Quebec City

“Bonjour! Hello! Hi!” – all acceptable ways to greet someone in Quebec City, as told to us by many, many locals. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, said no blogger ever. Ha! A rainy day off will inspire you…

We wanted to do a weekend trip to Canada while here in Vermont and Quebec won out over Montreal as recommended by others – it just sounded more to our taste: low key, walkable, on the water, historic, nice people who don’t mind if you don’t speak French. It was about a five hour drive from our current home base in Vermont, so I took the afternoon off and we headed north, passports in hand.

Upon arriving at our hotel, the Manoir Victoria we were told they had good news and bad news for us: they had overbooked BUT they were putting us up in the super-fancy imposing landmark Le Chateau Frontenac hotel for the night. Just a 1/2 mile or so away, we nonetheless took up their offer of a free cab ride (the cabby laughed at us for not walking) as we had our bags, were tired etc. First, though, we got a recommendation for a nearby parking lot where we could park our very large truck–only about 30 bucks for two nights in the old city, so not bad.

We loved the IDEA of staying in the Frontenac but in the end, it was a bit too crowded, touristy and impersonal for us. We really appreciated our smaller, more personal hotel – and the fact that they more than made good on the overbooking error. We did enjoy taking some pics in front of the Frontenac the next day – tourist style. 

As far as itinerary for our one full day, it was pretty simple-eat and walk.

The walking first. There is lots to see in the old city, and we were lucky with great weather. Just soaking up the sounds of the French and immersing yourself in hundreds of years of history is a treat. I feel like I finally got an in-your-face explanation of why the French and British hated each other that hitherto  I’d only experienced “up close” in the movie Master & Commander (that Ben makes me watch again and again.) We found a couple of good walking routes online (e.g. here), and referred to them occasionally as we just did a loop around the old city.

From our hotel room

Sleepy-eyed in Rue Saint-Jean

A little spit and polish for the Fresque du Petit-Champlain

La Basilique-Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Quebec. I never appreciate my Catholic upbringing more than when walking with confidence in to admire a beautiful church.

Fall is everywhere

Fortifications – and me!

The loop continued around to the Parliament building, the “Plains of Abraham” – site of THE battle that ended French rule, but not presence! And an effort to do a little antique browsing.

I thought the Fontaine de Tourny was just mesmerizing. The story of its relocation from France (where it won a gold medal in the 1855 Paris World’s Fair) is fascinating. Google it.

Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy.

Canadian heroes are everywhere.

Rock by rock, just like the old days. A UNESCO World Heritage site, construction projects were everywhere. Many of them are reminders of war.

Location, location, location

Stunning artwork on the Place Royal, with the docked Queen Mary 2 in the background

Just one unique example of the THOUSANDS of tourists like us, capturing their visit to a picturesque place

And to the eating…. We had a bit of a time finding a place the first night as by the time we moved hotels it was almost nine. And the first place we sought out (via Yelp) was closed and out of business when we got there. I am torn between making reservations and going with the flow on trips like this, as either can work well or backfire. Our experience the first night led me to make a reservation for night two at Patente et Machin in the St. Roch neighborhood (walkable from Old City, but we took an Uber back.) and I was glad I did as it was a delish meal that got us out of the old city and into an adjacent neighborhood.I found it in NYT 36 hours in Quebec City. We also enjoyed breakfast at Le Cochon Dingue and crispy time at Sapristi, both in the Old City.

Though at times we were literally overrun by crowds of tourists (with selfie sticks, packed together, struggling to keep up with their guides) you couldn’t help but appreciate everyone’s joy to be in this beautiful city. And you hear this all the time, but it bears reinforcing: many locals expressed their appreciation for the fact that we at least tried to speak French. Even if it was just: “Parlez-vous anglais?” There is no excuse with all the apps out there. Bucket list for me: learn another language. It’s like a secret world. Hold me to it please.

Before heading home, we took a quick side trip to Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, less than 10 miles outside of Quebec City. Higher than Niagara! Lovely in the fall…mashed with tourists, so go early in the day. Follow the signs to Manoir Montmorency for parking.

We headed back to the US of A just in time before they built the wall!

Arbre pose

Au revoir, bonsoir, that is all-  for now!

Family time

My mom’s from Cincinnati. Irish Catholic. Her parents lived in Mt. Adams, then moved and raised their family in Hyde Park. 

The Ohio River separates Ohio from Kentucky

After nurse’s training in the 50s, Mom ran away to Los Angeles with her girlfriends to live for a year on the beach and sidle up to Catholic celebrities (e.g. John Wayne’s kids) in the communion line. She came back to the Queen City but eventually met my father and they moved to Southern California where I was born and raised. Same house for 48 years now. 

Her beloved brothers and sister stayed in Cincinnati, and the Murray clan is close and so welcoming to their California cousins whenever we visited “back east” growing up and now. Cousins Therese and Tommy met us at Winton Woods State Park on a glorious Monday. We ate and talked and lamented we couldn’t visit longer. Tommy looks just like my brother Mark. Therese is the older sister everyone wishes they had.

