Category The Great Outdoors

A closer look at 2018: An Oregon Weekend

As I’ve talked about before, Navani is from Eugene, Oregon, which meant a road trip to meet her to decide if I wanted to buy her and another when it was time to bring her home. Jason had already gone with me on a couple of trips to meet horses I didn’t buy, and so he elected not to come this time. I could’ve done it in a one day there-and-back trip, but I also didn’t have the kind of time pressure that would make that exhausting round trip necessary. Instead, I drove to Portland the night before which was its own ordeal (driving Seattle to Portland on a Friday afternoon: just don’t do it) and stayed in my favorite hotel for immediate highway access: the Red Lion on the River Jantzen Beach. The hotel itself is fine,  but really it’s that ability to immediately launch myself onto the highway from, essentially, the parking lot that makes it my go-to for this kind of waypoint trip. 

I left early enough in the morning to allow for a couple of stops along the way and still be on time, ideally a bit early. One of the horse-buying tips I learned from the more seasoned people in my circle is that you should try to be early enough that the seller can’t hide or otherwise mask the horse’s behavior. Very high-tempered horses might be worked hard beforehand or even administered a sedative. Horses that are hard to catch in the pasture or are cinchy are already brought in and saddled up. Turning up a little early gives you a better opportunity to observe more about the horse. Hence, blasting straight out of the hotel parking lot onto the highway instead of grabbing breakfast at some amazing Portland restaurant. 

Instead, my first stop was to Sesame Donuts in Sherwood, where I purchased their namesake donut plus a pumpkin spice donut, and a fancy latte that was definitely seasonally flavored, I just cannot remember exactly what those flavors were. The sesame seeds did impart an interesting nuttiness to their cake donut base and really helps fill in that gap in the breakfast spectrum where you aren’t in the mood for a bagel but you still want to get a bunch of sesame seeds stuck in your teeth.

My other pre-Navani stop was at Grove of the States, located off French Prairie Rest area near Wilsonville. Here, they have (or had) the state tree of every tree in the United States along with a plaque featuring the state and the tree name. The grove was initially planted in the mid 1960s to honor Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act (which I got to learn a bit more about at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center when I visited there last spring),  and its creation involved a visit from the attorney general of every state in the nation. Unfortunately, it was planted “in symbolic geographical locations” (I presume in the shape of the United States) without accounting for the long term space and light needs of these non native specimen trees and as a result many of the original plantings have failed over the ensuing fifty years.  

To ensure that the symbolic project lives on for future generations to enjoy, a grove restoration project began in 2016.  Now, new saplings strive upward among the beautiful mature trees of Grove of the States. It’s wonderful to have such a fine place to stretch your legs at a rest stop. I hadn’t known before that several states share the same tree as their state tree–I don’t know why I assumed that each state had to choose a unique state tree and if their favorite was drafted already, too bad, Vermont. Maple is taken.  

I see now that my home state of Wisconsin has taken the initiative of designating a state pastry, which sounds exactly like something my people would do. I can only hope the rest of the states follow suit and then I’ll be able to go to Bakery of the States. That’s how America is going to achieve unity: every single state pastry mashed together in my stomach like the mighty globe of fat, carbohydrates, and sugar I knew it could be.

After meeting Navani and calling everyone to tell them about the horse I was going to buy, I was wiped out, so I drove back to my convenient highway side hotel, ate the other half of the sandwich I’d bought on the harrowing drive there the night before, and passed out.  The next morning, I immediately headed over to Ken’s Artisan Bakery, where the line was already out the door at 8:30am.

