Sunday, July 7, 2019

Two New Nearby Trails

(Part of the new trail at Kaaterskill Falls, seen from the viewing platform)

Bill and I planned two days to explore two of our favorite places, neither of which we had visited in quite a while.  We designated one day to walk the new Skywalk, a two-mile trail that crosses the Hudson River.  Our second adventure would be to hike the new trail and stairway alongside Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills.  We had read about both of these trails and were eager to give them a try.

We began the Skywalk from Olana, 19th-century artist Frederic Church's home, continued across the the Hudson River on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, ending at Cedar Grove, the home of Thomas Cole, Hudson River School founder and teacher of Frederic Church.

(Olana, home of Frederic Church in the late-1800s)

Although we had been been to Olana off and on over decades, so much had changed.  A grant in recent years enabled needed improvements both inside of the house and out.  And now, instead of one house tour, there are many tours to choose from, each with a different focus.  We chose the downstairs house tour and the upstairs tour, but there were others such as a garden and landscape tour that we might want to check out another time.  Rain came down in buckets on this mid-June day, so indoor tours held more appeal.

(the porch view across to the Catskills)

The rain still came down heavily as we prepared for the walk.  Museum staff advised that we not take the steep dirt path from the house to the bridge in the deluge. Instead, they suggested that we begin from the parking lot at the eastern end of the bridge.  We took their recommendation, parked near the bridge, donned a full set of rain gear, and stepped out.

(the Rip Van Winkle Bridge crosses the Hudson River)

Views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains are this walk's big attraction.  Although rain clouds shrouded the mountains, we could look down on the gray river and into the woods directly below.  We know the area well, and could see the mountain view in our mind's eye. 

(The Hudson and islands from the bridge)

Walking on the historic Rip Van Winkle Bridge, built in the 1930s, had not been encouraged in the past.  Now, as part of the Skywalk, it is notable as the connection between the two artists' houses.  In Cole's and Church's day, a ferry would have taken them back and forth across the river.  The two friends often drew and painted together, sometimes on top of the hill with its river view, where Church eventually built Olana.

(What's a little rain?  Bill is dressed for the day.)

After arriving at the western end of the bridge, I decided to walk the Cedar Grove property just far enough to see that Cole's "new studio" had been built.  Besides its historic accuracy, the new studio houses contemporary art.  I had been dismayed on my previous Cedar Grove visit to see modern art mixed with Cole's furnishings within the house.  The house has now been returned to the style of Cole's mid-19th century era.

(Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole's house in the mid-1800s)

From house to house, the Skywalk is two miles, four round-trip.  The bridge itself is one mile.  It's possible to walk just the bridge, parking at one end or the other.  Based on our experience, we highly recommend the Skywalk and spending time visiting the homes of Frederic Church and Thomas Cole.

(the lowest part of the falls along Route 23A)

We had cloudy but far better weather for our second adventure. 

Kaaterskill Falls drops 260' and can be very dangerous.  Fatalities or serious injuries are not uncommon.  In the mid-1970s, when Bill took me to the falls from college, we could and did walk anywhere, including behind the falls in the amphitheater high above the base.  In addition, at the very top of the falls, we could literally put a hand in water before it tumbled below.  Greater use and an increasing number of deaths demanded that changes be made to safeguard visitors.

(The beginning of the trail rises from Route 23A)

Some changes were made in the late 1980s.  Those changes essentially prohibited people from accessing the highest level of the falls.  Not surprisingly, people continued to take risks. 

Last summer, in 2018, $1.25million in upgrades at the falls included a 200-step stone stairway built to get people safely to each of the three levels of the falls.  Visitors can still take chances and get hurt, but warning signs are everywhere, and, if people stay on the trails or on the immediate rocks, fewer accidents should occur.

(A wooden stairway was our first introduction to the new design)

From the Route 23A parking area, rubbly stones begin the trail.  Just beyond, a wooden stairway is built over what was a dirt scramble when we clawed our way up more than 40 years ago.  And above that, we encountered our first set of stone stairs.  We were totally impressed by the precise construction of this stairway, each stone perfectly placed.

(The first set of stone stairs)

And the view at each level?  Astounding.  The new regulations and construction did not detract in any way from the beauty advertised by the Hudson River School painters in the early 1800s.  We were glad that hikers are again able to see the entire set of waterfalls.

(This series of waterfalls still inspires artists and photographers)
Today, in the "instagram age," estimates are that an average of 1000 visitors come on every summer weekend day to enjoy Kaaterskill Falls.  We saw only about 20 or 30 people on our mid-June day.  But, alas, we did see a group of teenagers hiking in flip-flops with beach towels, intending to swim, and we saw people partway across the amphitheater in a bent-over crouch behind the waterfall, but most people didn't take chances. 

In the close-up picture, you can see two people sitting on the ledge.  I was glad that they appeared not to be continuing to the steeper more-slippery section.

(The upper falls is magnificent)
(A close-up of the other photo shows people behind the falls)

Bill and I continued up above the falls on more stone steps to a level summit path.  We learned that hikers are encouraged to park at the site of the Laurel House on top of the escarpment, rather than at the base on Route 23A as we had.  By parking at the top, hikers avoid the 2/10-mile walk along the road.  They also begin with the highest views and can decide how far down they want to go, rather than starting at the very bottom planning to go the entire distance to the top.

(The upper falls from the new viewing platform)
The rocks at the very top of the falls, which were popular photography locations, are now completely off limits.  Instead, a platform has been built a short distance away.  From there, the view is fabulous.  I definitely didn't miss peering over the top to see below.  Bill and I give this new trail an A+.

(Kaaterskill Clove from the viewing platform)

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Merck Forest Milestones

(Making strides on the high road)

My mother had no doctor's appointments this week and nothing pressing on the chore list.  "I think we could do something fun," she said when I called.

She had been wishing to hike on a trail in the woods.  Having broken her hip over a year ago and now doing fairly well, we both still knew that a hiking trail might be a stretch.  A couple of days went by and then I suggested going to Merck Forest.

(Merck Forest has been a family favorite for decades)

Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Rupert, Vermont, is a non-profit educational institution with a mission to teach and to demonstrate the benefits of innovative sustainable management of forest and farmland.  It is also a charming place to visit with lots of beautiful dirt roads and trails.

"Do you think I could walk the road from the parking lot to the farm?" she asked tentatively.  I thought she could, but it would take all of her walking stamina to go that far and back.  She would not be able to do that and still have enough endurance to enjoy the area.

(She walked this uphill road to see the views)

I called the Visitor Center at Merck Forest and told the receptionist, "My mother used to hike at Merck Forest regularly, but now she's nearly 94 and uses a cane.  Would it be possible for me to drive her as far as the barn?"  Visitors were not allowed to drive beyond the parking lot, but I hoped there could be an exception.  "Yes, that would be okay," the woman answered.  My mother was thrilled.

My family has visited and hiked at Merck Forest since it opened to the public in the 1970s.  Even now, I regularly lead Adirondack Mountain Club hikes up Mount Antone, on the property.  My outings always include a stop at the farm to see the animals, admire the barns, and enjoy the pastoral part of Merck Forest as well.

(And then a little farther so that she could be in the woods)

My mother loves going to Vermont.  She admires all the scenery and comments on changes that have occurred since we last headed over through Washington County from her Saratoga Springs home.  Anything from, "oh look, didn't they do a nice job painting that house," to "oh dear, that old barn is listing badly," and even, "I don't know what possessed those people to put that unsightly addition on that pretty place!"  And there are the spring flowers, farms with rolling hills, a cafe for coffee and a mid-morning snack, a lunch plan, and ice cream on the way home.  "We'll eat our way through the day," she says.

(My mother waits under a big maple while I retrieve our lunch from the car)

With caring for my father until last year, my mother had not been to Merck Forest in a long time and had been fairly certain, since breaking her hip, that she would never go there again. 

I stopped in the Visitor Center when we arrived and was told to park by the sugar house.  Once out of the car, my mother was determined to walk the Old Town Road past a farm field to where the forest begins.  She only stopped once to rest on the gradual uphill.  We admired the view west to the southern Adirondacks and then continued on.

Sometimes she held onto my arm going over the stony sections, but most of the time the tracks made by farm vehicles were flat enough for her to feel stable on her own. "I want to go into the woods," she said, continuing to where the forest meets the farm.  We soaked up the damp earthy aromas and admired the lush green of the woods.

(Lunch with a view, the sun, a breeze, and an appetite)

Walking back along the road to the farm, we passed a field of sheep and lambs.  At first, we couldn't see the lambs because the tall grass made them invisible, but we could hear their urgent bleats.  Their mothers called to them in response.  Little black lambs bounded over the grass, joining their mothers.  We stood a long time, listening, and watching for the lambs to reappear.

(We could see the sheep better from a distance than we could up close)

After a picnic lunch, my mother was ready to explore the barns.  Her artist's eye is drawn to barns.  Sometimes her pastel paintings deviate from farm scenes to the ocean or woods and lakes, but farm scenes are her favorite.

She was taken with the chicken shed and the road leading to it.  I was not impressed with this as a subject for a picture.  Regardless, she instructed me to move this way or that to photograph the shed from a variety of angles.

(Beautiful chickens and a rooster know what free range is all about)

After we had studied all of the outbuildings, I asked, "do you want to walk a little way on the Stone Lot Road?"   "Sure," she said.  She is highly motivated and game for anything when she is determined.  We headed up this less traveled, farm road.

In the distance, far from the barns, we could see Merck's two large work horses. Standing head to hip, their long thick brown tails switched one another's chestnut back.

(The shed and road that first attracted my mother's eye)

We discussed whether we should make a circle back down to the barns and the car, or return on the road we had just walked.  Not wanting to miss a thing, my mother chose the loop.  She turned to me in surprise, and said, "And nothing hurts!"  What a tonic this outing was for her.

Every few feet, she stopped to study the view. She is understandably very fussy about the subjects of her pictures.  I take a lot of photographs whenever I see something that may appeal to her and then print them, but the size of her reject pile is very large.  I always tell her that she can crop the photos or change the road, or put in different fences or mountains.  However, once a picture has been rejected, it rarely resurfaces.

(Studying the scene as a possible painting subject)

We came around the side of the field. Walking with an artist is a wonderful way to observe.  At each turn of the road, the view changed just enough that I had to go in the garden to get the right angle for a photo, or over there by the tree, or just to the edge of the road, or allow her to step aside when she instructed me to "stand right here where I am."   I think the picture below has possibilities for a painting, but what do I know?

(The big barn and curving road look pretty nice to me)

On the drive home after our adventure, we admired the same houses and scenery we had seen in the morning, now from the opposite direction.  And we remembered.  We reminisced about past times at Merck Forest and thought about other drives through this rolling rural countryside.  But hunger set in again and we knew just where to fortify ourselves.  The Ice Cream Man in Greenwich serves generous portions of delicious homemade ice cream.  "Today was an upper," my mother said.


Here are a few of my mother's pastel paintings that you might enjoy seeing.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Eight days in Arizona

(Virginia and Bill at Red Rock State Park, Sedona, Arizona)

Over the winter I researched southwest U.S. options for our 2019 trip, because I hoped to visit Native American cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and red rock country. I forwarded my proposed itinerary to Bill.  I knew he would approve.  After all, he had been a cultural anthropology major in college.

In April, we flew to Phoenix, rented a car, and drove north.  We began with Montezuma's Castle National Monument, a partially-restored cliff dwelling in the Verde Valley.  Between 600 and 1000 years ago, the dwelling was 5 stories high and housed a community of 150-200 Sinagua people. Below the cliff, the Beaver River offered water and a flood plain for farming.

Near the Visitor Center, a man played an Indian flute. The serene music floated through the site on this beautiful 70-degree sunny day.

(Montezuma's Castle)

From the castle, we drove to nearby Montezuma's Well.  This amazing pond comes from an underground flow of water to a spring here which fills the pond with 1.5 million gallons of water each day.  From the pond, the water briefly goes back underground and comes out into Beaver Creek where it added to the life-blood of the Native American communities.

Because the pond is isolated between the influx and outflow of water, it is home to five species of aquatic life that exist nowhere else in the world.  I thought this small area of water, caught in time, was fascinating as well as beautiful.  Having visited the castle and the well, we became very aware of Arizona's historic and ongoing need to be water-thrifty.

(Montezuma's Well)

We had had an eventful day so Bill chose to relax at our lodging, where he researched dining options on his phone.  It was too early for me to settle in, so I picked one of many appealing hikes for a late-afternoon activity.

