The ROYAL (what’s in a name?) Hotel of Costa Rica

I’ve spent many memorable nights in hotels, but none can compare to the night that I stayed at the infamous Hotel Real (Royal Hotel) in Alajuela, many, many moons ago. In retrospect, one should NEVER ask a law enforcement officer for directions to a notorious whore house that is the center of illegal drug activity and crime for the whole city. Especially so, if you are a foreigner in a strange land. I should have gotten a clue from the look on his face when I asked him for directions. But I was blissfully unaware of all of that at the time.

I learned FOUR valuable lessons that night.

While walking towards downtown Alajuela, Costa Rica looking for the Royal Hotel (What’s in a name?), I had an image in my head of a palatial old colonial structure near a beautiful central plaza. Man, how wrong I was about that!

Have you ever been alone in a foreign country and feared for your own safety? Did you think that once you got to the safety of your hotel that your fears would melt away, only to find out that your hotel ended up being the most dangerous place to be at? Then, what should you do?

I asked a few people along the way on the 3 km walk into town, for directions to the Hotel Real, but nobody seemed to know much about it. Several had never even heard of it. That seemed odd to me at the time. That should have been a big clue that something was amiss. But what would an old married couple on an evening stroll know about the location of drug houses or prostitution rings?

Then, I spotted the law enforcement officer. Surely, he could tell me how to find the hotel. The Policeman’s eyes became wide with astonishment when I asked him the first time. He stared at me intently. I thought that maybe my North American accent of my Spanish was confusing to him. So I repeated my question.

“Puede Usted decirme donde esta el Hotel Real?” I repeated, enunciating clearly. I then told him that the airline booked the hotel for me since they lost my luggage. That fact seemed to calm him a little bit, but not much. His steely gaze pierced right through my soul. Then he turned and pointed in the direction of the hotel and said that it was about two blocks away and then I would have to make a right turn.

I thanked him and went on my way. When I glanced back, he was still staring intently in my direction.

I had started the walk into town from Juan Santamaria Airport outside of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. The airlines do NOT deliver lost luggage in Central America, so I would have to come back to the airport to claim it when it arrived on tomorrow’s flight. Since San Jose is not near the airport, I inquired about local hotels. The representative at the service desk phoned several hotels, but it seemed that all were booked full. I was not sure if I should stay and sleep at the airport or not. Just then, one of the airline representative’s colleagues suggested to try phoning El Hotel Real.

Juan SantaMaria Airport near Alajuela

“Great….they have a room”, he told me as he was on the line with the hotel. It was only the equivalent of $7 USD for the night. That sounded like a bargain upgrade from sleeping at the airport, so I said YES.

“They are asking if you ONLY want the room”, he informed me. I thought that was a strange question. This should have been the first clue that something was a bit off.

“Yes, just the room for one night”, I replied.

Alajuela is just north of the capital city

The reaction of the policeman had given me a sense of uneasiness. As I turned the corner, I spotted the sign to the hotel. The building was a dilapidated three story building with crumbling stucco. Maybe at one time back in the 18th century it could have been considered to be upscale, but it looked like it hadn’t been updated in the last 200 years. Lots of pedestrians were circulating around the street outside. The sun was setting.

The reception was on the second floor. I climbed up the dimly lit stairwell. My olfactory senses detected a faint smell of stale beer and urine. Two ladies were sitting at the reception desk.

“I have a reservation for a room”, I stated, in Spanish.

“Ah yes. The American” they responded. “Do you still ONLY want the room?”, she asked.

I thought to myself….what else might she be referring to?

“Yes, just the room”, I replied with a frown.

With a wry smile, she handed me a metal key attached to a wooden stick. Unlike back in the States, the room had to be paid for in advance, in cash. I paid my $7 in Costa Rican Colones, the local currency. She handed me an old, faded towel that was as soft as 180 grit sandpaper and told me that the showers were at the end of the hall and my room was down the hall on the left.

The room had no window. The door to the room consisted of a wire cage. So much for privacy. In the middle of the room was a bed the size of a cot with a sagging mattress in the middle. The light switch turned on a 30 watt light bulb that was hanging from two frayed wires dropping down from the ceiling. I laid down on top of the bed, not wanting to see what lay under the covers. I rested with my eyes open for a while. It was going to be a long night.

It was getting late and I was hungry. I arose and decided to explore the town and look for a restaurant. I reluctantly surrendered my key to the reception and left the hotel. I would have worried about theft if I had all of my belongings with me, but they would not arrive in the country until tomorrow.

I found what looked like a decent restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, with some open air tables by the street side. When I asked for a seat, one of the waiters said that the kitchen was closing and the chef was going home. However, he said that I could have a bowl of soup or a salad which was already prepared. I agreed and ordered soup, bread and a beer.

When he brought me the food, he commented that there weren’t a lot of tourists who visited Alajuela. I told him about my eventful day.

“Where are you staying the night?”, he asked. When I told him where I was staying, he gasped in astonishment.

“You are in grave danger!”, we warned me. “The Hotel Real is a very dangerous place. Someone was killed there last week. Don’t go back there! Wait here until I get off of work. You can come home and stay at my house. I get off work in about another hour.”

Dead reader, have you felt vulnerable or been afraid for your life in a foreign country? What would you do? My passport and camera were back at the room. Would they be stolen? At some point I would have to eventually go back. And, should I trust that this waiter had the best of intentions?

Time to make a decision. Making the wrong one could have serious consequences.

Rather than wait around another hour until my newfound friend go off work, I decided to return to the hotel. He told me he would come for me when he got off work. Was he really a concerned person who would help me, or someone else who would take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? I hoped it was the former, but now had to think about the latter.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a shop and bought myself a knife with a sheath. I attached it to my belt and went back to the “Royal Hotel.” It might offer minimal protection during a mugging. I hoped I wasn’t bringing knife to a gun fight.

There were a lot of people in the lounge of the hotel watching a soccer game on TV and drinking. Most of the men had young women sitting in their laps. A picture of a naked woman hung on the wall next to the TV from a calendar that was two years old. The place was a lot noisier than when I left. The woman at the reception desk smirked as she handed me the key to my jail cell. I wondered what devious thoughts were behind that look that she gave me.

I locked myself in the room and lay on the bed with the light on. I opened the folding knife and kept it in my hand by my side. I waited for well over an hour for the waiter to come and ask me to stay at his home, but he never came.

Through the paper thin walls I could hear a couple having sex in the room next to mine. Squeaking springs, banging bedposts and moaning momentarily drowned out the loud talking, drinking and the noise of the TV in the background. Through the wire cage in my front door, I saw people constantly walking by. Were they thinking about breaking in and robbing me? Or did the room next door have a door like mine where they could view a couple having sex? Both of those alternatives were disconcerting.

I don’t know how many hours I stayed awake lying on top of the sheets with the light on and my hand on my knife, while mayhem lurked outside of the room. The night seemed like an eternity as I waited for dawn. But I must have fallen asleep at some point. At some point my eyes opened, and I didn’t hear any more noise. I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom to relieve my bladder when I noticed that it was beginning to get light outside. Time for my escape!

Gathering what few belongings I had with me, I headed for the stairwell and my escape, only to find a locked metal gate blocking my escape route. Drunks were passed out all over the floor of the steps, on both sides of the metal gate. I was trapped!

The reception desk was empty. I rang the bell and banged on the office door. Finally, a woman emerged, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She grabbed a key to the gate and opened it. I had to step carefully around all of the drunk bodies passed out on the steps. The stairwell had an even more pungent stench than the night before.

Exhilarated to make my escape relatively unscathed, I hastily hiked back to the airport and waited for the morning plane to arrive with my backpack and luggage. I survived the night and would live to see another day!

The moral of this story? Don’t be fooled by a fancy name! If a hotel was really ROYAL, it would cost more than the equivalent of $7 USD and you would not have to pay in advance in Cash. If any hotel ever asks you, dear reader, “what else would you like besides the room?”, then just run (don’t walk) in the other direction. And, if you have a feeling that something just doesn’t seem right, you are probably correct about that!

