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Reaching Russia

St. Petersburg SquareTravel is a funny thing.  You meet people and share stories and part ways, never to meet again.  Take my seat-mate from London to St. Petersburg.  He came along and put his covered cup pretty much on the pillow I’d set on the empty seat between us.  I reached out to rescue my pillow, he reached for the cup and of course it tipped.  I dragged out a wad of Kleenex and mopped it up. We sat in mutually annoyed silence as the rest of the passengers sorted themselves, the doors closed and we took to the air.  Eventually the flight attendants began to pass out the immigration forms for Russia.  He asked for a pen.  Full of the need to continue passing out papers, the attendant agreed to provide one and moved off.  My seatmate waited for awhile and asked again.  At last, I dug out one of my spare pens and handed it over (those of you who know me well also know I am a pen freak, so I always have a least 3 if not more stashed around).  That broke the ice.  He started talking.  I won’t go into the entire conversation here but one of the phrases he used to describe a wealthy person throwing a snit-fit because they hadn’t gotten their way I shall cherish forever: “throwing the toys out of the pram”.  All in all, from that first inauspicious beginning we spent the nearly 3-hour flight chatting like mad.  We shook hands after deplaning and laughed about the inauspicious beginning to our conversation and … I never saw him again.

In company with others, I walked down long green corridors punctuated by flight gates and several shops until we reached a large echoing barn of a room where everyone found a place in a line.  There were no neat little ropes politely corralling and directing us, just a bunch of people standing in ragged columns.  At the other end of the room were enclosed channels with numbers above each channel, as well as five or six signs announcing in Russian (and, thankfully, English) that this was Passport Control. Inevitably, I fell into conversation with the couple in front of me; he turned out to be a retired Naval Attache and he and his wife had lived all over the world, including Russia. In the line next to me were two couples, the husband of one grumbling and snorting at the inefficiency.  You guessed it … those two couples were also part of my tour group, although the couple in front of me were not.  At last it was my turn, and I have to admit to a bit of nervousness, since I had all sorts half-baked notions of stern Russian officials demanding to why I hadn’t filled out parts of my immigration card (because I didn’t know the answers). The woman was very polite and spoke very little (probably because of the language barrier) and when she handed back my passport I used the word I’d heard my Naval couple use, which turned out to be “thank you”. She smiled.

From there I entered a cramped hall crowded with luggage belts, luggage and people where a young man stood holding a vast luggage cart and a sign that said “Stanford Travel/Study”.  We were to collect our luggage, bring it to him, and he would get us all out of there, through Customs and into the hands of our guide.  My snorty friend from Passport Control was back, stalking around trying to find his luggage on the belt, complaining about it and generally getting in everyone’s way.  Turned out that our young man had collected it for him.

Dutifully we followed our luggage man out, where we met our guide (and I don’t remember her name but I know I’ll do so later).  She led us outside into a busy dark landscape with snow blowing horizontally, warning us to be careful, as it was about 34 and slippery.

It was absolutely exhilarating.  I’m in Russia, in winter, and tomorrow will be an amazing, full day.

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Kidnapping My Mother

Well, it didn’t begin as a kidnapping. I was visiting Mom (8-12 November) and she asked what I wanted to do. The only thing that I really wanted to do was drive up to the Cabin, which has been in the family since 1932 (well, to be honest, the property has been in the family since 1932 but a disastrous fire in 1966 destroyed the original Cabin, which was rebuilt in 1967).

Since Mom wanted to inspect the newly restored deck, she acquiesced.

In retrospect, that might have been a bad idea … depending upon who’s telling the story.

Since I’m telling the story, I don’t think so….

Here goes:

Friday (9 November), we had rain and (gasp!) hail in the Tulare/Visalia area. Saturday dawned clear and crisp … in Tulare. We took our time (such a lovely notion!) and finally departed for the mountains around 11:30 A.M.

As I may or may not have mentioned, I have a Subaru Outback. I trust it to meet and vanquish most if not all road conditions.

And most importantly, Mom is one of the least faint-hearted people I have ever known. I’m a coward, next to her. She is—and always be—completely amazing.

