Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Short Trips: Barely Seen in Evergreen

A parachutist takes off near Poo Poo Point in Issaquah.
While not on the Canadian border or an extreme point, Bellingham possesses a frontier feel. Not an Old West feeling, but Bellingham is an outpost, a place at the world's edge.

Maybe the city owes that character to its ferry terminal, a departure point for Canada and Alaska.
Unlike an airport, anyone could wander into the terminal. A handful of people queued for ferries and cruises.

Schooner at the Bellingham ferry terminal
My sister and I were a generation younger than anyone traveling. But I can see the fun in booking passage up the British Columbia and Alaskan coast. On a beautiful May day in the low Seventies, board a ship and cutting up the rugged coast could not have sounded better.

But Washington was my destination, and there I would gratefully stay. I had a free flight to burn on Frontier, and as I always expected, I would burn it on a roundtrip to Seattle. Waiting as long as I could to redeem it, I had no choice but to burn the trip so close to all these other travels. As my second West Coast flight in eight days, I felt slightly frazzled before even landing. Luckily, a mostly relaxing weekend awaited.

Arriving the previous night in time for a slice of pizza and Manny's Pale Ale on California Avenue's   for a day when my sister and I headed north. I don't get to see Jenny as much as I like, and am always glad to know there's a couch in West Seattle if I want to visit.

This time, we hit the road for some camping, something we had never done together before. From Seattle we head north up the impossibly green I-5 corridor, bound for Bellingham. Bellingham had laid back quality and small-town charm. Its brick downtown had any number of dining and shopping options . The shepherd's pie at the Archer Ale House went well with an Alaskan Brewing Hopothermia Double IPA.  There's nowhere close to the Juneau brewer in the Lower 48, so I have to enjoy it when offered on tap.

As Nancy can attest (unfortunately her schedule did not allow her to join on the short trip), the Fairhaven District proved to be a good destination for jewelry shopping.

Some folks at the visitors bureau recommended a more scenic route to Fidalgo and Whidbey islands. In a few turns from downtown Bellingham, we took Chuckanut Drive, which clung to some forested cliffs high above a marshy plain at low tide. We immediately appreciate  not having to backtrack to the interstate; this drive could not have been less scenic.

With the water in retreat, the region's oyster beds were easily visible. The cliffs soon dropped road through lush farmland. Little towns rose as the road turned. A bison farm broke up the many herds of cattle grazing on the blanket of green.

Soon enough we crossed to Fidalgo Island, which bridges connect to the mainland. In a few minutes of curvy road we approached the famed and photogenic Deception Pass, where two stately bridge span the pass to connect Fidalgo to Whidbey, with Pass Island between the two.

The waters churned in the two narrow passages below. Named for the way the waters deceived nautical explorers into believing the narrow Saratoga Passageway did not have an outlet, Deception Pass offered danger and beauty.

Wildflowers sprouted beneath the bridge supports, and the bridge was open to pedestrians. That said, the bridge deck loomed 180 feet above the feet and supported constant traffic in both directions, including heavy volumes of trucks. We decided to hike to the top of Goose Rock, one of the steep hills surrounding Deception Pass. When we reached the top, the near 360 views did not include Deception Pass itself, which was far below us. .
My first banana slug sighting.

Quickly setting up camp, we stopped at the beach, where forest of driftwood had come to rest, and followed it through unclear paths in the woods to a beach with sand and smoothed rocks. From here the bridge and pass dominated views to the east, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca and myriad islands to the west. 

With so many settings within walking distance of each other, Deception Pass State Park's popularity is tough to dispute. The campsite made the experience even better. Each site was sculpted from forest materials. Aside from a picnic table and a firepit, the sites provided ample privacy and turned rocks and fallen trees into outdoor sitting rooms. Behind each site a series of narrow paths delved deeper into a thicket beneath the giant trees. We could see our camping neighbors, but not hear them.

Wood went on the fire, and we relaxed. Sometimes camping is just a matter of doing nothing. We drank some good wine, some exquisite session IPA made with Citra hops, and hot dogs cooked (again) over an open fire.

We talked about dreams, life, family and our dear, departed brother Joe, whose 35th birthday would have been that Sunday. I never noticed before that I called him Joe but my sister calls him Joey. I think sometimes those thing are a difference between the first and the third child when the middle child has special needs.

By 11 p.m. we had exhausted our supply of firewood and bunked down for the night. A few hours of wrestling with my sleeping bag made sleeping on the ground without a pillow or air mattress mostly comfortable. Thanks to the time difference, I woke for good by 5:30 a.m.

Not content to sit among the quiet campsites, I wandered right into the mostly stunning site of the trip. Reaching Cranberry Lake, the morning grew more lively. A family of geese prepared for a morning swim, while finches of many colors flitted and dived low in the sky.

A small bird cut a rapid line for the trees, followed immediately by a  bald eagle. Few things could beat waking up and stumbling from the campsite to an eagle sighting.

Low-rez bald eagle
Along the shores of Cranberry Lake and the Juan de Fuca surf's maze of driftwood, I would encounter nothing as majestic. In the one frantic picture, it could be mistaken for a vulture, but there was no question. The eagle flew 20 feet above my head, silent and powerful as it chased its quarry through the Douglas firs.

As we departed the state park, a mule deer romped along the road. Fishermen had been line up along the lake banks for hours. We had gone less than a mile onto Whidbey Island, leaving plenty to explore.

Not all the local aviation had to do with birds. From the edge of the state park, the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was visible, as were the occasional take offs and landings of its many vintage aircraft, some of which are exceptionally rare planes. There were frequent sightings during our 24 hours on Whidbey.
Coupeville from the pier

Coupeville, the state's second-oldest town, could have been plucked off the Maine coast. Gulls darted overhead, soaring above the stylish houses built onto wooded outcroppings beyond the main drag. A visitor center on the pier housed a restored gray whale skeleton.

