Travel is stimulating. Visiting new places outside our own environs infuses so many of us with a sense of wonder and renewal. Travel literature goes back at least to the 2nd century with the Greek geographer Pausanias. In the modern era essayists, journalists, and even novelists have treated readers to highly-descriptive narratives that feed the imagination and make us feel like we have actually visited places we have never even seen. Writers like Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Robert Louis Stevenson were gifted with keen perception and carefully-crafted language, combined with illustrations, that gave their readers a sense of “being there.” The introduction of photography enhanced the experience, and one could argue that publications like National Geographic served as travel literature in serial form.
Beginning in the 20th century, film and television added a whole new dimension to the genre, which required less imagination but awarded viewers with essentially a reproduction of the sights and sounds a traveler would enjoy. There are numerous television channels across the globe devoted to providing this type of content around the clock. The Internet has now made it possible for both professionals and amateurs to share their travel adventures through personal and hosted websites, blogs, social media, and photo and video sharing sites.
For those who are unable to travel for any number of reasons, the opportunities to see the world vicariously through the content provided by others is almost endless, which is quite wonderful. However, and this is the sad truth, when it comes to truly absorbing the magnificence of many locations on the planet, there is no real substitute for literally being there. One of the times this realization was made abundantly clear to me was when my wife and I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona in 2008.
A video of this impressive geological feature, as much as 18 miles wide in some places, will give the viewer a sense of its massive size, beautiful colors, varied textures, and even the sounds of the wind as it rushes through its 4,000-foot depths. What a video cannot recreate is the tingle down your spine when you stand at the rim’s edge as your mind and body react to the overwhelming expanse and the dangers presented by the chasm before you. It is also difficult for a flat screen to depict the depth and breadth of the canyon that the eye perceives. The video cannot provide you with the brush of the wind against your skin and the smells all around you. The audio can record many of the sounds you would hear, but it cannot accurately reproduce that low, soft “wwwwwhhhhh” created by the air swirling in this enormous space that your ears detect. Obviously, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it either. There are several places we have visited, and I am sure many more we haven’t, that a book or video simply cannot do justice. Sometimes you just have to be there, and that’s why we travel.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.
We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.
On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.
When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.
To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.
One of the great benefits of a home garden is the diversity of life that it supports, which includes fauna as well as flora. Depending upon the plants growing in the space and its overall size, the garden may have both temporary and permanent residents. With the right mix of food, clean water, and cover, the gardener may play host to a wide variety of species. Of course, gardeners may not roll out the welcome mat to all wildlife, especially the kind that feast on our plants. Some we can deter; others we may choose to eliminate altogether. Slugs and Japanese beetles come to mind in our own garden.
I am fascinated by the members of the animal kingdom that have frequented our yard over many seasons. Our current home is bordered by a national forest, which means there are plenty of nesting spaces and protection from predators. Our garden serves as a small oasis and a source of food for many of the animals that venture out into the open. Each spring, our ornamental cherry tree is covered in butterflies that appear to dance around the branches as they feed on the nectar from the blossoms. As the season progresses, they are joined by moths and bees, making their way through the bloom cycles of the chaste tree, lantana, and the butterfly bushes. Everywhere we have lived we included bright-colored annuals in the summer landscape, which attract hummingbirds. I am continually mesmerized by their aerial acrobatics. For other avian species, both permanent residents and migrants, we offer a gurgling bird bath, a waterfall, and a seed feeder. At our previous residence on a lake, a pair of male and female ducks would occasionally come ashore, cross our lawn, and splash in our garden pond.
Watching animals in the garden has provided me with countless hours of entertainment for most of my life. Photographing them has almost become an avocation. I plan and develop sections of the garden specifically with animals in mind, considering what they need, what will draw them, and how I can best observe them. I set up trail cameras to catch a glimpse of them in action.
Our garden is home to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The frogs are in a class all to themselves, at least when it comes to their most noticeable contribution to the garden — sound. During the warm months of the year, they gather in and around our pool and fill the air with responsive croaking that is at times almost deafening. By contrast, the reptiles are so quiet and subtle. I came very close to stepping on a turtle before seeing it and walked past a snake resting on top of a shrub three times before noticing it all.
Admittedly, I don’t give all animals free access to the entire garden. Unfortunately, the deer and rabbits will take far more than their fair share. They will eat the plants they like all the way to the ground. I use Liquid Fence to deter them from my annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs, but they have plenty of grass and border foliage to sustain them. It wouldn’t be polite to completely bar them from the yard. After all, the name of our street is Running Deer Road. This is their home too.
For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service. Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside. Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching. Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country. One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area. The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.
The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area. There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco. Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city. For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.
Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south. The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast. There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east. Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk. The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening. The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!
Looking for a more traditional hiking experience? Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument. Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog. The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible. The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy. Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.
Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast. With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean. The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles. Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay. Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best. My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods. Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable. With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.
Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city. The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city. There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.
The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden. Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.
In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture. Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.
Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.
