Now is best time to play outside

A study by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute revealed that 36 percent of U.S. workers didn't plan to use all the paid vacation days their employers paid them to take last year.

On this, the first week back from a two-week vacation, I can't for the life of me ever imagine joining that subset of employees.

I find full use of vacation benefits vital to my mental and physical health. And I learned a long time ago that the newspaper will continue to publish every day in my absence, or in the absence of any other member of the newsroom, for that matter.

I always try to carve out two weeks of uninterrupted vacation in the late summer season. The weather usually is top-notch, a great time to catch up on outdoor home-improvement projects, work in the garden, golf or take a trip with family or friends.

This year, I did all four.

This year's vacation highlight was my first-ever visit to New Mexico. Granted, it was an abbreviated stay of just four days in the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area, but it was enough time to:

Give my golf game a thorough test at Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club in the heart of the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque. Paa-Ko means "root of the cottonwood tree" in the language of the ancient Pueblo people.

The rock outcroppings, dense stands of juniper and pinon pines, arroyos and prickly high-desert vegetation gobbled up all errant shots.

The golf course is near the ruins of an Anasazi pueblo that was occupied intermittently between the 14th and 17th centuries. Visible directly west of the 6,500-foot-high golf course were the Cibola National Forest and the Sandia Peak Ski Area.

Stand on a plateau looking down on a habitat-restoration project in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River north of Albuquerque. In this case, they were replanting native cottonwood trees on the banks of a river where the seasonal, muddy trickle didn't do justice to its name or wintertime potential.

Spot my first roadrunner, which up until then had been not much more to me than a character in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Before I saw it scooting along the high-desert floor on feet and legs strong enough to travel 17 miles per hour, I heard its dove-like coos.

Well-adapted to the arid landscape, the state bird of New Mexico is quick enough to catch and eat rattlesnakes and snatch hummingbirds and dragonflies out of the air.

Visit the old town sections of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, where I dined on Southwest cuisine, including blue corn tortilla tacos stuffed with chicken. I learned pretty quick what the waitresses meant when they asked, "Red or green?" They were asking which chili sauce to serve with the meal.

Marvel at the sunrises and sunsets in a sky best described by author Willa Cather in "Death Comes For the Archbishop," a classic novel about missionary life in New Mexico in the mid-1800s. She wrote:

"The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath is was monotonous and still ... Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky."

Cather's words rang particularly true my first night in New Mexico, when the sky was alive with a thunderstorm that lit up the sky for hours with jagged bolts of lightning, and ensuing mornings watching the sun climb above the Sandia Mountains.

Back home, the remaining days of vacation were consumed by trivial, yet necessary, chores around Horsefeathers Farm, such as painting weatherbeaten facia boards, cleaning gutters in preparation for the fall rains - they'll start about Oct. 15 - spreading compost and working in the garden.

Make that playing in the garden. I love this time of year, when the dahlias are in full bloom and the Bodacious corn is ripe enough to pick, although mine ripened three or four weeks after Ray Parker's infamous East Olympia corn crop hit the road stands.

The tomatoes, cucumbers and basil make up the night's dinner salad, although the tomato crop is a little late and sparse this year because of the cooler-than-normal summer. On the bright side, this year's summer weather allowed the second planting of cilantro and mixed greens to ripen without bolting.

The apples and Asian pears are coming on like gangbusters, just as the marionberries and blueberries fade away and the clusters of purple and green grapes take on color and sugar in the overweighted, sagging arbor.

Only a week back from vacation and it feels like I never left the office. I guess it's time to start planning my next break from work.

Like I said before, you won't catch me leaving any vacation time on the table.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or jdodge@theolympian.com.