Category Archives: Travel

Last Minute Road Trip: Land of Enchiladas

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We were a little bummed last week when we found out our friends had a family emergency and we would have to cancel our trip down to Santa Fe for the weekend. Since we’d already scheduled time off from work for that Friday, we started thinking about alternative things to do or places to go.

With a clean slate, pretty much everything was in play. I scoured the internet travel sites looking for cheap airfare to places like Portland, Phoenix, Spokane, Boise and a couple of others but nothing popped out as a screamer deal. We considered staying put and getting some early season skiing here in Colorado since the some of the resorts have opened their “white ribbon of death” (one trail open with hundreds of people jamming it) but that held about as much appeal as it does every season. Moab sounded pretty good too until we found out that some kind of testosterone laden motorhead event was going on so that was quickly crossed off the list. We also thought about Jackson Hole but it was pretty cold and windy up there and we could easily get that down here.

After a couple of days of thinking about it, we finally decided we’d just do a mini road trip to Taos. We hadn’t done a trip down there in a while, it was close at only about 4.5 hours away, we could ride mountain bikes on warm, uncrowded trails, it was a ‘tweener season so the town wouldn’t be jammed with people working themselves into a turquoise buying frenzy and we could get our fill of New Mexican fare, which we were really looking forward to in our original plan. We thought we definitely had a winner!

We thought about camping but came to the conclusion we wanted “not cold”. We called around looking for cheap places to stay and discovered that because it was in fact the ‘tweener season, some of the places we’ve stayed in the past were closed. Then the idea of staying at the Taos Inn hit us. We’ve had an embarrassing number of margaritas in the Adobe Bar and heard countless bands there over the years, but only now realized we’d never actually stayed in a room there. Fortunately there were plenty of discounted rooms available so we booked a couple of nights, loaded the bikes and readied our GI systems for a weekend in the Land of Enchiladas.

The majority of the drive down to New Mexico from the Boulder Valley is pretty dull. First you have to fight your way through Denver, then there is the Indianapolis 500-esque, free-for-all stretch of highway between Denver and the Springs followed by the 100-year highway construction projects in the Springs proper. From the Springs on down to Walsenberg, where we turn west to take the back roads into Taos, it is pancake flat, barren and always windy…always, always windy. We had all day to get there so we decided from the start to kick back, dial up the iPod, drive in the slow lane and let the relaxing commence from the time we backed out of our driveway.

Let me clarify that the relaxing part actually started once we left REI where I had to buy a new lockset for our bike rack. I guess the last time I took my bike rack off, I laid the hitch mount’s lockset on my bumper and forgot about it. I’m sure it fell off somewhere along my route to work one morning and now it’s lost forever. I wish I could say this was the first time this has happened, but I can’t.

Once we got off of I-25 in Walsenburg and headed due west, we were immediately reminded why we love escaping to the desert from time to time. The sun was starting its final descent for the day and the colours of the desert, normally muted in the harsh midday sun, started to explode and the optical kaleidoscope commenced. It’s always a toss-up whether the sunsets or the food is the biggest allure of road tripping to New Mexico. Instead of debating that question for very long, we feasted solely on the sunset for the next hour knowing that the food and beverage part was not too far away.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the first thing we ate that evening was an appetizer of rattlesnake and rabbit sausage with a chipotle sultana sauce! Dee-freakin-licious. This of course was washed down with what Doc Martin’s Restaurant calls their “Perfect Margarita”…and it was. We won’t mention how many we had, but I will say they were all indeed “perfect”. Great food, great live music, great company…great day all around.

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I’m always stunned by the lack of people on hiking or mountain biking trails in New Mexico. I’ve ridden down there many, many times and seldom have I ever seen more than two or three people during a full day’s ride. It’s not like the riding is terrible either…it’s actually AMAZING. Maybe people are too interested in buying cheap turquoise trinkets to hop on a bike and explore the landscape? People certainly aren’t shy about packing the ski areas, but hiking and biking trails go pretty much unnoticed. I’m definitely not complaining here.

As we figured, there were only two other cars at the trailhead when we showed up at 10:30 a.m. This was late for us but we’d been busy stuffing our yaps with delicious huevos rancheros at the Bent Street Café while we waited for the temps to warm up. Keeping with our “just relax” theme for the weekend, we took our time getting our things ready knowing there was no need to beat the rush or worry about fighting through the throngs of other bikers on the trails. Also, before we left Colorado, I had realized that this ride would be my 100th ride of the season and I couldn’t think of a better way or place to commemorate it.

I love desert riding in and around Taos. Typically there are no long, protracted, painful, high altitude climbs like here in the Central Rockies. It’s still usually fairly warm during the day and even as people are skiing just a few miles away, I can generally still ride in shorts and a light jacket. And unlike riding in the desert around Moab and Fruita (which I love), riding around Taos and Santa Fe isn’t generally overly rocky, which can turn a half day on the trails into an exhaustion-fest. I’m not saying there aren’t some techy areas where you need to be on your game, but a lot of the trails out west of town are pretty straightforward, low stress riding.

We wound up only riding about 12 or so miles in and around the Taos Overlook Trail System. The Rift Trail, rated easy to moderate, pretty much encircles the entire area, with various other trails intertwined within it. I’d never ridden there specifically so was pretty excited to check it out. While riding we saw a grand total of one mountain biker (cool local guy named Roland), two hikers, one cute dog (named Moxxy), one bighorn sheep, one tarantula, a Redtail hawk, some mutant-sized crows, an ocean of sage, an epic view of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristos to the east, mind-blowing views into the Rio Grande Gorge and a bluebird blue sky that was immense beyond comprehension. It’s just crazy how places like this aren’t jam packed with mountain bikers and hikers, especially on such a typically beautiful New Mexico day. Again, no complaints whatsoever.

