Impromptu Road Trips – MacKenzie Pass Oregon

I love camping with my friends, but I also love my alone time. So after a night of camping at Suttle Lake here in Oregon, I decided to take a roundabout way getting home, a solo impromptu road trip, if you will. I ended up on the MacKenzie Pass Scenic Highway, not knowing what I would see. I was completely blown away!

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Starting from Sister’s, OR, you begin to gain elevation as you transition from the dry side of the Cascades to the wet side where you’ll notice the forests getting thicker. Until suddenly you turn a corner and see miles and miles (50 square miles to be exact) of volcanic rock!

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The highway apparently follows the path of a Wagon Trail Route from the late 1800’s, that’s right, Wagons went over these rocks. Wagons full of people’s belongings, furniture, musical instruments, babies too! (I recently learned that a Dulcimer came over from the East to California with my ancestors).

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Somehow, trees have managed to grow here. They’re very short despite some of them being over 80 years old. This environment is very harsh – freezing and covered in snow in the winter, blazing hot but very windy in the summer.

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Safety, Travel, and Fear

When I am traveling and I feel afraid (for example, on a really bumpy flight), I take deep breaths and remind myself that if I die traveling, I at least die doing something I love. (Just remember that if I die while traveling, please).

Fear is a natural response that helps keep us alive, but it can also keep us from living. Fear sometimes needs to be overcome. If I feel afraid of something but can’t identify a rational reason for the fear, I work to overcome it. For example, after falling down a flight of stairs, I developed a fear of heights. Even walking down a hill caused anxiety. So I learned to rock climb safely and reclaimed my brain from that fear.

Travel can be very scary, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. So how is it that I travel as safely as I have? I’ve been to 14 countries, 5 of which are level 2 travel advisories or higher according to the US State Department. This includes France and Italy. Yep, France and Italy have travel advisories. Here are some ways that I determine if a place is safe and how to increase my chances of being safe:

Choosing a Location:

Everywhere you go has potential for danger. It’s called living. So I take calculated risks. Before going on my last 3 big trips (Turkey, Iran, and Mexico), I reviewed a variety of information to help me make the decision to go:

  1. CDC and State Department websites. These tell me what vaccines I need if any, what travel warnings are there for which areas. I start with these sites but always with a grain of salt. Politics are almost always involved in the State Department warnings, for one thing.
  2. Travel guidebooks. There are some amazing guidebooks to places even like Iran because despite what the state department says, the average American will be fine in Iran. (Admittedly, this is not true for Iranian-Americans). These guidebooks help you understand how to act, what to wear, and where to go in order to stay safe.
  3. Blogs. I google and devour as many recently written blogs by Americans who have traveled to these places. How did they do it safely? Where did they go? Would they go back? Never use just one blog, read lots, and if possible, email the writers to ask questions.

Staying Safe:

Keeping your person and your stuff safe requires some diligence, and you can never guarantee success (even in your home town), but here are ways that I mitigated risk in actual scenarios I’ve encountered.

  1. While waiting for my friends to purchase train tickets for us from France to Italy, I was left in a busy waiting area with all of our luggage. I was exhausted, and what I would’ve liked to do was lay down and chill out. But because I stayed aware, I noticed a man who was casually watching me for any signs of distraction. It was clear to me he was waiting for me to let my guard down so he could swing by and swipe a bag or two. So while keeping my eye on him, I also scanned the room for co-conspirators. It felt like forever, but eventually security also noticed him and asked him to move on. Keep an eye on your things, but more importantly, keep your eye on others.
  2. In Mexico, I noticed a man lingering behind me. To test, I would periodically move to another location and discovered he was definitely following me. I strapped my purse close to my body and sat calmly as I determined my next move. I waited for a group of English speakers (in this case they happened to be American) to pass by and I politely explained that I was being followed and could I join them for a few minutes until he goes away. It worked, he went away almost immediately. If the group had not come by, my next plan was to go into a shop and tell the shop owner of my predicament.
  3. I hate that this has to be said, but I can’t tell you enough. Follow all of the rules. You are a guest, and it’s not hard to read up on rules and follow the lead of others. When going to Iran, you bet I made sure I knew what was expected of me. I asked before taking pictures of building that could’ve been Governmental, and I respected my guide and hosts. This should be true in all countries.
  4. A friend of mine had his luggage and camera stolen right out of his rental car while he was in Croatia. This can happen anywhere, of course, but try not to leave things unattended and especially not unattended and visible.

