Photography by Yuri Krasov

Majestic Yosemite with its sheer granite cliffs and roaring waterfalls is beautiful any time of year, even if the weather is not exactly cooperating. This year’s snowless winter deprived us of skiing, but yielded other benefits of the beloved national park – less crowded roads and easy access to evergreen groves and sleepy meadows with grazing deer and mouse-hunting coyote.
After a day spent at Yosemite’s Valley Floor Tour and Glacier Point, my husband and I arrived at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite – AAA Four-Diamond hotel on 48 acres of wooded land bordering the Sierra National Forest.

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Recently renovated and upgraded, Tenaya Lodge is a place where you’d want to vacation time and again. It has its own distinct character and decor: 297 guest rooms, Grand Ballroom, five restaurants, an amazing spa, and is well-equipped for all kinds of outdoor activities. In a usual snowy winter, the all-season resort provides its guests with immediate or easy access to cross-country skiing, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, sledding, ice-skating, and snowmobiling. In spring and summer, whitewater rafting, golf and tennis, horseback riding, guided nature hikes (some at night, with flashlights), mountain biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, and various water sports on Bass Lake are readily accessible. This time, we saw two racks with equipment for opposite seasons – one with mountain bikes, another with show shoes – in front of the hotel.

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Eager to take advantage of at least some of the fun activities offered by Tenaya Lodge, we signed up for a one-hour Guided Nature Hike, which took us on a loop trail through the enchanted forest with hugging trees, icy Big Creek coming from Merced River, and beaver dams.  Fresh mountain air, clear blue sky, and cushy forest floor provided a perfect classroom where we’ve learned that sugar pines grow to 300 feet, hold five needles in a cluster for five letters of the word s-u-g-a-r, and develop huge “widow maker” cones loved by squirrels for their sugary pine nuts. We also learned that black ravens use 19 different calls, mate for life, and have a special call for their mates (calling them by name?). We stopped to look at a tree trunk turned into an ant hotel by carpenter ants. Then we stopped to touch a carpet of bear clover. Bears like to roll in these plants to cover their hides with the natural oil which protects them from tics and lice. Then we marveled at a beaver’s miscalculation – the tree intended for a dam fell not across the stream, but in a different direction…

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The forest was serene and quiet. A small plane cruising above was monitoring chips in endangered animals, like Pacific fisher weasel, and doing other environmental work. Upon our return, I attempted two physical activities I’ve never done before.
First, it was archery at Sierra Mountain Archery Range, steps from the hotel’s front entrance. Knowing that traditional recurve bows are easily handled by 5-year-olds, I was still as proud of my bull’s eye shot as a regular Amazon. Then, it was ice-skating at the open air 80×40-feet hotel rink. While I was making my wobbly way along the barrier with posted friendly reminders, “Skate at your own risk,” my skate-proficient husband was twirling in triple axels, oh well. Finally, I felt much more confident swimming at the spacious indoor pool, and completely at home at the Ascent Spa at Tenaya Lodge, decorated with natural stone, earthy-colored furnishings, and nature-inspired photography on the walls.

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The spa seemed serene and inviting with its dry heat saunas, tiled steam rooms, dimly-lit massage rooms named after Sierra birds, trees, and flowers, and relaxation rooms where it was easy to lose any sense of time while sipping hot or cold herbal teas and dozing off to quiet soothing music. A skillful couple’s massage left us both fully restored, renewed and reenergized after a day of strenuous exercise. For a great finale of a perfect day, we sat down to dinner at Sierra Restaurant off the hotel lobby. With a fireplace at the dining room center, cozy booths are lined up along the walls, and comfy chairs surround elegant tables for four. The menu is California-comprehensive, and the wine list is California-great.

 

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Sierra Restaurant uses plenty of locally-grown organic and sustainable products and locally produced wines and beer. I started with my favorite lemon drop cocktail, and it was perfectly balanced and absolutely delightful. Cheese beer soup made with Fiscalini cheddar and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was just what the doctor ordered for a chilly winter night.

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I also thoroughly enjoyed my eggplant napoleon with layers of grilled tomato, red peppers, and goat cheese, and my husband’s Angus filet mignon with colored fingerling potatoes and cabernet sauce. When it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to eat another bite for a week, we retired to our luxurious suite for a good night sleep.

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A hot tub in our suite opened up to the bedroom in brown and orange color scheme, and a splendid view of sugar pines and giant sequoias right outside our window. In the morning, before we headed back home to the San Francisco Bay Area, a hearty breakfast of All-American egg, ham and cheese sandwich and French toast at Sierra Restaurant set us off for the day. On our drive back, I was daydreaming about all the wonderful things I could do at Tenaya Lodge in summer and in real (snowy) winter. As if I needed a reason to plan another stay at the gem of Yosemite.
More information and reservations at: www.TenayaLodge.com

Enumerable movies and television shows have used Miami, Florida, as a back drop for their action filled dramas and edgy mysteries. Needless to say from the gritty to the glamorous, Miami still has it all. Yes, there is traffic and crazy drivers ~ locals and tourists alike ~ but with a non binding schedule it’s rather easy to manage a casual visit.

Driving down south from the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood airport in the rental car was effortless as I took the I-95 freeway south until it ended in a residential boulevard affair. It was then simple to ease on down the road, turn left and find the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove hotel, my home base for this visit. The Sonesta is an upscale and comfy hotel, complete with mandatory valet parking, a friendly and helpful reception desk, a high security elevator, an upper story pool with accompanying bar and food service, and of course a room with a view of ocean, sun, palm trees and boats.

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Since a car is a must for Florida touring, my fears, at staying away from the action in Coconut Grove would find me too isolated, were not realized. There is a fine little shopping area, 2 blocks from the hotel – with art galleries, sundry shops and eateries.
One night I brought Pizza back to the room and enjoyed a quiet sunset from my lux room, as I got caught up on a favorite TV show.

In the following days I took in the iconic, Vizcaya estate and gardens, just down the road from the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove hotel. Vizcaya was the winter residence of American industrialist James Deering from Christmas 1916 until his death in 1925. Vizcaya was one of the many memories I recall from my 1980 Miami visit. The house has changed with some improvements, since that time, and is about to undergo a few more. But the proximity to the ocean, surrounded by a green hammock growth, offers a romantic and old world garden stroll. As is often the case at Vizcaya, a bride was having a photographic session in the garden during my visit.

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After a quick snack at the gourmet sandwich shop in the basement of the house, it was over to Miami proper, and the Bayside Marketplace. Wanting to at least see from a distance the famed backyard estates of the rich and famous, I boarded the Island Queen tour boat for a seaside view. It took us by several estates including, Rosie O’Donnell, Ricky Martin, Elton John, and the former home of Elizabeth Taylor complete with a bronze sculpture given her by Michael Jackson. The tour boat gave a good feeling for the logistics and geography of Miami.

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The Bayside Marketplace is filled with eateries, some upscale some casual. On my wanderings I came across a just opened establishment called “Off the Hookah”, below the Hard Rock, which offered mid-eastern styled food. It has a reputation of being a very wild adult evening crowd, but the afternoon was calm and sophisticated. My watermelon martini out on the deck was accompanied by a filet mignon, which was my most satisfying meal on this Miami visit. The view of ships and harbor activity added to the enjoyment. Interesting how an unexpected dining treat can enhance this most touristy of travel adventures.

