Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Even on a cloudy, drizzly, cold, windy, autumn day, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a revelation.  Cape Breton is an island off Nova Scotia.  Buffeted by the winds of the Atlantic Ocean, the rugged beauty of the island is a sight to behold.  As you drive through the Cabot Trail along the coast, you will pass through this incredible natural wonder.

Driving through Nova Scotia, the seaside towns, the rugged coastlines, the friendly people already provided enough memories to last a lifetime.  And as we drove to Cape Breton, I had expected to see more of the same.  Well, yes and no.  The people were friendly, but the island is more exposed to the winds and tantrums of the Atlantic.  And as we drove through the coasts, the road winding through the mountains on one side and the Atlantic on the other, I could not help but think that I was the luckiest man on the planet.  I know countless people have witnessed the beauty of Cape Breton.  Yet to see it for the first time, to feel the cold crisp wind in your face as you stop and marvel at each curve in the trail, to experience the raw power of nature and the raw beauty that it has to offer – there are few places in the planet that elicit such awe.

I didn’t spend enough time at the park.  That much is certain.  A few hours hiking barely gave enough time to grasp the true beauty of everything that was around me.  Here, at least, are some images from this incredible spot on an incredibly beautiful island known as Cape Breton.

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SONY DSCSONY DSCThis was proving to be a wonderful hike through the highlands.  And then, the forest gave way to the coasts.  What a sight to behold.  I ran into these two women who bicycled their way across Canada.  From Vancouver, to the Canadian Rockies, to Cape Breton – they must have seen so much of what I still long to see.  Probably not on a bicycle, but someday – there are still so many places left to explore.

SONY DSCThe winding roads, the clouds over the ocean, the wind, the trail went on towards vistas that boggle the mind.

SONY DSCSONY DSCAnd then, the sun peeked through.  Just a smidge of sun, a few ticks of the clock – it was enough.

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Sometimes, when a place is really special, even a moment is enough to capture a memory.  And strangely enough, all the time in the world is never enough time to spend in that same place.  Cape Breton and Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  I hear the siren call.

The Window to Miracles

New Mexico was, to me, one of those states on the southern border, somewhere between Texas and California.  At least until a chance visit to Santa Fe.  The air fare was low and the accomodations was free, so what the heck, why not.  When I got there, I could not believe how beautiful the city was.  And the Tex Mex or Mexican or whatever food that was there was incredible (except for the Chinese food, but even that may have improved by now).  One of the greatest surprises in all my travels.  Even now, I can see myself living in this town, semi arid, nestled in the mountains.  The people are friendly.  The arts are alive.  And Santa Fe is just plain old beautiful.

And yet, the trip to New Mexico will be remembered for an even more unexpected interlude.  A visit to the town of Chimayo.  It is one of the few towns that dot the road from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico.  At least that’s what it was on the map.  And so, before driving to Taos, I did a little research on the High Road to Taos.  I read some mention of a church in a small town that people from all over the world visited, in search of miraculous cures to all sorts of afflictions.  Curious, I decided to drop by and visit the church.  At the very least, it is an old, historic church in the mountains.  It was a good photographic opportunity.

I ran into a man who was friendly and was more than happy to tell me about this special place.  His name has been forgotten now, but his story is still in my head.  It turns out he is a four time cancer survivor.  When he first got cancer, his chances for survival was not good.  Guided by faith, he went to Chimayo, took some of the soil from a room in the church (it is freely given to all who visit), and took it home with him to Chicago.  He applied the soil like a balm over the afflicted area.  And miracle of miracles, or so he told me, his cancer was cured.  His cancer would recur three more times, in different parts of his body.  Each time, he went back to Chimayo, took some soil, and each time he was cured.  I asked him if he was there seeking another cure.  No, he said.  He was just there to give thanks for the gifts that were given him.  A life to be lead, a life that he was able to use for some good, and the grace to be healed of his afflictions.

I was dumbfounded.  I always associated miracles with Fatima.  Or Medjugorje.  Or Lourdes.  Chimayo is a beautiful but unassuming town nestled in the mountains, on a road between two major tourist destinations in New Mexico.  And yet, it is this town that I always think of when I think of New Mexico.  There is something there, a feeling there, that I can’t explain.  It’s not something metaphysical.  It is this feeling of peace and joy that emanates from this small church.   People may visit Chimayo in hopes of a miraculous cure to some sort of physical ailment.  To me, though, it gave something else.

When I entered the church in the middle of mass, it was mostly locals attending the mass.  After the mass, someone told me something that has stayed with me forever.  It was a message that was surprising and uplifting.  Even now, I recall the events of those few minutes spent in that church in Chimayo, of that quiet conversation.  Grace can come in many ways.  You don’t have to ask.  Somehow,  it just comes to you.

There are special places that leave you with an inner peace.  A feeling that stays with you for your entire life.  To me, one of those places is this church in the New Mexico mountains, in the town of Chimayo.  The window pictured above is in the room that contains the miraculous soil.  I can only say that what I remember most from that visit is not the window, not the church, not the town, not the mountains.  It was that quiet conversation, wholly unexpected.  In that moment, I felt forever blessed.

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Windswept

On the first few days of our trip to Nova Scotia, the sun bid adieu and the clouds rolled into view.  A drizzle here and there reminded us that the Atlantic Coast can be unforgiving.  And yet, in the dank grey skies, you saw the beauty of the land that the hardy Nova Scotians call their home.  The jagged coastline, the waves crashing incessantly on the rock strewn shores, the wind occasionally blowing in your face.   Autumn’s colors had not yet come. The mostly monochromatic views accentuated the ruggedness of the land. When the skies are grey and the wind howls, I sometimes think of those days in Nova Scotia.  And I smile.

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Aftermath

The early February 2010 winter storm paralyzed the Washington D.C. area for days.  If you didn’t have far to go, the snow made the mundane beautiful.

Dead Horse Point State Park

Moab, Utah.  How can one town in the Utah desert be so close to two of the most spectacular national parks in the United States – Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.  And in between these two great parks, before entering Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, there is a small state park known as Dead Horse Point.  You can be forgiven for not noticing this state park as you drive down the road in the early morning, hoping to catch sunrise at Mesa Arch – a scene that is truly beautiful, truly iconic, widely photographed, widely admired.  Microsoft made Mesa Arch a household name, or at least a household scene, when it included a picture of sunrise at Mesa Arch in its collection of background images in Windows 7.  And I have to say, thank you, Microsoft, for bringing so much of the world’s beauty into our desktops – with the myriad of screensavers, background images, themes that you have available in your various operating systems.

And if you happen to make it down the road to Dead Horse Point State Park, especially before the sun rises (I should have done this) or as the sun sets, you will be treated to a truly spectacular view of the spectacular Utah landscape.  The sun was setting and the river bend scene was not lit well enough to do it justice.  A few yards to the left, however, turning eastward, where the sun’s dying light infuses the red Utah Rocks with a crimson hue, the rocks, the mountains, the desert and the sky conspire to remind all who see it that this is a planet of transcendent beauty and fragility.  We have touched the sky and now we must do our best to be responsible stewards for all below it.  And one look at Dead Horse Point shows us why.  This is not a view to be savored by one person once in a lifetime.  It is a place that makes repeated viewings a special occasion in itself, a place, like so many other places in our planet, that must endure for the generations to come.

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