Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bilin' Up

A bright, brilliant day, but v.v. cold.

What to wear? The temperature was -3 C. as I set off. The sun was blazing down, not having much effect on the air temperature, but I would be climbing nearly 400 metres and the sun would be on my back, making all my molecules sing and dance, bubble and boil. Once over the top, I would be in a cold, dark, sunless canyon where the sun never shines at this time of the year and the temperature, even on my back, would be down to -3 C. again.

I knew I couldn't win. Settled for a Helly-Hansen lookalike long sleeved thermal, over that a thin fleece, then my waterproof jacket, too much for the climbing and possibly not enough for the flat, especially if the wind was coming from Mr Putin's direction. Woolly hat and gloves the ideal accessories.

I was only a hundred metres into the climb when I started getting warm. Off came the gloves, then the hat. Before I reached the top, I was, as Huckleberry Finn would say, bilin'. I removed the jacket and carried it for a while. The inside was sodden.

Through the woods and out onto the carpark at the Col du Portel. A man in a BMW drove into the carpark and asked me if I had seen a girl on the road. I told him I had not come up the road, but on the walking track. He drove off. What was that all about? Is he just looking for a girl, any old girl? Is his inamorato a runner, to be picked up after she has run for an hour or something? Was there a lovers' tiff, did she go off on her own and now remorse is making him seek her? All these questions, and I will never know the answers.

As suspected, as soon as I started walking along the sunless road, my hot body rebelled against the drop in temperature and I had to put the clammy coat back on. From there until home, it was alternating cold, hot, cold and windy, and one sheltered spot of about 5 metres which felt like summer. But I kept the coat on-if it was wet inside, at least it was warm wet, until I stopped walking.

Fortunately, doing VBW from May to July I should not need to worry too much about clothing. Not heavy clothing, anyway. Or not much of the time. I have seen the temperture fall to 11 degrees here in May (after 36 degrees the day before) and I have seen it snow in UK in July. But hopefully this will not become the norm in the next 18 months.

A couple of days ago, just after my rant about weather forecasting, we were in temperatures of minus 15 C., only 12 miles or 20 kms from this house. I mentioned this to our very lovely friends Margaret and Jim Gregson in Edmonton, Alberta - a city where winters are so cold they open the shopping mall (largest in the world) an hour before the shops open, so that people can go in for a jog or a walk. I expected them to say, in the time-honoured Monty Python fashion "You were lucky, we have had ..." But Margaret told me that so far this winter, they have not had a temperature below freezing, or even any snow on the ground.

I feel another rant about the weather coming on!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Other Big Walks 2 - John Hillaby - Journey Through Britain

It was 1968 when I first read John Hillaby’s famous account of his walk through Britain. He had made the journey the year before, at the age of 50.

The book is memorable for me in a number of ways. It the first of many volumes which I have read over the years about prolific walkers. Also, when I was searching for the book recently, to refresh my memory and to see if I could glean any useful tips from it, I had a very clear picture in my mind of the book cover (pictured above).

Another thing about the book is that it demonstrates to the user that it is not written by a superman. Hillaby frequently expresses doubts about his ability to go on. He gets miserable and hates what he is doing. He is not above admitting that the offer of a lift can be tempting. Even on the first day, a few hours after setting off from Land's End, he is overcome by weariness and has a 20 minute kip before he can carry on.

He carries a tent and gear for self-sufficiency, but is always very pleased to come across a hotel at the end of the day. Just as well – on his very first night, camping in St Ives, he is moved on by the police. It is no fun being a vagrant in Britain.

His route is of no use to me. His objective was to walk the length of the country without, if possible, setting foot on a public road. Because of the time constraints I have set myself, I will be doing the opposite, although a cunning plan is forming in my mind to avoid traffic for much of the British leg of VBW by walking on canal paths.

After a few days his calf muscles go on strike and he thinks the walk has come to an end. The hotel porter, "an ex-professional in the boxing game" is called in for a consultation. He recommends exercise. A reporter comes looking for the person walking to John o’ Groats, just as Hillaby hobbles out of a lift with a stick.

He gets going again, and re-discovers those days when the walking becomes effortless and almost sublime, somewhat like the so-called “runners’ high”.

How the world has changed since 1967. At a launderette in Stoke, he thinks it worth remarking that a young woman is washing, among other things, a man’s shirt and underwear – and yet she is not wearing a wedding ring! Oh, shame and scandal in de family!

Of course, he meets interesting people and sees fascinating places. It is a book worth reading, but with my planned activity, I am re-reading books like this on the lookout for tips. There are several here for me. One is to plan the route well, especially in the matter of avoiding traffic – British drivers are not noted for giving pedestrians a wide berth. Another is, yet again, to drink plenty. A key factor when walking long distance, one which I believe I already have covered, is to be very careful in the choice of footwear. Hillaby went to great pains to find shoes which were more flexible and supple than the army-style clompers which hikers of the period normally used, and yet he had foot problems. In fact he lost most, possibly all, of his toenails. Amazingly, one pair of shoes lasted the whole trip, but only just - the soles were falling off near the end and he had to sew them on again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Here Is The Weather

This morning as I walked home from Quillan there were two factors not experienced for a while. One was the crunch of frozen ground underfoot and the second was snowflakes in my eyes.

The rain turned to snow yesterday. I know I said recently that there was snow on the Pyrenees, but now it has come down to our level (our house is at 500 metres above sea level). We had quite a lot of it yesterday. I thought we were going to get snowed in, but the wet ground and a temperature of 3 degrees kept it away. When I drove to Lavelanet - immediately out of Puivert the road climbs to about 650 metres - the snow was quite thick by the side of the road and had obviously been snow-ploughed off it.

Today the temperature is down to zero, but fortunately not much snow falling, just enough to look pretty. The forecast in one of the local newspapers, which was correct for a change, was for some "floçons" (snowflakes, although it can also apply to cornflakes, et cetera). Floçons is a funny word. It has a cedilla under the "c". The cedilla is a diacritical mark which is supposed to soften the "c" into more of an "s" (actually into a Visigoth letter) but in this case it seems to harden it into a "k".

Despite all those floçons and cedillas, I suppose we should celebrate the fact that we found a weather forecast which turned out to be true. As with most people, it has come to my attention, almost every day in fact, that weather forecasting is one of the most inexact sciences in existence.

Our two local newspapers almost always give completely opposite forecasts. They can't both be right, and frequently neither of them is, although it may just be a cartel agreement between them to increase the chances of success.

To anyone who lives in a mountainous or even moderately hilly area, it is quite clear that the weather changes every time you pass along a road and into and out of different types of terrain. Of course the hills have an effect on microclimate, and so many other things do also. So how could a weather forecast for the broad areas favoured by weather forecasts be meaningful?

And what about the number of times you see the forecast on tv, or hear it on the radio, when it should be pretty much up to date - the forecast says blue skies - you look outside and it is raining - if they don't know what it is doing at the moment, how can they tell you what it will be doing tomorrow?

I have been involved in weather forecasting to a degree, so have a bit of inside knowledge. Even more than most people without that involvement, I am aware of the huge sums expended, and appalled by the puny, unreliable results.

When I was, I think, the youngest Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy, I was part of the team on one ship which would take, every few hours, readings of sea temperatures, wind speed, air temperatures, and the like, and transmit them post haste (using what is now an archaic item - the morse key) to the Meteorological Office. One of my few souvenirs of those days is an award from the Director General of the Meteorological Office for my "services at sea" to weather forecasting.

Strangely, in my next job, which was in an intelligence organisation of which, at the time, even the very existence was top secret and beyond revelation, one of the confused cover stories some of us (!!) were given, to be produced in answer to queries about our role, was that we worked "at the Met Office place". We didn't, although strangely enough, that same organisation now ranks, I believe, with the Met Office in terms of its expenditure on huge computers. (The existence of the organisation is now known, but I don't know whether there has been any coordination about a cover story for what they actually do).

