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Escapes: Nature’s magic helped in the worst of times

Snow geese prepare for a landing at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge.
(Julie Graulich)

What’s the big deal about a bunch of birds hanging out in some wetlands?

If you’re asking yourself that question, please raise your finger to your lips, tell yourself to hush and follow us to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

My name is Catharine Hamm, and I’m the travel editor for the Los Angeles Times. Allow me to introduce writer-photographer Julie Graulich, who, with her husband, Kirk, visits the refuge almost weekly. There they find that nature can nurture, help with healing, offer a way forward after a loss.

Until Nov. 7, 2018, the Grauliches lived in Paradise, Calif. After the Camp fire, their home was uninhabitable. They spent five months in a motel and now live in an apartment in Chico.

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The refuge has become their refuge in the face of loss, which didn’t end with the fire. You can read the story behind her story in this week’s End paper, which comes, not surprisingly, at the end of this newsletter.

In between, we talk about the end of SuperShuttle service and what it means for getting to LAX after Dec. 31; offer another animal discovery story, this one from Arizona; reveal a way to travel without any clothes (not naked, of course); and explain what’s and who’s behind the growing discomfort, in some corners (but not L.A.’s), with facial recognition. We also have one last-minute gift suggestion and more tips on enjoying an airport (yes, it’s possible) and how to avoid packing mistakes in winter.

Settle in, grab a blanket and a cuppa and follow us on a journey that’s all about hope and survival.

To life

When your new normal is anything but, where do you go? Julie and Kirk Graulich find solace and a center at these wetlands about 70 miles north of Sacramento. He drives the six-mile auto loop; she rolls down the window in the back and keeps the camera at the ready. Her increasingly practiced eye and lots of patience give you a window into one of life’s more difficult but valuable lessons.

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Animal instincts

When relatives relocate, make sure they go to an interesting place. That was one of the great things about having a daughter in college in Flagstaff, Ariz., Jan Molen writes. On their many visits, they’ve been able to indulge their love of animals at three places along Interstate 40. Read about Keepers of the Wild, Grand Canyon Deer Farm and Bearizona.

In a former life, Ruckus was primarily used for photo opportunities. The Bengal tiger now lives at Keepers of the Wild in Valentine, Arizona.
In a former life, Ruckus was primarily used for photo opportunities. The Bengal tiger now lives at Keepers of the Wild in Valentine, Ariz.
(Lara Kraft)

Don’t bother to pack

Taking your clothes with you on your trip? So 20th century. Join the modern age at W Hotels, which will allow guests to have a “destination-curated wardrobe awaiting right in their room,” W’s Anthony Ingham says of the magic of Closet Concierge and partner Rent the Runway, available for guests at W Hotels in Hollywood; Aspen, Colo.; South Beach, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. Be warned, however, that it’s BYOS (bring your own shoes). Oh, and you have to give the stuff back.

SuperShuttle shutting down

SuperShuttle, citing regulatory and competitive issues, is going out of business after Dec. 31. The company, whose yellow-lettered blue vans made the run to area airports in California and around the world, was born 35 years ago in Los Angeles. Its exit leaves some riders asking, “Now what?” For some, there are no easy answers; our On the Spot column gives you some options, some better than others, especially if you have a lot of luggage. (Best solution, I think, involves cash bribes to family members.)

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Season’s greeting card

If you’re looking for that Hallmark holiday moment (not the one related to the recent controversy), you can do no better than San Juan Capistrano, Lori Basheda writes of her weekend escape — she calls it a “slow-rolling getaway” — to the south Orange County town that’s home to the seventh mission founded in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was approved.

Ryan Hartley, 3, of Mission Viejo, views the Nativity in the Ruins of the Great Stone Church up close during the opening ceremony of the Capistrano Lights, Mission San Juan Capistrano's annual holiday event.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Saving money by going upscale

You’d think the lap of aviation luxury would come at a price. It does if you’re talking your own jet or even flying “empty legs” (space available on private jets), but otherwise, it doesn’t necessarily, Jessica Roy writes of her experience with JSX. Amazingly, the last-minute ticket she and her husband bought for a Thanksgiving trip to the Bay Area cost less than a commercial flight — plus they took their dog for free.

Facing the facts

The use of facial recognition at U.S. airports has raised some questions, at least at Seattle-Tacoma airport, Christopher Reynolds writes. Not so much at LAX. Seattle is taking a conservative approach, wanting to make sure regulatory guidance is in place before saying yes to the technology. Find out about LAX’s stance and what it means for you.

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What we’re reading

When you’re researching Europe, you want an authority, and the person who quickly comes to mind is Rick Steves. Now the man who has led so many Americans all over Europe has a new twist on seeing the Continent: “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces: Art for the Traveler,” by Steves and Gene Openshaw. Besides creating an itinerary, you’ll get a well-written review of the pillars of Western art.

If you’re heading to chillier climes, you’ll want to pack smartly to get the bulkier winter wear in your bag. But there’s danger ahead, Will Robinson. Writing for Smarter Travel, Caroline Morse Teel helps you avoid travel quicksand, explaining why those lovely cotton shirts are exactly wrong for the frozen north, why those mittens may be cute and even cuddly but a pain, and why you’ll hate yourself if you forget your shades.

With your Christmas bucket of fried chicken from KFC, you could get a triple-berry tiramisu cake … if you were in Japan, Makiko Itoh writes in Atlas Obscura. That’s but one of the fancy cakes (and probably not the fanciest) you’ll encounter in the country, which is known for its Christmas confections. Take a look at these pieces of art that look (almost) too beautiful to eat.

Why subscribing to the L.A. Times is the best gift ever

Every day is a journalistic gift. Where else can you read about the incredible Rosa Porto, whose bakery is an L.A. institution? Or find L.A.'s 101 best restaurants? Or the maps that show what a quake like the one that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011 would do to us? It’s an incredible window to our world. Please subscribe as a gift to yourself. Thank you.

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You also can have the world delivered to your world through our abundant newsletters. They’re written just for your interests. Besides this one (and its Vegas-loving cousin), you’ll find dozens that speak just to you. And they’re free. Go to our newsletters center to check them out.

Finally, let us hear from you. You don’t have to wait for a special time of year. Drop us a note at travel@latimes.com and tell us what you like or want more of.

End paper

A jackrabbit stops to take in the setting sun at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge.
(Julie Graulich)

Julie Graulich and I go back to 1997 during our days working at the Salinas Californian newspaper. She worked in administration and was always the voice of reason, ready with a quick smile and a word of encouragement. I worked in the newsroom, and I was always ... insane. Thanks to Facebook, we do keep up with each other, but the more I looked at her posts, the more I couldn’t help but notice her beautiful nature photos. One thing led to another, and an incredible story was born.

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But there’s a postscript, which she has given me permission to share. I’ll let her tell it as she recounted in emails, lightly edited, to me:

“Around the same time that my sister, Diane, told me she had terminal lung cancer, Kirk had spotted a great horned owl sitting in a hollowed-out tree on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was close to the road, but the owl never moved or tried to fly away, which we thought odd.

“The next time we went, we looked for the owl, and there she was in the same spot, but this time we realized she was not alone. That’s why she didn’t leave. She had a little one to protect. The next week there were two owlets, and we were elated.

“We went back weekly over several months and watched her little family grow up. I looked forward to the trip each week. It was the only thing that got me through watching my sister deteriorate.

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“Each week after our trip to the refuge, I would take the laptop over and show Diane the new photos. She was so happy to see the pictures.

“These little guys gave me a few hours each week of joy and awe. They gave Diane something to look forward to, and they gave the two of us something to talk about besides the fact that she was at the end of her life.

“About the time she died, the owls fledged. Just like that they were gone.

“The first few months after Diane’s passing, a single tiny feather would occasionally fall out of the sky in front of me. I’d like to think they were from Diane.”

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A few days before her story published, Julie emailed again. She said she was feeling a little silly about believing the feathers were a sign. They were “most likely a coincidence with no real meaning,” she said in an email to me.

Or maybe not. Just before the story ran, she was having lunch at a restaurant. “I was about halfway through eating my salad,” she said, “when a tiny white feather came from above and behind me and landed on the tip of my fork …

“I sat there for a moment, frozen, looking at the feather. I looked around but the tables around me were empty.

“I told myself it could have come from someone’s down jacket, but I guess it doesn’t matter how it got there. I know it was for me.”

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Wherever you are, travel safely and well, and remember we’ll be here to welcome you home.


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