Walking Ushuaia, Argentina

I have been traveling through South America for a month at the point I reach Ushuaia, Argentina.

I think I know what to expect from the entire continent, in a general way. I’ve seen beauty and been shown gracious welcome. I’ve had the humbling experience of traveling by land through many border crossings and standing in line at two of those crossings for over 6 hours. I have braved city bus systems, fallen over several sidewalk irregularities, practiced my Spanish language, eaten food that did not agree, and enjoyed many meals that did. I have done all of that and am surviving – even loving the priviledge of being able to put my feet to the ground in places many people can’t imagine ever seeing in person.

But all my experience, as well as my abiding stereotypes, gives nothing to prepare me for this small city at the edge of the world. I begin my walk at the harbour, facing the downtown area and looking up to the surrounding jagged mountains.

I walk across the street to the visitor’s center. It seems no single nationality nor one language has a lasting claim to this place. I remind myself to speak Spanish, but I lose count at nine languages that seem common: Spanish, of course, and English, also German, Mandarin, Italian, the English spoken in Australia (!I know they can say the same about American English!), at least two Eastern-European languages (I think Polish and Hungarian?) and another tongue I can’t identify at all.

Across one street is the downtown area. It seems retailers find this place especially enticing, as brand-names from all over the world have built-up a presence here in this town of a bit over 50,000 souls. Hard Rock Cafe, for heavens’ sake, is here. It is apparent to me as I step into the city center – all two-square blocks of it – that something is going on here that should remind me that it is never a good idea to walk around with my stereotypes.

Whatever my expectations were, instead, I am greeted by: Upscale mountaineering retailers, luxury leather goods, specialty yachts, space-age small planes.

But even with the connection to the world’s marketers, Ushuaia remains a part of its pristine geography.  Even during this summer walk, snow is visible on the sharp peaks surrounding the bay, signposts warn of impending bear visits, the mirrored quality of the icy water reflects puffy clean clouds, penguins live nearby.

It all leaves me a bit out-of-sorts. I walk through the downtown and out into a more residential neighborhood. It is cozier here, and I find a bench on a pie-shaped park to sit and watch pelicans on the bay. I wonder what it is that has me so befuddled. I take a walk wherever I go; today should be no different. I am here today, and tomorrow venturing by ship to Antartica, but I find that Ushuaia is pulling my attention. On the cusp of viewing the continent that so few people ever see, it is this little city that makes me stop and think.

It feels more like home than I expected to experience in a place so far away from where I live. There is a California calm here, a confident idea in the streets that no town, anywhere, does life like its done here. I sit on a suburban bench, at the extreme southern tip of my connected continent, and I feel like I am living in the middle of California Cool. I think maybe that is not such a good idea.

But then, I remind myself, Ushaia knows itself better than I do. My own California calm takes over, and I decide to just let it be. Ushuaia seems to be doing just fine defining its own character, at its own pace. I’m the one that needs an attitude adjustment – and I hope I leave my stereotypes behind as I venture farther south.

 

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Walking Buenos Aires, Argentina

Listening to visitors pronounce ‘Buenos Aires’ is enormously entertaining. People from Britain say ‘Ahhhres’, giving the word the sophistication it deserves. People from the USA say ‘Air-rays’. It’s a simple switch for them: just adding ‘rays’ to the already familiar word ‘air’. Curiously, travelers don’t seem to confuse ‘Buenos’, but there is already enough intrigue about the city. Buenos Aires itself is even more entertaining to travelers than its name, and everyone should visit.

This is my second time in the city; the first being over 40 years ago. I don’t dance the tango, I don’t eat pondorous beef meals (though the person walking next to me might like to.) But, now as 40 years ago, I find endless ways to entertain myself. This is one city where anyone can feel like a Porteño – a resident of Buenos Aires.

Some cities are strategically breath-taking, placed in an area of great beauty, like Bogotá, Colombia. Others may be located in a convenient area, like Panamá City, Panamá. Some communities spread like wildfire, consuming geography without apparent logic, like my former hometown of Pasto, Colombia. And some cities, like Buenos Aires, plot their own thoughtful development with grace and beauty, replacing topography with a vibrant and classic style that begs people to visit and effortlessly impresses them when they do.

We arrive from Lima and I pull out our hotel information. I am not always good at selecting places to stay. We are thrifty sorts, and like to get as much for our money as we can, but while we look for safety and value, location of the hotel is always our first concern. Can we walk to the places we want to see? Are there restaurants and stores close by?

