I couldn’t help but feel wide-ranging gratitude as I walked with a dozen other nature lovers. Billed as a bird walk, it was so much more than that. I wasn’t surprised by that realization.
Most in the group who took the tour, including the property owners, were in our third third of life. That is to say, most of us had more days behind us than we had ahead of us. That fact only made the pleasant August morning sweeter.
The landowners invited a noted local birder who tried his best to keep us corralled and informed. But Baby Boomers being who they are, we often overlooked our leader, and most of the group had moved on. Guilty as charged.
I attribute that to being enraptured with our surroundings. We walked the mown paths amid meadows of wildflowers, stands of woodlots, and the buzz of bees, the distraction of beautiful butterflies and plenty of avian species. There were too many times when I simply wanted to stay in place and absorb all that surrounded me. Believe me, there was lots to take in.
But we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. So, like it or not, this grateful group of nature enthusiasts kept moving. There was so much to see in such a short time.
Near the end, I lingered to identify a solitary sparrow that perched in a tree many yards away. My binoculars didn’t help much given the distance. While I waited for the expert birder to verify my find, a Belted Kingfisher zoomed over the rushing creek below me. Just then, an Eastern Meadowlark took flight overhead, and a gang of Barn Swallows abandoned their perches on the big round hale bales in search for breakfast.
The sparrow sat dutifully on the tree limb while the walk’s leader edged closer. Finally, it turned its head, revealing its pinkish bill. Field Sparrow, it was.
We saw 44 species of birds in our limited time. We got some excellent looks at songbirds and others. I was torn between birdwatching, snapping photos of butterflies, and enjoying the many summer wildflowers.
I was grateful for this kind couple to invite us onto their property and allow us to enjoy the fruits of their labor. After all, that’s how gratitude works. Blessings upon blessings create overflowing gratitude that begs to be shared.
Have you ever intended to photograph one subject and instead captured something entirely different?
That’s what happened to me last evening. I wanted to shoot the full super moon rising over the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. As soon as I left home, I could see there might be a problem. A large rain cloud hovered over the park, right where the moon was calculated to appear.
Hoping the cloud might move on or dissipate, I kept driving. I am so glad I did.
A full moon always rises as the sun sets. In the Shenandoah Valley, the sun sinks below the Allegheny Mountains that mark Virginia/West Virginia state lines to the west. It rises over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east.
As I drove east, the last of the day’s sun rays illuminated the clouds over the national park. The closer I got, the more the clouds transitioned from white to peach to orange.
I arrived at my photo destination in time to capture the moment’s beauty. For me, this easily made up for missing the moonrise.
The group I was with Saturday morning was nearing the end of our fruitful bird walk. We had seen 44 species in about three hours as we strolled around this lovely acreage of rolling wildflower meadows dotted with woodlots.
As we neared the end of our bird walk, this regal-looking Red-headed Woodpecker flew in front of us. It landed on this fence post at least 50-yards away. I was game for a shot anyway.
My hand-held camera captured this compressed scene with my 1,200 mm lens fully extended. The fence posts were actually several feet apart. Clearly, this photo was a long shot in more ways than one.
I am always looking for new locations to capture sunsets. I accidentally found this spot on a dead end road.
While the sunset wasn’t spectacular, something else caught my attention. The sweet fragrance of growing corn filled my senses. Then I noticed how the soft evening light highlighted the emerging tassels of the cornstalks. The flow of the large cornfield took my eye right back to the Allegheny Mountains and the setting sun.
Weather nut that I am, I check the forecast regularly. Monday looked to be decent weather for hiking. Cooler temperatures in the higher elevations and no rain. That would work out just fine for several reasons.
Our daughter and her husband had left the previous Sunday to take our oldest grandchild to his college orientation in Richmond, Virginia. Of course, the university had nearly four days of activities for the new students and their parents.
That left the middle grandchild, Davis, and our only granddaughter, Maren, to check on. With them both being responsible teenagers, that didn’t require much.
With school out for the summer, Maren loves to help Nana with puzzles, baking, and other hands-on chores. She also mows our lawn. That left Davis and me to find trouble together.
Since we both like to hike, we visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia. It’s an hour and a half drive for us. We left mid-morning, but Davis didn’t take long to nod. How he could snooze in all that hilly, twisting driving I was doing, I don’t know. He woke as I slowed to photograph a Ruffed Grouse strutting its stuff on the Forest Service road near the mountain top.
After taking a few snapshots of this often elusive bird, we were soon in the parking lot. Other than a Forest Service employee, we had the place to ourselves. However, we hadn’t even started on the trail when I realized I had forgotten the insect repellent. Fat flies buzzed nearby, but none landed on us the entire time we were there.
Spruce Knob affords beautiful views on a clear day like today. Only a few puffy clouds formed over distant mountain ranges to the west. The air was a pleasant 66 degrees with little humidity and no haze to obscure our views.
We walked the loop trail that leads from the parking lot and back. The scent of the spruce filled the air. Wildflowers and birdsongs were abundant. We basked in both.
I know I slowed Davis down by constantly pausing to photograph wildflowers, birds, and butterflies. Trooper that he is, Davis didn’t complain.
I wanted Davis to enjoy this trip. It was one he was supposed to do at the end of the school year with several students and six teachers. The trip was canceled at the last minute when three teachers came down with Covid-19. In the end, all six were sick.
They were to camp out and visit Spruce Knob, Seneca Rocks, and Dolly Sods. All were in the same geographic area of the old folded mountains and valleys.
So, while Nana and Maren were enjoying each other’s company, and Davis’s brother and parents were occupied with college orientation, Davis and I explored some of the wilds and wonders of West Virginia.
We studied the large piles of giant rocks along the path and at the slope of the mountain, long ago rounded by millenniums of erosion from wind, water, ice, and snow. The teacher in me quizzed Davis about how the rocks got where they did. He graciously played along with my lame attempts.
We saw migrant birds and birds that should be migrants but reside here year-round. Dark-eyed Juncos commonly nest in Canadian provinces. The exception is the Appalachian Mountains.
Because these beautiful ridges hold the same habitat and provide the necessary nutrients, the birds live here and farther up the Appalachian range into New England. Davis wanted to know why the other Junocs migrated when the birds we saw stayed. I hope he seeks a better answer than I gave him.
We enjoyed the views east and west and headed to Seneca Rocks, where we would eat our brown bag lunches. When we arrived at the valley picnic grounds, it was 82 degrees and humid.
From there, we could clearly see the face of the vertical rocks jutting straight up. Eons ago, they had been parallel until the collision of continents forced them to fracture and face the sky.
Unfortunately, no rock climbers could be seen. The day was likely too hot for such strenuous activity.
We gathered our things and headed up. The trailhead started at the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The bridge that crosses it goes by the same cumbersome name.
Davis was eager to let his long legs glide him up the well-maintained trail. My old weathered ones weren’t so cooperative. The first third of the path is the steepest. We rested according to my needs. Davis never complained or barged ahead.
We passed other hikers on their way down, and other younger hikers passed us on the way up. I noticed some of them didn’t have hiking shoes or water. We later trekked by some of those same hikers, now fatigued. We reached the top more than an hour after we had started.
The trail leads to an overlook platform that provides gorgeous views of the mountain ridge west of German Valley that the river continues to carve out. We rested and talked with other hikers who soon reached the summit.
Going down took half the time. Davis wondered about going on to Dolly Sods up the road a piece. I wisely said we would save that adventure for another outing. We still had that long drive home.
Adventures like these are the reason we moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Virginia. Now, with the birth of our fourth grandchild in Rochester, New York, we have additional opportunities to watch our grandchildren grow.
What was supposed to be the last leg of the trip wasn’t.
