Stonehenge: The Greatest Henge of All

Nearly all the common knowledge we hold about Stonehenge is wrong. Built by druids? WRONG. Used for human sacrifices? WRONG. Looking at older legends, it was also not built by Merlin out of stones hauled from Africa by giants, nor was it built by the devil to confound humanity. 

NO.

But we remain kind of confounded. Built by a culture with no written records, it’s clear that the site and stones are aligned to the sunset and sunrise of both the summer and winter solstice, though the significance of that is unknown. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the oldest components of Stonehenge are 5,000 years old, though numerous changes to the site have been made between 3100 BC and 1600 BC. The stones are all believed to have been dragged to the site, some from as far as 200 miles away, which makes the Sarsen stones seem positively local, having only been dragged a mere twenty five miles. The stones themselves have been discovered to clang at different frequencies which may mean, like the temples of ancient Greece, Stonehenge was made as a form of musical instrument. Excavations of barrows have revealed that in the Bronze age (which, in Europe, technically covers the entire period of Stonehenge’s construction, so it’s not exactly narrowing things down), it was used as a burial site. The “slaughter stone”, so named for the reddish water that collects in the depressions on its surface that was believed to be the blood of ancient victims seeping out, was not used for human sacrifices–not only is the water color attributed to iron in the stone, but the stone itself used to be standing and as such was a wholly unsuitable surface for your everyday sacrificial needs. 

In the early 20th century, funds were raised to preserve the area and prevent modern construction from encroaching on Stonehenge. These lands are now managed by the National Trust and have reverted back to grasslands gently rolling out from the site in every direction. Up until the late 1970s, people were free to walk through, touch, and even climb upon the stones. The sheer number of visitors (some 600,000+ per year) treading among the stones killed all the grass, which was replaced with orange gravel, and the severe erosion of the land led to the closing off of the direct site to the public.  Visitors now walk on a path surrounding the structure, the sole exception being during the solstices, when they are opened for direct access for the religious use of modern pagans–neo-druids and the like. 

You also can no longer drive directly up to the site–instead, everyone’s car and tour bus unload near the new visitor’s center, and everyone inside then jockeys for place in line for the site’s own shuttle buses up to the monument itself, two and a half miles away. It’s a distance that’s not unwalkable, but would have been challenging given the time constraints laid on us by the tour company, so we waited a little and crammed ourselves on a shuttle. Crammed is the correct word, if someone animated the scene, surely the shuttle would be bulging with various body parts pressed up against and flapping out of the windows. Almost immediately after the drop off site is the area where the path is closest to the monument, and is thus very crowded with people waving selfie sticks around, heedless of whom they strike. But as we walked around the monument, the people thinned out dramatically, making it much easier to take photos, contemplate history, and attempt to commune with ancient peoples.

Burial mound

The heel stone

All too soon, it was time to hop on a shuttle back toward the visitor’s center, where we walked around recreations of neolithic houses and learned where these ancient peoples kept their extra gift shop wares. I didn’t feel compelled to check out the gift shop itself, because I don’t need a plastic replica of stonehenge in a snow globe (and I would venture to guess that no one does, but they were doing a brisk trade anyway). Of our three stops, this was the lunch stop, and we just barely had time to eat a scalding hot pasty and visit the restroom before we had to get on the bus…and wait another twenty minutes for a different group of stragglers to arrive.

After they finally showed up, the tour guide reminded them that they should have been back earlier, and that this lateness was really going to cut into our time at Oxford. The reply? “You didn’t say anything to the late people last time, so you can just stop talking.” I think the entire rest of the bus muffled their gasp. I could have cut the tension with an authentic Stonehenge knife™ if only I’d deigned to visit the gift shop. Why, oh, why did I not visit the gift shop? This person did have a point–if you’re going to have rules, they should be enforced fairly. However, it’s really cruddy to see someone else’s bad behavior and use it to justify your own. The guide, to her credit, rose above and thus the start of our trip to Oxford was only a little awkward.

Windsor Castle

Having visited every Stonehenge within driving distance of my house, I certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see the real thing in person. However, given that I have less than an hour’s experience driving a manual transmission and I wasn’t keen to work on my skills while also becoming used to driving on the opposite side of the road, I decided to do the best thing for everyone involved and join a tour group rather than cause an International Incident. The British Tourist Board has been pounding my inbox ever since I entered an essay contest to win a trip–“Have you visited Britain yet? Why not?” and I have to say that the constant wave of advertisements worked because I booked my tour through their website.

There are a number of day trips out of London to Stonehenge, most bundled in with other stops, primarily Windsor/Bath/Oxford. I lobbied hard for Bath, and Jason for Oxford, and we ultimately settled on a Windsor/Stonehenge/Oxford tour, the determining factor for Oxford over Bath is that it seems a shame to go to an area renowned for its spas and not have time to indulge, whereas no one expects even the most motivated learner to earn a degree in an afternoon. Windsor Castle was a given– I’m a nerd, of course I love shit like castles.

After a slight kerfuffle about where to meet the group (it turns out that Victoria Coach Station is a different thing than the bus stop outside of the tube’s Victoria station and has nothing whatsoever to do with Victoria’s Secret), we departed from London bright and early. On the way to our first stop, Windsor Castle, our tour guide told us what to expect from the day in terms of our schedule and repeatedly stressed that if people are late returning to the coach, they will be left behind, merrily telling us of passengers they’d abandoned at various locations around England and how we didn’t want to find ourselves in the shoes of those unfortunate souls. NOTED. I did not want to be on the hook for an Uber from Wiltshire to London.

Windsor Castle is reputedly the Queen’s favorite, though she was not in residence at the time of my visit. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was built in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror.  Since then, it’s undergone massive renovations several times as it became used less as a stronghold and more as a royal court. No photographs are allowed inside Windsor Castle, and this is enforced in a rather roundabout fashion. After passing through an airport style security check, visitors are handed a large, awkward audio guide which effectively fills their hands too much to fumble with a camera and if they try, it’s immediately evident. Well played, Windsor. 

The first tour is of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. It is no doubt an extraordinary technical achievement to reproduce such grandeur and detail on such a small scale, but it’s difficult to appreciate the nuances of miniature craftsmanship when you’re being hustled through the room in a long line of impatient strangers, all eager to get back to their respective buses. At that speed, my brain just went “Yep, that’s a doll house, all right” and didn’t really register much more. Each room of the dolls’ house has been photographed, each item has been cataloged and documented, and items are regularly taken out, inspected, cleaned, and repaired. If I worked there, I would find it nigh impossible to resist making and tucking in the occasional new accessory, like a tiny ouija board or Necronomicon. 

I wish I could have photographed the interiors of Windsor–not because I would have done them any justice, but because there’s so much to take in and so little time, and there’s no ticking clock when I examine a photograph after the fact. The rooms were resplendent with rococo and baroque designs. The furniture, oh! the furniture! (Personal to Your Majesty: if you ever decide to redecorate, keep me in mind for your cast-offs.) When I have a gilt desk, no doubt I will stop writing such low-class fart jokes. Instead, my fart jokes will be refined and elegant, like a fart gliding through a silk nightgown.

We lingered behind as large groups passed through the various rooms, wanting some time and space to appreciate the decor and also have the opportunity to ask questions of the Wardens stationed within. You’ve heard the old chestnut “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”, yes? I can attest that this is not the case, as you should have seen the Warden’s face when I asked if the princes get ceremonial armor. “No,” he laughed. “They do not.” Apparently tradition doesn’t extend that far, which is kind of disappointing. It seems like that should be one of the perks of the princedom, being able to clink around a palace in a suit of armor, pretending you are a Transformer.

We paid a penalty for that leisurely tour, however. After the tour, a trip to the restroom, and a debate at the gift shop as to whether we should purchase a tiny crown to go with the tiny stuffed corgi (we did), I began to feel the invisible finger of time poking at me, making the hair on the back of my neck rise. I interrupted the cashier halfway through her spiel about getting refunded on tax paid to inquire about the time, which is when I discovered that we were still smack dab in the middle of Windsor Castle with a scant five minutes before our bus was set to depart. There was no time to check out St. George’s Cathedral, there was no time, period. We grabbed our bags and bolted out of the gift shop, slowing down only to return our audio guides. We must have made quite a spectacle, sprinting out of the castle grounds, past the guards, and down the street, up and down a flight of stairs, dodging baby carriages and people alike. I arrived, red-faced, sweaty, and breathing hard, just on time. I took my seat, and then we waited twenty minutes for some other straggling passengers to arrive. I don’t know what I’m angrier about: that I didn’t get to see the cathedral, or that I ran for nothing. Probably the latter, if I’m being honest.

GŎNG Bar at The Shard

I should’ve used Jason for scale, this door is much smaller than it appears in this photo.

After touring a structure with nearly a thousand years of history, we headed across the Thames via the Tower Bridge to a much newer addition to the London skyline: the Shard. Side note: I adore the nicknames for London buildings, which include among their numbers The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, and The Cheese Grater.  Completed in 2012, the Shard is 95 stories of neo-futuristic steel and glass looming over the city, complete with an indoor/outdoor observation deck located at its upper reaches. A costly observation deck, particularly if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, so I thought I’d be clever and go to the nearly-as-high GŎNG Bar instead for my sweeping city views and spend what I would’ve on elevator tickets on drinks instead. It’s twenty floors lower than the observation deck, but they craft a mean cocktail and you don’t have to pretend to be impressed at the “opportunity” to shop at “the highest gift shop in London”. Oh boy! 

The thing I should have gleaned from the name alone, with its insistent all-caps and needless diacritic, is that GŎNG Bar is also pretentious as fuck. And so whilst I saved myself an admission fee, I paid a different sort of price. The sort of price that sticks long after the temporary pain of parting with money has passed.  It began with the wait–reservationless, we were directed to a couch in the lobby to wait. And wait. And wait. Ostensibly, we were waiting for a table, but when we were finally allowed up, the many empty tables conveyed to me that during said waiting period, GŎNG Bar was also waiting: for me to leave.  Well, joke’s on them, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (I’m talking about my butt*, of course, which stayed firmly planted on the couch until the receptionist heaved a sigh, hobbled over in the floor length red gown and heels that was her uniform,  and invited me up.)

