Summer Scenes

After a Gardeners of Peace visit to the politician’s garden, I’m changing her moniker to head gardener for the Gops.

We other three wandered around admiring everything. From the head gardener’s Craftsman cottage, a walkway under flowering dogwood trees leads to flowerful perennial beds – tall lilies lean out, small blossoms spread below. Plump plants of lavender border a handsome arbor near orderly vegetables, ripening raspberries, and a charming chicken house. It’s a picturesque scene.

Then we came upon a “secret space” – a glade hidden by trees, real geraniums, and a carpet of perfect grass. This green room was furnished with a hammock, and a picnic table laid with colorful tablecloth and tea treats: lemonade and iced tea to mix or not, deviled eggs in a deviled egg dish (no untoward jiggling off the plate), spicy cucumbers, bite-size chunks of ripe watermelon, a bowl full of cherries, crusty real bread, and gorgeous scones and jam!

A chance to catch up in a glorious summer setting. We talked trips mostly – and the librarian, being fond of details, asked me about travelling and painting, how did I do that?

“Because of my painting kit,” I thought later driving home – a seven-inch by eight-inch zippered pouch of rip-stop nylon. Small and light, it contains a tiny, simple studio for a watercolor painter: a pocket-size box of paints with the original pans of pigment pried out and replaced by squeezes of tube watercolor. The paint box came with a little take-apart brush (the brush stores in the handle), and I added one with a better point. On the faded and worn cardboard cover of the box is a watercolor scene – a classic English painting, surely by Winston Churchill or Prince Charles.

Mostly I work in my journal on a trip – but the kit contains cut pieces of hot press paper and a tiny drawing pad. Tape from a small roll can turn a folded-over piece of paper into a letter to mail. The cut-off end of a square plastic juice bottle holds just enough water for painting, and tissues from a tiny carton blot an overloaded brush. Colored pencil stubs are handy when water is not available, and color is called for.

The little kit holds a lot of memories of places – adding color to drawings on mountain trips, in airplanes – or sitting up in the early morning with cup of tea in a hotel bed. Even when not accurate, little paintings, colored drawings say something different than photos. They represent moments of concentrating, the moments of effort I cherish.

I didn’t have the kit with me, but would have liked to linger in the head gardener’s glade to capture some part of her summery scene.

Beans and Greens

The greens I had in mind were turnips or kale or collards, chard or spinach. But on our last hike, a day when we drove out of thick and chilly fog, through the meadows and farms above Sequim to the Upper Dungeness trailhead – I thought of the “great green room” of Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon.”

But that wasn’t quite what I saw. The trail begins in a stand of old growth trees – the firs and hemlocks aren’t so enormous in girth as they are tall – so tall you trip backwards attempting to see the tops.

Under those trees, we hiked in a chlorophyll-filled world, following a clear non-glacial stream, through the green glow of forest. Not a room exactly but more like being inside a leaf – a journey along veins and ribs – with the sun shining through.

Moss covers logs beside the riverbank, like a thick green version of the fuzzy white lining of fava bean pods. Shiny leaves on plants of mahonia and queen’s cup, moss, ferns, and kinnikinick cover the ground to each side of the trail. Miniature woodlots of lime green seedlings grow on nurse logs. One huge stump’s roots lie nearly in the river with a tiny fir forest fuzzing its top. An orange columbine caught my eye, but mostly there is no color beyond the gradations of greens.

The ascent is kind because of a gradual elevation gain and bridges made from logs – both bridges with hand rails and flattened tops built by the Forest Service (it’s thrilling, but safe, to stand on a log in the middle of the river) – or bridges created by nature, casual downfalls slippery with spray, reaching across a snow-melt creek.

Camp Handy – our turnaround point three miles in – is a wooden shelter next to a sunny meadow. Gravel bars, surrounded by a thick stand of willow, edge the river. Mountains enclose this long valley.

We spread windbreakers on a groundcover of wood strawberry and moss, ate tortilla de patatas sandwiches (contained by panini buns this time), and watched yellow butterflies on buttercups and cow parsley.

