Friday, March 25, 2016

Finding My Mews

Shortly after moving into a Georgian flat in Dublin, I looked up the word mews in the dictionary. From the ton of flashy Architectural Digest spreads I'd read, I knew it was a dwelling ripe for high spec conversion. But, growing up in Southern California, I didn't really understand what a mews was, or where it came from. (Ask me about pueblos and we're good...)

I wandered down the mews lanes on my evening walks exploring the neighborhood of Ballsbridge, and occasionally glimpsed the mews that were tucked behind protective screen walls. They were low structures, seemingly cozy, often with a glow in the internal court. Aside from learning the textbook definition of a mews house and where it was likely to grow, I was also beginning to grasp the taxonomy of roads, lanes and closes. By tracing back the development of a mews house, and the big house which it served, the naming of these byways proved fairly intuitive.

The carriage doors from the mews courtyard.

The mews was essentially the carriage house of a proper Georgian townhome. It backed onto an alley so that the horses could do their horse business and all the muck was tucked away from the right proper family living in the big house. The mews house consisted of humble living quarters above the ground floor where the horses were tended.

I jumped when I saw the Irish Architecture Foundation's posting about a tour of the Merrion Mews. It was for members only, but I begged a spot, and they were gracious enough to have me. It pays to be a historical architecture geek, and were I staying on in Dublin I'd most definitely become a member.

It turns out the Merrion Mews is one of the most historically intact Georgian properties in the entire city, and so it exemplifies what urban life was really like in 18th century Ireland. Guided by conservation architect Grainne Shaffrey, we entered the tour from the alley behind the mews. Grainne explained that from the rear lane and carriage courtyard, to the mews itself and its small garden, to the screen wall separating the mews garden from the formal 18th century garden of the big house, through the big house to its grand entry steps and iron railing, all the way to the sidewalk, each slice of the property is as it was in the 18th century. Imagine a very tall slice of many-layered cake that's fallen on its side, and you can begin to picture the site plan of a Georgian property.

View to the big house from the bedroom of the mews.

The Merrion Mews is now in the care of the Irish Landmark Trust, an organization whose mission is to put unique historical properties back into use. You can arrange a fantastic stay in a country lodge or a castle keep, a weatherbeaten lighthouse on the Irish coast or a city centre mews house. These are quirky properties: lines meander where walls meet ceiling and floors are likely to slope; the narrow stairs hug your hips, and door opening make you feel very tall; weathered conduit runs straight across the ceiling a scalloped Victorian light, and who knows about the plumbing that fills the amazing footed tub in the bath.

Working horse stall.

As Grainne pointed out from the floral-printed lounge at Merrion Mews, the best way to preserve a building is to keep it occupied. Serendipitously, the Garda, or Irish police, needed a city center spot for their mounted police, who are based all the way out in the Phoenix Park. They connected with the stable at Merrion Mews, and their horses now have a pit stop. One stable has a plywood shack slotted into it so the coppers can have a cuppa, too. Back in Georgian times, those animals would have been a valuable source of heating for the residents on the floors above.*

Getting a sense of the space of the mews, what it would be like to live and work there, was definitely a highlight of the tour. But absorbing little details that Grainne shared about the surfaces of the building, like the patchy coloring of the limewash on the main floor, or the pointing style and brick patterns on each facade, which turns out are quite unique to Dublin, completely fired the imagination. The entire skin of the building was a palimpsest.

Original lime wash.
Things that might go unnoticed or unwelcomed, like dark patches on the wall, were in fact historical markers of how the space was used. The room where horses would enter the building and be maintained before they were stalled was covered with a creamy sallow and white lime wash.  The uneven color of the plasterwork were signs of former residence, indicating, say, where a certificate might have been proudly displayed on a wall. The trust pointedly left nail heads and fasteners where they were found. Discoloration or surface variation might also be evident where a horse's nose or flank repeatedly rubbed. In the case of an exterior wall in the garden, a darker patch of brick and mortar belied the manure from the horses that would have piled up chest high.

