10-08-2018 Day 14 Two Days in Siena

When planning our trip to Italy, Deanna and I decided that rather than trying to see too much, we would focus on two completely different worlds.  The southern coast of Amalfi was full of mountains, ocean, picturesque towns tumbling like blocks down the limestone cliffs, and warm sunshine.

Tuscany is a place that calls to many people, helped out by movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Good Year”.  I wanted to see Tuscany, but I also wanted to see Florence.  Florence is not exactly in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, but it makes a great jumping off point, lying on the northern perimeter between the Tuscan hills and the landscapes of Umbria farther north.

We decided to stay in Florence but to use it as our jumping off point for possible tours into the Tuscan countryside.  Options were many, from expensive day trips using a private driver, overcrowded day trips on tour buses, overnight stays at “Agriturissimo’s”, local farms that usually include feeding cows and chickens and experiencing the Tuscan farm life. 

Once again, the Rick Steve’s Florence and Tuscany guide book came to the rescue.  We opted to spend a couple of days in Siena, a reasonable distance just 43 miles south of Florence using public transportation, the Sita bus from Florence to Siena.  Following Rick Steve’s advice, we booked a room at a small hotel, Albergo Tre Donzelle, just a couple of blocks from the famous Piazza del Campo. According to the guidebooks it is especially nice to spend a night in the city and enjoy it after the day trippers leave and the crowds thin out a bit.  Something impossible to do on a day trip.

On Monday morning we rose early and packed up our small cases for the overnight trip.  We opted to walk to the Santa Novella bus station which was about 1.5 miles from our apartment  rather than paying for a taxi. Leaving home on foot around 9 am gave us ample time to walk along the river and through town. We didn’t bother to attempt to get to the station at any particular time, knowing that the Siena buses ran every 45 minutes or so. 

Figuring out the bus station wasn’t too difficult. Finding the ticket line, we purchased round trip tickets for the Siena Rapida, rather than the local bus that would have several stops on the hour long route.  The Rapida left just as we finished purchasing our tickets, but that was OK since we were first in line for the next bus 45 minutes later.  In the mean time we returned to a little café that we had passed earlier and purchased a “stand-up” coffee and a pastry.  The morning was chilly and holding the hot coffee felt great.

Getting on the bus was as usual for Italian buses, fighting people even though we were first in line. Once we got on the bus with our hot coffees in hand, we settled into our roomy and comfy seats wondering where the cup holders might be.  Instead we found a sign, “No Food Or Drinks Allowed”. Hiding our cups under the seat, one of them tipped over and we hastily tried to hide the evil evidence.  UhOh.  No one seemed to notice and we didn’t get kicked off the bus.

The drive to Siena wasn’t as scenic as we had imagined, with the road down in a draw most of the way, surrounded by lots of shrubby trees and brush. It was surprising to me how much this part of Italy reminded me of brushy Sierra Nevada Foothills, or Arkansas hardwood forests, quite claustrophobic. Instead of the rolling golden hills I had imagined, the landscape was thick with scrub oaks and brush. Only rarely would we catch a glimpse of what I had envisioned as “Tuscany”. The highway was quick and modern, in good condition, and I could envision easily driving in this part of Italy.

Thick vegetation covers the Tuscan hills on the southern edge of Florence

When we arrived at the station in Siena we used the offline google maps again to get our bearings.  The bus station isn’t located in the main part of town, but the city center is within walking distance.

A side note: We took so many vertical shots in the town that I have decided to use some collages since vertical shots don’t work that well in the blog.  If you click on any of those shots, it will take you to the smug mug folder where the original photos are located.  Only if you are interested.

This Tuscan hill town will transport you back to the Middle Ages. Siena’s grand cathedral, built in the 1200s, has treasured artworks and marvelous marble floors. The Piazza del Campo, the main town square, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to the Palio, perhaps the most infamous horserace in the world. No hats or juleps at this race.  This is a medieval tradition involving bareback riders racing on cobblestones (so as you might imagine, it’s quite dangerous). Check out this video of the famous race!

As we headed toward town and our hotel, we passed the Siena Duomo. Italy is filled with gorgeous cathedrals and the Duomo is one of the best. This church is striped with white and black marble both inside and out, giving it a unique  and somewhat dramatic appearance.  Continuing on down the narrow and quite busy streets, we passed a little restaurant that looked quite charming but decided to find our hotel before stopping for lunch

The hotel was just another block away, easy to find, and check in was simple.  The proprietor was friendly and charming, and when we asked about a place to eat, he told about Taverna Di Cecco, the restaurant we had passed earlier.  He said Di Cecco was best for our Bistecca, a Tuscan treat we had decided to enjoy in Sienna rather than Florence.

While the hotel was charming, the room was small with a window that looked out to a tight courtyard surrounded by very tall walls.  The bed was as we have discovered in Italy, hard as a rock. Sigh. We unpacked and walked back to Di Cecco for a late lunch, thinking maybe we could spend the rest of the afternoon and evening walking off what we knew would be a huge meal.

With lovely service in the small but delightful restaurant, we had our best meal in Italy.  Our traditional Tuscan Porterhouse steak, 1 full kilo, cooked to perfection and seasoned with coarse salt and rosemary was the best steak I have had anywhere. We shared a half bottle of local chianti, and spent a long time sharing our steak.  The steak was served with no side dishes, but the chef did bring a plate of Italian bread soup for each of us as an appetizer.  Another treat, the bread soup is like Italian bread soaked in marinara sauce, quite delicious.

