What It Takes To Get To The Top: Lessons Learned While Hiking a Volcano

MSHIn early September, I climbed to the summit of Mt. St. Helens.

It took 11.5 hours to cover more than 11 miles and 4,500 feet up and down in elevation.

This wasn’t on my bucket list. I didn’t train for it. And yet those miles that day taught me more than I’ve learned in the last 10 years reading, writing, and working.

There’s a great song from Ben Raptor called 30,000 Feet with a line that says, “Sometimes it takes the sky to see what’s on the ground.” With that in mind, here are some key takeways (along with a few blisters) that came from being at 8,328 feet.

Just Say Yes

I have lived in Seattle for 10 years and have long wanted to go visit Mt. St. Helens yet there seemed to always be a reason why I never made it. So when a friend shared a common goal to see the mountain, we agreed to go together. Permits are needed to climb to the top and they usually sell out months in advance. A few days before, however, a few were available so we spontaneously decided to climb all the way.

There were many (many, many) reasons why I should have said no. It was a workday, I didn’t own hiking boots, I had never climbed a mountain before, and so on. I also remembered the times in my career when I was asked to take on an assignment, join a project, or expand out of my comfort zone. Each time I said yes brought big leaps for me professionally.

Early in our climb, we came upon another group. We intersected with them off and on throughout the day and the conversation was a welcome distraction. Ed was climbing with his friends and his teenage daughter. He had climbed the volcano at least a dozen times over the last twenty years and offered trekking tips during the miles.

Ed would look up toward the path and offer a few points about the next part of the climb. It was only on the way back down that I really appreciated how he gave advice in bite-size pieces. If I had known all the difficulties about the terrain at the beginning, it would have been overwhelming.

At rest stops, he talked about the reward of the climb, the sense of accomplishment ahead, and the fact that it was doable. He offered a few technical tips but mainly he was a calm voice as the miles stretched across the hours.

Your Pace Is The Right Pace

“There will come a part where you have to just measure it in steps,” said Ed. “Sometimes it’ll be a good stretch before you need to stop. Sometimes you may just get to seven steps. Take ‘em as they come.”

When he said that, I had been worrying about keeping pace with the group. Soon after, fatigue ground down my self-consciousness and I started focusing on my own steps. There were stretches were the only view I had was of my dusty boots. As it became more of a struggle, I started counting steps. At first, I could get to 44 before stopping. Then it got to 17. Toward the end, I didn’t even get to double digits.

We passed over a large section of boulders and every single step had to be calculated. I used my feet and hands to steady myself as I assessed the next option before adjusting my footing or route. As a group, we journeyed in the same direction but each of us wove the way a little differently. Other than large wooden posts marking the route, there wasn’t a single dedicated path. It was a step-by-step decision made person-by-person.

Grit Gets You There

Physically, my body wasn’t trained but it endured. Having recovered from blood clots in my legs and lungs nearly five years ago and finishing three half marathons and numerous races since then, I have the greatest respect for the machine of the human body. My body was physically exhausted yet nearly numb from the exertion. I knew it would do what it needed to do to finish the task.

The real challenge, in every way, was looking up and not back. “You’re more than two-thirds there,” Ed said as we took a break near a seismic monitor. “Just so you know, the last 1,200 feet will make you question the entire journey.”

The group kept an eye on the time. Even though it was still technically summer, we were conscious of losing daylight on the way back down.

“If we aren’t at the top in the next hour, we should think about turning back,” someone said.

I was pissed. We’d been climbing for over five hours. I was beyond exhausted.

“No,” I panted. “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

The truth was, I didn’t know if I could make it. There came a stretch where I seriously questioned if finishing was worth it. I told myself I could make the decision at any time to finish where I was. While I didn’t say it to anyone else, giving myself permission to decide my finish line was the best step I took that whole day.

Don’t Ask, Just Do

I was so happy to be done climbing over rough boulders that the final sandy path looked like a welcome break. Made of ash and stone, this layer is known as scree. But it felt like quicksand, pulling me back into doubt and fatigue.

One of the other climbers came up alongside me. “This is the part where you ask yourself why you did this,” he said with a laugh.

I glanced over at him, “Please tell me we’re almost there.”

“I wish I could,” he said. “There’s more ahead of the curve there.”

He slowly moved ahead of me and I was swimming in doubt. I wasn’t sure I could do this. I didn’t know how much I had left in me physically. I looked up and saw a couple members of the group at a landing. I could hear muffled talking and laughing, and I saw my friend give me a thumbs up signal.

Okay, I decided, I’ll meet up with them and then decide if I can go any further. Knowing there was a stopping point propelled me the last hundred-plus steps.

I dropped my bag and sat down on the dirt. There was cloud coverage around us which provided a temporary relief from the afternoon sun. My legs were stretched in front of me, throbbing. I saw Ed and his daughter coming up the scree path from where I just finished. I reached for a snack and sat there slowly letting my breathing return.

