Oceanfront at Laguna Beach, California

My wife and I try to get to the beach at least once a year. In the past, most of our coastal visits have been to the Atlantic side of Florida; however, we have occasionally made it to other surfside destinations in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and California. For the summer of 2022, we decided to spend a few nights at Laguna Beach as part of a trip to San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park. We booked two nights at Surf and Sand Resort because it looked like a really nice place where we could get an oceanfront room with a balcony, something that has become an absolute must for us.

We have learned the hard way the difference between oceanfront and ocean “view” when it comes to beach accommodations. Ocean view only means that some fragment of sand and water will be in your field of vision when you are looking out from a window or balcony. If we want to sit outside our room and gaze at the beach, waves, and water (and we do), we book an oceanfront room. When Surf and Sand Resort promises you this type of room, they really come through in a big way. Our room was on the fourth floor, and it was so close to the ocean that when we were looking out the sliding-glass door from inside, we couldn’t even see the resort’s namesake: surf and sand. The view was more like looking out of the cabin of a cruise ship on the high seas!

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

On our first night, we ate dinner at the resort’s restaurant at a table located on a terrace within a few yards of the breakers. The sounds, smells, and feel of the breeze on our skin all combined to make dinner something more than just a meal. The next morning we walked a few blocks to a charming breakfast spot that served the regular fare, along with some specialty dishes and incredibly delicious fresh fruit. For lunch we dined outside at a nearby Mexican restaurant that specialized in providing way more food than we could eat, but it was fantastic. Later that day we took a walk on the beach, which is bordered north and south by massive rocky ledges that jet out into the ocean, both of which were visible from our balcony. That evening we walked again a few blocks to a dinner spot that was on a deck right at the beach, offering stunning views of the sun sinking toward the flat line of the horizon.

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California at sunset
Laguna Beach, California at sunset

Yes, we did spend a lot of time eating, but we also relished hours relaxing with books and magazines on our balcony. We took naps in the room. We sat for long stretches on the balcony just watching the magnificent Pacific Ocean and the various ships, boats, jet skis, and surfers that crossed our field of vision. The room was comfortable even though it was not equipped with air conditioning. We really didn’t need it. We kept our sliding glass door open the entire time we were there, day and night, listening to the crashing surf. I never saw an insect – not one. That would never happen on the Atlantic coast. Laguna Beach is truly a gem and worth the splurge. I hope we can go back sometime.

An Alien Landscape: Joshua Tree National Park

There is a bizarre and surreal place at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California that was several million years in the making. It was worth the wait. With massive rock formations rising up from the flat desert floor, Joshua Tree National Park is like a geological museum that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is hard to imagine that these stone towers, created from magma rising from deep below the surface and eventually hardening as it cooled, are what is left behind from millions of years of soil erosion. Boulders the size of boxcars are miraculously balanced on top of each other, like rock piles left behind by the children of gods.

Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park

There are also large masses of rounded granite that have been altered and even sculpted by rain, wind, ice, chemical reactions, plant roots, and other forces to form fantastic shapes and configurations. Set against the backdrop of nearby mountain ranges and surrounded by the desert floor, these structures are truly impressive. Throw in a developing thunderstorm billowing above (yes, it does rain in the desert) and you have all the makings of a classic Thomas Cole masterpiece.

Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park

Then there is the namesake of the park, the Joshua Tree, which would fit perfectly into the backdrop of almost any picture book by Dr. Seuss or on the cover of a paperback book about planets on the other side of the galaxy. Belonging to the same family of Agave plants native to tropical South America, Joshua Trees are a type of Yucca, which we often associate with the short, dark green spiky plants of the tropics and deserts. Joshua Trees have an almost whimsical character, proving yet again that nature has a sense of humor. The plant takes on many different shapes and sizes, as if taking its cue from the rocks around it. Joshua Trees have a rather limited range within the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park
A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park

There are several places in this wonderful park where visitors can get breathtaking panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys that stretch out for miles. At just the right position and vantage point, the scene is reminiscent of something out of a science fiction movie. At the very least, these vistas could serve as inspiration for visual art depicting imaginary worlds. Joshua Tree National Park is one of those natural wonders of the United States that is somehow liminal, neither here nor there, but somewhere between.

Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park
Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park

Introducing the Ozarks: An Annotated Bibliography

In late 2018, my wife and I moved from Georgia to Springfield, a town of about 170,000 people in southwest Missouri. It’s a great location for us because we have family and close friends in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona. We really enjoy traveling, especially to the desert southwest, but we like the Florida beaches and places like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. Living in Springfield strategically positions us near the center of the country and makes it easier to get to family, friends, and fun destinations. The icing on the cake is the small national airport that is a mere twenty minutes from our house, which is serviced by three major airlines and a few budget carriers.

Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas make up the bulk of the region known as the Ozarks. It as an area of the country defined by a variety of factors, from geology and topography to culture and customs. It is also quite beautiful. It is rich in natural resources, especially water, minerals, and forests. It is a complicated region in almost every category imaginable. Although it boasts no major cities, it does have some bustling urban centers. There are some wealthy people in the Ozarks, but there are far more families living in serious poverty. On the political spectrum, it is largely conservative with pockets of progressivism mostly in and around the cities.

Admittedly, I knew very little about the Ozarks. I had never set foot in Missouri and only visited once just a few months before we moved here. To get “learned up” about our new home, I did what I always do when encountering something new and unfamiliar. I started reading. The following is an annotated list of books I have read about the Ozarks over the last three years or so. My bibliography is in no way intended to be comprehensive or even representative; however, these books have given me greater insight into the history, culture, and people of the Ozarks. All of these titles are nonfiction, but I have also read fiction by Ozarks writers or stories set in the region. Perhaps sometime I will write a post reviewing those books as well.

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers by Brooks Blevins
Brooks Blevins is the uncontested authority on the history of the Ozarks. He is a professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, where I am also employed. But his full-time residence is in northern Arkansas, so he has his feet planted in the two main states of the Ozarks. He is a fine writer, a serious scholar, a respected teacher, and an all-round nice fellow. I have only read this 3rd volume of his trilogy, but I intend to at least go back and read the 1st volume covering the early history of the region.

Blevins is at his best when he is dispelling many of the misconceptions and over-generalizations of the Ozarks as a place full of backwoods hillbillies with no connection to the modern world. He also does a great job of pointing out the most attractive features of the region without romanticizing or falling into the trap of exceptionalism, which is always tempting to do if you are so identified with a place, which I believe he is.

The chapters on “Ozarks Society” and “Putting on a Show,” along with his “Conclusion,” were the most interesting to me because they highlight how much the Ozarks have changed over the last 150 years and are continuing to evolve. I’m not sure I agree with Blevins that the specific location of the Ozarks, a topic of serious debate for generations, is best defined by where the Ozarkers live; however, there seems to be a strong sense of place appreciated by so many people who live here, quite similar to sentiments held by many people in the Deep South about their region. This is a solid historical overview of a complex and fascinating part of the country in the modern period.

Living Waters: The Springs of Missouri by Loring Bullard
This book is well documented and researched. The photographs of the springs and streams they feed are stunningly beautiful. The layout of the book makes it easy and enjoyable to read. However, aside from the technical aspects of the book, Bullard clearly has a passion for his subject that is both personal and professional, which is demonstrated in the text of every page.

The organization of the book is especially fine, with chapters focusing on features and functions of springs rather than on individual locations. Bullard incorporates a considerable amount of history to offer context and appreciation of how past generations have understood and valued springs in the state and have taken advantage of them as valuable natural resources. Of course, the environmental message throughout is of paramount importance — we must take good care of our state’s springs because of the vital role they play in providing clean water for the ecosystems they feed.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper
Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. “While blacks may not have been true economic, social, or even political competitors in the region, whites viewed blacks as a threat to their wives, daughters, and police officers.” Obviously, much of the fear centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day.

In the Ozarks and in the north Georgia mountains, the economy in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence farming, which did not require much labor outside the extended family of the farmer. As Harper observes, “This was in contrast to the black-majority regions of the South, where inexpensive and readily available black labor composed a significant segment of the local economy, making African Americans indispensable to local white employers.” One could easily make the same argument in recent decades for why white farmers have not been so anxious to deport undocumented Latinos from regions of the South where industrial agriculture is dominant and depends on vast numbers of inexpensive laborers.

This is a fine addition to American history and African American studies. Harper’s book joins more recent work on lynching by prominent African American scholars. Highly recommended.

Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips
I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel with two people who were involved in the Back To Land movement in the Arkansas Ozarks at a conference in West Plains, Missouri, in September, 2019. The people who decided beginning back in the 1970s to trade in urban dwelling for a rural, subsistence lifestyle among the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks are often referred to as Hipbillies — a hybrid of hippies and hillbillies.

Phillips does a good job of placing this movement in the context of 20th century back-to-the-land and counter-culture philosophy characterized by the works of people like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. He gives proper credit to the successes of the Hipbillies while also recognizing their failures and some of their less-than-pure intentions. He credits them for fighting for environmental health, sustainable agricultural practices, and social justice issues. One of their greatest accomplishments was succeeding in modest changes to how the US Forest Service approached the management of timber.

Phillips admires how the Hipbillies, especially the pioneers from the early 1970s, faced overwhelming odds and even life-threatening circumstances yet still persevered to make it as homesteaders in a part of the country where the land is not so forgiving. He dispels some of the myths about how native Ozarkers rejected the Hipbillies. Instead, they often embraced them and even saved their lives during harsh winters and unpredictable farming seasons. There were clashes in places like Eureka Springs, but that was more a conflict between counter-culturists and town leadership.

The Hipbillies had big dreams when they landed in the Ozarks. “What was sought, then, was a rehabilitation of American culture — one that began in the dirt and grew over time like the forest that slowly reclaims and heals a ruined field,” Phillips writes. He contends that the Hipbillies took themselves seriously as revolutionaries. They “came to the Ozarks seeking refuge and a place in which they might build a new world for themselves, and hopefully, all of humanity . . . . While they did not always succeed, the story is not over — they are still alive and are still powerful cultural, political, and economic forces in the Arkansas highlands.”

Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins
The myths and stereotypes about the Ozarks are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but they never have painted a true picture of the people and their culture, desires, needs, problems, etc. Perkins’s book reinforces one essential truth about Ozarks people: they tend be proud and fiercely independent, even in the face of long-term adversity.

There is a strong tradition of tension between individual rural families and individuals and/or institutions in authority. Poverty has always been a dark shadow hanging over the Ozarks, even when other parts of the country were climbing out of it. Although many people here petitioned for government assistance in the past, there is a history in this region of distrust of government programs, which ended up being administered and exploited by local and state officials. Law enforcement was fine as long as it didn’t try to stop individuals from scraping out a living, even through illegal means. More than anything, native Ozarkers have always just wanted to be left alone. When their autonomy was threatened, especially by outside forces, they sometime became violent.

Ozarks Hillbilly by Tom Koob and Curtis Copeland
Koob and Copeland do a good job here of presenting the stereotypes of the Hillbilly as the term has been used in literature and other art forms to describe many of the rural folk in the Ozarks. The authors argue that, contrary to the traditional image of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant, depraved character, the Ozarks Hillbilly is quite industrious, shrewd, and highly skilled. Hillbillies are survivalists and generations of them have struggled to provide for themselves and their families in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

I found it odd in a book about the Ozarks how much time the authors spent on discussing Appalachian Hillbillies. They seem to have keen interest in the way Hillbillies were presented in Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey and the popular film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There are definitely similarities between the two regions of the country, which have been explored by numerous scholars. The stereotypes of the rural residents of both areas also share commonalities. Perhaps a comparison/contrast book would have been even more helpful and intriguing. 

Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas Michael Kersen
For Kersen, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, serves as an archetype for his thesis of how counterculture distinguishes the Ozarks and is among its more charming and sustaining features. As he states it, “The magic of Eureka Springs is that the town is a mass of contradictions and microconflicts that breed [sic] creativity.” No wonder that the book’s title is also the semi-official motto of the town: Where Misfits Fit.

Kersen does a good job of weaving the eccentricities of the people who occupy the Ozarks into the history of the region. He first offers his identification of the region, defining it by geography and culture. He then proceeds to outline its countercultural characteristics through popular myths, artistic expression, supernatural fixations, cult activity, musical influence and inspiration, and the back-to-the-land movements primarily of the 1970s (the author’s parents brought him to the Ozarks from Texas as part of this larger movement).

A thread running throughout the book is Kersen’s use of the adjective “liminal” to describe the Ozarks – a place that is difficult to box in and that continually crosses lines. He writes that “the Ozarks defies boundaries of all sorts — it is a work in progress.” Here again, the contradictions of the area come into play. For instance UFO enthusiasts that have been drawn here for decades rely on scientific knowledge about astronomy and space exploration but scorn scientists who fail to validate their paranormal claims. Kersen recognizes that “eccentric places attract eccentric people — people willing to live and think in the margins.” He also believes the Ozarks “offers something unique for its inhabitants and even American culture at large.”

I found some of the most valuable information in the Conclusions chapter, especially about the impact of in-migration into the Ozarks from countries around the world. The author wonders how Ozark identity will change as the racial and ethnic profile of the region continues to change. The book has extensive end notes, an impressive bibliography for further reading and study, and a decent index. Just a few points of criticism: the book could have benefited from skillful editing. There are too many typo kind of errors for an academic press book. Also, I suspect this book is a collection of separately-written essays because there is considerable repetition of information in the chapters. Otherwise, it is a fine book that is both accessible and informative.

Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America by Bill Geist
I was drawn to this book primarily because I visited the Lake of the Ozarks just a few months after settling here. I didn’t know anything about Bill Geist as I never watch Sunday Morning on CBS. I may have read his columns before but am not aware if I have. I can relate to many of the references Geist makes to growing up in the 1960s and 70s, although he is a bit older than I am. Some readers will no doubt be put off by the political incorrectness of the author’s perspectives, language, and the circumstances from his adolescence, but I suspect he is being perfectly honest and straightforward with his recollections and descriptions of his life and times working for his uncle and aunt at their lakeside lodge. There are some really laugh-out-loud passages in this book, which made it an enjoyable read.

Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir by Ellen Gray Massey
This is a pleasant read. It isn’t challenging; the text is straightforward; it doesn’t reveal anything new about the Ozarks region; it gets a bit sentimental in places; and it is so bucolic that the reader can almost smell the cow manure on the farm where Massey lived and raised her family. She also worked as a high school English teacher, and apparently quite a good one. She supervised her students over a ten-year period as they produced a quarterly journal titled Bittersweet. The value of this book lies in Massey’s descriptions of the social mores of her community, the relationships of family and friends, the tragedies her family faced (including the death of her husband), and how life in the rural Ozarks was fulfilling and rewarding to her, as it has been for so many others for many generations.

The Wow Factor of Niagara Falls

I have written several posts about waterfalls because they are among my most favorite elements of nature. I have driven, hiked, and climbed on many occasions to reach them. I have seen everything from little trickles of water falling from rocky ridges in the mountains of Appalachia to white misty veils crashing from great heights at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Columbia River Valley. I have been mesmerized by all of them.

When my wife and I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Niagara Falls as a result of being in Erie, Pennsylvania, we both agreed it would be worth the two-hour drive around the Lake Erie coast to see this iconic natural wonder. Like the Grand Canyon and so many other magnificent landmarks around the world, photographs and videos simply cannot capture the grandeur of something so massive and powerful. Seeing the scope of the falls, hearing it, feeling the moist air and spray on your face, and even feeling the rumble of the crashing water is impossible to replicate electronically.

Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)
Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)

With almost 76,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of the American falls every second, the volume is quite hard to imagine. Yes, that’s over 4.5 million gallons a minute! The water is about two feet deep at the crestline, which gives the edge of the falls a deep emerald hue. It is stunning. The deepest section of the Niagara River is just below the falls. It is so deep that it equals the height of the falls above, which is 170 feet. Upstream from the falls between its northeastern banks and Green Island, the Niagara River rumbles and rolls as it makes its way to the main attraction.

Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River
Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River

Niagara Falls has never been on our bucket list of places to visit, mainly because it seemed too much like a tourist trap. However, we were pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of chain restaurants, souvenir shops, and other retail vendors nearby, but the American side of the falls is bordered by a state park that makes no attempt to outshine the headliner. The Canadian side is full of high-rise hotels and some casinos, which is probably an enticement to cross the border for some visitors. We were perfectly content with the marvelous wonder of Niagara Falls with very few distractions. If you can stand on the observation deck beholding that vista and not say “wow,” I’m not sure what would impress you.

Art for Everyone

In 1967, a German sculptor named Fitz Koenig received a commission by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to install a work of art to be featured on the Austin J. Tobin Plaza situated between Word Trade Center’s twin towers, which were being built at the time. Koenig created a 20-ton cast bronze sphere 17 feet in diameter mounted on a disk pedestal positioned in the middle of a water fountain. Anyone visiting the plaza could pause to witness the largest bronze sculpture in the world at that time. After the twin towers fell in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Koenig’s Sphere, though seriously damaged, was the only work of public art at the World Trade Center that survived the destruction.

The Sphere in New York, NY
The Sphere in New York, NY

The sculpture was removed from the wreckage and brought back to Manhattan six months later and reinstalled in Battery Park, several blocks from its original location. It was later moved to Liberty Park. Ironically, Koenig’s Sphere was dedicated in 1971 to “world peace through trade.” The Sphere represents a remarkable example of how a work of art can take on a whole new meaning for the public based on outside forces that transform the piece, literally and figuratively. Upon its rededication, Koenig’s Sphere was recognized as “an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”

I have written in a previous blog post about the value of public gardens, which I define as those that are open and free for everyone to enjoy at no cost. In a similar fashion, public art offers an opportunity for people to experience creative expression in almost endless media, shapes, sizes, colors, and settings. Large cities all over the world are adorned with magnificent art in public places, but even the smallest towns and villages show pride in their communities with various art installations, modest as they may be. They may take the form of a sculpture honoring a benefactor of a local garden, which is a wonderful way of celebrating two different treasures available to the public.

Springfield Botanical Garden in Springfield, MO
Springfield Botanical Garden in Springfield, MO

Municipalities often use statues or murals to draw attention to important figures in the history of their communities or significant events from the past. Then again, statues can be whimsical or can portray a particular type of character, including those from works of fiction or fairy tales. Wildlife is a frequent subject of public art too, which all ages tend to appreciate. Some businesses install works of art in front of their locations for the public to enjoy, which also attract customers and can even assist with brand recognition. Sometimes a statue or other work of art can have a dual purpose: as a stand-alone piece that also serves as a planter, an entrance, a directional sign, or any number of other functions.

