Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stories from the Road -- Wahkeena Falls, OR

It seems so long ago when Mom and I decided to head to the Pacific Northwest on our second annual road trip in 2008. People have asked me what my favorite vacation was. To me, it's the same as choosing your favorite child. Our first trip was to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Hard to beat southeast Canada. Our second included Yellowstone, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Our third was to Nevada and California. Our fourth was to Boston and Cape Cod. Very different places, and very different experiences. In a sense, it is a question of apples and oranges.

Not only that, but the day stops on each trip were vastly different. On the Pacific Northwest trip, we spent two days in Yellowstone, followed by a day along the Snake River in Idaho, followed by a day in the Columbia River Gorge. The amount of change Mom and I had seen in the landscape, in the culture, in the food, in the climate -- well, each day was a brand new experience. Just 24 hours before, Mom and I were in a barren landscape of brown shrubs and hungry lizards. Today, the air was oppressive, the vegetation was lush, and the water was plentiful.

Mom calls this day of our trip "Waterfall Day". Essentially, the plan was to drive along the Columbia River Gorge, and stop at six waterfalls. Each one was dramatically different. The first was called Horsetail Falls, and one look at it was all it took to explain its name. The second was the magnificent Multnomah Falls, a 600+ foot plunge that even has a hike to the precipice. After spending several hours at this masterpiece, we next drove a little further and hiked a little more to Wahkeena Falls. Now, Wahkeena is a glorious waterfall in its own right, but it could not live up to Multnomah standards. This was completely expected by me, but Mother was tiring quickly of the walking. (Too bad, as she had three more hikes to do after this one.) Her reception of the waterfall was, shall we say, far less forgiving than mine.

"That's it?" she asked with unabashed irritation. That's it? How often do you get to see waterfalls, dear Mother? And if you hadn't seen Multnomah, how would your reaction change?

"Not by much." she said. Eh, maybe so. I guess you aren't as big of a fan of waterfalls as I am. As it turns out, though, Mom later said that this was one of her favorite days on the trip. She soon declared Oregon to be the "prettiest state" she has been to. It's hard to disagree with her assessment. If one judges by the Columbia River Gorge alone, Oregon soars above most of its competition.

I actually loved Wahkeena Falls, in part because it was hot -- and this was one of the only waterfalls of the day that we could actually feel the spray from. And the hikes were, after all, getting warmer and warmer. Additionally, the surroundings were just stunning. So many trees, leaves, plants. So much vegetation. So much water in the air and on the ground. Growing up in treeless and relatively dry Nebraska, this was different. This was something new to me, something I have always looked at and admired. Amazingly, this was my first "rain forest" experience, and it exceeded all expectations.

The other reason I liked Wahkeena Falls was because it exemplified the banter Mom and I usually provide on these trips. After her unimpressed reaction to the waterfall, she would ask a few pointed questions while I was taking photographs and during our walk back to the car. "So is the next one just a trickle?" "Will I even know when I'm seeing the waterfall?" "How soon is my next torturous hike?" My answers were equally pointed. "How many smashed pennies have you obtained today?" "I think you'll know when you see the next waterfall when you see water...falling." "The next hike is about four hours long. That's not bad, right?"

She and I would smile, sometimes with a mixture of sarcasm and genuineness. Always with a sense that we were appreciative of the others' wishes. The other hikes were short, knowing that Mom would probably not want to hike to the top of more waterfalls that day. I made sure that the next day was a smashed penny extravaganza. I made sure to stop at a gift shop after the waterfall hopping. Here's a 60+ woman, vital as ever, hiking with me six different times on the same day. Sure, she'd provide some banter and an occasional sigh, but she refused to quit. I hope I'm alive, much less so active, at that age.

And she also banters. Personally, I love it. Someone who provides as much snark and sarcasm as I do on a day so worthy of anything but -- well, that's my cup of tea. The banter represents something more. Yeah, we're lucky to see such a beautiful place, but rather than going for the quick cliche (easy to do in blogs, by the way) -- she goes for the funny bone. That's appreciation. Even for Wahkeena Falls.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Stories from the Road -- Somewhere Under the Rainbow

After a weeklong visit to Wisconsin last summer, two friends and I returned to Oklahoma a little tired and a little burned. A storm had developed on the last leg of the trip, and it was beginning to move off to our southeast. I decided to stop in Guthrie, OK, for a snack and to watch the sky for a bit. It was a good thing; there was quite a show.

Aside from the lightning, which itself was memorable, the sun began to sneak out to the west of the anvil. A sharp rainbow appeared immediately, and a secondary rainbow soon was visible. The sky itself turned a brilliant orange color, a type of orange that only Oklahoma sunsets seem to muster. Here we are, sitting in an Arby's parking lot, in a very unmemorable location. And now...well, now, it is forever etched in my mind.

Oklahoma sunsets are unlike anywhere else. The perfect conditions: a flat horizon, plenty of dust from the west, and a tendency for clouds of various types. Dry enough that a beautiful sunset is frequent. There have been nights where the clouds prefer a beautiful purple hue; others where yellow and orange are dominant. On the really good days, all are visible. The sunset here was predominantly orange, but more memorable than most because of the dual-rainbow.

