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The Sabbatical 2021

We took a six week sabbatical this fall to refresh and rejuvenate; most of the time was spent in Colorado but we visited five states in total – lots of hiking (LOTS), lots of family time, and a lot of aimless wandering. It was just what the doctor ordered and it was deeply enjoyable. It was incredibly special to catch the last of the summer flowers and the start of the fall colors. Turns out, shoulder season was perfect for us! We’re sad the trip is over but we look forward to new adventures in the near future.

Special thanks to Hilton, Delta, and United for pretty much sponsoring our trip. We saved a lot of money churning credit cards for miles / points and most of our trip was free. This is probably one of the biggest changes in our travels – we normally stay in Airbnbs but Airbnb has become: expensive, unfriendly, filled with rules, and a hassle. It feels like we rode the Airbnb train during the golden age and had an incredible amount of positive experiences so Airbnb is now relegated as a just another story in our book of travels.

We had some pretty big surprises ; some are easy to describe and others are really hard:

  • We were pleasantly surprised to see mountain flowers in the wild! We thought for sure the season was over so it was a nice surprise when we saw lots of fireweed, lupine, indian paint brushes, and so on. What a treat!
  • The weather was pretty much perfect every day. We had two days of rain and the rain + clouds made for some beautiful mountain scenery so the rain wasn’t even bad.
  • We hit some fall colors around Silverton and Denver right around the peak time and it was stellar – up there with the fall colors in the Smokey Mountains NP.
  • The Uintas area a hidden gem! Our time in the Uintas was incredible and an absolute joy. The complete lack of people, very accessible trails for families with small children, the stunning scenery, and perfectly still mornings made for some unforgettable experiences. Our visit to the Uintas ranks up there as the best part of the trip.
  • The most amazing food we had the entire trip was found in a Mexican grocery store housed in a former gas station in Cortez, CO. It was clear the tacos, tamales, and everything else we ate was home made by the family running running the store. It happened to be Taco Tuesday the food was shockingly good. The next best food was a BBQ place we stumbled upon in Colorado Springs of all places. Absolutely incredible BBQ.
  • The forest fire smoke wasn’t that bad! Towards the end of the trip the smoke seemed to go away completely.
  • Colorado is full, chock full, of people. It was surprisingly hard to get around, even in rural areas. As an example, it ended up taking an extra 45min to get between Chimney Rock and Alamosa because of people hauling campers, trailers, and boats going slowly.
  • The number of older people out traveling is astonishing. None of them are in a hurry and many seem perfectly content standing in egress paths, driving 10mph below the speed limit, and chatting with service workers when there are a line of people trying to get out of a store. I’m not sure if Colorado attracts these types?
  • COVID is still a thing and we still had to make accommodation for COVID restrictions.
  • Staff shortages are felt even in rural areas. There were a number of places that were entirely closed or had reduced hours.
  • The wealthy in this country are really wealthy. Labor shortages in the services seemed to be more common in the really wealthy areas which is no surprise; it’s probably hard for anyone below the 5-10% to compete in the housing markets where people commute using their private jets.
  • The wealthy areas had a very strange feel, kind of like a museum or an art gallery – “people look at and use these areas but only some are allowed behind the rope” kind of feel. As an example: Park City, Aspen, and Telluride and some other cities have pretty big highways leading to the cities for all the service workers to flood in and out in the mornings and evenings since these people clearly can’t live in those areas. It’s just odd to be driving on a major highway to a town of 7,000 people surrounded by vehicles with decals showing cleaning, landscaping, building, contracting, and other services.
  • Sunrise and sunset in San Diego are nearly impossible to beat. Just so beautiful
  • Our trend of bad stuff happening to areas we visits continues. A forest fire broke out shortly after we visited Silverthorne.

Some trip stats:

  • 3 flights
  • 5 states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California)
    • 8 days in Utah
    • 7 days in California
    • 22 days in Colorado
  • 8 National Parks and Monuments: Dinosaur NP, Colorado NM, Mesa Verde NP, Gunnison NP, Chimney Rock NM, Florissant NM, Great Sand Dunes NP, Cabrillio NM
  • 28 free hotel nights
  • 37 days on the road
  • 4,100 road miles
  • ~12,000 photos
  • Only two days of rain
  • Many climates: alpine, desert, sand dunes, mountains, plains, alpine plains, temperate, and even lush forest.

Probably the biggest surprise was the Uinta mountains in Utah. Fantastic hiking, complete lack of people, and gorgeous scenery. Of all the places we visited on this trip it’s the place we enjoyed the most and look forward to visiting again.

The downsides were pretty surprising. There are a ton of people all over Colorado doing all sorts of outdoor activities. It’s impossible to get away from people. Time entry for the national parks, monuments, and busy sites is a major bummer. This is the first time I’ve felt that the “outdoors are closed”. We planned ahead and were able to see and visit a lot of the places we wanted but we didn’t get to see everything. It’s sad because I feel like I might be in the last generation of Americans who could use the national parks, monuments, and other federal lands to the fullest extent.

Six weeks is a long time so I have multiple posts:

I also have my favorite photos from the trip in the album below.

Enjoy!

Chris W.

Colorado 2021

Where to start. Visiting Colorado was great. The state has so much to offer – hiking, sites, sights, and all the wonderful places like the butterfly pavilion to experience made Colorado a wonderful place to visit. I can see why everyone loves Colorado. Which brings me to my next point: Colorado is overrun with people, especially retirees.

We were very fortunate to have nearly perfect weather the entire time in Colorado. We started the journey by flying into Denver and spending some time in the the metro area. I finally had a chance to hike to St. Mary’s glacier. It ended up being a really neat place to catch sunrise and we were some of the only people in the area because we started so early.

Our first destination was Aspen and I was taken back a bit about how wealthy and abnormal Aspen is compared to the normal world. We drove by the Aspen airport twice a day and it was so strange to see the many private jets. We didn’t know this was our first taste of the ‘ski town’ experience on this trip.

The Maroon Bells were beautiful, as always. We had our timed entry passes and made it up to Crater Lake a little bit after sunrise. It was very beautiful and great to have peace and quiet surrounded by stunning beauty. We turned back early as the crowds were working their way back up. We went again the next day but it was raining so we weren’t in much of a hurry. Turns out, the rain and clouds added a whole new layer of beauty to the area.

One of the bigger surprises was the immense beauty of Highway 141 between Grand Junction and Naturita. We were completely unprepared for the drive through the deep valleys and the changes from green-ish landscapes to dry desert red rocks. We had the road to ourselves and it seemed like we were the only people around to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. Seeing the abandoned flume was really interesting simply because it shows the extent to which humans will go to make money; building a water flowing apparatus on a cliff wall hundreds of feet above the floor of the valley for many miles is no easy task.

We spent a good chunk of time in Ouray and visited Telluride, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and other places in the area. Ouray was super neat. It reminded me a lot of where I grew up and was dumpier than the ski towns probably because the town doesn’t have a ski hill. Most of the roads in the town were gravel! We had a couple decent meals there but Maggie’s stands out as being on of the best hamburgers we ate on the trip. There was no line when we visited (end of September) but a conversation with one of the employees revealed that they would serve 500-ish people an hour in the peak summer time and that a line would stretch for blocks in the tiny little town. Of all the little towns we visited, Ouray was one of the more neat places because of the hiking inside the town (Box Canyon), the quietness, beauty, and food options.

We managed to hit peak fall colors on the million dollar highway between Ouray and Silverton. It was one of the most spectacular views we’ve had and we’ve seen a lot of spectacular things. The reds, yellows, and colors in between were stunning.

Some other surprises:

  • Timed entry is a killer. We were unsuccessful at getting anything in Mesa Verde and the rest of the park was OK. Each park / national monument seems to do timed entry differently and it wasn’t fun to make it all work. I guess I’m the last generation who grew up being able to visit national parks when they wanted. I can’t help but think of the disenfranchisement timed entry will create since timed entry makes the outdoors closed for a lot of folks.
  • Chimney Rock National Monument is one of the newest national monuments and it showed! We were driving by so we decided to stop and we were glad we did. I’m guessing the overall experience will be a bit better in the coming years as their new facilities open up.
  • Traffic sucked. Sucked hard and pretty much sucked everywhere. Colorado has been over-run by people and the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. If the roads weren’t clogged by normal traffic (Denver, Colorado Springs, all the ski towns), there was construction, or some retiree driving 10-20mph below the speed limit in their truck pulling a camper pulling a boat pulling a car on a single lane highway.
  • The retirees were everywhere. Their complaints were hilarious. One retiree told a national park ranger that ‘they don’t do much for people’ in regards to folks afraid of heights. The park ranger took the comment and stride and reminded her that ‘it’s the outdoors’. It boggles my mind that someone thinks the national park service needs to make Mesa Verde, a place known for cliffs and cliff dwellings, a good place to go for those afraid of heights. The retirees did not seem to be in any particular hurry so they were completely happy standing in egress areas, speaking with cashiers / attendants forever, and driving super slow. One area was so clogged up with retirees driving RVs, trucks pulling campers and boats, that our 2.5hr car ride turned into 3.5hrs. I feel a particular distain for those who are oblivious or uncaring to others and the huge number of retirees slowing everything down is enough for me to think long and hard about ever going back to some of the areas we visited.

Nearly all of our stays in Colorado were at Hilton properties, primarily Hampton Inns. We churned credit cards and ended up with a lot of reward points and free is free. I generally wake up early in the morning so it was interesting to go down and see what was playing on TV; it’s been years since I’ve watched the weather channel and I had no idea it transitioned to a “the weather is good now but danger is always around the corner” type of station. It hurt my brain to watch. We seemed to be the youngest people in the hotels too; we stayed on central time so we were able to catch an early breakfast and get out before the retirees clogged everything up in the dining area and standing around.

A lot of Colorado seemed to be suffering from labor shortages as well. Things like early check in, quick restaurant service, and other places relying on services were impacted, especially up in the mountains. Some places were just flat out closed. It makes sense since wages in the service sector probably cannot pay for any standard of living or quality of life in the ski towns.

Our journey thru Colorado had a lot of other fun sites not already mentioned – like the Glenwood Springs cave, Colorado National Monument, Butterfly Pavilion, and had some absolutely stellar food ranging from great BBQ in Colorado Springs to wonderful tacos and tamales from a gas station converted into a Mexican grocer + small restaurant. It seemed like wherever we went there was no shortage of things to do and eat.

Overall, Colorado was great. We also don’t need to go back anytime soon since we thoroughly explored the state!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

San Diego 2021

San Diego never disappoints. We’ve been there a bunch of times and we’ll probably go back a bunch more.

The perfect sunrises, the perfect sunsets, the moderate temperature, the wonderful restaurants and varied foods, and the people make San Diego a wonderful place to visit time after time. There isn’t much to write about because we didn’t do much – get breakfast, see the sunrise, frolic in the ocean, eat, hang out, eat, sunset, sleep, repeat.

I must say, Ocean Beach, where we always visit, is getting even stranger. It may be because America a whole is aging but it was pretty strange to see a guy with gray hair driving slowly thru a residential neighborhood while loudly rocking out to the Beastie Boys in his late model Toyota Prius. That particular situation doesn’t make a lot of sense anywhere else other than Ocean Beach.

I finally had a chance to visit Hodad’s after walking by the place for years. Hodad’s made it big and was on a TV show – ever since then there was always a long, long, long, long line to get into the restaurant so I never went. Either due to the general economic climate or the pandemic there wasn’t a line one of the mornings so we had some delicious Hodad’s. It was good, really good, but I’m glad I didn’t wait two hours to eat at Hodad’s.

Otherwise, San Diego seems to be suffering the same fate as everywhere else – shortage of workers and materials and reduced hours for businesses. Regardless, San Diego is still awesome :).

Utah 2021

What a very pleasant surprise. Utah, specifically the Uintas and some of Park City, was incredible.

We first stopped in Vernal to visit Dinosaur National Monument. The monument is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and there is a near zero percent chance I’d ever visit the park unless I was on a sabbatical or something. The area has some pretty wild geology and was super interesting. The dinosaur bones were cool and the hike into Box Canyon was a ton of fun. I started using the Alltrails app for hikes in Dinosaur NM and the hike to Moon Arch – the app turned out to be a godsend for so many reasons. The trail around Moon Arch was poorly marked and a family with a small child decided to join me on my hike since I had Alltrails an could direct us; it ended up being a pretty fun experience. Overall, this area of Utah was a neat place to visit.

Our next chunk of time was in Park City. We knew Park City was a ski town but we didn’t realize how wonderful the hiking would be in the Uintas, and, stumbling across their annual city festival was a very fun experience. Hiking in quiet solitude is a wonderful experience, hiking in quiet solitude while in a beautiful area on well kept trails with little breeze so all the lakes had mirror reflections was a truly remarkable experience. I had never heard of the Uintas prior to this trip and it feels like we found a secret – the area is only 45min away from Park City. Most everyone seems to hike around Park City / Brighton Lakes so it was neat to find an area where no one seemed to be hiking.

Catching the annual fall festival was a super neat treat. We were surprised with a pancake breakfast, we were able to watch a human+dog 5K, and the ‘running of the balls’ down mainstreet fundraiser was pretty hilarious to watch – nearly only because of the people and their excitement in watching balls roll down a street!

We thought we’d visit some Olympic related sites and spent quite a bit of time watching people practice long jumping / ski jumping. It was odd; Park City is pretty hot and seeing people practice ski jumping in the very early fall was kind of a strange experience. Regardless, it was amazing to see what people can do with the help of gravity.

I was a bit surprised with how much basic things cost in Park City. It was common to spend about $50 on a meal for the family. That was pretty expensive considering none of the places we visited were all that remarkable except for one place which also happened to be the best deal – the Wasatch Brewery.

Park City itself is another high end ski town filled with high end ski town stuff.

All-in-all, the Uintas were fantastic. A+, 100%, 5 stars, we’d go back.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Boston 2021

It felt great to travel again, even if it’s just in the US.

We chose to go to Boston because we wanted to go somewhere we didn’t need a car and had a lot to see. Turns out, Boston was perfect. The food was amazing – our place was right next to the North End so walking into the North End for amazing food and desserts was no hassle. We walked about 50 miles in our six days in Boston and more than offset that calorie burn with huge meals like pizza at Ernesto’s and fantastic desserts at places like Bova’s.

We had a great time in Boston. There was plenty to do and it was super neat to be in Boston on July 4th – the town came alive with all sorts of independence day celebrations. We had a wonderful Chinatown tour and stopped at quite a few of the major sites in town. We walked the entire greenway and stopped at many of the installations along the way.

There were some surprises. On the positive: pretty much everything we ate was incredible, playing on the beach during sunset on Cape Cod is something I’ll never forget, Boston seems to be filled with late risers so walking around in the early morning was super quiet and fun, and there were so many family activities we could do that were free or super cheap – like walking tours and playing in all the fountains along the greenway, and the history / architecture was wonderful; our central location made everything accessible within a 15 min walk. On the negative: Provincetown in Cape Cod was a let down and the weather went from cold to blistering hot to tropical storm. In the interest of making lemonade, we ran around to a couple museums like the old south meeting house and the old state house during the tropical storm and we were the only people there!

The biggest surprise was Tropical Storm Elsa. Elsa hit right as we were about to fly out and we actually flew out of the storm – one of the photos is the edge of the storm as we flew out.

All in all, Boston was 100% awesome. 5/5 would do again. It was cathartic to get out and resume normal activities after being locked in for the last year.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Five Years Home.

Six years ago we packed up all our belongings into a Toyota Corolla and drove from Upstate New York to Minnesota through Canada officially starting our world trip. I can still remember two distinct feelings: the first feeling of being free – it was the first time in my life where I didn’t have a boss, a teacher, or someone else deciding my time, and the second, feeling like I was staring into the abyss and the abyss was staring back at me. At that point in time, I had worked at different jobs while going to school since I was 14; I never had a gap year, studied abroad, took a summer off, or had any other common youth event / engagement that gave me a large break from work or international travel exposure. We had no certainty we would find jobs on our return, lots of people did not recommend we go on the trip, and we didn’t really know what was going to happen. It certainly felt like the Rubicon was crossed.

Five years ago I remember landing at Dulles airport in Washington DC and re-entering America. I was kind of nervous since we’d been gone for 13 months and had passports full of stamps and thought that maybe someone would be at least a little curious. It was the most anti-climatic entrance ever. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we entered the US correctly since I’m pretty sure we missed some important steps and no-one collected the customs form we were given on the airplane. All of a sudden we were in the US and that was that! In no time we were able to find jobs and get back to the daily grind.

Little did we know what our world would look like five years after our return home: we’ve had quite the amazing journey. We’ve been successful in our careers, we’ve added to our family, we’ve laid down some roots, and we’ve even had a bit of traveling! Who knew some of the habits we developed when traveling, like what we eat and how we spend our time, would carry over to our daily lives in the US?  We’ve been fortunate. We’ve had great luck in our personal lives and our professional lives since we’ve been back, pandemic included. Knock on wood the trend continues!

We spent a bit of time thinking about the last five years and our perspective on life. Turns out, not much changed in our thinking, feeling, or planning compared to two years ago: https://word.christopherwagner.org/?p=8250 and our thoughts on the places we visited https://word.christopherwagner.org/?p=5912: Shortly after we landed we started thinking about when we’d be able to take a break and travel again; I did some basic math and I figured it would be around seven years. Turns out my math was mostly correct but I hadn’t penciled in a pandemic and travel ban for Americans.

We’ve explored some new and oldies-but-goodies areas of the US and thoroughly enjoyed the sites, the smells, and the sounds. The US is a very special place and we are happy we were able to learn more about the US by leaving and traveling abroad. There seems to be a general dark cloud over the US, especially now with the election, but America is still the best place for someone like ourselves and will probably continue to be a great place for a very long time.

We were able to sneak in a trip to Spain two winters ago and we were looking forward to more international travel starting this year. It seems the world is on hold until a vaccine is released, everyone gets COVID, or people just get sick and tired of staying home. Our hearts ache for all those we met during our travels who’s livelihoods depend on tourism. We met incredible and industrious people who helped us along our way and gave us an incredibly enriching experience. The pandemic is taking a terrible toll all over and it’s not just due to illness. Permanent structural changes seem to be underway and it’s looking the world will be quite changed the next time we want to travel.

Never in a million years had I guessed the five year update of returning home would be a story about how everything is great for us but awful for many others. Hopefully, life resumes quickly.

I put some photos below of some of our favorite events / sites / whatever from the last two years. Enjoy the photos!

The Rona Life

It’s been an interesting four months since COVID-19 ended the daily routine for most of America. We’ve been fine; we’ve had nothing but good luck, and we’re fortunate our time has gone so well.

Normally, we sneak in another trip or two during the spring and summer but this year has been spent at home for extremely obvious reasons. That said, it’s been pretty great for us because we’re still employed and we’re healthy. Given the situation of tens of millions of Americans, I’d say we have nothing to complain about.

The lockdowns started when the weather was still a bit shit and now we have our plants bearing fruit. I remember the governor mentioning how great Minnesotans were at social distancing when the shelter in place order started. I laughed because the weather was still crap and of course people weren’t going to be out and about. Once weather improved it shouldn’t have been the surprise it was that people got together and were a lot closer. Maybe it takes a non-Minnesota native like me to see the situation for what it is!

We’ve had quite a bit of time to take stock of what we have and make the most of our surroundings. We’ve done our best to enjoy everything to the max.

But life has been strange; it was super strange to see: 

  • almost no one on the road for rush hour,
  • stores out of diapers, toilet paper, paper towels, and medicine,
  • stores running out of food,
  • lots of people going for walks in the neighborhood,
  • lines to get into stores and shops,
  • our jobs transition to work-from-home.

Traffic is picking up, stores are getting the shelves full, and life is sort of returning to normal for us. Restaurants and bars are open and even the Mall of America and the skyways downtown are open. It’s sad to walk around the Mall of America and the skyways simply because no one is around, many stores have closed permanently, and even more haven’t yet opened. I’m hoping life continues to become normal and the mask wearing by most becomes the mask wearing by all.

I decided to add some photos of the last five months. All the photos pretty much come from a three mile radius from our home. Make sense, the world just became a lot smaller with the pandemic.

Enjoy the photos!

Chris

Spain 2019

We decided to go visit Spain in February to avoid some of the dreary Minnesota winter. We were incredibly lucky – we missed -30F weather with 30MPH winds!

I think I could make a habit avoiding winter in Minnesota.

Terrible Minnesota weather aside, Andalusia in Spain was pretty incredible. The sights were pretty fantastic, the food was amazing, everything was super laid back, we chatted with some incredible people, and we had a couple of wonderful cooking classes! We had a brief stop in Gibraltar, a British colony, and it turned out to be a super strange experience. All-in-all, we had a fantastic visit and we were happy with our visit.

It was neat to tour around Spain and see an area where Muslim Moors conquered and set up shop for 700 years. The architecture and artwork of this period is similar to what we saw in India, Singapore, the Middle East, and the Balkan areas conquered by the Ottomans. It was strange to think the Iberian Peninsula is so far away from India yet shared a similar architectural language because of a shared religion! Besides Muslim architecture, we saw some oppulent churches and cathedrals. Spain hit it’s stride right after it drove all the Muslims out (1492) and soon found itself as a major world power and owner / ruler of the new world. All the gold taken from the Aztecs, Incas, and other indigenous peoples ended up lining the walls of huge churches and cathedrals in Spain. Of our all travels, the cathedrals were unlike anything we’ve seen. The blend between Christian and Muslim architecture was a bit schizophrenic – a lot of the buildings looked like the car Homer Simpson designed with all sorts of different styles and features just mashed together.

We probably ate our weight in tapas. It seemed like everywhere we visited we found extremely delicious food. I’m not huge in eating meat and it was surprisingly easy to find delicious vegetarian / vegan food wherever we went. We learned some new favorites, like paella and pisto, while engorging ourselves in olives and bread. If nothing else, Spain is 100% delicious.

No one really seemed to be in a hurry in Spain. In fact, we had to modify our typical eating times slightly to accommodate the issue of a lot of restaurants closing between 2PM and 7PM. We are not really night people so it was a bit strange to eat a large meal early and then try to find a snack in the evenings. In many ways, it was helpful the culture was so laid back. We were able to get around easily and see a lot of sites without being surrounded by people since folks were busy eating at times slightly different than what we were used to!

We had great conversations with folks but there is one experience which stands out – our English paella cooking instructor located in rural Spain. We had an incredible cooking class with her, paella is amazing, but most of all we had a great conversation about traveling, immigrating, Spanish culture, the Brexit, and all sorts of other topics. It was an incredible experience because she and her family went a step further than Jac and I when we were traveling: instead of returning to their home country they decided to lay down roots somewhere a bit more laid back. Anglosphere culture is pretty similar so it was extremely educational to get her perspective on Spain. She informed us of a side of Spain we couldn’t possibly know unless we lived in Spain.

Gibraltar was an extremely strange place. We’ve been to a handful of places that used to be British colonies where driving on the left is the rule and the areas still have a lot of ‘Britishness’. For whatever reason, Gibraltar is right-side driving yet feels very British. This is different than Hong Kong where there is left-side driving there is a giant ‘unweave’ interchange between Shenzhen and Hong Kong to accommodate right-side driving on the mainland. Gibraltar is super tiny and has their own currency to boot so it was weird to pay cash for things and get Gibraltar pounds back. I guess regular UK pounds are valid currency in Gibraltar on a 1:1 basis but Gibraltar pounds are not really valid anywhere outside Gibraltar.

The cities were pretty neat and the Seville Cathedral Roof tour is one of the amazing things we’ve done but I think our favorite area of Spain we visited was the rural areas with the tiny white villages. We had a fantastic night in Zahara de la Sierra and enjoyed visiting the tiny white villages strewn across the countryside. The small towns were a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city centers of Madrid, Seville, Granada, etc. The mountains were absolutely stellar and the countryside just smelled good! The streets were super narrow in the small villages. I ran into a building in Arcos de la Fronteria while trying to back out of a bad situation – the directions I received from a local would have required me to drive down some stairs so I decided maybe that I shouldn’t do that in a rental and ended up driving into a building. We had a new, black, VW Polo with 500KM and ran into a white building. Not great.

