Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia - Oceanside, CA

Sometimes, we all need a bit of time traveling, need a small dose of our nation's past, even if only for a few hours on a Friday afternoon.  Fortunately for Southern California residents, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is in easy driving distance and drips with an aura of an age which is not our own.

Simply pulling up the drive leading to the historic church is a transporting experience.  If you are lucky, when you walk into the church itself, you'll encounter the same or a similar friendly volunteer who will give you a brief history about Saint Louis. The mission was established in 1789 but named in honor of Louis IX, King of France (1226-1270).   Louis IX died while fighting in the crusades, and he is the only French monarch that has been venerated as a saint.

San Luis Rey The grounds features charming Spanish-style architecture, cactus of every shape a variety, and a peaceful and beautiful cemetery.  The church has an active congregation and is also a popular venue for weddings.

The visits is a fun little escape from the usual Friday 9-to-5, and leaves you with the reminder of how much the past has defined the details of our present.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Point Mugu for a Halloween Prequel

26-29 October 2012

entrance to the beach
Looking for a non-conventional Halloween?  Then convert the night of spook into a weekend getaway into the great
outdoors...even if it needs to occur a few days before the actual holiday.  Our group had a premature celebration of All Hallows Evening via a weekend camp-out at Point Mugu State Park.
views from hiking heights

Point Mugu is minutes from excellent surfs spots (swells depending ;), next door to rocky bluffs with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to 70 miles of hiking trails (if you're lucky like we were, you'll have a nature expert to teach you about the local flora around the trails), a short walk to the beach (*side note: if you land a camp site closer to the park entrance you will be lulled to sleep by the sound of ocean waves), just up the road from a giant sand dune, and a great starting point for trail runners and cyclists alike.

After you get small tastes of this smorgasbord of the outdoor activities, your Halloween-weekend will be made complete by a costume party and pumpkin carving beneath the light of a full moon, so pack accordingly.  Several of the families in the sites around us had the same idea: jack-o-lanterns and cloth ghosts hanging from trees accented tent and RV spaces around the park.  Even if you are the only ones costuming out in the woods, almost anything goes in camping, so the sight of our crew marching to the shore line or to the water spout to clean dishes in a collection of unrelated outfits didn't strike anyone around us as all that odd.

 Fire glow, moon beams, the pungent scent of raw pumpkin, and the sound of the gently biting breeze through the trees was the perfect setting for our Halloween Prequel.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Iowa in Autumn 15-17 October 2012

Is this Heaven?
No, it's Iowa.
-Field of Dreams-

My personal "seasonal Heaven" is indisputably autumn.  Living in Southern California, however, deprives me of most of deliciousness autumn has to offer.  Palm tree fronds keep their green and our Mediterranean climate leaves much to be desired in the "gloom & grey" category.  Fortunate for me, nearly my entire family lives in the great state of Iowa...and a return to the midwest to visit my roots and family I hadn't seen in years was long past due.

I am now convinced, that October is the best month to visit Iowa: the weather is cooling, but not yet cold, the leaves are changing, but not yet fallen.  The lighting in the late afternoon is magical on the leaves of brick red, burnt orange, and bright yellow.  I took at least 50 pictures of trees and leaves along on my 3-day venture, and that was with a intentional effort at restraint. 

The principle objective of my trip was to surprise my grandparents (on my father's side).  Although I speak on the phone, email, and write them occasionally  it had been years since we'd seen each other in person.
house dad grew up in

I wrestled with the best way to execute this "surprise" that would be creative but not too shocking.  I ended up just driving to the house, still wracking my brain with what to say when they opened the door.  Fortunately, my grandfather was working in the garage, intent on shelling a box full of walnuts.  He has a small (for lack of a better word) "business" of shelling and distributing hickory nuts and walnuts in the area.  It is not a huge money maker, but he gets a great deal of enjoyment out of using his hands and partnering with neighbors who have these nut trees, helping them get rid of product they don't have another use for.  I walked up to the garage where he was shelling some walnuts and said, "I hear you are in the business of selling walnuts and was wondering if I could purchase some." He looked at me with a distant hint of recognition, covered by confusion.  Five years and a complete change of hair style disguised me sufficiently.  When I revealed my identity his eyes were wide in surprise and he buried me in a firm embrace.  "Let's go surprise your grandma" came next, and she was equally shocked to see me.  Operation surprise was a success.

