Category Archives: tourism

12 Thoughts on Travel to Australia

1. It is not as daunting as many people make it out to be

Australia is kind of the other end of the world. So, it is easy for people in North America (Europe as well) to think of Australia as nearly out of reach due to constraints related to time and money. Flights from Los Angeles to Sydney take 14-15 hours. Sitting in an airplane for that long, especially in coach, is quite uncomfortable.

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However, once it’s done, it’s done. Traveling to Australia for the first time felt reminiscent of the first time I spent a weekend away from my family, while I was in high school. Despite the trip being only four hours, the lead up made me nervous and took me out of my comfort zone. I came back with a fantastic experience and a comfort zone expanded. Dealing with jet lag and the change in seasons can be rough, but many regular travelers have come up with some good techniques to manage it.

2. The best time of year to visit is somewhat ambiguous

The northern part of Australia is tropical. Since summer is their wet season, winter is likely the better time of year to visit.

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As for the Southern part of the country, the weather would most likely be more pleasant in the summer (December- February). However, that is the busy tourist season. The Great Ocean Road in June was pleasantly empty. Plenty of locals indicated this to be the better time of year to be here due to the lack of crowds.

If I could chose any time of year to visit Australia again, I would like to try Springtime (Fall in North America). When considering the ideal time to travel, many fail to consider what they are missing back home. Colorado is amazing in winter and summer. Spring and fall can be beautiful as well, but I feel like I am missing less when I travel in these in-between seasons.

3. For Americans, it is one of the easiest places to engage in another culture

Travel can often be far more rewarding when tourists engage in the culture of the place they are visiting, rather than just visit sites. The combination of friendly people and a similar culture makes Australia an easy place for Americans to do this.

4. It is neither expensive or cheap

If someone tells you Australia is cheap, they likely live in New York and typically visit places like London, Paris, or Oslo. If someone tells you Australia is expensive, they likely live somewhere like Indianapolis and vacation in places like Mexico and El Salvador. In reality, prices for things like food, hotels and transit is right in the middle of the pack.

For food and drink, it is important to remember the tipping is not required here and the Australian dollar is worth about 77 cents.

5. Forget the Commercials

I did not hear anyone say ….

  • “Throw another shrimp on the barbie”
  • “Oh Crocies”
  • “Fosters, Australian for beer”

6. Expect a lot of Asian tourists

Half of the world’s population lives in China, Southeast Asia, India and Japan. Australia has only 26 million people. The makeup of the tourists will most certainly be dominated by people from the highly populated and relatively nearby part of the world. Many of the signs along the road contained text in Chinese as well as English, in the same manner that signs in Colorado are written in English and Spanish.

7. There are three different kinds of rugby

And apparently each one has different rules and is associated with a different class of people.

8. Australians have a nuanced view of weather and climate

A bartender in Melbourne told me that “real Australians love the heat”, when referring to temperatures in excess of 45°C (113°F). Yet, there seemed to be a genuine concern about climate change.

In America, especially in the Midwest, it appears that concern for climate change has some connection with weather preferences, particularly frustration with wintertime cold.

9. It is a big country

By area, it is only slightly smaller than the United States, and that is primarily because of Alaska. Trying to see the whole country in two weeks is pretty much like someone saying they’ll see the entire continental United States in two weeks. It is nonsense (or, “rubbish” as they would say). Two weeks is almost the minimum amount of time one would want to allocate to a trip to Australia to make the long flight worth it. One couple I met set out to see the entire country in a recreational vehicle. They plan to do so over two three-month trips.

10. They have some surprising travel preferences

Skiers seem to prefer to travel to Japan over New Zealand.

It is actually cheaper to fly to Hawaii from Australia than from the United States. Most Australians I met have been there at least once. I even heard of people flying to Hawaii for Black Friday Shopping

11. Koalas can be somewhat hard to spot

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12. They are having many of the same discussions we are having

In addition to having the same political divide as the United States, there seems to be similar discussions about a lot of other issues. This book, Australia Reimagined, could have easily been written about America.

