How to Experience the Prairie and Desert Without Going There

Geographically, I am a divided person. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Manitoba, I winter a month or more in Arizona. I can truthfully say that I love both places. With very little prompting, I will whip out photographs of my favourite spots in each location to prove my point.

But here’s the problem. Photographs are one dimensional. They portray visual elements of each place, but they leave out the rest. They don’t capture the smells, tastes, textures and sensory details that round out the experience. You don’t hear the crackle of lightning before the desert storm. You can’t feel the bitter cold of a prairie wind in January or smell the Mexican poppies that blossom in March.

To gain a full appreciation of these places, you should live there. Or…

Or you could read these two picture books. In the hands of master storytellers David Bouchard and Byrd Baylor, the prairie and desert come alive.

First, the prairie
If you’re not from the prairie,
You don’t know the wind,
You can’t know the wind.
Our cold winds of winter cut right to the core,
Hot summer wind devils can blow down the door.
As children, we know that when we play any game
The wind will be there, yet we play just the same.
If you’re not from the prairie
You don’t know the wind.

Using repetitive structure, David Bouchard take readers on a sensory journey across the prairies. We travel through deep winter drifts and into windswept fields of wheat. We experience the scorching sun of summer and the bitter cold of winter. We live through spring thaws, and we marvel at the vast blue skies and colorful sunsets that characterize the prairie. Full page acrylic illustrations by Henry Ripplinger enhance our sensory journey.

And now, the desert

Once I saw a triple rainbow that ended in a canyon where I’d been the day before. I was halfway up a hill standing in a drizzle of rain. It was almost dark but I wouldn’t go in ( because of the rainbows of course), and at the top of the hill a jackrabbit was standing up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking straight at the rainbow. I may be the only person in the world who’s seen a rabbit standing in the mist quietly watching three rainbows. That’s worth a celebration any time.

When asked if she is lonely living in the desert, the Native American narrator in Byrd Baylor’s book says: How could I be lonely when I am the one in charge of celebrations?” To her, celebrations come in the form of small, noteworthy moments like The Time of the Falling Stars when she saw a streak of light shot through the darkness or Rainbow Celebration Day when she and a jackrabbit stood together watching a triple rainbow over a canyon. Other celebrations include Coyote Day, Green Cloud Day, Dust Devil Day.

Through Byrd Baylor’s evocative text and David Parnell’s striking illustrations, we experience the beauty of the desert, its subtle seasonal changes, and the close relationship between humans and nature in this special place.

 

The Science of Walking and The Art of Creating

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with other’s online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence & diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumps 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many writers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to kick start creativity, channel ideas, and bypass dreaded writer’s block. William Blake, William Woodsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many writers who embraced walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. With walking, the mind roams, free of its usual constraints. While plodding along a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved writing problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

All the while I am solving problems.  Turns out, I am growing my brain, too.  Who knew?

Polish Culture Alive and Well in Phoenix

 

Last weekend, Jo and I attended the 14th Annual Polish Festival in Phoenix along with Jo’s sister, Mary, and her husband Ron. Jo and Mary were in familiar cultural territory. Their father was born in Poland, their mother was born in the Russian Ukraine, and the two sisters and their siblings grew up immersed in the traditions of their parents’ homelands. Even though their parents are no longer living, Slavic traditions continue at family gatherings served alongside platters of kolbasa, perogies, cabbage rolls and other Polish-Ukrainian offerings.

This year’s Polish Festival was held on the grounds of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Glendale. Here are a few highlights of our very enjoyable afternoon:

Crowds collected under the main stage tent and around the many display booths on site.

Check the platter of Polish soul food –  sausage, potato pancakes, perogies, cabbage rolls.  No wonder Jo is all smiles.  Polish beer helped, too.  By the way, just so you know, Jo didn’t consume this alone.  We shared.

Throughout the afternoon, Polish ensembles from Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas danced and sang on the main stage.

Even the kids got involved

A Ukrainian dance group joined the fun

Traditional crafts were on display in the church hall.

Jo & I entered the “Can you polka” contest.  We did okay.  In the end, everyone won a prize.

We had a great time. Polish culture is definitely alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona.

Favourite Hikes – Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek, Cave Creek, AZ

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Fascinating enough to keep a 4-year-old entranced, yet not too difficult or overly long, Dragonfly Trail to Jewel of the Creek Trail offers striking views, shaded nooks, a rippling creek, and numerous points-of-interest.  

We hiked the trail with our granddaughter, Rae, and her parents when they visited us in February.  Rae was our designated ‘leader’ much of the way which meant that we veered off the trail to explore craggy rocks and stopped often to study each budding cactus. 

Dragonfly starts high above Cave Creek and winds down to the water’s edge.  The trail follows the stream bed for a short distance to a boardwalk that leads across the creek.  On the other side, a second trail links up to Dragonfly. 

