Road Trip VIII, Days 5-9, Oakland to LA: Slowwwwwing Down

This is the part of the road trip where mileage doesn’t govern our days, and the Mate and I relish it. The Great Plains will happen soon enough—for now, we’re taking it easy. Some examples:

Strolling around the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland (LITERALLY strolling, with the wee twin cousins in their stroller), stopping to investigate the many tiny corner libraries (and leaving some of my books for Oaklanders to find):

The Flyong Burgowski takes Oakland!

Visiting friends in a retirement condo in San Franscisco, who have the most efficient filing cabinet I’ve ever seen:

Brilliant, right?

Going out of our way to hike in Montaña de Oro State Park, a place we’ve always passed up because we were too much in a hurry to get to Santa Barbara:

I mean, we ARE in SoCal…there must be beaches!

But I still took the time to notice how beautiful young poison oak looks when illuminated by the sun…

And today, visiting another friend in the greater LA area, I took myself for a power walk up a winding mountain highway that is, apparently, dearly beloved by motorcyclists and people with sports cars. Also regular cyclists, whom I prefer—dang, those motorcycles are loud!—although I had to admit that the folks on motors looked like they were having fun both up AND down the mountain.

VERY winding mountain highway.

But me? I just walked…and took advantage of the sights only slowness can offer.

Pretty invasives. (Actually, that’s a good name for Los Angeles itself, isn’t it?)

Next up: the big left turn—a.k.a., desert’s calling!

Road Trip VIII, Days 1-4, Tacoma to Oakland: Making The Familiar Strange

“Poetry is making the familiar strange.” That’s an unattributed quote I used to give my students, and it came to my mind as the Mate and I began the first leg of this, our eighth cross-country sojourn to North Carolina. It’s true that even though February travel argues for a quick race to the south, we have multiple routes available to us for that purpose. We don’t have to go Tacoma-Eugene-Redwood Coast-Oakland-Los Angeles. Yet we’ve taken that route six out of eight years.

That raises two questions. The first, Why? is easy: people. Specifically, dear very young people who are changing so rapidly that missing a year is like missing three, and dear older people whose health we never want to take for granted. We WILL go where they are, while we can.

…like these guys😍

The second question is tougher: how do we keep fresh our enthusiasm for this well-traveled route? And that’s where that quote comes in. In this first, familiar leg of our journey, I am giving my Noticing Muscles a workout, determined to keep the familiar strange.

So, walking in Tacoma’s beautiful Point Defiance Park, I ignored the shining trunks of the madrona trees to capture this bright red Oregon Grape.

Nothing like Christmas in February!

Then, instead of taking a classic picture of Mt. Rainier in all her fresh-snow glory, I focused on this cloud flexing its muscle.

We can do it!

In Eugene, walking with friends along the Coast Fork of the Willamette, I substituted a shot of moss-draped oaks for this intriguingly blank sign.

For when you’re feeling especially self-directed…

Not pictured: flock of wild turkeys.

Just before the California border, heading toward Cave Junction on beautiful US 199, we passed this sign (admittedly not our first glimpse, but I finally got the Mate to slow down so I could take its picture):

Apparently fully intentional—hey, let’s celebrate veggies AND dyslexia!

In the redwoods—oh, I have so many pictures of redwoods!—I forced myself away from the big trees…

OK, just ONE MORE big tree picture…!

ahem, I say, I forced myself to look down instead of up sometimes, and found…

British Soldier lichen!

And…

Tiny tree doing yoga!

Finally arriving in the Bay Area, the Mate and I went for a bike ride along the top of Tilden Park in Berkeley. And there…well, it’s not so much that my noticing muscles gave out, as that bikes aren’t the best mode of transport for photography.

So I had to settle for this fairly obvious shot:

Good ol’ Golden Gate in the distance

Not pictured: a pair of the glossiest ravens I’ve ever seen.

But no worries—most of the “view” I’m seeing in these well-travelled parts of the West are memories…and I haven’t found a way to capture those with my smartphone yet.

Private Views of Public Lands: Who Do These People Think They Are? Oh. Heh. Us.

