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October 7, 2019 / annakpf11

The Pyrenees

“…I find a rock with sun on it, and a stream where the water runs gentle, and the trees which one by one, give me company. And so I must stay for a long time, until I have grown from the rock, and the stream is running through me, and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree…My help is in the mountain, that I take away with me.”

—Nancy Wood, American poet (1936-2013)

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The untamed beauty of the Pyrenees takes us by surprise. More lush and rugged than the tidy Alps, the green pyrenean valleys and mountainsides are backdropped by fantastical jagged peaks and replete with hiking trails, waterfalls, lakes, thermal springs, and historic pilgrimage sites.

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We pass through Lourdes—a remarkable intersection of religiosity and capitalism—and carry on to the Hautes Pyrénées, where we have rented a cottage for four nights.

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As we near our destination, Dave casts a worried glance upward. “I hope our place isn’t way up there,” he says, pointing to a spot on the mountainside at least a thousand feet above the valley floor. But he suspects that it is.

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We start up the mountain, pausing to get our bearings at a tiny café in the sleepy hamlet of Saint-Savin. (Later we will wonder if the café only opens according to the owner’s whim, for it will be closed every time we drive past.)

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We steady our nerves with juice and Perrier and then continue up a single-lane track with plenty of stomach-clenching features such as gravel-filled potholes, blind corners and steep drop-offs. Eventually we come to an unmarked fork in the road, and with no obvious place to turn around if we choose the wrong way, we phone our host. We are almost there, she assures us, and directs us into a narrow, rutted lane marked with a sign that says “Proprieté Privée“. (Nothing to indicate that it is an Airbnb. Does she expect her guests to be clairvoyant?)

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Never mind. Tucked into the steep hillside, our stone cottage is rustic and remote, but has everything we need, including a pile of regional topographical maps and spectacular views across the valley.

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Before arriving in the Pyrenees, we’d planned to drive some of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France bicycle race (such as Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque), but the drive from the valley floor to our AirBnB has proved hair-raising enough, and besides, we’d rather spend our days hiking.

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Our “warm-up walk” turns out to involve clambering up a stoney path reminiscent of the Inca Trail in Perú.

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Moss and wildflowers border the trail, and the weather feels almost summer-like.

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After two hours of climbing we are tired and thirsty, but luckily (as usually is the case in Europe) a reward is in store.

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Seated on a restaurant terrace perched beside an impossibly turquoise lake, we enjoy a cold drink beer and tarte aux fruits (Dave), and apple juice and Perrier (Anna).

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In the evening, we retreat to our cottage and light a fire in the wood stove. While Anna prepares fresh trout, mushrooms, spinach, shallots and tiny yellow potatoes, Dave plans our route for the following day.

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In the morning, we tackle a longer, but less steep, trek to the Cirque du Gavarnie, a massive wall of rock forming part of the border between France and Spain.

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Our trail leads us through wide grassy meadows past grazing cows and horses, across streams and through groves of evergreens and deciduous trees, leafy and green even at the end of September.

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We stop for lunch (salad for Anna, croque-monsieur for Dave) at a hotel restaurant overlooking the longest waterfall in Europe.

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Water cascades down the rock face all year, fed by the glaciers that cling to the high Cirque.

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We’ve come just in time, for in a matter of days, the hotel restaurant will close for the season.

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Our time in the Pyrenees too, is about to come to an end, but first, a day out in Pau, capital city of the region. We lunch in one of the many bustling cafés offering a view of saw-toothed Pyrenees, stroll the historic center, and visit the historic castle, birthplace of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre.

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Next we will head to Spain, for five days of Spanish classes (Anna) and five days of tapas and Rioja (Dave).

September 30, 2019 / annakpf11

The Valley of a 1000 Castles

…when the cities have killed off the poets, this peaceful region of France will be the refuge and the cradle of the poets to come.  —Henry Miller, writer (1891—1980)

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If Paris energizes the mind like a jolt from a double expresso, the French countryside revives body and spirit like a long cool drink on a hot day.

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We are heading south, to the Dordogne and Lot river regions, where we will spend five days exploring some of the most beautiful landscape and prettiest villages in France. But first, a side-trip to the hilltop village of Sancerre, at the eastern end of the Loire Valley, ground zero for one of our favorite white wines.

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The grape harvest is in full throttle, and we dodge crates of fruit to enter the la cave—the wine cellar—of a local winemaker.

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Anna translates a short lecture on terroir–some of the wines are from parcels of land with chalkier soil, others more flinty—and after sampling several (very small tastes; we have a long way yet to drive today), we purchase one of each and continue on our way.

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We travel at a relaxed pace, avoiding autoroutes whenever possible in favor of smaller country roads, allotting two days to reach our Airbnb in the Dordogne and including a detour to the tiny village of Gargilesse, a place Anna visited almost 30 years ago.

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Once the country retreat of writer Georges Sand, the town seems to have changed little over the years, still a hodge-podge of stone houses hidden in a remote valley, inhabited by artists and urban refugees and visited by relatively few tourists.

