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The Boundary Waters 2020

My family spent last week in the Boundary Waters. It was my seventh (!) trip, fifteen years after my first, and my family’s fifth trip together. The last time we went was in 2016, when we canoed and camped on Isabella Lake. This year, we returned to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we’d gone in 2015.

We drove up on Monday, stopping in Duluth to pick up sandwiches for lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. We used to plan our Boundary Waters drives around meals at the New Scenic Café on Old Highway 61, but with the pandemic, things are a little different. The New Scenic Café is closed, and we ordered our sandwiches ahead and picked them up from a table under a tent on Northern Waters’ deck. My bagel with smoked salmon and scallion cream cheese was scrumptious.

We reached Seagull Outfitters on Sea Gull Lake early in the evening. We were spending the night in the bunkhouse. At the outfitters, we heard there was a bear active on the western edge of the lake; four campsites on the adjacent Alpine Lake had been closed, and we were advised to avoid the western side of Sea Gull. The bear wasn’t afraid of people, which is bad news for everyone, bear included. (Also, there were possibly multiple bears?) This was a bit concerning. I’ve never seen a bear in the Boundary Waters, and while it’d be cool to see one from a distance, I have no desire to encounter a bear that isn’t deterred by human noise.

The next morning, one of the owners of the outfitters told us she’d avoid Sea Gull Lake altogether because of all of the bears and go north to Saganaga Lake instead. This would require a 38-rod portage at the outset, but just paddling after that. So we decided to do it and not spend four nights wondering if bears were approaching our campsite.

We left on Tuesday morning and returned to Seagull Outfitters on Saturday. In many ways, it was an ideal Boundary Waters trip. It only rained once, the last night we camped, and it didn’t start till after we’d gone to bed and stopped before we got up. (Of course, between the thunder and lightning and somewhat leaky tent fly, we didn’t sleep all that much, but still!) The bugs were remarkably tolerable; I didn’t put on bug spray once, even if in the evenings around the campfire the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears were a little bothersome. We had one particularly windy paddle, but I still got my canoe back to our campsite landing spot without the waves driving us into the rocks. I brought several extra layers I never wore because it didn’t get as cold as I’d expected. Saganaga allows motorboats, and some of the surrounding area is built up, with cabins, so it felt a little bit less like the wilderness than on past trips, but it was still beautiful. From our campsite, it was just trees, rocks, sky, and water as far as the eye could see.

We’d originally expected to stay on Sea Gull Lake, so portaging hadn’t been part of the plan. But the 38-rod portage through the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End campground was actually one we’d walked back in 2015, on the day we left Sea Gull Lake. We’d explored the falls and gotten a family photo taken in front of the rock face at the southern end of the portage. This time, of course, we actually had to portage our canoes and gear, and though the trail wasn’t very long, it was steep in places, with many rocks and tree roots. Just north of the portage, there were some rapids, and since we were going downstream, we managed to shoot them. (On the way back was a different story, but I’m proud to say we got our canoe up the rapids first, after making “only” two mistakes.) After the rapids, we reached Gull Lake, and from there we paddled north through some narrow channels to Saganaga.

Saganaga Lake straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, so half the lake is in Canada. In other words, we spent this trip at the very edge of the U.S. And we made two day excursions pretty much to Canada. On our first full day in the Boundary Waters, we decided to canoe to the point marked Canadian Customs on our map. We were camping on the southern end of Loon Island (a lovely campsite), so we paddled up past Munker Island, Voyageurs Island, the Blueberry Islands, and Horseshoe Island, till we could see Canada. (It looked exactly like our side, except that in Canada there were houses on the lake.) Then we spotted a white building with signs around it, and as we got closer, we confirmed that this was the customs checkpoint. There was a small wooden dock with a No Trespassing/Passage Interdit sign at the end, a bilingual notice about everyone having to report for border inspection, and around a slight bend, a big sign proclaiming Canada! But the whole place was deserted. We could’ve just gone ashore, but we did not.

