Signs Of A Stonington Summer

In seasonal towns like Stonington, many businesses close for the winter. When spring comes, residents start to look for signs of when the businesses will reopen. The businesses reopening sends the welcome message that summer, when Stonington will (we hope) welcome happy and free-spending tourists back to the town, is just around the corner.

Because all of the businesses are locally owned, each one follows its own timetable, which means the town-wide reopening is really a gradual process. Some businesses have partially reopened, some have shown activity that suggests they are getting ready, and others remain dark and shuttered, with no signs of life yet.

I like to look for clues about where things stand during my walks around town. Sometimes the signs of reopening are literal signs, like the hand-lettered notice in the door of one of the shops shown below, and sometimes it is doing the things that get a space ready for business—like painting the gray wooden deck and putting up the signs and the bright red lobster at the Stonington Ice Cream Company stand, above. When the handwritten list of flavors goes up next to the order window, completing the last step in the reopening process, we’ll know that summer is really here.

For The Artists Out There

We’re lucky to have some talented artists as friends, and I am flattered that they have liked some of my Stonington photos enough to use them as the basis for paintings.

It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday in Stonington today, with perfect conditions for some photography of the scenes around town. Above is a photo looking east form a spot next to the mailboat dock, and below is a shot of downtown Stonington, and a big patch of floating algae, from the public dock next to the Harbor View grocery store. They both have some interesting colors and lots of different shades of blue.

I’ll keep taking the pictures as long as someone else does the painting!

The Stonington Salute

On my walk this morning, a few pickup trucks–the official vehicle of choice for most of the hardy residents of Stonington–passed me on the road. I gave the “walkers’ wave,” which is a cheerful smile and an upward flap of the right hand, fully exposing the palm. In return, the drivers of the pickups gave thestandard two-finger wave from the steering wheel, which I call the “Stonington salute.”

The two-finger steering wheel wave isn’t unique to Stonington–not by a long shot. Texas apparently has tried to claim it as a Texas invention; in the Lone Star State it’s evidently called the “hi sign.” Others describe the gesture as a “rural wave.” I like calling it the Stonington salute, even if it wasn’t invented or perfected here, because I’m a fan of alliteration. But I also like and appreciate the friendly thoughts behind the gesture. The drivers want the walkers to know that they see us and are acknowledging our presence, and the walkers want to be sure that the drivers are aware that we’re sharing the road, too.

The Stonington salute is a small-town thing, for sure. When I’m walking down the street in German Village, passing cars don’t give a wave. If big-city motorists waved at every pedestrian, they’d be waving their arms off. And there’s really not the need to do it, either. Pedestrians aren’t walking in the roadway, like they do here; they are on sidewalks, separated from the street by the devil strip and, in the case of German Village, a row of parked cars, too. The safety concerns that are part of the motivation of the Stonington salute and the walkers’ wave just don’t exist.

Of course, another part of the motivation for the salute and the wave is just that people are friendly around here. I like that, too.

The Canvas Above

I notice the sky a lot more when I am up here in Stonington than I do in Columbus. I think that is because, when you are down by the harbor, the sky seems so huge and wide and sweeping, with a horizon that is absurdly far away. The sky is not fenced in and limited by trees, houses, and buildings, like it is in Columbus or any other city.

The unfettered sky seems like a gigantic artist’s canvas, where the wind and sun shape and color the clouds into brushstrokes on the blue background and illuminate the island masses below. And when a stray seagull wheels into the frame and soars past, as in the picture above, it’s like Mother Nature generously shared her artwork just with me.

At The Ready

The last year has seen a lot of changes for everyone. We’ve rolled with the changes and adjusted as necessary—there’s really no alternative to that, is there?—but it’s also nice when we learn that something hasn’t changed, and probably won’t change.

That’s why I was glad to see the Stonington mailboat docked and at the ready when I took my first early morning walk through town and past the harbor earlier this week. That’s it there at the right of the photograph above, prepared to toot its horn, head out to the islands in the Bay and deliver mail, packages, and passengers, just as it has for years.

In the ever-changing world, the mailboat is a constant. I like that.

The Middle Seat Muddle

This week the CDC released information about whether airlines should follow policies that block off the middle seat on their planes. The CDC announced that laboratory modeling showed that blocking off the middle passenger seat, in either single-aisle or double-aisle planes, reduced airborne exposure to infectious diseases from fellow passengers by 23 percent to 57 percent. Those in the airline industry promptly noted that “the CDC admits that the current studies quantifying the benefit of specific social distancing strategies in the cabin, such as keeping the middle seats vacant, are limited.”

I don’t know which airlines–if any–are still blocking off the middle seats of flights. We flew American to and from Arizona on our recent visit, and on our flights every seat, including the middle seat, was filed. The airlines not only take the position that the science cited by the CDC is “limited,” but also point out that the airline industry took a huge hit in the early days of COVID, when most people avoided travel, and they need to sell those middle seats to recover economically and become profitable again.

It’s a class example of the tug-of-war between public health and profitability. I’m convinced that, if the CDC had its druthers, they’d rather every American stayed in their homes and avoided any risks whatsoever. And when it comes to air travel, they’d rather people are more spaced out (cramped passengers wouldn’t mind that, either), everyone wears masks, no food is served, and aircraft are designed so that all potential disease transmission vectors are avoided. Of course, if the airlines followed all of the CDC’s guidance, the cost of air travel would inevitably increase, some airlines would go out of business, and people wouldn’t be happy about it.

I’m guessing the airlines will come out on top in the middle-seat muddle and will continue to fill those middle seats, unless the FAA or Congress actually mandates that middle seats be left vacant. But you can bet that the airlines won’t object to the public health requirements that don’t affect their bottom line–like requiring passengers to wear masks at all times, regardless of their vaccination status or COVID case data. I think air travelers are going to be masked for the foreseeable future–and maybe permanently.

In Search Of Healthy Options

I’ve written before about how difficult it is to find any kind of healthy food options in airports. That reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. When we took our recent trip to Arizona, many of the restaurant options, whether sit-down or carryout, at the various airports we traveled through were closed, and there were long lines at other places that sold food items. That means hungry travelers who didn’t think to pack their own food are going to be looking at vending machines as a viable option.

The photo above is of one of the airport vending machines we saw. It’s not exactly brimming with healthy options. Instead, it offers the unholy “four Cs” of snacking: chips, cookies, cheese crackers, and candy. What’s the healthiest option among this assortment? The Pop Tarts, perhaps?

Ironically, this particular vending machine was right next to another one, selling beverages, that had a big sticker on it that proclaimed: “Calories Count. Check then choose.” I’m not sure how you are supposed to apply that advice in airports these days.

Up In The Air Again

We flew back from Tucson yesterday, connecting through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which is traditionally one of the nation’s busiest airports. Here are a few additional observations about air travel during the COVID period.

  • Every flight we took, to and from Tucson, was absolutely full of passengers. I’m not sure whether the airlines have reduced the number of flights to ensure packed planes, or whether people are just sick of staying at home and want to get out, or whether we were seeing the tail end of the spring break rush, or whether it was a combination of all three factors. For whatever reason, we rode in full planes.
  • Tucson’s airport was not very busy, and when we arrived in Columbus at about 8 p.m. last night the airport was almost empty–but O’Hare was jammed with people and looked like the pre-pandemic O’Hare. Obviously, navigating from one gate to another in a crowded airport doesn’t give you much opportunity to practice social distancing. You’re dodging and skirting people in the concourse, standing in long lines if you want to get something to eat, and sitting cheek by jowl with other passengers in the gate area. Our airports aren’t designed for social distancing; they are designed to pen as many people as possible into the smallest space possible, and there is really not much you can do about it.
  • The social distancing impulses developed over the last year made me more irritable than I expected as I moved from one concourse at O’Hare to another. I’ve written before about the fact that many travelers seem to lack any meaningful spatial or situational awareness, but the problem is compounded when you are trying to practice social distancing and people just stop dead in the middle of a concourse walkway, or abruptly turn around against the flow of traffic, or act like they are out for a casual stroll in the park when people are rushing to catch their next flight. Is it too much to ask for people to be aware that they need to move with the flow of pedestrian traffic, keep pace with the crowds, and work toward the edge of the crowd when they need to exit the flow to get to their gate?
  • I will sound like a whiner, but wearing a mask for hours with no break on a busy travel day is not pleasant. When we finally got home, it felt great to take the mask off and breathe a few hearty gulps of unmasked air. I don’t know how long the federal mask mandate will last, but I suspect that it will ultimately affect travel patterns, if it hasn’t done so already. If I were going somewhere that is within reasonable driving distance, I would much prefer to hop in my car and take a mask-free trip, even if it meant longer travel from portal to portal, rather than masking up for hours of sitting in crowded airports and planes.

On The Upper Javelina Trail

Yesterday afternoon I tackled the Upper Javelina Trail at Dove Mountain. It is categorized as a medium difficulty trail, and it was definitely the most challenging hike I’ve taken this week—but it offers a great payoff of some stunning views, like the one shown above, as you walk along the summits of some of the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains.

To get to the Upper Javelina Trail, you first follow the Wild Burro Trail, then a segment of the Lower Javelina Trail, both which are relatively flat. Once you link up with the Upper Javelina Trail, you immediately start to ascend—first gradually, and then more abruptly.

The trail becomes rocky, and there are a lot or tight squeezes between some of the rock formations. For the most part, the trail is well-marked and easy to follow—provided you like climbing, because there is lots of climbing. It is narrow, which made me glad that I went out in the afternoon, when other hikers weren’t out. There wasn’t a lot of room to pass hikers headed the other way.

I wasn’t quite sure where the trail led, so I kept my eye on the rock shown above as a likely goal. The trail is a continuous climb with lots of switchbacks, and with each turn of the path I came closer to the outcropping, until finally I reached the ridge line and left the rock formation behind me, as shown in the photo below.

When I reached the summit, I was rewarded with spectacular views in every direction. The sky was crystal clear, the sun was bright, and you could see for miles. The trail wound along the summits of several of the peaks, so you got the chance to enjoy views that changed with every bend in the trail. The view above looks east, toward other peaks in the Tortolitas.

As the trail passed between the foothill peaks, it skirted a kind of Saguaro forest, shown below, with dozens of the big cacti spread from one hillside to the other. Very cool! As I hiked on, a huge hawk circled overhead, drifting lazily on the heat updrafts and scouting for a potential meal down below.

The trail comes perilously close to some sheer drops, as shown in the first photo of this post. If you are afraid of heights or freaked out by a lack of guard rails, this is not the trail for you! The view below looks south and shows another mountain range on the far horizon.

The trail gives lots of photo opportunities, with some interesting rock formations and many sweeping views. There’s a constant temptation to get right to the edge to maximize the view, but any false move would send you crashing to the rocks far below. I stayed a respectful distance from the edge and didn’t take any blind steps forward or backward.

The Upper Javelina Trail extends for almost three miles and the trail map says it has a 450-foot elevation change— but it sure feels like more than that as you trudge directly uphill and enjoy commanding views where you feel far above ground level. At about midpoint the trail links with two other longer trails with even more elevation changes. If you take the entire Upper Javelina trail, it deposits you on a community trail that is about a mile and a half from the trail head. In all, my hike was about five miles and took about two and a half hours. It was well worth the time and effort.

On The Wild Burro Trail

The Wild Burro Trail is one of the primary trails in the Dove Mountain network of trails, and is also one of the longest. It’s the trail that you find at the trailhead, and it stretches for 6.5 miles and links up with many of the other trails.

The trail begins flat, and winds through and around some of the dry washes on the floor of the canyon between the mountains. It’s an easy hike, and it was not hard to imagine herds of braying wild burros trotting down the canyon and kicking up a cloud of dust as they followed the trail.

Once you reach the ruins of a stone house (shown above) about a mile into the hike, however, the trail becomes a lot more challenging, and heads up the hillside at a pretty good incline.

The trail even goes between two giant Saguaros that look a bit like praying hands as it progresses up the hillside. It’s a narrow trail that has a steep drop-off to one side, which is common on the trails here. I took my hike in the afternoon heat, when only a lunatic would be out on the trails, so I didn’t see another soul and had the trails completely to myself. As a result, I didn’t have to share the narrow passes with anyone.

As you gain in altitude you see some interesting desert plant life, like the furry plants shown below. I also saw eagles, lizards, jack rabbits, chipmunk-like creatures, and a number of birds. There were no large critters, though.

The Wild Burro Trail heads straight up and out of the canyon and intersects with other long and challenging trails. I didn’t have the time for a real lengthy hike, so when I reached the ridge line on one of the hills I stopped and turned around to head back. You have commanding views up there, but you need to be careful where you put your feet lest you go careening down the hillside. Selfie takers, take note!

Pictures from the heights really don’t convey the view. You are far above the canyon floor, but it is hard to give a good sense of the drop to the wash far below.

You also need to be careful about where you place you feet heading down. Stumbles could be disastrous. And Midwesterners like me need to remember that you have to watch what you touch to brace yourself on the way down. Rocks are okay, obviously, but you’ve got to remember that those objects that seem like telephone poles as you pass by have thorns, and so do many of the other plants.

By the time I reached the canyon floor and the dry wash, the sun was starting to sink, and it backlit the Saguaros on the rocky hillsides as I headed home. These Saguaros almost looked like they were trying to spell something. “It’s too hot to hike,” perhaps?

Wild Burros And Javelinas

Some of the trails at Dove Mountain, in Marana, Arizona, are named for animals. There is a Wild Burro trail, and there are two Javelina trails–the Upper Javelina Trail, and the Lower Javelina trail.

I recognized the burro as a donkey, shown above, but I was not acquainted with the javelina, which is pictured below. The name makes it sound like a kind of antelope, but actually it is a “collared peccary” that looks a lot like a wild boar. Javelinas apparently can be aggressive, so I’m glad that I haven’t encountered a javelina on the trails, or for that matter a rampaging herd of wild burros, either.

If the name of the trails is any indication, I know one thing for sure about wild burros and javelinas–they are sure-footed climbers who don’t mind scrambling over rocks or walking along steep ledges.

Dry Heat

There’s really no need for a big thermometer on a hiking trail—especially in Arizona. Hikers know what the weather is like, obviously: it’s hot as blazes! And if you’re not already well-equipped with a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water, a few degrees aren’t going to make a difference.

The last few days the temperature has hit 90 degrees and stayed there. When I took my hike today, starting at about 1 p.m., it was 90 out, and there was no one—literally, not a single soul—on the trails. When I looped back around 3 p.m. it was still 90 out, and I saw two intrepid hikers as I neared the trail head. Those were the only people I saw on some very cool trails.

People around here call it a dry heat, because there is no humidity. Unlike the Midwest, where 90 degrees would mean you’re dissolved in sweat, 90 is much more tolerable here— but it’s still hot. If you don’t have a good hat and water, you’re begging for a case of sunstroke and cramps.

Green Trees

We are enjoying the desert foliage in the Oro Valley area. One of our favorite plants is this green tree, which is found all over the region and seems to thrive in the arid, sunny conditions.

All trees are green, of course, but this tree takes green to an entirely new level, because even the trunk and bark is a fluorescent green, which looks even greener in the bright sunshine. It’s the kind of tree Dr. Seuss would love.

Oro Valley Sunrise

We’re spending some time this week in the Oro Valley, just north of Tucson. It’s a beautiful area if, like me, you enjoy desert scenery, mountains, desert plants, and rocks. Today I got up early and caught this picture of the sun just beginning to peek over the foothills immediately to the north. The photo is a bit unusual because it shows some high clouds; for the most part we’ve had crystal clear blue skies and blazing sunshine.

COVID Travel

We took a commercial airline flight a few days ago, and the pandemic continues to change the way we travel. Here are a few things I noticed:

* In the three airports we used on our trip, many of the stores, including food and snack options, were closed, and the ones that were open had very long lines. In Phoenix, for example, the line for a Wendy’s had about 30 people in it, which means you’ve got a pretty long wait for your Frosty. Next time we travel by air we’ll pack a lunch or a snack.

* The months of social conditioning about social distancing have had an impact. If you get to your gate early, people are spaced far apart, but as departure time nears the gaps fill in and people get noticeably antsy when people sit in the adjoining seat—and that’s even with everyone masked up.

* Here’s a positive: masked travelers make fewer annoying and intrusive phone calls. The gate areas are a lot quieter.

* The airline magazine on our flight, shown above, has supposedly been treated with some process to make it safe to handle. Nevertheless, it looked like it hadn’t been touched, and I didn’t flip through it, either. I bet readership is way down, and wonder whether this is the death knell for such magazines. For now, though, travelers can expect pristine in-flight magazines and untouched crossword puzzles., even if they are flying mid-month.

* The pre-flight lecture has gotten longer, with a COVID-19 specific section at the end. We were told that federal law now mandates a two-layer mask, and scarves, gaiters, and bandannas do not make the cut. And, keeping with the airline tendency to say even the most obvious stuff—like how to work the seat belt—we’re now being told that if the oxygen masks drop, it’s okay to remove your COVID masks before donning your oxygen mask.