Category Archives: Travel

One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.

 

Cycles

sit_and_watch

This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  – “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.

 

Now Year’s Resolution

The view from a narrow part of the Angel's Landing trail, Zion National Park

Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.

“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”

I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.

In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.

“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.

Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.

The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be  sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.

The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.

I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.

In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.

We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.

Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.

Go Ahead, Eat the Mystery Meat

Mystery Meat at Petzl RocTrip Mexico

“Good Luck,” said the skinny French waiter with bulging eyes and a bad comb over. His accent was thick, so it came out sounding more like “Gewd lock,” but the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, was clear. We were screwed.

We’d walked into the uninspiring back alley restaurant in the tourist/climbing town of Fontainebleau, France, with low expectations, but it was late, and as my traveling companions and I had just arrived via plane, train, and automobile from the United States, we were well past picky.

Four of us, there were: my friend Jack, his girlfriend Wendy, and Wendy’s sister, Katy. The girls ordered salads Niçoise, while Jack and I scanned the manly meat section of the menu. I’d studied French for years and was ashamed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, so I just ordered the agneau, which I knew was lamb. Jack got the bœuf. We sipped cheap Pinot noir and waited for the food to arrive, mute with hunger.

At long last, the server dropped our plates on the table and quickly departed. Before me lay not the glistening, browned rack of lamb of my dreams, but an array of pink, flaccid, strips of raw meat, arranged in a soggy semi-circle around the plate. No garnish or sides. Nothing to trigger my already primed Pavlovian salivation response. Jack’s plate looked much the same.

“So is it, like, tartar?” I asked, hoping someone at the table had seen something like this before. Blank stares from the girls.

“I think so,” Jack said, sounding unsure.

“Shit.”

We gazed down, weighing our hunger against the likelihood of food poisoning. Jack ate a bit of his beef first. Then I tasted mine.

“Hmmm… It’s pretty good!” he said, relieved. It was good, or at least good enough. We began to dig in.

I’d eaten about half the plate of uncooked lamb when the waiter returned, carrying a heavy black block. He looked at Jack and me as he set the block down on the table and then proceeded to reach across and tong a strip of my lamb, laying it across the block’s surface. The meat sizzled merrily. It was now clear that the hot stone was meant as a cooking surface, with which we would add flavor to and kill the colonies of food-borne bacteria cavorting on our meat.

“Ahhh!” our table collectively cooed with embarrassed agreement. “Or course! We get it!”

The waiter’s eyes seemed to bug a little farther from his skull as he saw my half-empty plate. “Good luck,” he said, and then turned and walked towards the kitchen, where the busboy and another waiter loitered. They huddled together to exchange bets on the fate of the foreigners who had just consumed the uncooked and heretofore unrefrigerated meat dishes of dubious provenance. Jack and I could only cook and eat our remaining meat strips and then brace for what I assumed would be a night of intestinal pandemonium.

Back at our gîte, I had a hard time falling asleep. I lay in bed, head spinning with hypochondriacal anxiety, monitoring my stomach’s every gurgle like a volcanologist examining the peaks and troughs of a seismograph readout. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into a listless slumber.

Sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a coffee and baguette with jam, no wrenching stomach pains — this is what greeted me as I awoke the next morn. I felt fit as a French fiddle and ready to climb on some of the finest sandstone ever formed. The waiter had wished us good luck, and good luck we had. All my worries had been for naught. Looking back, I mark this experience as the beginning of the end of my longstanding food neurosis.

* * *

When asked how many times he’d had food poisoning, writer, chef and host of my all-time favorite food & travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain answered thusly:

Just a few. Nothing too serious. My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses.

Likewise, I’ve visited rural Mexico and rural China, eating whatever was put in front of me, and managed to escape Montezuma’s Revenge and its equally debilitating Chinese corollary. In my travels, I’ve learned that there’s an important difference between thinking something looks or smell gross, and the likelihood of that food actually causing you harm. This bears out my belief that it’s surprisingly hard to predict when food poisoning will strike. Alongside the expected poultry and ground beef on the CDC salmonella-outbreak list, you’ll find such unusual suspects as mangoes, cantaloupe, pine nuts, alfalfa sprouts and even turtles and hedgehogs (I do not believe the last two were ingested, but you never know…). This year, nearly a dozen people were sickened by, and one has already died from, a listeria-tainted ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese, for Pete’s sake! You just never know.

