GratiTuesday: European charm without the jet lag

Our second stop after enjoying a few days in Montreal was Quebec City, North America’s only walled city north of Mexico City. Based on a visit my husband made there many years ago (pre-me), we decided to allow for a longer stay so we had more time to take in the sights.

The fortifications were developed between 1608 and 1871, erected under both French and British regimes.
The fortifications were built between 1608 and 1871, erected under both French and British regimes.

Upon entering the old walls, it was easy to see why Old Town Quebec has been designated a World Heritage site. The stone buildings and cobblestone streets are reminiscent of European cities and, of course, the French influence is evident everywhere. We were eager to check into our Airbnb and ditch our rental car. This was a town that begged to be explored on foot.

This was to be our first experience with Airbnb and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Fortunately, from the moment we met our host, Frederick, and saw our apartment, it was obvious that we made a good choice. The apartment was well-equipped and comfortable, and the small kitchen would help us avoid too many expensive and unhealthy meals out.  It was just a few blocks from a busy area, but, since the apartment was located on a side street, it provided a quiet respite from the hub-bub. We were also pleasantly surprised that Frederick had put together a nice guidebook with helpful suggestions of things to do and see as well as places to eat.

As soon as we got unpacked, we put on our walking shoes and left to explore our new neighborhood, pick up a few groceries, and sign up for an English-language walking tour the next day.

 

I am so grateful when I visit an historical gem like Quebec City. Even though the streets are filled with tourists (and, there wasn’t even a cruise ship in port), and Subway Sandwiches and a few tacky T-shirt shops have found their way in, Quebec City has managed to hold on to its core beauty. The centuries-old architecture, historic sites, beautiful views of the Saint Lawrence River, and lovely sidewalk cafes invite you to explore this living museum.

Read more about our visit to Quebec City in my next post.

Oh Canada!

Although I have visited Canada several times, my most recent trips have been to the west coast (Vancouver and Victoria).  I was five when I visited eastern Canada, and that was only a day trip to see the Niagara Falls.

I was very much looking forward to the first stop on our month-long road trip, which began on June 14. Our itinerary had us flying in and out of Montreal, but, when we’d be in Montreal again one month later, it would be quick stay overnight by the airport. For our initial visit, we booked our hotel for two nights; not nearly enough for a city with so much to offer, but we had a lot of stops ahead of us and we could only fit in so much.

Even though we lost three hours when we travel from the west coast to the east coast, we still arrived at our destination with plenty of daylight and energy to enjoy a beautiful summer evening in Montreal. We were thrilled to discover that just a few blocks from where we were staying, Les FrancoFolies de Montreal was in full swing. This 10-day, multi-stage musical event has been held in downtown Montreal every summer in since 1989. It features hundreds of French-language performers from all over the world and many of the venues are absolutely free… how great is that?!

FrancoFolies

Our only full day in Montreal was devoted to sight-seeing. Our hotel was well-located within walking distance (a long distance, but we like to walk) from Old Montreal, the waterfront, China Town, Little Italy, and the Norte-Dame Basilica.

I love street murals and Montreal didn’t disappoint!

That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely dinner at a sidewalk café and then wandered over to the outdoor FrancoFolies stage area for more music and people-watching.

Even though we were only at the beginning of our trip, we agreed that future travels must include an extended stay in Montreal. There is so much to see and do and we knew that we had just scratched the surface.

It’s the journey, not the destination

Route 66

When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.

Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.
Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.

Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.

That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.
Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.

As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles.  Just about all of us were baby boomers.

World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.
World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.

Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.

Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.

A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.

The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.

* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.

Hit the road, Jack!

Jack Rabbit

Although our recent road trip (see this post and that post) included visits to several spectacular national parks and some family time spent with mid-west relatives, we also enjoyed stopping at interesting and often amusing roadside attractions along the way.