The taxi driver knew the hotel right away, without the need for an address, which is a credit to him, and gives me hope that this time, I picked well. It is a hot day in Buenos Aires, and we drive into a neighborhood with a canopy of green extending over the city streets. The taxi pulls up along a shaded sidewalk to a shiningly clean hotel with ornate stately features. Melia Recoleta Plaza. It is classically beautiful, and I decide immediately that if I only explore this one building while in Buenos Aires, the trip will have been worthwhile.

The hotel has taken over a structure that was once a rooming house where Eva Peron lived. With curving staircases, gleaming wood accents, polished marble tile floors, this place acts as a living museum. Placards placed on framed photographs tell the history of Peronista Argentina. In black-and-white, next to the period architecture of the building itself, a history lesson begins before I unpack my bags in the room.

The area of Recoleta is home to our hotel. Even if tourists didn’t need to visit Evita’s grave in La Recoleta’s cemetary, they should come to see this neighborhood. The graveyard itself is a walking history tutorial, with cultural lessons displayed on tombstones. Decorations and poetry add details. Outside the cemetary, the shaded streets and the welcome of the cafes make walking a simple pleasure here. Carrying our map, we are stopped several times by residents who offer help with directions. One recommends that we visit the artisan fair in the park. We do, and find a huge gathering of craftpersons and shoppers. We are entertained for hours. Since I have decided that visiting Buenos Aires requires more than seeing the interior of the hotel, I now wonder if I really need to leave La Recoleta. The area is peaceful and inviting, surely sufficient for any visit.

But I do explore farther. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just outside La Recoleta. In 2019, it was named the most beautiful bookstore in the world by National Geographic. When I walk into the store from the sidewalk, I wonder about the hype surrounding this famous place. I like bookstores, and have high expectations for the well-known ones. This one opens up from a fairly normal city street. It’s fine. But number one in the world?

And then I see the interior and understand. It’s so filled with architectural beauty that it’s difficult to focus on the literary works of art. This is just one more spot in Buenos Aires that can occupy an entire visit.

Of course, there are more. The walk to a popular shopping street, Calle Florida, from our hotel is a long one. In the heat, I wonder if my insistance on walking everywhere is wise. But how else do I see the sights I want to see at the pace I want to see them? The reward is in the shops along the street and the vendors with their goods on the sidewalk. And, of course, along the way, we stop in the shaded parks near the Casa Rosada, where the city’s political history has unfolded.

Every neighborhood we pass through and each restaurant and shop we enter, we encounter friendly, helpful Porteños. When we take a short break to sit in the shade of Plaza de Mayo, twice people approach and offer help with directions and recommendations. It seems to me the people of Buenos Aires want us to visit and enjoy the city they very obviously love.

That is the lasting impression I take with me from our second visit. I can stop worrying about pronouncing the name right. The important thing to remember is that Porteños love their city. This emotion spills out to welcome visitors like myself. 

Walking Quito, Ecuador

 

 

A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito. 

Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.

But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me. 

The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.

Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself. 

Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.

Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.

The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.

We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.

After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn,  light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)

There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.

 

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Walking Otavalo, Ecuador

 

It’s been 40 years since my two feet walked this ground. The cement umbrella-ed artisan booths are still here. An aura of tranquil living impresses me – now as before – and it runs counter-point to the dramatic setting. Clouds still curl over the mountains. Something about the high-altitude air makes visitors feel they’ve never been clean before. But surrounding the market I remember from years ago are now rows and layers of canvas-covered awnings that expand the market to two or three times the size it was.

If you visit Otavalo, today as 40 years ago, it is likely for the artisan market. I had made the trip several times from my home in Colombia as a young woman in my twenties. I ate huge pancakes and drank my first kefir and orange juice in a hippie restaurant just across the square from the booth where I bought wool yarn for the blanket I would crochet. The hippie restaurant is no longer there, but before I venture out too far, my husband and I eat in a fabulous modern cafe. Then we set out to follow our memories. Will I find the same style of woven wall art that, 40 years later, still decorates our home? Will I find skeins of rough wool yarn, so natural that bits of dry grass and seeds are part of each creation?

Ruanas are still for sale, and as numerous. These long, sometimes very thick wraps of woven wool that have slits to fit your head through were ever-present and worn by everyone when I lived in the region. When I bought my own, from this outdoor market in Otavalo, and learned how to wear it with ease, I had finally felt at home with my South American experience.

