Thursday, May 28, 2009

Doves in Denver

Doves performing 'Caught by the River' at the Gothic Theatre in DenverNan and I just returned from an extended Memorial Day weekend in Boulder and Denver. Last night we saw one of our favorite bands, Doves, play at The Gothic Theatre, a small converted movie house in Englewood, south of downtown Denver. For me, it was the highlight of the trip.

My friend Dave Beckwith introduced me to Doves several years ago when he gave me a mix CD that included "Melody Calls", a song off Lost Souls, their first album. A few years later he gave me another mix CD that included "Some Cities", the title track off their third album. As Dave would say, I found it "compelling." I picked up the album and couldn't put it down. I bought Lost Souls and then The Last Broadcast, their second album. I even bought Lost Sides, their "B sides" album. It was all eminently listenable. I was a huge fan of the "Manchester sound," a type of dance-oriented music made popular by bands like New Order and The Smiths in the 1980s, and Doves, also being from Manchester, sounded like the natural progression of that music.

The concert started off with "Jetstream" off their new album, Kingdom of Rust, and then went straight to "Snowden" from Some Cities. From there, Doves balanced new material with old for almost two hours. The highlight for me was "Caught by the River" off The Last Broadcast, one of the best and most emotional songs I've heard in the last ten years. It tells the story of a father coming to terms with a son who is beyond his help, and it features a gorgeous acoustic guitar and keyboard soundscape. When people ask me what music I like, I have them listen to that song. The photo above shows the band playing it live.

I read a review recently that referred to Doves as "the best band you've never heard of." Maybe that's why they play tiny venues like the Gothic for just $20 a head. I expect that situation will change as they continue to produce exceptional music and gain a larger following. They certainly deserve the success.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Update on Isla Mujeres

Juan Gomez Chan's new house under construction on Isla MujeresLast week I received this email message, which the sender was nice enough to let me post:

Hi John,

We read your blog today with great interest. We have booked Color de Verano for two weeks in January & February 2010. Our last stay there was 2007 and we fell in love with the place. We are wondering if your friend, Juan Gomez Chan, will have completed his house and opened his restaurant by the time we visit the island. We would like to stop in there if he will have it open by next winter.

I hope you will keep us updated.

Terry & Terry Wilson
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Here is my response with some updates about Juan and his life on Isla Mujeres:

Terry and Terry—

Thank you for contacting me. It is difficult to say if Juan will have his house and restaurant completed by that time but he sent us photos recently that showed tremendous progress from when we were there last October.

Juan left his employment at Na Balam a few months ago after many years and is now working with his friend Ventura at Brisas Grill near the ferry dock. We’re not sure what effect this might have on his progress. Given the way the beach at Na Balam is eroding, it’s just a matter of time before the Zazil Ha bar and restaurant at Na Balam are washed away, so Juan’s timing is probably very good.

As you know from the blog, we will be spending a month there this fall, from mid-September to mid-October, and staying in the penthouse at Color de Verano. Therese has given us permission to bring our dog Scout, a one-year-old golden retriever, so it should be quite the adventure. One of our projects while we’re there, in addition to taking Spanish lessons, is to work with Paola, Juan’s wife, to put together a “tastes of Isla Mujeres” cookbook in both Spanish and English. If we get it published, I’ll send you a copy.

You can probably tell that we love it there, too. If you’re interested in one of those newer photos of Juan’s house, please let me know and I will send it along. Thanks again.



The photo at the top is one that Juan sent me back in March. If you compare it to the ones I took last October when we were there ("Isla Mujeres, Mexico" blog entry), you can see that he is getting closer to finishing his new house. The restaurant would be located on the left side of the house under the flat-roofed section. That's Juan's brother-in-law out front in the orange t-shirt. Click the photo for a full-size view.

To give a better idea of where all these places are on Isla Mujeres, I have put together a Google Map titled "Isla Mujeres". The satellite image is very dated. It doesn't show either Juan's house or the Color de Verano - Macax, just vacant lots. And it still shows plenty of beach by the Hotel Na Balam, where there is now almost none.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 3

Sunset over Ensenada Honda on Vieques in the Spanish Virgin IslandsThe afternoon sail from Culebra to Vieques was a quick beam reach due south for a little over ten miles. We passed Punta Este, turned west into a smooth broad reach and started looking for a sheltered bay in which to anchor Quetzal for the night.

