Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Can't Get Enough White Sands!

I thought I'd share a few more of my favorite pics that I took when we were at White Sands National Monument on November 10th. (To quote Paul Harvey, if you want "the rest of the story," please click here.)

Most of these were taken with either my smart phone camera or my little point 'n' shoot digital camera.The two square pics were taken using the Instagram app on my iPhone.

You can click on each picture to get a somewhat larger view.

I loved the dark (almost a blue-grey) shadow in this picture against the whiteness of the sand. By the way, the yucca plant (all varieties) is part of the agave family. Agave azul is used in the production of tequila.

I love the way yuccas look. Since we were here in the fall, we had missed the prime "blooming" time of the yucca plant, hence the now dead flowers on the tall, spindly "stalks." 

It really looks snowy, doesn't it?

The low-lying area at the foot of this dune is called the "interdune" area. There are many of these areas in between the wind-swept sandy dunes. 

She likes yuccas, too. 

Made it to the top!

See the jagged peaks of those mountains mid-photo? Those are the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, NM. (Click on the pic to get a bigger view.) They were named such because the jaggedness made the peaks look like the pipes of a musical organ. Oh, and this is another good example of what an interdune area looks like (where the now-brown foliage of the desert floor is).

The mountains in the background of this Instagram pic are the Sacramento Mountains, which provided a beautiful view from my back yard in Alamogordo, when we lived there. 

More yuccas (one of these days, I'll get back there to get pics of some yucca flowers in bloom!)

Another cool view!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Favorite White Sands Views

For those of you who've been following my blog for a while, you know that I love the Southwest. I love the food, the vistas, the climate (well, not necessarily the heat, but the dryness - the heat is never so bad when there's little perceptible humidity), the activities, the culture - and on and on.

It's been quite a while since I've been back "home" in the Southwest (my grandparents lived there nearly their whole lives, and my mom and uncles were born and raised there). And while it was a solemn occasion that called me back, we did have a couple good days to explore and remember our former home (we'd been stationed in the area during our Air Force years).

After a delicious dinner on Saturday night and a good night's sleep, we had a "free" day on Sunday. We ended up going to the Alamogordo, NM area, where White Sands National Monument is located.

Anyway, I'd like to share some of my favorite views from southern New Mexico - for this post, they'll be from White Sands National Monument.

Here we are, having just arrived at the visitor center. It had been about an hour and a half drive from the El Paso area. Luckily, we'd taken an iPad with us, so Liv had some entertainment on the drive there and back. It was a "chilly" day in the area; it had been in the 50s when we first arrived, hence the jacket.

She was really excited because the last time she'd been here, she was just about 1.5 years old. She didn't remember it, other than what she's seen in the photos I took that day. 

I'm adding this photo, because, well . . . just look at how cool the adobe building looks. Right? Plus, adobe buildings are always comfortably cool in the summer and comfortably warm in the chilly months.

When we first entered the Visitor Center, we'd overheard a dad (who was there with his son about Liv's age) ask the Park Ranger about getting a Junior Park Ranger booklet. I immediately began listening in.

Apparently, at many National Parks/Monuments, kids can get booklets that teach them about the park/monument they're visiting. Once completing the activities in the packet, they get to become a "Junior Park Ranger" at that particular park/monument, even being able to take a junior park ranger oath, getting either a patch or badge, and a certificate.

The White Sands booklet has different activities for different age levels. Liv's age range (5-7 years old, if I remember correctly) was designated by a lizard icon. She was responsible for completing each activity with the lizard icon next to it.

In the booklet, she was able to describe what she was expecting to see (desert plants, white sand, maybe some desert fauna), what mineral the sand crystals were made of (gypsum). She also got to complete a "scavenger hunt" list, where she got to check items off when she saw each item listed (like a yucca plant, a cottonwood tree, an interdune area, creature tracks, and so on), as well as having a spot to write a poem  about something she saw at White Sands, and sketch something she found while hiking. Pretty cool, huh?!