Aside from driving into buildings it was very easy to drive around Spain. Drivers were very courteous and pretty much everyone was driving below the speed limit. We were surprised with the narrow ‘highways’ in the mountains. It was incredible to see buses traversing the mountains knowing the road was barely wide enough for two small vehicles let alone a huge coach bus.

Spain was surprisingly cheap. Meals weren’t that expensive and lodging was a bit on the pricier side only because we picked some great views / great locations for lodging. Our rental car was super cheap and it was, in general, just crazy to see how far our dollars went. We were a bit surprised to learn Spain is kinda poor by American standards, especially the rural areas. Average wages are quite low to match the cost of living. There’s a lot of agriculture work and tourism seems to be the big industry in Andalusia so I guess it’s pretty logical wages are lower.

We were lucky to visit Spain when we did. It was neat to see ripe olives on the trees, see almond trees blooming, and enjoy local festivals like Christians & Moors in Madrid. Traveling in shoulder season is truly the best – all sorts of festivals and the earth is active with changes for the upcoming seasons. We also caught a Flamenco show in Seville and were completely floored with what we saw – the music, dancing, and singing was incredible.

We’d happily go back to Spain to eat tapas and hang out in the many white villages in the mountains :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

Three years home.

Three year home. It’s hard to believe.

Time flies.

A bit over four years ago Jac and I decided to pack up and leave the US without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. At that point in our lives neither Jac nor I had really traveled internationally, knew zero additional languages besides English, and had a very different understanding of the world at large. Instead of finding danger, confusion, and adversity during our travels we found friendliness, similarities, beauty, and differing ways of living life while still only knowing English. To date, it’s still likely the most risky and most rewarding decision we’ve ever made.

The last two years since my one year anniversary update haven’t been all that different. We were both fortunate to land at jobs where we are treated very well by our respective companies and managers, we go to work, come home, have fun when it’s not work, and make time for travel. One of the bigger differences has to be the home we purchased; we’re actually laying down roots, we’re part of a community, and we’ve turned about 1/3 of our backyard into a garden so we regularly have produce coming out of our ears.

We continually try to get an international flavor by attending local cultural festivals / events whenever possible. It’s not all that hard considering the twin cities has a rather large immigrant population from all over the world so it seems like there are always events to attend or places to visit like the Festival of Nations, Polish Festival, and Hmongtown. Jac and I enjoy attending these events since it gives us a helpful remembrance of our travels.

We reminisce often and chat frequently about a ’round 2′ trip. As time passes our memories of our experiences during our travels become less sharp and harder to recall while our desire to see strange new parts of the world increases. I vividly remember returning to the US with zero desire to ever be in a plane again and now we’re both interested in immersing ourselves into far flung places with new smells, new sites, and new voices. Since we still don’t have a strong desire to grow our careers at the expense of our time, our conversations about our future often drift towards travel and obtaining shared experiences in a new parts of the world.

We were very lucky with our home purchase. We wanted a home that was in the middle of the cities with good access to the interstates so we could have more work options. We found a home that fit our desires for location, layout, and size, in a very small tier one suburb. We originally thought the house was in a neighborhood of St. Paul or Minneapolis and we didn’t realize until after we had placed an offer on the home that the home is in a tiny suburb with it’s own highly rated school district, police force, and local government. So, we actually live in a very small town in the heart of a major metropolitan area and it’s by far the smallest town I’ve ever lived in as an adult. The town truly has a small town feel and has all the small town shenanigans that go with it. I sometimes forget there two cities that touch our suburb that represent the 18th largest city in the nation and we’re part of the 16th largest metropolitan statistical area. Kinda weird.

We’ve traveled quite a bit since our world trip but we’ve chosen to stay in North America for a variety of reasons. We’ve been some incredible places: the Eastern Sierra’s in California, the Canadian Rockies, the Smoky Mountains, and the American southwest. We were lucky to find some new hikes that easily landed on our top hikes of all time:

  • the Gem Lakes / Mono Pass trail in the Eastern Sierras – incredible beauty
  • Eiffel Lake trail behind Moraine Lake in Canada – stunningly gorgeous with very few hikers with only one terrifying run-in with a bear
  • the Golden Wall trail at Red Canyon near Bryce Canyon Nation Park – a hidden gem with no other hikers with incredible scenery

During our travels we’ve also ran into some amazing seasonal, chance, or calendar events:

  • Canada Day on July 1st in Jasper was amazing
  • The Big Bay Boom in San Diego on July 4th was incredible
  • stunning fall colors at Smoky Mountains National Park
  • a desolate and serene bike ride through Zion Canyon
  • Spring bloom of field flowers in rural Texas
  • Rolling Thunder on Memorial Day in DC
  • Lava flow in Hawaii

It appears as though the pattern of Really Bad Things happening to people areas as we’re visiting or shortly after we visited has ended. I wrote about our luck in the post “End to Nomadic Life” where places we visited had horrible, horrible things happen to people around us, like:

  • the banks in Greece shutting down the day after we arrived in Greece – we were unaffected because foreigners were exempt from capital controls,
  • a human stampede in Shanghai occurring a block away from us on the Bund where 36 people died – we were safe because we were on a deck up on the fourth or fifth floor of our building, and
  • bad weather causing an avalanche killing quite a few hikers and guides while we were trekking – we were safe because we were in a valley over while we were trekking in Nepal.

