Dead Horse Point

After two heavy weather nights in a commercial RV park, we’re finally back to camping in the real world. This time it’s Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. False advertising however. Fortunately, we’ve not seen a single dead horse out here.

The park sits atop a plateau peninsula near the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. After parking the A-frame and getting everything set up, we did a short hike near the Dead Horse visitor center.

We then drove out to the end of the peninsula where sheer-walled canyons separated us from the Colorado River meandering far below. It proved to be a splendid place to watch Kayenta and Wingate sandstone walls glow in the setting sun. Don’t tell the Congressional Budget Committee, but if camera digits cost a dollar each, we shot enough photos to pay off the national debt.

Very first trip – learning opportunity number one

The trailer was loaded with 26 gallons of water, sleeping bags, hiking gear and the like.  The Xterra tow vehicle had the food, canopy and our clothes.  The A-frame was hitched up and we were off for a three-night camping adventure with friends in Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction.  I double-checked the hitch, fired up the engine and we began pulling out of the driveway.

Crunch.

It was the sound of metal on concrete.  Dianne gave me that look that bordered between concern and panic.

“Probably just the chains hitting the cement,” I assured her.  “After all, they are so long, they almost drag the ground.”

We heard it again when we crossed over a small speed bump going into our supermarket parking lot.  Chains again, I thought.

It finally occurred to me that it might be something more serious.  While Dianne ran in to mail a letter at the post office, I checked the hitch.  The sound we heard was the bottom of the front jack hitting cement.  I had only cranked it up part way.  I thought it was far enough away to clear the curb, but alas, it was not.

The bottom of the post had been scraped and instead of round, it was now oval.  I pulled out the caster wheel, and of course, it would not go on.  We now had a problem.

We immediately drove back home for redneck repairs.  I got out a hammer, and with blow after blow, I straightened it out to where the wheel would finally fit on.  I then cranked the post into it’s maximum up position and we took off again.  Lesson learned.

Back home after our trip, I ordered a new jack from Amazon.  It could have been worse.

Very first trip – learning opportunity number two

On the trip home from Colorado National Monument, we stopped in Clifton for fuel.  When we stopped there on the way out, we found a Sinclair station where fuel was a good 20 cents a gallon cheaper than anywhere else.  Of course, we wanted to stop there on the way back.

On our first visit, I simply pulled into the first outside pump, filled up and exited straight out.  Not a problem.

The outside pump was occupied on the second visit, but pumps on the inside were empty.  Unfortunately, that required me to make a U-turn to get in.  No problem.  Lots of room.  I pulled close to the first inside pump so that anyone else coming in could get around me and drive to the forward pump.  Tank filled, we fired up the engine and started to take off.

Crunch.

I looked back.  The trailer, which was still angled when we got to the pump, hit a post that the gas station people had wisely installed to keep people like me from hitting the pumps.  Although the Xterra cleared it with no problem, the turning angle of the trailer had kept it from clearing.   I now had red paint on the water heater panel cover and slight sheet metal damage.

I started to back the trailer up in an attempt to straighten it out and get out of there.

Crunch.

The Xterra bumper hit the post.  Fortunately, the bumper is rubber and the damage was limited to some minor scraping.

Now I had a problem.  I needed to back up the trailer without hitting the post, which was now nicely centered between the back of the car and the front of the A-frame.  With a few back and forth maneuvers, I finally got the job done and we were free of the pump post.

Back home with some paint thinner and fine steel wool, I was able to remove the red paint.  Now only a small square of slightly crinkled metal remains as a reminder of the incident.

Next time, I’ll hit outside pumps only, pull in straight and don’t pull in close unless everything is definitely in line.

Cheyenne Mountain

Dianne and I scored hard-to-get reservations for a full-hookup spot at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs.  It seems someone had the spot reserved for the weekend, but suddenly cancelled after one day.  I went online at just the right time and was able to reserve it.  We had two nights, three days at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD’s big nuke-proof mountain cave and alleged target for a North Korean missile.

It’s a back-in site, which meant we got a little practice at backing in straight and on target.  Of course, we had an audience.  It seems that everyone else in the campground loop, about a half-dozen units, were having lunch at the neighboring site.  And presumably watching.

After about 10 minutes of trying, we made it.  It’s straight and close to the water/electric hookups.  It looks like a pro did it.  Best of all, I think the neighbors ignored us.

Side to side, the concrete pad we parked on was dead level.  We had the top up in 90 seconds.  Chocks placed.  Unhooked the car.  Front-to-back leveling took another minute or two.  Jacks down.  Water and electricity hooked up.  Gray water line and tank connected.  Car unloaded and stuff moved in.  About 15 minutes after arriving, we were at home.  If we were tent camping, we wouldn’t even have had the car emptied and tent unpacked yet.

After a bite of lunch, it was time to explore the neighborhood.  Across from us in the campground circle was a couple with a Trail-Manor lift-up trailer.  We chatted with them for an hour or so and got a tour of their unit.  Much bigger and fancier, but definitely more complicated to put up and take down.  It’s a matter of compromises.

We continued around the campground, visiting the other circles.  In the last one we discovered our neighbors who own a motor home.  I’m not sure who was more surprised.

One of the nice things I’ve always found about campgrounds is how friendly everyone is.  People talk to each other.  With a friendly hello, one can meet locals as well as other travelers.  You don’t get that in a motel.

A-Frame Pros and Cons

A few weeks ago, a reader asked if we would recommend buying an A-frame trailer.  In a long reply, I told him what I considered to be the pros and cons of this type of recreational vehicle.

PROS

The trailer tows flat, so it has less wind resistance and with many models, drivers can see over the top of the trailer through the rear-view mirror when towing.

They’re relatively light, so owners don’t need a mega-tow vehicle. We tow ours with a Nissan Xterra, which has a 5,000-pound towing capacity.  The trailer is rated at 3,500 pounds maximum, although when fully loaded, ours only runs around 2,600 pounds.  Aliner brand has lighter-weight A-frame trailers that can be pulled by cars with less towing capacity.

They’re small enough to park in tight campsites, assuming there’s enough overhead space.

Unlike a tent trailer, this one goes up/down in about 90 seconds, a job easily done by one person. And doesn’t need to have the canvas dried out after a rainstorm.

They’re cheaper. Ours has a small fridge, three-burner stove, sink, 20-gallon water tank, six-gallon water heater, double bed, dinette, furnace, air conditioner and yes, even a microwave.  Even with all that, it cost far less than a conventional trailer.

CONS

They’re small.  The box is only 12 feet long and with the bed and dinette permanently set up, there’s not a lot of move-around room.  The only sitting space is at the dinette.

Inside accessible storage space is quite limited.

The refrigerator and microwave are below the counter, which can be a problem for folks with bad backs and knees.

Unless one buys a high-wall model, the countertops are lower than normal, which can be an issue for tall folks.

The bed on most A-frame trailers goes crossways so the person sleeping on the wall side has to crawl out over his/her sleeping companion. Companies are beginning to offer models with side-by-side twin beds to alleviate this issue.

While the dinette makes into a second bed, it’s not a great trailer to camp with the kids/grandkids (unless you put them out in a tent).

Because the trailer folds and unfolds, there needs to be some space between the wall and roof panels. The lack of a tight seal means some heated air can escape and small flying insects can sometimes find their way in.

Most A-frame trailers come with bubble windows over the dinette and bed areas, which over time can lose their seal and start to leak water. Proper repair requires removing the bubble and reattaching it to the trailer.  Most of us go the easy route and simply affix sealing tape around the bubble.

There’s no gray-water tank, so sink water needs to be collected in a bucket or portable tank and manually dumped if there’s no direct sewer hookup.

There’s no flush toilet and no black-water holding tank. Most A-frames come with cassette toilets, which require campers to empty the output in the campground restroom.  And very little privacy around the toilet area.

Very few models offer an inside shower option, although most have outside showers. We use ours with a privacy tent pitched next to the trailer, which requires that we collect the water residue and dispose of it with other gray water.

While some brands are better than others, the build quality is generally poor.  Screws come loose, and things sometimes rearrange themselves over the course of a long trip.

2012 – Strip Trip

Grand Canyon-Parashant entry sign, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Hiking the Mokaac Trail off road 1069, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Mokaac Trail sign beside road 1069, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Cars along the roadway, Whitmore Wash Road, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Colorado River at Whitmore Canyon Overlook, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Sunset, Whitmore Canyon Overlook, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Colorado River at Whitmore Canyon Overlook, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Whitmore Canyon Road, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Whitmore International Airport sign, Bar Ten Ranch, Whitmore Canyon, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Petroglyphs, Nampaweap Petroglyph Site, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
John “Mick” Sears on Hack Canyon Road, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Vermilion Cliffs from US 89A, Arizona Strip, Arizona.
Cliff Dwellers Lodge, Arizona Strip, Cliff Dwellers, Arizona.

