Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Top 5 Tuesday: comic strips

I love comic strips -- always have. In fact, some of my most frequently-read books as a kid were comic collections. Surprised? I suppose I should, as an English prof, maintain the fiction that "on my tenth birthday, looking into the new vistas of double digits, I realized that Tolstoy was now too childish for my tastes ..." or something.

Not so much. I still read the comics obsessively, as you might guess by the link I have on my blog to "GoComics" ... my morning ritual involves coffee, email, and comics. I don't read all of the ones there mind you, or just any comics that cross my view. There are, after all, some pretty inane ones out there. Family Circus comes to mind as something that needs to be put out to pasture, and Dagwood, and Beetle Bailey (I still have a bit of an odd affection for Hagar for reasons passing understanding, given that it stopped making me laugh when I was about eight).

Well-written and -drawn comics are truly an art form ... one of the things I love about them is their economy of storytelling: they have very limited space to achieve maximum effect, and when done well can make a pithy point more eloquent than wordy op-eds or essays (I imagine this acc0unts, at least in part for my fascination, never having been able to be particularly pithy or concise myself -- as regulars on this blog will attest!).

And so today's top five: my all-time favourite comic strips. As usual, I want to hear other people's favourites ...

1. Bloom County. Hands down, no contest, everyone else pack up and go home. It was a sad sad day when its bizarrely-named creator Berkely Breathed retired. I discovered Opus and the gang while in grade school, and was immediately a devotee based on a comic I saw in which Opus sang a very offensive love song while accomanying himself on the tuba. I was hooked. And nowhere else will you find such a beautifully absurd cast of characters: Milo and Binkley, the sleazy lawyer Steve Dallas, the mangy Bill the Cat, and the assorted woodland creatures who regularly recreate episodes from Star Trek. And of course dear dear Opus.

2. Doonesbury. You've gotta love a comic strip that is still going strong after thirty years of being on top. Not only do the characters grow and evolve, but they propogate: the second generation of Doonesbury is now college-age. It's a rare talent to take a medium so generally considered, well, cartoonish, and make it not only a laser-like political commentary but a genuinely engaging series of narratives with characters we feel real empathy for. A telling story: when Gary Trudeau was thinking of having one of the veteran characters B.D. lose his leg in Iraq, he did research by interviewing soldiers who had lost limbs there. He was understandably nervous about what they might have to say about him portraying their trauma in a comic strip, and was surprised at how they reacted in horror -- "You can't do that! Not to B.D.!"

3. The Far Side. Cows. Bears. Large women in cat-eye glasses and beehive haircuts. Birds of prey wearing sunglasses. And did I mention cows? Truly the most inspired absurdity ever. And also a sad moment when Gary Larson retired. What is it with these comic strip artists that they need early retirment? Is there some kind of stress involved that they just don't advertise to the public at large? Learn the lesson of longevity from Gary Trudeau, people!

4. Calvin and Hobbes. Really, what can I say? Bill Waterson hit on a magical formula with this comic, one that appeals to the fabulist and non-conformist in all of us. If Doonesbury is all about evolving and changing, Calvin and Hobbes is all about stubbornly refusing to stop being a kid. And like most little kids I've known, he has a pretty clear-eyed view of the world, one uncluttered by the illusions adults willfully deceive themselves with. I suppose that's one of the lessons: who's delusional here? The kid who imagines an intelligent, loving close friend for himself, or the adults who wish to burden him with the bullshit of the world?

5. Non Sequitur. While the preceding four are all comics that have been with me for years, Non Sequitur is a relatively new discovery (courtesy, I might add, of GoComics). It alternates between general commentaries, frequently political, and the travails of a single father of two girls -- the elder of the two, Danae, being now one of my all-time favourite comics characters (I'd had the thought of doing a top-five favourite comic strip characters, but we'd be down to number four or five before leaving Bloom County).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How I spent my Sunday, written entirely in RAF banter

What-ho, squiffies! Went low-bally with a cuppa till sausage-hour made grumblies, then tripped some slabs of white and yellow and rattled to the cage for a bit of waspy. Pranged at the how's-your-uncle for an egg or two, then feathered on to the blighter's jerry-scratch for a turn (not so Sir Neville, this one), which ate my tea and left the ape and elephant sitting dickied until tomorrow's crack. Something kited eh, what-what? Dropped the cabbages in the bin and flipped over on my Olivers back down to the battleship for the gravy. Not Betty Grable, but kind of argyle, what?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Suddenly sans cultural geography, our hero was taken by ennui and took to the contemplation of things trivial ...

