Dublin, Italy, France 2014

Europe 2014
Dublin, Italy and France

We traveled to Europe for 5 weeks and saw the sights that everyone is familiar with.
This blog is not "we saw this and we saw that" but more of a description of some of the interesting people we met and situations we encountered.
In brief: 
Dublin for 6 days
Rome for 4 days 
Sorrento, Amalfi coast and Pompeii for 3 days, 
Assisi and Umbrian hill towns for 4 days
The Cervenne in southern France for 5 days
Paris for 5 days.

In Dublin we spent five days hanging out with Brenda's family and old friends. With a party every night, at the end of the visit we were tired. Our tradition is to go to the singing pub with Brenda's brother Eamon. its always a pleasure to here folks sing, especially Eamon who plays harmonica and sings. Brenda did a nice rendition of Song for Ireland. The pints of Guiness helped. We stayed at the home of the Dalton gang, Brenda's niece Berrnadette and family, where it is always fun to hang out. Niece Anne put on a BBQ out in the country and everyone showed up including a baby great great nephew. We had a great time at lunch with siblings Lori, Eamon and Phyllis. They talked about the old times growing up in the East Wall neighborhood, sometimes referred to as The Jungle. Another night we spent the evening with Brenda's best friend from childhood, Mary and husband Jerry (also from the East Wall), as well as another old friend. We did get one good walk along the Grand Canal from the outskirts into downtown. A great visit, and brother Paddy took us from and to the airport.
In Rome we did the usual Colosseum, Forum, Sistine Chapel, Appian Way, plus a great walkabout. However,  some nice things that happened were not about tourist attractions. We arranged a room through AirBnB and of course you never know what to expect. We got to Rome after dark and were challenged to find our room. Finally, after getting on a light rail and getting some help about where to get off, we walked through a kind of rough looking area, got more directional help from a store clerk, and finally arrived to a hearty "welcome, make yourself at home" from Pietro. "Are you hungry, I'll go get a pizza, have some wine". He's an enthusiastic guy who is trying to build an AirBnB business, and loves it. We had our own room, shared a bathroom, and could walk to the Colosseum in 30 minutes. The Australian couple in the other room were very friendly.
The Appian Way is one of the many roads the Roman Empire built for commerce and military purposes. We did a pleasant walk, checked out the Christian catacombs (Christians had to hide from the Roman pagans) and stopped at the Appian Cafe, the only one around, and found the prices over the top. We passed on that and soon came to a sandwich board announcing a pleasant looking lawn, tables and chairs and a little restaurant. We were delighted that the prices were not tourist prices, and had some wine. We asked the woman and she explained that it was a family business, that her father had run a local restaurant for years and that they had decided to move the business to this location. She also said that they never tried to rip off tourists as so many places have done. Papa walked by and she introduced us. If you ever do a walk on the Appian Way, look for the big lawn, patio and a children's swing set.
In Sorrento we had sort of an up and down experience. The villa we stayed in high above Sorrento in an olive grove, about a 20 minute walk down to town on an old trail, was very nice as were Marta and her son Alex. A definite downer for us was waiting in the hot sun on a street for an hour with over 100 others to catch the Amalfi Coast bus. People tried to line jump to much yelling. We finally made it on a bus and found the coast to be spectacular, but the bus stopped cold in a traffic jam on the very narrow main road, so we walk the last few miles to Amalfi. However, the day trip to Pompeii was wonderful, and a loop walk around the Sorrento coast and hills made for a special day.
We had dinners at the family restaurant just a short walk away. The servers were friendly, prices were good and the local wine was great. The owner dropped by for a chat, telling us about his business, and gave us several shots of his authentic homemade lemoncello. We bought a bottle.
On the train to Assisi the conductor from hell  "fined" us (its actually legal extortion) because we didn't "validate" the tickets we got from the ticket machine. Although most conductors let it pass, this particular a**hole stood over us and insisted we pay the 50 euro ($68) fine. We heard they get a cut. We were pissed. But on to Assisi, the medieval hilltop walled town made famous by St. Francis. The very highlight of this visit was the cathedral (1288) where St. Francis is entombed. I can only say that it is a special place, with a palpable sense of reverence for this special man. One of the frescos shows the virgin and child with St Francis on one side, St. John on the other. She is giving Francis the thumbs up signal, which at the time, some nuts considered a dissing of John. 
