Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 13, 2017

When Dinosaurs Roamed the … Highways?

Soon after humans started driving automobiles across the United States, untold numbers of other people saw an opportunity. Those travelers needed food, fuel, and places to stay. Kazango! The roadside travel industry was born.

If the U.S. had been carefully organized as a socialist economy, there’d have been a network of strategically placed travel centers offering standardized products and services. We chose another route, so to speak. You know what we got.

Gallup Brad Nixon 4913 (640x419)

Competition. That happens to be old Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico, but it could be almost anywhere in America.

Competition meant businesses required something to stand out from the crowd: signs, banners, gimmicks of all kinds. Websites, museums, archives and coffee table books galore document the artifacts of Roadside America. No one who travels with a camera can avoid shooting a few pictures of the clever, iconic or laughable “attractors.” I have, and I’ve posted a few Under Western Skies articles about some of them, like the Big Donut/Donut King chain in Los Angeles.

Donut King II Brad Nixon 2274 (640x480)

Out in the vast spaces of the American west, dusty roadsides sprouted attractors of all sorts: gas stations, motels and restaurants themed in every imaginable fashion. It didn’t matter if you were one of several businesses clustered at a crossroad, or the only place to stop for 40 or 50 miles; you had to get those cars to pull in.

Some of the attractor campaigns have become classics: The slogan, “Rock City: See Seven States!” appeared endlessly on barns and billboards along thousands of miles of American roads.

Crossing 300 miles of dry, high plains in South Dakota en route to see the Badlands? Every few miles, there’d be another billboard touting “Free Ice Water: Wall Drug Store, Wall, South Dakota,” along with innumerable other marvels awaiting you once you’d quenched your thirst.

If my father had NOT stopped after several hours of those signs, there’d have been a riot among the 5 kids in the back of the car. You can still visit Wall Drug. Enjoy the ice water.

Across the continent, every local mammal, reptile, fish, tree and legend is represented, including Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, leaping fish, snapping alligators, rampant bears and towering redwoods.

Naturally, in the Wild West, a lot (perhaps most) of the gimmicks were western themed: cowboys, cacti, Native American life (not always respectfully portrayed). That photo of Gallup, above, includes the El Rancho Motel, the Lariat Lodge and the Blue Spruce Lodge. The Arrowhead Lodge is just out of view.

The Mother Road, Route 66, was lined with such places. Granted, to the uninitiated, the glory of the desert scenery can wear thin over the long, hot miles.

AZ desert Brad Nixon 3814 (640x479)

Those roadside entrepreneurs were determined to get the road-weary travelers to pull in.

Today, Interstate 40 has replaced 66, but the old attractions are still there, vying to lure your speedometer down from 80 to 0.

I40 TeePee Brad Nixon 3838 (640x395)

I40 figures Brad Nixon 3822 (640x426)

The West has another big attraction, though. Across vast swaths of mountain, prairie and desert; in canyons and cliffs and coulees, the earth is filled with the fossils of Dinosaurs! That’s true in Fruita, Colorado, near a deposit of Jurassic Dinosaur fossils, as proudly noted on this grain elevator:

One of the first firms to adopt a Dinosaur theme was a large oil refining company, and the green Sinclair Dino has graced gas station signage for many decades, as here in Colorado on Route 160, between Durango and Mesa Verde National Park.

Colorado Sinclair Marcy Vincent (527x640)

Yes, the photo was shot a number of years ago: Gas was $1.50/gallon.

The Brontosaurus (now rechristened Apatosaurus) is a popular Dino, as at this restaurant, also in Fruita:

There are countless Bronto/Apatasauri along the highways. None, perhaps, more compelling than the one along Interstate 10 in Cabazon, California.

Morongo bronto Brad Nixon 2382 (640x480)

Walk up inside the figure to visit the gift shop. To read more about that place, and see a photo of the equally gargantuan Tyrannosaurus Rex on the property, click here for my 2010 bog post.

Interstate 40 through Arizona is peppered with dinosaur figures, reflecting a theme I’ve encountered in nearly every state, from Florida to California and north into New England. I rarely stop, but if you have your camera ready, you might grab a shot of them menacing you as you speed past.

AZ dinos Brad Nixon 4939 (640x403)

There are more. Stay alert.

Back to Wall, South Dakota for a moment. As you reach the Interstate 90 exit for Wall, you’ll encounter this:

Wall Drug Dino Google

80 feet tall. Want more traffic? Get a Dino!

As a lifelong Dinosaur fan, I’m always happy to see them. They’re out there in great numbers, some elaborately constructed like the Morongo beasts, or, as below, in Farmington, New Mexico, forged using the skills and materials on hand in an automobile repair and welding shop.

Farmington T Rex Brad Nixon (640x497)

If I needed my radiator fixed, I’d stop there.

Have a favorite roadside attraction? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Sinclair sign photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Wall Drug Dinosaur image © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 11, 2017

Santa Rita, New Mexico; Ghost Town in the Sky

All of us know that the world is filled with some uncountable number of astounding things, only a small portion of which we’ll ever know about, much less see.

There are, in addition, things we can never see. Some are too remote, or microscopic; others endure only fleetingly or move too quickly to be observed.

Never satisfied, we humans have also invented myriad tales of nonexistent creatures, places, and events, from sea monsters and mermaids to legendary cities within the earth or in the sky, like the Irish Tír na nÓg (which I always hope inspired Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City in Star Wars).

