Category Archives: On the Road

Central California

Death is on my mind as we cross over the Nevada-California border. The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, fading into nothing out Dexy’s back window, and Death Valley, California, straight ahead.

Death Valley National Park
Travel tip: Don’t cram too much into one day. Because if you do, something’s got to give.

In our case, Death Valley draws the short straw. Too much time in the Nevada desert means there’s no dawdling in California’s. It’s straight on through – on the Daylight Pass Road, heading east to west. It’s a shame to give Death Valley NP the short shrift because, if you can stand the parched conditions, there is plenty to see and explore in the park: the ghost town of Leadfield at the base of the Grapevine Mountains; Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level; Hole in the Wall and plenty of other canyons; and the many zig-zagging roads and trails that lead up to cliffs with names like Dantes View and Coffin Peak.

But despite all we miss, the Daylight Pass Road offers sights of its own, fromDV 10 windswept dunes to sun-swept mountain ranges, and through the canyons where mirages turn the asphalt highway into rivers of sweat – it must be 110 degrees in the shade, if there is any shade to be found.


The thought of death returns. We’ve passed Devils Cornfield and have stopped by the side of the road to size up what looks like a short hike to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. They look spectacular from a distance and now we want to see them up close. I’m not thinking of death for the first quarter of a mile through the corn stacks, but every quarter of mile – no, every step thereafter, all I can think of is this is how people die out here. At least those people who forget their water in the car. But we soldier on.


The corn stacks disappear and the light-colored sand turns white; we climb one dune and another and another, with the prospect that pure sand, devoid of brush and desert shrubs, is just over that next dune. But we are parched – our hike across the desert sands has done us in; there isn’t another dune in us. As we turn to head back to the car – and the jug of water waiting for us – I look up and it’s all sky, revving up for sunset.

 

Stanislaus National Forest
From Death Valley, the shortest route west to San Francisco takes us north along Route 395 that slices through Inyo National Forest past Mono Lake2 California Mono Lake (4) and on into Stanislaus National Forest. And so begins our steep climb up to elevations that reach beyond 9,600 feet, along one of those winding roads that are closed in winter but open to the adventurous in May. We’ve been warned that although it may be the shortest route to the central coast, it can also be quite harrowing. It’s a beautiful spring day in the forest, and I for one am very glad to be out of the desert, whose arid conditions impress upon me the need to seek higher ground.

The climb up is glorious – the stands of majestic trees that stretch for miles, and beyond them the mountains still covered in their winter blanket of snow. At one point along our climb up, we stop to smell the roses, and eat our picnic lunch while we’re at it. Although our picnic table – a slab of rocks that seem to jut out of time immemorial – is just a few yards from the road, it feels like we are the only two people in this vast wilderness; not one car passes by to break our reverie. But as peaceful and serene as all that is, it does make me stop to wonder why. Why is no one else on this “road closed in winter” on this lovely spring day?


We brush off the crumbs and wash our hands in the nearby Sardine Creek; it’s time to move on, ever upward. And up we go, watching the roadside elevation signs creep up – 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet, 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet.


At some point we reach the top, and then it’s the descent downward through the trees. Going up is for dilettantes, going down is for the professionals. The winding switchbacks are unrelenting, and I ride Dexy’s brakes for all they’re worth – to the point where smoke is billowing out from beneath the car. Other than to pull off the road and watch the smoke dissipate, I’m not entirely sure what to do next. Fortunately, a young couple in a car pass us, going the other way, and pull in to see if they can help, and they ultimately offer us some professional advice: The only way to save your brakes – albeit do a number on your transmission – is to head down the hill in first or second gear. It seems like a reasonable trade-off at this point, and after a heartfelt thank-you to the couple, we’re on our way at a snail’s pace down the mountain and out into relatively flat land. Crisis averted. It makes me wonder how Dexy is going to take to the hills of San Francisco in the weeks ahead, but for now, we’re on an even course, beetling it across Route 108 through the lush, and obviously well-watered, agricultural heartland of California, where abundance is everywhere. The small towns that dot the route vanish behind us as we make our way west along 120 and then 580, through the congestion of cities and towns that lead to San Francisco Bay, and on the other side of the bay, Palo Alto, where I drop off Wendy at her friends’, before heading north into that city of delights, San Francisco. My westward journey is at an end – a 13-day road trip that began on May 17 has taken me from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. I made it!