So this post has a threefold purpose:

1. A goodbye tribute to my cultural geographer friend Matt, who moved to TO yesterday.
2. Posting some East Coast Trail pics taken last weekend.
3. Figuring out the perfect casting for an A-Team movie.

And what's truly bizarre is that these three subjects are in fact interconnected.

Even as the whirlygig of time brings about new and cool people into my sphere in the form of two new departmental hires -- Andrew, our new nineteenth-century Americanist, and Nancy, and old friend from my days at U of T who has been hired into a World Lit position here -- one of my first MUN friends has departed for the dirtier pastures of Toronto and U of T. I wish him well, of course, and by no means begrudge the move ... but then, losing the person who emailed me upon first hearing of Snakes on a Plane to say "We've got to see this muthuphukin' movie" is a bit of a blow (fortunately, his departure was late enough that we did in fact see the muthuphukin' movie, so that's something).

Before he and his lovely girlfriend Vanessa left, we managed to sneak in a hike on one of the more humane sections of the East Coast Trail (two weeks earlier or so having done one of the more inhumane sections).

Matt and Vanessa, looking hikerly:

As we drove to the trailhead, we happened (as one does) across the topic of 80s TV shows being remade into movies, and I mentioned The Patterson's brilliant idea for an A-Team musical (the first act's grand finale is Mr. T's song, "I Pity the Fool" in which he personally pities each fool individually -- a brilliant idea whose time is nigh, say I). Matt stated that he had the casting for the perfect A-Team movie already worked out in his head as follows:

Hannibal -- George Clooney
Face -- Matthew McConaughey
Murdoch -- Jim Carrey
B.A. -- Ving Rhames
Amy -- Jessica Alba

Can I first begin, before quibbling with some of the choices, at the sheer perfection of George Clooney as Hannibal? Pure casting genius, which actually moves this beyond the realm of speculation and makes me want to see that film. Just imagine him with cigar, safari jacket, and a self-satisfied supremely confident air when he says "I love it when a plan comes together."

I think Face is a trickier one to cast ... McConaughey isn't bad, but the character needs to be sissified a bit -- and McConaughey has a tendency on occasion to be rugged, which Face entirely is not (a reason why Brad Pitt would also not be suitable) ... Face needs to be elegant, slightly snobby, and always well-put-together clothes-wise. My suggestion? Jude Law, of course. Although if Val Kilmer could get on the treadmill for a few months, I'd consider him too.

I have to vehemently disagree with Jim Carrey, however ... he would be great in the role, but really, he'd be too great; you'd have to change the name of the film to Howlin' Mad Murdoch and be done with it ... no one else would get any screen time. I think this is a role that would benefit from a slightly different tack than the TV show, perhaps making him twitchier and more unpredictable than simply slapstick, which leads me to put forward the suggestion of Robert Downey Jr.

Ving Rhames is great for BA, though if there is a person from the original who makes it hard to imagine anyone else, it's Mr. T. As an alternate for the role, I'd suggest Michael Clarke Duncan if you want to emphasize sheer bulk and muscle ... which was really B.A.'s role on the team. Well, that and the ability to turn a Volkswagen Beetle into an M-1A Abrams with gasoline and baling wire.

Jessica Alba, as much as I love her, is also wrong I think ... she's too fresh-faced and young, and too glamorous. Amy I think needs to be more worldly, and more than a match for Face's advances. You need someone beautiful but who has more gravitas, and it's here I think that we inject some CanCon and opt for Molly Parker.