The rear facade with visible restoration on the brick.
Grainne mentioned words like "wigging" and "tuck" in relation to the brickwork, and I spent an indulgent evening later that week reading an extensive pamphlet published by the Irish government about restoring and preserving your period brickwork. And was tempted to read on about preserving your thatch roof or old windows. Though I don't plan on owning my own period home any time soon, I am so pleased that conservation architects, equal parts designer and archaeologist, and organizations like the trust, keep this history alive for us. I will enjoy investigating a thousand fascinating details of Merrion Mews - until the next building tour!

The mews house kitchen, with its amazing apron sink and ceramic drainboards.

*It turns out that raw sheeps' wool was used as insulation in this house, its ability to take in and release moisture and stay warm making it an excellent choice for breathability. Nature!

When in Dublin, check out the IAF:

Stay somewhere awesome:

For more about Grainne's architectural firm:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

6° of Sunlight, or How I Got Back to Los Angeles from Dublin.

For better or worse, I am now counting the weeks until I return to LA from my year in Dublin. So I dusted off my “must visit” list and refreshed it with the heritage sights close by the city centre. You know how you never go to Disneyland or Venice Beach except when out-of-towners visit? Same here.

En route to the Phoenix Park I passed the Sunlight Chambers, a building on the south side of the River Liffey whose brightly colored tile details have caught my eye for 12 months. I stopped and took a few snapshots of the pediment, friezes and cameos, and went on to have an incredible tour of Farmleigh House in the Park (more on that later).

I spent the rest of the weekend on a deep wiki dive into architecture, and remembered that evening to look up the Sunlight Chambers.

Photo: Valerie Thomas

The building is remarkable by Dublin standards, for its Italianate flare and its liberal use of color on the exterior, shocking to the overcast aesthetics of the city. It was built by a Liverpudlian* architect by the name of Edward Augustus Ould as the Dublin headquarters of the Lever Brothers. The Lever name rang a bell for me, and I suspect it may for many readers. They were the barons of the soap trade back in the 1880s, investing in a new technology that utilized vegetable oil instead of tallow (or animal fat) to make household soaps. (I had a stint working with fine soaps in my early twenties, and while I can attest that tallow makes an awfully rich lather, it’s a boon for the four-leggeds and vegan shoppers that technology moved on.)

Photo: Valerie Thomas

Reading about the Lever Brothers soon landed me on American soil. The US headquarters of the company is in New York City, and was also a notable architectural achievement. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, when it was built by Skidmore Owings Merrill in 1952 it was only the second glass curtain wall skyscraper. What is now a hallmark of every modern metropolis was then a new architectural phenomenon, the International style, and the building revolutionized the look of Park Ave. The SOM building at 390 Park Avenue in New York is known as Lever House and as luck would have it, the president of the Lever Bros at that time was architect-to-be Charles Luckman.

Photo: Chimay Bleu on Flickr

Somewhat tangential to architecture, but interesting to me and my soapy background: round about this time, the Lever Bros merged with a Dutch company called Margarine Unie, and became the Unilever megabrand. Pretty much every washing up liquid I’ve used in Europe is a unilever brand, made or acquired by. I thought it strange that margarine and soap companies merged, until realizing the vegetable oil connection and the original innovation the Lever Bros tapped into.

Anyhow, back to the architecture. Though I’m sure it had its detractors, the glass curtain wall skyscraper on Park Avenue was better received in its day than the Italianate Sunlight Chambers in Dublin. The latter was touted the ugliest building in Dublin, and its uniqueness amidst the somber Georgian neo-classicism sticks out even to the casual observer. Following Charles Luckman from New York, however, took me straight back to Los Angeles. Not just back to Los Angeles, but specifically, to 9200 Sunset. This landmark 1964 building is a stone’s throw from where I lived and worked before I came to Dublin. That building before it was chicly renovated and rebranded, was known as Luckman Plaza, and was part of Luckman’s illustrious architectural career after his tenure as president of Lever Bros.

