Posts tagged ‘travel’

August 18, 2017

#132) Book review: “Getting Stoned with the Savages” by J. Maarten Troost

Having enjoyed “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” by J. Maarten Troost, when I found its sequel, “Getting Stoned with Savages” at a thrift store, I felt confident the book would be a good return on a one dollar investment, especially since I had a long plane trip coming up. Indeed, my investment was returned – but not by as much as I would have liked. Despite some good moments, like many sequels, “Savages” is basically a less potent rehashing of the original. Upon returning from my trip, still twenty pages from the end, having forgotten that I’d placed the book in a different pocket of my suitcase from where I usually store reading material, thought that I’d left it at the hotel. When I found it, I was mildly relieved, but certainly wouldn’t have been heartbroken about missing the last twenty pages.

At the beginning of “Savages” Troost and his wife Sylvia find themselves leaving the U.S. for the South Pacific. The Troost of “Savages”, however, is a different protagonist from that of “Cannibals”: while his Kiribati voyage was basically done on a whim, born from lack of direction, his trip to Vanuatu (changed from Fiji after the coup of 2000) was a conscious decision. After having lived in utter deprivation for two years in Kiribati, the Troosts found that despite its material comforts, life in Washington, D.C. was pretty much empty. “Savages” is at its best when it describes that disconnect in a way that is alternately poignant (“I couldn’t recall the last time I had really savored something–a book, a sunset, a fine meal. It was as if the sensory overload that is American life had somehow lead to a sensory deprivation, a gilded weariness, where everything is permitted and nothing is appreciated…”) and humorous (“While…finding a decomposing pig in your yard is not an ideal way to begin one’s day, I found that beginning each new day in Washington, as I did, with the shocking blast of an alarm clock buzzer, shortly to be followed by a frantic race to the office, where I would be greeted by…ninety-two new messages, of which thirty-seven were alleged to be urgent…well, I found that such a day stinks too.”)

Within twenty-four hours of the Troosts’ arrival on Vanuatu, their island nostalgia is shattered as a seemingly care-free drive along country roads turns into an ordeal when their jeep gets stuck in the mud. But while this would seem to be a set-up for a humorous “the grass isn’t always greener” story, “Savages” soon runs out of gas, sorely missing the fish out of water element that made “Cannibals” work. That’s not to say that life on Vanuatu (and later Fiji, where the Troosts move after the dust settles from the coup) is all fun and games – they endure a cyclone and lose their backyard to a mudslide – but Troost fails to give these incidents much bite. Yes, we are rooting for him, but only because he’s the Good Guy in some abstract sense, not because he’s particularly interesting or charismatic. While the Troost of “Cannibals” had to fight a daily battle for survival, the Troost of “Savages” has time to explore and delve into the history of the area, but fails to make it very interesting. Maybe I’m just one of the typical, non-intellectually-curious Americans that made Troost glad to leave the U.S. but this book didn’t make me want to frantically google information about the history of relations between India and Fiji or the impact that French colonists from New Caledonia have had on Vanuatu.

That’s not to say that “Savages” doesn’t have its flashes of brilliance. Troost’s send-up of the writing style of Captain James Cook rivals the funniest bits from “Cannibals” and when he plays the “silly Americans” card he at least does it with some humor: “Apparently, while we had been living abroad, someone had sent a missive to all Western women under the age of twenty-five: Put a large tattoo above your butt.” Other times he shrewdly backs out, allowing unintentional American humor to speak for itself: “So that works out to about $415 a square foot. We’re roughly at $375 where we live. I bought a house last month that I plan on flipping when it gets to $400.” Ironically, the book also delves a lot more into cannibalism than “Sex Lives of Cannibals”: Troost devotes a chapter to a trek to one of Vanuatu’s remote “kastom” (“custom” – where traditions remain unchanged over millennia) islands where the locals still “eat the man.”

