A Winter Journey: Traveling In Pandemic & Troubled Times.

It has been longer than usual since my last posting, mostly caused by the impacts of time-consuming travel and sightseeing I will review, below.

My journey ranged through Sweden from Stockholm on the Baltic up to Swedish Lapland then next to England, roving around the Northwest from Northern Wales, around the Manchester area and up to Cumbria in the Lake district before exiting the country through Heathrow in the South.

I was fortunate to visit and meet with many friends, new and old and reconnect with relatives, acquaintances alike.

There is much to report of interesting sights and unique experiences enjoyed in these travels. But before I begin this review let me again first reflect upon what the last several weeks the disease of Cancer has wrought upon just my own extended family.

These experiences with Cancer are not unique. For many readers they are familiar and even common.

In the last six weeks my own family witnessed the final loss off one battle with the disease, a few wars of others proceeding with difficulties and a just single soul receiving good news in having no further immediate findings of infection.

Such stories are not unusual or rare. Indeed, they are common experiences in our world.

Those lost are now at rest. The memories of their lives remain within us all.

And those remaining fight on. We can only hope they achieve the best outcomes possible, and their journeys bring them as much joy and peace as can be imagined.

Now let me break from these thoughts and move to happier and lighter ground.

My own recent travels were filled with novel experiences, fun and new adventures. They offer interest and excitement for young and old alike. So let me recount this Winter journey, here…

On December 23rd 2021, a pair of us set off to SFO clutching our negative Covid tests obtained a day earlier from San Jose airport testing facility, firmly in hand.

The Parking Facility I regularly use had unannounced switched to appointment-only for the Holiday Season and was fully booked upon my arrival. The surprise caused some urgent frantic searching for new and available sites that was eventually resolved by SFO’s own Long-Term location, just a Monorail ride distant from the International Departure Terminal.

The flight out was long, uneventful and we arrived later afternoon in Stockholm airport on December 24th after a short layover in Frankfurt. Eventually we came upon the shuttle pickup area for the Car Rental off-airport site, donned warmer clothing and boarded the bus to fetch our Avis SUV rental vehicle.

It seems that across the World it is tough to find workers during Covid times, and especially on this Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, after an hour working with Avis’s one-man show, we obtained a (NOT as requested) Spanish-built Hybrid SUV and after a life-threatening ice scaping session in sub-zero temps we got underway North to Hudiksvall, a few hours’ drive away.

The Hybrid (albeit new) SUV provided an adventure within itself. I will say no more than over the rental period we had issues with several things falling off, breaking, locking electrical connectors, irrationally failing displays with software bugs, issuing road-side alarms to Emergency Services and on and on. Even when we were joined in our travels by a Swedish native, we were constantly challenged to interpret the exclusively Swedish-language Handbook and resorted to solving problems via Google lookups. The vehicle is NOT suitable for being in a Rental Fleet. Enough said. ☹

We arrived Hudiksvall as planned, moved into our expansive Airbnb, hooked up with loved ones and on Christmas Day were treated to dinner, seated overlooking the lighted lower town and expansive frozen bay connected by a wide finger of water tied directly to the Gulf of Bothnia. A great beginning to the Swedish leg of our journey.  😊

The next day my son and I went Ice Fishing. There was little wind and the outing became productive when we teamed up with a knowledgeable local who guided us to catch our three-each limit of Grayling with a temporary loan of his electronic fish-finder.

There were just a couple of small groups of fishermen passing through on this local Lake. No tents or Ice Huts were employed, and we belatedly enjoyed the traditional wood fire set directly on the ice for a little warmth and light. As the sky darked by early afternoon (there are perhaps six hours of good Northern daylight this time of year) we packed-up and went home.

The next day we fulfilled a promise to host a traditional, ten-person US/UK Christmas Dinner for my son’s extended Swedish Family. The event followed a complex shopping trip by four of us to find appropriate, relevant and similar ingredients in defiance of the language challenges. Mission accomplished for both child and adult attendees.

The dinner followed traditional greetings and introductions, gift exchanges, shared cooking and preparations and final seating arrangements. Despite all the challenges presented by Vegetarian, Vegan and Tea-total participants the meal went off with amazingly familiar servings, tastes and flavors. 😉

A large turkey meal, wine, champagne, beer followed by a Trifle desert was sampled and enjoyed by all following the traditional popping of English Christmas Crackers. We made a fine sight donning the Crackers’ paper hats, sharing their jokes and party favor surprise gifts. A fine time and introduction were had by all.

The evening was followed by travel preparations and my visit to a local fishing shop. It always amazes me to see the variation of tackle and gear available to address the local opportunity, styles, climate and target species. Late that afternoon my son and I set off for nighttime Ice Fishing.

It is a little colder on the ice after dark. Perhaps still only 10-15F, not too bad. I was suspicious things may not go well when I realized we had brought no torches (except phones) and even starlight was scarce.

The ice was perhaps only 14” thick but we drilled our corner of this new Lake with fishing holes till it resembled Swiss Cheese.

Our traditional log fire on the Ice was picturesque, useful and so we kept on drilling with that manual auger. Eventually the clouds cleared to reveal bright, sparkling star-filled skies.

Suffice it to say it was a great experience, but not a single bite was had.  😊

I returned a rented Ice Auger to the store the next day. The owner confirmed that night fishing is VASTLY different and especially challenging. No kidding.  😉

The next day our group of four were to drive North to so-called Swedish Lapland.

We passed on the overnight train and flight travel options. Both these solutions meant ditching our (albeit just becoming very troublesome) SUV rental yet still needing to rent another vehicle upon arrival. So, we opted to drive halfway to Umea and then run to our destination (Lulea) the next morning while it remained light.

Driving on one and two-laned snow covered freeways in flurries of yet more snow is not for everyone. But two of us were experienced with this practice and we ultimately willingly switched-off the responsibilities for the entire Northward journey and then the return.

We set off late afternoon from Hudiksvall on December 30th and arrived later evening in Umea. The journey was dark and unremarkable. The most memorable part was locating the Hotel itself and getting to our rooms.

The hotel was fairly central in the town of Umea. We got to explore the city streets and squares more closely on our return leg.

Our hotel was part of a much larger 10-12 story building featuring businesses, shops, a couple of hotels and an expansive, open covered lobby. The hotel was the entire Third floor and required an automated check-in at central kiosks situated on the ground floor.otel was on the Third floor with an Hote

Three of our party circled the building in our SUV while I explored access to the Lobby and discovered the setup just described. Apparently, our loaded AWD SUV did not particularly like steep icy hills and backslid in my absence till reversed into a side street in preparation for a faster run-up to mount the climb. Pretty exciting experience, I am told. 😉

We were finally checked into a very modern, perhaps typically stylish Swedish hotel with an all-window 180-degree view across the low-rise town. We separated into couples, and each disappeared into the evening to find late-night food and drink as offered in picturesque, well-lighted Umea.

It is a very modern, well-furbished University town.

We found a traditional Irish Pub in an open square, ate and drank there then retired early to complete the morning journey North.

This next day was New Year’s Eve. We set off to Lulea in daylight and were able to view the countryside as we ventured further North, stopping every hour or two for coffee and the local experience of being in Sweden. We even slowed on the freeway to snap photos of a reindeer grazing on the frozen roadside.

We arrived around midday in Lulea which sits on a frozen half-mile-wide Bay (again) off the Gulf of Bothnia, East of Oulu in Finland which lies across some ~80miles of water, and quite close to the Finnish border, just a few tens of miles to the North.

The large, early 1900’s refurbished Hotel we had booked was situated mid-town. Our room faced an impressive open, lighted, deeply snow-covered square, sited on the main street through the town.

Unfortunately, we had arrived the day new Covid restrictions were to be implemented which threatened more closed and limited restaurant seating availability for the New Year celebrations that night. The show and fireworks promised in the Main Square opposite our Hotel had already been cancelled.

We need not have worried as eventually, we easily reserved seats to dine that evening at a pleasant close-by Sports Bar. After this we moved a block away to a Wine Bar overlooking the frozen Bay where we saw in the New Year while enjoying a brief but impressive firework display out upon the ice some hundred yards from our door.

Following a hearty and impressive breakfast (in a spectacular vaulted dining room) at our hotel we set out this New Year’s Day on a ten-minute drive to historic Gammelstad.

This was the ex-local regional Capital before Lulea was built-up. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was originally constructed around a 15th Century church and provided worshipers essential housing when they visited during the freezing Winters.

There are over 500 buildings in mostly very well-preserved and maintained condition, many of which seem to date from the early 1800’s and are built with traditional local methods and stylings.