Photo: Rodeo Realty

Considered the “gateway to Beverly Hills” Luckman Plaza is a later iteration of the glass curtain wall skyscraper comprising two buildings joined by a lobby. It stands out at the west end of the Sunset Strip, just before you burst into the bucolic stretch of Santa Monica Blvd that borders residential Beverly Hills. This building now houses the iconic private club Soho House, on the penthouse floor topping the 17 storey building. Luckman himself added the top floor.

The twin of the 9200 Sunset building at 9220 also happens to house a suite of offices where a few years back the Southern California Institute of Classical Architecture gave a series of lectures. I sat in that building listening to a brilliant talk about vernacular and historical buildings in Santa Barbara, Riverside and Los Angeles. My imagination was fired and my personal journey into classical architecture took solid shape.

Incidentally, the Lever Brothers also created something of a photo-Google campus, in the township in Merseyside, UK, which they rechristened Port Sunlight. The housing was adjacent the soap-making plant and each block was designed by a different architect. The whole development, circa 1900, as well as the way in which the buildings were crafted, was influenced by the ideas of the Arts & Crafts movements and could be considered one of the earliest ‘garden suburbs’. That, of course, brings us to the LA suburb of Pasadena, aka Bungalow Heaven, the ultimate expression of the Arts & Crafts movement in Southern California.

Photo: Lazenby43 on Flickr
And that is the whole story of exactly what made me stop to look more closely at the Sunlight Chambers. The irony of calling something in Dublin ‘sunlight’ aside, it’s amazing how close that corner of Parliament Street and Essex Quay really is to the relentlessly sunny stretches of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. I can’t help but feel that the River Liffey has delivered me safely back home in Los Angeles.

*I can now tick "use Liverpudlian in a piece of writing" off my bucket list.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Get on the Good Foot

I grew up with Scottish grandparents - my mother was born in Aberdeen - who landed in Southern California in the mid 1950s. They hung a painting of the River Dee above the mantel, kept the pantry stocked with British foods, and took the family to the annual Scottish Festival in Costa Mesa, CA from the time we were wee bairns. My grandparents always missed "the Old Country" and returned often to visit friends and family. They ensured that tartan was as deeply ingrained in my being as the stars and stripes.

Ireland is very different from Scotland, yet when I landed here in January of 2015 I felt a tug from the Old Country. Adapting to local culture, I began to understand more of the traditions I grew up with. Much like Christmas in my native Los Angeles: snow? mittens? cold? Christmas traditions make sense when you're in Germany, but seem kitsch when you're standing under a palm tree in sandals near Venice Beach in December.

My grandfather talked about Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year's tradition, with a twinkle in his eye. The grandparents always celebrated New Year's at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood, where Scottish and English expats gathered. But I heard how in the Old Country they would visit friends after midnight, bringing small gifts and gathering for a drink and maybe some music. It ignited my imagination and clearly he cherished the memory and all those traditions meant to him as he told me.

In Hogmanay lore, the first person over the threshold is the harbinger of the coming months. A tall dark-haired man was a good omen, especially if he came bearing the symbols of prosperity, food, good flavor, warmth, and cheer.

This year I assembled my own First Foot Kit. Tradition says that a woman first over the threshold can be bad luck, but I say I'll chance it. (It's 2016, dearie, not 1916.) My kit includes:

1. Silver coins for prosperity, Danish and Icelandic kroner collected in the year's travels.
2. Bread, which goes one further to cover food and flavor if it's a croissant.
3. Salt for flavor, particularly tasty smoked sea salt flakes.
4. A candle, rather than coal, for warmth. (We'll light the fire later).
5. Whisky, for good cheer, always in my husband's stock.

And for my luck-be-damned first footing, I added a blank sheet of paper, for all the creativity, possibility and art that the new year will hold.

Happy new year, Friends. May you be nourished, warm and cheerful as you welcome 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lights of Dublin

Ireland is renowned for the quality of its light: changeable and dramatic, the weather blows over the island from west to east rapidly. It sheds much of its Atlantic force by the time it reaches Dublin, yet even still it's a spectacle.  With brightness and cloud, the sky flickers like a zoetrope, and you can sit wrapt by a window for hours. The old adage "if you don't like the weather just wait five minutes" is nowhere truer than here. 

