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Fruit Tart from French Gourmet

Fruit Tart from French Gourmet

You may think you had your fill of pie during the Thanksgiving but wait! Christmas is coming, and New Years awaits. And what would the holidays be without pies on the table?

Many of those pies aren’t pies at all because they only have a crust underneath. Pumpkin pie is really a tart, as is pecan pie and all those scrumptious cream pies. “The pies baked by the English settlers in the 17th century would have been fully encased in a layer of pastry called a coffin, which was often too thick and hard to eat,” writes Bee Wilson in a recent column for the Wall St Journal. “The coffin’s role was simply to protect the ingredients inside as they cooked, like a casserole dish.” She explained that pie wasn’t just a dessert, but a substantial dish filled with dried fruit and lots of seasonings.

The word pie is derived from the Latin word pica, meaning magpie, a bird known for her habit of collecting an assortment of odds and ends in her nest. Not so very different, the thinking goes, from the way medieval cooks assembled ingredients for their pies. Early recipes also call for an astonishing range of anatomical bits and pieces to be minced together with suet, oats and vegetables. The word haggis turns out to be an alternative name for magpie. In fact, haggis, a mixture of sheep innards—heart, liver, and lungs—mixed with oatmeal, fat, and spices and ideally cooked in a sheep’s stomach, in so much a part of Scottish tradition that the poet Robert Burns wrote an Address to a Haggis in 1786.

Haggis

Haggis

Did you know that a haggis is a bird with a strange gait and vestigial wings—like an ostrich—found on the highlands of Scotland?

Haggis, a bird of the Scottish Highlands

Today, a pie isn’t just any dessert. When you bring a pie to a holiday event, it shows you care. The crust is all buttery, flaky goodness and it’s special crimping depicts time, attention, and talent. The ingredients inside are carefully selected and placed into the rolled crust for maximum effect. “Rest for at least an hour,” say the instructions. Does that mean that the cook gets to rest too? You should. You deserve to rest on your laurels!

Happy Holidays to you and yours,

Lois Joy Hofmann

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About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


You might drive right through the town of Red Lodge, Montana on your way to the northern gate of Yellowstone Park. That would be a mistake. Because Red Lodge is more than a mere gateway town: this historic town of  2300 souls is a destination in its own right, one you don’t want to miss if you’re headed out west.

During the first week of September, my husband, sister, and brother-in-law flew into Billings, Montana, rented an SUV, and drove into Red Lodge where we had reservations at the Pollard Hotel for two nights. Friends of ours who live there—even though they travel all over the world—had invited us to visit their charming hometown. We arrived at lunchtime and weren’t due to meet them until that evening. It was a sunny fall day, with rain expected the following day, so we decided to take the acclaimed Beartooth All American Road (Highway 212) to the famous Beartooth Pass. After all, Charles Kuralt from the television show On the Road had called the route “the most beautiful drive in America.” Why not check it out for ourselves? We purchased a Styrofoam cooler and sandwich fixings at a local supermarket and headed out to explore.

Taking the Beartooth Highway.

We’re climbing, and climbing, and climbing…! After stopping at a turnout for a photo-op at 8000’ elevation, we enter a series of switchbacks that take us over 1,500 feet in seven miles. Lush forests and pristine vistas rapidly change to twisted gray trees and alpine tundra. There’s a story behind those massive chain-link fences we’re seeing. In May of 2005, a week before the highway was scheduled to open, nine inches of rain fell in three days, causing a massive mudslide that tore down the canyon, dislodging more than 500,000 cubic tons of rock. The reconstruction effort that summer cost $20 million, the same amount (adjusted for inflation) that was spent to build the road in the 1930s.

About 20 miles into this adventure, we reach Vista Point Rest Area. As we leave the parking lot, we round a series of curves called the “Mae West curves,” after the buxom star of the 1930s. Reportedly, that descriptive sign was taken down because it was too risqué! After rounding those curves, we’re astonished by the expansive vista to our right called the “Hellroaring Plateau.” The road climbing that side of the valley covers the same elevation gain in half the miles, it’s unpaved and rocky, and there are no guardrails. Needless to say, we’re not going there!

