Million Dollar Views

We arrived in Durango, Colorado by pure happenstance two years ago.  Today’s return was very deliberate.  On our last visit, we took a short drive on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile stretch through the Rocky Mountains with hairpin curves surrounded by snowy peaks in all directions.  We vowed to return to complete the journey.

We were selective about our plans.  For days we monitored the weather reports, only intending to make the drive if we had a clear sunny day.  Luck was with us, and with the promise of good weather we booked our room at the Adventure Inn once again.

Over dinner last night, we eagerly shared our plans with our waiter.  “You know, that road’s only been open for 4 or 5 days,” he said.  It never occurred to us to check the snow conditions.  At breakfast this morning, motel owner Nigel showed us videos of the double avalanche that blocked the road between Silverton and Ouray.  Two massive columns of snow blew down the mountainside, taking trees and boulders down with it as it ripped through the forest.  Crossing the road, it filled the 150-foot canyon below and “splashed” up the opposite side.  Leaving 60 feet of debris-filled snow on a lengthy stretch of the highway in the Red Mountain Pass, it took highway crews 20 days to reopen the road.  Little did we know.

Today we drove that highway under blue skies on perfectly dry pavement.  We had learned that they had record snowfalls this winter, topping 360 inches.  It was still very much in evidence even on this April day.  With each turn of the road, we had more snowy peaks to admire.  At our elevation, the snow was pristine with only a few snowmobile and ski tracks crossing its silky mounds.  Occasionally I could make out curvy trails through the mountainsides, evidence of some intrepid skiers enjoying pure powder.

Million Dollar Highway 1 Million Dollar Highway 2 Million Dollar Highway 3 Million Dollar Highway 4 Million Dollar Highway 5

The wintry journey from Durango to Ouray was well worth the return trip.  With the avalanche video replaying in my mind, I had renewed respect for the seemingly pastoral scenes passing outside my car window.  Million dollar views indeed.

Chilling out on Mount Lemmon

The forecast was for another day in the mid 90s.  Our northern Minnesota blood was too thick for the heat. Sylvia, our AirBnB hostess, had just the answer.

“Have you been to Mount Lemmon?  It’s always 30 degrees cooler up there.”  That’s all we needed to hear.  It was also on my left-over wanna see list from last year’s stay in Tucson.

At 9,100 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the same range we’ve been admiring from our patio all week long.  It boasts a ski hill at the top, so there is a good paved road and a small community called Summerhaven near the summit.

Sunset view from our patio Tucson

We crossed town to reach the start of the Sky Island Scenic Byway.  I settled in to enjoy the ride, as the 27-mile journey is an attraction in itself. We started out in the now-familiar Sonoran Desert environment, surrounded by cacti and scrub brush.  As we rose, saguaro and a sea of yellow wildflowers took over the landscape.  The city of Tucson dropped below us, a miniature playset of streets and buildings just visible over the edge of the cliff.  Fortunately, there were frequent pull-outs for safe gazing.

Each curve delivered new scenery.  Saguaro giants gave way to real forest, with Aspens and Ponderosa Pines looming overhead.  Wildflowers changed suit as well.  But it was the rock formations that demanded my attention, and added a new term to my vocabulary.  “Hoodoos.”  Tall thin columns of weather-beaten rocks stood at attention on the slopes as we navigated the switchbacks.

Mt Lemmon rocky view

At Windy Point, I just had to get out and mingle with these giants.  Numerous other visitors populated this stopping point, clambering up rocky promontories for pictures and posing for selfies.  I enjoyed the same views and poses from safer flat rocks.  And there was no mistaking the refreshing breezes that cooled the higher air.

Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 1 Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 2Rich at Windy Point Mt Lemmon

A pool of cyclists congregated at this vista as well.  The byway is a popular challenge for cyclists, and by this point the intrepid athletes had already climbed 18 miles and 3,600 feet.  We would continue to see bicycles all the way up and down the mountain.  Never once did we wish ourselves in their seat!

Near the summit, we continued on past Summerhaven and beyond the ski hill to reach the very end of the road and a trail head.  Those last few cliff hanging miles justified the 10 mph speed limit.

