Saturday, October 8, 2011

San Francisco, California

My trip is over.  I repeat the words again and again:  “My trip is over.”  But the simple fact refuses to sink in.  It just floats in my head, as light and capricious as a soap bubble, suspended indefinitely by a current of conflicting emotions.  I am happy to be back and I am depressed.  I am excited to stay in one place and I want to leave again tomorrow.  The world seems both bigger and smaller.  All of my attempts to cling to a specific thought or feeling are eventually thwarted by a grudging realization that the exact opposite may be equally as true.

Nha Trang Street Portrait (Vietnam)

And yet I am undeniably back in San Francisco.  I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge.  I ate a burrito at El Buen Sabor.  I played pool at Bloodhound with Phil, Neil, Lawrence and Marie.  And I almost threw a temper tantrum when I realized how ugly and expensive the Bay Area rental market has become.  I am back.  My trip is over.

Tad Sae Waterall (Laos)

“What was the highlight?” people ask.  The question is impossible to answer, so I blurt out whatever pops into my head.  Reconnecting with my Hmong friends in Sapa.  The Masai Mara and the Lolomarik Farm in Kenya.  Exploring the Atacama Desert with Marie.  The ceremony of the four Buddhas on Inle Lake in Burma.  Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Seeing a wild tiger in India.  Meeting my parents in Buenos Aires.  Swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos.  Trekking in Nepal.   Watching monks collect morning alms in Luang Prabang.  Coming face-to-face with wild mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  The Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia.  Flying in a private plane over Africa’s Great Rift Valley.  Everything about Southeast Asia.

Lightning over the Tonle Sap (Cambodia)

Those highlights, for some reason, spontaneously appear in my thoughts less often than random, seemingly trivial memories.  Pouring unlabeled hot sauce on a bowl of noodle soup at a tiny restaurant in Yangon.  Sitting down at a long wooden table in the lobby of a hostel in Kampala as a cheesy hip-hop song began blasting from surprisingly loud speakers.  Weaving through crowds of colorfully-dressed indigenous women on the crumbling and chaotic streets of La Paz.  I can’t explain why, but the small moments mean as much to me as the highlights.

Angkor Wat Blue Sunrise (Cambodia)

“How have you been able to digest it all?” asked Larry, my cabin mate in the Galapagos.  His wise question deserved a simple answer:  I haven’t.  Stopping regularly to work on photos and blog entries helped, but it was impossible to fully appreciate and process such an incredible variety of people and places.  Certainly not at the time, and maybe never.  Paul Theroux, one of my favorite travel writers, has said, “It’s only in retrospect that you begin to understand the travel experience,” and there’s a huge amount of truth in that short statement.

Monk Chanting with Kittens (Burma)

Theroux is also responsible for a startlingly accurate description of the sensation of ‘otherness’ that can only be found in international travel:  “Often on a trip I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger.”  For me that feeling had once been a rare, cherished high, but a full year of traveling through developing countries brought it upon me so frequently that towards the end I began to worry I might develop immunity.

Camel Driver at Sunset (India)

Looking back on my trip, there’s very little I would have changed.  I loved all the different places I visited, and for the most part I felt good about the way I experienced them.  I do wish that when I was in western Uganda I’d crossed over to the Congo to see Mount Nyiragongo’s lava-filled crater.  I wish I’d made more progress on my Spanish, which is still pathetic.  I wish I hadn’t fallen for a scam on the Peru-Ecuador border.  I wish I’d arranged my India visa further in advance.  And I wish I was the type of person who would have enjoyed being more social and could have done a better job striking up conversations with strangers.

Cheetah in a Tree (Kenya)

Conventional wisdom says you’re never the same after taking a long overseas trip, and I know I’m different now than I was before.  But I don’t feel any wiser or smarter, any more patient or tolerant.  I didn’t experience any dramatic revelations.  I never even learned how to properly use chopsticks.  What changed most was the strength of my connection to the wider world.  Now when I hear that a bomb exploded in Nairobi, or that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, or that a boat sunk on Halong Bay, it affects me much more than it would have before I traveled to Kenya, Burma, and Vietnam.  The places I visited have become far more real to me, and consequently I care more about them.

Nshongi Group’s Dominant Silverback (Uganda)

Fifteen months of traveling didn’t do much to help me answer life’s Big Questions.  My suspicion continues to be that the ultimate answer is that there is no answer, and that buried within this paradox is a deep understanding that can’t be captured with words or passed directly from one person to another.  We each have to uncover it ourselves.  And traveling, for some of us, is one of the most rewarding ways to sift through our absurd, sublime existence for clues that we’re digging in the right place.

Sossusvlei Sand Dune (Namibia)

The trip was unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and more than anything I feel grateful.  Grateful to my parents for raising me in a way that encouraged independence and curiosity.  Grateful to Marie, Zannah and my parents for making the trip immeasurably more meaningful by meeting me overseas.  And grateful that I was born in a time and place where a regular middle-class guy can fairly easily take a year-long trip all the way around the world.

Edge of Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina)

I fully appreciate how extraordinary it is that I had the opportunity to take this trip.  It’s not something that would have been feasible for the vast majority of the current world population.  Just 50 years ago it would have been tremendously difficult for anyone.  Five hundred years ago it would have been virtually impossible.  And who knows what the future holds?  There’s no guarantee the window will stay open.  If you’ve ever considered taking a similar trip, now is the time.

San Francisco, California

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Death Valley National Park and Mono Lake, California

The imminent conclusion of my trip happened to coincide with Marie’s birthday, and she decided it might be fun to celebrate by spending the weekend in Death Valley National Park, which for me also had the appealing symmetry of being the first place I visited at the start of my trip.  I picked Marie up at the Las Vegas airport on Friday afternoon and before the sun dropped behind the Panamint Range we were tipping back a cold drink in our heavily air conditioned room at the Furnace Creek Ranch.

I woke up early for sunrise photos at Zabriskie Point, where even in the still-dark predawn a perplexingly perky crowd of Germans, French and Japanese had already gathered.  Thanks to our downtrodden dollar the United States has become a relatively cheap destination for international tourists, and Europeans far outnumbered Americans at all the parks I’d visited over the past couple of weeks. 

Sunrise at at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Later that day Marie and I checked out Badwater Basin and then hiked out to the Mesquite sand dunes to watch the sunset.

Marie at Badwater Basin

Marie Jumping on Death Valley Sand Dunes

Death Valley Sand Dune Landscape in B&W

Marie on the Dunes at Sunset

Late Light on Sand Dunes in Death Valley

Guy Hiking on Sand Dunes before Sunset

The next morning we made a quick run to Zabriskie Point before leaving Death Valley.  We rolled into Lee Vining, where we planned to spend the night, early enough to fit in a visit to Bodie State Historic Park and still make it back to Mono Lake before sunset.  Bodie, a small mining camp that became a gold rush boomtown in the 1870s, is now an extremely well-preserved ghost town.  (Like any true child of 1970s television, I considered the possibility that an old prospector might try to lock us in a jail cell, and, if necessary, I was prepared to tie our belts together to create a rope long enough to reach the key.)

Marie at Zabriskie Point

Marie at the Bodie Ghost Town

Marie at Mono Lake

Last Sunlight at Mono Lake

I returned to Mono Lake for early morning photos, but the perfectly clear sky made for bland conditions.  Marie and I left Lee Vining later that day and drove through Yosemite National Park on our way back to the Bay Area – with, of course, a lunch stop at In-N-Out.

Predawn Glow at Mono Lake

Mono Lake Sunrise Landscape

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Zion National Park, Utah and Page, Arizona

From Yellowstone National Park I headed south to another of our country’s most beautiful places: the incredible canyons and deserts that stretch along the border of southern Utah and northern Arizona.  I began with a drive through Zion National Park.  No visit to Zion would be complete without a stop to photograph my favorite tree, a lone pine that grows sideways from a rugged mound of bright orange sandstone.   It has changed very little over the years.

Zion Tree 2005

Zion Tree 2011

Zion Landscape

After a quick walk around Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park I spent the night in Kanab, Utah, and woke up early the next morning to participate in The Wave lottery.  The Wave is a strikingly photogenic rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, and the Bureau of Land Management protects it by limiting the number of hikers who are allowed to visit each day.  Ten individual permits are awarded over the Internet several months in advance, and an additional ten permits are awarded through a lottery held at the BLM office (just off Highway 89 between Kanab, Utah and Page, Arizona).

Clouds over Coral Pink Sand Dunes

Anyone who wants to participate in The Wave lottery at the BLM office needs to arrive in person by 9am and compete with a surprisingly large crowd.  On my first morning I was up against 59 other people.  The BLM agent gave each of us a number and used a bingo-style tumbler to choose the 10 lucky winners.  I lost.  And I lost again the next morning, when 68 people showed up.

