Monday, September 1, 2014

Along the Old Crawford Path

As ever, Lakes of the Clouds Hut provides a wonderful base from which to explore Bigelow Lawn, the plateau that lies on the south side of the Mount Washington summit cone. In late June, Ari Ofsevit, last fall’s hutmaster at Lakes and an old hiking pal, and I hiked up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and then went on a leisurely botanical ramble around the summit. Despite the scores of people coursing up and down the Crawford Path and Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the Lawn, which lies between the two, was deserted.

Ari suggested that we look for the old shelter that was built in 1900 for William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee, two members of the AMC who perished near the lakes the previous year on their way to the club’s annual meeting at the summit. Both were known for their experience and fitness, so their death convinced club members to construct a shelter in the vicinity of the area where they expired. I had thought that the shelter was built on the site of the current hut, but in fact the AMC placed it about a third of a mile further up the ridge, well beyond the lakes. The picture above shows why: since the original Crawford Path ran around Mount Monroe to the east, a trip to the lakes would have necessitated a detour that included a slight descent (the precursor to the modern hut was built in 1915 - hundredth anniversary is next summer!). Indeed, Ari speculated, rightly in my opinion, that much of the Dry River Trail’s route before it ducks into Oakes Gulf, was probably once part of the Crawford Path. Both trails have required rerouting to avoid the delicate habitat of the Dwarf Cinquefoil on Monroe Flats, which was devastated by the foot traffic.

Little remains of the original shelter save for a pair of iron rods and bolts that reinforced the wooden structure. A couple piles of rock that must once have been cairns lie nearby, as well. A nearby view towards the lower lake provides a sense of size the watershed that is responsible for the upper lake’s existence.

Though Monroe, the hut, and the lakes are often photographed from higher up on the Crawford Path, I've never seen a picture from this perspective.

Returning to the site of the old shelter, we noticed the remnants of the old treadway, lightly overgrown but still visibly impacted. It intersected very quickly with the Camel Trail. However, we knew the concurrence could not last for long if the trail were to climb towards Washington. Sure enough, we caught sight of the old Crawford Path splitting off a few yards further on. We resolved to follow it, taking care to hop from rock to rock.

Though we lost sight of the old trail here and there, we were able to track it all the way to its old junction with the Davis Path, with which it coincided, I believe, up to the summit. As the picture above shows, Diapensia and other species have filled in some of the path, but the trail is still bare in some stretches. Its endurance is a testament to the harshness of the climate in the alpine zone and the need to minimize human impacts. 

After a spell, we came across this bare patch, which to my eye is a less-developed example of the soil striping that characterizes Monroe Flats. 

Interesting arc the old path cuts up this slope.

One of the distinct pleasures of carefully following this old path was to gain a new perspective on the alpine zone. Bigelow Lawn is a particularly beautiful area in the Presidentials - big, broad, and well-vegetated, unlike the summit cone of Washington. Ari and I had ample time to examine the local flora here and in the Alpine Garden farther on along the east side of the mountain. 

First, however, we needed to cut across the rim above Tuckerman Ravine. As we crossed the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, we looked up to see this queue of hikers running up to the summit. Ari counted seventy or eighty people in a brief glance. 

Further along, we came across Mountain Heath. I hadn't identified this plant before. Lovely, delicate flowers. 

Good old Diapensia.

Mountain Heath. Such wonderful clusters of blossoms. 

Ready for its close-up, apparently. It was too late in the season for Lapland Rosebay, but I was glad to see these pink beauties. 

Mountain Bluets, which I first confused with the more common Mountain Sandwort.

Mountain Avens, which was in full bloom in the Alpine Garden. Spots of yellow everywhere. 

A very lush streamside community toward the north end of the Alpine Garden. It's right along the trail.

This vernal pool is actually on Bigelow Lawn, near the Camel Trail, but it's another interesting example  of how plants cluster near water sources. We came across the Mountain Heath here, actually, rather than on the Alpine Garden. The pool was swollen with recent rain and probably often dries up by midsummer.


Here we look back at the Alpine Garden as we began to hike up to Nelson Crag. This is one of the few spots in the Whites where the scenery gains an extra degree of scale, more like a feature that one would find out west or in the lower Alps. What a day! We had plenty more mileage to cover to return to our car at the base of the Ammy, but there were fewer points of interest to capture my camera's attention. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Stone and Snow

Over Christmas, my mother and I drove up to Montreal, which neither of us had visited in wintertime. We arrived on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve – the high the next day was 3 degrees, Fahrenheit – to a rather deserted Quartier Latin. French Canadians take Boxing Day almost as seriously as Christmas, so little was open the next two days, save some very good restaurants. We made sure we earned our meals with a good deal of walking, both in the old city and up on the Plateau Mont-Royal.