But the Pope said no, she is giving them both the high sign.
We enjoyed the walk through the Umbrian countryside. The Mt. Sebasio walk was memorable for the wildflowers, and for the cave retreat St. Francis used. Every town was sweet. In Montefalco, at family owned Oro Rosso hotel, they treated us like family with free wine and snacks when we arrived. At Compello, the place was a little isolated, so the pretty daughter gave us a lift to the store. At Spoleto we walked across a 1700's aqueduct high above a valley, walked trail on the mountainside and explored a derelict convent. 
The host in La Bastide, the RL Stevenson Trail, the drenching, the helpful tourist office lady, the smelly dog, and the curse of the train strike.
Two days of travel brought us to Ales France where we wanted to catch a bus to La Bastide and start our 4 day walk on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail through the Cervenne region of southern France. The French Train Strike has just begun so we missed a connection and thus arrived at La Bastide a day late. We spent the night at L'etoile (the star), a fine old 2 story guesthouse by the creek. A wonderful and lively host, and a four course meal family style with the other 10 French speaking guests, and free flowing local french wine made for a wonderful overnight. 5 stars!
The walk was very nice, the well signed trail following a variety of tracks from rough trails to farm roads, forest roads, through villages and ruins, and for about 3 miles followed a Roman road marked with granite monoliths. For three nights we stayed in nice places with full family style homemade meals. Along the way we walked with several people, all French speakers with no English, but we muddled through and had a good time with them.
The second day as we approached our place in Monvert, dark clouds moved in and soon thunder, lightening and drenching rain and hail caught out of doors without any protection. Everything got soaked, but the nice owner took pity and loaned us a small electric tent like clothes drier.
When we arrived in the town of Florac we went to the tourist office to inquire about getting the bus back to Ales. We said we had one more hiking day, it being Friday and we had to be in Paris on Monday. Oh no, she said, its Saturday (groan, we lost a day somehow), and the one bus doesn't run today. She helped us decide what to do. So, to make this short, she gave cardboard and felt tip for a sign, directed us to a cheap room and in the morning we hitched to 75 km to Ales. A sweet young woman with a very smelly dog got us 15 km and a young guy got us to Ales. Easy. So we wanted to get the train to Paris. Train strike, no train. Now we are stuck in a not very interesting town, 400 miles from Paris, where we have a room rented the next 5 days. Only choice was to rent a car for a day, which cost a small fortune. $400 later we arrived in Paris. On that drive we stopped into a fruit stand, and found a wonderful family run operation. Bought fruit and 3 bottles of their own wine, which was delicious. 
A note about French and Italian table wine. 
The regular everyday house wine that you buy in a carafe in a cafe or by the bottle is very inexpensive, around $5. Maybe we were affected by the romance of being there, but we thought the wine was superior to California table wine. Usually smooth and fruity without being sweet. Not at all harsh.
Some takes on Paris
Amazing place. All of the main attractions live up to the billing. It is a monumental city. 
The underground metro is a wonder with lines everywhere and a clear directional signs in the labyrinth like pedestrian tunnels. The trains arrive every 2 minutes, and still people are rushing to catch it, some even running. We didn't get it, considering another train was about to arrive.
Our room in the Bellville area (where Edith Piaf was born) was small and the host was gracious and helpful. He cooked meals for us in the evening for just the cost of the food. This was good because we were burned out on finding places to eat. The neighborhood is outside the core tourist area so the cafes and small bakeries, fruit/veggie shops and butcher shops are for locals with local prices. We enjoyed sitting on a street corner cafe and having good cheap wine, about a third of the price in downtown. This is a good way to observe the locals. People meet at the cafes, have wine or coffee, chat, and just take their time. One small observation was the number of people carrying a baguette.
Lotta ups and some downs
Rome and Paris, the walks, the Umbrian hill towns, the people, the scenery in France, Pompeii, everything met our expectations. Various glitches, mistakes, situations like the train strike, created some anxiety, but we troopered through it all and felt that is was an excellent trip. The travel lesson we learned: don't try to do so much. 