I wasn’t bothered by the existence of a line itself but rather people’s shocking behavior in the line, specifically the family behind me, the adult members of which said and did nothing when their 6 or 7ish year old son pressed his face and hands against the glass and then smeared himself like human butter across the entirety of the case, in the style of a Japanese novel, right to left, shoving past me and several other people to make certain he got it all, because nothing makes a pastry look more appetizing than through a film of oily secretions. This child then attempted to scale the structure because surely nothing is more loadbearing than the thin glass on the front of a pastry case, it’s probably the same kind of glass you can stand out on over the Grand Canyon, or that they use to contain the more venomous snakes. It was at this point the dad took decisive action, by picking up his coughing baby and hoisting her completely over the glass barrier, presumably because the glass was no longer serving its function as a clear window to the food beyond. A little known fact is that this glass performs a secondary sanitary role, acting as a physical barrier between the mouth  of the customer (and/or sack of crap strapped to its waist) and unpackaged food so as to reduce the risk of contamination. It cannot provide this function when you lift your baby over the glass to cough directly on the bread. Why not just cough into my open mouth, save us some time? 

I made my selections away from where the coughing action went down and ended up with a couple of marionberry croissants, a maple pecan croissant, and two canneles, since I knew I’d be home by afternoon to share with Jason. Of those items, the marionberry croissants were a standout, the fat juicy berries studding the flaky pastry and making it a luscious pie-like experience.  Plus anything sprinkled with pearl sugar earns bonus points in my book. 

A thick fog blanketed the road near Sauvie Island  that morning, and when I saw a sign advertising a pumpkin patch, I had to pull off to check out what a field of pumpkins looked like in that much atmosphere. 

I don’t know how this ATM works, I assume you tell the witches your pin number and then money shoots up into the cauldron. 

Everything looks super spooky in this much fog. Everything including this cow train, which felt like a Twilight Zone episode where you’d find out that these are the cars the cows, who are now in charge of society, use to cart humans to the abattoir.  Bovine University.

From Sauvie Island, I drove to St Helens, also known as Halloweentown. Halloweentown festivities were in full swing, and I had a blast getting my photo taken in the upside down photo studio, checking out all of the awesome vintage Halloween stuff at the 2CS vendor mall, and catching up with my friend Kat while I went ham buying fancy candles and chocolates at Woodland Cottage Handpicked

From St. Helens, I drove to Longview, the place where I’d once attempted to eat the largest cinnamon roll in the world (with help!). Longview has a series of squirrel bridges up throughout town  to help prevent car and squirrel related accidents. The first was called the Nutty Narrows and it was installed in 1963 for the cost of a thousand dollars.  Every time I have occasion to come through town, I find my way to at least one squirrel bridge to see if I can observe it in action and each time I have been disappointed by no-show squirrels. What I’d really love to see are some webcams monitoring the comings and goings of the bridge, which seems like it’d be even easier than booking Cherry Poppin’ Daddies for their annual SquirrelFest which is in fact a real thing and not something I just made up, where you can “Enjoy: no car/squirrel fatalities!” Thanks, will do!

I walked alongside Lake Sacajawea, enjoying the sunshine, petting dogs, and playing Pokemon until my cell phone battery got low enough that it threatened my ability to listen to Spotify the entire way home, as in their wisdom, Google’s decision to remove the aux jack and route sound through the USB port means that I cannot charge my phone and listen to music at the same time.  All these phone manufacturers arbitrarily removing the aux jack really jacked up my road trip flow, where I want to use battery-heavy GPS and listen to music or podcasts for hours at a time. I like to keep the phone plugged in to a charging source so that I don’t have to worry about the state of the battery and, in the event of some kind of incident, I know that I have a full charge regardless of my location. That’s a thing I can’t do with my Pixel 2.  I can listen to music in my car now if I have a usb-c to aux adaptor (they’re so easy to lose, I asked Santa for three, he brought me one, and I’ve lost it already) and an aux cable, but now that phone aux jacks are going away, they’re going away in newer models of cars, too. The last loaner I had from MINI, I couldn’t connect my phone and the car physically at all, and I don’t feel great about allowing a rental car access to my phone. 

You know what else isn’t a joke? Facing a road trip with no music. #bringbacktheauxjack

A Closer Look at 2018: River tubing in Leavenworth, pet pigs, and wigs and guns

Last summer I finally went river tubing for the first time. A friend rented a bus and a bunch of us went to Leavenworth Outdoor Center to rent tubes and spend a lazy afternoon on the water. It started off…a little sketchy when the driver of our shuttle from the outdoor center to the river almost immediately started making gross sex jokes, which turns out can tend to make a person feel a little vulnerable when they’re sitting in the back of a van wearing only a swimsuit.

Things improved when we made it to the Icicle creek and introduced asses to tubes. I was a little nervous about tubing at first as one of my other friends told me about a near-death experience she had river tubing, how fast it happened and how helpless she felt, and all it takes is one story to get my brain spinning. I was seriously analyzing my swimming skills in the days leading up to the event, and when we got to the creek I nearly laughed in relief when I saw we’d be floating in approximately six inches of water. No doubt, people can drown in that amount of water, but it wasn’t the mariana trench underneath my tube I’d been envisioning–as long as I could stand up, I’d be fine. We were instructed to each bring “a bucket of sunscreen” so I dutifully slathered up and successfully managed to avoid burns which means that (a) I am finally an adult and (b) being an adult means being vaguely ghostlike and greasy from head to toe. Being an adult doesn’t mean that I’m too mature to learn something new: for example, that day I learned that those insulated canteens’ greatest purpose is to hold frozen slushy beverages at the perfect temperature for hours. HOURS. The biggest downfall of any frozen drink is how fast it melts and becomes mediocre, and this completely changes the game. Aside from our mobile snack and drink stations (we rented an extra tube just to hold a cooler, being an adult also means that you’ve learned to keep an appropriate amount of snacks handy), we got to chat and relax and enjoy the scenery on the river, while actively paddling to avoid being clotheslined by tree branches, and at which our group was mostly successful. There are also a lot of people-watching opportunities on the river, with people riding down on pool floaties and air mattresses with their dogs and tinny speakers bumping The Weeknd. As the Icicle merged with the Wenatchee river, the water got wider, swifter, and deeper, and there were a lot more types of river craft to navigate around. The most challenging part of the day was finding a place to change before and after–there’s a restroom at the bar next door but they probably aren’t thrilled about a line of soggy people waiting for their two stalls. 

After dinner at Munchen Haus (their mustard selection and that vat of apple cider sauerkraut are top notch) we attempted to shop around town, and everything was either closed or about to close…at 6pm at the peak of summer tourist season. I’d say I don’t understand how any of these businesses remain in business, but during the four hours a day they deign to sell goods they’ve got people packed in their shoppes nose to armpit and they have three solid tourist seasons with summer turning to Oktoberfest turning to six month Christmas. They’re doing fine, and I’m just bitter that I couldn’t get any pear cinnamon caramel from Schocolat.  

On the way back home, we made our mandatory stop at The Alps, a two story candy shop (it’s on the outskirts of town, thereby escaping the designation “shoppe”). In addition to every candy you’ve ever heard of and several you haven’t, they sell preserves, hot sauces, unusual sodas, and horse figurines in case you needed something to look at while eating candy. As is usual for me, I go in and have a look around and don’t end up buying anything because it’s like my hedonism is on a switch and it can’t extend to the car ride home from an activity.  


My orchid rebloomed for the first time in spite of me not knowing how to trim them back. I have since trimmed them back and I feel pretty confident that I have, in fact, killed one of the stalks. But the other one is going strong!



One of my neighbors got a pig. Her name is Lily-June and I’ve seen her out on walks a couple of times but a sighting is exceedingly rare. I was out pulling weeds from the new grass when she walked by and so I finally got my opportunity to make a proper introduction. She found my new grass very tasty.


The Japanese garden at the arboretum. My behavior this day was atrocious and now I have this lovely photo to remind me that I can do better. 


I love the color shifts in these leaves.



Well? Someone listen to that stepladder and call the police!


My inlaws sent me the gorgeous bouquet above for my birthday and the gorgeous bouquet below was for our 5th wedding anniversary. 


I gave Africa her first-ever allover bath and her coat took on this amazing metallic sheen. Afterward, I took her into the front pasture to graze on the long rich grass there as a reward, and instead of putting her head down and going to town on food like I expected, she got the zoomies and thundered around. Showers make everyone feel good!


The trading card section proves as enticing to Jason today as it was in his childhood. The selection of cards at Subspace Comics and my love of period dramas has broadened the range of cards he buys, and for a while, he bought a Downton Abbey pack every time we went in to the store. He ended up getting a couple of special cards, one with a swatch of fabric that was used to create one of Cora’s dresses, and the other being this small Sir Richard Carlisle on brown cardstock. I wholeheartedly approve of how Jason displays it.


Virtually next door to Subspace Comics is Katsu Burger, another favorite of mine. They introduced a katsu dog and I tried their spicy garlic one, but I was nonplussed about this tube of crusty deep fried meat and elected not to finish it. I had a boss who was nuts for those taco time deep fried meat and bean paste burritos and I bet he would’ve loved this because it’s the same kind of odd crispy-squishy texture. I don’t see it on the menu anymore, and I’m not mourning its loss. I am kind of sad they stopped selling the super umami wagyu burger though.


We almost made more trips to Portland this year than into Seattle, and a few of them involved a stop at Powell’s books, where I spotted one of the great book titles of all time.

I know going after spelling is nit-picky but this is a bookstore. Also, I was just moving through this section on my way back to the mythology section and the misspelling caught my eye, I’m not getting divorced, separated, or interested in being a good enough parent.


I made it into the Screen Door Cafe three times this year and I still haven’t been able to stray from their fried chicken and biscuit sandwich. It’s so good that tears spring to my eyes on my first bite, every time. That tender, buttery biscuit! That perfectly fried peppery chicken smothered in even spicier, creamy sausage gravy! It’s decadent and always precisely what I need to power my day. The cheddar grits really benefit from a healthy dose of crystal hot sauce, and then I really benefit from an antacid tablet because being an adult also means not being able to eat this much spicy rich food without consequence anymore.


When driving somewhere on I-5, my favorite landmark south of Tacoma was the building with a giant banner proclaiming “$1 Chinese Food”. Even my sense of self-preservation is too strong to personally experience the kind of quality you get when you’re paying a dollar for your meal but I did enjoy reading the reviews of more foolish people. Whenever  I saw $1 Chinese Food, I knew I was either off on an adventure or I was almost home from one, and when that banner came down, I knew I was going to have to find a new landmark in order to preserve that feeling. Enter WGS Guns, or as Jason and I know it, “Wigs & Guns” because that’s what the sign looks like it says when you glance at it from the road. WIGS AND GUNS! Sounds like an event I once planned.

A closer look at 2018: the Frye, land shopping, tiny house, hairless kittens, and my garden

My friend Felix maintains a blog that he has updated daily since 2002. I love that he can drill down into any day of any year of the last seventeen years of his life. I can only assume that now that he has this incredible timeline resource, he will never need an in-depth alibi to prove he was falsely accused of murder, because it’s something he is completely, utterly prepared for. Maybe too prepared.

I can’t really do that with my blog. I used to post a lot more frequently when I was on LJ, but when I moved to my own domain, the sort of big-emotion confessional dear diary type thing I was publishing just felt less and less appropriate. And then for a few years work-wise I moved into a more visible place on the internet and talking about my daily life felt even less appropriate, and in that time period everyone got a lot more interconnected online, so I narrowed my focus to trips and primarily out of town trips so I didn’t have to deal with the ethical conundrum of publishing photos of my friends’ faces along with their real names and, like, photos of their homes and quotes from conversations they assumed were private. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would encourage people to continue to be my friend. 

But as I was going through the photos I took in 2018, I realized there was so much that happened that I didn’t want to just disappear into the mental archives. I was going to post them all in a megapost, but I took all these photos and am therefore the most interested in them, and even I couldn’t scroll all the way down the page without feeling like I wanted to die. So instead, I’m divvying it up into several reasonable posts. Because as it turns out, a year is a long time.

 

Jason, Tristan and I went to the Frye Art Museum and ogled some art last January. The fabric in this painting is so beautifully rendered it blows my mind. 

The texture. THE TEXTURE. Look at that filmy tulle, that wrinkled satin, all with proper weight and drape.  Those frothy feathers in her hat make me want to light my art supplies on fire.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the subjects, I’d like to postulate that as the years passed and their marriage cooled, the gap between the portraits grew ever wider, eventually accommodating a third portrait featuring nothing but the table’s spare leaf and the family cat. I’ll further assume that one is in the hands of a private collector, and I’ve taken the liberty of recreating it here:

 

Cat photo by Nick Savchenko

 

I felt like both of these paintings are prime candidates for really good jokes but so far all I’ve been able to come up with are mediocre jokes.

 


 

Earlier in the year, I got on a real tear about looking at purchasing a larger property, spurred on by the arrival of the annual Puget Sound Special Olympics dream house raffle. For those of you outside of their mailing area, this raffle combines the heady, wholesome feel goodliness of giving to charity with the loin-rumpling allure of gambling and for your however-many-hundred dollar ticket, you could win page after glossy page of prizes. Dream vacations, luxury sedans, electronics…the grand prize was a waterfront mansion in a very ritzy part of Kirkland with a pool, hot tub, and a dock, OR you could choose to take four million dollars in cash instead. I did a little computer chair sleuthing and was able to determine exactly which home it was through satellite imagery because there’s only so much lakefront property in Kirkland with a pool  (because even the rich think an outdoor pool in the pacific northwest is an extravagance), and the shape of the pool itself is unique. Address in hand, I was able to get a better look inside from a time it had previously been on the market and literally none of that matters because if I won, I was obviously going to take the four million dollars. Obviously. It doesn’t matter if I liked or didn’t like the countertops, or if it seemed like the neighbors could see if I was in the hot tub, or if it ever gets a weird smell because it’s on the lake, or if I have to do some real self-reflection about whether I’m a living-in-a-mansion-on-the-waterfront kind of person, no. None of it matters. If I won, I would be in such a rush to take the money that when they called to let me know I won the grand prize, I would have already been there, taken the check, and all they’d hear is a ghost on the wind saying “I choooooseee the moooneeyyy” by the time they finished saying the word “prize”. On the phone. And then they’d hear my tires squealing in my rush to get to my financial institution to get it in my account before someone can strongarm me into taking the house because I choose the money

I started thinking about what I would buy with four million dollars (approximately 2 million dollars post taxes, the government would not want anyone’s loins getting too rumpled), and the conclusion that I came to was that I would buy land somewhere, a good horse property, and build a home, a barn, and a gothic cathedral of an arena. And then I realized you don’t need four million dollars to do that (except that last bit), so Jason and I started looking at properties. This place in North Bend wasn’t suitable for what we’d have to do to afford it but whoever ends up with that view is a lucky, lucky person. And they definitely shouldn’t just dump their horse crap in the stream like the owner at the time was doing because come on.

After checking out this place, we stayed at a nearby tiny house for the weekend to see what it was like and if we found the lifestyle suitable. The answer? Hard maybe. I could do it for a while (say, if we were traveling in it or visiting our retreat in it or living in it while we were building a new non-tiny home on our retreat) but I think the lack of personal space would be challenging for me and negotiating with a ladder for any middle of the night business isn’t something I’d be willing to do long-term. I also spent half of the first night overheated* and nervous about opening a window because what if a bear just happens to wander by and catch the scent of hot, salty human meat laying on a poorly defended slab, presumed easily reachable by bears? What I am saying is, I am the consummate outdoorsperson, precisely the sort of person who has business buying a parcel of land adjacent to wilderness. 

*And if I was that hot in the loft in February, how damn hot is it going to be up there in August?


My urgency with this idea has cooled, so we’re no longer spending one day per weekend at an open house or two, but I still open my realtor’s emails and casually browse plots of land. It could be such a good way to establish a friend-based community of slightly-larger-than-tiny homes and/or a way to be with my own horse on my own property that I can’t let the idea go. 


 

This is Angus, who was born into a litter of hairless kittens right around the time Poppy found her new home with my farrier. Angus had lots of curly red hair for a hairless kitten and he was very curious and cute. 