I do wonder what advisements other countries tell their citizens about travel to the US? Do they warn people about the measles outbreaks in areas of the West where vaccinations have decreased? Is Washington D.C. to be avoided because of the high rate of drug abuse? I have been to cities in the US where I have felt way less safe than abroad. Even in Portland there are areas I avoid after dark. The above should be practiced no matter where you are. And remember, taking risks is good for living, just make them calculated!

 

Sunnier Times – Puerto Vallarta

I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch, and so I’m tempted to complain about the 17 hour train ride through a snow storm that I’m about to take. Instead, I think I’ll focus on the positive and tell you about a last minute trip I took to Puerto Vallarta a couple of months ago. Remembering it will very likely give me the perk up I need and maybe inspire you to take a trip to beautiful Mexico!

Puerto Vallarta has never been high on my list of destinations. It’s too touristy. But when I suddenly found myself with some free time, I researched cheap sunny destinations and Puerto Vallarta it was. And now, I’m in love. The city is easy to get around, warm, friendly, and you can easily visit on a budget.

Because I didn’t take any time to really plan this trip, I had expected that I would spend the majority of the time laying on the beach. In reality, there is much more to do in PV than lay around! Here are my top recommendations:

Choco Museum

That’s right, there’s a Chocolate Museum. The museum itself is small but definitely interesting. However, the real reason to visit is to take a chocolate making class. They have a couple of options, I took the combo class “Beans to Bar” where I learned more about the history of chocolate, made chocolate drinks and truffles. My teacher was a professional chef who spoke perfect English. I was the only person in the class that morning, we had a ton of fun.

I roasted these beans! We used the peel to make a delicious chocolate tea!

Cooling the chocolate down to just the right temperature for truffles!

Botanical Gardens

The Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens are a bit of a trek outside of the city, but absolutely worth it. I took an Uber there (only about $5) and then caught the bus back to the city. There are tons of hiking trails, be sure to bring good hiking shoes. I ended up only doing a small amount of the hiking that was available due to the fact that I was in sandals. Also, they will sell you bug spray, but it’s probably better to bring your own (cheaper). You will need it.

There’s a restaurant where you can feed hummingbirds!

Be sure to bring your swimming suit, the water is great!

Fortunately you don’t need good hiking shoes to see some beautiful things!

Birds of Paradise. My favorite!

 

Bioluminescence and Paddle Boarding!

I will have no pictures that can truly do this activity justice, but it was by far the highlight of my trip. Paddle Zone is located on Mismaloya Beach (definitely not my favorite beach, but worth it for the Paddle Boarding). I had intended on just renting a paddle board for a couple of hours during the day, but then I found out that they have a 3 hour night time bioluminescence tour. Worth every penny (about $50 USD). Don’t worry if you have never been paddle boarding, the crew takes great care of you and will help you feel comfortable! There’s absolutely nothing like paddle boarding at sunset only to come back in the dark. But the miraculous part is paddling through the Los Arcos National Park where you see the bioluminescence plankton. It’s like somebody spread glitter all over the water. When we returned from the excursion, a feast of pizza, fruit, and sweets was prepared for us – you definitely work up an appetite! Photos can be purchased at the end of the tour…

Turns out paddle boarding on the ocean is easier than I expected!

 

We had some great light belts to make sure we were visible in an emergency.

Heading into the cave!

 

 

 

Finally, be sure to leave some time to wander the city and relax on the beach!

Art on the Malecon

Our Lady of Guadeloupe (in the background)

There are lots of restaurants with views!

I spent a good 8 hours doing this. It was glorious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Newest Dream – Africa!

Almost exactly one year ago, I was leaving to head to Iran for the trip of a lifetime. But with luck, I’ve got a whole lifetime still ahead of me, so it’s time to start dreaming about the newest journey. Of course I have my bucket list of places still to go, Croatia, Romania, etc., but once again, I am dreaming of a more exotic locale for my next trip.

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That’s right. Queue Toto. Africa!

I started thinking about Africa because a friend of mine is in the Peace Corps in Namibia, a country in Southern Africa, just to the NW of South Africa. Of course, I could go to South Africa, but as you know, I’m always up for something a bit different. So, I’ve decided to focus my goal on Tanzania, on the East Coast of the continent, just south of Kenya.

How did I choose Tanzania?

  1. It was recommended by a friend who has been there and knows me well enough to understand that I’m looking for more than just a pretty place and a relaxing vacation.
  2. The country is a fascinating mix of different cultures including over 120 indigenous groups, Pakistani, Indian, Arab, and European. Should be enough history and culture to keep my brain buzzing.
  3.  Zanzibar (islands off the coast of Tanzania) and beaches. For some reason, ever since my trip to Iran, I’ve been craving turquoise water and palm trees
  4. Multiple National Parks and Preserves make seeing African wildlife easy and more environmentally friendly.

Now that I’ve chosen my country, I need to start narrowing down some other logistics through research and further dreaming.

  • Begin by planning some sort of itinerary. I usually look at guided tours to start, review the most popular destinations, decide what is most interesting to me, and then start looking at things off the beaten path after that.
  • Save the money. This is going to be the hard part for me. Due to rising rent increases in Portland (mine went up over 50% last year), I ended up buying a house. The American Dream, right? Not mine! But here I am, and now I need to balance savings for home emergencies with a travel fund.
  • Save my time off. I’d love to take 3 weeks for a trip like this, so I either need to save all of my time off for the year, or I need to be prepared to not get paid for a few days. Worst case, I only go for 2, but I’m going to set my goal at 3.
  • Stay motivated! Read lots of books set in Tanzania, both travel books, but also histories and historical fictions. Find blogs by other people who have traveled there recently.

Be prepared for more blogs on my planning process, hopefully they’ll be of some help and inspiration for you to explore new places. Don’t know where to start? Let me know, I’d love to help!

 

Tulsey Town!

As you may have noticed, my posts have, for the most part, focused on International destinations. I love to travel in general, but my preference is always to go as far outside of my own culture as possible. Alas, I can’t afford to do that more than every couple of years, and then only if I’m careful with my spending. So, I’m trying to learn to appreciate traveling within my own country more. Thus, the next two posts will be a bit more “local.”

Let’s start in Tulsa. That’s right, Tulsa! Not on the top of your list, is it? Well, I can tell you that I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, let’s talk about what brought me to Oklahoma in the first place. My dear friend and graduate school roommate who is British was on sabbatical and doing a tour of US cities he had not been to. Long before he actually purchased his tickets, I knew I had to come see him, considering that it had been at least 8 years since I’d seen him last and he was coming all this way. The least I could do was meet him in Middle America. I had hoped to meet him in Chicago, but due to my work schedule, I had to meet him in Tulsa. It was really fun telling people in OK why a Brit and a Portlander were visiting Tulsa. We got had some laughs there for sure.

I’ll 100% admit that I did not think Tulsa was going to keep me captivated in any way, but I was absolutely wrong. Not only was it wonderful to catch up with an old friend, but there were some surprising gems. In addition, I can easily say that Oklahoman’s are the NICEST people I’ve ever met. Seriously, one woman apologized to me for not smiling back after I had smiled at her.

The Philbrook Museum of Art

First and foremost, you absolutely must go to Philbrook, a mansion built in 1927, including all of the stunning elements you would expect of an expensive home built during that time including an expansive formal garden which is a museum unto itself. If I lived in Tulsa, I would buy an annual membership just so I could go sit in the gardens any time I wanted.

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It helped that the weather was spectacular, not too hot, not too cold. Perhaps a rarity here.

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View of the house from the gardens.

The mansion itself was my favorite part, although their collections and exhibits were excellent. You can definitely get a taste for my style here.

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Bet you didn’t know that Tulsa was at it’s height during the oil boom of the 1920’s and 1930’s? The massive quantity of money coming through the area made Tulsa a shining gem in the landscape, with architecture that will make any art deco fan swoon. I definitely recommend walking around and seeing some of the art deco style buildings in downtown, but do not miss going to Boston Avenue United Methodist Church.

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If you’ve got some extra time or special interest, here are a couple more options!

Woody Guthrie Center

If you’re a fan of folk music and/or American history, you definitely need to go to the Guthrie Center. To be honest, I didn’t know much about him outside of a couple of songs prior to visiting the center. Not only did a learn about the breadth of his music, but I also learned a lot about American history during the dust bowl. Ironically, we read about how our over-use of the earth and poor farming management actually caused the dust bowl…ironic because later that weekend we experienced an earth quake caused by fracking.

Redbud Valley

Just outside of Tulsa is a nature preserve that is an excellent excuse to get out of the concrete jungle. There’s some great hiking, fascinating rock formations, and fossils to seek! Not at all what I expected to find in Oklahoma…

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The Blue Whale

And last, but certainly not least, if you’re going to check out the famous Hwy 101, you need to stop to see the Blue Whale.

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Overall, I don’t think you really need to spend more than 3-4 days max in Tulsa, but it has some delightful spots, fascinating history, and amazing architecture that I highly recommend!

Glacier National Park

Despite the face that I have been to 14 countries and have seen spectacular views, I can still easily say that Glacier National Park is my favorite place in the world. It may have something to do with the fact that I grew up coming here every summer for many years, but I think it is also just the complete majesty of the place.

The most popular campground in the park is Apgar, also my favorite because of the tall lodge pole pines and close proximity to MacDonald Lake. The water is rarely ever warm, but that doesn’t stop some people. This is the second time I have rented a stand up paddle board and gone out on the lake. This time, I went out towards the middle of the lake and laid down on the board. The mountains usually overwhelm me with their size, but this time the sky was the winner, overshadowing even the tallest of the mountains, reminding me how small we all really are.

That’s me, way out there!

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We had planned a long hike over the Highline and into the East side of the Park, but due to snow the trail was still closed. So we did the very popular hike up to the Hidden Lake Overlook. I’ve done this hike many times and it never ceases to be spectacular. This year was a particular challenge due to all of the snow though.

This was my first time (since I was little) that we also camped on the East side of the park. The wind over there is crazy, but the views…oh wow…

And then, of course, there’s the wildlife of Glacier. Don’t feed them, guys. Just don’t do it.

The Great American Railway

One of the things I love in particular about train travel is the chance to meet other travelers. On planes, the close proximity makes most people clam up in fear they will get a seat mate who is overbearing and over talkative. In cars, it is just you and your traveling kin. But in trains, with room to move around but also nowhere to go fast, people are much more open. On this trip I met a young man about to hike the continental divide trail, effectively completing the triple crown of hikes as he has already done the pacific crest and Appalachian trails. My seat mate was another woman off to spend three days camping in East Glacier National Park. While sitting in the observation lounge I met a couple who were on the final leg of a journey around the us via Amtrak starting and returning in Pennsylvania. We talked education, religion, travel, and history. A perfect conversation from my point of view!

The highlight of this particular trip though was listening to the volunteers from the Rails to Trails program. These highly trained volunteers speak about the views you see from the lounge car. I learned all kinds of history and geology about Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indians. 

Here is a picture of the Lead volunteer, Leigh on his “break” which ended up being a great conversation with me about our lives and the scenery around us! 

I have taken this particular train trip one other time, about five years ago or so, but it was in December and thus there was very little daylight. This time, however, the views were spectacular.

Mt. Hood and Hood River, wind surfer extravaganza:

Sunset over Eastern Washington:

Blackfeet Nation at the foot of the Rocky Mountains:

And my favorite, the Montana prairie, aka Home.