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We have come too late in the season for the annual harp festival, book and craft fairs, and the narrow cobbled streets are sleepy and peaceful, but we find an open café, and enjoy a delicious lunch of fresh gazpacho, mixed green salad and local smoked ham.

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Continuing south past Limoges, we enter the Dordogne river valley, whose limestone caves and gentle wooded hills have been inhabited by humans for at least 400,000 years.

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We pause to get our bearings in Sarlat-la-Canéda, an impressively intact medieval city located not far from our Airbnb.

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Definitely on the tourist trail—and rightly so—Sarlat was developed in the 800’s around a large Benedictine abbey and remained a prosperous town until the 1700’s, when it  was almost forgotten for nearly 150 years, thus preserving it from modernization.

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In the 1960’s, the crumbling historic buildings were restored by André Malraux, writer, resistance fighter and France’s Minister of Culture at the time.

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Street after street winds away from the central square, each corner revealing a new page of an ancient book.

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Narrow passageways and stairways beckon us on and on, until thirst impels us to stop for a “reward” (as Dave calls it): Perrier for Anna, espresso for Dave.

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Then it’s time to return to our car and set out to find our Airbnb. Dave has plugged directions into his iPhone, and in due course we proceed up a chestnut-lined drive to a small collection of stone houses, several of which are obviously rental cottages. We follow the signs to acceuil and knock on the door. From inside, we hear the loud whirring of an electric sander. Nobody answers the door, and so we try phoning. Just as I begin explaining to the man on the other end of the line (who does not speak English) that we think we are at his house but perhaps we are mistaken, the noise stops and a tall man appears in the doorway, covered from head to toe in white dust. It turns out that our GPS directions have sent us to the wrong Airbnb, but the dust-covered man knows our host, and the place we seek is only two minutes further down the road. We depart with many apologies and revised directions.

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Just down the road, as promised, an enchanting stone cottage awaits. Rustic on the outside, modern on the inside, it proves an excellent base for exploring the area.

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With its temperate climate, forested landscape, and abundance of ancient stone dwellings, churches and castles, it’s easy to see why the region is beloved by French and foreign tourists alike.

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Fortified castles dot strategic hilltops, evidence of the region’s feudal and embattled past.

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Control of what is now southwestern France see-sawed between England and France for over 100 years during the latter part of the Middle Ages, with the ruling houses of each country fighting incessant battles over territory.

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Towns regularly changed hands, forcing local inhabitants to swap allegiances according to the most recent victor.

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Finally, in 1451, motivated by Joan of Arc, French forces ousted the English for good. (Until the 1960’s, when tourism brought them back.)

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All roads seem to lead to an Office of Tourism, but in late September we have many picturesque villages largely to ourselves.

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The pilgrimage town of Rocamadour, clinging to a steep cliff face, is one of the more well-known tourist sites, but Dave and I are much more taken with the villages of Domme, Saint-Cirq-la-Popie, and the tiny hamlet of Saint-Martin-de-Vers.

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Dave starts each day with fresh bread and pastries from a local boulangerie, and with our Airbnb’s fast internet connection, is easily able to read the New York Times online.

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The Dordogne is renouned for its gastronomie, and we enjoy some fine meals out during our week here, but our favorite meals are cooked in our well-equipped Airbnb kitchen with ingredients purchased at the local farmer’s market.

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The weather starts out much warmer than usual for this time of year, with only hints of fall color in the woods, but then the leaves seem to change before our eyes, and one day we even enjoy a long walk in the rain.

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When the time comes to depart, is is with reluctance that we pack up and bid our host farewell. Perhaps we’ll be back one day, but now we are headed to the Pyrénées.

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September 22, 2019 / annakpf11

Dispatch from Paris, September 2019

“The Earth is Art, the photographer is only a witness.”

― Yann Arthus-Bertrand, from “Earth from Above”

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As traffic on the péripherique slows to a stop, our Uber driver explains that public transport workers are on strike today, thus more cars on the road and heavier traffic than usual. The minor inconvenience seems a fitting welcome to France, where strikes and protests are a fact of daily life. (Note: The only yellow vests we will see in Paris are worn for safety reasons, not political protest.)

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One of our favorite haunts in Paris is the Place de Vosges, and it is our first stop after checking into our hotel.

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We stroll around the 17th century square to our favorite café, Ma Bourgogne, and once we are seated, at an outdoor table overlooking the park, we feel we’ve truly crossed the finish line of our transatlantic journey.

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We order two glasses of Sancerre and share an exquisitely fresh salad of cucumber, tomato, chives and thin French green beans, followed by steak tartare and frites for Dave and steamed mussels for Anna. We linger over our meal, exchanging pleasantries with our waiter, and when we depart, we assure him that we will return in the morning for petit déjeuner.

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In fact, we will start every day by walking to the same café, shaking hands with the same waiter, and enjoying the same breakfast of croissant, tartine avec confiture, coffee and hot milk for Dave; eggs à plat (sunny side up) and Ceylon tea for Anna.

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Unseasonably warm weather brings Parisians outdoors like bees to honey, and the city literally buzzes with life. Cafés and sidewalks overflow, and everyone is smiling.

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We wander down to the Seine and join a throng of picnickers, cyclists and pedestrians on the riverbank.