My Aunt Peggy is a Sisters of Charity nun (below, left). She lives in their retirement house, slowed a bit, but good for her after a lifetime career as an educator and matriarch of the Murrays. Her friend Eileen has been like a member of the family and is always good for a little razzing about the Reds. 

On the way south, a mere 70 miles away, we stopped in tiny Smithfield, Kentucky tracing Ben’s family this time.

Ben’s grandmother was from here. Her brother, Fielding, was a medic in World War I. Only nineteen, he died as a result of wounds suffered while trying to save a fellow soldier. It was mere days before the armistice. Ben’s middle name is Fielding.

A mere private, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. We aren’t sure if his remains are in there. Maurice, who mows the cemetery grass every two weeks, is married to a Meek, and Ruth has been trying to get documentation on the medal. We told him we’d mail her a print out of what we’d found on the Internet. (They don’t do computers-they know they might be missing out on something, but they’re old fashioned and that’s ok.)

The original Fielding

Moms Make History in Dayton, Ohio

Yesterday, we headed south to Dayton, OH to check out the NPS Aviation Heritage site that focuses on three sons of the city: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

Plenty of RV parking, as you can see below. The sites are in west Dayton, across the Great Miami river from the city, an area that built up as a result of the street car. Within a several block are are the sites of the Wright brothers bicycle shop and the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar. (The Wright family home was also nearby, but was moved by Henry Ford to Michigan.) The main visitors center focuses on the lives of all three men, their families, and their community of west Dayton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Are their joined stories more than just a coincidence of geography? Yes. Orville and Paul were classmates at Dayton’s Central High School (Paul graduated, Orville did not.) The Wright brothers were printers and publishers (and had a bicycle shop) before delving into flight. They published Dunbar’s poems. 

I came away most impressed with the way  their lives were linked in another less obvious way: they had very strong and influential mothers.  

Matilda and Paul, from the Ohio History Connection.

Matilda Dunbar was born into slavery, made a life for herself in Dayton after the Civil War, taught herself to read and write then taught Paul. She worked as a laundress and took in boarders. She worked hard and encouraged Paul in his writing. Her house, preserved for visitors today, looked just as it did when her son Paul died here at the age of 32. The house interiors are of his study. Read more about Matilda from NPS.

Susan Koerner Wright tinkered with household inventions and passed her mechanical gifts on to her sons, in addition to keeping the home life happy and together for her five children while her husband was often away with his work in the church.

Susan Koerner Wright, from Wright State University collections

You can see the recreated bicycle shop (original building) of her sons, across from the visitors center. 

I loved this quote from Wilbur

We’d been to the site in Kitty Hawk, NC a couple years ago. It is amazing. Dayton tells the story of the Wright brothers before and after their work and success in Kitty Hawk (they did some more flight tests in a field across town, also a site for visitors, but we skipped it.)

I’ll leave you with Dunbar’s most famous poem (I think) as displayed on the walls of the visitors center: We Wear the Mask and a shot of a mural across the street. Next up, Cincinnati, the hometown of my mother. 

Alumapalooza – rally time!

Until this week, we had yet to go to an Airstream rally (like a gathering) though they are quite popular ways for like-minded aficionados to get together and see what else they might have in common besides a love of Airstreams. Alumapalooza, in Jackson Center, OH where the Airsream factory is located, seemed just the one for us to check out since it would get us a little bit out into the Midwest (where we haven’t been on our trip yet) and to the factory, where 48 years ago, our baby was born. 

Upon arrival Tuesday, we were escorted to our spot (row 7!) on the factory grounds and got set up. Though it’s not an RV park they arranged to have water and electric hookups strung up for everyone. 

The events throughout the week were a mix of social, informative, fun, artistic, mechanical, musical, healthy (daily yoga), unhealthy (daily happy hour) and as much down time as you wanted to check out other people’s Airstreams and visit with folks from all around the country – Canada, New Mexico, Boston, Gulf Coast and some “full timers” for whom the road is home. Since our trip has an end point (likely later this year) we are sort of a hybrid.

Some highlights included a talk about Pendleton national park blankets – history of, etc. Airstream has a partnership with Pendleton for the NPS 100th anniversary this year. And a wool blanket is a great way to warm up your aluminum trailer – get the connection?

Of course the Airstream factory tour was a must do (every M-F at 2pm – open to the public.) No pictures are allowed inside but the company takes a lot of pride in the fact that all of the components are built at the factory (nothing farmed out), they are up to about 800 employees now (from closer to 200 coming out of the recession) and can’t make them fast enough to keep up with demand. The goings on inside are a STEM teacher’s dream – lots of measuring, fitting, figuring, fastening, etc. Making dreams come true. (That’s for the humanities teachers.) Don, pictured at left below, worked at the company for years, most recently in the service center, but loves being a tour guide now.

