And Off We Go!

Not to my surprise, I made the deal to acquire the Taylor Builders Edition 652ce. When Chuck Levin’s gave me a good price, and saved me the 6% sales tax by shipping it (three days from purchase to delivery), the deal was done.  A new set of strings included, and it’s now sitting within arm’s reach and I’m enjoying the sounds of a 12-string again.

Taylor 652ce

Taylor Builders Edition 652ce 12-string guitar

And now on to my next adventure.

Yep, another of my “bucket list” voyages.  Greece has appealed to me since I attended college in Munich, but it seemed distant and unworkable in so many ways.  In 2018, I started to plan a trip, but events in Turkey (which is included in the journey) warned against travel there, so I wound up going to Costa Rica instead.  Definitely not a loss, as Costa Rica will remain in my memory as one of the world’s nicest locations!

Nineteen days.  I think this may be the longest vacation I have taken in my adult life.  In the past I’ve found myself growing restless to return after 7-10 days, but somehow I feel this trip will be different.  For starters, there are full days of flying, so that reduces the time on the ground (or the sea, as it were).

The ship is the Aegean Odyssey, a 350-passenger cruise ship that is all Road Scholar.  This is the general itinerary:

  • Day 3: Athens, Greece
  • Day 4: Mykonos, Greece
  • Day 5: Mykonos, Greece
  • Day 6: Kusadasi, Turkey
  • Day 7: Kos, Greece
  • Day 8: Santorini, Greece
  • Day 9: Santorini, Greece
  • Day 10: Syros, Greece
  • Day 11: Athens, Greece
  • Day 12: Athens, Greece
  • Day 13: Heraklion, Greece
  • Day 15: Marmaris, Turkey
  • Day 16: Rhodes, Greece
  • Day 17: Mykonos, Greece
  • Day 18: Monemvasia, Greece
    • Greek Easter Saturday, Monemvasia
    • Greek Easter Sunday, Athens
  • Day 19: Disembarkation, Program Concludes

Of course, the above only touches on the places.  There will be times at sea, lectures (but not of the boring type) and free time to explore, shop and sightsee.  With me, that last means taking photographs!  Yes, that’s always one of my primary goals everywhere I go.

I just thought of my father, who also enjoyed taking photos.  This was before digital, so he liked taking slide photographs and putting them into slide shows.  I have most, if not all, of this slides, and in all truthfulness, have never gone through them.  I don’t know if he thought he was leaving a legacy, but I have no such intentions.  I take the photos because I like to view them!

Now begins the list.  I have several packing lists, and I’ll need to start considering things like electric adapters, proper clothing, passport (and vaccination records — grrr), electronics and so on.  I’ve done this so many times, and yet it always seems to raise my stress level a bit; I want to make sure I have everything I need, and don’t want to over-pack at the same time.

I’d better get to it!

Gee. Another Guitar???

A couple of weeks ago I took my Taylor GS Mini-e Koa guitar across the river to Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center to have the electronic pickup system looked at.  Levin’s is an institution in the Washington, D. C. music scene, having been in business since 1958.

Taylor GS Mini-e Koa

After dropping off my guitar, I wandered into the acoustic guitar room and was told by the sales to play anything I wanted, and take as much time as I liked.  Those words are like crack to an addict when you’re a guitar player!

Levin’s carries many brands I’ve read about but never laid hands on.  So, of course I played a number of guitars.  After several different guitars, I found myself with a nifty 12-string guitar in hand.

My first new guitar was a 12-string.  A Framus I bought in Germany when I was in college there.  I still have it — 50 years later!

Framus 12-string guitar

I have since added an electric 12-string.  But neither of them felt or played like this one!

