Walking Harmony Headlands

 

 

Once – not so long ago – the tiny hamlet of Harmony, California was for sale. An idyllic bend along The Pacific Coast Highway between a velvet-covered ridge and a golden hillside, I wondered who had purchased this small patch of perfection.

Walk across the highway and over the hill, you find the Pacific Coast. Up the ridge is the pristine Los Padres National Forest. Mist in the morning, sunny breezes in the afternoon and foggy evenings wrap Harmony in what you may believe is fiction, too beautiful to be real.

But real people – 18 of them –  do live here. And many others drop in for browsing the wooden clapboard storefronts, shopping, eating at the cafe and watching the glassblowers shape their art. An appealing wine tasting room and restaurant are at the end of a picturesque winding drive.

Though my interest in the town is real, my true reason for driving the 12 miles north is to walk the Harmony Headlands Trail. One and a half miles over a hill from Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean pushes its salty spray again and again in tides against the bluffs. I could walk over, hillside to coastline and see what I could see. Many people have walked this trail, but until I do it myself, is it real? I want to see for myself before I believe.

Even though I live just a few miles south and the beach breeze cools me frequently throughout the day, I am always surprised to walk along a hillside path during the parched summer, then pass into cool breezes. Close to the hillside, you have sunny warmth; take one step out from the hills’ protection, crisp ocean coolness reaches out to touch you. Up the hill from the trailhead I go, stepping in and out of the freshest air on the planet.

The trail winds around and then up along the ridge of the humpback coastal mound. We call them hills, but these are really geographic waves of rock and earth with covers of wildflowers in the spring and dry grass and ground squirrels in the summer. The wide pathway makes for easy walking and I think that next time, I may test out summer sandals instead of hiking boots. Why not? In this land of near-make-believe, it’s hard to think that anything would come and bite my ankles and the weather surely does not call for anything hardy or wooly. Flips-flops would do just fine.

I crest the ridge. The sun is a hot-rock massage on my shoulders and the mist offers a fresh air salt scrub for my face. I might as well be at a high-price spa. But this is so much nicer, and costs nothing but footsteps. I pause at the top to relish the simple grace of feeling clean. As pleasant as all that is, though, the view is the real attraction.

Today, the purity of the sky, the time of day and the currents of the tide turn the Pacific Ocean nearly turquoise. A double line of white rolls against the shore, but lazily, as the waves find their way to the rocks and sand. The path lets me ramble down, an easy pace, to the bluffs that form the west coast of the North American Continent.

Cool offshore breezes blend with the sun shining its pleasant warmth. Even though I face a bit of a climb on the way back, I don’t worry about the heat or the cold. Mother Nature has taken care of that for me. Am I just a bit too comfortable? Is this just a bit too nice for real life? The walk might make me think so, but this story I tell today is exactly the way it really is. If you tend to doubt me, remember the trail’s name: Harmony Headlands. I am at the apex of agreement between Mother Nature and me.

Harmony, California. The town itself may have been bought and sold and bought again. But the beauty here is a time-worn possession of Mother Nature. And now that I have seen it myself, I know that it is real. I’m a believer.

 

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Park Ridge Trail, Morro Bay State Park

Over the shoulder of the town of Los Osos is the Pacific Ocean. Shielded by a sand spit, Los Osos hides from that deceptive and ill-named body of water that is not peaceful even when it appears calm, as today. I walk at low tide east from the Pacific and watch the ocean’s fingers snake their way to the back of Morro Bay until the sand sucks out the sea water and becomes a soupy mess. It pulls your shoes off if you venture out in a kayak at the wrong time of the tidal day and need to step out to unstick your ride.

But today, as I walk away from the coast, away from home, I head toward Morro Bay State Park’s Park Ridge Trail. It’s nice to watch the ocean from a distance. The walking path rises and falls around a hill that gives a magnificent view of the saltwater marsh in the shallow end of the bay.

Imperfect wildflowers lay along the path and up the hillside. Taller than me, the golden yarrow shines bright and the tiny baby blue eyes brush my boots. The plants are vivid today, but remind me that the wildflower season is almost past. Cow parsnip, morning glory, sticky monkey flower, milk thistle and purple salsify are saying their goodbyes.

