Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Primary Blues

I’m hoping that things quiet down tomorrow.  The phone has been ringing off the hook with robot calls all telling me how bad the other candidate is.  The TV is filled with commercials, mostly ran by Political Action Committees with more money than God, mostly telling us more ugly things about the other guy.  Thank the Lord for the mute button.  To listen to them, one would think they are not fit to be a dogcatcher, which is probably true. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, today is the day for the Michigan primary.   And the last phone call of the day came just 50 minutes before the polls closed, it was Rick, telling me more dirt about Mitt!  The other day, I came home late in the afternoon (most of the calls seem to come at dinner time which is down right tacky) and my daughter took great pride in informing me that I'd just missed the Governor of New Jersey and then sarcastically asked why he was calling me since I don't even like New Jersey.  But it's now over, until the fall when it all starts again...

I didn’t vote today.  I don’t have a dog in this hunt.  I could have voted but I am choosing not to identify with a political party and will wait and vote in November.   Oddly enough, last week I got my 2012 Republican Membership Statement from the Republican National Committee with red letterings indicating my status as inactive/lasped.  That was news to me!  If I ever was a member of the RNC, it would have been before Reagan was in the White House.  Yes, I’ve been voting since 1976.  These days, I dread political parties more than my next birthday party.   

Which brings me to the point of this rant:  “There has got to be a better way to pick a presidential candidate!”   The elections now seem eternal.  They’ve far surpassed the NBA finals in length.  At least one of the candidates this year, who says he is from this state, has been running for President ever since he ran for class president of his preppy kindergarten.  We got to find a way to shorten this process, for it seems to me that it would be better to have politicians spend just a little more time governing than running.  But what do I know?  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Love is in the air (at least for the waterfowl)

Approaching an old Railroad Trestle

Love seemed to be in the air yesterday afternoon as Jim and I canoed the Thornapple. Along the way, as we’d round bends in the river, we’d flush up pairs of ducks. I think I only saw one lone duck, the rest were paired up or in a group. It was a few degrees above freezing, but due to the recent warm weather there was little ice. At times, the wind blew hard and it sounded colder than it was as it swirled around in the tops of the bare hardwoods. Yet, here by the water, we saw buds on some of the maples. It’ll still be a good two months before the foliage returns, but Spring is coming. Of course, it still seems like winter never arrived. When we got to the mill pond at Middleville, we were greeted with dozens of pairs of waterfowl. The sandhill cranes are back as well as mute swans along with what Jim believed to be a pair of trumpeter swans. And of course, there were plenty of Canadian geese, although most of them I’m sure wintered here (as did the swans). We spent some time exploring the mill pond, fighting against the cold wind which had increased drastically in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I only brought a point and shot camera and wasn’t able to catch the pairs of birds flying. I wish I had my SLR with me, for to see a pair of swans take to the air is something to behold.
Mute Swan (his or her partner wasn't far behind)

 Jim is the only friend of mine who is crazy enough to canoe in winter and this was a mild day for us as we have canoed with the river being half frozen.  I have jokingly said to him in church that it looked to be a good day to be on the river.  He responded, “Let’s go!”  This time he asked if he could take along his dog Patches.  I am always leery with my dog in the canoe in cold weather, but Patches is a little guy and he had fun, leaning out of the canoe and sniffing the air.  It was a nice afternoon. 
Thornapple River

Patches checking out the bank as we approach Middleville
Looking South from the bridge in Middleville (take out on the point to the right)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Friday afternoon ski

Self portrait
We finally got another good snowstorm, five or six inches of wet snow.  I headed out Friday afternoon to Yankee Springs to check out the skiing.  I’m sure it won’t be great, as the temperature has risen above the freezing mark, but it’s still snowing lightly.  At the trailhead, I apply wax for the warmer conditions and head off.  Someone had been here before, including I a dog sled that has torn up part of the tracks.  I stop at Hall Lake, where the water is mostly open with only ice around the edges.  Normally, when I’m here in winter, they’d be a few fishermen sitting out, watching intently their lines dropped into a hole through the ice.  Taking off my skis, I explore around the edge of the lake and see ripples in the water, which looks like fish are active and feeding off the top only there are no insects.  Then I see it’s clumps of snow dropping from overhanging limbs.  I ski through an area where the pines are thick and the snow is light, most of it having been captured on the overhead limbs.  Thankfully there are few rocks as I often find myself occasionally bottoming out on the soft and still warm ground.   Leaving the lake, I begin to climb up Graves Hill.  The snow conditions changes and I begin to have problems with it sticking to the bottom of my skis.  Occasionally, the buildup is so bad that it feels as if I’m wearing platform skis.  Then, I have to pick up my skis as if I am walking.  At the top of the hill, I swing over to Devil’s Soup Bowl, a kettle bowl left behind when the last of the glaciers retreated northward.  There’s no hot soup on today, only cold soup ; fitting for Dante’s Lucifer who’s encased in ice at the bottom realm of hell.   I explore around the bowls (there are several in this area), before circling back around on a dirt road that runs through the forest.  It’s not a long ski, but it was nice to get out in the weather, sticky snow and all.
Looking into Devil Soup Bowl