2006 – Ross Sea Antarctica

Sunset over Seebee Hook, Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Penguins on ice, mountains and the Kapitan Khlebnikov, Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Quark Expedition Leader Shane Evoy wears his penguin tuque, Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Adelie penguins on ice, Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Aerial view of the Kapitan Khlebnikov parked in the pack ice off Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Barbecue on the ice off Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Sunset over Seebee Hook, Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Outside Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition Hut, Cape Royds, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Doghouses outside Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition Hut, Cape Royds, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Inside Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition Hut, Cape Royds, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Kapitan Khlebnikov follows the Krasin through the ice, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Mount Erebus, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Outside Scott’s Discovery Hut, Hut Point near McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Packing box inside Scott’s Discovery Hut, Hut Point near McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Flags of original Antarctic Treaty nations fly at the Chalet, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Looking down on McMurdo Station from Observation Hill, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Antarctic jacket, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Chapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Looking down on Scott Base from Observation Hill, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Signs inside the TAE (Trans Antarctic Expedition) Hut, Scott Base, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Lab glass inside Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Sign, cairn and bamboo shaft at Scott’s Northern Party camp on Inexpressible Island, Terra Nova Bay, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
M/V American Tern follows the Kapitan Khlebnikov through the ice, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Tabular icebergs and Mt. Erebus, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Sculpted ice along the Ross Ice Shelf, Bay of Whales, Ross Sea, Antarctica
Walking across the Ross Ice Shelf, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Ship’s radar shows the route as the ship aims for farthest south, Kapitan Khlebnikov, Bay of Whales, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Zodiac at the point of farthest south, Ross Ice Shelf, Bay of Whales, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
“Iceberg” drink (Sambuaca, vodka and blue curacao), Kapitan Khlebnikov, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Woman looks out ship window, Kapitan Khlebnikov, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
Remains of Scott’s Northern Party hut built near Carsten Borchgrevink’s hut on Ridley Beach at Cape Adare, Antarctica.
Woman drawn on the ceiling, Carsten Borchgrevink’s hut, Ridley Beach at Cape Adare, Antarctica.
Helicopter over tabular iceberg, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
Helicopter pilot Oleg Brezinsky at the controls, Kapitan Khlebnikov, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
Aerial view of ice and icebergs, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
Aerial view of the Kapitan Khlebnikov in the ice, Southern Ocean, Antarctica.
Water breaking at the bow, Kapitan Khlebnikov, Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Colleen Keith photographs king penguins on the beach, Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island, Australia.
Royal penguin on the beach, Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island, Australia.

A Russian Icebreaker Carries International Cruisers to Antarctica for an Attempt to Break the Record for the Farthest South Ever Reached by a Surface Vessel

            BAY OF WHALES, Antarctica – A stifling fog shrouds the still, dark Antarctic water.  Flat-topped icebergs loom through the snowflakes and mist on either side of the Russian icebreaker.  Dead ahead, a gap in a jumbled ice wall allows passage into a narrowing inlet.  Cautiously, the Kapitan Khlebnikov creeps forward.

            Second mate Stanislaw Ul’uanov attempts to plot the ship’s course on the admiralty chart, but his position line has reached the map’s southernmost margin.  The vessel is literally sailing off the charts.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, about 30 seconds ago we reached a position of 78 degrees, 40.572 minutes south,” announces Robert Headland, archivist for Britain’s Scott Polar Research Institute.  “We are out of the position where there are reliable soundings.  To avoid touching, the captain is taking precautions.  I’ll keep you informed.”

            The icebreaker, leased by Quark Expeditions, presses southward in an attempt to break the nearly 95-year-old record for Antarctica’s southernmost point reached by a surface vessel.  The existing mark was set February 15, 1911, by the Norwegian ship Fram, which had just dropped off Roald Amundsen’s party for their own record-setting push to be first to the South Pole. 

            Measuring solar angles with a sextant, First-Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen of the Fram determined their southernmost position to be 78 degrees, 41 minutes.  The Kapitan Khlebnikov, which comes equipped with the far more accurate satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), lies less than half a nautical mile away from the historic milestone.

            Relishing this rare 21st-century opportunity to set a new geographical record, nearly all of the 93 passengers have taken watchful positions around the ship.  The heartiest huddle like penguins outside on the bow.  Others watch from the warmth of the bridge, standing at the windows or lingering by the navigation station where they gaze at the GPS readout.  Its display now shows 78º40.656.’

            The southernmost-by-sea quest caps a 24-day expedition to the seldom-cruised Ross Sea.  Most voyages to the Great White South begin and end in South America, exploring only the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Departing from New Zealand, Quark’s “Great Antarctic Explorers” voyage heads to where explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott began their journeys to the South Pole nearly a century ago.  Their historic huts, still stocked with original foodstuffs, remain preserved in Antarctica’s freeze-dried environment.

            Passengers range from retired teachers to working professionals and hail from nine different nations.  All hold a keen interest in Antarctica.  In addition to visiting historic huts and modern science stations, they welcomed the opportunity to march with penguins, search for whales, sidle past sea lions, sail with seals, amble by albatrosses and scope scores of sea birds.  They also helicoptered over icebergs, picnicked on sea ice and partied under the midnight sun atop the Ross Ice Shelf.  Then it was on to the Bay of Whales.