Earlier, I had run into a couple of people who recommended hiking the Chapel Trail to Chicken Point, set farther into Sedona's iconic red rock terrain.  According to the couple, teenagers would drive jeeps up to the point from a road on the far side, and dare each other on the rock ledge, playing chicken.  They did not tell me if anyone had been killed doing this and I didn't ask....

(The Chapel Trail leads into the red rock terrain)

Western trails are such a treat for those of us who come from the Northeast.  This root-free hazard-free trail of red sand made it possible for me to keep my eyes on the view that changed with every turn. Eventually, I could see a rock shelf above me and hear voices. I followed the trail around the biggest rocks and scrambled up a few smaller boulders.

By the time I arrived at Chicken Point, I had the place to myself.  An open panorama of rocks and cliffs going far in both directions greeted me.  Sedona is famous as a film location for mid-twentieth century western movies.  I could imagine a lone film cowboy on his horse here at Chicken Point scanning the wide horizon.

(The rounded red rock of Chicken Point)

Our next adventure in what I began to call "our study of Native American agrarian culture" was Tuzigoot National Monument, the largest and best-preserved pueblo ruin of the Sinagua. On a hilltop overlooking the Verde Valley, this structure was once three stories high.

(Tuzigoot is on a high hill overlooking the Verde Valley)

Besides the Verde River not far away, this agrarian community had a marsh.  I looked into the distance, seeing nothing, and thought the marsh must already be dry even in April.  Still, we walked the trail to an overlook, reading the signs and admiring the wildflowers. One of the descriptive plaques talked about birds, otters, herons, and other water animals that lived in the marsh. I was skeptical. Herons, otters, really?? At that moment, a heron flew over my head!  With renewed effort, we were able to distinguish water from the field.  Even this small water body had provided the Sinagua with a more varied and healthy diet.

(Tuzigoot National Monument)

Thanks to tour books I had perused over the winter, I expected that the town of Jerome would be a fun place to visit and a perfect lunch location after our morning at Tuzigoot.  Jerome, once a copper mining village, and now in the process of renovation as an artist community, has a bohemian character.

(Jerome is built on a steep hill)

We walked many streets that rose steeply up the hillside and found the Flatiron, a tour-book suggested lunch spot.  Just four tables and a short counter alongside the kitchen filled the room.  A few people seemed to know one another and conversation covered events around town, current creative projects, and personal stories about friends and family.  In such a small place, privacy was impossible so I enjoyed overhearing the others' chats...and the food was good too!

(The old western town of Jerome)

I was excited about our final Native American location, the Palatki Heritage Site.  Reservations were required, so I had called the previous day.  During miles of driving through inhospitable terrain, we were surprised that motorhome campsites were filled on these desolate dirt roads.  In contrast, when we came upon Palatki, beautiful red rocks and lush green foliage were a welcome relief.

As part of a small group, we were directed up red rock stairways to the largely unimproved cliff dwelling where a docent met us.  This dwelling had had 9 rooms and housed about 40 people. To our amazement, we learned that the entire extended community here eventually grew to 8000 or 10,000 people!

The possibility that the community outgrew this location may be one reason why it left the area. When the docent showed us the small size of the foods that grew here, we knew that such a large community would need a lot of good farmland.

(Palatki's cliff dwelling)

From the cliff dwelling, we walked back down and up to a different cliff area where a docent showed us a grotto and petroglyphs. The oldest human marks here are lines made about 10,000 years ago. Other drawings are about 1000 years old.

The docent pointed out diamond markings that represented a snake.  Drawings blackened by fire are thought to be the creation story.  The docent admitted that experts do a lot of guesswork when they try to identify the drawings' meanings.

(Blackened drawings are possibly the creation story)

In the early 1920s, a homesteader came to this property, built a house and planted an orchard.   Even today, some of the trees still produce apples, pears, apricots, and quince.  Small streams and the sudden heavy thunderstorms brought water to the communities, but enough for fruit trees to grow for 100 years?  The docent said, "This summer I want to taste a quince."

(Petroglyphs at Palatki)

Before we left Sedona for our next lodging in Oak Creek Canyon, we had one more place to visit, Red Rock State Park.  When we drove to the park's entrance station, the attendant told us, “This is a hiking park, not a driving park.”  Perfect!

