Sunday, October 27, 2013

Whirlwind through The Southwest

Who says you need a whole month to see a place thoroughly?! Ever since my first trip outside of Romania, at 21, to see England, I have learned that you can squeeze more than you can plan in the span of 24 hours. And ever since, this is how I travel: fast and with a purpose.

The purpose, of course, is to pack as much “seeing time” as possible in the waking hours of one day. The mileage does not matter to me, as long as I can keep myself vertical and put one foot in front of the other…

I never realize, really, that I am planning too much in one trip, till I am back home, poring over pictures and thinking “Oh, my God! We did a lot!”. It’s kind of how it goes. And it’s kind of how it went during mom’s latest visit to see us, this month.

This was her first trip ever to the Western US, so, with very little vacation time left for both me and my husband, we packed as much time as we could in the amount of 5 days. 

The actual route looked something like this:

Day 1 – Las Vegas, NV

We left Spanish Fork on a Wednesday, and we made it to Vegas in about 6 hours – including a stop at Cracker Barrel in Saint George, UT, for lunch. It’s an all American stop, so every time my family visits, I make sure I include that in the trip, somehow.

Mom didn’t have any desire to see Vegas, because she hates crowds and busy cities, but I had to make her visit at least once! Since we live so relatively close, she needs to see this mind boggling conundrum of a city, this Disney World for adults, really! And I (and she) am glad we made this trip! She loved it! Some of her first words when we got there, the first day were: “Oh, my God, this is just like the movies! Oh, my God, all these old ladies are gambling for money! Oh, my God, everyone smokes here! Oh, my God, this is my world!!”

We just walked the streets, marveled at what they could do with The Venetian (one of her favorite spots – and mine), really pigged out on everything in sight, shopped till we could not shop any longer, and watched the Bellagio fountains show. As one of my co-workers would say, “we kept it clean”.

If you have never been to Vegas, trust you me: you want to go at least once! I told mom: “Mom, you can never believe what humans can possibly come up with to squeeze money out of people’s pockets in terms of entertainment and ‘show’ till you go to Vegas”. She agreed that I was right. 

You know I have over 500 pictures in this city - so, it's hard to decide what to post here. One panorama taken at night, on The Strip seems like the one good compromise to make. Follow the link below, to see more, from the entire album. 

Day 2 – Hoover Dam, NV-AZ border

One of mom’s favorite spots during this whole trip was the Hoover Dam. I guess the marvel of human engineering really spoke to the scientist in her. She was amazed at its size and how it was done with such fairly rudimentary mechanical resources, available in the 30s. I was not sure we wanted to go underneath the dam, in the turbine room, but she was adamant that we had to. My mom is typically very serious and stoic. But the trip to this dam is one trip I will always remember when she smiled the most. I loved seeing this through her eyes! 

 Overlooking Lake Mead - between Arizona and Nevada

The largest dam in the Western hemisphere - the Hoover Dam

A devilish smirk on her face, of joy, as she approaches the turbine room - 700 ft down, into the earth, at the base of the dam. Morbid thought of the trip: while I am snapping this picture, mom says to me "it's ok to die and be buried. This is pretty comfortable. Not too cold and very quiet." 

Day 3 – Flagstaff and Sedona, AZ

We were planning to head to the Grand Canyon next, but … the Government decided to shut down that week, so the National Parks were closed. You have no idea the frustration I felt! This woman comes to the US maybe every 3 years – sometimes less than that. And the national parks are the crown jewel of this area of the country. How in the world can her visit and the government shutdown coincide, I don’t know! But they did – and I was enraged. 

Mom loved, loved, loved the Arizona cacti. She peeked from behind one, as I was trying to shoot it up close. I love to see her smile!   

So, we diverted course, and we headed South of Flagstaff instead, towards Sedona. And sometimes, the road less traveled, and less expected really pays off, you know?! I had heard from a friend at work that Sedona is a must see, but that was an understatement on his part. It is a small, artsy, mountain town, so green, and surrounded by Arizona’s beautiful red rock peaks! It is peaceful, fresh and distinctive – like no other place I have seen before! I cannot wait till we plan a Sedona only trip. I would love to spend more than one evening there, where I can really take in the art galleries, the crafts shops, and I am sure the foods, as well! I fell in love on this trip, and its name is Sedona, for sure! 

This is Sedona, in a few hours and a couple of shots. Multiply this by infinity to understand its charm and tranquility! 
Day 4 – Monument Valley, UT – AZ border

Lucky for us, Monument Valley is a Navajo tribal park (yay!), and thus it was untouched by the government’s shenanigans. So, en route to Moab, that day, we stopped in The Valley, for lunch at The View Restaurant. We dined over the beautiful, eerie landscape that The Mittens and the Buttes provide, in the silence of the desert below.

Mom has some sort of food poisoning that day, but she did manage to enjoy their famous chicken and green chili. Full of root veggies and yummy, mild, Native spices, paired with the fry bread, it is the perfect comfort food. 

I could never get enough shots of The Monument Valley. This is one of my most favorite places on earth, not just in Utah. I had to take a picture of a John Wayne marker, as mom was amazed at how everything in this place is about Indians and ... John Wayne. The latter is a legend she grew up and she traveled a long way to "meet".  

We had to stop a spell at the Twin Rocks Café and Trading Post, in Bluff, UT – which is one of the hidden treasures of our state. Talk about off the beaten path: this spot is on no map, unless you happen onto it quite by mistake, between Moab and Monument Valley, or Moab and Natural Bridges or Four Corners. 

The hidden treasure of Twin Rocks, in Bluff, UT 

Day 5 – Arches National Park, and Moab, UT

By this day of our trip, the National Parks had opened. So, on the tail end of our trip, we managed to run by The Arches. It was a great thing they were open, too, because this was mom’s second most favorite spot on the entire vacation. She said “Hoover Dam was about what miracles humans can build, whereas The Arches was about what miracles nature can build.” She was blown away.

We didn’t think she was able to do any of the hikes, because of the altitude, and the fact that she didn’t have hiking shoes, but she did two of them: the Balancing Rock and the Windows and Turret Arch, too. She had a fun time climbing and being close to the landscape.  

 You see my little mommy climbing down The Balancing Rock?! As she went off towards it, she tells me "Should I go, or will a snake get me?" I assured her snakes are hibernating for the winter, so she is safe. Right behind her, there were 2 guys, and they shouted out while she was coming down: "There are two rattlers in here. Just very passive, sitting under a rock." I did not translate that to her!

Just like Vegas: there is not enough room on here for all the Arches pictures. This one of The Windows seemed like an appropriate summary of it all.  

Side trips:

We took some short, day trips, while she was here, and we used our home as our “base camp”.

Salt Lake City:

We walked through the Farmers’ Market, the City Creek Mall, and Temple Square. She loved Cheesecake Factory and she loved the market, although she agreed that it does not compare with the open air, year round European markets she is used to. 

 Temple Square and City Creek Mall, in Salt Lake City, UT

The Farmers' Market - Salt Lake City

Snowbird and Oktoberfest:

We had a grand time at Oktoberfest, this year, as every year, in fact! But how can one not have a good time, when the food is warm, the beer flowing and the German music happy and danceable, too?! What more could one need? Although the day started out with snow on the ground, it warmed up and it ended up being picture perfect. 

Potato pancakes with sour cream and apple sauce, kraut and brats, washed down with local "Pun'kn" lager - yummmm!

On the way back, we shopped for pumpkins, to decorate our porch a bit for the season. Pumpkin décor is yet another “all American” thing – so, I had to share that with her. 

Happy fall!  

Sundance and the Alpine Loop:

We took a drive through the mountains, to look at the changing color one afternoon, and stopped for dinner at The Owl Bar, in Sundance. We were a little nervous about how mom would handle the altitude, but she did great! She loved the peaceful roads, and the majestic Timpanogos, drowned in the golden yellow of the aspens all around. 

