Category Archives: food

The Great Ocean Road Day 3: Final Day

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The iconic 12 apostles is not the only intriguing coastal rock structure in the Port Campbell area. Continuing westward along the Great Ocean Road for the next several kilometers, spectacular oceanic limestone rock structures continue to appear.

First there’s The Arch, the only place I have ever seen a mini waterfall in an ocean.

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Then there is London Bridge. The name London Bridge was given to this structure back when it was attached to the mainland. In 2005, London Bridge literally fell down, due to waves and erosion.

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The South Ocean is quite turbulent. Everywhere along the Great Ocean Road, particularly in winter, there is a steady barrage of strong waves. There is a reason so many shipwrecks occurred here. As a result, this section of the coast is in a constant state of change. Watching the waves come onshore inundating the limestone rock, gradually eroding it and paving the way for the next structural change, is like watching science in action.

At the grotto, visitors can walk down to an arch-like structure where waves periodically crash in.

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Some of the larger waves can lead to mist on the other side of the arch.

After these structures, the Great Ocean Road once again ventures inland, transitioning to farmland.

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It would make sense that the Allansford Cheese World is in an area surrounded by farms, right near the end point of The Great Ocean Road.

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The Allansford Cheese World produces far more varieties of cheddar than I ever would have thought to be possible. I had always thought of cheddar as one of many types of cheese, which would include Swiss, Pepperjack, Havarti, etc. Visitors to the Allansford Cheese World can sample a dozen different types of cheddar, some of which are really innovative.

It was here I noticed myself slipping back into an American-like stand-offishness when it comes to dealing with people. For the entire trip, I felt Australians to be generally more friendly than Americans. In conversations with Australians, I did not experience the need for the conversation to provide some kind of value, or the assumption that everyone was in a rush to get to their next activity that is characteristic of many conversations I have with Americans. On my final day on the Great Ocean Road, as if trained by years of cultural experience I found myself starting to engage in conversation without being fully engaged, with the time and my next activity on my mind. I could not believe I was doing this.

Although the Great Ocean Road ends here, but most tourists continue on, at least to the town of Warrnambool, where visitors can supposedly see whales. A 30 minute visit to the pier, where one sign promised us “A Whale of a Time”, turned out to be a bust.

I guess there is a danger in trying to fit an activity like this, dependent on complicated natural forces and animal behavior, into any kind of schedule. However, I wanted to continue west, to the Tower Hill Nature preserve, a set of volcanic lakes where koalas often hang out. It would be a shame to visit Australia and not see at least one of those, and at this time of year daylight in Australia is limited.

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I made a major mistake here as well. Based on our life experiences, we often internalize assumptions and operate based on them without thinking. Being from Colorado, I have a base assumption that all “hikes” involve a climb, to some sort of peak or cool looking overlook.

After two such hikes, in hopes of seeing koalas, an employee at the visitor information center informed us that koalas need trees with moisture and would likely be found down by the lakes. This walk needed to be flat, not up a big hill.

For some reason, despite their actual demeanor, koalas feel like a picture of innocence. A small, furry, cuddly creature constantly hanging onto a tree and sleeping 20 hours per day. I actually wanted to pet them.

Port Fairy would be our final destination.

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We’d have one last adventure here, a short walk onto Griffiths Island.

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Where we would have one final wildlife encounter, fairly up close with the wallabies!

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A trip that many would consider “once in a lifetime” was coming to an end. I sat on a rock gazing out at the Ocean as the sun gradually faded behind me. It felt like a real life version of the fade outs often used at the end of movies and videos. Looking straight outward, I was amazed at how vast the Ocean is. I began to imagine what is on the other side, pondering more adventures. Uncertain as to the exact direction I was facing, I imagined multiple possibilities of what laid straight in front of me.

I imagined the jungles of Madagascar, with monkeys and other forms of wildlife roaming around in the trees and a lone explorer with a knife trying to trudge through the trees and mud.

I imagined the vast expansive ice sheets of Antarctica.

I imagined the far more nearby mountains of Tasmania, quiet for the winter season, but coming to life with young adult hikers and adventurers in the Springtime.

