The Third And Last Day On The Skyline Drive

We were up early once again this morning.After breakfast, we had to pack away all our stuff into the car because we were checking out. The plan was to get back on the Skyline Drive and, instead of exploring the southern section of the park once again, head north – in the general direction of home!

It had been very quiet around the tiny home during our stay. This morning I happened to hear what sounded like birds. So I stepped out with my camera to take some pictures. The sun was rising through the trees.I managed to find the Wren that had been making the noises.

Our first stop in the park that morning was in the Big Meadows Area. This is one of the popular sections of the park. It includes a Visitor Center, and even a gas station and a lodge. Our destination for the hike was the Dark Hollow Falls trail, between the mile 50 and 51 markers. Although short, the trail was advertised as being steep and rocky with a challenging return climb. Dogs were not allowed.

The parking lot was full even though it was early in the day. The trail turned out to be quite popular. This was the first trail on which we experienced true fall colors in the park.

We descended into the woods on a trail that was challenging in places.There were older people who were having a hard time of it in certain sections of the trail, and, unfortunately, some people had even brought their dogs.

The walk was worth it. The falls were quite beautiful.
We were done with this hike quickly. We headed further north to the Thornton Gap Area. The goal was to climb up to Mary’s Rock Summit, a landmark which lay on the Appalachian trail. We would be hiking from the parking lot for the Meadow Spring trail just north of Mile 34 on the Skyline Drive. We could not find parking space the first time we drove by the lot. We could not even find parking on the other side of the road, where the trail starts.We were fortunate to find an empty spot the second time we drove past the lot. We had to drive more than a mile away from the lot before we could to find a place where we could turn around to return to the parking lot!

You could see the signs of Fall at the entrance to the Meadow Spring Trail.The trail itself was fairly steep, taking us straight to the top of the ridge, where it ended.We then headed north on the Appalachian Trail which ran along the top of the ridge. After an initial climb along the ridge line itself, we were on a trail that ran fairly level the rest of the way to Mary’s Rock. Both sides of the trail were potentially open to panoramic views on the east and west sides during this part of the hike. Unfortunately most of the view was obscured by the vegetation.

There were signs of autumn along the trail. This part of the hike was easy. We got to Mary’s Rock without too much delay. The view from Mary’s Rock Summit was spectacular!We could see the Thornton Gap below us, and we could see US Route 211, the highway that we were going to take to get out of the park, at the point where it intersected with the Skyline Drive.

The hike back to the car was uneventful.

We had not prepared lunch for the day. We ate the leftover meatballs and spaghetti from the first day of this trip, and filled our stomach with other stuff.

We were able to head back home immediately after this hike. I thought we would make it home early. Unfortunately, we hit rush hour traffic by the time we got close to the city. It was not a good combination – being tired after all the activity of the day and then sitting in heavy traffic. I was quite exhausted by the time we got home. It was a stressful drive!

The Second Day On the Skyline Drive

We woke up quite late that morning in our tiny home in Stanardsville. The previous day’s activities had worn us out more than usual. It was however still dark outside in the woods, a phenomenon to be expected at this particular time of year in our part of the world. There seemed to be no point in rushing to the park to get an early start for the activities of the day. But, at the same time, there was nothing much to do in the tiny home other than having our breakfast and packing some food for the day. We were on our way to the park sooner than I expected.

Stanardsville was close enough to the park that we were were able to get to our first destination of the day shortly after 9:00am. We were visiting a section of the park in the South River Area, close to the Swift Run Entrance to the park. This was the same place we had exited the park to get to Stanardsville the previous evening.

Once we got back on the Skyline Drive, we headed south towards the Hightop Mountain Parking lot that was close by.

It was still early enough in the morning that there was enough space in the small parking lot for our car. The place also happened to be far away from the more popular sections of the park. Perhaps there were less people that hiked this trail anyway. The goal was to climb Hightop mountain that morning. We would be on the Appalachian trail for the entirety of this walk.

The hike was challenging from the start.The mountainside was all green. In spite of all the green, there were were signs that the leaves were beginning to drop,

In the midst of all of the vegetation, we passed a few random rock formations that appeared unexpectedly beside the trail. It made you wonder how they even got there. The geology of places can be interesting. The Appalachians happen to be an older mountain range (when compared to ranges like the Rockies and the Himalayas). They have been worn down with time.There were touches of yellow on some trees in the higher reaches of the mountain.The view from the viewpoint on Hightop mountain was not exactly what I was expecting to see from my reading of the literature.I had expected something more dramatic and panoramic. We went further along the trail hoping for other viewpoints from the mountain but did not find any. It turns out that a more expansive view might have been possible from the place where we had stopped if I had gotten above the vegetation level to to the right of where we were standing. Perhaps, winter is a better time for such a view.

