Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Memories

I baked Christmas cookies today.
First, my specialty: Candy Cane cookies. I have made these yummy treats for over thirty five years. They are a huge hit, delicious and buttery, with a peppermint flavor.
Next, I made some shortbread cookies with dragees, and mixed the dough for rich roll cookies. I'll cut them out tomorrow and decorate them with some help from John and Jay. (I hope.)

I love this time of year and the build up to Christmas, Being in the kitchen today brought back so many memories of my childhood and growing up in the big house on Scottwood Avenue.

We decorated three Christmas trees in those days. The main tree was enormous and was placed in the living room, in a spot where it could be seen all the way from the library across the entrance into the living room. It also could be seen from the large dining room. Dad loved the idea that the tree was visible all through these rooms.

The second tree was smaller and prominently displayed in the huge bay window on the second floor, facing the street. The third and smallest tree was in a third floor window directly above the second floor tree. The effect was lovely because those two trees could be seen from the street.

Dad would pile us in the car one evening after he came home from work, and we would all help choose the trees. Purchased from the local nursery, they sat on the back porch until Christmas Eve. Then, and only then, were they decorated.

I loved the beat up old boxes filled with various ornaments that made their appearance once a year. We kids squealed with excitement as we unwrapped these treasures and decked the halls, all the while arguing about whose ornament it was or where it came from and how. This project took the whole day and during this time, Christmas music played on the HiFi. We had a collection of records by the Trapp Family, a very slow and romantic album by Jackie Gleason, a few Ray Conniff and the Ray Conniff Singers, and lots of choir music. But mostly I remember Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians' rendition of "Twas the Night Before Christmas". Sweet and mellow, it was sung almost like a lullaby, the perfect listen after a bath to make young children sleepy. That group also did a wonderfully fun arrangement of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer", complete with sound effects. I'll never forget it, I still smile when I think of it.

We were packed off to bed as early as our parents could get us all fed and bathed, being scolded all the way to be good because Santa Claus was coming to town.
I remember being so excited, I couldn't sleep and waiting until Mom and Dad had gone to bed, then tiptoeing down the steps to try and catch Santa in the act of coming down the chimney. Alas, I missed him, the gifts were already under the tree sitting silently waiting to be received with joy. I loved that the whole house was so dark and quiet, it calmed me, and when I crawled back into my bed, I fell at once into a nice, dreamy sleep.

We arose early, as children always do, especially when they are excited. The five youngest of us would gather in the upstairs hall, near the big bay window, next to the tree and argue with one another about whom of us should go in and awaken our parents. This assignment usually fell to Chris, don't know why, but he did it. They cheerfully came out in their PJs and we'd all go down to see the living room filled with dolls, stuffed animals, trucks, toy army tanks, football helmets, hockey sticks and boxes wrapped in silver, red and gold containing new sweaters, scarves and mittens. At long last it was Christmas morning.

My older brothers and sisters usually appeared a few minutes after we went to open our gifts. We were instructed to wait until they came down. Being teenagers and college students, they had been out late on Christmas Eve, seeing friends home from college and attending midnight Mass. We waited for everyone at gather and then the fun began. One Christmas all I wanted was a "bride doll", i.e. a doll dressed up in a big white dress and veil. Santa granted my wish. There she stood under the tree. All beautiful, blond and covered in lace even with little white high heels. I was over the moon. Christmas was the best day ever.

After we opened our gifts, we went to Christmas Mass, followed by a big breakfast of pancakes and bacon. The rest of the day was spent playing with our new things and eating candy. Our parents were busy preparing Christmas dinner and too occupied to notice that we were stuffing ourselves with junk. How fun is that? When we sat down to a big feast of turkey and all the trimmings, I was always seated at the kids table-not so bad because no one noticed that all I ate was a bite of turkey and two rolls. No cranberry sauce, no potatoes, no green beans, and no brussels sprout. The only day of the year I wasn't told to "clean my plate".

When I was around the age of ten, Mom decided that we would start a gift exchange system called "Secret Pals". At Thanksgiving we threw each of our names into a hat and we each drew a name. That person became our "Secret Pal", meaning that we had to buy that family member a secret gift costing no more than $10.00 and no less than $5.00. Also we were not allowed to divulge the name of our "secret pal" until Christmas. I remember very clearly how excited I was with the whole mystery of it all. On Christmas day, before dinner, we would gather near the tree and, starting with the eldest, go around the room, each revealing who their pal was and presenting that person with a gift. It was great fun, and added an extra moment of warmth and togetherness to our family. That first year, my secret pal was my sister Mary, who gave me a tan leather shoulder bag and a pair of red and white striped knit gloves. I loved them and felt that they were just so very grown up and chic.