A conversation with Bredan Behan, Irish writer.
The forum, Rome
Pampeii fast food joint

Pompeii mural in the whore house

Amalfi coast

1st century Roman temple, Assisi

In Spello

Mount Subasio above Assisi

Roman road in the Cervenne, South France

aqueduct Spoleto Italy

Dinner in La Bastide

Along the RL Stevenson Trail

Village along the RLS Trail

getting ready to hitch


The French barmaid



Everest middle left, Aba Dablam far right

Our first good look at the Everest Range, Tyngboche Monestary is on the ridge to the right of Brenda's hat
Adventure to the Top of the World 

Why Nepal and the Himalaya? (Abode of the Snow)

The Himalaya Range holds the highest peak on the planet at 29,028 feet. It is called Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the Earth) by the Tibetans and Sherpa,  called Sagarmatha (Top of the World) by the Nepalis, called Everest (named after the British surveyor who first fixed the elevation at 29,002 feet) by Westerners. The Khumbu Valley reaching deep into the Himalaya, all the way to the Tibetan border and Everest. The Himalaya chain is 1500 miles long, with 100 peaks over 23,600 feet.

This iconic mountain has fascinated millions of people over the last century. Attempts were made to climb the mountain starting in the 1920's but not until 1953 did Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay Sherpa summit. Climbing expeditions and trekking to base camp caught on, so that over 30,000 people a year attempt the trek up the Khumbu Valley to base camp and hundreds attempt to summit every year. The trail ends at Gorakshep, a few miles from base camp. Some trekkers develop Acute Mountain Sickness and have to retreat or in serious cases, evacuate by helicopter.  Also, about 2% of those who attempt to summit Chomolungma, die. That is 239 people as of 2013. 30% of those who attempt to summit, make it. 

As well as the attraction of Chomolungma, we love to experience different cultures. Nepal offers a rich cultural heritage. Nepal has a number of tribes of which the Sherpa people of the Khumbu region are one. Our guide, Ambar Tamang, is Tamang, raised in a village in the foothills. Our porter Predip Rai, is from the Rai group. Almost everyone identifies with Hinduism or Buddhism. The Buddha was raised as a Hindu, born in Limbini, Nepal, but discovered a different path to enlightenment, thus was born Buddhism. These two religions prosper peacefully together in Nepal. We visited five world heritage sites in the Katmandu Valley and several Buddhist monasteries on the trek.

Getting to Nepal

We made a stop over for 3 nights in Hong Kong to experience a different kind of vertical world. Hong Kong island, Kowloon peninsula and the surrounding lands forming the harbor and the territory (now governed by China under arrangements that leaves a free trade economy) is densely packed with  thousands of high rise buildings. It is a modern, organized city with a fine public transport system, but the planning is on double steroids. We wandered around the city one day, and the next took a ferry to Lantau Island to visit one of the biggest sitting metal Buddhas (120 feet high) at a monastery high in the mountains, and then went to a traditional, old Chinese fishing village, full of houses and huts built on stilts lining the shore. Dried fish alongside tourist souvenirs were on display.

We arrived in Katmandu to be greeted by our guide for the next three weeks, Ambar Tamang. it was late at night, and the ride to our hotel, the Vajra, took us through what looked like a deserted and almost bombed out city. Dirt streets and rubble everywhere, but the Vajra is an old, elegant hotel with peaceful grounds so that it didn't seem that we were in a city at all. On our first day we visited the Tamel, a busy area of narrow lanes full of shops and restaurants catering to tourists, and found a peaceful formal mediation garden. At the end of the trip we were back in KTM. we visited three important World Heritage sites: Durbar (palace) squares in Katmandu, Patan and Backtapar. These were the centers of small royal kingdoms until unification in the 1700's. They feature royal palaces and baths, and shrines to various Hindu deities such as Vishnu (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer). Backtapar is especially well preserved and the main squares are traffic free and peaceful. We also visited two  holy, 2000 year old Buddhist Stupas. Swayambhunath (the "Monkey Temple" named for the monkeys who live there) is high on a hill overlooking Katmandu. Boudhanath, surrounded by bustling city, is a huge stupa. The faithful circle the stupa clockwise in meditation and prayer.  
Durbar Square in Patan

The stupa in Katmandu

Burbar (palace) Square in Backtapar

website for heritage sites: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/121

To our western eyes Katmandu is a city in crisis. There seems to be no planning, many unpaved streets, insane traffic, polluted rivers, trash and rubble everywhere, smog and dust. Yet the folks who live there go happily about their business and treat tourists with respect. Pedestrians have no rights, but the cars, truck and motorcycles wind around and through it all, beeping away, never hitting each other. But we did enjoy the adventure of it and always felt safe wandering around. The Vajra was a welcomed sanctuary from the noise and dust.
public bath in Katmandu

Going to the Himalaya

In order to get to Lukla in the Khumbu region, we could make a long bus or jeep ride on dirt roads for many hours, then trek four days to Lukla, or a 30 minute plane ride in a 12 to 20 passenger airplane. The plane ride took us over steep foothills with small farms and villages, and terraced fields covering all available ground that wasn't steep. We could see the Himalaya range off in the distance, and just before landing, a glimpse of Chomolungma and the surrounding peaks. 

The Lukla airstrip is only 200 yards long and sloped uphill, so the incoming planes make a quick stop just before the runway ends at a rock wall. The village sits high on a sloping terrace a 500 feet above the Dudh Kosi (Milk River). It's a thrilling ride. Peaks of over 20,000 feet rise above the village.

