“If you are like most people, then like most people, you don't know you're like most people.”
― Daniel M. Gilbert (Harvard Professor of Psychology), Stumbling on Happiness
Ordinary is normal. Ordinary is usual. Ordinary is how most things, people, and places are. A lush verdant plain with rolling hills, a curving river, and a quotidian sky picking up scraps of colors after the sunset are all very ordinary on their own. They don’t make much of anything remarkable, even when put together; nothing stands out really. However, things change dramatically when they come together in the presence of an observer, who is equally ordinary on his own, but is moved by the quiet symphonic display of these elements. All four ordinary components now resonate together for a brief fleeting moment. It is then, in that miraculous moment, the resonance becomes extraordinary.
PS: A shout-out to the amazing dynamic range of Mark IV. This is not a HDR, it's a single shot... only dodged and burned in places.
Tags: GreenRiver GreenRiverOverlook MammothCaveNationalPark Ramen Saha Kentucky GreenRiverBluffsTrail NationalPark
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Eons ago in Kentucky, forces of erosion – mainly rainwater – percolated through sinkholes and dissolved underlying limestone layers. However, the sandstone-capped ridge (insoluble to water) above the limestone layers was left intact. Such erosion created air-filled passageways underground with a hard sandstone ceiling. These passageways – caves – are mammoth… bigger than the NYC subway passageways in many places.
Two to three thousand years ago, pre-historic ancient natives of the area explored these caves. Wearing waist-cloth and armed with cane torches, they mined ‘white crystal’ – a mix of gypsum, selenite, epsomite, mirabilite, and other minerals – from walls of these caves. The white mineral likely was intended for trade and medicine. They spent hours inside the cave to harvest as much white crystal as they could before their cane torches succumbed to the pitch black darkness of the caves.
At the turn of the 19th century, a certain hunter – Mr. Houchins – accidentally discovered the natural entrance to these caves while unsuccessfully chasing a bear. The entrance – wearing a shy waterfall – was a sight to behold (shown above and on the NPS poster for the park). Soon after, locals discovered that these caves are rich in potassium nitrate, or “saltpetre”, the key ingredient of gunpowder. Soon, slaves were deployed to dig and carry nitre-bearing earth from far parts of the cave to processing vats. Processed saltpetre from these caves were heavily used in the war of 1812. As pointed out by many astute minds, it is indeed ironic that the nation’s freedom was retained on the back of men devoid of that exact commodity.
After the war, the demand for saltpetre dwindled and most slaves switched jobs and become tourist guides. People realized that money could be made by offering cave tours to paying public and seized the opportunity by erecting commercial prospects in the area. The most prolific of these guides was a young man named Stephen Bishop, who charmed tourists both with his oratory skills and physical attributes. Incidentally, Mr. Bishop was owned by the then owner of the caves, a doctor named John Croghan, who specialized in 'treating' tuberculosis. The good doctor presumed that the refreshingly cold and humid cave air had healing properties and built recovery chambers underground for many of his tuberculosis patients. Sadly, the doctor was wrong as he himself was claimed by the disease in 1849.
In the next century, responding to the great depression after the first world war, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, where unmarried young men were enrolled, and sent off to stations far away with the objective of undertaking ‘complex work’, like, ‘the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects’. One such project was to develop the Mammoth Cave as a National Park. In 1930s, CCC arrived at the mammoth caves and undertook construction of housing and cave trails.
One day in 1935, while building cave trails, CCC workers Campbell and Cutliff discovered a gothic scene in the cave. Beyond a sharp ledge, they found the body of a man in waist-cloth pinned under a big boulder. This was the body of an ancient white crystal gatherer who had entered these caves on a fateful day 2-3 thousand years ago and was trapped under a boulder that was likely displaced by his own digging of the cave wall. The constant temperature and humidity in the cave, along with the nitre in the soil, had mummified and preserved this unfortunate archaic man in this delicately beautiful purgatory.
Tags: NationalPark MammothCaves MammothCaveNationalPark Kentucky Cave Waterfall Ramen Saha Manual HDR NaturalEntrance HistoricEntrance GreenRiverValley HillCountry
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“Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us.”
~Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
Why do I travel?
There are three parts to this answer, each of which on its own, could be a complete response depending on the reader's own experience.
First, I travel to find my expressions… my art. Art, in its barest form, is our soul’s response to all that churn us. Question us. Make us wonder and contemplate. Truest art – Gretel Ehrlich argued and I humbly concur – would have the same qualities as earth. They would weather harshness and time, hide their deepest message for those with the tenderest light, allow the wind to wipe out its frivolities, and be obtuse and worthless to the vain and the less experienced. From my travels, I learned another important aspect of art: it must be manifested – just as mountains stand and rivers flow – irrespective of having patrons or appreciation. It is purely an assertion of being alive, which transcends the medium of expression and is bounded by no limits… a miniature replica of open spaces that kindles it genesis in the first place.
Second, I travel for my son. I have often wondered, what would I want to leave behind with Rishabh when my impermanence materializes? Not riches, nor stories… he can earn them on his own. I rather leave him with lessons that come our way during our travels. Like waterfalls, we must embrace unavoidable falls in life with grace. Like butterflies, we must explore and migrate to the unknown following our instincts. Most importantly, like Saguaros and Joshua-s, we must endure harshness and despair, because they – as Ehrlich pointed out – empty out into an unquenchable appetite for life.