The four valuable lessons I learned on that fateful night.

  1. When you smell alcohol and urine on the way to the front desk of the hotel you have a reservation for that evening, turn around immediately and walk away.
  2. Whenever you are lost in a foreign country and ask a law enforcement officer for directions and his eyes grow wide and his jaw drops, it’s a clue that you shouldn’t go there.
  3. Never stay in a hotel room that has a wire cage for a door.
  4. Try not to check a bag when flying, but fit all of your stuff in a carry on bag. If I had done that, I would never have had the “Hotel Real Experience.”

Now, if I ever have to take a lie detector test for some reason, and someone asks the question “have you ever spent the night in a whore house?”, I would have to truthfully answer YES. Would it make any difference if I added the fact that it happened at a ROYAL HOTEL? Probably not…..

But, at the same time I would have to insist that they also ask me, “did you pay for anything besides the room?” Thankfully, and truthfully, I can honestly answer “NO”.

Walking Redmond, Oregon

When thinking about recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook Redmond. Bend gets most of the press, but we recently drove to the town to our north for a weekend hike and were not disappointed. With gas prices being sky high, we are doing much more urban hiking closer to home.

We combined walking the paved Dry Canyon trail and then walked back through downtown and some residential neighborhoods for a good mix of rural, urban and suburban hiking all rolled into one 9 mile hike. Beth and I parked our car at the southwest terminus on Quartz Avenue and headed north. It was a very hot late-June day, and we started the hike mid-morning. The actual paved trail is 3.8 miles each way.

signpost at southern terminus

Dry Canyon trail passes through several local parks along the route. One of the parks has a climbing wall next to the soccer fields.

At the busy intersection of the trail and Hwy. 126 (Highland Avenue), the trail passes under the road through a tunnel near American Legion Park. The smooth, asphalt trail is suitable for bikes, in-line skates, skateboards, and wheelchairs as well as a walking path.

crossing under Highland Avenue
near north part of Dry Canyon

Further north, the canyon narrows and takes a couple of sinuous bends. According to interpretive markers on the trail, the sides of the canyon are rimrock basalt which overlays the Deschutes Geologic Formation, which is over 4 million years old. However, the floor of the canyon is from more recent flows from the Newberry Volcano to the south (approx. 75,000 years old). It is thought that the canyon was carved by the Deschutes River, which abandoned this channel about 75,000 years ago when eruptions of viscous lava blocked the river upstream near Bend and diverted it into its present channel. Some of that lava oozed into Dry Canyon to smooth out the bed of the canyon.

access point near north end of Trail

There are points where one can access the trail from the roads above. The official trail ends at the sewage treatment plant to the north. You can then turn around and walk back to your car using the path, or take one of the side exits and walk your way back on city streets. We chose to do part of the trail back and take a closer look at the Maple Avenue Bridge.

Maple Avenue Bridge above the canyon

The Maple Avenue Bridge is 70 feet tall and was constructed in 2007 using three 210 foot arch spans. Since Central Oregon is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, climbing bolts have been anchored to the underside of one of the arches.

climbing bolts on bridge’s underside

From a distance, the underside of the bridge looks like it has a lot of bird nests built on the underside of the bridge. However, we noticed that all of the “bird nests” were only on ONE section of the bridge, which piqued our interest. It is not likely that nests would only be built on one span. We walked the 100 yards or so, and on closer inspection saw that these “bird’s nests” were hand holds that were placed there by humans, and there were clip-ins so that climbers could practice climbing “negative slope”.

Further south, we climbed up the access stairs to Fir Street and headed back into town. Notice the narrow groove in the side of the stairway, for easily walking your bike up and down the stairs. Lots of folks choose to ride their bikes on the trail instead of walking.

Fir Street access stairs

At the top of the stairs you enter an established neighborhood. The house on the corner of Fir and 10th was nicely landscaped, so we snapped a picture to remember it.

It’s interesting to walk in older neighborhoods. Most don’t have sidewalks, but if neighborhood expansion happened at a later date, often the newer regulations called for sidewalks. Curiously, this sidewalk only lasted one block and then we had to walk in the street again. Redmond streets are laid out in a grid pattern, with named streets which run east-west placed in alphabetical order. It’s hard to get lost unless you don’t know your alphabet.

sidewalks for one block

A few blocks of walking east from the Canyon will bring you to 6th street, one of the main North/South roads that brings you through the heart of town. We hung a right turn and headed south into town. The City of Redmond went out of their way to make the roadside visually appealing and welcoming to tourists with banners and flower pots.

Once you enter downtown there are several places that you can go for either shopping or eating. Since we have previously enjoyed lunch and refreshments at General Duffy’s Waterhole on 5th street, we opted to try someplace new.

General Duffy’s Waterhole (photo:Eaglecrest)

We first passed by Centennial Park and took a short break and people watched. Kids and families were enjoying the sunny day and playing in the water fountains to beat the heat of a hot day.

Centennial Park in Downtown Redmond.

We continued walking south on 7th street and stopped by Cascade Lakes Brewing for lunch. It is just north of the Fred Meyer store on 7th street. We found a shady table outside and enjoyed a healthy lunch and a cold brew.

Right next door to Cascade Lakes Brew Pub is Hutch’s Bicycles. We didn’t stop in, but did take a picture of the Dad joke that they had on the company sign board.

A short block north of the Brew Pub and the Bicycle shop is the intersection of Highland Avenue, a busy East-West road. It had good sidewalks and we hiked back west towards the Dry Canyon Trail. Highland is one way street near the middle of town, but turns into a wide four lane road with center turn lanes just a short distance from the downtown core.

Highland Avenue in town

Like the rest of Central Oregon, Redmond has grown a lot in the last two decades. Walking lets one take in all of the changes. Bike lanes have been added to Highland Avenue, as have been many new businesses. We enjoyed nice views of Cline Buttes and the Cascade Mountains in the background. New pedestrian friendly crosswalks with signals have been installed recently, making it a hassle free walk. We chose to walk on the south side of the street, where we might occasionally get some shade from trees next to the north- facing sidewalk.

Walking west on the sidewalk next to Highland Avenue

We took a left on the road right before where the trail passes under Highland Avenue. Just a few blocks to the south, we saw a dirt path that would put you back on the Dry Canyon trail.

connecting trail just south of Highland Ave.

Just less than another mile and we were back at the southern terminus on Quartz Avenue. There is ample on-street parking to access the trail.

All in all, we walked just over 9 miles for the day, on mostly flat land except for a couple of flights of stairs. You can make this walk as short or long as you like. Redmond also has some mountain bike trails outside of town. Located about 17 miles north of Bend and situated several hundred feet lower in altitude, Redmond’s micro-climate is somewhat drier than Bend’s. If you are flying in from other parts of the country, your plane will be landing in REDMOND! So, if you are recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook this small city that has a lot to offer!

Racism, Pandemics, Baseball and July the 7th

Two years ago in July of 2020, I wrote a post at the start of the pandemic which tied together a few things that might seem unrelated at first. Racism, Baseball and Pandemics were all tied around the date of July the 7th. That story was about memoir and descriptions about place in some moments in time.

Places change. They change due to changes in the Physical Environment (climate, earthquakes, fire, etc.), but more often they change as a function of the changing environment of the humans that inhabit those places (economics, demographics, politics, etc.).

Dear reader, even if you read this post two years ago, I invite you to re-read it, along with the additions to it which recounts the change over time during the past two years. The world is way different than it was just two short years ago. If we are all trying to figure out where we are going, it helps to see where we have come from and measure how much progress we have made over time. If you haven’t read it previously, the post now has subtitles categorized by time.

Click on the link below to access the full story.

Pandemics, Baseball, dealing with Racism, and July the 7th

Shalom….

Savoring Life’s Moments with Friends

by guest blogger Kathy Duchesne

Sharing special moments and experiences with friends allows for personal growth and can extend the depth of relationships. Three of my friends and I brainstormed some places that we might go together to enjoy ourselves and experience something new. The challenge was that we liked to do different things. We all liked to do some walks together, but we couldn’t find any ONE place we could all get excited about. That is, until we discovered that there was a tropical rainforest in Massachusetts. Who knew? And the surrounding area had something that suited each of our diverse tastes.

