Category Archives: geography

The Other End of the World

It started with a series of firsts.

My first time in Australia.

My first time flying Qantas, as well as my first time on what is considered a “domestic” flight in a country other than my own.

Finally, my first time in one of those time zones that operate in half hour increments.

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I wasn’t even a teenager the first time I looked at a time zone map and noticed these peculiar places on the other side of the world. After many years of only seeing this on a map, it felt strange to finally physically be in one of these places.

With respect to geography, I could not be in a place more opposite from where I live.

Darwin is in the Southern Hemisphere. It is tropical. It is coastal, and it is remote.

Rather than four, or two, they separate the year into six seasons.

The series of flights to get here, without the layovers, took a total of 21 hours. With layovers, and crossing the international date line, it was a three-day journey. There’s no way not to feel farther from home than at this point.

Yet, as soon as I arrived in Darwin, I found myself in a setting that felt strangely familiar. A Greek festival.

The Glenti Festival, in its 32nd year, celebrates the Greek heritage of Darwin. This aspect of Darwin’s history and culture is something I was unaware of before coming here.

The overall vibe here felt strangely familiar. It became easy to forget just how far from home I was geographically. I repeatedly encountered the types of attire, mannerisms, and activities I would typically associate with the more rural parts of the United States.

I ended up feeling like it would be impossible to find a county more culturally similar to my own. Other than the United States, I don’t recall anywhere else I saw as much soda sold at the grocery stores and as large of portion sizes at restaurants.

With the warm humid air, beaches, consistently seeing hats like the ones many wear in rural America, and streets like Mitchell St., it felt like a weekend at Daytona Beach, Florida.

I could easily imagine some of these places featured in an MTV reality show!

Many of the differences I did observe felt like slight differences within the same general framework.

In the United States, we contend with the way we uprooted our Native American population, with mixed results that include many failures we tend to gloss over.

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Australia has the Aboriginal population, who appear to be honored in ceremonies, but not fully integrated into mainstream Australian society. When the conference I attended in Darwin began, I was given a “welcome to country”, acknowledging the Larrakeyah population that was here thousands of years before British settlement. Yet, I am certain that the nation of Australia administers all affairs here. This feels similar to our often impoverished “indian reservations” across North America.

The influence from nearby countries in Southeast Asia can be felt in both the racial makeup of the population and the types of cuisine available.

At places like Stokes Hill Wharf, one of my favorites in Darwin, cuisine from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, India and more can be found.

The wharf was one of several places to see a phenomenal sunset during the dry, or Wurrkeng, season.

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It also feels like Australia has a similar political divide. Without ever bringing up politics, over the course of the week I heard viewpoints ranging from admiration of President Trump, to envy for New Zealand’s progressive stands on certain issues.

There are still some obvious differences. Australians drive on the left side of the road and pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed” rather than “zee”. They also have a different perception of “cold”. Many lament winter temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne, mostly in the 5-20C (41-68 F) range. For most Americans, this is not cold.

The most culturally significant difference I experienced was how friendly people are.

I felt a kind of cultural warmth here. At the conference, I met dozens of people who would happily chat with me about both professional and non-professional topics. I also made friends with others at the penthouse bar at the hotel. Nearly every day, I was invited to join with people, who were previously strangers, for a meal or some other sort of activity.

One afternoon at a bar along Mitchell St., I noticed two people who were sitting alone, at separate tables. Despite different ages, genders, and races, they weren’t sitting alone for long; one invited the other to join. When a room is empty enough, we Americans leave an empty seat between ourselves and the people we were joining. However, any of the Australians I met, that would come join me at a session, would sit right next to me. I noticed them all doing it with each other. Even in a room with dozens of empty rows, there would be people sitting right next to each other.

I came away feeling that American culture is a bit stand-off-ish. An Australian woman I met on a ski lift at Whistler last year told me that people sitting adjacent to each other on a ski lift but not speaking a word to each other “would never happen” in Australia. Yet, we do these kinds of things all the time. We keep our distance from one another. We abruptly end conversations so we can get back to activities that involve work, making money, or personal development. Sometimes, our behavior even suggests that other human beings are mere commodities to be leveraged for personal gain.

Yet, it is important to remember that the values of our immediate surroundings are not the only ones that exist. With loneliness and depression on the rise in the United States, perhaps we can benefit from incorporating some of the values observed in a place that couldn’t be farther away geographically yet could hardly be more culturally similar.

The Longest Flight of My Life

Nearly 14 and a half hours on an airplane can be quite an intimidating prospect. It is the longest flight that I have ever taken in my life and I can’t imagine a longer one in my future. The flight itself turned out to be both surprisingly easy and surprisingly challenging at the same time.

The most obvious challenge on a flight that leaves at 11 P.M. is sleeping. Airplanes are not comfortable places to sleep. Despite this, I was able to get at least six hours of solid sleep. However, I spent much of the flight in and out of sleep and a good part of the second half of the flight trying to force myself to sleep.

I was trying to avoid jet lag. Sydney, Australia is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles. It actually ends up feeling more like going back 7 hours and just losing a day. The flight departed on a Thursday evening and landed in the morning on a Saturday. Friday just didn’t exist! Understanding that 7 A.M. in Sydney is 2 P.M. in L.A., and that without any kind of adjustment my Saturday in Sydney would be short (I’d likely get sleepy at 4 P.M., which is 11 P.M. in L.A.), I came up with a plan.

First, I forced myself to stay up a couple of hours after boarding. This was relatively easy as the flight provided dinner service. Then I tried to force myself to sleep as much as possible. A little over halfway through the flight, it became harder to sleep in the unnatural position of an airplane seat.

This was the most difficult part of the flight, as is often the case, but it was not nearly as difficult as I had thought it would be. Maybe this is a sign that our lives are too sedentary. Being seated for 14 hours in a row is obviously not natural. However, many of us have had days with similar amounts of time spent seated. Ten hours at a desk job, with an hour and a half of commuting and some time at home in front of a computer or television at home has created a surprising number of similar days. I have somewhat different reasons for having had days like this, but the 14+ hours of sitting on an airplane felt almost disturbingly too natural to me.

The sun rose right as the flight was preparing to land. It left me with one question. Why did I just leave summer to visit winter? In Sydney, on Saturday, I would last until just after 9 P.M. before falling asleep. Not bad. Maybe long flights to the other side of the world are far more manageable than we all think, and we all should take advantage of opportunities to visit “The Land Down Under.”

A (Extended) Weekend That’s So Chicago

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A culture is often thought of as being attached to a Nation. This is “American Culture”, “Chinese Culture” or “Peruvian Culture”. However, most Nations on this planet have vast cultural differences within their borders. Nations as small as Belgium and Switzerland can point to different areas within their countries where people adhere to different customs and even speak different languages.

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My extended weekend in Chicago started out with a classier evening that eventually lead to drinking wine until about 1:30 A.M. This was a Thursday. In some places within the United States, being out until 1:30 A.M. on a Thursday night is extremely abnormal. In the Midwest, people, especially younger people, stay out this late, or even later, on Thursday nights regularly.

The next morning I woke up to a reminder as to what makes this city a special place. With a high density of residencies and so many store fronts, it feels like there is excitement lurking around every corner. In most of Chicago’s neighborhoods, there is so much that can be done just a short walk away. It is something that is remembered fondly. However, this convenience has its flip side. The convenience of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood allowed me to accomplish so much during the day on Friday; making a bank deposit, picking up food and drink, buying clothing and eating at a new restaurant. All this was within a 20 minute walk of our “home” for the weekend.

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However, that same convenience tends to silo people into their neighborhoods. If someone can have all of those things within a mile radius of where they live, it is naturally going to become more difficult to convince them to travel to a different neighborhood.

Friday evening I put on a tie, for the first time in 2019, to go to a formal wedding.

The attire was fancy. The venue was “elegant”. The bartender was making fantastic old fashioneds. The music was loud, fast paced, happy and energetic. The end of the night was a blur. It was exactly how Chicago does things.

