Mountain High, Valley Low

The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.

So said John Muir, that famous naturalist and conservationist, who spoke, wrote and philosophized so eloquently about the environment.

Muir was particularly fond of the mountains. I share his affection, having preferred the mountains to the beach since I was old enough to have a preference.

Teton Pass in Wyoming

So, it’s no surprise that on this, my third jaunt across the country, John and I spend alot of time exploring mountain highs, though we will visit the spectacular Oregon coast again.

This transcontinental trip has been particularly poignant for me since the United Nation’s dire report on climate change was made public just as we got underway. Hurricane Michael, the second catastrophic storm to pummel our coasts this season, served to emphasize the report’s severe conclusions.

I have viewed the splendour of each majestic vista and wondered what it will look like in 50 and 100 years. Will my children and grandchildren enjoy the luxury?

Fall in southern Idaho

The irony of my concern is not lost to me. After all, I am burning a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to traverse the country in a terribly fuel-inefficient vehicle. All my recycling and the significant reduction of beef and dairy from my diet won’t balance the scales of my carbon footprint on this trip.

Therein lies the problem. I do some things to reduce my environmental impact, but not enough. I am a micro example of a macro problem. We passed wind farms in Missouri, Utah and Idaho — but not enough to make a difference. We drove by solar farms as well, but not enough to make a difference, because the oil wells we passed in Kansas are still pumping and the cattle on miles and miles of land across Wyoming are still, well, farting. (Cows contribute more to global warming than all the automobiles in the USA.)

And so it goes. Humanity catapults toward catastrophe doing something — but not enough.

Muir’s words encompassed a day. They were the longing of a human to take in as much natural beauty as possible before the sun set and hid the scenery in the darkness of night.

For me, the words are much more melancholic. It’s a big, beautiful world full of light and color and I feel driven to absorb as much of its natural splendour as possible while it irrevocably changes, ultimately lost in a darkness that my grandchildren may never see lifted.

I document what is so that they and theirs will know what was.

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The Garden that Old Dog Built

Some of the best sites to see on the road are found where you least expect them. Such is the garden that Old Dog built.

If you ever find yourself on or near Highway 53 in Calhoun, Ga., make sure to stop by the Rock Garden. It’s nestled behind the Calhoun Seventh Day Adventist Church right on the four-lane.

Open from dawn to dusk and free-of-charge, the Rock Garden is a labor of love. Conceived by Dewitt Boyd — a folk artist who prefers the moniker “Old Dog” — the garden began more than a decade ago as a place for his family to play. Old Dog used his artistry to create exquisite fairy tale structures out of pebbles, wire, cement, and shells.

Today, there’s dozens of these handcrafted pieces laid out along a quiet stream. Castles and quaint villages dot the pebbled walkway.

Along the magical path, you’ll spot an amazing replica of Notre Dame…

complete with flying buttresses and stained glass. Old Dog and a cadre of volunteers labored over the construction of the cathedral for 27 months.

Flying buttresses.

When I visited today, an incredible replica of the Coliseum was underway.

As you take a stroll through the small, rock garden, remember to peek inside the structures. An exploration of the innards of a castle revealed a little romance…

while a cute puppy took a nap.

It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can bring a picnic or pause to reflect at a number of picturesque seating areas along the garden path.

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A Worldclass Garden in Atlanta’s Backyard

Despite opening in 2012, Gibbs Gardens is still a hidden treasure. Nestled in the rolling foothills of Cherokee County, Georgia, about an hour north of Atlanta, the Gardens are almost in my backyard; but I had never heard of them until a couple of British friends told me about them.

Based upon the Brits’ recommendation, I toured Gibbs Gardens today and was not disappointed.

The gardens are the creation of Jim Gibbs, CEO of Gibbs Landscaping Company, who spent 15 years searching for the perfect setting for his family’s estate and a public garden. He found about 300 acres in North Georgia in 1980 and he’s been developing his masterpiece ever since. The result is a lovely landscape to rival any of the glorious European gardens I’ve had the good fortune to tour.

Mr. Gibbs’ labor of love is divided into two large sections: the Manor House and its terraced garden and the Valley Gardens spread out below the house, a series of landscaped loveliness the crown jewel of which is the Japanese Gardens.

A walk from the Welcome Center to the Fern Dell, the far end of the Valley Gardens, is only about a 15-minute stroll, unless you stop to linger in the Japanese Gardens along the way.

The reproduction of Monet’s bridge and water lily garden is quite lovely — though I still prefer the luscious original.

Replica of Monet’s Waterlily Gardens and Bridge

A tram is on hand to cart you around the gardens, but walkers could spend all day exploring the myriad pathways featuring open vistas as well as 24 ponds, 32 bridge crossings and 19 waterfalls. I traversed the Valley Gardens on foot and rode the tram up to the Manor House.

The Gibbs’ actually reside in the home which is not open for tours. The house itself is a beautiful mixture of European architecture and includes some stunning French imports: a 14th century limestone fireplace, 17th century interior doors and 18th century beveled and leaded glass doors and windows.

The family kindly allows visitors to enjoy the scenery in shady sitting areas overlooking the terraced garden or to lounge by the swimming pool.

Whether you spend an entire day or just a couple of hours soaking up the picturesque views, Gibbs Gardens is a hidden treasure, a world-class public garden right in Atlanta’s backyard.

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Tournai: Belgium’s Hidden Treasure

Tournai’s cobblestone streets have witnessed more than their fair share of disaster. A Roman town in the 1st Century perched alongside the Scheldt River, Tournai (Doornik in Dutch) has survived multiple sieges, the plague, the Spanish Inquisition and both world wars.

The Belfry on the Grand Place.