It turns out this guitar is a Taylor “Builders Edition” 652ce.  Taylor’s model numbering is explained thus:  The first digit is the series number.  Series are based on wood.  The second digit specifies both whether it is 6- or 12-string, and whether the top wood is soft or hard. The third digit indicates the body shape (Taylor makes many), and the letters following indicate if the guitar has a cutaway and/or electronics.  Thus, the 652ce is a maple-spruce paired 12-string with a soft (spruce) top and is a Grand Concert body shape.  The guitar has a cutaway and an electronic pickup system.  As a Builders Edition, it also receives some additional treatment, such as a beveled armrest, a beveled cutaway, and some “exclusive” Taylor tweaks:  a 12-fret neck, two-string bridge pins, and something else different:  It’s “reverse strung.”  A typical 12-string has six pairs of strings, the fundamental string and an octave (the top two pairs of strings are identical).  Twelve strings are typically strung with the octave string first (looking down from the playing perspective) and then the fundamental string.  But Taylor puts the fundamental string first, then the octave string.  I found this made playing it so much easier, because the down stroke of a strum plays the fundamental note first.  The finish (there are two) I played and liked is called Wild Honey Burst.

And it’s beautiful!

Taylor Builder’s Edition 652ce 12-fret 12-string Grand Concert

All of this comes at a cost, of course.  I actually happen to be in a position to purchase one at the moment, but it’s still a big decision.

Making the decision even tougher is that Taylor offers other 12-string guitars in the same size.  I find the 562ce attractive, too.  It’s mahogany (both top and body).  Not being a Builders Edition, it costs less, but is plainer (less bling).

Taylor 562ce 12-fret, 12-string Grand Concert

There is also the 362ce, which is a mahogany top with Tasmanian Blackwood back and sides.  It’s cheaper again than the 562ce.

Taylor 362ce 12-fret 12-string Grand Concert

If looks were all that mattered, I would be happy with the cheapest of the three.  But sound and playability are the most important factors in a guitar priced in this range (and, in fact, I think I favor the looks ofd the 562ce).  My biggest problem is that I haven’t been able to play either of the lower-cost Taylors.

The closest I’ve come is this “bake-off” video:

Decisions!  Decisions!  The more I look, read and explore, the more convinced I’m going to get one!

What’s In A Name?

I often resist the urge to post articles about politics, despite the political overtones of this site’s name.  But recently an issue has come up that has me both scratching my head as well as wondering how names change, and who decides?

As I write this, Russia is invading Ukraine.  I will leave the emotional and humanitarian aspects of this aside for the moment, since my topic is about a name:  The name of Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev.  Or, as many now would have it, Kyiv.

Some quick study shows that Kiev (KEE-ev) was the common English spelling and pronunciation up until the Russians invaded, at which point the “formal” Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of Kyiv (KEEV) was adopted by the western press.  (n.b., the phonetic spellings are taken from Wikipedia or are my own when transliteration is impractical).

Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union since 1922 as one of its “soviet socialist republics.” Ukrainian itself is an ethnic group, and traces its roots back to 32,000 B. C. As with most of Europe, empires have come and gone, and Ukraine has been absorbed and integrated into many of them.  Which brings us back to the name.

Kiev is considered to be the Russian spelling and pronunciation, and for 70+ years was the accepted form.  In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence.  Western usage of the name continued, although Ukrainians quickly adopted their “proper” name, and in 2019 petitioned the United States Board on Geographic Names and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to do the same.  Officially, on maps and other cartographic instruments, Kyiv is now the official name and spelling.

So the question I have is this:  Why does the media, in its “hive mind,” choose to make the distinction now?

(Side note:  As a youth, and after college, I knew the name of the Chinese capital as Peking.  In 1979, the Wade-Giles system for the romanization of written Chinese moved from Cantonese to Mandarin, and thus Peking became Beijing – technically a restoration of the name and not a change.  This was my first exposure to how different cultures apply their conventions to others).

Tossing aside the fact that Kyiv is technically accurate, why does the media now uniformly decide to use it?  There was no such focus prior to the Russian invasion.