Sadly, its bright spots notwithstanding, I took about twice as long to get through “Savages” as I did the 40-pages longer “Cannibals.” My copy’s fate will likely see it re-donated to a thrift store where someone else can decide if they want to make a one dollar investment.

 

 

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July 23, 2014

#82) Book review: “Islands Apart” by Ken McAlpine

“Islands Apart”, Ken McAlpine’s memoir of the Channel Islands of California, came dangerously close to being the second consecutive book from which I jumped ship.  Fortunately, there was enough about the book that worked to keep me going, although it did take me about 6 weeks to get through the 256-page volume.

If you don’t know what to expect from this book, you won’t get past the first five pages.  Even people such as myself who are die-hard fans of the Channel Islands National Park might find their interest tested.  However, McAlpine’s story ultimately pays off.

If you know anything about the Channel Islands, you know that a memoir of time spent on them will not be a wild, whacky, fun summer read.  The Channel Islands National Park’s prime offering is isolation; despite being only a few dozen air miles from civilization, the five islands in the park all are remarkably primitive.  Hikers, canoeists, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts who prepare for trip to the islands usually love it; those who don’t are miserable.  McAlpine understands this; he makes it clear to his readers that this book will be leisurely paced.  He doesn’t promise surprise plot twists or sex drugs and rock and roll.  He positions his book as a modern-day “Walden” and his story sees him spend a week on each of the five Channel Islands in the park – Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.  In between the chapters on each island are episodes on the main land, in which he “would continue to look deeply at our world…explore experiences that spoke of our current world and times past too…”

I don’t envy McAlpine’s task of bringing the Channel Islands to life.  I love visiting them and count them among my favorite hiking destinations, but the only thing I could imagine that’s more difficult than spending a week each of them is finding things to say about the week spent on each of them.  While McAlpine ably recreates the desolate, wind-swept environment of the islands and also sees the beauty in the life that’s managed to thrive despite the barren and inhospitable climate, he also sometimes seems to be simply trying to show off his writing ability.  I for one got pretty tired of reading about how the sun “ladled the softest pink light” over the horizon and of homilies that are meant to be profound and inspirational but ultimately come off a little preachy: “We lay claim to the things we come across in our lives, as if it’s possible to own them, but you can no more own an island…than you can possess the fleeting moments that accumulate into a lifetime.”

On a bigger level, the book as a whole suffers from an irony.  While McAlpine purports to use his pilgrimages on the islands and mainland to better understand his fellow man and his world, his writing often has a Bill Bryson-esque sense of superiority.  This is apparent in the stock verbiage he uses to critique modern life: “In a world of freeways bordered by Subway sandwich shops and Walmarts…”  One is left feeling that despite the noble intentions of his journeys, McAlpine’s quest ultimately was about making himself look good.

Yet while he may have some of Bryson’s elitism, he also possesses some of his humor.  In describing his stay at a monastery, McAlpine notes, “conflicts [between the monks] were hard to envision….Father Luke super-glued my robe to the pew, or maybe Father Matthew spoke rudely to me in Latin.”  On San Miguel Island he states, “Researchers have shown that…ravens and crows can count and use rudimentary tools, placing them one evolutionary rung above entertainment reporters and contestants on American Idol.”

To his credit, McAlpine tells a story that might well have otherwise gone untold.  It’s a story that could have been told better; it’s a story that will likely connect with a limited audience.  Some of that audience may find themselves continuing on to “Off Season”, “Fog” or any of McAlpine’s other books.  Though I may be wrong, I predict that the next book reviewed on this site will be by a different author.

 

 

June 9, 2014

#79) Back in action: Rebooting the world’s most dangerous amusement park

Long-time readers of this blog know that I can be a bit of a roller coaster geek when I want to.  Recently I was doing some geeking out on the subject with a friend of mine who grew up on Long Island and told me about an infamous venue that had somehow been off of my radar: Action Park in Vernon, NJ, which operated from 1978 to 1996.  Of course, I had no choice to Google it when I got home – and I was interested to learn that Action Park is coming back this summer.