With Bistecca being such a “thing” in Florence and Tuscany, it isn’t necessarily easy to weed out the tourist restaurants claiming to have traditional Bistecca, and the real thing.  One of the factors in determining the real thing is that the meat must come from the famous right breed. The Chianina is an Italian breed of cattle, formerly a draught breed, but now raised for beef.  It is the largest and one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world and is known for its incredible flavor.

After our amazing lunch we walked back toward the main part of the city, exploring the nooks and crannies, and were suddenly caught in a huge rain storm.  Our umbrellas were safely back at the hotel, but we were just close enough to the Duomo that we managed to get tickets to get inside in time to escape the heaviest of the rain.

The Duomo was an incredible experience, with so much complexity and art. Like many churches in Italy, it took hundreds of years to build the cathedral. Work began in 1196 and over the next 200 years, additions were built and ornate facades were added. In 1339, another massive addition was planned, but the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 halted all further construction on the cathedral.

Once we entered, we were awed by the intricately designed interior with large, colorful mosaics.  It was probably our favorite cathedral that we visited during our time in Italy. We loved the most famous masterpiece of Duomo, the inlaid colored marble mosaics covering the entire floor of the church.

Sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.

Great art, including Michelangelo statues (above) and Bernini sculptures, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the wonderful marble pulpit in 1268.

It’s crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling with scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.

When we left the church the rain had diminished and we ambled back toward Il Campo and the square discovering what some say is Italy’s best medieval city experience. Narrow red brick lanes wander in every direction, lined with colorful flags and studded with iron rings for tethering horses. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhood associations), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio.

A bit of History: quoted from Rick Steves follows.

“Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.

Siena’s loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza — Il Campo. People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped “square” of red brick. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers around Siena’s city hall, symbol of rational government, and a tall municipal tower (open for climbers). If it’s true that a society builds its tallest towers to its greatest gods, then Siena worships secular effectiveness more than it trusts in God.

Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings (including a knockout work by hometown master Simone Martini). The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace (Room of Peace) under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.”

We enjoyed the contrast between the Renaissance era of Florence and the Gothic style of Siena, especially the narrow winding lanes.  After a short power nap at our hotel, we decided to explore the square in the evening. The crowds had thinned, and we enjoyed sitting at a café for an aperitif.  I had my first classic Italian spritz, and Deanna chose Baileys, since the spritz was a bit too bitter for her taste. 

We people watched, and the waiter brought us delicious fried potato appetizers, free gratis with our cocktail.  After taking some photos of the beautiful fountain and a bit more wandering, we returned to our hotel for what was to be a very long night in our very hard bed.

The next morning we woke to a darkened room with little light even though it was after 8AM.  We went downstairs to have a coffee and a croissant on the square before getting tickets at 10 am to climb the tower of the Civic building.

The Torre del Mangia inside the Public Palace in Piazza del Campo is the most recognizable landmark in town. To reach the top of the tower you have to climb 400 steps, but the views of the town and surrounding countryside are simply terrific. 400 steps..very few people.  Early morning when the tower first opened at 10 was the perfect time to do the classic climb.

The climb was more dramatic than our previous climb of the Campanile in Florence.  The stairs in the tower were older, much more narrow, and the turns were much tighter.  We were incredibly happy that the foot traffic was light enough we didn’t have to pass too many people either going up or coming down.  I am pretty sure that this will be another memory of our trip to Italy that will stay imbedded in our minds for a very long time.

We had purchased the group ticket, which included seeing the civic museum, but after climbing the tower we had to make a decision.  We really wanted lunch.  For us at this moment it was more important than the museum, with the desire to have a dish of pici pasta more compelling than another museum.  The caveat was that we also wanted to get back to Florence before too late in the evening.

We had a hard time deciding where to eat.  By this time the square was horribly crowded, and settling into one of the few open tables at Il Palio, right on the square didn’t feel right. When no one came to attend to us, we simply decided to get up and walk the back lanes to our little restaurant Di Cecco.  When we had dined there on the previous day, there was a group of people on a “Eating in Tuscany” tour, with a fascinating guide that we enjoyed listening to as we ate. The group was served the classic Sienese pici pasta, but many of them asked if they could look at our Bistecca, as the guide explained our famous dish to them.  It was time for us to return to what was obviously a good restaurant to try pici. 

The pasta is a bit like spaghetti, but thicker, and of course denser with the al dente cooking that is so important for Italian pasta.  We had it with a porcini sauce, which we thought somehow was pork, but turned out to be mushrooms.  The lunch was delicious, and we enjoyed eating at the outdoor tables along the narrow street watching people amble by as we ate. Our simple glass of chianti was just 3 Euro each.

Before exploring the town, we had checked out of our hotel and left our bags in the safe keeping area.  We walked back to get our bags and headed out of town toward the bus station where we had arrived the previous day.  It took a bit of doing, but in the confusing square we found our bus number and time, and the area where we should plan to board.  Once again we managed to deal with the crazy Italian bus system and got on the right bus to Florence, Firenze Rapida.

Then a conundrum.  After all of this, we both needed a bathroom, and of course there is no such thing on the Sita buses.  The 90 minute ride was a bit of a challenge, and when we arrived back at the station in Florence Deanna and I both had our euro ready for the bus station washroom and managed to get there in time! Simple problems, and it was funny only later.

With our lightweight overnight luggage, which seemed a lot heavier than it had yesterday, we walked the mile and a half back to our apartment.  Both of us were happy to finally climb our 4 flights of stairs.  We knew that we wouldn’t want to go out again, so supper was another piece of take-away pizza purchased on our walk home.  It actually was a pretty good piece of pizza, or we were just tired and hungry which made it taste fabulous.  A great ending to a lovely two day adventure.

05-07-2018 Magical May brings Erin and Mui to Oregon

I told our friends that May was the best month to visit Oregon.  Not early summer when the tourists show up in droves. Not late summer when the wildfires in the western forests fill the days with murky smoke.  They listened and began their trek north to Washington State at just the right moment. Lucky us, their route brought them close to us.  We had four Magical May Days with them.

I am enamored with the progression of Spring this year. I have watched the progression for a bit more than a month now, with changes every single day.  Every trip to the grocery store or to town or to the Grange to buy annuals or Bi-Mart to buy mulch is rewarded with another evolution. I don’t think I have actually noticed before that the flowering trees come and go in a beautiful sequence, slow motion waves of color beginning with that first blush of pinky pink on the flowering plums.  The leaves aren’t out yet at that stage, but the pinks are everywhere, and some whites as well, with the early flowering pears sprinkling snowdrifts of white blooms against the skies.

In just days, the plums begin to fade and the cherries begin their ballerina pink show, fluffy big flowers that up close look exactly like tutus. I noticed this year that Grants Pass must be a perfect climate for the cherries, especially the magnificent Kwanzan cherries, with some trees covering half a parking lot with their pinkness and solid trunks the size of oak trees. 

About this time all the yellows begin, with daffodils everywhere, especially along the roadsides where they seem to have naturalized on their own.  I can’t imagine anyone could actually plant that many daffodils.  In our own yard, where I planted a few dozen when we first got the property, they seem like a small dab of yellow compared to those huge drifts I see along the roadway.  I kept wanting to figure out a way to park and take photos of some of those drifts, but with narrow roads and fast traffic I never quite figured it out.

The cherries must have lasted three weeks, with a world dominated by pink and yellow but still very few leaves.  As the cherry flowers began to mature, the rhodies burst into their brilliant reds, pinks and purples, and right about that same time was the magical “leaf day”, the moment when suddenly a backlit tree in the late afternoon sun is glowing with fluorescent green.  It is an amazing moment, with willows showing first and then the birches and aspens, the maples, and finally in a crazy wild burst of incredible magic, the oak leaves unfurl from their pale reddish curls into full green magnificence.  Suddenly the world is somehow completely different.  The oak leaves leave shadow traces against the house and make sunlight flicker through the living room windows. This time of year, the green is still new, still lime colored and shades of chartreuse, unsullied by dust and hot summer winds.

The cherry blossoms are giving way to leaves as they begin to fall, but just as that pink fades, the brighter coral pinks of the dogwoods have burst into bloom and other white dogwoods light the skies with their clouds of happy flowers.  The daffodils have faded but in their place the irises are opening.  We are a mere 300 feet in elevation above the main part of town, but the irises bloomed there a full week before mine opened up.  Now we are in full on iris season as the brilliant flowers of the rhodies begin to fade and fall.  Other shrubs are beginning to bloom and the colors shift from pastel  pinks and yellows to brighter shades of late spring and the lime green leaves turn a darker green with every passing day. The roses and peonies are now covered with fat buds, waiting for their turn.  I have a lovely pink oriental poppy that is opening in the afternoon sun today, one flower at a time, joining in the noisy wild joy of spring.

Erin and Mui arrived Monday, after a long 300 mile day driving north from Reno, landing at Valley of the Rogue State Park late in the afternoon after a bit of a scary moment on the highway.  I’ll let Erin tell you about that one in her own blog. (Erin writes one of my favorite travel blogs of all time, with amazing photography and wondrous detail.  Don’t miss it!).

I put together an early summer supper of Copper River Salmon on the grill with pineapple-mango salsa, an “interesting” side dish of quinoa, lentils, and pine nuts that they were kind enough to enjoy, but Mo said maybe don’t make that one again.  Ha!  Plated Greek salads with reduced balsamic drizzled over the feta dressing were a hit, though, and kept us all entertained while the fish cooked.

Crème Brule for dessert, a choice of vanilla or latte flavors were fun.  The only glitch in the day was the failure of the culinary torch to fill with butane.  I panicked, drove wildly to the kitchen store, bought another torch and another canister of butane, only to get home and have it not work, again.  More panic, the brule’s were sitting on the counter with the raw sugar waiting for the fire!  A quick internet search and a You Tube video informed me that I was holding the canister right side up instead of upside down.  What in the world did we do without online videos?!

Even though we have not actually visited with Erin and Mui in person since our trip through Texas in 2014, it was as though no time had passed at all.  Erin and Mui are so incredibly delightful and easy to be around.  We sat on the porch of Sunset House long into the evening, and confirmed sight seeing plans for the upcoming week before they returned to the Phaeton at Valley of the Rogue.  Sad to say, even though we have a sewer hookup and 30 amp, our drive cannot accommodate a 40 foot rig.

Mo missed out on our first day sight seeing due to a required follow-up visit with her doctor.  She was just a week out from an emergency appendectomy and needed to be sure everything was OK.  We have been to Crater Lake often, so it was an OK day to miss, although we all really missed having her with us.

