Wednesday, August 27

7 Days Of Vacation

Day 24: Four Corners, AZ/UT/CO/NM

Can you feel the magic?

You are standing in four states!


Or not. This is a pointless exercise, but no one can resist it. Since you've probably been in the car for five hours with screaming kids and a barfing dog, you needed to stop anyway. Help out the local Navajo by buying some trinkets at the multitude of plywood stands. Then get a soda, some frybread, and load up the family for another five hours of butt numbing torture.

Before you go, stand in four states!

Come on. You know you want to.

Teasers on this trip: AZ/UT/CO/NM

Tuesday, August 26

8 Days Of Vacation

Day 23: Williams, AZ

Our family has vacationed here more than anywhere else in the last 20 years. I think it's because the town is located in the largest ponderosa pine forest in the country. Or maybe it's because there so much to see in the surrounding area. The fact that one of the best preserved sections of old Route 66 forms the main street of town doesn't hurt.

Williams is named after mountain man Bill Williams. Why, I don't know; you would expect to see this sort of history in ranges farther north. However it came to be named, the town touts itself as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, about an hour's drive north. This is the big kahuna attraction, but you could easily spend a week here without seeing it.

The town has a quite a bit to offer for an afternoon's walk. Souvenir shops sell turquoise jewelry and Arizona souvenirs. Retro 1950's joints sell soda and ice cream, plus the obligatory Elvis and Marilyn memorabilia. There are a number of good coffee shop/diner/have a seat at the counter places with rib sticking vacation food. Don't miss dinner at
Rod's Steakhouse, a Williams institution. Visit ol' Bill Williams' statue at the tiny park. Sling back a cold one, or a strong one, with the local cowboys at the Sultana bar. Just try not to be afraid of the resident mountain lion and bear. Keep an eye out for all the great vintage signs, neon or painted on brick walls. Stay at the Red Garter B&B. Hope the ghosts of frontier town bordello patrons don't keep you awake.

If the adventurer in you comes here without any idea of what to do, stop by the Visitor Center. You'll leave with more stuff to do than you can cram in a week. The train leaves daily for Grand Canyon. I've never
done it, but it looks fun. To the west is Seligman, a tiny little town that was the inspiration for Radiator Springs in the Pixar film Cars. To the east is Flagstaff, a fun town with a strange cultural mix of western, bohemian, native, college, and sportsman. Lowell Observatory, where the planet(oid) Pluto was discovered, is a sure fire hit, as is the ski lift ride up the San Francisco peaks. From there I'm pretty sure you can see all the way to Argentina. Farther west is the tiny Route 66 desert leftover of Holbrook, the Painted Desert, and Petrified Forest. To the south is Sedona, a town know for its art, spas, New Age wingnuts, and stunning red rock views. John McCain maintains one of his seven residences near there.

It doesn't matter where you stay. A reasonable motel room, a campground, a house rented for a week: all are excellent bases for exploration. You might wonder how
Arizona Highways magazine could be around for eight decades concentrating on just one state. With one visit to Williams and its environs you won't wonder any more.

Teasers on this trip: deer farm, meteor crater, lava tube, elk

Thursday, August 14

9 Days Of Vacation

Day 22: Laughlin, NV

Time for a grown-up trip to indulge some minor vices.

You do not know top-of-the-line glitz and excess until you experience the Las Vegas Strip. Everyone should do it once. Even so, a familiar refrain around these parts is "Vegas ain't what it used to be." Some remember and long for the days when the mob ran things, before the super resorts and mass migration. If you feel the same, have no fear. Just take a 90 mile roadtrip south to

Gambling purists often turn up their nose at this town on the Nevada-Arizona border, perhaps with some justification. This is very much a regular folks type of place, frequented by seniors, college kids, and the less well to do. But if you aren't a high roller, Laughlin is a perfectly good, and cheaper, substitute for a gambling jaunt. Founded in the 1960's, Laughlin and its "strip" are perched on the banks of the swift, deep green Colorado River. The walkway along the river passes around, and sometimes through, the casinos. There are jet boats, water taxis, and paddle wheelers for river tours. You won't find high profile performers here much of the time, although headliners do regularly pass through, but the standard fare is just fine. Concerts by tribute bands, up and coming comedians, and the like are reasonably priced and definitely entertaining. Compared to the prices for everything in Vegas, Laughlin is a penny pinching bargain. For the truly stingy, there are the lounges with free jazz combos and whatnot.

