Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative and photographic blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and reaches a broader audience than in print. The down side: unlike a formal book or essay, I'm just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are often "letters to home" style accounts of what I did. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each Archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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I'm fortunate to live in a place that is scenic and full of wildlife at the edge of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Various critters come and visit me in my own backyard, I live at the edge of a forested area in the town of Nederland. And areas near me specialize in some of the most iconic Colorado wildlife. I've gathered a number of photos over the years of these animals. I've only shared them on my small social media channels (small means I'm not heavily involved in SM) (but feel free to follow me on Facebook or Twitter!). I decided to throw a bunch up here just for hoots since they are already processed and ready to go. So this is a collection of photos with very little effort toward explanation ... a picture "book," so to speak. So put your iPad on your coffee table while you're scrolling through it to simulate a coffee table book, haha.
And if you want to come try to meet these critters yourself, remember you can come stay with me! Go here to book at Cozy & Quiet B&B.
Here are some of the wonderful visitors I've had literally in my own yard. I keep a camera by the kitchen door, where most of the wildlife comes through. My cat, Trixy, is often the one who spies the wildlife in the window, and I can always tell from her demeanor when she has spotted something special. Other times I just happen to look out the window myself or be standing on my balcony at the right time.
One of the most exciting visitors to me are the bears, but I've only ever gotten a couple photos of them.
In the last couple years (I'm posting this in 2018), we've been blessed with several awesome bobcat sightings. I get particularly excited over these and have even jumped out of bed in my pajamas and run out in my socks to try to catch a shot of one (alerted to its presence in the yard by Trixy).
I was also pretty excited about the proximity of this visitor one winter's morning, just a stone's throw from my balcony: a great horned owl.
In the last decade, the moose population around Nederland has increased dramatically. Although I love to see them in the yard, it's not really all good news, for they strip the bark off the aspen trees and as is the way in the delicate balance of nature, a change in one animal's population can affect the entire local ecosystem in a chain reaction. I still get excited when they visit me, though.
One of the more rare friends we've had is the silver fox we named, "Blacky," for reasons I'm sure you cannot imagine. He was very friendly, I never fed him or anything, but probably other locals did, hence his habitual close contact, coming right up to the steps of our balcony and even hanging out with our cat, Mister.
The most common visitor we have, though, are mule deer. Some people are uninterested in them due to their ubiquity in the area, and maybe I don't stop to look when they are elsewhere, but I always enjoy seeing them in my own yard. Except when they eat my tulips.
I was rather surprised to see a flock of turkeys in the yard one day! I expressed my surprise to a local friend and she said they get flocks of them all the time.
The beginning of the Mount Evans Scenic Byway is about an hour away from me to the south. Mount Evans road is the highest paved road in North America, topping out at 14,250 feet above sea level. It's the easiest way to summit a fourteener, you don't have to hike! You are treated to amazing views, but the road, in my estimation, is scary as heck! It's not a nail-biting drive, though, because you can't reach your nails when your hands are white-knuckle glued to the steering wheel ... very, very narrow road with no guard rails along sheer cliffs traversing bare hillsides above timberline, so you would roll for ages if you fell over the edge. Not to discourage you from going; you should certainly check it out once, just fair warning.
There are a lot of pretty views around here, so in spite of their spectacularity at Mount Evans, I wouldn't be so motivated to drive up there for that reason, owing to the road. I am, however, motivated to see the darling baby mountain goats that populate the top of the mountain. I don't know where else to see them. The mountain goats aren't actually native to this area, they were introduced in the mid-20th century. Like the increased moose population, this growing population also affects the ecosystem, particularly the tundra grasses they live on, affecting the other creatures who rely on it for food. But it's hard to be mad at them when you're sitting hanging out with them; they're super fun to watch. Here's a big batch of photos I took over two days, one day cold and overcast with very flat light, and the other a glorious morning with bright blue skies.