Five times today, I circle the market, walking to relive my past. I stroll the rows across, and the rows up and down. I get lost in a tangle of tables where people sell items they no longer want next to the alley where you can buy sewing machines that were already second-hand when I was last here. Finally, I buy a new ruana, stash it in a bag, not sure if it is really the one I want, but knowing I need to go through this ritual.

On the few days of the week when there isn’t a market, the square in the middle of this town is empty, aside from the concrete circles with the odd umbrella covers. To me, these circular remnants are a wonderful touchstone, one thing that hasn’t changed, sturdy and reliable. Everywhere else I walk on this market day displays how the world has changed: cell phones and a million chargers for sale on top of a plastic folded table, warm wool sweaters and gloves and hats that are knitted by machine, wall-hangings in colors so bright I know there is modern chemistry in their dyes.

I want to buy some natural yarn, and think I will start a new project while we travel. I pick a craft woman, one among so many, and enjoy the back-and-forth of negotiations. The price is so good that I want to buy more than I can pack into my carry-on suitcase. I need a crochet hook, and can’t remember the word in Spanish. I try to describe what I want. The woman understands and takes me at a run into an alley where, in a brick-and-mortar shop, everything I could possibly need is for sale. The yarn I buy is soft and so warm my fingers are soothed just by the touch.

We walk to the odd-and-ends section of the market. My husband searches through tables and tables of screws and bolts, ancient watches, and finds a coin from last century to purchase.

It’s all a wonder: the stroll, the shopping trip, the search for memories.

I pull the ruana from the bag and put it on, walking away from the Otavalo artisans, comfortable again in this place of mists and mountains and forty-year old magic.

 

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Walking Bogota, Colombia

With one more step retracing my younger self, I arrive in Bogotá. Eight million people strong, over a mile and a half high, at the foot of the most impressive mountains any city can boast, this place should intimidate anyone. Buses racing back and forth, mild adherence to sidewalk safety, a reputation for violence. For the last six and a half years, I have lived in a lazy fishing village on the mild coast of California. Bogota, Colombia? I should be terrified of this place.

I really should be. During the time I lived here in the late ’70’s, US Ambassador Diego Asencio was kidnapped and held for 61 days. Fellow Peace Corps volunteer Richard Starr had been kidnapped before I arrived, held for three years and released during my stay. At times, buses I rode stopped unannounced on the side of highways, let out all the passengers, with drivers stating that a transportation strike had been called. Fifty-odd Colombians and me, often in the dark, struck out over fields, walking miles in a direction I vaguely remembered as being toward home.

Back then, I lived in a northern barrio of Bogotá where the terrorist group M-19 had roots. When soldiers were sent to search for terrorist group members, women from the neighborhood would stand at street corners and wave people safely away from where the soldiers were patrolling. The US Embassy was barricaded downtown and I lived on the outside of its safety net.

But I simply was never afraid. This was a city that may have had political issues and over-reaching violence, but I never saw it, and to this day acknowledge my luck. Regular people lived regular lives, and I felt no threat and no personal animosity aimed at me. I bought my bread from the German bakery, I rode to work on buses – usually with no problem, I went to language school in a beautiful tree-covered neighborhood. Maybe there was a Bogotá with a different world-wide reputation. But there was also my Bogotá: long streets to walk, buses whose routine I needed to learn, spectacular cloud-filled skies, sidewalk food stalls, regular people.

And I am back for the first time in 40 years. We had stayed at the Tundama Hotel on our first night in Bogotá in June of 1978, my husband and I and over 100 other new Peace Corps volunteers. In a strange wave of sentimentality,  we had tried to find the hotel online to reserve a room and really re-live that experience. But, the Tundama is gone, and without an address, we may never know the reason why.

We stay at the Tequendama Hotel, a classic downtown business hotel where we can venture north, where we had lived, and south, where we had worked. I hope to visit other places for which I have no address. How far will my faulty memory take me?

It’s an interesting way to travel – striking out to see those idiosyncratic places that aren’t on anyone else’s list of tourist sites. We walk south on Carrera 6 and – without intending – find the old theater where we used to buy fresh-roasted potato chips to eat during the movie. It still stands there, in the middle of a city-block of buildings, but is wrapped with no-trespassing tape, and no movies are advertised. We turn toward the steep mountainside roads and walk through Parque Nacional, which is exactly as I remember it – a wild forest in the middle of an urban tangle.