By the time we reached the ferry in Clinton, we were quire hungry. Looking back to Langley, we walked through the few blocks that comprised downtown, looking out onto the Camano Island and the mainland across a ribbon of Puget Sound. At the Braeburn Restaurant, empty stomachs were no longer an issue.

After 15 minutes on the ferry, we drove through Redmond and the massive hangars and buildings of Boeing.  We cruised back into West Seattle, but with Kyona's bowl full from the food she had not eaten while we were gone, we had to press "pause" on fun.

Days before I arrived, the cat began skipping meals. Since she ate almost nothing in three days, a vet trip was in order. Kyona was soon off, crying all the way in her carrier. She's normally friendly and social, but her piercing cry ran thick with pain.

With the cat at the vet for overnight observation - and my fears about her lack of appetite conjuring some grim diagnoses - I debarked for the West Seattle Brewing Company, a nanobrewery operating out of an old convenience store.
No signs of The Mountain, so the brewery must do
Barebones, the brothers who ran it were an affable bunch.They kept the cooler doors from the old convenience store, which made their keg and tap system visible from the bar. It was a nice flourish, as were the sturdy wood beams they found hidden beneath acoustic ceiling tiles when renovating. I had a beer or three there, mostly in spirit of the conversation and to blur the cries of that cat. 

Issaquah and Seattle's east suburbs from Poo Poo Point.
I took a quick spin up to Easy Street Records, and ducked into a coffee shop to post the column I wrote about Joe for his 28th birthday on Facebook. I also posted a photo from his teen years, the time when Joe was at his best, his healthiest and happiest.

Soon I returned for dinner. Never sleeping well after a night on firm ground, I drifted away before 8 p.m. rolled around.

In the morning, we had Poo Poo to consider - Poo Poo Point in Issaquah.The deceptively tought 1.7-mile hike climbed up to a spectacular view of the hills east of Seattle. Finding the trailhead was tough but eventually we found the field that served as a landing strip for hang-gliders and parachutists.

The evergreen forest was dense and  the path was rocky. The journey challenged us on almost every step until finally, we came to a flat spot with pads for hang-gliders to launch.

None launched that day, but on the way down, a parachutist fluffed out his/her chute then got a running jump into the air. There was a tense takeoff moment when an unleashed dog got caught up in the proceedings, but the parachutists shook it off before gliding away.

As we left Issaquah, the giant orange marquee of XXX Root Beer loomed over the street. The XXX chain had been reduced to two unaffiliated locations, but the Issaquah location seemed to thrive. I stuck with a root beer, drinking it greedily. The owner worked the register and thanked me for buying a sticker (as if I could skip buying one). A car show had just begun in the adjacent lot, and I took note of the afficiandoes of the classic car circuit catching up with each other.

To cap our trip, we decided to visit one of Washington's best-known waterfalls. Just off the road, Snoqualmie Falls sit downstream from a power plant but none of the cataract’s magnificence has been tamed. The are was heavy with gift shops and resorts, so we departed as quickly as we arrived.

After a quick lunch at The Bridge, which had relocated across town after previously sitting yards from my sister's apartment building, we turned back to Kyona.

Wait the time took forever and the vet had few answers - in essence, Jenny knew what the problem was and they ran a million tests to rule out anything else. We recovered the cat, who seemed peppier after some pain medication made eating more palatable.This being Joe's birthday, we talked to our parents before settling in for the afternoon.

With this, my third trip to Seattle since my sister moved there, a last night routine has developed. I have never booked a flight departing from Seatac later than 6 a.m., so an early night is always in order.

We  ordered Taco Time, just like the two previous trips, and settled down for a few beers and a marathon of the final episodes of Futurama. Finishing the series finale, we signed off for the night and for all but the formalities of another Seattle visit.

Traveling nearly 5,000 miles for three days of hanging out might seem ludicrous, but not when one of my sister is involved. She's a good egg, and these trips make me realize that I miss having her around.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Short Trips: A Slice of San Francisco

I follow one simple line when traveling – don’t assume the chance to return will ever come. May 2014 ended up a collision of too many weekend trips and I found myself unable to turn down any of them. Earlier in the year, the annual North Carolina trip was booked; later, a long weekend in Seattle emerged due to a Frontier Early Returns reward flight I had to book. Then a work conference in San Francisco loomed in May. Top that all with Memorial Day jaunt down to Chattanooga – there has been no rest for the wicked.

Of the  major U.S. cities I have not visited, San Francisco topped the list. With a Tuesday conference, I tweaked the travel schedule to add a little downtime in the Bay area. As luck had it, another coworker planned the same thing, so we timed flights and accommodations together.

BART into Darkness
Jostling up the tracks from South San Francisco to downtown, the train gradually filled and included a few panhandlers wearing $100 jeans. In the Financial District, restaurants seemed to close early on Saturday. In many doorways, the homeless settled for the evening. I wasn't prepared for the volume of homeless, but few were panhandlers. Many found doorways and bunked for the night.

One bar had a pay-per-view fight, others seemed a little fancy for wayfarers just looking for a bite to eat. In the shadow of the TransAmerica Pyramid, we found Mangia Tutti.  The old neon sign an unremarkable exterior seemed the perfect portal to a pasta, pizza and salad bar. Inside we found anything but. Along with friendly pours of affordable Italian wines, the restaurant made its own pastas. Everything tasted fresh.

Working our way back with BART, we stopped on Mission. This stretch was  undeniably seedy. In addition to an increase in adult businesses, cop cars and ranting homeless grew more common. “At least out in California, they probably don’t have guns,” I remarked after one ranter got a little close.

Amid the restrained chaos, The Sycamore offered an oasis. The tiny corner bar had dozens of brews. We sampled a couple before descending into the BART. Traffic from the NBA game in Oakland had slowed the trains, as did a crime scene at a station further south. Soon enough the train moved and rocketed back to South San Francisco's still streets.

A Muir Moment of Peace
Morning came quickly and the drive north began before the sun broke open the fog. It was a little disorienting that a city of San Francisco's size lacked a north-south highway. But 101 became a city street, a main drag that passed in front of any number of centuries-old churches and the city's massive city hall, which dwarfed the capitols of many states. As 101 jogged west toward the Pacific, the orange bridge came into view. Fog obscured its upper pylons.

After some of the narrower spans Nancy and I crossed in recent years, the Golden Gate Bridge was the a breeze. The biggest challenge was not looking out at Alcatraz and the other bay island to the east or the rough Pacific currents slamming rocks to the west. The highway resumed north of the Golden Gate (the actual name for the strait connecting the bay with the Pacific.

From the moment we reached the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods beckoned. A steep, winding road dropped us down into a small grove of old-growth forest headlined by coastal redwoods, the world's tallest trees.

Years after my first view of the redwoods, I cannot shake them. Their height seems to defy possibility, their bark feels unreal, and the tiny cone from which they germinate seems laughably small. Like most unique things in this country, 95 percent of the redwoods are gone, nearly logged into extinction.

But no logging ever occurred in Muir Woods. Theodore Roosevelt created the national monument in the last year of his presidency, stopping planned development of a dam on Redwood Creek, the trickle of water cutting through the grove. It might not have always been a slow flow, but on the day we visited, the water ran only in ripples and small plunges where trees and stones blocked its path. Its relative inaccessibility saved this grove - everything else nearby had been logged.

Muir Woods was one of those natural cathedrals, the trees forming a canopy that made everything below feel somewhat wild. A young deer grazed in the shadow of a giant. We would see no more deer, but plenty of giants rising from the flood plain of the small creek.

A mile into our walk we crossed into Mount Tamalpais State Park. The paved path ended and the forest grew more rustic. The redwoods continued to soar.

Our early arrival worked in our favor. Returning to the entrance booth, a line queued. Our prime parking spot was swallowed up instantly as we pulled away. Cars line the road and more streamed downhill toward the redwood grove. As we climbed up the curving road, the grove appeared above the rest of the younger forest, a random patch of tall trees, a protected patch still standing when the rest were logged away.

Rare Brews of Russian River

Sanctification, my first Russian River taproom brew.
More eloquent words have been written about Northern California wine country, so bear with me. The richness of hills and mountains dotted with grapevines and occasional herds of piebald cows.

Deep in wine country resides a beer mecca like few others. Russian River Brewing Company pioneered the double IPA and has conducted rampant experiments with wild yeasts and barrel-aged beers. I could not cross the Golden Gate to skip Russian River. Sixty miles from Muir Woods, we needed only to find 4th Street.

Arriving shortly after 11 a.m., the taproom was already stuffed to the gills thanks to a generous all-day happy hour on Sundays. But we found a small place near the bar. We had limits on drinking, which created hardships. We made it to Russian River, killing any further need for beer stops along this trip (see my beer blog for more details).

Lost in the Mystery House
From Santa Rosa, we ventured back through San Francisco (because you have no choice) then down to San Jose. Roy mentioned the Winchester Mystery House. With no desire to monopolize time before the conference, I was eager to check it out. I had no idea what I was in for.

Ms. Winchester,  widow of the second president of the Winchester Rifle Co., moved to the Bay Area after her husband's death. Consulting a psychic, he warned her that the ghosts of people killed by rifles her husband's company manufactured might seek out revenge upon her. She added onto the house, built secret and dead-end rooms to confound said spirits.

Our timed tour paired us with a 70-something tour guide who provided just the energy and enthusiasm needed to wind through the labyrinthine home, the hour flew by

That night we met my old newspaper friend Court and her husband Mike. After a few missed turns we finally found their townhouse in the Presidio atop a heavily treed hill, the orange bridge looming in the forest's gaps.
A city hall more grand than most state capitols

We went down to Pacific Heights for a table at Burma Superstar, a local favorite where a crowd queued outside. Luckily,  a table awaited us. The breadth of Asian cuisine is truly staggering coming from a place where the only options are plentiful Thai and chain Chinese or Japanese.

I always think of San Francisco as sitting on the bay, not on the rocky ledge of Pacific Coast. Rounding a few corners in the Presidio, and the otherwise opaque ocean twinkled with handful of fishing boats. From the hotel in South San Francisco, I looked down and saw a truck loaded with produce scraps. A swarm of pigeons eagerly pecked what they could.

Dropping the rental car and grabbing a cab at SFO's international terminal, the work portion of the jaunt began. We would present to clients at a ballroom in a relatively swanky hotel, Clift, in the central city. Oversized furniture and other oddities filled the lobby. The rooms had been renovated but retained the early of an earlier age of travel. I spent much of the morning on the computer, catching up.

The diversity of offerings near the hotel was stunning. There were at least three Indian options on the same block, but Red Chili's offering of Indian and Nepalese won out. The Nepalese dishes were  lighter than the Indian but sacrificed none of the spiciness.

After lunch, work intervened. I met with the marketing director and headed off for an interview. 
After conducting an interview with a KQED reporter never to air and unlikely be used in any form.  The content wasn't the problem; I just can't force people to use material even when trekking 2,000 miles to serve it up. No matter - I did what the company expected without protest.

In the next few hours, work wrapped for the day - I refused to rehearse my presentation but answered scores of e-mails - I had to wander.

After a quick wild beer at the Mikkeller taproom down the street, the urge could not be contained. I started up the steep incline of  Powell Street, passing streetcars, then descended to Washington Square Park and Columbus Avenue. Of course I had left the directions to  City Lights on my room's desk. Columbus sounded familiar so I kept walking and soon enough, I bumped into the bookstore nexus of the Beat Generation. It's been a long time since I picked up anything from that movement besides a Lawence Ferlinghetti poetry book.

In my college days, I would have enjoyed this more.
I appreciated the entire floor of poetry, albeit not as much as I would have in my Mercyhurst days However, I would have still been a greenhorn. I outed himself as a tourist by purchasing a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry volume and a book of Ry Cooder's short stories.

Rush hour is not bad anymore you can afford the luxury of walking. Cars clumped together. I kept moving past walls of people. Even in Chinatown, I had few problems. Reconnecting with Roy, we set out along a similar path, traversing Chinatown and landing at the Comstock Tavern, yet another small corner bar with exquisite taste and a

In Clift's Redwood Room, most of our team had assembled. We had no dinner at our other stops, so I could not skip the menu here. As a quirk, the walls of the Redwood Room hosted what appeared to be paintings but were actually videos of people that moved ever so slight to those watching them. At that point in the evening,  I preferred to concentrate on my burger before calling it a night. I had an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger before the conference and plenty of work to occupy me during the presentations.

Most of Tuesday was swallowed by the conference. Sure, it was my reason for being there. . You don't want to hear about that anymore than I wanted to write about it. I did what I had to do. I moved swiftly through the presentation, dropping relatively few clues about my nervousness. After the presentation, I nearly collapsed when one of the sales guys told me my fly was down during the presentation. He was joking, obviously having no idea how easily it could have been true.

Conference wrapped, we adjourned to a cocktail reception. My early departure left me reluctant to join in the post-conference dinner, but eventually I acquiesced. After all, when would I get back to San Francisco?

Our team headed to the Ferry Building, yet another stately facility in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. The feeling that always overcomes me in the closing hours of any trip struck here as the twilight painted Oakland and the East Bay in rich pastels. The last sunset of any vacation is a moment to treasure.

With a short wait Sliding Door opened up a big table. Vietnamese fusion would close out the night in San Francisco. I went back, packed everything but my toiletries and clothes for the morning flight, then crashed. At 4 a.m. I passed the giant chair and odd lobby art for the last time, ready for my first leg to Denver.

Sleeping much of the way and trying to ignore to entitled fools in the seats next to me, I navigated when awake. Lake Tahoe passed north of the plane, then clouds hemmed in Wheeler Peak, the above-ground centerpiece of Great Basin National Park (Lehman Caves lie below). Soon the deeper clouds enveloped the empty stretches of Utah and northwest Colorado.

The cloud field developed plumes that almost resembled the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and the American Southwest. Maybe that was just wishful thinking. I will take any bizarre terrain I can, even those that will be dispersed by aggressive winds.
Sunrise moments after takeoff from SFO

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The ambiguous glory of old photos

The hosts invites you. Without an introduction, have a seat in the corner and silently sip a beer. Watch life unfold as a spectator.

When an unexpected photo from the past sweeps in front of us, we enter long-ended festivities. Photographs of those familiar and comfortable to us can throw up the windows of the past. Thanks to the reams of information and pictures constantly thrust in our faces through social media, we never know when unknown moments of the past might come due.

The older we get, the more powerful photos become. Photos of our grandparents don’t have the same resonance because most people never remember them till they are already old. But I remember my parents at a younger age, so it's always a mild shock to see them youthful and unburdened by the world's weight.

This shot of my Dad It’s a mystifying moment. Dad stares at a young boy, likely the man who posted the photo on Facebook. Neither of them are smiling although Dad wears an expression that could slide from laughter to anger in a twitch of muscle. His mustache has deeper handlebars than what I saw before.

Were that mustache a little less shaggy, a smile might be present. But I cannot wash away the early Seventies styles embedded in this shot. The beer can in Dad’s hand also has the time’s distinctive look.

He could even be the victor in a recently concluded staring contest with the toddler who now stares away from him. In better light, a plush bear sits at my dad’s feet. Did the boy throw it down or come to retrieve it after depositing it there earlier? The conversation that accompanied the picture on social media solved nothing. None of the parties involved remembered the occasion, much less which child stood next to my dad. I can stand the mystery.

Sometimes, I just enjoy glimpses into the everyday past, the moments worthy of the camera but not committed to memory. It’s too late to participate, so I can just sip my beer and survey clues of the past.

But sometimes it doesn't take the memory of someone in the room to remove the ambiguity.
I sent the photo to my mom and uncovered this: I never remember seeing this pic.  However, I know exactly when it was taken 35 yrs ago.  When I had Joe, you stayed with Betty and her kids during the day while I was at the hospital.  This pic was probably taken when Dad came to pick you up after work.  It's a real nice pic.  Of course, Dad is relaxing with his beer!  I think you both headed to the hospital afterwards, as I seem to remember a pic of you wearing that outfit.  Even 35 yrs ago, they had a room to bring your other kids to see the new baby.  

So the kid in the photo was me. No, I don't remember what I was thinking or doing.It does not do good things to the psyche to realize I could not recognize my much younger self. My Mom still seems amazed that I could not see who that boy was. So I am, but for much different reasons.

Cornbread, Nancy and Me

While still feasible, waking early for the nearly two-hour drive to National Cornbread Festival  tends to sap our energy before the first taste of the namesake delicacy. South Pittsburg is just shy of Nickajack Lake and crosses a mountain, a long drive for the wee hours. 

This year, we left nothing to chance, and left Nashville early. The cornbread festival always falls on the last weekend in April, the same as the Country Music Marathon. After three years of running with ,my 35,000 closest friends, I will take a 5K and cornbread any day.

For our third trip to the festival, Nancy booked a room atop Monteagle, the section of Cumberland Plateau crossed by Interstate 24. Monteagle sits on high ground, a brief respite in the steep climb and windy descent on I-24.

We had come to think of Monteagle as just the hotels and services that straddled the highway. A handful of restaurants dotted the small commercial district. The most welcoming at 8:30 p.m. was Dave's Modern Tavern, a restaurant that smokes its own meats and features an extensive beer menu. Even  though the staff killed the "open" sign minutes after we sat, they kept admitting people up until we left. It was a welcoming place for wayward travelers.