Here she is at the beginning (before we left the visitor center to experience the dunes), answering some questions about how the white sand dunes were formed, as well as answering some questions about local flora.

Here she is, filling out more of her booklet. I think this was the part where she had space to sketch something she found interesting (some buzzing bees pollinating a flowering plant - their buzzing was unexpectedly loud!).

Yep, it's definitely sand and not snow. She kept saying, "It looks so snowy!" Though, because of the various factors (the sun's rays bouncing off the whiteness, for one), she learned that the sand underneath the dry top layer was cool and somewhat damp.

She's observing a "pedestal." The plants at the top of the sand send their roots way, way down to get water, and to keep anchored (so they don't blow away or get "run over" by shifting dunes). The water gets soaked upward toward the plants, wetting the surrounding sand. Well, the wet sand surrounding the roots eventually hardens and forms these "pedestals" when the wind moves the surrounding dry sand around. Voila - after time, a pedestal has formed. Nature's cool, isn't she?

 She's trying to slide down the sand dune. When I was young and my grandparents lived in El Paso, we'd head up to White Sands with my cousins and some aunts and uncles, and we'd sled down the dunes with those disc sleds (then we'd have a picnic afterward - they had a designated picnic area that we hadn't visited on this trip). It was a blast.

I hadn't thought to get one of those sledding discs for Liv on our way to the dunes.

 She is posing with a couple yucca plants and the blue, blue New Mexico sky.

It's sun squint! The white sand is really reflective! And they were facing the sun so I didn't have to aim my camera phone directly into the sun.

And here she is with her Junior Ranger Certificate! She was really proud of having earned it. She was able to get a stamp on it indicating the date she earned it. (I have to go get a frame for it so I can hang it up somewhere.)

Since I have so many photos - and a lot to say about them - I'll split my favorite views and the accompanying commentary into a couple different posts. I'll try to get some of the remaining White Sands/Alamogordo pics, as well as some mountain and/or miscellaneous views in an additional post or two in the next couple days.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On Being Back "Home" in the Southwest

I have to admit that while we were back in El Paso, TX for a sad reason (my grandmother's funeral), the trip did have some highlights.

Since I found myself unexpectedly back home in the Southwest, I took advantage of some free time - Saturday afternoon after we'd checked into lodging on Ft. Bliss and most of the day on Sunday - when we'd had nothing planned.

Now, while almost all of Texas' massiveness is within the Central time zone, El Paso, at the westernmost tip, is in the Mountain time zone. So, of course, when we arrived, it was an hour earlier than we're used to in eastern Iowa (Central).

Needless to say, by the time we had arrived in El Paso, gotten our luggage (having been charged $25 per suitcase = $75 total!!), gotten our rental car, and checked into our quarters (on-post lodging, like a hotel, but cheaper than the "good" rates my family had gotten at the hotel near the airport), we were all quite hungry and ready for dinner.

 We'd just gotten off the plane. Liv was happy to be there.

 This is more or less the view we had from the parking lot. I love these mountains.

So, where would we go when in El Paso? Well, we went to a Mexican restaurant that my grandparents used to take me when I was younger. It's a local chain called Leo's. It's actually been a long, long time since I've been there. I think the last time I went, I'd gone with my grandparents ("Oma" and "Sir Rafa"), my uncle Hector, and a few other relatives.

Well, every time I go to this restaurant, I always get the chicken flautas, which are prepared like tacos (beef, chicken, or another filling inside a corn tortilla that's been fried), but instead of the typical "taco" shape, they're rolled up in the shape of flutes (hence the name flautas, which means "flutes" in Spanish). This dish always comes with refried beans and Spanish rice.

However, I was remembering the last time I'd been at this restaurant. My uncle Hector had ordered the chicken with mole sauce (often made with smoked chiles and chocolate). It's a really tasty Mexican dish. I enjoy it (and the last time I was there with my uncle, he'd let me have a bite of his - it was good!). But since we were in El Paso for a somber event, I needed some "comfort" food. What's my comfort food?

