Skiing Aspen


Aspen Mountain

The winter of 2014-2015 was tough for Aspen; it brought only 88% of the mountain’s regular snowfall. (At least that’s the number that was mentioned by several locals I rode up the gondola with when I got the chance to combine a few days of late-March skiing in Aspen with a business trip to Denver.)

But for me that was plenty!

And while the locals were complaining about the spring skiing conditions (hard in the morning, soft in the afternoon), I enjoyed it all. As an easterner, I was raised skiing in sub-par conditions, and I relished the chance to ski in warm sunshine.

Of course, many of those locals can afford to be choosy. Many of them, especially recent retirees, ski 100 days a season, and they’re accustomed to skiing only during the best hours of the day.

But on both days I skied, I was waiting for the gondola when it opened, just before 9:00. And I skied all day, interrupted only by a long lunch with my wife in the middle of the day.

Technically, Aspen is composed of four separate ski areas. The original, known as Ajax Mountain, borders downtown Aspen and has no beginner terrain, only intermediate, advanced and expert, while a few miles away are the expansions, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk, which feature a wider variety of terrain as well as features like snowboard parks.

I stuck to Ajax, because it was very convenient to our hotel, and I could lunch with my wife. Plus, it has plenty of steeps, which I love.

Here’s a photo I took from the top of Walsh’s, a double-black diamond trail that featured big bumps softened by the morning sun.

Walsh TrailThe picture doesn’t do it justice. Suffice to say that I had a barrel of fun and I didn’t get hurt. And after returning home, the only lingering discomfort is from the effects of two days of sun on my face at 11,000 feet!

Alcatraz Island

by Timothy Lutts

Alcatraz-Island-SunsetMy main topic today is Alcatraz Island, the island in San Francisco Bay that I visited Sunday as part of my trip to California.  The island is visited by some 1.3 million people per year, who come mainly to see the prison that housed such hard cases as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and I enjoyed that part of the island visit thoroughly.  But I found further rewards by looking at the bigger picture, and considering the changing role of the federal government in managing the island over time.

To get there, however, we must start at the beginning.

History of Alcatraz

In the early 18th century, the island of Alcatraz was uninhabited, though undoubtedly visited by the Native Americans of the area.  Seabirds in particular have always loved the 22-acre island, and no doubt the Native Americans harvested their eggs from time to time.

The first European to visit the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala, who in 1775 charted San Francisco Bay and named the island, “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” meaning “Island of the Seabirds (or cormorants).”

Back then, of course, the region was Mexican.  The first recorded owner of the island was Julian Workman, who in 1846 was “given” the island by his buddy the governor after promising that he would build a lighthouse there.

Workman quickly transferred ownership to his son-in-law Francis Temple, and when hostilities between Mexico and the U.S. ended, Temple sold Alcatraz, for $5000, to Charles Fremont, the American Military Governor of California, who fully expected compensation from the U.S. government.  This was not the first time that Fremont had overstepped his authority, and the government refused to reimburse him.  The U.S. simply assumed ownership.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California, spurring a wave of immigration from the East that swelled the population of San Francisco, turning the small town into a rich city.

In 1850, Congress appropriated money for building eight lighthouses on the Pacific Coast, one of which was on Alcatraz.  By 1855, the lighthouse was accompanied by gun emplacements, the United States’ first permanent harbor defense batteries of the West Coast.  During the Civil War, the 86 cannons on Alcatraz defended the bay against the threat of Confederate raiders.  The island was never attacked, and the guns were never fired at enemy forces.

Alcatraz as a Prison

But it was during the Civil War (under President Abraham Lincoln) that Alcatraz was first used as a military prison, and its capacity was expanded in 1898 when the Spanish-American War brought about a huge increase in prisoners on the island.

Then, in 1934, control of the island was shifted from the military to the Bureau of Prisons, so it could cope with the wave of gang violence that followed the Depression and Prohibition.  The feds wanted a very secure prison where they could send inmates who had histories of unmanageable behavior or escape attempts, as well as high-profile inmates who might prove disruptive in other prisons.  Fitting those descriptions to a T, naturally, were Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, as well as Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

alcatraz-prisonOver the decades that the prison was in operation, there were dozens of escape attempts, and while a few men managed to reach the water, none are known to have left it alive.  In hindsight, they would have been no less successful if they’d simply cried MAYDAY through the bars.

Despite the prison’s success, however, it closed in 1963.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted America’s prisons focused more on rehabilitation than detention, and announced the creation of a brand new maximum-security prison in Marion, Illinois.  Alcatraz needed a $5 million dollar renovation.  And the costs of running a prison on the island were out of proportion; a survey found that while it cost $9.27 a day to house and secure an inmate in mainland prisons, it cost $23.50 a day to house and secure each inmate on Alcatraz.  As the very last convict to depart left the island, he commented to reporters, “Alcatraz never was no good for anybody!”

