Archive for the ‘Culture’ category

A Walk With Hank

October 12, 2018

I invited my friend Henry David Thoreau along for a walk the other day, a bit of a hike actually.  I wanted him to come home with me up north, to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia.  It’s a beautiful place, half-way between the two Princes of George and Rupert.

My two brothers and I, and our mother, lived there once upon a time, in a log cabin not far off the highway, surrounded by a forest and local farmers’ fields.

It was a sizable rural place with a couple of neighbours, where we boys took access to the wild for granted.

There were rolling grassed hills next to wheat fields, poplar, cottonwood and willow along the winding creek, and heavier coniferous forest on the upslope side of our property and down to the Bulkley River.

Henry David Thoreau likes to ramble

Hank likes to ramble through the woods for hours at a time so I invited him along to follow a stream down to its river.  Maybe chat with a neighbour kid going fishing down the creek, if we run across one.  See what else we find.

thoreau.jpg

We start at the Deep Creek Bridge on a gravelled sideroad and walk up our short driveway to the log cabin on a long terraced meadow.  Then we cut across the yard in between the cabin and the big workshed thrown up by a logging contractor one winter.  Then down the slope to the creek’s old floodway and the big dark cottonwoods.  One will have fallen over, bridging the creek.

It was always easier to get down to the river on the other side of the creek, and it was prettier over there too, so that was usually the way we went.

We made our way along the rough bark of the cottonwood and over the creek.  Hank finally managed to throw out a few words.  Whenever we get together, I keep waiting for him to say something, the wiser and more profound the better.  This is hard on him I’ve finally realized.  He looks at me now and again inconclusively, and keeps his mouth shut for long periods of time.  This is something that I feel a little dismayed about.  He could probably cite a few annoying things about me, so I never bring it up.

An early morning walk

At long last he says non-committally,

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

This was good.  Early morning it certainly was, with a golden light and the palest blue sky.  Perhaps the beauty of the day could unleash statements beyond the obvious.  Eventually.

“Hank, come with me over here.  That’s the big pool where I used to fish along the creek below the cabin.  We can just see the roofline from here.

“I believed there was an enormous fish, at least one and probably more, in this deep, deep pool.  I would dream about this fish, so huge and wise, surging from the depths, refusing to take my hook.  It always cheered me enormously.”

Hank took a look at the pool and at me.  He said:  “All good things are wild and free.”

This is why I like to tramp around with Hank.  Eventually, he just can’t help himself.  Get him to open up just a little and before too long he will say something profound in an offhand kind of way.

I hoped he was going to warm up a bit now.  (I’m sure he finds my expectations tiresome.)

I say, “We can follow the creek along here.  There are many great little places, you know, as the creek winds downstream.   Each one unique.  Not just the look of the place.  It’s more the light, the feel.  And changing every year with maybe a different log and a different ripple, and a subtly different bank to form the channel.”

Launch yourself on every wave

Hank said thoughtfully:  “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

I was about to say something snarky about relevance, Hank, really…. but then I thought it over.  Maybe he’s on point.  Everything changes.  The only constant is this moment.

“Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hank nodded.  “Mostly.  He likes to fancy it up with high-falutin’ language.”

We pushed away ferns and dead broken hollow-stemmed plants to get to a really special place nestled in a wide curve of creek that amazingly looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

The log was just so, mossy and aslant, and the creek ran over it between the ferns.  The largest part glinted fluid white — a tiny waterfall — while the noisy creek rolled and splashed past us over and through gravel, rocks and boulders.  Drops sprayed on our walking boots where we stood in the shadows.  We both breathed in, deeply.

We went on. But then Hank stopped and turned:

“By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man.  My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

Ah, a bit confessional today.  He is a loner, as I have been, but he is much more so.  I feel sad for him although he would reject that.

Hank smiled ruefully and continued to stroll onward over the grassed path in the narrow benched area around the creek below the hills.

On the gentle hills nearby we could see metre-high mounds of anthills, although some were reduced to their grass bases.  Those had the twigs and dark debris of their structure scattered.

“The bears like them,” I said.  “Must be a feast.”

We walked silently side by side for a time.  The grassed floodplain narrowed and we passed through several copses of poplars, their silver leaves shimmering.

Living a sort of border life

We came into a clearing, the rushing creek noisy at our side.  Up ahead we can see Harold, one of the neighbour kids from long ago, with a fishing rod.  Before we got to Harold to say hello, Hank paused our stroll again and said:

“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”

I musingly repeated, “Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow….”  Hank nodded and made a wry expression.  Not only is he introspective today but serious and unfixed in his mind.

By this time young Harold looked behind and marched over to us proudly, holding up a very respectably sized Dolly Varden trout.  I mocked astonishment at its size, and Harold and I both laughed.

