Churchill Manitoba Canada (2018)
The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill Manitoba is two and a half hours long, a distance of one thousand km, and a world away. Winnipeg is a vibrant, urban city of more than 750,000 people. Churchill, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has a population of eight hundred and is accessible only by air and rail. The population increases many fold during six weeks in October and November when the polar bears gather in and around Hudson Bay and visitors from all over the world come to see them.
Polar bears are marine mammals that live in the Arctic regions of five countries: Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Currently, there are twenty to thirty thousand globally but they are at serious risk of decline due to loss of polar ice. While there are nineteen different polar bear populations in these five countries, sixty percent live in Canada, with more than one thousand in Churchill. Water conditions here cause ice to form first and melt last. Polar bears are not adapted to eat on land. The ice serves as platforms for the bears to hunt ring seals, their primary food source. Polar bears are uniquely suited to the extreme climate in the Arctic regions. In fact, they can’t easily survive in temperatures above freezing. They have two coats of dense fur and eleven centimeters of fat as insulation against the cold. Large furry paws keep them warm and claws help them walk over thin ice to reach their prey. They can live thirty years in the wild.
I am here in Mid-November, the fifth of the six-week season. It is very cold, below zero with a substantial wind chill. I’m told snow has been on the ground for the past three weeks or so. On our first day in Churchill as our group approaches town from the airport, we see a beautiful polar bear mom and cub also approaching town, something that is strongly disapproved of for safety reasons. The polar bear patrol shoots cracker shells in the air to discourage them and they run away in the opposite direction.
The next day, we head out to the tundra on a special vehicle called a polar rover designed to traverse the difficult terrain that is thick with tundra grass, rock, snow and ice.
Early on, we see a polar bear hunkered down in some scrubby willows apparently avoiding the harsh wind. Conditions rapidly deteriorate to blizzard white-out and we can no longer see anything. I go out on the back deck of the rover to experience twenty degrees below zero and feel my face get numb.
I have a conversation with the driver asking him how he can possibly navigate in zero visibility. He tells me about landmarks that he uses as well as the fact that he comes from Churchill and knows the contours of the land well. Then he promptly gets lost! It is quite hilarious. We stop a number of times waiting for the weather to clear. When it does late in the afternoon, we are at an overlook of Hudson Bay. To our surprise and delight, we see an Arctic Fox curled up in a ball and an Arctic Hare lying in some stunted willows, each as white as the snow in which they are camouflaged, sleeping peacefully.
Our second and last day on the rover, there is thankfully no blizzard. We’re shown a weather map that indicates how far the ice has grown in magnitude over the last few days, from just along the shore of Hudson Bay to four miles out. This means that in that period of time, most of the bears have gone from Churchill for the season and we’re likely to see only stragglers. And we do! For a long time we watch a bear quite far out on the ice as it moves back and forth, sniffing the air, it’s long neck stretched out, then lying down to rest and up again to explore.
In addition to our group guide who has told us a tremendous amount about polar bears, we are fortunate to have a polar bear scientist from the World Wildlife Fund on board who shares with us her extensive knowledge from years of study. And we’re not finished yet! We see ptarmigans resplendent in their winter white.
Then there is the polar bear jail. As I mentioned earlier, the polar bear authority wants to keep people and polar bears apart. When the bears get into Churchill, an emergency call goes out and the polar bear patrol gets to the location of the wayward bear, tranquilizes it and has it taken to jail where it is incarcerated a few days to a month depending upon the seriousness of the infraction. Once paroled, the bear is released onto the ice, perhaps deterred from future town incursions.
Halloween in Churchill is a unique production. Given the polar bear issue, trick-or-treaters must be protected. This involves a helicopter, police, northern rangers, fire fighters and conservation officers, twenty four men and two helicopter pilots in all. This to make sure that one hundred sixty Churchill kids get to fill their bags with candy and be safe from polar bears!
On the day of our return to Winnipeg, the weather in Churchill is the most extreme yet. Taking a photo requires glove removal. By the time that thirty-seconds has elapsed, my fingers burn with the cold. My toes are so painful that it takes hours indoors for them to thaw out. And it’s only November. It is quite apparent that Churchill is for far hardier folks than me!
Featured photo is courtesy of Amy McCawley
After a week of challenging hikes in Alaska’s magnificent Denali National Park (the featured photo on this postcard is of Mount Denali reflected in Wonder Lake on a dazzling day), I change gears and head to Homer, a small town 123 miles (as the crow flies) southwest of Anchorage, to go on a bear excursion.
Our journey begins at the minuscule Homer airport where nine of us and two pilot guides don hip-high waders and board two six-passenger prop planes for the thirty minute flight to Lake Clark National Park located across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula. The planes land on the beach at low tide in a blustery wind. After alighting onto the sand, I add a fleece vest and a windbreaker to the wool shirt and down jacket I am already wearing, and also put on a hat and gloves. It is mighty cold.
