Category The Great Outdoors

Photo post: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX

Jumping spider? Maybe? 

The famous Texas Bluebonnet was juuuuust coming into bloom on my visit. I particularly like the way its fuzzy leaves appear to be softly highlighted in chalk.

What is this!?!

Looks like a Texas spiny lizard to me! Someone or something startled it and I heard its rustling through the leaf litter and looked until I found it. 

Cecropia moth

 

Spotted on the Roadside: Congress Bridge Bat Colony in Austin, TX

Before dusk, crowds start to gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge overlooking the Colorado River and the lawn in front of the Austin American-Statesman. On the day I visited, there were people holding up a giant white cross on the bridge itself, so I elected to go to the park instead. The park immediately felt like the right choice as I chatted with people and pet their dogs. Out on the river itself were a number of swan boats, canoes, kayaks, and even a party boat, all there to watch the bats. When I visited in March, it was early in the season, but still thousands of bats streamed out from the bridge, all hunting for dinner. Or is it breakfast? I bet they go to a diner so they don’t have to decide between eggs or a meatloaf sandwich. Over the course of the evening, as they become satiated, they’ll return back to their spot under the bridge as individuals. 

The truth is you do have to experience it to understand just how many bats live there, but I didn’t choose to post no bat photos to force you to go see it for yourself. I have no bat photos to post because every “bat photo” I took was an indistinguishable grey blur against a white background interspersed with like a thousand branches. These photos look like an x-ray of a nightmare. 

Footpath starts at 200 S Congress Ave in Austin, Texas.

Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.

Footsore in London

From our rental flat, we wound our way through Hyde Park, the largest of its Royal Parks, encompassing Kensington Palace and an artificial lake known as The Serpentine, which coils about a grove of trees like an overenthusiastic comma. Coming from Paddington, we entered the park directly adjacent to the Italian Gardens, a gift from Prince Albert, avid gardener, to Queen Victoria which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re a royal and don’t have to be fussed about getting out there once a week to clip the lawn.

And yes, this is a proper British lawn–the swaths of perfectly trimmed grasses that were a mark of British aristocracy and the current obsession of many a suburban American homeowner. I myself reached for a piece of this monarchist’s dream this year, which involved digging up some 800 square feet of cabbage-y weeds with a pickaxe, spreading yards of fresh topsoil, tenderly nurturing grass seed, and plucking out new tiny weeds by hand. I’m currently in the process of watching it all fall apart thanks to an industrious mole who has discovered how much easier it is to dig in the new topsoil and has decided to move in and have an army of industrious mole babies. (I can only assume, it’s hard for me to believe that the utter devastation currently occurring in my front yard is the work of just one mole, no matter how industrious.) 

Studded with lime and maple trees, Hyde Park also acts as a bird sanctuary, providing ample nesting grounds and places to hide from predators. No doubt, it’s spaces like these which allowed their population of feral parakeets to thrive since the mid 19th century. There were certainly a lot of them flitting about the park, a splash of lime against the sky or chattering from a branch. 

We walked the length of The Serpentine and then backtracked a bit to head in the direction of the Science Museum. There’s still so much of Hyde Park I haven’t seen–it’s so large, I didn’t even get a peep at Kensington Palace or Speaker’s Corner, where open-air public speaking, debates, and protests take place. Angela Merkel referred to Speaker’s Corner in 2014 as “the very symbol of free speech”.  I’m glad that this symbol of free speech and respectful debate exists, particularly as a corner of the same park where gentlemen used to duel one another with swords to the death over insults. It feels like progress for humanity. 

At London’s Science Museum, our foremost stop was at the cafeteria as usual, because it’s like we can’t face the prospect of learning without powering up with a 400 calorie dessert bar. But learn I did, about antibiotics and the history of mathematics and Morse code. If I’m honest, though, by this point in the trip I was a husk of myself from the lack of quality sleep and therefore not the most receptive to new ideas despite the amount of sugar firing my neurons and jittering up my blood. Thus, I spent a lot of my time in the Science Museum pretending I was a bitcoin trillionaire making a wish list for my birthday party on the moon.

I want one of these skull pipes.

I also want this silver fountain, which I would use to serve fondue. I would presumably also eat fondue a lot more often. When I got bored with it and/or fondue, I would use it as a cat’s water bowl.

An entire room of the museum was dedicated to an exhibit about the information age–the 200 years of progress to instantaneous communication. Among them was a Morse code machine hooked up to a monitor that taught visitors how to use it, and I immediately dove in and crafted a message for the ages with my dazzling vocabulary:

Next up was the mathematics room, exploring and celebrating 400 years of mathematical achievement. I have historically struggled with math as I moved into the more advanced subjects: I vividly remember my dad griping while he helped me with my homework that he’d hoped at least one of his kids would’ve had his talent with numbers. One of my math teachers looked at me perplexedly during a tutoring session, saying that she’d seen my IQ test scores and that she didn’t understand why I didn’t grasp the concept. Yet another of my math teachers instructed me to put a rubber band around my wrist and snap it whenever I made a mistake–I went home that day with my wrist striped with angry red welts. I used a college math final to test my psychic abilities because at that point, it was the only way I was going to pass as I’d been hopelessly lost since day one. (Verdict: I have no psychic abilities.) But it was one of my high school teachers who, bless his heart, tried so hard to reach me. I had no business in an advanced placement math class but this poor man did everything he could to usher me along anyway. He held tutoring sessions after school. He allowed me to re-take tests and I would still score miserably. At the end of the year, he awarded me with a certificate for “maximum effort”, which, delivered with the wrong tone could feel like a real slap in the face, but I knew he meant it sincerely. I didn’t keep much of anything from high school, but I still have that certificate because I appreciate how hard he tried and that he could see I was trying instead of just failing to achieve. What I’m saying is, Science Museum, I’d be open to donating my certificate to your exhibit to round out your collection.

 math skulls

I would like one of these skull watch fobs, please. And another of vibranium with gold vermeil for when I’m feeling fancy.

And also one of these.

And also one of these but with, like, either better dong or a tasteful thong over the dongs. Right now it looks like he’s wondering where it went.

And then we found ourselves on a bench seated opposite a display of clothing made using recycled materials. I was curious about what materials they were made of but was too tired to heave myself over there, so I did the laziest thing I’ve ever done: zoom in on the sign with my camera, take a photo, and examine the photo from the relative comfort of the bench. It was as I suspected: the bomber jacket is made out of stainless steel, so it’s going to be a 2057 must-have to camouflage ourselves from the murder robots. We spent some time on the bench dinking around on our phones, ostensibly looking for somewhere to eat in the area, but we couldn’t decide on anything so we decided to do a whirlwind one hour tour of the Natural History Museum next door before it closed for the evening.  

A placard identified this as Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ardent belief in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Huxley was a self-educated man who believed science should be for everyone–call me Huxley’s Bulldog.

There were fanciful wall carvings of various animals throughout the museum, making it the most ornate museum I’ve ever visited by a long shot.

Rollers are such cool looking birds. My favorite is the lilac breasted roller, which in addition to these striking blue and green feathers, has a hot pink chest and looks like it’s going to the fanciest garden party. Also, its hips don’t lie. I hope to someday see one in the wild so I guess I’m officially a bird person because I don’t think you can have a bird bucket list and not be one.

We made the absolute most of that hour, beelining toward Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery, featuring 22 objects of scientific significance, including original images from Audobon’s Birds of America book, and The Vault, containing glittering gemstones including the ostro stone and a cursed amethyst “stained with the blood and dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.” Presumably the museum is only entrusted with it so as to avoid the blood curse. I tried to snap a few photos of some gemstones but they all turned out terribly. Perhaps the amethyst’s curse is in effect for beholders of the stone as well, albeit more mildly. 

I can say without a doubt that I absolutely walked past all of the displays in the Natural History Museum, but I can’t really say I saw them all. Or even most of them. It is a stunning museum and deserves more time for contemplation but I found it’s also absolutely worthy in a quick visit, an out of focus haze, fleeting impressions of a celebration of the world as it was and is and our place in it. 

As the museum closed, everyone was ushered out onto the streets. The air had grown sharp since our earlier walk though the park, and I shivered into my coat though inside I’d been roasting. Outside the museum hung scores of glittering strands of lights and, on the lawn, a seasonal ice skating rink. Wafts of heated cinnamon air informed us there was a street vendor peddling roasted spiced nuts nearby. We still hadn’t had a proper meal, so we bought a packet and parked our weary butts on a cement blockade to have a warm snack and watch people wobble and triumph on the ice.

We took the tube back.

Hiking Point Defiance Park

This December, we bought Jason a new (used) car, because you could hear his old junktrap Saturn squealing down the street from a block away, its bumper held on with a bit of string, the oil puddle in the garage growing into a horrible pond. It was ridiculous, and we were both determined to get him into something that was less likely to heave a sigh and collapse in the middle of the freeway. Ultimately, we bought a Mini Cooper. It had some flaws in the chrome pieces surrounding the headlight and taillight, and since it was certified and the trim should have been pristine, they gave us a thirty day IOU to replace them.

When replacement day rolled around, they gave me a new Mini to tool around in until the work was done, and since it was a gorgeous day, I decided to go to Point Defiance Park and walk around. 

I parked near Owen beach and climbed the staircase back up to five mile loop road, backtracking to the rhododendron garden. I started wandering the trails and found myself on this absolutely magical moss pathway: 

How is it even possible that this didn’t lead to a witches’ hut?

While the branches here don’t sigh as heavily with mosses as the ones at the Olympic National Rainforest, it’s a close thing. Even in the winter, with dead leaves carpeting the ground, this place is verdant and full of life. Very few other people, however, so I almost shrieked a couple of times when someone I had been unaware of suddenly passed me by because I had been looking too intently at my camera and too deep in podcast land to sense their presence. I might as well wear a sign on my back that says “Murder me“. 

What a neat mushroom!

Olympic mountain range

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Speaking of getting murdered out in the woods somewhere, I misinterpreted the map and ended up getting a little lost. Not, like, “oh shit I need some survival skills alone out in the wilderness for 72 hours” kind of lost but more like “this road keeps splitting and somehow every fork is marked with the fort going one way and the zoo going another but I never arrive at either”. If I only had access to those signs, it could have turned into the former kind of lost situation, but thankfully T-Mobile’s coverage has improved since I switched to them and I was able to use GPS to figure out that I was nowhere near where I thought I was. 

Once I had that information, I was able to orient myself back on the path toward Owen beach, and took myself out for a celebratory “I didn’t get myself killed out in the woods” lunch at Duke’s Chowder House. This wild salmon with goat cheese and blueberries was so good, and while I’m still iffy about mixing cheese and seafood (probably from hearing it my whole life and not because I’ve had a particularly heinous cheese seafood experience), the tangy goat cheese paired beautifully with the flaky, rich salmon, the balsamic blueberries a burst of earthy summer on a cold winter’s day. A window seat with a beautiful view of the sound was the cherry on top. 

I can’t believe how long I’ve lived in this area and had never been to this park before. I’ll have to make it a point to go back during the other seasons to see how it changes–maybe I can twist Mini’s arm into giving me a loaner for oil changes.

The Topiary Park in Columbus, OH

Have you ever wished you could step inside a piece of artwork? To move about the people portrayed, smell the luscious ripe fruit gently warmed by the sun on a rich wooden table, see the horses’s muscles ripple under their shining coats? Well, you can’t go quite that far, but you can walk among the topiary version of Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Located in the downtown of Columbus, Ohio, the Topiary Park (also known as Old Deaf School Park) was dedicated in 1992 and contains some 67 yew topiaries: 54 humans, 8 boats, three dogs, a monkey, and a cat. I didn’t count them all, but I trust none have scurried away in the night since its inception. It’s a “landscape of a painting of a landscape”, a work of art that references and celebrates art, a living painting. What’s especially striking about recreating this particular art style in topiary is that needles of the yew tree perform a similar function: disparate points of greenery, they come together en masse and provide shape and depth in the same way the distinct dots of color create a pointillist scene.