For those who stay in Monteagle, a word of caution: phones will roam. The area lies close to the eastern time boundary and the elevation could lead a cell phone to connect to a tower in a different time zone. I woke at 6:50 a.m. and walked to the lobby for the continental breakfast. The manager had not opened yet, because it was still 5:50 a.m. Central. At least he was not upset about an early arrival.

The overnight in Monteagle cut our South Pittsburg drive down to 15 minutes. The sunny morning alone hinted at a festival first - sparkling weather. The first two visits came with ample doses of rain and humidity.

The festival's cadre of runners, which seemed about 200-strong, lined up.  The race winds through town of 3,000, with its second and third miles reaching into the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, adding a bit of challenge to a fun race.

Running is never easy anymore, but running after a year without smoking helped considerably.  The comfortable temperatures also helped. For the first time, I didn't have to stop when climbing the steepest hill of the 5K's final mile.

The atmosphere of the race is buoyed by South Pittsburg's friendliness. Most of the runners are locals, and anyone not setting up at the festival is watching from the front porch and cheering for the runners.

My time was no better than any other Cornbread Festival 5K, but I felt far better than I had after the other two.

Cornbread Alley is always the marquee event of the festival. Local groups bake up many varieties of goodness, from buffalo chicken to pimento cheese to chocolate pecan cornbread. Cornbread can take almost any ingredient thrown into the mix, and the South Pittsburg's cornbread cooks  never shy away from innovation.As dessert, we split a cornbread salad as people poured into the festival. Literally poured. Last year, Cornbread Alley had not filled up by the time we left. For 2014, the line spilled onto the street after just 20 minutes.

Leaving South Pittsburg, the weather had brought crowds and many more who wanted a taste. The traffic stretched all the way from South Pittsburg's few blocks to the interstate. With a traditional stop at Mountain Outfitters for some new hiking clothes (and a South Cumberland trail guide), we crossed the mountain, cornbread quota met for another year. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

El Paso Escapades

Officers quarters with magnificent Davis Mountain scenery
Morning came quickly to Fort Davis, the rugged cliffs emerging from the darkness to shine in the Easter sunrise. They had an unexpected brilliance.

With a quick breakfast at the Fort Davis Soda Shoppe, we skipped ahead to one more site in Fort Davis –the military outpost that gave the town its name. Fort Davis National Historic Site sits in the shadow of several crappy outcroppings.

Fort Davis buildings are quite photogenic
Once an outpost on the San Antonio-El Paso Road that many took to California, it was abandoned during the Civil War then reoccupied to protect homesteaders from raids during the Indian Wars. One of the most intact forts of its day, many rooms had been restored to their post-Civil War looks.

The remnants of the San Antonio-El Paso Road crossed the park as a wide dirt path. Four hundred miles from San Antonio and 200 from El Paso, it was hard to imagine the conditions under which people traveled this road. The stagecoaches were at risk from Indian attack at any time.

I suppose that is why the U.S. Army built a fort every 100 miles along the road. For a wagon train, it might not be that far. But I could only imagine the tense days between forts.

Many of the buildings had their interiors restored, including a commissary, officer and enlisted quarters. The officers lived quite well out here, with porches opening onto the mountains and spacious rooms. The white-railed officer quarters were the centerpiece of the preserved fort.
At regular intervals a PA system blasted the horns calling soldiers to various morning duties.
Jeff Davis County Courthouse

Near the dry Limpia Creek, massive cottonwoods drooped dangerously and could lose giant branches or topple at any time; they had been roped off to keep people away. We only spent an hour at Fort Davis but could have spent much more exploring its preserved structures and hills (there would be no hiking since we were only 48 hours from Guadalupe Peak).

 Bidding a quick goodbye to Fort Davis and a number of sites we should have taken in (Overland Museum, we’ll come back just for skipping you), we followed Route 17 out of town to Marfa.
Essentially, we hopped from one county seat to the next. In both Fort Davis and Marfa, courthouse domes towered above everything but the water towers.

Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa
Because of the noontime sun, we would not be able to taken in the legendary Marfa Lights. Hopefully whoever generates the lights had the common sense to stay indoors the night before.

Marfa ran in a different direction than the rest of West Texas towns we visited. Boutiques advertised designer wares and art galleries touted major artists, including an Andy Warhol exhibit.  Not bad for a town of 2,000 people in the desert.

The upscale Hotel Paisano played on its connections to Giant; Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the hotel during filming.

Full of marble, stained glass, fountains and mounted animal heads in the lobby, the hotel was a must-see. It was also the only thing open in Marfa on Easter Sunday. All the boutiques and galleries were shuttered, if only for Easter morning.

Hotel Paisano's Giant display
West of Marfa we entered a 70-mile zone of no services, just a few lanes in the desert and random business, like a zeppelin moored at an Air Force facility and hundreds of thousands of fruit-bearing trees south of Van Horn that we could not identify. Valentine contained the wreckage of a gas station and other retail stores, but its Catholic church was a hive of activity, unsurprising given the day.

Picking up I-10 at Van Horn, we followed the interstate straight into El Paso. The border was not as we envisioned. The green ribbon of Rio Grande broke across a broad plain that ended suddenly at soaring mountains not far into Mexico.

At the exit for Fort Hancock, Nancy reminded me of the town’s Shawshank Redemption connection. I stamped a few postcards, dashed off addresses and wrote nothing else. Who knows if they will ever arrive. We laughed about act for the next 30 miles of highway.

 The mountains I pegged as the Franklin Mountains that guarded El Paso were actually the range overlooking Juarez. Old but renovated and still glamorous, the hotel was just what we needed for a night in the city. When we started walking south on El Paso Street past an informal bazaar of street vendors and shops, neither of us anticipated crossing the border. Then the street ended at a bridge, the southern terminus of U. S. Route 62, which ran near my parents’ house in New Albany.

The mighty El Paso
We paid our fifty cents each and walked across, the only English-speakers crossing the concrete canal that funneled a mostly dry Rio Grande between El Paso and Juarez. 

Their border guards barely seemed to care. The merchants selling Chiclets and other wares inside the gate cared a lot more.

We spent barely two minutes in Juarez. Instantly targeted as easy marks, the gentlemen would not let up on their desire to take us to the bullfights. Juarez is poor, people struggle and I don't blame them for coming for us. Neither of us enjoyed it, but I tried to remain conscious of the poverty these people faced.

We turned back to the U.S., spending 15 minutes to pass U.S. customs for our 2-minute visit. We got change from a man who probably made more doing that than he could in one of Juarez's factories.

Walking back up to the hotel, we chuckled at our brief Mexican excursion. Really, it could not have been briefer, even if the tension ran thick. 

Downtown El Paso, border bridge in the background
Downtown El Paso grows quiet after 5 p.m. (except for the metal club on El Paso Street), so we had to explore. The only thing that wasn't quiet was the bridge back from Juarez. By 5 pm. traffic backed up and stayed that way until the late hours of Easter, starting again with rush hour at dawn. From our hotel window, the cars never seemed to move.

With downtown options limited, we decided to hit The Hoppy Monk, a beer bar near UTEP (University of Texas-El Paso) or something else fun nearby. 

We passed a bank building with a first-floor and spied a cat standing near the entrance. I insisted on circling to check him out. I shouldn’t have. When we pulled up close, the cat presented a face of urban misery. This went beyond just mangy, matted fur. His face had been striped in fresh gashes, and he moved with the stunned gait of an injured cat.

A fountain of flavors on The Hoppy Monk's patio
Maybe I was emotionally tired after our long days of vacationing, but I could not shake the confused, famished look of that poor beast.

We drove by that garage several times during our 24 hours in El Paso, never spying the cat again. We can hope it found a refuge to mend, but can never know for certain. Everyone loves their cute cat videos, but how easily we ignore the short, harsh outdoor life many cats endure.

The Hoppy Monk proved easy to find on Mesa Street. The beer menu featured a lot of Texas selections. I went with w Berliner Weisse from Houston's St. Arnold Brewery.

We drove a little on I-10 before the sun dipped beneath the mountains, casting some last patches of light on the Franklin Mountains. We ended our night under the dome – Camino Real had a Tiffany glass dome circa 1913 and a large bar beneath it.

The Dome Bar's dome
We set out early to find the H&H Coffee Shop and Car Wash, an El Paso breakfast institution.

Attached to a working car wash that operated since 1958, the 25-seat coffee shop served up some amazing Mexican cuisine. I could not skip one last stab at chorizo and eggs. The ladies behind the counter shredded pork, deep-fried chili peppers and prepared other local cuisine just feet away from us.

The intimacy of a place like H&H cannot be underappreciated. The original owners, the Haddad brothers, both took turns sitting at the counter. It was a neighborhood place first and foremost, with people popping in for breakfast and a group of women eating out near the wash stations. .

A few tourist stops later, El Paso International Airport beckoned. Glass walls in the concourse looked onto the Franklin Mountains, giving visitors one last taste of  West Texas scale.

Turning hard above the city, the aircraft gave those of us on its right side stellar views of the combined El Paso-Juarez region. Skies over the desert cooperated most of the way to San Antonio, which was much greener than anything we crossed in the previous five days.

Not long after takeoff, I used my amateur mapping skills to eyeball our location. With a blue afternoon and relatively no clouds, I could leap between the distant settlements in the Chihuahuan Desert. A good-sized reservoir gave us away.

Two nearby towns confirmed it when I followed them to a patch of adobe buildings with orange tile roofs and a smaller dash of deep blue. Thundering seven miles above the desert, I had found Balmorhea State Park and relished the chance to steal one more moment of bliss from perfect waters.
See you soon, West Texas (the top half or more of the shot is Juarez)

Cavernous Lows, Oasis Highs

Our West Texas swing covered more ground on Saturday than any other day – hundreds of feet beneath the surface, 5,000 feet above sea level, plentiful water on an arid plain, foul weather and balmy spring sunshine. We started early, just a few hundred yards from our hotel in White's City. The misty start repeated itself, but this time it would hang around most of the day. 

The Museum of Geologic Art
The first elevator down to Carlsbad Caverns on National Park Week carried three tourists and a ranger. Two of them were Nancy and I, the other was a Vancouverite who drove four days to end up in the New Mexico desert.

Our fears about him tagging along on our trip through the cave 700 feet underground were unfounded; minutes after leaving the elevator we had the Big Room and one of the world’s massive cave systems to ourselves.

Someone once told me, “If you’ve seen once cave you’ve seen them all.” Having only seen Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, I can’t say I agree. Sure, the big ones all come from limestone, but ages of work required to form such a massive cave gives them an organic feel.

Mmm, popcorn
Stepping into the Big Room, one enters a limestone cathedral carved in trillions of drips spanning millions of years. We felt nothing but awe that we expressed in short whispers to avoid disrupting the cavern's solitude. Rock formations moved in crazy patterns. Stalactites grew downward, stalagmites bulked up. The bulkiest stalagmites eventually stop dripping and a few of the bigger ones along the trail gleamed with moisture.

Through the 1.4-mile path cut through the caverns, we had the cave to ourselves for the first mile. When we did encounter others, their voices gave them up minutes before we spotted them. Every scrape of shoe on the cave floor broke the silence. Here, a spoonful of noise weighed a ton.

The Big Room ceiling rose more than 200 feet above the cavern floor and stretched more than 4,000 feet. We didn’t need words to describe Carlsbad Caverns’ epic formations. Bulbs rose from the cave floor, patches of needles lined the ceiling, and I can’t forget the popcorn or formations that resembled abstract humans standing in the dark.