Hightop mountain is the highest peak in the southern section of the park.

After the hike, we drove further south into the park to the Loft Mountain area, stopping at the Doyles River Parking lot (just beyond Mile 81). Once again, there was enough place to park in the lot itself. After lunch in the car, we headed for the Doyles River Trail to see the waterfalls. The trail marker to the right of the picture below is typical of what you will find in the park.The bands around the top of the post have information about trails that intersect, and about distances to destinations.For a change, instead of heading up a hill after parking the car, we had to hike down a mountain ridge to get to our destination. After all, significant waterfalls are not likely to be found along the tops of the ridges of mountainsides.

The way down was quite steep. We knew that we were in for a challenging time returning to the car.

We had walked just a short distance before we found and took a spur trail up a hillside to the Doyles River Cabin.The Doyles River starts in the vicinity of the cabin, probably as a spring. There is a spring supplying water at the place where the spur trail to the cabin meets up with the main trail to the waterfall.

Much further down the mountain, Browns Gap Fire Road crossed Doyles River and our trail.

The trail also crossed Doyles River just beyond the bridge.

We went all the way down to both the upper falls,and the lower falls.The trail was somewhat difficult in these parts. The waterfalls were also a popular destination, but they were not too crowded.

There were asters blooming everywhere we looked, and all along the trail side.

The climb back to the parking lot from the falls was as difficult as we had anticipated.

We were done with our hiking earlier than I expected. We had been making good time on the trails in spite of the challenges they presented.

We were tired and immediately headed back to Stanardsville. We had to stop at the grocery store in town to buy something that we had forgotten to pack – toothpaste! It had been quite the experience the previous night and in the morning improvising in the absence of toothpaste! Something like this does not happen often.

Getaway had left some goodies in our tiny home when arrived the previous day, including some marshmallows that could be melted over a campfire – to be served as a sandwich with crackers and melted milk chocolate. We could buy firewood and starter material for this purpose from Getaway. (They were stored in the plastic box in the picture below.)We decided to try it out. My attempt at starting a fire was not very successful. We had to settle for one partially melted marshmallow!The wood would not catch fire! One of the logs was smoking a lot, as if it had moisture in it.

We had to abandon our attempt to sit outside beside the campfire for an extended period of time. I was a little upset about the whole experience the rest of the evening.

Dinner that evening was an Italian Wedding soup with turkey meatballs and chicken sausage that Teresa had made at home and brought for the trip. It was delicious and hearty, and went down very well with a couple of beers after the long day in the park. I actually did some reading that evening before going to sleep.

And I was also happy to be able to brush my teeth that night.😊

The First Day on The Skyline Drive

We started our short vacation in the Shenandoah National Park last Sunday.

The Getaway Outpost near the park that we were going to stay at was located closer to its southern end, just outside the village of Stanardsville, VA. My initial thought had been to drive to Stanardsville directly, driving on the main highways in order to get there as quickly as possible. I changed my mind shortly before we started out. We decided to start our explorations of the park on Sunday itself, starting at the northern end of the park. That entrance to the park, just outside of the town of Front Royal, VA, was very easily accessible to us via Interstate-66 – the most direct route to the park from Washington, DC. This was how we usually got into the park. This was also Mile 0 on the Skyline Drive.

I-66 transported us from the crowded suburbs and the unending construction close to the city to the bucolic countryside of Virginia. Soon we were approaching the eastern ridges and the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

As we got closer to the park, we could not help but notice that the foliage everywhere was still green.

The Senior Pass that I had just got helped us bypass the longer lines at the entrance to the park. The first order of things was to stop at the Visitor center to decide the places that we wanted to visit within the park. A ranger indulged us with maps and suggestions for places to hike. The places suggested were located all along the park – starting close to the visitor center where we were beginning our visit, and extending to the place that would exit the park to get to Stanardsville (just beyond Mile 65 on the Skyline Drive) at the end of the day.

I could not help but notice that the Dickey Ridge visitor center that we were at was busy, but not overcrowded as it sometimes gets during the autumn season. People from the Indian subcontinent were present in large numbers.

Thankfully, the crowds diminished as we drove further into the park.The first stop was in the Compton Gap Area, just beyond mile 10. We hiked up to Compton Peak West from the Compton Gap Parking area. The parking lot was full but we found some space next to the road.The hike was mainly along the Appalachian trail.

We realized very quickly that this was not going to be like our typical weekend walks along the C&O Canal. The climb started right from the beginning of the trail.

