When in Rome…

The well-known Latin proverb, Omnes viae Romam ducunt (all roads lead to Rome) does not guarantee straightforward paths, and my own was anything but. Despite spending the first two decades of my life in Germany, I never managed to set foot in the Italian capital. Another quarter century had passed in my new home in America when I visited Germany in the summer 2015, and I was determined to remedy this gap in my life experience.

With the transatlantic journey behind me, the relatively minor distance between Frankfurt and Rome remained the only obstacle. I opted for an early morning flight, to fully use the few days at my disposal for the exploration of this fabled city. Frankfurt’s airport is easily accessible on Germany’s efficient (when not on strike) public transportation system, and I arrived plenty early on the chosen day. The false alarm at the security check which resulted in an unpleasant pat-down rang in the first in a series of mishaps. In order to save time with luggage, I was traveling only with a carry-on, and foolishly had forgotten to check the list of forbidden items. Having to relinquish a bottle of sunscreen which exceeded the weight limit by one ounce, and which I didn’t replace at one of Rome’s ubiquitous pharmacies until after I had assumed the color of lobster, added new meaning to the old adage “an ounce of prevention”.

Once I reached my assigned gate, an overhead announcement directed us Rome-bound vacationers to another, since our plane was delayed, and we departed Frankfurt one hour late. Clement weather enabled the pilot to partially compensate, and the view of the Mediterranean after ninety minutes noticeably raised everyone’s spirits. The approach to Fiumicino, one of Rome’s two airports, was smooth, as was our landing, at least at first. The wheels had hardly hit the tarmac when the engines howled and, in an instance, we were airborne again. Mine was not the only face with a big question mark and a worried expression. Immediately, the flight attendant’s seemingly calm voice tried to reassure us, followed by the captain’s. When he explained that he had thought it advisable to avoid the unforeseen airplane at the end of the runway, he did not encounter any objections from his passengers. Circling, we enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the airfield once again. Traffic control (where were they a while back?) eventually cleared us to land. Since nobody had informed the ground crew of our arrival, we idled thirty more minutes, and by now everybody was standing in the aisle, luggage slung across shoulders, ready to escape.

My feet finally touched Italian soil. Only two more stages separated me from my highly-anticipated sightseeing—I had to reach downtown Rome, and check into my lodgings. Having originated from a European port within the Schengen Area, there was no passport control, and I was free to follow the signs to the Leonardo Express which departs every thirty minutes and takes about as long to reach Roma Termini, the city’s main train station.

Roma Termini

Roma Termini

This leg of my trip worked as planned. The terminal was teeming with travelers looking for a ride by train, bus, taxi or private vehicle. Roadmap in hand, I was able to reach the nearby hostel on foot. In spite of having talked to the manager personally a few days prior, and of having been assured that they could accommodate me for the three nights I intended to stay, there was a glitch. No bed was available. Would I mind going to their sister hostel, located in the opposite direction from the railroad terminal? I reached the second hostel drenched in sweat on this hot June day, wet hair clinging to my neck, my patience nearing its limits. Would it be possible to stay here for three nights, I asked timidly, yet hopefully, holding up my receipt from the first hostel. Well,…yes, but…

I wondered what else might go wrong. I was told that I could share a women-only four-bed room during the first night, but would have to move into a mixed twelve-bed room during the two subsequent nights. The prospect of a guaranteed roof over my head sounded great, and I felt relieved, even thankful. After all, who wants to hang on to her grievances, petty or otherwise, when the Roman Forum and Colosseum are within reach?

Colosseum

Colosseum

I shed my baggage, and my Northern European attitude, then set out to immerse myself in the Eternal City, half a day later than originally planned. Rome might be eternal, but my time was limited, and I planned to make the most of it.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/andere-lander-andere-sitten/

A Sandy World

Whenever my voyages take me through southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, I can’t resist the beckoning of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. Regardless of the number of previous visits, the beauty of its unique landscape attracts me time and again. This was the case in early April 2016, during my return trip to Colorado Springs from Monte Vista, where I had gone in search of Sandhill Cranes.

Wind in the San Luis Valley is not unusual, but on this particular day, nature seemed bent on demonstrating the conditions which led to the dunes’ formation. A strong southwesterly whirled up dirt and dust and blew it to the northeast, draping a hazy veil across the sky. In clear and calm weather, the mounds of sand can be seen from miles away, but on this occasion, they were only visible once I neared the entrance of the park on the 16 mile road leading north from Colorado Highway 160. The sinuous shapes of sand appeared like a mirage behind the curtain of swirling soil, beneath the white clouds adrift in a cerulean sky, and before the backdrop of the snow-laced Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

This early in the year, intermittent Medano Creek on the southern fringe of the dune field, conduit of the mountains’ snowmelt, was nary a trickle, and I crossed it without soaking my toes. Not many visitors were about on this windy weekday, but we were in for a blast. I longingly thought of my bandana at home, which would have served well as a protective mask, but a t-shirt had to function in its stead. Despite my best attempt, its fabric flailed in the gusts, allowing grainy matter to make it into every exposed orifice, and underneath my clothes. Upon the High Dune at nearly 700 feet, I was assailed by horizontal barbs. So vehement were the squalls, I was barely able to stand up straight. Only several feet below the crest could I find enough relief to take in the views—the sensuous, skin-colored curves of the dunes, the vastness of the San Luis Valley, fringed by the distant San Juan Mountains, the craggy ridge of the Sangres behind me. Whereas most humans struggled against these inhospitable conditions, ravens were in their element, riding the wind like a roller-coaster, screaming their delight into the air, reminding me to make the best of what each day brings.