Yep, the chicken flautas. I had to get them. I wouldn't have been satisfied if I'd ordered the chicken with mole sauce (however good it may be), because my comfort food in El Paso (if not my grandmother's homemade tacos) has to be flautas

And I was not disappointed. They were delicious; they were as good as I'd remembered. I am still thinking about them. (They looked a lot better than they do in this picture.)

Liv had ordered a kid's special with one beef taco and one enchilada with green chile sauce. Her meal also came with the beans and rice. She devoured it.

 Not the greatest pic, but good enough (the sun had set and the lighting in the restaurant was a bit dim for the iPhone camera).

Andrew? I think he ordered a "create your own combo" with a taco, enchilada, and . . . hmm. Something else I just can't remember.

To top off this delicious meal? Always sopaipillas. They're these delicious pillows of fried dough, puffy and hot, served with honey. You tear off a small corner and pour in a bit of honey and coat the inside of the "pillow." So. Good.

This is a not-so-good pic of the delicious pillows known as sopaipillas. Mmmm. 

After we'd eaten, I'd been chatting with our server. I'd said that my grandparents had taken me to Leo's (I think one of the other locations) numerous times when I was younger. And I always loved the flautas and sopaipillas. We'd laughed when she agreed with me that I probably wouldn't have been satisfied if I'd ordered the chicken with mole, as my "go to" meal was always flautas. And I'd found out that the owner of the car dealership where I'd gotten my vehicle (there in El Paso) was a regular at this restaurant and he always ordered the same thing, every time! (Just like me!)

Anyway, after we'd finished eating, we realized we were all exhausted from traveling and having eaten a filling meal, and the thought of the stress of the days ahead. We immediately went back to on-post lodging, got ready for bed, and settled in for the night.

But before going to sleep, Liv had to do one last thing.

She had to read in bed. (She's borrowing my mini-reading light that clips onto a book.) She and I had gone to the bookstore the day before we'd left. I bought the two of us one book each for the trip. She picked Charlotte's Web.

 In the next day or two, I'll share another exciting adventure we had on this trip back to the Southwest.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Oma

After receiving that most unpleasant of calls texts last week informing us of Oma's passing, we quickly began planning on getting back to El Paso, TX for her funeral.

On the one hand, it was an escape from the quotidian, which, I'm sure, is why Livie and I felt a little seed of excitement upon getting those e-mails confirming our air travel plans and our lodging confirmation.

We couldn't escape, though, the sad reason we were traveling in the first place: Oma's funeral.

We'd arrived in El Paso late in the afternoon on Saturday the 9th. The viewing was on Monday the 11th, and the funeral was on Tuesday the 12th.

The funeral seemed a bit harder than usual for me as it was on my birthday. What timing, right? (It couldn't have been helped, though.) However, my youngest brother and I had a brief discussion that it was almost like it was meant to be - one last birthday "together" in El Paso, if that makes any sense. There was a definite sense of saudade surrounding this trip, due to the circumstances, as well as having been a number of years since we'd been "home." 

The funeral was on a sunny, somewhat breezy Tuesday morning in El Paso, at St. Pius X church, on the corner of Geronimo and North Clark, where, I believe, I'd gone to services once or twice, long ago with my grandparents. It definitely looked familiar.

We'd intentionally picked out a pretty purple "party" dress for Liv, so she could "celebrate" the life and memory of her great-grandmother. They were so attached to each other, spending hours together talking and playing (meaning Liv played and Oma watched).

After the funeral, we headed to Ft. Bliss National Cemetary, where my grandfather (and Uncle Hector) are buried.

This is the plot which my grandmother now shares with my grandfather. The headstone is not there, temporarily, as the engraving for my grandmother is being added. Instead, the flowers from the funeral mark the location (along with a small informational tag at the head). 

