Alternative Top-Ten: National Parks Edition

It’s nearly impossible to capture the feeling of being there, staring out and absorbing all the splendors of the natural world and the American wilderness.  It’s an experience that could easily redefine for the beholder what it means to be an American, if not what it means to be a human.  A guest on this planet.

In any case, I’ll start small, keep it simple, and begin with something that many, including myself, always seem to dig: The good ol’ Top 10.  My personal favorite national parks.

One thing to note, I haven’t been to all them.  In fact, I haven’t even been to half of them.  This list is less about the potential for sightseeing and more about experience.  Specifically my own.  I suspect the list will change over time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

10. Arches

I got in late at night, when I could only see the darkness around me, but the next morning I woke up and found myself in a desert wonderland and standing before the arches in one of the trippiest, most unusual places I’ve experienced in the American Southwest.

Opposite the neighboring Canyonlands National Park to the west, Arches flanks the eastern side of Moab, a small but lively desert town and a prime base of operations for travelers looking to experience the greater outdoor adventures at their full disposal in this southeastern corner of Utah.

At the entrance is Park Avenue, so named after the rising rock formations that might give one the impression they are strolling down a walkway similar to New York City’s famous landmark. Only the hustle-and-bustle of the concrete jungle has been replaced by an undeniable feeling of peace and tranquility within the whispering silence of sandstone a few million years old.

Ren Michael - Arches National Park - National Parks - Park Avenue - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael in Park Avenue; Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch, the most iconic sight in all of the park, ranks alongside some of the most well-known landmarks in the United States. Chances are you’ve seen it on your computer as a desktop wallpaper, or on posters with some inspiring quote about exploration or achievement. Either way, a sense of achievement is no doubt something you’ll feel standing before this astounding desert archway.

The hike to reach it is just over a mile. At the start it seems very simple, but don’t be deceived. It might not take you long to get there, maybe just a half-hour without taking any big breaks, but in that half-hour you’ll be working. On this hike there’s no leveling out, not even for a little bit, so you’re constantly going uphill. It might be a short hike, but rest assured, it is a hike the whole way, so bring water and prepare to get a lot of sun, especially if you’re going in the summer.

Once you’ve reached the top of the slope, you’ll clear a wall of sandstone to your right before you climb another few steps. Then you see it. A strange whirlpool of rock and sand separate you from the monolithic arch, standing alone at the other side before a quiet, calm desert sky. It looks like a portal to another dimension. A desert temple long-forgotten but every bit as sacred now as it was ages ago.

Walk toward the archway. Stand before it. Enter it. You may not come out the same.

Ren Michael - Arches National Park - Utah - Delicate Arch - National Parks - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael at Delicate Arch; Arches National Park, Utah

 

9. Rocky Mountain

If renewal and reawakening have together formed an ongoing theme for me and my experiences in these places, the Rocky Mountains are no exception. During my trip in 2015 from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rockies were the greatest height I reached both in the literal sense (12,183 feet above sea level) and in whatever existential, spiritual sort of journey I found myself in at the time.

Trail Ridge Road - Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado - Quinby & Co.
Trail Ridge Road; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I was coming in from Moab, running on little to no sleep and getting fairly delirious as I drove into the greater Denver area. By the time I arrived into the west end of the park, I was ready to set up camp and take a long and comfortable sleep. The next morning, I woke up and breathed in the fresh mountain air, rejuvenating my senses after a long week of camping in the heat and dryness of the southwestern desert.

Rocky Mountain might be one of the most popular ski destinations in America, but it is every bit as breathtaking in late summer without the snowfall and crowds of winter vacationers. One thing that I felt for certain was the vastness of alpine wilderness and greenery, revealed especially abundant from the vantage points offered along the Trail Ridge Road, built atop some of the highest peaks of the mountain range and taking travelers right through what’s known as the Alpine Tundra. Up here the air is thin (containing 35% less oxygen than at sea level) and possibly very windy. Hold onto your hat.

Ren Michael - Alpine Tundra - Rocky Mountain National Park - National Parks - Colorado - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael in the Alpine Tundra; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In short, Rocky Mountain offers some of the best and most plentiful opportunities for alpine hiking and camping you’ll find in the country. Its shimmering lakes, rivers and waterfalls add to the tremendous diversity of forest and mountain wilderness and to its spectacular scenery. It’s paradise in the mountains. A valley of kings nearly three miles high.

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Bear Lake; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I left the park with my spirit cleansed and my head clear. To this day, I’ve yet to leave any place feeling more physically and spiritually renewed.

 

8. Grand Canyon

I remember watching the sun’s rays beam down into the canyon depths, shining its light upon the sandstone cliffs and revealing the faintest trace of the Colorado River, all while a mass of darkening clouds and thunder rolled in from the east before dissipating in the light of the sun and evaporating in a mist that fell softly on my forehead like a kiss from the heavens at sundown.

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Andrea Pavlov in Desert View; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

A whole world revealed itself to me like an epic drama of rain and thunder and darkness and light. I wonder just how well, if at all, some other place in America might have served as a better landscape for such an extraordinary moment. I wonder if that other place could have even come close.

When I first saw it, I was much younger. I spent maybe a half-hour just looking at it. The prevailing thought then, having never really seen a mountain much less a grand canyon, was that it simply didn’t look real. I used to say things like that about anything I thought even slightly memorable or noteworthy. After my first visit, I’d never again use that expression so freely.