A rooftop view south, towards the Wicklow Mountains.

The manmade lights in Dublin can be just as dramatic.
Lower Leeson Street, late afternoon.
The introduction of public street lighting in Ireland's Georgian cities has been documented by historians of the era: enter the charming flicker of gas, the fretwork of iron holding gaslights aloft. Posts began to line the street, etching circles of warmth in the night. In affluent residences lanterns were braided into the metalwork of fences, or set in decorative metal archways above the gate.

Dublin's South Side, where I live, is also known as Georgian Dublin. The brick facades in my neighborhood create long flat streetscapes, simple blocks of a measurable width that may end in slightly varied heights all along the row, like steps against the cloudy bright sky. Paned windows punctuate the brick with rhythmic regularity. Doors are brightly painted, and fan windows above them glimpse the graceful chandeliers in the Entry Hall. There is a reverence for tradition even today, and twinkling behind those petals of glass are mostly classic chandeliers, brass and glass with sparkling electric candles. It is a bright, warm sight, this porch light from within.

The Olympia Theatre, Dublin. 

Buildings in the city center hold their own treasures. Grand lighting is characteristic of theaters and civic spaces, meant to inspire and humble. The chandeliers in the Victorian Olympia Theater foil the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling and balconies, richly decorated in red and gold, while those in the National Concert Hall hang from a classic whitewashed ceiling, but dazzle as you stand eye level with them on the mezzanine.

National Concert Hall, Dublin.
A relatively humble neoclassical building, the Central Post Office is still impressively lit: simple glass hemispheres large enough to bathe in are suspended from the coffered ceiling. The Masonic Lodge granted access to their secret chambers during a summer open house - lines snaked around the corner to get inside. The decoration throughout was thick with symbolism. A series of hardware and pendants in the main hall tickled my old fascination with the magical arts as well as my current obsession with the decorative arts.

Door knocker and pendant in Dublin's Masonic Lodge.
Some of the best lighting is to be found just outside the city, in the grand houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Castletown House is still the favorite, both for the preservation of its layers of decorative arts history and for the blissful day we had when we visited. (Call me fickle or call me Californian, but the weather can make it or break a trip. When the sun shines at these grand country estates the bath of color in the sky and greenery almost erase the memory of gray days of rain).

The house is a classic Palladian style manse, built in 1722 for a speaker of the Irish House of Commons. The Italian influence is charmingly evident in the rich umber color behind the colonnades, an earthy hue that brings striking warmth to the stone facade.

Castletown House, Co. Kildare.

Six Sided Hall Lantern.
You enter the tour not from the grand ascent of stairs central to the facade, overlooking an incredible expanse of green lawn and parkland beyond, but by the side hall, the servants axis running the width of the house. The hall houses a pair of exquisite reclining marble statues of the owners of the home, William Connolly and his lady Katherine Conyngham. Six sided lanterns hang from plaster florets in the barrel ceiling. Openwork banding and a scalloped crown frame the lanterns. The shadows from the metalwork pattern an otherwise plain barrel and guide the eye down its length.

The dim servants hall lets you out into the foyer and you will draw a deep breath. The  ceilings are high above checkerboard marble floors and windows food the space with clean light. The main staircase winds up from an adjacent room.

The original entry chandelier is no longer in place - the furnishings were sold off when the estate fell into disrepair, and were only later reassembled from auction by a devotee of the place - but one can imagine how it offset the incredible plasterwork the decorates the staircase, pulling the relief higher with dramatic shadow (more on that in another post.)

Murano Chandelier in the Long Gallery.
Perhaps the grandest space in Castletown House is the Long Gallery, an upper floor entertaining room and repository of a collection of classical artwork. A rich blue palette creates the backdrop for a riot of gold painted plasterwork and Pompeian decoration, fashionable at the time. A collection of marble busts line the walls, larger than life and ghostly in tone. Painted scenes edge the ceiling, including a demilune above the entrance depicting a scene of love.

