Tag Archives: Milky Way

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:

Being Home

It’s good to be home, it’s good to be home!

It’s been five weeks since we landed and we’re still a bit nomadic visiting family and friends all over the Midwest. We have signed a lease in our old apartment complex and I almost have a job squared away so our nomadic life is almost over. I am really, really, really, looking forward to a normal life. I traveled 50-75% of the time during my last 18 months of my job, spent 13 months traveling around the world with Jacquelyn, and will have traveled around the US for around two months before finally settling down. After almost three years of being a nomad, my feet are no longer itchy and I’m ready to have some sort of roots!

It’s been fun to hear what we missed during the last 13 months and catch up with the people who mean the most to us. I thought we did OK keeping up with what was happing back in the US but it’s clear we missed a lot. I’m happy we’ve had a handful of weeks to catch up with family and friends before jumping back into real life!

We haven’t had any real difficulty coming back to the US and haven’t had ‘reverse culture shock’ at all. I have a couple theories why: 1) we never had time to fully adapt to a different culture since we moved around so much, 2) we were ready to come home. The most difficult issue I encountered, driving on the correct side of the road, is no longer a problem so I’d say we didn’t have any problems returning and were able to sort of pick up from where we left off.

The weirdest thing I encountered was realizing I have lost A LOT of English words. This has been especially difficult when interviewing for technical positions as there’s a lot of words I haven’t used for some time so I’ve had a difficult time explaining technical/complex problems simply because I’ve lost the words! But that’s not the worst, the worst is forgetting simple words like ’rust’; I’ve had to resort to saying things, ‘that red stuff that grows on metal when it’s wet’. It has been surprising to say the least.

I’m happy we came back to the US in the fall. It’s been great weather so far and I’ve been able to enjoy some hiking, star gazing, and beautiful leaves. Overall, it’s great to be back :).

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.

South African Safari 2015

Who would have guessed driving at slow speeds while staring out the windows looking for African game animals for hours on end would be enjoyable? Certainly not Jacquelyn or I. Turns out, safari driving is a lot of fun! We spent about a week and a half in two different South African national parks watching the big game animals like lions, elephants, water buffalo and so on. It was a really cool experience and we really enjoyed our time; South Africa is an incredible place to boot with super friendly people, amazing scenery, great food, some very strange practices, and a great value overall. We have left South Africa for the time being, but we will be returning in a handful of days to explore the Cape Colony area – we really look forward to our return!

When we first set out on our trip, we didn’t really think we’d be going on safari. Neither Jacquelyn nor I are really animal people and we’ve never spent the time to look at animals we encounter in nature. We knew we’d be going to Africa so we started planning the places we wanted to visit. I read about “self driving safaris” where we wouldn’t have to go with a tour agency and we could go on our own pace. We have come to deeply detest guided group travel so this was a huge plus. We then learned we could stay within the national parks at different camps that had all the amenities we enjoy like running water, beds, cooking facilities, and surrounded in natural beauty. After researching where to visit, we settled on two national parks figuring at the very least we would be able to enjoy nature.

We sought out a lot of advice for South Africa since we had heard stories about danger and how people need to be very careful. All the recommendations boiled down to two items: don’t drive at night and treat stop signs like a yield sign to prevent theft/carjacking. Pretty easy advice to follow but we later learned the recommendation to drive during daylight was partially due to all the potholes in the roads. Apparently, there’s a pretty big problem with people popping tires or rolling vehicles when avoiding potholes so it’s recommended tourists simply drive during the day to be safe. That said, the roads were in good shape, we’ve driven in much worse conditions and didn’t feel as though the potholes inconvenienced us in the slightest.

We saw a lot of animals and it was really fun. Some animals, like giraffes, have really odd behaviors that make this rather majestic animal look completely ridiculous. There’s the big five game animals, rhino, elephant, leopard, lion, and water buffalo, that everyone strives to see when safari driving. It was easy enough to spot rhinos, water buffalo, and elephants since they are kind of hard to miss, but it was very difficult to spot lions and leopards. We almost went the entire trip without spotting a leopard because they are uncommon so it became our mission to spot a silly leopard only because that was the last of our big five sightings. We asked rangers, we looked at the sighting boards, and we asked other tourists just so we could see a leopard in the wild. Luckily, we saw one on our last day as we were headed out of the park. For people who don’t really care about animals in nature, we really put a lot of effort into seeing animals during our safari drives :).

