Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Loss

It was my travel companion, being second only to my wife on accompanying me around the world.

I bought it in 1996, possibly 1995, at Eddie Bauer in the Bayshore Shopping Centre. Having a profound hatred for umbrellas, to the point that I'd rather get soaked than to hold one or walk with someone trying to shelter me, I felt that I needed to protect my head, not only from precipitation but from harsh sunshine and ultraviolet light.

The hat, I thought, had to be all-weather. Light enough to breathe but hardy enough to protect me from all but the coldest elements. I don't like cowboy hats but realized that their shape was the most practical to do the job, and when I found the light-brown, felt expedition hat, I knew that it was my best choice. I didn't really care for its appearance, but I bought it nonetheless, perhaps too because the sale price made it compelling.

I have a large head. I take a 7 1/2-inch band size. It's very hard to find a hat that fits me, unless the hat is adjustable, like a ball cap. The Eddie Bauer hat that I found was sitting in the clearance section, perhaps because many people get lost in an extra-large hat. Again, I saw the hat, it fit, I liked the price, and I took it.

One of my earliest memories of the hat is walking near the Alexandra Bridge, near the National Gallery, and I was becoming cross with my wife, who kept trying to pull my hat tighter on my head, for fear that the wind would blow it off. I was cross because I don't like people touching my head or anything on my head, and also because I had already pulled the hat down on my head and it wasn't going anywhere.

There was no strap for the hat, but I could make it snug by pulling down on it.

Korea 1998
I wore that hat to Korea, used it to shelter myself from the humid sun, to keep my hair dry during the rainy season. It accompanied me throughout Southeast Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore, to Beijing and Thailand.

When my family and I trekked, by canoe, through the Rideau Lakes system, from Kingston to Ottawa, that hat sheltered me from sunburns and kept the one day of rain from being more miserable than it could have been.

So when I travelled with my family to Arizona, it was no surprise that I left Ottawa with my expedition hat firmly on my head, kept it on my lap on the flight, and made sure that it was always in our rental car, in case we found ourselves pulling over and exploring, and I would need reliable protection from the sun.

As I climbed Camelback Mountain, the hat was with me every step of the way. At the summit, I remarked on how long I had had that hat, and while I had aged for the worse, the hat looked almost as good as it had the day that I first bought it, despite the leather band having been exposed to sun, heat, cold, snow, and rain.

If only I had aged as well.

God, I'm getting fat.
Even though I was sheltered from the sun in the Lower Antelope Canyon, I kept the hat on my head to keep any sand that blew into the abyss from settling in my hair. My hat was my silent but helpful travel companion.

No matter how big you imagine the Grand Canyon to be, no matter how many images you see, your brain is unable to fully comprehend how vast and how deep it actually is until you stand on the edge of it and witness it first-hand. To see some clifftops on the northern rim, and realize that you could be looking 10 miles or more is indescribable. Somewhere, in between, the long Colorado River flows westward. When you can see it through the gap, not only are you looking at a body of water that is several miles away, but also another mile below you.

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring site.

My wife became separated from me and the kids when she discovered that her sunglasses were missing, left behind in the visitor center. She told us to go on, to take the shuttle bus to the westernmost end of the Rim Trail, that she would look for her glasses and explore around Mather Point, would meet with us in the parking lot in a couple of hours.

It took longer than we expected to get out to the Hermit Trail point and we walked back to the second-last bus stop. It wasn't a long hike, only a half mile, and the girls and I stopped only a handful of times, taking a couple of minutes, at most, to take photos.

At one stop, as I knelt down and changed lenses, a gust of wind snuck up behind me and knocked my hat from my head. It landed on the opposite side of my camera bag, that lay at my knees, and I managed to grab it before the wind could carry it further. I returned it to my head, pulling down to make it snug. The next gust of wind did its best to dislodge the hat from my head, to no avail.

Return buses came, but because the afternoon was drawing to a close, few passengers got off, and we were unable to get on. Several visitors were ahead of us, and were complaining about the lack of buses with space, but after about 20 minutes or so, we made our way onto the bus and made our way to the end of that route, where we were to transfer onto a second bus that would return us to the visitor center.

With less than a minute before we reached this transfer point, my youngest daughter became ill and vomited in the aisle of the bus. Again, when she got off, she was sick again at the edge of the trail. I gave her water to rinse her mouth, and we waited a few minutes for her to recover and feel that she could continue. The lineup at the transfer point was long, and we weren't sure that we would get on the next bus anytime soon, so we started to walk toward our rendezvous spot.

We were more than an hour late with meeting my wife, but my daughter was feeling much better. When a bus came along, we decided to get on it to speed our return. But it was not to be. Shortly after we were underway, the bus began to experience problems: the air compressor that closes the rear door was failing, and even though the doors would close after someone got off, the compressor would not fully engage, meaning that even though the bus was running and in gear, the brakes would not disengage and allow us to move. The driver would open and close the doors several times before the problem would solve itself and we could move, but it happened every time someone exited by the rear doors. (Being at the front, I suggested to the driver that she make everyone exit by the front door, but she wouldn't listen to me.)

It was an hour and a half later than we planned, when we finally found my wife, chilled, and not pleased, waiting at the bus stop. The sun had set, the winds had picked up, and the temperature was dropping steadily. I was the only one with a set of car keys and the visitor center had closed. Tired and cold, she wanted to leave the park immediately, but when the kids complained that they needed to use the washroom and wanted to wash off the meager remnants of vomit from their hands, shirts, and shoes, my wife saw the glow from the canyon and said that she would take her camera to capture images while I waited for the girls. She would meet me at Mather Point.

The girls took a long time to clean up, and I was afraid that there would be no light left for me to capture the canyons. When they did emerge from the washroom, my first instinct was to abandon the plan, to get them in the car and bring it close to the canyon, where we could pick up their mother. But the photographer in me told me that this was probably going to be my last visit to the Grand Canyon, and that I would never have an opportunity to capture the sunset here again.

The wind was becoming worse, blowing all sorts of debris about. It had become too dark to keep my sunglasses on my face, and at first I placed them on the brow of my hat, but then I remembered that the wind had once knocked my hat off; should that happen again, I didn't want my sunglasses to hit the ground and get scratched. I attached them to my camera bag, pulled my hat firmly against my head, and went in search of DW.

Even though the sun had dipped below the horizon, warm light still flooded the canyon. The red layers of soil stood out across the chasm and a few clouds reflected pinks and purples. Many visitors stood along the edges to admire the beauty of the landscape. I looked for my wife but could not see her in the crowds.

I moved to the edge and took some photos while my kids, at my sides, scanned the crowd for their mother. As I snapped, I moved along the railing that protected people from tumbling over the edge. Few places along the Rim Trail offer this barrier, but considering the number of people who throng to this spot, it was no surprise.

Not finding my wife, I surmised that she may have already taken her shots and had returned to the last spot that she saw me. I told the girls that we were going to head back, and I was just about to turn to leave, but thought that I would take one last photo.

As I lifted my camera to my face, the wind, which was nearly at a gale, which may have pushed some people over the edge, had the barriers not been there, violently grabbed my hat and flung it into the abyss.

My first reaction was to dive after my hat, to make a last-ditch effort to rescue my loyal travel companion. Perhaps that is another reason that the barriers were in place: to prevent people from suffering the fate of lost objects.

The brain does not fully comprehend the depth of the Grand Canyon until you witness it with your own eyes. But even then, it does not understand that depth until it sees an object move away, get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, seemingly fall without end.

When the hat was taken from me and blown beyond my reach, spinning, level, like a Frisbee, not tumbling but floating further away, my first reaction was a cry out, which made bystanders also gasp, perhaps out of fear that a life had been lost. Some saw the hat, remarked on it; others made an uh-oh sound; a few laughed at my misfortune.

My Eddie Bauer expedition hat was gone. How far it fell, I'll never know. Whether anyone would someday stumble upon it, I can't tell. But it was now on its own journey, separate from mine, possibly in its final resting place.

"Farewell, old friend," I cried out to it, before it faded from sight, "you have served me well."

I have a new hat. I found it in a shop in La Jolla, San Diego, California. It's a felt expedition hat, a darker brown than my old hat, with a tan leather band. The brim is wider, does not naturally turn up, like my old hat, which is perhaps a boon: when it rained, I had to periodically bow my head to let the water that had accumulated pour out, before it soaked through. This brim slopes down so that no water gathers.

My wife likes this hat better. She says it fits my face better. My face is bigger than it was 20 years ago and I have to agree: my Eddie Bauer hat seemed to look smaller on me than it had in the past.

My new hat and I will have new experiences to share. We've already explored San Diego together, wandered the USS Midway and enjoyed some craft beer. It protected my head from the sand at Coronado Beach and the snow and freezing rain when I finally returned to Ottawa.

I will never forget my old hat and the memories that it brings. But the new hat is fitting in well. If I can get 20 years out of this one, I'll feel lucky.

Who knows? Maybe it will even outlast me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts on Phoenix

I always thought that a mythological bird that was constantly regenerating was kind of cool. The phoenix, rising from the ashes, seemed indestructible. Perpetual renewal, while remaining itself to its very core.

The Arizona city, on the other hand, is a very different creature, and while there appears to be constant growth, the city seems to spread without any true core. And within Phoenix, the heat does burn.

Phoenix seems to comprise several suburbs, including Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe, Glendale, Chandler, Goodyear, and Litchfield Park. The heart of Phoenix, which seems to house the area's only multi-storied buildings, takes a small section of real estate that is surrounded by highways 10 and 17. It's a fraction of the size of Ottawa's Centretown region, with fewer tall buildings.

The suburbs, to me, seem to take the same layout of small, single-storied buildings (a few have two levels) on street blocks that are sheltered by palm and other trees that try to conceal the existence of structures. I found it difficult to tell the difference between Mesa and Scottsdale, between Gilbert and Chandler. And the sprawl is so vast that it seemed like it took a half an hour, or more, to drive anywhere.

Luckily, we were in Phoenix to visit family, and for the first four days, that's exactly what we did. DW's brother lives in Goodyear, on the far-west side of Phoenix, not far from Luke Air Force Base, from which we could see F-16 fighter jets taking off. On our first day, as our girls were adjusting from the time shift and from a late flight, they hung out with their cousins while my brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and eldest nephew took us on a drive around the neighbourhood to give us a lay of the land. We also stopped at Verrado Trail, where we got our first taste of the Arizona desert landscape.

It was my first photo opportunity, so I took it.

Our second full day put our bodies to the test, as we climbed Camelback Mountain. What DW and I thought would be a leisurely hike became a challenging excursion, as we negotiated rocks and steep climbs. At the two-third to three-quarter mark toward the summit, my wife and I both felt like giving up, but her brother, a fit Scouts leader, urged us on.

Our fears, once we reached the summit, turned towards the descent, but at least the view was breathtaking.

I have to hand it to my brother-in-law. He got us to push ourselves and he brought the tools for our return to the base of the hill—walking sticks. Without one to lean on, I doubt I would have made it down in one piece.

Lessons learned were to not carry my full camera bag—to only take what I needed for the day—and to make sure we carried enough water. The dry Arizona heat is a killer.

It took a full day to recover from the climb up and down Camelback Mountain, but we filled our time with a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum, some shopping, dining, and relaxing in the backyard swimming pool.

Phoenix is not one of my favourite cities. I don't like the layout, how it's spread so far when it could be built up without obscuring the mountainous landscape. For me, the main attraction is family. Without them, I doubt that I would ever consider returning. 

On our fifth day in Arizona, we said goodbye to my brother-in-law's family and headed north, almost to the Utah border, where we turned more to the photography element of our trip. Page is a small town with an almost alien landscape, and it is home to a photographer's Mecca: the Antelope Canyons and Horseshoe Bend.

For tomorrow's Wordless Wednesday, I'll take you through a hallowed site, where I was led by a Navajo guide on a journey of colour and shapes, and a peace that emanates throughout.

Stay tuned...

Monday, March 28, 2016

AZ to SoCal

I told my wife and kids that I had three objectives for our vacation: family, photography, and beer.

I fulfilled all three spectacularly.

We have been talking about going to Arizona for years. My brother, and his family, live there; my wife's brother and his family, also live there. Both live in the Phoenix area—one lives to the far west, along Highway 10, which eventually ends in Los Angeles: the other to the southeast of the city core, also not far from Hwy 10, where it runs southeast, toward Casa Grande, and eventually, Tucson. On the map, they appear to be not very far from one another; in reality, they are a vast distance.

Everything is far away when you live in the Phoenix area.

As I said, we've wanted to see our family, where they live, for years, but personally, I have never been keen on going to Arizona. I don't like excessive heat. I don't like cowboys (unless they're in movies that include Clint Eastwood). I don't like the gun mentality. But in our research to head to the American West, I discovered that Arizona is a photographer's oasis, that the craft-beer industry had ballooned, much like it has in the Ottawa area, but on a larger scale.

Everything's bigger in America.

My wife and I decided that we would spend time with our kin and their families, but that we would also explore the state and take as many photos as our data cards could hold. And I would have every opportunity to visit breweries and pubs that served local beer.

And so I was sold.

This vacation would have three objectives: family, photos, and beer.

When I returned from my family vacation through France, many of my social-media friends said that they wanted me to share the experience. Extended family members also wanted to know about our trip, and so for a few weeks, I blogged about that vacation and it was well-received.

I'd like to do that again.

If you want to follow the ride—after the fact—stay tuned. I won't go into this trip day-by-day, as I practically did with my France vacation, but I'll share the highlights. I also won't share a lot of family time, as that is intended just for my family, and I've already shared that aspect with them on Facebook.

This vacation took us around many areas in Phoenix, but also all the way north, near the Utah border, to the Navajo region of Page, to the Grand Canyon, to Flagstaff and historic Route 66, to Sedona, to Tucson, and back to Phoenix. We also ventured further west, to Southern California, where we explored the beaches and neighbourhoods of San Diego.

If you like beer and are interested in hearing about my brewery experiences, I will share a little on this blog, but I am working on a larger, beer-centric post for my Beer O'Clock blog. Check there later in the week.

Interested in the Brownfoot Road Trip of 2016? We pull out tomorrow.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Photo Friday: Winter Sunset on Fallowfield

I can't stop here often: it's too dangerous.

The rush-hour traffic is endless. It can be easy enough to pull over to the wide shoulder, though in winter, it can be a sliding halt. Getting out of the car, I have to keep my wits about me, just in case a driver isn't on the ball.

I have to know exactly what I'm going to do before I leave the safety of my car. I can't linger. Set up my camera, get out of the car, take a couple of shots, and get back in.

Merging back into traffic is the biggest challenge, as the cars move at a steady pace and there are few gaps in between. But I watch, start rolling along the shoulder, and ease in when I'm up to speed.

I can't do it often. Someday, it may not go so smoothly.

But so far, it's been worth it.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Off Guard

I heard the voice from behind me, heard the name called out toward me. The name wasn't mine, but the voice was beckoning me.


Roland... now that's a name I haven't heard in a long time. A long time.

I turned, slowly, to face the woman. When our eyes met, there was no immediate recognition. Maybe, the eyes were familiar. And the face rang a distant bell, but I couldn't be sure. For the moment, all I could tell was that this person knew me from one place, and one place only.

It had been just over six years since I had been there, almost 12 years since I first ventured in that establishment. I immediately thought of my last time there, of my fall from grace, of my hasty departure.

She had used my false name, had obviously not known about my exposure.

I smiled, but my eyes gave away that I couldn't place her face.

"It's me, Shannon." She added the name of the pub, as if to help me remember.

She looked different. Longer hair, dyed to a deep brunette. Her face seemed fuller, though she was still a beautiful woman. It had been about 10 years since I last saw her, perhaps four years since she had crossed my mind (I remembered her when I wrote about my time, playing the part of my fictional character, Roland Axam).

"Shannon," I exclaimed, the Scottish accent coming in rough, from years without practice. Though, in truth, her name was easy to enunciate, despite my rusty brogue.

"You haven't changed a bit," she smiled, and embraced me in a warm hug.

"You're too kind," I said, sheepishly. "I'm fatter than ever and the grey hair keeps coming in. But you look great. I didn't recognize you with your hair. And it's been so long."

Shannon was the first person in the pub to meet Roland, to learn of his history. She's the one who introduced me to the regular patrons, with whom, in time, Roland got to know quite well. Shannon was the first person to hear Roland's tragic tale, but she had left the pub long before the secret was out, that Roland was fictional in all but appearances.

Obviously, she didn't know that everyone in the bar had learned that I was not Roland, that I had been running an experiment, and that I had hurt a lot of people.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. We were in suburbia, in my home turf, not Roland's. Roland had lived in a place on the shores of Big Rideau Lake; later, after Shannon had moved on, Roland had bought a condo on Rideau Street, on the fringe of the Byward Market. The last place one would expect to run into Roland would be in the Barrhaven LCBO.

I had no stories prepared. I had no practiced lies. It was just me. "I live out here now," I said. "And you?"

"I live here, too. Married." She held up the ringed finger, as evidence. "How about you?"

"Same." I refrained from holding up my hand. It was gloved, anyway. "I married in 2009." I pulled the date from when I was frequenting the bar, when Roland had been involved in a long-distance relationship, crafted to avoid the advances of one of the pub employees, who had started developing feelings for my fictional counterpart.


"Two. Daughters. You?"

"A boy," was her response. "Sam is five."

"That's great, I'm happy for you."

"Same here, Roland. You deserve to be happy."


I wanted to get out of this conversation. While it was nice to see an old friend doing well, she really wasn't my friend: she was Roland's friend. And in my mind, Roland was dead, at least, he was in the real world. When I walked out of that bar, more than six years ago, it had been the last time that I pretended to be my fictional character. The fact that I could recall his voice (though, not his soft tone) so quickly surprised me, but I didn't want to continue it.

And now, I have learned that Shannon lives in my neighbourhood. Need I be cautious? I had been taken off-guard, had miraculously pulled it together and recovered, but would I always be so lucky?

What did it matter? She knew Roland for only a couple of years, and at that, only off-and-on over that time. We had been friends, but had never been as close as the others, who now knew of my deception. If I saw her again, I would smile, maybe wave, but be aloof. We would gradually become strangers to one another again.

"It was nice to see you, Shannon. Take care." I walked toward the craft beer aisle without looking back.

Hopefully, closing that chapter in Roland's story.