From there, we step onto Carrera 7, catch a bus and visit Unicentro – the shopping center where we used to meet friends. We walk most of the long way from Unicentro to our old neighborhood. We recognize the overpasses, the view east to the mountains, and some older buildings. We catch a bus back downtown and find Avenida Caracas. We walk and walk and walk following the bus routes and past the graffitied buildings, trying and failing to find one of the children’s centers where we had worked.

But we do find a city that has built beautiful new neighborhoods and has added an impressive transportation system. We stop along Carrera 7 in an unfamiliar restaurant and eat familiar arepas and ajiaco.

Bogotá gives us a visit that helps me recall the glorious beauty of the region, the pride of the people.

But as for my personal memories – something just isn’t quite right. Maybe I can blame it on the altitude sickness that rocks me on this trip. At 8,600 feet, I feel dizzy, head-achey and muddle-minded. My own recollections seem from someone else’s life.

Who was that young woman who lived in such a challenging place? If I had had a daughter, I would have been immersed with anxiety at the thought of her experiencing the life I lived here. But it was me living in this unusual place, and I was then and still am quite normal and usual. Even in the challenge of the late 1970’s, I felt my life was routine, unremarkable.

The whole experience of going back reminds me that life, always, is just one small step at a time wherever you are.

Once again, Bogotá gives me a gift of extraordinary beauty and ordinary life.

 

 

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Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

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Walking Valencia Peak Trail

It rises 1,347-feet from the ocean to the crest of the mount. Central California’s Valencia Peak in Montano de Oro State Park lies just a few miles away from my home in Morro Bay, and just a few rational thoughts away from a trek I should take. But my family has a now-and-again tradition of taking hikes during holidays, and many of those treks challenge the concept of what I should be doing at 65 years of age. I have done this walk before, so I already know that today will be complicated by a rocky path, gut-wrenching views straight down, and a slick granite dome that I will have to cross to reach that last, highest step in the climb. I don’t live dangerously with any amount of ease. But I am determined today to at least be in the vicinity of the top of the peak.

My husband and son must be mountain goat people. Or perhaps neither likes to entertain the thought that there are events that should be thought about and reasoned with, rather than plunged into on a whim. Mesquite brush blocks my view for much of the early, easy part of this venture. My two companions walk ahead of me, chatting as if there was no mountaintop ahead of us, ignoring the growing distance between what they can do and what I can do.

I shouldn’t complain about physical abilities. I can excercise every day. I can take a long walk in dry sand every afternoon. I can still bend over to touch my toes, and I am very grateful for all those not-yet-lost skills that make my life easier. But I can’t keep up with my husband and son, and wouldn’t feel it’s a smart thing to do if I could. They are apt to stand at the edge of sea cliffs and play as if no ground beneath their feet will ever give way. I have always been the one who pulls them back so they will survive and one day have a chance to appreciate how un-smart it is to stand so high above water coursing over jagged rocks.

Today, our challenges lie eastward. Rocks and sand begin to tumble away from the path as we hit the grades heading away from the tides. Mounds of granite begin to crop out from the path and bits and pieces crumble away. The disintegrating stone gathers into crevices in the trail and creates 1/4 inch of unsteady dry mash between me and the earth.

“Mom? You okay?” I hear several times. Yes, I’m okay. But how much farther? What if I wait and the two of them can tromp the rest of the way while I sit and enjoy the view. I suggest it to my son, who seems disappointed. I want to tell him that he might be just a bit more distressed if I fall over the edge of this ever-increasing lift from sea level. But instead we all continue on, them picking up their chatter again and me not slipping around as much as my complaints would indicate.

We walk above cloud cover. Then, the clouds follow us up the hillside and we walk inside a bubble of cool steam. There is no perspective and no way to gauge how much farther to the next bench. There are really only two resting places, I think, and maybe we have already passed one. I plan to sit and let my two companions continue on when we reach the next bench, because my trepidation at the height of the mountainside has become replaced with a long-lost sense of vertigo. I am walking into something I can’t see away from something that is no longer there.

Three times I think we are at the top. Three times I continue on, urged by my son that it is really, really right up there, just around the corner of the trail where he and his dad are walking.

When I make it, the view is fabulous. I stand back from the two of them, watching them look out over the edge, safe in their sitting-down perch, still chatting, still secure that the ground will always hold beneath them.

Like life itself, this walk becomes a competitive game of philosophy versus reality. When you have walked as much as you can, endured as many cross-backs as you should have to, do you then jump across a slick granite path to reach some ultimately theoretical goal? Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. But today, even though I am tempted to just refocus the camera to seem as-if  I am on the edge of the mountain height, I take that last step to claim the territory I am walking. Maybe next time, I’ll find a bench and wait.

