Luray Caverns – Mother Nature Wins!

Hi folks — feeling a bit under the weather today, so this week’s post is a celebration of Mother Nature, who IMHO always wins the contest for artwork. Case in point: Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Caverns were discovered in 1878 and became an overnight success (after millions of years of formation, of course). Although not the largest cave system in North America, Luray is very walkable and superbly lit for visitors to enjoy the many spectacular formations.  I hope these photos inspire you to visit!

DSC00295-001The caverns range from small to massive

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Formations, some dry, some still wet and forming, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This one is called The Fish, for its resemblance to a string of caught fish at a market.

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This odd formation is called The Eggs.

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There were so many fascinating formations we couldn’t recall the names of all of them.

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Many formations are still dripping, and have formed large pools below. They form stunningly perfect reflections in the still waters — so perfect that you have to look really closely to understand that the bottom part of what you’re seeing is a mirror image.

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One of the really cool things is a cave organ. It plays a slow and soft electronic tune which resonates through the chamber by…DSC00322-001

…small armatures that gently strike some of the stalactites. Visitors have to be very still to enjoy the soft music.

Visit the website for more information about this wonderful adventure.

The pleasures of golf?

It’s spring in North America and time to commence the annual ritual of the royal and ancient game of Driving Yourself Crazy, aka Golf.

I blame my husband for introducing me to the game when we were dating. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

To people who don’t play, golf can be a ridiculous-looking game where you attempt to hit a little round ball with a weighted stick, and then chase down the ball wherever it may have landed, only to hit it away from you again.

Robin Williams had an extremely funny (and R-rated, for language) bit about the invention of the game in his Live from Broadway show; my favourite line is about the flag pin at the conclusion of each hole: “They put it there to give you hope”.

Novice golfers are excited about the game until they discover that having a great round on one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to even hit the ball the next time you go out.

Veteran golfers have a love-hate relationship that varies in degree. Golf is to a large extent a mental game:

  • being able to concentrate and remain steady through at least 72 swings at the ball over an 18-hole round, on terrain that’s constantly changing
  • trying to curb your frustration when you make a bad shot that should have been an easy one
  • tweaking your swings and strategy in an attempt to achieve consistency (which is pretty much a pipe dream – even the pros can’t manage it)

The game also plays with our heads by, no matter how bad a round we’re having, allowing us at least one great shot that encourages us to come back. It’s quite evil, really.

One of the things I like about the game is the opportunity to enjoy nice weather in beautiful surroundings. (Men will play in any weather, and that’s another story entirely, but women have more sense.) My hubby and I really enjoy playing golf in different locations, and often incorporate a round in our travels if it’s feasible. Every location has its unique fingerprint, and challenges. But that’s half the fun!

For our 15th wedding anniversary we stayed and played at the gorgeous Boulders resort in Arizona. It was so great we could have happily stayed there for a month. The comprehensive service took a little getting used to initially – from the moment we arrived and our car was swarmed by staff, everything was taken care of for us – but the acclimatization took less than 24 hours and then we were soaking it all in.

Our first round took place the afternoon that we arrived, and we completely psyched ourselves out about playing on a championship course – in short, we were terrible. We did enjoy the resort-course layout: frequent yardage markers to help you check your distances, drinking fountains and a washroom building every third hole, a cart with not only both ball and club washers but also a cooler with ice for our beverages and a little nozzle to spray water on our hot faces whenever we needed to refresh. The start times were spaced 10 minutes apart, so we were never crowded by other players.

We returned to the club house, dejected. But this was resort golf, an entirely different animal! The cheerful, laid-back staff told us not to worry about our scores and emphasized that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Their attitude was so relaxed that it allowed us to relax, and we thoroughly enjoyed our next round.

We embraced desert golf, where divots disintegrate, made of grass on sand; there’s no retrieving your errant ball out of the rough (full of cacti called ‘Jumping Cholla’ because they hook onto your skin and break off in large chunks!); and the bunkers are really diabolical (some with cacti and even big boulders in the middle, as if trying to hit your ball out of a deep pot bunker isn’t enough punishment for landing in there).

Arizona is gorgeous, though, and our package allowed my hubby to play four rounds while I played two and visited the fabulous spa in between. It was such a hardship, I just can’t tell you.

There’s something for everyone at The Boulders – we even booked a night hike with night-vision goggles that gave us a spectacular view of the Milky Way – so it’s a great all-around vacation spot.