The eastern half of Vieques was used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice from the years following World War II until 2003, and there are still no settlements on that part of the island, probably because it is still littered with unexploded shells. We felt reasonably safe approaching from the water and had no plans to walk around on shore.

A look at the chart showed a large, protected bay called Ensenada Honda, the same name as the bay we had just left on Culebra, about five miles west of Punta Este. We decided it would be a good place to tuck in against the persistent easterlies and made for it.

We carefully skirted shoals at the entrance, keeping to the deep water in the center of the channel to avoid running aground in the otherwise very shallow water. As we rounded the peninsula that forms a natural breakwater and could see all the way to the east end of the bay, we realized that we would have the entire anchorage to ourselves. We went as deeply into the bay as we dared, given the shallow water, and dropped anchor.

John declared Captain's Hour and we all relaxed in the cockpit with cocktails, taking in our new surroundings. There wasn't much to see. The cove was surrounded by mangroves growing well out into the water from shore, creating a green margin in all directions that blocked any other view. There was talk of snorkeling to see what was underwater but we decided to postpone that for morning. After cocktails, it was time for dinner, another one of John's simple but tasty creations.

As evening gave way to night, I commented that there would not be a moon that night so the stargazing should be excellent. John and Dallas seemed interested so we went to the foredeck, away from the cabin lights while Nan and Genie went below to wash dishes. Nan and I live in dry, high-altitude Colorado, where the stars shine brightly, but the stars that night were so numerous that it took some time to pick out even the familiar constellations. Being at about 18 degrees north latitude compared to our normal 39 degrees also took some adjusting.

John asked if I had ever seen the Southern Cross. I said that I had never been in the southern hemisphere so I hadn't seen it. He pointed over the top of the mangroves to our south and said, "Well, there it is." I looked and then looked again. I turned around and looked up at Polaris, the North Star. It was 180 degrees in the opposite direction. John was right. I didn't think it was possible to see both celestial poles at the same time unless one was at the equator, but there they both were. I started singing the old Crosby, Stills and Nash song, "When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way..." John and Dallas laughed knowingly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kokopelli's Trail

Kokopelli's Trail: Jon and me at the Rabbit Valley trailheadOn Saturday, May 2, my friend Jon Anderson and I attempted something I had been dreaming about for several years, to ride Kokopelli's Trail from Rabbit Valley west of Grand Junction to Moab, Utah. It's a 120-mile ride, and we planned to do it in one day.

I was riding my 2002 Yamaha WR426F and Jon was riding a Kawasaki KLR650 he borrowed from a co-worker. The KLR is a rally bike, designed for mostly street and highway use, with occasional off-road use. At more than 400 pounds, not counting the metal saddlebags full of Jon's gear, it is not exactly "flickable," as my riding buddy Andy would say. The KLR's major advantage was that Jon could ride it at freeway speeds on I-70 to get to the trailhead while I needed to trailer my bike to get it there.

Kokopelli's Trail: Knowles Canyon overlookWe were only going to ride one way, so the plan called for Nan and Scout to drive the "sag wagon" with the empty trailer behind it and meet us in Moab. Along the way, she would drop off some gas and Gatorade at Dewey Bridge, just off Highway 128, since there was a chance I would run out of gas otherwise.

Kokopelli's Trail: Sitting in the rain near Fish FordAfter posing for the top photo (click for full-size views), we departed the parking lot at Rabbit Valley at about 8:45 AM. We headed out the marked #2 loop, which becomes Kokopelli's Trail farther out, and I promptly dumped my bike. I thought I could ride a rocky uphill section in second gear, but my front wheel dropped into a gap near the top and I stalled, falling over on my right side. Jon and I had never ridden together before, so I'm sure he wasn't feeling overly confident about my ability at that point. A few minutes later, we reached another rocky uphill, this time a sidecut singletrack. I was able to make it up with occasional dabs, but Jon lost his momentum and we needed to bulldog the KLR the rest of the way up with Jon pushing on the handlebars and me pushing from behind. By the time we reached the top, the radiator was boiling. Fortunately, the singletrack was soon over and we were able to get up some speed on the Westwater road to cool off the bikes.

