with the old European details of centuries gone by.

Paparazzi and onlookers

     Vans and limos were lined up in the Opera House entry drive, and there was a crowd of photographers and TV cameras waiting for the leaders to exit.  The motorcycles were lined up ready to start the procession.  The police chatted on their radios and headsets, and it seemed as if the exit of the leaders was imminent.  We walked around the perimeter of the police tape and stopped on the sidewalk on the other side of the street from the Opera House.  It appeared the motorcade would exit down the street where we were standing.  We would be only a few feet from the passing vehicles.  I couldn’t believe it…no barricades or police to block our view.

     Suddenly, there were shouts and cheers.  The strobes of the paparrazi cameras began flashing, and the leaders, with their delegation and entourage, made a wave to the crowd as they quickly walked to the vehicles.  The polizia roared past us on their motorcycles, followed by the Caribinieri motorcycles and squad cars.  They were followed by the Chinese delegation in several vans.  The Chinese had a huge delegation.  I counted ten large vans, some the size of small busses, full of smiling Chinese.

     As each vehicle passed, the speed increased.  By the time the Italian cars made the turn onto our street, their tires squealed, and the cars tilted towards the curb as they roared past us.  In the van leading the Italian group of cars, a Caribinieri officer held a machine gun in one hand, while his other hand held onto the unlatched door of the vehicle.  We weren’t able to see Berlusconi in his vehicle, as most of cars had tinted windows.

     In a flash, the motorcade was gone.  The remaining Chinese and Italians that had attended the event began filtering onto the street and into the bars and cafes.

     I was skeptical that all the hoopla and festivities were just for sharing arts and culture.  I thought there must be something more to the Chinese visit and the “Chinese cultural year of celebration.”  Don’t get me wrong…I’m glad that people from different countries can come together and find common interests.  The Italians and the Chinese both like the color red.  Gretta likes red, too.  But I kept wondering what was behind the motivation to celebrate.

     I found some answers on the evening television news.  I didn’t need to understand the Italian news anchor to discern that the main focus for the Chinese delegation’s visit to Italy was to sign several trade accords between the two countries.  The Chinese cultural year was just a side attraction.  There was no video or mention of the kick-off celebration at the Opera House.

     Everything looked normal outside the hotel the next morning.  The red banners had been removed from the front of the Opera House, and business was as usual.  According to Gretta, the newspaper article briefly mentioned “a concert” that was attended by the leaders, but there was no mention of what was on the program.  It must have been a “yawner,” or a good time for the diplomats to snooze between the day’s events and the evening parties.

     The goal of the accords was to quadruple the trade between the two countries in the next five years.  There were few specifics in the news articles, just canned phrases from the leaders.  The Italians planned to build a Chinese cultural center.  The leaders exchanged handshakes and signed the agreements.  Marco Polo never had it so easy.

     On the television, the Italian and Chinese delegations looked happy, at least on the surface.  But I detected one thing:  the Chinese seemed to have the bigger smiles.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Katy Trail Adventure

Even though we enjoy traveling far away, some of the most delightful trips have been close to home.  I wrote the following poem in May of 2009, on a trip to Rocheport, Missouri.  We stayed at a bed and breakfast, and the weather cooperated for two wonderful days of riding on the bike trail.

Gretta at Rocheport trailhead

by Greg Larson

Purple tandem on the trail
Indigo Bunting flashes its tail

Big Muddy Mo’ by our side
A roiling companion, a flowing tide

Eagles above on warm winds soar
Majestic shadows touch woodland floor

Trickling spring waters find their way
And many a wildflower brightens our day

‘Katy’ critters scurry ‘cross our path
Quick to hide from wheel’s wrath

Back to Rocheport before day’s end
Big old tunnel ‘round the bend

Wine on the bluff top, a great feast, too
The river and sunset in our view

Jeunette Rouge – a refreshing dry red
Mellows our thoughts before going to bed

Spinning spokes in sweet dreams
Cycling paradise – a heavenly scene

A shaft of sunlight pierces the room
I guess it’s time to be going soon

Breakfast awaits – the best I’ve seen
One that’s fit for Kings and Queens

Around Rocheport we did walk
Enjoying time for idle talk

Cat rubs pen as I write this word
‘Writer’s block’ has now occurred!