            “This is the closest body of water to the South Pole.  That’s why Amundsen set his base up there in his rush to beat Scott to the pole,” explains Quark executive Prisca Campbell.  “The plans for our trip are to reach the Bay of Whales in optimum weather and ice conditions to break the record.  We think we’ve got the right vessel, and we have a captain with extraordinary expertise and years of experience.”

            Clad in a navy blue sweater, Capitan Victor Vasil’yev, a short, middle-aged Russian with closely cropped hair, stares out a window on the starboard side of the bridge.  A helmsman sits at the wheel in the center.  Second mate Ul’uanov, a lad in his 20s, scurries at the back between the green-glowing radar and the now useless charts.

            “Keep the voices down so the captain can communicate with his officers in this tight navigation,” requests Quark expedition leader Shane Evoy.  “Keep the aisle clear so the navigator can navigate.”

            The GPS numbers slowly rise.  It now reads 78:40.728,’ less than half a statue mile short of the record.  Every six feet the ship moves south, the GPS increases by one-thousandth of a minute.

            “I almost hope we don’t make it,” British passenger Jenny Coverack whispers.  “Maybe it’s better to just let the old record stand.”

            It seems improbable that a 1911 record set by a wooden ship could still stand, but reaching the farthest south is not a reflection of horsepower and willpower.  Instead, it’s governed by the whims of nature.

            A triangular shelf of ice fed by a string of Antarctic glaciers permanently covers the southernmost 450-600 miles of the Ross Sea.  Called the Ross Ice Shelf, this floating sheet of frozen freshwater covers a 200,000-square-mile area, larger than the state of California.  Its 600-mile front consists of a sheer wall of ice cliffs that poke as much as 200 feet above the water and nearly a thousand feet below.  This is an ice cube no breaker on earth could penetrate.

            The barrier, however, does have one minor break.  Near its eastern edge rises Roosevelt Island, which breaks the glacial flow like a boulder parts water in a stream.  While some of the ice covers the island, much of the rest pushes to one side or the other.  A weakness where the flows rejoin forms a natural breach in the ice wall that varies in magnitude from year to year.  This year, the break looks big.

            Captain Vasil’yev gives an order in his native language, and the helmsman silently makes a slight turn.  The GPS reads 78º40.858,’ three football fields short of the record.  It seems so close.

            There remains one small problem.  On the ice ahead stands a group of molting Adélie and emperor penguins.  Each year, these flightless birds must replace every feather on their bodies, and during that three-week period, they have to remain out of the water and thus, do not feed.  Reaching 78º41’ may require nosing the bow into the penguins’ perch at a time in their lifecycle when these birds should be using stored reserves for making feathers, not dodging icebreakers.

            Evoy and the captain confer in hushed whispers.  An order is given and the ship turns.  Latitude readings begin to recede.

            “Kapitan Khlebnikov achieved the far southern position of 78 degrees, 40.871 minutes.  That is less than the 41 minutes achieved by Amundsen at the southern limit of southern navigation,” Headland announces.  “I do not think that we can say we beat it, but bearing in mind instrumental accuracy, I think we equaled it.  We will now assemble on the bow.”

            On the slushy foredeck, Quark staffers pour champagne.  Headland, whose heady English accent makes him sound like a Harry Potter schoolmaster, repeats his “let’s call it a tie” proclamation.  The mood is jovial.

            “Nobody celebrates failure better than the British,” chuckles New Zealand geologist Malcolm Laird.

            But all is not lost.  The ship anchors for the night near the mouth of the bay, and the next morning, the crew drops Zodiacs into the water.  These inflatable, Jacques Cousteau-style motorboats will allow another attempt at the record for the farthest south by surface vessel.  It may not have the cachet of an oceangoing ship, but a Zodiac is a vessel and it does travel on the surface.

            The fog has lifted, but snowflakes continue to fall and the sky remains stone gray.  Temperatures hover in mid 30s.  Evoy mans the motor and Headland, armed with two portable GPS units, rides near the bow.  Between them sit ten hopeful passengers. 

            The craft planes across the smooth surface toward the inlet cloaked in monochromatic shades of gray and black.  Slabs of ice resemble frozen white cakes snow-draped in vanilla frosting.  Icicles hang like crystal daggers from overhanging ledges.  Cracks, fissures and ephemeral cavities in the ice-shelf walls allow wisps of neon blue light to glow, and teal green luminescence shimmers from just below the waterline.  The Zodiac’s waterline vantage yields an inspiring, intimate view of Antarctica’s stark, imposing grandeur.

            Three minke whales spout in the smooth water.  Crabeater seals lie on the ice.  Snow petrels fly overhead, their pure white bodies visibly disappearing against the white of the ice.  Ahead, the penguins remain perched on their sloping slab.

            Evoy throttles back and quietly motors in their direction.  At a nonthreatening, 10-yard distance from the birds, he points the rubber bow of the Zodiac toward the wall and thumps into the ice.  Headland looks at the GPS.