Hall Lake with ice close to shore

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf

John Muir, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf  (1914: Barnes and Noble electronic edition, 2011), 119 pages.

In 1867, after recovering from an industrial accident that left him temporarily blind, John Muir left Indiana for the Gulf of Mexico.   Taking only a small sack, his possessions included a flower press, a change of underwear, a comb, a brush, a towel, soap, a flower press, and a few books: Burns poems, Milton’s Paradise Lost and a small New Testament.   Taking the train to the border, he set out walking through Kentucky, where he visited Monmouth Caves.  When visiting an old Planter who questioned taking off as he was doing.  Muir called upon Solomon and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for support of God’s interest in creation and suggested that if the Heavenly Father was interested in flowers, he too should be interested. (19)

Muir continued on through Tennessee where he saw the destruction from the Civil War and found through the tip of North Carolina, stopping in the town of Murphy before pushing into Georgia.  There he swung eastward to Savannah, where he was resupplied with money sent from his brother.  His description of his trip through Savannah shows the condition of the South following the war, with its many abandon and ruined homes.  He also has opportunities to talk with many people, black and white, who warn him of the dangers of traveling alone.  He seems welcoming to interact with those of all races, even though he shows some of the prejudices of the day, remarking about “an energetic white man could pick more cotton than half a dozen sambos and sallies.” (32)

Muir’s travels slow down once he reaches Florida.  This is partly due to coming down with malaria while at Cedar Key.  But he also seemed more interested in the strange plants unlike anything he’d seen in the Midwest or Scotland.  He notes that the further south he traveled the more he felt to be “a stranger in a strange land. (90)  Although the Florida coast isn’t at all like the Scottish coast of his childhood, Muir found that the salt air would draw out his memories of his earlier life.  While in the swamps of Florida, Muir had time to ponder the relationship between humans and nature.  Although Muir holds the Creator in high esteem, he questions the concept that man is the pinnacle of the Creator’s creation.  Some of his thoughts are rather humorous as he questions why, if we’re on top, there are animals and insects that feed on men (72) and that “venomous beasts, thorny plants and deadly diseases” prove that the world was not made for men (74)  Muir finds himself being in sympathy of the animal world:

Let a Christian hunter go to the Lord’s woods and kill his well-kept beasts, or wild Indians and it’s as well; but let an enterprising specimen of those proper, predestined victims go to houses and fields and kill the most worthless person of the vertical god-like killers, -oh!  That is horribly unorthodox and on part of the Indians atrocities murder.  Well, I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man and if a war of the races should occur between the wild beast and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the beast.”  (64)

Muir also questions some of the traditional views on animals and evil:

Some people think alligators are created by the devil, “but these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned them by the great Creator of us all.  Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God.” (43)

Muir spends a couple of months in Cedar Key, recovering from fever, before heading on a ship to Havana.  He spent time in Cuba, but had not recovered his strength and so he gave up the idea of exploring the island or traveling to South America and exploring the Amazon.  After Havana, he book passage on a ship hauling oranges to New York (for $25) where he hoped to find his way to California.  Having traveled from Indiana to Florida on foot and then on to Cuba, Muir appears overwhelmed in New York and although he sees street cars for Central Park, decides to stay near the docks out of the fear of getting lost in a throng of people.  

From New York, Muir sails for California via Panama (for $40).  The last quarter of the book is devoted to his time in California, especially his first trip into the Sierras where he finds himself “Bapitized” in nature’s font.  (107)  From what I read of this book, Muir had typed his journal that include the walk and added a letter with it to make the book which was compiled and published after his death.

Final quote:  There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream… Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it." (written while he was near the Clinch River in TN)

It is amazing that as much hiking I’ve done and journey literature I’ve read, I had not read this classic until last week.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Last Friday

Old Farm two-track

In an hour, maybe less, the sun will set, but not that I will notice on this cold gray day in which the skies kept spitting snow.  The ground was white, but only an inch or so deep.  I wanted to get out and let my secret slip to my dog.  Excitedly, he headed for the closet by the front door, where his leash is kept, dancing around as laced up my boots. In the closet, I got his leash out and also a vest and a waterproof shell and after getting dressed and hooking him up, together we headed out, walking down the streets toward the woods on the edge of town.  Although I had to button up my tightly to keep out the wind, it felt good to be outdoors on a day when most people stayed inside.  I entered the woods on an old farm two-track lined with huge maples.  It almost time to see pails out on these trees as they’re bled for sap to boil into syrup.  At the top of the rise, I cut across on a side trail that runs through a pine forest, and then dropped down to a pond that’s mostly frozen.  This is a magical time when the light fades rapidly even though my eyes don’t really perceive it as everything is gray.  But the light meter on my camera does perceive the fading light and after thirty or so minutes, when the sun should be safely tucked in for the night, he camera is suggesting a flash.  To get a shot I had find a place to prop my camera so that it wouldn’t move as the shutter opened long enough to capture the image.  Coming back, the wind blows harder out of the north.  The snow is heavier now.  I placed my camera under my shell for protection and kept my head down to shield my eyes from the pelting snow.   Ninety minutes after leaving, I’m back in town.  The lights are on in most homes, their windows casting a cheery glow into the gray darkness.  I head straight for the warmth of home and soon am building a fire.  Although today is an exception, this has been an usually warm winter and the fireplace hasn’t been used nearly enough.  

My non-photogenic dog, Trisket
The past week has been a busy one and I haven't had much time to blog or to get around and check other blogs. Sorry.
In the woods

Friday, February 10, 2012

Random Stuff

Photo of a Carolina bay located in Carolina Beach State Park.

I took the above photo last September when I was home visiting my parents.  Just recently a beautiful redheaded Cuban tagged me for a meme.   I don’t often do these, but this one had possibilities for some smart alack answers and, besides, I was desperate for blogging ideas.  I’m supposed to share 11 random facts about myself, answer 11 questions provided by the Cuban Redhead, then tag 11 people with some questions on my own.  I will do the first two, but I don’t like people feeling obliged to me, so I’ll forgo the third item.  As the band Meatloaf sang, “two out of thee ain’t bad.”   Of course, if you want to consider yourself tagged, go ahead and answer the questions I answered.    

11 Random Facts about me

1.        My second toe is larger than my big toe (which is the classical ideal if you look at statues from that era)
2.        At one point in my childhood, I wanted to study volcanoes.
3.        During my sophomore year in college, I seriously considered majoring in geology.
4.        I was a terrible student through high school.
5.        At one time, I had all of Steely Dan’s albums and tapes (I still have a number of their CDs)
6.        My Myers-Briggs profile is ENTJ.  That should give you psych nuts something to chew on.
7.        I am barely on the “E” side of the scale which means I also cherish time alone.
8.        I love harsh weather and feel alive with ice in my beard.
9.        A favorite possession is my grandfather’s fly rod.
10.     From my other grandfather, I have his kerosene lantern that still works.
11.    Anything that combines cherries and chocolate is good.

Below are the Redheaded Cuban questions and my answers: 

1. Who were you named after, if anyone?   I have two answers to this question, the first is true (believe it or not), and the second is another of my creations:  1. My uncle’s best friend in the first grade…  He no longer remembers this guy, but he suggested the name to my parents and they liked it.  2.  After the British poet Geoffrey Chaucer, only my parents didn’t know how to spell. 

2. If you could spend two weeks anywhere, ALONE, where would you go?  I don’t know exactly, but there would be a river and some mountains

3. Who is/was the love of your life?  Other than a red headed Cuban?  I have a few…

4. What do you hate about blogging?  It would be crass to say “memes”, wouldn’t it?

5. Do you have a "comfort food?" If so, what is it?  French Vanilla Ice Cream

6. What drink could you not live without?  Unsweetened Ice Tea (I know I’m from the South, but I gave up sugar in my tea when I was in college)

7. If you could only own one DVD or movie, which one would it be?  “A River Runs through It”  Come to think of it, it is one of the few DVDs I own...

8. Name one thing you'd like to do before you kick the bucket.   Remove the noose from around my neck.

9. What famous person have you been told you look like?  When I was a kid, it was Ron Howard (when he was on Andy Griffin).  As an adult, no one has every suggested I look like someone famous.  There is a reason I’m not famous.

10. What qualities do you look for in a friend?  Someone who’s fast at grabbing the bill at a restaurant…   A second quality would be someone with life insurance as I’ve had many friends (starting in high school) who have died.  Actually, it would be someone who can listen as well as they can talk.

11. Who makes you laugh like no one else in this world (could be someone you know personally or someone famous)?  Lately it’s been the Republican primaries, but then I realize it’s not really that funny because one of these dudes might end up with a finger on the nuclear trigger.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Days of Beer (A Review and a Personal Essay)

Days of Beer, the Review

Charles Granlich is George Thorogood without the guitar. You know the song, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”? This short book is in the same genre. It’s a collection of stories telling of how Charles became a beer drinker (they start ‘em early in Arkansas), how he had love affairs with many cheap brands, and how he eventually came to realize that too much beer came with too many consequences. A “love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of man,” Charles left his drinking life behind, preferring the love of his wife over a cheap bottle of booze. There are a number of funny stories here, such as dealing with the police, raiding beer from others camping nearby, and bootlegging beer across state lines. Luckily, he didn’t get caught; there would be nothing more shameful than being caught bootlegging Coors, which in my opinion is one of the worst excuses for beer in the world. If there was only Coors and water, I’d become a teetotaler and take the pledge! Charles shares some lessons learned from beer. Drinking beer can have a negative impact on one’s love life, but it can also give you some humorous stories to tell (if can you can only remember them). Days of Beer is cheaper than a cheap beer (unless you happen to be in Vietnam). It’s short, just a page shy of 50, and is available as an ebook for 99 cent. I read it on a Nook. My only complaint is that occasionally a word would be split up (without a hyphen) and a letter would be on the line above or below. But that wasn’t too much to deal with considering that I did get some laughs at Charles’ expense (Don’t feel too bad for him; I paid the 99 cent). I should acknowledge, in a desire that my review being unbiased and all that, that I have gotten to know Charles through the reading of his blog and his comments on my blog. But I still had to pay the 99 cent!

Days of Beer, Part 2

Like Charles, I grew up in the South, but in another part.  I have never really been one to drink heavily and I didn’t really become a beer drinker until later in life.  When I was younger, I’d occasionally have a beer on a hot afternoon, but in the circles I ran, most of us who drank preferred bourbon or scotch.  Charles notes that in general Southern women aren’t impressed with beer drinkers and I knew more than a few who considered beer to be low class, but had no problem with their guys drinking whiskey straight (as long as it was in a glass and not straight out of the bottle).   So I cut my teeth on the harder stuff, only occasionally having a beer.   Charles could have his affairs with the St. Pauli Girl while I was best friends with guys like George Dickle and Johnny Walker.  (But before you get any wrong ideas, we weren’t lovers, just acquaintances.)  This all changed in late summer 1986 when I left the South for Pittsburgh to study theology.  I was once again a poor student, made even poorer by the house payment for which I was still responsible.  With that burden over my head, I moved into the dorms to save money.  Although I had my own room, dorm life with the hockey games in the hall didn’t set well with me.  I would have gone crazy had it not been for Jim, my next door neighbor in the dorms and the only other guy on the hall not right out of college.

I’d arrived a day or two before Jim and had my room all set up when he arrived.  It was late one afternoon and he popped his head in my room.  I was spread out on the bed reading, but invited him in and I told him there was some ice tea in my fridge if he wanted some.  He poured himself a glass and took a seat at my desk and began to talk.  Jim was a great talker.  He was telling me all about himself when, in midsentence he stopped and said something like “Holy Cow,” although that may not have been the exact words he’d used.  As he talked, he’d been looking at my room, at the books I’d hauled up from North Carolina, the teddy bears that had been a gift of my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, whose picture was also pasted around the room.  But what caught Jim’s eye weren’t the books or the pictures or my old typewriter (I’d be another year before I got a computer).  Under my desk was a box containing the remnants of my liquor cabinet.  There were bottles of single malt, of various bourbons and whiskeys, a bottle of Southern Comfort (just because) and some pretty good liqueurs like Drambuie and Grand Marnier.     Jim’s worst fear, enrolling in a school full of temperance pledgers, had just been shattered.  That night we went out for the first time and for the next year, we would explore all the ‘burgs in Pitt through their local taverns. 

Pittsburgh is a beer drinking town.  Over the first few weeks at school, I became acquainted with Iron City and “IC Light” (which sounds like icy light, when ordered).  Then there was Rolling Rock, made with the refreshingly pure waters of Latrobe, a myth that survived until I made my first trip to Latrobe and failed to see any water source that looked refreshing or pure.  Nonetheless, Rolling Rock would be a beer of choice for most of my time in Pittsburgh.  Except for when I was hot and sweaty, I never got to where I could chug beers like the natives, which may be why I survived the first year of studying while Jim didn’t.   Down South, when drinking bourbon, you learn to sip it and to nurse it along.  Otherwise, you’d end up in the gutter, a destination I avoided.  I did the same thing with beer, sipping and nursing it along.  This often meant that by the time I had drunk a bottle of beer, the last of it was room temperature and not very good as I am not a European and haven’t found anything pleasant about warm beer.  Rolling Rock had the answer, a seven ounce pony.  It was the perfect sized bottle and I could drink it all before it warmed.  And since the bottles were reusable, they appealed to my environmental ethic.  A case of 48 ponies cost only nine dollars (plus the four dollars and eighty cent deposit, an initial investment as I kept the case and returned the empties for a refill).

 Oddly, in Pennsylvania (at least in the 80s), you couldn’t buy beer in a grocery store.  You had to go to a bar, where you paid a premium price, or to a “beer distributor” where you could only buy beer by the case.   The good news is that beer by the case is cheaper.  After looking around, I discovered the best distributor to be a drive-in arrangement in Sharpsburg, across the Alleghany River.  This was a quite convenient arrangement.  You drove in and popped your trunk and they’d fill it up for you and after paying the bill, you’d drive off with your front tires barely touching the pavement.   There was always beer in my refrigerator, but most of my drinking time was spent in pubs and bars around the city.  My favorite was just a few blocks away, where beers were still fifty cent a glass and the most expensive bar drink was two bucks.  But Jim and I also explored the rest of the city, stopping in clubs to get a feel for the variety that the city offered.  

I should write more about beer and Pittsburgh and maybe I’ll do that later.  But there is one more story I’d like to share, one about Sapporo Beer (a beer Charles refers to in his memoir).  In the room across the hall from me was Ken, a student from Japan.   A couple weeks after school started, I came across a place that sold beers from around the world.  I think it was the Original O (or the Dirty O) a well-known hotdog and french fries establishment in Oakland, across from the University of Pittsburgh library that also had a collection of beers from around the world in their bar.  Seeing a beer from Japan, I brought a six-pack thinking Ken would be thrilled.  He wasn’t.  Those beers weren’t drunk until I was out of American beers.  Back in the ‘80s, when we were concerned that Japan was going to surpass the United States economically, beer was the one import from the Land of the Rising Sun that didn’t make a dint in the American market.  

Jim and I often talked about writing a guide to the bars and pubs of Pittsburgh, but we never did.  Maybe this is a start… 

Friday, February 03, 2012

In Siberia (photos and a book review)

Siberian Village (photo taken from train)
This post is mostly a book review.  But I added some of my own photos from my summer trip that took me from Beijing, through Mongolia, on to Ulan Ude, Russia and across Siberia the Urals and on to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  These photos were used in the posts that I made in the blog I kept during the summer.

Sunset over Lake Baikal

Colin Thuborn, In Siberia (1999, HarperCollins ebook, 2009), 270 pages

During the Soviet era, much of Siberia was closed off from the West.   The Soviets utilized this vast area (which contains nearly a fifth of the world’s landmass) as the Czars earlier: a place to exile criminals and political prisoners.  During the Second World War, industry began to develop in Siberia, far from the reach of Hitler’s tanks.  It is a place of great resources—minerals, oil, timber, wheat—and great hardship—the coldest temperatures ever recorded in inhabited place is in Siberia.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the end of collective farming, Colin Thubron set out to explore this region.  Thubron, an Englishman, was familiar with Russia, having spent time there during the Cold War and having written on the nation.   In his travels, he takes the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad), a line that runs north of Lake Baikal, and a steamer up the Yenisei River to the arctic.  In the East, he flies to remote locations.  In all, he covers the region from the Urals to the Pacific, from the “Altai Republic” along the Mongolian border to Dudinka, beside the frozen waters of the Arctic. 

 Siberia, Thubron suggests was “born out of optimism and dissent.” (22)   Starting in the 1750s, Siberia became a place to exile criminals (just as Britain exiled its criminals to Australia) and although the number of criminals outnumbered the political prisoners, the later served as a “leavening intelligentsia” for the region (162)   Ironically, Siberia with its vastness was also a place of freedom.  In the 18th Century, those who moved there had a saying, “God is high and the czar is far off.” (22)  In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Siberia was a stronghold out for the White Russians who fought against the Bolsheviks.   Thubron tells of talk in Irkutsk to build a statue to honor Adm. Kolchak, a leader of the White Russians who was shot by the Bolsheviks at Irkutsk and his body pushed below the ice.  He doubts the monument will be built. (This summer I discovered a beer brewed in Irkutsk with his name on it, which to me seems a fitting tribute.)

Along the Trans-Siberian (old water tower)
Traveling in the years after the breakup of the Soviet system and the end of state-sponsored atheism, Thubron is surprised to find religion so alive.  “Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer,” he noted. (56)  As he traveled he witnessed new and renovated churches opening.  At the dedication of a monastery outside of Omsk, he asked himself, “Why had this faith resurrected out of nothing, as if a guillotined head had been struck back on its body?  Some vital artery had preserved it.” (59)  Not only does he explore the resurgence in the Orthodox faith, (who seemed to be profiting from the ability to import and sell alcohol and cigarettes tax free (56), but also Buddhism among the Buryat (165ff), a dying Jewish settlement in Eastern Siberia (208ff), Russian Baptist (220f), Old Believers  with their insistence of the correct way to cross themselves in prayers (175f), and even a few who were trying to revive traditional shamanistic practices (98ff).    In each situation, he meets with religious leaders.  One of the more interesting interviews was with an Orthodox priest in Irkutsk, whose father had been a communist and whose mother was a Christian.  He told about how in the Army, he began to be convicted of his sin and came to God through his guilt.  This priest feared a war between China and Russia and also felt that America was a godless land (156-7).

Dining on the Trans-Siberian
But not all of Siberia is teaming with religious revival.  Many of the encounters were with people who had lost faith in communism or who felt their world had been pulled out from them.  There was a woman who had been sent to Siberia by Stalin, yet still refused to criticize the Communist Party.    Toward the end of his journey, in northeastern Siberia, he visits Kolyma, the location of some of the most deadly camps.  Being sent here was a death sentence.  In the winter of 1932, whole camps (prisoners, dogs and guards) froze to death.   It is here that the coldest inhabit place on earth is at, where the temperature has dropped to -97.8 F, where ones breath will free into crystals and twinkle onto the ground, a phenomenon known as the “whispering of the stars.”  (254)  Yet, despite such harsh conditions, they produced nearly a third of the world’s gold in the 1930s.  It is estimated that one life was lost for every kilogram of gold produced.  Over 2 million people died here.  (251f)  The condition of the camps horrified Thubron, who seems concern that the residents of Siberia accept the camps of the past without much thought.

In his last collection of Stalin horror stories, Thuborn tells of the prison ship, the SS Dzhurma, which got caught in ice in 1933 with 12000 prisoners on board.  All the prisoners froze to death and half the guards went crazy, according to Thubron.  This would also be the most deadly maritime disaster ever, in terms of life lost.  When I read this, I thought it sounded like fodder for a horror story and I did some checking and from a couple sources on the internet, found that there are some questions of the validity of this tragedy.   Two things don’t fit according to these sources.  First of all, the ship that became known as the Dzhurma wasn’t even sold to the Soviets until 1935.  Secondly, it was only a little over 400 feet long, making it nearly impossible to have had 12,000 prisoners onboard.  However, in 1939, another “death-ship,” the SS Indigirka sank with its human cargo trapped below deck. (256)

Along the Trans-Siberian, note kilometer marker (km from Moscow)
I really enjoyed this book and wish I would have read it before traveling through Siberia last summer.  At that time, I read Ian Frazier’s excellent travelogue, Travels in Siberia.  Thubron’s book is a little out of date, but it is also excellent.  His writing is engaging and never boring as he weaves together a story about this vast and unknown landmass.   I found reading this book on a e-reader both pleasant (it’s nice and light) and also a little troublesome as I wasn’t able to easily flip back to the map at the beginning.  However, the map doesn’t show up that well and when I was home, I found myself dragging out an atlas to locate places Thubron traveled.   I recommend this book.  
Novoibisk Station