The Elgin Opera House — a Gem in the Wilderness

travel-writers-conf-212The tiny town of Elgin, Oregon has an unlikely centerpiece: the beautifully restored classical Elgin Opera House. A rural town born of the timber industry, at the bend of the highway leading from La Grande to Joseph, Elgin is tucked in the scenic Indian Valley between the Eagle Cap wilderness and the lovely Blue Mountains. 

travel-writers-conf-222Built in 1911, this colonial revival brick theater was uniquely ahead of its time, designed and built for the dual purpose of housing city government offices and a theater.

travel-writers-conf-228Exterior architectural features include a decorative metal cornice and pilasters flanking the entrance, and the vintage restored interior boasts a soaring ceiling, great acoustics, plush draperies, box seats, an orchestra pit, elaborate backdrops and rococo decor. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

travel-writers-conf-223Honoring tradition, performers have signed the backstage brick walls for over a century. The former jail in the basement serves as costume storage, where barred doors protect suits, gowns and wigs.

travel-writers-conf-238After decades as Elgin’s central civic gathering place, it drifted into disrepair. Local forces converged to restore the building in the 1980s, and today the Elgin Opera House brings repeat visitors from as far as Hawaii, California and Idaho to enjoy professionally staged musicals ranging from Oklahoma to Grease to Footloose. This winter, shows include A Christmas Story–the Musical in December and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat in February.

travel-writers-conf-241A four hour drive from Portland brings you to this charming town, where you can follow a night at the theater with fly fishing on the Grande Ronde River, a journey on the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, or a pedal-powered wilderness ride with the Joseph Branch Railriders–or just relax into the quiet pace of an Oregon back road weekend. You may also eat at the cutest Subway franchise this side of the Mississippi.

travel-writers-conf-217For a real taste of the vibrant Elgin arts community, plan a trip this month. On October 21 and 22, the Elgin Opera House presents cowboy poetry, followed by dinner and a dance at the Stampede Hall.    


Whale Magic at Bahia de San Ignacio, Baja California

The palapa at Kuyima: dining room and gathering place

Whale watching usually means jostling around on a big boat with 50 other people for a quick glimpse of a whale off in the distance. When I learned it could be different–when I saw pictures of people PETTING whales from little fishing boats–I knew I had to go.

Gray whales endure a 5,000 mile migration–one of the longest migrations of any mammal–to three enormous, tranquil lagoons on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula. Sheltered from the surging Pacific, they mate, give birth, and raise and nurse their calves to prepare them for the spring journey back to the Arctic feeding grounds.

Map of Baja’s gray whale nurseries

Bahia Magdalena, Bahia de San Ignacio  and Laguna Ojo de Liebre (formerly known as Scammon’s Lagoon) all serve as whale nurseries from December through April. A lively tourist industry, ranging from two-hour boat trips to multi-day packages, lures adventurers from around the globe.

Turtle shell on the beach. Because the sanctuary forbids taking souvenirs, the beach is carpeted with seashells, and there are whale bones too.

Bahia Magdalena, also known as Mag Bay, is the southernmost option and the easiest to access from the resort-friendly southern tip of Baja, Los Cabos.

Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Bahia de San Ignacio comprise the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, within the enormous El Vizcaino Biosphere reserve. This wildlife refuge, the largest in Mexico, protects 9,625 square miles of unique desert landscape. The strict regulations in action since the sanctuary was established in 1993 merit credit for much of the tremendous recovery of the gray whale population in recent decades.

Many ospreys nest near the lagoon. Coyotes stole their eggs, so Kuyima built nesting towers. In Spanish, it’s aguila pescadora, “fish eagle.”

Some say Bahia de San Ignacio has the friendliest whales. Local outfitters include Kuyima Ecotourismo, Antonio’s Ecotours, Baja Ecotours, and Pachico’s Ecotours.

Most packages last between 4-6 days, and some include spendy direct flights to the lagoon. I’m on a budget, and I’m excited about whales, but I also had other ambitions for my 10-day Baja trip. We settled on Kuyima, where we could rent an outfitted tent for two for $40US a night, and get meals and whale watching trips a la carte. In the end, it was under $500US for two people for two nights, three whale watching trips each, and four meals each. Folks with their own camping gear can pitch tents right by the lagoon, cook their own meals, and save a few bucks. Kuyima also runs a neighboring camp where guests stay in small cabins. Both are right on the beach, steps from the lagoon.

Kuyima’s tent camp. We rented a tent, but other folks brought their own gear or RVs.

Kuyima was perfect for us. Off the grid and powered by solar, they have simple outhouses which were perfectly pleasant, a bathing room where one could take a bucket bath with solar heated water, and a spacious enclosed palapa, where we got meals and margaritas and enjoyed the small library of books about whales and Baja. The staff was helpful, devoted to whales, and spoke English. Our fellow visitors included tourists from Baja and elsewhere in Mexico, Italians, Germans and Americans.