The rest of the park is no slouch, either, with its careful landscaping, cicadas buzzing from the branches. I was excited to see my first ever cicada exoskeleton here (although the live ones still eluded me), and I got all up in its business. It’s impressive how tightly this discarded casing clings to the bark of a tree, even with no visible leverage. I’m sure I’d feel a little differently about it if I lived in one of those places that sees massive swarms every thirteen years, no one likes a “swarm” unless it’s a “swarm of the world’s cutest puppies” or a “swarm of pizza delivery people each with a pizza more delicious than the last” or a “swarm of money being pumped into your house through the mail slot, turning your living room into a giant cash cage”. Sadly, that kind of swarm has yet to materialize.

Tree Cave at Kalaloch Beach

This summer I realized I still hadn’t made it back to Kalaloch beach to see the legendary tree cave; I’d looked for it on my last excursion but was on the wrong beach entirely, as there are several beaches called Kalaloch beach to the confusion of no one but me, evidently. When yet another photo of it popped up in a NW photography group, I asked if the photographer could be more specific about its location and got “It’s on the beach” as an answer. Gee, thanks. Well nuts to you, lady, now it’s been added to Google Maps and anyone who comes here searching for more information will be glad to know that it’s easiest to park at the Kalaloch campground and take their stairs/ramp down to the beach, and once you’re on the beach, walk north.

Ahem. 

We really wanted to take little Napodog to the beach–he’d been to lakes and rivers but never the ocean, and I wanted him to have that experience.  He loved it. Water that comes rumbling forth in a challenge? Check. Gross dead critters to nibble? Check. Driftwood to pee on? Big check. He was like a little dog shaped machine, pulling us at a high rate of speed up and down the beach to whatever new thing interested him, fiercely fording streams of ocean water, leaping over driftwood, and generally acting much younger than his age. He definitely wasn’t ready to leave when it started pouring rain, which is especially funny because he would always give me the hairiest of eyeballs if I made him go out in the rain to pee at home, but it’s different on the beach, guys

All that, and we finally found that darn tree cave.

Driving the Seward Highway

I’d driven the first stretch of the Seward highway on my excursion to Seven Glaciers, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to drive it again the following day on my impromptu road trip to Seward. The views are absolutely stunning–the Seward highway hugs the winding curves of the Turnagain Arm coastline, each curve revealing a new postcard-worthy photo opportunity. Scores of cars lined the numerous pull-out locations, each person striving to commit this rugged beauty to memory.

Each new part of the road was simply achingly beautiful. Roadside jerky stands suddenly looked majestic with snowcapped mountains rising behind them into low clouds. The same goes for a collapsed barn and the knife shop with the Paul Bunyon size knife planted into the ground out front. Waters sparkled impossibly turquoise from glacial sediments. It was like driving in a centerfold in National Geographic magazine that kept unfolding.

I was excited to see spiky purple lupines studding the sides of the road, and eventually I found a pull off spot where I could examine them more closely and take a few landscape photos. Never have I regretted my lack of photographic skill more than in Alaska. I could only capture a poor shadow of the sweeping vistas, the natural beauty there is simply unbelievable. 

That’s entirely too close, zoom out.

Not far enough, zoom out.

Aaaaah, that’s better.

At the end of the Seward highway lies Seward itself, a small port town of just under three thousand residents. For comparison, Seattle’s football stadium holds some sixty seven thousand. It seemed evident upon visiting that the main industries are fishing, tourism, and tourism fishing, which is when salty sea captains compete to reel in the whopper with the biggest wallet, tales of which will be told beside a roaring fire over pints.

We wandered into some shops, but neither of us saw anything we needed. There was a shop called Mermaid Co that was super cute, though, and if I’d browsed there longer, I probably would have bought something. If I don’t object to the price and I sort of like it, sometimes I will buy something just because I have held it long enough that it feels like it’s mine. I have bought a shirt because it circled the whole of Target with me in the cart twice and I couldn’t leave it behind, now that we had the survivor’s bond and all. This is why the prospect of entering a car dealership is singularly horrifying to me, as I don’t know how many minutes it will take for my brain to accept that my butt has sat in the driver’s seat long enough for me to feel a sense of obligation to buy it–after all, I’ve ground my butt into it, it’s only polite. Anyhow, Jason dragged me out by the arm just in time as I was evaluating some sort of decorative buoy.

