Confessions of a Rock Hound

That would not be such a terrible thing to be…a “Rock Hound”.  I never thought of myself as such, but lately when I think about the kinds of things that have interested  me on past journeys and my upcoming agate search to Lake Superior….yeah maybe I am into rocks just a bit.  Looking at this photo of all different types of polished rocks, I remember traveling to many places that offer to fill up a little bag (for a price, of course) with your choice of the rocks displayed there.  (Just think of all the places at Wisconsin Dells that have something like that…!) It’s a very touristy thing, yes… but it was something that my young sons could not resist.  Or perhaps it was me that had the most fun “helping” them with their rock selections.  (Ooo David….Look at this one!!)  In any case, you have to admit, it is fun to have free reign of picking out any shape and color that you want. If you going to have a souvenir, what a great, memorable one.

Bryce Canyon "HooDoo" rock formations-Utah
Bryce Canyon “Hoo Doos” rock formations–Utah

Also, it’s not just the shiny pretty ones, all the amazing sedimentary rock faces in canyons and valleys around this country cause me pause to admire their unique formations and to reflect on how they got there in the first place.  These types of rock formations are always intriguing and usually make for some awesome photos to remember your trip. Yet, small rocks you can take with you as a memento. However, it does depend on where you are. ALERT: You can not take rocks or other parts of nature home with you from a National Park.  Just thought I would put that out there as a reminder and I totally respect the reasons for that. If everyone did that when visiting our beautiful Parks, it would be problematic.  Yet, depending on what state you live in, many of the state and county parks don’t mind. My upcoming trip to the North shore of Lake Superior, in Minnesota, actually encourages and highlights which beaches are great places to find agates. I’m looking forward to it, and if I end up empty handed after beach-combing, there are several rock shops in the area where I can purchase agates and agate jewelry made from locally found rocks.  Still, I would rather have the joy of discovering it myself.

Years ago, when my son’s were in Scouts, I remember a trip to the Michigan Dunes that of course included beach-combing on the shores of Lake Michigan. I had a pair of shorts that I filled the pockets with an array of interesting stones.  I remember the Scout Master laughing at my bulging pockets and wondered what was I going to do with all those rocks? To this day, I have them with a candle as part of an arrangement. Nature and household decor come together in such a great way and I still remember the story behind those rocks. They are not stuck in a shoe box somewhere.

On another venture out west, I was on a quest for Black Hills Gold. Anyone who has traveled through South Dakota had probably seen many places for sourcing Black Hills Gold. When fashioned into jewelry, the Black Hills Gold is easily spotted by the unique red and green leaf patterns. I have a lovely ring and necklace from there, although I didn’t mine it myself…other than traversing up and down the stores in Rapid City to find the best deal. The interesting thing I learned about gold mining is that on the quest for seeking gold,  a common “bi-product” that is mined is Hematite. Luckily Hematite can be polished to a beautiful black sheen and also fashioned into jewelry.  By itself, or paired with another stone, it creates some really striking jewelry, at an unusually economical price. So fun to have a little souvenir of a trip without breaking the bank.

In Alaska the state gemstone is Jade and readily available in several locations for purchase in many formats including jewelry, carvings and just raw rock samples. When paired with Hematite it is a great combination. Pictured here is one of my favorite sets from a store in Anchorage.  Many places market hematite as the “Black Diamond”, which I imagine sounds more exotic than hematite.

So on your next journey, remember to take a look at the rocks beneath your feet…you just might discover something amazing.

Yet the most precious rock I ever obtained was given to me some 30 plus years ago on my engagement ring.  I may be a sucker for pretty rocks, but I am also a sucker for romance.

Julie E. Smith

Close to Home: the Joy of State Parks

Big Manitou Falls: 165 ft. high. At Pattison State Park, Wisconsin

As I write this blog, our country is beginning to swim towards the surface and hoping for a breath of fresh air from the devastating COVID pandemic that has kept us quarantined for months.  The vaccinations are beginning to roll out and, most folks anyway, are hopeful.  I actually have begun to peruse the internet with ideas for travel destinations and even airfares….when we get to that point.  It has been hard to travel, but soon we hope to be getting out and about again. Yet, even before we start flying again, what better way to ease back into enjoying the great outdoors then with the close proximity of a state park.

Every state operates their park system differently, however almost every state in the country takes great pride in showcasing the beautiful places within their state. It’s amazing that in the United States there are close to 7,000 state parks. In my home state of Wisconsin there are 43. Since I live very close to the border of Minnesota, I also have access to several Minnesota parks in very close proximity. The state of Minnesota currently has 75 state parks. Luckily we don’t need a passport to cross state borders, and many Parks are enjoyed by both Wisconsinites and Minnesotans.