Montreal’s roots go way back into the seventeenth century, but it experienced a resurgence during the Victorian era, while under British rule. Great quantities of raw materials from the Canadian interior passed through its port, and it became the country’s key center of finance, as well a manufacturing powerhouse.

The period’s prosperity is reflected by the noble architectural legacy that it bequeathed. Many of its great stone buildings, domestic, commercial, and institutional, remain. Steeply shingled roofs, dormer windows, and grey stone characterize the bulk of these edifices.

I was reminded of Melbourne, another city that came of age in the late-nineteenth century. Though of course New South Wales has none of Montreal’s French influence, its toponymy is also replete with the names of the English, Irish, and Scottish men who made a fortune from the region’s commodities. If I remember correctly, the Melbourne bourgeoisie built with brick rather than granite, but the form of their houses is much the same as those of their Montreal contemporaries (they also liked elaborate ironwork).

My favorite shot from our December trip was taken at the Place Saint-Louis, a few blocks north of our auberge. Firmly on the plateau, it seemed very removed from the scruffy blocks by the UQAM campus. The bold trim of the houses stood out on a grey, snowy day. I’m certainly not the first to snap a photo of this stately block.

One other distinctive aspect of Montreal’s residential architecture is the ubiquity of curving fire escapes in the rear of houses. I wonder why this particular style caught on?

Next summer, we plan to return after our sojourn at Squam, so I hope I can add a companion entry to this article. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Great Wall

On my second to last day in China, I reserved a spot on a guided tour of a section of the Great Wall, which is a couple hours north of Beijing by bus. At this point on the trip, it was a real pleasure to leave the logistics to someone else and simply take in the sights. And, with the exception of the guide, everyone on this trip was European or American, so the trip was a sociable experience.

I chose one of the longer tours, which involved walking a few miles along the Wall itself. In retrospect, this was an excellent idea, but it did make for a few nervous moments in the morning as I waited for the staff in the adjoining restaurant to finish making me a sandwich. I just made the bus (a preview of another close call two days later, when I was literally the last person to check in to my flight home). In any case, the walk was hot and very hilly, as the Wall snakes along atop of a mountain ridge. Luckily, I had enough to eat, and had I been hungry, many guard towers had their own vendor selling a range of candies and sodas.

The fascinating thing to me about the wall isn't so much its incredible length but the fact that it was built so high up. As you can see from these photos, the views, though limited by the humidity of the day and general smogginess, are remarkable. The scale of the construction effort drives home two realities about China that endured through most of its dynastic history. First, the Chinese were really scared about incursions from the north. The steppe-dwellers were difficult to defeat as long as they remained on their horses. It's hard to imagine how the Mongols, resourceful and unrelenting as they were, could have scaled these heights with their horses, but a string of emperors and their advisors thought the risk justified all the effort and expense. Second, eastern China never lacked for labor, even 2500-2000 years ago. Apparently, much of the building was carried out by prisoners.

Walking along the Wall was challenging work because the slope of the wall mirrored the underlying steepness of the mountain. Every variety of leg muscle got a good workout, as we covered a full range of ascending and descending angles. The last picture in this series shows the most challenging section, which caused several in our group to gulp pretty hard. Climbing some of these sections with chain mail could not have been fun.

The Chinese have entirely restored some parts of the Wall, while other sections, especially the guard towers, are slowly crumbling. I suspect that the pace of rebuilding is picking up but hope that they don't restore the Wall entirely. Tourists are now allowed to wander around more or less as they choose. At the tower where my group peeled off to return to our bus, I met a pair of young Frenchmen, who continued on along the Wall on their own.

A number of people have asked me about air pollution in Beijing. I must admit that while the smog was bad, especially as we drove out through Beijing, it was not nearly as severe as the worst reports (in Hanjin in early November, most recently, for example). The problem gets worse in the winter when people begin to burn coal for heat.

Now for some more ruminating, as I'm in the midst of several weeks covering East Asia with my sophomores. There's not much question that the Chinese state is authoritative and, when threatened, brutal. In China, the ends justify the means. Just look at the rates of execution, for example: China leads the rest of the world by leaps and bounds. But I encourage western readers to consume our own media reports about China (and, for that matter, Russia) with skepticism. Regarding air pollution, for example, journalists conveniently forget the terrible side effects of American industrialization or existing issues with smog. In Austin, I remember how on certain hot summer days, the populace was warned simply not to go outside because the air quality was so bad. Or, take the current brouhaha over China's efforts expand its territory and influence in East Asia. I don't advocate that the US or China's neighbors acquiesce to its bullying. Yet I am astonished that so many journalists can report on these events without mentioning the Monroe Doctrine; in many respects, America's rise is the model that guides China's leaders.

