Ode to Birdwatching

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It’s been a long year, and bird watching has helps us get through the months of isolation. On January 13, 2021, we went to Jacks Peak county park to look around. Walking through the woodland of pine and oak reminded me of birding in Brunswick Heads, NSW, Australia. We found the group through our delightful neighbors, and went on walks with them during our month in the area. It was a high point in a year of high points. The trees and plants at Jacks Peak are completely different from Australia, but the overall environment is a similar mix of forest and open areas.

Monterey Bay from Jacks Peak

The climb to the top of Jacks Peak (a hill, really) isn’t difficult. From many places you can see the Monterey Peninsula and the ocean to the northwest, and from other spots we saw the ocean over Carmel to the southwest. The day was unusually warm for January, in the 70s, and the parking lot only had a few cars. Conditions were perfect. The trails are easy to follow, and I was again reminded of birding walks in Australia where we chatted with other birders as we strolled until someone spotted a bird. We always see more birds when we’re with a group, there are many more eyes, and some are highly skilled spotters. Others recognize birdsong. Still others carry spotting scopes or camera equipment with long lenses. After the day’s outing, we receive an email with photos of many of the birds we saw. Going with a group is the way to go.

On Jacks Peak, we did pandemic birding, just the two of us. There didn’t seem to be many birds at all so we basked in the sun and enjoyed the walk. As often happens, though, our path eventually led through a few trees that suddenly appeared to be full of birds. It was difficult to decide where to look first. All the birds were moving so fast that it took several minutes of trying to follow birds from branch to branch before we could identify any of them. There were ruby-crowned kinglets, chestnut-backed chickadees, and a blue-gray gnatcatcher. These are little bitty birds that rarely stop moving. In the trees nearby, we could hear scrub jays. We spotted a brown creeper climbing up the trunk of a tree.

As fast as it began, the flutter passed, the flock of little birds moved off, and the forest seemed entirely empty again. We congratulated each other on what we’d been able to identify and assumed we’d stroll the rest of the trail back without much more to see. Just as we were deciding which trail returned to the parking lot when we walked into another busy stand of trees. Another mixed flock of small birds was browsing through, and we squinted and twisted and adjusted our binoculars to try and identify them. Though it was a mixed flock just like the others we’d seen, here the birds were a bit different. There was a red-breasted nuthatch, and some other tiny birds including a Pacific wren. There were kinglets, but also yellow-rumped warblers, a bird that time and again we identify as something else until it turns to fly away and flashes it’s yellow backside. Townsend’s warblers have similar colors, yellow with black and white, but there seemed to be something different. After a lot of staring we identified a different warbler, and back at the car with the bird book (Sibley Guide to Birds) we identified a new bird for us, the Hermit Warbler. It’s getting to be a big treat to see a bird we’ve never seen before.

When the flock passed, we continued back to the car. Despite our good fortune, we would have identified more birds if we had been with a group and we would have enjoyed the company. We may not get back to our birding friends in Brunswick Heads, but we look forward to the time when we can go out again with fellow birders. In the meantime, we’re staying in practice and enjoying the outdoors.

Point Lobos, and other points

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We are living in California because we have family here and we like the weather, but we didn’t expect this area to become the National Covid Hotspot. We do our best to resist strolling downtown areas, shopping in stores, and any other activity that involves people. We get outdoors for a few hours almost every day, and walking along the coast or the beaches is our favorite activity.

One of the most beautiful places to visit in this area is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos covers a rugged rocky point with many tiny inlets. The offshore waters in the Marine Protected Area are described as some of the richest in the US, and the scuba diving the best on the west coast. We live just a few miles away from this wonderful park and looked forward to getting to know its trails.

A small beach protected by tall cliffs is full of loafing harbor seals.
The rocky coast and mist at Point Lobos

Our first visit to Point Lobos wasn’t until almost two months after we moved into the area. Why did it take us so long to get there? Its popularity.

One million people visit the park every year, and there are 150 parking spaces. Doing the math, that means an average of 2,740 people visit the park every day of the year. If three shifts of visitors took turns each day, every car would still have to carry six passengers to fit a single day’s visitors in the 150 available parking spaces. The park closes at 5 pm, so there’s no sunset viewing or dinner picnics, either. Instead, it is possible to park along the highway. Many visitors do that, but it results in a long walk. By the time we parked along the road and walked in, we’d be out of time and energy to look around. We decided to visit a) during the week, b) in the winter, c) not during any holiday season, d) when the weather was poor.

This January, the weather has been glorious. The four inches of rain that we should be getting has not come, and the number of gloomy days has been a minimum. We ended up going to visit Point Lobos on a Monday afternoon, arriving at the entrance between 2:30 and 3 pm. The entrance was open, the “Full” barrier that is usually in place from 8:30 am most days, set aside. We were able to drive into the park as far as we wished and to park anywhere we wanted. Every parking zone had a space or two available. Once out of the car, we had to keep our masks on while walking on the paths. People passed us so frequently there wasn’t time to remove our masks before we needed them on again. The park may not have been full, but there were still plenty of people enjoying the views. We plan to visit more often once we have our “2021 Limited Use Golden Bear Pass”. (For $20 per couple, people over 65 can access state parks from January to Memorial Day and after Labor Day without paying the $9 Senior day use fee.)

On our first visit, we headed for Gibson Beach at the far south end of the park and were rewarded with a beautiful beach reached by a stroll past those harbor seals, along wide, level trails beside rocky cliffs.

Afternoon sun on a sea arch at Point Lobos.

In a park like Point Lobos, where there are so many visitors every day, there are also a lot of people to answer questions. We chatted with a volunteer docent, and passed staff members and docents along the trail and on the beach. There are also a lot of rules. No dogs, no bikes, no picnics on the beach, only in three designated picnic areas. If this sounds regimented, remember those 2,740 people per day trying to walk on the trails and the beach, see the harbor seals, and have a picnic. It takes a lot of management.

Fortunately, there are other options if you want to watch waves crash on the rocks or walk along the beach without strategizing about parking. Right in Carmel, Pacific Grove, or Monterey, there are beaches that can be reached on foot from any of the hotels or Airbnbs nearby. Street parking is easily available during this winter of Covid, though it may be more difficult to find during the summer months.

Driving south from Carmel on Route 1, there are pullouts that let you see the spectacular rocky coast from many places. There isn’t usually access to the beach, but for scenery, (and keeping your shoes clean), this drive is great. If you go far enough, you get to Big Sur, a composite of parks, reserves, beaches, and campgrounds (campgrounds are not yet open).

Driving the opposite direction, north from the Monterey Peninsula along Route 1, Ft. Ord Beach offers broad beaches and fewer people to share with.

One corner of the Monterey Peninsula

We went to the corner of the Monterey Peninsula nearest our house on a gray Monday. Rain threatened, but never got worse than damp mist. The waves were big, 10 ft. or more, and we sat on a park bench to watch for a while. The water was a beautiful dark blue-green, and the breaking waves created patches of pastel color that were gorgeous and unexpected on such a day. As we sat, Jonathan noticed something in the water, a seal, perhaps. I said it was one of the many clumps of kelp, but had to eat my words when there turned out to be a large group of sea otters riding the waves and fishing. We used our birding binoculars to watch the otters float on their backs under the curl of the huge waves, riding up and over just for fun, or diving underneath as waves broke.

The black spots are sea otters

Following the breaking surf into the distance, we discovered surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting for a really big wave. A couple of them took off on long rides away from us along the shore. Nearby, we watched a few spectacular wipe-outs. When we left, they were all still in the water, waiting for that best ride of the day.

When we are not at the shore or planning a walk along the shore, we are checking the tide tables, either to go beach combing at low tide, or to watch the surfers and the big waves at high tide. We always have a mask with us, but most of the time outdoors we don’t need them. Watching the ocean has become one of our favorite diversions. The waves are constantly changing, breaking and whooshing onto the shore. On a sandy shore, the crash of the waves themselves is the loudest sound, while on a rocky beach, the rattle of rock and pebbles stirred by the waves and the undertow can be louder than the sea itself. The ever-changing, but always the same breaking of the waves is mesmerizing, a kind of meditation that lets me forget about the things that I can’t do, if only for a few minutes.