Ren Michael - South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon National Park - Grand Canyon - National Park - South Rim - Arizona - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael on the South Kaibab Trail; Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim), Arizona

The Grand Canyon can forever alter your vocabulary, forcing you to fully contemplate the meaning behind descriptive words, particularly those that denote size. People have often said that no place in America is truly so grand. I think it redefines the adjective, and it sets the standard for anything on this planet said be big or enormous, or massive or incredible.

Simply looking at it from any viewpoint along the rim is an experience in its own right. But once you finally begin to get over it—something that took me two separate visits—hiking down into the canyon is a whole new adventure that offers changing and more immersive views as you hike deeper. Just remember, whether you’re going a mile down, three miles down, or all the way down to the river, ultimately you have to come back up.

 

7. Crater Lake

The simplicity of this particular experience, the fact that I was doing nothing more than staring at a lake and yet still finding myself so awestruck and deeply moved by it, is something that puts Crater Lake at lucky number seven.

On paper, during the first day, there was nothing that should have been too memorable about this visit. It was very cold, most of the park was closed, and it snowed all the time we were there, obscuring our view of pretty much anything near the lake, including the lake itself.

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Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

So why is it on this list?

For one thing, this experience was a clear example of not letting circumstance dictate experience, in seeing through whatever one might deem inconvenient at the time and remembering that I was still in an incredible place, a place unlike any other in the world.

If something about where I currently stood didn’t meet my expectations, then I should have never set any expectation beyond simply experiencing something new. If I allowed myself, I just might see something truly beautiful, something that I’d remember for the rest of my life. Luckily I allowed myself to do that. I let myself be prepared for anything.

For me, it was seeing the lake, just barely in view, peering at me mysteriously through the dense snowfall. I could hardly see it, but I knew it was there, its dark circular outline seemed an ominous presence in that overwhelmingly white canvas before me. Only after staying the night in a campground just outside the grounds of the park and returning the next morning, when the sun was out and the sky was very clear and beautiful, did I see the glistening lake in all its splendor.

While the moment itself was an additional lesson in patience, waiting for the storm to blow over and not turning around and leaving when the weather looked bad, the greater point is that my seeing the lake was just as great an experience as not seeing it at all, or barely seeing it when all the snow was falling. It was all a matter of perspective and what I was allowing myself to see.

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Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

It’s the kind of thing that illustrates the difference between looking at something and seeing something. The difference between sightseeing and experiencing.

Anyway aside from all that, Crater Lake is a stunning sight. At 1,932 feet, it’s the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. Formed from a volcano that collapsed onto itself millions of years ago, all of its water comes from rain and snowfall. It’s therefore one of the clearest—and bluest—natural displays of water found anywhere in the world.  Truly, I’ve never seen water so blue, and with the fallen snow and the patches of green still showing in the pine all around us, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

 

6. Death Valley

This place can be intimidating, and I don’t just say that because I got there in the dead of the night when I could hardly see anything. I know, I have a tendency to do that. Maybe there’s something about darkness that both scares me and thrills me. Darkness. Vastness. Put them both together—along with losing phone reception and not being entirely sure where you’re going, no matter what the maps might say because you still have never been to this place in your life—and things can get a little freaky.

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Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

But uncertainty is part of the adventure. Not having phone service, for example, especially in today’s world, can be scary when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re constantly thinking about everything that can go wrong. The trick is to not think about those things, because chances are things won’t go wrong, and if they do, you’ll be alright because you’re prepared. So…you know, make sure you’re at least somewhat prepared. Make sure you have a flashlight, for example, something I learned after driving through Big Sur a few years ago.  Make sure to bring water too.

Death Valley is the kind of place where it might be easy to think about all those things that can go wrong. At least in the other parks, when you’re in the middle of nowhere, the truth of it doesn’t scream at you in the face. Let’s just say that at times, Death Valley looks damn near biblical. Jesus could have easily spent his forty days in this desert. A friend of mine once said he thought he saw Moses in the distance, marching along the desert floor with the Israelites.

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Ren Michael at Golden Canyon; Death Valley National Park, California

That being said, Death Valley is really beautiful! Again this is the sort of thing that comes down to perspective.

It might be better to come here alone. You have to be quiet. You have to let it all come to you. Think about how old the place is, and how much it’s changed over the years. More importantly think about how it hasn’t changed. How in the ongoing chaos of the world, this desert remains, almost making our own day-to-day concerns seem trivial in light of how fleeting they are. Death Valley existed long before we arrived, and will more than likely exist long after we’re gone.

In Death Valley, I found life. Ongoing and unchanging.

 

5. Smoky Mountain

For those of us on the east coast, the number of national parks might seem a bit scarce compared to all that lies farther west. Maybe a lot of that has to do with history, old Europeans and future commercial interests clearing out vast wilderness and building on land that might have one day been protected; long before Americans began to expand west, when conservation efforts and a collective environmental awareness were growing at about the same time.

This next place on the list, therefore, has become a true sanctuary, having survived over generations and grown particularly valuable in the eyes of anyone who honors the beauty of our natural landscape. For those east coasters seeking the adventure of Grand Canyon or the tranquility of Crater Lake, or both, it is especially cherished; and for many Americans, it just might be the most iconic mountain range in all of our history and lore.

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Smoky Mountains; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Covering 522,427 acres of land, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.

With its own biological diversity, endless visions of greenery and waves of mountains seeming to stretch on into infinity, the Smokies reminded me of a lot of the Rocky Mountains. Only here I discovered a greater sense of intimacy and even a bit of southern charm that set it apart from the mountains of the west. My guess is that since there are more towns and cities in the general area, that famous southern hospitality tends to rubs off a little more on this park and give it a distinct personality of its own.

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Ren Michael on the Appalachian Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Unlike any other park on this list and a majority of the parks in America, the Smokies seem as though they are a solidly popular local destination, like something Tennesseans and Carolinians might easily decide to go and visit for a weekend or on a day-off, and lot less like a Yosemite or Yellowstone, which draws people in from across the country and all around the globe.

The local flair adds to that sense of intimacy. It felt less like a tourist destination and more like my backyard. Less like a forest. More like the woods. The waterfalls are smaller, the rivers seem more quiet, and altogether everything is every bit as beautiful as all the grand wonders of the American west put together.

 

4. Yosemite

If I were to keep this list as objective as possible–that is, strictly about sightseeing–then I just might have to put Yosemite National Park at Number One.  Famously described by the naturalist John Muir as “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter,” it’s no surprise that Yosemite has become a symbol of California and of the greater American outdoors.

Ren Michael - Glacier Point - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Yosemite Valley - National Park - California - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael at Glacier Point; Yosemite National Park, California

If weather is permitting, and usually it is outside of winter, drive up to Glacier Point.  Or better yet, climb it. Once you’re at the top, take a look out over the valley, at Half Dome standing mightily over the whole scene like a king in his own vast kingdom.

Down in the valley, at least during the busy summer season, Yosemite can feel a bit like Disneyland. If you want to hike up Half Dome, you will need a permit.  Yet one reason Glacier Point is such a great spot is because you can take them all in at once, as it offers a spellbinding view of the valley, of Half Dome, of Yosemite Falls and the high country.

This was my introduction to Yosemite National Park, when I thought of Muir and his mission to protect both the valley and the parks, publishing in great detail his experiences and reflections on their beauty with the rest of America, all largely inspired by his own first encounter with Yosemite, when he wandered into the valley regarding himself an as “Unknown Nobody” searching for anyplace that was wild.  Yea, I could relate.

As far as hikes go, the Mist Trail is definitely one of the best.  However, while it’s slightly outside the valley, it too can get fairly crowded. To avoid the crowds, detour along the John Muir trail at the base of Vernal Fall. This will provide a far more quiet and enjoyable experience, with superior views of the river and the falls leading to Nevada Fall, at which point you rendezvous with the Mist Trail leading you back down to the trailhead.

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Nevada Fall from the John Muir Trail; Yosemite National Park, California

Of course, this portion of the John Muir Trail is but a small fraction of its entirety, beginning in Yosemite Valley and traveling south through 211 miles of the Sierra Nevada, ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Sierras; just outside another national park, not quite as famous as its big brother to the north, but every bit as wondrous.

 

3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

I’d never been so positively humbled in my life, let alone by the mere presence of trees, as I was in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Of course, these are no ordinary trees. They are some of the largest trees in the world, most notably the famous General Sherman Tree, which is, by volume, the largest in the world.

Then again, it’s not just size that makes these trees so extraordinary, but their age.  As some of them are over 3,000 years old.

General Sherman Tree - General Sherman - Sequoia National Park - Kings Canyon National Park - Sequoia - Kings Canyon - California - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman Tree; Sequoia National Park, California

This is where it all began for me. When I first became aware of the national parks and experienced a connection to them—to all of nature—unlike any I’d felt before. Looking up at giant Sequoias can do that to you.

My introduction to the park was through Kings Canyon, seeing the General Grant Tree, walking through Grant Grove and those surrounding it, and looking out over the marvelous canyon itself.

In the years since, I’ve written down a few observations, entries, many notes and even some music about my time here and I expect there’s a lot more to come. It has left a lasting impression, having greatly altered how I think and view the details of my life and my daily experience as a human on this planet.

If you’re staying in the park, the Lodgepole Campground is the most centrally located. It’s just two miles from the Giant Forest, the majestic Sequoia grove that is home to General Sherman. Lodgepole is also the busiest campground, though it never feels overly crowded. Still, going north up Generals Highway to Dorst Creek is a nice alternative, if you’re looking for something more quiet. Even farther north is Grant Grove Campground, which is another more popular campground and the Kings Canyon counterpart to Lodgepole.

Returning south down Generals Highway will lead you to Moro Rock, the trail to which can be accessed from the Giant Forest Museum, or from a parking lot just outside the rock, making the hike only a half-mile versus nearly two miles one-way. I would suggest the longer route if you’ve got time. The hike itself is pretty smooth until the last half-mile, that steep and winding trek up the rock. Once you’ve reached the peak, you’ve got a spectacular view of the mountains and the grand entryway into the greater Sierra Nevada.

Ren Michael - Moro Rock - Sequoia National Park - Kings Canyon National Park - Sequoia - Kings Canyon - National Park - California - Quinby & Co.
Ren Michael at Moro Rock; Sequoia National Park, California

 

2. Zion

I had no idea of what to expect and I’d never seen any pictures. It was just a vague understanding, some distant and shadowy vision of what stood waiting for me once I arrived. And then of course, adding to the allure was the name. Zion. It had an air of mystery.  It felt unassuming yet powerful.

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Ren Michael at the Grotto; Zion National Park, Utah

As I write this now, I still can’t articulate what it is exactly, what it is that makes Zion so remarkable. I’ve seen bigger mountains, more colorful and vibrant scenery and wildlife. The canyon itself seems far less impressive certainly than the Grand Canyon.

