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Here in San Francisco, we’re sampling foods from around the world. Italian, French, Basque, Vietnamese, Thai, Spanish, Japanese, American-at-its-best. . . but time runs short, so some great-sounding Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and Asian-Fusion places are on the list for next time.

DSC07818     Zarzuela, on the corner of Union and Hyde, has a loyal following and doesn’t take reservations, but service is fast and we don’t have to wait long for a table. The atmosphere is

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lively, not too loud for conversation. Lots of tapas here, hot and cold, from grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese to poached octopus and potatoes with onions. Several Spaniards are tucking into a taste of home. Specialties of the house include Catalan seafood stew, scallops in romesco sauce, and oxtail stew, all interesting, but the paella gets the most raves, and I’ll try that next time. For now, it’s grilled squid with aioli, asparagus with goat cheese, and grilled mushrooms served in a small skillet (flavorful, but drenched in oil). Zarzuela serves a house-made sangria; we go for a crisp white wine instead. Tip: parking is a hassle. Ride the bus or cable car, which stops at the corner, or walk. You need the exercise anyway, with all this eating out.

Next is Japanese cuisine. After strolling the Marina district in the sunshine, watching white sails zip around the bay, we head to Chestnut Street and its many cafes. They’re all crammed, almost spilling into the street, but Naked Fish has empty tables in back next to a small green garden, so here we are eating terrific sushi. The ahi tuna, wrapped in seaweed and rice, is so tender it almost melts in the mouth. The miso soup is delectable, prices are reasonable. The chicken yakitori and teriyaki are fine, but the soup and sushi are tops.

DSC07373On Russian Hill, Cocotte, formerly Hyde Street Bistro, is small, French, and charming.

The menu is limited but varied and the service excellent, with French flair.

There’s an open kitchen, so we can watch the chef prepare the house specialty, juicy-tender rotisserie chicken. My unusual appetizer of shredded rabbit on crispy spaetzle is delicious—I swipe my plate clean with the good bread–and the butter lettuce salad takes me directly to France. The wine list is commendable.

 Basque food I know only slightly, so I’m eager to try

Piperade, on Battery Street. Bay Area friends greet us gladly, as does the waiter, and already I love the place. Piperade refers to a typical Basque dish of red pepper and onions, with many variations. This one has sautéed Serrano ham and poached eggs.

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Classic dishes change daily, touching on a cuisine that borrows from the sea and the mountains of Basque country. On Fridays it’s black cod with potatoes and leeks, on Saturdays veal stew with braised peppers. My tasty salad combines arugula, large radish slices, golden raisins

and arugula salad Piperade

pine nuts, a nice combination and probably very Basque. The calamari with fennel and capers is another good choice, and the piquillo pepper stuffed with rich goat cheese, surrounded by a pistachio sauce is a hit. Best, though, is the rack of lamb, cooked rare and tender. With all this (tastes around the table, of course) we have a dry white Basque wine.

 

San Francisco food: clam chowder, crisp fish ‘n chips, Caesar salad. These we like with beer at Park Chalet upscale DSC07885and has a view of the beach and the Pacific. Our pub food is good and the service fine, though I should add that I’ve heard some negative comments about it. Anyway, the most interesting thing about this place for me is the lobby. This is a remarkable piece of San Francisco history, and I knew nothing of it until now. It has display cases of SF historic items, intriguing tile work, and walls covered with wonderful 1930s frescoes by Lucien Labault.  They’re scenes of San Francisco life during the Great Depression. Labault also painted some of the famous murals in Coit Tower.

This is only a minuscule, whimsical sampling of a few restaurants among hundreds. Do you have a favorite in the City by the Bay?

Why I Love Waikiki

DSC07659  I’m flip-flopping along Honolulu’s Kealakaua  Avenue, among hordes of tourists in search of sunshine and tropical drinks stirred with pineapple spears. This is Vegas-by-the-Sea, packed with tawdry glitz, upscale glamor and crowds. Not my usual cup of tea, yet here I am, settling now onto the warm sand of Waikiki, mai-tai in hand, happily watching the surf roll in. I’m surrounded by acres of sunburnt flesh, much of it squeezed into bikinis so skimpy they could fit in my pocket.  People-watching can be a full-time hobby here, with all ages and sizes dressed—or barely dressed—in every possible outfit.