The climbs were significant and persistent.This being the first of our hikes for the week, we had to take more than our usual quota of breaks to catch our breath. I did not think that the altitude was significant enough to be contributing to our troubles.

The Compton peak viewpoint itself was occupied by a group of young people who seemed to have had settled themselves in for the longer run. I had to settle for this picture.You may be able to actually make out the Skyline Drive on the ridge in front of us in the picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it). The roadway itself can be seen in one spot through a gap in the trees. You can see the road better in the zoomed-in picture below.

We did see some yellows on the trail.This being the first day of our visit to the park, we still had hope that we would see more Fall colors.

After the hike, we continued our way south into the park. We stopped at the Elkridge Wayside area and found a picnic bench where we could eat our peanut butter and cranberry marmalade sandwiches.

Along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for signs of seasonal change.

Our next hike was in the Hawksbill area. We took the Upper Hawksbill Trail from a parking lot south of Mile 46. This trail had a shorter climb to the peak than the Lower Hawksbill Trail, but was longer in distance, and also took a longer time. Our choice of trails is a good indication of our mindset when it came to hiking at that stage of our travels. We were conservative in our efforts.

The climb up the Upper Hawksbill Trail was not as challenging as the one we had done in the morning. We did see more signs of early autumn as we made our way through the woods.

The wind was picking up as we hiked the trail. We could hear it howling through the trees by the time we got to Hawksbill peak and the viewing platform there. It was even difficult to hold steady while taking pictures at the top!

Shafts of intense sunlight cut through the dark clouds moving over the valley, lighting up parts of the valley selectively.

As you can see below, the ridge line was clearly visible from the peak. If you open up the pictures below and look at them carefully in sequence, you can zoom in on an overlook on the Skyline Drive near the top of the ridge line. The overlook is on the west side of the ridge (on the left side of the ridge as seen in the picture). These pictures should hopefully give you a good idea of the scope of the panoramic view we were getting from this mountain top.

There were clearly signs of autumn in this section of the park.

This is a picture of Byrds Nest 2 shelter near Hawksbill peak. There are shelters and cabins throughout the park.Incidentally, Hawksbill is the highest peak in the park.

This was our last significant stop for the day. We drove further south on the Skyline Drive towards our destination for the evening, and left the park at the Swift Run exit just south of mile 65. We took US Route 33 East out of the park towards Stanardsville. We had to descend from the ridge on which the Skyline Drive is located on a winding road which was a little challenging, especially at the advertised highway speeds. The town was a few miles away from the park. We first did a bit of light shopping at the grocery store in town before heading out to the Getaway Outpost just outside of town.

The first evening at the outpost was a bit of an adventure. It was simply a matter of getting used to our own place in the woods.

The inside of the tiny home was quite cozy.

That evening we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta with marinara sauce and meatballs that we had brought with us from Gemelli’s Italian Market! I had been having a craving for spaghetti with meatballs during that period of time. It was a part of my physical and mental recovery from my trip to India.

We were quite tired from the day’s activities and crashed out soon after dinner, well before our usual bedtime.

You can read about the second day of our trip here.

Places Of My Youth

I spent a few hours walking around the IIT Madras campus yesterday reliving some of the memories of my youth. My dad used to be a professor there at one time. I grew up on campus. Later on, I also went on to get my undergraduate degree from the university. I am a true child of IITM.

This is one of the houses that I grew up in on campus.The approach to the house looked somewhat overgrown. Perhaps nobody lives there these days. These set of homes were called the Wardens Quarters. My dad was the warden of Tapti Hostel when we used to live at No. 8. It must have been towards the end of the sixties. I used to go to elementary school at that time. I remember one day not getting on the bus that I normally took when returning home from school. I walked home instead, taking a shortcut through the stadium. My brother might have also been with me. I do not remember why we did that. Perhaps I had lost the money that I had been given for the bus ride.

The campus looks as green and lush as ever these days, but there are so many new buildings. The banyan trees still catch your attention and retain their places of prominence along the roadways.

The monkeys are everywhere.They were not as aggressive as I expected them to be. I remember the times when I was growing up when they would enter the house to steal food. They would destroy things and create havoc when you chased them away. Some of them would make threatening faces at you and make a move towards you when you tried to scare them. We had screens on the windows of the house to prevent the monkeys from getting in, and you had to make sure that the external doors of the house were closed when you were not around.

And then there are the deer. They are still plentiful, and there are spaces on campus now where they are left alone and protected. The two deer in the picture below are the spotted deer and the blackbuck.

This picture was taken at the campus stadium. One of the deer is an albino.