Am I certain that I was unwanted at GŎNG Bar? No. No one ever said to me “You don’t belong here.” But no one needed to say it aloud. The appraising up-down look (I didn’t look like a slob, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a gown), the artificial wait, the cruddy service: it spoke volumes. I felt unwelcome. Jason felt unwelcome, and he’s usually the one telling me that I’ve got it all wrong, that it’s just my inner critic dialed up to eleven and projected onto other people. It left us both feeling vaguely uneasy the entire time we were there.

The drinks, as mentioned before, are excellent–creative, complex, well-crafted. I truly enjoyed my drink, an ode to Peter Jackson with rum, New Zealand wine, beetroot, and pine honey, redolent of the deep forests of middle earth, served in a silver pipe. The views of the city with fireworks peppering the skyline? Also excellent. But I also could not see myself visiting again on a future occasion: I like myself too much to be subjected to an entire bar’s negative opinion of me.

 

 

*Their toilets are also incredible, and I’m not the only one who thinks so

The Tower of London

 From the Borough Market, we set off across the London Bridge, and I’m happy to report that all those gleeful singsong rumors about the structure’s unsturdiness are utterly unfounded. Other rumors about the bridge include the requirement of a human sacrifice in order for it to remain standing, which excavations have proved false. To see a place with a true bloody history, one need only look across the bridge toward the Tower of London.

Constructed in the 1070s by William the Conqueror, the white tower was intended to loom over the city and its denizens. Now the only way it imposes itself on Londoners is when every out of town visitor drags them to go see it, as it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, if not the country. In the intervening millennium, the Tower has been used variously as a stronghold, a menagerie, a prison, the royal mint, home for the crown jewels, and a retirement center for the old James Bonds and Sherlock Holmeses.

Metaphorically look across the bridge, that is, I don’t think you can see the Tower of London from here unless you have x-ray specs. But  it’s there. Behind some stuff.

After purchasing our tickets, we milled about the entrance near a free tour sign, waiting for the next one to begin. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long: a cluster formed about a man who began to tell us about the history of the Tower, making meaningful eye contact with me specifically when he said “Excuse me, this is a private tour” and as I shuffled away in embarrassment, he also made a show of apologizing to everyone else in the circle about the “hangers-on”. Sir, I didn’t mean to absorb any knowledge for free, but perhaps if you didn’t organize your paid tour group immediately adjacent to a free tour sign, you might need never refer to a person as though they were an undesirable piece of fecal matter clinging to your proud buttocks. Just a suggestion.

I was so embarrassed that I didn’t want to continue to wait for the real tour near the sign, lest the roving eye of the paid tour guide land on me and he assumes I’m still trying to listen, but from ten feet away and thus receive the tutting of a lifetime. I have a delicate constitution; I can’t take that kind of criticism.

Upon entering, I was excited to almost immediately spot one of the ravens of the Tower. Superstition holds that the ravens are the guardians of the Tower and if they should ever be lost, the country will fall. It is my professional opinion that these ravens are so pampered, fat, and happy, that they’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean they’re completely tame, however–a little girl was encouraged to pose next to this raven and got a bite on the arm for her trouble.

We were both interested in seeing the crown jewels, because if someone is going to put all the symbols of their wealth and power up for close inspection, I’ll take a look. It’s the same force that drives some people to garage sales and open houses, to get a peek at how someone else lives their lives. Specifically, I learned that royal authority involves a mountain of jewelry. If a king or queen has an appendage, there’s a golden something to adorn it that is symbolic beyond merely being a status symbol: spurs of chivalry, bracelets of wisdom, orbs of divine right, rings of commitment, scepters of authority…combine them all and you have Captain Planet a monarch. 

The bulk of the jewels on exhibit are viewed as one is shuttled past on a moving walkway–it’s an effective way of moving people past and out of the exhibit, which means never having to deal with someone blocking a view, but at the same time, there’s no opportunity to really get in close and appreciate the craftsmanship. The quality of cubic zirconia is so good these days that I probably would not know the difference between the real thing and well-made replicas, especially at the speed at which the walkways move.

The wire mesh animal sculptures throughout the Tower are placed there as a reminder to the public about the structure’s history as a royal menagerie. That the polar bear is chained is significant: the live polar bear, a gift from Norway in 1252, was similarly chained so that it might swim and hunt in the Thames river.

The White Tower is the central keep. The overall grounds are collectively referred to as the Tower of London, but the White Tower is specifically the Tower of London. It’s like how Destiny’s Child encompassed more people than Beyoncé, but Beyoncé is Destiny’s Child. This keep now houses displays of armor, weaponry, and their brother in arms, a chapel. And the items they have on display are impressive: large armor, tiny armor, gilded armor, horse armor, axe pistols, cannons that resemble a lion fellating a pipe. That last must be especially intimidating on the battlefield, if they’re such fierce warriors that they can make lions do…that.

This is two posts within a month of one another that reference horse bosoms. So my blog is on the fast track to be recognized as an authority on that particular topic, which should bring me tens of disappointed readers a year. Tens!

I feel like, and I have no factual basis on which to make this assessment, this is just going with the old gut feeling here, there had to be a vast ideological difference between the king comfortable enough in his masculinity to have a suit of armor fashioned with a frilly skirt and the one who insisted he have a steel plated dong shield.

Early Tower guidebooks suggested this neck collar be used on the necks of scolding or wayward wives. Any man who comes at me with one of those had better make sure to get it on the first time because there will be no round two.