National Historic Landmark

In July of 1964, Alcatraz was turned over to the U.S. General Services Administration.  The land was offered to several government agencies, but no one wanted it.

Alcatraz-Island-native-americanSo it lay unused for years, and in late 1969, while the Vietnam War was in full swing and protests of all sorts were in vogue, a group of roughly 90 Native Americans took possession of the island.  Calling themselves “Indians of All Tribes,” they offered to purchase the island from the government for $24 worth of glass beads and red cloth, claiming this was the price their people had been paid in exchange for a similar island on the other side of the continent nearly 300 years before.  (Manhattan, however, with 21,612 acres, is nearly a thousand times larger.  The proportionate price for Alcatraz would have been just two and a half cents … without factoring in inflation.)

Of course, the government refused their offer.   But winter on the island was unpleasant, and the Native Americans were lacking in organization, so the size of the group slowly shrank.  In June 1971, several buildings on the island were destroyed by fire.  Soon after, the 19 months of occupation came to an end when the remaining 11 interlopers were forcibly removed by government troops in a pre-dawn raid.

A year later, President Richard Nixon signed into law the House Resolution establishing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, incorporating the island of Alcatraz.  A year after that, Alcatraz Island officially opened to the public.  In 1986 it was declared a National Historic Landmark.  Today, operated by the National Park Service, it plays host to roughly 1.3 million visitors a year.

Much of the island is still a mess.  Rubble from the burned buildings lies in piles, and many buildings remain abandoned, windowless.  Much of the island is ruled by sea-birds, and their droppings are amply in evidence.  But the tour of the cells is terrific; wearing an individual MP3 player, you hear the sounds the prisoners would have heard.  You can wander about most of the island as well; we spent about three hours there.  And the gift shop (which I resisted) is overflowing with all things Alcatraz.

With a ticket price of $24.50 and 1.3 million visitors per year, I figure the concession operator is bringing in more than $30 million per year … the gift shop, millions more.  Someone, I think, is getting rich.

What’s next for Alcatraz?

The U.S. government certainly has no grand plan.  Throughout history, it’s been content to use the island for whatever seemed most necessary.  Today, with the island in the hands of the National Park Service, the government is coasting, milking the deteriorating remains of its former uses while a happy public pays to traipse about.  And maybe this is best.  The island seems to be paying its own way now, supported by the payments of tourists … many of whom, by the way, are from foreign countries.

But my mind can’t help wondering if bigger and better uses are possible.

The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place, a plan that was estimated to cost about $1 billion.  But voters in San Francisco rejected the plan just this February, with 72% of voters saying no.

The idealist in me says the Native Americans deserve it, as a token payback for the crimes of centuries past.

The capitalist in me envisions a gambling mecca, perhaps Wynn Alcatraz Resort and Casino (WARC).  While construction expenses would be astronomical, I assume it would be very profitable.

Combining those ideas, I see it as a Native American Casino Resort, the purchase and construction funded totally by the cooperative efforts of existing tribes.  Ironically, one of the long-term results of the Native American occupation of the island was a renewed respect for the problems of Native American tribes, which eventually led to the granting of casino licenses in numerous states.  This one change has not only brought financial security to numerous tribes, it’s also enabled the strengthening of tribal identities.

And dare I say it’s made the Native Americans happier, more complacent, and less eager to fight for the rock in San Francisco Bay.  So I don’t think that will happen either.  I’d be happy to hear from San Franciscans on this one.


by Timothy Lutts

This was originally published February 3, 2009. It brought a lot of positive responses and no negative responses. I hope you like it, too!

Driving in my car yesterday, I was listening to a song by J.J. Cale titled “Homeless,” which includes these lyrics:

“I’m not a homeless man
I’m a gypsy by trade
And I’m travelin’ this land
I’m not a homeless man”

hitchhikingOver three decades ago I was homeless, too, but I didn’t call it that.  I was in my early 20s and I was “traveling this land.”  If I chose, I could have returned to the safety to my parents’ house.  But I chose to travel, to seek new experiences . . . and I’m glad I did.  I still love to travel.

Being chronically low on funds back then–and low on responsibilities as well–I did a lot of hitchhiking.  My father was a hitchhiker in his youth, too.  In fact, he was hitching a ride once in a car that tipped over.  He still has a photo he took–of the car lying on its side–to prove it . . . luckily, no one was hurt.

But you don’t see many hitchhikers anymore–in fact, my kids have never hitchhiked (at least, to my knowledge)–and I think there are several reasons for that.  Yet I think it’s possible we may see a resurgence of hitchhiking in the years ahead.

I’ll explain why below.

But first I’d just like to reminisce a bit, thinking back to my journeys of over three decades ago.