The next day, Saturday, was a hodgepodge of activities, packed back to back one after another.

However, it did not start until after noon, as the wedding reception the previous night went on past 1 A.M. Mornings just seem to matter less here. The price of being slow to wake up in the morning, particularly on weekends, feels like it is much lower than it is in other places. The price of food and drink, however, is significantly higher. Fine wine and fancy cocktails cost money.

That evening would stretch just a little bit past Midnight, a bit earlier than would be expected of a stereotypical Chicago Saturday night. But, it was time for all of us to travel. Sunday morning, we would pack our bags, leave our wonderful Air BnB in Lincoln Park and go on to our next endeavors.

It’s been years since I left Chicago for Denver. This weekend was probably the closest thing to revisiting a previous chapter of life anyone could ever possibly experience. However, repeating the past is impossible. There are always going to be subtle differences.

The people around you one by one enter different life stages. Their circumstances, preferences, and even world views, little by little, change. The energy is different. Sometimes, the same exact actions, or conversation topics, lead to significantly different experiences.

It is for this reason I take a somewhat cautious approach to nastolgia.

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Sure, it is fun to reminisce about experiences from past chapters of life, or even re-experience them they way I did in Chicago. However, they are never exactly the same. There is also the danger of spending so much time reminiscing about and idealizing the past, that we are no longer truly immersed in the present. To live our best lives, we must live in the now, and maintain that youthful spirit that keeps us open to new opportunities and different cultures, whether those different cultures be within the borders of our Nation, or in a land that is officially foreign.

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Park City During Peak Ski Season

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North America has its fair share of iconic ski towns; places frequented by winter sport enthusiasts, particularly skiers and snowboarders at this time of year. On one level, the experience in most of these towns is quite similar. There are the hotels and condos, restaurants, sporting goods, all those T-shirt shops, and some form of nightlife to cater to the many young and active people that visit every year.

However, there are some major differences between these towns and the resorts around them that create different experiences. The town of Park City is perhaps most similar to Breckenridge, in that it is a town that was settled in the middle of the 19th Century as a mining town.

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This contrasts with towns like Vail, which were built up around the ski resort after it opened. Also, as is the case with places like Crested Butte and Whistler, the manner in which the town is laid out, the cultural vibes, and of course the resorts themselves make each place a unique experience.

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Visiting Park City February 9-13, skiing the 10th-12th, produced what is perhaps the most typical Park City ski vacation experience, as it is right in the peak of the ski season, but not a holiday or a special event.

This time period also produced a good variety of weather and snow conditions, with a snowstorm rolling in Sunday afternoon, but Monday and Tuesday’s weather being clear.

After this experience, I have concluded that the Park City experience is unique for the following five major reasons.

1. Accessibility

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For people traveling from other parts of the country, this is a major draw. The drive from Salt Lake City International Airport to Park City can typically be done in well under an hour. Getting to most other resorts in North America requires either a longer drive or flying into a smaller airport.

2. Utah Culture

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Saturday evening, my first night in town, I walked into Wasatch BrewPub, which is at the south (and high) end of Main Street. Arriving at a brewpub at 9:30 on a Saturday night is something that feels quite normal to me. Yet, upon arrival, I was informed that last call is in a half an hour.

All the tap beers on the menu were listed at 4.0% alcohol by volume, also reflecting Utah’s culture of caution when it comes to consuming alcohol. There are, however, ways around this.

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3. The Resorts

Several years back, Park City and the Canyons combined to form a mega-resort.

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Like Whistler-Blackcomb, the formerly separate resorts are connected by a gondola.

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Both sides of the mountain have some epic skiing, including aspen glades.

Skiing through the aspen trees is somewhat of a unique experience, as, due to climate and elevation, not all resorts have areas like this.

The Park City side of the mountain probably has the best bowl skiing.

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Skiing areas like this after a fresh snow is a unique, however exhausting, experience.

Deer Valley Resort, just a couple of miles outside of town, is the site of many events at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

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It’s the kind of place where skiers can pretty much do it all, from skiing really fast on a groomed trail.

