• Banff 2015: Snow, Sun and Smoke

    Mountain weather is unpredictable. As someone that considers himself not to be an idiot, I know this. However, given fairly constant temperatures the breadth of conditions experienced...

  • Druk Path – Arriving in Paro

    Most accounts of traveling into Bhutan begin with the harrowing tale of the triumphant survival of the high-altitude landing at the country’s lone airport in Paro. I’m not going...

  • Ladakh – Getting Back to Leh

    Leaving Camp, Lamayaru, and the World’s Scariest Drive After a rousing party, complete with rum punch (which must be the official drink of trek workers), morning came...

  • Ladakh Day 10 – Spring Camp to Kanji

    Day 10: The Day We Used Paddycake to Build Foreign Relations Day Begins: Spring Camp Trek Ends: Kanji The final day was really more a victory lap....

  • Ladakh Day 9 – Yokma La to Spring Camp

    The Day We Bushwacked a Pass Day Begins: Camp at Base of Yokma La Pass: Yokma La (4700 meters / 15,420 feet) Day Ends: Spring Camp  While...

  • Ladakh Day 8 – Nyigutse La to Yokma La

    The day I’m glad I didn’t stay sick… Day Begins: Ripchar Valley Camp High Pass: Nyigutse La (5000 meters / 16,400 feet) Day Ends: Camp at Base...

  • Ladakh Day 7 – Hanupatta to Ripchar Valley

    The day our dinner looked us in the eye… Day Starts: Camp near Hanupatta Day Ends: Ripchar Valley Trek Another camp had been made by a fellow...

  • Ladakh Day 6 – Fangila to Hanupatta

    The day Glenn named a mountain… Day Begins: Fangila Day Ends: Camp near Hanupatta High above camp, in the direction we were headed, rose the hallowed slopes...

  • Ladakh Day 5 – Kungski La to Fangila

    The day we created a curse word… Day Begins: Camp at Base of Kungski La Trail Day Ends: Fangila From a pure trekking standpoint, this was one...

  • Ladakh Day 4 – Sumdha Phu to Kungski La

    The day I bribed Lindsay through photography… Day Begins: Camp near Sumdha Phu High Pass: Kungski La (16,240 feet / 4950 meters) Day Ends: Camp at Base...

The original travel plan for Moab this year was for Lindsay and I to fly to Salt Lake on Thursday night where our friends Judith and Glenn would be eagerly awaiting our arrival, having driven down from Calgary, for us to embark on the car ride to Moab the following morning after staying near the airport.

That plan changed somewhat when Lindsay learned of a client meeting she needed to attend the final afternoon of our planned trip. Not a big deal, we’d part ways at the airport, I’d go home to Chicago and she’d fly to Seattle for a client meeting and to scout for future houses. (Joking, joking – we’re not moving to Seattle, but if someone were to hypothetically get offered a job there, I’d hypothetically have our house packed in a weekend.) The plan changed again when Lindsay learned she needed to be in Houston for work the day we were flying to Salt Lake. Not a big deal, I’d keep my plan as is; she would add an early morning flight to Houston, work there, and meet me in Salt Lake.

While all of her work travel emerged, north of the border Glenn realized that they were looking at 18 hours each way to drive from Calgary. Thinking better of this idea, he booked a flight and rented a car.

Taking the most economical option (as is usually the case in the commoditized rental car industry), he elected to go with EZ Advantage Rent-a-Car. They offered an upgraded Toyota 4Runner for an additional $20 per day. He declined, seeing this as an unnecessarily large, gas guzzling vehicle, and instead took the Kia Sorrento originally assigned. Plus, that additional $20 per day could be used toward wine.

Unbeknownst to anyone, this was a mistake.