I picked Erin and Mui up at the park and we headed up the highway, over the hills, crossing the Rogue River several times before we arrived at the mandatory Natural Bridge Viewpoint where the Rogue roars in and out of lava caves and tunnels through a gorgeous wild canyon.  Erin and I share a love of photography, and I enjoyed following her around and watching how she framed shots so carefully. 

Continuing up the mountain toward the lake, we saw the green leaves of springtime give way to the more somber greenish black of conifers at an elevation where spring is still to come.  Mui wasn’t yet 62 when the price of the Senior Lifetime Pass went from $10 to $80, but with that birthday behind him, he was happy to go into the visitor center and purchase his new pass.  Even at $80, that pass is a fabulous deal for visiting national parks for free for the rest of your life, among other benefits, including half price camping at federal facilities.

I was excited to see my home country through new eyes.  Somehow showing people our beautiful part of Oregon who are seeing for the first time, reminds me to really look at my surroundings in a different way.  Approaching the Rim View area is always thrilling, but this time not quite so much because the snow banks were so high that we couldn’t yet see the lake.  We drove toward the beautiful historic lodge, which was closed until May 18, and finally found a snowbank we could climb to at last get that first view of Crater Lake.

So gorgeous, and the blue really IS that blue.  Somehow the surrounding snow on the cliffs and mountains added to the drama, and the ribbons of cloud in the sky make the lake reflections even more interesting.

I had planned a picnic, thinking we might find a table, but all the tables were deeply buried under the snowbanks, so we opened the tailgate and had a picnic right there in the parking lot. As we were finishing up our lunch, I mentioned that during the winter the Park Service has free snow shoe trips around the trails and even provides the snow shoes.  Within minutes after I spoke, a big long line of kids appeared over the ridge, clomping on the snow shoes as they reached the parking lot.  I had no idea they did the tours this late in the year, but we decided it must have been a special school tour of some sort.

The road around the lake was still closed with deep snows, and we were only able to drive up the west side road for an additional mile to Discovery Point for a few more amazing photos.  With a twinge of sadness, we left the lake behind and traveled east and down the hill into the beautiful Wood River Valley, not far from our old Rocky Point home.  We took a side trip to the Headwaters of the Wood River, but by the time we got there the skies were gray and threatening, and the mosquitos were out, so we were quite happy that we had already had our picnic. Still, I think Erin got some photos of the gorgeous blues of the spring where the Wood River emerges almost fully formed.  I didn’t even take out my camera this time!

As I said, I didn’t take out my camera.  This photo of the Headwaters is from last summer

Continuing back toward Rocky Point I showed them our previous home in the woods.  It looks very different now, since the new owners have yet to live there full time and the gardens and lawns are unkept.  I felt no sadness as we drove past the house, our new life and our new home is wonderful and while we have great memories, I am so happy to live in the sunlight and openness of Sunset House.

For our next day, we had originally planned to do a shorter trip through the Applegate Valley, viewing some of the wineries, maybe picnicking somewhere along the way, visiting Jacksonville and then home.  A nice short day for people who have been on the road a LOT lately.  That all changed as we checked out the weather and Mo and I started talking about maybe going to the coast instead.  I wrote a note to Erin suggesting a change of plans and they were right on board. 

Neither of them have seen the Oregon Coast, or the Redwoods, and with Brookings just a short 2 hours away, they were up for another long day of sight seeing with a great destination.  Once again, I loved driving 199 with guests so I could appreciate the drama of the Smith River below the winding road, and savor the ferns and waterfalls along the way. 

Mattie even got to go with us on this day, with Erin and Mui being great sports about sharing the back seat with her.  Mattie loves company, and made another set of good friends who enjoyed her almost as much as she enjoyed them.

We got to the coast in early afternoon, just in time to find a perfect picnic table at Macklyn Cove Beach where we once again brought out the goodies for lunch.  Mo and I love this little beach because Mattie can run free here in the off leash area, unlike Harris Beach State Park where leashes are required. 

After lunch we decided to hike the Chetco Point Trail, a perfect little jaunt to a beautiful spot overlooking the ocean, the town, and the beach below. 

A short drive north after our hike led us to Harris Beach, but along the way we found a small 55 plus community that had the biggest rhododendrons I have ever seen in my life.  It was like something out of a dream, with these huge pink trees completely covered in blossoms dwarfing the small modest homes beneath them.  Amazing.

Another walk down the South Beach Trail took us to the water once again.  Mattie had a great time running and playing ( beyond the state park boundary) and Mui did his favorite thing of walking right along the water.  It was a bit early for sea stars but the weather was incredible, with warm temperatures, full sunshine, and no wind.  What an amazing lucky treat for a quickie day on the Oregon Coast.

The trip home along Highway 199 gave us a chance to stop in for a drive through Jedediah Smith State Park to let Erin and Mui experience the huge redwoods for the first time.  We had great fun trying to get the phones and cameras to do the proper vertical panoramas to capture the incredible height of these ancient trees. 

By the time we arrived back in Grants Pass it was almost 7, and everyone was tired and ready to retire to their own space.  Mo and I talked about how we live here most of all because it is so accessible to everything we love.  We can do the beach in a day, do the high Cascades in a day, can kayak our favorite creeks in a day, and can even get to the high desert in just a day if we choose. 