My parents made Christmas fun and festive but they always reminded us of the reason for the season. The Holy Family played a very important part in our celebration. I remember observing Advent, my brothers singing in the Chancel Choir, my brothers serving Christmas Mass, midnight Mass, the beautiful Creche at our parish, the Christmas pageant at Cathedral school. (I played the Blessed Virgin one year-eighth grade I think.) Often on Christmas day, Dad would drive us around to other churches to see their Creches.

I will be reminded again this Sunday of Christmas in Ohio and of the good times we had. I have tangible reminders too. Several years ago after our parents had passed away, my siblings and I met one lovely fall weekend and divided up what was left of our parents belongings. There were lamps, pieces of silver and dishes, some furniture and various knick-knacks. Somehow I ended up coming home with my mother's set of Spode china in the Romney pattern. It is beautiful and old fashioned, with lots of red tones and rich colors. Perfect for Christmas. I set my table with it every year and love using it because it makes me feel that my parents are near. I have one more reminder. That same day I took the family Creche which was purchased in Italy by Mom and Dad in 1950. As I write this, I am looking at it across the room. The figures are chipped here and there, but all the pieces are still in tact, even the donkey with his skinny little legs. It is old, elegant and I treasure it. These items give extra meaning to me on Christmas and I am thrilled to own them.

Merry Christmas everybody.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Prize!



Sadly, after the trip on the steam engine in Colorado, we knew we had to get back to reality, so we began to head east.

It had been a wonderful trip, filled with fun adventure and new discoveries beyond our expectations. The trip home would be long, 2150 miles to be exact; we made plans to make it back home in four days, taking us from Colorado to Texas to Missouri to Ohio and finally Connecticut.

So off we drove through the mountains to the plains of the dry state of Oklahoma. We had stopped in Weatherford, OK on the way out and knew we would pass through it again that first day of our trip back. We stopped for gas and to have a yummy lunch at Lucille's Roadhouse, where the locals eat. It was crowded with men in cowboy hats and oil service workers enjoying burgers and fried chicken, all served with a smile and a "How y'all doin' today?"

Just as we were getting back into the car, I spotted a shop next door called "Boot-tique". I told
John I just wanted to check and see if they had the elusive cowboy boots I had been looking for at every stop along the way for over four weeks.

Well let me tell you, I was in luck. Lo and behold, there they were! A beautiful pair of size 7 boots with my name on them. A lovely shade of tan with stitching in a perfect shade of turquoise. I tried them on and they fit to a tee. Comfy and ready to live in Connecticut.

So back in the car with my new boots, we continued on our way, happy and grateful to have been able to take such a trip. 7,200 miles together in the Edge.

And guess what? We're still happily married.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Look Up: Zion National Park






The way Zion NP and Bryce NP are described is "Look Up, Look Down". Simply said, it's an apt description for at Zion you are in a valley looking up at wonderful rock formations while at Bryce you're on top of a mesa looking down. Truly vertical experiences. Of course you can hike either up (Zion) or down (Bryce) which we did.

Zion Canyon has a human history as early as 500 AD but human civilization disappeared around 1300 AD, likely as a result of flooding of the Virgin River. Standing at the base of 2,000 feet of shear rock in the Virgin River Canyon you can understand why humans were attracted here. Nineteenth Century settlers were so awed that they turned to the Bible to find names for formations like The Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Jacob and Isaac). It's not the height of the walls that soar above the canyon but the character of the sandstone domes, fins and blocky massifs that capture your senses.

Hiking only enhances the enjoyment. We took the Virgin River Narrows Trail as far as we could. The trail ends when the canyon narrows to about a five
foot width which requires further exploration by wading in the river, not allowed when we visited due to a heavy rain which made further progress very dangerous. We passed on the most rigorous hike, a 4 hour climb to Angel's Landing. Instead, we trekked to Emerald Pools and were rewarded with a lovely waterfall view. A nice level walk from the The Grotto to Zion Lodge got us hungry for lunch, A brief uphill trek to Weeping Rock concluded our Zion hikes.

One of the pleasures of Zion is that auto traffic is banned in most of the Park in season and the Park Service runs an excellent shuttle service with drivers who double as tour guides. Each stop from the Visitor's Center to the end of the road at the Temple of Sinawava offers different perspectives on the sandstone formations. As with all the Parks, it's all about the time of day and the light on the formations that make up the experience. Plus, there is so much to see that it's easy to develop Stendahl Syndrome! For instance, just outside our hotel window was a huge formation aptly called The Watchman. We enjoyed seeing it at first light and as dusk spread through the Valley. It was a different looking formation each time.

Our next stop was Bryce. Look Down!








Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Choo Choo!






Oh boy, a bucket list trip for certain! This has been on my radar screen for many many years. My Dad (a rail fan who would actually wear his engineers hat around the house) and I had aspirations of this trip for years. Until now, only my sister Janet and her family had made the trip when her children were younger as part of camping vacation. Her raves came echoing back as I contemplated being less than a four hour drive from Durango, CO. How could I pass it up? Sarah was all for it so off we went from John Ford Country.

We made hotel and train reservations on the way and when we arrived in Durango we were rewarded with the sweet lonesome sound of a steam engine whistle. Nothing else like it. I hurried down to the station which was only two blocks away and quickly found myself wandering the train yards and roundhouse. This all took me back to my youth, visiting my grandparents in Shamokin, PA. The Pennsy's main line to Williamsport ran through town and the trains were loaded with ore headed for the Bethlehem Steel plant. The line had tough grades and curves and only steam engines could handle the heavy ore trains. What a kids delight, two huge engines at the front of the train, two in the middle and two pushers at the rear. The engineers communicated by train whistles in that age before electronic communication. I would hear the whistles as the trains rounded into town and rush from my grandparents house to the nearest crossing, standing in awe as these six monster engines huffed past me, blowing steam from their relief valves and the six engineers playing tunes on their steam whistles. What a sight, what a sound!

The Durango & Silverton is a narrow gauge railway built to serve the mining boom in Silverton, CO in the 1880's and makes the 45 mile trip from Durango to Silverton by following the Animus River. One section of the railroad, The High Line, runs over 300 feet above the Animus River on a narrow shelf that was blasted out of the mountain side to make room for the rails. It's quite a sight to be literally looking straight down into the gorge from your seat on the train. A bit scary too!

The train stops twice to refill the tender with water. It takes a lot of steam to make it up the 2.5% grade to Silverton. Each of these stops is a photo-op for the rail fan.

We looked for elk, bears and other wild life along the way. Mule deer grazed along the tracks, oblivious to the noise of the train.

After a scenic 3 hour ride through the Animus Valley, mountain gorges and along the Animus River bed we made it to Silverton, a shadow of the once bustling mining town that was served by four rail roads. We lunched at the Bent Elbow and shopped for hand crafted Indian jewelry on Main Street with Sarah scoring a sterling silver bracelet inlaid with turquoise and jasper (the great boot hunt was again unsuccessful).

On the return trip I was able to shoot several IPhone video clips including one catching the train whistle which were promptly sent to our grandkids, Jasper and Magnolia.

As we packed the car to start the return East I reflected on the many years that this train trip had been subliminally in my mind. I thought, Dad, you would have loved it!


Monday, October 17, 2011

John Ford Country








We left Bryce Canyon early on a morning with low clouds scudding the 9,000 foot elevation. Our route to Monument Valley, another bucket list item, took us through the New Mexico and Arizona desert country.

Fittingly, we stopped for breakfast at the Thunderbird Restaurant in Mt. Carmel, UT. Maybe I was intrigued by the "Ho Made Pie's". Really?

From there our route took us through the Grande Staircase - Escalante National Park. Yet another geologic wonderland featuring multi-hued cliffs, serpentine stone canyons and vast lonely plateau's. The Grand Staircase is composed of a series of cliffs (Vermillion, White and Pink) that from certain viewpoints strongly resemble a staircase. Major dinosaur fossils abound.

Then over the Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell just over the New Mexico border where we made a mundane but necessary provisioning stop at a Wal-Mart for water and other minor purchases (Yes, a Wal-Mart in the middle of the Navajo Nation!). From Lake Powell to Kayenta, New Mexico, our base for the Monument Valley, we were in the Navajo Nation. The mesas gave way to desert intersperced with buttes.

The Navajo Nation is largely a vast, undeveloped desert landscape without a single dwelling from horizon to horizon. Sarah had the AAA Indian Country map and she was an able navigator pointing out various buttes and rock formations that made this a scenic trip.