My friend came over and sat next to me.

“We did it!” he said.

Wait, what?

“We got to the top,” he said.

“This is it? This? Here?” I said.

“Look behind you,” he replied.

I turned and the clouds had lifted. I was feet away from the edge of the crater. I stared into the cavernous dip into the mountainside. There were colors everywhere. Trees and rock and sand and sky.

I whipped back around. “This is it? This is it?”

The others started laughing as I ran around hugging them. I had finished my journey and literally sat at the finish without knowing it. I was still in my head back on the mountain. I lost the joy of the final stretch of this hike because I was obsessing about how much more there might be.

I let someone else’s words change my view. I let information weigh me down when all I needed was a little more effort. I reflected on this as we started the step-and-slide back down that same sandy pathway.

The weather shifted again and nestled lower against the mountain. We weren’t just at the top of a volcano; for a few moments, we were standing above the clouds.

The adrenaline of the day gave way to fatigue during the hours it took to get back down. As we crossed into the shaded forest area near the end, the last mile felt like four. I was gritty, salty, worn. And lighter. I carried less. Less doubt, less fear, less information floating in my head.

Sometimes being unprepared is the best thing that can happen. Not knowing what you are in for liberates you to experience places you would never otherwise go. And to see things a little differently on the ground. And remember there is a view above the clouds.

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The Gift of Cuba: Espíritu du Aventura (The Spirit of Adventure)

The idea was spontaneous and sure.

Jen and I were discussing my upcoming birthday and ticking off a list of potential activities. “Is there anything you want?” she asked.

“Honestly, no,” I said. “There’s nothing I want that could fit in a box.”

She and I worked together for years at a travel company so talking about places to go was a favorite pastime. I don’t remember who said it first, but when Cuba was mentioned we both just smiled. Si, regalo de Cuba (Yes, the gift of Cuba).

Less than two weeks before we left, we hadn’t booked anything other than our plane tickets. Our Americano bravado was lacking any details. Thankfully a friend recommended Joslin Fritz at Experience Cuba and she created a custom itinerary that took us in a travel triangle of Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero.

cuba_map

Even as experienced world travelers, there was much to learn as we prepared to meet our 500-year-old Caribbean cousin, just 90 miles off the shore of Florida. U.S. phones and bank cards don’t work and U.S. currency exchange has a hefty conversion fee. So we exchanged our money into Euros then traded that into the Cuban peso. Once our money laundering was done, we had to adjust our American pay-by-plastic habit and be more cash conscious. That, in itself, lent more awareness and appreciation to each purchase.

As of June 2017, only a limited number of U.S. airports had direct flights so we had a layover in Los Angeles then on to Havana. As we walked outside the airport, we were greeted by a full tropical thunderstorm that was a sign of the cleansing to come in the week ahead.

We were met at our casa by Marlon, who along with our driver Cubita, were our tour guides and personal pals for the week. Most hotels are joint ventures with the Cuban government but bed and breakfast-style casas are becoming common. We stayed in a 5-bedroom house that had been a mansion in the 1900s and our hosts treated us as extended family, setting fresh smoothies and full breakfasts for us on a dining table outside our bedrooms.

For three days, Marlon wove us through the sites and streets of Havana, which is home to 2.2 million of the 11 million people across the island. The neighborhoods were a mix of colorful homes and buildings in varying states of disrepair. Crumbled sidewalks ran alongside restored hospitals and playgrounds. Neighborhood parks were full of people using the designated wifi hotspots and internet cards (pictured below) since the wireless infrastructure is still limited.

To escape the afternoon sun, we would step in a bar for a drink. “Where are the places you go to eat?” we asked.

“Most of the restaurants are for the tourists,” he said, pointing to a dish on the menu. “See this? That’s about a month’s wages for most people.”

It was a $15 entree.

Our perspective deepened the next day as we visited an outdoor market. About 70 percent of food in Cuba is imported so, in 1962, the government started a food distribution system known as the Libreta de Abastecimiento (“supplies booklet”). Each family gets monthly rations of meat, rice, cheese, etc. and the markets list prices based on that month’s options. “Most of our meat is either pork or lamb,” Marlon said, explaining that the government controls the limited supply of beef and that most seafood gets sold to restaurants because it commands a higher price. True tourism supply and demand.

Four amigosCuba comes with a soundtrack. Music surrounds you indoors and out. We spent hours in the car with Cubita and Marlon sharing our favorite songs, trading phones and speaker plugs as we played carpool DJ. On these drives, Marlon brought his computer and showed us music videos of wildly popular songs like La Gozadera and Despecito. As the countryside rolled by our windows, we learned how Cuba’s free education system helps train doctors from all over the world and listened to President Obama’s speech in Havana in 2016. We learned, laughed, then turned up the music.