            “Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaims.  “Looking at the instruments aboard this vessel, we have exceeded Amundsen’s farthest south with a position of 78 degrees, 41.030 minutes.  These vessels are thus the farthest south on the planet – ever.

            Everyone gets a chance to smack the southernmost shore.  Back at the ship, the mood is even more buoyant than before.  It’s February 2, 2006 and a new mark has been set, which Headland will submit to the folks at Guinness.  Of course, the record may fall when the Kapitan Khlebnikov or another icebreaker returns in some future season, but until then, the achievement for southernmost navigation by sea belongs to the folks onboard.  Down in the ship’s bar, the drinks flow.

            Up on the bridge, the ambiance remains sober.  Captain Vasil’yev gives the order to fire the engines and the icebreaker heads north.  It’s the only direction it can go from here.

       Jet-lagged and cranky, I lingered more than two hours in line waiting to trade my passport for a cabin key.  When I finally unlocked my shipboard stateroom, I found the quarters dolefully furnished in a ’50s motif of faded Formica and stuffed Naugahyde.  It reminded me of the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

            I would have chanced a shower, but my luggage hadn’t yet arrived.  It seemed to be as lost as Jimmy Hoffa, interred in a mausoleum of satchels, duffels, trunks and suitcases that stood floor-to-ceiling in the reception area.

            Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I learned that the executive chef was English.  I envisioned four months of dining on kidney pies while waiting for clean underwear to arrive.

            Such was the inauspicious start to my trip of a lifetime — a dream cruise around the world.

            Since Ferdinand Magellan captained the first globe-encircling voyage in 1519, travelers have longed to circumnavigate the planet by sea.  Several firms now offer world cruises.  Itineraries vary, but most have one commonality– they are palatially expensive.

            Then along came the now-defunct World Cruise Company.  By chartering older vessels and abridging amenities, the Toronto-based outfitter planned to offer around-the-world voyages at down-to-earth prices.  With rates starting at about $100 per day, a lifelong fantasy could become reality.

            But nightmares came first.  Needle-jabbing nurses used my arms as immunization pincushions.  I had to order extra passport pages and a slew of advance visas.  Suitcases needed to be packed, unpacked and repacked until they squeaked under airline weight limitations.  Ultimately, hurried good-byes and a flight to Athens led to one long-anticipated moment.

            Along with 600 others, I boarded the Ocean Explorer I in Greece.  After a frustrating initiation, the journey began.

            Tunis, capital of Tunisia, became our first port of call.  Formerly controlled by the French, this North African coastal city offers European-style prosperity springing from Arab, Roman and Phoenician roots.  Islamic but liberal, Tunis is where sheiks come to be sinful.

            A tour guide led us through the ruins of Carthage, a Phoenician city so old it had been sacked by the Romans before the birth of Christ.  Next came the Bardo Museum and its collection of ancient mosaics.  For one shopper, this was too much sightseeing.  She dashed into the museum’s book shop in a desperate quest for souvenirs.  To pay, she flashed American cash.  When the clerk said he could only accept Tunisian dinars, the woman became indignant.

            “I can’t believe they wont take real money,” she moaned.

            “This is a foreign country,” I suggested.  “I doubt Barnes & Noble takes Tunisian currency back home.”

            Exiting the Mediterranean, we passed Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar on our way to Casablanca, Morocco.  There, I signed up for a 12-hour bus trip to Marrakech, a vibrant city whose buildings echo the ruddiness of desert clay.  As we wended our way there across the Saharan emptiness, our tour guide, Mohammed, bragged how Islamic men could have up to four wives.  Eventually, one of the passengers had enough.

            “That’s nothing,” the man shouted.  “In North America, there is no limit to the number of wives we can have.”

            “Really?”  Mohammed looked puzzled.

            “Sure.  We just have them one at a time.”

            Serial polygamy was even promoted onboard the ship.  A plaque on the bridge assured potential newlyweds that marriages performed onboard lasted only for the duration of the cruise.

            This ship’s initial passengers did not have such options.  Built in 1944, the vessel began its life as an American troopship hauling soldiers to World War II.  Since then it has been refitted and refurbished into an ocean liner.

            Old enough for AARP membership, the craft showed its age.  Plumbing sputtered and ventilation wheezed.  Threadbare carpets revealed years of stains, and paint barely concealed bathroom rust.  The shabby conditions caused some to cancel passage and leave in disgust.  Others shared their unhappiness, whining to anyone who would listen.  I took it all in stride.  For what we were paying, I could not expect opulence.  Besides, the scruffiness reminded me of home.

            On day 10, we reached the Canary Islands, a Spanish beach playground off Africa’s northwest coast.  Rather than take a tour, I opted to spend the day sauntering solo through the port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  Its sidewalk cafes, fountained parks and shady promenades provided a refreshing touch of Europe.  Even though most places took dollars, I found an ATM and bought local currency.  It felt liberating to escape fellow passengers.

