California

I returned yesterday from a week in California – a vacation that was part solo adventuring, part family visit. My brother lives in Vacaville, near Sacramento. I flew in on Saturday the 16th and rented a car. (My layover was in Phoenix, and the flight from Phoenix to Sacramento took us over Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Luckily, I had a window seat.)

I didn’t go sightseeing every day I was there. It rained steadily for a couple of days, so I stayed in and streamed movies and TV (something I rarely do, so it was a luxury in and of itself). I went on a couple hikes with my brother and nieces at local parks. Our hike last Sunday at Rockville Hills Regional Park in Fairfield (4 miles total) was pretty challenging, especially due to some pretty serious erosion of the trails from all the recent rain. But we soldiered through and awarded ourselves with ice cream from Fosters Freeze afterwards.

Mostly, I want to talk about my solo adventures, which took place Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday

On Tuesday morning, I drove to Suisun Marsh and visited Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. It’s a dream destination for birdwatchers and/or photographers. They also have a population of Tule Elk there, which are somewhat elusive, from my understanding. It was a happy accident that I was scanning the landscape through my camera’s zoom lens and spotted one. Unfortunately, it was too far away for my camera to get a decent shot. I took photos, but they’re not the best – only enough to prove that I saw one.

Here are a few other shots I took that day. (Note that I generally only do some cropping and maybe slight color correction. I rarely do heavy photo editing.)

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The driving tour of Grizzly Island took about two hours (with photo stops at almost every parking lot). It was lunchtime as I finished up my adventuring there, so I drove back into Suisun City to find something to eat. I ended up at Ohana Hawaiian Barbecue. I was lame and ordered the barbecue chicken bowl, which was basically just marinated chicken, vegetables, and rice. It was good but kind of boring. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I had ordered something different. (They had Spam on their menu, but I had to draw the line somewhere. I don’t think there is any possible way to cook it that would make it taste good to me.)

Since I was in wine country (not Napa, which is nearby – been there, done that), I thought I should go to one of the less touristy wineries in Suisun Valley. Several of them were closed (on a Tuesday?), so I set my Google Map directions toward the first one I came across in Google that had Tuesday hours. It just so happened to be Wooden Valley Winery, which has excellent reviews. I was not disappointed. I thought the Riesling was particularly good, and I was informed that if I purchased a bottle for $16, the tasting fee ($15) would be waived. That’s a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned.

I also bought a glass of Riesling so I could relax on their beautiful patio and enjoy the perfect weather. I was given a free wine glass with their logo on it, which is actually one of those shatterproof stemless ones made out of plastic. That’s sort of perfect because I need a wine glass for our travel trailer anyway. (I collect wine glasses and I don’t have room for any more in my kitchen cabinets.)

So, if you happen to be in Suisun Valley and you want some wine, this place gets a big thumbs up from me. And I’m not a wine novice, for what it’s worth.

Thursday

I set my sights on the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden for Thursday. Gardens are a particular passion of mine, especially for photography. I’ve visited many public gardens across the U.S. and Europe. I was pleasantly surprised by my visit. This is one of the finest public gardens I’ve seen, full stop. And yes, it is California, but even so, I was amazed at everything that was blooming so early in the spring.

I’ll let my photos do most of the talking here. This place was unbelievable.

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Trust me, these photos don’t even do it justice.

This was my first trip out to California in six years, and I don’t want that much time to pass before going out there again. My nieces are growing so fast.

The Ghosts of Warwick Castle

Fright Nights – Warwick Castle (Warwick, England)
August 4-5, 2006
9 pm – 5 am

The small group participating in the ghost hunt met in the castle’s café. We were introduced to the Fright Nights team and got an explanation of what they do and what to expect.

After this brief introduction, we got a tour of Warwick Castle – the grounds, gate house, dungeon, and ghost tower – along with the historical background. At certain points, the guides paused to tell us that they felt spirits around, but most of the participants couldn’t see/feel/hear anything, except for one person in the group who had a very strong sense of the ghosts that were in each room.

After the initial orientation of the castle, we met back at our base of operations – the café. The tour leaders passed out ghost hunting equipment – various thermometers and electro-magnetic field detectors – and gave us a brief tutorial their use. Then we were allowed to go off on our own private tour of the castle.

Reluctant to fly solo, I paired up with another woman who was also on her own. We decided to explore the gate house, but our equipment detected nothing. The gate house was allegedly haunted by the spirits of soldiers who tried to invade the castle, as well as a witch and various other spirits.

Eventually, we reconvened at the café to meet up with our medium, Michael. We introduced ourselves to each other, and two men (a gay couple…this will be important later, which is why I’m mentioning it) struck up a conversation with me. I stuck with them the rest of the evening.

As a group, we went with Michael to tour the castle again. Immediately, he picked up the presence of ghosts: Roman soldiers marching in the courtyard; a man who had been trampled after being pushed to the ground; a drummer boy standing by a doorway who was sad because he lost his drum; a mother carrying a baby who stood outside the castle gates, begging to be let in.

Inside the dungeon, he saw the torture master, who didn’t want us there. On the ceiling hung an iron maiden. He saw a woman in it.

In the gate house, he saw various other ghosts. At one point, he saw a ghost named Guy, a member of the Knights Templar, standing next to me. The room was hot and stuffy, but my right side, where he allegedly stood, was freezing cold.

In various rooms, depending on how spirits had died in them, people complained of correlating body aches: terrible headaches if the person died of a stroke, stomachaches if a person died from being stabbed in the stomach, etc.

There was one room where the air kept getting sucked out of my lungs, and I gasped for breath – it happened to other people at the same time. We smelled random scents like lavender or mint, when there was nothing that should have caused those scents.

In the ghost tower, Michael picked up on a ghost in the first room named Brooke (last name), who told him that he’s Sir Greville’s servant. (Sir G once resided in the ghost tower.) Michael felt a heavy pressure in his body, which he said was due to the pervasive sadness in the room. Brooke was not just Sir G’s servant, but also his lover, and he stabbed Sir G. to death in a fit of passion before killing himself. Michael related all this to us as he communicated with Brooke. This account was consistent with the history of the castle, which Michael said he did not study prior to coming.

In Sir G’s bedroom, Michael described Sir G’s ghost and began to feel very uneasy. The other men in the room noted some odd sensations, but the women didn’t feel anything. We all stood in the dark, and we were advised to turn on our flashlight and run if we felt we were in imminent danger.

One of the men did – he suddenly panicked, turned on his flashlight, and ran down the stairs, followed by one of the paranormal experts. They were down there for several minutes (they picked up on another ghost at the bottom of the stairs), and those of us remaining in Sir G’s bedroom stood very still and quiet. We heard footsteps walking around in the middle of the room. The men downstairs also heard them.

We eventually went downstairs and into a very narrow room. The medium panicked. There was the presence of an elemental, or animal spirit, and several people picked up on it being a wolf or a dog. Michael, who has had contact with ghosts his entire life, told us that he had never felt more scared in his life, and we had to strongly convince him not to flee from the building.

At this point, I was still not convinced any of this was real. I didn’t feel this panicky/dangerous vibe that several other people were picking up on.

After this intense scene in the ghost tower, we headed back to the café, where we were split up into two teams. One team went with Michael to the gate house and dungeon. My team joined the two other guides to go into the ghost tower.

We started out on the first floor. One of the ladies in the group said she felt a very playful spirit in the room. We stood in a circle, holding hands. People claimed they could feel the presence of the ghost behind them as it walked around the room – it would lightly touch people. One of the guides said she felt the ghost was walking in a very comical manner. One lady in the room got a random fit of the giggles.

We went up one floor, back to Sir G’s bedroom. All flashlights off, and we stood in a circle holding hands. Suddenly, we hear hissing sounds coming from various parts of the room. Some people said the hissing was directly in their ears.

We heard screaming, and flashlights came on. Several women were shoved around very hard. They moved to another part of the circle.

Once we calmed down, we rejoined hands and the flashlights went out again. The guides were asking, “If you’re here, give us a sign. Make a noise. Touch someone. Let us know you’re here.” (They repeated this several times throughout the night.)

More pushing, screaming, flashlights coming on. Lights out again, holding hands again…

I heard a shout from one of the men in the group. It was one of the gay guys I was hanging out with, and he said someone was trying to pull up the back of his shirt. (Remember, Sir G. was in a homosexual relationship.) He explained that he was gay, so perhaps the ghost could sense that.

We settled back into our circle, lights out… A guide sat on Sir G’s bed. A woman claimed to see a bright flash of light moving onto the bed. The guide announced that Sir G. sat next to him.

