by Rita Ireland
We are whisked from the Cancun airport to an all-inclusive resort, greeted with a glass of champagne. Although it is the easiest travel transition we’ve ever had, we stand on our balcony noticing the incessant zumba music and happy sounds of kids at the pools. Ahh —“free” liquor and food all day, 84 degrees, and look at that bright blue Caribbean. Feeling lucky to be here for a wedding, my spouse and I plan to ignore the screaming and splashing while adults consume shots of tequila and log into their laptops. Cordial Mexican servers balance their trays, maneuvering around tourists, treating us all like winners. It is a margarita-infused Disneyland in the Yucatan.
This is the Mexico that some Americans only know – those lovely, coastline resorts. It is natural to go to a safe place, a relaxing place, where warmth and sunshine beckon beach-goers from our wet state like a fly to a summer soda.
“Oh, I like Mexico now. It feels safe to me,” one of our wedding friends summarizes at the end of our Cancun stay. But, this is not authentic Mexico, we want to say.
Lucky for us retirees, we choose to explore a little longer: rent a car and drive inland for less than two hours to the interior of the Yucatan peninsula— the exact opposite of what we had just experienced. Driving straight into the sunset on an empty tollroad, we arrive at our destination, the colonial city of Valladolid. A local, parallel road that we discover upon our return is free, slower and more fascinating. Prepare for “topes” – those swollen bumps across roads that slows traffic. Often children rush to car windows with their wares: oranges, potatoes, drinks— a moving lemonade stand.
I had been to Valladolid before and knew that it would be a good base — a hub to “return home” each afternoon. Ahh, those sweet naps, no re-packing, the same bed. As we age in our travels, we find that staying put for a while not only comforts the mind (a few less things can go wrong), but it lets us sink deeper into the locale and soul of a city.
Valladolid is riveted by a delightful central square. Families and locals relax in Parque Principal, comforted by the sounds of fountains and shade trees. Children weave among baby strollers; vendors sell ice cream and pork sausages. Mayan women wear traditional white blouses with colorful embroidery. Emboldened with pride, their language is making a resurgence. We begin connecting with the locals with our limited Spanish. Rather than repack my straw hat, I give it away to a surprised girl sitting on a park bench.
Surrounding this square are old Spanish-style shopping arcades and a two-spired cathedral built in the 1500’. Our hotel El Meson de Marquez stands proudly on this square since the late 1600s. This institution lingered in my memory when I had previously stayed in the Hostel Candalaria with girlfriends, a funky garden spot with hammocks in the back, and outdoor breakfasts with younger travelers. But my spouse and I were ready for a romantic setting, which offers its own challenges after 43 years. Walking through their open-aired courtyard, palm trees and geckos dot the pool. No screaming, loud music or yelling for another margarita here. Our five nights in the junior suite (including breakfast) has views of the square and the jaw-dropping cathedral, yet it is only $88 a night through Trip Advisor (December 2017 price).
Although Valladolid is a crossroad of highways providing many a day trip, there is much to see and taste within walking distance. Every day is a delight of outdoor restaurants and inexpensive eateries, like the Loncheria El Amigo next to our hotel. Our favorite is the Yerbabuena, with a colorful, artistic atmosphere competing with plates of delicious roasted pork.
One morning we discover a quirky private home of an American couple. They have collected art from villages all over Mexico and turned it into the Casa de los Venados. Our tour guide explains that the home contains 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. Although the couple is not there this day, this tour feels unusual — are we really allowed to walk through their intimate colonial home, bathrooms and all?
Two blocks further is a cenote in a city park. It is a deep natural water hole resulting in the sinking of limestone. Zaci Cenote is open to the public for a pittance. We meander down the trail, through drooping vines and tropical flowers, where local teens are diving. It is easy to imagine brave Mayan warriors jumping in after a battle.
Most travelers to the Yucatan visit the Mayan world heritage sites. Arriving early to Chichen Itza is cooler and less crowded than when 10 a.m. tour buses drop off international tourists. It is a half hour west of Valladolid. The ruins are breath-taking and expansive. Mayans were high achievers in art, math, astronomy, and architecture around 1000 BC to the 1500’s. Their fallen temples seem to await our interpretation of their stories carved in bas relief. Or perhaps it was the mid-day heat and the lack of places to sit and ponder that put us in an odd stupor, while hawkers squawk into pottery pieces, recreating the cry of a jaguar.
More mysterious is the local Mayan ruin, Ek Balam, only 15 minutes north of Valladolid. It is still being unearthed, structures buried underneath wild growth. We enjoy the quiet, the birds, and our Mayan guide. My husband challenges himself to climb the narrow steps to the top to gain perspective, while I sit on a rock and watch him slowly traverse down. More delightful is our bicycle ride on the path through the jungle to a cenote. After changing into swim suits in a shack, we negotiate the steep wooden steps to the bottom to find inner tubes and refreshing water. We join a couple from England to swim with the fishes.
Our final day trip from the hub took us to a sleepy village called Rio Lagartos, a two-hour drive north. We rent a boat at the docks after some negotiating with a local fisherman. But because of low tide, our guide could not get us closer to see the elegant flamingos—the largest population in all of Mexico. Like the Queen of Sheba, I command to be closer, wanting to see their brilliant pink-orange hues shimmer in the sun. Both my husband and guide jump into the lagoon and push our little boat through the sucking mud – to my chagrin. We had better luck ordering ceviche and beers at the river’s edge.
Lagartos may be a sleepy town, but its river is teeming with danger. Soon we were motoring up the channel through eerie swamps — 150,000 acres of this bioreserve — to find crocodiles. No civilization along the shores. Our guide finally slows our little boat in the thick mangroves, pointing out the amazing birds along the way. We see its eyes first. A slow-moving, large crocodile emerges, hearing the slapping of the guide’s fish against the boat. And glide it did, within a foot of our little blue boat.
“Teeth as long as six-inch nails!” my husband gasps. Holding our breath, we try to mirror the boat guide who sits calmly awaiting our signal to return to reality.
By Judith Works
It was easy to see where the term “ritzy” came from when the liveried doorman opened the portal for my daughter and me to enter the Ritz Hotel in London. She had arranged for tea at the hallowed hotel as a special treat. The lobby, filled with stylishly-dressed people who looked like they belonged there, was overwhelming with its marble floors, heavy silk draperies, enormous flower arrangements, and discreet shops filled with expensive jewelry. Anyone fond of minimalist décor would cover their eyes as they gasped in anguish. I loved it!
We were ushered to our table in the Palm Court by a tail-coated maître d’ with an iPad.
The atmosphere was even more sumptuous than the lobby with a glittering chandelier hanging from the skylight, gold-framed mirrors, a gold-painted sculpture of putti with scaly legs and fish-fin feet holding up a heraldic shield (presumably with the Ritz insignia) while a half-naked woman below gazes upward in wonder.
A gigantic flower arrangement on a pedestal, potted palms and a grand piano completed the scene. The pianist played show tunes to provide a background to the tinkling of china cups and saucers and light conversations.
I glanced at other guests seated at tables nearby. All were middle-aged, the men wore suits and ties and the women were dressed for afternoon tea, like us. Our waiter introduced himself, and would we like him to bring a glass of Champagne when he returned with the menu. Yes, we would.
As we took the first sip the maître d’ escorted a young couple to their table directly behind ours. My eyes and those of guests seated at the neighboring tables followed the couple; conversations paused. He wore a skinny suit and a skinny tie, someone from the design or fashion world I surmised. She must have been a model: nearly six feet tall with long straight black hair and bangs brushing her eyes, a low cut blouse and a skirt cut up to – well, you can imagine. But my eyes focused on her shoes: Red suede, backless with four-inch heels. I sighed in envy even though my feet hurt just imagining wearing them.
Our waiter returned with the Champagne and handed us a menu with all the tea selections: Eighteen different varieties selected by the hotel tea sommelier, including such exotics as Rose Congou, Dragon Pearls and Russian Caravan. We decided on the house special: Ritz Royal Blend. When he brought the tea and a stand filled with sandwiches and cakes, he asked if we’d like a photo to remember the event. Indeed, yes, even though it marked us as tourists.
The little sandwiches were quintessentially English: cucumber with cream cheese and chives, Scottish smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise with shallots and watercress; the pastries were French and divine. The last act was scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserves. It was impossible to finish everything. Our waiter asked if we wanted a little box.
After the last drip was poured from the teapot and final sip of Champagne was taken we picked up our box with the Ritz insignia and reluctantly gathered our raincoats – the nearby National Gallery would be an ideal place to walk off the indulgence. The pianist began his rendition of Puttin on the Ritz. As we descended the several stairs back to the main lobby I turned to take one last glance. A man supported an ancient woman as they too departed. He wore the standard suit. She wore a wreath of flowers on her sparse gray hair, a housedress, and UGG boots.
Frequent traveler, Judith Works, is the author of Coins in the Fountain – a midlife escape to Rome.
By Vivian Murray
The Lake District (Cumbria) of northwest England had been on my ‘someday-I-will-travel-to’ list for ages. The added bonus to seeing the beauty of this countryside was also to see where Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit and other sweet animal characters, lived, loved, and bequeathed to the U.K.
In 2013 I was invited to join family members on a heritage walk where I could finally see the area where my grandfather was born and raised. After a stop in London, Seaford, and Brighton, I headed north on the trains to another cousin’s home.
After day trips to Wigan, Manchester, and Liverpool, I ventured north again. The drive from John and Denise’s home in Congleton to Cumbria took about an hour and a half. The scenery passed by with a few interjections from my cousin John of notable landmarks, one of which was a mountain area known for the Lancashire witch-burning back in the day of notable witch-burnings. There was a mountain range called the Howgills which were snow-covered on this March day, and every pasture we passed was streaked with impressive handmade stone fences crisscrossing the thousands of acres of land.