The only thing I can tell you about this dog is that he’s unhappy about whatever’s going on in front of his nose.

We ended up stopping into the aquarium (more on that later) and buying some coffee and chocolates from Sweet Darlings (a shop visited by the Obamas on their trip to Seward in 2015). We picnicked in the car,  looking out on the steely waters of Resurrection Bay and gnawing on the leftover pork chop from our previous night’s dinner with a side of flaming hot cheetos picked up from a gas station. That’s all fine dining is ever missing, really, the spicy cheese note. It was particularly fun to eat those notoriously red treats and a pork chop with my bare hands in a brand new car that wasn’t mine, full of self satisfaction from a successful adventure. Every decision I’d made led to this greasy, pork choppy moment, in this brand new car, with this amazing view, with my favorite person, and it was perfect in both its deliciousness and ridiculousness. 

On our way back to Anchorage, I had to stop for photos with this giant eagle because, well, of course I did. If they carve it, I will come. If it’s not too far out of the way.

 

And then, just beyond the eagle, I spotted a moose eating in a field. I set up the moose alarm code we’d established earlier. “MOOSE! MOOSE! MOOOOOOOOOSE!”, the two short blasts and one long indicating in primitive moorse code that the moose is female, on the right, and there appears to be parking available. Jason dutifully pulled over and we dashed to the viewing platform. There she was, all knobs and bumps and awkward proportions, picking her way through the field. I still haven’t managed to get that toddler size camera lens I yearned for in San Juan and briefly lamented my inability to see her very well with my camera or with my eyes, when I came up with the idea of mashing the binoculars up to my camera lens and seeing if that brought the moose any closer. Surprisingly, it sort of worked! 

 

This mini trip really cemented in me the desire to come back to Alaska and see more of the interior of the state, maybe after I’ve upped my photography skills. Or maybe, just maybe, practicing in Alaska is the only way for me to get good at photographing Alaska. There’s really only one way to find out.

Baked Alyeska: Seven Glaciers Restaurant

Occasionally while on a trip, I will forget where I am. It happens in museums most frequently, it’s as though in the process of taking in new information and linking it to things I already knew, some other recent stuff has to be shoved out temporarily. Goodbye, plane ride! Goodbye name of the street my airbnb is on! Goodbye, gas station sandwich! The important stuff comes back, such as if I’d already thought of a good joke to tell about the sandwich (because what is writing and specifically blogging but constantly immediately acknowledging to yourself how clever you are and making a note to tell everyone about it later?). At least, I think the important stuff comes back later. How would I know if it didn’t? I’m sure this spacial forgetfulness also has to do with subject matter as well–if you’re in a museum display of dinosaurs, it doesn’t really matter whether that display is in Colorado or Wisconsin or Utah. You could, in essence, be anywhere looking at dinosaurs. 

Alaska doesn’t ever let visitors forget that they are in Alaska. You wake up in the morning and open your curtains and a mountain range that screams Alaska slaps you in the face. Maybe when you’re walking to continental breakfast in the morning, there will be a musician in the lobby playing the 2013 smash hit “Let it go” from the movie Frozen, and even though you’ve never asked anybody or done even a second of preliminary research, you know in your heart it’s because all of Alaska, the frozen state, loves Frozen more than anywhere else. Also because without a gold rush, trends can take a little longer getting up there. Either way, ALASKA. From there, you could have lunch at a pub called Moose Tooth. Alaska.  Maybe at some point in the car, a moose will just amble across the street directly in front of your hood and into the woods and you’ll hiss “get the camera get the camera GET THE CAMER–goddamnit”. Alaska.  A shop isn’t a shop in Alaska if it doesn’t have a stuffed bear looming somewhere. Neither is a hotel lobby. I haven’t checked and thus have no basis on which to claim this but I feel almost certain that in any Alaska dinosaur museum, there will also be a bear. Potentially fighting the dinosaur. No matter what, you will at all times know that you’re currently in Alaska.