Up amidst the pantheon near the ceiling are three Murano glass chandeliers. They are massive, frilled things, clear glass with blue and red detailing. The diameter of each must be near four feet. I could not help think of the logistics of getting this delicate trio over to Ireland from Italy in the late 18th century. It turns out they were shipped in pieces and artisans assembled the glass parts on site. Wonderfully detailed photos of the room exist, showing it fully furnished by the later lady of the house, Louisa Connolly.

A last tidbit I'll leave you with is the Casino Marino. This tiny treasure box is considered the finest example of neoclassical architecture in Europe, and is an absolute delight to tour. The guides are consummate scholars of their places, and completely enthusiastic about the architecture and history of them. I didn't find any exceptional hanging lights here, but rather was charmed by the windows. You'll see mysterious black panes in spots around the small facade. These false windows were necessary to uphold the strict symmetry demanded for William Chambers's Georgian folly. These lights are camouflaged from the inside, as if to say you never can trust an Irish sky.

Casino Marino.

Explore Dublin:
Castletown House
Casino Marino

Monday, September 7, 2015

Footprints: balancing travel with ecology

It's been ringing in my brain for years, and finally hit a pitch I can't tune out:

How can I ameliorate 
the minor devastation I wreak 
on this precious Earth?

Devastation may sound like an overstatement, but taking responsibility for how my choices impact the environment is one of my deepest values. Especially because nature is my deepest source of joy in Life.

Sunset on the High Sierra Trail, California. 2015

I've asked myself if carbon offsets are a good practice, or an easy penance that allows me to keep sinning. Is it better to focus on efficiency, waste reduction and living a simpler life? If I donate to one of the many charities that plant trees will my donation really become part of Earth's lungs?

The answer is: YES!

Since moving to Dublin in January my partner and I have traveled a lot, voraciously exploring the continent. It's so close! And the Ryanair flights are so cheap! I've been to Turkey, Scotland, the UK, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark thus far. I plan to be in Spain, Germany and the UK again before the year is out, at least. 

In truth, my 2015 mileage doesn't outstrip my 2007 carbon footprint, a year I spent ping ponging from LA to the east coast and Chicago monthly in a national management role. Maybe this year just feels bigger because I'm farther afield, and the pleasure of exploring Northern Europe is just so good!*

In the past I've supported groups that lobby or raise awareness, like the Sierra Club Foundation, Nature Conservancy and Rainforest Alliance. I'm not fiery enough to be a grassroots activist myself, so my approach has been to support a group that operates on a national or international basis. I defer to their expertise and become part of a formidable collective political power working on various environmental causes.  

This year I'm aiming to offset my impact more directly: Finding an efficient and effective carbon offset program engaged in reforestation. The amount of information on the web is daunting, and my fear of making the wrong choice is almost paralyzing.** The types of projects that fall under the offset umbrella range from biogas to providing efficient cookstoves to families in developing countries so they stop hacking down forests. Costs range widely, too. Your per ton cost can be $2.50 or $25.00. A publication by US based points out that offsets are a commodity, and "additional benefits, such as habitat preservation, sustainable development, etc., can increase the price of an offset because these additional benefits increase the quality of the surrounding environment and are generally more marketable."

Knowing that my donations are turned into specific actions is the next best thing to getting my hand dirty volunteering. Offsets in direct proportion to my air travel will be a big step. And I am one of many: what I do is what we do, and I am interested to see conservation become a shared practice. We, collectively, can do better, right?

    Recyling Center in Zheijang province, China. (Reuters/Stringer).

