A+ Mount Rushmore Morning

 

Up, out, and loaded by 8:30, our band of happy travelers cruised out of Rapid city and headed toward Mount Rushmore. All the way to and from the park, our tour guide (gate1travel.com), Timothy Miller, entertained, regaled, and educated us with information about the area and its history and people. Considered a sacred area to the Lakota tribe, Rushmore’s ownership is still controversial.

About thirty minutes later, our bus pulled into Mount Rushmore Memorial Park, and the excitement in the bus was palpable as Lisa skillfully drove around and around the mountainous curves. Soon, however, we came to standstill and realized the reason for it: other tourists zooming by on the left lane and cutting in somewhere in front of us. To our relief and rescue, several rangers came to our appeared and began directing traffic.

At the top at last, we got our first view of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Although they were shrouded in fog and somewhat obscured by trees, people began snapping photographs. Lisa parked the bus, and Timothy gave us valuable information about where to go and what to expect. The Presidential Trail? The Flag Plaza? It all sounded confusing, but as soon as we began traipsing around, all became clear.

First stop—the welcome center, an area occupied by dozens of other tourists. We decided to come back later and headed to the gift shop. In case any readers are wondering why we didn’t immediately walk closer to gape and gawk at the men carved in stone, it was raining. Once inside, we could see that the gift shop was large and well-stocked and absolutely too full of people to walk around. We opted to brave the elements.

The rain dwindled to a sprinkle, and at last the fog slid away from the Presidents’ faces.  Everyone standing around the flag area went crazy. Our reaction was more of awe than excitement. Someone (Luigi del Bianco and several hundred workers) actually carved the faces of these four greats from granite! Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the work from 1927-1941. Sixty feet tall, their countenances overlooked the surrounding land with dignity and contemplation.

We inched closer—and closer still, stopping every few seconds to look up at the flags representing the fifty states and several territories. We quickly realized that the states were represented in alphabetical order, and we hustled forward to read all about the Palmetto State. It’s not that we expected to learn anything new; we just wanted that feeling of “ah, us.”

Moving past the flags, we entered the Grand Terrace where tourists were enjoying a more up close and personal look at the four famous faces. The Terrace experience was lovely. Birdsong and the sounds of laughter and conversation filled the air.

“Let’s hike the Presidential Trail,” I suggested.

“That’s crazy,” my husband said. “It’s starting to rain again.”

“How likely is it that we’ll ever come this way again? I’m going for it.”

The climb to the top was awesome. Spectacularly beautiful with views of huge boulders, ponderosa pines, and juniper, the mountain ascent was invigorating.  Alas, the hubs was right, and the sky fell in as I approached the last overlook. I turned and hurried back down—but not before I got one good look at all of these well-known faces, men of strength, courage, and integrity. I’m not naïve enough to think they were perfect, but I see them as worthy of respect and admiration.

On the trail back down to the Grand Terrace, I heard a little boy say, “Hey, at least we got a free shower out of it.” Funny.  Another child whined, and her father said, “It is what it is.” I slowed down long enough to say, “I LOVE that expression. My son says it all the time.” Later on the Terrace, he glanced my way and said it again.

Our adventure almost complete, we bought mega cups of ice cream for lunch and sat at a long table with young American servicemen as we ate it. Enjoying our view of the granite boulder and its faces through the huge windows, we ate our sweet treat and discussed our perceptions of the morning. A+

 

Amazing with a Capital A

What does “Badlands” really mean? I wondered, never dreaming that one day I’d actually be visiting this surreal, yet lovely, place of amazing rock formations, towering spires, and steep canyons.. In photographs, the landscape appeared desolate and haunting. How would it be in “real life?”

Two and a half weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience the “mako sica’ or “land bad” for myself. The Lakota people were the first to call the Badlands “mako sica,” and apparently the lack of water, extremes in temperature, and exposed rugged terrain all contributed to this name.