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best photo in the world

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Walking with the PNW Ferries

 

Sometimes there is just too much magic in this world. How do people build the things they do? How do people think up what should be in any given place, and how do they convince other people to buy into their idea of magic?

That has always been my reaction to the ferries that people in the Pacific Northwest take as ordinary parts of daily living. I have known about these contraptions for a very, very long time. Maybe I even took one as a young child on a family vacation. But the fact that some people use this system of hollowed-out ships to go back and forth to work makes my mind go blank. Is this a good idea – strapping yourself and your vehicle onto a boat and floating out across unsteady water every morning and then turning around to do it all again before dinner in the late afternoon?

It makes me wonder about how we all arrange our everyday lives and how differently we adapt to our surroundings. The ferries in and around Seattle and the beautiful island groups of the Puget Sound area are an adventurous example of people adapting to the place they live. Today, my walk will be around the corridors of a boat designed for this special region.

We are taking our first ferry together, my husband and I, during the summer months, when tourists – like us – invade the PNW ferries to experience the beauty and the style of this unique place. We line up with a group of vehicles at 7 am for the 8 am ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. We are early because of our fear of missing the ferry, or of getting lost on the way from Port Angeles, or of getting bumped off our reservation by a multitude of other tourists who are earlier and more anxious to get on the ferry than we are. The online site for the ferry system has extremely severe warnings about getting to the ferry early – at leat 30 minutes ahead of time – and always reserving your spot.

Our drive from Port Angeles is beautiful – gracious views into the sound, faint sightings of Victoria, BC in the distance, and rich forests with generous grasslands. We are entertained by the sights and reach Port Townsend with plenty of time. We wonder how to do this ferry-thing. An hour of lag-time doesn’t seem like too much to figure things out. But there are road signs that we follow, and it all becomes a simple process. We spend a small moment wondering why we had made ourselves get up at the crack of dawn to get here. Still, we aren’t the first people in line.

More and more cars and vans and recreational vehicles arrive. An enormous 16-wheeler pulls in, then another. A fellow in a toll booth guides each driver to one or another of the eight – or is it nine?-  lanes. There must be an ordering or a logic to the system, but I am glad I don’t have to know it myself. We park where we are told to park, then wait with everyone else. People get out of their vehicles and chat, or sit in their cars, getting that bit of sleep that the earliness of the ferry had denied them. It is all very orderly and confident and seemingly time-worn. This may be my first adventure on this ferry, but other frequent ferry-goers give it all a feeling of calm and regularity.

A couple traveling on their motorcycles from Bremerton, WA tell us what to expect on our way to Friday Harbor today. We had begun to wonder if we hadn’t planned too much for this day, if we would really be able to go all that distance, getting off this ferry in Coupeville and driving all the distance of Whidbey Island, then through Fidalgo Island to the town of Anacortes where the San Juan Islands ferry departs, getting into another line like the one we were already in, and finally cruising all the way to the last stop on the ferry line. Would it all play out as we planned? The couple assured us that people do it all the time, even by bicycle. In fact, there are several people who walk onto the ferry by foot, obviously with a plan as to what to do when they disembark. It is all so new to us, and it is nice to have some of the Bremerton couple’s calm ease our nervousness.

It all goes according to plan. The sun shines the entire way. We have views of mountains and views over waters, and views to towns along the way. Our usual sense of travel confidence returns as the day goes on. By the time we reach the Anacortes Ferry and take our place in line, we feel like we know what to expect and expect it will all go smoothly. It does, and we spend a calm and pleasant night in Friday Harbor, before returning on the ferry the next day, like pros who know much more today than yesterday.

Mostly, we now understand the logic behind this magical system of delivery. It would make no sense in most places in the world, but somebody with an incredible sense of planning and insight figured out the perfect way to get from one place to another in this area of spectacular sights and unique inventions.

Walking a rainforest trail in Olympic National Park

 

A rain forest in the Pacific Northwest of the USA? Washington State is far from the tropics, and I have always associated rain forests with equators, hot weather and steam. I plan a visit – laced with a good deal of skeptism – after our romp around Hurricane Ridge.

Twenty minutes down the mountain we drive from the snow-crusted high-altitude of Hurricane Ridge. The Olympic National Park guide promises a rain forest walk close by. What do they mean, I wonder? Are they just tickling my fancy? Why am I wearing a jacket to a rain forest? There is still a layer of snow on the underside of my tennies. I think a public affairs person has gotten a bit over-enthusiastic with the details of this brochure. Rain forest? We’ll see.

I have to settle for the small rain forest walk near the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center just outside Port Angeles, because the roads to the park’s Hoh Rainforest are still closed because of snow. Snow. I am still suspicious that winter weather and ferns can co-exist. We’ll just see.

We park at the visitor’s center lot and follow a racing group of twenty-somethings who are chattering with excitement. Where are they going in such a hurry? Why the rush? They are pursuing the call of warmth and hanging vines with greater confidence – and enthusiasm – than I. They must be rain forest believers, and I decide I want to believe, too. They scoot up and over fallen logs and along a creek in their race to touch this natural dream. Perhaps they are hurrying to follow another hiker’s spotting of a drip off a fern in a gully of steam. There might be one, just one, in this lip of a forest off a road to ever-lasting snow.

The young people scurry on, taking a fork in the pathway toward a work camp. I decide they already know much about this area, and take on their confidence for myself. If they have found a rain forest here, then I might also. I stay on the path that promises ferns and mist and hanging moss.

Up and down into the ravine, the old growth begins to show itself. Slips of sun bring warmth and shy rays of brightness. The green of the plantlife and the cozy red-brown of the mulched ground lay around me with the comfort of cool mists and soft light. It isn’t a hot rain forest, but here it is, with its light-hearted coolness splattered about with fresh but humid air. I seem to walk through one after another – first cool mist, then sun-warmed air. No wonder growing things do their very best work here. It’s soothing and quiet and just exactly right in its temperate comfort.

I am happy enough to slow down and take in what nature is providing right up close: ferns, lichen, moss hanging from trees, cooling steam rising from a downed lodgepole pine as the sun warms the bark. Proof of rain forest.

I am convinced. Maybe it’s not exactly the biome I used to teach my third-grade students. But it is magical and it is here, unbelievably close to snow in the early summer of the Pacific Northwest.

 

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Walking Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Snow in June. The possibility hasn’t crossed my mind. At my comfortable Central California home, snow never falls, even in January. As we drive from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, there it appears atop the higher mountains that begin to come into view. Then, as the car climbs, more snow appears in patches near the road. And finally, snow makes changes to my plans, as I compare my mesh-topped tennies to a foot-high mound of glistening cold white along a marked trail.

We park at the Visitor’s Center, and wonder at the snow abundance. It stands in three-foot high arches over the trail we want to walk, sits on the meadow in large football-field-sized spreads, and has not yet dropped off some branches of the tallest lodgepole pines. Snow does not fall during our walk – but the white coating is all around, because it had obviously fallen all winter long, then stayed.

Mine may be a small walk, but the views are large. Snaggle-toothed mountains rim the horizon to the south and east. North and west celebrate the vista toward the Pacific Ocean and the expanse of water between Port Angeles and Victoria, BC. What a treat it all is, and I am once again amazed at the sights we can see if we just get up and go.

I cross over one of the snow spills that covers the trail. Close up, the icy mound is crystaled and gives way easily. It’s not yet warm enough to coax the snow into melting just because it’s June, but even though it holds together in a cold hillock, and even though it covers the trail, there are signs it won’t last forever. For one hint of warmth, the sun bounces off the clouds and the surroundings, a promise of warmer weather. At least I hope it to be.

But not yet will anyone see that change, and certainly not me today. The sun is muted by a cloud as I reach the next snow-covered portion of the trail. It is too deep and too wide to cross. My walk reaches the turn-around point. Going back, I take time to watch creatures on the ground, in the trees and overhead.

I especially like the Olympic Marmot. At first sight, from very far away, I think the creatures are foxes because of the red flash of their tail as they run. I pull out my binoculars and compare them to the diagrams at the visitors’ center. Definitely marmots. Deer are everywhere, and I have to remember that I should not approach them. They, of course, have not read that park regulation, and approach me regardless. Along a paved road heading back to the visitors’ center, I have to race-walk away to keep the deer from getting closer than the Park Service thinks is safe.

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Wiser people than I would have studied-up ahead of time, been more travel-savvy or known to pack snow shoes. But somewhere along the way from wanting to control everything in life and now – older and more understanding of life’s serendipity – I have tamed my need to know everything. Plan better? Why? When even the mule deer cheer my arrival, unannounced, unstudied, willing to take whatever comes. My mesh-covered tennies will survive.

 

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