Here are some things I'm doing to live a simpler life and mind my consumption:

  • Public Transit. It turns out train and bus is totally fun. If I do have to rent a car I'm not going solo: road trips are in groups or I rideshare.
  • Biking. For the first time in my adult life I am not sucking petroleum for a daily commute. I sold my car when I left the US. (Yes, it was a Prius.) It feels great to be in a city unarmored.
  • Urban Recycling:  Every town is differently supported, and it's taken a little research to maximize Dublin's system for household waste.***
  • The "Bring Bank". Baffling in a town that consumes more beer than water, I can't recycle glass at home. So I walk glass to the local bottle bank. Turns out I can also bring clothing and textiles. It's not convenient, but I feel good doing it, and it's nice excuse to take a walk.
  • Making my own. Buying raw ingredients to make my own nut butters, dressings and trail snacks rather than defaulting to individually packaged goods means there is far less to recycle.
  • Pausing on Purchasing. Purging my possessions to move countries has helped make me more selective in what I acquire. So has the price of imports to Ireland. Asking how badly I need it, how long I'll use it, or if I can get it used are all good practices.
  • Second-hand. Who doesn't love treasure hunting at a charity shop? I buy second hand goods whenever I can. I've cut that down, too. I haven't bought a new dress or cute shoes just for something "new" to wear every month. 
Train platform, Norway.

There are dozens of tiny things I still do that kind of suck: I drink coffee (and not always Fair Trade organic in my commuter mug). My Pink Lady apples come from a much sunnier country. We have four laptops in my two-person household. The point is progress. I am committed to making a positive impact and foregoing some "conveniences" for the sake of a richer living experience.

I'd love to hear what you're up to in the comments, too.

California apple orchard.

*There are some great carbon calculators on line that will estimate the tonnage of flights, households, and operating a car. Check out or to see what you weigh.

**Sites like Charity Navigator shows how much of the donation an organization receives actually go to its stated mission, and help you see if your money is actually where your mouth wants it to be.

***I've annoyed housemates, coworkers and innocent ride-sharers by asking them what they're doing for (or to) the environment. It turns out some people have different priorities. This year I'm working on a more convincing argument as well as on tolerance. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Wayfinding: a tour of trailmarkings in eight countries.

We take it for granted that the path will reveal itself as we continue on our way. The exit for the 405 south, the entrance to the supermarket, the blinking person on the sign across the road that beckons us to a safe crossing.

This past August I followed a series of signifiers over 75 km of Norwegian plateau still heavily patched with snow from a hard winter and a very late summer. With the map and compass in my partner’s pocket, I found myself looking ahead, always, for the bright red capital T painted on cairns to confirm the route.
Wayfinding on the Hardanger plateau, Norway.

It was like a game of leapfrog: stood at the edge of a snowfield with one red T just behind me, I’d scan the horizon for the next outcropping the minions of the DNT had tucked into the landscape. Sometimes the red vibrated clearly, especially when the sun was bright behind us. Sometimes the silhouette of artfully arranged rocks was obvious on the ridge. Sometimes I walked forward and scoured the landscape before me, feeling gravity loosen just a bit until I sighted the next marker, and hove my steps to it.

Hiking has long been a part of my life, and this year I’ve had the chance to follow trails in a host of new places. Particularly wet and boggy places, since I’m living in Ireland, and places prone to long-lying snow, since my partner and I have indulged our fascination with the Nordic countries.

Having found my mountain legs in the rocky arid US west the northern European terrain has felt alien at times. The environmental challenges have changed my routine, from the foul weather gear I’ve added to my kit to the measured high-stepping gait I’ve developed to stay balanced on slippery bog grass.

These places also presented me with different conventions of the trail. I had 75 km of Norwegian highlands to muse on the different trail markers I’ve seen. Trail signs have to respond to seasonal changes in weather and terrain, so they tell the hiker about the natural world they’re in. They’re likely to be more elaborate in well-used areas, which says something about how valued the space is to those who use it. They’re also cultural markers: the choices of color, material, and pictures, symbol or word all tell something about the people who’ve put them there and the people who find them.

1. ITALY: 

I found this marker on one of my first hikes abroad, in the Abruzzi region of Italy. It felt comfortably close to my home country, dry and warm like California. Trail markers were low to the ground: no threat of bracken growing over them in the Mediterranean climate. The hills were worn into soft shapes and I could hear bells on the livestock in the distance beyond the trees. I found a few shells and wondered at the age of the hills and distance to the sea. The numbers and letters suggest an interconnected system of trails. (I promise to update the location and trail system when I’m reunited with my journals back in the States).

Near Arles, France.

Outside of Arles we followed this little climber stenciled onto the stones toward a famous mesa where Van Gogh painted. The light of the south of France is as intoxicating as they say and I was driven to tears by the landscape. The jetlag and lack of sleep may also have played a part. Standing in the sun I was bathed in gratitude at being in such an amazing place, and filled with frustration at being so exhausted. At this time I’d yet to try rock climbing. I can only imagine what a day at the crag would be like, followed by a rustic meal and a glass of the local crop.


I have a deep appreciation for the ethos of conservation that is so strong in the western United States, and the way that wildlands are celebrated. My parents took us on summer camping trips in the National Parks as children. We earned junior ranger status for attending ranger talks and making sure camps were litter free. The rusticated Civilian Conservation Corps look is inextricably linked to the outdoors for me. Trail signs in California often express the graphic palette laid out in the 1930s by workers given relief jobs building the National Parks during the depression. The NPS was rolled out just in time to preserve lands that would otherwise be rapidly eaten by industrial concerns and general urban sprawl.

Almost to the peak of San Jacinto in Palm Springs, California.

I have hiked hundreds of miles in California. Ironically, I have few of snapshots of the blazes and small tree badges that dot the High Sierra Trail, a 75 mile trek from Sequoia to Mount Whitney that I completed last fall. The HST shares intersections with the John Muir Trail, and the sign-posted junctions felt like celebrations. Not least was the junction pointing us to Guitar Lake, where we'd camp for a night before finishing the hike by summitting Mount Whitney.

On the HST I'd noticed blazes notched into the bark, rectangles atop each other that to me looked like a letter i. I learned later that a whole language of blazes commonly used in North America indicates turnings, intersections, and the start and finish of a trail. These blazes are soft in the landscape, and done properly, are meant not to harm the flesh of the tree.

Blazes commonly used in North American.


I picked up the Baden Powell trail in a suburban neighborhood of West Vancouver. Signage on the sidewalk points you to an address on Panorama Drive to pick up the main trail, and gives you the history of the trail. It was built in 1971 by the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to mark BC's centennial.

Once amongst the trees a reflective triangular badge dotted the trees, whether standing or fallen. It was much like hiking in the Sierra in California. The trees lent themselves to service. The bright orange badge was always visible in the forest dim, and flashed in the sun. A blue fleur de lis insignia and letters BP kept the builders in mind the whole way.

Walking Deeside, near Aberdeen.

The UK has an extensive system of trails that wend through the countryside, some of which have been in use for hundreds of years. The awesomely named right to roam preserves access to private lands for walking. Coming from California I wince a bit when I see one of these paths. Having long heard outrageous debates about public access to beaches in Malibu I'm given to believe that private property trumps roaming back home, and suspect you might be shot. In the British countryside you’ll come across an odd alley-let snug to the side of someone’s back garden, and yes, you are meant to traipse upon it. I’m sure whomever is enjoying the afternoon sunshine doesn’t want to see my scruffy head bobbing along the fence. Perhaps this is a misperception, and in fact they secretly celebrate my roaming.

On a July holiday weekend I drove from Glasgow to the Isle of Skye. The signs on the roadside pointed up the valley toward the Cuillin ridge. Hiking high was steep and rocky. I hitched up with a pair of German women for an afternoon of high stepping near the Storr. On moors the path underfoot was hard to find at times, with thick heather and bog grasses carpeting the land. I had my first site of the white tufts of bog cotton and the purplish glow of heather on Skye. After repeated hard tracking black mud bares itself in spots, and water catches where the plantlife had been tramped down. So different from the bare dry rock of California, I learned in time to distinguish this muddy track as the path.

Isle of Skye, Scotland.


Most of the time when I'm hiking in the Wicklows it's raining, because that's what Ireland does. Hence I seldom pull out a camera. The shot below, taken on Silsean facing Moanbane, was a rare clear spring day.

