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Finding Edoras (AKA Mount Sunday In New Zealand)

Finding Edoras (AKA Mount Sunday In New Zealand)

As the days go down in the West, behind the hills and into shadow, I’m going to be reflecting (i.e. catching up) on some of Ariel and mine favorite travel memories from our adventures. I figured I’d start with what is probably our favorite hike together of all time, finding the filming location for Edoras from the Two Towers.

Right off the bat, know that you do NOT need to be a Lord of the Rings nerd to appreciate this incredible place. At just about two and half hours from Christchurch by car, this is not the most remote location I’ve ever visited. But it sure felt like it was…

Edoras is a great place to get lost
The realm of the horselords feels pretty far from everything. But it isn’t!

While planning our trip to New Zealand, Ariel and I had a list of places we really wanted to see, either because we really thought they were beautiful or because we wanted to re-create a scene from one of the films. Edoras fulfilled both of those items, but it was a bit out-of-the-way based on our planned travel route. Plus, the directions called for about an hour-long drive on a dirt road. Ugh. Ariel was a little skeptical, but I had come across an excellent article at the Dangerous Business blog that had me convinced it would be worth it.

First of all let’s talk location. “Edoras” is actually Mount Sunday, in the Ashburton Lakes region of New Zealand. Getting used to be something of a challenge due to poor signage, but if you just put the coordinates into Google Maps, you can follow turn-by-turn directions.

Our journey actually started for us, as most of our travel days do, about a five and a half hour car ride from our destination. We started our day at Lake Wanaka, which is surrounded the Southern Alps, AKA the Misty Mountains.

A tree grows out of Lake Wanaka
The lone tree of Lake Wanaka

After stops at the Mount Cook overlook and Twizel we continued on. Eventually we came to the turn off the highway that led to the dreaded gravel road. It was only about 20 kilometers or so, but the slow going was a great example of why you should always do a reality check before trusting time estimates on your GPS when going to remote places.

The unexpectedly-longer-than-expected drive meant that we arrived as the sun was beginning to come down out of the sky. This was a benefit and a detriment as it meant we had to be a little rushed, but also that we got some amazing lighting and atmosphere. We were also nearly completely alone, only occasionally running into a few hikers on their way out.

The Edoras film location from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Mount Sunday, AKA Edoras is a little hill that sits in an incredible valley surrounded by mountains.

After parking at the parking lot (believe me you really can’t miss it), we set off on a hike. This was a little tricky because the trail itself is not so clearly marked and you have to cross a few shallow streams without the benefit of bridges. I’m not sure if we veered off-course or not, but there were definitely some wet feet – so wear some waterproof hiking shoes if you have them.

The way to Edoras
The trail to Edoras. Be advised there can be shallow streams along this path that you have to cross without a bridge.

Eventually we did find our way back to the trail (assuming we were ever off it) and had the benefit of bridges for the last two, much larger streams.

Edoras rope bridge
Rope bridges are always cool.

About 20 minutes from the parking lot, we stood at the bottom of the hill.

Theoden? Grima?

While this was no Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we were still nursing our wounds (and bruised egos) from that fiasco, so it took a little bit of resolve to push up the last 10 minutes of the hike. And really it was no big deal. Just a little huffing and puffing, one little stop and we were there.

And wow… Immediately, this became one of my favorite places on the planet. Maybe it was the incredible 360 degree, uninterrupted majestic views. Maybe it was the fact that we were there completely alone. Maybe it was just relief that we didn’t chicken out at the last second. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I was overcome with a euphoric feeling, that I have only experienced in a few places in the world.

No pictures, no video, nothing could truly capture the feelings we experienced in this moment.

View from the top of Edoras AKA Mount Sunday
Gandalf? Legolas? You down there?

More than anywhere else we visited on this trip, this was the most fantastical experience we had. Even our amazing sidequest to Poolburn could not compare – mostly because of how isolated and unspoiled all the views were here. Everywhere else we went, from the Hobbiton on the North Island, to Milford Sound on the South Island, but either had distractions from other people or buildings that occasionally took you out of the moment. Not here. Even if you have never seen any of the films, read the books or have ever heard of Rohan, I assure you that you will have a spiritual moment here. Seriously, go here. Now.

No filters. We actually have this picture hanging in our dining room.

Of course, we had to (poorly) re-create our favorite Edoras scene while we were up there.

Look we weren’t going for realism here. But like, you travel 10,000 miles or so to get somewhere you might as well take advantage.

You think New Zealand embraces Tolkien tourism?
We’re not the only ones coming here for Middle Earth experiences…

Anyway, we only got to stay at the top for about 30 minutes because we still had another 2 hours in the car (including the aforementioned accursed gravel road). I could have stayed there for a year.

Do yourself a favor and click on these images to see them in full screen.
Every angle, every view, an inspiration.

After a quick descent and hike back, we were on our way to our final stop of the day at Lake Tekapo, where we got to see the Milky Way.

To sum it up, the movie set may not still be there anymore, but this is without a doubt one of the most “real” film locations out there. While the castle is gone, the surrounding landscape is identical to what you see in the movie.

And I tell you this, as someone who has been all over the world, there are few places as magical.

