Springtime Touring of DC Neighborhood

mt pleasant walk1
The snow is gone and so are the cold temps and even the rain of last weekend. So I celebrated by joining a walking tour of one of DC’s neighborhoods with the local Sierra Cub chapter.

We met at the corner of 16th St,. and Florida Ave., NW, which had been the northern border of the city in times past. And proceeded from there up 16th Street for several blocks before veering off into the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. On that first stretch we passed multiple churches, a few embassies and apartment buildings that once housed famous people of one sort or the other.

The occasional historic placard told us about sites noted for their architecture, previous tenants or historic moments.  Among my favorite stories was that of Rev. James Reeb, pastor of All Souls Church that we passed, who was beaten to death while marching for civil rights in Selma, Ala. It was also intriguing to learn that a tiny offshoot off of 16th Street was built to accommodate Sacred Heart Church, because at that time the city didn’t want a Catholic church on its most prominent thoroughfare.

When we veered off of 16th Street we were in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, with its mix of impressive mansions, row houses and unique blend of ethnicities over the years. There was the little Czech block; the block where Bo Diddley of R&B fame lived and recruited Asian neighbors as backup singers; a block that unsuccessfully fought the arrival of an African-American family after a court ruled against the city’s laws that at the time allowed homeowners to sign a covenant never to sell to blacks. It was on that block that there was a sculpture built of tricycles. And further down the road a beautiful mural influenced by the participants of a community center’s activities for Latinos..

mt pleasant walk4
mt. plesaant walk3

We ended up on a commercial street where the city’s first bodega was opened, and that now has a mix of Latin American and African eateries and shops as well as a bakery more than 60 years old.

The best part of the walk was soaking up some springtime sun and enjoying flowers and trees in full bloom.

mt. plasant walk2

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Our Fall Adventure in the Arizona Desert

I just returned from one of the most scenically stunning, physically demanding and culturally diverse vacations that I can remember.

Ted and I had been planning for months to travel to Arizona to backpack into Havasupai Canyon with his sister Betsy, brother Bill, niece Sarah, and my friend Tim. I had no true idea of what we were signing up for.

The little bit that I had read talked about a “strenuous” 10-mile trek into this side canyon to the Grand Canyon that is all tribal land, to a campsite down below. It was promoted as all switchbacks, so I figured it couldn’t be as challenging as some of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks that I had climbed.

But I hadn’t figured in the added weight and bulk of a backpack stuffed with clothes, bedding and food for 3 days, nor the surprise of a very tricky descent down the cliff of a waterfall.

DSCN1307The 6 of us gathered the night before the descent at a motel more than an hour from the trailhead. We arose to a very cold morning, and I started to worry that I might not have packed enough warm clothes. That turned out, though, to not be a concern at all.

We set out on the trail at about 9 a.m. and over the next seven hours trudged down the canyon walls into a broad desert valley that began to green as we neared the settlement of Supai, where we treated ourselves to ice cream bars from a tiny store while watching a helicopter drop off some construction materials and then a load of supplies that included a couple of Halloween pumpkins. DSCN1326Throughout the hike, we often had to give way to mule and horse trains loaded with bags (including post Office mail for the village) and, occasionally, hikers’ gear. The final two miles took us by some of the amazingly beautiful streams that gave the tribe its name: Havasupai, people of the blue-green water. And we walked alongside the iconic Havasu Falls, which grace many a postcard with their tumbling waters bordered by desert rock and oddly placed greenery.

We set up camp alongside the roaring stream, luxuriating in the availability of a picnic table and composting toilets, amenities not usually found on wilderness backpacking expeditions.

The next morning we took off to explore further into the canyon, where the written descriptions promised some more spectacular falls over a six-mile roundtrip.

DSCN1338We all were expecting more of the same type of hiking, along dirt and rubble trails, so imagine our surprise when we came to the top of spectacular Mooney Falls to find that we would have to step down the steep cliffside, trusting in heavy metal chains to hold onto, the occasional ladder and footholds worn smooth by thousands of previous hikers. There were a couple of short rock caves to crawl through. And there were sections where Ted had to walk me through where to place my next foot — “just 3 more inches,” he’d say, and I’d try to stretch a leg that far to get to the next foothold.