After exactly 23.9 miles on Hwy 212, we spot the Welcome to Wyoming sign, reportedly the highest welcome sign in the U.S. This is also the 45th Parallel, meaning we’re now halfway between the North Pole and the equator. At 27 miles, we reach Beartooth Basin. Here you can ski at 10,000 feet during your summer vacation. Just check beartoothbasin.com for conditions. Thanks, but no thanks! Soon after the basin we spot the Gardner Lake pullout. What an incredible view of stunning cobalt-blue lakes set into undulating waves of rock! It’s an ideal setting for selfies, but you could die if you keep stepping back to get that perfect shot. We decide to take pics of our mates instead, yelling “smile but don’t move!”

 

Suddenly we realize that we must head back from here if we are to be back at our hotel in time to check in and enjoy the evening. On the way back, we stop again at the Vista Point rest area to enjoy our lunch.

Beartooth

Wayfinding on the Beartooth.

Historic Red Lodge.

The Pollard Hotel is fascinating. Built in 1893, this was the first brick building in town, cost $20,000 to build and had 35 rooms. A glass case in the sitting room displays and explains its history. Famous guests include William E. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary, and John “Liver-eatin” Johnston. Our friends Don and Rebecca join us for drinks and dinner. We have a marvelous time. Of course, they advise us what to see in their historic town the next day.

We spend the morning walking the town, beginning with the Carbon County Historical Society and Museum. In 1990, this three-story Labor Temple building was gifted to the Historical Society. It had been built in 1909 by the Red Lodge Miners Local No. 1771 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The basement level contains an excellent interactive coal and hard rock mine exhibit. Afterward, we take the downtown walking tour, five blocks of Broadway lined with historic brick buildings on both sides: the Carbon County Courthouse, the Blackburn Building, the Red Lodge State Bank, and finally, the Carbon County Bank where Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid were reportedly captured after a foiled bank robbery. Before turning back we stop at a few art galleries and the old railroad terminal.

Broadway main street in Red Lodge

Broadway the main street of Red Lodge.

Driving through the Wilderness: the West Fork of Rock Creek.

We have the afternoon free, so we decide to take a self-guided sightseeing drive until the rain comes. At Gunter’s urging, John turns onto “the road less traveled” past the local Red Lodge ski area, the Girl Scout camp, and up into the wilderness. We have no idea where we are until we see a You Are Here sign. We’re at the West Fork of Rock Creek Trailhead in the million-acre Absoroka-Beartooth National Wilderness—one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states. Yep! Gunter has a reputation for getting us into adventurous “situations.” But we’re here so we may as well…drive onwards. There must be more to see.

We’re all alone back here. We stop, park on the gravel road, and listen to the creek. No-one wants to break the silence, but occasionally we whisper to each other. Please take a minute to see what I saw and hear what I heard:

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Rain clouds are forming and AAA might not want to rescue us here, so we hightail back to Red Lodge. We rest in our hotel while a soft rain drenches this town we have come to love. In the evening, our friends meet us in the hotel’s main dining room where they have made reservations to kick back and experience their favorite local band, The High Country Cowboys. What a way to conclude a memorable stay in this quaint-but-fun mountain town!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


“To plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Planted Maple

Lois stands by one of the six maple trees she planted at Northern Bliss. She also planted a variety of ornamental trees and bushes. She calls this phase 1, a start toward replacing those 22 trees lost during the tornado.

Natural disasters take their toll on the environment, but also on the human spirit. At first, everyone rallies around the victims. The disaster—flood, fire, hurricane or tornado—dominates the news cycle. Reporters interview eyewitnesses; curious onlookers drive by to view the destruction; scrappers and scammers come a’callin.’ At first, survivors of disasters are fueled by adrenaline. They are thankful that they and their families are safe. “It could have been worse,” they mutter while surveying their ravaged homes and property.

But in less than a week the news dies down, immediate help is gone, and victims are left alone to clean up the mess. Recovery is a much longer process than most expect. Insurance companies are swamped with claims and professional services are overloaded. Soon the realization hits home: the damage is worse than they thought. Cleanup will take a lot of time and resources. Many survivors have to go back to their “real jobs” while they continue to restore their property on weekends.

