Birmingham, Alabama

All of the photos I took on my recent trip to Birmingham were taken with an iPhone, most using the free Pro HDR app. It’s a good tool for taking pictures in low light.

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Like a lot of  cities, downtown Birmingham seems to be going through a slow renaissance. There is still some blight, but there is also new residential construction and several vintage buildings are being rehabilitated.

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From the bridge over the railroad yard.

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City Federal has been converted to condominiums.

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The 16th St. Baptist Church was the site of one of the most despicable acts of domestic terrorism in American history. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb on a Sunday morning in January, 1963, killing four young girls. Bombings were so common in those days the city was derisively known as “Bombingham.”

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Walkway under the train tracks.

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A clock on a bank.

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A fountain at another bank.  Downtown Birmingham has a lot of banks, and hospitals.

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An Art Deco door on the vacant Liberty National Life building on 20th St. Very Atlas Shrugged.

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Birmingham has a history of being a steel manufacturing center, and this statue of Vulcan has something to do with that history, but I’m not sure what because I didn’t think it was worth paying $6 to find out, and plus I was short on time.

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Marco Island, Florida

The best part of Florida that I have seen personally starts at the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico and goes inland for no more than a half-mile. Call it the Gold Coast or whatever you like, it is the only thing that makes visiting Florida worthwhile. The rest the state features terrain so flat that Illinois farm country looks hilly by comparison. The undeveloped wild is primarily pine trees growing out of hard-packed soil or a low, scrubby brush that burns with amazing frequency. Despite nine feet of annual rainfall, the Florida boondocks seem to be on fire all the time. My other impressions of the state are, in no particular order: it’s a land of hairstyles that went out of fashion in the nineties, it has bugs the size of small birds and some of the most idiotic politicians anywhere. It is also home to the largest number of people, per capita, who should have their drivers licenses immediately revoked. I wouldn’t give you two cents for any of it, except for a spot in the aforementioned and highly coveted half-mile strip. In other words, to be near the ocean is the only reason a sane person would go to Florida. And that is the reason Cheryl and I went there last week.

Cheryl at sunset on Marco Island.

Cheryl at sunset on Marco Island.

One of the perks of having a traveling job is getting reward points from airlines, hotels and so forth. All totaled, our share of the cost for airfare, rental car and five nights at the Marriott Resort on Marco Island was $17. Now that’s my kind of vacation. Still, we somehow managed to spend $1554.37. (Yes, I am one of those people who keeps track of such things.) Apparently those $12 drinks from the tiki bar add up in a hurry.

the view from the ninth floor balcony.

The view from the ninth floor balcony on an overcast morning.

Bordered by Collier Blvd. on the east and the blue-green Gulf of Mexico on the west, the Marriott is a well run, semi-luxurious hotel and resort complex. The grounds have a tropical theme (surprise) and they are immaculate, tended by a small army of gardeners who keep the lawns and plants and flowers manicured to standards surpassed only by Disney World.

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Florida sunshine.

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What are you looking at, bird?

Walking seems to be the predominant leisure activity on Marco Island. Beach walkers can be seen day and night, strolling just out of reach of the tepid surf that laps at the shoreline. The side-walkers stroll up and down Collier Blvd., presumably because they don’t like the idea of sand in their shoes.

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No idea why I included this one. For some reason I just liked it.

On Marco Island it is relatively easy to distinguish the full-time residents from the tourists. The locals are generally older, past retirement age, and they have sagging breasts, enlarged bellies and leathery skin the color of a tarnished penny. I’m speaking of the men here as well as the women. The only real difference between the two is the wiry gray hairs that sprout from the backs and shoulders of the gentlemen. Some of these people are so tanned it makes me question the conventional wisdom that too much sun is bad for us, because these dark brown white folks seemed to be getting on rather nicely.

A sea shell hunters paradise.

Marco Island is a sea shell hunters paradise.

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The view from my beach lounger

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Sundown on the island.

