Tag Archives: wanderlust

Valley of the Gods – the Other Monument Valley

This is the 4th in the series on the American Southwest.  There are links to the others at the bottom… or click on the others in the left side bar.

There are no buses or safari trucks hauling tourists to this remote spot.  In fact, if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might not make it here yourself.  The road is gravel and sand and if you are coming in from the west, it crosses no less than 20 dry washes.  You descend steeply, cross the stream bed, and then climb just as quickly out the other side.  If it’s raining, forget about it.  Crossing streams here can get you stuck for hours or days – if you aren’t washed away entirely.

What this lack of accessibility adds up to is a lot of solitude…  in the middle of a magnificent valley filled with rugged silent beauty.  It is often described as a slightly less spectacular version of Monument Valley which is within sight, a few miles to the southwest.  To me, it looks as though the two are just part of one larger geological area, with the San Jaun River gorge cutting across the middle.

The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crossed arroyos.
The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crosses many arroyos.

The camping is free here, and that is one thing that attracted me to the spot; I saw it as an affordable overnight alternative to the expensive campgrounds and dude ranches that service Monument Valley.  Of course, boon docking is for those who are self-sufficient.  There are no restrooms or water pumps here; you are entirely on your own.

Camper heads into Valley of the Gods

I had checked off a mental inventory of my provisions before turning off the highway just north of Mexican Hat, having already filled the fuel tank and eating a hearty fast food meal at Kayenta, Arizona earlier in the day.

This spot will certainly be ranked in my top ten of my favorite campsite of all time.
This spot will certainly be ranked in the top ten of my favorite campsites of all time.

The campsite I chose was at the valley’s northernmost point at the foot of a giant butte and across from its twin.  There were cliffs both east and west of me and a view to the southwest that stretched almost to infinity where I could see the hazy buttes of Monument Valley in the distance.

I parked the camper at the foot of a massive monolith.
I parked the camper at the foot of a massive tower.
Looking west and southwest from my campsite.
Looking west from my campsite. There’s the road I came in on.
Looking east from my campsite.
Looking east from my campsite.

There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.

The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.
The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.

Of course, boon docking means there are no improvements to the campsites; there are no RV pads or leveled platforms.  I soon realized that my site was sloping a bit and decided to make my own improvements – by backing the truck onto some slabs of rock for the night.  Perfect.

Leveling the site

After the sun went down, I became slowly aware of another spectacular scene:  the Milky Way was brilliant in the dark sky above me.  After all, the nearest town was 20 miles away and the nearest city was more than 100 miles south.  Out came the camera and tripod for a few time exposures of the starry sky.

I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.
I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.  Campfires are not permitted at this location.

Though there had been a few tourists driving by in rented SUV’s during the day, the place became extremely quiet after dark, almost too quiet.  There was not another soul nearby… or was there?
A light wind was causing a moaning in the highest crags of the stone tower near me. It seemed a little bit spooky, and I started wondering how this desolate place first got its name.  Did the natives name it?  Had they been conjuring spirits out here in the past?  Were there still manifestations that were floating about in the dark?

Were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?
As the darkness deepened, were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?

Climbing into the comfort of my camper loft, my weariness caught up with my consciousness and put me under a blanket of sleep.  There were no nightmares.  Just peace and quiet.

I loved Valley of the Gods and if I ever return, I hope to stay longer.

It’s a lot of fun if you like traipsing about in the desert among the most fascinating of rock formations.  Or if you just like quiet solitude.  Beautiful.

______________________________

Read Part 1:  Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

Read Part 2:  Capitol Reef – I Think We’re Alone Now

Read Part 3:  Two (fake) Cowboys Meet in Monument Valley

Two (fake) Cowboys Meet in Monument Valley

This is the third in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest.  Look for links to the others at the bottom.

Since I am the most frequent subject in my own photos, I often dress to fit the setting.  For the southwest trip I bought a plaid shirt – red of course – and a cowboy hat and stepped into the picture at just about every site.

At Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park there is already a resident cowboy who poses on his horse for the tourists, making a few dollars in tips from each one.  Being photo savvy, he wears a red shirt too.  I don’t know this Navajo’s name but we spoke briefly at John Ford Point, the little mesa made famous by the namesake film director who first filmed John Wayne at the site for the movie Stagecoach  in 1939.  It has since been featured in a variety of flicks including The Searchers (1956),  Easy Rider (1969) and others.

monument-valley-cowboy-ortn-2

My tour of the dusty 17-mile valley loop took me past other popular scenes like the Totem Poles, West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Butte.

Valley Drive in Monument Valley

Totem Poles at Monument Valley

Though there are lots of safari trucks and outfitters who offer tours through the famous valley, I like that it is still open to general visitors to drive and explore.  However, hiking is not allowed in most areas and there are warnings about leaving the road, so it is closely controlled.  You can get ticketed for wandering off… if anybody can find you.

West Mitten Monument Valley

Monument Panorama

Monument North Window

My final signature site was Mile 13 on the north side of the valley where highway 163 makes a straight shot north out of the park.  It’s the spot where Forrest Gump finally stopped running in the movie of the same name.  The day I was there, the highway was being repaved.

There is a small turnout at milepost 13 where you can pull off and aim your camera south to capture th iconic skyline made famous by Forrest Gump.
There is a small turnout at milepost 13 where you can pull off and aim your camera south to capture the iconic skyline made famous by Forrest Gump.

Monument Valley is a long way from the nearest expressway and farther from a city, but if you go, you can get fuel and provisions at the Shell station in Mexican Hat coming in from the north or at Kayenta (AZ) to the south where there are several gas stations and even some fast-food joints.

Also, if you are boondocking, the camping is free at Valley of the Gods just 25 miles northeast (my next post will cover this remote location).  No facilities.

You’re sure to have a monumental experience!  And have fun.

_______________________________________________

Read Southwestern Safari episode 1:  Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

Read Southwestern Safari episode 2:  Capitol Reef National Park – I Think We’re Alone Now

Also, click the green Follow button in the left side bar if you want to get a notice of my next post.  You won’t want to miss my final post in the series, Four Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me!

Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

This is the first in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest.  Look for links to the others at the bottom.

