Sep 22, 2021

Vaccinations, testing needed to inspire confidence in domestic air travel


Idaho has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S.

Soon the U.S. government will hold in-coming foreign air travelers to higher Covid safety standards than people flying to Seattle or New York from Idaho, Wyoming, Georgia and other states where vaccination rates are below 50 percent, no one wears masks and hospitals are filled with unvaccinated Covid patients. 

With more countries requiring vaccination for entry, the U.S. is right to do the same when it opens its borders to air travelers from 33 countries sometime in November. 

Americans traveling from abroad who are not vaccinated also will face tougher rules than vaccinated citizens, including needing to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel and proof of purchasing a viral test to be taken after arrival.

With the U.S. ranking 39th in the world when it comes to the percentage of the population fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times, why wouldn't it makes sense to boost confidence in air travel by assuring passengers that the person in the next seat has been vaccinated, or recently tested negative? Yet the U.S. travel industry continues to lobby against such a rule for domestic flights, while at the same time expressing dismay that Covid fears have put a damper on air travel.

What's behind the opposition to a policy that even White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci says he supports?  

"Such a policy would have an unfair, negative impact on families with young children who are not yet eligible to get the vaccine," the U.S.Travel Association's Tori Emerson Barnes said in prepared comments recently.  Airlines argue it would be time-consuming to enforce.

Both are bogus arguments. Children will soon be eligible for vaccines, and exemptions could be made for those who are not. Vaccine information and/or test results could be entered into an app (Airlines are working on these now), with the information required to be entered before boarding passes are issued.

Surveys how that vaccine requirements enjoy strong support among North American travelers, according to a study by flight analytics company OAG.

The study surveyed 1,811 respondents in the U.S., Canada and Mexico during July and August.The results showed that 68% were interested in or wanted domestic vaccine passports, including 42% who felt strongly that domestic vaccine passports should be required. Seventy percent said vaccine passports should be required for international travel. 

Bottom line: A federal a requirement that passengers show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for domestic air travel is likely coming. Until domestic travel is subject to the same Covid safety rules as international travel, it will be safer to fly to Italy or France than anywhere in the U.S. where the only requirement is that passengers wear masks when not eating or drinking.

Pioneer Square D&E in Seattle

In the meantime, I was happy to be asked for the first time to show my vaccine credentials in a Seattle restaurant, Pioneer Square D&E (Drinks and Eats). More than 150 Seattle restaurants now require vaccination verification or proof of a recent negative test. As of late October, the broader King County will mandate one or the other to eat inside at a restaurant, see a movie or work out in a gym. 

The requirements mirror those set in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Washington’s professional and college teams announced that fans would be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to attend home games.

Meanwhile unvaccinated Covid patients from Idaho are overwhelming Washington hospitals as well as their own at the same time their governor threatens to sue the Biden Administration over the federal employee vaccine mandate. 

Guess who won't be vacationing in a neighboring state anytime soon?

Sep 2, 2021

Can't make it to Europe? Take a fall drive through the Skagit Valley instead


The Breadfarm opens early in Edison

Roadside farm stands brim with blueberries, corn, potatoes and fresh flowers. A sign near a seafood shack selling fresh oysters alerts passersby to "Meadow Larks singing."  

With a little imagination, a harvest time drive in Washington State's Skagit Valley can feel like romp through the French countryside.  

Just 75 miles north of Seattle, it's an area rich in agriculture and wildlife with a long history of family farming. 

An annual spring tulip festival draws thousands, but for those looking for a less crowded Covid-friendly adventure, fall is the time to visit. 

It would take days to explore everything there is to see and do in a valley with more than 90,000 acres of active farmland.  With their restaurants, shops, art galleries and bakeries, destinations communities such as La Conner and Edison are easily worth a morning or afternoon.  

Best advice: Map out a day trip that hits some of the highlights, then make a note on where you'd like to return to explore more in-depth.

Here's a suggested route. Go mid-week, and you'll have the towns and trails to yourself. Weekends tend to be more crowded but also more lively.

 9:30 a.m.

Breakfast from the Breadfarm

Get an early start by heading north from Seattle on Interstate 5, to WA-11 towards Chuckanut Drive, a cliff-hugging mountain bypass ending in Fairhaven near Bellingham. 