Which leaves us with a plum peripheral character, the team's nemesis, Colonel Decker. In the show he was always something of a buffoon; should you go that route I'd suggest Burt Reynolds. But I'd be inclined to make him a little more dangerous -- Christopher Walken, anyone?

Hope TO treats you well, Matt ...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Up Nearly ... huh?

For those unfamiliar with it, that is a decades-old mnemonic used by schoolchildren to remember the order and names of the planet -- Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Up Nearly Perpendicularily (Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto).

Except ... Pluto's gone!

Well, not gone ... the Lump of Rock Formerly Known As Pluto is still out there in its eccentric orbit, but a consensus of astronomers at a massive conference in Prague have demoted the lonely orb, stripping it of its planet status. It is now a "dwarf planet," and while that's not as humiliating as being relegated to asteroid status, Pluto still gets kicked out of the official planets country club, presumably along with its erstwhile friend Charon.

(Apparently, there were a lot of dissenting voices at the conference, distinguished scientists waving stuffed toys of Mickey Mouse's dog Pluto in protest.)

So what do we do with the mnemonic? Schoolchildren everywhere are distressed at the loss of their favourite underdog planet. Including this one: I myself never needed the mnemonic as a kid, not so much because I was smarter than everyone than because I was a total astronomy geek and read everything about outer space I could get my hands on. When, as a ten-year-old, you can instruct your teacher on the nature of quasars and black holes, the names of the planets are just sort of a given. I'd probably still be an astronomy geek, were it not for the harsh realization that, once past a certain level of knowledge about outer space, math gets involved in a significant way. I read A Brief History of Time in high school ... and then that was sort of that.

Until undergrad at any rate, when I took as my science requirement a course called "The Nature and Growth of Scientific Thought," taught by a grey-haired old British hippy with coke-bottle glasses, socks with his sandals, and about the driest and sharpest wit I've ever encountered in a lecturer. The first half of the course was devoted to the evolving understanding of the universe, from the ancient Babylonians to Sir Isaac Newton.

I loved it ... for some reason, my imagination was fired by the various models of the universe, from Aristotle and Ptolemy to Giordano Bruno, to the Copernican Revolution, to Galileo's persecution, to Kepler and the discovery of elliptical orbits. I devoured all the books I could find on it.

The best of these was by Arthur Koestler, titled The Sleepwalkers, which is a wonderful and incredibly lucid history of the major players in astronomy from Aristotle to Kepler. Less entertaining and more academic but still a good read is Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution, and even chunkier and more erudite, Hans Blumenberg's The Genesis of the Copernican World. There are also some brilliant fictional works that elucidate these topics, the best of them being John Banville's novels Dr. Copernicus and Kepler, both fictional biographies of the great astronomers.

Sometimes when I imagine the road not traveled, I imagine doing a dissertation on the impact of the Copernican Revolution on early modern literature ... indeed, had I decided to become a Shakespearean, that would likely have been my topic.

Ah well. This makes me want to spend the day rereading The Sleepwalkers, which unfortunately is not an option. I do think I'm going to try and find a print of the Ptolemaic solar system for my office wall, however ...

Pluto, we hardly knew ye. *sniff*

Monday, August 21, 2006

Snakes redux

Two days have passed, and that film is still on my mind. The sequel possibilities are endless, when you think about it. Why stop with snakes on a plane? I'm working out a treatment for a screenplay now called Snakes on a Train -- more of a psychological thriller, in which two snakes meet on a train and broker a deal where each one will kill the other's wife.

I've heard rumbles about Snakes on a Greyhound. Or there's always the possibility of doing one where snakes attack a curmudgeonly old man of letters in late nineteenth century America. Yes, that's right! Wait for it -- it's Snakes on a Twain!

Oh, lordy. I kill me.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson, the next grand marshall of Whacking Day

I swear, it's as if Frank Capra were still alive and making films about snakes. Snakes on planes.

