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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Hiking and rambling around Maine

I have hiked or traveled in so many states throughout New England and loved them all, yet in all the years I’ve been traveling, for some reason I had not made it to Maine – big mistake. So, when a group hike along the coast of Maine in the autumn of 2002 popped up, I knew I couldn’t miss it. Beautiful coastal walks, farm country rambles, and a day trip to historic Monhegan Island, with homebases in Boothbay Harbor and Camden – joy! I could hardly wait!

I landed in Portland the night before joining the group, and connected with Susan – a hiking friend I’d met in Scotland some years back (great thing about hiking in groups: the friends you make). Wandering around Portland in the rapidly fading light, we felt the nip in the air, and stopped for dinner at a lobster house. I had what was apparently the last of the day’s lobsters, fresh out of the bay….in Houston, lobsters are cleaned up with not an unappetizing morsel to be seen. In Maine, you get the entire lobster, with something green and black attached to it…urgle! (And now I cannot eat a lobster at all.)

The next morning, ready to go, we joined the rest of our group from Country Walkers and vanned to Boothbay Harbor, where we were to stay at a charming New England inn.

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Rooming with Susan, we settled into one of the small cottages surrounding the main house – captivating.

Boothbay Harbor is an appealing small town (2,000+ population) that developed as a fishing center, and now offers everything from boat tours to whale watching (we saw no whales).

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Hiking and walking through the surrounding countryside and town, the weather continued to be just about perfect, and the scenery the same.

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We meandered around an imposing mansion whose gardens were a swirling picture awash in color and scent: roses, lupines, marsh marigolds, black eyed susans, geraniums, asters and more I couldn’t recognize. Really beautiful, and certainly a gardener’s delight!

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And the food was delish too…particularly when we ate at scenic outlooks, where picnic tables were set up. Love that!

Part of our hiking trip included the hour-long (more or less) ferry from Boothbay Harbor which deposited us on Monhegan Island on a day that was intermittently sunny, but turned misty and damp.

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We began our ramble around a fairly benign landscape, through lanes in woods laced with delicate greenery, over granite and boulders, and around some of the ubiquitous shingled homes and inns that dotted the landscape.

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The island, an artist colony with about 12 miles of hiking trails, is situated 10 miles from the mainland. You can only get there by boat, and no cars are allowed. Nice! This was not a particularly grueling hike, but there is something to be said for a hike that allows you to inhale the fresh air, look at the beauty surrounding you, take photographs and just enjoy the sea breezes and intermittent sun.

Too soon, it was time to board the ferry for the return journey, and once we were on it, the fog descended in earnest. Good thing these people knew what they were doing, was my main thought as we moved through the dense mist.

Suddenly, from nowhere, an earsplitting blast … then the fog parted and we saw the side of an immense ship moving slowly not yards from our boat. Told to stay extremely still, we sat without stirring and as the ship moved through the fog and away from us, sigh of relief was palpable…yet, once safety reigned again, we were all slightly exhilarated by the adventure!

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After which it was back on the road again…to Camden.

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Camden was an absolute joy to visit. The quintessential New England town, its narrow streets, delightful shops, galleries, inns and houses were very akin to those on Martha’s Vineyard, another favorite getaway of mine. Planting our luggage at the Camden Harbor Inn, we took off on a ramble around the town.

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It’s situated right on the coast, at the base of the mountains, so you can sit on the dock of the bay and look to the sailboats gliding gently across the deep blue water. The village green, designed by Frederick Law Olsted, Jr., one of America’s most prominent landscape architects, is a simple green swathe of lawn, trees, gardens and shrubs…just a beautiful place to sit and let your mind drift.

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A walk outside Camden took us through farm country, where Belted Galloway cattle grazed in green fields, black cattle with a wide white stripe circling their middle…cows I had never seen before (called by kids in Maine “Oreo Cookie Cows”).

 

The farmland was picturesque, like a picture come to life, with the fall trees in full color, and with the quiet of the countryside blanketing the landscape, and an occasional “moo” puncturing the stillness. But some of our hikes were more challenging.

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On a fairly overcast day, several of us opted to hike up Mt. Battie, a 1.5 mile moderate trail that was peaceful and serene.

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The hike itself was quite laid back, as the trail ambled at a leisurely ascent around the mountain.

13-img104-6Atop the mountain we came to a large white cross, which can be seen from the valley below. The vista from the peak was fabulous: a panoramic view of Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay, laid out like a fairy tale below our feet. Loved this little hike!

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On the final chilly night in Camden, we all partook of a traditional lobster boil, sitting outside in the darkness on benches set on either side of trestle tables overlooking the bay. Bundled up in our parkas and boots, we set to: dinner was not just the lobsters (poor things!) but huge vats of boiling corn on the cob, tubs of melted butter, and chewy bread. Nothing like it in Houston, that’s for sure!

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Maine, with its iconic coastline and small towns, is a total delight…I loved every minute of this wonderful, albeit short, trip…. I like the feeling of “going back in time” when I visit New England and I like that a lot. Maine lived up to its promise…it’s a state I would like to revisit one day.

 

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1975 Road Trip, Grand Canyon Part 1

ROAD TRIP, Grand Canyon – Part 1

My best friend Lana and I worked together at the same advertising agency back in 1975, and one hot sunny afternoon, decided to take our two-week vacation on the road…from Texas to California via the Grand Canyon. You have to forgive these photographs, because they are almost 40 years old!

It’d only been a few short years since the sixties, and we were still a naïve pair, setting off as if for a permanent move to the coast. We needed the break, picked the date, loaded up the car and were on our merry way. We had packed the trunk and backseat to the brim with everything we would need for our two week sabbatical and finally closed everything down on a mish-mash of clothes, books, butane stove (which blew up halfway there), tennis rackets (oh please), hair dryer, hot rollers, regular rollers, make up kits, coats, blankets, sleeping bags, towels and shoes. Hair spray – no food.

The weather looked extremely promising. Sunshine, few clouds, balmy. Ready for anything, we took off.

Document242A little over an hour later, we finally found the Hempstead Highway, a rather blighted thoroughfare, which would lead us out of Houston and onto the main highway to our first destination, the Grand Canyon. Drops of rain began to fall, and from then on, it was drizzle for the next hour or so, occasionally relieving the monotony by really slamming it down when things got dull.

We had stopped on the road to fill up with gas, and buy some much needed items, such as ice, Cokes, potato chips, sugar and Pream for the coffee. After checking the ice chest to make sure we had enough for two weeks and then some, we rolled on to the strains of “Sister Golden Hair” on the radio.

We got lost trying to leave Houston.

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Why is it that when some well-intentioned soul gives us directions, we never fail NOT to follow them? After much discussion, we both decided “He’s wrong!” and proceeded to end up somewhere back downtown. Perhaps we’d been a bit hasty; after all, the man had lived in Houston for 40 years. Doubling back, we followed his instructions to the letter, and were actually on our way.

The day had turned a whiter shade of gray by this time, misty, drizzly. The forecast was not promising. We hadn’t left Houston, yet we were already down to half a tank of gas (about 55 cents/gallon).

The next gas station appeared just beyond a railway trestle around a sharp curve. Waiting at the curve for oncoming cars to pass by in order to turn across the road, a truck, unused to a car parked in the middle of a highway, came barreling towards us at 60mph. The squealing of tires, and the cursing of the driver did not go unnoticed, but we ignored it. He missed us by an inch.

Once we made it into the gas station, we discovered our air conditioner was not working –we were out of Freon. The gas station couldn’t help us, so onwards to the next town. It was close to noon on a Saturday, and everything was closed. In small Texas towns, everything closes at noon on Saturdays.