Since I now am a Wisconsinite, after living in the Land of Lincoln for 30 some years…I have found a certain pride in my state, especially when it comes to our State park system. The parks are managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Just like the national parks, the state parks frequently have different designations including forest, prairies and wildlife preserves. The Wisconsin DNR manages 116 state “units”. Included in this number are not only the state parks, but miles of trails over a huge diversity of terrains. I have a handy little guide listing all the Parks and trails in the state and can hardly wait to get out there with a camera and my hiking stick. The guide is published by the DNR, but their website is very helpful in finding just the park and recreational pursuits you are looking for:http://wiparks.net Additionally, the Travel Wisconsin.com is a fun site for trip planning and just getting an arm chair view of where you might want to explore next:http://travelwisconsin.com

Living in western Wisconsin ,on the border, there is an on going friendly “rivalry” between Green Bay Packer fans and Minnesota Vikings fans. Loyal football fans dedicated to their teams and the close proximity of the states provide a natural competition, but it almost always seems to be good-natured and part of the game that football fans play.  Those that want to discuss the game of football love to get together and share notes, no matter what side of the border you are on.  The same can also be said of the scenic parks that are available in our region, except it’s really not a “competition” when it comes to enjoying all that the north-woods has to offer. Those that love the great outdoors seek out trips to the nearby parks, in both states.

River gorge: The “Dalles of the St. Croix River”

Probably the most obvious example of this mutual admiration is Interstate Park. Located on the St. Croix River, both Minnesota and Wisconsin have a Park with that same name: Interstate Park. The Parks share a common border, but are managed separately by their respective states.  In 1895, the Minnesota Interstate Park was established to help preserve the scenic beauty and geologic wonders found in the area. Wisconsin followed suit in 1900 by establishing Interstate Park at the southern edge of St. Croix Falls, directly across from the Minnesota Park.  Wisconsin’s Interstate Park is the oldest established Park in the state.  When originally conceived in the early 1900’s , the Parks were run with a certain degree of reciprocity between the two states.  However, with changes in administration of the Parks, after 2003 the Parks became independent of each other and are operated by their respective states. Even though the administration is separate, the ideology and shared vision of protecting this unique and beautiful glacial land is reciprocal. On the Wisconsin side, a portion of the park: The Ice Age Trail Scientific Reserve is run by both the state and federal agencies (National Park Service) and helps tell the amazing story of how the glaciers formed many areas in the state. The terrain and geology of the area is is so great to view, whether it be on a hike, a walk by the river, or a paddle boat ride through the steep sides of the gorge.

Paddle boat on the St. Croix River

There are an abundance of incredible state parks to explore, no matter where you live.  I have discovered that many popular destinations actually hold the title of “state park”. A perfect example is Niagara Falls in New York state. People generally just focus on admiring the falls, but it holds the unique title as being not only the oldest established (1885) Park in New York state, but the oldest state park in the United States. Pretty nifty, Huh? So in more ways than one, it truly is the Grand Daddy of stunning waterfalls.

As many readers of this blog know, in addition to exploration of state and local parks… I have a great love of our National Parks. I recently published a book on that topic entitled: “A Walk in the Park…Journey’s through our Nation’s Greatest Treasures”. It was published through Kindle Direct Publishing and is available on Amazon. The direct link is:https://www.amazon.com/Walk-Park-Journeys-Greatest-Treasures/dp/1792837771/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=A+Walk+in+the+Park…Journeys+through+our+Nation%27s+Treasures&qid=1611349971&sr=8-1

So wherever the path takes you, state parks or national parks, or perhaps just a walk around the block…I wish you pleasure on the journey. Put Your Traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith

Yes, we can! Resuming Travel (Carefully…) during 2020

I have always been an optimist, sometimes a blind optimist looking through rose colored glasses at my world. Yet, 2020 and all that has occurred makes it hard to look for the proverbial silver lining. However, my husband and I made a recent trip to southern Utah to visit the “Mighty 5” National Parks.  I experienced a resurgence of optimism on this trip and I hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel as we face the struggles of beating COVID-19. Granted, I really hope it is not “blind” optimism but I would imagine all of us are looking for good news and a light at the end of the tunnel at this point.

When I started to write this blog, and think of my recent experiences on the road, I thought of the Rosie the Riveter icon from World War II who served as an inspiration to working women trying hard to do what it takes to help at home while soldiers across the sea were fighting to win the war. The “war” on COVID-19 is a different war, but a war nevertheless because it has drastically affected the way we live our lives.  So Rosie was encouraging gals to pull together and do what is needed to provide the goods and services to not only win the war, but to provide for the folks at home. That spirit of pulling together as part of a community became even more evident to me recently. It seems to me that almost every man, woman and child is trying hard to do all the right things” that are expected of us at this time: wash hands frequently, mask wearing and social distancing. Specifically, while on our trip, we saw almost everyone wearing their masks and keeping a respectable distance from one another. At Zion National Park, masked are required in enclosed buildings, like the Visitor’s Center. When in open areas of the Park they were recommended only when close to other people. I would estimate that 90 to 95% of park goers were very good about adhering to these regulations and even though the Park was relatively crowded, people tried very hard to be considerate of others. After all, we are all in this together and we all want this craziness to come to a halt.

Another aspect of our trip that made me really admire Corona fighting efforts were the hotels and restaurants that we visited. EVERYONE wore masks and everyone tried to make our visit a pleasant one…in spite of all the necessary changes……Remember those free breakfasts offered at many hotels? What a great way to start your day with hot coffee and a light breakfast, that you don’t have to cook! Well, they were still offered, but very different. Several hotels had set up a table by the previous “self-serve” station with an employee to get our choices for us.  All the tables were sanitized in between uses. Sometimes my husband and I just ate in our room. It was a good system, just seemed weird.  Yet I appreciate all the hotel and restaurateurs efforts to keep us all safe.  These hardworking folks all deserve a Rosie the Riveter affirmation.

