Sunday, June 2, 2019

Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 51: Digging in the Dirt is My Therapy

Digging in the dirt is my therapy and we have been doing plenty of digging these past few weeks at Red Oak House.

Jim has planted 25 of his heirloom tomatoes he started by seed in March and given away his remaining seedlings. He reports that the peas and potatoes have sprouted with the long-awaited arrival of sunny weather and we will be eating lettuce soon.

When I was very ill with Lyme disease this past winter, I would look out the window and wonder how on earth I would manage to care for the perennial beds this year. Thus it was with a renewed sense of joy and purpose that I spent the past few days gardening.

All day Thursday I divided, moved, and planted hostas. The front yard is a shaded rock garden with no grass. It was particularly rewarding to divide plants I planted the first year we lived here, with ten years of growth. Hostas are slow to establish, but once they take, most varieties get larger each year. The hardest part is to push my shovel through a thriving plant to make the division. I should have been at it earlier this spring before there was so much top growth, but it has been a cold and gloomy spring.

Friday through Sunday was spent dividing and moving daylilies, working from my notes of last fall. While I worked, I cursed the burrowing critter (mole or gopher) which did so much damage to the backyard beds last winter, killing many perennials. I know that this means that the soil has been loosened, but the loss is annoying nonetheless, and expensive.

I also muttered about my rookie mistake of planting quaking aspen ten years ago, desperate for shade for the back patio as well as longing for the music of its trembling leaves. I dug the spreading roots out from the flower beds, filling a dumpster with roots. No wonder we have to water so frequently!

Live Coals Iris

While I worked, I listened to spring birds, including the Red-Eyed Vireo and Northern Cardinal which arrived this week. We've been hearing House Wrens nearby, but as of yet none has moved into the house we provide. I've read that spring birds are late this year because of the dreadful weather in the central part of the United States. Yesterday, with the help of my friends in the Bismarck/Mandan Bird Club, I identified the Tennessee Warblers by its distinct call, abundant in my neighborhood.

Last week, we had several Black-headed Grosbeaks at the sunflower feeder, however, the arrival of warm weather seems to coincide with their departure to more arctic regions. This causes me to turn to my copy of Words for Birds where I learn that Grosbeak enters English from the French grosbec, meaning "thick-billed," as are these birds'. Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) are from the Greek, pheucticus for "shy or evasive" and melancocephalus is coined from melas, "black," and kephale, "head."

While I putter about in the gardens, I enjoy the current blooms including the thriving Prairie Smoke (shown below) which we transplanted from Square Butte (the one in Billings County).

Prairie Smoke, my favorite Prairie wildflower

The patio pots are done and the new leaves are unfurling on the champion Red Oak. Waves of lime green pollen blowing off the spruce trees as well as the haze from Canadian forest fires portend the near arrival of summer. Moreover, Wednesday was the first time this year we left all of the windows open all night and Thursday was the first day to close all the windows by late morning in order to keep out the heat of the day.

Bleeding Heart

After struggling for ten years with a frequently leaking roof on Red Oak House (mostly due to ice dams), I put my foot down and a couple of weeks ago we had a steel roof installed. There was much commotion and I'll be picking up tiny pieces of the shingles they removed for years, but we couldn't be happier with the end result. I sleep more soundly under the steel roof and get a weird pleasure in watching the rain come down upon it. We chose a burgundy color and later this summer we will be painting the house gray. 

The battle with the voles, gophers, bunnies, and slugs is underway. Although I've given up growing most plants that succumb to these pests, I'm determined to win for the remaining foliage. Hence I filled all of the tuna cans I've strategically buried throughout the garden (level to the ground) with beer to catch the slugs. I also liberally sprinkle pennies (the copper is said to repel) and crushed eggshells. Jim brought home some new bunny repellent spray from Menards and it seems to be helping, so long as I remember to spray after rain or watering. 

Jim and his pals are fishing on the Missouri most days and at long last, the bite is on. He came home the other day to report that the "jungle bird" is back, and it was time for me to go with him to Sibley Park (which is near where they fish) to identify it for them. Thus it was that I arose earlier than usual on Saturday, on a mission (I am no longer an "early bird" most days). The bird has a rather loud and raucous call, hence their moniker "jungle." We heard it right away, in fact, numerous calls throughout the swampy land between the park and the riverbank. It wasn't very long before I pinpointed it as Wilson's Snipe. You can listen to their call here.

Here's to more pleasant mornings birding and every evening dining on our patio, under the quaking aspens!

To the Snipe by John Clare

Lovers of swamps
And quagmire overgrown
With hassock-tufts of sedge, where fear encamps
Around thy home alone,

The trembling grass
Quakes from the human foot,
Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass
Where thou, alone and mute,

Sittest at rest
In safety, near the clump
Of huge flag-forest that thy haunts invest
Or some old sallow stump,

Thriving on seams
That tiny island swell,
Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams,
Suiting thy nature well;

For here thy bill,
Suited by wisdom good,
Of rude unseemly length, doth delve and drill
The jellied mass for food;

And here, mayhap,
When summer suns have drest
The moor's rude, desolate and spongy lap,
May hide thy mystic nest --

Mystic indeed;
For isles that oceans make
Are scarcely more secure for birds to build
Than this flag-hidden lake.

Boys thread the woods
To their remotest shades;
But in these marshy flats, these stagnant floods,
Security pervades.

From year to year
Places untrodden lie,
Where man nor boy nor stock hath ventured near,
Naught gazed on but the sky

And fowl that dread
The very breath of man,
Hiding in spots that never knew his tread,
A wild and timid clan,

Widgeon and teal
And wild duck--restless lot,
That from man's dreaded sight will ever steal
To the most dreary spot.

Here tempests howl
Around each flaggy plot,
Where they who dread man's sight, the water fowl,
Hide and are frightened not.

'Tis power divine
That heartens them to brave
The roughest tempest and at ease recline
On marshes or the wave.

Yet instinct knows
Not safety's bounds:--to shun
The firmer ground where skulking fowler goes
With searching dogs and gun,

By tepid springs
Scarcely one stride across
(Though bramble from its edge a shelter flings
Thy safety is at loss)

--And never choose
The little sinky foss,
Streaking the moor whence spa-red water spews
From pudges fringed with moss;

Freebooters there,
Intent to kills or slay,
Startle with cracking guns the trepid air,
And dogs thy haunts betray.

From danger's reach
Here thou art safe to roam,
Far as these washy flag-sown marshes stretch
A still and quiet home.

In these thy haunts
I've gleaned habitual love;
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above.

Thy solitudes
The unbounded heaven esteems,
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams.

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot,
Giving to all that creep or walk or fly
A calm and cordial lot.

Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ--
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

There is Still Time for "Mail Call"

Hi everyone. There is a little over a week left for you to send a message to my Pa to thank him for his service on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He has been touched by the letters he has received to date. We are going to read selections from these at the D-Day 75th Anniversary program. 

If putting a stamp on an envelope is not your thing, you can send to my email. I'll print & deliver.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Mail Call for the Boy From Attala County on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

June 6, 2019, will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a pivotal battle of World War II, which took place near Normandy, France. "The largest seaborne attack in history, it was also one of the bloodiest, with a combination of strong winds, unruly tidal currents, and a formidable German defensive, resulting in the loss of 2,400 American lives by the end of the first day." Source: D-Day and the Omaha Beach Landings

My father, Garland Crook, was there that day, on Omaha Beach. Only nineteen years old on D-Day, he now resides in a skilled care facility in Mandan, ND -- all these years later. He is one of a very few surviving D-Day veterans. Fewer than half a million of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII survive today, and, of those half a million or so still living, only a fraction were actually on the beaches on D-Day. Those survivors are dying rapidly. We cherish each day with my father.

On June 6th, at 6:30 p.m., we will honor him with a special program at Miller Pointe, his home, at 3500 21st ST SE, Mandan, and anyone is welcome to attend. To wit, I have a very important request to all of you who are reading this. You are, no doubt, familiar with Mail Call, that time so precious to soldiers and sailors when they receive mail from home. Please consider sending my father a card or letter for D-Day Mail Call, to arrive by June 6th, and express your personal gratitude to him for all his has done for his country.

Please send to: 
Garland Crook, Miller Pointe, 3500 21st ST SE, Mandan, ND 58554. 

The iconic photograph above was taken on D-Day by Robert Capa (read more about Capa here) and hangs on the wall in my father's room, a treasured gift from a dear friend, Bob Martinson, who purchased it a few years ago when he visited the battlefields of Normandy. Everyone who visits these battlefields is so moved by these memories, but Bob acted upon this in a unique way. Bob also bought one for his own wall and had my father autograph both copies prior to framing. I was there the day he took my father to lunch in order to present this to him and secure the autograph and there were tears and a burst of pride for my father.

Much has been written about D-Day and I will not recount that here other than to highly recommend the classic book on the topic by Stephen Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, which I read decades ago, shortly after I was fortunate enough to briefly meet Ambrose at a book signing. Additionally, I highly recommended the website of the National World War II Museum. I'm so grateful that I read Ambrose's book at a time when I could ask my father about his personal D-Day memories.

General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, taken on May 15, 1944, three weeks before D-Day

Because my father recorded the memories of his long military career as part of an oral history project, we are blessed to know those details, details he can no longer readily share in his advanced age. I have written about him several times here and here.

He entered the U.S. Army in March of 1943. From his oral history: "I had six weeks of basic training at Fort Eustis, Virginia. I was one of the 300 who trained on 50 to 90-millimeter guns. I didn't know at the time that we would be mountain the guns on the Queen Elizabeth, which was used as a troop ship moving troops to England during World War II. We were the first 300 troops boarding the Queen Elizabeth in the harbor of New York and I went on watch on the guns right away. Three, four-hour shifts for three days and nights as they were loading troops through 2 portholes on the QE and ended up with 19,000 troops aboard. It took us 4 days and nights unescorted to make the trip to England."

"When I got to England I was assigned B Battery, 633rd AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion, who had been in Iceland the past two years as coast artillery. The 633rd then trained on 40 millimeters and Quad 50 machine guns. After this training of which mostly took place in southern England, we went to Northern Scotland. I think Wick was the name of the town closest to where we were firing. We fired out our guns on tow targets. By this time there were thousands of troops on the island with equipment everywhere. The English had big barrage balloons anchored with long steel cables all around their factories and towns to entangle low-flying German airplanes. We would kid them saying 'there are so many troops on the island that if it wasn't for the barrage balloons, it would sink.' "

"After our firing out, we went back close to London and set our guns up around a 9th Air Force Base, a B26 base from there to a P51 Air Base. I was at these bases for about 6 months. At this time and before the Germans were bombing England about every night."

"I was on a 72-hour pass in London one night while we were at these bases and staying at a Red-Cross billeting area. London got bombed from buss bombs and within a block and a half from where we were that night."

"About April or May of 1944, we moved outside of Dover, England and set up in a pasture living in pup tents and training for the invasion of France. We didn't know then just when that would come but knew it could be soon. We were able to go into Dover by trucks on passes and mostly to go to a movie. There wasn't anything to buy. We could get fish and chips at a street window outlet before it got dark. After that, all was blacked out. "

"There was a Red Cross USO club in most of the town where you could get coffee, some soft drinks and maybe a cold sandwich of baloney, Spam and so forth. That is where our trucks were parked. There were pubs or beer taverns, but I was only 19 at this time and could not go into them."

"I remember well going on my first or second pass into town going to a movie and going into the movie when it was daylight and coming out after dark. It was so dark you could cut it. And walking back to where our trucks were parked and walking smack into someone walking the other direction. Of course, after a bit, your eyes got acclimated to the dark and you could see better."

"I was on one of those passes in Dover on the 1st of June 1944, and they turned on the lights in the movie theater and told us to go back to our trucks. We knew what was up. By 8:00 a.m. the next morning we were on the road with MP escort to Portsmouth, England."

"We went into a staging area and waterproofed all of our guns and vehicles. On June 3rd, or about, we loaded our half-track with Quad 50 on a LST, leaving our 40 millimeters and their crews behind. Then sat and waited. About midnight June 5, 1944, we got orders to move out along with many, many more ships and landing crafts. By the time we got to where we could see France it was getting daylight and all hell broke loose. It was like you could walk from one ship to another there were so many. And it looked as if everyone one was firing at this time (and I was sure they were)."

"About 2:00 p.m. June 6, 1944, we hit the beach at Omaha, I think Red Beach. HR-9 hours. The Beach was pretty much secured at this time. There was some artillery shelling. The Combat Engineers had bulldozed out a narrow road up the cliff where a dry ditch draw was there we went."

When we went into the beach our LST hit a sandbar about 200 feet out. He could not go any further so opened his ramp and out first was my Platoon Officer in his Jeep. He went about 25 feet and went down. Both he and his driver swam back to the LST and got on the back of my half-track, which was going out next. He said, 'When you clear the ramp, turn as far right as you can.' So we missed the bomb hole that I suppose his Jeep went into."

"As we got to the top of the cliff we were pulling in to an area set up for de-waterproofing our equipment, and I got out of my half-track and looked down and saw a steel pot with a bullet hole right the center front. I knew that guy didn't make it."

Sometime later that summer, during the "hedgerow fighting" in France, my father was wounded, but he went on to serve in Europe throughout the war, not returning to Mississippi until early 1946.

Please do contribute to Mail Call for my father by June 6th. It will mean the world to a man who made tremendous sacrifices for you and me.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Wild Badlands Weekend

It has been a long and tiring winter and spring has been slow to arrive. We both have been ailing. Jim slipped on the ice and fractured three ribs and I've been struggling with Lyme disease since our February Channel Islands National Park adventure. Thus it was that we were both delighted to be able to pack up the car and head to the Badlands for this past weekend.

We visited Sully Creek State Park, where Lizzie, our Springer Spaniel, happily took a swim in the Little Missouri River. We saw trail riders and three guys kayaking on the river, and we scoped out a promising campsite for a future visit.

Onward to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where my elder sister, who works in the entrance station, was taking down the flag for the day. My family has deep ties to the park.

The wildlife in the Park was abundant and we spied our first baby bison of the season.

Jim pointed out that, normally, on such a spring day, we would have climbed Bullion Butte or canoed the river. Alas, his healing ribs say no to that. Nonetheless, we were rejuvenated by our wild Badlands time and immediately began planning our next.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Where The Wild Things Are

On this day in 1963, a classic of children's literature, Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, was published. It is what is known as a picture book and has been beloved by generations since then. Max, a little boy, travels in his imagination (or sleep) to an island inhabited by wild creatures. "Let the wild rumpus start," he says! In 1964, the book received the coveted Caldecott Medal.

News of this anniversary sent me to my bookshelf to say hello to my "Max" and "Wild Thing" puppets. The book was very cherished by my children and me -- of course, a librarian would also have the puppets (even though I was never a children's librarian).

My children's' copy of the book is tucked away with their keepsakes and in pretty sad shape, something that causes me no distress. I've been meaning to buy myself a nice hardback copy of the book so off I went to my local bookstore. To my great delight, stores still carry copies, the 50th-anniversary edition, no less. As you can see from the inside jacket photo below of my new copy, the "original pictures have never before been as faithfully reproduced as in this edition."

My new copy, complete with the gold Caldecott Medal

You can read more about Maurice Sendak and the book here. A two-part interview of Sendak by Stephen Colbert, one of the last interview's Sendak did before his death, is also a great delight and can be found here.

"Let the wild rumpus start!"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay

My article on the Island Scrub Jay appeared in this morning's Bismarck Tribune. Here is it below, with my photographs, including one of the Island Scrub Jay. There are much better photographs of the jay by professional photographs easily found in a simple Google search so do check that out if you are interested.