I remember hitchhiking north one autumn Monday morning, returning to college after a weekend of work, and getting a ride outside Portland, Maine, from a young man driving a bright blue Lotus Europa.  The car was snug and fast, and so close to the ground I imagined we could go under tractor-trailers.  Best of all, the same driver picked me up again the next Monday!

I remember riding in an ancient red Mercedes–with the vertical speedometer–over the mountains of Pennsylvania when a sudden snow squall reduced visibility to less than 50 feet, and cars started crashing into each other.  My middle-aged good Samaritan pulled over, got a box of flares out of his trunk, and I ran back down the road, lighting them as I went and placing them to warn oncoming traffic.

I remember standing on the side of the road in Ohio, freezing cold, and jumping for joy (inside) when a big RV pulled over.  Opening the door I found a very kind young couple returning from Florida . . . and no heat.  The vehicle was an icebox, but I took the ride.

I remember the policeman in West Virginia who pulled up to me on a dark highway onramp and warned me, “If you’re here when I come back I’ll have to arrest you.”  Luckily, I wasn’t.

I remember rolling through the red clay fields of Georgia, heading for Florida, marveling at the miles and miles of tobacco and thinking, this stuff is killing the people who use it but feeding the people who grow it.

I remember the fellow hitchhiker in Florida who hid his LSD tabs in the hollow aluminum frame of his backpack, confident the police would never think to look there.  I distanced myself from him as soon as possible.

I remember being caught in a deluge in New Orleans, and realizing that while water flowed downhill in New England, there was precious little downhill to be had in New Orleans.  The water mainly rose up.

I remember riding in a Chevy van over the Grand Tetons of Wyoming in the springtime.  As the road rose higher, the snow deepened, and eventually, the van’s tires refused to grip.  The driver didn’t fight; he calmly backed down, turned around, and took the long way around, extending the journey by at least an hour.

I remember another van. We were crossing the Mississippi River at night. Traffic was light. And right there in the middle of the bridge, going sixty miles an hour, the driver and his friend swapped seats!

I remember the eerie lunar landscape of Idaho.  Not the car, not the driver, just the landscape.

I remember the longhaired trust-fund couple in Southern California, who gave me a ride and then let me stay a few nights in their trailer on the beach, where I enjoyed warm strawberries and warm sunshine.  They took me on a forgettable night to Tijuana, too.

I remember a few days in the U.K. with a dark-haired French girl named Christine who asked if she could accompany me as we hitchhiked from hostel to hostel.  I think she wanted the security of a male companion and judged me harmless . . . and she was right.  It also helped that my French was better than her English.

I remember the many professional truck drivers who picked me up late at night just to have someone to talk to . . . to keep them awake.

And I remember being fooled, again and again, by the Doppler effect, which makes it sound like a car that has passed is slowing down, even though it’s not . . . especially if it’s an old Volkswagen with an air-cooled engine.

So why do I think hitchhiking might become popular again?

One reason is the pattern of generational changes, a topic I touched on two weeks ago.

In the 1940s, when my father hitchhiked, the country enjoyed a uniformity of purpose.  The war effort had made materials scarce.  People trusted other people.  So it was only natural that, lacking a car, a young man would hitchhike.  It was also natural that other people would stop to pick him up.

In the 1970s, when I did my traveling, the country’s uniformity of purpose had been replaced by a search for enlightenment.  The old rules no longer applied–or at least some of us young people thought they didn’t–and Americans in general were tolerant of our explorations.  Admittedly, the road wasn’t quite as safe as it was for my father, and the authorities were less supportive, but the traveling did teach me some wonderful lessons, the most important of which was that the country was full of good and interesting people.

In the decades that followed, Americans turned from the search for enlightenment to the search for material wealth and comfort.  Selfishness took precedence over community, while a desire for safety (and the ability to pay for it) meant we erected walls around ourselves–often in the form of big SUVs–and warned our children to beware of strangers.

So what comes next?

If it’s a future limited by scarce, high-priced gasoline, growing numbers of people will be unable to fuel their cars.

If it’s a future characterized by high tolls and other user fees–a special tax on Hummers has been proposed–fewer people will be able to afford to drive.  (Here in Massachusetts the governor just decided to raise the gas tax by 19 cents per gallon.)

And if it’s a future defined by a growing sense of community, particularly if the community is focused on minimizing the burning of fossil fuels, it will be patriotic to hitchhike, and patriotic to pick up hitchhikers.


Madeira and the Azores

by Timothy Lutts

Maderia- Madeira and the AzoresThis was originally published February 13, 2012.

Many months ago, while casting about for a destination for a late January vacation with my wife, a respite from the usual mid-winter cold and snow of New England, I decided on Madeira and the Azores … Portuguese islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles and 900 miles respectively from the capital city, Lisbon.

We had stopped briefly in Ponta Delgada, the biggest city in the Azores, five years ago on the way to Porto, Portugal, and loved our glimpse of the city as well as the four days in Porto that followed, so this time the plan was to spend three days in Madeira, and then a whole week on Sao Miguel, the main island of the Azores.

It was wonderful … but it was different.  And it’s not for everybody.

Madeira is a volcanic island, 35 miles long and 14 miles wide at its extremes, but it’s seen no volcanic activity for 6,000 years.  What it has seen is holiday-makers, primarily from England, who over-run the island in the summer.

The benefit of visiting in January, when temperatures averaged about 60 degrees F, was the absence of any crowds; we didn’t meet any Americans on the whole trip. Furthermore, prices were more reasonable than in most of Europe. We stayed in the capital of Funchal, rented a car, and got a view of most parts of the island in our few days there.

Church- Igreja do ColegioOne highlight was a visit to the Igreja do Colegio (Church of the College) in Funchal.  Churches, to us, are like art museums, except entry is free … and sometimes they’re closed.  Luckily, Igreja do Colegio was open when we wandered by, and its plain exterior belied the magnificence of the splendors inside.

This church has it all!

Carved statues, oil paintings with gilded frames, trompe l’oeil murals on walls and ceiling, traditional Portuguese blue and white tiles, marble fonts and more gilding.

The Jesuit church was begun in 1629 and completed in 1647 … but the Jesuits were expelled from the island in 1760, after which the church was closed for many years. Eventually the Catholic church took over, and today the church is a national monument. Outstanding!

But we found the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores even more enjoyable, mainly because tourism represents a smaller part of its economy, while agriculture and fishing represent more. Also volcanic in origin, it’s 39 miles long and 10 miles wide at the extreme. But it’s much younger than Madeira, geologically; the last major eruption occurred in 1652. Today there are places where you can bathe in thermal pools, and the island gets roughly half its electricity from geothermal power.

We stayed in the village of Caloura, about five miles outside the capitol of Ponta Delgada, and got to know the island pretty well in a week of driving around, eating fresh-caught fish at least once a day and enjoying Portuguese wines.

And the highlight here also involved a church.

It was Thursday, January 26, about 5PM, when we drove into the city of Povoacao, noticed the open door at the Igreja de Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus (Church of Our Lady the Mother of God) and went inside. It was nearly empty, and also dark, so dark we really couldn’t take pictures.  So we walked down to the supermarket, loaded up on groceries for dinner, and when we returned to the car–and the church–the lights were on! As I was putting the groceries in the car and my wife was climbing the steps to the church, she was met by a man who asked, “Are you coming to mass?”

Now, this was unusual. Until then, we had found the people of these islands rather shy. But this fellow, who happened to be the priest, was positively animated. The scent of cigarettes and wine lingered on his breath. He asked where we were from and he asked my name. When I answered, “Timothy,” he gestured with the paper in his hand and exclaimed, “Today is your day! I will say a mass for you!”

Sure enough, January 26 is the feast day of Saint Timothy.

And the Boston connection was important, too, as many Azorean people feel a stronger connection to Massachusetts than they do to Portugal, thanks to the numerous Azoreans who’ve immigrated to our state (the population of the Azores has fallen from 327,400 in 1960 to 246,700 today; that’s a drop of 25%.)

So we headed in for mass, choosing a pew somewhere in the middle, while the priest, Father Medeiros, went to complete his preparations.

And at 6PM, there we were, with roughly 20 parishioners. A dozen were concentrated in the first few pews, a few were near us, a half dozen were behind us. Most were women, and a few wore the habits of nuns.

But we were the new arrivals, a break from the norm, and therefore the stars of the show. The service was in Portuguese, but Father Medeiros several times during the half-hour service mentioned the presence of “Mr. Timothy and his wife from Boston.”

He thanked us for visiting, for our spirit, and for the reminder of all their friends and family in the Boston area.

We sang a song, and I got most of the Alleluias right.

And then it came time for communion.

I’m not Catholic, but at that point, I thought it would have been disrespectful to Father Medeiros to abstain.

So up we went, and while the people on our side of the church headed for the woman serving on our side, we headed for Father Medeiros, received the host, and then filed back to our pew.

The host was dry, nearly tasteless, and there was no wine (or grape juice), as in Protestant services.

But it was a lovely, memorable experience.

And then it was over.

But the adventures of the day were not!

Because just twenty minutes later, as we were driving back to Caloura on the only road that connects the two, in the very dark night, we smelled sulfur.

And then we saw steam rising into the air, and realized we were in Furnas, famed for its bubbling hot springs.  There was absolutely no one around, so we pulled into the parking lot where tourists normally park and strolled among the stinking calderas and geysers, remarking that if one were looking for an earthly parallel to Heaven and Hell, our experiences that evening had provided a worthy contender.