Lukla airstrip

Ambar Tamang

A big reason we made it is because of the caring and professional manner of our guide Ambar Tamang. He nurtured and watched out for us at every step of the way. He kept us trekking at the proper slow pace and made sure we were acclimatizing properly. Acute Mountain Sickness (or altitude sickness) can not only stop you, but can kill. We developed a close relationship with him. His genuinely caring and friendly personality made us feel so welcomed in his country. He was generous with his time and not once left us hanging or in doubt. His enthusiastic encouragement, and careful attention to detail, were absolutely necessary to our success. Also, Ambar has excellent English and a command of the internet.

I encourage anyone wanting trek in the Himalaya to contact Ambar at ambartg@yahoo.com

Our Guide Ambar Tamang

Aba Dablam, 22,493
The Trail

The Sherpa (Eastern People) have been in the Khumbu for at least 500 to 600 years, having brought their culture and Buddhism over the high Himalayan passes from Tibet. The trails connect villages together. Everything is carried by porters or mule trains at lower elevations, and yak trains and porters higher up, and everybody walks everywhere, including school kids, who may climb 1000 feet every day to get the school. There are no vehicles anywhere except the fairly regular helicopters flying distressed tourists out. The trails vary from very steep to flat, rough, smooth, and in between. The trails pass through villages, farms and spiritual sites: stupas*, carved blessing rocks** and mani stones*** and prayer wheels.
Everest and Lohtse 27,940 (4th highest). Sunset from Tyngboche hotel room

The Trek

The trail from Lukla to Gorakshep is about 35 miles, but our guide Ambar only described it in terms of hours and elevation gain. We'd take a full 12 days up and five days back. Of the 12 up days, 5 were acclimatizing days and several were short days of 3 or 4 hours trekking. The total elevation gain took us from 8600 feet at Phakding, our first stop after dropping from Lukla (9100 feet), to 17,000 at Gorakshep, plus a day hike to 18,200 feet atop Kala Patthar (Black Hill). We climbed more, because at one point we dropped down 1700 feet to the river, before starting up 2000 feet to Tyengboche. As well, there were several other losses followed by gains. we were in good shape, so although hard, the climbing was not an issue, but going high is as issue, as the oxygen available at 17,000 feet is about half of sea level. To avoid altitude sickness, it is important to go very slowly up. We adjusted very well to the elevation. Ambar made sure we had adequate acclimatizing days. We were breathing hard, but didn't get sick, just a little headache, runny nose and cough, the Khumbu Cough. We took a drug, diamox, that helped ward off altitude sickness, and made us pee often, mostly because we were drinking 2 to 3 liters of water a day. Any discomfort was more than compensated by the surroundings.

Day 1 Fly to Lukla, 9186 feet, walk to Phakding, 8677 feet, 3.5 hours, 509 elevation loss.
Day 2 Walk to Namche Bazaar 11,220, 6.5 hours, 2543 gain
Day 3 Acclimatizing day in Namche, and a day hike.
Day 4 Walk to Khumjung, 12,368 feet, 3.5 hours, 1148 gain
Day 5 Walk to Tyengboche, 12,696 328 gain, but we dropped 1740 feet to the river and gained 2000 feet to Tyengboche, 6 hours (Brenda breaks her elevation record)
Day 6-9 Acclimatizing days, and to observe the Buddhist monastery Mani Rimdu festival
Day 10 Walk to Dingboche, 14,304, 1608 gain, 6 hours
Day 11 Acclimatizing day (Richard breaks his elevation record on a day hike to 15,000)
Day 12 Walk to Thukla, 15,157, 853 gain, 4 hours (afternoon day hike to see a glacier and lake)
Day 13 Walk to Lobouche, 16,174, 1017 gain, 4 hours (short day hike over the moraine to see   Khumbu glacier for the first time)
Day 14 Walk to Gorakshep, 17,000, 826 gain. (Richard proceeds to Kala Patthar at 18,200)
Day 15-19 Descend to Lukla on a wonderful, leisurely ramble down the valley.

Arakam Tse, 21,072


We got a glimpses of Chomolungma flying in to Luckla, the jet stream blowing snow horizontally off the peak. We got a second view on the second day. But the full impact of where we were going struck us after leaving Namche. As we climbed up a ridge and topped out, the trail circled around a guesthouse and then the mountain came into view. We were stopped in our tracks, gasping with emotion and teary eyed. There before us was the icy peaks and ridges surrounding the Mother Goddess, framing it perfectly. We had to sit down and just stare in awe at an indescribable scene. It would be many days before we reached Gorakshep, and this view spurred us on. 

A Memorial

After leaving Thukla we climbed a steep rocky ridge to Thokla Pass. At the pass numbers of stone memorials sit in a spectacular location to honor those who died on Everest. Memorials to climbers from Asia, Europe, Eastern Europe and the US dot the landscape. Some memorials list a group who died together in a single accident such as a avalanche, or people with the same nationality. One recognizes American Scott Fischer, who was one of 7 people who died in a storm in 1996. The story is told in Into Thin Air. These powerful, poignant memorials honor those who risked it all to climb to the highest point on the planet.

Guest Houses and Villages

30 years ago few trekkers came to the Khumbu Valley. Then the villages were simple stone houses, the people subsistence farming, growing potatoes and veggies and grazing yaks. Now over 30,000 people try for base camp every year, led by tour companies and on their own. The Sherpa people have responded by building guest houses, restaurants, tea shops, gear and souvenir shops to cater to the flood. Only Sherpa people can open businesses. Many improvements have been made: electricity, cell phones and internet. We saw many porters packing 100 pound loads and chatting away on cell phones. Behind that tourist facade, life goes on as before, farming, Buddhist practice, families.  We witnessed people living simple daily lives, harvesting potatoes, washing clothes, caring for children, tending little shops. The difference is that the local economy is much stronger than before.

We stayed in guest houses, kind of like a hotel, every night. The dining room, heated every night by a wood or yak dung, found guides and clients crowded around the stove trying to get warm. The rooms, comprised of plywood, built into the stone buildings, were unheated and frigid, as low as 15-20 degrees F. After dining, and some reading, we'd head to the room and jump right into the sleeping bag, clothes on.

All of the buildings are made from hand chiseled granite blocks formed on site. The wood used in framing windows, doors, rafters and internal walls all cut and shaped by hand using saws and block planes, NO power tools.

Steps up to Namche
a small village on the trail
Khumjung village with the Hillary school and hospital

Mani Rimdu Festival at the Tyengboche Monastery.  
For more info see         http://chiwongmonastery.com/festivals/

Mani Rimdu is a 19-day sequence of sacred ceremonies and empowerments, culminating in a 3-day public festival. It's an opportunity for the local Sherpa and Tibetan communities, to gather and celebrate together with the monastic community.

Mani Rimdu is a re-creation of legendary events; the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet by the great saint, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). Through the dances, symbolic demons are conquered, dispelled, or converted to Dharma Protectors, as positive forces clash with those of chaos. The dances convey Buddhist teachings on many levels - from the simplest to the most profound - for those who do not have the opportunity to study and meditate extensively.

We spent 3 days observing this amazing event. On the second day during the blessing ceremony we received Khata (ceremonial scarves representing compassion and purity) which were blessed by the head monk. The final day was composed of the symbolic dances and several comic skits, including one making fun of not only tourists, but monks. Brenda was recruited briefly into one of the comedy skits. 
The old man was trying to make his wife jealous and Brenda played the "younger woman".
Tyngboche hotel where we stayed, Kangtega left 

Mani Rimdu dances


We had a porter, Predip Rai, age 19, who carried all of our gear, about 80 lbs. worth of warm clothes, sleeping bag and and other things, most of which we needed at some point. We saw him in the morning, and found our gear in our room at the end of the trek for the day. Porters and yak trains carry everything for up to 10 days. Building material like plywood and corrugated roofing, rice, beer, flour, veggies (for higher up), sacks of concrete!, bottled water, trekking and climbing gear,  and much more. They get paid by the kilo plus days. We could not understand how these small people could carry such loads of 80, 100 pounds and more. One guy was carrying a 250 pound wood stove. I tried to lift a load and could not budge it.

Our porter Pradep and guide Ambar checking their cell phones
Yaks in front of Tyengboche Monestary

porters and yaks

Gorakshep and the Khumbu glacier

Getting to the Top

We made our goal to go to the end of the trail at Gorakshep, and then climb Kala Patthar to get the best view of Chomolungma. We went very slowly up, ever vigilant of getting sick. The going really got tough after leaving Thukla. The trail ascends quickly to the high valley at 16,000 feet, well above the tree line and in permanent icy, alpine conditions. After overnight in Lobouche, it was time to head for Gorakshep at 17,000 feet. The trail ascends up through a jumble of rocks and then crosses the wild landscape of the Changri Glacier. These glaciers are hardly recognizable as glaciers. They are full of rocks in a massive jumble with blocks of ice and look uncross-able, but the rough trail well defined and trodden. Finally Gorakshep came into view several hundred feet below, sitting on the moraine formed by Khumbu Glacier. We had come to the end of the valley penetrating all the way into the heart of the Himalaya. The Tibetan border a few miles away and Chomolungma soared 12,000 feet above, a huge bowl shaped by massive mountains on every side: Pumori, Lohtse, Nuptse, Everest, Lingtren, and many others, all above 22,000 feet.
upper Khumbu and Khumbu glscier, Pumori, 23,494

After lunch, Ambar and I continued on to Kala Patthar, another 1200 feet higher, while Brenda stayed in Gorakshep, to tired to climb. Those last 1200 steep feet, the hardest thing I have ever done, rewarded with sweeping views all around, a landscape beyond description, snow drift blowing off the pyramid of Chomolungma by the powerful jet stream.  I looked down on the empty base camp and the legendary Khumbu ice fall, graveyard of many climbers.

Khumbu icefall, Everest base camp at left

Everest from Kala Patthar 18,200, Everest 29,028t is left, Nuptse right 25,790


Brenda and I agree it is the hardest trip ever and at our ages of 71 and 69, we surprised ourselves. We were mentally prepared to not make it and accept the disappointment, but also determined to give it our best shot. Photos Ambar took have us standing still, just gazing out at an unforgettable landscape. You can read about a place, and look at photos, but you are left with sort of a smoothed out impression. In the case of the Himalaya, being there in the only way to go. Tibetans and Sherpas consider the mountains sacred, and we agree.  Through all the discomfort and cold, high elevation, climbing, freezing rooms, we feel blessed to have made this astounding journey. 


*stupa (from Sanskrit: literally meaning "heap", is a mound-like or semi-hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks, used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.

** Om mani padme hum (hail to the jewell in the lotus)

***Mani walls (from wikipedia)
Along the paths of regions under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism the traveller is often confronted with Mani walls. These stone structures are a compilation intricately carved stone tablets, most with the inscription "Om Mani Padme Hum" which loosely translates to "Hail to the jewel in the lotus". These walls should be passed or circumvented from the left side, the clockwise direction in which the earth and the universe revolve, according to Buddhist doctrine.
They are sometimes close to a temple or stupa, sometimes completely isolated and range from a few metres to a kilometre long and one to two metres high. They are built of rubble and sand and faced with mani stones engraved in the elegant Tibetan script.


Road Trip to the South

Richard and Brenda Road Trip, April to June 2013

Our goal for this trip was to go to places we had never been. We drove hard for 3 days to get thru California, Arizona and New Mexico. We decided to do a southern trip, so the drive took us along I-40 (old 66) corridor before turning sharply south down through the Texas Panhandle, then east to Austin, Houston and New Orleans and into the deep south. Another goal was to stay off the Interstate freeway system as much as possible because you miss so much of the real thing. The interstate busy with trucks and lined with endless, ugly chains: McD, Arby, Waffle House, taco Bell and on and on. I'd guess about 2/3rds of the driving was on state highways and rural roads. We wanted to hike and walk, see little towns and rural America, state and national parks, visit intriguing cities, and listen to traditional music.

Departed April 27th, returned June 16th. 51 days
8060 miles
18 states
Camped in 14 State Parks, 4 National Parks and one private campground
Took accommodations 10 times.

The route and the road

Barstow, Gallup, Amarillo, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, across Florida, Savannah, Charslton, Asheville NC, Smokey My NP, Mundsfordville Ky, Mammoth Cave NP, Mountain View Ark, across Kansas, Rocky Mountains NP, Colorado Nat. Mon., across Utah and Nevada.
We took an obscure back road from Palo Duro, near amarillo Tx, highway 70, for 200 miles, right down thru the heart of the Texas panhandle and the plains. We passed a dozen small farm towns, the little main streets lined with brick building, all closed down. You might remember a movie called The Last Picture Show. Texas also offered up the Hill country, a limestone area of rolling hills and rivers. The southern low country offered miles of swamps, rivers and pine tree plantations. The Carolina coast was all barrier Islands and overdevelopment (think Hilton Head with a bunch of golf courses), except for the wonderful Hunter Is. where we camped.. Then into the Appalachian country, beautiful Kentucky, the Ozarks in Arkansas, across Kansas, over the Rockies, and across Utah and Nevada to get home.
Don't know why, but roads in the south, even the obscure country roads, are smooth and well maintained, unlike the potholed mess in Calif. Southern states must put a lot of money into roads.