Cheryl has this notion in her head that we should retire and spend two or three months of every winter on Marco Island. Personally I like the idea, but here’s the thing. There are a lot of wealthy people on the island, and that translates into expensive real estate and rents. Cheryl has always been the dreamer in our relationship, so I am left to take the role of the realist. This has made me unpopular on many occasions. What it means in this case is that Cheryl sees us in a high-rise condominium overlooking the wide panorama of the Gulf of Mexico, whereas I see us in a trailer park in Punta Gorda overlooking the koi pond. If you think for one minute I’m going to do that, I invite you to  return to paragraph one.

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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Last week I was in Pittsburgh, compliments of the Polar Vortex, a weather phenomenon nobody had ever heard of three weeks ago, and there was general agreement among people I met that the name was coined as a joke by bored meteorologists. The PV, as I am certain we will all be calling it soon, was responsible for freezing half the plumbing pipes in the Middle Atlantic States, and that was the reason for my trip.

My hotel was in the heart of the city, just west of downtown, a short walk from the cultural district and the University of Pittsburgh. To me this was a welcome change, since I normally find myself in the suburbs; the generally convenient but consistently predictable suburbs.

The view from my hotel terrace.

The view from my hotel terrace.

This part of Pittsburgh appears to be a healthy mixture of different ethnicities and levels of status. Early twentieth century mansions, many of them still well kept, and three-story row houses, some not so well kept, seem to coexist through an unspoken understanding that both have a right to share the space. Students from the University of Pittsburgh and nearby Carnegie Mellon walk and jog and bicycle the streets in large numbers.

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I found Logan’s Pub on a corner of Craig St., and they sold Yuengling, my favorite beer that I can’t get at home. Logan’s is a neighborhood bar. It’s smoky, very much working class, and the regulars were an equal mixture of black and white. They all seemed to know each other, and to the casual observer they all appeared to be friends, which I found positive and hopeful.

St. Paul's Catholic Cathedral

St. Paul’s Catholic Cathedral

I like to sit in the back pews of old cathedrals and just appreciate the detail in the architecture. My interest is not spiritual, although if something of that nature were to come upon me while I sat there, I think that would be alright. It fascinates me that just a few generations ago people routinely built these magnificent buildings. What a lost art it is. I doubt that in one hundred years anyone will ever sit in the back of a modern day mega-church and marvel at the craftsmanship in the prefabricated concrete walls.

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When I was a teenager my father took the family to Pittsburgh, combining a business trip and a family vacation. One summer night we went to Forbes Field to watch the Pirates play baseball. I distinctly remember seeing Roberto Clemente play in right field. It was one of the highlights of my life, and when I tell people who are baseball fans I once saw the great Clemente they never fail to be impressed.

At Logan’s Pub there is a photograph on the wall of Forbes Field, and written on it in white ink was the address of the old ballpark. I put the location in my phone and a map came up showing it was just a few blocks away, on what is now part of the University of Pittsburgh campus. A building called Posvar Hall sits on the spot today, but the home plate from the ball field can still be seen there, encased by heavy glass in the lobby floor.

The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is the tallest college building in the Western Hemisphere.

The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is the tallest college building in the Western Hemisphere.

Parking is a headache in this part of Pittsburgh, and so are potholes and crumbling curbs, but there are many good places to eat, and Tessaro’s on Liberty Avenue is one of them. I recommend the Ruben sandwich and the hamburger, for which they are locally famous. The lobster ravioli at Lucca’s on Craig St. is also very good, though they are much to proud of their beer. Unfortunately, I cannot be so charitable about The Pittsburger at Primanti Bros. on 18th Street, which is marketed as a cheesesteak sandwich. I’ve never had a cheesesteak like it, and I don’t mean that in a good way. There are french fries in the sandwich, for god’s sake, and coleslaw, and the meat was some kind of frozen patty that wouldn’t make the cut at McDonald’s. It was an unnatural experience best forgotten. Next time I’ll try the pastrami.

Mural in Tessaro's restaurant

Mural in Tessaro’s restaurant

My co-worker Chapin and I agreed we would like to see Pittsburgh in the summer, and also in the fall, as we guessed in those months it would be quite attractive. But in January it is a cold, dreary place, and the surrounding hills are bleak and without color except for browns and grays, and I understand why the filmmaker picked this area as the setting of The Road, a story about a post-apocalyptic world. It was an appropriate choice.