Itching to get out and experience the mountain up close, I insisted on a hike.  Sylvia was right, the car thermometer registered 64 degrees, and we each donned an extra layer before setting off.  Left over snow was not confined to the ski hill, as we traversed thick patches on our trek.  We felt right at home in the pine forest.

Molly hiking in snow Mt Lemmon

We noticed the lookout tower in the distance, but it took a fellow hiker to entice us down another path to take in its views.  The wind whipped around us as we stood on the rocky promontory.

Mt Lemmon Lookout Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 1 Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 2

The trip back down the mountain let us view the whole scene in reverse.  Cyclists continued to struggle up and whiz down, even as the afternoon waned.  The temperature rose in reverse proportion to our elevation, but we had successfully missed the peak heat of the day.  Instead we had a delightful Minnesota type day, chilling out on the mountain.

Life with a Birder

The plan was to go hiking.  We were going to Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.  Even though it’s a birding destination, Rich assured me he was there to hike with me.  But there were caveats.  We had to stay near the flowing river.  Making our way up the canyon, I wasn’t allowed on the Nature Trail that ventured away from the water.  (This was the desert, after all, and birds flock to water.)

Medera Canyon

Reaching the top trailhead, we headed up the Carrie Nation Trail.  Yes, it followed a stream.  I tried to ignore the huffing and puffing behind me as I forged upward on the trail.  And then I heard it.  “I think I’m nearing my limit.”  He didn’t say he was done yet, so I kept going.

A young woman came down the trail toward us, and hoping to prolong this hike I pumped her for information.  How steep was it beyond here?  The news was reassuring.  But then she said the magic words.  “I just saw an Elegant Trogon.  He loves the sycamore trees, just above here.”

Suddenly Rich’s legs gained new strength.  He strode purposefully past me with a burst of energy.  He was on a mission.  I could barely keep up.

The Elegant Trogon has been in Rich’s sights for two years now.  The brilliant tropical bird’s range only barely reaches into far southern Arizona, Medera Canyon included.  Last year’s visit to this canyon was too early in the season and proved fruitless.  Last week’s visit was better timing, but also came up empty.  This trail is not where the bird had been sighted.  Rich wasn’t even looking for it.  But he smelled victory.

We soon ran into a handful of other birders toting cameras with obscenely long lenses.  They had already seen and photographed the elusive bird, and were hoping for another glimpse, more photographs.  Rich eagerly joined the little enclave, whispering, pointing, gesticulating and searching.  I did my best to melt into the background.  To remain silent and motionless, lest I spook the very bird they sought.

Tiring of the hushed drama, I left them to their hunt and continued up the trail.  We were here to hike, remember?  The trail petered out sooner than I expected, so I reluctantly turned around.  I found Rich and the pack further downstream than where I had left them.  But they didn’t notice me.  All cameras were trained on The Bird.

Birders photographing Elegant Trogon Rich photographing Elegant Trogon

Lenses pointed and shutters clicked incessantly.  Arms stretch out and fingers silently pointed when the bird moved.  Photographers shifted accordingly.  New vantage points, more photographs.  And still I was blind to the subject that took over the souls of these intrepid birders.  All I saw was trees and leaves.

The hunt slowed temporarily and Rich took in the fact that I was there.  “Have you seen it?” he asked excitedly.  I shook my head.  I didn’t even know what the bird looked like.

With hundreds of images already safely saved to the memory disks on their cameras, Rich and the photographers eased up a bit.  Rich pointed out the bird, and I finally focused in on its brilliant red breast, the luminescent green glow of the feathers on its back.  Despite my firm stand that I am not a birder, would never be a birder, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of this particular specimen.

The solitary bird toyed with these camera toting devotees all the way back down the trail.  He flitted from tree to tree, never too far to disappear from sight.  Even I got the hang of glimpsing the red breast as he took flight and following it to his next perch.

The camaraderie of the little group grew as we inched our way along, and they even drew me into their huddle to make sure I could see the bird’s latest landing.  Having nothing else to do, I succumbed to the impulse to remove the lens cap from my own camera, hunker down to steady my zoom lens and click the shutter.  Oh cool, I got him!  I tried again.  And again.

