October 27, 2007

Electronic Books Have Their Uses

I had occasion to look into electronic books while preparing for my recent trip to the Alps. I wanted reading material for the train and plane coming home, but didn't want to carry a bound swatch of paper for two weeks before I could read it. Since I was taking a PDA, I looked into electronic books.

My first impressions were disappointment. The titles on offer at several of the vendors were limited and decidedly third-rate, for the most part. Anything of any quality at all was relatively expensive -- what you'd pay for a trade paperback edition of the same work. This was discouraging, but I did select a couple of Hemingway titles that I hadn't read before: To Have and To Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. In spite of having been written over fifty years ago (are they in the public domain?), they were $10 each.

The next barrier was selecting a reader. There were three formats available from the vendor I selected and you bought the e-book version for the reader you selected. The readers are free. Thinking this was the simplest route, I chose the Microsoft Reader.

I downloaded the MS Reader and installed it. Next, I had to "activate" it, which Microsoft is very big on and can be a significant barrier to getting their software to work. I'm not sure why one has to activate free software. In any case, I was unable to successfully activate the software and was, therefore, unable to use it with the e-books I'd just purchased.

My annoyance was great enough that I worked my way through the trackless swamp of Microsoft's support pages to find a link to a support function for the Reader. From what I could tell, the Reader is something of a deprecated product. There is no Reader support page, so I used the closest thing, a more general Mobile page. To their credit, I did get a rather stilted message advising me to do a couple of things that didn't work.

By that time, however, I'd downloaded another reader, "Mobipocket," and contacted the e-books vendor, who very quickly and kindly shifted my subscription to that reader. I should have gone with the Adobe reader in the beginning. It shouldn't be that expensive, nor that hard to get an e-book to work.

In the end, I found that it worked surprisingly well. The reader I used worked in portrait or landscape mode, offered excellent text clarity and zoom control, and was quick to turn a page with just a button click on the PDA. It opened each time from the spot that I'd stopped the time before. There were lots of other features for searching and moving about in the text, but I didn't use them much, once I started reading. I turned off the progress bar at the bottom, because it took screen space and displayed a discouragingly high page count.

The first one, To Have and To Have Not, was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, and Lauren Bacall and stands as one of my favorite movies. As a novel, though, it's something of a mess. Only the Bogart character, Harry Morgan, Brennan’s, Eddie, and a fragment of the plot where Morgan asserts that he won't carry human cargo, because that cargo can talk, made it into the movie. It's just as well, because William Faulkner made a fine screenplay out of those elements. Still, there is some wonderful writing in the book, especially when he's writing about the Gulf Stream and fishing upon it.

I found For Whom the Bell Tolls stunningly beautiful, a masterpiece. It is taut and focused. Its characters stand out, individuals. The language, aided by the transliteration of the formal address in Spanish to English, full of "thee" and "thou," is lyrical. And the action gathers relentless tension as the moment of the clash of armies arrives and breaks upon the characters. It must have been heartbreaking to write through the cruelty and waste of the Spanish Civil War, when it is so clear that the author loved the people and the country.

I found it easy to use an e-book in the same way I use a printed book. Once I got past the problem with buying and displaying the book on my PDA, the experience of reading was very similar. I'd use an e-book again, under similar circumstances, and more often if there were more, high-quality selections and they didn't cost so much.

October 26, 2007

Court of Honor

Last Sunday, I participated in the for my nephew's Eagle Scout Court of Honor. It has been years since I was around Boy Scouts and it was both new and familiar to me.

My son was involved with Cub Scouts, but declined to continue with Boy Scouts when he turned eleven. I, on the other hand, was certain that I wanted to continue from Cub to Boy Scouts. I remember coming home from an early Boy Scout meeting and declaring that I was going to become an Eagle Scout.

I had a wonderful time as a Boy Scout. My troop had a scheduled outing each month and in that way went on my first backpack at age eleven. I learned how to build a fire, cook a meal over flames, carry my gear over miles of muddy trail, sleep in a tent in the rain, and generally have a good time in the out of doors. From that early experience, I was able to become a confident hiker and backpacker. I've carried that with me for over four decades. I also made friends that I've kept all these years.

And, although it took longer than my father believed that it should have, I did earn my Eagle Scout award. For this reason, my nephew asked me to participate in the ceremony, reading the Charge and the Pledge, just before he received the award.

I was proud to be asked and happy to agree to do this. I did so, however, with some ambivalence, as I have problems with the national leadership of the Boy Scouts. To my mind, the national program has been taken over by narrow-minded fanatics who have turned their backs on the inclusive and (dare I say it?) liberal tradition of the best of the Scouts. The program I grew up with emphasized diversity (before it earned that name and became a cliché and lightening rod). In those days, of course, it was race. It's been a sad degeneration from those idealistic days.