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Well, did we need A/C? Apparently we didn’t – we could manage. Back onto the highway at a solid 75 mph, we headed onwards. The rain had faltered into a fine drizzle by this time, and sunny patches were beginning to appear. The freeway loomed ahead, mile after monotonous mile. At 75 mph, we barely seemed to be moving. But a black speck in the distance started to get bigger, and before we knew it, we were behind a fast-moving truck and a few motley cars.

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The truck began drawing away from us, and at that moment, a giant tin sign propped on a wooden sawhorse hove into view, the truck clipped its side, tossed the sign into the air, and straight into our path. With no time to slow down and only a split second to utter a prayer, we headed right into it, and just before we rammed it, it slid beneath the wheels. Hmm. Somebody trying to tell us something?

Patting ourselves on the back for missing that close shave, we realized again, running low on gas. Seeing the Phillips sign ahead, we slowed to 50 mph onto the feeder, heading for the gas station. At the same moment, an old black Chevy roared out of a side road, turned the wrong way and headed directly towards our car – once again missing us by inches. Great road trip so far.

We gassed up the car and once more, were on the road again.

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Driving out of Houston on the way to West Texas could not be a more monotonous road trip. The rain had stopped, the sun was full out, and a slight dusty haze clouded the air. The highway stretched before us like an iron carpet. You kept going and going and going, and never seemed to be getting anywhere! Like the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland,” you ran as fast as you could to (seemingly) stay in one place.

 

We switched seats, and Lana got behind the wheel. All we wanted by this time was to get across the border into New Mexico and find a decent place to rest. We passed Lubbock at a fast clip, and headed down the highway to the Texas border. Something moved on the grass verge, and a highway patrol car pulled swiftly and silently up behind us.

He stayed behind us for a minute or two, until we understood we were indeed the ones being followed. We pulled over, and so did the cop. “Do you know how fast you were going, Ma’am? You were going 76 in a 55 zone. Is there an emergency to warrant such excessive speed?”

Well, we were trying to make the next town before dark. “Ah’m sorry, ma’am,” replied the officer, “but that kind of emergency isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’ll have to make you girls out a ticket. Let me ask you a few questions, and you can be on your way. You’ll have the citation in the mail by the 18th. By the way, where y’all goin’?”

We mentioned California, he handed us the ticket, and we headed down the open road… once again. The sun was beginning to sink into the west, shadows began to draw in, and all we wanted by this time was to get to Clovis, New Mexico. The highway just kept on going on and on, into nothingness. We thought if we saw one more cactus we’d go crazy.

Suddenly, a strong barnyard odor invaded the car, getting stronger and stronger, until it became overwhelming. Geez Louise. All we could see for acres around us were barns and more barns…and cows. More and more cows. We could have run the car on the gas from those cows!

We were beginning to wonder: would we never get across the border? Finally, as the sun turned into an orange ball and fired up the sky, we escaped over the New Mexico border and breathed a sigh of relief.

Too soon…more barns hove into view, carrying with them the same unadulterated aroma. It was too much! It inched through the windows and wiggled through vents and pervaded the Puffs we’d spread across our faces.

On the verge of hysteria, driving 55 mph the entire way, we plodded onwards toward Clovis. A gentle breeze wafted through the trees; the barns gave way to city lights, and a Holiday Inn came into view. Holiday Inn is not necessarily my idea of Nirvana…except just at this moment. Greasy and lank, we hobbled into the lobby. Although we looked like a couple of hobos, the desk clerk was extremely understanding, giving us a room what seemed like miles from the front office. Probably didn’t want to give the inn a bad name.

Never has a motel room looked so inviting. We completely unloaded the trunk, don’t ask why. Dumping all on the floor, scrabbling wildly for nightgowns and toothbrushes, we fell into our respective beds. The only sound heard for the rest of the night was the toilet flushing, and Lana bumping into the wall, or vice versa.

The next morning found us rested and refreshed. Leaping from the bed and stubbing the toe, I commenced to the bathtub for a long soak (probably needed a pickax to get the dirt and grime off). Once I mustered enough energy to move from the tub, I wrapped a towel around my parboiled form, and walked into the living area.

Perched on the floor looking like Betty Crocker after a bad batch of buns was Lana, holding a pan of water over the butane stove. “I’m boiling water for tea…if you take the pan, I’ll turn off the flame.”

Taking pan in hand, I turned to the cups, only to hear a garbled shriek from behind, as the stove had burst into flames, which were gushing from the top of the cylinder. This prompted a major huff and puff operation, and we succeeded in finally blowing out the flames…but unfortunately the gas was still pouring out.

No matter what we did, the stove was either in flames, or exhaling gas. Grabbing the directions, and reading about everything but turning the stove off, we did the only thing we could do: we kicked it – still aflame – out of the room into the adjoining field. We got hold of the bellboy at the front desk, who arrived promptly with a cylinder of aerosol foam, which put out the fire, but did absolutely nothing about the gas.

At this point, we packed our things, bought a cup of coffee, decided coffee shops and restaurants were the way to go in the future, and left the poor bellboy to get on with it.

Finally! The day was sunny and bright, not a cloud in the sky. We turned our faces toward the Grand Canyon, and hoped for the best. The road sped past and the air was clear.

Around midday, we noticed the empty gas tank; an Exxon station loomed on the horizon, and we pulled in. A friendly voice greeted our request to fill ‘er up, and we wandered to the Coke machine while things were being taken care of. A couple of minutes later, we were greeted by the same friendly voice advising us of an air bubble in one of our tires. Checking our spare, he pronounced it dead on arrival. So we bought a new tire. He’d seen us coming.

Two minutes later, the friendly attendant came strolling over. “Ya’ll need three new tires,” he mentioned. When asked why, he pointed out slits and bubbles galore, and once again we thought we were up against it. So three new tires were purchased.

New tires in place, we waved goodbye to our newfound friend, and hit the road. A few hours later found us zooming through Arizona to, we hoped, the Grand Canyon. There is something about being on the open road with nothing to think about that puts it all into perspective…sort of.

The flatness of the country began to change: we were coming up to Flagstaff. Mountains in the distance became not quite so distant, and the dry, deserty look began to give way to a misty green haze. We reached the base of a mountain, and stopped to take photographs from every imaginable angle, using up the two rolls of film we had with us. (Two photographs turned out.)

Finally: Flagstaff, a most picturesque little town, with curves, bends, hills and dales. We were enchanted just to be there, and when we saw a sign saying “To the Grand Canyon,” we thought we’d hit a home run. That was about 7PM.

We rolled on up the road, going this way, going that, and although we thought we were on our way to the Grand Canyon, it finally occurred to us that we were actually on the way to Mexico. Back we turned, but the multitude of signs did little to help. We stopped for directions.

Five minutes later, Lana turned to me and said: “He’s wrong!” and we once again proceeded on our own path…in the opposite direction. Once again, hopelessly lost. Once again, we agreed to stop questioning everything anyone ever told us, and managed to get back on the right road. We careened down the hill at full gallop, hit a gigantic bump, sending Lana bouncing all over the front seat of the car, me to the roof, and the ice chest’s contents all over the back seat.

But enough of all that. We were on the road, bound to be at the Canyon in about 30 minutes. We thought.

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The road rose steadily, and by this time it was completely dark. Black is the actual word for it. No lights, very few cars, and every curve held signs to watch for animals crossing (wild?). So we inched on.

Still, we almost headed full-tilt into three large cows, gently ambling across the road and into the thicket. So much for wild animals.

By this time, we were almost going backward, we were moving at such an infinitesimal pace. The highway, thicketed with trees which made the dark even darker, was extremely winding, making for a very unsafe journey. And once again – more cows!

We decided we weren’t going to be reaching our destination any time soon. Seat belts were also a good idea. But we couldn’t for the life of us unjam the safety belts, and breaking nails in the process was quite aggravating. We pulled into a side road, stopped and managed to dig the belts from under the seats. Then it was back on the road. Two hours later, a few lights far in the distance gave us faint hope, and eventually and at long last, a store came into view. We pulled in for directions; the store was closed, and a very large dog was taking care of the premises.

Time to move on again. But minutes later, we were at the Grand Canyon. We knew we were safe, except for the slight worry of driving off the edge. As it seemed to be the middle of the night – pitch black – with only large rocks marking the side of the road and what looked like infinite nothingness on the other side, we drifted along on a wheel and a prayer. And then Bright Angel Lodge was there!

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We pulled the car into the parking lot and sat quietly for a moment. A few boys were seated on the railing, one strumming a guitar. The moon rose high in the dark blue window of sky and the pines whispered on all sides. The night air was distinctly chilly, and we thought longingly of jeans and sweaters, since we were still in our shorts and halter tops.

Our cabin was right on the Canyon rim; we picked up the key, drove round to the front door, and carried our luggage into what would become our home for two nights. Not much to look at from the outside, the interior was quaint and, better yet, clean. The beamed ceilings, pine board floors, lack of air conditioning and television and tub, and a non-working telephone, only added to the feeling of the middle of nowhere.

The one surprising feature was a lack of two beds. A single double bed, with a dip in the middle, was what we had to look forward to. But, exhausted (and starving), we thought it looked like heaven on a plate.

We were directed to the dining room with the admonition that it was about to close (it was after 11PM). We made it just before the final bell: the chicken was cold and the ribs were greasy, but all tasted like ambrosia. More importantly, we managed to find the pub, and had a revivifying drink. Then, bed. We planned to be up at dawn to watch the sun come up…ha!

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Awake at nine (the sun didn’t wait for us), and juggling makeup, shower and hair in the tiny bathroom, we dressed and walked to back to the dining room. Jeans and backpacks were everywhere. In our dainty little shorts and tops, we looked as out of place as tulips in an oat field.

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But we were ready to take our first real look at the Grand Canyon. The day was clear and clean – glorious. A few white clouds ruffled the sky, and a slight breeze rippled the feathery pines. Everything was in perfect harmony – including us – and we felt on top of the world as we walked along. The next thing we knew, we WERE on top of the world, looking down into the Canyon’s vast depths. It was a breathtaking sight, to be slightly pedantic about it. Too vast and awe-inspiring to be believed, on one hand … and unreal, just like a painting on a picture postcard, on the other. It stretched down to bottomless depths, and its cliffs jutted out at fantastic angles, throwing deep shadows across the vast expanse.

A tiny white ribbon of trail threaded its way through the Canyon floor; the river itself was hidden in the deep gulley in the depths of the Canyon, too far for the eye to see.

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At first, we couldn’t get enough of the view, taking pictures from any and all angles. The sun was brilliant and hot, the sky vivid, Autumn was in the air. After wandering aimlessly for a while, we asked one of the passers-by to take our photograph. About ten minutes later, after the camera moved up and down around twenty times, the photograph was taken. Still have it, as a matter of fact (I hope the guy got an eyeful).

The rim of the Canyon was incredible. We wandered on, and about an hour later, came to another Lodge for a beer and snacks. It was so pleasant, sitting at the window looking out on the spectacular beauty of it all – extremely happy.

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The remains of the day were spent running to the store for food, making sandwiches, taking photos, eating and watching people of all sorts – and in all sorts of dress – pass by. Hippies everywhere. So much fun! After a short nap, we walked down the trail…it was steep, but not too steep, and narrow, but not too narrow. A quaint feature was the mule droppings along the route; the aroma was enough to knock you over.

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The Canyon’s fantastic sculpture revealed ledges, rocks and figures of fantasy. We climbed out to some of the furthest reaches, looking down, down, down. A very strange feeling, to be sitting on a finger of rock and have nothing but miles of space below. As we moved on, a small plane appeared from nowhere and flew through the Canyon, looking like a miniature bird. And here we were, connected to the ground, yet higher than a plane in flight. Very cool.

Before we turned back, a couple of guys hanging out on the path took our photo as we sat on a ledge overlooking a particularly steep cliff. To get to the ledge, we scrambled along a small trail about an inch wide, leaped across a small space (with nothing but air below) and perched on the rock just wide enough for two people.

The guys were pretty mellow; nothing like a couple of joints to make you unaware of the miles of space between you and the Canyon floor.

Lana and Rose hang out

Once again, back at the top, we decided to take a breather and a nap. Then we set out for a walk around the Canyon’s western rim. It was late afternoon, and the weather had cooled considerably. We took a blanket, with plans to sit and read on the rim. Which we did, until a swarm of bees decided to dive bomb us.

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We moved upwards to a lookout point, where we sat on the rim with the entire Canyon spread below us. The sun began to fade. The Canyon became a shimmering mass of violets, pinks and greens, until the sun, a ball of gold, slipped from view and disappeared. Everyone seemed to sit in a kind of dream, until the bus showed up, and then everyone dashed madly to get a seat. We did not…get a seat, that is. We took off, and the bus, bouncing down the hills at 90o angles, constantly precipitated one or the other of us into someone’s lap.

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Black as pitch, with just lantern light showing us our Lodge, we stumbled into our little shack, took quick showers, and began packing for the next day. We were due to leave at 7AM, so wasted no time getting everything together and falling into bed. Snore!

The next morning saw us up at (to us) the crack of dawn. We hastily piled everything into the car, and prepared for take-off. The car took off into the clearing, and stopped. One more time…halt. The engine was flooded. So much for the crack of dawn.

We finally barreled off down the mountain, reaching a small town an hour later, and pulled into a Phillips 66 station for gas

What a surprise when we were told by the attendant that our shocks were “gone, girl gone.” We left the car in the grimy hands of the attendant, asking him to hurry it up, and went to breakfast (which was delish – something about the air round there). We ambled back to the garage, only to be told “it’d be a good idea, ma’am, to put back shocks on as well, as they look a little worn.” For a change, we decided NOT, and he decided not to push the matter. Did he think we were neophytes here?

Then…on our merry way to California. Little did we know we were not to rest again until we reached the Golden Gate to San Francisco. Stay tuned for Part 2!

1975 Road Trip, California Part 2

Mickey Mouse ears

Dreaming of California

As we left Flagstaff and drove merrily along the road through the brilliant clear light, everything seemed perfect. The sun beat down, not a cloud in the sky. We were approaching the Mojave Desert when the temperature began to climb. At a small grocery store on the side of the road, we stocked up with ice, grapes, Cokes, orange juice, water, and set off.

The heat intensified, and the sun was blinding. And no air conditioner! Forgot to get Freon…. As we drove further and further into the desert, we covered up with damp towels and shirts to keep our skin from burning. We also rolled up the windows at times to keep the dust from blinding us. The car was baking – we have never been so hot in our lives.

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But… it was fascinating to see the desert up close: so endless and dry, with the purple mountain’s majesty far away in the distance. The green of the Canyon scenery seemed just a dream.

We kept ice in our mouths as much as possible to offset the drying heat, gulping juice a mile a minute as the ice melted. We packed ice in towels with which we wiped our faces and necks constantly. With a sigh of relief, we saw Rose’s Restaurant appear like a mirage on the highway.

Rose's

We pulled up beside the trucks and motley array of vehicles, and made a beeline for the interior…oh, so cool! It helped to drink drink drink, and not eat at all. We hung about as long as we could, but all too soon, it became time to get back on the road.

As we walked out of doors, the heat smacked us in the face, wet, thick, hot. It was at least 130 degrees and getting back in the car (the windows had to be kept rolled up) was torture. More ice, and then onwards once again.