There were grave congratulations for Harold from Hank too, and the boy beamed at us.  “I want to have this for lunch,” he said shaking the fish by the stick through its gills.  We waved at him and he ran off back towards civilization, upstream.

I wonder whatever happened to him….

“It’s not far now,” I said.

“What’s that?” Hank asked cheerily.  He really doesn’t care where we walk as long as we go.

“Half a mile or so,” I said.  “Where Deep Creek finds the Bulkley River.”

In the old days, with relatives visiting or new friends we wanted to show off to, in the summers we would take them down to the mouth of Deep Creek just as we went now.  Our mother usually acted as the master of ceremonies.  Might take some snacks, but typically we just meandered our way down and back. We would return to the cabin with an appetite.

The path downstream Hank and I followed now became a little tricky as it worked through brush and over deadfalls.

Finally Hank and I could see the wide turbulent river, the dark forest on the other side and the easy loop of sandbars through embedded fallen trees where Deep Creek met its joining.

Drown all our muskrats

Hank said, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

I wasn’t completely clear what he meant, being unfamiliar with metaphorical muskrats, but it sounded hopeful.

“My mother is here,” I told Hank.  He raised an eyebrow.

“After she died, we brought her ashes to this place, my brothers, our wives.  We said a few words choked with emotion at this spot.  Then one of my brothers took the slick white cardboard container of her remains and released the ashes to the river in a swirl of white and gray powder.”

“You said your good-byes,” Hank said.

“Yes.”

“At death our friends and relations either draw nearer to us and are found out, or depart further from us and are forgotten,” Hank observed.

We watched for awhile where the creek’s clear waters merged into the murkier, swifter river.

“Time to go back.”  Hank nodded.

“Thank you for this,” he said.  “It reminds me of the woods around Concord.”

He said one thing when we walked back to the cabin I remember well.  He commented we shared a common experience when we shook hands just before he departed:

“My imagination, my love and reverence and admiration, my sense of miraculous, is not so excited by any event as by the remembrance of my youth.”

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Notes:  This imagined walk with Henry David Thoreau follows upon something similar I did in a post a few years ago now about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chant the Beauty of the Good.  I finally got around to doing the same thing with Thoreau….

It took a different path than I anticipated.  Thoreau was a serious man and quite distinct in temperament from Emerson, although they shared many of the same views.  They were the Transcendentalists.

A good way to learn about Thoreau and Emerson is by quotations.  The best source I’ve found for Thoreau online was at Henry David Thoreau Quotations Search.  This is part of  the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods site.

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On the Need to Make Music

August 21, 2018

Since I’m retired (whatever that means), I have more time to excavate long-ago crannies of my life.

I was reflecting on when one transitions from boy to teenager.  “One” being me, of course, as the overwhelmingly predominant source of my material.

This was in northern Canada (although the Bulkley Valley in north central British Columbia is not that far north really).

Young and impressionable, after listening to the inspiring music of the late 1960s from afar through a few records and more importantly, night-time rock radio, I longed to create the same emotions I felt.  I wanted to rock, to move people, to express truth.

I hungered to play music, to play guitar, to stir people.  There was nothing I wanted more, in the way of the young.  My failure to accomplish anything in that realm, through a combination of lack of musicality, of lack of instruction, and without proper equipment, had a rippling effect through my life that even at this remove I can glimpse. (I fear that it was mostly lack of musicality.)

I wonder if there isn’t something similar for every young person, an object or area of immense emotional sustenance if only it could be brought fully into one’s life.  In my case, I think it was rock music and guitar.  For some other young one, it might be racing motorcycles, or painting landscapes, or being a comedian.  I think there must be some such for every one, although it might only be foggily felt, or deemed too mundane to receive encouragement.  There are artesian wells of yearning in the young that the adult world often tries to cap.  Or the yearning is allowed to exhaust itself through indifference.

In some ways my failure at music helped make me remote, painful, standoffish, insecure, and melancholic. Although as a teenager, this probably was the normal state of affairs!

RamblersPhoto1I was the nerd who sat and listened, the only audience in the noon-time classroom, while the school sock-hop band – voice, guitar, drums and bass – practised Secret Agent Man and Wipeout for a dance.  I couldn’t play, but at least I could listen….

The poor old school band was surprised at receiving such attention at their practice times.  There was something obsessive about it, I admit.  I always clapped after they finished playing.  They were unsure how to acknowledge their audience of one.

It is true that passion does not necessarily signify talent.  I am a good example of that.  But now in the latter half of my sixties, I learn to once more play guitar and appreciate the modest musical abilities I do have.

I am lucky enough to have some rewarding recording experiences thanks to a music teacher and producer.  It means a lot to me, and makes me want to do more.

The fountain is bubbling in my heart again, like a boy.

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Note: Image is of the band, The Ramblers, from the site GarageHangover.

