New England’s glory is autumn: musings on a Hallowed Eve

At some point if you’re lucky you realize you’re old enough that half your life has happened after college. For me, that also marks the division between growing up “at Home” in the American Pacific NW, and then living for almost two decades in the Northeast, first in Central* New York, then still further eastward until I ran out of land and stopped just short of the Atlantic Ocean.

While Home is still where my heart resides, autumn is the season when I most appreciate living in New England. I find that my otherwise least favorite chore—driving on the region’s rarely planned, oft overcrowded roads—becomes a source of radiant joy on crisp, clear fall mornings.

garden view of bench on frosty autumn morningI am the sort of person whose heart really does feel swollen to bursting in the face of beauty. I get moved to tears easily and often, especially by evidence of the enormous capacity of human beings for goodness and generosity. I literally jump for joy when I get excited. I’m not what you might call “hard to stir” at any time. And yet…

Simply passing along our suburban lane these past few days has been a wonderland of well-framed vistas, with all credit due to Mother Nature. I may hate the new McMansions thrown up around the corner, but even they look fantastic bedecked with pots of purple mums and overhung by turning leaves in yellow, orange, and blazing red, mirrored by their fallen comrades drifting the street below and browning into dust.

With the ground heavily frosted this morning, I stole a moment I couldn’t spare in the yard to snap a photo of rimed flowers, drooping toward death, yet somehow more magnificent than ever in their regal fading.

Frost rimed flower and fallen autumn leavesThe best photos, I’ll never capture. It is the empty road embraced by fiery foliage that stirs me, moves me, but can’t be caught. I’ve always loved the promise of whirring along en route to the pleasures of a destination, and it is this combination of robust kinetic energy within the season of winding down and wrapping up that makes these moments so momentous for me.

I hope someday to return Home to stay, resuming the mantle of grey days and soft, cool mist that is my birthright. I miss the sight of constant, snow-capped mountains swathed in evergreens, and even the ubiquitous rain. But, if I do depart, I will always miss New England’s blazing autumns. These daily miracles will remain forever etched on my soul.

Happy Halloween, dear readers!

*Not “Upstate” New York, which means somewhere else in the large state that also happens to house that glory hog, New York City. This is a distinction quite dear to those who live near my alma mater. I went to college in a rural part of the state, where cows outnumbered even students. Our little village didn’t even host a gas station.

Here’s where I can’t help but make a terrible and rather inappropriate joke, so I’ll keep it below the fold. Stop here, children. Continue reading

Early arrival to Iceland’s KEF (Reykjavik) airport should be followed by a trip to the pool

Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.

Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.

“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.

Food & transport from the airport

KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.

Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.

Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.

The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared

On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.

We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.

Icelandic pastry

A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor

The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!

Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs

Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.

I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.

We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.

Rental car freedom

The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.

There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.

If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.

Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.

Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.

While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.

Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.

Breakfast at KEF: not many options

I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.

Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.

The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.

Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!

Does jet lag wash off?

The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.

Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.

There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.

Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.

Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.

There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.

The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.

Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.

I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.

Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.

At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.

While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.

Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.

Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.

Have Segway; will travel… into the Alps

My first Segway tour of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was a lot of fun and well worth the fairly high hourly cost. My second Segway tour, along an Alpine trail from the Austrian resort town Seefeld in Tirol, was positively magnificent.

At €78 per person for a two hour tour, the cost of entry was lower. With the option to follow a scenic trail to a kitschy-charming Alpine inn otherwise closed to me due to pain and fatigue, the experience turned out to be invaluable.

Training to use Segway

Segway training before a tour takes between five and 20 minutes

My teen said this excursion was the most fun thing he did during our two weeks in Europe. And, by the way, I let him select most of our activities after I chose the cities we would visit.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell the friendly owner-operator Maximilian this, but I would have paid a lot more for such a wonderful experience. If you find yourself in Seefeld, definitely give him a call and take one of his Segway scooters for a spin!

I discovered Segway Tirol on TripAdvisor, but here’s the website and contact email: info@segway-tirol.info *

I’m extolling the virtues of the Segway today because I live with chronic pain as part and parcel of an autoimmune condition. Aside from arthritis, I also broke a bone in the sole of one foot many years ago… and now it feels like I’m always walking with a pebble in my shoe. I.e., annoying

Before my foot injury, my major occupation when visiting new places was to wander. I could happily lose myself for hours along the twisting byways of an historic city. I don’t enjoy driving, and I hate doing it in an unfamiliar, crowded place.

Public transit is hit and miss for me. I’ll use it, but unfamiliar fare systems provoke anxiety. Did I stamp my ticket correctly? Do I have exact change? With buses, I fear taking the wrong line; on subways, I compulsively check the map at each stop to confirm I’ve headed in the correct direction.

I also fear not getting a seat and falling down on lurching trains and buses. At times—sometimes unexpectedly—my weak hand and wrist joints won’t cooperate with my clinging to a post. Then again, I don’t appear deserving of special treatment or priority seating. Autoimmune conditions are often invisible to the casual glances of strangers.