I am so glad that the mountains near their former home are in the background overlooking the cemetery.

And, of course, I had to visit my uncle's spot. I hadn't been here, yet.

On Monday morning/early afternoon, a few hours before the viewing/Vigil (the "wake'), we drove past my grandparents' former house, since we had some time. It didn't feel right not driving past.

Plus, the last time Liv had been there, she had only been about one and a half years old, so she really didn't remember what it looked like, aside from having looked at photos. I wanted to make sure she'd remember it because she saw it in person.

The intersection: we had to turn off of Alabama onto Mountain Walk Drive. It's the only way to get to their house.

Driving west on Mountain Walk Drive, that old, familiar street.

And here's where they used to live. The main difference is that I noticed is that the ivy on the house's exterior has been removed. Oh, and the satellite dish.

It was a difficult reason for heading back "home" to the Southwest, but it also felt "right," if that makes sense. I've had such a longing or saudade for the Southwest, it was definitely a return "home," regardless of the circumstances. It was good (but sad), and necessary.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Losing Oma

I got that dreaded call -  or rather, a text - from my mom in the wee hours this morning (though I suppose at the time I'm writing this post, it's still the wee hours).

My maternal grandmother, Oma, passed away at 1:13 CST today, Monday, November 4, 2013.

She hadn't been well physically for quite some time. She (and the rest of us) had been greatly robbed of her memory by Alzheimer's. It was not an unexpected death. But it is a significant one; there is never anyone quite like one's grandmother.

I was lucky to have my grandmother until the week before my 43rd birthday.

She was the woman who would do anything for me. ANYTHING. She would've fought off a wolverine with her bare hands to protect me (if that situation had presented itself, of course).

There was nothing better than her grandchildren. We were better than all the Olympic gold medals combined. Better than all the riches in the world. Nothing made her happier than her grandchildren. Nothing.

She has always been a constant in my life. I could always count on her for certain things. Riding the Dumbo ride at Disney Land (or the helicopter ride or haunted house at Western Playland) when I was very young. Her homemade beans, tacos, and rice. I've never had any better than hers (and had, as a matter of fact, craved HER tacos and beans when I was pregnant hundreds of miles away from her home in El Paso, TX, when I was  in the Air Force, stationed near Concord, MA). Occasionally having an "ice cream soda" with her (she loved having those - vanilla ice cream with Coke poured over it), or a Klondike Bar. Going to a movie or play. Heading to Mesilla, NM for a day trip (it was only about a 45 minute drive from El Paso). Going out to dinner. A birthday card with a check in it. Her slipping me some money on those days I had to head home after visiting her.

Once, while I was a student at Lake Forest College, I had flown out to her house one spring break. We decided to go to a movie at the Cielo Vista Mall's movie theaters. We saw a Julia Roberts movie, Sleeping with the Enemy. It was one of those psychological thrillers about a woman who escapes from her abusive husband. When the movie was over and we left the theater, she said, "I was so tense throughout that whole movie, I now have a horrible headache." I think she ended up making one of her "ice cream sodas" when we got back home. How's that for treating a headache?

Another time, while I was still in the Air Force and stationed in Tucson, AZ (probably in the summer of 2000), I had a 4-day weekend coming up. It was an easy drive from Tucson to El Paso. I called her and told her I'd be at her house for my long weekend. I think I'd had both Friday and Monday off, so I was planning on leaving early Friday morning, expecting to arrive at her house around mid-morning.

However, I unexpectedly ended up having wrapped up my duty day much earlier than expected on Thursday afternoon. So I quickly headed back to my apartment, changed out of my uniform, grabbed my overnight bag, stopped at the gas station, and headed to El Paso. Since it ended up being kinda late (around 9-10 PM) when I got into El Paso and they weren't expecting me until the next morning, I headed to Ft. Bliss and checking into their lodging facility for the night. I hadn't wanted to worry my grandparents by ringing the doorbell that late at night, as I knew they'd both be in bed.

