Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Royal Gorge Games 2008

One weekend each year, in late summer, dozens of men and women whose first passion is to drop from cliffs and skyscrapers gather quietly in southern Colorado. Their "exit point," with a bungee cord or without, is the world's highest suspension bridge.

Update -- along with the photos below, an essay by RBM on the gathering can now be found at Suss.

Slideshow: Royal Gorge Games 2008

Postscript (Feb. 8, 2010) -- There's news today that Emmar Properties, builder of a tower envied by BASE jumpers worldwide, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, has indefinitely closed mankind's tallest structure just a month after its opening. The BBC reports the shutdown comes after "an unexpectedly high number of visitors and problems with the power supply."

In January, days after the opening, two men from the United Arab Emirates, Nasr Al Niyadi and Omar Al Hegelan, set a new record for the highest building BASE jump by leaping from a crane at the Burj Khalifa's 160th floor (2,205 feet). Below, a montage of their jumps, which were sanctioned by Emmar Properties:

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pickathon X Indie Roots Music Festival

Lead singer Ritchie Young of Loch Lomond

Melophobe has posted RBM's second review of performances at Pickathon, a roots music festival that drew hundreds of bluegrass, folk rock, and honky-tonk fans to a grassy hillside in Happy Valley, Ore. this month. Look for more top-flight photography from Melophobe first officer Joshua Bean, and an interview with Portland chamber-pop ensemble Loch Lomond. We hear about confusion over how to pronounce the band's name and news of a fall tour with The Decemberists.

Crooked Still rocking Pickathon's Mountain View Stage

Here's a sample of Melophobe's earlier team coverage:
It's past noon on Saturday, and hundreds of roots music fans have spent a mosquito-riddled, sleepless night in Oregon farm country for the Pickathon Music Festival. They have traveled here along rivers and across state lines, past the Franz bread outlet ("80 percent off!") and a yellow, squarish building labeled Tommy's Too ("Dancers!"). They have wolfed down plates of fried zucchini and hummus, and they have convinced their toddlers that something called Toddler Camp, down by the barns, is super cool. These fans are now stepping past hula hoops and piles of horse shit, and they look ready for a small reward.
Read more reviews of live music at Melophobe.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Curiosities at the Pump

By R.B. Moreno

Over the past several days I have been driving a 2008 Kia Sedona halfway across the continent, from Washington, D.C. to Fort Collins, Colo. After losing public radio, somewhere in Ohio, I began pulling out my camera during stops for gas. The pictures aren't pretty.

Unleaded gas now averages $4.07 per gallon in the U.S.

My rented van has dual-sliding doors, foldaway seats, and a V6 engine: perfect for hauling furnishings, but at 16 to 18 miles per gallon, hardly the most economical vehicle for a 1,700-mile road trip. It is, however, the kind of vehicle routinely drawing $60.00 or more from middle-income American families needing a fresh tank of gas.

Nationally, fewer consumers are buying premium gas than they have in nearly a quarter century

Petroleum prices are so high, warns USA Today, that volunteers are finding rural, elderly residents who have avoided driving into town for months. Nationally, Americans bought about two percent less gas in the last month than they did in the same period last year, NPR reported on Sunday. And The Associated Press points out that demand for premium gas has reached its lowest level in almost 25 years.

TravelCenters of America in Burns, Wyo. offered the trip's cheapest gas

This brings us to a couple of observations about American gas prices. First, the delineations between regular, mid-grade, and premium gas have strayed from what was formerly a hallowed $0.10 margin, advertised on glowing signposts around the country. It was a margin that made for easy mental computations in figuring how much more it would cost to treat one's vehicle to premium-grade fuel. But my father could never fathom why the margin held steady for years at $0.10, despite surges in oil prices. With the cost of a barrel of oil rising ever higher as the margin remained fixed, he reasoned, the difference in the retail value of regular and premium gas would practically disappear.

Ten cent price margins no longer divide regular and premium fuels

Economic forces have apparently won out against marketing departments at major oil companies, because one now sees the margins between fuel grades widening to a curious $0.11 in Burns, Wyo., for example, or as much as $0.14 in Coralville, Iowa.

Gas stations in Iowa and neighboring corn-producing giants like Nebraska pose an additional curiosity, one that found me shaking my head the other day as I realized I was buying regular unleaded from Gasby's BP station in Coralville for more than the price of mid-grade fuel -- a standard $0.10 more, to be exact. Bewildered, I killed the pump, stared hard at the prices, and then switched to BP's cheaper "silver" blend, which carried an octane rating of 89, two points better than regular.

