Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 1, 2019

A Painting Led Us There: Bordighera, Italy

Much of North America is locked in a dire, deep winter. Some of you in the southern hemisphere are enduring blistering temperatures and wildfires.

This is when we pull out the map or the old travel photos or flip through the art books in search of some idyllic respite. One infallibly inspirational artist I rely on is Claude Monet. In his long career, he painted a wide variety of subjects and settings. Invariably he had a gift for portraying light, and his paintings make us wish we could stand THERE, right where he stood.

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Bordighera by Claude Monet, 1884

That painting, “Bordighera,” from 1884, depicts a town on the Ligurian coast of Italy where Monet lived for a time.

It’s raining, thundering, lightning in southern California today, so let’s go to Bordighera for some halcyon, sunny days. Let’s stand where Monet stood, and see if we can find the light he saw.

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Bordighera was a popular seaside resort in Monet’s era, as it is today. On a trip some years ago, we determined we’d make Bordighera one of our stops, inspired to see that landscape suffused with light the old master painted a number of times.

The Town

There are about 10,000 people in Bordighera, although the population swells during the tourist season. It still has something of the rather staid, respectable seaside resort character it’s had since the Edwardian era.


Steep hills climb up from the coast, and the Medieval old town occupies a prominent position above the traffic and bustle of shops and stores. That’s the scene Monet painted from up in the hills, and you can still see a similar view today. Not quite the way he saw it in the painting above, but it’s there under the Mediterranean sun.


To get there, you climb up into the old city and wend your way through the streets and piazzas, along old brick and stone lanes.





The Painters

Bordighera takes note of its heritage as a venue favored by Monet and other painters.

As you walk the tree-shaded streets, you’ll encounter signs depicting paintings from about the spot Monet and other artists painted them. You have the opportunity to compare the view with that of 140 years ago.

Here, painted from down in the “new” town, looking up at the old one, is Monet’s “Moreno Gardens at Bordighera” — Jardin Moreno à Bordighera — and its present-day appearance.



Is that what Monet saw? One never knows to what extent an artist like Monet was recording and what he was inventing. That’s part of the fun. He was determined to give us his impression of the place.

Bordighera’s resort accommodations then and now included expansive villas. We stayed in one, Villa Elisa, located with a number of the vacation venues along the Via Romana a quarter-mile uphill from the coast.

Monet painted the scene in a day before automobiles. Whether or not differences in landscaping gave him the following view of the surrounding hills is impossible to say. He wasn’t making photographs, after all; he was painting an impression.



Bordighera won’t be to every traveler’s taste, but it offers a variety of experiences ranging from ancient architecture and a fading way of life in an ancient hilltop town to a spectacularly lively and stunningly lovely stretch of beach.

At night, wander the old town, where restaurants that feature the local seafood are tucked into the piazzas.


In addition to the town’s shops and stores, the strikingly beautiful beach, there’s a lovely park, Piazza de Amicis, occupying a former fortress, with lovely shaded walks overlooking the Mediterranean.


Drawn there by the master’s hand and eye, we found the light shining down on Bordighera. We stood where he stood, and — a long time after he was there — saw what he saw.

It’s important to look … to see.

Stop, breathe. The light is shining down. What do you see?

Have you made a pilgrimage to a place made famous in a work of art? Leave a comment.

For more about Bordighera, see “To the Ligurian Coast: Bordighera” at this link.

40 km to the east is the charming, ancient city of Villefranche-sur-Mer at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photographs © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission. Bordighera by Claude Monet © the Art Institute of Chicago. Jardin Moreno à Bordighera by Claude Monet © The Norton Gallery and School of Art. Villas à Bordighera by Claude Monet © Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 29, 2019

Mimbres Culture, Southwestern New Mexico

In two previous blog posts about southwestern New Mexico, I’ve mentioned the prehistoric Mimbres culture near present day Silver City, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

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This article is a brief introduction to a native culture that may be unfamiliar to you.


The Mimbres culture lived in and near the Mimbres River valley in New Mexico. Mimbres is a Spanish word for a variety of willow tree native to the area.

In a pattern repeated throughout the southwest, from about the 2nd century c.e., migrant hunter-gatherer tribes began subsistence farming, establishing small communities of excavated pit houses covered by structures of wood and mud wattle. They grew maize, beans and squash — the “three sisters,” as they later became known.

They supplemented their diet by hunting and with gathering native berries, nuts and edible plants.

In about 800 or so, with their numbers increasing, they built above-ground structures of adobe and rock cobble around central plazas. The same pattern is evident elsewhere, as with the structures of Chaco Canyon to the north, built of stone.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4187 (640x247)


In about 900 c.e., the Mimbres did something remarkable: They developed a style of decorated pottery without peer anywhere in ancient North America, and not quite like anything else, anywhere.

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This didn’t happen all at once. The people had been making pottery for hundreds of years. In stages, the Mimbres developed an idiosyncratic style that began with geometric shapes painted in black on white backgrounds, until in the “classic” period, from about 900 – 1150, they also included astonishingly inventive figures.

Women are the traditional potters in most native cultures, which is still true in the American southwest. It’s assumed that a relatively small number of female potters created these remarkable works of art.


The most dramatic pottery of the culture is often found in burials, the bowls covering the skulls of the dead. Invariably, these bowls have a hole punched through them, known as a “kill hole.” Many anthropologists conclude the hole was intended to let the spirit of the deceased to escape, or perhaps to receive sustenance through the bowl after death. We do not know.

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By about 1150, the population of the Mimbres area had grown to perhaps 2,500 people. In the best conditions, the native corn-bean-squash + game formula provided a diet at the knife’s edge of survival, low in fat and protein. They were farming, irrigating and hunting their resources to the breaking point.

Somewhere between 1130 and 1150, a succession of drought years ended the existing order. Large numbers of people moved away or scattered into smaller bands seeking better soil, more water, more game. They ceased making the black-on-white ware and the pueblo communities emptied. The people survived, but ceased being the “Mimbres Culture.”


Archaeologists developed an interest in the ancient ruins of the southwest early in the 20th century. Most of the attention went to more dramatic locations like Chaco Canyon and, here, Mesa Verde.

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A number of excavations in the Mimbres valley disclosed the extraordinary artisanship of the craftspeople. There are collections of the pottery at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the University of Maine and the University of Minnesota as a result.

Then, notoriety nearly ended Mimbres archaeology forever.


You can visit the area and see a stunning collection of Mimbres wares in the museum of Western New Mexico University. Other examples are in the Silver City Museum. See below for more collections.

But you can only visit one partially excavated original Mimbres community, the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site.

Yet there were dozens of Mimbres communities. Why is there just one you can visit?

Once collectors saw the spectacular examples of pottery being collected from the Mimbres sites, they wanted some for themselves. Entrepreneurs — we’ll call them — organized to fill the demand — not with shovels, but bulldozers.

Entire Mimbres villages were literally bulldozed over by looters in order to extract pottery. Looters destroyed remains of structures, burials, hundreds of years’ worth of cultural artifacts, grabbing anything salable. Their focus was the “pots,” but they “collected” anything that might find a market, including human remains, which are now in private collections.

Aerial photos show enormous tracts of land bulldozed and pitted with trenches dug by looters. Here’s one ground level view of bulldozers at work “uncovering” a Mimbres village to extract pottery.

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The Cost

Approximately half the known Mimbres community sites were destroyed in a relatively short time.

The sites are still there, and it’s possible to retrieve some number of artifacts, but they’re worthless from a scientific perspective. There is no way to study the layers of debris or the relationship of artifacts to one another in those sites. The details of daily life, ritual, burial, farming, irrigation, what they hunted, what they ate, are lost. Those sites are mere jumbles of bulldozed debris.

Like all the prehistoric southwestern tribes, the Mimbres had no writing system we know of. Our only means to understand their culture is through the application of careful archaeological study. Much of the Mimbres’ record has been destroyed beyond recall.

In the 1970s, The Mimbres Foundation was able to secure the Federal Archaeological Resources Act and begin protecting the sites. The large-scale looting ended, but long after enormous damage had been done.


A number of relatively untouched Mimbres sites exist, and are being studied as time and resources permit.

You can visit the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site east of Silver City, New Mexico in the Mimbres Valley.

There are collections of Mimbres ware in a number of museums, including the following:

There’s a large collection, not all of it on display, at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Early 20th century archaeology by Beloit College resulted in a collection in the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin, including numerous pieces from the Mattocks Site. This is useful, for it shows the evolution of pottery styles over several hundred years.

South of Silver City, the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, Deming, New Mexico, is a local museum stuffed with everything from antique dolls and farm equipment to liquor bottles. They have a sizable collection of Mimbres ware collected by local landowners on private property.


Online, you can view a number of Mimbres pieces at Central-Cal-Clay.

Another online collection of images culled from the Maxwell, Silver City and Deming museums is at Black Range Rag.


One of the foremost scholars of Mimbres culture, Michelle Hegmon, Arizona State University, published Experiencing Social Change: Life During the Mimbres Classic Transformation,” eminently readable by laymen.

As a basic text and reference, I recommend the interesting and visually appealing Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest.


We “modern” humans continue a millenia-long history of despoiling the past. It happens today, worldwide. What have we lost? Leave a comment.

For more articles on this subject, see

Gila Cliff Dwellings Day Trip

Silver City Bound

© Brad Nixon 2019. Pottery photographs are the property of The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. Bulldozer photograph © Mimbres Foundation/Paul Minnis from Mimbres Pottery, etc. “Experiencing Social Change….” © Michelle Hegmon et al, Arizona State University. Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest,  © J.J. Brody et al, Hudson Hills, New York, 1983.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 26, 2019

Gila Cliff Dwellings Day Trip, Southwestern New Mexico

In my previous post, I introduced Silver City, New Mexico as a practical base for exploring southwestern New Mexico. One major attraction in the area is the Gila National Forest and, within it, the rugged Gila Wilderness, the world’s first wilderness area, established in 1924, in part due to the efforts of conservation pioneer, Aldo Leopold.

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At 872 square miles, the wilderness includes multiple environments, from pinyon-juniper woodland and grassland below 6,500 feet, then ponderosa pine forest until about 9,000 feet, giving way to spruce-fir/aspen forest. There are steep ravines, cliffs, mountains, and, due to its protected nature, the vast majority of the wilderness can be reached only on foot.

A day trip from Silver City lets you see some of the wilderness and visit a prehistoric ruin: Gila Cliff Dwellings.

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The Residents

The stacked stone walls of the dwellings were built in a series of caves and overhanging cliffs by the Mimbres branch of the widespread Mogollon (MUG-ee-un) culture in the 13th century c.e.

The Mogollon occupied a large region in southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and well south into Mexico, and the Mimbres were in their northern range. In addition to the cliff dwellings, other Mimbres groups constructed large pueblo-style communities around open plazas along the Mimbres River, south of the Cliff Dwellings.