So many important events in English history happened at the Tower: sieges, coronations, imprisonments, executions, murders…a visit can only scratch the surface. Tomes (and a play y’all may have heard of) have been written about this place and its significance in history, but hopefully I’ve added at least two dirty jokes into that vast lexicon. Horse bosoms.

London’s Borough Market

 

We ended up going to the Borough Market twice during our trip. The first time was our first morning in the country, and I wasn’t ready. Jetlag had a grip on me, yet, and I felt nauseated and entirely unready to eat until I died or even appreciate the smell of food. Which is why I had to go back a second time, because the Borough Market is glorious. 

The Borough Market has been around in some form or another for nigh a thousand years, though if you want to get nitpicky about it, it’s only existed in this exact location with this exact name since 1756. In the ensuing time, it’s perfected itself. It’s everything I want Pike Place Market to be–full of delicious food, with no huge wafts of urine or dead fish to sully the experience. Every kind of wonderful food to stock one’s home is here: charcuterie, stacked wheels of cheese, loaves of bread and pastries and homemade conserves and pickles and cookies and imported delicacies and fresh squeezed juice and foraged mushrooms…the list goes on. They also have stalls of made to order foods: I bought a sandwich from Roast Hog that ranks among the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. Chewy ciabatta smeared with applesauce, loaded with rosemary and fennel spiced roast pork chunks, bright greens, and topped with a healthy sprinkle of crispy skin, it was rich and savory and greasy and wonderful, and I almost weep to see that they do catering but probably not as far as the States. It was that good. 

Borough Market, twice was not enough. I’ll be back. 

London Bound!

People often ask where the next big trip will be, and unless I’ve already booked something, I generally don’t have an answer–if I see a flight deal too good to pass up and the timing works out, that’s what’s next. So far, it’s proven easier than having a destination in mind and waiting for a reasonably priced airline ticket. This time happened to be a screaming deal to London with a stopover in Iceland on the way back. I’ve just recently offered myself up as a travel buddy for friends, so I’m open to whatever comes down the pike that way as well. Maybe it’ll be something I wouldn’t have ordinarily gravitated towards–maybe it’ll be awesome!

London flights booked, thus began my usual obsession with not being immediately identified as an American abroad: I had plans for dressing better, speaking more quietly, and trying to cut down on that full on beaming smile I shoot at everyone because apparently that is a Peak American thing to do. I bought a smart new coat, didn’t pack anything with an overt barbeque stain, and practiced a refined, gentle glower. Resting British Face, you might call it.

Then, I booked a tour online and had to do a follow up via phone and the second that British accent wafted out of the earpiece, I realized that I might as well speak to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, because I wasn’t going to be fooling anyone into thinking I belonged.

Our flight into London Heathrow was delayed for several hours due to that infamous London fog, which was fine. The only downside was that those hours were spent in the plane on the tarmac, but it also meant that I wouldn’t have to wander around London for hours with my luggage before I was able to check in to the flat I’d rented. Getting through customs was easy and figuring out the tube was easy. I’ve got to say, though, as a welcome to the city, the Picadilly line train seats could stand to be a lot more appealing. I don’t know how to say this in a polite way, so here’s the impolite way: they’re gross. Gross. It feels like when you sit down, you’re squishing into every single fart that every Londoner has blasted into it. I know that not every single seat must have a mysterious stain, but when I picture the Picadilly line trains, I see saggy seats with mysterious stains as far as the eye can see. I did, however, appreciate every single time I was informed my train was bound toward Cockfosters, because I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old.

I found a reasonably priced AirBnB in Paddington, which isn’t London’s most exciting neighborhood, but it was close to three tube stations and was also available, unlike 90% of the flats that showed up when I searched with my date range. I panic booked this place, is what I’m saying, as it was one of two available properties and the one that didn’t require me to buy some sort of prepaid electric/gas card to keep the lights on, because that is the last shit on Earth I want to have to figure out when I’m exhausted from traveling. I don’t even like those room key light switches, don’t make me fumble around a strange room in the dark, don’t make me deal with bureaucracy when I know where literally nothing is or what it’s called.

There was a lot of confusion when we arrived to the address listed–the instructions said to go to an office (no address, just ‘the office’), so I popped into the nearest office to the flat and asked if they did AirBnB rentals. They did do rentals, just not our rental, but it took us several very confusing minutes to figure it out. Once we did, I had no choice but to pull out my phone and call (ugh) the renter. Their office was down half a block and across the street, so the odds were slim that I would have found it on my own. It was then that they told me the unit that I rented wasn’t available because of some toilet issues*, but they had another flat nearby to put us in. 

It was a small basement flat, cozy and entirely suitable considering how inexpensive it was and how little time I planned to spend there. The bed really sucked, though–I could feel each individual spring coiling at various places beneath my body, resentful and full of malice. The bed screamed in protest when we got in or out, demanding to either be allowed to murder our backs or be let alone. Over the course of the stay, we developed various nicknames for the bed: Beelzebed, the stab slab, the ouch couch. Even accounting for the bed, the bathroom was the worst part. The sink dripped constantly. The shower head dripped constantly and couldn’t be on the wall when the shower was running or it would twist itself round and blast the entire bathroom with water. The upper walls, ceiling, and grout were all moldy, and after using the shower, I have a good idea as to how they got that way. Still, a flat was better than no flat, and this one came with a compact washer/dryer as well so I was able to pack half the clothing I would have otherwise.

