2017 National Parks Tour

One of the best perks of my job is what we call PGL: Personal Growth Leave. Starting during our 10th year and every following 5 years we must take a mandatory month off with pay (4 consecutive weeks). This is something I’ve been looking forward to since I started at my job. My first PGL starts now.

My wife was also able to get the month off and in another 5 years my older son may be off to college and starting his own life. So, my family decided that this was our opportunity to take the trip of a lifetime to see some of the most beautiful locations in our country. We are taking the whole month of July and driving around the country to visit national parks, cities and other choice locations.

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  1. Wanderlust Headquarters
  2. Niagara Falls
  3. Denver, CO
  4. Moab, UT & mountain biking, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park
  5. Bryce Canyon National Park
  6. Zion National Park
  7. Grand Canyon National Park (north rim)
  8. Death Valley National Park
  9. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park
  10. Yosemite National Park
  11. Lassen Volcanic National Park
  12. Crater National Park
  13. Portland, OR
  14. Seattle, WA
  15. Glacier National Park
  16. Yellowstone National Park & white water rafting, Grand Tetons National Park & horseback riding
  17. Mount Rushmore
  18. Badlands National Park
  19. Madison, WI
  20. Chicago, IL
  21. Cuyahoga National Park

It’ll be a mad dash and by the end I suspect we’ll be more tired than we started. But hopefully we’ll be making memories that will last our lifetimes. Stories that we’ll tell when we gather for the holidays. Adventures that our kids can recreate with their kids.

Eventually there will be a slew of blog posts from the trip, but until then stay tuned to my social media locations for photos, updates and more.

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A Look Back on 2016 and Ahead to 2017

2016-featureA Look Back on 2016

2016 has come and gone and now is the time to reflect on all that was accomplished or not. I think that many would agree that it was a rough year with all of the musician and celebrity deaths, Brexit, the US election, the war in Syria, the Keystone XL pipeline standoff, and the proposed motel near the summit of Mount Washington. But for me (outside of celebrities, politics and global disaster) it was a pretty good year. Here’s a rundown of my goals for the year and whether or not I attained them:

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Hike: Emigrant Wilderness

Trail Report

Much like in 2014 when we hiked Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan, my coworkers and good friends John and Michael made plans to explore the wilderness away from our normal haunts by tacking a vacation onto a work-related trip. This time we chose a lesser known wilderness area within the Stanislaus National Forest called the Emigrant Wilderness. The Emigrant Wilderness is noted for its granite and volcanic terrain and beautiful alpine lakes. It became our target because it was only a 3 hour drive from San Francisco, relatively low in the Sierra Nevadas (it was April after all), it was easy to obtain a backcountry camping permit, it was below the 9000′ restriction on campfires and bear cans were not required.

As the date of our trip approached the forecast made it clear that we would not be experiencing the typical Californian climate. Though the weeks before and after our trip were sunny and in the 70s, the forecast for our week was in the 40s with threatening thunderstorms. On the day that our conferences ended the forecast still wasn’t great but it looked like the precipitation was going to be low even if the thunderstorms did manage to roll in. At the worst, the highest elevation forecast that was available predicted less than an inch of snow with temperatures in the mid to high 30s.

As we drove to REI and Whole Foods in Berkeley to get supplies we were still discussing whether to ditch the mountain plans and spend four days exploring Point Reyes, on the Pacific coast where the forecast was favorable. In the end it came down to the fact that we had planned our trip for months and flown from Maine to California in order to experience the Sierra Nevadas. The worst possible forecast would be a mild New England spring storm. So we headed to the mountains.

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Waiting for the Quetzal

“A long time ago, a great battle ensued between the Spanish conquistadors and the Mayans.  At the moment of the Mayan Chief’s death, the sacred Quetzal fell silent and plummeted to the earth, covering the body of the Mayan Chief with his long, green plumes.  Rising at dawn, the bird was transformed…Its breast had soaked up the blood of the fallen soldier and become crimson, the shade of Mayan blood, as it has remained to this day.”

Adapted from Maslow’s Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Naturalist’s Journey…

“We’ve heard a rumor…” the professors said last night. Supposedly they had heard that a (much-sought-after) Quetzal had been spotted making a nest on the land of one of the neighboring families and, for only $2 per person (!!!), the landowner would allow us to walk his land and seek out the Quetzal.  Though the adventure was optional, I woke early to make the trek and our bus took us a mile down the road to the neighbor’s land.  A homemade wooden sign declared we had arrived at our destination and we began to climb up the steep hill overlooking a wild avocado tree.

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Those of us who had chosen to go on the adventure sat atop the hill and waited.  Patiently.  Quietly.  Eyes focused on the tree, looking for any sign of movement or color and listening intently for any sound.  One would not even dare to blink.

And then… A flurry of pointing arms…Waving hands to get attention…Finger-shhh-ing reminders of silence…Binoculars to our eyes and behold: the Resplendent Quetzal.

Quetzal

Or, more specifically, a pair of juvenile Quetzals whose long, glorious plumes had yet to grow but were; nonetheless, a sight to behold.  No photo, illustration, or words (perhaps a poet could find the appropriate words; however, I am not one) will come close to seeing the Quetzal in person and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen the bird and sat in his presence for a short amount of time.  To sit and wait patiently…knowing the early morning’s trek could have been be in vain…Then to be rewarded with a visit from this beautiful bird…This was a moment that was a highlight in the trip.

Some fun facts I’ve learned about the Quetzal:

  • There are 6 species of Quetzal, including the one I saw in Costa Rica: the Resplendent Quetzal.
  • Quetzals live in the mountain and cloud forests of Central America.
  • The male’s breast is red.
  • They eat insects, small lizards, and fruit.  A favorite is the mini avocado, which is swallowed whole.  Later, they spit out the seed.
  • In Mayan culture, it was forbidden to kill the Quetzal.
  • Quetzals are the national symbol of Guatemala, a fact that our tour guide frequently lamented since it is NOT the national bird of Costa Rica.  In fact, I was often reminded I would be disappointed to see the national bird of Costa Rica as it pales in drab comparison to the Quetzal.
  • Because of loss of habitat, the Quetzal is endangered.
  • It is pronounced ket-SAUL.

One Last Very Thankful Note: How thankful I felt to the owner of the land for his willingness to allow a group of 20 students climb his nearby hill.  He was an incredibly generous host, sitting with us and waiting patiently while we waited.  We weren’t the only tourists he allowed on his land; several pairs of people had made their way up the hill that morning. Once we spotted the bird, he made sure everyone had a chance to see the bird through the telescope.  His generosity and openness is something I saw time and again in the people of Costa Rica.

After our visit with the Quetzal, we headed back to the lodge where we ate breakfast and prepared for our 10-mile hike down Cerro de la Muerte: “Mountain of Death” (or “Hill of Death”, depending on who one asks).

Heading to Savegre Valley

After an early breakfast, we packed up the bus and headed southeast, along the Pan American Highway, towards the first place we would visit: Savegre Valley near Cerro de la Muerte, one of Costa Rica’s highest peaks.  As we drove the 2-hour drive, we got our first glimpses of Costa Rica in the daylight.  Distant mountains hugged the route, peek-a-booing views of the country and valley and giving us brief photographic moments…

Valley

Ride

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Over the next few weeks, we would learn a bit about the history of Costa Rica…

  • Though “discovered” (I use the word loosely) by Columbus in 1502, Costa Rica remained largely ignored by Spanish conquerors  because of its lack of gold and silver, extreme heat, and dense jungle.
  • Colonists successfully settled in the central highlands of Cartago in 1563.
  • Costa Rica became a fully independent country in 1838.
  • In 1949, Costa Rica ended a 44-day Civil War, adopted a new Constitution, and abolished its military.

“But Melissa,” you’re asking, “what do you mean they abolished their military?!”

I mean it as simply as I can put it: There is no army.  In 1949, President Jose Figueres took the keys of a San Jose military fort and handed them to the Minister of Education, setting off a series of events that would ultimately redirect the military’s budget toward healthcare, education, and environmental protection.

We learn there are local police but no national defense force and, over the next 2 weeks, we see that the military budget has been well spent: well-directed investments in land preservation and ecological sustainability where nature thrives, a country-wide emphasis and appreciation for free, quality education, and a high literacy rate of 96%.

ARRIVAL AT TROGON LODGE

The road into the valley was bumpy, narrow, and winding but afforded us magnificent views of colorful homes, bright gardens, grazing horses, and children playing.

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Our guide stopped the bus and encouraged us to walk the final mile into the valley so we could experience more of our surroundings.

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When we arrived at the Trogon Lodge, we were greeted by colorful flowers, tall oaks, and cerro-de-la-muerte lording over the valley.  A small river wound its way amongst the rocks in the valley and fresh trout (caught fresh every afternoon for dinner) swam in the fish pond.

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WATERFALL HIKE

After settling in to our cabins, our professors and guide led us on our first hike: Cataratas Hike.  The river roared next to us as we made our way along the well-made (though not well-marked) trails.  While I felt comfortable walking quickly, I was intensely aware of this one-chance opportunity to truly BE in this place at this time so I slowed my steps to look, listen, take pictures, and truly enjoy the experience of hiking in the rain forest.  An additional benefit to walking in the back was walking with Prof D, whose extensive knowledge of botany and Costa Rica always provided an interesting learning experience.

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How quickly the weather changed in the Valley.  I must have taken off my long-sleeve shirt 15 times.

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On the way back to the bus, I stopped to take a picture and, when I looked back up, I realized I was alone.  Not truly: I knew there was a pack of hikers in front of me and a pack of hikers behind me but I was thankful for this brief, private moment in this beautiful part of Costa Rica.


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NOTABLE ANIMALS AND PLANTS I SAW TODAY:

Black Vulture: Spotted 2 Black Vultures in the air…circling and soaring…very impressive wingspans.

Bromeliads: 3,170 species…The flowering plant can take on different shapes/colors.

Tree Ferns: To see ferns as trees fascinated me on this day and every time I saw them throughout the entire trip.

Angel’s Trumpet or “Reina de la Noche”: Intensely fragrant…Grown as a yard ornament…Highly poisonous and hallucinogenic…Known to induce a period of intense violence and temporary insanity (though I have no experience to back up this claim).  Indigenous people used the plant medicinally as well as for divination with ancestors.

WHERE WE STAYED: Trogon Lodge

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Trogon Lodge

My San Jose roommate and I were paired together once again in a small wooden cabin with 2 comfortable beds, a private bathroom, and an outside porch with rockers and chairs.  As long as the wind wasn’t throwing the hot water switch out, there was plenty of hot water in the bathrooms (this would be the last HOT shower I would take for many days as we were headed to a place where I could never quite figure out which showers offered the hot water).  A small heating unit in each bedroom was lit by the staff every evening and provided cozy warmth throughout the entire night.  The view out our window was of another cabin up on the hill and colorful flowers lining a pathway.

Other facilities on the grounds included a conference room, gift shop (where I shopped for my island middle school girls), and a bar and game room.

WHERE WE ATE: Trogon Lodge Dining Room “El Quetzal”

The food served at the Trogon Lodge Restaurant was most certainly some of the most yummy food we would have during our 2-week stay in Costa Rica.  The food was fresh, homemade, and absolutely delicious.  Hanging outside the dining room were hummingbird feeders and after our first lunch we spent a while watching them flit in and out and enjoying a bit of lunch with us.

I found out the Trogon Lodge can accommodate special menus for any dietary restriction you may have, as long as they are informed in advance of your needs.  Each of our meals was served buffet style.

Next post: We go on an early morning search for the Resplendent Quetzal.

Pura Vida

Pura vida: the simple translation is “pure life”…And it is a philosophy of life for the people of Costa Rica.  Pronounced “Poo-rah Vee-dah”, it is an expression of optimism and takes on many meanings depending on its context.  It could mean take it easy, live in the moment, relax, enjoy life, it’s all good…It’s also a philosophy best understood through experience: walking slowly through the colorful roadside market in Manuel Antonio, hearing the quiet song of our guide paying homage to his country, embracing the welcoming smiles of Costa Rican people at every stop, or the first glimpses of a Pacific Ocean sunset.

My introduction to and subsequent acceptance of the pura vida philosophy was immediate upon my arrival to Costa Rica when I realized my luggage had not made the connecting flight from Miami.  Silently kicking myself for not adhering to my usual protocol of traveling with all carry-on luggage, I walked with one of my professors (who, in the spirit of respectful anonymity, I will call Prof J) to the help desk to report my missing luggage.

“Hola.  Puedo ayudarlo?”  asked the young man at the help desk.

Years of high school French came flooding into my brain and it wouldn’t be the first time during the trip when I would open my mouth to respond in Spanish but French would threaten to come out.  I’m sure I looked pained as I stood staring wide-eyed, searching my brain for the Spanish equivalent of what I needed to say.

“Ho-la,” I spit out ungracefully and turned chagrined to Prof J.  He knew our itinerary (as well as Spanish) and would certainly be more effective in coordinating the delivery of my luggage.  After a few moments of conversation and a small bit of paperwork, we discovered my luggage was still in Miami and the gentleman at the help desk efficiently worked with us to get it back to me.