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 Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

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The Great Ocean Road is an iconic drive along the south coast of Australia. Accessing the road is relatively easy. It starts about an hour west of Melbourne. For travelers, especially international ones, I’d recommend a stop at the travel information center along highway 1 just outside of Geelong. The people there were quite friendly. They provided plenty of maps and other information about attractions, which ended up being quite useful. They told me that many visitors try to do the entire drive all in one day, particularly in summer. However, with so much to do here, I am glad we chose a three day excursion in a camper van.

Our first spotting of the ocean shore in the distance, occurred less than 2km after we passed a sign welcoming us to the Great Ocean Road. A lot of travel involves a destination that is one specific location; a museum, campground, event or city. In these cases, it is easy to know when you have “arrived” at your destination. On trips like this one, the lines can be blurred. Seeing the ocean after passing this sign gave us a clearer indication that we were now at our intended destination- The Great Ocean Road.

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A bit further West, after having already hugged the coastline for about 20 km, an even fancier welcome awaits motorists just before entering one of the larger towns along the road, Lorne.

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Passing under this arch felt reminiscent of cycling under the original gateway into Yellowstone National Park, several summers ago.

The eastern half of this scenic drive passes in and out of coastal towns like Lorne and Torquay, which are primarily known for their surfing.

It also jets in and out of Great Otway National Park, a pretty dense feeling forest with plethora of utterly amazing waterfalls. Visiting all the waterfalls in this park would likely take several days, so it’s probably good to just pick a few specific ones to visit.

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As is the case with most of the other waterfalls in the park, getting to Erskine Falls required venturing a bit off the Great Ocean Road. The trailhead is about 10 km off the road in Lorne, and the walk was about 1.5 km round trip.

Despite the raw power of a this waterfall, the place felt quite tranquil. The trees calm the air while also creating a feeling of seclusion. Below the falls, the water seemed oddly calm despite having just descended 38 m (125 ft.). There is nothing like a gentile flowing creek when it comes to feeling balanced, happy, and connected to nature. The water cycle ties our planet together, and the manner in which it retains its tranquil feeling after going over the falls is uniquely reassuring.

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Each of the waterfalls in Great Otway National Park has a pattern that is unique from one another. Yet, they are uniform in their ability to create a feeling of seclusion from the outside world which made me feel refreshingly carefree and mindful.

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We saw the sun gradually begin to descend upon the Great Ocean Road, as we approached our campsite for the first evening, in a smaller town called Wye River where it appeared as if most people live on a hill.

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We set up a table and chairs along another tranquil creek, and opened up the top, or “penthouse” of our Jucy camper van.

It was my first time traveling in a camper van, but the experience felt quite similar to the kinds of camping trips I take part in back home in Colorado (with the exception of the sunset at 5:15 creating a long night).

Trips like this, away from much of our most recent technology always make me wonder whether or not it is worth it. Sure, when we ditch some of this technology, at places like this, there are more chores to be done, and some entertainment options are not available. However, making a comparison between an evening camping and an evening in the city, it feels like much of what our newest technologies have created are only minor conveniences, like a computer algorithm to help us select music to listen to, or a way to not have to physically buy a ticket to an event in person.

In exchange, we have created hundreds of new procedures to remember, hundreds of additional hours annually in front of screens, hundreds more things to keep track of and maintain and hundreds of log-ins and passwords to various sites and apps. Maybe it all is worth it, as I am comparing a holiday to normal days where we often have to work, do some form of home maintenance or run errands. Regardless, I am glad to have had some time away from these countless complications we have recently added to our lives.

A Mini Safari at Kakadu National Park

The word Safari is typically associated with groups of people out looking for the kinds of wild animals usually only seen at the zoo. The word Safari originated from an Arabic word that literally means “to travel”. For some, a safari represents a kind of once in a lifetime experience that typically lasts for one to several days.

The Yellow Water Cruise is not a safari. It is an Indigenous-owned operation that takes tourists on a two-hour boat cruise in the central part of Kakadu National Park.

It is one of the best places in the world to see crocodiles in their natural habitat, and the reason most visitors to the national park take this cruise. I came onto this cruise with the mentality that its sole purpose was to look for crocodiles. Before departing, there was a series of safety instructions given by our tour operator where we were specifically told not to take selfies with the crocodiles.

What I ended up getting honestly felt like a very small scale, and river-based version of what we commonly think of as a safari. We see a bunch of animals in their natural habitat on a journey through wilderness.

