Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Bit of Europe in the Northwest

Z and I recently took a short vacation (our second official one in seven years of marriage) to Victoria, BC. Recently voted one of the top 5 cities to visit in the world, Victoria represents the best of all my holiday dreams. It abounds with outdoor cafes, boutique shops, and beautiful gardens, all situated on a harbor and surrounded by majestic mountains. It is, essentially, a little taste of Europe nestled in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.

Victoria lies just a few hours from our doorstep. We hit the road around 9:30 AM, drove across the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge and onto sleepy Kitsap Peninsula. Two-and-a-half hours later we reached Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, parked our car, had a quick diner lunch, and boarded the ferry for the 90-minute crossing. We had full sun, light breezes, and great views of mountains on all sides. Fifteen minutes after pulling in we had disembarked, walked to our hotel to check in, and were on our way to our first-of-many outdoor cafes.

Victoria Harbor, excuse me, Harbour, bustles with sea traffic. As we pulled in we were surrounded by other ferries, executive yachts, small sailboats, cute local ferry taxis, and seaplanes. Everything worth seeing in Victoria is right here. The Parliament buildings stand side-by-side with old, majestic hotels. Horse-drawn carriages rumble along tree-lined streets chock full of street performers, artists, and ice cream stands. Downtown is only a few steps away, and it only takes one or two blocks to trade in cheesy tourist shops for cafes, chic clothing stores, gourmet food shops, coffee shops, and pubs. Z and I literally ate and drank our way across Victoria in our three-day visit.

The only time we left the sunny streets of Victoria was to visit the world-famous Butchart Gardens. In the 1910s Jeannie Butchart had an idea to beautify an exhausted limestone quarry that had supplied her husband's cement plant. The Butcharts combined the natural outline of the quarry with an mixture of rare and exotic plants to create the Sunken Garden. Later they carved out the authentic Japanese, Rose, and Italian Gardens. Today the gardens see over 1,000,000 visitors a year, plays host to a summer music festival, and is one of Canada's National Historic Sites. While the Northwest's mild climate allows the garden to exist all year long, I would highly recommend a visit on a late summer afternoon. The crowds wane, the shadows grow long, and the view from the patio with a glass of wine can't be beat.

Put Victoria on your list of must-sees. Leave your car behind, loosen your belt, and bring your camera.

(P.S. This blog is turning into a PacNW vacation guide. If you're getting bored, not to worry! The vacation is nearly over, and soon I'll return to riveting tales of dissertation writing, breathy choral auditions, and exciting whose-turn-is-it-to-do-dishes-tonight debates with Z!)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. I can only vaguely recall it because it was my fifth birthday. At the time it seemed like it was happening in a different country. Volcanoes were exotic, far-away possibilities to one who grew up in sleepy northern Ohio.

Now Mount St. Helens smolders only two hours from my own back door. The site has been turned into a National Volcanic Monument, complete with visitor centers, hiking trails, and cheesy, kid-friendly theme parks. After a night of camping in nearby lush, green Seaquest State Park, Z and I headed towards the west flank of the mountain to visit this rapidly changing landscape. Here are a few highlights of the trip:

Even on clear days, the top of Mount St. Helens (upper left-hand corner) is often covered by a thin layer of clouds. We went hiking along the north-western edge of the volcano, mostly along a ridge above the primary blast zone. The mountain blew out its northern side, and below the cloud layer you can see the crater. There are currently two lava domes that are growing within it at a rate of a few inches every day. Below the mountain you see the wasted valley. There were once lush evergreen forests here, but now the land is scarred by the lava flow and very little grows in it.

This picture was taken with Mount St. Helens at our back, looking northward in the direction of the blast. These hills, once covered with forest, are now littered with the torsos of trees blown off their trunks. It's a little difficult to see, but the trees still rest where they fell, all in the same direction.

The destination of our 6-mile hike was Spirit Lake, seen here. Spirit Lake has rested at the northern edge of Mount St. Helens for thousands of years, created by another eruption. Until 1980 it was the site of several homes and a resort community. One particular resident, Harry Truman, became a national icon for refusing to leave his home of 50 years in the weeks leading up to the eruption. He didn't believe that the eruption could possible affect his home, lying only five miles from the base of the mountain. As it was Spirit Lake not lay directly in the path of the blast, but it was also instantly buried under a mountain of lava. Harry Truman most certainly died instantly (his body or his home were never recovered.) You can't see it, but trees still lay strewn along the shores of the lake. Mount Adams is visible in the upper right hand corner.

We took this final shot as we were driving away around 6:30 PM. The clouds were finally parting from the crater, and the moon had risen. Look carefully and you can see a small plume of smoke that still rises from this still-active volcano.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Come Tread on Me

That's the motto of the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail in the Yakima Valley. This is followed by a small disclaimer stating, "No rattlesnakes, just Washington's greatest wines!" Not terribly clever (or true for that matter, there are indeed rattlesnakes in the hills high above the valley), but the quality of the wine speaks for itself.
Wine has a short but sort-of interesting history here in Washington State. Grapes were first planted in the early nineteenth-century by European settlers, mostly in the state's dry, four-season eastern half. Prohibition in the 1920's encouraged people to start making wine at home, with early commercial plantings only arriving in the 1960's. From the 1970's onward wine production grew rapidly in Washington--in both the east and the west--and today it is the second largest wine-producing state in the USA. The expansion continues, so nowadays it is estimated that a new winery opens every 2 weeks. All this would be nothing if the wine were of poor quality. Lucky for us Washington wine is superb--reds, whites, and roses--and continues to get better every year!

A couple of weeks ago Z and I headed east for our own afternoon of wine tasting in the Yakima Valley. The drive itself is impressive: 130 miles east of Seattle on I-90 over the Snoqualmie Pass and into the desert. And desert it is. As you come out the other side of the Cascades the trees disappear, the clouds disappear, and the temperature rises about 20 degrees. We had left a cloudy, 70-degree Puyallup for a piercingly sunny, 90-degree Yakima. And all in less that two hours!

The wineries spring up like green jewels across the desert landscape. Irrigation from the Columbia River makes this kind of growth possible in the valley. We had about 30 miles of wineries to choose from in this part of the state but stuck to the wineries associated with the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail. In four hours we visited five wineries, tasted plenty of excellent vintages, and took home nine bottles. We picnicked at our first stop under a shady tree and took an afternoon nap at our last. We ended the day with a fabulous dinner at Santiago's Mexican Restaurant in Yakima (BEST fish tacos I have ever eaten!!) and a longer, sunset drive through Chinook Pass along the Eastern edge of Mount Rainier.

Check out these links if you want to read more about our trip:

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Trading Birds for Mountains

Summers are supposed to be dry and cloud-free in the Pacific Northwest. While things have indeed been dry, this summer the clouds have rolled in too many times for me. The weather folks laugh nervously, saying "Well, another cloudy one on the way. This is highly unusual for us this time of year, but, well, what are you going to do? Ha ha . . . ha . . . " I think they must be getting some serious hate mail.

I'm exaggerating, really. It hasn't been that cloudy. The problem is that it's been cloudy every time Z and I have planned to do some serious outdoor hiking. A couple of weeks ago we went up to Mount Rainier, believing the reports that the sky would be clearing just in time for our amazing views. While climbing the access road to the Paradise Visitor Center, we entered the cloud bank and hoped to come out above. No such luck. We had to satisfy ourselves with a bit of low-elevation tramping. The forest was absolutely beautiful, of course, but no views of the peak.

Then yesterday we had planned to go down to the Columbia River Gorge. "Sorry to report another dreary one, folks. Kind of like the Mariners' last three against the Red Sox, eh, Bob? Ha ha . . . ha . . ." *sigh* We would have to content ourselves with something a little different. Z laced up his sneakers and headed to the racquetball court with a colleague, and I trekked down to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just 20 miles south of Tacoma.

Nisqually provides one of the many cloudy-day alternatives to mountain-viewing here in Seattle. It's down by the water, it's full of water birds, and it has loads of trails. The Refuge is built around the Nisqually River Delta, the point where one of Rainier's largest rivers empties into the sound. It was an Indian Reservation for centuries, and then a private farm. In 1974 it was sold to create the Refuge.

I think this is one of the best-kept secrets in the South Sound area. The trails run unobtrusively through the Delta so that one can view migratory birds in their element. There are a couple of old photo blinds buried in the marshes for up-close bird watching. Surrounded by small ridges of evergreens, the air smells wonderfully of pine and salt. On the outer edge of the Refuge there are fantastic views of the Sound, including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Anderson Island.

I walked the full six-mile outer loop and ran into only a small handful of other people. I saw about ten Blue Herons, some Egrets, ducks and geese, one pelican, one woodpecker, and even a giant Banana slug. But best of all the sun came out--and stayed out--for my whole visit!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Domestic Dispute

During my last several weeks in Belgium I often wondered if I would suffer from re-entry issues. I worried a little about reverse culture shock, remembering American customs and culture. I also wondered whether or not Z and I would hit any snags learning to be a couple again. I've been home for almost two months, and I'm happy to report that, aside from little things such as unwanted piles of stuff on the floor (me) and general complaints about who's going to do the dishes (him), we've been pretty content.

And then last Friday night we attended the Boston Red Sox vs. Seattle Mariners baseball game.

Z has been and always will be a Red Sox fan. The term "Red Sox Nation" was coined specifically for people like him, people who ALWAYS root for the Red Sox and ALWAYS root against the Yankees, no matter who is playing in what game. Athletics vs. Tigers? "Let's Go Red Sox!" Diamondbacks vs. Cardinals? "Yankees Suck!"

I, on the other hand, am a somewhat fair-weather fan. I grew up in Cleveland, so the Indians will always hold a special place in my heart. I actually remember the terrible 1980's when Municipal Stadium would hold "Quarter Beer Day" in an effort to fill even 1/4 of the 80,000 seats. I became a Red Sox when I moved to Boston with Z, rooted for the Cubs when we lived in Iowa City, and now have decided to adopt my new home-town team, the Mariners.

Z does not take this news well. Friday night when the Red Sox and Mariners were battling it out in SafeCo Stadium, he actually uttered the words "You are dead to me" when I cheered Beltre his home run. I did my best to please him by smiling when Manny Ramirez did his "homeless man" impression while sauntering to the plate. (This takes no great effort from Ramirez, by the way, as he is one of the sloppiest men in baseball.)

No matter. He is stubborn, but so am I. Some relationships are stronger than marriage. By this I refer to his with the Red Sox, not mine with the Mariners. The Red Sox are just that irresistible. And when they battle it out against "who cares" from the NL during the World Series, you know who I will be rooting for.