The next morning, I got up, showered quickly and headed over. It was about breakfast time. I pulled into the driveway, rang the doorbell, and heard Oma asking my grandfather who it could be. When she answered the door (my grandfather rolling up behind her in his wheelchair), she was really surprised, but incredibly happy. She hadn't been expecting me 'til closer to lunchtime. Just the smell of her house at breakfast time was "home"enough for me. But she had pulled me in the doorway and squeezed me as hard as she could before ushering me to the breakfast table.

That was a fun memory of surprising her.

Know what she did to help me one night? I may have told this story here before, but I'll tell it again, briefly. While I was stationed in Alamogordo, NM, when Livie was just a baby and Andrew was deployed to the Middle East, Livie and I spent Labor Day weekend at Oma's house.

Livie ended up coming down with the coxsackie virus - hand/foot/mouth disease, as it's commonly known. She had little blisters inside her mouth and on her feet. She wasn't nursing or taking a bottle because her mouth hurt. Well, I was worried she'd become dehydrated, so in the middle of the night, Oma went with me that rainy night when I took Livie to the hospital at Ft. Bliss.

Livie hadn't quite been herself during the day, and had become increasingly fussy throughout the night, refusing to be nursed and refusing a bottle, which is what prompted the visit to the hospital. However, when the doc came into the exam room, Livie, wide awake at 2 AM, looked at him and smiled. (By the way, there was nothing we could do but wait out the virus. The doc recommended we get those pedia-pops because the cold "popsicle" would soothe her mouth.)

When I walked into the waiting room to get Oma after the doc saw Livie, I told her that Liv had smiled at the doc. Oma couldn't do anything other than smile, shake her head, and say, "Ay, Olivia!"

But the thing Oma gave me that night - since Livie was too uncomfortable to sleep unless being held, Oma took her and sat in the rocking chair in the guest room, rocking her and telling me to get some sleep. She sat with Liv in the rocking chair until dawn!

And then there was the time we were in Chicago in 2009 for my niece's baptism. One evening, we had all decided to go out to dinner. We ended up at Ruth's Chris steakhouse. That was one of the best steaks I'd had in a long while.

Oma ended up footing the bill. And it was a large bill, because there were a lot of us family members at that meal. Andrew, my Uncle Hector, and I walked away nearly speechless at Oma's generosity; we didn't talk about it in voices above whispers, we were so surprised and thankful.

Of course, one of Livie's favorite memories is taking Oma for frozen yogurt. You see, Oma always had a sweet tooth. She once told Livie that she doesn't have a sweet tooth "because all of them are sweet." The last time we'd taken her for frozen yogurt was a few of months ago, probably during the summer while we were visiting her at my parents' house. The local frozen yogurt place had coconut flavored frozen yogurt that day. Oma LOVED coconut. So, since it was a self-serve place (where they weigh your cup and you pay by the ounce), Livie helped me fill a cup with the coconut flavored "fro-yo," topping it with caramel (another of Oma's favorites), then adding plenty of shaved coconut and cashews. Liv and I had called the creation "the Three Cs" for coconut, caramel, and cashews.

Oma couldn't get enough. She lamented that she should've skipped dinner so she could have two servings of that delicious sundae. She had never had anything she'd enjoyed so much. After every bite, she would exclaim, "Boy, that's good!" When she had finished, she'd said that was a big disappointment - it was gone.

She talked about that sundae the rest of the evening, and surprisingly (due to the Alzheimer's which caused her to forget certain things within just minutes) she talked about that sundae the next day!

Oh, Oma. There are so many good stories to tell. Stories I'll have to tell Livie, so that Oma's memory lives on. Stories I'll tell Livie to take a little bit of the sting out of the loss of her great-grandmother.

Oma, it was time for you to go, but it had to be. You are greatly missed.

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