When a family member or friend moves away, saying goodbye can be heartbreaking. However, there is one positive piece to take away from the teary experience; a new vacation prospect emerges. Suffice it to say, I have taken full advantage of these opportunities over the years to reunite with loved ones, and to tour, tour, tour. I hope you enjoy reading the vignettes that follow, each one capturing a different aspect of travel and sight-seeing.
We were in the Green Mountain State for a wedding, and which chocoholic can waive an invitation for the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour? There were two highlights on that hot summer’s day: Savoring my luscious ice cream flavor that was only available there at the factory, and delighting when another chocoholic, someone considerably younger, valiantly struggled in the “battle of the drips.” In this case, the chocolate cone was winning but the little girl was all smiles as she worked on it. Grabbing my camera, I asked the mother for permission to photograph this happy child. She consented. As I pressed the camera to my eye, the mom pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped her child’s face clean. I don’t know who was more crestfallen, the little girl or I. I didn’t want to show disappointment, so I smiled, took the photo, thanked them both, and walked back in line as the tour began.
With family in Southern California, the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum quickly earned a spot on the “Must See” list. I’ve toured this gallery of Ice Age fossils several times, and the grounds and museum always strike me as other worldly. If you’re not impressed by the million-plus fossils like the mammoth and saber-toothed cat in their collection, then I suggest you take a walk around the perimeter of the building. To this day, “tar” or asphalt bubbles and oozes to the surface of what is now Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a working excavation site. These animals lived in Los Angeles!
There have been trips to Europe when friends and family lived there. I could list marvel after marvel, the castles and cathedrals and ancient ruins and museums, but what leaps to the forefront of my memory are specific vistas and tastes. On a crisp but sunny January day in the mountainous area of my Italian forebears, the sight of an old man as he collected firewood from the steep grassy and tree-lined incline comes to my mind’s eye. This man gathered sticks and small branches and arranged them on a pack that dropped to the sides of his donkey. Sheep and goats kept the grassy hill sheared. Most hikers would have found this trek rigorous. There were no power lines, no buildings, no billboards, nothing but this man and his work beast, the hills and trees and grass and brilliant sky and an occasional hand-fashioned hay bale.
Also on that same trip to visit Italian family, my cousins roasted a steak on the open hearth in their kitchen. The Italian tile floor near the hearth had been charred from years of extending the coals closer to the table. This was my first time tasting goat, and it was an animal my family had raised. It took very little pressure on my knife to cut through the perfectly cooked piece of steak that had been placed on my plate with a flourish. It was warm, juicy, melted in my mouth, and was the most delicious and memorable morsel I had ever tasted. What made it even more memorable was that when my father translated the conversation building up to this moment, relaying to me that this was “goat” steak, I thought he meant it was lamb or mutton. The only way I could resolve the mix-up I caused was to mimic the calls of sheep, only to be told “No” by my cousins’ shaking heads. This was not the product of a “Baaaa Baaaa.” So I tried my best goat call. “Mehhh-eh-eh-eh-eh.” Laughing, everyone nodded their heads in agreement, repeating “Si! Capra”! “Yes! Goat”!
When my daughter completed her semester abroad, I headed south of the equator, to Santiago, Chile to see her and meet her host family. There were two things on my agenda, one playful and one serious. First, I had to check if the water drained clockwise in the southern hemisphere, so I opened the tap in the hotel bathroom, put a little water in the basin and drained it. Of course then I couldn’t remember which direction it was supposed to drain and so came to no conclusions. Good thing, because I have learned since that while the Coriolis force is real, it does not impact the direction of water draining in sinks. So with that fun non-experiment out of the way, I turned my eyes to the heavens. Literally. On a tour originating in the Elqui Valley, we drove to an observatory in the mountains. Most Chilean observatories are research facilities and closed to the public, so this was a gift. Being that Santiago is such a large city, the lights make for a lovely vista from the nearby mountain communities. However, it also means it is difficult to go star-gazing from the city proper. But there on this cold cloudless night at the observatory, my dream came true. I couldn’t stop staring at the Magellanic Clouds, the irregular galaxies that really do look like clouds in the sky. These dwarf spiral galaxies just aren’t visible to us in the northern hemisphere. They are neighbors to our Milky Way, and since reading about them years ago, I have yearned to see them. A docent took us on a “star tour” using a laser pointer, and described the constellations of the Southern hemisphere. Then we looked through the telescope at different heavenly bodies. It was thrilling. But tilting my head back and just staring at constellations and the Clouds I had not seen before was the best part.
My cousins in Florida took me to their nearby state park in Homosassa and I grew more excited by the minute. Once there, you couldn’t budge me from my perch. Here were the manatees, those giant gray and brown water mammals that dwell in the Floridian rivers, estuaries and coasts. Some may find it difficult to call them “beautiful,” but I had no trouble doing so. I knew that manatees are cousins to the elephant, but still was surprised to see that same wrinkly skin. These creatures fascinated me. They have an interesting tail that is shaped like a paddle. One docent I spoke to told me that people call them “sea cows.” These slow swimmers are endangered, and this park is a rehabilitation and refuge center for injured manatees; boat propellers are the main reason for their endangerment. Unlike seeing animals in facsimile habitats in zoos and parks thousands of miles away from their home, we were in the midst of their natural habitat.
En route to family and friends in New Mexico, an unplanned roadside stop led to a discovery so profound that I have cherished that moment ever since. Needing to stretch my legs, I noticed a small sign on the highway and turned down the unpaved drive, parked the car, and walked several yards on a trail. I didn’t expect the enormity of what lay before me. Boulders and cliffs surrounding a field provided a treasure trove of rock carvings created by ancient people. There were a few other interested folks there, walking, studying the carvings, stretching their legs, photographing and reflecting in this large, quiet area. I was impelled to see more. In a recent visit to the state, I toured the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. As it was summer, monsoon rains and a lightning storm had turned back all visitors the previous day. The weather cleared overnight and we tried again. This time the parking lot was full and crowds of history buffs, tourists, hikers, and people looking for something to do on a nice Sunday afternoon took to the trails. The National Park Service provided maps to the petroglyphs that also explained the many carved symbols. With other people walking up the trail behind me, I tried not to linger too long at any one petroglyph while studying and photographing it. Once we arrived at the top of this large hill, the views of Albuquerque in warm sunlight were remarkable. So many people were clicking their camera shutters to capture the city from this vantage point. A few times, however, I found myself reminiscing about that roadside “find” years back, when hundreds of petroglyphs came into view, and I wandered through the field in solitude.
Next week, I will explore the memories of one city, one place, where I never expected to visit more than a few times. However, once again, a family member moved there. While it offers a wealth of things to do, it will be the link to loved ones and history and culture and isolated everyday moments that I will describe. I am looking forward to continuing my journey and hope you accompany me by reading along. See you next week.