When access to Gammelstad (or, Old Town) by water became difficult it lost its status and fell into disuse as the local Capital. So nearby Lulea was grown and expanded leveraging its easy commercial access to the Gulf.

We spent a few hours wandering there, capturing unique and picturesque photos, enjoying the solitude and scarcity of tourists.  The 10F temperature kept us moving along until we sought out a coffee-shop before returning to Lulea.

Later that evening we went as a group of four out into the countryside for a Dog Sled trip. This was something VASTLY different. 😊

The temperatures had dropped to zero degrees Fahrenheit this night. A second group of mostly French-speakers joined us and so two sleds for 4-people were set up, each pulled by a dozen dogs.

We were provided one-piece coveralls that completely covered our (now, obviously) underprepared Winter clothing. With these were offered boots to those who were inadequately dressed there, too. Gloves were largely our own devices but were on-hand if needed or desired.

Unless you covered them with zipped-up coveralls or viable glasses, our faces were fully exposed at the eyes and forehead to some degree.

So, at around 7.30pm in the pitch dark we set off; a snowmobile, followed by one sled then the other in a tidy line, dogs yelping and sleighs bouncing their occupants who were stacked tightly front to back in their 12’ transports.

What fun. What an experience.

After 10 mins the sleds stopped and my son was seconded into driving our sleigh. A flashlamp to light the way for us and the dogs was strapped around his forehead, then the driver took off and jumped aboard the snowmobile stationed ahead.

The snowmobile took off on the Lake and the dogs charged after it.

And so, we zig-zagged around for ~20 minutes, crossing paths with the other sled, one following the other, the dogs always wanting to outrace the other team.

When we stopped next the dogs lasted only minutes before howling and nipping, wanting to run again. They just do not want to be still. They yapped their way through the photo-ops and then we were off again.

Eventually we left the flat open Lake and entered the fields and woods surrounding. The drivers were changed out and I took my place steering and driving the sled. A lamp was strapped around my head and we were off, weaving through undergrowth, between trees, rushes and bushes.

The vegetation moved in and we dashed through small gaps under branches, lurching side to side. Then my lamp went out.

The lamp was on a timer. It is tricky to reset through thick gloves while running over flats but impossible to attend when in pitch black, navigating through tunnels of vegetation, violent turns, bumps and beneath low-hanging branches.

I realized the dogs were doing all the steering and navigating up ahead anyway, so I waited till we emerged in starlight, then braked the sleigh on flatter terrain and reset the lamp. This was probably the best fun of the entire trip. I will be looking to repeat this experience, but perhaps with a more reliable lamp.  😉

Eventually we crossed a road, returned towards camp and ran the dogs back into their yard.

The trip was over. Next followed the passengers and drivers hugging the dogs, taking pictures then being escorted to a traditional tent for small hot drinks and biscuits around a log fire.

Suddenly one of the operators (oddly, a French girl from Brittany, with whom I spoke briefly) re-appeared and escorted us all from the tent and 300 yards back down the trail to the frozen Lakeside to view and photograph the Northern Lights which had made a surprise and belated appearance. The promise of the outing was complete.

Finally, we shed our heavy overalls, said our excited goodbyes and bundled ourselves back into the car for the brief ride back to our Hotel in Lulea. So ended that memorable experience.

The Next morning (of January 2nd) we set off back South in daylight for another overnight stay in Umea. The endless frozen landscapes and snow-laden trees provided picture-book scenes the entire way.

The four of us played “I-Spy” for hours on end while enjoying the views, garage-stops for hot drinks, and gas fill-ups during snow flurries in ever-chilled sub-zero temperatures.

We quickly reached Umea again, but this time already knew the Hotel building and address from our travel when we originally headed North just days earlier. We were booked in the SECOND of the two Hotels in that same multi-story building.

So, the four of us quickly Checked In and went to our two separate rooms. This Hotel area was dark and featured interesting décor with fanciful, dream-like colored 3-D images over every room door entry and massive chandeliers hanging in the giant open carpeted spiral staircases. The rooms themselves were different. I would call them GOTH by design; a quite different boutique styling.

It was still early afternoon, so we split up and explored the city. There were Malls, new buildings and stores everywhere. It is indeed a modern, well facilized University town.

The next morning, we ran back down to Hudiksvall. The journey was littered with “I Spy” games of deepening complexity and the witnessing of a traffic accident involving the SUV immediately in front of us.

