Sunday, May 31, 2020

The uncommon allure of Saguaro National Park

If you’ve never been to Saguaro National Park you might wonder why anyone would want to hang out around a bunch of prickly cactus plants. But if you go, you’ll find that these giant cacti have a unique and seducing beauty that is mysteriously felt as well as observed.
Tucson Mountains provide the backdrop for saguaro forests
in Arizona's Saguaro National Park.
The giant saguaro (pronounced sa-war-o) is a universal symbol of the American west. Because these majestic plants are found only in a small portion of the United States, they are protected by Saguaro National Park, located in two sections east and west of Tucson, Arizona.

Sprawling arms give the cacti
a haunting appearance.
Gently sloping hills below the Tucson Mountains create the ideal habitat for saguaros, which grow in stands so dense they are called “forests.” The cacti grow very slowly at first, just an inch or so during the first six to eight years. Young plants have the best chance of survival when they are sheltered by “nurse trees” like mesquite, ironwood, or palo verde.

The branches, or arms, which seem to reach out to visitors, may not sprout for 70 years. But, when standing next to a saguaro, there’s a calming peace, as though the cactus is offering protection in an inhospitable environment.

A saguaro may reach up to 75 feet tall—at about 150 years old. By this time it is extremely heavy, not only from the weight of the branches, which sometimes break off, but also from water that is collected through shallow roots extending far out from the trunk.

Saguaro East

Upon landing in Tucson, Larry and I first made our way to Saguaro National Park East in the Rincon Mountain District. At the Visitor Center we watched a film about the Sonoran Desert and the importance of water in this arid space. We have found that national park films offer beautiful photography and an easy to understand summary of whatever area we have come to explore.

Even the most wicked looking cactus
sprouts beautiful circular blooms.
Then we began to drive the Cactus Forest Loop, which might take 45 minutes if you didn’t stop at all. But there is too much to see along the way and numerous paths to explore. We spent several hours along the scenic eight-mile loop as it passes through a saguaro forest. 

Naturally, we stopped often to take pictures at overlooks and to walk on paths such as the short Desert Ecology Trail. Longer hikes into the back country let people experience more remote desert areas but also require a good measure of caution.

Cast against a blue sky and white cloud,
the saguaro makes a striking picture.
At Javeliina Rocks, another notable spot, I climbed large boulders, some too hot to touch on that early September afternoon. And Larry found out that sharp spines stick easily to clothing if you veer too close to low-growing plants. Advice is to not step anywhere without looking (even if your eyes are on an intriguing cactus above your head) or touch anything if you’re not absolutely sure what it is.

Saguaro West

Even the drive on Kinney Road to Saguaro National Park West was filled with forests of majestic saguaros pretty enough to stop and invite us to wander among the tall, armed specimens. This day, we started early in the morning to avoid the heat of the previous day. So we waited until after our sightseeing drive to stop at the Visitor Center and view another film.
Saguaro forests line the highway near Tucson, Arizona.
The west part of the park also included a drive that we found to be even more spectacular than the east section. The six-mile Bajada Loop Drive can be extended on Hohokam Road and Golden Gate Road to create a five-mile extension in the Tucson Mountain District.

Entrance to the east section of the park
Again, we stopped often, mesmerized by the thick stands of beautiful mature saguaros, such as those seen on the Desert Discovery Trail and Valley View Overlook Trail. We marveled at the amazing forests of cacti set against a backdrop of cooling mountains.

At Signal Hill, a short trail took us to see dozens of petroglyphs—drawings etched into rock that date back many centuries. Along the trails we learned names of several other varieties of cacti in the park such as ocotillo, pencil cholla, teddy bear cholla, and bristlecone.
Petroglyphs tell stories from ancient civilizations.
Visit both sections

It’s possible to visit both east and west parts of this divided national park in one day, but allow about an hour to drive between them and several hours to appreciate the features of each section. If you want a longer visit, there are more than 175 miles of trails for hiking, bicycle riding, or horse-back riding—just beware of the heat and prickly plants—and venomous snakes!
You must be careful when walking trails
in Saguaro National Park!

Although the area is desert, it is far from desolate. Cream-colored flowers appear on the cacti in early summer. White-winged doves, bats, honeybees, and moths feed on the nectar and pollinate. Many animals feed on the deep-red fruit that ripens in July. Birds find not just food in saguaros but homes as well, making nests in holes in the trunk or large limbs or perching on tall branches.

In 1976 Congress designated over 70 percent of the park as wilderness area, preserving the diverse natural conditions for future generations.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Monday, May 25, 2020

To fly or not to fly?

Now that states are loosening stay-at-home restrictions—and summer is approaching--people are starting to think about travel. First of all, ask yourself if the trip can wait. Staying home is the best way to control exposure to coronavirus and other pathogens.

If you are anxious to get away (and who isn’t?), probably the safest way to get from here to there is in your own automobile—the one you’ve been driving to the grocery store and other errands. Road trips are becoming the preferred means of travel for the foreseeable future.

But what if you’re hoping to travel to a far away location or can’t take the extra time that a long road trip entails? If taking your trip means flying in an airplane—or traveling by bus or train—there are things to consider before you book.

Are you ready to fly?

Can you overcome fear about things you can’t control? You won’t know anything about airport employees or other passenger—where they have come from, who they have been around, or what their health status is. Flying is out until you can deal with the unknowns. Then you think about what you can control and plan accordingly.

For any mode of public transportation, the primary concern is staying at least six feet away from other people (because you never know who might be infected—and it could be you). The longer you are stuck in a specific seat, the greater time you could be exposed to virus droplets in the air.

Also, think about shared surfaces such as door knobs, seat trays, and restroom handles. Although the risk of spreading the virus via hard surfaces is now thought to be minimal, the virus could be transmitted if you touch your face soon after touching a contaminated surface.

Minimize hazards before you fly

Capacity is increasing every week, so check to see
what the policy is for any flight you're considering.
If you choose to fly, be sure your airline has policies in place to minimize capacity (most are flying at 60 or 70 %) and to space passengers. Some airlines will not book middle seats and skip every other row. Others board from the back of the plane to minimize how many people passengers must pass on the way to their seats. Theoretically, the window seat is the least likely to have exposure, primarily because one side is a wall. But you can decide if that is the most convenient for yourself.

If you can, find out what kind of ventilation system the plane you’ll be traveling on has (not always easy to do). Look for a plane with a high ratio of outside air to re-circulated air as well as HEPA filters, which remove 99.9% of particles from the air.

Minimize hazards in the airport

Check in procedures usually require touching many surfaces. Use hand wipes on anything you touch. Also wipe down personal items others may touch such as a passport, ID, or luggage (if gate-checked or someone else helps you store a carryon bag). If you take a spray bottle of sanitizer, make sure it is less than three ounces as required by TSA.

Remember to wash thoroughly and for 20 seconds.
Of course, wash your hands often (for 20 seconds!) and use hand sanitizer in addition to (not in place of) soap and water. Don’t rely on gloves for protection because these can become contaminated, too. 

Some airlines require masks in the terminal prior to boarding and on the plane. Take extras, so you can change if needed, and store any not being used in individual sealed plastic baggies. Disinfect the mask before the next use or keep it sealed in the bag for 72 hours.
Zip bags are useful to help
keep items clean.

Safety in the air

Once on the plane, use wipes or sanitizer to disinfect surfaces around your seat. Keep your mask on as required by your airline or up to your tolerance level. If possible, stay seated during your flight. Moving around exposes you to more potential pathogens—including from surfaces touched and people passed.

Hand sanitizer is helpful when you can't
wash with soap and water.
We know it’s never possible to guarantee safe travels on an airplane. In fact, we are never totally away from all possible germs and viruses anywhere we go. 

But, if you decide to travel in the near future, please do so in a manner that protects yourself and others around you.

Photos from free sources

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A day in Geneva, Switzerland

While it would be hard to top the excitement of our paragliding adventure in France during our five-day visit to Geneva,Switzerland, we did follow that with an excellent day of adventures. The city is built around Lake Geneva, so we had previously taken a boat cruise to see notable landmarks from the water and spent an afternoon checking out the picturesque district  of fine old buildings and upper-end hotels on the newer side of the city.
Cable car ride to Saleve mountain
Our hotel was located in the Old Town section of this lovely city, which meant driving our rental car anywhere would be a major challenge (narrow streets, no parking, poor directions, etc.). So we decided to take the local bus to the outskirts of town where we could hike on SaleveMountain.
A modest walk took us from the bus stop to Saleve.
The weather was perfectly fine, cool with blue skies, so we walked several miles up the mountain on mostly well-maintained paths. At one particularly grassy spot we stopped to admire overviews of the city and fortify ourselves with a granola bar. 

Beverly stands on the edge of the mountain that we could have paraglided from. 
Actually, this was the launching place for paragliding tours from Geneva. While it was certainly beautiful, it could not compare to our alpine adventure the day before in Chamonix, France. While assuring ourselves that we made the best choice, we still felt this was an exceptional place to escape city busyness and further explore our Swiss destination.

We hiked a couple of miles around the mountain.
Our hike continued past a restaurant and to an observation area with a great view of the city, Lake Geneva, and Jet d’Eau, the immense water jet in the lake that shoots a single stream more than 397 feet in the air. Some of our favorite memories, including profusely blooming flowers and golden-leaf-strewn paths, came from this hike.

Later, we rode the bus back into town, walked around a modern shopping mall and pedestrian area, and got a bite to eat at McDonald’s (they’re everywhere!). 