Having birded for decades, one often plateaus in the endeavor of adding birds to one’s life list. This is certainly true for me, hence, motivation to travel to new and far-flung places. Thus it was a great delight when traveling recently to southern California, where I’ve spent little time, to discover that I would have the chance to see a unique bird.
It was a completely serendipitous opportunity originating in our goal as a couple to visit every national park site in the United States. Channel Islands National Park, an archipelago off the coast of California, was one of our destinations on this extended road trip. The string of islands (five of the eight islands along the coast make up the national park) are accessible only by a ferry-ride (or flight) across the Santa Barbara Channel of the Pacific Ocean. When we arrived at the Channel Islands NP Visitors Center in Ventura, next to the ferry headquarters, orientation for our upcoming expedition revealed a delightful surprise: our chosen destination, Santa Cruz Island, is the only place in the world where the Island Scrub Jay is found (also known as the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay).

I dug out my old birding field guide in which I’ve kept records of sightings, and, sure enough, there was an easily overlooked mention of the Island Scrub Jay. I hadn’t given it any thought when we chose what island to visit and our selection was mostly motivated by the fact that potable water is available at the campground. Indeed, we did camp, packing the minimum gear given that one must hike a half mile from the pier to the campground. Tucked into my day pack was a newly purchased bird checklist for the islands (which can be found at their website at

While the weather was fairly rotten (record cold in southern California in February), and the wind was biting on the exposed deck of the ferry, I spotted numerous pelagic (open ocean) species along the way, including Pelagic Cormorants and Pacific Loons. Most of the people on the ferry were day-trippers, including a sizeable group of Road Scholars. Once we had pitched our tent, we set off, hiking to a high point to get a magnificent view of the island and the ocean.
Channel Islands National Park is home to an abundance of birds – 387 different species have been recorded. Black Phoebes and Brown Pelicans were particularly numerous during our visit. The hiking guide presented us with many options, but I honed in on the route on which the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay would be present--Scorpion Canyon. We ended the day with no sighting of said. In the night, an exceptionally cold and long night, two very loud Northern Saw-whet Owls called right above our tent for an extended time.

Sunrise found us drinking coffee at the beach where we spotted a California sea lion popping his head up in the surf and gray whales spouting as they passed nearby in the Santa Barbara Channel. A chat with one of the sea kayaking guides revealed that he had already seen four jays that morning from his campsite. As soon as we broke camp and stowed our gear near the pier, we set off up Scorpion Canyon, only hiking about a mile and a half before Eureka! The Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay.

The jay is larger (at 13”), heavier, and more richly blue than the ordinary Scrub Jay, and is the largest and darkest of all of the jays. It also has a longer bill than its relative by about 20 percent. We were fortunate to observe a pair, perched in the scraggly trees along Scorpion Creek, and three others scattered throughout the chaparral by the end of what was, for me, a twelve-mile hike from sea level to El Montanon Peak, at 1808 feet the highest point of Santa Cruz Island.  
An endemic species is one restricted to a particular location. According to the Islands’ checklist, the Scrub Jay is “the most distinct” endemic species on the islands. The estimated total population is about 2,300.
The Island Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma insularis, is the only continental US bird species to not have ranged to the mainland and is one of the most range-restricted songbirds, a superb example of island biogeography, a field that examines the facts that effect the species of isolated communities. The California Scrub Jay has never been seen on the Santa Cruz Island. The word Jay is from “the Old French gay and iay, descended from Latin, gaius, gaia, imitative words” according to the book Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds with Biographical Notes. Aphelocoma is Greek for “smooth hair,” referencing the lack of a crest in Scrub Jays. Scrub suggests its preferred habitat in scrubby places. The Island Scrub Jay, belonging to the Corvidae (Crow) family, is listed as a vulnerable species. It was first identified in 1875 by naturalist Henry Henshaw.

The Island Scrub Jay’s call does not have the “advertising song” as is found in many jays, yet it is unmistakably jay-like in its distinctive squawk. The great American writer Mark Twain said this about jays: “You never saw a bluejay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser.” He also wrote a jay “is human; he has got all a man’s faculties and a man’s weakness. He likes especially scandal; he knows when he is an ass as well as you do.”

Not much I can add to what Twain has to say except to urge fellow birders to visit enchanting Santa Cruz Island.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Jan Swenson, BCA Executive Director, to Retire

This past Wednesday, Badlands Conservation Alliance, a grassroots group of which I am a founding voice, announced to its membership that longtime Executive Director, Jan Swenson, is retiring at the end of March. Jan has been at the helm for the past twenty years. In fact, BCA would very likely not exist were it not for Jan's leadership from the get-go. She has been a stalwart in defending wild North Dakota places and inspiring countless folks to step up & speak out for lands we love, tirelessly organizing us and fearlessly speaking out on myriad issues.

I have so many Jan Swenson stories, which I will save for another day. Do come to the reception we will be hosting in her honor on April 7th at 3:30 in Bismarck at the Capital Gallery. I'll share some stories at that gathering and we will all wish her a well-deserved and happy retirement.

If you are inspired by the work that Jan (and BCA) does, do consider applying for the job. We are hiring & that info appears on the BCA website.

A message from the founder and current President of BCA, Lillian Crook.
For twenty years, Jan Swenson has put her shoulder to the plough for BCA, birthing the organization from its initial days, growing it to be the force it is today, a well-respected grassroots voice for the wild badlands. She has decided that the time has come for her retirement. While it is difficult to imagine BCA without her leadership, know that the board of directors is endeavoring to seek a new executive director to be at the helm going forward. Please see the following release for more information, and, if you know anyone who might be a good fit for this position, do let them know we are hiring. 
Please join me in wishing Jan all the best in her retirement years. A reception will be held to honor Jan on April 7th at 3:30 p.m. at the Capital Gallery in Bismarck. 
For more information:
Connie Triplett
BCA Board Member
(218) 230-4160
Bismarck, ND, March 7 2019
    Jan Swenson, longtime executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA), will retire at the end of March.
    BCA is a North Dakota-based grassroots organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the North Dakota Badlands and rolling prairie ecosystem comprising western North Dakota’s public lands, both state and federal.
    According to the organization’s website, BCA “provides an independent voice for conservation-minded North Dakotans and others who are appreciative of this unique Great Plains landscape and want to ensure that the public lands management agencies adhere to the principles of the laws that guide them and provide for wise stewardship of the natural landscapes with which the citizens of the United States have entrusted them – for this and future generations.”
    The organization said it will immediately begin a search for a new full-time executive director, to be located in Bismarck. Information on the position will be posted shortly on the group’s website,
    Swenson, a lifetime Bismarck resident, has served on the staff of BCA since its founding in 1999. Her organizational skills, combined with a propensity for volunteer activism at the grassroots level, led her to BCA and her current staff position.
    “Jan is probably the most knowledgeable person in North Dakota about threats to public lands in North Dakota, especially the Little Missouri Badlands,” said Lillian Crook, BCA founder, and current BCA president. “We’re going to miss her ability to explain problems with development encroaching on pristine areas, and to reason with public officials about how to minimize impacts to the land, water, air, and wildlife in western North Dakota.”
    In 2018, Jan was named one of the Conservation Communicators of the Year by the North Dakota Wildlife Federation for her work in presenting the movie “Keeping All The Pieces,” an award she shared with Mike McEnroe, past president of the Wildlife Federation. The movie is a 15-minute outreach film illustrating both the beauty of our Badlands and the threats Bakken oil development brings to landscape, wildlife and traditional uses, and was co-produced by Swenson, McEnroe, along with Allyn Sapa and created by Makoche Recording Studios. 
    In 2017 she received the North Dakota Award from The North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, the organization’s highest award, given annually in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession of wildlife management, and she has also received a Special Service Award for conservation work and leadership from the Sierra Club.

    A special reception to recognize Jan for her work will be held April 7 at 3:30 p.m. at the Capital Gallery in downtown Bismarck.

