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The (belated) end to a Peruvian adventure

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

After departing the natural wonders of Titilaka and Lake Titicaca, we flew back to Lima and hopped into a van bound for our last destination. We were headed to the city of Paracas, an oceanfront town known for its natural reservation and spectacular wildlife. We drove south with the ocean on one side, and sparsely developed land on the other.

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Except for the occasional small town, the majority of the drive looked like this, exposing us to another side of Peru — the migrant farming communities that look abandoned or industrious depending on the time of year. Looking out on the arid land, it was hard to imagine who was farming what and when, but we were assured that more people lived and worked just over the hills.

The drive took a while, mostly due to the underdeveloped nature of the roads we were traversing. We watched as the sun beautifully dipped below the Pacific.

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When we finally arrived in Paracas, we found ourselves among a very different set of Peruvians than those we had spent the last few days with. Because of its proximity to Lima and its beautiful waterfront, Paracas attracts the moneyed crowd of the capital city, particularly around events like New Year’s. The traditional floral woven dresses were replaced with racy clubbing outfits and skimpy bikinis. Still, we were among very few foreign tourists, so it still felt very Peruvian — albeit a different side of the same country.

We finished off the evening with pasta at the hotel’s trattoria. Because of the ocean’s proximity (less than 100 yards away), most dishes were dotted with seafood. I enjoyed a squid-ink pasta with shellfish.

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We woke up early the next morning, ready to explore what the Reserva Nacional de Paracas had to offer. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. Our first stop was a mysterious candelabra drawn in the sand. Though it looked from afar like it could have easily been blown away, the etching has in fact been there for hundreds of years. Indigenous tribes carved into the rock under the sand, creating a permanent fixture up on the rocks.

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This is very similar to the Nazca lines, a popular destination further south of Paracas. Indigenous people drew massive pictures in the sand and tourists flock to them; the only way to appreciate them is to take a small plane above the etchings. We had opted to skip this destination, so our mysterious candelabra served as substitute. It is suspected that the candelabra dates back as far as 200 B.C., a relic of the ancient Paracas culture and meant to symbolize the staff of an ancient god.

After boating through open waters for a little while, we saw something rising out of the ocean. As we got closer, we could see that it was a series of large rocks, each completely covered in birds. The stench was overpowering — the rocks have changed color over time from the sheer amount of bird defecation on them.

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Since the 1970s, these rocks out in the ocean have been under protection from the Peruvian government because of the many natural and cultural treasures they hold. Driving around, we saw a dizzying array of birds, including the hilariously named red boobie. (Okay, so we’re a little immature.) We also happened upon a large pack of sea lions.

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It was apparently mating season for the sea lions. This seemingly entails a lot of sleeping, though we were taught that each female sea lion was staking out her area on the beach. The males would later waddle around and start the courtship process. But for now, the large mammals were just hanging out.

Nearby on the rocks, we encountered the most exciting of the Paracas National Reserve’s residents. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, I have a deep fascination with penguins. I was extremely excited when I learned we would meet some of them on our trip to Paracas. While I had always learned that penguins require ice and snow, there are a couple species that thrive in the equatorial climate in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. They’re a bit smaller than their Antarctic brethren, but still very adorable. They do, however, smell terrible.

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We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of the rock formations, observing one interesting animal species after another. We saw many more sea lions, all of whom were either asleep or searching for a new nap spot. The variety of birds was endless — we made many more boobie jokes and spotted several flocks of pelicans. Though harder to spot, we did find more penguins. They were generally more sedentary than I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the influence of movies like Happy Feet.

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After spending a couple hours with the native creatures, it was time for us to head back to shore. We waved farewell to the napping sea lions, the waddling penguins and the very stinky birds.

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Back ashore, we revisited the ocean, but on our plates. Being able to see the water from our lunch table meant very fresh fish. For me, this came in the form of Peruvian ceviche, prepared in a style very similar to that which we had learned from Penelope earlier that week. This time it was a bit spicier, which I was naturally excited about.

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We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings and taking it easy in order to prepare ourselves for midnight and the start of 2013. Many of our fellow hotel guests were partaking in a massive party on the beach, the entry ticket to which cost about the same as the annual wages of a salt miner. Truly, we had managed to see both ends of the Peruvian lifestyle spectrum over the course of a week.

We had a more low-key evening, but still managed to get dressed up and watch the fireworks light up the sky.

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We woke up to a calm and peaceful 2013 under the southern sun. After our hectic touring schedule of the earlier part of the week, we took the next two days to relax before heading back to work and reality.

We took bicycles out onto a path that very quickly became beach, working against the resistance of the wet sand. During low tide, we came upon the most remarkable creatures I have ever seen — jellyfish with bodies nearly as large as our bike wheels, dotting the entire coastline. They looked prehistoric in size and nature, and navigating around their tentacles added another challenge to the ride.

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We set sail, repeatedly, taking in the coastline from another perspective.

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Our proximity to the water also continued to give us access to a wealth of seafood dishes. Some of the native Peruvian items continued to perplex me, like causa, the boiled potato stuffed with crabmeat and mayo. Others were more redeeming, like the countless ceviches we continued to encounter. Some came prepared with the traditional corn-and-onion base; others artfully decorated seashells and came spotted with brightly colored peppers. I avoided the former and over-indexed on the latter.

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After our week of planes and trains and boats and drives and hikes, Paracas provided many quiet moments to sit and reflect on the trip.

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Peru turned out to be one of the more culturally fascinating places I have ever been. In one country, there were so many different cultures — not to mention languages – and each seemingly lived independently. Among all the Peruvians I met, there was a great sense of pride for their nation and for their people; the same sense of pride in Peru’s growth and confidence in the brightness of its future seemed to extend from the cosmopolitan residents of Lima, like Penelope, to the young weaver near Titilaka. In some ways, I found myself surprised at the underdeveloped nature of the country, but at the same time, it presented us with a richness that I have never seen elsewhere. Truly, colors seemed brighter in Peru, and I still see that now as I look through my photos.

The country and its residents welcomed us with open arms and let us explore what they had to offer, and we really saw just a fraction of the nation’s diversity. The food may not be as spicy as I’d like, and the roads may not all be easily traveled, but Peru is a country worth seeing, and one that I would love to see again a few years down the line.

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The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

From sunrise to sunset

Written by Emmy on 4 October 2012

On Thursday morning, we rose bright (well, not even bright yet) and early to see the sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain again. The weather forecast was a bit more cloudy, but since there was no rain, we made our way to the top again to see the clouds lit against the horizon line. It was a bit chillier, but still beautiful.

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Chaz, Liz and I made our way back down the mountain — Chaz on bike, Liz and I in the car. We parked along the beginning of the one-way loop road that runs through the park and each mounted our own bike, this time with me on one that actually fit, and began along the beautiful route, which winds along the park’s most scenic water and mountain views, and is made all the more conducive to biking by the relative lack of traffic.

IMG_0895Chaz, perched high above the loop road, while waiting for the slower bikers

IMG_0906Following our bike ride, we made a pit stop at Beech Hill Farm, a local farmer’s market we had been trying to visit all week to no avail. Call it flexible summer hours. But Thursday was a good day for the farm and we were able to spend some time in its small store.

Chaz made a new friend, who was highly entertained by chasing a small piece of basil. Meanwhile, we inspected the fresh produce and selected a few goodies to bring home for brunch. (Waking up for the sunrise and biking for nearly two hours left us hungry and ready for our second meal at about 9:30 a.m.)

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With the summer squash and fresh yellow onions, we whipped up a vegetable, basil and goat cheese frittata, accompanied by fresh berries.

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We ate our brunch on the patio of the house while overlooking the water, a remarkably calm and beautiful surrounding. But no rest for the weary. Once we had gotten our fill and regained our energy, Chaz and I refilled the backpacks and headed back out onto the open road. We bagged another peak; this one was Dorr Mountain, the initial ascent of which we did along the Ladder Trail, yet another aptly named vertical climb.

But a vertical climb always makes for a beautiful view, and we received one standing atop the summit.

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We found company in a number of tourists atop the mountain, and so after asking them to take our picture, quickly fled the scene.

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We sought refuge along a stream running by the return trail and pulled out our picnic basket containing sandwiches with homemade spicy chicken salad. (I had needed an activity while the frittata was cooking, and we also had begun to realize that the kitchen was full of ingredients we should probably think about using up.) Full from lunch part two, we basked in the sunlight briefly, but then packed it all back in and moved along in an effort to stay on a relatively tight schedule.

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We ran a few quick errands, took the fastest showers imaginable, and hopped back in the car to make a beeline for Seal Harbor. Charlie and Rosemary had graciously invited us to join them for a dinner picnic on board their boat, and so we loaded tote bags and coolers onto the boat and pushed off into the open seas. Liz had prepared a large helping of homemade guacamole for the voyage; we enjoyed cocktail hour in the middle of the ocean for a change of pace from our usual ocean view from the patio.

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Rosemary had prepared a lovely picnic dinner, which we spread out across the front of the boat: a selection of cocktail hour goodies, including cheese spread and vegetables; corn salad; cole slaw; and homemade chicken salad in wraps. (Let’s just call chicken salad the theme of the day.) We enjoyed our dinner with local brews while idling in Otter Cove.

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IMG_1177The water became increasingly choppy, so once we had all finished eating (and of course, taking photos of all the eating), we packed the picnic back in and headed toward shore. We had one minor mishap when a lobster trap got stuck in the boat’s motor, but thankfully were able to get it out before too much damage was done (to us or to the trap).

We anchored back in Seal Harbor, waved goodbye to our hosts and headed home to the other side of the island, just in time to catch the sunset over our own personal harbor.

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The next morning we uncharacteristically overslept, missing our scheduled 6 a.m. departure by a few hours. We had a very full morning planned, but rather than compromise on activity, found a way to compress a very packed schedule into a shortened time frame.

We loaded the bikes back onto the car and within moments, were racing toward the start of the carriage roads. The carriage roads are one of the features Acadia is most famous for; a network of gravelly paths, they were once used by the Rockefellers and their carriages for scenic rides throughout the island. Now mostly subsumed by the park, the carriage roads are used by runners and bikers, making for a beautiful and completely car-free riding experience (even if uphill gravel is a bit tough on the tires). We each completed a solo ride, able to select the length that worked best for our personal pace thanks to the multiple options provided by the vast circuit.

90 minutes and 12 miles (or 17, depending who you are) later, we met back at the car, loaded the bikes on and hopped in. We drove to the Beehive, one of the park’s most popular hikes, named for its beehive-like shape. We quickly scrambled up and took in yet another panoramic vista of the park’s surroundings.

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We hiked back down and found ourselves at the car basically on schedule, despite the late start. Taking a break from physical activity, we went into real estate mode, poking around at a few For Sale properties along the park’s boundaries. After letting ourselves into a more or less deserted house and taking a few pictures, we abandoned mission in favor of some lunch.

We returned to the Docksider, where Liz and I each had a crab salad and Chaz tucked into a fried clam roll. I had essentially made it my mission to eat only seafood while in Maine and was more or less succeeding.

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IMG_1236Despite having just finished lunch, we came home to begin work on a large scale cooking project. Chaz and I had plans to pack up the car and hit the open road very early the next morning, waving goodbye to Acadia and making our way north for a weekend road trip through New Brunswick and more remote coastal Maine. The accommodations would be less plush than our gorgeous house on MDI (read: tent), but while the checkpoint may compromise on places to sleep, never on things to eat. In order to make the cooking-while-camping experience a bit simpler, I had planned to precook several items in our very well-stocked kitchen, including pasta with fresh shrimp and tomatoes.

There was a brief moment of panic when I poured the pasta out of the box and noticed things moving at the bottom of the box. The only natural reaction was to shriek and thrust the box at Chaz. After we determined that, in fact, someone else had gotten to our pasta before we had, we handled the situation, recovered our emotions and resolved to seek out a new base for our now steaming shrimp.

IMG_1256With our various dishes cooling, we cleaned ourselves up and headed over to the Claremont, one of the island’s more historic locations and one of the venues the Obamas visited on their own trip to the island. The old hotel is in the town of Southwest Harbor with, of course, stunning water views. We took ourselves on a self-guided tour of the grounds and the dock.

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And because a view like that just begs for a scenic cocktail, we obliged.

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Following Chaz’s boring gin and tonic and my more exotic blueberry mint mojito (local flavors! come on!), we drove slightly inland to meet Liz for dinner at a Southwest Harbor favorite, Red Sky. The cozy local restaurant was filled and the owners wandered around checking on all the diners, making for a friendly, intimate experience.

We continued the strategy from earlier that week, ordering a selection of starters to share before committing to our own entrees. Up front, we sampled crispy polenta with fresh greens, a lobster-filled puff pastry and pate, served with a cranberry relish. All were as beautiful as they were delicious (even if the mood lighting of the restaurant didn’t aid my photographic efforts).

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For my main course, I decided I needed to have one last lobster before departing the island. Red Sky made it easy – no cracking or shelling required – by serving the beast of the sea over a mushroom risotto and grilled asparagus.

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Chaz looked at the menu for a whole 30 seconds before announcing he would be having the ribs, having had and thoroughly enjoyed them at this venue before. Between his bones and my decorative lobster tail shell, we had quite the discard pile building on a bread plate.

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IMG_1377Liz had the special, a steak with caramelized onions and blue cheese, served alongside the same fresh string beans and scalloped potatoes as Chaz’s entree.

Everyone was pleased with their ordering choices and though we could have left without dessert, we rationalized that we had biked around one mountain and climbed another that morning. So we ordered the lemon blueberry cake (deemed to have a better lemon-to-blueberry ratio than a similar item from a previous day) and a slice of gingerbread cake with homemade caramel sauce.

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After dinner, we drove down to the water to look up at the stars and listen to the ocean splash against the shore, taking one last look at the island before heading back to get in bed. We caught a spontaneous fireworks show, a coincidental celebration of the end of a wonderful week on MDI.

In which we reassemble and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 20 September 2012

On a Friday afternoon in late August, I triumphantly put my out-of-office auto-reply on my work email, grabbed my debatably excessive luggage and made my way to LaGuardia. It was a good dry run, for the flight Ben and I were set to board was canceled immediately upon our arrival at the airport. But we returned early the next morning, boarded our flight and by 10 a.m., were on the ground in Bangor, Maine, with Chaz, Joanna and Seth waving frantically at us from baggage claim. We all piled into a rental car — who Chaz had named Adrienne, which I never found as fitting as our dear Dorothy’s moniker, but never thought of a substitute — and off we went!

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Less than 90 minutes later, we were pulling into Acadia National Park. Chaz immediately went into tour guide mode, pointing out the various mountains, water views and trails. Our first stop was naturally the visitor center, where we watched a quick movie about Acadia and its history. I also picked up an official National Park Service passport; after playing assistant to Chaz’s stamping mission all last summer, I was jealous and ready to graduate to my own copy.

From the visitor center, we headed to the Jordan Pond House, an Acadia landmark where we had planned to meet Chaz’s mom, Liz, and her friend Maureen for lunch. We were a bit early, so took a quick walk around the pond. Eager to begin documentation of our reunion, we asked a nice looking man with a camera similar to mine if he wouldn’t mind taking our photo. Turns out he was an official photographer for the Friends of Acadia magazine; look for us on a cover near you soon.

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IMG_9392In the style of our favorite band

We sat down to lunch on the lawn overlooking the pond and the mountains, and eagerly ordered our first round of local seafood dishes. At the recommendation of the regulars, nearly all of us sampled the lobster stew.

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Compulsory at JPH are the popovers, which have made the restaurant famous. Everyone’s dish came with at least one of the fluffy, crunchy bits of deliciousness. Though at first perplexed by my photography, our waitress eventually got into it and came over with the basket to give me an opportunity for a close-up.

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Stuffed with our first Maine meal, we set out for our first group hike (following a scenic drive that allowed for a bit of digestion). We quickly ascended Flying Mountain, a short hike with spectacular views. It was a good way to get our aerial bearings of Mount Desert Island, which is home to the majority of the park. (Only one small piece can be found on the mainland of Maine, in addition to Isle au Haut.) Though it pales in size when compared to some of the western park locales — I was amused last summer to learn that Yosemite is larger than Rhode Island (most things are) — MDI is still pretty substantial, a land mass three times larger than Manhattan. And on a day as clear as our first in the park, we could see miles and miles of it from Flying Mountain’s low summit.

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After our hike, we made a quick stop at Chaz’s favorite swimming hole, a deserted corner of Seal Cove Pond with water far warmer and far less crowded than that of the ocean beaches on the island.

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We made our way to the home we would be staying in for the week on the southwest side of the island. Poised right on the water, it was a postcard-perfect setting. Chaz had sent out an advanced email about the trip with a pretty regimented “daily cadence” and we had all carefully noted the inclusion of a daily cocktail hour at home. With a view like the one outside our porch, we had no objections. (We would have had few objections to a cocktail hour regardless of the setting; but the view was an extra special added touch.)

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We sat outside with our drinks and a snack of spiced nuts imported from Joanna’s kitchen until the sun began to set. While Maine, as the easternmost state in the country, is generally noted for its sunrises, being on the western side of the island afforded us some pretty spectacular views over the course of the week.

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As the sun dipped below the horizon line, we piled back into the cars and made our way to Burning Tree, one of Chaz and Liz’s favorite local restaurants. Notable for both its seafood and vegetarian entrees, it was a perfect fit for our group.

Overwhelmed by all of the excitement on the menu, we settled on a game plan of appetizers for the table and individual entrees (on the condition that sampling would be permitted across the table).

Upfront, we ordered seafood fritters with a spicy aioli, clams with crispy kale, crab and mango salad, stuffed squash blossoms, and a gorgonzola and beet salad. (The latter two are not photographed below, possibly because I was last in the circular rotation to receive them and was too focused on making sure I didn’t lose out against anyone eagerly seeking seconds.) As a huge seafood fan generally, I was already thrilled about what the week ahead looked like it would offer.

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Our main courses were all gorgeous, in addition to being positively delicious. Depicted below: halibut and mussels in a coconut curry sauce, ordered by both Joanna and Maureen; Ben’s monkfish with eggplant in a Thai chili sauce; Chaz’s chicken, clams and chorizo pan roast, cooked in its own savory juices; Liz’s sole, one of the evening’s specials, served in cream sauce over spinach; Seth’s Indian stuffed cabbage (have you identified the vegetarian?); and my very delicious swordfish cooked with lemon, almonds and roasted tomatoes.

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We were all too full for dessert, but sampled the two most exciting options anyway: a blueberry lemon tart (which I loved, but Chaz called “too lemon-y”) and a peach ginger cake with Persian vanilla ice cream.

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With plans for a very early rise the following day, we returned to the house, dispersed to our respective bedrooms — Ben and I took the bunk beds with an epic water view — and fell into a restful slumber.

Long days of summer

Written by Chaz on 16 September 2012

IMG_6947After sleeping late yet again, I woke up to another breakfast of a Swedish sandwich and coffee and sat out reading for a bit. Torbjörn and I then set out on bicycles to the nearby town of Bergshamra, where there is a small grocery store, to pick up some food. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, and our route took us through a farm, down to the water to a marina and into town.

I learned at the ICA grocery store in Bergshamra that you can order alcohol that is otherwise only sold at Systembolaget and have it sent to a rural grocery store, so that alcohol is available in places too sparsely populated for a Systembolaget store. I guess that’s more convenient, and it just goes to show the level of dedication to keeping the monopoly and making it workable.

Arriving home, we walked down to the beach for a quick dip in the Baltic under the broad blue sky.

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After swimming, I sat out on the porch and shelled shrimp for dinner before making some more headway in my book. Dinner was pasta with shrimp, salad, and white wine, followed by a dessert of rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce and ice cream, and of course coffee.

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The light was so nice after dinner that we did a quick photo shoot to remember the trip by, and then, still not wanting to go inside, we took a very long walk down to another bay, where the sun’s last rays were especially beautiful.

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We woke relatively early on Sunday and immediately headed for the dock, where an early swim was especially cold and thus very quick. We cleaned up and had a very relaxing breakfast all together on the porch, with smörgåsar with spicy tomato-ginger marmalade, cereal, filmjölk, coffee, and orange juice.

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Anna, Karin and Nils had to return to Stockholm that afternoon, so we made a trip of taking them to the bus in Norrtälje. We walked around town a little bit and looked in at Akeba, a neat furniture and home goods store.

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We had a fika at Tre Praliner, where we had actually eaten three years earlier when my mother visited Sweden. We sat out on the deck with kanelbullar, chokladbollar and coffee.

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IMG_7034After our fika, we drove over to the bus station with more than enough time for their bus to Stockholm, and sure enough, as we walked up to the platform with 15 minutes to spare, the bus was pulling up. But as we chatted and said a long goodbye, the bus pulled away! It turned out that the buses actually leave for Stockholm every 15 minutes, so we had been looking at the bus before theirs. Another bus came along shortly, we repeated our goodbyes, and they were on their way.