Into the New Year, 2021

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There is a Christmas carol that will appeal to all travelers:

….bearing gifts, we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star….

Whether it’s Kazakhstan or the entrance to the mall, we all have our star, somewhere we’d like to go in 2021. Though we still have no sense of when local stay-at-home orders will be lifted, or when we’ll get vaccinated, making plans gives us hope. We need that hope right now to get through this particularly uncomfortable final stretch toward some of the life we left behind last March.

When we are not at the shore, planning a walk along the shore, or checking the tide tables, we’ve begun to talk about our plans for travel when we can once again get on a plane safely. Many people have traveled across the country or further on planes during the past months. We don’t have a pressing reason to travel any more before being vaccinated. Now is a good time to plan. Just like gardeners reading seed catalogues, we can begin to ogle Airbnb listings and think about destinations.

Athens, Greece (A. Savin)

At first, we thought we’d take up our itinerary where we left off, visiting Greece. Now, I’m thinking about that wandering star and where it might lead us. My latest idea is to consider all the islands we haven’t visited, from Malta to Newfoundland to most of the Caribbean. I could go from island to island for many months. We are even contemplating spending a couple of weeks at ….(gasp!)…. a resort. Jonathan has been cooking every night since March with only a few exceptions. We used to make a point of eating out once a week to try local restaurants, and to give him a break from cooking. That hasn’t happened much recently. If we could find a resort that has really good food he might enjoy a break from the kitchen. That’s a topic we can dream about, and also do some internet research. If you have been to an island resort that you enjoyed, please tell me about it in the comments.

No matter what happens next, or how long we have to wait to get vaccinated, we’ll have our plans ready when it’s time to pack up again.

Two Suitcases: A traveling retirement. Our new book is out!

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Today is the launch of our new ebook, Two Suitcases: A Traveling Retirement. I’ve taken the first five years of this blog, distilled the most important travel-related advice and stories from it, and turned it into a book. Jonathan is my co-author, adding in the nuts and bolts of finding our homes via Airbnb or VRBO. He’s also in charge of the kitchen, with how-tos and recipes.

We share the process of planning for travel during retirement, from assembling a wish list of places, to moving into an apartment in Barcelona. The first five years of our travels explore the planning and downsizing process, along with experiences and lessons from life in motion around the world.

We’ve enjoyed every minute of our travels. Maybe not every minute, but most of them. We are waiting for the pandemic to ebb so we can go back on the road. On the other hand, I’m now wondering what will be different when international travel resumes. Regular readers of llywindatravels.com will have seen my post on disaster books. I hope none of the things that happened in them come to pass in the next few years and that we really will be able to visit other countries the way we have in the past.

Two Suitcases is both memoir and how-to. When I started writing, I thought that turning all those blog posts into a book would be a breeze. I did read many advice emphasizing that blogs are not books, and can’t just be sandwiched between covers. I spent about a year and a half laying out our story. I then recruited Jonathan and we spent another year, and then some, rewriting it. My Christmas letter two years ago mentions the book that I hoped to have out “shortly.” I am delighted that we’ve gotten to the finished book, and I’m looking forward to continuing the blog and writing about our second five years of retirement and travel. Whether you are an armchair traveler or someone who keeps a packed suitcase by the door, I hope you will enjoy sharing our travels. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book, your travels, your future travel plans, your thoughts about travel in the future, or whatever is on your mind.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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Set aside for a moment your wait for Covid vaccine, anxiety about the future, job security, and world peace, and let’s talk about the holidays.

My vote for the best time of year are the two weeks leading up to Christmas. Especially this year, when we’ll be alone for our holiday feast, the festivities have all taken place in anticipation of Christmas. By the time the big day arrives, we’ll have had most of the fun.

About three weeks before Christmas, I found an artificial tree, wreaths and other holiday decorations stored in a closet, and decided to put together a Zoom nook with everything together in a tiny upstairs space. The tree is actually very narrow, and it makes a cheerful background. I enjoyed arranging it.

Two weeks before Christmas, I started making cookies, using a recipe that looked good on line and claimed to make gingerbread men that hold their shape. It worked well, and my first batches looked good. I needed a few more, once I decided that in addition to the cookie exchange with my daughters (in lieu of gifts), I wanted to send gingerbread to my family members around the country. I tried a different recipe for the next batch, and stirred it up according to the recipe, but then realized that after I added the 5 cups of flour required, I’d have a lot of gingerbread men. For the rest of the week, I had trays of gingerbread men on almost every table.

I took my time with decorating, and finally decided I was finished when there wasn’t much of a blank spot anywhere. Every time I walked by my trays of cookies, I’d stop and have a look, grab my tube of royal icing from the fridge, and draw in a few more fingers, toes, buttons, or other details. I realized that if I didn’t stop, the icing wouldn’t harden and I couldn’t wrap and ship them all.

In the midst of my cookie baking, we took time to watch the gorgeous sunset over Asilomar Beach, and we stayed until the sky darkened enough for us to see Jupiter and Saturn close to each other over the darkening southwest horizon. They are just two dots in our binoculars, but I am humbled to think that this particular combination hasn’t been in our sky since the 1200s. I am looking at a version of the heavens that some medieval ancestor also saw on a winter solstice long ago.

One week before Christmas, I put my finished boxes of cookies in the mail. I had a lot of fun making them, and I think my family will enjoy eating them. Not long after that packages started rolling in, mostly cookies, and even a few gifts (We don’t exchange gifts any more). The doorbell rang the other night (a very rare occurrence, especially after dark), and there was a young man holding a bottle of wine and a note. “There’s no name,” he said. “It just says it’s from Wine Santa. Someone sent you a very nice bottle of wine.” I believe he was one of Santa’s elves and that he was wearing a dark raincoat over his bright green fur-trimmed outfit.

With all this good will landing on the doorstep, every day is happier than the last, as I wonder what will arrive next. Real holiday cards arrive in our little-used mailbox, and we all know that mail we are happy to receive is becoming a rare phenomenon. Holiday cards (paper or digital) are a way to catch up with friends and family, whether we chat frequently or whether Christmas is our annual moment of communication.

By the time Christmas day arrives, I will have eaten lots of cookies and candy, and will be resting on my laurels for having send my packets of gingerbread men out into the world, followed by my electronic holiday greetings. We’ll have a delicious dinner featuring Jonathan’s Christmas ham, and ending with my trifle, but for me, the fun is in the anticipation of surprises, surprise communications from friends, surprise at the wonderful and delicious cookies our exchange has produced, and happiness at the warmth of friendship that doesn’t depend on physical presence. Maybe next year we can catch up on the hugs we are missing this time.

We land in Pacific Grove, CA

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After making our way across the US one month at a time, we’ve decided to settle for a while, waiting until it’s safer to travel. We’ve rented a furnished house in Pacific Grove, CA for six months. Thus far, we’re enjoying pushing around the furniture to our liking and being able to put things away. For our usual one-month stay, it’s really a toss-up whether putting things in drawers and closets is worth the effort. I am delighted to not be living out of my travel bag in the bathroom, for example. Our stay here will be the longest we’ve been in one place since 2014.

Why here? Why now? The second question is easier to answer than the first. In a normal year, we spend November through March in Peru. In this year of Covid, we can’t go to Peru safely, and we are ready for a break. Even staying a month at a time at each stop requires constant planning. Now we can forget about that for a while. Our plan is to stay in Pacific Grove until a) we get vaccinated against Covid (we already have our flu shots); b) it is safe to travel in the US and internationally; or 3) it is safe to travel to Peru. Though we’d like to be on our way again in six months, we may renew our lease if the pace of improvement continues to be very slow. Right now, we read that vaccination across the US is starting, but may not get to us until mid-year. Our Peruvian friends may be waiting until 2022 to get their vaccinations.