For the first 10-15 minutes of the journey, we primarily saw birds.

It was maybe 20 or 30 minutes into the journey that the crocodiles began to appear. The first one we saw from a distance. However, one of the other boats was already looking at the crocodile. Our tour guide told us we would just “catch the next one”. He then informed us that there were tens of thousands of crocodiles in these seas, and that he would “bet his job” that we will see another one. He also informed us that the crocodile diet mainly consisted of fish, something good to know.

They did begin to appear.

While some were in the water, plenty of crocodiles could be found just sitting on the ground in the wetlands directly adjacent to the river.

One was even stationed – protecting a bunch of eggs.

Then, we actually got up close and personal to a couple!

At this point, I was glad to have heard that these creatures primarily eat fish. I would not attract their attention. Nor would the candy I happened to have in my shorts pocket (still a dumb idea).

Then we began to see some other animals in their natural habitat.

As we paddled around the river, seeing the crocodiles swim around, then packs of wallabies and finally buffalo, I began to feel a strange resemblance to the zoo.

The wide-open areas with packs of animals, and trees in front felt like the habitats set up at zoo exhibits. The background landscape, with its rolling hills, and blue skies that fade into the horizon, looked like those backdrop drawings placed behind the animals, as if to try to fool both the animals and the visitors into feeling more like the animals are in their natural settings.

Only this is the real thing.

It probably helped that the water buffalo we saw is a species that is originated in India and Southeast Asia, not Australia. They were brought to the Northern Territory as it was being settled in the 19th Century and were able to live in the relatively similar habitats in far northern Australia. If one is to consider the past 150 years a mere blip in evolutionary history, on the Yellow Water Cruise visitors can see animals from multiple continents all from the same boat.

It is an amazing feeling to be right in front of something that had always felt so distant. However, this was real. The wide-open plain in which the animals were grazing and hoping around was truly wide open with the animals having room to roam. The crocodiles were swimming along in the river, sometimes at fast speeds.

And, the backdrop in which the blue sky fades into the horizon really was a reflection of the time of day about half an hour before sunset.

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.

One Cloudy Day in Sydney

The day started with fog. It wasn’t thick enough to cause major travel hazards. But, it was thick enough to obstruct views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge from the Central Quay train station platform, as well as the 25th floor of a nearby hotel. The hotel concierge would not recommend activities like ferry rides and bridge tours so long as the visibility was as low as it was.

Luckily, that fog would gradually lift over the course of the day.

This would give way to an afternoon that was just cloudy, with five afternoon hours to explore Sydney, as early June has some of Sydney’s earliest sunsets.

It ended up still being a pretty good day to walk through The Royal Botanical Gardens.

The low-level cloudiness of the day, if anything, provided a unique experience. The thick layer of cloudiness felt like it added an element of mystery to the trek through the gardens, with its variable, but often dense vegetation.

Embedded in the trees are plants from many parts of the world, some unexpected.

At the far Northeast end of the garden is Ms. Macquaries Point. There are several paths to get there, each with different vegetation. It is a large garden visitors could easily spend multiple hours at. The view of downtown, from across the bay, is perhaps the best one in the city.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge Tour is supposed to be an epic experience. However, it is expensive (~ AU$ 300), and probably would not have been cost effective on a day like this. Ferry rides to Sydney’s North Beaches, however, cost only AU$15 round trip.

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These ferries track right next to Sydeny’s defining skyline features as it connects downtown with communities like Manly Wharf.

Manly Wharf feels similar to many coastal communities in America, particularly in California. Despite less than ideal weather conditions, surfers ventured in and out of the waves of the Pacific Ocean all afternoon while coastal birds wandered among the humans looking for food scraps.

Over time, their presence becomes something everyone is just accustomed to, part of the background like the sound of the ocean waves or the humming of one’s kitchen appliances.

The great thing about venturing to places like this is the ability to imagine the day to day lives of people who live here. Central Quay is, of course, the most “touristy” part of Sydney. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist. Attractions are attractions for a reason; they are great places to visit. However, most of the other people walking around places like this are also tourists, not living their typical day-to-day lives.

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Here it is different. At the bars, people were cheering on their local team in Australia’s favorite sport- rugby. The shops along the wharf provide not only the kinds of services tourists need, such as restaurants and ice cream shops, but also grocery stores and gyms. Patrons at the bar would encounter others they are already familiar with. Living near this beech and taking a 30-minute ferry ride to work every day feels like an amazing life!

There were also plenty of families in the area, many enjoying the beech, and preparing to take the ferry downtown for the Vivid Light Festival. This festival runs for something close to a month at Sydney’s darkest period, with various light displays illuminating Sydney’s downtown buildings.

It was also quite well attended. It makes perfect sense for an event like this to occur this time of year in Sydney. Sydney’s winters are not that cold. Saturday was a chilly day with temperatures in the 10-15°C (50-59°F) range. This, although not cold from the standpoint of anyone that has lived in cold cities in the Northern United States, felt cold enough to encourage many locals to wear wintry clothing, including coats and hats. For the entire day, most people appeared dressed the way New Yorkers would dress for an evening in December with temperatures just below freezing.

One day stops are never a guarantee. This is especially true in places with variable weather conditions; mid-latitude destinations in wintertime. Travel is often a delicate balance, between planning and spontaneity, between maximizing time and finding time to relax, and between the desire to take part in everything and the limitations of the human body. It is possible to use perhaps the scarcest human resource, time, to its fullest while traveling by doing things like visiting popular destinations in wintertime for one day. However, it requires the understanding that not everything will always go exactly according to plan. Being aware of what is going on, weather and other considerations, while noticing events like like Vivid Light Festival and being open to trying them out will usually lead to a great experience regardless of circumstance. Sometimes, when circumstances require adjustments to be made, the experience can even end up better than the one originally planned.

North Dakota’s Role in the History of the West

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In my childhood, I never knew what to think of North Dakota. Like most people living in metropolitan areas, I never gave the place much thought. I do recall hearing, at some point in the late 1990s, that North Dakota was the least visited state in the country. However, a more recently published list indicates that the state sees far more visitors now due to the recent oil boom. Apparently, Alaska, the hardest state to get to, is now the least visited state in the country, which makes sense.

My ideas about North Dakota were just kind of hazy. I’d wonder if the culture was just like that South Dakota and Nebraska. Or, if the proximity to Minnesota or Canada made it kind of different.

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A drive across North Dakota along Interstate 94 will confirm what most people think. It is a Great Plains State with a Great Plains feel. If anything, there are even less trees and fewer towns than the rest of the Great Plains.

However, there are some surprising encounters, with both natural beauty and history to be found, without going more than a mile off the Interstate.

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One of the most amazing parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Painted Canyon,  can be viewed just by going to a rest stop right off the highway.

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This is pretty amazing, considering that adjacent to the park in all directions is nothing but endless wide open prairie.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s significance to the history of the west is, as expected, related to the president the park was named after. Theodore Roosevelt first encountered this land on a train trip to Montana. He fell in love with the wide open spaces, colorful valley, and quiet seclusion the area offered. He would later buy a ranch here, and it is said that experiences like these influenced the conservationist policies he would pursue as president, including a major expansion of the National Park System.

Halfway across the State, I encountered another scenic area, or, at least the sign indicated it as such.

In both North and South Dakota, the Missouri River Valley, and the surrounding bluffs provide some variance in what is otherwise a fairly homogenous drive.

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This river crossing is also where explorers Lewis and Clark met Sakakawea, a 17-year-old Native American who would play an important role in helping the explorers complete their journey. The Shoshone were the predominant tribe in areas of what is now Idaho and Montana, where Lewis and Clark were headed to cross the Rockies. Sakakawea, a Shoshone who was captured by the Hidasta tribe and brought to present-day North Dakota, had the language experience Lewis and Clark needed for much of the remainder of the journey. She was even reunited with her brother, who turned out to be one of the tribe chiefs Lewis and Clark needed to trade with.

It was here in Bismarck I encountered a sizable North Dakota town, as well as a State Capitol building with a very unique shape.

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I was not sure how to feel. As I prepared to interact with people, my mind wandered to every pre-concieved notion I had about North Dakota. I wondered what people here do on a day-to-day basis. I wondered if, despite the fact that it was only the second day of August, people who live here are already dreading the winter to come.