About 45 minutes to the north of me lies Rocky Mountain National Park -- a lovely treasure that I'm fortunate to have so near by. In summer, I like to drive up Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuously paved road in America, linking the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake) to the souvenir shop and cafe just on the other side of the summit for lunch. RMNP is perhaps best known for its elk population. In summer they hang out high on the tundra, and in fall and winter they stay in the valleys. Although Trail Ridge Road is closed in winter, it's a great time to see the elk because of how they concentrate in the valleys.
I'm not much of a bird person, so I know very little about the avian life around me and I don't take many photos. However, one can't help but be impressed by the magnificent bald eagle! Spotted this beauty while kayaking on Dillon Lake, about an hour and a half west of me. And also a beautiful falcon. Not the most crisp shots, but you get the idea!
I only recently found out that we have great blue herons in Colorado. Somebody even spotted one here in Nederland recently. But these guys below I found down on the flatlands just east of Boulder, about 45 minutes from me, at a little collection of ponds called Walden Ponds. Quite impressive birds.
I saw this sweet little bird on my balcony and took a photo and then had to ask in my local nature Facebook group what is was! It's a junco.
The littlest creature I love in the Rocky Mountains is the American pika. Darling critters, maybe the size of a small gerbil or large hamster. They live in rock piles and rock falls in the high elevations. This pic was taken while hiking in Indian Peaks Wildernes, which lies directly west of Nederland. They make little nests in the rocks with grasses they gather. They can be difficult to spot, but their calls are easy to hear, so when you hear one, just stop and look around.
Marmots are another common furry member of Club Rodentia who populate the higher elevations. I photographed these guys in Rocky Mountain National Park. They love to lie in the sun on the rocks or, unfortunately, on the pavement when there are roads in their neighborhood. You can see that they eat well and their thick fur allows them to live year-round in the cold, high elevations.
The Abert's squirrel is my favorite type of squirrel in the area. I like their tall tufted ears and black coats. They're a bit smaller than the brown squirrels. We have a couple living at our house and I enjoy watching them scamper around the balcony and trees. We had left some over-ripe oranges outside one day on the balcony, meaning to take them to the compost bin, but this Abert's got to them first.
There is, of course, much more wildlife existing here, but you've gotten a Colorado safari of some of the common species. We have mountain lions in my town, too, and that is what I'm dying to see and get a photo of now!
So this is mostly a photo tour. Do you like how my "narrative" travel blog has morphed over the years from mostly text-based to mostly photography-based? It's cuz I'm lazy. :-) Also, my interest in photography has grown like a baobab or a panda ... i.e. dramatically. And, truth be told, I've come to see the truth in the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words ... or if not quite a thousand, a whole lot of them. It's more expedient for conveying things ... buildings, landscapes, animals, what people look like, etc. If something particularly interesting happened to us in these villages, I'd tell you about it. But mostly we just wandered around contentedly, got totally and genuinely lost, and had a very pleasant time -- one day by ourselves and another afternoon with two fellow volunteers with A Drop in the Ocean who were working with us at the Souda refugee camp in Chios Town.
But a wee bit of background for the two villages I'm going to share with you in this post, Pyrgi and Mesta. They are sometimes referred to as "mastic villages," being located in the southern part of Chios Island, where the mastic trees grow. I'd never heard of mastic until arriving on Chios, where I learned it is (a) grown only here on Chios and nowhere else in the world, (b) when made into mastiha liqueur, it's fabulously delicious. It's used in many other products, as well, both edible and non (like body care products). Plain mastiha candies taste kind of like cut grass or earth, but add a little mint flavor and they're far tastier (according to *my* taste buds). It's rather remarkable how delicious the liqueur is compared to the plain candy.
But, "What is the mastic?" you ask. "Does it grow on the mastic trees? Is it harvested like olives? Is it the root?" Nay. Mastic (pretty much interchangeable with "mastiha," as far as I can tell) is actually the sappy resin in the tree bark. Farmers bore holes into the bark, put a plastic tarp skirt around the base of the tree and let the resin run down the trunk, then collect it in the skirt. The trees are quite small, kind of like olive trees, and we could see terraced groves of them from the roads. So anyway, if you can get your hands on some mastiha liquor, go wrap your little fingers around a bottle of it. There are different alcohol contents, we found we preferred the middle-of-the-road 28%. Pretty much every night in our hotel room we had a nightcap (or two) of mastiha before bed.
