Category Archives: tourism

The Benefits of Being a World Traveler

IMG_1998 (1)I usually don’t like posting photos taken from an airplane. Especially ones where the wing of the airplane is clearly showing, like this one …

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The situation was just too good! The flight path, which varies from flight to flight based on upper level winds, happened to track right over Iceland. At a time of year when days are only around five hours long across much of Iceland, and less than 1-in-5 days feature clear skies, it is impossible to overestimate how fortunate of a circumstance this was: To fly over the volcanically influenced terrain at the onset of winter, seeing it in all its glory from above in broad daylight like this.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience there, less than two years ago, hiking on the glaciers, standing next to all the waterfalls, and seeing the northern lights.

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As I had noted then, Iceland seems to be becoming a more popular destination for American tourists. However, according to a recent study, it does not crack the top 20 countries visited by Americans (based on data from 2015). Number 7 on that list is Germany, where my flight originated, where I had spent the prior evening, in Munich.

This was the second time Munich happened to be my final destination on a longer trip to Europe. This is an interesting coincidence as Munich somehow seems to feel closer to home than most other European cities I visit.

For example, nearly every other European city I visit has a significant number of really narrow streets, like these streets in Stockholm…

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Munich, by comparison, feels wide open.

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Part of the reason Munich feels familiar to me is because, for several years, I lived in the State of Wisconsin. With an estimated 42.6% of the population having German heritage, Wisconsin has its fair share of bars and restaurants that are decorated almost exactly like this one.

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Places like the Essen Haus, have a similar layout. The serving staff dress in similar Bavarian style attire, and serve similar food and beer.

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By the way, the food at Augustiner, walking distance from Munich’s Central Station, was fantastic!

After visiting several countries, and flying over one that I had visited quite recently, I was headed home, to an America that is, based on the perspective of being abroad for a while, in a confusing place.

According to a recent article, while Americans are the 2nd most well-traveled country in the world, only 36% of Americans hold a valid passport. This is possibly the source of one stereotype about Americans, that we generally don’t travel outside of our country.

The numbers here tell a different story, one that matches what I have observed, interacting with other Americans.

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There are people here who are interested in traveling to different countries. They often plan a lot of trips to may different foreign lands. There are also a lot of people that aren’t. As, we are a vast Country. Most people can experience almost anything they would want to experience without having to leave the U.S.

We are a well traveled country, partially by virtue of being wealthy. A significant amount of that travel manifests as travel within our Nation. Travel abroad is mostly done by roughly 10% of the population with genuine personal or business interests in other places.

I in no way intend to shame anyone for not wanting to travel to other countries. That is their choice (or limitation, as some people do not have the time or money to fly to another continent). Truly secure people validate their choices in life, not by diminishing those who chose differently. They validate their choices with confidence in the benefits of those choice.

That validation, for me, can be best demonstrated in a recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine, titled “Don’t Let You Butt Dominate Your Brain“. Traveling to other places is one of several ways we remind ourselves one of the most important things we need to remember, as we take on whatever endeavors we take on in life.

Our way of doing things is not the only way things can be done.

Other cultures have other ways of doing things. We may conclude that our current culture is the best fit for us. However, just because something we observe is different does not necessarily mean it is “wrong”. In fact….

Assuming someone is wrong because they do something differently invariantly comes across as condescending.

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I generally try to keep anything political off of this blog. This is not a politics blog. I don’t see the world as currently in need of another person chiming in with their opinions about the news, at least not in America. However, going out and seeing other cultures made me reflect one something that feels like a real shortcoming in our current political situation.

The way our political system is currently set up seems to encourage us Americans to see a false dichotomy, a false choice between two ways of thinking, both of which have serious flaws.

On one side, there is a group of people who believe America can do no wrong. On this extreme, any criticism of our country is done out of hate, and there is absolutely nothing that can ever be learned from other cultures.

On the other side, a group of people that sees our country as deeply flawed. This group appears not to acknowledge what is good about America. They long for us to be like some other country, and when our culture and history is discussed, the response is usually something like “meh”, or worse.

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I can’t get down with either extreme, and it is my sincere belief that most Americans also find themselves somewhere in between these two maddening extremes. I sometimes think of countries in a similar way I would think of any other entity; a group, a person, a sports team, etc. I think of anyone that has a healthy sense of self. They believe that they are great, and do great things for the world. That does not mean they are not always looking for ways to improve, ways to be better. It also does not mean there is no room for some friendly criticism when it is warranted.

Traveling in general, particularly to other cultures, can be a powerful reminder that there is no one correct way to go about our lives. It also exposes people to new ideas. I believe everyone needs experiences like this, in order to stay open and avoid becoming too set in their ways. However, that does not necessarily have to be world travel- for everyone.

Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range: A Quiet Place to View the Eclipse

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Every region has its high-profile destinations, as well as some lesser known, but often just as magnificent places. When people think of Wyoming, they often think of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, home of some of North America’s most unique and picturesque landscapes. The Wind River Mountains, roughly an hour east of Jackson Hole Ski Resort and the Grand Tetons is one of those places.

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The jagged peaks of the Wind River Range are somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Tetons. They include Wyoming’s highest peak, and are considered an ideal setting for a true primitive outdoor experience. In fact, the National Outdoor Leadership School, where people of all ages learn about survival in the outdoors, has its headquarters in Lander, WY, and conducts many of its programs in the Wind River Mountains.

It also happened to be in the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse. For an event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the state of Wyoming, the lesser known but still amazing Wind River Mountains represented the ideal place to view the solar eclipse without encountering large crowds.

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My group started our journey at the New Fork Lakes Campground roughly 48 hours prior to the eclipse. We spent most of Saturday afternoon climbing through a forest of mostly dead trees, wildflowers, and the occasional raspberry.

After stopping for the evening at one of the only quazi-flat areas we could find along the trail.

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Hiking several hours Sunday morning.

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Where we would periodically traverse alpine lakes of all sizes.

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We finally got a glimpse of the higher peaks that make up the heart of the Wind River Range.

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This was one of about a dozen “false summits” along the trail. By this, I mean places where the trail ahead appears to be reaching its apex, or a flat area, only to reveal significantly more climbing around the next corner.

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Sometimes there is a lot more climbing.

Whether hiking, backpacking, or cycling, false summits can be frustrating. Some people find themselves quite discouraged when they believe that the challenging component of an experience is over, only to find out that far more challenge lay ahead, with no known ending.

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It is also true of many of our personal challenges in life. A trail like this, with many false summits, can, in a way, be a metaphor for life. At times, it feels as if life is one false summit after another. Hopeful people in less than ideal situations will often see reason to believe better days are ahead only to have the struggle re-emerge, or the emergence of a new source of stress.

However, if hikes like this, sweat, frustration, and deceptive false summits and all, demonstrate anything, it is that climbing the mountain, both literally and metaphorically, is often worth it.

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After the morning haze finally burned off, we spent the day Sunday in an area the was simply magnificent.

The manner in which the shadows of the clouds shifted along the panoramic horizon was often breathtaking to watch.

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We got to enjoy ourselves in lakes that belong to nobody.

The campground we stayed at was great vantage point to watch, the sunset.

As well as the sunrise.

On a day when many were fighting crowds, and struggling with numerous hours of traffic to get a view of this eclipse, we were on top of Doubletop mountain, at roughly 11,000 feet in elevation, enjoying the eclipse with plenty of space.

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The eclipse itself, like the breathtaking jagged peaks of the Wind River Range was beautiful beyond words.

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The event lasted a total of nearly three hours, most of it with the sun only partially blocked by the moon.

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The previous four eclipse photos were taken by Jim Budde who got better photos of the event.

A little bit before “totality”, it began to noticeably feel cooler, even though it did not seem too much darker than usual.

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Right before totality, the darkness becomes noticeable.

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Totality is kind of like a two-minute-long strange dusk-like period. It does not feel like nighttime. In a way it feels like that time of the evening roughly twenty minutes after sunset, with the day that had just occurred gradually descending away to the west, enough residual light to make out surrounding objects, and the promise of the night ahead beginning to enter the collective consciousness.

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Only, everything is, like, sideways, rotated or something.

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While there was plenty of time to goof off, swim, watch the eclipse, it still was a physically challenging experience, as is any trip involving carrying heavy backpacks up steep hills.

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Backpacking is work too. There are chores to be done; setting up tents, starting fires, cooking, pumping water, etc.

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That which is more challenging, requires more effort, or taking some kind of risk is almost always more rewarding than that which is easy. This backpacking trip, the beauty of the Wind River Mountains, the experience of viewing the eclipse, such a rare event, in all its glory, served as a reminder to me of something I have always known but can at time lose sight of. Human beings, by our nature, were meant to “work” in some capacity. Sitting around and playing all day, or having everything done for us will naturally lead to a life that is empty. Working hard and receiving a reward of some kind after that hard work is complete, whether that be backpacking to see something beautiful or starting a business that impacts the world positively, leads to fulfillment.