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But it was off to Miami Beach proper, as I wanted to revisit the famed Fontainebleau hotel. I had forgotten how far up on Collins Avenue it was, but with patience while passing other high rise hotels, I found the drive-in valet parking with ease, and since I was pretending I was playing with the rich and famous, I enjoyed imagining my own movie script and didn’t mind the $20 parking fee. What I did mind was the black suited security guards poolside. I felt like an intruder and not a welcomed Florida guest. But I was able to skirt them to do a brief stroll along the ocean board walk to be disappointed with the interior and landscaping at neighboring Eden Roc hotel. Ah well, a screen writer did not create my visit there. I did splurge for a Cosmopolitan in the famous Fontainebleau Bleau Lobby Bar and was not disappointed. The cocktail looked so good at a table of other lobby guests that I asked them how it was, and we struck up a conversation – or a bit of one. They were travelers from South America, with only one speaking fluid English. Come to find out she was from my home state of Oklahoma. Imagine ~ small world.

Back in the car I cruised down crowded Ocean Drive and into the Art Deco Hotel district. The bars and streets were crushed with a plethora of people, and I don’t know how any of them got there, unless they walked from parking miles way. The slow traffic did allow me to glance up at the iconic architecture, some lit with neon, as the sun was setting and the evening night life began to blossom.

Parking in lower Miami Beach is a problem, not only finding a lot, but once there deciphering in near darkness the code to pay for the time you expected to stay. This ticketing procedure could be improved as I was not the only one standing around
trying to punch the correct buttons to secure the parking ticket to place in your car.

The farewell evening meal at the Panorama Restaurant at the Sonesta Bayfront Coconut Grove Hotel was over the top. Executive Chef Christopher Cramer explained that he was blending the Peruvian-inspired cuisine with traditional American tastes. The flavors of Peru came through, and the bounty of American portions was overwhelming, as I also ate in the spectacular view of Biscayne Bay. Even in this brief visit to Miami, I felt the glamour, experienced the visual stimulation, and sampled the lux lifestyle, which has made it a perpetual playground.

For more information in planning your visit:

www.sonesta.com/CoconutGrove, http://www.vizcayamuseum.org , www.OffTheHookah.com, http://www.islandqueencruises.com/

Finding picture perfect postcard views on Prague’s Charles Bridge isn’t difficult, but during the peak hours of the tourist season you may need to check yourself and be a little patient.

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“Is it always this crowded?” I asked an arts and crafts vendor on one of the Czech Republic’s iconic and top tourist attractions. It was a little after ten in the morning, and the flow of visitors on the pedestrian only bridge above the meandering Vltava River was in full force.

“Oh, this is not so bad,” she laughed and went on to explain how during the months of June, July, August, and even well into September the Karlov most, as it is known locally, is flooded with wave after wave of tour groups. Good for the many artists and crafts vendors and local economy, bad for the casual strollers.

“Early morning or late in the afternoon are the best times to see the bridge, I think,” she added. She was right both with respect to the crowds as well as the best lighting for photography, digital or otherwise.

Until about 10 a.m. and perhaps a little after five in the afternoon, the bridge offers up some spectacular views of Prague’s hill top Vysehrad castle, the historic river that runs through the heart of the city, and the gothic bridge towers that guard the adjacent old town in fine photographic light.
Just keep in mind that once the many tour groups surge over the centuries old walkway you may find yourself swimming with or against the tourist tide and your only safe bet will be to hug one of the bridge walls until the sauntering deluge subsides.

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However, you can make the most of your wait by taking in the impressive and unique work of local arts and crafts (there’s talent here), the ubiquitous and kitschy souvenir stalls, and one or two talented jazz or Dixieland bands belting out lively tools near the center of the bridge. The pause also provides you with a chance to get your bearings and take in the rich Bohemian flavor that the bridge and the city have to offer.

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It’s a short walk to the Old Town square and Prague’s famous Astronomical clock, the Tyn Church, Jan Hus memorial, St. Nicholas church, and the many outdoor food and wine stalls, and cafes and wine vendors that line the large square.

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Hang out in front of the Astronomical clock a minute or two before the hour and wait for the 15th century mechanical show or the line of Korean couples taking their wedding photos at the site.  For a more modern touch stop by the John Lennon wall on the north side of the bridge and take in the impromptu art, graffiti, and tribute to the late Beatle. While Lennon never actually visited the site, hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists have since his death, leaving notes or flowers to the songwriter and singer who wrote, sang and championed to, `Give Peace a Chance.’

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Finally, there’s this: when you visit the bridge and the city make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes. Avoid heels or trendy but slippery leather soles. The well worn and winding cobblestone streets that lead to the bridge and the uneven stones on the bridge itself can make for a hazardous walk for the unsuspecting strolling sightseer.

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Avoid a stumble, sprained ankle, or face planting fall as you wonder how the stylish and chic Czech women seem to artfully and effortlessly negotiate the problem in high three inch heels.

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h well, there are some mysteries in life that man is never meant to resolve but only ponder over with a great Czech beer in one of the most scenic cities in the world. That too, you can find at either end of the bridge or anywhere in Prague. Cheers! Or in the local vernacular, na zdravi!

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We started our South Carolina getaway in beautiful Santee State Park where we took a morning Fisheagle pontoon boat tour of the swamps and gorgeous Lake Marion. We saw ospreys feeding their young in huge nests, egrets, herons, alligators, hyacinth, pungent water lilies, Jesus birds (they walk on water), snake birds, and other fascinating things like a dead alligator rotting on the banks of the swamp (talk about stench from a 14 foot dead alligator lying in the sun!!).

When we finally got our appetites back, we dined at a wonderful, authentic, VERY Southern, diner at Lone Star BBQ just outside the park. Here, like much of the south, BBQ is a NOUN, not a verb. They offered tantalizing grits and tomato pie, hush puppies, ribs, chicken, bread pudding, collard greens, hash…and so much more–truly the best southern cooking. It’s a wonderful old mercantile as well as restaurant and well worth the stop.

The next day, we drove to Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina, and we enjoyed the South Carolina State Museum. Afterwards we checked into the Inn at USC, a beautiful hotel with exceptional service staffed by students who are learning hospitality and hotel studies. The service and hospitality both made the grade and deserved an A++. Later we decided to sample yet another local BBQ called Little Pig’s BBQ, a must while in Columbia.

Columbia’s Zoo was outstanding with lovely gardens, and after a long day on foot we opted to relax on a sunset boat trip, sipping cocktails out on Lake Murray where thousands of purple martin birds congregate every night on “Bomb Island.” It’s a spectacle of nature to behold as thousands of birds perform as if on cue to their own wondrous ritual and internal time clock.

Our next stop was famous Myrtle Beach and its outlying areas. The Marina Grande Dunes provided us a luxurious location from which to enjoy the area’s attractions and beaches. The pool was gorgeous and offered a romantic respite at night, as did the property’s own private beach.

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After a lovely sunrise, we enjoyed Ripley’s Aquarium, Broadway at the Beach, Brookgreen Gardens Freestyle Music Park, and Huntington Beach State Park (affiliated with Huntington Beach in California) where we saw alligators in the marsh and where we also body surfed on the beach. So glad the gators stayed in the marsh and did not join us on the beach…I always say: “it’s better to eat lunch than be lunch!”

We drove to Carowinds, a unique Carolinas theme park, open year round, whereas half the park lies in North Carolina and half lies in South Carolina. Our rustic yet cozy cabin at Camp Wilderness on the edge of the Carowinds property was the perfect place to stay while enjoying the park and the outlying areas. We even had a small kitchen, and the proximity to the attractions was very convenient.

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In the morning we enjoyed a tour of South Carolina’s Old English Country and Historic Brattonsville, a colonial settlement, where the classic movie “Patriot” was filmed starring Mel Gibson. The place was fabulous and the history was gripping. A fascinating woman, Miss Kitty, whose ancestors were the real slaves there on the actual plantation, gave us a period tour as well. We learned about the resident heirloom chickens, goats, and pigs that are actually endangered and are no longer farmed. It’s an actual working plantation even after 300 years.

