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Posts tagged: outdoors

Travel: Birding in McAllen, Texas

    The stereotype of the avid birdwatcher is classic: a well-equipped enthusiast wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest lens, peering into the trees through the most expensive binoculars, traveling to all the most exotic corners of the globe to be able to check another bird off the official life list.


    But there are just as many of us who simply want to be where the birds are. We carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and our mid-priced binoculars and we take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.
    

    That’s what drew me to McAllen, Texas. As one of the premier birding locations in the country, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is home to 9 World Bird Centers. Thanks to the region’s temperate sub-tropical climate there are more than 400 species of birds which live in or pass through the area and, for the most part, you don’t need anything more than a good pair of eyes to see them.


    Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, just 5 miles from McAllen, is a birder’s delight. The 760-acre park adjoins another 1,700 acres of federal wildlife refuge. Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.


    But the thing Bentsen offers that makes all the difference for the casual birder is a bird blind strategically placed near a feeding station. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities. Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. This makes it possible to get a pretty good photo with a point-and-shoot camera or even, if conditions are right, with a cellphone. All you have to do is sit and watch the show.


    January and February are prime months for birdwatching and we were there on an unseasonably cold (for Texas) November day, during a weather event that had most of the country in the deep freeze. Temperatures hovered in the high 40s and the sky was overcast. But the birds kept coming to feed. I sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter again and again without disturbing the birds. Great Kiskadees swooped down in front of me and drank from the small pool of water. Green jays postured and fluttered at the feeders. A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. It was great fun.


    When the trolly came around I surrendered my seat in the bird blind knowing I’d managed to get one or two good photos with what I had on hand. I don’t have a formal list, but I could have checked off a few that day:

    Green jay. Check
    Great Kiskadee. Check.
    Golden-fronted woodpecker. Check
    All for the price of the park’s $5 admission.
    

    Birding can be an expensive hobby. But, in the right place, it can simply be great fun at little expense. I can see now how the whole enthusiast thing gets started, though. The one bird I’d heard so much about but didn’t get to see was the beautiful Altimira Oriole. I saw a nest that had been blown down in a storm but no bird, so I feel like I didn’t quite finish what I started. I guess I’ll have to go back to McAllen. With an official list.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Travel: Alaska cruise brings a tale of a whale

   I was standing in an alcove on an upper deck about to step out onto the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the Miracle, when the doors opened and a family blew in. 

 

   A man and this three sons, each holding an ice-cream cone, lunged forward like the wind had reached out and given them each a shove. The youngest—maybe four years old, definitely no more than 5—was so full of big news he didn’t care that he didn’t know me. 

 

    He  ran up to me and said, “We saw the tail of a whale!”

 

    I was impressed. We’d left Seattle the afternoon before and it was just the first morning of our Alaska cruise. 

 

    “Is this true?” I asked his father. “Or is this just a whale of a tale?”

 

    The man laughed and said it was true. They’d been walking along the deck when the whale popped up and showed his fluke, his whale tail, before disappearing back into the sea.

 

    The little boy couldn’t contain himself.

 

     “The whale breathed up (his arms shot up in the air and the ice-cream wobbled on its cone) “and then he dived down like this” (he scooped his free hand up and then down) “and then his tail came up!”

    As an afterthought he added, “Daddy let us have ice cream for breakfast. 

 

    Wow. A wave from a whale and an ice cream cone for breakfast. The little boy had just described my perfect day.

 

    I asked the man if this was their first Alaska cruise and he said it was. He said they live in Texas and they’d come to see Alaska. And whales. They really wanted to see whales and here, just a day into the trip, they’d already had their own private show.

 

    Several years ago, after my first cruise up the Inside Passage, I decided I want to make the trip every summer. For the rest of my life, if I can swing it.  No two Alaska cruises are ever the same. People from around the world plan and save for years and travel a lot of miles to get there. But living in the Northwest, we’re already halfway there. It’s easy to get on a ship in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, to spend a week looking at some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. 

 

    I’m working on my Alaska-every-summer plan. This year I was solo but in the company of people of all ages: men, women and children—(lots of children) and large family groups, all ready to go see the sights. And we were off to a good start.

 

    The boy’s happiness was contagious. I looked at my watch. It was still early, they’d be serving breakfast for another couple of hours… I filled a cone with vanilla ice cream and stepped out onto the deck. The wind whipped my hair as I licked the cone and swept my eyes across the horizon.

 

    I’d already decided it wasn’t going to take much to turn this into a perfect day. I had my ice cream cone. Now all I needed was a glimpse of the tail of a whale. 

    And like the little boy, I didn’t have to wait long at all.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Riverboat Cruise Brings Columbia River History to Life

    For history lovers, like me, there is something deeply important about following the footsteps of the men and women who came before us. That’s often what compels us to travel, to put ourselves in the place where important things—significant events that shaped the world we live in now—happened. 

