Author Archives: coxdavid55

Nuevo Arenal & Palo Verde NP, May 2, 2022

From La Fortuna I traveled to the northern shores of Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica, dammed about 45 years ago for hydroelectric power.  Now banks of wind generators also cover the northern hills. The gardens at my B&B and the lake shore provided a few new bird pics.  It rained every day as the seasons change for the eastern half of the country about a month before the western half.  From Arenal I traveled deep into the dry forests on the north of the Nicoya Peninsula, into the heart of the Palo Verde National Park which western boundary lies on the banks of the Tempesqui River.

The only place one can stay inside the park is the Organization for Tropical Studies Research Station – the accommodations are spartan, dorm rooms with fan and cold showers, and an abundance of insects finding their way inside – the last night produced a large red-black scorpion in the bathroom (I am glad I always use a red flashlight at night to walk around inside). I am too late for the early dry season when the lowlands are flooded and hold a large variety of migratory waterfowl, but a month too early for the rainy season when things green up, but the roads become almost impassable.  Although the mosquitos are not the most repellent-resistant I have encountered, they certainly form among the densest clouds unless one stands only in the tropical sun clearings.  The food is consistent, huge piles of boiled vegetables, beans, rice, plantains, etc.  It certainly passes through the alimentary canal in a hurry. Other than a couple for two nights, I am the only person staying at the station for these 5 days, other than a young guide, cook, maintenance man and housekeeper – it would be very lonely but for the monkeys.

I arranged for a private boat on the river for two of the days, where the resident wildlife is plentiful. The huge Bare-throated Tiger-Herons are very common here, and two started building a nest high over my dorm room. The Mantled Howler monkeys have been in residence overhead also for the last two days, the old male constantly roaring, and the Capuchins came through twice. The area is filled with dozens of Spiny-tailed Iguanas, huge and menacing-looking, but always running before getting stepped on. I am pleased with good photos of the various herons, the Black-headed Trogon, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Spectacled Owl, Laughing Falcon, Crested Caracara and Turquoise-browed Motmot. My last day, going down the dirt road, I was fortunate to see the Laughing Falcon cross with a large serpent in its claws.  The Crested Caracara followed, and off to the side a ferocious but very short aerial battle between the two large falcons occurred. The Laughing Falcon appeared to have won and maintained his position over the dropped snake.  Both birds refused to leave the area and so permitted me the exceptional close photos. I spent many hours under a special old fruiting tree trying to get a decent photo of the Long-tailed Manakin male, but it seems resistant to my efforts, being small, dark and always high behind leaves.

Today I move onward to the mountains and cloud forests of Monte Verde.  Later. Dave





Report from La Fortuna, Costa Rica, Apr 24, 2022

Hello.  I have been in La Fortuna for 8 days.  It sits just a couple of miles directly east of and under the Volcano Arenal, which was active as recently as 10 years ago.  The volcano presents an almost perfect cone, visible about half the time and covered by clouds the rest. La Fortuna is sort of the center of adventure sports in Costa Rica and so is full of young (and some old) tourists – the tour vans constantly ply the streets, and tour store-fronts are everywhere.  I came for some of the area birding. My best luck was on a small secondary forest reserve just outside of La Fortuna proper, called Bogarin Trail, with some impressive wildlife finds not commonly seen. One of my favorite sightings was a large male Emerald Basilisk – basilisks are the dinosaur looking lizards, with crests on their heads and sails on their backs, and most impressively they get up on their hind feet and run, including the ability to run on top of water. The male in the photo below was trying to chase off a Striped Basilisk male, a different species.

I spent a day on the backside slopes of the Arenal Volcano at the Observatory Hotel’s grounds high in the rainforest.  It was not nearly as productive as some other photographers had indicated to me earlier, but it had some stunning views of the volcano and Lake Arenal, along which I will be visiting in the next 3 days.

Among my favorite pictures, a small but colorful Boa Constrictor (probably only about 5 feet long), a Black and White Owl, Grey-necked Wood-Rail, two baby Rufous-winged woodpeckers in the nest, a Coati on the Arenal Volcano’s slopes and a mother Agouti with a very rambunctious baby.

It has started to rain daily as the rainy season approaches on the eastern side of the country. I am making use of a high-quality poncho which protects my pack and camera gear.  I will now be traveling to the western half of the country where the rains start a month or so later.  The restaurants in La Fortuna are quite good, though I have been eating mostly in the sodas, which are the small, usually family owned, cafes all over the country. The domestic beers, as in much of the world outside the US, are nothing to brag about – mostly watery pilsners. The cheap red Clos wine (which started in Guatemala), available in liter cartons, travels well and keeps me going in the jungle research stations where no alcohol is otherwise available.

Today I travel to Nuevo Arenal, a small community on the shores of Lake Arenal, the largest inland body of water in the country. I may look at lakeshore property, with an eye to possible purchase. From there I travel west to the edge of the Nicoya Peninsula to visit waterfowl in the mangroves and dry forest flood plains.

Later Dave


Seven Days at Organization for Tropical Studies’ La Selva Lodge, April 18, 2022

Hello.  I last reported on Tirimbina Rainforest on the Sarapiqui River.  From there I moved just a few miles to La Selva’s Lodge on the Puerto Viejo River which controls a large swath of primary rainforest adjacent to the Braulio Carrillo National Park.  This mostly is Caribbean lowland rainforest with a huge number of animal and bird species.  The center offers many dorms and cabins for visiting scientists and students participating in onsite research.  All meals are included and served in a cafeteria style – the food, while not exactly top flight, was always more than filling.  I spent 5 to 7 hours daily walking the miles of trails through the rainforest.  While in the trail system, except in occasional spots where a giant tree has recently fallen, one seldom sees the sky, and only hints of scattered specks of light indicate whether it is cloudy or clear.  This is where the forest floor is not much brighter than night under a full moon. Around the station’s administrative center, dorms and labs, the area is somewhat cleared and attracts a huge number of birds.  I believe it rained some every day, and on occasion there were huge downpours.  Under the canopy one often can only hear the rain – after maybe 20 minutes the drops will begin to fall from the leaves and reach the forest floor.

My favorite trail, the Sendero Arboleta, had recently produced a camera trap photo of a jaguar a few weeks before my arrival.  Of course, the chances of actually seeing one live are nil. The weather was unalterably hot and humid, broken only by being hotter if under sunlight, and a little less hot during the rains.

I did manage some interesting photos.  If you go through the photos below you might notice quite a number of them have birds appearing on the same tree-shrubs thick with packets of small berries, the unripe ones a pretty pink-red and the ripe ones dark blue-black. I think I counted over 20 species of birds on these shrubs eating the ripe berries.  I was very lucky to spend time watching a Three-toed mother sloth with a 3-month-old baby clutching to her chest, and I managed a couple of pretty neat photos of the pair.

The Howler Monkey families roared at all hours.  A large suspension bridge crosses the Puerto Viejo River connecting parts of the Station, and the Howlers use the suspension cables as their highways across the river.  Often two families would sit in the trees over opposite sides of the bridge and for hours hurl what I took to be insults back and forth over the river.

