30 April 2020

Salton City (California), date shakes, and a bad dog

After nine or ten hours on the road, we arrived in Salton City. We were leaving San Francisco and California to relocate ourselves to France, with a stopover of unknowable length in North Carolina, where we would wait for our visas to be granted by the French government. Salton City, on the shores of the salty Salton Sea, is where CHM had a house in the 1990s and into the 2000s. We used to do the drive from San Francisco to Salton City every year in April or October — it's too hot in the southern California desert to go there in summer — to spend time with CHM and see the sights.

In this short slideshow I've put eight photos I took on April 29 and 30, 2003. I didn't take a lot of photos, for some reason. The first two show what the weather was like — very windy. You can see the way the fan palms were being almost bent over by strong wind.

The second two photos show our dog Collette. We had driven north from Salton City with CHM to a town called Thermal, California, one of the hottest places on Earth, and located in a spot that is 42 meters (138 feet) below sea level. The average high temperature there in summer is about 40ºC (over 100ºF), but the other seasons are pleasant. We went to Thermal to enjoy an ice cream concoction called a "date shake" — a milkshake flavored with dates grown in palm groves in the area. The next town south is of Thermal is Mecca, California. The café/shop where we had shakes is called Oasis Date Gardens. Walt used to order trays of dates from Oasis and have them shipped to his grandmother every year at Christmas.

Thanks to Google Maps

Anyway, the Oasis café had picnic tables out in the palm grove where you could sit and enjoy your date shake or other treats from the café. Collette the collie  was with us. She found something putrid-smelling to roll in, and we had to drive back to Salton City with the smelly mutt in the car. Then at CHM's house Walt gave her a bath in the back yard using the garden house and Lemon Joy dish-washing liquid. We were planning to hit the road again the next day for another nine or ten hour drive. We couldn't have the dog in the car smelling like that. You'd have thought that at age 11, Collette would have learned not to roll in dung, but I guess it was just irresistible.

I almost forgot to mention the plants in the slide show. They were ones I took to give to CHM. One is an "elephant bush" or Portulacaria afra. CHM had given it to me years earlier, and I was giving it back to him because I couldn't take it to France. Years later, he brought me cuttings from it to France, and I still have it growing.

The next day we headed out. We drove east to Blythe, California, and then on to Phoenix then north to Flagstaff, both in Arizona. The mountain in my photos is either Agassiz Peak or Humphreys Peak — I don't know which — north of Flagstaff. Both peaks rise to well over 12,000 feet (3800 meters) in elevation, and are the remains of ancient volcano which is now extinct.

The last two photo show some of the sites (billboards and rocks) between Flagstaff and our next destination, Gallup, New Mexico.

29 April 2020

Crossing the continent

Yesterday I said that my virtual vacation, in honor of the coronavirus confinement, was over. And it is, for now. I have a lot of photos of confinement cooking I've been doing, but somehow they don't seem very interesting.

2003. There we are in the Jeep. In the trailer, we had our suitcases, a big armchair from our SF house and a fairly new television set that my mother wanted, plus some old pieces of family furniture that I didn't want to move to France.

Meanwhile, a day or two ago Walt was reminiscing and said to me: "Wasn't it right about the end of April in 2003 when we left California and started our journey to France?" Well, it was. I remember because I remember clearly that we were in Tucumcari, New Mexico, on May 1, 2003, on our way from San Francisco to North Carolina and then on to France.

We left California 17 years ago today. We drove across North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. One of the places we visited along the way was the Mission San Miguel in central California.

We were driving Walt's Jeep Cherokee, pulling a U-Haul trailer, with the dog (Collette) in the car with us. I had sold my car and we had sold our house in SF in March. We were going to spend some weeks or months with my mother at her house, the house I grew up in, on the N.C. coast. Until our visas were granted...

This was the "cage" that 11-year-old Collette would fly to France in, in the plane's cargo hold. She had never been kept in a cage before, and we weren't at all sure how it would work out. On the first day, a nine-hour drive, the dog got bored and spontaneously took refuge in the kennel for a nap.
I remember May 1 in Tucumcari because that's the day I called Allied International, the moving company that we had hired to store and then ship a container load of our furniture, clothes, kitchen equipment, etc. to France for us. I gave them the go-ahead to put our container on the ship in the port of Oakland (California) that would take it to Le Havre. We had already bought our house in Saint-Aignan. We didn't yet have visas, but we must have felt confident that we soon would get them.

