Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Aye, my Lassie - that is a Viking
When J and L spent a month in Ireland a few seasons back, we were surprised and impressed to learn that near the confluence of the Rivers Poddle and Liffey, in the capital city of Dublin, there once stood Viking settlement dating back to the 9th Century.

Who’d have thunk it?
Artists rendering of a Viking Irish settlement
The Vikings in Ireland – the land of a thousand welcomes.

Some of the known Viking settlements in Ireland
This called for some research and what better place to start than the Annals of Ulster. These recordings of events year by year were started in the 6th Century and continued until approximately 1540. They are the story, mostly verbatim of medieval Ireland. A treasure trove of facts and figures depicting what went on during those centuries in Ireland. One, and only one issue is that stories that are written in the Annals of Ulster date back to about 431 A.D. So, a bit of a consternation for the researcher is that prior to the 6th Century nothing was written down immediately but left to recollections and stories passed down by the generations.

A page from the Annals of Ulster
It is this area which some of the history may be a bit sketchy –  as in not a hundred percent certain of the facts. Needless to say historians as well as just the good old everyday Irish person loves these annals since it spells out the marvelous, if often dark, history of this island nation.
The facts down and dirty
The annals are written in the Irish pr Gaelic, as well as in Latin. That fact has sent shivers of joy up the spine of linguists as they study the evolution of the country’s language.

Well, it is mentioned in the annals that the Vikings arrived around 795 as the warriors set out to rob and pillage Gaelic Irish coastal settlements. As the raids continued, the raiding parties grew to the point that a settlement needed to be built so they could live and pillage further inland on the island.
Those Vikings – they just loved their pillaging.

Who wouldn't want to plunder and get these riches?
In order to establish the safety of their settlement, the Vikings built a ‘longphort’ or simply, a ship enclosure or fortified naval encampment. It was here, in modern day Dublin that the first one was built in 841 near what is now Parliament Street in Temple Bar West – not far from the Dublin Castle.

It is a fascinating area to walk around in the city. Modern structures towering all about and then the remnants of a Viking longphort literally beneath your feet. At the National Museum of Ireland there are exhibits after exhibits exploring the history of the Vikings and their contributions to Ireland. Not only were they ruthless warriors but actually helped settle parts of Ireland and became good stewards on the land.

Where a Viking 'longphort' once stood in Dublin
That is saying a lot from what is generally thought of the Vikings.

There is, according to the annals, a chance that the Viking warlord Amlaib, also known as Olaf the White, made Dublin the capital city of his territory in 853 and pronounced himself King.  He jointly ruled the area for fifteen years with his brothers Imar – Ivar the Boneless (yes, the same character portrayed on the History Channel in the series The Vikings) and Auisle. The brothers used Dublin as the center to conduct military action against the Kings all over Ireland.

Alex Hogh Anderson playing Ivar the Boneless - son of Ragnar 
The Irish had had enough and in 902, the Irish Kings of Brega, Leinster used a military tactic known as a two-pronged attack on Dublin successfully driving the Vikings back into the sea. But a short twelve years later the Vikings returned and started the Second Viking Age on the island.

Can’t keep a good (or bad) Viking down for long.

John with one of his Viking friends.
So, a visit to Ireland not only brings great food, wonderful company, delicious beer in cozy pubs but the chance of walking where famous Vikings once trod. It is a country full of surprises and as J and L found out that there doesn’t seem enough time in a person’s lifetime to learn all that the Emerald Isle holds in the world of history.

And there are always the pubs - that is enough sometimes.

Friday, March 2, 2018

With winter seemingly to have forgotten Southern California, J and L decided to take a respite from their abode and travel with four furry companions to Owl Canyon Campground. The camp, run by the Bureau of Land Management, is located approximately eight miles north of the small town of Barstow. For those of who are geographically inclined, Barstow is nearly one hundred fifteen miles northeast from Los Angeles.
Quite remote, but great place to camp.
This twenty-two site campground is an ideal place to get away from the lights and fast streets of city life.

Ah, away from the city lights.
After leaving Irwin Road (one of the paved paths to the Army facility, Fort Irwin) and turning north onto Fossil Bed Road, the adventurer needs to be steadfast over five miles of unpaved road. The roadbed is wide and flat, but oftentimes wind swept, leaving a wash board effect. This time, the trip was not particularly rough for J and L and our furry friends, despite that fact that we had journeyed in our RV. It appears that our path had been recently graded. That was not the case a few years back when Paul Bakas, our frequent fellow traveler, joined these adventurers, driving his own RV out to Owl Canyon. That trip left his rear mounted tire for his RV no longer mounted. As the tire laid dejectedly on the dirt road, we reflected that this was a terrible way to end a camping trip. Not to be deterred however, we risked tire and mount, and responded to the call of the desert solitude.

I feel so rejected!
And on this outing, the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and weather was absolutely perfect. We had the pleasure of basking in temperatures hovering around the mid-seventies, instead of the biting wind and even more biting cold which would be the norm for the high desert of Southern California.

“Let’s take advantage of the weather.” J and L suggested to each other. And that we did.

Though there are only a handful of campsites, and none have hook-ups. This is what we refer to in the camping world as ‘primitive camping.’ In reality, nothing particularly primitive is going on. Most of the campers come out over the dirt roads in motor-homes, fifth-wheels or tents with enough accouterments to challenge a sultan in comfort and luxury.

No, the days of ‘primitive camping’ are pretty much gone.

The camping sites are huge. There was enough room at our site for our pirate-flagged 34 footer, the ever-ready Toyota FJ,as well as the vehicles of friends (Paul, Larry, Gail, Howard and Leslie),  with plenty of room to spare.

Our friends had decided to drive out, just for the day, to join us as we spent the day exploring the canyons of Rainbow Basin and the Fossil Beds. 

The drive to Rainbow Basin is a short couple of minutes from the campground.  The one-way dirt road winds its way through the most spectacular of landscapes. Pinnacles of colorful sandstone, silt-stone, limestone, and conglomerate line both sides of the narrow path. Large vehicles are not recommended since they’d likely become stuck as the pathways and switchbacks narrow around the natural rock outcroppings. Or, at the very least, your off-road vehicle could acquire those scratches and dings which give four-wheel drive vehicles their character, if the driver doesn't pay careful attention.

Tall mud cliffs and narrow roads

Out for another adventure in the hinterlands

Laureen and Paul, accompanied by our four-footed explorers

Leaving the Bounder behind, we set off in the trusty FJ. Since the area is designated a National Natural Landmark, we thought that the BLM wouldn’t take too kindly to a motorhome becoming stuck between two mountains of sandstone like Fat Albert between two door frames.

So off we rambled and bumped along the road to the fossil beds a few miles to the north.  Finds of animals that are no longer part of the Californian culture have been made here, including camels, miniature horses, mastodons, and flamingos.

Huh? Flamingos in the Mojave Desert? Yep, this area was much wetter in times past. In fact, two million years ago, during the Pleistocene era, the region was inundated by huge glaciers. Temperatures warmed and then cooled and then warmed and then cooled, and about ten thousand years ago the area was pretty wet and lush in vegetation. No desert – almost a paradise for life.

This is a desert? Forget Florida - we like Southern California
Humans showed up, hunting the abundance of life. Then, as what normally happens on a living planet, the climate became warmer and less moist, but this time, it stayed that way, killing off the vegetation and giving birth to the Mohave Desert.

One can still find here some hardy bushes and a surprising variety of animals, though not what was there tens of thousands of years ago.

So, after a day of traveling the back trails in a couple of four-wheel drives, J and L invited everyone back to the temporary abode in Owl Canyon Campground to toast the adventure with a cold refreshment. Or two.

As the sun was disappeared behind the multicolored cliffs, so did our friends. And, like the sun, we would certainly return to continue to explore this natural wilderness.

The sun set and so did our friends
Our spur-of-the-moment adventure turned out to be a memorable way to spend time enjoying the unexpected warmth of a couple of days in winter. One day later, the temperatures were back in the low forties and winds driving from the north.

The perfect end to a wonderful adventure
But, we did have Owl Canyon – at least for a moment or two.

Or perhaps this is a better way to relax after hiking all day!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Groundhog Day

Who could ever be afraid of their own shadow? That might seem rather silly, but in fact, that is what's behind the concept of Groundhog Day. It is a long-held tradition - and we at J and L love traditions - that when a groundhog comes out its burrow, if it sees its own shadow, it will turn and run back to the comfort of its dirt abode.

If the little marmot monax (scientific name) sees its shadow and retreats, that means there will be another six weeks of winter left on the calendar. If the little critter does not see its shadow, then there will be an early spring. Of course, in the lovely state of California, we always hope that there is a big old shadow terrifying the groundhog – we are tired of droughts.

Uh, Winter or Spring - I'm not quite sure
In actuality, the male groundhog emerges in late winter, hoping for the right conditions to begin to search of a mate. If the weather isn't right for groundhog love, back to sleep he retreats. That reality wasn’t quite exciting for superstitious humans curious about how much more of the cold winter weather they had to endure. So those creative souls imagined that the groundhog's search for a soul mate, might actually be the work of a furry meteorologist.

Perhaps this is the reason that our little friend the groundhog seems to be having an identity crisis. How would any mammal feel when his human neighbors change him from Romeo to Weatherman. Then, to make matters worse, they call him by no less than twelve names: groundhog, chuck, woodchuck, groundpig (that sounds a little offensive), whistlepig, whistler, thickwood badger, Canada marmot, marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, and the red monk.

Just call me Sam
These ground squirrels typically measure up to 26 inches and weigh in around 31 pounds, making them a very large marmot in anyone’s mind. They are adapted for quickly digging in the territory they roam, generally in the northeastern and central regions of the United States and into Canada as far as Alaska. Some of these cute little hairy diggers can be found as far south as Georgia.

They do get around and are so famous, that they've inspired a neat little tongue-twister:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

Try saying that three times in a row. 

"How much, uh, chuck would upchuck - ah forget about-it"
These sharp-toed creatures hibernate in the late fall and then emerge from their dens sometime in February or early March, depending on the temperature. If it's too cold, then its back to beddy-bye. But if it's a bit warmer, then it's a long stretch, and Mr. Groundhog is back among the living and looking for love. 

So, where does this imaginative interpretation of Groundhog Day come from?

It started a long long time ago in a land far, far away. Candlemas is an ancient tradition when European priests would hand out blessed candles for the winter season. The Holy Day is celebrated as the ‘Presentation of Jesus at the Temple’ and the date of February the 2nd was chosen as the day for passing out those candles to those in need of them in the community during the cold and dark winter nights.

Jesus being presented at the temple
 So, the people would awaken on the 2nd day of February and look to the heavens for sign. A telling, so to speak, if the dark days of winter were almost over.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

That tradition was later changed by the Germans, who used hedgehogs instead of candles to seek an answer to their question of whether winter was going to be longer or not. Now, the hedgehogs were not used as candles, (even in those by-gone days that wouldn't have gone over too well,) but as the harbinger of longer colder days or the promise of a warm and early spring.

Groundhog presenting a candle - weird
When German settlers immigrated to the United States, they exchanged the hedgehog for the groundhog for two simple reasons: hedgehogs were hard to find, and the groundhogs were plentiful in the Keystone state of Pennsylvania, where they primarily settled.

Where are those darn hedgehogs - maybe just a hog - no, not right
The tradition carried on for decades and then finally in 1887, a newspaper editor from the melodious sounding town of Punxsutawney announced that a groundhog by the name of Phil was the only true weather-forecasting groundhog in the United States.

Not sure how many ‘fake’ weather-forecasting groundhogs there were at the time, but Phil hit the big time, and has since made it into the history books. Since these little furry creatures only live about six to eight years, there have been plenty of Phil Juniors since then.

Since then, other towns have tried to break into the groundhog meteorologist gig by having their own prognosticating varmint, from Birmingham Bill to Staten Island Chuck, and there is even a Shumbenacadie Sam in Canada.

But it’s the one and only Punxsutawney Phil people recognize nationwide. Thousands of people from around the world trek their way to Punxsutawney on Candlemas Day to see if Phil will frolic in the sun or turn around and head for his burrow, marking another six weeks of winter to endure.

Phil and his fans - not sure who the man with the hat is though

The one and only true home for Punxsutawney Phil
It is also this Punxsutawney Phil who was immortalized in the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a reporter who awakes every morning to relive the previous day, which of course happens to be, February 2 - Groundhog Day.

A block buster movie based on Phil - and oh yeah, Bill Murray
So, Phil – shadow or not, will remain the truest form of a weather forecaster for many people around the world.

We wouldn’t have it any other way. Forget satellite images of the weather when we have a four footed celebrity willing to risk his furry rear end to let us mere humans when winter will end and spring will begin.

There's always politics involved - so sad