Hopping the Pond: Belfast

America is beautiful, but there’s a big world out there beyond its borders. Having achieved our goal of seeing many of the national parks of the Colorado Plateau, visiting

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Time for something completely different

desert-dwelling friends and family, and seeing cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, it was time for something new.

 

We’ve belonged for several years to a site called luxuryhousesitting.com. The concept is: you pay a small annual fee, they check you out, and travelers with luxury homes in vacation destinations post housesitting jobs. You get to stay in some of the most desirable tourist destinations for free, and they get a free housesitter (some of them pay a small amount, if there’s a lot of work involved; some require you to pay for your utility use). While we’ve been tempted by mountaintop retreats in Hawaii, out-island homes in the Bahamas, and luxury lofts and townhomes in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Vienna, they never seemed to co-ordinate with our plans. But when we saw one near Dublin, in Westmeath, Ireland, we decided to go for it!

 

Ireland is a complex and fascinating place. My ancestry is at least 2/3 Irish, maybe more, and I have visited many times, but mostly in the West. I’d never visited Northern Ireland, or spent any time in the UK at all. So, given that our airfare would be about half the price if we arrived a week before the housesit began, we decided to book an AirBnB in Belfast. We flew into Dublin and rented a car, then drove (manual transmission on the “wrong” side of the road, an adventure in itself) to Belfast. Our lovely hostess Una greeted us and settled us in to our truly fabulous room. The entire home was a restored and upgraded Victorian or Georgian townhome, gorgeous and luxurious. Our room had bay windows facing the garden, a comfortable bed, antique-looking furnishings, a kettle in the room, and a luxury bathroom. Una was friendly and helpful. Breakfast was generous and varied. We loved this AirBnB experience!

2017-06-06 09.28.34Belfast is a bustling city, and the optimism in the air is palpable now that a new generation is coming of age since 1998 who don’t remember the Troubles (violent riots, terrorism, and guerilla warfare between those who want the British out, and those loyal to Britain). The Peace Wall is covered with street art; it used to be shut down to segregate the two halves of the city when tensions were high, but now it stands open. Peace and prosperity!

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The Peace Wall’s gates stand open now.

The downtown area is walkable and full of shops and street musicians. The traditional pubs still stand, and architectural marvels old and new are side by side, including the Europa hotel, “the most bombed hotel in Europe” because it’s where journalists used to stay during the Troubles.

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There’s no escaping!

We bought tickets for a bus tour to the Giant’s Causeway; it had a Game of Thrones theme. Much of GOT was filmed in Northern Ireland, and over the years the series (the world-wide most-watched TV series ever, according to one tour guide) has become a major tourist attraction for the area. I am a GOT fan, so of course we had to check it out! Look at the beach where Melisandra gave birth and the King’s Road:

The Causeway itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, just like the Grand Canyon. I’ve learned that some sites are asking to be taken off the UNESCO list, because they are so inundated with visitors the places are having a hard time accommodating all the international visitors and dealing with the crowding. This was certainly the case at the Causeway, but we got to walk around on the unique rock formations and savor the salt air.

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The unique, natural, basalt formations of the Giant’s Causeway

My arthritis took a turn for the worse, so we didn’t go too far out, but the bus up and down from the entry and the sidewalks made it accessible. I napped on the bus instead of attempting the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge (we had seen lots of scary bridges in Ecuador, anyway).

The bus also stopped at a pub with a door carved in a Dothraki (Game of Thrones) theme and a fake Iron Throne to sit in.

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Dothraki-themed pub entrance

 

We explored Belfast Castle next. The Castle is gorgeous and the grounds are spectacular. There are plaques inside that talk about the history, going back to the time before the Castle was built and Wolfe Tone met others on the hill to plot rebellion.

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Giant poppies made Steve look like a garden gnome!

We had coffee and scones in the little shop inside while we waited for the rain (“Irish sunshine”) to abate, then we went out into the Cat Garden, where cat art adorns a classic formal garden.

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One of the cat-garden cats
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You can almost hear it purr

Then it was on to the Belfast Zoo on foot. We had a bit of an adventure getting there; Google Maps shows an entrance right next to the Castle, but that entrance is chained off and looks like it has been for some time. We kept going, assuming there would be another entrance shortly, but there wasn’t. We wound up walking almost seven miles to get to the zoo. Fortunately, Una’s house was just a single bus ride back.

