Category Archives: Grandchildren

Watering Gardens of Worry in Fall Heat Wave


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Browning ferns in odd late September heat. The calendar says fall, but the weather says heatwave.

A former professor of mine posted an interesting video on Facebook recenlty, a Vox commentary on how news media use a war analogy to cover natural disasters, especially hurricanes.

One point of the commentary is that positioning Mother Nature as the enemy in a heroic survival struggle absolves humans from a more difficult conversation. Such as, who put all those expensive developments on barrier islands? If a dam fails and 70,000 people have to flee—what does it say about that dam idea? And isn’t climate change influenced humans and a real thing?

Mother Nature isn’t our enemy. Earth does not have to mean, but be. It’s up to us to understand and do what life has always done: Adjust.

I am not trying to belittle or trivialize the struggles or tragedy humans face. We’re all in this together. I and my wife are conversing about which aid agency we will donate to, and I’m worried about in-laws in Florida and an in-laws family in Puerto Rico.

Instead, what I’m thinking about is how tragedies tug at our hearts in the short run, but sometimes we increase risk in the long run. We should be careful about earthquake resistant construction, about leaving flood plains open for water, about farming practices in Iowa that will absorb more water and leave less runoff.

Sadly, that does not seem the mood of the times. We fuss about how we react and think less about how we act.

This morning was a weekly ritual, these days. I unwound my garden hose and sprayed on the backyard gardens, trying to save what can be saved in this odd, hot, dry fall.

Ferns are browning—not a serious problem, honestly, because I know from experience most ferns just let their tops die in a drought and emerge again when the wet returns. But young bushes, trees and perennial flowers planted this year are at risk. Given heat in the 90s, I should be watering maybe every other day, but I only have time for once a week due to the crush of school work.

So, I do what I can and do what we always do—hope for the best. And hope I’m not wasting too much precious water. We’ll see what comes back next year. If a few flowers expire in my gardens, I’m aware that’s a pretty minor issue compared to flooded homes or lost lives.

Still, I’m trying to adjust to Mother Nature in the short and, I hope, longer term. My heart was a bit heavy as I sprayed my garden, despite the assistance of two young grandchildren who helped lighten my mood a bit.

I was wondering about what it would be like to be in oppressive heat on a tropical American island with no power and no way to contact relatives to let them know you’re OK. Puerto Rico, Texas, Mexico—I hope we do what we can to help you. Thoughts and prayers are just the start; treasure and action must follow.

And I hope we learn.

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Friday Floral Feature: The Week the Tick Magnet Appeared


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An awesome opossum visits the yard.

Not the chick magnet—the tick magnet. I was eating a late breakfast in the sunroom that overlooked our back yard, when I noted a freaky, scary looking creature casually ambling across the yard.

Behold the opossum. North America’s only marsupial, and about as ugly a critter as you would ever hope to see.

I went and got my 4-year-old granddaughter, who was staying with us for the day, and we watched the possum. It noticed the attention and darted off. Although they look fierce, most sources say the nocturnal opossum is generally shy and tries to avoid people. This one was certainly true to form.

And of all the native mammals to spot in my yard, honestly the freaky looking possum probably is about the least problematic. Squirrels dig up blubs and sometimes even bite holes in your eaves to set up house in your attic. Woodchucks chew woody plants. And rabbits—don’t get me started. As I’ve written on this blog before, if God were a gardener in the Midwest and Eden was in Iowa rather than Iraq, it wouldn’t be the serpent who messed up paradise. To an Iowa gardener, our native snakes are benign, helpful presences. No—in the Iowa Eden, the Devil is personified by that destructive critter second only to Bambi in its capacity to wreck havoc in the garden—the bunny.

That rascally rabbit.

Anyway, so what we saw was a possum. And, if it were a rabbit, I would immediately go outside and sprinkle around that kind of animal repellent that seems more like a prayer ritual than anything that has an actual impact on the universe, but we do what we can. For a possum? Meh.

It’s a tick magnet. Possums don’t pose any threat to plants, but are insect eaters, and, according to Iowa lore, their favorite snack is the tick. So you’re welcome to hang around my yard as much as you want Mr. (or Ms.) Possum. Ticks carry disease, and Possums eat ticks. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Anyway, in other garden news this week: Snow! Not winter snow, summer snow. Early each summer, the cottonwood trees release their seeds, and we have the faux snowfall that heralds warmer weather. Tuffs of fluff are in the air.

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Cottonwood seeds on front porch rocking chair.

Also, most peonies are still in the bud stage, but a clump in front picked this week to bloom. I know some gardeners don’t like peonies because they are associated with ants, but ants are everywhere and I don’t quite get that attitude. I don’t do anything to prevent ants on my peonies—they in fact are eating nectar the plant is producing with the intention of attracting ants, so I let nature be. The theory on the Iowa Extension site I consulted is that ants helps prevent pests. They are not required for peonies to bloom, but helpfully remove the waxy nectar film, and thus promote blooming—mostly, they are a neutral presence the plant may have evolved to attract just because other bugs don’t appreciate crowds of ants.

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And Irises are in bloom. Both Peonies and Irises appeared around town a couple of weeks ago, but my gardens are in a strange time zone where everything seems to bloom a little later. That’s OK with me, as long as the plants boom!

I’ve also been impressed with the bloom time of a Clematis in front that produces giant blue flowers. They flowers are in no hurry to fade, and there are many more buds. The Clematis season should go on for a while, since some plants in back are just starting to bud.

Anyway, it’s another rainy day today. I hope you enjoy some of the flower images from sunnier days this week.

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The First “Real” Spring Weekend


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When he was a feature writer for the Des Moines Register, Ken Fuson did a front-page “brite,” or happy feature story, about the first warm weekend day in Iowa in March (“What A Day!”). It was one long, joyous sentence.

I won’t try to mimic Fuson’s style—but this was such a day today. Granted, there has been nice weather in 2017 already—sunny, unseasonably warm weekends early in March. And it’s April now, so maybe nice weather is not such a jolt to the system.

But it still topped 70 degrees today. The sun was shining down, and it felt like the first true foreshadowing of the Midwest late spring yet to come. We’ve even had warmer days before, but the flowers and green and spring are just far enough along the road today towards true spring. In our minds, we could imagine June, the month of the year when Iowa can be the most pleasant spot on the planet (as long as it’s not rainy and flooding). Today, we could picture June.

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Grandson removes shoes late in morning. It had been cool, was was starting to hint at warm.

The day began windy and cloudy, a bit on the cool side. I spent the morning at a soccer pitch in Monticello, Iowa, watching a kindergarten-age grandson studiously ignore the rather random soccer game that languidly swirled around him without disturbing his great concentration on whatever it was he was so deeply focused on.

Well, the athletic gene runs shallow in the Sheller clan.

After that, there was a playground at the fairgrounds (where the soccer fields in Monticello are). The sun peeked at us now and then, there were a few random bug sightings, but we kept our sweatshirts (if not our shoes) on.

Then came lunch. Then, the afternoon. The afternoon! After our midday pizza feast, many of us started to warm up in the backyard of my daughter’s home. Coats were forgotten, ladybugs were everywhere, and my sweatshirt was draped over the cross bars of the swing set as I fulfilled a grandfather’s burden for a shifting cast of grandchildren (I pushed).

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Tired and exhausted by running, tossing and swinging in the increasingly warm, sunny, pleasant day, we headed back to Cedar Rapids. After a rest (the grandkids watched “Zootopia,” of which I saw only the snippet of opening credits and final 5 minutes—I suspect there was mid-movie snoring in the family room), I went upstairs. My 15-month-old grandson was up from a brief nap, so we donned shoes and headed in back for a flower photo safari. Within 5 minutes, several other grandkids joined us, so I did a fair amount of ball tossing and swing pushing between photographing flowers.

The cool morning had turned to a genuinely warm afternoon, milky sun beating down, buzzing bugs flying about—it had the smell and feel of the next coming season. The trees are still shaking off their winter slumber, but at the ground level, the annual hoedown of life is already do-si-doing.

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Early peony bud.

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First tulip.

I shot lots of images of crocus, early tulips, daffodils and other spring flowers. Bluebells, AWOL until now, have suddenly popped up. They are not super early spring flowers and are not blooming, but suddenly, like little garden salads, clumps of bluebell leaves have poked up all around the shady gardens.

Then, late in the afternoon, the dam burst. The bicycle would not be denied. I had taken my main commuting bike that I call “Clarence” and assembled the bus Friday by putting on the toddler seat and attaching a Tag-A-Long. I met the kids at a park Friday and took two home with the bike. The oldest grandchild had been lobbying for a bike ride all day today, and it was time.

The original plan was for her to ride her bike and for two other grandchildren to ride Clarence with me, but for some reason plans morphed. Recognizing we would climb some hills, the oldest granddaughter shrewdly shifted plans to the Tag-A-Long.

What followed was a series of bike rides of 2-3 miles each with a shifting cast of grandchildren. On ride number two, with the oldest grandchild, we paused to inspect a garter snake basking on the trail. Many birds, puppies, cats, birds and the one snake were all inspected or commented on during the rides.

Tomorrow, I plan to put in some grass seed and trim a few trees, as well as spending hours grading. I supposed I could have graded today, but the sun was calling, there were many, many grandchildren to play with (we had seven with us for most of the day) and it was THAT Saturday, the First Summer-Like Saturday, a day to drink nature in with no thought of tomorrow and no regrets.

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I Was Asked For A Ho Ho


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Santa, students and Mrs. Claus at MMU.

It was Christmas Eve, in the morning, and I was at the gym. A janitor who chats with me now and then came up and said, “can you say ho, ho, ho?”

Well, I have, now and then. I was a mall Santa when I was in graduate school, and had minor Santa gigs this Christmas season at Mount Mercy University.

I hope your Christmas was fine. Mine was good. I’m still munching on the plethora of chocolates available due to that day (who knew the birth of a poor Palestinian refugee 20 centuries ago would be so good for candy sales?). I got and gave several nice gifts—my wife decided it was the year of the gnome for me, and I am quite fond of both the gnome coffee mug she found, and the figurine of a T Rex devouring gnomes that will no doubt grace either my office or my gardens.

For her, I mostly gave gifts related to a new three-season room we added to the house—pictures to hang there, a clock and a radio. We’ve got to have some NPR and KMRY in that room.

Christmas Day itself was a bit odd due to weather—we don’t often have thunderstorms on Christmas Day. Note to our new president: The Chinese did not invent global warming. Trust me on that, please.

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Granddaughter in Christmas cat mask.

Anyway, besides the odd rainstorm, it was a great day. There were enough grandchildren running around to cause a constant Christmas cacophony, which is the way it should be. We got to Skype with the daughter and grandchildren in England, and my wife chatted with our California son. Turkey was cooked and eaten, a bottle of wine opened and consumed.

It was, in short, a fine holiday. I hope yours was filled with fun and family, if you celebrate Christmas, and if you don’t, I hope you have some fun family day around this time anyway. To celebrate the season, here are a few more Christmas lights I made pictures of.

I’ve always liked Christmas, although I’m happy to report I’m slowly growing out of the habit of waking at 5 a.m. on that day. This year, I slept in. Until about 6:30.

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Santa filter glasses turn Christmas lights into these images.

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Update on Project Milkweed


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Common milkweed seeds, gathered from a ditch in Ames Iowa next to the apartment building where my son lives there. I separated these out Friday and also planted them.

I haven’t coordinated a planting effort on the Mount Mercy campus, so I’m not sure there will be many milkweed planted there this year—although I do have an envelope of seeds saved, and may inquire about at least planting those in a few established garden spots.

The final three workdays of this week were fall break at Mount Mercy, and they flew by. On Friday, we invited four grandchildren over for a sleepover party—they spent all day Friday with us and will go home midday Saturday.

I want to describe part of our Friday—but first, a minor word of caution. This post will end with some fall photos, and my cohort in crime for the garden milkweed planting did point out an arachnid, which I did photograph. So the very end of the post is not spider safe. If you are averse to spiders, go ahead and read the post, just don’t scroll to the end of the photos.

Our busy grandchildren day included trip to Half-Price Books followed by Thomas Park, lunch at McDonald’s and them home to pack up bicycles, which we took down to Cedar Lake for a ride (it was warming by then, I’m happy to say). After that, some of the grandkids walked up to HyVee Drugstore with grandma to get bread sticks to go with pasta for supper, while I stayed home with the others.

Amelia, a 5-year-old granddaughter, wanted to help me plant after she saw me separating out milkweed seeds from the bag Audrey and I had collected near our son’s apartment in Ames, Iowa.

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Amelia, ready to plant seeds.

I had two sets of milkweed to plant—an envelope with a generous supply of seeds (I kept a second one for possible MMU use) and a bowl of all the white fluff and leftover pods, which also had many seeds left in it.

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“Extra” seeds and pods. I did not try to be very efficient gathering seeds–I knew I was going to scatter all the rest behind my fence anyway, in the hope that Mother Nature’s way of planting milkweed will yield some results.

First stop was the woods behind our fence, where I scattered the “extra” seeds and pods, mostly at the edge of the tree line, hoping that sunny spot will promote milkweed growth.

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Seeds in the air, edge of the woods behind my house.