Erik, Torbjörn and I drove over to Coop, the grocery store, where we recycled various things into several bins: plastic, metal, paper, colored glass and uncolored glass. A large sign proclaimed that light bulbs could not be recycled there, and believe it or not, we actually did have a light bulb to recycle. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Portlandia, one of our favorite showsthis scene, to be specific.

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After yet another grocery self-scanning experience, we drove back to Lögla, where we had a relaxing afternoon, reading on the porch and taking a long swim at the beach. We began making dinner, for which we had big ambitions.

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Round one of dinner, a salmon vegetable stir-fry with rice, was excellent, and very attractive in the cooking process.

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Round two came a bit later: chorizo with korvbröd, senap (Swedish mustard), ketchup, rostadlök (the Swedish fried onions), grilled halloumi, and beer. It was excellent in a very different way from the stir-fry.

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After dinner, we took one last long walk around Lögla. Throughout the trip, I had been remarking on how much the Stockholm archipelago reminded me of Maine, my favorite place in the world, and how my Swedish family ought to come visit us there. As we looked over the water at the sunset, Torbjörn turned me and said with a knowing smile, “Very Maine, right?”

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The next morning, we woke up very early and set off for Arlanda airport, where I said goodbye to Torbjörn and Erik, pledging that we would see each other again very soon. As I made my way through airport check-in, and security, and into the departure lounge, speaking Swedish at every step, I realized how far my Swedish language skills had come, and how much further even they had developed on my 10-day trip — not just in vocabulary or grammar but also in just feeling comfortable using it. I picked up a Stockholm newspaper in the airport, which appropriately enough contained a story about Providence. I also seized the opportunity to have one last Swedish breakfast.

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My flight took me through Amsterdam, where I saw a Lego model of the Amsterdam airport and enjoyed one of my favorite beers in its homeland.

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Yet another wonderful time in Sweden. The next one can’t come soon enough.

Open-air entertainment

Written by Chaz on 21 August 2012

The next morning, we met some of Erik’s friends at the natural history museum near Stockholm University, where I studied during my first visit to Sweden. We spent a few hours exploring the museum and had the “day’s menu” lunch in its cafeteria. Having had enough of the museum, we took the subway back downtown to Östermalmstorg, known for its food hall, which I also visited during my last stay in Stockholm. Erik and I stopped for a fika there.

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We walked from the food hall to the spårvagn, a trolley that connects downtown Stockholm to Djurgården, the lush island that holds the open-air museum of Skansen. As we had done a year before, we were planning to attend the evening’s broadcast of “Allsång på Skansen,” a nationally televised singalong, held on eight Tuesdays in the summer and hosted for a second year by Måns Zelmerlöw, who got famous after he was on the Swedish version of American Idol. The show, which features a mixture of traditional Swedish songs and more modern songs performed by each week’s guests, is a perfect example of something that’s culturally ubiquitous in Sweden but absolutely unknown elsewhere — in other words, world-famous in Sweden. I was especially excited to see the show again because among the guests were Markus Krunegård, one of the artists I’ve gotten to know from listening to Swedish radio at my desk — part of my strategy to keep my Swedish up; the Original Band, an ABBA tribute featuring members of the original backup band; and Miss Li, another Swedish artist.

Our trip on the spårvagn took us past the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, which was hosting a stage performance version of Ingmar Bergman’s famous “Fanny and Alexander.”

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After we bought admission tickets to Stockholm, Erik and I had a bit of time before the broadcast’s rehearsal, so we walked around the museum a bit. The museum is a combination of traditional Swedish architecture and a zoo of Nordic animals.

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The Nordic animals were much more present than on any of my previous visits to Skansen, and we saw reindeer, brown bears, red foxes, lynx, and buffalo.

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Heading back to the Skansen stage, we met Karin, a friend of Erik’s from high school, and a few Japanese exchange students, and found a place to watch the Allsång rehearsal.

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We got a few korvar, Swedish hot dogs which are vastly superior to their American counterparts, for dinner after the rehearsal, and hurried back to claim our spot. The show was fantastic, and we had a great view of the action. By this point in my visit, I had already figured out with delight that my Swedish was much, much better than it had been a year prior, so it was fun to be able to follow along with the show much more.

IMG_6627Above, Måns Zelmerlöw, the show’s host. Below, the Original Band perform “Dancing Queen.”
IMG_6642IMG_6638Above: Miss Li, and the crowd at Skansen. Below: A celebration of fifty years of the Svensktoppen list of hit music, and Markus Krunegård.

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We retired from a great evening at Skansen to a pub downtown for a few drinks before heading home. After sleeping late again the next day, we were re-energized and headed back downtown for my last full day in Stockholm. I spent a bit exploring some of the stores in the central shopping district, including the trendy new Weekday.

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Erik and I had an early dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant near Odenplan called Tang Long Pho that, despite being written up in the newspaper, was just mediocre. We took the tunnelbana down to Zinkensdamm, on Södermalm, and walked up to Skinnarviksberget, a rock outcropping that overlooks the lake Mälaren over to Kungsholmen and Gamla Stan. Erik’s friend Koppen met us again and we watched the sun set. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we were far from the only people who wanted to enjoy the view of the city.

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We retreated shortly after sunset to Koppen’s and not long thereafter to Spånga. Stockholm had once again been very good to me.

Sun and water

Written by Chaz on 19 August 2012

The next morning, after sleeping very late again, Erik and I made our way back to the pendeltåg and rode it downtown, where we found a beautiful city bathed in fine weather.

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We walked down toward Kungsträdgården and spent a few minutes exploring NK, an enormous department store where we met up with Erik’s friend Patrik and walked across Gamla Stan to Södermalm. We turned left along Katarinavägen and watched the many enormous ferries down below. It was a truly beautiful day, and the view across the water was stunning.

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Meeting Koppen, another of Erik’s friends, we walked down a long staircase to Stockholm’s photography museum, which sits on the water’s edge. We ordered beers from the museum’s adorable cafe, outside overlooking the sea. Sitting on the shore, overlooking the city and sipping pale ale was one of the most memorable moments of my trip.

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We parted ways with Koppen and Patrik and took the tunnelbana back downtown, where we walked up to Hötorget to have dinner at a Scandinavian restaurant called Pyttirian in the Kungshallen food hall. I ordered pytt i panna, a traditional Swedish dish whose name means “little pieces in a pan.” It could have passed as a breakfast dish in America, though it was heartier and more savory: a hash of diced meat, onions and potatoes, with a fried egg, cucumber and pickled beets. Erik opted for a smörrebröd, a traditional Danish open-faced sandwich, of Brie cheese, bacon and sundried tomato. Both were very good, and different from other things I’ve had. Even though I spent four months in Sweden, I didn’t do a very good job of exploring the local cuisine.

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We had planned to meet up with Patrik again after dinner to sit outside and enjoy the Swedish evening sun with a few beers. In order to do that, we needed to get a few beers. And, of course, there’s only one store in Sweden that sells normal-strength beer: the state-run alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. And when you’re trying to buy alcohol at a reasonable after-dinner hour, nearly every Systembolaget has already closed its doors. Every evening, the Systembolaget across from the train station in central Stockholm, which has slightly longer hours than most, becomes one of the few stores in the entire country that will sell you alcohol. And very likely, you aren’t the only Swede who would like something to drink.

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Not only was there a long line both inside and outside the Systembolaget, but the scene inside was one of the most unruly and chaotic I have ever seen in Sweden. Apparently the bunch of Swedes who shop for booze at the very last minute in the last place in the country selling it are not among Sweden’s most rule-following. We selected a few beers, waited in the long line to pay and made our way out just before closing time.

We met Patrik again and walked over to Skeppsholmen, a small island in central Stockholm that has a bunch of green space and the city’s modern art museum. The island is one of my favorite places in Stockholm for its views from every side, and we picked a nice patch of grass to sit and enjoy the sun. We stayed until nearly eleven, when the light finally began to fade.

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Erik and I returned to Spånga shortly thereafter and again enjoyed a long night’s sleep.

A night in the white dunes

Written by Chaz on 30 July 2012

IMG_1943Eric and I continued our journey east from Las Cruces through the Organ Mountains, headed toward White Sands National Monument. Based on a bit of Internet research I had done, we took a short driving detour through the Organ Mountain National Recreation Area, which sits just east of town on Bureau of Land Management land. It turned out to be a perfect detour on a hot desert day: a one-way scenic drive into the small but dramatic cluster of mountains that looped right back to the highway.

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White Sands National Monument is encompassed entirely by the enormous White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity nuclear test. Fortunately, lawmakers had the foresight to carve out the most beautiful portion for protection as a national monument. But the rest of the missile range remains in some mysterious use by the military, and in fact the park and the highway through it are closed from time to time to allow for unknown military exercises. Already, from the Organ Mountains drive, we could see mysterious government buildings out to the east in the middle of the desert, and we were warned to mind our business by a rather ominous sign.

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Returning to the highway, we pushed east toward the monument, stopping only briefly at a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint that was nearly 100 miles from the Mexican border. I had no idea that these internal checkpoints existed, much less that they could possibly be constitutional, especially since the only check performed seemed to be whether the occupants of each car were white. But there it was, and of course, Eric and I were waved through the absurd checkpoint without even a question.

The entrance to the national monument lay just beyond, and we pulled into the visitor center to register for the backcountry permit that would allow us to hike and in spend the night. At 4:30, only three of the 10 campsites had been reserved, so we had our pick of sites, choosing one that was a little further in so that we would be less likely to see other campers. The park ranger also gave us a stern warning about unexploded munitions that could still be scattered around the park from military tests of yesteryear. Given that the park is sand dune after sand dune, the chance that you would actually be able to avoid stepping on an unexploded munition seems low. Fortunately, we ended up emerging alive.

We stopped to apply sunscreen, since even in the late afternoon the sun was still roasting the desert, and were then ready to begin exploring.

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Our first stop along the eight-mile Dunes Drive was the Playa Trail, a short walk into a desert playa, essentially the remainder of what was long ago a lake. Though the park’s trademark white sand dunes were visible in the distance, we were not quite there.

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Our second stop was at the Dune Life Nature Trail, a loop trail that took us deeper into the beautiful white dunes. Our walk was narrated on a series of signs by Katy the Kit Fox, who explained that not very much wildlife is able to survive in the dunes, because there just isn’t anything to eat — not to mention the lack of water.

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But, as the signs explained, some things can survive in the dunes. Two struck me as noteworthy. In some places in the dunes, there are actually cottonwood trees growing right out of the sand. Cottonwood trees thrive near riverbeds, and because they need so much water, that’s usually the only place they can be found. In fact, the last time I saw them was along the Virgin River gorge when we were in Zion National Park. How, then, can they possible exist in a place as dry as White Sands? Apparently a generous aquifer is just a few feet below the surface in some places. You’d never know it from the surface. But these trees have their roots essentially in a riverbed, just as they like it.

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The second amazing bit of wildlife was three species of lizard that have all evolved, only within White Sands, to be white instead of their original darker colors so that they can avoid predators. As the dunes are only about 6,000 years old, this evolution is much, much faster than you can usually find anywhere else, and as a result, the lizards have gained national attention. The darker lizards must have been simply unable to survive at all.

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Returning to the car, we made one more stop at the Interdune Boardwalk, a short promenade into the dunes where we asked a stranger to take a picture of us.

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We drove the rest of the Dunes Drive around to the backcountry camping parking lot. On the way, we saw people engaging in what is apparently one of the most popular draws of the park: sledding. In a flat place that won’t get much snow, the dunes are a fun place to sled year-round.

The backcountry campsites are arranged around a loop trail, each about a mile’s hike from the parking lot — somewhat closer to the car than my last backcountry experience. We stopped in the parking lot to get our things together before heading into the dunes. It was a bit more organized than in the parking lot of the North Kaibab Trail, starting with the fact that we had actual backpacks.

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Along the mile-long walk to our campsite, we began to hit the true unadulterated beauty of White Sands. The unblemished snow-white dunes were unreal in their scale and grandeur, especially as the sun began to hang lower over the desert. If you visit White Sands and do not opt for the five-mile Alkali Flat Trail, I highly recommend the backcountry camping trail as a much shorter but equally beautiful alternative.

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We arrived shortly at our campsite and set up our tent in our incredible surroundings.

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Though our tent was in a dune basin, we climbed to the top of the closest dune to make dinner and watch the sunset. We had brought freeze-dried chicken and rice for dinner. Expiration date: “lasts for years.” We set up the camp stove and began to boil water as the evening light fell over the endless ridges of white sand that surrounded us.

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After we resolved some technical difficulties with our camp stove, the water boiled and we poured it into the plastic bags of dried chicken and rice. A few minutes later, our delicious feast was ready.

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As we watched the sunset from our position atop the dunes, we could see a forest fire raging far in the distance. Little did we know how close it would end up being to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso.

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We rose at 5:30 on Saturday morning and struck camp, stuffing everything back into our backpacks for the short hike back to the parking lot. The dunes looked radiant in the early-morning light.

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We had a quick bite to eat at the car before driving to the trailhead of the Alkali Flat Trail, a longer five-mile jaunt into the dunes. We rose early to avoid the extreme desert heat that the day would bring, and sure enough, the temperature had not reached 80 degrees by the time we returned to the car at about 8:30. Our 6:30 start also meant we were the only people on the trail, as the gates to the park aren’t open until 7:00. The only way to be inside the park earlier than that is to spend the night.

The Alkali Flat Trail, which guided us using a series of plastic orange posts that sometimes were not as evident as one might like, took us nearly to the edge of the dunes, where the sand fades into a large alkali flat. Off in the distance we could see more military buildings.

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We returned to the car, tired but accomplished, and logged our time-out in the trail register in the parking lot, presumably used to make sure no one is lost in the dunes.

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Though we didn’t meet Katy the Kit Fox during our time in the park, we did see evidence of plenty of wildlife. Seemingly around every turn was a new set of footprints, some apparently from mammals or birds, others from a creature we had been warned about at the visitor center — the stinkbug.

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I had wanted to visit White Sands for a while, since I realized how close it was to Eric’s vacation house in Ruidoso, and my eagerness grew when I discovered you could spend the night deep in the dunes, which sounded like a particularly exciting way to experience the park. The adventure didn’t disappoint. White Sands was absolutely beautiful, and spending the night under the stars among the dunes rated up there with our night in the Grand Canyon. As we explored the park’s trails, each fresh vista of dune after white dune was breathtakingly different from anything I’d seen before elsewhere.

We drove out of the park and turned east again, toward Alamogordo and lunch.

Winter wonderland

Written by Chaz on 15 May 2012

My mother and I took a quick trip over President’s Day to Maine, one of my favorite places in the world. I have visited Acadia National Park every year of my life, visiting even before my first birthday, and it is like a second home. One of the things that excited me most about living in Boston was how close I would be. So for my first long weekend, it seemed like a logical trip to make. My mother flew into Boston from Philadelphia, and we rented a car and drove from here. We stayed with friends of ours who are lucky enough to live there.

When we made the plans, I assumed we would have snow and do winter things like snowshoe and cross-country ski. Though it was still pretty cold, there was zero snow, thanks to our very mild winter. At first I found this very disappointing, but after we stopped at L.L.Bean in Freeport and bought the poor man’s version of crampons, I realized we were actually lucky. We were able to do almost all the hiking we do in the summer. The only obstacle was that most of the park roads are closed.

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We arrived late Friday night and were up early Saturday to hit the mountains in the short sunlight. We parked on Route 233 by the padlocked gate to the park’s loop road and hiked up the road the base of the Cadillac Mountain North Ridge Trail. The first mile or so of the trail was nearly entirely a sheet of ice, but despite my mother’s fearful protests, we made it safely to a beautiful view.