Rock CDs (and a DVD) I Just Had to Buy

July 26, 2018

Now that I’m retired, music I love is taking up more of my time.  I’m trying to play more, and learn more, in my lower intermediate rock guitar student way.  I’m listening more, especially to bands I neglected in the past (or think the wider culture has neglected).

And I just finished reading This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  One of the saving graces of human beings as a species is music, in all its forms.  The book describes how humans are hard-wired for music.  We should be grateful for that.

I’ve got shelves of CDs already, and I really don’t need to add to them, but I couldn’t resist buying a few recently.

From Amazon, which has become a major resource, I picked up the first new CD in 20 years from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.  It has songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter, famous for his contributions to the Grateful Dead.  I’ve never had a CD of theirs or even listened (to my knowledge) to the New Riders, although I know they’ve been around for a long time, but the Robert Hunter connection made me want to check them out.

Another from Amazon is Janis Joplin Live at Winterland ’68 with Big Brother and the Holding Co.  This was fairly early in Joplin’s short career, and the band, Big Brother, also shows what it is capable of as one of the original psychedelic outfits.  I love Janis in live performance, the rawness and sheer over-the-top passion – I’m thinking now of the Festival Express DVD where she bowls everyone over with her astonishing performances.

And my third CD from the ubiquitous retailer is the Zombies’ Still Got That Hunger. The Zombies, an English band, are famous for their songs from the 60s like Time of the Season and She’s Not There.  Pretty long in the tooth, these guys, but I want to hear what they sound like now with new material in this CD from 2015.

The Disappearing CD

It’s harder and harder of course to find CDs at any local storefronts in the Greater Vancouver area.  And CDs themselves are apparently slowly on the way out, given the tendency to buy single tunes online or obtain through file-sharing.

But in the little fishing village becoming gentrified that is Steveston (a hamlet within Richmond, BC, home to the Vancouver Airport), there is a small bricks-and-mortar shop called Beatmerchant, where CDs are still sold.

The owner, Frankie Neilson, actually knows a lot about most of the music I love.   He worked in the music industry in the UK with Polydor in the 1970s.  He relocated to Vancouver in the 1990s after spending some time in Toronto.  He started his physical store in 2005.

Wishbone Ash Argus

So from Frankie this week I bought Argus by Wishbone Ash.  I have it on an LP but since I almost never get around to hand-cranking my old Kenwood turntable and listening to any of the old long-plays, I decided to get the CD.  (You probably don’t know about Kenwood’s series of hand-cranked turntables which required considerable strength just to get going, like a Model T….  OK, just kidding.)

Argus was Wishbone Ash’s biggest album and rose to #3 in Britain in 1972.  They were a band playing progressive rock I guess you could say, with folk and classical influences.

Also from Beatmerchant is the 2 CD compilation The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders. You never hear them now even on so-called classic rock stations, but Paul Revere & The Raiders were big when I was growing up during high school and into the early 1970s.  My brothers and I listened to them a lot on our battery-powered Phillips phonograph (since we didn’t have electricity for many years – not kidding).

Some of their early hits include Kicks and Good Thing.   They were Columbia Records top-selling rock band of 1967.  Later, they shortened their name to The Raiders and had hits with Indian Reservation and Birds of a Feather.

They often liked to wear Revolutionary War costumes….

And finally, Beatmerchant had a DVD I didn’t know existed: Stephen Stills & Manassas – The Lost Broadcasts. Manassas was a band that Stephen Stills formed with some other heavy weights of the time such as Chris Hillman and Al Perkins.  Their primary release was a self-titled 2-disc LP in 1972 (mentioned in this post).  The group only lasted a couple of years, but I’ve been a fan ever since.

This DVD apparently shows the band performing a number of songs on German television.  The YouTube video of It Doesn’t Matter gives you an idea of the band.

So the next step is for me to listen to all this good stuff!

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Revisiting Grand Funk Railroad

July 5, 2018

Many of the thronging hordes that frequent this blog may not have even been alive when the power trio Grand Funk Railroad were in their heyday.

I was around in the late 60s, early 70s when at least one of their songs became unfortunately very popular.  I say “unfortunately” because an almost meaningless song like “We’re An American Band” was constantly on the radio, when they had so many other great rock ‘n’ roll songs we should have heard more of.

However, I can forgive “American Band” every time I hear “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home.”  Take a moment now to listen to it…. Isn’t that epic?

I listen to it as if it is a mysterious fable wanting to tell me something. At the end I’m never sure what, but I’m still touched by the telling.

It did get considerable play in its day, despite being 10 minutes long, especially on FM radio at that time, which was almost as free spirited as the early internet.

The song became an unofficial anthem of Vietnam vets, who came to hold the song and its writer Mark Farner in high regard.  It resonated with their experiences wanting to come home from the war zone.