On July 19th 2019, Gunter and I, along with his siblings, experienced a F2 tornado at Northern Bliss, our summer lake home in Wisconsin. I published a story about the storm and its immediate aftermath. That story ends on Saturday evening, the day after the tornado, when all of our helpers left to go back to their families and jobs. This story is about our recovery process—internal and external—that still continues 2 ½ months later.

We were more fortunate than most; we four seniors were alone for just one day before my grandson Brett and my son Jeff and arrived in his work truck complete with log splitter and tool chest. They had driven straight through from Houston to come to our aid! After evaluating the situation, it was clear that the two of them could only do part of the work, a tree service replete with heavy equipment would be necessary. Professional tree services I’d used in the past weren’t even returning calls. We would have to hire one of the men who had stopped by to offer their services. By Monday, we had engaged Nemo Tree Removal Services to topple the trees that had partially fallen, haul away the root balls, and saw up the rest. For days, they cut trees, dumping branches into one pile and cut logs into another while Jeff and Brett worked the splitter. Nemo fished some trees out the lake. In one case, he employed two cranes with baskets, working in sync, to remove a monstrous oak branch that could fall onto the house during a storm. We discovered that an enormous old oak we’d hoped to save had a gash so large that it too, threatened the house. Always, there were decisions to be made—which trees had to go and which ones could be saved. Each time yet another of the few remaining trees had to come down, my heart sank. In all, we lost 22 trees on our one acre of land. On a 100-foot section of lakeshore, every tree fell.

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Mike, the roofer we’d used to remodel the cabin last year, helped that first week as well. What a relief to have that job done quickly! Part of a branch was still inside the roof. Mike repaired the structural damage and provided estimates for interior repair to the kitchen and rec room to be done over the winter. Our insurance company had over 400 claims and only 4-5 adjustors, so work had to be subcontracted. The adjustor assigned to us lived in Duluth, Minnesota—over 100 miles away. Needless to say, claim processing and payouts proceeded at a snail’s pace. My job was to file claims as soon as we received estimates. The process was frustrating: I learned that trees are not covered unless they cause damage to housing or structures. They don’t pay for prevention, e.g., trees that had been so damaged that they might fall on a structure in the future.

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Disaster work crews—whether public or private—proceed on a triage basis. That makes sense, but slows down the process of recovery for homeowners. Clearing fallen trees from rural roads for electric line workers and emergency vehicles is the first priority for local governments; clearing driveways to get to those roads, and providing access to home entries are the first priority for commercial workers. Think snowstorms, except that trees instead of blizzards were preventing access. The next priorities are clearing trees that have fallen against structures. Trees down at the lake or in a back yard are last priority. All this means that in our situation, work crews completed some emergency work, then moved on to other customers, returning to our place later. Stump grinding (necessary before replanting can begin) is the very end of the tree removal process. That was shoved out to the 4th week of recovery and beyond; in fact, we still have stumps to remove from the lakeshore before we can restore our lake bank.

It takes a while to process grief. After shock and denial comes anger. When I was in that phase, my friends were reassuring me, “You’ll make Bliss beautiful again—even better than it was before. Granted, it will never be the same, but it will still be a pleasant, peaceful retreat. That was difficult for me to believe. As I looked at the 60 feet between the house and the dock, all I could see was a tangle of trees that had fallen on top of each other like dominoes. I couldn’t even see the dock! I could make out a speck of white that I hoped was our pontoon, way out there past that jungle. Imagine seeing a 100-to-150-foot pine lying flat. Now imagine a pile of pines. I was tempted to climb on top of the stack to see what the dock looked like, but I didn’t dare. Safety first.

Trees being cut into wood

Worker on top of fallen trees

As the clean-up moved on, those tall trees were sawed into manageable lengths and stacked using skid steers that tore up what was left of the lawn. Branches were dumped into huge piles and eventually hauled off by the truckload to the woodchip factory in Luck. Always curious, I learned a lot about the logging process. The roar of skid steers, bobcats, and cranes and the continual buzz of chainsaws drowned out my anger; I had too much to do. I hadn’t made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a work crew since I was a child growing up on a farm, but I soon remembered how to sandwich meal preparations for Jeff and Brett, in between laundering their work clothes and helping where I could.

