Yellowstone in Pictures (Day 1 and 2)

Well, according to this blog, it took us multiple weeks to get into Yellowstone. We apologize for way this blog has gone the last few weeks, but it’s just another casualty of a very busy schedule. It’s pretty amazing how life is busier when you’re at home as opposed to constantly traveling. So we’re gonna go full photoblog and share a gallery of photos from our first two days in Yellowstone. We’ll have the last two days in another two days.

Road Trip: The Long Road to Yellowstone

These posts have been a long time coming, but here we go. A few weeks ago, myself, Theresa and her two brothers, Greg and Mark, embarked from Chicago avoiding Interstates on a ten day journey to Yellowstone and back. This is that story.

Even though I spent my formative years less than 10 hours away, as a child, I never went to Yellowstone. I suppose that happens when you play a baseball doubleheader every weekend during the summer. But I never really resented missing it until I found myself there. And wondering why in the world I didn’t come sooner. We spent a year traveling to some of the most exotic and distant places in the world, but I hadn’t even been to one of the most exotic right in my own backyard.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a long way from Chicago to Yellowstone, and landing in Chicago, I knew we had three days in the car before arriving at America’s first National Park. The roads started off busy and slow as we plodded our way through the Chicago suburbs, which last all the way to the Wisconsin border. We stopped for an Amish farmers market in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and found some great cinnamon rolls and bread. For a market in Wisconsin, though, it was decidedly lacking in cheese. We managed to find some in the next town over though, and our breakfast and lunch for the next day or two were complete. And we found these amazing cheesehead hats!

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A small wrong turn in Minnesota cost us an hour or so, and by the time we made it to our planned campground in eastern North Dakota, the sun was setting. And though we’d noticed some strong gusts in the car, we hadn’t quite appreciated how fierce the winds across the northern plains can really be. We were met by park rangers that warned us of possible tornados and thunderstorms. Stepping out of the car, the winds told us they weren’t kidding. Maybe this whole camping idea wasn’t so hot after all.

Ever stubborn (and really just more out of any options), we found the most sheltered campsite we could, set up our tents and then cooked up a dinner.

After dinner, certain the thunderstorm was imminent, we retired to the car to wait it out, only to have it skirt by us with hardly a drop of water. Even though it lit up the sky across the plans beautifully, it was sure painful to try to stay up after the whole day of driving. Eventually, at some ridiculous hour, we crashed into our tents, only to be woken up as we always do when camping, at sunrise. Not a particularly restful start to the trip.

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Day two started early, but man the state of South Dakota does not change much until you get pretty far west. We drove a straight line for six hours before reaching Wall, SD. For anyone that has ever driven in this area, all the billboards point you here, to Wall Drug. It’s undoubtedly the most famous pharmacy in the country, and these days, a ridiculous tourist attraction in its own right. About ten minutes was all any of us could take, so we headed for the real reason to come the area, the Badlands.

There’s something funny about traveling the world before your own backyard … you tend to reference really far off places to make comparisons. Driving through the Badlands, both Theresa and were commenting on how this looks like Patagonia, and that looks like the Quebrada de Cafayate, ad nauseum. I’m sure Greg and Mark got pretty tired of it, especially as it continued all the way through the Tetons. But, well, those are apt comparisons. It was a really beautiful, scarred landscape, that’s probably best shared in pictures.

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We were entertained as we drove by the prarie dogs (or prayin’ dogs as a 5 year old Mark used to call them) and frightened by two rattlesnakes, one in the road, the other (a juvenile) Greg almost stepped on at a turnout! We also got our first look at a wild Buffalo. It was very exciting at the time, but by the end of our trip, after the massive herds and baby buffalo at Yellowstone, they really weren’t worth all of our excitement.

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After that, it was on to Mt. Rushmore, thankfully not a long drive away, but via an awesome road, the Iron Mountain highway. It was clearly built before today’s modern interstate routes, because it hairpined up the mountain, followed by loop-de-loops and one lane tunnels back down. It made for a really fun drive, especially in the thick morning fog we set out in. This fog was troublesome as we arrived to Mt. Rushmore, since it made it so we couldn’t see Mt. Rushmore. Fortunately, the clouds soon “thinned” out and we got our view of the giant heads.

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Frankly, I don’t know what to think about Mt. Rushmore. On the one hand, it’s a really impressive accomplishment. It’s absolutely massive, moreso than I’d ever imagined, and the sculptures are very well done. And I sat there thinking that future civilizations, long after we’re gone, are going to look at these giant faces on a mountain and it’ll be reflective of our culture like the Pyramids of Egypt or Angkor Wat. But looking at the “before” and “after” pictures of the mountain, I couldn’t help thinking it looked better before. It just seems like such a silly thing to do to such a nice mountain.

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After that it was onward, all the way across the state of Wyoming (with a failed attempt to see Devil’s Tower that was fully thwarted by the fog) to the end of our long road to Yellowstone, our gateway, Cody, Wyoming. And that’s our next starting point.

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Bear Creek Reminiscence

I’ve been to five continents and somewhere around 50 countries. I’ve made it to almost every state in the U.S. Yet still, the place pictured below remains one of my favorite places on earth.

This place is Bear Creek Aquatic Camp, a residential summer camp located on the shores of Kentucky Lake and run by the Kentuckiana Girl Scout Council. This past week I was in the area researching lake resorts for the Kentucky guidebook, and when I found myself just a couple of miles away from the camp, I couldn’t resist returning. It’s been nearly 20 years, since the first summer I spent there. I wasn’t sure what I’d find on my return, if perhaps, it were better to let my memories be memories.

But what I found was, largely, what I remembered. Things seemed a bit smaller (perhaps because I’m a bit bigger), and the counselors who were there preparing for the girls who were arriving soon seemed so young (perhaps because I am getting to be old). But the smell of pine that filled the air as you walked from the boating area to the swimming area was still there to tickle my nose. I could almost picture myself inside the still rustic cabins, whispering with friends until we fell asleep mid-thought. At the beach, I missed the trampoline from which we used to bounce into the water (replaced now with a slide for insurance reasons I’m sure), but I recalled the accomplishment of swimming across the bay and back. Running my hands along the multi-colored life jackets strung out between the trees, I remembered learning to sail, getting up on water skis for the first time, and the triumph of finally raising the sail of a windsurfer and going for a ride. At Inspiration Point, it seemed the words of campfire songs hung on the breeze. The lyrics of one of my favorites have stayed with me to this day, a sort of mantra for my life.

“On the loose to climb a mountain, on the loose where I am free. On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be. For I’ve only got a moment, and a whole world yet to see. I’ll be searching for tomorrow on the loose.”

Bear Creek is a special place, one of those places that, over the course of a few summers, shaped me into the person I am today. It was where I got my first real taste of independence, where I gained confidence and learned to take risks, where I felt what it was like to be free. Nostalgia washed over me as I meandered through the camp. I couldn’t help but yearn to be young again, to be able to spend my summer there, to have the whole world seemingly in my hands. But as I stood at Inspiration Point and looked out across the lake, I hushed those wishes and decided instead just to be thankful for the time I had spent there, to be grateful for the experiences I have had and the person they have helped me become, and to appreciate the fact that one of my favorite places on earth is still there, sharing its magic with generations of girls.

Thanks, Bear Creek. And Happy 30th Birthday. May you have many, many, many more.

Road Tripping

Once upon a time—back when I had enormous octagonal shaped glasses; long, straight, thin hair; and chicken legs (okay, yes, I still have those), in the era when my taste in fashion ran to high waisted jean shorts, cotton tank tops, and Converse cheerleading tennis shoes—my parents loaded me and my three brothers into our red Chevrolet Astro van and drove us from Kentucky to California and back. Our family of six may not have traveled internationally when I was growing up, but travel we did. My sense of adventure is not anomalous; it came honestly.

On the way to California, my dad (and occasionally my mom) piloted us along a northern route. On the way back, we opted for a southern route. We stopped at national parks—Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest. We stopped at tourist traps like Wall Drugs. We bought tacky souvenirs at Stuckey’s, the gas station/convenience store/junk shop located all along the interstate. We had caricatures done in San Francisco, hung out with Mickey at Disney, met Jaws at Universal, and stuck our toes (and only our toes) into the Pacific Ocean. We saw Vegas before it went upscale. We visited family in Los Angeles as well as middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. We turned the van seats so that they faced each other, giving us no leg room but lots of space to play games. And for the most part, we all got along, the only difficulty we all still remember being our youngest brother Mark’s propensity for backwashing into our shared sodas (a ploy, we now believe, to get his own).

On Saturday, I, along with my two younger brothers, Gregory and Mark, and Jeff, set out on a partial recreation of this trip. We’re all meeting in Chicago, where Gregory lives, and from there, we’re traveling to Yellowstone and back, taking the northern route there and the southern route back. In addition to spending four days in Yellowstone, we’ll also be stopping at the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, sleeping over in Grand Teton, checking out Denver, and stopping at any and all exciting roadside attractions we find along the way. We’ll be camping most of the time, so Internet access is probably going to be limited, but if it’s available, we’ll be updating (both here and on my brother Gregory’s blog) and on our Facebook pages. If we can’t get online, we’ll come back with lots of stories to tell. (Promise, swear, cross my heart, time sucking Kentucky book be damned).

To keep you satisfied until I make it back online, check out the photos below. Good for a daily laugh. Or five million.

What’s Obama Got To Do With It

Have we mentioned before how interesting it was to be abroad when Obama was elected President of the U.S. and to continue traveling through much of his first year in his office?  Have you heard our stories about the Obama grocery stores, the Obama kangas, and the baby gorilla named Obama? Have you wondered at all what it was like to be an American abroad in the midst of Obama-mania?

An article I wrote about the “Obama effect” on travel has just been published in the May edition of Perceptive Travel. Please go check it out and let me know what you think. And while you’re there, take a look at the other articles in this month’s edition as well as previous editions. If, like me, you’ve grown tired of travel magazines and websites that are nothing more than Top 10 lists and service articles, you’ll want to bookmark Perceptive Travel as it features the kind of stories that just don’t make it to print anymore in our short-attention-span society.

P.S. Thanks to my sister-in-law Paulina, who spent last summer in Uganda and helped me out with photos for the article.

Diving into the Dark

Everyone else was on their way to dinner. The boats had come in for the day. Today’s catch was about to land on someone’s dinner plate. The beach had cleared out. But we, well we, were headed toward it, wet suits on, fins in hand. The sun was setting as we climbed aboard our boat and headed out to sea.

When we first learned to dive in the Perhentian Islands last August, I was nervous, not at all certain that I was going to like being meters under the sea, my only oxygen supply attached to my back. But I took to it quickly, finding the experience to be one of tranquility and amazement. I tried to remember that feeling as we skipped over the waves and toward our diving destination. I couldn’t quite convince myself, however, that this experience would be the same. We were going diving in the dark for goodness sakes. And that just seemed insane.

When the motor was killed, my sense of dread grew a bit. This was it. I leaned over the boat to rinse my googles and was greeted by pitch black seas. Usually, when we dive, I can see straight down to where we’re going to be, the clear water providing a preview of the dive. Not this time. Anything could be under the surface. I tried to stifle my overactive imagination, at least remind myself that dangerous sharks don’t populate these waters. I checked my flashlight. It cast a bright beam out over the water. I reminded Jeff that once we were in the water he needed to stay within my reach at all times. I reminded him again. And again.

And then I put on my BCD, tightened the straps, put the regulator in my mouth, perched on the edge of the boat, and backrolled into the dark, dark water. I was in. This was it. We were going night diving. In an instant, Jeff was in along with the other divers. I shined my flashlight toward the bottom and watched as a swath of sea was illuminated. Next thing I knew I was sinking down through the water, following my beam of light toward the bottom. If I turned my head to the side, I saw nothing. The ocean was black as sin. Only where I shined my light or others shined theirs, could I see anything. I was prepared to be completely freaked out. But somehow I wasn’t. My heart was certainly beating faster than on a regular dive. I could literally feel the adrenalin pumping through my veins. But more than frightening, this night dive was exciting.

The sights weren’t bad either. Before we’ve even gotten to our bottom depth, I’m trying to get Jeff’s attention. I’ve spotted an octopus. A giant lobster has come out to feed. A puffer fish floats right into us, blowing up into a giant balloon immediately upon contact, then floating back and forth like a helium balloon that’s been punctured. A squid flashes past us, hardly more than a flash of light in the dark. The best part, however, is when we find a sandy patch where we all sink to our knees. Then we turn out our lights. It’s dark. Completely, utterly, totally dark. But then our instructor begins to splash his hands. Tiny lights fill the water. We join in, each of us splashing the water in front of us. The ocean fills with bioluminescence. It’s amazing. Wondrous. A bit like being in a dark field lit only by lightening bugs. Even at night, the ocean proves to be tranquil.

When our tanks run low, we reluctantly rise to the surface. As soon as our regulators are out of our mouths, we’re talking a hundred miles a minute about how great the dive was. Trepidation has been completely replaced with awe.

I float for a moment in the dark ocean and stare up at the stars and back toward the town. Sometime while we were underwater, 7:03 pm on March 10, had come and gone. I had turned 29 while on my first ever night dive. The last year of my 20s had begun with a bang. I make a silent wish that every year will bring such adventure, that no matter how old I get I won’t quit trying new things, that life will always be filled with wonder.

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While in Colombia, we did our Advanced Diver Certification with Aquantis Dive School. The course consisted of two mandatory dives—a navigation dive and a deep (30 meters) dive—as well as three dives of our choice—a night dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, and a photography dive. The photos below were taken on the deep dive and the photography dive. It was our first time using the underwater casing for our Canon point & shoot. The camera and case worked splendidly. We, as underwater photographers, could use some more practice. Trying to keep steady is tricky. Other factors that influenced the photography include the fact that at 30 m colors begin to disappear. Red is, in fact, completely absent. As part of the dive, we were shown a roma tomato and asked to identify it. None of us could because it was gray! Additionally, and unfortunately, on the photography dive, we faced a somewhat strong current, which made it hard to stay in one place long enough to get a good photo. I should also say that the diving in Colombia, while good, pales in comparison to that in SE Asia. But all in all, we had a fabulous time and are glad we did the course and got to dive Colombia’s Caribbean coast.


King Beds and Jacuzzi Tubs

Staying in the biggest room at one of Kentucky’s most famous inns (Old Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg), complete with four-poster King bed and two-person Jacuzzi tub, is pretty nice. Except, when it’s just you in that big ol’ bed, it’s pretty lonely too. I know, sob, sob. My life is hard.

Anyhow, yes, we have been MIA. Big time. Our apologies. But you see, research for the Kentucky book I’m working on has completely consumed my life, stolen every second and every ounce of energy I have. As for Jeff, well, I took the external hard drive with me to Kentucky, so he doesn’t have access to any of our photos. Oops. Plus he’s been pretty busy himself planting our garden, cutting down overgrown bushes, giving some semblance of organization to the mess that is our front bedroom, and you know, going to work every day.

But I’m going to make every effort to finish up posting about Colombia here in the next week or so. Because soon we’re going to have more stories to share. We’re off to Yellowstone in three weeks!

Strolling Through Cartagena

Cartagena is, by leagues, the most touristed city in Colombia. Huge cruise ships spill their passengers out into the city every week. Those wanting an appetizer-sized taste of Colombia before ordering the entire entree book a mini-vacation in Cartagena. Domestic tourists also flock there.