Nevada

Las Vegas

It’s always a plus to have a friend in town when you’re visiting a place – you getLas Vegas (6) to take off your tourist hat and experience the real deal. That’s probably true of most places, but maybe a little less so when it comes to Las Vegas. Vegas is all bright lights, big city, gambling, drinking, shows, showgirls, and more gambling … and after all that, what’s there to do?

Visit the Bellagio on the Strip, that’s what. To see the huge water garden display beyond the hotel foyer, and then in the foyer itself, a Chihuly masterpiece, plus another piece in the casino. I discovered the artist Chihuly at his museum in Seattle and had heard that the Bellagio was one of the places that featured his work. I’d totally forgotten about it until Wendy and I arrived at the hotel for a sight-see around the water garden, and there it was. Beautiful stuff.

The water garden is a fairly spectacular piece of work too. Apparently they replace the display on a somewhat regular basis (maybe monthly?), and it’s a great tourist magnet – a roomful of constant camera clicking. Just a few shots to give you an idea …

Vegas is hot, except for those days when it’s scorchingly hot. The lushness of hotel lobbies gives way to dry, desert conditions everywhere else, with cactus and palm trees the order of the day. It was lovely sitting in Wendy’s back garden under the shade of the palm tree and soak up her little corner of the universe.

 

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

This gem of a place lies about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and it’s the first stop on what would turn out to be Wendy’s and my four-week road trip through southwestern Nevada, northern California and Oregon. We took the back road out of Vegas, just so we could pass through the wonderfully named town of Pahrump. A few twists and turns in the road later, there was Ash Meadows – a desert oasis on the eastern border of Death Valley. What a sight to behold!

Its 24,000 acres include spring-fed wetlands and an alkaline desert and because of its isolated existence, it’s home to several endemic species of plants and animals. It’s also home to Devils Hole, a geothermic aquifer-fed pool within a cavern in caves that were formed 500,000 years ago. Despite the water being over 90 degrees and as salty as you can get, this pool of water is the only natural location of a what’s described as the rarest of fish, the Devils Hole pupfish. Talk about adaptation to one’s surroundings.

As we set out along one of the refuge’s boardwalks, we were warned to take plenty of water – the first, but not only, time we’d be so advised in the Mohave Desert. It’s a hard, hot, arid life out here, and I last all of an hour, which doubles the respect and awe I have for the species that do survive in this desert land.

 

Rhyolite

AMR 1Hugging the Nevada-California border heading north, we hit the ghost town of Rhyolite. If we look back to the 1800s and early 1900s, there are any number of towns that grew up from their rough beginnings as mining camps. Dusty camps would turn into dusty towns, and depending on which way the prevailing winds of the economy blew, towns became prospering cities or everyone pulled up stakes and moved on. The American West is dotted with abandoned towns, and each has its story to tell. Rhyolite’s is perhaps not much different than most. Gold was discovered in them thar hills and with it came thousands of gold seekers, miners and developers. By 1908 it was a thriving community – electric lights, telephones, newspapers, even an opera house, and undoubtedly saloons and brothels – with upwards of 5,000 residents. Then oops, a few years later, the mining dried up, the mining company that pretty much owned the town picked up stakes and left, and within a decade, so had everyone else.

After 1920, Rhyolite became something of a tourist attraction and was the setting for a few Hollywood movies – but since then most of the buildings were moved to the local town of Beatty, either in whole or as scrap, and what’s left is mostly the crumbling remains.

In a curious twist, the ruins of the town attracted the Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski, who in 1984 set about creating some ghostly life-sized sculptures near the site of Rhyolite’s abandoned railway station. The ghosts of Rhyolite!

There’s now a museum on the site and an art center used by artists … the phoenix does rise.

From here, it’s five miles to the entrance of Death Valley National Park, and the ghostly remains of Rhyolite have set the stage for our drive through the valley of death.

Colorado National Monument

If ever a picture was worth a thousand words, the Colorado National Monument is that moment. The Monument (as it’s known locally) is located on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile region that spans western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southern and eastern Utah, and northern Arizona. Among the many beauties in the plateau are Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. And not to be missed, the Colorado National Monument, located just outside of the western Colorado town of Grand Junction.

The Monument covers just 32 square miles of high land in the plateau, rising over 2,000 feet above the Grand Valley of the Colorado River. We’re in glorious Red Rock Country! Here in the Monument, it’s not just the canyons carved out of sandstone and shale that catch the eye. Rather it is the sense of time (and lots of it) that has passed and created, with the great help of Mother Nature, massive rock spires, domes, arches and pedestals in those canyons.

The 23-mile paved Rim Rock Drive winds along the rims of the major canyons and offers spectacular views at every curve of the road. There are 19 designated overlooks, each with its own magnificent views of what time and erosion can do to the desert mountain land.

Most of my time was spent going from pillar to post, stopping to take in the views at one overlook before driving on to the next. But if I was going to see more than red rocks, I’d have to get out on the hiking trails to find some wildlife. The Monument is home to desert bighorns, coyotes and mountain lions – but of those I saw none. A desert cottontail sat still long enough for a photo op, but I had more luck with those slow-moving cactus,  flowers and trees!

Plenty of wood to catch the photographer’s eye! I couldn’t ask for more from this beautiful and sunny spring day in May for a trip through the Monument.

Far and away, though, it is the skyscrapers of rock rising from the canyon floors that overpower the senses. These giant rock forms are awe-inspiring in the moment, knowing that they’re here today, they will be eroded and gone at a distant tomorrow, and never existed in the distant past. Oh sure, they were here, and they will be here, but not like this. It’s humbling.

Japan – part 2: Tokyo

Three days in Tokyo, and we made the most of them. Tokyo is huge – no news there – and we tried to get in is much as we could. Truly amazing place, with so much to do. Never a dull moment.

trainPrior to arriving in Japan, we reserved a 14-day pass on Japan Rail East – the pass is good for five days’ use over a two-week period. We used it when we arrived to get from Haneda Airport to the main JR train station, where we boarded the high-speed Shinkansen train to Akita. It’s the only logical way to travel between Tokyo and Akita; traveling up to 250 mph (or maybe more) in places, it’s a four-hour train ride, whereas by car, it’s a 12-hour trip. We pretty much slept away those four hours on the ride up, so we were keen for the ride back, with our eyes wide open. What a great way to travel, zoom zoom. We picked up our bento box lunches at the Akita station and it was all aboard for Tokyo.

We were staying at Superhotel, a few blocks from the Tokyo train station, which made it very convenient to get around the city, as well as to see the sights nearby. First things first – dinner, which we found at a little restaurant housed beneath one of the many train lines that ride above ground. No wasted space in Tokyo! Talk about unusual – to be eating your rice and duck while the train rumbles overhead every five minutes. After dinner, it was a short walk over to the Ginza district – the definition of bright lights, big city, with its towering stores with names reminiscent of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Power nights followed by power days – it’s the only way to get it all done. We began the next day with a walk over to the Imperial Gardens, within which is the Imperial Palace, all enclosed by a moat. From there, a taxi ride took us to Yasukuni Jinja – the Shrine of Peace for the Nation – a peculiar name for a shrine that honors war heroes, and it also causes quite a stir among the Chinese and Koreans whenever a Japanese prime minister comes to visit the shrine, given how those countries suffered under Japanese imperialism in days gone by. Time for a Guinness!

And then it’s time to get on the subway. Which one to take?

tokyo subway mapThat’d be the one that takes us to Shibuya Station, one of the busiest stations tokyo Shibuyain Tokyo. We navigate through the masses and take the Hachikō exit, which opens up to the masses above ground in one of Tokyo’s popular shopping districts. An endearing story gives the exit its name. Hachikō was the pet dog of a professor at the University of Tokyo during the 1920s; each day Hachikō would wait for his master at Shibuya Station. The professor died onetokyo shibuya station day while at the university, and every day for the rest of the dog’s life, he waited patiently at the appointed time for his master. Talk about loyalty – we all love a good story, but the Japanese especially take it to heart, and today, we can all remember a dog’s love with the statue they’ve placed in the  Hachikō plaza. Amazing story, considering the throngs of people who pass through each day.

On Bridget’s suggestion, an hour or so later we were off to Shimokitazawa, a district full of winding streets and narrow alleys chock-a-block with stores and shops that cater to the hippies among us. Meandering about, we get the picture …

One more place to hit before the day is done – and this would tokyo akihabarabe Sean’s favorite district to visit when he comes to Tokyo: Akihabara. It’s where all the geeks go for their electronic needs and then some – games, music, videos – it’s all here. Apparently there are a lot of nerds in Japan – the streets are packed, and the stores that rise seven stories or more are equally congested. And that’s it for our sightseeing day. Back to Tokyo Central to meet up with Sean’s friends for drinks and Mexican dinner.

sumo lineWe were up bright and early on our last full day in Tokyo, for the big event: sumo wrestling’s May tournament, held at Ryogoku Kokugikan. We were in line at 7:30 in the morning, waiting for the box office to open at 8, when they dished up 250 day-of tickets for Day 1 of the two-week tournament. I’m not sure how many seats there are in the arena, but the 250 available is what it takes to fill up the last row up in the nosebleeds; the rest of the seats had all been purchased in advance.

It’s an all-day affair, with the preliminary rounds starting at 8:30 and the top division bouts around 4:15. Most people don’t show up until until the later rounds, and we opted to do the same. It’s Mother’s Day, a good day to take Mom to Odaiba – an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that was originally constructed in 1853 as a series of fortresses, mostly to fend off the advances of Commodore Matthew Perry. Time moves on – from fortress to park to wasteland to its current conglomerate of hotels, businesses, shopping centers, museums and parks, all popular with the tourists.

On to the main event – not just ours but all of Japan’s. They love their sumo wrestling, akin to Canadians loving their hockey, only more so. We arrive in time for the Juryo matches – the second-highest ranked wrestlers – which sumo 5starts with the dohyō-iri, the ceremonial walk around the ring. Fourteen matches later and the highest ranked, the Makuuchi, follow with their dohyō-iri and their 21 bouts. A match takes anywhere from a few seconds to maybe 20 seconds – the time it takes one wrestler to either push the other wrestler outside of the ring or get some part of his body other than his feet to touch the ground. There’s plenty of ritual before the two wrestlers begin the grapple, including the throwing of salt into the ring by both wrestlers – a purification ritual that goes back to when sumo was used in the Shinto religion. There’s also the squatting on their haunches, slapping themselves, staring at their opponents, going back to their respective corners, throwing more salt, back into the ring, more squatting, back to their corners, wiping their brows, more salt throwing and back into the ring, all building up to the moment they lunge. Seconds later, it’s all over – the judge declares the winner, who is then handed a packet of money, and it’s time for the next match. Pretty amazing stuff.

After sumo, what could be more Japanese?

Karaoke, of course. We didn’t pass on that either. I think I’m turning Japanese

Japan – part 1

My first trip to Japan, and on such an auspicious occasion – Sean and Mai’s wedding! Dennis, Bridget and I flew from Boston to Tokyo, via Toronto, arriving on April 30, which gave us four days to get over our jet lag before the ceremony on May 5 – during which time we slept, vegged, played Settlers of Catan (a lot!), ate Japanese, and toured a bit of Akita prefecture, up in the northwest corner of Japan’s main island, Honshu.

Out and about in Akita …

Getting used to Japanese culture was easy – we had Sean and Mai to instruct, guide and translate for us all the way – from proper etiquette when entering a house or building (take off your shoes!!), going into a bathroom (put on slippers), learning what those funny things are on your plate, how to order sushi off a conveyor belt, when to bow (always and often; you simply cannot bow too much or too low), how to get naked in an onsen (a volcanicly heated public bath), and generally how to get by when you know five words in Japanese, none of which are helpful.

The absolute highlight of our trip of course was the wedding – a daylong affair with many permutations. How Mai and Sean were still standing at the end of it is a story in itself. Seven-thirty in the morning and they’re at the reception hall getting their hair styled (Mai) and dressed in full Japanese regalia (Mai and Sean); over to the Shinto temple for photos, followed by the ceremony; back to the reception hall and into a second set of wedding attire for the official reception, which included a nine-course meal, live entertainment, speeches, Sean and Mai’s wedding dance, and the letting go of our balloon wishes up into the sky. Then it was back to the hotel, where they changed into their third outfit of the day and it was off to a local restaurant/bar for the next party with more food and drink; then to close out the night, it was over to a karaoke bar, for some singing to go with the drinking. What a day – what a glorious day – best wedding ever!

Their theme was Star Wars (what else!), with the tables designated with place names (ours was Tatooine), a Star Wars wedding cake, Darth Vadar chocolate favors, plus their own Star Wars-themed video. (You might have to click on the video to get it started.)

The kids are waiting until after the school year to go on their honeymoon, and while Mai had to get back to work right away, Sean took the rest of the week off and got to tour us around. Most memorable was a drive up to Lake Towada in Aomori prefecture, at the northern tip of Honshu. Gorgeous, with its stroll along the beach, lakeside forest and cedar trees, two Shinto shrines and the Garden of Ichinomiya, among many other treats …

Later in the day, we treated ourselves to another shrine, more nature and a visit to an outdoor onsen to relax. If something’s worth doing, as the sign says, it’s worth doing right …

What a wonderful stay in in northern Honshu. It was extra special to be with Sean and Mai in their home and their surroundings, and wonderful to meet Mai’s family, some who lived nearby and others who came up from Tokyo for the wedding. We are blessed to have Mai as part of our family. We love you both.

And speaking of Tokyo, that’s where we’re off to next. Stay tuned!

april in new orleans

fireworks-211Hands down, New Orleans has to be the best city ever. The last (and first) time I came to visit, it was for two weeks, with Bridget, and we couldn’t have had a better time. A week of Mardi Gras followed by a week of Lent, and we were drawn by her charms, taking the bait hook, line and sinker. We knew we were coming back the first chance we got. Continue reading

trains, planes and automobiles

I made it! Sitting by the dock of the bay in San Francisco. There have been times in the past two and a half months that I wondered if I would.

Since leaving Ecuador on March 10, it’s like my feet have never left the ground. It’s been a real whirlwind, so let me fill you in, in the sketchiest of details, on what I’ve been up to. Continue reading

Ecuador 2015 – part 3: Manglaralto

Manglaralto 2I wake up to the sound of Spanish music, getting louder as it makes its way down the street beneath my window. It’s sometime in the afternoon, and I’ve just woken from my afternoon siesta. This must be one of my lazy days in Manglaralto. I do have my busy days, but not really so much as you’d notice. I do like the lazy days. Continue reading

Ecuador 2015 – part 2: the mountains

Baños

Unos, dos, tres, quatros. Si. Non. Por favor. Graçias. ¿Cómo estás? Buenos días. Cafe con leche. ¿Dónde está el baño? That’s pretty much it; after that, my Spanish drops right off. So I get a lot of practice saying, “Lo siento. No entiendo. No hablo español. ¿Habla inglés?” (“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. I don’t speak Spanish. Do you speak English?”) Continue reading