We heard a sound coming from downstairs. The guide on the bed shouted, “We know you’re down there, come up and join us.” A minute later, he told us, “the elemental has joined me on the bed.”

Despite all this going on, I still hear/see/feel nothing. Just about everyone else in the room was panicky and scared, and I felt disappointed because I wasn’t experiencing anything.

After this, our group joined Michael in the gate house and dungeon. Michael should have gone to the ghost tower, but he refused to go.

We went to the dungeon first, which was, in my opinion, the creepiest room in the entire castle. All lights out. Instead of standing in a circle and holding hands, we sat around the room very quietly. I sat in a little alcove next to a trapdoor where they would throw some of the prisoners (the oubliette). I figured that surely I would feel something there, but I felt absolutely nothing. We sat in silence for a while, and the medium finally announced that nothing was there, so we moved on to the gate house.

Nothing seemed to be going on there either. In one of the rooms, Michael said that he saw ghosts moving in and out, but none of them stayed. We sat for a really long time. My legs fell asleep. One guy fell asleep and started snoring. Two women finally got up and left. I followed them out. We sat in the café for a bit, talking about how disappointing this was. Nothing we had seen had truly convinced us.

A short time later, everyone else joined us in the café. Michael arrived first, a minute or two before the others, and he was shaking and telling us he was absolutely terrified to go back in the ghost tower. The rest of the group joined us, and we went back into the ghost tower and stood in a circle, holding hands. All flashlights off, and the only light in the room was a tiny red dot coming from the tape recorder.

Michael was sitting apart from us in a corner. I got a very odd sensation at this moment – the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I got this hot flash. One of our guides announced that Michael was in a trance. As a transmedium, ghosts can enter his body and speak through him. We felt a whoosh of cold air, and Michael’s breathing became really shallow. He moaned.

The guides asked him questions, and slowly he started to talk. He said his name was Guy and he lived right after the Crusades in a place not far from the castle. He told us that he didn’t want us in the room, but he agreed to answer some questions on the condition that we promised to leave. He said that his wife lived in the castle. She was the daughter of an earl, and she jumped into the Avon River and drowned at the age of 25 because she was possessed by demons. He said he lived as a recluse until he died at age 50. We felt another burst of air as he was talked about his wife, and he said, “She’s here.” The guides confirmed that his wife entered the room. In a minute, we felt another rush of air and heard footsteps leaving the room. The spirits were gone. Michael was sputtering and choking on the floor and needed assistance.

A large chair was then placed in the middle of the room with a wine glass placed upside down on top of it. Three people volunteered to place their fingers lightly on the base of the glass (like an Ouija board). One of them asked questions:

“If there is a spirit in the room, please move the glass.”

The glass moved just a bit.

Through a series of other questions, we determined that the ghost moving the glass was once again, Sir G. More questions:

“Do you know there is an elemental in the room?”

The glass moved so hard and fast that it nearly crashed off the chair.

“Can you move the glass in the direction where the elemental is located?”

The glass moved toward the stairway, where this wolf/dog spirit was first encountered.

A series of other questions were asked, and then the wine glass stopped moving. After several minutes, we concluded that Sir G. was tired of playing with us and left.

The ghost hunt was at an end.

Back at the café, Michael was slumped in a chair, complaining that his body was burning. A woman touched his arm and said his skin was boiling hot. It looked like blisters/boils were popping up on his skin.

The last hour was perhaps the most convincing for me, but I’m still skeptical. Whether it was real or a bunch of smoke and mirrors, it was a very cool experience. I was happy to have access to the castle at night, which few people before me have ever had the chance to do.

15

My husband and I celebrated 15 years of marriage on October 18.

Well, the celebration wasn’t actually on that date. We celebrated our crystal anniversary by doing yard work. After work the following day, we drove nearly an hour away to Yellow Springs, Ohio, for a weekend getaway.

Hiking at John Bryan State Park, a visit to the Glen Helen Raptor Center, good food (Saturday lunch at Ye Olde Trail Tavern in Yellow Springs and Sunday breakfast at Clifton Mill), a cold (brief) hike at Clifton Gorge. We didn’t get everything in that I wanted to, but we can always go back. We made a quick stop at Young’s Jersey Dairy on the way back to Columbus to pick up some cheese.

