Smug: Contentedly Confident of One’s…

Morning dog walks are one of the best times to feel smug. Alone with my thoughts; dogs bounding happily ahead exuding pure doggy joy; bird drama unfolding around me; unseen snakes lurking; ever-brightening sun halo spreading over the mountains; sage-scented breeze, all reminding me of what a perfect life I’ve constructed. I think of the hectic yet tedious routines some people endure and wonder how did I get so lucky!

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At the risk of sounding pompous, I’ll tell you how to achieve such smugness.  Don’t buy into the ideal of “success”. Don’t expect the mega-mansion and the leased SUV, new every three years. Ignore the lure of the newest iPhone and biggest flat screen TV. Instead, set your sights on a life where everything is designed to provide peace rather than things. Admittedly, I have far more things than I need and of course, I’d rather not give them up. But being contented with a modest home in a neighborhood of diversity, (yes that’s shorthand for mixed-racial), driving a ten-year old car, and shopping at the second hand store for clothes, has given me the freedom to take a job that I love, close to home, that doesn’t pay very much. It affords me the time to enjoy my garden, my mom, my dogs, and even my husband.

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Speaking of bird drama: Along my walk there’s a tower that provides a safe nesting area for a pair of red-tailed hawks. This couple has been raising their broods here for several years, and at this time of the year at least one of them is usually visible guarding the hatchlings. When I didn’t see either of them, I began scanning the sky, expecting to see them circling on the wind currents, doing their grocery shopping within sight of the nest. I spotted what I figured must be them about a half mile away but they had company. A small murder of crows was harassing them and it was only moments later I saw them both making a bee line for the nest. The female landed just below the platform in the tower supports where she was safe from aerial attack. The male veered off, luring all but two of the crows back out into the airspace over the wash. A couple of the crows circled nearby for a few minutes but eventually moved on. I couldn’t see much of the aerobatics of the male but I surmised that he too managed to discourage the contingent of crows that had been heckling him. I don’t take sides in the affairs of birds but it’s hard not to sympathize with this plucky pair after observing them for so many years.

A short time later, I was startled to hear a pfft of wings as a small falcon shot past me in pursuit of a small song bird. I watched dispassionately as the predator chased his prey around me, until the little guy took refuge in a small bush. The falcon landed on a nearby fence and I could see him peering into the bush, not quite ready to give up on his breakfast.

All that bird drama made me feel smug all over again, delighted with the way my morning was shaping up until I remembered that with no murders to report, my readership would probably decline.

Homeward Bound, I Wish I Weren’t

I’ve never had the luxury of a vacation so long that I got homesick. My longest vacation, having worked my entire life, was sixteen days. So, naturally, after just three days, I was reluctant to turn the horses towards the barn and face the routine of the Church Secretary. I long ago learned that injecting one last stop on the route home gives one something to look forward to even while getting inexorably closer to home.

Somehow the rest of this blog got deleted so I’ll re-post the pictures of Valley of Fire where we explored a couple of very short trails before heading home.

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Overlook This!

Two beds, three women (two post-menopausal), and a refrigerator that goes clunk in the night was not a great combination for restful sleep. What we lacked in rest we made up with coffee, and eagerly set out for Zion Canyon again. With the objective being the Overlook Trail, the free shuttle wouldn’t be an option so we packed the car for the day and hoped we would be able to find parking inside the park.

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The Virgin River

The drive to the Overview Trail snakes up a vertiginous canyon that appears to be a dead end; but the intrepid engineers who built the road, simply burrowed into the sandstone canyon walls and created a road inside the mountain. There are windows to the outside world in the tunnel walls, and years ago, when the park was more remote, motorists could stop and look out over the canyon. However these days there’s no stopping in the tunnel and frequently traffic is backed up at the entrance to allow one-way traffic to accommodate a motorhome to pass through the narrow tunnel. As anticipated, the parking area at the trail head was full so we continued up the road until we could find space along the shoulder to park. Being of the off-road ilk, I led the girls on a cross country hike back towards the trail head.

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A trail of opportunity

However, our path was interrupted by a the sheer cliff of a spectacular drainage. We backtracked a bit until we found a place where we could get back down to the highway. It was a short walk on the roadside and motorists were traveling slowly so, disappointingly (for blog interest), no one was killed or even maimed.

The Overlook Trail has the biggest bang for the buck in Zion. A short, fairly easy hike, ends with a view that makes one dream of wings.

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In summer, this alcove provides welcome shade.
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The Overlook
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Time for peanut butter, banana & honey sandwiches.

And now for something completely different. Back down on the canyon floor, we joined the parade of people walking the paved trail to the Emerald Pools. Walking, talking, gawking, Karen lost track of her footing and suddenly slipped off the edge of the sidewalk, painfully twisting her ankle. The suddenness of the fall and the sharp pain momentarily left her stunned on the ground.

Someone told me that you know you’re old when people gasp rather than laugh when you fall. Thankfully, both Karen and I are better than average fallers. Statistically, people over the age of sixty fall about once a year while Karen and I have both fallen about three times already this year. This speaks more to our lifestyle (active) than our excessive clutziness, or so I prefer to believe. So, we neither gasped nor laughed, rather cursed silently at yet again being inconvenienced by injury. Undaunted, Karen limped along slowly to the lower pool, where she encouraged Kari and me to proceed to the upper pool while she made her way back to the shuttle stop (we had left the car at the visitor center inside the park). Being the concerned and gracious friends we are, Kari and I said, “Are you sure? Okay, bye.”

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Trail to the Upper Emerald Pool
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This is only part of why this trail is so popular!
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The trail was crawling with people

The crowds thinned just a little as the trail became steeper and more technical but by the time we got to the main pool, it was crawling with kids of all ages. Kari, was deeply disappointed to have the photo op completely ruined, but snapped the following shot anyway. I particularly like it because it depicts the utter degradation overpopulation of the canyon has brought.

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A not-wilderness experience

We found Karen at the tram stop in good spirits and ready for dinner. I had been looking forward to a meal at Oscar’s ever since some mountain biking friends had turned me on to the place a couple of years ago.

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Oscar’s

I had remembered a turkey burger topped with chilis and guacamole that was so juicy it ran down my arm to my elbow, and so spicy it made sweat pop out under my eyes and my nose run. But, I’ve gone more and more vegetarian over time, as much for health as for consideration of the animals whose lives are so miserable before being sacrificed for my table, that I was compelled, or enticed to choose the vegetable enchiladas. It was disappointingly bland in contrast to the fiery burger of my memory. Thankfully, Kari had again volunteered to drive us back to St. George so I had a lovely glass of red wine which put a good spin on the whole evening.

The evening light over the canyon was nothing short of breathtaking. Kari and Karen went off in pursuit of curio shopping (a rather vain hope on a Sunday evening in Mormon country) while I staggered around town in search of photograph-able subjects. I’m a bit of a cheap drunk…one glass of wine makes any kind of shopping dangerous. On the other hand, a digital camera is a fairly safe mode of entertainment.

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Drunk Photography

I had to lie down in the parking lot of the Bumbleberry Inn to get this shot, something no sober elderly woman would consider. Worth it, don’t you think?

Our last night at the Inn on the Cliff was perfect. Karen and Kari went down to the spa where they were joined by a couple of young men who regaled them with tales of rock climbing. They were gone so long, I thought perhaps they’d drowned. We unplugged the noisy refrigerator, had a glass of wine, and slept like teenagers.

Tomorrow, we knew we had to head for home but there was one more stop, Valley of Fire, along the way. It was inconceivable that we could possibly be impressed after the spectacular scenery of Zion, but we would need a break in the drive and it seemed like a reasonable detour from the interstate.

Zion Pilgrimage – “Girls” Gone Mild

So, after a fitful night’s slumber at the Mesquite Best Western, we were awakened by the next door neighbors thumping their wheeled transport bed against the door jamb as they maneuvered an adult quadriplegic out to their van. This woke up the dogs in the room on the other side. Certain they were under attack, they set up a vicious pretense of defending the home front. We slipped into our best robe and slippers and headed for the free breakfast…well, perhaps “free” isn’t quite the word. A room next to the freeway, with a pool in the parking lot, for $180/night (with a senior discount), probably factors in the cost of the self-serve waffle machine. The staff at the front desk didn’t even blink at the sight of Karen’s chartreuse, ostrich feather-trimmed peignoir with matching stiletto-heeled slippers. At sixty-five, she can still pull it off.

The charms of the hotel breakfast buffet, not withstanding the automatic waffle machine, could not deter us from pushing on to St. George, where we hoped to drop off our bags at our next night’s lodging and find more interesting breakfast options. The short drive up the Virgin River Gorge provided a tantalizing preview of the spectacular scenery to come.

Our host’s instructions on how to locate the Inn on the Cliff were evidently based on the erroneous assumption that Southern California was east of Utah and directed us to exit the freeway at the east end of town which required us to traverse the entire length of St. George. This turned out to be a propitious error because we spotted an eatery on a side street with locals lined up out the front door. Standing room only is always an indication of food worth waiting for, so we made note of the location and came back to it after dropping off our bags.

The food and service turned out to be well worth the wait and the artwork on the walls of the hall leading to the restroom was worth the price of admission. I’m not normally a fan of cowboy art but I was forced to examine the prints while I waited for the single stall restroom to become available. The more I scrutinized the prints, the more I giggled. Check it out; you don’t even need to be a golf aficionado to appreciate the humor.  http://www.russellhouston.com/  

Springdale was crawling with tourists and the road, the only road through town, was under construction. “Expect long delays” we were advised, and we were not disappointed. Parking, always in short supply, was nearly nonexistent but we eventually found a place to park within walking distance of the free tram. We clambered aboard with our National Park Old People passes and squeezed in among throngs of youngsters, all chatting at the top of their lungs. The informative narrative being broadcast over the PA system was inaudible.  We were happy to exit at the Hidden Canyon trail head…along with 45,235 other tourists. Undaunted, I assured my companions that we would soon leave most of them behind as the trail climbs rather steeply for about a mile which generally weeds out a large number of them, especially the larger of them.

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Showing off our expensive dental work at the trail head
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The trail most traveled
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An escalating view
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Weeding out the less intrepid hikers
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Frozen pools
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Happy Hikers at the arch
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I have no idea who that boy is with his head at my ass!
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A makeshift staircase
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What I would have given for my mountain bike!

Since the girls hadn’t cried uncle yet, we jumped on the tram again, riding it to the end of the canyon, where we walked up the paved trail to The Narrows. By this time it was growing cold and we were anticipating dinner at the Cliff Rose Restaurant; so we called it a day and headed back to St. George where our room with a view awaited.

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A view of the Mormon Temple from the patio dining area

Dinner at the Cliffside Restaurant was everything we had hoped for. The waiter kindly opened the bottle of Justin Cabernet Sauvignon I’d brought from Costco and it was delicious with my farro, mushroom risotto. I love restaurants that have interesting vegetarian options! We walked back to our room and collapsed into bed…only to be awakened by the clunking noise of the in-room refrigerator. I considered defenestration (how often does one have to use THAT word?!) of the offending appliance, but was too comfortable in the luxury linen of the obviously expensive mattress.

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A Girls’ Road Trip

My beautiful cousin, Karen, escaping the discomforts of mid-west winter, spent a couple of weeks with me recently. She’s like a second sister, even though we were parted when my family left Michigan for California when I was ten. Somehow, that similar yet different childhood made us compatible on a very basic level. We were taught the same manners and consideration for others; we share a passion for nutritious food; we love the outdoors and gardening; and we are the same age with the same age-related limitations. Our dissimilarities are profound but because neither of us needs to change the other, we can even discuss our differences without rancor.

Karen invited her friend, Kari, who is thirty years younger than we are, to join us on a four-day auto trip to Zion National Park. I enthusiastically planned the journey, right down to where we would eat breakfast the first morning. I had met Kari a couple of times before and felt confident she would be a welcome addition to our party. Originally, my sister, Babs, had planned to go with us but decided that it wasn’t a good idea to leave Mom home with only Mike to look after her. He’s not much of a cook.

The distance between home and Zion is only about 400 miles and can easily be driven in a day, but I had in mind a shun-piking tour that would take us far from the interstate highway. Our journey began after a scant breakfast, (coffee and freshly picked oranges) with an ascent of our local mountains. Virtually two blocks away from my doorstep, Highway 38 begins a scenic drive through the Angelus National Forest, which is my biking playground. There is no greater joy than sharing one’s pleasure with another as it allows one to see it anew from the perspective of the first-time visitor. We followed the highway to Big Bear Lake where we headed north towards the high desert town of Lucerne Valley.

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The descent from mountain to high desert

Lucerne Valley is a lost-in-time crossroads of a town, a post office, a gas station, a feed store, and a mom & pop, or should I say, a mama y papa restaurant, El Coyote Loco.  I’d  learned that this restaurant was something of a hidden gem in the desert and we were not disappointed. I should have taken pictures for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of this type of dining establishment but I’ll try to briefly give you the flavor of the place.

A once-paved parking area, planters of cactus & succulent plantings around a weathered plywood door, listing on it’s hinges. An ante room to buffer the dining area from the dust and wind, populated with a few picnic tables with plastic table cloths of various patterns. The ubiquitous Mexican oom-pa-pa, ranchero music, a charming, young, Hispanic waitress with a smile so dazzling the desert sun seemed pale by comparison, plastic-sleeved menus. The menu replete with every familiar Southern California dish, burritos, tacos, huevos rancheros, chilis relleno, enchiladas, sopas, and the less familiar with ingredients not normally eaten by us gringos (or guerras in our case) like menudo (tripe soup), lengua (tongue), and other meats of unfamiliar persuasion. An impeccably clean but well-worn dining room, booths bearing the impressions of muchos nalgas (many bottoms), and a restroom where one is encouraged to use water sparingly and not put hygiene products into the plumbing system, equally clean.

My test of every Mexican restaurant is the chili relleno and the salsa fresca. This place nailed both. A freshly-roasted, peeled and seeded, sweet poblano chili, stuffed with cheese, dipped in an egg batter, and fried to a golden brown, then smothered in a slightly spicy ranchero sauce of fresh tomatoes and other savory vegetables. Not exactly health food but no animals died for it and it was muy delicioso.

On the two-lane road again, we intended to jog east a bit and then connect with a road that would take us north to the interstate. But, as luck would have it, we missed the north turn and blithely continued east, then south, then a little east, then more south than east, and finally due south. As the driver, I probably should have either taken a map, or short of that, told my navigator with the cell phone of the intended route, but of course, it was too late for that now. When I saw a sign indicating that Yucca Valley was coming up, my suspicion that we were off course was confirmed. We had essentially traveled north two steps (our destination being north ten steps), and then south three steps. It was a lovely drive with almost no traffic.

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Salt beds being mined on the desert floor

Kari, always the technically agile youngster in the car, quickly found an alternate route on her cell phone that would take us through uncharted territory, northward towards Hoover Dam.

We reached the dam too late in the day to catch a tour but we weren’t too disappointed as the walk across the dam and the view of the canyon were worth the price of admission ($15 for parking).20180309_160622

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A view of the new bridge from the Hoover Dam
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Lake Mead’s bathtub ring behind Hoover Dam
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Cousin Karen and me – Girls gone mild!

With our room awaiting us in Mesquite we joined the evening rush hour traffic through Las Vegas to make our way east, out of Sodom and Gomorrah. None of us looked back. We arrived after dark and ready for dinner. We agreed that Italian sounded like the best bet and drew straws to see who would be the designated driver. Actually, Kari kindly offered to take the wheel which freed me to have a glass of wine with a very nice meal. We were all ready for bed, eager for hiking in Zion the next day.

On the Trail Again

As I’ve said so many times before, every time I throw a leg over my mountain bike I feel like a ten-year old. So, once a week, I shed fifty-five years and act like a kid.

It’s been a lovely cool winter but with very little rain. My riding companion, Sally, has been bringing her little Heeler-mix dog with her, and I take Sadie (Molly can’t go the distance), on our favorite singletrack trails in the Mill Creek wash area. There’s evidently been enough rain in the mountains to fill the local settling ponds (settling ponds are used to trap water that comes down from the local mountains. There the water percolates through the sand to recharge the water table) which provides opportunities for the dogs to swim and play.

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One of many settling ponds in the Mill Creek Wash, also known as Mentone Beach.

The dogs forage afield while we labor slowly up the wash, always keeping track of where we are; and when we approach a road or habitation, they trot obediently beside the bike until the “okay” from me tells Sadie she may go at her own pace. At the top of the climb we stop to put our protective leg and arm armor on. The padded shin/knee guards are invaluable in the event of a crash but more often they provide protection against the brush that encroaches on the trail.

Our downhill speed demands that the dogs stay with us on the trail and they have great fun chasing us through the twists and turns. Towards the end of the twelve mile ride, Sadie is content to trot beside the bike, tongue lolling, and obviously satiated; that is until she spots a rabbit or bird that needs chasing. Then both dogs are off in mad pursuit, leaping over brush and rocks like gazelles. Losing sight of their prey, which they always do, they come back to us begging for more water from our hydration packs.

But now the weather is heating up and the rattlesnakes have come out of hibernation. That means it’s not safe for the dogs to run helter skelter through the brush and rocks, and even more dangerous for them to seek a cool spot to rest under a bush.

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The girls cool off in the stream.

One of the best things about Southern California is that we can ride year around. In the winter we ride here in the valley, and in the summer, we simply drive a few miles into the mountains where it’s almost always cool. But, there are rattlesnakes active in the mountains too so we won’t be taking the dogs again until next winter or at least until later in the summer when the snakes aren’t as active during the day.

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Mt. San Bernardino looms behind our winter playground.

Nicknames

Have you ever learned that you had a secret nickname, the name people attached to your name when you weren’t there to hear it?

Mike came home today and told me that he had run in to an old mountain bike friend whom we hadn’t seen in years. A couple of decades ago, when the Rut Riders were an active, even somewhat notorious bike club, this guy had ridden with the group off and on and had raced on the same circuits that we had. When Mike said that Topoleski had said to tell me hello, I immediately asked, “Wrong-way Topo?” The unfortunate John Topoleski had taken a wrong turn during a mountain bike race (costing him precious seconds) when he was in his twenties. Some thirty years later, he is still known as Wrong-way Topo in circles he has long since forgotten. He is probably unaware that the moniker is still attached to his name.

When I was a young, nubile thing, I used to ride my horse around the neighborhood in shorts and a bikini top. I was a bit nonplussed to learn that my riding companion’s husband referred to me as Judy Jugs. I’d never considered that my pert, little bosom would be worthy of such a nickname.

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Much later, in my sixties, my neighbor, having had a wee bit too much to drink, blabbed that her husband and his brother called me Butterface. I couldn’t help but feel just a bit smug at the idea that the preamble to that nickname is, “She has a great body”. I guess a less vain woman would have taken umbrage at the idea that they were disparaging her face, but I chose to dwell on the  idea that those beer-bellied, old farts noticed the other well-preserved assets (ie. the still pert jugs).

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I imagine that many nicknames are coined in a spirit of just slightly malicious teasing, and one could have hurt feelings about the deliberately mean ones. But I prefer to think that nicknames are usually given to people who are a little admired, a little envied, and overall, well-liked. Okay, maybe I DO have a vainglorious self-image but you have to admit, there’s something endearing in a nickname.

Oops, I forgot that Wrong-way Topo was later murdered. (This alternative truth is added in response to a suggestion from one of my favorite bloggers who commented that my circulation would be improved by more murders in my blog. Thank you, dimebone.)