Buildings on the waterfront in Geneva, Switzerland
Clouds began to gather, and strong winds sprayed water from the fountain, so it seemed prudent to start walking lakeside towards Old Town. We stopped for pictures of the colorful Flower Clock (it actually keeps time) and crossed the bridge into the older section.

While heading in the direction of our hotel, we checked out shopping possibilities and the trolley tracks that Larry inadvertently tried to drive on our first night there. We photographed a beautiful church with lovely stained glass windows and arched ceilings. We took pictures of the ancient St. Pierre (Peter) Cathedral, which is known for its famous bells and association with conservative Christian leader John Calvin.
The Flower Clock that actually tells time. 

When a few sprinkles began to fall, we decided it was dinner time and headed to our favorite Italian restaurant in Geneva—Le Navy Syracuse. We had dined there before on the open patio and found the service and food to be excellent. With rain threatening, we chose to stay inside and eat this time—our last night in the beautiful city of Geneva.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Travel after the pandemic

Today’s post is by Christopher Elliott, whose latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

Why everyone will want to travel soon

Everyone has a touch of cabin fever after the worldwide coronavirus lockdowns. So it's no surprise that people want to travel soon. But how soon may come as a surprise.
Montana Beartooth All American Highway
 Jill Kaiserman, a retired teacher from Wayne, Pa., is eager to trade one cabin for another. She's already made plans to drive to her second home in Maine this summer. "It's the perfect kind of place for social distancing," she says.

Whether it's a cabin in the woods or a cruise ship cabin, Americans are dreaming of their next trip—and booking. 
Social distancing is easier when your vacation cabin is
far from other accommodations.
 "Travel advisors anticipate an influx of calls in the next six to eight weeks for those looking to plan future trips," says Misty Belles, a spokeswoman for Virtuoso, a travel agency group.

Why? Maybe it's because there's a pent-up demand for travel. People missed their spring break cruises and theme park vacations. Then they had to sit in their homes and apartments for weeks. Now they just want to get out of town. 

People will soon be anxious to travel again.
A new survey by Destination Analysts suggests American travelers feel the worst of the coronavirus may soon be over. One in five say they'll book a trip when the lockdowns are over.

"Traveler optimism is increasing," says Gavin Harris, commercial director of strategic partnerships at Skyscanner. His site's research suggests that 85% of Americans believe it will be safe to fly domestically by this fall and 74% think an international flight will be OK.

What kind of travel will be in demand?

Three types of travel will bounce back quickly after the lockdown lifts, according to experts.

  1. Business travel, particularly meetings and conventions.
  2. Road trips to nearby destinations to visit friends and family.
  3. Luxury getaways, including cruises, safaris and resort vacations.
    Biking from Glacier to Yellowstone National Parks allows for plenty
    of space and fresh air.
 Business travel: prepare for a deluge

The outlook for business travel is complicated. While many road warriors will switch to Zoom meetings, other types of corporate travels will need to happen soon because there's been a two-month pause in bookings and lots of pent-up demand.

"Typically, meetings are booked well in advance and during off-peak periods so that large groups can benefit from lower room rates," explains Catherine Chaulet, CEO of Global DMC Partners, a network of independently owned and operated destination management companies. 
Tapatio Springs near San Antonio, Texas is a popular meeting resort.
"Once the lockdown is over and a vaccine is available, there will be so much pent-up demand that meeting planners -- and business and leisure travelers -- will be competing for venues, and inventory will be limited as the industry plays catch-up." The meetings won't take place in the days and weeks immediately following the lockdown, but they will happen soon.

Is this the summer of the long road trip?

In the last week, I've heard from lots of travelers who have ditched an overseas vacation or cruise in favor of a road trip. 
Get out of town in your own car this summer!

"This will be the summer of driving to visit grandma and long road trips with the family and possibly the national parks," predicts Bob Barton, a former car rental executive who now consults for RentalMatics, a software developer. "It's a controlled environment and a chance to spend time as a family and see the country -- not just the airports." 
National parks should be popular
destinations this summer.

Chris Backe, a game designer from Asheville, N.C., who writes a blog about off-the-beaten-path travel, says the conditions are perfect for a summer road trip.  "No international flights needed," he says. "The roads are clear, gas is probably at a great price, and when places reopen, they'll be ready for you. Also, it's easy to maintain social distancing."

Contrarians are booking luxury travel

Another group of people who want to travel soon: luxury travelers.
Yes, cruises will resume and many people will book their preferred mode of travel.
 "There are many types of trips, including cruises, safaris, and adventure or luxury travel, that require booking 12 to 18 months in advance under normal circumstances, so it's important to keep that in mind if you're thinking of traveling in 2021," says Marc Christensen, founder of the tour operator Brilliant Ethiopia. "If you wait until the world has returned to normal to start planning these kinds of trips, you might run into availability constraints independent of coronavirus." 
Crowd control is easy on a safari--or
maybe a visit to a zoo.