From our rain shower welcome, water became a symbol for us during our trip. We went to the gorgeous Santa Maria beach (above left) outside of Havana where the warm Atlantic Ocean felt like cashmere on our pale skin. We went snorkeling in the salty water of the Bay of Pigs (above right). The area was so unspoiled that we simply followed the trail of discarded sandals to enter the Bay on a two-rung ladder.

Across the street was Cueva de los Peces where a collapsed cave created a natural pool that was 230 feet deep. Still in our wet swimsuits, we ate lunch at an open air restaurant where they served fresh shrimp, lobster, fish, and crocodile (um, tastes like pork).

Salto WaterfallThe best water we found in a week of amazing spots was the Salto de Javira waterfall in El Cubano National Park near Trinidad. After hiking in the heat, we came to a wide swimming area that wrapped around to a small cave where a waterfall spilled over the rocks. The cool water filtered into our bones and I found a mossy rock underwater where I could sit and absorb the beauty. Jen and I made our way into the cave so we could swim under the waterfall.

“I wonder how that bird got in here,” I said as she swam toward me in the cave. “Oh, that’s not a bird. Looks like there are bats in–”

“I’m out!” she yelled and swam away with Olympic speed.

I had to hold on to the side of the cave I was laughing too hard to swim.

We stayed in a local hostel in Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, where we saw the early European influence in the building design, the local museums, and clunky cobblestone streets. We went to a local salsa club and spun to Spanish words then sat outside under the moon, drinking mojitos on stone steps.

Our last two days were spent in Varadero, a resort town, where we mingled with happy tourists and lingering couples. We sampled all sorts of rum goodness (“we call it vitamin R,” Marlon said) and stretched out into lazy days. We wandered on the beach and raced to write our names in the sand before the waves wiped them away.

There is no box big enough for the gift of Cuba and no blog long enough to do it justice (although I wrote this one for LinkedIn and still left so much out).

Less than a week after we returned, the U.S. announced it would revisit the détente. Another chess move in a long game of power and posturing from both countries. But, this time, I can see beyond the news headlines and have a better appreciation for the implications.

During our days, I would pause to take pictures and notes, trying to quickly capture all the stories. The funny thing is that the stories found me, much more than I can faithfully capture here. Offering there is only a quick snapshot of a different view of the world. A few moments, in a moment in time, when history seems both suspended and serendipitous. Whatever comes next, the story of Cuba of its people is still being written.

Re-entry: Three Months Into the Next Year of Life

One morning over the holiday break, I was eating waffles and reading an ESPN article about the Chicago Cubs and their victorious World Series win. The article started by citing a recent scientific study on happiness and concluded that the net-positive affect of a sudden change in fortune would last about three months. Ninety days of a karmic lift.

So you can wait 108 years for a baseball championship and enjoy it for, let’s see, a fiscal quarter? Seems a little unbalanced but also indicative of our human-ness. We all wish and want for more and, oftentimes, it is the motivation to embark on change. But achievement does have a fading effect. Tastes great, less filling.

I certainly felt that in my professional life during the times when I would capture one of the brass rings that I was leaning off my carousel horse to capture. And I felt it again in my elongated life sabbatical, although the happiness cloud lasted much longer than three months.

One morning six months into my sabbatical, I was sitting alone on a beach in Mexico. I had been given a job offer the week before and was feeling the pressure to take it. I knew I wasn’t ready to give up my time away from working. My happiness high was still in place so I found the courage to say no, not yet, not now.

It was another three months before I started to feel open to returning to work. I woke up from a dream where I was sitting in a room with different people and we were all working on something together. I liked the idea of being part of a team again and started having coffees and conversations which led to two great options. I made the more academic choice, following money and benefits plus they offered me a late start so I could finish summer and join the company in the fall once my kids were back in school.

It also allowed me to squeeze in two more trips to satisfy my ever-present travel itch. And then, I found myself in a hallway one Monday morning waiting for my new hire group to be called in for orientation. day-oneAfter 15 months as a career hippie, I ended up in a room with 300 people joining one of the largest companies in the world.  I didn’t just get back on the carousal, I went to corporate Disney World to do it. But a few things happened on the way back to the professional party. I purposely chose a smaller role than what I had before, hoping to experiment with a real work-life balance and test a theory that my previous workaholism was largely self-induced.

Here are a few observations from three months back in:

keyboardAssuming the problem is mine. It took me 30 minutes on my first day to figure out that my computer keyboard was broken and not that I wasn’t installing it correctly. I just assumed I wasn’t doing something right. Having that happen on my first day has helped me since to pause when I encounter something and do a “keyboard” check. Is there something obvious that I’m missing? If so, raise the new-girl flag and carry on.