Dred and Harriet Scott in St. Louis, MO
Dred and Harriet Scott in St. Louis, MO
Duke Kahanamoku in Huntington Beach, CA
Duke Kahanamoku in Huntington Beach, CA
Top of the Rock near Branson, MO
Top of the Rock near Branson, MO
Memphis, TN
Memphis, TN
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO
Breckenridge, CO
Breckenridge, CO

Museums and galleries that charge admission fees will often have several pieces of art located outside their buildings for people passing by to see. Better yet, some of them include free walking trails on their grounds featuring artwork that is usually quite spectacular and impressive in size and concept. Most valued and valuable works of art in the world are kept in secure, climate-controlled buildings and guarded closely. Access to these treasures is primarily limited to those who can afford admission fees; however, many of the world’s most famous art museums open their doors to the general public for free, at least several times annually. How fortunate are the folks who can take advantage of opportunities to see first-hand the works of the masters from centuries past. But we should never take for granted the art that surrounds us wherever we go. It’s there, and some of it is absolutely amazing.

Santa Fe, NM
Santa Fe, NM
"Stone Heart in Wooden Hands" at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR
“Stone Heart in Wooden Hands” at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR

Suggestions for Christmas Future

Christmas tree reflected in window
Christmas tree reflected in window

Without fail in late November and into most of December, I begin to see social media posts from convicted souls proclaiming to us all what Christmas is really about. These gentle reminders are often delivered in the form of worn and faded phrases such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Are any of these folks celebrating the Holy Day one bit different than most everyone else? They are most likely rushing around for weeks – enduring thick traffic, unruly crowds, unintelligible websites, and supply-chain woes – trying to get just the right gifts for family, co-workers, and the people they love. How many of these defenders of the faith are spending more time with worship and liturgy than they are all the secular trappings of the holiday season? Very few if any, I suspect. So, with respect to Christians who feel the need to defend Jesus and the commemoration of his birth, here is a list of gentle and not-so-snarky suggestions for future Christmas seasons.

1. Please don’t get offended if someone wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Accept the greeting as an example of someone who understands that Christianity isn’t the only religion that celebrates holy days near the end of the year. God rest ye merry gentle people, let nothing you dismay.

2. Please stop insisting that the word “Xmas” is a communist plot to take Christ out of Christmas. For the love of God (you know, Jesus’s father), Google it and stop that nonsense. How long did you sing the phrase “in excelsis Deo” without having a clue what it meant?

3. Please don’t get irritated with people in the service industry at any time during the holidays, for just about any reason at all. They probably have a much suckier job than you do. Tip them extra and spread some of that joy to the world we like to sing about every year.

4. Please resist accusing the government, social media, the press, Bill Gates, or anyone else in this country of trying to get rid of Christmas. It ain’t happening, even if some of the new atheists would like to see it go away. If you still believe that thick slice a bologna, your gullibility score is flying higher than the angels we have heard sweetly singing o’er the plains.

5. Please rethink the idea that the only way to honor the advent of the baby Jesus is to spend a few hours in a church listening to choirs, singing carols, lighting candles, reciting Bible verses, praying, and taking Holy Communion. All of these traditional rituals are perfectly appropriate and meaningful to millions of believers; however, when people choose to celebrate the occasion by spending their time and sharing their love with family and friends outside the formal walls of worship, it doesn’t mean they are getting it wrong or missing the point. Perhaps the reason for the season is to find new opportunities for expressing compassion, grace, and charity, which should happen no matter where we are. If we ever get that part right, maybe more people here and around the world can sleep in heavenly peace.

Chasing Waterfalls

Waterfalls are a recurring theme for me in this blog. I am drawn to the sound of rushing water: waves crashing on the shore; rivers and streams; fountains in ponds; and waterfalls. I have hiked miles just to hear water running over rocks into a natural pool or to see it cascading over boulders. If possible, I take photographs when I find these bold exhibitions of nature. I often make videos too. Sometimes I will pause for a few minutes, or more, to simply look and listen. There is something about the sight and sound that soothes me and helps me appreciate how much beauty there is on this planet. For this post, I have collected photos of a few of my favorite waterfalls.

Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon
Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon

When I look at waterfalls, I am reminded how all life on Earth originated in the water, how essential water is in sustaining life, and how much of our bodies are composed of water. I think about how rapidly running water has been a source of power for people for as long as civilization has existed. I am amazed that the same liquid that quenches our thirst and caresses our skin can, over time, wear down and erode some of the hardest substances on the planet.

Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park
Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park

I have chased waterfalls in so many places in the United States, from coast to coast. I have stood in awe with throngs of other sightseers in national parks gazing at some of the largest falls in the country. I have visited state parks and scenic byways, looking skyward as the spray falls over cliffs to jagged rocks below. As magnificent as the most popular waterfalls are, I am still humbled and even mesmerized by a small stream spilling over a ridge deep in the forest. I can’t help wondering how long water has been flowing at such places. I am often by myself when this happens, which always presents an opportunity to reflect on how lucky I am to be alive and how precious the short time is that I have here.

Tanyard Creek near Bella Vista, Arkansas
Tanyard Creek near Bella Vista, Arkansas
Latourell Falls near Portland, Oregon
Latourell Falls near Portland, Oregon
Waterfall at Vogel State Park in Georgia
Waterfall at Vogel State Park in Georgia
Bridalveil Falls at Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Falls at Yosemite National Park
Waterfall near Tate City, Georgia
Waterfall near Tate City, Georgia

A Different Kind of Coast

Having lived most of my life in Georgia, many of the vacation days I spent outside the state were on the Atlantic Florida coast, with a few excursions to the Gulf Coast in Florida and Texas thrown in the mix. I have friends from my hometown who speak rhapsodically of the azure and green color variations of the water and the bleached white sand of the Eastern Gulf. They save up all year for a week at the beaches of Panama City, Pensacola, Gulf Shores, or Clearwater. With all due respect to their idea of paradise, the Gulf just doesn’t compare to the Atlantic side of Florida for me, mainly because of nostalgia and my personal sense of aesthetics.

My experience of the Atlantic coast in Florida is limited to the northern quarter of the state: Amelia Island, St. Augustine, Ormand-by-the-Sea, and New Smyrna. However, I have spent more time at Daytona Beach and Daytona Beach Shores than all those other locations combined. I still have old black and white photographs of me as a toddler playing in the sand at Daytona back when my family would make the pilgrimage almost every June in the 1960s and 70s. The waves are generally higher and the beaches much wider than at any other location I have visited in Florida. The sights and sounds of the crashing surf there touch me at a very deep level, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

I have visited beaches in other places, such as the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, Huntington Beach in California, and Brighton Beach on the southern coast of England. My wife and I have spent a bit of time together along the rocky cliffs around San Francisco, Monterey, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. I must admit that the west coast has a powerful attraction of its own, and my appreciation for it expanded considerably in the summer of 2021 when we spent a week in Oregon, which included several days at Netarts, a small village on the shore of the Netarts Bay on the northern coast of the state near the town of Tillamook. We rented a small house boasting a spectacular view of the bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond it.

Netarts Bay, Oregon (right) and the Pacific Ocean
Netarts Bay, Oregon (right) and the Pacific Ocean

There are a several features of the Oregon coast that distinguish it from the beaches of Florida. Most of the northern Oregon coast is bordered closely by a rainforest, with thick stands of conifers and hardwoods lining the winding roads that offer access to the collection of seaside resort towns. The landscape of the north Florida coast is mostly characterized by palm trees, palmetto, and sea oats. The northern Oregon shoreline is guarded by the Coast Range, a series of cliffs and ridges that rises dramatically from the Pacific to average heights of 2,000 feet and peaks ascending over 3,700 feet. By comparison, most of Florida is incredibly flat, especially along the Atlantic coastline. For that matter, the highest elevation in the state is Britton Hill in the Northern Florida Highlands, which logs in at a whopping 345 feet above sea level and is almost 50 miles from the Gulf. Lastly, the north Oregon shore contains a mix of light-colored sand, black pebbles, sedimentary rock, and intertidal sea-stack formations of volcanic basalt ranging from modest to enormous size that bulge up from the sand and water. Most of the north Atlantic Florida coastline is buffered by a narrow strip of low sand dunes that quickly levels out to the sandy beaches, with few rocks or outcroppings at all. The fine sand is composed of ground quartz, with a bit of iron oxide mixed in, which gives some areas a light to even dark brown tint.

Manzanita Beach, Oregon
Manzanita Beach, Oregon
Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon
Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon

We took the opportunity while we there to make day trips up the coast to visit some of the beaches between Netarts and the Columbia River. Among the features the two coasts share is the look and feel of the towns that thrive on tourist dollars in both locations. Although the resort towns in Florida tend to be larger and flashier, there are still some villages along the northern shore that remind older generations of the way things used to be when they were young, what many folks refer to as “Old Florida.” The quaint seaside village at Fernandina Beach is a fine example. Most of the beach towns in northern Oregon look more like Fernandina than Daytona, such as Oceanside, Rockaway, Manzanita, Cannon, and Seaside. They all seem to be family friendly and pleasant places to visit or even live full-time.