We woke up to the news that our flight home was canceled. Off to the airport, we went anyhow to rebook. It was chaotic at our airline’s booking counters, to say the least. But with a lot of patience on the part of all of us, it all worked out despite being there several hours.
Lufthansa worked with each group member and allowed us to pick our seats. Three members of our group were six feet eight inches or taller and needed lots of leg room. We were also given vouchers for an excellent hotel, dinner that evening, and breakfast the following day.
We did have to arrange on our own for yet another Covid-19 test since that requirement was still in place when we traveled. That process was equally chaotic. Though it took much too long, we all tested negative again.
Despite the confusion and frustrations of this day, there was a very positive upside for my wife and me. The open evening allowed us to meet some new friends.
Marie-Helene has followed this blog for a few years. She and her husband Oliver lived near Frankfurt and offered to come to say hello. Now that we had an open evening, they took us to a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mathlidenhohe in Darmstadt.
According to the World Heritage Convention, the historic artist colony is at the city’s highest point. The “finger building,” as locals refer to the art nouveau tower, serves as the centerpiece for this most unusual and striking community where much of the architecture is the art.
Our hosts led us on a walking tour of part of the area. We climbed the “finger building” that often serves as a wedding venue. From the building’s pinnacle, we had marvelous views of the city.
The golden dome of the Russian Orthodox Church reflected the evening sun just below the tower. We saw other public and private buildings that made this neighborhood the artistic wonder it is.
Particularly striking was the nearby Waldspirale. It was a sprawling apartment building that spiraled upward into an expansive structure. Erected in the 1990s, it was constructed so that nothing looked level, but everything was. The building even had a green roof where large trees grew. I found it an astounding piece of architecture.
All too soon, we had to return to our hotel in Frankfurt, where we dined with our friendly hosts. We bid them farewell with hugs and words of gratitude for their kind hospitality.
The next day it was off to the airport and a long flight home. The plane left as scheduled this time, and the flight went well. After gathering our luggage, we had a two-and-a-half-hour ride home, and just like that, our European adventure had ended.
Our last full day in Europe was supposed to be one of travel, enjoying a medieval town, and preparing for our flight home early the next day. It didn’t turn out that way.
The plan was to get our required Covid-19 tests before leaving Oberammergau. Unfortunately, a miscommunication occurred, and our 78-year-old tour guide had to scurry around and find testing for our group of 39. She found a mobile testing operation, but there was a problem. Since members of our group were scattered in three hotels, not all the hotels would allow the testers to enter. Fortunately, our hotel was not one of them.
Typical views of Bavarian countryside and a trucker with a sense of humor.
We paid our 40 euros, did the paperwork, got our tests, and waited for our results. In an hour, we learned we were good to go, but others on our tour had to wait and wait for their tests and results. We left close to lunchtime, which put us well behind schedule.
Our excellent bus driver expertly maneuvered us along country roads. We even encountered a closed road with no advanced warning. We had to go several kilometers out of the way on narrow country roads to reach the autobahn.
Sandra, our guide, kept her calm and used her travel wisdom to get us to a proper place for a much-needed lunch break. The highway cut through pristine farmland and along rail lines, biking, and hiking paths. Windmills topped ridge lines, and acres of solar panels occupied areas along the roadway.
We finally arrived at our only tourist objective for the day, Rothenburg, Germany. Rothenburg is the best-preserved medieval town in Europe. The photos show why.
Unfortunately, we ran late since we didn’t leave Oberammergau on time. Consequently, we only had an hour or so to survey the town, and even then, a thunderstorm sent us hustling back to the bus. We didn’t do Rothenburg justice. I could have spent days exploring the old walled city.
From there, it was on to our hotel near the Frankfurt Airport, where we were to depart the following day. As we all know, the best laid plans don’t always work out.
As we neared the end of our tour of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, we finally had a good part of a day free. We chose to walk the streets of the beautifully adorned buildings of Oberammergau, Germany.
