Category Archives: vacations

Exactly What Was Expected

Sometimes in life, for better or for worse, things go exactly as expected.

img_8965d

An average November produces only six clear days in Chicago, compared to 18 cloudy ones. December is even cloudier, averaging 20 cloudy days.

The weather I experienced, visiting Chicago over Thanksgiving and into early December was exactly what one should expect. With the exception of a few hours on one day, it was cloudy. There were stretches where it even got foggy.

img_8951

A couple of days, it rained. Temperatures where in the 30s (-1 to +4°C) pretty much the entire time.

img_8961

It could have been worse. Chicago is prone to cold air outbreaks, and while late November into early December is not the heart of winter, it is still possible for temperatures to drop down close to 0°F (-17°C).

Thanksgiving is not about pleasant weather, being outdoors or any specific activities. It’s not even really about the food or drink. It’s about gratitude. It’s also about spending time with friends and family.

The Thanksgiving feeling is that conversation, usually around the table, where everyone feels safe, supported and not judged. Everywhere we go in life, we feel the need to prove something. We are always trying to prove to our bosses that we are worthy of pay raises and promotions. We are often trying to prove to those in our social scenes that we are worth inviting to parties and events. With social media and smartphones, much of our lives have become trying to prove to people that we are interesting enough to warrant their attention. Thanksgiving, when done right, is a reprieve from all that!

Holidays are not without their struggle. Flights to visit family are often expensive and we are often forced to make tough decisions regarding visiting family at Thanksgiving, Christmas or for some other holiday. This year’s trip turned out really well, as my time in Chicago started on Thanksgiving, November 28th and extended about a week. I got to experience both holidays, as we had Thanksgiving dinner, but also were able to set up the Christmas tree, start singing Christmas songs and watching Christmas movies.

For many other reasons, the entire trip to Chicago ended up pretty closely aligned with expectations.

img_8981

When trips to visit friends and family fall in line with expectations, it is almost always a good thing. However, in other areas of life, sometimes what we expect is not what we actually want. This is technically true of work right now. Well more than half of U.S. workers are not happy with how their jobs turn out. As of the end of the 2010s, going into any job, one would have to unfortunately bet on a poor experience.

In every area of life, from personal relationships, social endeavors, politics, to just going to the supermarket, an experience can be typical or it could be abnormal. How anyone feels after a “typical experience” depends on three factors.

1. Personality

Specifically, this often relates to how open we are and how optimistic we are. Optimists tend to have high expectations. This is generally a good thing, but can be frustrating when some anticipated better than normal experience does not come to pass. People who are more resistant to change would likely be more satisfied having an experience that falls in line with what is typically expected.

2. How one feels about the current state

This one is easy to reconcile. If someone likes where they are in life, and feels things are moving in the right direction, then they will be happy with a typical life experience. However, when someone feels like something in their lives or what they are observing around them needs a change in direction, a “typical” experience can actually lead to some level of depression.

3. Recent events in our own lives

Both ancient and recent philosophical writings have described the need for some kind of balance between the predictable and the chaotic. Too much of the former can lead to stagnation and that nagging feeling as if something is missing. Too much of the latter can lead to that feeling that everything is out of control and nothing can be counted on. Experiencing exactly what one expects falls into the category or order or the predictable. For someone whose life has felt out of control, an experience that follows the order of things can feel refreshing. For someone who feels antsy and stagnant after seven identical weeks following a constant routine, another typical experience could just add to the frustration.

 

The Great Ocean Road Day 3: Final Day

IMG_7118

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.

IMG_7101

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.

IMG_7110

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.

IMG_7115

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.

IMG_7121.jpg

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.

IMG_7123.jpg

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.

IMG_7138.jpg

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.

IMG_7165.jpg

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

IMG_7160

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

IMG_7164

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.

IMG_7168.jpg

The Great Ocean Road Day 1: Great Otway National Park

IMG_7011

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.

IMG_7010.jpg

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.