The Mission San Miguel Archángel was founded in 1797 by Franciscans from Spain.

At least one of us had to be here in France to receive and sign for the delivery. It would take two months or so for the container to make the voyage, and if our visas hadn't come through by then, one of us would have to fly to France as a tourist to be here to sign the papers and oversee the unloading. Fortunately, it turned out that we got the visas in late May, and we ended up taking a one-way flight to France on June 1.

It was a nine-hour drive from San Francisco down to the southern California desert through countryside like this. Our friend CHM lived out in
    the desert back then, an hour or more SE of Palm Springs, and we stayed at his house for two nights. Somehow, these    photos of a long road trip are comforting in this time of the Great Confinement in France. It was a real adventure.

28 April 2020

Collonges-la-Rouge : une église, bien sûr

I'll wrap up my three-part series of photos showing the beau village of Collonges-la-Rouge with a few shots of the town's church. I'm also wrapping up my virtual "confinement" vacation. It's time to get back to work.

People down there in Collonges have been using that red sandstone as a building material for a long, long time — the church was built (starting) in the 11th and 12th centuries. Like most ancient buildings in France, it has been modified — fortified, restored, expanded — over the course of the centuries, for defensive reasons or just because the town was prospering and tinkering with the church was a good way for people to spend some money and demonstrate the strength of their faith.

Anyway, what work do I need to do? Well, the vegetable garden needs to be prepared for planting. The conventional wisdom here in the northern part of France is that the last danger of frost falls on about May 15. Religion is involved, of course. The three Catholic saints who are honored on May 11, 12, and 13 are called Les Saints de Glace — the "ice saints". (Every day of the calendar year is dedicated to a saint.)

Those three days in mid-May often bring a spell of cold weather to France and other European countries (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, etc.). Snow has been known to fall during the ice saints' days. Right now the weather is fairly warm, but just to be cautious we don't set seedlings out in the garden plot before May 15. In some years, when the weather in May turns rainy and cool, we don't plant the garden until June 1.

By the way, the church in Collonges is dedicated to St. Peter. Here he is in stained glass.

We had a very wet and mild winter this year, so a lot of tenacious weeds have taken root in the part of the garden plot that we didn't cover with a tarp, for several reasons. We had a winter crop of kale growing there, and we also gathered up yard trimmings and debris and made what we call "a burn pile" — all that stuff has been burned now. So I need to get the rototiller out and start turning the soil over and uprooting the weeds. It's going to be a lot of work.

Speaking of vegetables, yesterday I drove up to Super U, a supermarché just three miles from our house, to pick up a load of groceries that I had ordered on-line last week. And I actually got some broccoli! A week or 10 days ago, the last time I went to collect kitchen provisions, there was no broccoli to be had. Yesterday there was, and I'm happy. Lunch today will be a broccoli and chicken stirfry.

The one thing the supermarket didn't have in stock yesterday was yeast. We have very little yeast left after baking bread twice recently. I think I might have to make a sourdough starter using the little bit of yeast that we do have. That will stretch it so that we can make bread again next week.

27 April 2020

The streets of Collonges-la-Rouge

Collonges-la-Rouge is a member — the founding member, in fact — of the Plus Beaux Villages de France association. According several web sites I've read, back in the 1970s the Reader's Digest company put together a publication called just that — Les Plus Beaux Villages de France — listing the 100 most beautiful villages in France. The mayor of Collonges became aware of it and contacted the mayors of all the villages listed, asking them if they'd be interested in creating an association of such villages to promote and preserve them. More than 60 mayors responded and the association was founded in 1982. More than 150 villages are members today.

This slideshow of my walk through Collonges features 10 photos and runs for less than 2 minutes.

It was the same mayor of the town then known simply as Collonges who added the suffix -la-Rouge to the name to distinguish it from other villages and towns in France and Switzerland that were also named Collonges. The name derives from the Latin colonia (colony). A Roman colonized the area nearly 2000 years ago and soon people were referring to the town that grew up here by that name. I took these photos on May 2, 2006, and I'm publishing them now as part of my "virtual vacation" series because we are not allowed to travel during this great coronavirus confinement of 2020.