According to the tour company, the day’s highlight would be the Passion Play, held every 10 years since its inception in 1634. Even before seeing the lengthy play, my wife and I found marvels of our own.
After a hearty breakfast in our quaint hotel, we strolled around the picturesque village admiring the architecture, many frescos, lovely gardens, and personable town folks. The blue sky and warm weather made it even more enjoyable.
In Bavaria, it’s common for shopkeepers and farmers alike to live in the same building as their businesses and animals. The shops in Oberammergau were no exception.
The homes are tidy and most designed around the pride of being located where they were, at the base of the Alps. They decorated their buildings with themed frescoes and flowers, potted and planted.
Their gardens were as lovely as they were productive. Artistic patterns of hedges surrounded flower and vegetable gardens while many roofs donned solar panels. These were more examples of how green Europe is.
St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church was as beautiful as any others we had seen on the trip. The graves in the cemetery surrounding the old church were well-maintained and decorated with flowers to remember lost loved ones.
Even though our seats were reserved, we were advised to arrive an hour ahead of the 2:30 p.m. start time. Long lines had already formed as we passed through security.
The Oberammergau Passion Play began when villagers prayed that if no more people in the village died from the plague, they would perform a play of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, now known as Holy Week. Their prayers were answered, and they kept their promise. The 2020 play was canceled because of the pandemic and rescheduled for May into October this year.
Of course, the play is in German, but English booklets are provided to follow the dialogue as long as there is light. The original text has been revised over the years, and with the addition of the poignant musical score, the play is performed more as an oratory.
The Oberammergau auditorium and two of the young actors who also worked at a restaurant during the dinner break.
Most of the actors and vocalists are local residents. Their performance and singing were equally outstanding. Since no video or cameras were permitted, I didn’t take any photos during the five-hour play.
That’s right, five hours! The play is broken into two parts. The first two and a half hours are presented in the afternoon with a three-hour break for dinner. The play began again at 8 p.m. and ran until 10:30 p.m.
Our tour company arranged for meals between acts at a restaurant close to the Oberammergau Playhouse. Ironically, the man who played Pilot owns the restaurant where we ate. His son, who plays John, also is part owner. He actually worked between the two acts that evening. We were impressed with their acting and their hospitality.
It had been another inspiring yet long day for us senior citizens. We couldn’t imagine what the next couple of days would bring.
Our seventh day of sightseeing started on a somber note. A short drive from Munich is the World War II concentration camp of Dachau. It was a last-minute addition to our itinerary.
As sobering and humbling as our visit was there, I am glad we stopped. Everyone must visit at least one of these sights where the worst imaginable human behavior occurred to innocent people.
It wasn’t easy to experience where these unfortunate folks had walked, slept, were tortured, and killed. But it’s a walk that we all should make. We cannot forget what brutal fascism did to millions of people.
We saw the reconstructed barracks, the crude toilet facilities, showers, and the furnaces. We saw where thousands were lined up and shot to death in a ditch designed to channel the blood away from the corpses.
Reading about the Holocaust is one thing. Observing its horrors first-hand is something else altogether. Such atrocities must never happen again. And yet, they have, and they are, perhaps in not the exact numbers, but global peoples are suffering at the hands of tyrants even today.
Dachau is a stark, loathsome place, full of the horrible treatment of human-to-human history. Only a few of the barracks that housed the prisoners were reconstructed. The officers’ quarters remain today, serving as a museum to the dark deeds done there.
I was surprised to learn that Jews were not the only group of people persecuted during the 12 years Dachau existed. Any individuals and congregations of people who did not follow the Nazi line were imprisoned at Dachau, located just a short distance from Munich, where the Nazi regime had its headquarters.
More Jehovah Witnesses per capita were murdered at Dachau than any other religion. Even prisoners of war from other countries were detained there.
The various memorials to those who died and suffered at Dachau.
Different memorials have been constructed to honor those who died and suffered there. The monument to the Russians who died there is actually built outside the camp’s parameters. So infuriated were the Russians at the atrocities they brought soil from Russia on which the memorial is built.