IMG_7017.jpg

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.

IMG_7022.jpg

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.

IMG_7037IMG_7036

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.

IMG_7034.jpg

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.

IMG_7041.jpg

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 Christmastime Message

IMG_5229

Christmas, and the Christmas season, is quite easy to understand as a child…

Time off of school

Family gatherings

Fun lights, decorations, parades and movies

And, of course, Santa Clause coming and bringing toys

IMG_5235.jpg

Maturity complicates things. For many, there is a lot of work to do, work that is not related to Christmas; shopping, decorating, cooking, event planning, etc. In college, the Christmas season often means the end of a semester, with final projects and preparations for final exams. In many work environments, end of the year projects and the rush to meet annual goals can create a busy month. Unfortunately, this stress can sometimes make it hard for many adults to actually enjoy activities like baking and putting up Christmas decorations. These activities, which were meant to be joyous, end up just creating more stress.

Another complicating factor is the nature of what it is we desire at different ages. What most kids want is something that Santa can bring down a chimney, or what a parent, friend or relative can wrap up into a box. What most adults truly yearn for is something that cannot be found at a shopping mall, or even on Amazon. True love, self-respect, acceptance, community, and many of the things mature people need for a truly fulfilling life, but often lack, cannot be achieved over the course of one day, or even one season.

IMG_5160.jpg

Then, for those who are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be of the more intellectual persuasion, there are all the questions and observations.

Should non-Christians even be celebrating Christmas?

Is Christmas even really a Christian holiday? Given its dubious historic roots, and current manifestation as largely secular and materialistic.

Is there too much materialism in the holiday?

What does it mean to be in the “Christmas Spirit?”

Does all the talk of snow in Christmas music make it too biased against those who live in the tropics or the Southern Hemisphere?

What would happen if someone crashed a Christmas Party, and interrupted “Let it Snow”, with the Lil’ Wayne & Fat Joe Song “I’ll Make it Rain”, while yelling “Climate Change”?

IMG_4853

It is also possible to observe people for whom Christmas is not a great time of year. People with truly dysfunctional families (beyond just different political views) may dread the holidays, and for people with no family at all, it can be a time of intense sadness.

IMG_5226

There are probably a lot of lonely adults wondering how a season that once brought them much joy has now become one of indifference, stress, or even worse, sadness. What is it that can be done this Christmas Season to create a more positive outcome?

There are three natural instincts regarding where to begin talking about the meaning of Christmas for adults.

20171208-162224-58944475.jpg

The first is to talk about the Christmas Spirit; compassion, generosity, warmth and understanding. There are, of course, reasons this is a good thing, but anyone who has gone through a truly tough time in their lives knows that not everyone has the capacity to be in this spirit at all times. The Human Spirit can change with circumstance and environment regardless of season.

IMG_2989

The next is to roll it up with New Years, into some kind of a prolonged period of self-reflection, where the events of one year are process and the goals and themes of the coming year are considered. Of course, it is quite self-evident how effective this is, given how few New Years resolutions are actually kept.

Then there is the cycle of life that is the seasons, with the Christmas season being the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. There is historical precedence for cycles of holidays or festivals that roughly match the start and end (and sometimes the mid-points) of each of the four seasons. For some, Christmas serves as an exciting start to an exciting season, while for others, it softens the blow of entering a difficult season.

The primary common thread regarding the reasons people value Christmas relates to taking a break from the normal progression of events.

Even those who truly love their jobs need to periodically take a break. While some jobs have prolonged time off, like summers for teachers, for most, Christmas represents the longest break period of the year. For some, it’s a time to rest. For some it’s a time to party. For others, it is a time to just slow down, stop, and observe the true beauty of their surroundings. Most importantly, regardless of whether someone’s circumstances in their regular day-to-day lives are fortunate or unfortunate, it is a chance to regroup, and focus on something else for a change of pace.