But first, a little history. We arrived in Rapid City, SD on Father’s Day and rented a car for the next day. Although we were joining a tour with Gate1 on Monday evening, we wanted some free time to explore the Badlands before officially beginning the National Parks Tour. Rapid City, also known as the City of Presidents, is an interesting city with lots of history. To my untrained eyes, its look is both old and new, a city intent on preserving its Native American history while continuing to update and move forward. There’s a strong military presence there, and tourism is a major economic factor.

Deciding to eat breakfast along the way to Badlands National Park Monday morning, we took the scenic route and discovered there were no Mickey Dee’s or Bojangles along the way. Pretty scenery though. We saw hundreds of huge bales of hay and just as many cows.

After about an hour, we arrived at the Park and stopped at the Cedar Pass Lodge for a delicious breakfast—sans grits. The restaurant was attached to a gift shop filled with interesting items. As an aside, I saw a pair of earrings priced at $10, and no lie, I saw the same ones several other times during our trip priced at 5 and even 10 dollars more.

The Ben Reifel Welcome Center is next door to the diner, and we couldn’t pass that up. Once inside, we were treated to a museum-like experience that was quite educational. I  learned a new word: mosasaur. Related to the modern Komodo dragon, it’s a giant marine lizard. I learned that the Badlands is rich with fossils and that new ones often emerge after a heavy rain. It was raining that day………

We drove the loop road and stopped at two trails and four overlooks. The Notch Trail was the first one on the loop, and I joined several other crazy people who, despite the rain, were also determined to walk in such awesomeness. I next walked part of the Window Trail but turned back at the end of the boardwalk because of the rain and thick mud. The rangers had warned us of serious slipping and sliding, and seeing people who had braved the mud struggling to maintain their balance convinced me to retrace my steps.

Once back in the car, we continued the Loop Road, oohing and ahing our way along the geologic wonderland. Scenic with its ridges and towers and colors, every few feet brought yet another exclamation of awe. I might add that it was rainy, cool, and overcast, so there were no shadows cast by the sun. While some might find that boring, I loved it. I agree with John Madson’s assessment that “It’s an improbable looking place, looking like the set on a science fiction movie.” Although the land in the Park appeared mostly barren, there were also grasslands that are home to a variety of wildlife. We saw mule deer, big horn sheep, and several goats.

Knowing that we’d likely never pass that way again, we stopped at four overlooks to gape and gawk at the splendor before us. A stranger volunteered to take a photo of us, and though wet and bedraggled, we agreed.

Our day at the Badlands National Park was Amazing with a capital A. I like the way John Fremont put it in his diary in 1842: “I had never seen anything which impressed so strongly on my mind a feeling of desolation….The wind was high and bleak; the barren, arid country seemed as if it had been swept by fires, and in every direction the same dull ash colored hue derived from the formation me the eye….”

The Blue Marble

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and felt a sense of wonder, and well, sometimes smallness? Even as a child, I felt a connection to the heavens and always (yes always) included words of gratitude for the sun, the moon, the stars, and the rain in my prayers at bedtime. Now in my twilight years, the wonder and sense of connection are even greater.

On our first trip to Arizona a few years ago, we went to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Constructed high on a hill, the grounds and buildings overlooked the city below. Around and around the curves we went until we finally reached the top of Mars Hill. We oohed and ahed over the several telescopes, strolled down Galaxy Walk, and then donned our special glasses and stared straight at the sun without squinting or doing damage to our eyes.

We were entranced with the beauty, essence, and history of the place. Trees and rocks and century old buildings set the stage for adventure and discovery. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and although Pluto’s status has changed since then, its sighting was historical. The morning we were at the observatory, astronomers walked about to and from their offices, and one of them willingly stopped to answer questions when our tour guide hailed him.

After learning there would be a lecture and a Saturn viewing that evening, we planned the rest of our day around the night visit. The lecture was enlightening, full of fascinating facts, but seeing Saturn and its rings up close and personal was surreal. I looked at the sky, then back at the telescope several times. How could that barely discernable spot above my head be so large, illuminated, and visible through the telescope lens? What else was up there that I couldn’t see?

I don’t own a telescope. But I do own an increased reverence and awe for our galaxy and the billions of others in the universe. Although I haven’t studied a lot about it since then (so much to learn, so little time), I’m not quite as ignorant as I was four years ago. I’m not a scientific person and don’t grasp concepts like gravity, cosmology, or black holes as easily as some people. Truthfully, I’m more into quotes like this one from Listening for the Heartbeat of God: “…the lights of the skies, the sun and moon and stars, are referred to as graces, the spiritual coming through the physical.” Ah yes, thin places…got it.

 But I’ve been learning. As I look at the night sky, I now understand that earth and space science studies connections between the land, ocean, atmosphere, and life of our planet, sometimes referred to as the Blue Marble. From Wikipedia: “Our Solar System consists of the sun and its orbiting planets, including Earth, along with numerous moons, asteroids, comet material, rocks, and dust.” It’s my understanding that until the invention of the Hubble telescope, we Earthlings thought our solar system was the only game in town. Now we know there are billions of galaxies in our universe. Billions.

I often go walking with a neighbor in the evening, and sometimes the stars are so numerous in the inky sky that we have to stop and stare. And a full, crescent, or half-moon causes the same reaction. There’s darkness all around and above us, and yet here we are in a galaxy floating, twirling around in space with everything we need to support life as we know it. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, stars. sun, moon water, birds, giraffes, trees, roses, owls, starfish—everything is connected and has what it needs.

And high above us is Saturn. But as far as I know, we’re the only planet with life as we know it floating around in the dark universe. A mystery beyond my comprehension.

499 Steps

I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

Tender to the touch, my left shin serves as a reminder of last week’s adventure My sister, her daughter, and one of my daughters took off on a girls’ trip to North Carolina, and after “doing Asheville” on Friday, we decided to make Chimney Rock State Park Saturday’s grand finale.

We cruised into town around 10 o’clock after oohing and ahing over the sights along Hwy 64. We wondered aloud how it would be to attend Bat Cave Baptist Church the next day, and that led to yet another discussion about how many different ways there are for people to live and love and play and worship. We heartily agreed that it was important, imperative in fact, to get out of Dodge once in a while to see more of the world than our own narrow corners of it.

Once in Chimney Rock, the park entrance was upon us before we had a chance to signal and turn in. No problem. We rode through town and took in the sights, and since Lake Lure was right down the road, we went there too. I wanted to have a look at the beach. There were no ocean waves or roaring surf, but there was a beach. Water too. And a lifeguard. The area was fenced in, off-limits to us, and people were lined up to plunk their money down.

We headed back to Chimney Rock, not turning again until we got to the park. I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

“So we’ll have to walk up?“ I asked.

“Yes. Is that a problem?” she said.

The general consensus was that we had come this far and by golly, we were going to get to the chimney and touch the flagpole.

“Let’s do it, y’all,” I said.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Feeling overdressed and hot, we stopped at the restroom area and changed into lighter clothes and bought some water. I had learned from an earlier experience not to hike any distance on a hot day without H2O. We got back in the car and around and around the mountain we rode until we got to the parking lot.

We got out of car and looked up at the tall stone chimney. I had climbed this rock before, but it had been a beautiful fall day with brisk temperature. Now it was July. Truthfully, I think we all felt a bit of trepidation. Elizabeth had misgivings about walking in flip-flops, but since she had no extra shoes, it was wait on us at the gift shop or step forward. She started walking.The journey of 499 steps began with the first one. On we went, stopping to peer into a cave, look over the edge at the parking lot, or simply rest a minute. At one point, Elizabeth muttered to me, “This is the worst day of my life.” Lucky girl, I thought, understanding what she meant but knowing she could do it.