Lake Clark National Park is home to two or three thousand coastal brown bears (known as grizzlies inland). Almost at once we spy a pair of siblings far away where the tide has gone out. We walk single file through the shallow muddy water a respectable distance from the bears and stand still while watching them dig energetically for razor clams,
one of the three foods they endlessly consume over the short Alaskan summer in order to bulk up for the long Alaskan winter. They saunter within a few feet of us with hardly a glance in our direction.
After awhile, we change venues, leaving the beach for a broad open meadow covered in sedge, a grasslike plant that is the second of the three foods* the bears devour ceaselessly for hours (and I know this because we watch for hours!). At first, we are entranced by a solitary bear munching the wet sedge,
when our attention is drawn to three bears grazing together, a mama and her two cubs. They likewise pay us no mind as they come very close to us.
No sooner do we settle in to gaze at this threesome than we become mesmerized by a mother and her two tiny four-month-old cubs
(cubs are born each year in February in the den during hibernation) that are cavorting at the other end of the meadow. They are just adorable.
All told, there are as many as eleven bears at once in our view, although the singletons do not interact with any of the others nor do the threesomes socialize with the different families. It is quite an afternoon!
*The third food is salmon which won’t be available until after spawning in early August.
Newfound Lake, New Hampshire
It was quite an ordeal to get here. One flight cancelled, then a second. Blizzard in Boston closed down the airport. Will I make it? I’ve never been to Newfound Lake in the winter, and now my opportunity is being jeopardized.
I finally arrive at Logan but the buses to Concord, New Hampshire are canceled due to the weather. I stay at an airport hotel overnight and take a bus at 6:45 the next morning. My friend, Audrey, meets me at the bus depot and takes me to her condo on Newfound, just steps from the lake. The view, sparkling in summer, is now magnificent wrapped in snow.
The temperature is 9 degrees with a substantial wind chill. We head over to Sugar Loaf, a low mountain across the lake, one I have hiked many times. We strap on snow shoes and begin to hike in the hushed, pristine woods. There is no other human or animal presence. We get to the outlook on Little Sugar Loaf. The view is perfectly clear and crisp, much of the lake frozen. The contrast between the blue of the partially frozen lake and the surrounding ice is dazzling.
After two hours, we are back down at the lake. It is dotted with fishing huts, such an unusual sight. I’m told they have heaters and even televisions for the fishermen who spend hours patiently waiting for a catch. I walk on the frozen surface of the lake. The wind is howling, blowing the snow off the surface in great white sheets. I clutch at my coat, fighting to keep the hood over my ears. This is joy to me.
The next day, we drive up to the Mt. Washington Hotel, an historic, elegant, and grand old hotel, distinctively white with a red roof, located at the base of the iconic mountain whose name it bears.
We rent skis, boots and poles and go cross-country skiing in the fresh, powdery snow. It is a winter wonderland, as we glide almost silently among the pine trees, hearing only the sound of the skis going swish in the snow.
My expectations of this winter visit are exceeded. Newfound in winter is stunning and peaceful, worth the wait.
It’s good for me to go outside my comfort zone and try new things: a zip line in northern Thailand, crossing a raging river in Slovakia or Ecuador, teetering on the edge of a cliff in Montenegro. My adventure in a slot-canyon in Mecca Hills Painted Canyon was the most recent and definitely one of the scariest.
I’m not a daredevil. Frankly, I’m kind of a wuss. But I don’t like that about myself and try to press the envelope, at least occasionally, and challenge myself to do something I’d really rather not do. So it was when Juliet and I chose to go to a remote location about forty miles from Palm Springs, California, and hike in a slot canyon.
A slot canyon is a very narrow canyon that starts as a crack in the rock and, as a result of millions of years of rain, wind and erosion, is sculpted into a gorge considerably narrower than it is deep. I’d hiked in slot canyons in Death Valley and Zion, but this one was very different from them.
The one in Mecca Hills requires you to hoist yourself straight up several tall, smooth, rock faces using a rope tethered at the top and hanging free. There are occasional footholds, otherwise you’re walking up the slippery rock wall, pulling yourself up hand-over-hand as you go and then shimmying over the top on your belly, the rock crumbling beneath you as you move. Other spots involve contorting your body in ways you didn’t know possible so that you can squeeze through the smallest of spaces and come out dust-covered and bleeding on the other side.
When I saw that first vertical rock face with its free-swinging rope, I was shocked. The hike description hadn’t said a thing about this. I thought “I can’t do this.” My right shoulder has no more cartilage and doesn’t function like it used to. I walked up and grabbed the rope and said aloud “I can’t do this.” Juliet, an adept and graceful athlete and also a rock-climber, reconnoitered the situation by trying it out herself. She came back down and spotted me, giving me encouragement. I managed to do it but felt shaken, vulnerable, and frankly, terrified. Immediately after, there were two spots with no ropes and what appeared to be impossible configurations of rock requiring strength and coordination I thought I no longer had. With Juliet’s optimism and reassurance, I got through these as well, wondering all the while why I had subjected myself to what felt like torture. Further along, there was one more place similar to the first and then we were done, at least with that slot.