Which got me to thinking:  If western media wants to be accurate, why do they not apply the same standard to other capitals?  A few immediate examples I can think of, and their native (albeit phonetic) pronunciations) are:

  • Moscow (Moskva)
  • Paris (Paree)
  • Munich (Muenchen)
  • Budapest (Budapesht)

And one of my favorites:  Copenhagen.  The capital of Denmark is pronounced “Koobenhavn.” English speakers typically pronounce it “Copen-hāgen.”  Some, who wish to appear worldly and effete pronounce it “Copen-hoggen” without knowing that to do is an affront to the natives.  Most Danes are too polite to mention it, but the Germanic pronunciation still carries with it the resentment of the German treatment of the Danes during WWII!

And how about Bangkok?  In Thai, the official name of the capital is Krung Thep Maha Nakon, or colloquially as Krung Thep.  According to Wikipedia,

Officially, the town was known as Thonburi Si Mahasamut (ธนบุรีศรีมหาสมุทร, from Pali and Sanskrit, literally ‘city of treasures gracing the ocean’) or Thonburi, according to the Ayutthaya Chronicles.[15] Bangkok was likely a colloquial name, albeit one widely adopted by foreign visitors, who continued to use it to refer to the city even after the new capital’s establishment.

When King Rama I established his new capital on the river’s eastern bank, the city inherited Ayutthaya’s ceremonial name, of which there were many variants, including Krung Thep Thawarawadi Si Ayutthaya (กรุงเทพทวารวดีศรีอยุธยา) and Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (กรุงเทพมหานครศรีอยุธยา).

As one who has traveled extensively, and who has visited many of the cities listed above, it strikes me as humorous (and perhaps even disingenuous) how the media all of a sudden “discovers” a new name for a place, and then pretend to be intellectually and snobbishly superior by using it.

Slowhand: An Appreciation

I’ve recently taken to saying that the Beatles got me interested in playing guitar and that Eric Clapton has kept me interested.

The Beatles entered the world’s consciousness in 1962 (or 1963, depending on who you talk to).  I was a kid living in Bangkok, Thailand when my musical world changed.  I can honestly claim that I saw the Beatles, but not in concert.  They were on an Asian tour and stopped briefly in Thailand.  They never got off the plane, but were still greeted at the airport by adoring throngs.  And I was among them.  They came to the door and waved at us.

By the mid-1960s, when I was in high school, the Beatles were continuing to top the music charts, and I had grown tired and frustrated playing piano according to my parents’ wishes (and NOT playing the music I wanted to play).  My friend RIck Johnson had an old Sears Kay guitar he never played, so I bought it from him for ten dollars.  It was a horrible guitar, with a warped neck, but I didn’t care.  Buying songbooks from the local record store, I learned current tunes using the chord charts.  I confess to being self-taught, and every error in fingering styles, posture and playing is mine.

In college, I bought my first new guitar at the Post Exchange (PX) in Munich, Germany.  It was a twelve-string acoustic made by Framus (the company’s history may be worth another post, but not today).  I don’t know why I got a twelve string, except that I think I was angling to the top-of-the-line guitar in my price range.  I took that guitar with me to college, and played with other students in jam sessions, and even wrote a couple of songs with it.  I still have that guitar today.  It’s 50 years old!

Framus 12-string guitar

My first new guitar – now 50 years old. Framus 12-string

In 1970, the Beatles as a band came to an end.  Their legacy remains alive, but other than bootlegs and mashups, no new music from the Beatles was forthcoming.

At the same time, the British rock-and-blues scene was exploding.  Leading the charge was a fiery guitarist named Eric Clapton.  It seems everything associated with Clapton turned to gold.  He played with the Yardbirds (a group who spawned fellow guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) and then with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then lit up the world with the first “supergroup,” the power trio, Cream.

Many a day and night were spent listening to Cream albums, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye come to mind.

From Cream, Eric moved onto Blind Faith, who only released one album, but it still has a place in rock history.  Not just because of its original cover (which was “banned” and replaced).