A couple of years ago we golfed the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, a bucket-list item for a lot of golfers. The Trail was created in the 1980s as a way to bring in revenue to shore up the state’s retirement fund, and it’s worked brilliantly. There are 26 courses in 11 different locales running along a roughly north to south line through the state. Hubby chose the four courses he wanted to play, and as the first one was located in Mobile, just 2 hours from New Orleans, we drove down to that great Louisiana city first for a weekend to enjoy the food, history, ghostly legends and wacky Halloween Parade, then worked our way north along the golf trail.

When we arrived at our hotel in Mobile, the concierge approached me and asked if we’d had any trouble finding the hotel.

“No”, I replied, a little mystified by the question, “we just used our GPS.”

“But did it give you ‘Southern’ directions?”, he asked.

“Well no, I don’t think so,” I said, still at a loss.

“Well you see, this is how we give directions in the South”, he told me. “We say: ‘You go down the road a piece, then when you see the house where Old Blue’s sittin’ on the porch you turn right, then you go down the road another piece…’ ” My hubby and I laughed delightedly, and that exchange has become one of our most treasured memories from the trip.

The hospitality was exemplary, the courses were lovely and the Southern food delectable. One of the places we tried, based on a recommendation from the staff at the Hampton Cove course in Huntsville, was the Blue Plate Café. It’s such a faithful replica of a 1950s café that you assume it’s much older than it actually is. Created by two sisters who cook with their grandma’s old recipes, the café serves up wonderful comfort food. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you must stop there and have the fantastic fried chicken!!

The RTJ Trail has dedicated staff to help you plan your journey. They’ll book your tee times and even book hotels along the way if you want them to.

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It’s hard to take your game seriously when a family of warthogs is your peanut gallery

A nod to Africa for offering our most unusual round of golf to date. It took place in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls. We rented clubs, and had planned to rent a cart as advertised on the course website but not actually available. The round was most memorable for the wildlife – crocodiles lurking in the water hazards for the unwary, impalas sprinting around the holes, and on one hole I had to wait for an entire family of warthogs to finish staring at me and wander away before I could tee off.

Unfortunately the weather was very hot, we had to walk the course, and there were no refreshments available during the entire round, so I had heat exhaustion as a result and slept for 14 hours. Nevertheless, I don’t know too many people who can say they had to face off against warthogs!

The most important piece of equipment you can have for taking up the sport of golf is a sense of humour. It keeps players sane. As the great Arnold Palmer once said, “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game: It’s called an eraser.”

Rainforests — Rescue Me!

You know you’re having a true jungle moment when a monkey sits on your head.

P_B2 074Maria the spider monkey (names have been changed to protect the innocent) loves to steal visitors’ plastic water bottles. She lives on Monkey Island, a sanctuary in the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. She is an inquisitive and agile monkey.

Our group was gathered around a feeding platform as Maria eyed us all curiously and our guide talked about rescuing Amazonian primates from the pet trade. I was leaning casually near the small plank scattered with food bits while Maria played with a plastic bottle, when unexpectedly she scampered across the plank and decided that my head would make a good perch. In a flash my vision was blocked by black fur, and a long, very strong tail wrapped snugly around my neck – so snugly, in fact, that I had to wedge a finger between her tail and my skin to be able to breathe. I could hear cameras going off all around me.

Well, like I always say, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a monkey’s butt on the top of your head. After a few minutes on my head, Maria decided she needed a different viewpoint and climbed onto someone else’s hair.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience. And in a few decades, a never-in-anyone’s lifetime experience. Our rain forests are being deforested at such an alarming rate and so many species are dying out completely that nations around the world have declared an international Climate Emergency.

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Coming in for a landing into Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, it wasn’t hard to spot the scars of clear-cutting.

It’s making the news in a big way now. You may have been seeing some of the headlines, such as Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’.

According to Rainforest Rescue, we are, on average, losing an appalling 150 species each and every day! If you were to think of that in terms of ‘man’s best friend’, dogs, that would be roughly the equivalent of every single dog on the planet being wiped out in three days.

When I was a child, I mourned the loss of famously extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo bird, which I would never see because of the stupidity of earlier humans who didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing. You’d think that, as we evolve as a society, we’d have learned something.

Every species on this planet is critical to the ecosystem that it lives in as well as our global ecosystem. The disappearance of these thousands of species will have an impact that continues well into the future.

Animal species also help keep our plants alive by pollination, dropping fruit pits to germinate in new areas, and transporting seeds in their fur. Without this continuous regenerative cycle, we are doomed.

Rain forests are majestic and magical places. Ancient remedies climb over each other in the undergrowth, bananas and mangoes grow wild, tree trunks transmit sound so far that local people use them as geolocators. To walk through the forest is to immerse yourself in the lungs of our planet as they breathe and pulse around you. I’ll let some of my photos speak for themselves.

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A butterfly investigates my husband’s hiking boot.
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The rain forest embraces our Amazonian jungle lodge.
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Let’s play ‘Spot the parrot’!
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Lush wild banana trees

Rain forests are in severe danger, as are all of their inhabitants, from millions of plants, animals and insects to the many tribes who’ve called the forests home for centuries. We have no right to take that gift of life away from them.

You can help. You can visit these incredible treasures to understand what they mean to the world ecosystem, and to all your children who’ll have to cope with the wreck we are making of this planet, and you can sign petitions to pressure governments to stop mining interests and rapacious developers.

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Local people as well as corporations destroy riverine habitats through indiscriminate mining

Petitions work. One such petition needs 200,000 signatures quickly: “UNESCO World Heritage: tell the palm oil barons to back off!” All it takes is a few moments of your time to make a difference. The, maybe one day in the future, your children will be able to find their own wild and incorrigible Maria monkey to have a close encounter with.

 

Awe and the expansion of our internal universe

When I started thinking about this piece, I was really thinking about the nature of things that appeal to us. I love tales of the supernatural, and I love Halloween in particular as a time to celebrate the supernatural and bring a little of it into our workaday lives.

There’s a reason that stories like The Wizard of Oz, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia, Dracula, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and the Harry Potter books, are all so popular. It’s not just that they feature the supernatural and people living exciting lives – that’s part of their surface appeal. I believe the deeper appeal lies in that they allow ordinary people (and, through them, the reader) to be heroes. If you look at every protagonist’s journey, they all get to fight evil/monsters and become something larger than what they were at the start.

By reading their journeys, we experience the same emotions they do, and imagine ourselves in their shoes. In the really great stories, we experience awe.

Awe is an intense emotional state where we’re transported into a new universe – a place apart from our ordinary lives where we are engulfed in a larger consciousness. Awe makes us understand that our daily little problems are just that; that the political issues in the world are ridiculous posturing and power plays by leaders who rarely genuinely care about the people they are supposed to be serving. We get a glimpse of how magnificent life can be if we rise above all of the daily garbage.

We can experience awe in different ways.

Awe is a fundamental appeal of religion. I remember, as a child, trying to understand the world and the place of religion in it, having been raised as a Catholic and going to mass dutifully on the first Friday of every month to ensure my place in heaven. I loved the quiet parts of those early Friday morning masses – the soft flicker of candles, the hush of a nearly empty church when I could absorb the beautiful stained-glass windows transporting me to a time centuries ago when people got to meet Jesus in person.

One night I had a profound religious moment—I was thinking about the universe, and imagining what would happen if you had a giant blackboard eraser and started erasing us, and the planets, and the stars in the sky. What would you have left, I wondered, and it struck me that that was where God lived. I was so excited that I had to share it with my mom, who I was trying to comfort for some reason. I’m not sure I was able to explain it very well to her, at the age of about nine or ten years old, but it has stuck with me to this day.

A shared sense of awe can bring people together in powerful ways, and so the dark side of religion comes out when a religious leader begins to manipulate followers for his or her own ends. I’m still very spiritual, if not a frequently practising Catholic, because I prefer to believe that there is something beyond our short lives on earth, a more expansive universe where goodness exists for its own sake. However, as our spiritual leaders on earth are just human, like the rest of us, it’s critical that we apply objectivity to what they’re preaching, and can recognize when their teachings are oppressing any segment of their followers. Everyone on this earth should be equal.

Awe can be found throughout nature. A glorious sunset, the vast firmament of stars above us (hard to see when masked by city lights; if you’ve never appreciated them you should find a dark-sky preserve and take a look!), the power of waves pounding on a beach, the beauty in flowers and butterflies…

Humans and animals can fill us with awe, when someone does something amazing for the benefit of others, or delivers a powerful musical performance, or a pet saves its owners lives by alerting them to fire.

These moments of awe reaffirm our belief in goodness, a belief that gets battered daily by the news. It’s even worse now that we have news at our fingertips. The job of reporters is to attract our interest, and they rarely do it with feel-good stories. As a society we’ve gotten so caught up in the superficial stimulation from electronic media that we don’t take the time to cultivate the deeper emotions that come from quiet reflection and moments of awe that are all around us.

My personal journey of awe, the one that turned my entire life on its head and brought me to this place where I can help others experience awe for themselves and enter a larger universe, took place in Africa.

My husband and I had decided to celebrate our silver anniversary with a safari. I spent several years researching and planning, but by the time we left our home for Africa we were numb. Within the space of two years we’d had a death in the family and had to put both of our beloved dogs to sleep. My job had changed dramatically when my manager suddenly departed to pursue a different career, leaving the rest of our small department to flounder in deep waters. I remember walking around London, England, our first layover and a place we both love, feeling as if I was completely wrapped in cotton batten, insulated and separated from the outside world. It was a strange feeling.

Neither of us had great expectations of the trip – we try to experience each of our adventures as they unfold. We arrived in Africa just flowing with the current. Our safari guide met all of his seven guests at the small airport in Maun, Botswana, and loaded us into two small bush planes for the flight to our first bush camp deep in the Okavango Delta. Our little plane chugged along at 1,000 feet, low enough for us to see elephants and giraffes grazing among the acacia trees. When we landed on a short strip of sand in the middle of nowhere and piled into the open-sided safari truck for the hour-and-a-half drive through the bush to the camp, we were engulfed by the smell of the wild sage bushes – salty, pungent and unforgettable – scattered among the thorny acacias, tall and short palms, and towering termite mounds. Sights, sounds and smells bombarded our senses, and the cotton encasing our emotions started to disintegrate.

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That night, we lay in our dome tents under the vast African sky, listening to the sounds of fruit bats and tree frogs all around, with nothing between us and the wild except a bit of canvas and meshing. Wild animals could easily prowl right up to our tents if they wished, and we’d been advised to go carefully and in pairs to the toilet tents during the night if we absolutely couldn’t wait until morning. I remember lying on my cot, snugly tucked under a duvet, and experiencing the awe of being in that legendary place. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and it shredded the last of that awful, numbing shroud that I’d been living in for so many months.

Our safari was filled with amazing moments – staring into the golden eyes of a lion lying at the side of the road just a few feet away from our truck, watching an elephant spray muddy water over itself, seeing a leopard in the wild, watching a troop of baboons romp and squabble. When we visited Victoria Falls I just stood with my mouth hanging open – having lived in the vicinity of Niagara Falls for most of my life, I was prepared to be only mildly impressed. But watching millions of gallons of the Zambezi River thunder over the Falls with an almost deafening roar, and seeing the resulting mist billow a thousand feet into the air, we were awe-struck at the power of Nature.

We fell in love with lions when we went on a nature walk with two young rescued males, Langa and Loco. We walked the bush with them, held their tails and scratched behind their ears, watched them explore their world. They were utterly adorable and showed us another side beyond the majestic predator they would one day become.

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It wasn’t only nature that wowed us – our safari guide, with his vast bush knowledge and cheeky sense of humour, all the staff at the four bush camps we stayed at and the lodges in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the many other Africans we met, became like family. Their warm welcome and passion for their countries, their lack of materialism and deep relationship with nature, left an indelible impression on us.

By the end of the trip both my hubby and I were loathe to leave. We experienced intense culture shock arriving back home, and it took me a long, long time to find a way to integrate that experience into my regular life.

In the end, I decided that I wanted to help other people experience moments of awe and beauty, to understand what an incredible planet we live on if we take those first steps to transcend all the pettiness and materialism that seeps into our lives from outside forces.

We are one race of people, the Human Race, sharing our planet with animals, plants, insects, mountains, forests, oceans and rivers, sunsets and rainbows, and every part, down to the tiniest piece, is essential.

It’s easy to understand that, when you look around you and let awe in. It’s impossible to understand that when your face is glued to an electronic screen or your hearing is muffled by a headset. While I love a good computer game as much as the next person, and am, of course, bringing you this message through your computer or mobile phone, our attachment to electronics is increasingly isolating us from our fellow inhabitants on this grand planet. I believe we can trace a lot of troubles in our society to that source.

If you want to live in a larger world, one where you can see the best of humanity instead of the worst, where nature will fill you with both peace and awe in equal measure, where the universe can truly be seen in a grain of sand, a flower petal or the wings of a butterfly, you need only take those first steps along that path.