Although I only had two days with them, the time could not have been spent more pleasantly.  I had several delicious meals: French Toast from their favorite diner a town away from them, cinnamon rolls for breakfast, fresh made soup (made by my aunt) with sour dough bread, followed by Apple Crisp Cow Bell Ice Cream (unbelievably good - basically the reverse of pie a la mode: it is pie blended into the "la mode" ;).

I had some one-on-one time with each of them: shopped at a local second hand store and a went to a museum with my grandma, studied the technique of horse shoe throwing (my grandpa competes nationally...and yes that makes him totally awesome) and golfing, and we had hours and hours of soul sharing conversation between the three of us.  Just being in the old house, where my dad grew up, and thinking over all the stories he has told of his youth, as my grandpa explained who is who in old family photos, telling the origin tale of family heirlooms kept in glass cabinets, it felt like I traveled back in time, or at least gone to a museum of my own history.

Both my grandpa and I were born in October, and on my final evening with them, two of my aunts, my cousin, and one uncle came over for a joint birthday party.  My relatives shared stories of their past that I'd never heard before, we sang happy birthday to each other, I got a stich in my side laughing over family memories relived.  It felt so normal and natural to be there that I forgot I've been largely California-grown.

On the third day I said goodby to my grandparents and headed off to visit another aunt (on my mom's side).  Here begins my fall-leaf-odyssey.  We hiked around a park near her house which had a paved path snaking around a body of water, lined with trees galore.  I fantasized about how amazing it would be to have this tree lined path as my daily jogging course.  I was sept away in the day dreams, in a childlike glee, as the leaves fell gently from above in the way that snowflakes drift slowly down from a first snow.  She took me for a brief taste of two state parks nearby to further expose me to the beauty of a midwest October (locations will be discussed below). The time was short, but wonderful, blessed by discovering a kindred spirit who loves fall leaves, woodsy areas, and the great outdoors as much as I.

house mom grew up in
It is amazing to me that despite being separated by half a country, by years of no "face time,"family bonds remain as strong as ever.  No awkward spaces in conversation, it feels like no time has passed at all.  I truly didn't want to leave and as I drove back to the airport I marveled at how blessed I am to have the family I do, who makes me feel so loved and welcome even when I'm hundreds of miles away.  Iowa may not be "home" in the way where I reside, but it is a component of "home" in the way that it is where a significant part of my heart lives.  Every time I've gone back, this time most of all, it feels like I am returning to a portion of myself, to my roots, to the family that I treasure beyond words.

A few things not to miss if you find yourself in the Des Moines/Cedar Rapids area:

  • Grey Lake (near Des Moines): an excellent little loop for running, walking, or cycling.  On a calm day the water has a perfect mirror-like reflection quality.  This was my first stop after the airport, and I got my first addictive tastes of fall trees.
  • bakery @Czech village
  • Jason's Deli (near Des Moines): grabbed lunch here with two of my cousins.  It has a wide variety of sandwiches and a great salad bar.  Good if you need a quick bite.  The line was consistent but did not make for a long wait, a testament to its quality of food and service.
  • Czech Village (near Cedar Rapids): a celebration of the Czech diaspora that came to Iowa years ago, Czech village has a museum, bakery (be sure to buy some roliky & kolach!), butcher's, gift shop, and cafe...all maintaining authentic Czech culture.  As luck would have it, the museum was currently featuring an exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonsa of my favorites.  My mom's family, five generation's back, is from Bohemia, and her family in Iowa used to come here often to purchase meat and baked goods.

  • Palisades State Park (near Cedar Rapids): a complete Autumn Wonder Land.  Every curve in the road lead to a shower of fall leaves, colors of every vibrancy. I thought I would explode from the beauty of it all.  I desperately long to return here in a future October to camp and hike deeper into the woods.

  • Lake MacBride State Park (near Cedar Rapids): Features hiking trails and lake side spots for picnics, complete with stunning views of fall foliage   The best part was my mom has frequently spoke of coming here in her youth, and now I know why she remembers it so fondly. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sacramento Stop-Over

Sacramento has its own whimsical charm.  And if you are found of time traveling, this is a city to make a stop in.  It as a two-era divide vibe: one half 1920’s and one have 1800s Old West.  The 20’s feel is found sprinkled in subtle hints in the downtown area and the Old West is found in “Old Town” near the river.  I was only in the city for a day and half (for work), so I had little time to explore the city in its many facets.  However, the city leaves you with a taste of other-eraness, with a dash of swelling patriotism that comes with glimpses of the state Capitol building.

So, if you have found yourself often long having a feeling that you were born in the wrong era, such as myself, a brief stop in Sacramento gives you a sense of escape into a decade you feel more at home in.  This other-era experience is found in the aged architecture throughout the city, giving a small savory sense of “national history” in a nation, and a state, that is relatively young.  Brick, weathered facades, decorative window frames, old trains, wooden structures.

To wrap yourself in the Jazz Age, head to The Citizen Hotel. Stop in for a bite to eat, a cocktail, or a night’s stay…but do stop in.  The exterior is striking, with a drawing and visible presence even from blacks away.  Catch sight of it in late afternoon light for the most captivating visual experience.  The elevators have the charm of an old Hollywood Hotel (or Tower of Terror?): gold lined, antiquated.  Head up from the book-lined lobby, complete with blue and red velvet chairs, to the Scandal Lounge bar.  The Scandal is complete with round red-seated stools, mahogany bar, and a celebrity napkin wall (a sort of Hollywood Stars walk brought indoors).  You feel like you’ve found yourself in the Midnight-in-Paris-Syndrome – you expect to find Hemingway scribbling in a journal at a table tucked away in a back corner.  For a spectacular view of the Capitol building at dusk or in black-sky-glow, make a stop at the 7th Floor Metropolitan Terrace – an excellent venue for a wedding or corporate event.
Old Town Sacramento
Tower Bridge
For a gallop into the Old West, take a brief walk-about in Old Town, near the river’s edge.  Journey across Tower Bridge, walk among old railroad relics, soak in the charm of wooden buildings (touristy, sure) in replication of the old gold mining towns.  You feel a bit of gold fever yourself, or at least get a hint of the excitement of being on the frontier of something, the trill of being a pioneer, venturing into the uncertain.

Although a short stay with little free time to explore, I found my brief sampling of Sacramento to be an escape into other eras, a time in history I wish I could have belonged to.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Minaret Lake Loop - Eastern Sierras, California

Traditions are important.  Especially novel traditions that involve a travel that reunites friends in the great outdoors.

A small handful of my friends that I have known since high school embark on an rather novel annual tradition each summer: an escape into the back country.  This year our group of 6 ventured into the Eastern Sierras to venture on (what we coined) the Minaret Lake Loop.

Day 1 - Thursday 6 September 2012 - Agnew Meadows to Summit Lake (6.0 miles)
After driving up after work on Wednesday night (and sleeping in the parking lot of the trail head at Agnew Meadows (8300 ft).  The beginning of the hike was a mellow series of switchbacks.  The terrain was arid and open.  More shrubs than trees, muted colors, short yellow grasses, and sea-green shrubs.  Last November there was a 'wind incident' in the area.  While the trails were clear, there were many felled trees visible from the path that we spotted over the course of the 4-day trek.  The evidence of such vast root systems unearthed was impressive as it was, but imagining the degree of wind that wold be powerful enough to uproot such trees...that would be something to behold.

Storm clouds gathered over the peaks to our left as we hiked.  The soundtrack of the day was the sound of the wind gathering, swimming through the trees beyond, in a audio-foreshadowing: we heard it before we felt it.

Summit Lake

We reached Summit Lake (our first camp site, 9850ft) around 1400 with rain threatening.  We set up both tents in case of rain and then relaxed until dinner time: napped, read, skipped stone on the lake.  About 50 meters beyond our camp at the edge of Summit Lake was a look out with an impressive look-out over Clark Lake (below in elevation).  That night we had tortellini pesto pasta with pine nuts and then played a card game - the six of us crouched in a 3-man tent.
Clark Lake
Day 2 - Friday 7 September 2012 - Summit Lake to Lake Ediza (6.5 - 7.5 miles)
We got a late start, leaving camp around 1045.  The start of our day was a long descent followed immediately by a grunt back up to the elevation we just descended from.  The trail is a bit confusing, and we ended up side questing to Badger Lake (unintentionally) and then back tracking to our original path.

The grunt up to Garnet Lake is a challenge.  The grade of the switchbacks is more severe than what we had done the day before, especially the final push.  But the view is spectacular, and an excellent stopping point for lunch.

Garnet Lake

After Garnet Lake there is another smaller grunt (that gives a great aerial view of the lake) we descended again, into Shadow Creek Valley.  The trail winds through a peaceful and lush forest area, which follows the Shadow Creek.  It felt a bit like the enchanted forest with the clearness of the creek water and the sound of small waterfalls over smoothed boulders.  The shade was also most welcome.  We reached Lake Ediza (9300ft) around 1700 or so: the magic hour of light.  We at first went left to find a camp site, but after scouting around and checking our permit, realized that camping was only permitted to the right.  So we back tracked, and then bouldered to get to the flat camping area on the right side of the lake.
Lake Ediza

We had Rice-a-Roni for dinner and then went to bed almost as soon as it got dark.

Day 3 - Saturday 8 September 2012 - Ediza Lake to Minaret Creek Basin (4.5 miles)
Iceberg Lake
We had a 1000 departure.  We first back track bouldered to get back to the trail and then had a decent grunt to get to Iceberg Lake.  The water was so clear and blue it almost looked fake, like an amusement park body of water in its pristine quality. We encountered several other groups of hikers here but did not tarry long...seeing quite clearly the challenging climb that lay just ahead.

'Duck' Hunting on the ascent to Cecile Lake
To get to Cecile Lake (10300ft) you have to follow ducks (otherwise known as cairns) along a rocky/bouldery slope on the left side of the lake.  As you look at it, there is really no path in sight, and you'd almost think it unwise to attempt.  But, if you just take it slow, and space yourselves out by about 10ft, the ascent can be safely achieved.  It is actually quite fun...a bit like a puzzle: finding the path of least resistance, testing each stone with your foot to make sure it is stable before stepping to the next, and keeping an intense degree of focus as you go.  You must remind yourself to slow down if you start to get over confident, but the challenge was rewarding and quite enjoyable.

Cecile Lake
We got to Cecile Lake (unscathed) just before noon.  We took a long lunch there enjoying the wind and the series of sunshine and shade.  The journey from Cecile Lake to Minaret Lake (9800ft) was a long descent.  At one point, you feel that you have reached a dead-end in the trail.  We learned later that there are three ways to get down to Minaret Lake, but the one we were advised to take by a hiker nearby required bouldering and a bit of pseudo-rock climbing to get down.  Most of us took our packs off at one point to drop down on one section of our self-blazed path (no ducks to be found) before we found the trail once again.
Minaret Lake

We took a short break at Minaret Lake, but a rather endearing, and weathered hiker from England advised us that the camping areas just below Minaret Lake were less exposed and rather beautiful, so we hiked on.  We hiked another mile or mile-and-a-half down into the Minaret Creek Basin and found a secluded and peaceful campsite (complete with the sound of rippling water) a stone's throw away from the creek.

We had chili that night, a camp fire (low enough elevation for a fire here), and played a card camp (sans-tent this time).

Day 4 - Sunday 9 September 2012 - Minaret Creek Basin (5.5 miles)
We had a 0800 departure with the goal of reaching the end of the trail by 1100.  The entire day was a long, switchbacky descent.  We passed several impressive views of a water falls along the way and epic panoramics of the forest below as we went.

Our trail ended at Devil's Postpile, so we de-packed for a quick look while one of our group hitchhiked back to our car at Agnew Meadows.  It was a little funny to have a trail end in such a touristy area.  Devil's Postpile is an impressive sight, worth checking out, but after being in the back country it felt a little underwhelming.  Devil's Postpile is columnar basalt, hexagonal in shape, formed by the rapid cooling of lava flow.

We did a quick freshening up in the public restroom at the monument, changed into fresh clothes, and hit the road.  We took a lunch break at the Mt. Whitney Cafe in Lone Pine and got home just after sunset.

Reunion tradition continues.  These trips are not just a novel escape from the daily routine, they are also a great time for fellowship, for stripping down your life from distractions, to truly just enjoy the present moment without being in a hurry to fill your time with your "To-Do".  You do not have that frantic feeling of trying to use every moment of daylight (and then electric light) to get things done.  You are content with just communing with each other, communing with the Creator, and falling into a nature wake-sleep pattern that the sun and moon dictate.  It gives you time to think, gives you time to hear yourself and hear God, when your life is free of layers of distractions.  These trips are not only a tradition, but a cleansing, and a rejuvenating reminder to slow down life a least once a year.