Erin and Mui are thinking about the long term future, where they might want to settle down someday.  Mui asked me specifically what I DIDN”T like about living in Oregon.  I spent three days trying to come up with something and all I could think of was that what I like least are the late summer fires and smoke season.  Maybe a bit more fog in the winter than I might like, or a bit more heat in the summer, but nothing at all that would convince me to live anywhere else.  Ever.

The next day was to be a quiet one, with Mui preparing for our luncheon feast.  Mui brought Erin to the store where I picked her up so she and I could play around in Grants Pass with our cameras and I could show her a bit more of our charming small town.  We wandered about taking photos of the murals and the town bears that are brought out every summer to grace the street corners.

Wonderful to have a great photographer around to take really good pictures.  Thank you, Erin

Back home, we picked up Mo and Mattie at the house and drove again to the State Park where Mui greeted us in his fabulous Harrod’s apron.  I learned that Harrod’s is NOT Harrah’s.  The first being a very classy high end place in London and the second a big casino in Reno and Vegas. 

Ha!  Mui definitely earned his apron stripes with the lunch he has prepared for us, including homemade hummus with olive oil and paprika, Turkish ‘cacik’ cold yogurt soup, grilled beef and lamb kofte (Turkish meat patties) that were moist and tender, a delicious ancient grain dish that was exponentially better than my attempt, and home made brownies and ice cream for dessert.  I love Mui’s cooking, and he loves doing it as well. 

We visited the rest of the afternoon. laughing and sharing stories, talking about future plans and upcoming adventures.  We talked about ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances’, and agreed that we are truly friends.  It was a bit sad when we left, wondering when we might cross paths again.  I am sure we will, and in the mean time, we will share blogs, and photos, and emails, and facebook posts, and private messages about whatever.  It’s what friends do.  And when we get together again it will be as though no time has passed.

01-11-2017 Treasure in the Desert

Current Location: Catalina Spa and RV Resort, Desert Hot Springs, California

At the moment, we are under a wind advisory, nothing too serious, and nothing unusual for Desert Hot Springs at this time of year.  The skies are wild and gorgeous, with huge puffy white clouds rolling over the mountains and making shadows on the desert floor.  We are in shorts, with sun pouring in the windows of the rig, although it is hard to guess what the actual outside temperature might be if the wind weren’t blowing.

Currently I have my favorite  George Yates rib recipe on the Weber Q, packets of yams/apples/and onions ready for cooking when the ribs are done, and some cole slaw in the fridge.  We are having company for supper, just a way to say thank you for lunch yesterday, which Claudia so delightfully offered after our hike in the desert.

In all the years we have traveled to Desert Hot Springs, we haven’t managed to hike the Indian Canyons.  There is a fee to enter and there are no dogs allowed.  With so many places to hike, even some dog friendly ones, it didn’t’ seem necessary.  Yesterday we decided it was time to make the effort, and oh what a place it is!

But first I have to share the other desert treasure we visited.  Thousand Palms Oasis in the Coachella Valley Preserve lies several miles east of the RV park.  I first hiked here on Christmas Eve in 2010, where Laurie and Odel met me and shared the hike they loved.  We had a great day, and I was thrilled by the beautiful palms.  Mo and I have returned several times to hike here, sometimes simply walking around the groves, and other times wandering off into the desert, lost even with a GPS (and no phone signal).  That was 2 years ago, and we did manage to find our way back to the visitor center without mishap.

This year we decided on the shorter hike from the Visitor Center to Simone Pond, just a little over a mile, and an easy walk through the desert wash landscape.  The ponds are home to an amazing array of wildlife, including the desert pupfish, birds, frogs, snakes, rabbits, and other critters.  The docent at the Visitor Center reminded us that this area has been preserved in perpetuity for the sake of protecting the habitats, and if people abuse the area it is a simple matter to close the trails.  The Oasis is not for people, but for habitat management, so protecting that habitat is the priority.

The true treasure of Thousand Palms, however, are the palms.  California fan palms, majestic in their size and unique nature, are the only native palm in California.  They occur in a few oases throughout this part of California, and while there are actually maybe a few hundred rather than a thousand in  this particular oasis, the trails that meander through the wetlands are a wonderful way to experience the rich shadows and glorious light that fills the palm forest.

We took our time, enjoying the trails and delighting in the brilliant, warm desert afternoon light.  Being Sunday, there were quite a few people on the trail and the parking lot was nearly full.  But no matter.  Everyone was respectful, families were pleasant, with lots of laughter and welcome greetings along the trail.  It was a lovely day.

The predicted rains and winds showed up on Monday, and Mo and I decided to track down a  couple of my favorite quilt shops before finding the Mary Pickford Theater in the heart of Cathedral City.  Our destination was an afternoon matinee showing of “Manchester by the Sea”.  It was a bit surprising to find fairly long lines at 2 in the afternoon, but the Palm Spring International Film Festival is happening this week as well.  The ticket seller warned us that the only seats left in our chosen theater were the first two rows.

Ok then.  When we walked into the theater, those first two rows looked like something out of a United Emirates Airline commercial. There were huge recliners, with cupholders and lots of space between pairs of seats.  The movie was well done, definitely worth seeing, but the chairs very nearly overshadowed the movie experience with such comfort.  Haven’t seen that before in our small town movie theaters.

The next day, Tuesday, again had high wind predictions for Desert Hot Springs, with winds ranging from 25 to 35 mph with gusts to 55.  As is often the case, however, the winds across the valley in Palm Springs were less than 5 to 10 mph, and the day was nice enough to go hiking without jackets.  We debated shorts, but settled for long pants instead. Claudia isn’t familiar with the area, and when she found out we were going hiking, asked if she could tag along.

