GratiTuesday: The Desert’s Super Bloom

The rain came in abundance to California this year. The sheer volume caused problems in some areas, but most of us have reveled in the frequent downpours. Our gardens look lush, lawns (those that still exist) are green, and weeds are sprouting up everywhere.

March is the month that deserts traditionally experience their blooming season, but our five-year drought has negatively affected the annual spectacle. Fortunately, this year’s rains have not only benefitted homeowners and gardeners in coastal and inland areas, it has created a “super bloom” in our local desert – the likes of which we haven’t seen in many years.

After reading about the large wildflower-seeking crowds ascending on Anza-Borrego State Park during the weekends, my husband and I decided to make our trek there on a weekday. This was supposed to be a prime week and we knew the flowers could fade quickly under harsh winds, rising temperatures, and the ravenous caterpillars that can eat through the flowering plants at an amazing rate.

We got an early start Monday morning (made more difficult because we just sprang forward, and 6 a.m. felt like it came an hour too soon) so we could beat the heat and the traffic as much as possible. When we both worked, a 6 a.m. wake-up alarm was not unusual. Now that we are retired, we’ve learned to appreciate sleeping until we decide to get up. This day, though, the flowers beckoned,  so we dragged ourselves out of bed and into the shower.

The two-hour drive to the state park takes us east, winding through ranch country and along fields planted with citrus, nuts and grapes. Starting at close to sea level where we live, we climbed over 3,000 feet into the hills before heading back down the windy pass to the desert floor.

We started to spot flowers here and there as we approached Borrego Springs, the small town just outside the park, but it wasn’t until we drove into the park that we saw the blooms carpeting the desert sand, colorful against the backdrop of the mountains and blue, clear skies.

I’m so grateful for this year’s spectacular desert wildflowers. Some people think of the desert as being dull and colorless, or hot and full of plants that have painful thorns. I grew up in Southern California so I am familiar with its often subtle beauty. But, after the ample winter rains, this spring’s super bloom isn’t subtle at all; it is showy and colorful, and exploding with life.

Oh, Ottawa!

Oh Canada you're looking good for 149 and with Justin on the Hill it's only getting better, keep it Trudeau Canada!
Oh Canada you’re looking good for 149 and with Justin on the Hill it’s only getting better, keep it Trudeau Canada!

We had mixed feelings as we left Toronto and made our way to Ottawa, the penultimate stop on our road trip (the last stop would be an overnight stay close to the airport in Montreal). We had been traveling for almost a month and were a bit homesick, but we also were having a great time and didn’t want the trip to end.

Our Airbnb apartment in Ottawa was definitely the nicest one we experienced on our trip. The host, a young, self-described “day-trader” who owned several apartments in the building, was helpful and very welcoming. The apartment was clean, quiet, nicely decorated, and well-located. Once we parked our rental (free parking was included – bonus!), we were able to walk everywhere we wanted to.

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Parliament Hill is the political and cultural heart of Ottawa. The Gothic-style government buildings overlooking the Ottawa River are open for free guided tours (the tickets are first-come, first-served, so get them early). Our tour of the Centre Block building ended with an elevator ride to the top of the Peace Tower which provided sweeping views of the city and the river.

Another tourist favorite during the summer months is the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which takes place each morning on the front lawn of Parliament Hill.

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The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. There are 45 locks along the 125 mile (202 kilometer) length of the canal. It was completed in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States and remains in use today primarily for pleasure boating (and ice skating in the winter). The canal begins (or ends, depending on the direction of travel) in Ottawa where the large wooden lock doors are opened and closed using hand cranks. The park surrounding the locks was beautiful and we spent a relaxing few hours just watching the process of the boats making their way up through the gates.

Standing on very spindly legs next to the world-class National Gallery of Canada is the Maman sculpture by Louise Bourgeois – a 30-foot bronze cast of a spider.  The title is the French word for Mother, which explains the sac on her belly containing 26 marble eggs. Similar Maman sculptures can also be found at art museums in the UK, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and the US.

We also enjoyed exploring the historic and trendy ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets. It was just a few blocks from our apartment and the four-block area was full of shops, cafes, pubs, and galleries.

As we left Ottawa after only a few days, we once again felt that our too-short stay only allowed us to scratch the surface of this beautiful city. I’d love to return some day and explore all that we missed this time around.

Vibrant Toronto

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Toronto is Canada’s biggest and busiest city, and its most diverse. Over 140 languages are spoken there and it is estimated that over half of its residents were born outside of Canada. The most populous city in Canada, it is the fourth largest city in North America (behind Mexico City, New York City, and Los Angeles).

Even knowing all of this, I found myself a little overwhelmed at first by the size and vibrancy of Toronto.

Our Airbnb was located on a side street in the downtown area, between two busy boulevards. It appeared that most of the residents of the tall apartment building were students, possibly attending the nearby Ryerson University. The flat itself was quiet and nicely appointed and, because it was up on the 21st floor, we had a nice view of the downtown.