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To going deep into the woods and encountering random cabins.

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One thing I love about the resorts in Utah is that some of their trails have a double blue, or advanced intermediate rating. In my opinion, the variety of types of trails at many ski resorts in Western North America warrants some being given a rating between blue (intermediate) and black (expert).

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There are, however, some potential annoyances for some visitors. Like many ski areas around the world, Park City has gotten into the cross-hairs of the arms race between competing multi-resort ski passes. Park City resort (which includes the Canyons) is on the Epic Pass, while Deer Valley is on the IKON Pass. Visitors who want to ski both resorts cannot do so on one pass, they must either purchase a one day pass at one of the resorts (as I did), or have both passes (I did meet someone on a ski lift ride that did purchase both the Epic and IKON passes).

Also, Deer Valley is one of only three resorts in the country that does not allow snowboarders.

4. Snow Conditions

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Different parts of the country have different snow conditions. Resorts closer to the East or West coast tend to have wetter snow than those in places like Colorado. Utah’s snow this February was kind of a mix between the two, as much of the snow in the area had come from the same series of storm systems that dumped heavy snow in California.

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These storms have tapped into tons of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, bringing snow to Utah that has some resemblance to the snow at resorts closer to the West Coast.

5. Parking

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Aside from the strange way things close earlier than expected, I love Park City’s Main Street. The lights hung across the street and not so gentle slope from one end of the street to the other produce an evening atmosphere that just feels positive and festive. However I have never seen a street with so little available parking also have so little through traffic. It felt strange to look for parking for so long but also be able to stand in the middle of the road so frequently! Luckily, Summit County Utah has free busses visitors can take all over the areas, most of them going to Park City’s Main Street.

Nebraska Out of the Way Attractions

Smith Falls

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Smith Falls is pretty well hidden from most travelers. It is located in a very sparsely populated section of North Central Nebraska, far away from any heavily traveled interstate highway. It is also in a section of the country where few would expect to see a magnificent waterfall like this one.

Unless you are one of Valentine, Nebraska’s 2,820 residents, getting there is a long drive on empty roads, that even requires four miles on a gravel road off of State Highway 12.

Being so far out of the way of where people live and travel, the Niobrara Canyon, where Smith Falls is located, is quite secluded. The river itself looks nothing like the surrounding areas. The dense tree coverage feels reminiscent of places further East. It feels like the perfect destination for a private group experience; a float trip, family reunion, or some other group bonding experience.

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There does tend to be a few more people at the Falls themselves, as it is the main attraction at the State Park.

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Unlike some trails, visitors can freely walk right into Smith Falls without breaking any kind of rule. Many visitors bring swimsuits, and wear water shoes, as the trail to get from the parking to the falls is not vigorous at all, although it is about half a mile.

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Carhenge

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Carhenge, just north of Alliance, Nebraska, several hours west of Smith Falls is also quite far from any metropolitan area or heavily traveled highway. This image of an open two-lane highway with nobody else on it, wide open skies and small subtle sand hills in the background sums up the entire three hour drive between Smith Falls and Carhenge.

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While both attractions are out of the way, a few miles outside a small town (Alliance has a population closer to 8,000), in a way they could not be any more different. Smith Falls and the Niobrara Canyon is all about natural beauty, an attraction carved out of a glaciation event that occurred about 17,000 years ago. Carhenge is a homage to all things manmade, a recreation of Stonehenge, a mysterious pre-historic manmade structure, using a more modern human invention, cars.

Whereas Smith Falls is serious, Carhenge is has a goofy vibe. There is also more to Carhenge than just rusty old cars arranged like Stonehenge. This one vehicle apparently has a time capsule in it. In the year 2053, someone will open up memories of 2003, the last year before social media. That should be an interesting experience, especially for someone not old enough to remember such a world.

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There is also a car where people can write on.

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A few of these random structures that are made out of car parts, whose relation to the rest of the exhibit is not aparent.

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And, a car hood with a vaguely political sounding message on it.