The asphalt highway cutting through the desert was the only sign of civilization after leaving Rose’s. The view of sand and dusty cacti stretched for miles. But, we actually drove through a small rainstorm there in the wilderness! We couldn’t believe it. A few cars had parked on the side of the road, and as we passed through that little black cloud, everyone at the roadside cheered. Doesn’t take much, does it?

After about seven hours of straight driving, the end of the desert at last seemed possible. And there was the sign: the California border – never was there a more welcome sight! But the desert wasn’t through with us yet. The highway became winding and hilly, and before too long, the golden-hued hills began to appear. Coming into California from this angle (through Needles), you can see why it is called the Golden State. The hills were covered in honey-colored grass, and the golden haze was everywhere. At times, the grass looked mown and brown, but closer observation revealed the golden-wheat color.

California hills

This lasted for an hour or so, and then once again desert appeared. We drove through barren land, and even more barren-looking towns, until finally, around 7PM, we arrived in Bakersfield. We drove through the town and decided to go a few miles further before settling in for the night.

About 30 miles beyond Bakersfield, we stopped (yet again) at a gas station to fill up, and asked for the nearest motel. “It’s back in Bakersfield.” We looked at one another and decided, “He’s WRONG” and on we went. Our biggest mistake of the journey!

We drove, and we drove, and we DROVE. At one point, we debated returning to Bakersfield, but decided something had to turn up in the way of a motel or hotel…or… something…anything? (Somehow, we’d forgotten about the sleeping bags.)

It was 3AM, and it seemed the night became blacker and blacker, and the road stretched out longer and longer. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, a gigantic gothic inn loomed. (This was two years before The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” but every time I hear that song, I think of this hotel.) There was nothing else around…just this huge imposing structure. We were exhausted, and looked incredibly awful, but at that point we didn’t care how creepy it seemed or we looked.

And apparently it didn’t matter anyway, because, lucky us, no rooms were available. We had to get back in the car and drive on. We found the freeway, which at that time of the morning was filled with nothing but semis, driving like bats out of hell. It was surprising to us how black the night was, and how isolated we were on this freeway to, seemingly, nowhere. But suddenly, we saw lights at a distance far off the road.

We pulled off the freeway, into a wide swathe of vineyard, lit every so often by a tiny lamp. What did we know – we kept driving in. Then, in the middle of it all, there appeared a telephone booth. And a man talking on the phone. I was about to pull up, ask him for directions, when Lana whispered “He’s got a gun!” Surreal! We both swallowed, and putting the car in reverse, backed and swung around towards the freeway again.

Not having learned our lesson, we noted more lights a little further on…and this time what looked to be a tiny town a mile or two off the feeder. It may have been a town, but there were no motels anywhere to be found. And if ever a town could be said to have slept, this was definitely the one. Not even a dog barked.

The only thing to do was continue on our way to San Francisco. And get to San Francisco, we did, found a Holiday Inn with an available room, and crashed. We didn’t wake until afternoon. But oh, to finally get there! Ecstatic is not too broad a term for how we felt!

Happy happy happy

And the sky was blue, the sun shone, hippies and flower children everywhere, the atmosphere incredibly buoyant…it was everything we’d hoped for.

Happy again

The first thing we did after having a late lunch/early dinner was look up Lana’s old friend from college, with whom we were going to stay for a few nights. Having got that settled, we all took off to look around San Francisco. It really did fulfill our ideas of what California would be like – the weather was glorious, people were friendly (since we’d cleaned up), the shops and cafes were enticing, the views – incredible.

We rode on the trolley,

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drove up and down twisty, crooked little Lombard Street,

Lombard Street

and hung out at Fisherman’s Wharf, where we wandered around very happily for a while.

View in San Francisco

Then we wound our way to Haight Ashbury, which we’d both wanted to see (a few years too late, but what the hey…). The Haight was not what it had been – mostly, no-one was there! But the atmosphere reminded you of what used to be….

Haight Asbury

After a few photo ops, we met back at the house for dinner and to make our plans for the next day. We had a good night’s sleep, got back in the car and drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Park, so beautiful in the soft sunlight.

Then it was on to Sausalito, a sunny little town on the edge of the water, filled with boutiques, art galleries, hippies, cafes and the sea, endlessly lapping at the town’s edge. A mime was taking a break in a sheltered corner, and he seemed to embody the spirit of this quintessentially California town. I heard “California Dreamin’” on the radio somewhere.

On to Sausalito

I didn’t want to leave.

Shopping in Sausalito

After a bit of shopping and buying

Sausalito

and wandering the waterfront,

Sausalito waterfront

we ate our late lunch and planned our trip down the coast to Carmel: the Scenic Pacific Coast Highway Drive (Hwy. 1). We wanted to take our time, stop along the way to look at the amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, and try to spot celebrity homes nestled in the cliffs.

Seagulls

That night, as we were walking around Fishermen’s Wharf, the fog rolled in. It wasn’t a few swirls of mist, it was a palpable blanket of gray rolling across the waterfront into town. I’d heard about how dense the fog could be, and to experience it was a real trip. And even though it was August, the temperature had dropped a LOT, so it was cold to boot. We were glad we wore jackets. But the fog made everywhere we looked that much more mysterious and fascinating.

Coast road

The day we set off towards Los Angeles, the weather was overcast and much cooler, which didn’t dim our spirits in the slightest. The coast drive was so beautiful, it was hard to be anything other than in awe of the spectacular scenery.

Flowers everywhere

Masses of yellow gorse and wildflowers covered the cliffs, and plunged over the edges. The sea below thundered and crashed in foamy white rollers, and the cries of sea birds mixed with the sound of the waves. The other side of the road led to the redwoods, pine forests and rolling hills. This was one of the (many) reasons we came to California…just everything you dreamed of.

We stopped at many recesses along the road, wanting to capture as many images as we could…but of course nothing (in those cameras) shows the rawness and majesty of that natural region. You just had to be there.

We had been told Kim Novak lived in one of the houses precariously balanced down on the cliff face, so naturally we had to check every post box along the way!

Postboxes

Never were sure if we finally pegged the house she lives in, but all the dwellings along this stretch of the coast looked as if one good blow, and they’d drop into the sea below. Wonderful views – as long as the house lasted.

Cliffs

Eventually we came to Carmel, but (as seems to be our destiny), no rooms were available at any inn. So we turned to Monterey – seemed there were plenty to be had there. We dumped our luggage and took off for Carmel. We wanted to shop, and we wanted to go to Clint Eastwood’s Hogs Breath Inn.

Carmel

We managed to do both…the shops were charming and super-expensive. The Hogs Breath Inn was exactly what a Clint Eastwood inn would be like: dark, cozy, welcoming, big fire burning in the patio, great food. But no Clint.

The next day, we wandered to the white sands of Carmel Beach. By this time, it was pretty chilly, and I had on my wool coat. Lana had bought a denim coat here, which I coveted…but I was now running low on funds. New coat vs. eat and drink. Tough choice, but… drinking seemed to be the order of the day!

Carmel BeachWe padded around the sand, noticing how the cedars were bent double with the ever-prevailing winds. It was a lonely spot at that time of year, and especially with the darkness looming. Quite eerie. But nice.

Carmel Beach

We didn’t spend much time in Carmel, as our time was actually running out. After a couple of days wandering the narrow streets, checking out the boutiques and art galleries, and falling in love with the fairy tale design of the whole place, we had to pack our bags and get back on the road.

Big Sur…90 miles and counting of one of the most incredible coastlines in the world. Once you experience the beauty of the drive, you never forget it. We passed Hearst Castle, which was closed…(I think there’s a theme here somewhere)…so we viewed it at a distance as we continued to Santa Barbara for lunch.

Santa Barbara

The day had suddenly, miraculously, turned sunny, and the boats in the marina, white-sailed and blue-painted, were massed together like so many seabirds. We stood on the dock, looking across the bay and up the hills thinking how lucky some were to live in the midst of all this stunning scenery.

yacht basin The seagulls joined us for an outdoor lunch, and then it was back in the car to Los Angeles, where we managed to nab a room for the nights we’d be there. Our plan was to tour the homes of the stars, go to Disneyland, and experience one of the movie studio tours before continuing down the coast.

We woke the following morning to the yellowest, densest smog we had ever seen. The sky was citronella-yellow, and the TV shows ladled out advice about how to handle it. Basically, the advice was stay put, but hard to do that when your time is limited. We ran down to the coffee shop for breakfast, and as we were finishing, the smog began to lift.

Lana at Disneyland

After noon, things were more or less back to normal, so the first thing on the list was Disneyland. The most I can say is: crowds, crowds and more crowds. We took a few of the rides, and wandered everywhere, people watching (and a few watching us, if the photos are anything to go by.)

Ro at Disneyland

I took a picture of the most adorable little girl in Mickey Mouse ears, which I am so glad to have saved. This child is probably around 40-45 years old today. Time flies…

Mickey Mouse ears

The next on our itinerary was a bus tour of homes of the stars…which we enjoyed. It was nice to have someone else driving us for a change. I can’t remember for the life of me whose homes we saw, but suffice it to say, all gorgeous, all big.

Universal studios

The following day, we stood in line to tour Universal Studios, after which, it was Graumann’s Chinese Theatre …

Graumann's Chinese theater

We drove by The Brown Derby, which by this time had started to lose its cachet, and gazed at Schwab’s Drugstore where Lana Turner was discovered.

Schwab's

The sun was intense, it was still somewhat smoggy, so drinks seemed to be in order. Then dinner. And a good night’s sleep was had by all.

The next day we headed to Balboa,

Balboa

one of the prettiest little towns along the coast, similar in tone to Carmel, but newer and at that moment, sunnier.

Balboa shops

All the street lights were hung with flowering baskets, fountains sprouted at every cross street, everything seemed freshly painted, and the sand looked SWEPT. Hot pink bougainvillea draped itself across walls and fences.

Yikes on the sunglasses

It was lovely…almost too good to be true (see above: these must be the worst sunglasses in the world!). We spent the night here (actually found a motel) and walked to the beachfront for dinner, under the stars. It was such a pleasant place to be….for a short time. I say this because it was so clean and scrubbed, the charm of the old had not settled in. That’s one thing I loved about Carmel: charming with character and history. (OK, maybe Balboa does have a history, but I didn’t know it at the time.)

fountains

Next stop on the agenda: San Clemente, which is another one of those California coastal towns that is lovely and small. We drove by Richard Nixon’s compound (he didn’t wave), and then we turned our car towards the open road, and home.

San Clemente

We drove back through the desert without incident, to Albuquerque and its bowl of jeweled lights seen from atop a mesa.

Then on through west Texas and back into Houston, where we dumped everything that was in the car onto the driveway, with some vague thought of burning it all! What a trip…we had the best of best times, and sealed our friendship into the bargain.

2 happy girls

Life’s good, isn’t it?! (But we never did get our A/C fixed.)

England: Hiking through England’s Green and Pleasant Land

CORNWALL & THE COTSWOLDS

A Cornish house

On the way to Cornwall, the road over the moors

We arrived around 10AM at Gatwick and in a very short time, we’re on our way to Cornwall. The day was overcast and cloudy…cool but not cold. We drive the M3 until we get off on one of the “A” roads, taking us through Salisbury Plains, where we see Stonehenge in the distance, but don’t stop.

We stopped for a break at this lonely pub

A detour through Dartmoor allows us to see the green-spreading rolling moors and the sheep and wild ponies. We stop at the top of Dartmoor, in the middle of nowhere, at a little pub … if you’ve ever seen “An American Werewolf in London,” this is that kind of pub, without the creepy inhabitants. There is something absolutely fascinating about this kind of place…

A view over the moors

We made it to Polraen House (B&B) without incident. At some point, I discovered – after calling him “Gil” for about a day and a half – that our host’s name was actually Martin – and “Gill” – with whom I’ve been e-mailing – was actually his wife, pronounced Jill but spelled Gill. Ah well…

Polraen House where we stayed in Looe, Cornwall

We arrived just before 8PM…a long day on the road, and we were tired out. Leslie drove to the moors, I took over the drive from there…a bit tense getting used to the left hand side of the road all over again.

Anyway, once at Polraen, we were able to settle in! Polraen House is just outside Looe, on a hill, rather isolated, in beautiful country. The house is old – half was built in the 1750s/half in the 1850s. Unusual for a B&B, it has a comfy little pub and a pretty dining room. Martin is a hoot – so funny, and very welcoming – he met us at the front door on our arrival.

The façade of the house is Cornish stone; flower baskets hang on the grey stone walls. It’s totally Cornwall, and utterly charming. We tidied up and immediately went downstairs for one of the yummiest dinners ever – Martin is an amazing chef. Leslie and I had spinach frittatas, Elisa had a salmon “starter” and an absolutely incredible little steak. For dessert, I had fruit and clotted cream and Elisa and Leslie, apple crumble with cream – Yum-o. And the bread – and the Cornish butter – a deep, rich yellow with flavor unlike anything over here in the States (at least anything I’ve eaten). Doesn’t come any better than this. (Before dinner, we had a drink in the pub – so by the time the day was over, we were out like lights.

The coast hike to Polperro

Got up for a wonderful English breakfast – eggs, bacon, sausage, fried tomato, fried bread, basket of these terrific baguettes, Cornish butter (may as well just apply it to my hips) – then Martin drove us to Looe to start our walk. The Coast Road out of Looe onto cliffs overlooked a silver sea. It was a beautiful day – intermittently cloudy and sunny, perfect for walking the six miles to Polperro. We reached Talland Bay (halfway to Polperro) and stopped for a break, then I ran up the hill to see if Allhays <an old B&B manor house that was my favorite of all time> was still there. It was – just as pretty as ever, and still called Allhays, but now a private home. I snapped a few photographs, then it was back down the hill to catch up with Elisa and Leslie on the coastal footpath to Polperro. The views from this path are breathtaking: long green cliffs soaring to a crystal blue sky, and water the color of pearls.

The coast hike to Polperro

I have done this walk so often, and I still love it – and Polperro is still as delightful as ever. By this time, the sun was out in full. We kept running into the same nice couple on the road, and they took our “group” photo.

Noughts & Crosses Inn in Polperro

We had a little lunch at the Noughts and Crosses Inn – finally, a Cornish pasty – accompanied with shandy and Guinness. We rambled around Polperro, looking in shops and the post office (which offers far more than just postage stamps), and finally climbed up the hill to the bus stop at Crumplehorn.

The cliffs on the coast road to Polperro

After a half an hour wait, the bus arrived –off we went, clattering and banging in the narrow narrow hedge-rowed lanes – at a knee-shattering speed – across the bridge and river that splits Looe into East and West; it finally dropped us at our front door at Polraen. Very nice! Great not having to drive for a day.

Dinnertime: Martin had prepared scallop salad for Leslie and me, and prawns in garlic for Elisa. Again, the wonderful baguettes and rich yellow Cornish butter. Then we shared Grand Marnier bread pudding.

And so to bed!

Fowey (pronounced Foy)

Breakfast: Greek yoghurt with Alpen – yum-o. It was absolutely incredible yoghurt! Elisa and Leslie had a full English breakfast – these certainly keep you going all day.