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South Dakota

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This is how you can see Mt. Rushmore without paying the $11 parking charge.  Lest you think I am an unreasonable cheapskate, and some would argue that I am, let me say in my defense I have been to Mt. Rushmore before and I sprang for the full treatment, including parking, at that time. To my way of thinking, this is one of those things that, if you’ve  already seen it once up close, that is really all you need.

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These hills southeast of Rapid City still have remnants of the blizzard of two weeks ago that killed thousands of cattle, as well as horses and even a few bison. A good number of ranchers have years of recovery ahead of them. Carcasses were visible from the interstate and in some places they had been dragged to the side of the road to be picked up for disposal. It was a sad and terrible thing to see.

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On my two previous trips to western South Dakota I had purposely avoided the Badlands. I did so because I assumed, based on the photographs I had seen, that it was nothing but an uninteresting wasteland. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On my way home this time I decided to take Hwy 240, also known as the Badlands Scenic Loop; a road that follows the contour of the Badlands plateau for about 40 miles.

All I can say about it now is – Wow! One minute I’m driving across the vast grasslands of the northern Great Plains, the next minute I’m in a landscape so stark and so foreign that the closest thing I could think of for comparison was the surface of the moon.

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For a novice photographer like me the Badlands presents serious creative challenges. To begin with, there is not much variation in the color of the landscape, especially not this time of year, when most of the vegetation has already died back. There are subtle shades of yellow and red in some of the geologic formations, but the predominate color almost everywhere is a grayish-white. The trees were wearing their yellow fall leaves, but they were so few and far between they were of little photographic value.

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In my study of photography I have learned that most landscape photographs should have an object in the foreground to serve as a focal point. The challenge of photographing the Badlands is that there are few, if any, foreground focal points. So I took a number of pictures trying to capture the expanse of it all, but despite what I was seeing with my eyes, they were some of the most uninteresting photographs I have ever taken. I included here three landscapes that I didn’t absolutely hate, just to serve as a record of my trip if nothing else.

Message received and understood.

Here is a foreground focal point with a purpose. Message received and understood.

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Sheridan, Wyoming

A single star gleamed above the the Big Horn Mountains as the last light of sunset faded in the west. To the north, in Montana, orange lightning flickered in the thunderheads. From the town in the valley below came the sound of a slow moving freight train. The train, a rustling wind and an occasional passing car were the only sounds I heard as I sat outside my hotel looking down on the lights of Sheridan on my last night in Wyoming.

Sheridan and the Big Horn Mountains as seen from my hotel.

Sheridan and the Big Horn Mountains as seen from my hotel.

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Main Street in Sheridan after a summer morning rain shower.

Let’s forget for the moment that Sheridan is named for a man who condoned the killing of women and children and who believed the best way to control the Plains Indians was to exterminate the American buffalo. General Philip Sheridan was hailed as a hero in his time. Today he would likely be prosecuted as a war criminal.

But no matter. The past is the past. Today’s Sheridan is a delightful town of 17,500 people, and they know they have a good thing going. Whenever you compliment one of the residents on their pleasant little city they say, “Thank you. Please don’t tell anyone.” I met a man from Denver who called Sheridan an “undiscovered jewel”. He was so enthralled with the town he has decided to move there, exactly the kind of behavior the locals would like to discourage.

The Mint Bar is a downtown Sheridan landmark. It opened in 1907.

The Mint Bar is a downtown Sheridan landmark. It opened in 1907.

I took my co-worker Jason to the Mint Bar on Main Street, but he seemed more interested in a television program about slow-witted men who catch alligators with their hands than he was in the intricate carvings, the polished woodwork or the hundreds of Western photographs, many of them decades old, that covered the walls. Nor did he seem to notice that the bar is a shrine to the craft of taxidermy. The bartender put it best when she told a tourist from Scotland, “We have a lot of dead things in here.” Indeed.

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An old building with style that I liked. Too rare these days.

An old building with style that I liked. Too rare these days.

The Sheridan Inn is undoubtedly the most famous building in town. It has hosted presidents and other dignitaries. And of course it could not be considered truly historic had not Buffalo Bill Cody slept there, which he did. It seems like Buffalo Bill slept everywhere in the West at least once. The man definitely got around. Unfortunately for the Sheridan Inn, economics have forced the current owners to close temporarily.

The historic Sheridan Inn.

The Sheridan Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Before Sheridan was a town, the valley was a staging area for U.S. forces sent to wage war on the tribes of the Great Plains. George Armstrong Custer was dispatched to his maker just seventy miles to the northwest, on the grassy hills above the Little Bighorn River.

Just south of Sheridan looking west.

Just south of Sheridan looking west.

A house in the mountains just west of Sheridan on Red Grade Road. Black Tooth Mountain is in the background.

A house in the Big Horn Mountains just west of Sheridan on Red Grade Road.
Black Tooth Mountain is in the background.

After their embarrassing success against Custer, the Sioux retreated into the Big Horn Mountains, which they believe are sacred. They knew the full wrath of the Great Father in Washington would rain down on them, as he would not be pleased with their shenanigans on the Little Bighorn. They were prescient. After about a year of being relentlessly hounded and starved, the last of them agreed to “come in” and live on the reservations.

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The Bozeman Trail Scout

Sheridan has a large number of statues for such a small town. Most have Western themes, but some of them make you scratch your head, like the full-sized rhinoceros just up the street from the Bozeman Scout. Art is art, I suppose, even if I don’t get it.

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Summit Lake

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Summit Lake, Mt. Evans, Colorado. Altitude 12,830 ft.

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St. Charles, Missouri

There was a time, years ago, when summer was something more to me than three unpleasant months best endured in the comfort of air conditioning. It was the season I looked forward to most. It was the prize to be claimed after nine long months of school. It was watermelon, lightning bugs, Coca-Cola floats and endless days of swimming.

Last week I was in St. Charles, Missouri, on Main St. in the old part of the city, when the strangest feeling came over me. For a few pleasant hours I remembered what summer in America used to feel like.

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I was standing near an ice cream shop when it hit me, watching children and their parents and grandparents come out into the warm night with their ice cream cones. At that same moment, in the fading daylight, a carriage appeared, preceded by the sound of horseshoes clopping on the brick road. A young man wearing a tan flat cap held the reins. The gas lamps that lined the street were just then coming to life, giving off a yellow glow. For the first time, I was conscious of the red, white and blue bunting that hung from porch railings and balconies of some of the old buildings, in preparation for the Fourth of July. I heard laughter and the clinking of glasses from people dining on patios and in courtyards nearby. If someone told me I had stepped through a portal and gone back in time to 1910, I would not have been completely surprised.

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Two hundred and nine summers ago, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis left from St. Charles to begin the greatest expedition of exploration and discovery in U. S. history.  On this summer night in America, at the end of June in 2013, my impression is that old St. Charles probably looks much the same as it did in 1804.

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The first Capitol of Missouri.

The first Capitol of Missouri.

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Outdoor music is a staple of every American summer, and on Thursday night the St. Charles volunteer orchestra did their part, giving a concert at a park on the banks of the Missouri River, near where Lewis and Clark began their journey.

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For their second selection, the orchestra played a medley of the official songs of the four branches of the military. Before they started, the conductor asked veterans to stand when the song for their branch was played. By and large, the people who stood up were men, most of them old men, probably veterans of Vietnam and Korea, and possibly even two or three from WWII.

When they came to the Marine’s Hymn, a younger man got up from his blanket on the grass, and I guessed he was a veteran of one the Gulf Wars, probably the most recent one. The thing that caught my eye was how he stood at attention while the music played, as if he was on the parade ground at Camp Lejeune. He stood by himself at first, but after about thirty seconds his wife and his two young children got up and stood with him. It was one of those moments when I was fully aware of how proud I am to live in this country.

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I don’t know why I enjoyed summer again for those few short hours in St. Charles. Maybe it was being surrounded by so much American history. Maybe it was because, for a change, this summer hasn’t been unbearably hot. Maybe something made me feel like a kid again. Whatever it was, I liked it, and I want to get it back.

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