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.

On The Canyon Loop Trail

Yesterday morning we went for a hike at the Catalina State Park, one of the many parks in the Arizona state parks and trails system. The Catalina State Park is located in the Oro Valley, a rapidly growing area just north of Tucson, and is part of the Coronado National Forest. The park is located at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, a classically craggy desert mountain range. We went in the morning because it gets blistering hot in the afternoon, and morning hikes are more manageable for people who aren’t accustomed to hiking in sun-blasted 90-degree temperatures.

We took the canyon loop trail at the park, which winds for several miles along the foothills of the mountains and offers lots of opportunities to see the native plants in their natural habitat. I was surprised at the number of plants, large and small, that have adapted to life in a dry, dusty desert environment. There were plenty of Saguaro cacti, barrel cacti, prickly pears, and a lot of other hardy plant life. We didn’t see any desert animals, however.

The first part of the trail meandered through the landscape and was dry and dusty , , , and hot. We were glad we brought plenty of water. The views were great, though, and the hiking wasn’t too strenuous, other than dealing with the heat, without a lot of elevation changes. There were a lot of people out on the trail, some with dogs. There were a few obnoxious hikers–including a gang of loud, shirtless guys who were hiking with a radio blaring bad ’80s rock songs–but for the most part the hikers were quiet and friendly.

As the trail continued, we descended into the canyon and rounded the sun-bleached rock outcropping shown above. After the trial turned and descended, we were surprised to find a stream and running water at the bottom of the canyon, notwithstanding the heat and the otherwise dry conditions. It was hard not to think of travelers in the Old West being happy to find a stream of running water to fill up their saddlebags and water their horses. The stream made an interesting contrast with the Saguaro cactus plants, which I normally don’t associate with water.

The trail followed the stream bed for a while, where the foliage was notably greener than the plants on the hillside. The trail ultimately veered away from the streambed and took us back to the dusty desert landscape. With the Saguaro cactus plants on top of a ridge framed against a cloudless blue sky, we got to enjoy a classic Arizona vista as our hike came to an end.

Big Cactus

We’re in the land of the big cactus, in the Oro Valley near Tucson, Arizona, for a short visit to get a change of scenery. And there’s no doubt about the change of scenery here; there are lots of Saguaro cacti in our immediate vicinity, including this big guy just outside the back door. You wouldn’t see this scene in Columbus.

No one knows precisely how old Saguaro cacti are, but the best guess is that adult plants are more than 100 years old, and perhaps even older. It’s interesting to think that this big fella probably was around to witness the last big pandemic to hit the U.S.

Hike Ohio: Dripping Rock Trail

Yesterday was another ideal day for a hike in central Ohio, with clear skies and temperatures that started in the 50s and eventually touched 70. We decided to stay a little closer to home this time, and ventured just a few miles north of I-270, to the very conveniently located Highbanks Metro Park, to try out the Dripping Rock Trail. The Dripping Rock Trail is one of a series of interconnected trails in the park, which also features a designated dog trail, picnic areas, and open meadows where kids can run around and work off some of that inexhaustible kid energy.

The Dripping Rock Trail is so named, I suspect, because part of the trail follows a small stream that has cut through rock, as shown in the two photographs above, and groundwater leaks from the rock formations into the stream. The trail follows a loop that is a little over two miles, but if you want a longer hike you can link to adjoining trails that will take you to an Adena Mound, some ancient earthworks, and an overlook area The flexibility offered by the intersecting trails is a nice feature, because you can design your hike to suit your interest in exactly how much exercise you want to get.

The trails are natural earth and well-marked, and wide enough to allow for comfortable social distancing from passing hikers if everyone move to the edge and goes single file. Because the Highbanks park is so close to Columbus, the Dripping Rock Trail and other trails are very popular–or at least they were on our visit. Yesterday we got there at about 10:30 and had no problem finding a parking space next to the nature center, but when we left in early afternoon the parking lots were full and people were waiting for departures to find a parking space. If it’s a pretty day you’ll want to get there early if you want to be sure of getting a spot.

One section of the Dripping Rock Trail will give you a glimpse of a sluggish and muddy segment of the Olentangy River through the trees, but for the most part the trail is just your basic walk in the Ohio woods, winding through and around the trees with the small creek for company. There are some easy inclines and declines, but most of the trail is level. So long as you stay away from gangs of chatty hikers, it is blissfully quiet and makes for a very pleasant stroll. And if you are a big forestry fan, the Metroparks people have labeled some of the different kinds of trees that you will see along the hike.

We liked the Dripping Rock Trail, and think it would be worth visiting again in the fall when the leaves start to turn.

Hike Ohio: Kokosing Gap Trail

Yesterday was another beautiful day in central Ohio, with cloudless skies and rising temperatures, so we decided to give our hiking shoes another breaking-in session. This time, we headed north to Mount Vernon, Ohio–about an hour’s drive away–to walk along the Kokosing Gap Trail, which winds its way from Mount Vernon to Gambier, then Howard, and finally to Danville.

The Kokosing Gap Trail is one of a number of Ohio trails that have been converted from old railroad lines to hiking and biking trails through the “rails to trails” program. And the clues to the railroad history of the path are apparent everywhere along the trail: from the width of the paved trails, to the gradual inclines and declines, as shown in the photo just above, to the railroad trestle over the Kokosing River that you cross about a mile and a half from the Mount Vernon trail head. The fact that the trail is paved and largely flat makes it a favorite route for cyclists–including families with little kids on their bikes–who are looking for a Sunday ride. I would point out, on behalf of my biker friends, that most of the cyclists who whizzed past us gave us notice with “on your left” calls as they approached, so we could move over and they could pass with plenty of room.

The first part of the trail runs along farm fields and a creek that is a tributary of the Kokosing River. Once you hit the first railroad bridge and cross the Kokosing (which apparently means “where there are owls” in the language of the Delaware tribe) the river becomes your travel companion, just to the north of the trail and visible through the trees. Unlike the Little Miami River that we hiked along yesterday, the Kokosing has no whitewater and is apparently quite shallow. We did see some fishermen out on the river as we loped along.

We walked along the river for several miles and shared the trail with lots of cyclists and some other walkers, until we were getting close to Gambier, then turned around and walked back to our car parked at the Mount Vernon trail head. It’s interesting how turning around and walking back over the same path nevertheless gives you a different perspective on the landscape. In this case, it gave us a chance to check out the river in more detail.

The entire Kokosing Gap Trail is about 14 miles long, so we only did one part of it. Our plan is to return in the future to walk the entire route in segments, but first we’ve got some other trails to explore.

One Of These Days . . . .

We’ve heard some really good things about Sicily. Richard went there a few years ago and raved about it — including Palermo, shown above. It looks scenic and interesting, doesn’t it? So we planned a trip there last May, with friends who have some family history and relatives in the area, to see Sicily for ourselves.

Alas, COVID hit, and our trip was postponed to the fall. Things weren’t better then, so the trip got postponed again, to this coming May. Then we got a call from the airline a few days ago, telling us that the flights on our journey to Italy were designated some kind of special “COVID flights.” We would need to bring evidence that we had taken a particular kind of test (that we would pay for ourselves, incidentally) within 72 hours of the flight and received negative results before we could board the first leg of the flight. And we would have to get tested again at airports as we made our way to Rome, and apparently need to follow a similar process before coming home after our tour of southern Italy and Sicily ended. The implication, of course, was that if any positive test results showed up along the way we’d be stuck where we were, unable to board a flight. And the idea of arranging for COVID testing in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language didn’t seem like much fun.

The process was obviously prudent, safe, and certainly understandable for the airline. And we’ve paid attention to State Department warnings and gotten shots to prevent various local diseases before traveling to other overseas locations in the past. Still, this process seemed different, because we would constantly be reminded of the brooding, ever-present threat of infection and the consequences if it happened to us. It’s not exactly the best way to enjoy a carefree trip to an exotic destination.

Then the other shoe dropped, and our trip was formally cancelled and deferred again — this time for a full year. Everyone hopes that, by 2022, the vaccine will have been fully distributed, the lurking COVID threat will have been resolved, and people will be able to travel again without all of the rigamarole of constant testing and ever-present masks and worry about potential exposure. I’m sure the people of Italy, where tourism is such an important part of the economy, are more eager for that than anyone.

We’re not alone in this; COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with spring travel plans for people throughout the world. I’m not complaining, really — it is what it is, we’ve had to cancel trips before for various reasons, and a masked, tested tour is not how you would ideally want to see a place like Sicily, anyway. But I do think about the recent retirees who made travel abroad an important part of their retirement plans. They’re sitting at home, watching the clock tick, wondering when they will actually be able to take the trips that they envisioned, and hoping that those trips will actually happen . . . one of these days.

Out Of Practice

Practice makes perfect—and when you’re out of practice you tend to forget the little things. Here’s how you know it’s been a while since you’re done any traveling by airplane.

• You don’t automatically establish a mental calendar entry to get your boarding pass precisely 24 hours before the established boarding time.

• You kind of forgot about the whole TSA precheck line and confirming that you are shown as TSA precheck on your boarding pass until you’re already at the airport.

• You don’t think about following any of the streamlining and expediting and weight-minimizing travel tips that you’ve developed over the years and you end up bringing three or more otherwise identical cell phone chargers.

• You need to think for a minute about how to put your cellphone into “airplane mode.”

• Kids crying and dogs barking in the gate waiting area seem like a novel experience.