I have written several blog entries about hiking, an activity that my wife and I so enjoy and one that I am missing terribly since I broke my ankle last month. I have also written about some of our favorite places to hike, which are often located in areas that offer distant vistas, most particularly mountains and valleys. Truly one of the most spectacular places we have hiked is in Phoenix, Arizona, the city where my wife lived for nineteen years, before we met. She has told me about how, when she lived in the area, she regularly drove to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve to hike the trails on over 6,000 acres of land owned by the city and managed by the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council. The network of trails in the Preserve winds up through small mountains and hills that reach about 2,000 feet above the desert floor and about 3,000 feet above sea level. These elevations, combined with the mostly treeless landscape, provide hikers with incredible views of the enormous valley below and the vast sprawl of the metropolitan city and suburbs.
I traveled to Arizona for the first time in 2008 with my wife, and while we were there, she took me to the Preserve. We hiked up one of the hills, not to the top but far enough to take some great photos that I have used on occasion as computer wallpaper, like the one above. Somehow the mountains in the distance look so much higher than they are because they soar up from the flat, desert floor. There is a very definite contrast between earth and sky in many portions of the west, and this is one of those places. The diversity of plant life in the desert is far greater than most people who have not seen it can imagine. The terrain is rocky and sandy but not too difficult to maneuver. The Preserve is well used and a wonderful recreational asset for the people of Phoenix.
Several months back I wrote an entry about my memories of vacations at Daytona Beach, Florida. I wondered if going back now, in my mid-fifties with my second wife and no kiddies, would provide me with some sense of nostalgia about vacations past. Oddly enough, an opportunity came out of the blue a few weeks ago for my wife and me to take a long weekend trip to Daytona. We are fortunate enough at this stage of our lives to be able to afford better accommodations than I could ever have enjoyed in previous decades. There aren’t any real five-star resorts in Daytona, but there are a few four-star places that are a cut above the rest, and we found a nice one at the small beach community on the south end of the area called Daytona Shores. In fact, the resort is simply called The Shores, and it was surprisingly comfortable if not luxurious, with several amenities you wouldn’t find elsewhere in Daytona.
My wife had never been to this beach, and she was curious to see my old haunts — the places I have told her about over the years. Some of the places, like the old apartments and hotels my family stayed in through the years, are no longer there. They are either replaced by other buildings or remain vacant lots ready for development. I was wondering if the highly-commercial, dare I say cheesy, atmosphere of Daytona was going to be over the top for her. Not at all. She loved it, and we were talking the whole time we were there about how to make long weekend trips work, returning to The Shores. The Boardwalk at Daytona has changed so much over the years, with an outdoor mall, new and extravagant rides, and huge hotels towering over the beach. However, some of the old arcades that my sons spent many hours and dollars in are still there, dirty and hot and smelly as ever. And of course, the ancient bandshell is still intact, where we heard a couple of bands playing. A real blast from the past was going in the salt water taffy store that has been in operation at the same location since before my wife and I were born. We filled up a plastic bag of taffy and both bought an ice cream cone — it was like tasting memories.
As I have mentioned before on this blog, I enjoy hiking. I am also attracted to water – mostly water that is moving fast enough to make sound. I have hiked along the coast, through the mountains, in the desert, in deep forests, along rocky peaks, and in suburban areas. More often than not, I select a place to hike that is either in sight of water or has running water as a destination. My family takes advantage of state park trails which are frequently near the shoreline of a lake or wind along a creek or river.
The ultimate culmination of a hike to me is a waterfall — the bigger and louder the better. One of the tallest I have seen recently is just outside Cherokee, North Carolina. Mingo Falls is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary), just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 120 feet tall, the waterfall is one of the tallest and most spectacular in the southern Appalachians. The hike on Pigeon Creek Trail to the waterfall is only 0.4 miles in length, but is considered moderate in difficulty because it is largely composed of steps and a fairly steep climb up to the falls.
I took this photograph in December, just after Christmas. It was a great time to get a shot because the foliage was gone from most of the trees, which revealed a good portion of the width of the falls as well as the vertical expanse. I was standing on the small bridge at the base of the falls where the creek continues cascading down the hillside. The sound is mighty but not deafening. I love waterfalls, and this is one of my favorites. In fact, it is currently the home-screen photo on my iPhone.
My younger son and I went out on the Hobie kayaks for the first time this season. We explored a lake in northeast Georgia that we’ve never visited before: Yonah Lake. We accessed the lake at Georgia Power Company’s campground, Tugaloo Park. The lake is more like a very wide river winding its way between the hills near Tallulah Gorge. The mountain laurel around the shoreline is still in bloom and quite beautiful. There is at least one brook that feeds into the lake in a great little shady cove that we could reach with our yaks. We also saw a guy skiing on a device that looked like a ski on top of an underwater blade. He was obviously training, performing some pretty impressive flips on the wakes. We will definitely come back to this spot again, perhaps to fish.
There are still plenty of outdoor places in America you can visit that are protected enough to offer a glimpse at how the landscape on this continent may have appeared to early native inhabitants and explorers. A prime example are some of the national parks. I think the National Park Service is one of the best government programs of all, and I wish our federal leaders would find some other areas to cut funding and leave this division alone. We have some incredible treasures around the country, several of which I have visited. I have never been disappointed.
One of the best parks to visit to experience what I am describing is Yosemite National Park in the High Sierra region of California. First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. There are so many places in this park where you can stand, and for as far as the eye can see, there is no sign of civilization. The vistas are absolutely breathtaking, including perhaps the most photographed view of all from just beyond the tunnel on Wawona Road, where the valley opens up and welcomes you to what many people refer to as God’s Cathedral. Indeed, the scene is like a place of worship on a monumental scale, and for those who have any appreciation at all for the beauty of the natural world, it invokes a sense of reverence and awe.
My wife and I joined up with a good friend of ours there in July, 2013, staying several nights in a cabin and spending our days hiking along the valley floor and up to one of the high spots overlooking the valley. Yosemite is another one of those places that reminds me just how small I am and how magnificent this planet is. John Muir, the famous naturalist who helped draw up the proposed boundaries of the park in 1889, described Yosemite as being “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons of life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stone, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”
When I tell people that my wife and I like to take our kayaks out and do a little peddling, they usually want to correct me by saying, “You mean paddling, right?” Actually, with our kayaks we can do both. We discovered about three years ago the Hobie line of kayaks equipped with foot-driven flippers called the Mirage Drive. These kayaks are larger and heavier than the standard sit-on-top crafts, and they are definitely pricier. However, if you enjoy getting out on large water — deep rivers and canals, lakes, and even the ocean — then peddling has such an advantage over paddling, especially for speed, distance, and longevity. You can still use a paddle to propel the kayak if you prefer, and at times you need to, such as in tight spots and shallow water or for docking. If you’re really athletic or feel the need for a total-body workout, you can do both. But, in open water using just the Mirage hyper-drive paddles, the Hobie will cruise at about 5 mph with little more effort that riding a bicycle. In a three-hour excursion you can cover quite a bit of water. The length and width of the Hobie kayaks make them more stable than standard models, so you can stay dry during most if not all of your trip, especially if you enter and exit the craft from a dock ladder. The only major disadvantage is transporting the Hobies. They can be strapped to the top of a car, but getting them up there is almost impossible without two people or a very complicated lift system. We use a pickup truck with a bed extender — works like a charm. I have seen some of the most beautiful sunrises and mystical horizons while riding my kayak. I’m always looking forward to the next trip.