Elegant Trogon 1 Elegant Trogon 2 Elegant Trogon 3

By the time we reached the trailhead, Rich was bursting with excitement.  And gratitude for my patience while he pursued the Elegant Trogon.  So I seized the opportunity.  “That’s okay.  You can keep birding.  While I take the Nature Trail back down to the car.”  I was happy for him.  But I still had some hiking to do.

Medera Canyon Nature Trail

The Big Bend Experience

Sometimes the feature attraction is not the star in the theater of travel experiences. In our recent visit to Big Bend National Park I’d have to say it was the entire cast of desert offerings that made the visit memorable.

It started with our accommodations. Choosing to stay just outside the park where there were more amenities, we had reservations in the Terlingua Nights Cabins. Situated in the desert dust, the little sleeping rooms were just that. We had electricity, a mini fridge and barely enough room to walk around the double bed in our pristine minimalist room. We shared the bathhouse and an outdoor living area with a fire pit with our cabin neighbors.

Terlingua Nights Cabins

Our Cabin at Terlinqua Nights

It was 93 degrees when we arrived, with a brisk wind sweeping through the grounds. By evening, it was comfortable to sit out on our porch to read. It felt like the desert.

The revitalized ghost town of Terlingua lay a few miles down the road. Driving over to search for dinner options, we surveyed some of the competing lodgings – tents, tepees, a pastel “Easter” motel and shacks dotted the dry countryside. Hardly your typical National Park tourist environs. We stumbled on a humble eating establishment and settled into the last two seats out on the shaded patio. The slow service suited the warm air and we lingered over our Tex-Mex meals while chatting with nearby diners.

The long bench on the porch of the Trading Company was reputed to be the place to watch the sunset play out on the distant mountains. I insisted we do just that.

Sunset from the Trading Company porch

We left our little cabin well before dawn in order to watch the sunrise in the park. We didn’t count on a rough dirt road to reach our chosen scenic location, and decided to detour on the paved but still-slow road. The Mule Ears rock formation materialized in time to stop for the sun’s arrival. Finally having light to see our environs, we took in the bluebonnets blooming on the roadside – uniquely tall and stringy, compared to their short, dense Hill Country cousins.

Sunrise behind the Mule Ears Big Bend Bluebonnets

Our destination was Santa Elena Canyon. A short walk took us to the Rio Grande and a view of the entrance to the canyon. But the best part was the hike into the canyon. Crossing a narrow flow of water from a side stream, we followed a well-worn path with switchbacks up the edge of the canyon wall. The trail stretched back into the narrow canyon where we could appreciate the river’s handiwork in carving this deep crevice. Nearing the end of the trail, faint musical notes floated through the air. The pipe flute blended naturally with the environment, lending a mystical air to the experience.Rich at Santa Elena CanyonMolly in Santa Elena Canyon

Our second hike of the day was in the Chisos Mountain area in the center of the park. A three-mile walk through scrubby desert environs took us gradually down into the valley. We were at the beginning of the desert bloom, with plentiful wildflowers of all colors and cactus flowers just popping out. The easy path ended with clambering over boulders and hopping across slightly flowing mountain streams. But the end view was worth it – The Window provided an opening with a straight drop below and a narrow crevice beyond. A fierce wind whipped through that window, and I kept well away from the opening.

The Window Hike 1The Window Hike 2Molly at The Window

We experienced the extremes of the desert climate when the next day dawned cloudy, super windy and 46 degrees. In no hurry to rush out into the chill we headed back into Terlingua to Espresso Y Poco Mas. Geared for the desert heat, the eclectic café offered only outdoor seating. Settling ourselves at a well sheltered table, we were surprisingly comfortable and delighted with the breakfast tortillas. But we were thankful for our Minnesota clothes stashed in the car!

Molly at Espresso Y Poco Mas

With low expectations we returned to the park under the cold cloud cover. But on our first hike, while scouring the environs for elusive birds (Rich) and wildflowers (Molly) the sun emerged. As the sky cleared, the temperature zoomed to a comfortable warmth.