Safely down, Ted and I put on our water shoes and waded through the blue-green water to an island with a couple of picnic tables and gazed at the magnificent falls splashing into a pool, while keeping another eye out for Tim who was a little bit behind us on the trail.

DSCN1343The three of us then kept on, walking through one different landscape after another, all bordered by cliffs of desert rock: a stretch of wild grape vines, another stretch of tall grasses, then an area of ferns. After a couple of more stream crossings and some ladders, we reached Beaver Falls, a series of cascades of the same, beautiful blue-green water.

What we thought would be a fairly easy 6-mile hike turned out to take six hours with slowdowns on the steep descent and scenic stops.

After another good night’s sleep, we set out the next morning for the return trek out of the canyon. It was a grueling, long, 8-hour day returning through the unprotected canyon that we had come through two days earlier. At one point, I just kept my eyes trained on the horizon and focused on getting from one spread-apart shady spot to another. I can’t imagine anyone making this trip in the heat of the summer, and my mind also wandered to all the immigrants trudging through similar desertscapes to reach the United States with hopes for a better life.

After 8.5 miles we reached the final ascent: steep switchbacks reaching up the canyon walls to the parking lot and outhouse that would mark the end of our journey. Halfway up, we stopped at a small stone enclosure and looking up, I couldn’t imagine making it up the final leg. But it was surprisingly quick to wind our way up that final stretch, although by then I was out of water and starting to feel a little queasy even with taking sips from Ted’s hydration system.

It was exhilarating to reach the top and look out at the wide expanse of canyon that we had walked through. My legs were as sore as after a couple of the most grueling Adirondack High Peaks, and they got some rest the next two days as Ted and I took in some cultural offerings with his sister Betsy on our way back to her house outside Phoenix and then around that area.

We spent that night in Flagstaff and the next morning visited the Museum of Northern Arizona. There, we saw pottery, rugs and jewelry of the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes and learned a bit about the Havasupai, who traditionally lived at the bottom of the canyon for the warmer months and then moved to the upper land in the winter. Some of the people are now returning to that custom, we learned. I was most impressed with a Kiva mural that was the most profound piece of art that I had seen in a long time, with images of past and present and messages of death and rebirth, concluding with a panel where modern technology provides access to all the truths of the major religions.

We then drove through Oak Creek Canyon, which resembled forests in the Northeast except for the rocky cliffs above, and stopped just outside touristy Sedona to check out one of the vortexes, “swirling centers of subtle energy” marked by the twisted bark of juniper trees. While spiritual seekers come to the area expressly for these sites, I didn’t feel much at the “masculine” vortex we stopped at by the Sedona airport, but the 360-degree view of the wide expanse of desert and mesas was spectacular.

indian ruinsThe next day we drove out to Besh-Ba-Gowah, the restored ruins of an Indian tribe called the Salados that had built the stone structures and ceremonial spaces from about 1200 to 1400 AD. The Apache later discovered the place sometime after 1600 and gave it its name, which means “metal camp,” probably referring to vast deposits of copper in the area. In fact, the most discouraging sight on a drive that was otherwise a spectacular desertscape was immense copper mines dug out of the rocky hillsides. Apparently the metal is now in demand for wind turbines, reminding me that even our move toward so-called renewable energy (which I greatly support, by the way) comes with some costs.

arboretumOur final stop of the day, and the trip, was at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where we saw all kinds of cactus from around the world as well as pomegranate trees with lush red fruit and leaves turning autumn gold. We had seen the signature desert saguaros (which we learned grow arms only after 50 to 75 years) and prickly pear cactus on many of our drives, but here were many more varieties.

Ted and I returned to the DC area last night, to very chilly temperatures and trees starting to turn yellow, orange and red. Memories of the trip will stay with me for some time, but it’s also good to be home, where I can walk and take public transit instead of being so reliant on a car as is the case in Arizona, and where there is lots of water and a sense of being in the center of things.

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Joining the Traveling Lifestyle

at Cape May lighthouse

at Cape May lighthouse

People in the DC area seem to travel more than those I’ve met in other places where I’ve lived. It’s probably due to a mixture of professions over-represented here — journalists, government workers and staff of national and international non-governmental organizations — and the fact that most people are from somewhere else and so are often visiting family and friends in far-flung places.

Ted and I have a friend who is of Cambodian heritage but who grew up in France. She and her American-born husband (a university professor with opportunities to do some of his research remotely) return to France for extended stays. Another friend worked at the French embassy here and returned a few times a year for home leave. She has now been posted to Monaco and I have a visit on my to-do list in the next couple of years.

Another, journalist friend has traveled over the past year to Cuba to cover the pope’s visit there and to Africa with Catholic Relief Services. Another friend, who works for U.S. AID (our development assistance agency), is traveling to Haiti in a couple of weeks to relieve a colleague returning for home leave. One of my co-workers travels at least once a year to Honduras and/or El Salvador to report on human rights abuses (in the former) or commemorate anniversaries of atrocities (in the latter).

I’m joining their ranks with much work travel and some personal travel thrown in.

Just since the beginning of August:

making tortillas
making tortillas
  • I went to Nicaragua for a week with a church group to help build classrooms in a remote, impoverished hilly region.  It was my first experience of a “developing” nation and it  was eye-opening to see the lack of educational opportunities (a bare majority of children attend school and of 100 of those who do, only one graduates from high school), the grinding poverty, the sanitation challenges (I was among a handful of us who got giardia while there, and another handful got a bacteria) and the cynicism about government leaders who were often described as leaders of gangs who take care of their own with the main changes being who benefits depending on who is in power. But there were mostly experiences of warm hospitality, cultural riches, children and their families living with great hope, and young adults showing extraordinary community leadership. You can see here a video made by our pastor, which gives you a feeling for it all.
  • I was invited to speak to the faculty and staff at Misericordia University, in Dallas, PA, about the Sisters of Mercy’s social and environmental justice concerns. The institution was founded by the Sisters, and my mom and two of my aunts are alums, so it was a special opportunity.
  • From there, Ted and I went to Cape May, NJ, to visit with some of his family gathering at the place of many childhood memories. I finally met his oldest brother, Jim, who lives in California, and now have met all of his 5 siblings.

    hiking Black Butte in Oregon

    hiking Black Butte in Oregon

  • We just returned from a few days in Oregon, visiting good friends of Ted’s. They were exceedingly gracious hosts, giving us a tour of Oregon, from a couple of days on the coast to another couple of days in the Cascades in the central part of the state. Also a stop at one of the most incredible bookstores ever — Powell’s in Portland.

I’m now home for a couple of weeks and then going to Omaha, Nebraska, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to give some lectures on issues that the sisters are involved with — healthcare, nonviolence (gun violence prevention and prevention of a war with Syria), climate change and the federal budget (preserving funding for programs that low-income Americans rely on). Then in mid-October to Savannah, GA, to staff a table at a Mercy secondary education conference. Then more personal travel: hiking Havasupai, the native American reservation area of the Grand Canyon, with Ted, my friend Tim and some of Ted’s family members.

Now to do some laundry from one trip and set aside the empty suitcase to be filled again in a couple of weeks.

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A Very Progressive 4th of July

patriotic float






It was my third summer here and I finally made it to the storied Takoma Park 4th of July parade. It was all it was billed as.

There were the expected carloads of politicians — all of them Democrats, of course. And also the appointed city peace delegate, whatever that means.

pedal powerThere was the group asking for support for a dog park and the local food co-op represented by a giant shopping cart covered with labels for vegetarian items. There was the Washington Revels and — I kid you not, you can look it up — the Maryland Faerie Festival, with dancing fairies and a dragon band. And there was a bicycle-powered float that had a message that had something to do with the “rat trap,” which I couldn’t quite figure out.

There was a group calling for the freeing of WikiLeaker Bradley Manning  and for an investigation into the “truth” of a supposed 9/11 cover-up. Then there were representatives of the city’s 25-year-old gay and lesbians organization dancing in celebration of the “death” of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. One couple held a sign announcing that they have been together 35 years and just got married.

indonesian dancersFor music and other entertainment, we had a Caribbean steel drum band, a Japanese drumming group, Indonesian dancers and a couple of truck beds with guitarists (including this Takoma Park Rocks float). Not a John Phillips Sousa-playing marching band in sight, although members of a Seventh Day Adventist Church did lead the crowd in a round of “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag.”

Happy Fourth of July, from this “no nukes”, no-trade-with-Burma and no-harmful-lawn-pesticide city on the edge of the nation’s Capitol!

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Neighborliness Alive in Takoma Park

I’ve always enjoyed my neighborhood, with its bungalo houses and sidewalks giving it more a village feel than a city on the edge of Washington, D.C. A major crossroads for many public bus routes is just a few blocks away, handy for my commute to work in neighboring  Silver Spring. And I’ve been fortunate in a neighbor across the street who has gotten me involved in a great parish and its English-language teaching opportunities.

My eyes have opened even more widely to the special neighborhood I live in since the tragic murder-suicide next door a few months ago.

The neighborhood email listserve can be annoying with too many gripes about the power company and differences of opinions on city policies. But it has been helpful as well, with news of open houses, sightings of copperhead snakes on the nearby bike path and the rationale of a couple who took in a man just released from prison for sex abuse offenses (and the many replies to that, ranging from supportive to squeamish).

The first weekend of May each year, some neighborhood artists open their homes to showcase their most recent works. This year that was topped off by a neighborhood barbecue at which I met many more neighbors. Then a few weeks later, another family invited the neighbors to a big dance party in their backyard, complete with a DJ (playing too many disco/techno tunes for my liking) and dance floor that will soon become the base for a deck. As usual, Ted and I met quite interesting people at these parties — including a guy who works at the World Bank (and we had a good discussion about whether its policies are helpful or hurtful to struggling nations) and a woman recently hired in the statistics division of the National Institutes of Health.  Ted is always sure to get into discussions about climate change, which can make interesting conversation, depending on others’ viewpoints.

My landlord, meanwhile, is developing his farmette or “God’s little 18% of an acre,” as he also calls it. The plants were so dense along the dirt path from the driveway to my back apartment, that I ended up with some blossoms decorating my bicycle after wheeling it through one day. And he had enough surplus produce a couple of weekends ago that he set up a stand on the driveway and sold quite a few quarts of strawberries, heads of cabbage and small bags of herbs to the cars that had to slow down at the speed bump just even with the house.

Brian reminds me that I can help myself to any of the harvest in the garden, and the past summers he’s brought me large bowlfuls of tomatoes or sweet potatoes. This year, they’ll just supplement the Community Supported Agriculture farm that I joined. While the farm is in Pennsylvania, the pickup is just a few blocks away, where the farming couple live in a house that has been renovated with straw-bale construction and walls made of mud from their backyard.

Downtown Takoma Park, which is more like downtown Scotia, NY, than Silver Spring with its towering office and apartment buildings, is just a 5-minute bus ride or 15-minute bike ride away. While the video store and homemade ice cream store haves closed, a gelato shop has opened and a seafood restaurant is under construction. The scene is rounded out by poetry signs occasionally posted on the sidewalks and the temporary “seatable art” in front of many storefronts. My favorites are the giant tricycle and the chairs made out of plumbing.

I just stumbled upon my apartment when desperately looking for a place to live when preparing to move to the DC area. But I’ve learned that Takoma Park is a very desireable community, and I am continually discovering reasons why.


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Comparing NYC and DC

DSC00644I just returned from a few days of meetings in New York City and from the start found myself comparing the Big Apple to D.C.  in many ways.

In New York:

  • I could walk around on a very sunny day and not even need sunglasses because with the shade of the tall buildings the sun didn’t reach the streets in a blinding way.
  • Many a block is crammed with tiny storefronts, usually including a bagel shop and small deli with racks of fresh fruit or cut flowers outside. And I had my first taste of tofu cream cheese, a totally vegan version made of whipped tofu and often spiced up with vegetables.
  • Food carts seem to be set up in any old place, dispensing everything from rows of fresh fruit to halal sandwiches.
  • I walked for the first time on an elevated walking path, DSC00633 called the High Line, which was created out of an elevated train track in the Chelsea neighborhood, near where we were staying. It was beautifully landscaped with all kinds of greenery and some neighbors added whimsical touches of murals and in one case a cutout guy hanging out a window waving his hand at passing walkers
  • The taxis must be so cheap because people seem to be hailing them all of the time. For 4 people it was cheaper than all of us taking the subway.
  • The subway trains rattle and shake and there don’t appear to be any rules against eating or drinking
  • Money definitely rules, as anyone walking through Times Square or the Diamond District can attest, with all the neon billboards, Hershey and M&M mega-story stores, and glittery window displays.

In D.C.:

  • Sunglasses are a must as the sun has lots of room to penetrate amid the wider roads and more squat buildings
  • Stores and restaurants have a more static presence and wider, bigger footprint, with more gleaming newness than Old World character. Fruits and vegetables are kept inside, and the occasional bagel shop is more likely to be a chain than an independent bakery.
  • There’s a war going on between the trendy food trucks and restaurants, with regulations being set up to limit where food trucks can park and for how long
  • There seem to be fewer parks in the heart of the city to match the obviously well-endowed leafy green spaces in Manhattan, ie Madison Square Park and its own arts foundation for public sculptures.
  • I’ve never taken a taxi, and am only acutely aware of their presence when they’re servicing the long lines of train and bus arrivals at Union Station
  • The Metro is decidedly quieter and the cars and stations cleaner, which of course is helped by the fact that the system is much newer and signs everywhere warn you that eating and drinking is prohibited and violations carry a fine.
  • Instead of glaring consumerism, power seems to be the operating principle, with most conversations veering to the political and even the buildings giving off the aura of pay-attention-to-me importance
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Venturing Outside the Beltway

People in D.C. talk about “life inside the Beltway,” the I-495 loop that encircles Washington and the closest-in Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The term is usually used to describe a geographical bubble inside which conversation leans to politics and topics that have little interest elsewhere.

Being dependent solely on public transportation, I don’t venture out much into the immediate environs just outside the Beltway. I’ve been hiking plenty of times in the further-out rural areas, getting rides with friends or with local outdoors clubs, but not to areas just slightly out of reach.

So it was really fun to head out with some women friends today to Howard County, which is northwest of where I live and closer to Baltimore than to D.C. Our destination was the Sheep and Wool Festival at the county fairgrounds.

There must have been hundreds of stalls selling all colors and textures of yarn along with samples of finished shawls, sweaters and socks and patterns for making them at home. I didn’t have any illusions of being able to actually complete such projects — I still have an unfinished prayer shawl that I’ve been knitting for the past couple of years — so I just admired those who do take that time and effort.

Of course, they also had all kinds of lamb dishes for sale, and I enjoyed a version of sloppy Joes on a bun. That and a couple of cookie cutters (they’re used for felting projects, I’m told) and a cute maaaaaather’s day card were my only purchases. But if was so much fun walking around on a lovely spring day.

I brought my bike and so enjoyed taking off to explore some back-country roads nearby, cycling up and down the rolling hills and by new, modern mansions that sit side by side with horse farms and cow fields. The bike trails all around D.C. are fine for getting out for a spin, but there’s nothing like the more freeing feeling of cycling around an area and just choosing roads to turn onto on a whim and admire changing landscapes.

Imagine my surprise and delight to come upon High’s Dairy, a Baltimore-based chain of convenience stores that so remind me of Stewart’s in northeastern New York. I popped my head in and saw the ice cream cases right away, and ordered a milkshake; it was quite the ordeal as it was the first time the employee of 4 months had made one, but it came out delicious.

After returning to the fairgrounds and meeting up again with Barbara and Cynthia, they were ready for an early supper and suggested we drive a little ways up the road to Sykesville, a charming village that retains some of its 19th-century heritage in the architecture and railroad tracks running right through it. We sat out on a porch at Baldwin Station, a restaurant right along a river. A delightful way to end the day.

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