Mount Timpanogos seen from The Alpine Loop, in all its color and snow ...  

Park City:

The good bye dinner was at the High West Distillery, in Park City. The place should be a Utah staple – as it is probably the only place in the state where you can buy hard liquor on a Sunday. Yes, in crazy alcohol laws Utah state – you can do that!

It was freeezzzing when we got to The Distillery. They had this fire going outside, while we waited for a table.  

This is just my back yard. Looking forward to her next trip, or the next visitor we get to show around our parts. Click on the picture and enjoy the whole album from this trip.  

And that, my friends, is how you do The American Southwest in (almost) a week. I can only wonder what we could have done with a whole month! The entire internet would have run out of space for my words, and my pictures, I believe.  

Montreal in a Weekend

Owie! Zowie! – as my husband would say! We have had a busy fall, to say the least. If you remember, in one of the last posts I was insisting that it’s still summer … Well … I kind of feel like, with everything that went on this fall, I missed the season entirely, almost altogether!

In the end of September, we flew up to Montreal where my mom was visiting my sister and her family, so we can spend her 60th birthday with her. Visiting Montreal is always a gift to us – it’s half family trip, half sightseeing (when we get enough time). Although still in North America, Montreal feels “foreign” and cosmopolitan and like a trip of a lifetime, really. 

The fleurs-de-lis everywhere reminds you constantly that you're not in just North America anymore.

In the past couple of trips up there, we went up for family “stuff” and we always went in a hurry. We had no time to see the city or to savor the local foods. This time, the days were few again, but somehow my sister managed to squeeze some “touristy” time in the 2 full days we stayed there. And what a treat it was!

On a Friday (when the kids are in school, still), all of the adults went to Old Port/ Montreal and had lunch at this very chic Japanese bar and then walked about the city. 

We had lunch at Kyo, a Japanese bar. The food was traditional Japanese and delicious. This place was all rice, fish and ... wood. The bamboo slab you read the name of the restaurant on is actually the back of our menus. And the sake came enclosed in this tiny wooden box.
Just gawking at cobble stone streets and stone walls can make my pastime enjoyable. For some reason, I have always loved cities with a waterfront: Charleston, Wilmington, Savannah, New Orleans, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Quebec City and … Montreal. There is something timeless about a city’s old buildings strung together, like priceless beads, along a river front … You can see the history, its happy times, and its dark times, all along the water… The walls start talking, telling tales of good and bad, rich and poor, bloody and fair. 

Nothing says "old European city" than streets lined with statues and piazzas full of pigeons! 

 Walking along the Saint Laurent River, in Vieux Port of Montreal

I love taking in the smell of street foods on these old streets, peeking at artists creating, oblivious at the carefree passersby, watching perky pups pulling onto their owners, happy to be “out”; I love hearing the sound of the old tram horns or the horses’ feet, clip-clopping over the cobbles; I love eating random treats while trying really hard not to trip, and trying to figure out what is a better spending of my time: opening my own eyes and really enjoying every second of this, or grabbing my camera and trying to capture as much of this rich spectacle for posterity?! I have never been able to prioritize in such situations.    

Taking in the Old City: artists, beautiful flower arrangements on street patios and boutiques - lots of them.

This was my first trip to the Old Port with my husband – so, this will remain in our family album as our first discovering the maple ice-cream and cookies, our first visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica, our first shooting The Port, together. 

What can possibly say "Montreal" more loudly than poutine and maple?! Sorry, America can keep its claim of perfecting mashed potatoes and gravy, but fries and gravy belongs to the Quebecois, people! Hands down! When in Old Port, make sure you visit the Maple Museum in the basement of the Maple Delights store.

If you ever wander around those parts, please do remember to do two things: visit the artists’ corner, of the Old Port. The jewelry and paintings you’ll find are some of the most affordable and beautifully original art I have seen anywhere! And, secondly, pay the $10 (or … so) to visit the Notre-Dame Basilica. A replica of the famous French church, it is a breathtaking Gothic structure that will leave you gasping! The art inside is old and awe inspiring, and done in a manner obsessing with perfection and detail. Not one stroke of painting or chisel is at random. And simply put: they don’t build churches like this anymore! 

