Tag Archives: travel

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

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If you are anything like me, on a lengthy road trip, you are always looking for interesting places to stop. Stopping, for an hour or two, or for a night, breaks up the monotony of being in a car,  often on the highway, for many hours in a row. It also helps me take advantage of being where I am, and seeing interesting things I would not have been able to see had I flown. Depending on timing, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, in Chamberlin, South Dakota is quite possibly one of the most interesting places to stop and check out on a drive across the state.

Chamberlin is already a welcome break to what can be a monotonous drive. Where I-90 crosses the Missouri river, and interestingly enough close to where explorers Lewis and Clark had one of their more confrontational encounters, the bluffs of the Missouri River contrast with the flat open grassland that stretches about 200 miles in either direction.

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The museum itself is unique as it tells the story of the Western United States from the point of view of the Native Americans, specifically the Sioux Nation.

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Most other museums about Western history, mention the Native Americans. However, in nearly all cases, the story is told primary from our point of view.

A lot of these museums cover the fir trade and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Some even talk of the Native Americans quite fondly and empathetically, like this statue, named Dignity, also in Chamberlin. It is accompanied by a museum that focuses on the South Dakota portion of Lewis and Clark’s mission.

The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, by contrast, tells the story of the region from the point of view of the Native Americans. It starts with life before European settlement. One of the first exhibits is an artistic depiction of what life was like across South Dakota before Lewis and Clark, and many of the fir traders had arrived.

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This depiction of life in South Dakota is quite easy to get immersed in. For a few minutes, I felt the way they felt, like I was living the life they lived. It is felt almost like the feeling people get when they truly feel a immersed in a movie or T.V. show and become emotionally attached to one or more of the characters. The people in this mural felt like my friends and family.

It made wish that I cared more, in the grand scheme of things, about the fact that the land they once occupied had been taken from them. Sure, change is inevitable, and given technological progress throughout the world, it is hard to imagine a scenario where South Dakota still looks exactly like this artist rendition today. However, there was a lot of misfortune brought upon these tribes.

This first part of the museum covers the culture of the Sioux. One thing I realized is that, the Sioux, being the group we interacted with most frequently in more recent years, likely created the caricature of Native Americans most of us live with today. The caricature of Native Americans are people who were at one with nature, in a way today’s hard core environmentalists can only dream of. They capture buffalo and use every last piece of it, giving the earth thanks for their bounty.

While this seems to be true of the Sioux Nations that Lewis and Clark encountered, and were among the last holdouts in the “Indian Wars” of the late 19th Century, it was not necessarily true of all Native Americans across the continent. Some tribes even exhausted their natural resources to the point of having to relocate.

What is astounding is how a culture can be so similar yet so different at the same time.

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Unlike in our culture, the Sioux place little emphasis on negative reinforcement or heavy-handed parenting. It seems as though positive reinforcement, likely mixed with a bit of peer pressure, generally brought children towards the right path. The general culture is interesting in the context of today’s current cultural divide. They saw children as a common tribal/communal responsibility, but also placed boys and girls on separate paths from a very young age; something both sides can agree with.

The museum then goes on to tell the story of the Sioux after European settlement. This story, oddly, starts out hopeful, which can be inferred from the diaries of Lewis and Clark. First, Spanish settlers brought with them horses, making travel faster. Later, British, French and Americans brought trade and all sorts of new supplies that made their lives easier. They became wealthier too.

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Unfortunately, they also brought disease. One aspect of the story of “How the West Was Won” that is rarely talked about extensively is how much of a role disease played in changing the North American continent for good. With the horses, guns, and new medicines, Europeans also brought diseases that Native Americans had no immunity to. These diseases would unleash plague after plague upon tribes throughout the 19th century, reducing their numbers. By the time the “Indian Wars” would occur, their numbers were reduced to the point that the outcome, victory for the United States, was all but inevitable.

What had started out as an interesting new development with opportunities had turned into a nightmare. The final part of the museum covers the next, equally depressing chapter in the story of the Sioux. For most of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, the U.S. government would sign treaties, establishing bounders with Native American tribes, only to break them anytime gold, or anything else of value was found on their land. The end result was today’s geographical distribution of Reservations, which covers only about 3% of the land area in the United States.

At this point, I am not sure what I can do about this terrible turn of events. It is hard for me to accept too much guilt for it, as I was born in 1980s New York, a time and a place where all this had already occurred. “My people”, if I can call it that, had happened to already successfully assimilate into the Nation that is responsible for much of the devastation brought upon the Native Americans. I was born into this country, and that is all I really know. Going somewhere else would be foreign to me.

I imagine a scenario where all this never happened, an alternate history, where Native Americans still control the North American continent. Rather than being born in the United States, I would have been born in Italy, spoken Italian and lived Italian culture. Still, in this case, there would likely be some story about how the Romans conquered the Etruscans.

At some point, it becomes necessary, in my opinion, to say that all I can really do is be mindful of history, live the life I know how to live in the place I was born into, for my own happiness, and try to look for a solution going forwards. Unfortunately, I do not have that solution, otherwise, I would probably be doing something else at this moment in time.

 

The World’s Only Corn Palace

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It’s one of those tourist attractions that makes most people just ask why. Corn is certainly Eastern South Dakota’s primary feature. However, it is impossible to drive by this place, see billboards advertising it, or hear about it from friends and not wonder what sequence of events lead to this idea actually being pursued and funded.

In the 21st Century, it sounds like the result of some combination of boredom, drugs, alcohol and/or sleep deprivation. But, when it was first constructed, in 1892, the idea was actually quite commonplace. Despite being the “World’s Only” Corn Palace, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD was not the world’s first. The idea was actually originally pursued in Sioux City, IA. Meanwhile, nearby Plankinton, SD was pursuing something called a “Grain Palace”.

So, what was behind all of these efforts to produce what is today seems like a pretty oddball attraction? To understand it requires actually visiting the place and taking a closer look at it, both inside and out.

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While the palace is reconstructed every year with a different theme, one aspect remains the same. The images, carefully created using corn, depict life on the Great Plains. The 2018 theme, South Dakota Weather, showcased an important aspect of life on the Great Plains, dealing with variant, and sometime wild weather patterns.

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The more the artistic displays at the Corn Palace are observed, taken in, and absorbed, the more the attraction makes sense. Rappers often use their lyrics to brag about the place in which they came from. Countless young adults showcase their lives on social media, showing primarily what they are proud of. This is just another version of this. South Dakotans showcasing what they are proud of…

Their resilience in the face of wild weather.

The pioneer spirit that drove them to the West, and the dedication and hard work it took to make life work in a rugged place.

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Cooperation, the community spirit, and the feeling of connection with the natural world.

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And, most importantly, the unique manner in which they show it.

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While the idea is not new, and it comes across as odd, the Mitchell Corn Palace is actually quite refreshing. In a world where bragging is everywhere, the form it has taken here is both unique and does not require insults be thrown at anyone else. It should serve as a challenge to all of us, as we attempt to find our place in a crowded world. Is there a way that each one of us can show the world why we love ourselves and why we feel valuable? But, do so in a way that is actually interesting to those around us, unique to each and every one of us as an individual, and does not require anyone else to be diminished in the process?

 

 

Sioux Falls: Not What its Supposed to Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE Fest and the Culture of Northern Minnesota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seriously, let the dogs and cats have fun too!

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

A Weekend in Nature 90 Minutes from Denver

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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”.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.