Hiking is an outdoor activity that covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. People who hike do so for a number of different reasons (exercise, health, nature appreciation, social interaction, competition, etc.), and they have so many options of how and where to do this activity. Some folks only think of hiking in terms of backpacking and trekking out into the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time. Others envision hiking as a journey that gets you from point A to point B, or they see it as a test of endurance and distance. Hiking the Appalachian Trail comes to mind.
As with any form of recreation, there may be purists out there who maintain a set of standards or criteria for being called a real hiker. I hope not, because we would certainly fall short. When we hike, my wife and I are no longer interested in “pushing through the pain” to break any records of distance, speed, or difficulty. We are simply enjoying the outdoors and the opportunity to see things for the first time while getting a little exercise. As working professionals, we still operate on fairly busy schedules, so we often find ourselves carving out time to hike. This may mean that we only have thirty minutes or an hour, and we often grab these opportunities while in route. A perfect example was a one-hour excursion we took on our way from Phoenix to Tucson, Arizona, for a short up and back down hike at Picacho Peak State Park.
The drive from Phoenix to Tucson typically takes about two hours. We left Phoenix at about 7:45 in the morning and arrived at Picacho Peak State Park at about 8:45. We changed into our boots, pulled hiking polls out of the trunk of the car, grabbed water and hats and took off on the trail that leads from the parking area to the peak. It is a very rocky but well-marked trail that zigzags up the west slope. It is considered moderate in difficulty, which is a fair assessment. With a few quick stops for me to take some photos along the way, we made it to the overlook in just over thirty minutes. It was a sunny morning with temperatures in the upper 50s F, which was just about perfect.
We are not nearly young enough (admittedly a poor excuse), fit enough, or brave enough to climb rock faces, but we were perfectly satisfied to stop our ascent when we reached the overlook at the base of the jagged outcropping that forms the top of the peak. The view was spectacular looking southeast out across the Arizona desert. Of course, we took the obligatory selfie at this location and absorbed the experience for a few minutes before heading back down the slope.
This out-and-back hike took just over an hour. We were back on the road to Tucson by 11:00 and made it to the city to see some close friends for lunch at noon. More often than not, this is our hiking pattern. We have decided that short hikes like this one satisfy our need to get outside and stretch our legs, breathe in the fresh air, and sometimes enjoy spectacular scenery. Someday, when we are retired, we may have more time for longer hikes, but for now, the short ones are just fine.
My wife and I were in London this past summer for a few days. We had some scheduled work-related activities on the Sunday after we arrived, but our morning was free. The day was overcast, as so many are in London. We decided to spend the morning strolling through Hyde Park, one of eight Royal Parks in the city. Seized by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536 as a private hunting grounds for the monarch, this 350-acre property was not made available to the general public until 1637. In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House on the western edge of the park and renamed it Kensington Palace, which is where the royal family made its home. During the 18th century, the park began to take on many of the features that distinguish it today, thanks to the efforts and creativity of Queen Caroline. Two of the most striking landscape elements she introduced were Kensington Gardens and Serpentine Lake.
Through the centuries Hyde Park has been a site for national celebrations and a sanctuary of free speech, illustrated by the famous Speakers’ Corner, where anyone is allowed to stand up and openly speak on any subject, including grievances against the state. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell are among the most famous orators who have expressed their views at Speakers’ Corner. The park is also a haven for wildlife, and the Serpentine Lake offers a rich habitat for a wide variety of water fowl and other aquatic animals. Of course, maneuvering through a patchwork of goose poop is an issue if you choose to get too close to the water! As one might expect, the park is filled with statues, memorials, fountains, artwork, pavilions, walkways, and concessions.
On the morning of our stroll, we entered the park through the Marble Arch on the northeast, next to Speakers’ Corner. Immediately we were greeted with people taking advantage of the weekend with their exercise routines: running, walking, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, and more. A major portion of this section of the park was currently occupied by the British Summer Time festival of music, but we made our way around it toward the large section of Serpentine Lake, intersecting with West Carriage Drive and crossing Serpentine Bridge. We passed by the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain to reach the Lido Restaurant, where we bought some hot drinks to warm us up a bit — it was chilly morning for July. We continued leisurely along one of the walkways within view of the lake and headed back toward the southeast part of the park to the Serpentine Waterfall and the enchanting water garden just beyond it.
On the southeast corner of the park, we spent some time wandering through the Rose Garden, a spectacular oasis featuring roses mixed with herbaceous plants that were exploding with color while we were there. We were joined by parents carrying babies in strollers and older children asking a thousand questions. I have written on public gardens before, and this is absolutely one of the finest I have ever visited. I cannot begin to imagine how much money the city, and perhaps the Crown, invests in this amazing display of natural beauty. The vistas are breathtaking.
Like most of the major international cities, London is filled with attractions and history. It would be foolish to suggest bypassing all of those places to take a stroll through the park. You have to see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc. At the same time, don’t cheat yourself by missing the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local environment, and public parks are a great place to do so. Sure, there are tourists wandering around in Hyde Park — we were among that category. But, there were also plenty of locals enjoying the simple pleasures of this treasured and historic resource. The conversations we overheard between couples and companions and among parents and children gave us a superficial but satisfying sense of being British just for a couple of hours. We never want to miss those kinds of opportunities when we travel.