Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: LL Bean Continental Rucksack

Anyone who's backpacked within the last five years is sure to have noticed a trend for the retro/nostalgic in backpack designs. If it doesn't look like it's been through 'Nam, or it isn't something Tintin would have worn, it isn't cool, functionality be damned. Okay, I love Tintin as much as anyone; I'll subscribe to that. But whenever I'm threatened with compromise when in the market for outdoor equipment, I turn to my home state's signature brand, LL Bean. It hardly meets the criteria as a designer brand, and 'LL Bean model' is a paradigm for a certain style and personality with which growing up in an upper-class region of New England I am all too familiar with. But there's something about the company's products that just feels right. Everything they manufacture wears its quality upon its sleeve, and doing regular business with them you get a real sense of their company motto of "treating our customers like human beings".
So to my own business. In the travel-related forums I frequent, the equipment for which people most often ask for recommendations is by far the backpack. Backpacks are interesting because I think people care more about the comfort and aesthetics of the things than they do about outdoor clothing. So whenever it seems appropriate, I never hesitate to recommend LL Bean's Continental Rucksack. This piece of equipment stands for everything which its manufacturer stands by. Having used the same one on all my excursions, both wilderness and cosmopolitan, for 8 years, I can commend its durability and versatility. And it's deceptively capacious. The specs don't look terribly impressive at 2,000 cubic inches; most serious hikers wouldn't look twice at it. But it can take an astonishing amount of abuse if you want to see how many extra pairs of underwear you can really stuff into it (just be careful which axis you test it on -- don't arch the back support too much or it'll bend and the support your shoulders get will be ruined). The side pockets can also take a stuffing if you're like me and like to carry about a gallon of water. And the outside pocket expands like a champ. Despite its simplicity, a pocket always appears for whatever you're looking to stow. And in my lazy opinion, simplicity in a backpack is a key element.
Drawbacks: The straps (not real fleece) are the only part of the product that seem to yield to the test of time. They can cinch up and dig into your shoulders at the armpit. Not everyone has this problem with bags; it depends on the shape of the shoulders. But it's a problem I can overlook in this particular case.
As for the waxed cotton fabric, it repels water up to a point. By no means does it claim to be waterproof to begin with, and over the years that resistance steadily drops.
And there's the fact that it doesn't have a belt. This is what most serious backpackers look for first in a bag. I managed to create a strap of my own by threading a piece of webbing through the brass loops at the bottom; this works quite well. If you're looking for aesthetics, you're not going to find many rucksacks you like that come with a belt.
9 out of 10 product. Will serve you well up Kilimanjaro, but those going up K2 should weigh their options.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Back in the business

So I just got an email from someone thanking me for my review of the Sierra Designs tent. That people actually read my blog months after I've been on hiatius from the Blogosphere is startling and flattering. I've finished up my coursework for first semester, so there's no reason why I can't make a post or two.Just quickly, browsing through my uni library I found a really cool book of sketches of costume and set designs for Russian ballet of a century ago. I scanned a few, because these are truly beautiful and deserve to be on the internet. Some are by Alexandre Benois, for anyone who's googling him.

Here's a link to gallery. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Morocco: There's a lot of it about

Click to see my exact route
I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of Morocco, but by god am I glad I went. I found all of the spiritual transformation and artistic inspiration which I had hoped to find in the mountains and deserts there, but I'll stick to the more adventuresome parts for recounting my voyage. Leaving the city of Marrakech, which was overrun with tourists and the merchants who invariably follow, I got a ride with a fruit seller to the foothills at the very edge of the widest section of the High Atlas range. Immediately I saw a flaw in my plan: I was to rely on the melting mountain snow for water, and there wasn't a snow-capped peak in sight. I had gone on a power trip, packing 8 days' worth of food, and another 5 days of emergency rations. Utterly useless without water; I had to walk along the road for some time until I reached the altitude at which rivers are still abundant, all of which seem to flow out into the desert (I know, right). I didn't bushwhack like I do in Europe. This entire country is crafted out of hardened mud: god help he who chooses his own footholds on the parched mountainsides. There are no hiking trails in the Western sense, but the century-old paths worn and woven by countless donkey hooves and sandalled feet are extensive enough to make the National Park Service seethe with envy. Choose whatever direction looks the nicest and eventually you'll find yourself on a trail.