Notorious for poorly designed and unmaintained rides, inattentive and sometimes inebriated staff, being its own insurance carrier and at least six confirmed fatalities, Action Park has achieved what might be described a cult status in the years since its closing.  According to a documentary, any who grew up in the area considered visiting–and surviving–the park a rite of passage.  While changes in the amusement park industry will require the park to be more stringent about safety when it re-opens, the idea just might be crazy enough to work.

Though it was badly executed, Action Park’s business model was in fact ahead of its time.  In addition to being often credited as being the first modern water park, Action Park’s concept was to allow the guests more involvement with the ride experience.   In the late 1970s, the various Six Flags, Disney and Sea World franchises were becoming dominant; it’s perfectly understandable that there would have been a market for a rawer, less polished amusement park experience; perhaps a nod to the “Golden Age” of roller coasters such as the Crystal Beach Cyclone, which supposedly had a nurse stationed outside the exit to tend to fainting riders.

Fast forward to 2014.  Disneyland has recently received bad press for running out of Frozen merchandise and for raising its ticket prices to $96 for guests ages 10 and up; Action’s new admission prices are less than half that.  It’s not just about cost, though.  This is the world of “Throwback Thursday” (I’m sorry, #TBT); it’s inevitable that when people find information about a long-lost institution, they’ll geek out over it.  Nostalgia never goes out of style and when one gets a chance to actually revisit a place of their childhood–albeit likely a different version of it–it seems likely that they will take advantage of it.

Perhaps Action Park–the promised safety renovations not withstanding–might also find an audience in parents who feel as if the world has become too safe for their kids.  Michael Follett of UK’s Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) says, “[Kids] need to fall over, they need to cut themselves, they need to have bumps and bruises…if [parents] over-protect, [kids] don’t learn resilience.”  According to an article in Pediatrics, “Fixed playground equipment that meets licensing codes is unchallenging and uninteresting to children.”

There’s also the growing CTFD method of parenting (the C stands for “Calm” and the D for “Down.)  I’m not suggesting that parents should disregard their kid’s safety; I’m just speculating that Action Park might be a venue where parents could practice the CTFD method.  After all, with fewer restrictions, likely shorter wait times for rides than bigger theme parks, kids may be able to burn off more energy, helping incubate a CTFD environment on the ride home.

Will these factors make the new Action Park a success?  We’ll see; perhaps–for better or worse–Action Park will put New Jersey on the map this summer for something other than Pauly D.

December 31, 2013

#69) Top 14 of ’14! (A goal and prediction)

What’s wrong with this picture?  Why am I writing about my Top 14 hikes of 2014 on New Years’ Eve 2013 – and on this blog, not Nobody Hikes in L.A. where such a list would belong?

It’s a prediction, readers.  I am attempting to manifest my destiny for 2014 by writing about what I hope will be my top 14 hikes of next year.  Will they happen?  Maybe, maybe not; maybe I’ll discover some better ones; who knows.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise, sort of like a time capsule.  And heck, it might give you, the readers–at least those of you interested in exploring Southern California’s natural landscape–some ideas.  The links are to existing reports about the hikes; the commentary is my own fudging.  Enjoy, and see you in 2014!

#14) South Mt. Hawkins Loop.  Great hike from Crystal Lake with excellent views of the San Gabriel high country and the L.A. Basin.

#13) Dripping Springs Trail.  Long hike in southwestern Riverside County and northern San Diego County, climbing the slope of Agua Tibia Mountain.

#12) Santa Cruz Island – El Montanon and High Point.  Challenging 8-mile loop to one of Santa Cruz Island’s highest points.  (I already have two hikes on Santa Cruz Island on NHLA, but this one would cover some new ground.)

#11) Combs Peak.  Remote desert summit in the northwestern corner of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

#10) South Fork Trail.  This trail climbs over 2,000 feet through a steep-walled gorge, as the scenery dramatically changes from high desert to forest.