Bill had mapped out a 4-mile perimeter route that covered most of the park. Like so many trails, these were red sandy dirt with few rocks and no roots to trip over. Switchbacks and occasional stone steps made the hiking easy. Alongside of the trails, I saw numerous wildflowers in the morning sun, as well as a great variety of evergreens and desert plants.

(Northeasterners like me crave smooth trails like this one at Red Rock State Park)

We reached a summit called the Eagle's Nest where we could see now-familiar mountains and rock formations in the distance. A side trail led us to the House of Apache Fires, built in the 1940s by a TWA airlines executive and his wife. Even though the house was fenced off, we could see enough to imagine how the owners would have entertained celebrities and wealthy friends on this stunning promontory with its patio barbecue and terraces.  Another trail took us to the green grasses and trees bordering the creek and to a bridge back to the parking lot.

(Red Rock State Park, Sedona)

I was thrilled with our little place in Oak Creek canyon, with its tiny balcony looking down on the creek and views of surrounding canyon walls.  When I asked the owner about hiking the West Fork of Oak Creek Trail, he emphasized a few times that we would not find parking at the trailhead unless we went very early.  "What do you mean by early?" I asked. "8:00?"  "8:00 at the latest," he said. The next morning, we were out of the house by 7:15 and on the trail at 7:25.  We had no problem finding parking.

(Stunning views in Oak Creek Canyon)

The 3.3 mile trail with its 13 stream crossings would take us to a canyon pool, the end of the maintained trail. When we began, the sun had not yet risen over the top of the canyon walls.  After a while, it filtered down to the creek, lighting up the rock and sparkling on the water.

Every bend in the trail offered a new view.  White sandy limestone beaches edged the creek's curves and wildflowers grew in the woods. A small white butterfly with orange on the edges of its wings fluttered as it settled on a flower.

When the trail became more rugged, we knew we must be near the pool. Towering red rock encircled the small water body. I took my boots off and sat on a rock with my feet in the water.  I wondered how long ago this water had had ice in it -- my ankles ached with cold!

(Fascinating cliff formations in Oak Creek Canyon)

The next day we were up and out early again, heading to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Some years ago, we had visited the North Rim. We had been satisfied with our Grand Canyon experience. The North Rim was gorgeous. Still, with the South Rim only an hour and a half drive away, we figured we should check it out.

(The Grand Canyon near and far)

We were struck by the magnificence of the canyon, as far as the eye could see. We walked to the next overlook and then alternated between walking and taking the shuttle. The canyon from the south rim was so vast that the view varied little from point to point.

(A portion of the Colorado River winds through the canyon)

We walked a short section of the famous Bright Angel trail that would eventually lead to the canyon floor. The trail begins with numerous switchbacks as it descends the steep terrain.

Back on the rim, we could see the Colorado River and its rapids far below and deep in the rocks.  The Colorado River is barely visible from the North Rim, so I had looked forward to seeing it here. Visiting both rims gave us a greater sense of the Grand Canyon's magnificence.

(Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail)

On our last day, we did not have to get up and out early.  It was nice to turn on our gas faux woodstove and move slowly into the day.

By mid-morning, I decided to hike the Harding Springs trail that would go up the side of the canyon to the top of the rock. The short trail had the usual switchbacks, a steady but not awfully strenuous uphill, and views along the way. Weather was cool “sweater” weather, perfect for hiking.

In only 30 minutes, I reached a summit meadow.  I glanced around hoping to see elk or deer, but I was alone.  I continued to a rocky overlook where I admired Oak Creek Canyon views both north and south.  I shouted across the valley, hoping for an echo, but my voice did not come back to me. I was thrilled to fit this hike in on our final day.

(Indian Garden in Sedona)

When I returned to our lodging, Bill had decided that we would take a drive back through Sedona and eat at the Indian Garden Market and Cafe where we had stopped a few days earlier.  Indian Garden is surrounded by mountains and has a backyard patio under the trees. What an oasis!

Back at our lodging as evening fell, brilliant stars filled the sky above the creek.  Then the 2/3 moon came up over the mountain top and outshone the stars.

In the morning, we would be out early to begin our drive back to Phoenix airport and home.