Despite the fact that my adventure would slowly be ending, the reflection of the orange light on the ocean surface felt like an invitation and promise of more to come.

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The Largest Farmers Market in the USA

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It is the farmers market that ruined me for all other farmers markets. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for several years, I would regularly attend the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Every Saturday morning during the warm season, the entire capital square would be filled with vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, and, of course, because this is Wisconsin, cheese and meat.

Each Saturday, between 9 A.M. and noon, crowds of people pack the sidewalks that surround the capitol square, creating a lively scene. It was enough volume, enough activity, that every other farmer’s market I visited after this one has left me asking “Is this it”?

That is partially because the Dane County Farmers Market is a unique experience in a unique place. It was included as a “must see” in the book 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

The book, however, was published in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. One distinct characteristic of the 21st century is the presence of simultaneous contradictory trends. For example, we have a new generation of people emerging who both spend over nine hours per day in front of screens and prefer face-to-face interactions. Likewise, while obesity rates continue to climb, people are also becoming more health conscious and more aware of the food they consume.

Specifically, with detox diets, and awareness of the amount of waste caused by our food distribution system, more and more people are desiring locally sourced food. This can be seen at grocery stores and even some restaurants, where more and more displays indicate that food was produced on a “local” farm. Farmers markets are expanding everywhere to meet this increasing demand to buy locally produced preservative free produce. Some lists of top farmers markets in the USA published more recently do not even include the Dane County Farmers Market.

The Dane County Farmers Market still certainly represents a unique experience, as it has always been about more than just the vendors.

As far as I can remember, Madison has always been a very political town. On all four corners of the square, booths promoting political causes and local candidates are an expected presence. Along the roads that radiate outward from the Capitol Square, more interesting activity can be found, including live performances, some additional vendors and demonstrations of activities like wood carving, and even an impromptu children’s play area placed in front of the children’s museum.

I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is certainly more interesting than most towns around this size. The college campus guarantees plenty of interesting cultural activities. The pedestrian mall, State Street, that connects the capitol with campus is always active, even if it does have a speed limit that just begs people to break it… on their bicycles.

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And there are the lakes, four of them to be exact, of pretty good size, one of which is directly adjacent to the University.

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The city has two other characteristics that, having visited a lot of different places, feel quite surprising.

One is how strong drinks are mixed here, particularly on State Street. I ordered a make-your-own-bloody mary at one of the many establishments on State Street. Restaurants that offer this beverage typically provide a glass with vodka to mix with the other ingredients at the bloody mary bar. This is the only place where the glass provided to me was filled halfway up! Mixed drinks at other bars are also quite strong compared to the ones in most other cities.

From a now outsider perspective, it is also surprising to see how politically one-sided Madison is. Signs promoting events and groups, conversations around town and even signs in front of local businesses are quite frequently politically charged, way more so than in most other cities and towns. They are all from one side. It is as if those on the other side had been silenced or run out of town. In a State that is quite close to evenly divided politically, it feels strange to be in a place where one side has near 100% dominance of the discussion.

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Sometimes I find it depressingly easy for people who live in cities to forget what region they are in, on a larger scale. Traveling around the country, it often feels like all cities are tying to build the exact same amenities as each other; luxury apartments, shared workspaces, microbreweries, and art galleries. In my current hometown of Denver there is a constant reminder of where we are, the mountains to the West which tower over the skyscrapers of the city. The Midwest does not have that, however, seeing booth after booth selling cheese curds, other agricultural products, and products like venison jerky is as clear of a reminder to any that Madison is part of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest.

Cultural Observations in Stockholm

 

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Setting out to observe a 3 P.M. sunset, in all its glory, is actually significantly more challenging than one would ever expect. Spending four days in Stockholm, I came to the realization that anywhere one would go in November or December where the sun sets this early is likely to be quite cloudy. While the sun did slip below the horizon right around 3, and the sky became pitch black before 4, each afternoon the sky pretty much appeared like this.

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There was no observation of the sun dipping below the horizon at 3 P.M., just a gray day fading gradually into nighttime.