Sunsets are all about evolution. Every second the sky is changing, and it can be easy to forget that when you're drawn into the initial image that made you pay attention in the first place. Soon, the sun has set, and you only have a few photos to remember it by. Sadly, this is exactly what happened to me on this night. Most nights, actually.

We were treated to many great sunsets on this trip. One was from Little St. Germain Lake in Wisconsin (shown below). Rain always seems to be a factor for me. With this one, a light rain was falling as the sky decided to show every single color a sunset is capable of making. With the spreading waves from each raindrop on the otherwise calm lake, the picture-perfect sunset was born.

Another was in the town of Escanaba, MI, during our Upper Peninsula lighthouse tour. The sky was a brilliant blue for most of the evening, after a very rainy morning and early afternoon. The clouds were slow to disintegrate, making for a postcard image along Lake Michigan at the end of the day. Add in a sun dog and a stunningly gorgeous lighthouse, and you have a sunset dreams are made of.

I guess a sunset was a very fitting end to our trip. And Oklahoma -- well, I'm not sure the scenery topped that of the North Woods, but the sky sure tried its best to outdo it.

Sightseeing is not just a "surface experience". Looking up is often just as rewarding. Most of the greatest photos of nature have about half the image devoted to the sky. The sky can transcend the scenery. The I-35 exit to Guthrie is a totally forgettable place. A gas station or ten, a few fast food restaurants, and the sound of truck engines do not make for a travel memory. The sky took care of that.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stories from the Road -- The Christmas Eve 2009 Blizzard

I have discussed at length in many other notes/blogs the tough stretch December 2009 was for me and my family. The matriarch of our family, with a heart of gold and a sense of humor unmatched by anyone in its perseverance, finally succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease. Her funeral was on an overcast day in Lincoln -- very typical by Nebraska winter standards. Cold, breezy, and barren -- the weather was a perfect symbol of our mood.

Grandma did not like winters. Her blood circulation was poor most of her life, and she was chilled easily. I'm not sure she would have been a fan of the weather at her funeral. "Brrrr!" she would have said. "Goodness!" Despite this, she loved Nebraska, and I have a feeling that would have won out here in the end.

The overcast, as it turns out, was a harbinger of much worse winter weather to come. By 23 December, the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. Snow and sleet began breaking out in much of Nebraska, with freezing drizzle preceding it. Soon, the snow took over, and the winds began to howl. By Christmas Eve Day, blinding snow had encompassed much of the state, and actually much of the region. Travel was impossible. Walking down the streets was disorienting. The visibility was so bad, that I had trouble figuring out if I was on the street or off during an occasional walk into the displaced Arctic. During the night, the sky was a haunting orange color. The falling snow looked like asteroids from an Armageddon-like sky. It was stunningly beautiful, actually.

With horizontal snow and absolutely empty streets, Lincoln seemed like a ghost town on a day that normally is anything but. It was totally bizarre to see the streets of Lincoln completely empty during the day. And at night, the scene was just jaw-dropping. The orange glow overwhelmed all views. The snow was everywhere, and the streetlights were essentially useless. I was in complete awe.

Christmas was soon canceled. The interstates were closed and would remain so for a couple of days. No trip to Sioux Falls, no trip to my home town, nothing. My mother and I were stranded at her house. A few games of Scrabble, some television marathons, a little bit of cooking, and an exchange of gifts. Mostly watching the snow fall...and fall...and fall. Lincoln received a foot of snow, most of it blown for hours after it had ceased falling. We walked the streets on Christmas night. Amazingly, a couple of bars had opened. One or two customers per bar, drinking their holiday sorrows into oblivion. Mom and I walked our sorrows away. Piles of snow lined the streets, still largely empty. The only sounds were of wind and that stillness that only snow can make.

By the day after Christmas, some restaurants began to open. Mom was in the mood for soup, and we went to Panera Bread to satisfy her hunger. We didn't talk much there; instead, we listened to all of the families discussing their own level of Christmas disaster. One family was from Colorado Springs and had missed the birth of their grandchild. Another had missed two days of work and was worried about being fired. Mostly, families with cabin fever. Even in a restaurant, there was a sense of desperation. Everyone needed to leave somehow, somewhere. Mom and I? Maybe it was our genetic stubbornness of appreciating home, but we were happy to see life standing still for a little bit.

One thing you can count on once in a while in Lincoln... Slow down. Listen. Share. Life will return soon enough.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stories from the Road -- Lombard Street

What do you think of when someone mentions San Francisco?

Most immediately think of the classic Golden Gate Bridge. Really, who could blame them? Others think of Alcatraz, or dungeness crab, or those smelly seals on Fisherman's Wharf, or sourdough bread, or the absolutely incredible Asian food, or streetcars.

I think of Lombard Street. In my mind, there is nothing more quintessentially San Francisco than this strange concoction of road construction.

