An Impressive Pair

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I left for Italy brokenhearted, barely more than a day after saying a sooner-than-expected goodbye to my home and travel companion of the last 14.5 years – my dear, sweet pup. After nearly three decades, I was abruptly launched into a new era of life and travel, a time in which I suddenly had no living creature dependent on me for life. I imagine this will feel liberating someday; at the start of my trip, it felt unmooring at best.

Having lost one caretaker role, though, I embraced an unlikely one for the next few weeks – the balancing act of playing travel coordinator for two separated generations: my eighty-something parents in the first week, and my millennial son who jumped into the mix partway through. All three are bright, active, capable, interesting, and interested people, but I still felt the burden of getting them all from place to place and making sure everyone was having a good time. Old habits die hard, and early on, I struggled to relax into the first trip in years where there was nothing at home to fret about. (My husband was home alone, but he handles that with aplomb!)

Despite my apparent need to worry about something or someone at all times, my first charges were pretty damn impressive. From the very outset, I watched my 85- and 86-year-old parents navigate Rome’s irregular cobblestone streets for hours, starting a few minutes after we had landed from an overnight flight and stashed our bags at our hotel’s reception. My dad has two artificial knees, and my mom has one of those plus a brand-new pacemaker, yet neither blinked an eye at the idea of ascending and descending the Spanish Steps with no hand rails, walking uphill and downhill and occasionally in circles in search of lunch and dinner spots, or staying up until it was really time for bed to avoid jet lag the next day.

Both popped up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the following mornings for hours of sightseeing – walking the full circumference of both levels of the Colosseum, pressing through a crush of humanity at the Trevi Fountain, ambling through the Pantheon and Campo de Fiori, and doing the “simple” things like scouting out two meals a day on our own. A three-hour tour of the Vatican, all on their feet, was followed by a never-ending walk to lunch in the hot sun. In Florence, they toured the gigantic Uffizi all morning and still had the wherewithal to walk to and then fire intelligent questions at our guide at the Accademia Gallery that afternoon.

In spite of my constant fears of a fall, they stepped safely onto the Grand Canal water bus to the Piazza San Marco in Venice, clambered onto the Frecciarossa train, and repeatedly climbed a steep flight of stairs to our Florence apartment (which mom could not stop calling “the Airbub,” thinking that little “n” was a “u”), all the while maintaining a level of good cheer that was extraordinary. By the end, I know they were tired, but they chugged on until the very last minute when we put them into a cab in Venice.

They drank wine every night, sampled new foods, attempted a little Italian, unpacked and repacked suitcases, adjusted to an ever-changing lineup of new beds, helped navigate on a succession of poorly-signposted routes, caught early morning cabs and trains, peed in iffy gas station restrooms, wandered through three Tuscan hill towns in one very full day, shopped in crowded Florence (well, OK, that was mostly just mom), and got lost and then figured it out on their own on the one afternoon I let them out of my sight.

There were naturally some frustrating moments; no matter how adept these octogenarians may be, they simply cannot cover as much ground in a day as a twenty-something guy and his hiker mom can (and that’s OK). They got a little cocky, wanting to manhandle their own bags on slippery stone stairs (not gonna happen), and they got up ridiculously early to get ready for each day (sorry, guys, you know how I value my sleep). But there was so much fun, and plenty of hilarity, too: on our final night together, finishing off the last bottle of wine before they flew home alone, my mother turned to her grandson and said, “In three minutes, can you explain the internet to me?”

We were an unlikely group, but the trip was a resounding success, thanks in no small part to the gumption of my amazing parents. (Don’t worry, T – you will be praised in future posts!). I’m happy to have inherited at least some of their zest for life and can only hope to maintain it until I am their age and beyond.

 

Better Blues

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Get out of town, I urged myself. A mini roadtrip is always a balm, and my Sunday drive a few days ago was no exception, a country comfort for my bruised urban soul. I aimed the car west, alone, in the late morning, looking to find the sea of blue that sprouts this time of year in central Texas.

IMG_1101

DSC_0726

In late March and early April, the bluebonnets arrive. At least two forms of these lupines are native to Texas, but an ambitious Highway Department program in the 1930s to beautify the landscape spread the delicate state flower ever wider.

IMG_1116IMG_1136

Five species now border many major highways in the state, and they are joined by numerous other wildflowers, like Indian paintbrush, pink evening primrose, and Indian blanket.

IMG_1138

DSC_0723

Envious of all the young families plopping their Easter-clad children in the flowers, I returned home in the late afternoon, picked up the old lady pooch, and settled her into her own blue bed right here in Houston’s Hermann Park.

From highway berms to private farms, Hill Country towns to city parks, Texas is awash in wildflowers this time of year. The best are yet to come, but this little glimpse put a big smile on my face.

DSC_0721DSC_0724

fullsizeoutput_3d88.jpeg

A Sorry Excuse for a Story

Tags

, , , ,

Tell us a story, said the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this past week. I have a sorry one to tell.

Once upon a time, there was a trusting and naïve woman making a happy new life in a fresh house and city. Last week, that life was shattered like her kitchen window, rendering her, in rough order, terrified, nauseous, paranoid, agitated, irritated, stoic, and resolved. In one week, she has fortified the house, bought new electronics, and begun the daunting task of recreating the documents, both physical and virtual, that will allow her to step back into the world.

When she does, she may return for a little peace to this magical grove of trees, discovered the day before the intrusion that sent her days into a tailspin.

Hope to be back to happy travel posts soon.

Summer Interlude

Tags

, , , , , , ,

A seasonal time warp dropped me into a brief summer idyll last week. In the day and a half it took me to drive nearly halfway across the lower U.S., I transitioned from late winter rain and fog to luminous blue skies, cottony clouds, and soft, warm air.

IMG_0910

In the early hours, the atmosphere was thick with fog and the greasy refinery stench of East Texas, Lake Charles, and Baton Rouge. As I pushed on, the petrochemical panorama eventually gave way to tangly brown swamps crouching below the causeways of Louisiana.

IMG_0945

IMG_0959

For me, it’s always an eerie part of the drive – a divided road propped up on pylons above the brackish water, followed by bridges over the Atchafalaya Basin’s Henderson Swamp, an enormous and ghostly pool of water in which half-buried trees appear to be drowning. Billboards hawk boudin and cracklins for miles, neither of which tempted me to stray from my path hard east.

IMG_0954

The mist slowly lifted, and so did my spirits, as I spied skeins of birds unspooling over the low-country wetlands of Mississippi and Alabama and, later, a shimmering expanse of water dancing with hard white points of light near Pensacola.

IMG_0970

The second morning, fields of bristly marsh grasses appeared, my sign that coastal Georgia was near. I-10 straight east, Houston to Jacksonville, and then a short northern jog. That’s all it took to land me in a hot summer milieu that smelled just like childhood.

IMG_0915

It lasted all week, a gift of lightness and the very best kind of nostalgia. “School’s out!” the fresh air cried, and we flung the windows open and popped in the screens at my parents’ sunny house. It was summer break in mid-February, and I hungrily inhaled the sweet and earthy scent of grass and warm soil. I marveled as flowers and ferns began to sprout from one day to the next. A chorus of birdsong was my morning wake-up call, and cheeping insects serenaded the dog and me on her last trip outside each night.

IMG_0916

I pedaled an old bike into the wind, savoring the delectable mix of hot sun and cool air on bare arms. In the company of my parents and younger sister, we revisited old pastimes, ducking into the DQ for long-eschewed treats and lolling on the couch with the NY Times crossword in the evening. The aroma of fresh shrimp and veggies rose from the grill, and a hint of chlorine, fertilizer, and light mildew – all smells I strangely love – put the finishing touches on my olden-days reverie. The years and cares that had been piling up rolled away, and if my birthday hadn’t been at the end of that exquisite week, I might have been convinced I was several decades younger.

IMG_0911

Which leads me to graceful aging …

A highlight of the week was a walk on Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach, a popular, well-loved shoreline that had somehow eluded my acquaintance in many years of being so close by. It was immediately obvious this had been a terrible oversight!

IMG_0878

IMG_0883

Jekyll’s northern beaches are slowly eroding; each year, more and more sand is pushed by the sea and dumped on the south end of the island. In that process, centuries-old live oaks and pines are uprooted and scattered across the hard sand that is constantly pounded by ocean currents and then baked by the sun.IMG_0892

A few trees remain rooted but most are sun-bleached carcasses strewn about like sculptures in an outdoor art exhibit. While the otherworldly scene has become popular for wedding shoots, my sister and I used it like the children we had regressed to, climbing barefoot on trunks, branches, and toppled root systems as our father amusedly looked on.IMG_0852

The driftwood has an admirable, simple beauty, a spare look that’s enhanced by the blue of the ocean beyond and the pinkish tinge of early sunset. We roamed aimlessly for a while, climbed some more, took our photos, then slipped back through the ferns and palms to the road. Like the buffed and whitened old trees, my own troubled edges were scrubbed clean by my week in the sun, and I came home rejuvenated, eager to reclaim the simple pleasures of summer and youth, every day.

IMG_0886

IMG_0977

Home again

 

Searching for Silver Linings in Ecuador

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Weather can be a cruel travel companion. Sometimes its best version comes along on a trip and makes everything better and brighter. Most times, it simply hovers in the background, a wallflower friend, neither making nor breaking the voyage. But on rare occasions, it becomes the escort from hell, a negative force that colors every aspect of a trip.