You’ll run out of patience with me if I start reporting on places supernal or supernatural, but recently, writing about library buildings that no longer serve the purpose for which they were constructed, I started thinking about all the buildings I’ve been in — schools I’ve attended, offices where I worked — that have been demolished, and are now only memories. They’ll never be seen again.

I recalled that I once encountered an entire town that was no longer there.

Here in the American west, ghost towns aren’t particularly rare. There must be scores, perhaps hundreds of them, typically places that burst suddenly into existence when mining or logging boomed in the area, then declined and eventually failed entirely when the resources gave out — often as precipitously as they grew. Some are now tourist attractions, like Bodie, California, at 8,300 ft. elevation in the Sierra Nevada, and extremely picturesque.

Bodie CA Willard Nixon 113 (640x474)

Bodie CA Willard Nixon 059 (640x458)

The town I’ll write about today is not a classic ghost town of weathered buildings, crumbling foundations and a wind-swept cemetery. It’s truly ghostly, because it’s invisible, and resides in mid-air. Supernal, yes, although not supernatural.

Several years ago, The Counselor and I were exploring the area around Silver City, in southwestern New Mexico (red rectangle).

Silver City NM map Google

There’s a great deal to see, including the Gila Wilderness …

Gila Wilderness MV Brad Nixon 087 (640x480)

the City of Rocks ….

city of rocks NM Marcy Vincent 034 - PS1 (640x480)

… the Mimbres Valley, with its heritage of an ancient Puebloan culture, as well as historic Silver City, itself.

Silver City NM Brad Nixon 054 (640x434)

15 miles east of Silver City is a man-made wonder, the Chino open pit copper mine. Copper’s been mined in the area since Spanish Colonial times, more extensively since early in the 19th Century. By 1901, underground mining yielded to open pit extraction. We pulled off Route 152 to take a look at it. I didn’t get a usable photo, so I’ll substitute an open pit gold mine I shot in Nevada, which is on the same scale as Chino, to give you a notion of what we saw:

Gold mine 019 Brad Nixon (640x459)

An extremely large hole in the ground.

A pickup truck pulled into the viewing area. Out of it stepped a man about my age, cowboy hat, plaid shirt, jeans, boots. He walked to the rail and looked out at the mine. I figured him for a local: a cattleman or rancher. I asked him some question or other about what we were seeing.

He answered and we talked. Before too long he explained that he always stops to see where he was born: “Right there.”

He was gesturing into the empty air out in front of us, hundreds of feet above the bottom of the pit.

He was obviously playing for effect, and went on to explain that he was born in the hospital in a town named Santa Rita. As the Chino pit expanded throughout the 20th Century, it forced the relocation of adjacent Santa Rita several times so that the land on which the town stood could be mined for copper. There were about 6,000 people in the town, and it made its final move in 1957. That location suffered from heavy erosion, though, and Santa Rita was finally abandoned in 1967, its last site ultimately consumed by more excavation.

My new acquaintance explained that there was a loose-knit society of sorts, consisting of people like him who’d been born in Santa Rita, on a spot that now hovers hundreds of feet in the high desert air above the pit.

A ghostly town if ever there was one: invisible, present only in the memories of those who lived there. Perhaps many of them — like the gentleman I met — are drawn to stand there and look into space, pondering their ghost town in the sky.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Bodie, California photographs © Willard Nixon 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 10, 2017

Time Traveler at My Doorstep

A few years ago, a ship sailed into San Diego harbor. After a stop there to replenish supplies, it followed the California coast about 100 miles north, and entered the harbor of Los Angeles.

That wouldn’t be remarkable, were it not for the fact that the year was 1542, and the galleon San Salvador (and 2 escorts) was the first European ship to visit California. Its captain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, claimed, first, what later became San Diego in the name of the King of Spain, and then repeated that for the other promising harbor he discovered, which became the Port of Los Angeles, as well as all the land between and for a great distance northward.

Thus began the European occupation of the west coast of what’s now the United States.

That harbor Cabrillo discovered proved promising. Today, it employs more than 800,000 people locally and handles about $1.2 billion of freight every day. It’s changed in 475 years.

Port of LA Brad Nixon 7198 (640x413)

I live about 2-1/2 miles straight up the hill from where I shot the photo above. Despite having the country’s busiest container port at my doorstep for the entire time I’ve been writing Under Western Skies, I’ve scarcely touched the subject here. I expect to change that in 2018. Today’s blog post is a start, and there’s no better place to start than at the beginning. Two months ago, the San Salvador was back for a visit.

San Salvador Brad Nixon 8488 (590x640)

That’s a replica of the original San Salvador. It’s based at the San Diego Maritime Museum. In the photo, it’s tied up a few steps from the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, right along the main channel of the port.

LA Maritime Museum Brad Nixon 7196 (640x480)

The ship was impressively tiny against the looming backdrop of today’s port operations, but with the right framing, it represented a scene from a long-ago era.

San Salvador rigging Brad Nixon 8482 (480x640)

The replica is the same size as the original, rigged the same way, 100 feet long, with a 10-foot draft. The San Salvador was built on the west coast of New Spain, at present-day Acajutla, El Salvador. Cabrillo’s actual mission was the standard one of the era: He was searching for a trade route to China.