I became aware of the enormous expenditures on Met Office computers in my next job, for a computer manufacturer. I don't have the figures at my fingertips, but the amounts, as well as the number-crunching supercomputers, are gigantic. And that is just in one small country. Almost every country has its own forecasting organisation, so the cost must be colossal.

And the results? You know that as well as I do. The gnarled peasant casting an eye at the sky or toeing the ground is just as likely to be correct as the output from these gold-gobbling goliaths.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In A Lonely Shack By A Railroad Track ...

Laroque d'Olmes Railway Station - and Disco
You will recognise that as the first line from the song "The Wayward Wind".
It goes on .. "I spent my younger days", but it is one of my older days I spent there, in fact one of my days in my 69th year, in fact today.
First, a confession. I have walked only 3 days this week, because on the other days it has been lashing down, and at the moment I have a choice. All three walks were substantial - 30 kms from Mirepoix on Monday, 16 kms from Quillan on Wednesday, and 21/22 kms from Lavelanet on Friday. It is the last of the three with which we are concerned today.
After about 5 kms of the walk, I passed the building pictured above. Having done the walk several times, I had barely noticed the building. It is one of many ex-railway stations on this route. I had not even spotted that fact, because the sign saying "Laroque d'Olmes" is whitewashed or faded.
I took a good look at it on Friday because two days before I had discovered that it was to be the scene, today, of several firsts in my life. I have mentioned before my excellent guitar tutor, Santiago Cozar. Three or four times a year he organises a concert in Lavelanet, starring 20 or more of his students. He is obviously proud of the skill he has imparted to all these people, and likes nothing better than to front up various combinations of them, usually with him playing one of the lead guitars and also acting as lead vocalist. We have attended several of these concerts and have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the musicians, many of whom are teenagers or even younger.
Now I was over 60 when I started to learn guitar and, due to the rurality of my location, could not find a tutor and was largely self-taught for most of that time. Three years ago I discovered Santiago and have been having lessons with him weekly during the time I spend at home. Being a bit of a Wayward Wind and a restless world traveller, this means I have probably had 3 lots of 6 months of weekly lessons. Nevertheless, for some time Santiago has been trying gently to persuade me to get up on stage in one of his concerts. It was never part of my plan to play in public - I just wanted to be able to quietly play a few tunes to myself. Also, each time I was asked, I genuinely felt that I was not good enough, and was puzzled that he was prepared to exhibit me amongst his youngsters.
This year he seems to have snared me and I will be playing five tunes at a line-dancing concert in a very few weeks time. I have already missed some of the rehearsals because of my absence in America and felt honour-bound to go along to today's practice.
On Wednesday Santiago told me that the concert is now a week earlier than I was previously informed, due to non-availability of the market hall because of a Christmas Fair. He also told me that some of the tunes I had been learning would not now be used and I had to learn two new ones. In addition he told me that the rehearsal would be at the disco at Laroque. I had no idea where this is. The French frequently and sensibly place their discos outside residential areas and his explanation made it clear that this disco is in the very same building I walk past once a week - the disco signs are on the other face of the building.
So today's rehearsal was the first time I have ever played guitar with any other musicians. It was also the first time I have been inside a disco. What a sheltered life I have led. There were twenty or more guitarists involved, with different combinations of five or so playing each tune.
As I drove away after the session, I thought the car sounded different. Then I realised that I had been temporarily deafened by my first visit to a disco. A sheltered life indeed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Whose idea is this anyway?

How about this for a coincidence!

We have just received the village newsletter "Le Petit Puivertain". Normally we get this at the beginning of the month but we were away in election land, so we missed it until now.

It's not the only thing we missed. One of the news items is about a 70-day walk! It seems that while we were away, the village played host to a group of walkers who are taking 70 days to toddle 1300 kms across the Languedoc, the original Occitan-speaking land which is now part of France, from the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees to the Alps.

Unfortunately I don't know anything more about their objectives or motivation, or why they selected the magic figure of 70 days, but it would have been very interesting to have met them and to have compared notes.

