Missouri Botanical Garden

I am a big fan of public gardens and visit them as often as possible, especially when traveling to new places. With the move to Missouri in 2018, my wife and I have taken opportunities as often as possible to explore some of the wonderful resources the state has to offer. One of the most remarkable places I have seen so far is the Missouri Botanical Garden just outside St. Louis. Founded in 1859, the 79-acre facility is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

According to the Garden’s website, “more than 4,800 trees live on the grounds, including some unusual varieties and a few stately specimens dating back to the 19th century, when founder Henry Shaw planted them.” The Garden also features the nation’s most comprehensive resource center for gardening information, including 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens. There are various themed gardens throughout the site: Chinese, English, Woodland, Ottoman, and Victorian. There is a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the country.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

A notable feature of the Garden is the conservatory with a lush, vibrant tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, tanks of fish, and a walkway winding through incredible exotic plants. I will most likely never visit South America or any other part of the world where I would see a tropical rainforest, so I am always grateful for the privilege of even seeing one in miniature. The one at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the best I have seen so far.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

There are so many elements of the Garden that make it a destination. The trails are carefully constructed to take advantage of the landscape and lead visitors to one breathtaking vista after another. The plants are grouped and positioned throughout the property to appear as if they evolved there naturally. There are tree-covered byways with every shade of green imaginable; sunny sections with an explosion of color during the blooming season, including a rose garden; and terraces with mixes of perennials and annuals. There are natural lakes, running streams, and constructed water features.  I was also fascinated with how well the flora is enhanced by statuary, glasswork, and structures.

St. Louis has so many attractions: Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium, a first-class art museum, and a zoo for starters. The Missouri Botanical Garden is every bit as impressive as any of these places. It is undoubtedly a point of pride for the city and for the whole state. I look forward to returning every season of the year to see what surprises the Garden has in store.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)

American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.

Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.

Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.

In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.

O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.

The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.

Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter.  The old man’s damnation is sealed.

To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.

Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods of Andalusia

While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.

Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

Irma, the Unsolicited Landscape Designer

Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.

As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.

The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.

First trees fallen
First trees fallen

Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.

Downed trees on the house
Downed trees on the house

We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.

Post-storm island
Post-storm island

After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.

Island in bloom for spring
Island in bloom for spring

For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.

Sunny front flower beds
Sunny front flower beds

Celebrating Ten Years in Sedona

Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.

Casa Sedona Inn
Casa Sedona Inn

My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!

 

Javelina
Javelina

For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.

Sedona's red rocks from Devil's Bridge Trail
Sedona’s red rocks from Devil’s Bridge Trail

 

Scenic views from Devil's Bridge Trail in Sedona
Scenic views from Devil’s Bridge Trail in Sedona

Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic  energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.

The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village

On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.

Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross
Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

 

Blooming cacti near Sedona
Blooming cacti near Sedona

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing  water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.

Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek
Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek

 

Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch
Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch

Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

During our vacation in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, my wife requested I find some interesting sites in the area that intrigued me for us to explore one afternoon, along with our close friend who graciously hosted us in her home for the week. My love for waterfalls led me to pick out a few attractions that advertised that particular element, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found in this sprawling desert city. My favorite was the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden located directly behind the Irish Cultural Center just north of Portland Avenue. The garden covers 3.5 acres and includes a tea garden and tea house. According to the garden’s website, “This tranquil and beautiful setting features more than 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, stone footbridges, lanterns and more than 50 varieties of plants.”

Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

I have written about the value of public gardens before, and this one is definitely on my list of favorites. The idea for the garden began in 1987 by a delegation from Himeji, Japan. Phoenix and Himeji have been sister cities since 1976 and participate in business, governmental, cultural, and educational exchanges that promote international goodwill and understanding. The garden is the shared cultural vision of both cities. The construction of the garden was completed in 2000, and it was opened to the public in 2002. Neither my wife nor our friend, both long-time residents of Phoenix, knew anything about this little treasure. The visit was a treat for all three of us.

Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

In addition to maintaining a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of the city, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility provides educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen East-West relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan. Authentic tea ceremonies for the public are held on the third Saturday of each month from October through June. The ceremonies are presented by Tanko Kai tea group, wearing beautiful kimonos in the Musoan tea house. Guests are met at the entry gate and conducted to the tea house by a docent who explains features in the tea garden and other interesting facts about the tea house itself.

Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

As we strolled around the pond, by the waterfall, and along the garden paths, I was reminded once again how the desert southwest is so often misrepresented as a barren region with little life and no real beauty. True, the Japanese Friendship Garden is an artificial oasis, but there are plenty of natural places just this lush and soothing located throughout Arizona and its neighboring states. The fortunate people who live in the apartment building next to the garden have one of the best views in the city: a luxuriant landscape below combined with desert mountain vistas in the distance. For all visitors to Phoenix, and even for those who call the city their home, I highly recommend a therapeutic retreat to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Sometimes You Just Have To Be There

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.

View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim
View of the Grand Canyon from the south rim

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 Favorite Hike . . . So Far

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.

Wading after hiking at Yosemite
Wading after hiking at Yosemite

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.

On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite
On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite

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.

Nevada Fall at Yosemite
Nevada Fall at Yosemite