Eventually we drove off the freeway and into the bucolic national park arriving at a ferry crossing over Windemere Lake. Our timing was impeccable; the small ferry arrived and we on the other side of the lake in less than 10 minutes.
After disembarking from the ferry, it was a relatively short drive through picture-perfect scenery until arriving at the small village of Hawkshead. Imagining a small hamlet stuck out in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of Peter Rabbit images and souvenir shops brimming with small and large replicas of animal characters. There was no doubt that we had arrived in Beatrix Potter country.
Upon her death, Potter endowed hundreds of acres of land in the Lake District to the National Trust (UK’s version of America’s National Park Service).
Curiously, many of the shops featured Japanese translations for the Potter signage. John later learned how in Japan, students are taught English by reading Beatrix Potter’s children’s books. Therefore, thousands of Japanese tourists make their way to Hawkshead and to Potter’s beloved home, the Hilltop House, every year. I had no idea of the impact Ms. Beatrix Potter made on people in other parts of the world other than my familiar English speaking universe.
Wandering in Hawkshead, and knowing virtually nothing about what we should see, we ended up inside what had been a land procurement building. It was now a gallery featuring several original works of art on walls and under glass along with story lines of Beatrix’s life, including her personal life. There were short tales about her engaged to one fellow in London, but married another one whom she met in this Lake District’s land procurement office, when purchasing her first property in Cumbria from the proceeds of her popular children’s books. There is a movie about her life starring Renée Zellweger named “Miss Potter” which goes into more detail. While watching, you may want to have your tissues handy.
The three of us skirted around the rickety two-story building first on the ground floor and then up an uneven staircase to a landing with wildly uneven and wavy floorboards as well as a window placed in a strange location (at floor level). I proceeded to happily escape into my photo-journalist-fantasy-world capturing the fascinating ‘artifacts’ presented. Along the way John and I had a little fun with the period hats.
As I rounded a corner, a woman suddenly jumped out of nowhere and severely admonished me for taking photos. This was against the rules she stated in no uncertain terms, while she pointed to a sign, written in plain English, reiterating the fact. As a side note, this guard was Japanese and I wondered if she had ever imagined working in Hawkshead guarding Potter exhibits when she was growing up in Japan and learning English from Potter books. Now, speaking Japanese was also quite useful in her job.
From there, we high-tailed it (a little bunny talk) back to the car before our time ran out in the parking lot meter. Yes, we had to pay for parking in this small village in the middle of nowhere. We drove a short distance, following arrows, up to Hilltop House. At the National Trust admissions desk, I paid my fee and John and Denise bought an annual National Trust pass, which as it turned out, served them well.
We had to pass through a souvenir shop to access by a pathway leading up to the Hilltop House, as well as back again which had to be a revenue maker from people like me.
Inside the weathered and cozy house, it was obvious I couldn’t take photos with so many “guards” and signs scattered about! The primarily female guards of a certain age stood guard watching over a large array of antiques and collectables which Beatrix and her husband acquired during their lives in Hawkshead.
On the second story was Ms. Potter’s creative room where I stood in front of a large oak carved desk. The curators had positioned a pen and sketch pad portraying little animal drawings. As I peered over the desk for a closer look at the intricate drawings, the sunlight broke through billows of clouds shining through a beveled glass window onto the drawings in the same fraction of a second. The suddenness of the light startled me and I blurted out to the guard, “Wow, she had great lighting for drawing, didn’t she!” He (one of the few male guards on hand) merely mumbled a brief acknowledgement as I silently mused upon my experience. It was a perfect room for an artist to draw and it felt as if I was experienced what it must have been like for Beatrix to work in this room.
After checking the other rooms containing oodles of collectibles with dozens of small miniature figurines scattered about on shelves and inside glass cases, there were also standard period pieces, such as bellows for the fireplace and a rifle, strategically placed.
Frustrated I couldn’t take photos, I went outside where I could freely click away in front of her house. I envisioned the artist’s imagination soaring as she stumbled across antics of her animals in the farmyard. I noticed the now dormant vegetable garden and antiquated stone barn facing a view of a hillside when seemed made specifically for hours of human meandering.
Soon we were on the rocky path back to the carpark with plans to head back to town for lunch when something caught my eye. Hiding in the dead winter grass, was a small wooden rabbit sitting somewhat haphazardly in the dry grasses.
At that point, my camera battery died. I had not charged the other two the night before after we had visited Liverpool and all-things-Beatles. This day was not over and having 3 dead batteries was NOT a good thing. I am usually quite disciplined on keeping the battery system for my devices going strong while I travel: one battery in the camera, one fully charged in the camera case for the day trip, and the third in the charger plugged in wherever I’m sleeping the night. But this time our fast pace had thrown me off kilter. I needed an outlet.
Earlier when we wandered in the village, I noticed a humorous sign in front of a pub and suggested we give it a try for lunch. We made a bee-line for the thatch roofed establishment and as soon as we placed our orders, I was on the hunt for an electrical outlet to charge my battery. The bartender pointed out an outlet by the back door which charged my battery during our lunch and thankfully I had my UK electrical converter in my camera bag.
The salad at The King’s Arm was a savory salad turning out to be the best of my entire journey. I noticed they rented rooms were a reasonable rate, too, at least for what was currently considered off-season. It wasn’t the Four Seasons but it would most likely be an experience to remember. Light was fading and we had a dinner engagement where I would meet additional “long lost cousins” from Lancaster for a family reunion before heading back to Congleton.
This area would be perfect to explore for a longer and more leisurely holiday in the Lake District. It was obvious that a few hours in the Lake District just touched the surface of this lush, stunning area. For the fit and hardy, there are walking trails everywhere, mountains to climb, and beautiful vistas to inhale. I was given an unique opportunity to experience this area of England thanks to my cousin John and his wife Denise. My once-in-a-lifetime Heritage Walk in England had come to an end.
Vivian C. Murray is a local writer and EPIC member who leads the monthly Travel Writing group. She is currently researching and writing about her British and Russian family who lived in Shanghai from the 1920s through the 1940s. All photos copyright of V.C.Murray.
By Judith Works
A bookstore will never lead you astray if you’re looking for something to carry you to mysterious places. Our local bookshop in Rome (actually in my office building) had a delightful name, “Food for Thought.” It also had a bin of older paperbacks toward the back where I regularly rummaged to find something inexpensive to read. And, one day, there was Holy Blood, Holy Grail at the bottom of the bin. With a blurb that said it was “explosively controversial,” I bought it. Tucked in with feet on our bombola (our propane heater for supplemental heating in the winter and one that I worried might be explosive in a different way), I dove in that evening. And I kept reading because I couldn’t put it down.
It begins with the story of an ancient and obscure church in the south west of France between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Cevenne mountains, and spins off into claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty and are thus the rightful kings of France. These claims are amplified by others about blackmail, buried treasure for the ransom of Saint Louis from the infidels, the locations of the Holy Grail, the treasure from Solomon’s Temple, and the mysterious Priory of Sion in Switzerland. The Knights Templars, the Masons and an indecipherable painting by the Renaissance painter, are all thrown in the heady brew in case the reader’s interest begins to wane. If this sounds familiar, it should, as Dan Brown capitalized on some story elements in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood brought (and lost) a plagiarism suit against Brown in 2006.
Hubby read the breathless book while I plotted a trip to see the mysterious church in a hamlet called Rennes-le-Chateau. I finally located the area, one where the Cathars, a heretical sect, lived and died during the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. Off we went on our next trip to France.
We left the walled city of Carcassone, not far from the Mediterranean Sea just north of the Spanish border. The vineyards surrounding the city were soon far behind as we drove on winding roads through oak and pine trees amid rough limestone gorges, outcroppings and crags. The sun was misty, the sky a watery pale blue, making the scenery appear ephemeral and steeped in mystery. The ruins of a fortress, Montsegur, high above us, appeared in the damp air as though it was a mirage. It was easy to picture the ghosts of the last Cathers, the 245 remaining survivors of the genocidal campaign by the Church, who were burned in a mass execution after the final campaign ended here. The site was destroyed over the years and now the nearly inaccessible and melancholy ruins of the later medieval castle stand as a memorial to intolerance and a fight to the end. In my mind I could hear the dead still keening for their lost lives and faith.
Some miles up the road, we arrived in the somnolent and isolated hamlet of Rennes Le Chateau, population 92, and no place for lunch. The history of the area is murky: first settled by Neanderthals, who were supplanted by more modern humans including Romans, Visigoths, and various medieval lords, including the Templars, until they gave way to French Royalists.
The site and its supposed history have become great fodder for conspiracy theorists and novelists since Jules Verne. But there was no wide-spread notoriety until several post-War French and Belgian writers claimed that Sauniere had discovered parchments in a hollow pillar dating from Visigothic times during his restoration that “prove” the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the stories faded into obscurity until the Holy Blood book hit the bestseller list in the 1980s and the BBC made a “documentary.” The documents have, of course, disappeared. Some say they vanished into the depths of the Vatican.
The “facts” have become a cottage industry with thousands of visitors now stopping at the church feed their fantasies and to fuel the local tourist trade. Books, websites, Youtube videos and podcasts abound for curiosity seekers and those who are die-hard believers. One commentator said it was the French equivalent of Roswell or Loch Ness. Others mention Atlantis.
We drove to the top of the hill, the location of the curious church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. In keeping with that part of the world, its history is murky. When a new parish priest, Berenger Sauniere, was assigned to the church in 1885, he began to restore and radically change the church which originally dated from the 8th century, rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 10th or 11th century. Sauniere seems to have had a shady background both in his adherence to dogma and wealth from unknown sources. He spent great sums of money on the church, a tower for his library and a large villa with extensive grounds.
But Sauniere came to a dismal end: In 1910 he was summoned to an ecclesiastical trial for various offenses against the Church and was suspended from the priesthood when he refused to produce his account books or attend the trial. He died without the Last Rites in 1917. He had been declared penniless, but his life-long “housekeeper,” suddenly became wealthy and moved into the villa. The French government established a new currency in 1946. Rather than declare where her wealth came from, the woman, Marie Denarnaud, burnt the old francs and died penniless too. I don’t know what had been really going on but something clearly was very odd about the situation.
Book in hand, we approached the church, first passing a closed gateway to the church yard with a memento mori skull and crossbones as décor over the door. We reached the main entrance and looked up to see the Latin inscription “Terribilis est locus iste” carved on the lintel. Depending on your inclination, it can be translated as “This is a horrible place,” or less dramatically (and less nysterious), “This is a place of awe.”
Whichever is correct, the words established a mood that wasn’t dispelled when we entered the nave and approached the holy water stoop supported by a horned and cloven-footed devil. For those who don’t believe in conspiracies, the choice can be explained by looking at a catalogue of church refurbishments published in during the period. Still, it seems less than suitable and not a place where I’d want to dip my fingers. Specialists have found other anomalies but these two were enough for us. The church was dark and damp and gave us the creeps. It was easy to imagine flickering candles casting moving and distorted shadows over dark rites with pagan roots. Was the church ever used for happy events like marriage or baptism? Whatever its current use, I couldn’t wait to get out into the clean air.
We wandered toward the disused tower which had been the good Father’s library. It, too, was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. In keeping with the general desolation, the stained-glass windows had been broken by vandals. Pieces of glass lay scattered on the ground. I couldn’t resist picking up a handful for a memento of a most peculiar place, neither horrible nor of awe, but all the same, unsettling. But rather than stuffing the shards in my pocket, I let the glass fall through my fingers, back to the ground where they could await some other curiosity seeker.
It was definitely time for more mundane and contemporary activities: a late lunch in Limoux, famous for it’s sparkling wines and good food. We dined on cassoulet, and raised our glasses to the authors of the book who provided endless fodder for conversations about the past.
Photos copyright by author, except for Montsegur which by MDenis from Wikipedia CC
The author, Judith Works, is on the board of EPIC Group Writers, inveterate traveler, and author of the memoir Coins in the Fountain – A Midlife Escape to Rome
Maybe we were crazy. “A bit daft”, some New Zealanders exclaimed as they scratched their heads when we took off on our bicycles for another day. We slowly pulled into traffic, pedaling up yet another steep and busy road. A long ascent reminded us that if we want to finish this 11-day bicycle trip, we better conserve.
We were daft. We did not adequately research how much climbing there would be, especially in those mysterious meters. We were also not young anymore — we were nearing (cough) 70. And we actually paid for this physical “opportunity” when a younger couple in their early 50’s told us about a website of bike tours. We had met Ellyn and Michael mountain biking in Moab, Utah numerous times, so bicycling was in our blood.
A month later, the four of us agreed to pay a New Zealand stranger to try his self-guided, independent bike tour to the West Coast and Banks Peninsula on the spectacular South Island of New Zealand. He would provide bikes, the routes, and places to stay each night. No sag wagon. If a bike broke down, the guys were our fixers.
After a tedious 30-hour flight from Seattle to LA to Nandi, Fiji, then to Wellington, we finally arrived in Christchurch on the South Island. What a shock to see a still-devastated downtown from the 2010-2011 earthquakes. Cathedrals and high rises still gutted open, they awaited insurance and restructure issues to settle. Old wooden cottages with wrap-around porches, like the charming B&B where we stayed, had no damage. We were told those structures simply swayed to the beat. Then a recent earthquake in November, 2016 dramatically cut into many tourists’ plans, including ours.
A popular whale-watching town called Kiakoura still had train tracks laying on the beach with landslides covering major roads. So our tour coordinator rerouted us on a “plan two” mere weeks before we left the states. We would now cross the gorgeous Southern Alps on the magical TransAlpine railway with our bikes in the baggage car, to the little town of Moana where the ride began. Little did we know that everyone in the world seemed to come with us, since Kiakoura was off limits. But onward we must pedal.
On the previous day, our young Kiwi pulled up to our B&B in his van and left us with four quality bikes, straddled with two waterproof panniers and a front pack of tools, tire tubes, pumps, maps and hope. We had never carried our clothes and gear before. Limiting clothes and one extra pair of shoes to six pounds in each bag and no make-up - frightening. This new weight took careful balancing in windy conditions, but it wasn’t our only new lesson: we were now riding on the other side of the road.
We pedaled on major highways for 30-45 miles a day to our nightly BnBs. It was not far, but it was hilly and busy nearly every day. Where were the bucolic, empty roads that we saw on the website? Ellyn was not afraid to walk up to a guy enjoying his beer at a local pub.
“Hey! We’re on bikes. Here’s my map. Can you direct us to a smaller road so we don’t have to ride that crazy highway out there tomorrow?” she points.
I think I see his buddies snicker. There are no alternate routes, but it seems that smaller roads in this lightly populated country would not reach our final beds. It had all sounded so dreamy five months ago.
Did we train? Oh yes.Three months of spin classes, swimming and core work helped dramatically. It was a terrific feeling to get stronger as we were getting older. Alas, such preparation did not include practice on narrow roads, one-lane bridges, and continuous traffic. Seattle’s rainy autumn made riding outdoors less appealing, but at least we could experiment with our rain gear on the hills of Edmonds.
Honestly, our New Zealand rides did include quiet snippets of beauty - lovely sheep farms and stunning ocean views. But it was usually drowned out with an LA- freeway drone of tour buses, milk trucks, and travel vans breathing down our bent backs. All four of us were scared.
“The white line is our friend,” I nervously chanted by the second day.
Any deviation from the edge of the road was a possible disaster — no guard rails, deep ravines, and not even three inches of asphalt forgiveness. If we pedaled too far inside the white line, we risked vehicles whizzing by so close that the force would wobble our thin metal steeds. We all spread out with our trusty orange reflector vests and little blinking lights. Is that enough to keep from dying?
When we waited for each other at 10 kilometer increments, it was a relief that no siren was heard. We drank water, shared nuts, reviewed maps, and laughed at our folly. Sometimes we reminded each other to glimpse beyond the white line. Look: rolling green pastures of sheep and cattle have their own personal views of the beach at the Tasman Sea. In America, there’d be private driveways or hotels to obstruct the view. The tall, swaying tree ferns on the mountainsides were alluring. Sometimes there was a funky ole cafe or tavern at a crossroads where we’d have a pot of tea and remark that these New Zealanders sure are a cordial lot! Raising our teacups, we toasted our continued luck: no need to don rain gear again.
Baffling as it may seem, an unusual pattern began to emerge. An new confidence pulsed through our muscles and minds as we summited difficult terrain without walking the bikes. A feeling of invincibility bloomed as we let loose and sped down the other side with that teen-age thrill — whoopee!
More comforting patterns became apparent. We enjoyed Michael and Ellyn’s daily company. With pleasure, we sopped up two delicious eggs, bacon,’n toast, granola and fresh fruit, every morning by our lovely hosts. We pushed
off before the forecasted rain. We rotated who lead, who swept. We stopped often to explore. Heads up, historical signs caught our attentions now. One taught us about the early coal mining towns that once densely populated the remote area. More importantly, I learned to shut up about the traffic or outwardly worry about the upcoming climb. What good was I to the group? I finally quelled my fears and rode with the flow. Maybe that is why my husband stopped on a lonely hilltop, and straddling our bikes, he kissed me.
On our way to Punikaiki Tavern, a country roadside attraction, we peaked a long hill to find a bustling intersection of tour buses, families spilling out of cafes and souvenir shops with ice-cream cones. The world-famous Pancake Rocks and shooting blowholes of ocean spray beckoned us down the trail. We witnessed strange, layered rock formations and ocean bursts. And oh, we were
w a l k i n g. So lovely was this movement.
Upon our return to the bike stand, two young Aussies on two wheels of their own, were surprised to see us oldsters walking up to our own bikes. Sun-baked, with wrinkle-deep cheeks squeezed by our helmet straps, we exchanged comments how rarely cyclists were seen on these roads. Their incredulity of our route was a cherished moment. Funny how those precious slices of acknowledgement can fuel yet another hill.
Rita Ireland has been lucky to teach in various parts of the world. It was a lovely impetus to escape -- growing up on an Iowa farm. Rita now lives in Edmonds with her spouse, David, who found her reading on a quiet Sunday morning beach in Los Angeles 41 years ago. They have two children who now live far away from their home. Her favorite part of a long teaching career was being the librarian at Meadowdale High School. She was thrilled to buy books, enticing teens to read.
by Rita Ireland
New York City can be a daunting city to explore because it is so huge and expensive. With a 40th wedding anniversary to celebrate, and other cities and countries under our belt, my husband and I wondered why do we keep ignoring this grand city? Was it fear of being in such an overwhelming place? Maybe. But, all that changed this fall when we spent twelve glorious days there. Here are our suggestions:
1. Get busy. Start researching months ahead. Lonely Planet’s New York City was our guide. Online resources like Rough Guide to New York City and Trip Advisor also provided insights. We first created personal lists of our top fifteen things to do - culminating with a new list and a quest to understand “while in that neighborhood, let’s see….”
2. Get goin’. Use credit card miles to obtain cheap plane tickets, of course; or sign up for fare tracker websites like Kayak so you are alerted to deals. JetBlue has consistently lower prices. JFK Airport is the least complicated to reach the city - take the AirTrain for $7.75. And LaGuardia’s NYC Airporter bus is currently $13.
As for new Broadway shows, tickets are hard to get. But, if you purchase from home, you can relax. When there, many long-running shows can be booked for half the price for a next day performance. Lines at Times Square could be unnerving, so head over to the less crowded ticket booth in Brooklyn: http://www.nytix.com/Broadway/DiscountBroadwayTickets/TKTS/.
3. Get creative where you stay. Why pay $350-$500/night in a Manhattan hotel when you can stay in a private home for $180? Using AirBnB (or VRBO) in a neighborhood provides a quieter, homey feel. How about Staying in Brooklyn Heights in a historic brownstone on the top floor with a private entrance? Fantastic! A few blocks from the home where we rented a room was the new Brooklyn Promenade overlooking the breathtaking Manhattan skyline. Subway lines into the city were easy.
4. Get down. Down into the maze of subways. Forget expensive taxis or Ubers. Save money for dinners and plays by using the easy subways. They are cheap, ubiquitous, clean, and crime-free. Free music by buskers is a bonus. Buying an Unlimited METRO pass for a week provides a smart, flexible plan. Avoid buying the pass at crowded Grand Central -- any subway entrance will do.
5. Get moving. Just start walking. Pedestrians are so colorful: it’s a plethora of United Nations, wide-eyed tourists vs. fast-walking Wall Streeters, friendly vagabonds vs spiky-heeled models. Blocks are long: ithe workout is a good way not to feel guilty buying an eclair. Head over to Chelsea to walk on top of an old railroad, called the High Line, a creative path that winds its way through gardens, food vendors and public art.
Biking provides a fun perspective of Manhattan too. Rent a bike from a vendor near the free Staten Island ferry - Battery Park, then ride up the flat Hudson River Trail - to the majestic One World Trade Center- more than the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, its park below is a most reverent reflection of 9/11. If energetic, bike all the way to irresistible Central Park. Then simply return bikes at the park to the same company. Take advantage of the food trucks at the southwest entrance - best juicy gyro ever!
5. Get lost. Where to go? Flip a coin. Or,I instead of taking the subway one way, go the opposite. Locals are so friendly -- we were often asked if we needed help. Serendipity fosters unique memories. Explore a new ‘hood. Harlem is gentrifying, but you’ll be wowed at Streetbird - Chef Marcus Samuelson’s funky restaurant. Or saunter into a Carnegie library, a garden, a Jewish deli like famous Katz’s, or a tiny one filled with locals -- even better. Walk past a Jamaican joint in the Bronx. Ahh, smell the spices and find a booth. It’s the opposite of standing in lines, where there is stiff competition for The Today Show, Jimmy Fallon, or the Knicks. But it’s authentic.
6. Get dressed. Dressed up, that is. What a thrill to get all decked out for an early dinner in the city, a few blocks from your Broadway show. Unlike your comfy hometown, it’s time to add the dazzles, a quirkiness, or a tie, and get swanky! How often do you feel a bit luxurious? Take in a jazz club, an alfresco cafe, or a late-night cocktail at a local pub or the cigar bar at Manhattan’s Peninsula Hotel?
6. Get over it. When traveling, someone is bound to make a wrong move. “Damn….that subway line was on the other side.” Make a pact of quick forgiveness - and move on. Mistakes will be made, but the cool part will be how fast you can laugh or shrug it off. It could be your best story when you get back home.
7. Get inside. The ambience of Manhattan’s majestic New York Library, the art deco of the Chrysler Building, or solitude in the cathedrals: it’s all so ethereal and breathtaking. And the art museums! The smaller Guggenheim and The Frick are easier to manage. But, oh….save a day for the incredible Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA. Lines are shorter in the early afternoon. Here’s our win/win: we leave each other for a while to go our own pace, meet for lunch, separate again, and later show each other our favorite pieces. If off-beaten art paths are your delight, the Chelsea area has weekly exhibits in such fun spaces. http://www.art-chelsea.com
8. Get transformed. Bask in the imagination of creative writers, artists, and politicians over the last two centuries to sift through your head. If you read their histories you may appreciate the beautiful lives which came before you, such as the architects of the Brooklyn Bridge. Stop to hear a local writer at a bookstore which could lead to hearing of an idea you didn’t plan on, which dominos to discovering another part of the city: taking the train to the Bronx! Ahh, the impressive botanical garden is there —with a Frida Kahlo exhibit and a women mariachi band - amazing! Where else, but New York City.
Let the unpredictability of new routes and experiences take over and fill you with awe. Take subways, stroll in parks, and dine at local spots-- this melds your tourist identity into shades of a local. Savor the transformation, take it slow with a sip and a stir.
© Copyright 2017 Rita Ireland
by Tori Peters
I must admit that I have never been a geology enthusiast. During my undergraduate years, I was required to take an earth science course. I chose geology; I can’t remember why. Maybe because the time for the course fit into my schedule better than the geography class. This is where I confess that I earned a “D” grade in that class because I refused to memorize the rocks. As an English major more interested in literature and writing than rocks, I figured if I really wanted to know a rock’s name or what it was composed of I would buy a field guide to help me. Age and travel have a way of tricking me back to geology. Rock names don’t interest me but weathering, anticline, synclines, tectonic forces do.
