journey

I’ll just go ahead and say it without qualification: if I could play through only one video game, only one more time, the game would be Journey — it was released as a download for the PS3 a few weeks ago. I want to tell you what brings me to that conclusion, but it’s genuinely impossible to do so without spoilers. And not just spoilers. These are the kinds of spoilers which might make you both decide that you must play the game and wish you didn’t know what I just told you. And it’s going to happen very quickly, so don’t think you can read a bit and peel off when it starts getting juicy. It’s gonna be juicy about two sentences after the warning. Okay? So stop now, get a PS3 if you don’t have one, and pay the $15 to download Journey from the Playstation Store, or read on.

—here there be spoilers—

Honestly, I am not sure if this is a video game or an exercise in using a video game to foster a sense of respect and compassion for fellow human beings. You’ll have to judge that one for yourself.

So here’s the scoop, and it’s relative simple: you start the game, a cloaked nomad figure in a big desert. There’s a very large mountain shining in the sun across the desert in front of you. The game is made up of a number of chapters which comprise the journey up the mountain, and they’re crafted like the story arc of a very good novel. There is joy, uncertainty, tension, catastrophe and finally (I warned you) triumph. And this is all done with amazingly gorgeous, immersive, scenery and a compelling musical score.

As you delight and toil your way up toward the mountain, you occasionally come upon another solitary figure who looks like you. You have the ability to emit a chime-like call which is instrumental to your progress, and sometimes these figures almost seem to be trying to interact with you. If your first play through is like mine, these seem nearly ghostlike: they appear, sometimes interacting and sometimes not, and just as quickly they’re gone.  Occasionally you spend longer stretches in the game journeying with one of these people, and sometimes they even seem to be trying to help you.

Here’s the real spoiler: once you reach the top of the mountain you’re treated to a very emotional final scene in which you enter the cleft in the summit and are transformed into a tailed star. As the credits roll, the star-you travels back through all the chapters and lands at the edge of the desert where you began. And then, the revelation. You’re shown a list of the screen names of all the other journeyers that you traveled with. The other figures are other real players.

It’s hard to capture the real impact this has. I was dumfounded. The game is achingly beautiful — achingly because it’s plays hope against seemingly insurmountable difficulty and winds up with a stunningly triumphant and hopeful ending. That alone would be enough to put the game on my top-10 list. But after your first journey (or now, since you’re reading this) you know that the whole story is shared with another person or persons. You realize that all those times it seemed like the figure was helping you, he or she was.

So what do you? Of course: you go back and you do it again, and this time you help someone else. The first play through is awesome and all, but I think the real essence of the game is the going back and helping. So it’s a game that plays like a good novel reads and compels a sense of empathy. Amazing.

Check out the game’s creators, and specifically the Journey page. Flower, their previous effort, was every bit as pretty and the gameplay as non-standard (it’s in my top-10 list for sure).

If you really want to see what the game is about, and you’re okay with mega spoilers, check out this video on youtube. It shows a pair making it up the last bit of the mountain (and dying — you cannot escape dying) and then the summit.

March 28, 2012 in stuff Comments (3)

cottonwood

So I have a list of things I mean to write about here. No, I am not going to share the list, as you (and I mean all three of you) would stop reading because you’d realize I should be accompanying my blog posts with gift certs for Starbucks. And I’m not going to do that because I’m not sure that putting you to sleep isn’t really more fun.

Anyway, next on my list is this (and I’m not joking):

the smell of cottonwood trees

The reason I put that on the list is simple: the smell of a warm stand of cottonwood trees is one of the most intoxicating, wonderful, smells anywhere. Describing smells is futile, so I am not going to try. I suggest you put yourself into close proximity with some in the next couple of months and see for yourself.

In the spring (midwest) and early-summer (out west) cottonwood trees do two things: they release seeds that look like fuzz and get all over everything and really piss people off, and they release sap which is the source of the amazing smell. If you want to smell the sap, and don’t know what a cottonwood looks like, look for the cottony fuzz blowing around. They’re often found on roadsides near water filled ditches.

I associate the smell, indelibly, with driving at night with the windows down someplace west of Colorado. The heat of the day seems to cook the fragrance into the air and it’s a heady perfume perfect for keeping you awake when you’ve got many miles to travel before dawn. It nearly always causes me to turn on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, but that, of course, is just me.

Some things about cottonwood trees:

1. The sap is made into something you might of heard of: Balm of Gilead. It’s an ancient herbal medicine. I have no idea if it smells like cottonwoods, but I intend to find out.

2. Cottonwoods are actually poplar trees.

3. I found a song in which cottonwoods figure largely: Hello, by Sugarland. I knew about another one, but it’s somewhat less happy: Lay it Down, by Cowboy Junkies.

4. The cottonwood is the state tree of both Kansas and Nebraska. When you’re driving through either state and you see a stream out on the plains with trees dotting it’s bank: those are cottonwoods.

5. Other people blog about cottonwood smell. No, seriously.

March 22, 2012 in stuff Comments (1)

clearwish

“How is it that I’ve heard so little of this miracle and we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much of the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous.”

–Frank Lloyd Wright

We went on a trip recently, and our destination was western South Dakota. Yes, Mt. Rushmore was on the docket of things we were aiming to see, but our mission was broader than just that. A couple of years ago, we took a roadtrip that covered 6,000 miles in 14 days, and was truly epic. Somehow we managed to do the impossible: we traveled fast and actually saw a bunch of stuff. Usually the two things are mutually exclusive, but I suppose the travels gods were smiling on us. Lots of national parks, lots of gorgeous scenery, lots of fun.

Anyway, the epic trip included a visit to Yellowstone, and we lodged on its eastern outskirts that night in the town of Lovell in a Western Motel run by a Filipino family. The hotel had a restaurant called the Cauc-Asian Diner. Our room included a complimentary Taco Bell taco and a velvet painting of a Spanish hacienda. We slept with the lights on. The next morning, we got up and drove back to Chicago. We didn’t intend to do that, but at some point we realized that we were only 15 hours from home, and we were all ready to be there. The town where we had that revelation was Clearwish, South Dakota.

Okay, the name of the town is not Clearwish, but it’s real name rhymes with it. I’m not obscuring the name to be coy or clever. I’m sure if you look at a map of the area around Mt. Rushmore, you’ll see the town I’m indicating. I’m being obscure because, as you’ll see shortly, part of my reason for devoting a blog post to the place has to do with its relative anonymity. There’s no sense in ruining that by writing (obviously) about it.

On that day, a couple of years ago, we stopped at Crow Peak brewery for lunch and over some very good beers we looked around and realized several important things. We were in the West. We were only a (long) day’s drive from home. This town was obviously pretty damned cool. We resolved to make a trip here on a long weekend, just to see if it could be done.

So we finally made good on that resolution recently. We took the weekend two days early, packed the car with our standard road-trip provisions (lots of snacks and music) and headed west. The drive from Chicago is easy, but boring: there is little change in the midwestern scenery until you cross the Missouri River just east of the center of South Dakota. There, magically, you’re transported into the West: the vegetation vanishes, canyons begin to pop up, and magically the sky grows larger. Not long after that, you skirt the desolate Badlands and are soon in Rapid City, the self-proclaimed gateway to Mt. Rushmore. This is where we had a hotel for the weekend.

Over the next few days we climbed Mt. Harney, the highest peak in South Dakota, visited the desolate Badlands, saw the inevitable Mt. Rushmore and, finally, made it back to Clearwish. We had beer at Crow Peak again. It was better even than my memory of it, and that’s a rare thing. We ate lunch at a restaurant, Barbacoa’s, that seemed to be an answer to the question “what would a non-corporate Qdoba run by people who really love burritos be like?” Then we drove into Clearwish Canyon — it’s the place Mr. Wright was speaking of in the quote above.

I’m torn in saying too much about what specifically we saw. One of the most pervasive parts of the charm we experienced was tied deeply to the lack of massive tourist pressure. “Unknown” is going too far, but it was clear that the place had much less tourist traffic than you’d imagine given the natural beauty, ample stuff to do, and easy access to a major interstate. We were visiting in the off-season, and I’ve never been when the tourists are really present. I imagine, though, that when people stop in the Black Hills, most of the time they’re there to see Mt. Rushmore. Indeed, the stretch of road in between the interstate and the monument are lined with just the sort of stuff you’d imagine. It looked a whole lot like Gatlinburg, Tennessee to me. Maybe the monument served as a sort of honey-pot: people used their 1 hour of tourist time they could spare away from the highway visiting Mt. Rushmore and then moved on, leaving the northern part of the hills unexplored.

Whatever the cause, Clearwish Canyon conveyed the feeling of being deep in southwestern Colorado, or northeastern Wyoming: relative isolation, gorgeous mountain scenery, and all the stuff to do that you’d like to do if you like to do things outside. Unlike the other two regions, though, this canyon is fifteen minutes away from the interstate and a day’s drive from home.

We hiked — there are three hundred miles of trails — but I want to come back to fish. The less said about the fishing prospects, the better I think, but if you’ve made it this far you deserve to know that the fishing looks nearly perfect: with a bit of hiking, I’d guess you could fish for days on water that hasn’t been touched in the last year. Many of streams are spring-fed which means they’re beautiful, of course, but also that they’re fishable year-round.

Above all, though, the canyon is gorgeous, the streams all rilled happily, and every little rental cabin made us want to stay longer. We’ll be back, without a doubt.

I never intended to do travel blogging here, but Clearwish SD falls squarely into the “there’s more here than meets the eye” category. The next time you’re going to check out Mt. Rushmore, you might consider stopping by. Start with a Thor’s Hammer ale (bittered with spruce tips instead of hops) at Crow Peak (literally 2 minutes from I-90 at exit 10) and ask about the canyon. That will get you on the right track.


March 21, 2012 in travel Comments (1)

something in the water?

While hunting up info on the previous post, I came across this:

(photo Calvin Chu)

They’re called Sun Tunnels, and they were made by American artist Nancy holt. There’s more information about them there on the Wikipedia page (scroll down a bit), but the upshot is this: they’re four huge tubes of concrete placed in such a way as to frame the sunrises and sunsets on the winter and summer solstices. And, for added sparkle, they also are perforated with holes that cast the sunlight in each tube into the stars of a constellation: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. I don’t see the immediate reason for the selection of those constellations. I’ll be looking into that, though.

So what’s the connection to Metaphor: Tree of Utah? The Sun Tunnels are an half-hour drive away and also situated on the flats. Interesting.

Interesting, but not interesting enough to warrant another blog post, I suppose. But yesterday I came across this post in the New York Times. It seems that a book has recently been released (or will be released — I can’t seem to find it for sale) which explores the derelict airbase in Wendover (remember, 30 miles west of the Tree of Utah) that housed the Enola Gay just before it’s terrible mission. More interesting.

(photo Mark Klett)

Were the two artists aware of the proximity of their works (yeah, it’s 30 miles, but these are big things)? What’s in the water around Wendover?

March 13, 2012 in stuff Comments (1)

metaphor: tree of life

“A hymn to our universe whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination.”

We were speeding down Interstate 80 at, appropriately enough, about 80 miles per hour. We’d left Salt Lake City behind us and blazed toward the sun setting across the open expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats. I looked down at the map on my phone.

I know, driving and fiddling with cell phones is bad, but if you are familiar with this area, you know that you could swerve off the road at 80mph and probably wouldn’t even notice that you were suddenly driving on the flats. They’re really, really flat. Some people claim that if you drive out into the middle of them, you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

Anyway, on the map I notice that we’re approaching something I have starred in Google maps. Before the trip I’d scoured our route and starred things I thought we might be interested in or want to photograph. I couldn’t remember what this was (a common occurrence with my stars), so I lifted my foot a bit and began to search the horizon for something that was star-able.

Ahead, barely visible in the glare of the afternoon sun, was something — out on the flats you can see things from a long way off. It looked like a pole of some sort with large balls of something attached to it. It was obviously large. As we approached, I slowed, and then I remembered what it was: a sculpture called Metaphor: Tree of Utah, nicknamed Metaphor: Tree of Life (which I like better). We slowed and pulled onto the shoulder despite the dense thicket of signs prohibiting stopping. In the harsh sun, it looked somewhat sad. A tower with tennis balls sprouting from it. You couldn’t approach it, as it was surrounded by a crude chainlink fence that was shrouded in tattered orange tarps giving the impression of it being under construction. There’d been rain recently, and the path out to it was muddy. We decided not to get out (though we stopped again a few miles later and took some photos of the flats).

Later that evening, we stopped in West Wendover Nevada — a casino town. I googled the sculpture. I found a bunch of very interesting stuff. The next morning, I went for a run in the desert that ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. There’s nothing that I’ve found builds a connection with a place quicker than seeing some of it on foot. While I was watching the rising sun paint Wildcat Peak in pastels, I realized that I was still thinking about it. Metaphors point to something. What’s this thing point to?

Some information:

1. It’s big. 87 feet tall.

2. It’s actually, despite my first blush impression, quite beautiful. The balls are all covered with colorful rocks and minerals that are found in Utah.

3. It was made by a Swedish artist named Karl Momen. He’s an interesting guy: born in Iran, he studied with Max Ernst AND Le Corbusier. If you hunt around on his site, you can learn lots more and also see a photo of him with a tallship in the background. I swear that’s not the only reason I think he’s interesting.

4. There are numerous comparisons between his work (not just the Tree of Life) to Kandinsky. This might be why I find him so interesting (I love Kandinsky).

5. The quote at the beginning of this post is written on the plaque at its base (though you can’t close enough to read it with the fence there now — at least one source claims the fence is to prevent injuries from bits of the sculpture which are apparently now beginning to fall due to weathering). It’s lovely, and it’s ascribed everywhere to being a bit of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. Oddly, I can’t seem to find anything in Ode to Joy that resembles it, but it could be a translation issue.

6. Apparently, Momen decided to create it on a drive across the country. He bought the land it stands on, paid for most of it’s construction (which apparently was more than a million dollars) and then donated it to the state of Utah.

7. This site claims that the tiny ceramic tiles used on it are actually from Italy. It also details troubles with upkeep and weathering.

8. Momen was moved to create the work by “vastness and relative emptiness” and that it “brings space, nature, myth and technology together”

9. There are four leaves or husks on the ground around the sculpture. They apparently represent the four season, and the way a tree changes with each.

As you might imagine, given its location, there are loads of photos of it. Take a look at this google image search.

Information pillaged freely from these sources:

http://www.karlmomen.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor:_The_Tree_of_Utah

http://www.utah.com/amusement/metaphor_tree.htm

http://ludb.clui.org/ex/i/UT3169/

 

 

March 9, 2012 in stuff Comments (1)

Stardust

Sometimes I start a book and think “this is so good that it may end up being one of my favorites.” Much more rarely, I finish the same book and find it’s lived up to or exceeded my initial impression. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is one of those rare books. It’s one of the finest things I’ve read in the past decade.

My feelings about Gaiman have been pretty mixed over the past few years. I started Nevermore and didn’t finish it. I read American Gods and was totally engrossed, but  I didn’t think the latter half of the story lived up to the first.

Stardust, though, really shouldn’t be compared to these. The story is told in classic fairy tale style. This is not just the magical realism of his other works: characters in Stardust are archetypal, the plot moves very fast, there is not a deep message or lots of ambiguity for interpretation. If normal Neil Gaiman is the A Song of Fire and Ice, Stardust is the Silmarillion.

So should you read it? How did you feel about the movie Princess Bride or The Neverending Story? If you were ambivalent or disliked them, you probably won’t get much out of this. If you’re even moderately tolerant of fairy tales, though, I think you’ll find it sharp, touching, and exquisitely well written.

March 8, 2012 in reading Comments (1)

give it welcome

One popular rule for blogging is this: to have a successful blog, it needs to be about something and just about that thing. Boingboing was, for a long time, “a directory of wonderful things” (though oddly they seem to have done away with the tagline.) This blog was about cycling in general, and training for cycling in particular. The most recent post was in 2009, and those of you who know me also know that 2009 was about the last time I thought much about cycling training.

Following the blogging rule would lead me to the conclusion that this blog is finished. It was a cycling training blog, I don’t train to race anymore (heck, I don’t really ride my bike anymore), so the prudent thing to do would be to bury it. If I want to blog about something, I ought to start a new one, with a new focus etc.

While that makes sense if I’m shooting for a “successful” blog, the truth is that I couldn’t care less about that. I’ve never made a dime from either this or my photoblog, despite both being relatively well-used at various times. Commercial success was never the point. Further, the archives of this blog are not just filled with cycling training stuff — they’re filled with a few years of my adventures. I’m not ditching that stuff: it’s entertaining reading sometimes, and it’s always me.

So what am I doing? I’m switching stuff around here, and I’m going to start using it again. I’ve wanted to make a place where I can post stuff from my “there’s more here than meets the eye” file, and honestly lots of my cycling stuff falls into that category anyway: I rode 180 miles one day?! What the hell was I thinking?

I hope you enjoy the next leg of the journey.

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act 1 Scene V

March 5, 2012 in stuff Comments (1)