We decided to go to Fowey to hike around town. We drove to Polruan, parked the car, and walked the 1.5 miles to the foot ferry, which took us to Fowey. The day is on/off sunny and cloudy; we lose our way almost immediately, but end up walking around Fowey on roads rather than footpaths. The roads are pretty and lined with lovely old houses, fun to look at, and the flowers and greenery are lush, lush, lush.

Finally, back at the town center, we have a latte at a small pub called Safe Harbor. Very comfortable and relaxing. Not a real hike, but good for the legs and rear!

We caught the ferry back to Polruan, and Leslie and I walked to the car park – another 1.5 miles uphill – to pick up the car and pick up Elisa.

Polraen House’s back garden

And it’s back to Polraen House for a drink in the back garden…it’s turned into a lovely day, and Polraen’s garden backs onto a green green hill with horses grazing across it…so beautiful. The sun was out, and everything was peaceful and quiet. Then another gorgeous meal: Leslie and I have a veggie meal – veggie soup puree (pea-based) and for the main course, new potatoes in butter, beans and carrots. Absolutely the best – and the baguettes and Cornish butter – well, words are beginning to fail me, although apparently not my appetite.

Martin is one of the best chefs – I’ve never had such wonderful food.

And so again to bed.

Sunshine!

Up around 7:30, today we plan to go and see the Lost Gardens of Heligan, St. Mawes and Truro (for its cathedral – but we never make it to Truro). The day is cool and cloudy.

By the time we reach the Gardens, the sun has come out and the sky is absolutely vividly blue. The Gardens’ 200 acres are beautiful, sectioned off into specific type gardens, such as the Jungle Garden, Italian Garden, Asian Garden, etc. They also encompass fields and river walks, which gave us a wonderful walk over fields and along the river…The sun was shining, and the air smelled of flowers. We ate lunch at the Garden Centre – Cornish pasties again…nice!

The Lost Gardens

Then on to St. Mawes, which is one of the prettiest villages in Cornwall. Unfortunately, we arrived rather late, so we saw very little of the village…just toured the little Tudor castle on the hill, and then walked to the sea front, where we stopped for a latte. Martin and Gillian were taking the night off, so we picked up some cheese and rolls and raspberries for an evening snack.

There was a slight drizzle of rain by this time, so we turned for our B&B (the only bit of rain during the entire trip). Tomorrow we leave for the Cotswolds!

From Looe to Snowshill – one of the prettiest of the Cotswolds villages

Up around 9:30for the usual yummy breakfast, ready for the road to the Cotswolds.

As we our paying our bill, one of the other guests come by to say “someone has a flat…” It’s us, unfortunately. A lot of driving over “kerbs” has finally ended with the expected tire problem. Martin and the guest (fromLuxembourg) labored mightily to change the rather recalcitrant tire. It took an hour – with Martin asking, rather testily at one point as he was bending over the car, if his “bum looked big in checks <his pants>!!” …but everything was finally fixed, and then we were off!

We drove from Looe to Snowshill without further incident, and were able to make excellent time – 4.5 hours – as the weather was clear and sunny.

We drove through or around Bristol and Evesham and Broadway, landing at Sheepscombe House around 3:30-ish. Jacki (one of the proprietors) met us and showed us to our rooms. Elisa and Leslie shared a twin bed room in the main house. Mine was up an outside stair – rather a suite, very very pretty. No tub!

The road through the village of Snowshill to our B&B

We unpack, ramble around Snowshill – which is one of England’s most picturesque villages, and the setting for “Bridget Jones” movies – then we go to the village pub (Snowshill Arms) for dinner. Pretty much typical pub food, but good. The table by the window looks over the old churchyard and graveyard where “Bridget” sees her parents re-marry. If you want the countryside of England…there is nothing better than right here.

Then back to Sheepscombe House. My god – it’s bloody cold at night! And the sky is dark dark dark – the tiny country villages of course do not have street lamps…but the sky was clear as a bell, and the stars were out in force…walking beneath the overhanging trees up the lane to Sheepscombe was a bit challenging and fun…we actually had to take flashlights with us, because when it gets dark…it gets dark!

The Snowshill Arms on the village green

Touring the Cotswolds villages – stepping back in time

Up at 7:30…another yummy breakfast, this time with rhubarb yoghurt…organic, natural – absolutely fab! (I wish I could get these yoghurts in Houston.)

We joined Tim (our host) for a full day’s tour of the Cotswolds, including Stanton, Naunton, the Slaughters, Chipping Camden, Bourton on the Water, etc.

A funny moment occurred as Tim was asking Elisa about Bonnie, her dog. “Do you spend much time together?” he asked at one point.

She was silent for a moment, then murmured, “Well, yes, as much as I can…and she sleeps with me.”

It took a moment for us to realize he was actually asking about the three of us!

Again, the weather was incredible…blue sky, clear as a bell, 70 degrees – the sun felt absolutely lovely.

A manor house on our tour

Tim took us at one point to an organic shopping centre. I have never seen so many beautiful things – from foodstuffs to an elegant dress shop with the most beautiful organic clothes, cashmere, fine wool and cotton – expensive as all get out – the clothes were all white or earthtone grey but beautifully tailored, I just craved something from this shop, but it was out of my reach! – one sweater, the sheerest softest white cashmere, ran about 450 pounds ($1000)…white cashmere blankets…A coat I would have died for was 1300 pounds ($2750) – grey/white tweed…and gorgeous furniture in another shop, more white white white (my favorite color). O to be rich!

A garden view

Our tour took us all over the Cotswolds, the small towns were heaven. We also were able to walk through gorgeous manor gardens, and finally got home about 6:30 (85 pounds each of us to Tim). That evening, we ate dinner at The Swan in Broadway – so English, and just a perfect end to the day.

Broadway, quintessentially Cotswold

Up around7AM– wash hair, finally! Great hairdryer! After breakfast, we hotfoot it to the garage to see about the tire. It’s a goner – 200 pounds ($400+) for a new one – so we drop the tire off, Mike (the garage owner) says to drop back around 4PM…

A tea room in Broadway

Off we went to look around Broadway, a historic old town that is the starting point for touring many other small villages in the Cotswolds. I bought a few small gifts, then we had lattes (again), and drove off to Snowshill Manor, a mausoleum of a mansion filled with an eccentric’s collection of things from all over the world – one room was dedicated to bicycles, and included a penny-farthing. I remember my grandfather had one of those…

I found out the meaning of the old phrase, “Good night. Sleep tight.” In the old days, mattresses were run through with rope, from one side of the bed; the rope was twined through the other side of the bed, and pulled tight, to keep the mattress firm. Thus “Sleep tight.”

A view of the gardens at Snowshill Manor

The gardens at Snowshill Manor were absolutely incredible – orchards with pears and apples in abundance – beautiful stonework and finials – roses, pansies, sweet peas, climbing vines, green lawns – all in abundance. The scent of the roses was intense. Lunch is at a tiny restaurant on the grounds…

Doorway to the secret garden!

From Snowshill Manor, we drove to Snowshill Lavendar – unfortunately, closed until May. The lavender fields were totally shorn. So we left for theBroadwayTower– which, when you climb 250 feet – has a 360 view of the Cotswolds countryside. Below, we saw about 20 deer gathered under the trees…

Back then to the garage – tire has not even been delivered yet, so we go back to Sheepscombe House, where E&L take naps.

A view on my walk

I however left for a couple of hours’ walk through and over fields, meeting a nice man (Bill) and his dog (Gus) – we walked and talked back to his car, and I met and chatted with Daphne, his wife. Lovely couple …then I continued my walk.

The weather is incredible here in the Cotswolds – cloudy one minute – brilliant sunshine the next.