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The final struggle of this trip is one that I can sometimes have a harder time dealing with than others- cold. Dry weather is convenient because it means no rain. However, it also commonly means large daily temperature swings. Each day, the temperature probably reached or exceeded 70F (21C), warm for physical exertion such as carrying a heavy pack uphill. Each morning was chilly, with Tuesday morning being the coldest – frost covered the ground.

The final day’s hike, and descent back to civilization went by surprisingly fast. With an early start, and few stops, we were back into civilization before noon, ready to return to “regular life”, and tackle the challenges that lay ahead, including whatever metaphorical “false summits” we would encounter next.

Moab- An Active Destination

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Some trips are restful, while others are more active.  There are some destinations that lend themselves to more restful trips; cottages in the woods near quaint towns, tropical beaches, and resorts.  Moab, is a place where it is nearly impossible to imagine anything other than an active itinerary, with a variety of activities, and a lot of places to see.  Situated in East Central Utah, several hours from the nearest major city, this popular tourist destination is surrounded by too much natural beauty to picture anyone coming here and spending large amounts of time sitting in one place.

First of all, Moab is surrounded by two National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

Both National Parks are, as National Parks tend to be, filled with tons of natural beauty and unique places.  At both National Parks, while it is possible to see a lot of interesting natural features without straying too far from the road, the best features at both parks require hiking.

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Getting to the signature feature of Arches National Park, Delicate Arch, requires a 1.5 mile hike from the Delicate Arch Trailhead.  Interestingly enough, this trail starts near the historic Wolfe Ranch, and traverses by some other unique features including some Ute Indian Rock art.

It is also quite difficult to imagine making a trip to Arches National Park and not viewing some of the other arches (Yes, it’s Arches National Park, not Arch National Park).  There is a section of the park known as Devil’s Garden, with somewhat of a network of trails taking visitors to all kinds of other arches.

The most famous of these arches is Landscape Arch, a long and wide arch whose name provides a clear recommendation as to how to orient any photograph of this particular feature (for those familiar with landscape vs. portrait  ).

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To get to most of the remaining arches requires a bit of a steep climb, which starts pretty much right after Landscape Arch.

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The hiking in the entire Moab area, not just at Arches National Park, is considerably different from the typical hiking experience.  Much of the hiking I’ve experienced, is on trails covered in dirt, gravel, and sometimes small to medium sized rocks at places such as the top of Quandry Peak.  All around Moab, I found myself on surfaces such as this one, on top of solid rock, sometimes for nearly the entire duration of the trail.  Traversing these trails required me to use my upper body more, and even do a little bit of jumping, from one rock to another.

At the top of this Mesa, there are arches with multiple partitions, arches people can hike under, and even one arch with an opening that lends itself to laying inside it to soak up the sun, the surroundings, and the experience!

The entire loop, including all the side trips in the trail network, is a total of 7.2 miles.  So, if a visitor desires to see all of these features, as well as Delicate Arch, a total of 10.2 miles of hiking is required.

And some people decide to add even more activities to their day.  In a shaded off-shoot of the Devil’s Garden Trail, I witnessed a sizable group of people playing a game of Frisbee, using the walls of this tiny canyon to make trick shots.

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Since immersing oneself in the here and now, and contributing to the local culture of a place creates a more enriching travel experience, I decided to play my part.

First, I decided to bring my own arches into the park..

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Disclaimer: I did properly dispose of that cup

Then, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided it was time that we started making our own arches, contributing to the park’s plethora of natural beauty.

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Canyonlands National Park is even bigger than Arches, broken up into three sections by the Colorado and Green rivers, whose confluence is right in the center of the park.  Without any bridges connecting over either river, and with the entrances to each section over an hour apart, it is all but impossible to visit more than one section in a day.

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The most common image of Canyonlands National Park is an almost Grand Canyon-like overlook into a deep river valley, sometimes with one of the two isolated mountain ranges in the background.  However, at the scenic overlooks in the parks’ Island In The Sky region, it is actually quite difficult to see the rivers themselves.  The canyons that make up Canyonlands National Park are quite expansive, with multiple tiers.  To see these canyons from the best vantage points requires a bit of hiking.  The hike to the Confluence Overlook (an overlook of the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers) is 10 miles round trip, something that could require the better part of a day!

