Anza-Borrego Birds, March 2019

Anza-Borrego–Hawk Heaven

Swainson’s Hawk

On the last weekend of March, we drove over to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s about an hour and a half inland and another world. Part of the attraction is the April migration of scads of Swainson’s Hawks coming from as far south as Argentina and flying north to Canada and even the Arctic. They drop in here and feast on sphinx moth caterpillars to sustain their trip. The early Saturday report from Hal Cohen, the resident hawk expert, said 511 Swainson’s Hawks had landed on Friday night, so we were excited to see what was happening.

We drove to the viewing site on Borrego Valley Road, arrived by 9am and were rewarded by a sky filled with departing hawks. Some of them were right above the road, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high. We had never seen the Swainson’s so close, and there were kettles of them on all sides, some high, some low. Probably close to 200 taking off. They were all gone by 9:30, and Hal told us that approximately 2/3 of the hawks from Friday night had left.

Juvenile Prairie Falcon

We said we’d be back for the evening show and drove south to Hawk Valley, where we had seen a Prairie Falcon the year before. We got lucky and saw an adult, plus a juvenile falcon. And at least two Rock Wren for good measure.

The flowers were very good, but not as amazing as two years ago. Some of them are running late this year because of the evenly spaced rain. Some have probably already bloomed. They’ve had rain in the desert every month of the winter season. And some of the migrant birds are running late as well, but we still saw plenty of good stuff. Speaking of plenty, Laurel managed to take plenty of terrific pictures of the flowers that were there. Here’s a sample:

Desert Dandelion, Indigo Bush, Parish Poppy

Beavertail Cactus, State Park Visitor Center

Fishhook Cactus, Ocotillio and Teddybear Cholla, Desert Chicory

Saturday evening we drove to the viewing spot about 5:30 to wait for the evening hawks. About ten of us waited and watched, but nothing happened. Finally, at about 6:00, we spotted a couple of hawks on the horizon, passing the farthest peak to the southeast, which birders call “the pyramid.” Over the course of the next hour, a few more hawks arrived from the south and landed in a row of eucalyptus trees half a mile away.

Then at 7:00, in the cloudless blue-dusk sky above us, a hawk appeared, just about half a block away, and dropped down into the trees of the nearby date farm. We continued looking up, and, seemingly from nowhere, another bird materialized. Although we only ended with about 20 birds total for the evening, seeing these birds simply arrive from out of nowhere was a magical experience.  In reality, they were dropping down from about 8,000 feet, the elevation they achieve while migrating those thousands of miles north. On the following Thursday, Hal reported between 1,000 and 1,400 hawks. Timing is everything.

Sunset at Carlee’s

Joe and Julia Ensley, good friends from Seattle, visit Palm Springs every winter, and they drove up to join us and see what all the flowers and feathers are about. We had a great time Saturday night with them at Carlee’s, one of the best restaurants in Borrego.

A Word of Warning:
Sunday morning we hiked some of the trails down by Tamarisk Grove. Because of the rain, some of the trails have been crowded by shrubs and ground cover, as well as by flowers. We were hiking the Yaqui Well trail, and parts of it were narrowed by the growth. Fortunately, I was looking down at the ground and spotted a rattlesnake in the bushes next to the trail a few feet ahead of me. It had its head raised, looking at me, since I’m not the quietest hiker. I shouted “Snake,” to warn Laurel behind me, as well as another couple coming from the other direction. It dropped down and started to crawl away from the trail, and Laurel pounded her tripod on the ground, which sped it up. It had four segments on its tail. Once we got home, we looked it up, and it was a Red Diamond Rattlesnake less than two feet long.

We saw another animal we’d never seen which was far less alarming, a type of squirrel that looks a little like a chipmunk called a white-tailed antelope squirrel. We also saw some other good birds—here’s the list:

Ram’s Hill

We discovered a new place for lunch on Sunday, as well, to toast my first sighting ever of a rattlesnake on the trail. It’s called Ram’s Hill, and it’s a very fine complex of residences and a golf course with water features. The restaurant sits atop a slope, and its large covered patio has a gorgeous view of the golf course and the valley beyond.

On the way back to San Diego, we stopped in Ramona at an excellent local winery called Chuparosa, which is Spanish for hummingbird. They make several fine reds there, including a superb Cabernet Franc and a Zinfandel that’s worth taking home. They told us about another winery in the area called Woof ‘n Rose, an extremely dog-friendly place that also makes a very good Cabernet Franc.


Gourmet Mexico, Part 2

We had made a reservation at Vinos Lechuza for noon on Wednesday. Having read good reviews, we called them to check on their hours and found that they did wine tastings by appointment only, so we decided on Wednesday before lunch. We were also interested in taking a look at Rancho La Puerta, a spa near a reservoir west of Tecate on Highway 2, which parallels the border to Tijuana, and figured there would be plenty of time in the morning before driving to the valle.

Rancho La Puerta, the spa we never found

Evidently, we took the wrong highway, driving west on the free road rather than the toll, and went right past the spa. After about an hour of nothing but auto shops, small businesses and Oxxo stores, we got concerned about getting back to Tecate and down to Guadalupe in time for our tasting. We stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant if there was a way south over the small mountain ridge to the valley, and he nodded and told us to go back to the road marked Las Palmas. Back we drove and, sure enough, found the Las Palmas road. We drove about 15 minutes up into the hills until we came to the town of Las Palmas, a new town of a couple of thousand people. We drove through it and discovered that it looked to be the end of the line.

Spotting a police car, we asked them how to get down to Guadalupe, and the driver smiled and said, “Follow me.” He proceeded to lead us clear down the road back to the highway, then turned right. In about a mile, he turned off onto an unmarked road and drove a couple of hundred feet, where he pulled over and rolled down his window. We pulled up and he pointed up the road and said, “Aqui.” Amazed at the time he had spent driving us down to this spot, we thanked him and drove on. Reaching the top of a ridge, we came to a gate and fence with a couple of large buildings beyond. The gatekeeper told us this was a branch of Northern Baja University, but the road went no farther and he wasn’t sure how we would get down to the valley, which we could now see below.

With a locked gate and no answers, we turned around and headed back. There was a small residential community on the next ridge east, and we found a side road that took us there. It was a quiet little place with very little going on. We drove around, and at one point, a large truck built for hauling dirt came out of a dirt road, blowing dust all over our car. A young boy about eight stood by the road playing with a stick. He waved to us, and Laurel asked him if there was any road that went down to the valley. He nodded, and pointed to the dirt road the truck had come from, then motioned right. “Derecha. Derecha. Derecha.”

The wrong way road

We looked at each other and decided we might as well try it. The road was rough with plenty of gravel and rocks and accordioned for a bumpy ride, but it headed in the right direction. Before long another truck approached and drove by us, then another and another. We had found some kind of primitive highway for construction trucks. Eventually, we reached a point where the road leveled out and continued past parked road equipment and piles of gravel and soil, then finally reached Highway 3, the road to Guadalupe. We were in Palm Valley and still 20 minutes or so from our winery date, but it felt good to be back driving on pavement. I called ahead to the winery, and the manager said no problem. We like to think of this holoholo as the “wrong way” to Guadalupe.

Vinos Lechuza

When we finally reached Lechuza, we were half an hour late, but our pleasant host seated us on their terrace and served us a delicious and educational tasting. He told us about other wineries he felt we should try and gave us the phone number for the owner of Bichi, just five minutes south of the rancho, to make an appointment for us. We bought a bottle of Amantes, an excellent red blend. We were also pleased to find that they work with a wine distributor here in the U.S., so we can buy their wine here at home.