Though you can't blame my confusion
when this is what Hollywood would have
us believe the typical Moroccan looks like
The mountains are not barren wilderness. Berber villages dot the landscape with a comforting frequency. They are an adorable people. A walk through a secluded township makes you feel like you're in a movie, with children running along behind shouting 'bonjour!', old women gawking out of windows, and chickens fleeing along the road before you. I made the mistake of trying out my limited Arabic on them. Most do not speak Arabic, let alone French. The Berber have a language, culture, and charm that is utterly unique.
Both the Berber and the Arabs of southern Morocco possess very little besides hospitality. But in this they are among the richest people in the world. My 8-day supply of food lasted me 12; nearly every day I was invited into a mud hut for bread and olive oil, or a platter of stew, or a refreshing swig of fermented sheep's milk -- there's nothing like it on a hot day.
Once I achieved my goal of crossing the range by foot, and reaching the 'silent city' of Ouarzazate, I made the decision to start hitchhiking. My friends and family had warned me of being too idealistic; of trusting whom they perceived to be nothing more than a race of desperate desert people. The truth is I felt as safe as an American alone in Morocco as I would in rural England. The first rule about visiting the country: you must learn to decide who is showing genuine hospitality, and who just wants your money. Once that distinction is made, you will sink into the culture and lifestyle, reluctant to ever leave.
The most memorable people who picked me up were two college kids from Casablanca. They had had to cancel a trip to Japan because of Fukishima, so they had gone on a 2-day road trip, on which over a week had now passed. After spending the night at their abode (we watched Black Hawk Down and made a 3D animation) they said to me, "Where you are going looks nice. We'll take you there." We spent the next four days driving deep into the Sahara, dodging sandstorms and bandits. After camping deep in the dunes, defying the scorpions with my bare feet and playing my harmonica under the stars (stars more brilliant than I have ever seen -- you could see the Andromeda galaxy) I returned to the mountains to finish out my voyage, where I got comfortably lost for four days before hitching back north.
I camped out in this valley, and many similar ones.
Sweet tea five times a day, watching football through a window in the shade of olive trees, trading cell numbers with a man who lived in a cave...I certainly felt like this place had everything to offer a kid such as myself. At the same time, after almost three weeks I began to feel what Robert Service termed 'the gnawing hunger of lonely men, for a home and all that it means.' My wanderlust has been sated for the moment. I have finally been somewhere exotic, and was surprised when I felt right at home there. Some day I shall no doubt return with larger water bottles and a better grasp of the three languages. But for the time being I can stop dreaming about trotting the globe and set my mind on more prescient things -- schoolwork, artwork, and girls.

If you have any questions about the country or this kind of travelling, please comment!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Y: The Last Man

I have a thousand things to say about this series, and not one of them is good. The only value, indeed the only reason I think it catches anyone's eye, is the eroticism, which they play up to an utterly un-artistic and unprofessional level. But I'll only linger on the main point which makes this the worst thing Vertigo has ever cranked out, which is that it is the most boring comic I have ever read. I'd say the story had been written by a 4-year-old, except Axe Cop is actually entertaining. I was quick to drop $30 on the first two volumes, tentative to pick up the third, and then, fuming, got the rest of the series from a torrent just to see how it ended; even that was a waste of resources.
It has a promising premise. Unoriginal yes; this sort of thing has been done before (there's at least one grindhouse movie with the same setup) but one of the things graphic novels do best is to tackle tough ideas and make an awesome story out of them. From vikings (the Northlanders series) to cyberpunk (the Gibson adaptations), comics are often the first to take a concept and do it right. I  think the writers of Y really half-assed it here. Now that all the men are dead, the strongest military in the world is the Israeli; the strongest navy, Australia. Democrats now hold an overwhelming majority, and food production was hardly affected. Interesting, but hardly revelatory; you're not touching on half the issues you should be if you want to flesh out the storyline, which is bonier than the unengaging protagonist.

Also in this comic book world, every woman is a hottie. Dr. Mann is supposed to be in her 40s, yet she looks 19 and is the center of most of the books' sexy scenes. While the artists are indeed good at drawing cute girls, I think making them all spanking hot just defeats its own purpose. Porn is widely available; I want some depth if I'm going to be paying for this drivel.