The weather highlights
Hot, hot, hot and muggy in the south. But the weather was clear except for the two exceptional events described below.
We were treated to a fantastic 3 hour thunder and lightening show at San Angelo SP in Tx. It rained a bit but the campsite had a roof over the table, so we had front row seats. It was a treat watching the storm develop, lightening thunder every few seconds, and then fade out.  
At Brazos Bend SP near Houston we got caught in a short, severe storm as we walked a mile out from the van. It turned dark, almost like night, very quickly as we saw dark clouds rolling in. It was the heaviest rain, wind, lightening we ever experienced. We had no choice but to surrender to the storm, so we made our way back to the van, both scared and exhilarated, soaked to the skin. 

Kentucky Story
I inherited a small sum from a person I didn't know existed, living in Kentucky. The story is that my mothers father, John Hatcher was married in Ky and had three kids (who would be half aunts or uncles), then left them and went to Tx where he meant my mothers mother. They moved to Ca. Meanwhile only one of the three Ky siblings had kids, two daughters, my half cousins. Emily Walton died in 2008 and left a small estate, half of which went to her mothers side. Her best friend Donna Seymour (related to me by marriage, maybe a 2nd half cousin)  decided to see if the father (my grandpa, following this?) had any family. My sister, my cousin and I were the only  ones left, so we got the inheritance. The reason Brenda and I went to Kentucky was to meet Donna and the others involved in finding us.
We found Donna and Randy Seymour in the countryside outside Mundsfordville, Ky at their native seed farm. I'd imagined a little mom and pop wildflower seed farm, but found that they lived on 2000 acres, half in production and half in conservation, full of wildlife. When I asked Randy Seymour if they sold seed in pound or maybe 10 lb. bags, he said "how about 10,000 lbs". So they do sell wildflower mixes in small amounts, but also grass seed in huge amounts.
Check out the website at roundstoneseed.com
They put us up in their beautiful home in a hardwood forest for two nights and showed us around the farm. It is finely picturesque and interesting. The land has native American tool making sites, old homestead sites, a trout creek, a 2 mile long limestone cave. Both Donna and Randy were raised in the area, and we found them to be quite liberal in a 70% red state, and quite broad in their interests. Donna is in charge of the Civil War site in Mundsfordville (The Battle for the Bridge), and in fact they own the farm that is the location of the battle. They have opened the land for public access, with a trail, a farmhouse, and interpretive signs. Donna also makes lovely dolls. Meanwhile Randy is an avid botanist, collects spear points and arrowheads, and makes fine traditional baskets out of white oak slats, as well as running the farm with his son. They had a dinner for us with the team that dealt with the estate, the lawyer JD Craddock and Elizabeth Micthum, who did the research.
And finally, Donna took us to Hiseville, a tiny hamlet, where she was raised and where my great grandparents William Penn and Elizabeth Hatcher lived and are buried, and where my Grandfather was born.
These wonderful people not only took the time to find us, but to treat us generously like family. We will always be grateful.

The people
We had some great times meeting people. The southern folks are very friendly and hospitable. Some of the exchanges were sweet, such as the little 5 year old Taylor camped next to us in the Rockies, who chatted us up. We wanted to take her home. We had a lively but friendly talk with some hospital workers who hated the new health care law and a brief exchange with a little girl in Alabama who said "Am a gonna go get ma fishin po", in the sweetest little drawl ever.
A young woman at a visitor center in Ala, directed to cross the "breege" (as in we) to find a park. When I asked her to say "bridge" again in my flat Ca dialect, she said "bridge?"
Speaking of people, or maybe ancient history, we visited one of my oldest friends from about 1963, George Baker, and his wife Mary, and son Liam, in Houston.
We went to the museum and saw the dino exhibit, and got a look at Houston, which is HUGE.

Cities and Towns
We visited Fredericksberg Tx, Luckenbach Tx, Johnson City Tx (that Johnson) Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville NC,  Mundsfordville, Horse Cave, and Hiseville Ky, Mountain View and Eureka Springs, Ark. 

Parks and hikes
We hiked every chance possible, hiking at least once in every park we camped at. Here are a few highlights: 
As we crossed Texas, we kept running into State Parks, so we kept stopping to camp and hike. Palo Duro SP, a canyon carved out of the panhandle, offered a wonderful hike to a formation called the lighthouse. In the Texas Hill Country we camped at Perdanales Falls SP, quite nice with some good hiking along the river and in the rolling hills. 
Our stay at Hunter Is. SP, a barrier Island in S Carolina, was exceptional. We walked a wonderful beach, a forest of pines, palms, oaks and palmetto. The heat, humidity, and bugs were formidable.
In Smokey Mts NP we climbed to the highest peak in the park, Mt La Conte. On top sits a lodge only reachable by hiking. it was built in the 20's to bring Washington VIP's there so they would create the park. At Cades Cove, we checked out the historic old cabins and churches, all built in the 1820's. All other farmland was taken so settlers moved into the mountain valleys. By around 1930 the post office closed and the cove became part of the park.
In Rocky MT NP we did three hikes, one of which was a 13 miler to a waterfall, a lake, and a long haul back to camp. Trail ridge Road tops out at 12.5K in the tundra.
The last hike before heading home was at Colorado NM among red sandstone spires and cliffs.