How do government workers stand it? All the democracy, I mean. All the dealing with people on whose behalf they are planning the roads or designing the curriculum…or, in this case, protecting the land.

This land. And this chocolate lily and this death camas.

The cover shot of this blog is part of the San Juan National Monument–which happens to be practically in my backyard. So I spend a lot of time out there–enough to feel a strong degree of ownership. “Yeah, yeah, public land…but they don’t know it and love it like I do.”

It’s not like the path is hard to find or anything.

Which is why it’s so hard, every year as Memorial Day approaches, watching the hordes of visitors begin to tromp my beloved paths. Or, often as not, tromp OFF them, into the meadows and over the fragile lichens, despite the signs asking them oh-so-politely not to…

Have you ever seen a sweeter, more polite sign from the feds? It even says Thank you!

despite the not-subtle blockages of routes…

C’mon, people…sticks mean no walkies!

and, oh yeah, this brand-new sign with the trails perfectly marked and the endangered wildflowers listed (the ones you’re tromping on now, you!!! Get back on the trail! (Easy, girl.)

Thanks, taxpayers! (You’re welcome.)

How do they DO it, those Bureau of Land Management folks who, charged with protecting this fragile landscape, hosted public meeting after public meeting with every possible stakeholder, striking the perfect compromise between use and misuse, the perfect language for every sign–including when NOT to place a sign at all? And then to see how many people deliberately breeze past your handiwork because they NEED to go climb that rock?

THIS rock…which has a perfectly good access if you’d just walk a little further up the trail!

I know, believe me. I’ve scoffed my share of laws–dog off leash for years (though I always leashed up if I saw another person), lichens crushed, flowers picked because I wanted to. But that was BEFORE someone asked me (politely) not to, and took the time to explain why.

Do we need to ask more politely? Explain more thoroughly? Or just resign ourselves to the fact that a certain percentage of people will always do exactly what they want no matter that–or even because–someone’s asking them not to?

I’m really bad at resignation. Guess there’s a reason I don’t work for the Bureau of Land Management. I have too much personal, private passion wrapped up in these lands…which aren’t private in the least.

Which is good. I happen to have neighbors who are equal parts wealthy, environmentally concerned, and generous. I walk and run on their paths as much as on the National Monument; they are contiguous, the same stunning stretch of coastline. And grateful as I am for their permission to drink in the private beauty, it feels weird to me that it IS private. That so few people have access…to wander off its trails, tromp its delicate meadows and lichens and…

Delicate lichens and red-leafed stonecrop that suddenly shows itself golden in the spring…

Oh dear. Here we go again. Guess I’ll just wrap it up this way: I love our democracy. I love the idea of public lands. And I appreciate the hell out of the folks who have to deal with the public ON the land, because…they sure are better at it than I am.

Road Trip VII, Days 5-9, Dallas to Asheville: Graffiti and Growth

A study in contrasts: that’s what these past few road days have meant. Not the red desert west vs. leafy green east contrast; we left that behind in Palo Duro. Dallas, a few hours to the east, is firmly in the “east” quadrant, climatically speaking: they have humidity. Kudzu. Oaks and maples.

And tacos. OMG, the tacos! Sorry. Sorry. Not food-blogging today.

No, the contrasts we’ve been exposed to are cultural. Our Dallas friend David is a developer who focuses on turning blighted sections of his city into vibrant small-business centers. Most of his lessees are folks whom banks give short shrift: minorities, women, ex-cons. So when David gives us a bicycle tour through Dallas, we see it through his eyes–a fascinating lesson in demographic history.

Elvis played here once…

The most fascinating section of Dallas, to me, was what David called the “free-range graffiti place”–a blighted area whose owners apparently allow graffiti artists to roam freely and practice their skills.

Some definitely more talented than others…but the combined effect is breathtaking.

It does kinda bug me when the punk taggers have to mess up the good stuff.

I got to watch this one young artist beginning an ambitious project. His girlfriend must have a lot of patience.

 

He’s got his work cut out for him.

Leaving Texas, we drove rapidly through Arkansas and Tennessee, trying to stay ahead of a winter storm. So no pictures from those states, sorry. But on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, we stopped for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that’s where the contrast came in.