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp

Kuyima cabins, at the adjacent camp.

The sanctuary strictly limits whale watching, to ensure visitors don’t overwhelm the creatures. Only a fraction of the bay is accessible to the pangas (small outboard-powered fishing boats), and the number of pangas in that area at any time is limited. Regulations limit each boat to 90 minutes in the area. Some folks come out for a single boat ride, others stay many nights and take at least two boat rides a day.

But how to get there? The road to Kuyima from San Ignacio is only partly paved, and I had trouble verifying its condition. Kuyima could bring us by van, about 90 minutes, but at unpredictable cost. They charge a fixed price ($110US round trip), to be shared by an unknown number of passengers.

There’s plenty of time to wander the beach at San Ignacio Lagoon.

In the end, my friend and I flew into Loreto with Alaska Airlines. We had our rental car by about 2PM, and drove the 170 miles to the town of San Ignacio by 8PM. We lucked out–our little Chevy Aveo had no trouble navigating the mostly paved road to Kuyima Whale Camp. At $280 and one-and-a-half tanks of gas for nine days, we were happy we decided to rent.

Some call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope not! The thrill of touching whales, the magic of looking one in the eye, the joy of seeing a calf approach with the playful curiosity of a puppy–I’ll be back! And the bonus–Baja California beckons with its dramatic deserts, soaring mountains (as high as 10,000 feet!), 65 islands and 1900 miles of mostly undeveloped coastline. I intend to see a lot more of it.

Sunset with pelicans and pangas

Petting Whales (it’s true!!!) in Baja California

april 2016 1178A light breeze tickles my hair as sunlight dazzles on blue water. Arid mountains rise on the horizon, while the boat gently rolls to the husky hum of an outboard motor.

Deep inside me a thrill blossoms: A gray whale materializes just feet from our panga–a small open fishing boat.

At first it’s a glimmer of murky white speckles–a vague, mysterious hint of movement, barely detectable. As she ascends, she transforms: From shadowy indistinct suggestion to a grey-and-white mottled outline, then all dimension and details are revealed as she breaks the surface and takes a breath, water sheeting off her back.

We all gasp as she and her calf drift alongside our vessel and she emits a glittering blast from her blowhole. The spray drifts over us, pungent with a fishy fragrance reflecting her diet of tiny invertebrates–although here in the breeding grounds of Bahia de San Ignacio, she probably doesn’t eat at all. Instead, she nurses her young calf on 50 gallons of milk a day as she helps it master swimming, diving, and making friends with curious humans.

april 2016 1171

The pair parallel our boat as we motor slowly forward. My heart leaps as mama changes her angle and comes straight for us. She lingers alongside as a half dozen hands reach to pet her. Her skin’s slick and shiny, and has a little give–like a well-inflated wet inner tube. Individual short, bristly hairs emerge from dimples on her enormous lower jaw, and constellations of barnacles and lice are scattered over her body–all harmless.

She rolls over, offering her dappled belly for more stroking before abruptly dropping into roiling waters with a flip of fin and tail.

But they’re not done! Mama and baby hang out. The interest and curiosity are mutual–they approach one side of the panga, engage with us, drop and glide under to emerge on the other side for more caresses. We learn that their eyes are directed downwards, so when they roll away–or spyhop– they are just trying to get a good look at us. Human watching.

90 minutes of whale watching feels like a small miracle. I am forever changed.

Soaring Wyoming Skies Frame Craggy Peaks in the Grand Tetons

grand teton sun on lakeRough and rocky trails, alpine glaciers, star-scattered skies, views that take your imagination hostage and run for miles—that’s Grand Teton National Park.

grand teton glacierAs the day draws to a close, savvy animal spotters gather by the waterside and wait for elk, wolves, moose and bear to venture near and quench their thirst. Critters abound in this 484-square-mile park–herds of bison graze on the prairie, pronghorn antelope leap through the brush. Study the sky for soaring eagles and osprey, admire jagged peaks mirrored in still water and watch the sinking sun set snow-clad peaks ablaze.

grand teton chipmunkThe Grand Teton range is just south of Yellowstone, and suffers a bit from Yellowstone’s metaphorical shadow. Unjustly so—Grand Teton’s landscape has a rugged vertical drama that stands on its own. Peaks nearly 14,000 feet in altitude rise abruptly, improbably, astonishingly, from a wooded plain 7,000 feet below.

grand teton sun on riverThe wide Snake River runs calmly through, carrying rafts full of visitors, cameras blazing. Fly fishing is a religion in these parts. Jackson Lake, dotted with islands, extends for 15 miles. The smaller Jenny Lake has a shuttle across, making a hike into the mountains both shorter and sweeter.

grand teton trailWind the day down at Jackson Lake Lodge, where you can enjoy the view from the deck with a buffalo burger and a local microbrew.