 

A Weekend in Nature 90 Minutes from Denver

IMG_4190.jpg

One mistake I witness quite often is people constantly turning their getaways into some form of challenge of their own. There is probably nobody more guilty of this than me; always seeking the far away destination, wanting to climb the tallest mountain, cycle over 100 miles a day.

Challenging ourselves is important. We all build character by challenging ourselves, especially outside of work. However, we also all sometimes need a break that is a genuine break, not stressing ourselves to get to a faraway destination with no spare time, exhausting ourselves physically, creating an alternate form of stress- “vacation stress”.

IMG_4179.jpg

Summer in Colorado began with an extreme drought, large wildfires all over the state, and restrictions on fires in nearly every county.

CO_Fire_EndofJuly

Fire restrictions across Colorado July 28, 2018

With some rainfall in the mountains, in the past week, some counties in Central Colorado began to lift these fire bans, permitting fires at campsites.

One of the problems we have here in the United States is limitations related to time. According to Project Time Off, an organization whose mission is to remove the stigma around taking time off from work, the average American takes less than 20 days of vacation per year, and Americans collectively forfeit over 200 million days off due to concern for how they will be perceived at the office. Therefore, it is not all that common for Americans to feel the need to maximize their vacation time, utilizing every precious hour.

This stigma will not go away overnight. Most likely change will be gradual, and considerations related to time limitation will still be a factor in the coming decades. However, given our recent mental health challenges, and recent research pointing to the psychological benefits of being in nature, trips like these are probably more important than ever.

IMG_4193

Georgia Pas is one of several areas about a 90 minute drive from Denver, right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, with dispersed camping, meaning camping without the amenities of a campground.

IMG_4161.jpg

These camping areas are nearly always within a short drive of the kinds of places where the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains can be seen in all of their majesty. Georgia Pass, less traveled than mountain passes along paved roads, like Hoosier Pass and Guanella Pass, offers the same panoramic views but with less people.

It also, based on this one trip, feels like a place with more wildlife.

IMG_4186IMG_4163IMG_4168

However, sometimes the camping experience is not about the feeling of being on top of the world on a mountain pass, or overlooking a photogenic lake, as is commonly shown on the cover of travel magazines. Sometimes, camping is about being in a strangely calming place like this, with trees, bushes, other random vegetation, and a creek moving fresh mountain water along to a gentle rythm.

IMG_4194.jpg

There is something about this specific scene, deep in the forest, surrounded by nature. It feels in a way, like the exact opposite of stress. There is no hurry here, nobody is causing unnecessary anxiety, and the only abrupt changes in plans occur when a thunderstorm pops up unexpectedly.

There is, however, work. Camping isn’t just sitting around the fire. The fire must be started and maintained. Meals must be cooked. Tents need to be set up, and dishes washed manually. It isn’t a resort vacation. In fact, while camping, far more work goes into filling the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter than it does back in the city, even on the most stressful day.

There are ways to relax that require little to no work. Watching television only requires owning a television and selecting a program. Laying at a beach only requires finding a way to get to the beach. Yet, sitting around a campfire with loved ones, looking at the stars and watching the full moon rise between alpine trees, then waking up to the alpenglow hitting the tops of the trees, somehow actually feels far more relaxing than just laying around at home or nearby.

Or maybe it is about getting away from all of the things that are currently creating anxiety in our lives, which include TV (mostly the news), our phones, work, and, competitiveness in general. This takes work. It takes work to get away from life’s pressures. However, it is good for us, regardless of our situations, to occasionally escape our stress sources, without substituting them with “vacation stress”. Unfortunately, many of us in the United States still find ourselves in situations where we feel our time away is so precious, taking part in activities that create this “vacation stress” is the only way to get meaningful experience out of the limited time we have to vacation.

Travel; The Balance Between Spontaneous and Planned

IMG_3251.jpgOn one end of the spectrum are the planners, the ones that assemble detailed itineraries, and, perhaps not so surprisingly, are typically able to stick to them.

BikeRoute_Sunmer2016

A well planned trip comes with several advantages. Flights, hotels, and many travel related big-ticket items are typically cheaper when booked several months ahead of time. Putting in the time and effort to plan ahead of time also reduces the chances that some unforeseen complication or circumstance will negatively impact the trip, causing travelers not to get the experience they were hoping for.

IMG_3929

On the other end of the spectrum are the spontaneous, the last minute, the drop everything and go type of experiences. This has its advantages too. Psychological studies have indicated that the satisfaction people have with their experiences is often dependent on how the experience compares with their expectations. The spontaneous trip, the one that comes together last minute can have a strong upside, as there were no expectations. Finding oneself unexpectedly in a new place, trying something new; experiences like these can make people truly feel alive!

IMG_0117

Missing out on this feeling is probably the main drawback to planning travel too intensely. When every activity is regimented, down to the hour (given the fact that there is traffic, weather, etc. regimenting to the minute is a fool’s errand), it is harder to make adjustments for what may occur, or take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. See an interesting billboard for a museum, theme park, or natural bridge? Sorry, there is no unplanned time. Run into an old friend, or make new friends? We can reconnect only if you’re going in this direction as me at this time.

img_7656

As is the case with most things in today’s world, there is an optimal “middle ground” that can be reached, and it is not necessarily a compromise between the two extremes. The best “middle ground” solutions often try to achieve the objectives of those on both sides of the issue. The planners want some kind of guarantee that the most important experiences, the original objective of the trip, are actually obtained. The spontaneous want flexibility and the element of surprise.

While I have taken part in experiences that were planned many months in advance and completely regimented.

IMG_2105.jpg

As well as ones that were super of the moment.

IMG_1658.jpg

My general tactic is in the middle.

IMG_3043

The trip I took to Death Valley six weeks ago was actually originally planned for Zion National Park. Unexpectedly cool and rainy weather prompted us to change the venue to Death Valley, where it would be more pleasant. In this case, it wasn’t necessarily the exact intended experience, but the overall experience of camping, hiking, and being outside in a group of people still came to pass.

20171122-014003-6003890.jpg

When visiting Copenhagen and Stockholm last fall, we set aside a few “must sees”…

20171126-171745-62265432.jpg

While leaving a lot of time open for other experiences

20171122-014742-6462249.jpg

There are a lot of other ways to achieve this optimal combination of guaranteeing experiences while also remaining spontaneous. They are not all as simple as the Southwest Airlines no change fee policy. Some things, like planning alternative activities if the weather is bad, having meals ready on fishing trips in case no fish are caught, or planning for a busted stove on a backpacking trip, take research.

IMG_4244

And, well, in our attention deprived world, doing research can often be a deterrent. It can be a deterrent to being well prepared, but also, perhaps most unfortunately, can be a deterrent to traveling at all. The phenomenon of “analysis paralysis”, where a combination of too many choices, too much information and too many factors to consider leads to no choice being made at all, has become quite the large scale issue this decade.

Luckily, in an age where the internet appears to do nothing but create “analysis paralysis” there are still resources designed to help people sort through the clutter of information available to them.

One option is to hire a travel agent, who knows the ins-and-outs of various destinations, and can help travelers find the best deals and the best experiences. There are some who believe that travel agents are no longer needed in the age of the internet. However, as the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown has pointed out in many occasions (including the 2017 Travel and Adventure show which I was at), travel agents do help people sift through all of this information.

The other is to find resources online that actually help people consume information rather than find more of it. A great example of this is the side by side comparison of travel insurance options on reviews.com. More generally, reviews.com is one of the few sites that actually aims to reduce the amount of time people spend on the internet (as opposed to many other sites whose goal is to suck you in). The site has reviews that help people make decisions regarding plenty of other products, including others important to travelers and outdoor enthusiasts, like water bottles, vitamins and booking sites.

IMG_4743.jpg

There is certainly a time to be completely regimented.

IMG_3746

There is also a time it feels great to do something completely spontaneous.