I doubt if there is another place in the world with as many hoodoos as Bryce Canyon National Park. Red rocks, pink rocks, yellow rocks, white and orange rocks, a panorama of this landscape is a mind-boggling blast of color. It’s almost too much to comprehend from the canyon overview.

Sunset Point is perched on the brink above Navajo Trail.
Sunset Point is perched on the brink above Navajo Trail.

Fortunately, you can get right into this scene and touch and feel these fantastic natural features, because there is a network of hiking trails that takes you right into the heart of it.

Navajo hiking trail descends from the canyon rim just below Sunset Point.
Navajo hiking trail descends from the canyon rim just below Sunset Point.

I chose the Queen’s Garden trail first because I knew there were tunnels and I wanted to photograph them at dusk. Great fun.

My shot of one of three tunnels on Queen's Garden Trail ended up taking on an Indiana Jones aura.
My shot of one of three tunnels on Queen’s Garden Trail ended up taking on an Indiana Jones aura.

Of course, every trail ends with a strenuous climb back to the canyon rim. Whoa. And at 8,000 feet elevation, the unseasoned hiker will be gasping for air before making it back to the top.
Rather than doing an out-and-back, I connected to the Navajo trail which is the most traveled pathway in the park. But after dark, I was the only one out there. Hah!  those busloads of tourists were nowhere to be seen.

Queen's Garden trail has three tunnels carved through the rock.

Photography was my first priority on my wandering tour of the southwest, but hiking was essential to get to the scenes I wanted to shoot.  Queen’s Garden trail was a great way for me to get into the guts of Bryce Canyon and capture the essence of this gorgeous geological site.

Queen's Garden trail arch.
Look how the time of day and the angle of the sunlight changes the glow of the rocks on this photo and the one above.

Photographers often say it is all about the light.  One of my favorite phenomena about the light at Bryce is that it bounces and reflects all over the place, making the rocks look as though they are glowing from within, creating a rather neon effect.

So this is the thing about Hoodoo Central.  Make sure you get below the rim and into the heart of place.  Feet on trail,  firsthand experience, here we come.

And take lots of pictures.  It is a one-of-a-kind place in all the world.

And have fun!

Visitors from the west will drive through two tunnels on highway 12 before arriving at Bryce Canyon.
Visitors from the west will drive through two tunnels on highway 12 before arriving at Bryce Canyon.

Coming Up:

  4 Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me

 3 Cliff Dwellings that Left Me Hanging

 Arches National Park – A Delicate Balance

 And more

The Pickup Camper

Milepost 9-5-18                                              Living in a small Michigan town

I once wrote about the different modes of travel that we have employed at various times in our lives, from tent camping throughout the family years, to the 29-foot fifth wheel that we have lived in for the last few years, touring the country from one end to the other.

We once took the family on a month-long camping trip with the family van, a convenient version of car camping with room for all the gear.
We once took the family on a month-long camping trip with the family van, a convenient version of car camping with plenty of room for all the gear.
We visited all corners of the USA while living in the big rig.
We visited all corners of the USA while living in the big rig.

We “parked it” a few months ago, moving into a small apartment so we could have a home base again for a while not far from our grandkids.  We need some family time.

And now we have purchased a used pickup camper so that I could try some solo adventures — sort of a mobile bachelor pad, if you will.  My first safari is to the American Southwest canyon lands and arches of southern Utah on an extended desert photo shoot.  Kaye needs a break from the wandering life for a little while, so I am doing this one alone.

The pickup camper, sometimes called a slide-in, is the smallest version of the self-contained RV.  It has a tiny kitchen, bathroom, living room/dinette, and bedroom.  It is a tiny house on wheels.

One of the advantages of the pickup camper is that because of its size, it can go anywhere that a pickup truck can go.  Not only is driving easier, fuel stops and restaurant visits are streamlined because the rig only takes one normal size parking space.  There are a lot of places that the larger fifth wheel simply can’t go because of its size.  Tight turns and low canopies are the dread of every big rig owner and driver.

Boondocking is easier with the pickup camper as well, because you can head out on the back roads and two-tracks where the larger rig would be dragging its tail.  You can reach remote destinations.

Bad weather is not such a spoiler with a hard top camper either.  I have had many uncomfortable experiences while tent camping when the rain set in and I had to break camp with a wet tent and sand that stuck to everything.  More than once I forgot to air out the tent after arriving home and found it moldy the next time I wanted to use it.

Another big plus for the pickup camper is that it is not one more set of wheels to be maintained.  It does not add another engine and tranny to the fleet.

Of course, there is a trade-off with everything, and with the pickup camper it is the limited space inside.  It is not so well suited for the family as it is the solo traveler or couple.

Pickup campers were invented in the 1940’s and I am sure the most famous one was Rocinante, the camper that John Steinbeck had custom built for the cross-county trip that he wrote about in his novel, Travels with Charley.

Steinbeck's pickup camper, Rocinante, at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA
We saw Steinbeck’s pickup camper, Rocinante  on display at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA.

Watch for reports on my Southwestern Safari starting soon.  I’ll let you know how pickup camping is working for me.

Read Kaye’s review of Rocinante and Travels with Charley here.

A Top Down Road Trip in New England

Milepost 6-27-16

Having just acquired a red convertible, it seemed proper to immediately venture out on one of the road trips we have been delaying for awhile.  We took a quick glance at our calendar and saw that we could invest 7 days and 6 nights in a whirlwind tour to the northeast that would also help us check off 6 more states for a total of 49 states visited.

Driving a sports car makes for a different sort of touring experience than hauling the RV.  The miles fly by faster, and there seems to be less effort overall.

Cutting across Canada from Michigan saved 150 miles and 3 hours of road time.  Fortunately, the border crossings were hassle-free as well.

DSC_0330
Every little town in Vermont has that classic white church that you see in calendar photos.

In order to catch Vermont and New Hampshire we had to leave the expressway and take to the hilly winding 2-lanes that connect the quaint little towns in the valleys.  We call it “red-lining” because the backroads are printed in red on a map.  By the second night we were on the Maine coast.