Not only did 4 P.M. feel different here than anywhere I had ever lived, so did 8 P.M. Rather than feeling like the time the night was just beginning, when people were prepping up for their evening activities, getting ready, texting friends, etc., it felt like a lot later. I am not sure if this was 100% due to the fact that it had already been dark over four hours, or if it is due to cultural differences (when people leave work, etc.). However, at 8 P.M., it definitely felt like the “night”, whatever that entails, had been going on for some time and was approaching maturity.

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Stockholm is a city that parties pretty hard on Friday and Saturday evenings. Both evenings, in the area in and around the city center, including the areas around Central Station, and the Islands of Gamla Stan and Södermalm, there were plenty of people who were already quite intoxicated by 8 or 9 in the evening.

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This is one of several cultural observations I made while in Stockholm.

Of course there are ways to learn about the culture of a country or a region from afar. Travel books and other essays provide convenient cultural guides to places. Popular culture, music, movies, shows and such, also give people from afar a window into the culture of a place. However, I do notice time and time again, that there is no real substitute for actually going to a place and experiencing it for oneself.

For example, one of the things I noticed about Stockholm, the entire time there, was that people walk fast. It’s almost like the way it is in New York, and other large cities.

This is a prefect example of something needed to be experienced in person. While it is possible for someone to write, in a cultural guide or video, that people walk fast in a certain city, what that means can only be truly understood when experienced. The same can be said for New York.

 

Also, with the exception of New York, a city that seems to take pride in its high paced walking, it is easy to imagine a quick reference cultural guide which may focus on things like tipping or train etiquette, to not mention something like this. After all, did I really need to know how fast people in Stockholm walk prior to coming here?

I benefited more from reading about how Scandinavians dress. The casual sneakers, jeans and sweaters I wore all week did not stand out.

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In fact, I may have fit in too well. Despite the fact that people here are mostly fluent in English, most addressed me in Sweedish before I had to ask them to speak English to me.

Food is a significant component of any cultural experience. There is a reason why food makes a natural topic for travel shows. I couldn’t picture actually trying to experience the culture of a given place without trying the local food. I made sure I got the full Sweedish food experience, including the Skagenröra (shrimp salad), salmon, and various other fish dishes (Stockholm is a bunch of islands after all). However, I was surprised at how good their grilled sandwiches were. Specifically, many places throughout Stockholm serve various types of grilled sandwiches, all with some kind of cheese. Many of these sandwich did not include fish or seafood. Some were even vegetarian. They do an excellent job of melting the cheese on the rye bread, and this serves as a great lunch option for various types of people (as in, not everyone eats meat, seafood, etc.).

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As an American, traveling abroad to places like this, it is hard for me not to feel at least a little bit guilty. American culture is harder to escape than I ever realized. Stockholm does have fast food as well. Most of it comes in the form of stands, similar to the hot dog stands found on the streets of New York. Given that most of the food in Stockholm is pretty expensive, it is almost necessary to have a couple of meals at one of those stands on any multi-day trip here, so as not to bust a budget. This was, however, the only place I encountered someone who did not speak English.

I also saw McDonalds and Burger King all over town. However, these establishments are at least somewhat different abroad than they are in the United States.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment was that I was unable to escape the tradition known as “Black Friday”. I was hoping, by virtue of not being in America, where thanksgiving is not a holiday, I would also not experience Black Friday. Well, apparently people do that here too. Maybe they don’t in less touristy parts of a country like Sweden. Maybe I needed to go somewhere with less tourists, and, also less people who speak English, to experience the actual culture of Sweden.

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How much can anyone get to know about the culture of another country by visiting for just a short time? And not venturing outside of the City? I can see how a tourist can come to believe they have learned quite a bit about the culture of Sweden, or any place they chose to visit, by making an set of observations like these.

To me, my set of observations almost feels like how someone from abroad would judge the United States by simply spending several days in New York, our biggest city. The rest of the country i likely significantly different, in terms of pace of life, and how much they embrace ideas like Black Friday. However, just like the foreign tourist in New York, I did experience some things different from what I usually experience at home.

