Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

Even after a fifteen and a half hour car journey from hell, I have to say that I still think snow is beautiful,  especially when you can drive out of it to the warmer weather. Not so the case for the ill fated Donner Party in the winter of 1846/1947. But more about that in a minute...

This winter has been epic in terms of snowfall in the Sierras, and happily it coincided with the first year that we bit the bullet and bought a season pass. The pass covered us for Heavenly, Sierra-At-Tahoe and Northstar.  It's hard not to compare resorts, and it's even harder to compare resorts with Heavenly and find them to be better.  This past weekend we traveled north of Lake Tahoe and skied Northstar, having been to the other two a few times this season already, and basically, because we could!

So how did Northstar compare to Heavenly? Comparing it to Sierra-At-Tahoe doesn't happen - the latter is far smaller, much less polished and also much less expensive if you are buying day tickets.  A day ticket at Northstar costs roughly the same as one at Heavenly (this year $88).

Northstar is fabulous if you have buckets of money and stay in the über-expensive Village at Northstar.  Here you can get ski-in/ski-out accommodations at a hefty price.  The village is purpose built and as such lacks soul, though it does make up for that in expensive shops and eateries.  There is an ice rink and fire-pits at the base of the gondola.

The thing I hate about Northstar is that you have to drive to a car park then take a shuttle from the car park to the village where the shuttle drops you at the furthermost end of the village form the ski-lifts, so you have to carry your skis all the way through the village.   For a price of $49 you can get valet parking at Northstar ... reinforcing the theme "A great place of you can pay for it"!

At Heavenly you have a choice of  four places to access the mountain, three of which have free parking right at the lifts. In South Lake Tahoe there is a wider price range of accommodations and restaurants to choose from too, so overall, easier on the pocket.

Northstar doesn't have the views that you get with Heavenly. There is a peek of the lake, but it does have plenty of great runs.  When we were there, the snow was amazing. It began to snow on Friday as we were skiing, and it hasn't stopped yet - a week later and counting!

On Saturday morning we had to dig the car out of the snow. I've never seen so much snow fall so quickly! I was worried that we had forgotten where we had parked, (I do that often!) and that we'd end up digging out the wrong car.
That day's skiing was just fantastic - powder snow up to my waist. A hilarious face-plant lay testimony to my continued inability to ski powder properly! Sunday morning we had to dig the car out again. This is the view from our hotel room. (Sorry, phone camera = poor quality shot!)
More worryingly was the news that Interstate 80 was closed due to heavy snow and zero viability.  We both had engagements the next day and had to get home - plus the snow was on for the week so postponing our homeward trip was not really an option. 

Thus started a day of bad decisions...We decided to head for South Lake Tahoe and try to get out on route 50.  Highway 89 was closed just north west of South Lake, so we took route 28 down the eastern side of Lake Tahoe. Traffic conditions were scary.
It took us an hour and a half to get to South Lake, where we stopped for lunch. Bad decision number 2!

The service at lunch was slow, but after an hour we were back on the road.  We decided to take Pioneer Trail out of the ski town and get onto Route 50 from there. It's a short cut, of sorts.  Already, the Sunday exodus traffic was backing up from the lights at the intersection. As we sat watching the snow fill up the landscape we kept checking the road conditions via my husbands laptop and the magic of technology supplied by his aircard that linked us to the internet.
I wouldn't want to be digging out this guy's driveway!

After sitting in traffic for about two more hours the road condition information changed to "Traffic held" on route 50 due to avalanche danger. Traffic held? What did that mean? Was the road closed, and if so why didn't they just say closed?  I scanned twitter but couldn't find anything helpful.  And of course the highway information was now telling us that Interstate 80, an hour and a half away, where we'd first started, was now open - arrrrrrrrrrrgh!
We hoped that they were relying on bigger machines than this one to clear the road!
We sat on for another hour.  It was now 6.30pm and we'd set off at 11.30am. The car hadn't moved an inch. So bad decision number 3 - we decided to head back up to Interstate 80.

We pulled out of the traffic cue and drove the other direction - i.e. to the back of the queue. After traveling for not more than five minutes, I checked the road conditions again - Route 50 was now OPEN!  So we rejoined the traffic at back of the line. After four hours we were back where we'd been before we had pulled out of the line. The traffic sped up to about five miles an hour.

It was getting too dark to take many more photos.
I'd often heard mention of the Donner Party who had been stranded in the Donner Pass - where Interstate 80 is built. So as we sat in the car, I googled it, reading aloud to my husband as he "drove."

Sitting looking at the storm from the car it was easy to imagine the scenario of a group of people being stranded by a huge fall of snow in this region.  

What was more disturbing was the accounts of how they resorted to cannibalism to survive.  Morbid fascination kept me reading, but it was very disturbing. Not that I have a problem with the fact that they ate human flesh - if the other people were already dead then, sure, it was the most sensible thing to do - just like the plane that went down in the Andes, and they ate the dead passengers as told in the Movie Alive. That's what I think I would do rather than choose death.  But what really chilled (pardon the pun!) me was that some accounts reported that people were overheard to be plotting to kill others to eat them!  In another description of events a man was said to have a preference for tender flesh from children and was accused of killing kids for food!

In our car, I reckon I had the raw end of the deal.  There is considerably more meat on me than there is on my husband - in fact I had a chew bar in my handbag with more calories in it than I figured I would glean from my better half!

Fortunately, the traffic began to move more quickly, and hungry as we were, we survived on chew bars until we made it home at 4am.

But the whole episode left me thinking....
Wouldn't the Donner Party have been been better to keep moving rather than stop even if it was just a mile a day?  They were so close to help.

And more importantly - what is really in a Donner Kebab?

Byddi Lee

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drowning the Shamrock

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, Ireland.
Last year, I posted about who St. Patrick was for the 17th March. Seeing as it’s St. Patricks day this week, and this is a gardening blog, I decided to tell you all about our national symbol – the Shamrock.  What a devastating afternoon of research it’s been!

First of all I wanted to be able to tell you what the scientific name of shamrock was.  I was horrified to discover that we don’t really know. Seemingly it’s any of the following plants:

Medicago lupulina – Nope, I’m not convinced – the leaves look too crowded in the picture I found on Wikipedia and it’s altogether too big and stringy. I’m just going to ignore this one – management decision!

Oxalis acetosella   now this looks very like the shamrocks I learned to draw in school - three little hearts joined together, but when we were kids we used to eat this. Not for dinner, as such, but my Mum showed us how we could nibble on the leaves and let the sour, yet appealing taste of the plant she called cuckoo sorrel, twang our taste buds.  Every St Patrick’s Day, the Irish Cardinal would say a solemn blessing over the shamrocks, outside the Cathedral, as we Girl Guides stood shivering in our uniforms having paraded through the city to Mass. These shamrocks were handed out to us to wear, but they weren’t anything remotely edible.

Clover (Trifolium repens ) – even though I’ve spent my entire life telling non-Irish people that shamrock is different to clover, this looks more like the one we had pinned to our lapels with straight pins that jagged you in the chest every time you moved. Clover has different shaped leaves to the Sorrel (Oxalis).  I want it to be the clover because clover is much more gardener friendly, and I hate the noxious oxalis they have here.  Here’s a diagram of the different shape of the leaves.
Also the word Shamrock (seamróg in Irish) is derived from the word seamair which means clover. So I’m pronouncing the Trifolium repens as Shamrock – that’s what it was in our house (I think!). And it is backed up by a study The Shamrock : A Further attempt to fix its species by Nathaniel Colgan published in the Irish Naturalist 1893.

Last week a kind of spooky thing happened. A patch of clover sprang up on our lawn in the shape of the map of Ireland! Here's a map of Ireland taken from Google maps for reference.

Admittedly, its not the Trifolium repens, - it’s the hateful bur clover that is a horrible weed, and I spent Saturday weeding it out.  St Patrick’s Day or no, I didn’t want those buggers putting out seed, and the flowers were about to blossom.

That said – what’s the deal with Shamrocks and Ireland?  Well, it’s all St Patrick’s doing.  He picked up the Shamrock to teach the pagans about the Holy Trinity, saying how it was one leaf, yet three. His botany didn’t seem to be up to much because really it has three leaflets and one leaf – but obviously he studied Religious Education more than Biology!

Then, shock, horror! The Wikipedia entry on “Shamrock” says that there’s no evidence to support that St Patrick really did do this. As if millions of Irishmen stating it all down the millennium wasn’t enough… Good job I didn’t rely solely on Wikipedia to write this post!