There’s a liberation in not being in charge. I readily gave up my professional stature when I left my last job, but it’s one thing to be intentionally unemployed and it’s another to be intentionally in the middle. For me and for now, there are more benefits to not being important. I go to less meetings. I leave on time most days. I’m not caught up in discussion, debate, and endless wordsmithing. And there’s frustration in that, too. You don’t get to decide on the big changes or even help influence them. I now receive the information, not create it. But again, for me and for now, it’s worth it.

There’s a lot of boredom and tedium in being new. A few weeks ago, I went to a meeting about upcoming changes that had multi-components. I sat there for an hour and understood only about 15% of what was being said. I have two master’s degrees, but I couldn’t follow the conversation despite having read a six-page paper on the topic before the meeting. At first, I was upset that I didn’t get it but then I enjoyed watching the animated exchange of the ideas. Sometimes you don’t have to play an instrument to enjoy the music. Or at least that’s what I told myself while pretending to take notes.

Friends matter. I remember reading about another study that says employee engagement at work is much higher when you have at least one work friend. A large part of why I stayed at my last job for so many years was that I was surrounded by an abundance of good people who became great friends. Starting over someplace new is a lot like being the new kid at school holding your sack lunch at the edge of the cafeteria. But I was lucky. Another woman had started the week before I did. We became fast friends and compared notes on where to find what and who to ask when. We sat at the back of HR-required trainings and passed notes back and forth “Coke or Pepsi? Cats or dogs? Spicy or mild? Cake or pie?” Formal studies aside, work is more fun when you can giggle.

amzn-badge2It’s still a (mostly) guy’s world. I’ve worked in the technology industry for the last decade and I’m used to the conversation of gender bias and balance. Still, I was surprised by how joining a much larger company really exemplifies it. At orientation, I was the only woman at a table of six. I glanced around and, of course, there were other women in the room but it looked like a visual pie chart of 15-20% of my girl club represented. Oftentimes the motion sensor lights kick on when I enter the main restroom on my floor. A colleague recently was mansplaining to me how it’s a good practice to include data if I’m going to do any corporate writing. This is the same person who likes to stare at my chest while he speaks to me. All that said, I’m not having any issues with being a woman in business (aside from data-quoting chest-staring dude).

So three months of acclimation has gone smoothly. I’m still traveling and already took two vacations in the first two months of being back to work and have two more trips planned in the next 12 weeks. You can take a girl outta sabbatical but you can’t take the passport out of her hand. And the paychecks aren’t too bad either.

Wide Open Spaces: Olympic National Park & Transitions

August was stretching lazily toward the end of summer and I was eager to get one more trip in. I was in the middle of negotiating a couple job offers and I could see employment in the hazily outline of the fall so a trip meant more than an adventure, it was a diversion.

After 15 months of happily being on a life & travel sabbatical, the real world was calling. I decided to let it leave a message and get off the grid one last time. Having trekked to nearly 40 cities over many months, I’d had my fill of airports. Plus, it was summer in the Northwest – the glorious season that is the reward for the Seattle rain.

My kids were days away from heading back to school, which meant their noses were inches apart from their technology devices. Unplugged and outdoors was my goal so we packed up dog, boys, and minivan and headed to the Olympic National Park (ONP) in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington.

Officially designated by President Roosevelt in 1909 and then christened a national park by the other President Roosevelt in 1938, the ONP boasts three distinct ecosystems across 922,000 acres and 73 miles of coastline. So you can see rainforests, wildlife and the Pacific Ocean – plus drive through the town Forks from the Twilight book series, so, you know, something for everyone.

I had heard about the Kalaloch Lodge from a friend and I called several times to see if they had any last-minute cancellations on their cabins. At last they did and I booked a one-bedroom cabin. (Note: this technique has proved fruitful many times when traveling. Motto: keep trying.)

We set out the week before Labor Day and it proved to be a quiet week. Several schools had already started and we beat the three-day weekend rush so we enjoyed less traffic on the roads and inside the park. Our cabin wasn’t ready when we arrived but the staff was friendly.

“Go explore Beach 4 while you wait,” we were told. “It’s dog-friendly and just down the road.”

Soft sand and large driftwood spanned in both directions and we joined other nature trekkers and several happy dogs trotting through the surf. Our rescue dog, Lucy, gets a bit skittish around water but she loved climbing up on the rocks and chasing after my guys as they tossed sticks back into the waves.

Fresh from frolicking, we headed back to the Lodge and checked in to our cabin, which was upgraded to a two-bedroom – a happy surprise. Kalaloch has no wi-fi, cell service, TVs in the room, or any other technology access. I mentioned that to the rest of the family only on the drive there.

Our cabin had a rustic vibe but was well-appointed with a kitchenette, walking sticks to use at the beach, and a wood-burning fireplace. My very happy place was in the grassy back area that overlooked the ocean. I sat in the white Adirondack chair and listened to the soundtrack all around me. Every so often on a trip, a moment comes to you that catches you in the here-and-now. This was one of those moments and I knew this little place on Earth was imprinting itself on me.

We wandered past the outdoor firepit on our way to dinner and the crackling wood winked at us as we walked by. The smell of an outdoor fire is a sensory memory for me and I deliberately walked through the smoke cloud to wear it a bit longer as perfume. We arrived just before sunset and were taken to the seat right next to the window.

“Look at the sky, guys,” I said, pointing out the window as we sat. I reached for my phone to capture the moment and realized I didn’t have it. Does anything really happen anymore if we can’t capture it instantly? I settled into my chair, looked across at the kids chattering away and made a mental picture, no hashtag required.

Over the next two days, we explored the Hoh Rainforest, tipping our heads toward the sky to see the tips of trees. We greeted a Sitka spruce that is nearly 200 feet tall and 1,000 years old. We roamed beaches and climbed over clusters of driftwood, eventually picking out a piece to put in our front yard. Our dog allowed her paws to touch the water, the kids dug holes in the sand and threw endless rocks into the waves. We stopped to watch where the fresh water meets salt water and walked along the wet pathway of the hide tide started.

We drove into the towns and ate the daily specials. In our emerging travel tradition, my always-hungry 13-year-old adds a new food to his palate. This time it was clam chowder. “How do they get soup to be white?” he asks, while adding stacks of oyster crackers to the top.

Our last stop was the Dungeness Spit, a 5.5-mile sandspit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We all learned a bit more about geography as we hiked our way down to the Spit through a forest canopy of moss-laded trees. Just north across the water was Victoria, British Columbia where we had been a few months before so our nature nerdfest had come full circle.

onp_dungeness-driftwoodWe settled into dinner on our last night and our phones pinged with news for our kids. Our 5th grader found out his teacher and quickly determined few friends in his class. And both boys made the basketball teams they wanted for the season so there were smiles and root beer toasts all around. The season was ready to tip forward and we lingered that night in the precipice of change a little longer.

Transitions

Being on nearly empty beaches near the end of summer was the best capstone to a Seattle summer and to this year-plus of life. I had been on, over, and in water throughout my journey – from the Mediterranean Sea to Alaskan glacier water – yet there was something about being close to home that helped signal the transition for a new journey.

Less than a week after we were back, I accepted a job. After a long stretch of being unencumbered, I was ready to ease back into corporate life.

A few weeks before I started my new job, we had friends over for dinner. As we lingered at the table between food and laughs, my friend leaned over and asked, “So what’s next after you start this job?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What’s your next step? What’s your dream job?” she said.

I looked up at the ceiling, pondering. It hadn’t thought about this. I brought my wine glass up to my nose then took a long drink. “I don’t have a dream job anymore,” I said. “I only have a dream life.”

And, in that moment, I realized the clarity of it. I had relinquished all my Gen X ambitions slowly, but quite surely, over the last year in a half. The boxes I looked forward to checking now were of a more nomadic nature.

Sitting there that night, I already had four trips booked over the next seven months and am currently researching international designations for next summer. These family-centered experiences are a large part of what my new job is now funding.

Breathing in wide open spaces, in many different elevations and time zones, had changed me. No doubt, I’ll need to re-set boundaries and exercise against old work habits. But now that I’ve hopscotched between work and life, I find the choices more readily visible and the priority more natural.

There are trade-offs, to be sure. Yet, the greatest understanding I’m taking away from this last year of life is that this life is now more than a year. How it unfolds remains to be seen and I did chose to join one of the largest companies in the world, so there’s a built-in juxtaposition. And yet, as always, that is the beginning of a good story…

 

For more on our family Northwest Nature Nerding, see Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series.

Nature Nerding in the Northwest: Canada Edition

Over the last year, our family travels have us via plane, train, cruise ship, water taxi, regular taxi, Uber car, London black cab, and gondola across 8 countries and 35 cities. As wonderful and wild as all those adventures have been, we have also tried to focus some wanderings in our Northwest backyard.

Nine years ago, our family of four moved to the lush land of Seattle; however most of our vacations took us from airport to airport. As the last year of my travel sabbatical unfolded from grand adventures to daily routines, there was more time to explore locally.

Below is Part 2 of our Northwest Nature Nerding (see Part 1 here):

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Among its many great travel options, Seattle also has numerous islands and cities within ferry distance. Heading to Victoria (the capital of British Columbia) for an overnight visit took it to another level as we would be traveling on the Victoria Clipper, a 300+ passenger high-speed ferry. With passports in hand, we made our way to the Clipper docks before 8 a.m. and crossed the water into British Columbia – a mere 60 miles away from the Seattle docks.

The Clipper is no ordinary ferry as it offers plush seats and, yes please, a bar. The seating is done by groups based on when you bought your tickets so it was a bit of a mad dash to grab four seats but we were aided by a crew member and were soon eating Ellenos Greek yogurt (how had I lived without this?) and watching the waves as we sped along at 40 knots. It took three hours to get to Victoria (compared to 4-6 driving).

Outdoor Gardens

Growing up in a desert, I never developed a green thumb in the land of cacti and gravel. While I can’t list any of the floral names around me, I do have an appreciation for that purple stuff and those really cool white bunchy-things. Victoria is known as “The Garden City” and the Butchart Gardens had long been on my list of places to visit, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Gardens were started by the Butchart family more than 100 years ago as a way to make use of the land remaining after exhausting limestone deposits from the family business. Grandson Ian Ross was given the gardens on his 21st birthday and he spent the next 50 years making it into a well-known floral destination. (As a side note, I’m pretty sure I got a $5 bill from my grandfather for my birthday until I turned 21.)

Getting my pre-teen kids to enjoy an afternoon in the flowers was made easier when we handed them their phones and told them to be photographers. It was interesting to see what made them stop. For Zack, it was the Japanese gardens while Brady was decidedly more English garden. I was mesmerized by colors of the spring tulips and listening to the chatter of the diverse, global travelers.

Tea for Two

Victoria has a population of 80,000 and the city feels like a friendly neighborhood. We loved wandering the (very clean) streets of Victoria, stopping in a breakfast diner, bookstore, and along Chinatown.

However to fully embrace the Victorian spirit, a high tea was in order.

empressHaving grown up with brothers and having sons, it’s a rare treat to indulge in such dainty pleasures. I was happily surprised when 10-year-old Brady wanted to join me so we went to the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

We noshed on the carb-filled goodness of finger sandwiches, scones, thick cream and jam, and fruit-infused tea. We were surrounded with all different ages and groups of women and I was especially proud of our impromptu mother-son outing.

History with a Non-American View

Full of cucumber sandwiches, we took a stroll through history at the Royal BC Museum. It’s always illuminating to see museums outside of the American point-of-view and the Royal BC had a great section on living languages of the First People (a.k.a. Native Americans).

This interactive exhibit set out to capture the dying languages of the tribes and celebrated the “language keepers” of this generation. It was humbling to think how much has been eroded from modern language, not to mention what the ancestors would think of modern communication via emoji.

We explored the history of the area, by land and sea, and then wandered our way back to the Clipper. Our quick exploration was enough to give us a greater appreciation for our Canadian neighbor and to experience the refined elegance of Victoria, which is now on the Nerd Return List.

 

 

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Backyard Explorations & Nature Nerding, Part 1

Over the last year, I have traveled by plane, train, cruise ship, water taxi, regular taxi, Uber car, London black cab, and gondola across 8 countries and 35 cities. As wonderful and wild as all those adventures have been, I have also focused some wanderlust on adventures in my geographic backyard.

Nine years ago, our family of four moved to the lush land of Seattle. The beauty of the Pacific Northwest still awes me; however most of our vacations take us from airport to airport. As the last year unfolded from grand adventures to daily routines, there was more time to explore the land nearby.

Prying kids from technology and TV proved much trickier than navigating customs lines and foreign exchange fees. Traveling in our trusty minivan and with our loyal dog, Lucy, we set off to travel mere miles away, packing only iPhone GPS and snacks.

Below is Part 1 of our Nature Nerding these last few months:

Tiger Mountain, Issaquah, Washington
Located only 20 minutes from Seattle, Tiger Mountain offers many great family-friendly (meaning flat) trails. For our springtime trek, we chose the Bus Trail. This easy mile-long route gets its name from an old derelict Greyhound bus that rests in the forest along the route. Nothing like a little rusted metal to get kids excited.

nature_issaquahAfter refusing to use an outhouse, our two boys quickly settled more into the more pleasant smelling natural surroundings. They found branches to use as walking sticks that then became light sabers then brother-pokers and so on.

“Look, guys,” I said. “This is nature all around you.”

“It’s too quiet.” “Wait, what was that noise?” “How will we ever be found out here?” “Where’s the food stop?”

With our dog herding us along, we wove among other trailheads. We came into a clearing and the boys ran at full sprint alongside old train tracks. The high afternoon sun filtered through 100-foot trees like confetti.

As we fell into an easy walk back to the car, my husband and I were talking a little too loud for one of our newfound nature guides. “Shh,” we were hushed. “This is nature here,” he said.

Mission accomplished.

Twin Falls Trail, North Bend, Washington

nature_north-bendBuoyed by our earlier nature adventure, we headed to North Bend for this summer hike. We invested in the Discover Pass (needed in a lot of Washington areas) since we are now embracing outdoor-ing.

About 45 minutes outside of Seattle, we chose the Twin Falls Trail because it was dog-friendly and had the lure of the water tumbling off a mountain. This 3.5 mile trail was much more of a climb. The scenery was gorgeous, in between our huffing and puffing, and it was a popular spot so we rubbed shoulders with other nature-loving neighbors up and down the narrow trail.

Invariably on any outing, the boys end up most happily tossing rocks into water. The sound of plunks becomes the background soundtrack as we rest on rocks.

One of my favorite moments comes as we all climb back into the car, satisfied with our physical exertion, chatting about highlights of the day as Lucy stretches out her dusty paws.

For a few moments, talking trumps technology and summer seems to last just a beat slower as we ramble toward the highway surrounded by a happy outdoor halo.

 

 

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Nature & Wonder: Alaska Travel Adventures

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Outdoor gardening, Phoenix, late ’70s

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and always longed for four seasons and tall, tall trees. One day, my brother looked out the kitchen window and saw me carrying a red gas can and matches. He rushed out to stop me just before I doused a small pile of leaves. I had wanted to smell burning leaves in the crisp autumn air, only it was 85 degrees in October so I was improvising.

I’ve now lived in Seattle for nine years and I still am in awe of the 100-foot trees, snow-capped mountains and fresh, fresh air. Even with this as my new hometown, my geographic imagination was unprepared for the abundance of natural beauty as my extended family and I set sail on an Alaskan cruise.

Alaska wears the crown jewels atop the abundance of the United States. It’s regal with an understated elegance and it envelopes you into an organic hug. It’s as natural as you can get, no Whole Foods required.

The Comfort of Disney, the Beauty of Alaska

Our trip began in true American style, sailing aboard the Disney Wonder cruise ship. Sixteen family members across three generations embarked on the nearly 1,000 foot long ship. Our first two days were at sea so we were able to take in the comfort of the ship, attending magic shows, seeing first-run movies, and stretching our stomachs to sample some of the 5,000 eggs and 2,600 cups of coffee served every day. Cruises are known for abundant food but this one has Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.

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Escargot, Escar-gone

This was our second cruise as a family and one benefit I’ve seen is that our kids are much more adventurous in trying new foods. Maybe it’s the exotic vibe of vacation or maybe their taste buds are simply more refined when we’ve paid thousands of dollars to float on water. This trip introduced them to escargot, King crab, lobster, and calamari (all of which my husband would not sample).

My just-eats-snacks-all-day 11-year-old Brady took to ordering steak every night because our amazing server, Hernan, would cut it up for him and put the first piece in his mouth to sample. That’s a level of service he will never get at home so bon appetite, my child.

Nature in Its Original Form

My first glimpse of floating glacier ice was when I was on the treadmill in the gym. Baffled, I went to a lower deck to get a closer view and was struck by the pure blue of the ice. The ice is so dense that it absorbs every other color on the spectrum and blue is the stunning result. Based on the weather, the ice can appear as navy blue and, other times, more turquoise.

Waterfalls weave along the mountains, which appear more like giant boulders decorated with green paint and splash of fog. Vast chunks of ice, the actual glacier part of this scenery, sit solemnly among the rock and you get a clear sense of the geographic evolution of our land.

Beyond borders and country flags, Alaska is a clear reminder than we are merely visitors in a brief period of time and the land and ice will keep moving long after our footprints have faded.

Outdoor Excursions – Skagway

Our first stop was in Skagway, the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s. Stretched over 7 blocks, the historic town is home to about 800 residents and tourism is today’s gold. We boarded a train for the White Pass & Yukon Route and traveled more than 50 miles across the landscape. We went so high that we passed into British Columbia and handed over our passports to a customs agent who ambled down the aisle of the train.

To create the route, workers had to dig through glaciers, mountains, and gorges. Each mile showcases the wilderness from plains of wildflowers to streams of melted water. It was like being in the freshest campground without any other campers to spoil the view.

Alaska_GoldSince our group included five kids, we opted to stop at a spot to pan for gold. Staffed by professional actors, the scene was about as authentic as the gold in the pans but it was all fun for the kids. In fact, my 13-year-old son Zack, carefully placed his flakes (along with his brother’s) into plastic baggies and then locked them in our room safe. That alone was worth the activity.

Juneau

Our Juneau stop was our most adventurous, touring the glaciers from the skies via seaplane. The travel nerd in me had always wanted to go up into a seaplane and it was fantastic. Every seat was at a window and you listened to a recorded history of the area with your nose pressed to the glass. It was like skipping along the clouds and we had gorgeous weather, not always a guarantee, so it felt like an extra perk.

We stopped for an outdoor salmon bake at Taku Glacier Lodge, a family-run center that was originally built in the 1920s as a hunting and fishing retreat. As we walked around the grounds, we spotted a bear cub hanging out in a nearby tree in hopes of some salmon droppings from the grill. We hiked along a rooted and rugged path that ran along the Taku River and returned in time for our lunch feast.

The salmon was all freshly caught in nearby waters within the last couple of days and simply prepared. It was, by far, the best salmon I have ever tasted. My picky husband opted for chicken. I pretended not to know him and ate his portion of fish.

Alaska_LodgeAfter another hike in the woods with a guide, I settled into a wooden bench overlooking the grounds. The day was rich with colors and smells and the sun spread across the sky and it was in that moment that this trip turned into a vacation.

There are times during travels when the details and mileage fall away and you are truly present in the experience of the new place.

Moments turn into memories and the mind takes a mental snapshot of the here-and-now. Juneau was that day for us and my inner child from a desert was in travel heaven.

Ketchikan

Where better to go after an amazing salmon meal than to the Salmon Capital of the World? Enter the lovely Ketchikan. And what’s cooler than glacier ice? Going ziplining with our 22-year-old cousin Levi.

We were the only group on our outing so we got to set the pace with our zip guides. Skimming treetops 135 feet off the ground across 6,000 feet of cables made us all feel like lumberjacks (and one lumberjill).

After a fun couple of hours pretending to be a monkey, the kids tagged along with Levi to hunt Pokemon while we headed back to the ship.

Moments Beyond the Map

Every night, our family crew would gather for dinner and share pictures and stories of our wilderness adventures. While together that week, we toasted a special 50th wedding anniversary and four summer birthdays. We laughed, dined, and toasted from the deck of the ship to the belly of the bar to the land and sea all around us. We shared a common space for our travel yet each experienced it in different ways all within the proximity of family.

For me, Alaska marked a new way of seeing the natural beauty that often gets lost in the technology tethers, barista lines, and carpool lines. It reminded me of the simplicity of beauty that can’t be manufactured (or lit on fire in a small backyard leaf pile). It is natural nature and it brings you back to that foundation of yourself.

It’s fresh air and a fresh start. I have several friends who grew up in Alaska and I have a deeper understanding of their world view. I came away from Alaska humbled and awed. Rarely do we get to re-set our internal compass and simply experience the land (and ice and water) around us.

It was an amazing reminder of the simplicity – and power – of nature. Removed from politics, economics, and industry, it simply is and one can simply be. And that’s a trip worth taking, at least once, to remind us of that time, once, when it all simply was.

My Year of Life: The 12-Month Milestone

On June 1, 2015, I walked into the office building where I had spent tens of thousands of hours and dropped off my laptop and ID badge. I rode down the high-rise elevator one last time and walked out into the summer sunshine.

After 8 years of rising the ranks at a booming, global dot-com, I was without title, company, industry, and paycheck.

I posted my reflections on this last year on LinkedIn. Thanks for being part of my journey and I’m eager to see where this next Year of Life takes me….

 

My 2014-to-2015 Tax Story: Redefining Rich

It’s easy to write about travels. And taking time off. Sunny days and passport stamps. It’s harder to talk about the day-to-day details, especially about what it takes to finance a life of leisurely unemployment. I initially hesitated to share the “how” of the sabbatical but it’s the one question I get asked the most.

The recent tax season brought up memories of a conversation I had in the midst of making the decision to take time over money. I wrote a post about it on LinkedIn. View it here and here’s an excerpt:

When I was growing up, my parents had a poster in our house that said: I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.

We weren’t rich as a military family so I never quite knew why we had that poster. But I remember absorbing the message even at a young age: Rich is better.

However, rich wasn’t something I ever saw for myself. I went to college on a scholarship and was the first woman on either side of my family to graduate from college. Midway through school, I was having trouble keeping up with the tuition and my mom asked my grandfather if he would help. He said he would give money for secretarial school instead. I took out an extra student loan and never asked for help again.

My first job out of college was at a nonprofit with an annual salary of $20,000. When I switched jobs, I was thrilled to get a $6,000 salary increase. When I passed $100,000, I already had a baby and another one of the way. I was excited to be making six figures and didn’t think beyond it. I always had ambition about work but hadn’t tied that to financial figures.

Sun & Fun: Tips for Family Vacation in Walt Disney World

As a travel nerd, it’s always such a thrill when anyone reads about our family adventures. I started this blog to capture moments on this self-funded life sabbatical knowing the time would go so quickly. And it has – it’s been just over 10 months since I left corporate life and started traveling, talking about traveling, and living the day-to-day with two kids, a husband, and an active dog up here Seattle.

Along the way, I have received so much advice and encouragement. I’m especially grateful for the support of my friends and fellow travel parents at Travel With Kids. I’m thrilled that they are sharing my extra-geeky travel tips on Disney. From a recent Disneyland road trip on Christmas Day to the amazing Aulani in Hawaii to a full week in Walt Disney World in February, our family has logged a lot of air (and feet) miles around Disney destinations.

I’m honored to be included as a guest blogger on this fantastic site and hope you all go click, link, and like my post: Sun & Fun: Tips for Family Vacation in Walt Disney World

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So many of the great Disney tips are from my fellow Disney lovin’ friends so please share any additional ideas to keep the nerd connection alive.

If you wanna track these sabbatical/travel adventures, there is a “Follow” box at the very end of this post that will send you email alerts (and possible good karma) with new posts.