Category Archives: Travel

Going Loony!

I am a very lucky woman.

Every year around this time, I go a bit loony – and no one seems to mind. My fam­ily and I flee the Florida sum­mer swel­ter for a lake­side camp sev­eral states to the north, a place where it can get cold enough to snow on Memo­r­ial Day and ice over in August. That is where it starts: the wail­ing, the yodel­ing, the hoot­ing, most of it in the dark­est depths of the night, car­ried at tremen­dous vol­ume over the still water, wak­ing sleep­ers and spook­ing the unini­ti­ated. These are the calls of the com­mon loon, and I am crazy for them. In fact, I’m a lit­tle bit crazy for loons period, and I am not alone.Two loons

These beau­ti­ful and intrigu­ing birds pop­u­late waters of the north­ern U.S. and Canada, their dis­tinc­tive black and white speck­led backs, white breasts, black necks adorned by a neck­lace of stripes and bril­liant red eyes a sum­mer­time fix­ture in the breed­ing grounds to which they return after win­ter­ing in dis­tant climes. And here “grounds” is a bit of a mis­nomer, as the loon spends most of its time in the water, except for when it is cop­u­lat­ing or incu­bat­ing its eggs.

waitingLoons are faith­ful birds, which accounts for part of my – and oth­ers’ – fas­ci­na­tion with them. Because they are gen­er­ally true to their home ter­ri­to­ries, return­ing year after year to their cus­tom­ary lakes, loon lovers go out look­ing for “our” birds. Are they back? Are their nests in the same spot? Do they have any hatchlings?

Loons are also faith­ful to their fam­i­lies, from mat­ing to the offspring’s matu­rity, and amaz­ingly egal­i­tar­ian in their duties. They even look alike. Mates share the work of build­ing the nest, sit­ting on the eggs until they Loon percarious position nest copyhatch, and then feed­ing and rais­ing their young. Last year, one of “our” mat­ing pairs built their nest on a nar­row bog unfor­tu­nately close to boat traf­fic, prompt­ing them to hop off fre­quently when fright­ened by motors or gawk­ers who came too close. The eggs, which usu­ally take a month to incu­bate, never hatched. Yet the par­ents sat there nearly all sum­mer long, devoted to their duty, hold­ing out hope.

We loon watch­ers love to look for a baby — brown in color at this stage — rid­ing on its parent’s back, warm and safer from preda­tors, until it is large loonchickonbackenough to both fish and fend full­time for itself. We love to watch an adult loon dive beneath the water’s sur­face and then wait while scour­ing the lake to see where it will turn up. Mature loons can dive to 200 feet and stay sub­merged for sev­eral min­utes, so track­ing their sur­fac­ing spot can be quite a chal­lenge – unless they call out. Which brings us back to that hoot­ing and wail­ing. Loon lan­guage is eas­ily under­stood once you get the hang of it. The hoot says, “Here I am!” or, “Where are you?” The wails back and forth help loons deter­mine dis­tance from each other. The yodel is for males only, warn­ing, “My ter­ri­tory!” And then there is the tremolo, the eerie vocal­iza­tion that sounds like a vaguely demented laugh but is actu­ally an alarm call. (Some think the tremolo is the inspi­ra­tion for the say­ing, “crazy as a loon,” but it may have more to do with the moon or lunar phases than with this ter­res­trial talking.)

This com­ing Sat­ur­day, my hus­band and I will hop in our kayaks and head out for the annual loon cen­sus run by the local con­ser­va­tion soci­ety. At the same exact hour on every lake in our area, vol­un­teers count the loons they spot. So far, so good. Local pop­u­la­tions seem to be sta­ble. Humans are band­ing together to pro­tect health and habi­tat. I hope the loons we loonchicksee reg­u­larly will show up at the appointed time to be counted, and not be off on a jaunt to some nearby body of water. They’re “ours,” after all. Or at least it’s fun to feel that way dur­ing the short time that I’m here and going loony.

 

Summer Road Trips with the Family

Wagon…HO!

I remem­ber the excite­ment and antic­i­pa­tion as my three broth­ers and I scram­bled into the sta­tion wagon, Dad behind the wheel and Mom han­dling the maps, lug­gage rack on the roof. I would look back at the horses, cows, cats, dogs, rab­bits, sheep — whichever crea­tures hap­pened to be inhab­it­ing our hobby farm at the moment, some of them stand­ing watch as the car pulled around the dri­ve­way and turned onto the rural road, car­ry­ing us to excit­ing new adven­tures and explorations.

For a week or two, I wouldn’t be pet­ting sheep, con­vers­ing with cows, rid­ing my pony, crawl­ing into the straw-bedded dog­house for a snug­gle with our col­lie, car­ry­ing cats and rab­bits into my play­house, romp­ing through the pas­tures, fill­ing the water trough, side­step­ping the manure, muck­ing stalls, or feel­ing the deli­cious tickle of a horse’s lips tak­ing treats from my palm.