Walking out, down through green loveliness – I wondered about life’s big questions like, “What’s for dinner?”

The night before I sautéed golden turnip greens with onions and garlic, and added cannellini beans cooked with sage. Classic beans and greens. And a side of fava beans – the outer felted pods removed and beans sautéed in a little olive oil with garlic.

So, easy dinner this night would be the leftover beans added to a salad made from a gathering of greens – several different lettuces, avocado, snow peas, small chop of broccoli, spinach, frilly Savoy cabbage – and an orange highlight from a sliced nectarine. Olive oil with Meyer lemon and blackberry balsamic vinegar (treats brought by a friend from the Pike Street Market in Seattle) will quickly combine into a delicious salad dressing.

In and amongst all those greens I saw in the forest was fava bean green – the green of the tender inside part, teased from its husk and eaten with pleasure. I’ll add those in. Beans and greens.

The Bluff Thicket

Fewer deer live out here on the bluff than in some parts of town, so it’s mostly a privilege to see them so close by. They eat pineapple weed and cat’s ears from the lawn, and offerings from the bluff thicket. A doe and her fawn visit nearly every morning – the fawn all gawky exuberance – the mother more cautious. Skittish sometimes – a sudden noise leads to a deer exit offstage, head nervously bobbing in a back and forth loop.

When we bought our property the lawn edged right to the bluff and then fell over. The bluff is undercut in places, but it isn’t a sheer drop all along – from the beach you can see clumps of stabilizing trees and shrubs.

The first sight of the bluff scared me. My thought was “Oh no, not a cliff, that’s not what I had in mind.” But I returned the next morning, sat on the picnic table at the bluff’s edge, drank a cup of tea from a shop in town, and thought “Oh yes.”

We built a fence the first year – one of those ubiquitous green-metal-wire with white-topped-posts fences, and placed it back from the bluff with the hope that plants could fill in, and it would disappear.

The abrupt and naked edge became an impenetrable blockade the height of the fence – a tangle of salal, wild roses, honeysuckle, ferns, vetch, and native blackberry. (This year a single stalk of Columbia lily with spotted and reflexed petals emerged above the thicket.) We can trim the thicket a little, by reaching out from this side of the fence. When sheared this way, the ocean spray blooms in a froth – and looks just like its name.

Later, when the thicket is full of salal berries, a deer will jump the fence – daintily leap from a stopstill and land carefully – wallow in belly-high berries, eat its fill, and jump back.

Pleasures outweigh any loss of view – bees at work become the sound of the thicket, and hummingbirds hover near vetch blossoms. Birds perch on branches near three wooden chairs in a small, well-mowed spot. Last summer when my young friend and her mom came to visit, we sat happy hours there, listening to songs of sparrows, drinking tea, and taking turns reading a book out loud. Summer!

Sara Stein, in her book, “My Weeds: A Gardener’s Botany,” muses about leaving her gardens: “If I have to abandon them, I would like to abandon them to a natural succession for which they have been prepared, and to which they will take gracefully.” She continues: “It occurred to me that there might be a way to mimic natural gardens so that, as neglect becomes necessity, their character will carry them with dignity through their advancing years.”

When recent visitors asked if the thicket was all natural – meaning did I plant any of it – I wished I could take credit, because it answers Stein’s hope – a lovely jumble of favorite natives – supporting wildlife – giving pleasure – and lasting for a long time.

Walking Thoughts

Recovering from the Mount Townsend hike, the next day we reversed our morning route up Artillery Hill in Fort Worden. It’s still a climb, but gentler.

We walked the track through newly mowed meadow and forest, and looped around at the top to start back past Fort Worden’s bunkers. These low-down buildings – gun embankments dug into the earth with window slits looking out to sea – were built at the end of the 19th century as part of a military presence on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

When we first came here, the buildings’ concrete pillars and steps were moss-covered and looked exotic like ruined temples. Now graffiti threatens the gray of the concrete, but dedicated volunteers or park staff cover it with rolled-on paint in neutrals of loden green or a kicked-back turquoise.

Walking here, away from the waves and wind, birds cheep in trees above, but buildings, with doors tipped on rusted hinges, are silent. Sometimes I picture soldiers about their business, training business, and think how loud the guns would have been.

I also think about our boys when we walk here – how much they would have loved these buildings when little – these structures would have fired up their imaginations, and inspired mock battles for sure.

But I always think about them when walking. We walked a lot as a family – on trips and Alaska trails. I remember carrying the first born in an old Gerry pack through a mountain pass as a not quite two-year old, and thinking how, having already seen such sights, his view of the world would be different than mine. (He wasn’t looking at scenery, but focused on what he called “buedubbies” – requesting I reach down and gather more.) By the time of the younger son, we rigged a red Kelty pack with a kid carrier down inside it, and the older son began to walk with his own red pack.

I always wondered if they’d like to walk when they grew up. But I wonder no more. They both have rambled the world, dividing the globe, and added in plenty of uncharted Alaska treks, mountain climbs, and backcountry ski trips.

The older son and his wife did a long and hard trek this summer, many miles, many days, carrying their gear. I loved what our son said before they left, that he was looking forward to days of walking and walking.

That strength and hiking competence is part of the overall power shift from parents to children. I wonder if young people realize how much parents love to see that transfer.

I’m glad not to be the trail boss. For a long time I have been aware of the wisdom of our sons – their intelligence and self-possession. I think parents just want to be still relevant somehow – but know that doesn’t mean being in charge anymore.

What a relief.

Tortilla de Patatas

Called a tortilla but really a frittata, Deborah Madison refers to this egg and potato treat as Tortilla Español. In Catalunya it’s tortilla de patatas. Deborah’s recipe calls for a lot of olive oil – two pounds of sliced potatoes cooked in five tablespoons of olive oil.

Leery of so much oil in spite of eating so many authentic tortilla de patatas with olive oil at full strength, I’m in the middle of a Goldilocks test. This frittata might become a staple, especially in summer with so many eggs and new potatoes – and leftovers being perfect for hiking trips – I’d like to get it just right.

The first time I peeled the potatoes, but just gave the second batch a good scrubbing (they were new potatoes from the farmer’s market with very thin skin). The first time I sliced and parboiled the potatoes a little before adding them to the sautéing onions. Good. The second time I cooked the onions in water, drained well, and added along with the cooked onions to the eggs. Also good. Third time? I plan to try all the olive oil.

The first time I finished the frittata off in the oven, and the results slipped easily out of the pan and looked a golden beauty on the plate. The second time I tried to follow Deborah’s directions by sliding the omelet to a plate once one side was golden brown, and then returning it to the pan to continue cooking. That requires a little more manual dexterity – my puffed perfection was a little cracked. Still good.

Deborah says the olive oil gives the potatoes a “velvety, tender texture.” I’m sure she’s right (and probably an easier slide from the pan), but these attempts both tasted very good.

I like how Deborah describes this most common Spanish snack as “providing a nourishing boost for flagging energy from morning through night.” Wanting to get an early start on a hike, I sliced it into a baguette and made huge and delicious sandwiches for the drive to the trailhead. Next time I’ll buy panini buns – they’d make it easier to keep all that goodness out of our laps.

Oh – and I broke open the tomato preserve – it is exactly what Carmen called “fruit preserve” – rightly so, tomato is a fruit. I sliced it into the sandwiches – perfecto!

Mount Townsend

At the trailhead for the Mount Townsend hike, the sun is hot in the dusty parking pull-off. You can look up and see the summit far above. Just an hour’s drive from town, this seven-mile hike is a summer ritual for people here. A twisty Forest Service road provides much of the elevation gain to the 6,280-foot summit, but 2,000 feet remain to do on foot.

Edged at the beginning by pale pink and blooming rhododendron, then by the logged stumps and regrowth of hemlock and Doug fir, the trail climbs relentlessly up for the first half-hour. Ever upward, the route switches to the mountain’s damper flank, covered with fern and kinnikinnick. On a clear day walkers can glimpse the Strait through trees, but a couple of Sundays ago when my husband and I hiked, a thick layer of fog and cloud covered the water and coast.

About 40 minutes up, the trail levels briefly, and at 50 minutes we stepped through snow patches. Two years ago we hiked the trail on the 21st of each month, June to September. That year in June, at this spot, we slid and sunk into significant sweeps of avalanched snow, and heaved over many winter downfalls.

Remembering the measured pace of the trail boss, at an hour and a quarter on a slope of rocky outcroppings, we stopped for a handful of nuts and some water. Just a few switchbacks below the top ridge, here the view stretches west across forested valleys to the beautiful snow-streaked Olympics.

The high tree line in Washington always surprises me, but at this elevation trees become stunted and sub-alpine. Now in early July, pale lavender and white phlox, tiny violets, and unopened allium grow in patches of scree. Later in July kamus, monkshood, potentilla, saxifrage, paintbrush, and lupine will bless the tundra.

On the top of Mount Townsend, narrow but a mile long, summiters find resting spots and a spectacular view. But on this day, a thick cloudbank obscured all but the nearest tree-covered foothills and the snow-clad volcano shape of Mount Rainier.

On our August and September trips the view was a 360° panorama – to the north all the way to Canada, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Discovery Bay, and the Quimper Peninsula. To the east, in front of the Cascades, Puget Sound and its by-waters twisted and turned. We could see the Hood Canal Bridge, follow the highway across Bainbridge, and watch ferries carrying people back and forth to Seattle’s buildings, glinting in the sun.

We ate cheese sandwiches and apples in a little grassy bowl near a long patch of snow, sheltering by wind-twisted juniper. A breeze and clouds passing over the sun made me glad for windbreaker and wool shirt. One of us had a nap, and the other painted a little scene. Chilly, we started down.

Down is quicker but hard on knees, boots slip on rocks and dust. Halfway down it felt good to sit on a tree trunk over the path and split a big chocolate-chip cookie.

It always seems like the last mile of a hike is longer than any other. (Alaska hikes are like this – you can hear the highway – even see the cars shining in the parking lot and still need to turn much up into down.)

I was glad to reach the car and look up to see clouds swirling about the summit. And glad to drive home eating cherries, hoping the fog had lifted off the bluff.

Revisiting June Gloom – Just Briefly

On a drizzly day, before I began to clean up the rest of the garden, I tidied our old dog Bill’s grave on the south forty. I cleared the beginning-to-rust can that holds greens in winter and flowers in summer, and fashioned an insert from a yogurt container.

Thick grass (well, grass and weeds) surrounds the gravesite and encroaches. Neglected while waiting for the daffodil foliage to mature, then we were gone, and now it was just unkempt. Winter rains and winds tattered the prayer flags and knocked down the stone stacks we build up in the summer to mark the grave.

I gathered flowers deer avoid to fill the can, and thought about Bill, and also about the photo my painter friend sent of my parents’ gravesite in Anchorage. Two little markers in the old downtown cemetery. My friend visited them on Memorial Day and placed a bouquet of early spring flowers from her Anchorage garden. I was touched.

Cleaning up the debris on the big stones covering Bill’s grave, I thought about people forever tending gravesites. Like those depicted in the movie “Forever,” about the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – French women brushing and polishing marble of loved ones, and leaving flowers. I wondered about having a place to go for remembering – a place where the act of tidying is devotion. Comparing that to scattering ashes in a meaningful place. My friend here on the bluff built a beautiful memorial for two beloved animals – a horse and a dog, Charlie. One day the Garry oaks she planted will grow huge.

Some of these thoughts come from travelling in a country with so much history, so many memorials, so many stone houses hundreds of years old. Been thinking, too, about how even our wooden house will far outlive us and feeling inclined to paint the year of building over the door – even if not carved in stone – and maybe consider other permanent marks that say we were here.

Rain and dark clouds encouraged these thoughts. Glad to shake them off, I headed back to the house and the Buffalo to cook and make the bed for cheerful guests coming to stay.