The cave's evolution continued. Often drops of water from the ceiling were the only noises heard deep in the Big Room. In some spots. water pooled into small ponds, bizarre limestone formations rising on their dark shores.

The Bottomless Pit sat at the Big Room’s far end. Only 140 feet deep, the pit’s sandy bottom muffled the noise of anything dropped into it, deceiving early spelunkers into believing it bottomless.

In other spots old-fashioned rope ladders dangled into unseen depths. Those flimsy ladders seemed barely capable of holding up anyone. Yet that’s how Jim White and the early cave explorers rooted around in this tunnel. Little formations like the Doll Theater look exactly as they sound, with everything made from stone.

When we returned to the surface, the visitor center became considerably crowded. From the canyon drive, cars poured in a steady stream. I almost had to haggle with a ranger to get a map; they had almost run out and were only offering one per party. But we could not leave without keeping our collection complete.

One last pass through the canyon, we picked up our wares at the hotel and split White’s City, which had served as a great two-night base camp for exploring this rugged corner of Texas and New Mexico.

Again crossing the Texas border and reentering Central Time, we went immediately east 40 miles on the wet farm-to-market road to Orla.

Oil trucks were the only other vehicles on the road to Pecos.  There were lots of them. We saw a few small oil facilities near the highway but out int he desert, the there might have been hundreds or thousands of wells just beyond the next ridge. Pecos had a bit of charm, as did every dusty Southwestern town we crossed.
Not a care in the air at Balmorhea State Park
Afternoon Oasis 
At certain points west, storms move differently. A rainstorm churned along to our west. Wisps and tendrils drooped down from the central cloud. Beyond that storm, the first blue sky of this Saturday eased out. The towns of Balmorhea and Toyahvale passed slowly. A smoker ran in a city park, a county sheriff enforced the 25 mph speed limit. Toyahvale can claim an oasis named for the other town.

Balmorhea State Park protects San Solomon Springs, a group of springs from which 22-28 million gallons of water flow every day, providing the lifeblood necessary for farming in bone-dry country. The springs sit at the bottom of a 2-acre swimming pool built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, along with a Spanish-style motor court.

Nancy swims near the deep-end dropoff.
In the past two decades, wetlands have been reconstructed off the canal that emerges from the pool, offering a glimpse of the springs’ original look. Immediately time slowed down and both of us relaxed. There was nothing else to do but swim.

The pool wasn’t too crowded. People were friendly. One of the Hispanic men in the pool asked us where we came from. Upon hearing Nashville, he remarked that he lived 100 miles away, but this was his first visit.

Even the fish were friendly. Yes, fish. Millions of minnow-sized fish swarmed in the waters. My best attempts to grab one came up empty every time. Occasionally, a black shoe crept on the pool bottom. These catfish were not lazy swimmers, just conserving their energy. They demonstrated how fast they could travel whenever ambitious children attempted to grab them.

Fish swarm in Balmorhea
The pool depth goes from four or five feet to a maximum of 25 feet, where scuba divers and snorkelers explore the springs and the sandy bottom. One arm of the pool ends in a diving board above 20-foot depths.

At a constant 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the spring water felt cold at first, then quickly grew comfortable. A day after reaching the highest point in Texas, these waters that originated from rain that fell on the Davis Mountains recharged our tired muscles.

After about 90 minutes, we cleaned up, dried off and left Balmorhea, even though we really didn’t want to go. Time seemed to stop at San Solomon Springs, worries peeled away and the water was always the right temperature. Soon the oasis in the desert would feel like an oasis of good weather on this stormy spring day.
Waterfowl, turtles in Balmorhea's restored wetlands

Fort in a Storm 
The next 40 minutes we climbed to the Lone Star State’s highest county seat, Fort Davis. Route 17 swerved through mountains and a fair amount of green. From dry riverbeds loomed massive cottonwoods.

Altitude added a lushness to the desert that it lacked at lower elevations. The sun beamed down on Fort Davis as we checked into the Hotel Limpia on the town square. The town’s laidback character was immediately evident.

But black clouds and fierce winds ushered in another rain salvo. We crossed the street to eat at the Blue Mountain Bistro & Bar. Round after round of rain then hail walloped the tin roof. On the patio, the hail began to pile up. Across the street, pea-sized hail fully coasted the back patio at the Limpia West. I napped hard after dinner.

Soon we returned to the road and our final stop of the night. We made reservations at the McDonald Observatory, the University of Texas’ astronomy facility. They picked a mountaintop near Fort Davis because of the clear skies.

As we traced the winding route up to the observatory, the night grew soupier and the prospects for stargazing receded into the fog. When we arrived, we couldn’t see the telescopes, much less the visitor center. We already knew the odds of seeing any stars that night.

The visitor center hummed angrily with the chatter of annoyed tourists. With his wife looking on, one man berated the women at the desk when told she could not issue a refund. He acted as if the clerk caused the nasty weather outside. Eventually they offered a voucher for another visit, and the angry man was first in line. No one missed him.

The remaining crowd placed no emphasis on good behavior. Sitting through a presentation on what we would have seen, we took a quick exit after a handful of bad questions. There would be no star sightings from the observatory this Saturday.

We struck out on the dark mountain road, cruising through darkness until reaching Indian Lodge, the motor court at Fort Davis State Park and first source of light in miles. Our prospects improved as the weather dried up in Fort Davis.

An encore at the Blue Mountain Bistro, Fort Davis’ only bar, was in order. A few tables were still full, and people at the bar swayed in and out of consciousness.

Nancy had a Jameson then some tequila, while I eagerly tried a few cans of Alpine’s Big Bend Brewing Company, West Texas’ lone craft brewery. The hefeweizen hit all the marks, the No. 23 Porter was probably not the best choice after a few wheat beers.