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For us, there is no outdoor activity in Taos complete without a stop at Orlando’s New Mexican Café afterward. We’ve been to Taos more times than we can count and eaten at tons of places, but Orlando’s is by far our favourite — bar none, hands down. Orlando’s has a genuinely friendly staff, consistently amazing home style, authentic, non-froofy food and a relaxed atmosphere perfect for reliving a day on the bike or skis. You may have to wait a few minutes for a table since it’s a small place with limited seating, but you can always grab a beer and sit out by the fire pit while you relax and make a new friend or two.

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We love New Mexico but it’s always good to get back home to Colorado. Although we didn’t get to see our friends, this little unexpected mini road trip turned out to be exactly what we needed to shake clean the Etcho-Sketch of daily life. Slow pace, no plans, no timetables, no stress, fun mountain biking, plenty of green chiles, tasty margaritas and a little touch of the funkiness of Taos.  Adios por ahora Nueva Mexico, pero nos vemos pronto.

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Travel light, climb high, ski hard, pedal far, live simply.

Ready, Set, Go.

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I spent some time this morning talking to my friend Jason about a trip we’ve been working for quite a while, a long while in fact. Needless to say it’s to a place that’s been high on our list or we wouldn’t have expended all this time and effort trying to make it work.

We could certainly throw a wad of cash at some well-known “adventure” company (which is essentially an oxymoron), but that’s not our style. We prefer to come up with an idea then figure out every aspect on our own, but without over-planning the hell out of it. That way, from start to finish, we own it. Like building a bike — if you build it from the ground up, every pedal stroke will have a personal investment in it because you own the entire experience.

In a nutshell, our trip outline started like this:

–          Turn up at the airport

–          Fly as far as we can

–          Take a bus

–          Walk the rest of the way

–          Experience

That plan was all fine and good but what we found was that airfare was insanely expensive to our destination of choice and wasn’t getting any cheaper. The airfare alone was close to the entire cost of our two months of travel in South Asia. Week after week I’ve been trying to connect the dots in different ways through different hubs here in the States, but the results were always the same, too expensive. It seriously got to the point where we had to start thinking that maybe the trip wouldn’t go off this year after all and we’d have to resort to Plan B. Sure, we could simply choke down the cost of the airfare and go anyhow, but we wanted to stay honest to our travel style and not just sell out to “easy”. By the way, Plan B was not all that bad!

Anyhow, our proposed departure date is coming up fast and we needed to make some serious decisions, pronto. That said, I recently started pondering my approach to our airfare search and realized that maybe I’d been walking too straight of a line with my thinking. Independent international travel requires us to think outside the box almost every minute of the day and when we do that, we can make things happen on the fly that probably we’d thought impossible before. Why we don’t think that way when we’re home is a mystery.

I can vividly remember me and  Jason having a conversation with a lady in Nepal who was traveling with a tour group (I think it was Backroads). She told us there was no way she could just pack up and come to Nepal and start “traveling” on her own. First of all, yes she could. To do so though, she’d have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to think outside the box (again, almost by the minute), be willing to “let go” of control and be willing to learn something about herself. Linear thinking and self imposed limiations are definitely not your friends when traveling solo.

I honestly think trying to find air transportation after being back in a comfortable, in-the-box routine sort of led me down the path of NOT truly thinking creatively. With the balance of the whole trip now teetering on how creative I could be, I basically just set the box on fire and get serious about it.

The result? I managed to save us almost $600 per roundtrip ticket is what! Yes, now we may have to spend a night or two in DF or BOG coming and going, but added mini adventures in non-planned foreign cities has never been a bad thing in our world.

Getting back outside the box, flexing that adaptive travel mentality and coming up with a viable travel solution definitely gets my travel adrenaline flowing again. Certainly doesn’t help my work motivation or focus, but it definitely gets me excited! It almost makes 30+ hours of air travel seem fun, well, at least tolerable.

Tickets, passports, backpacks, open minds…ready, set, go.

Travel light, climb high, ski hard, pedal far, live simply.

“I am sorry sir, there is a problem”

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I’ve really been missing international travel lately. Of course I miss international travel anytime I’m not actually traveling internationally, but I seem to be in a real funk about it lately. Whatever the reason, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about all the trials, tribulations, adventures and downright comical things that have happened during my prior travels. Thinking about that of course just makes the withdrawals worse. Such a viscous cycle. Fortunately I’ll be traveling again in the not too distant future and can break that annoying cycle!

Something I always love about recounting previous travel experiences is the fact that the things I remember most are never the “big” things I expected to remember before I left. Instead, I always treasure those little moments along the way that made me laugh or something that touched me in a way that changed the way I saw the world.

One thing Jason and I learned in very short order was that nothing will happen the way you think it will in Nepal, nothing. Even while traveling around Mexico, Europe, South America and other Asian countries, things don’t tend to happen exactly the way you think they will. Well, Nepal and India can take it to an entirely new and unattainable level of lunacy. If you don’t have a good sense of humour and some legitimate patience, it can be downright maddening and your trip will be nothing more than an exercise in frustration. If you do have those things, which fortunately we do, it will definitely make for some of the best experiences and most entertaining stories you’ll ever have. I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated or laughed so hard as during my times spent in Nepal and India.

The first thing we learned when we landed in Kathmandu was that regardless of what you want or need, there will be a problem, that’s a guarantee.

For example, once we collected our backpacks from the carousel inside the terminal, we exited and immediately had to sort through a rabble of aggressive taxi drivers to secure one that seemed reasonably safe. When I say safe, that’s relative because there is no such thing as a safe driver in Nepal. Then comes the price negotiation portion of the transaction whereupon you suggest a price, he suggests a price, you counter, he confers with the other forty drivers intently listening in to the negotiations and then comes back with another counter offer. You counter again, he counters again while his team of syndicators await, and finally you somewhat agree.