They had door prize drawings every day and we won twenty Alumapalooza bucks which we applied toward a t-shirt (me) and hat (for Ben). That gift shop did a brisk business. (Wally Byam is the founder of Airstream – his name is everywhere.)

We got to meet the folks behind Alumniarium and Campendium. The latter is a growing website designed to help campers find campgrounds – user generated reviews and pictures are its heart and soul. I have been entranced by every step Brian and Leigh have taken in the site’s development, so I was and have been very on board from the beginning, working diligently to add reviews as we travel-40 so far! We loved spending time with them (below in front of Wally Byam’s gold trailer) and their friends Adam and Susan, also Elizabeth and Ray, our neighbors Terry, Bernie and Dan, musician Steve and Julie, and Paul who lent us his blue boy. We also got to spend quality time with Colin Hyde whose NY shop did some great work on our trailer, and his girlfriend Brenda. 

Brian and I found out we both worked at Baskin Robbins-for the same boss-in Glendale/La Crescenta in high school.

There was music throughout the event, both guitars around campfires (well, no campfires allowed) and pros up on a main stage. I did a little ukelele picking and pretended I could play. It’s such a treat to just fake it along a bit and I so appreciated the kindness of the real musicians, especially MJ. 

The sunsets out in the heartland were amazing, even if they were accompanied by noise from the factory (automated system that cuts plywood for interior furniture runs all night). It only rained one day, and cooled down enough at night to make no AC tolerable. Thank you to Mother Nature and all the organizers! Until next time!

Western Mass

A look back at some of our adventures of the past weeks/months

After spending some quality family and friend time in Boston in early May, we headed west toward the Berkshires. The Berkshires is one of those east coast places (like Poconos, Adirondacks, Smokeys) that was tantalizingly close, but not close enough, so they remained unexplored, but always made me long for more vacation days. Time to get there, time to kick back and enjoy the natural beauty, and more time to see what there is to see, time to see what you didn’t know there was to see until you got there.  Time, time, time. The bounty of this trip.

It being so early in the season, it was easy enough to pick our spot using the state’s list of campground opening dates: Mohawk Trail State Forest it was. The drive there was lovely – even some tempting places to stop for supplies along the way. We settled into our spot on the Deerfield River and even set up the hammock and had a few campfires (#4 and #5 of nine months on the road I believe).

There is little to no AT&T cell service here – I did a very small part of a very steep hike adjacent to the campground, and got a little more. More importantly on that hike – I truly felt it was spring for the first time. This was our first nature nature stop since Acadia a few weeks prior – where it snowed! I’m not much at identifying flora and fauna but what really blew me away was the BIRDS, chirping like no one was listening. But me. It was musical and heart lightening.

Exploring the next day, we checked out Williams College. Now, I am a Wesleyan Alum and have some very bitter memories of finishing second to Williams in sporting events throughout college, including in my own sport of rowing. There was a Tshirt for sale extolling the nature of the “Little Three” rivalry calling it the “good, the bad & the ugly”. Wesleyan was the bad. Amberst, the ugly. So, I guess it could have been worse. But it was pretty easy to put all that behind me and enjoy the beautiful day on campus as the students clearly were.

Love a civil war soldier statue

There is a great museum there – The Clark – which we skipped this time because it just wasn’t a museum kind of day. On the list for next time. 

Continuing our drive, we stopped by the Susan B. Anthony birthplace (b. 1820) in Adams. Though still closed for the season, we poked around outside, imagining Susan (she probably would have been doing something more industrious) and her Quaker upbringing, her familiy’s commitment to abolition, which led her to temperance and women’s suffrage. She’d probably be amazed to know it’s taken us this long to (almost) get a woman at the head of a major party presidential ticket. She’d probably be amazed at some other things about this year’s campaign, but I digress.

Susan, the second of eight children. was born in the front parlor

After a few days, we ventured south and took advantage of WBCCI member courtesy parking (for the first time) at in Pittsfield. WBCCI is a membership organization for Airstream owners, and named for Wally Byam, the founder. The Antenellis couldn’t have been more hospitable-they shared their homemade wine, grappa and gave us a trivet and an iron! They have spent a lifetime traveling, are avid skiers, and gave us great tips on the area. They said in the forty plus years they have offered courtesy parking, only a few had taken advantage. 

My #1 reason for wanting to stage in this area was to visit Lenox, and the home of author Edith Wharton. (It is near Tanglewood, the outdoor music venue.) I’d always wanted to visit – but it was just one of those places that felt maybe too remote to build a trip around. It was the very first day of their season. It did not disappoint – go go go! Though they give guided tours on the hour, you can more or less roam at your leisure, soaking it all in, reading exhibit panels, and even dining on the porch with food for their cafe.

She designed and built this home in 1901 – an extension of her early success as co-author of a best selling design book. She inherited some money and was starting to to earn more with her fiction. So she built The Mount-first the house and then the gardens.