Apparently I am not the only one who views Rosie as an inspiration for a “call to arms”.  In Lafayette, Indiana a Facebook Group was started for the purpose of sewing masks to help fill the needs of their community and beyond. What an inspiring icon for those sewers in Indiana. Apparently Indiana is not the only resourceful part of the country to inspire others with Rosie, there are several groups coast to coast.  Also, health care providers have inspired others with her determined stance as well. I view the icon of the mask wearing Rosie as an inspiration to do our part on the battle against Coronavirus. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, yes it’s a pain and yes it has turned our lives upside down. But with tenacity and hope we will get through. And don’t forget to wash your hands…..Julie E. Smith

It’s on our minds; Travel or not to travel?

About a week ago I wrote a post about how strange it can be to travel in the midst of our current pandemic: “Travel 2020 in the age of COVID-19 (https://americantrekkerblog.com/2020/08/23/travel-2020-in-the-age-of-covid-19/ This is an addendum to that blog with additional information that we can all use to help make our world a safer and healthier place.

So Many of us have “cabin fever” and are trying the best we can to cope with the realities of this pandemic. Having a chance to get away is so important to our mental health, most would agree with that….yet we want to remember to take steps to protect our physical health as well. It’s even more important when considering travel. My Brother- in- Law (Thanks Larry!) brought to my attention a terrific article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on this exact topic. Some of the pointers are things we already know, but it is helpful to be reminded of the basics so we can all work together to minimize this terrible virus.

Here is a re-print of the majority of the article from the CDC web-site. To read the entire article, and other relevant articles about COVID-19, their web-site is: https://www.cdc.gov

 

Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic —Updated Aug. 26, 2020

Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.

You can get COVID-19 during your travels. You may feel well and not have any symptoms, but you can still spread COVID-19 to others. You and your travel companions (including children) may spread COVID-19 to other people including your family, friends, and community for 14 days after you were exposed to the virus.

Don’t travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days. Don’t travel with someone who is sick.

Before you travel, consider the following:

If You Travel

During your trip, take steps to protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered when in public settings.
  • Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about 2 arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Considerations for Types of Travel

Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Your chances of getting COVID-19 while traveling also depend on whether you and those around you take steps to protect yourself and others, such as wearing masks and staying 6 feet away from people outside your household (social distancing). Airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. These are also places where it can be hard to social distance. In general, the longer you are around a person with COVID-19, the more likely you are to get infected.

Air travel

Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.

Also consider how you get to and from the airport, as public transportation and ridesharing can increase your chances of being exposed to the virus.

Bus or train travel

Traveling on buses and trains for any length of time can involve sitting or standing within 6 feet of others, which may increase your risk of getting COVID-19. If you choose to travel by bus or train, learn what you can do to protect yourself on public transportation.

Car travel

Making stops along the way for gas, food, or bathroom breaks can put you and your traveling companions in close contact with other people and frequently-touched surfaces.

RV travel

You may have to stop less often for food or bathroom breaks, but RV travel usually means staying at RV parks overnight and getting gas and supplies at other public places. These stops may put you and those with you in the RV in close contact with others.

Know When to Delay your Travel to Avoid Spreading COVID-19

People who are sick, have recently tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, or have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 should delay travel. Learn when and for how long to delay travel to avoid spreading COVID-19.

How Are Companies Protecting Customers from COVID-19?

When planning travel, you may want to check companies’ websites to see what they are doing to protect customers from COVID-19. Things to look for include:

  • Requiring people to wear a mask
  • Promoting social distancing
  • Using online or contactless reservations and check-in
  • Using contactless payment
  • Enhanced cleaning procedures
Tips to avoid getting and spreading COVID-19 in common travel situations:

In public:

  • Wear a mask in public settings.
  • Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.

Bathrooms and rest stops:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom and after you have been in a public place.
  • If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.

Getting gas:

  • Use disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons at the gas pumps before you touch them (if available).
  • After fueling, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. When you get to your destination, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Hotels and accommodations:

Food stops:

Anticipate Your Travel Needs
  • Bring a mask to wear in public places.
  • Pack hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Keep this within reach.
  • Bring enough of your medicine to last you for the entire trip.
  • Pack food and water in case restaurants and stores are closed, or if drive-through, take-out, and outdoor-dining options aren’t available.
  • If you are considering cleaning your travel lodgings, see CDC’s guidance on how to clean and disinfect.
Check Travel Restrictions

State, local, and territorial governments may have travel restrictions in place, including testing requirements, stay-at-home orders, and quarantine requirements upon arrival. Follow state, local, and territorial travel restrictions. For up-to-date information and travel guidance, check the state, territorial, tribal and local health department where you are, along your route, and where you are going. Prepare to be flexible during your trip as restrictions and policies may change during your travel.

If traveling internationally or across international borders, check with the destination’s Office of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Health or the US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Country Information pageexternal icon for details about entry requirements and restrictions for arriving travelers, such as mandatory testing or quarantine. Local policies at your destination may require you to be tested for COVID-19 before you are allowed to enter the country. If you test positive on arrival, you may be required to isolate for a period of time. You may even be prevented from returning to the United States, as scheduled.

After You Travel

You may have been exposed to COVID-19 on your travels. You may feel well and not have any symptoms, but you can be contagious without symptoms and spread the virus to others. You and your travel companions (including children) pose a risk to your family, friends, and community for 14 days after you were exposed to the virus. Regardless of where you traveled or what you did during your trip, take these actions to protect others from getting sick after you return:

  • When around others, stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people who are not from your household. It is important to do this everywhere, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered when you are outside of your home.
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
  • Watch your health and look for symptoms of COVID-19. Take your temperature if you feel sick.

Follow state, territorial, tribal and local recommendations or requirements after travel.

 

Travel 2020 in the age of COVID-19

 

Michigan Island lighthouses: Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

My Husband and I just returned from a “mini vacation”, only 3 days, from a lovely state park relatively close to us and also the beautiful Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.  Like many people at this time, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our spirits and we certainly did not expect the current situation to last as long as it has.  Yet we carry on and keep on hoping for the situation to improve…and I am optimistic that YES it will. Eventually.

But in the mean time, we all have to be gentle with ourselves and do things to help our mental health and keep us going.  I have a great love of travel and the great outdoors, so I thought this would be a terrific way for some rejuvenation. It was a great trip, but it was so different in so many ways. Just like many things in 2020, it will be remembered as a time period when radical changes in our lifestyles happened almost overnight.  Time will tell how history will remember this time period, but as the people who have lived through it….we will remember it in a multitude of ways-both good and bad.

On our trip we noticed what has become commonplace across this country: The Magic Three to fight COVID-19:

  1. ) Mask usage
  2. ) Hand washing and liberal use of hand sanitizer
  3. ) Required social distancing

We followed the rules, as best we could, I have no complaints there. I know doing these things are what we do as a community to help stop the spread. Yet, what is most disturbing to me is how utilizing these guardians of our physical health most certainly change our behavior and our mental health. We know it’s the “right thing to do”, but some of the behaviors that we are expected to follow feel foreign to most people, especially those of us that crave human interaction with our fellow human beings.

Probably the best illustration of this is how awkward it can become to maintain that recommended 6 foot distance in a “touristy” area. When we were walking out and about, enjoying the sights with our fellow travelers, people tried really hard to avoid getting too close to others. This is a good thing at this juncture, but normally when you are visiting an interesting city or park, it’s part of the experience to share observations with others. You probably will never see these people again, but for the moment you are immersed in the mutual experience together. So during this pandemic it just feels so odd to avoid eye contact with people and walk on the curb or even in the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk. As I said, people were trying to do the right thing, but it just feels odd and in my opinion distracts from the joy of the trip.

At the state park people frequently avoided even making eye contact with others. It was just weird, not how I remember a beautiful walk in the woods is supposed to be with fellow hikers. Granted,  I am not discounting the extreme importance of the social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing.  We all need to do our part…and many people, myself included, are trying their hardest to do what is best for everyone to stop this horrible virus. I’m just saying it feels so weird right now.  And when you go on “vacation”, you would think you can take a “vacation” from reality…but in this circumstance- NO. Because for awhile anyway, this is our new reality.

Masks have become standard uniform when going out into the world and we are learning to adjust, but sometimes it is hard to read people’s body language with half their face covered. As it has been said: Eyes are the Mirrors of the Soul. This is true now more than ever. Sometimes we can smile with our eyes if people can’t see our mouth. Try it right now as you read these words…it’s good practice because it’s nice to smile with your eyes in appreciation if you have a mask on. We had a waitress on this past trip that was so lovely and she had perfected the art of smiling with her eyes and her mask was intact the whole time. It also helps to talk with your hands a bit more. Almost everyone can appreciate an encouraging thumbs up like this little fellow.

Vacations are always a break from our routine, and this one was too. This trip, by car,  was just the tip of the travel iceberg; I can’t even image air travel yet….not sure what that will be like. However, some say this may be the best time to fly because airlines are very meticulous with sanitation and not overbooking flights. We shall see, but I personally don’t plan on flying anytime soon.  We enjoyed our short car trip and enjoyed the opportunity to see some new places, take lots of fun photos and have the fun of trying new restaurants. Something as simple as a walk in the woods made me realize we can all benefit from being gentle with ourselves and doing something special to survive 2020. As many companies have stated, in one way or another, “We are all in this together” (but 6 feet apart…Ha-Ha) Stay Safe, Stay Happy.  Put Your traveling shoes on! Thumbs Up!  Julie E. Smith

 

 

Striving to come out on the other side: Coronovirus-2020

Like so many people at this time, we are all trying to survive this pandemic that has taken hold in our lives.  Not only has it taken the lives of so many people, it also has affected the lifestyles and a shattering blow to the economy and livelihood of many Americans. An event of this magnitude sweeps across the nation affecting everyone, even if you yourself are not sick.