When we arrived, I was essentially dead on my feet, so we rested a bit before heading out to wander around Paddington to find food and buy toiletries to set us up for our stay. The first pub we tried was full to bursting, but luckily, all you need to do to find a pub in London is point in a general direction, take twelve steps, and you’re there. We ate and had a pint at Sawyer’s Arms–Jason opted for fish & chips, and I had a braised beef and bone marrow pie, or rather, we shared the pie, as Jason kept snaking his fork across the table for rogue pie bites. It was very good–rich pastry crust filled with steak and onions, with beef dripping gravy on the side for additional cold weather fortification. Afterward, we bought shampoo and other necessities at Boots–their automatic checkout machines end every transaction with “Thank you for shopping at Boots”, and the small space and relatively long line meant that every step, every gesture, every thought is punctuated by “Thank you for shopping at Boots. Thank you for shopping at Boots. Thank you for shopping at Boots.”

On our way back to the flat, someone stopped me and asked for directions. Bless you, lady. I have no idea where I am, I’m not from around here.

 

*I know you’re thinking “bait and switch” but the original flat was a basement flat as well so I don’t think I ended up any worse off and, frankly, I was just thankful to not have to try and figure out a new place to stay.

The Elk Bugling Tour at NW Trek

I could practically hear the bloodlust in their voices. It was early morning, and I was sitting in a tram at Northwest Trek with Jason and about ten other people, waiting for the elk bugling tour to begin. We were the easily the youngest people there by decades, and also the only ones not wearing camouflage. As the morning mists swirled about the tram, inside, discussions swirled about the various forest animals the other riders had killed and failed to kill and wanted to kill in the future. Perhaps I was misinformed about the nature of this tour–were they going to let us out at the back end of the park, first one back to the gate dragging a carcass wins? Surely not.

But neither was it going to be what I had pictured: a steady train ride through a quiet forest, elk bugles shivering in the distance, while everyone winked at one another about the saucy time they must be having and sipped mimosas. I was wrong about everything, most woefully about the mimosas. 

It also wasn’t a train ride. Northwest Trek has 435 acres of free range land for its grazing herds (bison, elk, moose, bighorn, blacktailed deer, mountain goats), with roads running throughout, accessible by their tram. They call it a tram, but it’s not like any tram I’ve ever ridden–since there’s no guiding rail above or below, I’m not quite certain what makes it a tram. I suppose the fact that a “bus with the windows open” tour doesn’t sound as pleasant as a tram ride has something to do with it. Terminology aside, the series of roads meant we were able to go to the animals wherever they were on the property. Occasionally, one of the keepers would radio in with a hot tip, and off we’d go, careening around corners to find them. As I mentioned, we were primarily there for the rut–the elk breeding season when males challenge one another for control of harems of females. If we were particularly lucky, we’d get to see some sparring behavior as well. 

To encourage the males to sound, the tram driver would play a recording of their bugle. It sounded like a disgusted ghost trapped in a trombone: oooooo-wheeeeeeeeeee-ah! Ew ew ew!  I think the elk at Northwest Trek are on to this tactic, because they did not show much interest in reciprocating with bugles of their own, for a musical ghost throwdown that the ladies couldn’t resist. For further encouragement, people on the tram began using their own special elk calls. Because with the exception of Jason and myself, and I am not exaggerating, everyone on the tram had their own special vocal elk lure. Everyone. From a dying frog in a windstorm to fart sounds through cupped hands, they all had a method to lure the beast’s head into their laps. Not wanting to feel left out, I quickly devised my own. “Hey Carl! Hey Bob! How ya doin?” For some reason, my best efforts went unanswered. We did get some reedy replies eventually, and in the meanwhile, I got to hear a lot of exciting jokes about how the women should know their place, because the general public can just never get enough of those old wifekneeslappers, evidently.

I didn’t lie about the camo, but I assume you thought I did.

NW Trek feeds them on the roads because otherwise why in the hell would they hang out near the road? They wouldn’t. This bighorn is trying to bleat at us through a mouthful of grain and looks uncannily like me whenever I end up at a party around people I don’t know and the only time they ever ask me anything is the second I take a particularly dry bite, followed by internal panicking at how long it’s taking me to chew and swallow and not wanting to keep people waiting (RUDE!) but not wanting to talk with my mouth full (RUDE!) and the horrible compromise is that I take too long to answer and also my mouth is still kind of full so I mumble behind my hand some dumb answer that wasn’t worth waiting for. Why am I not good at networking events? IT’S A MYSTERY.

So I was definitely ready to be off the tram by the time the tour finished and away from these hootin’ hollerin’ presumably gun-toting senior citizens. Fun fact: according to NW Trek’s website, many things are prohibited inside the park, including the aforementioned mimosas, drones, balloons, segways, barbeques, but somehow, firearms are missing, which seems like a big oversight for a business centered around tours of game animals. Just sayin’. 

NW Trek also has a small zoo with natural-ish enclosures along a walking path, featuring animals native to the NW forests. Also along this path are trailside encounters, where keepers handle and answer questions about an animal so people can see them up close. The two I saw were with an opossum and a slug, respectively, and not to brag, but with regards to the latter, I have to say I see slugs up close and at a distance quite frequently as I pick them out of my garden and huck them over the back fence so they can eat the county’s weeds instead of mine. It’s a rare and privileged experience, I know. Be on the lookout for my upcoming memoir, Banana Slugs in the Mist.

I’m stupid about wild animals, because a lifetime of Disney movies has indoctrinated me into believing that if I go walking out into some strange forest and need help, I’ll soon be making some animal friends. I’ve previously discussed how huggable I feel bears to be, and now these freaking wolves at NW trek just look like cute floofy white puppies to me. I took a video of them and realized I was making smoochy sounds to get their attention. The attention of a predator. If I go walking out in some strange forest and need help, I’m doomed. Especially if I try to lure over an elk friend with my newly-learned calls.

Velveteria Los Angeles

Welcome to Velveteria. Formally, the Velveteria Epicenter of Art Fighting Cultural Deprivation, but just plain Velveteria is fine. Though there’s nothing plain about this place, as is evident immediately. 

I was able to ascertain that a tour was in progress when I arrived, so I settled in the lobby and had a look around. “Welcome, come in for a life changing experience without walking on hot coals.” read a hand-written sign. “Admission $10.” Another, located on a tray of souvenir lapel buttons reads “Flair. $2. Choose responsibly.” I did, selecting a tiny button featuring a teacup chihuahua relaxing inside a teacup with its elbow resting jauntily on the edge, a golden halo around its head. 

The lobby’s walls were filled floor to ceiling with paintings of varied technical ability and subject matter. There’s the larger version of that teacup dog. Danny Trejo brandishes a machete that has three tacos carefully balanced atop. Dame Edna in a “The Scream” themed dress, her pose mimicking that of the screamer(s). Beneath them all is a worn light pink velvet couch, strewn with personal items: a tablet, sunglasses, mail, and a “Velveteria” branded pink ball cap. On one wall hung an obscuring bright pink crushed velvet curtain, behind which the museum officially began. 

Eventually, Velveteria owner Carl Baldwin joined me in the lobby to take my money and teach me the finer points of velvet artistry and show me the highlights of his collection. After swiping my card, Carl’s eyes narrowed and he looked at me quizically. “Have we met before?” Sadly, no, I just have one of those generic, vaguely familiar, distinctly Midwestern faces. He treated me like a friend regardless, led me through the velvet curtain, and gave me the grand tour. 

When you hear the term “velvet painting”, no doubt your mind immediately turns to images of sad clowns and Elvises (Elvii?). And undoubtedly, a lot of those exist. Elvis even has his own tiny wing of Velveteria, crooning and pouting around an Elvis tiki statue. Although that style of velvet painting became popularized in the United States in the 1950s, primarily via tourism to Mexico, painting on black velvet has a recorded practice as long ago as the late 1200s, when Marco Polo reported having seen black velvet paintings in India–but surely the practice is older, as it likely didn’t burst into existence for the Marco Polo tourism market. Many countries have a history of including plush fabric in their art, notably, Japan, where artists would shave down the pile to give their paintings a three dimensional quality. Carl proudly showed me one such piece in his collection. The detail is painstaking.

The quality of the art behind the curtain also varies in technical ability, but some appear to have been nigh-equally painstakingly executed. Black velvet tricks the eye: because it’s so pure black, it absorbs the light that strikes it. Paint on it with pure white, and you have a full dynamic range in between to play with. A little dry brush action and suddenly there’s a range of greys. In black velvet painting, you paint on the light and as a result, the subjects can appear luminous, whether they’re Yoda, Batboy, or especially Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and James Dean, racing across the sky on a trio of matched flying unicorns.

Velveteria has around 450 paintings on display from a collection greater than 3,000, and many of these paintings have a story. There are vintage works, there are commissioned works, there are pieces left behind from the black velvet painting classes at the shop. Many are for sale, but not all: the true rarities remain part of Velveteria’s permanent collection, such as the paintings that incorporate cutouts that are lit from behind with lamp bulbs. As in the lobby, every inch of wall real estate is accounted for, floor to ceiling, including the hallways and the restroom, where a devilish Anthony Bourdain smokes a cigarette and perches on the porcelain throne, while Oprah looms overhead with a sign proclaiming this room “Oprah’s Think Tank”. Another room is dedicated to black light paintings. Yet another is wholly cheesecake velvet, tantalizing behind a gauzy curtain which acts as a filmy négligée for the subjects within. 

You’ve likely heard more than a few jokes about velvet art being the lowest art form–if you’re in LA, swing by the Velveteria and challenge that notion.

Happy Place Los Angeles

In early December, someone shared a link on Facebook to the new Los Angeles pop-up museum, Happy Place. It was one of those made-for-Insta places where the whole point of the thing was to get whimsical photos to share on social media, with the tagline “find your happy place” and for some reason, it sucked me right in. Jason had been encouraging me to take some trips on my own, and this is the sort of thing he would more tolerate than enjoy, so it seemed like a good opportunity to dip my toes into the water of solo travel. I bought a ticket for one of the only dates in January on which they had a ticket available, found a cheap flight for a day trip to LA, and prepared to find my happy place. 