One of the goals was to find traditional music. In the big cities billing themselves as music town (Austin, New Orleans) it was hard to get past the tourist hype and overamped stuff to find the real thing. But we did here and there. The highlights were:
Good street music in NO and Asheville NC.
A wonderful down home folk fest at the Carl Sandberg historic site in Flat Rock, NC. All Six of the performers were into it because they loved the music and they were excellent. Old timey, blues, bluegrass, an old fashioned "radio show"' and Celtic fiddle. We spent the entire day, and it was FREE. 
Ozark Mountains music in Mountain View, Arkansas. Traditional fiddle, banjo, bass and guitar. Teens and geezers played together in the little park on Sat. night at least six groups were jamming, plus a free concert on the courthouse steps. It was magic. Next to town sits the Ozark Folk Center State Park, where craftspeople make thing in the traditional way, and music concerts play at night. We bought a fine handmade "parlor broom."
Outside Fredericksberg Tx we visited Luckenbach, made famous by Waylon Jennings. It is a funky little place with a classic old bar w cheap beer, and well known as a music venue where good country music is played, (not the glitzy version) where people like Bob Wills are revered. We sat in as a group of locals played a bunch of old country favorites.

Best shrimp ever along the Carolina coast in a funky little local restaurant. Fried food and BBQ in abundance, which we stopped eating because R was gaining weight. We mostly made our own food. Lots of salad. We had an excellent meal in NO at Eat in the Quarter.

We didn't do a lot of history stuff, but we were at two civil war sites at Blakeley SP. Ala   http://www.blakeleypark.com,  and Mundsfordville Ky at the Battle for the Bridge   http://www.battleforthebridge.org/
We also visited the LBJ ranch, which is still a working cattle ranch as well as a Historic Site, and the ancestral home of the Johnson family in Johnson City. 
In Ky we went to the Lincoln birthplace. The duplicate log cabin sits on the original location at Sinking Spring Farm at Hodgenville Ky and is enclosed is a formal granite memorial building. The spring next to the house still runs, where it sinks into a deep hole.

The downside
The only real complaint we have about the whole trip is that so much tourism, of which we are course are a part, has turned so many places into tourist traps full of souvenir shops and hustle. Places such as Bourbon Street in NO  is now not much more than blocks of bars with loud music and expensive drinks. A town on the border of Smokey Mt NP (the most visited NP in the country) named Pigeon Ford (renamed Pigeon Droppings by me) had a strip of hotels, motels, restaurants, fast food joints, amusement parks, and souvenir shops, that was at least 10 miles long. Ah, the joys of opportunistic capitalism.

Overall, it was a fine trip. We had few problems and many excellent experiences. And the new van ran strong. Tops for me was meeting my distant relatives (by marraige) Donna and Randy in Ky., hearing about my half cousin Emily, and seeing where they live and what they do, as well finding the ancestral hamlet of Hiseville and graveyard. We enjoyed the traditional music we found, the state and national parks were all terrific. We reached our goal of seeing new places. We'll do it again, going to new places, but six weeks out will be enough, we were exhausted at the end of week seven.

Photo Album


I got a gun

I got a gun

actually I got two guns
they been in the sock drawer for years unused
but sometimes I think
what if I have to shoot someone
what if the assault weapon people
the NRA and that lot
decide to attack peaceful people 
who want guns out of society
would i violate my own peace and shoot back
would i violate a natural instinct to defend those i love

why should I even have a gun
a little 22 lugar six shooter was my dads
and a handsome gun at that
nice to hold
nice to look at and admire
for its smooth lines and simple design

but guns are only the smaller suggestion of deeper stuff
of fear and greed buried deep in the human mind
of paranoid fantasies of being gotten
of being attacked and dominated
so what to do but attack and dominate
a gun in hand gives power
the false kind that the weak must use

gun makers cash in on paranoia
they sell guns by breathing life 
into simple fear
stoking the fires of the NRA
working for the masters: greed, fear anger

richard nichols
Jan 2013