I had entered the third phase of the grief process: bargaining. But not with God. With the tree services, insurance companies and loggers. I was consumed in a beehive of activity as the constant buzz of chainsaws continued from morning ‘til night all across the lake. Our world had closed in. It had become our family, our workers, our White Ash Lake neighbors—all compressed together and becoming one. When we had a minute to get on-line, we didn’t tune into news or politics; we checked the White Ash Lake Facebook page to see how folks across the lake were faring and what help they might need. We could see their damaged roofs and tarped windows; the wind had violently ripped away the privacy curtain of trees that had surrounded each home.

I began to appreciate gifts that the tornado had left behind: our bright red canoe; special clay pots; the renovated cabin and its rock gardens; the stalwart Swedish couple made of concrete who miraculously escaped between two falling trees; the deer statue Nemo lifted out of the lake with his crane. Gunter ordered a flagpole and a new U.S. flag. Jeff and Brett raised it one day as we all saluted. Brett rescued a garden trellis, pounded out the dents, and re-cemented it into place. I reattached the honeysuckle vine, which still lives. All these are precious now.

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After three weeks of nonstop activity, my son and grandson left and the same day previously- scheduled August visitors arrived. I smothered my exhaustion and tried my best to entertain. After both couples left, Gunter and I slumped into depression. The bliss and magic were gone and this beloved summer home no longer brought us joy. I took out my purple pen and journal and began to write. It was then I realized that I had been navigating the five stages of grief and had fallen into that dreaded fourth stage: depression. However, we had planned a September trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons with my sister Ret and her husband John, our favorite travel partners. We love to travel, but were we up to it? So much work remained.

Gunter had a great suggestion: “Why don’t you make a list of trees you want to plant? Get creative. Let’s do something new and different…now that those oaks and pines are gone.” My spirit lifted. I’d rather create than restore anytime! For the next few days, we tossed about ideas and came up with a list of nine trees and two shrubs that could be planted yet this fall. We would make another list for spring, when those recalcitrant tree stumps along the lake shore would be gone. I ordered the plants to be delivered from the nursery the week after we’d be back.

After a wonderful trip, we returned to Northern Bliss with renewed energy and vigor. Two weeks of that fresh mountain air had refreshed and invigorated us. Full of anticipation, we watched Abrahamson Nurseries deliver and plant the new trees. Pure bliss!

“Each tree you plant is a personal testament of your having lived,” ecologists say. Just the act of watering those new trees forced me to think beyond myself. For many years, we enjoyed the marvelous oaks and pines provided by those who came before us. Now, these new maples and ornamentals will be gifts to our children and grandchildren and for generations to come. As Author Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

And that fifth stage of grief: acceptance? We’re way beyond that! We’re into creating something new—another Paradise. Just you wait and see. We may even add a bench underneath those Autumn Blaze maples.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.

 

 


At 6:15 pm on July 19th, the sky looked weird and the air turned deathly still.

We had planned to go to an outdoor concert in Amery, Wisconsin that fateful Friday night. We had packed four folding chairs and packed them in the trunk along with rain jackets, just in case. Fortunately, we’d left the car in the garage with the door shut.

“Can’t tell whether it’s going to rain or not, said Gunter, my husband. “If it does, we can go to the fish fry instead.”

The four of us—Gunter and I along with his younger siblings, Helmut and Helga—remained on the patio, staring at the sky. It was turning greenish-black.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s get inside.”

We entered the sunroom with picture windows facing the gardens and White Ash Lake. Then it hit. Suddenly the sky roared like an oncoming freight train—and then whooshed through the treetops like a jet engine. We stood there, transfixed. Our feet were riveted to the floor. We were seeing, firsthand, the sheer, raw power of nature. One huge pine twisted, uprooted, and crashed to the ground in a slow, deliberate motion. Then another. And another. Altogether, our six trees at the shoreline fell on top of each other like dominoes. Their trunks and branches carpeted the entire lawn between our house and dock. Beyond, we could see White Ash Lake kicking up angry waves. My heart pounded but common sense prevailed.

“Move away from the windows; they could break!” I yelled.

Terrified, yet fascinated, the others just stood there.

White Ash Lake Tornado 2019

The pines along the lakeshore fell across the yard like dominoes.

“Move!” I insisted. “This is a tornado. I’ve been in one before. Follow me down to the bunk room. That’s our safe space.”

They didn’t get it.

Then a dull, heavy THUD shook the house. The roof! The sky turned black and the power went out.

We all raced down to the bunk room, a windowless Man Cave we had fashioned out of the utility room for our grandsons. Gunter grabbed flashlights but our trusty generator kicked in after 10 long seconds. We had lights! Five minutes later, the generator stuttered and stopped. My stomach clenched and my tongue felt like sandpaper. To drown out the godawful noise, I chattered about the tornado I’d experienced in as a child in 1952. My Bavarian husband and his siblings had never experienced one in Germany; they had no first-hand knowledge.

When the racket subsided, we ventured upstairs. It was only 6:45 although it had seemed like an eternity. The sky was no longer black; the storm had moved on. Our first impulse was to go outside. We were shocked to discover there was no way out. Fallen trees and branches filled every window and door. Out of the lakeside windows, I could see nothing but trees across our entire lower patio and yard. We couldn’t see the dock, but I thought we saw a glimmer of white beyond the tangle of trees. “That must be our pontoon,” Gunter said softly, still in shock.

Helga called our attention to water dripping onto the kitchen counter and splashing onto the floor. “Looks like the roof is leaking,” she said. We sprang into action, positioning every wastebasket and bucket we could find. Later, we found water dripping from our rec room ceiling. We covered the sofa below with towels.

Because we couldn’t exit through any of our doors, Gunter manually opened the garage. We all filed out behind him, astonished at the destruction. Our driveway was blocked by fallen trees; but no matter, so many trees had fallen from the woods onto South White Ash Lane that we could barely make out the road!

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My daughter Kim and son-in-law Mike insisted on driving to Northern Bliss as soon as they could. They had experienced straight-line winds but even those downed six trees on their property—thankfully, none near their house. The downpour had created a river of rushing water down their driveway. We begged them not to try; they wouldn’t be able to get through. But they were determined. Their usual 20-minute trip took 2.5 hours, chainsawing their way through. The worst devastation they encountered along the way was my four-acre wooded property, with hundreds of trees down, some of them across the road. There they joined the drivers of five other blocked cars who were also chainsawing their way through. Their last challenge was to move parts of trees blocking our dead-end road. Mike and Kim wanted to bring us back to their home, but we said no. We were the bucket brigade, protecting our property from further damage from the rain. We four spent the night the old-fashioned way: by candlelight. We collected rainwater from the buckets to flush the toilets.

White Ash Lake Tornado

Holly removes branches from my hydrangea and hosta garden.

Early Saturday morning, Mike called on all our relatives living in Minneapolis to come on down to help. Six arrived, each with his or her own chainsaw. Mike’s brother-in-law helped him tarp the roof, which was broken right at the peak with a massive oak branch inside the hole! A huge tree had uprooted and tipped the propane tank partly on its side. The jolt had cut the buried line from the generator to the propane tank; Mike went to Menards to purchase copper tubing. Then he built a new line. The others focused on cutting the trees that had fallen from the woods across the street onto our driveways. Downed power lines crossed the driveway exit, but they could clear the entrance. My granddaughter Holly especially impressed me. She owns a “Queen” battery-powered chainsaw and cut and removed branches from my hydrangea and hosta gardens. Seeing six relatives—without helmets, chaps and boots—wield those chainsaws impressed Helga. In Germany, such work would require licensing, training, and special clothes. Chainsaws would not be a common item in their garages.

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By Saturday afternoon, we had generator power again. Those in the White Ash Lake area without generators waited 1-2 weeks for the electric company to repair all the lines. They had 6000-7000 customers without power in Polk County and brought in 100 linemen from Minnesota. The following week, The Wisconsin National Guard arrived to help open the roads to remote homes on the other side of White Ash Lake.

In addition to structural damage to the house roof, minor damage to the cabin, a destroyed dock and boat lift canopy, arbors, and numerous smaller items, Northern Bliss lost 22 mature oaks and pine; it will never be the same in my lifetime. A similar story can be told among all the property owners around North and South White Ash Lake. Not one of 80+ properties was spared. I expect to hear the buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of stumps, the roar of heavy machinery, and the pounding of hammers until frost—as the recovery continues. How ironic! My latest blog was about migrating north to the sounds of silence here in the land of lakes and woods. The silver lining is that all are safe, and no lives were lost, thank God. We will rebuild.

Next: The Recovery Begins

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.


When I pack up our belongings in San Diego and fly like a migrating bird to return to our home Up North, I know what I’m escaping from: I’m escaping the noise of the city. I’m tired of car horns honking, ambulances and police cars screeching, traffic whizzing, airplanes ascending and descending. I’m tired of background noise in the hallway and elevator of the condo building. And I’m even tired of the sounds of the beach: roller blades clinking over each crack in the boardwalk, youngsters partying in the Jacuzzi, jet skis revving up on the bay at 6:00 a.m. I realize that, even in our own space, noise enters like an unwelcome intruder.

When I leave the condo, sounds increase to a dull roar. Muzak piped into elevators and shopping malls was bad enough, but now televisions and video screens are everywhere—in waiting rooms, restaurants, and coffee shops. Even gas stations blare out music and weather updates. Those who want to drown out those sounds listen to podcasts emanating from their earphones. It seems that all the world is eager and willing to bear nonstop sound. Is silence an uncomfortable experience for them?

Noise pollution is a real health hazard. Loud sounds trigger fear, the flight- or-fight response of our endocrine systems. That causes a spike in blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol. These adaptive mechanisms helped our ancestors survive a wild animal attack but if they are triggered day after day, they take a toll on our cardiovascular systems.

A 2007 study by a working group called the WHO Noise Environmental Burden on Disease found that long-term traffic noise exposure in cities may account for around three percent of deaths from coronary artery disease each year. According to the study, that’s about 210,000 Europeans annually killed (in part) by noise. Other studies showed that children living near airports score lower on reading and memory tests.

The sounds of silence. It’s no wonder I look forward to returning to our refuge, Northern Bliss, each spring. Heading north takes me to that silence I crave. Because creativity needs silence to flourish. The poet Khali Gibran said,
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.” Silence refreshes the soul.

As soon as my husband Gunter and I cross the St. Croix River and spot the sign that says WELCOME TO WISCONSIN, we can feel our bodies begin to relax. Ah! We’re almost home! Do birds feel that same sense of relief when they finally land after their long journey back to where they raised their young?

The first day of coming home is fun, yet hectic. It is Mother’s Day, May 12. My daughter greets me at the airport and my granddaughter welcomes me by re-stocking our fridge and pantry. The second day, I climb into the hammock with a book in hand. It doesn’t take long to drop that book, breathe in the fresh spring air, and listen to those long-awaited sounds of silence.

A few moments later, I realize that my inner transformation is complete. Silence has awakened my senses. I can see clearly now and my heart is filled with joy. I cheer on the hostas, green spears only three inches high, piercing through the earth. I admire the fiddlehead ferns, fuzzy balls on short stems, just beginning to unfurl. I jump out of the hammock and dig into the soil with my bare hands. I’ll soon plant flowers here! The soil feels moist. It smells earthy and rich—totally different from the sandy, parched soil of California. I return to the hammock to inhale some more silence.

But this time, I’m attuned to the nature enveloping me and my world is no longer silent. I’m swathed in a euphony of sounds. I recognize the scree-scree of a blue jay and the rat-tat-tat of a pileated woodpecker drilling a hole into the bark of nearby tree. When I look up, a bald eagle whooshes over the roof, returning to his nest on the lake. A gentle breeze whispers through the pines and rustles the maples and oaks. The windmill slowly turns while rippled waves lap the shoreline and the door chimes ring ever so softly.

I’m reminded of the words of William Penn: “True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

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About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.


Uzbekistan camels

Gunter’s camel.

I know someone who vows he’ll never ride a camel again. That someone is Gunter, my husband─not that he wasn’t warned! As we prepared our itinerary for traveling Uzbekistan, my sister Ret begged, “Promise me you’ll delete those horse and camel rides from your trip. You’re not getting any younger.”

Visions of his painful-but-successful knee surgery flashed through Gunter’s head. “I rode a camel at the Pyramids and a horse over Mono Pass in the High Sierras. Yes, a man in his eighties should cut back a little. No horses or camels.”