After that, Amelia brought the seed envelop down to me so we could plant in the gardens. But when I opened the envelope, only about 1/3 of the seeds where there.

Amelia looked a little sad. “Some of them blew out,” she said. I interpreted that to mean she spilled some, because the seeds in the envelope didn’t have their white silky wind catchers attached, and it wasn’t especially windy.

No matter—1/3 of the seeds was still quite a few, and in the back of my mind was the thought that I did not have to save my second envelope. So, we planted—basically we used a trowel to scape soil in several small areas, scattered some seeds there, and then covered them with a very thin layer.

Milkweed seeds don’t go deep into the soil, and are best planted in fall. The seeds want to overwinter before germinating, or so I’ve read on the internet. Honestly, I’m not the person to consult on this—although I’ve tried for several years to get milkweed going, I don’t have much success.

Anyway, after we got done I didn’t bother to get the second envelope right away. Instead, Amelia and her brother and I simply enjoyed the later afternoon in the backyard, playing various games. When it was starting to cool and I thought it was going to be time to go in soon, I have them the usual 5-minute warning.

Amelia went off by herself and sat on some stone steps that lead from the upper to lower yard. “Grandpa,” she called. “Come here!”

I ambled over, and asked what she wanted. “This is where the seeds spilled,” she said. I moved some leaves on the steps—and sure enough, hundreds of milkweed seeds were just laying on the steps.

So I swept them into my hand and we did planting, round two. And I didn’t feel the need anymore to break into my second envelop. Maybe a small-scale planting at MMU can still happen this fall.

To finish the story, here are some random fall photos taken while Amelia and I were planting, with the caveat that this is where the spider sensitive need to leave this web page:

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Fall mum in bloom in garden (and Amelia and I planted some milkweed next to it).

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Vine creeping over fence is turning colors (above). Oaks (below) starting to look like fall (maples and tulip tree don’t have the memo yet, crab apples are taking on fall hues).

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“There is a big spider,” Amelia said. I looked, and sure enough, right on the gate handle, this big spider was sitting. The board it is on is the one I just slid to lock the gate. I was a bit startled at first–but it’s kind of a pretty looking hunter. And I always figure spiders outdoors are good news–anything that eats mosquitoes and flies is welcome in my gardens!

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A Father’s Day Plant and Creature Feature


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“Butterfly Weed.” A nicer name for milkweed.

Warning spiderphobes—arachnids are included in this post.

My Father’s Day was pretty satisfying—many grandchildren were present, a bar bike adventure happened, and there was cake, too.

In fact, Father’s Day was almost a season. On Saturday, my wife and I did round two of a garage cleanup, and as we were getting ready to take a van load to the local dump, we also grabbed extraneous items form under our deck.

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That is a spider.

Which is where the first creature appears. Inside a flower pot there resided a huge spider. The wife quickly bestowed that pot upon me. I carefully released Shelob back into the wild—whatever she had eaten to reach that monster size, we figured we’re better off if she continued to eat.

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I hope this is not an ash borer. Dead insect found in my van during cleanup. Eat, Shelob, eat!

After that dump run, I went on a short bike ride around Cedar Lake with a grandson. Midway through the second of our two loops around the lake, we paused to watch an eagle soaring above the lake. The eagle swept down to the lake’s surface, although we didn’t see it make a successful fish grab.

Still, it was cool to see. It was way more pleasant than a giant spider.

Saturday afternoon, we stopped at a flower shop that was advertising milkweed, and got four plants. I attempted to plan four native milkweed plants this spring, but so far two have died.

Although these don’t looks like those plants, I’m hoping the nursery-purchased plants can host Monarchs, and, since their roots are intact, I hope they survive being planted.

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Eagle over Cedar Lake on Saturday.

Anyway, Sunday, Father’s Day, was a grand day. It was a day that began with blueberry pancakes, and included a very nice afternoon lupper (lunch and supper) of homemade sub sandwiches, my wife’s excellent potato salad and melon.

Later, we went with two of our daughters on an early evening stroll. After we go back, I was using dehumidifier water to promote milkweed growth, when an owl, pursued by smaller birds, landed first in an ash tree in my yard and then moved across the street.

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Here’s looking at you, owl.

So the weekend ended with a cool bird, one to two. I heard from all my kids today, too, and that was nice.

As I said, although sadly I lost my own father a few years ago, Father’s Day for me was very satisfying.

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On the Bucket List: Return to London


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On walkway across the Thames, looking back towards St. Paul’s.

