A Tourist In My Own Back Yard

This essay also appears in my local weekly newspaper, Lamorinda Weekly.

In the beginning: dark, damp soil. A small, black plastic pot of hope. Nothing seems to be growing but my own impatience.

A few evenings later, the dirt has begun to mound and rise, swelled by a pushing from below. In the morning a white nub has appeared below the broken surface of the soil. By evening the protuberance has thickened, a loop of pale white rope tinged with green. The next morning a head is crowning, something large and thick and green dragged up out of the dirt. By the end of that same day, the head has revealed itself, the stalk straightening and hoisting up the bean from which this miracle was born.

Another day and leaves unfurl like the wings of a newborn butterfly, the bean split into drying halves that hang limp from the stem. A week later and the plant is over six inches tall with broad, heart-shaped leaves, and between them: another nub, green and tender, the beginning of a vine. Once planted in the ground it will reach for its support pole and then, finding it, wrap itself counterclockwise—always counterclockwise—and upward, sprouting leaves and flowers and bean pods and clinging to everything it touches. It will grow over six feet long, topping the pole, still reaching skyward until, finding nothing to hold, it will collapse gently onto its neighbor and they will wrap themselves together in a season-long embrace. In two months, I’ll be picking beans and steaming them for dinner.

Until now, I hadn’t paid close attention to how seeds grow. My life for the last few years has centered on travel and so I usually buy plants, put them in the ground, and set my drip irrigation system. While I’m away somewhere vegetables pop out, ready to pluck and eat on my return.  But like all Californians, I’ve been cloistered at home for months along with my family, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel again. I’m longing for the newness of places I’ve never been.

Yet, newness is all around me: the spider skittering across my patio with an enormous egg sac; the constant squawks, growls and honks of the blue herons that nest in a hundred-foot-tall eucalyptus down the street; the heady aroma of compost, fungi and microorganisms in the freshly turned soil of my vegetable beds.

Wild radish, four feet tall, billows with flowers of white, pink, and pale yellow for hundreds of yards along a paved path near my home. I’ve walked that path for over twenty years; how is it that I’d never noticed those prolific blooms until now? I startled a crow on the sidewalk and as it exploded into the air, I thrilled to an unexpected shrok-shrok-shrok from its wings, like a muffled hand saw enthusiastically cutting wood.

Unlike the beans, my basil seedlings are growing very slowly. They took the same time to germinate but have hardly changed in weeks. Are they ill, or are they secretive, preferring for now to let their roots do the growing, out of my view?

I don’t know what the future holds, for them or for me. While I wait, I’m delighting in the present. The laughter of the Amazon driver who said, “You made my week!” simply because I smiled and said good morning; the rush of a crow’s wings; sounds as memorable to me as the haunting call to prayer I once heard sung by a quavering old man in Chefchaouen, Morocco.

When I can travel again, I hope I’ll continue to be enthralled not just by what’s exotic, but also by what’s right in front of me.

The Scooter of Doom

A village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti
— The Book of Mormon (the musical)

This morning, when I told Yvonne that I was going to put my hearing aids in, she said, “Huh?” and guffawed loudly when I repeated myself. She has pulled that little gag on me countless times, and I’ve fallen for it every single time.

The view from our hotel room patio in Springdale, Utah

But now that they are in my ears, I can hear the chirping of canyon wrens and the soft rush of the river, yards from my Adirondack chair near Zion National Park. We’ve been on the road for eight days now and have visited all five National Parks in southern Utah. I’ll get to the parks in my next post.

We spent our first night in Salt Lake City. It was a scream—literally.

The Mormon Tabernacle, also called the Salt Lake Tabernacle

It began calmly enough. After checking in at our AirBnB, we took a long, evening walk to see Temple Square, the beating heart of Mormonism. At the visitor center we learned about Brigham Young and his divinely-inspired vision of an enormous temple right there in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly friendly and eager volunteers offered to answer our questions, and politely backed away when we had none. We were impressed with a three-foot-high dollhouse version of the temple, with cutaways revealing the secret chambers within. The real temple, now called the Mormon Tabernacle, is closed to non-believers.

After a late dinner, we rented a Lime scooter for the dark, two-mile trip back to our room. We shared a single scooter, me driving and both of us balanced precariously on its four-inch wide base(warning: this is against the rules).

It seemed like a good idea at the outset, but Yvonne quickly found herself terrified beyond terror. I couldn’t see her face, but she has assured me that Munch’s “The Scream” was joyful in comparison. Yvonne’s hands gripped the backs of mine so tightly that my hands cramped. I could barely control our speed and direction.

Every turn or minor obstacle caused an eardrum-piercing shout of “CAREFUL!!” or sometimes a wordless, blood-curdling shriek. I wished I’d left my hearing aids in my suitcase. Yvonne synchronized her screams to body motion, jerking this way and that to avoid perceived mortal dangers. Her thrashing often threw our balance off and once we nearly crashed into a tree.

Between the chaos, frequent stops for traffic lights, and two-way berating, what should have been a fifteen-minute trip stretched into forty. We still had over a half mile to go when Yvonne had had enough. She insisted that we ditch the Lime and walk, which we did.

Next time, we’ll splurge and rent two scooters.

Author’s note: My lovely, normally-adventurous, good-humored wife approved this post.

I Can See Russia From My Veranda!

I am not really a cruise vacation sort of person. I prefer to spend enough time in foreign ports to get a feel for places, to experience life there even if I’m not actually living the way the locals live. But the cruise I’m on right now is really, really good and I can finally appreciate why some people make cruising their first choice for travel. Of course, it depends on the ship. Continue reading “I Can See Russia From My Veranda!”

A Tourist In My Own Back Yard

West Marin

Ask most anyone, anywhere, about a local tourist destination or activity, and there’s a good chance that they haven’t seen or done it. I’m no different. Have I driven down Lombard Street, the Crookedest Street In The World? Ridden the Napa Wine Train? Visited the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park? Ridden a Segway along the San Francisco Marina? No, no, no, and no. Continue reading “A Tourist In My Own Back Yard”