The trend of Really Bad Things continued for a bit:

  • we pulled over while driving highway 1 in California to watch a small brush fire since Jac has ever seen a forest fire. Later we learned the fire turned into the Soberanes Fire where highways were closed for quite some time and people died,
  • we jumped a barrier on the Big Island to watch lava flow into the ocean and had a great time only to learn people were sent to the hospital a few hours later to recover from toxic air and shards of glass called “Pele’s Hair” falling from the sky due to a wind change,
  • part of Canada shut down shortly after we drove thru on our way between Banff and Vancouver due to fires,
  • and that’s about it that I can think of!

We’ve traveled to enough places without incident that I feel comfortable saying we’ve broken the trend. Our travels for about the last couple of years to the Smoky Mountains, Colorado, the American Southwest, Chicago, and San Diego have resulted in no mass injury or damage to the areas. A fresh breath of air :).

I decided to add a few photos to this post; just a handful of favorites from the last couple of years.

Enjoy the photos :).

Chris W.

American Southwest 2018

We had a wonderful two week trip through the American Southwest and saw some incredible scenery. The American Southwest is one of the last areas we’ve wanted to visit in the US since we’re not big into red rocks or desert so we’ve held off visiting the area until now. After our visit, I’ve changed my opinion a lot and look forward to visiting again, hopefully soon!

We drove a giant circle across Arizona and Utah visiting a ton of parks along the way (Petrified Forest NP, Canyon de Chelly NM, Monument Valley, Goosenecks SP, Arches NP, Deadhorse SP, Capitol Reef NP, Grand Staircase Escalante NM, Kodachrome SP, Bryce Canyon NP, Cedar Breaks NM, Zion NP, Grand Canyon NP) seeing incredible sights, eating incredible food, and enjoying spectacular weather.

It’s hard to describe the enormity of the sights. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is the perfect example – it’s a national monument / natural feature that has grand mesas and incredible 1,500ft monoclines climbing stepwise nearly 7,000ft over many miles. The Grand Canyon is just that – grand, and the other national / state parks we visited were equally enormous. The slot canyons, hodooos, mesas, buttes, monuments, ruins, petroglyphs, arches, mountain peaks, desert valleys, goosenecks, orchards, and crystal clear night skies were all incredible. No photo is capable of capturing the sheer size and beauty of the area. I tried, I really did, but I know the photos I took are not representative of the area and fail to portray the area accurately. The area is one of those places a person has to see in person.

The national parks were busy. Very busy. To cope, we did one of two things: we either altered our schedule to minimize the number of people we’d be around or we’d figure out alternate paths / alternate activities. As an example of altering our schedule: we chose to do a lot of early morning hiking. Seeing sunrise on Peek-a-boo trail in Bryce Canyon was an experience I can’t describe and is easily one of the best moments in hiking I’ve ever had. We started hiking when it was still rather dark and had hiked in solitude for about 45min in the dark / shade of the hoodoos before we rounded a corner to see a very large valley filled with vibrantly lit hoodoos from the early morning sun. The colors were amazing and the full body experience was exacerbated by the early morning stillness, early morning animals, and early morning smells. It was stunning. As we finished up our hike we saw humanity pouring into the canyon and it was loud. Screaming, yelling, music playing, and selfie taking made it a bit harder to enjoy the trail. I’m confident we would have greatly disliked hiking in Bryce if we would have hiked at a normal human time simply because the crush of humanity would also be enjoying the trails. Renting bicycles and riding around the canyon floor in Zion NP is the other example of finding alternate activities. Humanity is overrunning Zion – people, people, people everywhere so the national park service runs shuttles to minimize traffic in the canyon. I know there is about a 0% chance I’d cram myself into a tourist shuttle so I looked for alternate activities and found we could rent bicycles and bike wherever we wanted; sounded like a great alternative! Not only was it a great alternative, it’s one of the coolest things we’ve ever done! It felt like we had the canyon to ourselves! Since there was very little traffic we could bike wherever we wanted, it was super quiet, and it was stunningly beautiful. It was surreal knowing that there were a ton of people in Zion NP but that they were relegated to shuttles and wherever they decided to get off the shuttle. Had we not rented bikes I’m pretty sure we would have hated Zion since there were so many people.