“You can do hard things,” I reminded her. No response. She just kept climbing in her flip-flops.

I took dozens of pictures and listened to the encouraging words of folks coming down. “It’s so worth it,” they all said. Some lied and said, “You’re almost there,” when in reality we had quite a way to go. The four of us made small talk and continued climbing—together.

At last we ascended the final twenty or so steps and walked on the rock itself. We laughed and shared “war stories” of the trek. We took selfies, and snapped photos of other people for them. There were so many people with us at the top that I had to carefully maneuver my way between them and the several big rocks. At one point, I got pushed (accidentally) and scraped my shin. Immediately, a goose egg puffed up, and a reddish purple contusion appeared. Ouch.

 After relishing our accomplishment for a few minutes, we began our descent, reluctant to leave the mountain top but anxious to begin the next adventure. Going down was so much easier than going up, and we gleefully told the tired looking climbers that they had a treat in store. “Keep on climbing,” we said. “The view is so worth it.”

Today I’m aware of my tender shin and the memories it conjures up of a day four of us, united by blood and purpose, ascended Chimney Rock. We encouraged one another, swigged our water, kept putting one foot in front of the other, stopped for breathers, and reached the top—together. It’s easier that way.

Last Stop–Ketchikan

Ketchikan, a word I’d heard quite often in the past several weeks. The very sound of it sounded mysterious and conjured up images of trappers, fishermen, and furriers. Named after the creek that runs through the city, it’s the southeasternmost city in Alaska. It’s also known as Salmon Capital of the World.

When we realized that this city would be the last one we’d visit before heading to Canada, we decided to sign up for an excursion. Jeanita and I chose one that allowed us to visit the Saxman Totem Village, and the others opted for a lumberjack competition.

The Saxman Village with its thirty-four totems, a carving shop, a clan house, and a gift shop was all we hoped for—and more. We listened to an interesting lecture by a native Tlingit who taught us about his culture and its clans, marriage customs, and way of life. To paraphrase, “It’s important to know about your people, where you come from and who you belong to, so that you’ll know who you are. You’ll have more of a sense of identify.”

Listening to him reminded me of one of the many reasons I had so easily embraced sociology in my younger years, and I walked out of the building wondering, “Who am I? Who are my people?” Oh sure, I know something of my genealogy, but I don’t think people can look at me and think, “Oh, she’s a native Tlingit from Alaska, probably a member of the Eagle Clan.”

Following the lecture, we looked at some souvenirs in another room and then followed a path through the woods to the clan house. Once inside, we observed a traditional dance performed by Tlingits, including two little children, who like their elders, were garbed in native dress. How rich their culture is, I thought. The smallest child was probably around three years old, and I couldn’t help but contrast her daily experiences with the tots I knew. Not that one’s lifestyle was superior to another, but rather that each had a culture, albeit quite different from each other.

After leaving the village and arriving back in Ketchikan, Jeanita and I met our husbands for lunch at Annabelle’s. It was an “interesting” experience. Leaving the restaurant, we took a left and headed to Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk in what was once a red light district. We even spotted a sign with a directional arrow pointing to “Married Man’s Trail.” Today the boardwalk is lined with restaurants, shops, and art galleries.

The menfolk soon tired of browsing and left for the ship. Jeanita and I found it absolutely necessary, however, to get online and do some work so we found Polar Treats, a combination ice cream/coffee shop, and settled in for about an hour. To be honest, we had been hankering to visit Sweet Mermaids, but as soon as we walked through the door, one of the employees let us know that they were closing at 4:00. It was 3:55. We took a quick look around at the creative artwork, sighed with regret that we hadn’t arrived earlier, and took off in search of Polar Treats.

Our work complete, we walked briskly back to the ship, passing the Tongass Trading Company on the way.

“Want to stop in for a quick look?” I asked Jeanita.

