Tag Archives: Travel


I haven’t posted much for a while. The past 8 or 9 months have been a busy and distracted time. And very melancholy toward the end. I spent a lot of that period in Florida, or flying to or from Florida. But I won’t be going there again. My mother’s treatment last summer put her into remission from small-cell lung cancer, but the treatment itself left her profoundly debilitated. Then the cancer–it’s a very aggressive form of lung cancer–returned. She declined quickly and died on January 26.

Last Sunday night Zachary and I arrived home after a 10-day drive from her home in Punta Gorda, Florida–a house that, amazingly, I was able to sell. I managed to get all of her multitudinous possessions dispersed and then turned the place over to its new owners.

Z and I drove home in my mother’s car, with some mementos that I had not wanted to ship. We took a southern route, following I-10 from northern Florida all the way to southern California, for two reasons: to avoid possible bad weather in the Plains and Rockies, and to see some things along that route that I wanted to see, such as Carlsbad Caverns and my old friends Mark and Peter in Tucson.

Carlsbad was wonderful. We spent about 8 hours doing the full self-guided tour (and, for Z, taking many pix). We much regretted that our schedule did not permit us to stay over a weekend, when we could’ve participated in the guided off-trail crawls/squirms/rappels that you can do with advance reservations. We would love to go back for that one day. The public part of the cave accounts for just a small fraction of what has been mapped; when you go off-trail you get to see a bit more. As for the big public cave itself, and the long descentĀ  to it on foot, I will just say that if I were to have a child (the odds, I need hardly say, are vanishingly small) I would name that child Carlsbad in honor of a spectacular and thrilling place. Yes, it’s a developed attraction and not a natural cave, but the NPS has done a pretty tasteful job with the lighting and signage, clearly trying to preserve as much as possible of the raw cave experience. In fact, it was pretty dark overall. And it was very uncrowded, to boot. The only other disappointment was that the famous bats are not in residence at this time of year. I would have liked to see that evening bat flight.

In southern Cal we spent an afternoon/evening and the following morning at Joshua Tree, another place Z had visited in the long-ago but I had never seen. It was grand, too–the meeting zone of two different kinds of desert, with weird and wonderful cactus-scapes in the southern zone and equally delightful vistas of the eponymous trees (a large species of yucca) in the northern. From a high viewpoint I got a hazy peek at the Salton Sea, the San Andreas Fault, and Mexico. From Joshua Tree we headed north on 395 along the Eastern Sierra, around Lake Tahoe, through the mountains to visit Z’s stepmom and stepsis in Chico for a night, and finally eight hours of rainy driving to home. Total mileage: 4,049.

We took a new Garmin GPS with us, not for route-finding but for info on hotels, places to eat, etc. along the way. The 6 million data points it contains include motel locations and phone numbers, so we could call ahead for room rates and availability as we got close to stopping for the night. The GPS also guided us to some way-off-the-beaten-track places to eat. Thanks to the good folk at Garmin we had fried catfish po’ boys in Pascagoula and barbecued pork sandwiches at a drive-up shack in the Texas hill country.

Our reunion with Xerxes when we rushed into the house was touching. There was frisking, purring, rolling on the floor, even some drooling. Xerxes seemed pleased, too.

Zach had to be back at work on Monday, which I devoted to opening mail and doing laundry. Now things seem back to (somewhat) normal, and I am tackling my (revised) deadline schedule. On said schedule for what remains of this year are: 5 books in the Forensics series for middle-school-age readers (these are short and fun, and I’ve already written 4 of them, so no series-learning curve); a book on Land Management for an environmental issues series for middle school and high school (don’t yet know anything about this series, so may need to do some homework); and critical bios of Stephen King and Philip Pullman for a series on contemporary authors, targeting high-school-age readers. Yum on those last two.

Here’s hoping for a settled and productive (and dare I hope even a creative?) rest of 2009.

5 days, 4 nights, 7 museums, and 2 operas

From which you will gather that my visit to Berlin last week did not include a lot of idle time. And yet my friend Fred and I did find time to take rides on commuter trains to Spandau and a couple of other outlying neighborhoods so that we could stroll around. We also did a fair amount of walking in the part of town where we stayed (Charlottenburg) and the areas around Potsdammerplatz and Alexanderplatz.

This was my first visit to Berlin, which is an exciting and user-friendly place. Great trains and trams and subways, good signage, and tons of things happening in music, theater, and art. There’s a lively street and cafe scene, but it was not at its peak during our January-February visit. It’s also a very youthful city. The eastern part of Berlin remains, for now, one of the few places in urban western Europe with a lot of relatively cheap housing. Creative types from many nations are coming there to live, or at least to spend a year or two, giving the city an appealing air of raffish chic.

We saw Die Zauberflote Friday night at the Staatsoper, with one of the great orchestras in Europe. The whimsical production design was based on German Romantic Orientalism; it suited the music, all of which was very well if not spectacularly sung. On Saturday we dug ourselves into seats at the Deutsch Oper for the Siege of Nurnberg Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, five and a half hours of glorious Wagner. Walther’s voice broke up a bit toward the end, but I didn’t care; for me that opera is all about Hans Sachs, and that singer did a superb job. Eva was fine, too, as were all of the minor characters. The production was simple and handsome and, for some reason, set in the late 19th century. That seemed odd to me at first, but I came to think that it worked; it gently highlighted theĀ  basically absurd faux-medieval pretensions of the meistersinger tradition. After all, the opera is, in its high-minded way, a comedy.

Highlights of the trip were the Pergamon Museum (massive architectural antiquities from the Near East) and the Museum of Natural History. The latter combines delightful old-fashioned features, such as big dioramas and tall old polished wooden display cases (you can imagine Alexander von Humboldt bending over them), with a wonderfully up-to-date overview of evolutionary biology. It also has a huge and dazzling mineral collection. I fell in love with neptunite. The most thrilling thing at this museum, though, is seeing the world’s finest archaeopteryx fossil. It’s housed in a special little darkened alcove, almost a chapel, with special lighting and climate control and bulletproof glass, because you are looking at the real fossil, not a mold, and I felt a frisson of awe as I gazed at its marvelous toothed beak and its claws and the delicate impressions of its feathers. Take that, you no-transitional-fossils idiots!

I ate a grilled pig’s knuckle, something I would not have expected to do. But it was at dinner in the cellar of Berthold Brecht’s old house, and the waiter said that it was Frau Brecht’s very own recipe . . . it was delicious.

Not being much of a photographer, I took only a few pix. Here are some of them.

Fred walks in the distance along the Wall–one of the few sections of it still standing. There was a little museum and a viewing tower near this segment.

The Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum.

This old church was bombed in WWII; it has been preserved as a memorial (the locals call it the Rotten Tooth). Next to it stands its modern replacement, much less severe on the inside than it looks from outside; the walls are hundreds of tiny panes of beautiful colored glass.

The old town of Copenik is noteworthy because it wasn’t bombed (and you can see that we had glorious weather for part of our visit). The schloss in Copenik now houses a museum of decorative arts, full of things like the kaisers’ dinner services. There are also two magnificent 16th-century rooms entirely paneled–floors, ceilings, and walls–with inlaid wood. Marquetry of the highest order, and you almost swoon from the delicious smells of the old wood.

Things that will have to wait for my next visit: the Egyptian collection on Museum Island, the sculpture museum, renting a kayak to paddle around the city’s many canals and rivers, and an excursion to the Spreewald. (A line from a brochure I picked up: “What was life really like in East Germany? Was it all Spreewald gherkins, nudism, and concrete-slab buildings?” Jeeze, I hope not.)

A New Year

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.

Here are some things, in no particular order, that have been going on in my life and keeping me busy:

Xerxes: He had a minor operation on his left eyelid in November, to correct an entropion (a condition where a few of his eyelashes constantly poked into his eye, causing perpetual irritation–like having an eyelash in your eye, forever). The operation was a complete success. The worst part, for X, was having to wear a plastic cone around his neck for six days to prevent him from scratching at the three little stitches in his eyelid. He coped with it well and uncomplainingly, but the day the cone came off was a happy, happy day. Now he has stopped squinting and looks at the world with wide-open blue eyes.

Xerxes Redux: Everyone who has ever looked after Xerxes when Zach and I are away says he seems miserable alone. We thought he might like a companion cat. Our neighbors had a wonderful small neutered male cat with polite, quiet manners–very like Xerxes–for which they were trying to find a home. We took this extremely lovable, black-and-white sweetheart in and gave him the name Alexander. There was no open fighting, and the two guys shared a litter box without conflict, so we thought it was going to work. But as time went on Xerxes grew increasingly jealous and insecure and unhappy, no matter how much we tried to reassure him. When Xerxes, always famed for his bunnylike mildness of temper, turned aggressive, we decided that it wasn’t working and sadly returned Alexander to his owners (but I have a second-string plan: my mom might decide to take him, and if so I will ferry him to her in Florida).

Florida: Zach and I went to my mother’s place in Florida for a week over Christmas. Horrible place, Florida (though her house is very nice). We did, however, manage to take a long walk almost every day in the nature preserve near her home, and once we saw a river otter and a coyote. Overall the visit was more tiring than most, and we returned home just before New Year’s feeling that we needed a vacation.

New Year’s: We didn’t do anything special for New Year’s Eve, which has never loomed very large on either of our horizons. We watched some TV, drank a bottle of decent pinot noir, and went to bed around 11. But on New Year’s Day we went to a large and delightfully boisterous open house at the home of some friends, and then on to a dinner party as guests of some other friends. Zach and I reflected on how lucky we are in our friends.

Writing: I’m almost caught up on the 2007 books. I should have the mss. of the last three of them off to my publisher by the end of this month. I’m ready to start on my Human Evolution series, which is the first of the new work projects for 2008. On the fiction front, I have finally started seriously making notes for BS, getting ready to rewite that novel. But just recently I got hijacked by a scene that is totally unconnected with my time-travel series. I can’t quite reconstruct what sparked it, but it blossomed into a “what next?” question. Setting and premise and, above all, main character have all taken shape in my imagination. The thing is becoming a story, or rather a short novel. I’ve written the first paragraph but swear I won’t write another word, no matter how much fun it would be to play with the scenes I have clearly in mind, until I have an outline. I should review my Taos notes to keep me on track with that.

Travel: Two days ago my best friend Fred and I decided to make a short trip to Berlin this winter to go to the opera. (Fred’s been to Berlin three times and loves the city; I’ve never been there.) Never one to waste time, Fred leaped into action and got us tix on the nonstop from Portland to Frankfurt. For my part, I got us tix for The Magic Flute at the Staatsoper, the old East German state opera, and for Meistersinger at the Deutsche Oper. We fly to Berlin on January 30 (arriving on the morning of Jan 31) and return February 4. Are we nuts to schedule a midwinter getaway to a city that will be colder–possibly a lot colder–and darker than Portland? Hell yeah, but I think it will be fun. I must, however, buy a hat of some sort before we go. I don’t feel like freezing my ears off, and I don’t much feel like wearing a ski cap around downtown Berlin. What do people wear on their heads, anyway? I am so not a hat person. But a departure date is good motivation to finish that overdue work.