Maybe if we get in the car and dash off in the general direction of Italy, we can catch up with them and see what's what.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Missed Opportunities

As promised, I walked 30 kms on Monday. Mirepoix to Puivert. Once again I saw not a single person in the first 21 kms. Strangely, the first human I encountered, in Chalabre, was the same one as last time - a man we call Monsieur Partout. Years ago, after we had encountered him in several of the locations hereabouts, he said to us, "Je suis partout!" - "I am everywhere". So he does not realise this, but he saddled himself with the soubriquet of Partout forever.

As usual, I had a rest day on Tuesday. This is because Tuesday is the day of my weekly (when I am here, which is about half the Tuesdays of the year) guitar lesson. So I spend the morning catching up on the practice I should have done, and the afternoon at the lesson in Lavelanet with my tutor, Santiago Cazar.

This morning I walked 16kms, so the average for the three walking days so far this week, getting into the swing of it again after the Presidential election hiatus in USA, is over 20 kms a day. That is fine for this stage and about two thirds of the daily rate I shall require for VBW, when I shall have to maintain 30 kms a day, 6 days a week for 10 weeks.

This morning's walk was the same as Sunday's, from Quillan, except that it was cold and raining (the people of Quillan will tell you that it always rains on Wednesday, because that is market day). The scene of Sunday's photograph was a little greyer today, but still beautiful. The normal route of this walk, unlike most of VBW, is off-road. There are only about 3 kms where I have not much option than to walk at the roadside. But today, because I knew the tracks would be muddy, and because I know I will have to get used to walking with the traffic, and because the last time I tried that on this same route it was the busy month of August, I decided to try it again. So it was up the hill by track, then 10 kms on the edge of the road.

It was indeed much quieter than August, and bearable, although I still had to keep a weather eye on the traffic behind me. I was walking on the left, against the flow of vehicles but, as I have said before, the real danger is with overtaking vehicles, which can pass very close to one, and the drivers of which do not seem to realise that a walker can slip, stumble or lurch sideways. And of course, their own judgement may not be perfect.

There were a few large trucks and once again I was struck by something which I have noticed, not only here in France, but in UK, USA, New Zealand, Australia - in fact virtually everywhere I have been. It is the waste of marketing opportunity by the vehicle owners. Some vehicles have the name of the company, maybe the telephone number, sometimes even a website. Occasionally a snappy but usually meaningless phrase. But very few tell you what the companies actually do. So you are hardly likely, when stuck in a traffic jam behind one of these uninformative missed opportunities, to make a note of the details. Even if they provide a service you desperately need, you are not going to know.

A few words are all it requires. Or one word. Gay and I were driving up the M5 in England a few years ago. We were behind a refrigerated truck which had this emblazoned across the back, and probably on the sides as well:


I can't be sure about the validity of the upper and lower cases in my version, but that sign told us everything we needed to know about the lorry's business - the vehicle was refrigerated, the business was import and export, the proprietor was called Davies and was probably Welsh, and he had a sense of humour. Being Welsh he could probably sing it. Of course there were contact details as well. If we lived in the country and had need of those services we would have made a note of the phone number and Bob would have been his uncle.

As it is, even without a need, we have never forgotten it. Clearly.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On The Road Again

A view this morning from halfway up the climb, looking down over Quillan towards the Gorge de Pierre Lys

Home from the excitement of the Obamathon. We arrived at 2 a.m. yesterday morning, having driven from Gerona in Spain. We hadn't been in bed long when the doorbell rang. Nobody there. I went back to bed, shivering because the house was very cold after being empty for 3 weeks. Just nodding off when the bell went again. Still nobody there. This is not the first time it has happened - the last time was accompanied by spontaneously snapping guitar strings (nobody was touching the guitar at the time) - and it is a little spooky. Figuring that not even spooks can ring a bell with no batteries, I removed them in order to get some sleep.

After all this, it was a little later than usual when we awoke. There were things to be done in Lavelanet, so we drove over there. It was cold and very bright. From the high points on the way we could see that the Pyrenees are now swathed in beautiful white snow which is not going to go away until the middle of next year - the dusting they had a few weeks ago soon disappeared but this lot is here to stay.
It was a super day for walking back from Lavelanet along the old railway line and I was sorely tempted, but there were jobs waiting at home after our absence. It was still beautiful weather after lunch, so Gay and I had a 6 kilometre circular walk through Campgast and another couple of villages.
Today after Esperaza market I started walking in earnest again, walking the 16 kms home from Quillan, using the second track we very recently found from Quillan to the Col du Portel, there rejoining the walk I have been doing regularly for some months. Not as sunny as yesterday and accompanied by a very strong, cold wind. It was hard work. The regular 7.5 kms morning walk on the flat in Indiana was worth doing, but my legs have obviously missed the climbing.
Tomorrow I have a 30 kms walk planned from Mirepoix, weather permitting. There is a bit of a problem with clothing for walks at this time of the year, even if it is dry. Especially if doing something social before the walk, such as going to the market, shops, or visiting someone. Normal clothes have to worn for that. Then there is the matter, especially when extensive, warm climbing is to be done, of needing less clothes for one part of the walk than for the rest. That problem was reversed this morning because the wind was only in the second half of the walk. At one stage I almost put my gloves on, which is unheard of - I am normally taking them off after a couple of miles, not putting them on after 13 kms.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baggage, Not Us, Gone Walkies

I write this in our hotel in the Lake District. Outside the window is all that lovely scenery and of course all that spectacular walking. But not for us. No walks here. We have no kit. In fact we have only the clothes we arrived in, a guitar, a computer and a carry-on bag containing books and other in-flight necessities.

We left America on Tuesday. Jane and Lorenzo drove us to Nashville and dropped us at the airport. We thanked them for their wonderful hospitality and for letting us share their excitement as we watched history together. At Music City Airport we jumped through all the hoops as usual, including all that nonsense about taking our shoes off, made it to the boarding gate, sat there for hours because there was a storm in Chicago, boarded the aircraft, sat there for hours while the plane also sat there for hours, and eventually it was allowed to take off.

At Chicago we had to run from one terminal to another and just made it to the Manchester flight. But apparently our luggage did not. What fun it was to stand at the luggage carousel in Manchester. The man next to me was concerned, because everybody else seemed to be getting their bags, that his would be missing. It wasn't, but I had taken the opportunity to tell him, with the seasoned traveller's air of weary off-handedness, that four times in the past our luggage had gone astray. He didn't stay long enough for me to let him know that the score is now five.

Yes, we were left standing with an empty carousel. The man at the complaints counter says our stuff could arrive on the same flight today, in which case it will be delivered to the address we gave him, of our friends in Stockport. What happens if that fails I do not know, because tomorrow we leave the country for Spain and France.

What a pity we do not still have the card insurance we had with our Cyprus bank, when we lived there. With that cover, they had to pay us, after the first four hours of missing luggage, 80 dollars for every further hour until the luggage was in our hands. Unfortunately there was a limit of 1000 dollars payout. On one occasion, Gay's bag was absent for four days. Compensation , without the limit, would have added up to several thousand dollars. Still, we were quite happy to accept the thousand they paid up without question.

Of course, our bags may totally disappear, in which case we are covered. But can you remember exactly what is in your luggage, and how much it is worth? No, neither can we.

p.s. Later in the day. We have been reunited with the miscreant baggages, so we are now able to change our clothes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Sweat ...

... Not true, especially using Lorenzo's Ropes - you get a real work out and will need a shower when you finish. The Pilates exercises are more gentle but just as effective. A combination of the two would be excellent. Together in an exrcise programme with your walk or run, the result will be a fit you.

If you want to know more about the types of exercises mentioned in the previous post on this blog, information and equipment is readily available on or via the Internet.

For instance, the "Lorenzo's Ropes" type exercise can be done using either resistance tubing or resistance bands. Search on either of those phrases will produce lots of information.

Amazon have an interesting book described if you click on this:

They also sell various types of resistance tubing or bands, such as:

A "Swiss ball, together with an instructional DVD is here:

Books about "Pilates on the Ball" are available with or without accompanying DVD here:

A free training video in one type of resistance tube training, using a bench, is here:

These are just examples. There are many more books, DVDs, suppliers of equipment and demos available using a simple search.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Learning The Ropes

Lorenzo The Magnificent and his Ropes - in action

The weather has continued to be kind so we have managed to fit in the squirrel/groundhog/bison walk each morning. But in addition, we have taken the oportunity of being here to get Lorenzo to teach us some bad weather exercise routines.

I have mentioned Lorenzo's Ropes before so I had better explain what they are. We first met Lorenzo when we were all passengers on a ship. An enormous cargo ship, designed to carry 3,000 cars, but with a few passenger cabins. I once worked on ships and during this trip I was able to confirm what I already knew, which is that to travel as a passenger on a cargo/passenger ship is an exceedingly splendid way to get around the world. Officers on a ship eat very well - part of the plan to encourage them to stay - and passengers eat with the officers.

We and our Toyota Camry were travelling from Cyprus to Italy, via an unexpected detour to Israel, on the Fides. Our disembarkation point was near Naples, but first there was a call to unload and load cars at Palermo in Sicily. A lone cyclist came aboard with his bicycle. We met him at dinner in the officer's dining room. He was Lorenzo, who had sold up his business in America and was touring Europe on his bike. He had already spent several months in Italy, and was aboard the Fides until it reached Barcelona, where he intended to disembark to cycle round Spain.

The ship spent a couple of days in Palermo, instead of a few hours, because it was a public holiday and the alternative would have been to pay the dockers enormous sums of money. So with that and the trip onwards to Naples, we probably spent 3 days with Lorenzo but we became firm friends and have stayed in touch ever since. We have visited him and his wife Jane at their previous home in Florida and also here in Evansville. They have been to stay with us in France. They are lovely warm, kind and generous people and are among our best friends in the world.

Lorenzo was not only spending several hours a day on his bike in Europe, but also had a daily exercise routine which took about an hour. I think he will not mind me telling you that he had previously been very overweight and in bad physical condition - so much so that his doctor had given him a short life forecast if he did not do something about it. Lorenzo took this seriously and turned himself into a fit man. At the time we met him he was about 57 years old. In the picture above, taken this week, he is approaching a very fit 70. Each day on the Fides we would see him going through his routine, which involved quite a lot of hauling around on rubber tubes such as those you see him exercising with in the photograph above. We dubbed these "Lorenzo's Ropes" and have known them as such ever since. They are extremely portable but are a very good substitute for a set of weights. Virtually any movement you perform with weights can be reproduced against the resistance of these ropes. I have used them extensively. They are excellent.

However, he has since moved on to a routine of Pilates exercises using what is known in some quarters as a Swiss ball, an inflatable sphere big enough to sit on (there is one in the picture, behind the Steven Spielberg lookalike) . All very gentle, not too many repetitions of each exercise, the ball is used both for resistance and support. Having spent a week doing 40-50 minute sessions, I can highly recommend it. Good stuff for when you are prevented by the weather from going out for a run or walk, but also good, supported, non-impact and non-strain exercise, especially for the more mature body.

A key objective of Pilates-on-the-ball is to strengthen the core muscles, which of course in turn leads to strength in the back and hopefully being less prone to back problems.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Walk In The Park

Up slightly later than usual this morning, after staying awake to watch the miracle of America electing an African-American to be the next President.

A sunny day, as it has been since we arrived in the USA a week ago. Cool, because it was before 7 a.m. Groundhogs still hiding in wait for a bit of warmth. Squirrels slow to get going. Buffalo still frozen in bronze horror at their fate at the hands of man. A walk no more or less invigorating than others. But it felt like a new world out there.

I was pleased to see last night that John McCain, in his gracious and generous concession speech, referred to something I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago. He drew a comparison between the outrage about Theodore Roosevelt allowing a distinguished black man, Booker T Washington, into the White House as a guest, and the political earthquake which took Obama into the Presidency. I know that somebody from Washington was scouring my blog recently. Also somebody in Arizona. John McCain's speech writers? They have to get their information and ideas somewhere. Why not here? Glad to have been of service.

Another memory came to me as I walked. I think it was 1964 when Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed through the act which allowed African-Americans to vote. At the subsequent election, much was of course made of this in TV and radio coverage. The basic theme was - would these millions of new voters have an impact on the result? But it seemed that so many of the newly-enfranchised black people were reluctant to use their vote, either because they did not like the choice before them (which of course did not include, especially at the higher levels) any of their own people, or because they were afraid. I remember especially one old black woman who, when asked how she would vote, said "I ain't gonna vote on that day, I'm gonna pray to the good Lord, I'm gonna pray to the good Lord!" Well, I hope she is still with us, so that she can pray to her good Lord, to offer thanks for this miracle.

Yes, He Can!

America has spoken, spoken wisely and spoken well.

Non-Americans frequently sneer or express exasperation at the US political process - the seemingly perpetual election campaigns, the money spent, the razzamatazz. But tonight's result is a vindication of the democratic ideal here.

Centuries of bigotry and suspicion have been overturned. The results will be incalculable in their effect on relationships between the different ethnic groups.

And the United States has again, at last, after a very long time - and I am not just referring to the disastrous George W Bush era - a president of which it can be truly proud.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Home Where No Buffalo Roam

Bison Family

Another picture taken during our morning walk in the park. A buffalo family. Actually a bison family, buffalo being a misnomer. But these bison are made of bronze and they are the only ones we are likely to see.

The history of this animal in North America is very, very sad. Or should I say that, of their 100,000 year sojourn here, the last few hundred years have been a disaster. It is no coincidence that this period coincides with the presence of Europeans in the New World.

Before the Europeans arrived, there were an estimated 30-70 million bison in this continent. They stretched from Alaska into Mexico. Fossil remains have been found of herds from more than 100,000 years ago.

The herds were immense. They stretched beyond the horizon. You could stand in one spot, while the bison were on the move, and they would take days to go past you.

Before the arrival of Europeans bison provided native Americans with an unending supply of food and raw material for tools, clothing and other products. Also, they were considered to be spiritual beings the consumption of which would sustain the inner life.

Herds could number from 500 to more than 500,000. This huge natural resource and triumph of nature was carelessly slaughtered, within a few decades, by Europeans for greed, profit, fun and sport. The pieces taken were generally hides and tongues – the rest was wasted.

Even more shocking, bison were deliberately wiped out as part of successful government policy to destroy the native Americans.

A poignant fact is that these creatures did not originate in North America, but in Europe. Long long ago they crossed the land bridge which then existed between Asia and Alaska. They thrived and prospered. But eventually Europeans followed them and the idyll was quickly ended.

By 1889, less than 1,000 bison were left and those were saved by the combined efforts of William Hornaday (Director of the Bronx Zoo) and a small group of ranchers. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed to save the bison and protect rangeland for the animals. Today, those efforts are carried on by the National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association. The bison herds of today number in excess of 350,000 and are growing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

No Groundhog Day

Evansville State Hospital Park

We finally got the walking underway yesterday. A 7.5 kilometre march to and through the nearby park pictured above. There are wonderful colours in the plentiful trees in the park and surrounding area. Apparently, due to a conspiring combination of climatic circumstances, there are many more trees still in full leaf than is usual at this time of the year. As if they waited for us to arrive before entering the full glory of their autumn/fall display. The weather is also superb, meaning that we enjoy the show in good light and comfort.

There is an amazing abundance of grey squirrels - it seems one for every tree. They scamper, hide and climb to amuse us as we tear at full tilt through their terrain. Despised in England because they have "driven out" the native red squirrels, they are still of course lovely and lively animals, wherever they are.

We repeated the same walk this morning, including a reprise of one disappointing factor of yesterday's expedition. On Saturday Gay had been for a run in the same park and had seen a groundhog, so we were hoping to catch one of these during our early morning walk. Maybe we were too early for them. They do like a little warmth before they venture forth. One of Lorenzo's friends says he has seen them emerge just to the mouth of their burrow as the sun starts to hit the ground. They wait there until the rays hit them, then absorb some heat for a while until they feel revved up enough to start their day. Maybe we should go out a little later, but we like to get the exercise out of the way early so that it does not interfere with the rest of the day for our hosts, as well as for ourselves.

Although a beautiful day, it was much cooler today than yesterday. There had been noticeable dropping of leaves during the night - usually a reliable indicator of a drop in temperature (although a lovely warm day is forecast today). But for our early foray, even the squirrels seemed to be slower to get going, so maybe it was a bit much to expect the groundhogs to put in an appearance. Or maybe they were off making another movie?

On the way to and from the park we were reminded that during our visit here, we are not only experiencing the amazing election, but we have also taken in an American Halloween. This is a much more extensive thing than it is in Europe. There are stunning displays of Halloween figures almost filling some gardens and porches - still. But another Halloween custom took us completely by surprise. It seems that on Halloween day, it is permissible to wear anything you like, to dress up not necessarily as a frightening Halloween character. For instance, we were in Barnes and Noble, the big bookseller, on that day. A woman came in, wearing a wedding dress. She married in August and wanted to wear the dress again. So she would be wearing it for the full day. A member of staff was dressed as Death.

This morning, not only are gardens and houses still decorated for Halloween, but some are already decorated for Thanksgiving, for "Happy Harvest", and we even saw a house with a wreath containing an early greeting for a Happy Christmas!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Down on 6th and Main

Another day without walking. We meant well, but instead of exercise, we spent the morning under the steely gaze of this Secret Service man and others like him. (I have only just discovered this - if you click on the picture, it will become bigger and will give you a much better impression of his intimidatory presence).

We were scheduled to start our Evansville walking this morning. Lorenzo is a baker, part-time only these days. Like most bakers he starts work in the middle of the night, so he was not able to join us this morning. Instead, having kindly mapped out a route of nearly 5 miles for us (kilometres being unknown here in the USA) he drove us round it yesterday, while Gay took notes.

The intention was that we would arise as soon as it was light today and charge round the the new walk before breakfast. But politics intervened. To remind you, we love to visit our friends here, but the reason we chose this particular time is so that we can experience the presidential election at first hand.

I thought that meant that we would be absorbing the excitement of our friends and other people as the process nears and reaches its denouement. And that is happening. We have certainly never experienced, in Britain or Europe, the ferment, the round the clock coverage on television, the fact that the people are so involved and in discussion all the time, about the decision to be made. I think that elections are always a more intense process here but probably even more so this time, with the very real possibility that history may be happening as we watch, to the greater or lesser pleasure of all those able to cast their vote.

What we did not expect is to actually see one of the candidates in full flow. Yesterday we discovered that Senator Joe Biden, the running mate of Senator Obama and of course candidate himself for Vice-President, was to appear at a rally in downtown Evansville this very morning. He was scheduled to speak at 10 am, so Jane thought we should be in position by soon after 8. This was too good an opportunity to miss, also an opportunity which snookered the planned walk. Tomorrow, without fail.

The rally was held at the road junction of 6th Street and Main Street. I suppose we were standing in the middle of the junction, which was fenced off, of course, and with a stage erected in the middle. There was a succession of speakers, most running for office themselves, further down the Democratic ticket. Then there was Jill Biden, the wife of Joe Biden, who said she really liked the fact that we were outside the Historic Victory Theatre - she was impressed by the sound of that, and clearly thought it was an omen. Then came the Senator himself, who made an excellent, rousing speech before circling the foot of the stage to press the flesh, a feat he managed even though completely surrounded by Secret Servicemen like the one pictured above.

It struck me a little too late that if we had spoken to one of the advance men before the actions started, and told him that we had come all the way from France to witness the victory of Obama/Biden, we may very well have been treated to a special handshake and a few kind words from the great man.

It was an excellent experience, more than we hoped for during our election trip to the USA. Gay, who is much less interested in politics than I am, was clearly exhilarated by it all. It was so different than anything we have seen in the various countries in which we have lived. It brought back to me the period of my own pretty intensive involvement in politics and could only have been bettered by seeing Barack Obama himself, a clearly remarkable individual and also the best orator I have seen (not in the flesh) for many a long year.