Seaside Beach, Oregon
Seaside Beach, Oregon

In the final analysis, the landscape of the north Oregon coast is far more dramatic than that of the north Florida coast. For those who love the mountains and the beach, Oregon features both in the same place – a twofer! The natural resources seem more diverse too, especially the flora. The cliffs offer better and more expansive views of the coastline and the ocean. There is much less development between the beaches, giving the appearance of a more pristine environment. I will always love visiting the Atlantic beaches of Florida, but I can definitely feel a strong affection growing in me for this different kind of coast.

View of Manzanita Beach from Neahkahnie Mountain in Oregon
View of Manzanita Beach from Neahkahnie Mountain in Oregon

Retreating to Mountain Home, Arkansas

I had the pleasure of spending a long solo weekend in Mountain Home, Arkansas, earlier this summer. I began taking solo weekends about five years ago, in my mid-fifties, to recalibrate my head, get creative with writing and music, devote large chunks of time to reading, and explore the outdoors hiking. My wife is an incredible partner who not only tolerates these self-indulgent excursions but encourages them. I’m a lucky guy. I have written posts about previous solos, which have taken me to places like Cherokee and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. This trip to Mountain Home was my first solo weekend in Arkansas and my first time doing so in an Airbnb.

The Attic Airbnb in Mountain Home, AR
The Attic Airbnb in Mountain Home, AR

My accommodations were perfect. “The Attic” is a recently renovated upstairs apartment over several professional medical offices located a few blocks from the quaint downtown square of Mountain Home. My host was a gracious and extremely attentive woman whose brother had just opened a new location on the square for his business, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company. This modern rustic brewery occupies the Baker Building, the oldest on the square that dates to 1892 according to some sources. Rapp’s Barren was the name of a trading post near this location settled in the early 19th century by a legendary European character named Henry Rapp. White settlers probably considered the land in this region of the Ozarks to be barren because it was composed of tall prairie grass with very few trees. By the time the town was incorporated in 1888, the name had changed to Mountain Home. At any rate, I made more than one stop at Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company during the three days I was in the town – great spot.

Rapp's Barren Brewing Company, Mountain Home, AR
Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company, Mountain Home, AR

In addition to playing my guitar for hours each day and reading a good novel by Ron Rash, I drove outside of town to explore this scenic part of the Ozarks. Mountain Home is positioned between Norfork and Bull Shoals lakes and is flanked by the White and North Fork rivers. Obviously, Mountain Home is a popular destination for anglers and those who enjoy other water-related activities such as boating, skiing, paddle boarding, and floating. Campsites are abundant along the banks of the rivers and lakes.

David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR

I was particularly interested in hiking, which on my first day led me to David’s Trail along the shore of Norfolk Lake about nine miles east of town. The trail honors the memory of David Floyd, a local outdoor enthusiast and community activist. I took a four-mile trek in and out from one of the trailheads, which gave me great views of the lake and several of its tributaries, in addition to some lovely plants, a timid snake, a well-camouflaged deer, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers that refused to let me get close enough for a photo. The portion of the trail I hiked had some moderate hills and featured some shady fern banks and moss-covered rock outcroppings that were lush and green. I never saw another human being the whole time I was on the trail. It was a warm morning, but I was in the shade of the tree canopy for most of my hike. I felt invigorated and extremely hungry afterwards.

David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR

On my second day, I took another short road trip to see the White River. Meandering its way 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri, the White River is ranked as one of the top trout fishing waterways in the country, although white bass, catfish, walleye, and sunfish populate the river too. The river also presents the opportunity for one of the most common pastimes in the Ozarks – floating. Climbing in a canoe, kayak, or johnboat and letting the river carry you downstream at a slow, relaxing pace has been a popular form of recreation in the Ozarks for ages. I visited Buffalo Shoals access area at the little hamlet of Buffalo City where the Buffalo River merges with the White River just south of Mountain Home. Stair Bluff rises 689 feet along the southside of the White River and is a spectacular site. There is a parking area at the river’s edge with access to boat ramps and a sandy bank. I enjoyed watching families wading and fishing in the chilly water while others launched canoes and kayaks and drifted with the current. I found several other walk-in access points for the White River, where I could soak up the tranquil environment all alone.

Stair Bluff at Buffalo Shoals on the White River
Stair Bluff at Buffalo Shoals on the White River
Floating on the White River at Buffalo Shoals in Arkansas
Floating on the White River at Buffalo Shoals in Arkansas

In an unpublished journal, the famous naturalist John Muir wrote a brief sentence that has become one of his most famous quotes: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” I suspect many people realize that, to get in touch with ourselves in a profound way, we must be reminded occasionally how small we are. We need to take external journeys to probe internal mysteries. We search for our place in the realm of nature. These solo weekends that I am privileged to experience allow me to go out, then go in, and come back home with a new perspective on just about everything.

White River in Arkansas
White River in Arkansas

Santa Fe: Art Gallery of the Southwest

My wife and I took a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the summer of 2014.  She had been to the town several times, but I had not. We both love art, culture, and the southwest, and Santa Fe is one of those places where all three intersect.  We stayed in a lovely, rambling casita just off Canyon Road, which placed us in walking distance from the historic downtown attractions and more art galleries than anyone could possibly explore in a year’s time — alas, we were there for less than a week.

Native-American settlement in this area of the state goes back at least to the mid-11th century, with Pueblo Indian villages occupying the site for about a hundred years. Spanish explorers created a small village here thirteen years before the Mayflower Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony. Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the U.S. and still holds the record for the oldest public building in America, the Palace of the Governors. The city was captured and claimed by the U.S. in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. After New Mexico gained statehood in 1912, Santa Fe began to attract even more visitors from across the country who were drawn to the city’s dry climate and rich history.

Art and architecture have been among Santa Fe’s most valuable commodities from its early beginnings as a settlement for indigenous people. During the 20th century, the leadership and citizens of Santa Fe took measures to preserve the city’s ancient landmarks and maintain its multicultural traditions. Zoning codes are in place to protect the city’s distinctive Spanish-Pueblo architectural style of adobe and wood construction. Of course, other styles are fully represented in Santa Fe, including Greek Revival, Victorian, and Spanish Mission Revival.

Dragon sculpture over Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe
Dragon sculpture over Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe

The historic district of Santa Fe is packed with galleries and museums, but the variety and abundance of public art on display transforms this southwestern village into a huge open-air exhibit. Galleries and other businesses often have interesting artwork on the exterior of their buildings that range from traditional to whimsical, like the pounded-copper dragon sculpture by artist Ilan Ashkenazi atop the Ellsworth Gallery, reflecting the gallery’s Japanese antiques and Samurai armor collections. The “Rock Paper Scissors” stainless steel and bronze sculpture by artist Kevin Box at a nearby gallery is another example.

"Rock, paper, scissors" sculpture in Santa Fe
“Rock, paper, scissors” sculpture in Santa Fe

Public art abounds in Santa Fe, and it comes in all shapes, sizes, and media. If you’re looking for garden art, there are plenty of public green spaces decorated with a variety of individual and collective installations. However, there are also outdoor garden galleries selling a whole host of fascinating pieces, including the mesmerizing whirligigs and the startling face sculptures. Public buildings also get in on the act. The “Santa Fe Current” is an installation by artist Colette Hosmer of sculpted fish “swimming” through pebbles in the garden area just outside Santa Fe’s Community Convention Center.

Whirligig garden in Santa Fe
Whirligig garden in Santa Fe
Sculpted garden faces in Santa Fe
Sculpted garden faces in Santa Fe
"Santa Fe Current" sculpture by Colette Hosmer
“Santa Fe Current” sculpture by Colette Hosmer

Bronze statues are almost ubiquitous in Santa Fe, scattered throughout the town on public and private property. I was especially enamored with the statues of children playing, but there are many other subjects by artists like Native-American sculptor Roxanne Swentzell. Statues of cowboys and animals are plentiful too. One of the most beloved statues resides in Thomas Macaione Park, named after a Santa Fe artist the locals affectionately called “El Diferente.” The statue depicts Macaione holding a paint brush and standing at his easel with a wooden crate at his feet holding his palette. There is also a statue of a dog resting a couple of feet away on the flagstones where Macaione stands. The piece was created by Mac Vaughan.

Thomas Macaione “el Diferente” bronze sculpture in Santa Fe
Thomas Macaione “el Diferente” bronze sculpture in Santa Fe
Sculpture of children playing in Santa Fe
Sculpture of children playing in Santa Fe
Sculpture of a child reading in Santa Fe
Sculpture of a child reading in Santa Fe

One of the highlights of this trip was the opportunity I had to get up each morning just after sunrise and head down Canyon Road, which includes a half-mile section with over a hundred galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. From there I wandered around the old historic section of Santa Fe taking photos of art, architecture, gardens, wildlife, and the landscape. Some of the best shots I took of the surrounding countryside were from the hilltop ruins of Fort Marcy, which dates to the Mexican-American War. While I was roaming around the streets and alleys of Santa Fe in the cool of the early morning, there were very few people out and about at all. I could walk several blocks without seeing a soul. It felt like I had been given an exclusive pass to a museum that was closed for the day, and I was the only visitor. How unusual. How wonderful.

Sculpture of two Native-Americans in Santa Fe
Sculpture of two Native-Americans in Santa Fe
Sculpture of nude couple kissing in Santa Fe
Sculpture of nude couple kissing in Santa Fe
Sculpture of man and boy fishing in Santa Fe
Sculpture of man and boy fishing in Santa Fe