I partially drifted away from listening to Clapton’s work after Derek and the Dominoes, which some people think is his greatest album.  But he kept showing up on the airwaves, and I saw him in concert in 1974 at what was then known as the Capital Centre.  He was promoting his first truly “solo” album then, 461 Ocean Boulevard.

I have albums and songbooks of Clapton’s music, and I’ve read about some of the tribulations he’s gone through, and lately, with the COVID-19 affecting everybody everywhere, I was pleased to learn that Eric had released a new album.

Motivated by the COVID cancellation of a Royal Albert Hall concert, Clapton decided to take his band (consisting of standout bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Chris Stainton and percussionist Steve Gadd) and set up in a country estate in West Sussex, England.  Recorded live, The Lady In The Balcony (reference to his wife Melia, who watched), the album is 17 tracks, 14 of which are acoustic (the other three are electrified but not the typical hall-filling power chords).  Many of these are Clapton classics, some are tributes, and all of them sound to me as if Eric and Co. had invited me to sit in the living room while they played.

Call me a fan!  I saw a few videos (I think there’s a DVD of the album) on YouTube and immediately said to myself, “I have got to get this album!”  Fortunately it was approaching Christmas so I dropped a not-too-subtle hint to my daughter, and lo and behold, I now have my own copy.

Coinciding with my recent venture into live performing, I’ve locked into this album’s rendition of Bell Bottom Blues (you can see it here) .  The song itself isn’t hard — I learned it quickly — but I’m just fascinated by the solo Eric plays, and I’m obsessing over learning it.  It’s hard trying to visualize it from the video, so I’m basically taking it measure by measure, lining up the sound with what he’s playing.  I’m no Eric Clapton, and since he’s the only three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and winner of some 18 Grammy awards, I never will be.  But I’m grateful that Eric Clapton has blessed the world with some outstanding music, and kept my interest in playing guitar alive.

Postscript:  Some people who aren’t as old as I am may not be familiar with Eric Clapton’s guitar playing skills.  Here is a video of a much younger Clapton demonstrating some of his chops.


Another Keeper

My sister gave me a t-shirt a couple of years ago that says, “You can never have too many guitars.”  That’s a saying that’s familiar to guitarists and so with that in mind, I introduce my latest addition:  A Martin Dreadnought Junior (DJr-10E).

Martin DJr-10E Sapele

Martin DJr-10E Sapele

I need another guitar like I need another hole in my head, but I love guitars, and when someone told me they preferred their Martin “Junior” to their Taylor GS Mini, I had to check it out for myself.  Currently, my GS Mini-e Koa is my favorite acoustic guitar.

Taylor GS Mini-e Koa

Taylor GS Mini-e Koa

(No, those aren’t the same photo — I’ve taken to keeping them in cases due to the seasonal drop in humidity; it’s easier to keep them properly humidified this way).

Actually, I started out researching the “Streetmaster” version of the “Junior,” and now I’m not quite sure why.  I have a Streetmaster version of a Martin OMC-15ME (shown on the previous post, so I won’t post another image).  In the back of my mind, I think I figured I could use the guitar as a “beater” and not care if it got scuffed or dinged.  But as I checked the specs (Martin makes three versions:  one in Sitka Spruce, one in Sapele, and the Streetmaster, which is also Sapele).  I couldn’t really determine why the Streetmaster model sells for $100 more!

My research found me at the web site of Maury’s Music in Coaldale, Pennsylvania.  Maury’s is a Certified Martin dealer, and is located about 40 miles from Martin’s headquarters in Nazareth, PA.

C.F. Martin Headquarters

Guitar Maker C. F. Martin’s Nazareth, PA Headquarters

Apparently, Maury and his only employee (Maury, his wife Lori and one employee — Andrew are the only employees) drive to Nazareth and carry guitars directly back to their shop!

I spoke with Maury via email and asked him the tonal difference between the Sapele (sapele is a wood very much like mahogany) model and the Streetmaster and he indicated there was no difference.  So, not seeing any reason to pay an additional $!00, I started considering the Sapele.

Further discussions and reading on Maury’s site suggested that the sound of the guitar could be enhanced by upgrading the saddle and the bridge pins (the saddle is a bar of material over which the guitar strings are placed, which raises the strings up and allows a straight line to the nut.  Bridge pins hold the strings in place in the guitar body).  Heck, I figured if I was going to order a brand new guitar, I might as well get it right!  So I had the stock saddle replaced with buffalo bone, and bone with abalone inserts for the bridge pins.  Bone makes the guitar sound brighter than manmade materials, I learned.

So now I have two smaller guitars that have excellent sound and playability.  I have learned that smaller, shorter guitars work better for me, as I have small, thin hands, and overall I don’t feel like I’m “hunkering over” the instrument as I play.

I have a slightly guilty feeling about purchasing this guitar, because I have a custom guitar being made, and it is supposedly near being finished.

But you can’t have too many guitars, can you?

Phase II – In Which Doris Gets Her Oats

Apologies to the late John Lennon for appropriating his doggerel opening to The Two of Us.  Sometimes, the subject heading to one of these posts just pops into my head, and this was it.  John actually said, “Phase one…” but that doesn’t fit.

My reason for thinking of Phase II is that as a follow-on post to my previous entry, I have now taken the stage twice at the open mic night, and so now I’m no longer a first-timer, and am now moving into the “veteran” category!

Having a time constraint has caused me to focus more on shorter tunes, rather than the long, extended improvisations I’ve conducted in the privacy of my home.  This is a bit of a change, as I now have to work in a song introduction, play, repeat, and leave the stage.  I’ve been using a timer to practice, and that’s helping.

There’s also my voice.  When singing at home, it makes no difference if one is in the shower or the living room; there isn’t an audience, so hitting sour notes or a cracking voice aren’t issues.  But off-key singing in concert is most definitely a turn-off.  So, I’ve started using a capo (something I’ve looked down my nose at until recently).  This lets me change the key of a song without having to change the fingerings I know.

Guitar Capo

Guitar Capo

Thus, when I took the stage, I wanted to play songs I’ve known for a long time, that I like musically, and felt comfortable playing.  My first choice was David Crosby‘s Triad, a song I first heard performed by Jefferson Airplane on their Crown of Creation album (still one of my favorite “oldies” albums).

Crown of Creation, 1968 by Jefferson Airplane

Crown of Creation album cover, 1968

It wasn’t until I heard Crosby’s performance of it on the live, 4 Way Street double album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young that I fell in love with the guitar work!

CSNY - 4 Way Street

4 Way Street live double album by CSN&Y

The problem I’ve had with this song is that I cannot sing it in the key in which it’s written, and it uses the upper part of the guitar neck, so I’ve never cared to use a capo to adjust it to my voice.  Until now.  I found that by placing the capo on the third fret, I could sing with the music and still reach the upper frets.

However, I felt to make that easier, I needed to use a guitar that allows easier access to the higher notes, and that meant using an acoustic guitar with a cutaway.  Given that this was going to be an all-acoustic (no amplification) performance, I wanted a guitar that would also project well.  Hmm.  I had purchased a Martin OMC-15ME that, once I received it, did not love.  It went into a case and I mentally put it on my “sell” list.  Maybe it would do?

Martin OMC-15ME Streetmaster in Weathered Red

Martin OMC-15ME Streetmaster in Weathered Red

I took it to Melodee Music, hoping to buy a truss rod wrench to give it some neck relief.  They didn’t have one in stock, but the tech there offered to do the job, and so I drooled over other guitars while he did the job.  And it did the job!  I now found the guitar playable.

So, I capo’ed and practiced, and took the stage.  I introduced the song and played it, blowing the lyrics on the first chorus, but I just surged through it to the end.  I then introduced my second song (sans capo) by saying that my last attempt at a sing-along hadn’t worked too well, but if folks knew the lyrics, they could sing along now.  Then I played the BeatlesMaxwell’s Silver Hammer, which I completely nailed!