My first view of the Mount

I was inspired to do a Mary Tyler Moore thing – career women powers activated, I guess

Within 10 years, her marriage was falling apart, and she found being a divorced, successful writer was not tenable in America, so she sold the house and moved to Europe where she continued to write (forty books in forty years, first female Pulitzer Prize for fiction winner) and led humanitarian work during World War I.  

In the meantime, the house passed hands, it was a part of some schools, then housing for a local Shakespeare group. A group formed to save it, and with the help of many, it has been saved and restored. There are few original furnishings, but they did recently reacquire her books, which are on display now and in the picture below.

The picture above is in her bedroom – where she did her writing every morning. She would write the pages in longhand and her secretary would pick them up and type them. If I recall, those are portraits of her father and brothers on the wall. 

She looked out onto her gardens, which only recently have been restored at great cost. Her niece helped with the design, and she meant for them to be architectural, like the house. She used only three colors (outside the flower garden) and I heartily approved. They were stunningly beautiful, and it was just the beginning of spring. 

I could get teary just thinking about this place – that a woman at that time could have artistic vision and not let it be thwarted. True, she was born into money, but she made her own life.  Was able to see her passions through to fruition – and we can still experience it today. I loved this exhibit panel about her finances.

Edith and her husband were great animal lovers, especially of little dogs. (They would be very at home in the RV world.) A stop at the pet cemetery was a nice way to end our visit. There are tombstones with endearments that show the depth of their love for animals.

Though we did not have time to visit, we did pop by the Normal Rockwell museum down the road in Stockbridge. We popped in the gift store and I snuck this picture of his studio and view. Wish we had more – TIME! Never enough.

Berkshires, you were worth a visit.

New Jersey

Backtracking a bit to share about some of our adventures in the last weeks/months

The third weekend of May, I had a lunch date in Pennsylvania with some high school classmates (having missed our reunion in LA). So we had to kill a little time between there and the Berkshires and were craving more nature. Scouring the map, the solution could not have been more obvious: New Jersey.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area between Pennsylvania and New Jersey is just lovely. Rivers, streams, ponds, mountains, valleys, tree canopies, fields of ferns, bevvys of birds–and if you are there on a weekday before Memorial Day, sparsely populated by humans. 

We settled on Worthington State Forest, because nothing beats a riverside campsite (Delaware River in this case) and though the one Campendium review warned of some potholes and bears, we ventured on. 

It was tricky to get to from the highway (a one lane road for part) and we had to proceed cautiously to and in the campground because of potholes. But the river beckoned and we persevered. We wiggled back into a site in the woods (there are many more further down the road in an open grassy field), eyes out for bears. 

Our BIG activity was the 6 or so mile round trip hike (loop-yay!) to Sunfish Pond. You can walk to the trail head from the campground (yay!) As you probably already know, this special place is one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey.

 It was picturesque, at the top of a just strenuous enough ascent. The Appalaichan Trial runs alongside for a bit and it was cool to follow the white hash marks and imagine going for a really long walk in the woods. 

We crossed paths with some thru hikers – young guys with all their gear and lumberjack shirts fresh out of a J Crew ad shoot. I was too toungue tied to ask them any questions (dumb) so instead I told them a thing or two, e.g., “We just saw a snake!” True. It slithered out of the bushes (what’s that sound?) and crossed right in front of us on its way to the pond. Try to find it among the sticks below.

I screamed a little and wanted to make sure those fellas didn’t. No worries, they said: “Oh we just saw about four snakes back there, the way you are headed now.” Great. We didn’t see any more snakes, but we did see dozens of middle schoolers spreading out their tents in an open field, getting set for a night of fun, probably celebrating the end of the school year. We blessed their chaperones and proceeded back to our campsite. Some more scenes from the hike below.

The next morning on the way out, those potholes got us. A pinhole size crack in the trailer wheel gave us a flat tire. 

The fellas at Poconos Tire in Stroudsburg, PA helped us diagnose it but the spare got us back home where a new wheel from Vintage Trailer Supply would await. 

Two Days in Little Rock

So, we’ve headed out on a medium length loop through the near southern states: Arkansas and Mississippi, before we head back toward the (gulf) coast and then make our way toward Florida. The obvious first stop in Arkansas for us was the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock. While there, I knew I wanted to visit Little Rock Central High School as well. What I didn’t expect was how much the two sites complemented one another. (Spoiler alert: civil rights, federalism, politics, grassroots, separation of powers, checks and balances, etc.)

We found a cool little RV park to stay at right on the Arkansas River. It happened to be adjacent to a rowing boathouse;  very welcoming to be bunking down near all those pretty racing shells.


Not a beauty shot, but wanted to get the RV Park and the Rowing Club in the same shot!

However, there would be no rowing, just history stuff for us on this fairly cold and rainy February weekend. The RV park is right across the river from the Clinton Library, and there is a pedestrian bridge (see pictures above and below) you can walk across to get to it.