That was then.

Dinner would be in two hours so we decided to pass the time by going to the camel corral. Mistake! We saw three camels being saddled up—three abreast—for a half-hour circle trip. Two men about Gunter’s age were on the outside with a petite lady about my size trying to mount the center camel. She gave up, saying that she couldn’t reach over the top of the double-humper to reach the stirrups. “Who wants to take her place?” the camel driver asked. There were no takers. “Someone volunteer!” he pleaded. Gunter’s hand went up as my stomach reeled in shock. He mounted his camel and they were off in a flash. No adjustments. After what seemed like forever, the three camels came back. Only one of them had a rider!

I could feel my stomach grip and my face go pale. Fak, our guide, took off running through the sandy trail. I followed, but soon lost sight of him rounding the bend. When I had run far enough to see, there was Gunter dusting himself off while Fak helped him stand. He seemed okay! “I was afraid I’d see metal from my knee poking out of my leg,” he grimaced. “First, the left stirrup came loose and fell off. Then the saddle started to slip and I began to slide. I knew I was going down. Luckily, I managed a controlled fall and then I quickly rolled out of the way of the camel’s feet.” He limped alongside Fak back to the corral.

Staying at a Yurt Camp.

After walking a village in Nurata, we wound around mountains and deserts, ending with a stunning view of Aydarkul Lake, sparkling as if it were a mirage. Then we turned back and into the Yurt Camp to check in. Gunter and I occupied a yurt near the office/restaurant with five single platform beds. We used the spare ones to spread out our belongings. Then we walked through the circle of a dozen yurts, past the campfire surrounded by wooden benches, and up the hill to the facilities, which resembled those of a typical western campground. I turned to Gunter. “Nice, but it will be a long walk at night!”

Dinner would be in two hours so we decided to pass the time by going to the camel corral. Mistake! We saw three camels being saddled up—three abreast—for a half-hour circle trip. Two men about Gunter’s age were on the outside with a petite lady about my size trying to mount the center camel. She gave up, saying that she couldn’t reach over the top of the double-humper to reach the stirrups. “Who wants to take her place?” the camel driver asked. There were no takers. “Someone volunteer!” he pleaded. Gunter’s hand went up as my stomach reeled in shock. He mounted his camel and they were off in a flash. No adjustments. After what seemed like forever, the three camels came back. Only one of them had a rider!

I could feel my stomach grip and my face go pale. Fak, our guide, took off running through the sandy trail. I followed, but soon lost sight of him rounding the bend. When I had run far enough to see, there was Gunter dusting himself off while Fak helped him stand. He seemed okay! “I was afraid I’d see metal from my knee poking out of my leg,” he grimaced. “First, the left stirrup came loose and fell off. Then the saddle started to slip and I began to slide. I knew I was going down. Luckily, I managed a controlled fall and then I quickly rolled out of the way of the camel’s feet.” He limped alongside Fak back to the corral.

Uzbekistan camel ride

Gunter points to the camels before he decides to take a ride.

The other rider had come back as well after his camel spooked and shook him off. He seemed okay.

That was then.

As they sat down to dinner, the riders were immediately offered shots of vodka. After that, we all enjoyed red wine. Our lives had returned to normal. We enjoyed nomadic, country-western-type songs around the campfire. As we walked hand-in-hand back to our Yurt, the night sky filled with a million stars reminding us of glorious night watches while sailing around the world.

In the morning after breakfast we asked the other rider whether he slept okay. “It was a terrible night,” his wife answered. “He was in pain all night.” I fetched some stronger pills for him from our Yurt, and she accepted them gratefully. “He will need them for a few nights, I fear.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Before we left Uzbekistan, I contacted her and learned the bad news: they had checked him into a hospital in Bukhara; x-rays showed that he had five or six broken ribs, plus internal bleeding. He had stayed in that hospital for five horrific days before being airlifted to a Canadian hospital in Dubai. At last report, the couple was safely back home in United States. All had learned a tough lesson: never ride a camel before you know it’s safe.

Lois Joy Hofmann blog image

I grow a beard and know things.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois’s next blog in the Uzbekistan series will be about Samarkand, crossroads of the Silk Road.


Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

 

 

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