Just up a side road from Lechuza is Finca Altozano, a casual, open-air restaurant, and one of our favorites in the valley. They serve very good food and a nice selection of local wines. We were starving after all the morning excitement, and we took advantage of its location in between three or four wineries in the center of Guadalupe.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and we celebrated by splurging at Laja, also just a short drive from Lechuza. We first tried Laja in 2017 and raved about it then, and it’s nothing but even better today. Laja is all about the food. A choice of either four or eight courses which change all the time. We asked for eight courses with the wine pairing. That’s eight incredible courses for only $50, plus eight matching wines for $25 more. I won’t write anymore, just quote the menu:

Tomato salad with aromatic herbs and roast piñons
Pressed piglet with butternut squash
Sea bass carpaccio with kimchi and black salsify
Spider crab raviolis with squid ink
Catch of the day with arugula pasta and tender squash
Local beef with sweet potato puree and sautéed vegetables
Yogurt and ramonetti cheese with quince in syrup
Flamed meringue with tuile and fig leaves ice cream

We liked it better than turkey and cranberries.

On Friday, we took the short drive south to Bichi, a new winery just a couple of miles from the rancho. With their first vintage release in 2014, the two brothers, Noel and Jair Tellez, and their mother, Ana Montaño, are putting Tecate on the map for a new concept in winemaking: Raw, or natural wine. In fact, the name Bichi means “naked” in their Sonoran dialect, where they moved from when they found Tecate, its ancestral grapes and its weather and soil. Raw wine is made from grapes grown on non-irrigated, organically farmed vineyards. They found some vines in the region that are so old no one really knows what variety they are. But so what, when the wine that comes from them is such high quality and wonderful tasting? With no additives and special aging techniques, Ana Montaño currently oversees the farming and is responsible for converting their vineyard to biodynamics. (Here’s a link to an article with more about Bichi and raw wine.)

With Noel Tellez at Bichi

Noel has ended his law practice in Tijuana and now spends all his time working at the winery. When we drove into the parking lot, we knew we were in a different kind of place—no tasting room, no souvenir shop, a working winery. Noel greeted us and led us past a couple of buildings and back to the edge of one of the vineyards. He found three glasses and a bottle of water he used to rinse the glasses between tastes, then took us into one of the buildings where he took wine out of an aging barrel and described its history and taste. And we sampled several superb wines that were completely impressive, except for one, which we tasted and then threw out at Noel’s request. He wasn’t happy with the way it’s aging. We ended up buying two bottles, one lovely rosé which didn’t yet have its label. I wrote Bichi Rosé on the bare bottle when we got home. We also got a bottle of “No Sapiens,” “No Name,” one of the grapes they bottle whose variety is unknown, but terrific to drink. While we were there, their mother, Ana, came by and gave us hugs and chatted for a while. Lovely people we’d like to spend more time with.

We had heard that Bichi was affiliated with Laja, where we had such a wonderful meal just the day before. In fact, we noted that two of the wines they served were Bichi varieties. But we were surprised and impressed to find that Noel’s brother, Jair, had founded Laja in 1999 and was the chef who cooked such exquisite fare. He now has two more restaurants, both in Mexico City, and is considered one of Mexico’s most influential chefs.

After all these discoveries, you can bet that we’ll be going back to Tecate before long.

Gourmet Mexico, part 1

Tecate sign at the Zocalo

In early November, Laurel spotted an extra good deal in her vacation timeshare program. It was at Rancho Tecate, which is appropriately in Tecate, Mexico. After some looking into it, we learned that Tecate is only a little more than an hour from San Diego. We’ve gone down to Ensenada several times, and two years ago, we discovered Valle de Guadalupe, the magical wine valley just inland from Ensenada. Well, Tecate is on the other side of the valley, just 45 minutes east and right on the U.S. border. So we decided to spend Thanks-giving week finding out more about the town that we only knew as the source of Tecate Beer.

The real photo

We drove down the Friday before Thanksgiving. It was late afternoon, so it was already dark. We found the rancho just 10 km (six miles) south of town, and turned in toward the gate. The guards checked our papers and told us how to find the business office. A lovely young woman named Esmeralda met us there. She was wearing a parka, as it was chilly outside, only about 40 degrees. (Tecate is at close to 2,000 feet high, so it gets cool as soon as the sun sets.)

She came out and climbed aboard a mini-cart to show us our room. We followed in our car, parked under a grove of trees and walked across to a row of Spanish style rooms. The place looked fine, and we moved  in our luggage, then drove back to the office and asked where we might find the restaurant. It was, as I said, dark, and we didn’t feel like driving back into town for dinner. Esmeralda told us the restaurant was just around the corner. Driving there, we saw a field of grapes on the right. It was labeled 1893. It looked to us like the rancho had deep roots here in Tecate.

The restaurant, Puerta Norte, was nearly empty with only two tables filled. We chose a table and Laurel asked the server what he might recommend.

“Parillada, for sure, ma’am,” was his answer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Mexican mixed grill,” she said.

We agreed and ordered it, then asked to see the wine list.

“You will want to try one of our own reds, either Nebbiolo or Cabernet Sauvignon,” said the server.

We ordered the Nebbiolo and it arrived with a plate of housemade rosemary bread. The wine and the bread were both excellent, and just the beginning of what was a superior dinner. The parillada came on a large platter— several types of steak, plus chicken and chorizo served with beans, tortillas, chips and guacamole. We returned to our room very satisfied and slept well in the comfortable king-size bed.

On Saturday morning, we drove south on Highway 3 toward Guadalupe. After reading lots of good reviews, we had decided to try Corazon de Tierra (Heart of the Land) for lunch. It had become well known for using local everything in very creative, and sometimes surprising, ways. We reached the valley in just 45 minutes and decided to try a couple of wineries we hadn’t visited before. On the north road through the valley, in Porvenir, is a large winery called El Cielo. We went in for a tasting, but all their tastings included tours, and we didn’t want to take the time. Looking through their store, I found a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec for only twelve dollars, and we got a bottle to try later. Up the road west is a winery known as Pijuan, named after its Spanish owner. We split a tasting there and were both impressed with the quality and the prices, so we bought a bottle there, as well.

Excellent small plates, radish ice cream, the kitchen garden

Driving back toward the center of the valley, we headed down a dusty road and made several turns before we found Corazon. It’s a modern wood frame building with lots of glass, and we could see that on a warmer day, some of the wall windows slid open to the surroundings. We were seated at a corner table that looked out onto the restaurant’s practical and picturesque kitchen garden, and we knew that we’d be sampling the harvest from some of what was growing there. It’s a prix fixe menu, and we had five courses, beginning with a velvety puree of bitter greens, and including minced roast carrot with tiny dice of lamb liver, and sauteed sweetbreads. We only had mixed feelings about the capper, an ice cream dessert made from pureed radish.

Sunday morning was bright and sunny, and we drove east toward Mexicali, which is two hours from Tecate. But we turned north an hour east at the small town of La Rumorosa and drove a few miles to the entrance of Sitio Arqueologico Vallecito, an important national preserve with many cave paintings by the Kumeyaay Nation, as well as others. The Kumeyaay lived in this region and all the way to San Diego. In fact, Highway 8 between San Diego and El Centro is called the Kumeyaay Highway. Some of the paintings at this beautiful piece of high desert are 3,000 years old.

An easy, mile-long trail takes you past five major examples of the paintings, one of which astonished us. The second painting on the trail features a red devil with horns. It’s called El Diabilito o del Solsticio, and to show how advanced these people were, it was positioned so that the sun on the winter solstice hit its eyes and lighted them up. I want you to appreciate the photos Laurel got here—many of them were in such awkward spots beneath over-hanging boulders that she spent a fair amount of time lying on the ground. The other interesting camera note is no flash is permitted, and admission is free except for a 45-peso charge if you plan on taking photos. There were signs everywhere warning of rattlesnakes, but fortunately they’re hibernating this time of year or Laurel wouldn’t have spent so much time on the ground.