The clouds drifted away and the sun came out in full, the sky once again clean clear blue. This is the best time of day in the Cotswolds…between 4-6PM…everything is golden in the soft sunlight…the fields the greenest, the Cotswolds stone the most golden…the little village of Snowhill lies like a basket of white eggs in a green bowl…incredibly beautiful, surrounded by hill, woods and fields…I could have walked on forever.

I meet E&L for dinner at the Snowhill Arms at 7PM– finally, steak and kidney pie. Yum-o again! After dinner, a couple next to us passes over a half bottle of red wine they couldn’t finish – she is from Thailand, he from Virginia. We had a lovely long talk with them…then we are back on the pitch dark Cotswold path to Sheepscombe. Luckily, Jacki has given us the heavy big flashlights to carry and light us home through the narrow high hedgerows!

Spending a day hiking around Snowshill and Stanway

Up around7AM– a cup of tea and a read before breakfast. I see on the news that Pavarotti has died. Another giant gone.

Joanna <a friend from Austin visiting relatives in Cirencester> gets here around10AM to meet me for a hike, and we set off for one “round robin” walk around Stanton, Stanway and Snowshill. We start at Snowhill instead of Stanton– and of course, somehow end up doing a complete circle of Snowshill!

Driving on to Stanton, we stop in the village pub atop a hill (lovely!) for lunch. Stanton is a beautiful town – all houses are the old Cotswolds stone – flowers are blooming everywhere. The sun’s out intermittently. In the distance, rolling hills and vales…

Hiking around Stanton

After lunch, we set off for Stanway, walking “The Cotswolds Way”, an historic 100+ mile long footpath, which runs through the heart of the Cotswolds. We reach Stanway – another historic and charming small village, without incident.

However, once we climb a (majorly) steep hill to where we are supposed to turn towards Snowshill – we wind up getting completely and utterly lost. After wittering around, climbing up and down for an hour, we finally find a promising path which actually leads us back to Stanton!

We’ve hiked through fields, orchards, deep hedgerowed lanes, roads, and through woods – just a lovely 9+-mile ramble, which I desperately needed! I loved it…

Back in the car for Broadway, finishing at the Horse and Hounds for shandies before saying goodbye.

Morton on Marsh and Bourton Manor

Awoke rather early for me –6:45 AM. I love the cup of tea and the moment of quiet in my room in the early morning. The sun was pouring in through my windows – a gorgeous day – again – awaited us.

The weather changes here almost hourly – one minute it can be glorious sun – then clouds appear – blow away – then come back – the sky darkens – then again, the sun is out full blast.

The most beautiful time of day here has been between 4-6PM. The air is soft, the sun shines but not as intensely, and the sky completely clears. All is bathed in the soft golden sunlight, and Jane Austen’s ghost hovers nearby.

The Manor House – absolutely beautiful

Today we drove to Morton on the Marsh after breakfast and – quite by accident – parked across from a stunning house called Bourton Manor. The gardens were open to the public – the prettiest I have seen yet – manicured lawns, massed flower borders, topiaries, mazes, finials, stonework, espaliers with various beautiful climbing vines and flowers – roses abounded, highly scented – there is a “white garden” with stocks, roses, daisies – I loved this garden, and the house is an architectural gem.

and gardens

From there,  on to the Falconry down the road to watch a peregrine falcon display, and then on to the nearby Arboretum. After this, we drove to Burford, a pretty (and not so small) market town, with lovely shops along a winding hilly main street.

Snowshill – could anything be prettier?

When we arrived back at Sheepscombe House, it was 5PM– I went for an hour’s walk again up around fields and hills, discovering that exquisite view of Snowshill…I think one of the most beautiful in England.

Another lovely day. Tomorrow, we leave for London!

Blenheim Palace

Up for breakfast – and on the road to Blenheim Palace, which we tour and hear all about the Marlborough family…and not enough about Churchill! But what history! The gardens were also incredible…but the air had actually turned chilly, so we didn’t linger. We got back in the car and determined to find Windsor…suffice it to say, we did not! So we stopped closer to Gatwick for a lunch/dinner…then found The Little Foxes (the less said about that, the better), went for a quick drink, and so to bed…

Blenheim Palace

And thus ended the latest English sabbatical…I couldn’t have asked for better weather, better countryside, better food…just more hikes! But it was great. Now I know why I keep going back…and back…and….

Beautiful

Hiking the Utah canyons

The hoodoos of Bryce

Sometimes it’s just great to get away to a part of the country you’ve never spent time in, yet is not so far away it takes more than two or three hours to reach. Such was the Utah trip for me, and the state is so spectacularly beautiful, it was one of my most satisfying hikes. Country Walkers offered this relatively short hike (5 days) and a friend of mine, who lives elsewhere, sent me the information. I was hooked, and hooked up. I think Utah is one of the most beautiful states in a country of so many beautiful states…there is, however, something spiritual about the landscape there. Needless to say, it was an experience I’ll never forget.

 Las Vegas

I arrive in Las Vegas after what seems an interminable flight, but is in reality only three hours. After finding Lee, we take the hotel limo to AmeriSuites. It is super-hot here, and noisy, jumping with people – mostly young people – but at least our room is quiet. Once settled in, we walk across the street to one of the many casinos, eat a late dinner in the Montero dining room, and then get some sleep. (Lee loses $1 on the slot machine.)

The next morning we take an hour’s stroll down to the Strip. The first hotel we come to is the Sahara -once inside, it is pretty unbelievable – miles of aisles, shops of all description, and gambling slots everywhere. It’s not even 8:30AM, and people are playing the slots. Not my life, but perhaps the idea of hiking in the wilds of the canyons isn’t their idea of fun either!

The Canyons of Zion

The start of a beautiful friendship

Promptly at 10AM, our group picks us up. We have a three-hour ride to Zion National Park, eat a picnic lunch and then drive to the Lodge, which is set in very beautiful parkland. Surrounded by the walls of the canyon, the Lodge sprawls across the green grass, lit to neon green by the afternoon sun.

Bonnie views the awe-inspiring scenery

We put up our bags and take the first hike of the trip: Riverside Trail, up into the canyon. The cliff walls are ever-changing colors, depending on sun or shadow. We pass cascades of water, mountain greenery, rock formations, often looking over sheer drops. We are not gone long, returning to the Lodge about 5:30, to change for supper in the main dining room.

This place is really magical. After eating a delicious meal, we walk back through the gloaming to our room…the canyon walls surround us, and in the park fronting the Lodge are about 20 mule deer, lifting their big elf-like ears as we pass by. The deer make little or no sound, except for a low “crunch” as they crop the grass.

In the shadowy twilight, the canyon walls keep in the growing darkness, and only the rustle of wind in the trees is heard. The temperature – in the 80s when we arrived – has cooled to about 55 degrees. We are sleeping with open windows tonight.

Our small group  – we split into two groups – this was mine

Our group is comprised of seventeen people, coming together from one end of the country to the other. From Williamsburg, Virginia to the California coast and in between, it’s a particularly enjoyable group. Bob and Bonnie from Williamsburg are a wonderful retired couple who enjoy travelling. Cara and Cheryl are the first women guides I’ve experienced on these hikes. They are extremely knowledgeable about the area, very pleasant, as well as caring and fully invested in the wildlife and the environment.

The peace here is unbelievable.

Refrigerator Canyon, Walter’s Wiggles and Weeping Rock

Here we are – our second day in the canyons of Zion. This is a terrifically picturesque area – the grandeur of the canyons is almost too much to take in. We join each other at 8:30 in the morning after a splendid breakfast at the Lodge, and then split into two groups of nine and eight, making it easier to hike and to take in everything without a large group slowing things up.

Cara, our guide, and me at the start of a hike in Zion

Our group begins hiking immediately (the other group is bussed to an alternate location). We begin at Scout’s Outlook, a four-mile up-canyon hike that begins with a climb to Refrigerator Canyon, always 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.