The hills today still carry the mist from the coast, making the air mild and my cheeks refreshed. The sun here is powerful and insistent, but waved away by the breeze. A green blush on the hillside won’t be there next time I walk this path. Even today, just one or two weeks since the last rain, the hills are streaked with golden. A change is coming about from this winter’s 3-D green. The waving ends of aging grass and flowers sway over the crest of the hill, a springtime pastel against the blue of a balmy sky.

I walk on a path that has been visited recently by a run of bicycles and many feet. A diligent maintenance crew has kept the main paths broad. Smaller, happenstance cutaways lead to places I didn’t prepare to see today. Most are made by adventurous hikers who know the area better than I. Once I get past the first hill, I realize how broad and expansive is this parkland. There are a dozen break-off paths, some posting legitimate signs: Quarry Trail, Crespi Trail, Chumash Trail. The named trails are blazed by the park maintenance crews, but many others are side-lined single walking jaunts that lure me to break the rules. But I know it’s best in all ways to stay on the cleared paths. Safer for me and safer for the creatures who live here on the hillside.

I see some of these: little rabbits, a couple quails, a buzzard flying above. I hear others:  a scampering away as I turn a bend, a swish around a tall bush, several bird voices I can’t identify. I also see many off-shoots of trails that these creatures have made, so small I am not even tempted to change my route. Running under, next to and through thorny vegetation, they seem to head toward a cleft of water that I hear but can’t see.

Since moving to this area, I have been so entertained by the sea: the constant sound, the soothing beach sand, the shallow tides I can slip my toes into every day year-round. I have been facing west for five years, in wonderment at this ocean home. Happily today, I am discovering a walking buffet east of my house. I can’t wait for my next ramble through these coastal hills, and wonder why my feet have been so long in walking this way.

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Walking Small

 

IMG_2031There are times when walks need to be close to home, maybe even just around your very own space. Has anyone taken a garden walk inside the fences where you live? Or around the walls of the place you call home?

The place I call home is so small that two steps takes me outside. But the weather here is glorious, so my small walks are almost always outdoors. It may take some practice, but when you walk small, a short step can be wonderfully filled with details to enjoy. It helps to look three inches from your nose, or bend down and really admire what is close at hand. It’s amazing what you can find close enough to touch, and familiar enough to be loved daily.

It also helps to take along a companion or two, creature comforts to remind you that it’s pleasant to stretch the moment out, enjoy what is right here at this one instant in time. Perhaps they will go along on the next small walk, letting you stop for a sip here and a pat there and a photo somewhere else along the way.

You can plan out future walks, and reminisce over trinkets brought home from past rambles. By the time your walk is coming to an end, your tea cup may be empty and your creature companions tiring.

Sometimes the views close to home, the introspective views that keep you in touch with little changes, are the best ones for slow walks. Count on them to refresh the soles of your feet as well as your very own soul.

I wish you a happy walk, whether close to home or far away. Susan

 

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Walking, Weather or Not

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Rain or no rain?

Have you ever looked out the window and wondered if you should postpone taking a walk because of what you saw? Today, I was presented with two views out my window. One, sunny and brilliant, encouraged my feet. The other told me in complete certainty that I shouldn’t be stepping out the door. Then a rainbow spread over the sky, which against the dark clouds, made my confusion even more perplexing.

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Looking south
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Looking north

Of course, I went. And, of course, the weather went with me. Down to the beach, one side of the sky filled with brilliant sunshine and the other, a flip-side of dark threatening clouds. Threatening what, I wanted to ask myself? More rain would be a blessing, even after so much wet this winter. Sometimes threats are really just promises hiding in over-used expressions.

Still, this hope for rain didn’t make me wish for it right here and now. Would the rain wait until I finished my walk? Nature honestly doesn’t care about my dry feet, so I wasn’t sure at all. Even so, that didn’t make me turn around and head for safety.

But thinking that perhaps I should find a dry place to perch made me pause to admire the tenacity of the shore birds along the way. The night herons lined up diagonally along the wave line, facing the wind as the weather began changing from coolly invigorating to perhaps cold and rainy. They might change their behavior with the weather, but they don’t consider leaving as I do. Brave creatures, staying close to the tide and waiting out the drop in air temperature from 60 degrees F to 52. Living along this coast, where creatures (all of us) have discarded the notion of seasonal migration, is a funny reminder that we live in a bubble of weather bliss.

But there is still the threat of rain. Even when it is a temperate climate, getting wet is still getting wet, and something my socks don’t want to do. At one point in the walk, the sky literally split, with one side being blue and the other cloudy gray.img_8603

Had we had enough rain this season? Since we moved here, almost five years ago, my walks at home have been mostly dry drought walks. Tip-toeing through puddles this last month or two hasn’t yet gotten old. Not for me and my damp socks, nor for the glorious life springing up from a wet earth.

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blooms in late winter

Before the walk ended, that threat had come true. My glasses spotted-over with rain drops. I remembered how important hats were – having forgotten mine for the hundredth time. And I felt the dampness seeping into the sandals I am lucky enough to wear every day. Here I am, loving the rain in central California. More, please.img_8470-1

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Seal Walk

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We all live alongside so many wonderful creatures. In my little corner of this world, I can sometimes hear the bark of seals from my kitchen window. The sound reminds me that there are more important things to do than finish washing the dishes. The seals are calling me to come walk…

but they’re probably all just laying around, enjoying the soothing waters between each rise of the waves. Whether all together on a communal rock or on a solitary perch that lifts just one seal out of the water, it can seem as if all they do is relax. For hours and hours, you can be mesmerized by their inactivity.

But, I have seen herds of them flying through the water near whale-watching boats. Propelling themselves through the waves the way they do on the open sea makes me appreciate their need to recuperate when they come home to the rocks. Just thinking of their ocean frolic makes me yearn for a rest. So, if the seals are in sleep pose while I walk, it’s just their very own restorative yoga.

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The sounds the seals make is somehow compelling to human ears. Who can resist the arf-arf of seals clamoring for a better sleep position. They seem to amiably push aside one another in their effort of settling in for a snooze. Sometimes I wonder how these rugged rocks can be made comfortable, but look how many are settling in below. I leave it to the seals to pick the best spot for an afternoon’s nap.

img_5570 Certainly, I won’t argue that they have chosen well in picking this spot for home. The weather is usually calm, the scenery gorgeous.

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As long as the seals continue to call, I am happy to walk. Sunny day or overcast, they entertain in a way that is calming.

Walking Berlin, Germany

I don’t even recall the name of the port where we docked. It was near enough to Berlin to take a bus to a train to a bus to the center of the city. Berlin was a place I couldn’t miss, regardless how much time it took to get there from the cruise ship. So much of the world history that happened in my life -or just before- happened in Berlin.

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I remember my aunt, stationed in Germany with the US army before reunification, talking about the divide between east and west Berlin. Today, we are welcomed to the city as a whole. Here, Berliner Fernsehturm, the television tower in what was the eastern section of the city.

The fraternal twin cities of Berlin East and West walked right out of my history book and challenged me to come and take a look. I wasn’t prepared for the view. I don’t know quite what I expected. But what I found was remarkable: a city with a vibrant atmosphere, unafraid of taking on its past, marking its history with informative sites.

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I remember seeing this speech, by President Reagan, on the television news, never thinking I would stand next to the plaque that commemorates it on a street in Berlin.

Berlin seemed to allow history to speak its own story; enormous passion and complete misery shown in the words of the people who experienced it. We spent a large portion of our visit walking the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Berlin Wall Memorial reading the experiences from letters, newspaper accounts and business and personal documents retrieved and photocopied. First-person detail can be the most moving and the most frightening. Both were presented.

The city also seemed to be briskly taking on the future. I left with a respect for the people of Berlin, and a wish that we would all acknowledge our past, have hope for the future, then get on with things, the way they seem to be doing.

There is something about standing on a spot of history. My words are weak in describing that feeling, a blessed benefit of being able to travel. Thank you, Berlin.

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Checkpoint Charlie and McDonald’s – certainly not what I expected 🙂     Next up – Copenhagen.

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Walking Brugge, Belgium Without Regrets

Brugge is the perfect Medieval European town says the travel literature. The streets are not to be missed. The buildings are remarkable. The shops are a buyers paradise. I suppose all that is true. Unfortunately, we passed through Blankenberge first, and saw a glimpse of something I really did want to see that day. Blankenberge seemed to me to be where Europeans go for fun, Brugge where all the rest of us congregate. Neither was a disappointment, but Blankenberge called to me as I passed through.

 

IMG_3332The port where our cruise ship anchored was not an easy walk-off location, so we took a bus to the town center of Blankenberge. Through the rain, we ran to the train station, bought our tickets to Brugge and waited. It was during the waiting that I noticed some of what Blankenberge had to offer. The rain passed quickly and I noticed modern shopping streets, clean walkways, sea-side fun, a pretty town center. But we had already bought our tickets, so when the train to Brugge came along, we got on.

A short ride later, we stopped at the wonderful train station of Brugge. I wanted to take my time here, but the medieval Brugge with its travel brochure appeal lay ahead. We followed the crowds. Once inside the tangle of cobbled pavement, a waffle aroma wound around the entire street and convinced me to try this delicacy: a Belgium waffle in Belgium. It was the best part of my visit to Brugge. Sweet, crisp and – oh-that fragrant whiff.

Fabric shops, trinket stores, all the things tourists expect were there. It was all delightful, and a bit fairy-landish, like a caricature of the medieval town it really is.

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delightful

It was delightful, and we even got a bit lost – something that always makes a place more memorable. Most importantly, we walked. Soon enough, we walked back to the train station, where I had just enough time to explore a bit before the return trip to Blankenberge. For many Californians, transit stations are a bit of a curiosity, and ones that are built underground are even more so. There is so much life in these beautiful underbellies – out of sight, almost secret. I found excellent coffee underground at the back entrance. I window-shopped regular neighborhood storefronts and wondered at the rates of all those currencies at the exchange. I heard a sudden rain storm from above, and felt the good fortune of being dry. Then we stepped on to the train back to Blankenberge.

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We walked up the broad shopping avenue, passing the many fine clothing stores and stopping in at the neighborhood market. I looked at all the manner of coffee there was to purchase, at the pastries, the cleaning supplies, the style of the shopping baskets. We walked the entire distance to the seaside and then walked along a magnificent shoreline. Nearly deserted in early May, it was the perfect setting for simply viewing a lovely coastline and appreciating the elegant design of a boardwalk. Sometimes it’s not what you planned to do that becomes memorable, but what you do without the planning. I walked back to the train station glad that Brugge, a perfectly fine stop along the way, wasn’t all there was to my visit there.

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From Brugge (and Blankenberge) to Rotterdam, The Netherlands next stop

Walking Cherbourg, France

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Cherbourg, France

Old town, new town, harbour, shopping mall. Everything in Cherbourg, France had one thing in common: charm. We walked right off the ship and found it everywhere.

Sometimes visits just work out. There are so many things that can work against a short stop along the way: weather can be unpredictable, moods can swing, travel ills can cause discomfort. But this day in Cherbourg, all the magic worked.

True to my travel style, I had done little research. I was asked by my history-buff friends: would we be visiting the sites of the Battle of Normandy? set foot on Omaha Beach? tour the medieval compounds? But, in a short morning and afternoon visit, I would have to spend 3 hours on a bus to get to those historical places. These are the compromises of travel, right? In this port, I had the opportunity to just step off the ship and walk. I took it.

We wound right around the harbour area, heading toward the darkened roofline of the medieval section of town.  Buildings defined the different areas: sparkling white stone and clean windows lined the harbour. Sharp-angled rooflines, so greyed that I was certain the soot from last century still lay upon the tiles, called to us to walk farther into the town and further back into this area’s past. History lay all around me. I listened for and heard the beautiful whirr of the French language.

 

The charm of the old town, with its twisting streets – narrow and lined with tall buildings – pulled us into the maze and immediately lost us. The only thing to do was to pick a direction and continue, relishing in the adventure of being lost in a safe place. Along the way, we strolled through a beautiful garden, the product of centuries of careful planning and tending. We strayed up a dead-end alleyway, then retraced our steps to find ourselves suddenly un-lost and at the door of the ancient sea-side church Basilique Sainte-Trinite. From this vantage, I looked back to the harbour, and once again found my bearings. We headed back into the old town, searching for the fountain, wandering along and enjoying the flow of other tourists and many residents.

The charm of the alleyways called my attention. Such a variety of narrow spits of passageways. Alleys were everywhere, laid out to connect walkers to different areas of town. Even in the residential sections, the narrow but open-topped tunnels cut a route from here to there. I couldn’t follow them all, but wanted to.

Through the neighborhoods we walked, and there we found residential charm. Attached to the apartment complexes were small plots of garden land, with pint-sized potting sheds sitting on each section. What would these city farmers plant in their gardens? As I walked, I saw rowcrops of vegetables, and many, many flowers. But mostly, I saw green. Green everything: grass, budding trees, leafing flowers and bushes.  We walked up the hills to the larger houses and back down into town, wanting to stretch our legs and our time.

Our return trip took us again through the old town.  A cafe owner was attending to patrons sitting at his sidewalk tables. He answered a remark by one of the customers. I didn’t hear the question, but the answer charmed me as much as the town itself had. “Stay as long as you want, we love your company.”

And that’s how I left our short visit to Cherbourg: relishing the welcome and feeling like I wanted to come back, explore the small inviting pathways, listen longer to the language, and enjoy the hospitality.

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Next stop, Brugge, Belgium

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Walking and Walking and Walking in Ponta Delgada, Portugal

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Land!

When you’ve been on a ship for 6 days, even a nice ship, it’s no surprise that stepping on to firm land is a pretty big deal. Our first stop of the transatlantic journey was in Ponta Delgada, Portugal. Maybe it sounds like it’s close to Europe, being a part of Portugal, but it’s really not as close as one might think. Facing another couple days on board after the brief stop in Ponta Delagada, I was determined to set my feet on ground as early as possible and stay there as long as I could.

Ponta Delgada is an island way, way off the coast of Portugal. I figured that there were adventures to be had there, and lovely places to see. But our time was limited, so what interested me most was a nice, long walk. Why not? My plan was to walk enough so that I would be content on board the ship for another two days. Would the town be big enough? Was the port area close enough to walk to town? Would there be guidebooks or maps? I had many confounding questions, all pointing to the fact that I really should have done more research ahead of time. As it turned out, my research – which consisted of looking at the location of the island on Google maps – was sufficient.

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Sunday morning Harley Club

We got off the ship, set our feet to the ground and strolled. The weather began cool and got steadily warmer and warmer, the streets appeared wondrously cobbled and tiled, and the people, what few were out on this early Sunday morning, were mostly a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. Why would this surprise me? I have no idea. But their presence sold me on Ponta Delgada, a place where you can walk along the harbour, watch waves crash against an ancient stone wall, admire the beautiful tile work on the sidewalks, and march right up to a group of shiny Harleys.

Then we walked and walked and walked. We visited the glorious gardens at Jardim Antonio Borges. This free city park is like no other I’ve ever seen, filled with glorious plants, enormous trees and grottos with sunken gardens.

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Antonio’s Garden

 

At the Governor’s Residence, we paid a small entrance fee, and were delighted by the gardens surrounding the house. Colorful and nicely planned, we even got to see the potting shed and seedlings on display. What a lot of work these gardens are. So, it was nice to find a lovely spot to sit.

Afterward, we walked the pedestrian-only streets with their elaborately-designed stonework. We climbed up the aged stairway of the old harbour walls. We walked neighborhoods of tightly-spaced homes trailing wrought-iron balconies from their upstairs rooms.IMG_3095

The weather was temperate and pleasant on this island, and locals said that was common. But after a while, the sun took its toll. When I needed a break, there appeared before us a modern shopping mall. An air-conditioned store? Yes, please. There was even a fabulous public restroom, with the most amusing wash basin I have ever seen.

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Real or not real?

Before the visit, I felt confident that knowing Spanish, I would be able to handle Portuguese. No doubt others have made this mistake. Even the written words tempted me into believing more of my language skills than I should have. It was not the writing that tripped me up, it was the spoken word. Sign posts and street signs presented no problem. But I could not understand one single spoken word, no matter how slowly spoken or oft-repeated.

Luckily, the people of Ponta Delgada understood me. They provided a marvelous day-long walking path with wonderful weather. Obrigado – it means thank you, I think 😉

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Next up, Cherbourg, France

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Walking the Cruise Ship

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No place to walk?

It was an enormous cruise ship. There should have been plenty of walking places built into the design. There weren’t. The Promenade, that ever-present feature of cruise ship fame had been cut down to a single-lane path that wove in, out and around small launches and electrical fittings. It didn’t circumnavigate the ship.

Who’s complaining? Me. I know that being able to travel to many of the world’s note-worthy places is a wild piece of luck, and I shouldn’t complain about any part of it. We plan our travel carefully, weighing cost versus comfort. And when we search for good deals, taking a cruise keeps popping its head up as the most economical way to get from point A to many many other points around the world. I am a reluctant cruiser, but as long as I can tolerate the short visits to interesting places, we will probably continue to book our interior rooms occasionally on these enormous floating hotels. It’s just not a perfect situation. What is?

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Lots of fun

We had signed up for a trans-Atlantic cruise that included a route into the Baltic region. It allowed for 11 different stops in 26 days. It’s a bit of ‘if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium’, but when the price is right, I can adjust to almost any travel style. And when we get to those points along the way, I can walk my heart out for a good morning and afternoon in each port, which is really what I like to do when I travel, so that’s all good. But what about those ‘at-sea’ days? On this ship, a big, beautiful new one, there was the down-sized promenade and a small running track on one of the top decks. So, looking for a better stroll, I took to the stairs.

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The running track was nice, just short and often crowded.

From our pleasant small cabin on deck 11, I could climb the stairs to deck 15, loop around from the retreat pool to outside the always-crowded fitness room, up one deck to the surprisingly small running track, down again to the deck 15 loop, descend the stairs to the tiny little promenade on deck 7, up again to deck 14 where I could grab a cup of tea and find a solitary spot on one of the exterior lounge areas. It turned out to be an invigorating walk, and there were always plenty of places on the ship where I could find privacy afterwards for some reading or relaxing.

It was interesting to me that as I walked, and as I lounged, I noticed that many other passengers were finding their own ways to get in their exercise. As I looked for books in the library, I noticed a couple walked by four times. They had devised an indoor walking route around the many interior lounges. Then, in my ‘secret’ spot at the very back of the ship where there was a lovely dead end and few people, one man walked rapidly past me, where there was no more ship, turned around and walked just as rapidly away. He came back about 15 minutes later, with the same routine and again 15 minutes after that. On another day, it was a woman doing the same walk. On the days when I sat away from the crowd in my corner at the retreat pool, I noticed an intermittent stream of walkers, one or two or three at a time, looping through the area, returning about every 20 minutes.

I was stuck on the ship for 26 days. Six of those days were traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to the Azore Islands of Portugal. I knew I had to figure some outdoor routine for exercise and escape. Even though the routine did not include the usual promenade walk, as things turned out, it did include great exertion and lots of pleasant relaxation. I even found empty hot tubs for a satisfying rest after my walk if I went early enough (so I did.)

Taking a cruise has an odd reputation that I find doesn’t have much to do with the way we experience it. We have been able to bend the cruise experience to our own idea of travel – economical and comfortable sojourns to interesting locations. A nice walk and a hot tub waiting when I’m done is nothing to complain about.

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Next stop: Ponta Delgada, Portugal

 

 

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