The next day, we paddled farther, to Saganaga Falls, which turned out to be rather small (kind of like the falls we’d portaged around to get from Sea Gull Lake to Gull Lake). There was a portage here, but we just left our canoes out of the way on shore and walked the trail to go see the falls. We were on the American side, but the other side of the stream was Canada, and we could see a green sign that said La Verendrye Boundary. (Later I learned that this is named for Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, which is kind of a mouthful.) We watched a party of three men and a boy canoe up from the north (where we’d come from too) to the rocks on the Canadian side and start fishing. One of them actually caught two fish, a very little one and a rather small one, both of which he released. As we were leaving in our canoes later, there was a group in a motorboat that caught a decent-sized fish in a net.

I felt I had particularly good luck taking photos of wildlife this trip, and it was my first time using my phone instead of a digital camera. This made it harder to get good pictures of distant bald eagles or loons, but the amphibians and butterflies were pretty cooperative. The sunsets seemed less spectacular than average (perhaps because the weather was better than average?), but the stargazing got better every night until the night it rained, and we saw the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

If you didn’t know, I published a short story set largely in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago. It’s entitled “Lómr” and appeared in Cicada, and you can read it here.

Return from France

I returned to Minnesota this week after spending nearly 90 days in France. If you’d asked me in the winter how I thought my spring was going to go, I could not have envisioned what actually came to pass! But I feel very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire French confinement, as well as the first phase and a bit of the déconfinement, with Isabelle and Olivier outside of Paris.

A walk in the Forêt de Meudon

Writing-wise, I ultimately had a very good confinement. (This is not to promote any kind of if you haven’t learned a new language or launched an online business during quarantine you’ve failed at the pandemic sentiment. No one needs to do anything more than do their best to make it through.) I sank back into drafting what I hope will be my next book, and when it looked like the finish line might actually be in sight, I strove to cross it. I finished the rough draft (emphasis on rough) on my last full day in France. Toward the very end of my stay, I also made two short story sales within a week; I hope to have more to say about those stories soon.

I have returned, of course, to a country still grappling with COVID-19 and lit by a renewed uprising against violent racism and police brutality. I have returned to the city that sparked the latest protests. Like I said at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t already saying better. But we must all be doing the work. Here’s something I wrote almost exactly three years ago when the police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I think we need to be thinking seriously about what role, if any, police forces should have in our cities. What would it take to abolish the police? In the meantime, take care of yourselves, your family, your friends, and your communities.

 

Honolulu

Earlier this month I took a brief trip to Hawai’i, specifically to Honolulu, on the island of O’ahu. Almost exactly three years earlier, I’d visited Maui, which was the first time I’d been to Hawai’i. I enjoyed getting to go back, to a different part this time.

The weather was warm and sunny throughout my stay. I did a lot of clumsy stalking of birds, including zebra doves, spotted doves, cattle egrets, red-crested cardinals, common mynas, feral chickens and some adorable chicks, and a black-crowned night heron in the Ala Wai Canal (remember the one I saw in Central Park?). I got to wade a little on various crowded Waikiki beaches. I had hoped to walk a long ways along the ocean, the way you can walk from Santa Monica to Venice in LA, but there were a lot of barriers which made this impossible, so I alternated between beach and not-beach as I walked east.

I also got to taste a lot of good food, including a beet “poke,” ‘ulu (breadfruit, nicely starchy in the preparation I had), pohole (a type of fern, crunchy and tasty), and pa’i’ai (a type of pounded taro, a stage before poi). I ate an order of chocolate haupia pancakes, which were not bad and satisfied my taste for chocolate and coconut. Isabelle had introduced me to haupia (a coconut gelatin dessert), having learned of it herself from someone who’d been a grad student in Hawai’i. My last evening, I also had a sort of Hawaiian plate lunch, which I’d been hoping to try before I left.

Here are some photos:

Waikiki

Pretty fish!

Diamond Head, from Queen Kapi’olani Regional Park

The Ala Wai Canal

Dinner at Sam’s Kitchen: garlic shrimp, rice, salad, and potato salad (I was actually glad to get this because while macaroni salad intrigued me, I suspected I’d like it less!)

San Francisco III

I’m not sure, but of all the places I haven’t lived, San Francisco and the Bay Area may be the city/region I’ve visited the most. I like San Francisco a lot and hope I will have chances to return.