The Mate thinks the winter woods look desolate, but I love the way they let me see the mountain’s bone structure!

That hike was a testament to what happens when you take a piece of land and put it out of the reach of human shaping. Authorized in 1926, Great Smoky is the first national park in the east, and by far the largest.

Rhodie thickets: what the word “impenetrable” was designed for

When I walk in those mountains, I feel a sense of ageless resilience. They’ve been inhabited for centuries, and–at least in the park–they don’t give a shit about demographic history.

Why, hello, Spring!

Seems to me, when the legally-protected woods are “bare-ass nekkid” and the mountain’s showing off its bones, Nature is its own graffiti artist, free to roam.

So nice to see the mountainside just plain dripping instead of dripping with icicles. 🙂

We’re headed now to my hometown, Durham, to watch a little basketball and eat a little BBQ. So this blog might suddenly veer from philosophy to fanaticism (GO Tarheels!!!). But never fear–all it’ll take to bring me back to myself is a walk in those bare-nekkid woods.

Road Trip VII, Days 1-4: Los Angeles to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Wait–Day 1 is Los Angeles? Gretchen, did you move?

No, I cheated. Starting from my home in Washington State, I flew down to San Diego for a first-ever reunion with my sisters, while the Mate followed, at the wheel of our faithful Red Rover. We met in LA and started Road Trip VII from there.

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

The theme of the trip so far? It’s the raison d’etre of our road trips: the joy of moving through beauty.

Our favorite way is to feel the air on our skin. So Day 1, we hiked in the steep canyons of Hollywood, startlingly green from all that recent rain, ignoring the Oscars-related bustle going on just below.

Ah, air. Even LA air. If it’s sunny in February, my skin’s not picky about pollution.

Day 2, we rode our bikes through the cactus gardens of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, marveling at the variety of the plant forms.

Make your own caption for this one

Make your own caption for this one

Can we not find a better word than “desert” to describe such arid Edens? 

dsc02176img_2210But sometimes the air-on-skin model is too rough for our tender epidermes. Day 3, approaching Albuquerque from the south, we were looking forward to biking through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, glorying in the thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese and other migratory fowl who vacation there. But the wind had other ideas–or rather, the wind-blown dust did.

Scenery? What scenery?

Scenery? What scenery?

With poor little Red Rover getting sandblasted along I-25, we decided we wouldn’t fare too well. Boo. Sadness.

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

So we pushed on to Albuquerque, where, thanks to our buddy Beth, I was able to take two long power-walks through the wonderful neighborhoods of Northwest (backyard chickens, horses, goats–even an emu!) as the wind gradually relaxed to less-than-lethal levels.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Mmm…and chiles rellenos with fresh, deeply-green New Mexican chiles….whoops, sorry. Not today’s theme.

On Day 4, we finally got to experience air-on-skin, moving-through-beauty in the blessed slo-mo that is camping. In Palo Duro Canyon State Park, this red, rocky wonderland astonishing close to Amarillo–really!–we rode our bikes around in the last of the afternoon sun.

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Then in the morning we went for a hike.

Dawn's early light from our campsite

Dawn’s early light from our campsite

This was very welcome as a warmer-upper, as the blessedly still air pushed the temp down to 20 overnight. And we weren’t allowed to use our stove because of extreme fire danger. Brrr.

C'mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

C’mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Lest you think The Mate and I are too precipitous in our appreciation of nature’s gifts, just let me add: I could easily have written a post about the joys of being outdoors while holding still. But with a whole continent to cross, basketball games to watch and a bakery waiting for me to come back and work at…my skin and I choose to celebrate our happy reality: moving air.

Almost...warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality...)

Almost…warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality…)

Milford Track-elogue: Walk With Me On “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”

“Tramp,” actually–not walk. Kiwis don’t hike trails, they tramp tracks. And we’re going to New Zealand now, where I’ve been for most of the past month, and still am, mentally, for the past week since coming home. This blog entry will allow me to stay a while longer. Thanks for that.

January 30, with our tidy, heavy backpacks, we hopped a bus in Te Anau (in Fiordland, on the southwest of the South Island) to a boat which took us to the top of (beautiful, 40-mile long, 1,200 ft-deep) Lake Te Anau  and dropped us off at the start of the track. I was filled with that childlike sense of “I can’t believe this is finally happening!”–a feeling which never wore off, as a matter of fact, during the whole five days. (That’s what you get for wanting to do something for 20 years, I guess. I’ve always enjoyed the extra boost of joy I get from anticipation, and this was extra-extra.)

Let's go let's go let's go!

Let’s go let’s go let’s go!

The boat dropped us off. Every tramper had to step carefully through a pair of tubs filled with bleach solution, to kill an invasive algae that’s plaguing NZ waters. Milford’s rivers are still blessedly pure.

After 20 years...we're on our way.

After 20 years…we’re on our way.

Off we tramped into mature beech forest, those giant Lord Of The Rings southern beeches with tiny, dark leaves and craggy, ferny, rainforesty trunks. Huge. Immersed in silence, with occasional blasts from tiny fantails and black robins with outsized voices, I could not wipe the smile off my face.

Imagine birdsong...

Imagine birdsong…

Mountain Beech

Mountain Beech

The first hut was only 5k away and the day was fine. (In NZ, food is “nice” and weather is “fine”–the opposite of how we say it.) So we took our time, stopping for lunch and photos. We both wished the first hut had been further in, making the next day shorter, but I guess the public huts are spaced carefully apart from the lodges of the paying trampers (who have their packs carried and meals prepared), and those lodges seem to have been built first.

The irony of this river's name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy's inauguration...

The irony of this river’s name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy’s inauguration…

At Clinton Hut (on the Clinton River) we had plenty of leisure time. I covered myself up from sandflies and found a mossy log to lounge upon and write in my journal, and a sweet little black robin came and sat on my feet! I think it was eating my sandflies. (No pictures of that–I didn’t want to scare the lil’ guy off.)

***Not pictured: black robin eating Gretchen’s sandflies***

That night it started to rain. We’d seen the weather reports; the next day looked horrible, and we fully expected to be hiking in torrential rain and wind. Our Hut Warden, Rose, warned us, “It’ll be like walking into the shower with the spray pointed at your face.”  But we took comfort in the hope that the following day would be clear to crest the pass.

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts...

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts…

Rain it did–where we were, yes, but even more above us, and on the other side of the pass. We apparently received 9 inches; I’m not sure what they got, but it was more. Which was a problem. That first morning, all packed up and ready to roll, we 40 trampers listened to Rose telling usthat the track would become impassible up ahead. (Neck-deep, in fact, is what it turned out to be on the other side of the pass!) So the 40 trampers in the next hut couldn’t move on, which meant that we couldn’t either. Having already spent a full afternoon in Clinton Hut, we were now officially forbidden to leave it for another 24 hours. (Rose actually put a rope across the track–never seen that before.)

Clinton Hut wasn't my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2--so happy to be there!

Clinton Hut wasn’t my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2–so happy to be there!

***Not pictured: rainy, rainy Clinton Hut***

As we were digesting this, feeling dismayed, it dawned on us that the hikers scheduled one day after us were having their entire trip CANCELLED. No way to double up folks in those huts, or at least no way the orderly Kiwis wanted to try. Wouldn’t that SUCK, to get all that way and have your tramp denied? So we counted our blessings: hey, an extra day on the Milford!

But hey, it's a RAINforest. It's just doing its job.

But hey, it’s a RAINforest. It’s just doing its job.

It was a long 24 hours, especially for the Mate, who hadn’t brought a book or cards, but all our fellow trampers were pleasant, so we got to know some folks from Israel, South Africa, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand… (Only one other American; nice.)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Our official Day 2 (actually Day 3) took us 8.5 miles, still only gently uphill, to Mintaro Hut in the fuchsia (kotukutuku) forest favored by bellbirds, so the birdsong got even better. The river valley narrowed there as we approached the river’s source, and of course there were waterfalls everywhere.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Day 4 was the highlight: MacKinnon Pass. It’s only about 3,500 ft, but considering that we started at sea level, we were not taking it lightly. To our pleasure, most of the climb was graded so gently that we made it much more easily than expected.

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

From beech/fuchsia to flax/shrub to red tussock grass/bare rock/tarns we climbed, more wildflowers and more interesting lichens at every switchback.

We've reached treeline!

We’ve reached treeline!

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Up on the pass, looking over the drop on the other side (typical lack of fence–New Zealand does not have tort law, thus doesn’t appear to share the US’s preoccupation with saving people from their own stupidity), my “hallelujah I’m really HERE” sense swelled almost to painful proportions.

almost...there...

almost…there…

It was cold up there, though, and the weather threatened a change as I guess it always does. So no lingering.

...except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

…except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

Gretchen in her happy place

Gretchen in her happy place

Of course there was a hut up there and of course it had a gas cooker, so of course I had a celebratory cuppa, then gave the Mate a head start for the “down” walk (he has a metal hip, so down is harder than up). I took a few more pictures.

But I don't WANNA go back down!

But I don’t WANNA go back down!

Then, OH so reluctantly, I headed after him. (What is it about high alpine that thrills me so? Must be a past life thing.)

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World's Best Latrine View?

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World’s Best Latrine View?

The ecozone was different enough on that side that I couldn’t stop taking pictures–look, tree ferns!! Blue waterfalls!–so I didn’t catch the Mate till nearly the bottom.

img_2796

I love me some tree ferns.

I love me some tree ferns.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

The trail down was way steeper than the climb, with a rough portion that required big, jolting steps, so the Mate was really feeling it. (Me too, but my legs are 15 years younger and contain no metal parts.) He rested a while, then headed down the last portion of the 10+ mile day; I took a brief, packless side trip to NZ’s highest permanent waterfall.

All you need to know...

All you need to know…

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

When I joined the Mate at the last hut (called, for some reason, Dumpling Hut), the sandflies were so thick there was no question of sitting outside. We pretty much ran from bunkhouse to loo or dining hut. Shades of things to come.

***Not pictured: sandflies (use your imagination)***

But the last night was still sweet. Everyone felt great about making those steep miles, especially us retired or less in-shape types (which was most everyone; the young Israeli guys, of course, could probably have done the whole 34 mile track in a day if allowed). Everyone had rationed their food enough to to make do even with the extra set of meals. (Actually, the Mate and I had been kinda hoping that we’d all end up with a big potluck on that last dinner, but nothing that organized needed to happen.) And everyone, even the Israelis, was SORE from that long downhill.

***also not pictured: interior of a hut. Imagine a Boy Scout Camp bunkroom.***

But not as sore as the next day. Which was the longest: 12+ miles. Gently downhill, so not a problem, but the sandflies were so thick one couldn’t stop without being swarmed. The only way to hike was to keep moving, exactly what our poor tired legs didn’t need. Once again I gave the Mate a head start, but I never caught him. For the most part I enjoyed the solitude, writing songs in my head and stopping as much as I could to take pictures…

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Giant's Gate Falls--and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

Giant’s Gate Falls–and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

But, man–I sure could’ve used his company for the last 3 miles or so. Uff da.  “When’s the last time we hiked 12 miles with packs?” we asked each other afterward. “Right.”

GIANT beech just off the track--redwood-sized.

GIANT beech just off the track–redwood-sized.

Despite sore legs and shoulders, though, I refused to wish the track to end. I soaked that last day up, sandflies and all. New sights: a huge black river eel, four feet long at least. A tui–my favorite NZ bird! A rimu, my favorite tree–just a small one, saying hi. It rained, and I said, “Oh, good, we’re in the rain forest, this is what’s supposed to happen,” and then it stopped raining and I said, “Oh, good, we can dry out now.” I drank from little waterfalls. (All the water’s drinkable there.) And yes, of course I cursed those little sandfly fuckers.

***not pictured: all my bites***

The pickup spot at the end of the track, where a boat whisks the trampers ten  minutes across what is suddenly salt water to Milford Sound village, is called Sandfly Point. The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that the shelter there had a door on it, and also the boat driver was a good guy and just kept picking folks up, regardless of reservation times, as fast as he could shuttle them. So we didn’t have long to suffer.

Hurry up, boat! (That's Milford Sound: suddenly, salt water!)

Hurry up, boat! 

Too bad we couldn’t stay longer in beautiful Milford Sound.

Iconic Mitre Peak--goodbye, Milford!

Iconic Mitre Peak–goodbye, Milford!

But the good news: a bus whisked us  back to Te Anau, so we were able to enjoy the still-just-as-jaw-dropping scenery.

***not pictured: scenery as seen from bus windows. But my jaw stayed dropped.***

I’m not much of a “bucket list” person. But this trip has been urging me along for 20 years. Was it as good as I’d been dreaming? No. It was better.

 

Return to Kiwiland, Final Installment: Why New Zealand? The Coast to Coast Triathlon

And finally…Reason #2 why I’m headed back to New Zealand after 20 years: for a triathlon.

Not to run. To observe. To take notes. The next novel I’m planning is set in New Zealand, and this triathlon plays a major role. Because this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Coast to Coast.

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Kiwis take the phrase "cross-country" literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

Kiwis take the phrase “cross-country” literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

This race spans the skinniest part of the South Island, Kumara to Christchurch–243 kilometers (about 180 miles) of running, biking, and–no, not swimming–whitewater kayaking. Here’s the course:

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Oh, did I forget to mention it crosses a mountain pass?

Thanks to Kiwi friends, I’ve been invited to “pit crew” for a woman who’s doing the triathlon. I’m going to grab her bike or hold her wetsuit or whatever she needs, all while soaking up the sights and sounds and scents and trying not to make a pest of myself.

For years, the race was sponsored by a beer company. Now its sponsor is Kathmandu, an outdoor gear company that seems much better suited. But notice how little else I know about the Coast to Coast! I’m excited to learn how much more I have to learn.

Like...how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Like…how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Also thrilled that I don’t have to run/ride/paddle the damn thing myself. The elites take about 13 hours to finish. The woman whose crew I’m joining expects to take 15-16 hours.

Funny story:  when I first chatted with “my” triathlete, she asked, “So, this American athlete and her coach…will they be joining you as well?”

It took me a moment to process this. Then: “Oh, no! They’re fictional. I mean, they’re what the book’s going to be about. So, no, they won’t be coming with me.”

Except they will, of course. In my head. Assessing their fictional future.

So if you’re reading this–cheers! The next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-February, when our Great Kiwi Re-adventure is behind us. Till then, keep reading and writing and running or whatever it is you do. Hug your family. Talk with a stranger. Be well.

 

 

Return to Kiwiland, Part II: Why New Zealand? 2 Words: Milford Track

Kia ora! (Gotta start practicing my Maori for Pakehas–that is, white folks. I just said hello.)

Last post I promised TWO REASONS why the Mate and I are heading back to New Zealand 20 years after spending a year there.

Here goes reason #1: the Milford Track.

But before that makes sense, a little background. As I mentioned, when we lived in Dunedin in the mid-90s, our kids were small. Or, as the Kiwis put it, “wee.” Six and four. Therefore, our experience of NZ’s wonders was somewhat skewed.

For example, if you google Oamaru (the closest town of any size to Dunedin, where we lived), you’ll quickly learn that it’s home to a colony of Blue Penguins, the world’s smallest. I’m sure our boys remember the penguins–but not as well as they remember Oamaru’s AWESOME town playground, which featured a slide in the shape of a life-sized elephant.

Penguins, shmenguins.

Penguins, shmenguins.

We saw a lot of playgrounds in NZ. The Mate and I joked that we should write the kid version of Lonely Planet when we got home.

We also, of course, did a lot of hiking–what the Kiwis call tramping. Ready for some pics?

We tramped in native bush...(here, on the Abel Tasman Track)

We tramped in native bush…(here, on the Abel Tasman Track)

...and bush that had been pushed back for sheep...MILLIONS of sheep.

…and bush that had been pushed back for sheep…MILLIONS of sheep.

We tramped down south in the Gold Country (near Queenstown)...

We tramped down south in the Gold Country (near Queenstown)…

...and up on the North Island, in Rotorua (their version of Yellowstone's thermal areas)

…and up on the North Island, in Rotorua (their version of Yellowstone’s thermal areas)

We tramped up mountains--little ones like Mt. Cargill, Dunedin's high point

We tramped up mountains–little ones like Mt. Cargill, Dunedin’s high point

...and around the feet of Mt. Cook, NZ's highest peak. (Saw wild parrots here!)

…and around the feet of Mt. Cook, NZ’s highest peak. (Saw wild parrots here!)

We tramped through forests...

We tramped through forests…

...across beaches...

…across beaches…

...and across some pretty iffy bridges. (I had to piggyback the boys across; they didn't like the bouncing.)

…and across some pretty iffy bridges. (I had to piggyback the boys across; they didn’t like the bouncing.)

Most of these tramps, however, were short day hikes–normal kid fare. We only went on one multi-day tramp when my parents were visiting, so we’d have an extra set of arms to help carry gear or pooped-out kids. Tramping the famous Routeburn Track was not only once-in-a-lifetime memorable, it was also, turns out, a bit of a preview of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Son Two enters Mirkwood. Right?!

Son Two enters Mirkwood. Right?!

Which brings me back to Reason #1. We only managed part of the Routeburn (including walking behind a waterfall, so no one complained). We did not even attempt the Milford Track.

The Milford is considered one of the World’s Great Walks. You hike from hut to hut, no tenting, and you have to make reservations about nine months in advance to tramp in summer. This, of course, limits the number of people on the track (the Kiwi word for trail, in case you hadn’t figured that out). We probably couldn’t have gotten reservations even if we’d tried, that year. But we didn’t try. Because the distances between huts ranged from a few miles to twelve. Our kids were up for about five miles; the Mate and I were not up for carrying them, along with packs, for the remaining seven.

So I don’t have pictures of the Milford–yet. But I promised myself, when we left Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”–NZ’s Maori name) un-Milford-tracked, that if I could manage it in our lifetime, We Would Be Back.

So that’s Reason #1. Pictures to follow–in a couple of months, probably. For now, here’s a teaser, courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons:

Thanks, AlasdairW! Can't wait to follow in your footsteps.

Thanks, AlasdairW! Can’t wait to follow in your footsteps.

Canada’s Best-Kept Secret? The Sunshine Coast

Ready for a quick morph into travel-blog mode? How about a debate over what IS Canada’s best-kept secret? (I imagine it has many. Unlike the U.S., Canada does not trumpet its specialness.) The Mate and I just returned from a short excursion up British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, and we are still scratching our heads.

How have we lived so long, and so close by, without knowing about this place?

Quick geography overview: the Sunshine Coast is–duh–on the west coast, or rather it IS the west coast, north and east of Vancouver. It is NOT an island, though it includes many. But considering you have to take TWO ferries to experience its extent, it sure is hard to convince your brain that it’s still on the mainland.

Look, here’s what I’m talking about:

(Courtesy sunshinecoastcanada.com)

(Courtesy sunshinecoastcanada.com)

Wanna drive to Whistler? Sure. Wanna drive to Gibsons? Get on a boat.

On Day One, a single ferry ride plus a generous hour’s drive from Vancouver, we were discovering the Skookumchuck Rapids. These rapids are NOT in a river–they’re formed by the tide rushing through an inlet too skinny to hold all that water without throwing it around in standing waves and trenches so deep and gnarly that kayakers come from all over to train and play in them.

Not a river? Are you SURE?!

Not a river? Are you SURE?!

Wheeee!

Wheeee!

On Day Two, after our second ferry ride, I was walking through the largest town, Powell River, on my way to the info center. “Um, you might not want to go that way,” a young woman called to me from a yard. “There’s a bear in a tree down that street, and he’s been growling.” Of course I had to go see that bear. It was a big one, very black, snoozing in a crook of a cedar. In the middle of a neighborhood. Welcome to Powell River, eh?