We decided to pass on Titanic Belfast, a city project which sounded to us like a very commercial and expensive development aimed at parting tourists from their money. The Titanic Memorial statue in the city center was beauty enough.

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We walked to Crumlin Gaol, but entry was very expensive ($16 apiece), so we admired it from outside.

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We took a walk by the Quay.

2017-06-02 17.17.42The time in Belfast passed too quickly, but soon it was time to bid our wonderful hostess goodbye and head south.

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Steve, Una, and me…

 

 

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?

From Mesa Verde, it was back to Texas. I’d been wanting to have the flooring replaced in the motorhome (it’s ten-year-old carpet and linoleum), and I figured a big, prosperous city like Dallas would be a good place to find someone to do the work.


We made better time getting to Texas than we expected, but found that most campgrounds were full. Finally, we found a campground in a rural area between Dallas and Fort Worth. The price was a bargain: $16 a night. The park itself was pretty rough, with only the barest vestiges of pavement and markings remaining on the sites. But the hook-ups worked fine, and beggars can’t be choosers.
The second day we were there, the owner’s wife, one of these skeletal 80-year-olds who tries to look 35 by trowelling on the makeup, came and knocked on the door to tell us our front door rug was over the line to the neighbor’s lot. She pointed to a patch of dirt with crumbled asphalt, one crumb of which was, on close inspection, painted white. “We did you a favor by letting you take this site, it’s a monthly site. Didn’t Marvin tell you that?” (No, Marvin didn’t.) Anyway, she didn’t make us move, which was good, because this is what was on the left side of our motorhome which made us park closer to the right border:

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The entire park was plastered with warning signs, like this:

These:

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Or my personal favorite:

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Damn government!

Anyway, we moved out after a few nights to a more expensive but much nicer campground, and the Bluebird of Happiness greeted us.

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The bluebird of happiness!

I called, messaged, and e-mailed numerous flooring places and RV places to try and get estimates. I found a consistent theme: RV places didn’t want to do flooring, and flooring places didn’t want to work on RVs. I finally found an RV place that would give me an estimate, but it turned out they were just wasting my time. They do their business billing insurance companies to repair damaged RVs, and their estimate (delivered 5 days late) for 230 square feet of flooring was a jaw-dropping $17,502! I finally found a man who would do the work at a fair price through word-of-mouth, but his first available slot was in December!

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In the meantime, we put the motorhome in storage and stayed at an AirBnB in McKinney pending our flight to Ireland. Now, I am normally an adherent of Jimmy Buffett’s advice: “If you ever get a chance to go to Dallas, don’t.” But McKinney is  an adorable little hipster burb with a walkable downtown, live music, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed our week there, walking or riding our bikes into town almost daily, except for the AirBnB. It turned out to be, let’s say, not exactly as specified. The listing described it as a “roomy one-bedroom suite,” but it was actually an enclosed porch with a rickety daybed. By the time we left for the airport, our poor backs were pretty rickety as well!

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“Roomy, one-bedroom suite”

We were definitely ready for something completely different…

 

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings

My final unrealized goal for our western adventure was to see cliff dwellings. I hadn’t gotten to see them at Walnut Canyon because the altitude (not entirely unexpectedly) made me ill. So I had high hopes for Mesa Verde, in the San Juan National Park. Mesa Verde did not disappoint me!

Before we even saw the park and archeological sites, we were wowed by the visitor’s center. It is one of the most beautiful public buildings I’ve seen anywhere!

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Gorgeous visitors’ center!

There are a number of eras represented at Mesa Verde, spanning thousands of years. The first thing I learned is that the descendants of these people, today’s Pueblo Indians, do NOT like hearing them referred to as “Anasazi,” which means “ancient enemy” in Navajo! However, much of the archaeological material about the ancestral Puebloans, whose culture dates back to 1200 BC, still refers to them by this name. The romanticized notion of an ancient civilization which mysteriously disappeared for no reason before white men came was pretty much an invention to attract Victorian tourists. The climate changed in the the 12th-14th centuries and the Puebloans migrated gradually southwards towards areas where water was more consistently available.

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There are a number of pueblos open to the public; you can actually walk around the remarkably intact thousand-year-old ruins.

The reservoir design was fascinating.

The ventilation shafts for the dwellings and kivas were simply and elegantly engineered.

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The nature in the park is quite lovely in the springtime. The trails among the Pueblo dwellings and kivas were quite manageable for us, even with our bad joints.

The most exciting part was viewing the cliff dwellings. Towards the end of their time in the region, the Puebloans gradually migrated down from the mesa tops to live in huge, arched, shallow caves on the side of the mountain itself. There is a tour available which allows you to actually enter such a house, but it involves climbing a 30-foot ladder and crawling on hands and knees down a narrow stone tunnel, all of which Steve and I might be able to accomplish…if we were being chased by zombies. Between his acrophobia, my claustrophobia, our girth, our bad knees, and my wrist arthritis, it was so not happening.

 

But there are a number of overlooks with a good view of the cliff dwellings from the other side of the canyon. We took our time, admiring these beautiful, abandoned homes on the cliffside.

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35f1UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35eaUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35eaUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35daWe admired ancient artifacts at the museum, reluctant to leave this place so permeated with ancient history.

Quick City Break: Durango

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_354bWe stopped for a few days in Delta, Colorado, again, planning for lower altitudes to accommodate my uncooperative metabolism. After we arrived I was ill for a few days, but after I got better we decided to check out Telluride and Durango. We booked a room in Durango, whose elevation of 6,500 feet is around my upper limit.

The drive across the mountains to get there was splendid. As you can see from these photos, it was the type of scenery which one calls to mind when one thinks of the Rockies or the Alps in Springtime; gorgeous!

As for Telluride: I have to say we were underwhelmed. We are not skiers and it was not ski season, but it seemed to be pretty nondescript set of dormitories for skiers.

The hotel we stayed at was the Strater Hotel, a restored Victorian masterpiece in downtown Durango.

UnknownThe lobby absolutely took our breath away with its gleaming carved wood, velvet wallpaper, and antiquey furnishings. The staff was cheerful and welcoming; they were very helpful when it turned out the elevator was broken and we informed them that, between my altitude intolerance and our arthritis, we could not stay on the third floor; they moved us to the first floor. The air conditioning also didn’t work and one of the cheerful perky staffers brought us a box fan for the window, which was fine for Colorado in May. Then we observed that the antique-reproduction wooden chair was pulling apart at the joints and about to collapse, and we decided that the hotel’s careful modernization might have left something to be desired.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1906

We ate at the Mahogany Grille, their upscale restaurant. The prices reflected a much higher quality of food than was supplied (things were cold/overcooked/badly seasoned) and the waiter tried to tell me corvina is a Mediterranean fish (I lived in Ecuador, I know corvina!). In fact, the waiters all had a line of pretentious patter they evidently memorize daily regarding the menu offerings.

We walked (slowly, cautious about the altitude) around the downtown, took in the sights, visited a recreational marijuana dispensary (things have sure changed in the marijuana world since the 70’s when I used to smoke it!), and enjoyed the little town. Then it was time to return to our little snail shell and pack up for Mesa Verde.

Moab and Arches

Next, it was time to undertake the drive to eastern Utah.  The Colorado Plateau, we learned, is the geological feature which gives the four corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico its unforgettable features of mountains, caverns, and canyons. We learned on this trip that one doesn’t even need to get out of one’s car or off the expressway to see one of the West’s most incredible views.

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On the way over on Interstate 70, we passed through Spotted Wolf Canyon. We had gotten used to seeing one fabulous, awe-inspiring, rapturous vista after another as we drove through the West. Steve would laugh every time we came around a curve and I gasped and exclaimed “Woooooowwww!” But Spotted Wolf Canyon was superlative, ecstatic, transcendent! Steve was driving, but he didn’t laugh when I said wow this time. In fact, he tapped the brake and slowed down. Fortunately, they have a turn-off to an overlook. My guess (seriously!) is that there was a safety problem with too many people stopping dead on the shoulder to gawp at the astonishing view.

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A view that’s just impossible to capture on camera. Spotted Wolf was the most spectacular vista yet!

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We finally tore our eyes away and got back on the road to Moab. We were hitting peak outdoor-sports season, but we managed to find a spot that had a site for a few days. We wouldn’t normally stay at a place with no wi-fi or cellular signal, but were we glad we did! Kane Springs is on the outskirts of town. The trip to the campground was a little bit anxiety-producing in the motorhome, with a narrow road that takes some right-angle blind curves, but it was much safer than it felt! And the beauty of the site made it well worth it!

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The drive to Kane Springs Campground.

The campground is nestled near the water by red stone cliffs, riddled with caves, which drop into the river.

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View from the campsite.

We went for a bike ride to explore, and found a patch of petroglyphs on the wall by the road, marked only by a small sign.

 

I am fascinated by archaeology and the historical movement of different tribes and races of people around this magnificent planet of ours. Seeing petroglyphs was definitely a high point for me!
Next on the list was a trip to Arches National Park. Arches is a vast, spread-out park with many miles of two-lane roads to be traversed across desolate plains to reach the rocky sights. At this time, they are working on the roads, and many trails were closed, including the ones to the most famous arches. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_182fThey also work on the roads at night, so they began shooing folks out of the park around 6:30 pm and closed completely at 7:00. Many of the most majestic arches are only accessible by long hikes on strenuous trails.
But that’s okay! We were just stopping in to see the petroglyphs. We made the short hike from the parking lot, past Wolfe Ranch, a primitive pioneer homestead which gives you pause to think about the primitive ways of life people can tolerate.

And there were the petroglyphs! For some reason, I found it super amusing that the petroglyphs are marked by an informational sign with a photograph–of the petroglyphs!

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We drove to the limited number of sites that were open and saw the Fiery Furnace, a hellish rockscape which people inexplicably wait in queue to get a chance to hike, and saw a small arch, and many balancing rocks, bristlecone pines, and some plants and animals.

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Blooming cactus
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A smaller arch

 

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Bryce Canyon National Park and Dixie National Forest

We had picked our campground in Kanab, Utah, because it was close to equally distant between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and at a lower altitude. We stayed at Kanab RV Corral, where we learned to pronounce it “Kuh-NAB.” The town itself was unique, undeniably a tourist town, but more laid-back and less commercial than many.

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Where else can you pose with a life-sized plastic bison?

Now, if you’ve followed this blog, you know I don’t normally endorse a lot of businesses. Usually tourist traps don’t trap me, but I did buy some unique stone items at Nature’s Showcase and have them shipped back. I suggest checking it out.

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Having established that altitude is an ongoing health issue for me, we knew we could make only a brief, non-strenuous visit to Bryce Canyon. So we drove up to it (at this point, by the way, our National Parks annual pass had completely paid for itself).  We bundled up as grey clouds rolled in and stood on the canyon’s edge in the chill wind.

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The views of Bryce Canyon rival those of the Grand Canyon. In many ways, Bryce Canyon is more beautiful, being more remote and less parched.

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Just one of so many incredible views!
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Hoo doos! (Indian word for “scary stuff.”)
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The depth and dimension of the vista is amazing!

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The red tips of baby pinecones reminded us it was Spring as the snow began to fall…

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_34a9…and fell…

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…and continued to fall!

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Steve, Tampa boy that he is, was delighted to get to experience real, stick-to-the-ground snow!

A final word: for non-hikers, Bryce Canyon is the most hospitable of the National Parks we visited. You can drive the entire length of the Canyon rim with frequent overlooks to

see its beauty. All the photos here were taken within 100 yards of our car.

 

 

Oh, Pioneers! Or, Only in Utah

One thing that would be inconceivable would be to visit Utah without spending some time with Steve’s sister. However, Utah is a big state, and we were at the south end of it while she lives closer to the north end, so we met in the middle in a town called Cedar City.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_34d3

The big attraction in Cedar City is the Frontier Homestead Museum. We went there as a family group. The thing that impressed me was the condition of the farm implements and structures from pioneer days.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_18f7UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_34e6

It makes a person realize how very recently Europeans arrived out west, in covered wagons like this one.

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They also had a sheep barn and a reproduction of an Indian pit dwelling.

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And someone had proved that almost anything can be a medium for art.

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We had an “only in Utah” moment at the restaurant where we stopped for lunch afterwards. The waitress mentioned what neighbourhood she lived in, and Steve’s sister asked her if she know someone else who lived there. (Although we were 150 miles from her house, Utah is sparsely populated, so they were practically neighbors.) They compared notes a little more and the waitress admitted she’d been brought up in a breakaway-Mormon splinter group of polygamists. “That’s okay,” said Steve’s sister. “I used to be a polygamist too.” Only in Utah, ha ha!

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Too soon, it was time to leave, but not without lots of hugs and sniffles!