I’m sure it’s not a shock that there was too much to see and do in London that it would not fit in a one-day visit.

Last week, my wife and I were hosted in London by our daughter and son-in-law. We took a train from Norwich Saturday morning, visited two museums that day, walked about central London Sunday morning, and returned by rail to Norwich Sunday afternoon.

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Sunshine Sunday morning.

Along the way, we had a very nice Easter dinner in a local restaurant. It was a very pleasurable visit, and I thought about all kinds of things I would like to do now in London that 24 hours would not accommodate:

•    Visit the British Museum. I was in the same town as the Rosetta Stone, but didn’t stop by to say hi.
•    Ride the Eye. Easter weekend was a busy time at any tourist attraction in London anyway, so not standing in long lines for a giant Ferris Wheel was, all things considered, a good move. But it would be nice to spend a few days in London and maybe ride that thing on a random Tuesday or Wednesday morning when the crowds and lines are merely large and not hugemongus. This particular ambition, by the way, may come as a surprise to my kin and friends because I have a well-deserved reputation of being terrified of heights in general and Ferris Wheels in particular. But just as I can fly to London despite the clear irrational nature of the activity (you want me to strap myself into a pressurized metal tube that flies 10 miles high and trust it will both ascend and descend safely?), so I think I could screw my courage to the sticking point and ride in the London Eye, stealing brief glances at the city in between shutting my eyes or staring fixedly at my feet.
•    Do art. I would have to research which museums to stop by, but I generally love art museums, and didn’t stop in any during my brief, first visit to London.

Not that London is paradise. There is a thing called “weather” and it doesn’t play to the city’s strengths. There is a saying in Iowa that if you don’t like the weather just wait 10 minutes—in our volatile climate, the same week or day can feature warm sun, cool rain and snow, as this week testifies.

London, based on my small sample, is more so. We were blessed with sunshine Sunday for our stroll along the Thames, but we were also cursed with sudden, nasty cold rains that had us scurrying for shelter in doorways or under bridges. We saw sun, wind, rain, hail, and, briefly, snow—all in the course of one three-hour stroll.

At least we had some sun.

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Granddaughter peeks out at cold, heavy rain. We are sheltering in a church doorway.

Also, London is also not the cleanest of cities. It’s not drab and black and smoggy as it used to be, by accounts I’ve read, and I’m grateful for that, but the Brits could learn to use the waste bin a bit more efficiently. Then again, to be honest, I’m not sure London is as dirty or dirtier than any large American city, where there are plenty of litterbugs, too. Maybe Norwich, a much smaller place, spoiled me a bit.

London is also full of Londoners. You have to get used to being in a crowd most of the time, which an Iowan isn’t. I didn’t’ find that to be a nasty or unpleasant experience, just a bit of a new sensation.

Of course, we were visiting the Natural History Museum and the Science Museums on Easter weekend, as was, apparently, most of the inhabitants of the small island nation were London is located. So crowds were partly an artifact of where we were when we were there—and on many parts of our walk—the journey back from the Easter restaurant, for instance—we had the narrow, inadequate sidewalks of the old imperial capital mostly to ourselves.

London! Dinner at the Chop House, dinosaur bones and old planes, fantastic architecture and a pleasant tidal estuary to stroll along and over—you are, all in all, a wonderful city. It didn’t hurt that I was surrounded by family during the visit either—it’s always nice to be in a strange place with familiar people who know their way around, and I am grateful to Matt and Amanda (and Lizzie and Juliet and Audrey) for sharing the experience with me.

I will treasure many memories. I was very enchanted by the underground and the rail system in Britain—it’s a country that makes traveling without a car an easy thing, something that the U.S. should look into sometime. The museums that we did visit were fascinating, especially the Natural History Museum where we got to say hello to Charles Darwin who was taxidermied and placed in a hallway there (not really, it’s just a statue, but this is April 1).

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Charles Darwin, stuffed, mounted and placed on stairs landing.

At one tube station, there were lifts to take you to the street. While Amanda and Matt and family wisely rode those lifts, my wife and I walked up the stairs.

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Looking back at many, many stairs I have just ascended. Way down there is a tube station. Way, way down there.

The sign warned us that the number of stairs was the equivalent of a 15-story building. I don’t know about that—maybe British stories, which, like everything else in Britain besides museums are smaller than their American equivalent—but it was a hike. Better to look back on than forward to, I’ll give it that. We made it, and frankly we enjoyed the long hikes—and were very impressed at how well our young grandchildren did doing much of their London adventure on foot.

London! I hope to see you again.

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