Category Archives: Travel

The Tale of the Beekeeper and the Huntsman

Suns shield towel
A towel was taped to the windshield to cut the blinding glare of the unseasonably hot January sun. Viktor sat in the shade of the towel and ran data sets on his computer. The experiment was at a critical phase. I chewed my lip nervously as I pondered my dilemma–what to do about the many bees that were trapped in the car trunk.

Earlier in the day, I had noticed one curious bee exploring the open trunk. I was unconcerned, as the trunk offered nothing to interest a bee. It was full of the tools of industry–rubber gloves, wrenches, bolt cutters, an absurdly large pipe wrench four feet in length….

 

In due course, I noticed that my little buzzing friend was no longer alone. Four bees turned into eight bees, and when that number increased yet again, I closed the trunk feeling a mixture of mild panic and triumphant cleverness.

As I retired to the car’s cold, dark interior, I suddenly remembered why the trunk would be such a lure, namely, “The Great Margarita Trunk Disaster of 2012.” That was an incident which ended with bees and about which my barrister advised me not to speak publicly.

For a time I nursed a quiet sense of unease. This eventually gave way to a vague feeling of horror. I realized that the bees would be annoyed by their confinement. Annoyance would turn to anger. But if I freed them, how would they react? Would they attack, swarm, ruin our experiment, or simply fly away? Why, oh, why in college had I been so foolish as to sleep through apiculture class?

Bee_Trapper

There was a time when Viktor and I tried to capture a bee in a soda can. This was to prove a theory that a bee could create auditory hallucinations within a metal can. It was an unsuccessful experiment. The bee was too wily to be thus lured.  Of course, we didn’t have this propitious device that, though it claims to keep insects out of cans, it could also be used to keep bees inside cans.

Close_up

Suddenly, I remembered the wisdom of the Countess de Vita, a former beekeeper, who once told me, “Always think in circles, shapes with soft curves, whenever you find yourself near a bee.”

The Countess de Vita explained to me that bees are very attuned to human thoughts. Circles are calming for bees, apparently.

Bees_and_Circles

“Can the power of thoughts have an effect on bees? What thoughts might upset to them? Straight lines? Jagged circles? Could I make a bee sleepy by thinking in waves?” So many ideas for experiments raced through my head.

But another thought interrupted.”What if the Countess told me a tall tale?” Sadly, I am afflicted by a startling inability to recognize sarcasm, and have fallen victim to tall tales before.

Indeed, just the night before, we had dined with The Huntsman. He had taught us about how to capture a falcon, should the need ever arise.

How to Capture a Falcon:

1. –Place a mouse into a trap made of string. The falcon will swoop down and his claws will become entangled in the trap.

2.–Calmly walk over and pick the falcon up and place a small hood over his head.)

The Huntsman went on to say that falcons never developed any evolutionary strategies to defend themselves against capture, and as such, can easily be overwhelmed and rendered completely docile.

I was amazed by this story until Viktor mentioned that it might be a set-up for a prank. He suggested that The Huntsman might have wanted to see if we were gullible enough to attempt to trap a bird of prey, only to be reduced shortly thereafter to a shredded pile of pain.

The Huntsman does have an odd sense of humor.

“Einida, the pipe wrench in the trunk–I must have it!,” Viktor declared.

The time had come to face my yellow-and-black demons. I was about to discover whether or not the Countess had spoken the truth.

As I yanked upon the lever that opens the trunk, I concentrated on images of circles. I got out of the car, and, taking a wide path and a slow stride, made my very indirect way to the trunk, giving the bees ample time to fly far, far away. I cautiously opened the trunk still further as I muttered, “Soft shapes…circles…curves…,” and my muscles tensed up, readying me to flee the scene….

The bees were gone.
I hastily grabbed at the pipe wrench and dashed back to the safety of the car.

A_Very_Large_Pipewrench

Had the bees returned to the hive for reinforcements? I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and that I would be no good to science with bee stingers embedded in my flesh. I resolved to stay in the car for the remainder of the experiment. While my scientific curiosity is broad and wide, and could one day include research into whether or not human thought patterns affect bees, it ends well north of testing the capacity of bees for violent retribution.

The Tale of the Procyon Lotor

 

Artist's interpretation of a Red Raccoon
Artist’s interpretation of a Red Raccoon

 

 

Mysterious Fort TravisCurious Earthen Mound of Fort

Not long ago, the tireless Viktor and I were exploring Fort Travis on Bolivar Island on the Texas Gulf Coast.

It is often the case with fortifications that once a good defensive spot has been chosen by one group of people, a fortification will be erected on that spot, put to use for a time, and then, after some years, another group of people will build a new fortification atop the site of the old, and so on and so on. So it is with Fort Bolivar.