Bass Harbor seashore drive

Portland Head Light from south

The famous Portland Head Lighthouse was rather gray-looking under a heavy sky, but beautiful nonetheless.  Heading up the coast from there, we made it to our motel near Bar Harbor in time for dinner and a leisurely stroll around the town and the wharf.  I had my first taste of blueberry soda.  Mmm.

DSC_0377

The next day was our 45th wedding anniversary, and we picked Acadia National Park for our destination for the day.  Cadillac Mountain was socked in with fog at the top, but we stayed long enough to watch some of it drift away on the morning breeze.

Bob on Cadillac Mtn. in the fog

DSC_0419

We chose Bass Harbor for lunch and had a great meal of seafood on the wharf.  The neighboring docks were stacked with lobster traps.  The tide rose 2 feet in the harbor while we dined.  They said their tides can vary by as much as 12 feet.

Bass Harbor edit

Kaye at Seafood Ketch

The classic view of Bass Harbor lighthouse was reached by means of a rather strenuous climb over rugged boulders and stairways.

Bass Harbor Light boost

Wandering around the rocky coastline all afternoon, we arrived back in Bar Harbor for dinner and another perusal of the gift shops all over town.

DSC_0387

DSC_0398

Our return route took us down the coast to visit Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all in one day.  By chance, we were at Mystic, CT, for lunch and had shrimp cocktail and a footlong hotdog on a patio by the harbor.  No pizza this time.

We skirted wide around New York City to miss the traffic; we had already toured the Big Apple a few years ago.  From there it was pedal down for home.

I’ll have to admit, there was an element of “git-er-done” attitude on this trip.  Not only were we tallying states visited, but we also had limited time to devote to the venture.  I am sure that we missed a lot of good stuff — but we were able to identify some favorite spots and moments anyway.  I think the anniversary lunch on the wharf at Bass Harbor was one of our most memorable.  And of course, we both have a thing for lighthouses.

Portland Head Light west view

I don’t know what we will do about that 50th state.  Hawaii might have to wait a while for us.

The Color Red in Outdoor Photography

Milepost 5-22-16                  –At our apartment in Michigan

It is no secret to outdoor photographers that the color red is an eye-catcher, and they use it at just the right times (usually) to add pizzazz to their photos.  I don’t know what aesthetic operative comes into play when I see a nature photo with red in it, but it gets my attention anyway.  I have been using this natural phenomenon in my photos for a long time.

Bob promo at Denali 1461_2

When I rented kayaks for a recent paddle along the rugged shoreline of Michigan’s Thumb, I chose red kayaks.  The outfitter had yellow, blue, orange and green, but I knew what red would do in my photos of the event.  Yes, yellow or orange would probably have provided a similar effect, but red delivered the classic look I was hoping for.

Turnip Rock 0004

Sometimes, it’s not up to me to be intentional about using the color red.  Sometimes, I get lucky and it is already there.  Last weekend I was camping at Tawas Point State Park to test some new camping gear and when I hiked out to the historic lighthouse — Voila! — the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling had a red roof.  Cool.  That was easy.  Somebody on the lighthouse restoration committee apparently knew the secret too.

Tapas Point lighthouse fair skies

This knowledge has cost me a small fortune.  It didn’t cost any more money to rent a red kayak than a green one, but I have spent money on red shirts, jackets and sweaters to insert in my photos, and now, anticipating some upcoming road trips to the seacoast, I have bought a red convertible.  No joke.  I would not buy any other color than red, and I actually have been watching the online market for two years waiting for the right car and the right time.

Bob w '07 Mustang HDR

Two years ago, when we were hauling the RV up the Pacific Coast Highway from southern California to Alaska, we had to bypass the California redwoods because we were pressed for time and we couldn’t invest the necessary extra day that it would take to handle that winding narrow road through the tall trees.  At that moment we pledged to ourselves that we would return sometime later and approach it in the proper manner…  in a red convertible.

So, you will be seeing this car on the blog a lot in the coming days.

For our first major road trip with it, we have chosen to take on an adventure we missed last year while heading up the east coast from Florida in the spring.  We want to visit New England and pick up six states that we have never been to, bringing our tally from 43 states to 49.  Not only that, the trip will coincide with our 45th wedding anniversary.   We plan to be cruising the coast of Maine on our special day.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate 45 years together than to cruise the seashore in a red convertible — with the top down, of course.

Maybe we will get back to the redwoods sometime –  and now we have the right car for it – but for this time it will be the other end of the country and a place we have never been before.

It’s the appropriately color-coordinated adventure of a lifetime!

Watch for the red sports car in subsequent posts.

DSC_0091

Unfortunately, not every photographic prop can be purchased in red.  Part of the new inventory of camping gear that I was testing last weekend is a new tent.  It’s yellow.  But a red light stick inside changes the color for photos.

And anyway, it is possible to get too much of a good thing, so yellow will be fine for my photos of my tent in future camping pics.  Any bright color will add visual punch to a photo.

Try it if you want to, and see what happens to your photos.

And have fun!

monument-valley-cowboy-ortn-2

Travel: The (Almost) Impossible Dream

Milepost: 5-11-16                       — Just moved into a small apartment

For many years it seemed like this day would never come — the day that we would be free to wander around the country in an RV and a pickup truck and choose our next destination with a random finger stab at the map lying in our laps.  But the day did come, not by accident but by sheer determination and hard work.  There were hard choices.

Six years ago we were living on a retired 30-acre Christmas tree farm with too much mowing to do… and a mortgage we could no longer afford.  Our kids had all grown up and left our spacious rural estate and our large house, and our nearest grandchild now lived 80 miles away.

We had become weary of the upkeep on so much property and wanted to see the world — and our grandkids.  But we couldn’t afford it.  I had been running a full crew with my log home construction company when the housing bust arrived in Michigan — two years before the recession.  It was 2006 and nobody else wanted a log home.  Even the log home dealers were closing one by one — the people who had been referring their buyers to us to build their homes.  I had to lay off the crew.

 Our financial plan for retirement crashed and burned.

We had arrived at retirement age still owing a mortgage.  Reality was brutal:  We could afford to own and maintain this property OR we could afford to travel.  But not both.  We had to choose one or the other.