Waikiki has lost its long-ago quiet, lazy appeal, but the soft breezes, sunshine, waving palm trees, and rugged beauty of Diamond Head are still here. The long white beaches are perfect,DSC07701 and Hawaii tourism interests plan to keep them that way. To fight erosion, they built walls and used to barge sand  in from California. More recently it’s been carted from nearby shoals to restore the shoreline and widen the beach.

Here’s what draws me, besides the climate and setting:  local papaya and pineapple for breakfast, concerts and hula dances in Queen Kapiolani Park, swimming with colorful fish, the grace of practiced surfboarders, a relaxed and friendly (mostly) culture, shopping and chatting at farmers’ markets—tourist brochures list where to find them, and three are an easy walk from my condo rental.

Banyan tree, Queen K park honolulu I like walking through the 100-acre banyan-shaded park, with a stop for a lunch of grilled mahi-mahi at Barefoot Beach Cafe. Or I continue on to lunch at lovely Hau Tree Lanai, where Robert Louis Stevenson used to hang out. On the return walk I stop to read every historical plaque. Hawaii has a rich history, full of war and beauty and sorrow.

Back on Kealakaua I pass kids texting, guys lugging surfboards, hustlers selling tours, street people scrounging trash bins. Musicians play on the street corners. Nobody bats an eye at the strolling Santa  with his violin, the muscle-bound man covered in tattoos, the young women in minuscule shorts and stiletto heels. Stores advertise everything from high fashion to t-shirts with sslogans that prove bad taste knows no bounds: “Sluts rule.” “I just want to pee onDSC07695 everything.” And the ubiquitous “I’m with Stupid.”   Festivals keep popping up; here comes the Chinese New Year lion, with his clanging entourage, growling for money from local shops.

When it’s time to eat, choices are everywhere. I skip the fast-food chains, of course, and go for local sushi or pho or, for a pricier meal head for the Asian/Pacific fusion food at ever-popular Roy’s. Also good:  Il Lupino’s veal scallopini and arugula salad with almonds and spiced pears, evoking memories of Sicily. DSC07705My favorite lunch place is the classic Moana Surfrider, where I’ll sit on the veranda above the beach and feast on soy-glazed salmon. Lots of Japanese wedding parties are held here, so I get to admire the gorgeous brides in their fluffy white gowns. I find a lively, fun atmosphere at Duke’s, which has memorabilia of the famous athlete. And I always go for a last-evening watch-the-sunset drink at the Royal Hawaiian.

Waikiki can be off-putting, especially if you’re looking for tranquility, and Honolulu offers many other attractions—fabulous botanical gardens, Chinatown, museums, temples, historic sites—but those are for another time. Today I’m just  part of the passing scene, one more sun-loving vacationer in Waikiki.  Aloha.DSC07703

Madrid at Christmas (By Guest Contributor Alyssa Powell)

In Spain, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated with gifts and treats, feasts and parties, just as we do back home in the USA, but with a difference. It’s a great time for anyone lucky enough to be in Spain for the holidays  I’ve been living here in Madrid for a while now as a teacher, and keep discovering new twists.  They vary around the county, but here’s my version:

On Christmas Eve, my friend Alberto and his family and friends got together in their home village for a big meal, a marisco (seafood) feast. We had a brothy, delicious soup with clams and fish, and ate lots of shrimp, which we beheaded and peeled and dipped in sauce. All this was prepared by Alberto’s mom. Next came traditional, typical treats: a kind of nougat candy called turrón, chocolate truffles,  little cakes and pastries, and the best red wine they could afford.  Some very good red wine comes from Spanish vineyards.

The Catholic church is a strong influence, and many people go to church several times during the season.  Some who are less religious attend mass because it’s traditional, while others don’t go at all.

The next day, Christmas, people usually hang out with their families and open their boots (not stockings!). I had set out one of my own boots and found candy and chips inside. The family Roconas del Reyopened a few presents from Papa Noel, but most gifts are opened January 6,  Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day.  That day there was a parade in the streets, with men costumed as the Three Kings (Three Wise Men), and after the parade the kids hurried home to open their best presents.