Canyons are not the only interesting feature to Canyonlands National Park.  Being only roughly 20 miles away from Arches (as the crow flies), Canyonlands has some arches of its’ own.  The most interesting one is an arch called Mesa Arch, where one can see both the peaks of the nearby La Sal Mountain range, and actually another arch by looking through the arch at the right angle!

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And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

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Scientists still do not know whether or not this particular salt deposit is a remanat of a meteorite that would have theoretically collided with the earth roughly 20 million years ago.

The two National Parks are not even close to all that Moab has to offer, all of which is “active” in one way or another.  Dead Horse Point State Park, located between the two National Parks, is a place where one can hike to one of Moab’s most picturesque locations: Goose Neck.

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The entire region, regardless of what any spot is named, or whether it contains a state or federal distinction, is rich with abundant natural beauty, and places to hike, bike, jeep, climb, or even just explore.

Anyone driving into Moab from the East (from Colorado), would be well advised to take the additional time it takes to follow the windy State Highway 128 through Professor Valley, essentially following the Colorado River into town.

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We set up camp at a place called Hunter Canyon.

Twenty minutes from town, Hunter Canyon is a place where each part of the day, from sunrise to sunset, lights up a different rock formation.  It felt almost as if nature was putting on a show, with lighting, stage props, and characters coming on and off the stage for different scenes.

I also saw bike trails nearly everywhere I went.  Moab is known as a mecca for mountain biking, an activity we did not get around to (is is… really… impossible to do EVERYTHING in Moab without something like two weeks).  But, with trails like these, Moab is also a phenomenal place for road biking.

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And, everywhere I went red rock formations, each one distinct from the next, would pop up, in and out of view.

It was next to impossible not to imagine these rock formations as something else.  While driving around, I would often point out to the rest of the group what each individual rock formation looked like, or what I perceived it to look like.  Some, I said looked like specific animals, some looked like people, others, still, looked like various specific objects, such as hammers, cooking utensils, or even a turkey wishbone (by the way, the following image is an arch, residing in neither National Park, they really are everywhere)!

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And, what amazed me was how often others in my group would actually see the exact same thing when they look at a rock formation and say, yes, I also saw an octopus.  This means that either my imagination is quite accurate, or, I have managed to surround myself only with similar minded people.  Both are very much a possibility!

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But, the analogy I came to in my head most frequently, throughout the trip, is between the rock formations and the ruins of an ancient city.  Every time I saw a structure such as this one, I would imagine what is would be like if, for some unknown reason, there actually was a civilization here, many thousands of years ago.  And each one of these rock formation was actually the remnant of an ancient skyscraper, or even a larger building like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, weathered down by thousands of years of natural erosion.  I imagined what this ancient city would have been like, in an Atlantis-like scene that would play through my mind.

Since Samantha Brown’s presentation at last month’s Travel and Adventure Show, I had been trying to live in the here and now, and experience the current culture of a place, as she had advised.

For me, this included another new activity (for me)- Jeeping!

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And, I got to experience some crazy roads and some crazy places.

But, as I find in many of my travels, there is no way to truly avoid thinking about the past, and imagining another setting.  A video at the Canyonlands Visitors Center explained the actual process in which these rocks came to be formed, which took place over the course of 200 million years, back to a time when much of Utah and Colorado were near sea level, with some sections underwater and others above.  In fact, that is part of the reason why there is so much small scale variance in the color of the rocks throughout this region.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, there were echoes of the past, both real and imaginary, and both ancient and more recent.

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The experience of visiting Moab for a long weekend is as jam-packed as I have made this aritcle.  Around every corner, something new, something exciting, and something unique.  While there are some travel destinations, like Miami, one can make as active or as restful as they would desire, Moab is one destination that requires one to be active, at least in some way, to truly experience.  To come to Moab, and not wander, not explore, not do a little bit of hiking, biking, or jeeping, one would miss out on so much of what is around every corner in this region.

 

 

 

The Denver Travel and Adventure Show

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It says something about our culture, in its current state, that we now have a series of exhibitions like this, throughout the country, dedicated to travel.  After all, it was only about a century ago that the idea of going on vacation, let alone regular travel as a way of life, became an option for those that would be considered “middle class”.  Now, we have a Travelers Century Club, with multiple chapters around the world, for people who have visited over 100 countries, and wanderlusters encouraging others to make travel a way of life.

Due to a variety of factors, I am in the midst of what I am referring to as a “low energy month”.  I am guessing this is more common than I realize.  I really cannot remember the last time I had one.  It’s likely that I needed a calmer, quieter period, although, I cannot say I welcomed it.  What I ended up with was a feeling eerily similar to how I would feel toward the later part of most winters when I lived in the Midwest.  I got kind of stir crazy (still am at the time of writing this).

The Travel and Adventure Show represents a whole new way for people to feed their stir-craziness.  This year, the Travel and Adventure Show came to Denver for the first time ever, at the Colorado Convention Center downtown .  The Colorado Convention Center features the Big Blue Bear sculpture, one of Denver’s architectural attractions.  I love it!  So creative.  So unique.  Whoever designed this was not thinking along conventional lines!

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At first glance, the idea of attending this show could seem absurd.  Pay $12 (or $20 to go both days) to have people advertise to me?  It reminded me of those catalogs people would get in the mail.  They would be thick, at least 150 pages, of nothing but ads.  And people would actually pay to have them delivered?  I never wrapped my mind around that (and now I don’t have to).  I’m used to getting something like free entertainment (TV), or free information (web content) in exchange for being subjected to advertisements.

But, the Travel and Adventure Show is actually about more than just the exhibits.  The show had a series of presentations, from various people in the travel industry, with topics ranging from advice about journeys to specific destinations, travel tips, food, and so much more.

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Maybe this is more about who I am and what I care about, but the talk I got the most out of was definitely The Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown.  Her presentation focused on why we travel, how to get the most out of travel, and why experiencing other places and cultures is beneficial to us.

What I really liked about her presentation is that she presented clear and positive cases for what she believes are the best practices while traveling.  From personal experiences, she described why she does certain things on trips, including visiting some of the less publicized destinations, interacting with the locals, going on walks without maps, and being open to life-changing experiences.  However, she avoided doing so in a manner that demeans those who do things differently.

People often make the distinction between travelers and tourists.  I find it to be you classic “my way is better than their way, and now I feel better about myself” type of distinction.  People who describe themselves as “travelers” depict tourists as those who visit common destinations, play it safe, overpack, over-plan, and do nearly everything else that annoys locals.  Samantha flat out dismissed this distinction, encouraging people, well, just to travel.

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I also did not feel pressured by any of the exhibitors, which was the very thing I was afraid of.  I largely haven’t figured out what places I will visit in 2017, which makes me both nervous and excited at the same time.  I went around from booth to booth, talking to a good number of the exhibitors.  Whenever I did not think of anything specific to say to anyone, I would simply tell the exhibitors “I’m wanderlusting”.  At the time I thought it was an easy way to say that I was just browsing, but later realized that this sentence could have given people more reason to be pushy.  But, it did not happen.  I felt less like I was being advertised to, and more like I was just meeting people and hearing about places.

This distribution of exhibits were about a third from places within a day’s drive of Denver.  This included Colorado hot-spots such as Breckenridge, as well as some places a bit farther, including Utah and Montana.  The Great Plains actually had a significant presence.  Another third came from more distant international destinations.  Every region of the world was represented.  I particularly noticed a signifiant presence from Nepal, Australia, and Denver International Airport’s newest direct flight: Belize.  The remaining exhibits were a combination of people representing other parts of North America, such as Louisiana, and California, some travel related products, and even some interesting types of companies.

One was a company that offered active travel, which is the only place in the entire show I saw bike travel represented.  This exhibit, along with the 1000 Places to See Before You Die presentation reignited my desire to one day cycle the Pacific Coast Highway.  Unfortunately, this will not be possible in 2017 due to the California Floods.

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The main surprise, I would say, are the number of exhibits that were actually staffed by some sort of combination of a county or regional tourism board and one or several private tourism company.  I did not expect this.  I actually wondered if there were some tourism companies, not part of the exhibit, that would be upset by seeing their county’s tourism office team up with a rival company at an exhibition.

In the end, I would say my only disappointments were not seeing a big presence from some places I find interesting (Norway, etc.), and not seeing too much about bike travel (just the one exhibit).  I was lucky in that this show ended up feeling nothing like those gigantic catalog books I never understood, and that nobody pushed me to sign up for anything.  It ended up being just a place to explore, and, well, feed my “wanderlust”.  I thought back to those winters in the Midwest, when I would go online and start looking at trail maps, start talking to people about Springtime adventures, and thought to myself: Did I just help myself get through this stir-crazy period, or did I just make it worse?

 

100 Miles of Rolling Hills Through Central New York

It’s the quintessential bike tour stop.  A small town diner.  A picture of the bicycle in front of it, the more panniers the better.  Highly decorated walls, with an old fashion sort of flare to it.  And, of course, the existential, thought filled, photo.  It feels like I am having that experience every long distance cyclist needs to have.  Of the many stories of bike travel I have read, particularly in the Adventure Cycling Association’s monthly newsletter, it always seems like there is some sort of experience at a small town diner like this.

I am not even sure, at this point in time, whether or not I am indeed following the Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier route. I know it is somewhere close to here, in Wolcott, NY, a town I would pronounce incorrectly for the entire duration of the trip. But, I am still unsure of just how odd I look at this point in time.

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We rolled out of town on some quiet roads that were significantly hillier than the prior day’s ride.  The entire days’ ride would in some ways resemble this, up and down these types of rolling hills that dominate the landscape of Central New York.  Over the course of the next twenty or so miles (sometimes the brain works slower when the body is consistently physically engaged like this), I processed the interactions I had with the locals, both at the diner this morning and over the course of the day yesterday.   It suddenly occurred to me that my Long Island accent, which I had originally thought would be an asset while interacting with people in this area, is actually a liability.

It’s a familiar story that plays out in so many other states with large metropolitan areas, but also large rural/small town swaths.  People from “downstate”, which mainly means New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County, dominate state politics, and call anything north of Poughkeepsie “upstate” despite its position well south of the center of the state.  This can sometimes lead to resentment from those in other parts of the state that feel neglected or even abused.

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The people at the hot dog stand in Fulton, NY, our next stop, were quite friendly.  They gave us the water we needed to refill our water bottles, and even gave us a couple of hot dogs to help us on our journey.  They also largely confirmed my speculation about my Long Island accent, and how they feel about the region I grew up in.  The discussion focused on state politics.  By far the most common political sign I encountered throughout my time in the state of New York were yard signs advocating the repeal of something called the NY Safe Act.  A rough map of which counties have resolved to oppose this act highlights a clear divide between the New York metropolitan area and the rest of the state!

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My friend Clay is originally from Texas.  Out of curiosity, I asked the two ladies at the hot dog stand which location, Long Island or Texas, would have a generally more positive reputation in this town.  They quietly giggled at me and told me “Texas wins”.

I’ve always had a strong interest in road networks.  I’ve actually memorized the routes of many interstate and U.S. highways.  People will often open up a map, name two roads, and see if I can guess where those two roads intersect.  I don’t have perfect memory, like that zip code guy that used to hang out in downtown Boulder.  But, knowing my road network, I knew getting to Interstate 81, in Central Square, NY, directly north of Syracuse, felt like a milestone to me. It meant that I was roughly halfway across the state.

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When I was 12 years old, about a year after my family moved from New York to Chicago, I made this mental connection between people talking about “going upstate” back in New York, and people from the Chicago area heading to Wisconsin.  While there are plenty of parallels, the analogy was undoubtedly an oversimplification.  After crossing I-81, I recalled that I was now within a several hour drive of New York City.  Before even hitting the Adirondacks, I saw tons of amazing places in this part of New York.

I was also fortunate to get to ride on some quieter roads. We took Moose River Road northeast out of Booneville to connect to state highway 28, which would lead to our evening’s destination: Old Forge.

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This was one of my favorite parts of today’s ride; 17 quiet miles through dense forests, going over periodic hills and passing by groups of vacation homes tucked away in the woods.  It feels like the kind of place where a lot of happy things happen.  It made me think of people having their weekend away from the crowds.  It made me think of sixth graders at their family vacation home having their first kiss down by the lake.  It made me think of people actually talking to one another as opposed to staring at phones, tablets, and other devices.

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The final ten miles of my ride were along highway 28.  This was kind of the opposite experience.  It was not quiet at all.  But, like many of the roads I had been biking on throughout the state of New York, it had a wide shoulder for biking.  Additionally, it had periodic signs labeling the road as a bike route.  I also saw some wild turkey- not too exotic, but something I do not see on a day-to-day basis.

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I arrived in Old Forge just before sundown.  We stayed at a hotel called Water’s Edge Inn, which, as its name suggests is next to a lake.