San Francisco is hilly. Very hilly. I don't much like running in the city. The steep hills just south of the bay are nightmares for the daily run. The scenery is great, but my heart can't take the punishment after so long. Even walking in various portions of the city is profoundly uncomfortable. I suppose that is a good thing, but sometimes I just want a quiet walk around the neighborhoods.

Lombard Street is San Francisco's quirky comment on the streets and hills it encompasses. It is, without a doubt, the most winding street in such a short distance I have ever encountered. Intentionally so! There is no need for it, other than it exists and it's something to discuss when you visit.

San Francisco is my favorite city in the West, although I've recently discovered the genuine wonder of Seattle. No, San Francisco is my kind of city. Big but small, one that loves food -- shoves it in your face. Its inhabitants speak their minds, sometimes crazily. Sometimes lazily. Sometimes loudly. Sometimes futilely. Doesn't matter. They talk, whether you want to listen or not. Thing is, they also listen and adapt. It is no coincidence that vegan restaurants sit right beside steakhouses. They may not always agree with each other, but they seem to find a way to live with each other. Variety is always underrated, and San Francisco is the haven of diversity.

The city also has a personality. A sense of humor. Perhaps tired of its own topography, Lombard Street was born. The street lasts for a couple of blocks, with cars humorously squeezing corner after corner. An occasional sharp brake or even a curb check. And I'm guessing most of these people are tourists. Surely no local would take such a ridiculously useless road. Then again, there was an instance when someone rolled down their window as I walked up the street yelling: "Go Giants!"

One thing I won't forget about Lombard Street: the views. You can see much of the city from here, and each hill proudly displays the unique housing and buildings that make each neighborhood wonderfully unique. And you don't have to worry about taking extra photos on the road. The next car coming won't hit you for quite a while. This is a street where the speed limit isn't a suggestion -- it's a requirement.

I've been to San Francisco twice now, but I feel a sense of home here. Any city with this quirky of an attitude gets a vote in my book. Mom kept asking me: "Why did they make this?" My reply: "Look around."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stories from the Road -- Coral Gables, FL

I have missed writing these blogs, so I return once again to tell some of my stories from the road.


I was in Florida one weekend in the fall of 2009 with a friend of mine, and she had gone to a football game with a friend of hers. This left me with an evening of exploring Coral Gables, a city that television actually gets right.

When I think Coral Gables, I immediately think of Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia. The Golden Girls is set in this city, and the images of Coral Gables always consisted of warm-colored buildings and palm trees. I always thought this was a cliche, but it turns out that these two things are essentially Coral Gables. Not surprisingly, this made me a bit happy. Not often I was able to see the "tropical" architecture, natural and man-made. It turns out that I can no longer think of palm trees without seeing those buildings. They are forever intertwined.

Walking in the streets of Coral Gables, I immediately grasped two concepts central to life there. First, everything is always done outside. Eating indoors is what hosts and hostesses ask at restaurant entrances, not outdoors. Shopping in a store lasts for short periods of time. People tire of the air conditioning, artificial lighting, and echoes from the walls. Most restaurant seating features lawn chairs and umbrellas. To be honest, I could get used to this, but I wonder if this is true in August rather than October.

Second, the more, the merrier. Sure, there were a lot of couples, but there were even more groups. I would see groups of eight or more everywhere -- shopping, eating, walking, talking. The outsiders were the loners, and here I mean the "tourists", myself included. I'm afraid I stuck out like a sore thumb in Coral Gables, so worthy of mocking or those knowing glances from the locals.

My evening was spent walking around and around, watching a group of drunks falling into tables and a family of six order the exact same thing for each person. I loved it. People wear their hearts on their sleeves here, and are unabashed in their public behavior. Loud conversation is encouraged, and not distracting. After all, everything is outdoors -- public and open for discussion. Such a place would sound scary to me, but I found all of it to be strangely comforting. A small town attitude in the midst of an urban sprawl.

I noticed that most people walked as far away from roads as possible. One glimpse of the traffic, and you'd fall in line. Crazy. Speed limit signs aren't suggestions; they're eye sores. Pedestrians here are those empty trash bags in the open plains. Merely something to run over and watch swaying in the breeze behind you. It is best to look both ways before crossing the street, and then closing your eyes anyway when taking the leap.

When I walked into the more residential sections of Coral Gables, I was immediately struck at the familiarity of the scene. Although I didn't see the Golden Girls house, I constantly felt like I was walking down their neighborhood. The houses were beautiful -- typically long and single-storied. Colors were orange, yellow, maybe an occasional sky blue, often colors I couldn't see (probably red or various similar hues). The houses here looked happy, airy, warm, comforting. Just like the downtown area.

Going indoors in various places throughout the city was a letdown. Whereas the buildings on the outside looked colorful and inviting, the insides were dark, empty, and drab. Maybe the lack of people inside most stores and restaurants added to the mood.

I would quickly exit the buildings and go back outside. A slight breeze, the clanging dishes and silverware, and the recognizable laughter of group camaraderie. And those palm trees, happily sitting beside the next store. It was dark now, and I ordered an iced tea. Sat down at a table and listened. I could get used to this.