 

    Here in the Northwest we are especially fortunate. With vast undeveloped stretches of plains and prairies, dense forests and ranges of jagged mountains, much of the landscape is no different that it was when the first explorers moved into the area. Here, you can step into a landscape that, in places, has changed very little since the first people, and later the first explorers, arrived. 

 

    That’s why I boarded Un-Cruise Adventures S. S. Legacy in Portland for a small-ship heritage voyage up the Columbia and Snake rivers. This was a bucket-list trip for me. I’ve driven along the Columbia, taken the train through the gorge, flown over it by plane and helicopter. But I’d never explored the area the way it was originally done: by river. 

 

    It’s hard to imagine the Columbia River, although known and deeply important to Native Americans, was not discovered until the 1700s. and it was almost another century before a fur trader by the name of Robert Gray first sailed into it and named the fierce river for his ship—the Columbia Rediviva. And that it was still a mystery when Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery in 1804. 

    

    From the moment we boarded the replica coastal cruiser, before we even cruised out of Portland and the greenness of the Pacific Northwest, we were steeped in history. We were met by costumed guides and interpreters and they continued to bring to life the stories of the men and women who settled the area as we moved upriver. 

    

    At the first dam, the Bonneville Dam (there would be seven more locks and dams on the journey) we are still surrounded by forest and miles of fertile land rising up to meet mountains that look like giant thorns piercing the low clouds. We leave the ship to tour the dam and fish ladders.

 

    At The Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail, things began to change. We entered the high desert that covers so much of central and south-central Oregon and Washington. Green gives way to gold. 

 

    My husband and I spent hours on the top deck, taking it all in, watching freight trains wind along tracks beside the swift, opaque green water of the river, long ribbons of cargo shuttling goods between ports and cities. The sun was high and hot in an endless blue sky laced with contrails and dotted with fat white clouds. 

 

    Each day we saw more and learned more. We read books from the ship’s library and listened as our guides put human faces on the stories of settling of the West, the area’s importance in wars and commerce. 

 

    We ate well, gathering for gourmet meals, and socialized well, gathering again for cocktails. We made friends and shared stories with the other passengers, many of whom have led fascinating lives.

 

    We rode jet boats up the Snake River, deep in the gorge that still bears the evidence of the geological turbulence that created it. 

    

    We visited Walla Walla, the small city that was once considered the “Paris of the West” delving into the personal stories of the men and women who lived, loved and died there. We tasted the sweet onions that put Walla Walla on the map and the outstanding wines that have reinvented the area and put the wine world on notice.

 

    We climbed the Astoria Column for a spectacular view and visited Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark rode out a stretch of bad weather so miserable it became part of the history of the area.

 

    By the time we’d made the round trip back to Portland—back through the series of locks and dams—like Lewis and Clark, we’d made a journey of discovery.

 

    We live in the Northwest but walking down the gangplank, heading back home, we knew much more about this beautiful part of the country than we did when we’d set out. We’d seen familiar territory with a new view, from the deck of the beautiful ship that carried us, and we’d followed the footsteps of the first people and the wagon trails of those who paved the roads and opened the doors to let us follow.

 

   

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

National Arbor Day: Plant a tree!

Photo: Seedlings grown at Arbor Day Farm are ready to be sent to new Arbor Day Foundation members 

     I call the Hawthorn tree outside the window my “weather tree.” If it has leaves, it is summer. If the leaves are wet, it is raining. If it has berries, it is fall. If there is snow on the branches, it is winter. If the limbs are edged with tiny green buds, it is spring. 

    Countless times each day as I work, I glance up at the tree, noticing the way the birds are dancing in the branches or the wind has set it in motion. March can’t make up its mind, but April starts the short season of spring in the Northwest. Flowers bloom, trees, like my Hawthorn, bud out, grass begins to grow again, sending pale green blades up through the dead leaves and other detritus of the previous fall and winter. Tulips wake up and jonquils bloom. April stirs a body. It makes you want to go out and plant things. Like a tree.

    April also brings Arbor Day and countless tiny tree seedlings packaged to be given away to school children across the country, always with the same exhortation: Plant trees! 

    Last fall I visited Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska, and the sight of tables full of plastic tubes filled with miniature Blue Spruce, White Pine and other species being packed to ship out to new Arbor Day Foundation members, brought back the excitement of being a child given the gift of a tree, and the way we felt important as we planted the spindly seedlings in the back yard. 

    I walked the grounds of the teaching farm, through the Hazelnut grove, through the orchard, sampling heirloom apples, and I was reminded of the importance of trees in my own history. 