The era of America’s roadside attractions exploded in the 1930s, with the expansion of the highway system. Often marketed to the newly mobile public with flashy billboards and unique architecture, they were designed to attract attention and encourage travelers to stop and spend some money. Early entrepreneurs came up with crazy ideas like Mexican restaurants topped with huge sombreros, motel rooms shaped like tepees, and countless “world’s largest” just about anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, the 1956 Federal Highway Act and subsequent development of the interstate superhighways doomed many of these attractions. Some were completely demolished, leaving no trace. Others were closed years ago and only their run-down, boarded-up shells can be seen. A lucky few, though, have somehow managed to survive and can be visited and enjoyed today.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

We were told about this (apparently) world-famous drug store by a hotel owner in eastern Wyoming. He not only gave us great pointers about the best routes for us to take on our journey across South Dakota, he said that a stop at Wall Drug was pretty much mandatory.

We began to spot billboards advertising Wall Drug (“120 Miles to Wall Drug,” “Free Ice Water,” “5¢ Coffee,” “Entering Wall Drug Country”) as soon as we hit I-90 and headed east across the prairie. Even if we hadn’t heard about the place, I think the billboards would have lured us in.

Wall Board

Opened in 1931, when Wall, South Dakota was a 231-person town, Wall Drug is now less of a drug store and more of a shopping mall of kitsch. It has been featured on travel shows and in international magazines and purports to take in over $10 million and attract over two million visitors annually.

Corn Palace

Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot
Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot

Soon after leaving Wall, we began to see billboards for another small-town attraction: the Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since we both vaguely remembered hearing about the attraction (and, since who could pass up seeing a palace made of corn?), we decided to stop and check it out.

The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892 as a way to showcase South Dakota’s farming community and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 when the city of Mitchell attempted to be designated as the state capitol. In the 1920s, the Palace was rebuilt once again, this time to lure tourists, not farmers, to the area.

One of the murals made out of corn
One of the murals made out of corn

Although we arrived too late to go inside, we enjoyed wandering around the exterior and admiring the beautiful murals made of corn. The murals, designed by local artists, are reconstructed each year. This year’s theme is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota.

After our visit we did a quick Google search to find out why the Corn Palace sounded so familiar to us.  Following 9/11, when grants were being distributed by the Department of Homeland Security to beef up security at various sites deemed to be at risk, some fiscally responsible politicians felt that protecting the Corn Palace deserved a portion of the funds. In 2004, the Corn Palace gained unwanted notoriety from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in the ensuing controversy. In 2012, the Corn Palace was featured on the Stephen Colbert Show (“A Shucking Disaster: Nightmare at the Mitchell Corn Palace”).

These are just two of the roadside attractions we enjoyed on our 5,161 mile road trip. We visited many more as our trip took us west out of St. Louis, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California. I hope you’ll follow along with us to see some of the attractions made famous by travelers past and present, as we made our way home along portions of old Route 66.

Awe Creators

Tree-at-ArchesWeb

With today’s thinly veiled political-speak, anytime the term “job creator” is attached to a proposal, I’m pretty sure some billionaire is going to get richer, a corporation will see their profits soar, a politician’s slush fund will grow, and at least one regulation designed to protect the environment or worker rights will be overlooked or trashed. Decisions that promote short-term gains (for a select few) are too often made at the expense of long-term consequences (for all of us).

Fortunately, beginning more than 140 years ago, there were visionaries and influencers willing to stand up to those who wanted to develop and exploit the wilderness. Instead, they proposed that the government act as a protector of vast swatches of unspoiled nature and spectacular beauty. This idea, which began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, has now grown to include over 450 national parks, national monuments, national historical sites, national scenic trails, and other wonders which are protected and preserved for future generations.

I found myself silently thanking these courageous “awe creators” many times during the three-week road trip my husband I just returned from. If these proactive private citizens, government employees (including presidents), and even an industrialist* hadn’t embraced and promoted the concept of long-term preservation, many of our national treasures would be lost to us today.