For much of our recent trip to Ecuador, we were accompanied by a physical and proverbial black cloud, making this country – a place that others have celebrated and which well-traveled friends had recently described as “a place everyone should see” – a bit of a disappointment to us. While almost all of our frustrations were directly or indirectly caused by variations on the theme of bad weather, there were other disenchantments as well, and it took our powers of positive thinking to salvage our week.

Quito

In Quito, my sister and I imagined we’d find a vibrant capital city with flowery colonial balconies, lively indigenous markets, and sunny plazas bordered by churches of every variety, all surrounded by Andean peaks. What we found was a smudged outline of that picture: a somewhat tired city, smothered in low-hanging clouds and choked with the black exhaust from dyspeptic buses and private vehicles. The historic part of the city had some of the requisite charm in the most popular tourist patches, but the rest of the hugely sprawling metropolis felt nondescript and lifeless to us. I like straying off the tourist paths, but this time the quieter streets and areas held little interest and even gave us a sense of uneasiness at times. We first stayed in La Mariscal, a neighborhood recommended for its energetic nightlife and restaurant options, but what we saw were some weary-looking prostitutes, a smattering of good places to eat, and bars and cafes seemingly meant to attract 20-somethings on a men’s outing.

Our optimistic natures saw beauty in the colorful houses tumbling down the steep hills surrounding the valley in which the city lay. Laughing at ourselves, we tried to make artsy photos out of the mist cloaking the skyline. We managed to find two tasty dinners even though the first restaurant “ran out” of all white wine and the second said the entrée brought to us was different from what we ordered because they recently revised the ingredients but hadn’t bothered to change the description. Oh, okay. And some of the suggestions mentioned by friends and online sources were simply rendered useless by the weather; why pay to take the teleférico for a bird’s eye view of the city when the city is covered by a big, gray flannel blanket? When we returned to the capital at the end of our week, we moved slightly north, closer to La Carolina Park and a more vibrant barrio and that small shift, along with a few hours of sun one day, was helpful in redeeming the city a bit in our eyes. Would we have felt differently overall about Quito in the sun? Hard to say, but probably.

Cotopaxi

After seeing everything we wanted to see in the capital, we eagerly anticipated what was to be the highlight of our hiking menu for the week. We had arranged a driver and guide to take us to Cotopaxi Mountain, an active volcano that we intended to hike up to 16,000 feet or higher if we felt good and the weather permitted. Friends who had been here a week before basked in the sun at the refuge and took stunning photos of the summit, and we were primed for more of the same. (Maybe we should have adjusted our expectations based on this couple’s attempt to take wedding photos with Cotopaxi as the backdrop …)

On our Cotopaxi morning, however, we woke to very cold temperatures, some 20 degrees below normal, as well as the extremely dense clouds and rain that we had apparently dragged along to Ecuador with us. We put on or packed all of our cold and wet weather gear, and went downstairs to meet the guide … who was a no-show. Several increasingly impatient and irritated phone calls later, we secured a replacement, who arrived 90 minutes late, a big deal because the weather worsens on Cotopaxi Mountain as the day progresses, even on a good day.

The late start, followed by a halting uphill slog on unpaved roads now running with mud, led to a miserable ascent on the cinder paths up the side of the volcano. We (hilariously and optimistically) chose the path that afforded great views of five surrounding peaks, but all we saw when we could lift our altitude-challenged heads was a haunting, blackish-gray slant of ash punctuated by squawking seagulls, whose eerie cawing as they wheeled above our heads just reinforced the gloomy doom of our surroundings.

We made it to the refuge at 15,900+ feet (see it? … squint hard; it’s there, below), but after resting and warming ourselves briefly, we took one look at the now snow-covered trail leading up to the lip of the glacier and decided we’d had enough.

Smart move. Seconds into our descent, we were lashed by small hail pellets that stung our faces and pinged off our rain jackets. A crack of thunder sounded as we rounded the first switchback, and our guide – slow and careful coming up with the high elevation – began to walk at a pace that required us to almost jog down the slippery ash to keep up.

As we dropped lower, the icy pills turned to wet snow and then to cold rain, soaking us to the skin anywhere we were not totally waterproofed. Back in the 4×4, we skidded down the mud tracks to leave the national park, learning that our guide was even more nervous than we were about being on the side of a mountain in an electrical storm.

Chugchilán

We left Quito quite happily, hoping that crossing the mountains into another province might lead us into a different weather system. It did – a worse one! Our first day in the mountains at a rustic lodge surrounded by dozens of hiking trails was a rain-fest. We hiked anyway because, well, we are hard-core and stubborn. Our jackets were sopping, our hiking shoes sodden and muddy, and our spirits as dampened as our clothing. But we (sort of) got our hikes in.

Even though we were surrounded by a smorgasbord of trails, all of the hike descriptions given out by the lodge were inadequate or incorrect, and none of the trails was marked in any way. Throw in the feral dogs that we were supposed to beat off with the sticks we got at the lodge, and it’s understandable that we might have aborted a few hikes before their natural ends.

After a surprisingly great night’s sleep in our little woodstove-heated room, we rose to a hallelujah moment – SUN peeking out from the clouds and revealing a deep and verdant canyon in full view from our window. We wolfed down our breakfasts, loaded our backpacks, and took off.

We got in a solid five hours of hiking before the deluge began. The elevation changes in this part of Ecuador are extreme; starting at 10,500 feet made it even more challenging, but we were euphoric over a short ridge hike to start the day. We clambered a steep half mile up to the top and then completed a big loop with fantastic views. At the end we inched down through farmland that looked like it was built on the side of an Aztec temple or an Egyptian pyramid. The crops planted at 45-degree angles were a vision of geometric landscape art. We were happy girls this morning.

After a quick snack and water refill, we were back out for a hike down, down, down into a canyon and then up, up, up onto a plateau. We met the scariest snarling dog of the trip, baring his teeth and hungrily staring us down from a perch four feet above us. We waved our sticks and carried on, but we ultimately found the plateau hike boring, and the maps made so sense at all, so after a while we ate a snack and then did the reverse down, down, down and back up, up, up.

Undaunted, we decided to take one more short hike because we knew mid-to late afternoon would bring rain. We pushed it a little too far, racing back under black clouds and, at the very end, buckets of rain dumped all over us after we had finally dried out all our gear the night before. Sigh.

Quilotoa

Quilotoa morning dawned just like Cotopaxi day: completely socked in with dense fog. By some miracle granted by the gods of travel (or maybe Instagram), the clouds retreated just as we arrived at the rim after a thirty-minute drive to the crater.

We took full advantage, snapping away with our cameras before we took off on a three-hour trek across a portion of the rim and, as the clouds inevitably returned, down into the town of Guayama, getting sprinkled upon for much of the walk.

Here we needed to make a decision: continue walking the whole way back to Chugchilán, which was another three to four hours, or get a ride back with the driver who awaited us there.

We had plenty of energy, but the rains persisted lightly, and our guide’s description of the route was unnerving. We would descend for about two hours on a very narrow path that started out as a cat’s spine walk with steep precipices on both sides and then turned into an even thinner path that snaked down the face of the canyon to the river. After that, we would need to climb back out of the gorge and walk back to our little village. Having seen the washed out roads and mudslides that littered our route in the car that morning, we could hardly imagine what a rain-soaked trail would look like and what danger it would present to us if the showers were as torrential as they had been the previous two days.

Seeing both our worry and disappointment, the guide and driver conferred and decided to take us to an alternate route so we could at least hike the bottom of the gorge and make the climb out of the canyon. While certainly quicker, we soon saw that the rain-damaged road down was just as scary as the trek would have been, and we squeezed our eyes shut, then took fleeting peeks at the drop-offs that beckoned inches away from the car doors. We couldn’t wait to get out of the car and start walking again, no matter how steep or frightening!

Do I even need to say it started to rain on us as we staggered out of the steep canyon walls that afternoon and wound our way back to our muddy, tree-dripping, bone-chilling, bugs-in-the-shower, eco-lodge room? Or that a 300-pound pig began snorting and squealing and trying to nose its way into our room as we hung up our drenched clothing? We slugged back a glass of box wine and a huge local beer in the main lodge at dinner, struggled to make conversation with the motley crew of backpackers there for the evening, and crashed into our rock-hard beds for one last night.

Back to Quito and the Equator

Back in Quito after our stay in Chugchilán, we spent one final day thawing our bones under a few hours of high-altitude sun and turning our previous six days of rain, questionable lodging, and bizarre acquaintances into funny stories and the beginnings of good memories. We overpaid for a ride north to the equator sites (there are several, one of which was semi-interesting and, fortunately, the one recognized as the most accurate location).

We agreed that Ecuador is a physically beautiful country that was just not able to show itself properly during our time there, but that even in great weather it may not have delighted us the way many other destinations have. I couldn’t help but compare Quito to buoyant Bogotá or historic Cusco or rocking Mexico City – all high-altitude Latin American cities that have charmed me to death, and Quito just couldn’t stand in the ring with those places, at least this time. Rural beauty is there in spades, but the infrastructure and information were sadly lacking throughout our time away from the capital, and we didn’t connect as well with the local people as we would have liked either. Because our experience seems different from that of many other travelers, we’ll just have to give Ecuador the benefit of the doubt and try again someday when we go back to the Galapagos or the Amazon!

IMG_0649

 

Roughing It

Tags

, , , , , ,

On our recent Texas road trip, we spent time both going and coming in Fredericksburg, an old German-influenced town in the Hill Country near the center of the state. Even before I moved to Texas, I had always loved the soft patina of Texas limestone, the predominant building material in this area. Paired with rough wood siding and beams, the pale yellow stone has a naturally weathered look that I’ll always identify with central Texas. Equally weather-worn is the split wood siding on a few historic log homes and even a few newer doors and walls.

Speaking of weathered …

Always seeking a quick hike wherever we are, here we decided to climb Enchanted Rock, a huge dome of pink granite that rises from the earth just outside Fredericksburg. A billion years ago, this rock was a pool of magma, parts of which pushed up through the earth’s surface, cooled and hardened, and turned into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away, forming the domes here today. We were fascinated to read that the domes are but a tiny part of a huge underground sea of granite. The entire batholith covers 62 square miles, but most of it is underground.

Enchanted Rock has numerous eroded layers, with pieces expanding and falling off even today on the curved surface. At the high point now, the main dome is 425 feet high, and the entire exposed rock spans 640 acres.

And that’s it for our three-day getaway a few weeks ago. I’m on my way to Ecuador now for some much higher climbs, so stay tuned!

Inscrutable Marfa

Tags

, , , , ,

A year-end drive, planned very last minute to stave off post-holiday gloom, took us to the Hill Country in the central part of the state, and then farther west to the empty expanses of West Texas. 

Version 2

Our ultimate target was Marfa, a small town that defies easy description. Other writers have used words like hipster, artsy, curated, minimalist, fake, expensive, cool, and overrated. Every one of these adjectives can apply, but Marfa is a place you have to feel, not just see or try to put into words, and it takes more than dropping in for an afternoon to do it. On the surface, Marfa could be small-town anywhere – in prairie Iowa or rural Cuba. Half-century old cars and faded pickup trucks sit in small patches of scorched grass, vintage Airstreams glint among the sepia tones of the vegetation, and low-slung houses with chipped-paint fences hide courtyards and more from clueless passersby. This is what you see, and are meant to see, before (or if) you have your cultural epiphany.

Version 3

But shimmering elusively in the plainspoken, down-home facades and pastoral landscapes are the half-hidden intellectualism, the artsy aesthetic, the foodie vibe, and (if you are the cynical type) the pretension that a visitor has heard is there but has to slowly discern. Inside some of those modest-looking dwellings live wealthy L.A. movers and shakers, up-and-coming or already famous artists, and well-heeled couples both young and old who seem to have been beamed in from Brooklyn or Seattle. There are infinity-edge pools hiding in there, and stainless steel kitchens, Eames chairs, and alpaca throws. We know this later, when we flip through books in the shops, but what we see are dusty streets with kitschy awnings and rusty screen doors.

Version 2

On our first pass through town, we do not recognize a single gallery space on the two main streets; the buildings are nondescript and any signage or advertisement nonexistent. When our hotel receptionist points to the map and tells us where things are, I keep shaking my head, thinking I must have the map upside down or am otherwise disoriented. We went down that street, I say, there was nothing there! I think J and I are both thinking we drove 600 miles for nothing.

Version 4But no, a second pass reveals discreet signs, and simple iron doors open to reveal rooms containing, for example, three huge Andy Warhol paintings, or tablesful of art glass, or a “September Eleven” installation. Even our hotel surprises us: this unadorned, rectangular carton right off the railroad tracks shelters a hopping, see-and-be-seen bar, highbrow local bookstore, and Architectural Digest-worthy room décor.

Version 2

Some of the trailers in town (and more than a few rentable teepees) are part of an ironic-chic camping complex. A plainly unattractive bluish-gray building contains just about the best pizza I’ve ever waited an hour and a half to get. Another old trailer dishes out “Marfalafel” and other Mediterranean goodies for visitors like Beyoncé, you, and me, and it takes us well over a day to even locate another popular restaurant that is tucked up against a random house with a teeny tiny sign.

Version 2

We walk through a field filled with a kilometer-long string of concrete … things. Apparently some visitors mistake these for unused highway barriers. The minimalist blocks are the work of the Marfa art scene’s founding father, Donald Judd. Like the town itself, the sculptural art at first inspires some eye-rolling and disappointment, but after a slow walk from one end to the other, with the morning sun catching the blunt gray edges and illuminating the surrounding prairie grasses, the piece begins to appeal. We pose with our senior dog in the openings; this would have made a much edgier Christmas card!

It’s hard to tell if the locals want us there or not. It’s clear that the burgeoning art scene has kept the town alive; many other small settlements we pass through out here in the desert look one more economic dip away from extinction. But we feel the ambivalence of both the hip crowd and the locals. Many places are only open on the weekend, shops close when they feel like it even then, service is sluggish, and a shrug might be the best answer you get to any question.Version 2

It sounds a bit unlikable, doesn’t it, or at least difficult to fully appreciate? Why does anyone drive hours and hours (and you have to) to see this place whose most famous work of art, the fake Prada store, is another 36 miles outside of town? Whose other claim to fame is a set of mysterious lights that bob out on the desert at night? Whose essence can only be guessed at or seen in a book?

Version 2

I can tell you why we did it – because it’s there! – but I can’t fully explain why I loved it. I need to go back and spend more than a day and a half browsing the galleries around town, to get a second shot at the Marfa Lights which failed to show up for us, to take the full six-hour Chinati Foundation tour, to try the Marfalafel since the food truck guys decided to close right when I walked up, and to try to more fully grasp the unlikely appeal of this tumbledown town.

Version 2

I can tell you that after the first few hours, I thought Marfa was the dumbest destination ever, nothing but a sad little place, or maybe a joke on all of us. That after eight hours, a little of the mystery had gotten under my skin. That after a day, I was all in – hook, line, and sinker. I can also tell you my husband did not get past stage 1.5 of that thought evolution; he thought it was sort of interesting and enjoyed watching my gradual enthrallment, but I’m guessing my next trip will be solo!

Driving the Blues Away

Tags

, , , , ,

The year I got my groove back was almost at an end, and the kids had come home for a short time and, just as quickly, were gone. I was newly bereft.

My own annus horribilis, 2016, had segued into a very good year overall. I went to Cuba at just the right time this past January. We hit a sweet spot for American citizens; things were smooth-ish, somewhat figured out, and not yet confused by the current political climate, and Cuba was still its enigmatic self.

A few months later, I left a cold and corrupt state after twenty-six mostly amazing years; if that sounds like a contradiction, it’s because everything there was perfect until it just wasn’t anymore. Although I wept leaving my home and friends, it was time to uproot ourselves from a life of diminishing returns. I settled into a semi-tropical, warm, and green new city. In my fertile new environment, I re-bloomed, making new friends, finding some rewarding writing work, getting fit, and starting fresh in myriad ways.

What didn’t change in 2017 was that I drove all over the place, and that was a good thing. I punched out day trips into the Texas countryside, a near month-long land cruise across half the U.S., a multi-week swing through five countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and a year-end sadness-subduing ride out to West Texas in the final days of the year.

 

 

As we took down the tree a few days ago, re-made the beds, and put away ate all the leftover cookies, I realized I had to get out of here. Everything was making me cry (or fat). The home-made ornaments with the kids’ little faces on them, the snowman in the powder room, the lights and candles that had made the house glow for a few weeks, all the chips my sons overbought. So we packed up the car, the dog, and our bags, and we aimed the car west. Far west. Six hundred miles west. And I started to smile again.

IMG_0033

The farther we ventured into the heart and then the outermost reaches of Texas, the lighter the human touch and my heart became. There is no one out here, we marveled. Maybe it was a post-holiday lull, but beyond the Hill Country in the middle of the state, we saw perhaps one car every half hour or so. On a lonely stretch of US-90, through the Chihuahua Desert that runs along the Mexican border, we counted fewer than ten passenger cars all of New Year’s Eve day.

IMG_0127

What we did see were miles and miles of post oak trees and creosote bushes in a faded terrain also dotted with yucca, mesquite, agave and prickly pear cactus, all broken up by a series of small mountain ranges and occasional canyons.

IMG_0216

The route from Houston to Marfa, our destination, rises ever so slowly; when a low-grade headache and increasing thirst hit us after a day and a half, we realized we’d gone from barely above sea level to almost 5000 feet in elevation.

IMG_0014

Human and man-made activity was limited to long, lonesome trains and Border Patrol stations and vehicles, and as we passed through farms and tiny towns, we took in a scattering of simple windmills, taco stands, rural post offices, and a disconcerting number of taxidermy shops and deer processing facilities.

IMG_0125

IMG_0254

As the West Texas wind whisked the dust off the roads, my mind was swept clean of the tumbleweeds of despair, of living far from my children, parents, and siblings. It didn’t make sense, but being out there in the vast emptiness took away my own feelings of hollowness. The spare vistas and pared-down life were palliative, and the resilience of the flora springing from rock and dry dirt was uplifting in its own strange way.

IMG_0016

As the new year dawned halfway back, in the Hill Country, we were ready to leave our last cozy lodging and drive home. Scrubbed of the nostalgia and wistfulness I’d loaded into the car when we departed, I returned ready to start again, to try to make sense of this modern American life that keeps us all on our own paths, fulfilling ourselves where we can until we’re able to be together again with those we love.