26 April 2020


Collonges-la-Rouge, with its permanent population of about 500, is a village located just 20 miles north of Rocamadour, 10 miles south of the bigger town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, and approximately a three-hour drive south of Saint-Aignan. Most of the buildings in the town are built out of local red sandstone.

The town of Collonges dates back more than a thousand years. For a time, in the 1300s and 1400s, it was a prosperous wine village — its wines were appreciated by the popes, who at the time had their residence in Avignon. Collonges was especially prosperous during the early and mid-1500s, the time we call now the French Renaissance. It became the "residential capital" of its region.

The town made it through the French wars of religion in the late 1500s relatively intact. Catholics and Protestants shared use of the church. Collonges remained prosperous through the 1600s and was acquired by the French monarchy in 1738. Then came the French Revolution of 1789. The town suffered, and its population declined. Its buildings were used as a stone quarry in the early 1800s. This scenario was too often repeated in France.

After a brief resurgence as a wine village in the 1800s, the imported-from-America phylloxera scourge struck and decimated the vineyards. The vines were pulled out and were replaced by walnut groves as well as farms and pastures. In the early 1900s, local people and the town government mounted a campaign to save Collonges and its remaining buildings. Many were classified as historical monuments.

More recently, Collonges was rediscovered by well-to-do families who have restored many houses and buildings to use them as vacation homes or rentals — about half the town's 300 houses now serve asrésidences secondaires. (Thanks to Wikipédia.fr for this information, which I have summarized.)

I've known about Collonges-la-Rouge since the 1970s. Back then, I was on the staff of an organization called the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) that was headquartered on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. We had a stock of tourism posters that had been donated to us by the French government, and we gave them out free to French teachers all over the U.S. who used them to decorate their classrooms. One of them pictured the town of Collonges-la-Rouge. Walt and I still have it. We had it mounted on a board decades ago and it hangs on a wall in our entryway here in Saint-Aignan. My first actual visit to Collonges was in 1995. We returned in May 2006, and that's when I took these photos.

25 April 2020

Rocamadour, suite et fin

I have 10 photos of Rocamadour left, so I'm posting them as a slideshow. I took these on April 30, 2006, when we spent a few days in the Sarlat/Cahors area (Périgord et Quercy provinces) in SW France, about four hours south of Saint-Aignan. The slide show runs for slightly less than two minutes.

We had lunch in Rocamadour the day we were there. The village was very crowded with tourists like us, especially since April 30 is the eve of the big May 1 ("labor day") holiday in France. April 30 fell on a Sunday in 2006. Two days later we stopped in Collonges-la-Rouge on our way back to Saint-Aignan. Collonges is another major attraction in this part of France, and you'll see why when I post some photos of the town tomorrow....

24 April 2020

Rocamadour's crowds and amazing views

This morning I found an article about Rocamadour tourism in the French newspaper La Dépêche from seven years ago. I learned that back then only 35 people actually lived in the village of Rocamadour (another 650 people live in the surrounding area, in the commune, or township). And at least a million visitors troop through the village every year. I'm sure that, until the recent Confinement, those number were even lower and higher. So Rocamadour actually does compare to the Mont St-Michel when it comes to tourist mobs.

Still, it's very easy to fall for the old saw that says "nobody goes there any more — it's too crowded" of places like these. If they weren't must-sees, nobody would be tempted to go there any more. I mean, are you willing to stand in line for two or three hours to ride the elevators up to the top of the Eiffel Tower? Maybe once, right? My sister and a good friend of ours came to visit in September 2006. They really wanted to go up to the top of the Tower. When we got there, thousands of people (or at least many hundreds) were waiting in interminable lines to get to the elevators.

I went and asked a security guard how long the wait would be. Two to two-and-a-half hours he said. I told my sister and our friend that that was a huge waste of time. They were only going to be in Paris for 48 hours, and there were many other thing to see and do. One of those things was a walk through Notre-Dame (it was very crowded too, but the wait to get in wasn't too long). I'm glad we did that because it was the last time I ever saw the cathedral from the inside.

As for the Eiffel Tower, we went back there the next morning, arriving at 9 a.m. when it opened. There was a line but it was much shorter. It only took us 30 or 40 minutes to get to the top. It was worth it of course, and I didn't want my sister and friend to leave Paris disappointed because they had missed seeing one of the city's greatest attractions. By the way, the long lines of tourists are one thing, but the pushing and shoving you have to endure as you try to make your way into elevators on the way up is sometimes downright ugly.

Anyway, that's my take on the whole tourist mob thing. About Rocamadour, the Michelin green guide says: « Rocamadour accroche un extraordinaire entassement de vieux logis, d'oratoires, de tours et de rocs aux flancs d'une falaise dominant de 150 mètres le canyon de l'Alzou. Son site [...] est l'un des plus extraordinaires de France. » In other words, village is an extraordinary collection of old houses, small chapels, medieval towers and huge rocks hanging off the side of a cliff that rises up 150 meters, nearly 500 feet, out of the river valley below.

Miracles reputedly performed there in ancient times turned Rocamadour into a major Christian pilgrimage site. The glory days of the village's fame and reputation came in the 13th century. In subsequent centuries, it was repeated pillaged and plundered during the Hundred Years' War, the French Wars of Religion, and finally the great secular Revolution of 1789 and the following decades. Only in the 19th century did the village start to recover. With the development of tourism in the 20th century, it was again drawing tens of thousands of visitors every year.

One of the most impressive things about Rocamadour (unless you are particularly interested in religious legends and artifacts), in my view, is the soaring views you can enjoy from on the top of the village out over the streets, houses, rooftops, and canyon below, as in my photos here.

23 April 2020

How and when to visit Rocamadour

Now that I've mentioned Rocamadour, I have to do a post or two about the place. I've been there twice, in pre-digital (I'm talking about photography) 1995 and again in the digital age, in 2006. This is my virtual vacation week, and maybe just sorting through and processing photos turns out to be one of the best ways to see Rocamadour. Avoid the crowds. These are some pictures I took as we arrived there on a very busy tourist day, April 30 (the eve of the big May 1 holiday in France).

As I've mentioned, another tourist site that rivals Rocamadour when it comes to mobs of tourists is the Mont Saint-Michel. We went there in 2006 as well, a month after our trip to Rocamadour. It was a miserable experience. The weather was beautiful. It was June, not even peak tourist season. There were thousands of people shuffling along the steep, narrow streets of the Mont. It was suffocating. We went there because a good friend from California was visiting and she had never seen it before.

So what we did was go back in 2007 in wintertime. It was a trip we took on my birthday in early March that year. We rented a room on the Mont and spent the night — just one, I believe. The weather cooperated, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves, especially after 6 p.m. when the few busloads of tourists had departed for the day. The streets emptied out, and we found a good place for dinner. There were just enough people in the restaurant that it didn't feel deserted and sad, and the food was good.

The next morning, we saw the tide come in and the Mont temporarily become an island. That was one of the moments I wanted to experience. So what if rain was pouring down — you expect that in Normandy. It's atmospheric. If you don't get soaked, or at least pretty damp, you haven't really been there. We then drove back to Saint-Aignan (4 or 5 hours on the road). It was fun.

Maybe it's not fair to compare Rocamadour to the Mont Saint-Michel. Sorry to give you text about one place and photos of the other.

P.S. I just found a web site that lists the 125 famous places France that draw the biggest crowds every year. Eurodisney, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris all top six million visitors annually, with Eurodisney far in the lead. At between one and 1.5 million a year, the Mont Saint-Michel is in the same league as the great cathedral in Reims (Champagne), the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the American military cemetery at Colleville (near Bayeux and the D-Day beaches in Normandy), and — uh-oh! — the Beauval zoological park in Saint-Aignan, with its giant pandas. Rocamadour doesn't even make the list. So go there if you can. Rocamadour needs your business!

22 April 2020

Autoire, un village du Quercy

On one of our days in the southwest of France in 2006, we drove from our gîte near Sarlat down to the hillside village of Rocamadour. You've probably heard of that place, or visited it if you travel much in France. Rocamadour is one of those places like the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy that is often completely overrun with tourists. Still, it's worth seeing once in your life.

Only a thirty-minute drive from Rocamadour, to the east, is an old village called Autoire. Just 350 people live there. I'm sure most tourists have never heard of it. I never had. It was one of those pleasant surprises that we enjoy on vacations. This is an area that used to be called le Quercy, a historical province centered on the town of Cahors on the Lot River.