Then it was time for another festive meal, ending with a traditional dessert:  roscón de reyes, a round cream-filled pastry with a hole in the middle and dried fruits on top. It looks a bit like a crown, and maybe that’s what it represents. Inside are hidden figures and a bean. Whoever gets the piece with the bean pays LiveBelenfor the roscón, and the one who gets the figure can expect to have good luck all year. My piece had a little duck figure. We weren’t through yet. After the festivities we took a walk to see the Belén displays around town. These are nativity scenes, some very elaborate, in shop windows. My favorite included dinosaurs. In one village I visited, there was a living Belén, with villagers playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, and shepherds.

Between Christmas and Dia de Los Reyes we celebrated New Year’s Eve, complete with fireworks, immense GrapesAtMidnightcrowds in the plazas, food and drinks. We watched the clock in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, but instead of counting down and cheering, Spaniards wait until midnight, and as the clock strikes twelve they eat one grape for each chime. You have to chew fast because if you do it correctly, you’ll have good luck all year.  Then everybody drinks champagne and heads for the bars.

Whew. All the world should enjoy the winter holidays as much as the Spanish do.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Año!New Year's Eve

The Inn at The Presidio is different. Set outside San Francisco’s city bustle, it’s not only a pleasurable place to stay, it holds a significant piece of the region’s history. The stately red brick building used to be headquarters for U.S. Army officers fortunate enough to be stationed at this military outpost. Now the entire 1,491-acre Presidio is a National Historic Landmark District, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Pershing Hall, the single officers’ quarters, was remodeled and opened as a hotel in 2012. And here I am, admiring the view over the Presidio’s red-roofed buildings and green fields to the bay beyond and, of course, the always compelling Golden Gate Bridge.

I’m in one of 22 rooms on three floors that have been painstakingly restored to preserve the old Georgian Revival style and military memorabilia while providing modern comforts—downy duvets on firm beds, sizable bathrooms, flat screen TVs, internet access, mini-bars. (The best views are from the third floor.)  The service is top-notch. There’s no elevator, in keeping with the historic status, but guests who can’t climb stairs can book a room on the ground floor. Some SF visitors want to be closer to the action of downtown, but I don’t mind being this far away because it’s quiet–no sirens, traffic, or late-night party crowds. That doesn’t mean I’m alone. Five million people a year visit the Presidio, but I’m  happy to share this huge park of rolling green hills, wooded trails,  a beach, picnic areas, and a couple of restaurants (the Presidio Social Club is a good choice, though so popular it’s wise to book a table early).  The Walt Disney Museum is here, along with a number of commercial sites in former military buildings. If I want to go to the heart of the city, Inn at the Presidio offers free shuttle service on weekdays, as well as a shuttle around the Presidio itself. The Visitor Center tells of the site’s long, richly dramatic history,  It’s a pleasure just to wander among spicy-scented eucalyptus trees and over grassy slopes.

At the hotel, a feature I particularly like is its commitment to the environment. LEED-certified, it uses organic-based paints, insulation from recycled cotton denim (who knew?), USA-made wool rugs, water conservation, and no mini-soaps or shampoo bottles. Room and suite rates are $195 to $350 per night, which includes an excellent buffet breakfast, taken indoors or out, and afternoon wine and cheese. Parking is $6 a day. Inn at The Presidio is a fine addition to the San Francisco lodging scene.

 

 

Best Ribs in Portland

Labor Day weekend and a girl’s fancy turns to……pork ribs. And not just pork ribs, how about perfectly tart cole slaw, corn bread and honey, baked beans, grilled vegetables and peach pies with lattice tops–pies so full of farmer’s market Sweet Sue’s that you strain to carry the dish? Now we’re talking.

I’ve been a rib lover since I was three years old. Despite my allegiance to more healthful foods, I crave ribs at least once a year. It is my tried and true comfort food. I know good ribs from mediocre. According to my dad, I loved ribs so much that my folks put me in the bathtub to eat them. You could say I really got into the experience. Sauce in my hair, sauce on my face, ears, clothes….apparently the bathtub was the only alternative until I was old enough to clean myself up.

So when I planned a summer party with ribs on the menu, I had to suss out the best that Portland had to offer. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. The catering department of an outfit in town (who shall remain nameless) was doing everything else right, but their ribs were definitely second rate: heck, they weren’t even ribs! They were little hors d’ oeuvresy things: baked in the oven instead of smoked, smothered in a sticky sweet sauce and over seasoned.  And where was the delectable meat falling off the bone? Bird bones was more like it. It was time to find a smoked rib purist, somebody steeped in the culinary art form.

On the trail of the holy grail of summer, we started out with the farmer’s market. The verdict: ribs done in a real smoker? Yes. Local meat? Surprisingly, no, and with a rub that was too aggressive for my taste. Also the meat was dry. After that we checked out the online reviews and tried three other well-known places in town. All disappointing. A great spot in NE didn’t deliver or do large orders, so that was a no go. Time was running out.

Then we discovered SlabTown Ribs and BBQ, a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint at 2606 NW Vaughn. Hard to miss it —the smoker out front is the size of a rail car and just as grungy, the way a smoker ought to be. Inside you can check out the awards and trophies lining the walls while you figure out whether to go with the brisket, the pork ribs or something else on the menu. And sauces?

The staff will offer you one of three sauces: Kansas City Classic, Texas Hot, or Carolina Style Mustard, but like me, you may figure out that the meat is so fall-off-the-bone tender and the flavor so succulently smoky, that you don’t even need the sauce.

The morning after the garden party, I came downstairs to raid the refrigerator still wearing my white cotton nightgown. What is better than ribs and peach pie for breakfast? Only roasted turkey, gravy, and stuffing sandwiches the morning after Thanksgiving has the same cachet.

 I pigged out. I gobbled up three ribs and two pieces of peach pie before feeling completely decadent and satisfied. Then I noticed the fallout: my perfect glossy red manicure covered over with sauce, sauce on my chin, cheeks, and unfortunately, all over my white cotton nighty. I looked like an extra from Dracula.

It occurred to me to call Dad to tell him about the successful party, but should I tell him about the fiasco unleashed all over my face and nightgown? Besides I already knew the answer. He’d just say: Susie, my girl, why didn’t you have your breakfast in the bathtub?

The rock formations of Cappadocia, in central Turkey, are unlike any others on Earth.  They’re not only strange natural sculptures, they have a human history that spans centuries. Millions of years ago, ash from erupting volcanoes slowly hardened to tufa, and that stone, eroded over time by wind and rain, became the erry, convoluted shapes I’m seeing today. The harder granite didn’t erode as easily, and the result was “fairy chimneys”–huge cones topped by granite boulders. But that’s only part of what has pulled me to Cappadocia. I’m marveling at the hundreds of dwellings and churches carved into cliffs, some still in use and even turned into cave hotels that tourists adore.

Turkey’s Goreme Open-Air Museum, about a mile from the village of Goreme, is a collection of cave churches carved out by Christian monks more than a thousand years ago. At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, I can see remnants of the Byzantine frescoes they painted on the stone, and the living and burial sites along hillside paths. There’s a fee to enter, and the best time to visit is early in the day (afternoon heat can be intense, and tour groups fill the place).

Then there are the underground cities, built and used from ancient times as protection from enemies. Early Christian churches began here, but even before that people were carving tunnels and spaces for living and storage. There are at least 36 of them in Cappadocia; the widest is Kaymakli and the deepest, nearly 280 feet underground, is Derinkuyu. Kaymakli goes down eight levels, four of them open to the public, with sloping passages and carved-out rooms and chapels around ventilation shafts. Thousands of people lived here with their animals, food from the crops they harvested, and wine. It is all quite amazing. The stony countryside seems dry and arid, but  water streams in  from surrounding mountains and creates fertile, life-supporting valleys.

Relaxing by the pool at our hotel, Lykia Lodge Kapakokya, is a sharp and, I admit, pleasant contrast to crouching in underground tunnels, following the guide’s flashlight. Lykia Lodge, in a park setting outside the town of Nevsehir, is modern and comfortable, and I recommend it. There are tree-shaded lawns, a tennis court and playground, a full bar in the lounge, and a restaurant serving traditional regional dishes. The excellent morning buffet has every breakfast dish imaginable: yogurt, cereals, fresh and dried fruits, egg and meat dishes, pastries. The place is favored by groups, but don’t let that deter you. There’s plenty of room for all.

One thing I’m going to skip is the famous hot-air balloon ride over Cappadocia. I am told the views are spectacular, but I have trouble with adventures that involve rising before dawn. Maybe next time I’ll admire the fairy chimneys and  twisted rocks from far above. 

The expert who’s teaching me to make pides, the pita-like Turkish bread, is too polite to laugh at my  effort to wrap dough around a long wooden roller and flatten it into a big circle. How hard can it be? Harder than it looks. The thin dough tears, and she clucks and repairs the rips. Clumsy tourist, can’t even make a pide. She slides the circle onto a long-handled wooden paddle and the woman next to her, Ganja,  pushes it into the stone oven. It puffs and crisps as it bakes, and everyone watching gets a taste. Then we go to lunch.

This is part of our little group’s experience of life in rural Turkey. Overseas Adventure Travel makes it a point to give travelers a close glimpse of the reality of Turkey, not just the monuments, ruins and tourist spots.  So here we are in Ilicek, a village of blocky houses scattered along dirt roads. All have gardens. Our hosts’ garden is bounded by stone walls, and they have a fig tree, chickens and a turkey (the first one I’ve seen in Turkey). Upstairs, in the small living room, a table spread with a yellow cloth is set for eight. It’s a squeeze, but nobody cares. Ganja, our hostess, serves lentil soup with yogurt, barley and rice. Then a second course, a ravioli-type dish with meat, tomato sauce and yogurt. Fresh pide, of course, and sweet pastries.  These people – Ganja, her beautiful niece Ebru, and the grandmother Babaneh – are incredibly hospitable. They smile a lot and tell us (via our interpreter) that they’re honored  to have us. And we are honored to be here.  We offer gifts of food we’ve purchased in an outdoor market and say tessekur (thank you) and hashtakal (goodbye).

Further south is Akburun, a village on the shore of Lake Beysehir, the largest fresh-water lake in Turkey. Reeds from its marshy edges are stacked  by sheds and barns, waiting to be dried and, with poplar tree logs and thick layers of earth, used to make snug, well-insulated ceilings. Cows graze on grassy fields by the lake, and storks nest in high poles.  Akburun has one main road, a small mosque, a store, and a garden beside almost every home. We’re warmly welcomed by our hosts, a 4-generation family sharing two connected houses, each with simple, comfortable sleeping rooms with mattresses on the floor. And lots of blankets, because it gets cold at night. Dinner is a series of Turkish specialties: fabulous yogurt, chopped tomatoes, fresh bread, meat kebabs, glasses of tea. The yogurt and cheese come from the cows on the other side of the fence.

Huseyin, the family elder, is 76 years old and wears the cap that indicates he is a Hajji—one who has been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Some members of this family are strongly religious, others less so, like most of Turkey, which is 98% Muslim, but not entirely devout. One of the pleasures of this aspect of the trip is the chance to talk frankly with ordinary people and ask and answer questions. Their English is limited and our Turkish non-existent, but Rana Erol, our guide, interprets and we get along beautifully. We present our gifts from home, they graciously accept and tell us how honored they are, and we all smile a lot.

Mark Antony gave Cleopatra the entire Turquoise Coast of Turkey as a wedding gift, or so the story goes. As I loll in the ruins, I choose to believe it was the royal bath. Around it are the partially submerged remains of stone walls built by the Romans to enclose fresh water from a spring. Sailors, and maybe Cleo herself bathed here, a nice change from the sea’s salt water. The ruins are tucked into one of dozens of coves along this stunningly beautiful Mediterranean coastline.

The cove, where we jump in the Med for an exhilarating swim, is a stop on this 4-day cruise. Our group sails in a  9-cabin gulet, a type of boat once used by Turkish sponge-divers. Now gulets carry tourists, a more profitable and less dangerous occupation.  The Sadri Usta, made from mulberry, pine, and  teak, has plenty of space and cozy cabins, each with its own little bathroom. You couldn’t ask for a more skilled crew than our three sweet guys, Ali, Fatih, and Bayram (they’re good-looking, too, and what’s more, they can belly-dance). Our cook prepares fabulous meals: delicate sea bass, yogurt with watercress, bananas in honey, fresh tomato salads, custardy halvah).  This is true vacation. Also, we have a top-quality guide for our 17-day Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Turkey. Rana Erol loves her country and shares her extensive knowledge generously. And she’s great fun.   I’d travel with her again any time.