So go. Find Edoras. And share your experiences.

For more on our incredible trip to New Zealand check out our other posts!

They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!
One does not simply walk into Mordor – The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Weathertop, Hobbiton, Mordor and Mount Doom
Adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine
The Lonely Mountain, Rohan, Edoras and Pelennor Fields
Heading home…
The road goes over on and on
The best book to take on a trip to Middle Earth

Sidequest: Sagamore Hill and Teddy Roosevelt Museum

Sidequest: Sagamore Hill and Teddy Roosevelt Museum

It’s been a while now since we got back from our Alaskan adventure. Preparations for the baby (including some pretty hefty home renovations) have occupied most of my free time.

This weekend however, Ariel and I found ourselves heading out for a wedding (congrats MarJar!) on Long Island.

Nassau Colosseum

While Nassau County might not seem like a place to go in search of adventure, in these days of increased responsibility, you need to maximize the time you are given. So we decided to take a sidequest detour to Sagamore Hill, another hidden gem of the National Park system.

Sagamore Hill on Long Island
Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home.

Getting there was no problem – about an hour and 45 minutes by car from Central New Jersey or about an hour from Manhattan. And it was a relatively short experience there, so you could easily take a trip out there in morning and be back in your apartment by late afternoon. Or combine and make it a stop on the way out to the Hamptons or (a much better choice) Montauk for a weekend. In short, if you live in New York City, there’s no reason not to go here.

Aside from chronicling the history of the Sagamore Hill mansion and farm and the life and presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, which itself is fascinating, there are nice little nature trails that make it easy to forget you’re less than 20 miles from Times Square.

Probably about as close as your going to get to wild elk in this part of the world...

But most importantly – one of Teddy’s greatest passions was protecting nature and open spaces and keeping them pristine for future generations. In fact, much of the National Parks System we have today, from Denali to the Everglades and everything in between, are due to Roosevelt’s actions over 100 years ago.

In many ways, this is where it all began. Not just in the United States, but throughout the world. Yellowstone, which was the first American national park, was also the first national park designated by any country, anywhere. So whether you’re on the National Mall in Washington, DC or trekking across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand, you can thank the 26th US President for setting an example that would be followed by future-minded governments around the world.

Leave it as is
If it wasn’t for Teddy, the Grand Canyon would probably be a uranium mine today.

Teddy’s life is also something of an inspiration for wanderers. From his experience leaving his native New York City to spend time in the badlands of South Dakota, to his post-presidency international trips to Africa and the Himalayas, to his return to the United States to stand up to forces that would corrupt and weaken the nation, to his tireless defense of all things natural – there is a real Tolkien-esque feeling to his presidency and life.

Still not convinced? How about this then?

Was President Roosevelt actually a hobbit?

President Roosevelt brought these pipes home with him from a trip overseas.

You find me a hobbit who wouldn’t be thrilled to smoke some leaf out of these pipes. I challenge you.

In short, we really enjoyed our trip to Sagamore Hill, which was both inspiring in light of the current pathetic state of political discourse in America, as well as an excellent and easily reachable destination for anyone who longs for the open spaces and natural splendor of the wild places of our planet…but doesn’t quite have the time or ability to get there.

“When you encounter an obstacle, the rule is, ‘over, under, or through…but NEVER around.” -Theodore Roosevelt

If you live in the New York City area, GO HERE. Don’t wait. Just go. Because if there’s one OTHER thing I learned from the life of Theodore Roosevelt, it’s that he, like JRR Tolkien, believed that the most important thing we can go with our lives..

…is to make the most of the time which is given to us.

So Long Alaska, And Thanks For All The Fish

So Long Alaska, And Thanks For All The Fish

Annnnnnd we’re done.

So ends our actual last long distance trip for what’s sure to be a while. Coming home this time, unlike the end of our New Zealand trip, is much more sweet than bitter. For starters, we were both pretty much done with the whole cruise experience this time. Unlike the last time we went cruising (over five years ago!) this was much less of a relaxation tour.

Rather than spending our days relaxing on the sundeck of the ship or some tropical island, this trip involved bear run-ins, frozen glacier viewings and being jolted out of bed at 1 am to see the Northern Lights. Amazing experiences to be sure – but not quite the relaxing time I was expecting.

The other part of it is that we’re looking forward to going home for once. First of all, we have Sammy, our newest member of our family to come home to. For the first time on a trip, we left someone behind. That meant that it was impossible to completely disconnect and well…

Our dog Sammy
Wouldn’t you want to come back to this dog too?

…we missed this guy!

We also have the baby on the way – which means we still have a lot of preparations to make. Unlike when we were in New Zealand (and every other trip before that), having one of us be pregnant meant the future baby was always on our minds. Between that and Sammy, we’re both looking forward to coming home.

Finally, our ship, the Radiance of the Seas, just wasn’t quite up to par with the last ship we took, the Norwegian Gem. I’m planning to do a full review later of the experience, but for now suffice it to say that despite being about the same size, there was a marked difference between the two.

With regards to Alaska though… Wow. Just what an amazing state. The incredible landscapes. The wildlife. And the food. Specifically, the salmon and the halibut.