From La Selva I arranged a private driver to transport me onward to the touristy town of La Fortuna on the eastern flanks of the Volcano Arenal, one of the most perfect volcanic cones on earth.  Some eruptions occurred from 1968 through 2010, but the mountain is docile now.  I will be here at the Monte Real Hotel for some 8 days.  Later.  Dave


Dave along suspension bridge over Sarapiqui River, Tirimbina, CR

Dave Cox in Costa Rica, Tirimbina Rainforest Organization Lodge along Sarapiqui River, Apr 8, 2022

Hello all.  After 2 ½ years without foreign travel, it finally seems like heaven to be on the road again.  I flew to Costa Rica March 28.  After 7 days in the top floor suite of the El Presidente Hotel in downtown San Jose, spending much of my time planning the specifics of my visit and arranging transportation, I finally am off on a birding photography adventure.  First two stops are along the Sarapiqui River in lowland tropical rainforest. I have been 5 days in the Tirimbina Lodge and tomorrow move on for 7 more days to the nearby La Selva research station of the Organization for Tropical Studies.  From there I will spend close to the next 3 months visiting various different environments, some cloud forest along the volcanic flanks and other mangrove swamps and lowland rainforest.  I have used a private bird guide daily to help locate and id the birds, and hope to continue this way.

I have selected a few of my favorite shots from the last five days and posted them below. I especially favor the poison dart frogs (the Strawberry would fit on my thumbnail), the Trogons and the Toucans.  I should routinely be posting new bird and wildlife photos from here out. Later, Dave

US Short Trips in South-West, including Archeological Footprint site, late 2021 to early 2022

Covid has halted all trips in the last year except for several short hops around the Southwest. I am on my way, finally, on an international trip to Costa Rica for 3 months of wild park visits.  Before going I will post a few pictures of birds, petroglyph sites and the famous White Sands “footprint” site  I found interesting in the last year.

The rock art is from a hodgepodge of cultures; Sears Point and Painted Rock sites, along the now dried bed of the Gila River in southern Arizona, contain a combination of Hohokom and Patayan petroglyphs from about a 1000 year ago, along with a fair number of much older archaic petroglyphs. The Three Rivers site in New Mexico is an unusual site with Mogollon petroglyphs from about 1000 years ago.  The VBarV Ranch site has the fabulous Sinaguan puebloan petroglyphs, also about 1000 year old.

The one really special trip I was fortunate to make involved tagging along with a weekend field trip for a graduate archeology class from the University of Arizona – the seminar subject was the peopling of the Americas.  For almost 80 years most archeologists have believed the earliest humans arrived in the Americas, crossing over the land bridge to Alaska, at the end of the last ice age about 12 to 13 thousand years ago and could only have migrated down into North and South America after the glaciers started melting in Alaska and Canada.  For over 40 years occasional finds at sites as diverse as Florida and Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of S America have presented suggestions of much earlier human presence, some over 20,000 years ago, but in all these cases the dating had problems.  Further, there were no convincing theories of how humans could have arrived from alternate routes before the end of the glaciation.

Last year a newly published report from White Sands in New Mexico revealed the first “solid” dating of  human footprints along an ancient lake bed, finding tiny grass seeds both on top and immediately below the footprints which for the oldest layers consistently dated to 21,000 to 23,000 year ago. These human footprints exist along with thousands of Pleistocene animal footprints of ground sloths, bison, mammoths, dire wolves, bears and saber tooth cats. The site now is worked every January when the weather best permits.

Dr. Vance Holliday is teaching the graduate class and led the field trip – he is one of the authors of the published paper on the footprints.  I drove to the site from the White Sands National Park with Clare Connelly, the Park archeologist and another of the paper’s authors.  The ancient lake edge and most of the thousands of footprints are located in an area at the far northern reaches of the Park (well beyond any roads or visitor areas) and extend far into the Army’s White Sand Missile Range.  No roads exist to the site, which is approached by 4-wheel drives over the gypsum white sand desolation.  Passing through the site are multiple lines of mammoth footprints leading presumably to the lake edge.  At the human footprint site, Clare uncovered and showed us several examples; one small area, about 2 X 2 feet, contained a large cave bear footprint, half covered by a human footprint, and just behind were prints of a baby bear, dire wolf, bison and sloth. A little deeper were footprints of children, and at another spot a perfectly preserved hand print as if an adult tripped and caught herself with a spread hand in the mud.

I have included a couple of photos of mammoth prints at the site, but provided no details on the approximate location of the site nor photos of the human prints, as those we saw have not yet been subject to a published report.  Other than the professionals working the site, it will never be open to the public, though the footprints are being plaster cast and a replica of parts of the site will presumably be built in the coming years near the National Park touristed areas.

Tomorrow I fly to San Jose and should be uploading periodic reports and photos in a couple of weeks.  Later Dave

Report on Grand Tetons area, Black Canyon of Gunnison & Chaco Canyon, June 11, 2021

I last reported on leaving Yellowstone from Cody, and was headed to Dubois, WY to be near several river headwaters – more on the headwaters later. Before heading to Dubois, I spent a day traveling the famous Bear Tooth Highway, one of the most switch-backed highways through one of the highest passes in the Continental US.  It is open generally less than 3 months per year due to high altitude weather conditions.

Dubois is a small town in the valley which rises between the Wind River Range on the southwest, here comprising the Continental Divide, and the Absaroka Range, forming the wildest part of southeastern Yellowstone.  The drive northwest from Dubois crosses over the Divide at the high Togwotee Pass, then drops down into the Grand Tetons Valley, with the Grand Teton Range to the West.  Below the Divide, on the western side of the meeting point of the two ranges, I had my third and best encounter, twice in one day, with a grizzly bear, this one a huge healthy female with two small cubs. Later, upon discussions with a local and some internet research, I found the Mama grizzly was ear tagged with number 863, but was popularly christened with the folk name ‘Felicia’ (I still haven’t quite discovered how these names originate, but once they do, they stick). As grizzlies tend to stay in the same general area for life, local sightings provide a history of a female’s cub raising success. I got some pretty nice photos of Felicia and her two cubs, so the photos posted below are dominated by Felicia’s family.

I spent parts of two days in Grand Teton NP, and tried to reproduce some of the famous historic photos, particularly one by Ansel Adams. Actually, I tried to better Adam’s most famous photo of the Teton Range beyond the Snake River.  Adams used a huge 8X12 plate format camera and did his usual custom dark room dodging and burning to create his much reproduced print.  I used the latest digital equipment to take several dozen telephoto shots, professional software to stitch these shots into a single massive resolution photo, and Adobe Lightroom professional software to dodge and burn certain areas of the final shot.  My end result has more resolution (could be printed larger with better detail), and shows all of nature’s colors, while Adam’s remains black and white. In the end, I produced a very nice large color image of the Grand Teton Range.  Adams produced a masterpiece. A large scale print of Adams’ photo sold last year at auction by Sotheby’s for $988,000. I probably could sell mine for the price of the professional printer’s charge.

From Dubois I started my return trip, heading again through Rock Springs, then south into Colorado to Montrose, to visit for the second time the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. On the way through northwest Colorado on small county highways I drove through areas where the roadways were covered with millions of 2 inch long Mormon crickets (really a type of katydid) passing from side to side, a plague on the vegetation in the area. The Black Canyon is one of the least visited Parks in the system because it lies so far off any tourist route or major throughway. The canyon is only a little over 10 miles long, but approaches ½ mile deep with less than ¼ mile across at top, forming the narrowest, deepest chasm that I believe I have seen anywhere on earth.  The vertical cliffs are almost black, inserted with lighter colored long wavy lines of ancient magma.  Standing at railings at the cliff edge looking straight down a half mile to the river induced in me more vertigo than has any overlook at the Grand Canyon.  On hiking the half dozen or so short trails from the car pullouts to the precipice’s edge, the surrounding shrubbery sounded alive with clicking noises; upon close inspections, the small branches were seen to be covered with small beautifully marked cicadas – I have included a photo – I do not know whether these are the same species as those back east.