So, Mark Farner on guitar, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher, bass, made up Grand Funk Railroad, which was formed in 1969.  (However, others participated in the future.)  Its original configuration was that of a power trio.

Power Trio!

(“Gramps! Gramps! Whatever is a ‘power trio?”

“Why, little one, for a short time it was a magical combination of musicians for playing rock music.  It was loud, energetic and expressive in a tempestuous time.”)

In those days, some people thought Grand Funk borrowed a lot of their sound from Led Zeppelin, a quartet.  But they were really in the mold of Cream, that famous power trio.

But listening to them as I have been recently, they seem more like a northern yankee version of the Allman Brothers Band, a much larger unit.

The Funk were good.  So together in their playing.  It’s amazing, as was the case with other good power trios, that they could raise such a mighty and melodic wall of sound.

Mark Farner’s lead guitar is often restrained but capable of wonderful passages.

The compilation I have is Classic Masters – Grand Funk Railroad. I will mention some of the songs in rough chronological order.

The history of the band can be divided into two rough periods, Terry Knight as producer, 1969-72, and the well-known Todd Rundgren for most of the time after that.

“American Band” and their other #1 hit “The Loco-Motion” (which I do like a lot better than “American Band”) came from the Rundgren period in the 70s.  He brought a more radio-savvy appreciation of the times and of what could be a possible hit.

“Time Machine,” their first single back in 1969 from the Terry Knight years, is blues-rock which chugs along so lovely.

“Heartbreaker” is from that early time too.  A blues wailer to start which turns into a power anthem, so controlled, then surprising in its rendition of majestically combined voices.

“Miss Mistreater” is the only GFR live recording released as a single.  A morose sarcastic ballad is sung with a sense of experience and understanding which transitions to a high-tempo freakout, then slows again.

Then “I’m Your Captain” arrived and impressed many, although there were some who considered it musical gobbledegook.

The band added a keyboardist, Craig Frost, and went off to Nashville to record songs like “Rock and Roll Soul.”  This is a pretty standard hollerer about rock ‘n’ roll, which you know will live forever, man!

I have to say that the band’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” outdoes the original.  They truly made it their own.

I won’t mention every song in the compilation at hand, but I did like the hard rocking “Shinin’ On” a lot from 1974 and the Rundgren period.  Great intro….

After Rundgren, a new producer Jimmy Ienner got involved in the mid-70s.  “Some Kind of Wonderful” — can I get a witness! — and “Bad Time” come from this time.  “Bad Time” is catchy and definitely gone beyond into pop music.

“Take Me” was released as a single in December, 1975.  Great guitar solo from Mark Farner.  He sounds a little like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits here.  And then there was no more of substance to hear from the band.

Listening now, I think Grand Funk Railroad are much better than what may be their general reputation in rock music.  It’s true at the time when they were producing music I didn’t think they were so great, yet every time I heard “I Am Your Captain/Closer to Home” I had to stop and listen.

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Guitar Dreams

May 1, 2018

I wanted to play so much

as a green teenager

I needed to make music as stirring

As what we heard on

our battery radio

on cold winter nights

all over the Pacific Northwest

down to San Francisco

 

In a northern cabin

A guitar came into my hands

From my mother

Acoustic, hard to play

Poorly made

I puzzled to play something

vaguely rocking

While in the background

Donovan

sang

Hurdy Gurdy Man

 

Fight

To play the guitar

No instruction

Little talent

Just willfulness

It ended badly

With a whimper

 

Now in my latter

years I have returned

to the beautiful

instrument

Still not very good

But better

 

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Again With The Voynich?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?

voynich_bathers

In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.

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Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.

A Different Angle on the Chief

September 1, 2017

In an effort to get back to more posting here, let me begin with some photos from the rock climbers’ access to the Stawamus Chief at Squamish, BC, Canada.  This follows on the previous post about my favorite hike to one of the granite monolith’s main three peaks.

On this recent occasion, my friend Bob, who is a devoted hiker of just about anything in the Squamish-Whistler corridor, told me it was quite interesting to walk along the bottom of the cliffs where the rock climbers go.  Neither of us are rock-climbers, although I like to bring up that I did do some rappelling and rock-scrambling in my youth.

This is also an area with truly massive boulders where we passed several parties of younger climbers practicing, crash pads at the ready on the ground.  But we went inside that belt to approach the bottom of the Grand Wall, and moseyed our way along for a while right at the bottom.

(At the second photo down, where Bob is standing against the cliff, if you look up, up, up you can just make out a couple of climbers – one with some red on.)

Climbing the Wall

Scaling the bottom of the Grand Wall

Bob Pan Stitch

At the bottom of the Grand Wall

Chief ClimberRV1

Rock climber prepared for the Chief

Notes on images:  These were all shot with my Fuji X-100s.  The second is a vertical panorama of course, stitching three photos together with Microsoft’s wonderful (and free) Image Composite Editor.

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