It really is the salmon capital of the world.

We ate some form of fish literally every day on this trip, sometimes two or even all three meals had fish in them. It was really delicious everywhere we went. We’ve always been of the opinion the Pacific fish far outrank their Atlantic cousins. Alaska proved to us that it doesn’t matter if you’re out in Tahiti, back stateside in San Francisco, or all the way up in the Arctic north outside Denali National Park. It’s. Just. Better.

Seriously, I’ve had fish ‘n chips on four different continents. This place is the best in the world.

In the coming days, I’m planning to do a full round up on my general thoughts on Alaska including the highlights of our trip, lowlights, some recommendations on some must-see things as well as items to avoid.

But for now to Alaska we say:

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

Well, this is almost it. We are now at our final stop before making the long journey home to New Jersey. Looking back on this trip, the definite highlights were Denali and the humpback whale watching trip in Icy Strait Point.

But the last few days have had their moments.

First we stopped in Ketchikan, Alaska which is apparently the salmon capital of the world. It was pretty clear why this is – every year thousands (or maybe tens of thousands? Or hundreds of thousands??) swim up the creek that flows right through the center of town to spawn. They didn’t really come out so great in my pictures but all you really need to do is look down and you can see thousands of them.

With salmon of course, come bears and eagles. And we got to see both! Including one bear that just kind of popped up out of the bushes behind us!

Note of course my filming technique, which is critical for filming bears at close range. Essentially it boils down to staying a few steps behind the morons who rush up to get close to a bear. I mean seriously, these animals can run 30 miles per hour! Personally I would have never chosen to get this close to a bear but it really just kind of popped out of the bushes behind us. It was never really scary because except for that one look he gives us at the end of the video, he really didn’t seem all that interested in us.

Plus, there were literally a dozen idiots who rather than staying in place or slowly backing up actually ADVANCED in his direction. So if anyone was getting mauled – it would have been them. Still it was the closest I got to a wild animal since that time I foolishly stared down an elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In any case, our new bear friend didn’t really bother much with us. Rather he was much more interested in the thousands of salmon in the stream below us, which is where he immediately went after creeping up behind us.

After our run in with the bear, we then went to see some native totem poles. This was pretty cool, but the really exciting thing was yet another encounter with some Alaskan bald eagles! This time they were just about close enough to get a somewhat decent picture.

Bald eagles in a tree
Note that I said it was a “somewhat decent” picture…

After a quick lunch, it was time for our last real Alaskan event – the Ketchikan lumberjack show!

Alaskan Lumberjacks try to roll each other off of log.
What can I tell you guys, just another day in Alaska.

This was……OK. It was fun to watch (although man the seats were uncomfortable) a staged “competition” between guys doing things like axe throws and racing to chop logs. Think of it as like Medieval Times but with lumberjacks representing the United States and Canada. You’re supposed to cheer on your “country” (they sort the audience into US and Canada as well) and yell things out like “Yo Hoooo!” along with the performers. Fun for kids. And pretty fun for adults too. But at about $40 a ticket for a 45 minute show with no food……..I don’t know.

It certainly wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, so I’m glad we went. Buuuuuttttt if I ever find myself in Ketchikan again…I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this.

One other really cool thing to do in Ketchikan is to visit the Tongass National Forest Visitor Center. It’s right next to the lumberjack show and has a really great overview of all the incredible national parks and lands within Alaska. Incredibly, only about 40% of the entire state is private land. To put that another way – that would be about 25% of the ENTIRE Lower 48! Incredible to learn and really put our whole Alaska experience into context.

Alaskan land is mostly publicly owned!
This land (of Alaska) is your land, this land is my land.

From Ketchikan, it was basically straight on through until Vancouver. We traversed the “Inside Passage” which is a really narrow body of water with hills, mountains and trees on both sides. Also present, tons of birds, sea mammals and other wildlife. We also shared our journey with another cruise ship with was pretty cool.

We traverse the Inside Passage of Alaska.
Welcome to the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Unfortunately for us, like a lot of the rest of time at sea, this day was completely overcast and occasionally really foggy.

A distant view of fog in the Inside Passage of Alaska.
You can actually see the fog we spent hours in right behind us. We couldn’t see ANYTHING.

So yesterday was mostly a relaxation day. After going through The Hobbit on the last trip, this was my day to try and make a dent in Lord of the Rings on this one.

This morning we awoke in the port of Vancouver.

The Vancouver Port
Bienvenue au Canada.

After bidding adieu to the Radiance of the Seas for the final time, we made our way to our lodging for the evening to drop our stuff off and do a little sight seeing. But Ariel and I were both so completely drained (also having to chase down our taxi driver as he drove away with my wallet wiped out the remainder of my energy) that all we did was head over to the Space Museum and get some lunch (including vegetarian gravy poutine fries!!!!) on Granville Island.

Ariel gives the thumbs down to feeding pigeons.
Please don’t feed the awful pigeons at Granville Public Market. PLEASE.

We’ve also already been to Vancouver on our first road trip as a couple way back in 2012 when we did 2,999 miles in just a week and half. So we’re pretty much done here.