So glad we followed the locals’ advice and stopped in nearby, historic York for lunch afterwards at The Brandon House. The chef trained at the Cordon Bleu in France. Everything was delicious and beautifully presented. The darling, small, historic building that houses the eatery only added to the romantic ambiance.

Blending the old and the new, this South Carolina road trip far exceeded our expectations.

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Carolina Low Country’s Palm Key Offers Unparalleled Beauty

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One of the most beautiful and serene spots in the south is the Carolina Low Country and gorgeous Palm Key. This is a majestic place that’s both magical and peaceful looking out at the wetlands and islands of South Carolina, with huge sprawling oaks and Spanish Moss everywhere. We had a spectacular view from the deck of our gorgeous private rental home. There were even a few resident alligators in the pond.

The owners are multi-talented folks and cooked us a fabulous southern gourmet dinner at the main dining hall after we went crabbing to collect the daily catch from the crab pots.

We steamed the crabs right on the premises and you simply cannot get any fresher than that! Sitting at the head of the Broad River, about 17 miles from the sea, visitors to Palm Key are fortunate to enjoy miles of pristine salt-marsh, and blazing sunsets in this peaceful setting. Those looking for a romantic getaway will savor the tranquility, fantastic accomodations, and delightful meals.

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At high tide, outdoor enthusiasts at Palm Key kayak to see the dolphins, egrets, and other resident wildlife right from the very cottages and homes on property. Palm Key’s knowledgeable kayak guides do everything to make kayaking in this unique locale truly unforgettable.

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Palm Key is quite simply an unspeakably beautiful wildlife sanctuary, and the hospitality is unparalleled. It truly is a hidden gem, like none other.

While staying at Palm Key’s wonderful central location we took a spectacular road trip excursion and tour of the South Carolina Low country–all marshes and beaches and islands of South Carolina.

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We ate lunch in Beaufort, South Carolina, at a wonderful restaurant called Panini Café, which just happens to have the very best Panini we’d ever had and a fabulous pasta salad with a creamy mustardy-sweet dressing…delicious!

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We visited the Lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park, the Beaufort waterfront, the Old Sheldon Church ruins from 1745, Chapel of Ease from 1740, several beaches and numerous gorgeous plantations. One interesting point of interest was the grave of Thomas Heyward, Jr. who signed the Declaration of Independence.

The history and the beauty of the entire low country were unique and captivating. What a wonderful place, so peaceful and so breathtakingly pretty.

The drive through the gorgeous Bitteroot Mountains of Idaho with the many serendipities of changing scenery to see is THE reason we love RVing. On Highway #93 we drove from Arco to twelve miles South of Salmon for an overnight at perhaps the most idyllic RV park we have ever found: Heald’s Haven in the Salmon River valley. Willie and Connie Heald have lived in the beautiful location for 42 years and are so friendly to visitors as well as to the many deer they feed.  We arrived a couple of hours before dark with two different groups of five deer welcoming us.  We took a peaceful walk beside the river on the pathway Willie had cleared for his campers, and then we enjoyed a campfire in the lovely grill with its iron railing that had silhouetted bears and deer marching around our logs.  Bill set up our grill to cook our salmon and sausage while looking at the three honking geese land on the Salmon River in front of us. This camp offers full 30 amp hook-ups and pull-throughs for about 20 RV’s under beautiful maple trees on level grass land beneath tall trees.

 

4895e5e50Some of the guests have returned annually for 28 years. Fishing here is terrific; one boasted a 31inch Pike. Within this peaceful valley you can wonder at the myriad stars in the night sky. This little valley at about 4,500 feet is surrounded by picturesque mountains covered with yellowing grass, some trees, and a few patches of jagged dark grey rocks.
4892e5e50Absolutely beautiful and so very, very silent except for the gurgle of the river. If you enjoy a climb, there are plenty of mountains here, and the small town of Salmon, about 10 miles north, is authentically as it was in decades past and has several nice resaturants. We’ll long remember our lovely stay here.

For reservations call 1 208 756 3929 or email: wheald@centurytel.net

 

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On another leg of this extensive, rambling RV trip we We were traversing a very long stretch of nearly 300 miles through barren deserts of New Mexico. We had shyed away from several meager campgrounds which did not look very promising or inviting on this route when we came to a wonderful find: Green grass and trees and flowers in a desert are quite rare in these parts!
Desert Rose Resort in Bloomfield, New Mexico is a wonderful Good Sam Park at 1900 East Blanco Blvd.48ae2be00

 

At elevation 5,438 feet it is a welcome site with excellent facilities for 10 tents, 3 log cabins, 61 RV spaces (47 pullthroughs). It is the perfect place to stay! Desert Rose Resort has a good recreation room and store, lovely grounds with roses and grass and many trees and even a working pumpjack for oil and gas.

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The pool and playground are well maintained and the dog yard is large and clean. We really enjoyed our stay here and highly recommend it. Click above or phone: 1 866 459 833948c704c30

 

Another terrific find for a campground is one you would never happen upon unless you know about it in advance: Okatoma Resort and RV Park at Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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This private campground looks like a beautifully maintained park around a lovely lake with ducks and a few unusual geese, and a pen of chickens in the back, in case you want fresh eggs!48b24dda0

With 68 spaces with hook-ups, flat tent sites, and rental cabins and a three bedroom cottage, Okatoma Resort will surpass all your campground expectations!

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The meandering lane into the resort fools anyone who might not have explicit directions for the two miles off highway #49, but the road is safe for the largest rigs. The quiet and impeccably clean facilities have a welcoming, large entertainment room, laundry, bathhouse, playground, play area for pets, outdoor games, and lots more. You can fish and use small boats. The creek also offers lots of activities and there are nature trails. Make your reservation early for this very popular place for reunions, recreation, and even long-term stays. Although no cable for TV, you will get 10 major stations clearly with just an antenna and high speed WiFi is free. You will be so happy you discovered this most unusual campground, just two hours from New Orleans and very close to University of Southern Mississippi. Reservations: www.okatomaresort.com or
phone 1 601 520 66

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The small town of Haines nestles peacefully overlooking the remote shores of Alaska’s pristine, 90-mile Lynn Canal-the longest Fjord in America. Haines lies at the base of the fog shrouded Takshanuk and Chilkat Mountains, glistening glaciers crawling down their steep black granite canyons. A belt of foothills covered in Pacific Northwest evergreens is all that separates the town from these towering massifs.

Haines is a quiet little harbor town of 2,400 souls. They’re mostly flannel-shirted fishermen, loggers, artists, retirees, and a sprinkle of gold miners, all sharing two things in common. They love the spectacular natural vista of fjord, forest, and mountain that greets them each morning when they open their curtains, and they have no desire to live the city life anymore. They’re here to get away from it all. Some might call them reclusive, and they’d be proud of this.

There’s no rush hour traffic in this isolated village, and the residents all know each other, perhaps too well. But they’re genuine and friendly and look you in the face when they talk to you. Their hands are calloused hands from hours of hauling in heavy gillnets laden with struggling salmon, or working outdoors. Bears scavenge through garbage cans in back yards, and the occasional moose strolls through the streets. Visiting Haines is like time traveling back to the 1950’s, and, sadly, it’s not something you’re likely to see in the lower 48 anymore-it’s a remnant of America that has been lost to iPhones, MTV and urban sprawls.

Certainly the residents are subject to the usual squabbling you’ll find in any small community, but it’s the sort of place that, when it comes down to it, people rally around to help neighbors who have fallen on hard times. The newly unemployed are likely to find a fisherman on their doorstep with a couple of fresh salmon or have a hunter with some choice moose cuts for the freezer dropping by or a neighbor chopping wood for an elderly woman.

As you might expect from its expansive natural setting, most of the attractions in Haines revolve around the great outdoors, and indeed, the town is a world-renowned haven for outdoor adventurers. During its short summer from May to September, backpackers, campers, kayakers, rock climbers, and mountain bikers converge here to ply their sports. They paddle on scenic gray-silted lakes, hike through rugged, heavily forested trails, scale impossible rock faces, and free fall for miles on bone jarring descents down skinny mountain trails.

We start our Haines experience with a kayak trip with seasoned guide Nathaniel (“Nacho”) Stephens, from Alaska Mountain Guides & Climbing School. Nacho tells us about the natural attractions around Haines, driving us out to Chilkat State Park, along winding gravel roads. We drive past a cove with a small picturesque salmon cannery jutting out over the water on a pier, and a sailboat moored in the harbor with trees growing around it.

The wind is too strong across the Chilkat inlet, so we drive north back through town to Chilkoot Lake, where we put our kayaks in and paddle comfortably around the perimeter of this large lake. The water is a grayish color from the alluvial run off from the mountains, and the lush trees growing right up to the water’s edge teem with life. We paddle directly underneath a large, mature, black bald eagle that looks down at us with disdain.

Stopping on a bank covered with undergrowth, we tie our kayaks to some small branches and have a sandwich lunch while Nacho tells us of his worldwide guiding travels and about the flora and fauna in the area. Paddling back into the wind is tough but rewarding, as we cruise along the far shore of the lake looking at cascading waterfalls and vast mountainsides that taper off into the lake.

On our drive back, at the mouth of the Chilkoot River where the salmon are frantically running, we see a beautiful brown mother bear with two cubs, their long brown fir rippling with every step. They amble along the riverbank, not 30 yards from some of the fishermen. Standing up to their waists in water, the fishermen do a double take when they see the bears behind them. “Bear”, they yell down the river to the next fishermen, and then turn back to their fly-fishing. Only in Alaska!
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A couple of days later we cycle back towards the Chilkoot River along the coast road with Thom Ely, owner of Sockeye Cycle Company who leads Alaska Bicycle Tours. We pause on the roadside to watch a mother Bear with two cubs strolling idly along the beach. The chubby bears sniff for any tasty salmon morsels that might have washed up on the shore of the fjord. Looking up behind us, we see a bald eagle keeping watch in a tall Douglas fir, just across the road.

Then, back on our bikes at the Chilkoot River mouth, we see another bear with three cubs across the river, all shoulder deep in long grass, frolicking around. One never seems to get tired of watching the wildlife in Alaska, and this is especially so in Haines.

The next day, for another fix of Alaska wildlife, we take the Chilkat River Adventures Company’s flat bottom aluminum jet boat on a high-powered cruise through the extensive swampy Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Despite the noise of the engines, I am amazed at the wild life we see on this 48,000-acre bottomland, where the Chilkat, Klehini, Tsirku and Chilkoot Rivers converge, and diverge with each other. The waterway is shallow in places, a muddy brown, with reeds and thick growths of trees sprouting from its banks.
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We see several eagle nests above us, huge platforms of branches and twigs that have been built up over the years; some are 4-5 feet deep and easily that much across. The occasional bald eagle with black feathers, white tail feathers and yellow talons soars high above us when we get a little too close. The six-foot wingspan of these raptors is breathtakingly impressive, as they flap with a swooshing sound. Further on down the river, a couple of shy moose spy on us from behind some brush; and panicking waterfowl flap desperately over the stagnant, marshy water away from us. The occasional weathered clapboard shack lies amongst the overgrowth, covered in a dense growth of moss that is endemic to S.E. Alaska.

Rainbow Glacier Adventures took us on a tour of an active gold mine that brought us up to speed on the gold mining history of Haines, and we visited a working gold mine-one of the highlights of my Alaska gold tour. Holly Jo Parnell picked us up at our hotel to drive us 35 miles out to the Big Nugget Mine.

This open cast mine is located at the end of a 9-mile long gravel road, in a ravine at the bottom of several mountains. It’s a gorgeous place, where years of gold mining operations have formed a flat plateau. Here we can watch the gold miners operating the heavy equipment to extract those precious ounces of lustrous gold from rocks and dirt.

Holly Jo gives a demonstration of gold panning, and we swirl, sift and sieve the dirt and debris from our pans to find a nice sized little nugget gleaming up at us, which we get to keep.

The return journey includes taking a trip down a side road to the ghost town of Porcupine Creek. In 1905 during the Porcupine Creek mining boom time, over 2,000 people resided here. Today, little remains of the town except for a couple of weathered old clap board houses with broken, sagging roofs, and some collapsed piles of logs and wood that once were houses or log cabins. It’s a sad sight, but its former residents mined 81,000 ounces of gold from the area, so life here can’t have been too bad.
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We’ve seen so much nature, and now it’s time to see Haines’s other activities. Our Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Tour of the Klukwan Village is excellent. The tribal longhouse is new enough for us to smell the Cedar planks. It has a fire pit sunk into its center with an opening in the roof above. It took the tribe 5 months to build this longhouse, and decorate it with totem poles, which tell several stories in their deeply etched carvings. Tribal cultural leader, Danny Klanott, 33, points out bears, ravens, eagles, whales and other animals that are such a deep, symbolic part of their culture.
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We are treated to a dancing display by an ensemble of pretty Jilkaat girls ranging from eight to eighteen. Draped with colorfully decorated red, black and blue woolen cloaks alive with native symbols, and holding ceremonial paddles, these demure girls, led by Daniel, put on a dance performance their elders would be proud of. Thousands of years of heritage show in their faces, as they gyrate and chant the Knock on Door Dance and the Salmon Fishing Dance.

Living in Seattle, I’ve seen my share of Northwest Native ceremonial dancing by professionals, but these girls easily rival the slickest tourist performances that rain city has to offer. Most of the kids live outside the village of 50 Jilkaats, but return during summers to absorb their tribal culture and reunite with their friends.

Salmon are the nourishment and spiritual lifeblood of the Jilkaat Kwaan, and we watch a demonstration of how salmon are prepared for the smoking rooms. Our guide uses a deceptively sharp looking paring knife to defin, gut, slice, and debone salmon to reveal its rich red meat. It sounds gory, but she’s obviously done it thousands of time before; she can clean a fish in less than a minute. “Now if we can only stop the bears from nosing around the smokehouses”, she says-and she’s not joking.

Our next stop is to watch two master totem carvers working on a thick trunk of yellow cedar. This piece will take six months to complete and is to be emplaced near the village’s greeting house. The carvers inscribe the outline of their totem’s features in pencil before chipping away at the log. They’ll do this for months, depending on the size and elaborate decorations of the totem.

Back in sleepy Haines, we explore its museums, art centers, and other quirky attractions. A walk through Fort Seward is a must. Once a frontier outpost, Fort Seward was set up to establish the U.S. land claim for this area from the Canadians, and construction was begun in 1903. We walk past Officer’s Row, a tidy collection of well-preserved white buildings, some now serving as B&Bs as well as the fort’s headquarters, the parade ground, Captain’s Quarters, and the old Guard House.

