Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The historic French Quarter

Way down yonder in New Orleans
In the land of dreamy scenes
- Louis Armstrong

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunset in Arches National Park

My favorite time of day in one of my favorite U.S. National Parks... (taken in June 2010).

Adventures (& Misadventures) to Conundrum Hot Springs

The minute I heard about it, I knew that I had to go.

At 11, 200 feet, Conundrum Hot Springs is the highest-elevation, natural hot springs in North America, nestled between aspen and pine trees, wildflowers bursting with color and alluring mountain peaks. Its beauty and seclusion draws many, but its travel requirements deter droves of people from visiting. Why? Because it involves a walk in the woods. Well, more like an eighteen-mile round-trip trek into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado, with an elevation gain of about 2,700 feet.

As an outdoor enthusiast who moved to Colorado to hike, backpack, ski and enjoy the splendor of this sunny state, I immediately decided that this would be my first backpacking trip in my new home state (of seven months by that point). Screw an easy overnight trip in higher altitude. I wanted to visit this Holy Grail of a hot, natural bath spot.

I easily convinced an equally-outdoorsy friend, Erin, to join me on this backpacking adventure. And an adventure of misadventures it would be.

We loaded Erin’s mature Volvo with our gear, bursting with anticipation, and hit the road on a blistering hot day in Denver. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees. With the A/C blasting and conversation flowing, we headed into the mountains. Then, her car started stalling…and decided to call it quits. We pulled over, waited and tried to restart the car without luck. After frantic calls to the Mr. Fix-its in our lives – our dads – we still were without a running car. Thus, we turned to the next best thing – AAA.

About 30 minutes later a tow truck arrived, and we had already decided to return to Denver and get my car. Erin and I were not going to let this little hiccup stop us from soaking in those hot springs. Well, come to find out from the driver, her car was suffering from a thing called “vapor lock,” which can easily be remedied with a 45-minute wait of car silence. Apparently it’s very common in high altitude on hot, summer days, especially with cheap gas (and we saw many cars on the side of the highway that day). He pulled over as we neared a western suburb of Denver and discovered that her car was fine! Despite this good news, we still went and retrieved my Subaru, just to be safe.

So, a few hours later than planned, we were back on the road! The music was blaring, the sun was setting. As we neared Aspen, our last town stop before the trailhead, we picked up food for the trek. By that time (around 10 p.m.), we were starved since neither of us had eaten for several hours due to the misadventure. We headed to the Aspen town center and made a beeline for the first open place – a bar. They had to serve food, right? Oh, and ladies drink free. Sold.

Here, in our camping gear and flip flops, Erin and I walk into this establishment filled with trendy 20-somethings on a Friday night. Not out of place at all. But we still enjoyed our one free drink and some pizza.

From Aspen, we drove down a pitch-black road to find the trailhead for Conundrum Hot Springs. We had finally made it! But the catch? All of the parking spots were taken. Sh*t. So we had to create our own (legal) parking spot near some trees, not blocking any traffic.

Since it was past midnight, we just slept in the back of my Subaru. But I couldn’t stop staring at the stars. They littered the sky, twinkling so bright.

Groggily, we woke up the next morning to make our final preparations for our backcountry trip – packing the food, filling up on water and checking our bags to make sure that we had all of the essentials. That’s when I realized my water bladder was missing…mistakenly left on my kitchen counter filled with water. F*ck. Thankfully, I always bring extra Nalgene bottles so I was just going to have to survive off my two bottles and lots of filtered water.

As we stepped through the trees and on to the trail, the view literally took my breath away. It was a near blue-bird day, with only a few clouds dotting the sky. The mountains towered in the distance, sloping into an army of trees and vividly green fields. I really live here, and THIS is how I get to spend my weekends? Heaven.

Along the nine-mile trail, Erin and I crossed over several log bridges, passed hundreds of wildflowers, waded through a COLD creek, rock jumped through a pond and steadily climbed 2,700 feet. And, routinely, we couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and stare, enjoying the spectacular views and overwhelmingly beautiful solitude…and catch our breath and guzzle some water.

After four to five hours, we arrived at the fire-friendly campsite and setup camp. Next stop – the hot springs! And, oh, did we enjoy them. First, we slipped into the largest hot spring that offers a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains still patched with snow and the lush valley that we had ascended that morning. We literally soaked in the clothing-optional, 95-degree hot spring for almost five hours – chatting with the other hikers, admiring the beauty that surrounded us (and I’m not talking about the naked folks!) and regretting that we didn’t bring any wine to sip on.

I really didn’t want to pack up and leave the next morning. But we began our descent back to civilization. Clouds were rolling in, and we did NOT want to get caught in a storm. Thankfully for us, the rain and thunder did not begin until about two miles from the trailhead. As soon as we reached the car, we threw off our hiking boots and grabbed some water. And then a ranger – decked out with the outfit and hat -- came over to talk to us. We had forgotten our permits (whoops, Mr. Hot Ranger.), and he warned us about a SUV that was illegally parked further down the dirt road that potentially could block some cars from leaving the lot. He said that a tow truck had been called, but it may not arrive for a few hours. Seriously? We did not have a few hours since we were running low on water and food.

We investigated the scene with some other trekkers, and the blocking car was not in good shape. It had been scrapped and bumped by people trying to get by, keyed, and stacked with rocks and the oh-so glorious poop bags that hikers are asked to use. They sure were going to have more than one unpleasant surprise once they returned.

After watching a few vehicles skim by the car (talking inches here!) with some amateur four-wheeling moves, we decided my Forrester could make it. But I didn’t want to be behind the wheel, so one of the successful navigators who shimmied his way through the small space offered to help. The minutes passed by slowly, and from the passenger seat, I waited to see the outcome. And we got lucky – a freed car without injury. And that was the end of our misadventures, well minus 1-70 traffic delays and blistered feet.

For me, an adventure is almost not complete unless there are a few mishaps and delays. They’re great reminders that you cannot predict what will happen and why, sometimes, the journey is just as fun as the destination. And it doesn’t hurt to have a travel companion who can also “roll with the punches” and laugh about the absurdity of the situation.

I look forward to making an annual trek to Conundrum Hot Springs with Erin, my boyfriend and other friends…not only for the spring-soaking and awe-inspiring scenery, but also for the new stories and memories that I’m sure will come with each trip.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beyond the Beauty: Earth Day, Every Day

For me, Earth Day is a reminder of what we should be doing every day. Mother Earth is the world; the land that provides for us, asking nothing in return besides love, care and appreciation. But that is something many people seem to have forgotten...and will probably forget tomorrow.

We take advantage of what's amply available to us and abuse the gift of water, mountains, valleys, wildlife, trees and blue skies. We create machines that pollute at exponetially high rates; we waste water like it's infinite; we drive cars as if gas will always be available; we use appliances - even our computers and mobile phones - without thought or consideration of its energy use; we drink from plastic bottles and eat off styrofoam plates without regard to where they end up, in landfills with no other use but to hide our selfish, materialistic ways. We have an attitude of, "If we can't see it, why does it matter?"

I've witnessed firsthand the beauty of this Earth - from the rocky shores of the Maine coast to the waterfalls and fjords in New Zealand. Whether it's witnessing a whale surface in the ocean, watching a sunset in Hawaii or driving through the Canadian Rockies, I cannot help but be moved by what Mother Earth has given us...and what we treat as the red-headed step-child with no voice.

Yet, it extends beyond beauty and aesthics. This earth that we traverse and call home provides us the air that we breathe, the food that we eat and the water that we drink, as well as the materials needed to provide shelter and care for our people. But, apparently, that is not enough fo us. We want things faster, better, longer, shorter, easier, prettier and more convenient...but at what expense?

Our choices, in regards to the environment, and our individual and global contributions (or lack thereof to act couscientiously) may not have an immediate, large-scale impact on the world and our daily lives, but collectively, we must realize the affect of our actions and inactions on the near and distant future. We cannot keep adding to the landfills, tapping into fuel reserves, destroying forests for neighborhoods and wasteful products and intruding upon natural reserves (Alaska Wildlife Refuge, anyone?)...and then wrap it up in a pretty bow and hand it to our future -- our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We are the most inconsiderate species, and yet revel ourselves as highly intelligent, innovative and spiritual. Our own selfish desires (not necessarily needs) drives us to be materialistic, without blinking an eye at throwing away recyclable goods, killing an animal for sport or building new smoke stacks. And this abuse will continue its brutal cycle unless we make drastic changes.

And this change has to start with people, not the government. We, as land-dwellers and voters, need to become the voice for the cause - to nurture, preserve and appreciate the world, our land, our home as our long-lost ancestors did. Politics are for those in pursuit of additional "power" and stature, and their empty words and promises will not result in a lasting, positive impact for the environment, unless we take a strong stance with a loud voice. This crisis of environmental abuse does not fit into their scheme. It has not and will not be a pressing platform until it affects their voters, pockets and stock options.