 The Notre-Dame Basilica, outside and in

The rest of the time up there was spent in the family, chasing around my nephews, cooking out and talking, eating and drinking too much. My mom almost had a heart attack on her birthday, when my dad showed up at the door, to wish her Happy Birthday. This is a 24 hour, 5000 mi trip, in case you were wondering. He flew totally unannounced and unplanned to surprise her. 

Maybe the last grill of the season

All I can say is: thank God for family, and thank God for love!

This is how you say "cheese" in my family: my whole family reunited, at last! Do you know how rare this moment is?! Thinking about it makes me cry! Thanks to dad's adventuresomeness, we are all together again. Click on this last picture to see the whole album from this trip.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Proving Up

I am reading this book now that collects a number of accounts by women who settled in the Montana region at the beginning of the 20th century. The way it worked is this: they came from all over the nation (and even across the Ocean and Canada) to “lease” a piece of land (300 acres or less) from the government, build a “shack” on it, and start to either cultivate the land, or raise animals on it.

After three years of living here, more or less continuously (without hiatuses longer than a few months) and after proving they are earning a living off the land, they were allowed to file for ownership on their plot, and at that point in time, the land was theirs. They would receive papers that showed they are the owners. After three years, they would “prove up” that this is indeed their home and the government would title the property to them. And this is how The West was settled.

What I find the most interesting in this book is not necessarily the account of all the hardships, or the wicked hard life that a lone woman would encounter in the middle of nothing, or the description of the really gruesome winters, with ruthless prairie winds and unforgiving blizzards, blowing through the cracks of the shacks with no insulation at all; or the tough long years of severe drought when they had no crops at all, and no hope left. I find the most interesting their difficulty in feeling at home here; their longing for the places they left behind. After all, they picked to move across the continent. They seemingly were ready for a new life and hard work. But there is always something left behind, some anchor, that kept pulling them to their roots.

Some of them went back in the long winters, so they can retreat to calmer weather in California, or The South; some just gave up and moved back “home” before their proving up time was up. And yet some of them stayed, but wrote in the journals I am reading now how they missed their old land.

I have felt much the same way in the past three years of my life, without the actual complications of waiting for the government to call me an owner. For three years, my former house in North Carolina has been mine, and for one reason or another I could not sell it. For three years, it kept pulling me back, albeit just in thought and worry. For three years, although I have lived a new married life, I have found a better job that I had in NC, I have travelled places speechlessly beautiful out here, in the West, I have fought rough winters and planted my own gardens, I have buried my beloved cat in this land, I have also hung on to Greensboro as to my true “home”.

I visited just once, but every time life was tough here, I would always go back to my “safe” (and worrisome) zone in my heart. I was always telling myself that I can see myself going back. It was safe, it was friends, it was what I knew

Until yesterday! Yesterday, my old place finally sold. Finally, I lost my anchor. I am still in a state of shock, for many reasons, but mostly because I never thought it could really be completely gone from my life. And now, for the first time in three years, I realize that I am fully moved. Finally.  

The other day, a colleague asked me what I miss about North Carolina. My goodness, what don’t I miss?! The weather, the honey liquid air in the middle of summer, the green, huge oak trees lining the streets, the food, the mountains and Asheville and Blowing Rock in particular, the loud, noisy, beautiful sandy beaches, only a few hours away. And more than anything, I miss the people. Friends and strangers alike – just the Southern hospitality and drawl!

A piece of my heart will definitely forever be buried in The Carolinas, just like another piece is left in Romania. But now, a true new life can begin. No more dreaming about going back, as there is no physical place to go back to. After three years of a torn heart, hard winters, trying to understand this new culture and feeling uprooted and isolated, and after always, daily, feeling pulled behind … I have finally proved up.