The important thing is paying attention to this life now. We’ll light a fire and tell stories like people do.

The Bean Project – Fesols de Santa Pau

Our younger son’s sweet friend – stalwart Spain hiker with rose-colored day pack full of treats and sundries, always a cheerful sight up ahead on the trail – is from Thailand. A good and adventurous cook, she made the Santa Pau beans as soon as she got home and sent a photo and the recipe. It’s a white bean salad adaptation (with no added Thai magic she assured me).

I’ve never made a bean salad before (so many new things with the bean project), so I cooked the beans using Mark Bittman’s “Tuscan Bean” recipe. It called for sage, and the sage plant in the garden is a three-foot, flowering giant with many small new leaves.

I did read in Bittman about how to cook beans (more stalling). Santa Pau beans are small, at least the ones I have, smaller than black-eyed peas. (And I read in Deborah that size does not determine cooking time – age does.) I’d always thought one was not supposed to add salt to the cooking water, (Bittman calls that a common misperception). Deborah says to add salt when beans have begun to soften but aren’t done; Bittman says to add it in the middle if you want, but for sure to add it before the end of cooking.

The recipe called for tossing the beans together with sliced red onions (I substituted red scallions from the CSA, Italian parsley (I used the ordinary kind from the garden which is also huge and unfortunately about to flower), pitted and sliced Kalamata olives, plum tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper. Then added two cups of torn arugula.

The beans were great – and the salad! And like lots of things even better for next day summer lunch as the flavors mingle.

It’s taking me a while to break into our carried-home treasure stash which includes Catalan tomato preserve packed in a wooden box – perfect on a sourdough baguette. Next time!

Summer Night

This is a first – writing in the evening after dinner, bare feet, windows open, sun still high in the sky over the so-still Strait. All day the water had a different look – softer, a barely rippled pale blue – and now a glow from the setting sun gilds the hills on the San Juans. Summer here on the bluff, began as scheduled, about three p.m. on July 5th.

On the Fourth of July, at Fort Worden for the Port Townsend Summer Band annual concert, people looked windblown and wore jackets, wool hats – and scarves! The next morning thick clouds and wind made me sorely tempted to turn the heat back on. But by late afternoon Frances lolled on warm pavers, and we sat outside to read under the wide-open yellow umbrella.

I was sure we would wake to clouds again – a not bad weather pattern of foggy, cloudy mornings and clearing afternoons – but sometimes a longing sets in to wake to sunshine. And today we did!

Now it is really hard to focus. Writing about Catalunya kept it alive while I began to do reentry chores and garden triage, and I managed to stall a few days wondering where to start. (And read a lot of Matthew Parris’s book “A Castle in Spain” – about the saving of L’Avenc, a ruined mansion on the Collsacabre cliffs – not a way to get my garden in shape but a great pleasure.)

And then Alaska friends came to stay – a really good gardener and her husband. Walking around with her I began to see plants in need of care. I stalled a little longer debating whether I’d do all the watering or all the deadheading, or work one bed completely at a time.

“Just do it” began to ring in my head – so I started in the front garden where the huge sambucus full of pink blooms nearly engulfs the birdbath, and flowers and beginnings of pods cover the snap peas on the tripod trellis. I pulled out forget-me-nots and too many feverfew, planted cosmos starts I’d helped along by growing in four inch pots, and cut back enough mint to reveal the piled up concrete edging and restore an illusion of control.

Wearing windbreaker and wool socks I worked my way through the rest of the garden in the reentry days –– deadheading in the courtyard and watering the fruit trees, admiring many small cherries and plums, and cheering on the 13 little apples on one columnar tree (two on the other).

And now tonight is a summer night. An orange disk of sun sinks toward a pink and orchid horizon, the sun’s reflection an orange path on the water. A summer night – I can go bed with the windows open and the shades up, read my book and watch the light fade over the islands – mango, cherry, and lemon burnishing the sea.

The twinkle lights on the courtyard fence come on – and little fishing boats and big cruise ships light up. The night is so still I can hear their engines.

Walking, Bus, Barcelona

Failure to check the bus schedule back to Barcelona left us with three hours in Olot, the bigger city near Santa Pau, whose unassuming outskirts hide a medieval center. The trail boss negotiated baggage storage with the bus depot’s café owner, and we walked along tree-lined streets or under the shade of stores’ arcades to the Museu dels Vocans to see the natural history exhibits.

The museum had displays of plants and birds labeled with their more recognizable Latin names, and a startling volcano video – with lifelike room-shaking earthquake. Back at the café, we ate impossibly good baguettes containing tortilla de patatas – and more crisps.

On the bus ride through torrential rain, we viewed the countryside from dry and cushioned seats. Near Barcelona, I asked a young woman carrying a portfolio and reading an English phrase book for directions. A student of ancient languages and fine art, and eager to practice her English, she guided us – through another cloudburst – to the Placa de Catalunya. English is a third language for this part of Spain – lucky for us – we could often talk to people because of their understanding of our language.

Our last day – on the top of Montjuïc, a cupcake of a mountain at the edge of Barcelona – sitting at a café on the steps of the Museum of Catalan Art, eating a mango ice in sunshine and listening to a musician strum his Spanish guitar, we watched tourists posing against a backdrop of Tiepolo clouds with Barcelona spread out below. I savored the moment and mused on our trip.

Early morning sounds of birds and cows and roosters in villages and the clatter of footsteps on cobblestones echoing in the Barri Gòtik in Barcelona – walking those streets and sitting atop hillsides, you travel in the footsteps of two millennia of people. Traces left – Roman walls and aqueducts, little Romanesque churches with views to awe and such a pilgrimage to reach, you can imagine lives lived – both invaders and the singular people of Catalonya.

Such a privilege to be reduced to the elemental parts of life – grateful for amiable companions, meditative walking, food for the journey, and places to stop with the sun or shade, view or shelter. And to be greeted each night with comfort.

My mind is full of color and sights – painted tiles and the staring eyes of Catalan frescoes – and thoughts of Santa Pau beans cooked in the Northwest and our local bread spread with their delicious tomato preserve!

Clambering Man – and Woman

Miguel always referred to our third day as the “large walk ”  – 11 miles through the Garrotxa, an area of forested, ancient volcanoes and a renowned beech forest – with several “steep ascents.”

In his giant book “Barcelona” (which I read on the trip and wish I’d read before), Robert Hughes describes Catalan art and life and people. He tells of the isolation of these foothills and mountains, and says communication was only possible at the speed of a “clambering man” – not climbing exactly, but requiring stretched thighs, well placed feet, and a slow pace.

On the third day, a dark cloud moved close while we ate a lunch packed by Carmen (sandwich of cheese and ham or fruit paste on crusty, chewy bread). Raindrops began with five miles to go, so we pulled out jackets – and got soaked by hard but never cold rain.

Maybe the rain made the approach to ancient Santa Pau perfect. In the distance, from the field where we stopped to share the second of our tiny bottles of Ratafia Russet (bought at a local Farm Co-op earlier in the day – along with cherries and chocolate), we could see Santa Pau’s 15th century castle and church tower through rain and mist. It was easy to imagine being footsore travelers of old.

The young people high-fived at the door to a small hotel in converted country house, and we all celebrated in a restaurant with low ceilings and thick walls, on the main square of the oldest part of town, ancient setting with upscale dining.

The rain passed in the night and left a morning all sunshine and summer – silent in Santa Pau save birdsong. At the 100-year old alimentacio where I went in search of beans, I stood and waited my turn and tried to take it all in – a small space, by modern super market terms, high shelves with more storage reached by a ladder like an old-fashioned library. The shopkeeper had one or two of everything.

I couldn’t understand a word – in this part of Catalonya only Catalan is spoken – and that’s when smiles and nods and hand gestures become language. I wonder what they are talking about – but mostly just relish the differentness of such a familiar activity – finding groceries, planning dinner in this place with a real scale in use, bill toted up by pencil and paper. Each woman had a big basket into which she tucked slices of cheese or meat wrapped in brown paper.

No beans though, at least not packaged for tourists – so I bought Ratfaia Russet – and located fesols in a shop in the main square.

The Trail Boss Has a Birthday

By our second day, rhythm and familiarity made for even more enjoyable walking along the edges of cliffs with miniature villages and farms in the valley below.

Steep bits challenged, both elevation gain and loss led to accompanying stress on body parts. In our tattered copy of “A Journey to the Islands of Scotland” Samuel Johnson describes the ascents perfectly: “…an aclivity not dangerously steep but sufficiently laborious.” Same for the declivities. But we also traveled miles of country lanes through meadows and Robin Hood-worthy forest paths with soft leaves underfoot.

Walking through farms at siesta time, with maisas quiet and shuttered, cows chewed their cud and regarded us with both boredom and incredulity at such madness in the afternoon sun.

In spite of weary bodies our evening approaches always thrilled – not quite sure where we would stay or what the food would be like. But eager – and then always pleased by good food, hot showers, and cozy beds.

At the end of the second day, when our hostess Carmen warmly welcomed us to her beautifully remodeled 18th century farmhouse, I blurted out that today was the younger son’s birthday. (She had two hijos of her own.)

Her evening meal was Perfecto! – a beautiful salad with olives and apples, tomatoes and garden lettuce, pumpkin soup, a melt-in-your mouth tortilla de patatas – and exciting to me – fesols de Santa Pau – a local white bean of such renown in Spain they may be given a denominacio d’origen like wines to identify them.

Fried pork for the carnivores almost capped the meal, but then Carmen presented (with help from Miguel) a birthday cake ablaze with a big numeral three candle and three little ones. We shared it with Miguel and Carmen who offered the first taste of Ratafia Russet – the local liqueur made from alcohol, anise – “and many, many flowers.”

In these days, wine and desserts always accompanied meals – no doubt part of the happiness. And we were so companionable – so much laughing – and always the pleasure of walking. The hot sun rarely unwelcome, being sometimes interrupted by huge fat clouds drifting by – or shading trees. I loved seeing the young people up ahead – grateful for sharing daily life in such a setting.

On the Trail

In the morning, our younger son – the “trail boss” – inspected the daypacks and relocated extra water bottles to his pack. We ate toast and jam and fruit, drank tea and coffee, and met Miguel, a newly minted Catalan architect, who would transport our bags.

We began – heading downhill – and stopped 100 feet later. While we waited for the young people to climb back up to buy a walking stick (carved from a tree branch with a compass in the top end), I made the first notes in my tiny notebook. Around us on the terraced hillside, lettuce, potatoes, and tomatoes grew in little gardens, black plastic between rows like in all places with cold soil. Bees worked the vetch, tiny blue butterflies flew over the Queen Anne’s lace, and wild roses bloomed white rather than pink. Stone houses tipped above us spoke of a far earlier time.

We began to follow hillside paths of stones or rock slab, or country lanes and little tracks (obvious or marked with cairns). The route followed the top of the Collsacabre – a high plateau – through grazed-grass meadows (often protected by electric fences with gates) edged with tangles of malva, red poppy, yarrow, purple salvia, phlox, and snapdragon. Sometimes tall box grew along paths, common like salal in the Northwest.

We walked through abandoned and still occupied farmsteads with classic Spanish stone masias (farmhouses), and past sheep and cows wearing musical bells. In warm sunshine, below Cumulus clouds, swallows swooped everywhere.

I relished the day, and thought improbably about Virginia Woolf, writing about a London winter evening. In “Street Haunting” she says: “For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth.”

The trail boss called lunch in a meadow, bread and cheese, apples, chunks of sweet Spanish flatbread called coca (from the Rupit bakery where it’s baked in long loaves and sold in exactly the length you want). Almond cookies. Then naps with hats over faces.

Twisting around a pass, the vista changed to reveal in the distance the Pyrenées with tattered snow patches. Up and down we trod, then through the cool of a forest with sparse bracken beneath an oak leaf canopy.

We found a little crèche tucked up high in a nook formed by two huge rocks, part of a set of “enchanted rocks” – story-high boulders completely covered with moss. Fairies or wood sprites seem very close – the complicated Roman gods never took hold here – but nearly every other imaginative deity seems possible.

We learned this first day to love the Route Booklet. Its incredibly detailed directions – combined with markings from Europe’s Gran Recorrido (a system of footpaths that follow historic communication routes, well-signed and with small red-and-white or yellow stripes on trees or paths or stone walls) – led us to La Mare de Déu de La Salut and its hostal – our high point at 3000 feet.

Nearby, was a small cave-like structure around a font, a shrine where flickering, tall, colored votive candles made just enough eerie light to see painted tiles – a madonna in this local setting with recognizable fields, forests, and rocky hills. From the hotel’s balcony, we could see the distant Mediterranean, and after dark, the lights of cities below.

A cold wind harried the Catalan flag outside our window.

Destination: Catalunya!

Now, on a day with foghorns sounding and moisture dripping from fir trees, I remember the week this June we spent walking in Catalunya, Spain. Inspired by English friends who often do such walking tours, a sense of tempus fugit, and the willingness of our younger son and his sweet friend to come along, my husband and I signed up with the Alternative Travel Group out of Oxford. We chose “The Hills of Girona” their 28-mile, independent or “footloose” trip.

ATG provides a detailed Route Booklet, reserves accommodations along the way, and most importantly – arranges to have bags transported from one hotel to the next! A blissful luxury for people accustomed in our backpacking days to the daylong weight of babies and food, tents, and heavy clothes.

In a night and day of travel, we flew through London to Barcelona. Transiting Heathrow terminals is a walk itself between trains and buses and moving stairways. But we woke near Barcelona’s Cathedral to sunshine (beginning a pattern of sunny mornings and gathering afternoon clouds) and spend our recovery days walking and walking: the Ramblas from one end to the other, the narrow medieval streets of the Barri Gòtic, and Gaudí sights: Sagrada Famìlia (the press of visitors made it hard to do anything but admire its splendor and improbability from the street), and Parc Güell – where the climb to the top, past the famous mosaics, was dry and dusty with lavender, rosemary, and cactus.

At the great Barcelona food market, the Boqueria, we bought nuts, dried apricots, figs, and fresh fruit for the hike – and peered at elaborate pyramids of multicolored fruits and vegetables and Catalan meat and seafood in patterned displays  – then boarded a train to head north.

Rupit, the “trailhead” for our trek – tiny, medieval, and magical – perches on a rocky promontory encircled by a river that is crossed by a trembly, hanging footbridge. Old stone houses squeeze together, and exuberant pink or red geraniums spill from boxes at each window. A euro coin switched on lights inside the church (begun in the 10th century) and revealed fresh flowers near the altar. The main street became a stone slab path and steps, seeming to be the natural rock of the ridge.

At the Hotel Estrella I sat on the bed and drew the window view. We all sat in the sunshine at a terrace table over the river to study the Route Booklet, drink a beer, and eat the first of many “crisps” cooked in olive oil. We laughed nervously (some of us) about this idea of walking 28 miles in three days.


Deborah Kellaway wrote one of those tales I have a weakness for, the story of a garden reclaimed or created. “The Making of an English Country Garden” tells about the garden she and her husband built in Norfolk, England – a garden with “privacy, serenity, sheltered places for garden seats,” “a country garden filled with scented, old-fashioned flowers.” They began it on weekends, with three children in tow, and later lived there full time.

Kellaway wrote other books, including a study of Virginia Woolf and “Favourite Flowers” illustrated by the paintings of my favorite watercolor painter Elizabeth Blackadder. I like to think this tabletop of flowers might have come from Kellaway’s Norfolk garden (or maybe the Edinburgh garden of Blackadder).

Kellaway offers another take on the perennial question of why we like this activity so much:

“In the end, it is the ever-changing nature of a garden which holds the gardener captive: if things look unimaginative at noon, they will have revived with the spreading shadows by tea time.”

Or the warming days of July!