“It’s 5:20,” she said, grinning, and I knew what she was saying. Our curfew was 5:30, and we both knew it would be impossible for us to do justice to the huge store.

“Maybe next time,” I replied, knowing that we’d probably never visit this spot  again.

We were sad to be ending our last shore excursion but glad we had made it happen. Good-bye Annabelle’s. So long Creek Street. Farewell to the Tlingit people of Saxman Village.

Above Busy Juneau

By this point in our trip to Alaska, I realized that many of our co-travelers were going on expensive excursions and seeing things we were missing out on. We considered signing up for the Best of Juneau excursion that offered at least three fun experiences, but we were too stingy to spend an extra $400+ dollars. Besides, there were things I wanted to do in Juneau that didn’t involve salmon or whales.

The day in Juneau began pretty much like the Skagway morning had. We hustled down the gangway like kids let out of school. When we reached the main drag, there was jewelry store after jewelry store, all of them proclaiming to have the most beautiful and reasonably priced gems, gold, and silver. Since ours was the last tour for the season, their prices had been reduced.

Already having more jewelry than I could wear, I sauntered in and out of a few shops to browse for souvenirs for the girls on my list. Most businesses were giving away a free gift, and I ended up with two charms, a turquoise bear and an onyx whale’s tale. We bought Northern lights pendants and earrings for the daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters on our list.

Except for Otis and me, the rest of our party went back to the ship. Determined to explore the city, I set out for a walking tour while my husband hung around the harbor checking out the sights and sounds. After telling him exactly where I’d be going and when I’d return, I took off up the hill to the left. A few blocks later, I came across the State Office Building and the Alaska State Museum, both of which were closed.

Disappointed but undeterred, I continued climbing until I spotted the Governor’s Mansion, a big white Southern Plantation-looking house. The juxtaposition of the colorful totem on the side of the white mansion was, well, interesting. Another noteworthy detail was how close the mansion was to the street. There were no barriers between Sarah Palin’s former residence and her neighbors. What was to prevent people like me, curious tourists, from coming onto the lawn for a photo op? The yard, incidentally, was average, kind of on the small side. The governor’s family could stand on the front porch and have a conversation with the neighbors!

Leaving the Governor’s neighborhood, I walked over a few blocks for a glimpse of several churches, including a Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, that I’d read about in a brochure. I then climbed what seemed like 150 steps of an outside staircase until I arrived at the Wickersham House, the home of a well-known judge who, among other things, was instrumental in the creation of Denali National Park.

On the way back down to the main thoroughfare, I saw an arresting site, a single chair placed on what appeared to be wooden planks. A closer look revealed a plaque entitled The Empty Chair, and a little research revealed its significance. In 1942, the United States forced many Japanese people into internment camps, one of whom was a young man named John Tanaka. Valedictorian of Juneau High School that year, he didn’t get to graduate with his class. A bronze replica of the folding chair like the one Tanaka was unable to occupy at graduation was later placed on this Juneau hill to represent this young man and 50+ others who were sent to interment camps.

Sobered by the history lesson, I turned and began the descent into the busy shopping area. From atop the hill, I could see water, ships in the harbor, and a bustling downtown. The hilltop seemed the perfect spot to honor those interned in camps so many decades prior.

Before leaving Juneau, we bought some hot chocolate from a kiosk and sat sipping and watching the tourists and townspeople walking briskly by us. Reluctant to leave, we finally rose and ambled into the Alaska Fudge Company for a tiny wedge of fudge. On the way out (just couldn’t see to tear ourselves away) we walked into a specialty shop, one that claimed to have unique Alaskan wares, and I left with a small Nativity scene with Baby Jesus and his parents in Eskimo garb.

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That night at dinner we compared notes of our day over yet another delicious meal, this one including raspberry sorbet served to cleanse our palates and an extra plate of pistachio cookies—just because.

All Aboard!

Whittier-Tunnel-01

My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

shipinharbor

The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!