Yup, went to see the much-anticipated Snakes on a Plane last night, and as about three thousand film reviewers have observed, this is a movie with a foolproof combination of elements: snakes+plane+Samuel L. Jackson. Truly, a film that deserves B-movie classic status right out of the gate. Not just because of its beautifully absurd premise, in which a mob boss attempts to kill a federal witness by releasing hundreds of poisonous pheremone-crazed snakes on a 747 bound for LA; not just because we see Samuel L. Jackson killing said snakes with a taser, or hearing him utter his instantly immortal line "That's it! I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!"; not just because in addition to the smaller and swifter poisonous snakes, the gangsters also put on board a massive boa constrictor; and not just because Todd Louiso, who played the geeky Dick in High Fidelity, plays a twitchy snake expert, or because Julianna Margulies aka Nurse Hathaway from ER is a flight attendent ...

No, those are all just various cherries on a big giant B-movie cake. Really, it's just all about the title. I don't think that in the history of film there has been a title that has excited quite so much buzz and fascination before the fact; and I suppose one could argue that if blogs had existed in the era of Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! that Russ Meyer would have found himself negotiating script requests from the online clique, but I don't think so. "Snakes on a Plane" -- how economical, how elegantly concise a concept summed up with brilliant precision in four monosyllabic words. You almost don't need to make the film at that point.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Webcam fun

I have a webcam, a gift from my brother for my birthday last year, given with the specific design of allowing me to take part in one of his poker tournaments from the comfort of my study. Alas, the poker night never happened -- the wee Morgan caught a bout of the flu, which naturally precluded the night of booze, cigars and cards.

But I now of course have this little orb on a stick sitting next to my computer monitor, which apparently creeped out my friend and new colleague Andrew a bit when he was using my apartment in July. The funky little digital toy has sat neglected for the most part, until this past week when, just for the hell of it, I started snapping some pictures of myself. Of course, that got a bit boring after awhile, so poor Clarence had to get roped into the fun. Or as he would probably think of it, the "fun." I'm sure he wasn't certain what was worse -- me grabbing him and holding him up to the HAL-like orb, or me chasing him around my desk with it. Anyway, some of the products of my webcamming this past week ...

This one is fun -- this is what happens when you hold up the webcam to look at the computer screen. I call it "enjoying the infinite."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The undead of Quidi Vidi Lake

So, last year around this time, when Kristen returned to London ON, I attempted to salve my loneliness by watching the remake of Dawn of the Dead and getting a bit drunk. As I reported back then, this was not the greatest of strategies, leaving me lonely, drunk and terrified.

As avowed a number of times on this site, I am pretty much a wimp when it comes to scary movies, and the greatest culprits for me are zombie flicks ... not so much for the jump-out-of-my-seat shocks as the lingering sense of dread that stays with me for a week or two afterward. Scary movies I can deal with, albeit badly, but with zombie films I don't sleep. Not because of the towel hung over my closet door, which takes on ominous shapes in the dark, but the various apocalyptic scenarios that run through my mind for hours on end.

In other words, I get seriously creeped out. Even Shaun of the Dead had me a bit freaked.

So it was with no little surprise that I found this year when Kristen again departed that I had an odd desire to repeat last summer's zombie-Irish whiskey combination. And subjected myself to 28 Days Later. A glutton for punishment am I. (And to preempt certain comments, yes I know it isn't strictly speaking a zombie film, but structurally and thematically it has enough in common that I'm lumping it into the genre here for the sake of argument).

It is, I must, an extremely good film -- extremely scary, but thankfully without quite the same measure of lingering dread left by Dawn, for reasons I won't get into in order to avoid giving away plot points. But highly recommended if you're into that sort of thing. The images of a post-apocalyptic London, and the long stretches emptiness and silence are haunting. And all the more remarkable when you realize that director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave fame) did the film on a shoestring budget, and so all the scenes of deserted London were shot in tiny windows of time when they could clear the settings of people -- or stop traffic.

All this is by way of leading up to making a strong recommendation: namely, one should not watch a zombie movie and then go jogging soon after along a wooded path in the dense fog. I went for a run yesterday afternoon around Quidi Vidi lake, and the fog was so thick I could barely see the water's edge. And as one runs in that mist, which has the paradoxical effect of both muffling and carrying sound, it is hard not to think of every horror movie you've ever seen.

