Mary Clark, Traveler

Riding The New Mexico Rail Runner With an Expert

I’m not often jealous of an inanimate object. But I have never had a helicopter ride and our Christmas tree has. It wasn’t a long flight – only about a minute. This was just enough time to lift 30 to 40 other trees and transport them to a warehouse for shipping. I was talking to Erin Fletk, an owner of Emerald Christmas Tree Company in Bellevue, Washington, who assured me that transportation by helicopter keeps trees fresher by cutting the time needed to move them out of the field.

Fletk’s company has been supplying trees to the Kroger grocery chain from Oregon land for over 50 years. The trees are hand tagged in August, cut in November and early December, flown to the warehouse, sprayed with chipped ice, placed in a refrigerated truck and transported to the stores. That’s a lot of traveling for such a young tree. Kroger’s trees come from the upper Michigan peninsula or Oregon. Home Depot also buys trees from Michigan and Oregon as well as North Carolina and Canada.. The time period from harvest to store varied from 12 hours to 7 days, depending on the destination.

In these days of carbon footprints, the question is whether the growing and transportation of our tree is an ecologically smart one, especially compared to artificial trees. And that is when I waded into the sometimes sharp discussion of real vs. not real trees.

The first issue in the debate is what to call “not real” trees. The Christmas tree industry uses the word “fake” while the artificial tree industry doesn’t call them anything at all. I looked at some artificial trees at Wal-Mart and Home Depot. There was no mention of the fact that these trees were made of plastic. On the tree and the boxes they were simply named for the tree that they resembled – such as 7 ft. Douglas Fir or Yonkers Pine. The boxes did state clearly they were MADE IN CHINA.

As an aside, the first artificial tree was developed by the Addis Brush Company. In 1950, they patented the Addis Silver pine tree, designed to revolve with lights under it. While we never had that tree growing up, many of my friends’ families bought it. And upon reflection, it did look a lot like a silver brush.

The real tree people have some pretty strong ammunition in support of Christmas tree farms. The first is that natural trees are MADE IN AMERICA. Many American farmers are supported by this industry. There are 176 members of just the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, translating into thousands nationwide. And, according to Erin Fletk, three trees are planted for every tree harvested from a farm so that no trees are taken down in any of our national parks or forests. The numbers on the other side are startling – 85 % of artificial Christmas trees are from China. . This argument hits close to home. Paris had its own Christmas tree factory (Paris Industries) for several years but it closed when the competition from China became too stiff. Obviously, Asian artificial trees travel even further to arrive in our local stores.

The disposition of the trees are starkly different. Natural trees are biodegradable and can be placed in lakes for fish habitat. They are recyclable and used to prevent beach erosion and for mulch. Our Christmas tree will be mulched by the big horizontal grinder owned by the City of Paris and made available to nurseries, schools, and residents. Artificial trees don’t disintegrate well. Some come with a PVC warning and in California, a lead warning. So, they hang out in our waste disposal site for many, many years.

According to Ms. Fletk, the movement is back towards natural Christmas trees. Their numbers are up even in these tough economic times. The Kroger chain also is selling more and at a lower price than last year. Home Depot couldn’t release numbers but would tell me they are the world’s largest retailer of Christmas trees. That’s a lot of tree movement and traveling. Our tree traveled by helicopter and truck over 3000 miles to Paris just to light up our home. What I particularly like is that this Oregon tree will soon become mulch for a Texas garden – certainly worth the trip.

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Riding The New Mexico Rail Runner With an Expert

My brother, Gary, has always loved trains. He’s ridden the Rocky Mountaineer across Canada, Coastal Starlight from L.A. to Seattle, SW Chief from L.A. to Chicago, Sunset Limited between L.A. and Houston and the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D. C. to Boston. He can still name the passenger lines that no long exist such as the Lone Star from Houston to Chicago and the San Francisco Chief. For the last 24 years, he has helped the Albuquerque model train society construct a model train set for the New Mexico State Fair and currently, he’s refurbishing an old Santa Fe steam engine. But I never understood how train savvy he was until we rode the New Mexico Rail Runner together.

The New Mexico Rail Runner opened for business in 2008 offering service between Belen (30 miles south of Albuquerque) and Santa Fe. The railroad caters to commuters during the week and tourists on the week-end. The charge is modest. To travel from the downtown Albuquerque station to the heart of Santa Fe costs $4 on the week-end or $6 round trip. This, obviously, doesn’t cover the cost of operation. According to Gary, no urban commuter train in the world pays for itself. Government supports the rails for various reasons – to relieve traffic, eliminate road building and protect the environment. Whatever the reason, it is a delightful option.

On a whim, my brother, mother, and I hopped on board late one Saturday afternoon in October to travel to Santa Fe for dinner. Surprisingly, it was Gary’s first ride on the train and he couldn’t stop smiling. As is often the case, railroad tracks pass through warehouse districts and run-down neighborhoods and Albuquerque was no exception . We picked up speed as we exited the suburbs to our top velocity of 79 m.p.h.( to be exact). My brother noted that if the train traveled 80 m.p.h. or faster, special electronics were required. He also identified each spur as it was passed – that one goes to the General Mills cereal plant and this one serves a sheet rock plant, etc.

The passengers were a mix. A group of women cyclists had biked from Santa Fe earlier that day and were hitching a ride back. Storage was available for the bicycles. A Native American family played cards while a young couple sat close. All of us had wonderful views from the upper deck of our car.

The track moved between the Rio Grande River on the west and Interstate 25 on the east, occasionally favoring one or the other. Bright yellow cotton wood trees followed the river and the Sandia mountains supervised the action. An announcer advised that we would be passing through Indian Reservations and that no picture taking was allowed during that time. Children played volleyball in the San Felipe Pueblo and Indian moms were baking bread in the traditional “hornos” or ovens behind their homes in the San Domingo Pueblo. – views that are not available on the interstate. We passed close to an old water tower, all that remains from a saw mill that processed lumber from the nearby Jemez mountains.

I learned today’s engines stay on just one end of the train. If the train is headed in the opposite direction of the engine as ours was, an engineer sits in a telephone booth size compartment in the last passenger car (now the front of the train) and directs from there. The diesel powered engine is like a mini power plant. It generates electricity that is transferred to electric motors on each of the wheels.

Gradually, our Rail Runner began to climb. The original tracks from Santa Fe to Albuquerque went through Lamy, a more gradual route currently owned by the Santa Fe Southern RR. For the New Mexico Rail Runner, the state of New Mexico bought the entire line from Belen to Trinidad, Colorado from the BNSF Railroad. Gary gave me a short history of all the mergers of railroad companies and what the initials meant but I got lost. Even modern day trains can’t climb the steep La Bajada hill where the Interstate runs so the state had to blast through some smaller hills and lay a new track for a part of the line. On the older portion of the track, old telephone and telegraph poles can still be seen. Nearby are solar powered reception poles to provide future WIFI coverage along the route.

We pulled into the old Santa Fe railroad station on time as the sun was setting. A crowd awaited our exit from the train as many were ready to return to Albuquerque. Zia’s Diner was only a short, one block walk where my sister-in-law held a table for us. What a relaxing way to travel. We can only dream of being able to make a fast trip to Dallas on rails without having to keep an eye on the road and the cars whizzing past. New Mexico made a commitment to an old form of mass transit in a new package. Anyone near the area should take advantage of it – even without your own personal guide.

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Mary Grace’s Little Pink Case and Other Packing Suggestions

I travel a lot. That doesn’t mean I’m the most organized voyager. I do know to make copies of the itinerary, check on the electrical current at the destination, and even confirm the expiration date of my passport. But despite reading articles on how to pack efficiently, reviewing check lists, and keeping a well-stocked toiletry kit, something is always left behind –Tylenol, lotion, … something. When that happens, I’m glad to be traveling with my friend, Mary Grace, and her Little Pink Case.

The bag is not large – 6 ¾ inches wide, 2 ¾ inches high, 4 ¾ inches deep to be exact– but it’s filled with well-reasoned travel needs. Mary Grace tucks it inside her larger purse to carry on the plane. Some articles are obvious – a sewing kit, an emery board, small toothbrush, an extra contact lens case. Dental floss, Band-Aids (2), and a large tooth comb are also available.

But it took traveling with Mary Grace to discover what other gems the case held. When my husband’s glasses fell apart on a trip to Italy, she popped out an eye glass repair kit from the pink interior. Blisters from a long day of walking through Roman ruins were quickly protected with moleskin. Available batteries (4 AA and 2 AAA) relit the small flashlight we carried.

Mary Grace anticipates common, on the road medical problems and conditions and stores aid for most. Corn cushions and a blister treatment (2) help with foot sores. Preparation H (1), Alavert for allergies (2), Valtrex for fever blisters (2), Benadryl (8), Domeboro, a soaking solution for rashes (2 packets), and Tylenol pm (2) also await a distress call.

Fashions needs aren’t ignored. A “Gal Pal” pad allows her to remove white deodorants marks, make-up, lint, and dirt from clothes. Fashion tape protects against gaping blouses and fallen hems as do safety pins. She throws in some Q-tips and a razor for emergency needs.