Mesta is a classic medieval mastic village. Here and at all of the small villages on Chios, as a visitor you must park your car outside the old city walls, there are usually small parking lots. The streets were built to scale for donkeys, not cars! There are several entry points through the city walls into the maze. Mesta was built in the Byzantine era (approx. 14th century) and its high defensive walls and central tower were designed on account of the pirates and Turks who were always trying to raid them and their mastic stores.
The city walls:
The narrow streets ... a miniature tractor manages his way down the cobblestones.
The interior maze of streets (what I'd consider more aptly as alleyways) are lined with houses adjoined to one another in solid blocks, interspered with archways. Most doorways looked like they belonged to abanonded homes. But there is, in fact, a hotel in the middle of the village and several tourist souvenir shops and a large central courtyard of restaurants, so the place does not feel dead.
The biggest attraction for island locals is the church, Megalos Taksiarhis, aka "the big Archangels Church," the largest orthodox church on the island and one of the biggest in all of Greece. It was built in the mid-1800s where the original castle tower had been built in the Byzantine era.
And just in case you did not get enough kitties in the Kitties of Chios post, here is one I title, "The Dark Kitty" ... emerging from his dark alley lair!
And another shot of the blind kitty also pictured in the Tuesday Tale, "A Life Left to the Cats," about an abandoned home we explored in Mesta.
Now we move on to the uniquely picturesque southern Chios village of Pyrgi, the largest of the mastic villages, and often referred to as "the painted village." Pyrgi has been mentioned in old documents as far back as the 11th century. Apparently, it's widely believed that Christopher Columbus is descended from a family in Pyrgi and that he lived for a time in the village. Why is it called the painted village? Because of the unique black or gray and white geometrical decorative motifs on the facades of the buildings. It's called Xysta and is made by a plastering-sand being applied to the wall, carefully painted white, then scraped with the designs. So the designs are etched, not painted, in spite of the "painted village" moniker.
Of course there is the ubiquitous village clock tower rising above town, and the old man enjoying the afternoon sun. Er, well, he's in the shade, but the sun will get to him .....
A central feature of Pyrgi is the Church of Ayioi Apostoloi (Holy Apostles). A Byzantine-era church, it mimics, on a smaller scale, the architectural structure of the larger Nea Moni monastery (which I'm planning to show in a future blog post). There is an inscription that dates the erection to 1546, but historians consider the architectural features to be a more reliable date (Byzantine 14th century) and therefore conclude it was merely repaired or remodeled at that time. The interior walls and ceiling of the church are covered in frescoes, but we were not allowed to take photographs inside the church. I'm glad we got to visit it twice, to better cement in my own memory the interior, which is really quite small.
Its ancient Byzantine structure and plain stone facade stand out in a kind of simplicity in contrast to the elaborate Xysta facades of the rest of the village center.
Like Mesta, Pyrgi is a combination of abandonment and vibrance. Some of the abandonment:
Some of the vibrance:
I guess Erik's the main vibrance here.
It appears I just can't help myself from including one last kitty picture, I included a different shot of this sweeite in Kitties of Chios. Only one of the many kitties we accosted with my camera in the mastic villages.
It's easy to drive around Chios, there aren't that many roads and there isn't much traffic, or at least there wasn't in April. Most people think of the Mediterranean islands like Santorini when they think of Greek Islands. But a visit to the Aegean island of Chios would make a nice addition to any Greek itinerary.
In case you're not sure how to pronounce "Chios," it makes an alliteration with "kitties." Or at least the sort of English-ized version does, the Greek sound of the "Chios" is not a sound we have in English and is kind of a combination of "k" and "h." Anyway, just wanted to be sure you understand the cleverly alliterated title. (haha ... nobody else could ever have thought of something so intellectually complex and clever!)
Now, whatever could this post be about? You must be on the edge of your seat with raw curiosity. So, although we came to Chios Island in order to volunteer at the Souda refugee camp, we spent several days sightseeing on the island, which turned out to be a great tourist destination, many interesting villages to see. Souda camp no longer exists, by the way. Several months after we left, the municipality took up all the tents and everything, to restore their nice beach for the tourists landing in the ferries to remain blissfully unaware of the refugee crisis and the abysmal living conditions of those hoping for approval for asylum in Europe. Everyone in Souda was moved to other camps, most of them to Vial, which is the other one on Chios run by the Greek military and a far, far worse place to be than Souda ever was. It's a real shame.
So without forgetting the unfortunate reason we were there, I'd like to introduce you to the feline inhabitants of the villages of Chios. I take pictures of kitties everywhere we go, as I love them and always miss mine while traveling. Erik and I are the creepy people accosting cats across the globe with my camera and our fingers just itching to dish out some pets and scritches (as illustrated also in my Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, post). But Chios had a particular preponderance of friendly ones, most of them looking quite healthy, and so I decided to collect some of them together in a post for cat lovers. That's the rest of this post: cat pictures!
These cuties come from the village of Anavatos, which is mostly abandoned now but open to tourists to wander around the ruins. Referred to as a "Byzantine tower-village," the ancient city perches high up on a granite hillside, basically surrounded by cliffs.
So these kitties have very defensible space. And yet they could not escape ME!
Can you locate the little fella below? I could have cropped in on him, but I like how his small size makes the landscape seem particularly epic around him.
These next kitties come from the very beautiful and charming village of Pyrgi, also referred to as "the painted village," known for its unique black-and-white patterned facades on the houses in the medieval town center.
A very beautiful village, and a perfect residence for beautiful kitties!
Now to another hilltop village, Volissos, topped with an 11th century castle, whose narrow streets contained an integrated mix of abandoned ruins, utilized buildlings that look like ruins on the outside, and houses and businesses that people clearly still live in and use.
These kitties were fun to watch, as they were playmates. In the first pic below, what I like most about it is the cat sitting by himself in the background sticking his tongue out.
These cats, I have to confess, I'm not sure which village they're from, but not from any of the other villages I've included here. We did an awful lot of driving around and stopped in some places randomly for a short period of wandering time, and I just don't recall the name of them all. The other villages mentioned here are ones that we specifically drove to as a destination. Anyway, I thought these guys were picturesque in front of the old wooden door and stone doorframe.
We visited the medieval village of Mesta, another Byzantine-era walled village, a couple different times, and it was a particular mecca for cats. It's the perfect kind of village to wander its narrow maze of streets and get lost in.
The mealtime companionship of the cats was mostly fun, but there were the occasional impolite brats who muscled everyone else out and didn't care if their claws or teeth accidentally sunk into the skin of your fingers while you were setting down tidbits. This black fellow was actually really friendly, but he looks intimidating here: "None shall pass without dropping some steak!" You can see what a little fan club I had around me once they sensed what a sucker I was -- which is pretty much the same caliber of sucker as everyone eating in the cafe!
I'm guessing that behind that door lies a bunch of yummy food and a person who is scheduled to bring it all out shortly. The little one peeking out from behind the flower barrel isn't sure whether I am friend or foe.
I think this kitty is cute for the way it kept changing which paw it was holding up ... first her right one, then the left one, like she's a tripod and can only have three legs down at a time.
Every corner you turn, there's a kitty waiting for you!
I included a pic of this perfectly framed cat in the Tuesday Tale, "A Life Left to the Cats."
We did stop over for a couple days in Athens on our way home from Chios.
So ... here's an Athens cat, hanging out outside a little convenience store where we bought some bottled water. Oh, and bonus -- it's got its tongue sticking out! Also here but not pictured was a momma cat suckling her kittens right on the doorstep of the store.
