Close Up: Niagara Falls

“So, you are going to Niagara Falls. Are you going to go over in a barrel?” was the question posed by almost everyone I told of my upcoming adventure.  Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old Michigan school teacher, was the first to do it in 1901, but only after testing the waters (and the barrel) by sending her cat over first. Both survived and since then 14 more people have gone barreling over the rim.

Niagara Falls was never on my barrel list, but I found myself flying into Buffalo, New York so, why not? And yes, the two falls, American and Horsehoe, are massive and impressive. But they are also also mesmerizing. Staring into their thundering and flowing waters and the mists that rise from them is trance-inducing, like staring at a lava lamp. I allowed my video camera to stare.

Our visit was brief, an overnight on the Canadian side, but we did plan our trip to take advantage of the view, first a late lunch at Elements on The Falls, directly across from The Falls, then dinner at Watermark, high atop the Hilton, overlooking the late night light and fireworks display. Both were quite good and our US dollars made both quite affordable.

Rodeo USA – What Are These Bull Riders Thinking?

Imagine, if you will, an SUV frozen in a momentary apogee above your head.

I’m at the Russian River Rodeo in the tiny town of Duncans Mills, one of more than sixty rodeos across California during the summer.

Bucking Bull and Cowboys
Photo (c) 2018 Russell Johnson

Just what are these bull riders thinking? I once worked with a TV anchorman who rode bulls on weekends. As part Native American, he said it was his heritage. Our bosses were not amused. Larry Mahan, once called King of Rodeo, said these bulls were the meanest, rankest animals on the face of the earth. “They want to get you even after you get off. Its not over until you leave the arena.” On a recent weekend, the Professional Bull Riders Association reported one rider knocked unconscious and two concussions…and that was only in their professionally-sanctioned events.

But, with due respect to The King, it’s more about show biz than bovine malevolence. So, why do bulls buck? Mostly, like most of us, they want to get something off their back. They are never broken as a horse might be. But they are also trained, like professional wrestlers, to put on a show. Some are trained by strapping dummies to their backs. In the arena, something called a flank strap is tied around them. The additional pressure (not pain as the strap is padded) further enhances the motivation to “get that goddamned cowboy off my back”

A full ride is 8 seconds, during which the bull and the cowboy are scored. According to the PBR, the bull is judged for its spin, its changes in direction, its back end kick, its drop in the front, and its body rolls. A rider is judged for control: how well he matches and counters the bull’s moves, how centered he is and how fluid his movement is. In other words, this is kind of a ballet, a far cry from sticking a few coins in a mechanical contraption in a honky tonk joint.

I can see the reasons many fans follow these rodeos around. Good cowboy music, ribs and chicken, and now, designer beer. Not to mention a fair number of whoa moments.

A list of Rodeos in the USA

Striking the Mother Loaf: San Francisco Sourdough

Baker, Boudin BakeryFernando Padilla, – Master Baker, Boudin Bakery, San Francisco

I could live quite happily just on fermented stuff: wine, cheese, sauerkraut (but maybe not Eskimo whale flipper), but most of all bread, my favorite being San Francisco sourdough. Fernando Padilla has been Master Baker at San Francisco’s Boudin (pronounced bowdeen) Bakery since 1988. But Boudin goes back to 1846, when Isadore Boudin (French pronunciation), son of a Bordeaux baker, took the miner’s bread he discovered during the California Gold Rush and alchemized it to fermented gold.

The secret is in the starter, a pool of microorganisms consisting of lactobacili and natural yeast living in a blob of wheat reverently called the mother dough. Miners carried Mom close to their hearts, in pouches around their necks and on their belts. The beauty of this concoction, mixed with wheat, water and salt, was that the bread it made didn’t spoil and mold quickly, due to its acidity. Boudin’s perhaps not-so-secret ingredient was honored with scientific name, lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Padilla says that the DNA of his mother dough probably dates back to Gold Rush times.

Sourdough differs from other breads in that it doesn’t use commercial yeast to speed it along. It takes 72 hours to make a loaf of bread, but the reward is the unique sourness that bubbles up inside.

So how about celebrating the phenomenon of fermentation with a glass of Pinot, a slice a cheese, and while I’m at it, why not tear off a chunk of San Francisco sourdough?

Boudin is considered the oldest still operating business in San Francisco. Its showplace bakery, museum and restaurant is located at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Celebrating Arthur C. Clarke 100th Birthday

Today would have been the 100th birthday of futurist, science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, best known for his screenplay (with director Stanley Kubrick), “2001: A Space Odyssey”, inventing the concept of the communications satellite, and shedding tears on TV (with US commentator Walter Cronkite) when the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon. He earned the title “Prophet of the Space Age”.


I spent a day with Clarke in his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1994, watching him redesign the surface of Mars on a primitive computer, having long chats about everything under the sun, and interviewing him for a documentary I was producing on the future of travel. Following are excerpts from my upcoming book “Tales of the Radio Traveler” and a video memorial I put together upon his death in 2008. 


Fall Fashions: Views of Autumn

Fall Colors at Far Niente Winery, Napa, California
Photography (c) 2017 Russell Johnson

It was literally a breath of fresh air to experience the fall colors this year. We are headquartered in fire-ravaged Sonoma, California. We evacuated for about a week, but unlike several of our friends, we had a place to come home to. We returned to smoke and ash. Some areas of the Napa and Sonoma valleys were destroyed: homes and memories lost, automobiles and possessions melted. But certainly not all was lost, as you can see in the above picture that we snapped on our way over the mountain from Sonoma to Napa and the old vines below, some of which were still sporting fall plumage after as many as 100 years.