The cruise part starts in Fethiye Harbor and motors along the rugged, craggy coast to the Bay of Gemiler. Most of the group leaves the boat for a hillside hike up through carob and bay trees to the deserted village of Kayakoy. In the 1920s, its residents were relocated to Greece, a haunting reminder of the aftermath of Turkey’s War of Independence. There are more walks, in and to other coves, but I mostly stick with the boat, resting an injured knee. I just bask in the sun on my private yacht and listen to the splash of water against the bow while we sail to the next small bay.

One morning we cruise to Ekincik Cove and move to a tarp-shaded riverboat for a side trip up the Dalyan River.  The twisting green river is rich with fish, waterbirds, and turtles. An enterprising family tosses lines baited with blue crab so the big Loggerheads will rise for them and tourists can snap photos (and tip the kid with the baited line). Nearby is Istuzu Beach, the endangered turtles’ breeding ground, an environmentally protected area that was narrowly saved from resort development.  We dock at a cove, possibly close to where part of The African Queen was filmed, and walk up to the Lycian ruins of Caunos. The ancient theater is still impressive .Poppies grow around the tumbled stone and the only sounds are bird calls, buzzing bees, and the murmurs of a few tourists.

Upriver, boats line the walkway at the busy town of Dalyan. We stroll the streets and stop for a snack of salad and crisp pizza at the White Lotus, a place I highly recommend for its service and food. Ali Geneer, the friendly owner, chats with us on a terrace where pink oleander blooms under the palm trees. Across the river, high in the cliffs, are 2200-year-old Lycian tombs, with columns and arched roofs, carved into the face of the rock.

Back on the Sudra Usta, we glide north over the blue water to Marmaris, where the Mediterranean and Aegean seas meet. We feast on a final great meal, learn to play backgammon and the potato game (tie one end of a long string around your waist, the other around a potato; swing the hanging potato at a can and race your opponent to the finish line, no hands allowed—beer helps with this one), and dance to Turkish music. And we say fond goodbyes (“gule-gule”) to the gulet and the crew.  More adventures lie ahead.  (To contact guide Rana Erol: ranaerol@hotmail.com)

On our way to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in northeast Arizona, I call ahead to the visitors’ center to ask about a Navajo guide who can accompany us into the canyon for several days. With a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle we can safely manage most of the roadless sand track, but leaving the rim and driving into the canyon requires the services of a guide from the Navajo nation. This is the best way to experience the park and more deeply understand its people and its past. Canyon de Chelly is the convergence of two ancient canyons, estimated to be perhaps thirty million years old. The walls of the canyons are dusky dark red and 1,000 or more feet high. The dwellings of the people who finally came to be known as the Dine’ or Navajo are tucked high into the rock formations, into the layers of geological time. The canyon is one of the most exquisite places in the whole of the American Southwest: dramatic, evocative and still alive with Navajo culture, even if it takes a little work to find it.

We realize that it will be a stroke of luck to find the right guide, someone who is knowledgeable and sensitive to the requirements of a large-format photographer like Patrick. There may be hours of sitting quietly in one place and watching the light change. Black & White photography using a view camera takes great patience. The Canyon de Chelly park ranger on the phone says simply, “You want my wife, Deborah. She is cleaning houses today, but she is the one you want.”

It turns out that Deborah is not a guide, but wants to be. What Deborah is, is better than a certified guide: She is a young Navajo woman born and raised in her hogan a few miles from the canyon, a woman who still visits her grandmother’s land on the canyon floor to help harvest corn, squash and watermelon. The guidebooks call a certain trail “tunnel trail.” Deborah says everybody knows it is “sheep trail.” The guidebooks talk about a high water table in the canyon. Deborah says she used to dig a hole a foot deep to get her own water when she was thirsty. She knows that the pictographs at Antelope House were made later by a man the Navajos call “Mr. Little Lamb.” She is the perfect guide for us.

Deborah has strong Indian features and a mane of black hair that falls down her back. She stands proudly and moves like a cat. In the days that follow, we learn that her real name is Esstaish, meaning soft lady, a name given to her by her father. All Navajos identify themselves by the clan they are born into and the clan they are born from. Deborah says she is from the Coyote Pass People to the Mexican Water People. There are about 130 different clans now, all derived from four original ones.

While Patrick is photographing, Deborah teaches me about the Navajo language and the old, almost-forgotten words. She tells me there is a single word for  those who travel in groups, another for they came again into being. There is a word for to where he has never been and one for because there are bodies of water there. One word, nizhi, means someone’s name, voice and body–I guess, in a way, nizhi is the totality of that person.

There is a particular rock face that Patrick loves, and now he stands studying it. He takes in the sky and the gathering clouds; there is not enough light to get the photograph he wants. Hawks ride thermals high above the canyon floor and the wind howls.  Deborah is sitting in the sand eating pumpkin seeds, her cascade of black hair lifted on the ends by the wind. Soon we hear heavy thunder and see the electric white jag of lightning. The clouds are moving in opposite directions; the top layer moves east to west, and the layer beneath it, heavy with black rain, moves west to east. Sometimes the clouds break apart for a few seconds and we see sun and a light sky behind them. In those moments, the rock face glows with an unearthly light.

Deborah says she will name this rock Patience Rock. Says the rock is a she.

There is a rhythm to a road trip and we have found it. After ten days exploring, from Oregon into Idaho and Utah, the desert landscape is a new palette of red and burnt orange, dotted with pinyon and juniper. It is still early spring in the Four Corners Region of the American Southwest, and the cottonwoods along the riparian slopes are just beginning to be fringed in yellow. There is rabbit brush, yucca, sagebrush, wild petunia. From the open car window, I hear the calls of chickadees.  Passing through the Vermillion Cliffs, into Bryce Canyon, Utah, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the quaking aspen are turning golden now. We see the occasional bristlecone pine, ancient and parched with roots exposed like veins on the hands of an old woman.

After the crowds in Bryce, Arches National Park, and even at Mesa Verde, Colorado, where the Anasazi–often called Ancient Puebloans–built cities high into the walls of the canyons in places accessible only by ladders and footholds carved into rock face a thousand feet above the valley floor, we are hungry for more stillness.

When you want more stillness than the wind and the raven, you know you are ready for Chaco Canyon.

Coming from the north into northwestern New Mexico, the road into the canyon includes about eight miles of paved road and more than 13 miles of washboard gravel so rough that no buses or RVs can travel it. There are Navajo hogans along the way; we are on tribal land. By 6:45 p.m., we find a campsite by good luck only–there are very few–and settle in on camp chairs to look at the sky.

Chaco Canyon’s night sky is well known. In May, 1998, the National Park Service dedicated the Chaco Observatory, helping to strengthen the connection of the modern world to the Chacoan people of centuries ago. The night sky, clear and brilliant, undefiled by any light pollution, helps explain how one of the world’s best known pictographs, the Supernova Pictograph, could be created by ancient peoples enthralled by the world they saw in the sky. Everything in Chaco, the great Kivas, the way the roads are designed, all take the heavens into account. No one knows for sure why the Chacoans died out, but one thing is known: they left ruins indicating that this was a significant crossroads of travel and commerce between the peoples of the region.

The next morning, we take the eight-mile hike, easy except for the river crossing, along Penasco Blanco and the Supernova Pictograph Trail. Along the trail we see petroglyphs, actual carvings into the rock walls, which are different from pictographs, basically paintings on the rock. It is a surprise to come to the actual pictograph, because it is about 20 feet up under a ledge, accented by pouch-shaped cliff swallow nests. How did the artist, or artists, do it?

The four symbols of the pictograph grouping are light red, made from an animal fat dye, something that wouldn’t fade over the centuries like plant dyes. There is a crescent moon, a star-like symbol, a concentric circle (the symbol for sun-watching), and a hand–a child-like, pure and remarkable hand with fingers spread wide. Scholars estimate that the paintings were created in 1054, concurrent with historical reports in China and India of a supernova explosion in Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus. For perspective, our own sun is too small to create a supernova. This would have been a monumental celestial event. I can only sit in awe of the minds of those who saw their sky transformed–maybe they thought the world was coming to an end–and created a picture on the rock as if to say: I was here and I saw this.