Of course this post does not present the extent of my cat photos from Chios, but I didn't want to be unreasonable and post the whole lot ... I know you guys have other things you need to get done today. :) But these were some of my favorites.
please note all photos in the post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I saw her on the opposite bank of the river, her head drooping down and walking an unhealthy-looking gait. She sat down in the grass and vomited. I could see, even from across the river, that it was only stomach bile coming out, indicating that she had been vomiting for some time to have reached this point of only bile. She was sick and alone. It was that time of day when afternoon is late but evening is early, and the air was finally starting to cool down.
On my side of the river, her two sisters kept looking across. Busy nursing four children, they alternately laid down in the shade with them and stood up restlessly, eyeing their lone sister. They were clearly very keen to cross the river and be reunited with her; she was too sick to cross herself. There was one big problem that was preventing a happy reunion: crocodiles.
One of my favorite fiction authors is Daphne DuMaurier, and probably my favorite short story of hers is a short vignette describing a little family drama, a family who comes to the park and its pond every day. In your mind's eye as the reader, you conjure up images of all the characters. In the very last sentence, DuMaurier reveals that this whole story has been about a family of swans, not people. She so anthropomorphized the birds and their drama that the reader willingly presumed the story was about people. I always admired that skillful writing and have wished and tried to imitate that technique. But I've never been successful, and I tried it with this tale, but scrapped it, I just couldn't pull it off. The first tip-off that I'm not talking about people may have been two sisters nursing four kids, haha. Plus, I can't wait till the end to start inserting photographs, I want to include too many. So, no, this isn't a human tale, but a brief one about lions. Two lionesses and four cubs on my side of the river, and a lone sick lioness on the opposite bank. And between us, a whole mess of crocodiles.
This is the first safari I've been on where we really had time to settle in and weren't just trying to see as many animals as we could in a short amount of time. We were there long enough that we could spend some quality time with individual animals or families. So on this afternoon in the Khwai Concessions of the Okavango Delta region, when we ran across the small family unit, we spent the whole rest of the day until dark with them. Watching the cubs alternately play, suckle and rest. Of course play time was the best!
But sleepy and snuggle time was super sweet to witness, too. A little reversal of the usual ... the mom snuggles up to her cub who caresses her head. After awhile the cub started licking mom and cleaned her ears up real good.
And now it's time for a big yawn to wake up!
Hope you weren't too frightened by that last photo, it's pretty scary!
The two mothers occasionally nudged each other with affection and seemed to silently communicate their mutual desire to reach their sick sister. They would get up and move the family down the road a little ways and sit contemplating the river. Now, I know you may think I'm anthropomorphizing the lions here, and I don't know how to convey to you the tangibility of their desire, but I assure you it was there. They desperately wanted to cross the river to get to her.
They gathered the cubs up several different times and struck out through the marsh toward the water. Only to be thwarted each time by a crocodile. The cubs seemed to sense the danger even before they got there. The mothers would continue forward until they verified a crocodile was waiting for them, then the whole family would turn around and retreat. They would play and sleep some more, then move down the road to a different stretch of the river, gather together and try crossing again. Again to be turned back by crocodiles.
We kept following them bit by bit as they tried over and over to cross. We were rooting so hard for them. And the sister on the other side matched their movements, moving down the river whenever they did. (I don't have a picture of her, I felt so sad for her being sick, I didn't feel like capturing that on film.)
Just as night was falling to where we could barely even see the lions anymore, the family reached a particularly narrow spot in the river and gathered together to try another crossing. Surely, we thought, at this narrow stretch they can make it across. We ourselves couldn't see any crocodiles. There was a fallen log near the water that the lionesses climbed up on to survey the crossing, and suddenly one of them jumped up straight into the air and batted at a crocodile who'd been lurking on the other side of that log. She let out a bone-chilling roar and growled as she swiped viciously at the croc.
The family turned and began retreating yet again, but it was too dark now for us to track them. They disappeared into the night. The little family and their stranded sister. I don't know what happened to them. A drama with no conclusion. That's the way it is when you can only pass through. The next day we moved on to an adjacent park, but the lions still filled my head and heart ... I felt so wonderfully fulfilled while I watched them play and interact the day before, and now I feel a melancholy emptiness where the gate to their story remains open, and will always remain so.