We moved across the US in the months before the fall wave of Covid infection began. When we were in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, the virus was not infecting people at the rate it is now. Pacific Grove is our third stop in California. Our first was Eureka, way up north. At first, we thought we might stay there. Our daughter Amanda and her husband are located in Eureka, and it would be lovely to be near them for a change. There are miles of coastline and even more miles of trails through huge redwoods in Humboldt County. We began taking advantage of the truly great outdoors. We decided not to stay at the end of the month because of the difficulty in getting medical care. The longer we have stayed on the west coast, the worse the epidemic has gotten. Moving every month seems like a bad idea, we decided to hunt for a longer-term rental. We settled down in early December, in time to plan a relaxing Christmas and New Years. We are withing driving distance of our daughter Lyra, and have had a chance to see her and her puppy Pandora. We don’t have to worry about the spike in Airbnb prices over the holidays, we don’t have to plan where to go next. All we have to do now it keep our heads down until we can get vaccinated.

Staying home doesn’t mean staying indoors. We limit shopping to groceries and the occasional stop elsewhere, and we shop outdoors at the weekly farmers markets in Carmel Valley and Monterey.

The Monterey Peninsula during high seas

There are miles of rocky coast around the Monterey Peninsula, and even more miles of beach around Monterey Bay. Point Lobos, Big Sur, and the list goes on. We are outdoors every day, wearing masks when people are near, and unmasked when we are alone.

Monterey Bay

I did pay the price for having nature at our doorstep. On our first visit to the grocery store, we bought two big poinsettia to plant in the bright yellow pots by the front door. They were glorious. Not too many days later, I went outside to find one of the plants completely decapitated, every lush red flower gone and only clipped green stems left. One late afternoon a day or two later we were charmed by the pair of mule deer who stopped to browse on the open space adjacent to us. Then the penny dropped, and I realized that my deer were the culprits. Chagrined, I moved the surviving poinsettia to the top of our outdoor table, off the route the deer follow every day or two when they stop by. Now closer to our back door and walled off from the adjacent open plot, it might grow back (?). Maybe that’s why people use plastic holiday ornaments outdoors.

For now, this is a lovely place to call home.

Thanksgiving

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I might have been disappointed that we only had a single guest for Thanksgiving dinner, but this is 2020, and having a guest was the Best Thing Ever. Lyra came to see us and brought Pandora, an endless source of fun.

Jonathan sharpened his knives and made spatchcock turkey (remove backbone, lie flat to cook). This may have been the smallest turkey he ever cooked. It was done in an hour (!), and was delicious.

We had a family zoom call that let us connect with Lily & Neil, and Amanda & Jim. I felt a lot better about our separation just by being able to see us all together on the same screen. I’m grateful for the technology that is the glue holding us all together these days.

A Carmel reality check

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I just completed a post that shows some of the delightfully quirky small houses of Carmel, CA. Before you pack your bags and jump in the car to move to a place where the temperature rarely drops below 60o during the day, the sun shines, and the beach is within walking distance, you might want to know a few things.

Everyone loves it here.

  • That means the streets are crowded, even during Covid times. I can’t go downtown and window shop because of the number of visitors who insist on arriving every day. That includes us, of course.
  • There is always traffic on the highway. “Highway” refers to one lane each way through much of this area.
  • Water is everywhere, but so is drought. We should have gotten about 3 inches of rain during November 2020, and we got 0 in. There is an old sticker on the mirror in our bathroom from a period of water rationing, when people were advised to keep their daily total water usage to 2 gallons. For failing to find alternative water sources for the area, the local water utility was just cut back in the volume of water it is permitted to take from the Carmel River. The utility’s plan to build a desalination plant has been paralyzed by local opposition (desal plants emit hot water into the ocean that kills some sea life, and produce vast quantities of salt that have to be stored somewhere). Water rationing may return.
  • Utility costs are high compared to other places. That includes electricity–remember PG&E was responsible for a couple of the huge forest fires in California and is technically bankrupt several times over. Also gas, water (see above), sewer, and there is only one residential cable/internet provider.
  • The median price for a house in Carmel-by-the-Sea is currently around 1.7 million dollars.