My first impression was that, while indeed smaller than the Grand Canyon, it was also greener and more dynamic. The most well-known part of Zion Canyon is the Narrows, which is a ten-mile hike round trip if you’re planning on heading as far as Big Spring. Whether you hike ten miles or two miles, you will be hiking in the river, which can be fairly challenging. At times, you’ll be waist deep in the water, so bring trekking poles and the right kind of footwear, shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting wet. Hopefully, you’ll find your footing in no time and eventually get into something of a rhythm; and so once you’re there, hiking in the gorge, try not to spend too much time still looking down at your feet. Look up. Look around. The Narrows gets its name because it’s the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with walls 1,000 feet tall and a river sometimes a mere 20 to 30 feet wide.

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Mount Carmel Highway; Zion National Park, Utah

Other more famous hikes are the Angels Landing, which provide commanding views of the entire canyon. Great for thrill-seekers.  The Emerald Pools trails might be a better option for those looking for something a little less strenuous, but beautiful nonetheless.

All these places lie within the actual canyon in Zion National Park, and are thus accessible only via transit, a very reliable bus system that takes you from the entrance of the canyon all the way to the Narrows.

If you want to stay in your car and explore more of the wilderness in the outer reaches of the park, keep driving from the main entrance and continue via Canyon Ridge Road for some stellar views that are far less crowded and equally extraordinary compared to anything you’ll see back in the canyon.

To anyone coming in after a long drive through the southwest, if ever so great an oasis existed in all the American desert, it’s Zion. The Promised Land. A kingdom of Heaven living and breathing on the earth for all those who seek it. To all the pilgrims of America, young and old, Zion can feel a lot like home.

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Ren Michael at Canyon Overlook; Zion National Park, Utah

 

1. The Everglades

Surprised? Yea me too.

Of course, I am from South Florida. Born and raised. I grew up with the Everglades. I didn’t truly appreciate it then, but as I’ve grown older and more understanding of the connection I share with it, I’ve come to recognize it as home. Since it’s five minutes or so from the house in which I grew up, The Everglades is quite literally my own backyard.

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Ren Michael at Long Pine Key; Everglades National Park, Florida

Still, it’s a swamp. It’s almost always hot and looks the same pretty much all year. But don’t let any of that fool you. In the right time of year, or with enough mosquito repellant, you can find a whole array of secluded trails to hike, or lush creeks and canals to take a canoe and explore. In the lush subtropical wilderness—the largest in the United States—you will discover plants and wildlife unseen anywhere else in the world.

But that’s not the only reason it takes the Number One spot.  The other reasons have more to do with its history and what the park essentially represents.

There are no mountains. No rivers. No waterfalls. There aren’t even any hills. The highest point of elevation is about 6-8 feet. It’s not necessarily about scenery. It was never founded with the intent, far more typical at the time, of being a place full of wondrous views where vacationers might come to leisurely spend a weekend getaway.

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Ren Michael and Andrea Pavlov at the Shark Valley Watchtower; Everglades National Park, Florida

This distinction underscores the deeper meaning of the park itself, which further exemplifies the dual significance behind most of our national parks and monuments.

As a home to some of the most rare plant-life and endangered species on the planet, like the American crocodile, the manatee, and the Florida panther; the Everglades is the first national park founded for the sole purpose of preserving an ecosystem.

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Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida

And yet it’s not just for the survival of the life that exists within it, but also to better ensure our own survival, the survival of we who depend on the health of our environment and the stability of our ecosystems everyday—usually far more than we realize.

Sometimes these ecosystems are glorious and mountainous and marvelous. Other times, they’re more discreet. Sometimes, it’s a swamp.

In this way, the significance of the Everglades is a lesson for us all, a truth we can all cherish throughout our time here on this fragile, beautiful planet we call home.

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American Alligator in Shark Valley; Everglades National Park, Florida

The Redemptive Power of Classical Music

I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve.

Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height.

I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary, nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones.

Hapsburg Palace - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Outside the Hapsburg Palace; Vienna, Austria

Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and listened to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face and I started into town.

For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me. You owe it to yourself.

I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart.

I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience.

Ludwig Van Beethoven - Beethoven's Apartment - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Exterior of Beethoven’s apartment building; Vienna, Austria

It was in that spirit that I progressed onward to Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft.

Beethoven's Piano - Ludwig Van Beethoven - Vienna - Austria - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
Beethoven’s Piano at his Vienna Apartment; Vienna, Austria

If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal.

I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician.

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View of the south bank and Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the hill from the Salzach River; Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between he and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.

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Evening in the city taken from Fortress Hohensalzburg; Salzburg, Austria

When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away.

These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe.

Of course, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love, while simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest, then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men in creating their art likely experienced the same doubts we all experience in life, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.

*Hey everybody, thanks for reading! Here’s one of our own personally curated playlists of classical music, made for your ultimate listening pleasure. Of course, feel free to reach out to us for any further recommendations. We’re happy to assist. Thanks again and enjoy!

 

 

When I Get Back to Paris

The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.

Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.

Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.

Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.

What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.

Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.

Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.

Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.

Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.

If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.

We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.

In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.

A man can hope and dream.

Ren Michael - Paris - Saint Michel
Ren Michael at Saint Michel

Travel Log: Budapest/Borders

A few years back when I was still in Europe, people were persuading me not to go to Budapest since we’d heard news that the city was flooded with refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.  But I had roots there and I’d never been as to close to it as I was then.  It was only a 7-hour train ride from Prague, so I decided to go. 

The roots I’m talking about are through my grandfather on my mother’s side.  Though I never met him, I feel like I’ve known him all my life through the stories I’ve heard and through the music–the Hungarian violin and the old gypsy csárdás, which are a type of folk dance native to Hungary made popular long ago by the Romani gypsies.

Whether it takes me to Castilla or Budapest, it seems I’m guided by that music and the unrelenting thirst for movement and experience it seems to inspire. Here I was now, years later, paying homage to my own gypsy blood, riding a train and vagabonding through Europe for close to a month already, finally making my way to a place–much like Castilla–that felt like my homeland in more ways than one.   

When the train pulled in to the station I looked out the window and caught my first sights of the city. I’ll admit, I half-expected to see angry mobs raising all sorts of hell like it was the Bastille at the start of the Revolution.

Yet as I looked out, I saw nothing particularly remarkable. The station was quiet. Nearly empty.  I stepped outside and saw fellow passengers leaving the train, some being greeted by friends and loved ones. I saw a few kids hanging out by the cafe and a few more outside, skateboarding around the courtyard. Whatever chaos had been unfolding in the preceding days and weeks had gone now.

I thought for a moment about the media and it’s tendency toward sensationalism, as it sometimes ignores other news for the sake of news that will keep us interested or drive up their ratings. I do worry whether it might become the boy who cried wolf, if it hasn’t already; as today I consider those who still have trouble grasping the urgency of climate change, or COVID-19 for that matter.

In any case, however things went down here, it appeared the refugees had either moved on or disappeared into the city blending in with everyone else. They were only people with the same essential needs and aspirations as the rest of us. And the more I recognized that, the more I thought about those qualities that truly defined a country.

Was it borders, or something less tangible? Maybe something not quite set in stone but in constant motion, rooted in history but still vulnerable to change by the passage of time, or by the influence of an outside world–one that can never be kept outside for too long.

If the latter was true, then I figured countries were a macrocosm of the individual human experience, which would ultimately make borders something of an illusion.

I hoisted my bag over my shoulder and stepped out onto the streets, the sky turning a bright pink as the sun set behind the hills and day faded into evening. The air had grown cool.  I could hear a violin somewhere not too far away.

Travel Log: Sundown at Yosemite

I spent the evening down on the valley floor by the Merced River and Tenaya Creek, past the lingering tourists snapping pictures in the last remaining hours of daylight.

I can’t say what I was looking for–maybe something extraordinary, since extraordinary was all that I had seen so far, and I had little indication that anything about that would change. 

The sun faded from view, leaving the sky cast in a pink-purple glow.  The air had cooled quickly, and I heard the sounds of the river somewhere through the trees. 

I approached a small tunnel where footprints led through to the other end.  It was actually more like a pile of rocks, and it formed what looked like a cave at first glance. Maybe it was my imagination running away with me, or some childlike adventurous impulse breaking free that I made no effort to resist. 

Yosemite Valley - Mirror Lake Trail - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
On the Mirror Lake Trail heading toward Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

I crawled through it like some lost boy in his bedroom fort, made from chairs and bedsheets.  Only this was the genuine article, made from boulders and chunks of earth that had probably fallen many years ago.

I reached the other end and heard the sounds of the river growing louder.  I could see it flowing in between the trees.  I glanced up and noticed two birds flying playfully overhead.  I followed them to the water, flowing gently northeast.  I sat there on the bank, quietly upon the rocks and I listened.  The ‘river’ was actually Tenaya Creek, which had broken off from the Merced River at Curry Village. 

I sat there for a while and wrote about the creek whispering secrets, dispatches from the rest of the world with news on where we were all going from here.  The river seemed to know it all.  The river, swift and wise, the great shaper of mountainsides and treacherous canyons–shaping even the grandest and most mammoth caves in America. 

Yosemite Valley - National Parks - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite - Jude Moonlight - Tenaya Creek - Quinby & Co.
Tenaya Creek; Yosemite National Park, CA

The last rays of daylight had gone down as I left the valley and made my way out the west entrance of the park toward El Portal.  I camped for the night at an RV park, perched on a cliff overlooking the Merced River. 

This site was a cool alternative to camping in the park where campsites had been booked for months in advance.  I slept in something that wasn’t quite a tent, but not quite a cabin either.  It was a wide canvas tent the size of a small bedroom, equipped with a bed and nightstand and even a ceiling fan.  I guess it could qualify as ‘glamping,’ though I hadn’t heard that word at the time.  It didn’t have an AC or heating system, but I didn’t need one.  In those first days of August, the air outside was perfect.    

I enjoyed all the sounds of nature I would have enjoyed in a conventional tent, as well as most of the comforts of a cabin.  And I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing below and the many creatures of the night, unknown and unseen. 

I slept like a rock.

Travel Log: General Sherman

I stopped in one of the last towns to fill up on gas and get supplies–which consisted mainly of sandwich bread, two cans of tuna, some fruit and peanut butter–before starting into the mountains, into Sequoia National Park, where I’d sleep for two nights.

Desert Town - California - Central Valley - Quinby & Co
Small town in the desert, where I got a quick breakfast.

 

After getting to my campground and setting up my tent, I set out to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.  I reached the trailhead and made my way into the grove, warm and stuffed with tourists wandering and laughing and taking pictures. I heard babies and toddlers crying and whining, and kids sprinting up and down the trail playing tag and accidentally photobombing the pictures of strangers. I continued and noticed the larger crowds gathering to snap a picture of something in the distance, still obstructed from my view, but something I knew could only be the General Sherman Tree.

It stood mightily at the center, surrounded by excited onlookers who looked like ants by comparison. It was crowded with admirers and yet it seemed strangely alone. A silent sage. A wise man who’d seen generations come and go, had witnessed all the great moments of human history from the very spot upon which it stood. I even pictured some legend of the silver screen growing old though still appearing ageless, encountering a crowd of photographers or tourists taking their picture, but just taking it in stride like a professional. They’re no stranger to the attention, after all. They’ve seen it all before.

General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman Tree, and the ants at its feet; Sequoia National Park, CA

I understood and appreciated the truth that trees, like all other plants on earth, are living breathing organisms. And the more I looked at General Sherman, a tree more than 3,000 years old, the more I appreciated the relevance of these truths concerning all living things on the planet. The more I looked at it, the more I connected with it.

I felt like it was looking way past me, somewhere far beyond where I stood; and that despite its age and wisdom and experience far superior to my own, it too was still something of a lost soul searching and still unsatisfied with everything it had so far understood its purpose to be on this earth. It was the king of these mountains, but it was still subservient to a higher order it didn’t fully understand.

A soft rain fell, more like a mist than a rain. It probably only lasted a minute, but it seemed longer, as if the rain had slowed down time. In that moment the surrounding tourists vanished from sight and left the two of us alone, facing eachother.

The rays of the sun beamed in through the forest, shining down on us both, revealing the tree in all its eternal youth and ancient power, as the reclusive angel, having kept its vigil for centuries way up here in this shadowy grove high up in the mountains.

We were pilgrims, old and young. Angel and man. Man and angel. Guardian angel, maybe. Brothers.  In that moment, we were no longer separate from each other.  We never had been.  There I stood, once again remembering something I seemed to know long ago.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Quinby & Co.
General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

It was the first time in a long time that I’d felt this way about anything in nature. It wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to me, an entire network existed, scattered far across the wilderness of America, and farther still, across the Atlantic Ocean and out to the far eastern reaches of Europe.  It took the form of people I’d meet, and the many beautiful things I’d see along the way.

It was ocean and sky, woman and man, living and passed on.  With them I felt connected in common cause: that each of us might reach the realization of love and respect for all living things.  An understanding of our ongoing, unfailing connection to one another.

I remembered something from my early days in the church that made more sense to me now than it did before.  As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.  United in one breath, one beating heart.

Kaweah River - Lodgepole Campground - Sequoia National Park - California - Sequoia - Quinby & Co.
Kaweah River at Lodgepole Campground; Sequoia National Park, CA

The thought didn’t occur to me at the time, standing in the shadow of General Sherman and the mighty sequoia. It only does now, as I recall the story and wonder how it might sound to someone reading this. Truth be told, prior to this experience, I wasn’t much of an outdoors person. I liked to be outside as much as the next guy but I’d never really camped before at all, and I’d never done much hiking beyond the typical neighborhood hikes in and around LA.

I’d never spent much time in the mountains, amongst the trees whispering at night. I’d never lay quiet listening for melodies beside the creek in the early evening. I’d never breathed in the rush of the river beneath the new morning and the slow, rising sun.

Now that was all about to change.

General Sherman - General Sherman Tree - Sequoia National Park - Sequoia - California - National Park - Ren Michael - Quinby & Co.
The tree is my brother. Me and General Sherman; Sequoia National Park, CA

Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.

Marinara Sauce and the Beginner’s Mind

It was a year ago today, around my birthday, when I was thinking a lot about Italy and the food I’ve loved since I was a boy.

I never thought of myself as much of a cook, but over the past year I’ve come to see that the fundamentals of cooking aren’t half as complicated as I thought. 

And while I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why it began with marinara sauce, I think it had something to do with travel. 

I was 18 years old when I first visited Italy and the experience changed my life.  For one thing, it was one of the first countries where I spent any good amount of time outside of the States.  Not only did it broaden my perspective, but it did so in a way that inspired a deeply-rooted trust in the basic goodness of people, a trust that continues to this day. 

Never in my life had I met people who were so consistently happy, helpful and welcoming; and the realization was enough to make me weep especially when complimented with a cuisine so unbelievably good that I was convinced I could feel the love of a people put into it with every bite. 

And then of course, there was the wine.  I’d never really sipped or much less enjoyed wine before, but that first night in Rome marked the beginning of a love affair which, as my best friends will certainly tell you, also lasts to this day.  Chianti remains my favorite wine.  Forever and always. 

Simply put, Italy is one of the most friendly, romantic, sexy, joyous and culturally rich countries I have ever visited in my life.  It was an incredible way to begin what I further hope is a long life of travel. 

So I guess I can tell you exactly why I began my cooking trip with marinara sauce–because every time I make it, I reflect on these experiences.  I think about the old ruins and cobblestone streets of Rome, the ornate fountains, the candlelit restaurants that feel like they might stay open all night.  I think about the hills and cypress trees of Tuscany, and the Arno River in Florence glowing in the moonlight.  I think about the history.  The ghosts of the Coliseum.  I think about the art.  The art!  This is the land of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The Renaissance.  The opera!  This is La Dolce Vita and the surrealist dreams of Fellini and the great masters of Italian cinema.  

It’s a place where time doesn’t exist except in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons, where you’ll see flashes of modernity amid the backdrop of ancient ruins.  For me, life is a flashing moment and one great big beautiful trip that ought to be celebrated and revered.  Italy is a place that encapsulates that realization, one that I hope is a realization for the rest of the world that encourages us to not take life for granted, but to cherish it and truly cherish one another.

Finally there’s one other reason why I appreciate making the sauce.  As it’s a reminder of that first experience in Italy, perhaps by extension, it also reminds me of the excitement in beginning something new, something that’s about to unfold in a way I can’t even begin to imagine.  

It’s the thrill of being a beginner, when everything is unknown and mysterious and you’re unburdened by any heavy expectation because, in the beginning, you’re too humble and open-minded to indulge it.  I try to maintain that mindset in everything that I do.  Though I’ve learned and experienced a lot in the time in between, I still like to consider myself an amateur.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ren Michael - Marinara - Quinby & Co.
Molto Bene! Me in my kitchen, the night I first made the sauce.