From Colorado I dropped into New Mexico and for the third time visited the Chaco Canyon National Historic Site.  This is a little visited Puebloan Indian site, but is by many accounts the single most important ancient Puebloan site.  The dry canyon contains within a 4 mile stretch at least 5 huge pueblos constructed entirely of native rock and ponderosa pine log roof or floor supports, with hundreds of multi-story ‘condo’ rooms.  The outer perimeter walls form giant ‘D’ shaped enclosures with central courts and dozens of Kivas. The largest and most excavated is Pueblo Bonito, which covers 3 acres and where the straight wall of the ‘D’ shape runs 175 meters. It contains approximately 650 condo units, some built up to 5 stories, with 3 Great Kivas and 32 regular Kivas (Kivas are circular, mostly underground, masonry lined rooms with huge pine trunks forming a cross pattern to support a roof structure – thought designed to mimic the earlier underground pit houses, they morphed into ceremonial structures. De-forestation to construct the pueblos and severe drought affecting crops coincided to probably explain the demise of the Chaco Canyon complex as well as almost all other Puebloan complexes in the 4-Corners region.

From Montrose I have traveled to Silver City for a couple of nights, and tomorrow return to Tucson.

You might wish to skip the remaining sections of this report and go directly down to photos, as the remainder contains a summary of my thoughts, developed over a number of years, on the origins of three major river systems in the US.

River Headwaters

I traveled to Dubois in part to visit the area of river headwaters for three major continental US drainage systems which I have grown to believe are misnamed, resulting in their sources being unappreciated. I will briefly summarize my reasoning for each river system, identifying each with the current accepted names (which I try to show are in error). Historically, river naming conventions generally attempt to use the name of a) the longest tributary above the confluences, b) the tributary with the largest flow, or c) the tributary which drains the largest area.

Mississippi River Drainage:  Once the extent of the Missouri River became known (after expedition of Lewis & Clarke), it became obvious that the Mississippi River should have been named the Missouri below the confluence. The Missouri above the confluence is twice as long, drains 3 times the area and generally equals or exceeds the flow of the Mississippi. The Mississippi, however, was named so long ago there was no change.  Unappreciated still, at the confluence with the Missouri, just inside the western border of N. Dakota, the Yellowstone River has the larger flow, and appears to have a slightly longer run as the Missouri has an indefinite start just west of Bozeman, a wetland into which numerous small streams run. Thus, I posit that if properly named, the lower Mississippi and Missouri all should be known as the Yellowstone River, the mightiest river in the US, which runs down to the Gulf Coast.

Columbia River Drainage: At the confluence with the Columbia River, which comes south out of Canada, the Snake River drains slightly more area and is slightly longer above the confluence. The flows are roughly comparable. Therefore I argue the Columbia River, which flows west between Oregon and Washington to the Pacific, should properly be named the Snake River.

Colorado River Drainage: At the confluence with the Colorado River, in Canyonlands NP in Utah, the Green River drains a larger area and is longer above the confluence; the flows vary depending on relative snow packs from year to year. The Colorado River below the confluence should properly be named the Green. (This actually is a known issue, which resulted from a US congressional play by the Colorado delegates early in the 20th century.  At that time the Colorado River above the confluence was named the Grand River, and the river running below the Canyonlands was named the Colorado, not for the state, but for the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah and northern Arizona through which the river carved the Grand Canyon. The Colorado state Congressional delegation somehow got the Congress, over the objections of the Utah and Arizona delegations, to rename the Grand River running out of the State of Colorado as the Colorado River, implying that this was the major tributary rather than the Green).  Anyway, either the Green River should be renamed the Colorado, and the river running out of Colorado should go back to the name Grand River, or, the river below the confluence should be renamed the Green.

My Conclusions: The three great river systems, which together drain over 55% of the continental US, should be known as the

Yellowstone River which drains, into the Atlantic at the Gulf of Mexico, the central 40% of the entire US which lies east of the continental divide,

Snake River which drains, into the Pacific, almost the entire northwest US which lies west of the continental divide, and

Green River which drains, into the Gulf of California, the entire southwest and part of the northwest US lying west of the continental divide.

Most interesting for me and the reason for the visit to Dubois, these three river systems have their headwaters within less than 70 miles of each other, centered approximately on Dubois, WY. The Yellowstone starts at Younts Peak about 33 miles NNW of Dubois, just inside southeastern Yellowstone Park.  The Snake starts at Ocean Plateau South Mountain, about 16 miles WNW of Younts Peak in southeast Yellowstone Park. And the Green starts at Winifred Peak, just south of Gannett Peak about 27 miles south of Dubois in the Wind River Range. Thus the headwaters of the 3 drainage systems for 55% of the continental US all start next to each other, just across the continental divide, running respectively east, west and south.

My apologies for the aside discourse on river headwaters.

Later. Dave




Travel Report from Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, May 30 2021

I last posted from Billings, MT. I drove up the Yellowstone River to Livingston, the original RR line junction which opened up Yellowstone over 100 years ago. From there I continued following the Yellowstone River south to Gardiner, MT, which sits at the Northern entrance to the Park.  Spending 8 days in Gardiner, I spent about double normal price for a room in the Big Rock Hotel. Elk doe grazed on the grass outside my room. I could not extend my stay in Gardiner after 8 days, so moved to West Yellowstone for an additional 6 days, where the small motel room was even more expensive.

Daily I departed my room at 5 am to travel either into Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley, generally arriving at sunrise, about 6 am.  Close to half of the days saw heavy rain, snow or ice storms, with wind – on one day the Park Service was shutting down all roads at each junction as I cleared them.  As in the past, I found I was joined in the early mornings by just a couple of dozen or so professional photographers and “wolf chasers”. Generally we had 3 hours to ourselves – then about 9 in the morning regular visitors and RVs would start to show up on the roads.  By 10 am the roads would become crowded and by noon there were huge traffic jams, and parking at all tourist sites would be overflow.  Every day, upon leaving the Park down the Madison River to West Yellowstone, I would pass cars going into the Park stopping in the middle of the road to take photos out the window of the first bison they had seen.  As over half the cars did this, I started measuring the length of the traffic jams behind the bison.  On two days I measured just over 5 miles of traffic jam, and then on my last day exiting this route, the start of Memorial Day weekend, the traffic jam ran all the way from Madison Junction to the entrance at West Yellowstone – exactly 14 miles.  These people would take 1 to 2 hours to just reach the first junction getting into the Park.

Lamar Valley contains probably the largest concentration of American Bison in existence; total numbers in the Park range from 3,500 to 5,000 animals – these are not re-introduced nor mixed blood, but direct descendants of the remaining original bison which in the great plains once numbered in the millions.  Both valleys also are the hunting ranges and den locations of the two most visible wolf packs, which generally prefer elk, but will take young or frail bison.

I averaged 7 hours a day over a total of 15 days inside the Park.  A great deal of the time was seeking relatively close encounters with grizzly bear and wolves, the highlights for wildlife photography in the area (most wolf and grizzly sightings are at around a mile distant, and although interesting to watch through a spotting scope, are not amenable to photography; decent photos require getting close, though the Park mandates a 100 yard limit, so large telephoto is mandatory).  I managed to photograph 2 different grizzly encounters – the first with the wonderful antics of a 7 year old “blond” female which the biologists had nicknamed “Snow” due to its light coloration. For two hours, between bouts of eating, she preened, sat like a dog, contorted to scratch, snoozed with a log for a pillow, stretched and balanced on logs. With about 25 other photographers (see photo), we lined the road for almost 2 hours enjoying the show, except for a brief encounter with a bull bison which wanted to pass through. The second encounter was with a very dark, huge, male and female turning stones and grazing some plants on a mountain side. These two looked far more menacing than Snow. The Park’s first grizzly mauling of the year took place just two days ago on a trail a couple of miles from Gardiner where I spent my first 8 days. The hiker survived, but no more details on the attack were available.