About all we did there was stop at different points and take a few photos. We had just visited another huge tourist attraction in the area, a natural chasm called le gouffre de Padirac. It's funny, but my memories of famous Padirac are sort of vague, but my memories of Autoire are vivid. I guess it's because I have these photos. I don't think we were allowed to take photos in the Padirac chasm, or maybe it was just too dark down there. The chasm is 103 meters deep — 340 feet — with an underground river at the bottom.

There is not a lot of information about Autoire on the internet. A couple of sites I've seen listed and tried to look at won't even open up. One of the town's attractions is the ruin of an ancient fortress known as the Château des Anglais — the English captured it in 1378 and it was one of their strongholds during the Hundred Years' War. There's also an 11th-century Romanesque church in Autoire that's listed as a historical monument, as well as the late-15th-century Château de Limargue.

Looking at these photos and reading the little bit of information about Autoire that I've been able to find this morning really makes me want to go back there and spend a few days. There's a bigger town called Saint-Céré (pop. 3500) nearby, and other towns called Carennac and Bretenoux, with their own châteaux are within half an hour's drive. I guess I should start looking for gîtes ruraux  to rent in the Autoire area for future vacations — when the Grand Confinement is over, if ever.

21 April 2020

Surprises et mystères

I guess one of the good things about going on vacation is getting surprised a lot. Good surprises, I'm talking about — the kind that are pleasing or amusing, and memorable. That's the kind of virtual vacation I'm having as I spend time looking through sets of photos I took more than a decade ago.

In the case of these photos, I've been surprised by them. I took them on the streets — or in one case, in the church — in the town of Sarlat (full name: Sarlat-la-Canéda) in 2006.

I don't know who this statue is supposed to represent, or why it was on display. If anybody knows, I'll be happy to learn about it.

This one seems to have a medieval look, I guess. Again, I'm not sure why it was there, or for how long. The photos I'm re-discovering surprise and mystify me.

This one looks more ephemeral. In other words, maybe it's not "street art" but something that was on sale in the open-air market that day. I don't remember being tempted to buy it.

Some might say that this kind of art represents the greatest mystery of all, but there's not much surprising about it in our day. I must have stepped into the church in central Sarlat to take it.

Finally, just a good street view. That's Walt in the lower right corner, back when his hair was still brown instead of gray. Things change in 14 years' time, don't they? I don't know who the other person in the picture is. The house is beautiful, though — at least I think so.

Speaking of hair, Walt and I are thinking and talking about cutting each other's hair. That's something we've never done before. We last got haircuts in January, I think it was. The woman who cuts our hair, Amélie, told us at that time that she was expecting twins in May. She said we should make appointments to get our hair cut in late March or early April unless we wanted to wait until July. And then the virus took us by surprise and non-essential businesses like hair salons were closed down. So here we are, more hirsute than we like to be. If we work up the nerve to do some shearing, I'll take photos. Our Grand Confinement is set to run at least through May 11, and I predict that for me it will last weeks or months longer than that.

20 April 2020

Art à Sarlat

I'm still enjoying my virtual vacation. Here are some photos I took in Sarlat, in the Périgord region of SW France,
on Saturday, April 29, 2006, which was a market day in the town.

This first one is a picture of a picture. The painting was hanging on the wall in the restaurant
where we had lunch that day. This is a local scene, I'd say.

L'Oie Blanche means "The White Goose" — Sarlat and the Périgord are known for raising geese and duck for the production of foie gras. I'm sure we had duck for lunch that day. By the way, Périgord is the name of the historical region around Sarlat, while Dordogne is the name of the river that runs through it and also the name of one of the current French administrative départements (counties, more or less) that make up the Périgord region.

Out in the countryside in Périgord and all of the south of France, including Provence, "dry stone" huts called bories like this decorative one were traditionally built and used as refuges by local shepherds. You can read about them in French here. Nowadays, many of them are preserved as tourist attractions.

Ceci est un poulet. Just because. It was market day in Sarlat and there were fine displays of all kinds of things, including decorative items and food products, for sale. It was all very colorful.

I believe this was the sign posted above a garage, but I can't be sure 14 years later. It's typically (or stereotypically) French, n'est-ce pas ? Esso is still the brand name of a chain of gas stations in France, by the way. A lot of us older people remember Esso stations in the U.S. back in the 1950s, and it's surprising to see them here. That's a 2CV (or deux chevaux) car in the garage. Pneus means tires, and you pronounce the P. Vidange means "oil change." Essence is "gasoline" or perhaps "petrol" in your dialect.