I got some exuberant applause, which is more than just polite acknowledgment, which made me feel pretty good!  After the show, the emcee came to me and complimented me by saying I was a “monster” guitar player.  Given that he’s no slouch on the instrument himself, I considered that terrific praise!

We’re now heading into the holiday season, and I’d like to play at least one instrumental I learned last year, and have been getting familiar with again, Bing Crosby‘s (no relation to David) I’ll Be Home For Christmas.  I’m also focusing on another Beatles (Paul McCartney, actually) song as performed by the British duo, Peter & Gordon.  I haven’t yet decided between World Without Love, I Don’t Want to See You Again, or the Beatles’ No Reply.

But I have a week to decide.  And practice.

Another Box Checked

Last night I finally made my performing debut.  For years (decades, actually) I have avoided taking the stage, preferring to play my guitar and sing songs in the privacy of my home.  I’ve taken to referring to myself as a “bedroom soloist.”

That changed last night.  Here’s the story, told in brief:

A few weeks ago I was informed of a local group that meets every week to sing and play music.  The Folk Club of Reston/Herndon (Virginia) has been gathering for 36 years, and I just now heard of it!  Given that I lived in Reston for 27 years and that I was there when the club was founded, I was a bit taken aback at my ignorance.  But, there’s no time like the present, so I thought I’d check it out.  Tuesdays are free evenings for me usually, so this worked out well.

The venue is the back room of the Amphora Diner Deluxe, a 365-day eatery that serves a full assortment of meals and cuisines.

Amphore Diner Deluxe

Amphora Diner Deluxe, Herndon, VA

After my first visit, I came away thinking to myself, “I can do this!”  The variety of performers ranged from semi-professionals to those, who like me, play for their own pleasure and fulfillment. So, I decide to take the risk and join them.

It’s a simple and well-established process:  A sign-up board is placed to the side of the performing area and those who wish to play add their names.  Each performer is given eight minutes (including set up time).  Once a month there is a “showcase” performance, where the star is given 24 minutes.  There is usually a concert once a month with a featured artist and a small cover charge.  There is a brief intermission, and guests are free to eat during performances.

So, given an eight-minute performance window, I decided to practice a couple of songs that I hoped I would have down pat, and loaded my guitar into my car and arrived early enough to get my name on the list.  As it turned out, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is probably not the high demand date, so I was informed each performer would be allowed twelve minutes instead of eight.

I had signed up to be fourth, but with the empty slots, that became second.  After the first performer left the stage, I was introduced as a first-timer at the club.  I added that I was a first-timer overall, and that as my “maiden voyage,” would allow myself three mistakes.  I then introduced my first song, Michael Nesmith‘s Roll With the Flow.  It took me a minute to get my bearings, so to speak:  bright lights in my eyes, and finding my voice.  Fortunately, any jitters mostly disappeared, although I felt at times I was struggling with my voice.  I followed that with Steve Goodman‘s Six Hours Ahead of the Sun, a tune I’d only recently been teaching myself.  Oddly enough, I think I played the latter better than the former, even though I started with what I thought would be my best offering.

Given that I had more time than I’d planned for, I decided to add my rendition of Brewer & Shipley‘s interpretation of Witchi-Tai To, an Indian chant that I’ve loved since I first heard them perform it in the early 1970s.  I tried to get the audience engaged in singing it as a “round” (the style used to sing Row Row Row Your Boat, for reference), but as I learned later, many in the audience couldn’t make out the words.

Which is another fact I only learned about:  Performances are mostly acoustic-only, meaning that there is no amplification and no microphones, which I thought from my previous visits were the norm.  I’m glad I practiced acoustically, but it was a lesson learned that I needed to consider: What un-enhanced music sounds like, and how to better project.  My voice is not my strong point, so I need to work on it.