Once the price is set, there is joyous discussion amongst the other drivers (spoken in Hindi or Nepali), and then you begin to think you just got screwed.  You think that until you realize you just spent ten or fifteen minutes negotiating this guy down a total of USD $0.10 for a half hour taxi ride. Regardless, within seconds you and your backpack are unceremoniously packed into a taxi about the size of a medium sized ottoman. Oh, and lest we forget that some other dude will invariably get in the taxi, someone who was never part of the negotiations.

One driver, one mystery guest, two passengers, one mechanically challenged taxi the size of a nightstand, two oversized backpacks stuffed with climbing gear, no command of the language whatsoever, all in a chaotic city you have absolutely no clue how to navigate…yeah, awesome situation.

So, once we were stuffed into the taxi like sausages, we repeated our request to be taken to an intersection in some neighbourhood we could barely pronounce where we think we can find a hostel. That was our first introduction to the phrase we affectionately came to simultaneously love and loathe for the next couple of months…”I am sorry sir, there is a problem”.

The “problem” was naturally multifaceted. First, we were told that there were no hostels in the area we requested. This was bogus and we knew it, or sort of knew it. Okay, we hoped there was. There, I said it.

We firmly restated our request to be dropped off at that intersection. It took some time but we finally made it clear where we wanted to go, and that he would take us there, or we would get out. Getting out was certainly a crappy plan B, but it’s what we had.

Then, we had the problem of having to drop off this mystery passenger before we got dropped off. Not surprisingly, our mystery passenger was a would-be “trekking guide” and we needed to stop by his shop so we could be convinced that we could not travel anywhere in Nepal without his services. Bogus. Once again we insisted that we be taken to our intersection or else we’d get out.

We finally got to where we thought we needed to be and got out — only to be accosted by another regimen of aggressive taxi drivers ready to repeat the process.

Hostels, always a problem. Bus travel, always a problem. Everything is a problem. The Nepali people are always rather nice, but there are always those words, regardless of what we did…“I am sorry sir, there is a problem”. After two months of travel in Nepal we became very accustomed to things always being a problem. In fact, problems were so frequent it got to a point where they weren’t really a problem anymore.

As we neared the end of our stay in Nepal, we were back in the Kathmandu Valley (though not staying in Kathmandu proper) and decided that we wanted to go back to a little café in the city we’d found in our first few days in the country. We liked it because they brewed real coffee and NOT Nescafe, though we’d disturbingly grown to love Nescafe over time. There was also a little Tibetan bookstore right next door to the café and we wanted to hit that up one more time to exchange some of our books before we left for India.

The way meals are sometimes served in Nepal are in “sets”. You can get a Nepali “set” which usually consists of dahl, rice, saag, naan, curry and various other things. Basically a “set” is like ordering one of those value meal things from a Wendy’s or Burger King or something similar. Essentially you get certain foods all bundled up for a reduced price instead of having to order everything separately. The most interesting set we encountered was in up northwest Nepal when we saw a sandwich board proudly advertising the offering of a “Vagitarian Set”. We obviously knew it meant vegetarian, but that one had us both in stitches, and we knew we had to go in and have it.

Well, our little café there in Kathmandu offered something called an American Set. The meal consisted of two eggs served any style, bacon (I hoped was some kind of pork), toast, sausage (again, I hoped it was pork), the always misspelled hasbrowns (hashbrowns) and a large pot of black coffee. A large pot as defined in Nepal was about as big as a Vente sized cup from Starbucks. The food there had been consistently good, the service was always friendly and they had a little outside area where we could sit, write and watch the madness in the streets of Kathmandu unfold. Oh, the entire meal for both of us was around USD $5.

When we went inside this time we immediately noticed the waiter had changed. This wasn’t a huge surprise given that we’d been gone a while, but we were a little disappointed since we’d sort of gotten to know the person who worked there before and he would always recognize us when we came in and knew what we wanted before we even asked. It was kind of a nice to have a “family” of sorts there since we were so far from home.

Anyhow, the new guy was also very, very nice and just as welcoming. We ask if we could sit outside, which of course we could, and just like always, there were only about two or three other local people eating there. Keep in mind the entire place probably seated around ten at most.

We got situated and the super nice new guy comes over, greets us with the customary “Namaste” and asked us in very broken English if we’d like tea. We returned the pleasantry and instead ordered our large pot of coffee, the very reason we’d come back. He smiled, said “very good sir” and off he went.

When he returned with our coffee he asked if we were ready to order our food, again, in very broken English. We told him we’d each take the American Set. Here’s where things went off track, just like we knew it was destined to do.

Keep in mind that the American set featured two eggs, any style. Jason ordered the American Set and requested wheat toast, his only special request. I also ordered the American Set, but I requested scrambled eggs and wheat toast. Our waiter was genuinely delighted, scribbled something down on a  small sheet of paper, smiled his enormous smile which showed all his pearly white teeth, bowed slightly, said “Very good sir!”, and off he went to put in our order.

About five minutes later, I could see our waiter making his way from the kitchen area back to our table. His mannerism told me straight away there was going to be a problem. His shoulders were slouched, his head hung low and his pace was slow and shuffling. He honestly looked as if he was coming to tell me my favourite pet had been run over by one of those sketchy taxis. Clearly there was grim news and he was none too amped about delivering it.

Waiter: “I am sorry sir, there is a problem”, he said with a sincerely apologetic tone.

Me: “Oh, really, what is it?”, I replied, trying to act surprised.

Waiter: “The egg sir. We no have skamble egg”.

He was honestly upset and I seriously tried to look concerned and sympathetic and not laugh.

Me: “Oh, well, huh, let me see”.

I looked over the menu for several seconds before coming with an alternate plan to help everyone save face.

Me: “Do you have eggs?”, I asked as if I didn’t already know the answer.

Waiter: “Yes sir!” he said very excitedly.

Me: “Then I’ll have eggs!”, I replied just as excitedly.

Waiter: “Very good sir! Yes, very good sir!”

And with that he literally ran back to the kitchen to inform the cook of the revised order.

Jason and I both immediately knew the problem was that he didn’t know the word “scramble” and we felt bad that he was put in such an uncomfortable situation. For us, it was just another normal transaction in Nepal, but he was clearly embarrassed and sad that things were amiss. Like 99.9% of the people we’d met, he’d been so incredibly nice to us and there was no way we were going to further his dilemma or embarrassment by trying to explain what scramble meant.

Admittedly, we were both curious to know exactly what he wrote down for “scramble” on that piece of paper when I’d originally ordered! And we could only imagine the discussion that ensued back in the kitchen!

When I got my American Set I indeed had two eggs (I assumed from a chicken), both of which had essentially been cremated. This was exactly as I’d had them countless times in the cafes, monasteries and teahouses all over Nepal. I was happily stoked with my fried eggs, Jason was stoked with his fried eggs, our slices of mystery meat looked as amazing as always, the waiter was proud to have served such a wonderful meal, we were stoked that he was stoked, Jason and I got another good laugh, everyone was smiling…no problem!

While we waited another two hours for the bookstore to open, we drank great coffee, wrote in our journals, talked about all those little experiences in Nepal, and as frustrating as it had been to travel there, we became a little melancholy at the thought we’d be leaving in a few days. Most notably, while were sitting there we were genuinely treated as if we were family. We got to practice our Nepali/Hindi with our waiter and he asked to practice his English. It was actually kind of sad to leave our little café knowing we wouldn’t be back there during our travels.

I think those are the things I’m missing most right now. Those little things we can only experience when traveling internationally that really mean nothing, but mean everything at the same time. I love adapting to other cultural methods, systems and ways. I love all the trials and tribulations of learning a new language and trying to apply it in different situations. I also love playing charades when the language skills fall short! And I love building families all over the world through those little offbeat interactions.

It’s amazing what a little patience, acceptance and a simple “thank you”, “gracias”, “merci”, “kop khun kha” or “dhanybhad” can do for making new friends and bringing a collective smile to our planet. I have no problem with that.

Namaste.

Travel light, ski hard, pedal far, live big.

A Fine Red Line.

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After two days in Kata, Thailand, Donna and I had seen enough. Our brief travel diversion to this SE Asian version of Cancun wasn’t a complete bust, but almost. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, incredibly beautiful, but even during off season it was crowded with tourists. And nothing was as cheap as we’d become accustomed to in the rest of Thailand.

We sat in our little room to escape the sweltering heat, humidity and torrential rains, and after a little research decided to leave the next day and head on over to Rai Leh. The entire reason for coming to Southern Thailand in the first place was to climb and see why every climbing publication ever printed touted it as a “must do” destination.

We’d caught a cheap flight from Bangkok to Phuket (USD $40 one way) but really hadn’t thought much about how to get across the Andaman Sea to Rai Leh until right then. Some friends back here in the US had told us a ferry was the only way to go. Fast and cheap they’d said, no worries.

We consulted our Rough Guide as to where we’d need to go the next morning to catch one of those fast and cheap ferries, which turned out to be about an hour ride in a sketchy ass Toyota Hilux pickup converted into a taxi…otherwise known as a songthaew. There were actually some decent looking ones around, ours didn’t happen to be one of them. Anyhow, the worst part was having to pay about USD $15/each, which paying that amount for just about anything in Thailand is bordering on absurd in our opinion. The driver was nice (as always) so we kind of blew it off.

We got to the ferry station and stood in the queue to buy tickets with a pretty large group of rude tourists, almost all who were heading out for tours to some of the more popular islands. The large pushy group dynamic didn’t agree with us much, but this was the means for us to get somewhere else, so we endured. Once we got to the window to purchase our tickets, the plan made an abrupt change. It seems they wanted USD $125 for the 2.0 hour ride via jet catamaran!

Whaaaaaat? We immediately stepped out of line and hit the reset button. Where was that fast and cheap part? We scoured the fare board posted on the wall and sure enough, regardless of what ferry line we took, it was going to be pricey. We then sat, dug out our Rough Guide and initiated Plan B which could be found under the title, “Other Modes of Transportation”.

We quickly discovered there was the option to take a local bus, our normal option if available anywhere we travel, but that would take roughly 4-7 hours (yes, a nice tight schedule) and could be “an experience” as the the book described it. The bus depot was a short tuk-tuk ride away so we threw our backpacks in and went to check it out.

The first thing I noticed was there were only about three Thai people in the entire depot and not one sign posting the fares to various towns and villages was written in English. The lettering was beautiful for sure, but pretty useless to us. Undeterred as always, we approached the ticketing window and told the attendant of our desire to get to at least Krabi or Ao Nang. From there we’d have to figure out other modes of transport, but that appeared as close as the bus would get us. From there we’d just figure it out.

For the three minutes prior to approaching the attendant, I practiced how to ask for a ticket in the native Thai dialect. In the three seconds following that attempt, I knew I had horrifically failed to execute the request as the stunned attendant blankly stared at me as if I’d suddenly grown a third eye. New plan, get out the map and just point.

The attendant smiled, said “yes, yes!” and immediately started scribbling letters on a little blue sheet of paper as I clumsily sifted through my wad of baht to pay for the ticket. All of a sudden, we looked and noticed our bags were not there! Oh sh#$%!! Then Donna saw a guy loading them on a bus. She ran out to make sure they didn’t drive away without us, while I anxiously finished the transaction.

Armed with two pieces of blue paper, I ran out of the terminal to Donna to make sure everything was okay. Fortunately our bags were on the right bus! Whew. The bus she was standing by was painted with so many bright colours it was close to giving me a seizure, which sort of help take the edge off my anxiety about the bags.

