“A wise man travels to discover himself.”
― James Russell Lowell
It's a dark and misty morning as I trundle down the highway towards Minneapolis airport. I get there entirely too early…shades of Travel OCD, I think to myself…finding my way through security and to my gate in plenty of time. An hour an a half later, we're tucked into a relatively empty aircraft, each passenger essentially with their own private row.
I'm headed to Kansas City. Outside the window it's still dark and misty. As I remarked on an earlier column, it's reminiscent of the airfield at the end of Casablanca, only this is an unromanticised and chilly reality. The jet trundles down the runway gathering speed. It sways a bit before the telltale tilt that indicates we're leaving the tarmac. A light thunk as the rear wheels leave the ground and we're aloft. A slight wobble to the wings as the jet grabs air. And moments later, it seems, we ascend out of the dark mist, rising above the clouds into a spectacular sunrise. I move to the window seat and grab a few shots using my iPad. It captures, not unexpectedly, only a fraction of the beauty of pure sunlight across pristine white clouds.
2014 has been a year of great changes for me. I transitioned to a full time job that now affords me a great opportunity to hit the road or air on a regular basis. It was a year of adventures, spectacular views, excellent travel companions, a good bit of history, a dash of education and not a little bit of air time.
One of my favorite destinations, of course, is Las Vegas. There is a lot to do above and beyond the city's traditional role as Gambling Capital, and we indulged in a good chunk of fun with my sister and her husband as they journeyed out to California and Las Vegas for his birthday amidst a weeklong celebration. We indulged in a number of things, including Cirque du Soleil's Mystere -- the first and still one of my favorite Cirque shows -- and the most recent iteration of The Blue Man Group. My guess is that they enjoyed the latter a bit more, but both were impressive and fun. The drive back yielded the below picture of my brother-in-law in an area of the Mojave Desert known as The Devil's Playground. Rumor is he's still wandering around out there somewhere…
NEW MEXICO AND ARIZONA
Our second major trip of the year was in companionship with our longtime friends and newtime traveling companions Jim and Glenda. After many years of trying to schedule a trip together we finally managed to arrive at the same destination at the same time.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, has quickly instilled itself as one of our favorite destinations. Its innate beauty, ideal location, and easygoing lifestyle (with a heavily artistic bent) makes it "just one of those places", and assumes a status next to other long standing Favorite Destinations New York, Calistoga, Hanalei Bay, Vancouver, Sedona and Annapolis. While there we indulged in a new treat: sopapillas. Glenda introduced these to us and we spent a good portion of our time in NM "hunting" the perfect sopapilla. (We found several excellent examples.)
New Mexico has a deep history, particularly when it comes to Native American cultures. During this visit we took advantage of a couple of open days, traveling up the canyons to the beautiful art enclave of Taos -- but not for the art. We visited the millennium-old Taos Pueblo, a still-standing city within a city, kept as closely as possible to its natural pre-industrial state. It's possible to see artisans continuing to produce works in the classic manner, as well as try a few Native American breads and other items made the old-fashioned way. It's a highly educational site, visited with an open mind and willingness to understand an ancient and proud culture different from what we usually consider "our own".
Thematically similar, though with an entirely different form of presentation is the Bandolier National Monument, about an hour from Santa Fe and/or Taos. We discovered it nearly by accident. We had dropped Jim and Glenda off for a hike across a table mesa. The altitude prevented us from accompanying them, so we let them know we'd be back in an hour or so while we "checked out" the Bandolier listing on the map. Twenty or so minutes later were were in a beautiful land, following a curvy road through what I called the "swiss cheese" mountains. The entire area is a vast volcano, and much of the landscape is reflective of that sort of construction. As we arrived at an overlook, we could tell Bandolier was going to be something special. It's essentially a deep valley green oasis in the middle of the New Mexico northern mountains, with a lush green forest along the banks of the Bandolier River. The chief attraction is the abandoned Native American ruins, including a substantial example of cliff-dwelling residences along the north side of the canyon. Realizing we were up against a bit of a time deadline, we raced back down the highway, collected Jim and Glenda, dragging them back to our "discovery". Some shots of the area are below.
|Skies above Arizona
|The Sedona desert
The highlight of the trip, however -- if I may be permitted a small pun -- was the morning we floated majestically over the City of Albuquerque in a hot air balloon. This had been on our NOW list for some years and was finally, on this trip, accomplished. Being notoriously acrophobic I spent a few nervous moments, but shortly learned to enjoy it and even shot quite a few pictures and video of the adventure. There have been many attempts to describe the experience of hot air ballooning, but let me leave it as "you need to do it for yourself".
Following our time in Santa Fe, we left Jim and Glenda behind (they were flying back to LA) and drove back across the desert Southwest to Sedona for a couple of days. It seems that more and more our trips have an offroad element, and this visit was no different as we signed up for a Safari Jeep Offroading tour which took us to a fairly remote area west of town. It was a really enjoyable (if slightly backbreaking) adventure. I recorded a video of the tour, a short portion of which you can see here, including the at-times hysterical narration from our driver/guide:
|View from the U.S.S. Midway
June found me in the midst of a job transition which, eventually, would feed my passion for travel considerably. But during the transition my wife and I spent a few days in San Diego for our anniversary. Intended as just a short distance vacation it definitely fulfilled our need to "get away". This is something I've been harping on for years: getting away doesn't require a long journey, it can be just a couple hours down the road in a completely different place. The change of scenery can be all that you need, but still secure in the knowledge you can be home shortly should the need occur. In this case we discovered San Diego's Gaslamp District and Old Town areas, both of which are excellent ways to spend some time blowing off steam. The Gaslamp is more of a party atmosphere, not unlike Bourbon Street in New Orleans though cleaner and without alcohol being spilled/consumed in the streets. Old Town, on the other hand, is a more subdued cultural experience with a Mexican flair to it (San Diego, and all of California, were once a large part of Mexico).
As my work travel ramped up -- return trips to Albuquerque, Las Vegas and San Diego, multiple trips to Phoenix, and one each to Tucson, El Paso, Carlsbad and Austin -- our personal travel decreased a bit temporarily.
|The so-called "False Creek" at sunset
In October we headed up to British Columbia for a few days in Whistler and Vancouver. This visit demonstrated my long held theory that day trips -- escorted professional tours -- can be useful in determining future destinations. In this case we had been on exactly such a trip to Whistler four years prior and made a mental note to get back at some point. This was it, and we thoroughly enjoyed the time spent there. The shoulder season isn't usually the best time to visit, but the weather not only held but was spectacular. We took not one but TWO offloading trips, exploring some of the rugged countryside surrounding Whistler looking for bears (didn't see any) and a sunset trip up the vast Backcomb Mountain to watch dusk from the top of the peak. Just an amazing sight.
|Sunset atop Blackcomb
From an educational standpoint you cannot be in this part of the world without a nod to the First Nations cultures. We spent some quality time at the Squamish Cultural Center in town, gaining an appreciation for the culture and heritage these people can offer our history -- a nice complement to our earlier experiences in Taos and Bandolier. There is a tremendous history in these peoples that most Americans view through the lens of Hollywood, and worth a second look to better appreciate our own culture and the land we inhabit.
Vancouver, on the other hand, was as much fun as always. This reinforced our love of the city quite a bit, convincing us it is on the short list when and if I ever get the chance to retire. On this trip we took advantage of the end--of-October timing and spent a really fun evening at the Haunted Train event in Stanley Park.
November is certainly well ahead in the running as my most heavily traveled month ever. Getting home from BC was followed just a week later by a short business jump over to Phoenix, then a much longer trip up to North Dakota, Minnesota and Kansas City. The morning after I got home from KC we were off again on a personal trip to Annapolis for the Thanksgiving holiday. That entailed side trips to Alexandria, Washington and a day trip up to Gettysburg -- where neither my wife nor I had been before -- to pay respects to the fallen (picture left).
I've mentioned the destinations above, but for a quick recap: San Diego, San Fancisco; Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, El Paso: Carslbad, NM: Austin: Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota; Fargo, Belcourt, Devil's Lake (all North Dakota); Kansas City and Overland, KS.
December is finishing the year out nicely with a two day business visit to Seattle, and later today I'm headed up to Sacramento for a short overnight meeting.
All in all, a massive year on the road, full of adventure, full of fun and certainly one which was worth the effort. Looking forward to 2014, in which we already have planned the next trip to Las Vegas, a couple of weeks in Hawaii and a three week sojourn Down Under.
Stay tuned, it ought to be a rocking' year!
Thank you all for following and continuing to read The Thumbnail Traveler.
Happy New Year, and may 2014 take you where you want to go.