So South Africa has some peculiarities, but I’ll just mention two. First: whenever we parked a vehicle in a public place there was always some random people who would “watch our car” to make sure no one messed with it while we were running errands, eating, or whatever. These people did not work for the places we were visiting, they were car watching entrepreneurs. We’ve been a lot of places where people demanded tips or wanted money for doing nothing so at first I just thanked the watchers and then left. After asking some locals whether this was legitimate I was told “Well, yeah, they watched your car for you”. It turns out these guys really did their job and didn’t just collect tips. We saw three car watchers forcefully remove a guy from the parking lot. Until I visited South Africa, I never thought car watching could be a dangerous or violent occupation. Second: people really take animal watching super serious. It was common to see $12,000 camera lenses, super expensive binoculars, and I even saw a vehicle mount system for someone’s zoom lens. We drove all over the national parks and from time to time would find some serious safariers hiding away from the crowds. We would chat with them and often times found they looked down on the casual safarier. There’s a stark difference between the regular folks and these super safariers – Jacquelyn and I would have the radio blaring while going as fast as we legally could looking for whatever animals were out in the open and these serious folks would be driving extremely slow, be very quiet, and they would be inspecting every nook and cranny. We quickly learned to spot those folks and then ask them what they saw – we saw a lot of cool wildlife that way!

We loved our time in South Africa and we’re really excited to return!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.


PS: there are a lot of birds in the album below.

Australia 2015

Our expectations of Australia were blown out of the water, it was awesome. We didn’t see much, just visited between Brisbane and Sydney which is a similar distance as Boston and Washington DC. Australia is the first developed country we have visited in about three months and, unlike last time, it wasn’t quite as large of a shock for us visiting a developed nation. We had some amazing hosts, met some incredible people, did/ate/drank quintessential Australian things, and had some great walks in rainforests. There were only two downsides: all the poisonous / venomous plants and animals, and the absolutely craptacular internet and cell reception throughout the small part of country we visited.

We didn’t do a great deal of research on Australia before we showed up. Since the place was settled by convicts we thought, naturally, that it wouldn’t be that great. We thought it was filled with poisonous and deadly animals / plants, lots of dirt, dry, with tumbleweeds rolling around and an opera house near some water somewhere. Except for the deadly plants and animals, we were wrong. It was wonderful to get out into the country and have some peace and quiet far from other people after being in Asia / Indian subcontient for so long. We had forgotten what clean forests, clean air and quiet were. The national parks provided great walks and stunning views.

We were introduced to the amazing hospitality and generosity of Australians, it was next-level hospitality that I didn’t realize could exist. It’s like “Minnesota nice” except Australians are actually nice, mean what they say, and happily invited Jacquelyn and I into their lives! We were able to catch up with two families we met while traveling in Turkey and Vietnam and even stayed three days with one family; none of them batted an eye at meeting or hosting us. It was a deeply enriching experience for us because we were able to learn a lot about Australia and Australian culture. We learned a lot of “Australian”, definitely not English, but “Australian”, from the families. We were able to eat and do all sorts of Australian things: eat kangaroo, do the Tim Tam Slam, ate pavlova, learned how to play cricket from a very good teacher, watched a ruby game and learned how it was played, hiked in at least two different types of rainforest, drank all sorts of Australian beers and wines, called someone “mate” and learn some derogatory Australian phrases. It was great!

We had a few comical things happen to us pretty quickly in Australia: 1) We came across a venomous snake 15minutes into our very first hike. Jacquelyn hates snakes. That was the first of about eight hikes we had planned. We were off to a bad start. 2) the first meal we ordered were french fries and an apple crumble – so healthy! It’s easy to get fries and pastries in lesser developed countries but they are generally crap. It was nice to have good junk food! 3) We were missing Vietnamese food and found a Vietnamese restaurant that was recommended to us by some locals. Soon after we ate we both came down with the runs!

We had a rental car and it was the first time I drove in the last five months. I’m getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road since every vehicle I’ve driven, outside our first week of travel, has been on the wrong side of the road. Kangaroos ended up being quite the road hazard out in the bush so we took it slow. Thankfully, the Australians were some of the most polite drivers we’ve been around.

There is a lot to like about Australia but mostly we were shocked by how awesome the people where. It was no big deal for Australians to take a significant amount of time and money to teach us about their country and shows us the things they love. Truly a remarkable thing. With the awesome people and great scenery, I can understand why so many people want to move to Australia!

Enjoy the photos!

Chris W.