Aptly called Jewel of the Creek, the second trail passes by towering saguaro, over jutted rocks, and through a shaded forest of bushes and trees.  Eventually, Jewel crosses the creek again.  It links to Dragonfly once more,  then loops back to the parking lot at the start of the trail.

We discovered a small cave midpoint along the Jewel portion.  Tempting though it was to investigate, we bypassed it when we heard bees buzzing around the area.  Several benches dot the trail, ideal rest spots or observation points.  Our favourite stop was atop a huge boulder that jutted into the creek.  It was perfect picnic spot for our group.

Combined, the two trails run a distance of roughly 3.5 kilometers.  That was a manageable distance for Rae, and just long enough for the adults to enjoy a short workout. 

 

Favourite Hikes – Butcher Jones Trail, Mesa AZ

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Sweeping vistas…pristine waters… points of interest at every turn.  The Butcher Jones Trail has it all, and more.

Jo & I discovered Butcher Jones more than ten years ago and immediately placed it on our must-do-again list.  We’ve hiked it at least a dozen times, but the allure remains.

Buckhorn cholla crowd the trail
The trail winds around the lake. From here, the beach where the trail begins is visible in the foreground.

Butcher Jones is unique in many ways.  While most trails in Arizona wind through dry desert, Butcher Jones wraps around the two northern arms of Lake Saguaro, a man-made lake in the Tonto National Forest not far from Mesa.  The hike starts at lake-side, winds past the beach area, then steadily climbs as it follows Lake Saguaro’s contours.  At every turn, there are picturesque views of the lake, the backdrop of mountains around it, and the twisting shoreline below.

My favourite stop. From this ridge, the view is jaw-dropping beautiful.

My favourite view lies roughly midway along the 7 km in-and-out trail at a point where the climb levels off and turns sharply.  No matter how many times I hike Butcher Jones, I stop at this spot and invariably snap a photo.  I have quite a collection of shots from this location, all of them showing the green-blue lake and the chiseled cliffs that frame it.

Lunch is served!

Normally when we hike, we pack a lunch and find a midway point to picnic.  Butcher Jones has the perfect picnic spot.  It’s a little off the marked trail and at the water’s edge.  There the water laps the shoreline, and usually a few ducks provide entertainment as they bob for food.

Butcher Jones is a desert oasis and definitely a hike I would recommend.  A day pass costing $8 is required.  The pass cannot be purchased in the park, but many filling stations and pharmacies in the region sell it so you can buy one on the way if you like.

 

Favourite Hikes – Marcus Landslide, McDowell Sonoran Preserve, AZ

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If you are a geology buff, simply curious about the forces that shaped Earth, or eager for a scenic hike in desert surroundings, Marcus Landslide is for you.Not too easy, but also not too difficult, the 7 km loop trail offers spectacular views as it skims over rolling hills, dips into small valleys, and skirts around boulders, some the size of a house. 

We discovered Marcus Landslide three years ago when an interpretive guide at another trailhead suggested Jo & I give it a try.  Right off, we fell in love with it and have returned numerous times.  This year, it was the first trail we attempted during our escape from winter.

The rich deposits are the result of a colossal landslide that occurred 500,000 years ago when 5.5 million cubic meters of granite slipped off a mountain and left a kilometer-long swath of debris.  Scientists speculate that a heavy rain, bolt of lightning, or an earthquake triggered the event, releasing energy equivalent to an atomic bomb.

Boulders of all shapes sizes line the trail. Jo named this one “the fish”.

Some of the boulders have descriptive names posted on placards bedside them, but most are unnamed and seem to be begging for similar attention. Jo christened quite a few of them with quaint names, and each time we revisit she adds new ones.

Interpretive signs highlight geological information.

Along the trail, interpretive signs explain geological terms and provide background information. On our first ever hike there, we read each sign, gawked at the scenic views, and took scores of photos so it took over two hours to make the trek.  Now, stopping just for lunch midway, it takes us closer to 1 ½ hours.

Anyone wanting something more challenging need not go far.  The trailhead begins at the same location as Tom’s Thumb, a more difficult hike.  For rock climbers, there are places set aside for you too, where you can scale steep grades and practice your rappelling skills.

Take your pick. Many different trails to choose from at the trailhead.

Marcus Landslide is located in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve north east of Scottsdale.

Favourite Hikes – Pinnacle Peak Park Trail, Phoenix AZ

[google_map_easy id=”5″]Definitely one of our favourites when we spend time in the Phoenix area.  Pinnacle Peak Park Trail winds up and around a 3171-foot pyramid-shaped rock that is situated a few miles north of Scottsdale.  The trail is one way, and if you go the entire route to the end and back to the start, it runs 3.5 miles/6 km.  According to guide books, it’s classified as a moderate hike, but for flatlanders like us embarking on one of our first hikes of the season, it’s a huff-and-puff experience.

Views of the surrounding area are spectacular, everything from lush homes and golf courses sprawling around the base to purple mountain peaks in the distance.  Along the route, markers identify native plants, and it’s not unusual to spot lizards and even rattlesnakes basking in the sun along the way.  Along the way, markers identify plants – useful for first-timers just getting familiar with desert flora.

If you want a thrill, sign up for the once-a-month Full Moon Walk. It’s an escorted hike up Pinnacle Peak Park Trail that starts just as the sun dips over the horizon and the moon begins to rise. When we made the trek, we were accompanied by a naturalist and an astronomer who pointed out features once we reached the top.  Lucky us, the International Space Station made a pass at just the right moment, too.

 

Finding John McCrae in Flanders’ Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
…”

John McCrae, May 3, 1915

Last year, on our trip to Belgium, we toured a number of World War I cemeteries in Flanders, Seeing thousands of ‘crosses row on row’ does something to a person. It left me with a much greater appreciation for John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields.  It also left me withsharpened sense of the realities of war.

One of the most profound moments came with a visit to St.Julien Canadian Memorial.  St Julien’s lies alongside the main road from Ypres to Brugges.  As soon as I stepped out of our car, I felt a hushed presence. Our voices grew softer.  Even the wind seemed to still.  Rising almost 11 meters above a stone courtyard surrounded by tall cedars, a single shaft of granite dominated the site.

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From the top of the column, a soldier looked down.  His head was bowed, his shoulders hunched, and his hands rested on a reversed rifle. The soldier’s face was etched with sorrow.  Often called “The Brooding Soldier”, the statue evoked strong feelings. I couldn’t help but sense this soldier’s pain and feel his loss.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates one of the most tragic events of World War I. In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian First Division moved to the front lines at Ypres.  On either side of the Canadian trenches, Allied forces stood ready – two British divisions to the right, one French division to the left.

On April 22, Germans launched an attack and introduced an unprecedented weapon. Fanned by a north breeze, 168 tons of yellow-green chlorine gas rolled across the fields, infiltrating trenches of the French line, and searing the lungs of unprotected soldiers. In panic, French troops broke rank and abandoned their posts, leaving a 6 kilometer gap in the Allied line.

To close the gap, Canadian troops moved into position throughout the night. Despite heavy bombardment, they held the line for two days. Then on April 24, Germans launched an offensive, bombing heavily and releasing another wave of chlorine gas. This time Canadian troops were the target. The gas drifted across the field, into trenches, and through handkerchiefs held over mouths and noses. Confined by machine-gun fire, Canadian soldiers still held their position until reinforcements arrived.

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Canadians paid a toll for their bravery. Of the approximately 18,000 Canadian soldiers, 6035 became casualties, and of that number 2000 died.

The memorial at St.Julien was designed by Regina architect, Frederick Chapman Clemesha, who was wounded while serving with Canadian forces in the war. It was unveiled in 1923 on the site where the gas attacks occurred.

picture3Canadian physician, John McCrae, wrote In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915, barely two weeks after the gas attacks that claimed so many lives. According to many sources, McCrae was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of fellow soldier Alexis Helmer who died in a subsequent battle in the Ypres area.  I have no doubt the gas attacks were fresh in McCrae’s his mind, too.

“We are the Dead.
Short days ago wee lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields”

John McCrae

Castle Hohenbaden

Baden Baden, Germany  –  August 2015

dsc02486Jo & I started our day with a hike through the legendary Black Forest a few miles outside of Baden Baden. A thick mist hovering over the trail added to the spooky feel, drumming up visions of witches and wolves – the stuff of Grimm’s tales. We walked along a soggy trail, skirting past orange slugs, dense moss, velvety lichens, and vines growing skyward like ancient trees.

A mile or so into the hike, a huge castle rose out of the mist. Called Hohenbaden (Old Castle Altes Schloss), the fortress was built along a crest in the 12th century. An addition was added in the 14th century, but the castle fell into ruin after a fire in the 16th century.

In one section of the ruins, we discovered a surprise – a huge wind harp installed in a window. Wind harps transform gusts of wind into sounds. The stronger the wind, the higher and more resonant the sound. According to a sign posted nearby, the Baden Baden wind harp – with 120 strings and 13 ft. tall – is currently the biggest wind harp in Europe.

Jo keeps a journal where she faithfully charts each day of our travels. Her entry aptly describes our experience:

“We saw rooms for sleeping, an area that looks like a jail, climbed 203 steps to get to the top, and while thinking the top was just around the corner kept going and going. The view was quite remarkable. It’s hard to believe that something like this exists, standing the test of time over all these years…so impressive, it’s really hard to find words.”

Autumn in Banff, Alberta

September 2016

Banff, Alberta is beautiful any time of year, but against a backdrop of fall colours, the postcard scenery pops. It’s impossible not to fall under its spell.  The crisp snow on mountain peaks, the splashes of leafy reds and yellows, the crystalline streams cascading down rocky inclines – they’re all part of Banff’s autumn charm.

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