This will be my last blog entry about the Trans-Siberian trip. I am sad to cease posting about it though, admittedly, the pace of entries has slowed dramatically since school picked up. As fall gives way to winter, these summer travels seem more distant. Happily, another summer vacation beckons.

I also want to point out that I marked my hundredth entry on Gulliver's Nest during this journey. The frequency of my writing has varied during the seven years since the site's founding, generally picking up during summers, for obvious reasons. The middle of last decade saw countless blogs launched, and in the years since, many have become more professional, while others faded as the novelty of online writing wore off. I hope I can continue to navigate an intermediate course because this blog is as much about recording the feelings and discoveries associated with travel for myself as it is to entertain readers. Anyway, thank you to those of you who continue to faithfully read my observations.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Soviet Architecture and American Echoes

Downtown Yekaterinburg

If Siberia’s wooden houses possess a bucolic charm, its mid-to-late twentieth century architecture lies at the other end of the humanistic spectrum. Dull apartment blocks made of brick or concrete blanket many younger cities in Siberia, particularly Novosibirsk (though these pictures suggest that my eye was most intrigued while in Yekaterinburg).

An odd, interesting geometry up close.
Many Americans associate this type of building with Stalin, but it was actually adopted during the Krushchev era. Stalin preferred a more conservative, classical style of architecture, often on a massive scale. To my eyes, the austere structures that became so ubiquitous in the Second World denote a more sober phase of Communism. After World War Two, Russian planners accepted that worldwide socialist revolution was not just around the corner and began to pursue a shrewder architectural strategy, avoiding the grand and terrible projects of the Stalinist period. Concrete, due to its low cost and malleability, played an important role in the effort to build quick and cheap (as it did in the West). While party director in Moscow, Nikita Krushchev presided over a meeting of planners at which efficiency in architecture was declared paramount. The resulting prefabricated structures, usually five stories tall but sometimes as many as twelve, became known as krushychovka.

Typical krushychovka in Yekaterinburg
Krushychovka are much maligned for their utilitarian appearance, and perhaps justly so. While there are variations in the buildings I observed, they certainly do share a repellent uniformity and absence of color. On the other hand, interiors appeared cosy and well kept, at least from the outside. Many krushychovka have built-in porches, some of which inhabitants turn into greenhouses. Others are used simply as storage.

The exterior to my hotel room, a converted flat, in Novosibirsk

A more modern krushychovka.
Anticipating Communism’s future triumph, architects designed the krushychovka to last twenty-five years. Whoops. Nevertheless, while the style of these buildings might have fit with St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe or the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, they have outlived their counterparts in the west by decades, largely remaining functional today. They were designed for the urban proletariat, which, if it did not love the structures, respected and maintained them.

Outskirts of Prague 
Modernism. Not pretty, but it works in this setting.
I remember taking the metro out to Jižní Město, a neighborhood at last stop of Prague’s C Line, in May 2006, where I observed panelák, the Czech version of krushychovka. How surprised I was to see laundry hanging neatly from balconies and the closely cropped grass out in front. Czechs rejected Communism, but they don't mind cheap, abundant housing atop dependable public transportation.

Downtown Novosibirsk

In the sixties and seventies, Soviet architects applied concrete on a grander scale to public buildings, many of which are truly elephantine. While there is no stylistic parallel for the krushychovka in the United States, Brutalism looks much the same in the First and Second Worlds. Its massive, hulking creations first captured my attention during the college campus tours I took as a teenager. Huge swathes of the American architectural profession succumbed to the influence of Bauhaus and Le Corbusier during the fifties and early sixties. Modernism remade American architecture just in time to allow Brutalism, a virulent strain within the wider movement, to sweep campuses as universities expanded to serve the baby boomers. The individualism inherent in the American private housing market limited Brutalism’s reach, but the movement’s characteristic concrete monoliths are the key feature in institutional and government structures from the period, as they are in the former USSR.

A building on Ul Lenina in Yekaterinburg.
Why did the west embrace a style that is widely reviled by the contemporary public? (In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler refers to modernism as "a crisis of the human habitat".) Brutalism does have a sleek, futuristic beauty that is today just barely discernible, despite decades of abuse and accumulating grime. Despite Vietnam, public confidence in the expertise of elites was not yet shattered during the era when these behemoths were erected, and Americans still aspired to sophistication, which they found, for a time, in modernism. In their simple humility, they seem to have lacked any regard for their own traditions. Ironically, it took the destruction wrought by urban renewal for modernist projects to wake Americans up to their considerable architectural inheritance.

The Yale Arts and Architecture Building.
Barbican Towers in London, part of a large public housing project.