In corn country, an abundance of ethanol seems to make premium fuels like Shell's "Plus" cheaper than regular

"It's because Iowa produces a lot of ethanol," explained a freckled gas attendant behind the counter at Gasby's. "Or at least we did until all these floods came along." (She was referring to the Cedar River and other waterways that have topped historic levels in recent weeks, swamping hundreds of cities in six states and threatening the region's crop yields.)

Americans bought slightly less gas in the last month than they did in the same period last year

I couldn't argue with the attendant's reasoning, and it seemed to be confirmed by a notice posted above the "Plus" pump farther down Interstate 80, at a Shell station in York, Neb.: "THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS TEN PERCENT ETHANOL." At $3.98, well below the national average, one could almost call it cheap gas. At least it was $0.15 cheaper than regular.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Cartagena + Bocagrande + Islas del Rosario

By R.B. Moreno

Brother and sister's month-long trek along South America's northwestern coastline has wound to a close. Below you'll find a slideshow from our last stop: Cartagena, Colombia, founded in 1533 as "one of the storage points for merchandise sent out from Spain and for treasure collected from the Americas to be sent back to Spain," notes Footprint South American Handbook 2006. Colonizers spent over 200 years fortifying the city with thick walls, which remain Cartagena's signature landmark. Today the area's treasure has become tourism; Colombians from Bogotá and Medellín flock to Cartagena for vacation.

A Week in the Sun

Look for more photos and essays about the trip in the coming months.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Quito + Otavalo + Riobamba + Cuenca

By R.B. Moreno

After bussing through Peru and Ecuador, my sister and I recently found ourselves booking airfare to Cartagena, our final stop, due to fuel strikes that crippled ground service to the Colombian border. Asked when service might be restored, an agent with the bus line Panamerica in Quito shrugged and held up notes from a conversation with his Colombian contact: '2-3 dias,' read the scrap of paper.

(Almost) the Middle of the World

Above you'll find photos from stops along Ecuador's portion of the Pan-American highway, which narrows to a single dirt track in the highlands. There's also a tour of Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador's monument to the equator that doesn't actually sit on the equator.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Loja + Piura + Trujillo + More Lima

By R.B. Moreno

From Lima my sister and I have traveled north through Trujillo and Piura, Peruvian towns that see few tourists even during North America's vacation season. Outside Trujillo, named after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro's hometown, we visited an ancient burial ground whimsically dubbed the Temple of the Moon by explorers. Farther on lies Chan Chan, the largest Pre-Columbian city in South America and one constructed entirely of adobe.

Peruvian Hairless Dogs, such as the beauties seen above, roam all over Chan Chan and nearby archaelogical sites. Known locally as the viringo, the dog originated with pre-Incan coastal cultures such as the Chimú and Moche. The viringo's official population has been dwindling in recent years due to crossbreeding, which produces a less-than-hairless viringo.

After an eight-hour, breakneck bus ride that traverses a river separating Peru and Ecuadors' highlands, our trip has taken us to Loja, Ecuador, at 6,890 feet. The provincial capital boasts some of the cleanest parks and markets in all of Ecuador, although a morning jog along one of the city's canals makes clear that air and water pollution remain a problem.

To the Border

More photos from this leg of our journey can be found above.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Lima + Ica + Paracas + Nasca

By R.B. Moreno

The last several days of travel along the Pan-American Highway have taken my sister and I through a number of locales: a city renowned for producing Peru's best wine, a marine reserve prized for its natural fertilizer, a desert rich with archaeology. We're now exploring Lima, where the menu choices multiply so fast that confusion sometimes prevails.

Ica produces wine as well as pisco, a brandy made from grapes. Local vineyards trade their wares as far as Lima, while industrial giant Vista Alegre, Peru's largest bodega, serves international markets.

Beyond vineyards, the thing in Ica that most surprised this writer was a demonstration on behalf of AIDS awareness by local students -- featuring dancing condoms.

Between Ica and Lima lies the Paracas National Reservation, a marine sanctuary comprising some nine square miles of peninsula. Just offshore lies a group of islands so prized for guano, the dried dung of seabirds, that Chinese laborers were enslaved and shipped across the Pacific by the thousands during the 1800s to harvest the fertilizer. Stocks of guano and the numbers of cormorants and bobbies that produce it have sharply declined in past decades, due in part to overfishing. With commodity prices rising, the New York Times points out that demand for guano is spiking. Our guide in Paracas, Jesus Guardo, said the Ballesta Islands, pictured below, come due for harvest every couple of years.