Overall, I had a lot of fun.  I made a few mistakes, but as I learned early on, many in the audience don’t notice, and some of the other performers made errors, too.  Some more glaring than mine!  The main objective is to have a good time, and in that I succeeded.  I even had one audience member thank me for Witchi-Tai To, saying she’d heard Brewer & Shipley play it in concert, and hadn’t heard it in years.

Now, I’m no longer a rookie.  I’ve decided to do it again, and so I’m going to work on some new material and give it another go!


Vacationing, 2021 Style

I am constantly being reminded of how much things have changed since I was younger.

Indeed, I remember flying as a kid, and having a meal on a tray served to me, accompanied by metal utensils, all as part of my ticket.  Flight attendants were called stewardesses and were glamorous and professional.  Airplanes had smoking sections, and one could actually walk up to the gate, show a boarding pass and enter the airplane.

Well, that’s all gone.  And so is carefree vacation travel, it seems.

I have returned from my trip to four of California’s national parks, and while I had an extremely enjoyable time, the reminders that today’s reality is far removed from the past were everywhere.

I have taken to mentioning the “triple-whammy” that affected this trip:  COVID-19, heat and wildfires.

Arriving in Fresno, I learned that the area (the central valley of California) had been experiencing a record-setting 66 straight days of 100°+ temperatures.  The heat and lack of rainfall or mountain water runoff has resulted in drought and wildfires.  A look at the map here suggests the entire Pacific northwest is ablaze (the map in the link is updated continuously).  The rampant fires had two immediate effects:  A smoky haze over the valley (which, I was told, could affect the taste of crops), and the closure of all of California’s national forests.

But once I got into the higher elevations, the sky was clear, strikingly blue, and the parks were tremendous!  But COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on the park workers.  Visitor centers were closed, as were restaurants and a number of facilities.  Earlier closures had caused the workforce to find work elsewhere, and the slow re-opening of the parks found jobs unfilled.  In Yosemite, for example, only the hotels (the Wawona and the Ahwanee) had open restaurants, and the Yosemite Lodge’s eatery was the only other dining choice.

The Ahwahnee Hotel

Ahwahnee Hotel. Built in 1926 at a cost of $1.25 million.

Still, it was the scenery I was after, and scenery I got!  Having visited Yosemite in the winter of 2015, it was quite a change to see it in summer.  The Tunnel View was spectacular, despite that lack of water in Bridalveil Falls.

Tunnel View, Yosemite NP

The famous Tunnel View scene, entering Yosemite National Park, with El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Falls

The giant Sequoia trees were impressive, even though I found photographing them a challenge (maybe different lenses might have helped?).  Some of the oldest living organisms on the planet, hardy and majestic.

General Sherman Giant Sequoia

It took 32 of us humans to circle the trunk of the General Sherman, estimated to be 2,500 years old.

Kings Canyon reminded me of a lesser-known Yosemite.  The granite formations were similar, and some of the scenery every bit as lovely.

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

But Death Valley was the place I wanted to visit most.  Zabriskie Point, in particular.  I remember having a (vinyl) record album of the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film of the same name.

Zabriskie Point Soundtrack

Album cover for Zabriskie Point soundtrack

I never saw the movie (it can’t be found online today!) but the music was early Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead and John Fahey.  For some reason, images of Zabriskie Point have always appealed to me.  I wanted to see for myself.

Our bus descended down from the heights, and I saw the elevation markers dropping: 8,000 feet, 7,000 feet, 6,000 feet…

Before the trip was done, I found myself at -282 feet.  The lowest elevation point in the United States, only about twenty miles from Zabriskie Point.  Choosing one photo out of the many I took was quite a challenge.  I may change my mind, but here it is:

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP, CA.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP, CA.

The author at Badwater Basin.  Sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat required!

Badwater Basin, Death Valley NP, CA.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley. The lowest elevation (282 feet below sea level) in the U. S.