Katy Trail near Pilot Grove, MO

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth - Part II

Preface:  During Part I, Martin and Osa Johnson scraped enough money together from their vaudeville act to make their first overseas trip together.  Their plan was to find and photograph wild natives in the South Pacific.  They sailed to the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu) and focused on finding a wild tribe of cannibal natives called the Big Nambas.  At the end of Part I, Martin and Osa are seized by Nagapate, the tribe leader.  Osa is screaming and on the verge of fainting. 

Nagapate - Big Namba tribal leader
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

To the Ends of the Earth - Part II
non-fiction research
by Greg Larson
copyright 2010 

         The tribal boo-boo drums began to beat in the background.  Martin became concerned for his wife, so he shut off the camera, and then stood between Osa and Nagapate.  He yelled to his wife and crew to run to the boat while he occupied the leader, but Nagapate grabbed Osa, and the tribe seized Martin.  Fear overcame Osa as Nagapate gripped her arm.  She screamed and screamed, and then she became woozy and disoriented.  

     Amazingly, the yelling and the noise suddenly stopped.  All of the natives looked and pointed towards the sea.  It was a twist of fate, a small miracle; a British gunboat was turning into the bay.

     Martin shouted, “Man-o-war!”  Nagapate and the captors released their grip, and Martin and Osa rushed down the path towards the beach with as much speed as they could muster.  Shortly after the release, the natives watched the gunboat make a turn to leave the bay.  They immediately began the chase, screaming and yelling as they ran down the path towards the couple.  During their rush to the beach, Martin and Osa realized the natives were gaining on them.  They heard the crashing and rustling of stalks as the pursuers attempted to close the gap.

     In a scene that seems more fiction than reality, they burst out of the vegetation and into the sunlight on the sandy beach, with the screaming tribe in hot pursuit.  The natives swarmed the beach, just as the crew of three pulled Martin and Osa into the sailboat and quickly pulled away from shore.  Martin and Osa lay in the bottom of the boat, their energy drained.  Martin had carried the camera in the race to the beach, and most importantly, his film was intact.  Nightfall came, and they fought their way through a small storm to return to their base with the French priest.

     After visiting other tribes on Malekula, they returned to the U.S. and sold their film to Hollywood producers.  Before long, Nagapate, the Big Nambas, and other natives were on movie screens across the country and the world.  Thus began a pattern for all future trips; return to the states, sell the film, visit relatives, promote the movie, and begin planning the next trip, including financial backing through product promotion and investors.  Their life was a whirlwind.

     In 1919, they returned to the island of Malekula and went again to see the Big Nambas, but this time with a contingent of men and rifles to ensure their safety.  They filmed the natives in more detail, and at dusk they set up screens and played the movie which had made them famous.  Nagapate and the tribe, upon seeing themselves on film and noticing tribe members who were no longer living, treated Martin and Osa like gods.

     To obtain additional film footage, they traveled to Borneo, where they became interested in the monkeys, orangutans, and other wildlife.

     On a visit to New York between trips, they met Carl Akeley from the American Museum of Natural History.  He convinced them that Africa was the place to go.  With much far-sightedness, he suggested filming the wildlife there would be historic, for he had concerns that many species might be hunted to extinction and their habitat destroyed.

     Their trips to Africa were logistically complex.  All of their film, cameras and camping equipment had to be shipped overseas.  Once on land, everything had to be transferred to trucks or railcars.  Provisions had to be purchased and packed in 60 pound packs (the weight limit for African porters).  For each safari, cooks, leaders, and porters had to be hired, and vehicles had to be purchased.

     Osa focused on logistics while Martin sorted out the details regarding filming and darkroom equipment.  He also met with local authorities to determine the best locations to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

     Osa loved gardening, and wherever they set up a long-term campsite, she immediately planted a garden to improve their diet.  The produce was welcomed by the camp staff.  Her crops included beans, sweet corn, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, turnips, squash, cantaloupes, and watermelon.  At one of the camps there was an elephant that had a liking for sweet potatoes.  It wreaked havoc on the garden when it dug up the potatoes.  Osa’s solution was to plant a separate patch of potatoes just outside the perimeter of the camp…a personal patch for the elephant.

African Bull Elephant
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     While in British East Africa (currently Kenya), they heard rumors about a hidden, mystical oasis several hundred miles to their north, where flocks and herds of wildlife came to drink.  There were no maps of the lake, nor did it have a name.  Whenever natives or locals spoke of it, a mysterious look shone in their eyes, as if they were talking about the seven cities of gold.