Also, if you ever find yourself needing accommodations in Yellow Springs, I highly recommend Jailhouse Suites.

A Picture and a Story III

This is Turtleshell Cabin at Sylvania Tree Farm in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. I just visited the website and it appears that the cabin is no longer available, which makes me incredibly sad. (Their other cabins are still available, though, and I recommend a stay there if you ever get the chance.)

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October 2013/2014

For our 10-year anniversary in 2013, I booked this cabin for a long weekend in the Poconos. It was the smallest cabin on the property, but as it was just the two of us, we didn’t need much. It came equipped with everything we needed, and the location could not be beat. It was pretty remote – sure, there are other cabins on the property not too far off. But it felt very private. We loved it there so much that we went again the following year.

The cabin had a loft bedroom with the most comfortable bed I ever slept in. There was a screened-in porch with a hammock. The kitchen had everything we needed for cooking, but we could go rustic if we wanted and cook outdoors. We also had a TV, which I could have done without, but it was pretty funny to watch Pennsylvania Polka one of the nights we were there (or maybe it was only funny because we both had a few drinks).

(The hot tub pictured above wasn’t one of our amenities. That was an additional expense, and besides, I’m not a big fan of outdoor hot tubs when the air is chilly.)

My favorite thing was Mast Hope Brook, which ran through the property a few steps from the cabin. Hearing the rush of water over the rocks gave me a feeling of serenity that I don’t think I’ve felt anywhere else. I spent a lot of time near the brook, just soaking in the peace.

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This cabin is near and dear to my heart, and I wish we could stay there again.

20141018_091510120141019_15334320131018_184214We explored the area both times we were there – both the Poconos and the Adirondacks on the New York side of the river. Those are stories for another time.

Sheep Shit Shirt: An Oktoberfest Story

As I glanced at the empty seat next to me on the luxury coach and then gazed out the window, I knew without a doubt that the man exiting the hotel was going to be my seatmate. The first thing I noticed was his t-shirt, which advertised sheep manure. A minute later, he slid into the seat next to me and introduced himself in a thick southern drawl.

He was chatty. I was not. I had, in fact, wanted to peacefully contemplate the Bavarian landscape out the window as the bus rolled toward Munich. Our destination was Oktoberfest, not one of my bucket list items. But my two traveling companions – who sat together in the row in front of me – decided rather last minute that they wanted to take this tour. The hotel happened to have exactly three tickets left. It was a sign that we had to go.

Hey, when in Bavaria during Oktoberfest…

I don’t remember much of what my seatmate said that day, other than his t-shirt was his talisman against becoming a sloppy drunk. When he could no longer say “sheep shit shirt” without slurring, that was his cue to stop drinking.

In the row ahead of me, I heard snickering.

The rest of the journey is a bit of a blur. He rambled on and on, and it seemed endless.

Finally, we arrived! Oktoberfest! Despite my reluctance to go, I felt ecstatic to be there.

Our bus driver gave us a stern warning about returning to the bus throwing up drunk. There would be consequences, he said. On that charming note, we disembarked, everyone going their separate ways.

***

Several hours later, exhausted and sunburned, we were back on the bus. It had been a terrible day. Excessive heat, an endless parade, and not one seat to be found in any of the beer tents. This was Oktoberfest, and not one of our trio had a beer. We were all unimpressed with the experience.

Little by little, everyone returned to the bus. Everyone, that is, except Sheep Shit Shirt guy. I said a silent prayer, hoping he got lost and we would leave him behind.

Finally, he arrived. Staggering drunk. Oh, no.

He joked that he had enough beer for both of us, then promptly dozed off.

Or… not.

He suddenly sat bolt upright, leapt out of his seat, and ran off the bus to vomit.

Moments later, he returned with a plastic bag that the driver gave him, assuring me that he was done. I was neither comforted nor convinced by this assessment.

The driver, satisfied that everyone was accounted for, began the drive back to Garmisch. I curled up against the window, trying to make myself smaller and create as much distance between us as possible. Sheep Shit Shirt man fell asleep. His head lolled onto my shoulder.

Worst trip ever. I hated Oktoberfest. I hated everything.

As I succumbed to misery, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. A teenage girl sitting behind me told me that she made room for me in the back of the bus.

Hallelujah! Sweet rescue!