Barbecue and Beer in Kansas City

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Kansas City is one of several places in America known for their barbecue.  Recently, Travel and Leisure magazine ranked it America’s best city for barbecue.  In other rankings, the city almost always places in the top 3-5.  While barbecue is sometimes the subject of fierce debate, Kansas City has a distinct barbecue style that appears to always be part of the discussion.  Regardless of how any specific barbecue fan feels about Kansas City’s sweet, savory, and saucy barbecue style, it has certainly earned significance in culinary circles, and it certainly has its fans.

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I came to Kansas City with only one food agenda… I wanted barbecue.  I did not bring up any specific places or dishes.  I just knew I wanted barbecue.  I’d leave the rest up to the locals.

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The first place I found myself was a place called Joe’s.  I was already encouraged by the name.  For some reason it feels like the restaurants with the best local food in the United States are named just someone’s first name (examples [1][2][3]).  I wonder if this is the same in other countries.

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We waited in line for close to an hour to eat at Joe’s.  This may be partially due to the fact that it was Memorial Day Weekend.  But, I cannot imagine that this line is too much shorter on any other Saturday in the summer.

Without even making the specific request, I found myself at one of Anthony Bourdain’s 13 places to eat before you die.

One can clearly see that this is the kind of place that values their sauces, and a variety of sauces.  This contrasts the barbecue style of Kansas City with some other places, where I was told there is greater emphasis on the meat itself, how it’s cooked and how it’s spiced.

The portion sizes ended up being somewhat deceptive.  I ordered the rib dinner, which included a half a slab of ribs, Texas Toast, and a side.  It did not look like a lot of food, but I found myself fuller than I had felt in quite some time!

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The next day we went to a barbecue establishment with a different feel.  Whereas Joe’s is actually in a gas station, and in Kansas, B-B’s is in Missouri, and feels more like what most barbecue places I’ve been at feel like.  The walls are more densely decorated than an Applebees, and plastic red and white table cloth covers the tables.

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Side note:  While technically, Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri are two different municipalities, they don’t feel too different.  If it weren’t for the highway signs, or the road named Stateline Rd. I would probably be unaware that I am entering a new state.

As if traveling food shows were somehow my destiny for the weekend, B-B’s Bar-B-Q was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners Drive Ins and Dives.

It was another phenomenal meal, but once again, I overate.

In addition to eating more than I typically do, I drank after both meals, much of it being in the form of beer.  Beer, of course, is one of the most filling forms of alcohol.  So, while my tastebuds enjoyed this entire experience (Boulevard Brewing makes some excellent beer), my body was not happy.  I came away from this weekend not knowing how people here are able to eat and drink this way on a regular basis.

Despite this, it was still an amazing experience, and I got to see other things that Kansas City has to offer, including their downtown and historic Power & Light district (there has to be a reason for this, but I did not bother to look it up).

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One thing that plagues the modern world, and particularly my generation, is mental exhaustion.  Our minds are exhausted from the information overload which often results in analysis paralysis, which becomes extremely inefficient and exhausting.  When planning activities, we often give ourselves the following choices:

First is to select an activity that is familiar.  One that has already been done, and we are familiar with.  With this, we get a good experience without exhausting our minds planning.  However, there is no expanding our horizons.  Choosing all of our activities in this manner will inevitably lead to a rut.

The second is to do extensive research, spending hours on Yelp, Tripadvisor, and similar sites.  This, will usually ensure a good experience, but at the expense of exhausting research and planning.

The other option is to just wing it, making quick selections based on gut instincts.  This minimizes the exhaustion in selecting activities.  However, it can often lead to sub-par experiences.  I used to love to eat at randomly selected restaurants in the central business districts of small towns.  This practice lead to some unexpectedly amazing experiences.  But, there were quite a few disappointments as well.

My experience in Kansas City provided me with yet another reason community and trust are so valuable in our society.  By knowing people who are knowledgable on the subject of barbecue, I found myself at two truly great barbecue places without having to spend time researching places.  I relied on the knowledge of others.  This is something I hope we all can do more often as we seek out new places and experiences.