Now, let’s get to the dish.  Like many people, Italian food is my favorite cuisine, and though I’m inclined to say that it’s more the intangibles that I appreciate the most–the warmth, the attitude, the lack of pretentiousness, the familial, convivial nature of the restaurants and the country, the red wine and all those wonderful things I mentioned earlier–if there is one constant that makes me enjoy Italian food as much as I do, I would have to say it all comes down to the sauce.  

Since I was new to cooking, I figured marinara was a simple enough dish to start, since it incorporated so many basic principles of cooking: using fresh ingredients, prepping the ingredients, using oils and garlic effectively, knowing how and when to add salt for taste, and then, my favorite part, the process of letting something cook slowly while you periodically check in to stir, maybe add more salt or get a better idea of how much time you have left.  Of course, you’ll likely add your own flourishes and personal touch with time, as I typically do myself, but here are the fundamentals.

Recipe:

1 can of whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

7-10 cloves of garlic

A little basil

Salt

And that’s all you need my friends.

Directions:

Prep your garlic by slicing thin.  The thinner the better.

Crush the tomatoes by hand in a big bowl.

Add the oil to the pan and heat over medium, add the garlic and then let it sizzle, 1-2 minutes so it doesn’t burn.  When that happens, go ahead and add the crushed tomatoes.  I like to add a cup of water, which I’ve poured into the empty can of tomatoes to get any remaining bit of sauce.  

From here, just let it look and stir every twenty or thirty minutes.  Add salt to taste.  When it starts smelling real good and the water has absorbed, you’ll have your sauce, finish off with thinly sliced basil.  Buon appetito!  

 

 

Suggested music:

As you can see, we’ve provided our own curated Spotify playlist above.  If you’re looking for upbeat, Louis Prima is the way to go.  If you’re looking for romantic, try anything by the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  You might also consider the soundtrack to the Godfather. 

For some reason I enjoy listening to film scores when I cook.  Another great album is the score for Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington.  If you’re looking for smooth, try Quincy Jones’ I Dig Dancers or The Quintessence, or Henry Mancini’s score to the Pink Panther.

 

Ren Michael - Signature - Quinby & Co.

 

 

Travel Log: Hearts in Half-Dome

I’ve been thinking a lot about Yosemite these last few months, living in quarantine and longing for the outdoors again, for wide open spaces.

In a lot of ways, my love for the National Parks began here, at least in the sense that I was suddenly aware of it, where I fully realized my devotion to the Parks and recognized them as a valuable and critical American Institution.  

While my connection to these places mostly began at Sequoia and Kings Canyon–which I’d visited in the days leading up to Yosemite–when I reached Glacier Point that afternoon and stood at the overlook, and I took in that sweeping panorama of the valley, of Half Dome, the Merced River, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Vernal and Nevada Falls; at that moment my love for the parks was ultimately affirmed.  I’d never seen anything so spectacular in my life. 

Ren Michael - Half Dome - Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Valley
Ren Michael at Glacier Point over looking Yosemite Valley; Yosemite National Park, CA

What’s uniquely striking is the silence, maybe because a sight like Yosemite Valley might lead one to imagine an accompanying sound of equal magnificence, some choir of angelic voices or maybe the low, grumbling of the earth churning from the infernal depths between here and the planet’s core.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe?  Something, anything befitting a sight so wondrous.

And yet the only sound was silence save for the whispering echo of a waterfall.  As I looked out, I saw a blackbird soaring through the air, and I remember how for a few seconds at least, it seemed to be the loudest note anywhere around me, a reminder of how silence can allow for other smaller details to sing.

I remember Half Dome most of all, standing there like some benevolent king overlooking the valley and seeing far past the horizon. 

I have a tendency to think this way, to look at a natural landscape or a particular landmark and project an emotion onto it, or more specifically an archetype.  It’s a creative impulse that might raise a few eyebrows here and there, but it’s an impulse I don’t resist. 

Glacier Point Overlook - Yosemite National Park - Nevada Falls - Vernal Falls - Yosemite - Quinby & Co.
Glacier Point Overlook with Nevada and Vernal Falls visible in the distance just to the left of the tree in the foreground; Yosemite National Park, CA

I saw Half-Dome as an emissary having kept its vigil for eons, since the earth’s beginnings.  Might it be in tune with something more all-encompassing than we could fully understand in a single lifetime?  Or better yet, was it merely one of many reminders across the globe that we too have access to the deeper currents and vibrations guiding all of life on earth?  All we have to do is get out of our own way.

It’s incredible to think to myself, even as I write this morning, how a mass of rock can inspire that sort of contemplation.  That it can steady me through times of great sorrow and uncertainty, if I just remember it.  I don’t even need to be there and look at it.  Just knowing that it’s there anchors me.  What a gift that is. 

Nevertheless, I’m thankful I got to see it that day, and I am most definitely looking forward to getting back and experiencing Yosemite once again, discovering new corners of the park I haven’t seen before.  

That afternoon, I thought about all the generations of people who had come here before me and marveled at the same sight.  Had they experienced the same thoughts and feelings as I did?  I was sure there were many.  I felt tied to all those people, and proud to carry on what I suspected was a long human tradition.

As I finally turned around and began my descent down into the valley, I kept that sight with me, one that has been with me ever since, smiling to myself and maybe just half-aware of the fact that my life would never be the same again.

Ren Michael - Yosemite Valley - Half Dome - Yosemite National Park - Quinby & Co.
Valley views from Glacier Point. Half Dome is the taller formation on the right. // Yosemite National Park, CA

 

Ren Michael - Signature - Quinby & Co.

Breakfast in Vicksburg

I reached Vicksburg late in the morning, after four days on the road.  It’s known as a historical site of the Civil War, but I knew it as Willie Dixon’s hometown.

The cafe stood on the north end of Washington Street. I sat down and ordered a cup of coffee, a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a slice of tomato.  That’s my favorite breakfast, and that morning I found myself looking for anything familiar, anything that felt close to home. I even missed the morning paper, but then I figured I was probably better without it, at least for today.

During that point in March, we weren’t in full quarantine mode and businesses like this one were still allowing people to come in. About five or six were sitting inside when I arrived, a few gathered around a coffee table in cozy armchairs chatting like any ordinary day, which was fine by me. It was nice to see a little civilization again, especially when I considered that it might be one of the last times for a while.

I don’t think any of us had come to accept how dire things would get in just a few more days. At this point, the consensus was just wash your hands and eat well. Keep the immune system up. Social distancing hadn’t become a thing yet.

Still the feeling of not knowing exactly when I’d be back hit me a little harder than usual, and not just because of everything happening in the rest of the world.

This wasn’t my first visit to Mississippi, nor the second or third. I’d always driven through from California to Florida or vice-versa over the years. One time, only a few years prior, I’d stopped along Highway 61 en route to New Orleans from Nashville and slept just a few steps away from the bank of the river. That was in Rosedale, maybe a hundred miles to the north of Vicksburg.

I wrote a little in my notebook, then finished breakfast and walked upstairs toward what they called the Attic. I heard the faint sound of a piano playing, growing louder as I reached the second floor.

I stood in a vast gallery of vibrant colors, rare antiques and a few old recycled instruments; local art seemingly paying tribute to the town and it’s rich musical heritage.

The man who ran the place sat in his chair and welcomed me in, reminding me to let him know if I had any questions. He sat beside a record player. The vinyl jacket placed beside it. The sounds of the piano came in only a little scratchy, but still clear. Arthur Rubinstein playing Beethoven sonatas.

Much like central Europe, where so many well-known composers lived and worked, Mississippi was the home-state for an equal number of extraordinary American musicians in the early twentieth century. And so like with central Europe, its tempting to wonder at first whether there was something in the water at that time in history.

Here they were now, looking out at me through canvas portraits or old black and white photographs. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, B.B. King, Albert King, Willie Dixon, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker. All born in Mississippi.

I hadn’t visited many places in the state like this, places that so visibly recognized it’s history. Maybe that’s because there weren’t too many to begin with, at least no big avenues or bustling boulevards remotely close to the iconic and tourist-jammed sites like Broadway in Nashville, Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

In Mississippi, there were grave sites. A few hidden plaques. A famed highway. Crossroads. And then, there was the river.

I left the gallery and made my way back outside. I turned off Washington and down Grove Street, along the slope that dips sharply down toward the river. Docked on it’s bank stood an old steamboat gleaming in white beneath the afternoon sun. It was empty and left unattended. It looked almost abandoned like a ghost ship that wasn’t supposed to be there, hiding in plain sight. There it lie, some quiet reminder of days long past.

Except they didn’t feel past at all. For me, the past was never really past. I looked out over the river which always has a funny way of reminding me of these things, typically when I need the reminder most. Maybe that’s why I always come back to it. Maybe there is something in the water.

Here the connection between the land and the music is far easier to trace than it might be in the case of Central Europe. For one thing, the origins of the blues lead back to life on the plantation before the Civil War, to the slaves who worked from sunup to sundown, who sang as a way of not simply passing time, but as a critical means of holding onto the humanity they might have otherwise lost.

They had no formal musical instruction, no understanding of theory at all. Still the music sounded as beautiful as anything ever composed under hours of intense professional or academic scrutiny, something that underscores the nature of creativity and how much is informed by human experience over theory, how it may come as much from sheer necessity as intention, if not more so.

The style, as well as the songs themselves were passed on from the slaves to their descendants, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow south, and with every generation the songs, though thematically growing more varied and complex, remained as true to the basic form as it does today.

Though its themes never avoid the harsh realities of life, such as the pain of body or spirit, poverty, jealousy or death itself, the blues frequently acknowledges love, redemption, friendship, travel and hope. Even in the case of those songs of loss–and there are many of them–the very act of singing the songs was and remains an act of survival, a means of recognizing what must be recognized before it can be overcome.

When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
The blue light was my baby, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, “Love In Vain”

Any form of expression that acknowledges life with such a wide and sober lens is bound to stand the test of time, and rightfully so, because it’s language is universal and deeply relatable, it’s music as raw and recognizable as the forces of nature and the land itself.

For me, no other music achieves this as completely as the blues. It is more honest and unique to the history of America than anything else I know, so timeless that it feels elemental. When I hear it, I hear those who’ve come before and those who will follow. I hear the river. I can feel it flowing as gently as it has done for millennia, and will continue to do for generations to come.

It’s significance is made all the more poignant by the fact of its origin, that it was created by the same men and women who built so much of the country as we know it today, who literally laid down it’s foundations.

It’s part of a long tradition intimately tied to the history and character of this land. It is American Music. I remember that every time I play it, and every time I sing.

Somehow, through the strange and uncertain times that lie ahead, it would would help anchor me in a way few things ever could. And though some time has passed since that quiet afternoon by the river, I’m still there.

I never really left.

Issue #4
Q&Co.

P.S. Here’s a playlist
we made for your listening pleasure
Our selection of personal favorites in the blues
We hope you enjoy.