As we stood waiting for the printer to s-l-o-w-l-y churn out the multiple page receipt for my luggage, Prof J turned to me and said, “Pura vida.”

“What does that mean?”

“It is what it is.”

My general annoyance to the situation started to dissipate.  He was right.  I could choose in that moment to spend the next 3 days upset and annoyed or I could relax.  I acknowledged the foresight I had in packing a change of clothes in my carry-on and reminded myself that I was in a warm, welcoming country and not in control of anything except my own response to the situation.

So I accepted it: Pura vida.

WHERE WE STAYED: City Express Hotel

It was a fine hotel for our short stay in San Jose.  An easy drive, 5 minutes from the airport.  The rooms were clean and comfortable.  According to their website (noted below), it costs $98 per night for a double room.  The free breakfast was good as well: toast, eggs, fresh fruit, juices, rice and beans.  The only downside to the hotel stay was the required use of our room key in order to operate the elevator…

Hotel Room

Hotel Room

City Express San José Costa Rica

While I didn’t get a photo of it, the view from my shared room was a side-street view of San Jose and, in the distance, tall spires of a wind farm lined the edges of a far-away hill.

WHERE WE ATE: McDonald’s

Yes.  McDonald’s.

We had arrived in San Jose late at night and, much to the apologetic dismay of our tour hosts, all restaurants had closed.  Except one: McDonalds.  Dropping our luggage at our hotel, we made our way to McDonalds where I ordered the “Tico” Mc-Something Sandwich and enjoyed my first (albeit unauthentic) Costa Rican dish.

Note on a Lesson Well Learned.  My luggage was returned to me 3 days later and I was relieved to have access to clean clothes and flip flops; however, my husband will be happy to hear I had found myself much happier with less.  How easy it was to move between places with only my camera and a backpack of supplies.

Next post: We head to Savegre Valley and go on our first hike!

Adios Estados Unidos!

My name is Melissa (or “wife” as I’ve been referred in several of Cade’s blog posts).  In the spirit of wandering, your author has invited me to share with you my own wandering adventure: a 2-week short-term study abroad trip to Costa Rica.

I recently had the opportunity to leave my familial responsibilities in the very capable hands of my husband and take part in a 2-week study abroad course in Costa Rica.  Seeking out the best options to fulfill the “science with a lab” credit required by the University of Maine Farmington (where I have returned to continue my education), I found their aptly titled “Costa Rica Travel Course” and knew it would meet my needs.  An ecological study of the diversity of Costa Rica’s ecosystems, the course was also described as “playing with monkeys in the rainforest”.

Sign me up!!

The science credit and the benefit of getting out of Maine’s winter were both excellent reasons to take the course but I was most looking forward to the hands-on experience I would gain hiking and studying in the rain forest.  For years I had planned rain forest units for my preschoolers and while it is certainly possible to plan and execute a great unit through research, photos, books, and videos, the knowledge I hoped to gain through experience would add a level of richness and authenticity to what I share with my students.

So began my preparations! Two vaccinations: Typhoid and Hepatitis A (which cost me $300 because the travel clinic didn’t accept my insurance), Passport (about $150 and the first time I’ve ever had one…so exciting!), a series of textbook and article readings assigned by the two instructors leading the course, and the gathering and packing of my bags!!

Here’s what I brought on the trip:

Small, brown rolling suitcase (sized for carry-on, though I checked it) 6 pairs of shorts/capris, 3 pairs of pants, 1 pair of pajamas, Swimsuit and swim shirt, 14 tee-shirts/tank tops, 1 North Face rain jacket, 1 pair of flip flops, 1 pair of Keens, 1 pair of sneakers (which I wore to the airport), Bandana, Hat, Undergarments, and Socks IMG_8035

I also had a carry-on bag.  In it I had…

Cade’s camera and waterproof bag, My journal (required) and travel information (always prepared with itineraries and copies of my passport), Passport, Wallet, Textbook, Hand wipes (I’m a little crazy about going to bed with dirty feet and I didn’t know if we’d be camping), Hair bands, Sunglasses, Cellphone and charger, Headphones, Water bottle, Bug spray and sunscreen, First aid kit, Electrolyte tablets, One complete change of clothes (foresight which pays off), Water tablets, Lip balm, Pencil Bag, Medications, and a Toiletry bag.

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If I were to pack again, I would pack half of what I brought with me.  In fact, I may only pack what I could fit in my backpack.

But that’s a lesson I learn in my next post!