The same guy who had loaded our bags turned out to be the boarding attendant, bag handler, chef du cuisine at the nearby pad thai cart, station petrol pumper, the bus’s guest services ambassador and yes, our driver. We were still reeling a bit from the thought of our two backpacks going on a potential walkabout until he smiled, bowed, vigourously shook our hands and welcomed us onto the kaleidoscope that was his bus.

Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes…prease on”, directing us to get on.

So awesome. We knew right then we’d made the right choice.

There were three things we noticed upon boarding. First was the fact that we were the only Westerners aboard, perfect. Two, the advertised “luxury air conditioned service” consisted of what could be described as an ancient GE Window Unit sticking out of the rear section of the bus. Given the oppressive heat and humidity of Thailand, this was a concerning development. And third, and most importantly, was the circa 1960s television precariously mounted above the driver’s head blasting a Thai music video at a volume level equivalent to a jumbo jet. Nevertheless, the tightly schedule 4-7 hour bus ride to Krabi cost us USD $6 total and it had the all the markings of a good adventure, so we were in it for the duration.

Before the bus pulled away, Donna asked if I’d looked at a map to see what route we’d be taking. Uh, no. I think between the confusion of actually purchasing the tickets and the gut wrenching episode of turning around and seeing our bags not there, I really hadn’t had a chance to further flex my brilliant command of the language and inquire. I then dug our well worn map out and began looking.

From the recognizable towns listed on our ticket, I traced our route on the map along a long, thin red line which had no more than 1mm distance of straight lines for the entire distance. Our reaction to that was that air conditioner better work or it could make for a very long, very queasy day.

Thankfully the air conditioner thing kind of worked, kind of. The video we discovered, was an old VHS tape on “loop mode” so we had the pleasure of hearing one song, at those jumbo jet level decibels, repeat every 6-8 minutes…for six hours. We also discovered there was an official ticket taker on the bus. This was probably the most curious thing of our entire travels in Thailand. When the bus initially pulled out, he walked through and inspected everyone’s ticket, some people paying him right then, which seemed odd because we had to go through the ticketing attendant, but nothing out of the ordinary really. Then, inexplicably between stops, he would randomly walk through and inspect everyone’s ticket again. I can understand after we’d stopped to pick up or drop off passengers, but no, this happened randomly between stops for the entire trip, sometimes two or three times between stops. This was his job and he was obviously quite proud of it. Bravo him!

True to the squiggly lines depicted on the map, the road never straightened out for more than a quarter of mile. That fact didn’t seem to register with the driver because I can’t really recall him ever hitting the brakes other than at bus stops, both the designated ones and random ones. The bus would lean so much at times going around corners the windows beside us would form gaps around their perimeter from the twisting of the fuselage, and I’m not even kidding.

The air horns, all of them, worked beautifully. Any pedestrian within 100 meters of the road would receive the full, eight horn fury of the Kaleidoscope bus. And every time he would pull the string to blast some poor farmer back into his field, I would almost jump out of my skin. Judging by the driver’s frequent glances in our direction via his mirror, I began to think he was trying to impress us with his driving skills. We couldn’t decide whether he was the crappiest driver on the face of the earth, or the best. Whatever it was, he was at least confident and always had a smile.

We made lots of stops along the way, sometimes in amazingly picturesque villages. The way the local scheduling seemed to work is the driver would lay down on the horn as he approached the villages and people would know that “it’s time”. Anarchy would always ensue as soon as the bus would stop. People would simultaneously get on and off the bus amongst pure and unfiltered, mass chaos. Then, once the people getting off were off and the people getting on were on, we’d sit for a half hour…with the air conditioner turned off. However, that was 100% okay with us because in each village, a vendor would get on the bus and sell little cups of sorbet! It was like pure heaven in a cup! I think we became legends because we’d buy three or four each at every stop! For less than USD $0.05, it was the deal of the day! That’s the Thailand we were accustomed to, not what we’d just left in Phuket.

After a full day of travel, dozens of ticket “verifications”, about a gallon of lychee sorbet (each) and no less than 400 loops of that mind numbing Thai pop music video, we finally pulled into the Krabi bus terminal. It was a collection of dilapidated buildings complete with a food cart serving pad thai, a 1970s vintage soda box and an adjoining field full of other Kaleidoscope bus carcasses. We both had to laugh when we looked up and saw a sign on the side of a building, written in English, which read DON’T PANIC. That made us both laugh out loud. Obviously others without a good sense of humour and sense of adventure had passed this way before.

Once we got off the bus we were welcomed by the customary wave of tuk-tuk, songthaew and taxi drivers wanting to take us to our next destination. “Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you!” was the coined phrase even though they had no idea where we wanted to go.

From our research during the NASCAR worthy bus ride, we had concluded we needed to somehow get to “the pier”. That was it, that’s all the info we had…“the pier”. We knew that was the way things worked so we sorted through the phalanx of drivers, made our selection based on nothing in particular and confidently requested, “the pier”.

Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you pier, 40 baht! Korp kun kha”.  (40 baht was about a $1 at the time)

And with that we got in a nice young guy’s rickety little taxi, along with his daughter and I assume his dog, and pulled onto yet another thin red line.

Forty five minutes later we arrived at “the pier” just as he promised. We knew this because there was a sign that read, “The Pier”. Another 45 minute in a longtail boat and we found ourselves in Rai Leh, with very few other people, a cold Singha beer in hand, sitting on one of the prettiest beaches on the planet.

Travel on a thin red line…I say $6 well spent.

Oh, the climbing? Yeah, “must do”.

The Less I Have.

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Me with my Lowe Alpine Countour IV on a climbing trip in the Bugaboos (Canada)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been assessing a lot of things. Some of those things include where I am and where I want to go. This isn’t something new for me since I’m generally in a constant state of living the dream and fully accept that not all paths we think we’ll take are the ones we’ll actually walk. If you really think about it, can any of us say with complete honesty we’re exactly where we thought we’d be 20 years ago? I’m sure as hell not, but that’s not a bad thing in my world.

One thing I’ve never been a big believer in is that “things” equal success. I think it’s kinda sad that most people see it that way though. Ads bombard us constantly telling us how much our lives suck without their products. To get these products we must have a better job. To have a better job we have to sacrifice our free time. When we sacrifice our free time we eventually miss it and look for ways to get more of it. Sadly, we’ve been trained to think that technological gizmos and more stuff will make our lives easier and give us more free time. In reality, we have to work harder to afford those gizmos, thus taking away from that free time. It’s a stupid cycle and one I played for a short while right after attending university. Fortunately I saw the viciousness of the vortex pulling me down before it was too late and I swam to shore — and have been there since.

If you saw the cell phone I carry, you’d probably be appalled. Hell, most six year olds would be appalled! Most everything I have is well used. Why? I am a firm believer that when I buy something it needs to have a purpose and I’m willing to use it until it’s no longer useful, even if it’s not the “latest”. To use my phone as an example, I bought it to make calls and to have when people want to call me. Crazy huh? As old and low-tech as it is, it still allows me to make calls and every once in a blue moon, it will buzz and voila!, there is someone is on the other end who wants to talk to me. I love this science fictiony type stuff!

Now I’m not very tech savvy, but I’d be willing to bet my words wouldn’t travel through cyber space any faster, nor would the words of my friends get to me any faster if I had the latest, and most expensive iPhone. And if those words did get to me 1,000,000 nanoseconds faster, would it really be worth spending hundreds of dollars for the privilege of simply being able to tell me friends about it? Apple wants you to think so but it’s just not all that important to me.

Anyhow, in this process of thinking about the path ahead, I naturally thought about what necessities I should take with me. Since I love to travel as much as I do, my very first thought was that I needed to significantly lighten the load. If you’ve ever schlepped a backpack around while traveling, you know the value of packing light! You learn quickly to take the minimum. However, I’ve seen people get out of taxis and watched a dumbstruck cabbie unload a mountain of suitcases onto the curb. Traveling that way is certainly not efficient and truth be told, is sort of stupid. If you “need” that much stuff to travel, then maybe you don’t need to travel. Obviously the ads I mentioned above work on some people.

Donna and I aren’t the types to accumulate a lot of stuff, but in the course of living things seem to pile up. Like magic, one day you walk into your basement and are puzzled how it got so cluttered. There is no way I could’ve accumulated all that stuff, but yet, it happens. Okay, a lot of mine is super important gear, but still…

I procrastinated for a couple of weeks, thinking I should start the process of sifting through some of it and downsizing the fleet, but I just couldn’t bring myself to start. So, instead of forcing it, I let the idea simmer, thinking about my reasoning and trying to understand exactly how that accumulation occurred in the first place. More importantly, I wanted to understand why now was the right time to cast away some of the weight! Then, early one evening I went to the basement with a strong sense of detachment and got started.

The hardest part is starting. The next hardest part is stopping! Once I got rolling everything was being considered for elimination. If I hadn’t used it in a year, it got strong consideration. Two years meant immediately it was out the door. Although I use most of my gear a lot, I was still a tad surprised how much I had accumulated over the years. But I was committed so everything was given unbiased review.

When I got to my collection of backpacks, I soldiered on with my cause despite becoming a little more emotional about the items. One backpack in particular, a Lowe Alpine Contour IV 90+15, made me stop, sit in the floor and think about the process in a different way.

You see, a backpack has always been my symbol of freedom and simplicity. When traveling internationally, it’s all I’ll take with me. It’s simple and easy to carry through airports, on busses, tuk-tuks or simply walking from one place to another.

When Jason and I were bumming around South Asia for a couple of months, we had everything we “needed” in our  backpacks (mine being the aforementioned Lowe Alpine one). And for two months we lacked for nothing. Other than a new book or a trinket here or there, we lived with what we had. We’d sometimes trade a couple of books at local bookstores for a new one because we either didn’t have room in the packs or simply didn’t want to carry the weight. We seriously kept it about as simple as you can imagine. By keeping it simple we were able to move around freely and efficiently and always according to the compass of our imagination. Living the simplistic lifestyle of a backpacker is ultimate freedom. Being free allowed us to see things we might not otherwise have seen. Seeing those things facilitated emotional and spiritual growth like I’d never imagined. Another viscious cycle…but a beautiful cycle in this instance.

So, as I contemplated that Lowe Alpine backpack for downsizing, I wondered whether I should just keep it. After all, it had well over 100,000 miles of sentimental value wrapped up in it. But then I looked on the floor around me and saw that I had about six other backpacks of all different shapes, colours and sizes and I was immediately refocused on reducing the weight of having more than I need. I thought it ironic that my symbol of freedom was also something that could be construed as an anchor. In the end the backpack was put in the pile to be listed on eBay.

I’m still in the midst of this downsizing process. Clothes, shoes, tools, cameras, lenses and everything else inside the walls of my house is getting scrutinized and the listings on eBay and Craigslist are growing accordingly. I thought this process might sometimes make me sad or I’d feel pangs of regret, but in actuality it’s making me feel better and more ready to set course for the adventures ahead. I always claim to be a simple guy with simple tastes and simple needs and perhaps my absence of regret in this downsizing process is a good confirmation that my claim is true.

My style of being a traveler is incredibly simplistic and keeping my day to day life in tune with that style keeps me smiling everyday and keeps me nimble and ready for any adventure that comes along.

Less is more.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.

Thanks National Geographic, I’m Not Afraid

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My next round of travel outside the borders of the USA isn’t all that far away so I’ve started reading a little about the countries where I’ll be. I always find travel more interesting if I know a little history of places I’m going, know some of the characters who have shaped that history and also to see what contemporary things are happening in the region. I do this reading not to alleviate the unknowns before venturing off on my own to an unfamiliar place, but more to accumulate even more questions so I can truly travel with a broadened sense of wonderment and curiosity. My curiosity when related to travel could probably be clinically diagnosed as “hopeless”.

This “hopeless curiosity” thing isn’t all that new for me really. In fact, it started developing at a very young age.

When I’d go visit my grandparents as a kid, one of the things I remember most was the giant bookcase they had with basically every National Geographic issue ever published. Having access to that ocean of yellow magazines gracing those shelves was like giving me the keys to a world of adventure. And you better believe I had no qualms whatsoever with taking those keys and stomping the accelerator.

The typical scenario was I’d read a few articles then strike out for the woods to imagine I was in those exotic places, meeting exotic peoples, eating crazy foods and doing all kinds of adventurous things. When it came time to come inside for the day, I’d pick up another couple of issues, crawl into my blanket fort (which typically encompassed about 80% of the living room) and bury myself in even more adventures. Sure, my friends and I would have grand adventures of our own in the desert surrounding our community, but seeing all those different faces and cultures and reading about faraway places was doing nothing but planting mutant seeds of curiosity to a bigger world I couldn’t wait to go explore.

I’ve since been extremely fortunate to have gone roaming about the planet from time to time and to have experienced firsthand a lot of those places I once only dreamed about. I feel even more fortunate that sowing those early seeds of adventure helped give me the right tools to travel independently and not be afraid to strike out on my own without the need of tour guides or group dynamics. That’s not to say I’m not scared from time to time, but I’ve never been too afraid to buy the ticket and just go figure it out.

One difference from today and when I was a kid is that I no longer share my dreams of travel and adventure so freely amongst the people I know. I have a small group of likeminded friends who I share with, but for the most part I keep my planning, emotions and feelings regarding my travels to myself. This is for the simple reason that so many people have become terrified of other cultures and adventurous travel and will do nothing but tell me why I shouldn’t be going. I blame a lot of this on media sources who generalize other cultures into narrow categories and spread fear amongst the masses.

Seeing a woman in a hijab thirty years ago was a source of exoticism, mystery and beauty. Today it carries an unfortunate stigma and an erroneous correlation to terror. The word Africa use to mean exotic animals, safaris, ancient tribal customs, mind-blowing landscapes and now all I hear is terrorism in Somalia, Libya, etc. — when all those beautiful landscapes are still there and 99.9% of the population is still welcoming to those willing to come. Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos…undoubtedly some of the most beautiful places on earth with some of the most astonishingly beautiful people who ever lived are still senselessly feared due to a war fought before many of today’s potential travelers were even born. All those places once highlighted in the pages of National Geographic as epicenters of adventure and mystery are being executed by fear mongering media sources. This makes me sadder than I can ever explain.

Part of the good fortune I mentioned above is that by traveling to off the beaten path places, I’ve blindly eschewed all these stigmas and been able to formulate my own opinions through experience rather than through hearsay and speculation. I’ve traveled extensively in places where Islam, the sad target of so much hate these days, is the predominate religion. Not once, and I mean not even once, has anyone ever treated with me anything but complete and utter respect — always welcoming me into their homes and making sure my travels were satisfactory. Native cultures of South America, same. Hindi regions of South Asia, same. Anywhere in Europe, same. Southeast Asia, same. Mexico, same. Korea, same.

Have I been uncomfortable? Yeah. But I’ve been scared and uncomfortable more here in the US than anywhere else I’ve been. There are mean people everywhere. Would I myself ever want to be categorized with the likes of Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy or a Ted Kazinski just because they were Americans and so am I? That’s stupid. So why in the world would I think that everyone in another country would be like a few rogue bozos who happen to speak their language? That’s baseless fear and I refuse to let that dictate how I perceive this world. I believe with all my heart that people the world round are basically kind and caring and I want to go meet them.

Thank you National Geographic (the old kind, not the new ad laden offshoot versions) for giving me those seeds of travel and adventure at such an early age. I’m happy those seeds have bloomed and I can move around without all that baseless fear and truly experience the beautiful places and people of this world you’ve introduced me to.

Ready to write the next chapter in my journal…

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.

Map My Life (the paper kind of map please)

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A while back we had some friends in the car and we were heading out to eat at some place we’d never been, a place down in a suburb on the other side of Denver. I knew where the place was in general based on info from someone who had been before, within the physical city block at least, so as I normally do, I set off to drive down there with no map and good intentions of getting close enough to figure it out.

The physical location of the restaurant actually turned out to be one of those ginormous shopping complexes, one of the 6.8 trillion acre plots with stale and emotionless chain stores en masse scattered about.

I reluctantly merged into the frenzied current of soccer mom piloted SUVs and started my visual search for the restaurant. I made one futile drive around the circumference of the place but my efforts to find the restaurant came up empty. Not discouraged, I decided I’d then enter the gravitational orbit of the nearby planet sized Baby Gap, a celestial subset of the overall retail universe, to see if I could spot our eatery somewhere around there. Well, before I could get too far into that task, our friends began frantically pecking away at their smart phones trying to find a map via the cyber world to solve the mystery of where the restaurant was.

A few seconds of that pecking and then, !BOOM!, they were literally screeching the name of the restaurant into their phone! What the….??? It actually startled me and I thought for sure one of those behemoth soccer mom SUVs was about to plow into me! Then some electronic cyberlady voice thing started screeching back at them saying she didn’t understand the request. More screaming the restaurant name into the phone, more responses saying it didn’t understand, more pecking, more screeching, more misunderstanding…and in the meantime I pulled into the parking area of the restaurant. It was pretty much at that very moment when my decision to stay away from that kind of techno buffoonery was solidified. Sometimes all we have to do is look up from those devices to see what we we’re actually looking for.

I love maps, the kind of maps you can physically unfold/refold and spread out on the hood of the car, the kitchen table or on the ground during a hike. I don’t particularly like looking at maps on the 2.5” LED screen of a smart phone or GPS device. And as I mentioned above, I especially don’t like that those devices can literally tell me when to turn right, turn left, or god forbid, to actually turn around should I go 10 feet past my desired target and be launched into the terrifying abyss of the geographic unknown. “Please Siri, I’m lost and scared, tell me what to do!!!!

I’ll oftentimes buy maps well before I leave on a trip, spread them out on my kitchen table or in the floor and spend considerable time studying them, trying to imagine the “vibe” of the places I’ll be. I not only look at the specific places I plan to go, but I spend time looking at all the places around it. I love to see how things are oriented and how they’re positioned related to natural features like mountains, lakes, rivers and oceans. Oh sure, I could jump on Google Earth and pull up a frighteningly detailed satellite image of the place and even use the tools to tilt the landscape and zoom in so I could see the pies in the window of Mom’s Bakery located right there on Main Street, but I still prefer my paper maps. I love the colours, the lines designating motorways, the landscape relief details, the legends, the smell of the paper…just everything about them. It requires me to use my imagination, the most powerful tool a human being possesses. It’s like listening to a story on the radio or reading a book instead of seeing the movie. It engages me instead of simply entertaining me.

When we traveled to New Zealand this past autumn (spring down there), we went intentionally not thinking about where we’d go until after we’d picked up our campervan. I’d bought a road map and a Lonely Planet book here in Boulder a few weeks prior to leaving, but that was the extent of the travel planning. When we picked up the campervan, the lady on reception asked us if we’d like to hire a GPS unit for the van, but she barely got the offer out before I quickly declined. She got the biggest grin on her face in response to my quick refusal and said with her awesome Kiwi accent, “I like going that way too…good as gold”.

She graciously gave us directions to a local supermarket, saying food would be much cheaper there than on the road, then bid us farewell, great fun and good luck. We knew the “good luck” statement was directly correlated to her earlier inquiry regarding whether we’d ever driven a campervan on the left side of the road using right hand drive, to which I cautiously replied “uhhhh, no”. Yeah, we opted for the insurance.

After stocking our onboard fridge and cupboard with sufficient food and beverage to last us a week or so, we literally sat in the car park of the supermarket, unfolded our map on the table, and set about the task of  figuring out where to go first. Okay, that’s only partially true. I also wanted a few more minutes to re-calibrate and steady my nerves before vaulting our right-hand drive campervan back into the busy traffic of Christchurch. Such a fun little adventure within a bigger adventure.

Looking at our map, we could see the entirety of New Zealand’s south island. We got a feel for the shape of the island, where the mountains were, where lakes and rivers were…the rest were details we’d figure out as we went. Our initial plan was simply to head toward the alps which were clearly visible on the map with their whitish tinted colours nestled between long corridors of green. With a 2.5” screen GPS or phone, I wouldn’t be able to see all that, just a couple blocks radius of where we were at that very moment. I know tech geeks will vehemently deny this, but if you zoom out far enough to see the entire island on the 2.5” screen, or even an iPad, you’d also be required to procure a microscope worthy of the Mayo Clinic Forensic Biology Department to see the slightest detail of a single motorway. Uh, no thanks.

We spent the next couple of weeks digging the map out when we’d stop at remote rural intersections and towns along the way trying to decide which road might take us somewhere else fun and beautiful, which is essentially any direction you turn in New Zealand.  We’d dig it out from the travel wallet or console and show it to locals when asking questions about places to see or places to go. That map was truly the catalyst for some spontaneously fun and interesting conversations with people. I suspect that would never have happened if I’d busted out an iPhone and started making references to cartoonish images on the miniature screen.

Best of all, we’d break out the map late at night or first thing each morning and use it to decide where we’d go next. We didn’t have to constantly pan out or zoom in, we could just look at it in its entirety and decide where we wanted to go without the limitation of screen size. It’d oftentimes simply be a feeling of where to go based on visual characteristics of the map instead of something specific pulling us one way or the other — following our hearts. We’d sometimes get out the highlighter and mark on the map where we’d been the day before and where the next day’s adventure would take us. Yesterday we traveled three inches — today maybe we’ll go an inch —tomorrow maybe eight.

If we were perusing the map outside on our camp table and the winds happened to be whipping, which is ALWAYS in New Zealand, we could use our beers to hold down the corners and never once risk ruining the circuitry of an electronic device after an errant spill. Replacement map, $4. Replacement iPhone, $250.

No, the paper map didn’t provide links to real time road conditions or links to weather forecasts for the next week. However, since we were truly living in THAT moment and not even a week or mile ahead, we could easily look out the window and figure out everything we needed for weather considerations. If it was raining, we’d turn on the wipers. If the road became rough or slick, we’d slow down. Not complicated stuff here. Ooooh, if it was raining we could unfold the map, which was made from waterproof coated paper, to fabricate a makeshift umbrella! Try doing that with an iPhone!

During that trip, we beat our maps and Lonely Planet book into wads of pulp. When I look at the map now, with all its markings and unintended creases, I realize that not only did it serve its purpose of being a useful tool, it’s now become a piece of art specific to our experiences down there. I doubt there’s a mark on there that wouldn’t conjure up some amazing memory of an ocean side campsite, a delicious lunch at some random roadside café or of a mind blowing drive through the alps. Same for the Lonely Planet book since it still has red and yellow sticky tabs sticking out of it. That map is truly art produced through the medium of living life.

Limiting the vision of our journey, both physically and especially metaphorically speaking, to a 2.5” inch LED screen seems as though we’d be cheating ourselves out of the very reason we partake in a journey to begin with. A simple domestic road trip or a long term overseas adventure for me is about climbing out of the box I find myself in from time to time and letting my mind and soul run free and naked, unleashing my imagination, being 100% open to adventure, being pleasantly surprised from time to time and not having everything so defined as to eliminate the need to even think for myself.

Sorry Siri, but I just need my big clunky paper map, my sense of wanderlust and a little free time to find where I need to be in this life.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.