Walking its cobblestone byways today, it’s hard to imagine that the quaint town was virtually in rubble at the end of WWII. Luckily for 21st century travellers, the town was rebuilt to its historic glory. Architecturally, the Tournai today is the Tournai that was.

Prosperity came to Tournai in the Middle Ages thanks to a nearby quarry and all the artisans in the area. The city became known for its porcelain and tapestries.

Tapestry on display in Notre Dame de Tournai.

Notre Dame de Tournai is the center of the town. Construction on the massive cathedral began in 1146 and continued on and off until 1700.

The cathedral as seen from the Belfry.

The cathedral, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, is under massive restoration due primarily to a tornado that struck it (and the town) in 1999.

The cathedral’s interior, despite the maintenance scaffolding that dissects it, still enthralls visitors with whispers of its grandeur.

Perched near the cathedral is the Belfry. Belfries pre-date town halls and served an important legal and civic role. Their bells issued a call to arms, announced public executions, or warned townspeople of a fire or other disaster. In the Middle Ages, they were used as a holding prison for those awaiting trial.

No bats, but lots of bells in Tournai’s belfry.

Today, the belfry in Tournai reliably announces the time. A climb to the top, about 226 stairs, reveals great views of the sprawling, old town and its environs.

Tournai is not crawling with tourists despite being only an hour’s train ride from Brussels and three from Paris. It remains a hidden treasure.

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Midday in Paris

Woody Allen’s 2011 romantic comedy Midnight in Paris is a flick worth watching. In it, a young screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is vacationing in Paris with his fiancee, but finds himself touring the city alone at midnight. Magically, he is transported to the early 20th-century Paris where he meets the writers and artists — Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dali, Gertrude Stein, et al — who made Montmartre (in)famous.

My favorite characterization in the movie is Adrien Brody’s portrayal of Salvador Dali. Brody comically nails the flamboyant artist declaring repeatedly “I am Dali!” In Brody’s version of the artist’s Catalonia accent, it comes out as “I am Dahhhhleee!” which always makes me smile for some inexplicable reason.

Needless to say, I would love to magically return to pre-WWII Paris and mingle at midnight with the cadre of writers and artists living and working on the quaint hilly streets of Montmartre.

A typical street in Montmartre.

Alas, I am limited to roaming Paris at midday which, of course, is delightful in its own right.

Montmatre still has a windmill.

Strolling down a street in Montmartre, you can still see aspiring artists. I ran into a bench-full of students sketching a sidetreet leading up to Sacre Coeur.

I was on a mission to check out a small museum featuring the surrealist works of a guy who said, “I don’t use drugs. I am drugs.” None other than Dali — who now, thanks to Adrien Brody, I always think of as “I am Dahhhleee!”

The small Dali Museum is in Montmartre tucked in a corner on Rue Poulbot.

In a city known for its museums, this isn’t one of the best, but if you like the mind-warping works of Dali — including all those melting clocks — it’s certainly worth a visit.

I’m taken with Dali’s obsession with time — the fluid passage of which is irrevocably slipping away from each of us.

I left the museum thinking “I am Donna!” A declaration to the universe that I passed through, albeit in a nanosecond. Yet, time is mystical. It stopped for me today. I walked the streets of Paris at midday and a moment seemed timeless.

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William Built It

Caen, nestled near the coast in northern France, was definitely put on the map by William of Normandy — better known as William the Conqueror — who built Caen Castle here in 1060.

I visited William’s stronghold for the first time today. Venturing to Caen is a two-hour train ride on the SCNF out of the St. Lazare station in Paris.

My last trip to Normandy, in 2008, was part of my first trip to France. The rolling, green hills of Normandy and the wide beaches along the coast are among my favorite landscapes in a country filled with exceptional landscapes.

Caen has grown to a metropolitan area of 400,000 people since William’s day, but the Conqueror certainly left his mark on the city — not to mention the country across the Channel.

Part of the castle footprint.

The castle is perched in the heart of the old town, flanked by two abbeys, the Men’s Abbey and the Ladies Abbey, built by William and his wife, Matilde. The royal couple are each interred in their respective abbey.

We didn’t have enough time to visit either abbey, but the towers of the Men’s Abbey dominated the distant skyline from the castle ramparts.

The abbeys and about eight other churches survived WWII, but two-thirds of Caen was destroyed during the war. The city rebuilt and moved on, a mix of ancient and modern worlds. But I confess, it’s the ancient which captivates me.

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The Lion and the Swan

Nestled in the heart of Switzerland amid the Swiss Alps, the city of Lucerne is famous for its breathtaking lake.

Humans have been controlling the water level of the lake for more than 150 years using an ingenious Needle Dam developed by Charles Poirée.

The water level of the lake is still regulated manually by the removal or insertion of the dam’s “needle” timbers.

Removing the needle timbers allows the water to flow.

The crystal clear water provides an idyll home for water fowl, including these beautiful swans.

But the most famous creature in this lake city is a lion made of stone.

The monument of a dying lion carved into a giant rock commemorates Swiss soldiers who died defending the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution.

Yet, the lovely Lucerne has much more to recommend it than the courageous lion and the elegant swan. Wonderful frescoes adorn the facades of buildings in the Old Town squares.

Of course the city features beautiful churches…


and the Ritterscher Palace, but one of the most intriguing structures is the Spreuer Bridge.

The timber bridge was built in 1408, making it the oldest in Switzerland. Inside the covered bridge are 67 paintings depicting a Dance Macabre which were added between 1626 and 1635.

The views from inside the bridge put the paintings to shame.

Lucerne is a jewel. The man made objects in the city and around the lake are stunning…

but it’s the lake itself, cradled by snow-capped mountains, that is the real masterpiece.

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