    My grandfather was a naturalist and often pulled one of his tree-identification books from the bookshelf to show me an illustration. He kept a mental inventory of beautiful or rare trees he discovered as he drove the back roads of the deep south. I remember him pulling over and stopping the car to show me a tall Dawn Redwood in the neighborhood. He pointed to the tangled branches of the Monkey Puzzle tree in the yard of a grand old house at the edge of town. When the majestic Ginkgo trees at the small private college with which he was affiliated turned to gold, he took me to see them, waiting patiently while I gathered a handful of delicate heart and fan-shaped leaves that had fallen. One year he gave me a small Ginkgo. I planted it, moved it twice, and then finally left it behind as I moved away forever. As far as I know it is still there, an unmarked legacy to a man who loved nature and loved me.

    When I moved west to Spokane I immediately visited the city’s “tree garden,” the 56 acres of trees and shrubs at Finch Arboretum just west of downtown. I still go there sometimes. It is an excellent place to wander. 

    While I was at Arbor Day Farm, my daughter and son-in-law were in the process of buying their first home. I decided I would give them an Arbor Day Foundation membership as a housewarming gift so they could plant the 10 free trees that come with the membership in their new backyard. My son, another nature-lover who grew up to be the kind of man my grandfather would approve of, spent the winter studying the history and properties of that most majestic tree, the Douglas Fir. I decided he needed a membership as well and I know he will happily plant his ten tiny firs on the property surrounding his mountain cabin. I am intrigued by the foundation’s work on sustainable hazelnut farming as a way to provide nutrition and combat the effects of climate change. Joining that charter will give me three hazelnut bushes of my own.

    I still have a box of old photos that belonged to my grandparents and there are one or two faded, unmarked, photographs of trees that must have caught his eye for one reason or another. Looking at them I remember they were taken before cell phone cameras, that he didn’t just drive by and snap a photo the way I do now. He would have had to make a trip with a camera. Then the film or slide would have to be developed. This wasn’t a whim. It was a compulsion.

    I thought of that when I came across an old Arbor Day poster. It stated “Trees prevent wind erosion. They save moisture and protect crops.” True. But it was what was written after that that grabbed my attention and resonated in me. “Trees,” the poster declared, “contribute to human comfort and happiness.” And they do. 

    Beyond the indisputable environmental impact, there is an intimate connection between trees and the human spirit. Looking up at the constantly-changing sky through the branches of a tree, feeling the texture of the bark against our fingertips, breathing in the organic perfume of a living thing, we’re moved in subtle ways we don’t always stop to recognize. 

    Sometimes, like the Hawthorn outside my window, they simply remind us that there is a rhythm to life, a cycle of seasons that come and go and come again.

Note: National Arbor day is the last Friday in April but each state can set its own day. In Spokane, Arbor Day events will be held on Saturday, April 26.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

Cruise: Fedoras and Flying Fish

 

    We’d spent the day on an island off the coast of Cozumel, lying in the sun, walking the beach, sipping drinks— all the kinds of things you do on that kind of vacation— until the water taxi arrived in the late afternoon to take us back to our ship, the Carnival Sunshine. 

    Sitting on the top deck of the boat, I stretched my arm along the rail, rested my chin on my arm and gazed out at the ocean.

    The wind cooled my face as we sped across the surface of the water, rising and falling with the waves, and I was content to sit there looking out on the water, sweeping the horizon, hoping to see something. Just…something. 

    This is a habit I’ve had since I was a child, scanning the trees or the forest or the riverbanks for some quick glimpse of what I might otherwise miss, always with the feeling that there is something interesting there and, if I can be still and quiet, I might be rewarded.

    The charm worked this time because at that moment, right beside me, a flying fish broke the surface of the water and sailed over the waves. The late afternoon sun gilded the fish’s wings with gold and I could hear the Hummingbird sound of its flight.

    Immediately, everything dropped away. I no longer heard the music or the laughter of the people on the boat.  I kept my eyes on the beautiful golden thing moving so swiftly and improbably beside me. I didn’t move or make a sound as the fish sailed over the surface for 30 seconds or so before dipping back down into the sea and disappearing. 

    It was a splendid, shining, moment and it was all mine.

    Oh, I know flying fish aren’t rare, but the thing is, I’d never seen one before. I’ve read about flying fish and seen them on nature shows, but before that moment I’d never actually seen one fly. So, in that way, it was a gift. And a reminder.

    I sometimes wonder how often, when we’re engaged in the silliest of human activities—like, say, singing “Red, Red, Wine” on a boat speeding back to a cruise ship, or jogging down a wooded trail with our eyes trained only on the trail ahead and our ears filled with canned music; when we are engaged being disengaged, some beautiful wild creature appears, yet remains invisible to all but the lucky few. I suspect it is frequent thing. The fox trotting swift and low along the railroad track, the owl blinking down from a tree in the park just before sunset, the deer grazing in the meadow before silently disappearing into the woods, are all there if we see them, invisible if we do not. 

    These birds and animals share our world, our streets and neighborhoods, but most of the time they are like shooting stars, only spotted when we happen to turn our eyes to the right place at the right time.

     I turned backed to the crowd, back to the girls in fedoras dancing on the deck, back to the laughter and the music, with a secret: that singular moments don’t have to be big. Sometimes, if we’re open, if we are watching, they come to us on unlikely wings and a brief flash of gold. 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

An Independent Life on Bainbridge Island

When he isn’t traveling for work, my son, the boy who was always busy with some kind of project, lives with a beautiful, intelligent girl in small cottage on a beautiful island just a short ferry ride from Seattle. He is not my boy anymore. He is a man who has made a unique and interesting life for himself.

He’s about to leave for another assignment in India, so we drove over to Seattle and took the ferry to Bainbridge Island to spend a few days with him. The island is especially beautiful this time of year, more like a village in New England than a small town on Puget Sound. I’d never been there before and October is the perfect time to see Bainbridge Island for the first time. The hardwood trees were showing their fall colors and the air was cool and crisp. There were pumpkins everywhere.

As it happens, one of my son’s closest childhood friends is also on the island now, on his own adventure with his own beautiful and intelligent girl, and he joined us for dinner one night at the local pub. We spent the evening together, laughing and recalling things that had happened in the neighborhood when they were growing up.  Listening to them talk about their old friends and where they’ve all ended up. I thought about the group of boys who were in and out of my house and backyard and how fortunate they are that their lives are still threaded together by this shared history and their common interests. I thought about how fortunate we are to be here to see them now.

As a parent, it’s always interesting to get a peek into the lives of our adult children. The children we cared for, worried about and whose futures we daydreamed about and fretted over, usually, one way or another, seem to find their footing on their own.  Just as we did.  I could not have imagined the life my son lives now, his path has been the one he has made for himself. The parents of his friends feel the same way, I know. And somewhere at the beginning of that path are the choices we all made as parents—the wise decisions and clumsy mistakes.  We did the best we could but we were amateurs, just feeling our way.

I left my son and his girl with a hug at the ferry, grateful for the time we’d had with them. And, as always, I filled his pockets with a mother’s silent and invisible blessings. Charms to keep him safe on the road, his road, as he makes his way to the future.

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

Travel: Feasting on King Crab in Kirkenes, Norway

   When I choose a port excursion while on a cruise, what they’re going to feed us on the excursion is usually not my first priority since food is more than plentiful on most ships. I almost always opt for some kind of unique experience I couldn’t have anywhere else, but the King Crab Safari in Kirkenes, Norway, a small waterfront town only 30 kilometers from the Russian border, offered as a Hurtigruten excursion, was intriguing. And not just  because it promised a feast of fresh crab.


    I was there in August, but the water can still be dangerously cold. First we had to put on heavy insulated suits, designed to protect us from the cold waters of the fjord if we were to fall in. On top of that went a life jacket and we were given gloves to wear.  After we were all suited up we boarded the boat. Instead of seats we straddled benches, holding onto the safety rails in front of us as our guide pulled the boat out onto the fjord and picked up speed.


    While touring the coastline and listening to the history of the area, after skimming swiftly over the surface of the water and moving slowly along the  cliffs where we could see the remains of a Nazi bunker from the German occupation of Norway during World War II, we stopped to check one of the numerous crab baskets that sit on the bottom of the deep fjord. Our guide attached a hook to the basket and used a motor to pull it up from the bottom. As it broke the surface we could immediately see the basket was filled with some of the biggest crabs I’ve ever seen. (Those that weren’t absolutely massive were thrown back to grow in the cold, dark water.)


    We pulled up to what looked like a small fishing shack on the shore. The small house, just big enough for the long table that ran from one end to another, was the place where we would have our meal. Our guide unloaded the dozen or more giant crabs from the trap and began to prepare our dinner while we settled around the table on benches covered with skins and pelts.


    When they were done, steamed to perfection, the giant crab legs were piled onto platters and placed on the table. The meal was simple: fresh King crab legs and slices of good bread. There was butter for the bread and lemon slices to squeeze over the crab if we wanted it. That was all and it was all we could want. 

   
    We turned on the platters of crab legs like we were starving. For a few minutes all conversation stopped and everyone around the table concentrated on getting to the delicious crabmeat in the shells. We ate until we could not hold another bite.  

   Fresh, simply prepared and served, the meal was good enough to be added to my list of favorites. There was no fancy dining room. No music. No upscale atmosphere. And the view of the fjord through the small windows reminded us with every bite that we weren’t just having a meal, we were feasting on a real Norwegian adventure.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
 

  

Travel: Truffle Hunting in Croatia


    Our small group, an assortment of travelers from the US, Canada and Germany,  gathered as Ivan Karlic, our guide, leashed up Blackie, the sweet, specially trained dog who would sniff out truffles buried at the base of oak trees growing in a small grove on a hillside near the village of Buzet. Most of us were visiting the Istrian peninsula of Croatia for the first time and none of us had ever been on a truffle hunt.


    Blackie knew what to do. Nose to the ground, she set out snuffling at the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor. Tail wagging, she moved quickly from one spot to another while Ivan whispered soft words of encouragement. We followed them both, stepping over roots and stones.