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We made the most of our short three days, driving around the island to our favorite haunts, catching pizza and a movie at my favorite movie theater ever, and a fancier dinner at Red Sky in Southwest Harbor. We did an impressive amount outside, too — a bunch of sightseeing and small hiking after our trek on Cadillac.

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I did one other longer hike the morning before we left, summiting Pemetic Mountain. It was a very different feeling than in the summer, even though the trail was very usable. I didn’t meet a single soul along the way and had to park at another padlocked gate and hike in from there. Knowing I was one of very few people to be seeing the views from the top made them even more special. Though it was cold, it was a very clear, blue day, and I could see islands and mountains for miles around.

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As we left Mount Desert Island to drive home, we took a detour over to Schoodic Peninsula, the only section of Acadia on the mainland, across Frenchman Bay to the east. The peninsula, which is ringed by a six-mile loop road that makes a great bike ride in the summer and is plowed in the winter, offers sweeping views back toward the bald mountains on Mount Desert. Though we did not stay long, we felt like we had made the most of what the park had to offer in the middle of February.

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We turned south, and the sun began to wane as we drove. The orange-pink light looked beautiful across the frozen surface of Lake St. George.

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We capped off our trip with a dinner stop in Portland, where I had found us J’s Oyster, a seafood restaurant right on the old wharf. We each enjoyed some local brews before I dove into the seafood bouillabaisse, filled with everything the Maine ocean has to offer, and my mother tucked into something a bit more unusual. Apparently it is agains the law to sell scallops on the half-shell in the state of Maine — they have to be shucked on the boat — but our waitress has the one exception currently granted anywhere in the state. So my mother enjoyed her scallops, which had been baked into puff pastry.

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The weekend was incredibly relaxing. For me, Acadia is a place where I can immediately unwind and recharge. It was also the most time I had spent outside in a couple months, and I returned to Boston rejuvenated and ready to go back to work.

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The adventure spirit of the southwest

Written by Chaz on 5 October 2011

Our second day at the Grand Canyon started early. If there’s one thing I got better at on this trip, it was getting up early. (Actually, it was probably endurance hiking.) But we were in the car heading to watch the sunrise from Point Imperial within minutes after our 5:15 alarm. The cold was extreme, and we were both wearing every layer we had brought.

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Point Imperial is the highest point on the North Rim, and we were joined there by two other extremely intense photographers to catch the sun’s first rays.

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Though we had planned to make coffee at Point Imperial and enjoy the sunrise, our lighter’s premature demise prevented us from doing so, so we hightailed it back to the North Rim to visit the Rough Rider Saloon, which starts each day as a coffee shop before transitioning to a bar just before lunch hour. As we drove, the sun’s new light on the rim’s landscape looked beautiful.

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We took our coffee out to the porch, where we sat on the Adirondack chairs, contemplated the canyon in front us, and began to plan our day. A young man came over to us, and seeing the way we were studying our maps, asked whether we were planning a trip into the canyon. I admitted that I was flirting with the idea of trying a short one, but that we didn’t have any real hiking backpacks, which would make it tough. He encouraged us to try it anyway. He had just completed a “rim-to-rim” hike, and said it was amazing.

Encouraged by this advice, we returned our campsite after replenishing our lighter and chocolate supply at the general store. We packed our bags with snacks and lunch for the day’s hike and drove over to the backcountry permit office to discuss our plans with a ranger.

Though the ranger seemed pretty skeptical of my plan to tie our sleeping bags onto day packs, she encouraged us to go for it. “If it were me, I would definitely do it,” she said. So we headed back to our campsite once more for a dry run of our packing system, using twine to tie our sleeping bags — which were not exactly compact models — onto our backpacks. Lo and behold, it worked, and while our packs were far from light, we decided to pull the trigger on an overnight trip down into the canyon. One quick trip back to the permit office, and we had an official permit in hand for one night at Cottonwood Campground, seven miles down the North Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon.

Our plans finalized, we were at last ready to start our hike for the day. We had decided to tackle the trail out to Widfors Point, which winds five miles through the North Rim forest out to a beautiful overlook. The first two miles were peppered with intermittent views into the canyon, and then we meandered through the forest for the last three before spilling out onto the end of Widfors Point, where we had lunch: turkey, muenster, avocado, cashew sandwiches and our leftover Jacob Lake Inn cookies.

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We hiked back to the car and returned to our campsite, where we went into full production mode for the food we’d need for our trip into the canyon. Once we had a few things squared away, we were ready to relax for the evening, so we drove back down to the rim and ordered drinks at the Rough Rider Saloon to take out onto the porch for sunset. The Adirondack chairs were much more crowded than earlier that morning, but we managed to snag two. The pastel colors of the day’s last sunlight on the ridges of the canyon were just gorgeous.

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We returned to our campsite for a long-awaited Mexico night. We had a full selection of salsa, guacamole, chips and Mexican beer to kick off dinner, and Emmy whipped up a delicious Southwestern-inspired dish of spicy chicken sausage, refried beans with jalapeño, a blend of Mexican cheeses, fresh bell peppers, onion and corn salsa. It was perhaps her best campsite creation, and went very well with our surroundings.

IMG_6247Taken during a daytime encore.

As we cooked, I had to make two emergency runs to the general store as we realized we had neither propane nor graham crackers. But once we were restocked, fed and s’moresed, we headed to bed early, excited and nervous for the odyssey that lay ahead.