Driving to Rio Grande Village at the far end of the park provided a constant panorama of its nature. We were surrounded by rolling desert land covered in bushy vegetation, surrounded by soaring rocky peaks and mesas. It was majestic in its own way, in sharp contrast to the dense forest and white capped mountains that define National Park in my northern mind. The wilderness experience is all relative. By the time we arrived, I regretted forgetting my swim suit to soak in the hot springs. It just didn’t enter my mind that morning. Instead, we walked the local nature trail where we watched nutria at play in the pond, and climbed to a view of the Rio Grande.

Rich on Rio Grande Nature Trail

We capped our visit with dinner at the popular Starlight Theater restaurant.  We lucked out that night, getting in without the normal 1.5 hour wait to take in the western décor among patrons clad in cowboy hats and listen to the local guitar playing singer.

I’ve decided on one word to describe the overall experience – Quirky.  How often do you frequent a former ghost town? Consider a tiny sleeping cabin to be among the best of the lodgings? Hike in winter jacket, mittens and hat, and remove them all within an hour? Explore a narrow canyon and wide-open desert land? Big Bend with its Terlingua neighbor was all that and more.

An Enchanted Hike

Bike touring is great, but it does leave many “nearby” attractions undiscovered.  I can’t count the number of times I have looked longingly at a sign for a promising sight while Rich chides, “Molly, that little detour is 12 miles round trip!”  We cycle on by.

After two bike tours through Fredericksburg TX, this year we chose to arrive by car with our bicycles on the back.  Settling into a tiny cottage just off the historic Main Street, we suddenly have access to all those missed opportunities.  Nothing qualifies as too far to detour.

Today’s destination was my pick.  I got my first glimpse of Enchanted Rock while on a long bike ride.  Navigating the winding, hilly backroads, I turned a corner and there it was – the big pink granite dome.  That was enough to put it on my bucket list for our stay.

View of Enchanted Rock

Waiting out the misty morning, we timed our arrival perfectly – just as the sun came out.  We also deliberately missed last week’s spring break crowds.  No bikes for us today, the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is for hiking.  Loading up with sunscreen, plenty of water and cameras we started off with the iconic Summit Trail.

Calling it a trail is a misnomer.  It’s a rock.  And you walk up it.  The big pink expanse beckoned and we meandered up the steep slope to the top.  Chatting with other trekkers made the journey far easier than we imagined it to be.  Wandering over the top of the dome, we admired the views, ogled strange rock formations and found wildflowers in the crevices.  The notion of hurry did not apply.

Molly atop Enchanted Rock

View of Moss Lake from Enchanted Rock

Rich on Enchanted RockMolly and rock formations on Enchanted RockWildflowers growing in crevasse in Enchanted Rock

Hiking back down an alternate swath of rock, we connected with the Echo Canyon Trail.  I quickly understood the Challenging classification, as I picked my way between boulders.  I was more at ease once it morphed into an easy walking trail.

Rich on Echo Canyon TrailMolly on Echo Canyon Trail

Skirting Moss Lake, we finished on the Loop Trail.  The highway width crushed rock path was impossible to miss, and the unshaded sun baked our northern bodies.  But it delivered on the wildflower scale and provided some fun rock monuments.

Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 1 Wildflowers at Enchanted Rock 2 Enchanted Rock formations

Tomorrow we’re back on the bicycles for our favorite loop through the Texas bluebonnets.  But today I was glad Rich humored me for an enchanted day of hiking.

Cyber Magic

Urging my laptop to life, there were no inklings of the magic it would soon dispense. No hint of the hidden connections that lay within. Nothing to reveal the memories it would unleash.

The usual plethora of overnight emails swarmed my inbox, parading up the screen as they entered. Sifting through the usual jungle of unwanted solicitations, the day’s local news headlines, and legitimate email exchanges lay an unassuming subject from a sender I didn’t recognize. “Using an Image” it said. Once I had dispensed with the known correspondences, I opened it. And smiled. Then smiled even more.

A five year old photo of mine had caught the attention of a stranger. It was part of a blog post from our first year as lighthouse keepers for Crisp Point Lighthouse, when each day brought new perspectives for photographing that magnificent structure. In this image the day’s lingering light illuminated the lighthouse against a gloomy background, behind it the arc of a rainbow stretched skyward. It was the light that attracted Sarah’s attention.

Crisp Point Lighthouse with rainbowI have no idea how she found the photo. I dug through blog posts from six stints of light keeping before I spotted the picture she described. I was tickled that she wanted to use it and immediately granted permission.

But the magic still lay within. Sarah’s email began, “Good morning from a rather gloomy north east England.” That was the first smile. She went on to describe her interest in the photograph, to use for a monthly parish magazine she produces called Crosstalk. The theme of the next issue was “Light,” and she felt it would make a fitting cover image. She described the magazine’s circulation as “around 300 copies across three parishes in and around the City of Durham.” That was the second, bigger smile.

I spent my junior year in college studying at the University of Durham. As one of only 40 Americans immersed in a university population of over 4,000, I relished the opportunity to live the life of a British student, embraced the unique college system and relished the beauty and culture of that historic city. The best feature of my dorm room was the prominent view of the majestic cathedral through its single window. I made lasting friendships and developed a love affair with Britain that I have sustained through frequent return visits, including another stint to do a master’s degree at the University of Bath. Fond memories came flooding back.Durham Cathedral

What are the chances? That Sarah would find my photo. That she would be from my favorite city in Britain. And that she could so easily reach out to me directly.

A rapid-fire email exchange ensued, in which we uncovered more connections and interests in common.  The warmth of the new bond filled my soul.

The internet often gets a bad wrap. But in this case it made my day. Through cyber magic.

Bonfire Magic

“We have a bonfire every night,” Bob the proprietor of the Grizzly Lodge told us.  “People make friends for life there.”  I wasn’t sure sure about the “for life part” but I’m not one to miss a good blazing fire.

Rich and I were within yards of reaching the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The plan was to find a campsite in the park for the night, but when Rich saw the Vacancy sign on the lodge, he immediately turned into the drive.  His deteriorating health dictated better rest than sleeping outdoors on a thin inflatable pad.  Late in the season, we scored a tiny cabin right on the riverbank.

Rich barbecued out near the fire pit while I prepared the remainder of our camp meal in the cabin.  Already the bonfire was ablaze.  When Rich crashed and crawled under the colorful patchwork quilt on the soft double bed, I slipped outside.

Approaching the fire pit, I could just make out three couples and a young man seated on the quadrangle of logs.  I settled next to the couple on the nearest side.  Like me, they appeared to be in their 60s.  The man was tuning a guitar, clearly a borrowed instrument, muttering about its quality.  But when his fingers caressed the strings music unfurled.  His picking held the promise of a folk melody as the vibrating notes sang out over the flames.  Soon his gravelly voice took up the tune, with an oddly lyrical mix of breathy tones and vibrato.  His wife joined in, singing a quiet and alluring harmony, almost a haunting combination.  The language was foreign, adding to the mystique.  The impromptu performance continued, mostly his guitar and solo voice, always in his native tongue.  It was a magical moment.  I wanted it to go on forever.

Simon Chudnovski and Valentina Kharenko are originally from the Ukraine, and have lived in New York City for 20 years.  Both are accomplished musicians, and Simon had been invited to perform in Seattle.  Valentina, a pianist, would play as well.  They were taking their first long car trip in the US with their son, David.  Fulfilling one of David’s dreams, they were visiting as many western national parks as possible in three weeks.  Normally they camped and hiked each day, but that night they had allowed themselves a cabin and real beds.

David eagerly filled us in on their travels, their music and their lives.  The couple on the next log was from the Pennsylvania Dutch area, dressed in their traditional garb.  They asked Valentina if she spoke German, and the conversation continued in that language.  The Ukrainians took as much interest in each of us as we did in them, as we lingered by the fire.

I so wished Rich could be there.  I knew he would be as enchanted by the music as I was, as charmed by the experience.  I chatted with David as we wandered back to our cabins, and told him as much.  He insisted on stopping at his car so he could give me a CD of his father’s music.  And he gave me the name of Simon’s channel on YouTube.

I invite you to listen to his music.  You will have to imagine the heat of the fire, the glow on the faces surrounding the blaze, the crackle of the dry wood.  That music floating over the scene.  Bob joined us for a spell out there.  Said he’d never before experienced a bonfire like that one.  When magic happened.