#9) Santa Rosa Island – Black Mountain. Strenuous eight mile hike to the highest point on Santa Rosa Island.

#8) Alta Seca Bench. This hike explores the remote high country of the Santa Rosa Mountains, providing excellent views of the desert below.

#7) Santa Barbara Island.  Like San Miguel, this is one of the more remote islands in the Channel Islands National Park, known for its wide ocean views in all directions and springtime wildflowers.

#6 ) Nordhoff Peak.  Challenging summit in Ojai with excellent views of Ventura County.

#5) High Point/Palomar Mountain.  One of San Diego’s tallest and most scenic summits.  The hike takes you from the edges of the high desert to a thick pine forest.

#4) Pine Mountain.  After Baldy, this is one of the tallest summits in the Angeles National Forest, with excellent views of the high desert, the Cajon Pass and…oh yeah, Mt. Baldy.

#3) San Miguel Island.  The most remote island in the Channel Islands National Park, San Miguel sits on the edge of the open sea, at the mercy of the elements in a way that few other places are.  Highlights include the Caliche Forest and the Cabrillo memorial.

#2) San Bernardino Peak.  Excellent, challenging hike with phenomenal views all around.

#1) San Gorgonio Mountain.  Putting So Cal’s tallest mountain at #1 is about as hard a decision to make as placing Sandy Koufax on the pitcher’s mound of an all-Jewish all star baseball team.

Well, there are my hiking goals for 2014.  Happy new year everyone and best wishes for success, prosperity and peace.

July 18, 2013

#57) Book review: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson

There are books that may be enjoyable but not particularly worthy of discussion and there are books that are worthy of discussion but not particularly enjoyable.  In that second category is Bill Bryson’s “In A Sunburned Country.”

After loving “A Walk in the Woods” and being disappointed by “Lost Continent”, I decided to try this travelogue of Australia, mainly because I was looking forward to reading a book that didn’t contain the phrase “Most Americans _____.”  (Yes, Americans are idiots, but Bryson usually points this out in a way that makes you wonder how he hasn’t pulled a muscle from patting himself on the back.)

Conversely, Bryson goes too far in the opposite direction with Australia. It’s like when someone wants you to meet their friend and have talked your ear off about how great this friend is to the extent that you hate them before you even meet them. Just as “Lost Continent” was essentially a laundry list of complaints and disappointments about America with no real conclusion or evolution, “Sunburned Country” lacks any significant tension or suspense as Bryson travels across the continent, experiencing one wonderful thing after another, using the words “charming”, “cheery” and (especially) “arresting” ad nauseum.

In general Bryson is stronger when delivering facts, not opinions. He has a definite knack for making history and science interesting without dumbing them down.  He partially makes good on his promise to describe the country’s unique and often deadly wildlife (the box jellyfish seems like a particularly tough customer.)  He’s unsparing in his description of how the Aborigines were treated and presents interesting questions on how they may have come to the island to begin with.  He paints a fairly engaging picture of the vast space and searing sun of the Outback, describing several of history’s ill-fated attempts to cross it.  He clearly loves Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, providing some historical background on each.   Still, the reality is that it took me almost two months to get through this book, ultimately bailing on the appendix about the Sydney Olympics.

What would have made “In A Sunburned Country” more effective?

Trimming some of the personal narrative would have helped.  Bryson spends nearly 30 pages on a visit with a friend in Victoria; while this section of the book has some good historical anecdotes and descriptions of the natural landscape, it easily could have been halved.  The friend certainly seems like a nice enough fellow but he’s just not that interesting.  More of a dramatic arc would have been nice.  In “A Walk in the Woods”, Bryson’s plight on the Appalachian Trail makes him seem more sympathetic to the reader; he earns his soap box time.  At the beginning of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia; at the end of “Sunburned Country” he loves Australia.  Perhaps I may someday visit Australia and understand why he loves it; if so I will happily revise this review.  For now, I will stick to foreign vacations with a shorter flight time.