19 April 2020

D'autres vacances

These really are virtual vacations for me. I'm really sorry Walt, Tasha, and I can't be up on the shores of the Baie de Somme right now, as we had planned. The weather is just gorgeous right now. Yesterday I spent several hours looking at photos taken on another vacation — in a different region — editing them, and just realizing how much happiness and satisfaction they represent. Here's a longer-than-usual slide show. It's made up of 29 photos and runs for a just over three minutes.

I took these photos on April 28, 2006. The ones of the Mont Saint-Michel that I posted yesterday were from March 5, 2007. Maybe I'll post more of them over the coming days. I did plan to reveal more about the Mont over a period of days, moving from close-in, detailed views, toward overviews and wider shots. But I have photos from other trips around France over the past 17 years that I want to post too. Since there's not much going on around here right now...

I was serious yesterday when I said to CHM that I wish he would do a blog. He has such a long experience of life, and many of us could profit from hearing about it. I know that he has many photos he could post. Once you start blogging, it's hard to stop — at least that's been my experience. A 15-year blog run starts with but a single post.

18 April 2020

Vacances du printemps

Because today is the day when we were supposed to leave home for our springtime vacation up in Picardie on the shores of the Baie de Somme — said trip having been cancelled because of the Great Confinement — I've decided to go on a virtual vacation. It's my own little protest against the novel coronavirus.

I'm talking about a vacation past. Here are a few photos. I took them a long time ago on my birthday, and in France of course. It was a while ago.

This is a place I've visited many times starting in the early 1970s. Over the years, I've been there with Illinois and California friends, with my mother and her sister, with my own sister and one of our good friends, and with Walt two or three times. I haven't been there now for about a dozen years.

I have a feeling I might be on virtual vacation in this place for all the coming week. It's fun to see it again.

If you haven't already guessed where it is, you will soon find out as it gradually reveals itself.

There are small hints in several of the photos, but not too many of them yet. The place has changed significantly over the past few years.

I'm not giving any more clues right now. Maybe this is a lot more obvious than I think it is.

17 April 2020

Quasi-random photos

I'm not sure exactly what I thought the vine branch above looked like, but it was interesting. A seahorse?

Is this some kind of dandelion flower? Too bad I didn't get a shot of one that was open.

Another interesting vine branch — it looks almost like a narwhal. Or maybe some mythical creature.

White flower buds on hairy stems. Lawn daisies again?

Here's a more standard-looking vine trunk. Every year, a certain percentage of the grapevines die. Workers pull out the dead trunks and stack them up, mostly along the dirt road that runs through the vineyard. One year, I asked the vineyard owner if I could have some to burn in the fireplace or barbecue. He said I could take as many as I wanted, so I drove the little Peugeot out the road and filled up the trunk with them.

16 April 2020

Cleaning in the corners

Two months ago we had the tree in the foreground of the photo on the right taken down. It was nearly dead, with needles on just a few of its upper branches. For years, it had been dropping needles on the gravel walkway that surrounds our house, especially in the corner you see here. Those needles turned into a rich compost that weeds took root in. We had a very wet winter that accelerated the process.

The crew that took down the tree left us with a stump, which will eventually rot away. For now, we've set a big plastic planter box on the stump to disguise it, if only superficially. We're likely to be the only people to see it actually, since we are under a confinement order that will probably remain in effect for the rest of 2020. We won't have any vistors, or any house guests. Anyway, that corner of the gravel walkway needed to be dealt with.

So I dealt with it. Among various pieces of what might be considered junk that we found around the yard, in the garage, and in the garden shed when we came to live here in 2003 was the square wire tray or basket that you can see sitting on the low wall that encloses the gravel walkway. I figure it's a soil sifter — that's what I used it for. I raked up as much gravel-filled dirt as I could and then sifted it to collect the gravel.

Once I had a good pile of gravel, and had put the sifted soil down to fill up the depression my digging had created,  I could rake the gravel I collected in the corner back over the soil. It's not perfect, but as wise-cracker might say, "it's better than it is, wasn't it?" Years ago, I had an ongoing battle trying to take control of another corner of the yard.

By the way, there's smaller planter box sitting on the low stone wall that has two or three cactus plants growing in it. CHM will recognize them. Close-up shot below.