Day 6: The Finale

The last day of a long bike ride is always a strange day.  Not that any of the previous five days were similar to the others, but this day was especially different.  As is the case with many journeys, on the last day two things happen.

First, the specifics, the details such as route decisions, stop locations, timing, daily milage and the like all sort of gradually drift out of my mind.  In its place come grander thoughts about the trip as a whole, the accomplishments, the disappointments, the lessons learned, and everything else that has been going through my mind.

The second thing that happens is reality starts to set in.  For six days, July 5th, the day I would go back to work, and return to my “normal life”, may as well not have existed.  It did not cross my mind once.  It’s like my mind suddenly re-realized that this day was coming and that, in less than 24 hours I’d be on a plane heading home, and within 48 hours I’d be back to regular old work.

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Another thing that made this day different than the first five days is that we had two additional riders join us.  Riding with a group, and riding significantly less miles (67 today as opposed to over 100 most other days) made the ride take on a significantly different feel.

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We entered Maine only about seven miles into the ride.  I guess the previous day I pretty much rode across the entire state of New Hampshire.  And, I got my sign!  The one I had been hoping for the last two times (last two days) I crossed a state line.

The first part of the ride was nice, with a wide shoulder along state highway 113, following the Saco River.  After riding on a few back roads, and a little bit of time on a trail that was half paved and half rocky, we found ourselves headed into the Portland area.  The roads got significantly busier.  In fact, these were the busiest roads I had ridden on for the entire trip.  In some parts of the route, the shoulders all but disappeared, making these the kinds of roads I would not normally chose to ride on.

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We rode through the surprisingly hilly downtown area of Portland, and after the final seven miles along state highway 77, arrived, in the early afternoon, at our final destination for the trip, Cape Elizabeth.

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When we arrived at the Atlantic Coast, at Two Lights State Park, the day started to get emotional.

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This was, by far, the biggest bike trip I had ever been on, and may still prove to be my life’s longest bicycle journey.  But, for Clay, it was the culmination of a three year long effort to bike across the country.  In 2014, he biked from Denver to Chicago.  Last summer, from the Oregon Coast to Denver.  This year, from Chicago to Maine.  In three segments, he biked across the country.  Many members of his family made the journey to Maine to see him triumphantly enter the Atlantic Ocean, having biked across the continent, and, as a side note, also basically proven that you do not have to be some incredibly rich or extremely lucky person to do so.  He did it all while holding the same steady job!

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Of course, it is easier to be emotional when exhausted, and this picture sums up exactly how I felt the first fifteen minutes after completing the ride.  It was an odd combination of emotions that came over me.  Most of them were good, and most importantly, I felt gratitude for being able to play a small part in this whole mission by joining Clay, for three days last year in Montana and Wyoming, and for six this year.

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In the afternoon I got the meal I knew I had wanted upon completion of my ride; Lobster.  I love lobster, but I live in Denver.  When in Maine, well, really there was no other logical choice.  In fact, when biking over the last hill of the day, despite being tired, I actually increased my speed and simply yelled, “this is the last hill in the way between me and lobster”!

We ate at a place called the Lobster Shack Restaurant, which, on that day, had a 40 minute wait for service, as it is a popular destination where patrons can eat while overlooking the Ocean!

It got even more emotional after that.  That evening my main goal was to hang out with my friends, Clay and Liz, as much as possible.  They are in fact, leaving for a year long adventure, to go out and see many other parts of the world!  These adventures will be catalogued on their WordPress site.  I knew I would likely not see them for a while.

I also could not help but think about all of the things this bike journey taught me, whether it be specifically from the experience, or things that ran through my mind over the course of the long hours I spent on my bike.

Over the course of the week, I saw kindness everywhere I went.  Clay was raising money for charity.  His family volunteered to help with the ride.  Many of the people we met along the way were friendly.  I realized that, despite the amount of physical pain I put myself through, I felt happy the entire time, significantly happier than under normal circumstances.  Maybe the whole world would be happier if we all acted this way towards one another.  The most I can do, going forward, is strive to be the kind of person that gives more than I take, and do my part.

Having experienced being on mile 27 of a 100+ mile day multiple times reminded me not to become too obsessed with the destination.  This ride was about more than me laying on a beach in Maine and then eating lobster.  It was all of the places I saw while traveling from Niagara Falls across Upstate New York, through the Adirondacks and then Northern New England.  The rest of my life is not exactly where I hope it will end up at this point in time, but I can be much better off if I learn to obsess less over the destination and enjoy the journey, as I did this week.

The social media era has turned us all into avatars.  By that I mean we all have some kind of image of ourselves that we present to others, based on who we think they want us to be.  This week, I simply couldn’t continue to be my avatar.  On trips like this, our concerns shift, from the concerns of urban 21st century American life, such as getting a promotion or getting likes on social media, to more basic concerns, for food, water, and shelter.  I couldn’t put on a show for others, but I got by, and even thrived.  The others on the trip seemed to enjoy having me around.  So, I need to stop trying to be the person I think others want me to be.

Also, on the flight to Buffalo-Niagara, I was reading a book called The Happiness Project, about a woman who undertakes various initiatives aimed at improving life satisfaction and reports on the results.  She introduced me to the concept of “fog happiness”.  This is when the happiness related to an activity is not necessarily concentrated at the time of the activity itself, but spread out over a longer time period, both before and after the actual activitiy.  Once I determined I was going to make this bike trip, for the first time in my life, I thought of myself as a legitimate bike tourist.  For the first time, I felt the right to interject in a conversation about bike touring, and have legitimate opinions.  Essentially, I had added something to my list of activities and enriched my life.  We all should be more thoughtful when choosing activities, and, specifically avoid missing out on opportunities to create more of this “fog happiness”.

Obviously, anytime anyone completes an activity that requires a great amount of physical exertion, it is a reminder of how rewarding it can be to overcome fatigue.  This lesson applies to other areas of life too, but a journey like this can often be the best reminder that some of the most challenging tasks are the ones with the greatest reward.

Personally speaking, the most important lesson I have taken from this ride relates to something I have struggled with for nearly my entire life.  I seek significance in life.  I want to do things that matter and feel like I matter to others.  While with most of it my intensions are good, there is a dark side.  At times, when I feel insignificant and powerless, I succumb to anger, depression and other negative emotions.

This week, while a significant ride, and a series of significant experiences and accomplishments for myself, I was not the center of it all.  As previously mentioned, it was Clay’s ride.  He rode longer, harder, and raised money for charity.  Yet, I did not feel insignificant, as I have a tendency to feel in many day-to-day activities.  I realized, and this is important, that: You Don’t Have to be the Center of Attention to Matter.  I cannot stress this, to others but most importantly to myself, enough!

As I flew home, I drifted off to sleep, as Bon Jovi’s inspirational 2000 song Save The World played on my headphones.  Flying through moderate turbulence, I felt the plane gently shift, both upwards and downwards.  Running through my head, was an image of myself, from above, pedaling over hills, through the woods.  Nothing else was happening, I was just pedaling.

An Old World Town in a New World Region

In the U.S.A., we are quite accustomed to the seeing certain kinds of towns in certain parts of the country.  Since cities were built earlier on the East Coast, we expect to see towns laid out like Boston, Annapolis, or Charleston.  These cities tend to be a bit more challenging to navigate, as is particularly the case with Boston.

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By contrast, in the Western part of the country, we expect to see towns built more around automobile (or the automobile’s predecessor in the late 19th Century, the horse drawn carriage).  Cities like Phoenix, designed with driving in mind, have mostly straight-line roads, with suburban areas having windy subdivisions.

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This is what we have come to expect from towns in this part of the country.  So, when I first looked at Santa Fe’s road network, I was quite surprised to see a city full of windy roads that resembled something I would expect to see along the East Coast, or in Europe.

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Oddly enough, New Mexico is one of the oldest regions in the U.S., at least when it comes to architecture.  The historical lineage is just different.  New Mexico is home to over a hundred Native American Pueblos that date back to long before anyone associated with the United States of America would arrive.  Many of them are still inhabited, with some having been inhabited for over 1000 years!  This is quite a long time for this part of the world.

