Our New Downtown Bench

When civic improvements come to Stonington, sometimes they are on the smaller side. So it is with this new bench, which has been placed below one of the granite outcroppings next to the Dry Dock shop, on the western side of downtown. The new bench is a sturdy one that features some quality craftsmanship and a seat that can handle posteriors of all shapes and sizes.

A new bench might be a small improvement, but it is by no means an insignificant one. In any town that welcomes tourists, having plenty of benches where visitors can have a seat and enjoy the sights is a “must.” And having a bench near some of the shops is smart placement that helps the local merchants. Couples that don’t have equally zealous interests in shopping can split up, and the shopper can take her time and do a thorough canvas of the stores, secure in the knowledge that the non-shopper has a comfortable place to sit, check their messages, and look out at the activity in the harbor. And if two couples are visiting town together, the bench is spacious enough to accommodate two non-shoppers who’d rather sit and talk.

The bench fills a decided need in the western part of town, which had been bench-deprived until now. Previously, all of the seating was at the eastern edge and center of downtown, to accommodate the groups of ice cream eaters and 44 North coffee drinkers, and the folks waiting on a table at the Harbor Cafe. Now the western side has a place where visitors can take a load off, too.

The Super-Rich In Space

This month we’ve seen a lot of seriously rich people leave the surface of the planet and journey to the edge of space. Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson took a flight launched by Virgin Galactic–Branson’s company–to a height 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, and yesterday Jeff Bezos, who is even richer than Richard, rode a rocket launched by his space company, Blue Origin, to an even higher destination, 62 miles up. And let’s not forget fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who hasn’t traveled above the stratosphere, yet, but whose SpaceX venture has launched far more rockets and capsules, traveled farther, and advanced space technology more than Bezos’ or Branson’s companies put together.

Bezos’ flight is interesting, and not just because one of the world’s very richest men wore a space uniform and took the risk of a potentially fatal mishap. The Blue Origin flight also was piloted by the oldest person yet to fly into space–82-year-old Wally Funk, who was part of a NASA Women in Space program back in the ’60s–as well as the youngest person, who also was first Blue Origin’s paying customer. The paying customer was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose Dad, a wealthy businessman, bought a seat for him. Oliver filled in for an anonymous person who had paid $28 million for a seat on the flight, then backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Really? Somebody paid $28 million to take a trip into space, and then let “scheduling conflicts” delay their departure? Those must have been some pretty serious “scheduling conflicts”!)

Blue Origin hopes to help fund future flights, in part, through space tourism sales. It has announced that it is now officially selling tickets to future flights, and that it has made $100 million in sales so far. It’s not clear how much such tickets might cost, but it’s obvious that there is a market for a ride into space among some segments of the megarich, and their kids and other family members. And while it wasn’t a particularly long ride yesterday–the CNN article linked in the first paragraph above described the trip as allowing the passengers to experience “about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping from their seats and floating about the cabin while taking in panoramic views” before coming back down to a landing–it’s obviously an experience you can’t find anywhere else right now.

We often bemoan the lifestyles and luxuries enjoyed by the super-rich, but in this case I’ll gladly tip my cap to Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, and Oliver Daemen’s Dad, and the anonymous person with the “scheduling conflicts.” If the hyper-wealthy are willing to help fund private ventures in space, and are doing it, in part, so they can enjoy a joy ride to the edge of outer space, I’m all for that. I’d rather see the affluent putting their money down to help pay for new technology that will help us, collectively, move forward into space than frittering it away outbidding each other for Picassos. And, if space tourism is going to become a real thing, obviously the first passengers are going to pay a lot–but by doing so, we can hope that they will help to usher in an era when spaceflights become routine, costs decrease, and tickets are reasonably affordable for the rest of us.

Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

Over The Susquehanna

We’re in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a wedding. Lewisburg is the home to Bucknell and is located along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the longest river in the eastern United States and runs from a lake in New York through Pennsylvania and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a moist, misty morning, and my view of the river as shown above reminded me of the Hudson River school of landscape painting. As it passes Lewisburg, the Sus is very wide and calm. It was quite a drop from the bridge to the surface of the water, though so I steered toward the inside lane as I walked across.

Four-Masted Fun

Yesterday morning we drove to Bar Harbor to get a taste of travel on a large sailing ship. Our destination was the Margaret Todd, a 150-ton schooner that carries passengers on a two-hour cruise through Bangor harbor and into Frenchman’s Bay beyond.

The adventure started with a long walk down a ramp to a floating dock and then a climb into the boat. You had to be careful because the ramp, dock, and boat were all moving with the swells in the water, and you didn’t want to fall in—the temperature of the water, which follows a current flowing from the north, is barely above freezing.