So the best thing we can do after protecting our self physically, is also to protect our mental health. One way is to make plans for the tomorrows to come, when this pandemic has “simmered down” and we can resume somewhat of a “normal” lifestyle.  Many will agree that time will tell when that will be and also there will most defiantly be a new normal. 

Yet, making future plans is a great way to keep us going.  Enter the joy of travel planning…and of course reading travel blogs like this one!  Time will tell when traveling beyond our own backyards will be more acceptable, but in the mean time, Weary Travelers, we need to do something to keep up morale.  I am already planning a trip this fall to Utah and “The Mighty 5”, National Parks.  If you are curious, here are the Mighty 5: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Reservations have been made (long before the craziness of COVID-19 really struck) and thank goodness we were planning on driving anyway. I’m not sure when air travel will be resuming at a point that most passengers will feel comfortable and safe. Another consideration, sad that it may be, is the fact that currently many of the National Parks and sites are currently closed due to efforts to contain the Coronavirus. I understand the need for such measures, but at the same time I want to remain hopeful that the Parks will be able to reopen soon. Also, I want to stress the importance of responsible behavior by park visitors to maintain our nation’s most treasured spaces.  I want to be optimistic that by Fall, my husband and I will be heading out to Utah as planned. Fingers crossed. Although we have our lodging figured out, I am open to suggestions on other cool stuff to see and do in the area. Probably no need to suggest Angel’s Landing hike in Zion, not gonna happen. I am way too afraid of heights in addition to that fact I am not as agile as a mountain goat, don’t really wish to fall to my death….just saying. But am looking forward to hiking The Narrows, we shall see.

Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Utah

So I am not even sure if we will have the time or energy to see all five, but just the anticipation of the trip…and the prospect of added features for my book, keeps me motivated and optimistic for what is to come. If I am discouraged, or feeling “cabin fever”, I just take a gander through those travel brochures and it gets me back in the game. Did I mention BOOK? Yes, I am in the midst of putting together a book about the National Park Service. It is not meant to be the definitive guide to the parks , but rather an overview and a way of providing an inspiration to visit the parks. It is entitled “A Walk in the Park: Journeys through our Nation’s greatest treasures.” A large portion of the book is compiled from my blogs to many of the Parks, but I am also working on new content. The up side of the fact that we are strongly encouraged to comply with “Safer at Home” ordinances pushes me towards continued work on my book. I enjoy working on it, but as an writer knows…it’s easy to get distracted by so many other things.

Zion National Park, photo from U.S. Dept. of Interior

So here’s one more image to inspire both myself and my readers: Zion National Park. Zion is currently closed for visitors, but let’s hope the future will bring opportunities for others to see this glorious view….myself included. Looking for a way to remedy the “stay at home” blues? Why not try some travel planning with a virtual trip with plans for the future. Stay safe, stay healthy and hang in there until we come out on the “other side.” Put Your traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith

Adrift in the Land of Lost Luggage

Traveling about this beautiful country by car, camper or motorcycle is a fantastic way to see the sights of this gorgeous country of ours. Yet sometimes the convenience and timely efficiency (and I use that term loosely) of airplane travel is a great way to get where you need to go in a WHOLE lot less time than if you were to drive. However, there are a few caveats that I would like to throw out there for anyone about to embark on the fun adventure of air travel.

I was prompted to write this essay based on a recent trip to upstate NY to visit family. My visit with them was wonderful and that surely made up for the craziness of the getting to and fro nature of the trip. Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Murphy’s Law. Both coming and going, my connections were missed (through no fault of my own…flight delays) forcing me to stay in a hotel in a city that was not my final destination. On the return trip out of Charlotte, after spending the night in a hotel, rushing to the airport the next morning, changing gates 3 times and waiting patiently to board….the unbelievable happened: a message on the board appeared: FLIGHT CANCELLED.  Unbelievable.  My fellow weary travelers and I went into shock. Those of us who were in more of a stupor, hung out by the gate. Yet, the seasoned travelers who knew JUST what to do, had disappeared in the blink of an eye, or whipped out their cell phones to immediately book a flight out of there. This was approximately 60 people…all looking for flights. It was heavy competition. The first and foremost thing to do is to get in line at the customer service desk for your particular airline.  More than likely you will be automatically booked on another flight (I was) but you have to go to get a new boarding pass.  Also while waiting in line, many travelers called the airlines customer service to choose other flights that might be better. They were booking up fast! Now please refer to my previous indication about Murphy’s Law…right about this time that law kicked in: my cell phone started acting up and before I got on the plane, it had completely died. No, it wasn’t the battery, another problem.

But travelers sharing the same agony frequently bond and we helped each other on a quest to get out of Charlotte.  A very sweet older couple graciously allowed the use of their phone so I could contact my husband with an update. I was on standby for a flight with 22 other people and I was #12 in line. I wasn’t too hopeful, and a few tears of exasperation and exhaustion rolled down my cheeks. I went through a lot of Kleenex that day, trying to keep my composure. Well, by some little miracle I made the flight. I sat next to a lovely couple from Charlotte who were exactly in the right place at the right time. (Hi Ronda and Irv!) God’s little helpers who were sent to help me retain my sanity. She lent me her cell phone to call my husband right away to let him know I made the flight. What wonderful people who helped to make a tense situation more bearable. Things like that help to restore one’s faith in humanity. Even after I landed, they stayed with me to get my luggage (which was delayed, of course) and I was able to call hubby again on Ronda’s phone. When we parted ways, they even reached out for a big hug and wished me well. If I am ever in Charlotte again, under more favorable circumstances I will have to look them up. You guys are the best!

Now some delays like this are weather conditions and of course they can’t do a thing about that, I want to fly safely. Yet, some delays are “crew availability”. I had heard there is a shortage of pilots these days, perhaps that is a big part of the problem.

Air travel was never the same after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In response to those events, the Transportation Security Administration was formed to help battle security threats that sadly lurk in our world today. Most everyone is familiar with what is expected from passengers as to what they can and cannot have when boarding an airplane. If you need a refresher course, the TSA website is very helpful and spells out the specifics of the “3-1-1” rule for transportation of liquids,etc. The site can be found at: http://www.tsa.gov  

Nevertheless, even being familiar with these regulations confusion still arises. Take for example the time I was bringing back from Alaska a delightful collection of jellies made from a variety of fresh berries locally produced there.  It was a gift for my Mom, who appreciates jams and jellies on her English Muffins. They were small sealed jars, in a gift pack, that apparently exceeded the 3.4 oz. limit and the TSA perceived them as “liquid”. The only way I could get them home was to put them in a “checked” bag, as opposed to a carry on and pay an additional $25.00. Well, you can pretty much guess what happened: I paid the $25, didn’t want to give up my jelly. It’s the principle of the thing. It did make it safely home, and the TSA agents were not able to enjoy muffins and jelly that day. Now that was some expensive jelly. Luckily is was worth the trip and a great souvenir.
So put your traveling shoes on. (and remove them for the TSA) JES

“Big things happen here”…..Dallas

Dallas city skyline: Dallas, Texas

“Big things happen here”. So this is the official slogan of the city of Dallas, not surprising coming out of the Lone Star State that boasts about the grand scale size of things. Texas is the second largest state in the US, but the largest in the “lower 48”. Alaska weighs in at 663,267 square miles, Texas at 268,580 and California is in 3rd place with 163, 695 square miles. Yes…Texas is very BIG. Big with a diversity of interesting things to offer. Visitors to Dallas can get a taste of Texan living with a great eclectic mix of sites and sounds. A blend of big city life and frontier living all rolled into one place that is quintessential life in the Lone Star state: Dallas. Dallas seems so vibrant and youthful. It was incorporated as a city in 1856, but much of the infrastructure is very contemporary. Like many larger cities in the south, Dallas has a large cross-section of people and many “transplanting Northerners” have made a home there. The diversity of accents are as prevalent as the different occupations. Dallas is home to 21 Fortune 500 companies including Exxon Mobil, AT&T and Texas Instruments.

Old Red Museum, 1892

When in Dallas, a great place to start your visit is the Visit Dallas Visitor’s Center located in the Old Red Museum, 100 S. Houston Street. You can’t miss it…it’s the big beautiful red sandstone building with cool looking gargoyles. It is adjacent to the JFK Memorial and Dealey Plaza.  Originally built as a courthouse in 1892, it houses an interesting museum and also the visitors center.  The center is staffed by folks that can help you plan your trip and know everything from great hotels, shopping and where to find the best BBQ around. The “Dallas City Pass” tickets are also available for purchase here for discounts on many major attractions.  When we were in Dallas, I did purchase them and saved quite a bit. (you can buy them on-line prior to your trip at: http://VisitDallas.com/CityPASS A word of warning, you have to use them up within 9 days, can’t carry over for your “next” trip.

 

View of some “spaghetti bowl” expressways from the Reunion Tower

Dallas is ranked as the 3rd largest city in Texas. Houston being the largest, than San Antonio. Like many big cities, negotiating traffic is a challenge. Roadways in the city are well-marked, but there seemed to be a preponderance of “access roads” running parallel to the major expressways which frequently begs the question: How do I get over there? I can see where I need to go but how do I get there? Hence the U-turn spot in Dallas in quite common. Granted, helpful….but I think the roads could have been laid out better to begin with. Once you get a feel for it, you’re fine but navigating some of the “spaghetti bowls” can be tricky. We had a rental car so we felt compelled to drive everywhere, but it is my understanding Dallas does have a good public transportation system: DART: Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with the highways. Yet, it is interesting to note that Dallas is the largest  metropolitan area in the US that does not on a navigable body of water, hence the development of all those roadways. Four major interstates converge in the city. Providing transportation is also enhanced by the railroad system: you gotta move all that cattle somehow.

Pioneer Plaza~Dallas

This leads me to the next feature about the state that is  highlighted in the city of Dallas.  Texas happens to hold the record as the top producer of beef cattle in the U. S., with 2.42 million head of cattle. That’s alot of beef! The proud history and heritage of cattle drives is documented as a public art exhibit in downtown Dallas at the Pioneer Plaza (1428 Young Street). An entire herd of longhorn steers and cowboys on horseback are depicted in beautiful bronze statues. Situated in the heart of downtown in the convention district, it is odd to see an entire herd of life-size cattle making their way through a stream with buildings rising up on all sides. They seem so real, that it seems they should be grazing across fields of grass, instead of surrounded by towering high rises. Yet, that is what makes the exhibit so stunning and a wonderful tribute to the trail riders. Also, adjacent to the plaza is the pioneer Park Cemetery which includes the Confederate War Memorial.

“So….what are you having for dinner?”

Along with being the leading beef cattle producer, comes the wonderful reality that Dallas is one of  the best places for steak! Well, of course. Steak and BBQ, that is. There are so many fantastic places to choose, but choose we did. I found a place that had great food, but when in Texas I have to admit….I looked for the ambiance as well. Nothing says Texas like cowboy boots, whips and a giant steer mounted on the wall staring at you while you dine on steak. Really fun place and it happens to be a chain with a few locations. It was called Salt Grass Steakhouse and I would go back, it was delicious! I know we will probably be making future trips to Dallas.  I missed the Dallas Arboretum this past trip….looks so pretty and of course we need another trip to Salt Grass–Cheers! Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

 

San Diego Sunshine

San Diego Harbor

The weathermen in San Diego are pretty much bored. It is the same old song every day: “Sunny and 70, Folks”. Out of the 365 days of the calendar year, San Diego’s average temperature is 63 degrees with 266 sunny days per year. Yet, that is such a lovely kind of boredom…and oh so pleasant. No wonder San Diego is such an intriguing tourist destination and the weathermen have such great job security; they are correct almost every day. The sun and surf are terrific, but you don’t have to be a sun-worshiper to enjoy all the sights and activities that this California city has to offer. An addition to enjoying the beautiful ocean views and beach, there are also many “must-sees” in the city itself.

Old Town Trolley Tours

My oldest son moved there several years ago, so I have been to visit this city many times and have favorites sights that I love to return to time and again. If you are just becoming introduced to the city, a great place to start is the Old Time Trolley Tours. They take you to 10 different stops throughout the city including: Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, the famous Hotel Del Coronado, the Maritime ship museum on the waterfront and many more. The trolleys have a “Hop on, Hop off” system that allow you to see what you want and visit your preferred sites at your leisure. In addition to getting a great overview of some of the key sights in the city, the trolley drivers share a multitude of interesting historical info and trivia.  Did you know that San Diego is actually the “Birthplace of California”. In June of 1769, the first Spanish presidio and mission was established by the San Diego River making it the oldest European settlement on the west coast of the U.S. In tribute to the rich history of San Diego, it’s very fitting that the Trolley Tours would be based out of Old Town. Established today as Old Town San Diego, the site commemorates life in San Diego from 1821 to 1872. It includes shopping, restaurants,museums and the logical start for the trolley tours. You can purchase tickets at any of the 10 stops, but Old Town is the main facility and the starting and ending point for the tours.

Being so close to the emerald waters of the beautiful Pacific, when in San Diego one must really check out several of the beaches there. Coronado, by the infamous Hotel Coronado, is one of the most scenic, pristine beaches in the area. Mission Beach and Oceanside Beach are loved and frequented by both locals and tourists. Of course shops for beach gear and souvenirs are readily found at both.

Brown Pelican~ San Diego Harbor

If the beach scene isn’t quite your thing, you can still enjoy the Pacific with the many day cruises available. Depending on the time of year, a whale watching tour can be an excellent choice because from December thru the beginning of March, the whale migration patterns skirt the San Diego coastline. I recently took a 4 hour whale watching tour with great success: we saw several whales breech. In addition to the grey whales we spotted an abundance of other sea life including dolphins, sea lions, pelicans and cormorants. My bird watching senses were on full alert. It’s hard to capture in a photograph a grey whale breeching, but it is easy to see and photograph the brown pelicans flying around. At first glance they seem like awkward creatures, but in flight they are rather majestic. It is also truly amazing how big some of them get. For more information on the whale watching tour, you can check out their web site at: http://www.flagshipsd.com

Cabrillo National Monument

Having a passion for our National Parks, I would be remiss if I did not mention San Diego’s National Park site: The Cabrillo National Monument.  It celebrates the natural and cultural history of the area.  Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo  was the first Eurpoean, in 1542,  to set foot on a “very good enclosed port”.  In addition to telling the story about the 16th century exploration, a visitor can take in a terrific  view of the Pacific from Point Loma, and also a lighthouse is on the premises. The Point Loma Lighthouse was originally built in 1855.  It ceased operation in 1891, but is open to the public today as a museum.  It may be a small, seemingly insignificant lighthouse, but it has many interesting stories behind it. During the time of its operation, it was at the highest elevation of any lighthouse in the United States. (Impressive!)

 

The California Tower and the Museum of Man~ Balboa Park

So I saved my very favorite feature of San Diego for last: Balboa Park.  It holds the title as the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Every single time I go, it never fails to amaze and awe me. Bird of Paradise flowers, exotic trees, jeweled mosaics in the architectures, fountains and of course an array of interesting people to watch. In addition to the natural beauty found in the park, there are 17 museums. The museums have something for everyone from art and photography to anthropology, aerospace and even a model railroad museum for all the train buffs out there! Also, within the park boundaries is the world famous San Diego Zoo. It is hard to spend only one day at Balboa Park to try to take it all in. I have been there several times, and every time I go there are new surprises and delights.

 

So, San Diego is highly recommended as a travel destination. Remember that travel and tourism is San Diego’s third top industry (behind manufacturing and the military) So they want you to have a great time. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

See you in Seattle! Top 5 attractions.

On the west coast, Seattle is an iconic waterfront city filled with experiences that you “gotta see” when visiting there. One of the neat features about Seattle is so many  of the  sites are along the waterfront or within walking distance of the main downtown area. Even if you only have a day or two to spend in this vibrant city, here are the Top Five attractions that really help to define the Seattle experience.

1–FERRY BOATS-Simplistic, but this is probably my favorite part of the Seattle area. Many native Seattle folks take them back and forth as commuters every business day and they are very commonplace along the waterfront.  Nevertheless, I find them so much an exciting part of visiting  this city.  It is really amazing how many people and vehicles fit on one of these huge boats. Even more amazing, is how smoothly and efficiently the loading and unloading is accomplished several times a day. For  more information on the ferry system, current schedules and sailing routes, check the Washington State Ferries web-site at: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/  Crossing the water to Bainbridge or Kingston is not a long journey, but just long enough to enjoy being on the water and fantastic views of the skyline.  Also, usually just long enough to polish off a specialty coffee drink.  There are quaint little coffee shops all over Seattle and of course, right at the entrance to the Ferry terminals.  Seattle is  really big on coffee and is known for being the birthplace of Starbucks coffee. Which leads me to my next favorite: the original Starbucks cafe.

Original Starbucks on 1st and Pike, by Pikes Place Market

2–ORIGINAL STARBUCKS- Yup…this is where it all began: Starbucks Coffee. Even if you are not a huge coffee drinker, it is so neat to visit the original site where the first Starbucks opened their flagship store in 1971. It is smaller than one would imagine,  but therein lies the charm of the quaint place for the birthplace of this coffee giant. Tourists and locals alike seek out refreshment at this iconic stop frequently on their way to or from the next Seattle landmark: Pikes Place Market.  Another place that lends itself to lots of photo opps and an abundance of great sights and scents to sample.

3–PIKES PLACE MARKET-There are outdoor markets aplenty, but none can compare to the excitement and bustle of Pikes Place Market.  The Market opened in 1907 and is one of the oldest operating farmers’ markets in the country.  Before I went there, I heard that the vendors throw fish to each other in the process of filleting and also filling orders. What?! Sounds strange, and it is…but when you see a 15 pound salmon flying through the air it really gets your attention, not something you see in the average supermarket.  The Market is full of wonderful fruits, fish, vegetables, flowers and homemade honeys & jams.   Also, various craft items including jewelry, leather working, glass-works and pottery can be found there.  The building itself is quite impressive and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. It sits overlooking the Seattle waterfront. Built on a steep hill, it has several different levels with an abundance of differing shops.  The vendors take pride in beautiful displays of their wares, even the peppers are an art form in and of themselves; so many different colors and shapes!

 

4–PIER 54-IVAR’S & YE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP-Probably these two are the easiest to find attractions on the waterfront. Literally right when you walk off the Ferry boat and next to the ferry terminals. Ivar’s is the seafood restaurant with both “casual” dining (more like a fast food style…but the food is still top-notch) and a lovely sit down restaurant.  Both Ivar’s restaurants offer great cuisine, depending what you are in the mood for.  The “casual” restaurant has outdoor setting by the water; and adults and kids alike are entertained by feeding your french fries to the seagulls. Entertaining yes….but the seagulls can sometimes get pretty aggressive. Just use caution; very small children shouldn’t partake in this activity.  Might be nice to keep all 10 digits.

Located on the same Pier is a very fun, touristy shop: Ye Old Curiosity Shop. Filled with many “curiosities” like shrunken heads, a 4 -legged chicken and mummies.  Some of the stuff is kind of creepy, although entertaining.  It has been part of the Seattle waterfront since 1899.  They have changed exact locations several times, but are generally in the same area. In addition to all the oddities, they do carry lots of the “usual” souvenirs, jewelry and also unusual items for purchase to remember your trip to Seattle. The totem poles at the front of the stores make great photo opps for you and your group. A terrific place to stop by and it’s right by the waterfront.

5–SEATTLE SPACE NEEDLE-One of the most recognized landmarks in Seattle is the Space Needle.  It is an observation tower that reaches 605 feet high and resembles the home of The Jetsons, if you remember that cartoon from the early 60’s. The tower was opened in 1962 and was built in honor of the World’s Fair held in Seattle that year.  The views from the top are fantastic and every one visiting this ocean front city should go up once. Yet, if you’ve done it once, that is probably enough.  Great views, but repeat visits to the city don’t really warrant several trips to the top of “the Needle”.  We did it once when my kids were little, but on subsequent visits I have always longed for and participated in the above listed “top 4”.  I wouldn’t think of going to Seattle without a trip to Pikes Place and lunch at Ivar’s. Polished off with a view of the setting sun by the deck of a Ferry boat.  Just writing these words make me realize I need to get back to Seattle soon.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Photo by Sigma Sreedharan (on Twitter, WA State Ferries)