Stepping Into a Dream: The Wonders of Petra (Jordan)

A smiling Bedouin approached me and said, “Here.  Please take my card.   It has my website on it.   I am here if you have any questions at all.”   Impeccable english.   Within seconds, I was blown away by the archaeological treasures before me and now, this interesting chap.  I looked over to his camel and visualized riding off over the sand dunes never to be captured by the modern world again.

We’d been tipped off by the locals to get here as the gates opened if we desired a tranquil experience.   The Red Sea was not far away and swarms of air conditioned, modern tour busses would soon load their pink-skinned cargo straight off of their plush cruise liners and they’d be upon us like locusts!   Best to make haste slowly.  No time to waste!

The drive from Amman was itself an interesting trek across the Jordanian desert.   Before the sun rises, then as it peeks above the horizon, the magical lights bring the quiet sands to life.   Our driver asked what radio station we’d like and as we always do, we replied that we’d be very happy with his local station.   Why on earth would we want to listen to something “western” when we are here?  Please.

As we approached, descending to the site, our spirits soared.   We could see the almost empty parking lot and my wife and I were glad that we’d risen at four in the morning to be the first ones here.   Sweet tranquility.

So much to take in, so little time.   Grateful, however, that at least we had this chance.

The walk from the exposed desert and immediately into the narrow gorge was wonderful.  Looking up, all I could see was a strip of blue sky.  It reminded me of an earlier adventure in southern Utah when I had waded up a chilly creek in Zion National Park (the Narrows).  Shortly into the gorge, the wall carvings began to appear, some sadly worn at about the four to five foot height due to careless tourists touching them.  Same damage as I had noted while in the ancient stacked pyramids in Egypt years prior.

If only we could select the humans that would respect these magnificent places…

Once through the gorge, the famous Treasury Building came into view and to my astonishment, about 300 other structures as well, all carved into the beautiful, red sandstone; a stone so curious with all of its various, curved striations.

So deep into the canyons were we that the sun only began to strike us as we hiked up the steep paths to the upper plateaus.

I could write an entire book on this morning’s experience, but this entry shall have to serve as a tease and an invitation for you who read it to go visit this wonderful site.

By the later morning, as we made haste to leave before the masses arrived, we found we were too late!   Nooooooo… a primal “geschrei” arose within us!    Through the narrow gorge, they all came streaming out, each grouping led by an underpaid tour guide with colored umbrella.   Within seconds, we were overrun and the once quiet place was abuzz with rude tourists bouncing off of each other each in desperation for the much needed photo.

I could barely breathe as my wife and I waded upstream through the gorge and to our amused driver waiting at the edge of chaos.

Well…, it was a magnificent experience, one that I would highly recommend.   If I had the Bedouin’s business card, I would surely post his contact information for you so that he might guide you for a quiet and contemplative experience of your own.

Sabering Champagne

Like a beautiful flower that slowly blooms, patiently revealing her secrets, my wife brought me a bottle of good champagne and … a saber and said, “Let’s do this a different way.”  It may have been our anniversary or a birthday, I can’t recall, but I sure do remember the thrill when I sabered my first bottle of champagne!

Life should be lived boldly.   Just my personal philosophy.   And when we do, we enter a far more interesting dimension, one filled with a full spectrum of emotion, and we are often surprised along the way at our growing courage.

So tempting to navigate our world avoiding new and scary things, something sadly I had begun drifting into as I felt a need to conform and robotize into the grand cog of the modern world.  But someone nudged me off of that path in life years ago; my wife.  A little nudge here, a little one there, and before long a grand world opened up.

The person with whom we forge a life makes all the difference, yes?  They can drag you down or pull you up.  Pay it forward each day, and good (even great) things start to happen.  Like an imperceptibly growing crescendo, the color and vitality of our given experience grows large and now we learn the way of the risk taker.

So much of what we are taught early in life and later reinforced in adulthood would caution us to “not be the tall blade of grass, for the lawnmower will whack you down”.   Kind of makes sense until our questioning souls say… “bullshit to that”, you are not my role model, she is.

I admit it, scandalous women intrigue me.  Take Beryl Markham, for example.   Hers is a story filled with off-the-beaten track truly grand adventures.   She wasn’t coddled or dressed-up like a doll.  No, no, her story is nothing of the sort and I can’t wait to read her memoir in West With the Night (1920s; Kenya).   It’s the next adventure material on my growing pile of print screens of books I need to read.

Beryl Markham

Drifting back in time to a land far away, I could see my wife and I enjoying a raucous evening with a group of travelers, perhaps we are around a roaring fire in Kenya, surrounded in total blackness on a moonless night, with like-minded souls and Caroline turns to me and says, “Why don’t you bring the champagne … and saber, dear.  A grand geste is in order for tonight.”

Live daringly, my friends.  We only get one chance at this thing called life.

Erasing History – The Yom Kippur War

When you are a 15-year-old kid (1975) and desperate to record your ‘fine’ rock and roll music, you hunt through your dad’s stuff, find a cassette tape (remember those?) and of course, tape over the existing recording…   except that, what was on that tape was far more interesting than the horrid, out-of-tune rendition of Honky Tonk Woman that followed.

34 years later, as my driver followed the Jordan Valley Highway south to drop me off for the tour of Jesus’ baptismal site, I thought back to that fateful day when I wiped out some interesting history on tape.

I wasn’t close to the old boy, but I can’t deny that he had a great go at life.   As a US diplomat stationed in Ankara (Turkey), he’d be called on to handle various assignments; one of which was to assist Henry Kissinger in his shuttle diplomacy during the early 1970s.  On one such assignment, during the Yom Kippur War, he found himself shuttling between Syria and Israel, the details of which I found in his journals and I’d rather not share.  But the tape he brought back of his time with the Israeli Army was surely fascinating.

While that conflict raged on, he found himself inside a mountain bunker with the US and Israeli military officers and NCOs while the Syrians were hurling artillery and vectoring closer to their hardened site.   And as the incoming barrage intensified, one could clearly hear the tenor of voices, the back and forth over the radio, and most of all the increasingly terrified voice of the civilians inside; my dad, included, though I could tell he was working hard to be brave.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the day my dad came into my room and asked, “have you seen my cassette?” and of course, seeing it on my desk, his heart sinking as he realized that I had taped over a good portion of his prized piece of history.  To his credit, he never lost his cool.  He just laughed, walked out, and closed the door behind him.

Cresting the rolling mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, passing Jordanian military check posts every few kilometers, I thought back to those earlier years and wondered what the old boy really did see in the desert so long ago.

My driver dropped me off under what looked like a crude, Bedouin tent with the deuce and a half parked next to it (military truck w/canvas top).   There were a few other tourists assembled and we all hopped into the back of the truck for our visit to The Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ.   It was a fascinating walk to the famous river, the Israeli flag snapping in the wind across the way under the unrelenting high sun.   Surreal, in a way.

Sitting on a rock by the site, random thoughts coursed through my mind that afternoon.   If only my devoutly Catholic grandmother and great-grandmother could have joined me on this pilgrimage; though, I swore I felt their presence…

Making Contact with the Very Large Array, New Mexico

My mind was still processing the four days I had experienced participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March at the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range with 7,199 others when I spied the large sign for the Very Large Array (VLA) traveling north on I-25 in southern New Mexico.   I almost rammed the unsuspecting car to my right as I made desperate haste to the exit.   Like many others, I’d first learned of this incredible place watching the movie, Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster but had thought little of it since.

Once off of the highway, I realized that to get there from the town of Socorro, I’d have to drive another 50 miles each way!   Geez, I was so wasted from the 26.2 mile run/walk in the hot New Mexico desert the day before that to add this detour would make for a very, very long day, indeed.   Yet, there are times in life, I’ve found, that cool stuff simply can’t always wait until it is convenient.

On the way to the VLA with a sign “just to remind”…

It was about 8:15 in the morning as the early rays raked over the arid landscape and though my wife and I live in a similarly desolate landscape farther north in Colorado, I could already tell that this area was far more remote.   Like many places in the southwest in the US, the two lane road through these grasslands was lined with tired and forgotten structures that had once been filled with life.

Over the years of traveling around this world, I’ve come to appreciate and savor the beauty that exists in all types of landscapes.   Here, the prairie grasses were still a light brown waiting to green up in the later spring, providing a calming and visually pleasing offset to the dark brown rock formations of the faraway mountains ringing this altiplano.  The two lane road undulated up and down and disappeared through the heat of the day as I began to feel a bit vulnerable.  It almost felt as though I were driving on a vast sea, the oncoming stripes in the center of the road lulling me into a sort of trance.

Through the last town then, and the final stretch lay before me.   I’d be making the left turn south in about 20 minutes but way before that, the magnificent array of large antennae were just making their first appearance.   My God, what an unexpected bonus to this four day expedition and the anticipation grew as I neared the site.

VLA array, tightly grouped during my visit. As seen from the approaching road.

Nothing else around.  “No Service” on my cell phone.  It all appeared like a desert mirage… had I wandered into the Twilight Zone?

And like all things in wide open spaces in big sky country, scale and proportion are always underestimated.   The seemingly tiny array would still require another ten minutes of driving before the final turn into the complex.

But as I’ve come to learn, some of the most interesting and worthwhile sites require time and distance to get to.  So programmed are we in the modern age to demand things immediately, the ones who make the commitment are typically rewarded with small to non-existent crowds and magnificent treasures to behold.   This was one of them.

Tracks that allow the dishes to be moved up to 13 miles out from the center.

At a bit after nine in the morning, on this perfectly still day, there was only one other visitor; a fellow Bataan marcher as it turned out!   We gave each other our space after exchanging pleasantries as we wandered out onto the site under the massive antennae.   Each stands 90 feet tall with dishes measuring 80 feet wide.   And as the Gods smiled down upon us, they instructed the scientist to reposition the 27 dishes to a new angle … and the white giants all simultaneously moved.  I’d never seen anything like this.

The two of us stood motionless as little children would, in perfect awe – thoughts of the genius minds who conceived of this and those whose determination pushed such a grand project forward to completion back in the late 1970s.

Stacks of railroad ties used in constructing and maintaining the 40+ miles of tracks.

The Y-shaped array of the train tracks allows the scientists and researchers to reposition the dishes out 13 miles from the center, providing varying degrees of resolution on the radio spectrum; fascinating.    And, in concert with the Hubble Telescope’s capacity for visual and infrared imagery, the combined effect is for deep space imagery that it truly beyond comprehension for this tiny mind.

Photo from video referenced, below.
One of the dishes is always being serviced. This image was taken from a video, referenced in the link below.

I bade my fellow Bataan marcher a farewell and drove the 50 miles back to the highway, looking back periodically at the mirage in the desert.   How interesting to pause for a time to reflect on this incredible mission.   Someday, I suspect, we shall discover something out there that will significantly alter the way we see our endless Universe; placing our petty, man-made squabbles in their proper little box, God Willing…

I swore that I heard Jodie’s voice somewhere.

[Click on:  Very Large Array for a brilliantly-produced video tour.]

Bridging Cultural Barriers with Art in Amman, Jordan

In an age of mistrust, one largely fueled by a broad spectrum of news media with agendas to fill, I find myself on a mission to diffuse that.   We can choose to be willing participants a la George Orwell (1984), or we can turn off those vexing screens and go out into our world and work to counter these insidious effects.   One way that I have found works well is through art and creative expression.

Jordan is a real jewel.   If you break from the tourist busses and go solo, the locals you encounter along the way will almost always take the time to smile and share their treasured insights.   One such encounter happened while sketching the King Hussein Mosque one spring day as I sat under an old olive tree.

An unexpected tap on my shoulder and I turned around to see a smiling young boy and girl, no older than three or four.   Wearing sandals and white robes (thawbs), these two looked like little angels, their jet-black hair framing their friendly faces.  And as I turned to look for their parents, there they were also smiling but a bit more reserved.   The father approached, arms behind him, and began to speak to me in impeccable English;

“You are enjoying your moment, yes?”

“Yes, thank you, I am.” as I stood out of respect to chat with him.   “I am studying architecture and I am trying to sketch this grand mosque.   I hope that is ok to do.”

An almost imperceptible grin came over this impressive man, “Of course it is.   I hope that my children have not disturbed you.”

“No, no.  Not at all.   What a glorious day it is.”  And though the exchange was brief, it was typical of the way that I go about my travels abroad and in the US.   People know when there is a threat and when there is not.   I’ve worked hard to present myself in a respectful way.  Why do otherwise?

Hundreds, if not thousands, were walking up the hill on their way into service and soon I would have the gardens all to myself.   Conscious that I was a Westerner in this sacred area, I was careful to keep my distance and low profile.   So much of this region was in turmoil, that I knew I was a bit vulnerable, but I also appreciated that this may be the only time that I would be in Amman and so I kept sketching the intricate structure.

It was probably an hour when the main doors opened again and the worshippers came back out; it was a sea of people walking towards me as I tried to make my way back to my driver on the other side of the complex.   I kept my head down, again, consciously aware of my foreign presence when suddenly I hear,

“Mister!   Hello, mister!” and I turned to see the tall, slender man with the impressive beard smiling at me as he and his entire family approached.

I must have been a bit surprised and now quickly, a bit embarrassed hoping that they’d not ask to see my sad looking sketch, but too late.

“Please.   You have finished your drawing.  May we see?”, the little ones were particularly eager.   Dread filled me because this really was not one of my better works, but I relented.

“Of course you may, but I must warn you, it is not very good.”

They all smiled, some probably spoke no English, and I have learned that the gentle and kind expressions have a way of speaking a language of their own.   I kneeled down, placed my backpack on the ground and opened my worn, leather journal to my mediocre sketch when I looked at the two children whose faces were now grinning ear to ear.  To them, I suppose it was a masterpiece.

The masses were moving around us, some looking down at what was going on at knee level when I carefully tore the two pages out of my journal and handed this to the children.  I placed my hand on their shoulders and told them it was a gift.

The father looked genuinely touched as did the other adults and I shook the man’s hand as we bade each other a farewell.

“Inch Allah”  (God Willing)… a beautiful saying

“إن شاء الله”, I responded, as we parted ways.

With God’s will, perhaps those sad, looking sketches will endure as a sort of cultural embrace in a world seemingly gone mad…

[Multimedia, public domain image, filtered through Prisma for artistic expression]


An Unexpected Detour to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – South Dakota (Nov’09)

Journey enough, and you’ll likely come upon the occasional surprise along the way.   The cross-country odyssey I had embarked on, across Rt. 90 on my way to Mt. Hood, Oregon featured numerous stops along the way such as Devil’s Tower, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and other treasures.   What I had not anticipated was a place commemorating the technology that could be used to annihilate the human race.

Bouncing along in my fully-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I spied the signs for it a few miles before the turnoff and it had me trying to visualize what the ranchers in this remote area would have seen had we ever launched our missiles…

A peaceful landscape of undulating and rolling grassy fields would have suddenly come alive as a thousand missiles rose from their bunkers; an absolutely frightful site, as they would then await the incoming counterstrike from the then-USSR.   Simply surreal.

Looked like I had just a few minutes before the place closed.   I knew I’d not be able to get a tour of the bunker, but it was still worth a detour and so I went.   Poor ranger.   It was mid-November and I likely woke the poor guy up!   No other visitors there.

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It was an interesting few minutes and when I left the trailer, I gazed out to the enclosed site where the decommissioned facility lay.   At the height of the Cold War, there were 1,000 of these sites; now, there are about 450.   I can only imagine how lonely such a posting must be and the mindset it must take to take on such a responsibility.

Let us pray that mankind continues to appreciate the implications of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Returning my my overloaded Jeep, I made my way back onto westbound Rt. 90 and my thoughts wandered to my youth, to the five years spent living behind the Iron Curtain.

13 years prior, while inspecting the Krunichev Rocket Facility on the outskirts of Moscow, the USAF Colonel on tour with me leaned over and whispered, “I was in Nuclear Targeting at the Pentagon and this was one of our targets.”

Yikes…   Maybe this is why I now live in a very remote part of Colorado.

[Photos from the NPS multimedia, public domain]

Befriending a Polish WW2 Ace (Warsaw, 1971)

Józefa Mianowskiego 16, Warsaw.   Searching through an old, beat up footlocker, I found the old address rubber stamp with its ink pad now dry for many years.   The ancient memories now came flooding back and for some unexplainable reason, I thought of the day I met my bigger-than-life friend, a true fighter pilot ace from the early days of World War Two.  It was a chance encounter, one made possible by the kindness of a passerby.

I loved the Poles.  It was something in their undying spirit, their ability to suffer and to come back to life; maybe a learned, fatalistic view, one fortified by centuries of war and of shifting political boundaries; The Germans to the West, the Russians to the East – surely not an easy place to call home.

I was about ten when I met my Ace.   My younger brother and I had been given Polish bicycles in the days before iPhones, the Internet, and Cable TV… and how fortunate we were to be so deprived!   In fact, the little 10″ black and white TV rarely came on.  You see, there was only one channel back in 1970 and it only broadcast between three and eight, or something like that, and let’s not even talk about the quality of the reception!

So we were always outside doing something and the day my bike broke, I slumped down to sit by the road, the chain off the thing, dangling when a kindly, older woman came up to me and placed her hand on my shoulder.   I looked up to see a genuine smile of concern when she placed her purse on the ground to sit with me.   Reaching into it, she tore off a scrap piece of paper from her journal and wrote down the address and name of an older man who might be of use.   Motioning down the curved street, she made a gesture to the building’s location.

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 7.22.38 AM

Certainly not fluent, I spoke enough Polish to make sense of the kind lady’s directions and so I thanked her and began to walk down the old street.   In this magic age of Google, I see that my old home has had a tremendous facelift, for almost all of the buildings that survived the war had been hastily patched, leaving the bullet holes around the windows and doors still visible under the mortar.  There’s a wonderful photo of my mother standing on that balcony (left; 2nd floor; photo above).

The chain kept wrapping around the gears, making the short walk quite difficult.   But something in the woman’s way left me feeling hopeful and so I continued until I found the building and number.   It must have been one of these (photo below) and there, after 46 years, the bullet holes remain (upper, center of photo, below).   I see that there are now modern shops at street level, something I know did not exist back in the day.

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Approaching the entry, I grabbed the handle to the massive, ornately carved wooden door that opened into the sad and dilapidated foyer, lit only by a dangling, exposed light bulb from what was at one time an elegant chandelier.   The old building now housed many more families than it had before the war as evidenced from the rudely inserted bank of mailboxes into the fine, wooden paneling.   And over there was the door to the basement, as the lady had told me to find.

Down the stairs I went, again lit crudely by a lone light bulb in the lower level.   The smell of the soft, brown coal dust was in the air of the dimly lit room.   Looking left, I could make out the small, sooty windows and the large pile of coal by the furnace… and there he was, watching the ten year old kid struggling down the steps with his bike, the dangling chain hitting each tread as I descended.

Before I could come to the last step, the gentle looking man had met me half way to take the bike, motioning me to sit a spell at the old worktable.   There were other bikes in various stages of repair and he placed mine next to them.  Somehow, we had no problem communicating and in his way made me feel relaxed and welcome and so we talked.

“You are from America, yes?”

“Yes sir, I am.  And you speak English?”

“I do, but not well.”   Studying me, he relaxed into his simple, wooden chair hesitating for just a minute before he pointed up to the wall over the work table.  As I slowly looked up, I could not believe my eyes for on the wall was a collection of dusty black and white photos of the man’s days in the Royal Air Force.   It was a marvelous collection of old photographs, undoubtedly of his comrades, many of whom would have given their lives to the cause.

He stood up and pointed to the one photo in the center, the one of a young aviator wearing a parachute on the front side, standing proudly by the old Spitfire.

“This.   This is me.   I flew with the RAF.”, placing his open hand to his heart.  The man, my age now come to think of it, looked wistfully at the image and turned back to what had to be a kid in awe.   Who can say how long I visited with my new hero-friend.  It is a memory that I’ll keep to my dying day.   What an incredible moment in time.

Why I never thought to make more visits to the Ace, now a janitor in charge of keeping the old building warm in the winter months, I will never know.  The distractions of youth, I suppose, and I know now that the old chap would have understood.

Funny who the people are that we meet along the way.   Many, as I have come to learn, are the plain looking quiet ones, you know, the ones with the great big stories to tell if only we slow down a bit to sit and visit a spell.


[Main photo; from blog post:  Polish Greatness}