Suffice it to say, it was HOT.  Some people say that it’s not so bad due to the absence of humidity.  Still, it was HOT.

Furnace Creek (Death Valley) Visitor Center.  At noon.

Furnace Creek (Death Valley) Visitor Center. At noon.

Another notch on the scenic vacation belt!

A Return To (Almost) Normal

A week from now I hope to be traveling through some of America’s national parks again. There was a PBS series a few years ago by Ken Burns, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

Video formats for Ken Burns'

Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” available for purchase in various formats.

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve written before (I think) that on my 60th birthday I drove to Great Falls Park and purchased a lifetime senior pass.

NPS Lifetime Senior Pass

National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass for 60+

I still maintain that was the best birthday present I could have given myself!

The COVID pandemic caused innumerable lockdowns and travel restrictions.  Cruise lines halted operations, and getting into and out of countries became a game of chance.  The nastiness isn’t over yet, but there seems to be some semblance of normalcy returning.

I said, “Some.”  I have been alerted that I will need to wear a face diaper (mask) during my air travels, and when required in public areas.  My trip will take me to California, so I can expect to have to wear the darn thing a lot, despite being fully vaccinated.  I don’t like it, but I’m not going to let it be a deal-killer, because my travel bug has bitten me, and I must go.

This will be my seventh Road Scholar trip.  A few months ago, I saw that the company had once again started their in-person study tours (like everyone else, they had gone to Zoom during the lockdowns).  The trip is titled, “Four Jewels” and encompasses Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite and Death Valley.  Believe it or not, it was the Death Valley mention that sold me!

Road Scholar Image: Death Valley

Road Scholar image: Death Valley

I have already begun my preparations.  I’m making sure my camera is fully charged, I have plenty of storage (a 32GB SD card has done me well on other photo trips), I bought a new pair of 5.11 Decoy Convertible pants (lightweight, SPF 50+, packable) and am deciding what apparel I need (weather in the parks can go from hot to cold in the span of hours).  But that’s part of the fun!

I expect to have photos and observations to post here upon my return.  Stay tuned.

Active Melody

Much to my surprise and amazement, I’ve found an online guitar instruction site that has actually improved my guitar playing!  That site is  I have toyed with a number of sites, and found many of them helpful, but none quite seemed to fit my style.

One site I visited often was the Blues Guitar Institute.  It has some terrific content, but I was put off by its $14.99/month ($99.99 annual) fee.  Some terrific free sites, such as JustinGuitar and Marty Schwartz’s lessons are great for quick lessons, but many of these sites are focused on learning songs.  I wanted something with a little more structure (but not TOO much), and then I found Brian Sherrill.

Brian Sherrill, of Active Melody

Brian Sherrill of

Brian doesn’t promote himself.  In fact, I didn’t know his last name until I did some searching online.  Which is kind of cool, because at ActiveMelody, it’s just Brian and his lessons.

Key to his approach is that Brian explains the “why” of certain guitar playing.  Yes, it’s music theory, but he downplays that aspect, choosing instead to show how to play.  The when and why part of it fall in place gradually.

At first, I was reluctant to pay ($89.00 annually).  There is a forum on the site, and I joined to nose around a bit and investigate.  One of the posters there made the observation that the annual charge was roughly what one would pay for a single in-person lesson with a tutor.  Since I’d done that not long ago, I had to admit he had a point, so I signed up.

One of the best decisions I’ve made.  After a year of COVID lockdowns, it felt nice to get some structure to my playing.  Since I’ve been able to work from home, which means I can grab a guitar any time and spend a few minutes practicing, having lessons to practice has been a great help.

Membership also provides me access to tablature (TAB) downloads, jam tracks and “part two” of lessons when available.  The PDF downloads have been a terrific aide, and I’m only now beginning to take advantage of the jam tracks.  Well worth the $89!

Brian doesn’t know (and likely doesn’t care) that I’m posting this.  But I’m quite happy with and confess to being a satisfied customer!