Outside the national parks, the solitude was incredible. There were vast expanses where we didn’t see other vehicles or other people, didn’t see planes overhead, had zero cellphone signal, and didn’t hear or smell anything other than nature. For example: Red Canyon right next to Bryce Canyon NP. It’s not even a park but part of national forest surrounding Bryce NP. There are quite a few trails in the area so we decided to hike the area. We hiked in the middle of the day and chose a more popular trail, the Golden Wall trail. We didn’t see a single person, we didn’t hear any sounds of humanity, and only enjoyed nature. The sights were really similar to Bryce Canyon but no-one was around. The hike is one of the better hikes we’ve ever done in our entire lives.

We were chatting with the National Forest Service volunteer at the Red Canyon visitor center and she mentioned Highway 12 is “the second most beautiful drive in the world”. Highway 12 runs between Moab and Bryce Canyon NP and goes through Grand Staircase NM, Capitol Reef NP, and a lo of beautiful areas. We had driven on Highway 12 and thought it was quite pretty so we were a bit surprised to hear it’s the second most beautiful drive in the world. I asked her what the first most beautiful drive was and she said “Milford Sound in New Zealand”. Fortunately for us, we had driven that road when we could compare. I think Highway 12 in Utah was more beautiful only because we didn’t really like New Zealand :/. It’s interesting to think that Milford Sound is internationally known yet I had never heard of Highway 12 in Utah.

Speaking of national parks and national forests – I continually re-learn that there is a major difference in crowds visiting national parks and national forests. We’ve hiked, a lot, all over the country and I noticed a while back that the folks visiting national parks seemed to be more like city dwellers who wanted to see nature and have access to amenities like shops, rangers, informational walks, etc., and people who visited national forests for hiking seemed to be the type of people who, in general, want to enjoy hiking far away from others. It’s awesome people want to visit national parks; there’s literally nothing else like the US national park system we’ve seen in all of our travels. It’s truly a unique gem all Americans should take advantage of when possible.

This is the first year I’ve noticed something different about the crowds in the parks and other areas we were visiting. While extremely anecdotal, it seems as though the improving economy has brought a different part of society to the parks. Jac and I started visiting national parks in 2008 and witnessed firsthand the utter destruction the Great Recession had on the tourist areas around the parks starting in 2009. Seeing boarded up hotels, closed restaurants, and shut down tourist attractions was common place. This year I noticed far fewer shuttered businesses and noticed the parks were attracting families / individuals who looked different than the typical national park tourist and may have been a lower socio-economic class. It was exciting to see the folks – the recession was awful and disproportionately awful to the lower socio-economic classes so it’s my hope my observations mean the recovery has worked its way to all classes of society. If my observation is true then the recovery sure took its sweet time. 

We were surprised to find out the area has a lot of homemade pie options. It seemed as though every local restaurant we visited offered some sort of homemade pie ranging from the classic apple, peach, etc., to the more adventurous mountain berry and summer fruits mix. This all started at Capitol Reef National Park. I had read that one of the gift shops sold homemade pie inside the park – which I thought was very strange. I had read that tourists needed to show up a bit early to make sure they were able to get pie, even in March / April, since they tended to sell out. First, I don’t recall homemade items ever really being sold inside a national park. Second, Capitol Reef NP is in the middle of nowhere, seriously, look at a map of the US to find a big city in the area and then look at a population density map, there’s nearly nothing in the area. So, we set off early from Moab and arrived in Capitol Reef NP a bit after 10ish or so. We found they were selling small personal pies in the park so bought one pie as a test quickly discovering we needed seven more. From there on out, I think we had pie with every meal and pie at night before we went to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much pie!

Without planning, it seems our timing was right for a lot of things:

  • we weren’t snowed on, at all, unlike what happened to individuals we know who traveled the area a couple weeks before us,
  • the Milky Way was out in the early morning and we ended getting some great Milky Way photos,
  • our driver for the Monument Valley sunrise tour happened to know an incredible amount about photography and taught me a massive amount about night photography in about half of an hour,
  • the fruit trees in Capitol Reef NP were in bloom and it was beautiful,
  • the road to Cedar Breaks NM just opened for the year while we were in the area and the sunset we watched in solitude was incredible,
  • our gravel / dirt road driving went without a hitch since it hadn’t rained in some time and everything is solid,
  • we were able to get a tour of the Glen Canyon dam,

Despite having grown up in an arid climate I had forgotten how bad static electricity can get. I live in Minnesota now, rarely do I ever build up enough static electricity to shock myself or anyone else. Being high in the mountains and in the arid climate reminded me so much where I grew up; it only took a couple of days to get the metal touching habit back to top of mind so I could dissipate smaller amounts of static electricity frequently instead of getting a few doozies J.

Lastly, the food was great; not just the desserts, real food too. We had some extremely delicious Mexican food and it was awesome to get Indian tacos again. I had Indian tacos a lot in school growing up and I’ve come to find most folks in Minnesota have no idea what an Indian taco is or where to get one. One of the best meals we had was an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet in Moab after a long day hiking around Arches NP; we made out like bandits on that deal.

Overall, this trip went well above our expectations. I can’t wait to go back!

Enjoy the photos –

Chris W.

Short album:

 

Long album: