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Lincoln Highway: Ohio—part 1 December 16, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Admiral Byrd's Snow Cruiser had problems on the Lincoln Highway in Ohio before it even reached Antarctica

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

I will confide in you, dear readers, that the subject of the Lincoln Highway has proved so vast, so complex, and so deep that my lightly undertaken project has turned out to be much harder than I expected. Pennsylvania presented an enormous challenge; West Virginia should have been trivial but offered its own hurdles; and Ohio now looms on the horizon, looking to be the toughest state to tackle so far. But I will persevere!

One of the first places I look when I start researching each blog piece is the website of the Lincoln Highway Association. It is a treasure trove of information about both the highway as a whole and the state segments. When I started looking at Ohio, I discovered that, for reasons not entirely clear to me, residents of the Buckeye State have embraced the subject with particular dedication and enthusiasm. In particular, Michael G. Buettner, president of The Ohio Lincoln Highway League, has authored a guide to the highway that impressed me mightily with its detail, its rigor, and its elegance of presentation.

Looking at Mike Buettner’s guide, I understood that he is a purist of sorts, focusing on the physical remains of the earlier highway, the exact zigs and zags of the route, and the topographic considerations involved in route decisions. For instance, he discusses at length the relationship between surveyors’ “section lines” and highway routes in the western part of the state. He wonderfully says in a photo caption, “In rural rectangular Ohio, the one-room schoolhouse was ideally at the center of four square-mile sections of land” (my italics).

I support his enthusiasms. I have the same gnerd-like dedication when it comes to understanding routes for exploring streams in the Smokies and the discrepancies of the USGS maps.

As you see, Ohio has led me to probe more deeply into the different ways we can understand this historic highway. My extra pause in Ohio also has to do with a childhood memory: on trips from Northern Virginia to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit my grandparents, we generally took the Ohio Turnpike. But on a few occasions my Dad insisted that we follow more southerly, more interesting routes. One of these, I’m pretty sure, was the Lincoln Highway.

My next Lincoln Highway post will describe the points of interest along the way in Ohio, as best as I can understand them—not the physical aspects of the road but the cultural ones.

House in Mansfield, Ohio, close to Lincoln Highway

La Nevada (The Snowfall) December 13, 2011

Posted by Jenny in art, history.
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La Nevada. Francisco Goya, 1786.

Click for zoom on any of the images.

Between 1775 and 1791, Francisco Goya served as painter to the royal court of Spain, producing portraits of the family of Charles IV and other nobility, as well as many other subjects commissioned by the Spanish crown. But Goya had a twist of genius in his soul that increasingly distanced him from conventional work.

Portrait of the Count of Floridablanca. 1783.

Even this 1783 portrait has more going on than you might think at first glance. Goya himself is shown to the left in the painting, holding a sketch for the count to see, in a trick of circular representation—a painting of the painting itself. The count gazes with fixed, glassy eyes directly at you—the viewer of the painting—while an attendant in the background looks on skeptically. So we have three distinct lines of sight in the painting that bounce back and forth like a light shown into a mirror. A book I have on Goya describes the painting as “one of Goya’s least successful portraits.” I disagree.

It’s rather striking that that painting at top, La Nevada, served as a study to become a tapestry in the El Pardo palace. It was one of a series depicting the seasons. Surely a tapestry in a royal palace on the subject of winter would show a happy scene of people frolicking in the snow. This one didn’t do that, not by a long shot.

The painting shows both misery and endurance, and it’s satisfying to look at for a lot of reasons. The five peasants are succeeding in making their way through the snow, despite the hardship—so the subject ends up being about the meeting of a challenge. The matching stride of the three men in the center suggests solidarity.

Beyond that, the composition is utterly beautiful. It’s all about curved lines—the bare bending branches of the tree to the left, echoed and reversed in the lines of the shrub in the foreground. The body of the man in front forms a crescent shape as he turns and cradles his rifle.

The butchered hog is tied in a semicircle over the mule’s back, while the reluctant dog curls his tail between his hind legs and arches his back, his forepaws planted in the snow—a wonderful pose. I believe that particular dog must have been borrowed by Gustave Courbet in his painting Poachers in the Snow, done in 1867. (It’s kind of fun that the year of Courbet’s painting is an anagram of the year of Goya’s painting.)

Poachers in the Snow. Gustave Courbet, 1867.

I don’t see this as Courbet stealing something from Goya, I see it as an transfer of ideas in which Courbet took the image of the dog and put a different spin on it. The two painters were kindred in spirit, both interested in the lives and suffering of ordinary men.

I look again at Goya’s peasant with the rifle. Flakes of powdery snow have settled on his folded arms, and he turns his head away from the wind. I can practically touch those snowflakes mounding up on the rough material of his hooded coat.

Goya would go on to explore regions of warfare and madness that had never before been treated in paintings. Later in his life, he created the “black paintings”: “Los Caprichios” and the “Disasters of War.” These images are so disturbing that I’d rather not reproduce any of them here. I leave you with his famous painting of an execution of Spanish prisoners by a detachment of French soldiers in the 1808-1812 war—a mild image by comparison.

The Third of May. 1808.

Winter traction for feet December 4, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Southern Appalachians, White Mountains.
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One end of the spectrum---I don't use these very often

Ever since I moved back to the Southern Appalachians, I’ve heard hikers comment along the lines of, “We decided not to do that hike because conditions were too icy.” That seems a shame when so many tools are available for dealing with ice or with steep, slippery snow.

People around here are starting to catch on to devices like Kahtoola Microspikes. They’re great for many winter conditions—if you had to pick just one device, I’d recommend these—but they aren’t perfect for every situation. Up in New England, where I did winter hiking for 16 years, microspikes have become so popular that people sometimes make the mistake of using them in situations, like steep hard ice, where crampons are needed. I remember hearing about a group doing a winter traverse of the Presies (i.e. Presidential Range) who nearly had a fatal accident. One of them was climbing up the icy slope of Mt. Jefferson with microspikes and took a long, frightening slide.

For many years in these parts, people have used instep crampons on icy trails like the Alum Cave Trail on Mt. LeConte. They’re certainly better than bare bootsoles, but they have serious limitations.

Instep crampon on regular hiking boot

They only give you four points of traction, and they’re quite awkward when you get past the icy stretch and walk on bare ground, especially rock. So you end up taking them off and putting them back on at regular intervals.

Another option is Yaktrax. I gave away my pair and can’t offer my own photo, but here is one from Wikimedia.

Yaktrax

Definitely an improvement over the insteps—easier to put on and take off, more effective—but personally I have been more satisfied with the microspikes.

Here is what the microspikes look like before you pull them on. They can easily fit in a large zip-loc bag.

Microspikes

The red connector bands are flexible enough that you can use them on a variety of boot types. Here they are on a pair of Sorel boots.

Microspikes on Sorels

Now, for a digression into boots. I find that regular hiking boots are fine for temperatures down to 20 degrees or so—below that, I start having trouble with icy feet. Obviously, each person reaches that discomfort level at a different temperature. Colder than that, you need boots like Sorels with felt liners or plastic mountaineering boots.

I should say that I differ from most people in preferring Sorels to the plastics. If you go to an outdoor equipment store, chances are they’ll tell you the Sorels are only good for shoveling snow out of the driveway. But I found them to be very comfortable and very warm, and I’ll just say that I climbed all 48 of the 4000 footers of New Hampshire in winter wearing Sorels. I even went up the Lions Head route on Mt. Washington in Sorels.

As you saw in the above photo, microspikes fit just fine on the Sorels. So do strap-on 12-point crampons. The one disadvantage is that you can’t use step-in crampons with Sorels, and the strap-ons take more time to put on and take off.

Sorels with strap-on crampons

You see the plastic boots with step-in Grivel 12-point crampons in the photo at top. The step-ins are very convenient—the part behind the heel snaps into place, and then you just have one strap to deal with. My problem with the plastic boots was that I felt like I was wearing cinder blocks on my feet. By contrast, the Sorels were so comfortable that I always felt reluctant to switch back to my regular boots in spring!

Neither the strap-ons nor the step-ins depicted above are suitable for technical ice climbing. That’s a whole other deal. You use two short ice axes, one in each hand, instead of the long mountaineering axe.

Mountaineering ice axe

You see that I’ve wound some medical tape around it for better grip, plus I’ve attached a leash. Probably most of the time in the Southern Appalachians you’d do just as fine with a trekking pole. The ice axe does work better for steep icy conditions. Ice axes can be surprisingly versatile—my friend Greg Harrell did some “thinking outside the box” and came up with a technique for using an axe while doing steep climbs up slides in the Smokies, regardless of season.

Finally, a word about my personal experience with snowshoes. In 1993 I purchased a set of 36″ Sherpa snowshoes and had the optional big claws put on.

Claws on Sherpa snowshoes

With these snowshoes, I was able to march right up steep snowy slopes without backsliding, while my friends with smaller claws struggled along. Well, I can’t recommend the Sherpas, for the simple reason that the company went out of business a while back. Much smaller, lighter snowshoes have been the trend for a while. But I wonder how people do with those in really deep, unconsolidated snow. It comes down to the simple physics of “flotation”—you need a good-sized surface area to keep you from sinking down.

Sherpa snowshoe

By the way, forget about those advertising images you see, like in L.L. Bean catalogs, of people gaily scampering along in their snowshoes. Look closely, and you’ll see they’re on a surface that’s already packed down! Real snowshoeing isn’t about trotting around on a touring center track, it’s about getting to places in the mountains that you couldn’t reach otherwise.

Good luck with your winter hiking.

Champney Falls, Mt. Chocorua, New Hampshire