Walk, we did not! Our nephew Charlie, who attends nearby Hendrix College, joined us for the day, and drove us around in style. One of the very first exhibits is this armored presidential limo – Charlie and Ben pose graciously below. Family!img_5956The top of mind question for me heading into the museum was how they would handle the impeachment. No politics here – purely from a teacher’s point of view – how do you convey such a controversial subject, in a way that does justice to the subject, but is also “approved” by the man whose name is on the door. I’m not sure how that stuff gets negotiated between the National Archives staff and the former president’s, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall…

Clinton’s life story and his rise to the stop is a pretty amazing. His father died before he was born. His mom put it into another gear, left young Billy with his grandparents while she went away to nursing school. That had to have been TOUGH. His grandparents lived in Hot Springs (about an hour from Little Rock) and owned a little market that (unusual for its time) served black and white alike. The Library did a good job of linking Clinton’s personal experience growing up in the same decade as Brown vs. Board and in the same place/region as the very public battle over integration at Central High School in Little Rock. His grandparents get credit for lighting his passion for civil rights.

Some early campaign materials above…

So the museum also has a cabinet room, and an oval office and presidential limo. The bulk of the exhibits organize his accomplishments by policy area, and there is a separate timeline display as well.


The timeline is presented down the middle, with the alcoves on each side presenting material by policy area. The design of the space was modeled after Trinity College Library in Dublin.

The timeline is presented down the middle, with the alcoves on each side presenting material by policy area.

We visited the same weekend Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died and had tried to explain to our nephew – who attends nearby Hendrix College and joined us for the day – that things weren’t always so partisan as they are today. However, my trip down memory lane at the Clinton Library disabused me of that “memory” (Republican Revolution anyone?)


A tour group getting the scoop on Clinton’s accomplishments related to the economy (alcove behind the guide and to the left)

So, here is how they treated the Impeachment. I can only imagine the painstaking word for word drafting and editing that was done. For those who forget, are too young and/or don’t have your pocket Constitution handy, Impeachment is a two step process: first, the House votes one way or the other.


Then, the Senate has a trial – for real – Chief Justice Rehnquist presided and the Senate was the jury.


How did we maintain our energy with so much to look at and learn about? That morning, we brunched at Skinny Js – I think we could have easily walked there from our park to  the funky little main street of North Little Rock. I highly recommend the Louisiana Omelette, and for sure get the biscuit. Park in the lot behind the restaurant so you can see the amazing mural below.


The next day, Ben and I headed over to Little Rock Central High School. STILL a working high school after all it has been through. It is a National Historic Site – complete with a Visitors Center and they even give tours (sign up in advance) that take you into the high school. But for me, just being out on the sidewalk was enough.


Little Rock Central High School, today

Right here, in 1957, first the national guard, then the Little Rock Police and finally the 101st Airborne offered varying degrees of “protection” to the students and the community (and the press!) from those who opposed integration, including, most significantly, the state’s governor, Orval Faubus. (An elected office also held by Bill Clinton.) Standing out on the street today, looking toward that majestic building, you cannot but help feel awe, admiration, and gratitude for the Little Rock Nine and their families and supporters. The building itself is massive and gorgeous – a mix of art deco and gothic styles.


The Visitors Center did a nice job of contextualizing the events in history, focusing on the rule of law, and especially the balance of power between the federal and state governments.


Federalism! Design your American road trip around it…

The exhibits detailed the Constitution’s treatment of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the careful, methodical work of the NAACP which lead to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, mandating that schools integrate with “all deliberate speed”. Just a tad vague, right? This touched off the crisis in Little Rock.

Central High School was – at the time – the “white” high school, the best high school in the district because it had the best resources, most class offerings and activities for students. After Brown, the NAACP petitioned the Little Rock school board to integrate. Slowly, the school board moved forward – slowly. And, as they say, all hell broke loose.



Almost the same angle, today

This view above, from the Visitors Center, shows the gas station, on the left, which had the only pay phone in 1957. So that’s where all reporters went to file their stories. It’s part of the historic site.

Once the nine were finally escorted safely inside by the 101st Airborne (three weeks after the image above and what should have been their first day of school), the struggle did not end. Oh, what a difficult year they had. Though the artifacts below on the right are tough to look at, it’s not enough to say “they faced prejudice” – it’s important to SEE. We owe our thanks to those involved in integration struggles, as well as the caretakers of the history, like the National Park Service, to make sure we see for ourselves.


In the spring, the only senior in the group, Ernest Green, graduated. But, what happened next, I did not know: the four high schools in Little Rock closed the following year, as a result of ongoing resistance to integration. Closed. What a story-just makes you want to know more, right?


Both Ben and I were shocked but amused to read in a gift shop book: despite the schools being closed: “Strangely, the football programs continued.” Ah, America. So much more to learn.

In the Clinton Library, an exhibit shares the president’s pleasure, years later, in holding the school doors open for the Little Rock Nine during an anniversary commemoration, as well as hosting them in the very same governor’s mansion where Faubus plotted against them. Pretty cool to see how history runs through and across a particular place in our country.

On the way out of town, we stopped for a photo op at The Old Mill at T.R. Pugh Memorial Park in North Little Rock. This “find” was my reward for perusing the local tourism brochure rack in the RV Park-would have never known about it otherwise.

img_6023The Old Mill was featured in the opening credits from Gone With the Wind. Apparently it’s the only building left from the filming (blink and you’ll miss it). It isn’t actually a mill (more like an old fake mill), but it IS old, and picturesque.

I recognize the irony of a blog post mostly about civil rights in the south ending with a nod to a book and film that perpetuates the lost cause mythology, but it’s all connected, right? Very grateful for the chance to explore and learn.


Making Sense of The Very Large Array

The just announced discovery of the sound of black holes colliding a billion light years away has us, once again, in awe of scientists (and engineers and the other people who made this happen). Just like we felt on our visit a bit ago to The Very Large Array in New Mexico- oh if civilization had to depend on the meager thoughts and ideas that come out of our kitty brains, we’d be in trouble. Thank goodness for smart people!

They Array was most familiar to us (in retrospect) as the set for a chunk of the Jodie Foster (based on Carl Sagan’s book) movie, Contact. (I credit my ever handy Lonely Planet USA for even knowing it existed and that we were near it.)

The Array is comprised of 27 giant antennas detecting radio waves from space, spread out for miles (hence the name) over a high (no radio interference), but flat expanse southwest of Albuquerque.

I think I have got this right – our eyes, binoculars and telescopes detect light on the visible spectrum. But these babies, radio antennas, detect light not visible, way on the other end of the light spectrum.  All of the antennas are synced together so their data can be combined to form higher resolution images – that we can see! (example below, right) of objects in space. The dishes are moved every few months into one of four configurations – depending on what exactly they are hoping to detect. But, don’t trust me: go to the source for a more thorough explanation about how they work.


We arrived late in the day (as is our wont) and the personable and welcoming staffer in the gift shop let us linger, shopping, and answering all of our questions. Though she herself was not an expert on the science, she had a really neat personal connection to the Array, which she shared. Her parents ram a motel in the small town of Magdalena – about 25 miles away – where all of the workers building the Array in the 70s lived. The town was so small, there weren’t many places to eat, so her family, in order to keep her hotel business bustling, agreed to provide meals as well. So for four years straight (during the length of the construction) she served breakfast and dinner in three shifts to the workers.

The visitors center has an excellent movie, narrated by Jodie Foster, in which we also learned that all of the dishes have recently been retrofitted with fiber optic cable. In fact, according to the VLA, they have “2557 miles of fiber in the ground, and an additional 3 miles of fiber per antenna in each antenna.”

There is a thoughtfully presented self-guided walking tour, outside, with stations where you can learn a bit as you go, culminating in a chance to go right  up to one of the dishes and pose for a picture that tries to convey their size (82 feet in diameter).  img_5667

They do a guided tour the first Saturday of every month.

Because they were in the midst of switching from one configuration to another (which they do quite carefully on transporters which glide and turn as needed, gracefully as ballerinas, on double train tracks (seen very clearly on the picture at the very top) we got to see a transporter (orange below) poised for action.

We split our visit over two days – spending the night at the nearby BLM Datil Well Campground. We were kicking ourselves for not buying Contact, because with no cell service at all, we resorted to watching one of the DVDs in our small collection – Bridget Jones Diary – which has nothing to do with space exploration, and is just the kind of mindless fodder our kitty brains enjoy as a break from so much thinking and learning. But there is a lovely scene in the snow at the end, which portended what we woke up to – by far the most snow we’ve ever been in with the Airstream.

Luckily the road out of Datil was not too steep, and we went back to the Array to finish up our tour; it cooperated with lovely pictures, despite the very very cold temps and wind.

So while the folks at the Array may not be getting the credit this news cycle, their press release section can give you a sense of their amazing discoveries. My favorite? The discovery of water ice on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. We did manage, once we got back to the land of cell service, to stream Contact (fair warning: Matthew McConaughey is in it too) and, though it felt a little dated, we enjoyed it very much. Even with (or perhaps because of) all the news lately, if you still aren’t quite feeling the excitement about how space exploration can impact humans, its closing scenes will take you there.


Desert Time

As winter approached, we headed south. Outside of Tucson, we chose the highly recommended Gilbert Ray Campground as basecamp for a visit to Saguaro National Park.


Airstream tucked in at Gilbert Ray Campground, near the Tuscan Mountain District (western) part of Saguaro National Park.

We were both quite taken with this desert, this National Park. All credit goes to Bob, a retired scientist (spent most of his career at the nearby and highly regarded Arizona Sonora Desert Museum) who now volunteers as guide on nature walks in the park.

You know how some ranger talks are better than others? It felt like Bob gave us the keys to the desert – slowly, carefully teaching us about the various plants, one at a time. He explained how they worked together, and how by looking closely, they’d reveal even more about their desert existence, and help you make sense of the place.


Our hero: Bob. In his hiking pack, he carries, among other things, a comb, in case he or a visitor gets stuck by a jumping cholla (choy-a) cactus ball. Also, a camera, because as long as he’s been out in the desert, there are still some things he hasn’t seen (e.g. certain kind of scorpions) and would like to.

Though the natural focus of the park is the saguaro (pronounced sa – WAH – ro), the iconic Arizona cactus, most often depicted with a few arms lofted to the sky, Bob taught us about other cactus: cholla (teddybear, jumping and staghorn), prickly pear, fish hook barrel. And their non cacti friends: palo verde, ocotillo, mistletoe, ironwood, mesquite, sage.


In this picture, one can see palo verde, saguaro, cholla, and prickly pear. Probably a lot more.

Hover/click on the pictures below for a bit more about each…


After getting schooled by Bob, we were able to go out and find our own saguaro cacti. On the left, is a younger saguaro, maybe about my age.🙂 The one I’m gazing up at could be 200 years old.


Ben atop the Hugh Norris Trail, saguaro on his left, ocotillo (which look like a fountain) on the right

We wanted to check out nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory. It was a bit snowy (Arizona?) so we weren’t able to see any of the telescopes (the paths to them were treacherous), but kicked around the visitors center and had a nice chat with an astronomer visiting from University of Indiana about his work. We would definitely recommend a visit, and a check on the weather at 7,000 feet before you go.  img_4678

We scratched our astronomy itch instead at a program that the folks at Kitt Peak sponsored, but held in the parking lot of the visitors center back at Saguaro: a night-time Binoculars Stargazing program. Ben and I ended up being the only attendees, so we got a lesson on how to use a star map, tips on using our binoculars effectively, and a personal tour of the night skies. Our guide also gave us resource recommendations for future exploration: download the (free)  monthly star guide from for a map showing where the starts will be. He also recommended a book for newbie skygazers, young and old: The Monthly Sky Guide, which Santa brought to Ben for Christmas.

Some highlights of what we learned (hopefully translating it correctly):

-There are only 88 constellations in the sky – and they are entirely human creations.
-The North Star – what we know as Polaris – changes. It’s not always Polaris. It’s whatever (bright) star is closest to being directly overhead if you are standing on the earth’s north pole. But Polaris’s position relative to the North Pole is slowly drifting, so eventually (500 years or so) Polaris will no longer serve that role.
-Stars with a blue tint are actually hotter than those with a red tint.
-Ever wonder why your particular astrological sign is in a particular month? Nope, it’s not because you can see your birth month constellation during your birth month. During your birth month, the sun is passing through your constellation, so you can’t see it in the night sky.

We spent a little time in the town of Tucson for some R&R and to do errands. Some of the locals shared that Tuscon is well ahead of other cities -Phoenix, for example – when it comes to things like planning for drought and eliminating light pollution (light pollution is a big deal – affects astronomers, of course, but also animals that require dark skies for hunting, etc.) Tucson is home of the University of

img_4679Arizona, and Cactus League Spring Training. We saw the excellent movie Spotlight, and had Korean food at Kimchi Time where I had the very odd but kind of cool experience of having one of the waitresses walk right up to me and say “You look just like my mom! You even dress like her!” Now, as a non-mom, this was a little strange to hear, and most of my friends’ kids aren’t quite as old as this young woman, so that was a little disconcerting. (Plus, what about the “you dress like her” comment?)  But she was so sweet, we took pictures together, found some more things in common and are now following each other on IG.

On another personal note, we spent a lot of our time in this spot worrying about one of our kitties, who had/has a health scare, but seems to be doing ok now in the hands of his loving DC family: Laura, Mark, Logan and Finn. But do keep the very handsome orange kitty Gordo in your T’s and P’s.

Hiking Angel’s Landing: No Fooling, it was Scary

From Joshua Tree, we motored east to Zion pretty quickly,










spending one night (awesome boondocking) in Nevada, and gathering supplies in St. George, Utah (loved Harmon’s for groceries). Cold weather would be coming later in the week and we wanted to enjoy Zion before it hit.

At the Zion entrance, the rangers promptly hopped out to measure the width of our Airstream, to see if we qualified for an “unescorted” trip through the narrow tunnel to Bryce Canyon. (At 91 inches, we just made the cut off of 94 inches!)

Perusing the information about hikes, we set our sights on Angel’s Landing – a difficult hike but lauded as one of THE very best day hikes in all the southwest. Why? It starts with the West Rim Trail, about 2 miles up a steep hill, then the special part: the  Angel’s Landing Trail, a 1/2 mile hike across a narrow rock ridge – also called a fin – with steep drop offs on either side. Chains are installed to aid hikers along the narrowest and steepest parts of the trail. No one has died on it in the last five years or so. Who wouldn’t want to hike this?



Angel’s Landing from below

I paid careful attention to the warnings provided by the Park Service and even searched the internet for others. How could a hike that was so perilous also be so popular?  Some warnings stuck with me – from the Salt Lake Tribune for example: if you can’t get your footing without the chains, you might not want to hike it. There have been a half dozen or so deaths in the past decade, and the Park Service does not hide that fact, but rather uses it to discourage people. But A LOT of people do this hike. We figured we could too.


One of the signs the Park Service has posted – very well written I think!

The initial climb up West Rim Trail took us about two hours, just as predicted. We stopped to rest a bit along the way. Though it was December, the conditions were perfect – sunny, no moisture on the trail at all. We maybe saw 10 or so other people going up or down, and 1/2 dozen Park maintenance crew members shoring up the trail at its edges.


Looking back down after we’d ascended the West Rim Trail,  but before beginning the scary last half-mile.

This first section of the hike ends with “Walters Wiggles” (better pic here), a set of 21 switch backs to take you up a very steep part of the trail before the most daunting stretch begins. Apparently they are named for the first superintendent of Zion who designed them!


Ben ascending the Wiggles.


The Wiggles from above.

Now, I have to say, at the top of the mountain, at a place called Scout’s Landing, and before we began that last 1/2 mile stretch onto the actual Angel’s Landing Trail, I had a serious talk with myself about whether or not I was really going through with this. Some of the things I said:
“A lot of folks decide not to continue here. There is no shame in that.”
“It’s going to be tough, physically, but mostly mentally, and I have no problem getting down on my hands and knees if necessary to get across.”
“I am doing this mostly for the ‘I’ll be glad when I have done it’ feeling. I love that feeling.”
“This will be thrilling, and I’ll be totally ‘in the moment’ while doing it.”
“Holy smokes.”
“How often do we get these chances in life? Let’s go!”

The first section builds confidence – it’s steep and narrow in places, but without the sheer drop off inches away. Fairly soon though, I arrived at a critical juncture when I saw what looked like a very, very, narrow tightrope-size ledge strung between the rock outcropping I was on and the one I wanted to get to. It scared me. I felt physically woozy in my gut. How was I to go over that, knowing I’d only have to go over it again on the return? And, to add to my fears, I couldn’t see or plan for what to expect on the rest of the Angel’s Landing trail ahead, so I couldn’t know if I was expending the appropriate amount of courage at this juncture, or if I should save some because I’d need even more along the way. A true dilemma, with not a little pride at stake.

About this time, an older couple appeared, descending the trail and coming toward me – clearly reading my mind. They offered, more off-hand than directly to me – “Oh it’s easier coming down than going up” and “You’ll be glad you did it”. Somehow their words helped, and I am not ashamed to say so did the fact that they were older (most of the other hikers we’d seen were millennials practically running up and down the mountain in toe shoes.) I forged ahead.


This isn’t the site of my point of no return ruminations, but it looks a lot like it. Ben is pointing toward the trail.

Each 100 feet or so is a different challenge – pulling your self up, along side, against [insert preposition here] a rock face, with sure death in the form of a 1,000+ foot drop just inches or less away. It’s not hard to imagine how you could fall – it was more a matter of when.

We were lucky there weren’t more people around – in the summer the path is crowded, and all those people make the trail more perilous. For example, when two or more are holding (and  moving) the same stretch of chain, or one is going up while another is going down. (When in doubt on a narrow rock face , go for the hug). Success is found in hopefully a shared belief in the preciousness of life, and a collective fervent but tenuous grasp on it while together on Angel’s Landing. (For the most part people were very well behaved, though we did pass a couple in some kind of argument – lips pursed, eyes stony, heavy sighing, the whole nine, somewhere midway-ish near the tree pictured below.img_4390


Triumphant selfie, reunited about about midway. Mostly Ben hiked ahead of me and I took it nice and slow.

At another more treacherous point somewhere in the middle, I did gather myself a bit to at least appreciate the fact that while I was “in the moment”, I wasn’t appreciating the views. But the trail was so narrow here, I didn’t dare turn my head, and risk losing balance. So I literally raised my right and left arms just high and quick enough to take a shot of whatever it was I was missing, so I (and you) could see it later.

Finally we reached the end, a fairly wide rocky plateau with plenty of places to sit and rest and relax and eat lunch, reflecting on accomplishment, scouting for angels. We saw one reincarnated as a chipmunk who persistently hovered trying to catch our crumbs.

Indeed the trail back was easier, but maybe only because we knew what to expect. As you can see in the pics below, those chains were put to good use by me and my bad knees.



For Ben the way down, like the way up, was more of a walk in a park. Hands in pockets, shades drawn. Movie star cool.


Of course we made it. I had conquered the fears that had cropped up, it had been thrilling, and I was glad to say I had done it. Though Ben thought this image of a hiker tumbling looked awfully similar to how I had deliberately approached the descent.

And finally, nothing says “I defied death and conquered my fears” better than having happy hour outside on the “patio” in December. This one included our very first (in four months on the road) campfire. Cold, but very much in our comfort zone.


Loved our spot in Zion’s Watchman Campground