Soon after New Year’s Day, I joined my mother in Palo Alto, where she and my father are staying for the first part of his sabbatical. We spent several days exploring new places, and I also met up with a few friends. Upon flying into San Francisco, I went straight to Berkeley to hang out with Andrew. We played a round of Welcome to Your Perfect Home, building suburban subdivisions (I won), went out for Burmese food, and chatted about the job market. Then my mother picked me up, and we returned to Palo Alto and the apartment my parents are staying in at the edge of Stanford’s campus.

On Sunday, we had Cantonese food for lunch at Hong Kong Restaurant on El Camino Real. Then we headed to 99 Ranch for some grocery shopping. It made me miss California. But this 99 Ranch didn’t have the beloved coconut milk drink that Isabelle introduced me to (although Magic Noodle in St. Paul does!). It did have a bakery, but alas, the egg tarts were a little lackluster.

Dungeness crab cakes at Pier 23 Café

On Monday, we drove up to San Francisco and had an excellent lunch of Dungeness crab cakes (and delectable garlic fries) at Pier 23 Café, with a view of the bay. Then we went to Lands End, where my cousins had taken me, but this time the sky was totally clear and the sun shining bright, and we walked some of the trails around the headland to take in the views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We peeked into Cliff House and, after a wander through the Visitors Center, caught the sun sinking into the Pacific just after 5:00pm. Afterwards, I went over to my friend Katherine’s to have dinner and meet her 11-month-old son.

Me at Lands End, with the Golden Gate Bridge beyond

On Tuesday, I tried to get some work done. In the afternoon, I walked from the apartment to a nearby shopping center on El Camino Real. Andrew had recommended Third Culture Bakery, makers of the Mochi Muffin® to me, and there was a Boba Guys in the shopping center that sold their baked goods. I assumed I was the only person in line not ordering bubble tea; instead I bought a mochi brownie, which was delicious. Slightly crisp on the outside, soft, chewy, and chocolatey on the inside, with an almost gooey center. I walked on to the downtown Palo Alto library, which was in a neighborhood of very nice houses and at least one bare-branched persimmon tree full of glowing orange fruits. In the evening, I had dinner with my friend Dustin at Pizzeria Delfina.

On Wednesday, we hiked the Stanford Dish Loop Trail, just down the road from us and named for the large radiotelescope on one hilltop of this protected area. We saw some cute speckled ground squirrels that didn’t seem very shy of people. But then, as we were walking at a low point of the loop, a coyote came loping along the hillside ahead and crossed the paved trail. It wasn’t that close to us, but we could see it very well. It paused on the other side and ultimately crossed back over and disappeared around the hill. When we climbed that hill, we saw three coyotes together, below us and rather far away. I don’t think I’d ever seen a coyote in the wild before, and this was one of the more spectacular wildlife sightings I’ve ever had. Towards the end of the hike, we watched a white-tailed kite (identified later) flapping its wings to hover over a field, looking for prey on the ground.

On the Stanford Dish Loop Trail

On Thursday, we went to Filoli, a nearby estate with a century-old Georgian Revival house and extensive gardens. It’s a bit like the Huntington, sans library, but smaller and more intimate and more like being in the country (it’s surrounded by wooded hills and protected land). We first visited the kitchens to see the orchid show. The house’s silver and china were also on display, along with a 1948 cookbook that opened a window onto the cooking of another era (frankfurter crown filled with sauerkraut, anyone?). After lunch in the café, we walked through the rest of the house. A quite good violinist was playing Kreisler and Bach in the high-ceilinged ballroom. Many pieces of Asian art were displayed throughout the house. Outside, we wandered through the gardens. There were a few camellias in bloom, as well as fruiting strawberry trees. On our way out of Filoli, we drove past a large flock of wild turkeys.

The house at Filoli

In the evening, we went to an anti-war protest in Mountain View. We joined a crowd at a busy intersection of El Camino Real, held signs and candles, and inspired honks of support from passing cars. From the protest, we went to Hobee’s for dinner and then on to the movie theater to see Little Women. I quite enjoyed it. I’ve never actually read the book, and I have hazy memories of the 1994 film version (mostly Amy falling through the ice). I hardly ever see movies, but I’d actually been kind of interested in seeing this one, and it didn’t disappoint. I liked the metacommentary in portraying Jo’s rain-soaked reunion with Friedrich at the train station as possibly a fabrication to please readers eager for romantic endings, and the black woman telling Mrs. March she should still be ashamed of her country was a nice touch.

I had a lovely end of winter break trip, and now I’m back in the pristine snow in Minnesota, gearing up for the next semester.

2019 in Review

2019 was also a big year, though I did not travel as far as in 2018. On Twitter (which I have now joined), I’ve seen people reflecting on the whole decade since we’re about to enter the new 20s (how weird–I think “the 20s” still evokes flappers and Prohibition to me, though the pull of the 20th century feels weaker than for “the 60s,” say). It hadn’t occurred to me to look back on the decade till I started seeing those tweets. I don’t think I much noticed the dawn of the last decade; I was just trundling along in college. But if I look back on this past decade, most of the major accomplishments of my life were achieved in it: I got an agent, I graduated from college, I published two novels, I got a Ph.D…. One can, of course, debate the merits of cataloging one’s life in terms of material accomplishments. Anyway, let me zoom back in on 2019 and recall the highlights, non-chronologically:

2020, here I come!

The Emily Dickinson Museum

During my trip to Massachusetts over fall break, I spent one afternoon in Amherst, where I visited Amherst Books. But the main reason for my outing was to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists of the house Emily Dickinson lived in, her brother’s home next door, and the grounds between them.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Emily Dickinson, but I do remember pretty clearly an assignment (possibly an exam) in 11th grade AP American Literature for which we had to compare two poems about spiders, one by Emily Dickinson and one by Walt Whitman. The Dickinson poem was very compact and spare, like most of her poems, but what I remember so clearly is how, by reading the poem over and over and pondering the words, I found that its meaning unfolded, for me. That is, I discovered so many more possibilities for interpretation than I could see before. Now, maybe you’re thinking that’s just how textual analysis works; you have to go over the words again and again. And I would say that Dickinson’s poems, because of their compactness, require this kind of tenacity more than some other texts. But I remember genuinely enjoying this process of cracking the nut, if you will, and feeling like, because English class had made me, I’d gotten to experience this pleasure that I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wasn’t a huge poetry fan and didn’t read poetry for fun. It was like the difference between briefly looking at an old village church on the side of the road and walking on and spending a long time forcing the door and getting in and seeing the stained glass windows from the inside as a reward for your persistence. (I have no idea where that analogy came from.)

Despite that experience, I did not go on to become a diehard Emily Dickinson fan. Over the years, I have been mildly interested in Emily Dickinson the writer, this reclusive New England woman poet who never married. And not long before my trip, I heard about a new film, Wild Nights with Emily, which portrays Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law, Susan. So, finding myself in Western Massachusetts and not knowing when I might ever return, I decided a trip to the museum would be worth it.

The Evergreens

I arrived on a sunny afternoon, walking down Main Street past a park and an old stone Congregational church that I later learned all of Emily’s family except her attended. I first passed the Evergreens, the house her father built for her brother Austin so that he wouldn’t head west. That was where Austin, Susan, and their children lived. A little farther on was the Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and lived for most of her life. (During her late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, her family lived in a different house in Amherst because her grandfather lost the Homestead. The family later bought it back.) I walked up the drive, feeling a bit like I was intruding on someone’s home. There were workmen engaged in repairs of some type on the yellow house. I followed the signs around back and entered through the screened porch, and soon I had secured my spot on the 3:30 tour. (Twice while in Western Mass., once at this museum and once at Guild Art Supply in Northampton, I got discounts for being a teacher! I was always asked if I was eligible, and I didn’t have to furnish any proof.)

In the garden, with the Homestead in the background

I had about forty-five minutes before my tour, so I looked at the books in the gift shop, went out into the garden, and came back inside to explore the exhibit on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was a complicated affair involving, at different times, her sister Lavinia (a cat lady!), her friend and sister-in-law Susan, her niece Martha, her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and others.