But, I understand that all of these kinds of experiences are local -- much depends on the leadership of the troop -- so I went and participated.

There aren't enough of these kinds of events. There are so few that mark a young person's entry into a wider sphere of his community. I think a longing for this kind of recognized rite of passage is behind the proliferation of school graduation ceremonies. It's too bad we can't do better than that.

I was pleased with the whole ceremony. The portion of the troop that attended was diverse and reminded me of the kids that I consorted with as a Scout. The leadership clearly cared for the boys and everyone seemed very comfortable with each other. I was also pleased with the words that my nephew selected for me to read. They were wise and true.

I was proud to stand on that stage with him, in front of his family, his friends, his mentors, his troop members, and his fellow Eagle Scouts, and charge him with living up to the potential of his achievement.

October 22, 2007

Guide to Haute Route Posts

Preparation

How to you say “Haute Route”? (Aug. 5): Text

Haute Route: Find the Right Partner (Aug. 16): Text

Haute Route: Going Where And Going Long (Aug. 23): Text

Haute Route: Getting Psyched (Aug. 26): Text

Where is the Haute Route? (Aug. 27): Text

The First Week

Dispatch from Chamonix, France (Sep. 6): Text Photos

Dispatch from Argentière, France (Sep. 7): Text Photos

Dispatch from Trient, Switzerland (Sep. 8): Text Photos

Dispatch from Champex, Switzerland (Sep. 9): Text Photos

Dispatch from Le Châble, Switzerland (Sep. 10): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane du Mont-Fort (Sep. 11): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane de Prafleuri (Sep. 12): Text Photos

Dispatch from Arolla (Sep. 13): Text Photos

The Second Week

Dispatch from La Sage (Sep. 14): Text Photos

Dispatch from Cabane de Moiry (Sep. 15): Text Photos

Dispatch from Zinal (Sep. 16): Text Photos

Dispatch from Gruben (Sep. 17): Text Photos

Dispatch from Gasenried (Sep. 18): Text Photos

Dispatch from Europahütte (Sep. 19): Text Photos

Dispatch from Zermatt (Sep. 20): Text Photos

Munich and Home

Dispatch from Zermatt, Still (Sep. 21): Text Photos

Dispatch from Haar, Germany (Sep. 22): Text

Dispatch from München, Germany (Sep. 24): Text Photos

Conclusion

Impressions (Oct. 3): Text

What Worked and What Didn’t (Oct. 9): Text

Updated with new links on 11/15.

October 9, 2007

What Worked and What Didn’t

This will be the last of my Haute Route posts, in which I’ll sum up my experience and offer some advice to those who might be considering this, or similar, trips. I’m not done with the posts I have, however. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll make some editorial corrections and additions, especially photos, other images, and links.

The one thing that I didn’t have with me that I would have liked was a towel. I hadn’t expected that it would be so easy to have a shower each day and so difficult to get a towel to go with it. I recommend taking a light-weight, quick-drying towel with you, should you try this hike or something like it. I made do with my t-shirt, which also dried quickly, but a towel would have made the marvel of a shower after a day’s hiking just perfect.

I took more stuff than I needed, making my pack heavier than it needed to be. It ran about 30 lbs (almost 15 kg), which was fine on the downhills, but it slowed me on the climbs. I took three quick-dry t-shirts and used two, four sets of hiking socks and used two, and I probably had more town clothing than I absolutely needed, but I did wear it all.

Another thing that I had, but probably didn’t need was reservations for all of the places I stayed. Most of the people I traveled with didn’t have reservations and none of the places that we stayed were full. I was happy that I had reservations, if only because I knew exactly where I was going each afternoon. But there were other good reasons, too. I was traveling alone and having reservations provided a specific contact in each of the places that I expected to be, each day – it seemed a useful precaution. I was concerned about the fact that I didn’t really have either of the languages of the places I was traveling. I was able, because I could look at Web sites for information, to book with places taking their rates into account. I’m sure that, without the look ahead of time, I would have missed the Restaurant Waldesruh in Gruben, which was the best deal of any place I stayed. And, though I didn’t know it when I did, my booking with the hotel in Zermatt gave me a nice upgrade, at the same price, when the hotel had problems with its water.

On the other hand, having reservations beforehand meant that I was more locked into a schedule. That wasn’t a problem for me, but many of the people I met had an extra day or two that they could use anywhere they decided along the way. I fully intended to walk the route straight through, but tarrying a day in Zinal or Arolla would be a pretty good way to spend some time. I would think that doing this early in the season might increase the need for reservations, especially in the bigger towns.

