Tag Archives: hiking

I Won’t Say I Was “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Even Though I Was)

Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.



My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:

– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.

– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.

– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.




– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.

– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.

– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.

– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.

– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.

– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.

– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.

– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.

– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.

The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.

– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.

Who Speaks for the Trees?

Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park is always a quieting experience. The park marks its 100th anniversary as protected land next year, and although we like to think of our national parks as “timeless treasures,” Rocky Mountain National Park and others like it across America are beginning to show their age. It’s like seeing a friend who’s just gone through a very stressful period; you can see the fatigue around her eyes, a few new lines that weren’t there before. The stress of climate change has done just that to our national parks.

Yesterday, a few not-so-vertical, light hikes in the “family-friendly” areas of Rocky Mountain National Park revealed quite a bit. I was shocked to see the number of fallen trees, and many, though still standing, appeared ashen-faced, ready to fall over with the slightest wind. I last hiked this park in 2011, and didn’t recall seeing so many downed trees. Some had fallen into the water, many crisscrossed one another over the ground. The dead trees looked like vertebrae, backbones of once mighty creatures now growing pale under Colorado’s intense sun. What I was seeing was the impact of the mountain pine beetle, which I had read about in Michael Lanza’s wonderful book “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks”. Warming temperatures have led to less brutally cold winters in Colorado, giving the gluttonous mountain pine beetle more time to feed on trees. National parks shouldn’t feel like cemeteries.

Colorado 4

Colorado 2

For the past year, I’ve been working on a novel manuscript, which features travel through forested areas of North America and references climate change and the effects of the mountain pine beetle on the landscape. As we all know, it’s one thing to read about what’s going on in the world; it’s another thing entirely to see it. You don’t have to go far into the Rocky Mountains to literally trip over the impact of climate change. Politicians can debate science until their next election, but in the meantime, the trees are in desperate need of some Seussian protection; someone needs to speak for (and act on behalf of) the trees sooner rather than later.

To get ideas for my book-in-progress, I started taking pictures of the fallen trees in color, but then switched to black and white because black and white better captured the starkness of what I was seeing. I started thinking of how I would revise certain passages in my book to more effectively entice the reader to follow in my own footsteps, and while I felt excited for firsthand inspiration, I felt saddened that I was seeing it at all. Again, hiking the Rockies is always a quieting experience, but this was different than past hikes. The majestic mountains still make a hike through Colorado feel like you’re walking through a postcard, but the countenance of the mountains has changed, and why wouldn’t it? Below them, trees continue to fall. Above them, skies continue to warm. So much is changing, yet little is being done.

Colorado 1

Colorado 3

Colorado 5

Sharing My Rocky Mountain High

Mike and I were in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York last week, looking out on to the blue mountains, which can fall in the range of 4,000-plus feet, and thinking about Lewis and Clark (because that is what geeky, literary couples do). The Adirondacks are moving in their own right, blue peaks undulating north. Yet, while there, we were remembering our encounters with the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and how amazing it must have been for Lewis and Clark to see the Rocky Mountain range for the first time, with East Coast mountains as their only frame of reference. Fly over the Rockies. Hike them. Whatever your vantage point, from the clouds or from the soil, they are huge, regal, quiet beasts of rock that have stopped man and animals in their tracks, reminding them to take notice of who is really in charge.



One of the best places to enjoy the Colorado Rockies is in Fort Collins, Colorado, which we visited two summers ago. That trip stayed with me, and now my piece appears in today’s Los Angeles Times. It’s my second story for this newspaper (my first piece ran in March and was about my obsession with hotel pools), however, the Weekend Escape format doesn’t do the town justice. And now there’s the new Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, which opened in 2012, and seems like a vacation-must, especially if you have kids. My daughter now talks about going to college at Colorado State in Fort Collins because she loved its landscapes. New York City, she says, “doesn’t have landscapes,” for to a tween-age girl, landscapes require, well, land.

Downtown Fort Collins inspired Main Street, USA, in Disneyland, yet downtown in 2013 isn’t filled with mouseketeers but with beer lovers, bikers, hipster chicks wearing funky floral dresses with funky floral cowboy boots, artists, families, and old people who stay young living and loving the outdoors. Money magazine named Fort Collins one of the best places to live in America, with its artisanal shops, affordable houses, bike library, and copious bike paths. Fort Collins is the new west, trendy and amenity-friendly, still rugged, but now more accessible. The city received more than a foot of snow on May 1, but Fort Collins hums this summer with outdoor festivals celebrating beer, bikes and art. Nothing slows down this town. We can’t wait to go back.

Feeling Small in Big Sur

Big Sur is unforgiving. I could wax poetic and quote those before me about its striking coastline hand carved by the Creator, how it’s the most amazing place where land meets sea, how it’s the Earth as God intended. And all of those things are true. But after a few days on the Creator’s coastline I walked away humbled by Big Sur’s bigness. The Spanish called this stretch of wild “the big country in the south,” but as you drive and hike further in, you see how quickly the land overshadows its name.

