Friday, February 27, 2015

In Sickness and In Health

Sometimes plans change in major ways. We had plans to be in Ashland Oregon for a concert a week ago, but here we are today only as far as Ukiah, California. We had plans to explore five national parks in California and ended up seeing only three of them. And we had a plan to get this blog posted a week ago: it was going to be called “California’s National Parks,” but that changed. 

Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park
We had a lovely time at Joshua Tree National Park which was a favorite from 2003 and is still a favorite today. Besides these beautiful trees, which are not trees at all but members of the Yucca family, this park has spectacular climbing rocks, which we don’t climb at all but from which we derive a great deal of pleasure just in the viewing. We spent two days there, took some long walks, and practiced our music. After a quick trip to Pahrump, Nevada for supplies, we headed for Death Valley National Park. This was the perfect time of year to see this beautiful park and we spent a night there at 200 feet below sea level and enjoyed the spectacular panoramas as we slowly drove the whole length of the park. It was also very moving to read about the history of this area, where the hot weather and lack of water created a major impediment to early travelers heading westward. Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest place in the United States.

Lilypad dwarfed by Sequoias
Next on our list was Sequoia National Park, but the road was closed due to snow, so we found a southern route across the Sierras, then drove up the valley on the west side to the northern entrance of the adjoining King’s Canyon National Park, missing Sequoia all together. But King’s Canyon, with the giant Sequoia trees, was spectacular. There was snow here too, and only one campground open, but the weather was good and a night in the forest was wonderful. 

And then Pinnacles National Park got crossed off the list as we found ourselves short on time for our next date, which was a long-anticipated stay in Fremont California, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family, home of Liz’s dear friend Sister Angelina. Liz and Sister Angelina were buddies when they both worked at Our Lady of Compassion Care Center in Anchorage, more than 20 years ago. So we moved out of Lilypad and enjoyed the hospitality of the Sisters for two days, sleeping in real beds, eating all of our meals with the Sisters, and playing cards in the evening with Sister Angelina.  The Sisters of the Holy Family is a uniquely American institution, founded in 1872 in California and serving ministries in Alaska, Hawaii, and elsewhere for the benefit of children and families. Many of the sisters have given their lives in service, and are now retired and living together in community at the Motherhouse. We had a delightful time in conversation with women whose paths had crossed ours in Alaska and we got invited to share our music with them as well.

We fit right into the crowd at the Motherhouse
The sisters are embarked on a remarkable plan to phase themselves into oblivion. This order stopped taking novitiates some time ago and their youngest member is 54 and the oldest is 101. They just retained a Baptist senior services management team to take care of the last of them so it was very interesting to talk with them about this transition. They are demolishing their outdated Motherhouse to create space for affordable housing and they will become tenants on the property they once owned. Many of them receive services through Cal-Med’s innovative On Lok Lifeways program, community-based medical and social services designed to keep seniors healthy and active and in their own homes. These services will help keep the sisters together as they age. We were very intrigued to hear about these plans and the years of work and prayer that had gone into making these decisions. We bid a fond but sad farewell to Sister Angelina with a fiddle and concertina concert in the parking lot and headed up the highway to see some other old friends, Andrea and Priscilla in Sausalito.

Then our plans really changed. By evening it was apparent we had left the convent with an uninvited guest, a little tiny flu bug. Janna was sick enough that we did not go into the home of our friends. Instead, Andrea and Priscilla brought dinner out to Lilypad at China Camp State Park and ate with Liz while Janna stayed quarantined in the back of the rig. The next day we moved to the Santa Rosa County Fair RV Park and there we sat for an entire week while we both suffered from the worst sickness we’ve had in years. But once again we landed jelly side up. Two other Alaska friends, Harold and Olivia, now living in Santa Rosa, hovered nearby, bringing soup, water, fruit and library books to keep us going. They brought grocery sacks and placed them near Lilypad and after a safe interval we would creep out and grab the goods. Finally we recovered enough to move over to their neighborhood and have a decent visit, interrupted periodically by serious naps and sporadic coughing fits.
Great to breathe the salty air of the Pacific once again!
We were still too weak to do much, but Harold and Olivia took us on a most gorgeous drive out to the Bodega Bay Headlands and the Sonoma Coast, past the site of Alfred Hitchcock’s filming of “The Birds” and the location of “Running Fence”, a major art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude which Liz remembers seeing with her father in the fall of 1976. We are delighted our friends have settled in this beautiful area and hope to return when we are healthier so we can properly explore some of these sights, and so Liz can spend a day joining Harold in fishing off the beach.

So here we are in Ukiah, alternating naps with short walks as we try to regain some strength. Sister Angelina tells us the convent went into lockdown the day we left with many of the sisters being ill, and we hope that by now they are also all in recovery. We’ve been on the road for a year and a half, and until now, have been unusually healthy. This was a reminder that we really are very lucky and that life is what happens when you are busy making plans.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Desert Explorations: Sonoran to Mojave

Leaving  Lilypad  safely stowed with Bette in Apache Junction, we took a short vacation from our vacation and flew to Seattle  to see granddaughter Olivia in “Annie” and celebrate her thirteenth birthday, watch Xan start his basketball career, and begin our search for new winter headquarters on Vashon Island. The decision to be nearer to these two wonderful growing spirits was easy, but getting Liz to accept moving has been hard. She can’t handle the term “moving to Vashon Island” and is careful to explain to friends and family that we will always be on San Juan Island for the summers. But for the winters, we want to be closer to Xan and Olivia and the wonderful family they share. So our travels in Lilypad will soon be coming to a close and we are looking for a place to rent or buy on Vashon.

Hiking in Organ Pipe Cactus National Preserve
Then one more night at Road Haven in Apache Junction and we were back on the road again. It was with great relief that we escaped from the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and headed to the remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the southern part of the Sonoran Desert.  Administered by the National Park Service this lovely park on the Mexican border was only recently reopened to the public in the wake of a drug smuggling-related shooting death of a ranger and subsequent border security build up. We attended “coffee with the superintendent” and learned that in 2002 there were 15 border patrol officers in the area and now there are 550. These agents and the park personnel play cat and mouse with folks who (aided by humanitarians who leave caches of food and water) try to cross the desert to a new life in the United States. In 2013 4,000 people were intercepted in the area. When we headed north away from the park we were merely waved through several armed checkpoints, exactly like our passage through border patrol checkpoints in Texas; which made us think that the perfect way to smuggle people north would be to engage older white women in RVs to drive them out. But back to the park, having been assured that it is “safe,”  we took a lovely hike up the unspoiled desert hill, full of organ pipe cactus, ocotillo, teddy bear cholla  and  other beautiful desert plants.  We stayed two nights, enjoying the solar-heated showers in the campground and the volunteer-naturalist-led slideshow programs in the evenings: one  on the desert tortoise and the other on the coyote.
Arizona Oldtime Fiddler plays Ashokan Farewell
Heading for Yuma, located on the corner of Arizona that borders both Mexico and California, we wanted to see what makes this town so appealing that there are some 4000 hotel rooms and 24,000 RV hookups. We never figured out the appeal but we now know that people do not go there for organic food.  However there were some interesting moments. The highway between Quartzite and Yuma  mostly skirts Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory and lots of snow-birds ply this stretch of road to camp free  on their journeys north or south. Lilypad fit right in boondocking behind the VFW, between the $300K rigs and a handful of homeless people camped in the bushes. The next day we found a very disappointing  Farmers Market, but while we were there we happily learned of a monthly jam sponsored by the Arizona Oldtime Fiddlers Association happening that afternoon.  Off we went and Liz hopefully sallied forth with her fiddle and was surprised to be signed up on a list to lead a tune. It was nerve-wracking but great fun and we met Dan Levenson who played like a dream and agreed to take her on as a student. Later, we Skyped a lesson with him and, among other things, he told her to relax, trust her own instincts, and stop playing like a violinist.

American Pelicans float the Salton Sea
Liz got to practice this new technique and posture at our next stop:  two nights alongside the beautiful Salton Sea. The pelicans appeared unimpressed as she fiddled at the sea shore . Presumably if your species has survived for millions of years, nothing humans do is that interesting. But humans are going to have to do something soon if they want to save this critical refuge that is a stopping place for 40% of the migrating waterfowl in North America. The Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905 by industrialists attempting to divert the Colorado River to irrigate the desert, and it surprised future generations by not drying up in the years following. Runoff from theset agricultural lands is the primary source of water now and, as you may have guessed, this water is laden with fertilizers and pesticides. A few decades ago the Sea supported five types of fish and a depth of 60 feet. Now motorboats can barely maneuver due to low water, and the only fish that survive is tilapia. Another notable organism besides the birds is the beautiful pink barnacles that were introduced by amphibious watercraft during World War II. The shells of these dying animals create lovely pink beaches that crunch when you walk. Now birds find haven here and we saw two species of pelican, black necked stilts and many gulls. To see them fly across the Sea, landing on a landscape that once bustled with human activity and now is all theirs, really makes one reflect on the egregious impact of human greed and folly.

Lisa taught us how to pick citrus
Then back to the city: La Quinta, Palm Desert, Palm Springs and other connected cities too numerous to mention.  Faithful readers of our blog remember when we first encountered the town of Palm Springs a year ago and marveled at the downtown historic district. This time we learned much more about the development of the Coachella Valley including the “checkerboard” allotment of land to indigenous people which has resulted in some of the wealthiest tribes in North America. Although historically the allotment system was used as an excuse to not supply basic services to tribal lands, the municipalities are now grateful for the leases and gratuity of the tribes in returning profits from the casinos to the greater community. We visited a beautiful hillside oasis spring on Cahuilla Indian land, attended a great evening of drumming and dance, and enjoyed the hospitality of a casino parking lot while we were in the area. While visiting with our friend Lisa we learned about an event called Lunafest, sponsored by local Soroptimists. This excellent two hour program featured nine short films by, for and about women, with proceeds benefiting the Breast Cancer Fund and local Soroptimist charities including a recovery program for chemically dependent women.  

Super Bowl Party with Marie-Josée and Lisette

While camped at the Palm Springs Wal-Mart Janna got caught taking pictures of an adjacent camper-trailer which turned out to be owned by two delightful women from Quebec. We found we had been sharing a similar travel route from Louisiana, where they had been pursuing Lisette’s interest in Acadian ceramics. We had a great time with them and trotted out our high school French which they good-humoredly tolerated as we discovered Marie Josee’s interest in all things athletic. We met up again at a sports bar to watch the Seahawk Super Bowl heart-break, and totally enjoyed it when they loudly cheered the Seahawks … French. 

We've touched all 4 deserts on this trip
Then it was time to be away from cities and into the wilderness again. We woke up this morning in a sweet boondocking site alongside a wall of volcanic material that shapes the beautiful landscape in the Mohave Desert National Preserve. This is the last of the four US deserts and now  we have seen them all: the Great Basin Desert in Utah, the Chihuahuan in Texas, the Sonoran Desert (above) and now the Mojave. We are headed north and west now, so will soon be leaving the deserts behind. This is our fifth night of dry camping and we are feeling pretty smug with Lilypad’s capacity and our learning of how to stay away from shore power for extended periods.  But it is time to plug in again and today we head to one of the great finds of our trip 12 years ago: Tecopa Hot Springs southeast of Death Valley. Tonight we will have electricity for Lilypad and hot mineral baths for us. What could be better?