Peasant Arts: A Vendange in France

One September, I picked grapes in a tiny village in France. My brother and his wife have a house in Petit Bersac, in the Dordogne. When I heard there would be a vendange–a harvest–I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Copy of DSCN3452I’d met Serge and Paulette a few years earlier in Petit Bersac. The oldest couple in the village, they lived traditionally. Serge would bike down the road in his beret to tend to his fields, garden plots and vines dotted around the village. In the backyard they kept rabbits and chickens, and each autumn they made table wine, cognac and pineau to last the year, out of a truckload of assorted grapes. The harvest was celebrated by a feast in their yard for all the volunteers. It was a rare opportunity to be part of a dying tradition.

DSCN3420Sadly, Serge had passed away in the year before this vendange, so his son Guy was in charge of the harvest, the grapes and the crushing while Paulette was, as usual, in charge of the meal.

DSCN3419On harvest day we met at their house, at the table set up for the afternoon feast. 8:00 AM and the menu was red wine, coffee, bread, ham and blood sausage. And cigarettes. I learned that while women were welcome to join the harvest, they did not usually participate in this part of the festivities, but modern ideas prevailed, and I breakfasted there along with my sister-in-law and Guy’s wife and the menfolk.

We walked up the road to the vines in the morning mist. A variety of red and white grapes were planted in rows, strung along thick wires and heavy with fruit. Each picker was issued a pair of rustically rusty, but quite sharp and effective, clippers and a plastic basket or bucket. A few of the sturdier men served as mules, wearing a galvanized metal flat-sided backpack into which all the pickers tipped their bounty.

DSCN3463A democratic acceptance prevailed. When I was spotted trimming off the moldy grapes, I was admonished to just chuck the whole bunch in. Earwigs were ubiquitous and also not worthy of extracting. I did persist in removing slugs, though the veteran harvesters doubtless found that rather precious.

DSCN3490It was a beautiful foggy morning and the vines were a technicolor blaze of red, orange, green and yellow. A special perk was sampling the many varieties as I picked: some honey-sweet, some deep and complex. Eventually our crew of twenty or so pickers had stripped the vines of every grape, filling the tractor-trailer to the brim, so we ambled back into town to watch the grapes be sucked out of the trailer and crushed on their way into an enormous wooden barrel.DSCN3509DSCN3510DSCN3516

Gallery of the sky, Martinique

Saint Anne, viewed across the bay of Marin–from a moving car!

What is it about the skies here?

The light is rapturous–perhaps that’s what lured Paul Gaugin here in 1887 to paint a dozen or so canvasses.

The clouds are enormous sculptures sailing over blue water.

Squalls sweep in over the Atlantic, giving way to rainbows of epic proportions. Look…..

Le Marin at sunset  
From the kitchen at sunset
Gold glow of sunset, off the porch
Clouds from the porch

Finding Gold Among the Pine Needles


Autumn in the Pacific Northwest. A stroll in the forest, sun filtering through flaming vine maple leaves. Cushy moss and thick beds of shedded needles under the Douglas Fir. Wind whispering, birds calling. And a great big basket of chanterelles!

It was my first time mushroom hunting. My long experience buying chanterelles at the farmers market helps–I’m familiar with the variety of shapes and shades in which they come, the intertwining ridges that run underneath the cap and down the stem, the way the caps invert into distorted rippling cups, the puckering and contortion of a mushroom that has forced its way up under a log.

The first few minutes of hunting was a little discouraging, as I heard shouts of discovery from someone following right in my footsteps, picking a luscious fungus I’d virtually stepped over. Soon I found a few and my senses sharpened, picking out that certain shade of yellow, a little brighter than fallen leaves. I began to spot them capped with pine needles, thrusting up a thick layer of duff. I found rich clusters of them, and I gasped as I circled my fingers around a stem and burrowed them around it, into the forest floor. Thick around as a broom handle! A twist, a pull, a trim with my Opinel knife, into the basket.

There were 40 of us, spreading out in the woods south of Mount Hood. Bark, a Mount Hood advocacy group, orchestrated the outing. We carpooled out of Portland and into the wilderness along logging roads, passing hunters and ATV enthusiasts before spilling out into the forest, baskets in hand. Mark DesMarets, an experienced fungal enthusiast, advised us about the specimens we might find and the ecology of the mushroom. Amazingly, 300,000 pounds of wild mushrooms are exported from Oregon annually.

In view of that number, my two-and-three-quarters pound of fragrant, golden chanterelles doesn’t sound too impressive. But piled high in my basket, curving stems spreading to undulating crowns, I found them magnificent. Likewise, a few hours later when a handful of them issued their savory juices in my skillet, along with butter, leeks, garlic, thyme and creme fraiche… magnificent.

Harvesting for Humanity

IMG_1092A gunmetal gray cloud cover hangs low over the Salinas Valley, obscuring the rugged Santa Lucia Highlands and shading a crowd of workers wearing hairnets and rubber gloves as they bend in a field, plunging knives into the stems of red romaine lettuce, pulling off tattered leaves and tossing tidy heads into crates. The awkward techniques and leisurely pace make it clear: this isn’t an ordinary harvest crew. On this May Saturday morning, 60 volunteers are joining a bi-monthly gleaning event organized by Ag Against Hunger to supply fresh produce to food banks in the tri-county area and beyond.

Today, the glean team is harvesting lettuce from a field that was maintained all the way to maturity–nine weeks–and, now that prices have dropped, is no longer economically viable to harvest. Without Ag Against Hunger, the tilling, planting, pesticide spraying and watering which has nurtured this field since March would be wasted, along with a perfectly good crop of lettuce. Some Saturday mornings, volunteers engage in true gleaning: the age-old process of gathering produce after the official harvest has been completed and part of the crop is left behind due to size or cosmetic issues.

I arrived at 9 AM at the Ag Against Hunger warehouse in Salinas to find a buzzing crowd of all ages passing around a clipboard and filling out waivers. The parking lot proclaimed a broad demographic: a shiny Cadillac Esplanade, a dusty Jeep Cherokee covered with progressive stickers, a Prius, pick-ups, mini-vans and station wagons. Families with small children mingled with seniors. College kids swigged coffee from commuter mugs. Teenagers horsed around. After a quick orientation with Gleaning and Volunteer Coordinator Ananda Jimenez, and an invitation to find carpool companions, we piled into vehicles and followed a white 18-wheeler about 10 miles south on Highway 101.

Thanks to this 19-year-old organization, by noon our brief agricultural labors will be over and we will save 4200 pounds of lettuce from being tilled under. Crops rescued from the plow by volunteers make up only about 1% of the total fresh produce that Ag Against Hunger distributes each year. The balance is produce already harvested and processed that becomes unsalable due to price fluctuations. Ag Against Hunger’s network of about 50 growers and shippers are grateful for the opportunity to donate this surplus to food banks and human services agencies and enjoy the accompanying tax benefits.

Visit Gleaning Stories to hear audio recordings of gleaners (including me!). Their mission is to collect and broadcast the stories of gleaners in the Salinas Valley.

Rafting down the Rogue River

IMG_1467I hadn’t planned on dawdling in Southern Oregon. Just drive my friend to her new home in Williams, Oregon, and get on the road by noon the next day to complete my drive from Portland to Monterey, California.

But what do you do when it’s gonna be another hundred-degree day and your lovely hostess says “a bunch of us are going to float down the river. Why don’t you come?” Here’s what I did–reflected on the matter for oh, five minutes or so, and concluded that life is too short and unemployment too precious to decline such an invitation. Shortly, nine people, two trucks, four kayaks and a couple coolers of icy beers were winding their way north along the very scenic roads to the Galice Resort, where we rented a raft and gear and got a shuttle seven miles up the river, all for about $90.

After slathering up with sunscreen and cinching our PFD’s tight (that’s Personal Flotation Device, of course) we slid into the water for a few hours of leisurely floating, paddling and the occasional class I or II rapid, punctuated by a few refreshing swims. Surrounded by rugged hillsides and fragrant pines, we saw herons, mergansers, osprey and a couple of small dark swimming mammals–mink, perhaps?

We pulled out at the Galice Resort close to sunset, to a classic rock soundtrack from the live band up on their inviting deck. A little tailgate party followed: cold beer, watermelon, and chips. What a lovely way to spend a scorching afternoon.

Thanks to Michelle, the aforementioned lovely hostess, organizer, driver, and kayak-den-mother. Here she is!IMG_1470

Fort Ord: Mountain biking among the wildflowers

IMG_0699Seldom have I seen a valley as a hawk does. As I approached one of the many crests on a steep fire road in Fort Ord, a former military reserve now open to the public, a hawk slipped over me on the breeze. I turned to watch it coast down the length of the whole valley, curving from ridge to ridge like a skier, never once flapping a wing, just riding the drafts as they effervesced over the slopes. It cruised over hills faded from green to brown like worn velvet, smudged with lavender from the distant lupines, circled over a small wetland and gained altitude again, effortlessly.

The dense woods of Oregon, which I love, would never offer a show like this. The bird would appear briefly overhead and vanish behind dense boughs, its path a mystery. Each raptor would have its own strategy: the California hawk glimpsing prey from a great distance and approaching with stealth, the Northwest bird employing lightning-quick reactions to nab a creature unseen until the very last moment.