IMG_0213

After the Flood

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Buffalo Bayou Park was the first thing I fell for in Houston when we moved here in early spring. Less than a mile from my house, it was my walking, running, and biking track until the Gulf Coast summer humidity put an end to extended outdoor exercise. We still took visitors to the park for a stroll and a view of our shiny city rising up from the greenery, but I had taken a temporary break from the park a few months before Hurricane Harvey hit in late August.

IMG_9707

Now I’m hoping the current state of this beautiful riparian playground is just as fleeting. Harvey’s floodwaters, as well as the emergency release of upstream reservoir contents, wiped out the banks of our urban stream, uprooting trees, drowning plants, stripping away ground cover, and coating the lower paths in a thick layer of silt and sand that has yet to be fully shoveled away two months later.

IMG_9673

The dog park was annihilated, and the kayakers have disappeared. Plastic bags cling to dead tree branches, steep banks have collapsed into the water, and the always-murky waters have turned an even muddier brown.

IMG_9698

At the Shepherd Drive Bridge, pictured below, the water was nearly 40 feet (yes, FEET) deep inside the park and washed up to and over several of the pedestrian and vehicular bridges that cross the bayou.

IMG_9695

IMG_9686

As in many places all over this resilient city, though, life is returning to Buffalo Bayou. Ducks and blue herons tentatively paddle and perch on those felled branches, ferns and mondo grass spring from ragged ground, new green growth pushes up insistently from the sand mounds, and people on foot and bicycle have re-emerged to take advantage of perfect fall days in the park.

IMG_9653

It’s great to be back in the park.

IMG_9705

The Little Sisters

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

You’ve met the older, more famous siblings– Vienna, Budapest, and Prague – in a previous post, but let me introduce some of the little sisters of Central Europe. They may not have the same prestige, but they’re distinctive and appealing in their own right and are well worth a peek.

Bratislava, Slovakia (pop. ~ 425,000) – our first little city stop – has a bit of an unnecessary inferiority complex. Our Free Tour guide must have said five times that she figured we were all there because we’d been in Vienna, an hour away, anyway. Umm, not us. We had actually planned a longer stay in Slovakia than we did in Vienna, and we were pretty psyched about our cool but affordable hotel in Bratislava (with a brewery onsite) and spending more time here than the typical day trippers.

Like many Central and Eastern European cities that used to be under the Soviet thumb, Bratislava has an older, more colorful history that was partially bulldozed by the Communists’ dreary utilitarianism. That means the pastel-tinged Old Town and the red-roofed castle grounds are bluntly divided by a futuristic bridge and dull highway that wiped out an old synagogue and a huge chunk of the old city’s narrow, twisting streets. It also explains the hulking concrete apartment blocks across the Danube River and the overbearing monuments in other parts of the city.

The good news is that this with-it city is both bent on changing its image and taking the Soviet changes in stride. There is an unmistakable pride in the unique, modern bridge, and that helps offset the frustration of losing a cherished old part of the city. Those massive residential blocks are now painted in a rainbow of colors; our guide aptly called it Lego town, and it’s a great example of turning lemons into lemonade. There are trendy brew pubs and Mac-filled coffee shops in both the old and new parts of the town, and even the manholes have an quirky, artistic touch.

***

As we drive from Hungary to western Austria, we pass through nearly the entire width of Slovenia, one of the most exquisite countries in Europe, in my opinion. Although I’ve already raved about the capital, Ljubljana, in a 2014 post, it fully deserves another song of praise.

This enchanting city is even smaller than Bratislava, with fewer than 300,000 residents. The core of the downtown is pedestrian only, which makes things very pleasant after you’ve found a place to drop a car. Both sides of the tree-shaded Ljubljanica River house vibrant shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, street markets, and a seemingly endless number of outdoor tables.

Bikes whiz by, performers sing on the corners, varnished wood boats glide along the river, and it appears that every single person in town is either eating ice cream or drinking a beer as the autumn sun warms the last hours of the afternoon.

Overlooking the maze of brick walkways and buildings is a medieval castle, a staple of so many of Europe’s old towns and one of the fortress triplets of today’s profiled cities. Even if you’ve seen enough castles to last the rest of your days, the towers of these hillside edifices are the very best way to get the lay of the land, and in Ljubljana’s case, that vista includes a succession of terracotta roofs, green fields and woods approaching the mountains, and the Julian Alps themselves off in the distance. Talk about a view!

***

Our last city stop, the smallest but perhaps best known of the three, is Salzburg, Austria (pop. < 150,000). This visit really is just a peek. We’ve had so much fun trekking in Slovakia and Slovenia that we arrive rather late in Salzburg and have to press on to our next hiking base soon after.

Husband J remembers this town as a real charmer, and he is eager to show it to me for an afternoon and early evening. As we walk into the city along the river and view it from its castle above, it does not disappoint. Up close, too, it’s a handsome and cultured little metropolis; I’m infatuated early on with the soft stone walls and the wrought iron signs, the sparkle of the water and the impeccable wool fashions everyone is wearing. I’m obsessed with the ubiquitous stag motif and drool over the giant pretzels for sale in a few semi-busy squares.

Suddenly, though, we are in pressing crowds and discover that we are part of a St Rupert’s Day celebration, an event that looks and feels remarkably similar to Oktoberfest. Those couples I thought were so cute a few minutes ago are bothering me now that they’re listing into me; she looks silly with her bosom billowing out of a dirndl bodice, and his lederhosen appear ill-fitting and stained at close range. The pretzels now seem obscenely expensive (and dry – we discover after foolishly buying one), and the shops a bit ostentatious with their Bavarian designer hats and fancy accoutrements. We beat a hasty retreat up the hill to the castle to get away from the noise, disorder, and conspicuous consumption.

Upon our descent and escape back into the quieter streets, I do another 180 and decide maybe I do love the look of the boiled wool jackets and hats on the local families, and wish I could buy both of those items, plus a stag scarf, a couple of pins for my hat, and maybe some very pricey suede boots. (I desist.)

I admire the setting sun on the bridges, conjure up Mozart and Salieri as classical music wafts out of hidden courtyards, and drink another beer as J eats a giant weisswust dinner in a cozy biergarten. Just like that, Salzburg is back in my good graces, completing a trifecta of small town visits on our Central European road trip.

 

***

This is likely my last post on our Central European road trip, which turned out to be a perfect combo of big cities, a series of excellent hiking stops and rural stays, and many smaller towns in between. For information or stories about the trip, see the following posts:

Road Trip: Central Europe

A Tale of Two Villages

High Tatras High

Dressed for Success

Ambling Around the Alps 

Ambling Around the Alps

Tags

, , , , , ,

How delectable it is to wake up and have a whole day stretching before us with no set itinerary. We eat a leisurely breakfast, stand on our patio overlooking Wolfgansee (Lake Wolfgang) in western Austria, and rejigger the plan we made last night. The morning is misty and cool, so we decide to postpone a hike and instead drive to a nearby town.

Not just any nearby town. Hallstatt, Austria, is a place that has grown so famous and so congested that some experienced travelers refuse to go there, and we are very close to skipping it ourselves. Even our hosts in St Wolfgang have warned us away, saying that people the world over were so obsessed with Hallstatt that the Chinese decided to build an exact replica of the town so that couples could take their engagement photos, wedding pictures, anniversary and birthday snaps, and unimaginable numbers of everyday selfies there without leaving Asia. In spite of the negative reviews, we figure it’s early in the day and not particularly nice out yet, so we spurn the naysayers and jump in the car for the forty-minute drive.

With this less-than-auspicious introduction, we are hesitant, but we arrive and park before the hordes descend, and to our delight, we have the shores of the lake to ourselves, except for a few swans, as we approach the village. Like overrun tourist attractions everywhere, there is a good reason for the throngs. Our first lakeside views take in a diaphanous scene of mirror-smooth gray-blue water, a mini-castle on the far shore, and the spit of the town itself, an impossibly perfect little concoction of spires, rooflines, docks, summer flowers, and wooden boats, all perched on the limpid lake. A ribbon of morning mist threads in and out of an inlet, adding an ethereal touch to the panorama.

By the time the streets start to fill up with the first of the day’s visitors, we are climbing high above the town. Small, tasteful signs ask walkers to refrain from photographing the private homes along the route, and we whisper softly as we pass doorways and gardens. A little later, we come back down and scoot out of town just as the sun begins to peek out from the fog and the multitudes start to arrive.

***

Back in St. Wolfgang, the day has blossomed into a cool and sunny brilliance. We grab our backpacks and set off for Schwarzensee, a lake high up in the mountains above our little resort town. The trail is alternately steep and flattish, with views of the vaporous Lake Wolfgang off to the right though portholes of evergreens and deciduous trees.

It’s a woodsy walk, with birch and evergreen trunks rising high above the needled brown paths. I trudge behind J, who is always the pace keeper, and get lost in my own thoughts for long stretches. We are nearly alone; on rare occasions, we pass a couple or two, and on the way down, we smile at a rowdy little family of parents and young kids cavorting up the hill.

Schwarzensee appears before we know it. After our long and difficult climb in the High Tatras of Slovakia a week earlier, today’s ascent goes fast. We are now starving; it’s after 2 pm and we’ve been gone since early morning. Lucky for us, these mountain trails often have some sort of refuge up high, always with beer and better food in the middle of nowhere than even a busy roadside stop in the U.S. We order a couple of dark brews, salads, and bread, and spend some time sitting in the sun at a picnic table, batting away bees and appreciating our mid-hike good fortune. We bounce with a slight buzz back down the trail and arrive at our lodging in record speed, sated and tired in a most satisfying way, ready for our next Alpine adventure.

***

The Julian Alps stretch along the border of northwestern Slovenia and Austria. They are an impressive but accessible range, and on the Slovenian side, they provide the snowcapped backdrop for the fairytale setting of Lake Bled and its island church. Here, on another quiet morning, we walk briskly around the 4-mile lake trail, viewing that idyllic little clump of land from every vantage point. You can pay to paddle out there on a tour boat, but I’ve eschewed that outing twice, preferring to see the water- and tree-ringed bell tower with its mountainous backdrop.

This time, we also forgo the medieval castle looming above the lake, instead making a number of stops on the stroll, perusing the Olympic rowing facilities, checking out one of Tito’s many summer villas, and stopping at the Park Hotel on the way back to the car for a slice of their famous cream cake.

***

There are higher summits, rougher peaks, scarier climbs, and more exotic mountain cultures around the world, but for my money, the Alps are the torch carrier for highland hiking day in and day out, the winner of the prize for “Most Well-Rounded” of mountain ranges, if you will. The countries that are caretakers of this range, and the people who make these slopes and meadows their home, have created a system of paths and services that are hard to beat. From our post-college backpacking days, to our first serious experience hiking the Mont Blanc circuit a decade ago, to the day hikes we sprinkle into our European trips, we have returned time and again to these green hills full of cows, streams, trees, and fields. It’s always a good day for an amble in the Alps.

Dressed for Success

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

My packing list for most trekking trips, whether they’re going to be day hikes or multi-day marathons, is pretty simple: hiking shoes or boots, a few layered tops, athletic tights or maybe a thicker hiking pant, some cold and/or rainy weather gear, a trusty baseball cap that has seen better days, and … that’s about it. Most of those layers are more than a decade old, but I know they all work, and I can pack all the right stuff while half asleep.

On one of my earliest outings with strangers years ago, I met my first Haute Hikers. These upscale, stylish ladies had more than one nanopuff jacket buried in their overstuffed duffel bags, the better to coordinate with multiple pairs of figure-enhancing pants. They had decorative scarves and neck gaiters that matched their expensive little tank tops, jaunty caps (one had a feather), fancy watches (with altitude readings, naturally), and snazzy boots that were so new they got blisters the first day. I did covet some of their stuff, I have to admit, but I was pretty happy to avoid those ridiculously heavy duffels and backpacks. Being underdressed had benefits I appreciated, both logistical and psychic.

Let’s switch channels to European day hikes in the mountains, specifically the ones I took on our recent Central Europe swing. I am equipped just about as I described above. I’m in the same clothes I’ve worn in other parts of the world, and I’ve got a light daypack with water for the day, a snack or two, a rain jacket, and a hat. But now I am clearly overdressed, too sporty for the trails, and way too amply supplied in general.

You see, in the mountainous parts of Europe, hiking is such a part of life that it requires no special apparel or gear. In the High Tatras of northern Slovakia, on a trail that chewed me up at times, cute young women in capris and sandals – several with heels – sauntered past me, stepping up and over the jagged rocks as if they were power shopping on Fifth Avenue. The men wore basic pants and t-shirts and kept up a blistering pace that allowed them to stop for a smoke and still pass me again fifteen minutes later. Did anyone even have a backpack? I don’t think so. Six hours for them must be a morning constitutional – no snacks or extra water necessary.

In the Austrian Alps, we trundled down from a high mountain lake one afternoon to see a family with toddlers, all seemingly dressed for the playground, scampering up the steep path toward us, as carefree as could be. Dogs joined their owners on many a trail – not big tough dogs, but little fashion dogs, white yippy things that bounded over tree roots and mossy stones with their 4-inch legs while I heaved my taller, stronger (I thought) body over the same obstacles.

There were actually a few European hiking beasts who carried more than I did. But their bulky loads were their children, from infants on up strapped onto their backs, with the little ones’ legs and arms dangling and swinging wildly as their parents maneuvered down rock piles and mud chutes. Look, no hands! the adults might as well have proclaimed as they careened by my pokey self crawling like a baby down some scree. I couldn’t decide if I admired these risk-takers or found them mildly (or wildly) irresponsible …

Even if I scale up my gear program and buy some newer, more attractive apparel, I’m never going to be a mountaintop model; I value comfort and carry-on convenience way too much. At the downscale end of the spectrum, I can’t quite see myself tackling serious climbs in clothes I last wore to a casual picnic either. I think I’ll just stick with my dependable old middle-of-the-road hiking attire and save the other two ends of the scale for a blog post.

High Tatras High

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

There was nothing pedestrian about the hike and the landscape we encountered in northern Slovakia last month, except that the only way to see it was on foot, of course.

IMG_8211

I first heard of Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains in July of 2015, when a fellow blogger penned a compelling personal account of a hike to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. Her descriptions of both the physical trek and the restorative power of nature resonated with me. It was my introduction to both her and this relatively unknown trekking area, and I resolved then and there to do this very hike someday. In a way, our driving trip around central Europe 26 months later was planned around hiking this one little trail.IMG_8205

We arrived at Strbske Pleso, close to the mountainous border with Poland, after a few days in western and central Slovakia. We had already begun to absorb some of the wild roughness of this country’s natural beauty. Its smaller roads cut through dark forests of evergreens, but a drive up multiple switchbacks to our hotel and a late afternoon stroll around Strbske Pleso itself (pleso means tarn, or mountain lake, for those who don’t do crossword puzzles!) brought home the towering and glowering nature of the area. It was raining more than it wasn’t and when it did cease at times, there was a low-hanging mist and a deep chill in the air. We gazed out the front of our lodging to a valley far below, but at this point we had no idea what jagged heights lay behind the hotel.

IMG_8082

Completely unaware that there are high peaks behind all those clouds

IMG_8080

The morning of the hike, we rose to a miraculously sunny day – quite cold and crystal clear – but I had a new obstacle to overcome. Stomach trouble the night before had left me depleted, and I was plagued with a sharp headache and weakened limbs from the sickness and lack of sleep. But there was simply no way I was giving up the chance to take this hike on the only sunny day the area had seen or was likely to see in well over a week. I forced down a piece of toast, filched a roll and some cheese from the breakfast table for later, and donned every layer of hiking-appropriate clothing I could find in my suitcase.

IMG_8106

We set off with husband J’s idea that I might only make it to Popradské Pleso, the first mountain lake on the route and about an hour and a half up the trail. Truth be told, even before I felt so debilitated, the map of the hiking trails had intimidated me; our ultimate goal lay near the highest peaks of the range, and there was a disconcerting amount of snow on steep-looking ridges on every drawing I consulted.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 10.59.36 AM

As we got underway, I had moments of doubt that I’d even make it to Popradské Lake, but as I have on so many treks in the past, I put one foot in front of the other until I fell into a rhythm and pushed my discomfort and worries into the background.

IMG_8117

Somehow, even with my slowed pace and frequent camera stops, we made it to the trail junction in less than the posted time. Motivated to keep going by that surprising discovery and a deep drink of water, I insisted that we press on, passing a sign that said we had just a few more hours to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. No problem, I thought, even though I knew that the next phase would involve steeper slopes, fast-flowing streams to cross, and a jumble of rocks to climb. Two hours was nothing to me; I’d taken difficult treks that chewed up ten-hour days, and I repeated them day after day for weeks at a time in some pretty precipitous parts of the world.

IMG_8148

Well, I was about to be humbled. Shortly after the turn, we were clambering over muddy tree roots and then a rock-strewn path, both of which felt nearly vertical to my wasted body. I begged J to go on ahead; he hikes fast and usually has no qualms about ditching me. But today he refused, saying there was no way he was leaving me alone when I felt weak and dizzy. I’m not much of a trail talker to begin with, but now I was dead silent, summoning all my energy stores for the next steps, steps that quickly became higher, sharper, and more irregular.IMG_8166

We began to cross several small streams, two with wood bridges and one an easy hop, skip, and jump on the rocks. I was relieved; the fording with a rope over a fast torrent that Julie had written about was no longer here! So what was that sound? That sound of churning water ahead and above, that sound of voices and shouts. My heart sank as we rounded a bend and saw it: a rough and tumble gush of water over half-submerged, jagged rocks – and no rope. People were tottering across, many plunging at least one boot into the rapids.

IMG_8158

I was done, I thought. I have great balance and I love a good rock hop, but I was exhausted and suddenly paralyzed. I stood on the near bank, staring and shaking my head. The longer this goes on, I scolded myself, the more wobbly I was going to be. The key to rock hopping is an agile quickness; the more you waver, the shakier you get. J stopped halfway on the biggest, flattest rock and held out his hand. I have to admit it; I am a hiking hard-ass, and I wanted none of that wussiness. I made a few perfunctory, dismissive motions, but I finally hopped in, grabbing his hand, and we scampered the rest of the way across.

img_8204-e1507429235846.jpg

J said again Do you need to turn around? There’s still a long way to go, and then we have to get down.  

NO, I snapped. I’m not quitting. Spit out as if it were the most terrible word and idea in the world.

How did you end up like this? He laughed and shook his head.

Like what? Competitive? You know I’ve always been this way.

I was thinking stubborn and hard-headed …

That I was. Am. I was getting to that lake today.

Let’s give it until noon, I bargained. That’s the 2:10 we saw plus some extra time for all my stopping and slow going.
IMG_8195

The next 75 minutes were arduous, and we walked in silence, J surging ahead and then checking behind him, me talking to myself in the sternest terms and ducking my head every time he looked back. The toil was relieved by the most astounding vistas – sweeping panoramas of the Mengusovská Dolina (Valley) behind us and neck-craning views of the crests on the border ahead.

IMG_8193

IMG_8165

At ten minutes before noon, a descending hiker said 5 minutes! and all of a sudden the trail leveled out and we were walking into the bowl that holds the largest and deepest tarn in the Tatras.

IMG_8168

Not yet!

IMG_8429

The goal – Veľké Hincovo Pleso

It was uniquely exhilarating, in some ways the most satisfying “summit” I’ve ever reached. I pumped my fist, J slapped me five, and a rush of energy propelled me out to the glacier-carved pool to fully absorb the arc of sharp peaks standing guard. We had the place nearly to ourselves for a few moments. I sat down alone on a boulder, finished my sandwich, ate a small square of chocolate, gulped as much water as I dared, and stood up.

IMG_8185

And then we went down. It was an ordeal, and it took even longer, including a stupid mistake that cost us 45 knee-destroying minutes at the end. But I prefer to end this story at the high place, on a high note, in the High Tatras, by far the highlight of my two-week trip.

IMG_8191

IMG_8188

A Tale of Two Villages

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

We left Bratislava and headed northeast toward Vlkolínec, a UNESCO World Heritage village in Slovakia. It was a particularly dreary day, punctuated occasionally by the squeak of the windshield wipers and the raising and then dismissing of other places to stop along the way. Trnava and Banská Bystrica – nahh, too big. The abandoned castle Pustý hrad in Zvolen – meh, tired of castles. How about a Benedictine monastery in Hronský Beňadik? A unique wooden church in Hronsek? Let’s not bother, we yawned.

Stuck in the middle of my trip notes was the name Špania Dolina. Thinking it was an area (dolina means valley) and not a specific town, I had relegated it to last place, so when we finally looked it up and saw it was a picturesque mining village, home to fewer than 200 people on the border of the Veľká Fatra and Low Tatras forest and mountains, we said Bingo.

IMG_7981

We exited the main artery and navigated a heavily wooded, winding road up to the village. Pulling into the main square, we saw no signs of morning life. There was a cute bus stop with library books (but no people) inside, a covered stairway leading to an old church on the hill above us, and through the morning mist, we spied a smattering of stone and wood houses above us. We parked the car, grabbed our umbrellas, and tentatively peeked in the windows around the square. Nothing open.IMG_3719

Let’s climb up and look at the church and the views from there, I suggested, but I’m not going up inside those dark steps! (160 of them, said a sign at the bottom.)

IMG_7941

We found a lane curving steeply up to the left and in minutes we found ourselves among quaint houses that we later learned were from the 17th and 18th centuries and typical examples of the rustic folk architecture in parts of rural Slovakia. Within view of the newer houses built into a hillside across a small valley, these old wooden homes were lovingly cared for, with decorative windows and neatly tended gardens and flower boxes. We crunched up the gravel road, trying to be quiet in the morning stillness, until we reached the church.

IMG_7956

 

IMG_7968Although J had no interest in peeking inside, I stole up to the door and cracked it open, finding to my complete surprise a congregation in the midst of a murmured prayer. It was Sunday! Oh, that’s why there’s no one out and about. I gently closed the door and rejoined J, and we crept down through the covered stairway to the square, chuckling at our vacation-induced obliviousness and, ultimately, our luck in finding this tiny, authentic place in the middle of the Slovakian countryside.

~ ~ ~

We continued on toward Vlkolínec, which we knew was situated near the bigger town of Ružomberok. We had planned to park in the latter and walk into Vlkolínec, but the rain discouraged us, and we punched the village name into Googlemaps to drive in. We saw a vague sign or two for the village, and got two orders to turn at places where we saw no real roads, so we kept going. Finally, the impatient mapping lady told us to turn where there was a path of sorts, and we obeyed; three minutes later we found ourselves rattling through a meadow full of cows on a track of gravel, destroyed asphalt, and mud.

Cursing my husband (because of course) and GPS inadequacy, I looked for a place to turn around, but there would be none of that. The “road” fell sharply off into pastureland and was barely wide enough for our little rented Audi (which I was now worried about damaging in the 6-inch deep ruts), let alone any oncoming traffic or a turnaround. Four anguished miles and at least twenty minutes later, as the trail became increasingly thin, muddy, and steep, we entered the village of Vlkolínec at its highest point, suddenly confronted by tourists and realizing that we had come in on a bike path and were now driving through a pedestrian village of twenty permanent residents and perhaps twice that many visitors on foot. Oops.

IMG_8027

Embarrassed and apologetic, we steered our way slowly down through the village to the parking lot, where our punishment was a drenching downpour the minute we opened the car doors. In spite of the ignominious entrance and wet welcome, we took our time wandering this place out of time. Like Spania Dolina, Vlkolínec contained the wooden houses endemic to this part of forested Slovakia, but here the entire village had been preserved as if in a state of suspended life. These residents weren’t in church; they were probably hiding in the six enchanting log houses the villagers themselves still owned while we interlopers roamed their streets and snapped photo after photo of their water wheels, charmingly composed window vignettes, and wooden totems.

IMG_7986

UNESCO’s synthesis of the town’s World Heritage designation notes its roots in the 10th century, its first records from the 14th, and the 55 or so remarkably intact homes of original folk architecture, primarily built in the 19th century. It felt a little as if Vlkolínec were not quite real as we drifted through its streets, but it was still the best kind of tourist spot, an understated place where the visitors were respectful and courteous, perhaps because most seemed to be fairly local themselves. There were families with dogs, couples huddled under ponchos, and intrepid hikers who braved deep grooves of mud to view the farm buildings and terraced fields on the edge of the unpretentious village. We didn’t hear a single word of English.

IMG_7988

IMG_8005

Back in the car, we felt we had just left the pages of two fairy tales, set in the big dark woods and replete with old stories of elves who helped the miners in Špania Dolina and the solemn but folksy wood figures that watched over Vlkolínec. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy day, and we felt lucky to have been offered a fleeting window into the Slovakian rural life tucked away in this wild and rugged countryside.

 

Road Trip: Central Europe

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Two weeks, almost 2000 kilometers, five countries, three major cities, three more of their little sisters, an agreeable array of country villages, and an assortment of amazing hikes: this was the Euro-version of a late summer road trip, right on the heels of the U.S excursion I’d taken alone just weeks before.

We chose our route to cover some places I’d been before, a few husband J had visited on a post-college rail trip, and a number that were new to both of us. Arrival and departure points were determined solely by airfares; in between, we attempted an itinerary that gave us city days interspersed with hiking time in the mountains. This arrangement was ideal, keeping us stimulated both mentally and physically as we bounced from historical tours to rocky trails throughout the trip.

We started in fair-haired, sophisticated Vienna. Warm in temperature and topped by a pale blue sky that matched her palace ceilings, Austria’s capital exuded a cool grace and refinement. She was the well-groomed, grown-up sister of her fellow Central European siblings. Perhaps a little prissy at times, she nevertheless offered a courteous and easy entrée to the region: familiar enough, yet fancily and intriguingly European in her costume of ornate facades. We found ourselves putting on nicer clothes for dinner here, and we strolled along elegant tree-shaded avenues all day long, from Schönbrunn Palace to Stephansplatz to the charmingly retro Prater park and amusement area.

Brilliant Budapest offered a pleasing contrast in many ways. More flamboyantly (and invitingly) overdone in her architecture, this more spread-out metropolis captured our imaginations in a different way than pristine and picture perfect Vienna. Budapest sprawled and lounged, her elegance ravaged at times by her history. The ruin bars, the Jewish quarter overall, the enormous thermal baths, and the outrageously large and magnificent buildings – from Parliament to the Buda hill complex, from concert venues to monuments – all bore a patina of faded beauty. Budapest felt larger-than-life and brainy in almost a mad scientist kind of way; she was the gorgeous but messy kid who forgot to comb her hair each day. Its glut of high culture notwithstanding, Budapest was a blue jeans kind of place for us, a grungier, looser city, and I think I enjoyed our time here more than in any of the other Big Three of the trip.

IMG_8583

IMG_8491

IMG_8699

Prague was the last big city we visited. Everyone we talked to said it was their favorite, but for me, it suffered a bit for its place in the itinerary and the gray, bone-chilling dampness that hovered over the river and the town during our stay. Certainly clad in a similar – really, even grander – wardrobe of extravagant vestments, Prague impressed with its opulence, but wearing those pretty pastel fronts was a dark-haired, more serious girl, with a touch of masculine sensibility thrown in. Here we distinctly felt the presence of our former lives in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago in the dark bars down a few steps from the street, with their heavy beer mugs and pretzels dangling on wooden stands. Dumplings like anchors in the stomach, soot-darkened stone, wood carvings and benches, leaden skies – the overarching feeling of Prague was a heaviness that might have been lightened by softer weather … but maybe not, I decided by the end.

IMG_9223

IMG_9291

IMG_9302

Which brings me to beer. And bread. The Czech Republic won back all the points lost to the climate with those two beloved carbs. We drank beer, nearly all of it dark, in every place we sat down, no matter the time of day. We consumed baskets of bread meant for a family – no petite baguette rounds here; no, these were dense, earthy slabs, and there were times I think we ate a whole loaf between the two of us. We made good, solid Prague as good and solid as we could, and we came to appreciate her Baroque charms. Our final dinner was a cozy repast in a monastery outside of town; unlike the night before when we had desperately sought out lighter fare at a vegetarian place, this evening we filled our bellies with rich, warm barley, dumplings, and of course, more beer and bread.

Our time in the countryside was a fresh air counterpoint (and badly needed exercise opportunity) to these three lovely, cultured ladies. We ventured into the High Tatras mountains of northern Slovakia for some jaw-dropping scenery and hardcore hiking prospects. We circled alpine lakes on foot in Slovenia and elsewhere, climbed high above picturesque little towns in Austria, and ambled on a quiet Sunday morning through a village nearly untouched by tourists deep in the woods of Slovakia.

IMG_3776

Every few days, we popped into the baby sisters of the bigger cities: Bratislava, with its unnecessary inferiority complex; Ljubljana, the quirky, bubbly little sibling; and Salzburg, a lovely riverside city unfortunately overrun with conspicuous consumption. We checked out a few travel darling locales and were surprised at our reactions; we adored Hallstatt, Austria, early one morning before the crowds arrived, but we were left feeling pretty ambivalent about Český Krumlov as we took a break on our drive north through the Czech Republic into Prague.

IMG_8982

Random observations: Smoking is alive and well in this part of the world, as is flamingly fake maroonish-red hair. Europe does manhole covers better than anywhere else. I was freezing for much of the trip, but the locals were often in t-shirts and higher heels than I could have managed on old stony streets (and trails, but that’s for another post).

The driving was easy and fun; although I hated the long tunnels under the Alps, I appreciated as always the proper use of left lanes for passing only throughout Europe. The back roads, as they are everywhere, were a window into the true soul of these countries, and we rarely minded when we got stuck behind tractors, belching local buses, and the occasional horse cart.

IMG_8842

We were chagrined to find that tourist behavior has continued a downward spiral, with selfie sticks at peak density even in smaller cities, young girls and couples posing with ridiculous pouts and/or cringe-worthy, exaggerated emotion, boorish elbowing in crowds, and blatant disregard for property. There were many times I felt sorry for the local people with all of the tourist ruckus in many of our destinations.

We interacted with both kind and gruff residents and shopkeepers throughout the region. As in many countries outside the U.S., service people seem to have a different idea of helpfulness; a vague answer or a shrug were often the only responses to a question or problem. It is what it is, they imply, and as always, we learn to adapt and eventually embrace the whatever attitude many other cultures possess.

IMG_7845

The languages made for some fun deciphering, especially those that were closely related, and we built on our scant knowledge as the days went by. Perhaps it was manufactured in our minds, but we seemed to feel a tangible difference in the vibes of the countries we traversed. From proper to rugged to intellectual to laid-back to outdoorsy to blue collar to cultural (in that order, if you want to peruse the map again!), we followed a trail of central European personalities in a roughly clockwise loop. We wouldn’t have skipped a thing, but we both agreed that we wished for a lot more time in the mountain towns of our hiking bases. More on all of our destinations in upcoming posts!

Road Trip – U.S. Variety

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I could have driven coast-to-coast (and more) if I wanted to rack up 3500 miles on my odometer last month, but I took a little east-central oval-ish ride instead, tooling along back roads and some major U.S. interstates over the course of three weeks. Everyone – family, friends, strangers – thought I was nuts to load my 14-year-old pup into the car and set off (essentially) alone on an elongated loop through twelve states and the District of Columbia.

Screen Shot 2017-09-07 at 10.23.34 AM

Traveling north out of Houston, the roads offer sights of both natural beauty and man-made mess. The pine trees look and smell delicious, much more so than the scruffy BBQ joints, and occasional glimpses of small, pretty lakes are a nice counterbalance to the scrap yard scenes that litter the outskirts of many a small town along the main route up through East Texas. The roads are mostly local access, so while screaming along at the posted speed limit of 75 mph, you have to be keenly aware that those same small towns and their hapless drivers may suddenly appear, and be ready to slam on the brakes at every at-grade crossing for the first five hours.

IMG_7269

Entering Arkansas, it’s a bit of a relief to get on an interstate for a few hours and, unlike many larger highways, I-30 heading northeast toward Hot Springs and Little Rock has some very attractive scenery – more of those towering pines and azure lakes, with the junk hidden away beyond the exits. I make an impromptu 30-minute stop to say hello to my son in Little Rock and then power on through Memphis, feeling good, bouncing in my seat, waving my dance hands, and writing my novel in my head. Damn, I love driving.

A few hours later, my mood has crashed; it’s gotten dark, I’ve stopped singing, the dog is restless, and I’m counting the miles to the exit for the small town in Tennessee where I’ve booked a room. Twelve hours in, and I’m whipped, so I have little energy to make a change or a fuss when I check into a dirty room up three flights of steps that are sticky with badly disguised vomit stains. This is a stairway I have to navigate four times to get the dog, her stuff, my stuff, and the cooler into the room. Who loves road trips now?

I do; I still do! It’s a cool, dewy morning as I leave Jackson, Tennessee the next day, and my spirits have trampolined right back up. I’ve blown through Nashville before my coffee buzz wears off, and just as it does, I have some relaxing horse country to meander through for a while in Kentucky. Once in Ohio, I feel I’m in the home stretch for the day and after a brief roller coaster ride on the trestle bridges of West Virginia’s skinny northern panhandle and the harrowingly thin gauntlet of I-70 soon afterward, I’m home in western Pennsylvania, my stopping point for a while.

IMG_7226

Because 1500 miles is mere child’s play, I throw in a round trip to DC for good measure a few days after arriving in the Laurel Highlands of PA. I find Washington quite charming now that I no longer reside there, and I poke around Logan Circle and my old haunts for a day before returning to the mountains. I never tire of the route down or back through rural Maryland, and my heart leaps like it’s the first time I’ve seen the multicolored patchwork of farms that spread out below the plateaus I’ve traversed for decades.

I finally settle in at our house in the mountains, helping my parents with household tasks, walking in the woods, taking in several art exhibits in Pittsburgh, and sleeping with the windows thrown open every night, something impossible to do in Houston almost any time of year. One night, my mother calls down “The neighbor kids are having a bonfire – come see – it’s huge!” My father and I are talking, and we take our sweet time getting up to take a look. I immediately know it is no bonfire; in fact, I am sure the house next door is engulfed in an inferno. I see a structure burning inside the flames, flames that are suddenly twice as high as the house. We call 911 and await the fire engines from whatever VFD might respond way out here in the country. It’s a good 45 minutes and several small explosions later that the hose trucks finally arrive, and we learn that a camper has burned down to its frame, torching two other vehicles and consuming nearby trees in its fiery frenzy.

IMG_1082.JPG

I eventually leave the mountains and peaceful farms of western Pennsylvania for the mind numbing drive west to Chicago. There are no two turnpikes more deathly boring than those in Ohio and Indiana, and this is the only stretch of my thousands of miles that I would happily give up. I engage in painful nostalgia for several days in Illinois, even daring to drive past my house of 20+ years, but I also get a lot of things done that need doing. It’s a bittersweet stay, but I leave feeling okay that this is no longer my home. I have foolishly and poorly planned my driving days and end up viewing an 85% eclipse in a Walgreen’s parking lot instead of being in the zone of totality in southern Illinois, which I will drive very near the next day. (I’m usually a planner extraordinaire: I am clearly slipping.)

IMG_7218

The next day is a driving delight once I’ve passed St. Louis, itself one of those perennially stirring city visions as you first spy its famous arch from a bridge over the Mississippi. Southern Missouri brings the Ozarks and a winding highway carved into rough layers of limestone. There are other karst features to ogle, like springs and caves, but I can’t get enough of the stone cliffs that jut out of the heavy tree growth. I am in no hurry today, even knowing I have a long way to go to get into Northwest Arkansas. The old dog is a trooper, snoozing away in the back seat miles and weeks into our journey, as I dawdle down the highway.

IMG_7264

I’m filled with energy as I pull into Bentonville, Arkansas, nine hours later, so I decide to feed the dog and ditch her in the hotel to try to get into the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art before they close so I can view the Dale Chihuly outdoor sculptures at dusk.

 

The art in the woods is indescribable; how do you adequately explain glass balloons that peek out of tree limbs or a stand of purple light sabers in a clearing? Art ensconced in nature is my newest obsession, and I got two doses on this trip, the first in Pittsburgh’s Frick Museum greenhouse. Bentonville itself is picture perfect, probably because the Walton family helps keep it that way (I think cynically), and once again, I’m falling for Arkansas against all odds.

IMG_7200

The final day’s drive is a revelation – new ground for me, with the middle patch a rough and remote route. I mosey through university-town Fayetteville for an hour or so, scoop up my son from a business meeting, and then hug the western border of Arkansas as we head due south, later hopping the state line into Oklahoma and entering an unexpected world. We’re on some kind of old logging road that alternately climbs and then barrels downhill at irregular intervals, making my ears continually pop and my stomach lurch as we round each new bend and see jewel-toned valleys beyond precipitous drop-offs. If I’m lucky, I can squeak by the huge trucks piled with felled tree trunks; if not, I chug behind them on the uphills until they thunder ahead of me just over the crests. I see my first Cherokee Nation license plate, and I do not see a gas station or any services for many miles. It is a dramatic and wild expanse, the narrow road a gash in dark, forbidding hills, a segment where I am glad for some human company today.

But soon we’re back in north Texas and we eventually reconnect with the crazy rifle-range of a road that leads us back into Houston. Tonight, the traffic headed south is quite thin; it is the night before Harvey is due in town, and I celebrate these last hours of driving freedom before the deluge.

IMG_7248

Next week we are off on another road trip, this one of the European variety (sans dog) … be back soon!

When Will We Turn the Corner?

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I remember reading with childlike wonder Bama’s recent post about the watery paradise of Inle Lake in Myanmar. Never did I imagine that weeks later I would be living in similar surroundings or that my liquid world would have arisen due to a Biblical deluge that has left my city crippled for months and years to come.

Thankfully, my own home is still safe and largely dry, but our fellow citizens here in Houston are swimming out of their family homes and onto boats. Some are hacking through their attics with axes to reach their rooftops to wait for rescue. Our airport runway photos show wavelets reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea, and our 10- and 12-lane interstates, viewed from above, could be river deltas.

The beautiful park I wrote about in my first weeks here is now submerged up to the treetops, and more water is expected in the bayous today, both rainfall and a controlled release of reservoir water to save upstream dams. When will it end? We had heard that the worst would be over by daybreak today, but there are sheets of rain lashing our windows as I type, and the Army Corps reservoir release has only just begun. My phone continues to blare out flood warnings, and the trees are whipping and waving dramatically hours after the last tornado threats.

We have all seen such horrible images on TV, in the papers, and online, so I leave you with some happier scenes from the last day of my recent 4000-mile road trip, completed as I pulled into the garage mere hours before Hurricane Harvey arrived. These Dale Chihuly sculptures are nestled in the forested trails of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Around every corner was another marvel – brighter, happier scenes for my troubled mind.

Let’s Talk About Arkansas

Tags

, , , , ,

At the edge of your seat? That’s what I thought. Here in the U.S., Arkansas does not get a great deal of respect outside its own borders. As one of the states ranking lowest in education, highest in levels of obesity – and perhaps because of the stereotypes based on those two facts – one of the least-visited states in the country, Arkansas strikes some as a sad little backwater full of banjo-strumming, catfish-eating rednecks down south somewhere. Don’t believe it.

IMG_7045

I’ve always gravitated to and been a champion of underdog locales, so I’m here to dispel some of the myths about Arkansas, one of the most naturally beautiful states in our country. Yes, it is; it really is! I started traveling to Arkansas a few years ago when my youngest son took a job in Little Rock, a place where he didn’t even want to interview but, once there, he embraced this artsy little city and threw himself into local affairs. Every time I visit, I find more to like, and it begins with the scenic appeal of the undulating, verdant topography.

IMG_7010

The Natural State has millions of acres of national forest land, including two mountain ranges, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. There are miles and miles of streams and rivers, the two biggest being the Arkansas and the Mississippi. Trails and campsites, dozens of lakes, caves, and even hot springs draw visitors and entertain locals alike. Boating, canoeing, fishing, and hiking are accessible almost from border to border with national and state parks galore, including one of the oldest and most visited parks in the country – Hot Springs National Park.

IMG_7042

Arkansas’s appeal goes beyond the great outdoors, though. Its capital, Little Rock, is a quirky little city, with quaint throwbacks like a streetcar system and ’50s era drugstores and barbershops side by side with spiffy bespoke tailors and well-groomed suburban shopping malls.

IMG_7075

Its distinctive neighborhoods are connected by a few main thoroughfares, and many are worth a drive-through and a stop – perhaps a morning farmer’s market in SoMa (the up-and-coming South Main Street area), then on to a Cajun lunch or taco in tiny Riverdale, a late afternoon latte in boho Hillcrest, dinner in the more stately Heights, then back downtown for a nightcap or some music.

Farther west, the houses are huge and the lawns are manicured, but the hilly roads are a constant, dipping and curving amid the ubiquitous tree-covered greenery, and biking and walking paths are also given all over the city, especially along the Arkansas River.

IMG_7032

Little Rock’s compact downtown boasts an array of live music venues, including a picturesque riverfront amphitheater, as well as a few tall corporate headquarters that assert LR is a real city, the usual mix of small local cafes and fancier big restaurants, art galleries, and new tech spaces. Old warehouses have been converted into stylish lofts, chic new condos and apartments are popping up here and there, and everything is a short walk away. For those so inclined, those strolls can take in the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, as well as the impressive Heifer International headquarters building and information center.

IMG_7054

Like any river town, Little Rock has a plethora of bridges – old railroad trestles, sparkling new spans, and my favorite (and best-named), the Big Dam Bridge. The latter is an engineering marvel to view and, even better, it’s in an area of woodsy trails and pedestrian bridges just minutes outside of downtown.

IMG_4556

IMG_4617

IMG_4594

There is much more to discover in Arkansas, and I have every intention of doing just that. Tops on my list is the Crystal Bridges Museum, a glass jewel box of American art nestled into the forests of Northwest Arkansas. Nearby is the charming town of Eureka Springs, as well as Fayetteville, home of the state university and a city I’ve always wanted to visit ever since novelist Ellen Gilchrist made it the home of her main character in The Annunciation (and herself in real life). In my mind, Fayetteville is a classic college town of bookshops and art stores, cafes and boutique shops, set amid the same rolling landscape I’ve already raved about, and it sounds like a perfect little base for the museum and hot springs visit, too.

If Arkansas is languishing near the bottom of your travel list, don’t be afraid – it’s not all razorback hogs, hillbillies, and moonshine! Come on down here and check it out – it really is a great blend of small-town charm and natural beauty.

IMG_7023

IMG_7004

Daydreaming in the Delta

Tags

, , , , , , ,

We had covered Argentina from top to bottom, starting way up north at Iguazú Falls and winging it south almost to the tip of the continent to Patagonia. Bracketing those extremes were two stays in Buenos Aires, and this last one, for a few days before we finally flew home, was all about relaxation and absorbing all that we’d seen.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 590

We settled into our bohemian little neighborhood, Palermo Soho, and planned very little for the sultry days and nights we had remaining. We ambled slowly through the narrow streets, licking ice cream cones, drinking wine, and popping into shops and markets at our whim. We photographed the doors and the vibrant street art, napped at the pool, and then ate and drank some more.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 584

For one last outing, we roused ourselves to meet up with a business colleague who wanted to show us the town of Tigre and the Paraná Delta of waterways and islands that surrounds it. The area is a huge tangle of rivers and land covering over 5000 square miles, one of the biggest deltas in the world and one of the few that do not empty into an ocean. Here, the milky, muddy Paraná River splits into innumerable smaller channels and forms an ever-changing pattern of sediment-built, tree-covered islands.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 356

We glide along in our gleaming, polished wood boat, brushed occasionally by willow branches and slipping in and out of sunlight. There are occasional signs that the delta was once both more and less than it is now. Belle époque-style buildings grace the shores closer to Tigre itself, and there are glimpses of larger houses hiding behind some of the modest, multi-colored cottages on stilts that line the shore.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 346

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 353

As we chug lazily toward the Rio de la Plata, the river that divides Argentina and Uruguay, the little spits of land become more remote, and we can almost imagine the days when jaguars roamed here, giving their name (tigres) to the area. Tree branches cast their flickering shadows on the water, and the deeper we go off the main streams, the more we feel we’re on a Heart of Darkness kind of journey. All of us are lost in our own thoughts, staring dreamily at the languid water, as we work our way farther into the mysterious estuary and become more and more removed from the frenetic pace of modern life.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 351

As we leave the tour boat channels, we crack one lazy eye open to watch local families spread laundry and other belongings in yards and on docks, and see lithe, sun-kissed children leap like dancers from launch to moorings. Mail boats, water taxis, and grocery dinghies ply these unhurried canals, and rudimentary cafes hide among the foliage; we would never find them without our native friend.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 364

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 358

Around a bend in the river, we part the leaves of some overhanging trees and pull up to a weathered dock. We clamber out of the boat, climb the stairs, and are greeted by a man in shorts and little else. Our host knows the ropes and orders quickly for us: a bucketful of icy beers and a couple of margarita pizzas, which arrive with a mound of the freshest, greenest basil I’ve ever seen piled on top.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 361

Sated and groggier than we were when we stopped, we pile back into the launch and begin the hour-long ride back to the marina. As we bob and skim back through the waterways, we awake from our floating dream and reenter the world of bigger boats, river commerce, tourists, and finally, roads and cars. Our lazy day in Tigre and the Delta is our final memory of Argentina and a great way to finish off the otherwise bustling city of Buenos Aires.

Argentina &amp; Uruguay Dec 2012 348

Argentina & Uruguay Dec 2012 349.jpg