It looked as though our businesses had run their courses and we wouldn’t be needing so much space and so many resources — tools, machinery, etc.  and the kids weren’t coming home to visit but once or twice a year.  We were ready to downsize.

And so we did.

We spent the next few years cleaning out sheds and closets and selling stuff or giving it away.  We put the property up for sale.  But we were in the middle of the recession and nothing happened.  Finally, a neighbor showed up at our door asking if we would sell him 10 acres.  We did, and then used the money to buy a used RV.  We put the rest of our stuff in storage, put renters in the big house, and we hit the road.

And the next year, while we were wandering around Alaska with our rig, the rest of our property sold.  Our once impossible dream was becoming our new reality.

We finally realized our dream of driving the Alaska Highway.
We finally realized our dream of driving the Alaska Highway.

Over the last couple of years, we have explored three corners of our country, from Florida to California to Alaska and a thousand points in between, and have moved offshore for a couple of winters living in the tropics in vacation rentals.

 New England (the fourth corner of our country) will have to wait for us, because we have decided to take a vacation from traveling (that sounds odd, maybe?)  and move into a small apartment for a while.

And we can finally afford to do BOTH.  We can have a Michigan home base again AND continue to travel.  Our new apartment is only 13 miles from our kids and grandkids, and the rent is less than half of what our old mortgage was!

Somebody else mows the lawns, shovels the walks, and repairs the leaks… while I head down the rail trail with my bike or visit the local farm market or ice cream shop (One of the bike paths here ends at the local Dairy Queen).

If I have one regret, it is that we didn’t start downsizing sooner.  Fortunately, Kaye and I are still physically fit and able to pursue our travel goals, and we really do appreciate and take advantage of our good fortune.  Lots of folks run out of good health before they ever get to realize their dreams.

Anyway, I was doing a bit of reminiscing today and  thinking about how far we have come in the face of a lot of challenges, and decided to write about it here.  I am so happy that our  present circumstance is so far different than where we were just a few years ago.

If you, my reader, find yourself in a similar almost impossible scenario, take heart; there is much that can happen to improve your outlook and bring your dreams within reach.

I suspect that your journey will begin with some difficult decisions and will be followed by a lot of hard work.  That’s okay, isn’t it?

The struggle makes the reward all the more satisfying.

On the other hand, if you are in upsizing mode right now, it might be smart for you to stop and think about what you really want in 10 years or 20 years from now.  Maybe you should quit bringing more stuff into your garage and basement and attic.  It might turn into a ball and chain later and keep you planted at a time when you want to be free.

Just a thought.  Do what sounds right to you.

And have fun!

Obsessive Repositioning Disorder (ORD)*

Milepost 3-12-16                                — in a vacation rental in the tropics

Most of the time it is simply called wanderlust.  It’s that compulsive condition that makes people restless when they’ve been in one place for too long.  Sometimes it is in the DNA and whole families are afflicted with it, and sometimes it is brought on suddenly by a single extraordinary experience, perhaps a childhood trip to Disneyworld or a memorable  weekend in a cottage on the seashore.

Somehow, somewhere, the infection gets under your skin and ends up flowing through your veins and you can’t sit still anymore.  You are compelled to move, even if it is just for a weekend road trip.

One last visit to the beach bar for one last Dominican pizza.
One last visit to the beach bar for one last Dominican fish fry.

Right now, we are getting ready to reposition, and the excitement is building every day.  We have been in the tropics for the winter and are flying back north a few days from now.  There are certain symptoms that accompany the onset of ORD for us:

  • Emptying the fridge and cupboards.  I am not sure how we developed this habit, but part of the excitement of moving on for us is eating leftovers and trying to finish stuff up right down to the last egg in the fridge and the last squeeze of toothpaste.  There is a certain check-it-off-the-list mentally that besets us when we are getting ready to move.  I guess we like to travel light.
  • Daydreaming.  That blank stare might mean I am reminiscing about that great campsite we had on the Pacific coast a couple of years ago, but if I am suffering from ORD, it’s more likely I am dreaming about what the next destination will be like…  or the journey from here to there.
  • Obsessive Googling.  We are both online checking the map of the next destination. “Hey, there is a bike path in our new neighborhood!”  “Oh, cool, we will be able to walk to the cafe down the block from our place!”  Before we even leave for our new location, we feel that we already know what’s there and what’s not.
  • One-Last-Time syndrome.  It may seem weird but we both take note of the last time we use something before moving.  The last time we charge the camera batteries, the last time we order pizza in this neighborhood, the last time we do the laundry, the last time we visit the grocery store, and so on.  I think it is part of the countdown for us.  Does that happen to you?
  • Planning ahead.  This is where we prepare for the trip and the new location. Maybe we buy jerky and crackers for the plane flight.  Perhaps we lay out our entire wardrobe for the trip and the arrival at the new place.  Will we need a jacket?  Where will we eat on the way?  Do we need a haircut before leaving?
  • Stocking up on arrival.  This is the counterpart to one-last-time syndrome.  It is the excitement of re-stocking the fridge upon arrival.  The first trip to the grocery store.  The search for the nearest farm market.  Which restaurant will we start with?

Since we are heading “home” to Michigan next, we have the added anticipation of seeing the grandkids for the first time in a couple of months.  That is a biggie for old folks like us.

Plus, there is an epic change in store for us with this move since we are planning to “park it” for a while and actually move into an apartment near our kids for at least a year, and maybe a lot longer.  We are going to get everything out of storage and rediscover the archives.   We are even planning to stay there through the next winter.  It will have been five years since that has happened.  We are still planning to travel, but we will have a home base again.  We still want to do the New England coast during fall color change… in a red convertible.  And there is my Southwest Photo Safari coming up this fall in the canyon lands of Utah.  And we haven’t ruled out an Art Tour of Italy later on.

So, when the ORD kicks in again, we are not sure what will happen.  Probably shorter trips and less distance from home.  I am sure that we are not done traveling yet.  As long as we are physically able, we plan to keep scratching that itch.

How does Obsessive Repositioning Disorder affect you?  How did you contract the bug in the first place?   Do you have to fight it off because of work or financial constraints?  What do you do when it’s time to move?  Can you take a spontaneous road trip?

Sorry, I don’t think there is a cure for ORD.  You might die with it someday.  Too bad.

In the meantime, have fun!

(*There’s really no such thing as ORD  other than common wanderlust or the travel bug,  I made it up.  Except that it is also the airport code for O’Hare in Chicago., and that carries it’s own suggestive travel connotation.)

A Farewell to the Beach

Milepost 3-11-16      –at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic

Our tropical winter hiatus is about to end, so we rented a quad yesterday to visit our favorite remote beach for one more time before heading north for the spring and summer. Playa Rincon is an unspoiled and mostly undiscovered haven for all but the most ambitious adventurers because it takes a lot of effort to get there.  It is thirty miles from the nearest gas pump, and the last few miles of the trail are a disaster waiting to happen for rental vehicles with anything but high clearance and four wheel drive.

DSCN4444
Before leaving the village, we fueled up at the nearest “gas station”. The fuel is delivered from a beer bottle or a bleach bottle, take your pick.

We first discovered this beach 26 years ago when we were in the Dominican Republic while teaching at an international school.  I was looking for a quiet place to get away from the noise of the city and a friend told us about this secluded spot that was as far away as a person can get in this country and still be on land.  With our three daughters, we camped in a coconut grove next to the beach.  Nobody came near us the whole time.

Arriving on the four-wheeler, we found the beach peaceful and serene.
Arriving on the four-wheeler, we found the beach peaceful and beautiful as expected.

This time there was a bit of nostalgia mixed with the crashing waves, the hot sun and the swaying palm trees.  We weren’t sure when we would be returning to this tropical paradise, maybe never.

I had been hoping to get some photos and video of the four-wheeler running through the edge of the waves, but the surf was up today and I chose not to chance it, not wanting to risk sending a rented quad out to sea.

What an amazing place to spend a day... or a winter.
What an amazing place to spend a day… or a winter.

We spent our time walking the beach and soaking up sun until we judged we were about to get burned, then headed down the trail to the beach bar for a cold coke and some native cuisine.

After a couple more runs up and down the beach road with the quad, Kaye invited me back on and we waved a reluctant farewell to the beach and took to the rough road back home.

DSCN4469
It’s possible to open up the throttle on a beach that is 2 miles long when there is nobody in the way as far a the eye can see.

On the way back, we stopped at one of our favorite roadside fruit markets to stock up on produce

Kaye hands her shopping basket to the cashier, as it were, at the local fruit stand.
Kaye hands her shopping basket to the cashier, as it were, at the local fruit stand.
As this fruit market they make their own chocolate syrup directly from the fresh cocoa beans grown out in back.
As this fruit market they make their own chocolate syrup directly from the fresh cocoa beans grown out in back.

So the winter is over and we are leaving soon, heading back to the messy purgatory that is Michigan in the spring.

That will be another beach and another story.  The water in Lake Michigan will reach 80 degrees by about…  the twelfth of never.

The Anxiety of the Lone Wolf

Milepost 2-26-16       -at a vacation rental in the Dominican Republic

“Introvert, Know Thyself”.   This is my most recent note-to-self.  I am experiencing a bit of emotional discomfort in my current setting, and I’m realizing that I over-estimated my ability to find solitude in a highly social culture.  For an introvert like me, solitude is essential to a balanced life and healthy emotional equilibrium.

Everybody is different, and it would be easy to assume that the majority of travelers and adventurers are extroverts, loving the excitement and the challenges of far-away places and exotic cultures.  I don’t know if that is the case, and I am not about to launch a study to find out.

What I do know is what an introvert like me needs when it comes to adventure – and life in general:

  • I can enjoy crowds and parties and parades and other highly social settings, but only for a short time, and those experiences need to be followed by a season of hibernation, of being alone so that I can refuel my emotional tank.
  • On the other hand, if I am inactive for very long, I will get restless and need to get outside and satisfy my adventure quotient.
  • The best balance of these two factors – of solitude and adventure – is to find adventures in sparsely populated locations.  Or to follow my crowded adventures with solo adventures in solitary places.
  • I don’t like cold weather for very long.  I can handle Michigan through Christmas every year with just the right allocation of snow and brisk clear air, but after that, the winter is far too long.  This is a third factor that complicates my search for the right balance.  There aren’t that many southern destinations that offer solitude.  RV parks are notorious for noise and overcrowding.  For the solitary soul, they are tolerable when and if there are quiet areas nearby.

Where I ran into trouble this winter was that I chose a tropical setting in the middle of a highly social open-air culture for too long a period of time.  10 weeks of noise, bustling streets, merengue music blasting until after midnight every night… well, I just can’t seem to get away from it long enough to refill my emotional tank.  Of course, even the beaches are crowded with bodies this time of year.

There are few sidewalks, so pedestrians and traffic share the streets.  It's dangerous, and can be irritating.
There are few sidewalks and no parking lots here, so pedestrians share the streets with parked vehicles and moving traffic. It’s dangerous, and can be irritating to a weary traveler.

I find myself avoiding the interaction with the locals that I love so much – for short periods.  I just want to stay home and be alone.

Fortunately, Kaye and I are very much alike in most of these ways, only she likes the northern winters and doesn’t need as much adventure as I do.

We solve this by scheduling what we call Bob-alone times.  I can head off on a solo adventure, thus satisfying my appetite for adventure, while both of us get to refresh by being alone for a while.

Most of my solo adventures are short, lasting only a few hours.  A bike ride down the nearest rail trail works just fine, and I don’t have to talk to anyone along the way, simply nodding to other cyclists that I meet on the trail.  I do this several times a week during the fair weather seasons.

Longer alone times usually involve a tent, a sleeping bag and a cooler full of goodies…  and my camera, of course.  Last summer, I celebrated my birthday by heading up north to the woods with my bike to pedal for miles on end at a beautiful paved bike trail through the woods and dunes of the national lakeshore in northern Michigan.  I camped at a state forest campground by a quiet stream where there was hardly anyone else around.  Ah, solitary bliss.

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a premiere cyclist's destination that winds along the shoreline for 27 miles.  It's a steep one with grades of up to 11%.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a premiere cyclist’s destination that winds along the shoreline for 27 miles.

