Ecuador: it’s been an experience. Not always a good one, but this moment of silence at Laguna Quilotoa was a high point in more ways than one.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s great to be back in the park.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Although 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Next week we are off on another road trip, this one of the European variety (sans dog) … be back soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This past spring, I left one of the most transient cities I’ve ever lived in; every few years, entire apartments and office buildings turn over, and a fresh crop of hopeful newcomers arrives in Washington, DC. Of course, there are plenty of career folks in town, and people working outside the government, but my take on my year in DC was that everyone was a short-timer, and those transient residents did not want or need new friends. Feeling temporary myself, I made little effort to settle in, and 2016 ended up being one of the loneliest years of my life as I insisted on leaving the city every chance I got.
The funny thing is that I thought I loved impermanence and being on the move. For decades, I dreamed of moving and, even more radically, of becoming nomadic in some form. I am so comfortable traveling and making myself feel at home all over the world that I thought this was the life that suited me best, not the stable, boring, predictable life I had.
Could I have been wrong all along? For that year, at least, I suffered without good friends. I pined for my familiar, tiny grocery store. I became cranky without all my belongings. I realized I had grown roots that were way deeper and stronger than I knew, and when I cavalierly ripped them out of their home soil, I killed something I had undervalued.
So we left DC and resettled more permanently in yet another place, and some of those tethers and connections have begun to repair themselves. I have formed an eclectic group of friends and have grown fond of my house, my neighborhood, and my new city at large. So why am I suddenly, eagerly reading articles about vanlife and people in motor homes with an alarming level of interest? Is that foot that is always poised over the threshold responsible for the weeks-long European road trip I recently put together for the fall?
In the middle of all this thinking about transience and fickleness, berating myself for my grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side attitude, I happened across an article on the so-called “wanderlust gene,” a mutation of the DRD4 gene that helps control dopamine and, thus, learning and reward. If the desire to explore and roam does lie within our genome, it may be the DRD4-7r variant that is the cause of our restlessness, according to dozens of studies that have been published in the last few years, and an astonishing 20% of us might carry it. I like this idea! It’s not a character flaw; it’s in my genetic makeup to seek change and movement!
As I ponder the reasons for always wanting to be where I am not, I leave you with these photos of some of the most transient people on earth – the nomads who live on the Mongolian steppe – and their portable homes. They have moved four times since I left them last summer, and I’ve almost kept up with them, leaving two houses and moving to a third in that time. I plan to stay put for at least another season, but after that anything’s fair game!
I wake up, groaning, in a 35-degree lodge, my stomach in spasms, and my head pounding at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, a good week into the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal. How am I going to do this today, I wonder? Teeth chattering, I dress and stumble out to the small dining room, thinking about how I can tell the guide I can’t possibly go up another 1000 feet or more this morning. And then a guy from Alaska pushes a bowl of warm oatmeal and a mug of coffee at me and gently encourages me to eat. A young woman leaves her mom’s side as we get up from the table and commiserates about my cramps, and our guide slaps me five as we gingerly step into a snowy, misty morning. You’re looking good, Miss Lexie – ready to go? And indeed, there I went, held up by people I didn’t even know when I landed in Kathmandu two weeks before.
Tramping across this Earth has been one of the highlights of my life and, more often than not, I have been introduced to new lands in the company of strangers. Even when I have set off with family members or existing friends, I have collected what I always call “my hiking friends,” people I’ve met on the trail who become fast friends for as long as the trek lasts, and sometimes longer.
On rare occasions, those people become real friends, and some have joined me on future walks. While others do eventually slip away and become simply holiday card recipients or pleasant memories, there is a small circle of us, including a few guides, who will always be connected long after we left the pathways.
My husband and kids tease me about my hiking friends, wondering how I can become so attached to people with whom I have spent a mere week or two. But a week of post-hike beers and dinners gives friendship formation a power boost, and believe me, three days in camps with no showers and one toilet tent creates an intimacy one rarely experiences with friends at home! In a matter of days, we think nothing of sharing our trail food or embarrassing stories, and we take care of each other in ways that belie the brief life of our relationship.
Every step of the budding bond is accelerated when we spend our waking hours chatting on a tough mountain track and our evenings sharing meals, pains, and more life stories. Most of us are in the early-impressions phase of trying to be agreeable and supportive, and friendship blooms quickly and easily with those who are open to it.
In the last decade, I have met my Nepal hiking friends for a ski trip in Utah and reunited with them on the Paine Circuit in Chile, hosted my Tanzanian guide in our home in Chicago, gone back to Peru and linked up with my Inca Trail guides again for some smaller walks on my own, and recently had another Himalayan hiking friend over for dinner here in Houston. They may not be my everyday pals, but my hiking friends and I have a singular connection that I cannot share with anyone else, and my life is richer for them.
It’s a summer weekend several decades ago, and my dad is seeking company for his customary Sunday activity: a drive in the country. As usual, I am the only taker. Sometimes we look at houses, occasionally we explore new areas, but most of the time we just drive out into the country and admire the rustic fences, the barns, the crops, and above it all, the sweeping sky. We chat or we don’t, and we inevitably end up at a Dairy Queen for a twist cone at the end of the day. These yawning days are among my favorite childhood memories.
Flash forward, and there is still something about an unscheduled Sunday that cries out for a jaunt in the car. Yesterday I answered the call, and we loaded the vehicle with the dog, some water, and a few snacks, and headed northwest from Houston to enjoy a spectacular spring day on the road.
Our destination is the perfect distance away (less than two hours) and has an additional attraction; a town called Bryan, Texas, named after my distant relative, William Jennings Bryan. Three-time presidential candidate (and perpetual loser), secretary of state, famed orator, and attorney both admired and ridiculed, Bryan is a direct ancestor on my father’s side of the family. Hailing from Illinois originally, but a long-time resident of Nebraska (where my grandfather was born), Bryan somehow left his mark quite deeply in Texas, where he owned a winter home and farm.
The journey itself ends up being the enchantment. The sky is a blue bed of white puffballs, and the early crops are a cheerful lemon-green. Rural fences always rope me in, and today is no exception. We see white pickets, split rails, and dark wood dividers on both sides of the road. We get off the main highway as often as possible and keep swerving off onto the berm to photograph the ranch gates, both simple and elaborate, along the way. We follow the web of farm-to-market (FM) routes, observing the network of roads that physically connect rural America to our large cities.
My husband eats a Texas-sized beef brisket sandwich at a popular BBQ joint at 11 am, halfway through the drive out, and is still sated when we arrive home in the late afternoon. We stop at a famous rest stop/gas station to fuel up at bargain prices and peruse the outlandish array of paraphernalia available there, from fresh fudge to hot dogs, homemade kolaches to every bag snack you’ve ever heard of, stuffed animals to camouflage gear, and the “cleanest restrooms in America.”
The historic town of Bryan is closed down on this Sunday afternoon, which is fitting given William Jennings’ religious bent later in life. We wander through the downtown streets for a few blocks anyway and then load the old pooch back in the car and retrace our route back to the big city.
We’ve accomplished little, but we’ve temporarily cleared our heads in all that fresh air and sprawling land. Unfortunately, mine is now spinning with thoughts, reflecting on presidents and populations, of byways and barriers. This is what most of America looks like geographically, even as the majority of our population moves into urban environments.
In Bryan’s day and our recent past, this dichotomy did not seriously threaten our cohesion as a nation; in fact, those FM roads connected more than just farmers and our city tables. But now our differences, the other kinds of fences we have put up at home and around the world, have helped to create the calamity of our current leadership.
While I was piloting and pondering, France was rejecting a vision of the world where a nation can only house one type of person, where only the market-makers matter, and where outside interference can amplify those differences and scare people into a frightening, reactionary decision. We were not so careful or clear-headed here, but my hope is that the strong French results will somehow nudge the world back onto the kind of road that connects rather than divides.
Yolyn Am canyon was a welcome stop in our exploration of Mongolia last summer. We had been on the steppe for over a week, baking under the Eurasian high summer sun, and we were headed to the even hotter Gobi Desert when we boarded a tiny propeller plane for the south and the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.
From flat, scrubby expanses, we arrived in a deep, cool gorge for an invigorating hike inside towering walls. Yolyn Am (named after the yol, or lammergeyer, a vulture-like bird) is known in part for its ice field that lingers well into the summer, and we saw remnants of this as we criss-crossed a running stream at the base of the canyon.