Friday, March 1, 2019

WildDakotaWoman takes a trip to new wild places

Every few years, my husband and I embark upon an adventure outside of our beloved Bad Lands and North Dakota, seeking to fulfill our mutual goal of visiting all of the national parks. Thus, my blog has been on hiatus since the end of January. Because we garden, we find it necessary (for the most part) to travel in the months of January and February. Hence, we decided to travel to the warmer areas of the US, the southwestern states. We had a plan but feared the government shutdown would in turn shut down our plan.

The moment we got the word of the end of the shutdown, we snapped into action, retrieved our passports from the safety deposit box, arranged for a house-sitter, and loaded much of our camping gear and a bunch of books into our SUV (we have an abundance of camping gear and books). From our closets, we dug out our short pants, t-shirts, and flip-flops.

Departing on a day when the wind-chill was 33 below zero, I overheard my husband, Jim, tell many of his friends that in a few days we would be where the temperature was in the 70s. Best laid plans. Although we did camp some, we didn't rough it as much as we had hoped.

National parks & monuments visited. At each one, Jim takes great delight in securing a stamp for his Passport Book.

Exhibition Island National Historic Park (WY) - sorta, a driveby as we crossed the Green River
Great Basin National Park (NV) - first for both of us
Zion National Park (UT) - we've been there before but never can resist its breathtaking allure
Cabrillo National Monument (CA) - first for both of us
Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island (CA) - first for both of us
Joshua Tree National Park (CA) - another first and kudos to the people who had cleaned up the govt shutdown mess before we arrive
Organ Pipe National Monument (AZ) - long-awaited first for both of us, a wonderful place of solitude and beauty on the border
Saguaro National Park (AZ) - first for Jim
Tumacacori National Historic Park (AZ) - first for Jim
Coronado National Monument (AZ) - first for both
Chiricahua National Monument (AZ) - first for Jim (I went there as a child living in El Paso)
Pecos National Historical Park (NM)
Fort Union National Monument (NM)

Zion National Park

When we arrived in our oceanside hotel room in La Jolla, CA, the surf on the Pacific was pounding as a result of the howling winds generated by the big weather fronts hitting the coastline. I opened the deck door and settled in to ponder the horizon as long as I was able, thus avoiding the "state of the union" speech in my own Zen way. We took a walk along the beach and I reflected upon the fact that very few things put our lives in perspective as time spent near an ocean.

The view from our deck
The weather was rotten all across the country, including southern California and Arizona. Because of the cold and rainy weather, we added a visit to the Nixon and Reagan Presidential libraries and to the gobsmacking Getty Museum.

Jim at the Nixon library

Lillian at the Reagan library

Making plans on the fly, we booked the ferry to Channel Islands National Park, another first for us, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura, CA. We chose Santa Cruz Island because there is water available for campers and it is a relatively short ferry ride (I am prone to seasickness). This decision was a wonderful fluke I realized when we visited the Channel Islands Visitors Center to prepare for the expedition and discovered that the Santa Cruz island is the only place in the world where the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay is found, a distinctly different bird from the ordinary Scrub Jay, bigger and bluer. I bought a birding checklist for the Islands and we packed up what we could carry the 1/2 mile from the pier to the campground.

Santa Cruz Island is one of five of the eight Channel Islands that make up the national park, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura, CA. It was a majestic and windswept place, inhabited by only a few NPS staff, a handful of fellow campers, and dozens of day-trippers. We hiked to a vista on the first day and hunkered down for a very cold night. It didn't take long until we saw numerous Santa Cruz Island Foxes which are not at all shy, trotting through our campsite and alongside us on the trails. In the night, a very loud pair of Northern Saw-whet Owls called above the tent for quite a long time. The next morning, we took our coffee down to the beach to watch the sunrise where a California Sea Lion popped his head up once or twice and Gray Whales spouted in the Channel. In spite of the cold wind, the day's sea kayakers were gearing up for their foray into the world's largest collection of sea caves. After we had packed our gear and deposited it by the pier for the late afternoon return ferry, we set off on the Scorpion Canyon hike, determined to see the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay if nothing else (better picture at the link here than anything I took with my phone). About two miles up the trail, to my great delight, I spotted one, a new life bird for me. We spent quite a bit of time watching several of the jays and then Jim headed back for a swim and a relaxing afternoon on the beach while I continued upward from sea level to the highest point on the Island, determined to be able to see the wide Pacific ocean from that vantage point (the developed area of the Island faces the Santa Barbara Channel). I powered through a 12-mile hike to El Montanon Peak, gaining more than 1,800 feet in elevation, saw only one other hiker until I got close to the pier and it was sweet. I took as many photos as I could with my waning phone battery and I made it back to the pier just in the nick of time. On the return ferry ride, the boat was surrounded by hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins. Channel Islands National Park is an enchanting place to which we hope to return -- perhaps when the NPS list is complete. It was bittersweet to leave the Pacific coast and I was not impressed with our last night which we spent on the Santa Monica Pier -- too raucous for my taste. I'll take wild beaches and islands any time.

Loading up for the ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island fox

Old ranch, now NPS buildings

Jim is down there waiting for me at the pier

Bottle-nosed dolpins accompanying the ferry, San Miguel Island on the horizon

Last sunset on the Pacific coastline
The highlight of next-up Joshua Tree National Park was the campground neighbors we befriended, a trio of young men from LA, first-generation Americans of Armenian descent, who insisted we join them for tequila shots and Armenian kabobs. They visit national parks to escape the craziness of LA - sound familiar? 40 MPH wind gusts on day two drove us off to seek shelter in Palm Desert having sustained some damage to our tent's wind fly.

Other highlights were Organ Pipe National Monument, visits with Tucson friends, a day at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and several days in Santa Fe, where we stayed at The Inn of the Turquoise Bear, in the Ansel Adams Suite, a place we learned of from one of our favorite travel guides, Literary Destinations. We can never get enough of Santa Fe and all of its charms. Our arrival there was pushed up because of another huge storm that brought snow to Tucson and Nogales and closed Petrified Forest National Park. We will have to try to get to Petrified Forest on another expedition. New Mexico and Arizona have a lot of national monuments and the like, but we pretty thoroughly explored southern Arizona this time. We finally had to accept that we couldn't get to all of these on this trip.

An impressive saguaro at Organ Pipe National Monument

The eponymous Organ Pipe cactus, the only place it is found in the US

The cacti are endlessly fascinating

Our visit to The Desert Museum including an awe-inspiring raptor show featuring five Harris Hawks

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Tumacacori National Historic Park 


Southern Arizona has many traces of General George Crook's time there. Naturally, I wanted to track these down, including visits to the Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone and Chiricahua National Monument. 

Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone, AZ

We couldn't resist, choosing to spend the night in the TR Room on President's Day in the historic Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, AZ 
A find at Chiricahua National Monument

We squeezed in a Rosanne Cash concert in Tucson at the stunningly restored Fox Theatre.

Inn of the Turquoise Bear

Lobby, Inn of the T. Bear

St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, Santa Fe

San Miguel Chapel interior, Santa Fe

San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe

Our last morning at the Inn of the T. Bear

New Mexico State Capitol, the only round state Capitol building in the US

Everywhere in New Mexico and Arizona one finds details such as this door to the NM state capital building

NM state capitol

Inn of the T. Bear, Santa Fe

Inn of the T. Bear
St. Katera in front of St. Francis Cathedral

Scrumptious breakfast every morning at the Inn

We awoke to snow in Santa Fe, threw our stuff into the car, and powered through in two days to our nice, warm Red Oak House, never having worn flip-flops, t-shirts, or shorts but rather most all of our fleece garments and Sorel boots over and over, with far more trips to the laundromat than we had scheduled. Oh, and my valiant attempts to see a Green Kingfisher at Patagonia Lake State Park were to no avail. Guess it is not meant to be. I also didn't eat nearly enough tamales (even had tamales for breakfast one day), but I did score several new life birds. Next time. Driveway to driveway, 5391 miles was enough. All along the way, we made a point to tell federal employees how grateful we were that they were back at work, and, to a person, they were delighted to be doing their work.

What a gorgeous and diverse country is the U.S. and we've only begun to explore it in our two lifetimes. We intend to continue!