The Indian Canyons of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are an incredible desert treasure.  Cahuilla Indians have lived in these canyons for at least three thousand years, where they established villages, and tended the palms to increase fruit production.  The canyons are an invaluable resource, providing year round fresh running water, palm fronds for building homes, fruits and seeds from palms, mesquite, and other plants to provide ample food, and protection from the harshness of the summer and winter climates. 

We first hiked up Andreas Canyon, enthralled by the light and shadow, and the sound of running water over huge granite boulders.  There are mortars worn into the bedrock, formed from the grinding of palm and mesquite fruits, some of them as much as ten inches deep.

After completing the Andreas Canyon loop, we continued south on the main road toward the visitor center and the trailhead for Palm Canyon.  Hidden away in the wild badlands of this dry part of California are more than a hundred wild palm groves, and this is the largest, with a recent count of more than 2500 palms thriving along the canyon ravine.  The stream is live with fresh water, the sounds of water and birds are the background to the rustling of palm fronds in the winds above us. 

The floor of the canyon narrows and widens at intervals, and the trail is mostly level, wide, and soft.  The fragrance of moist sand, decaying vegetation, and organic matter is pungent.  The ravine is 12 miles long, and separates the Santa Rosa from the San Jacinto mountains.  The trail climbs above the canyon in places and then meanders along old beaches and around huge boulders.

It was one of the loveliest hikes we have ever experienced in all our years visiting this area, and there are so many trails to explore, you can be sure we will return again and again. A nice benefit, the cost for seniors to enter the canyons is a mere $7.00, and with her military ID, Mo got in free.  Wonderful.

We only hiked a little over three miles, saving the six mile round trip hike to the Stone Pools for our next visit.  It was nice spending hiking time with Claudia as well, and she wanted to treat us to lunch to thank us for showing her around the area.  Of course, there is no better nor iconic Palm Springs lunch spot than Sherman’s Delicatessen.  With a nice outside table, warmed by the propane heaters placed strategically about, we had classic Ruebens and a magnificent burger for Mo.  Dessert is crazy at this place, not only famous for its Ruebens, but for its bakery. 

We left the restaurant with half our lunch in boxes, and more than half our desserts in other boxes.  What a great day.  Returning home to the rig found a happy little dog, who seemed to have spent the entire afternoon quietly chewing on her knuckle bone and waiting patiently.  Lucky us!

08-09-2014 Last Days of the Reunion

Current Location: Home in Rocky Point with clear skies and 79F and low humidity day ahead

On the Friday when I was wandering around my old haunts in Northern Idaho, a large contingent of the rest of the family met at some unearthly hour for a tee time at a Post Falls golf course.  A good number of the Oukrops are avid golfers and most of the rest of them do it for fun.  I heard the stories later, but not being a golfer, I was much happier hanging out with old friends.

walking Riverside SP (2 of 12)Mo opted out of this activity as well, choosing instead to hang around the park with Abby, let her play and swim and relax for a bit.  I have a sneaky suspicion that Abby wasn’t the only one of this pair that needed some down time.

dinner at Don and Wynns (19 of 25) By the time I got back from my part of Idaho, the golf group was returning as well, and it was time to head to the west side of the South Hill for a wonderful hosted dinner of lasagna, salad, and bread.  Can you imagine making dinner for 33 people and not having a single potluck contribution? 

Wynn said that she spent an entire day cooking up these gorgeous pans of tasty lasagna. 

dinner at Don and Wynns (1 of 25) It was fun seeing how many people could fit on Don and Wynn’s deck without it collapsing.  Well built deck, I would say.  Before and after dinner we were entertained by the little ones playing around on the grass and listening to all the conversations on the deck as we watched the almost full super moon rise over Hangman Creek to the east.  The view from the deck was gorgeous.  dinner at Don and Wynns (13 of 25)We even managed the “complete” family photo with everyone attending the reunion gathering on Don’s lawn.  I have a sequence of about 12 different shots, all with varying degrees of success at getting everyone to look forward and smile at the same time.  The joys of photographing a group are not to be understated.dinner at Don and Wynns (15 of 25)

Saturday morning dawned sunny and warm, and was a perfect day for the family float on the Little Spokane River.  Don is an avid kayaker, and knows the area paddles well.  He picked this one the last time we were in his area, and it was a great choice.  Everyone opted for the 3 hour float rather than the shorter paddle.Family Float (3 of 12)We had a large number of rubber boats to compliment the few kayaks, and the best part of the morning was the gathering of people as we stood around while Don tried to explain the logistics of the car shuttles, organizing the designated drivers, and trying to figure out who would be where when.  I won’t post a bunch more photos of this day because in the first reunion post I chose to share my favorite shots of everyone participating.Family Float (7 of 12)

The Little Spokane is a meandering river, with just enough current to make it fun, and enough that I was glad we were only paddling downstream.  Much of the shoreline is in a natural wildlife area, and we didn’t discover until the end of the trip at the takeout that no dogs are allowed on the river!  UhOh.  Glad we didn’t read the sign because Abby had a great time.

Oukrop Reunion Float (20 of 41) Golf and Silverwood required a weekday, so the float got the weekend day by default, and Saturday wasn’t the best day to be on this lovely river.  It is an extremely popular place, especially on a hot sunny weekend, and we were accompanied by a large number of fellow rafters.  I think our group might have been the biggest, however, and maybe all those other rafters were wishing they had picked a different day as well.  Something a bit disconcerting to be on a gorgeous river and come around a curve to the smell of cigarette/marijuana (legal in Washington) smoke and the sound of loud rock and roll on someone’s radio.

Oukrop Reunion Float (39 of 41) We all had a great time, and the kayakers in the group thought the trip length was perfect.  A few of the floaters thought it was just over the limit of comfortable, especially the ones who had to keep blowing up their boats.  I wish I could remember Susan’s youngest son David’s exact words, something to the effect  of “If we don’t stop right now I am going to die”  Susan, if you read this, please post that comment in the comments.  I would love to get it word for word!

IMG_0616Oukrops on the Deschutes River 2010

I think the float trip is my favorite part of these Oukrop reunions, and remember fondly our float trip on the Deschutes when Roger and Nancy’s family was in charge of the festivities.

dinner at Ginny and Gabes (2 of 34) After a long day we arrived back in camp just in time to change and clean up a bit to drive in a different direction to the home of Ginny and Gabe for their fabulous fully hosted dinner.  Once again, no potluck allowed, and Ginny and Gabe put on the best pulled pork BBQ ever!

dinner at Ginny and Gabes (18 of 34) Ginny is a professional portrait photographer, and incredibly artistic.  She had the yard all decorated with Martha Stewartesque jars of baby’s breath and wooden table runners, all coordinated.  There was even a lovely basket with an assortment of beautiful quilts for spreading on the grass. Her appetizers and casserole accompaniments to the dinner were fabulous. Not to mention the infused waters and banana split dessert!

dinner at Ginny and Gabes (21 of 34) Gabe had a regulation volley ball court all set up with a 20 foot high barrier to keep the ball from ending up in the neighbors yard.  Did I mention this is a very athletic family?  The barrier wasn’t high enough, and Gabe spent a good amount of time going over the fence after the ball. 

dinner at Ginny and Gabes (34 of 34) It was so much fun watching Ginny and Gabe’s dog wandering around trying to play volleyball, and watching all the little ones running around underfoot. 

08-09-2014 Oukrop Dinner at Ginny and Gabes We went home to the campground by the light of the almost super moon, one more night before it would be full.  The next morning, folks began dispersing, some to the airport, rigs loaded up and ready to roll toward home, and Mo and I spent some quiet hours all alone at the park enjoying the river and the trails.

walking Riverside SP (1 of 12) Our evening destination was only a few short miles north toward Bonners Ferry where we planned to overnight before our border crossing early Monday morning into Canada. No need to rush.  A wonderful end to a wonderful reunion with plenty of time to decompress and relax before the next leg of our journey.walking Riverside SP (6 of 12)

Next: Fabulous Kootenay Lake in British Columbia


02-06-2014 Cold Rainy Day in Destin

Current temperature 36 F  Partly clear and the high to day up to a balmy 53!

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (6)I guess 53F is a lot better than 43F which was the high temperature here yesterday.  With rain.  No sun, not a speck of sunshine.  We are leaving today and heading east toward St Joe Peninsula State Park….I think we need to follow the rain.  Weatherunderground says that by Sunday the rainy weather will have passed this part of the Emerald Coast with sunshine predicted in Destin and clouds and rain for points farther east.

I guess this is the most frustrating part of traveling with reservations, we just don’t have a lot of flexibility to follow the weather.  The whole plan would fall like a stack of dominoes if we decided to try to go somewhere warm and sunny right now.  The other problem, of course, is that there isn’t much warm and sunny in this half of the country and we would have to go a couple of thousand miles west.  And by the time we got there, Winter Storm Orion might be doing some damage as well even out west.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (12)Right now, Oregon is experiencing some severe winter weather on the west side of the mountains, and I am quite happy to be down here, relatively warm, not shoveling snow and slipping on icy roads.  I will not complain one bit more about the cold weather here in Florida.  I also know that if I could just get a little bit father south the predictions are for highs in the 80’s at Marathon Key.  I need a Star Trek transporter to get us there before some weird weather thing turns it all cold again.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (4)With Florida beaches off limits to dogs, we took Abby to the Four Paws doggy day care for our day on the beach.  I would say that was a fairly loosely run business, but we saw where Abby was to spend the day, and it seemed clean enough.  There was no outdoor space, but the owner said he walked the dogs every two hours or so.  The hours are a bit limited and we had to return by 4PM to pick her up. 

On a side note, I would highly recommend reading ALL the reviews for boarding facilities.  A kennel recommended by the desk staff at the campground had some rather scary reviews.  The kennel owner is threatening to sue the reviewers for slander, but a local vet confirmed that a small dog died from injuries sustained at the facility by a larger dog.  If there are terrible reviews and then a bunch of glowing reviews with a later date, pay attention, those later reviews are probably fake. 

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (19)We started our dog free morning with pastries and coffee at “The Donut Hole”, recommended by several bloggers and a recent commenter on our blog.  Thanks, that was a good choice.  The coffee was strong, the pastries superb, and the restaurant gave us a place to prepare for venturing out into the cold rain.

I wanted most of all to see Grayton Beach State Park, and had no problem paying the $5. entry fee to explore the campground, check out the dune lakes, and the famous white sands of the beach.  Even with the gloomy skies, the pastel turquoise colors of the water and the pure white sands were wonderful.