The weather forecast called for all-day rain, and the sky to the west definitely looked threatening. It soon started to drizzle, which made the clay tracks of the road extremely slick, limiting our speed. When we reached a stretch of asphalt on the way to Fish Ford, the drizzle gave way to rain and hail, and we needed to stop and put on our rain gear.

Kokopelli's Trail: The Cottonwood Canyon 'shortcut'We turned west off the asphalt and followed a dirt road down into a canyon and then up and out again to where it ended at the Colorado River, in an area called McGraw Bottom. The trail marker indicated that we should follow a singletrack in the direction of the river, but it was very difficult. I managed to bulldog my bike through big rocks up to a plateau and park it, but Jon didn't even attempt it. He parked the KLR and walked up to where I was parked to see what lay ahead. After a sharp drop off the plateau, there was a steep, loose uphill and then more difficult terrain beyond that. We stood at the top of the uphill section and Jon said, "Y'know, if I lose my momentum coming up this hill, my front brake won't hold me." I tried to imagine that. Jon would need to put both feet down to keep his balance, negating his back brake. If he didn't fall, he would slide backwards all the way back to the bottom. It was too big a risk. We would need to go around.

We backtracked to the turnoff for the Cisco Takeout and then continued on through Cisco and picked up Highway 128. After the McGraw Bottom section, the trail crosses Highway 128 from east to west and goes through Yellowjacket Canyon, but we skipped that section as we rode by and headed straight to Dewey Bridge, or what's left of the bridge after it burned last year. I had not passed by this way since the fire, and I was overwhelmed by the damage. The large cottonwood tree I had told Nan to put the gas and Gatorade under was burned to a crisp, so she had left everything under a different, still living cottonwood tree near a picnic table. We hung out our wet gear to dry while we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and washed them down with cold Gatorade. In Jon's case, everything in his aluminum saddlebags was also wet after the pop-top water bottles he had bought at the gas station that morning exploded from all the bouncing around. As we ate, black clouds and lightning were building to the west. We gassed up the bikes, packed up everything and headed out again just as it started to pour.

Kokopelli's Trail: 'Steep difficult trail'The trail went back east up Entrada Road and then forked off to the right to make a shortcut through Cottonwood Canyon, except that the "shortcut" is a serious thrashing through steep, loose, nasty broken rock, as the fourth photo clearly shows. Again, there was no way the KLR was going to make it. We looked at the map and saw that if we had stayed on Entrada Road, we could have avoided this nightmare altogether, so we backtracked a second time and went around.

When we reached the bottom of the second Cottonwood Canyon (Yes, there are two different canyons with the same name.), I stopped abruptly. In front of us was a series of badly eroded sandstone ledges extending up as far as I could see, and they were wet and slippery. I pulled out the map. There it was: "Steep difficult trail." No kidding. Jon parked and walked up to take a look. He started laughing. We both knew that this was the end of the road for us. There was no other way to continue on to the La Sal Loop and Sand Flats sections that end at Moab. We would need to turn around and backtrack yet again.

Kokopelli's Trail: Blasting down Highway 128 to MoabWe passed Dewey Bridge this time without stopping and turned left onto Highway 128. After thirty miles of smooth asphalt, we arrived in Moab. It was 5:15 PM. We had been riding almost continuously for 8.5 hours. I checked my odometer: 136 miles. Nan and Scout were happy to see us. We were happy to be off the bikes.

Later, over Mexican food and margaritas, I asked Jon if he would consider giving it another go sometime with a lighter bike. He said he didn't need to try it again. He was happy with asphalt and didn't care if he ever rode another trail. Not me. I'm trying to talk my neighbor Dale into riding Kokopelli's Trail with me some weekend soon before it gets too hot. I hope this description doesn't scare him off!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands, Part 2

Morning at the mooring in Ensenada Honda at CulebraAfter dodging a few small islands, we set our course for the southern tip of Culebra, the easternmost of the major Spanish Virgin Islands, a little over twenty miles away. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Ensenada Honda, the southeast-facing bay that is Culebra's most prominent feature. We picked up a mooring behind the reef that forms a natural breakwater at the entrance to the bay and then took a moment to marvel at the incredible turquoise blue of the water.

Goose strolling Flamenco Beach with Dallas and Genie in the water in the backgroundThe water was at least fifteen feet deep but the bottom was clearly visible and it appeared to be populated by dark, oval-shaped lumps. Dallas, Genie, Nan and I pulled out our snorkel gear and jumped in to investigate. The lumps turned out to be sea cucumbers, a type of marine animal that resembles a cucumber-sized leech. None of us had ever seen so many in one place before, but we had to admit that they weren't very interesting so we snorkeled closer to the reef to see what there was to see over there. Except for a scattering of small, colorful coral and some tiny fish, the reef was largely dead, a faded, sand-scoured shadow of what it once must have been.

Nan posing with a rusted military tank on Flamenco BeachWhen we were back on board, Dallas, who is an amateur oceanographer, remarked about how little life there was to be seen underwater these days. When he was a boy growing up in Florida, the waters were brimming with color and life. Somebody mentioned global warming and Dallas agreed, but he said that in addition to raising the ocean's temperature through the greenhouse effect, all that excessive carbon dioxide is mixing with water in the atmosphere to form carbonic acid, which is raining down on the ocean and changing its pH. The combination of these factors is wreaking havoc on marine life, he said. As we solemnly contemplated a future without marine life, a giant fish swam under the boat. It was at least six feet long and looked at first like a barracuda, but it was missing the snaggle-toothed smile so we weren't sure what it was.

Dallas and Genie relaxing on the beach with the geese snoozing behind themWe celebrated Captain's Hour and ate dinner on the boat while watching the sun set and then retired early knowing the next day would be action-packed. We planned to tour Culebra and then sail on to Vieques, the second major Spanish Virgin Island we would visit.

Mamacita's, the canal and the drawbridge in Dewey on CulebraAfter breakfast and a brief discussion, it was agreed that the distance from our mooring to the harbor town of Dewey, over a mile, was too far for the dinghy, so we motored Quetzal in as close as we dared and anchored her. We dinghied the short distance over to a restaurant appropriately named The Dinghy Dock and tied up. John told the waitress in broken Spanish that we would be back for lunch, and we set off to explore. Our first stop was a brief reality check at an Internet cafe, where we also lined up a ride to famed Flamenco Beach, on the north side of the island. John stayed on to answer his email while the rest of us piled into a shuttle van for the quick trip to the beach. We agreed to meet later for lunch at Mamacita's, a restaurant we passed that is highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. Sorry, Dinghy Dock.

Nan getting into the dinghy with John at the Dinghy Dock while the giant tarpon look onFlamenco Beach is deserving of its fame. It is a spectacular, crescent-shaped stretch of white sand with bright blue waves breaking on its shore. We walked to the far west end of the beach, where there was a reef to check out. Dallas, Genie and I snorkeled while Nan guarded our stuff--the Lonely Planet guide warned that theft was a problem--and took snapshots of a pair of geese frolicking in the sand. Like the reef near our mooring, this one was a disappointment, but we did spot a good-sized school of tang and I did get to swim through an underwater arch about ten feet down. Further down the beach, there were a couple of rusting military tanks, left over from when this area was used for US military exercises, so Nan and I took a stroll to take pictures of them while Dallas and Genie dried out and kept the geese company.

Lunch at Mamacita's was delicious. The restaurant is located on the canal that cuts through Dewey, close to the drawbridge that is the highest structure on the island. Dewey has a reputation as a hang-out for American expatriates, so we were not surprised that the waitresses and bartender were all Americans. The spicy barbecue and fresh seafood were served with fried plantain crisps, like potato pancakes, and a chutney dipping sauce. Yum!

After stocking up on ice and other provisions, we walked back to The Dinghy Dock, where there was a school of giant fish, just like the one from the day before, swimming around the dinghy. Since the water was only two feet deep, it was easy to see that they were tarpon, not barracuda, and that they were huge. We loaded up the dinghy, rode low in the water and got "douched" on the way back to Quetzal, pulled up the anchor and motored out of Ensenada Honda on our way to Vieques.