 


Two years ago, I planted a boatload of tulips in a patch of my landscaping. They came up great, and I was emboldened to plant more last year, with two colors interspersed in an organic, flowing shape in front of my house. This looked spectacular and so this year I bought and planted two hundred more bulbs including hyacinths and some others to fill in some other areas of the front yard and really make it scream SPRING. All the green moss on the roof would’ve coordinated nicely but sometimes glorious hobbitiness has to be sacrificed for the greater good of not needing to buy a new roof.

Last year at Halloween, my friends Daniel and Rebecca thoughtfully gave me some bulbs for dark purple/black tulips and their color was absolutely luscious and a true pleasure to behold on my patio, and I hope they come back.


This was, without a doubt, the most spesscell sandwich I had the entire year. Maybe in my life.

 


I haven’t traditionally grown the same things in my garden every year. For a while, I was focused on rare seeds and unusual varietals for unique tastes, then I tried to see how much sustenance I could grow in this relatively limited space. Both of these have had their successes and failures– the honeyberry bushes are just now starting to mature and make an amount of berries I can harvest and cook with and I’m excited to be able to do more experimentation with the flavor this summer. For failures, the moon and stars melons looked beautiful but it doesn’t get hot or sunny enough here to ripen them, I got busy and never ended up making marshmallows with the marshmallow root, and I grew and ate so much zucchini that I grew myself a zucchini intolerance and I’m pretty salty about it. Because of said saltiness, in 2018 I decided to grow only for beauty and the joy of flowers, and that’s part of how I ended up with a raised bed full of dahlias. The other part is because I went plant shopping with Emily at both Molbak’s and Flower World, and we both enable one another to buy far too many plants, which is definitely how I ended up with a peony plant so large it barely fit on Flower Worlds’ largest cart.

Until that peony bloomed, I feared every day that it wouldn’t, as I’ve had that happen with peonies I’ve attempted to grow previously due to lack of sunlight where I’d planted them. I didn’t even know what color this plant’s blooms would be and so I hovered over the buds every time I had occasion to be out in that part of the yard. The gentle release as the bloom sighed open mimicked my relief at having found a suitable part of the yard for them. Their creamy white petals with a splash of scarlet fringing toward the center were exquisite, as was their fragrance. 

I really got a lot of pleasure out of gardening this year. The dahlias kept such a heavy bloom that I was able to pick mini bouquets to brighten up various nooks of the house all summer and even into fall. I could’ve picked larger bouquets but I liked to be out among these huge clumps of flowers out on the beds and observe the ecosystem I’d created and the inhabitants who moved in, including a garter snake we named Hermes and, later in the year, some of Hermes’ children.


 

A surprise to my garden this year was this borage plant, the seeds of which had been part of an engagement party “grow your own tea” kit gift from my friend Beth, whose privacy I’ve probably egregiously violated more than anyone on my blog by reminiscing about all of the things we got up to during that first tumultuous year we knew one another and became very close friends, living abroad in Taipei. I planted them after she gave them to me, and they grew vigorously that first year, and grew back even more vigorously the second year, popping up from cracks in the cement and in entirely new planters. Last year there were none, so my imagine my surprise to see this spiky stalk emerging from the mint pot this year. The year that Beth died.

I feel a gutteral howl inside me whenever I confront the thought. At the loss, at the rage that comes in to fill the void. My friend Beth is dead. I’m so hot with anger and despair. I’m angry at the injustice that someone as good as Beth is gone, that surely if there were some…force guiding the lives of humanity they could find some way to spare the life of the woman who wore herself ragged caring for the sick and dying, who spent her life concerned with the needs of those less fortunate than herself. And oh, but I’m angry with Beth, too, for pushing everyone away, for being too proud to let anyone care for her, at her reticence to get care lest her coworkers discover she’s sick, for insisting she was fine and that no one pay her any mind while she was slipping away. Because damn it, she fooled me. I never thought she wouldn’t pull through, reasoning that I knew she was sick but if she was really sick she wouldn’t keep pushing me away and now she’s gone and here I am, knowing full well that I did not do anything to help my friend Beth before she died. I have to live with that.

I cried when the borage appeared.

 

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.