Wolves can be seen often near their respective dens in the spring.  If the weather is nice, the pups come out to play – I have included no photos as the dens are more than a mile from where visitors may go.  I did spend over 2 hours on a frigid early morning watching 5 wolves from the Hayden Valley pack devour an elk kill in very heavy fog – it made for some interesting photos.  I also watched a lone young wolf wind its way up and down the banks of the Yellowstone River, apparently trying to catch trout, and going after one Mallard duck, all without success.

As usual I found lots of elk and, in one small corner of the Park (above Pebble Creek), moose.  The bulls of both species are just starting to grow their giant antlers, now stubby and still very much covered in velvet.  The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, not often encountered, all look very ratty as they are losing big chunks of their winter coats. A band of males feeding on an almost impossibly steep mountain slope made for some unique photos. I also visited the Le Hardy Rapids on the Yellowstone where in mid-May the Harlequin Ducks do their diving and amazing maneuvering in fully boiling rapids (these ducks are quite rare to see except in far northern coastal waters).  The male Harlequins are one of the most striking of birds. Other uncommon birds are the American Dipper, the only songbird that dives and flies under water for its food, and the Barrow’s Goldeneye, photos of both of which are included.  I also lucked into a close-up session with a male Dusky Grouse doing a full blown mating display, with bared-breast spots and drumming, hoping to attract females. I am fortunate in being able to annually visit and photograph almost the entire population of Sandhill Cranes in existence, as they all winter in a single spot in Southern Arizona.  However, for the spring and summer they migrate to spread across the northern US and southern Canada for breeding.  In Yellowstone I got to photograph a female at her nest and an adult in breeding colors in the frozen snow. Finally, the Park is the home of huge numbers of Ravens – many have learned to acquire food from bear-proof trash containers – I have included a photo of a particularly handsome one getting ready to dine.

I drove yesterday to Cody outside the East entrance to the Park.  I will stay here a few days to catch up on some chores, and then have reserved a room in DuBois, WY, heading up the Wind River Range on the Continental Divide with the highest mountains in the state (and some of the highest in the continental US).  This range provides the most remote headwaters of two major river systems – the Yellowstone which runs North completely across the Park and ultimately into the Missouri and Mississippi to drain into the Atlantic, and the Snake which runs southwest, then north and west to join the Columbia River to drain into the Pacific.  I probably next will head basically South towards home.  I have been reviewing online a completely new set of Canon professional camera bodies and long lenses which would significantly improve my capture distance for wildlife photos, permit lower light capture while simultaneously reducing my carrying weight – in all, a seemingly impossible dream a few years ago.  I, of course, suddenly feel the need to own this new equipment before taking further photos.

Later, Dave


Brief Update on Driving Trip North Thru Rockies as of May 13, 2021

I last reported on visiting the Red Desert of Southern Wyoming around Rock Springs. On my departure I made a second pass through the high ridge surrounding the Great Basin, where I enjoyed watching a couple of Pronghorn males sparring.  From there I continued north to Thermopolis, which I have visited multiple times for its  great dinosaur museum and proximity to the Wind River Canyon and Dinwoody rock art, carved over a period of several thousand years (probably by ancestors to the Shoshone) – I previously have included a number of photos in reports, so will not here. Thermopolis claims to have the largest hot springs in the world, although I’m pretty sure I have visited larger in the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis, Turkey.

From Thermopolis I drove northeast, crossing the Bighorn Mountains to Buffalo, one of my favorite small high plains towns.  If you have read either the best-selling Joe Picket Game Warden series by CJ Box, or the best-selling (and movie) series of Sheriff Longmire by Craig Johnson (I have read most of both), you may have wondered whether the fictional towns of Saddlestring (Picket) or Durant (Longmire), really exist.  Both fictional towns are based entirely on Buffalo, on Highway 16 at the base of the Bighorns.  I have twice looked at properties for a possible summer home in Buffalo, but this year houses are going under contract usually within a day or two of listing.  I traveled north just 30 miles to Sheridan where I also have looked at properties with no luck.  The weather was mostly very cold with way too much wind and rain.  I was surprised on my morning walks along Little Goose Creek to hear and see so many Ring-necked Pheasants.

I next drove east, well out of my intended northerly path, to the Black Hills of South Dakota and a favorite small town, Custer.  Every day I cruised the looped roads and dirt tracks through the Custer State Park with its rich wildlife and lake birds. I saw no Ring-necked Pheasants here even though it is the State Bird of South Dakota. Why would a state name as its state bird one originally imported from Asia as a game species???

Upon returning from my detour I drove on north through the Crow Reservation to Billings where I anticipated visiting the Pictograph Cave State Park. The cave was renowned since its excavation in the 1930s both for its pictographs and human occupation originally dated to almost 5,000 years ago, according to still existing signage at the cave.  When I went online to get more info on the very early occupation, I discovered current online information, from the official sites, is completely silent as to occupation dating results.  I then discovered a 2014 dissertation by a U of Montana archaeologist, who tested the much earlier archaeological dating claims, and found them probably invalid (not intentional, more sloppiness). The absolute oldest radiocarbon date from the bottom of the cave was just 3,800 years ago, more in line with dating of the earliest Plains Indian sites. Further, most of the 30,000 artifacts reported excavated and catalogued from the site have disappeared.  Mulloy, the final archaeologist doing excavations, claimed the 2,000 artifacts he catalogued had been shipped to the University of Montana, but the University claimed to have received at most half the artifacts.  Drawings of the artifacts don’t support early dates.  The pictographs exist, but are mostly now invisible from deterioration, leaving only smudged red pictographs which include rifles and a horse and very faint anthropomorphs, definitely post European arrival. The only evidence for 2000 year old pictographs is a single stone fallen from the cave wall with a charcoal drawing of a turtle which carbon dated to around that time (this evidence shows the charcoal used on the stone was 2,000 years old, not that the drawing was made 2000 years ago).  This new evidence, for me, more than somewhat diminishes the importance and earlier fame of the site, and left me wondering why the Montana State Park website has scrubbed information on the sites importance and is completely silent regarding the new dating, as well as the sad state of the few pictographs.

Today I traveled up the Yellowstone River to Livingston, just north of Yellowstone Parks north entrance, and have reservations in a couple of days in Gardiner right at the North entrance, where I intend to spend over a week driving the Lamar River Valley looking for big bear and wolf packs.

All is well. Later, Dave


Travel Report – Dave Cox Driving Western US, Mon April 26, 2021

Hello.  After just over a year and half of forced home stay due first to cataract surgery and then to Covid, I received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine 5 weeks ago, and decided to just start driving in a northerly direction for a few months (Tucson already had hit its first 100 degree day).  I left the RV trailer home this trip because I suspected (apparently correctly) most of my age group now were vaccinated, and the RVs would fill the highways of the West by mid-Spring; thus obtaining hookup sites might be difficult.  Motels should still be looking for tourists until summer travel season starts.  I did book 10 nights for a hotel in Gardiner, at the north entrance to Yellowstone, for mid-May thinking that general tourism may start by then and Yellowstone normally gets booked months in advance.