Carmel Style

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We are staying in a lovely house here, and though that is the case with most of our Airbnb rentals, there is something distinctive about Carmel-by-the-Sea. Some of the local atmosphere comes from the people. As Lyra and I were walking down the street, a convertible passed us with the top down. The driver was a smiling, silver haired, tanned man wearing a navy blue sweater. A woman was barely visible in the passenger seat, obscured by a Christmas tree about 8 ft. tall that pointed skyward, crowding the back seat passengers and two large dogs with them. They looked like a Ralph Lauren ad. We waved, they waved. The holidays are starting.

This tree overshadows our neighbor’s front door.

Carmel’s atmosphere also comes from a strong focus on maintaining a “town in a forest”, look and a small-town feel. New houses must be built around existing trees, creating relatively dense cover around most properties. This adds a layer of privacy to homes that have been popular with artists and theater people since the first wave of creative refugees arrived in Carmel after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There are a couple of trees so close to our house that they make loud screeches as they rub the eaves when there is strong wind. It was a bit creepy the first night–then we figured out what made the noise.

Ironically, quirky architecture was introduced to Carmel in 1925 as the original “she-shed”, long before that term existed. Hugh Comstock built a tiny house for his wife’s doll collection. The house was called “Hansel”, and has a steeply pitched roof, a few exposed beams (not exactly half-timbering), a small, arched front door, and a rather uncertain-looking chimney made of the local stone. Over the following decade, Comstock built several other of these “fairytale cottages”, and many of the elements introduced in the cottages have been used in other houses, creating Carmel Style.

“Hansel” was Comstock’s first house, surrounded by trees and gardens. Its uneven roofline, steep roof, exposed timbers, arched front door, and rustic fence have all become elements of Carmel style.

Some of the features that can be admired as you walk or drive around Carmel include:

A steep roof, often extended over small gables.

Exposed timbers/half timbering on the exterior was inspired by the fairytale theme of Comstock’s original houses. As the first house he built was called “Hansel”, the second was “Gretel”.

Comstock Studio has a Carmel stone chimney with decorative cap.

Chimneys show off local Carmel stone and often have a decorative top. Carmel stone is sedimentary shale, flaky and relatively light. Easy availability and the warm color (like Cotswold stone) was why Hugh Comstock used it.

“Fables” built by Hugh Comstock, with its octagonal room.

Octagonal rooms are a feature of some Carmel style houses, probably adopted from “Fables,” another Comstock house. It includes a stone chimney and an octagonal windowed room at the front of the house.

Roofing imitates thatch on a number of houses. Shingles attached in a spiral pattern, a cone-shaped roof, and an octagonal room, make a place look much more like a hobbit house than an “ordinary” beachfront home. Other houses have an uneven roof line, as though the house was old and unstable, though the swayback look is intentional.

It can be difficult to admire more than a single feature when a house is almost completely cloaked in trees. That hardly matters when you catch sight of an unusual stone chimney cap, or a tower that makes you want to move right in. A relatively small number of houses were built by Hugh Comstock, but many of the features he used have been copied in bits and pieces on newer houses.

Fireplace, board and batten walls, vintage trophy, art.

Comstock influenced interiors, as well. Fireplaces are part of the look, since once they were the main heating source for small cottages. His interiors were untreated board and batten, painted or unpainted, and ceilings had exposed beams. This is a legacy of California climate, too, where houses were not generally insulated. Ask any Eastern transplant about their first winter in California, getting out of bed to find their home ice-cold with only a tiny wall space heater in the bathroom battling the chill. No wonder so many people go outdoors and run!

Rustic ceiling, antique lighting, art. A Comstock-type interior.

Comstock used interior balconies, later adopted by other builders. (L) “Fables” balcony, (R) view from the balcony around three sides of our living room.

Not every house in Carmel is based on a fairytale cottage, but many of the whimsical elements introduced by Hugh Comstock in his efforts to please his wife have endured to create the rustic look and enhance the charm of Carmel.