We left there in a somber mood. That changed as we drove on the Romantic Road to where it turns off to Hohenschwangau in southwest Bavaria, Germany. There, Mad King Ludwig built the Neuschwanstein Castle, so unique and dreamy that Disney used it as the model for their theme park castles.
On the way into the village, we stopped at a rural church surrounded by hayfields and croplands. In fact, farmers were cutting and raking hay as we disembarked the bus. Of course, we had to explore the church before heading to Hohenschwangau.
We could only view the castle from afar, but Ludwig had built another less opulent one overlooking the village. It’s appropriately named Hohenschwangau Castle.
It was on to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Church of Wies, designed in the late 1740s. Ornate couldn’t begin to describe the beauty we saw. Designed by Dominikus Zimmerman, the work is a masterpiece of Bavarian Rocco.
I wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to fully appreciate what I was seeing. I just know it was magnificent. One fact I do know. Though the ceiling looks domelike, it is actually flat.
Our final destination for the day was Oberammergau, where we had just enough time to check in at our hotel, have dinner, and walk around the inviting town. The next morning we would discover just how lovely the town and its people were.
After my Anabaptist cave experience, I figured it was downhill from there for the rest of the trip. Emotionally, that may have been true. A walking tour of Salzburg forced me to refocus.
Even on a cloudy day, the city was beautiful. It was Mozart’s birthplace, after all. Though he preferred the livelier Vienna, the old town still claims the master as its own. The city honors the famed composer in numerous ways.
Our tour began in the lovely Mirabell Gardens. Filled with flowers, statues, and fountains, I could have wandered there much longer than we did.
The gardens were only one of several locations in Salzburg where scenes from the famous 1965 movie “The Sound of Music” were filmed. From the gardens, we could see the abbey where Maria served and then left for the Von Trapp family.
We dodged service vehicles delivering foodstuffs and materials to local cafes, shops, and restaurants in the morning. They have to vacate the pedestrian streets by 11 a.m.
We crossed the Salt River and stopped to admire all of the love locks fastened to the wire mesh fence on the sides of the bridge. Lots of lovers had stood where we did.
We wound our way through picturesque narrow cobblestone alleyways with quaint shops, cafes, and bakeries tucked neatly away. One old baker even waved to us from his second-floor apartment above his business. We strolled by Mozart’s birthplace announced by its flashy golden letters and bright gold paint.
Our local guide had lots to show us in a short period, so we tried to keep pace with her. She finally turned us loose in the 16th-century Residence Plaza and the adjacent Mozart Plaza, where we could relax and watch horsedrawn carriages pass by. I tried to imagine myself back in Mozart’s time and contemplated the untold persons who also lingered here so long ago.
For a light lunch, we found a cozy cafe with my favorite amenity, a water closet. When you get to be my age, you’ll understand. We always enjoyed the many opportunities to dine outdoors. We liked to people watch as much as we did the food.
All too soon, we found our way back to the bus and headed for our next destination, Munich. Many of my fellow travelers used the road time to nap. Not me. I didn’t want to miss anything.
We arrived in Munich late afternoon and again found ourselves following our learned guide around the old central city. We passed beer gardens and a marketplace and strolled through a beer hall.
We marveled at the size and beauty of St. Peter’s Church. Then it was off to Marien Plaza to watch and listen to the huge cuckoo clock that activates its wooden characters at 5 p.m. at the town hall. I was impressed with the universal display of the Ukrainian flags we saw in nearly every city center.
There we also saw the Marian column that dates back to 1638. It serves as a reminder that Munich was spared during the Thirty Years’ War.
I thought it would be nice to have dinner with my wife in a nice restaurant. And that’s just what we did. We enjoyed our fish dinners and an extra-large glass of wine.
It had been a day steeped in beauty, awe, and history. We also welcomed a comfortable bed for much-needed rest.