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Back at the car, under my sunglasses a ring of sand encircled my eyes; my nostrils, ear canals and mouth felt gritty; and I emptied out heaps of silt from my shoes, socks, and pockets. Later, at home, kernels covered the shower floor before spinning down the drain, recalling one of Colorado’s most unusual landmarks, making me look forward to my next excursion there.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/sand-und-wind

Monte Vista

The spring and fall migrations of Sandhill Cranes through Colorado’s San Luis Valley is one of our state’s highly anticipated spectacles. In March 2011, my family and I witnessed it for the first time, during the annual Crane Festival, and I returned again in 2014. On that occasion, I experienced the gathering of thousands of these magnificent birds on a field for the night. Their raucous evening arrival and morning departure left an indelible impression, and earlier this year, I set out for that destination again, hoping to spend more time in their presence.

Sandhill Cranes

By all accounts, the migrants stop over at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge between the middle of February and April. As I approached Monte Vista on Colorado Highway 160 in early April, about three weeks later than during my previous trips, I knew that I was pushing my luck. I noticed several smoke-like puffs in an otherwise blue sky, a sure signs of a flotilla of cranes. The thought crossed my mind that these might be the last ones leaving for their breeding grounds in northern latitudes. My fear worsened when I saw no cranes along the 2.5 mile auto-loop inside the refuge, and nearby pull-outs, but was assuaged when their characteristic laryngeal trill reached my ears, and I beheld a few dozen circling in the sky. After a survey of their previous roosting site revealed not a single representative, neither in the evening, nor on the following morning, I knew I had come too late to witness their multitude. Apart from occasional small flocks of cranes riding the thermals, I only detected a few lone individuals in a field. Alas, even those were too distant to capture crisply on camera. Somehow, even though these long-legged, long-billed, legendary birds, whose fossil records date back at least 2.5 million years, had been my primary purpose in returning to this part of our state, I was not overly dejected since I soon discovered other wonders to explore.

At first glance, the refuge appeared dormant this early in the season, dressed in muted yellows, browns and reds. Desiccated stalks of cattails and sagebrush, and leafless willow bushes and trees didn’t speak of spring, even though occasional green shoots in the marshes and ponds that make up a vast portion of the refuge whispered of flora’s springtime awakening. Not so the fauna, which was already wide-awake, and very audible. The part- and full-time denizens who call the refuge home were not deterred by the still chilly temperatures at night, which ranged from the teens to low thirties, or by the absence of floral lushness, and their sheer numbers and exuberance more than compensated for any sense of loss I felt at having arrived too late for the cranes’ migration. A herd of deer ranged among the sagebrush at dusk and dawn, chipmunks scurried from one cover to the next, and a few rabbits bounded through the brush. A sleek and striking Long-tailed Weasel was so intent on capturing a chipmunk that it ignored my proximity. Sadly for the chipmunk, the weasel succeeded.

Long-Tailed Weasel

Long-Tailed Weasel

Other fascinating animals notwithstanding, I dedicated most of my time to the observation of feathered beings. Among the most numerous were Red-winged Blackbirds, well known to me from my home along Colorado’s Front Range. They were as flashy as ever, but were outdone, if not in number, at least in appearance, and whimsical behavior, by their cousins, Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The males’ conspicuous yellow heads, black bodies and white wing patches stood out among the cattails. Gregarious and garrulous, their blaring and surprisingly varied vocalizations are accompanied by hilarious contortions of the entire body. I named them clowns of the marsh, and they rank high on my list of favorite avians.

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

The blackbirds’ boisterousness was exceeded only by Canada Geese who seemed in a cantankerous mood, defending their chosen nesting sites noisily, and, at times, physically, from perceived or actual intruders. I had never before noticed the expressiveness of the ubiquitous American Coots. Genetically, they are nearer to Sandhill Cranes, than to the flocks of ducks with whom they share habitat and whom they resemble more closely, even though they conjure images of swimming chickens. The copious waterfowl included Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, Lesser Scaups, Redheads, Cinnamon Teals, and Buffleheads, and whatever else I might have missed. Among the shorebirds, the shrill call of Killdeer attracted attention, as did a special activity of American Avocets, namely leap-frogging, or, in their case, leap-avoceting, which looks as funny as it sounds. Diminutive Marsh Wrens went about their business among the cattails busily and vociferously, possibly building nests. Song Sparrows flitted along the marsh edges and delighted with their cheerful songs. Horned Owls broadcast their hoots in the morning and evening, Northern harriers and Red-tailed Hawks were engaged in hunting during the day. In the graying light following sunset, a Short-eared Owl alighted on a post to survey its surroundings for a bite to eat.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Above this near-constant background of sounds and commotion, I was still able to discern one of my favorite chants—the heart-warming melody of the Western Meadowlark.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

I am no longer disappointed about the paucity of cranes at Monte Vista as it freed me to focus on details which might otherwise have escaped me. The wildlife refuge was teeming with a beautiful array of creatures with whom I shared a few precious days, and even though I didn’t find what I came looking for, I discovered so much more.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/monte-vista/