Back in Tecate, we drove past the big brewery. We had planned on taking a tour, but they have recently merged with Heineken, and there is a lot of remodeling going on and no tours right now. We’ll have to do that on our next trip here.

Frida’s mural, chair fence, tortilla soup, 84-hour sandwich

We had heard good things about a restaurant named El Lugar de Nos, which loosely translated means Our Place. When we got there, we were sure right away that there were artists involved. Including the parking lot, the place is about a block long, with a large mural of Frida Kahlo next to a fence covered with pieces of chairs. Inside the parking lot, another wall was covered with all manner of wooden kitchen cabinet doors. The restaurant itself was filled with eclectic art pieces, another shrine to Frida, and three large dining rooms, all done in different styles. The place was buzzing with both diners and employees. We were seated right away, and began to peruse the varied menu. We were both impressed with their duck tacos and grilled octopus. Relaxed and friendly, we liked El Lugar a lot and went back a second time during the week, when we ordered tortilla soup which we agreed was one of the very best we’d eaten and a beef sandwich that was beyond tender. After all, it’s called 84-hour beef.

Can you top that? We can. One day we visited Restaurante Amores, a literal hole in the wall. Actually a glass door below a nearly hidden sign that opens into the kitchen. Our host, Joshua, met us at the door and led us past one of the cooks who was cutting large quantities of limes. The dining room feels a little bit like someone’s living room, and I spent the meal rubbing shoulders with a bookcase filled with cookbooks and listening to soft Brazilian sounds. Joshua is the young manager and a graduate and now teacher at a culinary school. The chef, Kenji, a Mexican of Japanese descent, is a brilliant food designer as well as a believer in “eat local.”

Our five-course tasting menu just made us say, “Wow.” Corvina, a delicate white fish, topped with chayote foam. Potato topped with smoky onion powder made from burnt onions. A fork- tender piece of beef. Orange cake gelato. And finally, three Mexican candies: piloncillo, macaroon, and marzipan. As he served each course, Joshua explained the philosophy behind the methods and the ingredients, so we learned a fair bit about cooking as well as eating like royalty. Not surprisingly, Amores is Tecate’s top new restaurant on Trip Advisor.

One morning we drove a little west of town and up into the foothills near the border to a park named El Profesor. It proved to be quite popular with Tecate residents. There were a lot of families and children enjoying the park, and evidently it’s a popular place for weddings, the natural surroundings and the views are so beautiful. We hiked most of a trail that took us to viewpoints that were really stunning.

By the way, you may know that much of the country east of San Diego is batholith, mountains made up of jumbled peaks of boulders. The area around Tecate and to the east where the cave paintings are also has huge slabs of stone, and many of the trails put the slabs, known as slick rock, to good use. Walking from slab to slab, it almost seems at times that you’re hiking on a paved road.

To be continued –








Return to Paradise, Part 2

One reason we decided to go back to the island in September is the fact that they inaugurated an international birding festival a couple of years ago, and throughout the week we were there, there were guided tours and events. While we lived in Kona, we hiked many of the available trails and didn’t want to go back on them to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars each for a guide. But on Sunday morning, a pelagic tour left Kaloko-Honokohau Marina, and we had never done a pelagic trip in Hawaii. We knew there would be plenty of new birds for us there. Happily, the ocean was flat and blue, blue, blue, no heavy swells and no hot sun, when we boarded the boat, along with four guides, the crew and about 40 passengers.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater by Brad Argue

Offshore, we promptly saw a Wedge-tailed Shearwater, the most common seabird at the island, but still a new lifebird for us. We were to see many of them during the morning’s cruise. We headed makai until we had an excellent view back at Mt. Hualalai, then turned south. Throughout the morning, we counted eight species of seabirds, seven of which were new to us, like the Parasitic Jaeger and the Sooty Tern. We had seen Great Frigatebirds in the islands before, but only soaring up high, not down just above the water like these birds were flying.

Strangely, we didn’t see a single dolphin or whale, as they’re plentiful in the waters off Kona. For other bird nuts like us, here’s the complete list–Big Island Birds 2018–of what we saw during the entire week on the island.

After coming ashore, we drove down into town and celebrated seven lifebirds at a new brewery. It’s called Ola Brew Company, and while we were there, they were trying out a new brew, called A’a IPA, for our money the best IPA in the islands. We bought a growler-full of it to enjoy back at the condo. A’a is the word for one of the lava types that cover parts of the island, very rough and crusty-looking. The other predominant lava form is pahoehoe, which looks like melted chocolate that’s hardened. But this ale was nothing like either. Crisp, dry and hoppy, it was a pleasure to drink.

When we lived in Kona, we heard about the “cloud forest” on the way up Hualalai and drove up there a couple of times to walk the along the road looking for birds. There are quite a few Kalij Pheasant up there, and we also saw an Apapane, a bright red forest bird of the island. But when I was researching our trip back, I discovered that there is a guided tour through the cloud forest, directed by the owner of a large estate. The reviews of the tour were so good that I called the owner, Kelly Dunn, and he and I talked at length about what he’s doing. I signed us up for the two to three hour tour (only $25 per person!), and Laurel and I drove up there on Monday morning.

Kelly met us on the road outside his place and gave us each a big golf umbrella, “Normally, it’s sunny in the morning, but with this storm that just passed through, the rain is coming and going at odd hours,” he explained. A second couple arrived, and the five of us walked up the drive to Kelly’s house once they got their umbrellas, as well. As we stopped for a minute outside the house, the rain started. And for the next two hours, as we walked through the most fantastic tropical jungle we had ever seen, it poured. The umbrellas did a good job, but passing by dripping foliage and under trees adding to the downpour, we all got quite wet. It wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t muddy, as Kelly explained that the cloud forest has no soil under the plants. They grow on a few inches of dead leaves and roots, and below that is nothing but lava rock from old eruptions.

Hualalai is the only cloud forest left in Hawaii. In fact, while there used to be thousands of cloud forests around the world, today there are only 25 left, thanks to deforestation and development. One of the reasons that Kelly has acquired this acreage is a type of eucalyptus tree brought here from Australia. The Hawaiians dislike the tree; it’s foreign, and they have cut down most of these “painted trees” that grow on the island. The thing that fascinates Kelly is the rainbow bark on the tree that changes through its lifetime, and the fact that no insect will touch its wood. There may be a medicinal use if someone can figure out its properties.

He explained that the cloud forest is completely symbiotic. Everything that grows here supports everything else. You can break a piece from a plant and toss it a few feet away, and it will take root. And the plants grow here in such abundance that it staggers the imagination. Laurel and I were so impressed by what we saw and learned that we would recommend it to anyone visiting the island.

Humpy’s Big Island Alehuse

After the wet and wonderful cloud forest, we drove down the mountain to the sunny day below. On the main shopping street, Alii Street, one of our old haunts is still there. It’s called Humpy’s Big Island Alehouse, and it has a narrow deck with a street view that’s great for people watching with an ocean view. Plus, Humpy’s has 36 taps and either ono or halibut fish and chips. We sat there in the heart of civilization still amazed at what we had just experienced.

Monday turned out to be a day full of superlatives, because we had scheduled our big splurge for that evening. Our favorite special occasion place in on the Big Island is the Canoe House at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, a half hour north of town on the Kohala Coast. A grove of palm trees accents the view of the beautiful bay. The award-winning chef uses primarily local produce, meats and fish to create wonderful dishes like Heirloom Tomatoes “Poke,” Seared Ahi, and Sautéed Day Boat Scallops.

While we were on the island, we visited one of our favorite spots: Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park. The beautiful beach that begins on the north side of the marina leads along lava tide pools, where you almost always see a few honu (green sea turtles). They love the sea lettuce that grows in the pools. And between September and April, the rocks are busy with Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattlers, Pacific Golden Plovers and other shorebirds that call this island home when they’re not migrating back and forth to Alaska and the far north for breeding.

Kaloko Honokohau

Half a mile up the beach, Aimakapa Fishpond sits just behind the steep beach berm. Built by Hawaiians as a place to stock and grow fish, the pond is undergoing much needed expansion and cleanup. Some of the invasive plants that have taken over are being removed, and the net result will be a pond nearly twice the size to attract visiting birds.

In fact, the entire park is receiving a lot of attention and restoration. We stopped at the visitor center and talked to one of the young rangers, who was very excited about all the progress she’s seeing.

Mauna Kea Beach

One of the special attractions for us on the Big Island is its beaches. Many of the beaches on the Kona side have wonderful sun, sand and shade. In particular, the beach at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a broad, sandy expanse that also has a rocky reef at its edge that Laurel loves for snorkeling and is edged by trees that I love for the shade they give me for sitting and reading. The beach is about a half hour north of Kona, but get there early. The hotel offers a free parking lot for visitors, but it fills up quickly. After a bit of walk down from the lot, there’s a nice bath and shower facility at the edge of the beach.

If you’re staying in Kona, another excellent option is Kahalu’u Beach Park, a county beach that’s right on Alii Drive toward the south end of Kona. Laurel says it has more fish than any of the other local beaches. It also has a free parking lot, bathroom and shower facilities and plenty of shady spots, as well as a large, covered picnic area.

On the day we flew back to San Diego, our flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we drove back down to Alii Drive and had lunch at Huggo’s On The Rocks. The place is right on the beach with beach tables and chairs, and the floor is lovely sand. It looks right out onto the bay and is a true piece of Hawaiian heaven. We had some more terrific fish and chips and beers to toast the island aloha and mahalo, then drove up to the airport to board our plane. We’ll be back.

And aloha and mahalo to all of you.

Seattle–Seafood, Family and Traffic

Mt. Rainier and Washington State ferry

Laurel and I flew to Seattle in mid-July for our annual visit with my daughters and grandkids, to touch base with good friends who live there, and to fill up on the great seafood that runs rampant through the Puget Sound region. On this trip, the weather in Seattle was glorious: 80 degrees and sunny. And when it’s sunny in Seattle, there’s no place, as the song goes, that has bluer skies.

Before we left San Diego, we talked to our friends Joe and Julia Ensley and were warned that in the last five years, City-limits Seattle has grown from six to seven hundred thousand people. Be prepared for bad traffic, made worse by the fact that construction happening everywhere is blocking lots of streets. And the ferry terminal is being renovated, so consider driving around part of Puget Sound instead of sailing across to get to their place on Bainbridge Island. I checked out Google Maps and decided to do just that, so we headed south from Sea-Tac airport instead of north.

Tides Tavern in Gig Harbor

We drove down toward Tacoma and turned west to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the famous span that was known as “galloping Gertie” and in 1940 broke in half and collapsed. Fortunately, only one death was caused by this amazing accident that someone actually caught on film. (Check it out on Wikipedia.) We continued northwest and entered the picturesque town of Gig Harbor, once the home to quite a fleet of salmon boats. Fortunately, it’s still home to Tides Tavern, which just celebrated its 45th anniversary. And even more fortunately, they were serving Copper River sockeye salmon and chips.

We sat out on the sunsoaked deck and had the first of several of the week’s great lunches, topped off with a pint of Fremont Lush IPA from the iconoclastic neighborhood in Seattle. Filled with independent spirit, there are signs that advise, “Entering Fremont Time Zone. Set Your Watch Forward Five Minutes.”

Zamboanga in Winslow

After lunch, we drove on north through Kitsap County past Bremerton and Poulsbo, then crossed the bridge at Agate Passage to Bainbridge Island and the town of Winslow where Joe and Julia have a store called Zamboanga, filled with clothing they design and commission on the island of Bali, half a world away. We stayed the night with the Ensleys, and, of course, Joe grilled salmon on the barbecue.

Seattle skyline

The next day, Thursday, the four of us took Marco, their Portuguese water dog, for a walk along the scenic shoreline of Fort Ward State Park, then stopped in Winslow at the Harbour Public House for lunch, where Laurel and I split a delicious ling cod sandwich. After lunch, it was no problem getting on the ferry to Seattle. We went up to the top deck to enjoy the views of the blue water and sky as we approached the city. We did notice that there were more building cranes than normal and remarked on the fact that the skyline was more populated with new buildings than we had seen the previous year. And, as we drove up the gangway and out into the streets of downtown Seattle, the removal of the old Alaskan Way viaduct seems at its height. I skirted around much of the downtown area toward Aurora Way North, Seattle’s highway 99, but the traffic slowed us every step of the way.

The Whisky Bar

The drive north to our motel took us past Woodland Park with its greenery and zoo, and Green Lake was busy with folks enjoying its grassy spaces and beaches, but it’s evident that the city is bursting at the seams. We weren’t really looking forward to the drive back into the city, but we had reservations at a jazz club called Tula’s and were looking forward to seeing Overton Berry, a jazz institution in Seattle. Once parked, we began looking for a new bar to us: the Whisky Bar. It was just a block south and quite a place, with more than 180 whisk(e)ys and 160 Scotches. We ordered two Sazeracs, the famous drink of New Orleans, and our friendly bartender served up a pair of excellent ones, after clarifying that we wanted the drink and not the brand, since they carry a brand that’s called Sazerac Rye Whisky.

At Tula’s, not tired of salmon yet, we split an order of Smoked Sockeye Salmon Fettuccine before Overton and his bassist came on the stage. He’s now 82, but still plays seemingly ageless piano, and his treatment of an evening of songs, including tunes from Black Orpheus, was terrific.

Bald Eagle

On Friday morning we filled our travel mugs with coffee in the motel lobby and headed north. The traffic out of the city wasn’t bad, and we passed through Everett and Mount Vernon, then turned west at Burlington to reach Deception Pass, whose bridge spans the deep passage between the mainland and Whidbey Island, which occupies the northern entrance to Puget Sound and Washington from Vancouver Island and Canada. The road south to the Clinton ferry at the south end is 55 miles long and travels through rugged forest, coastal shore and farmland.

We pulled off at the viewpoint before crossing the bridge and got out to enjoy the view and take a couple of pictures, and, as we stepped onto the end of the bridge, a majestic Bald Eagle flew down and landed in a snag just across the road, posing for pictures against the blue morning sky. It was the first of twelve eagles we saw that day, two of them sitting in nests atop high tension power poles.

We stopped at two of Whidbey’s state parks, Fort Ebey and Fort Casey, both of which, during World War II, held massive gun emplacements aimed at the entrance to Puget Sound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a narrow body of water leading east from the Pacific Ocean and Japan.

Mountains of mussels at Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville

East of Fort Ebey, lunchtime found us in Coupeville, the county seat for Island County. Coupeville sits on a small body of water made famous by its mussels: Penn Cove mussels, arguably the best-eating mussels in North America and famous in restaurants everywhere. Sitting out on a pier in downtown Coupeville, Toby’s Tavern serves up Penn Cove mussels to the tune of more than 2,700 pounds a month. We happily sampled a pound each of the tasty bivalves, and Laurel was smart enough to order a cup of mussel chowder, too. I stayed traditional and had clam chowder, but the mussel chowder was better.

After spending a little time on another beach, we headed from Clinton across the short span to Mukilteo on a 20-minute ferry ride and headed south, and I do mean south. We had a date with our friends Dave Wilson and Barb DeVincentis in Burien, all the way south of Seattle and west of Sea-Tac Airport. Not to bore you, but at Northgate, 110th North in Seattle, traffic ground to a crawl and continued slow until we passed downtown, then happily sped back up. We had reservations for 7:00 at Angelo’s and arrived breathlessly seven minutes early. We had a great time with Dave and Barb and split an order of seafood cannelloni that was rich with Dungeness crab, another Northwest specialty.

We were expected at my daughter Emily’s place at three on Saturday afternoon and decided to check out one big park we hadn’t birded together. Now called Warren Magnuson Park, it was Sand Point Naval Air Station for many years before that. The park borders a large section of the Lake Washington shoreline and protects many acres of wetlands. Even though July is a notoriously birdless month, we did see many American Goldfinch, the Washington state bird, as well a goldfinch nest that was keeping a female busy. We also saw our first Downy Woodpecker for the year and a few other things, but it was mainly a nice walk.

Elysian Brewing Company at Tangletown

Elysian Brewing Company has expanded and now has five locations in Seattle, where they serve their wonderful IPA, Space Dust. We stopped in at their Tangletown location near Green Lake for lunch and were delighted to see that they served Saturday brunch with live jazz. Of course, we couldn’t possibly pass up two Sockeye Salmon Benedicts to go with the brews.

That afternoon, we hung out at Emily’s and petted her little rescued sorta spaniel, Daisy. We also got to know her new temporary visitor, Canela, which means cinnamon in Spanish. She’s a sweet Heinz 57 variety that’s one of 32 dogs rescued in Costa Rica and brought to the U.S. for new homes. Canela loves everyone and acts accordingly. Later, my daughter, Jenny, and her husband Kevin and high-school-senior son Nathan joined us, and we drove over to north Lake Union for an excellent Mexican dinner at Agua Verde Café.

Pike Place Market

On our last day in Seattle, not counting return flight day, we drove down early to visit the Pike Place Market. If you’re ever in Seattle, it’s a great place to visit, but do it early. By ten in the morning, it had become a mob. One of my favorite places is Jack’s Fish Spot, across the street from the main market. We picked up a nice piece of smoked salmon, and they wrapped it so it would hold unrefrigerated for 24 hours. We’re also quite fond of Jack’s clam chowder, which has smoked salmon in it, as well. We have the Pike Place Market Cookbook, and that chowder recipe is in it, so we enjoy it frequently at home.

The Hammering Man at SAM

We left the market and walked down to SAM, the Seattle Art Museum, just a couple of blocks south on First Avenue. They have a terrific show on right now that’s a major retrospective of Edward Curtis’ Native American photographs, combined with exhibits of three indigenous Native artists. Following that exhibit, we were pretty much museumed out, so we went back to the car and drove up to Capitol Hill.

Taylor Shellfish has grown to six locations in Washington, three in Seattle alone, and we went to the branch on Melrose to get some of the best oysters on the halfshell you’ll ever find. We accompanied that with a serving of their smoked oyster dip and a tuna poke bowl for a fabulous meal.

Sunset at Ray’s Boathouse

After an afternoon break, we drove over to Ballard in northwest Seattle, and it occurred to me that Laurel had never seen the Hiram Chittenden Locks, the connection between Puget Sound and all the fresh-water lakes in Seattle. On the far side of the locks the fish ladder is the gateway to Seattle and its lakes and rivers for spawning salmon, and we saw quite a few in the windows with underwater views of them on their way up from the salt water. We continued on to Ray’s Boathouse and Café, north of the locks with a view of passing boats, sat out on the sunny evening deck at the upstairs café, and split an order of sea scallop pasta, our first scallops of the week. The downstairs Ray’s Boathouse is a quieter, fancier place that serves all manner of 5-star seafood.

Monday morning, we flew home to San Diego, went grocery shopping and collected the mail.

The Prado in Balboa Park

The next day, Tuesday, July 17th, happened to be our ninth wedding anniversary, and we celebrated it by going to the wonderful Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park. Every Tuesday, they have what they call Date Night, which includes excellent salads and entrees for two, along with a bottle of wine for $46.95. Quite a bargain! By the way, we both ordered their excellent pork chops.

Desert Magic

When you live near the Pacific Ocean, you learn that there are times when the heat of the land and the water disagree, and you get something called “June Gloom,” lots of cloudy or foggy mornings clearing later, one hopes. In San Diego, the natural warmup for June Gloom is May Gray, and it works pretty much the same way.

On Saturday, May 12th, the forecast looked pretty miserable, so we decided to drive to the desert to find some sun. There’s a county park about 20 miles south of the huge desert park of Anza Borrego. It’s called Agua Caliente Springs for good reason: Several hot springs surface there, and it’s become a popular place to camp, except when it closes for the summer due to the heat. Interstate 8 leaves San Diego and heads pretty much due east, heading for Arizona and beyond, passing over the Laguna Pass summit at 4,055 feet.

The gray led us up and east, and as we went, we passed into thick clouds and rain, which became dense fog near two or three high points. The weather persisted until we passed the last of the coastal mountains and was replaced by bright sun, blinding after all the gloom. We turned north at Ocotillo, driving through windy conditions for about ten miles, until we crossed through a draw, and the wind magically stopped. Looking back west to the mountains, white clouds piled above them, stopping at the peaks like a cliff. Fifteen miles farther, Agua Caliente basked in lovely 80 degree sun with only light wind to cool things off.

Marsh Trail begins near the warden’s office and heads northwest for about a half mile to a small palm oasis created by another spring. Most of the trail is a dry creek bed of sand dotted with rocks, and it’s fairly level and easy going. Desert ridges reach up on either side, and it’s sometimes loaded with birds taking flies and gnats from the mesquite, creosote bush and cactus. On the 12th, the bird population is a little thin, but there are quite a few Pacific Slope Flycatchers calling out and a couple of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers to keep it interesting.

About two-thirds of the way up the trail, we met a young couple from San Diego who were spending the weekend with their young daughter. The woman told us that what they were really hoping to see was a desert bighorn sheep, which are numerous in the area but rarely seen. Ten minutes later, as if on cue, Laurel and her eagle eye spotted a ram up on the ridge to our south. He was young, but he sported two massive, curled horns. Another couple joined us, and we all watched as he sprung down the rocks towards us. He took his time, and ten minutes later disappeared into a draw.

It was our third time at Agua Caliente and our first sheep, a very exciting sight. We had seen a couple of young ones in Anza Borrego a few years before but not one here. None of the other folk had ever seen one here before either, and we were all inspired to see the young family’s wish come true.

The other couples were going back to the campground, and Laurel and I headed on to trail’s end by ourselves. The spring at the palm oasis was lackluster, and only a bit of mud was there now, barely enough for any animal to drink. We headed back on the trail and were surprised to find the same ram a little farther ahead up on the ridge again. He stayed up top, but followed along parallel to us as we hiked, grazing at times. After about twenty minutes, we reached the trailhead for the Desert Overlook trail, which is a steep climb to a view of the entire area. The ram crossed to the other side of the ridge and dropped out of sight, and we walked the last quarter mile or so back to the ranger station.

When we reached the campground, we looked back, and the ram was standing up on the nearest ridge, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. He stood there for a couple of minutes, then dropped back out of sight. So magical was his presence, that it half seemed to me that he had followed us all the way to make sure that we got back safely.

And there was a lot of excitement here, as well. One of the campers told us that 20 or 30 sheep had come down to water at one of the spring’s drainage canals. No one we talked to had seen this kind of thing happen before, and one of them had camped here seven times. Laurel and I missed the large group of sheep, but there were still eight or nine of them grazing right nearby.

There were a lot of birds in the trees around the campground, and we saw a couple that we have happily added to our year’s total, but it was the bighorn sheep that made May 12th so magical.

All That Jazz, and More

The alarm clock sounded off at 3 am on Friday, February 2nd. Laurel and I got out of bed and finished packing and loading the car, then drove to the airport for a 7 am flight to San Francisco. We connected there with a flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Thanks to the three-hour time change, we didn’t land in Florida until about 6 pm.

Celebrity Summit

The reason for all this silliness was the Celebrity Summit, a recently renovated and posh cruise ship that embarked on Saturday afternoon for New Orleans and Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan, with 2,450 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But the thing that made this cruise extra special was the hundred or so of the best jazz musicians and singers in the world who were about to perform on Entertainment Cruise Productions’ 2018 Jazz Cruise.

Riverside Market Grill

In the meantime, we were in Ft. Lauderdale at dinner time. On our first trip to the city in 2010, the best beer we had been able to find was a bottle of Samuel Adams. But things are different in 2018, and Laurel found a brewpub on Yelp called Riverside Market Grill. We took a cab from our motel and found a bustling spot with two large walls of refrigerated cases that held more than a hundred different craft beers. They had plenty of draft beer on tap, as well. We tried a couple of pints of Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing near Tampa, and it was terrific. In addition to the mammoth beer inventory, Riverside Market Grill has a great brewpub menu.

We had dinner with our beers and chatted with friendly local quaffers and the owners, Julian and Lisa, who were very gracious hosts. Wherever we travel, beer lovers pay attention when they hear we’re from San Diego, “beer central” of California.

We had read about jazz cruises in prior years. Entertainment Cruise Productions has been doing them since 2001, but this year the list of talent just grabbed us, and we knew we had to be there. Each day, performances in several venues began around noon and lasted until midnight with the late night Birdland-produced series. Each concert was ninety minutes, and we saw three or four each day, so we were immersed in jazz for from four to six hours a day. And what a treat it was!

Birdland floats on the Jazz Cruise

I won’t go into the entire list, but a few highlights were, in the singer category, Kurt Elling, Nnenna Freelon, Ann Hampton Callaway, the New York Voices, John Pizzarelli, Niki Haris and Roberta Gambarini for starters. The musicians included the Clayton Brothers, Jeff Hamilton, Joey De Francesco, Wycliffe Gordon, Anat Cohen, Houston Person and Benny Green. Happily, a lot of the chairs and lounges for listening were comfortable, not just folding chairs. The large theater actually had rows divided like loveseats by twos with small tables, and the sight lines were very good.

Commander’s Palace

Monday, February 5th was Laurel’s birthday, and she was going to celebrate it in New Orleans! Around midday, we sighted land, and the Celebrity Summit headed upriver through miles and miles of Mississippi delta. We docked around four in the afternoon and went ashore at about five with a busload of hungry and thirsty passengers. Our destination was Commander’s Palace, an excellent restaurant in the Garden District of New Orleans. It was established in 1893 and features Creole fare. Our ship had booked the entire restaurant, and circular tables seating eight filled the dining space. As we entered, I told the hostess that it was Laurel’s birthday, and in a few minutes a bouquet of balloons was added to our centerpiece. They were pouring wine for all the guests, but I went to the bar and ordered two Sazeracs, the famous New Orleans cocktail made with rye and absinthe, although this one was made of cognac and Pernot.

One of the perks of sailing on this cruise is the fact that the singers and musicians live aboard and eat and drink and have lives like the passengers. When the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Laurel, two of the people at the table next to us were John Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, and they were singing, too. In fact, when we left to go back to the ship, we ended up in an overflow bus with just ourselves, John and Jessica, and Gianni Valenti and his wife. Gianni is the owner of New York’s famous Birdland.


We overnighted in New Orleans, and the next morning, Laurel and I went on a swamp tour in a covered, flat-bottomed boat. We learned a lot about the swamps and marshes that are so common in Louisiana, saw a Bald Eagle nest with eagles in it and, of course, plenty of alligators. In fact, Laurel got to hold one. I had to take the picture.

Back in the city, we had the pleasure of eating lunch at Muriel’s, a famous French Quarter restaurant. The food was superb, and a local jazz band played NOLA-style music. They also served us Sazeracs, which were the classic recipe, and they didn’t charge us extra for them. As the ads for the cruise said, “A taste of New Orleans.” This certainly whetted our appetite, and we’re eager to travel back for more.

The ship sailed in the early evening, bound for Cozumel, an island in the Yucatan region of Mexico, and we had nothing to do but spend a few more hours listening to great jazz.

When we reached Cozumel, we were surprised to learn that more cruise ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico call on the island than any other port. The docks were filled with lines of passengers from several ships, either walking to a bus or waiting for one to arrive. We had chosen an excursion to the site of ancient Mayan temples, combined with a beach visit, and our group walked several blocks through a bustling mall to reach our bus.

Mayan Beauty

Adrian, our excellent guide, informed us that while the Yucatan is full of Mayan ruins, the Mayan people are by no means extinct. In fact, while he is a native of the island who is not Mayan, his wife is. And throughout the region in Mexico and Central America, more than six and a half million Mayans live in today’s world. The island of Cozumel is known as the island of butterflies and flowers and is held sacred by the Maya, because it is the coastline in their land that’s farthest east, therefore, it’s the first point to welcome the rising sun.

Found my beach.

Laurel had hoped that the beach would be good for snorkeling, and she had brought her mask and snorkel, but the open surf crashing on the beach led her to a lifeguard station, where she learned that the water was dangerous. Instead, she settled for the option of sharing the shade of an umbrella with me, at a table on the sand with fish tacos and Pacificos and margaritas for lunch. Behind us, waiters literally ran full speed through the restaurant serving food and drinks to the overflowing crowd of visitors from the ships.

When the bus dropped us off back by the docks, we headed toward the ship, but noticed La Internacional Cerveceria, a craft beer bottle shop on the street, and had to check out the brews they carried. Behind the bar were rows of bottles brewed all over Mexico, along with plenty from the U.S., too. It’s amazing how craft breweries and beer shops are popping up in Mexico and Central America, as well as in the states. We tried a local IPA that turned out to be quite good.

Wycliffe Gordon pays tribute to Pops

We boarded the Summit in time to attend a swingin’ concert by the Clayton Brothers Quintet before dinner. The ship sailed at six, heading home to Ft. Lauderdale, which we would reach after our final day at sea. On Friday evening, the last night of the cruise, the New York Voices joined John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey for an all-star vocal session. The room was even more crowded than usual, since a lot of musicians were finished performing, and many of them stood in the wings and edges of the space to share in the music.

All in all, a cruise that Laurel and I will never forget.

Bigger Than IMAX II


Turret Arch in Arches National Park

We spent the night in nearby Torrey. The next morning, our car was totally covered with frost, but as soon as the sun hit it, it melted. We drove into the rising sun and two-and-a-half hours later reached what just might be the most spectacular place in all the Four Corners. (By the way, the Four Corners refers to the junction of the four states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.)

The Three Gossips at Arches

The place I’m talking about is Arches National Park, and the name says some of it, but not all. There are red rock arches here, but a whole lot more. One particularly interesting rock formation is called Three Gossips by the park, but to us it looked much more like the magi. Balancing rocks, rock structures that resemble giant pipe organs, towering pillars and, of course, natural arches. We drove through it twice, visiting at each area in morning and afternoon light.

Leaving the park, we passed a young woman selling organic peaches next to the road and stopped. She told us the peaches had been picked in Palisade that morning. We bought seven gigantic peaches for ten bucks, and the rest of the week we split one each day for a morning snack with coffee. They were the best peaches we have ever eaten. When we arrived home, I looked up Palisade on the web and found that it’s a small valley just east of Arches in southwest Colorado. Not only do they have plenty of orchards, but the climate there is also good for grapes, and there are 24 wineries in Palisade, as well. The town’s motto is, “Life tastes good here all year long.”

Organic peaches from Palisade

We loaded our peaches into the car and continued south to the sophisticated town of Moab, Utah. It caters to adventures of all kinds: hiking, river rafting and (they say) the best mountain biking in the world. We visited Moab Brewery for lunch and took a couple of cans of Johnny’s American IPA with us for later, then drove back up the couple of miles to Arches for our second look.