I left Tucson March 31, and traveled first to the mountain town of Show Low. My second night in a cheap Days Inn, I was awakened at midnight to the yells, laughter and curses of several incredibly drunk males.  By 2 am the laughter turned to angry fighting and door slamming.  I watched out the window as a number of police cars showed up, and then discovered the disturbance had been in the room across the hall from my door.  By 4 am an ambulance had carried one comatose male away, two other male adults were hauled off to jail, and one 12 year old male kid, with no legal guardian present, was hauled off to child services.  After providing what little information I had to the police, I decided further sleep was not in the cards.

I spent about a week in Cortez and Delores, CO, and a couple of days in Bluff, UT, where I had a flock of Turkey Vultures roosting in the tree right behind my room.  I also went next door to a favorite steakhouse, to find I had to order and pay at the front entrance, then was directed around the side to outdoor only seating; the huge wood fired grill was inactive, and they cooked the steaks inside and brought them out in a Styrofoam container, with plastic silverware and condiment packs – the worst steak dinner I ever have had.

From Bluff and Green River I spent some days revisiting a number of great petroglyph sites displaying 11,000 years of rock art, including in Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park and along the Colorado River cliffs near Moab. One relatively well known panel along the Colorado River is popularly named the “Bear Hunt” as it shows a very large bear surrounded by bow hunters and bighorn sheep; on close inspection I note the bear petroglyph actually overlays an earlier sheep hunt panel commonly displayed by the prehistoric Fremont Indians, while the later bear is a common theme of the later ancestral Ute Indians (who claim some continuity with the Fremont).

Continuing on north into the Uinta Basin, I drove to Vernal, UT, where I enjoyed once again the Dinosaur National Monument and its Freemont petroglyphs. From Vernal I continued North to Rock Springs, WY, where I have enjoyed driving the dirt roads into the Red Desert to visit the White Mountain Petroglyphs (dated 1000 – 1800 AD, apparently created by ancestors of the high plains Indians), and then the next day  looping through wild horse territory, with pronghorn, desert elk, coyotes and, of course, wild horses.  The Red Desert is remarkable in that most of it is a great basin from which water cannot exit – it also happens to lie on the continental divide, meaning that the divide here is discontinuous and splits into two lines which surround the basin.

I seem to have traveled too quickly to the north, as the last 10 days have seen overcast freezing weather with high winds, which will continue into this coming week.  Nevertheless, I intend to head a little further north into central Wyoming for the next couple of weeks – probably looking again for a possible summer home in Buffalo or Sheridan.  All is well after vaccination.

Later, Dave






Travel Report from San Miguel de Allende, Chamber Music Festival, Mexico, August 27, 2019

I have spent the last two weeks, and will spend the next, in San Miguel for its 41st Annual Chamber Music Festival.  For the final 3 weekends I have and will enjoy the Griphon Trio from Canada and the Symphonie Atlantique from the Netherlands.  I have been staying in a small apartment on the 4th floor of the Hospedaje Colibri, with a lovely shaded terrace overlooking the town to the west.  San Miguel, known as either the Cradle of Mexican Independence (This is where the early rebels, including Father Hildalgo, started the War of Independence in 1810), or the Land of Eternal Spring (located in the Central Highlands at about 6,200 feet San Miguel has year-round lovely weather – lots of major late afternoon thunderstorms this time of year making everything fresh and green).  The entire central portion of the town is a protected Unesco World Heritage Site with brightly colored colonial buildings and the towering and famous Parroquia, the European inspired pink church on the town square, which history claims was engineered by a local stonemason using an ancient postcard picture from Belgium as the blueprint.

Most music performances have been in the Peralta Theater, the westernmost opera house in Mexico built about 140 years ago.  The Gryphon Trio (pianist, violinist and cellist) are artists in residence as faculty at the University of Toronto, School of Music, and have already released 28 CD recordings.  I enjoyed their performances of trios composed by Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms among others.  They also have commissioned many new compositions, including one they performed by a young composer named Dinuk Wijeratne, born in Sri Lanka, with Eastern Asia influences and odd chromatic scales.  At a climactic point the pianist heaved off his bench and simply clobbered about 20% of the keyboard by bringing his entire right forearm down to strike simultaneously every key between his right elbow and hand – clashing, but exciting as the violin and cello were bowing up a storm.  I also attended a master class they gave to a young piano trio group from Mexico City, using Beethoven’s 1st Piano Trio for the lesson.

The Symphonie Atlantique is a young group from the Netherlands, which performs exclusively on period instruments, and has sufficient players of odd instruments to perform a large number of lesser performed Baroque, Classical and Romantic chamber music pieces.  I went to a conference where they demonstrated and discussed the various period instruments, about half of which were originals from the periods, one being a 19th century wooden bassoon that had actually been played in a live performance with the great early Romantic period violinist Paganini.

I have not avoided food and drink.  Perhaps too many martinis and margaritas, at Hank’s two-for-one happy hour or Tio Lucas’ bar directly across the road from the entrance to the Peralta Theater.  I have enjoyed both places for well over 20 years and so have fond memories to keep the booze company. The food continues to be the best at Hecho en Mexico and Antigua Trattoria Romana, long time favorites.

I also have not avoided wine and cigars (both cheap, from the La Europea shop on Canal Street), enjoyed on my terrace where I spend most afternoons reading and listening to my own music.  For this trip I bought a new fabulous travel speaker which wires to my portable digital audio player (wherein I have stored my entire music collection).  The speaker, a MiniRig 3 made in England, is the size of the bottom half of a coffee mug, and produces astounding great sound with admirable bass. Thus this entire trip has been turned into a gluttonous feast of music, science fiction, food, booze and cigars.  Not a bad way to ditch southern Arizona summer heat, where I must return next week.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report for Pamplona, Burgos and Madrid, Spain, June 10, 2019

I last wrote from Bordeaux, France, from where I traveled by bus to Pamplona in the ancient Kingdom of Navarra on the edge of Basque Country.  This is the famous setting for Hemmingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises.”  He wrote most of the book at the Café (Casino) Iruna (Iruna is the Basque name for Pamplona), in the central Plaza del Castillo.  For those who don’t recall, he spent several months here, drinking heavily with his literary friends from Paris, and the book, although a novel, based its characters on his actual friends and placed its setting in Pamplona and the Iruna Cafe.  This novel made famous the San Fermin Festival held every July with the Running of the Bulls.   I spent my wine and cigar evenings, as on previous trips, at the terrace tables of the Iruna Café.

Pamplona has a number of 12th century churches and artwork, all Romanesque in style, which is on the old side even for Spain.  Its small Museum of Fine Arts contains many Roman mosaics and statues, wonderful 11th and 12th century Romanesque capitals from the Cathedral, and a number of decent paintings, including one of Goya’s greatest portraits, that of the Marquis of San Adrian.  The cathedral has the alabaster mausoleum for Carlos III and Leonor, King and Queen of Navarra in the early 15th century before the conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella which united the Iberian Peninsula.  The mausoleum comes with included sets of alabaster mourners arranged around all four sides.

My apartment in Pamplona was a long narrow affair running the entire depth of the 6 story building and so had outward facing windows on both sides.  Although recently renovated, the kitchen was outfitted with matching, dazzling hot-pink, retro-style fridge, toaster and teapot (I included a photo just to verify my report).

From Pamplona I traveled the short distance to Burgos, the seat of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and the place they met with Columbus to send him off for his discovery of the New World.  Here is the great 12th to 14th century Romanesque/Gothic Cathedral which, though not quite the largest (Seville’s has that honor), is probably the finest in all Spain. It also now is the resting place for the remains of Rodrigo Diaz, the most famous of all warriors who led the expulsion of the Moors from most of Northern Spain.  He is better known as “El Cid,” and a mighty bronze statue of him upon a great horse sits at the Plaza El Cid and main bridge into Burgos.  The cathedral also contains a number of mausoleums to patrons and royalty, with alabaster likenesses of the dead within.