I need not go into much detail about a stay here. A weekend is plenty of time to gamble in a low pressure atmosphere, drink too much of your favorite libation, eat too much at the buffet, walk the river with another drink in your hand, take in a show or two, stay up late, sleep in late, and play some linen wrestling. Vegas it isn't, but that is why Laughlin continues to grow and attract all sorts of people. It's a great relaxing getaway with plenty of adult activities. Who knows, you might win a few bucks, too.

Teasers on this trip: Topock Canyon, London Bridge, Oatman, about a million koi

Wednesday, August 13

10 Days Of Vacation

Day 21: Salt Creek, CA

Who would have thought I could satisfy my curiosity of all things fish in the middle of Death Valley?

Death Valley National Park is extreme in every conceivable way. The hottest temperature in the country, 134F, was recorded here. The lowest point on the continent, -282', is here. From this lowest point, the highest point in the lower 48 states can be seen, Mt. Whitney at 14,505'. The aridity is total, the occasional storms magnificent. Over 400 animal and 1,000 plant species live here. It is a hostile, foreign, forbidding place. It is also a place of extreme beauty, and surprises at every milepost.

Salt Creek is far and away my favorite place here. It is small in comparison to the vast salt flats, dunes, and mountains that surround it, but the half mile trail is a microcosm all its own. To protect this extremely (there's that word again) fragile ecosystem, hikers are confined to a boardwalk that winds around the creek. In places it is only a foot or so across and a few inches deep, depending on the time of year. This is a green spot in a region otherwise dominated by tans, greys, and whites. The plants seem almost blasted into submission, clinging stubbornly to the rim of this tiny stream, gnarled and short. As you progress along the walkway, the creek widens at points, allowing for some shallow pools. In these pools is an astonishing site: the Salt
Creek pupfish. Only a few inches long, these fish avoid predators by hiding among the rushes and algae. In the spring, the male turns a bluish color and collects a harem. As the males vie for spawning territory and females, they chase each other like puppies, giving rise to their common name. These are tough little animals. They have evolved to deal with low water levels, fluctuations in temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels, limited food sources, and all the other vagaries of a harsh environment. They have survived, and continue to thrive only in this small stretch of water, provided we continue to protect them. To the casual uneducated visitor, these might be just another minnow. To me, they are one of the natural world's greatest treasures.

To the north lives a famous relative in ichthyology, the Devil's Hole pupfish. One of the most endangered fish in the world, the only location where it lives is closed to the public. There are a number of other
pupfish species, all related, all rare, and all tiny, precious jewels in the desert landscape. I am so fascinated by them I named our family boat the Pupfish.

Teasers on the trip: Badwater, Stovepipe Wells, Rhyolite Ghost Town, racing rocks

Tuesday, August 12

11 Days Of Vacation

Day 20: Columbia, CA

Columbia is the very embodiment of a classic Gold Rush town. It is far from being a museum piece, or a living history site like Plymouth or Williamsburg (both fine destinations in their own right). This is a state park, a historical landmark, an educational institution, and a vibrant modern community all in one place. I've been here a hundred times, and it never gets old.

Like sister cities Auburn and Placerville to the north, Columbia was born, boomed, and busted during the California gold rush of the 1850's. Unlike most others, it was never completely deserted, nor added to in subsequent decades until it was no longer recognizable. A walk on the main street of Columbia must be similar to one 150 years ago. There are two parts to the town. The quaint residential area where the population actually lives, spreads over the hills and under oaks, never too crowded or overgrown. There is a beautiful little trout farm, a fine plant nursery, a popular melodrama theatre, and one of the prettiest community colleges I've ever seen. Given a different direction in my life, I could have lived very happily here.

The historic state park is the place for a day's visit, however. There is some touristy kitsch, but most of it is a friendly, relaxing place. The wide main street is lined on both sides by historic buildings. Original brick storefronts and massive metal doors anchor the Gold Rush ambience. The wooden walkways and benches allow for wonderful people watching. Stop by the Douglass Saloon, a large airy bar where families can gather for sandwiches, sodas, beer, and a game of dice. Visit the blacksmith and have your name stamped on a horseshoe. Try to resist the yummy stuff at the candy kitchen. Shop at several stores for old west clothing, leather goods, classic hand-made wooden toys, or a thermometer mounted on a fake goldpan. Try your hand at finding gold, or just buy a little bottle of flakes, at the gold mine at the end of town. While you're doing that, the granite blocks and boulders next door are a perennial favorite for antsy climbing youngsters. You might see a lone fiddler, a western string quartet, or other period specific entertainer (no jugglers or balloon animals here). Grab a snow cone and visit the exhibits open to the street: the firehouse, a miner's cabin, a Chinese apothecary, the Wells Fargo depot, even an active judge's office. Tour the small museum full of mid-nineteenth century relics found here, a collection of minerals relevant to the gold rush, and take in the slide show. Take the kiddies for a stagecoach ride; you might even get held up by bad guys before your return. Give the little ones a horsey ride. Have a picnic. Once a year, the town re-creates the tent town it sprang from. I had a ball there, chewing on a cheroot, downing a beer, and having my picture taken with bosomy dance hall girls in a makeshift saloon.

Columbia, and its neighbor Sonora to the south, make an excellent base for exploring the Gold Rush country. One visit to this area of the Sierra foothills and you will be hooked. It has an important and unique history, one often overlooked elsewhere in the country. Without the things that happened here, the U.S. might have stopped at the Great Divide.

Teasers on this trip: Railtown 1897, Highway 49, gold panning, jumping frogs

Friday, August 8

12 Days Of Vacation

Day 19: Indian Grinding Rocks, CA

Indian Grinding Rocks, or Chaw'se, is a small state park in the heart of California's gold country. It is a quiet place of meadows and valley oaks. One of my favorite campgrounds is located here, as is a small museum dedicated to the native Miwok, easy nature trails, and outdoor recreations of various dwellings. The park showcases several large rock outcroppings pocked with a thousand or so holes. It's a strange sight. If you were blindfolded and led here, you might not guess what they were. As the name of the park suggests, they are mortars carved by the prehistoric people for food processing. The region's oaks provided an abundance of acorns which were ground into a coarse flour. Over generations, the mortars we now see were pounded into the rocks. There are also a few strange curving and geometric petroglyphs, a rare occurrence at this type of site, which probably predate Christianity.

Many times I have strolled or sat among the oaks and imagined what it was like hundreds of years ago. The women would have brought baskets of acorns or pine nuts and spent the day gossiping or singing to the pounding of the rocks. Perhaps the men hunted for rabbit or deer, or practiced other skills. Children must have been like children have always been, underfoot, chasing each other in the grass, inventing games with natural objects or toys fashioned for them by their extended families. In my head I hear the laughter and conversations in a language I don't understand, and I feel a sense of detached communion. I am certain it was not an easy existence, but I believe the Miwok must have derived more satisfaction from their lives than we do now, with the frenetic pace and information overload that enslaves us.

When I was in my early teens, you could walk over the grinding rocks for close up views and enter the roundhouse. To preserve the site and respect the native culture, these are now viewable only behind log barriers. It really doesn't detract from the experience. If you are lucky, your visit might coincide with one the modern day Native American gatherings, which are conducted several times a year and preserve ancient skills, arts, and ceremonial traditions. Be respectful of the land and its people.

Teasers on this trip: Volcano, Apple Hill, Sutter's Mill, Lake Tahoe

Thursday, August 7

13 Days Of Vacation

Day 18: World Famous Tree House, CA

You must have heard of this place. You haven't? But it's world famous! It says so right there on the sign.

Whenever I see "World Famous" or "World's Biggest" on a tourist trap sign, I know I'm being lied to. And they know that I know I'm being lied to. They also know that I Just. Cannot. Pass. It. Up. This is America's greatest contribution to travel: The Roadside Attraction.

The World Famous Tree House isn't a tree house. It is a large redwood that was hollowed out by fire eons ago, but true to the tenacity of its species, continued to live and grow. And grow it did. The tree is about 30 feet in diameter at the base. A door and a window were inserted in the trunk, and voila!: Tree House. Inside the owners (who knows how many by now) laid a wood floor and stuck a light up inside the tree about 20 feet up. How high up the hollowness goes is anybody's guess, because there's about three million years worth of cobwebs up there. My family has always agreed that the worst job in the world is changing that light bulb. I'm not sure if there ever really was a shop in there, but now it houses some cute little quarter machines. The best one is pretty old, made by some forest guy with too much time on his hands. You plunk in your quarter, and a miniature sawmill comes to life: tiny hand-carved men saw and hammer, little machines do little back-and-forth machiney things. It's really quite charming.

The true purpose of the Tree House is to funnel its guests into the attached souvenir shop. It's pretty much like any other on this part of Highway 101. Redwood plaques: check. Redwood coasters: check. Rose pods (what the hell are those things?): check. Carved redwood bears with fish in mouth: got 'em. Redwood picture decks of cards: okay. Plastic Navajo girl dolls (???): yup. Bumper stickers: uh-huh. Redwood burls sprouting in a dish of water: of course. If you can escape this without buying anything, there is a snack stand to grab your wallet on the way out. The owners are kind enough to provide a restroom.

You gotta see this, because the currently relevant endorsement of Ripley's Believe It Or Not compels your curiosity. That and the need for a pee break, a Coke, a keychain, and a redwood burl.

Teasers on this trip: Richardson Grove, Chandelier Tree, Grandfather Tree, Bigfoot

Wednesday, August 6

14 Days Of Vacation

Day 17: Mossbrae Falls, CA

About fifteen years ago, my wife told me to take a short vacation. She saw I was increasingly unhappy about something. We didn't know what it was. I packed up some clothes and fly fishing gear and hit the road.

I ended up in
Dunsmuir, a tiny town surrounded by forests and streams. For three or four days I waded the Sacramento River, watched trains enter and leave the depot, ate at the steak house, basically just wandered aimlessly. There wasn't much to do at night, so I got to know the fifty-something matronly bartender at one of the two bars in town. Her name was Juanita, and on my last night she told me to stay while she closed up. When everyone had left she took me by the shoulders. "You need to stop being sad," she said. "Look around you!" She growled like a mother puma and shook me. "You don't know who I am, but someday you will. Now go live and be happy."

The next day, my last, I took a hike to Mossbrae Falls. It was hot along the train tacks, but serendipity surprised me with a sweet lunch of wild blackberries. Lizards scampered away at my approach. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk flew figure eights two miles wide. I crossed an old trestle bridge, and stopped mid-span when a train passed over it, two feet from my face, with a rumbling click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. At a hillside spring I filled my hat with icy water and shivered as I poured it over my head. Nodding red columbines laughed at me. I scrambled down the sloping grade to the stream, chastised by jays. In the sublime pristine music of the falls, I tied a nymph to my flyline and started my back cast. On the forward cast, I felt a hook in my behind.

I stood in the sun, my waders filling with cold water. I hadn't done much this trip. I hadn't caught a fish. And now Mother Nature had shown me a dozen rare treasures in one afternoon, then tweaked my nose by sticking me in the butt with my own stupidity. All I could do was laugh at myself. And so I did, for the first time in my life. I really, truly laughed at myself, the way I think few people ever do. I lifted my face to the wide world sky and laughed. I laughed. Just laughed. And Mossbrae Falls said "See?"

A few years later, I found out why I was unhappy. I realized Juanita was right in everything she said when my doctor gave me the following advice. Sometimes, he said, the universe reaches out and taps you on the shoulder. When She does, you had better stop and listen. I started listening at Mossbrae Falls.

Teasers on this trip: fly shops, Castle Crags, Mt. Lassen, Babe Ruth

Tuesday, August 5

15 Days Of Vacation

Day 16: Dick's Place, CA

It is easy to have a love/hate relationship with Mendocino. On the one hand are stunning coastal cliffs swathed in salty fog thrown up by the crashing surf, weathered grey clapboard construction of houses and stores, tiny gardens bursting with blooms all year round, an exhilarating carefree freedom facing into a Pacific wind. On the other hand are the overpriced tacky shops marinated in the affected personalities of the shopkeepers, and the passive/aggressive rudeness of overpaid software aristocrats from the San Francisco Bay area. If you put on your far-sighted point of view, you can enjoy the former while overlooking and laughing at the latter.

Some may recognize parts of Mendocino from Murder, She Wrote, where many exterior shots were filmed. The town is small. You can walk the entire town at a leisurely pace in less than an afternoon. But don't let the size fool you; this is a beautiful place. There are some nice trails that allow you to roam the grassy headlands, or descend long stairs to small beaches littered with driftwood. Gather some up for your own ocean-inspired creation. Grab some salami, cheese, and sourdough at the market, slice 'em up, and have an unplanned lunch at the picnic tables provided. Watch out for the seagulls, they're sneaky li'l bastards. At night, the moon shines on the rippling waves, so clear you'd swear it was a school of iridescent fish, or the ballet of sea pixies.

There are some shops worth a look, too. The science-themed toy store has some neato goodies for kids and childish dads. (That would be approximately 100% by my estimation.) The bookstore has a fun selection of unusual books, a great kid's section, and groovy stuff like stickers and stationery. Make sure to stop at the candy store and get a candy apple, or some turtles, or an ice cream. (Say "Hi" to the resident geese up the street.) One of my favorites is a back alley store devoted to birds. It's a delightful assortment of feeders, houses, whirligigs, mobiles, birding books, and other fun stuff. Watch the pine siskins raid the copious feeder outside. There is one shop I can't figure out. It's owned by a crazy-uncle-packrat guy and crammed full of musty old paperbacks, rusty old swords, and dusty old . . . things. There's an upscale garden shop, a nice shell shop, a homey Irish shop, and several dozen or more shopping sprees for blankets, linens, soaps, cooking gadgets, candles, etc. Then there are pretentious jewelry shops, wine shops, art galleries, B&B's, endive-and-radicchio restaurants and How the hell can you make a living selling this ugly expensive crap? shops. This is where you and the kids put your chocolate smeared noses and candy apple sticky fingers against the glass and laugh. Simple props like pinwheels, balsa wood gliders, and cheap plastic whistles are at their finest right here.

I saved the best for last. It's called Dick's Place. That's it. Real simple. It projects a refreshing "Yeah, it's called Dick's, so what?" vibe. It's got the plank floor, the wobbly stools, the old jukebox, and the true hallmark of any fine drinking joint: the buzzing pink neon sign of a martini glass out front. I've heard many complaints about Dick's over the years, always from the type of folks we previously laughed at. If you got your head on right, this is a fantastic place to observe the human animal. I have always found the clientele and staff affable, if a little gruff. If you don't pretend to be anything special, you'll fit right in.

There are grizzled biker dudes that can't keep their voices below 115 decibels. There are delicate 200 pound barflys. There are mud stained lumber workers. There are Renaissance Faire jewelry making chicks. There are the deli employees who tell the real stories about the tourists from the privileged classes. There are those two guys that are laughing right now, but will probably rumble later, and be back to laughing again tomorrow. There's the piercing-eyed artist who creates pieces from castoffs she finds on the beach. There's the guy with the Robin Hood beard, eight silver dragon rings, and a beat up guitar. There's the 98 pound pool shark, showing off her two inch cleavage in an attempt to sucker some drunk into a round of 8-ball. No matter how they look, they will all gladly trade a bad joke, tell you what's wrong with your clothes, answer a question or two, and maybe share a round of shots with you. Occasionally you will find a partner that is opposite you in so many ways it's like looking into a funhouse mirror. It's not your reflection, exactly, but you recognize something there. I have struck up two hour friendships with a crude road crew worker, a sultry hippie gypsy, and some local geezer and his dog. Oh, my yes. This is a BAR. Bar par excellence, from the huge nicotine stained mirror to the desiccated gecko in that bottle of rumtequilawhiskey something. I don't know how long Dick's has been here, but gauging by the feel of spirits (and *hic* spirits), I'd say about 400 years. Even if it's only 80, I'm sure 400 years worth of living has taken place.

Take a seat by the window. Gaze southward, past the window's gold lettering, to the serenity and confidence of the northern California coastland. Watch the well-heeled doctorate idiots avoid Dick's like the plague. Absorb the real life they are missing and wouldn't recognize if it rear-ended their BMW. Bask in the heady orange glow of the setting sun, the babble of a lovable funky people, a good stiff drink, and your own superiority.

Teasers on this trip: Glass Beach, Noyo Harbor, Skunk train, pygmy forest

Monday, August 4

16 Days Of Vacation

Day 15: Casa de Fruta, CA

Every native Californian has their favorite fruit stand. Although they are not as prevalent as they once were, there must be hundreds around the state. If you've ever traveled interstate 5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, chances are you've been to one of the best and most enduring:
Casa de Fruta.

This landmark in the Pacheco valley started out as a family orchard 100 years ago. Around the end of World War II, the owners opened up a fruit stand. Later they added a coffee shop, a store, and it hasn't stopped growing since. Now you can eat at Casa de Restaurant, fuel up at Casa de Gas, sleep at Casa de Motel, even take the kiddies for a little train ride at Casa de Choo Choo. Seriously, I'm not making any of this up. It's cornball and campy, and it hasn't lost that charm in the 40 years I've been going there.

Most everyone from the San Jose area has spent some time here. There are picnic areas, a pond, playground, an animal farm complete with 2nd or 3rd generation buffalo, a great antique merry-go-round (I'm a sucker for these), an RV park, and souvenirs. Oh, yeah, just as s sideline, they sell fruit. This is a fun way to kill an hour or two, or to spend the day with family. I loved going there as a kid. I remember it had the biggest slide I'd ever seen. On the winding highway was a billboard with a rotating coffee cup, an advertisement for the World Famous Cup Flipper. I saw him only once. He would bring you a cup upside down on a saucer, flip it in the air, catch it on the saucer and pour your coffee from two feet above. Now THAT is the kind of tourist trap entertainment ya just can't get no more. Unfortunately, the Cup Flipper retired some years ago.

True to its legacy, the fruit "stand" specializes in all sorts of fresh produce. I've not lived in my native state for 12 years now, and I always yearn for California treats every spring and autumn. Black walnuts, almonds, pistachios, dried apricots, dried prunes, Bing and Queen Anne cherries, oranges, artichokes, avocadoes, strawberries, plums, pears, olives of every description, and more more more. I especially crave the (really) world famous garlic, huge fragrant bulbs with purple-pink striped papery skin, clustered in foot long braids. You can buy all of these anywhere now, of course, but it's not the same. You cannot say you've eaten any of them until you've had them fresh from the California heartland. Casa de Fruta has now expanded to mall stores, mail order, and internet sales, but it ain't the same without rolling golden hills, ducks, auto exhaust, and the Cup Flipper.

Sigh. Now I'm homesick.

Teasers on this trip: Renaissance Faire, Henry Coe State Park, Pinnacles National Monument, Gilroy Garlic Festival

Sunday, August 3

17 Days Of Vacation

Day 14: Freedom Trail, MA

It's Sunday, so let's go to church. The church is Old North Church (the "one if by land, two if by sea" location of Paul Revere's tale), and we are on Boston's famed Freedom Trail.

I love this trip. Start at any place on the trail's map, and walk in any direction. There's tons to see and learn. From the U.S.S. Constitution (oldest commissioned ship in the navy) to the Boston Massacre site, from Paul Revere's house to Granary Burying Ground (final resting place of John Hancock and Samuel Adams), this is a day of discovery and delights for every sense. I won't recount them here. Instead, I will give my impressions of one afternoon.

After visiting Old Ironsides, perhaps my favorite stop on the tour, the family and I walked back to our car through Little Italy (amazing shops with cured meats and cheeses and chiantis and give me one of everything). Once we reached Quincy Market, my wife, mother, and kids went shopping. I went to the Green Dragon where I polished off an ale, sitting in the same place where Paul Revere might have sat. Then I went to the Bell In Hand Tavern, and polished off another ale, in the same place where other revolutionaries must have caroused. I was in good company.

Afterward, I browsed the outdoor market. Voices of every timbre and accent filled the air, hawking fish of the day, olives from California (I laughed at that one), strawberries, beeswax candles, all sorts of fresh goodies. Very nineteenth century marketplace and very amusing to someone with a belly full of good Boston ale. In a quieter corner I found my own personal El Dorado. An old man was selling fresh clams from an old ice cream pushcart, 50 cents apiece or three for $1.25. I immediately sat at one of the two stools in from of his "establishment," and proceeded to indulge in a dozen huge, fresh, shucked-right-under-my-nose clams. Condiments provided were coarse salt, lemon halves, and Tabasco sauce. I tried all three in all combinations. The old man chatted with me, regaling me with insignificant anecdotes that entertained me immensely. From time to time another tourist, always male, would sit at the other stool for a clam or three, and we would all swap a lie or two. It was great. I paid the man and went on my merry way.

I stopped at two more pubs, and visited Ye Olde Clamme Man twice more. Final total: five ales for about $20, thirty-six clams for $15, and one-hundred and four stories for $0. It was one of the most enjoyable few hours I've ever spent alone. Later that evening, I treated my family to lobster 'n stuff at the Union Oyster House, oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country, open since 1826. When we shared our experiences of the day, they were appalled and amazed that I would eat all that and still go out for a seafood dinner. I just burped and smiled.

Go find your own burp and smile somewhere along the Freedom Trail. Just follow the red brick road. For the unbelievable number of historic sites located here, check out this map.

Teasers on this trip: Lexington/Concord, Salem, Plymouth, Walden

Saturday, August 2

18 Days Of Vacation

Day 13: Virgin River Narrows, UT

I like to think of
Zion National Park as the red rock little sister of Yosemite. Mountains of red and buff sandstone surround this valley, through which courses the Virgin River, the lifeblood of a natural botanical garden that rivals anything I've ever seen. In this desert location are not only cactus, yucca, and other xeric flora, but also cottonwoods, willows, ferns, and in the spring, a riot of wildflowers of every color. Due to the many plant species, the wildlife is just as varied and interesting. Zion also has its share of colorful place-names: The Watchman, Great White Throne (at right), Checkerboard Mesa. There is a great visitor center, and Zion lodge is worth a look for bigger than life architecture (see the earlier post on El Tovar) and cabins available for rent. My favorite place, however, is The Narrows.

Like the Grand Canyon, portions of Zion have been cut through by the Virgin River. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this river's masterpiece is accessible and easy to experience up close. A 15+ mile trail meanders through Zion's back country, zigging and zagging along the river's course. It starts near the Temple of Sinawava and continues to get progressively narrower until you can touch both walls of the canyon standing in place. In places the trail is on high ground, in others you may be wading up to your armpits and carrying your pack over your head. A sturdy hiking stick is not only fun, but a necessity in navigating some currents. The scenery changes with every turn: vertical rainbow cliffs, sandy beaches under arched recesses, waterfalls, hanging gardens, swards of grass and stands of trees, the trill of canyon wrens, and everywhere the sound of water. As far as I know, there is no other hike quite like this in the country.

I have hiked only three or four miles in, then back out. It was enough for this hike to sear itself onto my memory, and give me a healthy respect for my own limitations. I plan to do more someday. Be aware that this hike is not without its dangers. At certain times of the year, especially summer, sudden storms many miles away can dump enough water to cause dangerous torrents that race down the canyon, even if it is sunny and clear where you are. While the first mile or so poses no significant risk, the farther you go the more treacherous the terrain gets, and the farther from help you are. I advise caution, a well-provisioned daypack (water, 1st aid kit, snacks, poncho, sunscreen), notifying someone of your plans, and checking with the ranger station before you go. I recommend at least rudimentary swimming skills as well. The desert, even in the most benign looking circumstances, can be a very dangerous place for the uninitiated.

Teasers on this trip: Kolob, Bryce, campfire, tunnel

Friday, August 1

19 Days Of Vacation

Day 12: Morro Bay, CA

Morro Bay is stuck somewhere in the mid 20th century. Unlike most other central California coastal towns, it hasn't been completely taken over by surfers, latter day hippies, real estate agents, or wine snobs. They are here, and so are some trappings to keep them here, but the town retains most of its fishing-village-and-natural-wonders personality. There are easily 1,001 California coast destinations worth a visit. Morro Bay is in my top three.

The most obvious, imposing, and awe inspiring feature is Morro Rock, the last in a chain of weathered volcanic plugs called the Nine Sisters. It stands guard over a perfect natural harbor. The topography makes for a a fascinating place to walk, beachcomb, and birdwatch. Along the Embarcadero are souvenir shops, bike and boat rentals, fish markets, restaurants, and small gardens from which to watch the incoming fleet or the setting sun.

The pleasures of this destination are simple ones. The town prides itself, and justifiably so, for its bird sanctuary status. Hundreds of species take up residence or migrate through here, including the endangered peregrine falcons that nest on Morro Rock. There is a small but very good natural history museum. The old, tiny public aquarium ($2 admission!) is a sure bet for young and old alike, especially the rescued seals who perform tricks for fish scraps. Visit the shell shop. Fly a kite. Food is simple and hearty fare, mostly family style restaurant or bar and grill type spots specializing in fresh seafood. There is a yacht harbor, a large public park, long strands of beach on the outer harbor and north of the rock, and one of the state's best preserved estuaries. Most of all, this is a place for casting off self-imposed shackles. Enjoy the rhythm of the tides without the need for cell phones, itineraries, or an abundance of credit cards.

S - l - o - w . D - o - w - n .

Teasers on this trip: kayaks, Pismo Beach, wineries, Hearst Castle