I always feel that when I am alone with myself… I am in good company.  If you are an introvert, you likely know what I am saying.

Anyway,  I am sharing this side of myself for the benefit of other would-be adventures who may not entirely understand what happens to them when they feel stressed while living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time.  Maybe you are an introvert.  Maybe you need to study yourself a bit more and find ways to hibernate from time to time for the sake of your own well-being… and the well-being of those who are traveling with you.

I really do write notes-to-myself that I refer to before scheduling the next outing.  It is good to know yourself.  The thing is, you can’t always know how you will feel or react in a given situation until you try it out.

And that is part of the adventure.

Know thyself.   And have fun!

Venturing Outside the Walls

Milepost 2-6-16                      -We are at a vacation rental in the tropics.

Here’s a tip about travel that first-timers may not discover on their own:  The real adventure is often where the real people are.  I am talking about the backstory that is on the backstreets of your travel destination.  I am talking about the true cultural realities that exist outside the walls of the gated resort where you are staying.

Many travelers see a carefully scripted performance when they go on vacation at the all-inclusive resort.  Even the cruise lines that claim to visit exotic islands, as it turns out, may have bought the island and designed an elaborate facade that is only a fake reproduction of the real culture that they are trying to depict.  But it’s not real.

If you like it that way, fine.  If you want to stay within the enclave, you should be comfortable and safe.  Hopefully, you will be able to relax and have a good time, maybe even make some new friends.  For you, it may be exactly the right thing.  But you might be able to ratchet your adventure factor to the next level with a venture outside the walls.

Culturally, the real fun begins when you leave the reservation.  When you leave Front Street and venture to Second or Third Street… or even farther to where the street turns into a pathway.

When the waiter comes to your table at the resort, do you ever ask yourself, “Who is this person?  Where does he live?  Does she have a family?  What’s her name?”  Better yet, don’t just ask yourself…  ask the waiter.

When I was in the Maldive Islands, my scuba diving buddies asked these questions of our guide, a young man named Ibrahim.  After 2 weeks of friendly interaction with him, we were surprised when he invited us to come to his home and meet his wife — they were expecting their first child.  This sort of encounter is unheard of in the Maldives where the government requires strict oversight of tourists; it just never happens.  But for us, it happened.  The day before Ibrahim escorted us to the airport, he started crying, and threw himself at us with hugs and weeping as we parted company.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was unreal.  No.  This was real.

This sort of rich adventure can be really hard to find when you are on a 10-day cruise where your movements are scheduled and your encounters carefully scripted.   It is hard to escape the confines and get to the raw realities of the real culture.

One of the blessings of the traveling life that Kaye and I are now enjoying is the extravagance of being able to stay as long as we want wherever we want.  We love to find out where the natives live, and we have been invited into their homes lots of times.  Nobody tells us where to be or at what time.  We decide for ourselves.

This winter, we are staying 10 weeks in a little town on the beach in the Dominican Republic.  We have learned enough Spanish to be able to venture onto the side roads and back alleys to see how these people really live.

In fact, by planning ahead, we were able to visit an indigenous family in the interior of the country just yesterday.  We have been sponsoring a kid through an international humanitarian organization that provides underprivileged children with a quality education and health care.  Yorgelis is now 15 years old and we got to meet him.  We hired a car and driver who was able to find his way through the maze of backroads and the small towns (on the cell phone with the host several times for directions) to find these guys in an obscure neighborhood far (4 hours one way)  from the tourist resorts.

We were able to visit our sponsored child's family in their home.
We were able to visit our sponsored child’s family in their home.

What an amazing experience!  Their family is actually part of a community of artists and have a pottery factory in their backyard.  Did you ever wonder who makes the vases and bowls and cups that you find in the gift shops at the resorts where you stay?  We found them.

We got to tour the school where our kid has been educated for the last 9 years, and then his family put on a demonstration for us in the pottery shop.  We could not have asked for a more beautiful experience with an authentic indigenous family.  Precious.

Here I am with Yorgelis and his dad and granddads.
Here I am with Yorgelis and his dad and granddads.

We now have some pottery to add to our international collection at home.  And here’s the thing:  We know the people who made it.

That is the stuff of real adventure.

Here are a few more photos from our visit to the interior yesterday:

This guy threw a beautiful vase in about 5 minutes.
This guy threw a beautiful vase on the potter’s wheel in about 5 minutes.
Yorgelis' dad carved flowers onto the vase in a minute.
Yorgelis’ dad carved flowers onto the vase in a minute.
Yorgelis' family gave us gifts of pottery.  At the rear is his teacher, and on the right is our host and guide from the organization.
Yorgelis’ family gave us gifts of pottery. At the rear is his teacher, and on the right is our host and guide from the organization.
One of the workers was stoking the fire under the kiln
One of the workers was stoking the fire under the kiln

Pottery

We found a nice fruit market on the way home, and our driver provided some tips on selecting avocados.
We found a nice fruit market on the way home, and our driver provided some tips on selecting fresh avocados.

I hope you are able to get outside the walls on your next adventure!

Have fun!

When Giving Back – Gives Back

Milepost 2-2-16              –living in a rented apartment near the beach.

My dad used to say that the real joy of having anything – is sharing it, and I proved him right again today.  The joy of artistic expression through photography has been multiplied by the joy of giving as I have been visiting my Dominican neighbors with copies of photos that I took of them 3 years ago.

I have made a project of printing the photos, mounting them on 5×7 rigid foam backings, and then handing them to the folks who are in the photos.  Part of the fun for me is experiencing the reactions of people who don’t often get noticed by passersby, let alone being given a memorable gift that will almost certainly become a family treasure.

We visited friends at the local colmado (mini-market) who said they knew everybody in the photos.
We visited friends at the local colmado (mini-market) who said they knew everybody in the photos.  Some of them were in the photo from 3 years ago displayed at the top of this page.

A lot can change in 3 years, and it has been both surprising  and gratifying for me to locate so many of the folks that I photographed last time we were here, although in one case, the horse was the same and the people were different.

I shot these guys washing their horses in the ocean 3 years ago...
I shot these guys washing their horses in the ocean 3 years ago…
... and found the same horse this time being ridden by his brother.
… and found the same horse this time being ridden by the man’s brother.

The quest to locate these people has created a secondary adventure that is even more fun than the original photo expedition.  When I found one young guy at a fruit stand, the place had changed a lot and  I didn’t recognize him.  When I stopped and showed him the photo asking him, “Where can I find this guy?” he looked at the photo and pointed at it and then himself, exclaiming, “It’s me!”

This guy was running a fruit market and gift shop 3 years ago...
This young guy was running a fruit market and gift shop 3 years ago…
... and I found him at the same market, though I didn't recognize it from the photo.
… and I found him at the same market, though I didn’t recognize it from the photo.

One of the funnest reunions was when we finally located a little old grandma  — after several stops to ask where she was, each stop getting us a little closer to her.  She was on the porch of a house with her granddaughters mixing a big bowl of cake batter.  When we handed her the photo her eyes got big and she threw back her head and started laughing.  They passed the photo around with excitement and then she told us the old house had fallen down, and she pointed to an empty slab next door.  Yes, there had been some changes in 3 years.

3 years ago I stopped to shoot a 10-foot high poinsettia plant and found these beautiful old folks in the doorway of their shack.
3 years ago I stopped to photograph a 10-foot high poinsettia plant and found these beautiful old folks in the doorway of their shack.
We found her living with her grandkids next door to where her house had been.
This time we found her living with her grandkids next door to where her house had been.
Coco was the maintenance man at the condos where we stayed 3 years ago. I had fired his son to wash my rental car. Coco has since been in a motorcycle wreck that destroyed his knee. He has had it reconstructed and doesn't even limp now.
Coco was the maintenance man at the condos where we stayed 3 years ago. I had hired his son to wash my rental car. Coco has since been in a motorcycle wreck that destroyed his knee. He has had it reconstructed and doesn’t even limp now.
The night watchman, Sergio, has nearly died of cancer since we were there. Now they say he will likely survive.
The night watchman, Sergio, has nearly died of cancer since we were there. Now they say he will likely survive.

Photography is a wonderful traveling companion.  Feeding my artistic appetites has brought me a lot of satisfaction over the  years.   And in giving it back to my subjects and enriching their lives in this small way, I have found a way to feed my soul as well.

The real joy of having a photograph is sharing it — not just with the cyber  world, but with the people who shared their beautiful faces to make it what it is,  a work of art.

I love the people of the Dominican Republic.  They are gorgeous, inside and out.

Rincon Grandma portait

Read Kaye’s beautiful account of this adventure on her blog here.

Not Wasting Away Again

Milepost 1-25-16                     -at a VRBO in the Dominican Republic

Our list of reasons to leave the northern winters is a short list for good reason.  Who needs more than a couple of good reasons to leave misery behind?

  1.  Physical well-being.  For many of us it goes beyond the discomfort of a chill running down your spine when the north wind blows.  The lack of sunshine and the short days in Michigan in the wintertime have a noticeable debilitating effect on human beings that becomes even more bothersome as they age.  Joint aches, muscle pain, and an overall lethargy that makes you want to go to bed right after supper all combine to make life dark and depressing.  Not to mention that if you do actually venture outside for a walk or a trip to the store, you may well slip on the ice, split your head open and end up at the hospital for stitches.  Winter is actually life-threatening for highway travelers, as indicated by traffic death statistics for the winter months.  Every snow storm ends up being the last one for some unfortunate travelers as their car slides off the road and hits a tree.
  2. Emotional well-being.  There is a reason why February is the month when the most suicides take place, and I am sure the long winter’s night of the soul has something to do with it.  Cabin fever may sound entirely benign until it goes beyond restlessness and brings on bona fide depression and a sense of hopelessness.  A feeling of being trapped in a dark place is not a healthful mental state for the human soul.  There is a sense that you are wasting away while hunkering in a human hibernation mode until spring.
  3. Financial well-being.  Winter can be expensive when you are paying to heat the house.  You end up caught in a mental and emotional tug-of-war as you shiver while the thermostat is pinned at 65 degrees to save money.  75 would be a lot more comfortable, but the utility bills will rise exponentially.  And the lights are on longer as the days are shorter, so the electric bill takes off as well.  Instead of being out in the yard in the evening, you are sitting in front of the TV… and consuming even more electricity.  And that means more popcorn and potato chips.
  4. That’s enough.  Who needs more than 3 reasons to head south in the winter?  Is self-preservation not enough?

(Note:  I realize that I am not speaking for winter sports enthusiasts.  Go out and sled, ski and skate while you are young, and have fun.)

So What Do You Do With Yourself?

Having escaped the northern winters and living as the proverbial snowbirds, we have been asked this question a few times.  Those who have not retired yet wonder the same thing.  What do we do to occupy our time?

It is a question that no one can answer for you, because the answer rests entirely on your personality and interests and physical state.  If you can’t think of something to do, maybe you shouldn’t retire.  A former co-worker of mine is still teaching school in his 70’s because he can’t imagine what he will do with time on his hands.  He says he will die teaching – and I believe him.

Lots of folks will move to retirement communities that surround golf courses or marinas. That is perfect if you love golf or boats.

For Kaye and me, having open spaces for walking and biking is important.  We hope to stay physically active as long as we possibly can.

As a photographer, I seldom land in a place that is without visual opportunity.  When it does happen, I have always been able to find something within a short drive.

Fruit Market edit w quad.jpg
A short drive on the quad took me past this colorful farm market on the way to the beach.

As a musician, I have been a little bit more frustrated as my piano is heavy and not very mobile and presents certain logistical challenges.  Still, I have found ways to express my musical self in almost every place we have stayed.  A couple of years ago I found a fellow musician who had set up a recording studio in a tent next to his motor home in a campground in Alabama.  We collaberated on a song or two.  Cool.

Escaping to Margaritaville

This winter we flew to the tropics where we are renting a vacation house near the beach in a small fishing village.  Our daily walks consist of sauntering downtown to the French bakery for a croissant or a pizza, or a short walk in the other direction to one of several palm-lined beaches.  A swim in the ocean is always available – and the water is 80 degrees.

A twilight stroll on the beach can be good medicine for the soul
A twilight stroll on the beach can be good medicine for both body and soul

In the apartment, we are able to stream movies to our laptops while lying on the bed or chatting with the kids and grandkids back home through social media or FaceTime.  We read books that we download for Kindle.  We journal about our adventures.  Kaye and I are both actually writing books this winter.

Adaptation is necessary for a successful migration in the wintertime, but every new place offers its own smorgasbord of opportunities.

If boredom sets in, we look for ways to change things up a bit.

And remind ourselves that at least we are not shivering in the northern snow and wondering how we will stay warm if the power goes off during a winter storm.

If we have a worry here it has more to do with blowing out a flip flop or stepping on a pop top.  We are not wasting away this winter.*

And just so you know, we are not on vacation either.  For us, this is life.

I wonder if these guys will sell me that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.*
I wonder if these guys will sell me that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.*

___________________________________________________

*Lyrics from Jimmy Buffet’s song, Margaritaville.

What’s Your Travel Mode?

Milepost 1-18-16                                   – at a vacation rental in the tropics

Travelers come in all sizes and shapes, and so do their travel preferences and their budgets.  Not everybody can afford to start out with a 40-foot motor home towing a boat.  Young families usually start out with tents or pop-up campers and graduate to more comfortable amenities later on.

When our kids were young and we had foster kids and foreign exchange students, we drove a full-size van every day of the week, so when we wanted to head out on a road trip, we just threw the tent and cooler – and the porta-potty – into the van with our sleeping bags and away we went.  It was rather an all-purpose vehicle.  We could only afford one vehicle at a time, so it had to be versatile.  We stayed in campgrounds or in the national forests where the camping was free.

A van is a very versatile vehicle for road trips with a family.
A van is a very versatile vehicle for road trips with a family.

Family Camping

But the budget is not the only consideration that has a bearing on our travel mode.

Destination is another.  You can’t very well take a motor home when you are flying to the tropics for the winter or traveling to Italy for an art tour.  On the other hand, if you are planning to hike along the Appalachian Trail you would need the lightest of tents and backpacks.  Weight would be a consideration that might limit you to one can of Spam for the entire trip.  Darn!

Further, the type of travel comes into play.  What is the experience you are looking for?  If you want to motorcycle the length of Route 66 with other Harley enthusiasts, your equipment is pretty much going to be determined by the requirements of that particular mode of travel.

Suitcase travel is a mode that will take you a lot of places but not to the backcountry.  It is the thing for staying in hotels, bed & breakfasts, cruises and vacation rentals, but you’ll need to switch to a backpack if you are hiking down through the Andes in South America.

Since we hit the road, Kaye and I have frequently switched modes when we were ready for some variety.  We drove the Alaska Highway – the ultimate road trip – with a pickup and a fifth wheel camper which we stayed in for months at a time.  That was how we also did our work-camping where we earned a winter campsite in southern California by working 20 hours a week at the campground.

Last fall, when I wanted to head off on a solo photo shoot, I threw a small tent, an air mattress and a cooler into the back of the pickup and took off for the state forest  in northern Michigan where the facilities were rustic and the stress level almost non-existent.  (Towing a fifth wheel is not entirely stress-free, especially through cities and along truck routes.)

DSC_0268

It is entirely likely that over the course of a lifetime most of us will experience an evolution of travel modes, starting out small and gradually growing as our travel tastes change over time.

Mind you,  I do recommend planning.  It might be nasty to invest in a huge camping rig (with a monthly payment to match) and then wake up some morning in a crowded RV park with the realization that what you really wanted was to sail around the Bahamas, gunk-holing from one sheltered cove to the next.

On the other hand, there’s probably no harm (other than the cost) in trying things out.  If one mode of travel doesn’t suit your fancy or you get tired of it,  try something else for awhile.

This has been our objective since we sold the house a while ago and took to the road.  Let’s see where this takes us.  We’ll try RV-ing for a while and then change it up when we need some variety.

Right now, the RV sits in storage, the plumbing winterized against the Michigan cold and snow,  while Kaye and I sit on the veranda of our vacation rental in the tropics in a quiet little fishing village at the end of the road in the Dominican Republic.

Dinner on the beach is part of the setting here in the tropics.
Dinner on the beach is part of the setting here in the tropics.

Hey, whatever blows your hair back (if you have any hair).  When it comes to travel, almost anything goes – at the right time in your life and at the appropriate price tag, and in the preferred mode.

Hey, go see stuff!  And have fun!

Photograph (36)
Our daughters thought a Conestoga wagon might be a fun mode of travel when we were touring the Southwest.

Oh, the (Zany) Things We Will See!

Milepost 1-14-16                         Las Galeras, Dominican Republic

Travel will entirely change your world view.  And part of that is that very often it just offers really unusual sights that are not on the itinerary.  My experience has been that nary an adventure transpires without bonus stuff thrown in, little surprises that add interest to the story.

We have moved to the Dominican Republic for the winter, one of our favorite and most affordable tropical destinations, and our biggest surprise so far was the sighting of a pirate ship that ran aground on the beach next to the restaurant where we were having lunch with our French hosts.

DSCN4067.jpg

The beach-going vacationers were called on to help free the heavy old vessel and they were eager to dive in and help.  Well, actually, diving wasn’t necessary as the water was only a meter deep.

Okay, everybody, put down your pina colada and heave ho!
Okay, everybody, put down your pina colada and heave ho!

Their efforts were futile, and the seamen decided to try towing their ship off the sand using a motor boat.  Alas, they couldn’t find enough rope to reach to deeper water where the boat was waiting so they had to give that up.

DSCN4082
Hmm, not enough rope to reach the tow boat.

When we left they were attempting to push the ship seaward with a backhoe.  I don’t know if they were successful with that; I think there  is a limit to how far into the ocean you can drive a backhoe.

Pirates can be quite resourceful when their ship is beached.
Pirates can be quite resourceful when their ship is beached.  Let’s use a backhoe to free it

So we had some pretty amusing dinner entertainment – and an unanticipated photo op.

The surprises that the travel life offers are not always fun.  I am sure the ship’s owner was not amused by his predicament.

Our motto for travel has always been, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take what comes.”

Because you never know for sure what you are in for when you set sail on life’s sea.