It is a curious fort with several great earthen mounds, which I assumed hid underground and now quite inaccessible chambers. The fort in its current incarnation was constructed between 1898 and 1899, damaged in the 1900 Hurricane, repaired thereafter, and enlarged in 1942. It served as a garrison during both World Wars. It looks every bit its age.

The structure is protected by large, solid, and quite photogenic doors, constructed from massive sheets of steel with four mighty hinges.  The doors are enhanced with strange, target-shaped circles. Viktor and I were entranced by the palpable strength of these objects, and took copious photographs before continuing with a survey of the grounds.

Suddenly, a brief flash of movement caught my eye. Aroused, Viktor called out, “Einida, did you see that?” I had indeed seen something, but since I’d not been expecting to see a moving object in that setting, I had not been sufficiently alert and had failed to identify the fleeing object.

“Was that a raccoon?  But it was red! How could a raccoon be red?”

I could not reconcile these two apparently contradictory facts with my knowledge of zoology.

“I didn’t even know such a thing existed! How curious. My mind is a whirl of questions.”  Viktor’s voice trailed off in cloudy confusion.

I, of course, gave chase to the mysterious creature. (Gentle Reader, I caution you–I am a trained professional, and so I discourage all amateurs from chasing after frightened wildlife.  It could end badly for those who are unskilled in the perilous arts of adventure.)

At any rate, I ran behind a row of cabanas with the stalwart Viktor close at my heels. We carefully and thoroughly searched every possible site for a possible raccoon nest. Did you know they can nest in trees? Did you know they can roost in trees? And what, you may ask, is the difference between nesting and roosting? Well, the former involves taking care of eggs, while the latter involves sleeping.

Raccoons are quite creative in their roosting habits. So I had to think like a raccoon: “If I were a raccoon, where would I roost?”DSCF7918

This led my thoughts off on a tangent–perhaps I could produce a line of bracelets bearing the initials “W.W.A.R.D.,” for “What would a raccoon do?”– but I soon remastered my thoughts and returned from the hazy realms of fancy and back into the rigid world of scientific fact and sound logic.

And so, Viktor and I studied the landscape from what we assumed to be a procyonidic mind-set and still came up with nothing.

It was then that I noticed a storm sewer. “Ah ha!  I daresay that the Rare Red Raccoon may have fled to yon storm sewer!”

I have it on good authority that urban raccoons “commute” to their food sources via storm sewers. So it seemed possible that our elusive friend could be scurrying underground towards her country roost, miles away in a tree somewhere.

Raccoons are cunning, and I imagined that Rare Red Raccoons are even more cunning than most. So, despite the very real possibility that our creature was long gone, we continued our search of areas close at hand.

In so doing I discovered a helpful display that showed the original layout of the old fort. The display challenged me to match random pieces of concrete, old metal, and foundation materials to their points of origin around the fort.

DSCF7919This was just the sort of attention distractor to which Viktor and I are particular vulnerable. And so we combined our goals, and elected to search for the raccoon as well as look for which component of construction material belonged in which spot.

I had passed the cabanas again when I heard a noise coming from within. “Hmm, how odd,” I thought. “It is the dead of winter and it’s highly unlikely that someone has rented this cabana for a reasonable $25.00 a night, or indeed for any price!”

“Viktor!” I whispered while waving and pointing my hands wildly. “I think there’s something in there!”

“Do you want to knock? What if it’s a vagabond? A raccoon? A renter en déshabillé?,” he calmly asked.

“If it’s a raccoon or a vagabond, they probably won’t answer. If it’s a renter, well, then, I shudder to think….”

“Curses!” Viktor ejaculated. “We have no time to waste on further mysteries, Einida. Our skittish friend has most likely retreated to her sylvan fastnesses, and I’m afraid we must do likewise, as the shades of evening are lengthening.”

Days later, we recounted our story to our old friend, Dr. Henry Paget-Lowe, Professor of Cryptozoology, in the raccoon-free comfort of his library. He corrected our misinterpretation of the “Rare Procyon Lotor,” stating that what we had seen was in fact an orange raccoon, a rare specimen created by genetic anomalies. He added that this type of raccoon is also referred to as being in a “rufous-phase” or “melanistic.”

Being thus enlightened, Viktor and I resolved that in future social gatherings we should endeavor to find conversational openings into which we can drop these new and hard-won additions to our vocabularies.

The Tale of the Titanic Truck Stop part 1

Not long ago, while exploring the wilds of interurban North America, the intrepid Einida and I happened upon, what was for us, the hitherto exotic and undiscovered world of truck stops. Like most people not part of the freight-hauling fraternity, we had assumed that such establishments offered gasoline, steak and egg breakfasts, Red Sovine eight-tracks, and little else, but we were wrong.

Oatmeal_dispenserThis hidden wonderland upon which we happened has restrooms staffed with live human attendants, and it offers an oatmeal-dispensing machine, and an array of fascinating products, not the least of which being canned lasagna that comes with a chemical pack with which you can heat up the dish.

O, if I could but count the times I have yearned for canned pasta to fill that void created by the monotonous hours spent staring at the white lines of the highway. And now before me on the shelf, priced well within the range of any ordinary consumer, was a can of self-heating lasagna.

Incredible! This discovery thenceforward and forever confirmed me in my love for truck stops.

And my options weren’t to be limited by pasta. There were “Heater Meals” of green pepper steak with rice, chicken and noodles in mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes and beef. I was spoiled for choice.
Canned_pasta

I forced myself to look away and regain the composure and objectivity so necessary in an inventor/explorer. Still, it was difficult for my mind to take in the enormity of this discovery. It meant nothing less than that I could eat a hot dinner _IN MY CAR!_

Farewell also to those awkward nights of setting off hotel room smoke alarms while attempting to use a panini-maker. No longer will I find myself in a jerkwater town, after an experiment has run late, unable to eat because all the restaurants close at 10pm. Instead, the trunk of my car will be a larder, packed deep and wide with any number of meal choices.

There is but one matter that remains unresolved, and I hesitate to mention it. Though completely sold on the concept of self-heating meals, I haven’t yet actually opened that first can of self-heating lasagna and tried the meal out. But soon I intend to set up taste tests for everybody in the lab, so we can analyze which dish is the most tasty.

So in the meantime, as you roar on your busy way from city to city, please reconsider the humble truck stop as a worthy place of visitation. A dizzying array of extraordinary products awaits your studious consideration.

A Chronicle of a Voyage to Point Bolivar

stilton_rendition

“Do help yourself to some more Stilton, my dear Viktor. I think you shall find it creates the most delightful effects.”

My colleague, the esteemed Professor Beckford Ganymede Hornblower, passed the cheese over to me, his eyes twinkling with merriment.

I helped myself.

“Some Oloroso Sherry as well?,” he asked.

How could I refuse?

As the smoky nectar warmed my vitals, I reflected upon how much I have come to enjoy these postprandial meetings in the Professor’s book-lined study, a room suffused with the scent of old paper, Moroccan leather, and Latakia pipe tobacco, a room shrouded in perpetual midnight.

My brain began to fog, and I had the strange sensation that I was stumbling around deep in the waters of the Professor’s aquarium, which bubbled sedately over in the corner.

“Curse it all, Professor!,” I said, as I set my empty glass upon a side table, sprang up from my over-stuffed leather chair, and crossed the room to the heavily-curtained window. “Curse it all, I cannot abide this inactivity! If I go many more days without an adventure, I shall go mad with boredom!”

“Then, my dear Viktor, you must mount an expedition!”

Thereupon I enumerated, in tiresome detail, all of the reasons, economic and otherwise, why the fair Einida and I were currently confined to our home paddock. To punctuate my frustration, I went to the large and rather rare world globe that is serves as such a unifying decorative note to the Professor’s study, and gave it a spin. When I saw the Professor’s eyes bulge out and his mouth droop, I realized I was abusing his great hospitality, so I placed both palms on the globe so as to impede any further movement.

The Professor’s shoulders slumped again, his eyes brightened, and he sank back into his chair. “You must go to sea, young man!”

And now the Professor was on his feet, scurrying about like a preoccupied mouse, stretching and squashing his diminutive frame as he reached for first this book and then that. Confused, I returned to my chair and watched this amazing performance play out.
Pulling a rare folio from a shelf, he turned towards me, absent-mindedly blew dust off the volume, and said, “Was it not just the other day that you were telling me of your interest in ships?”

“Well, yes, but….”

“But nothing, my good fellow! If you’re interested in ships and the sea, there’s no finer place for you to start than the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry.”

DSC_3954_r
And with that he dumped the stack of books upon my (unprepared) lap, and my eyes followed his stubby index finger as it pointed to a photo of the vessel in question.
In what seemed like no time at all I stood, like Admiral Nelson, at the bow of this ferry, wind whipping my garments behind me as I gazed resolutely at the brown boiling sea before me.

The gun metal clouds and strong, incessant winds were no match for the engine of this sturdy vessel as it churned its way across the mouth of Galveston Bay.

The mixture of smoke and spilled fuel and brine worked its olfactory magic upon my fancy, and transformed the dear Einida into the shade of Lady Hamilton.

Amazing to me that I had not heard of this magic carpet ere now!

DSC_3803_r

The Bolivar Ferry was truly a delight. Of the five ferries that serve this port, we found ourselves aboard the “Robert H. Dedman.” And yes, while we did in fact remark upon the inauspicious sound of the name, due to our consecration to the steady and stolid tenets of science, we did not allow ourselves to fall victim to the humbug of superstition.

In any event, our dark thoughts were soon lifted by the sheer size of the Dedman Ferry. It measures 185 feet in length, and can carry five-hundred passengers and seventy vehicles. Our Einida gasped in glee to learn that the vessel can even carry several semi-trailer trucks (“big rigs,” to the hoi polloi) at one crossing. Indeed, I think it was Einida’s lifelong, abiding, and lady-like interest in interstate commerce that steeled my resolve to plight my troth to her all those years ago.

DSC_3980_r
As I swept the ship under my gaze, I noticed the pilot house on one end, and then, at the opposite end, another. A ferry with two pilot houses? What crystalline logic! What brilliance of design! The pilot is spared the challenge of constantly steering half the day in reverse by the simple expedient of transferring operations to the other pilot house.

A seaman of leathern aspect approached me. Clearly, our enthusiasm for the ferry had attracted his attention. He parted his wind-chapped lips and laconically commented, “Look ye to the aft of this here ferry and of the larger ships, and ye may see the dolphins dancing in their wake.”

I headed post-haste to the stern, but saw nothing. Meanwhile, the intrepid Einida busied herself snapping photos of what seemed to her the ideal lair for an evil genius. “Why,” she explained, “it even has its own submarine!”
DSC_3979_r
She was right. Envy coursed through my loins, until closer inspection revealed to me a sign for a pleasure ground named “Sea Wolf Park.”

It is an old and sometimes bitter truth, confirmed and consecrated by time, that parks as a rule do not make good lairs.

But yes, the submarine is in fact the genuine article, a World War II vessel, the “USS Cavalla,” by name. And alongside it is a very rare Destroyer Escort, the “USS Stewart.”
My dreams of settling down and opening a quiet, small-town super-villainry practice being temporarily crushed yet again, I spied a large ship off in the distance. I went to the upper deck for a better look.

The upper deck includes a rather spartan, utilitarian lounge, lined with windows, and furnished with hard benches, where, during the eighteen-minute crossing, more delicate passengers can seek respite from the elements. I positioned myself on the outdoor deck beyond the lounge and began to take photos.

One of my great passions is taking photos of ships. Galveston Bay is chock-full of them–real, full-size, ocean-worthy ships, the sort that put the amateur boatman’s dinghies and sailboats to shame. And the nearby Port of Houston is one of the largest and busiest in the world.

I sighed, as I dreamed of building a laboratory on Galveston Bay where I could indulge in my ship photography passion to the fullest, during breaks between experiments of evil intent….

The ship that fueled this fantasy was incredibly vast. It appeared to be a container ship. I looked down to the lower deck and spied my Einida. The wind whipped the hair from before her face and, unbidden, she looked up over her left shoulder, found me immediately, smiled and waved and mouthed her astonishment at the ship’s enormous size.

It took many long seconds–eternities even–for my brain to process that latest intrusion.

It was a horn. A loud horn. And it came from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
DSC_3948_r
By some strange instinct I looked up at the large ship ahead of us and noticed that it was now veering to its port side off its course and bearing down at fearsome speed upon to the Dedman.

There was a frenzy of activity as hands on both the container ship and the ferry ran back and forth, frantically doing whatever they could to prevent the collision. As soon as the full extent of what was about to happen took a coherent form in my brain I leapt for the ladder and flung myself downwards to the lower deck, to my Einida!

I looked around in panic. I saw no one else. I saw Einida, staring straight ahead at the grey wall rushing ever closer.

I ran, I stretched, I extended my arms, my hands, my fingertips, convinced that I could save my beloved if only I could enfold her in the protection of my arms.

I put out my right hand still further. Einida was cold to the touch. She turned. There was no expression on her face. She looked not at, but beyond me.

All went black, followed by a metallic crash, a reverberating ring, a flash of light, and a convulsive rush of air.

There was a noise, unfamiliar, familiar, a sound, a nasal drawl.

I opened my eyes upon the face of Professor Hornblower, ringed in lamp-light, puzzled, concerned, amused.

I snorted, drew in shallow drafts of air through my nose and mouth, blinked wildly, looked around, tried to clear the fog from my head.

“I say, old man, you knocked over the drinks tray.”

Ears still ringing, I rubbed my eyes, wiped the sweat from my forehead,

“Well, well, Viktor, seems you had quite the siesta. But you will recall I did warn you about the powerful effects of Stilton.”