Although we didn't sit around much, our Airbnb flat was very comfortable.
Although we didn’t sit around much, our Airbnb flat was very comfortable.

As we did during most of the other stops along our recent road trip, once we parked our car (free, off-street parking was included – a huge plus in this busy city), it remained unused for the three days we were there. We were able to get everywhere we wanted to go either on foot or using public transportation.

Dancers enjoying the Salsa Festival.
Dancers enjoying the Salsa Festival.

In addition to a high-quality outdoor art show (top picture), we were delighted to discover that there was also a food festival and a Salsa music festival taking place on the days we were in town.

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All within walking distance from our flat was Toronto’s Chinatown, the funky Kensington Market neighborhood, Old Town Toronto’s famous St. Lawrence Market, the Entertainment District, the busy Waterfront, and lots of tempting places to eat.

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Like other Canadian cities we visited, street art seemed to be everywhere in Toronto. Much of it was big and gorgeous, but there were also plenty of unauthorized contributions.

After just a three-day stay in Toronto, we felt that we hadn’t even scratched to surface of this amazing city. It’s loud and messy and crowded, but the vitality and energy is infectious. Although our travel schedule didn’t allow us to stay any longer, we agreed that a return trip – one that included much more time to explore other neighborhoods and indulge in additional culinary delights – could quite possibly be in our future.

The Power of Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls
Horseshoe Falls

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see many amazing sites over the years – natural wonders, great works of art, and man-made structures of historical significance. Many have inspired genuine awe, but only a few have brought me to tears; bowled over by their impact deep inside of me. The Statue of David, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Rushmore are a few that come to mind. The Niagara Falls is another. I’m not sure where the heightened emotional response comes from, but it’s powerful when it hits.

We arrived in Niagara Falls well after dark but, thankfully, not too late to see the 10pm fireworks display. Our Airbnb was located down-river and as we hurried towards the main observation area, we started to hear the relentless pounding of the water before we could see the falls. When they came into view, my eyes immediately welled up and my heart started to beat with what felt like the force of the falls. Their incredible beauty and power stopped me in my tracks.

My husband and I were back in Canada after spending almost half of our month-long road trip in the U.S. (Vermont and Upstate New York). On the other side of the Gorge from us was Niagara Falls State Park – America’s oldest state park – but we had read that the Canadian side has the better views and accommodations. Our Airbnb – it actually turned out to be a B&B (Lion’s Head http://www.lionsheadbb.com/) – was nicely situated and the delightful owner, Helena, a trained chef, provided incredible breakfasts for her guests each morning.

Our room at Lion's Head B&B
Our room at Lion’s Head B&B

After a restful night’s sleep and sumptuous strata for breakfast, we headed off to see the sites. In order to get the most out of our one full day in Niagara Falls, we decided to purchase an Adventure Pass which allowed us to visited four main attractions (White Water Walk, Journey Behind the Falls, Hornblower Niagara Cruise, and the 4D film, Niagara’s Fury). The pass also included bus transportation.

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The Niagara Falls were formed at the end of the last Ice Age when the glaciers receded and the water from the newly formed Great Lakes began to carve a path towards the Atlantic Ocean.  The three waterfalls – Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls – are geological wonders estimated to be about 12,000 years old. Millions of gallons of water spill over the falls every minute – about 750,000 gallons each second. The water’s force has been producing hydroelectric power since the first generating station was built in 1881.

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I read recently that New York State is planning to divert the water from the American Falls sometime in the next few years so they can replace two 115-year-old stone arch bridges. If this happens, it will be the first time since 1969 that the water flow has stopped.  The American Falls was slowed to a trickle in 1969 to study the effects of erosion and buildup of rock at the base of the falls. When that happened, people came from all over the world to see the falls turned off.

1969 water diversion. Photo credit: Niagara Falls Public Library
1969 water diversion. Photo credit: Niagara Falls Public Library

If they do in fact divert the water – a once (or twice) in a lifetime event – it could be a perfect excuse for us to visit Niagara Falls again.

GratiTuesday: Those who make our world more beautiful

Tens of thousands of people probably had passed by the large concrete walls at the entrance of North Creek, NY over the years, and never thought anything about them one way or the other. They just… were.

Artist Kate Hartley saw a blank canvas.

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In 2011 Kate requested and gained permission to decorate the walls with a mosaic mural depicting the natural wonders and recreational offerings of this small town in the Adirondack Mountains. Since its beginning, the North Creek Mosaic Project has relied on the enthusiastic support of local businesses and organizations, as well as nearly 900 volunteers of all ages.

2Mosaic

The mural was just steps from the North Creek Airbnb where my husband and I were staying and we happen to walk by one day that the artist was working. From the moment we began our conversation with her, it would be hard not to get swept up in her positive aura. She was delighted to talk to us about the project and even took the time to tell us the story behind a few of the vignettes. She remains as passionate about the mural as she was when she started and especially enjoys teaching kids how to work with mosaics. And, of course, the kids love to see their artistic endeavors displayed as part of the mural.

3Kate

The mural is about 2/3rds complete (these are really big walls), but progress is being made just about every day. It is slow-going and, at times, back-stressing work, but, for Kate Hartley and her volunteers, it is truly a labor of love.

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I am so grateful for the Kate Hartleys of this world. They have been blessed with a creative gift and we are lucky that they have chosen to share it with the rest of us. Their generosity lifts us all up and brightens our lives.

GratiTuesday: “As long as we are going…” travel

One of a zillion beautiful covered bridges in Vermont
One of a zillion beautiful covered bridges in Vermont

Our latest road trip adventure started with the desire to attend the yearly car club gathering. We had traveled to several of the week-long events in the past, but never further east than Colorado. If we were still working, we probably would have opted not to attend this year, given that we would only have so much vacation time available and it would be hard to justify the expense based on that.

Now that we are retired, we have started to look at trips like this in a different light. Instead of having a limited amount of time to visit just one or two destinations, we find ourselves saying, “As long as we are going…” and looking for ways to expand our trip to include more: more time for travel, more places to see.

Vermont chairs
Vermont chairs
Look... a car patty!
Look… a car patty!
Lots of opportunities to purchase maple syrup at roadside stands
Lots of opportunities to purchase maple syrup at roadside stands

 

Unfortunately our rental Hyundai didn't qualify for this drive
Unfortunately our rental Hyundai didn’t qualify for this drive

This year’s event was being held at a ski resort in upstate Vermont. My husband and I agreed that driving across the country in our car wouldn’t be the most comfortable way to go (not to mention the very limited luggage space available for a multi-week trip) so flying and renting a car seemed to make the most sense. Once this decision was made, we started to think about what else we could do and see while we were in that area of the country.

Let’s see…

  • I had never been to the eastern part Canada before, except for a day trip to the Niagara Falls when I was five.
  • My cousin lives in a small town in Vermont. He and his wife visited us about ten years ago but now they have two daughters who we had never met.
  • A childhood friend now lives with her husband on several acres in the Finger Lakes area of New York. She had been encouraging me to visit and I was curious to see why she loved living there so much.
  • We thought it would be fun to see Niagara Falls again. It had been awhile for my husband too.

After identifying all the places we wanted to see, we worked out a possible travel route and plugged in some preliminary dates. In order to do everything we wanted to do, we figured that we would need about a month – an amount of time that would have been problematic if one or both of us still worked. In fact, we would have started our planning process with the number of vacation days we had available, then figured out what we could see in that limited time.

I am so grateful that where we want to travel and what we want to do are now more important factors in our travel planning than how much time we can be gone.

As long as we are going… we might as well see as much as we can!

Cycling to the Chute

 

Street rider

Québec City – like most Canadian cities we visited on our recent road trip – is very bicycle-friendly. When we mentioned to our Airbnb host that we like to cycle, he recommended a ride that would take us from Lower Old Québec to Chute-Montmorency, Québec’s majestic waterfall on the Montmorency River.

Fortunately, Québec City not only has a wonderful network of hiking and bike paths, but they have several rental shops that are happy to provide bikes, helmets, locks, and a helpful map. For about $25 dollars (Canadian) each for a four-hour rental, my husband and I had everything we needed to explore the area via pedal-power.

Me rider

The ride to Montmorency Falls was a pretty easy one. Just under ten miles and fairly flat, it took us alongside the harbor, under and around railroad tracks, and through parks, residential areas, and some commercial zones. We made the ride on a Saturday but, because we started early, we didn’t have a lot of company on the trail.

Montmorency Falls Park is just a few minutes from downtown Québec City and is easily accessible by car (but, I really encourage anyone to go by bicycle if they can). There is plenty of parking, several picnic areas, and a visitors’ center where we picked up a map of the park and bought tickets for the aerial tram.

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The waterfall is 275 ft (84 m) tall, which is actually higher (98 ft or 30 m) than the Niagara Falls (as you will be proudly told more than once) and is truly spectacular. The park is really laid out nicely with well-groomed paths, a suspension bridge that spans the top of the falls, and an amazing 487-foot wooden stairway that hugs the side of a cliff. We opted to ride the aerial tram from the bottom of the park to the top of the falls and come back down via the stairway, but plenty of hardy souls take the stairs both ways. And, for the real adventurous types, there is a zip line across the falls and rock climbing opportunities.

Bike path home with Quebec City in the distance.
Bike path home with Quebec City in the distance.

After spending a couple of hours enjoying the falls, we returned to beautiful Québec City for our final afternoon and evening. We were happy to find that the main avenue had been closed off for a street fair and enjoyed several hours of music and people watching.

Then, to top off a glorious day, we were treated to a spectacular sunset. We had to leave in the morning for our next destination, but we knew that some day we’d be back.