I prefer the freedom and pace of walking… but I can’t go very far by foot any more.

Riding a Segway scooter does require one to stand. It wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with major foot or knee, or ankle problems. My pain seems to be exacerbated by the striking motion of stepping, however, so standing on the Segway is pretty much all right, most of the time.

I do have days where even my knees are affected by my arthritis, but most of my issues, most often, involve the small joints in my hands and feet. I wouldn’t try to ride a Segway if I were having a major flare, but the fatigue would probably stop me before joint stiffness anyway.

Stepping aboard a Segway scooter is like stepping back to a healthier, more able time and condition for me. It feels like freedom.

Mobility is a key component of personal empowerment. That’s true for the ability to afford a car in many American suburbs, and even more so for the giant leap from total dependence upon others or being housebound to the liberty of self-conducted, autonomous activity for those who can’t walk in the average way.

You get a taste of the utility of curb cuts, ramps, and automatic doors as a parent pushing a baby stroller, but it is hard to appreciate all the little motions a healthy body allows until some aspect of “what’s typical” is removed from your arsenal.

I didn’t stop grinning for a single moment I was aboard Segway Tirol’s scooter. The scenery was beautiful. The guide was kind and accommodating. Mostly, though, I was exhilarated to be conducting myself along an Alpine path without pain or fear of going too far and then succumbing to fatigue in an inconvenient place.

Some people think Segways are goofy looking toys for nerds; others consider them a sidewalk nuisance that should be banned. I’d guess most of those people are fully physically able and have no idea how poor the options are for those who aren’t.

For myself, I will be spending more time on two low, gyroscopically balanced, electrically powered Segway wheels in the future. I will seek out tours and rentals of these stable, easily controlled mobility devices. I may look goofy, but I will be grinning like a fiend.

It’s hard not to be happy when you’ve been set free.

Around $150 pp for 90 minutes, if memory serves.

*I booked our tour just the day before we took it. Maximilian was quick to respond and very flexible. Our “group” was just the two of us. There was no upcharge for the creation of a tour at our convenience!

Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

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Christchurch Botanical Gardens and Ilex Cafe: a bevy of birds and 1 bad barista

A walk in the park…

It’s 54ºF, with winds gusting lustily and constant rain—the aftermath of cyclone Gita. So naturally I’m touring the Christchurch Botanic Gardens today.

NZ trip Hagley Park sign - 1I meant to endure the walk through Hagley park—a virtual ghost town compared to our first stroll here on the sunny afternoon of our arrival—before ducking into the adjacent Canterbury Museum and out of the rain. That’s what all the other tourists seem to be doing.

NZ Hagley Park empty in rain - 1I pass only one other pedestrian as I cross the the park from west to east on my way from our lodging at the Roma on Riccarton Motel.

…and in the Christchurch Botanic Garden

In spite of the rain, or perhaps because of it, the patinaed garden gates beckon.

I’m grateful that I took to heart the most common piece of packing advice I heard for New Zealand: bring a rain coat in any season. My 20 year old REI Gore-Tex jacket continues to serve me very well.NZ Hagley Park gate

The Armstrong Lawn opens out near the entrance to the museum. Dripping flowers and hopping birds catch my eye.

NZ trip statue man - 1

Statesman William Sefton Moorehouse appears unperturbed in spite of the foul weather

I wander over to snap a photo of the dolphin fountain before being tempted along by a glimpse of the Curator’s House. It’s operated as a cafe now, but a charming structure put to any use.

NZ Botanic Garden Peacock Fountain - 1Next to this is a beguiling kitchen garden, leading to a peek at the Avon river, and even more avian species. I realize that I can’t resist walking through an arbor. I pass through each as I encounter it, letting them dictate my path through the Botanic Garden.

NZ trip fruit arbor irresistable

Fruit tree arbor

NZ trip arbor beckoning

NZ trip landing under water - 1

Avon River flooded landing

The river is taking up more than its fair share of the park today, but the ducks enjoy that fact.

So does a small, blue heron. He appears to be waiting for something as he stands in a protected patch of grass behind a fence; it might be brunch, or the departure of the men preparing a stage for some upcoming event.

NZ Botanic Garden birds Ducks

Ducks on Avon River in Hagley Park, Christchurch, NZ

NZ Botanic Garden birds Heron

Heron in flooded park

I know very little about birds, plus have poor eyesight and limited patience. In spite of this, New Zealand makes me seriously consider taking up bird watching as a hobby. It’s simply teeming with interesting winged creatures.

Birds in the rain keep busy nabbing worms on the run crawl from flooded soil, bathing in the puddles, and napping with heads tucked neatly under wings.

I can’t give you the names of any more of these feathered friends, but it is often the tiny “city birds” dining. Two of them would fit in my hand if I could coax them out of the bush. I call them Two-in-the-hand birds for the rest of my time in Christchurch.

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