That’s not to say we all can breathe easy thinking that the national – and state – parks are safe.  Underfunding, inattention, and political and corporate meddling are all very real threats, as are some of the very people the parks are set aside for. Through our taxes, entrance fees and in-park behavior, we all must diligently protect these wonders to ensure they will be around for generations to come.

 

Zion National Park in southern Utah
Zion National Park in southern Utah

Bryce Canyon Nation Park in southern Utah

Bryce Canyon Nation Park in southern Utah

 

 

Arches National Park in eastern Utah

Arches National Park in eastern Utah

 

 

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

 

 

Petrified-ForestWeb

Painted Desert/Petrified National Park in eastern Arizona

 

 

Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona

 

*Stephen Tyng Mather, conservationist and president of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company promoted the creation of a federal agency to oversee the national parks. He later became the first director of the National Park Service.

MatherWeb
The plaque reads: “He laid the foundation of the national park service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 1

Although I don’t have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, I think it can be helpful to take stock of the year gone by and look for ways to do more of what worked and improve on what didn’t.

2014 was a year of big changes for me because on May 16, I made the leap into retirement. Some of the changes I experienced were predictable, but some took me by surprise. I’m happy to report that most were positive, but some… not so much.

Here’s how I think I did in a few categories (more in my next post):

Embracing Retirement – A+

It's hard to predict what is around the retirement corner
It’s hard to predict what is around the retirement corner

No one can predict how well they will take to a life change as major as retirement. I remember approaching the date with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I was grateful that I had the opportunity at a fairly young age, and I looked forward to joining my husband who retired two years previously.  On the other hand, I had a good job, an almost non-existent commute, and work friends that I enjoyed and knew I would miss. My fear was that I would wake up one morning and realize that I had made a terrible – and irreversible – choice.

I know now that I had nothing to fear. I wake up every day thankful that I don’t have to go to work. I stay in touch with several of my work friends and none of our conversations that are about work make me want to dive in again.

Diet and Exercise – C

I really had every intention of putting together an exercise program and sticking to it. Nothing crazy or too time-consuming; I wanted consistent and semi-challenging. Even just walking my three-mile, hilly course around our neighborhood would have been a great start. I envisioned taking up yoga.

That didn’t happen.

The worst part is that I have no excuse. Weather – too hot or cold – is seldom a barrier in Southern California and I actually enjoy exercising once I get started. It’s the getting started that has been the problem. I’m fortunate to be in pretty good shape despite my lethargy but I know I can’t rely on my good genes forever.

Fortunately, I have been successful in keeping my weight in my target range. I was concerned that being at home with the refrigerator just a few steps away would be my undoing. Although the temptations are plenty and my husband and I go out to lunch more often than we probably should, we manage to eat fairly healthily. In addition, I continue to follow the Fast Diet, a way of eating based on intermittent fasting. After learning about Dr. Mosley’s research on a PBS program almost two years ago I lost the weight I wanted to, and have kept it off without feeling deprived. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

Travel – A

Birds of a feather in Abilene
Birds of a feather in Abilene

A couple of months before I retired I went on a two-week cross-country road trip with a friend. She had made this trip many times alone, traveling between her home in Pennsylvania and Southern California, but this time I decided to tag along. It was great fun and I saw many parts of the country I hadn’t seen before.

In June, my husband and I traveled to Northern California for a three-week adventure that included car club activities and visits with both sides of our family. It was the first time we’ve vacationed that a work schedule didn’t force us to come home earlier than we wanted.

In the fall, we took off for a three-week trip to the big island, Hawaii. We were fortunate to have a very generous friend who opened her home to us for the entire time. Staying in someone’s home and having the luxury of time made the trip very special. Not only was our host an excellent tour guide, we didn’t feel that we had to choose between snorkeling, relaxing, and sight-seeing – we could do it all.

 

In my next post, I’ll look at several other retirement goals I have and assess my efforts and outcomes for those.

Our Tax Dollars at Work

My husband and I decided to take a leisurely route on our drive home from Sacramento a few weeks ago. On our trip north, we took Highway 5, which runs up the middle of the state – it’s the best choice for getting from here to there in a single day, but there’s not much to see along the way. For our return trip, we opted to take Highway 1, which has to be one of the most beautiful highways in the country, if not the world.

I’ve traveled on this road many times; on family vacations, riding along with my parents and older brother when they delivered him to the University of California, Santa Cruz where he went to college, and then again when I attended UCSC, and a handful other trips over the years. Each time, I have been transfixed by the breathtaking beauty along California’s rugged coastline. As I got older and became more aware of these things, I marveled at the level of planning, engineering, and construction expertise that must have gone into creating this ribbon of asphalt that hugs the coastline.

This time, because we began our journey in Sacramento, we had to negotiate a number of freeways before we were able to connect up with Highway 1 in the city of Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz, our journey took us south through Capitola, Castroville (the “artichoke capital of the world”!), Monterey, and Carmel, before we began the approximately 90 miles of highway that winds along the coastal area known as Big Sur.

It is difficult to capture in words how stunning the scenery is along this route. To the north, the highway passes through a lush pine forest, then, as it winds south, the road turns toward the coast, offering views of the turquoise blue Pacific Ocean meeting a rocky shore that rises abruptly to become the Santa Lucia mountain range. Because we were traveling south, our lane was on the outside, close to the edge of the cliffs. Great for taking in the views, but a bit harrowing as we wended our way along the curvy road. Fortunately, there are many turnouts provided along the way so travelers can stop for a closer look and to take pictures.

Up until the 1930s, this part of California’s coastline was relatively inaccessible. In 1921, state and federal funds were appropriated for the ambitious project of constructing a road from Carmel to San Simeon. San Quentin Prison provided much of the unskilled labor, paying the prisoners a whopping 35 cents a day, and the promise of reduced sentences. Because of the area’s topography, 33 bridges had to be constructed, including the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge.

Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge

After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened in June of 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, it was redesignated as Highway 1, and, in 1965, became the first State Scenic Highway.

Several areas along the route are prone to landslides and the road has to be shut down from time-to-time to clear the path. Fortunately, I have never experienced one of these slides in progress – I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to have rocks and boulders suddenly rain down on my car and the road in front of me.

One of many landslides at Pitkin's Curve
One of many landslides at Pitkins Curve

In one area where a large number of landslides have occurred, the California Department of Transportation is completing an ambitious project designed to protect both travelers and the fragile coastline. At Pitkins Curve, they have realigned the road by constructing a bridge that juts out from the side of the cliffs, thereby allowing future landslides to pass under the bridge and not fall onto the road. They are also building a “rock shed,” which is I can only describe as an exterior tunnel. The theory is that rocks and boulders will fall onto the roof of the shed, rather than on the cars and cyclists on the road.

Construction of the rock shed. Image by the California Department of Transportation.
Construction of the rock shed. Image by the California Department of Transportation.
Entering the amazing rock shed
Entering the amazing rock shed

The original construction of the highway (even with the poorly paid convict laborers) was extremely expensive and could have only been done with tax dollars. I am so grateful that, back in the early part of last century, the federal government and the citizens of California wisely saw the value of such an ambitious project.

I can’t say that I enjoy paying taxes, and I certainly disagree with a lot of things my tax dollars fund. I also understand that there is a lot of waste and a certain amount of fraud in the system. It’s not perfect, but I do know that it takes a lot of money to keep all of the moving parts of this great country operating smoothly. When I travel on roads built long ago because the government and voters at that time thought it was important to dream big and create a legacy for future generations, I realize that the decisions we make today will reflect the values we hold.

In our current climate of tax resistance and reduction in government spending regardless of the societal cost, I wonder if we would have the vision and commitment to the common good to fund a project like Highway 1 today.