With all that said, I make a plea -- to start with one simple change that will lighten your carbon footprint and have small but significant (and positive) impact on the world. Mother Earth depends on us to take care of her. Become an environmental caretaker, so we can continue to enjoy the beauty in this world....and then share it with our future, our children.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My New Zealand "Bucket List"

Those who know me well have come to realize my love for "Godzone." I find any excuse to talk about New Zealand and have become an unofficial travel ambassador for the Kiwis and their breathtaking country.

Well, I have written a guest blog about my "bucket list" for New Zealand on Twenty-SomethingTravel.com, which includes three of my most memorable experiences: swimming with dolphins in the ocean, kayaking Abel Tasman to Seal Cove and falling in love with Fiordland National Park. Now, I wish that it would have included a section dedicated entirely to my love affair with Speight's beer.

While on the website, shake off your itchy feet and read some of Stephanie's travel stories and tips, and enjoy the photos.

Want to get lost in New Zealand now? View more of my photos here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The "Real" World

It's like a natural Wonderland, New Zealand. The landscape is overwhelming in a spectacular way, literally taking your breath away. I almost had to pinch my arm on a few occasions, just to remind myself that I was still on planet Earth. A land so surreal, with vibrant blue skies, low-hanging clouds and lush, green hills that give way to towering, dark mountains.

Milford Sound

Though known for its dramatic scenery, New Zealand's beauty extends beyond just physicality. Its purity, serenity and isolation easily explain its nickname, "Godzone."

With only 4 million people residing on its two islands, New Zealand is hardly populated compared to other nations; thus, offering immense landscapes and splendor. When surrounded by natural beauty, without so many trivial distractions, one is able to enjoy the scenery, find peace within themselves, become open to new ideas and experiences...and discover what truly is "real" in this complicated world.

At points during our visit, we drove 100 kilometers without another vehicle on the windy roads. Whether through the Southern Alps or along the rocky west coast, I sometimes forgot how neon signs assault your vision with their dancing lights and car fumes infiltrate your lungs and sting your eyes. For the second time in my life, I felt more alive than ever before...in the way that only nature can invigorate you, nudge you with its open skies and heavenly landscape. It was like falling in love all over again with nature, myself... the world.

As the saying goes, the journey is more important than the destination. And my journey led me to Doubtful Sound. While on the overnight cruise, 70 other passengers and myself had the entire fjord to ourselves. To arrive at this celestial fjord, we surrendered ourselves to a boat that sped across the lovely Lake Manapauri, then we stepped on land and boarded a bus to cross the Wilmett Pass, the most expensive road in NZ...and from there, we became the only visitors of Doubtful Sound. There was no other humans for hundreds of kilometers. That, in and of itself, was amazing.

While on that cruise, we witnessed the glory of Doubtful Sound on a sunny day, which was only dotted with clouds, as well as the forested mountains engulfed in fog and rain. We also were placed to encounter some of the fjord's residents- seals, dolphins, sea lions, penguins and other nearly extinct birds. Yet, something else from that experience resonates with me on a different level to this day.

Our nature guide, who was very passionate and knowledgeable about the fjords (and quite dashing and witty, on a side note), gave a slide show presentation after nightfall. Holding the audience of 70 people captive with his superb storytelling skills and snarkiness, he spoke of the fjord's discovery and history, as well as of the native animals and those introduced. Yet, even though the overview was interesting, it was a more philosophical diatrite that grazed my soul --

Everyone who comes to Doubtful Sound loves the immense beauty of Fiordland but sadly has to return to the "real world." Yet, the "real world" isn't as bona fide as you may think. It's filled with "things" like TV, video games, iPods, designer clothes, flashy cars...all of which are man-made and hardly "real." What's pure and authentic is this fjord, which was carved out by a glacier thousand of years ago, and remains unchanged (for the most part).

And, it's oh so true. Our "things" don't really make us happy...they just offer us comfort, property, distraction. What can make us happy and does in a literal way (unbeknownst to many) is the immense beauty of this world and what it offers us, whether quenching our thirst, providing us shelter or giving us grand, panoramic views. And it does bring me great happiness and will continue to do so. I am forever changed by my Kiwi experience and am thankful for the opportunity to travel there and experience the land, people, culture and inner journey.... And I cannot wait to be surprised, once again, by the world.

Until next time...

Friday, February 27, 2009

I Heart My City: Louisville, Ky.

What's so special about my city? Well, everyone knows Kentucky for its bluegrass, bourbon, horse racing and college basketball....but it's time for people learn that Louisville is a city with much more to offer.

Since National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog is hosting "I Heart My City" series, I wanted to expose Louisville for the great city that it is. So, in southern fashion, push your grits to the side and start reading, y'all!

(photo by brittanyculver on Flickr)

I Heart My City: Louisville, Ky.

Louisville (pronounced Lou-a-vull or Louie-ville) is My City!

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is to The Highlands for shopping, dining and nightlife.

When I crave delicious Asian cuisine, I always go to the all-vegetarian Zen Garden.

To escape stress and car exhaust fumes, I head to Bernheim Forest near Clermont, Ky.

If I want to go camping and hiking, Louisvillians go to the Red River Gorge.

For complete quiet, I can hide away in my apartment with a good book from one of our public libraries.

If you come to my city, get your picture taken with the “big bat” in front of Slugger Museum.

If you have to order one thing off the menu from The Bristol, it has to be the green chili wontons.
Swags is my one-stop shop for great running gear.

Locals know to skip franchise restaurants and check out “Louisville Originals” like Ramsi’s, Mayan Café and Café Lou Lou instead.

When I'm feeling cash-strapped I go to Slugger Field for $1 beers and a Louisville Bats game on “Thirsty Thursdays.”

For a huge splurge I go to Mojito's for tapas, good conversation..and, well, mojitos!

Photo ops in my city include a colorful panoramic shot of downtown after dusk, and the best vantage points are across the river at the Falls of Ohio.

If my city were a celebrity, it'd be Colonel Sanders. Though no longer with us, he was a gentleman with a drive to succeed and an innovator with ample pride for Kentucky. Plus, he’s buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, which is located in Louisville, Ky.

The most random thing about my city is that, while we’re near the Bible belt, our bars and nightclubs keep the liquor flowing until 4am.

My city has the most Catholic, bourbon-drinking men.

My city has the most Catholic, bourbon-drinking women.

In my city, an active day outdoors involves a run through hilly, scenic Cherokee Park, followed by frisbee with your dog on Dog Hill (and, of course, letting him romp and roll with other canines).

My city's best museum is the 21c Museum Hotel.

My favorite jogging/walking route is Iroquois Park because it’s embraced by beautiful trees and less populated than the other city parks.

For a night of dancing, go to a salsa party or 4th Street Live if you’re looking for something more mainstream. Or, for live music, check out our vibrant music scene at venues like the Louisville Palace, Brown Theatre, Headliners, Uncle Pleasant’s and numerous bars. Always live music in this city from rock to bluegrass!

Spinelli’s is the spot for late-night eats with its delicious pizza and (after 4am) beer selection.

To find out what's going on at night and on the weekends, read the LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) or go online to the MetroMix.

You can tell a lot about my city from its southern hospitality, where people with white hair or pink hair say “hello” to strangers.

You can tell if someone is from my city if one of their first questions asked is “What high school did you go to?’ (It’s a Louisville thing, seriously.)

In the spring, you should experience the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre in March.

In the summer, you should head down to 91.9 WFPK’s Waterfront Wednesdays and watch great local, regional and national acts for free.

In the fall you shouldn’t miss St. James Art Fair, which draws thousands of people to Louisville in October.

In the winter, you should warm up with the seasonal beers at Bluegrass Brewing Co. and Cumberland Brewing Co. (two fantastic local breweries!).

A hidden gem in my city is Vernon Lanes, which was built in 1886, and offers bowling, beer, live music and a great atmosphere for a night out with your friends.

For a great breakfast joint, try Toast. They have amazing french toast…hence the name!

Don't miss the Forecastle Festival in June, the annual Midwest symposium for musicians, artists and environmentalists.

Just outside my city, you can visit the Bourbon Trail -- touring distilleries such as Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve (my personal favorite).

The best way to see my city is by automobile since Louisvillians claim that they can drive anywhere within 20 minutes…but it’s best by foot when downtown or wandering around the Highlands or Crescent Hill.

If my city were a pet it would be an average-energy dog –- playful and eager, but at times so predictable and languid.

If I didn't live in Louisville, I'd live on the west coast.

The best book about my city is Capture Kentuckiana, a coffee table book that encapsulates the essence of our city and area through local photographers’ lenses.

When I think about my city, the album "Louisville is for Lovers" comes to mind since it's a compilation disc featuring "love" songs by all local artists. Louisville has a great music scene, and My Morning Jacket are our current music ambassadors.

If you have kids, you won't want to miss the Great Balloon Glow, where children see the hot air balloons that will race the next morning (all part of the Kentucky Derby Festival).

The Kentucky Derby could only happen in my city.

My city should be featured on your cover or website because it’s a mid-sized city with a small town feel and big-city dreams, as well as a thriving arts scence!

Other reasons that I heart my city:








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