    Pigs were once the traditional truffle hunting animals, but as Ivan pointed out, it’s much easier to stop a dog from destroying or eating the truffle than a determined pig. So, these days, most truffle hunters have made the switch.


    Truffles are true buried treasure. Black truffles, the ones we were watching Blackie search for, average 30 to 50 Euros. When they’re in season, white truffles can go for many times that amount. That’s no small thing when you consider most are the size of a walnut or a small apple.


    As we walked behind Blackie, Ivan chatted with us about his family’s business harvesting the truffles from the small wood.  But suddenly he called out to the dog and rushed over to pull her away from where she was pawing at the ground. Using the tool he carried, a flat blade attached to a stick, he sliced into the dirt until the truffle was exposed. Gently, he scraped the dark soil away with his finger until he could gingerly pry the truffle free of the root to which it had been attached. He held up the prize and we cheered. Blackie got a treat for a job well done.


    While we were still admiring the find, Blackie went back to work. Once again we followed her zigzag path, talking quietly as we watched her stop, sniff, sniff again and then move on. When she started pawing at the ground, Ivan ran over to her and again, pulled a hard black truffle from the ground. Blackie moved deeper into the small forest and a few minutes later she hit paydirt again. While Ivan worked to free that truffle the dog started scratching at the base of another tree nearby. He called out for someone to help so I took his place and slipped my fingers into the hole he’d created with his spade. The dirt was cool and moist as I worked it away from the truffle. Like an archaeologist, I worked slowly, gently, scraping away the soil that concealed the truffle until Ivan came back and helped me pull it away from the root. I handed my phone to the woman beside me and asked her to take a photo. In the image, I am a blur. The only thing in focus are my hands, muddy, with dirt-caked fingernails cradling the truffle. It was exactly right.


    We carried the four truffles we’d gathered back to the farmhouse and Ivan’s mother, Radmila, met us at the covered patio. She exclaimed when she saw what we’d found. Apparently, it was a very good truffle hunt. Blackie, after being petted again by everyone in the group, was taken back to the kennel with the family’s other truffle-hunting dogs.


    Radmila broke eggs into a bowl, added thin slices of one of the truffles we’d found and made an omelet of our work.


    She sliced a baguette and topped the slices with butter and another sliver of truffle on top. With savory sausages and bottles of house-made wine, we had a meal so fragrant and delicious I will remember it forever.


    I’d expected the tourist treatment: a field “salted” with truffles that had been planted so we could have the (artificial) pleasure of watching a dog sniff them out. But my experience was just the opposite. I kept the photo and I’m going to frame it for my kitchen. The next time I make an omelet, I’ll think of that day; the feel of the dirt on my fingers and the unmistakable earthy fragrance of delicious buried treasure.
    



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Autumn Shines Along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula

(Photo by Kaki Smith)  

  The house was just an ordinary little cottage in Sturgeon Bay, not one of the tall old farm houses—part of the dairy and agricultural legacy of the area—that line the roads along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. It was just an average family house in a nice little town.  But the Maple tree in the front yard was another matter. Even in a place crowded with trees in full color, that tree was enough to make anyone slow down and take a second look.  Covered in brilliant and beautiful leaves, it seemed to be even more intense than any of the others around it and everyone in the car, each of us adults who’ve seen beautiful autumns before, people who might have become jaded at some point, had some comment. Out came the cameras and photos of a beautiful Maple tree were added to the albums on our smart phones.

   All that fuss over a tree? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if you’re not happy about summer slowly fading away to be replaced by winter’s chill. It doesn’t matter if we complain about the shorter days and nights cool enough to chase us indoors when just a few weeks ago we would have lingered over one more cup of coffee or glass of wine. This time of year, when nature throws a party and colorful leaves fall around us like confetti and drift onto sidewalks and stick to the windshield of the car, we celebrate. 

   But, of course, that party is better in some places.

   I got lucky. I could have been anywhere in mid-October. But at the peak of the most beautiful time of the year, I was in Door County traveling along the narrow peninsula that juts like a thumb on the east side of Wisconsin, a place that is sometimes called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. It’s an apt description. Small villages dot the shoreline of Lake Michigan or, on the other side, Green Bay. White clapboard houses, big red barns and, of course, hardwood trees whose leaves show their true, beautiful, colors for a few weeks each year, dot the landscape.

   And during those weeks everything changes. Ordinary roads turn into picturesque leafy lanes that curve and meander under an arching canopy of trees so beautiful you crane to look up through the windshield as you drive. Hillsides become a patchwork quilt of color with scarlet, green and gold, stitched together as far as the eye can see. Markets are filled with apples and pumpkins and even a rainy day is beautiful.