{Did not have my camera on me at that moment, so I’ll give you a second to imagine the bear.}

Day Three, we drove to the furthest northern town, Lund, and took a 10-minute water taxi ride out to Savary Island–referred to by some Coasters as “our Hawaii.” Not sure about that comparison, but in terms of SUN and wide expanses of sand…sure, I get it. Also never heard of it. Also thrilled to be there at the end of the summer with NO ONE ELSE around.

sunny Savary, with Vancouver Island in the background

sunny Savary, with Vancouver Island in the background

Day Two and Four, we rode our bikes 13k around Inland Lake, near Powell River. (We liked the bike path so much, we did it in both directions.)

The lake has its own wee island you can ride onto!

The lake has its own wee island you can ride onto!

Not a soul around, unless loons have souls.

Not a soul around, unless loons have souls.

OK, I'll stop. I just REALLY loved this bike path.

{OK, I’ll stop. I just REALLY liked that bike path.}

On our last day, back on the lower portion of the Sunshine Coast, we hiked a short ways to Smugglers Cove, where we found…

...this.

…THIS.

Madrona in the morning sun

Madrona in the morning sun

Madrona with berries

Madrona with berries

I don’t usually post so many pictures, so you can tell what kind of a visual impact this place made on me. (If my computer weren’t so slow to upload them, I’d post more.) The Mate and I feel like we only got a little taste of the Sunshine Coast, and we already want to go back.

Which, lucky for us, isn’t that big of a deal. Which brings me back to that first question: why did it take us 26 years of living in the Northwest to figure this out?

So, what do you think: Canada’s best-kept secret? Or are there others I don’t yet know of?

My Mountain, How I’ve Missed You: Nostalgeology 101

Since I moved from North Carolina to Washington 26 years ago, I’ve continued to miss 5 things: my parents, oak trees, GOOD fried chicken, Tarheel basketball, and NC-style BBQ. (OK, if pressed, I could come up with five or ten more–like friends, and dogwoods.)

Since I moved from Tacoma to Lopez Island six years ago, I miss about the same number of things. But #1 on the list doesn’t even begin to exist as a category of my southeastern nostalgia: The Mountain.

Here in the San Juans, we have occasional views of Mt. Baker–sometimes, from the ferry, downright excellent ones. A recent camping trip last month reminded me of what a lovely mountain Baker is.

Not bad, Baker, not bad.

Not bad, Baker, not bad.

But I knew Mt. Rainier. Mt. Rainier was my goddess. And you, Mt. Baker, are no Mt. Rainier.

From my first view of her as a still-North-Carolinian in 1981, she called to me. In 1986, I climbed to her summit–not to conquer, but to adore. (It was so damn cold up there that my adoration took the form of 10 minutes of exhausted gasping before heading back down, but still.) I’m glad I climbed before I was old enough to know better, and I wouldn’t do it again, but I still get a little shiver of love when I look up at her gleaming dome and think, “I was THERE.”

Adoration from below served me just fine for those 20 years in Tacoma. I saw her out my kitchen window while cooking. I saw her from the parking lot of the high school where I taught. I spent hours discussing which part of The Mountain was “out” at which part of the day, how she looked last night at sunset, or this morning at dawn. She was part of my daily life, my vacations, my identity as a converted Northwesterner.

Has it really been THREE YEARS since my last visit, with Son Two?!

Has it really been THREE YEARS since my last visit, with Son Two?!

Now, when I’m lucky enough to see her at all, she’s a tiny lump on the horizon. Not so tiny considering she’s 100 miles away, but still–hardly a part of my day.

Which is why yesterday’s all-too-brief ramble, introducing my Lopez friends to my Mountain, felt so sweet.

Even better: sharing my Mountain with friends.

Even better: sharing my Mountain with friends.

There are mountains and mountains. And then there’s The Mountain. My goddess. But I realize not everyone’s nostalgia is nostalgeology. For someone else it might be a precious old oak, or the feel of the air, or even the sound of a certain bird call.

Or is nostalgeology somehow more powerful than trees or birds? What do y’all think? What geological feature, were you removed from, would leave a hole in your otherwise happy life?