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“This place is like a giant playground,” marvels Dave. Indeed. Created in 2016 by the mayor of Paris when she banned automobiles from the quayside roadway, this two mile long promenade has become a busy zone of pop-up bars, restaurants, picnic and play areas for all ages at all hours.

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A friend of Anna’s lives nearby, and we meet her for lunch at “Pianovins”, a intimate restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. Owner and chef are passionate about offering creative seasonal dishes, and our meal is a gastronomic treat, just right for our first lunch in Paris. Highly recommended.

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And then it is time for a pilgrimmage to Notre Dame. We stand in shocked awe and gaze across the river at the historic edifice shrouded in scaffolding and protective wrap. A wooden platform has been built above the burned section, and heavy wooden braces now reinforce the great flying buttresses.

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Standing next to us, a grey-haired man in suit and tie slaps the railing and sighs. “C’est un catastrophe,” he mutters. He turns to me, ascertains that I understand French, explains that he is an architect, and then launches into a detailed—and passionate—report about how the limestone structure is still “in peril”, due to heat from the fire and water used to douse the flames. He leans closer, lowering his voice, and insists that the forest of 850 year old oak beams that supported the roof would have been extremely fire-resistant, and should not have burned so quickly. He is convinced that the fire was accelerated, and that facts are being hidden from the public. I turn the conversation to plans to rebuild the cathedral, but he would rather theorize about possible conspiracies, and so with a dispirited shrug he shakes my hand and turns away.

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The weather continues warm and dry. We log 20,000 steps a day traversing the busy avenues, interspersed with frequent stops for Perrier and refreshing dips into the green spaces of the Tuilleries and the Jardin de Luxembourg.

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A photography exhibit at the newly opened Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation inspires us to attempt to take photographs that capture what Cartier-Bresson called the “instant décisif”—the decisive instant—ephemeral and spontaneous, where an image represents the essence of a single moment in time.

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We also visit the Picasso Museum, housed in one of the largest and most extravagant Parisian mansions of the 17th century, finally open again after being closed for 5 years of restoration. From the stone vaulted cellars to the attic galleries with original oak beams exposed, we admire the surroundings as much as the exhibits.

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Neither Dave nor I are huge fans of Picasso, but it is interesting to see how his cubist style developed, reflecting changing eras and the influence of other artists.

A quick half hour metro ride takes us to the Grand Arche of the Defense and an unforgettable photography exhibit by photojournalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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Many of his striking photos were made while floating above the earth in a hot air balloon, others in a studio, and all have something to say about the human spirit, and about the beauty—and fragility—of our planet.

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Before we depart Paris for points south, we make a pilgrimage to Roland Garros, site of the French Open tennis tournament, where Dave pays homage to a particular patch of hallowed ground.

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May 31, 2019 / annakpf11

Spanish Spoken Here

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

―20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Mexico is bigger than I thought. I have signed up for a week of Spanish language and culture immersion without realizing that it will take place in the southernmost state of Chiapas, and that a three-stage journey (a longish flight to Mexico City, then another to the tongue-twisting town of Tuxtla Guitierrez, followed by an hour’s drive into the highlands) will be required to get from my home near San Francisco to my destination of San Cristobal de las Casas.

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During what turns out to be a two-day journey, I learn from first-hand experience how to say “my flight is delayed” (mi vuelo está demorado) and “my flight is canceled” (mi vuelo es cancelado).

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I don’t mind the delays—all part of the aventura—and eventually I arrive and meet up with the other students (whose flights were also demorado). And so a week of discovery begins.

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Our AirBnB house is rustic but artfully furnished and relatively spacious. The wifi connection is rubbish, but my bedroom window looks out onto a view of garden and mountains, and flowering jasmine perfumes the air.

The first evening, the valley echoes with the sounds of mariachi music, barking dogs, and exploding firecrackers. Things finally quiet down around 10 PM, but at 6:30 AM the next morning the neighbors start shooting off bottle rockets. Is today a holiday, I wonder, or is every day a fiesta?

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One of the oldest colonial towns in Mexico, San Cristobal was founded by a Spanish conquistador in 1528, but known long before to local Tzotzil and Tzeltal tribes as “the place in the clouds.”

Home to a high proportion of indigenous peoples descended from ancient Mayans, everyday life is rooted in ancestral traditions of craft and folk art.

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Our teachers, Margarita and Pablo, fill our time with Spanish lessons and sightseeing excursions in San Cristobal and the surrounding countryside.

One of the most interesting places we visit is a workshop and publishing collective called Taller Leñateros, where Mayan artists transform recycled paper and local plants into books, posters, prints, notebooks, and cards. The handmade paper products are embedded with flowers, colored with natural dyes, and printed with images inspired by traditional folk art.

Our van driver, Juan, a jolly young man from Tuxtla Gutierrez, ferries us to some of the farthest corners of the state of Chiapas. At first, his rapid-fire, heavily accented Spanish is incomprehensible (at least to me), but by the end of the week I manage to unscramble a tiny fraction of meaning.

One memorable day, he brings us to the remote, indigenous village of Chamula, and we tiptoe behind him into the San Juan Bautista temple. No photographs are allowed inside, and the scene is other-worldly.

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We huddle together, and when our eyes to adjust to the dim light we find ourselves in a vast interior devoid of furniture, lit only by chinks of daylight filtered through high, narrow windows and thousands of flickering candles. A smokey haze fills the cavernous space, and pine boughs cover the stone floor. Groups of congregants sit or kneel on the ground, surrounded by burning candles. A chicken, soon to be sacrificed, flaps its wings against the bars of its willow cage. Most of the women are dressed in traditional fuzzy skirts of black sheepskin, giving then a raven-like appearance. They bow their heads and chant prayers to Mayan deities and the Christian god alike.

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Another day, we visit a weaving studio in the hilltop village of Zinacantán. Here, women use their bodies as human looms, kneeling on the floor and wearing thick leather belts to tension the threads. Their Mayan-inspired textiles represent countless hours of work, all handmade—hecho a mano—with skill and pride.

Every day brings new experiences (and new vocabulary). We paddle a raft to the middle of a volcanic lake; spot alligators and spider monkeys from a speedboat in the Cañón de Sumidero; and sample molé and mezcal in local restaurants.

Traveling with a group can feel like herding cats (in fact, since everyone tends to talk at once, it’s more like herding bluejays), and the mental effort of trying to speak and understand as much Spanish as possible at all times—even amongst ourselves—sometimes makes me feel as if my head might explode. But in a good way.

Why bother to learn Spanish? For one thing, 40% of California’s population is hispanic, so it seems useful—not to mention neighborly—to have a least a working knowledge of a language that forms part of the culture where I live. If that weren’t reason enough, plenty of research attests that learning a foreign language heightens creativity and improves analytical and problem solving skills. It’s fun, too. Every time I manage to get my meaning across in Spanish—often by cobbling together a work-around phrase—I feel the satisfaction of solving a puzzle, or hitting a good tennis shot. So why not?

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May 15, 2019 / annakpf11

Splendor in the Valley

“We are all one river. Each particular lifetime is like an individual droplet in a waterfall; we think that’s all we are, until we reach the bottom and rejoin the river.”

A Zen master who visited Yosemite valley and beheld the waterfalls

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Yosemite Falls explodes into the valley like a non-stop firehose, plummeting a total of 2,425 feet to a rocky maw at its base.

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Up close, in the stormy micro-climate created by the falls, clouds of spray drench our skin, and wind and water roar louder than we can shout.

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After last winter’s heavy snows, the waterfalls are more plentiful than ever. And as ever, we are here to witness what springtime does to Yosemite.

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We are here to be with family, to share the thrill of high Sierra snowmelt pouring into the steep-sided valley, to marvel at the delicate beauty of dogwood trees in bloom.

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Dave has procured a choice campsite in Upper Pines, cleverly circumventing the notoriously difficult, nail-bitingly uncertain booking system in favor of an automated service (www.campnab.com) that scans for cancelled reservations in state and national parks all over the US and Canada. When a suitable spot opens up, aspiring campers are notified via SMS.

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We retreat here in the late afternoon. Dave sits outside under Suzy’s awning and reads, Anna practices yoga, and we both watch the goings-on in our campground neighborhood.

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A happy little gang of kids continually cruises past on their bikes, a young mum pushes a baby in a pram, and tired-looking hikers plod back to their campsites.

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In the surrounding forest, flowering Dogwood trees glow with points of light.

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At dinnertime, we host a barbecue at our campsite. Wood fire smoke, and the scent of roasting meat permeate the air. The bears must be salivating.

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Each day the weather is fine, the surroundings sublime. One morning we hike to Vernal Falls, but getting around by bike is our preferred mode of transport.

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Dirt tracks and paved trails thread alongside the roads and amongst the trees, leading past iconic views.

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It’s an easy ride from our campground to the Ahwahnee (a.k.a. Majestic) Hotel, our source for the New York Times in the morning, a cold drink from the terrace bar, a meal in the dining room, or perhaps a nap in the sun on an outdoor sofa overlooking the meadow.

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The sound of rushing water is ever-present. It lulls us to sleep at night and greets us every morning. And everywhere we go, water sluices down granite walls and tumbles through rocky gullies, each drop on a journey from frozen snowflake to Merced River.

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Once merged with the Merced, the icy snowmelt flows out of the valley and then joins with other tributaries before blending into the San Joaquin River, meandering into San Francisco Bay, and eventually following the tide to the sea.

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After three carefree days, we too head out of the valley and down the hill for home.

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But we’ll be back in August. We’ve already booked our campsite. Through http://www.campnab.com, of course.

 

November 25, 2018 / annakpf11

When the Tide Calls Your Name

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“. . . Making the day expand in your heart and return, you play a limited part in whatever life is, practicing for that great gift when enlightenment comes, that long instant when the tide calls your name.”

—Excerpted from Waiting by the Sea, by William Stafford (1914—1993)

In Port Angeles, Washington, we board a ferry bound for Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Suzy travels in the hold with other vehicles, packed together like sardines, while we join our fellow passengers upstairs in the spacious observation deck. A garbled announcement over the loudspeaker, a gentle, gliding momentum, and the ship is underway. For the next hour and a half, the only decision we need to make is whether to read a book or look out the window. The water slides by, and a sense of relaxation washes over us, almost as if a magic carpet were transporting us across the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.

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Victoria, BC must be among the most idyllic cities on the planet. Clean and prosperous, with an enlightened mixture of traditional and modern architecture offering vistas across blue water to the distant peaks of the Olympic Mountain range, the city feels accessible, the quality of life high. We stroll along the quayside, explore neighborhoods and marvel at the miles of pristine public parks and shoreline.

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The warm, sunny weather might be exerting a positive influence on our opinion, but Victoria seems like a fabulous place to live. At lunchtime we park on the waterfront, open Suzy’s sliding door, and picnic with a view across the harbor.

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A parade of dog-walkers and pedestrians stroll past, and a man and a woman about our age pause as they come abreast of Suzy. They smile at us, and we smile back. And so begins an animated discussion about camper van models and the relative merits of life in Victoria. “We hope you move here,” they exclaim as we part. Somehow I doubt this will be possible (due to a minor issue called immigration law, if nothing else), but one can always dream.

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As much as we are captivated by the fantasy of living in Victoria, the city does not appeal as a place to camp, and so we head north in search of a more rural locale. Along the way, we detour to Butchart Gardens, a botanical masterpiece and national historic site that Anna has been told is a “must see.” Not surprisingly, Dave suggests that instead of paying two entrance fees, he should stay behind and take a nap.

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Created in the early 1900’s on the site of a former quarry and cement works, the expansive landscaped gardens now attract busloads of tourists every day. As I navigate the lattice of interconnected pathways, I decide that the park would be even lovelier in early morning or late evening, when fewer people swarmed its lush acreage.

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A distressing number of visitors stop squarely in the middle of walkways, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the path for everyone else. Never mind. Veni, vidi, vici.

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Back at Suzy, energized after his nap, Dave has scoured the AirBnB website and booked us a mini-respite from camping. A cottage about an hour’s drive north, in a wooded neighborhood near Shawnigan Lake.

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For two nights, Suzy sits in the driveway, temporarily abandoned while we luxuriate in a full size bed, a fast, reliable wifi connection, a washer/dryer, and ample floor space for yoga. The first evening, we roast salmon and vegetables in the well-equipped kitchen; the next, we treat ourselves to a Japanese meal in the village of Mill Bay.

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The autumnal equinox approaches, and instinct now impels us to fly south. Reluctant to part from the watery world of the Pacific Northwest, we plan our journey to include as many ferry rides as possible, beginning with a short, early morning hop across Saanich Inlet, followed by a three-hour passage threading through islands in the Puget Sound.

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Each time our ferry slips away from the dock, we surrender our fate to captain and crew, and wellbeing pervades our spirits. Nothing to do, except be.

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And so we depart Canada. Long lines at border control have Dave fuming at the inefficiency of the system, but eventually we land in Anacortes, a waterfront town where we stock up on groceries and gas. Our next stop is Deception Pass, one of the most photographed sites in Washington state, a deep, slender slice of water dividing Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. The channel is so narrow that it deceived early explorers into thinking it was a cul-de-sac, hence its name. Leaving Suzy safely parked in a layby, we set out on foot to get a good look.

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In an attempt to capture the drama of the precipitous gap, we risk vertigo (worst case, our lives) by stepping onto a narrow catwalk, venturing out to the middle of the span and aiming our cameras into the void. The bridge trembles under our feet as cars and trucks thunder past no further than an arm’s length away. It seems imperative not to think about falling. Photos do not do justice to the long, sheer drop, or the velocity of water sluicing underneath.

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Even driving across the bridge induces an uneasy feeling of vertigo. But it’s worth it to arrive at Deception Pass State Park, a place of extreme beauty where we have our pick of wooded campsites.

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Time to catch our breath and regroup. A late afternoon walk in the rainforest and along the shore, and then we prepare dinner of fresh scallops, sautéed cauliflower and basmati rice.

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The next day, we forsake the feathered ridgelines of Washington’s Cascade Mountains for the broad, fertile farmland of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

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South of Portland, we exit Highway 5 and head for Champoeg State Park, a heritage site, nature preserve and bluebird sanctuary offering three separate campgrounds and miles of walking and cycling trails. My kind of heaven.

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Campsites are assigned on a first-come basis, with self-service registration, and we hope that given the time of year, we will find a vacant spot. But we have arrived too late in the day. We cruise past every campsite and all are occupied, or have a “reserved” notice tacked to a numbered post.

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We are running out of daylight, and we are running out of options. Harvest Host doesn’t list any wineries in the area that offer overnight RV parking, and there are no other campgrounds within a reasonable distance. Simply pulling off the road to camp is illegal, not to mention unsafe. It’s time to improvise.

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Shadows lengthen as Dave guides Suzy down a bumpy lane leading to a winery where we hope we can persuade someone to let us park overnight. The tasting room door is open, but the cavernous barn is empty.  Our footsteps echo on the polished concrete floor.

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A door opens and closes, and a petite blonde woman wearing jeans, a Led Zepplin T-shirt and a plaid jacket steps into view. Dave explains that we’d like to taste some wine, and also that we need a place to park our rig overnight. She frowns. “I’ll have to ask the manager. Would you like to try some wine while you wait?” She uncorks a bottle of Pinot Gris and pours us each a taste.

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When the manager appears, a dark-haired, kind-eyed woman, she chats us up, presumably assessing whether or not we can be trusted, and after a time, gives us the nod, inviting us to stay. She also swears us to secrecy. While she is happy to do us this favor, she has no wish to set a precedent. We solemnly agree.

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While we’ve been talking, we’ve been tasting—Pinot Gris, Syrah, Mourvedre, Pinot Noir—and out of sincere appreciation for both the wine and the place to camp, we buy a mixed case.

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Dave parks Suzy on a level spot overlooking the vineyard. We unfurl our awning, pour a glass of Pinot and enjoy the sunset, all the while blessing our hosts for their kindness. We are alone, but we feel peaceful and safe in a way that we wouldn’t if we were trespassing in a random field, or stopped for the night on a lonely country lane.

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At first light the next morning, we drive south to Eugene, then head southeast. We are following the path of the Willamette River toward a region we’ve always been curious to visit, the northeastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.

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Our route travels through a rich riparian landscape of evergreen and deciduous trees, as well as mill towns whose economies have suffered from a decline in the timber industry. We wonder what new industries could sustain both the population and the environment.

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In the late afternoon, our daily quest for a campground ends at Casey’s Riverside RV Park, a peaceful place where a river flows by and a rainforest cloaks the surrounding hills. There’s not much space between campsites, but occupancy is low, and we find a spot with no immediate neighbors.

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Cradled by tall trees and the rustle of water, we might be tempted to stay more than one night, except we’ve reached a tipping point, the moment when instead of feeling invigorated by the discovery of new places, we’ve begun to long for the particular place we call home.

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And so we make haste, wheels churning over pavement, landscape blurring past, hapless insects splattering our windscreen. Forested hills give way to a semi-arid landscape, and in Klamath Falls, a name that evokes evergreen trees and gushing waterfalls, we are disappointed to find a forsaken collection of nondescript dwellings on a barren expanse of ground.

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We press on, through miles of monotonous landscape, eventually crossing the California border into the Modoc National Forest, an unexpectedly drab expanse of dun-colored grassland dotted with sagebrush and stunted pines.

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Dave is at the wheel, and Anna reads aloud from “The Big One,” a New Yorker article about the catastrophic potential of the Cascadia subduction zone, a line of tectonic tension capable of producing an earthquake and tsunami big enough to wipe out everything west of Highway 5 from Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino. A quiescent seismic monster, the Cascadia subduction zone only wakes up every 300 years or so—give or take a hundred—and as far as scientists can tell, it is overdue for another upheaval.

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It is sobering to be reminded how profoundly vulnerable we are to disaster. But once we accept the underlying uncertainty of everything we hold dear, we turn our attention to appreciating the small joys of daily life, not to mention the larger miracle that we are alive at all.

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We push on, driving through mostly uninhabited terrain until we come to Lake Almanour, a summer vacation and recreation area. A few of the RV parks are already closed for the season, and many do no accept short-term stays, but we manage to find a site for one night at a mom-and-pop campground that is about to shut down for winter.

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The next morning, loud scraping and banging noises startle us awake. We peer outside to see a workman stomping atop the roof of a nearby bathhouse, wielding an electric saw, ripping into the shingled surface and flinging debris to the ground. End-of-season repairs, it seems, are underway.

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Soon, we too are underway, ready for the long stretch of road ahead, and the deep satisfaction of returning to the blue bowl of bay and sky we call home.

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Postscript: Soon after our return, unprecedented wildfires scorched California, and for two weeks, our corner of the earth remained shrouded in a toxic, murky pall. The simple act of breathing could not be taken for granted.

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Rain finally arrived and the air cleared. Apocalypse averted, for now. Life goes on, even for those who’ve lost homes and loved ones, even as global warming gains speed and momentum. We do what we can, knowing that whatever small actions we take can multiply. We breathe in and out a thousand times every hour, and we no longer take anything for granted.

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November 5, 2018 / annakpf11

What We Need is Here

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“And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.”  Wendell Berry (1934— ), American farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, and environmental activist.

It is September. Schools are back in session, the weather has veered toward autumnal, and we expect to find plenty of available campsites on our journey to the Pacific Northwest. We have not made a single campground reservation, intentionally leaving our day-to-day travels unscripted, our fate as open as a wide blue sky.

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In keeping with our theme of nonchalant spontaneity, we begin our journey with a relaxed, mid-afternoon departure and a side trip to Cloverdale, where we stroll around a vintage car show before checking into Thousand Trails RV Campground. The prime campsites, located within stone-skipping distance of the Russian River, are all taken, but after navigating a labyrinth of dry, oak-pocked hillside (the touted 1,000 trails?) we manage to claim a reasonably level patch of ground for the night.

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Unseasonably warm weather (stifling, in fact), and road noise from a two-lane thoroughfare abutting our campsite inspire us to nudge Suzy into the shade, turn on the air conditioning, take a nap (Dave), and make kale and quinoa salad (Anna).

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By dinnertime, the outside temperature cools enough to enjoy an al fresco meal of lamb chops braised in bone broth with white beans and fresh thyme. At bedtime, we fall sleep with windows open to the spicy scent of bay leaves, and any stray breeze that might find its way in.

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The next morning we continue traveling north, exploring small towns along the way to Arcata, and the home of dear friend, artist and sister-outlaw (technically ex-sister-in-law), Anna.

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She shows us around her house and recently completed art studio, strategically placed to preserve an existing garden shed and two mature Kadota trees. In fig season, Anna assures us, the trees provide abundant quantities of sweet, green-skinned, pink-fleshed fruit.

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As Dave and I often do, we consider what it might be like to live in this part of the world. Seated around the dine-in kitchen table with Anna, we swap updates, share memories and imagine possible futures.

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A glass of Zinfandel, a frothy, blue-veined goat cheese, seeded crackers, fresh peach and mint salsa precede a simple dinner of homemade corn chowder accompanied by a salad of organic greens so fresh they might’ve been harvested an hour ago. For dessert, Anna has concocted an irresistible peach and nectarine crumble. Later, despite her offer of a bedroom, we are content to sleep in Suzy, parked at the curb outside. This is a camping trip, after all.

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Before departing Arcata, we make time for a marshland walk, a stroll around the main square, grocery shopping at the local cooperative market, and a cursory investigation of the local real estate scene. We gather impressions and file them away. We vow to return. Preferably during fig season.

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Late morning, we regain the road and drive to Patrick’s Point, a forested state park perched above a breath-taking stretch of rugged coastline.

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We’ve been here before and camped overnight, but today we simply enjoy a picnic lunch and a hike along the cliff trail.

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Turning inland, Redwood Highway 199 takes us on a spectacularly scenic and also rather hair-raising ride along the Smith River. The winding route alternates between a nail-biting ribbon of road clutching the steep side of a gorge above a rock-churning maw, and a tree-shaded country lane overlooking the stillness of green river pools.

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It is Monday, it is off-season, and we expect we’ll easily find a campsite for one night at Jedediah Smith State Park. “Sorry,” the ranger at the gatehouse informs us, “We’re full.” We drive on, our insouciance slightly dented, and a few miles later come upon a roadside clearing rather grandly named ‘Redwood Meadows RV Resort’. Plenty of vacancies. Less scenic than Jedediah Smith Park, and no footpath leading to the Stout Redwood Grove, but never mind. We secure a flat site and set off with Suzy to visit the ancient giants.

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In their presence, we speak in hushed and reverent tones. A soft cushion of mulch absorbs our footfalls. Some of these trees have been here for over a thousand years, quietly growing since Viking ships roamed northern seas. The oldest have names: El Viejo del Norte, Aragorn, Elwing, Fangorn.

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I bend backward, my gaze sweeping up wide girths and rough trunks, some rising more than 300 feet above the forest floor. It seems entirely possible that these trees possess soul, and that a shared field of consciousness envelops us all.

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Finger-numbing cold greets us the next morning. Happily, Suzy’s Alde hydronic heating system is reliable, quiet and efficient. After a quick breakfast of muesli and banana (Dave), hardboiled egg and apple (Anna), we get off to an early start, rejoin Highway 199 and cross the border into Oregon.

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Every road seems to run alongside a river, and every river flows swift and full, even as summer ends. Saffron and rust-tinted leaves brighten evergreen-clad hills, and in the valleys, apple trees line the roadside, their branches laden with fruit.

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At Grant’s Pass, we merge onto Highway 5, a four-lane, north-south conduit packed with big rig trucks, RV’s and passenger vehicles. We travel for 100 miles on this road, through hills and valleys, past fields and farms.

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Before we reach Eugene, clouds mass overhead, and rain pelts Suzy’s windshield, but the sun reappears by the time we reach the laid-back college town. Our first stop is an auto-supply store (Suzy’s digital dashboard began alerting us to a BlueDef fluid deficit about 200 miles ago), and our second is MacKenzie River Music, “one of the best vintage guitar shops on the planet”, attests Dave, at the same time promising that he isn’t going to buy anything; he’s merely popping in for a browse. Somehow, neither of us is surprised an hour later when he emerges with a sheepish grin and a new acoustic guitar. (For any guitarists reading this, it’s a Martin D41.)

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Eugene makes a good impression. We take note of the generous number of bookstores, brewpubs and organic markets, the absence of traffic jams, and the prevalence of architecturally interesting buildings, flower and vegetable gardens. Perhaps we’ll return for a month in summer, escaping the season of fog and wind that compelled Mark Twain to declare that the coldest winter he ever knew was summer in San Francisco. Meanwhile, it is time to find a place to camp for the night.

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Unwilling to repeat the previous day’s experience of being turned away for lack of an available campsite, we ring ahead to a county park eight miles north of town, pre-pay by credit card, and hope for the best.