For dinner, I had seen The Ghost Bar and Jeffrey’s Steakhouse on Yelp, and it sounded good, but when we got there, the place looked classy, but was completely booked, so we started hunting on Laurel’s Android and found The Atomic Lounge. Maybe a strange name for a restaurant/bar, but they make some of the best craft cocktails we’ve tasted lately. Including plenty of classics like a mule, an old-fashioned and a Sazerac. Plus, their food is as good as their drinks, and, being Utah, you must eat as well as drink. A really great find.

Spruce Tree House–Mesa Verde

The next morning, we drove a couple of hours south to Mesa Verde National Park, past Canyonlands National Park. (There’s an abundance of riches here; you just can’t do them all.) We checked in at the visitor center and got some good advice for a short visit, then drove to the nearest attraction, the overlook for a pueblo called Spruce Tree House, which was built in the 12th century. We talked to the park ranger there and learned that the proper name for the ancient people who lived here is now Ancestral Pueblo people. Throughout recent history, they’ve been called the Anasazi, but we now know that “Anasazi” was the word for “enemy” in an adjoining nation’s vocabulary. Anasazi is out, Ancestral Pueblo is in.

Square Tower House

We drove to several other ancient sites, amazed by the ability of these people to build such complex structures on the faces of steep cliffs with only primitive tools. We didn’t do the hiking tours, since they must be booked in advance at the visitors center and involve some climbing, but seeing Mesa Verde only whetted my appetite to see more sites, like Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon. We’ll have to do those on other trips, because we will definitely be back, thrilling to the history and the geology of the region.

Our visit to Mesa Verde was our only excursion into Colorado, and now we drove south into New Mexico, the fourth of the Four Corners states. We planned to spend the night in Farmington, which turned out to be a welcome surprise. In her previous visits, Laurel hadn’t been that impressed with Farmington, but priorities had changed, and now we enjoyed the city and its surroundings.

The bar at Three Rivers Brewhouse

Three rivers, the Animas, San Juan and La Plata Rivers join each other in Farmington, and the brewpub in town is logically named Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse. Its excellent brews with food to match have made it quite successful. In fact, it occupies a full block on Main Street with the aforementioned brewpub, a pizzeria, tap and game room, and banquet hall. The Three Rivers Cubano sandwich with house-smoked pork shoulder and honey pork belly is outstanding.

The next morning, we visited the city’s Riverside Nature Center and headed up a trail next to the Animas River. Before we left the parking lot, we saw a few mule deer grazing in the brush, as well as prairie dogs poking their heads out of holes in the bare dirt patch on the opposite side. We talked to volunteers at their nature center and learned that the deer and are practically tame because they’re protected here and have access to feed and water. Children flock to the center to see the many birds that hang out at the feeders outside. There are many common birds on the feeders, but we even saw a Plumbeous Vireo and a Wilson’s Warbler among them.

Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs with me

We went back to Three Rivers Eatery for lunch and had an interesting chat about hops with Patrick Liessmann and Austin Jacobs, two of the brewers.

Gallup movie palace

South of Farmington is the town of Gallup, New Mexico, made famous in Bobby Troup’s big hit, “Route 66.” Gallup has many stores specializing in Southwest Indian art and turquoise jewelry, including Navajo and Zuni artifacts and Hopi Kachinas. After racing through the huge Richardson’s Trading Company, which first opened in 1917 but was closing for the day when we arrived, Laurel found some lovely turquoise earrings and a necklace of turquoise beads at Silver House Trading Co.

On Friday, we started heading back west. First stop, Flagstaff, back in Arizona, and the following day, all the way home to San Diego. Today, we roughly followed the path of old Route 66, but now it’s I-40 and it’s not coming “from Chicago all the way.” The 40 comes clear across the country from Wilmington, North Carolina, almost due east of Atlanta and all the way west to Barstow. There’s an interesting break about halfway between Gallup and Flagstaff: Petrified Forest National Park, where the ground is littered with pieces of some very old trees, many of them ancestors of our cedar trees.

Flagstaff mural

Back in Flagstaff, we took a walk through the downtown area and found a terrific mural memorializing Route 66 and the railway that preceded it to the city. We also discovered one of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at for some time. It’s called Root, and the menu looked so fascinating that we came back later for dinner. But first, we drove back east about seven miles to Walnut Canyon National Monument, a wonderfully scenic park forested with high altitude pinyon pines. The canyon is another site where Ancestral Pueblos made their home, and here and there on the steep slopes of the canyon walls are structures where the hardy people built their homes, climbing up and down from them on ropes to live in safety.

We drove back to the safe haven of our Days Inn, then went to Root for dinner. The waiter gave us the drink menu, and we were pleased to see that this menu was as adventurous as the dinner menu. Excellent wine selection as well as craft cocktails. Laurel ordered a Hopped Up Pisco (Pisco, local hops, lemon, egg white, blood orange powder) and I had a Serenity (Chamomile infused rye, sweet and dry vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, barrel-aged bitters) and we split a Whole Leaf Caesar Salad and The Board (pork belly confit, country pork paté, Olli calabrese, peach-bourbon compote, Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, Point Reyes blue and accompaniments). We were not disappointed. Root is now a must visit whenever we’re in Flagstaff.

Plains prickly pear

Saturday morning, and we got an early start, since it’s a good seven hours to home. The weather continued to be sunny, and by the time we got to Phoenix, it was plenty hot again. This was my first time through all this majestic land, but it definitely won’t be my last.

If you’ve been patiently waiting to see more of Laurel’s beautiful photography, and large enough to look at, here’s the link. laurels southwest

Bigger Than IMAX

We enjoyed our trip up the coast in July so much that we decided to do some more driving, and Laurel and I drove through much of the Southwest in early October. Wow! I’ve traveled to a lot of places in this world, but I’ve never seen places that are so expansive and huge. The idea of wide open spaces had never been revealed like this to me before.

Photo courtesy Beaver Street Brewery

We left early Friday morning and stopped in Phoenix for lunch, where we discovered the Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen. Like the name says, they brew ale and serve food, both delicious. Two hours past Phoenix, we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped for the night. Since it’s 7,000 feet high, there’s beautiful high pine forest around the city, and we visited Picture Canyon, a nearby park. Back in Flagstaff, both of us were surprised at what a hoppin’ place it is. After checking into our motel, the Days Inn Flagstaff East, we had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Café, a very cool restaurant with lots of craft beers.

A note about Days Inn. We used these motels on several of our overnights, and we’re happy to report that Wyndham Resorts, who has acquired the chain, is doing an admirable job of updating and redesigning fresh, comfortable rooms with nice attention to detail. Most of them have bedstand lamps with electric outlets in the bases. Very handy for recharging phones and tablets. The Flagstaff East Days Inn has a hair dryer with a night light built into it, useful when you’re stumbling around in the dark looking for the bathroom in a strange room.

Saturday morning, we got up bright and early. And it was bright. We were fortunate through the entire trip and managed to miss a couple of storms passing through. Later in the week we arrived in Farmington, NM on a sunny day right after three days of rain. We headed north to the Grand Canyon, one of the main reasons for our trip. Laurel just couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, so I was knocked out (as everyone is) by the scale of the place, not to mention the beauty and colors of all the geological layers.

While researching our trip, I read that there was a hawk watch going on. An organization called uses volunteers all over the country to count raptors during their spring and fall migrations. We had already visited two hawk watch sites on other vacations: Hawk Hill at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, where WWII gun emplacements once guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and Key Largo in the Florida Keys where raptors leave the U.S. and head down into the Caribbean and South America. The Grand Canyon watch was taking place on Yaki Point, a small peninsula of rim jutting out above the southeast corner of the canyon.