Nature destination

After not doing much traveling due to covid, the four of us decided to do an overnight jaunt to northern Massachusetts. We left my hometown of Willimantic, CT at 7:30am, hoping to get to the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in South Deerfield, MA by 10 A.M. when it opened, leaving us time to do a pit stop on the way. We arrived at the stroke of 10 and entering this butterfly conservatory felt like emerging into a warm paradise. There was an added bonus of soft, restful music playing. We were surrounded by multitudes of butterflies and tropical flowers. It was like an instant trip to a rainforest in South America. Butterflies flitted all around us, landing on shoes and shirts and brushing by our heads. It felt truly magical.

Of course we had to purchase a butterfly feeder to take home with us!
Glass-wing butterflies. You can see through their wings!
Tropical flowers and butterflies abound.
Butterfly on Carol’s sneaker.

After a few hours of being mesmerized by these delicate creatures, we left to pick up some sandwiches and view the area from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Summiting Sugarloaf was recommended as something every visitor to the area should do. Readers need to know that we were 4 somewhat out of shape women in their 70’s, so hearing the road goes right to the top of the mountain made it an exciting destination! But when we got to the road that leads to the summit, we found it closed off due to road paving. There was no way other than hiking the whole way to get to the top! Our expectations led to disappointment as expectations often do. We therefore decided to focus on the experiences at hand and found a lovely place to picnic on the grounds of Yankee Candle. The area was complete with picnic tables, gorgeous flowers, and even relaxing music from outdoor speakers. Only two other people were enjoying this pleasant outdoor dining experience. After lunch we strolled through the giant Yankee Candle complex with its overwhelming smells and sights before seeking another adventure.

Lunch outside Yankee Candle flagship store.

Historic Destination

After lunch we drove through some beautiful farmland to Historic Deerfield. Being there was truly a trip back in time, with homes built in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s along with two schools and three working farms. The Nissan Cube we traveled in almost felt out of place. A horse and buggy would have felt more appropriate here.

Old Deerfield Village.

We checked into our motel (a Red Roof Inn) in the late afternoon and then returned to Magic Wings since our admission allowed re-entry. We enjoyed a few more hours there and found a brewery that served pizza nearby for supper. After playing a few rounds of Rummikub near the pool area in the motel (Julie won them all!), we declared it a very satisfactory day.

A fun round of Rummikub.

Day Two

Literary destination

Friday morning we stopped for breakfast and headed north to Greenfield, MA. We very much enjoyed the camaraderie and planning another day of adventure while we drank our coffee and enjoyed fresh baked English muffins. The first stop was Poets Seat Tower. It was dedicated to poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who “studied nature and wrote verse” in Greenfield. The original tower was built with wood in 1879, and replaced by stone in 1912. It seemed to be a popular place to visit, which nicely overlooked the town and surrounding area. Unfortunately it was decorated with some graffiti, but the stonework was beautiful.

Poet’s Seat Tower.
View of Greenfield looking south from Poet’s Seat Tower.

Historic destination #2

Our next destination of the day was in Turners Falls, a village in the town of Montague. We did a quick detour to a thrift store (we have always had a passion for thrift stores) on our way to find the Canalside Rail Trail. This pathway enables folks to walk or bike alongside the Connecticut River. We were fortunate to park near the Great Falls Discovery Center which is housed in former paper mill buildings. Inside we viewed displays about the 410 mile long Connecticut River’s watershed (which we know some of it well, being from CT). Outside we observed the Gill-Montague Bridge over the river and the dam to divert the mighty Connecticut into a deep, swift running canal. You could see remains of old paper mills downstream which made this area thrive in the 1800’s. The Canalside Trail was paved and made for easy walking, and is a joyous path.

Old papermill buildings by canal at Turner’s Falls MA.
The Gill-Montague Bridge.
Great Falls Discovery Center.

Geological & Botanical Destinations

Shelburne Falls was our next stop. We viewed one of the largest collection of glacial potholes (kettles) in the world. The potholes are located below Salmon Falls on the Deerfield River. These continue to be enlarged at winter’s end with the snow melt, and were VERY impressive. We also toured the Bridge of Flowers, an old trolley bridge turned into a beautiful garden. Even though it was early May, it was full of beautiful flowers from one end to the other.

Glacial potholes.
Checking out posies on the Bridge of Flowers.
Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, MA.

As we sat and had dinner at a Cracker Barrel on the way home, we marveled at how much we had experienced in just two days. So many diverse learning excursions in one small area of north central Massachusetts had us forget that we never got to summit Mt. Sugarloaf. Perhaps another overnight excursion in the future. We were very grateful that we could spend 2 days together exploring this area together, and uplifted by our encounters we could share. Adventures with friends, even just a simple overnight as this one was, filled us with gratitude for the blessing of friendship. I hope you may do the same with good friends.

The video below will give you a sample of the feeling of the magic of visiting Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory. For most North American readers, this will be the nearest Tropical Rainforest you can visit!

Highlights of Oregon’s Central Coast

Oregon’s Central Coast has something for everyone. Whatever the reason for your visit, whether it is for natural scenic beauty, beach combing, adventure, history, or just relaxation and culinary delights, you will not be disappointed.

Typically the Central Coast of Oregon includes areas from Depoe Bay at the north end to Florence at the southern end and everything in between. Rugged sea side cliffs are punctuated by areas of flat sandy beaches and river estuaries where you will find good harbors where small cities are located. On our most recent three day trip, we covered the ground between Nye Beach just north of Newport all the way down to Florence. For those having at least one more day, I would recommend visiting Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Otter Rock and Agate Beach before having lunch in Depoe Bay, which claims that it has the world’s smallest navigable harbor. Depending on what time of year you go, you might likely spot a migrating Gray Whale just off the coast.

map of Oregon’s Central Coast

Newport area

We left our home in the high desert in the morning and made the 4 hour drive across the Cascade Mountains and arrived at Nye Beach by early afternoon. It wasn’t raining and there was a steady Northwest wind. It was just cool enough with the wind that you wanted to wear long sleeves. We were greeted on our walk to the beach by a para-glider who maneuvered his craft just over our path.

Nye Beach with Yaquina Head Light in the distance
flying low…no zoom lens needed for this picture!

Located on the banks of the Yaquina River, the harbor of Newport is a hub for commercial fishing and crabbing, in addition to offering attractions for tourists. The downtown has lots of buildings with Victorian architecture. You will likely see commercial fishermen mingling with tourists in this Bayfront area.

Dungeness crab Pots on the wharf

Right next to Pacific Seafoods Inc., immediately adjacent to downtown is a short pier overlooking the docks that California Sea Lions like to rest on. Their raucous bellows can be heard from almost anywhere on the Bayfront.

Resting California Sea Lions

Oregon Artists have painted many murals on the buildings in downtown Newport. The mural below was painted by Bend artist Rick Chambers, the husband of a former co-worker of mine.

Scene of Downtown Newport, OR

south of Newport

Once you cross the river on Hwy. 101 you will be able to access the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Just a little further to the south is the turn off to the Mike Miller Educational Trail Head. We’ve passed by here many times without visiting, but were glad we stopped this time.

The gentle path leads you through the rain forest. We walked through a tunnel of lush growth with azaleas in bloom all around us.

Trail at Mike Miller Park

Yachats area

Yachats is roughly half way between the towns of Newport and Florence. We chose to make Yachats (pronounced YAH’ hots) our home base to explore the Central Coast. We stayed two nights at the Overleaf lodge in Yachats as we have stayed there previously and found it to be a nice property. Besides being centrally located between Newport and Florence, it is adjacent to some spectacular natural features such as the Devil’s Churn, Cape Perpetua, and Heceta Head Lighthouse.

All rooms at the Overleaf Lodge have an ocean view. There is a trail you can walk into town from outside of your room that parallels the coastline just above the beach. We usually have a room on the ground floor with a patio right outside, with close shoreline access.