Now, we prepare for the long journey home and radical change in our lives.

An overlook viewing of Vancouver Harbor.
Looking out into the sea from Vancouver.

Final thoughts on this trip, plus some reviews and guides to follow.

Reflecting On A Final (Solo) Ride

Reflecting On A Final (Solo) Ride

As I sit here on night seven of my Alaska adventure with Ariel, my thoughts turn to last week’s solo adventure and really the last 12 years of solo travel.

This little getaway had a lot in common with my past solo trips:

  • Waking up not knowing where I’d sleep every night.
  • Major last-minute diversions from the itinerary.
  • Staying at the cheapest, crappiest place I could rest my head.
  • Eating most meals in the car or motel rooms.
  • Dicey moment at an international border.
  • Going off the beaten path and letting the road take me instead of the other way around.
  • Ultimate freedom.

But still, it was missing something more important than all of that.

My travel mate, Ariel.

I love traveling alone.

Chilling out at the Perito Morena Glacier, Argentina.
Chilling out at the Perito Morena Glacier, Argentina.

Anytime you travel with a partner you have to make compromises. Ariel is……less open to the kinds of places I’m willing to eat and sleep for example. She also is a planner. When we travel together, she will look at our route and look for places to eat, sleep and stop along the way and pre-book them. Our travel together ends up looking more like an organized tour itinerary than a disorganized wanderer’s journey.

Taking a breather in Northern Ireland.
Canyonlands, Utah
Standing atop the Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Utah. Not the brightest thing I ever did.
I get a little too close to a royal guardsman...
Pro tip: Never make physical contact with a royal guard in London.
Thumbs up or thumbs down at the ancient Coliseum in Rome.

This can have major advantages, especially as it pertains to cost savings on booking rooms months in advance as opposed to minutes in advance. And by preparing for your trip, you can research the best places to eat and the coolest sights to see. If this is your style of travel, I highly recommend doing it this way. Also, there are few things more demoralizing than driving for 10 hours in a day, then pulling into some tumbleweed town with one motel at midnight…only to find out there’s no vacancy there or it’s closed.

And that the next town is another 2+ hours down the road.

Not good.

The disadvantage is that when you make your reservations months in advance, it makes it much harder to call an audible like I did when deciding to go to Devils Lake just the other day. Or years ago, when I decided to go about 200 miles out of my way to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, which unexpectedly led me to my first view of the Milky Way Galaxy – one of my favorite travel memories of all time.

Pompeii, Italy
Even in Pompeii, random strangers will ruin your carefully staged picture.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s just not the same without her. The give and take between my spontaneity and her planning is really what makes us such a great travel pair. She makes the plans. I improvise whenever the plan doesn’t work out so well. We really do work so well together as a travel team.

From the deepest caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM
Ariel and I take a quick break at Carlsbad Caverns near Roswell, New Mexico.

To mountains in the sky.

Skyrim
Glacier National Park, Montana. Or is it Skyrim?

And all the way to the literal ends of the Earth.

The ends of the earth...
At The Sauvage in Rangiroa, French Polynesia. The residents refer to it as “the end of the Earth.”

I’ll still take the opportunity to go off on my own when the situation arises. A quick detour on a business trip. A short diversion on a weekend when I’m alone. But for the most part, having a child means the odds of these opportunities are rapidly shrinking to zero.

No. Going forward, travel – especially adventure-style travel – will no longer be a solo sport. It will be a team effort. As a unit. As a family. And while I may reflect back fondly on my times as a solo traveler on this blog on occasion…

Journey's end
The end of our New Zealand road trip was a bittersweet time for us.

…I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Exploring The High Seas Off The Coast Of Alaska

Exploring The High Seas Off The Coast Of Alaska

After a last-minute sidequest adventure, on top of a more aggressive/eventful couple of days than expected, we finally made it to our cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas.

Unlike a Bahamas cruise, Alaska cruises are a bit more demanding. For example, on our first day out, we sailed out to the Hubbard Glacier.

Welcome to the Hubbard Glacier. It looks much more awesome in person. But it’s also way colder.

And – much as you might expect – it’s pretty cold. So that means no lounging around on the deck like you would do on a tropical voyage. It also means you’re going to be dealing with pretty unpredictable weather. Like when you go to a warm destination and it rains, it’s a nuisance, but not a day killer. 45 degree rain really takes the energy out of you. Same for standing in the wind and staring at a giant block of ice for an hour.

In addition, unpredictable weather can cancel planned excursions or – as was the case for another cruise ship – shut down the port completely with a rock slide forcing you to go to a completely different place than you thought you were going. In our case, 80 mile per hour winds kept us from getting up close and personal with Hubbard.

The flip side of this though, is that you’re going to see some astonishing things.

The Fairweather Mountain Range. No joke, this was the view for hours one day.

Over the past three days we’ve come face to face with 19,000 foot coastal mountains, bald eagles, humpback whales and more glaciers than we’ve seen over the course of the rest of our lives combined.

Seriously, these mountains are all over the southern Alaskan coast.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re looking to just relax and lay out in a pool, stick to the Bahamas. If you’re in search of something more adventurous, an Alaska cruise is right for you.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a purely relaxing vacation – sometimes you just want to recharge the batteries. But if you’re coming on an Alaska cruise (really anywhere in Alaska), expect to be adventurous both off the boat and on it.

After our first day at sea, we landed in Juneau. We rented a car for the same price it would have cost to just take a shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier and drove out to the further point we could. Juneau is not connected by road to…anywhere. So 40 miles from town, the road basically just ends.

We saw a creek where salmon come to spawn and then…die. It’s actually pretty brutal/disgusting. There are literally dozens of salmon carcasses just lying around in the water.

Look closely at the creek and you’ll see it’s a veritable salmon mass grave.

This effectively makes it a sashimi bar for bears and eagles. We didn’t see bears, but we did see multiple bald eagles flying around, which was awesome.

From there we continued on to the Shrine of St. Therese, which was pretty cool. Best part was the “labyrinth” which you could walk through. Quick and easy little diversion.

The “Merciful Love Prayer” Labyrinth at the Shrine of St. Sherese

After that it was time for Mendenhall Glacier.

The Mendenhall Glacier. Like Hubbard it’s much more impressive in person. And colder.

Just incredible.

We spent some time driving around Juneau too, stopping by the governor’s mansion and the state Capitol building. Cool I guess, but whatever.

Yep, our mighty steed on this leg of the journey was a fricking Buick LeSabre boat.

Our cruise then departed Juneau for Skagway. And well…it was pretty rainy and miserable. Our helicopter trip was cancelled for safety reasons, so instead we just walked around town. We learned from pretty cool stuff during an excellent Ranger talk at the National Historic Park there. Skagway, you see, was the jumping off point for tens of thousands of people “stampeding” to the Klondike Gold Rush. Best fact – Klondike Bars are named for bars of Klondike gold that apparently less than 1% were able to get their hands on.

Cold and rainy Skagway. The day after we were there, a rock slide would close the port.

This morning we arrived in Icy Strait Point. When we arrived the whole place was covered in a dense fog.

Fog and a cruise ship in Alaska.
The fog here was RIDICULOUS.

This made our little forest hike really cool.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep…

Pretty much the whole day after that was spent on a humpback whale watching tour with Glacier Wind Charters. They were awesome. I mean really awesome. Just check out this video.

Hopefully I’ll have some time later to do a full write-up on the whale tour. But the views were really amazing once the fog lifted and we saw easily over a dozen humpback whales on our trip out.

This time of year, Humpbacks do a whole complicated technique calling bubble net feeding. Basically they circle around a school of herring to get them bunched up together and then all breach the surface together to eat them. Just an incredible sight to behold. I mean we saw this event play out like 10 times and I would have watched it another 100 times. If you have the opportunity to witness this first hand you must do it.

As we headed back to the ship, the fog really lifted and we got a view of an awesome bald eagle in a tree, as well some truly incredible views of the bay.

The bay around Icy Strait Point is full of amazing islands like this one.

Now we are back on the ship and cruising to our last destination before heading down to Vancouver and eventually…home.

A Friday Night/Shabbat Kiddush Sidequest

A Friday Night/Shabbat Kiddush Sidequest

We’ve been at sea now for about three days and have been taking in the various sights of Alaska. I’ll post an update on our travels shortly. But in my last post I mentioned that prior to setting sail we had one last adventure/sidequest to complete before being able to relax.

One tradition that I’m really proud to have started on my adventures is to always pause to watch the sunset. Wherever I am, no matter how many miles I’ve traveled that day or how many more miles I have yet to go, I always stop to watch the sun go down.

Well according to Jewish tradition, sundown on Friday nights is the traditional start of the Jewish Sabbath – AKA: Shabbat. So on Friday evenings, I like to say the traditional Shabbat blessings (Kiddush) wherever I am. It’s a nice reminder that wherever you go in life – where ever the road takes you – you’re still the person you always were. Bringing your traditions with you is a good way to remain grounded and tied to home.

It’s also a great way to feel connected to religion and spirituality, oftentimes while out in nature, in the strangest places. I’ve felt more spiritual in the few minutes it takes to do this little ritual than I have in years of going to synagogues.

I’ve also brought a bit of Jewish tradition to some pretty amazing places that are preeeeetty far from Jewish people and Judaism in general.

Shabbat in Moorea, French Polynesia.
Shabbat in Chaco Canyon National Park, New Mexico.
Shabbat in The Shire. Ok, the Catlins, New Zealand.
Shabbat in the Dominican Republic.

In many cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only person to have ever said these blessings in the places where I stood. That’s a pretty awesome feeling.

The only trouble is, in order to do the Jewish Kiddush you need bread and wine. Being something of a traditionalist that means I need KOSHER bread and wine or grape juice. This can present a challenge when you’ve forgotten to bring wine with you to say… the Dominican Republic. Or Seward, Alaska.

At some point on the way down from Denali National Park, it dawned on me that I did not have any grape juice (Ariel is pregnant so no wine for us on this trip!) or bread to do this. A few phone calls to the Chabad (a Jewish religious sect that does a lot of outreach/assistance for less religious Jews) in Anchorage confirmed that my only hope was to go to a local store in town. Apparently kosher grape juice and bread isn’t exactly a hot selling item in Alaska.