(One Halloween night a number of years ago, I was playing an intramural soccer game at Western, and the field lights illuminated an eerie knee-high mist cloaking the pitch, which itself happened to border on a forested bit leading down to the river. At one point, someone punted the ball too hard, and it went off into the woods. A guy standing close to where it went out called out cheerfully "I'll get it!" and bounded into the trees. The guy standing next to me on the field shook his head and muttered, "Oh, he's not coming back alive") .

All of this however resurrected in my mind my idea from last winter for a zombie film set in St. John's. Time to draft a treatment, perhaps ... do you think I could get a Canada Council grant for that?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Of birds and breadcrumbs

Well, back to work ...

It has been a lovely little idyll for the last three weeks or so in driving back out east, with all the fun along the way chronicled on this blog, but now I look at the mountain of crap on my desk and sigh. And Kristen left yesterday. And it's raining.

Pathetic fallacy sucks.

So naturally I'm updating my blog. But I justify this tangential act as part of the general organizational process. I am really not one of those people who can take a break from work and then just pick up as if no time has past -- in fact, I hate those people who can do that with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. After three weeks, I'm looking at my various research notes and feeling a little like the birds have eaten all the breadcrumbs.

That being said, I am quite stoked to be back at it. I did actually get a lot done in London (surprisingly enough), and so there's a bunch of things I now need to start putting a bow on. Also, I get to start preparing my courses for the year. Huzzah!

I'm very pleased with the way the teaching fell out for me this year. First semester I've got the second-year course on the 20th-century American novel, and a fourth-year seminar on post-1945 American lit. I've been having a lot of fun assembling the second one ... I'm taking a lot of license with it, and tossing in -- in addition to the requisite literature -- film and some popular culture elements.

Second semester I'll be doing the classroom version of the web course I've been developing on modern American poetry, and I'll be teaching my first grad course. Nervous! I've decided to go the route of stuff related to my current research, with a particular focus on conceptions of "the end of history." I'm very pleased with the title I've worked out: "Dispatches From the End of History: Teleology, Democracy and Apocalypse in the American Postmodern." And this is the tentative blurb I've written describing it:

The rumours of history’s ending, it would appear, have been greatly exaggerated. And yet its various figurations continue to excite the contemporary imagination: from millennial anxieties to apocalyptic fantasies to end-times speculations, the desire to escape history has been a powerful force in the American psyche from the Puritans onward.

This course will explore a range of texts and contexts that consider the American postmodern’s ambivalent preoccupations with history, focusing primarily on a selection of literature from the 1990s that has resonances with the Cold War’s own peculiarly historicist anxieties. Works by Don DeLillo, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip Roth and Tony Kushner, as well as the films The Manchurian Candidate, The Matrix, Fight Club and Dark City will be read in the context of writings by Hegel, Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, Hayden White, Daniel Bell, Francis Fukuyama, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard.

The way I'm figuring it now, there will be four books and four films -- DeLillo's Underworld, Roth's The Human Stain, Palahniuk's Fight Club and Kushner's play Angels in America. Those are pretty much set in stone now, but I'm still not sold on the films. So I welcome suggestions: any thoughts on what films might be appropriate to this subject? The only criteria are this: they have to be American (in production if not in setting, so V for Vendetta is a candidate while 28 Days Later is not), and they should be from the mid-late nineties up to today.

OK. Now I really do have to get to work. Slainte!

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Gros Morne Diaries, part three, or The Big-Ass Long Hike

So after much deliberation, we decided on our final day to attempt Gros Morne Mountain -- a sixteen-kilometer hike up and down the second-highest mountain in Newfoundland, which the guidebook deemed "extremely strenuous." But we were confident (sort of) and so on a misty cloudy day det off in the morning to the trail.

