Some things never change, and that’s OK with me. Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much love every convenience this modern world has to offer, specially if it makes everyday life a little easier to bear. But even when modernity rules the day in the cities, I can’t help but find it refreshing to know that some things out there in the “real world” don’t ever change much. In America we may not have the incredible ancient ruins you will find all over Europe, but one thing we have over all those Europeans is a good, old-fashioned county fair. Not sure whether it is just nostalgia or something a bit deeper than that, but for this humble photographer, a country-flavored county fair just does the trick every time. Cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep, you name it and I want to see it all. Thick, fluffy corndogs, cotton candy, and pulled-pork sandwiches? Can I get an Aaamen?
However, no matter how much some of us love these county fairs, the sad reality is that for most city folks, their existence doesn’t even register on their life radars. I mentioned the ongoing Loudon County Fair to some folks recently and their reaction was tantamount to me offering them to join me for Typhus injections. They’ve all been to them, but that was back then, way back then. After all, are they not primarily for children? Well, yes and no, even if for most grownups it does bring out the inner child in them. And who would like to ride on an old, clunky ferris wheel when you can go ride air conditioned gondolas on a mega-structure like the London Eye? Well, call me sentimental, but yours truly does.
Above all, I really like the people I meet at a county fair. Hard-working, approachable folks who are an incredible source of information about anything having to do with raising farm animals and bringing them to market. And they put their children to work, big time. No cell phones or video games for these kids when work needs to be done, and there’s never a shortage of work at a farm. After several hours of conversation, education, and stuffing my face with things my doctor would cringe at, I found the whole thing to be quite a welcomed break from the city-sleeker habitat I call home these days. Better? Not necessarily, but it really felt good to get some “mud on my boots” for a change.
I think our parents were up to something when they hauled the entire family into their vintage cars for the purpose of doing a little road tripping. And as rare as it sounds today, the habit of going out for a family ride in those old cars was one of the things some of us remember fondly from our youth. No agenda, no plans, and no particular destination in mind. Cruising around to check out what was happening in town had its own rewards. It was pure automobile zen. Right turns, left turns, slow down here and speed up over there, an unchoreographed dance where everyone’s performance became the stuff of family legends.
This sort of nostalgia is what led me recently to get in my car and hit the road, so to speak. All I knew was that I would drive down Virginia’s Route 50 for as long as I felt like it and that at some point I would perform a Forrest Gump-like turnaround and come back home. So along I went, music playing on the radio, windows down, and no destination. With my camera sitting next to me, I did tell myself that I would stop at whatever site caught my attention, even if it took all day to complete my journey. I knew this would be a problem because Route 50 is one of the most scenic country roads you’ll encounter anywhere in the US. But here was a unique opportunity to try out some of that “slow travel” concept that the Europeans have mastered so well over the years. Would it really be possible to do away with all notions of time while driving into the sunset of our minds? Well, the short answer seems to be no, but if it’s impossible to do away with that old torturer time, it is definitely possible to ignore it for a while.
Route 50 may just be the perfect place for this. And while I’ve written about this area before, the sheer beauty of this American landmark makes it the place you keep coming back to, over and over again. Hard to think of a better place in the area for a road trip, although admittedly, Route 211 past the town of Warrenton comes close. BBQ’s and horse farms are big in the area, as well as quaint, little towns where you can find everything from Amish patio furniture to Alpaca socks. But it’s the landscape that will make you forget all notions of time for a while. The green meadows just seem to go on forever until they reach the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, while happy horses graze on grass so green that it looks as if it has been painted recently. It is easy to loose yourself in this scenery and the delicate touch of a morning breeze. Who knows, perhaps it is possible to make time stand still after all, even if for that brief moment when nothing else mattered but what was in front our my eyes.
They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape. Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction. And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods. The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.
This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it. And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the city after all.
Out of nowhere, magic. That is perhaps the best description of my recent trip to a place I barely knew existed less than a week ago. But all that changed thanks to a phone call from my photographer friend Mark, who during the course of our recent conversation, casually asked whether I would be interested in joining a group of local photographers during a Bald Eagle photography outing. Now, I am not a nature photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of observing Bald Eagles at their James River winter habitat while cruising down the river on an old pontoon boat before the sun even came out, was simply too much for me to resist. So, away I went at 4:00 AM to meet the group of photographers at the Deep Bottom Park boat ramp, which appropriately enough lies at the end of the Deep Bottom Road to the south-east of Richmond, Virginia.
Little did I know that by the end of this otherwise normal morning I was to experience one of the most magical spectacles nature has to offer anywhere in the world. It is far too easy for those of us who live in an urban environment where concrete and shopping malls rule the day, to forget that day after day, moment after moment, and in spite of mankind’s ingratitude towards it, nature continues to remind us of the simple beauty of our planet and the irreplaceable feeling of being alive. The pale, orange light of a morning sun, the gentle flow of a mighty river, and the first, hesitant sounds of nature’s first hours on a new day. And all under the watchful eye of ospreys and eagles sitting majestically above the tree tops waiting their turn to glide as in a choreographed dance in search of prey near the surface of the mighty river down below. Life begins and ends in rivers like the James. In between these two realities, a great spectacle always takes place. Battles are won and lost, the sun rises and the sun sets, there is silence and there is sound, and above all, there is life. I may never become a nature photographer, but this short trip down the James River surely made me understand why these photographers would not have it any other way. It is indeed food for the soul.
A short bus ride from Locarno (Bus #1) along the shores of Lago Maggiore sits the sleepy town of Ascona, Switzerland–a lakeshore town for which there are simply not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe it. A major tourist destination during the warm summer months, it dramatically slows down the moment the days begin to shorten and the wet, cool days of fall begin to appear before the winter snow. Depending on your climatic preferences, this may be a good or a bad thing, but for this tired traveler, fall is the perfect time to wander along the Alpine wonderlands like Ascona. Empty cobblestone streets, incredible restaurants tugged away along the winding, narrow streets, and friendly locals not worn out by the endless masses of tourists from the summer months. It is the slow life at its best, and it feeds something in us that never gets much attention during our busy, everyday lives.
For most people like me, places like Ascona are the stuff we generally view through movies or old postcards. They are indeed “the road less traveled,” too detached from our daily lives, too remote, and somewhat off the front pages of most travel guides. Mention Tuscany to anyone and you will sure get a smile and the usual “I’d love to go there.” Mention Ascona (or Locarno for that matter) and most likely what you’ll get is a “where’s that?” type of response. Can’t blame anyone for not being familiar with the place, for after a nearly six-hour train from Geneva followed by a 20-minute bus ride from Locarno, I can fully understand why this place is not on people’s everyday radar. It certainly was not in mine, but once I discovered, I couldn’t help but think that I should have placed places like this much higher in my to-do travel list. With a local population of just over 5,000 people (2008 figures), this Locarno municipality is not the kind of place you would visit if late-night revelry is your kind of thing. But if you are a writer, or a creative artist, then this is certainly the place for you, specially during the off-summer months. It is a place for leisure walks and self-renewal, in town or beyond its borders in the Centrovalli (100 valleys) area. But one word of warning: once you’ve visited Ascona, you will never be the same. The mere thought that places like this actually exist in this world at all is enough to take your wanderlust to a new, stratospheric level. And no matter how much time it takes to get to this quiet, romantic shore, it will definitely be worth every tired, aching step on anyone’s journey.
Nearly ten years ago I had the pleasure of driving near Locarno, Switzerland on my way to Lucerne, it’s more popular neighbor to the north. At the time I remember being so fascinated with the landscape that I promised myself that one day I would return to visit Locarno and its surrounding areas. Well, here I am, and to say that Locarno has lived up to my expectations would be a gross understatement. The postcard beauty of this small town by Lago Maggiore is only exceeded by the friendliness of its people. And while I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of the description of the Ticino area as one having “Italian culture with Swiss efficiency,” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is indeed the case.
Four great sights seem to be at the heart of this great Swiss region. For starters, there is the imposing Lago Maggiore, which appears to be suspended in air while blessed with clear Alpine waters. Then there is the center of Locarno, the curved Piazza Grande, lined by the old town to its north. Further up the mountain is the famous Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, with its imposing views of Lago Maggiore, the city of Locarno, and the snow-capped Alps around the lake. And last, but not least, there are the Alps themselves, ruggedly imposing and with snow tops reminding you of that idyllic world we all experienced only in postcards. It is all the kind of visual wonderland that only existed in our imaginations. Perhaps too much to take in during just one visit, but it all leaves you with the unmistakable feeling that whatever magic the place is playing on you, there is no doubt that you want more of it in your life, and lots of it. I know that the moment I watch Locarno from my train window receding in the horizon, the same feeling which consumed me so many years ago will immediately return. I will have to come back someday, but this time it will not be out of curiosity. Rather, it will be out of an incredible sense of wonderment.