It’s been a tough year for Big Sur. The Dolan Fire burned almost 125,000 acres of the region between August and December 2020. After that it rained, and the rainfall on fresh fire scars was feared to cause mudslides, and it did. On Thurs. Jan. 28, 2020, a debris flow crossed Highway 1 and collapsed a section of the road into the ocean. Efforts to repair the highway have been underway since February, and the road is scheduled to be back in service by the end of April. Tourists have had to avoid most of the hiking trails, and since February, it has been impossible to make the famed Highway 1 drive along the coast from Morro Bay to the Golden Gate.
With months of firefighting, precarious weather and road conditions as background, we took our time exploring this area. Initially we jumped from one place to another, looking for beaches, visiting Garrapata and Pfeiffer beaches. Pfeiffer Beach is a particularly beautiful spot. Rocks just offshore have a natural opening. The tide billows through, and at certain times, the sun sets right through this natural window. We met photographers setting up to catch views of the sunset on a calm afternoon. (The wind makes a big difference, as the second time we visited the wind was so strong we had to hide in the lee of the rocks, then leave.)
Once we realized that Big Sur is all about the views of the rocky coast, and has few beaches to walk on, we began working our way south from Carmel along Highway 1, stopping at the overlooks and taking any available walking trail along the the cliffs. Soberanes Point has a particularly nice series of trails along the rocks.
Weather and Covid have conspired to close some important stops in Big Sur. The Point Sur Lighthouse is a beautiful area, but has been closed for months. I just read that it is reopening for docent-guided tours. It sounds like there will be no wandering along the shore on one’s own.
There is a beautiful beach lying just north of the Point Sur lighthouse that I was looking forward to visiting when the grounds opened again, but I found that it is permanently closed to the public. This comes as a bit of a shock in California, where the right of pedestrians to walk on any beach up to the high tide mark is a law that has withstood years of attack by the rich (look up David Geffen and the California Coastal Commission…). About 15 miles of coastline, including this beach are fenced off and posted by the El Sur Ranch. Jonathan read up on it and the owner is seen as a great benefactor of the region, honorary member of the fire department, generous to local causes. I remain puzzled by why the ranch is allowed to keep long sections of coast land private in the face of laws to the contrary. The property goes back to a land grant in the mid-19th century, and I’m sure there are reasons, even if I don’t particularly like missing out on this stretch of the coast.
When I become discouraged that sections of the coast are not available to visit, I have to keep in mind that we have had great success in visiting most of the coast that can be reached on foot without overnight camping. One of our favorites is the Carmel River State Park, right down the road, open most of the time, a perfect place.
I poked a lot of limp sea creatures this week. It turns out that pieces of jellyfish that wash up on the shore look a lot like beach glass. Some bits of jellyfish are perfectly transparent and shimmer like crystal under the sun, while others are cloudy and frosted-looking, like nicely rounded beach glass. My efforts were rewarded, despite those icky experiences, because we found a lot of interesting glass and pottery on the beach.
The three lowest tides of the month fell on consecutive days this week, and we took advantage to collect sea glass. Arriving at Sand City beach, we found a number of serious beach glass collectors at work. Six or seven people, each wearing wet suits and boots, sometimes a parka, sometimes elbow length rubber gloves, waded in the surf. For more than an hour, maybe even two, they ranged along the shore with a long-handled tool, scraping up beach gravel and glass, rummaging through the pieces, and putting some in a shoulder bag, while wet to mid-thigh and up to the elbows. We admired their hard work, and wondered what they did with their finds.
As we walked down the beach, we stopped to watch a man collecting in the surf. He was dressed head to toe in protective gear, wet suit, boots, gloves, and hood, with his scoop and collecting bag. He noticed us and waved, then approached us, extended his scoop and showed us the glass he’d found. He then offered me the pieces. “Really?” I asked. He nodded. I thanked him and collected several very nice pieces. He turned back to the water before I had the chance to ask him what he did with his finds.
We strolled up the beach, looking for beach glass along the high tide line. There were lots of pieces to collect, and though we didn’t find any exotic colors, we didn’t have to wade in the waves to find pieces. On the way back, we stopped at our beach glass friend again, and asked what he did with his finds. He said he made things from them (hangings with driftwood, for example), and sold some. He offered me more pieces and I thanked him and asked why he was sharing with me. “Karma,” he said. “You give some away and you find some more.” We thanked him again, waved, and went our way.
On the way back, Jonathan added to my collection of beach pennies. I’m not sure what happens to pennies once they start rolling around in seawater, but the surface erodes and the copper surface peels and bubbles. I haven’t been spending much actual cash, so I still have all three. I’m not sure anyone would take them, even CoinStar.
A few hours of beach combing is hard on the knees and the back, so on the second low tide of three in a row, we made a much shorter visit to McAbee beach. We’ve visited before and noticed that there is a lot of very small beach glass in the sand. Rather than spending a lot of time stooping and peering, we took a plastic bag and collected about 2 quarts of sand from an area that seemed to have a lot of small pieces. Once we got it home, we could search the sand for tiny pieces of glass. I have been using these to make earrings filled with mini beach glass, filling little bottles and vials with colored pieces. I had been crushing glass bits to fill some extra-tiny vials, but that is both a bit of a mess and more time consuming than you’d think. My new collection of itty-bitty pebbles of beach glass will let me make as many little bottles of glass as I want. I’ll go back to making larger items after that. (Click the link in the side bar of this post to visit the Etsy site where I post the beach glass jewelry I make.)
We didn’t get through all the sand and tiny glass before it was the third and last day of low tides for at least a month. I thought I’d have a try at scooping into the water like the pros, even though I don’t have a dedicated tool. I dug out my wetsuit and water sandals, and got ready to dip in the ocean. Turns out, I’m not that good at getting wet. The day was sunny and warm, and there were women in bikinis lying on the beach in places, but I watched a woman raking in the water while a wave broke over her shoulder. I just couldn’t do it. I waded around and got wet up to my knees and elbows, and we collected some lovely beach glass. We also decided that we probably did just as well on land as getting wet. If it were 90o F. out, I might give it another try, but now I have so much glass that I don’t need to go beach combing until the next extra-low tides at the end of April. I’ll just walk on the beach and enjoy the view.
If you’re going to explore, you need maps. The map on your phone is indispensable, but it’s not enough. There are places both inland and along the coast of California where cell phone signals disappear, but there’s a solution for that: Paper resources. Two in particular have helped us out, the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for California, and the California Coastal Access Guide.
The DeLorme atlas is a large format book of maps that covers the entire state. When you start down a rural road and then lose your phone signal, you can check and see whether the road eventually connects with something else, or whether you will have to turn around. There’s not quite as much detail as a USGS quad sheet, but it takes up a lot less space. We tend to leave it in the car; it’s there when we need it.
The California Coastal Access Guide is a big help when you’re trying to stop at places all along the coast. It’s great for us because we’d like to walk the entire coast, and figuring out how to get to the beach can become a big headache. California has valuable state laws that protect access to the coast, at least as far as the high water mark. No matter who lives in the adjacent property, landowners cannot prevent people from walking along the shore. Unfortunately, people don’t always behave themselves, and papparazzi can hang out on the high tide mark trying to photograph the rich and famous in their houses nearby. For that reason, some wealthy land owners have tried to close off their beachfront to keep out the public. David Geffen, record producer, is one of the best known. He spent twenty-seven years trying to sue various California agencies so that he could block access to the beach in front of his house in Malibu. He lost.
That doesn’t mean that homeowners with beachfront property have to make access easy. Many “coastal access” points have only minimal markings, and have only one or two parking spaces. The trail to the coast may be narrow and almost invisible if you aren’t looking for it. The Coastal Access Guide lists points of access all along the coast, with some useful directions. A chart is included that tells whether there is a beach, a trail, parking, and whether dogs are allowed. We use it to plan visits when our children bring their dogs.
Even this resource isn’t complete. Developers have to assure coastal access as part of the permit process before housing can be built along the shore. This means there are narrow coastal access paths through some neighborhoods that are not in the Coastal Access book. We do our best to discover them. When we find an area that seems apt for beach combing but doesn’t have an obvious path or parking area, we drive along the road closest to the water looking for the Coastal Access symbol.
In Carmel Highlands, there are two neighborhoods along the water. We wanted to visit Yankee Point, an irregular chunk of land off Spindrift Lane, but found no way to get to the water. We’ve made a couple of passes, but haven’t had any luck getting out to Yankee Point, despite a tempting trail visible in GoogleEarth.
In the next neighborhood to the south, off Yankee Point Drive, there is no access to Yankee Point, despite the name. At the very south end of the street, though, we found a narrow coastal access trail that leads to a tiny beach at the mouth of Malpaso Creek. There are a few places for cars to park on the street, too. We were so pleased at having found a hidden coastal access point that we walked down to have a look. The trail has a beautiful overlook of the inlet, one trail to the beach, and another into the woods upstream for a short distance. Highway One passes overhead on a high concrete bridge, yet under its span is a patch of woodland with good birdwatching, and toward the end of the trail about a quarter mile in, there’s a tiny stand of redwoods.
On the Saturday of MLK holiday weekend, we set out to visit Monastery Beach and arrived to find it packed with cars and people. The crowds were too much for us, and we decided to try Yankee Point Drive. Sure enough, there were three other cars parked, but still room for us. We stopped at the overlook to chat with a young woman sitting in the sun. We said how much we enjoyed this lesser known spot of coast and she told us that this was one place she always came by herself. There were a few other people along the path, and one family on the tiny beach, just the right number.
If you live or visit anywhere north of the Bay Area, there’s the best possible list of access points that includes even the most carefully hidden ones. The Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guides to northern California (Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and DelNorte counties) include every possible access point. It can be a lot of fun finding your way to these lesser known places. We used the Hiker’s Hip Pocket Guide in Mendocino and saw some lovely tiny beaches with its help. When you move to a new area or plan a longer stay along the coast, these guides are worth having. We find new places to visit almost every time we thumb through their pages.
That’s one way to look at it. In our case, the error wasn’t intentional, just a momentary lack of judgement that turned out really, really badly.
It rained for two solid days this past week, and when the sun came out on Friday, we wanted to go somewhere interesting. We settled on the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge, a place we’d been to before. This time, we packed a picnic and planned to walk a few hundred yards out to the beach, rather than walk the trail among the trees.
We made a few detours on the way to look at storm effects on a different beach, so we got a late start. By noon, we turned off Rte. 1 and headed west along the short road to the park. Less than 1/4 mile along, we could see some big puddles, and some tracks going through them. I didn’t remember whether the road was paved under the water and mud. It didn’t look great, so we sat and debated for a minute. Then we went ahead.
That was a mistake. We should have gotten out and gone for a look, which would have convinced us of the futility of driving through this spot in a Prius. We plunged on, and within less than a minute realized our mistake. It was impossible for Jonathan to turn the car around in the mud, and though he successfully backed up about half way back to the paved road, we stuck fast about 100 yards from safety. And yes, the few vehicles that subsequently passed us as we waited for assistance all had four wheel drive.
We tried to get ourselves out of the mud, but we had no tools and the mud was very thick and sticky. In no time, our boots weighed about five pounds per foot, with huge clods of mud stuck everywhere. After a half hour of effort, we realized that we were slowly slipping toward the field of newly-planted cauliflower that lay beside us, and not getting any further out. I got on the phone with road service through our car insurance, State Farm, and started the process of getting help.
When the tow truck arrived, we ran into our first problem. The driver had a big truck but not four wheel drive. He believed he would get stuck. After trying to help us with boards and a shovel for a half hour or so, Francisco went on to his next job promising to alert the State Farm roadside service. After about 20 minutes, I called State Farm again, and when I explained where we were stuck and what was needed, I was told that once a car is more than 100 feet from pavement, it is considered off-roading. She didn’t say that outright, but told me I wasn’t eligible for towing. When I protested, instead of explaining the options, she cut me off, connecting me to a woman who handled roadside assistance for non-State Farm calls. This woman was helpful until the end when she explained that she had to reconnect with State Farm in order to process my request. She connected me to another person who said they would send someone. We got to the end of the call when my phone rang. I put the first person on hold, went to the second, also from State Farm, who said we needed to start the process again. I explained that I was on the line with a State Farm person who was going to dispatch someone and was told that would take care of it. I returned to the person helping me who said she would text me the details.
That’s where we lost State Farm. Apparently, I should have hung up on the person helping me and gone with the new voice. After both people were off the phone, we never heard from State Farm again. No text with the name of a tow company, no text asking whether we were still waiting for help, not another peep.
In the meantime, Jonathan googled “tow service near me” and ended up getting a person who was willing to get the job done. He didn’t like the mud, he was afraid his truck would become mired, but after backing in toward us and extending his tow cable to the max, his first pull broke his tow cable. Fortunately, he had a spare, and after changing cables, he spent about 90 minutes winching us toward his truck, then moving the truck forward, and winching again, a slow process of getting jolted toward the road. We sat in the car so that he knew where we were and that we were out of the way if the cable snapped again.
It was approaching sunset when we emerged, covered in thick gooey mud, boots, wheels, spatter everywhere. We paid a fortune to the nice man with the tow truck, thanked him for his persistence, and headed home, speculating what we would have done if the sun set and we were still stuck. Abandoning our car over night sounded like a terrible idea, but so did sitting in the car and starting all over again with State Farm.
As we drove home, we noticed that the car was shuddering a bit at higher speed. We attributed it to the mud chunks gradually coming off the wheels. The next day, we picked off the largest lumps of mud, then scrubbed the car with a broom while hosing it off to get it clean enough to take to the car wash. There was less mud on the interior because we’d put plastic shopping bags under our boots. On his return from the car wash, Jonathan gave me the bad news, the car still shook at speeds over 40 mph. Monday it goes to the shop for alignment and we hope that’s all it needs.
This is a tale of our desire to get to one destination overtaking our common sense. In all my writing about travel, I harp on the fact that it isn’t necessary to go to any particular place in order to have a good visit. I should have paid attention to my own advice!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have one picture from today, a live oak tree with trailing Spanish moss. There are so many impressive trees in this area, we decided there could be a calendar “Live Oaks of Ft. Ord.” December weather doesn’t get much better than sunny and 60o.
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.
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.
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.
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.