It appears the snow-coverings caused the driver to mis-read the section of the road to being one-way, two lanes when it was single lane 2-way. We braked and watched as an on-coming vehicle rattled that SUV against the truck it was unwisely attempting to overtake. It seems the safety framework between the sets of wheels on the truck’s trailer prevented the SUV from getting underneath the container being hauled.

The SUV and oncoming car took considerable damage, but the drivers involved were as unharmed as the truck and did not appear to be in shock or dazed.

Continuing we arrived in Hudiksvall by midday, grabbed a quick lunch and said our goodbyes to our travel partners. We then sought out our swish yet practically deserted local Hotel on the Bay waterfront, checked-in and ran out for an Indian meal to celebrate our Anniversary before the restaurants closed. We finished the day with a champagne toast and retired for an early-morning start.

The next day we grabbed an early breakfast from yet another spectacular Hotel spread and headed the few hours down to Stockholm for our expensive ($250, each) 1-Hour PCR Covid test appointments at the airport. These were required for UK flights and entry.

Upon arrival I ditched the baggage at the airport and returned the woeful Avis Rental car with a quick explanation of its gross unsuitability for fleet use. They listened. But not much interest was shown at the still sparsely staffed facility.

Following this the Covid tests were an absolute joy ( ☹ ) and I am sure the nose swab was taken from inside the very back of my skull. Truly eyewatering. 😉

It looked like there were half-a-dozen Covid testing sites in the Airport. Travelers were scurrying about asking questions and directions, grabbing last minute (apparently surprise and unscheduled) tests for their upcoming flights.

With baggage checked we hit the Airline suite and grabbed a couple of drinks and snacks before heading to the Gate for our flight to Manchester, UK.

There were a couple of Mask-type (no cloth masks were allowed) and Mask Protocol issues at boarding which frustrated some belligerent passengers and alarmed others.  But eventually everyone was appropriately covered so we boarded and departed on-time.

We arrived in a wet Manchester late afternoon to find no customers for the Car Rental shuttle. Our booking with Hertz fell apart when we reached the facility: As pre-warned there were no representatives, but also no identifiers, directions, pointers or access to our Rental or any Hertz vehicle for that matter.

After over 45minutes wandering the darkened Hertz parking areas and Rental Facility, eventually with the equally mystified help of others, we finally accepted the inevitable and picked up an SUV from an extremely helpful Avis employee. This vehicle was suitable and operated as intended throughout our UK visit. 😊

I hope the Hertz folks at the Manchester Airport learn to stay a little later, leave viable instructions and access or at least provide a manned phone service.

We spent our time in the UK with gracious relatives as hosts and after our 2-day mandatory arrival quarantine were out and about after official Covid testing, but not before hearing that one of our recent Swedish travel buddies had then just tested positive for Covid. ☹

This temporarily delayed our initial travels to visit others and we added-in many extra Lateral Flow Covid 30-minute self-administered tests before meeting with anyone who might be vulnerable.

Once we were loose, we enjoyed several local neighborhood walks, then trips out to the Thomas Telford Canal Barge Aqueduct in North Wales, Llangollen, Nantwich, Chester, a local Falconry and a run up to Cumbria in the Lake District.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was opened by Telford 1805 and used to transport (by barge) Welsh coal serving the Industrial Revolution. It is the longest such structure in GB and the highest Canal structure in the world. The Aqueduct still routinely carries barges on the Llangollen Canal, standing just 12’ wide, spanning some 350 yards and sitting 130’ above the River Dee. It also provides spectacular photo ops. 😊

After walking its length on the precipitous towpath, we ducked out of the rain for hot tea, biscuits and Welsh Rarebit in the nearby Café, a converted local Baptist church. There they offer a broad selection of cakes, baked goods and meals, yet still advertise and make available Baptisms, right below their site in the chilly waters of the River Dee.

Following this we drove the couple of country miles upstream to Llangollen, a truly picturesque Welsh town hosting the Dee beneath her massive ancient stone bridge (which was built in 1345 and modified in the 16th and 20th Centuries).

A stroll across the bridge and along the riverside walk allowed us to watch, photograph and even speak with the few excited kayakers that were thriving in the inflated rush of the surging river now enhanced by intermittent recent rains.

As light failed in the late afternoon, we sought out one of the several quaint pubs offering local beers with riverside views, then visited a local bakery to purchase recommended pasties and sausage rolls for the return journey to our Host. It was an impressive daytrip.