Third, I travel to find solace. After losing her dearest to an incurable disease, Ehrlich – a former urbanite, found her solace in nature and wrote 'The Solace of Open Space'. Stuck to my griefs, I tend to forget that life is a continuous ceremony of seasons, where – as Ehrlich puts it – “the paradox is exquisite.” New leaves of spring must fall in autumn so that emptiness may harbor hopes of another spring. In Hawai’i, I saw first-hand how the fragile land endures great loss when lava erupts from volcanoes and ruins everything in its path. But, punctuating the devastation, I also saw life protruding tenderly in those jagged lava rocks as soft seedlings. In Ehrlich’s words, ”to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.” Out in raw wind under the warming sun, I have come to realize that my griefs are not the end of me; instead my pains and losses are, in her words, an odd kind of fullness. To quote Ehrlich again, “True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.”
So, I travel. As often as I can. As far and as wide as I can.
Tags: NationalPark JoshuaTree JoshuaTreeNationalPark California Sunset RamenSaha DesertLandscapes Desert YuccaBrevifolia Yucca LostHorseValley
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The Roaring Fork motor trail is the best experience on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The motor trail is a 5.5 mile one-lane, one-way loop road that could be driven in less than an hour. Instead, we spent the whole day slowing down on this road. We hiked to a waterfall, made multiple roadside stops, explored historic buildings for hours while imagining yesteryear lives in them (Jim Bales' barn was my favorite), and played with fireflies after nightfall. The above image was shot close to the point where the motor trail crosses over the Roaring Fork stream. While shooting this scene at the river level, I saw many motorists drive across the nearby bridge. A significant few didn’t care to stop – they must be in a hurry to live their lives elsewhere. Among those that paused, most never got out of their vehicles. Windows rolled down, their phones recorded a beautiful scene for their Instagram followers, windows rolled up and off they went for the next expedition across their galaxy of comfort. I wish they knew what they were passing by.
On this day in this patch of the Appalachia, the air was moist with humid comfort of the South and the Spring was busy waking up sleepy rhododendrons. Rhododendrons in this area are not brightly colored; they are mostly white with an occasional patch of shy pink. True to its name, the Roaring Fork stream roars – like most of us – only when it rains inconsolably. On most days otherwise, the stream – like, pampered time – flows gently as warblers' songs. Speaking of bird songs, June is the peak of bird chatter in the Smokies. The audio next to the stream displayed above was a musical cacophony: a sweeter version of the audio in a 1st or 2nd grade classroom without the teacher in it. One can hear many more birds than they can see because of the thick vegetation. Due to this dense newly-leafed canopy, when it rained later in the afternoon, I didn't feel the drizzle on my skin but only heard it in the sky. In the meantime – as you may feel it in the photo – time lost its way, twined in these timeless elements, and slowed down to a lazy water-song effusing from a teasingly-beautiful forked stream.
Tags: RoaringForkMotorTrail RoaringForkStream RoaringFork GreatSmokyMountains GreatSmokyMountainsNationalPark NationalPark Gatlinburg Tennessee Water Stream Ramen Saha Appalachian
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Some of my most endearing and memorable childhood memories involve fireflies. I grew up in a suburban rural community next to a waterbody, where summer twilights were special. After sunset, hundreds of fireflies would blink their way into the forest and my imagination. Chasing them, holding them, and letting them fly away was a pure joy never to be attained in any other way. My childhood twinkles brightly, in many parts, because of these fireflies. When something is so special, my son must endow it from me.
One problem with that idea… California has no fireflies.
Solution… The Appalachian does!
Thus, the other week, Rishabh and I flew cross-country with the specific intent of seeing fireflies in Appalachian mountains and forests, where many firefly species exist and display their fiery mating rituals for a few summer weeks. Of all these species, Photinus carolinous is special; this species has attained popularity as synchronous fireflies of the Smoky Mountains. As males of this mysterious species synchronize their flashing, the entire forest blinks in unison – like an IMAX theater displaying a fluid form of Van Gogh's 'Starry night'. Thousands of flying fireflies flash about six times synchronously, and then after a brief period of total darkness, the cycle is repeated. This light show occurs only in a handful of places in the world and for a few scores of hours every year. If that is not exclusive enough, these fireflies do not flash if it rains, which it often does in these humid mountains around this time of the year. They also refuse to fly and fire if its too cold. Last but not the least, they are bothered significantly by any other light source and therefore are best viewed in secluded areas.
Because of such inbuilt rarity, synchronous fireflies have captured the public’s imagination. Thousands flock to trails near the Little River Valley in Elkmont, where the largest concentration of synchronous fireflies are reported within the Great Smoky Mountain national park. When we arrived at sunset, trails in Elkmont looked like a county fair without an admission fee; there were lots of people everywhere with their bug sprays, umbrellas, lawn chairs, kids and babies, and eagerness to experience something unique and uncapturable on video. While I appreciate everyone’s interest in nature, however, those crowded trails were a far cry from memories of my childhood, where I would often be the only one playing with fires of the darkness. Neverland can't be this crowded.
After diligent research, Rishabh and I found several alternative options. Over the next five consecutive nights, we saw, shot, and played with fireflies in several non-traditional locations spread across three national parks. The image presented above is of one such location by the Roaring Fork stream in the Great Smoky Mountains, where two kids – Rishabh and I – were the only witness to the firefly show. Standing within that mute orchestra of light and beauty, I realized why bluegrass music could have originated nowhere else, but only in this land of synchronous symphonies.
Technical information: The displayed EXIF data are for the background forest, which was shot at twilight before firefly flashing began. The image is a composite of several 20 second exposures (ISO 3200, f/2.8) shot later at the exact same location.
Tags: SynchronousFireflies Fireflies PhotinusCarolinous Firefly NorthCarolina Tenessee GreatSmokyMountains GreatSmokyMountainsNationalPark NationalPark RoaringForkStream RoaringForkMotorTrail Gatlinburg Ramen Saha
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