I definitely didn’t forget that I was in Alaska at any point during my drive to or time at the Alyeska resort, what with the aforementioned moose road incident, the mini museum in the lobby of the Alyeska, and its giant grizzly statue staring menacingly at me through the window. The one time, the sole time I forgot was when I was browsing in the Alyeska shop, and one of the shopkeepers half shrieked “Ewww! A mosquito!”. I kept my mirth to myself, but on the inside, I thought it a severe overreaction to a minor pest. After all, I grew up in Wisconsin, right? Where we grow ’em so big the locals joke about them being the state bird? Pfft, I could defend against them in a dead sleep. They’re annoying, but not a big deal. 

We made our purchases from this young woman ten minutes later (a button up shirt for Jason and some Alaskan unguents for my face), and she brought the mosquito incident up, not because she was embarrassed and wanted to explain the earlier shriek, I think, but because a mosquito biting her head was extraordinarily noteworthy. “All this over a mosquito? Do they not have Game of Thrones?” I wondered. Later, while sipping some cold beverages and waiting for the tram, we started poking one another and whispering “EW! A mosquito!” giggling maniacally. Then one drifted by. Or, rather, we drifted, shocked, in the wake of its passage, the slow, meaty flap of its wing slapping at the air, demanding to be borne upward, and physics too frightened not to comply. An Alaskan mosquito can be properly described as “husky”, as in, an average one could carry away and fully drain a husky child, leaving only a husky husk. Alaska.

Properly chastised for our ignorant mockeries, we rode the tram to the top of the mountain to have dinner at Seven Glaciers. What can I say? I like eating on mountains when the option is available.  Alaska had its stamp all over this restaurant as well–Alaskan crabs, halibut that was caught that morning on the restaurant’s proverbial doorstep, incorporating local flavors like birch syrup. We ordered half the menu and ate until we were fit to burst.  During the course of the courses, our server mentioned that today had been a particularly good day, in that she’d seen a bear crossing the road that morning. I don’t think it had occurred to me until that point that it’s possible that every single Alaskan has a bear story. I deeply regret my missed opportunities for bear-related lines of questioning up until that point, but I hope to never miss another, and, in fact, started almost immediately making up for lost time.

My server’s other bear story was an older tale involving the restaurant itself, and the time an intrepid bear broke in, ate pounds of butter, and was caught in a butter coma. By viewing security footage, they were able to determine that in order to get inside, the bear had to stand up on her back legs and shimmy sideways down a hallway, culminating with an “I’m a little teapot” side crunch to leverage the door handle. Authorities were able to get the bear out and away, but evidently a bear who has discovered the wonders of butter is difficult to dissuade.  If a bear took a liking to my house enough to break inside, I would just go ahead and deed the house to the bear, there’s no feeling safe in there in your underwear ever again.

We ended up bringing back a goodly portion of our entrees back with us down the mountain, eyes peeled for hungry bears and mosquitoes alike. The doorman didn’t have a bear story.

Next stop, Alaska!

I had been itching to visit Alaska for years. In high school, we read James A. Michener’s Alaska, learning about the northernmost frontier state’s wild history: adventure, betrayal, giant bears, it had everything. I could hardly be described as an outdoorswoman (frankly, it would be a stretch to call me an “outofbedwoman”) but I still wanted to see the state’s rugged beauty for myself. So when a flight deal for a weekend getaway too good to miss appeared in my inbox, I smashed the buy button without any hesitation whatsoever–I still would like to road trip up through Canada into Alaska someday, but in the meanwhile, this was an opportunity for a small taste of what this giant state has to offer.

As it was such a short trip, I was leery of booking too many things to do–not because tour activities are shockingly expensive and I’m cheap (though they are and I am, I was excited about the idea of riding a dog sled on a glacier until I saw it cost five times what my round trip flight cost and then I fairly well gagged) but because spending my trip going from scheduled activity to scheduled activity didn’t seem in the spirit of Alaskan adventure. So bright and early in the morning, I flung open my blackout curtains and stepped outside to see what Alaska had to show me.

First, I saw some pretty explicit instructions about where my urine was unwanted, which, frankly, raises far too many unanswerable questions for me. Was it happening so often that they needed an edict? If so, why and what is the lure to that specific spot? Is there some sort of Tinkle Bandit on the loose in Anchorage? Or was it just preventative in case someone started whizzing willy-nilly all over various walls and structures and the building owners are only particular about that one area? Who will penetrate these ammonia mysteries for me? Is this yellow journalism?