I was priv­i­leged to grow up sur­rounded by ani­mals, to learn the traits of var­i­ous species, the per­son­al­i­ties of indi­vid­u­als, the many ways in which ani­mals think, feel, and express — and the ways that ani­mals we domes­ti­cate depend upon us for their sus­te­nance: phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and emo­tional. I wish that every child could have that priv­i­lege, and that every adult who’s missed it could make up for it now. So I have a vaca­tion sug­ges­tion: don’t travel away from the ani­mals, as I did: travel to them!

On the south­ern bor­der of Utah, just above the Ari­zona line, cerulean skywhere rust red cliffs glim­mer against the cerulean sky, and long stretches of open space call to mind set­tlers and cow­boys, their horses kick­ing up adobe dust, sits an expan­sive par­cel of par­adise on earth. Nes­tled in Angel Canyon is Best Friends Ani­mal Sanc­tu­ary, where abused, aban­doned and neglected ani­mals who have nowhere else to go find refuge and a level of com­pas­sion­ate care that leaves me search­ing for prop­erly descrip­tive words. Best Friends Animal Society“Ded­i­cated” is too shal­low. “Heart­warm­ing” is too trite. “Breath­tak­ing” is barely hyper­bole. Ani­mals that would be con­sid­ered hope­less else­where – injured, crip­pled, chron­i­cally dis­eased – and likely des­tined for euthana­sia are instead reha­bil­i­tated to their great­est poten­tial and given life­long care. Or, bet­ter yet and in every instance pos­si­ble, adopted out to for­ever homes.

Sanctuary sign copyBegun by a group of bud­dies back in the 1980’s, the 3,700 acre sanctuary’s name is a pro­pos for both the founders and the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Best Friends Ani­mal Soci­ety. It started with a few home­less dogs and cats and now, enlarged by another 17,000 acres of leased land, it includes horses, mules, goats, sheep, don­keys, pigs, rab­bits, birds, and even injured and orphaned wildlife in need of care so that they can once again roam or fly free. These days, the aver­age ani­mal pop­u­la­tion is around 1,700 – and you are wel­come to visit them, vol­un­teer to work with them, maybe even take one (or two?) home. (Note: you do not have Panthegoatto per­son­ally visit the Best Friends sanc­tu­ary in order to adopt one of the ani­mals in their care.)

Free tours are offered every day at the sanc­tu­ary, and vol­un­teers are asked to sign up ahead of time. Care is taken to match vol­un­teers with appro­pri­ate ani­mals accord­ing to their inter­ests, ages, and phys­i­cal abil­i­ties. If you have the oppor­tu­nity to vol­un­teer, do! If you’ve never been truly “in touch” with ani­mals, this can be a life-changing expe­ri­ence. And if you already know and care for ani­mals, you’ll likely find new expe­ri­ences. Cat on leash copyIt was at Best Friends that I first walked a cat on a leash, fed a pot­bel­lied pig, and spent an entire after­noon scoop­ing rab­bit poop! You can do some­thing as down, dirty and nec­es­sary as pick­ing up poop, as sooth­ing as sit­ting with a cat in your lap, giv­ing him or her per­sonal atten­tion and pet­ting, or as adven­tur­ous as tak­ing a com­pan­ion ani­mal on an excur­sion off premises.

cottage view copyStay­ing on the sanc­tu­ary grounds enhances the expe­ri­ence. There are a lim­ited num­ber of cab­ins and cot­tages avail­able to vis­i­tors. They are com­fort­able, and the scenery is awe­some: the red rock moun­tains as back­ground to horses play­ing in the pas­ture, the sun set­ting over another day of kind­ness. sleepoverYou can even enjoy a sleep­over with an ani­mal and offer your impres­sions of his or her per­son­al­ity and tem­pera­ment to Best Friends staff. That helps when mak­ing adop­tive matches. When I was there, a pot­bel­lied pig ambas­sador was eli­gi­ble for sleep­overs and was quite the cov­eted guest! If you’re stay­ing in an RV or other accom­mo­da­tion, no prob­lem. You’re wel­come to share your space and affec­tions with eli­gi­ble can­di­dates there, as well.

I was so besot­ted with the sanc­tu­ary that I passed on the sight­see­ing dur­ing my visit, but you can make this as much of a var­ied vaca­tion as you want. The near­est town is Kanab, five miles away. Sev­eral lodg­ings — hotels, motels, pri­vate res­i­dences — are avail­able and many offer pet friendly space with a Best Friends dis­count. You can visit numer­ous state and national parks and wilder­ness areas; go golf­ing, bik­ing, swim­ming, kayak­ing, ATV­ing; explore the “Old West” areas where movies and TV shows were filmed; enjoy art gal­leries; attend the local theater…

But first and fore­most, I hope you’ll expe­ri­ence the ani­mals and soak up the ele­vated air of com­pas­sion and dig­nity for all who exist here. Intro­duc­ing a child to this mar­velous assort­ment of sen­tient crea­tures and the humans who care for them may inform that child’s sen­si­bil­i­ties for a life­time. Get­ting hands on with the ani­mals as an adult could alter your own view – and even expand your house­hold, should you decide to take a new best friend home.adoptionpromo

With wishes that you’ll get to be a part of Best Friends Ani­mal Sanc­tu­ary some­day – and for safe, happy sum­mer travels,

Cathy

 

 

WANDERING CUBA

I’ve just returned from Cuba, a trip endorsed by the U.S. gov­ern­ment as a peo­ple to peo­ple edu­ca­tional exchange. The Cuban gov­ern­ment (“state,” to Cubans) pro­vided our local guide. We saw what the gov­ern­ment wanted us to see. We stayed where the gov­ern­ment wanted us to stay. We vis­ited rural areas, moun­tains, beaches, small towns, the capital.Havana apartment building copy

The first and relent­less impres­sion is that Cuba’s clock stopped tick­ing some­where circa the late 50’s or in many cases, decades ear­lier. Tech­nol­ogy, mod­ern means of pro­duc­tion, and res­i­den­tial com­forts as we know them seem truly for­eign con­cepts here. In nearly every locale, the poverty is soul dead­en­ing. And that is just in look­ing at it, not liv­ing it.

In the coun­try, the peo­ple live in shacks, pri­mar­ily of wood. Holes gape from their sides, not all of them win­dows. We visit two farm­houses which by com­par­i­son are lux­u­ri­ous. They fea­ture sev­eral rooms, glass win­dows, porches. One is the home of a third gen­er­a­tion tobacco farmer and his fam­ily. He is mat­ter of fact with an occa­sional smile. The state allows him to enter­tain tourists because he is a top pro­ducer. He knows that should he slip, the state might take his land. Cur­rently, the state claims 95 per­cent of his crop and pays him what it wishes. As is com­mon across Cuba, the money is not enough to live on. The other farm is open to us as a model of organic farm­ing and Cat eating cucumbereco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity. Its stew­ards appear happy, ener­getic, enthused. Learn­ing of my veg­an­ism at lunch, the wife requests a “momento eco­log­i­cal,” and returns hold­ing Gato, a cat who enthu­si­as­ti­cally crunches cucumber.

In the towns, attached sin­gle story build­ings line the cob­ble­stone streets like dor­mi­to­ries, hous­ing small apart­ments. Doors hang open, grab­bing breaths of air. We can see the inte­ri­ors, win­dow­less multi-function rooms that hold what passes for a kitchen, a table, a sit­ting area, some­times a bed. Some thor­ough­fares blos­som with mod­est stand-alone homes, even patches of lawn and flow­ers. The houses are gen­er­ally uni­form, box after box of the same size and shape.

In the cap­i­tal, 20 per­cent of the island’s pop­u­la­tion crowd together in anti­quated high rises, low rises, dilap­i­dated houses. Build­ings lit­er­ally col­lapse here Havana housing2 copyocca­sion­ally, tak­ing their occu­pants with them. These are called “der­rumbes,” for a giant rum­bling fol­lowed by rub­ble and grief. Even land­mark struc­tures – muse­ums, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, embassies – are bruised and decay­ing, although the state is now under­tak­ing a Havana over­haul in an effort to reha­bil­i­tate the largest tourist attrac­tion in the coun­try. We are dri­ven through the grand­est res­i­den­tial sec­tion, large homes from which we are told the wealth­i­est cit­i­zens fled Fidel. It resem­bles all the rest: the entire coun­try seems to be crum­bling, in need of shoring up or at least a coat of paint. Rot­ting wood and dingy cement glare through splotches of long-faded veneer. Hand-washed laun­dry on lines is part of the scenery from coast to coast, hang­ing from the yards of coun­try hov­els to the win­dows of city apartments.

Machines are relics, from the 1950’s Amer­i­can cars mirac­u­lously main­tained to the Soviet era tobacco farmer’s trac­tor to the diesel oper­ated water pumps that Radio copycould well date back to World War II to this radio, the prop­erty of a potter’s fam­ily. The occa­sional rust­ing air con­di­tioner graces a win­dow. 15 per­cent of the peo­ple, we are told, have access to the inter­net. Pub­lic phones are a pri­mary means of Public phone copycom­mu­ni­ca­tion.

We actu­ally con­verse with very few Cubans, shep­herded through our stops. Our guide, a viva­cious woman in her thir­ties, shares what she says is “her real­ity,” as she has never left the home­land. She is happy with “the tri­umph of the rev­o­lu­tion,” the repet­i­tively uttered term for the 1959 Cas­tro coup – the state pro­vides health care and edu­ca­tion. She claims to be both igno­rant of and not curi­ous about where or how the broth­ers Cas­tro live. She knows only how they travel: in car­a­vans of lux­ury carsOld car copy with ambu­lance and police escorts. But she is openly frus­trated at the sub­sis­tence salaries, the inabil­ity to buy or even find a car, the irony of being per­mit­ted to travel abroad when she doesn’t have the money to do so.

Food rations doled out by the state do not fill the table. Soap, sham­poo, tooth­paste and toi­let paper are all expen­sive extras. Remit­tances — money sent from rel­a­tives and friends in Amer­ica and else­where – prop up the offi­cial econ­omy and fuel the black mar­ket on which Cubans depend. A good job is one that has some­thing you can pil­fer to sell on the black mar­ket in exchange for food, clothes, toi­letries, house­hold needs.

Are peo­ple happy, we ask? They’d bet­ter be, says a Cuban cit­i­zen we meet one morn­ing at break­fast. Because peo­ple still dis­ap­pear, he says. Per­haps they go to prison and then their fam­i­lies hear they died there in an “acci­dent.” They never see the body, he tells us. There is no autopsy report. Nonethe­less, his fam­ily likes it here. He doesn’t. He’s just vis­it­ing. He’s also an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, an ocean borne escapee 21 years ago.

Cathy with street cat copyAnd then there are the ani­mals. Every­where. Oxen plow the fields, planted and har­vested by hand. Goats work as lawn­mow­ers. Cat­tle graze on the brown grass of dry sea­son. Horses do it all: farm chores, fam­ily trans­porta­tion, cart rides for cash. Roost­ers, chick­ens, guinea fowl and turkeys rake yards and fields. Pink piglets frolic on a lawn. A few doors down, a fat­tened adult lies on a plat­form being skinned. I try to take com­fort in the rel­a­tive free­dom many open air “food ani­mals” are given until they meet their grisly ends. (Guns are tightly con­trolled here. Few farm­ers have them. Tools are largely antiques. Your imag­i­na­tion can com­plete the slaugh­ter sce­nar­ios.) Cir­cling vul­tures are ubiquitous.

bullSad­dled Brah­man bulls with ropes pierc­ing their noses offer trans­port and enter­tain tourists. Cocks are bred for fight­ing. Horses and don­keys are whipped with ropes and chain link. Many of their beaten backs are bony, under­fed. A mus­cled man, cig­a­rette in hand, simul­ta­ne­ously spurs and reins in his horse, send­ing it into a tail­spin for the amuse­ment of onlook­ers. Caged birds hang from door­jambs like decorations.

Dog with teats-RecoveredCats and dogs roam both rural and urban areas. Street dogs sur­vive on scraps and hand­outs, grate­ful for the occa­sional ear scratch. CathyScratching dog copyPromi­nent teats and swollen milk sacs attest to hid­den pup­pies. Spay­ing, neu­ter­ing, vac­ci­na­tions – these are rare except for some lucky pets and in Havana, street dogs who are col­lared and claimed by restau­rants as mas­cots. Cats hunt to sur­vive. Tourist stops and table sides are fer­tile grounds. A lucky few make their liv­ing in open door hotels.Cat in restaurant-Recovered

We leave the plight of the land ani­mals to spot birds in the woods: war­blers, hawks, wood­peck­ers, the bee hum­ming­bird – small­est bird in the world – sap suck­ers, the Cuban para­keet. Our hik­ing guide says the para­keet will kill itself if caged; it wants its inde­pen­dence. This is the national bird.

Lunch is an intact pig, his lively brain roasted along with the rest of his body. “It is cruel,” the hik­ing guide con­cedes to me in an aside. “But we need it.” My Amer­i­can com­pan­ions are appar­ently unfazed. They stop for pho­tos. They eat the freshly shred­ded corpse with gusto. I slip away and have a lit­tle cry. For the pig, for all the ani­mals, for the poverty of the peo­ple, for Cuba, for the cru­elty which spans our world from dic­ta­tors to diners.

What does the future hold for Cuba? Who knows? Years more of social­ism? A shot at cap­i­tal­ism? Offi­cial rela­tions with Amer­ica? KFCs and fac­tory farms? The right to openly earn one’s own money? The breeze of change is whis­per­ing. Small pri­vate busi­nesses now dot the land­scape, licensed and taxed by the state. Many cit­i­zens can now travel abroad. Raul has given his pres­i­dency a deadline.

On the day we head home, the wind is whip­ping – toward the north. I am glad to go with it.