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Located on a shallow bluff above the MacKenzie River, Armitage County Park turns out to be a tree-shaded refuge offering all we could hope for and more. Most of the park is designated for daytime use, and when we arrive, an hour or so before daylight fades, we practically have the leafy acreage to ourselves. We unstrap our bikes and pedal alongside the river, carefree as kids at play.

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The next morning we resume our northward trajectory, stopping along the way to visit another college town, Corvallis, home to Oregon State University. Rain mists quiet downtown streets as we cruise the central district. We park Suzy under a billboard featuring a (presumably) local poet, pull on raincoats and set off on foot to explore.

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At the Corvallis Book Bin, a cooperative emporium of used and new books, we spend an hour combing through the stacks, and each of us comes away with an armful of bargain literary finds. At the outdoor Farmer’s Market, we buy fresh-picked kale and wild chanterelle mushrooms, nicely rounding out our sausage and potato supper plan.

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Perhaps because its population ebbs and flows according to the academic year, Corvallis seems to teeter between downturn and upswing. Nevertheless, there’s something appealing about the scale and vibe of this place. Less liberal than Eugene, less hipster than Portland, and much smaller than both, Corvallis feels accessible, friendly. I wonder if liberals and conservatives manage to live side-by-side without conflict here, finding common ground in their shared humanity. I’d like to believe that they do.

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Where shall we stop tonight? Each day we solve this puzzle anew, some days more successfully than others. In the wine-growing region north of Corvallis, we try our luck with Harvest Host, a phone app that identifies which wineries allow self-contained camping vehicles to park overnight.

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A plum-lined lane leads to the family-owned Laurel Ridge Winery, and a cheerful young woman welcomes us into the tasting room. A handful of people, obviously locals, are gathered at the bar, sharing stories and sipping glasses of wine, and the atmosphere feels friendly, almost like a village pub.

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The smiling woman introduces herself as the manager and vintner’s daughter, and when we explain that we are members of Harvest Host, she instantly invites us to park our rig overnight. We order an antipasto plate and a sample flight of wine (encouraged, but not required), and after tasting several varietals, we buy two bottles to take away, a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Noir.

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A rogue cloud unleashes needle streaks of rain just as we climb back inside Suzy and slam the door. We stay warm and dry, but the storm sounds like a herd of panicked cattle are trampling the roof.

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Eventually, the stampede diminishes to a sporadic tapping. A rainbow appears outside our windscreen, arcing across the valley. And then all is silent. Sleeping in a vineyard, we decide, is an excellent solution to the daily riddle of where to spend the night.

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The next evening, we are turned away from three campgrounds (no vacancies) before we finally come to a stop at ‘Rest-A-While Campground—a misnomer if there ever was one—a slim strip of pavement separating Highway 101 from the Hood Canal. Rain spits at the windshield as we slot Suzy into a tightly packed row of bus-sized RV’s. On a positive note, compared to the mammoth rigs on either side of us, Suzy’s 24-foot chassis looks positively petite.

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First thing in the morning, we head north along the filigree coastline of the Olympic Peninsula, searching for a campground where we might actually want to “rest-a-while”. We are looking for a place with access to walking trails, away from busy roads, and that does not require wedging Suzy into the middle of an RV sandwich. Our quest involves investigating and rejecting (or being rejected by) a handful of campgrounds before we discover Flagler County Park, 1,451 acres of shoreline and forest on the tip of Marrowstone Island, across the water from Port Townsend.

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Here is a place, I think, where we can take time to enter the landscape, to move over the earth at a human pace, feet treading soil and sand, the natural world opening to meet us.

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Fingers-crossed, we approach the gate and are relieved when the ranger assures us there are plenty of campsites. He also confirms that a cougar has been sighted in the park. “If you walk in the woods, you might see her,” he cautions. “Just make a lot of noise and act big. Whatever you do, don’t run away.” He shrugs. “You’ll probably be fine.” Maybe so, but I resolve to stick to the beach and bluff trails; no need to venture into the dense curtain of forest that is the lady lion’s domain.

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We set up camp in a grove of trees near the beach. Birds swoop between tree branches like miniature trapeze artists.

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I follow a footpath through a lacy border of Alder to a long curve of shoreline. Driftwood makes a comfortable seat, and a cloak of autumn sunshine warms my shoulders. Peace seeps into every cell.

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The park occupies land used as a military base from 1899 until 1953, and a walk along the bluff trail reveals abandoned gun emplacements that once stood guard over the coast. Many of the disused structures are open to the public, but I do not pause to examine the artifacts of war.

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I collect sea-washed stones, and gaze at clouds across the sound. I forage for fat, ripe blackberries, and eat them straight from the bramble.

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I cross the open ground of a tawny field, woodland on one side, water on the other, and sense movement in the air overhead. A bald eagle, wingspan as broad as the tallest of men, glides past. I stop and stand where I am, solitary witness to the slow, weighted wing-beats, the bright, feathered head, the raptor beak. This is a gift. It is a blessing. The eagle disappears over a ridge of treetops, but I do not move until the sensory memory has reached into the soft, convoluted folds of my brain and left its mark.

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Time spent in nature is as nourishing to the spirit as food is to the body, and after two days in Flagler County Park we feel replenished, ready to reclaim the road to Canada.