At Yaki Point, we followed the signs and found three volunteers sitting in lawn chairs on a mostly level slab of rock whose edge dropped off to the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say, neither of us approached the edge. One of the men got up and welcomed us, and we began to chat about what they had been seeing and the other hawk watches we had visited. In my research, I had seen that three California Condors inhabited the Grand Canyon. The volunteer told us that was old info, and the reports were seldom up to date. In 2017, there are about thirty condors living in the canyon with three nests confirmed. Plus, that very day, a group from the Peregrine Fund, in collaboration with the Oregon Zoo, was releasing three condors south of Marble Canyon on the Vermilion Cliffs. We told him we were actually spending the night at Marble Canyon Lodge, and he told us that there had been a nest under the Navajo Bridge, just half a mile north of the lodge. Since it was a 3 1/2-hour drive, we decided to leave and get up there, but, before we left, an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, and they added them to their list. They told us it had been a slow day. Only about forty birds.

By the time we crossed the Navajo Bridge, it was nearly dark, so we drove a half mile past it and stopped at the lodge. We checked in and looked around, which took no time. Marble Canyon consists of the lodge, its gift shop and restaurant, all owned and operated by a Navajo family, plus a Chevron station. We paid for our dinner in the gift shop and discovered some beautiful artifacts, including one of the finest Navajo rugs we’d ever seen. Incidentallly, the LA Times just reviewed the lodge in their Travel section on October 22nd. Short article, but worth reading.

The sky was clear and blue on Sunday morning as we drove back to the bridge. The original steel Navajo Bridge was built in 1929, one of the first bridges to span the Colorado River before it reaches the Grand Canyon. In 1995, a new, wider bridge was built, and the old bridge became a pedestrian bridge. An interpretive center and parking lot are now located at its south end. Hikers, bikers and visitors who only want to take pictures of the beautiful view of the river and canyon use it regularly.

We parked and began to walk across the bridge as the sun moved above the canyon rim, lighting the west wall of the canyon. Laurel was taking pictures of the beautiful location, but we were also working hard to see below the bridge, searching for the kind of structure that could only nest young condors.

The California Condor is one of the world’s rarest birds. It is also the largest bird in North America, having a wingspan of almost ten feet, compared to the six-foot Golden Eagle wings. It became extinct in the wild during the 70s, mainly due to hunting and lead poisoning caused by the birds eating animals shot with lead bullets. The few remaining pairs were bred in captivity at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos and by the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. The Peregrine Fund was originally created to breed Peregrine Falcons, which were also on the verge of extinction due to DDT. Today, the fund breeds many species of raptors and works with other zoos, releasing condors at the Vermilion Cliffs, about 15 miles south of Marble Canyon. Today, including the three condors released the day before, there are more than 500 of the great birds in the wild.

At about two-thirds of the way across the bridge, I leaned over and looked back beneath the bridge and saw a huge black bird standing on a sunwashed ledge with its mammoth wings spread out to dry. Laurel was on the other side of the bridge, and I motioned her over, and she got this shot. Our first ever condor in the wild. We saw what looked like white paint on its wings. Our bird was P6, and the Peregrine Fund tells us it’s a female and the first second-generation condor from their program born in the wild. Her mother was born in the wild as well. She’s a juvenile, a little more than two years old and still with the blue head that young condors wear before they become adult and change to a red head.

A few minutes later Laurel spotted a second bird in the metal struts of the new bridge, which turned out to be an adult with the ID of J4. The Peregrine Fund tells us she was raised at their headquarters in Boise, Idaho and released at the Vermilion Cliffs. She’s about eight and a half years old.

We never found a nest, but we left soon after, elated with what we had seen. We turned off the highway a few miles south and drove a couple of miles up a dirt road to the Vermilion Cliffs viewing station that was still staffed by several volunteers watching yesterday’s release site. By the way, the Vermilion Cliffs are aptly named, standing out in the morning sun in bright red-orange layers.

At the top of the mesa we could see a structure that had been built, and the folks monitoring the site told us a butchered steer was used to coax the new birds out of their cages, which had taken several hours. The carrion had attracted several other condors, and at one point I saw five of them circling over the cliffs. Along with the numbered placards on their wings, each bird is equipped with a miniature transmitter, and one woman at the station was waving an antenna picking up VHF signals from the birds, while a second volunteer recorded her findings. A very impressive system, but when you’re saving an entire species, technology can be a big help.

If you’re as nuts about birds as we are, here’s a link to see the full list of the birds we saw on our way around the four states.

We crossed into Utah, and after passing through a couple of border towns, the sky opened up, and we were driving through the biggest country I can remember seeing. All around us were ranges of mesas and mountains, but all so far away that they seemed like miniature models. Close to us was nothing but sage desert, and it stretched away into the distance.

The beauty of Zion, including a desert bighorn ram.

When we reached Zion National Park with its spectacular cliffs and canyons, it felt downright intimate. We climbed aboard one of the shuttles, included in the entrance fare of many national parks, to get a look at the major parts of Zion’s canyons. On the way back to the visitor center, we got off at the trailhead for Emerald Pools Trail. The trail is nicely paved and involves some uphill walking, but is not too much for me. What was too much was the yelling and screaming of out-of-control children running up and down the trail, not to mention a couple of hikers who found it necessary to bring their bad pop music into the area on their iPhones. We couldn’t wait to get away from the crowds and find quieter spots in other parts of Zion.

We spent the night in St. George, about 50 minutes west of Zion. We had read good reviews about George’s Corner, a likely name for a restaurant in St. George, and we headed there after checking into the local Days Inn. It was Sunday night, and the place was full to the brim, so we gave the hostess our name and prepared to wait 30 minutes. True to her word, we were seated in just 30 minutes, and we discovered that Utah has some unique laws when it comes to alcoholic beverages, one being that you don’t order alcohol without also ordering food. Well, that was our plan anyway, so no bother. We ordered two Zion Canyon IPAs, brewed just outside the park itself in Springdale, and a lamb burger to split. Excellent on both counts.

Back at the motel, I checked the weather forecast for our visit to Bryce Canyon the next day. A couple of days earlier, the forecast was mostly sunny, but now we were dismayed to see a 40% chance of thunderstorms with rain and snow likely. Well, we had a schedule to follow, so we got up on Monday morning and drove north with our mugs filled with coffee. The highway traveled higher as we went north, and we reached an area full of small junipers and pinyon pine that had been dusted with snow. It was breathtaking, and we drove through it as tiny snowflakes drifted onto our windshield, so small and dry that the wind blew them off. We reached the entrance to the park under cloudy skies, but it was merely cold, not stormy as predicted.

Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all. It’s a series of amphitheater-like areas between 8,000 and 9,000 feet high filled with “hoodoos,” strange towers created by frost and erosion, that resemble stacks of rocks piled high in rows that might be symphonic organs or architecture from some ancient Mesopotamian city. They fill a large area that’s best seen by car with stops at the more special geologic structures. Very different from Zion, but each incredible in its own way.

Two-and-a-half hours northeast of Bryce another national park fills the Utah landscape. It’s Capitol Reef National Park, and it surrounds what was created over millions of years when an ancient fault lifted the lands to the west more than 7,000 feet higher than those to the east. Instead of cracking, the higher land folded over, leaving the more than 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold. Today, the fold can be seen as canyons, cliffs, domes and bridges of multi-colored red rock.

In the 1880’s, Mormon farmers settled in a part of what’s now the park, and they named it Fruita. It’s located at 5,500 feet at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, and they built irrigation systems and planted orchards of apple, peach, pear and apricot which still exist today. During the season, you can pick and eat fruit from some of the orchards in the park for free. Other orchards are privately owned, so be aware of which ones you’re sampling from.

And not to worry. When you visit Capitol Reef, you needn’t drive the entire 100 miles to see it. In fact, most of the park is only available to hardy souls on dirt roads, horseback or hiking trails. The eight-mile scenic route from the visitor center gives you a good look at what was created by the geologic cataclysm, plus a lovely drive through green and glowing orchards. The combination of red rock and green trees makes the whole place a painter’s dream.

-To be continued-

All photos by Laurel Scott unless noted.









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