View o/s the Lodge

The reception area has a dining room adjacent to it and breakfast is included. Guests are given their choice of a welcome cocktail or soft drink upon their first night’s arrival.

Reception area of Overleaf

Yachats, also known as the “Gem of the Oregon Coast”, is a friendly town, small enough that all of the locals know one another. They are welcoming to out of town guests. Even the wildlife show their respect for others by keeping at least 6 feet away and wearing masks to keep the community safe!

Respectful wildlife

Just a few miles away to the south on the coastal highway will bring you to the Devil’s Churn, a narrow cut into the volcanic cliffs where the pounding surf beats loudly against the rocks.

Close by are the high, rugged cliffs of Cape Perpetua, which begs a drive up a sinuous road to reach the top where you are afforded breathtaking views of the coastline from the vantage point of a seagull.

View from atop Cape Perpetua

There are some trails from the top parking lot which go into the surrounding rain forest. If you are lucky enough, you might run into a deer grazing in the trail. I saw this little one just a few hundred feet from the top parking lot.

Oh deer!

From Cape Perpetua you have access to 26 miles of interconnected looping hiking trails. If you are less energetic, you can drive back down to sea level and take a short walk to see Thor’s Well, an ocean sinkhole.

Thor’s Well sunset, Cape Perpetua, Oregon Coast (photo:Oregon is for Adventure)

Further south on the Coast Highway will bring you past Heceta Head lighthouse. There is a pull off on the side of the highway where you can take a picture like the one below. For a small fee for close-by parking, one can enter the grounds of the lighthouse and wander around the keeper’s house.

Heceta Head Light

There are many accessible beaches on the route to Florence. We passed up many of them and chose to hike the trail to Hobbit Beach, so named because of the 1/2 mile trip you have to hike through the rainforest to get to the beach.

If you have ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the prequel “The Hobbit” you will imagine that you are walking through the Mirkwood Forest. The twisted trees resemble the Ents in that story. As you walk through the tunneled, dark forest you will find yourself peeking around the corner in hopes of spotting an elf, a dwarf, or some hobbits.

Ent like?
Trail through the Mirkwood Forest

The trail descends through the forest and opens up to a secluded beach where you will see just a few other people. The car parking area on the side of the highway is small which keeps the number of hikers low. You should always consult a tide table ahead of time to check the times and heights of the day’s tides. The highest tide fluctuations coincide closely with the phases of the moon when it is either New or Full.

View from Hobbit Beach

Florence area

Traveling further south, the landscape makes a dramatic transition from sea cliffs to a long area dominated by sand dunes. Florence is known as “Oregon’s Coastal Playground” due to the nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area which is a mecca for dune buggies, sand-boarders, birders and hikers.

Transition from Coastal Cliffs to Dunes

Like Newport, Florence has an Old Town situated on a river, this one being the Siuslaw River. Old Town has a lot of shops and restaurants that add to the charm of the waterfront location.

Bay Street in Old Town

One of Beth’s favorite shops is Bonjour, an International clothing store. I appreciate that they thoughtfully put a chair outside the front door for husbands to relax in while their wives are shopping inside. If it is still too cold to sit in the shade outside the store, there is a nice coffee shop a block and a half away under the bridge.

Bonjour on Bay street in Old Town Florence

Crossing over the bridge from Old Town will bring you to the entrance to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

Take the South Jetty Road west from Hwy 101 into the dunes. There are several parking areas to access the high dunes and it is several miles to the end of the road at the South Jetty of the Siuslaw River. Lydia’s broom was in bloom among the foredunes when we visited in late May.

Lydia’s broom in bloom on the dunes

The dunes are quite high and rival the height of the dunes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They aren’t quite as high as the ones we climbed in Namibia though. There are several trails that lead from a plethora of car parks along the road.

Some areas are designated for off road vehicles and dune buggies. While that is not our preferred mode of recreation, we did stop and take some pictures in those areas.

After exploring Florence and the Dunes area, we retreated back to Yachats and the comfort of the Overleaf Hotel. To our amazement, the Oscar Meyer Weenie-mobile was parked in the parking lot near our car. What a life the driver must have being paid to travel the country in that one-of-a-kind RV!

The Overleaf has a few charging stations in their parking lot for electric vehicles too.

After breakfast the next morning, we headed out the door of the hotel and took the Coastal Trail to the North. The Oregon Coast Trail covers nearly all but 10% of Oregon’s 362 mile coastline. It crosses beaches, climbs over headland, winds through shaded forest corridors and passes through 28 coastal towns. Some parts of the trail are on the shoulder of Hwy 101 and not all of the trail is contiguous. About 10% of the entire length of the trail has “gap” sections, where it is either too dangerous or routes are inaccessible. But even a day hike on a section offers rewards for the hiker.

Section of the OCT north of Yachats
Trailside flowers

Having our need for Ocean air satisfied, we again felt the need to smell sagebrush and juniper, so we headed back over the Cascade Mountains and returned home. The picture below is of Mt. Washington near Santiam Pass. In a few more months throngs of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail will be passing by here. There won’t be nearly that much snow when we make a return trip to the Oregon Coast later in the year.

Nature’s Art: Patterns on an Oregon Beach

The scene below looks like a picture of a group of projectiles heading in the same direction. Using your imagination it could represent any number of things. It could be a close-up photo of a sport climbing wall shot from a different angle. It might also be a group of asteroids soaring through space just after a star exploded. Could it be fireworks falling from the sky on the Fourth of July? Or could they be sperm swimming and racing to be the first one to reach an egg? Can you think of any other possibilities?

Mother Nature is an awesome abstract artist. For this piece of art, all she needed was a steady northwest wind and for the canvas to be just below the high tide line. The stones were polished and rounded by abrasion from wave action in the surf zone. An incoming tide combined with some wave action, deposited them near the high tide line. A brief intrusion of sea water packed down the sand below to provide a harder, more uniform surface for the stones to lay upon.

Now that Mother Nature had the stones glued onto the canvas, she needed brush strokes trailing from the stones, all in the same direction. For this, she used the steady northwest wind to blow and thus carry dry sand across the beach. Since the stones already protruded up off of the beach, they blocked the wind, allowing blowing sand particles to slow enough to be dropped just behind them. In any other areas of the beach, the wind is still strong enough to keep the sand moving and not allowing it to build up.

This is only a temporary art display. A change in wind direction, tidal height change by moon phase, or increased surf activity coinciding with a high tide will wipe this mural clean. Then, Nature can create a different art form. If you ever used an etch-a-sketch as a kid, you know what I mean.

Some of Nature’s Art is more permanent, such as you would find in rock formations. Nature’s Art happens to be more ephemeral in littoral zones. But dismay not, since tomorrow brings a new piece of art to a new canvas. Get out your tide tables and head to the beach after a new or full moon to find an art installation near the high tide line!

The Happy Isles of Western Estonia

While nearing the end of my bicycle journey through the happy isles of Western Estonia…..Writing a love letter from Estonia to a girl in the States…..

She wasn’t just any girl….she was my niece. And this is the first time I had ever written to her. How do you tell a young person for the first time that you love them? And how do tell her without making her feel uncomfortable? Well, you can do it simply by addressing a postcard just to her from an exotic place (like Estonia), share your experiences with her, and let her know you were thinking of her.

downtown Tallinn from Toompea Hill

The trip started in Tallinn, the charming capital city of Estonia. After a LONG travel day from the States to Europe, with a canceled flight from Amsterdam to Tallinn which rerouted me through Stockholm in the middle of the night, I decided to spend a few days in Estonia’s delightful capital city before beginning the bicycle trip.

Location of Estonia in Europe

I booked a room at Fat Margaret’s Hostel, just outside of the north gate to the historical Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town blends an interesting mix of old and new, with trendy cafes and wireless internet zones found by wandering centuries-old cobblestone streets behind fortified stone walls. It is one of the purest medieval old towns in all of northern Europe. The city has a unique cross-cultural flavor, due to its strategic geographical maritime location and influences from Finns, Swedes, German Knights, Danes, and Russians. Tallinn’s population is more than four times larger than the next largest Estonian city, but it still retains a small town vibe.

the gates to the old city
One of the main squares in Old Town

After a few days of exploring the city and recovering from jet lag, I rented a bicycle and pedaled a few kilometers over to the train station. I loaded my bike onto the train and took a two hour ride to Parnu, a spa town on the western shore of the mainland. From here, one can access Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, the two largest islands off Estonia’s west coast. As you can see in the picture below, Estonian trains are bike friendly. Now the bicycle trip begins!

bike on the train to Parnu
Map of Estonia: VectorStock.com

After riding around Parnu and exploring its environs, I stayed at Voorad Oos (Strangers in the Night) hostel near the center of town. Parnu is a laid back town, but still with some of the old world charm of Tallinn.

hostel in Parnu, Estonia

I headed out on the coastal road the next morning. Light traffic, relatively flat terrain, and a small marked shoulder on the side of the road made for a pleasant ride through the bucolic countryside. Much of the vegetation is boreal forest which is occasionally interrupted by bog or farmland fields. Estonia has a long and dramatically beautiful coastline. Saaremaa, the largest island is also known for its unique flora, and is a stopover point for migrating Arctic waterfowl using the East Atlantic Flyway. I was on the lookout for moose on the stretch of the road shown below.

typical road in Estonia with narrow shoulder for biking

On the coastal road from Parnu there were ample opportunities to stop at roadside picnic areas and interpretative sites. Thankfully, kiosks used multiple written languages, one of which was English. At the town of Tostamaa, I stopped by a public library, where I could access the internet and check emails.

roadside park near Tostamaa
A shelter from rain or sun

Occasionally, an old church would pop up around the next bend in the road, begging for a photo stop.

roadside Orthodox Church

Dispersed camping is frowned upon in Estonia, but as long as you are discreet about it there usually isn’t a problem with it, like there is in most Eastern European countries and in Denmark. At the end of the first day of cycling, I found this secluded patch of woods bordered by a marine inlet. The trees protected me from a brisk wind and some rain droplets in the middle of the night.

first campsite in Estonia

A morning ride brought me to the ferry at Virtsu, which quickly and efficiently shuttled passengers and cars over to Saaremaa. I was the lone bicyclist on that voyage.

ferry between islands

Once I began pedaling on Saaremaa, I faced strong headwinds. It is no coincidence that there are lots of windmills in Estonia, both historical and contemporary ones. The picture below is from Angla Windmill park which has several well preserved Dutch style trestle windmills built about a century ago.

historic windmills at Angla Windmill Park

Usually near the outskirts of a town you would find a convenience store that is the equivalent of an American 7-11 store. Eesti is a difficult language, but pictures of food on billboards make shopping easier. I never felt unsafe in Estonia. People are genuinely nice, although not overtly outgoing. It’s really nice to be able to get a coffee or snack every 15 miles or so.

Eesti that is easily translated

Fields of flowers seem to like the long days of northern latitude summers, and give bicyclists a reason to stop, enjoy the moment and take a picture. It also gives one a reason to stop without using a respite from the headwinds as an excuse.

Upon entering the large village of Kuressaare, I checked by the tourist office. The staff assisted me in finding a homestay for the night. Kuressaare is one of the few places that you will find amenities on Saaremaa. In addition to a clean bed and a shower, the host washed, dried and folded my clothes for an extra 7 Euros. She also suggested a good restaurant in town within walking distance. I passed up the use of kitchen privileges in the house and traded my own cooking for an authentic Estonian meal from a local restaurant.

a private homestay

The restaurant was just a few blocks away to the East. Since I arrived early before the evening rush, there were only a few patrons in the restaurant when I dined there. The server spoke perfect English and she suggested the special of chicken, vegetables and soup.

restaurant in Kuressaare

She also bragged about the local beer and said what made it special is that it was brewed with Cascade Hops. I told her that I live at the base of the Cascade mountains and all of the local brews I am familiar with are made with these same hops. Midway through the meal she checked with me to make sure the Pintla beer lived up to my expectations. I convinced her it did by ordering another one at the end of the meal.

Estonian meal
their beer contained Cascade hops

Leaving Kuressaare the next morning, I headed across the island to catch the ferry to the neighboring island of Hiiumaa. The wind had died down, but it looked like rain was in the forecast. Halfway across the island, the skies opened up. Even though the area is very rural, there are bus shelters far from town. I often used them as rest stops, as the buses run infrequently out here. With nobody around I could fire up the camp stove and make a hot cup of tea or coffee to warm myself up.

a rest stop at a bus shelter

I made a short side trip to see the Kaali meteor crater, a lake where a meteor crash-landed about 7500 years ago. It was pouring down raining when I was there, so I will cite someone else’s picture below.

Kaali meteor crater: Photo-Flickr

When I got to the ferry terminal, it was abandoned and closed. I looked at the schedule posted on the outside of a building and it seemed that the only ferry that day would be in the early evening. Rather than wait six hours in a cold rain and risking not being able to find lodging on Hiiumaa, which is even less inhabited, I headed east on the north side of Saaremaa towards the town of Orissaare. It was the only other town on the island that might have lodging. I got to the library there just before it closed and found a listing for a homestay just about a kilometer away.

Home stay at Orissaare

The dorm style room was small, but I was exceeding happy to live in it for a night for just 20 Euros. The gracious hosts also had a sauna, which I used to thaw out my chilled body. Saunas are an important part of the culture for Estonians and Finns. They sure do have that part right! I felt like a new man after a sauna and a good night’s sleep.

my room at the guest house in Orissaare

From Orissaare it is only about a 16 mile bike ride across another smaller island linked by a causeway to the ferry terminal at Kuivistu. Ferries back to the mainland are much more frequent there and I only had about 45 minutes to wait for the next one.

Once back on the mainland at Virtsu, I started heading Northeast. A local person at Virtsu told me about camping below the historic Kasari Bridge, about halfway to my destination of Haapsalu. The bridge, built in 1904, was the longest reinforced concrete bridge in Europe at the time of its construction. It is now a pedestrian only bridge. Beneath it, on the banks of the Kasari River, I pitched my tent for the last time in the Republic of Estonia and had a peaceful night’s sleep.

Part of my bike trip followed Eurovelo Route 10, the Baltic Sea Cycle route. Eurovelo is an organization that promotes bicycle tourism in Europe and has several cross continental routes.

Part of the Baltic Sea Eurovelo route (#10)

The last day of biking brought me to Haapsalu, where I raced a bus into the bus station. It happened to be the last bus back to Tallinn, which I was lucky enough to catch. I turned in the bike at the rental shop in old town and stayed an extra two nights at Fat Margaret’s hostel before renting a car and touring other parts of Estonia and Latvia. I’ll leave that portion of the trip for another post. Then, I proceeded to write a postcard to my niece in the States.

Downtown Tallinn

I’m sure my niece was the only person in her high school to get a postcard from Estonia. Besides affirming my love for her, I hope it piqued her interest in travel, in hopes of expanding her world.

This trip took place a couple of years ago, and now she is in college. Now that Putin’s war is threatening Europe, I hope that she and her peers are learning about the real places in Eastern Europe that are threatened. I know the Estonians, who share a border with Russia, are anxious for the rest of the world to know about them and appreciate and value their beautiful country.

After my recent bicycle accident, I even more appreciate the time I spent bicycling through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia. Although there won’t be any bike camping trips this year, I’m working hard in Physical Therapy to be able to do something similar in the near future. Until then, I will satisfy myself with memories of this wonderful trip!

Estonian Road map

To keep the memory of this trip alive and to promote awareness to my community of Estonia and the Baltic States, I often fly the Estonian flag at my house. I also just ordered an infrared sauna, which I hope will arrive within a week. When it is set up, I’ll sit in it, close my eyes and transport myself back to the Happy Isles of Western Estonia…

Estonian flag o/s of my house

Becoming John Wesley Powell

At some point in our lives we will all be faced with becoming John Wesley Powell in one way or another.

I’ve always admired the famous explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). He was one of the first explorers to run the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

the epic account of the trips…book is STILL in print

He was an explorer, geologist, professor and ethnographer. I admired him in many ways. However, he also had a darker side. I always wanted to emulate only his better qualities. But on March 22nd of this year, I’ve come to be like him in a way that I never intended to. And that terrifies me!

A river trip is one of the ultimate geographical journeys. A river trip through the Grand Canyon takes it to another level.

map of 1869 expedition (Kaibab.org)

A journey down a river can be a symbol for or journey through life. Like rivers, our lives have a starting point (headwaters). Our lives, like rivers, often take sinuous paths through the landscape, passing through place after place only once until we reach the end of our route. Sometimes the water is calm and flows slowly. Other times, there are wild rides through big rapids. The destination may not be as significant as the journey.

I relate to Powell since we both had a penchant for exploring, although the world was much more wild at the time of his explorations than were mine. He spent four months walking across Wisconsin in 1855. I’ve spent at least that much time walking the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian Trail, and other long distance trails, but with the walks spread over many years. In 1856 he rowed the entire Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The following year, he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi. In contrast, my longest water trips were only one week; a 150 mile canoe trip down the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska, and one-week sea kayak trips through various fjords in Southeast Alaska. It seems he was much tougher than I was.

We did have a few other things in common. We both became college professors later in our lives; he in Geology and me in Geography. We both were fascinated with landforms; their patterns on the landscape and the processes which form them. We both care about conservation and land preservation for future generations. We both were interested in studying other cultures. But that is where our similarities end.

There was a darker side to Powell which I did not want to emulate. While he did publish an ethnography and classification of Indian languages, and studied the effects of acculturation on aboriginal peoples, he had a paternalistic view toward native people. It is no coincidence that the timing of his geologic expeditions overlapped with the time of imperialistic military ventures associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Powell advocated for resource exploitation and Native removal from their lands. This is where our outlook on the world bifurcates. Maybe we were both products of the times that we lived in.

There were other major differences between us. Powell was a veteran who fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. I have no military experience, as the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft were over just before I was of age to serve. Powell was shot in the right arm during the Battle of Shiloh and had most of his right arm amputated. Which means he did his epic 3 month river expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers with only one arm. I had two arms for my river and sea kayak expeditions.

That is, until this March 22nd. That was the day I became like John Wesley Powell in a way that I never wanted to.

While taking a short training ride on my bicycle for an upcoming trip, I slowed the bike down to get around a gate blocking the paved bike path. I could not get my foot loose from the toe clips and crashed and fell hard on my left side. Foolishly, I instinctively stuck out my left elbow to protect me from the fall. The sickening sound of my humerus bone shattering was an explosion in my ear, and I felt excruciating pain from my elbow to my shoulder. I lay on the ground writhing in pain while hoping that someone might be walking their dog or riding their bike to come by and help. Now I know how helpless a turtle flipped upside down on his shell feels. I wriggled on my back for more than 10 minutes. Finally, someone saw me, came over, and called the paramedics.

The injury was more severe than a simple broken bone. It was a compound fracture in five places, where the head of the humerus bone split in half. After a four and a half hour surgery, two metal plates and countless screws installed, I was sent home from the hospital on the fourth day. Over a month later my arm is still mostly useless. In the blink of an eye, I became a one-armed man like J.W. Powell. It could happen to any one of us.

statue of J.W.Powell in Green River, Utah

Daily life is a challenge having only one arm. I wondered, “How did Mr. Powell pilot a raft down the mighty Colorado with only one arm?” He surely was a much tougher man than I will ever be!

Fears of what my life might look like from now on begin to consume me. What if I am never able to paddle my kayak again? Are my days of camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors gone forever? With just one functioning arm I can’t even tie my own shoes, let alone set up a tent. Forget about being able to cut a piece of meat at dinner. Other things one cannot do with just one arm include completely toweling off after a shower, practicing archery, folding clothes well, shucking corn, threading the belt loops on the pants you are wearing, uncorking a bottle of wine, trimming your fingernails, opening a lid on a jar, flossing, using loppers to trim bushes in your yard, signaling a touchdown in football, peeling potatoes, using a broom and a dustpan at the same time, popping a pimple, clapping in applause, serving in tennis, slicing a baguette, driving a stick shift, and cleaning the armpit of your good arm, among other things. Tie your own arm behind your back for one full day and I’m sure you will come up with many more examples. It is both humbling and scary when you realize just how fragile our existence really is. What it really does reveal is that no matter how independent you might think you are, we all depend on help from someone else from time to time.

All of this makes me appreciate John Wesley Powell even more. Not only did he lead the first government expedition down an uncharted dangerous river through lands where the natives were often hostile, but he made a couple more scientific expeditions down the Colorado. The 1869 trip proved the river could be run. That made him a national hero. The subsequent expeditions in 1871-72 were accompanied by photographers, artists, cartographers and other scientists. From riverside camps, Powell would often scale vertical cliffs with his one arm, to take rock samples and find perches for the artists to document the extent of the canyon country. What he could do with one arm was unbelievable.

sketches of the Grand Canyon from the Powell expeditions

But Powell made his first down the Colorado a full seven years after losing his arm. Maybe at first he was just as scared about his disability as I am about my own now. Maybe it took him a few years of living with his disability to adapt to it and overcome his fears. He certainly still did need help from others though. Somebody had to tie his shoes for him each morning before they got back in the boat. Somebody else was peeling the potatoes and cleaning the fish he was eating at camp.

Which makes me realize that we ALL have a disability in life to overcome or adapt to. You may have two good arms, but possibly have some other type of physical impairment. Or, your challenge might be psychological or economic. You might be handicapped by having to be a caretaker for someone in your family who would be lost without your help. Or you might be a minority living in a society dominated by a different culture. That doesn’t make you the disabled one, but it sure may handicap your ability for upward social mobility. Which is why John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Colorado should be on the top of our minds if we are to ever form a more perfect union in our country.

Historically, we are in the middle of a very big set of rapids on our downriver journey. Rising inflation, ongoing issues with global and domestic supply chains, disasters associated with climate change which increase in frequency as well as severity, vitriolic hate speech in our society combined with hyper-partisan rhetoric, scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, fear of global thermonuclear war, social and economic upheaval are all boiling up all around us. It seems that we may be smashed by any of these rocks amid the rapids. We’re desperately looking for a back eddy to find a safe haven and some calmer water. But even if we manage to find one which affords us a brief rest, we will still have to finish running the river. And we’ll need to channel our inner John Wesley Powell to do it.

But simply mustering up grit and courage from within is not sufficient enough. We’ll have to learn to rely on one another too. There are just some things we cannot accomplish by ourselves. We will have to be open to accepting the helping hand of others, while at the same time doing all we can to help ourselves AND each other. If we learn to take the best lessons from Powell while eschewing any similarities to the ethnocentric and imperialistic views that he held, we will again have hope for the future.

Although I only have one arm at the present time, unlike Powell I still have two hands. With a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, I still have hope of regaining most of the use of my arm. Even if I eventually do, I will remember the lessons from Mr. Powell and be more empathetic towards my one-armed fellow citizens. As long as they will strive to do the best that they can with their one good arm, I will be happy to tie their shoes for them. I will also happily shuck the ears of corn that we can dine on together.

The United Nations of Namibia

Some locations are special because of the beautiful landscapes or the vibrant cultures found there. Other places are extra special due to the unforgettable people you met while visiting there. On rare occasions you can experience all of this together in one place. Namibia was one of those places.

When I think of Namibia, I can never just think about a sparsely inhabited desert country in the Southwest of Africa. Any time I think of Namibia I have to think about Portugal, The Netherlands, England, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Ireland, and even Zimbabwe. Why is that? Sure, some of those places had an influence on Namibia in the past, but the reason is much more than that. I happened to share my Namibia experience with a special group of people from those far away places.

As I sat in my hot tub on a mid-January day this year in Central Oregon, the temperature was an unseasonably warm 50F that afternoon. The snows of early January had already melted. I hiked 11 miles in the desert that day, through sage, juniper, rabbitbrush and bitterbrush. I saw no other human the whole time I was hiking. I can’t be in a desert without thinking about one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world, the desert country of Namibia. And then my thoughts drift to the people who shared that adventure with me.