Edison Station Coffee

Save that scenic drive for another time, perhaps paired with stops at Bow Hill Blueberries and Samish Bay Cheese.  Instead, head west on Bow Hill Road, stopping first for a latte at Edison Station Coffee, and then at the Breadfarm situated along a tidewater slough in the village of Edison. 

If you happen to be here later in the day or on a weekend, build in time to visit the art galleries, brewery and restaurants along Edison's main street. Otherwise, put together a breakfast picnic from the Breadfarm's menu of rustic French pastries and naturally-leavened breads.

They don't actually grow bread, of course, but local farms supply most of their ingredients including flour, potatoes, eggs and herbs. 

Breadfarm's Renée Bourgault at the take-out window

"The idea was to have a community bakery like the kind you find in Europe," says owner Renée Bourgault  who founded the Breadfarm in 2003 with her husband Scott Mangold.

Pastry bakers start at 5 p.m. Take your chances on the croissants and cinnamon snails not being sold out, or go online before leaving home, and place an order for pick-up when you arrive.  

10:30 a.m.

Padilla Bay Shore Trail

Walk off the calories with a hike along the flat bike and pedestrian Padilla Bay Shore Trail on Padilla Bay, an estuary in Puget Sound at the saltwater edge of the Skagit River delta. 

Pick up a map at the Breazeale Interpretive Center where there are exhibits, an aquarium and a new touch tank filled with purple sea stars. 

Bikers and walkers use the Padilla Bay Shore Trail

Start at either the north end (large parking lot) or the south entrance (less parking) and walk all or part of a  2.25-mile gravel dike trail that wends through the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve where eelgrass meadows provide a habitat for waterfowl and marine birds. Look for peregrine falcons, blue herons, and other types of birds, but beware of duck hunters October-January. 

 According to the Washington Trails Association, the old barn close to the south end is a remnant of one of the so called ‘stump farms’, land purchased cheaply after the area was logged in the early 1900s then converted to farming.

Bring a Washington State Discover Pass if you want to visit nearby Bay View State Park

1 p.m.

Lunch in La Conner

A 15-minute drive south, the waterside community of La Conner draws crowds during the tulip festival and on summer weekends, but when my husband and I visited on a recent Wednesday afternoon, there was hardly anyone else around.

Once the terminus for river steamers bringing timber and lumber down from the upper Skagit, the town has a history of attracting a mix fishermen, farmers and artists. Today's it's mostly artists who sell everything from wood carvings to yard sculptures and one-of-a-kind clothing at the shops along First Street.

La Conner's boardwalk

First-time visitors might get so caught up shopping they might not realize there's an extensive board walk running along the Swinomish Channel behind the storefront entrances. 

Lunch with a view is always tempting (nearly all the restaurants have outdoor tables on the boardwalk), but we were in the mood for something other than seafood, so we veered off the main drag, and came upon Coa, Spanish for the spade used to harvest agave plants in Mexico. No views, but there's an excellent tequila bar, two patio areas and gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian twists on traditional dishes from the owners' hometown of Durango.  

2:30 p.m.

Kukutali Preserve

Take a 20-minute detour away from La Conner across the channel to Fidalgo Island and this unique park co-owned and managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Views from Kiket Island in the Kukutali Preserve

From the small parking area (Discover Pass required) follow a gravel trail as it crosses a sand spit to Kiket Island (inaccessible at high tide, so plan accordingly).

Choose one of three short trails to the west end of the island. At the high point, a meadow overlook provides views of the Deception Pass Bridge that connects Fidalgo and Whidbey islands. 

4 p.m.

Snow Goose Produce 

Ice cream is the draw at Snow Goose Produce, a large country market six miles from La Conner on Fir Island Road. For sale is smoked seafood, fresh produce, artisan cheeses, gourds and colorful African baskets, but most visitors stop for what the Rust family calls  its "Immodest ice cream cones."

Eduardo and Angelica Interiano of Mt.Vernon enjoy Snow Goose cones

Choose from 48 flavors made by either Lopez Island Creamery or Cascade Glacier in Eugene, Oregon. Order a "single dip" the size of a small grapefruit balanced atop a homemade waffle cone, and you won't need dinner on the way home.

The article appeared in The Seattle Times on Sept. 4, 2021

If you go: Tourism and trail information

Tip: Check opening hours before heading out. Some shops, restaurants and museums may be closed on certain weekdays or have reduced hours.  

Aug 23, 2021

United States should follow the lead of foreign governments on Covid travel

Checking a digital health pass in a French cafe

It's time for the U.S. federal government, U.S. airlines and the CDC to get serious about making travel safer for Americans during Covid.

Chances are if you board an international flight from the U.S., the passengers and crew will have been vaccinated and/or have tested negative for Covid no more than 72 hours before. 

That's the rule for U.S. visitors entering most countries. Once you arrive in France, Italy and a growing number of other destinations, you won't be able to enter a cafe, restaurant, local train, museum, hotel or department store without showing proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

As a traveler, chances are that most everyone with whom you'll come in contact, with the exception of those on public transport or gathering outdoors, will have been vaccinated. 

It's time for the U.S. to step up and offer Americans traveling domestically the same assurances. 

Like Canada, which will apply a vaccination requirement to air traffic controllers as well as airline pilots, cabin crew, mechanics, and most commercial passengers traveling by air, rail or ship, the U.S. Department of Transportation has full authority to make similar rules covering U.S. airports and airlines. 

It took a step in the right direction when it recently extended an order for mandatory mask-wearing in all federal government buildings, on public transport and inside airports and on planes.

Here's what needs to happen next:

*The DOT needs to issue an emergency mandate directing airlines to require passengers and crews to either offer proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Those who take precautions and/or children too young to be vaccinated should not be forced to sit for hours unsure about the status of their seat mates or flight attendants. 

U.S. airline executives have argued that additional Covid restrictions for domestic flyers would be bad for business, resulting in fewer people willing to fly, and ultimately putting jobs at risk. This is the argument they used against banning smoking, a move that probably encouraged rather than discouraged more people to fly.

In Canada, Air Canada supports the new mandate, saying it is in line with science-based procedures for safe travel.

"It is a welcome step forward in the evolving measures to protect the health and safety of airline employees, customers and all Canadians," the airline said.

*The DOT needs to apply the same rules to anyone working inside an airport. This includes anyone working for private vendors and TSA officials who come in contact with thousands of travelers daily. There's more chance of catching Covid in a crowded airport than there is on a plane, so we need to minimize that risk as well. 

France's digital health pass

*The federal government should offer an internationally-recognized smart phone app that would allow Americans to download their vaccination and testing information in digital form (ie: The French health pass) that could be used anywhere proof of vaccination is required. 

The International Air Transport Association has urged countries around the world to adopt the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate as the global standard for vaccine certification.

IATA said the EU's digital certificate is particularly effective because it’s available in paper and digital form, with a QR code that can be read in both, and features a gateway for the distribution of encrypted data that can extended to issuers from outside the EU.

More than  60 countries are looking to use the DCC specification for their own certification, in addition to the 27 EU members and states with reciprocal agreements, including Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine. There's no excuse for the U.S. not being on this list?

*The CDC needs to revamp its rating system for which countries pose the most risk to travelers. 

As of this week, the CDC rated 75 countries as Level 4- Very High Risk - with a recommendation that Americans avoid travel to those places.

Under this system, France is in the same risk bucket as French Guiana, Rwanda, Cuba and Myanmar, with no accounting for differences in vaccination rates, health care facilities or Covid precautions. If Texas and Florida were countries, they'd be rated very high-risk, but the CDC offers no advice about traveling to various parts of the U.S. 

* Airlines need to commit to continuing to allow passengers to change or cancel their tickets without penalties so that no one feels compelled to fly sick. 

In the meantime, the same general advice for traveling during Covid still applies while the Delta variant is spreading.

*Don't pay for anything that's non-refundable or can't be cancelled or changed without a penalty. That goes for tours, Airbnbs, hotels, cruises and airline tickets. 

*Stay flexible. Come up with alternatives for getting away if the trip you planned no longer makes sense. I'll likely swap a planned 10 days in Iceland for a few days in San Diego this fall, but I won't make final plans until closer to the date. 

*Don't rely on travel insurance to protect you should you decide not to travel. Canceling for fear of Covid is not covered under traditional comprehensive policies. Expensive cancel for Any Reason policies might cover cancellation, but some plans exclude pandemics and do not provide coverage for related issues. 

Check state requirements on masking

*Choose destinations where the vaccination rate is high and people wear masks indoors. I've wanted to visit Boise, Idaho, for instance, but I'll stay away for now since the statewide vaccination rate is just 50 percent, and the rise in hospitalizations among unvaccinated is so severe, the governor has called in the National Guard to deal with the surge.

Worth checking before you decide to visit anywhere in the U.S. is an AARP list on what various states require.

Aug 16, 2021

Without warning, Covid can scuttle even the best-laid travel plans


Iceland's Blue Lagoon

Most of us have learned we can no longer plan travel too far in advance.

Taking the uncertainty of Covid into account, I broke that rule just a little when I planned a trip from Seattle to Iceland in June for travel later this month.  

Praised for its coronavirus response and high vaccination rates, the tiny island nation recorded few Covid cases. Residents led nearly normal lives while other European cities filled their hospitals.

"The situation here is among the best in the world," Prime Minster Katrin Jakobsdottir said at the end of June when Iceland lifted mask requirements, distancing, limits on gatherings and testing for vaccinated travelers.

Then...literally overnight, things changed.

I woke up two weeks ago to a news report that said Iceland's cases were suddenly skyrocketing. Its hospitals and medical staff were overwhelmed. and even vaccinated travelers would now be required to present a negative test to enter the country.

Epidemiologist Kamilla Jósefsdóttir reported that Iceland’s medical infrastructure was being pushed to its limits. Contact tracing will become impossible if the rate of Delta’s spread continues to grow, she warned. And this would trigger yet another spike in the infection rate.

"I think we're going to have to cancel," I told my husband as I scrolled through the report. 

There was nothing stopping us from going. We're both vaccinated. Lots of Americans are there now. But I write frequently about responsible travel, and going to Iceland no longer felt like the responsible thing to do.

This was confirmed a few days later when the European Union added Iceland to a list of "red" countries to which it "highly discourages" travel. The CDC then added Iceland to a roster of destinations rated Level 4, "very high risk," that it recommends avoiding. 

"Because of the current situation in Iceland, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants," the CDC reported.

 What happened for things to change so suddenly?

The country's health officials linked most of the cases to nightclubs and residents who traveled to London to attend the Euro 2020 soccer match. The actual numbers are relatively small, but the country recorded 421 infections per 100,000 people as of August 12 compared to 1.6 around the time I made our plans in June.

Because so many people in Iceland are vaccinated (71 percent are fully- immunized) vaccinated people are getting the virus, but generally are recovering without serious illness. Some say this makes the country a good case study for how an effective vaccine rollout perhaps doesn’t guarantee herd immunity but prevents hospitalizations and deaths.

Downtown Reykjavik

This may be true, but the U.S. still requires returning travelers to show a negative test taken no more than three days before departure, and I was not about to risk the possibility of one of us having to go into quarantine, let alone adding to the country's already over-stressed health care system. As of August 20, Iceland health officials reported that 15% of patients being monitored by its COVID-19 ward were foreign tourists, with 25-40% of patients in the ICU in this group. 

What this experience showed me is that we still are in a pandemic, and all bets are off when it comes to traveling internationally during Covid, vaccinated or not.

Luckily, everything I had booked was cancelable and refundable, including an Airbnb, two excursions, and my Iceland Air tickets for which we received a credit good for three years.

Looking back on a blog post I wrote last November when vaccines were on the horizon. I made some predictions about how travel would unfold in the coming months.

I predicted my husband and I would continue through early winter with the short getaways we had been taking by car around the Northwest. 

Looking ahead to spring of 2021, I envisioned catching up on out-of-town family visits, then in summer, hosting houseguests who had planned to come to Seattle the year before.

 By this fall, I wrote that "I think it's realistic to think about getting back to international travel, picking destinations according to what makes sense post-COVID, rather than automatically falling back on cancelled plans." 

My predictions for spring and summer turned out to be mostly right. We did family visits to Las Vegas and Cincinnati in May and July, and we have houseguests coming in September and October.

International travel was and still is the wild card.

I'm not about to discard the notion of travel all together, but I see no need to press ahead when things seem uncertain, or necessary restrictions get in the way of connecting with others, using public transport, and in general, traveling, eating and drinking hassle-free.

The Iceland trip was to be a birthday celebration. Instead, we'll go to dinner with friends at a favorite Italian restaurant that reminds me of a sitting in a garden in Tuscany.