IMG_6128

In most experiences, it is wonderful to try to find a way to make our travel plans both guarantee the experiences that prompted us to make the trip, while also being flexible enough to adjust for the conditions and take advantage of opportunities. This is, in my humble opinion, the proper balance between being planned and being spontaneous.

Whistler Blackcomb: Chasing the Snow

IMG_2676 (1).jpg

Changes in weather patterns can bring risks, or even hardship, but can also bring opportunities. 2017-2018, in some ways, can be thought of as a peculiar winter in Western North America. Storms kept impacting the same region over and over again. Some areas received over twice their normal precipitation, while others received less than half.

Weather cannot be controlled, and, probably shouldn’t be. It is possible, however, to make adjustments to make the most of the weather. While this was not a stellar snow year (compared to average) in places like California, Colorado, and Utah, conditions made this season a perfect time to visit North America’s largest ski resort: Whistler-Blackcomb. Located 120 km (75 miles) north of Vancouver, Whistler-Blackcomb is the 11th largest ski resort in the world.

IMG_2707 (1)

As is the case with many of the other largest ski resorts in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb is the result of a merger between two mountains. Once competitors, the two mountains merged 20 years ago. To connect the two adjacent resorts, they built the Peak to Peak Gondola. This 11 minute ride brings skiers/boarders between the midpoint (and fairly high on the mountain) of one mountain and the other. It covers a distance of 2.73 miles (4.4 km) over a deep valley that separates the resorts. At its midpoint, it is 1430 feet (436 m) off the ground!

IMG_2737.jpg

Just getting to Whistler-Blackcomb, before even reaching the mountain, is an amazing experience! The drive from Vancouver International Airport takes about two hours along highway 99 through the heart of Vancover.

There is no limited access highway that connects Vancouver International Airport to downtown. This adds time to the journey, making what should take little more than 90 minutes take closer to two hours. However, it is interesting for visitors to actually see the city. Vancouver is quite dense, with a very urban feel (as opposed to some sunbelt cities that feel more suburban in nature). The two things that stand out the most about the city are..

  1. Despite the fact that rains, on average, 161 days out of the year (notice the rain in these photos), cycling appears to be extremely popular, with bike lanes and bike shops everywhere!
  2. Literally, every nationality of food can be found in downtown Vancouver: Portuguese, Peruvian, Malaysian, you name it, it’s there!

This is followed by a drive along highway 99, also known as the “Sea to Sky” highway.

IMG_2655IMG_2790IMG_2663

The drive itself is quite exquisite and unique. The road winds northward, adjacent to a bay, from which tree covered islands pop out periodically on the left. On the right, the coastal cliffs are quite dramatic, and periodically rocky.

If caught while the sun is shinning, which is common in the summer but quite rare in winter, the views of the mountains can be quite amazing!

IMG_2780.jpg

IMG_2782

The mountain itself is spectacular, and steep! With a 5,280 foot vertical drop, it is surpassed, in North America, only by Revelstoke Mountain, a significantly smaller resort. For comparison, Vail has a vertical drop of 3,450 feet, and there are plenty of ski resorts whose vertical drops are only a little over 2,000 feet that are talked about quite positively (Grand Targhee, Alta, Stowe, etc.).

IMG_2681.jpg

Ski trails at Whistler Blackcomb can be steep and long. However, there are trails of all kinds here, as to be expected.

IMG_2697

 

Highlights include the top of Whistler Peak.

IMG_2754

Finding a place to make fresh tracks in the snow.

IMG_2761.jpg

And, of course, the Dave Murray Downhill, where the downhill competition took place for the 2010 Olympic games.

IMG_2751.jpg

IMG_2765.jpg

These experiences can commonly be hampered, however, by the weather. In particular, on a typical day, layers of clouds often form somewhere about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the mountain.

IMG_2718

Many skiers and boarders chose to stay either above or below this layer of clouds. Traversing through this layer of clouds is a unique, albeit stressful, experience.

IMG_2724.jpg

As is the case when driving through dense fog, it requires moving slowly, and it is very easy for groups of people to lose each other in this thick set of clouds. Let’s just say, there is a reason this picture was taken on the lift ride up and not while skiing down the hill.

 

Whistler Blackcomb is in bear country, and they appear proud of it! On the Peak-to-Peak gondola, the information signs, in addition to pointing out its the length, speed, and height, of the gondola ride, mentions the fact that the forest it traverses over is home to over 60 bears.

IMG_2668.jpg

A major part of any ski trip experience is the town, where travelers go for food, amenities, shops, and other forms of entertainment. Not all ski towns are equal, as some provide a more active and others a quieter ski experience. Whistler’s experience is definitely middle of the road with respect to the quiet and cosy vs. active and loud experience. However, there is some variance here too.

There are two parts to Whistler village, an upper village and a lower village. Both connect to the mountain via gondolas. The main village is a bit larger and more active than the upper village, with a variety of food options and even several clubs.

Outside the village, there are plenty of ski-in/ski-out resorts, which is quite convinent. As is typical of any ski town, lodging can be expensive, and finding a place to stay at the price range most people are looking for can be a challenge.

IMG_2735.jpg

There are some out there that wish to never have the weather, or some other kind of external event change their plans. Its an unwelcome inconvenience to have to research something new, make a different plan, spend money, and have to travel when not expected. However, sometimes these changes in plans, whether forced by weather or a different external factor, are the driver for creating new, different, and sometimes life-changing experiences.

Some would say this has been a peculiar winter, but, on a larger scale, there has always been variance in weather patterns. The average temperature is not the temperature experienced every day and the average precipitation is not the amount of precipitation experienced every year. It is normal to differ from the average, from year to year. These variations may be getting close to causing danger in some places in the West this year, but that is also fairly typical.

Whether people traveled north to experience better snow to ski on, or traveled south to get some sun, the variation in weather patterns this year, while inconveniencing many, also created its fair share of memories.

Cultural Observations in Stockholm

 

20171126-162130-58890905.jpg
Setting out to observe a 3 P.M. sunset, in all its glory, is actually significantly more challenging than one would ever expect. Spending four days in Stockholm, I came to the realization that anywhere one would go in November or December where the sun sets this early is likely to be quite cloudy. While the sun did slip below the horizon right around 3, and the sky became pitch black before 4, each afternoon the sky pretty much appeared like this.

20171126-163631-59791108.jpg
There was no observation of the sun dipping below the horizon at 3 P.M., just a gray day fading gradually into nighttime.

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

20171126-164434-60274075.jpg
Stockholm is a city that parties pretty hard on Friday and Saturday evenings. Both evenings, in the area in and around the city center, including the areas around Central Station, and the Islands of Gamla Stan and Södermalm, there were plenty of people who were already quite intoxicated by 8 or 9 in the evening.

20171126-165059-60659634.jpg
This is one of several cultural observations I made while in Stockholm.

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

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

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

 

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

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

20171126-171745-62265432.jpg
In fact, I may have fit in too well. Despite the fact that people here are mostly fluent in English, most addressed me in Sweedish before I had to ask them to speak English to me.

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

image

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

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

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

image

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

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

Moab- An Active Destination

IMG_9301

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.

FullSizeRender (1)

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  ).

IMG_9345

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

IMG_9346

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.

IMG_9391

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..

IMG_9332

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.

IMG_9374

IMG_9444

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.

IMG_9461.jpg

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!

IMG_9471IMG_9468

And some features are random, like Upheaval Dome.

IMG_9427

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.

IMG_9494

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.

IMG_9209

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.

IMG_9401.jpg

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)!

IMG_9237.jpg

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!

IMG_9241

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!

IMG_9521

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.

IMG_9507.jpg

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

IMG_8957

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!

IMG_8958

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.

IMG_8951

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.

IMG_8952

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.

IMG_8956

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?