That begs the question…..”Does experiencing a dramatic landscape bring out the best in people?”

“Or does being surrounded by a stellar group of people enhance the interpretation of the landscape you are experiencing?”

Thinking about one’s Namibia experience will make you want to dance with joy! Just look below to see what happened to our driver Floyd, who was so happy to not be in Namibia with that OTHER group!

our driver Floyd dancing in front of our group
Namibian desert landscape

Only in Namibia could you see an elephant walking across a sand dune, or herds of exotic species of ungulates roaming over dry, sandy lake beds. Besides stunning desert scenery and abundant wildlife, Namibia also boasts a rich cultural history, from pictographs and rock art from ancient cultures, to towns with German colonial architecture which hints that a piece of Bavaria was plucked out of Europe and placed in a desert landscape. Diamonds are mined here, and Namibia is the only place in the world where several plant and animal species can be found.

map of Namibia
German architecture in Swakopmund
walking with a local guide to see pictographs near Spitzkoppe

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Before I sat in the hot tub on that night in January, I checked the weather in Windhoek and Swakopmund, two places in Namibia. Windhoek’s high was 84F and the low was 63F. Swakopmund had a high of 71F and a low of 69. Both places reported showers, which is the time of year that the Inter-tropical convergence zone dips briefly into those latitudes during their summer. Melbourne, Australia, which is also experiencing summer in January reported a high of 87F under clear skies. It was clear and 48 in Lisbon. Amsterdam, Dublin and London had showers, but higher than normal temps for the Northern Winter. Both Seoul, South Korea and Kiel, Germany had clear skies with the coldest temperatures—lows in the mid teens to mid twenties. These are the places where my fellow travelers on my Namibia trip presently live. Now that I gathered meteorological data on cities where my fellow travelers live, I am free to open the cover of the hot tub and dream of Namibia and reminisce on that special trip.

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We started as a group of unrelated foreigners choosing a three-week group camping excursion starting in Cape Town, South Africa and traveling through Namibia to Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was the first African experience for most of us. We chose a group camping excursion mostly for economic reasons and most of us were unsure of how the group dynamics would turn out. Our tour company, Nomad Adventures, was a South African based company, and our driver and guide were Zimbabwean nationals. It took just a few hundred miles and a couple of shared experiences to bring such a diverse group of people closer together.

At one of our first stops in the northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), we participated in a Braai, a South African style barbecue. Afterwards, we sat in a circle around a fire and introduced ourselves to one another. Ages ranged from late teens, twenties, forties, to those in their fifties. Beth and I were the lone Americans and the oldest in our early sixties. It was quite a diverse group. Although English was not the first language of many in the group, everyone had enough fluency in English to communicate with one another.

our truck at a roadside stop in RSA

On the long road journeys on the truck, we heard conversations in Dutch, Portuguese, German, and various dialects of English. Each of us had a locker for our personal items at the rear of the seating area of the truck, which had a capacity to carry 24 passengers. Tents and sleeping pads provided by the company were housed either at the rear of the truck or in an outside compartment on the right side of the vehicle. Kitchen stuff was stored in an outside compartment on the left side. All of us were expected to work together setting up and breaking down camp each day, as well as performing KP duty. This helped us bond together. Although we always sat with the same riding partner, each day we all rotated clockwise to the next seating position. Whoever was sitting in the last two seats every day ended up being responsible for keeping the inside of the truck clean and tidy. This not only spread the cleaning duty equally to each of us, but it also made each person more cognizant of their own contribution to a messy environment. We all started to kick the desert dust off of our shoes each time we entered back into the truck. It also allowed for everyone to experience different vantage points from which to view the passing landscape as we toured the area.

When we set up tents for the night, we pitched them right next to each other, like you would see in a refugee camp. In effect, we were refugees from four different continents all huddled together for safety in a land that was both wondrous and strange at the same time to all of us. On the banks of the Orange River on our last night in RSA, I got to know two of the German travelers whose tent was pitched next to hours. We gazed at the beautiful sunset setting over the mountains of southern Namibia across the river. The Orange River would be the last perennial stream we would see for a couple of weeks. When I close my eyes, I can immediately transport myself back to that exact moment in time.

last night in RSA
Gorgeous sunset over the Orange River, which is the border between Namibia and the RSA

Each travel day around lunchtime, our guides would find a nice area to stop by the roadside. Everyone pitched in for meal prep. Camaraderie was born out of this time of working together.

roadside meal prep

Once we prepped the meals, we formed a line for the buffet and then sat in a circle. After breaking bread together, we would chat with each other and then clean the dishes and stow away the gear and the food.

breaking bread together

Working together and sharing meals was nice, but it was really the shared experiences that brought us closer together. Occasionally someone would opt out of a scheduled group excursion, but more often we did things together. I stayed behind one evening to wash clothes in camp and relax, while the rest of the group went on an evening drive. I enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of the desert, while they spotted groups of springbok and zebra. One other time I chose not to pay extra to go sand boarding down the dunes near Swakopmund, as I let the younger folk bond together.

But there were a few excursions we took together that really stand out as tightening our bond through shared experiences. I fondly remember an early morning hike on Dune 45 in Namib-Naukluft National Park. We woke up before dawn and boarded our truck and queued in line with trucks and vans from other companies at the gate to the national park. Dune 45 is one of the highest dunes in the park and the only one permitted for visitors to hike on. Our driver floored the gas pedal and we raced to be one of the first groups to arrive at the foot of the giant dune. We all cheered him on with race fever and felt like Mad Max being chased through the desert. Actually, Namibia was one of the filming locations for those post-apocalyptic desert wastelands in that movie series.

We took off our boots and shoes and trudged up the steep dune face in the early morning light. The sand was tarsal-chilling cold, but who cared? We made good time to the top as our hearts were beating as fast of a hummingbird’s due to the aerobic workout. From our perch atop the dune, we were free to survey the Mars-like landscape and then watch the sun rise over the Eastern horizon. As we slowly descended, the sun began to warm the sand. At the bottom, I glanced to my left to spot an ostrich streaking across the bottom of the dune. And the day was just getting started!

Beth on Dune 45

Later that day, we visited the Dead Vlei (the Dutch word for swamp) where shifting sand dunes cut off an ephemeral stream hundreds of years ago. The extremely arid environment has preserved the dead trees as if they were petrified. The scene is surreal, as if Salvador Dali himself would have created it. I saw another ostrich sprinting over the red sand, but by the time I readied the camera to document that moment, the bird had already disappeared.

the Dead Vlei- a Dali-like landscape

One other moment that day brought me closer to my newfound friends. As the route to the Vlei was so sandy, the national park had to shuttle small numbers of tourists from the main road to the Vlei. Lines waiting for the shuttles were long. A group of Spanish tourists tried to cut in line and they pretended not to understand English, as our group scolded them. Since I used to live in Mexico, I started shouting at them in Spanish and shaming them for their bad behavior. Surprised by a foreigner scolding them in their native tongue, they hung their heads and finally moved to the end of the line.

small shuttle to the Dead Vlei

From that incident, I immediately gained favor with two of the Portuguese ladies, as the two cultures who share the Iberian peninsula have tension between them. I apologized to the ladies that I did not also know their language, and admitted that Portuguese was not only a prettier language, but that the Portuguese people obviously had better manners. Of course they already knew that to be true.

We would spot wildlife while riding and staring out the windows of the truck. We developed signals and hand gestures to designate for each type of animal. One of my new favorite animals is the Oryx, also referred to as a Gemsbok. A member of the antelope family, the Oryx has striking black and white facial markings and extremely long, straight horns. The picture below shows the group using our signal that an Oryx has been spotted.

two hands raised mimicking Oryx horns
Oryx- my new favorite animal

Another memorable moment from that trip was the stop at the Tropic of Capricorn to take some photos. A feeling of gratitude for latitude came over me and I put a lip lock on my wife of 25 years. The group hooted and hollered to see that two old people could still have sexual attraction for one another!

swapping spit at 23.5 degrees south latitude

Early this February we broke a record for a high temperature for that time of year here in Oregon, with the mercury nearly hitting 70 degrees. I checked the weather in other parts of the world. It was only a few degrees warmer that day in Melbourne, where it is actually SUMMER. It was a frosty low of 4 degrees in Kiel, Germany. It was raining in the desert in Namibia, with Windhoek reporting a high of 79. “How are my trip companions doing?”, I wondered.

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You really haven’t fully experienced how spectacular a sunset can be until you’ve seen some from the southern parts of Africa. Add those to an active group excursion paddling the Okavango delta in Botswana, and you will cherish a memory that will be with you until you draw your last breath!

exploring the Okavango delta at sunset
the magical Okavango Delta

Traveling by Mokoro through the Okavango was so magical that you wanted to do it again the next day. But be sure to stay in water shallow enough so that you won’t be surprised by an angry hippo surfacing below you boat!

Hippos in deep water: us in shallow water
second day traveling by Mokoro

Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is another must see place. It is hard to believe that such a bleak looking landscape with little vegetation can support such large numbers of wildlife.

Etosha national park
Ostrich and Springbok on the Etosha Pan

You might even be lucky enough to spot a leopard close up. The shot below did not need a zoom lens, as the leopard walked right up to the truck we were in. We gently opened the window just enough to shoot the camera without opening it enough to have the leopard jump at us.

Leopard in Etosha

Traveling through the scrub forest of Acacia trees, we would see giraffe heads poking up out of the forest. It reminded us of the movie Jurassic Park, where Brontosaurus heads poked through forest canopies. We named this area of Etosha “Giraffic Park.”

Giraffic Park

The campgrounds in the park have chain link fences around them. Not only does this prevent campers from being eaten, but stadium seating on the human side of the fence allows for excellent viewing of wildlife around the water hole just outside of the camp. However, seeing an elephant getting an erection can really make a human feel quite inadequate! It was equally interesting to be near the waterhole at night listening to the animal sounds of all sorts of species.

water hole wildlife viewing at Etosha

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In late February we finally had a cold winter’s day in Oregon. That night it snowed and the temps dropped down to the single digits (in Fahrenheit!) Only my colleague from Seoul had a colder night than I had. Besides researching meteorological data around the world, I focused on current events. Covid case counts are finally on the decline here in the USA. Russia is amassing troops on their border with Ukraine. They also had troops staged in Belarus. Europe was concerned, but nothing had happened yet. My thoughts drifted southward to Namibia and the Tropic of Capricorn.

The first day of Spring brought cold temps and some rain here. I had just changed the water in the hot tub and wanted to soak, but had to stay inside. I’m thinking of Namibia again. But when thinking about my travel buddies around the world, I am now thinking about more than the weather they are experiencing. While the cases of the Omicron variant are on the decline here and mask mandates are being relaxed, other parts of the world have rising case numbers. Namibia and most all Sub-Saharan countries have appallingly low vaccination rates. South Africa was just beginning to reopen to tourism after being shut down for much of the Covid surge. The last year must have been hard economically for the guides on our trip. More concerning than that is the worry of the horrible war in Ukraine spreading to other parts of Europe. Putin’s war is on the doorstep of my friends in other parts of that continent. Refugees from that war are relocating throughout Europe. Fuel costs and inflation are very high there due to Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. How will the loss of Ukranian wheat harvests affect food scarcity in Sub-Saharan Africa? When thinking of Namibia now, these thoughts come to mind.

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Our Portuguese friends left the tour in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. We still retained the bulk of our group for the remainder of the trip through Botswana and onto Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Other tourists occupied their seats on the truck, but in no way could they replace them. We still had many memorable experiences together, such as hiking with warthogs near Victoria Falls, and walking past a hippo grazing outside of our restaurant in downtown Vic Falls. Beth and I walked across the friendship bridge with three of our fellow Dutch travelers to film them bungee jumping from the high bridge. They were grateful to have someone to film their daring dives and we were glad to be able to live vicariously through them and not have to jump ourselves!

group hike at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Zambia is on the other side of the gorge

I had two questions at the beginning of this story. To respond to them, I think that any Namibia experience would be worthwhile, even if you did it alone. I also think that a trip anywhere with this same group would be a success. That still doesn’t answer the question as to which is more important…..the people or the land.

Let’s assume that there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Stunningly beautiful unique landscapes may bring out the best in people. And sharing an experience with beautiful people may enhance your perception of a landscape. Also, being with people of different cultures allow one to see the experience from a multitude of perspectives. When you have all of that at the same time, you are indeed fortunate to have made such an unforgettable experience.

Maybe our Namibia experience could serve as a model for the United Nations. Maybe that global organization should reconsider holding their meetings in a building on the east side of Manhattan in New York City. Instead, have them all take a group camping trip together through Namibia. Have them share a unique experience together where they help each other set up tents; where they prep meals together; where they feel joy together. I wonder what the world might look like after that.

At the very least, I will try to comport myself on any future trip with the Namibia experience as my guide, and hope to become part of a community wherever I go.

El Bosque Tallado: The Sculptured Forest

What can you do when a fire ravages a beautiful forest? Some people might think of salvage logging. One locale with visionary thinkers and artistic talent saw it as an opportunity for an art project and a chance to rebuild community.

High in the mountains near El Bolson, Argentina, lies El Bosque Tallado (the sculptured forest).

Located south of El Bolson, on the slopes of Cerro Piltriquitron, lies the sculptured forest at an altitude of 1400 meters above sea level. Following a devastating wildfire in the late 20th century, local sculptor Marcelo Lopez came up with the idea to give new life to this burned forest. In 1998 a group of artists made the trip on horseback. It took them just 8 days to create the first 13 sculptures. They returned again in 1999 and 2003 to create more.

location of El Bolson- map:
close up of the region

The artists had three goals. They wanted to give new life to burnt trees neglected by humans, to promote an interchange of creative experiences for the whole community, and to enrich the artistic heritage and culture of the region.

foto: El dia

The project has continued to grow over the years. There are now over 50 wooden statues. Admission was free when I went years ago, but now there is a small entrance fee. From the town of El Bolson you can take a taxi part of the way half way up the mountain. From there you will have a 2 hour hike up a steep, rocky road to get to the sculptured forest. However, if you have a rental car, you can drive up the steep road to the car park at the end. Then you will only have about a 1 km hike to the entrance. There is a small kiosk on site for drinks and snacks.

The November day that I visited brought some rain which later turned to snow. Fittingly, the statue seems to be shaking his fists at God to complain about the weather.

With the acceleration of global climate change, many more communities around the world will face environmental challenges. The last several years have brought devastating wildfires to the western USA.

With so many communities in the Western U.S. being affected by recent wildfires, couldn’t the Bosque Tallado serve as a role model to bring artists, foresters, economic development managers and community members together to re-shape a sense of place in locations devoted by wildfire? Various sculptured forests would each have their own unique identity and serve to put these communities on the radar screen of tourists. Even if the economic impact would be minimal, they could serve as a vehicle to bring various parts of a broken community together, and serve as a beacon to create beauty and civic pride from the ashes.

Yesterday I virtually attended a “Teach In” on climate change. Several professors from the college where I work part time gave brief presentations on climate change from different perspectives of their various disciplines. Members of various organizations in our community also participated. Attendees of the conference heard perspectives from the disciplines of Ecology, Conservation Psychology, Microbiology, Sociology, Public Health, Geology, and even from the Visual Arts. Besides stressing the importance of scientific literacy, the concept of community came out over and over.

There are many definitions of what is meant by the word community, which might be geographic or cultural in nature. The presenter at the teach-in related it to other alliterative C words. Words like Connections, Compromise, and Caring for one another. One could also add Communication and Cooperation, or Coexistence.

Groups of people working together for a common good was exemplified by the community members of El Bolson, Argentina. My hope is that you, dear readers, will spread their ideas to communities that might benefit from similar types of projects.

Click on the video below to get a virtual tour!

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