So, of course, not long before my trip, I got an email from Happy Place “reminding” me that the museum would be closed on the date on which I’d bought my ticket. What?! I checked my inbox to see if I’d missed any earlier messages: nope. Nice, guys. Thanks for the awesome communication. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU MAKE PEOPLE HAPPY. Later that day, I received another email stating that after “tireless work trying to gain the necessary approvals to get re-opened, it is clear at this time that the needed steps will not be complete until after the holiday season at the earliest.” In other words, they’d been shut down by the city. Great. Great. Evidently their person in charge of the permitting process was just as capable at their job as the one assigned to email. 

Well, I was not about to let some bullshitty “museum” I never should have purchased a ticket for in the first place ruin my day trip, and thus I visited Los Angeles determined to find my own happy place. I did do some preliminary research (I don’t know if I’m capable of full spontaneity) and determined that if I wasn’t going to rent a car, taking the flyaway bus was my best option. While I waited for my bus, a number of other buses and shuttles came and went, including some shabby vans supposedly bound for Disneyland but looked like a one way ride to Murderville. One of them had “Mickey sent me” written on the side, which didn’t so much evoke the warm umbrella of Disney so much as the stranger who pulls up next to your elementary school, rolls down his window, and says your mom sent him to come get you. Nope, not today, buddy. Especially if you don’t have candy OR puppies.

Waiting with me was an elderly woman, who asked me about my plans and told me all about her granddaughter, who she said is first clarinet for the John Williams orchestra, and that he’s a delight to work for. Cool, right? Before I could ask her a million more questions, her bus arrived, and she thanked me for the conversation. No, thank YOU, ma’am. 

My fly away bus finally arrived, and I took the one headed to Hollywood. Not because I particularly wanted to go to Hollywood (I’ve been. A few times.) but because it was the sort-of closest stop that would put me within walking distance of the places I wanted to start my day. So of course immediately after arrival, I put off my other plans and had pie for breakfast at The Pie Hole. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all. 

I had a nitro cold brew and a warm strawberry lavender hand pie. The crust on the hand pie is just meh, but the other flavors were on point, and I was glad to have some food in my belly before I proceeded on foot to my next destination, which was about an hour walk away. I briefly considered hanging around Hollywood until the Museum of Death opened, but since the day was about pleasing myself and not the harsh realities of life, I decided to give it a pass this time. And last time. And maybe I’ll just keep passing even though people keep recommending it to me. Either way, I knew that having a bunch of strawberry goo churning around in my insides while looking at gore wasn’t going to do me any favors. 

While out on my walk, I was stopped by a queen and asked if I had a dollar to spare for breakfast, saying she’d had a rough holiday. I told her I could do better than a dollar and gave her enough for breakfast. She pulled me in for a hug, told me I’d made her day, and that if I ever needed anything and saw her around the neighborhood, her name was Jasmine. 

Here’s some stuff I saw on my walk:

I have to assume that the reason it’s a gym for actors is that there is no gym equipment so one has to be adept at pretending one is getting a good workout.

I finally made it to my first destination: The Never Open Store. This place has notoriously unusual hours and equally notoriously unusual things for sale, but was, when I arrived, not open, with no indication that it would be opening soon, as the hands on the clock on their door were conspicuously missing. I’m not saying I needed an opium jar, but it would’ve been nice to have a look. 

Around the back side of the Never Open Store were a lot of different pieces of street art. I walked around the back of the block and circled around, because there was another place I wanted to visit, directly across the street: Gallery 1988. There were a few prints I was debating online and I was hoping to have an opportunity to look at them in person before I made a decision. Unfortunately, I caught them between shows and they, too, were closed. Siiiiigh. So I was thankful that I knew my next destination, about another mile away, was definitely open.

If there’s not, you’re in the wrong place.

I dig this bush a lot, it looks like it moved out of an ocean bed into someone’s front lawn. I’m thinking it’s a foxtail fern

That destination was ScentBar Hollywood. No one could have predicted when I was kid that I would grow up to be a complete and utter perfume hoor, considering I used to get a migraine whenever anyone with heavily-applied scent would walk by. Either I’ve built up a tolerance, or the choking oriental cloud style of the 80s has fallen out of favor, but I haven’t experienced a scent trigger for ages. It’s fun to dabble in scent, and there’s so much to try in the world of niche perfumes and oils. I’ve been buying little samples from LuckyScent for years, because the descriptions almost always suck me in, but I’m not always thrilled by the scents themselves, and who wants to splurge big bucks on a bottle of scent that they don’t like? ScentBar is one of LuckyScent’s physical locations, and I was excited to have this opportunity to go in and sniff ALL the perfumes I’d been intrigued by online and some I’d never considered. ScentBar also offers up to four samples free of charge, so in addition to a small bottle of scent I’d been eyeing for a while, I was able to walk out with four new things to try: Hummingbird (the floralest floral to ever floral), Kismet (recommended to me as an ambery vanilla that doesn’t read too gourmand), Confessions of a Garden Gnome (green and playful), and La Danza Delle Libellule, which is honestly something I never would have reached for based on its notes (apple? fruity? Naaaaaah) but I fell in love with at one sniff, because it smells like a warm secret garden where everything good lives. Which just goes to show me that I don’t always know what I’ll like, so I shouldn’t write things off before trying them.

After ScentBar, it was time for lunch, and there was no place I wanted to eat lunch more than Trejo’s Tacos. I once received a book as a gift that was essentially making fun of actors’ headshots–very “look at how stupid this person is, wanting to be a star”. It was deeply cruel, and I remember seeing Danny Trejo’s photo inside, so literally every time I see him in a movie or a show I am completely stoked for him. I’m also stoked that he was able to take his new fame and turn it into six thriving restaurants. 

When I arrived, I ordered a jackfruit taco, a carnitas taco, the street corn appetizer, and a strawberry lemon agua fresca, and I took a seat outside, because being able to eat outside in January is peak Happy Place. 

The street corn was charred grilled corn with a chipotle cream and popcorn, and it was totally bomb. The popcorn was a surprising element but it worked. The standout, however, was by far the jackfruit taco. I’d heard that cooked jackfruit takes on a texture like pulled pork, and that it soaks up the flavor of everything around it, much like tofu, but I don’t know that I believed it. Well baby, I’m a believer now. The cooked jackfuit was shockingly meatlike. Juicy, flavorful, delicious. I vastly preferred it to the carnitas taco–the pork was a tad dry and had me looking around for salsa or hot sauce. The jackfruit taco needed nothing because it was everything. EVERYTHING.

This was across the street from Trejo’s Tacos, I wonder how many of these pink signs to God there are throughout the city?

After lunch, I made my way to Velveteria, a museum dedicated to black velvet paintings, located in Chinatown. This place deserves its own post, and it’s going to have one later this week. Watch for it! In brief: it’s weird and great and everything I hoped it would be.

From Chinatown, I made my way to Culver City, primarily because I wanted to be closer to the airport as my time grew short. I had fun just walking around, checking out some more street art, peeping in some more shop windows, and eventually ending up at Coolhaus, a super premium ice cream shop. I’d tried one of their frozen ice cream sandwiches from their grocery store line and was really unimpressed, but I also think it’s difficult to translate that fresh ice cream sandwich experience into a prepack, so I wanted to give the original a try. Verdict? Much, much tastier, particularly their ice cream. I tried their brown butter french toast ice cream (aces) and their churro cookie dough (even better), but their cookies leave something to be desired, and overall, I still think The Baked Bear is a better place to get your ice cream sandwich fix. 

I’m certain I saw a piece by the same artist in Iceland!

And then it was time to head back to the airport, where I finished the excellent book I was reading and met an aspiring novelist who bought me a drink and regaled me with the tales of her past twenty-two days in Mazatlan.

There’s no denying that I was pretty ticked off when my reason for purchasing nonrefundable airline tickets was going to be closed, but ultimately, I’m glad, because I’m certain that I had a much better time carving out my own happy place than I would have had there. I also learned that I do well traveling by myself, and that if I have a problem, I can figure it out. I also learned that people talk to me a lot more when I’m alone, which I’m generally down with, because I’m interested in people. Overall, I’m declaring this experiment a success and am looking forward to booking more impulse flights!

Poppy Time

In November, I made my first horse friend! As I’ve talked about extensively before, I’ve always been nutters about horses, but mostly haven’t had the opportunity to work with the same horse repeatedly. Vacation trail rides are fun, but they don’t teach you anything about working with horses, and as long as you can manage to stay on top of the horse, you’re doing fine. I really would like to improve my horsemanship (both riding and on the ground) and get a real taste of what horse ownership is like, and luckily, my friend Marita was in need of someone to work her horse, Poppy.

Poppy is a ten year old 14h high Arabian mare (which means she’s so short she’s technically a pony!), she has the loudest neigh in the barn, and she has a lot of strong ideas about how things should be and some attention issues (she’s way more interested in where the other horses are going than any person)–which is fine, but Marita wants her to be more mannerly and understand that she’s participating in a conversation with the person working her, and can’t just issue orders (Don’t brush my belly! Don’t pick my feet! Don’t let your legs touch my sides while riding!). I’ve already learned a lot: bringing her in from the field and haltering her, leading her, and doing some liberty work–getting her to walk/trot/canter in a round pen in the direction I choose at the speed I choose with no physical attachment to her.

Working with Poppy under Marita’s supervision has also garnered some personal insights: that I can be too nice and let certain adorable horses (and less adorable people) bowl me over, that my asks tend to be wishy-washy because I want to please but that is a hindrance to communication, and that I need to be firm and establish boundaries. Poppy is smart enough that she will test those boundaries, to see if she can get me to move by jamming her head into my space, and it’s my responsibility to stand my ground and communicate to her that if she has a problem with something I’m doing or asking her to do, she is always free to make it stop by moving her body away from me, but that it is not an option to move me instead.  

As mentioned above, Poppy has some issues with being ridden and my horsemanship is not good enough to stick on her back if she decides she doesn’t want me there, so it’s going to be some time before that happens–if it ever does. In the meanwhile, there is another horse in the barn, Africa, whose owner cannot get out to the barn often and has given Marita and I permission to work her, so I’ll be spending some time with her as well. I don’t know if that means riding or not, and I’m not particularly bothered either way–I can always sign up for riding lessons and get more experience that way. I do know that Poppy day is the best day of the week–I’m excited to get up and go to the barn and see all the horses. The first time Poppy called to me from the field, I was on cloud nine. It just feels like fate that this short, loud, black horse and I (short, loud, wears lots of black) ended up friends. Prepare to see a lot of Poppy everywhere.