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Grapes

We traveled to wine country recently. No, not Napa Valley, although I have been to that beautiful area, the wine country I am referring to is in the south central region of New Mexico. Even though California is renowned for producing wine, according to the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, New Mexico is the oldest wine growing region in the United States. (Incidentally, another bit of trivia I picked up is that there are wineries located in each of the fifty states.) The first stop of the journey was in Deming, New Mexico at Luna Rossa Winery. The location of this winery was a surprise because this area is arid and appears to be too much of a desert to sustain grapevines. None the less, Luna Rossa Winery is the larger, multi-staff winery of the two we toured.  It has a large mail order enterprise, which bodes well for my future cravings. The other winery we visited is La Esperanza Vineyard and Winery, located in the beautiful Mimbres Valley. It is a small, family run business on the owner’s homestead. It is named after the daughter of the original landowners and is run by Esperanza and her husband David.

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Both wineries had wine to my liking and while I am no sommelier, the wine I sampled was just as good, if not better, than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley. In fact, I would have to say that I liked the wine I sampled at these wineries better than the wine I sampled in Napa Valley because I purchased bottles from each winery, while I did not sample any wine I felt compelled to purchase while touring in the Napa Valley region. My favorite of the purchased bottles was a blend called Born in Space, which was purchased from La Esperanza.

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To my chagrin, La Esperanza does not sell by mail order and I did not have the foresight to purchase multiple bottles. More wine tours are definitely on the itinerary as we travel to various states. I definitely have to stock-pile bottles of wine that tantalize my palate due to my recently adopting the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas:“ Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine”.

food        The epicurean delight prepared by my sister Celeste to accompany the wine.

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Spending time with my sister Ingrid is always a good reason to visit Memphis. Ingrid is one of the those rare people who always has a smile on her face and a pleasant disposition. She is also my biggest fitness motivator. A visit with her is not complete without our three-mile run at Shelby Farm.

To compensate for getting me out of bed at dawn for the run (she said that we had to beat the Memphis heat), Ingrid presented me with a ticket to Motown The Musical for my “early” birthday present. I enjoy live theater and don’t go as often as I would like so this was the perfect gift. Having Ingrid and my best friend Karen accompany me to the show made for a perfect girls’ day out!

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I have to say hearing all those songs from my youth caused the body to rock and sway. I wish I could deny recognizing each and every song performed, but I can not. During my childhood, my mother played the early Motown songs until the lines wore off the vinyl. The later Motown releases were during my adolescence, a time when Karen and I were co-conspirators. Yes, the phase of my life has arrived where I reminisce about the mischief Karen and I were up to “back in the day” (as my daughters are fond of saying when referring to my youth) when any given Motown song was popular. They are memories that I will cherish for life. Thanks Ingrid and Karen for being a part of my birthday celebration and helping me create more cherished memories.

These are the images I captured of the super blood moon as it manifested in the mountains of New Mexico. Jim said I missed the best images when I was asleep.

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Below is the last remnants of the blood moon at dawn.

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In retrospect, it is hard to believe that we have been traveling to Albuquerque annually for over 15 years and never once booked a hot air balloon ride. Albuquerque is the home of the largest balloon festival in the world. No where else have I visited and awakened to see the sky littered with colorful balloons of various sizes drifting over the city. Sooooo, finally, on our 21st wedding anniversary, we climbed into a hot air balloon basket and trusted our pilot, Dar of Rainbow Ryders, to dip us into the Rio Grande, clip the top of cottonwood trees and eventually ascend 4000 feet above ground level, giving us spectacular views of the world below us. The experience did not disappoint and was worthy of the 15 year wait. The two-hour flight could only have been enhanced by an in-flight gourmet meal with a three-person band serenading us. None the less, the entire experience, with the exception of an initial problem with the booking process, was enjoyable.  We especially appreciated the celebratory mimosas that awaited us once we were on the landing pad.

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Remaining fit during our travels was a top priority. It was a hassle to make room for our bikes, but we did because they were an integral part of our fitness regime. Because space is a premium when rv’ing, I forfeited my weights and packed exercise tubing instead. I also had a list of exercises that required only body weight for resistance. Running shoes and other fitness apparel were also packed.

Well, let me tell you. Our commitment to fitness faded with each passing mile. There was always an excuse: too hot, too cold, not enough time, wrong environment, bears in the area…ad nauseam. I used the exercise bands once and performed body weight exercises twice. At the beginning of our trip, we biked once. The only substantial hike we did was in Montana, again at the beginning of our trip. I ran a total of three times in four months. Jim did not run at all. As the weeks passed, we participated in less and less physical activity.

On return from Alaska, we were feeling quite sluggish and decided it was time to get back to a regular exercise routine. So we began with biking while we were in Montana. It was a sad attempt at re-entry into the world of fitness. We were motionless, breathing as if we had a pulmonary disease, more than we were in motion. I would like to use the excuse that we are flat-landers and are not accustomed to climbing on a bike. But that is a prevarication. During our annual sojourns to New Mexico, we mountain biked regularly. We are, just plain and simply, deconditioned.

Since accepting that epiphany, we have recommitted to fitness. We have been biking and running regularly. We hiked the 8-mile Narrows Rim Trail recently and captured some breathtaking views once we reached the top. Next on our list is the 16-mile Acoma-Zuni Trail. We hope to hike the La Luz Trail on Sandia Mountain, if we can get in shape for that hike before it is too cold. Oops, we are doing it again. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

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ADDENDUM: A few days after I wrote this post, I was attacked, not by a bear, mountain lion or wolf. No sir. I was attacked by a wild domestic dog. I sustained superficial wounds on the front of my leg and deep, or as we medical folks would say, full thickness wounds on the back of my leg. So now instead of getting into shape, I spend my days changing bandages and traveling 65 miles each way to go the doctor for wound care. So unfortunately, biking, hiking and running are on hold for now. Although I would rather have avoided being attacked by an animal, I think I now have a legitimate reason to delay regaining my previous level of fitness. Jim, however, has no excuse…so I say to him, chop, chop and no I don’t need you to stay here and help me change my bandages.

I stifled a moan when Jim suggested going to Rocky Mountain National Park. My immediate response was how many tree-covered mountains must we see? Were Denali, Glacier, and Yellowstone not representative enough? I love nature and enjoyed visiting the National Parks we patronized very much, but did not feel Rocky Mountain would be different enough from the others to warrant the time and expense of going there. Yet because Rocky Mountain was on Jim’s list for this trip, I acquiesced. So we traveled through the wind-blown prairie of Wyoming and encountered 19 degree temperatures and snow in order to reach the park. I must admit that I had awful flash-backs of the trip to the North Slope.

I was distracted from my flash-backs when we encountered multiple herds of antelope en route and immediately rewarded when entering the park by the presence of a large bull elk. A family of marmot and a herd of elk entertained us while we were at the visitor’s center. Upon reaching the park, I was pleased with the more temperate weather, since the park is located in the north-central region of Colorado. More on this later!

Perhaps because we were at the park on a Sunday, it was very crowded. We had to bypass many of the scenic turn-outs due to lack of available parking for RVs, but we were still able to experience, I think, the essence of the park. Driving the Trail Ridge Road through the park was quite an experience. It is the highest, continuous paved road in the U.S. reaching 12, 183 feet of elevation, and based on my declining level of physical fitness, I would never have reached the peak by foot. It is quite a steep climb up.

I discovered that Rocky Mountain is different from the other parks we visited in that it has three distinct zones: the montane, subalpine and alpine zones. The montane zone is the lowest (below 9000 feet) and warmest zone. Most of the animals are found here and this zone is indeed where we saw the bull elk. The subalpine zone is between 9000 and 12000 feet of elevation and is directly below the treeline of the park while the alpine zone is naturally above the treeline. When we reached the alpine zone, the weather was quite chilly (code phrase for unbearably cold) due to the elevation and lack of trees to block the wind. All the zones are beautiful, although I tend to favor the areas with trees over the rugged, treeless areas. We were in the park too late in the season to see the wildflowers that blanket the alpine zone in the spring and summer months. Fall was definitely in the air, as was evident by the brilliant foliage found on the trees in the montane zone.

I concluded that Rocky Mountain is unique in its own right. We experienced several climate and geographical zones within the park. Our senses were stimulated by the range of colors, the bodies of water and the wildlife. In addition, Jim is happy that he can now check Rocky Mountain National Park off his list, but I am still cold from the time spent in the alpine zone. I think I need another spa day to warm up! Is Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Spa and Resort near by?

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I believe a marriage can have multiple honeymoon phases, regardless of the length of the marriage. The actuality of this long, anticipated trip served to reignite those “just married” emotions for us. However, after three months on the road, I believe the honeymoon is over due to the following scenario:

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We were driving to Antonito, Colorado when we saw the Great Sand Dunes National Park sign. Our atlas stated that it is the youngest National Park in the U.S., decreed by Congress in 2004 and that the dunes in this park are the tallest in North America. It was only 25 miles off our intended path, so we detoured to it.

We found the dunes truly spectacular and other worldly. We could see tiny dots of people way up on the dunes. Although we were not prepared for a hike, I could not leave the park without at least attempting to summit the 1.25 mile hike to the High Dune on the First Ridge. So we grabbed our hats and water bottles and headed up.

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But then Jim literally left me…the altitude, elevation and uphill climb in deep sand were challenging and I couldn’t keep up with his long strides. When I called out for him to wait, he told me that he was also struggling and was in “survival mode”. Interpretation: every person for him or herself! What happened to “we are in this together”, chivalry and gentility? So having no choice, I continued to struggle up hill alone, sinking into the sand. I decided perhaps I didn’t sound pitiful enough and called out to him again, this time with a distressing tone. His response was “you’ll make it” as he continued ahead of me.

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I finally began walking in his footsteps, which reserved my energy because it was difficult pulling my feet out of the sand as I sank. At least the sand was already compressed if I followed the path he made. I laughed out loud and snapped the picture below when I caught Jim doubled over, gasping for air. You see, by this time, I was able to conserve my energy because he was using his energy to create my path!

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Jim was considerate enough to carry both water bottles in his shorts pockets since I had no pockets and he would allow me to catch up with him from time to time in order to get a drink of water. But, don’t be deceived. When he reached the penultimate peak, he stood there, looked down at me struggling up the most difficult climb (by this time, the wind was so strong, his footprints were covered with sand so I no longer had his path to follow) and held up my water bottle, he claims as a motivator for me. Perhaps I wouldn’t doubt his sincerity if it weren’t for such a wicked grin on his face.DSC_0157

Both of us succeeded in reaching the summit of High Dune, a total elevation gain of 699 feet, although Jim arrived well before I did. In spite of the high wind and exhaustion, I had to strike my victory pose. Descending was easier for me than Jim so I sought my revenge and left him in a sprint when we reached flat ground again. I guess the honeymoon is over for me too!

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It was the Russian architecture that prompted me to visit the Kenai Peninsula, but it was the scenery that captivated me. Of all the places I visited, this is, by far, my favorite location in Alaska.  The beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park is located on the peninsula.  The northwest coast of the peninsula is marshy and with less elevation but is the home to a clear and inviting beach.  Several large lakes extend through the interior of the peninsula, including Skilak Lake and Tustumena Lake. There are also several rivers but my favorite is the Kenai River, famous for its salmon population.

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   The beach was peppered with jelly fish

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Fishermen on the Kenai River

I witnessed salmon, my favorite fish, swimming upstream. Of course I knew that salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs and then die but I had no idea what a spectacle it would be to actually see it occur. As I sat on the bank watching the salmon in various stages of their journey upstream, I couldn’t help but to reflect on how their journey mirrors life, my life specifically.

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There were salmon swimming along with lots of energy as they fought the current. They were so determined to make it that they would often times leap forward out of the water to gain a few more feet. Others would progress a couple of yards, only to have their progress undermined by the current and lose what distance they gained and sometimes, be pushed further back by the current. Some of the salmon were so exhausted that they made no progress at all. These salmon used the last of their energy fighting the current to stay in place, making no progress upstream. Others were dying, floating on their sides as they tried in vain to right themselves. Many were dead already, leaving behind the miasma of decay along the river bank.

As I sat beside myself, there were reflections of the times in my life when I moved forward with life with Herculean-like speed, feeling unstoppable. All was good and then, as it is with the ebb and flow of life, I would experience a set-back, sometimes minor, sometimes major. There were other times when I would feel exhausted by life and made no progress at all. I would be stagnant and was merely existing. Yet, unlike the salmon I have had more than three to seven years to try to figure out what’s truly important in my life because I know that like the salmon, I too, will one day be unable to right myself and will die.

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska. It has the accoutrements of any urban area and of all the places we visited in Alaska so far, it has the least Alaskan aura. Nevertheless, it has many offerings worthy of mentioning. First of all, the bike paths throughout the city are phenomenal. They are converted to cross-country ski tracks during the winter months that allow pedestrians on foot, skies or bicycle to safely traverse the city through wooded areas, along the ocean as well as paralleling city streets.

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On a portion of bike path along the ocean near airport

The Botanical Garden is beautiful and show cases native, rare and different varieties of flowers and vegetable plants. Thanks to our daughter Claressa for suggesting that we visit it.

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We patronized the open-air market, the cultural center, and acres and acres of park grounds next to the ocean that has a large network of hiking trails.

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Could not resist the fruit at the market!

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Performer demonstrating his athletic prowess

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At the park enjoying all the green space and flowers

Since the native Alaskans have used dogs for transportation well before the first Russian appeared, we felt we would have been remiss if we had left Anchorage without experiencing a sled dog ride. It was probably the pinnacle of our time spent here, however short-lived it was.

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Because I had seen plenty of black and brown bears already, when the subject of visiting Denali National Park arose, I was uncommitted about going. Jim, as well as other people I had met in Alaska, encouraged the trip. Jim has fond memories of Denali based on a visit during his teenage years. He remembers standing on a viewing platform at what is now the Eielson Visitors Center and viewing the entire mountain from base to peak, a rare occurrence I am told due to clouds frequently obscuring the peak. (Frequent clouds in Alaska?) Jim also remembers the 66 mile drive into the park in his parent’s vehicle and seeing a variety of animals in abundance.

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Time stands still for no one and this adage definitely applies for Denali National Park. Currently, private vehicles are not allowed past mile marker 15 or beyond your campground. The wilderness area of the park begins well beyond mile 15. Of course we could have hung around until September and applied for the lottery, as the lucky winners of the lottery are allowed to drive private vehicles through out the park. But since we didn’t plan to be in Alaska in September (I can’t even imagine what fall would be like here) or were willing to put much faith in winning the lottery, we were left with three options: hiking, biking or paying for a tour on the park bus system.

We opted for the minimum length tour bus ride of 6 hours (maximum tour is 12 hours) because neither one of us wanted to spend more time on the bus than required and got off the bus at its turn around point and hiked quite a distance deeper into the park, fording river tributaries and enjoying the majestic views.

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We knew that we could catch any outbound bus back to the park’s entrance. Prior to getting off the bus, the bus driver reviewed the rules of engagement while on foot in the park. Of course the main concern in this part of the country is bear encounters.

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Rule number 1: never approach a bear. “what sane person would?”

Rule number 2: if a bear is accidentally encountered, back away slowly but don’t run.  “accidentally? what other way would an encounter occur?”

Rule number 3: if the bear charges you, stand still. It is likely bluffing and may veer off at the last minute. “honestly, who could overcome the instinct to run in this situation?”

Rule number 4: if you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead for several minutes because the bear will hang around to ensure you are indeed dead. If after several minutes of playing dead the bear does not retreat, then fight back! “ I would like to meet the person who has successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead or fighting back. If attacked by a grizzly, if you aren’t armed with a gun or bear spray, say your prayers because your life will likely end! I am sure people who have successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead were indeed praying.”

According to our guide, there have been no recent bear attacks in the park. In fact, deaths in the park occur each year from attempts to climb North America’s highest peak, the Denali Mountain, as opposed to animal attacks. Nevertheless, we carried our bulky container of bear spray because we didn’t want to be the ones to change those statistics.

We saw grizzly bears while on the bus and not while hiking, thank God. One of the park’s patrons encountered a grizzly bear while he was hiking but spotted him in time to back away. He wisely retreated a quarter of a mile or so and caught the bus that we happened to be on. As the bus progressed down the road, the bus was stopped when we arrived at the bear’s location for photos.

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In addition, we saw caribou while hiking; arctic ground squirrel and moose while on the bus. Unfortunately we did not see other animals that inhabit the grounds of the park including dall sheep, wolves, coyotes, foxes, pika and snowshoe hare.

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I don’t regret my decision to visit the park. Although the animal sightings weren’t as Jim remembered and we were relegated to a tour bus, I enjoyed being in the open wilderness and was grateful that the sun was shining with clear skies. In Alaska, I have quickly learned to appreciate a clear, cloudless day because they are so few and far between. Yet I know that the frequent precipitation contributes to the beauty of this great state!