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol city was founded originally as a Spanish colony in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower would come ashore in Massachusetts, and still retains much of its original Spanish style.  In some ways, driving into New Mexico feels like entering a whole different region, fairly instantaneously.  I first noticed this storm chasing in college. It was my first time in New Mexico, or Arizona.  I was previously unaware of the prevalence of adobe style buildings in these two states, and was somewhat surprised to see how abruptly the styles of the building around me changed once I crossed the border from Texas into New Mexico.

Santa Fe appears to have retained much of its cultural heritage.  Aware that New Mexico has a substantial Spanish history, I decided that it might be a good idea to check out a Spanish restaurant downtown.

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Taberna came highly recommended by the staff at the hotel, and certainly did not disappoint.  The food was excellent, and, on this particular evening, a performer named Jesus Bas performed for the customers.  I sincerely, if only for a moment while sipping a glass of wine, tasting enchiladas, and hearing Spanish music, felt like I was in Spain.  Well, at the very least, it made me want to go to Spain.

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I decided to somewhat follow in the footsteps of one of the people who inspired me to start writing about my travels, Anthony Bourdaine.  For those not familiar, he is a chef who eventually became the host of a series of food related travel shows.  I watched a lot of his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations, where he did not just simply describe the food he was eating, he would also reflect upon the experience, what certain places made him feel like, and what historical context they can be placed in and such.  His current show, which is actually a bit less food focused and more focused on the travel is called Parts Unknown.  So, I was actually quite excited to see a souvenir shop actually called Parts Unknown.  Additionally, the shop is located only a few doors down from one of the places Anthony Bourdaine visited on the Season 2 episode where he travels around New Mexico; the Five and Dime, a shop where he gets a Frito Chili Pie, a commonly served dish in New Mexico.

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I did not end up getting the Frito Chili Pie, as there were a limited number of meals I could have here in Santa Fe.  I mostly just looked around at the souvenirs available in this shop, which featured Santa Fe’s connection to one of my favorite aspects of American History, route 66 (although the route bypassed Santa Fe starting in 1937).

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I ended up going to a place called Horesman’s Haven, a small restaurant on the edge of Santa Fe famous for authentic New Mexican style food where Anthony Bourdaine was caught off guard by the level of spice in their green chili.

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My chili was not quite as spicy, but still packed quite a punch.  I am glad it did!  Many people try to avoid spicy food while on vacation, to avoid experiencing an upset stomach while far from home.  In this case, the level of spice was an important part of the experience.  Life is meant to be experienced.  Some people spend their entire lives trying to avoid bad outcomes.  In my view this is a sure fire way to miss out on countless rewarding experiences.  Bad outcomes are going to happen.  We just need to manage them in our own way.  Missing out on a whole bunch of experiences, and I am talking about things much more significant than one high quality meal, bears a much greater cost than the occasional unfavorable outcome.

I am guessing this is the attitude taken by the unexpectedly high number of people who make a living as an artist in this town.  In the downtown part of Santa Fe, it seemed like half of all buildings house art galleries.  Santa Fe is known for art galleries, but there seemed to be way more than is necessary to support a town of roughly 70,000 people, even if all of those people are wealthy and have dozens and dozens of pieces of artwork hanging from all of their walls.

Like New Mexico as a whole, Santa Fe appears to have an interesting set of values that does not fit neatly into one of the categories we have become familiar with.  It is western, but also European.  It is cowboy, but also quite diverse.

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It is a state capital, but has a state capital building that looks nothing like any of the other ones I have seen across the country.

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It is the kind of place that erects historical markers dedicated to fiscal responsibility, an important, even if not flashy, achievement, and one that reflects the western values of personal responsibility.

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It is also a place that erects building dedicated to the memory horrible death marches in Europe.

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It is both “old world”, and “new world”.  It does what we all need to do, both in our own cities, and more importantly, individually.  It combines old ideas with new ideas in a way that uniquely represents its individual identity.

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.