After exiting, we walked for what seemed like miles through rocky, barren terrain, unsure where to go due to a complete lack of signage and not encountering another person to ask for direction. We discussed turning back and retracing our steps if we didn’t reach a way soon that would lead us back to the trailhead. But the thought of having to redo the slot in reverse was so alarming to me that we kept plodding on against better judgment. Finally in desperation, Juliet climbed to a higher point to observe the situation. Relieved to see other people on the next ridge, we scrambled up the hill and caught up with them. Like us, they didn’t know where they were going, but we figured if we remained lost, at least we would have company. We found the slot we were looking for and descended through it by way of steep, vertical ladders which seemed easy after what we had already done.
So how did I feel at the end of the day? Exhilarated! Grateful that I had made it. Thrilled at sharing this with Juliet without whose confidence I most certainly would not have attempted it. But when she said to me “this was so much fun, I could do it again tomorrow”, I told her she would be doing it alone!
Liberty Island, New York
It is Election Day. I don’t know about you, but for me, the campaign has been too lengthy, too unpleasant, and not informative enough about meaningful issues.
So being in New York, I decided to spend this important day away from all the noise and visit Miss Liberty,
a beacon of hope, of strength, and of light to so many: Americans, soon-to-be/Americans, and visitors from all over the world.
The weather is warm, the blue sky cloudless. There are many people filling the ferry, the plaza, the pedestal. I am aware of the multitude of languages, of dress, of facial features, and of skin color. And nearly everyone is taking photographs of Lady Liberty, her copper robe brightly lit by the sun, her golden torch held high above her head, beaming brilliantly.
I feel emotional at the pleasure of her company, what she represents, a welcome symbol to all, irrespective of class, culture, religion, and race.
On this day especially, I want to work to be open-hearted and open-minded, to be respectful of others whose views are different from mine, and to try to gain a better understanding of their beliefs.
It began a long time ago. That is, an intense desire to see a moose. It’s not as if I had never seen one. Many years ago, I saw two off the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Before that, I spotted a few in a bog in rural Maine. I saw some in Alaska back in 1994. But all of that was ancient history. I wanted to see one now in the worst way.
In recent years, every time I visited New Hampshire, I looked and wished. My daughter, Juliet, told me that because I wanted to see one so desperately, I wouldn’t. Apparently, she was right. This last summer, some friends as well as Juliet and I went on a four-and-a-half-hour nighttime “moose tour” in northern NH. We had fleeting glimpses of two moose, hardly something to satisfy my moose craving. Sadly, we learned that thousands of moose there have been dying due to moose ticks. It was clear, then, that I should have gone on this tour years ago when chances were much better.
But all that changed near Piney Lake in Colorado. My friend Sue and I had come to the Vail area to hike for a few days. She, like me, had longed to see a moose, and likewise, had been sorely disappointed with our NH moose tour. So she asked someone in Avon where we were staying if there was any place local where we might see moose. The woman confidently told us to go to Piney Lake, a forty-minute drive from Vail on a narrow, rutted dirt road where, she informed us, 80% of the people she sent there had success. That sounded like our kind of odds. So we decided to go.
Instead of forty minutes, the drive took an hour and a half. The posted speed limit was 20; we were lucky to go 10. Of course the fact that it had snowed the night before and was thirty-three degrees when we started out at 4:00 in the afternoon probably didn’t help.
When we arrived at the lake, there wasn’t a soul around. The fresh snow was undisturbed.
The lake resort was all locked up. The moose must have left along with everyone else. We searched the lovely lake, our eyes straining for moose.
We felt crestfallen when none appeared. We had convinced ourselves that this would be our lucky day, that the lake would be teeming with moose just waiting for us. Disconsolate, we left for the long, cold, bumpy ride out.
But wait! Ahead, just alongside the road was a large dark brown animal. It had antlers. Could it be? We slowly approached. As we were admiring this handsome male moose,
another one ran out from the other side of the road right in front of our car and joined his friend.
We were beside ourselves with joy. Both moose slowly walked into the woods parallel to the road. We followed them, taking pictures and congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. After they disappeared, we whooped and high-fived as though something truly magical had happened. And for us, it had!
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
I had decided not to write about this hiking trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It was not that it wasn’t wonderful or beautiful, because it was both. I just didn’t feel inspired to write. Until something very unique and special happened.
We were a group of eight with two guides, Jeff and Tamara, both excellent and thoughtful leaders. They are also professional musicians: he on the saxophone, she on the violin. At our request, they had agreed to play for us. I had presumed it would be at the gorgeous lodge high up in the La Sal Mountains where we were staying. But they had something else in mind.
It was on our fifth and final hike. They carried their instruments deep into the region of Canyonlands called The Needles, a place of spires, turrets and fins carved by nature from sandstone of various colors and compounds. Jeff guided us to a naturally-formed amphitheater, expansive and magnificent. We sat down on the slickrock and he walked some distance away. Slowly, he began to play, just a few notes at first and then more. Every note echoed in the canyon. It was stunning.
After awhile, Tamara joined him, and they played together, the sound extraordinary in this physically and acoustically perfect setting.
Then he stopped and she played alone.
Their concert brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me how precious such moments are and how joy can be found in the most unexpected ways.