The Gajendra Circle is a familiar landmark of the campus.My old high school grounds are next to Gajendra Circle. The place looked a little unfamiliar. The small outdoor theater space where we used to have our school gatherings was no longer visible. But there were some kids out there playing cricket – just like we used to do when we were young. Three cricket stumps stood by themselves in the middle of the grounds while the kids played in a corner of the field.

I walked past the Open Air Theater, also called the OAT.Many a weekend of my youth was spent in the evening in this open space watching English movies out in the open under the stars. The well-built screen that you see to the right of the picture did not exist during my times. Instead, three metal frames would be rolled to the front of the stage and placed next to each other, and a white screen made up of some flexible material (cloth or canvas, I do not know) pulled up and tied to the edges of the overall framework of metal for the duration of the movie. The movie was projected on to the screen from a room above the entrance on the left side of the picture. When watching a movie, the celluloid reel could rip and tear apart once in a while. You could hear the collective groan of the audience – the students and the faculty and staff of the college. There would be delay while the projectionist patched the reel back together. And then the show continued under the stars.

I was hoping to do some birding while on campus. The place has apparently become well known for this activity since I left. I got a recommendation from a friend to go to a swampy area next to the Social Activity Center. I saw a few birds that were less familiar to me.

Here is Blue-tailed Bee-eater,

and this is a White-browed Wagtail.

I did cover only a portion of the campus during this walk. I don’t know if I will make it back to visit the rest of it.

It occurs to me that I might be repeating stories of my youth from past blogs which were written during previous trips to the IIT Madras campus in years past. That’s the way it goes!

The Place Of The Gathering Of The Crows

My only company this early in the morning was the dog that kept barking at me when I stepped out on to the street. I promptly retreated back into the compound.The dog’s compadres on the nearby streets also joined in the noise making. They might have been passing messages to each other. The only other person who was up was the owner of the store across the road. She will soon start washing out her store front, a ritual that she has probably been doing for most of the years of her life. The Kolam will be the final step in the process that gets her store ready for the day’s business.

I never really overcame the jet lag of the trip completely. I am up very early in the morning with almost no exception. But it is OK. I try to make up for the early start with a nap during the day. The early start for the day gives me an opportunity to clean out the house before the rest of the neighborhood comes alive. Chennai dust is special. You just have to wait a couple of days for a layer of the dark stuff to collect on any untouched surface. The dust is relentless. It is fine enough to enter the house through the screens covering the doors and windows. You find yourself cleaning the place regularly. And then there are the fallen leaves that need to be swept up from the yard every other day.

Early mornings also give me the opportunity to go up to the terrace – before the sun is up.

The crows are the most common birds that you will see in these parts.Crows are said to be very social animals. I sometimes see them gathering in large numbers on the cellphone towers that are close by.I have noticed that some of these birds clean and preen themselves excessively in the mornings.

This is a White-throated Kingfisher that visited the yard,
and this is probably a Shikra.

There was surprise guest in this picture I took at the time of the sunset. I do not know what it is.

I was talking to a friend over the phone while in the house when the rain began. I heard the sound of a loud thunderclap. The power went out. I lost my phone connection. Pretty soon it was coming down in buckets. The rains did not last too long but it was enough to cause the street to flood. Here are a couple of shots taken from the front gate of the house after it stopped raining.

Today is another hot and sunny day. That is what you usually expect in Chennai!

A Sunrise In Chennai – The City Awakens

It is a strange thing that is happening to my body. Over a week has passed since my trip across the globe and I am still fighting the effects of jet lag. My avoidance of afternoon naps to enable nights of longer sleep duration have not panned out so far. I end up waking up a few hours before the sun is up, much before the sounds of the street begin to pick up, even earlier than the wake up calls of the birds. But this state of affairs did also offer an opportunity. I was awake early enough to be able to go up to the third floor terrace of the house to greet the sunrise and the dawning of the new day. Armed with information about the expected time of sunrise in Chennai, I ascended the stairs to the top of the house yesterday just before the dawn was due.

This first picture of the bright light in the skies turned out to be a show well before the actual sunrise. The colors in the sky disappeared very quickly.

Store fronts began to open and set up on the street. This is a little cafe.

This is a little store front right across the road.The banana leaves you see in the picture will probably be used for packing food that is sold. Later in the morning, the owner will wash the store front and complete the Kolam, the auspicious floor design on the ground in front of the home that is a tradition of South India.The milk packets for sale have already arrived are in the yellow crate.

Another false sunrise appeared in the sky shortly after the first one. It was brighter still than the first burst of light, and could be seen in a slightly different direction from that first light show. This time the light appeared over a building next to the terrace I was standing on.

This is the way the sky looked when you turned away from the sunrise phenomenon.

The color in the sky in the direction of the sunrise lost its intensity fairly quickly after the second burst of color.

The next distinct indication of the continuation of the sunrise was the light of the sun falling directly on a building that lay across from the rising sun.

It was a peaceful scene. Birds could be seen flying high across the sky in little groups. They seemed to have a sense of purpose. They flew in straight lines from one edge of the horizon to the other. From below me, on the street, arose the sounds of an awakening city.

But I still could not see the sun. It was hidden by the building in front of me. I could see the faint flare of light, somewhat like an aura, at the level of the building as the process continued.

The picture below shows the final phase of the whole transformation.

I departed the terrace at this point. My experience of the magic of this sunrise was now complete.

The Visit to Astoria, Queens, NYC

Last weekend took us to Astoria, Queens, in New York City. We were transported from the quiet and somewhat pastoral suburbs of Maryland to the concrete noisy jungle of the big city within a matter of hours. There is no blog this week about the canal and the river, and of the flowers and the animals of the wild, because of this trip. Instead, during the events of this weekend, the mind was transported to a state of alertness and hyper-sensitivity of a different kind, a period of time during which the neurons in the brain seemed to be firing every single minute of the weekend, whether it be day or night. For a newcomer, NYC can offer you an experience that is dynamic and stimulating – perhaps even over-stimulating. It works well for the young of body and mind. It takes more of a mental adjustment for people like me who are older and who have been away from this kind of a scene for a while. In a way, it was good to be back to spend a short time here, but it did also require an additional effort and expenditure of energy to keep up.

New York city hits you immediately with the richness and fullness of its experience the moment you arrive. That having been said, it is fair to also state that not all of this experience may be looked at in a positive light. After all, this is an old city with a very high population density, and a diversity of people of all economic backgrounds. It is indeed a jungle of concrete and steel that can tend to overwhelm the senses. I actually used to spend a lot of time in the city when I was young, and I used to thrive in the seeming chaos and diversity of Gotham. I am not sure that would be the case for me any more.

The experience of navigating our way into New York City, and that of driving on the highways within the city itself into Astoria, was my first exposure to what was to come. The confusing roadways – including the nature of the road signs, and the sudden appearance of entrance and exit ramps, and the aggressive driving that one has to become a part of – all of it might want some people to close their eyes. One should not be surprised when driving across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan to find out that one has to drift across two or three lanes of very heavy traffic within a very short distance to get to where one needs to be in order to exit on to another highway. It helped that I have driven these roads in these kinds of conditions before. It all came back rather quickly, even though my mind might not have been very receptive to how it all felt at that point! One has to be hyper-alert!

Once off the highway, the city driving in Astoria itself turned out to be somewhat easier, although one still had to adjust ones senses to the rules of driving in the city – including the fast changing and frequent traffic lights, the one-way streets, the fact that right turns are only allowed in NYC when your light is green, the existence of pedestrian crossings at every intersection, the behavior of pedestrians in the city, and the general sense of chaos. Drivers start honking at vehicles in front of them almost immediately when a light changes to green regardless of how how far behind they are in the queue. And you really do not want to hit somebody or something at a crosswalk in NYC! Additionally, you have to be on your toes looking out for other drivers (or even jaywalkers) making a move or two that was surely not lawful and allowed by the authorities. And then you might even be cursed at by people who simply seem to like the feeling of releasing some some of their built-in stress (a result of living in a state of hyper-alertness) by yelling or gesticulating at other more mild-mannered folks. Sometimes both parties involved in such an interaction on the street are similarly worked up. People may not appreciate the sense of caution of a newcomer, one who is normally a mild-mannered individual, but one who is now going to be transformed into a fire-breathing Godzilla himself!

Rules of the road are broken with great regularity, and the aggression that the mindset of the city can bring out in some people on the street is amazing. There was the one occasion when I was walking across the road on a sidewalk at an intersection (after the “Walk” sign turned on), when a driver of a sporty convertible with its top down made a turn from a side road behind me and accelerated on to the road I was on, passing dangerously close to my backside, while giving me some kind of a nasty look. He revved the engine and raced away even while he was passing me. Why do that?!

It is not possible to survive with a cruise control mindset if you are an outsider driving in NYC – regardless of circumstances. When driving under the elevated N and W lines of the subway system (that runs up to Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria), one has to be even more cautious. There are two lanes of roadway available in each direction, one under the supporting pillars of the elevated line and one beside it. You have to look out for traffic entering (sometimes darting) on to the main lane under the railroad lines from beside the pillars, and you have also to make turns carefully to avoid the metal supports for the elevated line at intersections.

The more commercial streets of Astoria are filled with a diversity of small mom-and-pop establishments. While it might be disconcerting to some who are used to shopping at the big-box stores and supermarkets that dominate the suburban spaces, I actually appreciate their presence. These neighborhoods were in existence well before the big chains even came into being (which also says something about how the nature of the economy has changed in this context over the years). There are the local grocery stores, the fresh fruit and vegetable markets, stores for all things organic if you are so inclined, the bodegas, cafes and coffee shops, the restaurants, beauty shops, home goods stores, flower markets, barbershops, laundromats, etc.., to give a few examples. There seems to be enough business for these establishments to survive – by catering to the needs of the locals. Even the development of the online shopping experience, and the presence of the ubiquitous Amazon delivery vans, does not seem to have affected these places that badly. It makes sense when you think about the density of the population of the city.

These days there also seem to be a large number of food trucks present at street corners. I do not remember these from my youth. The street food in those days used to be served from smaller food carts that were pulled into place by other vehicles. They used to primarily serve food like hotdogs and pretzels – low cost foods that could be consumed in a hurry while standing around the cart. The food trucks of today are much bigger and much more sophisticated. King Souvlaki, at one of its established locations at the corner of 30th Street and 31st Avenue in Astoria,comes highly recommended. I had a craving for one of those old-fashioned souvlakis (something that I cannot include as a part of my regular diet these days!) that I remembered from my youth. Mission accomplished!

You find people from all parts of the world with a wide range of backgrounds on the streets of Astoria. People come from many different social and religious backgrounds. NYC is a true melting pot. You can actually hear different languages spoken on the street. Astoria has a significant Greek immigrant population. You can see the commercial storefronts with Greek names. The landlord for the apartment that we helping Angela to move into was Greek. I think I was even hearing Greek spoken at Madame Sou Sou Cafe and Bakery between the person behind the counter and a customer. You tend to think that people speaking other languages are doing so because they are not comfortable with speaking English. That is not necessarily the case in NYC.

The parking situation in NYC seems to have not changed significantly from what I remember it to have been during my youth. The residential areas are lined with cars, and one might have to drive around in circles for a while hoping for a parking spot to open up before being able to park and get out of your car. You will sometimes be fooled by what looks like an open spot from a distance, but which turns out to the area near a fire hydrant, a location where you cannot park legally. You might even find your parking spot on a different street somewhat far away from your intended destination, and then have to walk. The streets we visited were packed with apartment complexes with the distinctive fire-escapes (still functional!), and with single family homes with very small yards, all packed tightly next to each other. There may be just enough place for the owner of a home to drive a car into the private space in front of the house, to park it behind a gate that can barely be closed shut! We were not fortunate to find street parking close to where we wanted to be when we arrived, and ended up getting a parking ticket from the city for parking in the place I found instead nearer to the a commercial area. (I had, unfortunately, not spent enough time fully understanding the parking sign attached to the street lamp close by.) Fortunately, the amount involved on the ticket was tolerable.

These days, most of the restaurants in Astoria (and probably all of NYC) have a place in front of the establishment where customers can sit in the open and enjoy their meals. This space is created in what formerly must have been a parking area for the restaurant. I suspect that this development is a result of the COVID pandemic. This can actually be a very nice experience if the weather is cooperative, but you might have to put up with some aggressive behavior of drivers on the road beside you in some areas. There are some who tend to rev up their engines and accelerate when they get on a empty roadway just after crossing an intersection. There are vehicles whose silencers seem to be non-existent, or modified to creative impressive sound effects. We did get somewhat used to the sound while having dinner one evening at the Shady Lady. Truth be told, even though I was only driving a fuel efficient hybrid car, I was tempted to play the acceleration game myself the more I got used to the driving tendencies and habits of the city.

I had the opportunity to sit on a bench at the corner of Ditmars Boulevard and 30th Street and observe the pedestrian traffic while others were shopping. This a somewhat busy location because it is a commercial section of town. There were other people also hanging out there by the benches, either by themselves or with friends. I had nothing to do but to simply observe people going by. Folks come in all shapes and sizes. There are families out for the evening; there are young people who are hanging out and chilling; there are people who are conservatively dressed and there are those who are letting it all hang out; there are people who seem to be lost in their thoughts and seem serious and focused – walking with a purpose, there are others that are enjoying the weather and the setting. There are the children and the babies in strollers. There are the people with their electric bikes and mopeds gliding by silently. There are the dogs. I feel sorry for the dogs because they are in an environment that is so far removed from what one would consider natural for animals (but then, one could also sincerely and honestly consider the human beings around me to be living this kind of a existential experience!). Many dog-owners also seem to deal in halfhearted ways with the problem of cleaning up after their animals in a situation where the concrete is the only surface available for peeing or pooping. Some do not even bother. Any open area that is not maintained becomes fair game. It is funny when people in countries like the US sneer at the behaviors of folks in other places with regard to the sophistication of their public behavior. The truth is that you try to get away with what you can regardless of where you live.

I need to emphasize that my impressions of this part of New York City by no means represent the entirety of of the character of New York City, and the experience of all of what it has to offer. Each borough of the city has its own character. When one thinks of New York City, one typically thinks of the great borough of Manhattan, and more specifically the areas closer to downtown and midtown Manhattan, including perhaps its gleaming skyscrapers, stores, and centers for the financial industry. One thinks of things like the entertainment of Times Square, and the glorious expanse (at least in my eyes) of Olmsted’s Central Park. Astoria in Queens is far removed from all of this. It is a more residential part of town. We did drive past a more industrial part of Queens in Sunnyside – close to the railroad yards, junkyards, and the auto dealerships; and also to the parks and newer developments on the east bank of the East River at Long Island City. And, of course, I did lose my way during this drive on our way back to Astoria!

I did not get to take many pictures during this trip because the primary reason for the visit was to help with a move into an apartment. I was exhausted at the end from all the driving, the repeated lifting and carrying of heavy stuff up two flights of stairs to a third-floor apartment, and from the shopping and the extended walking we did around town in order to get the things needed to make the apartment livable in! But all is good! I did manage to get the pictures below early one Sunday morning (before most people had gotten out of their beds). I made it a point to take my camera with me when I went to Madame Sou Sou for my morning coffee. Hopefully, these pictures serve to illustrate the little bit of what a particular section of Astoria looks and feels like.

The “LAX from the Westin” Picture Gallery

This gallery is linked to the subject matter of my previous blog.

Some interesting observations came to mind when I was trying to pick pictures for this blog. One is that quite a few of the aircraft that I used to see in those days are no longer flying. This list includes the Boeing 747 (with the exception of the later B747-8), the Airbus 340, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and McDonnell/Boeing MD-11. There is even a picture of a freighter DC-8 above! The Airbus 380 and Boeing 747-8 aircraft only arrived later, and soon they too will be no more.

Also of note is that a few of the airlines that were in existence at that time are no more, including Continental, Northwest, and US Airways.

The picture in the collage above of the small rolling suitcase taken in front of the door of my hotel room as I prepare to depart Los Angeles to come home is symbolic of the nature of my work-related travels in those days. The bag carried everything I needed for a short trip. It was small enough to fit into the overhead bins of the aircraft I flew on, so that I did not have to check-in any luggage. I could get through airports quickly without having to wait at luggage carousels or in check-in lines. I was constantly traveling – in and out of hotel rooms, arriving and departing at all possible hours of the day. The passageways, the concession stands, and even the restrooms, of the United and American Airlines terminals at LAX became very familiar to me.

A person can do it, especially at a younger age, but you may not really fully realize what the experience of constant long-distance travel is doing to your body and soul, especially as it is happening. Some of us simply had to do it.

Conshohocken, PA

Our travels last weekend took us to Conshohocken (I love the way the word “Conshohocken” rolls off the tongue when you are saying it!) and Villanova on the outskirts of Philadelphia, PA. This was our first long-distance trip since the beginning of the pandemic that was being made for reasons other than visiting family. We went for a wedding. The names Conshohocken and Villanova are actually not that unfamiliar to me, having spent some time in the early 1980s in another suburb of Philadelphia called Landsdowne. I suppose that I must have heard the towns mentioned on the local news or in traffic reports when visiting Philadelphia. But, I really had not spent any significant time before this trip in either Conshohocken or Villanova.

We stayed in a really nice hotel on the southwest shore of the Schuylkill river (here we go again with the unique names!) in a place called West Conshohocken. I remember the river because there is a highway right next to it called the Schuylkill Expressway that used to be notorious in its day. I do not know if the highway still has a bad reputation, but in those days, navigating the twists and turns of this narrow highway through the center of Philadelphia, including its narrow shoulder spaces and short entrance ramps, was considered quite the challenge. The highway even earned the unfortunate moniker – the surekill expressway! The Schuylkill Expressway is actually a part of Interstate 76.

We had not stayed in a hotel room for over a year at this point. So, it was once again all a new experience for us.
The room on the 8th floor overlooking the Schuylkill river felt quite luxurious,

and the corner placement of the room offered us window views in two directions.

Not having had the opportunity to spend the night in such a nice and upscale room for many years, it took me a minute or two to adjust my expectations of what normality could feel like for people who were fortunate enough to find themselves circumstances like ours. Fact of the matter is that I used to stay very often in places like this during the time of my employment. There was a period of time when I stayed in a hotel room practically every other week. It was a part and parcel of my life experience in the business world. I can still recall the whole experience – the travels, the car rentals, the driving through strange places (that would eventually became familiar), the solitary dinners in restaurants with a glass of wine beside me to numb the soul, the endless waits in airport lounges, etc.. I do not miss that life!

The wedding took place on a property in the town of Villanova, about a five minute drive from our hotel. Villanova was obviously a town for the very rich. It smelled of old-money – huge estates surrounded by well kept fences or walls to keep out the riffraff, meticulously manicured and landscaped properties, and massive homes in traditional styles situated as far away from the main road as possible, it seemed. The wedding space itself must have been one of these homes once upon a time. It has since been converted into a sprawling arboretum, with the central building that used to be the home, and the space around it, available for events like weddings. It was a beautiful setting for the outdoor ceremony and the festivities that took place after that. Once again, not having been to weddings in such settings in a very long while, I had to make my own mental adjustments. I have not had to dress up for formal events for a long while. The fact that we were at such a grand event, where no expense was being spared for the celebrations surrounding the happy occasion, was something that got me thinking once again. But being a part of events like this is actually not something new for us. It is just that I might be changing. I have become more used to seeing the other side of things. In any case, it did not stop me from joining in the celebration – enjoying the drinks and the excellent food laid out for us, and boogieing my way into the night. So much for consistency and clarity of conscience!

We went for a walk on the Schuylkill River Trail the morning after the wedding. When complete, this trail will run all the way from headwaters of the river in the eastern ridges of the Allegheny mountains to it termination at the Delaware river in Philadelphia. The section of the trail we tackled runs on an abandoned railroad right-of-way along the north shore of the river. Next to the trail are railroad tracks that are still in use for the suburban SEPTA line to downtown Philly. Of note is the fact that there is also another railroad line on the southern shore of the river that is still in use for Norfolk Southern freight traffic. The existence of lines on both sides of the river is a reflection of the industrial background of the place. Railroad lines used to be the lifeblood of towns like these, and these lines usually used to run along the shores of the rivers because of the relative ease of laying tracks along the relatively flat shorelines. It was not unusual to find competing railroad lines on either shores of a river.

We crossed the bridge over river to get to the trail, and then proceeded east along the trail in the direction of Philadelphia. We quickly left the newer developments and the remains of old industry in the section of the trail that ran through Conshohocken, and soon entered a more rural section.

It was a pleasant walk, with sightings of wildflowers like honeysuckle, buttercups, purple dead nettle, gill-over-the-ground (also called ground ivy), dogwood, etc., and also some new flowers that we were seeing for the first time this season. These included what I think was Paulownia tomentosa (also called Princess Tree),Spiderwort,
and clover.

The birds were out in large numbers. We were greeted by songs emerging from the trees and bushes beside us as soon as we entered the trail.

Here were some of the sights from our walk.

The waters looked quite calm as we walked over the bridge across the river. The thick green foliage of the woods indicated that we are well on our way into summer.

We noticed that the signage on the trail itself was quite good.



As you can see from the picture below, the trail was also wide and well paved.


There were a lot of bikers on the trail. The location in the picture below looked like an ideal stop during a ride!They even had an official bike station beside the trail with tools to make repairs to bikes.The section of the trail outside of town was quite wooded. It might be hard to imagine that an active railroad line and a highway run along the other shore of the river. You cannot even see the SEPTA double-track that runs beside our trail on our side of the river (just below the level of the trail) in this picture.

We even chanced upon one of the SEPTA trains stopped at a station.

We checked out of the hotel soon after returning from our walk and cleaning up. There was not much packing to be done. We had brunch in the town of Conshohocken to celebrate Mother’s Day. And then we headed home.

A blog about travel during this time of the pandemic would not be complete without some mention of how the pandemic impacted the activities of the trip. People are still using masks in general, but fewer people than I expected seemed to be wearing them during the wedding celebration itself. Some were more careful than others, and the use of masks decreased as the night progressed! It is a little difficult to eat and drink, and dance, with a mask on! I hope the confidence in the impact of the vaccines on the situation is justified. The hotel in which we were staying still had a requirement for masks to be worn in all of its open spaces. Also, their restaurant was closed because of the pandemic. I was not really paying close attention to the masking efforts of people on the trail during our walk because of the circumstances – existence of open space and a lot of separation between people. I believe we are in a transition phase in our country.