     Martin was determined to find the hidden lake.  As soon as they had developed enough safari experience, they began their trek north, always asking the local guides and scouts if they knew of “the lake.”  Quite possibly the oasis was a secret the locals did not want to share with the outside world.  Then one day their guide finally directed them to a lake in a remote and shallow volcano crater, where the trees, flowers, birds, and wildlife all shared the life-giving water.

     Osa turned to Martin and gasped, “It’s Paradise!”  So they named it Paradise Lake, and it became a veritable Garden of Eden for Martin’s photography and filming.

Paradise Lake
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     With financial backing from George Eastman (the Eastman-Kodak magnate) and others, Martin and Osa returned in 1923 for a four-year stint at Paradise Lake.

     They had many distinguished visitors during their safari. They rendezvoused with the Duke and Duchess of York, and Osa supplied them with a big basket of vegetables.  Members of the Museum of Natural History were repeat visitors, obtaining wildlife specimens for use in the museum.

Wild Animals in the African Wilderness
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     Martin and Osa built a special cabin for George Eastman, when they learned he was coming to visit. Eastman fit in well with the camp routine, and he taught Osa and others how to bake lemon pies, pastries and muffins.  He treated Osa like a daughter, and he was in his element while he photographed the wildlife with Martin.

     Naturally, he brought his own cameras and film, some of which were prototypes to test.  Eastman became friends with the Johnsons, and a few years later, he invited them to sail the Nile on a large yacht.  When he said good-bye to the Johnsons for the last time, he told them his time in Africa was the happiest in his life.

     From their time spent at Paradise Lake and on trips to the Belgian Congo (currently Democratic Republic of the Congo), Martin became a world expert on understanding the social habits of elephant herds and lion prides.  Many times Martin and Osa sat on top of their safari vehicles, eating lunch, watching the lions wrestle with each other and nip at the tires on their truck.

     Martin became intrigued with the idea of using aircraft on their safaris.  The logistics in trekking several hundred miles by land could be drastically reduced if they were able to make quick and efficient trips in planes to remote jungle areas.  Aircraft were becoming more durable and reliable, thus safer for traveling.

     In 1932, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious aircraft, and planned an air safari of Africa.  Martin named the larger plane, Osa’s Ark, and had it painted with zebra stripes.  The smaller plane was named The Spirit of Africa, and it was painted with giraffe spots.  They hired an aviator from Kansas, Vern Carstens, along with a Sikorsky test pilot and a mechanic to fly and maintain the aircraft.

     They thought of every detail in outfitting the planes.  Martin had special mountings made for aerial photography.  Osa created a space for a desk and typewriter.  They installed a small stove and galley and designed the rest of the interiors for holding supplies.  The planes were dismantled and shipped to Capetown, South Africa, where they were re-assembled for use.

The Johnsons' Sikorsky amphibious aircraft
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The planes gave them speed and mobility that was beyond their imagination.  It was possible to fly to remote wildlife habitat, land on a lake or river, film the wildlife, and return to base camp in a few short days.  Previously, a similar trip would have taken weeks or months.  Martin learned to film from the air, obtaining dramatic images of elephants, buffalo herds, and other wildlife crossing the open country.  The planes were also used for supply missions when provisions were needed.

     Over the next few years, they logged over 50,000 miles in the planes in Africa, and 30,000 miles in south-east Asia.  They were the first to fly over Mt. Kenya and photograph it from the air, and they flew around Mt. Kilimanjaro.  There were numerous and dangerous take-offs and landings brushing tree tops or negotiating curved rivers, and wind-swept lakes.  The planes performed to their specifications and the crews were top-notch.  They completed their air safaris without a serious mishap.

Somalians look at aircraft with Martin and Osa
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The list of films created during their career is lengthy, including documentary films as well as feature films. A list of highlight titles includes:

• “Cannibals of the South Seas” (1918)
• “Jungle Adventures” (1921)
• “Simba” (1928)
• “Congorilla” (1932)
• “Wings Over Africa” (1934)
• “Baboona” (1935)

     Martin and Osa had traveled to more places on earth than one can imagine.  Just one of their trips would have been the trip of a lifetime for the typical American.  This was the case in 1928, when three Boy Scouts were selected to spend five weeks with the Johnsons.  The scouts learned many native skills, including a different technique of archery, in which the arrows were shot vertically so they would land on the backs of the wild animals.

     In January of 1937, Martin and Osa were on a whirlwind tour of lectures across the U.S., sharing their travels with schoolchildren and the public.  The morning after a lecture in Salt Lake City, Utah, they boarded a commercial flight to Burbank, California.

     In the fatal irony of ironies, the commercial plane in which they rode crashed on a ridge in fog and rain, on approach to Burbank.  Five persons ultimately died from the crash injuries.  For Martin and Osa, it was their last trip together.  Martin, with a severely crushed skull, died the next day.  Osa suffered a back injury, but insisted on continuing the lecture circuit.

     A poignant link to the Johnsons’ Kansas roots was the fact that Burbank was where Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft was being tested (1935-1937) for her ill-fated attempts to circumnavigate the globe.

     After Martin’s death, Osa wrote many books, served as consultant to film makers, and continued to share her experiences.  But life was not the same without Martin, her soul mate, and she remained unhappy.  Osa died in New York in 1953.

     The world is now decades and generations removed from the adventures of the Johnsons, the Kansans with wanderlust in their hearts.  They were a rare match, combining their love and passion for each other and for adventure.  Their accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable and are testaments to their sheer determination in their darkest hours and when they traveled to the ends of the earth.

                                                          THE END

The Kansans with wanderlust in their hearts
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

• Johnson, Osa. I Married Adventure. William Morrow and Co., Inc. (1989) (first published by J.B. Lippincott Co. (1940))

• The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. 111 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chanute, Kansas 66720-1819. Conrad Froehlich, Director.

• The Safari Museum website: story.htm

• Notable California Aviation Disasters website:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth - Part I

     Preface:  This is a true story about a Kansas couple, Martin and Osa Johnson, who married 100 years ago.  When I read  Osa Johnson's book, "I Married Adventure," it came alive on the pages.  I became an immediate fan of Martin and Osa's love for each other and their adventures.  It is a story of travel in a wild and untamed world much different from today.

     I would like to give a special thanks to Conrad Froehlich, director of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, for providing and allowing the use of the photographs from their collection in this two-part story.

Martin and Osa Johnson
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

To the Ends of the Earth - Part I
non-fiction research
by Greg Larson
copyright 2010

     When you think of famous Kansans, who comes to mind?  Dwight Eisenhower?  Amelia Earhart?  Robert Dole?  How about Martin and Osa Johnson?  Most people have never heard of the couple from southeast Kansas, but they became world famous in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, traveling the globe.  They sought out savage head-hunting tribes in the island jungles of south-east Asia, and launched safaris into Africa to film charging rhinos, lion prides, and a myriad of unpredictable wildlife.  Their films were exactly what the American movie-goers craved at a time when the public’s appetite for adventure and worldly images became insatiable.

     Martin thrived on adventures in the most dangerous spots on the globe, at a time when communication and travel were difficult, and when many native tribes had not seen Caucasians or twentieth century technology.  He was fearless when confronting tribal warriors or filming charging herds of wild animals.  Martin pioneered many techniques in wildlife photography and processed much of his film in the wilderness.  He dealt with logistical nightmares associated with transporting specialized equipment on safaris and into the jungles.

Martin Johnson photo of lions
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     How did Martin and Osa become seasoned world adventurers?  Their early history reveals many ironies that would lead one to believe their hopes and dreams were doomed to failure.  But along with the ironies came many opportunities and lucky breaks, as well as a deep commitment to reach their goals…a commitment that became stronger whenever the situations became tougher.

     Martin, born in 1884, was the son of a jewelry store merchant who moved his family from Rockford, Illinois, to Lincoln Center, Kansas, and finally to Independence, Kansas.  Martin became fascinated with a sideline of Eastman-Kodak film and cameras that his father sold in their store.  At the time, no one could have guessed that Martin would eventually become a close friend to George Eastman, inviting him to spend time at Martin’s African safari camp.

     The young Kansan, bored with high school, dreamed of traveling to see the sights of the world.  The sample photos of Egyptian pyramids and European cities which were included in the Kodak products shipped to the store further fueled Martin’s desire to travel.  He became popular with the other students because he always brought along his camera and pictures to picnics and social events.  He was expelled from high school for distributing some “tricked” photos of the faculty in amusing situations.  Feeling he was an embarrassment to his family, he left home and began to travel on a shoestring budget.  His first destination was Chicago and he eventually traveled to England, taking on odd jobs to pay his way.  He always found his way home, albeit penniless.  But his desire for adventure continued to burn from within, with a passion to seek out the unknown.