Kayenta turned out to be a dusty, poor looking community of single and double-wide trailers with three motels catering to the Monument Valley tourist crowd. After checking in our motel we made a bee-line for the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with it's picturesque sandstone buttes and mesas that tower over the desert floor. A classic Indian County landscape, made famous by Hollywood filmmakers since the 1920's. Of course, some of my favorite films were shot on location here. John Ford was contacted by Harry Goulding and his wife "Mike" who had settled in the area in 1923 to set up a trading post to trade with the local Indians. The Gouldings suggested that Ford check out the landscape for western films and Ford fell in love with the scenery. He shot Stagecoach in the Valley in 1939 and over the years followed with several classics such as Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, My Darlin' Clementine and the The Searcher's. More recent films include Forrest Gump and Windtalkers. I've always loved these western films and the landscape provided instant recognition. Sarah too as she grew up with brothers who watched Million Dollar Movie on TV in which all of Ford's films were featured.

After touring the Goulding's original trading post and the Navajo exhibits we returned to our motel. As I was looking at the map I realized that we were within striking distance of another bucket list trip, a ride on the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad in Durango, CO. Woo Hoo! We could get there via Four Corners (the only place in the U.S. where the boundries of four states intersect) and Shiprock, the butte in the middle of the desert that wagon train pioneers could see for several day's before they actually got there. Nothing like a quick course correction to keep us on our toes! That's the beauty of having your own transportation and control of your time.

Four Corners turned out to be another opportunity for the Navajo's to charge an entrance fee (they wouldn't accept our National Parks pass) and set up booths selling native made items. After the obligatory shot of me standing with my feet in four states we made a few purchases to help the local economy.

Like the pioneers, we could see Shiprock from a long ways away. Unlike them, we couldn't find a way to actually get to it. We found out later that Shiprock is culturally significant to the Navajo people so they haven't let it be developed as a tourist site.

By this time I had a full head of steam in my boiler and we turned the Edge towards Colorado and the Durango & Silverton. We arrived as the early train was returning from Silverton and I giddily shot photos of the roundhouse and engines in the yard. Suddenly I was our grandsons age as the sound of the steam engine whistle echoed over Durango!


Vegas Baby!








Is spotting a rainbow on your way into Vegas a sign of good fortune? We certainly hoped so!

I never thought in a million years that I would end up visiting Las Vegas and actually liking it.

Before I hear a collective groan from most of you, let me explain.

When we were planning this trip, John was insistent that we go to Vegas. I had always heard negative comments about the place, and was sure I would hate it, but felt that as long as we were out that far west, why not see for myself what all the fuss was about.

We left Yosemite National Park on a Monday and drove the 410 miles across the desert to Vegas. When I say desert, I mean Las Vegas literally sits in the middle of it. It pops up on the barren horizon like Oz in the famous film. It had rained a bit and there appeared a gorgeous rainbow in the sky. A message that said "have fun, keep smiling, and enjoy".

We drove along the "Strip" as they call the main avenue in the city. Large hotels line the way, each with a theme. One is called The Venetian, another Paris, still another New York and so on. I know there are people in Vegas who actually think they have been to Venice or Paris or New York after their stay in one of these hotels. We were booked into the Tropicana which is located at the far end of the Strip. An older hotel, but it has recently been nicely renovated to make guests feel like they are in some sort of tropical paradise.

We walked that evening, our idea being that it was the best way to get a real feel for it all. The spectacle is amazing. Vegas is not just for gambling anymore, although every hotel has a casino on the ground floor. These days one can gamble-in one form or another-in nearly every state in the union. Las Vegas is a place to see even if you don't gamble. I could feel the energy and adrenaline everywhere I looked, and I was stunned at the variety of gambling and entertainment outlets, the dealers, the level of stakes and the sheer number of players at the tables.

The people watching is sometimes beautiful and famous looking, sometimes middle of the road, and sometimes beyond description. It was fascinating to observe.

Food is big there. There are scores of world class restaurants of all cuisines. Emeril, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batalli all have five-star restaurants in Vegas. We had a wonderful meal at B&B, one of Mario Batalli's many eating establishments. The difference between Vegas and New York is that we could literally walk in without a reservation and be seated. In New York you'd have to wait six months on a reservation list.

We wanted to see a show and asked at the hotel what tickets were available. Elton John was sold out, but we were able to get in to see Cirque Du Soleil. Amazing show with acrobats swinging high above our heads-a little frightening as they don't use nets, but we loved it.
After that we walked under a starlit sky, among throngs of people past the Bellagio where we stopped to see the famous fountain spectacle we all marveled at in "Ocean's Eleven".
A perfect ending to a short visit in Sin City.

Will I go back? Don't think so. Maybe. I prefer the real Paris and the real Venice, however
I liked Vegas's fun, crazy, Candyland attitude, and the idea that I forgot any reminders of daily routine.

The flamboyant, sometimes seedy Vegas is like nowhere I've ever been.

A must see side trip was to the Hoover Dam and the recently opened bridge connecting Nevada and New Mexico that is an engineering marvel. We loved the art deco of the Dam and the beauty of the new bridge. Then it was back to Vegas and the casinos!

Breakfast at wacky Hash House A Go Go which is so popular that the venue is now in several casino's in addition to it's original location. This was a recommended "must do" from John's long-time friend and colleague Diane Newell. Thanks Diane!

After two whirlwind days of visiting man-made marvels we were ready for a return to natural beauty and Zion National Park, our next destination, was sure to fit the bill!




Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yosemite National Park







We met Jay for breakfast that Saturday at Mel's Diner, a Hollywood institution. This place is a total throwback to the 50s and made famous in the movie "American Graffiti". The walls are covered with photos of movie stars, and our waitress informed us that there is a Hollywood Museum on the premises, she assured us that is is the best sight in Hollywood. We didn't have time to tour the museum, but promised ourselves we would "next time".

We had a delicious meal, visiting with Jay, and then it was time to say goodbye. After two weeks in LA with him, I found it difficult to say farewell. How I wish he didn't live so far away, but he is following his dream and is happy in California. Get a grip Mom. So, as I wiped a tear away, we drove off with a wave to meet our friends, Jaqui and Steve Zwick in Yosemite.

We arrived at our hotel, and our pals met us with wonderful Sonoma wine, cheese and warm hugs. We spent the afternoon catching up on each others' lives and enjoying the warm sunshine. Dinner was at the local spot: The Miner's Inn, where a prime rib dinner is $12.99!

The next morning we were out and at the park bright and early. Our friends know Yosemite well, as they have been going visiting for years, in fact, they Honeymooned there in the 60s. They wanted to show us around and we were happy to let them.

We started out seeing El Capitian, rising 3,593 ft.-more than 350 stories-above the Valley. It is the largest exposed-granite monolith in the world. People have been climbing its entire face since 1958, and we could see tiny, moving adventurers with our binoculars. Then we drove to Glacier Point for a bird's eye view of the entire Valley. And then there is Half Dome, another astonishing "rock" of granite that tops off at 4,700 ft. above. Again, with our binoculars, we could see tiny spots of color climbing to the top. This is done by hiking 8.5 mi. (one way) on a trail whose last 400 ft. must be ascended while holding onto a steel cable. No thanks. We were happy with photos.

After lunch we hiked up the Mist Trail to get a good view of Vernal Falls. The trek up and back is about 3 mi. of steep, rugged, rocky trail. It was a hot day, and we were happy to have the Merced River tumbling down the falls on it's way to a tranquil flow through the Valley, cooling us as we panted on our way. The breathtaking falls and view at the top was well worth the hike. None of this trail has guard rails and the drop offs are intimidating at the least. On our way, we noted a poster and photos of two "missing" hikers who fell in August this year. Some times people think they can step out on the edge of one of the slippery rocks that jut out over the river, accidentally slipping to their deaths. We were told that the park looses one or two visitors a month on average. Respect for these dangerous heights is important.

The topography of Yosemite is so spectacular, that words cannot describe it. I have never seen a place where the landscape literally takes over the sky. It totally overwhelmed me with it's magnificence, beauty and sheer size. Remarkable and amazing. I could not stop exclaiming, I ran out of descriptive adjectives.

That night we had dinner at the famous, historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Opened in 1927, this grand hotel boasts the Grand Lounge, 77 ft. long with magnificent 24 ft. high ceilings and all manner of Indian artwork on display. It is the most special interior space in Yosemite. What a perfect day. We saw the beautiful, awe inspiring Park, and spent it with special friends, laughing and enjoying time together.

Next morning after breakfast, we bade our friends a fond adieu and drove out by way of the scenic Tioga Road. Few mountain drives anywhere can compare visually with this 59 mi. seasonal road. As we climbed 3,200 ft. up to the 9,945-foot summit of Tioga Pass, we encountered broad vistas of the High Sierra with it's craggy but hearty trees and shrubs. Just a bit too rugged in my opinion-steep, steep drop offs and (naturally) no guard rails. Lots of hairpin switch backs and narrow lanes of traffic. I loved it, but was happy when we finally reached the end and were on turf that was somewhat flatter.

We headed to a very different place indeed. Vegas, here we come!