May 13, 2013

#54) Tale of four roller coasters (why size doesn’t always matter)




Roller coasters are not only fun, they’re also educational.  They are living lessons of architecture, art and physics.  On our eighth grade graduation trip to Riverside Park (now Six Flags New England) in Agawam, MA, our sales pitch to get our science teacher to ride the “Cyclone” was that if he puked, he would be able to tell how fast it was going when it hit the ground.  But I digress.

Coasters can also provide interesting lessons in business and marketing.  That brings us to the four main players of this story:

The Thunderhawk, formerly the Coaster, at Dorney Park, Allentown, PA

Hercules, Dorney Park

The Beast, Kings Island, Cincinnati

Son of Beast, Kings Island

Dorney’s small wooden roller coaster was built in 1923, and has always been a favorite of enthusiasts.  While bigger, shinier, faster and more expensive coasters have popped up throughout the world, many mavens cherish Dorney’s coaster as a throwback to the golden age of wooden roller coasters.

Needless to say, the Great Depression was not kind to amusement parks.  Even post-war prosperity didn’t help the majority of America’s small amusement parks, as larger attractions like Disneyland became dominant.  But through it all, Dorney’s coaster still delivered thrills to customers.

In the early 1970s, a park called Kings Island opened near Cincinnati, replacing the Coney Island park that had been damaged by floods.  The Racer, a wooden coaster featured on an episode of “The Brady Bunch”, was an instant hit, and in the late 1970s, construction started on a new ride.  When The Beast opened in 1979, it was the tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster in the world.  Although the unorthodox coaster has drawn its share of criticisms (mainly toward the second lift hill, leading to a drop at a mere 18 degree angle, only to hit the brakes at the station), the ride has been a huge success.

In 1989, Dorney Park opened Hercules.  While the ride was not longer or taller than the Beast, its location on a hillside allowed it to break one of the Ohio coaster’s records: height of drop.  While the coaster’s hill was only 95 feet tall, the drop set a wooden coaster record at 157 feet, leading into a wide turn over the water.

Not to be outdone, Kings Island opened Son of Beast in 2000.  At 218 feet, it was the tallest wooden coaster in the world, and had something that no “woodie” before it did: a vertical loop.  (Interestingly, the track was deliberately designed to be about 300 feet shorter than that of the Beast, allowing the older ride to keep its record as the longest wooden coaster.)

But as it would turn out, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The smaller Coaster, now renamed the Thunderhawk, proved to be a more popular attraction at Dorney than Hercules, which closed in 2003.  Son of Beast would last only a decade.  In 2006, the vertical loop was removed, but the ride still suffered from maintenance problems.  In 2009, a woman claimed to have suffered a head injury on the ride.  Although the circumstances of her claim were questionable, and although inspections of the ride found no irregularities, Son of Beast was closed as a precaution, and never re-opened.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to consider the fates of these rides.  Just as the movie industry has low-budget “sleepers” that beat the odds, and high-budget blockbusters that bomb, the same concept can be applied to amusement parks.  Innovations that seem exciting sometimes lose out to time-tested traditions; grand spectacle sometimes falls to simple pleasures.

It might be a reach to say that the slowing economy influenced the fall of Son of Beast, but amusement parks do depend on discretionary income, and it’s not unreasonable to think that some might have seen the 200-foot plus ride as a monument of excess.  As for the rider who claimed the head injury, her story was a lot more credible than had the incident happened on the Woodstock Express coaster (formerly known as Scooby Doo.)

But the Thunderhawk and Beast chug on.  While the former lies in the shadow of the enormous Steel Force coaster, it has survived the Great Depression and looks like it will survive the Great Recession to celebrate its 100th birthday in ten years.  And for its criticisms, the Beast continues to deliver the goods, proving that its impressive statistics were more than just novelties.

For a video of a front-seat ride on the Beast, click here.

For a video of Hercules, click here.