Also on the Fort grounds are the Chilkat Center for the Arts and the Alaska Indian Arts skill Center, both open to the public, with an eclectic series of galleries boasting colorful contemporary work by native artists, and a room where you can watch totem pole carving.
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A walk through the American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum in Haines is particularly instructive. Dioramas, photographs, exhibitions, tours and live raptor presentations tell everything you ever need to know about these superb birds. The museum exists because of the close proximity of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

Haines hosts the renowned Alaska Bald Eagle Festival every November, with 3,000 eagles as the special guests. The eagles are drawn to a four-mile stretch of the Chilkat River to feed on the late salmon run. The trees, I’m told, are absolutely packed with eagles, and the event draws thousands of spectators, journalists and photographers from around the world. It’s no wonder that Haines is named “The Valley of the Eagles”.

On Main Street we come across the truly unique and world famous Hammer Museum. It’s easy to spot because there’s a huge 20-foot tall hammer standing in front of it. It would be fair to say that museum curator, Dave Pahl, has an obsession with hammers-all types of hammers.

This affable and amiable man has collected so many types of hammers that his wife eventually told him they needed to be moved from the garage. Rather than part with them, Dave started the Hammer Museum in 2002 and has never regretted it.

Dave’s sincerity shows through when he tells me that his mission is to show visitors the history and multiple uses of hammers and how important they are to society. He ranks the invention of the hammer up there with the wheel and fire. And he may be right. Inside, hanging on every inch of wall space in the four rooms are hammers-1500 in total.

I discover there are so many varieties of the humble hammer that my initial incredulousness has been replaced by a genuine respect for Dave and his amazing collection. I rate the Hammer Museum as one of Haine’s Top Three attractions, not least because of the fascinating stories that Dave tells about each and every one of his hammers.

There are drink hammers for tapping against a glass to order more drinks in night clubs in the 1920’s; triple claw hammers; Farrier’s tool hammers; cobbler’s hammers; combination drills and hammers; coffin keys; bed keys used for tightening the bed springs on early beds; political hammers; clock winding keys; metal tack hammers; cattle stunning hammers; meat tenderizers; hog tattoo hammers; chisel hammers; electricians hammers; adjustable head hammers; staple pulling hammers; spring eye hammers; Clark bar hammers; box terrier hammers; ripper hammers; fabric block printing hammers; bung starters, and literally hundreds more variants. I’m astonished.

When Dave was digging the foundation for the museum, he uncovered an 800-year old warrior’s pick or slave killer hammer used by the Tlingits, displayed inside. The Smithsonian Museum of American History donated the mannequins, posing with hammers. The Hammer Museum should be one of your first stops in Haines, and for the $3 entry fee is worth every cent. Do not miss it!

Tucked away behind the village, at the fairgrounds, is a recreated turn of the century western street complete with boardwalk and facades over the wooden shops. These houses were the town props for the 1991 movie “White Fang” based on Jack London’s famous book by the same name, written in 1906. Although the film was lensed out of town, the city had the foresight to reassemble the prop storefronts in the fairgrounds and encourage local businesses to set up shop therein.

One of the most visited places in this well kept facade is the Haines Brewing Company, where you’ll meet master brewer and ZZ Top lookalike Paul Wheeler. Sample some of his fine hand crafted ales and beers including: Dalton Trail Ale, Lookout Stout, Eldred Rock Red, IPA, and Captain Cook’s Spruce Tip Ale. It’s a small operation, but extremely popular with the locals who are constantly dropping by to refill their growlers. Sample Dave’s homemade root beer-it’s delicious.

There are a few restaurants in Haines, but your dining experience should definitely include breakfast in the Bamboo Room Restaurant, housed in what looks like a red barn. Listen to the friendly banter of the local fishermen and interplay between the locals. It’s free entertainment and will give you a flavor of what life is like in Haines. Try the wide selection of home baked donuts and pastries at the Chilkat Bakery and Restaurant.

 
How to get to Haines:
Traveling by the large, comfortable ferries on the Alaska Marine Highway is a great way to get to Haines. When I arrived, the shuttle from my motel was not there, so a local retiree put my bags in her station wagon and drove me to the motel. It turns out that her daughter worked there some years ago.

 

 

Where to stay in Haines:
The Captain’s Choice Motel offers comfortable rooms with laundry facilities, a bar overlooking the Fjord, and close proximity to downtown Haines.

Wednesday the 3rd of August found me teaching a group of youth about long-since gone pioneers who braved the Oregon and Mormon Trails upon which we stood. Our “lesson” ended with our hiking a portion of that trail. The location was Mormon Flats just east of Big Mountain, Utah (a landmark spot for pioneers headed west; it was a climb that marked the final approach into the Great Salt Lake Valley and a jumping off point en route to Oregon.)
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Photo of Great Salt Lake Valley as Pioneers would have first seen it. (photo by Darrell J. Robinson)

Thursday August 4th, less than 24 hours later, my wife and I had hopped a Delta flight to Portland, and with a small northwesterly drive, we walked the final steps of that Oregon Trail (indeed 600 yards further) to spend two days and nights at the Columbia River gem that is the Cannery Pier Hotel in the town where that Oregon Trail ended: the coastal treasure that is Astoria, Oregon. http://www.oldoregon.com/The Cannery Pier Hotel http://www.cannerypierhotel.com/

With its hook of being located “600 yards into the Columbia” should be enough to lure the would-be traveler. Others might need the promise of a vintage Cadillac tour of town or a self-guided bicycle tour after mounting one of the beachcomber bikes awaiting them on the pier outside.
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For me, all wonderful amenities, yet the people of the Cannery Pier Hotel will be my memory of choice. The epitome of this home away from home was to be found in Mavis (the unofficial spokesperson – aka. Housekeeper of the CPH.) As my wife and I prepared to leave our room some two days later, Mavis was busy at work in the next room. I approached her with a question, not expecting the life changing answer she would give. In asking if we might see some of the other suites the CPH had to offer, Mavis was more than accommodating. As we spoke in her native Spanish, I asked what had brought her here to Astoria.
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Her reply was that of a simple yet certainly romantic story: her love, a sailor by trade, had come to her native Cartagena, Colombia, and had brought back the most important cargo of his career . . . her. I asked if she was content here, and her reply put me into a tailspin. She said, “Yes, I love the people of Astoria and especially my employers who are so good to me, but the life here is so different than my life in Cartagena. There, everyone gathers regularly with nothing in mind but to be together and to enjoy the good things of life. Here, everyone is so busy, so focused on things instead of people. I miss my people. I miss my country and that way of life!” What a fitting capstone to our time on the Oregon Coast. Sure, Google the reviews on the CPH if you need proof positive that you would be crazy to stay elsewhere in Astoria; for Brandi and me, Mavis is our proof and our draw as we plot a speedy return.
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While there, no day in Astoria is complete without a trip to the Maritime Museum (http://www.crmm.org/) located in the center of town. And, the early scheduling of that visit will mean the perfect enhancement of the remainder of your stops in town. The museum centers around the details of the mighty Columbia meeting the unyielding Pacific Ocean and maritime mayhem that has ensued since Oregon became a port. While in Astoria, after the museum, one would greatly enjoy a trip to the oldest standing home in the town (the home of Astoria’s famous “bar pilot” turned banker) James Flavel. The Flavel House (http://cumtux.org/) stands as evidence of pioneers not only having lived in Astoria, but having truly “arrived” as well.

While perhaps less vintage, fast becoming Astoria staples are stops like the Bowpicker for Ahi tuna fish and chips (http://www.bowpicker.com/) or Josephson’s (http://www.josephsons.com/) for anything sea prominent having been smoked to bliss. No trip to Astoria is complete without a view at the top of the Astoria Column (http://www.astoriacolumn.org/). Brandi and I were like kids again as we watched a family prepare their balsa glider for take off and then launch it into a minute long plummet into the evergreens below. Our trip out of town found us at the eclectic bakery in town (www.bluescorcher.com) where we treated ourselves to Kalamata and Asiago Sourdough and a homemade, customer-concocted hot chocolate/steamer (Astoria can chill off in the late afternoon).

Certainly charming and nostalgic, Astoria was only one of several finds along the Oregon Coast. Within a day trip of our base camp of the CPH we ventured south as far as the Three Capes Scenic Route. Near the south end of this breathtaking loop, the personal highlight of this amateur psammologist (sand collector) had to be “Dune Lake” (sand dunes and pines as far as the eye can see).
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Working our way back north, on a tip from our new found friends at the only late night gift shop in Cannon Beach (Hangin’ At The Beach), we treated ourselves to Fultano’s Pizza (http://www.cbfultanos.com/) and a few photo ops of a sunset Oregon style.

The suggested itinerary of day two, much like day one, along the Oregon Coast, came to us courtesy of the Warrenton/Astoria Visitors Bureau (http://www.oldoregon.com). One could spend a month enjoying the suggestions from Stacey Malstrom of MaxwellPR (http://www.maxwellpr.com/) (Astoria and Warrenton’s PR team). For us, day two “down south” meant passing some amazing ocean vistas.
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We were drawn to pay homage at the Tillamook Cheese Factory (http://www.tillamook.com/cheesefactory/index.html) and another, less commercial factory in Tillamook with a quaint ambiance to match its unique name (http://www.blueheronoregon.com). After an enjoyable, instructive peek at John Cook’s glass blowing studio (http://www.johncookstudios.com/) in Gearhart, we jumped at Stacey’s suggestion of a kayak trip through the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It was without comparison. Two competent, affable, seasonal forest rangers led our expedition of 9 eager passengers (in two canoes and two kayaks) to various spots of interest and with enjoyable historical Lewis-Clark based narrations along the way.

Hardly possible to float this western-most stretch of Pacific Ocean fed river without feeling like a member of the expedition that first permanently charted this river (Were we Lewis and Brandi Clark or was it reversed?). This might have been the most memorable of all our adventures along the coast; it’s one we are sure to bring the kids back to on our already-in-the-works return. In fact, our afternoon on the river could have only been topped by an evening spent by the fire, overlooking the mighty Columbia as seen from our Riverfront/Oceanside room at the CPH. All told, certainly less than 48 hours on the Oregon Coast has never been spent so well!

It sat on its parallel tracks, this Iron Horse. With thick black smoke rising from its stack and white clouds of steam–the energy that drives it forward–escaping from pipes attached to the sides of its huge boiler. It’s in amazingly good shape for something that is over a hundred years old, I think. I unlimber my pony–my ride–that is comprised of aluminum and carbon fiber. Like the steam engine that is building up its strength for the long pull of passenger cars through the Needles Mountain range to the north, I’m stretching out my legs, warming them up.

The sun is just climbing out from behind the mesas of black coal and granite east of Durango, Colorado. Its brilliant rays reflect off the snow-covered peaks of the LaPlata Mountains further to the west. Though it is the end of May, a time of warm summer breezes and hints of the summer to come back East, it is only a few degrees above freezing here, a mile and a half higher in elevation. What a brilliant blue sky, I note. A sky I truly love. Not a trace of clouds.

I inspect my ride for any mechanical flaws or failings. The three ranges of gears–chain links as called by the cycling world–up front, the chain, the two derailleurs–the devices that move the chain from one gear to the next while at the same time keeping tension on it–and the eight gears on the rear axle are well lubricated. Nothing out of place, I decide.
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I throw my leg over the seat of my black and silver-colored Bianchi road bike, lock the special riding shoe to the right pedal and push down, propelling the bicycle forward. Quickly I position my left shoe over its pedal and lock it in with a snap. Slowly, I circle the empty parking lot of the city’s post office.

Boy are my legs stiff, I tell myself, but I am ready for this, I assure myself, I think. It is my first time riding this tour, and I lack the confidence of the more experienced riders waiting at the start point a block away. I have spent the past two months riding and climbing the high hills of the local roads, getting my heart, lungs and legs ready for this. The thinner air at this altitude makes riding very difficult for the newcomer, but I’ve been here a year now and am well used to that.

“Are you ready for this, Doug?” Deb looks out from the window of the driver’s side of our van.

“As ready as I’m ever going to be,” I reply making one more lap of the lot. Stopping next to the van, I lean down and kiss her. “You’d better be going if you’re going to get past the roadblocks before they close it.”

“Be careful.”

“It’s just a tour, not a race. What could possibly happen?” I know better though. Four years earlier I had been in a race where I’d crashed and badly broken my pelvis. Whenever one rides with a mass of other riders, anything can happen. If one wants to dance, I repeat to myself as I have many times before, one must sometimes pay the piper.

“Yes, I know, but be careful anyway.”

“Yes, dear.”

I leave the lot and hear the van drive off. It’s a 50 mile drive to the finish line in Silverton via Highway 550. A short distance away is where the first group of tour riders are massing for their start on what promises to be a grueling ride. There are already about 50 riders on College Street in front of the town’s McDonald’s. That’s appropriate, I decide, since they are sponsoring this part of the event.

The Iron Horse Classic is not just a race to see who can ride the route the fastest, but a series of different events: the race, the Citizen’s tour, a time trial and a mountain bike trail race. I am doing the tour, which is where the participants just ride the route–no time record, no racing, at least not officially. There are groups that will keep their own times, but they are racing against past times–a personal best contest.

The group has now grown to nearly 300. The first of the eventual 2,500 others.

Nearby, I can see the dark cloud of coal smoke and white steam getting thicker. It is a unique mix of contrasting colors. The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Engine will pull passenger cars full of tourists up the rail that follows the Animas River to Silverton through the flats north of town full of cattle and elk ranches and the set of canyons carved by the river through the eastern part of the Needles Mountains. The unique and high-pitched whistle blows at exactly seven o’clock. Our goal isn’t to beat each other, but to beat this first Iron Horse–the name the Native Americans gave such beasts–of the day to Silverton.

Durango sits at 6,500 feet above sea level.

All through town spectators line the route. The raucous clanging of their small cow bells serves to encourage us as we pass.

There is a slight hill as we leave the town limits. It’s only a warm-up. The highway for the next 11 miles is straight, with a mild climbing grade.

The riders around me are in good spirits and there is a lot of chatter. There are groups of friends and family mixed amongst the individual riders. Others have only met at this precise moment. It is amazing how camaraderie instantly develops. I know none of their names, but am instantly connected. At the start I had stood next to a gentleman who is riding this as a present to himself on his 60th birthday. I’m not sure if he’ll still consider it a good present once we truly start climbing.

The long line of riders is very colorful. Each of us is wearing riding gear of Spandex shorts and light weight jerseys. The jerseys are brightly colored and bear many different patterns, pictures, or emblems. Sometimes the shorts match the color scheme of the jersey, but most often they are just black. Though right now it is covered by cool weather gear, my jersey sports a brownish-yellow background, with a large, similarly colored, five-pointed star on a black background. The words U.S. Army is beneath it. I am a retired member of that military branch.

I begin to pass someone wearing a jersey with the symbol and colors of one of the other military branches. “Come on, Air Force,” I say as I pass him. “Let’s fly.” He chuckles, but I never see him again.

Though it looks flat, I remind myself as I look at the road ahead, I know we’re already starting to climb.

We enter the town of Hermosa. Commuter community, I identify it by the style of housing. On the other side of this town begins the first true climb.

Hermosa is at 6,644 feet above sea level. I have climbed 144 feet of elevation, and traveled 11 miles.

A passing motor-cop announces the racers are coming and to “hold our line” so as not to interfere. They started 45 minutes after us and we knew they would overtake us quickly. The majority of these riders are professionals, as the Iron Horse is part of a tour to determine who is the best in the nation. We can hear the sound of tires on the road as the 100 or so riders come up from the rear and pass by. “There they go,” I say to another cyclist as I pass her. “The peleton is already climbing Shalona.” Her look of ignorance tells me that she doesn’t know mwhat “peleton” means. I know what it is, I say to myself. It’s where a large group of cyclists are all clumped together with no more that six inches between them. It would be nice to be in one, I cluck my tongue against my teeth. Drafting a bunch of other riders would make the ride easier. Ah well. I was in that when one of the other participants cut me off, sending me crashing to the pavement, breaking my pelvis when the ball at the upper end of my femur was driven through the hip socket. I shudder at that memory. The last of the peleton disappears around the corner at the top of the first terrace of upcoming climbs on the way to the Durango Mountain Ski Resort.
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Here it comes, I think as I start climbing, and I feel the first of what is going to be a familiar burn of acetic acid in my muscles. Though not as steep as the climbs after the resort, it is over ten miles long, and constant. In no time I’m shifted down into the lowest gear. This will separate the prepared from the otherwise, I know, especially if they haven’t been riding on roads at this elevation. Sure enough riders begin to slow and fall behind. I pass many quickly. I’m just riding this for the fun of it, I remember, so passing others really means nothing. Deb would lock me up in a dark room if I even think about racing again, I tell myself. That time period after the accident had been worse for her, I remember, especially when she had to go through the news that I had almost died on the operating table after one of the razor-sharp bone chips cut a major artery inside my pelvis.

I still haven’t been passed by the first Iron Horse whose whistle had started my ride. It makes good time on the section of rail between Durango and Hermosa, but when it hits this hill it slows to a chugging crawl. Even I can make time against it.

Along the route spectators are cheering us on with shouts and cow bells. This really does help one keep going when the leg and shoulder muscles are crying to stop.

“Shoulders?” I’ve been asked on many occasions by non-cyclists.

“Oh, yeah,” I’ve answered. “Your posture on the bike has you leaning forward on your hands and arms. You’re doing a static push up the whole ride.”

At the top of Shalona is a rest stop with water, outhouses and an Emergency Medical Technician, with the accompanying ambulance. I pay no attention to a professional photographer, with a camera and a long fancy lens. The medical personnel were something they didn’t have at my accident, I remember. I thank the Lord that the artery wasn’t cut during the crash. But then, I decide, it wouldn’t have mattered as I would have bled out in less than five minutes.

I shift down and immediately hear the clatter of my chain against the front derailleur. The cable has slipped a bit and the only gear I can use is the second one in the low range. After I reset it, I can change out of the cooler weather gear into just my shorts, long sleeve under armor shirt, and jersey.

The long, black riding pants, long sleeved jersey and windbreaker come off. Opening my repair kit, containing an Allen wrench set, Phillips screwdriver, spare inner tube and a kit to quickly fix a flat, I pull out the Allen wrench. Flipping the bike upside down, I make the adjustment and test what I’ve done by turning the crank and shifting through the gears. No more clattering, it’s ready again.

The Durango area is considered a high desert because of its low humidity. In order to stay hydrated I have to constantly drink from the water bottles that are carried in holders on the bike’s frame. Walking my bike over to a set of thermoses, I refill them, get back on the bike and reenter the line of riders.

There is a line of tall cliffs marching along the left side of the road, and the first of the Needle Mountains, with their snow-capped, brilliantly white peaks, high into the air on our right.

I pass a couple riding next to each other. “And just think,” I shout cheerfully, “we paid someone to let us do this to ourselves.” They chuckle as I leave them behind.

From this point we have more hills to climb, but just as many downhill glides. Though the right side lane is closed for the riders, the inner lanes still have car traffic on them. We come to the Durango Mountain Ski Resort, the half-way point at about twenty-five miles. State Trooper cars block any further car traffic and the riders have the whole road, now only two lanes, to ourselves. We are all conditioned to hugging the right side of the road so this is kind of wasted.

The ski resort is at 8,879 feet above sea level. I have climbed two thousand and seventy-nine feet so far. As impressive as that sounds, it is only the start. The climb to the Coal Bank Pass is soon to start.

There is a downhill glide to where there is a swank condominium in a groove cut by a creek fed by the snow melt high above. There is a single spectator ringing his bell, congratulating us in our effort and then gleefully telling us that the work was about to start.

The next climb starts. Time to get both some long-lasting and quick energy into my ‘engine’–my legs, I decide as I pull off to the shoulder to refuel. Reaching into one of the special pockets on the lower area on the back of my jersey, I pull out a zip-lock that has sugar cubes, granola bars and a free sample of energy paste. As I send three cubes, a granola bar and the paste to my stomach, I catch my breath and let my muscles recover. Five minutes later I join the long line of riders in their climb to the first high mountain pass on the course.

Looking at my speedometer, I see that I’m at six miles per hour. Still, I slowly but surely pass quite a few others. Looking ahead, I see a long double line of riders winding up the road like a colorful serpent. It’s just like the line of gold seekers that dragged everything they had up to the Klondike gold fields.

It’s a long, arduous climb, and I never get above six miles per hour. After an hour of this, I hear cheering up ahead as the slope starts to flatten. Finally, the top of Coal Bank Pass. I come around a corner and see a flat section of road with the same mix of support personnel as was at the last rest stop.

I hear riders coming into the stop, cheering and telling each other how the worst is over. I stop with them and take a break, letting my leg muscles relax. I’ve driven this route before and I can’t believe they think this is the worst of it. It is about to get worse.

Coal Bank Pass is at 10,640 feet above sea level. I’ve now climbed a total of 6,005 feet and am 35 miles along the route. My legs are starting to turn to Jello.
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From Coal Bank we have a downhill scream to below the 10,000 mark. The road goes into a gully that seems to be made of sand as it bottoms out and starts to climb again. There is no vegetation here. Damn! My legs are already burning and I’m exhausted. Yet there is this next climb to the Molas Divide. With a determination that I’ve only seldom been able to muster, I start climbing in the lowest gear again.

Two thirds of the way up, I note that I’ve dropped below five miles per hour and my legs just won’t give me any more. I pull off to the side of the road. There is another rider who follows my example. As I’m popping another three sugar cubes and a granola bar into my mouth, I look at him as I catch my breath. “All we’re getting from this is a T-shirt,” I say with a slight smile on my face. “It’s not worth killing ourselves for it.” He nods his head and starts to intake energy of his own choice. When we put our feet back into our pedal clips, I pass him and never see him again.

I once again hear cheering up ahead and know I’m nearing the top. This is truly the end of the climb, I tell myself. From here, it’s all downhill to Silverton and the finish line.

As I pull to the top, there is another professional photographer. Though I feel like crap, and my legs are on fire, I give him a smile.

I’m above the snow line, but the sun is warm and the temps are comfortable, I note after all the work. I stop to give my legs a last break.

Molas Divide is at 10,899 feet above sea level. It is the highest point of the ride. I have climbed a total of 6,644 feet and am 40 miles along the road from the start. There is still nearly three feet of snow on the countryside all around me. The nearby peaks are brilliantly white in comparison to the deep blue sky behind them. Ten more miles to go and it’s all downhill.

As with the other stops there is water and an ambulance with a team of EMTs in attendance. Here, I think, is where they are critical because here is where a rider that has bitten off more than they can chew is going to collapse. Nearby is a bus and a small freight truck. There is a time limit to for how long they can close the road, and a cut off time, after which, the officials will require you to leave the course and be taken down to Silverton on the bus. I look at my watch and murmur, “Good. I’m well ahead of that.” Echoing out of the Animas River canyon below, I hear the Iron Horse’s whistle and smile. I’m still ahead of it.

Pulling out my cellphone, I text Deb. All along she has been sending me encouragement this way. “I’m on top of Molas and will be down shortly.” She sends a smiley face in response.

Nearby there are riders pulling out the cool weather gear they started with and putting it back on. There is a lot of residual metabolic heat within me after all the climbing I’ve done. It doesn’t seem that cool up here, I think. I hop onto my bike, click my shoes into the clips and start the glide down to the finish line.

I haven’t gone far before the snow-covered shoulder seems to be zipping by. I am exhilarated by the feeling of speed after the hour after hour of slow climbing. “Forty miles per hour?” I whisper, looking at the speedometer. Just like any other time since my crash, this excitement quickly turns to concern. What if I get a flat tire, I ask myself. The tires on my bike are the typical thinness of a road bike. They have 100 pounds per square inch of air inside the inner tube. If the tire blows out, you are immediately riding on the aluminum rims, with very little control. Up ahead will be a section of road that winds in and out of the ravines that have been carved by the creeks from higher up. There is a cliff straight up on the left and a cliff straight down on the right. The highway is literally carved out of the side of the mountain. Not a good place to lose control, I decide, and I sit up straight, stick my knees out from the normal tuck close to the frame and try to catch as much air as I can. It’s called “air brakes” by the cycling crowd. I also start pumping my brakes.

Despite all these precautions, I still find that I can’t keep my speed under 45 miles per hour. Even so, there are many other riders that are passing me as if I am standing still. They must be going at least 55 miles per hour, I estimate with a shudder.

As worrisome as this kind of speed is on a bicycle, it is still fun leaning into the turns, feeling the wind on your face. My fears disappear. I am quickly reaching the bottom of the extreme downhill portion and the relatively flat, straight main street into Silverton is visible below. I note a speed limit sign. It tells me I shouldn’t be going over 25 miles per hour. “I wonder if there’s going to be a police officer at the bottom handing out speeding tickets,” I say to one of my fellow tour riders as I pass her. She chuckles.

I slow down as I approach the last switchback. The road levels off and I have to start pedaling again. Right away I find out why the others had put warm clothes on. My legs feel like they’re about to cramp, I think as the pain radiates upward. They have cooled off too quickly. Just keep on pedaling. Keep the muscles moving or you won’t finish the ride. I can see the finish line.

Silverton sits at 9,500 feet above sea level. I have ridden fifty miles. A half century to those that ride road bikes.

All along the street are spectators and riders that have already finished, ringing the cow bells and cheering me on. Despite the pain of near cramps in my legs, I am very pleased with myself. I see Deb with the video camera and wave as I ride by. A big smile is on my face as I see another of the professional photographers up ahead. I raise my hand and do a thumbs up as he snaps the picture. Later, when I look at the picture, I will see that he snapped it before I got that far.
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I cross the finish line. It has taken me 4 hours and 33 minutes. The winner of the race did it two hours faster. My slowest speed was 5 miles per hour and my fastest was 48. Coming to a stop, I realize that I’ve been sitting on the bike for so long that I had to force my legs to straighten out so I wouldn’t just fall over.

Walking my bike to a nearby booth, I collect the T-shirt I have so arduously earned. Along with it, they hand me a medal indicating that I’m actually a finisher and not just a rider. Those that are brought in on the bus don’t receive it.

Deb meets me with a hug and kiss and, just a little less importantly, a couple of granola bars and sugar cubes. The ride has depleted all my blood sugar and with the dissipation of the adrenaline that the excitement has created, I’m now experiencing the normal let down. Still, like a runner who actually finishes the Boston Marathon, I am proud of the fact that I finished the ride.

I hear the loud whistle of the Iron Horse. Looking toward the mouth of the canyon the Animas River flows down into, I see a huge cloud of gray coal smoke mixed with white steam rising above the locomotive as it enters the city limits. I raise my hand above my head in a sign of victory. “I beat it! Me and my aluminum and carbon fiber pony beat the Iron Horse to Silverton!”

Rednecks we aren’t, but NASCAR lovers and RVer’s we are! And we were delighted to learn that Charlotte Motor Speedway is set up for all kinds of camping. The race track is located in Cabarrus County, NC, just outside Charlotte and the nearby little towns of Concord and Kannapolis. This is where racing LIVES! The campgrounds near the track are plentiful and all around it, so that you can leave your rig and take a hefty walk to the races. Only one campground has full hookups. Prices vary widely among the camps. Some shuttles run back and forth to the campgrounds also, but actually in the campgrounds you are nearly as close as in the official parking lots for the Speedway. Contact Cabarrus County CVB for help in making reservations and to determine what type of hookups are available in the various places. Of course, on big race weekends it is advisable to have reservations far in advance.
But the real fun would be to camp at the infield, inside the track of Charlotte Motor Speedway, and facilities are truly designed to accommodate you for all the fun you can handle. You purchase an armband for each person, but these do not entitle you to go into garage or pit or to sit in the stands; each of those is a separate purchase. You’ll find fun camping facilities for RV’s, fifth wheels, and even tents of all sizes and shapes, but there are no hook-ups. If you need any water or re-charging, you must take your camper outside the Speedway to services. Although there are no sewer hook-ups, there are arrangements for a sewer truck to visit your rig when necessary, but no guarantees. On race weekends the campsites are open Wednesday until Monday.
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There are large bathrooms with many private stalls for showers and toilets, which are kept very clean. There are a few eateries and vendors where you can buy most necessities within the infield. There is a lot of partying going on night and day, but the maintainance and security protection are excellent. When engines start (and sometimes long before) get out your lawn chairs and get comfortable on top of your rig or in front of the chain link fence of the track, grab your snacks and drinks, sun lotion, hat and sunglasses and get ready for some loud and endless fun! Who cares that this is known as Redneck Hill?? It may be the best seat, even if you can’t see the entire track without craning your neck.
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On race weekends there are always many things going on at the track to see or participate in. You can walk the track with some of the drivers, hear live music, sometimes enjoy a free bar-b-que at the track, see military presentations, and even take a ride around the track in the Pace Car! If you are over 18 you can have a REAL race car experience at the Richard Petty Driving Experience (800 237 3889). You can ride along with a trained racing driver in a real nascar, or you can actually learn to drive one around the track alone at high speeds, with a professional just ahead of you in the lead. Bill says it is the experience of a lifetime!!! He loved it! And on non-event days you can take the Speedway Tour or the Over the Wall Tour and see many behind-the-scenes places others are not permitted to see (call 704 455 3204).
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If you have a big rig and want top notch facilities, you can reserve the more elite campground at the track which has full hook-ups and overlooks the track.
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At night and between races you will find entertainment on the gigantic new screen at the track, where even movies at night are on to treat the campers. In the future they may offer video games to play on screen. Many exciting plans are being dreamed up for this newest feature of Charlotte Motor Speedway, and if you are camping there, you have more time to enjoy it than any other fan.
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While you are there to enjoy the races, don’t miss the fantastic NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte, where you’ll learn all about the sport you already enjoy. Kids and adults will find the interactive displays fun and informative, and the films are very well done. It’s a great way to spend the day while you await a race.
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Another Must-do is to spend an afternoon at the Concord Mills Mall and stay for dinner and fun night at Dave and Buster’s Bar and Restaurant. The food is really delicious, not what you would expect in a down-home funtime place. The games are terrific fun for all ages. And you’ll come away with some sort of trinket souvenir, which you’ll purchase with your winning tickets. It’s a blast!
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