And like Bourdain’s camera crew, every time I’ve gotten really sick from food, it’s been at some run-of-the-mill American establishment, the most notable instance being a Wendy’s in Athens, Ohio. My cheeseburger, a tad pink in the middle, tasted fine, but that night I was gripped by the irresistible need to purge my stomach contents. I spent the next six hours shivering and groaning on the floor of a toilet stall, taking turns sitting on and driving the proverbial porcelain bus. So weakened was I by the unforgiving onslaught of beef-bourne bacteria that my friend had to drive me home in my own car. It was years before I could bring myself to eat another Wendy’s burger. Bourdain, who identified the most stomach-churning thing he’d eaten in his travels as “lightly grilled warthog rectum,” avoids American fast food whenever possible. And he never eats chicken nuggets.

All of this is just to say, there’s not much point in worrying.  One of the wonders of the climbing lifestyle is the many places it takes us. Foreign lands, forgotten backwaters, wild deserts — the dedicated climber will often find herself in places that she otherwise never would have visited. And in those places, she will have to find food. What is available, what the locals are eating, will not always be familiar or appetizing — heck, it might not even meet the most basic food-safety guidelines — but it is part of the adventure. All the hand wringing in the world won’t sanitize that street taco or that mystery-meat kebab, so either don’t eat it and live with your gustatory boredom and ravenous hunger, or chow down with your friends and relax, knowing the chances are good that you’ll be fine.

Still, I’m going to have to pass on that warthog rectum. Thanks.

Photo Friday: Sorry for the Lack of Posts

I’ve been out o’ town lately (in Denver — see photos below), shooting a video with the inimitable Timmy O’Neill and the talented Mr. Jim Aikman. Plus I’m getting hitched next week to the wonderful Kristin M–, preparations for which event have had us running around like a pair decapitated baryard fowl.

Life is good, but busy. Too busy to post anything of substance. I’ll get some more stuff up soon after our wedding. Until then…

– The Blockhead Lord

The ever-patient Kristin M--.

The ever-patient Kristin M–.

Timmy O-- freeing "The Nose" (and "The Eyeball") of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.

Timmy O– freeing “The Nose” (and “The Eyeball”) of a public sculpture in Denver, Colorado.

View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.

View of the Coors Field from our crash pad in Denver.

Denver street art.

Denver street art.

Indoor art at the Hyatt across from the Colorado Convention Center.

From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.

From a walkway leading to a side entrance of the Colorado Convention Center.

[Video] Petzl RocTrip China

Last year, I went to China for the Petzl RocTrip. It was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, mostly because Chinese culture is so different from that of the West, especially in Gétu Hé, the tiny, rustic farming town where the RocTrip took place. As always, Petzl produced an amazing video about the trip. I wish I could say I was more involved with this production. Still, I feel a certain sense of pride working for a company that values and supports such adventures and such artistic endeavors. The video, with its musical integration, is pretty unique in the climbing mediaverse. Check it out:

Photo Friday: Southeast Bouldering Moderates – Part 1

A few years ago, a group of friends and I headed to the Georgia-Tennessee area for a New Year’s bouldering trip. Originally, the plan was to shoot a Southeast bouldering moderates photo essay for Urban Climber, but another magazine ran a similar piece around the same time, so I put mine on hold. I left the mag shortly thereafter, and the photos have been languishing on my hard drive ever since. Until now, when they become the content for a two-part Photo Friday!

Alex “Lowthzilla” Lowther keeps his head on Guillotine (V4), Rocktown.

When it came time to write captions for this post, I couldn’t remember anything. Not the problems’ names, grades, or even the areas they’re in. The notes in which I took down all this information were nowhere to be found, so I contacted my friend Nick Greenwell to help me fill in the blanks. He’s one of those climbers who ticks off all his climbs in the guidebook and adds notes. If there isn’t a published guide, he’ll find info on the web, print it out, and bring it to the crag. All this seems almost unnecessary, as he has a near-photographic memory when it comes to climbing. When I sent him the pictures, he quickly bounced back the info I needed. Color me impressed.

As you peruse these photos, you will hopefully get a sense of the quality of the Southeast’s bouldering. It is truly excellent. I’ve bouldered in Fontainebleau, Hueco Tanks, Bishop, the Gunks, and all over Utah and still the Southeast is at the top of my list. The biggest strike against the region is the weather: rain, bugs, and humid, blistering heat all conspire to shrink the windows of climbing opportunity. But when the weather is good, the air crispy-dry and cool, as it was during our trip, there is nothing like a climbing day on the diverse sandstone formations of the Southeast. (There’s an excellent guidebook for Rocktown, available here and one for Stone Fort here.)

Thanks Nick.