My apartment in Burgos was one of those 6th floor roof-top jobs where you literally are under the sloping roof, so your ceilings slope downwards almost to the floor at the walls.  Very peculiar living.  The windows jutting out of the ceiling opened onto the Plaza Mayor affording a magnificent view of the Plaza and Burgos Cathedral.  I have included a large panorama photo of the view taken under black thunderstorm clouds.

Burgos sits by the famous Sierra de Atapuerca sites where a series of underground water courses has opened pits, or “simas,” and caves which provided many of the earliest known locations outside of Africa for early humans.  The Museum of Human Evolution has recently been opened in Burgos to display all the discoveries made at Atapuerca.  This includes 1.3 million year old hominids seemingly from Asia rather than Africa, 1.1 million year old remains of Homo-antecessor which the scientists here now believe was the common ancestor of Neanderthal and Sapiens, and 400,000 plus year old genetic tested specimens from the Sima Pits now confirmed as early neanderthalensis, necessarily making the sapiens divergence much older than thought (probably around 800,000-900,000 years ago).  These continuing discoveries make Atapuerca one of the most active early human sites in the world, and together with southern Morocco and parts of Asia continually challenge the notion that almost all hominid evolution occurred in eastern Africa.

From Burgos I traveled by train back to Madrid last Thursday, and found a terrific set of apartments just south of the Plaza Mayor, putting me into the Latina neighborhood, but still just a short walk from Huertas where I often stay.  Both are famous for their tapas bars and plazas with terraced cafes.  Now-a-days many wonderful bronze statues are placed in locations where they perfectly mimic insertion into the crowds of people, although they don’t seem to move much.  I have included several photos of this wonderful form of public sculpture.

I did spend over 3 hours in the fabulous National Museum of Archaeology, my third time.  It covers the human evolution in southern Europe, most of which occurred in the Iberian Peninsula, followed by the Iberian bronze age cultures and, of course, the many occupations and settlements, first by the Phoenicians followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors ending finally with the Reconquista.   Several of the most outstanding pieces are life-size Iberian funerary urns of ladies from the late Bronze Age; the best known is the “Lady of Elche” from the late 5th century BC.

I am winding down this trip, and fly back to Tucson Wednesday the 12th.  Life continues to be good.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Basque Country in North of Spain and Bordeaux, France, May 27, 2019

I last reported from Cordoba, from where I traveled north back through Madrid and on to Bilbao, capital of Basque Country.  This is an autonomous community of the Basque people in northern Spain which extends into southern France.  The region is mountainous with a high level of rainfall, and is spectacularly verdant and lush with its many rivers.  I spent 5 days in Bilbao, with unusual beautiful sunshine weather.  Basque Country is noted for its food, and especially its pintxos, the Basque variety of tapas, though these generally are far more ornate and cost extra.

I spent a number of hours in the Museum of Fine Arts, with paintings by Gauguin, Ribera, Zurbaran, Goya and El Greco among others.  I also circled outside and inside the famous Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, a number of times, noting it’s curved and twisting titanium armored plated and glass exterior.  Inside are permanent exhibitions of many modern artists (most still alive), including Jenny Holzer and Richard Serra – these more often than not were not paintings, but massive room filling creations (Serra’s “Matter of Time” includes huge curving metal walls that undulate and lean oddly as they rise to about 15 feet and fill a museum hall that is over the size of a football field; Holzer’s “Things Indescribable” uses moving neon lights, animated metal things and human bones to display disturbing ideas looking at the darkness in humans during war and conflict).  Unique and interesting, but not really my cup of tea.

From there I traveled the short distance east to the small coastal town of Lekeitio, a real gem sitting in its verdant bay.  With a balcony view of the bay I was able to enjoy the 3 days of rain from my own little wine and cigar hangout.  I also almost thought I had reached food heaven with a small local tavern where they had the most wondrous seafood soup, filled with fresh fish and small shrimps.  This was a first course choice of the daily lunch menu, and was served in a huge metal taurine from which you could fill at least 3 large soup bowls.  The included wine didn’t come in a glass, but was always an entire bottle placed on the table for however much was desired (you do need some self-restraint if you wish to stay awake for the afternoon).  Several days later I moved on to San Sebastian, where I have visited several times before.  It is one of the most beautiful bay cities in the world, and is rated higher than any other world city for Michelin star restaurants (I visited none).  The regular small restaurants, taverns and bars mostly have wonderful pintxos and wonderful wine, all simply amazingly inexpensive.  I visited for the second time the fascinating Aquarium with its giant tanks over the sea.

Being so close, and never having visited Bordeaux, I decided to take the short international bus up from San Sebastian.  I am in a loft apartment on the longest pedestrian street in the country, the Rue Sainte Catherine.  Close enough to the 11th century Cathedral St Andrew and the 12th century Basilica St Michael that the church bells seem constant, fortunately drowning out the sometimes almost constant wail of sirens (no idea why they have been so active).  I visited the Musee des Beaux Arts, said to be the second best classical painting museum in the country after the Louvre.  It contains works by Brugghen, Murillo, van Dyck, Rubens, Matisse and Renoir, among others, along with a special exhibition of some of the darkest drawings by Goya.  I had not remembered that Goya moved to Bordeaux from Spain in his final years of going crazy and died here.

Tomorrow I return to Spain and go to Pamplona, at the edge of Basque Country, just a month before the running of the bulls.  There I still will find great pintxos and chocolate, if my memory of 11 years ago is sound.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report from Salamanca, Seville, Jerez and Cordoba, Spain, May 11, 2019

Because my first 4 days in Salamanca were wet and cold, I extended the stay in my favorite town to enjoy the forecasted greatly improved weather – this had me moving to a new apartment down by the river.  My last 3 days were sunny and warm, and permitted some good photo opportunities, as well as more comfortable sidewalk tapas bars in the late afternoon.  Of special note, I continued to visit some of my old haunts which I first encountered when studying Spanish in Salamanca in 2003.  One tavern, with great wood fired grilled meats, then was called Patio Chico.  I had trouble locating it years later until I realized its name had changed to Ruta de la Plata.  Still the same great place – and I recognized one of the bartenders and the grill master who had been there for well over a decade.  I wondered some why the haunted eyes of the grill master now seemed more especially familiar, and then realized he was the spitting image of Jack Dorsey, billionaire founder of Twitter. I include a photo below of him with yours truly for your comparison.  Miguel still grills great steak, panceta and sausage – more valuable by far to me than Twitter.  He never had heard of Jack Dorsey.

I climbed the Salamanca Bell Tower for the Old and New Cathedrals in order to get some large composite photos from roof height of the Romanesque and Gothic dome towers and decorations. Both photos are composites of around 45 individual photos, giving a particularly wide viewing angle and tons of detail (you won’t find photos like these elsewhere).  As over the years I have written much, and published dozens of photos, covering Salamanca’s history and edifices I won’t do a repeat now.  The town is feeling more like a second home than a place to visit.

From Salamanca I returned to Madrid, hitting 3 of my favorite tapas haunts in the Santa Ana neighborhood, before traveling on south for a while, stopping first for several days in Seville.  There I had a 3 room apartment that opened onto a large patio.  I visited for the first time the lovely Casa Pilatos, with Renaissance courtyards and pillars and wonderful Mudejar (post Islam Moorish architectural style) decorations.  Also, spent a morning near the huge tourist line to enter the Cathedral, where I watched a street performance of Flamenco.  Again, for long discourses on all things Seville and large numbers of photos, you must go back to prior travelogues available on the website.

From Seville I traveled south to finally visit Jerez de la Frontera.  Jerez is the birthplace of sherry (“jerez” in Spanish), a fortified wine aged in oak barrels.  I used to think of sherry as that disgustingly sweet wine with which 1960’s TV and movie starlets liked to get tipsy.  What I have discovered in later years is that almost all good sherry comes from just the Palomino grapes, and always is dry (not sweet), but includes several very different colors and tastes based on the aging and whether the fortification allows a floral (yeast) growth to cover the top.  The sweet Sherries come from Moscatel and Ximenez grapes, and mostly seem inferior.  The name “sherry” legally can only be applied to the wine from a small triangle area around the town of Jerez.  I spent several hours at a small Tabanco (originally the name for a tobacco shop, but now come to be applied to the bars that carry the oak barrels of sherry, where one often can find impromptu flamenco concerts or dances).  Paulino, the owner of Tobanco Paulino spent over an hour sitting with me, giving me the history and secrets of making dry sherry (I followed only about 80% of his explanations as his was a rapid Spanish) – you will see the photo of us below.  While in Jerez I stayed in a small efficiency apartment well centered in town, and visited the Alcazar (fortress), Cathedral and related church; the churches both were mostly Gothic in architectural style, but had very poor quality stones which already were sluffing off pieces after just 500 years (2000 year old Roman construction and 1000 year old Romanesque churches have much better quality stone).

From Jerez I traveled to Cordoba, one of my favorite towns, for the annual Festival de los Patios, where dozens of wealthy homes open up their patios which are covered with spring flowers in bloom.  The Great Mosque (Mezquita), for which construction started in the 8th Century and reached completion by the 10th Century, was then the center of the largest city and the major Caliphate in the Mediterranean.  After the Reconquista of this part of Spain, the entire Mosque was converted to a cathedral though only the central portion of the Mosque was renovated. The entirety is an Islamic wonder rivaled, in my opinion, only by the Alhambra in Granada and the Taj Mahal in India.  The entire interior, excepting only the space converted into the Cathedral, is a forest of double stone arches supporting the roof over the space of several football fields.  The Mihrab, which unusually does not face Mecca, has three arched portals the outside of which is completely covered with mosaics made of semi-precious stones.  Inside are protected a number of marble pieces from the original Visigoth Church upon which the 8th Century Mosque originally was constructed.  As with Salamanca and Seville, I previously have reported at length on these towns and their vast architectural treasures, and so will not repeat this trip.

I have enjoyed evenings at the Sociedad Plateros (silversmiths society) restaurant with excellent Andalucian dishes. They have barrels of a local “fino” wine – “Montilla” – similar to sherry but in my view much better – it goes great with an order of deep fried lightly battered strips of eggplant with honey, a specialty in Andalucia.  I also spent one evening in the expensive Taberna Patio de la Juderia, with terrific food and a nightly Flamenco performance.  Every late afternoon I sat on the Plaza Agrupacion de Cofradias, a beautiful triangular plaza on the downhill street to the Mezquita, and had red wine while listening to the street performer, a blind old man with a guitar singing soulful Andalucian songs.  Each afternoon the Royal Stables of Cordoba, where by order of the King, they have maintained the pure-bred Spanish horses since the early 1500s, bring one of their beautiful stallions to the plaza for pictures with tourists; this to entice the public to purchase tickets for one of the horse shows during the festival.

I certainly noticed, after publishing the current webpage, that I have included photos of myself in 4 different taverns.  This – after spending years publishing hundreds of photos with only a rare one including my face.  I guess because I am visiting so many familiar places I have taken far fewer scenic photos, and perhaps have spent somewhat more time relaxing in my favorite afternoon haunts.

Tomorrow I return to Madrid from where I will head north to Basque Country for a number of days in Bilbao, Lekeitio and San Sebastian, after which I will travel on North into France.  Later.  Dave


Travel Report on Avila Holy Week Processions, and Salamanca, Spain, April 26, 2019

Upon arrival in Madrid from Rome I spent the night, and then traveled by train to the ancient and conservative Catholic town of Avila in Castile y Leon.  Avila started with Roman defenses, but now is famed for its 11th century medieval walls and towers which still completely encircle the Old City.  Its 11th to 14th century Gothic cathedral sits on the high point in the town where its apse forms part of the defensive wall structure and 5 entrance gates.

I specifically hurried to Avila for its Easter week sacred processions, which happen each evening after sunset.  All over central Spain, various regional brotherhoods, known as cofradias in Spanish, maintain floats, here called “tronos,” year-round in the churches and cathedrals.  The floats are foundations for religious sculptures and scenes exhibiting events of the holy week leading to the crucifixion and resurrection.  The cofradias, with various other penitents, dress in colorful robes with masks and pointed headdress, called “capirotes”, then march with the tronos through the darkening streets of the old cities, usually with a band playing mournful music.  The processions in Castile and Leon are considered the most solemn and authentic, dating back many centuries.  Most Americans upon first seeing such a procession are stunned that the penitents appear to be dressed as the Ku Klux Klan, though most robes, masks and tall pointed headdress are colorful.  The penitent’s capirote has been traditional for centuries and the head-dress with mask is worn out of modesty, as penance is to be practiced anonymously.  No one seems to know why, or how, the KKK wound up with such a similar copy of this ancient penitent dress, though KKK robes always are white.

I had a wonderful hotel room in Palacio de la Velada, a late 15th  to early 16th century palace, one of many in town; of its roughly 140 rooms, I had one of only five with a balcony opening onto the Cathedral plaza, and so watched some of the processions from my private balcony.  I believe I watched 5 entire processions and obtained some wonderful video.  Again, I wish I could figure out how easily to downsize the high resolution video (each several minute clip of video is many Gigabytes of data) and make it available on my website.

Avila’s mostly 14th century Gothic Cathedral is a magnificent wonder – but Avila has also, just outside the Arco San Vicente Gate, the early 12th century Basilica San Vicente, thought by some to be the finest Romanesque Church in Spain.  It is a beauty inside and out, and the Romanesque portals, arches and capitals are the best preserved I have seen.  Also, inside just before the altar, sits a massive Romanesque cenotaph to the martyred Saints Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta, with the wonderful gold covered sides and preserved carved and painted wooden scenes from the martyrdom.

After 4 days in Avila, I traveled again by train onward west the short distance to my favorite town, Salamanca.  The weather, unfortunately, was chilly and rainy almost my entire time in Avila, and has grown only worse upon arrival in Salamanca.  The locals are complaining this is a somewhat unusual early spring pattern. Tomorrow the weather is forecast finally to improve, and so I have just booked 3 more days in Salamanca to take advantage of some decent sunshine and warmth for photography and outdoor tapas bar evenings.

Once again I am housed in a magnificent location.  The Baroque Plaza Mayor of Salamanca was built in the early 1700s by the Churriguera cousins, and is one of the largest, and considered by many the finest, Plaza Mayor in all of Spain; to my eyes it easily improves on the great Plaza Mayor of Madrid.  Built per request of the King, it became the city center and was used also for bull fights until the last century. It is formed as a huge unequally sided square, with close to 100 arches on the ground levels and 3 stories of balconied rooms above, completely enclosing the square.  Six large entrance arches permit access from all city directions.  All is constructed of the Salamanca soft yellow limestone.  Ten of the rooms above the Plaza have been converted to a private hotel within the last year.  Each room is modern; 5 rooms open on the market to the East of the Plaza, and 6 have wide double glass doors and balconies opening out onto the Plaza itself.  I have one of these rooms.  In my years visiting Salamanca I never have been able to enter the Plaza’s upper floor rooms for a view and now I am living, for a few days, in one.