Jason and I wandered the streets, browsing shops, buying fine art, though in general, neither of us had much use for bone knives, animal pelts, or silver coins struck with the face of Sarah Palin. I might have made an exception on that last if there was a little speech bubble coming out of her mouth that said “I can see Russia from my house!” but sadly, they were not catering to people like me, which is actually good, because if they did they’d probably go out of business. 

Of course I rubbed the bear’s tummy, who am I to turn down some good luck or free germs?

l-r: Raven Stealing the Moon and Stars, (smug) Eagle and Giant Clam

After I’d had enough shopping, we found ourselves outside of Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals and decided to rent a couple of cruisers and hit the trail. They had a surprising variety of bikes, and part of me really, really wanted to try out one of the electric bikes, but for some reason, I’m reticent to let people know in person just how very little muscle tone I have, whereas I’m just fine blasting that information all over the internet. What I’m saying is, Hannibal Lecter might be annoyed at carving off my fat cap, but he’d be thrilled by my overall tenderness. You could cut me with a spoon. Not a grapefruit spoon, a wooden one. Anyway, I wasn’t about to admit that to Pablo or his representative. Only you, my pets. Only you.

The Tony Knowles coastal trail runs along the Cook inlet for eleven miles, and is supposedly an excellent place to see wildlife, including moose and bear. The person who rented us the bikes quickly explained what to do if we saw either, but I’m actually glad we didn’t end up startling any wildlife, as I’m certain any knowledge of what to do when I encountered a bear would fly out of my head the second I was actually encountering a bear. What I did encounter were a number of other people scattered along the trail, and almost every single one of them smiled and said hello. As a Seattleite (or as close as I’m ever going to get), this was shocking to me. People do not greet one another here. Neighbors walking past one another on their way to/from the mailbox will suddenly both find some interesting point in the distance to stare at fixedly, or will hurriedly pull out their phones and pretend they have urgent text message business to attend to only to quickly slip it back in their pocket when the danger period of potential human interaction has passed. Smiling? Saying hello? Eye contact? Where am I, 1986?

I saw a seagull strutting out there like he knew he was a very important bird, indeed, and it filled me with an inexplicable joy.

This is the first magpie I’ve ever seen, and I was probably more thrilled than any non-elderly person should be, but I couldn’t help myself. It was just gorgeous, its feathers flashing iridescent and blue, its  squeaky little noises. It’s backit here, so you’ll have to take my word for it. When I first looked them up and read they were also in Washington/Oregon/California, I was surprised I hadn’t seen one before, and then I looked at their range map and realized they only live in a whole swath of the States I haven’t spent much time in.

Do you think the moose take the suggestion to slow down? I’m not very familiar with their general lawabidingness so as to hazard a guess, and the people at the bike shop didn’t really address that point.

Other than the pretty gnarly-on-a-bike-especially-if-you’re-not-fully-comfortable-on-a-bike hill between Pablo’s Bikes and Elderberry Park, the coastal trail was fairly easy even for someone as non-exercisey as myself. No, I didn’t bike the whole thing, but I was out there for a few hours and had an excellent time, aided by the aforementioned lack of bears. On our way back to the hotel, we grabbed lunch and swung into the Qiviut Shop, where they sell musk ox yarn goods, which is claimed to be warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. I touched their little sample and it was wonderfully soft, but I didn’t inquire as to their cost as they were far too fine for someone like me who tends to take her scarf off, ball it up, and throw it up onto a closet shelf, potentially to never be seen again.

Man, this guy’s work is everywhere. I wonder if a coastal city doesn’t feel it’s “made it” until they have a Wyland?

There’s just something about this Mr. Prime Beef van that’s deeply unsettling. It’s not just the bloody, meaty skull, it’s the way the i gives said bloody, meaty skull an eyeball that stares at you in agony. Something like that.

Early summer blossoms? Goddamn have I been sitting on this post for a long time! Here’s a current photo of Alaska for comparison:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll save my Canada-Alaska road trip for the summer, my years in Washington have made me too weak for most kinds of snow-based adventure, much less an Alaskan snow-based adventure.