Also, it seems that the Irish Government has registered the symbol of the shamrock as a trademark. I not sure how that works – it’s not as if they copywrited a leaf! I guess it means that no other country can muscle in on some Shamrock action!

Though there is probably no need for that, if you consider how the Shamrock has always been associated with Irish Nationalism down the ages.  Interestingly though, a four leafed shamrock, aka clover, is an extremely rare mutation and is considered very lucky. Luck and Irish Nationalism centered around the same plant – now that’s an oxymoran if ever I heard one!

And so you drown your shamrock on St Patrick’s Day with a big pint of Guinness and toast to the man himself. Even though a crappy botanist, he sure did plenty of other good stuff for the nation, and for that we applaud him. Here's to you St Patrick, thanks for coming back and giving us the wee shamrock-clover-oxalis thingy!

And if you are drowning your shamrock (and of course you are) remember to drink irresponsibly; it is St Patrick’s Day after all!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Get the rock out of here!

I inherited about five tons of red lava rock.  It’s everywhere around our back yard.  It works great between the raised beds, but when I tried to remove some to make the bulb garden I found a thick layer of black plastic beneath it.  Great for keeping the weeds down this past 25 years, but now the leaf litter and humus has accumulated above the plastic and between the rocks, and the weeds love, love, love it

The area along the side of the house has been given the very grandiose name of “The Orchard”.  It does have more than ten trees, even if all but four of them are between knee height and shoulder height.  The ground between all these trees is covered in – guess what – yep, a thick layer of plastic and 4 inch deep, red lava rock.  The problem (apart from weeds growing there despite the hostile environment) is that the roots of the trees will find it hard to get water and oxygen. Soil nutrients and minerals won’t seep through plastic, and worms and beneficial bacteria can’t survive under the plastic either.  All in all, the plastic has got to go!

Getting rid of the plastic is fairly easy.  It’s brittle and breaks easily, but I can kind of roll the stones off it. Sadly, past recycling, it goes in the black bin. But what do I do with the tons of stones left behind?

I put an ad in Craigslist for “Free Red Lava Rock,” telling folk that they had to come get it, load it themselves and that they could take as much as they liked.  The first week, I got a bunch of emails and dealt with them in order that they emailed, letting one person come. Then if there was any left I’d go on to the next person. That was my first mistake!

The first girl (a really nice girl – we chatted for ages about gardens) only took about three bucketfuls!  She hardly made a dent in it, but by that stage it was halfway through Saturday and the rest of the “interested parties” had decided to get on with their weekend. No-one else showed up!  One other guy did come during the week but again he only took a minuscule amount. It still looked as though no-one had touched it.
The following weekend I decided no more Mrs Nice-Guy. I posted another add that basically said the same, except to mention that it was first come first served on Saturday between 10 am and 3 pm, and to call or text me for the address.  About twenty minutes after posting the ad a guy called. He seemed very excited about the amount of rock I had and proceeded to tell me in great detail (during a critical part of CSI, I might add!) how he planned to come collect ALL of it the next morning at 10am.  I was thrilled and nicely replied to the next five texts saying, “Sorry all gone.” – so much for ditching Mrs Nice-Guy, seems like she was butting in where she wasn’t wanted!

Next morning, at 10 am no sign of Yer Man.  At 10.30 I rang him and asked him if he was still coming.
“Oh yes,” said he. “I’m just running a bit behind.  I’ve to go collect the liner for the truck then swing by and pick up blah blah blah blah.” And so on. 
“Okay,” I said interrupting him. “See you soon.”  And still I dreamed of a lovely clean yard, free from red lava rock.  I imagined myself ringing the tree company and asking them for more mulch, and pictured a steaming heap of wood chips in my driveway for the next two weeks.  This time I’d hire help…

At 12.20pm still no sign of Yer Man.  I rang his number, but no answer.  How could someone be so inconsiderate?  Maybe he’d had a terrible car accident or something.  My husband and Al, my neighbor, both gently pointed out that that’s what people do. Incredulous, I left Yer Man a message telling him I was answering the other texts and letting others have the stones.  I didn’t want everyone turning up for the stones and fighting over them (as if!) and my other neighbor Ray said that if that happened could I ring him so he could come over and watch – At least I kept the neighborhood entertained!

Of course none of the other previously-interested parties even replied.  Back to the drawing board, or rather, the ad in Craigslist to be precise.