We walked as long as we could manage in the cold.  Even with a yellow flag out, for moderate conditions,  the breezes made the 43 degree temperatures bone chilling.  Still, I had to put my feet in that crystalline water.  The Gulf was doing that gentle Gulf thing that I love, with soft, little waves…can I even call them waves?….lapping the shore and the dark clouds reflecting in the still water.  I kept imagining how incredible it would feel to have my kayak out there on the wilderness of silky turquoise water and gray sky in all directions.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (17)From Grayton Beach, there are some tall Florida condominiums visible in the distance, but nothing invasive.  The State Park itself is definitely a place to camp for us, with several sites with paths leading directly to the dune lake and plenty of privacy.  The newer part of the campground has 50 amp hookups and larger sites, but they are unprotected and open.  We liked the older part better, nice thing about having a 30 amp, 26 foot rig.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (28)After freezing at the beach, we jumped back in the Tracker turning the heat on full blast to try to dry out my jeans.  Even with the cuffs rolled up I managed to get all wet. Continuing east on 30A, we traveled the short mile and a half from the park to the little storybook town of Seaside, Florida.  Years ago, watching the movie “The Truman Show”, I fell in love with this town, as did many other people.  Looking it up, I learned it was a planned community, one of the first that used the new Urban Design concept of creating a living space that was pedestrian friendly, with common areas, concentrated housing of varying sizes and types, and the ability to work and play and live all without having to use a car.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (32)I don’t think many people who work in Seaside actually live there, since many of the houses now go for millions.  It was still very cold, and by the time we got to Seaside it was also raining.  The lovely town square was in the midst of major reconstruction and not quite lovely at this time.  One of the local food wagon vendors told us they had trouble with drainage and the square was being redesigned to handle runoff more efficiently. He said it would be gorgeous again by March.

I had Mo take the obligatory photo of me at the tiny post office and then we walked the square a bit.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (35)02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (37) A store with proclaimed cottage style was rather elegant.  I kept picturing all that fancy elegant cottage stuff in our real cottage back in Oregon.  Maybe not, but it was luscious to look at, with linen woven slipcovers, big bowls of coffee beans on distressed wood tables, and beautiful linen napkins at $20. a piece.  Let’s see…dinner for six and $120. for napkins?  I love luxury and good quality, but this was even more than I would do.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (39)The famous Modica Market was a nice stop, with tall shelves of everything imaginable that required library style ladders to stock. Again, even with a small bin of organic produce, this wasn’t exactly your weekly grocery shopping spot.  The Seaside Transit Authority tent was worth a double take, however, with bicycles instead of busses as the city transportation system. 

Still raining, I convinced Mo to walk at least a couple of blocks through the residential areas, with their white picket fences and porches bigger than my house.  Just a short way down the block, we found a public pathway, a truly amazing little treat, that led between back yards, much like an alley, but not for cars.  The path led to the main road where we got back in the car, grateful again for warmth.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (40)It seems that March is the beginning of “the season” in Seaside, and many of the charming little boutiques on the beach side of the town square were still closed.  Lucky for me, Pickles was open, and I managed an order of fried pickles…something I never tried before but sounded like fun.  They were.  I can see that Seaside could be a great place to visit on a warm sunny day on a bicycle.  With a great bike trail between the town and the state park to the west, the perfect combination of quiet kayaking, beautiful beach, and cute busy town accessible by bike is pretty darn inviting.  But not today in the cold rain.

Traveling back 20 miles or so to Destin, we found a WalMart…a tiny version of most WalMarts, hoping for some shelf liner, some propane, and some TUMS.  Eating out so much isn’t that good for my tummy.  I needed to be armed for the last dog free adventure of the day, hot Irish coffee at McGuire’s Irish Pub back in Destin.  I have seen photos of this place on so many blogs recently, and read about how great it is for so long that I decided it was worth a try.

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (50)We weren’t disappointed, and Mo finally got fish and chips the way she has been wanting it for a month now.  None of that greasy, thick doughy breading, but a nice light crispy coating on flaky light fish.  I tried the rueben egg roll appetizers and they were great!  McGuire’s is also a small craft brewery, and when I asked if any of their beer was bottled, the head brewmaster came over to our table to have a long conversation about crafted beer.  I gave the rest of my Irish coffee to Mo and ordered a Millennial.  Excellent beer, not too hoppy, but rich and creamy.  In Florida, they do sell growlers of tap beer, but a growler is a gallon!  Hard to fit that in a motorhome fridge, so I passed.  It would take me a long time to drink a gallon of beer!

02-06-2014 Destin Day 2 (41)It is very nearly impossible to get a photo of the interior of McGuire’s, since the place is mainly lit with dim red lights.  The walls and ceiling are covered with dollar bills, all signed and named by folks who have visited.  They call it the million dollar ceiling.  I remember a ceiling like this along Interstate 90 west of Missoula, Montana somewhere near St Regis, but for the life of me can’t remember the name of the place.  Then there was the great little trailer coffee shop on the dirt road track the the Denali Highway in Alaska…covered in dollar bills with pies that were $36 each.  That dollar bill ceiling thing isn’t all that uncommon.

When we picked up Abby, she seemed happy and unstressed, so I assume her day was OK.  Ours was OK as well, in spite of the rain and cold, and as I fell asleep last night I kept remembering the color of the water, not how cold my hands and feet were while walking on the beach.