And I'll say it again. It's unbearably boring. Eighty-seven storylines, and not one of them really grabs you. It got to the point where I just started skipping the parts about the Israeli woman; they had zero bearing on the main characters, and even if I had read them I think the resolution of that plot-line would still have made zero sense.
Clearly there was potential with this ensemble of creators; they just needed some slapping around by their publisher, whose job it is to keep this nonsense out of the market until its developers have gotten their act together. Vertigo has seen better days.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Craig Thompson's Blankets

This is a heart-stoppingly beautiful book, and a real testament to the power of the art form. The melding of story, speech and art are done so as to transport you into the author's very mind as he tells of his struggle with faith and love as a teenager. It's 600 pages long -- I promise you'll be through it in a day. And at it again the next. I don't want to over-hype it so those who look for it won't be expecting the best book they've ever read, but this should be required reading for anyone who's ever been a teenager.
The more you read it I think the sadder it becomes; the more it speaks of how tortuous it can be being a teenager. It also brings you right into American teen culture, in a similar, though less grotesque, vein as Charles Burns' Black Hole. One reason I enjoyed it is that the style is similar to my own; and I can't emphasize enough how much this inspired me to put as much effort into my drawings as Thompson does. The black and white medium is handled with skill and grace; beautiful detail here, tantalizing suggestion there. Every page is a canvas. I am over-hyping it, aren't I? Go out and find a copy.

Comics as fine art

I am a comic nut -- nobody knows this about me because I am properly ashamed of the fact. Luckily I seldom get questions about why, as an English major, over half of my bookshelf is filled with graphic novels. I've gone through those days of worshipping those modern myths, the super heroes, and I will be forever grateful to Spider-Man and the Justice League for getting me into drawing comics in the first place (really it was Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes which got me started, but it wasn't until later that I realized it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life). However with the discovery of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and the wild world of Vertigo, my style of drawing and outlook changed very much.
        I hate reading analysis of stuff that's supposed to be fun, so skip this paragraph if you like. But I've struggled wit myself for some time pondering whether comic books can constitute 'fine art'. Whoever says that comics cannot speak poetry, let him read Krazy Kat, Pogo, the later Calvin and Hobbes strips, and graphic novels like Craig Thompson's Blankets. But comics of epic and timeless value, foremost of which are the likes of V for Vendetta, have to be put in perspective before they are labelled, as I did initially, as high art. They will shine through the ages above all other comics, but do they hold a candle to other modern art, like Munch or Mondrian? The effort involved, the creativity required, the origins of the idea and the cultural significance are all there (now I'm thinking specifically of V). To falter at my own hurdle, I have no idea. With more reading I expect I'll succumb to my own bias and decide "of course comics are fine art, you illiterate!" But to be honest, this isn't something that is ever going to effect my immense appreciation and enjoyment of the art form.
For the next week or two I'll begin reviewing my favorite comics and suggest which are surest to suit your pleasure.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Upcoming trip

Click to see my basic route.
For those of you who might be interested in visiting Morocco, I'll outline my plans as far as they've been set in stone.
I'll be flying into Marrakesh, which is your classic bustling Berber city with winding streets and carpet sellers -- only inundated with tourists. It's definitely worth a look 'round just for the culture, but I won't stay long here.
Spices on sale in Marrakesh
 I'll make for the mountains hopefully on the first day. I'll find a mountain pass that runs just north of Mount Toubkal national park. Toubkal is the highest mountain in the Atlas and I'd really like to climb it, but it's still snow-covered at this time of year, and I'm travelling light; can't take any winter climbing equipment when I'll be spending most of my time in the desert.

Ouarzazate (pronounced wa-za-zat)
 I'll be aiming for (and hopefully hitting if I want to restock on food) the mythical desert frontier town of Ouarzazate, a real oasis with incredible architecture and history. I might spend a day or two here resting up and meeting people. I'll depart northeast by bus, heading for the town of Merzouga and the famous Erg Chebbi. 'Erg' is the Moroccan word for dunes, and they're harder to find in the Sahara than you'd think (banish from your mind the image of thousands of miles of sand dunes; most of the Sahara is gravel and salt flats).
Erg Chebbi
This location is unfortunately very popular with tourists, so I'll have to trek out a bit to avoid the commotion. I'd like to rent a camel and a guide if it isn't too expensive. At any rate, it will be amazing to pitch my tent out here under the stars.
I'll hopefully have a week left at this point, so I'll head directly west to see the Dadas gorges, also popular, but filled with ancient Berber strongholds and alien rock formations. This area is rugged, but should be easily navigable with a compass. I'll play it safe and get back to Marrakech early; hopefully having a few days to spend soaking in more of the culture of this fantastic country.
So yeah, expect an update about how that went in three weeks!