Saturday, June 27, 2009

Take a Hike

Maybe he should have been on a hike after all. When Mark Sanford, 49, the conservative Republican South Carolina governor, ditched his security detail this month, turned off his cell phone, and told his staff he was going to hike the legendary Appalachian Trail, he said he wanted to clear his head. Maybe do some writing after a stressful three months.

Blogs and comics had a field day even before he admitted to the real reason for his absence. Rather than commune with nature, he flew south for an extramarital affair with a “friend” in Argentina. But cry not. Outdoor industry executives – the people who make packs, boots, and trekking poles – rejoiced. The big winner in the Sanford affair is the trail itself, which received enormous publicity nationwide, including route maps published in major media and stories mentioning the trail on the evening news. In fact, at one point this week, there were 1.1 million Google hits for “Appalachian Trail Sanford.”

“Just the mere suggestion that highly stressed politicians can seek solace by hiking the Appalachian Trail plants a positive image in the minds of outdoor enthusiasts everywhere,” said Greg Wozer, vice president of LEKI USA, makers of trekking poles. “While we haven’t noticed a run on our trail equipment, this kind of exposure in newspapers, magazines and on radio and television reaching by millions certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Wozer continues, “I am sorry for the pain caused to his family and the good folks of South Carolina, but am certainly glad he didn’t decide to go lie on a beach somewhere.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iceland's Westman Islanders Dig It

From time to time we like to check in with the hardy Westman Islanders off the southern coast of Iceland – hardy because the only way to reach the island is to fly in small planes that are often cancelled due to weather, or journey on a three-hour ferry with large stacks of innocent looking Chinese take-out boxes in their passenger lounges – only they’re not for Chinese food. Spend some time on board during a rough day and you’ll know what we mean. As the saying goes, once afflicted by seasickness you become afraid you’re going to die; then as the feeling gets worse, you worry that you won’t. Hardy is right.

Within sight of the sheer, towering walls that millions of puffins call home, volunteers and researchers are continuing to uncover the remains of some of the 417 properties destroyed when Heimaey (current pop. 4,100) experienced a volcanic eruption in 1973 that covered one-third of the town in up to 20 meters of lava and ash. In fact, as you drive around, the streetlights are marked 12 to 15 feet high to show the depth of the ash over three decades ago.

This summer, Kristin Johannsdottir (pictured) is leading a modern-day archaeological dig to uncover a section of town – now protected by black netting – where the homes were merely boiled in steam from hot ash; other homes, totally engulfed in molten lava, are beyond rescue. Johannsdottir’s team is targeting about 10 homes which, although their top floors are crushed, are thought to have well-preserved basements. Clothes probably still hang in closets, pictures still on the walls.

While backhoes do the heavy work, volunteers are needed to shovel close to the buildings as homeowners, long-ago compensated by the government for their property, hope to seek return of their family heirlooms and keepsakes. Like the Pompeii of old, it promises to be a trip back in time, or at least back to the Seventies. (For more information: