Pre-Dawn Cacti

I had to get up super-early today to catch a flight, and stopped on my way to my rental car to take this photo of some cacti around our hotel.

Marana, Arizona is, intentionally, a “dark” community with minimal lighting to avoid light pollution and facilitate better viewing of stars. Desert darkness is about as absolutely dark as it gets. The stars stand out in sharp relief, to be sure, while the giant saguaros are ghostly figures in the gloom, unless you use a flash as I did here.

The night and early morning hours are apparently a favorite time for gangs of Javelina to prowl the neighborhood, although I didn’t see any on my way to the parking lot. I was happy about that, because I’m not sure I would know how to deal with a nighttime encounter with a herd of wild, pig-like creatures.

On The “Jeeps Only” Trail

Yesterday we decided to get away from the resort and explore a bit of the rest of the island of Aruba. On the advice of the Long-Haired Red Sox Fan, we rented a Jeep Wrangler so that we could explore the mostly uninhabited “wild side” of the island. It proved to be a memorable experience, but perhaps not in precisely the way the LHRSF conveyed.

Our journey began at the northern tip of Aruba, at the California lighthouse shown above. It was crawling with tour buses and tourists, but the area provided a nice view of the surrounding area. Interestingly, this part of Aruba is very desert-like. The landscape around the lighthouse featured prickly pear cactus, saguaro cactus, and other desert fauna.

At the bottom of the lighthouse promontory we turned right, off the paved road onto a “Jeeps-only” trail and left the tour buses behind. The trail was described as a “dirt road,” but really “trail” is a better description of it. It was a rocky, twisting, deeply rutted track that was more like what you would expect to find in an X Games off-roading competition. The Wrangler held up well under the conditions–any normal car or bus would break an axle within 100 yards of the turn-off point–but fair warning should be given to any drivers and passengers who want to take the trail. It is truly a rough ride.

Unless you rent one of the dune buggies that some people were riding along the trail, you can expect an incredibly bone-jarring, kidney-busting journey that is beyond your wildest imagination. I’ve driven on dirt roads before, but nothing approaching the Jeeps-only trail. If you’ve ever bought a gallon of paint from a hardware store and had them mix it–where they put the can into the machine that agitates it like an overly aggressive bartender with a cocktail shaker–you have a mild sense of what driving on the road was like. The dune buggies were flying past, but we decided to take it slow to try to preserve the Wrangler and our internal organs. The rough road did provide incentive to periodically stop the car and the swaying and tossing and explore the surroundings–like Druif beach, shown above.

The Jeep-only trail runs along the coastline, heading directly southeast. The ocean clearly is a lot rougher on that side of the island, with the waves crashing into the land mass and lots of spraying surf. There are only a few small houses along the way, and it isn’t clear whether people live there currently. As you proceed along the trail, the coastline and roaring ocean is to your left, and to your right are lots of rock formations and dry areas, like that seen above

The coastline featured lots of different kind of rock formations, from a kind of spiny coral-type rock at Druif beach to some larger boulders and other kinds of rock as we moved southeast along the oceanfront. All of the rocks were getting pounded by the surf, and the surf, unfortunately, brought other things too–in some areas significant amounts of plastic debris from the ocean had washed up and been deposited on the rocky beaches.

After a long, bouncing ride over the rough road, we reached an interesting point at which the tide had cut a cave-like entrance through the coastline rock formation. I found myself wondering how long this feature would be able to hold up against the pounding surf before collapsing. You wouldn’t want to get into the water in this area, for fear of being smashed against the rocks by the rugged surf.

A little farther along the road we reached the Bushiribana ruins, which are the remnants of a large smelting works built in 1872 by the Aruba Island Gold-mining Company. According to our guide map, the smelting works were only in operation for 10 years, but the ruins remain. Kids and adults who were happy to be out of their cars were crawling all over the fallen rocks inside the ruins, but a few of the ocean-facing windows remain intact and provide a nice view of the Caribbean beyond.

Across the road from the ruins there is a field where people have constructed stone sculptures, as seen in the photo below. We weren’t tempted to construct one of them, but instead were motivated to find an exit from the Jeeps-only trail and back to the world of paved roads and civilization. Fortunately, after only a few more minutes of shake, rattle, and roll, there was a turnoff, and we took it with pleasure and relief. That means we didn’t follow the dirt track into the national park, but our kidneys thanked us for the sacrifice.

Sunset Shots

Aruba, like many Caribbean islands, is a great place for sunsets. Above is a photo of last night’s effort, taken as we were waiting to head to dinner at our resort. Below is tonight’s handiwork of Mother Nature, taken as we were having dinner at a seaside restaurant just south of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. We thought they were both pretty special.

Sunset Shots

Aruba, like many Caribbean islands, is a great place for sunsets. Above is a photo of last night’s effort, taken as we were waiting to head to dinner at our resort. Below is tonight’s handiwork of Mother Nature, taken as we were having dinner at a seaside restaurant just south of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. We thought they were both pretty special.

The Fofoti Trees Of Eagle Beach

Our resort is located on Aruba’s Eagle Beach. At one end of the beach, in a sandy area atop a rocky outcropping next to the water, you will find a stand of the amazing Fofoti trees–which have to be among the coolest trees anywhere, as well as some of the most photographed.

The Fofoti trees are of the species Conocarpus erectus, and are also known as the buttonwood or button mangrove tree. But on Aruba, which is constantly swept by brisk trade winds, the Fofoti trees have a special characteristic: they have been twisted and shaped by the constant gusts. The trees have a deeply gnarled trunk and have been bent almost to the ground, and they always point to the southwest, which is the direction of the prevailing breeze. As trees go, the Fofoti are pretty amazing.

What Makes A Great Walking Beach?

We’re staying at a beachfront resort in Aruba. That’s a good thing, because one of my favorite things to do on a beach vacation is to walk the beach. But not just any beach is a good walking beach. There are certain crucial elements that must be satisfied to make a stretch of oceanfront sand into a beachwalker’s dream, and fortunately our beach in Aruba has them all.

The first key element of a good walking beach is a visible destination in the far distance. It helps to have a goal as you stride along, so you can see that you are making progress. Our resort in Aruba is at about the halfway point of a long arc of beach. If you walk out to the oceanfront, to the right you can see some buildings in the far distance, and to the left the beach bends around a point. That’s a perfect combination: to the right is a goal, and to the left is . . . mystery. I chose the goal to start and headed right, toward the buildings.

The second important characteristic of a great walking beach is good sand conditions. It helps if the beach is wide, so there is plenty of room to steer around other groups of walkers and kids playing in the sand, and you also want a sizeable strip of sand that has been packed down by the surfline, to provide a firmer walking surface. And I don’t mind shells, but it also helps if there aren’t areas where lots of crushed shells have washed up, making for a tough slog through mounds of shell fragments. The Aruba beach is almost totally shell-free and has a broad area of compacted sand, which is pretty much ideal.

Another nice element of a good walking beach is some interesting geography and other scenic features. The Aruba beach walk, heading to the right, ends in a ridge of hard, spiny, coral-like rock, just past the buildings. The surf smashes into the rocks with a mighty roar, sending cascades of white spray into the air. there also are some channels within the rockline that have been created by the pounding of the water, so the surf hisses through the rock and sends up jets of spray when it hits the end of the channels.

I also pay attention to the length of the beach itself. In my view, it’s preferable if the length is manageable. Our beachfront in Aruba is probably about 4 miles in length, from one end to the other, and the photo above shows the arc of the beachfront from the top of the rock formation at the right end of the beach. The length is long enough to make you feel like you’re getting some good exercise and fresh sea air, but not so long to be dispiriting.

And the last important element of a good beach walk is a few surprises along the way. When I headed to the left from our resort and rounded the bend, I found a much more commercialized stretch of beach, with lots of oceanfront bars and restaurants. I resisted the temptation to stop and toss back a few Balashis, and headed onward, threading through some rock formations on the beach along the way. The journey to the left end of the beach ended at another rock formation, where there was an abandoned jetty and some sea birds taking a break by perching on the old pilings of the pier. The sun was high in the sky, the sunshine on the water was dazzling, and it was time to turn around and start back again.

Hike Ohio: Blendon Woods Metro Park

Yesterday was a cool, overcast morning in Columbus–another prime day for a romp in the Ohio woods. For our weekend hike, we decided to stay a bit closer to home, and took a short drive over to Blendon Woods Metro Park. The park is a popular one and very conveniently located in the northeast corner of Franklin County, just outside of I-270, the highway than encircles Columbus.

Blendon Woods is a big park–653 acres in all–with a number of trails, family and picnic areas, and the Walden Waterfowl Refuge, a 118-acre preserve in one corner of the park. We began our day with the trail to Thoreau Lake, which is part of the Walden Refuge. When you reach the lake, the trail ends in two viewing stations where you can watch the birds and waterfowl unobtrusively. We didn’t see any ducks or other waterfowl, but we did catch a good look at a colorful cardinal, shown above, who was munching on some seeds just over the squirrel guard in a bird house next to the viewing station.

The trail to the Walden Refuge is a paved trail, and there were a number of families and birders out for a walk in the cool air. The birders are easy to recognize, because they’ve all got their binoculars in hand, with cords looped around their necks, ready to focus in whenever they hear a bird call. It must have been good viewing conditions, with some trees largely stripped of leaves while others are still displaying their colors. The non-birders among us could just enjoy the remaining fall foliage.

The lake trail is a short one, so after our return from the Walden Waterfowl Refuge we crossed the parking lot and headed onto the Sugarbush Trail, a natural trail that winds through the woods and some marshy areas for two miles. The trail was matted with fallen leaves, and you had to watch your step to make sure that you didn’t get snagged by a stray tree root, but the woods were lovely, with lots of brilliant gold and yellow in the background to frame the trees in the foreground.

The Sugarbush Trail wasn’t quite as crowded as the lake trail, but we did see a few other walkers along the way. The trail is mostly level, with only a few easy hills. The woods were quiet and cool as we strolled along, and I once again thought I should learn more about how to distinguish between the different kinds of trees you typically find in the Ohio woods. I can identify a pine tree, a buckeye nut, and a maple leaf–thanks largely to seeing the maple leaf on the national flag of our neighbors to the north–but that’s about it. Otherwise, I can’t tell a walnut from a sycamore from an elm, and I suppose it’s about time I learned.

At one point on the Sugarbush Trail, the woods take a break, and there is a meadow area with a sprawling field of wildflowers. The plants had grown to about shoulder height, and if you stood on tiptoe you could just look over the plants to get the full effect of the field and a better sense of the size of the park. As we finished our hike, a few patches of blue showed up on the far horizon. With our appetites stimulated by the cool weather and the walking, it was time to leave Blendon Woods behind and head home to make some scrambled eggs, sausage, and strawberries for our Sunday brunch.

Hike Ohio: Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve

Yesterday was another perfect day for hiking in central Ohio. It was sunny and clear, with temperatures starting in the 50s and ending up in the 70s. We decided to drive east, to Heath, Ohio, to the Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve. Our car’s GPS took us on a circuitous route to get there, even directing us down some gravel-topped one-lane country roads, but it was such a beautiful day, and the rolling countryside was so pretty, we really didn’t mind. By the time we reached the preserve, however, we were ready to get out and stretch our legs as we followed a couple with a youngster down the main trail.

Blackhand Gorge features miles of different trails, some of which are paved and some of which are natural. We turned off the main, paved trail to take the first natural trail we saw, which was the Buttonbush Swamp trail. The trail meanders for more than a mile and gives you glimpses of swamps, like the one shown above, natural wetlands, and small streams, like the one seen below. The sun was so bright that the countryside seemed to be stippled with gold in the sunshine as we hiked through the woods among the towering trees.

The Buttonbush Swamp trail isn’t a difficult trail and is well marked. It offers the opportunity for a pleasant, and quiet, walk through the woods on a meandering journey. In some spots, there are elevation changes where two stout walking sticks or grabbing a handhold is a good idea. Eventually the trail joins with the Quarry Rim trail, leads upward, and presents you with a view of an old quarry and pools of water through the trees. Yesterday, the bright sun through the trees left the ground, water, and cliffside striped with black shadows.

After you wind around the rim of the quarry and back down to ground level, you can go off the main trail and follow an ancillary trial down to the shore of the pool of water that has collected in the quarry bottom. It’s a bit of a scramble down and back up again, but the view at the bottom is well worth it. Yesterday morning there wasn’t a breath of wind, and the water below the quarry cliff, framed by the surrounding trees, reflected the colorful scene like a mirror. This view, alone, made the trip worthwhile–but there was more to come.

Shortly after the spectacular quarry view, the Buttonbush Swamp trail rejoined the main trail. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources website indicated that parts of the paved trail ahead were closed, so we decided to turn back and try to get a good look at the Licking River. The trail almost immediately took us straight through the Black Hand sandstone formation, which towered above each side of the trail. It was dark and cool in the shadows as we walked through the crack between the two sandstone cliffs.

The sandstone walls are dark and textured with chips and indentions, and the almost black color made for a striking contrast with the colorful tree leaves far overhead. Fortunately for us, the Ohio countryside is still at close to peak fall colors, and many of the leaves hadn’t yet been knocked off the trees by wind or rain. The yellows, reds, and oranges stood our sharply in the bright sunshine above as we strolled through the shadows below.

The main trail at Blackhand Gorge follows the Licking River for a while, with the river to one side and stone and wetlands to the other. There are sandstone formations throughout the area and wetlands in between, like a silent and still black pool, shown below, that is wedged in a crevice between smaller sandstone mounds, just off the main trail.

The main trail gives you many opportunities to appreciate the immensity of the sandstone formations, which were cut by the Licking River long ago. The photo below provides a sense of the scale of the sandstone ledges along the trail, with the Licking River, screened by trees, just off the left side of the frame.

There are several opportunities to follow ancillary trails off the main trail and get down to the banks of the Licking River. Some portions of the river cut right through the sandstone, while others present a more pastoral scene. According to the ODNR website, this portion of the Licking River was part of the Ohio-Erie Canal (and, unfortunately, during construction of the canal in 1828 a black hand petroglyph that gave this area its name was destroyed). Yesterday the river, too, was like glass, without a riffle to be seen.

The area around the river also presented some interesting bonatical signts. Ohio’s State Nature Preserves are intended to simply maintain the natural beauty of the areas, without interference. One section of the river was bordered by a marshy field of bright green reeds, seen below.

As we headed back along the main trail, the sun’s rays made the woodlands to each side glimmer and glow, and the thermometer moved upward toward 70. It was a brilliant fall day at one of the more spectacular settings you will find in the Buckeye State. We’ve taken a number of really wonderful hikes in Ohio, but the Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve might just have been our favorite.

Hike Ohio: Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve

Yesterday, on a cool and lovely fall morning, we drove to the Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve near Lancaster. It’s about a 45-minute drive from downtown Columbus that takes you on country roads that wind through the heart of some of the beautiful, rolling farmland found throughout the rural areas of central Ohio. The GPS finally deposits you at a small parking lot near the entrance to Oil Mill Road, which you follow back to the entrance to the preserve.

We were in the mood for a peaceful trek through the woods–and at Christmas Rocks that is exactly what we got. It was just over 50 degrees and dry when we started our ramble, which made for ideal hiking weather. We took the orange trail to the blue trail, which will give you several good miles of moderate hiking through very pretty woodland–although there were several uphill and downhill sections where we wished we hadn’t forgotten our walking sticks. (In our experience, at least, walking sticks are seemingly designed to be left behind and forgotten until you see another hiker using them and kick yourself for the oversight.)

There are a few interesting rock formations on the blue trail, like the one above, but for the most part Christmas Rocks is all about trees, glimpses of shimmering sunlight, blue sky, whispering green leaves, and the kind of refreshing, highly oxygenated air that you only get in a forested area. It’s a good place to amble slowly, quietly take in the scenery, cross a mossy wooden bridge over a small stream, and remember what it was like to go into the woods when you were a kid and wonder what you might find there.

We saw the first signs of the fall colors to come, with some leaves already down on the trail and a few sugar maples displaying their trademark scarlet autumnal finery. For the most part, though, the leaves were green on the towering trees. We heard some birdsong as we moved along, following switchbacks up and down and a winding trail that takes you through several gorges.

The blue trail at Christmas Rocks is a loop, and at one point you come to a juncture with Armey Run, a small brook that cuts through the bottom of one of the ravines. You can walk out onto the rocks in the middle of the stream and enjoy that gurgling sound of slowly moving water, which makes for a change from the silence that swallows you up on the rest of the trail. From that point, the trail moves upward, with Armey Run falling away to your left, as you complete the loop.

As we emerged from the tree cover and left the Christmas Rocks property, we were dazzled by the cloudless azure skies, the sparkling sunshine, and the bright green lawn surrounding an old barn positioned close to the entrance to the nature preserve. We agreed that, once again, a Saturday morning hike was a great way to kick off the weekend.

Hike Ohio: Conkle’s Hollow

The autumnal equinox has come and gone, the weather has cooled off, and the feel of fall is all around us. That means it’s time to don the thick socks, lace up the Oboz hiking shoes, and head out to one of the cool hiking trails you can find in and around central Ohio. Our destination yesterday was Conkle’s Hollow, a state nature preserve located in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio.

The Hocking Hills region is a sprawling and beautiful area of woodlands and interesting rock formations that is home to many camps and hiking areas. Located about an hour and a half south of Columbus off Route 33, Conkle’s Hollow is one of the many potential destinations in the area for someone looking to get outdoors, enjoy some scenery, and breathe in some big gulps of fresh autumnal air. Not surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones who decided to visit Conkle’s Hollow yesterday.

When you arrive at Conkle’s Hollow, you’ve got a choice–you can take the gorge trail, which runs along the bottom of the hollow, beneath the canopy of the towering trees, or you can take the longer rim trail, which takes you up to the top of the rock walls that make up the gorge. The rim trail is apparently more rugged and also requires more care, as it winds past some spots where there are sheer falls in the event of a misstep. We decided to take the gorge trail to kick off our hiking season, and leave the rim trail for a later trip.

The gorge trail is an easy hike, and some of our fellow visitors were families with young kids. There is lots to see on the gorge trail, too. Almost immediately, you notice the sheer rock cliffs to each side, towering hundreds of feet overhead. The photo directly above, with the trail and the trail sign, gives you a sense of the immense scale of the rocky walls. Many of the trees growing from the bottom of the gorge were dwarfed by the cliff faces.

After a half a mile or so, the paved trail ends, and a dirt path takes you farther back into the gorge, where you see many of the most interesting rock formations. The air is decidedly cooler in the gorge, and you don’t get much direct sunlight in view of the towering rock outcroppings and tree cover. The filtered sunlight almost makes you feel like you are underwater as you follow the trail, and makes the green shades of the tree leaves, moss, and plant life seem a lot greener.

At many points along the trail there are small caves and grottos, as well as areas where water from above is falling to join the small stream running along the floor of the hollow. In the past, you apparently could explore more of these formations, but the damage done by hikers (and, sadly, some people who can’t resist carving their initials into rocks, as shown in the photo above) has caused the preserve to limit hikers to the trails. That’s okay with me: I’m willing to forgo an up close and personal look if it means that the pristine state of this beautiful area will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As you approach the end of the trail, the walls to each side close in, bringing you to the end point of the gorge. The middle of the floor features a small winding stream, with lots of rocks to hop on and felled trees. The kids in the family groups that were with us in this area had a riot leaping from rock to rock and balancing on the logs.

On this part of the trail, the contrast presented by dark shadows of the caverns make the green tree leaves and plants seem even brighter and greener. Whether you look forward, as in the picture above, or backward, as in the picture below, this part of Conkle’s Hollow was a study in black and different shades of green. Chartreuse, emerald, lime, fern, olive, seafoam, juniper–an artist would need a pretty loaded palette to do it justice.

The end of the trail takes you to the last cleft in the gorge, shown below. Water drips down from above into the pool that has accumulated below the cleft, and the dripping sound echoes against the rocky walls. A small ray of refracted sunlight illuminated the point at which the falling water hits the pool. It’s a beautiful scene, and it made us glad to choose the gorge trail for our first visit to Conkle’s Hollow. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss this serene little scene on a crisp early autumn day.

Hike Ohio: Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

Hike Ohio: Kokosing Gap Trail

Hike Ohio: Dripping Rock Trail

Scene From A Walk

This scene greeted me this morning when I turned the corner from our street and headed down the hill for my walk at about 6:15 a.m. It’s amazing how a few clouds can make the sky more interesting, and produce just the right amount of shimmer on the surface of the water in the harbor. The temperature was around 60 degrees, and the salty air was fresh and invigorating.

It’s scenes like this that make a morning walk so enjoyable.

Our Misty Morn

This morning was my first really foggy morning since I came up to Stonington a few days ago. As always, I’d forgotten just how blanketing a fog bank can be, and how the ghostly mist and absolute quiet can turn familiar views into interesting, otherworldly landscapes.

I like the fog because it makes for an interesting walk. I also like it because it means that our east-facing bedroom isn’t invaded by blazing sunshine at 5:15 a.m., and it’s actually possible to sleep in until 6 o’clock.

This Morning’s Palette

We’re getting ready to do some home decorating in the near future, so we’ve been doing a lot of talking about color palettes and “vision boards” and other decorating-related concepts.

This morning I was greeted by a pre-sunrise scene that had what I considered to be a pretty compelling palette, with lightening shades of blue, a band of coral, warm reds and oranges, and a hint of the yellow to come. The gray clouds and the harbor water would be the “accent colors,” I guess. The only thing that is missing is those evocative paint store names for the colors, like “seashell gray” or “sunflower yellow.” In any case, it’s a palette that goes well together.

I’d love to get a look at Mother Nature’s “vision board” for today., but she is notoriously close to the vest about that.