Based on the new and earlier flights recently booked by my travel mates, the final morning of the trip started at a nice and benign 4:03am departure from the hotel in Moab. We were all cheerful, some more cheerful than others with the discovery that Glenn’s phone was filled with 80’s sing-a-long music. Cheerful, that is, until the temperature gauge on the car started acting up. Thinking nothing was out of the ordinary – the car was still running fine. We continued. Somewhere between Provo and Salt Lake, Google maps directed us off the highway to get around an accident. That’s when the trouble started. Cars aren’t supposed to steam out of the hood. It quickly subsided so we went back on the highway, except the car didn’t want to accelerate. Trouble.

Glenn put the hazards on and took the first exit, hoping to find a gas station. With no gas station to be found we limped into an outlet mall parking lot right in front of a Columbia Sportswear store still hours from opening.

At this point, it was nearing 8:00am and Glenn and Judith had an international flight to catch at 10:00am. Let’s just say that EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car’s customer service center didn’t seem to match our sense and level of urgency. Our solution? Deserting the car in the Columbia parking lot with Uber to the rescue.

In the interim, Glenn was finally connected with someone at the car rental facility in Salt Lake City. By this time, they had little leverage. They could send a tow to pick up the car in the parking lot and we would drop off the key with the shuttle driver at the airport. There really was no other option, at least no other option that meant flights would still be made.

At this point, we had no idea what the cut-off was to check bags for an international flight, and honestly, knowing would have only added stress to the situation. How much stress we didn’t actually know until we got to the airport just in time for Judith and Glenn to hit the 75 minute cut off.

I’m not sure who’s at fault in this situation or if anyone is at fault in this situation. It’s been a long time since I’ve worried about a car overheating. So long, in fact, that it’s not something I remotely worry about. Maybe I should. Maybe Kias suck. Maybe EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car sucks. At the very least, their customer service sucks. Maybe we just got unlucky and shit happens.

What I do know is that Judith is a lot like my wife. Suffice to say, the good folks at EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car have no idea how lucky they are that our little contingency plan worked.

(Sorry for the lack of photographic evidence but the stress of the situation kept the camera phones in our pockets.)

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I first took Lindsay to Moab in 2008 for our fifth anniversary. After a few nights exploring the town and hiking in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we splurged and ended the trip at Sorrel River Ranch. Little did I know this would set two distinct parallel paths in-flight. First, and not surprisingly, Lindsay would determine that her “happy place” was this beautiful ranch on the banks of the Colorado River with views of red rock mesas. Second, and a complete surprise, I would become a runner.

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Typical sunrise view from Sorrel River Ranch

When we booked at Sorrel we had no idea that a half marathon, Moab’s “The Other Half,” ended at the ranch earlier in the day of our arrival. At breakfast the next morning, we noticed something about many of the other guests – they seemed fit, they seemed energized, and it was obvious they had accomplished something. At that breakfast Lindsay declared that she was going to take up running. Not only had she declared she was going to take up running, but she decided we needed to come back the next year and conquer “The Other Half.”

Nothing like jumping in slow.

But here’s the thing: with the right research and the right plan, we did it. I started by running a minute or two at a time with walk intervals in between, but by the time we returned to Moab in 2009 as registered entrants in the race, I had little doubt we’d both finish the race. And finish we did. Since then, I’d classify myself as a runner.

Fast forward seven years, three moves, and one child, and we got the itch. In need of a fall vacation and an excuse to work toward something, a destination half marathon was in order. And what better place than Lindsay’s happy place. Along for the ride this time were our trekking and adventure travel friends Judith and Glenn, the Sparlinskis.

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Judith and I at the start of the race

The thing I’ve learned about half marathons is that for me the satisfaction isn’t in finishing the race, it’s in the process and discipline required to finish the race. Barring an unforeseen injury, I know that if I do three short runs per week with a long run on the weekend of escalating length, that I can pretty much be ready for a half marathon in ten to twelve weeks.

This formula is especially important for The Other Half. Why? Because I know I’m not setting any personal records. Relatively speaking, the race takes place at altitude and has some strategically placed hills in the second half of the race. In fact, mile 8 is a hill. Why put myself through that? The race takes starts near mile marker 31 on Utah State Highway 128 at Dewey Bridge and ends at Sorrel River Ranch. If you’ve ever driven that stretch of road, you know the reason. The scenery.

From the start, you quickly enter a tight red rock canyon that winds down the Colorado River. Prior to the canyon opening up, you can see Fischer Towers, probably one of the more famous rock climbing playgrounds in the US and host to my favorite Citibank commercial. While the towers are a mile to the left of the road, they’re a marker that seems to get no closer for the middle third of the race. Ordinarily, this would be exceedingly frustrating. Except for the fact that, you’re surrounded by towering red rock features the entire time.

At some point during the race, you come out of the narrow canyon and into the wider valley home to both Fischer Towers and Sorrel Ranch. During this year’s race, I couldn’t help but smile. I honestly can’t remember the last time I physically smiled at something like this with no one there to share. And I didn’t care. I just smiled. With the exception of the couple dozen runners around me, it was a completely empty, silent pristine landscape (a pristine landscape that’s the obvious victim of millions of years of erosion but a pristine landscape nonetheless).

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Fisher Towers (from the trail at the towers, not the view from the race)

At this point I did something I’ve never done in a race (at least that didn’t involve a bathroom stop). I stopped. I pulled my iPhone from my arm and took a photo. As is the case with most long distance landscape photos, it’s not a great photo. In fact, it doesn’t come close to capturing the physical beauty. It does, however, trigger that smile on my face.

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Worse than I remember, what with the half man on the right and everything

At mile 11 I finally caught my friend Judith (who used the race as a training run and was only running the first 8+ miles (or 15k as she would say – Canadians and their logical metric system) and talked with her for a few seconds before continuing up one final hill. Thankfully, the course sets up as a downhill toward the end before entering the ranch property for what the welcoming sign said as “0.7 miles to go until beer.”

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Time to start doing pushups or cut back on the IPA

Even as I crossed the finish line, having spotted Lindsay in the crowd so I could actually smile for a photo during a race as opposed to a look of overwhelming pain, I couldn’t help but transport myself back to that silent smile in the middle of the race.

Then I decided to go ahead and have that beer.

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Mountain weather is unpredictable. As someone that considers himself not to be an idiot, I know this. However, given fairly constant temperatures the breadth of conditions experienced in my first three days hiking in the Canadian Rockies was nothing short of amazing. Either that, or maybe I am an idiot.

Joining my Dad and I on this year’s installment of the annual father/son trip that hasn’t quite been annual lately based on things like having a daughter and living abroad, was Lindsay and our friends Judith and Glenn. Judith and Glenn were there because we chose the locale of this year’s trip in a place where they had just purchased a beautiful new condo. When you mooch free lodging, it’s only appropriate to invite them along for the fun. Especially when they’re excellent hosts, local experts, and pretty much my favorite hiking and travel companions. Lindsay was there because, well, when you’re traveling with your favorite travel companions that you met while trekking with your wife, it would be a pretty shitty thing to not invite your wife.

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The Snow – Sunshine Meadows

After a late arrival in Calgary and a short drive to Canmore, our trusty guide for the week, Judith, knew it probably be best to keep the first day short and sweet. She had selected Sunshine Meadows, which is a short school bus trip up the ski-out of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park. Yes, rather than hike up the 1.5 – 2 hours to the top of the gondola, we elected to hop a ride on the bus. Would you expect anything less from a hiking crew that specializes in fully portered Himalayan trekking (aka princess camping, or as the kids are calling it these days, “glamping”).

When we arrived the night before, she had mentioned it had snowed and I figured it would be just a dusting; however, as we exited the bus, there was actual accumulation. It was only a few inches but the ski runs looked rather skiable. The hiking trails melted first, looking almost plowed.

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As promised, it was a short loop with minimal altitude gain. This was perfect for the first day as I realized I hadn’t laced up my hiking boots since walking into the village of Lukla at the end of Everest Base Camp in May 2014. After the short time, we had time for a lunch that was unintentionally timed perfectly to catch the bus back down. The picnic tables were covered still covered with enough snow that we made the call to make it easy and eat inside, but by the time we headed back, snow was starting to disappear from the paths.

Thankfully, this was a one-day thing. The forecast called for a week full of sun.

The Sun – Helen Lake

Since we left all the hiking planning to Judith with the basic criteria of: (1) pick your favorites and (2) try not to repeat stuff we’ve done before, the second day found us driving deeper into Banff National Park to the trailhead for Helen Lake. The hike itself was one I like. A moderate incline through the forest that tops out and gently ascends a meadow to a lake. This isn’t one of those aquamarine lakes you hear so much about in the Canadian Rockies, but it didn’t matter. The lake was just a destination. A nice quiet place to have lunch. The highlight of this trek was the views both up and down along the meadow ridge. The weather only helped. Crystal blue skies with spotty clouds. Absolutely perfect. It was exactly what the forecast had called for. Looking ahead to the rest of the week, which included one final hike with the others before the actual father/son portion of the trip began with a 3-night trip to Shadow Lake Lodge, we felt we were in for a treat.

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What we didn’t pay enough attention to on the way back down was the light haze we saw forming in the distance. We figured it was just a slight disturbance caused by the angle of the sun or something equally mundane. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Smoke – Burstell Pass

As you may be aware, forest fires cause smoke. That smoke needs to go somewhere. That somewhere is where the wind blows. When the fires are in Washington state and the wind blows from the southwest, apparently the smoke blows straight to the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, the fires were in Washington state and the wind was blowing from the southwest.

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What did this mean? Well, it meant that it pretty much smelled like a big forest fire and you couldn’t see mountains, unless you were pretty much right next to them. Burstell Pass never stood a chance. In fact, Lindsay rated it a “solid C.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of Judith’s favorite hikes, not that there was anything that could be done about it.

Honestly, for being a complete smokeout that killed what was supposed to be a killer view from the pass, I kind of liked the hike. We crossed a stony wetland with multiple stream channels. On the way in, Judith and Glenn suggested we change into sandals as stepping in water would probably be necessary so we didn’t need to find the driest route. In reality, we probably didn’t need to change as the water didn’t get above where our shoes would have been. We planned to stick to our shoes and stay dry on our way out. However, the melting glacier had other plans and the water was noticeably higher when we approached on the way back.

Even the stream crossing wasn’t enough to budge Lindsay from her “average” grade. However, even she would have to admit, the conditions she experienced in her second visit to the Canadian Rockies were, well, unique. A day of snow, a day of sun, and a day of smoke.

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Other than the fact they’ve snookered me into believing $15 is more than a fair price for a six pack of Coors Light, I think I’ve finally figured out why I’ll never be a Disney guy: I have no desire to learn how to play their game.

In order to truly enjoy your time on property, you have to fully immerse yourself into carefully plotting your way around the park with fast passes and an app that may or may not work that tells you the line to a ride or a character has dipped and is now worth the wait. It just seems like a lot of work, especially since you’re already in a crowded, sweaty mess of people.

People think I’m a planner (at least when it comes to travel), so it might come as some surprise that I don’t want to play the Disney game. I’m all for planning a trip months in advance where I craft a plan for moving from city A to village B, but that’s kind of where my planning ends. I don’t overthink it and I don’t over-rotate. I’m at a stage in life where I like to know I have a place to stay but I don’t necessarily want to be tied down with a dinner reservation six months in advance.

At Disney? You need to tie yourself down with a dinner reservation six months in advance to get to the “right” character meal, else you risk being a negligent parent or, worse yet, end up eating with a B-lister like Winne the Pooh.

The whole experience creates a weird competition with yourself, where you’re scoring internal points based on what rides or experiences you can rack up. Very little seems spontaneous. It all just seems too…well, planned.

This weekend marks our second family Disney experience in a few short weeks. The first weekend was to make sure we took our daughter before we moved from Orlando (and I thus saved the $10k+ it would have cost later in life and can apply that to a more John-centric trip). We came back again because our daughter seemed to enjoy it well enough and what else were we going to do while our household goods make the trip up to Illinois? The answer to that question was actually a weekend at the Waldorf, but I was out-voted 2-1 for the Disney return.

For all the stress and planning it takes to make Disney enjoyable, my all-time favorite Disney memory was a morning a few weeks ago at the Contemporary. We had no idea the pool hadn’t opened but found it strange that no one was there. Just before 9am, a lifeguard approached our daughter, asking if she had any magic that might be able to open the pool. My daughter looked confused but the lifeguard soon brought out Mickey gloves and a Fantasia hat, asking her to put both on. Following instructions to spin in a circle three times and slap her hands on the pool deck, somehow my little L3 had started the water fountains and opened the pool.

Easily the coolest thing I’ve seen in my (limited) days at Disney. It just took being in the right place at the right time. No fast pass required.

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When you relocate and have a limited amount of time in the place you’re leaving, you invariably start to cram every open minute with some sort of “last” activity as you start to say your goodbyes. When moving from India, we traveled something like 5 out of the final 6 weekends. With the move from Orlando, we’ve filled weekends with family things: a trip to Disney, favorite restaurants, and time with neighbors. Easter Sunday marked the “final” trip to the beach.

Though we’ve only been to the beach a handful of times in the three years we’ve lived in Florida, it’s become a bit more regular and fun based on our two year old’s love of the water.

The closest beaches to our house are Cocoa and New Smyrna; however, those are either crowded or vehicle filled. Seriously. Vehicle filled. New Smyrna allows cars on the beach which makes it super handy to overpack and easily set up your gear. But what it possesses in convenience, it lacks in safety and general ambiance.

Fifteen minutes south of New Smyrna is a peaceful, protected place. A palace where you may need to carry your chairs a little further but can escape the crowds (small parking lots will do that) This place is Canaveral National Seashore.

Unfortunately, a higher than normal tide meant the water was “scary” (my daughter’s word, not mine) so in-water activities were somewhat limited. This was actually somewhat welcome as she typically recklessly runs for the water as soon as she senses she’s free on the beach. Not Sunday. Sunday she asked for my hand to walk her into the water up to her knees, her grip tightening as the water swelled around us. It’s selfish and perhaps a little sadistic that her fear makes me feel more needed, but when you have a confident and independent little two year old, that clutch is a welcome sign of trust. One of the most tangible signs you’re needed.

With the high and angry sea causing us to push our chairs nearly up against the dune, we sat. We enjoyed the view of the scary waves and watched our daughter industriously shovel sand into buckets, ask for water (you have to remember the water was scary so she outsourced her water fetching duties), and move and mix sand between buckets.

When the novelty of her busywork wore off, she left the safety of our setup and ventured south down the beach, not even turning to see if we’d follow. Eventually, as parents hoping that DCFS wasn’t hiding in the dunes, we knew we needed to do catch up. We did just that. After catching her and trying to get her to turn around, she grabbed both our hands and we continued to walk. Stretched in front of us was completely empty beach. Something you just don’t expect to find in Florida.

The only thing missing was a setting sun, but at 10:30am, that would have been asking a bit much. While this feeling probably should have occurred by this point, walking down that beach with the family felt like the beginning of the end of our time in Orlando, and we have a busy two weeks before we officially relocate. We’re trying hard to do as much as possible in that time and have no regrets. To me, that walk down the beach was the first of many farewells in front of me the next two weeks. With just my wife, my daughter, and an empty stretch of sand, it was the perfect first farewell.

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