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.”
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.
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.
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.
My wife and I have fairly stressful jobs, hers much more than mine. I have mentioned before how much we like to be outdoors when we can, and we look for such opportunities and plan for them when we take vacation trips. We also enjoy kayaking, and we are fortunate enough to have two Hobie kayaks, which are equipped with peddles so we can use our legs to propel them instead of just paddling. Our previous home was on a rather large lake, so kayaking was as simple as pulling the boat out of the garage and going across the yard to the water’s edge and taking off. Now, we don’t get out as much and have to plan for the water outings, but we live in an area with plenty of small lakes close by to explore, and a few very large ones not too far away. During the warm months of the year, we load the kayaks on our pickup truck and head out to one of the nearby lakes, often after we get off work, just for a couple of hours.
Being out on the water gives us a chance to slow down, talk, laugh, recall the wonderful times we’ve had together, and make plans for the future. Some of the places we go are fairly secluded, although there are usually a few people around either fishing or swimming. She and I typically stay out for about an hour. We enjoy being together, and while we like to be with family and friends, we also cherish the times we spend with just each other. We work well together; as we often say, “We’re a good team.” Beyond the recreation and exercise that this activity provides, I think for both of us it offers an opportunity to reflect on how precious time is, how beautiful the world is, how grateful we are for each other, and how lucky we are to be alive.
Recently, I took another one of those “trips of a lifetime” with my wife and one of my sons — this time to Yellowstone National Park. Although my wife had briefly visited some years back, my son and I had never been. We stayed for three full days in a cabin just a few miles from the south entrance of the park, which afforded us great access not only to Yellowstone but also to the Grand Tetons National Park as well as Jackson, Wyoming. Like my other experiences traveling to the west, I was most taken by the enormity of space in this portion of the country. The sky goes on forever. The landscape melts into the distance in a blue haze. The vistas are simply overwhelming.
Of course, like many visitors to this National Park, my son and I were hoping to see plenty of wildlife, which is practically unavoidable. In fact, there have been several recent incidents of people/wildlife encounters that have ended up not too pleasant for the humans involved, especially with bison. At a safe distance, and in the protection of an automobile, it is so rewarding to see animals in their own habitat, protected as they are from most human threats. We were fortunate enough to see bison, elk, prong horns, and an otter. We desperately wanted to see a grizzly bear but were not willing to hike in the back country where one would typically find them. However, on the last day, we were lucky enough to see a mother brown bear and her playful cub resting in the shade of some trees, just a hundred or so yards from the roadway.
I will write more posts about this trip in the weeks ahead, so we will consider this short piece an introduction. For those who haven’t been but have contemplated a trip to Yellowstone, I would strongly encourage placing it near the top of your bucket list, especially if you have an appreciation for the great outdoors.
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.
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.”
If you like hiking, or simply taking a walk on a nature trail, the state parks and national forests in north Georgia are some of the best places to enjoy this activity. The state of Georgia does a fine job, with dwindling resources I am quick to add, with the access to natural resources it provides through the state park system. The trails vary in length and difficulty levels to accommodate almost any age and degree of fitness. Most parks have trails that are wheelchair accessible. The diversity of flora and fauna in the southern Appalachia is unmatched anywhere in the U.S. There are very few weeks out of the year where the weather makes outdoor exploration uncomfortable here. I have spent many hours wandering mountain paths through densely wooded countryside and have always come away restored.