 I kept it basically the same but changed the collection window to Sunday 10 am -12 noon.  A very nice man came and again took an amount of stones, more than the others but still not enough. He was a bit of a bird watcher and identified the nest in the orange tree from last weeks post as that of a bushtit. (This concurs with a comment left last week by Lisa and Rob.) The nice man taking the rocks said that the female bushtit has pale cream eyes and the male has brown eyes.

At 12.15 my phone rang. It was Yer Man!  He apologized for not turning up, saying that something had come up and that he should have rang. I mumbled something along the line of, “That’s okay – no harm done.” (I just hate Mrs Nice-Guy!) He asked me all the same questions he’d asked me two days before-hand, told me all the same details of what he’d to organize, and he said he’d be there in an hour.  I postponed my soak in the tub (after a morning raking the damn stones). 

Two hours later, yes, two hours, Yer Man called again. He asked me what our address was.  He told me (again) he had the truck, the liner, the helper and just needed to goggle-map the address and he’d be all set. What was with this guy? Did he just need someone to talk too?

When it got dark, three hours and three batches of cookies (baked, not eaten – I wasn’t feeling that bad!) later, I went for my soak.  He still had not shown up and I, hardly able to believe that people can be such eejits, (I’m talking about him not me, though I probably qualify too) retrieved his number from the call register of my phone and got my revenge by saving it as a very nasty name. Really – a very very nasty name – too nasty to print here. If he calls back I won’t be answering – ha – that will show him… though, I really hope he hasn’t had an accident on the way over or something!

So, that said, em… does anyone want some free red lava rock? I’ve still got plenty!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Heaven in a wildflower

I have to admit that enjoying gardening as much as I do has surprised me. Is it an age thing? Wait!  I'm not that old.  But I don't remember being as "into' gardening in my twenties, (though I did garden - sporadically) and definitely not in my teens.

But now? Well, I'm not ashamed to say that the garden is my favorite place to be. You can have your trendy night clubs and your foreign beach holidays (I was never into those anyway) - nothing makes my heart glow like the emergence of tender dicotyledons or the first unfolding of a new blossom; better than unveiling any work of art.  The garden is natures own gallery.

The first (of many, I hope) Californian Poppy blossomed last Saturday at 2.30pm.  How do I know the precise time? One moment it was sitting there in its green Wee Willy Winky hat, then a band of golden orange appeared at the bottom, and whilst I went to get the camera, the hat must have popped off, leaving the petals glowing back at the afternoon sun. And here's the Wee Willy Winky hat. Notice the one still to pop to the right of my pinky finger.

There was another surprise that day in the garden.  As I was picking our daily quota of oranges, (boy those things are easy to overdose on!) I found the strangest looking bird's nest.  It looked more like an old woolly sock - about 8 inches long and about 2.5 inches wide. What kind of bird lives here?  A tiny one but not a humming bird.  I refuse to guess as my last bird guess was so off base! Any suggestions welcome - would that be some good old fashioned tweeting perhaps?
It does look very cozy.  In fact, more cozy that the human-built bird-house. It has a resident spider, or at least a web across the front door, waiting as if to be cut like a ribbon at a grand opening ceremony.  No inhabitants yet but what can you expect? Cute as it is, it's not quite real bird-made estate!
And then, there's just more and more blossoms. Check out this spoon-petaled daisy one of the Master Gardeners gave me. She brought it in to give away as she had a load of them and had decided to give it to the first person to admire it - and that was yours truly! Not only is it nice to be nice, but sometimes you get free stuff too.
The anemones are a riot of different colors - I'm not good at having a color coordinated garden. My philosophy is that all flower colors are gorgeous - why be selective!

 Especially when some flowers are more than one color. Here is a tulip that spent two months in my fridge before being planted.  This is the first, again, I hope, of many.
As the sun dies in the Western Pacific, in its death throes at the end of another day, it cloaks my garden in golden rays .  Like a good writer, it promises more good things in the next chapter that tomorrow is. 
As I wander round my garden feeling a chill as night steals softly in, I'm reminded of a quote that I found as a teenager, (perhaps I wasn't quite a waster back then after all) but I  don't know who the author of the quote was (okay - so maybe I was a waster - but I had fun!) ...someone famous no doubt, whom I should know...

"To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower,
To hold infinity in the palm of my hand,
And eternity in an hour..."

Or something like that!
Byddi Lee