Today, a massive amount of cargo steams along that channel of the Port of L.A., is unloaded by enormous assemblies of cranes and transporters, then distributed across the United States by truck and rail. In an irony Cabrillo might not have appreciated, a significant percentage of those goods have come from China. The irony is particularly bitter, because after sailing as far north as the mouth of the Russian River on the central California coast, he returned to winter on Santa Catalina Island 22 miles from Los Angeles. There, he stepped out of a landing boat, splintered his shin and died of gangrene. The fact that several landmarks along the California coast bear his name is probably small compensation.

The replica is equipped with modern facilities for greater comfort, including auxiliary engines, but unless conditions are unfavorable, it sails with the same technology Cabrillo’s crew used.

San Salvador rigging Brad Nixon 8480 (640x498)

Continuing to write about the port of today could occupy several years’ worth of blog posts, and I’ll never exhaust the world-within-a-world it represents. I look forward to mixing it into the 2018 blog subjects. There’s a great deal of land and water to cover.

Touring the San Salvador

I didn’t have an opportunity to sail on the San Salvador while it was here for a few weeks, but you can visit the ship at its regular berth in San Diego. Here is a link for information. 4-hour excursion cruises are available. Be careful getting in and out of the boat.

N.B. The west coast, as well as the entire North American continent, had already been occupied by an indigenous population for approximately 10,000 years prior to what’s referred to as “contact.” Those native populations did not fare well with the arrival of newcomers. I’ll address their prior residence in the area, too, acknowledging that Europeans didn’t invent the place.

© Brad Nixon 2017


Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 8, 2017

In a Town Named Orange

Most of you have heard of Orange County, California. It’s the large, populous county just south of Los Angeles County in Southern California. It has an attractive coastline with some wealthy communities, a few famous beaches, including Huntington Beach, which boasts that it’s “Surf City, USA” (although that’s a disputed claim). Inland, there are dozens of other cities, some of them quite large, many consisting of sprawling suburbs that stretch to the feet of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

There are some relatively small surviving pockets of the industry that gave the place its name: agriculture, especially orange groves. They once covered most of the county, along with fields of strawberries, grapes and a wide variety of other produce. Farming was big business in “The OC.” But even by the time I was a kid, the groves were making way for development. For example, the place in the next picture occupies a few hundred acres from which orange groves were cleared in the 1950s:

Disney California Adventure Brad Nixon 8328 (640x412)

Among the other cities and attractions of Orange County is one not so well known as Disneyland: the city of Orange, California.

With 140,000 residents, Orange isn’t a small town. It has its share of industry, busy thoroughfares and shopping malls, as well as residential areas. Thanks to ambitious preservation efforts, what was once a farm town (founded in 1869) now contains of one of the largest collections of historic buildings on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

It would take several months’ worth of blog posts to cover the town thoroughly. Over time, I’ll get to a few of the highlights. Today’s post is a first glance.

The center of town is officially termed “Old Town Orange.” Clustered around a central plaza with a traffic circle and a small park in the center, it has a genuine small town look and feel.

Orange California Brad Nixon 8683 (640x426)

It’s often used as a setting for films and commercials for exactly that reason, and you’ve probably seen Orange (with its businesses sporting made-up signs) in any number of screen appearances.

A block south of the circle is one of the historic buildings. It was the headquarters for the southern California citrus trade, the Orange County Fruit Exchange. To see it after reading descriptions of it is a charming experience. You will read that in its heyday, it was considered “the Empire State Building of the citrus industry.”

Orange Fruit Ex Brad Nixon 8680 (640x473)

Excellent public relations work I call that.

Built in 1922 in a hybrid of classical and Spanish Revival styles, it’s everything the powerful and influential citrus business was: solid, imposing, there to stay. Except nothing lasts forever, not even tens of thousands of acres of highly profitable citrus groves.

Eventually, the building acquired a name associated with a single business, added to the grillwork below the “Fruit Exchange” inscription on the entablature.

Orange Fruit Ex vert Brad Nixon 8681 (480x640)

Sunkist and the Exchange ceased using the building in about 1994. It served as an art gallery for a number of years, but is now privately owned and, so far as I know, not open for visits or tours.

The rest of Glassell Street, on which it stands, is also lined with historic buildings, most of them occupied by antique shops and restaurants. On weekends, Orange is a busy place and I can attest that a lot of those shops actually have antiques worth a look, not just kitsch. There are a number of public parking lots a block to the west, although they’re in demand when the crowds arrive. Cruise around the town, and you’ll find a spot within a few blocks. Easy walking.

I’ll get back to Orange several more times in the coming year for a look at a variety of old buildings. Sorry, but I won’t be able to show you the 1907 Carnegie Library. It was demolished in 1961, long before I got to California, to make way for a replacement building. Can’t save everything, not even the orange groves.

The Fruit Exchange Building is at 195 South Glassell Street.

Photographs of the Fruit Exchange building and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017

There’s a common metaphor about a committee of blind people tasked with describing an elephant. Depending on which part of the animal they examine by touch — leg, trunk, ear, body, tail — they describe radically different beasts. The analogy rings true to anyone who’s ever served on a committee: “Facts” vary, depending on one’s experience.

Take my state, California. We can agree on what it looks like, I’m certain.

IMG_3411 110 traffic (640x480)

California is the most populous state in the U.S. … by quite a large margin. If California were an independent nation, it would rank about 35th in the world by population. Visiting California, one could expect to find a crowded, populous place.

Imagine you’re assigned the job of describing California. A private helicopter sets you down in a restaurant parking lot in Grapevine, California, somewhere north of Los Angeles. Your assignment is to drive north along Interstate 5 until you reach Redding. You’re told you’ll cover about 480 miles, which should take you 7 or 8 hours. That should be a representative look at the state. Here’s your route:

Grapevine - Redding map Google

In Europe, that’s roughly equivalent to the distance from Hamburg, Germany to Basel, Switzerland or Paris to Marseille.

What will you see in 8 hours of driving? This:

Central Valley Marcy Vincent 8765 (640x480)

That’s not simply a snapshot of one moment; that landscape is representative of several hundred miles of California’s Central Valley.

Highway 5 Marcy Vincent 8759 (640x472)

California, you’ll subsequently report, is a wide, semi-arid plain 480 miles long, 40 to 60 miles wide, sometimes fringed by hills. Most of it is given over to either grazing land or intensively irrigated agriculture — grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, pecans, pistachios, avocados, broccoli, garlic, carrots, peaches, oranges and a long list of others.

Central Valley Marcy Vincent 8764 (640x405)

During your drive, you’ll encounter large trucks hauling the produce to market — scores of them. It’s an enormously productive farming area, you report.

In about the middle of the drive, you’ll encounter an urban area: the cities of Stockton and Sacramento. Other than that one developed area, you’ll say, California is a rural, sparsely populated place where farms and ranches house whatever small number of people live there. Agricultural infrastructure is far more evident than human habitation.

Grain elevators Marcy Vincent 8749 (640x439)

A little over 3 hours into the trip, you exit the freeway to see if you can find a place for lunch. The town is named Patterson (map, red star). You think it’ll be interesting to look more closely at one of the small towns you’ve seen lying away from the highway.

Report’s Over. On to Patterson

At this point I’ll abandon my fictional exercise, assuming I’ve made my point that the vast Central Valley is impressively different than what many people think of as “California.” It produces more than half the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the entire United States. I”ll write about it another time, but I want to exit I-5 to see Patterson, one of the small towns scattered in the immensity of the Central Valley.

Patterson’s history as a town begins early in the 20th Century, although it had been ranch land first under Spanish title and then American for many decades prior. A John D. Patterson developed the place, selling lots and laying out a grid of streets radiating from a central circle near the all-important railroad track that took products to market.

The circle is still there:

Patterson CA center circle pano Brad Nixon 7271ff (640x302)

The building in the center, John Patterson’s real estate development office from 1910, is now the local museum.

Patterson CA Museum Brad Nixon 7260 (640x432)

Patterson, California was small, but prospered in its fashion. People came in for the farming jobs, bought the small lots and put up houses that line the streets under what are now mature trees.

This Isn’t About the Museum

Regular readers already suspect why I veered off I-5 to visit a tiny burg, despite facing about 8 more hours of driving before I reached Eureka that night.

Yes, in 1917, just as the town was being incorporated, the enterprising citizens of Patterson applied for and received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to establish that symbolic structure that proved Patterson was an up-and-coming place to live: a public library.

Carnegie Library Patterson CA Brad Nixon 7249 (640x480)

It’s a modest building , representative of hundreds of other small town Carnegies: main floor elevated above ground level reached by steps, solid looking, in this case using the extended eaves of the Spanish Revival style to shade it from the intense sun and heat (it was 104 degrees the day I was there in late July). The basement is a rarity in much of California.

Patterson Carnegie Brad Nixon 7246 (640x478)

Mark Patterson on your list of former Carnegie Libraries. It’s now a commercial building, underused as a driver education business and not much else. I peered through the glass of the door, and it doesn’t look as if much of the original interior is intact. I didn’t get inside, and that may not be correct.

I don’t know if the building became obsolete, or if the town was simply done with it.

Although agriculture is still important in Patterson, known as the “Apricot Capital of the World,” it’s changing, radically.

Tiny Patterson is now home to a massive distribution center for one of the world’s largest retailers (starts with “A”). It employs thousands of people who’ve moved to the once remote Central Valley town, utterly changing a dusty farming village into a sprawling suburb.

But tradition continues. Patterson does have a library, a much newer building, part of the Stanislaus County Library system.One guesses that the influx of people means an opportunity for the library to grow.

I consider that a good thing. Well done, Patterson. The Carnegie building had run its course, but not the need for a public library. Keep growing those apricots, too.

The Carnegie Library building is at 355 W Las Palmas Ave., a block from the circle.

The current Patterson branch of the Stanislaus County Library is at 46 N. Salado. Here is the website.

Photos of the Patterson Carnegie, the circle and museum and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2017

A Knight Appears on the Horizon … The Time Approaches.

The mounted knight is clad for battle: hauberk, helm and shield. His cloak is stained from travel and toil. He turns, looking, left, right, then urges his steed forward. A knight-errant whose errand seems a grim one: He is bound on some quest.

Those of you who’ve been with me for a year or two recognize that knight. He appears here every year as the season turns and New Year’s approaches: it’s Sir Gawain astride Gringolet, searching for the Green Chapel.

It’s time for my annual reading the 14th-Century Middle English alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why re-read something I’ve read nearly every year for more than 4 decades? I have deep, philosophical reasons: I enjoy it.

Over the years, I’ve discussed some of the characters in the poem, the historical context (the horrible, terrible and simply not very pleasant 1300s), and a lot about the language of the poem.

Each year, the challenge is not just to successfully read a 600 year-old version of our language; I can manage that (with occasional reminders from the glossary).

The fun is looking for new aspects of the poem, or perhaps rediscovering something about it I might’ve known many years ago, but forgotten.

What will this year’s Sir Gawain blog post address? It depends on what I find. That, in turn, might be affected by what I’m looking for.

To help me consider approaches, I’d like to hear from you. If you’ve read the poem — long ago in school or recently — what aspect of the poem should I write about? More about that odd version of English? Any of the various conflicts? The manners and customs of the various courts in the story? Those gosh-darned hunting scenes?

If you haven’t read Sir Gawain before, perhaps this is your opportunity. Read it (or even part of it), in the original or a modern translation, and let me know what strikes you as meaningful, confusing, profound, beautiful or whatever.

I welcome the opportunity to take a new tack: perhaps one I’ve never considered.

I’ll start reading the day after Christmas, and post what I have to say for New Year’s (the day the crisis of the story occurs). Therefore, you have about 3 weeks to send me your suggestion for how to approach it this year before I open the book and start in once again.

If you’re in an English speaking country, your library probably has a copy of the poem. There are scads of versions available from online sellers.

I’ll be reading my well-thumbed Everyman’s Library edition of the Middle English text, A. C. Cawley, editor, 1962.

Sir Gawain Everyman 8851 (438x640)

There are other versions of the original text. I even have a free version I downloaded to my Kindle. I got it at this link on Project Gutenberg. I recommend against it. The transcription of the antique spelling is terrifically inaccurate. That Kindle book was compiled back in 1869. Get something newer.

For translations into contemporary English, there are many, and many of them are excellent. I’m partial to one of the more recent, by Simon Armitage, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Two classic translations include one by Marie Borroff, also W. W. Norton, 1967, and another by J. R. R. Tolkein, Houghton Mifflin, 1975 (paired with 2 other poems, “Pearl,” and “Sir Orfeo”).

SGGK copies Brad Nixon 8849 (640x430)

Those are verse translations. There are innumerable prose versions, too. All are acceptable entry points to a classic tale. (I’d love to hear from any readers in non English-speaking countries if you find a translation into your language.)

Feel free to send me your suggestion or question for this year’s angle on Sir Gawain. If you prefer I simply read your comment and not publish it, let me know. If you prefer to email me, send your message to

I want to emphasize that I’m not a scholar. I’m a fan, with moderate familiarity with the old language. This isn’t an academic exercise. We’re simply reading an interesting old verse tale.

NOTE that in some countries, “Gawain” may be spelled differently in publications, library listings, etc. Mr. Bolton writes from Australia that he finds it as “Gawayne.” That’s a legitimate spelling from the original text, copied by scribes before English was standardized. “Gawaine” might also net some results, as could “Greene Knight,” rather than “Green.”

I hope to hear from at least a few of you. I enjoy my annual pilgrimage back to Arthur’s court, the castle of Sir Bertilak and, ultimately, the showdown at the Green Chapel. It will be a pleasure to have you along with me.

Here are the pieces I’ve posted about Sir Gawain over the years:

Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009

A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010

The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010

Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011

When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012

Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012

New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015

Sir Gawain vs. the Poets: Translations Jan. 1, 2017

If you read Gawain for the first time, I’d be delighted to hear what you think of it. Be careful: He can tend to stick around once you get to know him.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 1, 2017

What’s In a Name? If It’s a Newspaper, There’s a Story.

I’m a newspaper fan. When I travel, I often go out of my way to find the local newspaper. It’s one way to get the sense of a community and what’s happening there. A moderately good local newspaper provides a useful look at a place.

Newspapers aren’t dead, and although they face dire challenges, there’s an enormous variety of them still on the scene. Consider the list at this link, which names newspapers in New Mexico: 50 or so. They’re still published because someone reads them.

There’s a story behind every newspaper: how long it’s been published, how it’s fared over the years, what’s changed during its run. Talk to anyone who’s worked at a newspaper — large or small — and you’ll learn it’s a world of its own, with a kind of lifeline running through it, carried along by a succession of publishers, editors, reporters, layout artists and press people.

The paper in the town where I grew up had an excellent story for a significantly long time. The Western Star began publishing weekly editions on February 13, 1807. It ran without interruption until January, 2013: 206 years. That’s good. I’m sorry it’s gone.

Local news is, essentially, the same everywhere, and the Western Star was typical: city council meetings, controversy about a new wastewater treatment plant, school news perhaps the weekly lunchroom menu, photos of newly married couples, high school sports, obituaries. It can seem mundane to an outsider, but it’s how communities know fact from gossip. “I read it in the paper” signifies something.

I’m fascinated by the names of newspapers, because they’re part of the story. The Western Star was an excellent name (coined at a time when Ohio WAS the “West”) and persisted throughout its run. Cincinnati, the major city near my town, once boasted several daily newspapers, including the Enquirer, the Post, the Times and the Star. By the time I was a boy, several had folded and merged together, resulting in the afternoon paper being named the Cincinnati Post Times-Star.