The first part of the trip was easy; we enjoyed the ruler-straight San Joaquin Valley roads and this time I didn’t miss the proper turn (as I did last time, don’t ask!). It’s a lovely drive at this time of year, with the harvest mostly in and the fields and orchards shifting subtly towards their winter rest.  We watched the mountains grow and enjoyed the beauty of the clouds draped across the Sierra Nevada crests.

The trouble—if that’s what you want to call it—began several miles after we passed the “Sno-Line Lodge” on Highway 180 East. This is where the lowland trees (mostly oak) give way to the conifers … pine, cedar and eventually redwood. As children we embraced it as the place where the gaspingly hot San Joaquin Valley summer heat was finally mitigated by (so we believed, thanks to our grandmother, Mom’s Mom) the pine trees, but as we eventually discovered, the altitude.

Snow began to show up at the edges of the road; first in the shady protection of the north side, then—as we climbed—on both sides. About five miles from the Park Entrance (I guess I also forgot to mention that the Cabin is in a private tract of land called Wilsonia, created prior to the Park … Kings Canyon National Park) we saw a sign that said “CHAINS REQUIRED”.

Now, I ask you, how ridiculous is it for one to put on chains and crash one’s way up a road with NO SNOW? Seriously! It’s absolutely dire on one’s tires, never mind that I didn’t have said chains.

So I kept going, ignoring both the sign and the people at the side of the road attempting to fit chains to their tires.

After a bit, Mom said, “I’m feeling worried.”

“About the ‘chains required’ sign?” I inquired.

“Yes.”

“Do you want me to turn around?”

“I think it’s a good idea.”

“Okay, I’ll turn around at the next turnout.”

The next turnout, however (fortunately?), had a foot of unploughed snow.  So I kept going, since Mom didn’t like the idea of turning around there either.

Just before reaching the Park entrance station for Kings Canyon National Park, I pulled over to let the snowplow by and as he hooted thanks, Mom said, “if they stop us for not having chains, will you turn around?”

“Heck, yes!” And I would have done, no matter how determined I was to get up to the Cabin.

We drove up to the entry station, and I told the ranger on duty that we were on our way to check our property in Wilsonia. We had a great chat, she waved me through, and I kept on.

There are two ways to get to the Cabin, and I told Mom that I wouldn’t go the back way but the “main” one. She accepted this with gracious relief.

I turned into the “main way” and drove up to the first hill.

Mom said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep going.”

I said, “I’ll turn around as soon as I can.”

We got up the first hill and there was nowhere to turn around. And honestly, at that point we were almost to the Cabin, never mind that others had driven the road; I wasn’t forging through pristine snow but following other tire tracks.

“Mom,” I said, “I’m sorry, but we’re almost there, so can I keep going?”

Since she is an utterly amazing Mom, she agreed.

So we reached the Cabin, with its unblemished driveway and surrounding trees garnished in white. I pulled in, left the car running and jumped out to take photos (Mom, smarter than her daughter, chose to stay in where it was warm).

Afterwards, we drove out and back to the main road. We had lunch at Grant Grove Village, ran into a Wilsonia neighbor who’d seen us go by earlier and told us she kept an eye on the Cabin for us.

It was wonderful.

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Earthquake or Tornado?

For some reason, I’m fascinated by human reaction to events.  Take last night’s earthquake, for example.  Most of my local friends not only felt it (it woke most of us up) but almost immediately commented on Facebook (as did I). In casual conversation with people all over the United States, much of it turns to natural disasters.  So I ask: “What would you prefer, earthquakes or tornados?” Almost without exception the folk in tornado country prefer tornados, with little to no hesitation. Many of us in earthquake country prefer earthquakes.

If anyone reads this, please post your choice and (if you feel so inclined) your reason for that choice.

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The Fluidity of Life

“And nothing is, but what is not.” (Macbeth)

Not a profound post, this, in spite of the title.  More of a “just when you think….” sort of thing.  How many times have we said “I’ll never [fill in the blank]!”  Ho. “Never” is about as fluid an expression of life as anything.

I’m trying out WordPress before the next set of adventures, which begin 26 December 2012. Huge learning curve, much confusion (and please, no pithy observations about old dogs and new tricks!).