In the following days we ran out for coffee in the well-manicured town of Nantwich which hosts some fine, time-misshapen Tudor shop facades, restaurants and Hotel at its center, a quaint indoor market and church of real historical importance.

The origins of St. Mary’s Church began in 1130, but most enhancements occurred around 1340 with a 20-year delay in that building believed caused by an appearance of The Black Death.

Nantwich has great shopping facilities and numerous pedestrian areas. Its smart, well-cared-for appearance is ensured by enforced local ordinances and a caring community. It again proved well worth a visit; I have been there several times before.

Most places visited on this trip were quieter, with few people circulating in the Winter months when children are (often, usually) back in school.  Additionally, the Covid scares and flare-ups keep many indoors, hiding and separate… the Omicron variant ruled during this period. 😉

I prefer Winter travel. Often facilities remain readily available, there are no crowds, less crushes and services are generally provided unhurriedly with more consideration. And pricing is typically far less inflated.

This was all true in both Sweden and the UK.

We next made time for a traditional visit to the historical, Roman, walled City of Chester and followed a familiar format, ditching the SUV outside of town and riding the barely occupied Park-and-Ride shuttle to the town center.

After a little shopping, coffee and walks around the brightly lit Tudor-styled pedestrian areas we hiked down to and along the side of the swollen river outside the city walls to find some local Snugbury’s ice-cream, and then marched back uphill to the City Center.

We again toured the impressive Chester Cathedral, passing through its vaulted body, the protected enclosed corridors surrounding the open interior quadrangle, explored centuries-old side-rooms and the cavernous refectory. Again, there were few late-day visitors but us and those staff employed to show and operate the facilities.

The Cathedral’s construction dates between 1093 and the early 16th Century. Though it still has a large active worshipping community the recent pandemic years and closures have left it with a 500,000 GBP funding shortfall. Cutbacks are inevitable; they were forced to close the famed Falconry housed in their grounds.

As the light began to fail in the city the streets quickly quieted even more, so we shuttled back to our SUV and returned to our lodgings in Northwich for dinner.

During our following travels about the local area, we decided to explore the local Blakemere Village which had always been previously ignored. What a find. A few large Antique shops, extensive Interior Design facility, multiple Cafes, Restaurants, Segway trip provider, Gardening Center, Playgrounds, Falconry and more.

That day we dug out a few select gifts and ornaments from the Antique shops, visited a Café and booked a next-day Custom Show for three at the immaculate and well-stocked Falconry.

The following morning, we arrived early for our Falconry experience. What a show. We each flew a Barn Owl, Harris Hawk, giant Long-Eared Eurasian Owl and Turkey Vulture. Another memorable event.

Not only were we face-to-beak with these magnificent birds perched on our hands we were provided with a great learning experience and wonderful photo ops.

It seems owls hunt by distant sight and sound, operating with no sense of smell. They can hear prey beneath four feet of snow triangulating with their offset ears, but as their sight is motion sensitive, they see little that is up-close.

Turkey Vultures have no head feathers so they can efficiently bury their beaks deep inside carcasses. They are one of the few birds with nostrils; this enables their sense of smell to detect prey a mile away. Their legs too are devoid of feathers for the same reason as their heads and they urinate down them to remove waste that might otherwise attract bacteria.

The huge Eurasian Owl is not native to the UK. It was introduced, but then hunted out. To feed it drops from perches opportunistically onto foxes, small dogs and even sheep. This behavior, together with having feathers highly sought-after for clothing accoutrements will quickly get you hunted to extinction. 😉

The Harris Hawk is well-favored by Falconers as a starter-bird in the UK. Its impressive, large and skillful.

Surprisingly, our instructional and highly experienced Falconer for the day favored flying the Turkey Vulture above all others. And he routinely flies all manner of Hawks, Owls and Eagles; some twenty types of working birds, at least.  It appears the intelligence, grace, versatility, nimbleness and sheer (6’ wingspan) size of this vulture make it the most impressive option for him personally.

What a memorable day out with the photographs and videos remaining to recount the experience.

My wife was scheduled to return earlier to the US than myself. So, we researched and found the most convenient (only a simple Lateral Flow Test is required for US entry) certified rapid Covid testing could be done in Birmingham, on the journey South heading towards Heathrow.

However, before this we discovered that folks where we were headed back home (in the US) had recently contracted Covid, so a delay was in order to let the quarantine period play out.