Justin Vining puttin’ the moves on Dragon Lady (V4), Stone Fort

Robin Maslowski gets The Scoop (V3), at Rocktown. This problem is notable for its beautiful shape, but also for its searingly unoriginal name.

Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabadoo (not his real name — I don’t know who this is) sending Spyro Gyro (V7), Stone Fort.

Amy Hartman Cryan on the very technical The Crescent (V1), Stone Fort.

Nick Greenwell taking a piss on Golden Shower (V5), Rocktown.

Photo Friday: 11 Shots from Oz

Years ago, I took a trip to Australia for my friend’s wedding. I took a month for the trip, so I’d have time to go climbing and exploring the countryside. I rented a Subaru in Sydney, learned to drive stick and drive on the wrong side of the road, and went on a mini-walkabout. It ended up being one of the greatest trips of my life. (Up there with the trip where I proposed to my fiancée in Paris, a trip to Greece with my parents when I was in my teens, and the RocTrip China trip.) I could easily write a five-thousand word travelogue about my time in Oz, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. Instead, I’ll share a few selected photos of the thousands I took. Happy Photo Friday!

A view of Sydney Harbor

So first I flew to Australia and got a hotel in Sydney. I was sure to find one with a nice view of Sydney Harbor and its famous bridge, which offers tours up on top of the arched supports.

Roos on the horizon

Then I drove out to the countryside for my mate's (that's Aussie slang for friend -- "G'doy, moite!") wedding which was at a nice country club. On the way, I passed a lot of roos. That's Aussie shortspeak for Kangaroos. Roo bangers are not people with a kangaroo fetish, but sausages made out of kangaroo meat. (Think: bangers and mash, the British dish... Australians are descended from British stock, you know!)

Wallaby and wallababy

Here's a shot of a roo and its joey (joey means offspring -- love it!). These were plucking around country club. They're as common as deer on the East Coast of the US, but much cooler to watch. I mean seriously, they jump to get around. Crazy!

Taipan wall in the Grampians

This is the Taipan wall, a climbing area in the Grampians, which is a National Park. (If you look closely, you'll find a climber in a red shirt hanging on rope somewhere on the wall.) Taipan may be the single raddest sport climbing crag in the world. The routes are long (150 feet or more), runout (in Aussie fashion), and ascend gorgeous lines on perfect sandstone pockets, edges, and slopers. I traded belays with some locals and a nice Austrian couple who were on an around-the-world climbing trip. Lucky there were there, as I was all flying solo on this trip.

Taipan under moonlight

Taipan under moonlight.

Herpin' at Hollow Mountain

Herpin' at Hollow Mountain. Here, Klaus, one of the Austrians mentioned above, holds one of the Grampians-area lizards, of which there were many. We found this one just around the Hollow Mountain Cave area (see below). No reptiles were harmed in the making of this photo.

Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave

Here we find Klaus goin' for it in the Hollow Mountain Cave. This V8 sat at the very lip of the 40-foot deep cave and guards the end of the famous Wheel of Life, which is boulder problem / route that was originally graded V16 by Japanese climber Dai Koyomada. I think Klaus sent this rig. I can't remember.

Chris Webb Parsons gunning for Wheel of Life

Here's a shot of one of the locals I climbed with. His name Chris Webb Parsons. While I was in the Grampians, he was very close to sending Wheel of Life (pictured here). When I had to head back to Sydney, he handed me the keys to his house in Sydney and told me I could crash a few days until my flight left. He was going to stay and work on Wheel, he explained. I did, and he did, and then he sent the Wheel, which was, I think, its second ascent. Helluva nice guy and really very strong, too.

Flower field

After a week in a tent at the Grampians, I started to get a little funky. On the way to find some showers in town, I drove past this nice little scene. Australia is full of vistas like this. Because the population density is so low, it's not uncommon to get a view without any man-made structures. Oh wait, there's a barn there in the distance. Never mind.

The climber's life

Another one of the nice locals who made me feel at home. This fellow had a nicely appointed climber's road-trip van and a plucky pup to go along with it.

Syndey Aquarium

Before heading back to the States, I decided to take advantage of my time in Sydney and hit the aquarium there. I haven't been to many aquariums, but this one seemed excellent. Here, the sharks get to watch the people watching them, thanks to a handy glassed-in walkway.

Photo Friday: Art & Architecture in LA

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and took a walk by the Disney Opera House, part of the LA Philharmonic complex and designed by the inimitable Frank Gehry. The following photos are from those two spots. Happy Friday!

For more photos from our trip to LA, click here.

For a write up of some of the great food we found in LA, click here.