We sat by the lake, watching nightfall gradually creep up on us, reflecting on the experiences of the day.  I had now ridden my bike over 100 miles two days in row for the first time ever.  We were covering quite a lot of ground, but I had started wishing I could spend a little more time in some of these places, particularly Old Forge, a town with a lot of activities and natural scenery, and a town I would barely be in for 12 hours, 7 of which would be sleeping.  Still, I was enjoying myself, and finally broadening my view of what this entity known as New York really is; beyond the City and Long Island where I spent my childhood.

Niagara Falls: Where My Journey Begins

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For most visitors to this iconic location, Niagara Falls is the ultimate destination.  It is the place one travels to, spends some time at, and then subsequently travels home from.  When I think of Niagara’s typical visitors, I think of a family from a place like New York, that made the grueling six hour drive to get there, and will make the grueling six hour drive home.

I guess my sometimes fanatical quest to not be like “normal people”, whatever that means, is working.  I certainly do not feel normal.  My day, which began with an 1:15 A.M. flight out of Denver, involved traveling from airport to airport carrying not luggage or a back pack of sorts, but two panniers, one in each hand.

In a way my journey actually began at a tiny bike shop in Niagara, NY called Beeton’s Cyclery.

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I need to give this place a serious shout out.  I shipped my bike here.  It arrived on Friday, June 24th.  I told them I needed it by Monday, and they were able to get the bike assembled (to package a bike for shipping, the pedals, handlebars, seat, and front tire must be removed) and apply new handlebar stripping in time for me to arrive late morning Monday and start my voyage.

I brought my passport, knowing that I wanted to visit the Canadian side of the falls.  Anyone who has been to Niagara told me that the Canadian side was “better”.  I wasn’t sure what that meant.  The contrast between the two sides is quite stark.  Niagara, NY is sort of depressing.  I had trouble finding a place to grab a snack, while I gazed ahead at tall buildings and casinos on the other side.

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Still, I wanted to see the falls from the U.S. side first.  The plan was to meet up with my friends on the other side and spend the evening there.

On the American side, the view of the falls is somewhat awkward.

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Well, it is from he riverfront. There is this overlook, where theoretically the view is spectacular, but it costs like $18 to go on it, so I didn’t.

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Getting to the falls on the Canadian side involved going over the same bridge that cars travel over.  The toll for bikes is only $.50 (I believe cars is $3.50), but I still had to wait in the same traffic cars wait in to cross into Canada.

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Once I crossed the border, I realized why most of the tourist attractions, hotels, and buildings and such were on he Canadian side of the border.  By happenstance of geography, the views from this side of the river are better.

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This includes both falls that make up what is called “Niagara Falls”, the American Falls, which are on the U.S. side of the river, which splits around an island, and Horseshoe Falls, which are on the Canadian side.  Both falls are magnificent.  Horseshoe Falls is more powerful, but I actually prefer American Falls, particularly the way the water hits he rocks and sort of foams up.  Both falls are best viewed from Canada.

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I’ve always loved waterfalls for some reason.  Much like one’s taste in music or art, it is not something that can be explained.  Waterfalls just feel natural to me, they feel peaceful and even sometimes graceful.

In the world of waterfalls though, Niagara Falls is pretty much the opposite of any of the waterfalls I typically view out West.  Waterfalls in the west, such as the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, tend to be tall and skinny, falling a much greater vertical distance, but carrying much less water.  Niagara is high volume but the vertical drop is actually less than 200 feet.

I also could never imagine waterfalls in the west being as commercialized as these.  In addition to the $18 charge for getting on the overlook in the New York side, the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario is filled with every establishment one would expect to find in a tourist trap packed together at a density I have only seen in one place before; Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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Gatlinburg, like Estes Park, is outside a popular National Park.  The hotels, mini golf, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, are miles away from the iconic natural beauty that made those places worth preserving through the National Park system.  All of these places in Niagara Falls are within a mile or so of the falls.  In fact, one can get another perspective of the falls by riding a ferris wheel next to the mini golf course across from the laser tag.

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Tomorrow a long journey by bicycle begins.  Tonight, I get to continue to savor these falls, as they are lit up at dusk as part of a nightly illumination. This, like the rest of town, adds a man made touch to a natural phenomenon.  Some love it, some hate it, most find a way to enjoy it regardless of the opinion they expose.  As for me, my focus turns to the days ahead, for unlike most of the others watching the illumination, my journey is only beginning.

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.