(Almost) Wild Paracas

A visit to Lima this week would not have been complete without taking in a new film: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, playing at the local 12-screen cineplex. Evidently the screenwriters thought the geoglyphs and mummies of Nasca, Peru would provide a nice plot point, as much of the film's action rides roughshod over a desert landscape we toured a few days ago. Be warned, archaeology majors: pre-Columbian native history gets such poor treatment in this film that you must cast aside everything you hold dear in order to sit quietly for 124 minutes. For a view of what the Nasca lines and nearby Chauchilla mummies really look like, try the slideshow above.

Nasca, By Air and Ground

Postscript (March 1, 2010) -- This month's issue of National Geographic highlights new research helping to explain the origin of Peru's geoglyphs. Some excerpts:
These new findings make an important point about the Nasca lines: They were not made at one time, in one place, for one purpose. Many have been superimposed on older ones, with erasures and overwritings complicating their interpretation; archaeologist Helaine Silverman once likened them to the scribbling on a blackboard at the end of a busy day at school. The popular notion that they can be seen only from the air is a modern myth. The early Paracas-era geoglyphs were placed on hillsides where they could be seen from the pampa. By early Nasca times the images -- less anthropomorphic, more naturalistic -- had migrated from the nearby slopes to the floor of the pampa. Almost all of these iconic animal figures, such as the spider and the hummingbird, were single-line drawings; a person could step into them at one point and exit at another without ever crossing a line, suggesting to archaeologists that at some point in early Nasca times the lines evolved from mere images to pathways for ceremonial processions. Later, possibly in response to explosive population growth documented by the German-Peruvian team, more people may have participated in these rituals, and the geoglyphs took on open, geometrical patterns, with some trapezoids stretching more than 2,000 feet. "Our idea," [German archaeologist Markus] Reindel says, "is that they weren't meant as images to be seen anymore, but stages to be walked upon, to be used for religious ceremonies." ... In 1986 [Johan] Reinhard reported finding ruins of a ceremonial stone circle at the summit of Illakata, at over 14,000 feet one of the tallest mountains feeding runoff to the Nasca drainage system. Along with other traces of ritual activity at the top of Nasca watersheds, the discovery led him to propose that one of the main purposes of the Nasca lines was related to the worship of mountain deities ... because of their connection to water.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Machu Picchu via the 'other' Route

By R.B. Moreno

This summer I'm traveling and writing in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia along with my sister, who has just finished Peace Corps service in Paraguay. Today we reached Nasca, on the southern coast of Peru, and tomorrow morning we'll take a flight over those geoglyphs I remember from a dusty guide book as a boy. Among other figures, Nasca's lines depict a monkey, a killer whale, a spider, a pelican, a hummingbird, hundreds of mysterious geometric forms, and something resembling an astronaut. Our favorite caption from tonight's preview show, at the local planetarium: "lines intersecting other lines, for no apparent reason."

Four Days Along the Salkantay

Above you'll find some 60 photographs from last weekend's trek to Machu Picchu via the "other" route, the Incan Salkantay trail, which crosses a mountain pass at 15,092 feet. Another member of our group about my age and height was wearing a heart monitor, and he says he burned about 4,000 calories the first day. We were both chewing lots of coca leaves to help with the altitude, per the advice of our guide. It's hard to say what effect coca has on stamina, but scaling slopes with numb, green lips must have done something great for Incan runners who once used the trail to relay messages -- at a pace of more than 12 miles an hour.

Postscript (Jan. 26, 2010) -- With mass evacuations underway and the world focused on survivors emerging from collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince two weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti's capital, a similar scene -- involving tourists -- is unfolding in Machu Picchu. More from ABC News:
Landslides were triggered after the Vilcanota and Urubamba rivers in the Andean province of Cusco burst their banks over the weekend, triggering dozens of landslides and severing the only rail line linking the city of Cusco with Machu Picchu, train operator PeruRail said in a statement today.
The government has declared a state of emergency in Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas.
Peru's Tourism Minister Martin Perez said in statement today that 60 tourists had already been airlifted to Cusco, with priority given to the elderly, people with health issues, pregnant women and small children. Another 300 were evacuated from the Inca Trail and driven by bus to Ollantaytambo.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The New Pornographers + Okkervil River

Over at Melophobe you'll find a review by RBM of The New Pornographers' current tour. Their latest album, Challengers, has fans raving, but the band's Washington, D.C. 9:30 Club show didn't exactly sing. Here you'll find a few shots that didn't make the review.

Update: Neko Case has unexpectedly departed the Pornographers' current tour after taking a bad fall in Washington and injuring her ankle. The Melophobe staff wishes her well.