It’s easy to see why Kauai is called The Garden Isle. On the north part of the island, Princeville, Hanalei, and all the way to the end of the road at Ke’e Beach, the flora is dense, green and lush. The leaves are huge, the foliage thick, impenetrable.
It rains a lot up here. A lot. The second wettest place on earth is nearby. Mount Waialeale gets an average of 450 inches a year. The day may start out sunny and warm but before you know it, it’s pouring. A few minutes later the sun is shining and there is a glorious rainbow.
This constantly changing weather happens all day long. While you are in your room slathering yourself with sunscreen, the fat gray clouds move in and the heavens open up.
The only way to avoid this is to go someplace else in Kauai. A good choice is the south of the island.
Poipu for example. While it is raining cats and dogs up north, it’s balmy and dry there. Everyone is on the beach or snorkeling in the temperate Pacific. Or you can go hiking in Waimea Canyon. Some say it’s more scenic than the Grand Canyon.
But the thing is, there’s something special about the north end with its narrow roads and one lane bridges, Hanalei and its hippie vibe, surf shops and muumuu stores. There’s a lot of wildlife too. Chickens are everywhere, strutting and crowing (well the roosters are). And the Nene, the state bird, stakes out its territory and chases you away with tongue sticking out, hissing all the while.
At the Kilauea Lighthouse, albatross, red-footed boobies, and frigate birds nest. And you’re in luck if you see an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal or two.
Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesen)
I took a twentieth century architecture class in my senior year of college. There were some outstanding architects of that era: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Antoni Gaudi, Louis Sullivan. My favorite was Frank Lloyd Wright. It was then that I learned about Taliesen, his home, studio and architecture school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and decided I must visit one day.
Forty five years later, I did.
Every two years, I organize a get-together of college friends. This year, I lobbied for Madison, Wisconsin, thirty five miles from Spring Green, where a tour of Taliesen would be the focal point of the weekend (in addition, of course, to great conversation, good food, and lots of laughter with dear old friends).
We set out for Spring Green very early Saturday morning in splendid Indian Summer weather. We drove along two-lane country roads through wide-open pasture lands and farms, occasionally passing through tiny towns with their general stores and feed lots. It seemed there must be plenty of rainfall here as green was the primary color of the landscape.
When we arrived at Taliesen, we were greeted by our guide, Margaret, a beautiful and spry seventy-eight-year-old actress who shared with us her considerable knowledge and deep love for all things FLW. Although she had been giving these tours for seventeen years, her presentation was as fresh as though we were her very first tour group. Her enthusiasm was contagious. There wasn’t a question she couldn’t answer.
The four hours flew by as we visited the buildings that exemplified Wright’s meticulous design principles and his emphasis on air, light and space. We toured the School of Architecture; the dining hall with its Wright-designed furniture and lighting fixtures; the theater attached just behind it with its stage curtain representing many of his life stories; his home designed in the Prairie style for which he was so famous, every detail purposeful and beautiful to my eye.
Sometimes we long to see something over a great period of time and when we finally do, we are disappointed because the experience can’t possibly live up to the anticipation. For me, this was not the case with Taliesen. I felt rewarded after waiting so many years to visit and found my expectations exceeded.
As an additional pleasure, I recommend reading The Women, by T.C.Boyle and Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan.
Yosemite National Park, California
Where to start? I really wasn’t going to write again this year about hiking in the High Sierra, but how could I not when what happened was so unexpected?
After driving from Oakland to Yosemite and taking a three mile hike to Dog Lake and back to acclimatize to the elevation, my friend and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge just as it began to rain. More rain was predicted the following day, an 80% chance. However, when we set out early the next morning for Vogelsang, our first camp, the expansive blue sky was filled with dramatic white cumulus clouds, a beautiful day.
Until the thunderheads rolled in. Fast. We put on our rain gear and made haste to the camp as raindrops started to fall. No sooner had we walked into the reception tent when the downpour began. First heavy rain, then pea-sized hail. Lots of it. Pools of water flooded the tent floor, dripped from the roof. The noise was deafening; we couldn’t hear each other speak. Outside the door, four inches of hail accumulated and stuck.
The staff built a rock path for us hikers so that we could get to our tents. Inside our tent, my friend immediately started building a fire in the wood stove. The tent promptly filled with thick gray smoke setting off the fire alarm and a staccato voice repeating “fire, fire.”
It rained and hailed for hours. A staff member who had worked there for years said he had never experienced anything like this. But then, just after dinner, it stopped. The sky filled with light and the remaining sun found the tips of the mountains
Perhaps the next day would be different.
But this was not to be. Although the weather was initially fair, it quickly became evident that we were in for more precipitation. The sky grew dark and glowering.
We donned our rain gear once again and just in time. But being pelted with rain and hail was not what distinguished this hike from any other. What set this one apart was the amount of water surging down the mountains, engorging the once quiet creeks that crossed and recrossed the trail. And we had to cross these now swollen creeks again and again! Each time we came to a crossing, we had to examine the possibilities and find the least dangerous alternative. At the widest and most treacherous spot, the choices were bad and worse. My friend decided the best option was to walk across on a fallen tree that connected both banks. The distance between the banks was about twenty feet, the tree at least ten feet above the raging waters below. I thought this was a terrible idea and beseeched her not to do this. I couldn’t imagine even watching her do it and she wisely decided against it. We finally crossed on submerged rocks and parts of fallen trees, the water rushing over and around our feet, my heart in my mouth the entire time. We arrived at Merced Lake camp cold, tired and wet. What would the upcoming day bring?
Sunshine. Cool breezes. Fine weather brought us to Sunrise camp where the temperature was cold but our hike and our stay were remarkably free of any adversity or drama. Conditions were likewise favorable for our hike back to Tuolumne Meadows on our last day. The morning light was soft, the air filled with the musical sounds of song birds and the tinkling of the now tranquil creeks. Still, what I will long remember is the tumult of the storm and the thrill of this adventure.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
We reach the Navajo Bridge built in 1928, four hundred and seventy feet above the Colorado River, the first bridge across the Grand Canyon. It remained the only bridge until the late 1960’s, when a new one was built just next to it to carry the increased vehicle traffic. The original then became designated for foot traffic only.
We drive along the Vermillion Cliffs to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon through scrubby desert and Ponderosa pine forest. The bark is the color of cinnamon and smells faintly of vanilla.
A practice hike of five miles along the northeastern-most rim of the Canyon warms up our muscles for what is to come.
The quaking aspens are just leafing out, citronelle and ethereal.
My alarm goes off at 4:30 am. After a quick breakfast, our hike on the North Kaibab Trail down to Phantom Ranch begins at 5:45. Our journey takes us fourteen miles into the Canyon (plus a one-mile detour to Ribbon Falls),
a drop in elevation of nearly six thousand feet. We hike at comparative break-neck speed through colorful layers of sedimentary rock formed over many millions of years.
We arrive at our destination ten and a half hours later. I am foot-sore and weary and yet thrilled that I could experience one of the worlds great hikes.
During our “rest day” at Phantom Ranch, we hike to an overlook one thousand feet above the Colorado, a magnificent viewpoint to the mighty River far below.
Two bridges close to Phantom Ranch cross the Colorado, one for the mule trains that carry supplies, the other for hikers. We cross both, experiencing the River from each side. Later, we put on water shoes and hike in a bracingly cold tributary of Bright Angel Creek to a cave where delicate angel hair ferns grow underneath a waterfall. We are told the normal temperature in the Canyon in May is one hundred degrees. Instead, it is in the fifties with thunderstorms.
As our guide told us, what goes down the Canyon must come up. So once again, we get a 4:30 am wake-up call and set out at 5:45 on the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a ten-mile hike from Phantom Ranch.
The elevation gain is nearly five thousand feet. The weather is cool and cloudy. As we ascend via steep switchbacks, the air becomes colder and heavy with moisture, a weak sun occasionally peaking through the clouds.
By the time we reach mile eight, it is pouring and the temperature is fifty-one degrees! We arrive at the South Rim seven hours after we began, soaking wet, and it is forty-six degrees! Not exactly as predicted. And yet I can’t imagine having done this hike under a scorching hundred-degree sun.
How bountiful our country is in stunning natural beauty. I am eager to explore more of it.
Zion National Park, Utah
I am in Zion National Park, my first visit here since 1984. I thought it time to experience its abundance again after more than half a lifetime. It does not disappoint. In fact, its majesty is far greater than I remember. I am with my daughter, a great joy.
We hike to Observation Point, an eight-mile journey that is a visual feast, nourishment for the body and spirit. Fortresses of rust-colored Navajo sandstone rise from the desert in fascinating forms.
Jagged rocks jutting out angularly that put me in mind of great white shark teeth,
smoothly layered rocks with delicately scalloped curves,
boulders cut through as though sliced by a knife, a dizzying array of striations and crenellated formations. A profusion of wildflowers in fuchsia and violet sprouting from every cleft, softening the edges, prickly pear cacti blooming in shades of hot pink and pale yellow.
Trees with leaves of the brightest green to the deepest hunter, a multitude of textures and contours.
On another day we drive to a less touristed part of Zion, Kolob Canyon. There, we hike a more modest five miles along the lovely Taylor Creek to gigantic double arches that soar far above the trees and surrounding landscape dwarfing us humans by their size and grandeur.
We decide we could spend a week exploring the wonders of Zion, but it is time for us to meet up with a group of fellow travelers to hike the Grand Canyon.
Music. Architecture. Dancing. Cars. Heat. Rum. Lobster. Mountains. Forests. Beaches. These are just some of the things I experienced in Cuba.
In Trinidad, a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial town with cobbled streets, stunning architecture, and cotton-candy-colored buildings, we visit the Plaza Mayor, the main square. For lunch, we eat sublime lobster tails grilled in butter and garlic while the breeze moves softly through the huge open windows of the paladare. Afterwards, we listen to wonderful Cuban music and drink seven-year-old rum.