We started the hike at nine o'clock on the dot. From the parking lot at the head of the trail to the base of the moutain in a hike of a little over an hour, which ascended gently through the varieties of landscape we had become accustomed to in Gros Morne ... some marshy bits, thick forest, and as we climbed higher, increasingly thick but stunted coniferous trees. The way up ahead was fogged in -- or rather, it was clouded in, for the mountain was cloaked in a cloud when we pulled into the lot, and as we climbed we moved into the mist.

At the base of the mountain we encountered a large group of people held up by the foggy conditions. Before you can begin the ascent proper, there is a series of information signs telling you to stop and ask yourself whether it is wise to proceed -- whether the weather conditions are agreeable enough to continue, and promising various dire consequences should you continue on in, say, a cyclone.

One of the conditions they suggest is that you shouldn't attempt the climb if you can't see the mountain's peak ... which we emphatically could not. Harrumph.

If it had only be Kristen and I, we would have turned back ... but as it happened, feeling safety in numbers, we waiting in the milling horde and discovered that a group of eight who were there had come with a pair of guides -- who were in the process of calling weather stations on their cell phones, and deciding whether ascent was possible. To cut a long story less long, they declared that all was good -- conditions were clearing on top, and we could continue. Emboldened, the entire group started the climb.

Now, a word of explanation of what is involved in the first stage of the Gros Morne ascent: from an hour and a half you go from the base to the summit along an extremely steep gully of scree (loose rocks) that at times requires you to use your hands as well as your feet for the climb. As you can see here, while the fog had cleared somewhat, the summit was still obscured ... which led to that ever-so-fun experience of cresting a ridge, thinking you had made it, only to see another, even steeper stretch ahead ...

Mind you, the view was quite spectacular ...

... though looking down was occasionally a bit dizzying.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

As the ascent continued, we slowly entered the cloud sitting atop the mountain ... which is kind of cool because, well, you're entering a cloud!

But it does offer logistical difficulties.

And also provides something of a disappointment when actually making the summit -- having just climbed a mountain, you would like to be able to reward yourself with a spectacular vista. This time around however, not so much.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the view from the top of Gros Morne Mountain:

And just to prove that I did in fact climb the damn thing:

At this point, the various groups that had all made the ascent had more or less telescoped, some moving on ahead and some falling behind. Kristen and I had more or less fallen in with the eight people, Torontonians all, who had come with the guides. Or at least, we ate our lunch on the summit in fairly close proximity, and given the opacity of the fog and our nervousness about finding the trail down, we lingered until they departed and we trailed them. At which point we started talking with some of the people in the group, and over the course of the descent sort of got absorbed into it.

Emerging from the fog, we encountered some spectacular scenery that effectively made up for the surreal whiteness of the summit.

Across the steep valley was another set of flat-topped hills and mountains -- and if you look closely at thefollowing picture, you can see a glacial pond feeding a thin waterfall.

Also -- a moose!

I have to say -- the descent ended up being far more painful than the ascent. Going up was strenuous and something of a good cardio workout ... going down was an exercise in feeling my knees get increasingly sore evey time they bent.

But we made it! After Gros Morne, Signal Hill is a mere jaunt.

And we made friend with some very cool people in the process ... the group of eight and the two guides, Wayne and Clint (seriously) pretty much adopted us on the downslope, and before all was done we'd been invited to their seafood cookout courtesy of their bed & beakfast and tour group. So after a recuperative shower and change of clothes, we headed up the road for a sumptuous meal of mussels, scallops, salmon and cod, all fresh-out-of-the-sea ... which after the meals we'd been having was like being given a fresh food high. It was utterly sublime.

So, this concludes the Gros Morne Diaries segment of the bog ... I hope it was enjoyable, and we turn back to the regularly scheduled personal trivia, philosophical maunderings and political screeds offered in this space.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Gros Morne Diaries, part two, or Dances With Foxes

Day two dawned dark and rainy -- not exactly weather that made you grab your walking stick and run out to the hiking trails with glee, though we were grateful for the (again belated) realization while in Fredericton that it might in fact rain while we were in Gros Morne, and that neither of us was equipped clothing-wise for wet weather. Which of course precipitated a shopping jaunt to the mall near our hotel in search of water-proof or at least -resistant jackets.

The rain was rather nasty for a time however, so we loitered and went in search of a late breakfast while waiting for it to die down. Finally it thinned to a misty drizzle and we trekked up to the Western Book Pond trail, a six-seven kilometer hike with a minimum of inclines (we thought we'd take it easy for the first one).

The Western Brook trail leads through a series of marshy lowlands, over which walking is facilitated by a series of boardwalks and punctuated with helpful educational signs identifying the various flora and fauna. Though the walk is almost perfectly flat, it leads toward flat-topped fjords in the distance, sheer-sided cliffs that enclose the long and narrow Western Book Pond.

One forgets the rather brooding beauty marsh and bogland can possess. Haunting, too -- especially when the stunted forests that creep to the edges of the trail at points hide grunting and lowing moose, whose wheezy conversations stopped us short in fascinated silence more than once.

The trail's terminus is at a dock that services a thrice-daily boat trip down to the end of the lake. The rest area there provides an impressive view of the fjords in the distance ...

After our experience of the Western Brook Pond hike, we tried another, smaller trail ... and at that point it was early evening so we headed back to our lodgings. On the way, we had a rather fun little encounter with one of the many red foxes that hang out at the side of the highway. Our guide book commented on the fact that the park's many foxes tend to feed at the side of the road -- why, I'm not certain, other than the fact that many motorists tend to feed them, a practice warned against, as it makes the animals less afraid of traffic -- a potentially lethal trait.

Still, seeing a fox on the side of the road was too great a photo op to pass up ... so upon seeing the little guy, I slowed and pulled over, grabbing the camera and getting ready to exit the car.

As I was doing so, I noticed in the rearview mirror that the fox had perked up upon seeing us stop, and was avidly trotting toward the car. Years and years of warnings about rabid animals kicked in, and I sharply pulled the door shut -- at which our little friend assumed (to my overly sentimental mind) a hurt expression, and lay down on the roadside:

Heartened, I emerged from the car. Our friend didn't run, but also didn't get too familiar ... he skulked around a bit while I snapped pictures, and any time I tentatively moved closer, he backed off -- allaying my rabies fears.

Foxes are so cool!

OK .. more soon!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Gros Morne Diaries, part one

I cannot recommend Gros Morne Park as a vacation destination enough -- it was breathtakingly beautiful in an inexpressible, aching way. The park has well earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site -- on many of the hikes, you pass through every imaginable landscape in a matter of a few hours, from marsh and bogs to alpine scrub brush to sweltering rain-forest-like forests to tablelands to fjords (yes, fjords!).

A few things I would recommend to prospective travelers, however:

(1) Ideally, you should take at least a week -- and at that, you're barely scratching the surface. Kristen and I were there for all of three days, and I barely feel as though I saw the place.
(2) Accomodation-wise, you're best off camping or renting a cottage or cabin (very reasonable) rather than staying in a hotel. It's not that the hotels and motels are bad -- on the contrary, they're quite good, and not expensive for the most part -- but rather, you want to be in a position where you can cook your own food. The one low point of our time there was that the food is quite dreadful ... it's not for nothing that our guide books recommends the restaurant at the Sugar Hill Inn because "there is not a single fried object on the menu." Eating out, your choices are limited, to say the least. If you camp or rent a cabin, you can cook for yourself ... which by our last night there was something we thought of as vertitably utopian (though our final night did end up providing an extraordinary, fresh seafood dinner -- but more on that later).
(3) If you're going to hike Gros Morne Mountain, save it for one of your last days -- or plan on not hiking the following day. This suggestion is being offered by my calves, knees and back.
(4) The picture below here is the one everyone is probably familiar with, as it's one of the keynotes of advertising for tourism in Newfoundland:

If you're hoping to be the guy in this picture, hoping to find this particular spot, sign up now for orienteering courses. We heard more than one person asking guides what hiking trail led you to this spot, only to be told "Ah no, b'ye ... that spot's on the four-day back woods traverse." So if you're good with a compass and like back-country hiking, you can stand on that rock. Otherwise, you'll have to content yourself with some of the landscapes I'll be showing over the next few days ...

Though magnificent vistas are not hard to come by in Gros Morne -- indeed, try finding a place to look that isn't postcard-perfect.

We drove from Port-aux-Basques last Friday, arriving at the Park outskirts around one in the afternoon. Now: it's important to know that we hadn't been particularly diligent in planning our time between the ferry and St. John's -- we had a vague idea that we would sort of wander back and take in the sights on the way. The more we read the guide book however, the more were realized Gros Morne was where we wanted to devote a decent chunk of time.

It was, I think, on the drive from Edmundston to Fredericton that Kristen, reading the guidebook, suddenly said "Uh oh." The book, you see, recommended booking accomodations in Gros Morne "well in advance," as the park was at its busiest in late July-early August. Oops.

(Hear that sound? That's my mother's sigh of disgust that we were not better prepared).

At any rate, we logged on to the internet at our hotel in Frederiction, and tracked down a slew of possibilities. As it turns out, we were able to get a room for three nights in Rocky Harbour at The Gros Morne Motel ... an establishment that primarily rents out discrete cabins, but has recently expanded its operation to include a set of motel rooms as well. So glory hallelujah, we booked ourselves in and were thus set for our stay in Gros Morne.

Problem was ... we arrived at the visitor's kiosk on the park border to get a map and buy our passes, and were told by the puzzled girl working there that the "Gros Morne Motel" did not, as far as she knew, exist ... in Rocky Harbour or anywhere else in Gros Morne, for that matter.

Perturbed but assuming that there was simply a mistake, we pressed on, trying not to think of the fact that we had given Kristen's credit card number to a possibly fly-by-night operation. When we arrived in Rocky Harbour however, we could find nothing by the name of "The Gros Morne Motel." Hmm. We drove the length and breadth of the place, even though when I'd asked the person at the spectral motel for directions, she'd said "Oh, you can't miss us -- right on Main St."

The closest thing we could figure was that one place we passed -- the "Bayside Cottages and Motel" -- might be our quarry ... if for no other reason than that they were the only place that advertised a motel part of their operation. We'd grabbed a handful of fliers at an information stop on our way into town, so as I drove Kristen called Bayside on my cell, asking if there was a reservation there for us. Apparently not.

I did however remember finding the place on the internet, so we stopped at one of the posher places -- the Oceanview -- to beg a few minutes on a computer. I was thirty seconds into the description of our plight when the girl at the desk shook her head and informed me that it was the Bayside that we'd booked with ... their recent expansion into the motel biz went under the different name, but they hadn't yet seen fit to put that on their sign (or inform anyone working for the park, apparently). When Kristen had called, the woman answering had only checked the reservations for cottages.

So, problem solved. When we checked in however, the woman seemed utterly unconcerned that there had been this confusion -- in fact, at first more or less accusing the girl working at the kiosk of lying. Not, um, the sharpest business acumen at this particular establishment, I think.

All of this took the better part of the afternoon, which didn't leave a large amount of time for exploring ... but we managed a short hike, and then wandered down to the Lobster Cove Head lighthouse.

Rocky Harbour, its lack of good eateries notwithstanding, is quite charming. Just down the road? The "groceteria."

And there is an establishment in town as well called The Fisherman's Landing, which operates an inn, a restaurant, a confectionary, crafts emporium and liquor store. Kristen bought a long-sleeved shirt and I a hat to further equip ourselves for our hikes, and this was the bag they were put in.

Every time I look at this, I get the giggles ... imagining a division of determined fisherman replete with sou'westers pouring off landing crafts at Normandy. But then, that's just symptomatic of my twisted mind, I suppose.

More soon! In the meantime, I still want interpretations of the sign I posted at the end of my last post -- Matt and Jer, very funny. I laughed out loud. And Anonymous -- yes, you're correct, it is a muster station. But the point of the exercise was not accuracy but humour ...