That list of New Mexico papers has some of those blended names, and there’s likely a story behind each one: Carlsbad Current-Argus, Las Cruces Sun-News, Valencia County News-Bulletin.

The newspaper with my favorite title in all the world is published in Socorro, about an hour south of Albuquerque. We were there, about to head west to see this:

NM Very Large Array Brad Nixon 010 (640x454)

That’s the Very Large Array radio telescope. I wrote about it here.

Passing through Socorro gave me more than an opportunity to pick up the local newspaper. I made a pilgrimage to see the place it’s published. Here I am in front of the offices:

Socorro Defensor Chieftain Marcy Vincent 003 (640x440)

What better name can there be than “El Defensor Chieftain?”

There were once two local papers, the English language Socorro Chieftain and the Spanish-English dual language El Defensor.  The Chieftain’s older, originating in the 1860s as Socorro grew during a mining boom. El Defensor published its first edition in 1904. Its founder, an accomplished native son of Socorro, A.C. Torres, had a career that included stints in the New Mexico legislature. He retired and sold El Defensor in 1957, then, when the subsequent publishers decided to stop publication in 1959, Torres, then 89, arranged for it to merge with the Chieftain.

At 151 years old, El Defensor Chieftain is New Mexico’s 3rd oldest newspaper. Yep, there’s the news of the city council meetings, crime reports, accomplishments of school students and the high school teams, marriages, births and obituaries. Life goes on in Socorro County, and there’s a newspaper to help people know what’s what. Go over to and take a look. And support your local newspaper. Someone has to care about the facts.

What’s your local paper? Can they match 151 years of publication? Do they have a name as memorable as Socorro’s? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. El Defensor photograph © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 29, 2017

Van Briggle Pottery Building, Colorado Springs

Ten thousand American stories begin something like, “In 18XX, young Augustus Flimfloozle left his family home in Maud, Ohio and headed west. With only two dollars in his pocket and the clothes on his back, he made his way across the Great Plains, determined to reach XXX City, there to pursue his dream of becoming a [cowboy, captain of industry, dental surgeon, etc.].”

Those of us who now live in the west are stuck with the heritage of all those Flimfloozles, because, as it turns out, a goodly number of them did succeed, establishing towns, banks, grocery stores, steel mills and 10,000 other enterprises.

In 1899, Artus Van Briggle headed west. He was 30 years old, and neither penniless nor just out of the cornfield. He’d studied art in Paris, and already an accomplished designer at Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the era’s foremost producers of art pottery.

Stricken by tuberculosis, Artus hoped the drier air of Colorado Springs would improve his health. He assiduously pursued his pottery craft, particularly his effort to imitate a certain Ming Dynasty matte glaze.

Within 2 years, he succeeded, and both Van Briggle’s designs and his blue matte glaze earned him international fame and prestigious design awards. Van Briggle Pottery of Colorado Springs became known worldwide, and his work is admired and collected today.

That’s as a good an American success story as you could wish for. Standard young-man-from-Ohio reaches the pinnacle of his art.

It omits something.

While in Paris, Artus met another accomplished American artist studying there, a painter, Anne Louise Gregory. They got engaged, each returned to the States — he back to Rookwood, she to Pennsylvania, where she taught high school art and language — then she joined him in Colorado Springs in 1900.

There, she helped manage the pottery and contributed a large number of designs to the Van Briggle line. They married in 1902.

Artus’ health continued to fail, and Anne eventually assumed not only management of the pottery, but took the lead in design. Artus died in 1904, aged 35. Anne carried on.

In fact, Anne forged ahead with great ambition, building an impressive establishment to house the company’s pottery production, offices and showroom.

Van Briggle Pottery

She intended it to be a memorial to her husband, and engaged architect Nicolaas van den Arend for a Flemish farmhouse style building in recognition of Van Briggle’s Dutch ancestry. Completed in 1908, it’s an intriguing variation on the era’s prevailing Arts and Crafts mode.

Van Briggle gable Brad Nixon 101 (480x640)

Anne had everything to do with the look of the remarkable building, designing thousands of tile pieces that decorate the building inside and out.

Van Briggle pottery Brad Nixon 102 (480x640)

Animals — like the rooster above the sundial — appear in many of the pieces. I hope there’s a wonderful story behind the fact that a large glazed tile cat perched on one of the chimneys. Click either photo to enlarge.

Notice the Van Briggle “AA” hallmark, above the cat and in the field of blue tiles below the window in the photo above that: Anne and Artus’ initials, the Van Briggle hallmark.

Flower themes and fanciful figures are everywhere, as here on the sundial:

Van Briggle sundial Brad Nixon 100 (480x640)

And here, The Counselor in front of a panel of stylized lotus flowers

Van Briggle pottery Brad Nixon 098 (480x640)

The pottery struggled, though, declaring bankruptcy. In about 1912, Anne handed off managing the company, later sold it and returned to teaching and painting. She died in 1929.

Van Briggle Pottery has continued since then in the hands of a succession of owners. The building suffered, too: once from fire, another time from a disastrous flood, but was rebuilt both times. In 1968, Van Briggle moved to another location, and the restored building was acquired by nearby Colorado College (where Ms. Van Briggle taught), which continues to maintain it while using it for their facilities department.

There’s one piece of Van Briggle Pottery in our collection, not an old one. Simple in design, it wears a version of Artus’ blue glaze, painstakingly compounded through numerous trials over a hundred years ago.

IMG_8842 (640x480)

The marks still include the “AA” logo.

IMG_8845 (640x480)

The emblem of a love story; or so I like to think.


The Van Briggle Pottery building is at 1125 Glen Avenue, Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s a short distance north of downtown, at the intersection with Uintah Street.

Click here for information about the building on the college’s website.

I parked in the paved lot and took photographs without calling ahead. If that proves problematic, there is a large public parking lot 50 yards south of the pottery, within sight of the building.

To my knowledge, you can’t casually show up and walk in to tour the place, which is a college office facility. There are tours during an annual open house, but I don’t have other tour information. If you know, please leave a comment.

The Van Briggle company’s now located at 1024 South Tejon St., on the southern edge of downtown, just north of interstate 25.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Van Briggle Pottery example from the collection of The Counselor, used with kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 27, 2017

One Day at Large in Chianti

As I’ve said before, travel, like all of life, requires choices.

Do you explore one place for a week or a month, or move on each day to another location, squeezing in as many monuments, museums and meals as you have strength to endure? Rent a car or bicycle, or travel by train and bus? Maybe you prefer cruise ships or tours.

Whatever your approach, you can’t see everything, so you must choose. No matter how intensively you explore around a chosen base of operation, there’ll still be a restaurant you didn’t try, a historic (or prehistoric) site you skipped. Or, if you’re constantly on the move, not only will you skip past a lot things, but no matter how far you go, there’s always something over the horizon you’ll never reach.

We chose the “base of operations” approach when we visited the Chianti region of Tuscany. Our temporary home was Castellina in Chianti, 22 miles south of Florence, 20 miles north of Siena. It has about 2,800 residents, and, yes, it boasts an old town center, Piazza del Commune, dominated by the 14th Century stone tower of the Rocca.

Castellina Rocca Brad Nixon 076 (480x640)

The Rocca houses the local Archeological Museum, where we learned that while the Castellina of today has several Medieval structures, the area’s been occupied for a lot longer. A view along the Via Trento e Trieste shows a conical hill just to the north of town.

Castellina in Chianti street Brad Nixon 123 (480x640)

The top of that hill was our first stop for one particular day of exploring Chianti. It’s an Etruscan tomb, dating from the 7th or 8th Century BCE, the Tumulo di Montecalvaria.

Montecalvaria Etruscan tomb Brad Nixon 092 (480x640)

I consider this one day in Tuscany to be a fair representation of a pleasant way to travel. We had a car, useful for covering the territory in rural Tuscany. We were in control of our own schedule, and we had only a general itinerary, not a checklist of must-sees; we were looking, open to whatever turn in the road appealed to us. Other days had more specific itineraries, but not that one.

Here’s the area of that day’s tour. Castellina is at the bottom left, red oval. For reference, Florence is at the top left, Arezzo in the lower right.

Tuscany map Google

We drove first to Greve (blue oval), then Montefioralle (red star) and Badia a Passignano (red flag). There was a great deal of interesting countryside, but here are some highlights.

Greve in Chianti

It’s an easy drive from Castellina to Greve, passing through a town that merits exploring, Panzano, which we did on another day.

Greve is a busy modern town with about 15,000 residents. It has its share of commerce stemming from the production of Chianti wine, as well as banks, groceries, stores of every description, making it a center of life for the surrounding area.

Leaving the main route, the town’s main street passes through the old city center, Piazza Giacomo Matteotti.

Greve Piazza Matteotti Brad Nixon 100 (640x480)

That square has hosted a market for many centuries, and is still the core of the town. Local traffic circles around the Basilica Santa Croce you see at the southern end. It was built in the 11th Century, although now much modified.

As appealing as Greve was, we were bent on visiting smaller, more out-of-the-way places that day. Rather than continue along the main Siena-Florence road, we headed west into hilly countryside. It was sights like this we were after:

Chianti hilltop town Brad Nixon 156 (640x480)

We weren’t disappointed when the narrow road led to a hilltop town with the enchanting name of Montefioralle.


It’s a walled town, begun in the 11th Century, originally two fortresses that have become one village, although the narrow perspectives and small spaces make it difficult to see (or photograph) any wide view. Instead, one strolls along the street that circles the foot of the high portion of the town. Here’s a tour along the Localita di Castello Montefioralle‘s Medieval buildings. Click on an image to start the gallery, ESCAPE to return.

Even the wall details are fascinating, like this carved stone lion hitching ring.

Lion chain ring bolt Brad Nixon 102 (480x640)

Montefioralle was once the important local town, when hilltop fortresses represented power and protection. Today there’s no sign of the thriving local markets that yielded in time to nearby Greve, with its easier-to-reach location along the modern travel route.

Since our plan that day was not to have a plan, we simply looked around from Montefioralle’s hilltop for the next direction to take. The view to the west boded well:

Badia from Montefioralle Brad Nixon 112 (640x480)

The map (yes, we had a map) told us that was Badia a Passignano. The sole road out of Montefioralle headed that way, and so did we.

Badia a Passignano (sometimes Badia di Passignano)

Emerging onto Badia’s hilltop, the first view of the settlement there is nothing if not imposing:

Badia a Passignano wall Brad Nixon 121 (640x480)

That wall is part of the enclosure around the extensive Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo, a Valllumbrosan monastery, which constitutes nearly all of Badia a Passignano. “Badia” is a word for “abbey.”

The abbey, begun in about 1049, is large, with some impressive structures, including tall towers.

Italy 120 Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo Passignano vert (480x640)

One risk of traveling without detailed research and planning is access. Not everything is open all the time. There are limited opportunities to tour the monastery, so we could only see one outer courtyard, which included the facade of the 13th Century Church of St. Michael Archangel:

Abbazia di San Michele Brad Nixon 113 (480x640)

For more information, and to see an interesting aerial view of Badia, click on this link.

That was one day, here related in nearly a thousand words that don’t begin to capture a fraction of it. There are myriad other modes of travel, but it served us well for a sunny day in Chianti. A little luck helps, but so does a willingness to get off the main track, out of the car and start looking around. After Badia, it was time to return to Castellina and decide where to eat that evening. Maybe have some of the local wine? I hear it’s reasonably good.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 26, 2017

Signifying; Warning, This Is an Environment

This is one of a continuing series of posts about signs and what they tell us — which isn’t always exactly what they were intended to say.

Here in California, we have at least one excellent law: You can’t own the beach.

From San Ysidro, just this side of the Mexican border, to the Oregon border, just north of Pelican Beach 840 miles away, the edge of the ocean is public land.

Sometimes that public strip narrows to a thin boundary, with large cities and towns of every size crowding along it, but no one can (legally, at least), claim the beach for private use or exclude anyone from access, although there are plenty of rules about what you can and can’t do on particular beaches.

No animals Marcy Vincent 2010 (640x480)

I could easily devote some number of years here to writing and photographing ONLY the sights one finds along that enormous expanse of ocean. Those cities and towns have ports, harbors, highways, high rises and stretches of mansions. There are estuaries, wetlands, craggy cliffs, sand dunes, lighthouses and … an inexhaustible number of things.

In 8 years of blogging, I’ve scarcely touched on the coastline within a few miles of where I live. Here’s The Counselor on Ocean Trail, a favorite walk of ours.

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 8026 201111 (640x475)

This is the view from the north end of that trail.

Deserted Beach Brad Nixon 5480 (640x480)

The Pacific coast varies in an indescribable number of ways, north and south, as I said, not only the landforms but the flora and fauna differing enormously from one area to another. The coast looks entirely different 500 miles to the north on the edge of Redwood National Park.

N Cal coast Brad Nixon 7373 (640x480)

Any picture taken along the coast makes the same point: from Imperial Beach to Oceanside to Pismo Beach, San Simeon, Big Sur, Crescent City … they’re all fascinatingly different.

Many of the species that inhabit these coastal zones are extremely site-specific, and live nowhere else on earth. One example is butterflies. The Palos Verdes blue butterfly exists solely in the particular climate and vegetation of our immediate area. Rare? I’ve never seen one. 20 miles to the north, the range of the El Segundo blue butterfly is a similarly tiny stretch of duneland squeezed between a city, an oil refinery and one of the world’s busiest airports. Good luck, Blues.

There is, though, one constant and universal fact that applies to nearly every inch of our precious border of coast: It’s threatened. Erosion, development, pesticides, herbicides, wastewater, drought, flood and climate change challenge the survival of species and environments that depend on a precarious balance of conditions to survive there.

Therefore, among the signs admonishing you (and your pet) about what you may and may not do with regard to swimming, building fires, bicycling, skateboarding, hang gliding, smoking, consuming alcohol or whatever else, you see signs like this one along that coastal Ocean Trail of ours:

Environment sign Brad Nixon 8748 (640x480)

Got it. Great. Thanks for the warning.

I don’t typically write this much about a sign, but there’s something ironic about the fact that we have to warn humans away from a large portion of our protected public land. It’s not just true along Ocean Trail, but everywhere from the slopes of Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Washington’s Hoh Rainforest. We establish preserves, monuments and parks, construct roads, bridges and trails so that people can go there and delight in them, and then immediately start defining certain areas because, oops, it’d be okay if one or two people a year walked there, but not a thousand or ten thousand or — at the really popular places — a million.

We’re the problem. In the past year, as I’ve written about the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, I’ve been thinking a lot about the culture of “nature” we’ve created. I consider it possible that the national parks and the notion of paving roads to and through them, accompanied by hiking trails, campsites, lodges and snack bars has caused all of us to forget something:

We’re always in nature, not just when we finally set foot on Bright Angel Trail to descend into the Grand Canyon.

We’re animals, after all. Although we’ve paved over and built on a lot of the “natural” world we live in every day, it’s still “in” nature. We never stop being animals; the world never stops being part of the natural world.

We forget that, and feel we must shift gears to go from “non-natural” to natural mode. Once there, we have to be told not to walk or ride our mountain bikes or ATVs through the world’s only existing Palos Verdes blue butterfly habitat.

Up go the signs and fences. We understand signs and fences. Our neighborhoods are full of them. What we ignore is that “nature” is something we’re part of all the time, not just when we put on the hiking shoes and stuff a couple of water bottles into the backpack before driving to the trailhead parking lot where we think the natural world starts.

This, I think, is the harbinger of one of the 2018 blog post themes. Not all the time, occasionally: What’s “natural,” and do we have to go somewhere special to experience it?

Happy hiking.

© Brad Nixon 2017. “Animals” sign © Marcy Vincent, used by kind permission.

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