Mita Carriman, the CEO of the travel site Adventurely, says she's seeing bookings from "extremely high-end luxury travelers" who can pay for high degrees of luxury isolation." 
"Think semi-private island," she says.
Beautiful beaches can be found near and
far--this one is in Costa Rica.

In other words, there were people in lockdown who were buying vacations even as the government advised against nonessential travel. It's the ultimate contrarian move. These travelers all have one thing in common. Neither a pandemic, a government-order lockdown nor a sputtering economy can keep them at home. They want to travel soon. And they're days away from booking it.

Consider these trips after the pandemic 

Activities like fishing can be enjoyed without jepardizing
health and safety. 
Camping. "Domestic travel, outdoor and nature style experiences like camping and glamping vacations will likely see a surge of popularity," predicts Janet Semenova, cofounder of Boutique Travel Advisors, a travel agency. "Vacations that minimize risks of not getting back home and avoid crowded areas such as large cities, airports and public transportation will provide a sense of comfort and security."

Couch surfing. Staying with relatives or friends experienced a resurgence during the pandemic lockdowns, as hotels closed. But experts say it'll remain popular, both for economic and safety reasons. 

South Padre Island in Texas is a popular spot for RVers to visit.
Recreational vehicles. "Renting an RV is the ideal way to travel to not only avoid large groups, but to escape into nature and spend time outdoors," says Maddi Bourgerie, a spokeswoman for, an RV rental site.

All photos from free sites. 


Saturday, May 2, 2020

Would you go paragliding in the Alps?

Years ago during our first visit to Switzerland, Larry and I became enthralled with paragliding. We watched as people like us ran to the edge of a mountain and jumped off—only to be lifted gracefully upwards as winds caught the billowing parachute attached to their harness. It looked so amazing that we vowed not to let opportunity escape again if we were ever in that part of the world.
Views of mountains from the town of Chamonix, France, at the foot of the Alps
Two years ago we spent time in Geneva,Switzerland between cruises. Following an ocean cruise around the United Kingdom we were booked on a Rhine River cruise that left from Basel, Switzerland. Geneva seemed like a great place to spend the five days between—and paragliding was popular there.

We didn't realize when we took this photo from the town that we would later
soar over the glacier in the mountains.
Once we checked out this adventure from Geneva, we realized that our option was to launch from a small mountain just outside of Geneva and to sail primarily over the city—not exactly what we hoped for. The better option was to drive an hour into France and tandem paraglide from a mountain in the Alps near the charming tourist town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.

So that’s what we booked!

Now, driving in Europe can be a challenge, especially when you don’t speak the language. But we found our way there and then drove around the town several times before finding a parking lot that was open (many tourists visit Chamonix). Following instructions from our guides, we located the cable car that would take us up the mountain for our adventure.
A beautiful day and spectacular views!
Since we arrived several hours before our scheduled flight, we wandered around the shops and restaurants of the town, had lunch, and enjoyed the gorgeous mountain scenery (including Mont Blanc). The weather was perfect for our ride up on the cable car to our take-off point, and views of the countryside were stunning.

Getting the parachute ready on the mountainside before harnessing up to paraglide.
As soon as we disembarked the cable car, our guide Oliver hurried Larry to the edge of the mountain, while Xavier took charge of me. We had a helmet to put on and a harness to get strapped into while the guide positioned himself behind the passenger. The guide would steer the contraption, freeing us to breathe freely and take in this incredible experience.

Larry has just taken off--flying over the mountains (not the guy getting ready to go!)
Before I was even hooked into my harness, Larry and Oliver were on their way off the mountain and quickly gliding in the air. No time for fear!

Soon Xavier and I followed. What a sensation it was, leaving firm ground and making myself sit back into the harness/seat and relax while the guide behind me struggled to free his GoPro camera that was tangled in the cables (thankfully, I didn’t know that at the time).

Larry and guide Oliver soar over the mountains.
Camera in hand, I excitedly tried to take pictures of our surroundings—and of Larry and Oliver, who were fast drifting out of range.  As wind currents quickly lifted us we followed them to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the largest glacier in France and a big attraction for visitors to the Chamonix Valley.
Although he may look less than thrilled, Larry really did enjoy the experience.
Xavier and I soared beside mountains and over forests. For about half an hour we drifted leisurely, and I tried to absorb as much as possible of the glorious landscape as we eventually glided toward the ground.
Smooth landing in a field near town. Beverly gets unharnessed.
Paragliding was every bit as exciting as expected. While it can be hazardous if weather conditions aren’t suitable or the operator isn’t experienced enough, we felt very safe in the capable hands of our guides. If you chose to do this, be sure to book with an established company that has a good safety record for tandem rides. Then don’t look back—just do it!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier