Category Archives: travel

My Own Allegory of the Cave

Mammoth Cave National Park

In hindsight, a trip to a cave for spring break might not have been the best idea considering my claustrophobia.

Yes, I love exploring and adventuring as much as the next guy.

But tight quarters with more than 100 of my fellow human beings fighting for the same space and air is more than I can handle.

My claustrophobia set in after I worked in Ukraine as a reporter at the Kyiv Post in 2004.

I attended a rally in Maidan with a million people and got sucked into the crowd. I was swept off my feet and carried for many yards against my will.

Something from that moment stuck with me, and I hate crowds to this day.

A secondary, albeit lesser, phobia is of being on something like a bus, train or plane where I cannot leave the trip at any moment of my choosing.

The standard Mammoth Cave National Park tour provides the perfect setting for both of these scenarios.

The Historical Tour, which we signed up for, often features more than 100 people and two guides.

Though it does go through the larger caverns of Mammoth Cave, there are a few parts where you do not want to be stuck with 50 people in front of you and 50 people behind you.

Continue reading My Own Allegory of the Cave

Anatomy of a free hotel breakfast buffet

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The hotel lobby was quiet when we exited the elevator.

A few families sat quietly shoving spoonfuls of egg product into toddler mouths and picking at fruit bowls.

My kids surveyed the lineup of biscuits and gravy, toast, yogurt, cereal, egg and meat products and waffles.

It was a unanimous decision.

I quickly read the instructions and poured a cup of batter on the hot iron, which produced an alarm that made the lady at a nearby table jump and spill her hot coffee.

I flipped it over and silenced the buzzer.

The timer read 2:58, so the kids poured themselves some juice and went to find a table.

In that small timeframe, the once serene buffet was inundated with three different families like an invading army.

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Living Spontaneously: Losing my travel companions

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Pit stop at the fastest place on earth.

After a rough week of being sick and then dealing with the devil more than usual during a shortened work week, the weekend loomed like a colorful piñata.

The potential was palpable, but I would have some convincing to do.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we used to pack the kids up on a whim and drive to Mexico for spring break.

The first time we did it was after a particularly rough quarter at college. I wasn’t completely convinced I was doing the right thing, and the stress was eating away at me.

I discovered we had $1,000 leftover from student aid that could be used for living expenses , and at that point in time, I needed to do some living.

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As if char-broiled oysters weren’t enough, we walked the 10 blocks or so over to Cochon Butcher for alligator bites and an oyster bacon sandwich.

I could go on and on about the oyster bacon sandwich. It’s one of the few exquisite food experiences I’ve had in my life. Like basil and and tomato or ginger and bourbon, bacon and oysters are perfect lovers.

It was so sunny we opted to sit outside, and it was warm enough to entice us to order a big glass of something cold and California, of the Chardonnay variety.


Eating the South – Thoughts on food and drink from Chicago to New Orleans – Part I

Turning 40 is a decent occasion to celebrate health and sobriety these days.

Knowing, as I do, many who’ve opted to run marathons, tough mudders and triathlons instead of imbibing on craft beer and bourbon and eating enough fried food to kill Elvis several times over.

But that is what I did.

Continue reading Eating the South – Thoughts on food and drink from Chicago to New Orleans – Part I

The Quarter

The Quarter

You would not go to Disneyland and not ride Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean.

And so you would not come to New Orleans and not take a leisurely stroll through the Vieux Carré, the not so aptly named French Quarter.

When the morning shadows are long, the people clean the sidewalks of to-go cups and broken beads. I found this an optimal time for strolling quickly through the t-shirt and alligator head stalls in the old French Market.

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Driving South

Alabama-Mississippi state line.
Alabama-Mississippi state line.

I have believed certain things about the South for a long time. Long-held suppositions that I fully believed I would either see born out or completely dispelled were I to go there.

I was not wrong.

We left Chicago around 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, enjoying, as we do, driving at night.

I thought about why we like to do this.

It started with the kids. When they were very young, it was much easier to travel by night so they would sleep. Many of our drives were around 6 to 8 hours in length, which gave us plenty of time to get somewhere and still enjoy some sleep before getting on with our journey the next day.

The question in my mind yesterday was why do we still do this even now that the kids are grown?

The answer, for me, was evident when we woke up in a chilly, but sunny Nashville, Tennessee.

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Riding the last great whistle stop train

The pleasure in riding trains is derived purely from the physical experience of riding on trains. I can only imagine how good it must have been when the herky, jerky steam engines ruled the planet. But even the smooth-running diesel engines of today with the beshocked cars still give pleasure in the way they yaw and chuck along their way.

On Saturday I rode the Alaskan Railroad 100 miles north to the town of Talkeetna. The journey, while short, is a phenomenal experience in an increasingly rare form of travel.

The conductor pops his head into the station and yells, “Goooooooooood, mooooooooorning,” to a sleepy group of passengers. He barks out a series of instructions, and like good farm animals, we corral ourselves through the doors toward assured shelter.

He’s done this, this railroad, for 40 years. It’s his life. He checks his gold pocket watch regularly to make sure the train is slightly behind schedule. For people who rely on the train as a way of life, it wouldn’t be a good idea to be right on time or, God forbid, early.

This is the last whistle stop train in North America.

A whistle stop train is a very particular form of transportation for a very particular person. The kind of person who wants to live out in the wild. A wild so wild that only a railroad passes nearby. These people ride many miles on snow machines to catch the train into town or down the tracks to a neighbor’s house to fix a problem.

Along the way, the conductor tosses a newspaper out every once in a awhile when he knows someone will find the orange bag containing this week’s news updates along side the tracks.

Along the way he welcomes passengers for whom the train is no novelty. Their belongings are not tourist bags or traveler’s packs.

As we disembark the train in Talkeetna, he wishes us a fond farewell, by name, each of us, with a smile.  As we walk away from the train into the quaint little valley town, he checks his pocket watch and hops aboard the train for the nine-hour journey to Fairbanks. Into the cold, cold north. Chugging along and telling stories and hearkening back to a better time when travel was as simple as the monstrous engines that carried us here and there.

Be careful not to break your legs when you hit the ground running

There is a real sense of being in a foreign country once you touch down here in Anchorage. Sure you have the familiar fast-food chains and huge oil company buildings. The roads are familiar and everyone drives on the right side of the road. But the feel of the place is different than the interconnected towns and cities in the Lower 48.

I woke up this morning at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of apartment dwellers bustling about in the dark getting ready for work. I fell asleep again and woke up to just a faint hint of dawn. I yawned and stretched and rolled over to find my phone charging on the ground next to the bed. 
9:01 a.m. What? 
I scrambled for the shower and dressed in a few minutes and dragged my wife our of bed to drive me to work. 
The dark mornings are a blessing and a curse. I like the quiet pre dawn darkness. It’s one of the best times of day to really focus. But curled up in bed with sweet darkness all around, it’s tempting to just close your eyes and drift off again, especially after getting home at 2:00 a.m.
Election day is a sacred day for journalists. The excitement is palpable in the frenzied way newsrooms get started as counting begins in earnest. Broadcast stations are dead in comparison. Mostly because our entire operation moved off site and into the Egan Convention Center, otherwise known as Election Central. 
Anchors worked a live set while producers and reporters wrangled candidates for first interviews after initial results. The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times and other national media outfits made an L-shaped army with computer shields around the back wall of the center.
I haven’t really worked an election since Obama was elected president, and the sights and sounds got my journalistic juices flowing. I followed Kortnie, one of our web team members, around to some of the different candidate parties, and all I wanted to do was pull out a notepad and start collecting quotes and color for the big election story. 
My small contribution to the overall newscast on election night was staying in touch with our web team members manning the station at KTUU and checking to see when our updates were coming through on our mobile sites. And I just can’t wait until the next election. I want to be right back in that journalistic mess that is election night. Because on the other side is a beautiful thing.
As usually happens, the day after election day is a big come down. The journalistic adrenaline that surged the night before starts to leave your system, and you feel the tiredness of having stayed up until 2 a.m.
The gloom of the north doesn’t help either. The sun just doesn’t have the strength it has at lower latitudes. 
When the sun does shine, it reflects off the Chugach range like a giant mirror. The saw-toothed tops remind you of what beckons beyond. Alaska. 
I am happy these first few days in Alaska. Now it’s time to get the family settled, back in school and on with life. 

A day in a zoo of dead animals

I finally caught my breath next to a large brown bear chasing a rather panicky deer. The Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage is like a great zoo for dead things.

There are polar bears, mountains goats, Dall sheep, numerous brown bears, ptarmigan, caribou, moose and many other northern creatures mounted in life-like poses in large glass enclosures.

The Chugach Mountains glisten under bright sunshine to the east and out the large glass windows of the airport.

If you have to be stuck in an airport, this is the one to be stuck in.

The wake-up call came early this morning. It seemed like I just put my head to the pillow when my daughter jumped into bed with us at 3:45 a.m., just a few seconds before the alarm went off. Turns out all of our packing the evening before and a plan to leave for the airport an hour before our goal of being there an hour before departure was a great failure.

Mondays are terrible days to travel. Period. Dozens and dozens of suits lined up against the wall waiting for an automated check-in machine. Traveling with Morris the gecko meant we had to check in at the agent desk. The line moved like people waiting for an Eastern European toilet.

The ticket agent was a peach. She told me no less than four times there was no way we’d make our flight as she happily charged my Visa $100 for a pet that cost $39. Not to take away from the intrinsic value of an animal aside from its pet-store price.

She refused to check us all the way through, because she was convinced we wouldn’t make our Anchorage connection in Seattle.

We ran carrying heavy bags on our shoulders and wheeling the rest of our belongings behind us. Morris stood on all four legs with his belly high off the ground as if trying to find balance or meaning in the terrible commotion.

The TSA agent at security was the nicest I’ve ever met. She inspected Morris and instructed Carson to take care of this good-looking little guy. We put our shoes and coats on, repacked and ran down the people movers looking for gate A.

The ticket agent at the gate was a real peach. Oh, wait, I said that. Turns out there is a pattern with Horizon ticket agents when you’re late. They have no patience at all. After a good tongue lashing about causing other passengers to be late, we climbed aboard a very crowded Bombardier bound for Seattle.

I smiled at Cheryl as the sweat dripped off my head like it did the last time I had a good sauna.

We made it.

Upon landing in Seattle, we found out our connecting flight to Anchorage was about as far away as you could possibly be in the airport. So we ran to catch a train to catch an escalator to find a friendly Alaska Airlines ticket agent waiting for us with five tickets in hand.

“You must be the five people from Portland without boarding passes?”

“Yes, we are. I’m so sorry.”

“Nothing to worry about sir, we’ll get you on board soon.”

I collapsed in my seat dripping sweat once again and slept on an off between having to tell Gabrielle to stop kicking the seat in front of her. I set up some videos for the kids to watch, played Angry Birds for an hour and dozed until the bumpy landing in Anchorage.

If you know anything about me by now, you know I’m not a detail person, preferring instead the bigger picture. If I had lived 100-years-ago, I’d be traveling always with an assistant.

I neglected to tell our housing organizer that we were arriving Monday, substituting Tuesday instead. So here we sit in the Anchorage airport from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. waiting for a shuttle that will take us to our hotel where a 3 p.m. check-in time awaits us along with a good swim, a shower and an early bed time.

There were plenty of negatives this morning. The good thing is we’re together here in Anchorage, our new city. We took a walk to the other side of the terminal to look at downtown and then a peek at midtown. Somewhere out there we’ll find a new home, and these mountains will be our backdrop from now on.

The future is looking good.