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Chimney Rock

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Not too far from Carhenge is an attraction of both natural beauty and historical significance: Chimney Rock.

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Although this structure served as a landmark for Native Americans and fur trappers, its significance was heightened when South Pass (in Western Wyoming) was discovered to be the easiest passage across the Rocky Mountains. This lead to most major trails, including the famed Oregon Trail, being routed along the North Platte River, passing by Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock is a National Historical Site with a museum containing artifacts, primarily about the pioneers who traveled this route, including journals and letters written by those who made the journey.

It is hard to appreciate in the current era, where anyone with means can get on a plane and fly to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but when pioneers in the mid-19th Century came across Chimney Rock, they were often in awe of its beauty. Many accounts went to great lengths to describe the structure that is Chimney Rock.

It was also recognized by those making the journey at the time as the point where the flat portion of the journey ended and the uphill part began. The journey ahead would become more rigorous, but also more beautiful.

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Nebraska is not always known as a place with a lot of natural beauty. However, it is not without its places to be appreciated. The truth is that beauty can be found pretty much anywhere, because, it is often not a specific place or a specific person. It is often an experience. A major part of the travel experience is driving. Nebraska offers open roads that pass by subtle features like the sand hills or the rock features further west. The key is to go a little bit out of the way, and to notice, be looking for what is around you. Then, with the right music on in the right vehicle (I personally found both classic rock and EDM to match this situation, you may find something different), the experience becomes a thing of beauty itself.

Sioux Falls: Not What its Supposed to Be

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I could stare at this for hours, looking at every detail about how the water pours over the rocks, creating a continuous splash, swirls in a pattern that is both chaotic and controlled at the same time, and a fine mist that sprays outward from the surface it lands on.

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No matter how many times I see waterfalls like these, it always fascinates me that some of the water that cascades downward takes on the appearance of foam, as if it was not water at all, but had taken on another form. Watching the water rapidly descend and subsequently take on this different form feels reminiscent of a human being that undergoes an experience that is both traumatic and transformative. The water, traumatized by unexpectedly falling rapidly, suddenly exudes a sudsy and bubbly appearance.

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The amount of raw power that is created when large amount of water steadily pour over a rock. The variance in colors that appear as a result of every small scale detail about how the rocks are arranged. The changes in the manner in which the atmosphere feels in proximity to this phenomenon.

All of this creates a level of curiosity and fascination in me reminiscent of an 8-year-old at a science museum, in awe by dinosaur bones and that electricity ball that makes people’s hair stand up any time they put their hands on it. How did the rocks come to be formed in this manner? Why did the water chose this path on its way to the ocean to complete the water cycle? And, in this case in particular, how did this happen in a place so unexpected?

Falls Park is not only in a section of the country that is quite flat (Eastern South Dakota), but it is also right in the middle of a city (Sioux Falls). Everything about its location is contrary to what most people think of when they imagine encountering waterfalls. Yet, it is there, powerful and beautiful.

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It is also not just one waterfall, but a series of waterfalls that cover a surprisingly long section of the Big Sioux River. The park itself spans 123 acres, includes a restaurant, permanent sculptures, and gets lit up for the holidays in December. It does for Sioux Falls what Central Park does for New York, and Golden Gate does for San Francisco. It is the place in the heart of town that is natural and scenic, providing a kind of convenient short-term escape from day-to-day urban concerns.

However, given its location, surrounded in all directions by flat lightly forested grassland and corn fields, a waterfall like this feels like it is not supposed to be here. Sioux Falls is a city in the Great Plains. The other cities in the region are bisected by rivers that gently flow towards the Mississippi in some capacity, not cascading waterfalls that are typically found in mountainous terrain.

Sioux Falls captures the imagination much in the same way light switches captivate a 9 month old, or magnets a 4 year old. It is not what is expected. It is not what it is supposed to be. Places like this, people like this, and ideas like this are what makes life interesting. Sure, we are all comforted when what is around us, including the people we interact with, follow some sort of pattern, behaving as expected. However, without the mavericks out there, the teacher with a strange method of reaching students, those that quit stable jobs to start a business, and that one person in your social circle who always has a story from last weekend about something the rest of us could never even imagine doing, things can get quite stale. Therefore, for the same reason I salute the first person to decide to travel the world by bicycle, I salute Sioux Falls for not being what it is supposed to be!

WE Fest and the Culture of Northern Minnesota

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What is American Culture? This is a much tougher question to answer than most people would want to admit. Sure, there are those things about America that foreigners notice right away. For instance, the portion sizes.

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But, large portions of food, large amounts of soda, big cars, loudness and exhibitionism are not the only things that define American Culture. In fact, they do not even unite the entire nation, as there are places in the United States where these are not the customs.

American Culture cannot be described in one sentence, one paragraph, or even one page because of how far from homogenous it is. Traveling within the country, one would find many different sub-cultures. It is even possible to argue that every state, every city, and sometimes every neighborhood, has its own unique traditions and customs.

Of course, to claim there are thousands of sub-cultures in the country would be, in a way, getting too hung up on minor details. However, there is definitely grounds on which to claim there are several dozen cultures with significant distinctions from one another.

The culture of Minnesota can generally be thought of as in the same category as Wisconsin and Michigan. The entire region has an abundance of lakes. Minnesota is “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”. This culture seems to revolve around going to the lake, being on a boat, fishing, and drinking beer. People from the metropolitan areas often own second homes or cabins along a lake and travel there on the weekends. This seven week old infant living in Saint Paul is already preparing for his third trip “up to the lake”.

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Northern Minnesota specifically is fairly sparsely populated, putting it one one side of the most obvious cultural divide in the U.S.; urban vs. rural. Generally speaking, on either side of this divide between large metropolitan areas and places more sparsely populated. The expectations are different, the attitudes are different, and, the music is different. There is perhaps no better way to get immersed in the culture of rural America than to go to a country music festival.

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WE Fest is a major country music festival in Detroit Lakes, MN. The attendance, in 2018, was said to have topped 65,000. Here, the different customs and attitudes were on full display.

The U.S.A flag was everywhere! So were messages, from performers and attendees alike (often on their shirts) showing support for the American way of like, the military, and other mainstays of American culture.

This is not to say people in the cities do not love their country. But, there does seem to be significantly less exhibitionism about it. There is also, in some sub-cultures, particularly the ones centered around major academic institutions, a greater willingness to criticize actions taken by the United States of America. In some cases, this comes across as downright cynicism.

To be honest, there is something about the flag waving, proud, traditional rural culture that feels warmer …  happier. It feels far better to believe in something and take pride in it than to succumb to cynicism and long for something else. Cynicism can feel quite cold at times, and self-loathing creates sadness.

Yet, the more traditional culture can also feel unnecessarily restrictive.

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Seriously, let the dogs and cats have fun too!

While exhibitionism can be annoying to some people, taking excessive pride in one’s country truly only becomes harmful when it leads to one of two outcomes.

First is the hostile treatment of outsiders. In the case of National pride, this would be treating non-Americans as lesser human beings. This is not to say that most, or even one-in-ten flag waving rural Americans have ever advocated treating outsiders poorly. It is to say that, excessive pride in a group of people, whether it be a nationality, a gang, or even something like a personality type, can lead to some form of non-beneficial disconnect from those with different traits.

Second, is when pride leads to an attitude where no criticism, even if constructive, is tolerated. Not all decisions are good decisions.

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Loving another human being can sometimes mean needing to tell that person when they are choosing the wrong course of action. Loving oneself means seeking ways in which to improve. The same can be said for a nation. Like an individual, a nation needs to try to avoid poor decisions and seek ways in which to improve. Pride can lead to avoiding all criticism and seeing no need to take suggestions or improve, which is detrimental.

Maybe this nation, like every nation, needs people to remind them that the nation is great, with a great culture and heritage. But, also needs people to point out some shortcomings, help it avoid repeating past mistakes, and point out areas where improvements can be made. These are the traits of a balanced individual, and hopefully, going forward, can be the traits of a balanced nation.