Cartagena is popular for many reasons. It’s sunny nearly all the time (and, I might mention, insanely humid). It has fantastic restaurants, from the plate of the day places where an entire meal is just a few bucks to the Anthony Bourdain approved ceviche restaurant, where appetizers start at about $15. As for hotels, take your pick. They’re everywhere and come in every style and every price range.

Of course, there’s also plenty to do. Choose from a variety of museums—the San Pedro Claver museum, which tells the story of the priest turned saint who was a savior to the slaves; the Inquisition Museum, which terrifies you with descriptions of all the ways in which non-believers were tortured during this crazy time in history; or the Gold Museum, which houses all kinds of amazing gold objects in a blessedly frigid building.

Museumed out? Then head to the beach. Though the sand and surf don’t compare to the beaches elsewhere in Colombia, the beachfront is the swanky area of town, home to towering high rise condos and hotels, and plenty of men and women willing to sell you use of a beach chair, give you a massage, or make you a drink.

You must spend at least some time at the fort, which rises over the old city and allows you a panoramic view of Cartagena. It’s only from up high that you realize that the old town is almost entirely surrounded by water, thus explaining the wall built to keep pirates out and the fort intended to ward off attacks.

You can’t help but laugh at the way the canons now point at the new beachfront development, wondering whether that is at all intentional.

And when you pass by the statue honoring the native Colombians who lived here long before the Spanish set up shop, you can’t help but wonder what the city, the country, the world was like back then.

You can also check out the market, a short bus ride away, and like markets throughout the world, ripe with the smells of fish, fruit, raw meat, and body odor.

During the four days we spent in Cartagena, we did all of that and more. But what we enjoyed most was simply wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere, and admiring the well-preserved colonial architecture.

After entering the old town through the tower clock gate, we’d climb up on the wall and circle the city, passing lovey-dovey couples who have found new purposes for former canon cutouts and catching bits of soccer games played between the wall and the ocean.

We’d then go on an art treasure hunt of sorts, the city full of statues depicting heros, as well as ordinary people engaged in ordinary acts.

In some instances, art literally imitated life.

In other instances, life was simply accidentally artsy.

What was best about Cartagena, however, was that most of the time art and life weren’t separate things. That, I think, is a cool thing. After all, life is pretty darn beautiful.


Coming to America

While in Salento, the coffee region town where we toured Don Elias’s farm, we also went for a hike in the Valle de Cocora, home to enormous palm trees as well as rushing waterfalls, ten-mile views, and jewel-toned hummingbirds. At a nature preserve within the valley, we put our photography skills to the test trying to capture these beautiful but frenetic birds in our viewfinder. More often than not, the image that appears on our screen is of an empty branch or a lone birdfeeder. On occasion a blur of color acts as proof that there was indeed a hummingbird in the vicinity. We are, for certain, not going to win any awards for our wildlife photography.

We are, however, able to snap a photo of the three youngest members of the family that runs the preserve. The kids are happy to smile in exchange for a look at the image of themselves that we have captured. Though I don’t know for certain, it seems that this family spends nearly every day and every night on this preserve, tucked away in the clouds. As we pass the camera around for the kids to view, the matriarch of the family, an elderly woman whom I assume to be the grandmother if not the great-grandmother, comes over to take a look. She’d been talking to Jeff earlier, asking him about us and telling him about the preserve and its efforts to preserve the region’s water source. She peers hard at the viewfinder and smiles. She then turns to the children and with a big grin exclaims to them, “Now you’re going to America!” They look bewildered. I, at first, have no idea what she’s talking about. But then, as she hands back the camera, the image of the three kids staring back at us from the screen, I realize what she means, and I laugh. She beams at us, proud of her joke. And with that, we say our goodbyes, waving back at the same three smiling kids that we were taking with us to America.