 I had hoped to join friends in Paris in mid-October. I haven't totally given up on that yet, but  back-up plans are in the works including a few days in San Diego or San Francisco or both.

 And I think this year, I'll hold off on predictions for 2022.

Aug 5, 2021

Pacific Northwest farms draw visitors with cider-sipping, music and more


The cider pavilion at Finnriver Farm

If you show up at the Chocolate Flower Farm on Washington State's rural Whidbey Island, but don't see anyone around, just ring the cowbell.

"I'm likely working in the commercial kitchen, the greenhouse or the farmhouse basement pouring candles," says a sign posted by owner Marie Lincoln.  "Don't be shy!"

Lincoln's nursery, specializing in dark-colored plants, seeds and chocolate-themed products, is one of a growing number of farms opening their barn doors to visitors searching for Covid-friendly ways to enjoy the outdoors this summer and fall.

U-pick blueberry patches, groomed nature trails and gardens  shaded with umbrellas for sipping cider invite lingering longer than you might just stopping for produce at a roadside stand. 

Think live music, wood-fired pizza and rustic farm stores stocked with artisan products, and in Lincoln's case, seed packets for growing your own chocolate-scented flowers.

Here are three suggestions the next time you are looking for a  day-trip for out-of-town guests, or just a relaxing escape from the city:

Wilderbee Farm

From Seattle, take either the Washington State ferry to Bainbridge Island or the Edmonds ferry to Kingston, cross the Hood Canal Bridge and find Wilderbee Farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Townsend.

U-pick lavender at Wilderbee Farm

Owners Casey and Eric Reeter built Wilderbee as a visitor destination, evident from a nearly full parking lot on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

 "Bring a picnic. Feed the sheep. Pick a bouquet. Sip some mead. Walk our nature trails. Enjoy the day at Wilderbee," is their  invitation to explore what was once a cattle ranch in agriculturally-rich Jefferson County.

U-pick lavender fields surround a farm store stocked with essential oils made from lavender distilled on site along with wooden bird houses and cutting boards crafted by Casey Reeter's 81-year-old father, Larry.

The Reeters took a farming course offered by Washington State University before selling their West Seattle home and founding Wilderbee in 2011. They also raise bees, and tend fields of organically-grown U-pick pumpkins, cut flowers and blue berries.

Baskets reading for U-pick at Wilderbee Farm

"The first thing they told us was to diversify," says Casey Reeter. The couple raise a conservation flock of British Soay CQ sheep whose wool they pluck rather than sheer, and sell to a local fiber artist. In 2019, they opened the Mead Werks meadery.

Spotting a niche among the many distilleries, wineries, cideries and breweries in the area, they and two partners began making small-batch traditional and barrel-aged mead (like white wine, only made with honey instead of grapes) after taking a class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle. 

Mead tasting at Mead Werks on the Wilderbee Farm 

Recently reopened is a cozy tasting room, furnished with comfy sofas and chairs, open for weekend tastings, occasional live music and picnics on the back patio. 

Using blackberry blossom honey from Yakima as a base, they  like inventing new twists on what's considered one of the world's oldest alcoholic beverages. On the horizon: A lavender-infused mead, of course. 

Wilderbee Farm, 233 Cook Ave. Ext CQ Farm open: May-October, Wednesday-Sunday noon-5 p.m. Meadery open: Saturdays, Sundays noon- 5 p.m.

Finnriver Farm & Cidery

Head south from Port Townsend to rural Chimacum, and find the Finnriver Cider Garden, with tables and heaters under a covered pavilion or outside under umbrellas on the grounds of a former 50-acred dairy farm.

What began with the purchase of an organic blueberry farm in 2004 by Keith and Crystie Kisler and partners has evolved into what is now Finnriver Farm & Cidery,  as much a neighborhood hub and meeting place as it is a thriving local business. 

Ciders on tap at Finnriver

Finnriver grows organic produce and grains such as quinoa, wheat and buckwheat, but its main focus is fermenting organic apples grown locally and in other parts of Washington into a line of hard ciders and fruit wines sold in stores and farmers' markets around the Puget Sound area.

On weekends, through Labor Day, Finnriver hosts lead visitors through its 10-acre cider apple orchard, pulling a cart filled with  ciders and fruit wines, for sampling along the way.

“We want to help people make the direct connection between what you drink in the glass and what you see in the ground," says Crystie Kisler. She hopes to begin cider barn tours this fall after discontinuing them during Covid. Meanwhile, other outdoor activities have resumed including live music on weekends.

Local artisans sell their products at Finnriver's farm store

A walk-up cider counter dispenses draft ciders in jelly jars. Visitors can order wood-fired pizzas, vegan ice cream, and call up a QR code to peruse locally-sourced offerings from the Finnriver Kitchen. On the menu is a jackfruit BBQ sandwich, a vegetarian burger made with pecans and a locally-made bratwurst served with spicy kimchi. 

More improvements are coming as Covid concerns and staffing shortages ease. Says Kisler,  "We just added 'emergence' to our list of core values."  

Finnriver Farm & Cidery, 124 Center Rd., Chimacum. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Cider garden open Thursday- Sunday, noon-to 9 p.m. Guided orchard tastings on weekend afternoons.  Bottle shop open for purchases Wednesdays, noon- 6 p.m.

The Chocolate Flower Farm

Board the ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton on Whidbey Island, and drive north towards the waterside town of Langley. Look for the pink umbrella on a roadside farm stand, and you've arrived at Marie Lincoln's Chocolate Flower Farm, a nursery specializing in rare maroon or "chocolate" colored flowers, vegetables and plants, along with Lincoln's homemade raspberry-chocolate jam, fudge and chocolate-scented candles. 

Marie Lincoln on her Chocolate Flower Farm

"It's all about fun and color," she says, walking me through a patch of black watermelons (dark on the outside and red on the inside), mini "chocolate" bell peppers and a chocolate vanilla swirl garden planted with 200 dark Brownie tulips and white daffodils. 

Lincoln combined her love of chocolate with a passion for gardening to come up with the idea to cultivate the unusual plants on a pasture where she once raised Arabian horses.

The farm itself was closed for six years while she focused on a mail-order seed business and ran the Chocolate Flower Farm store in Langley.

When Covid hit, Lincoln closed the store, and reopened the farm along with the nursery and two small shops selling seeds, gardening supplies, chocolates and chocolate-themed products.  

Marie Lincoln makes her own chocolate-scented candles

While most of the plants she raises are chocolate in color only, there are some that smell like the real thing, including a best-selling chocolate Cosmos that produces maroon-colored blooms from June to late frost, and a bright yellow chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata). Seed kits include annuals and perennials to create a do-it-yourself chocolate garden.

Coming in the fall are colorful pumpkins (white, blue, chocolate and pink) and colored glass gem corn for popping. French chickens (Marans) lay dark brown eggs.

Mini-goats on Whidbey Island

Lincoln is excited about future plans for a picnic area, a deli, farm store, camping area and a kids' chocolate garden where her mini-goats can wander.

"Everything we do," she says,  "is aimed at making people smile."

The Chocolate Flower Farm,  5040 Saratoga Rd., Langley, Whidbey Island. Open daily 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Jun 26, 2021

Forget Portlandia: Here's what the 'other' Oregon has to offer


The frontier town of Mitchell is a gateway to the Painted Hills 

For many travelers, interest in exploring parts of Oregon, east of the Cascade mountains, begins and ends in Bend.

A collection of breweries along the Ale Trail beckon bikers, hikers and kayakers drawn to this high desert former lumber town transformed into a hip, outdoor adventure destination. Think vegan restaurants, gluten-free bakeries and Joe Biden bumper stickers.

 Travel 35 miles northeast to Prineville, gateway to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and you're in a slice of the state that looks and feels more like the Old West.  

 Cattle graze on open ranges. Trucks piled with hay bales rumble along the highway, past businesses with names such as "Boots and Blooms" and "Grizzly Mountain Construction."

Red Neck tacos and Hog Wild fries are on the menu at Dillon's Grill,  named for a town leader known for rolling and selling his own cigars.  Across from the Crook County Bank, now a historical museum with an exhibit devoted to hometown tire king Les Schwab, Prineville Men's Wear is the go-to store for boots, hats and Wrangler jeans.

City slicker alert: John Day - a 14,000- acre preserve showcasing 7 million to more than 40 million years of geological history, starting when this arid desert area was semi-tropical  - is a remote destination that takes at least a day's worth of driving to explore. And that's if you start in either Mitchell, a frontier town 40 miles from the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center,  or Prineville, 80 miles away.

My vote goes to overnighting in bigger Prineville, with a morning detour in Mitchell for coffee and croissants.

Ashley Tolton is owner and sole baker at Painted Hills Pastry in Mitchell, Oregon

Watch for the blue flashing lights atop the Painted Hills Pastry sign visible from the Highway 26 turnoff. Owner and baker Ashley Tolton CQ opens at 7 a.m. to sell her french pastries, sandwiches and fruit tarts to tourists passing through.

John Day's three main locations or "units," Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno, each about an hour's drive from the other, preserve the fossilized remains of plants and animals in colorful  rock formations made up of materials from volcanic eruptions.

The Painted Hills

Closest to Mitchell is the Painted Hills unit, known for its layered bands of black, grey and red that change colors with the light and weather.

 You could save time by stopping here first, but photographers recommend waiting until late afternoon for the best pictures. 

With this in mind, my husband and I and saved the Painted Hills until the end of the day on a recent visit, and pressed on from Mitchell another 30 miles to Sheep Rock and the visitor center named for Reverend Thomas Condon, the first chair of the Geology Department at the University of Oregon.

 Photos, murals and fossil displays help explain what otherwise would be left mostly to the imagination for visitors in 2021. 

Sheep Rock

 Sheep Rock, for instance, was named for wild, bighorn sheep that once roamed the area. The National Park Service maintains seven trails here, most not more than a half-mile round-trip. Interpretive signs and fossil replicas lead hikers along the 1.3-mile Island in Time trail, a gravel path ascending though blue-green bluffs colored by reworked layers of ash turned to stone. 

The northernmost destination is the Clarno unit, 77 miles from Sheep Rock and 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon. Not everyone makes it this far along remote, two-lane roads, but for those who do, the rewards are nearly empty trails below towering Palisades, the remains of volcanic lahars, or mud and ash flows.

Trails in the Clarno Unit

 Fossil-hunters may be able to spot leaf imprints within boulders that have fallen from the cliffs. The half-mile Geologic Time trail creates a 40 million-year timeline, with each foot representing 37,000 years of changes.

Exhibits in the visitor center show how seasonal flooding washed away dead animals fossilized in the Hancock Mammal Quarry including small three-toed horses; large rhino-like animals and bear-like creatures similar to modern pigs.

 The hour and a half drive back to Mitchell leaves time for an early dinner before sunset on the patio at the Tiger Town Brewing Co. and a peak inside the historic Oregon Hotel, local lodging for those who may want to overnight closer to the park for a second day of exploration. 

The Painted Cove Trail

 The hours before sunset bring the most visitors to the Painted Hills.

  Five short trails lead to different vistas. Skipping the most aggressive, the 1.6-mile uphill Carroll Rim trail, the others can be walked fairly quickly, each yielding views of differing color palates as sunset approaches and the light shifts. 

Our favorite was the quarter-mile Painted Cove Trail, with a level boardwalk, protecting sensitive soils, snaking through hills of yellow and crimson rock. 

ADA-accessible and pet-friendly, this is a trail suited for everyone, although, as it was almost everywhere we went, there were few others around.

If you go

Park information: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is part of the national park system. Entrance is free.  

 Start your visit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock unit, 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, Or.  Exhibits include displays of more than 500 fossil specimens. Scientifically accurate murals depict the environments in which plants and animals lived. Check on opening hours before visiting.

What to bring: The drive between units is long, and services are limited. Bring a picnic lunch, water, hat, sun screen and a full tank of gas.

Lodging:  There is no camping or overnight lodging within the park. Closest to Sheep Rock is the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell.

For lodging options in surrounding counties, see For nearby campgrounds, see

We booked an Airbnb  in Prineville with private entrance and a kitchen for $128 per night.

May 10, 2021

The only constant is change when it comes to travel in the post-Covid era

Fast-pass pilot program in Seattle

When and if you decide to fly soon, a grab bag of changes awaits at airports, on airline booking sites, at rental car agencies and at international borders.

Here's a few to note, with more to come in the next few months.

Vaccine verification

No U.S. airline is requiring that passengers provide proof of vaccination, but some foreign airlines are, and many countries are or are expected to allow vaccinated visitors to enter without showing a negative Covid-19 test or requiring a quarantine (Iceland and Greece are two so far).

The U.S. has not come up with a digital system for entering and verifying Americans' vaccination records, leaving travelers to figure out how to safely carry and preserve their paper cards, or come up with a digital solution on their own

For residents of Washington State, and many others, one way is to electronically access your records on file with the Washington State Department of Health. Doctors and clinics are required to provide immunizations to the state, mainly so parents can prove to schools that their children have the necessary shots.

I registered on the state's mobile site, MyIrMobile, and requested that my Covid immunizations be added. Once registered, you can access your information anytime from your device.

The other way is by electronically accessing records on file with your health care provider, in my case, Kaiser Permanente. My information was easily verifiable by opening Kaiser's app, signing in, and clicking on "immunizations." 

PreCheck for those who don't have PreCheck

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (now called SEA Airport) is one of the first in the U.S. to investigate a virtual queuing system as a solution for crowded general screening lines. 

SEA Spot Saver is a free, reservation-based system for those who are not signed up for TSA's PreCheck expedited screening program, and instead must use the slower general screening security checkpoints. The pilot program will test if SEA Spot Saver reduces wait times and crowding.

The pilot will run through August at Checkpoints 2 and 5 from 4 a.m. to noon to reduce congestion during the peak morning travel period. To use the system, passengers on either Alaska Airlines or Delta sign-up up a day in advance of travel for expedited screening without an extra cost, membership, or account. 

Changing/cancelling reservations

Some airlines have begun to pull back on their Covid policies of allowing changes or cancellations without a fee (Customers receive an e-credit for cancellations and pay whatever the fare difference is for the changes).

Delta so far still allows free changes and cancellations, and surprise, if the fare drops between the time you booked and make a change, it gives you a credit for the difference.

This happened to me when I thought to recheck the price on a flight I purchased for travel in November. The fare had dropped $75. I was about to cancel and rebook at the new, lower fare, when I saw a more convenient return flight. The fare difference for the better flight was $22 in my favor which Delta credited to my account.

Delta also added an accelerator to the way it calculates mileage and spending requirements to maintain elite status. This makes it easer for those of us who will fly this year, just not as much as usual, to retain elite status.

When it comes to accommodations and tours, if your provider does not have a generous cancellation policy, look elsewhere. Travel is still too uncertain to lock in non-refundable or even partially-refundable reservations.

In researching a possible trip to Iceland in August, I've found that nearly every tour company offers total refunds for trips cancelled 24 hours in advance. The Airbnb I booked in Reykjavik is cancellable with a full refund, including the Airbnb fee, up to a week in advance. This has been the case with most Airbnbs I've booked recently in the U.S as well, with many offering full refunds for cancellations within a day or two of arrival.

Testing requirements

Expect these to change as more countries sort out their policies for vaccinated visitors. Iceland, for instance, still requires a rapid test on arrival, but will revaluate that rule June 1. 

Be aware of Hawaii's changing Covid rules

The island of Maui in Hawaii waives a test on arrival for vaccinated tourists, but like all the islands, requires proof of a negative test taken 72 hours before departure from the mainland, even for vaccinated travelers. 

As of this week, vaccinated inter-island travelers can upload an image of their vaccination card to Hawaii's Safe Travels portal and avoid additional testing. The state and the individual islands change their requirements frequently, so double-check on current rules close to the time you leave. 

Keep in mind, the U.S has not yet changed its requirement that anyone, including American citizens, entering the country, present proof of a negative Covid test taken no more than three days before departure. Recently approved were self-administered tests performed through an approved telehealth company. 

Rental cars

Cars are in short supply for various reasons, and rates for summer travel are outrageous. There are ways to whittle down the price below what you'll get by plugging in dates for airport pick-up and drop-off. Consider renting off-airport even if you have to take a taxi or Uber to reach the site. 

Costco and Expedia are two places to comparison shop. If you are willing to drive a pick-up truck (I'm not), you'll likely find a better deal than you will on in-demand economy cars. And don't forget the Airbnb-style sites where individuals rent their personal cars. Try Turo and Get Around, with descriptions of the cars, and reviews by past users. I didn't see any bargains when I checked, but if you've dreamed of getting behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Tesla, this might be your chance.