   It’s easy to see why people allot precious vacation time to this season, booking cottages or hotel rooms in the quiet weeks before winter sets it. Especially in a place where for a few weeks each year even little trees in front of an ordinary house dazzle us before they settle down to sleep the winter away.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

Travel: Ballooning Means Rising Above One’s Fear

   There are people who seem to be born with a thirst for a thrill. They take every chance to leap off bridges, tethered only by elastic Bungee cords. They jump out of planes, trusting one yank of the cord will release the parachute that will lower them gently to the ground. They paddle kayaks over waterfalls and drop out of helicopters wearing skis.


    I am not one of these people.


    I don’t have that kind of confident trust. Cords snap, parachutes fail, waterfalls tumble and break the things that ride them. Why would I tempt fate?


    But edging out of middle age, I seem to be shedding some of the extreme caution that has kept my feet on the ground most of my life. I’m still not a thrill-seeker, but I just don’t seem to be bound by so many “What Ifs.”
    A recent trip to Elko, Nevada coincided with the annual Balloon Fest and I was offered a chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I didn’t stop to think once, much less twice. I hopped up into the basket and listened to the instructions about where I could and should not put my hands. (“Never touch the rope. If you touch the rope we will fall and die.” Check.)


    It was only as the blasts of flaming gas right over my head lifted the balloon away from the ground that I began to ask myself what on earth I’d been thinking. The list of hazards—power lines, rogue winds, murderous sharp-shooters (Hey, what if?) and even fabric fatigue (I imagined seams fraying and opening and, well…)—played through my head like a bad movie.


    But I was in. And we rose swiftly and silently, immediately catching the current of air and moving toward the horizon.


    We moved steadily across the city. Dogs, startled by the sights and sounds of the balloons, there were 30 more behind us, barked and danced as we flew over. School children waved from the yellow bus that looked like a child’s toy. Birds flew beneath us, darting in and out of the trees lining neighborhood streets.


    I’d wrapped my fingers tightly around one of the bars at the side of the wicker balloon the moment we’d lifted off and I didn’t seem to be able to let go. But, a few minutes in, still holding on, I felt myself relax enough to really think about what I was seeing and experiencing.


    I looked out toward the Ruby Mountains, somewhat obscured by smoke from wildfires further north, across the high Nevada desert and the rough, dry landscape so many crossed on foot and by wagon train 150 years ago as they made their way over the California Trail to conquer the wide-open West and start new lives in California.


    It really is a beautiful way to travel. In a balloon you do not fight the wind, you ride it. You surrender to the currents and ribbons of air that stream over the planet and let them take you where they are going. There are tools: hot air, vents, ballast, and so on, but ultimately, you are a guest of the wind.


    At the end of the ride we began our descent. The landing was not smooth. A breeze came from out of nowhere and fought us, but we stuck it. Then, when the pilot realized we'd come down on railroad property—not cool—we lifted up just high enough to find a more accessible spot. The chase crew found us and we were done.


    When I finally climbed out of the basket, back on the ground at last, a surge of adrenaline made me tremble.
 “Anxious Annie” as a friend once dubbed me, had taken a chance. And I had one more thing I could check off my list.


    We helped roll and fold the balloon, storing it and the basket in the trailer behind the chase van, and I was baptized with cheap champagne to mark my first flight. Later, I messaged a photo taken mid-flight to my children and their confused responses made me laugh. This was not what they expected to see.


    That’s the beauty of aging. Not only do we surprise others when we take a chance, occasionally we even surprise ourselves.
    
    


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Celebrating the Seasons at Elkhart Lake

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   Just today, the rattle of someone pulling a boat and trailer, bouncing over the patched pavement of the street in front of my house, was a familiar and significant sound. I know it well.  And I know what it means. When neighbors start bringing home the boats and campers, when outdoor toys are put away so that winter tools and gear can take their place, I know we’ve really reached the end of Summer at the Lake season.

   Every place I’ve ever lived has claimed bragging rights for being the lake-loving mecca. But the truth is, wherever there is a lake to get away to, and most states have plenty of them, people will get there. Cabins become family heirlooms, passed down and cherished, and a unique culture—peculiar to that particular place—grows and evolves.

   I’ve been thinking about this since I spent Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin exploring historic Elkhart Lake. First settled in the 1860s, Elkhart Lake boomed in the 1870s when the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad added a stop at the downtown depot. At its peak, more than 2,000 visitors arrived each week, pouring into the sprawling resorts that built up at the edge of the lake. By 1894, Elkhart Lake was a true village.
Today Siebken’s Resort, the Osthoff Resort and the towering Victorian Village are all built on the bones of those earlier hotels and summer resorts.

   Late one afternoon we climbed onto a pontoon boat and circled the scenic glacial lake as our guide filled us in on the unique history of the community.

   The beautiful spring-fed, rock-lined, glacial lake covers almost 300 acres. Just over 120 feet deep at its deepest point, Elkhart Lake is ringed by Wisconsin forest. Most of the homes and summer cottages have remained in families for generations. While its history is uniquely American—Speakeasys, road races and summer stock theater—there is a quaint European vibe that reflects the German heritage of early developers.

   I’m sure Elkhart Lake is a great place at the height of summer, but I was glad to be there at that particular moment. Labor Day marks the unofficial end of lake season in most places. But that only means the summer crowds go away. The lake never closes. And, of course, neither do the resorts that surround it. By visiting in September, I was able to appreciate the beauty without the bustle of the busiest time of year.

   As we circled the lake, passing vintage cottages, picturesque boathouses and an occasional rambling mansion tucked behind the trees, I could see that the seasonal cabins were being swept and cleaned and closed. Boats were back in the small boathouses that perched over the water’s edge.  Thoughts were turning to autumn bonfires and, soon enough, ice skates and snow shoes.

   That is my favorite time at any lake. Sure, summer is fun, but there is something special about the silence of other months. When it’s possible to have the sunrise and sunset to yourself, with enough quiet time to think and reflect. Soon enough, the snow will fall, then melt. The birds will fly away and then return. And before we know it the summer at the lake will start all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

  

Travel: Canoeing Montana’s Missouri River

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    When I opened my eyes, the sun was not yet over the horizon and the weak light it cast was wrapped in the heavy mist rising from the Missouri River. I lay still, warm and bundled under a heavy layer of quilts, watching through the small window beside the bed as the day came into its own.  Soon I could see deer grazing in the rolling fields around the other cabins, all, like my own, early homestead shelters that had been moved to the Virgelle Mercantile and refurbished for guests.


    By the time I was up and dressed the coffee was ready in the kitchen of the old Mercantile building. I poured a cup and the steam rose from the mug in my hand as I walked back outdoors out to take photos.


    After a breakfast of whole-hog sausage and baked French toast, washed down by pots of hot coffee, in the company of others there for the guided fishing and canoeing trips offered by the Mercantile’s sister business, The Missouri River Canoe Company, we gathered our gear and took the short ride down to the canoe launch.Once our canoes were loaded we paddled away.

   This stretch of the Missouri River is shallow this time of year, no more than a couple of feet deep in some places. We made steady progress, paddling hard enough to get where we were going but stopping whenever something caught our attention. The beauty of September in Montana is that the summer travelers have gone back to work and school. We had the river to ourselves, but we were not alone. Deer splashed across inlets and an eagle sitting on the branch of a tall Cottonwood tree studied us as we passed. Farther along, a silent, watchful Coyote, camouflaged in the tall grass, turned his head to follow our progress down the river.

       Soon, warmed by the sun and the exercise, our jackets came off. There wasn’t a cloud in the wide blue dome of the sky and only an occasional gust of wind worked against us as we paddled.

    I listened as our guide, a genuine Montana woodsman who makes his living guiding, hunting and trapping along the river, talked about Lewis and Clark’s journey along the same route through what is now the Missouri River Breaks National Monument. It was, he pointed out, with the exception of the occasional barn or fenceline and the grey-green Russian Olive introduced by homesteaders as a way to shelter flimsy cabins from the relentless wind, essentially an unchanged landscape. Soon, at a bend in the river, the eerie Hoodoos and white sandstone cliffs so unique to that portion of the river, the aptly-named White Cliffs stretch, came into view.    One more thing checked off the list of places I need to see before I die.


    After a couple of hours we pulled our canoes onto a pebbled strip of beach and stopped for lunch, digging into the sandwiches and fruit like we were starving, as though we hadn’t eaten a massive breakfast that morning. As we ate, I thought about something one of the group had said the night before. He’d been telling a story and mentioned a particular day— a special day—as one of the thirty or so he actually remembered of that particular year. I’d never really thought about it before but he is right. Most of the 365 days of work and worry, scheduled appointments, hurried commutes and eat-at-your-desk lunches, blend into a blur. Not much stands out. But, once in a while, there are moments that stay with us forever, etched into memory. They are special enough to share.    

    We packed up the scraps left from our meal and pushed away from the shore, paddling on down the river. More white cliffs and narrow coulees. More photos. More memories.


    At the end of the trip, gathering our gear and hopping back into the van that would carry us and the canoes back to our cars at the Mercantile, I let what I’d seen and done replay in my mind.  From the moment I opened my eyes and let them rest on the fog-softened view, to the last spectacular mile of Missouri River wilderness before we pulled our canoes out of the water, the day was special. It was a day worth holding onto and, in that way, worth sharing.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Overnight idyll at Montana’s Virgelle Mercantile

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

   The two-story mercantile, a farmhouse, the old grain elevator, a bank building and a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across the grassland are the only visible reminders of the town of Virgelle, Montana. Settled in 1912 by homesteaders who rushed to claim their 300 acres in the harsh Montana landscape, by 1930 the boom was over and the little town was frozen in time


    After the last holdout left in the 1970s, the ghost town could have faded away but the property was purchased by a pharmacist who’d grown up nearby. He filled the mercantile space with an antiques business and turned the upstairs rooms into a Bed and Breakfast. One by one, original homestead cabins, rescued from the surrounding countryside, were brought in and refurbished. A vintage sheepherder’s wagon was added to the mix of restored accommodations.