When Jo, Tom, and Lois, California friends, suggested that we take a road trip to include visits to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon National Parks. I jumped at the opportunity. Jo and Lois set the itinerary and made reservations. Tom would be doing most of the driving. I bought Your Guide to the National Parks by Michael Joseph Oswald so that I could educate myself on what we could do and see at each park. In the chapter about Grand Canyon, I read about the Grand Staircase. Oh, that is interesting I thought. What exactly does this mean?
Millions and millions of years ago as Earth tried to figure out her role in the universe and after a high mountain range as high as the Himalayas eroded away, deposits of sedimentary materials from the ever changing landscape in this area that we know as Utah and Arizona, layered one on top of another. Earth’s fractured crust, like most humans, does not sit still. It bumps into one another pushing, pulling apart, and sliding. The land tilts up, folds under, or slides one way or the other. These actions cause the layers of collected sediment to look like a layered cake that has slipped around on runny frosting. I have felt earthquakes, I know how this can be both fascinating and scary. Imagine then the Colorado River and her tributaries eating their way through the layers. The waters carry sedimentary rock down river as they dig deeper and deeper into the earth. Canyons are formed. I wish it were this simple but it isn’t.
I read that Clarence Dutton, an American geologist and Captain in the Army, traveled with the John Wesley Powell expedition to explore the Colorado Plateau. As he looked north from the Grand Canyon, he noticed that the geological landscape formed a geological staircase. The top layer, the top step, he called the “Pink Cliffs” and first step. This became Bryce Canyon National Park. The bottom geological layer at Bryce is the top layer at Zion National Park, and he called it “Grey Cliffs”. The third step, the White Cliffs, is the bottom geological layer at Zion and the top layer at Grand Canyon National Park. I have to admit that I had to think about this for a long time. I understood the words that I read, and I could picture the staircase in my head. Did I really understand?
We did not plan the trip with the idea of the geological Grand Staircase. We drove to Zion first. It was probably on our way to Zion that I mentioned the Grand Staircase to my friends. They thought it an interesting concept, but travel experiences and politics dominated our conversation. At Zion National Park, I was more interested in hiking to Angel’s Landing and astonished at the different colors, so different than Western Washington, then the geology of the canyon. Because I thought it might help us understand the sights that brought forth “oohs and ahs,” I bought a book at the gift store titled Geology Unfolded: An illustrated Guide to the Geology of Utah’s National Parks. The book explained the Grand Staircase and Hoodoos. Don’t you love saying that word, “Hoodoo?” It cries to be the subject of a song. A hoodoo is the result of varied sedimentary material layering one on top of the other, forces of plate tectonics stressing the layers, and climate and water eroding those layers. The finished product, “hoodoo,” named for its strange human or goblin shapes, create a rare and beautiful nature sculptured landscape
We became Hoodoo paparazzi before we even entered Bryce Canyon. Our camera’s clicked at any rock sculpture that looked like a Hoodoo. At Bryce I had to remind myself to stop taking pictures and to experience the beauty around me. The fact that we were walking on the top stair of the staircase entered our minds, but the hoodoos had our attention. Every once in a while one of the four of us would mention the staircase or ask to read the Utah geology book to try and take in the information.
The geological variation on the long drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon entertained our imaginations. We arrived at the eastern end of the South Rim around 3:00 P.M. At our first stop, Desert View, we explored “Indian Watchtower” designed in 1932 by one of America’s early women architects, Mary Colter. From the terrace and the tower, we had our first sight of the Grand Canyon. I was not disappointed with Mary Colter’s Watchtower but with the view: hazy sky, massive landscape, crowded, and not as intimate as Zion and Bryce.
The next morning, we hiked a section of the Bright Angel Trail. The shadows of dark threatening rain clouds chased each other across the canyon walls. Walking down the trail looking at the colored rock layers that made up the cliff faces, I thought about the Grand Staircase and the geological layers. Like a private library with books piled on top of each other these layers contained stories of wild weather, earthquakes, and of life itself evolving. A vision of my childhood visits to my grandmother’s came into my head. I loved pulling out the few photo albums that she kept on an old oval oak table in the living room. I would carefully study the pictures looking for familiar resemblances and trying to make meaning out of this business of life. As the first drops of an historic rain storm (Apparently it never rains in Arizona in June.) touched my hand and then my arm, I thought, “Ah, these geological layers are like my grandmother’s photo albums.” Piled one upon the other, they hold the mysteries and secrets that Earth has been collecting since her creation. At that moment I wished for the knowledge and the time to read the layers of the geological Grand Staircase and the three parks that are keepers of Earth’s stories in that part of our world.
© Copyright 2017 Tori Peters