Pretty much all of the Jews in Alaska live in Anchorage so the only stores likely to have anything like that, in an area larger than half of the entire continental United States, were all located in one part of one city.

Unfortunately for us, that part of the city was NOT where we were going to be during the hour or so between our arrival there and our departure for Seward. I know this, because I called literally every liquor store within walking distance that could POSSIBLY have something like this. Nope.

So we were in a bit of a bind…

Suddenly, the gentleman sitting behind us tapped me on the shoulder and told us he would have us covered.

Jason, an African-American guy from Washington, DC who just so happened to be working in Alaska over the summer, had a friend in Seward who would go to one of the only stores in THAT town and see if they had any kosher grape juice (“Manischewitz” he pointed out, so we would know he knew EXACTLY what we were talking about) and MEET US AT THE DOCK TO DELIVER IT TO US.

It was a Shabbat Miracle.

However, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed to me that this thing would work out. Jason was awesome, and we chatted with him for the whole rest of the bus ride. But if it was almost impossible to find kosher grape juice in Anchorage, what were the odds they would have it in Seward?

So then we actually had a SECOND Shabbat Miracle and for whatever reason our time in Anchorage was increased to about 90 minutes.

This meant we were able to catch a cab to the outskirts of town, run into a store, buy a gallon of one of the last jugs of kosher grape juice they had (really, they only had one size and it cost $10), get BACK to the place we had to board the bus AND have a quick lunch at the food court of the Anchorage Mall.

Victory.

And still catch the bus to the docks in Seward.

Was it worth the effort? Worth the money? Worth the stress? Even though we aren’t the most religious people, the mere fact we succeeded in this little sidequest was very satisfying in and of itself. Plus we got to talk to Jason, a Jehovah’s Witness who still knew all about Judaism and “doing mitzvahs” (his words) because he spent some time researching Judaism when he was younger. We got to know him, how he ended up in Alaska and made a really personal connection with a total stranger by giving him an opportunity to offer a totally selfless act. I mean how great is that?

So yeah, it was worth it this time. And it was worth it the time we had another Shabbat miracle in the Dominican Republic and the place we were staying just happened to have one bottle of Israeli wine. And it was worth it the time I got to do Kiddush at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. And in Santorini (the image at the top of the post). And in a random field in Wyoming.

Any sidequest is generally worth doing. This one is my favorite.

And I hope you will consider doing something like this on your own travels. Doesn’t matter what your religion is. Just bring some of your traditions with you. When you’re furthest from home, in the wilderness, that’s the time you need to be most grounded.

So bring a little bit of home with you.

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

So we’ve been in Alaska for a few days now and it is really something. Like it’s huge state, but it’s also just a HUGE state. “Everything’s bigger in Texas” except when compared to Alaska. EVERYTHING is massive here. The mountains. The glaciers. The distances. The temperature differences. It is really incredible.

And it is just an incredible contrast from where I was last week in Iowa and Minnesota, with their gentle rolling hills and Mid-western charm. That is not Alaska – at all. This is the big leagues of adventure travel.

After our initial train ride from hell, we checked into our hotel just outside Denali National Park. After a quick dinner at Karsten’s Pub (go with the fish and chips, they’re really good) we crashed for the night at about 9:30. After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by the phone ringing.

“Aurora!” I shouted as we jumped out of bed, got dressed and went outside. The phone call was indeed from the front desk, telling us to go outside and look up. And boy what a sight…

The ACTUAL Northern freaking Lights IN REAL LIFE!

It lasted for about 15 minutes before fading away, but we actually got to see the Northern freaking Lights. This had been a lifelong dream for me. In fact, when we went to New Zealand we made an attempt to get as far south as possible in the hopes of seeing the Aurora AUSTRALIS (the nearly identical, although much less well known Southern Lights), but it just wasn’t happening. The pictures and video really don’t do the experience justice. We just gaped at the sky, awe-struck.

And then we went right back to bed so the whole thing felt like a dream – except for our photographic and video proof.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 and headed into the park. And it was incredible. I try not to use terms like “spectacular” or “grandiose” too often but they really fit the bill. Denali is just something else. We saw all kinds of animals like moose, caribou, bears, eagles and dall sheep.

Welcome to Denali National Park. One of the most remote places in the United States.

One thing to know about Denali is that they really enforce the rules about not interfering with the animals. Being that people aren’t able to drive in, you don’t get idiots who feed animals or otherwise interact with them. So the moose and bears keep their distance. This is a good thing for them, but it’s a bad thing for you…if you hypothetically forget to bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens…

There are bears somewhere off in the distance there, I swear…

It’s not like Yellowstone, where bison literally walk right up to your car and follow you as you drive down the street.

But the real star is the mountain itself. At over 20,000 feet, Denali (which means “The Great One”) is the biggest mountain in the world. What’s that you say? Mount Everest at 29,029 feet is higher? Well yeah, sure, if you grant it the 15,000 foot PLATEAU that gives it an unfair head start! Denali is on just a 2,000 foot plateau – so the mountain towers over its base by about 17,000 feet. Everest only goes up about 14,000 feet from top to bottom.

So as far as I’m concerned I just saw the BIGGEST mountain in the WORLD.

By far, the most incredible mountain I’ve ever set eyes upon.

And apparently, it’s a very shy biggest mountain because it’s really only visible about 30% of the time. Well we sure lucked out.

Our trip through the park took about 13 hours to go to the end of the 92-mile-long park road.

The end of the road…

They don’t let private cars drive more than 15 miles into the park so you need to book a ticket with either a tour bus or a shuttle bus. The tour bus costs about three times as much and includes a guide that tells you about the park.

Don’t bother.

We went with the shuttle bus, which was driven by a National Park employee. Our driver, JJ, had a microphone and basically did the job of a guide anyway. He answered all of our questions, told us about interesting things about the park, and stopped the bus anytime someone saw an animal they wanted to photograph. In fact, he was so devoted to showing us everything we wanted that we actually got back to the entrance to the park, the last shuttle back to our hotel (which leaves at 7 pm) had left.

Our driver even showed us wild cranberries and blueberries that we could eat!

Calling the hotel to send a “special” shuttle to get us meant paying $10 and waiting 20 minutes.

NOPE.

After our new friends on our shuttle bus heard about our predicament, several of them offered to drive us back since they were staying in the neighborhood anyway. So we caught a ride for free. Much like our near disaster at Tongariro, I knew there was about a 100% chance we would be able to catch a ride back with one of the dozens of people who visit the park if you miss your shuttle. So take your time and don’t stress it.

Who would want to leave this place, ever?

We got back to the hotel, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. No dancing lights this time.

The next morning we got our stuff together and headed for the cruise ship in Seward.

And finally some relaxation. But first there was one last little sidequest to complete…

Always make the most of the time you are given.

But we’ll save that story for another time.

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

Well, we did it! We are in the Last Frontier.

After my short diversion this week to states number 47 and 48, Ariel and I touched down yesterday afternoon in Alaska!

Welcome to Alaska everybody.

Just setting foot in this state was a pretty massive moment for me because I’m now officially a member of “Club 49” – and it just so happened IN the 49th state.

And then, there was one. Just need to get to Hawaii and that’s a wrap.

That’s a pretty awesome coincidence and even better because the 50th state to enter the Union, will also be the 50th state I enter – whenever that happens.

So we’ve now been in Alaska for just about 24 hours and it really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s huge. It’s beautiful. It’s cold. Perhaps that last one is not so surprising, but still, even being in Alaska, it’s strange to think about wearing layers and sweatshirts in August. It’s also the tail end of the season here and you can really feel the state winding down.

The colors are shifting in the bushes. The hotel employees are getting ready to head back to their home states for the winter. And the average age of the other people visiting is somewhere north of 67.

After landing in Anchorage, we crashed into bed early last night. It was a pretty long travel day – starting at 6:45 am New Jersey time and ending at about 6 pm Alaska time (which is 10 pm NJ time).

A view of downtown Anchorage from the train station.

This morning we were up and at ’em at about 5 am for an eight hour train ride to Denali National Park. Unfortunately for us, we shared a train car with a pack of rabid hyenas. Wait no, they weren’t hyenas, they were just a pack of drunk retirees who felt the need to bellow and bray and hoot and holler for the entire ride.

Look, I’m all for having a good time. But we were in this unbelievably beautiful place, with panoramic windows and views of endless mountains, valleys and forests, and these loudmouths wouldn’t shut up for eight straight hours. I mean imagine sitting in one of the loudest bars you’ve been in…but on a train in a national park. At 10 am!

Ariel and I seek refuge in the dining car from drunken hyenas.

Even worse, the guy whose job it was to point out landmarks and give us interesting facts about the areas we were passing through just gave up trying to talk louder than them. It was so bad that I wanted to apologize to the one foreign couple in our train car. Eventually we just moved to a different (much quieter!) car. And it was such a shame because our guide from the original car was actually from New Jersey too! Dunellen to be exact. What a crazy coincidence! He was telling us about how he had lived in Barrow, Alaska which is a place I’ve been interested in going to ever since I was in Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s so remote over there that they only get one shipment of gasoline A YEAR.

Anyway, we finally made it to Denali National Park, which is truly beautiful.

Seriously, this place is beautiful. Come here now.

It really is awesome.

Tomorrow we enter the park in search of Mount Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the world. Yeah that’s right, it’s taller than Mount Everest. Google it if you don’t believe me.

A Final Note On Iowa, Minnesota And The Northernmost Point In The Continental United States

A Final Note On Iowa, Minnesota And The Northernmost Point In The Continental United States

As I write this on the plane ride home and my last solo trip is already starting to feel like a distant memory. I’m so excited to be reunited with my travel mate (and life mate!) but before I turn my thoughts to our upcoming trip to Alaska, I wanted to post some reflections on what I just experienced.

First a bit about the two last states I crossed off my list within the contiguous USA.

Iowa and Minnesota certainly have their charms.

The sign you see as you leave the Field of Dreams.

Iowa, is really covered in corn fields. Like it’s ludicrous how accurate that stereotype is. Most of the time I had corn on one side of the car and often on both sides of the car.

Now, we have a lot of corn in New Jersey…

Man do they love their corn in Iowa.

…but nothing like this.

Minnesota is really huge. It’s basically Iowa on steroids. I was also shocked by how familiar the landscape looked the entire time I was there. If you put a picture of the Minnesota countryside next to the Pennsylvania countryside it would be really hard to tell the difference. When I got back from my 2010 solo coast-to-coast road trip I would joke to people that everything between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River is basically just West Jersey. And even then, once you get past the Mississippi (which is always an impressive sight to behold) it’s basically the same until you get close to Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Turns out that Minnesota and Iowa are no exception. Yes the Mississippi River areas were really cool. And seeing a bald eagle was really moving – as was getting to the source of the Mississippi. The western part of Minnesota did start to flatten out so you got some of that “big sky” feeling but that was really only for the last 50 miles or so.

Minnesota definitely has things worth seeing. Like the source of the Mississippi River!

It just doesn’t look that different from home. Rolling hills. Trees. Corn. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Mississippi River In Iowa. Or is it the Hudson River? Or the Raritan? Or the Delaware?

And that’s kind of why I was pretty ehhhh about both states.

I mean seriously, how can you compete with views like this:

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.

Or this:

Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Or this:

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Or the picture at the top of this post (Monument Valley in Arizona).

You can’t. You just can’t. No other places on Earth have those wild landscapes.

If I was building an itinerary with must-see states I would always start with the Four Corners region. Then I’d spend a while in California. After that it’s a toss-up between Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Even Kansas and Nebraska had more striking vistas than where I just went. It’s really incredible how excited I was when I approached the North Dakota border and suddenly had a 360 degree view of the horizon.

By the way that’s not a knock on Iowa or Minnesota. I’m sure people from those states would throw up after spending 10 minutes in New Jersey, a state that looked like their states but was overcrowded and oversmogged. And it’s also not to say that there are “bad” states. Every state should be visited because they all have something unique to offer.

Well except for Pennsylvania. That place is horrible and is the worst place in the world.

Oh I’m only kidding.

*Or am I? I really hate Pennsylvania and it is a terrible, terrible place.

Anyway…

The bottom line is that I’m glad I went. Really glad. But I’m also glad that I prioritized places with truly spectacular (a word that gets WAY overused when describing places) things to see before I went here. Really it was a perfect ending to a journey that I’ve been on for most of my life because if I was just driving through on the way to somewhere else I probably would have just jumped out of the car to take a picture of the welcome signs and kept going.

Doing it like this meant I got to see the Field of Dreams! And a bald eagle! And a mound of grass shaped like a bear! And the source of the Mississippi River! And get almost arrested at the border!

Well never mind that last one, that sucked.

But you get my drift.

Finally, a quick note on the Northwest Angle, AKA the northernmost point in the USA.

Cool place, but there’s still like half a continent above it!

Look – I’m glad I went. It would have been pretty dumb to go to all the other extremes AND the geographic center of the US (by accident no less!) and not take care of this one once I finally made it to Minnesota. But unless this is part of a personal quest of yours like the one I just completed (or you have your own fishing boat), this is really more hassle than it’s worth.

The people I met were really nice, but when compared to the other extremes, even within the continental US, this is the most underwhelming. First of all the other three locations are all on a coast, so you really get the feeling that you’re staring off into forever. Cape Alava in Washington looks really cool and features a really nice hike to get there. Key West is…Key West so it’s worth visiting on its own. West Quoddy Head in Maine has a great lighthouse and being that it is the only contiguous extreme that is TRULY the furthest you can go in America means you can stand there to watch the sunrise and be the first person in the country to see the sun.

The Northwest Angle, while quirky, does not really have anything like that. It’s surrounded by land and a lake. So when you look around, it just looks like you’re anywhere in America that has a lake. And it is SUCH a hassle to get there.

But the people are really nice. And apparently it’s a great place to go fishing – so if that’s your thing you should TOTALLY go there.

I guess what I’m saying is if you’re going to go there, make it for another reason, not just to see the northernmost tip. And go by boat if you can. Four international border crossings in one day is just TOO STRESSFUL to be worth it.

*PS I was just kidding about Pennsylvania. My sister and brother-in-law live there! And there’s lots of cool stuff to see there – you could spend days just around Philadelphia seeing Revolutionary War stuff, Constitution stuff, Declaration of Independence stuff and lots of other stuff too! And I guess Philadelphia has a lot to see too if you’re into big cities. I just hate Pennsylvania with a passion mostly because of their obnoxious and awful sports teams.

Mostly…

For more on Iowa and Minnesota, check out my day by day recap of my 1,200 mile journey to complete my seven-year long mission to visit all Lower 48 states.

Day 1: In which I achieve my goal and visit the Field of Dreams
Day 2: In which I stumble upon the headwaters of the Mississippi River and meet a bald eagle
Day 3: In which I hit the Northernmost Point in the Lower 48 and get detained at the border
Day 4: In which I hang out with bison and check out an abandoned nuclear missile silo