The Mimbres are most often associated with the dramatically artistic pottery they created late in the 12th century, a style they apparently developed themselves.

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This day trip provides a visit to the Cliff Dwellings and a glimpse of the surrounding wilderness. 

Reaching the Cliff Dwellings

Paved Route 15 extends about 45 miles north from Silver City, directly into the Gila National Forest, with access into the wilderness area.

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En route, you’ll pass through tiny Pinos Altos. There’s a dinner place with good food and old western decor a few blocks west of Route 15, the Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House.

Much of the drive passes through steep canyons where the road narrows and winds to an extreme degree, shadowed by pines, with glimpses of rocky cliffs on either side. The ride is a significant part of the enjoyment of this trip, and you will not travel quickly. There are dangerously curving sections that demand caution (not pictured). Relax and enjoy. It’s going to take you well over an hour to cover the distance.

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Eventually, you emerge into more open country with views of the surrounding forest and wilderness area.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The cliff dwellings are a 533-acre National Monument within the larger wilderness/national forest. The Monument dates to 1907, created by presidential decree by Theodore Roosevelt.

There’s a visitor center just off Route 15 where you’ll find restrooms and potable water. Past the visitor center turnoff, Route 15 ends at the Cliff Dwelling trailhead, where there’s a parking lot.

From the trailhead you walk a one-mile loop trail that climbs into a canyon to the cliff dwellings. At a moderate pace, with time to explore the ruins, count on a one-hour round trip, depending on how often you stop to enjoy the setting.

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The terrain is rugged and rocky, with tall red cliffs rising above you.

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You cross the stream on bridges a couple of times, and eventually the ruins under the overhanging cliffs come into view.

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There are several small dwelling complexes in the area, and the visitor center can direct you to a few other cliff dwelling sites if you’re ambitious. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how much effort and ingenuity it required to build the structures and survive in the rugged environment.

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These structures will remind many readers of the larger, better-known “cliff houses” in Mesa Verde National Park, 400 miles north in Colorado.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace Brad Nixon 9801 (640x480)

The Puebloan culture that built the Mesa Verde dwellings (and others) is distinct from the Mogollon, although they’re almost contemporary in age.

While You’re There — Hiking

The Counselor and I were determined to hike into the edge of the wilderness. After seeing the cliff dwellings, we set off on a trail we’d found on the National Forest Service website which promised to take us well up in elevation from about 5,900 feet at the cliff dwellings.

We planned to hike for an hour or so, then backtrack. We were equipped to be out that long, but not for wilderness camping. We did gain a lot of elevation on an extremely dry, hot July day. The views were stunning, but you can also see a threat looming behind The Counselor.

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Thunderstorms are common summertime events in New Mexico, and one was approaching. High, open country isn’t the best place to be when lightning is in the forecast. We headed back down rather than be overtaken by a lightning storm at an exposed altitude.

If you hike there, remember, it’s a wilderness. You have only what you bring, and you may not encounter any other humans if you run into difficulty. You might encounter rattlesnakes or, possibly, a mountain lion. The former is more likely than the latter, but pay attention. Even the plants can be a threat.

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The prickly pear cactus blooms are beautiful, but those spines have a preternatural ability to penetrate any clothing and then the human body.

Planning Your Visit

The map shows north-south Route 15 between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

gila route map google

An alternative return route is New Mexico 35 through the Mimbres River valley. The Mimbres Culture Heritage Site is open to the public, one of only a few Mimbres pueblo communities not destroyed by looters. The website link has visitor information. You then return westbound on NM #152 to U.S. #180 into Silver City.

Have plenty of fuel before you leave Silver City. There are few services en route.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Expect the trail to be serviceable in normal times. Winter weather can be severe at 6,000 feet. In summer, be prepared for extreme heat and sun. Carry plenty of water in your vehicle and when you hike. However, the site may be temporarily closed during the current partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

The Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness are administered by the U.S. National Forest service. Click on respective links for information about conditions, wilderness regulations and restrictions and backcountry and camping permits.

I’ve written about Mesa Verde National Park several times, including at this link.

Happy hiking, under western skies!

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Have you been there? Leave a comment.

Read more about the Mimbres culture at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photos © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission. Photograph of Mimbres ware by Brad Nixon and M. Vincent, property of University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Map © Google with my emendations.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 23, 2019

Silver City Bound: New Mexico

Winter is the time to consider prospects for upcoming travel destinations once spring and summer arrive.

Always on the list for prospective travel here at Under Western Skies is New Mexico.

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The southwestern portion of New Mexico is less-visited than the areas near Albuquerque, Santa Fe/Taos or — in the mountains and desert of the southeast — Ruidoso, Las Cruces and Carlsbad Caverns.

I’ve given the southwest of New Mexico short shrift in this blog. Silver City and the nearby Gila Wilderness are worthwhile travel destinations.

Silver City NM map Google

Four hours from Albuquerque, 3 hours from Tucson, Silver City sits at 5,900 feet elevation, and is a base from which to explore the area. The old downtown preserves much of the character of the picturesque old western mining town. Here’s Bullard Street.

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The tall building on the left is the town hall. You can see a view of Bullard looking north from a live camera on top of City Hall at this link.

Mining Town

Soon after the arrival of Spanish explorers, copper and then silver mining became primary businesses, hence the town’s name. The vast Santa Rita open pit copper mine still operates a dozen miles east of town on Route 152. I wrote about its intriguing history here.

Silver City was a rough-and-tumble place. It was also poorly planned. In 1895, heavy rain sent a wall of water down Main Street, parallel to Bullard, one block east. Main Street became — and remains — a 50-foot deep ravine. The buildings along the east side of Bullard once fronted on Main, but over the years they’ve been reconfigured to have their front entrances on Bullard, which is now the main street. Here it is at first light on a summer morning.

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21st Century Shifts

The downtown reflects the attraction Silver City now has for artists and craftspeople, with galleries and boutiques scattered throughout the dozen or so blocks. The local Mimbres Region Arts Council sponsors numerous festivals and events throughout the year. Check their calendar at this link.

There are some local restaurants downtown, and two old theaters. The Silco opened in 1923 and has a checkered past, converting several times from theater to retail and back again. Once again a theater, it show movies in a 156-seat venue. When I was there, a number of years ago, the Silco’s exterior was unrestored, and I didn’t notice it. 311 N. Bullard St.

I did notice the Gila Theater.

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Built in 1950, it’s also had its ups and downs. As the photo above shows, it had been vacant for several years when I was last in Silver City. According to, the interior features large murals of native American scenes. The space now houses a wellness center, but I can’t attest to the condition of the murals. 413 N. Bullard St.

There’s a wide variety of architectural styles and periods in the old section of town. There are some idiosyncratic ones, like this sort-of-southwestern-adobe Art Deco.

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A portion of the downtown is an official National Historic District.

There are traditionally styled Victorian and Edwardian area residences, including this one on Broadway.

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Silver City is the county seat of Grant County. The courthouse is an incongruously monolithic block of severe, Streamline Moderne, built in 1930.

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The Silver City Museum occupies the quirky Italianate brick H. B. Allman House of 1881.

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I didn’t tour the museum. Its website suggests most of its collection focuses on the area after the arrival of the Spanish, but there are at least some artifacts from the region’s remarkable Mimbres culture (see below for the Mimbres). The museum is located at 312 W. Broadway. Closed Mondays and the four major holidays. Check the website for hours.

Also a University Town

With about 3,500 students, Western New Mexico University is a little less than a mile northwest of the Town Hall.

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I highly recommend a visit to the WNMU Museum in Fleming Hall, 1000 W. College Ave. Open weekdays, but check the website. They’re just completing a major renovation as I type, due for a 2019 opening.

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The museum has the world’s largest collection of pottery from the prehistoric Mimbres culture, which flourished in the Mimbres River valley near Silver City from about 1000 – 1130 c.e. They were potters of prodigious imagination and skill.

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Space won’t permit me to tell a fraction of the Mimbres story, a farming and hunting culture who built large semicircular pueblo-style communities around open plazas. They were contemporary with portions of the Chaco Culture to the north, a little before the prime of the Mesa Verde cliff-house culture in Colorado.

These Mimbres wares were photographed in the University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, but are representative of the Mibrenos’ brilliant work. Click on the photos for larger views:

Much of their cultural remains were destroyed by looters, making the existence of the WMNU Museum collection critically important.

There is one extant Mimbres site now open for visitors to see. I haven’t visited it, because it only opened to the public after my trip there. Here’s the website for the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site, on highway 35 east of Silver City. It’s open daily from April to November, Friday through Sunday the rest of the year, but check the website to make certain.

Daily Life

Silver City does offer a variety of retail, grocery, services, accommodations and restaurants. They’re primarily located along U.S. Route 180, northeast of downtown.

City of Rocks

I wrote previously about one local attraction, 32 miles into the rocky desert southeast of the town: City of Rocks State Park.

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It’s worth a few hours’ visit. Camping and some facilities available onsite.

Into the Wild

A primary reason to stay in the Silver City area is to visit the wild, beautiful Gila National Forest, north of the town, which includes significant wilderness areas, as well as prehistoric structures at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

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Click on this link to read my article about Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and the surrounding Gila Wilderness.

I wrote at greater length about the Mimbres culture at this link.

Have you visited the area? What else do you suggest for visitors? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photographs also © M. Vincent, used by kind permission. Photographs of Mimbres wares by Brad Nixon and M. Vincent, properties of University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

One of several dynamics at work in Spike Lee’s film, “Do the Right Thing,” is the conflict between the African-American culture of the film’s setting in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York and the world inside Sal — Danny Aiello’s — pizza joint. Yes, it’s stereotypical, but often true: Sal’s hung his walls with photographs of prominent Italian Americans: sports stars, politicians, celebrities.

One man inevitably appears in those arrays in real life — not just in Sal’s fictional parlor — and often the music in old-school Italian restaurants features him, too: The Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra.

Perhaps that convention’s fading a bit, but it’s on display in a particularly graphic manner in two locations even in groovy Redondo Beach, California: an Italian restaurant and a tailor shop run by a family proud of its Italian heritage.

Both murals are located on busy, iconic Pacific Coast Highway, within half a mile from one another.

Here’s the scene on the wall of the tailor’s shop. The figures are nearly life-size.

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There’s Frank — perfectly tailored, of course! Beside him, looking equally as dapper, that’s Dino — Dean Martin. Suave, sophisticated, swingin’.

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Off to the left, there’s another “Dean” in the scene: Jimmy.

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He has the slouch, he has the cigarette and the sprezzatura — certamente — although his Italian ancestry may be a bit questionable. Also somewhat lacking in sartorial elegance. No wonder he never made it to Frank’s table.

Somehow, Marilyn is next to Dino. To the right of her is that famous Italian-American, Sammy Davis Jr.

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Let’s face it; Sammy’s an honorary Italian: long association with The Pack, tuxedo, suave slouch, hand in pocket, cigarette — style!

Beside him …. Is that young Gina Lollobrigida? Or Sophia Loren? If it’s Gina, the rather anonymous man with her could be her onetime husband, Milko Škofič, meaning the muralist really did his/her homework. If it’s Sophia, maybe it’s Carlo Ponti, Sr. I’m open to other suggestions on that pair.

Then we really branch out as we find Charlie Chaplin leaning against a pillar in the background to the right, not at all well-dressed, and then the ultimate crowd-pleasers, that must be Bogart and Bacall. Pillars of style! Who else wears a white dinner jacket to the beach?

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Whatever connection any of them had with Frank and the pack is unclear to me, but they’re famous — icons. They must be Italian!

It Never Ends

Let’s go a few blocks down Pacific Coast Highway to look at another mural, in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant.

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There they are again, considerably larger than life size. Reading from left to right, I see Peter Lawford, then Dino. The extremely stressed-looking individual in the middle must be the always-out-of-place-but-he-must-have-been-better-in-person Joey Bishop (he had his own TV show, after all), Sammy, and Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Sultan of Swoon.

Dino’s ordering a drink, natch, because there are no drinks on the table! Sammy’s laughing at a joke he just told. Frank’s amused by something, although maybe not Sammy’s joke — perhaps something JFK told him the weekend before in Palm Springs.

As for Joey, he’s apparently eying that dish of pasta and meatballs and is not happy about it. Who can blame him? It doesn’t look promising.

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Really. This is California in 2019. Aren’t we over this?

Do I really have to show you the mural on the back side of the tailors’ shop from the first photo above? Yes, of course, you say.  Here we go, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Once again, at life size as seen from the sidewalk.

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That covers it: every icon missing from the earlier ensembles: Elvis, Ray, Louis, Bing and Bob — all looking appropriately natty. Don’t tell me we’re not absolutely up-to-date on what’s-what in entertainment in L.A.

Let’s face it. When it comes to putting on la bella figura, we’re all Italian!

I welcome suggestions about what song Elvis, Bing and Bob are harmonizing on while Ray’s rollicking away and Louis gives it his all with that legendary horn. “My Way?” Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019. The artist of the restaurant mural isn’t identified. The tailor shop murals are signed “Lovano,” but I’ve been unable to find anything more about them. I’m happy to give attribution for the work, and one should consider those images © “Lovano.”


Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 18, 2019

Down to the Sea in Ships; Big Ones

I must go down to the seas again, to the lovely life aboard,
And all I ask is a tall ship with a sumptuous smorgasbord.

My apologies to John Masefield.

It was a wild call and a clear call that could not be denied.

As the sun set, I stood at the windswept edge of the continent as the ship set forth. It had rained in southern California earlier that day. As the weather cleared, the setting sun shone through the tattered remnants of clouds scudding across the Port of Los Angeles.

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Ah, is there anything so stirring as a rainbow glowing above a 46,000-ton battleship and its 16-inch guns?

I was there with a specific objective. I’d never photographed one of the large cruise ships passing through the channel. I was waiting for that big, white shape behind BB-61 — Battleship Iowa — to back out of the cruise ship terminal at about 4 p.m.

As she reversed out of her berth, Ruby Princess loomed larger than Iowa.

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At 951 feet, she’s 80 feet longer than Iowa, with 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew aboard. 195 feet high, the Princess and most other cruisers don’t fit beneath the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge, so the cruise ship terminal’s located on the ocean side of the bridge.

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Ships are measured not by length, height or number of passengers, but weight. At 113,000 gross tons, the Princess doesn’t appear in the list of the world’s largest cruise ships, which are just about twice her weight and carry twice as many passengers.

None the less, that is a big ship.

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According to the Princess Cruises website, there are all sorts of amenities packed into the ship’s 19 decks, including swimming pools, casino, 9-hole miniature golf course and, apparently, a number of places to eat and drink.

The passengers lined the decks and balconies, watching San Pedro slide past them.

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San Pedro, where the cruise ship terminal’s located, has about 86,000 residents. There, in a single mass, afloat, was the equivalent of four per cent of the town’s population.

The next time you bump into the police chief at the supermarket, ask her, “Hey, Chief, would you notice it if more than 4,000 people passed through town?

She’d give you that look. The harbor police notice, too. Before the Princess backed into the channel, two harbor police launches motored out from their station at Berth 84, not far from the cruise ship terminal and positioned themselves in the channel. They escorted the ship. You can see one of the escorts in the foreground of this photo.

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What are they watching? Everything. Including me, taking pictures, just to make certain that’s all I’m doing. I’m probably just another local photog, no worries. Nor is anyone onboard likely to do anything silly like stand on a railing and pull a Leonardo DiCaprio “I’m the king of the world” stunt — are they? That’s a lot of people, and something can always go wrong.

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There she goes. Ruby Princess bound up the California coast for Monterey and San Francisco, then back, seven nights at sea.

Note that the Princess navigates the channel under her own power, without an assist from tugboats. Despite her immense size, she’s more agile than the container ships, which are engineered for driving forward, not maneuvering, like the Kota Cantik, outbound in precisely the same spot in the channel.

Kota Cantik Brad Nixon 0508 640

Just another day in the port. Bon voyage.

Have you cruised? What was your experience? I’m curious about what it would be like aboard one of those floating palaces. Or, have you worked aboard a commercial ship like the Kota Cantik? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 16, 2019

A Farthing, a Quid, a Crown, a Florin, a Groat?

Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away
A. E. Housman

For those of us who are wont to read classics of British literature — or contemporary works set in a historical Great Britain — we’re stuck. Every few pages someone’s buying something or adding up their wealth or simply making some value judgment that might be, “Not worth a farthing,” or “Give the beggar half a crown and send him away.”

What in the heck is a farthing, a quid, a crown, a florin or a guinea? A groat? Not even the most prolific and diligent authors of their day provided an appendix to explain them to their audience outside the borders of the realm — not Dickens, Trollope, Hardy — not one.

I landed in Britain for the first time in 1971, just a few months after the advent of “decimalisation.” The Pound had been redefined. Entirely new paper bills and metal coins were the specie of the land. There were 100 pence to the pound, and I was spared having to understand the cost of something marked £1/1/6. In New Pence, I could find coins to come up with £1.25 with no problem.

Nothing had so wrenched the traditional English soul since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, requiring Britons to skip 11 days they’d never get back.

My English grandmother had explained multiple times how money worked in her homeland, but it never stuck, and I’m still clueless when I encounter those farthings, florins and groats. If you have the same struggle when you encounter these terms, here’s info you can keep by your bookshelf for your next English novel.

English Money Pre-1971

Pound. The basic unit, still in force, despite whatever else happens with the EU. Originally equal to one pound of silver: the “pound sterling.”

Shilling. There were 20 shillings in a pound.

Penny. 12 pennies in each shilling, thus 240 pennies in a pound.

This “system” makes no sense until you learn it was devised to match the Troy method of weighing precious metals. There were 240 “pennies” in a pound by weight, and an English penny contained 1/240th of a pound of silver.  I don’t think that helps one penn’orth in remembering these values, but that’s the source. Dates back to Henry II, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine, proving how smart he was.

Those three terms are NOT going to get you through your next Dickens novel. We go on.

If You Haven’t Got a Penny, a Ha’penny Will Do

There were two halfpennies (or half-pence) in each penny — actual halfpenny coins circulated. Almost all of you know that’s spelled something like “ha’p’ny” in dialog and pronounced “HAPE-nee.” My grandmother could carry that off, because she was born to it, but I sound pretentious trying it.


Each halfpenny can be divided into two farthings. The root of that word’s immediately obvious once you consider it: four farthings per penny. The word derives from the Old English word for four: feower, and a fourth was a feorthing.

Farthing coins were minted as late as 1956. A fourth of a penny! This is easy!

Still More

There were coins worth two pennies: tuppence.

There were threepenny coins, also called thrup’ny bits: thruppence.

There were six-penny pieces, the piece de resistance of English nomenclature, and you simply have to grow up with the language to carry off “sixpence” convincingly. Half a shilling.

My Personal Sticky Wicket: Crowns!

People in British novels are always spending or loaning or borrowing a crown or a half-crown. I can’t keep this one straight, and probably never will. A crown was five shillings, so a half crown was two shillings, sixpence, written out 2/6 but SPOKEN as “two-and-six.” Except one simply wouldn’t SAY “two-and-six,” but “half a crown.” See how simple this is?

There were crown and half-crown coins.

We’re starting to see why the rest of the world rejoiced in 1971, while at the same time we grasp how dearly the natives must’ve treasured this impenetrable maze they’d constructed. We’re not nearly finished, either.

A Guinea?

A Guinea started out as a pound, minted in gold, not silver. The gold came from the Guinea region of West Africa, hence the name. But gold climbed in value relative to the silver coins, and the worth of the coin increased. Rather than have the country’s standard denomination subject to fluctuation in value, it was eventually standardized at a value of one pound, one shilling: £1/1, or 21 shillings.

Even after the country ceased minting and circulating guineas early in the 19th century, the 21-shilling guinea maintained its cachet, often associated with aristocratic, upper-class activities like livestock auctions, horse races and the payment to tailors, caterers, etc. There are, to this day, livestock auctions and horse races valued in guineas, although no coins exist to match those amounts.

In short, a guinea is a pound-plus-a-shilling. There’s more to it than that, but enough to get you through your next novel or Bertie Wooster story.

The Idiomatic Names

This doesn’t address all our questions, because there are innumerable idiomatic names assigned to coins and values NO storyteller could resist putting into the mouths of characters. Here we go with a list, and I’m reining in my native urge to dig into etymology of some fascinating word-history.

Pound. Also “sovereign.” One might also encounter a “half-sovereign” coin worth 10 shillings.

A PAPER pound note was a “quid.” Now I know. Will I remember?

Two shillings. Also “florin.” Ah, that one’s always been a mystery.

Shilling. Also “bob.”

Penny. Also “copper.”

Sixpence/Sixpenny bit. Also “tanner.”

Four pennies/fourpence. Also “groat,” hence a tuppence or tup’ny is also a “half-groat.”

Three pennies/thruppence/threepenny bit. Also a “Joey.” Can anyone tell me why?

A Wee Bit of Etymology: Symbols and Names

The Pound symbol, £, derives from the “L” in “Libra.”

“Shilling” comes directly from Old English scilling, a silver coin, although the coin’s original name when first minted in the reign of Henry VII was the testoon, from Italian. The OE “SC” was pronounced “sh,” so it’s an ancient word, intact.

Then the puzzling one: “d” as the abbreviation for penny (singular) or plural “pence.” Even here in the States one buys 16d or 8d nails: sixteen-penny/eight-penny nails.

Here, as so often, we get to blame the Romans. The denarius was the standard silver coin of Rome from about 200 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. The abbreviation “d” was a world standard they established, and we still use, and Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Slovenian have related words for value, like dinero.

I’d like to hear from Britons who still encounter these terms. Who’s using them? Where do you hear them? Please leave a comment.

I’ll let Grandma Wharton provide our final lines in a song she loved to sing during the holidays. Sing this with a Yorkshire lilt from Hull, on the banks of the Humber, where she learned it as a girl near the end of the 19th century.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Grateful acknowledgment to

Portions of the United States federal government are not operating as I write, due to a funding dispute between the Executive and Legislative branches of the government.

The shutdown affects hundreds of thousands of U.S. federal employees. Innumerable activities, services and facilities have ceased operation until a funding agreement is reached and work can be resumed.

Not the most severe impact in human terms, but important here at Under Western Skies is the impact on the National Park Service (NPS), which maintains hundreds of national parks, monuments and historic sites.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6226 (640x471)

Many of the sites are closed, almost all are affected to some degree.

If you’ve planned a trip that includes visiting a site maintained by the NPS in coming days — possibly weeks — you must prepare to adjust your plans.

Early Winters Spires - Liberty Bell Brad Nixon 7396 680

Below are a double handful of examples from NPS parks I’ve visited, most of which I’ve written about. This is a tiny sampling. Many small, historic sites where you planned to get a guided tour will not be open.

Many of these western parks are at elevations where winter conditions always affect one’s ability to travel. During the shutdown, many — if not most — NPS facilities that normally get some snow plowing are now inaccessible by vehicle, either until the shutdown ends or the snow melts — which could be July at higher altitudes.

Tatoosh Range Brad Nixon 7550 (640x480)

I collected this information from NPS websites on January 13, 2019. I’ve linked to the NPS sites for the parks, but they may have outdated information.

NOTE WELL that the shutdown has affected the NPS’ ability to update its website, and this information is incomplete. Contact some local resource, hotel, volunteer support organizations (many parks have them) or find bloggers or websites who report on these sites from a local perspective to get more timely information.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – Open, limits on services.

Grand Canyon Willard Nixon 1980

The park is open, although some NPS facilities like entrance stations, visitor centers and the backcountry office are closed. Accommodations and food services provided by concessionaires are open. The State of Arizona is helping to keep this crown jewel among national parks open. Any severe winter weather will have a greater than usual impact on travel.

Yosemite National Park, California – Open, limits on services


Weather permitting, you can enter the park and access trails in most areas, not all. All the Sequoia groves are closed. Concessionaire-operated accommodations and food are operating. Few NPS facilities, visitor centers or Ranger services, if any, are operating. Trash collection and restrooms may be affected, depending on location.

Olympic National Park, Washington – Most areas, facilities and access roads closed

Olympic range Brad Nixon 0348 640

A severe storm at the end of 2018 closed access to much of the northern portion of the park, including popular Hurricane Ridge. The shutdown will prohibit reopening for the foreseeable future. According to NPS, few, if any, facilities are open, and access is limited to sites immediately along U. S. Route 101.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado – Open, no facilities or services.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

At 7,000 feet elevation, Mesa Verde is a challenging visit in a normal winter. The shutdown will prevent all but emergency snow clearing and all facilities are closed. It’s a long way into the heart of the ancient ruins from the highway, so set out with extreme caution after checking with locals in Cortez or Durango.

Glacier National Park, Montana – Partially open, weather permitting. Park facilities, visitor centers, and restroom facilities closed.

Glacier NP Bird Woman Falls Brad Nixon 2757 (640x480)

Roads in this mountainous, high altitude park will receive only minimal plowing as needed. Your visit is likely to be “around the edges,” unless you’re prepared to hike in through winter conditions.

Joshua Tree National Park, California – Open, some limits on services/facilities

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6293 (640x471)

Contrary to initially announced plans, most Joshua Tree roads and trails are open, thanks to alternative funding and efforts of volunteers. Many facilities are closed. Pack out your trash.

Joshua Tree represented a looming crisis that included individuals driving off-road vehicles in prohibited areas and cutting down Joshua Trees. Be careful out there.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico – CLOSED

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4214 (640x399)

This remote prehistoric site is entirely closed until further notice.

To summarize, MOST national parks, monuments and sites have moderate to severe limits.

One bit of advice: Find state or local attractions in nearby areas that will let you experience some of the environment, flora, fauna and history that may not be accessible until someone in the government figures out how to pay for things.

To close, let’s go to Washington D.C. to visit a man who’d have something to say about this. There were no national parks when he was president, but his memorial is now part of the NPS. It’s open. You walk up the steps, go in and meet him.

Lincoln Memorial exterior Brad Nixon 2548 (640x480)

Then, you listen. What would Abe have to say to us?

Mr. Lincoln, we could use a few words, and more than a little action.

Lincoln Memorial Brad Nixon 2547 (640x480)

No, he’s silent: Abe’s said what he had to say, but he’s looking quite pointedly in one direction.

Lincoln Memorial view Brad Nixon 2534 (640x414)

He’s looking at the White House and the Capitol Building, beyond the Washington Monument.

He’s looking at us, too. What will we do?

The top three photos depict Joshua Tree National Park: Jumbo Rocks; North Cascades National Park: Early Winter Peaks and Liberty Bell; and the Tatoosh Range, immediately south of Mount Rainer in Mount Rainier National Park.

Here’s an article from the New York Times, reporting from Estes Park, at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Grand Canyon photograph © Willard Nixon 2019, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 11, 2019

We Deal with a Dim, Dreary, Drizzly Day

Once upon a midnight dreary….

We’ve had some dim, dreary, drizzly days recently in southern California. That’s not unusual in January; this is our rainy season.

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While rain was dripping off the eaves, dropping on the ground, adding to the dankness and dimness, it occurred to me that all those “D” words that came to mind have been in our language a long time: They all had predecessors in Old English. Spelling and pronunciation have changed, but English used them a thousand years ago.


I investigated, to make certain my impression was correct. I started with an excellent-sounding word, “dreary,” because I knew for certain it was present in Old English, spelled drēorig. To speak it, summon up a slightly guttural “gh” at the end: DRAY-ouh-reegh!” Dreary!

I’d forgotten that a thousand years ago the word could also mean “gory” or “bloody,” as well as sad. It shows up in a number of old poems, including Beowulf, in that sense of “bloody.”

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In one scene, Beowulf leads the warriors to the edge of Grendel’s mere, where any number of their comrades have been dragged to doom by the monster.

wyn-lēasne wudu   wæter under stōd / drēorig on gedrēfed.

The woeful wood, water beneath it /  bloodstained and swirling*

A Word in Indo-European Language

Drēorig came to English via ancient Germanic. Before that, the original root word was all the way back in Indo-European during the Neolithic era: dhreu. Dhreu carried several meanings, including flow, drip and drop.

More New/Old Words

What I discovered was that a number of those other dreary, drizzly D-words ALSO spun off from dhreu as thousands of years passed and humans extended their vocabularies in innumerable languages.

Take “drop” and “dropping,” like that rain falling outside. There were several Old English “drop” words, including just plain drop, dropa and dreopan. Then the trail leads back through Germanic, Old Teutonic and that selfsame dhreu root word.

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It’s always risky to make assumptions about whether words that look or sound similar are actually related, but in this case, “drip,” has a similar heritage. We had drippan in Middle English, but NOT in Old English. Instead, we got it from all those Norse and Danish invaders in the north of England (the Danelaw and all that). Once again, it stemmed from German and back to prehistoric dhreu.

Our word “droop” also followed almost exactly the same route to be in our vocabulary today.

“Dribble?” Spun directly off “drip” in a process known as alteration. Think of it as a form of onomatopoeia, and that’s close enough for us amateurs.

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Some Dead Ends

Ah, we’re having fun now, but it gets better! I encountered two interesting etymological dead ends.

First: “dim.” An excellent word for a dark, rainy day, as well as for people who don’t agree with you. It was around in Middle- and Old English, but not very well attested. Working backwards, it’s there in Old Frisian, Old Norse, Old High German and possibly Old Teutonic, but the trail ends there: There’s no sign of it in Indo-European. Maybe another onomatopoetic sound one of our ancestors simply invented, and it stuck around.

Finally, “drizzle.” It DID derive from dhreu, carried through various changes in German into Old English as the barely recognizable drysnian. SOUNDS like drizzle when you say it: DRIZ-nee-ahn. But the path stops at that point, and “drizzle” doesn’t show up again in English until the 15th century, several hundred years later.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word dropped out of use, only to be re-adopted into English from either Norse or Danish, which both had versions of the word.

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Back to Dreary with Another Poet

I’ve written before about my high school English teacher, Mrs. Drake, with great admiration. Every kid should have at least one teacher who inspired them. Mrs. Drake was one of mine. She knew something about the power of the spoken language, and often read aloud to us. A bit over the top, perhaps, but, yes, she was darned good.

One of her favorites was “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe, which always resonates with teen-agers. It’s a vivid memory: Mrs. Drake standing in front of the class, enunciating ….

ONCE, upon a MIDnight DREARRRRRY …. While I PONdered… WEAK and WEARRRRY….”

Poe recognized “dreary” as an effective and evocative word, as did a nameless poet a thousand years before him. Language changes, but is always powerful.

And, if you’re pondering a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore on some dank, dreary day and you drowse a bit — that word also began with dhreu.


What about any readers who also know Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Swedish or other Germanic languages? Any words you recognize here that are still similar in your languages? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2019. One photograph © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission.

*My translation of Beowulf lines 1416-17, with assistance from Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, A New Verse Translation, W. W. Norton, New York, 2000. Sources included The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2000; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd Ed., Frederick Klaeber, D. C. Heath, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1950.

P.S. I found an error in the OED. It cites the wrong line number for the passage from Beowulf under “dreary.

One of a continuing series of articles about the signs that rule our lives.

When you reach the edge where North America meets the Pacific Ocean, there are some spectacular views. Here, for example, is the the uttermost northwestern point of the continental United States at Cape Flattery, Washington.

Cape Flattery Brad Nixon 7753 (640x480)

Cape Flattery, Washington

Beyond that, there’s nothing but ocean for thousands of miles.

A little farther south, you’ll encounter scenes like this on the Oregon coast.

Oregon beach Brad Nixon 1874 (640x480)

As I’ve said many times, and as Herman Melville pointed out, we’re all water-gazers.

Is there anything so compelling, so ineffably alluring as standing at the edge of the world looking out across the vast, endless ocean?

Beach Brad Nixon 7709 (640x469)

But reality sets in, and with it, the demands of insurance companies and individuals charged with the liabilities of municipalities. They’re duty-bound to WARN us.

It’s good to live in southern California, because at least the warnings come with a hint of good humor. We’re accustomed to this water-gazing stuff, after all.

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Yes, your life may be endangered, but we can still have fun. Welcome to California, dudes. Surf’s up.

© Brad Nixon 2019

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