A few days later we headed down to Birmingham. The COVID testing station was hidden in the back end of a massive yet muddied gravel Parking Lot out to one side of the Airport. Location found; the test was done. By the time we checked-in for an overnight at the local Hilton the negative result had arrived. Mission accomplished.

The stay at the Birmingham Hilton just outside the airport, was a doozy.  😊

Suffice it to say there were very few guests in the Hotel that was finishing a major refurbishment by using the massive pandemic business slow-down as an opportunity. Major decorations had been completed and wholesale electrical rewiring had occurred. It was obvious that no shake-down of the wiring work had occurred and we were guinea pigs.

The stay caused us to reluctantly change rooms. Oddly, were “upgraded” to a room which featured the very same facilities we had originally booked and paid. It just was not worth complaining about this detail as much worse troubles were afoot.

Our stay uncovered non-functional central heating, blown fuses, power overloads, inoperable space heaters, unwired outlets, a shorting outlet, unusable non-standard bed-side sockets, an hours-long major work-noise session and a hazardous, inconvenient extension cord make-shift solution which was belatedly installed for us to operate our own electronic devices. Aaaargh!

The staff were stellar and sympathetic, though they did fail to answer most phone calls from the room for help and guidance. They even ignored their EMERGENCY line when I called to check my suspicions and findings. Ouch. ☹

As an ex-engineer myself I detailed many of the problems to them, most of which they acknowledged with a “We know, “ response. Shades of Fawlty Towers, here.  😉

Later, gazing at the giant space heaters in the Lobby I explained that they had obvious issues with their Electrical Contractor and simply were not ready to be open. They agreed. Sigh. No consolation to myself and their very few guests.

In all honesty, when the hotel’s problems were circumvented and workarounds in-place this all made for a comical and memorable addition to the trip. 😊

That evening we headed out to some old stomping grounds from my youth. Many Top Pubs from back then are still top-ten venues around the Birmingham airport area, even today. Amazing, after all these years. Location is everything.

We dined at the Malt Shovel and were surprised that everyone was unmasked. Great food but typical of modern English Pubs. Over a decade ago successful pubs all switched to really being Restaurants with modernized, more sophisticated (and expensive) menu offerings that offered full bars. Traditional Pubs and Basic Pub Foods (Ploughman’s Lunches, Pasties, Pork Pies, Fish and Chips and little else) are a thing of the distant past.

Following this we ran out to the Cock Inn at Wishaw. The same formula was in place. A large, surprisingly crowded exclusive restaurant midweek, and just we two and another couple in a small, deserted bar, set to the back of the building.

The exteriors of these two Pub buildings were basically unchanged from decades earlier. They still presented their traditional outside Pub-like appearance and color-schemes, whereas the interiors were tarted-up to match modern color, decorative and furnishing expectations.

At the Cock Inn I mentioned to the barmaid I’d last been there some 40 years ago and recalled losing a pair of gloves. I asked if anyone handed them in at the bar?  Lots of laughs, but no luck with the gloves.😉

The next morning, we drove into the Airport where my wife boarded an Express, non-stop bus that took her directly to the required Departure Terminal at Heathrow for her trip back to the States. Very convenient. A smart solution.

As she boarded the Bus, she looked across at ANOTHER Hilton Hotel, inside the airport, and just 100 yards away. “We should have stayed in THAT Hilton. “  Good point. If only we had known. And life moved on.  😊

I returned across the street to the Parking Lot, got into the SUV, paid the 18.00 GBP (~$24.00 USD) for my 25-minute stay and drove the few hours back to Manchester.

Over the following week I enjoyed daily local walks, meetings with friends and made one last major foray up North to visit family in the Lake District. The trip was a quick overnight, leaving early one morning and returning later the next day.

As you approach the Lake District and Cumbria the dry-stone walling starts to appear in the fields. Once off the freeway the faster roads that carry endless Summer Tourists Westerly to the region make travel speedy and efficient in Wintertime.

I was headed to Broughton-In-Furness, to the deep Southwest of the Lake District. The night before I left the Omicron Covid surge was again featured on the News with the announcement that Barrow-In-Furness was currently THE most infected location in the UK. Well, it WAS  8 miles from my destination, so off I went. 😉

The last hour or so of the journey is truly spectacular. Dark green fields abound with dropped Winter foliage enabling huge vistas in every direction. Mountains, rolling hills, fields, wandering flocks of sheep and endless dry-stone walling. Quite a site. A memorable wonderland.

After running the latter miles on fast winding country roads with little clearance to stone walling and sparse but speedy passing traffic, I arrived at my destination. Broughton features perhaps just several dozen picturesque hillside cottages and houses at its heart. It is served in its center by a small grassy village square which is bordered with a store or two, post office and three nearby Pubs.

The afternoon was filled with family catchups and a country walk till the daylight began to fail. In the evening we tried a Pub in the square for dinner and arrived to find we were the only people sporting masks.

It seems the prevailing masking rule was simple across England: Shops and Stores REQUIRE Masks; more Optional gathering locations for people (i.e.  Restaurants, Pubs, Workout Places etc.) DO NOT. That explained why masks were few to none just days earlier at the Malt Shovel and Cock Inn near Birmingham.

The next day I headed back to Manchester for an overnight before packing and heading the following day for my rapid Covid Test certification in Birmingham Airport, then on to Heathrow.

I found my next Hilton Hotel in Terminal 2, buried deep inside Heathrow Airport. My negative Covid test was already in-hand, so I checked in and grabbed a free luggage cart from the airport. With this I unloaded my bags from the SUV and left the cart parked in my room to facilitate my rapid exit and flight check-in the following morning.

The Covid case at home quarantined-out so I flew homeward to the US as scheduled in great style and comfort, on a <20% occupied flight, reaching SFO on-time to be picked-up then driven the 75 miles to my home in Santa Cruz. I arrived back on January 18th. My journey was complete and only seven negative Covid tests employed.

Inevitably, the following days following my return were full of appointments, catch-up action items and maintenance tasks. When all was done and I remained proven Covid-free, I began to write this review.

Now, before I close this tale, I will as usual note the important News and Current Events I witnessed and followed during my travels. And this time these are…

Most notably, the heavy footsteps of impending War being heard around the world. We have three world leaders who are failing with their Policies, Economies and personal Images: Biden in the US, Putin in Russia and Xi in China.

Each needs a distraction. All are perceived poorly in their own lands.

Biden is quite universally viewed as not competent and weak across the World. If you think his US Polling is bad you should tap into international opinion.  He has already warned Americans to quit the Ukraine, sent troops in preparation to Europe, shipped $100’s of Millions in arms to Ukraine and seemingly invited “something of a Russian incursion” across the border.

Ukraine leadership believes Putin’s 100K troops at the border is insufficient for all-out attack and Russia is merely testing for weaknesses, while stirring up US Domestic unrest. We will see.

China will be motivated to take the Russian side in these events, even recently partnering for a joint Soviet/Chinese Moon Base in the next decade. US fumbling and failures are being carefully scrutinized.

China wants direct control of Taiwan. If you think the US has chip shortages (esp. for the Auto industry) now, wait till you see what happens if an invasion occurs.

Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that North Korea and Iran will not be equally opportunistic if the US stumbles.

And the retooling of the US military, its hierarchy and standards, already leaves us with a lowered state of readiness.

Each country mentioned above is currently restrained by peculiar personal considerations and needs. Let us hope these bonds hold fast and individuals are not further motivated or assisted to break loose.

As I wrote some months ago: Everyone is dressing for war and that is an unbelievably bad sign.

So much for World Peace.  :-/

On the Domestic front there remain many issues:

In December, illegal immigration crossings of the Southern US border crossed the 2 million mark. The associated Human Trafficking, Drug Importation, Drug Usage explosion and Crime escalation come together with that statistic.

As for Inflation, it is reportedly just over 6%. And that is using the faked-out “basket of goods” measurement technique copied by Bill Clinton from the UK back on his watch. This current approach makes no account of Gas and Housing costs. A more realistic method (as used in the 80’s) has real annual inflation currently running over 18%. Ouch.

Well, enough of the misery of current News. Let us reflect on the joys of travel and recent experiences. 😊

As always, I urge you to make the most of all opportunities, despite any current norms, restrictions and the general pandemic situation.

Travel is still possible, even if quite simple local excursions. So, follow reasonable Pandemic practices, Vaccinate if you choose and make the most of what is possible. Keep an element of joy in your life.

Lastly, should you have connections with current Cancer sufferers, please look for ways to ease that burden and lighten their load.

Ian R. Mackintosh is the author of Empower Your Inner Manager Twitter@ianrmackintosh.

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