We sat along the sides of the schooner, so as to avoid being doused by any water that had been deposited in or on the furled sails by last night’s visit from tropical storm Elsa. As the voyage got underway, the crew invited volunteers to help hoist the sails. Russell contributed his muscle to help get one of the sails fully lifted and secured and got some applause from the other passengers. Once all of the sails had been hoisted the ship headed out of the harbor on sail power.

We first passed an island in the harbor and some lobster boats. It was a brilliantly sunny and clear day, so visibility was at maximum. Even so, I was not able to see the bald eagle’s nest that the captain swore was on an oak tree on that island. Come to think of it, I have never seen any bald eagle’s nest that anyone has ever tried to point out to me. Actually seeing a bald eagle nest and bald eagle in the wild will have to remain a bucket list item.

As we sailed past the island the captain pointed out this bell buoy, which is the only one in the harbor. Even though the waters were left calm in Elsa’s wake, the roll of the tide caused the buoy to sway back and forth and the clapper to strike the bell. The bell makes a cool, very distinctive clang, which would be a signal to any fogbound mariner that Bar Harbor is near.

Out in Frenchman’s Bay, we were out in open water with a wide, dramatic sky above, although we were surrounded by islands, the Schoodic Peninsula, Mt. Desert Island, and the peaks in Acadia National Park. We saw a group of some small dolphins swim by, showing their dorsal fins above the surface of the water, and we enjoyed the sunshine and the feel and sounds of a sailing ship, as the sails creaked and shifted in the light breeze.

There weren’t many boats out on the bay, but we did see this picturesque boat sailing past one of the islands. As we headed back to Bar Harbor, the Margaret Todd pointed directly at some of the mountains of Acadia National Park. That’s Mount Cadillac, the tallest peak in the park, on the right in the photo below.

The Margaret Todd is docked just below the Bar Harbor Inn, an historic hotel. Guest were eating on the veranda and enjoying the sights as we pulled in. Invigorated by the sea air, we headed into a jammed Bar Harbor for lunch. Our walk on the crowded streets of Bar Harbor reminded us of just how remote and quiet Stonington is.

Island Names

Stonington’s harbor is filled with islands. Some are little more than rocks jutting out of the water, others are larger and wooded, and the much larger Isle au Haut looms far out in the bay. But all of the islands, even the tiny ones, have names that you see on the maps of the harbor. You wonder: how did they get their names, and why?

There is a significant diversity in the names, which makes the question more interesting. Some of the islands–like McGlathery Island and Farrel Island–clearly were named for people. Others, like Bare Island, Two Bush Island, and Sand Island, evidently got their name from their physical features. Crotch Island, which is almost split in two by a cove, has an outcropping called Thurlow Knob, and probably has been the punch line for smutty jokes told by teenage boys in Stonington for decades, also falls into that category. Still others, like Buckle Island, Round Island, and Potato Island, likely received their monikers because of their shapes and resemblance to other objects.

But the names of other islands seem to come with a real back story that you’d like to know. Was Grog Island a place where sailors stopped to furtively hoist a tankard on their way back to the docks? Why do Green Island and Camp Island have such pleasant, bucolic names, when their immediate next door neighbor goes by the scary Devil Island? What terrible calamity of the past caused yet another island to be officially dubbed Wreck Island? And was there some kind of dispute that caused someone in a position of authority to officially declare that another chunk of rock in the harbor was No Man’s Island, or did the island namers just run out of naming ideas?

Being The Bat City

There is a bridge in Austin that is home to hundreds of thousands of bats, which roost in the rafters of the underpass. During certain times of year, at sunset, the bats emerge as a huge group, execute a kind of collective swirl maneuver, and fly off into the sunset, heading down the Colorado River. The bats then return to their home sometime before sunrise.

It is apparently quite a sight, and large crowds gather to watch the bats take off. (We haven’t witnessed it yet, but we’ll catch the Bat Emergence on a future trip to Austin.) For this reason, Austin is also known as the Bat City, and it has embraced that moniker and become . . . well, a bit batty about it. You see paintings of bats on walls, Bat City t-shirts, bat graffiti, and other bat-related items everywhere around the city. It’s fair to say that Batman would feel right at home in Austin.

My favorite bat-themed feature is these bat-shaped bicycle racks on a downtown street.

On The Trail At Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park

Yesterday morning we enjoyed a hike at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park, an enormous, sprawling park on the outskirts of Austin. It had rained early in the morning and rain was forecast for the early afternoon, so our plan was to dodge the raindrops and do our hike when the air was cooled by the rain that had just passed through.

The Searight Park encompasses lots of different kinds of habitats. There are wooded areas, meadows, and even a shallow canyon that was carved out of the native limestone by a small creek. There are dozens of different trails, one of which follows the rim of the canyon and features some impressive drops, as shown above. No guardrails or fencing, of course!

The creek bed itself is a very pretty area. The creek has formed small pools that feature lots of small fish and some colorful algae. Richard and Julianne’s dog Pretty enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water, as did another dog. The limestone was still wet after the rain, and in some algae-covered areas it was slick and you really had to watch your step.

The park includes an area where the creek has been dammed, creating a deeper, wider stream. This area is popular with kayakers, although none were out on the water when we passed by.

Much of the park consists of large unmoved meadows that are designated wildflower areas, as shown below. In some areas the native grasses are nearly shoulder high, and give you a sense of what the prairies must have looked like long ago. There were still some wildflowers in bloom, but we apparently had just missed the prime time to visit, when the whole area was bursting with color.

Still, there were some flowers to appreciate. One variety I had never seen before, shown below, is the Castilleja plant, colloquially known as “Indian paintbrush” or “prairie fire.” The plant is native to the western part of the Western Hemisphere and is found from Alaska to all the way down to the Andes in South America. It’s a pretty and distinctive flower with bright petals that look like a paintbrush, which explains its nickname.

The Mary Moore Searight Park is a great park to have nearby, and our hike yesterday barely scratched the surface. We’ll be looking forward to heading to other parts of the park on a future visit.

Colorado River Cool-Off

It’s been in the 90s in Austin, and pretty humid, too. But it’s nice when there’s a river that’s handy. In Austin it’s the Colorado River —not the one that goes through the Grand Canyon—and people were taking full advantage today.

There were tons of kayaks, rafts, and floats on the water, and hardy teenage boys were jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the river. Not a bad option on a hot day!

Austin Athirst

It’s fair to say Austin has a healthy thirst for adult beverages. The downtown area features two significant drinking areas—Sixth Street and Rainey Street—where you can wet your whistle at countless bars, cocktail lounges, and saloons, many of which are blasting recorded music or featuring live music. But that doesn’t really give you a clear picture. Here are some vignettes that help to illustrate the point:

• When we checked in to our hotel, the Van Zandt, on Friday afternoon, the clerk asked if we would like a beer or a water. I’m pretty sure the beer was mentioned first.

• One of the bars on Sixth Street is evidently so popular that, as the sign above indicates, people are willing to install the “LineLeap” app and pay for the privilege of jumping to the front of the line—something I’ve heard of for amusement parks, but not bars. How do the other liquored-up people in the line like that?

• When I was taking the above photo at about 2 p.m. two guys who had gotten an early start came up to me and one, with breath that could stop a rhino, challenged me to “rock, paper, scissors, two out of three!” I politely declined.

• We walked down Rainey Street at a little after noon, where I took the picture of the sign below. The bars were already filling up, and it was clear that the cocktails would be lonely no longer.

• When we later returned to our hotel a little after 9 p.m., Rainey Street was packed with people. The music being pumped out by one nearby bar was so loud that the bass reverb was distinctly heard and vibrating the windows in our room on the 12th floor.

Saturday Morning In Scootertown

Austin is a big scooter town, even bigger than Columbus. On Friday night we saw hundreds of scooter riders, and people were zipping everywhere and completely ignoring the instruction on the base of the scooter that says you can’t ride it on the sidewalk. Pedestrians in downtown Austin on a Friday night need to maintain a state of constant vigilance to avoid collisions with newbie scooter riders.

Saturday morning is a different story. The Friday frivolity has ended, the scooters are no longer needed, and they’ve been casually abandoned everywhere, in willy-nilly fashion. Instead of worrying about collisions, the walker has to be careful not to trip over a scooter some thoughtless and likely inebriated person left right in the middle of the sidewalk. It makes it impossible to enjoy a Saturday morning walk without navigating around and between hundreds of discarded scooter carcasses. But at least the Saturday morning pedestrian has company: the scooter crews are out in force collecting their scooters and putting them back upright, in cool configurations, in position to be used by the Saturday scooter set.

Interesting Austin

We’re down in Austin for a visit, and our first day here reaffirms what I’ve believed for a while: Austin is one of the most interesting cities in America.

For one thing, it’s booming. Many tech companies have moved into the Austin area, and the skyline is dotted with construction cranes putting up some very interesting new buildings, like the one in the photo above. Many transplants from other states, particularly California, have followed the tech companies to Austin, resulting in Texas’ capital city dealing with an unprecedented influx of recent arrivals that has created perhaps the hottest–some might say completely overheated–housing market in the United States. If you’re trying to buy a house in Austin, coming from a place like Columbus, prepare yourself for egregious sticker shock and the frustration and disappointment of being routinely outbid by people paying far above the asking price because they also are desperate to buy a home of their own.

From our walk around downtown last night, it’s pretty clear that Austin has a very active population of youngish professionals and tech workers who are looking to have a raucous good on Sixth Street or Rainey Street on a Friday night. There’s an active nightlife, and we had dinner at a really good restaurant that was so busy we couldn’t get in until 9:30 Central Time. That’s like dining in New York City.

But the booming growth and sizzling housing market and partying is going on cheek by jowl with an obvious homelessness problem. Many intersections, highway underpasses, roadway sidebeds, and downtown sidewalks are the site of homeless encampments. The Austin homeless live in tents or under tarps, like the person in the photo above, with their possessions defining their own personal space. It’s hot here now, and it’s hard to imagine how the homeless survive broiling days when the temperature hits the upper 90s. The choice between being out in the blazing sun all day, or sitting in a suffocating tent, isn’t a good one. It can’t be healthy for these unfortunate people, and the encampments raise e, public health, basic sanitation, crime, and personal security issues. But how do you begin to tackle such a huge problem?

The photo below shows a homeless encampment right in front of the Austin City Hall building, at one of the major intersections bringing you into the downtown area. It’s not exactly the kind of image that a city would want to project to visitors, but there’s a lot of things on Austin’s plate right now. The city is trying to deal with the homelessness challenges, an obvious housing shortage, bursting at the seams growth that looks like it will continue indefinitely, a changing political dynamic, and assimilation of a bunch of newcomers into the proudly weird Austin way of life.

As I said: Austin is an interesting city.

The Africa Measurement

Bangor International Airport continues to encourage 20 seconds of hand-washing, but also offers helpful guidance about how to determine when you’ve hit the 20 seconds above the sink by identifying song snippets that need that time period to be properly sung. And the song options cover the generational and musical taste spectrum, with rock and pop songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and a country and what I believe to be a rap/hip-hop option. (Not being familiar with Lil Nas X, I’m guessing that is the right genre.)

There’s a risk in encouraging song singing, because someone could burst into off-key crooning in a public restroom. But I chose Toto’s Africa and sang it in my head as I lathered and rinsed, including holding the note on “had” as happened in the original version. And I learned something in the process: I always thought the lyrics were “I felt the rain down in Africa,” and “I bless the rains down in Africa” definitely gives the song a different meaning (although I’m not sure exactly what).

When I was done and had dried my hands, satisfied that I had fully complied with the 20-second instruction, I mentally sang the rest of Africa—as best I remembered it—then mentally sang Rosanna for good measure.

Amidst The Mist

Fog is a curious phenomenon. For one thing, sounds seem to carry differently when Stonington is socked in by a heavy fog, as it is this morning. The growling sounds of the lobster boats heading out to sea seem to be amplified by the moisture in the air, so that it sounds as if the boats are very close by when it is clear they aren’t. And familiar scenes look different, too.

But the visual effects of fog can also be surprising, and varying. Sometimes it renders things, like the boats at anchor above, blurry and indistinct, like a grey aquatic dreamscape. In other places the fog acts as a kind of backdrop that frames the structures in the foreground, giving them a different cast. The old dock and green boathouse below, located next to the post office, are a good example of this effect. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but amidst the mist they look spindly and delicate and haunting.

Fog makes the morning walk more interesting for me, but makes the morning work more treacherous for the lobstermen.

Wiped Out

Every flight I’ve taken recently has a new feature in the boarding process: a flight attendant who solemnly hands you precisely one sanitizing wipes packet as you enter the plane. (I suppose it’s possible that you could get extra packets, but I’ve never asked.)

It’s not clear to me what you’re supposed to do with the one wipe, and no instruction is given—which is strange because airlines typically overinstruct you about everything, even how to fasten your seat belt. Are you supposed to use the wipe on your hands? The flimsy tray table? The arm rests? The seat belt? The seat itself, with the cushion that also helpfully serves as a flotation device? Or all of the above, which would be asking a lot of one tiny packet with one sanitizing wipe? Hey, are the airlines suggesting that they aren’t thoroughly cleaning these planes any more and asking us to pitch in?

I put the wipe packet in my pocket or use it as a bookmark and eventually add it to my home wipe collection. I haven’t seen anyone else use one, either. But on one flight yesterday, the young woman sitting next to me broke open the packet and carefully wiped down her tray table and the back of the seat in front of her, and probably wanted to wipe me down, too. Then she never touched or used the tray table in any way.

This new travel rite of passage seems very odd to me, but I suppose it’s all part of an effort to get the germophobes out there more comfortable with flying. If wipe packet distribution does the trick, so be it.