Many hours after the star party concluded in disappointment, we spied a few twinkles above the Davis Mountains from our hotel room. Just don’t ask us which stars broke through the clouds.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Staring down at Texas

At daylight, a light mist and fog wrapped up White’s City. Packing our gear and packs, we headed off on the empty National Parks Highway. As we reached the park, a small herd of mule deer grazed in the road. Even on the pavement, the deer blend in so well that we nearly hit them. After stopping, I drove on the rumble strip to startle them into the tall grasses.

Hikes this steep through exposed mountainsides demanded early starts. We would attempt Guadalupe Peak, Texas’ highest point. Four of the state’s highest peaks, all 8,700 feet above sea level, sit within the park. Starting out, the trail wound past the mostly dry Pine Springs. A mule deer grazed a few hundred feet away.

Desert terrain seen from an unexpected forest
Good feelings about the hike prevailed until the switchbacks began. I had numerous trail encounters with steep switchbacks, but those on Guadalupe Peak were in their own league. Steep windy, they trailed away from the parking area, which soon became an asphalt patch next to Pine Springs. The morning sunshine turned every shady spot into an oasis.

Just as the desert switchbacks seemed to push against our limits, we hit a false summit – Guadalupe Peak has many – and stood in a pine forest. The air felt 20 degrees cooler here, reviving us instantly after the tough initial ascent.

A relic from a time when the Chihuahuan Desert was cooler, the forest felt out of place but was still welcome relief. Because it does not receive the same levels of sunshine as other faces of the mountain, the forest remains despite brutally dry surrounding conditions.

Unseen beneath its branches sat an ecosystem out of place, where elk, turkeys, deer, mountain lions and other mountain fauna wander. The forest stretches out into the deep canyons, striking deep contrasts with the desert plants one thousand vertical feet on either side.

Frequently along the path we encountered a heavy stench of ammonia not unlike a used litter box. It would not be hard to imagine the region’s mountain lions wandering the forested mountainsides at night, doing their best to mark territory and remove traces of human visitors.

Nancy on the bridge
When we hiked in silence, my memory played Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger and some musical cues from the Dances With Wolves soundtrack. I always find John Barry’s score has some pieces that get the legs moving, especially when they want nothing more than rest.

As for Willie, try looking down from those West Texas heights and not imagining his desert-ready guitar work. We passed the campground site and crossed a small wooden bridge on a tough section of the mountain. From there, the path looped back into the later morning sunshine, and there was little shade as the vegetation returned to yucca and cacti. 

As we neared the peak, the switchbacks jogged between the desert crags and the northern forest. Not that any step became easier.I felt a little gassed after all the high steps. Our stops grew more frequent. Some corners required a brief scramble across the rocks. One of stops brought us out above El Capitan, the rocky peak we admired from the desert floor a day earlier.

El Capitan is not so imposing here
A wooden structure I spotted from several hundred feet below the summit turned out to be a place for riders to tie their horses 100 yards shy of the summit. Horses were not allowed on the summit, but lack of water along the trail led few riders to bring them to this altitude. As our feet burned on the last stretch, the peak-capping pyramid glinted in the late morning sun. We had arrived.

Before I did anything, I signed the log book secured in a metal box at the pyramid base; if a heart attack were about to strike, I was not getting robbed of recording our summit visit. I’m pretty sure the metal latch got damaged from my attempt at opening the box, but no matter – the log book was almost full and for all we know, NPS just tosses them in the garbage went they replace them.

The summit was rather spacious. During our time there, three other parties milled around, picnicked and took their own pictures with the American Airlines-funded pyramid. We spent about 30 minutes on the summit.

Caves in the rock wall
The summit had an interesting ecosystem. Beetles dug through the soft, black soils between the rough rocks, birds casually swooped around, wildflowers eked out life among the crags and bees crowded around a low, bushy pine.

Soaring birds ruled the skies of Guadalupe Peak, where many crows looped among other species. The most regal was a golden eagle drifting in the crosswinds until abrupt entering a sharp, focused dive for prey.

Looking down on Pine Springs, many switchbacks later
The descent from Guadalupe Peak might be faster, but no one would call it easier. Broken rocks on the trail pummeled our feet. In many places the rocks required steps down. In others, my natural tendency to trip did not serve me well. In the final mile I spotted one snake, striped and fast-moving. I only saw its rear half disappear into the scrub, and failed to mention its appearance to Nancy until later in the evening.

Just before 2 p.m., I tripped my way into the parking lot. Seriously, after eight 8.2 rough miles, with all sorts of broken rock on the path, my foot snagged a curb and nearly sent me sprawling. Nancy arrived minutes after me, and we roared away from the mountain. We just got in the car and left. All I could do was follow El Capitan in the rearview and know that I looked down upon that imposing peak.

After a brief rest, we adjourned to Carsbad’s Trinity Hotel, a restore bank building that housed a nice restaurant and bar. Trinity primarily poured wine from two New Mexico wineries, Balzano and Luna Rossa (owners of the former also owned the hotel). The food was tasty, the dessert was better. They also had Marble Brewery IPA, a luxury for those of us who lack regular access to New Mexico’s premier craft brewer. Before leaving Carlsbad, we stopped at Albertsons for a six-pack. A dam swells the Pecos River and the city wisely built a series of paths along the banks.

Soon we left Carlsbad, the aching in our muscles and bones too strong to ignore. Again the sun set below the Capitan Reef as we burned down the desert highway. Tonight there would be no encore at the bat cave. Well, the bats would be there, but we would rest soundly before the last daylight faded.

Jotting out a few postcards, we readied for well-earned sleep. As I walked to the White’s City post office to mail my mad scribbles, a number of free-tailed bats nabbed insects draw to the general store’s flood lights. I could no longer see the shadow of El Capitan, but after so many hours in its presence, I didn't need to.