Roadtrip 2019: Not quite halfway in the UP

A late summer interlude trip is about halfway in our driving for the year, lots of time on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior visiting good friends all along the way. Somehow most of the places we encounter are new to us even as we run into people we know but didn’t make plans to see.

Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan State Park
Sable Falls, Pictured Rocks National Seashore.
Houghton-Hancock Lift Bridge raised for NPS Ranger III
Trestle at Agate Falls, Michigan

Roadtrip 2019: Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in June we drove the Blue Ridge Parkway from its start in Virginia to Asheville, NC on our way home. The Blue Ridge Music Center with locals playing casual live bluegrass most days is worth a mention and a visit.

Sunset along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.
Clouds clearing above Mount Mitchell, NC
Along the nature trail at Mount Mitchell, NC

Roadtrip 2019: New Mexico

Retracing paths from earlier this summer, we left the corner of Texas’ panhandle at Texline and meandered through northern New Mexico to Taos, finding our first fall colors of the year – golden cottonwoods in the canyons and aspens in the passes.

In Taos we toured living ancient culture (Pueblo continuously occupied for 1000 years), and modern sustainable off-grid housing inspired by the same (Earthship community).

Santa Fe surprised us with great museums (International Folk Art) and our first Audubon Center (hiking with borrowed birding binoculars in piñon-juniper hills). Grandparents came to visit and snow flurried for most of a day.

On our way to Chaco Culture NHP we passed through Los Alamos and Calles Valdera National Preserve (elk far across the valley).

Earthship Biotecture visitor center, Taos NM
Taos Pueblo on a cold and windy day, excellent tour by a college student who grew up here.
Snow at Los Alamos in late October

Roadtrip 2019: So Long Arkansas

We were only supposed to spend one night in Arkansas (and it was nice, on Greers Ferry Lake at an ACE campground), then visit Hot Springs and head on over the Talimena Scenic Byway into Oklahoma. Van trouble delayed us to see some more art, architecture, and gardens; long enough to take a rental car side trip down to Texas. The Hot Springs Public Library is a wonderful space of play and sharing, represents all the things libraries strive for, a standout for the trip. Ultimately we got back on track, and not far off schedule.

Not how we expected to leave Hot Springs National Park.
Anthony Chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs AR
Evans Tree House at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs AR
The patio is flooded at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Waking up in the mountains of Oklahoma at Winding Stair Campground

Roadtrip 2019: Outer Banks

The year of roadtrips began to the east, and off to a quiet beautiful start in NC’s Outer Banks on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore a few weeks before Memorial Day. Ferries between barrier island towns, long stretches of wildlife refuge, and lighthouses. The desolate dunes and campgrounds nestled up within them remind me more of Washington’s Pacific coast than any other part of the Atlantic so far.

Sunrise at Oregon Inlet Campground, Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Roadtrip 2019: Big Bend National Park

As always we wish we had more time in big remote parks like this. Vehicle troubles cut our stay down to 2 days, but we lucked out with our first real cold weather of the trip here in Southwest Texas, freezing mornings and highs in the 60s at the river. Real mountains in Texas, desert that looks like the ocean floor with ocotillo towering bizarrely, and the Rio Grande splitting Mexico from the USA.

Ocotillo along Old Maverick Rd
Santa Elena Canyon appears cut into the mesa far away.
So we climbed 3000ft into the Chisos Mountains basin to stay for the night.

Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School

This past weekend we traveled a few hours south to see President Carter in his home town of Plains, GA where he regularly offers a Sunday lesson as part of the worship service at his hometown church, Maranatha Baptist Church. He’s 92, a warm and humble and welcoming human. You can visit him too, any weekend he’s in town (and that’s almost every Sunday this spring), we ecstatically recommend making the trip.


Advised to arrive early, we showed up in the dark at 7am for what turned out to be a lightly attended day due to below-freezing temperatures, and had an hour wait in the car followed by the requisite two hours of Secret Service and church community member orientation. The church is small, with 25 active members and seating for a few hundred including the overflow meeting room in the back. This is an intimate small town ministry, as with so much of Plains and the Carters it is largely unchanged from 1976: they still live in the ranch home they built in the 1960s, and go to church with high-school friends and relatives, plus us curious visitors.


President Carter spoke with the us for about 40 minutes, starting with current politics, reiterating his life-long commitment to furthering peace and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as embodiment of world religious ideals for living good lives in a global human society, and diving into the week’s readings from the Apostle Paul’s letters to Titus and Philippians. When he asks the congregation open-endedly “what do you know about Paul?”, you see a man confident in teaching, with no worries of being stumped on a favorite topic, and pursuing a life of Christ-like humility and disinterest in worldly measures of success.

If you stay on for the regular Sunday service of hymns and preaching by a guest minister, you can get your picture taken with the Carters, and attempt to match the glowing smiles of these two wonderful people.


Islamic Architecture in Andalucia

Specifically, the two mesmerizing beautifully old and intricate palaces of La Alhambra, Granada and Real Alcázar, Sevilla. The Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra were built by the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula during the 14th century, while the Palacio de Pedro I of the Alcázar was built for the king of Castile in the same time period, with various additions and restorations over the hundreds of years since their construction. Both left us in awe of their detail and color and use of light and water to create powerfully peaceful spaces.

I have jumbled the photos here between the two sites, the (hover) titles indicate where each is taken.

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Sunset, Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Intricate domes and carved ceilings far above cap many of the spaces, often with further layers of three-dimensional arches, domes or stalactite shapes within. I could have stared at each of these for the entirety of our visits.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Light pours into these spaces from above and all around.

La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Several materials are used to produce related patterns and effects – whether tile, marble, or wood it may be decorating the walls or arches or ceiling and incorporate painted colors or carved openings for light and air. Somehow to me it has neither the gaudy ornateness or heavy massiveness of much of the surrounding centuries’ architecture.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, GranadaReal Alcázar, SevillaNasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

As a lover of geometric pattern (rather than, say, arabic poetry calligraphy), the tile work stands out throughout these rooms – so much variation over simple themes, so many alternate paths to the same intersections of star-filled points.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Water, in fountains and pools and rivulets cut in the floors, connects the inside and outside spaces of these palaces. Incredibly worthwhile visits to both, inspiration for art and a life of balance.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Semana Santa in Granada

Easter Sunday falls right in the middle of our trip to Spain, and Holy Week (Semana Santa) overlapped with our stay in Granada, in the region of Andalucia known for particularly elaborate processions and intricate massive hand-carried floats called pasos during this high-point of Christian penitence, lament, and celebration.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

On the train from Barcelona to Málaga that Thursday morning we happened to be seated across from a Swiss-Spanish photographer who has returned year after year to Málaga to document the processions there. Salva Magaz introduced himself and gave us a personal preview on his laptop of the solemn exertion involved in carrying these floats, dozens of men carrying often well over a ton of wood and silver and decoration for hours into the night. Beautiful photography, engaging conversation about religion and world travel, the Andalucian countryside and coast; we talked off and on for the next several hours, a warm connection made with a good human on this cross-country train ride.

Arriving in Granada after dark that night, our taxi driver initially told us it would simply not be possible to get to our apartment – a procession was moving step by step along our street all evening. Winding his car’s way through the narrow hillside cobble roads of the Albaicín neighborhood crowded with pedestrians, he got us close and we walked behind the tail of the clamor to reach our lodgings, nestled below the Alhambra.

Stephanie knows how to pick apartments for our trips. La Alhambra por la Semana Santa con la luna llena.

Four other processions were making their way through town at the same time on Thursday, and onlookers lined the streets waiting for the procession’s return after 2am. Every day of the week has processions by different brotherhoods (lay Catholic organizations), and on Friday we encountered more beginning in the afternoon, some heralded by drums, others marked by lingering clouds of incense.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

Our tickets for the historical highlight of this visit, the Alhambra, were scheduled for Saturday afternoon, which by luck happens to be the starting point of the only procession that day: Santa Maria de la Alhambra. Led by a marching band, then hundreds of costumed penitents in blue capes and capirotes, women in black veils, children in vestments ready to light the meter-long candles of the procession later in evening, the slowly moving march paused regularly in silence to file its way through the winding road out of the Alhambra. Nearly an hour after it began, the paso depicting Mary at the foot of the cross inched past us with a second band, with sweating men in rough cotton headbands and kneepads already trading places for a rest and water, ready to continue to march down to the Cathedral and return to the Alhambra after midnight.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada

A solemn walking vigil into Easter morning, a particularly spiritual time to visit this historic town.

Spain by Rail (Renfe) Pass

Some quick notes on pre-purchasing and reserving tickets for the Renfe Spain Pass as of March 2016, as the info we were able to find in answer to several questions was out of date or confusing:

  • The Renfe Spain Pass website is less than friendly, but it is possible to arrange everything online by yourself now. You not only need to purchase the pass here, but also all reservations (rather than through the main route/search site), and the only way I could reliably get it to be in English is by creating a Renfe account and logging in before starting through any of these forms.
  • But the site is very forgiving in that you may purchase and cancel a pass within 24hrs for a full refund, and may cancel and rebook reservations at any time (up to the day before at least).
  • The one exception to this is that the reservation form will not let you book earlier than your first reservation date!
    • You can cancel all your reservations and start over, and you can book alternate travel times and then cancel your first reservation, but both are a hassle. Make your first reservation the first date you think you might travel!
  • The 4-ride pass is currently €163, about $185. Therefore, it’s worth considering for any combination of trips that cost more than €40 each.
  • Each ride covers one segment, not one booking from the main Renfe site – if you are traveling a non-direct route (e.g. for us, Barcelona -> Granada, requiring a change in Cordoba), it’s probably worth buying the  smaller leg separately.
    • So spend some time pricing out the individual segments of your trip on the main site before deciding how many rides you’ll use on the Spain Pass in the one month from first travel.
  • The pass definitely paid for itself when we needed to change our itinerary a few days before traveling and were able to get now-€110 tickets for one segment. So it would presumably be even more useful if you’re flexibly uncertain of your travel dates or plans.
  • You DO need to make reservations (= buy tickets for a particular train) before traveling.

Here are the steps to buy a pass and make reservations:

  • See that green menu on the right? Each step you’ll need to return here and re-search for your pass for each action. Tedious, especially for multiple passes / passengers (each will need to separately search, select, buy, print for each reservation).
  • Compra – buy a pass. You’ll need your passport number, and it’s easiest to pay with PayPal. You should save the PDF version of the pass with the Pass Number, but this should also email a “locator” confirmation number that you can lookup your pass with your passport for the next steps alternatively.
  • Formalización de Viajes – reserve/book a train ticket. You’ll need to pick the departure and destination cities, and then can pick the train. If you check the box on the confirmation page, after you “purchase” (for $0.00 unless you are upgrading to a higher class) you may select specific seats.
  • Consulta – Search for and review all / reprint reservations.
  • Anulación Viajes – Cancel a reservation.

Just bring your printed pass and reservation (and passport, though that’s often not checked) to board. Train stations can still be confusing here, with separate departures boards and platform areas for local, medium, and AVE trains but not clearly marked, but we’ve been fine arriving 30 minutes before departure so far.