The kit is not static. Previously, it carried a blanket bag (the silver fold up kind) but Mary Grace has deleted that item. After we forgot to claim our car keys at an airport security basket, she added a spare car key. (By the way, DFW rental car places are open 24 hours a day, in case you ever do the same.) Earplugs, eye mask and fold up glasses are also newcomers to the unit.

Much is written about the art of traveling light. I picked up “The Packing Book” at a half price book store in Austin and found it filled with two hundred and fifty eight pages of packing lists for week-end travel, a trip to Europe, beach wardrobe, and even adventure travel needs. Readers tips include “sell your jeans”, “leave appliances at home”, and “take a vacation from make-up”. There were too many suggestions for me.

The best site on the net for lightening your load is where you learn the “Art and Science of Travelling Light”. Doug Dyment is the guru of efficient packing in a single carry-on bag. Over-packing is the number one travel mistake. Four pairs of shoes are not a problem if you’re driving. But if flying, the extra bag for shoes can seriously slow you down as well as cost extra. No iron shirts are a god-send for guys. is a good source for versatile travel ware for men and women. And don’t forget that scarves are a great, light accessory to dress-up any outfit.

Doug Dyment, Mary Grace and her husband have convinced us to keep it at one small suitcase. I do cheat, though, and bring a fold up bag “in case” I find something to bring home. I haven’t duplicated the Little Pink Case, though. So, I’ll just have to continue to travel with Mary Grace.

Contents of Mary Grace’s Little Pink Case

gal pal
emery board
large tooth comb
dental floss
spare contact lens (x2)
contact lens case
fashion tape (good for gaping blouses and fallen hems)
safety pins

4 AA batteries
2 AAA batteries
eye glass repair kit
sewing kit
polish off (fingernail polish remover)
contact lens case (2nd one)
band-aids (2)
corn cushions (good for blisters)
blister treatment (2)
moleskin (1 square)
domeboro (soaking solution for rashes)2 packets
preperation H (1)
alavert (2)
valtrex (fever blisters) (2)
benedryl 8
tylenol pm (2)

spare car keys
ear plugs
eye mask
fold-up glasses

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It was one of the first things we noticed in Quebec City. We arrived late at night and hailed a taxi to our hotel. While waiting at a stoplight, my husband read these words on the license plate of the car ahead – “Je Me Souviens”. I asked our driver in French its meaning. Fortunately, he replied in English – “I remember”. Our next question wove its way throughout the trip. “What exactly do you remember?”

The taxi driver believed it meant they remembered a 250 year old battle from 1759 when the English defeated the French in Quebec. This was not just any old skirmish. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham permanently changed the boundaries of what eventually became Canada. General Wolfe surprised the French by sneaking up the cliffs at night and attacking behind the city. French Commander Montcalm had expected a landing from the river level and his troops literally had to run five miles back to the real battlefield, arriving exhausted and disorganized. Twenty minutes later the battle ended. Seriously, in 20 minutes, the time it takes to drive from Paris to Honey Grove, Quebec City became English. The actual war didn’t end for two more years but this battle gave the English control of the St. Lawrence River and soon all of La Nouvelle France joined the British Empire. The French government left but the most of the French citizens that had settled there stayed.

I relate this story in detail because its history permeates Quebec City, even today. A cannon ball from the shelling of the city by General Wolfe is still lodged in a tree along Rue St. Louis. The Plains of Abraham is now a wonderful park where Quebecans stroll, play soccer, and lounge on the many benches to enjoy the view of the St. Lawrence. And at the lovely Jardin des Gouverneurs (Governors’ Park), the Wolfe-Montcalm Monument pays tribute to both the winning and losing generals in the big battle.

On a walking tour the next day, we heard the official interpretation of “Je me souviens”. Our guide explained the phrase to mean, “I remember my history”. Canadian history is divided into thirds, French, English, and then Canadian. “We remember each part of our heritage,” she explained dutifully. This is supported by the large number of statutes in front of their parliament building that reflect the heroes of the founders, clerics, French and English governors, and the Amerindians.

A visit to the incredible Citadel fortress, built to protect the city from the Americans, provided a third interpretation of the phrase. The 22nd Royal Regiment, the only French speaking unit in Canada, has its headquarters in the Citadel. It is a fighting unit. Of the 2800 Canadians in Afghanistan, 1500 are from the 22nd. The flag was at half mast on the day of our visit because a Canadian soldier had died in Afghanistan. The unit’s motto, “Je Me Souviens”, is meant to honor their fallen comrades. Every day, an officer reads out the names of the members of the regiment who have died so they will not be forgotten.

With the rest of their country speaking English and the giant America at its heels, Quebec Province decided thirty years ago to get serious about remembering its heritage. Signs in English were taken down. Students were required to attend French speaking schools with only a few exceptions. The Quebecans consider their French more pure than that of France, albeit with a different accent. Quebec Province even came close to voting to secede from Canada. Today, the secession fever has abated but their pride has not. It is reflected in their truly wonderful food. The population is far more Catholic than the mother country. At a hotel in the country, our room had a list of daily masses at the nearby church. And they welcome immigrants, provided the newcomers learn their language and accept their culture.

It is important to promote an area’s history. “Remember the Alamo” is a proud Texas phrase that inspired those fighting for our independence. It may become our motto if we ever wanted to secede. “Je me souviens” has come to reflect Quebec’s pride in its roots and has given the citizens of Quebec the determination to protect their language and culture. The result is a bonus for tourists – a beautiful French speaking location, historical preservation and wonderful cuisine – all without having to cross the ocean.

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Many Reasons to Meet in St. Louis

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis
Meet me at the Fair
Don’t tell me the lights are shining
Any place but there.

We will dance the Hoochie -Koochie
I will be your Tootsie-Wootsie
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis
Meet me at the Fair

I don’t know what the Hoochie-Koochie is nor if I would want to be anyone’s Tootsie-Wootsie, but I do know that St. Louis is a wonderful city to visit, even for just a wedding week-end. A nice surprise, really.

St.Louis was established by a French fur trader in 1764. If you had lived in St. Louis for the next 40 years, you could have been a French resident, then Spanish, then French again, and finally American in 1804 (rather hard on which language to learn) The city was named for a King Louis but there is some confusion on which one. Louis XV reigned at the time of its establishment and his patron saint was Saint Louis IX, the only canonized King of France. It is the latter King whose statute supervises Forest Park outside the St. Louis Art Museum and was the city’s symbol until the Gateway Arch was built.

There is still a strong Roman Catholic presence in the city which was once known as the Rome of the West. Established in 1829 by the Catholic Bishop of Louisiana, St. Louis University (SLU) was the first institute of higher learning west of the Mississippi. And the Basilica of St. Louis, King, founded in 1770, was the first Catholic Cathedral west of the Mississippi.

The most memorable event to take place in St. Louis was the world’s largest fair ever in 1904 that celebrated the Louisiana Purchase a century before and spawned the song, “Meet Me in St. Louis”. In a six month period, 20 million people visited the 900 buildings constructed for the event in or near Forest Park. The only remaining original building is the Art Museum. However, the park continues to serve the community with the world class St. Louis Zoo, lakes and green spaces galore, an Art Deco, glass Jewel Box, an old fashioned band stand, and the Missouri History Museum – all free to the public.

We were tipped off by our fellow travelers, Keith and Janet Green, that the St. Louis Cardinals were playing after the rehearsal dinner in the new Busch Stadium. Only standing room tickets were available. The last time we had the pleasure of being upright for an event was at an opera in Vienna, Austria, made even longer by the standing. At the time, we swore never again. But memory fades and we decided to try again.

Finding a place behind our allotted painted yellow lines was not easy. We hung out on the first level with the other late slackers until an usher gently encouraged us to find another spot where we would actually be behind the yellow lines and not to the side. On the third level, space was available and included a metal bar to lean against. But the top level was bright and empty of fellow standees. The arch could be seen in the background as well as downtown St. Louis – a very pleasant experience except that the Cardinals lost.

Fortunately for us, the wedding took place in the immense Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest in the United States. Besides being a popular wedding spot (five other young couples said their vows that day), over 100 researchers work at the gardens, one half of them with Phds. A 1960 Climatron (think metal Geodisic dome) provides an authentic rain forest experience while one can also stroll through the Chinese, Japanese, day lily, and rose gardens.

And what trip to St. Louis could be complete without venturing to the top of the Gateway Arch? It surprised and delighted us. Underneath the silver rainbow, the guides direct five persons at a time to stand in front of individual, four foot tall painted doors. Suddenly, each pops open and five people cautiously exit the spacelike capsule. We mold ourselves in, the doors close, and the tram clanks back and forth up the curved interior of the arch. Because of the physical weight of the structure at the top, the windows at the top are narrow and rectangular, but the view spectacular.

St. Louis has lost its influence over the years. In 1818 it was the 4th largest city in the U.S. but now ranks 53rd. In the past , it produced the most beer, shoes, stoves, and wagons in the world. Today, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Edward Jones, and Wachovia Securities anchor here, and much beer is still brewed through the giant company of Anheuser Busch. Because of its long, rich past, St. Louis has beautiful old buildings, neighborhoods, homes, and gardens. A wedding week-end was not enough to take it all in. So, we’ll just have to meet again in St. Louis.

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An Evening with the Texas Rangers

A summer is not complete without one trip to Arlington for a Texas Rangers Game. We’ve all done it – departed Paris in the afternoon and returned in the wee hours of the morning. The idea always sounded better at the beginning of the journey than the end.

The Ballpark is still a lovely facility. It opened in 1994 and that year the Rangers had their best attendance – an average of 43,916. This year the team is averaging 28,012 fans, earning them a ranking of number 17 out of 30 teams. As you can imagine, the New York Yankees has the highest average attendance at 53,069. . But 28,012 is admirable – 2,114 more people than live in Paris, meaning we can all easily fit inside the stadium and not even require the use of the bleachers. It’s also nice to know that if we really wanted to, Paris could do a very decent community wide “wave”.

Individual ticket prices vary wildly from $6 to $205 and even more for “premiere” games. The latter cashes in when big name teams come to town, such as the New York Yankees. In looking for better deals, I recently discovered the Fan Value Corner at the Texas Rangers official website – An array of specials are available for families, children, heavy eaters, Lexus owners, and those who have always wanted to have the “suite” experience. The best deal seemed to be the Coca Cola Family Night – four tickets, four jumbo hot dogs, four coca colas and one parking pass for as low as $60. I liked the description of having your own suite for the night which includes flavored popcorn and chicken tenders. And in case you didn’t get it, the web site assures you that the “experience is priceless”. It should be for $75 a ticket. ( The last value deal listed was for those of you who own a Lexus – free valet parking at any home game. Now that’s a deal.)

Our son’s birthday happened to fall on a premier night in August when the Boston Red Sox arrived to determine who would take over the lead for the “wild card” playoff position. It seemed the perfect night to attend. We arrived 90 minutes early but were not alone. Many fans come well before the start of the game – to watch batting practice, get autographs, start on the beer drinking, or simply to take in all of the activity and enjoy the breeze. The game got underway at 7:05 with the first pitch tossed out by “Simone” in her flip flops. (Don’t ask me who she was.)

In case you were wondering, there are A LOT of Boston Red Sox fans in the Dallas area. And many were wearing the shirt of their favorite players, especially that of David Ortiz. I started counting the number of Rangers shirts on fans and found Josh Hamilton to have the most with 24 supporters. Michael Young still commanded a following at 15 shirts. But the up and coming player was Ian Kinsler with 10. It took some concentration to keep up with the count as new people arrived and I realized belatedly that I had actually counted Kinsler himself as he came up to bat.

It wasn’t our first Ranger game but it was the first Ranger game that really counted. Texas had the opportunity in this series to go ahead of the Red Sox in the race for a post season playoff position. Add that in with many Red Sox admirers and the result was strong fan participation throughout the game. “Let’s go Red Sox” was echoed by “Let’s go Rangers”. Only after the first Red Sox home run did I realize we had “traitors” near us as they cheered on their team. The only time both sides stood together was for the national anthem and the wave. Our section even required the appearance of extra security guards to calm a few aficionados.

As dutiful fans, we bought hotdogs and beer. Our son and a friend feasted on nachos. A neighbor offered us some popcorn and we ate that, too. We even paid for cold, bottled water at the end. And as advertised, the experience was priceless. We saw home runs for both sides, a stand-up triple, a balk by a pitcher allowing a run for us, good pitching, a record number of stolen bases for the Rangers (8), and ….. a win. Most amazingly, few people left early. The game wasn’t over until the last out. Maybe this is how all New York Yankees games feel. It certainly made the long ride home more enjoyable.

P.S. Arrive in Arlington even earlier and take in a tour of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, a short walk from the Ballpark.

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Family Vacation in Costa Rica – Pura Vida

I’ve been asked several times for suggestions on foreign travel with children. There’s one easy answer – Costa Rica – our family’s favorite trip together.

Because of its beauty and neutral government (they have no army), Costa Rica is the Switzerland of Central America. Their former president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, has negotiated the end to civil war in Guatemala and is currently trying to resolve leadership problems in Honduras. Jammed into this small country is an incredible variety of botanical and geological wonders – rain forest, cloud forest, active volcanoes, and beautiful coasts, all within 120 miles of each other.

Costa Ricans pride themselves on being “muy sencillo” (very simple) and often greet you with “pura vida”, the national philosophy of life. This can be translated as “it’s all good”, “full of life”, “have a good day”, or on a deeper level “enjoy life slowly and with perseverance”. Because of their high literacy rate and the country’s early recognition of eco-tourism, visitors feel welcomed and appreciated. It is loaded with language schools and has become a popular retirement country.

Renting a car is easy and fun and you should try a Toyota Forerunner or a jeep. The roads are mostly good and easy to maneuver. The jungle area to the northeast of its capital, San Jose, is a good beginning point. At Selva Verde Lodge in Chilamente, ( are greeted with hammocks, balconies, and mosquito netting. Turn in early. The birds will wake you up. I’ve never heard such an early morning din – a mixture of thousands of birds greeting each other all at once. Experts will name them at the 6 a.m. birdwalks. A guided jungle walk can reveal the poison dart frogs (actually quite beautiful) and occasional monkeys. Kids will love the raft trip down the near-by Sarapiqui river. The guides are young but knowledgeable and the water lively.

On to the active volcano, Arenal. This is always a little dicey. Do you want it to be really active and spew out lava or are you satisfied with it just warming its neighbor, the Tabacon baths? Actually, it doesn’t matter what you want. You are totally dependent on Arenal’s whim. If it’s too active, they won’t let you near. But usually, one can enjoy the smoke puffing out of the cone while sitting in a leisurely hot bath, warmed by volcanic underground energy. The Tabacon’s hot mineral springs and waterfalls provide a Disneyland feel with 10 pools ranging in temperature from 80 to 110 degrees and lovely paths connecting them. Massages are available as well as a swim up bar.

The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde is famous and worth traveling the rough roads to arrive there. A rain forest is designated as such because of receiving 100 inches or more of rain a year. But a cloud forest is one in which much of the moisture is received from the mountain’s clouds settling on the forest. Both are Wet with a capital W and our day there was no exception. But it is at Santa Elena that we all finally understood ecosystems. Our wonderful guide, a PhD candidate from Cornell, could stop at any tree, ant mound, or stream and explain who fed on whom and what attracted what. He spotted the beautiful quetzal for us and helped us hear the three waddled bell bird. We were treated to an amazing show when a group of raccoon-like coatimundis arrived, followed by a troop of white faced capuchin monkeys looking for dinner. This area is also the first in the country to have a zip line, where you are harnessed to a cable and zip from one tree to another – guaranteed to be the kids favorite activity of the trip.

A final stop would be on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica at Manuel Antonio, south of Quepos, a place for relaxing with beautiful views. Howler monkeys woke us in the morning (think Tarzan movie) and tiny titi monkeys walked the wires outside our room. The Manuel Antonio Park has a great beach where you can belly board or simply check out the nearby iguanas, lizards, sloths, and monkeys.

Costa Rica pleases the birders, outdoor enthusiasts, botanists, curious, and even the lazy beachcombers who just want to relax. It is safe, welcoming, and perfect for opening a child’s eyes to the wonder of nature.

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TAG – The World’s First Graffiti Exhibit in Paris, France

I first noticed the graffiti on the train ride into Paris (France) from the DeGaulle airport. Curvy bubble letters were everywhere – on apartment buildings, overpasses, warehouses, stores, and even the trains themselves. The combination of letters made no sense in French or English. KERS, RIZOT, FUMI, TRANE, TAKE, SEYA.

Once the graffiti caught my eye, I saw it everywhere. The booksellers’ stalls along the Seine were a target as was the canopy of our favorite restaurant. Initials were painted on the bottom of a lovely fountain in the Pompidou Museum. Heartfelt comments decorated the stone above the tunnel where Princess Diana had died. White vans were irresistible targets. A French friend of ours called it an “infestation of graffiti”.

Graffiti originated as an American art form in the streets of New York four decades ago. Gang members used a “tag” or name to mark the boundaries of their territory. Soon, individual artists developed their own style and signature. Most were young, poor and used the concrete canvases available to them. In the graffiti world, the tag of Taki 183 is equal to the names of Rousseau or Degas in the Impressionist movement. This art form gave herds of energetic adolescents the power to rise above the force of their urban poverty. They loved the fleeting nature of their art and that thousands saw it from subway trains. A special paint was even developed for graffiti use. The movement spread world wide and became an element of Hip Hop.

France can’t decide what to do with this art form or even whether to call it art. They use the English word, Tag, to name it. Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, president of the Association of Palais de Tokyo, feels “99% of the taggers are cretins who only want to foul walls”. The French spend millions cleaning up the painted walls and at the same time have authorized certain walls in town to be used for this expression. Jean Philippe Domecq has said in Le Point Magazine, “the state is punishing these people on one side and welcoming on the other. The state is so afraid of missing another Van Gogh, it throws money at every fad. This is subsidizing subversion”.

After recognizing graffiti’s presence in the City of Lights, we learned the world’s first Tag Exhibition had just opened at the Grande Palais, the same beautiful building where Yves St. Laurent’s art collection had recently been auctioned.
Posters for the exhibition were placed around the city, all appropriately covered with real graffiti. One hundred and fifty of the world’s notable graffiti artists were represented. Each produced two canvasses, one based on the graffiti idea of the name or tag and the other a work that symbolized love.

Colors, movement and large figures dominated the exhibition. EZO of the United States painted comic book like characters while LADY PINK’s faces could have graced a Tommie de Paulo’s children’s book. The French BANDO’s tag tilted as if being read in motion. Both the French FIST and the American FAUST placed their oversized tags on subway cars. Some artists used the medium for philosophical comments such as“Love and Hate have the Same Address” from the Swiss NASTY. And what would an exhibition be in France without a thick lipped, naked woman? France’s UNO provided one with a spray can under her arm.

The subject of the pieces as well as the bold techniques stimulated much conversation among the mostly young and often tattooed viewers. But the paintings were a far cry from the simple tags of letters that were painted on too many surfaces in the city.

So, was the Tag show the “impressionist” exhibit of our times? Many Parisians were outraged at the Salon des Refuses that first presented Monet, Manet, and others. Modern day Parisians were conflicted at the Tag show and even those who like the idea of graffiti don’t want it on their walls or bathrooms. But they did attend in large numbers.

The show’s producer, Alain-Dominique Gallizia had to promise his artists that he would never sell or divide the collection. Most graffiti artists are not ready to sell out although a market has recently developed for tag posters and t-shirts. They continue to enjoy the adrenaline associated with the fast nature of their art and the rest of us will continue to be divided on the worth of their expression.

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The Caprock Escarpment – More than just Palo Duro Canyon

When was the last time you used the word escarpment? Maybe never? It is a geological term and Texas has more than one. In geomorphology, an escarpment is a “transition zone between different physiogeographic provinces that involves a sharp, steep elevation differential, characterized by a cliff or steep slope.” Have I lost you? What we’re talking about is the Caprock Escarpment, the wonderful approach to the high plains of the panhandle of Texas.

Sketched on a map (you might want to pullout your Texas map), the escarpments on the east and west look like castle walls hugging the edges of the Llano Estacado, a flat semi-arid plateau where Amarillo and Lubbock preside over the fortress. It runs 300 miles on each side. Our very own Red River starts up at the Prairie Dog Town Fork, one of the waterways that helped cut and create the canyons and many cliffs.

The most famous part of the Caprock Escarpment is Palo Duro Canyon, a jewel of a canyon and home to Palo Duro Canyon State Park (75 years old this summer) and the musical “Texas”. If you have missed it, go. If you haven’t been there recently, go back. It is that beautiful.

Even though it appears to be a miniature Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon is actually the second largest canyon in the United States. It stretches 120 miles long, 20 miles across at its widest point and up to 800 feet in depth. The state park only includes some of Palo Duro’s most northern canyons. If you’ve ever wanted to live in a canyon, nearby Timbercreek Canyon has a gated community with 500 residents. It was hard to believe I was in Texas as I recently sat on the porch of a friend’s home in Timbercreek with her own canyon wall as a backyard.

An easy way to see a large swath of the lower Palo Duro Canyon is to take highway 207 from Claude to Silverton, crossing the Prairie Dog Town Fork and coming out on the plains. This a lovely drive even if it’s on the way to and from nowhere. It does eventually pass through Tule Canyon with its MacKenzie Reservoir.

Further south is one of the newer parks, Caprock Canyon State Park and Trailway, which has great views of the “scarp”. You can cycle, walk, ride horses or run the 64 miles of the Trailway or any of its six segments you choose. It is the ultimate rails to trails path that runs from Estelline to South Plains, passes over 40 bridges, through a 700 foot tunnel and occasionally follows the top of the escarpment.

The State Park itself is outside of Quitaque (pronounced kitty kway) and located near Turkey. (I’m sure that orients you.) The park also has trails and 30 miles of paved roadways among the surrounding canyon walls. If lucky, you’ll spot the official state buffalo herd which is descended from the original free range southern bison. The Spanish described these creatures as cows with a narrow, short face, and long beards (like goats) and when they ran they threw their heads down with the beard dragging on the ground. No wonder the vast buffalo herds frightened every horse the Spaniards brought. The state herd is the last one left.

In “A Voyage Long and Strange”, author Tony Horowitz tracks Coronado in his search for El Dorado in 1541. The latest archeological discoveries confirm that Coronado must have crossed New Mexico from the west into Texas where he first encountered the plains filled with grass that “straightened up again as soon as it had been trodden down”. He passed near modern day Plainview and Floydada until being startled by a broad ravine about half a mile across and a hundred feet deep – the Caprock Escarpment, what else! According to Horowitz, in 1966, a Spanish gauntlet or chain-mail glove was discovered by a farmer at the edge of the Blanco Canyon. Later excavations found horseshoes, nails, and crockery – a treasure chest of Coronado’s artifacts resting today at ….. the Floydada museum. Amazing.

It’s hard to believe escarpments can be entertaining. Driving from Plainview to Paris across the flattest and best farm land around is a lot more fun knowing that at any moment, the land is going to drop out from under you. On your next trip west, even for a long week-end, try exploring the wonders of the Caprock Escarpment.

For more information on the state parks, places to stay and the escarpment, these sites are helpful.

Hudspeth House – historic Bed and Breakfast in Canyon where Georgia O’Keeffe stayed. Good history of Palo Duro Canyon and article on O’Keefe.

Joe Nick Patoski on the Caprock Canyons Trailway

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Master Naturalist Article on Llano Estacado

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Celebrating July 4th in the U.S. and Abroad

Celebrating July 4th is a shared tradition for all Americans, whether we were born here or arrived as fast as we could.. We may not agree on religion, politics, or social mores, but we all appreciate our Independence Day. Over this week-end in Paris, we had a parade, fireworks, municipal band concert, and lots of cook-outs at our homes. This was not that different from the first celebrations in 1777 when they spoke, prayed, reviewed the troops and set off fireworks. George Washington even doubled the rum allotment for his men. But what is it like to celebrate our nation’s birth outside Lamar County and even outside our country?

The Northeast seems to have the best celebrations and we were lucky enough one year to watch the fireworks over the capital in Washington, D. C. from a boat on the Potomac river. Volleys of fleeting colors matched the rhythm of the music from the radio. All seemed quite magical until afterwards when we entered the subway station to return to our hosts’ home in Arlington. The crowds that had been scattered on the lawns, boats, and National Mall seemed to have all entered the same station with us. Just imagine the throng leaving Noyes Stadium times 1000. After watching passengers being shoved into already full subway cars, we decided to go the other way and catch a ride on a different line.

In our national travels, we’ve discovered Oregon prohibits the sale of fireworks, leading to “slipping across the border” to the state of Washington to purchase basic roman candles and cherry bombs. Austin’s display over Town Lake is worth the trip. And if you’re really fortunate, time your airline flight for early evening on the 4th and enjoy the bursts of color below your plane.

Being out of the country for the fourth actually gives a heightened awareness of the importance of the day. It’s strange to awaken to just another normal day when all stores are open and life goes on without acknowledgment of our holiday. Nostalgia makes us travelers seek out other Americans who know the words to our patriotic songs and who are just as anxious to find a hamburger.

In the summer of 1969, my family was in Rome, Italy and were happy to discover that the American’s Women Association and the American Men’s Club of Rome sponsored a July 4th outing for any U.S. citizen in town. Of course, everyone else had heard about it. We missed the departure of the first round of buses from the Embassy and arrived late for the event. However, it was as close to home as we had experienced in six weeks of traveling. Hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, potato salad, and chips were served. A watermelon eating contest entertained all until the fireworks in the evening. On the bus back to town, all sang patriotic songs with the windows open.

The country that, understandably, ignores our celebration is England. My husband and I arrived in London on July 4th in 1979 and found little evidence of any celebration or concern over the loss of its former colony. Oddly, I felt uncomfortable asking people about the holiday as if they might still resent the Declaration of Independence over 200 years ago. My husband had no such hesitation but he only got a few replies acknowledging the meaning of the day but without enthusiasm.

I actually prepared for our being in Ecuador for July 4th in 1993. One could never do this today. I bought firecrackers, sparklers and black snakes at home and packed them in our luggage! On the actual holiday, we were in Banos, a small mountain town in the Andes. As an attorney, it did occur to me that I should inquire whether it was legal to set off our stash in the local park. We knew that fireworks were a customary morning greeting for birthdays throughout South America but did that require a permit? After looking up the word for fireworks ( fuegos artificiales, if you’re interested), I asked a store keeper whether we could set off ours. He “thought” it was OK. So we gathered children around and lit the meager selection we had brought. We had no luck finding hotdogs or hamburgers but we still sang a round of Yankee Doodle in the park to the perplexed stares of the crowd..

Our Independence Day is known throughout the world even if it’s not celebrated. Local physician, Agnes Xavier, was born on July 4th in Belgaum, India. As she grew up, she was quite proud that she shared the same birthday as the United States even though she lived thousands of miles away. And today, after becoming an American citizen, she never has to work on her birthday as we all celebrate it with her. I hope everyone had a great birthday.

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