Although the hike was lengthy and we had to pick our way carefully in some of the narrower stretches, there was only minor danger encountered that day. Nevertheless, we got a huge kick out of all the warning or admonitory signs on our way into the trailhead! Can you determine what to watch out for or refrain from doing here?
Are we nuts? I scowled at my husband, as we boarded the plane and crammed ourselves and three little kids into the economy seats of a plane bound for London. We had put our farther-flung travels on hold for the toddler years, but now it was time to load everybody up and start seeing the world through fresh young eyes.
We soon found we had nothing to fear. From takeoff that summer day, we discovered our kids were born to travel. They entertained themselves or slept the entire flight, they stayed up all the next day until bedtime, and they believed me when I said there was no such thing as jet lag, spending all of day two on their feet, in the tube, in the parks and museums and churches and shops, and they topped it off with a night at the theater. They were 5, 8 and 10 years old; I have to say I was pretty impressed.
We stayed with friends in London and started some great travel memories, the kind of recollections kids have of their trips, not necessarily the kind adults and travel bloggers write about. They remember minding the gap as we rode back and forth into the city, gawking at the torture devices in the Tower of London, snuggling a new Paddington Bear toy, and the sheer magnitude of choices at the food court at Harrods. They remember the crushing crowds at the theater, but not much about the play. They recall it being scorching hot outside Big Ben and Parliament, but nothing about the places themselves.
Paris was next, via the Eurostar train through the chunnel, a ride that is still remembered for the orange juice that was spilled on my daughter’s white sweater rather than for the transportation wonder that it was. Strongest memory of the Eiffel Tower? The awful pizza – who puts weird mushrooms on pizza, they cried! (Who eats in the Eiffel Tower, we should have been asking.) Continental toilets were the subject of many a journal entry; my oldest was intrigued with the different flushing mechanisms, the water flow, the seats – you name it; he cataloged it.
Notre Dame is remembered for its roof and the winding stairs that got them there; back then you could go the whole way up, and we spent well over an hour looking out over the rooftops, but no one has any memory of going inside. Parisian cuisine? They ordered steak frites or jambon et fromage sandwiches at every single restaurant for every single meal (except for that sad Eiffel Tower pizza). We rented a spacious apartment decades before AirBnb, and they remember … the lobby.
The French countryside brought new delights. What kid would not love Mont St Michel and the idea that we could be stranded there when the tide came in? Forget the abbey; that natural moat was the cool part. Dinard was a charming beach town, but here they had the coziest, whitest beds, all three crammed together in a toile-covered room, and that Grand Hotel may still be their favorite hotel in the world. Monet’s garden delighted my daughter, perhaps in part for its flowers and green benches, but mostly because she remembered she had gotten out of a day of preschool to attend the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago with me years before. And, to them, the D-Day beaches represented the end of a different kind of World War: a huge fight between mom and dad over asking for directions! (To be honest, that hours-long argument and the driving in circles all over Normandy are my strongest memories of that historic place as well.)
Belgium brought panic and a three-way police lookout when we sailed through a toll area without paying the toll (by accident) and the kids were certain we would be arrested, but it also brought one of the most relaxing afternoons we had, meandering though Bruges, eating chocolates and posing on every little stone bridge we crossed.
Our final destination, the Netherlands, where my brother was living with his family, is somewhat properly remembered for our visit to Anne Frank’s house, an evening canal cruise, and the pannenkoeken houses, but what they would say really sticks in their minds is the stone their cousin threw at our youngest’s head in their backyard. Or the porn movie that came on as my brother tried to change the TV channel. Or the girls in the windows in the red light district, which they struggled to comprehend. Or the topless beach near Scheveningen.
Ahem, there is a theme developing there, but it was a different kind of lust that was growing in the kids on that first big trip. Today, those little tykes have a wanderlust that matches their mother’s, and I think all those mundane memories of other countries were the spark. All three kids spent some portion of their college lives overseas, continued to travel with us for many years, have worked overseas in Israel, Ireland, South Africa, Ghana and Malawi, and now take their own road and train and bus trips, wrangling their friends and significant others to step away from home to create more silly, random memories.