Spinning The Wave Lottery Wheel

I worked off my Wave frustration with visits to Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon.  Horseshoe Bend is a dramatic curve in the Colorado River, and Antelope Canyon is a frequently-photographed slot canyon.  Both are just outside of Page, Arizona.  Scattered thunderstorms were passing through the area, and a large part of Lower Antelope Canyon had been closed by flash floods.  I hoped to visit again the next day, but nonstop rain (and, at one point, marble-sized hail) made for a complete washout.

Clouds over Horseshoe Bend

Lower Antelope Canyon

Lower Antelope Canyon Portrait

Lower Antelope Canyon Landscape

Seeking sunnier skies, I drove back west to Kanarra Creek, a slot canyon just outside of Zion National Park.  Photos really can’t capture the experience of hiking through a slot canyon.  The towering rock walls, sculpted and smooth from countless years of erosion, glow orange, yellow and red from reflected sunlight, and in many places the walls are so narrow that you have to hike in creek itself, your feet numb from the ice-cold water.  Kanarra Creek was truly amazing, a smaller but 98%-less-crowded version of Zion’s famous Narrows.

Lower Kanarra Falls

Kanarra Creek Slot Canyon

Upper Kanarra Falls Portrait

Friday, September 23, 2011

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

With mixed emotions I left Kansas City and drove west.  I looked forward to wandering around a few more National Parks on my way back to San Francisco, but no longer could I prevent my thoughts from creeping forward to the Real World, a place where I would need an apartment and a job and would not be able to wake up in exotic destinations every day and do exactly what I want.

For two nights I camped at Yellowstone National Park.  I photographed Mammoth Springs at sunset and sunrise, hiked the Glen Creek Trail, visited the Morning Glory thermal pool, and watched Lower Yellowstone Falls from Artist’s Point.  I didn’t see a single bear until my last morning in the park.  As I drove south in the pre-dawn dark (on my way to photograph the Grand Tetons at sunrise), a black bear suddenly appeared in my headlights and almost ran me off the road.

Cloudy Evening at Mammoth Springs

Morning Mist at Mammoth Springs

Mammoth Springs Sunrise Hipstamatic

Jawbone on the Glen Creek Trail

Lower Yellowstone Falls in B&W Portrait

Morning Glory Thermal Pool

Snake River and Grand Tetons at Sunrise

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prairie Village, Kansas (Third Visit)

Only very rarely over the past year have I stayed in one place for more than a few days.  The last time I stopped moving for a full week was when I met my parents in Buenos Aires.  But I felt more than ready for a break from campsites and cheap motels, and spending another week with my parents – this time at their home in Prairie Village, Kansas – sounded perfect.

It was fantastic to catch up with Mom and Dad, my sister Ann and her husband Dan, and my nieces Elizabeth and Kate.  I ate extremely well – many unbeatable Mom-cooked meals (and travel-themed cookies), a burger at Winstead’s with my dad, a second trip to Winstead’s with my friend David, and a great lunch with Elizabeth.

I also had a chance to see Ed, my boss at the job I left to take this trip.  The fact that I really enjoyed working with Ed was one of the things that made it difficult to choose nomadic wandering over gainful employment, and he and I have kept in touch.  Ed let me know that over Labor Day weekend he and his family would be in Kansas City (where one of his sons had a baseball tournament), so we arranged to meet at Gates for some old-school BBQ.  It was a lot of fun to reconnect with Ed and meet his wife Hope and their three sons.

At my parent’s house I spent hours watching the action outside the kitchen window.  Over the years my mom’s careful management of a birdbath (heated in the winter, of course) and a dizzying array of feeders has turned their back yard into the premiere hotspot for suburban Prairie Village wildlife.  At any given time the view at the window might include chipmunks with stuffed cheeks, dive-bombing hummingbirds, a family of squirrels, a male and female cardinal, finches, rabbits, and belligerent blue jays.  Occasionally a hawk will pass overhead and cause the feeder crowd to scatter as quickly as teenagers who realize a cop has just shown up at their house party.

Lately Mom had been throwing peanuts out the back door so regularly that the squirrels and chipmunks have come to expect it.  As I watched from the kitchen one morning a particularly demanding squirrel literally flung itself against the window in a brash attempt to trigger Peanut Time.  “There’s never a dull moment around here,” my dad likes to joke.

Mom and Dad in the Back Yard

Before hitting the road again I caught a Royals game with David.  We headed over to the ballpark on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and, with the Cleveland Indians in town for a meaningless series, we had no problem picking up last-minute tickets.  It was my first visit to Kaufmann Stadium since the renovations were completed in 2009, and I liked the new look.

Kansas City Royals Game

What a fun and relaxing week – just what I needed.  Thanks again Mom, Dad, Ann, Dan, Elizabeth, Kate, David and Ed!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida and Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Key West is an odd city.  It’s even odd in the context of Florida, which is itself an odd state.  Only about one-fourth of Key West has relatively normal homes and businesses.  Half is beaches, a Naval Air Station, a state park, and what looks like an urban project.  And the rest is an unapologetic tourist trap – for anyone familiar with San Francisco, picture a supersized version of Fisherman’s Wharf.  Dust all of it with a vibe that feels more Jimmy Buffet than full-on Caribbean and you have a city unlike any other.

Overly tan men in their 50s wearing unbuttoned shirts rode around on vintage bicycles and didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Enormous multi-million-dollar yachts glided past dilapidated eight-foot sailboats with rotting hulls and names like One Too Many and Barefoot & Topless.  When I went into a McDonald’s for a drink I had to wait as a French woman in a bikini berated a hapless cashier for misunderstanding her unintelligible English, a situation that was only resolved when the quick-thinking McDonald’s manager asked the French woman if she spoke Spanish, and, learning that she did, used that language to take her order.

Key West Palm Trees

Key West Southernmost Point in Continental U.S.

Key West Sailboat at Sunset

I spent only one night in Key West before catching the early-morning ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park.  The Yankee Freedom II motored west from Lands End Marina and covered the 68 miles to Garden Key, the heart of the park, in two and a half hours.  Garden Key and the six other islands of Dry Tortugas were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513.  Seeing lots of turtles around, Ponce dug deep into his creative well and named the place “Tortugas,” the Spanish word for turtles.  Sailors later added “Dry” as a warning that the islands had no fresh water.

Dry Tortugas Ferry

Clouds Over Key West

Key West Rainbow

Ferry at Dry Tortugas Dock

Dry Tortugas North Beach

Sea Plane and Clouds

Dry Tortugas South Beach

Dominating tiny Garden Key is Fort Jefferson, a massive hexagonal three-level brick behemoth built by the U.S. in the 1840s.  According to the National Park Service, Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Americas.  In 1865 Fort Jefferson claimed some measure of fame when Dr. Samuel Mudd and three other men who had been convicted of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln were imprisoned within its brick walls.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson Moat

Fort Jefferson Arches Hipstamatic

Fort Jefferson Lighthouse

Fort Jefferson Arches in B&W

Fort Jefferson Panorama (Video)

I spent about two hours exploring Fort Jefferson and then went snorkeling.  Hurricane Irene missed Florida, but the storm’s force had stirred up the water.  Visibility was poor and – just like at Biscayne National Park – moon jellies were everywhere, but it was a relief to cool down on such a hot afternoon.

Of the National Parks I’d visited in the east, Dry Tortugas was easily one of my favorites.  I was sorry to leave.  At some point I’d love to go back and spend the night at Garden Key’s campsite.

Snorkelers by Fort Jefferson Moat

From Key West I drove to Atlanta, a city I lived in for several years in the 1990s.  Two of my friends – Laura, who I’ve known since junior high school, and Dave, a friend from college, still lived there and were nice enough to meet me for a drink.  It was great to catch up, and I really appreciated having a chance to meet Laura’s two sons for the first time.

Very little of what I’d heard or read about Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas held any appeal for me, but – given that my goal is to visit every National Park in the U.S. – I stopped there briefly on my way from Atlanta to Kansas City.  I used a paper cup given to me by a park ranger to drink from the springs, I toured the Fordyce Bathhouse, and I left.  Like Cuyahoga Valley, Hot Springs didn't fit my idea of what a National Park should be.

Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center

Chiropody Room in Fordyce Bathhouse

Fordyce Bathhouse Parlor

I can now say I’ve been to 50 of our country’s 58 National Parks.  The remaining eight aren’t going to be easy.  To complete my collection I still need to visit Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, the National Park of American Samoa, Virgin Islands National Park, and five parks in Alaska:  Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell Saint Elias.