            Unfortunate for my waistline, one of my initial fears proved unfounded.  The meals cooked by our English chef tasted fine, although some dishes were not what one expected.  This especially applied to desserts.  The tollhouse cookies, for example, contained nary a chocolate chip, and the pumpkin pie was best described as, “It sort of tastes yellow.”

            The worst culinary disaster was the coffee.  The muck brewed onboard came from beans that must have been ground beneath Juan Valdez’s mule before being dumped aboard as bilge ballast.  Greenpeace would have never allowed this foul substance to be spilled overboard for fear of killing whales.

            Our last stop in the eastern Atlantic was Cape Verde, a former Portuguese island colony located off the coast of Senegal.  In slave-trading days, African natives came through here on their way to Brazil.

             Many of us crammed into pregnant minivans for an all-day, cross-island tour.  In spite of cheek-to-cheek seating, the trip proved delightful.  The island’s arid, volcanic landscape reminded me of Arizona.  Everywhere we drove, smiling, colorfully dressed residents stood by their homes and waved.  Best of all, we did more sightseeing than shopping.  It was a perfect “guy trip.”

            For six full days we crossed the Atlantic, and as it was throughout the journey, the time at sea was pure pleasure.  Professional lecturers and retired professors gave talks about the science, culture and history of the places we visited.  Passengers and staff taught classes on writing, dancing, painting and more.  Between brain stimulations, there was time for reading, sunbathing and swimming.

            At sunset, some poured drinks and gathered on deck.  Eyes gazed westward in hopes of catching the elusive “green flash,” a teal burst that can occur when the top of the solar disk touches the horizon.  Those with stronger drinks claimed more sightings.

            After dark, some of us searched for the Southern Cross.  Others retreated to the lounges where musicians performed everything from Frankie Avalon to Frank Zappa.  The ship’s theater offered standard cruise-fare stage productions featuring magicians, comedians, cabaret singers or concert pianists.  We even had guest speakers onboard.

            Salvador became our first Brazilian port.  Built on cliffs, this former colonial center features a color-splashed historical district.  As I wandered around, a school-age lad approached.  In his native Portuguese, he told me what I was looking at, but I failed to comprehend a single word.

            “Obrigado,” I thanked him, and walked on.

            He followed, intent on providing a guided tour.  Assuming he was freelancing, I offered money, but he refused the payment.  The two of us continued through town.  He explained the sights in his local language.  I responded as best I could in a meld of pidgin Portuguese and Taco Bell Spanish.  He grinned, graciously pretending to understand.

            On world cruises, most port stops last only one day, and plans can be dashed if the weather proves uncooperative.  Such was the case in Rio de Janeiro.

            We arrived on Sunday, and I had hoped to go birding.  Our onboard aviary expert said Rio’s sugar-sand beaches should be rife with curvaceous, string bottomed chickadees.  Unfortunately, gloomy drizzle greeted our arrival, and the only species I spotted were gaggles of Speedo-briefed beach roosters strutting plump plumage on shoreline volleyball courts.

            Buenos Aires proved much sunnier.  Parks, monuments and outdoor cafés fill Argentina’s colorful and cosmopolitan capital.  Here, fabric shrinkage seemed to be endemic.  I encountered hundreds of young women whose apparel fit so tightly, if they had a peso in their pockets, I could read the year it was minted.  It’s no surprise that anorexia is rampant in this Paris of the South.

            The windswept Falkland Islands became our first English speaking port.  Looking at the barren landscape, I wondered how anyone but the British could desire such a desolate outpost.

            But the Argentines apparently did.  Two decades ago, their soldiers invaded the Falklands, battling the English in what one reporter said was akin to two bald men fighting over a comb.   Temporarily victorious, the first thing the Argentines did was require traffic to drive on the right side of the road.  A few months later, the British liberated the islands and restored left-lane motoring.

            Steaming south, we crossed the Drake Passage, the 600-mile gap between South America and Antarctica that is billed as the roughest water on earth.  Passengers downed Dramamine, wrapped wrist bands and plastered on patches, all in a desperate attempt to alleviate seasickness.  Only when we reached frigid Antarctica did seas and stomachs calm.

            In the South Shetlands, inflatable Zodiac boats unloaded us on a rocky Antarctic beach.  There, we watched three-ton elephant seals lounge like lard-bellied couch potatoes while tuxedoed penguins strutted by like midget maître d’s.

            In the cool of Antarctica, our geezerly ship showed its years.  A few cabins received enough heat to turn them into Finnish saunas.  The ducts in mine, however, exhaled less warmth than a zombie’s breath.  I kept hoping the menopausal heating system would have a hot flash, but it never did.