The experiment with writing a complete post for the Web each day worked very well. I used an HP iPAQ hx2495, running Windows Mobile 5. For writing paragraphs, I used an iGo Stowaway Ultra-Slim Bluetooth keyboard. Both devices worked fine, especially the keyboard. I was able to connect to a wi-fi network once (in the hotel in Zermatt, for free!), but I probably could have done so more often. Most of my posting was done at Internet cafés, using a Sandisk ImageMate 12 in 1 USB card reader to access the SD card from the iPAQ. That led to some interesting adventures with French keyboards, Open Office in French, and MS Word in French and German. On the whole, it worked quite well. What I wanted to do was to describe the events and impressions each day – to capture the immediacy. Writing each day, without the need to transcribe from my usual, handwritten journal, worked well.

My physical preparation was successful, as well. This is a strenuous hike and I experienced no soreness. I credit my regular walking, which averages 100 miles (160 km) per month, and the addition of the several trips up steep trails in my neighborhood, for preparing me for the effort. Because I was confident I could do it and didn’t suffer any consequences when I did do it, I was able to enjoy the experience more fully.

I had a German cell phone along, which I used a few times to check in with home. Were I more telecommunications-practiced, I could have done more with the pre-loaded dollar amount. I could have saved money by texting, instead of calling in messages. It would have been possible to use a cell phone to connect to the Web and post to my blog, though that was more technology than I wanted to deal with. Coverage wasn’t a problem. There was virtually nowhere where the phone couldn’t find a network. And, when it ran out of minutes, it was easy to find a pay phone that took my VISA card.

For more information about this trip, I recommend starting with the book that was in the hands of most everyone I met along the trail: Kev Reynolds’ Chamonix - Zermatt, The Walkers’ Haute Route (it’s now in a new, fatter, heavier, more colorful edition). I also found the following personal accounts of the trip useful, both for inspiration and information:
  • Dawn DuPriest's report of a September 2002 trip is my favorite. She also has posted GPS waypoints, which I used to find Cabane du Mont-Fort. (Thanks, Dawn!)

  • David Preston hiked the first half in July 2006 and finished in July 2007. He’s posted a lot of photos.

  • Jo Collingwood describes a in September 2003 group trip.

  • Alan White and Lesley Williams describe a September 2001 trip. No photos, but some good details.

October 3, 2007

Impressions

Now that it’s been a week since I returned home and started back at work and I’m well past the effects of jet lag, it’s time for some impressions and conclusions about the trip to the Alps. I’ll follow this up with another post more focused on lessons from the trip that might be of use to others considering hiking the Haute Route.

The first and strongest impression I formed along the way is that there is nothing like this in the US. The combination of the stunning scenery, the quality and abundance of the trails, the many comfortable places to stay, the good places to eat, and the availability of public transportation make hiking in the Alps (and much of Europe, I imagine) unlike anything you can find in my part – or any part – of the United States. I know there are huts in Maine, and maybe a few elsewhere, but there’s nothing like the network of them as in Switzerland, nor is there the combination of factors that make this a world-class trekking location.

The next is amazement at what the Swiss can do in and with the mountains. They can build anything anywhere, as far as I’m concerned. There wasn’t a plot of useful land anywhere that I saw on my trip that hadn’t been put to use. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t see how a road or even a trail could be built to it, there was a hut or hovel in place, if not a small herd of sheep. It was very impressive.

I also was impressed at how many of the old timber buildings – barns and storage – were still in use. Black, checked, and gap-filled though the timbers might be, the buildings still stood and were still useful. The photo is proof, showing an old building being given a new foundation.

Everywhere I went, I saw evidence of a walking culture in Europe that doesn’t exist in the US. There were people on the trails, people on the roads, and people on excursions to the high points, even if they rode a chair lift to get there. I saw young people, middle-aged people, and old people on the trails. I saw families of three generations, individuals, small groups, and large groups, all with their rucksacks and trekking poles, walking up and down those steep trails. You see it in the low lands and valley bottoms, too, with people on bikes along bike trails and people walking along walking paths. Almost everywhere that my route followed a road, there was a footpath that paralleled it and, usually, was far enough from the road that you could forget it.

And, while this was a great trip, and a great way to see a small part of a great destination, there are alternatives to walking fourteen days straight and topping a new pass each day. Some people on the trip skipped sections that had less interest or too much climbing or bad weather and took transit around to the next point. Others, like the two retired, Swiss gentlemen I met on the Col de Riedmatten and in Arolla later that day, were driving from promising town to interesting village, taking day hikes from those places each day. There were some towns, Zinal prominent among them, where you could easily spend several days day-hiking. There’s a lot to be said for sampling more fully what a single valley can offer, though, for my part, I liked the broader survey and the long-distance approach.