Next, it’s off to Topes de Collantes, a national park in the Sierra del Escambray mountains, where we hike in the dense forest and see the luscious local flora. Near the end of the hike, we come upon a pig roasting over an open fire.
Imagine my surprise when the pig is served for lunch a few minutes later!
During the next few days, we go to an environmental center, an elementary school, a neighborhood party, a farmers’ collective, a sugar cane plantation, and learn about Cuban culture, economy, and politics. We visit the Che memorial and museum
and watch a one-woman play written and performed by one of our group at an LGBT Center in the city of Santa Clara. We spend two nights at a resort on the Atlantic that is more like Miami Beach than Cuba (not so great), but has a white sand beach and clear, warm, turquoise water (pretty great).
In contrast, we visit Remedios, a fifteenth century colonial town that is authentic Cuba.
And then, finally, we arrive in Havana and it seems like all that went before was just a warm-up. What a breathtaking city it is! Colonial buildings, some in decay, others beautifully renovated.
Likewise the cars, so many Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks from the fifties and early sixties, some in dire need of body work, others in cherry condition, such fun to ride in either way.
Our education about Cuba continues with a thoughtful and informative lecture on where Cuba has been and what the future holds, especially in light of the recent easing of travel restrictions and a possible end to the embargo. We watch a pop-opera performed by a group of talented young singers and dancers and are lucky to attend a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba. We go to museums highlighting Cuban art and walk all over this most photogenic place. And what a privilege it is to hear music everywhere, in jazz clubs, in restaurants, and on street corners,
something that sets this country apart from all others I have visited. I look forward to returning.
White Mountains, New Hampshire
I went to camp in New Hampshire, starting when I was 12 in 1962. It was an all-girls camp. Still is. Located on Newfound Lake in the Lakes Region in the foothills of the glorious White Mountains.
Wednesday was trip day. Often, that meant a hike. Mt. Cardigan. Mt. Mooselauke. Mt. Washington. I didn’t like it at all. We weren’t allowed to sit down or drink water. We campers believed it was possibly because the counselors thought if we sat down, we’d never get up to finish the hike. And if we drank too much water, we’d have to pee.
But somewhere along the line, I started to like hiking. Maybe it was the first time I climbed Mt. Washington. At 6288 feet, it is the tallest mountain in New England, not very tall by Rocky Mountain standards but challenging nonetheless in that the tree-line is at 4,000 feet, at which elevation the topography and weather become Arctic-like.
So, all my life, I have come back to New Hampshire to hike in the summer. To see the layers of mountains from a summit.
To explore the forests. To drive the billboard-less highways. To swim in the clear, clean water of Newfound.
To experience a place so different from my native New York City and my Bay Area home. To have my daughter grow up there and share my love of this special place.
New Hampshire is where my heart it.
I’m out on Dana Point. An estuary connects the harbor with the ocean. There are thousands of boats in their slips in the harbor. In the estuary, there are competitive canoers, kayakers, paddle boarders. Along the path, there are runners, walkers and many, many dogs. The sun is beginning to break through the overcast leading to what will undoubtedly be another glorious day.
On the way back to the hotel, I climb a steep set of stairs and come upon a yoga class of dozens practicing under some shade trees in Lantern Bay Park to the sound of drums.
As I get closer, I realize that the drumming has nothing to do with the yoga class but is from a Hindu wedding that is taking place at the hotel. There are hundreds of guests dressed in beautiful Indian saris and a horse decorated in finery. These are definitely not the things that I see on an early morning walk in Oakland!
Yosemite National Park, California
How can it be that I had never been to the High Sierra? I have lived in California for 43 years. It brought to mind that I had never visited the Statue of Liberty until after moving to California although I had grown up in Brooklyn.
I had explored Yosemite Valley a few times many years ago but wasn’t really aware that there was a whole other aspect to Yosemite. Until I went. What a revelation! I was familiar with large-scale granite landscapes from hiking in New Hampshire (The Granite State) since I was a kid. But this was something else again. Giant slabs of grey and beige rock rolling into enormous cliffs or boulders, mountains or ledges.
Gorgeous grassy meadows filled with purple Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, yellow daisies and so many other wild flowers. Quiet forests majestic with redwoods. Placid rivers turning into roaring waterfalls.
And then there are the High Sierra camps, six of them, comprising a rough circle half above and half below Highway 120, each approximately a seven to nine mile hike from one another. With their rustic tents and community dining rooms, there is no internet. Conversation between strangers is animated and wide-ranging, sometimes turning into acquaintanceships or even friendships.
As day turns into evening, the sky darkens with dramatic cumulonimbus clouds. The last rays of the sun cast the high peaks in red and gold.
And I have found a place close to home to which I hope to return and explore soon again.
As day turns to night, the sky becomes menacing. The clouds are slate gray. Streaks of lightening slash the sky followed by great claps of thunder that fill the heavy air. The wind howls and the rain crashes against the windows.
The storm is short-lived. It passes quickly and a full moon lights up the lake. The water shimmers in its glow.
While lying in bed, I hear the waves on the lake lapping softly against the shore below the window. I hear the loons calling way in the distance, the breeze rustling the trees nearby.
In the morning, I awaken to sun shining on the mountains across the lake and I know this is a hiking day. I grab my day pack and drive up to the trailhead forty five minutes away. The weather is cool and clear, the ride north on Route 25 to Wentworth and then east on 25a is beautiful, the surrounding hillsides so green, the clapboard buildings charming. Today I will hike to the summit of Mt, Cube, a new one for me.
The trail is a bit muddy from the recent rain and I watch my footing. I climb steadily upward, gaining elevation, through thick fir trees. Along the way there are a few glimpses through the forest to the stunning mountains beyond.
I reach the summit shortly after 11:00 am. The sky is a deep blue unsullied by any pollutants and filled with New England’s signature gray and white cumulus clouds. I meet three young women and two dogs. I am invited to join them for some snacks. One of them offers to paint my face and I happily agree. I have seldom had my face painted and never before on a mountain top!
I return to the house, a lovely place right on the water. I sit on a rock that slopes into the lake. I contemplate this stunning day, this special place. And I am grateful.
Brooklyn, New York
I was born and raised in New York, Brooklyn to be specific. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Flatbush that was surprisingly diverse given that it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. I remember playing stickball in the street and mumbly-peg with the neighborhood kids. In the summer, the Good Humor truck would come by every evening after dinner with it’s signature bells announcing its arrival. All of us kids would run down the street chasing after it to buy ice cream on a stick for fifteen cents when our parents allowed it. We would marvel at the lightening bugs flashing in front of our eyes and catch them, put them in jars.
In winter, when there was a snowstorm, my father and I would go out with our shovels and start clearing the sidewalk around our house. We would bring Reggie, our English Bulldog. It was one of the few times he was allowed out without a leash. I always told my father I thought it was pretty dumb to shovel since the snow would continue to fall all night and we’d just have to do it again in the morning. He responded that there would be less to shovel in the morning if we started when it did. What I think is that he just loved being outdoors in the beauty, in the hush, in the still of the night. And I loved being right there with him.
November 22,1963 is seared in my memory as it undoubtedly is for everyone who is old enough to remember that horrifying day. I was a freshman in high school. A classmate came running into homeroom and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. We were sent home. No one on the subway train was talking. Everyone seemed turned inward. Most of us were crying. My first experience with tragedy, I still grapple with feelings of loss and thoughts of how things might have been different had this awful thing never happened.
There was a famous (or maybe it was infamous) black-out in 1965. I was in the subway, the BMT line, (sadly now just a line with a number or a letter), coming home from school. A train was coming into the station when suddenly, all the lights went out, the train stopped. The sea of people formed a human chain, holding onto one another, the only safe way to climb the stairs and exit into the outside. A few if us friends from school gathered at the house of an acquaintance where her mother allowed us to roast tiny marshmallows over lighted candles. Later that night, my father came and drove me and a few friends home through the pitch-black streets lit softly by candles shining dimly in windows. It was magic.
My father bought an old wooden boat, a Chris-Craft. He named it the Del-Nor after me and my brother. How he loved that boat. In the winter, it was taken out of the water in Sheepshead Bay, and put in dry-dock. One year, my father determined it was too much work to strip and sand the mahogany and then stain and varnish it every year. So he decided to fiberglass and paint it instead. I was his assistant. What a chore that was. It took many weekends to accomplish. I had fiberglass particles embedded in my fingers for months after. And truth be told, the old boat never looked as good again.
St. John, US Virgin Islands
The quiet bays are edged in turquoise. The sand is white, soft and sensual.
The water is immaculate, clear and warm. There is no airport here, no golf course. There are only two hotels on the island. All the beaches are public. Only 700 cars, 4700 residents, 20 square miles in area, smaller than Manhattan.
St. John in the American Virgin Islands is almost entirely National Park. One can hike, snorkel, dive, sail. In Cruz Bay where the ferries arrive from St. Thomas, one hears music and the lilting sound of Caribbean English.
And then the dark clouds roll in. The wind whips the palm trees and roils the once placid sea.
Tropical Storm Isaac dumps great squalls of rain, sheets of water streaming from the sky. Such a different look to this place. How interesting to experience the different moods.
My daughter studied in Chicago for five years earning undergraduate and masters degrees. This turned out to be wonderful for both of us. She loved the University of Chicago and I loved visiting her.
While she was there, I think I went fourteen times. Of course I never went in the winter. I did go in March one year. It was so cold and windy I decided thereafter to go no later than October and no earlier than April. Even then, you couldn’t be sure. One Memorial Day weekend, it was 80 degrees and, one evening, within five minutes, the temperature dropped thirty degrees and gale-force winds blew in off Lake Michigan. You just never knew.
The campus of the University is Gothic, gorgeous. Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, is elegant with its stately old homes and tree-lined streets. And the city is full of interesting things to do. I’ll mention three.
First are the Chicago Architectural Foundation architecture tours. There are walking, biking and segway tours, but my favorite is the Chicago River tour. Many important and architecturally significant buildings are visible by boat. The knowledgeable guides inform and amaze with their stories of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and others, who so beautifully designed many of the iconic edifices.