     His first opportunity came when he responded to an article by Jack London.  The famous author was planning a seven-year trip around the world with a crew of six, using a custom-made boat built to his specifications.  London placed an ad in a magazine, in search of applicants from across the country.  Martin sent his letter stating why he should join the crew, and London selected him from hundreds of respondents…quite ironic since he was from landlocked Kansas.  He was chosen to be the crew’s cook, though he had little cooking experience.

     The trip aboard Jack London’s boat, the Snark, began in 1907.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Martin Johnson, and he made the most of it.  Jack London and his wife Charmian were impressed with Martin’s positive outlook and his interest in helping the crew fix engines, pump bilge water, and navigate the high seas.  He became invaluable as a seaman, and was eventually relieved of his cooking duties.

     The boat was not built for the rigors of the high seas and continually needed repairs.  They miraculously survived the journey from California to Hawaii, and then went on to visit several South Pacific islands, where they sought out the native tribes.  Jack London contracted a mysterious skin disease, and doctors in Australia advised him to return to the U.S.  The experimental sailing adventure aboard the small boat had become a dismal failure in less than two years.

     A lucky break occurred for Martin when he met a French film crew in the Solomon Islands before the trip was abandoned.  They were attempting to film some of the native head-hunter tribes.  After several of the film crew became ill, Martin offered to assist the cameramen.  He became fascinated with the equipment, asked questions and learned as much as he could on the short journey into the jungle.

     After the Jack London voyage, Martin continued to travel around the world, and spent time in Paris, where he purchased a copy of the Solomon Island motion pictures from the French film company.  He returned home to Independence, surprised to find the entire town waiting at the train station, ready to treat him as a hometown hero.

     An enterprising merchant convinced Martin to share his adventures with the public.  He knew the townspeople would gladly pay admission to see the films and listen to Martin’s lectures about his travels.  The merchant funded the construction of a small theatre, dubbed “The Snark.”  Martin quickly learned he had stage fright…it almost doomed his career.  He overcame his fear, and included local singers on the bill to add to the entertainment value.

     Osa Leighty was born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1894.  Her father was a Santa Fe railroad brake man, away from home much of the time.  She had a strict upbringing in the modest family home, and was strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother who taught her not to talk to strangers, another irony for a future world traveler.

     Osa discovered one day that her high school friend, Gail, was scheduled to sing on stage at the Snark theater in Independence which was about 40 miles from Chanute.  Osa traveled with her friends to see Gail perform.  They heartily applauded their friend’s performance, and then Martin Johnson began his lecture and movie.  As the story about the South Pacific head-hunters dragged on, Osa walked out of the theater, disgusted and bored.

     Her friend, Gail, who was already married, became the matchmaker.  She invited Osa for another visit to Independence, and set up a double date with Martin and Osa, even though Martin was nine years older.  Over several weeks, Osa asserted her independent and stubborn nature, acting coy and somewhat hard-to-get.  This didn’t deter Martin from courting her.  On more than one occasion, he traveled to Chanute to visit Osa and her family; he brought candy and was subjected to questions from Osa’s mother, grandmother, and brother.  Martin didn’t give up his interest in Osa; he must have seen the qualities in her that would serve them well if they traveled together.

     During the short courtship, Martin asked Osa to sing at the Snark theater on a weekend when Gail was supposedly ill.  Osa sang with considerable volume and the audience liked her.  The next day, alone in the theater with Osa, Martin asked her to marry him and she accepted.

     Although the courtship seemed strange, the marriage and honeymoon was even stranger.  They married the day after he proposed to her in Independence, Kansas, and left on their wedding day for Kansas City on a short honeymoon.  To elope in 1910 was quite taboo in the Midwest, and it was another irony that the marriage survived even the first week.  Osa started to get homesick and she cried all the way to Kansas City.  They were married again in Missouri to prevent Osa’s father from annulling the Kansas license.  After five days, they returned to Chanute, and Martin faced Osa’s father, who told him that he’d better do a good job of taking care of her.

     After surviving the unusual honeymoon, Osa enjoyed the beginning months of domestic life in Independence.  She cleaned and polished their rental apartment above one of the downtown shops, and dreamt of having a large family and building a house.  Martin shared his dream and desire to save up enough money to travel back to the south-sea islands to find more remote tribes to photograph.

