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.

Discovering Pebble Beach

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Pebble Beach is known around the world as a course used periodically for the US Open. We knew we wanted to see the area even though neither of us plays golf. We probably won’t be starting lessons–rounds at the Pebble Beach links start at $575 assuming you are already a guest at the resort (Rooms start at $990/night).

Our first visit introduced us to the 17-Mile Drive, another highlight of the area. To get to any of the overlook points on the Pebble Beach headlands, or beaches encompassed by those headlands, you pay the $10.50 toll (per day, multiple entry). Having decided to go ahead and visit, we proceeded to look for the pebbly beach that is the area’s namesake. We hunt for sea glass on gravelly beaches, and I thought the original pebble beach might hold something for us.

There are signs directing visitors to parking. This being California, access to the shore is guaranteed by law, and no one, not even David Geffen, the Pebble Beach resort, or anyone else, can keep the public off the shore between the low and high tide lines.We actually found a marked coastal access pathway crossing the parking lot and heading down the side of the clubhouse to the sandy beach. Getting to the pebbly beach required crossing a short stretch of the course, so we looked both ways and scuttled across safely.

This is a “real” pebble beach, a good place to look for sea glass.

Pebble Beach and its surroundings is a golfer’s paradise, with a golf course around every corner, and spectacular coastal scenery beyond. We were curious about whether people actually play the holes that jut out along the cliffs, and they do. There were people teeing off from a tiny patch of green surrounded by rocks on the edge of a dropoff. Fortunately, they were hitting back toward land and not trying to drop a golfball onto a tiny green. It looks like that would be as difficult as landing a SpaceX module. Jonathan had his big moment at Pebble Beach, swinging his beach scoop/golf club for a perfect shot. We did find some beach glass. Not a lot, but worth the visit. We decided against lunch at the club house, and went home for a break.

Later in the afternoon, we resumed the 17-Mile Drive at the opposite end from the Pebble Beach Golf Club. To see all the stops, you need to drive the route counter-clockwise, more or less north to south, starting in Pacific Grove and heading toward Carmel by way of the cliffs. All the pullouts are on the water (southbound) side of the road.

We are not fans of the toll, but without it, the road would be very crowded most of the time. The roads are private in this area, and the toll both keeps them maintained, and cuts down on the number of people who visit. On Trip Advisor, reports are split between praise for the views and complaints that the coast here is no prettier than other stretches of seaside road where a toll is not charged.

Moss Beach, near Point Joe

We stopped at Moss Beach, and were rewarded by seeing a white-tailed kite. These birds are distinctive in the way they hover over one spot while they hunt, and what caught our eye was the bird hovering in place over the sand. They are a hunting bird, big as a hawk, and almost all white.

The day was overcast and the tide was low, with lots of shore birds wading along the beaches and on the rocks. Bird Rock is a favorite stop on the drive, though it isn’t covered with birds, but with seals and sea lions.

Bird Rock

After Bird Rock, we stopped for a short visit to Fanshell Beach, then pushed on to Cypress Point. The Monterey Cypress trees here are one of the last stands of these trees in their native location, though they are widely planted elsewhere and thrive especially well in New Zealand. These cypress trees are often shaped by strong coastal winds that result in interesting irregular shapes. My photo is a grove of trees that is not much altered by the wind.

The Crocker Grove, Cypress Point
The Lone Cypress (Wikipedia)

After Cypress Point, there is more coastline with views out to the southwest, and the Lone Cyprus, a tree growing on a stub of rock almost cut off from the shore.

By the time we made it past the Lone Cyprus, it was getting late. The sun sets too early for us in November, already down by 5 pm. We decided that our exploration of Pebble Beach is complete for now.

Leaving the Emerald Triangle

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Three northern counties of California produce more cannabis than anywhere else in the US, gaining the region the name “the Emerald Triangle”. The Wall Street Journal has been covering the cannabis industry here since the 1970s, long before it was legal. We’ve spent the month of October in this gorgeous area. We head south this week, with regret, but it’s time to settle for the winter, and it’s a bit chilly here in the far North.

We’re in Eureka, CA, part of Humboldt County. Often the entire state north of Mendocino is called “Humboldt,” with an inflection and implicit eye roll, like “the back of beyond,” where all the crazy hippie growers live.

It is beautiful here, there are only 14 cases of Covid-19 in the entire county, and when you go for a walk on the beach or on a trail during the week, you are often alone. People are good about wearing masks on the street, at the Arcata Farmers Market, and in stores. The Farmers Market is really good and runs year round. All products come from within 50 miles, and yes, there’s a lot of squash, peppers, and tomatoes right now. (That’s a good thing.) We have not eaten out.

We haven’t visited all the places you can hike or walk along the shore. There are far more than can be covered in a month. However, here are a few highlights.

The best place to hunt for California agates in beach gravel: Big Lagoon County Park, Trinidad CA

My three favorite places for bird watching:

  1. Arcata Marsh, Arcata, CA–there are thousands of shorebirds that visit this area, and lots of trails.
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, former farm outbuildings

2. Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, south of Eureka, CA. More trails and lots of birds. We’re still seeing migrating species, especially on the warmer, sunnier days.

Mad River County Park

3. Mad River County Park, near Loleta, CA includes a trail behind the dunes. Trees have grown into a kind of tunnel, and tiny warblers jump through the branches faster than you can aim your binoculars. The trail comes out on the beach, and we walked back along the shore. Fog had rolled in and we walked through ghostly gray light.

I don’t have a favorite place for walking on the beach–there are miles of beaches, dog-friendly, even horse-friendly. At the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, there are signs saying No Dogs, No Vehicles, No Runners (?). We’ve seen more deer in our yard than at any of the wildlife refuges, however.

We learned a bit about Frisbee Golf when we went for a walk in a park in Manila, CA that turned out to be a popular disc golf course.

I will miss it here. The past two weeks have been without rain and when you stand in the sun it is warm (60s). Nights are cold, but there has been no frost. There was a full moon/blue moon/Halloween moon on Saturday. It’s been perfect for being outdoors.

We took advantage of the drive south to get off Highway 101 and onto the Avenue of the Giants that winds among redwood forest for 31 miles. This was our initial cruise through the forest. On our next visit to Humboldt, we’ll stop at one of the many places where trails thread through the huge trees.

Not far beyond the Avenue of the Giants, we entered the familiar California environment, brown hillsides, patches of trees, and lots of irrigated grape vines.

We decided to avoid the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco, but got a look at the city as we drove by.

By this time, we were ready for a break, so we stopped in to see Lyra at her new apartment in Mountain View, and to meet her puppy, Pandora. Pandora was much smaller than she looked on Skype, and cute as can be. We hadn’t see Lyra since Christmas, and that was a pleasure, and a big relief. How we all want to hug our family members! We visited with Amanda and Jim in Eureka, and we wanted to see Lyra. We don’t know when we will get back to Illinois to see Lillian and Neil, or out to Syracuse, NY to see my mom. Family–in the flesh–is to be treasured these days.

After our break visiting Lyra and Pandora, we went on to our destination in Carmel, a lovely house tucked in on a side street only two blocks from downtown. Driving due south for eight hours had the positive result that it is a bit warmer, as well as less rainy. It should be a good month.