I overheard some conversations from people who sounded like they were locals. What I heard was not complaints about excessive boredom, fear about a sub-zero temperatures four months in the future, or some foreign sounding discussion about fracking I cannot follow. I heard people with a lot of the same concerns I often have: How to help that one friend or family member going through some hard times. People’s concerns over changes being made at their workplace. Health concerns and other day-to-day topics that are common amongst almost all the people of all the world.

I thought to myself “Have I become this disconnected from really?” Do I now struggle to relate to people when they aren’t discussing some major global issue, an invention at a setting like start-up week or some grand adventure?

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Even in the most innovative cities in the world, more people would prefer to discuss their day than a diagram like this one.

It would be easy for anyone to say that, right now, North Dakota’s only really significance is in the world of energy production. However, that would be ignorant to history. For, if it weren’t for Lewis and Clark meeting a friendly tribe to camp with for the winter (Fort Mandan), and get the help they needed from Sakakawea, it may have taken several more decades for the West to be opened up. And, if it weren’t for a young future president finding picturesque Badlands he desperately wanted to preserve, the National Park system, which has a much larger presence in the West than the East, could look significantly different than it does right now.

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What occurred to me as I continued Eastward from Bismarck was that, whether the number of annual visitors is closer to 2 or 20 Million, most North Dakotans probably do not care about the relatively small number of annual visitors. It reminds me of some of the people I interact with in Colorado that were born there decades ago. Many of them actually did not want this gigantic influx of people and visitors that fundamentally transformed the state. Many of them just wanted to enjoy their state the way it was, and that is what North Dakotans get to do.

Why I Love the American West

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Eight o’clock rolls around. Along a wide open highway in Utah, bolts of lightning off in the distance illuminate the sky. Gentle rain taps on my vehicle. Yet, straight above, stars can be seen dotting the night sky in a manner that instills wonder into the hearts and minds of all who are paying attention to what is around them.

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I wonder too. The lights of the car in front of me provide tiny clues as to what is actually there, but reveal preciously little. The rest is left to the imagination of all who travel at night on an unfamiliar highway.

I imagine a scene that could be out of a movie. A ranch house with a gigantic yard and one of those large swirly structures that starts twirling in the wind, like the one in the movie Twister. Miles and miles of endless open range with a mountain range that can be seen off in the distance. A 9-year old boy with his younger sister looking out the window, with a sense of wonder, at the storm rolling through a typically dry place. Dogs barking at tumbleweeds. A community of people alone together in a dry, isolated place.

I typically would not chose to travel at night, especially in a place like this. Utah is a place of abundant natural beauty, always shifting with the season.

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In March, the spring sun at mid-day shines bright upon the white snow on the mountain tops, brown forests and red rocks below.

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The reddish looking glow, revealed by the headlights at night, gave but a small indication of what Utah actually looks like in the middle of March. Some combination of memory, imagination, and reasoning would lead anyone to conclude that the land was not dull, flat, barren, but how many would have imagined the cut out canyons, the rock structures, salt washes, and many viewpoints of unique natural features.

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The other thing lost in my imaginative narrative about the family on the ranch in the storm is the fact that, with the exception of the occasional small town, there are no people here at all. Sure, there are the people who are driving along the interstate overlooking the various features. Five miles in either direction, there are no farms, ranches, or even people, just rocks, sagebrush, and wildlife. Had my imagination been more accurate, it would have been a story about moose, bighorn sheep, or perhaps a family of black bears getting in an argument about when to wake up from winter hibernation.

Still, there is something to be said about leaving some things up to the imagination. Much of what we experience today; movies, art, and even technology, began in someone’s imagination. While some people are naturally imaginative all the time, and some people only resort to their imagination quite rarely, not having all the facts can help trigger people imagine more. This makes it ironic that some of our present day technology, born of imagination, actually causes some people to engage their imaginative abilities less!

My imagined scene, of a family in a ranch house near Green River, UT was not nearly as spectacular as what actually is Central Utah’s unique landscapes. However, that will not always be the case. Sometimes our imagined world is, in fact, better than the actual reality we are experiencing. And, sometimes, there is something beautiful about being given but a small hint and riddle to solve regarding what is in front of you.

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Sometimes, it is good to have the opportunity to travel at night.

 

 

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.