     Osa listened to Martin’s dreams, and realized that she had married a man quite different from most.  With her love and devotion to Martin, she threw her whole-hearted support to his efforts.  Their first obstacle was the fact that the Jack London adventure story was getting old in Independence.  In short order, they sold all of their wedding gifts and possessions, and took their vaudeville act on the road.  Martin lectured and showed his slides and film, and Osa sang a few numbers while wearing a simulated Hawaiian dress.

Martin and Osa on the vaudeville tour
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     At one point, early in their road-show days, they were tired, out of money, and in Denver at Christmas-time.  They had to pawn the few possessions they had just to pay for a flop-house room and to buy some food.  Most couples in their situation would have given up and gone home.  Although that thought entered their minds, their dogged determination and love for each other shone through the cold, sickness, and loneliness.  Their greatness as a couple was forged through experiences similar to the dark days of Denver.

     During a stint in New York, Martin, with Osa’s prodding, got up enough nerve to seek out and land a national contract with the Orpheum theater group.  With secure bookings for their show, they began to build up some savings for their big dream of traveling overseas.

     After seven long years of working on the vaudeville circuit, they planned out their first overseas trip.  Martin purchased a motion picture camera, two still cameras, a rifle and two revolvers, as well as several thousand feet of film.  In 1917, they packed their trunks, boarded a steamer in San Francisco, and headed for the South Pacific.

     They eventually sailed to the upper New Hebrides islands (currently Vanuatu), where Martin continued to gather information to determine the best location to film.  He was meticulous and emphatic regarding his desire to film true wild and native tribes.  The British authorities tried to convince him to film some of the tribes under their control, but Martin wanted no part in filming docile natives.  After gathering information from the local sailors, he decided the fiercest and wildest tribes lived on the island of Malekula.  A local sailor transported them to a small island adjacent to Malekula, where they stayed with a French priest.  Martin began to establish a plan to travel to Malekula and come face-to-face with the natives and capture their visit on film.

     The merchant ships and the British Government warned Martin and Osa to stay away from Malekula, for they believed it was far too dangerous a place for foreigners, especially women.  The natives were unpredictable.  The tribes on the island were in constant warfare with each other, and they practiced cannibalism.  Communication was difficult, but was possible through the use of a local common language called Bêche-de-Mer.

     Martin was certain that the island of Malekula was the perfect place to obtain images of a real cannibal tribe known as the Big Nambas.  He and Osa convinced three natives familiar with Malekula to be their crew and sail a small boat over to the island.  They beached it as some of the natives began to emerge from the island vegetation.  Osa thought they were the ugliest creatures she had ever seen on the face of the earth.  They appeared unwashed and filthy, and wore bones through their noses, pig’s teeth necklaces and woven breechcloths.

     Martin asked one of the natives to act as a guide and direct them to their leader.  With some trepidation, Martin and Osa started the hike into the jungle, as their three crew members followed behind, carrying the cameras.  After a hike of a couple of miles, they reached a bluff that overlooked the beach where they had landed.  Without warning, they saw tribe members rush onto the path.  They were surrounded by the cannibal tribe of the Big Nambas, and standing before them was the powerful leader, Nagapate, superior-looking in physical prowess and bearing.

Nagapate - Leader of the Big Nambas
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The Big Nambas watched their fierce leader curiously inspect the foreign couple that had come to their hilltop village.  The year was 1917, and the wild tribe had seen few people from the outside world.  Nagapate, with his bushy black hair and beard, moved in closer to the couple.  Martin began filming as Osa offered Nagapate some tobacco and trinkets.  The tribal leader grabbed Osa’s arm with his leathery hands.  He rubbed her white skin and then began touching her hair and scalp.  Martin kept the film rolling in his movie camera, taking in the scene of the natives and their leader.  He patiently encouraged Osa to stay calm and offer the leader more tobacco and gifts.

     The tribal boo-boo drums began to beat in the background.  Martin became concerned for his wife, so he shut off the camera, and then stood between Osa and Nagapate.  He yelled to his wife and crew to run to the boat while he occupied the leader, but Nagapate grabbed Osa, and the tribe seized Martin.  Fear overcame Osa as Nagapate gripped her arm.  She screamed and screamed, and then she became woozy and disoriented.


• Johnson, Osa. I Married Adventure. William Morrow and Co., Inc. (1989) (first published by J.B. Lippincott Co. (1940))

• The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. 111 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chanute, Kansas 66720-1819. Conrad Froehlich, Director.

• The Safari Museum website: story.htm