Typesetting Emily Dickinson’s poems for publication

Our tour guide (whose last name was Shumway, like the composer Nehemiah Shumway in The Sacred Harp) found us in the exhibit; there were only two of us on this tour! One of the first things she asked us was whether we’d read any Emily Dickinson; she was to read us several poems during the tour.

She first led us into the parlors, where there was a piano like the one the Dickinsons had. Our guide told us Emily stopped playing the piano after hearing someone who played better than her! There was also a copy of the famous photo of Dickinson at age 16, looking extremey severe. But on the wall was a reproduction of a portrait of the three Dickinson children, in which Emily has very short (apparently red?) hair. Our guide told us she’d once briefly described her appearance to a correspondent and we can guess her height from the length of her coffin.

We crossed the hall to the library, where our guide told us about Emily’s happy childhood, going to parties and whatnot, and her schooling, including her one year at Mount Holyoke. We saw reproduced pages of an herbarium she’d helped make; the plant names were in her handwriting. Our guide also told us about her many correspondents, when she was an adult. It sounded like she just wrote to people who interested her, and if at first they didn’t reply, she persisted until they did.

We ascended the staircase to the second floor, where we visited Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, restored to look as it might have when she lived (and died!) there. It was cozy and sunshine-filled. There was a very small table set under one of the windows, where she presumably wrote her poems. Apparently the neighbors remarked to her father that there was often a light in her window very late into the night, and his response was, So, what? Though Emily’s life seemed reclusive, the museum and our guide emphasized that she still had lively relationships with her family, neighborhood children, the household servants, and her correspondents.

The Homestead, home of Emily Dickinson

The house Emily Dickinson lived in hasn’t been a museum for that long. At a certain time, it was faculty housing for Amherst College, so young professors could’ve lived there! I’d love to be able to say I lived in a house that had once been home to a great American poet.

We left the Homestead and crunched across the leaf-strewn lawn to the Evergreens. Our guide had told us how Emily had written poems to Susan and how they were childhood friends. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? That was how it was for them. On the way to the Evergreens, she said Emily might have been a little jealous to have to share her best friend with her brother after they married. I’d been wondering whether the exhibit or the tour would touch on a possible romantic relationship between Emily and Susan, but neither did. Back in Emily’s bedroom, our guide had told us about her later-in-life romance with a friend of her parents, who was a judge from Salem. The judge wanted to marry her, and Emily apparently loved him, but she didn’t marry him.

The Evergreens is interesting because it’s still in a state very close to what it was when Austin Dickinson and his family lived there. His daughter Martha hired an assistant who came to live in the house with his wife, and his wife only moved out in the very late 20th century, and she hadn’t changed anything. The décor, furniture, and artwork were all original (and showed their age), and the kitchen hadn’t been modernized, so it looked very old-fashioned.

Our guide closed the tour with a last poem and an entreaty to check out more of Dickinson’s poetry. I’m very glad I visited the museum; it was a kind of literary pilgrimage, like visiting la Maison de Balzac. Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, I read about this new TV show about Emily Dickinson (but set in the present?), which seems to depict her as a much more interesting and complex figure than the conventional view of her. She was probably much cooler than I am!

 

 

Bookstores of the Pioneer Valley

Last week was fall break, and I spent most of it visiting my friend Leland in Western Massachusetts. The weather was mostly splendid, the fall color was glorious, and the bookstores were abundant. (In general, Northampton, where I was staying, affords many more delights than Grinnell. It probably helps that it has more than three times the population.) Here’s a little travelogue in bookstores:

On Tuesday, on my afternoon wanderings, I came upon a sandwich board for Raven Used Books. The shop was partway down a curved, sloping street and set partly below street level, so entering it was a bit like climbing down into a book cave. Inside, it was crammed with books, exactly as you’d wish. I first lingered in the Medieval section, where I discovered the Proceedings of the Pseudo Society (sample papers included “The Badman of Bossy-sur-Inept: Memoirs of a Medieval Peasant” and “The Lost Letters of Charlemagne’s First Wife, Autostrada, Also Called Desiderata or Desideria”). Then I went to Science Fiction & Fantasy, thinking there was a good chance I could find the next book for the Grinnell Pioneer Bookshop’s Speculative Fiction Reading Group. (The Drake Community Library’s sole copy was currently checked out.) Indeed, there were three copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, of which I bought one. (There was also a sex manual misshelved in SFF; I left it there.)

Raven Used Books

On Wednesday, Leland and I drove to the Montague Book Mill (“books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”), tucked away in a rural, woodsy region and perched over a stream. There’s no longer a mill, but in addition to the bookstore there’s a restaurant, a café, a music store, and an art gallery selling local artists’ work. The ground floor of the bookstore had a sort of cabin feel. Sunlight poured in the windows overlooking the water. I found a shelf full of copies of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and upstairs in the linguistics section there was Kenstowicz & Kisseberth’s Generative Phonology. There was also a shelf for Books of No Obvious Category. The rooms of the upper level reminded me a little of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in that there were little tables tucked under windows where people were sitting and working. Later, I found the paths down to the stream and its rapids. There were some old stone walls and a little brick building with green window frames. I dipped my hands in the water; it was cold.

The Book Mill

On Thursday, back in Northampton, I stepped briefly into Tim’s Used Books to look around. This store was just one room, but despite being small it had a nice children’s section. Then I went up the street to Broadside Bookshop, the first new bookstore (as opposed to used bookstore) of my trip. I spent a lot of time in SFF, which was on the right as soon as you entered, and then a little time in Fiction, where I spotted the anthology The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I know someone who has a story in there: Maddy Raskulinecz! Next I ambled over to the children’s and YA section. There are so. many. books. in the world. Also, The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, is hefty. Despite having read some worrisome things about it, I still want to read it, even if 20-year-old Lyra is going to depress me. (Side note: In that interview with Pullman I mentioned in my last post, I learned that the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass cut some material that was deemed overly sensual or somesuch, and I was betrayed. I looked it up too, and it was utterly harmless. I mean, compared to the big thoughts His Dark Materials might make you think…)

The lower level of Amherst Books

Later that day, I was in Amherst, and after visiting the Emily Dickinson museum (more on that another time!), I hung out at Amherst Books until Leland came to join me. Used books were in the basement, and I heeded the many dire warnings to leave bags upstairs. There were some excellent bookshelf ladders downstairs. Back on the main floor, I parked myself in the SFF section, where Leland found me. We exchanged recommendations for a bit. I could point to at least three books shelved face-out that I had heard good things about and wanted to read (I’m so behind on my to-read list). Then we walked down the street to have ramen.

Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon

Late in August, my mother helped me move from Los Angeles to Grinnell. Our road trip took us from California through Nevada, Arizona (just a tiny corner!), Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska to Iowa. On our first day of driving, we took nearly the exact same route I’d taken almost exactly two years earlier when Isabelle, Olivier, Adam, and I took our trip to Utah. Instead of going to Cedar City, we spent the night in Hurricane, UT, where the high temperature was predicted to be over 100°F every day that week. The next day, to beat the heat, we drove up to Cedar Breaks National Monument, where at an elevation of about 10,000 feet it was much cooler. Cedar Breaks is a gorgeuos amphitheater where the layers of the earth are exposed in shades of ocher and erosion has sculpted rock into formations similar to those at Bryce Canyon. There was also an abundance of wildflowers–columbine, elkweed, lupines, and more–and an adorable Uinta chipmunk!

Cedar Breaks National Monument

The same day, we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. We visited the park that evening, driving in past crepuscular mule deer attracting admirers by the side of the road. We walked along the rim between Sunset and Sunrise Points. The sun was setting behind us as we looked out upon the canyon, but for a while it illuminated some of the red cliff faces in the distance. My first glimpse of Bryce Canyon was kind of like my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon on the road trip that brought me to UCLA. You approach the rim, and suddenly there’s a breathtaking view laid out before and below you. The Grand Canyon was more staggering in scale, but they’re equally wondrous.

First view of Bryce Canyon

As dusk fell, the air seemed to grow increasingly clouded, and I also smelled smoke a few times while we were at Bryce Canyon. We were pretty sure there were fires somewhere in the area.

Illuminated cliffs and smoke

The next morning, we hiked the Queen’s Garden Trail, following switchbacks from the rim down into the canyon among the hoodoos. The trail is named for a hoodoo that resembles Queen Victoria, and we arrived at that landmark before making our way back up.

Setting out from Sunrise Point

View from the trail

There’s Queen Victoria in the upper right

In my many flights between Los Angeles and the Twin Cities, I’ve had a lot of chances to admire the natural beauty of Utah from above. It was equally if not more beautiful to drive through (and the empty country highways were rather nice!).

Next was Colorado, where we went peach hunting near Grand Junction and spent the night in the quaint (always decorated for Christmas?) ski town of Frisco. The next day, we stopped at the Denver Botanic Gardens before continuing on through eastern Colorado and Nebraska, which are a bit less picturesque. We ate dinner at the same Japanese restaurant in Kearney, NE where we’d eaten on our road trip to Los Angeles six years before. I mean no disrespect, and maybe this goes without saying, but Kearney is not Sawtelle or Little Tokyo.

After a night in Lincoln, our last day brought us to Grinnell. And so I’ve left the West for now!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

A Mission and the Anza-Borrego Badlands

My parents recently visited me for spring break, and we started off by heading down the coast. We ate burritos and caught the sunset in Laguna Beach. The next morning, we arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano soon after opening. The mission is very pretty, and the well-tended gardens were gorgeous. We apparently missed St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows by a few days, but I saw nary a swallow (it seems like the mission is going to great lengths to attract them back–there were artificial nests and recordings of mating calls).

Mission San Juan Capistrano (there is a raven on the belltower)

The ruins of the Great Stone Church, destroyed by an earthquake, reminded me a bit of the Ruínas do Carmo in Lisbon. I liked the painted beams, painted motifs, and organ in Serra Chapel (which has the distinction of being the only church still standing in which Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass). The ornate alterpiece was less to my taste. I liked the bells too, including the bell-gable (maybe it wasn’t one, but it reminded me of what I saw in southern France last summer), and the cloisters. There were exhibits displaying both treasure and objects from daily life, including a bookcase of old volumes, a gloria bell wheel (like a spinning wheel with bells attached around it), and Acjachemen baskets. The gardens boasted many plump cacti, manzanita trees, California poppies, succulents, and a huge jasmine vine in full fragrant bloom.

I liked this musical display

From San Juan Capistrano, we drove inland to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which we had first visited two years ago for the 2017 superbloom. After picnicking in Christmas Circle, we arrived at the headquarters of California Overland Desert Excursions for our afternoon tour of the badlands. (I didn’t know there were badlands other than the ones in South Dakota; the formations do look alike.) The advantage of the tour was that we’d ride in a 10-wheel military truck on unpaved roads and desert washes to parts of the park that would be inaccessible to us in our rental car.

The military truck

Our guide, Joe, first oriented us to the region and showed us paintings of what it looked like in earlier prehistoric ages, when the climate was (sub)tropical and megafauna roamed. Then we all climbed a ladder into the back of the military truck, where there were green-upholstered benches, and off we went. Our first off-road detour was to the Truckhaven Trail to see some blooming desert sunflowers, with a little sand verbena thrown in. Then we started down a path on the other side of the highway. Joe stopped so we could get out and see some ghost flowers blooming along the trail. This is a rarer desert flower, I believe, and it has pretty speckles inside the cup of its pale petals.

The badlands

In the wash, with smoke trees in the middle ground

Further on, we reached the badlands and got out again to explore the landscape. The sandy ground glittered with pyrite. There were flowers here and there, and caterpillars, and a large round spotted beetle. The truck was parked in the wash near a palo verde and a smoke tree. I particularly liked the smoke trees; they looked like they were made of silver and gold. Joe also showed us a big creosote. We took a break for some snacks and lemon water and then drove a little farther on to see a mud cave (perhaps a century or two old) carved into the rock formations by water.

The badlands from Vista del Malpaís

The view in the other direction

Next we drove on and upward to Vista del Malpaís, which afforded views of the folds and ridges of the badlands, the wider valley, and the mountains ringing it in all directions. There were a lot of lupines blooming up here. After taking it all in, we returned to headquarters via a trail Joe called the rollercoaster for its ups and downs. I don’t usually go in for tours, but this one was well worth it.

Desert lily and lupines at Vista del Malpaís