Second, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the City closes Lakeshore Drive to vehicular traffic from 5:00-10:00 am and opens Bike the Drive. Thousands come to ride their bikes on this most scenic roadway alongside Lake Michigan. Many ride in costume, some on what appear to be home-made or otherwise unorthodox looking bicycles. You can ride for miles right through downtown with its towering skyscrapers. It’s fantastic!
Third, is a tour of Wright-designed buildings. The Robie House is right on the U of C campus.
Many homes that Wright designed can be seen in his very own neighborhood of Oak Park, a close-in suburb. In addition you can visit his home and studio and learn a great deal about his life and work. You can also buy two excellent books: The Women and Loving Frank, both of which are fascinating.
I would be remiss not to mention Millennium Park downtown where you can gaze at the crowds (and yourself) in Cloud Gate (a sculpture locally known as the bean),
and see the Frank Gehry-designed bandshell, maybe even hear a concert.
The Park is located across the street from and accessible by a walking bridge to the Art Institute and also across Lakeshore Drive from the Lake where you can walk the attractive lakeside path.
Chicago is a world-class city, definitely worth a detour!
A few years ago, my husband and I went to spring training. We went specifically to see the Oakland A’s. This was when Yoenis Cespedes was a rookie, newly arrived from Cuba. He made quite an impression.
After a few days, we drove to Sedona, a few hours from Phoenix but a world away. Where Phoenix is largely flat and commercial, Sedona is stunning with its red mountains in various gigantic formations.
I signed us up for a pink jeep tour. It’s not unlike a roller-coaster in an amusement park. The jeep is indeed pink and hurtles up and down the steep red rocks throwing passengers here and there inside the spartan vehicle. No wonder management prohibits people with bad backs or who are pregnant!
The views are pretty fantastic, though. I remember commenting to our driver/guide how impressed I was with Sedona in March and wondered what other times of the year would be nice to visit. He told me October is good except for one thing: it’s tarantula mating season and tarantulas are copulating all over the sidewalks. I decided I probably wouldn’t visit in October.
Sedona attracts some odd-ball people. There’s quite a myth about experiencing the vortex. I’d read about it but didn’t quite understand. Something about a spiritual awakening. So one evening we went to a remote place to see the sunset. The night before we had gone to a not-at-all remote place and watched the sun set with what seemed like half the population of Sedona. But on this second evening, it was just Ken, myself, a woman with her dog and someone I can only describe as this hippie dude (boy, am I getting old). Anyway, this very sincere fellow starts telling me how I’d come to the right place to experience the vortex. As the sun was setting, leaving a golden hue over the very red mountains, he told me he was feeling the vortex and wondered if I was, too. Truth be told, I was not. But I sure found Sedona to be an interesting place.
Summer in Alaska is so short and full of light. Literally. In mid-July, it never really gets dark. There’s a seaside path in Anchorage where I went for a walk at eleven pm and there was a huge crowd of people walking, running, biking, skateboarding, enjoying the beautiful weather, the sun high in the sky. I guess when you live in a place that’s totally dark for three months, you want to spend as much time in the light as you can when you have it.
There are flowers everywhere. Juneau, surrounded with dramatic mountains rising straight up, has wooden flower boxes all over the city, planted with bright colorful annuals. Hot pink Fireweed grows wild and makes a wonderful contrast to the nearby glaciers, so broad and white.
We take a float plane to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, to see brown bears. There they are in the river snapping up fish just like in a National Geographic movie. And there are so many eagles, talons entwined, flying upside down, in their unique mating dance.
We travel the Alaska Marine Highway from Juneau to Haines and on to Skagway. It is hot and sunny. I have not brought shorts because I expected it to be cold and rainy. I sit on the deck of the boat mesmerized by the snow-covered mountains that are everywhere I look. On the way to Sitka I see what passes for sunrise at four in the morning, the sky a brilliant red.
In Glacier Bay, we see pods of killer whales blowing, surfacing, breaching; icebergs with seals playfully jumping on and off. On the shoreline, there are mother bears supervising their cubs; in the treetops, eagles perched majestically on high seeming to survey their kingdom (we are told to look for golfballs in the trees).
And then to Denali National Park. We stay at a Bed and Breakfast that keeps sled dogs. There are lots of them. Each has his or her own dog-house to which it is tied. Most of them lie on the roofs. Several times each night as though in a symphony orchestra, the dogs begin howling in perfect unison and then stop on the same note, as if led by a conductor.
We take a bus sixteen miles into the Park. There are grizzly bears with their golden coats and caribou with their imposing antlers. Most fascinating, we see a lone wolf stalking a moose. It is early August and already the ground-cover on the tundra is telegraphing the coming autumn. I see red and orange and yellow foliage. There is a chill in the air. The glorious Alaskan summer is quickly coming to an end.
Churchill Manitoba Canada (2018)
Newfound Lake, New Hampshire
Liberty Island, New York
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesen)
Yosemite National Park, California
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Zion National Park, Utah
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Dana Point, California
Yosemite National Park, California
Brooklyn, New York
St. John, US Virgin Islands