Walter’s Wiggles

Next come the “switchbacks”, so-called because the trail zips back and forth constantly, ending with “Walter’s Wiggles” – an even more extreme switchback. Atop the thousand-foot high Scout’s Outlook, we hang over the edge looking straight down into beautiful green valleys and canyon walls. The views are astounding. Then we turn and hike back down…

The grandeur and majesty of the canyon are impossible to describe – the walls are so sheer, so solid, so many different colors, and so immense we are surrounded and encompassed by these wonderful cliffs.

The beauty of the landscape is timeless

After Scout’s Landing, we hike the Riversidewalk, ending by paddling our tootsies in a river whose name I don’t recall. Cold, by God!

Bonnie, Cara and I then hike uphill to Weeping Rock, an overhang in the canyon wall. Standing beneath it, we look out at spectacular views through a curtain of water – the fall is neither heavy, nor does it obscure the view – like clear beads on many threads -crystal raindrops falling endlessly, lit by the sun. It’s a very spiritual experience, being in these canyons.

After which, we return to the Lodge, clean up, and wend our way to the IMAX Theater, where we see the history of the canyons – breathtaking – and then on to dinner – and to bed.

The Virgin River and Dual Arches Alcove

After a hearty breakfast, we jump in the van: Bonnie, Bob, the six California girls, Cara, our guide, and me. A 45-minute drive takes us to the Virgin River, where we begin a five-mile round trip hike. It is safe to say that was the longest five-mile hike I have taken!

We start on a sandy trail through pine and oak woods, alongside the Virgin River bed. We actually walk the riverbed most of the way, as it has dried up in the summer heat – it’s basically a very thin stream at this point. Cara’s quick to point out that care should be taken nonetheless, as the weather can change in an instant, and gullywashers can sluice through the canyons and riverbeds, with an outcome I don’t like to dwell on…but good to know! Surrounding us are spectacular views of canyon walls in their living colors of red streaked with black, white and grey where water has scored the cliffs.

Standing inside the deep pink Dual Arches – incredible!

At first the sand is golden. But as we near Dual Arches Alcove, it turns the most glorious shade of pink – absolutely unbelievable. Stones in the sand which are a vivid turquoise blue turn grey when picked up – a trick of the sun and the sand. The weather which had begun cool, turns very hot halfway to Dual Arches, but when the canyon walls narrow and we come to the great Dual Arches Alcove, it becomes almost chilly.

Dual Arches Alcove – spectacular and awe-inspiring – reaches to the sky in two great arches. The lower one will one day begin to disintegrate and then fall; its hold is precarious on the rock face. The arches are all colors – exquisitely beautiful. We eat our lunch in their shadow, drinking gallons of water to ward off dehydration. Then we hike for approximately half an hour over deep pink rocks and boulders to a waterfall in the cliff face. The canyons narrow our path til we can squeeze no further. The rocks and boulders – making for a tricky hike – are a bright reddish pink – all fallen from the canyon walls and swept into a rocky riverbed by gullywashers.

Ro and Bonnie – ahead of the pack!

Bob, Bonnie and I are a little ahead of the pack on our way back. We mostly stay with the riverbed, which meanders this way and that. In full sun, it is hot, hot, hot. In the shade, the scent is intensely green. Our entire hike takes six hours with a brief time out for lunch.

Then it’s back into the van, and a drive into town for an iced cappuccino – absolutely the best tasting thing in the world! Then back to the Lodge for dinner. When we leave the restaurant, twilight has fallen on the canyon walls which surround us on all sides. Again, the deer wander onto the Lodge’s grassy front lawn, showing no fear as we pass them by, shadows in the enchanted Zion twilight.

Observation Point, Panguitch, Bryce Canyon and The Hoodoos

Up at 6:30 to eat breakfast and get in the van by 8AM. We ride to Observation Point, a 45-minute drive, in the Zion National Park, then hike up some of the most spectacular trails, which drop into nothingness on one side, cliff wall on the other.

Lonely trees dot the landscape

The scenery is spectacular wherever we look. And the trail varies from flat rock to narrow ledges to a bridge over nothing! Finally, we arrive at Observation Point. It seems to hover at the very tip of the canyons, and the view is incredible – it looks out over canyons and gorges in all directions. I climb to the very highest point, a drop-off into thin air, for a quick photo op. Then back down the trail to the van. Another brief ride, and then hike to see pictographs carved long ago on the canyon walls by the Anasazi Indians. I love Utah!

I felt as if I were in a movie

Back in the van for a 90-minute ride to the little town of Panguitch (meaning “water” – with population 2000) and Bob’s Cowboy Diner, where we are serenaded through lunch by two cowboys singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Call the Wind Mariah,” “Cool Water,” and “Ghostriders in the Sky.” Fantastic! I feel as if I’ve wandered way back in time into the Old West – and I don’t want to return to the present…

But our next destination is Bryce Canyon National Park, and on arrival, we immediately begin our hike. I can’t begin to describe this place. It is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.

From the canyon rim to the canyon floor, we hike downwards through the trail called Wall Street through walls of blood red sandstone, ever and ever down. Our trail takes us over the canyon floor, then curls around back to the top. The number of people on the trail is overwhelming at times, especially on Wall Street  – large groups of people from Japan and Germany seem to be the most ubiquitous.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

We are all in awe of these terra-cotta colored hoodoos of Bryce which stretch for miles and miles and miles. Absolutely unbelievably wonderful.Cara is our guide throughout it all. A terrific guide, unbelievably talented, she and her husband are mountain and cliff-climbers, rapelling the canyon walls in Zion and in Yosemite in their spare time. On their honeymoon, they spent three days and nights on the canyon wall in Yosemite National Park, sleeping in hammocks on the cliff face. They are also in the process of building a home made from bales of hay, reinforced with rebar and steel, and covered in stucco. And they are building it with their own two hands. Remarkable people.

Beautiful Bryce

After our hike, Lee and I have dinner with Bonnie and Bob – I am so full of food, I can hardly stand it. And very tired. To sleep!

Bryce Canyon Redux

We are off at 8:30AM to hike down the canyon in the opposite direction to our hike of yesterday. Slight contretemps at the vans: usually when a group splits in two, the guides switch sides halfway through the trip. But all our group want to stay with Cara! So we do.

Reaching for the stars

We begin the hike immediately – the other group is bussed to the opposite side of the canyon. The hike is long and glorious – about seven or so hours altogether. Bonnie, Bob and I reach the top of the canyon, then take off for an additional three-mile hike – woof! All uphill! By the time we make it back to the bus stop, we are really physically exhausted, but exhilarated at the same time.

A perfectly happy human being

Today I forgot my sunscreen – my legs and arms are tiger-striped, and when my legs finally stop stinging, they go sort of Kentucky Fried crispy. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. Who cares! This wonderful trip is worth it!

Bryce Canyon Lodge and Dixie National Park

Up before dawn to walk and hike around the canyon rim watching the sun come up…another awe-inspiring experience.

Then back for breakfast, packing and so back to the real world. We drive through Dixie National Park, endless mountains and forests of breathtaking beauty – stretches of quaking aspens in full golden splendor, mountains stained with the color of the sun, stretches of pines and firs. I had no idea Utah was such a beautiful – and green – state – why did I always think of it as desert? I was very wrong.

We stop in Cedar City for lunch at Betty’s Restaurant – a small butter yellow house, filled with pictures and flowers – for an elegant little lunch, where we celebrate Roni’s birthday (one of the California Six), and have a teary-eyed farewell.

This incredibly satisfying trip solidifies my desire to experience more and more of the western states. Utah is an enchanting experience … full of mystery and freedom and awe-inspiring beauty.

Utah – awe inspiring, mystical, magic