    My room for the night was the 1914 Little Mosier homestead cabin. Big enough for a double bed, an oilcloth-covered table and two chairs, a big iron-and-nickel cook stove and a washstand with both a Coleman lantern and a battery lantern, the cabin faced the grassy slope rolling down toward the Missouri River. To my left, down the road a bit, I could see a working ranch. To my right, a bath house and the Mercantile building. A little further, more cabins and the rest of what remains of the original town.


    Dropping my bags in a chair, I opened the screen door and stepped back out to the porch and stood there a long time looking out, trying to imagine the scenes that had played out in the tiny cabin and others like it. I thought about what it must have been like to live there a century ago, a child on my hip, maybe another in a cradle by the stove. The family would have ached with cold in the harsh winters and been baked by the relentless summer sun. It’s easy to imagine early optimism giving way to fatigue and loneliness and perhaps, eventually, even despair. The reality of the hardscrabble life most early homesteaders faced would break most of us. Only the toughest made it.


    Grabbing my camera, chasing the golden light cast by the fading sun, I followed the path across the road and walked to where the old railroad sign still marked the town by the railroad tracks. A rabbit, startled by my footsteps, darted out and, deciding I was no threat,  skirted me, almost touching my boots, before continuing down what was obviously a trail, worn and defined by generations of other wildlife.


    As it always does, gazing out at the vast openness of the Montana sky and rolling grassland soothed the jangled tension inside me. Like many others, I am someone who needs quiet spaces but although I relish my solitude, I don’t need complete isolation to find it.  The little cluster of old buildings and cabins was perfect. There were a few others staying in the restored cabins and the sheepherder’s wagon surrounding the mercantile store, but voices were low and each of us seemed to be happy to be left alone with our thoughts.


    After a big meal served family style in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, in the company of other guests—there were only one or two others as it was late in the tourist season—I was ready to call it a day. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path back to my cabin. A bird, startled by my footsteps on the porch, returned the favor and startled me as it flew over my head and out into the night sky. Inside the cabin, the lantern painted the walls with shadows.


    I slipped between crisp cotton sheets, burrowing under the heavy hand-stitched quilts. The early September night was already cool, tinged with autumn, hinting at the winter that would come.


    As I lay alone in the dark, listening to the coyotes call down by the river and the rustling of nightbirds and small creatures outside, I closed my eyes. Content, warm, safe, and, for the first time in weeks free of the noise of a busy life, it felt possible to pick up the loose and broken threads of work and family and all the other nagging worries that fight for attention in my mind and knit myself back together. I closed my eyes and let the night sounds sing me to sleep.
    

More information about the Virgelle Mercantile

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Ready for what is to come

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

 

   This winter, if ominous predictions can be trusted, is going to be a big one. That’s what the forecasters say. That’s what was printed in the newspaper. That’s what I keep hearing on the radio.
    They say this winter the wind is going to blow, the temperatures are going to plunge and stay down and the snow is going to fall. And fall. And fall.
    All close friend who skis is celebrating, she’s looking forward to a season of constant powder on the slopes and endless fun on the mountaintops. But I’m chewing my lip.
    I love winter, too. I really do. It’s incredibly beautiful here in the Northwest. The way the evergreen trees catch snowflakes and hold them until their limbs are flocked and heavy is a sight that always arrests me and holds my attention. There is nothing quite as peaceful as the deep silence of a snowy night, as though a blanket of white has been thrown over our heads muffling the noise of the world.
    I love the sting of the wind on my face and the taste of icy air as I lift each snowshoe, following a quiet path in the forest. As I drive around town, I notice the way the snow fills the areas that are normally in shadow, changing the landscape, upending the way we see things on a summer day. Looking out over the valley and across to the mountain tops in the distance, my eye follows hedgerows and fence lines, roads, rivers and streams, lighting on points I never noticed when the grass was green and the leafy trees hid the view.
    I love the winter holidays and the way they make ordinary things decorative; red and green traffic lights and a string of rush-hour traffic headlights on the highway are suddenly beautiful.
    But there is that other side of winter. The icy streets, treacherous roads and unpredictable mountain passes. The slush that turns gray and dirty too quickly, soaking through the toes of my shoes and making the hem of my jeans grimy. The chaotic parking lots and the sodden boots littering the floor by the back door. There’s the worry of frozen pipes and snow load on the roof. Will they close the hill before I make it home? Do I have chains in the car?
    “Oh, that’s just a bunch of little headaches,” my friend said when I brought up the darker side of winter, sweeping away my pedestrian winter worries with a flick of her wrist. “I say let the snow fall so we can go out and play.”


Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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