A good day out in the Wicklow Mountains, Dublin.

I've encountered postings that mark the boundary of the Wicklow area, and a summit marker on our highest peak, Lugnaquilla (it tops out at 925 meters.) Because the flora is low lying and the bare hills leave nothing hidden, the path will show itself on a good day. But as with most mountains, the high peak can create its own weather. Both times I've hiked Lugnaquilla I've had horrid rain, hail and snow, and the visibility plummeted. That sage advice about carrying a map and compass apply. It would be easy to get lost and caught out in bad weather.


The trek started with one foot ankle deep in seawater. After disembarking the skiff we made a harried dash over seaweed tangling on rocky shore to find the cut upland to the pass. The wind was howling and we knew the visibility – and temperatures – were decreasing at the pass high above Vedileysifjordur. We hurried to get the best of the weather we could. Hunkered into my windproof hood I barely noticed the staves of wood springing up from the boggy terrain. In dry conditions the weather-bleached wood was beautiful. I snapped this one on a hill above our camp in Kerlingarfjöll on a stunning afternoon with glacier vistas and jersey-cow snow plains below.

Trail marker in Kerlingarfjöll , Iceland.

On higher ground ways were marked by massive cairns taller than a man. A guide to the Appalachian Trail notes that “rock cairns can identify a route above treeline and where snow and fog may obscure painted blazes.” These highland routes were used by Icelandic travelers on horse for hundreds of years to make their way through the interior to the annual congress near thingfellir. When we needed to stop we’d often hunker behind the friendly stone hives to block the wind. At times even these dark mounds were swallowed by fog. I was always happy to see them rise out again.


These were not random artful piles of rocks but a nudge to move in a specific direction. The DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, has earned their good reputation. In addition to an amazing network of trails for summer hiking and cross country skiing, the DNT maintain a series of mountain huts which are truly blessed outposts when the weather turns foul. In our case, we simply wanted an easy night and the chance to dry our boots after a 20 mile day from our camp just after Stavali to our final hut at Tyssevassbu.

Signposts in Norway point to mountain huts.

The Norwegian mountain huts are justly famed. Stocked with basic provisions and dorm lodging, they function on an honor system. Caretakers stay for spells at some of the huts, but payment for day use and amenities are made by filling out a credit card slip with what you used and sliding it into a safe near the door.

We stopped at Tørehytten on our long day to see if we could rustle a cup of coffee, and shared conversation with a Norwegian man who takes up residence in a hut for three weeks every summer. He was as stocked as the pantry with information about the trail and the landscape, and was keen to trade stories about other travelers and hear where they'd been. He gave us a rundown on the trail users: mostly German, lots of Europeans, and very rarely an American. I was the first one he'd met in two years.

When we were on our way he mentioned that the rivers should mostly be passable by snowbridge, and pulled out a guidebook to give us an estimate of the next leg of our hike. There's nothing like local knowledge when you're finding your way.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Customer Service, par excellence.

Never underestimate the power of customer service.

Due to the morphing and merging of SBC (remember them?!) with Yahoo (the dream of the 90s is alive and well) who were then subsumed by AT&T (big fish eat the little ones), which was wholly and completely dwarfed by the total domination of Google, I've been unable to access my blog platform since I arrived in Ireland earlier this year.

Of course, I no longer have an AT&T account, since it was cancelled when I left the US to move to Ireland, and the interweb in its ineluctable genius keeps nudging me towards .ie websites (and really horrid British sitcoms on Netflix, and also I can't download the free iTunes that Starbuck's offers weekly, dammit, and today it was Jose Gonzalez who I just LOVE!)

Luckily I still have records of my account information and, at least for today, an uncharacteristic store of patience. Approximately 57 minutes of that patience were spent with Janine in the Philippines. She was positively tickled to help me sort out my passwords, and I was frankly amazed that at the end of it I once again have access this silly little diary that I so love to ramble in.

So, big thanks to Janine. And welcome to Dublin. It is very good to be here.