The cliffs, the mountains, the redwoods, the stretch of blue that is sometimes sea and sometimes sky–it’s all big. This is a place that just got electricity en masse only about 60 years ago because the land is barely habitable–so much of the parks and attractions there are named after those resilient enough to stick around. This is a place relatively under-developed in our over-developed world because getting people, let alone materials, in and out of there is a feat. This is a place where signs read “Sensitive Habitat,” suggesting Big Sur is about to crumble into the Pacific at any moment from the simple mistake of a mountain lion or a tourist drunk on Chardonnay stepping somewhere slippery and suddenly there’s a mudslide sending everyone over.

It’s silly to say words can’t describe this landscape, but, um, words can’t describe this landscape (though I will try). Fly to California, rent a car from San Francisco (or if you feeling ambitious, Los Angeles), and drive the Pacific Coast Highway, fondly known by the locals as the PCH. Sometimes the PCH is lined with guard rails. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road runs right along a curvy cliff with a thousand-foot drop to the ocean. Sometimes it’s straight. But this is California, so take it easy, and take advantage of the multiple turnouts where you can pull over, give the white knuckles a rest from the steering wheel, breathe deeply and soak in what all that Creator talk and fussin’ are about. Big Sur is 90 miles of coastline so there’s plenty of opportunity. There are plants that look like feather dusters. Pink lilies grow along the sides of cliffs. The ground looks lush and parched all at the same time. The beaches are jagged in some areas, smooth in others. Make sure you have enough battery power in your iPhones and cameras because every moment spent in Big Sur is photogenic.

Where to Stay:

We stayed at Glen Oaks Big Sur, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s now my go-to destination for lodging there. It’s not cheap. And it doesn’t serve breakfast (though you can walk next door to the River Inn Cafe for awesome French toast or huevos rancheros). So why do I like it? The vibe. Yep. I pay for good vibe. Glen Oaks offers bucolic serenity with rustic modern flair. This place just oozed California cool to me with its Eames plastic chairs and sustainable hardwood bathrooms (my daughter particularly enjoyed the bathroom floor warming option). Every room has a fireplace, and the nights are cold there, even in late August. Other perks include orange yoga mats tucked in closets and, for $15, you can grab a bucket of marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers and sit by their gas-powered fire and listen to the Big Sur night rise. Sun salutations in the morning, sticky gooey campfire snacks at night. And then gorgeous hiking and beach time in between. Definitely get plenty of rest wherever you stay because when you get back on the Pacific Coast Highway to navigate your way across Big Sur, you’re quickly reminded who’s in charge on this planet, and, hint, hint, it’s not us.

What to Do:

Hike. Swim. Hug a redwood. Sunbathe. Kite surf. Look at birds. Watch elephant seals. Take pictures of wildflowers. Need I say more? Traveling with an eight-year-old, we kept the hiking light (nothing too vertical) and pursued very accessible trails at Andrew Molera State Park or spent time at the lovely Pfeiffer Beach. Santa Monica is beautiful, but Pfeiffer Beach reminds you what Santa Monica might have looked like when the mission fathers were building their parishes centuries ago. State parks cost a $10 entrance fee and admission is valid at any state park for the day. Pfeiffer Beach cost $5 to enter.

The elephant seals nap on Point Piedras Blancas towards the southern end of the Big Sur stretch. There’s no admission charge, but donations are welcome. Pull over and stand behind the fence while the seals roll around in the sand, bark, swat at flies, and pose for the camera, all from their protected natural habitats.

The little colorful specks here are kite surfers riding the waves at Big Sur.

Where to Eat:

Nepenthe. This cliff side restaurant is handicap-accessible and you can also burn calories before dinner by schlepping up several flights of stairs to the restaurant for an amazing view and a cocktail. There’s also the Phoenix Gift Shop stocked with jewelry made by area artists, books, funky overpriced decorative objects, and a clawfoot bathtub filled with goldfish. (I bought some souvenir bling.) The shopping is downstairs, the dining is upstairs. Since we were dining on a cliff, our daughter’s crayons kept rolling off the table, but thankfully our food did not. Everything was phenomenally good so order whatever–it will be delicious. My favorite part was the detailed story about the goat cheese wedge on our cheese plate. Our waitress thoughtfully explained to us how the goat was milked once in the morning when the fog was rolling out and then that very same goat was milked again at night as the fog rolled in; the milk remained separated and made into cheese that was then separated by a layer of ash. I couldn’t taste the difference between cheese made with morning milk and cheese made with evening milk, but the story and the waitress’s earnestness made me love California even more.

The view at Nephenthe, a great place to enjoy goat cheese with locally made wine:

And the fish in the bathtub. Now I know what to do with our antique spare clawfoot bathtub (yes, we own two):