Later.  Dave


Travel Report on Lucca, Pisa, and 2nd Visits to Florence and Rome, Italy, Apr. 18, 2019

I last reported on Florence, to which I will again return in this segment. From Florence I took, on April 9, the regional train to Lucca, an ancient walled Tuscany town west of Florence, and famous for its complete set of 16th Century walls built to defend against the threat from the Florence Kingdom which then extended to just 15 kilometers from Lucca; the walls never saw defensive use, and now form over 4 kilometers of one of the finest raised set of gardens, overlooks and bike and walking paths completely circling the old city.  The cathedral and the Basilica amaze with their white marble Romanesque and Gothic exteriors. I stayed in a lovely B&B, the Relais Lucca, just inside the walls, and spent a fair amount of time just getting mildly lost in the maze of old city alleys and streets which run at odd angles.

I took a day trip to visit the famous Cathedral and Tower of Pisa, just 25 minutes away on the wonderful local trains.  Although the regional trains are not the various high-speed versions, and stop at many local stations, they still run at over 100 mph, leave and arrive on time (generally to the minute), and spend just minutes in the stations.  Travel by train is faster, cheaper and more convenient than renting an auto (unless you are with a group).

The Pisa cathedral probably is the most amazing I have seen in Europe, sitting inside its own set of medieval walls, and surrounded by sumptuous and massive related marble edifices all set in manicured green expansive lawns.  All the related structures seem ultimately to exist just to showcase that weird, but now expected, gorgeous white bell tower – it just does not look like it should be able to resist falling.  This World Heritage Site seemed to me to have more tourists than any site I have so far visited.  It is hard to exaggerate the numbers of tour groups and student groups scurrying like thousands of ants over the grounds and into and out of the various structures.  And for the thousands of visitors each hour they provided one set of public toilets, with two stalls for women and two for men.  These were not well maintained, had lines which tested bladder control, and required first lining up at a small ticket office to purchase the 80 cent right to use same.  This certainly seemed an utterly preposterous operational miss for such an astounding site.

From Lucca I had to back-track to Florence before returning to Rome.  I spent two days back in Florence to pick up a couple more visits to their unmatched wealth of artistic highlights.  I visited the Medici Capellas, the domed burial crypts for the most powerful members of that wealthy Florence family dynasty.  The chapels were designed by Michelangelo, and contain a number of his marble sculptures and architectural achievements.  I spent 5 hours the next day visiting a one-time exhibition, presented in the Palazzo Strozzi, entitled “Verrocchio Master of Leonardo.”  Here, for the first time ever, sculptures, paintings and drawings were borrowed from many of the best museums in the world to display the works of Verrocchio, one of the Renaissance great masters, who also was perhaps the greatest teacher producing in his workshop a crop of famous later masters, including Leonardo da Vinci. I understand this Exhibition will move this fall to the US for a few months.

From Florence I returned for a final two days in Rome, traveling via Tren Italo, a competing high speed train doing the entire journey at about 180 mph.  My Rome hotel room this time was across Via Cavour from my last apartment; I now had a balcony facing north over the majority of the Roman Forum and the massive “Altar to the Fatherland” monument, with exceptional evening views.  As in Florence, I used the time to pick up a few of the many sites previously missed.  This included a day spent in the Capitoline Museums on the hill above the Roman Forum.  Here one encounters most of the marble and bronze masterpieces excavated from the central part of ancient Rome.  These include the heroic sized bronze of Marco Aurelio on horseback, the incredible bronze of “Spinario,”, the seated boy pulling a thorn from his foot, the marble “Capitoline Galatian,” also known as the “Dying Gaul,” the marble “Capitoline Venus” and a stupendously detailed black marble centaur, recovered from Hadrian’s Villa.

On the 17th I flew from Rome to Madrid, stayed one night near the Chamartin Station and took the train the next day to Avila, the famous World Heritage Site walled city in Castillo y Leon, to spend Easter with the nightly solemn Processions from and to the Cathedral.

Some closing observations from Italy:

The trains and buses leave on time, and almost always arrive on time, usually within one minute of schedule.  And, for almost anywhere you want to go, convenient train service exists with departures throughout the day. Travel is much faster than by auto, and passes through beautiful countryside rather than along busy highways.

Tour groups are everywhere, but now something like 20% to 30% of all foreign groups are Chinese. This is something you just did not see 10 years ago.  Clearly the middle-class in China has grown substantially and now seeks to explore the world. I am curious to what extent the government promotes this.

About half of all late morning tour groups, in all museums and heritage sites, are middle-school students with drag-along teachers and/or parents trying (usually in vain) to maintain order and some semblance of silence inside the buildings.  As a teacher lectures about what is before the group, most of the students seem to pay little attention.  I suppose some of this cultural heritage finds a way in, and actually may reappear in the future as one acquires more context.

Selfies have become a scourge of travel photography.  Younger people no longer desire photos of just cathedrals or gated walls or Michelangelo marbles or da Vinci paintings or “leaning towers.”  All famous landmarks and works of art become simply settings and backdrops – the photographer becomes the main subject.  Most try infinitely overused poses or camera positions, and all require the subject to get as close as possible to any artwork.  The new Chinese tourists seem to have a special appetite for these, or more often small group photos.  Anyway, if one simply wants a photo of the edifice or work of art, it may be nearly impossible without including in the photo a constant stream of selfie subjects vying to stand in front of or as close to the famous piece as possible.  This somewhat narcissistic obsession with inserting self as the main subject into photos of all manner of external wonders bothers me at a deep level.  Clearly the phenomenon has emerged as part of the social media revolution. (Recent news reports make clear the obsession can become deadly when the backdrops are not man made, but include wild animals or scenic canyon overlooks).

I really like the Italian cigars made in Tuscany -Toscano Clasicos come 5 to the box at about $1.25 each – available in any tobacco shop in the country.  The tobacco, now grown in Tuscany, is a Kentucky variant grown initially for pipe mixtures. The tobacco apparently is allowed to ferment, and then the cigar is made with the moist leaves.  The final cigar is long, fat in the middle, and with a heavy ribbed leaf outer wrap.  The cigars are dry and so do not have to be maintained in humidity.  They look like a double cheroot joined at the fat end. They burn decent and long, and provide a mild smoke.

Many people have dogs they walk in the cobbled streets.  In Lucca, close to half the dogs I saw were odd versions of “wiener” dogs, aka dachshunds – this included short-haired, long-haired, wire-haired, longer legged and fat dogs, including one extraordinarily long dog where the backbone strained to hold the belly off the ground.  My family’s first dog in India was a dachshund of uncertain parentage, so I have always loved the breed.

Almost no one in Italy is overweight, despite the seeming occurrence in the “old towns” of ice-cream (gelato) shops almost every other block (pastry stores with sinful chocolate are in between). Families walk with ice cream dribbling from their cones, over their fingers and onto the street.  An exception to this healthful body appearance, you may guess, is with the American tourists; first you notice the expansive pants – then you pass by and hear the unaccented English.

Italians apparently cannot talk if they cannot gesture and wave their arms.  I have had Italians confirm this to me.  It is amusing to watch a person walking down the street, phone in pocket and headset on, talking to the air in front of their face (common in the Western world) – it is more amusing to watch an Italian doing same, but with both arms waving emphatically with various gestures.  Even more amusing when someone is seated at a restaurant table, phone laid flat in front with speaker phone on, and the diner is conversing with the table while the arms are flailing.  I sometimes wish I was more expressive.

Goodbye Italy.  Later.  Dave