            We recrossed the Drake, passed Cape Horn and headed into the Beagle Channel off the island of Tierra del Fuego.  After stops in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, wecontinued through the Straits of Magellan and on to Punta Arenas, Chile.

            On day 48 we headed up the Patagonian coast through the incomparable Chilean fiord country.  Its dark passages dripped with glaciers, ice chutes and waterfalls.  Although temperatures hovered slightly above freezing, I spent as much time as possible on deck.  With no cabin heat, it felt cozier outside.

            As we turned to cross the Pacific, the journey dove to a low.  Not only was the room colder than my ex-wife’s stare, but the coffee quality tumbled from ghastly to worse.  Rather than using beans, the cooks began making the brew from a bottled syrup that resembled crankcase-drained Pennzoil.  I sipped the loathsome liquid only for warmth.  Fortunately, Polynesia loomed ahead.

       The ship began reeling, its course pummeled by the dual punches of the Humbolt Current meeting a South Pacific gale.  Spray flew as the bow jabbed and lurched through churning swells.  Passengers staggered, dishes tumbled, and lunches were lost in more ways than one.  From the safety of my cabin, I gazed awestruck at Neptune’s fury.

            On the journey’s 55th day, we reached Easter Island.  This was our first overnight stop, and many passengers seized the opportunity to sleep ashore.  For once we could dine on fresh seafood and sip coffee that didn’t taste like Jiffy Lube sludge.

            Mysterious stone effigies called moai have made Easter Island famousSculpted centuries ago, these statues can stand 32 feet tall and weigh 80 tons or more.  Scientists have debated why primitive Polynesians carved the moai and erected them around the island.  Personally, I believe it was a preliterate Chamber of Commerce ploy to reward us tourists for journeying to the most isolated isle on earth.

            Easter Island’s nearest inhabited neighbor, Pitcairn Island, lies 1,200 miles away.  On this two-square-mile hunk of rock, mutineers from the Bounty came to hide in 1790.  Fifty of their descendants still live there.  We were to go ashore, but rough seas precluded a landing.

            Since we could not visit the island, the islanders came to us.  They brought goods to sell — clothes, carvings, books, stamps, postcards and even plaques bearing scraps of the HMS Bounty.  A shopping orgy exploded on deck.  When the spree finally ended, the islanders held wads of green and the ship looked like a Pitcairn Island T-shirt emporium.

            Although every age cohort was represented onboard, the majority of our passengers had long been receiving Social Security checks.  While the kids behaved like grown-ups, many of the adults acted like spoiled adolescents.  They squabbled, bickered, fussed and complained about everything from saving seats to tipping.

            The biggest problem, however, was theft.  Personal property seemed safe, but items belonging to the ship or staff vanished with regularity.  Passengers ripped out sections of guidebooks for their own use.  Someone pilfered the VCR used by instructors, then allegedly threw it overboard.  Reference materials and dictionaries disappeared from the ship’s library while maps and notices vanished from walls.  One brazen thief even stooped to swipe Christmas tree tinsel from the ship’s chaplain.

            We soon sampled the siren isles of the South Pacific.  In Tahiti, I rented a car and explored the land that inspired Gauguin and drove the Bounty crewmen to mutiny.  As I pedaled a bicycle around Bora Bora, locals greeted me with smiling bonjours.  In the Fiji Museum, I saw cannibal forks used at a 19th-century dinner party whose guest of honor and main entrée was a Methodist missionary.  Off New Caledonia, I got a wet-dry double feature as I snorkeled near a catamaran on which several bikini-clad lasses lounged.  Below the surface, it was A Fish Called Wanda.  Above, it looked like out-takes from Baywatch.

            A torrential downpour dampened our arrival to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  There I discovered that snorkeling in a deluge could be fun, in spite of a chilling, pelting rain-driven back massage.

            Near Darwin on Australia’s north coast, I took a river tour to see man-eating crocodiles.  I had high expectations, but the guide said we would not be allowed to toss disgruntled passengers to the toothy reptiles.

            Actually, most of my shipmates were pleasant to be around, and after months of prison-close confinement, we knew each other by face if not by name.  With some I bonded well.  Others I found as endearing as in-laws and prayed we would never cross paths again.  They probably felt the same.

            Bali, my favorite shipmates’ favorite port, came next.  On this Indonesian island, rice paddies terrace volcanic hillsides, sacred monuments rise godward, dinner can be had for $5, and everywhere the people seem honest and genuinely amicable.  Friendly, sacred, scenic and cheap, I had to agree Bali offered a touch of paradise.

            The biggest deterrents to enjoying the island were the hoards of vendors who greeted our arrival.  As I stepped ashore, a clutch of walking Walmarts swarmed me like flies heading for a steaming cow-pie.  These sidewalk salespeople proffered blue-light specials such as three T-shirts for $10, four ball caps for $5 and “genuine” Rolex wristwatches at two for $15.  Show interest in their products and they latched on like swamp mosquitoes slurping a nudist.  I was lucky to escape solvent.

            After stops in Java and Singapore, we hit Sri Lanka, the island nation southeast of India.  The country was enduring an ethnic civil war, but our main danger was not bullets and bombs.  It was deadly traffic.  I spent a white-knuckled day riding with shipmates to the interior to see the ruins of Sigiriya.  There, a fifth century ruler, who also feared for his life, built a stronghold atop a 600-foot-tall stone monolith.  At least he had 500 dancing concubines to allay his worries.

            Residents of the Maldives have a wetter fear.  The highest point in their chain of atolls towers only six feet above the Indian Ocean.  If global warming causes seas to rise, these folks may have to snorkel to bed.

            After calling on the mountainous Seychelle Islands, the ship docked for three days in Mombassa, Kenya.  Many passengers departed for brief game safaris.  A friend and I opted instead for an overnight visit to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar.

            We spent an afternoon exploring Stone Town, a timeworn Arab seaport that once served as the capital of Oman.  Small shops lined narrow streets, and vintage buildings bore exotic carved doors.

           The following morning, we took a taxi out to a preserve for Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, one of Africa’s rarest primates.  Locals call them poison monkeys and believe that after the animals feed in an area, plants and crops will die.  For the hour we watched them flit through trees, the only thing dying was time.

            Our driver dropped us at the airport for our return flight to Mombassa.  We secured boarding passes and seat assignments, then paid departure taxes and cleared immigration.  Finally came security check.

            A military officer directed us one at a time to an armed soldier who stood behind a small table.  My friend went first.  He opened his bags, talked, smiled and left for the departure lounge.  The directing guard then sent me to the soldier.

            “You have Tanzanian shillings left?” he asked.

            “No, I exchanged no money here,” I honestly answered.

            “Then you give me one dollar,” he said.

            I immediately understood.  This was the baksheesh shakedown table.  I looked at the soldier.  I looked at his gun.  I looked down the hallway to the strip-search examination room.

            Without hesitation, I pulled a single from my pocket and slipped it to the soldier.  He smiled and sent me on my way.  The man never did check my bag for guns, bombs or contraband.

            The journey’s most touching stop may have been Eritrea, an impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.  Well off the tourist track, they get fewer visitors per year than some McDonalds rest rooms get in one day.  With 600 onboard, our arrival became a national event.

            A group of white-scarfed women greeted the ship, dancing and chanting with the verve of hoedowners at a backwoods revival.  Uniformed school children presented floral bouquets to the cruise director and her assistants.  A videotographer filmed our arrival for Eritrean television, and reporters interviewed passengers as they toured the countryside.  Either we were the biggest event to hit Eritrea since its liberation from Ethiopia, or this was a very slow news day.

            At the Jordanian port of Aqaba, four of us hired a taxi for a drive to Petra, the 2,300-year-old Nabataean city carved into the walls of a desert canyon.  The driver agreed to $120 for the day.  At journey’s end, he demanded $250, claiming he provided “extras.”  The up-charge must have been for thrills he provided by playing chicken with oncoming traffic.

            When we refused to yield to the gouging, the scene became ugly.  Both sides threatened to call the police.  Finally, we plopped $120 on the pavement and walked toward the ship.  I kept glancing over my shoulder, half expecting to see squad cars and flashing lights.  I just hoped Jordanian jails served decent coffee.

            The World Cruise Company’s inaugural voyage was drawing to a close.  By now, most of us had forgiven the ship’s shoddiness.  The pain of heatless rooms and slow-draining showers had been more than offset by the journey’s extraordinary itinerary and education program.

            Unfortunately, negative feedback eroded confidence back home.  In spite of prices starting at about $100 per day, bookings for the second cruise faltered.  When fuel costs tripled, the company was doomed.  Our journey went full term.  The follow-up on a different vessel folded mid-route, leaving passengers stranded Gilligan-like in Tahiti.

            The idea of offering budget-priced, around-the-world voyages seems viable.  Perhaps another company will continue the practice.

            We sailed through the Suez Canal and stopped in Israel, our final port before Greece.  I took a tour to Jerusalem.  Ambling through the ancient walled city, I felt the holy auras of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Before heading back to the ship, the bus made a rest stop at a small cafe and gift shop.  It was called the Elvis Inn.

             I had covered 27,646 nautical miles and explored 33 ports in 25 countries.  Now I stood in perhaps the most revered city on earth.  There before me, shadowed in the halo of the late day sun, rose a towering statue of Elvis.  Transfixed in humbled awe, I gazed into the eyes of the gilded icon from Graceland.

            Suddenly, everything made sense.  It was time to go home.