Summer Road Trip 2019 – West Coast

This last summer my husband and I embarked on a 40-day road trip, packed to the gils in our SUV – angling northeast from Arizona, through Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Sonoma County and on up the west coast. Making stops in Bandon Dunes, Portland and Seattle before heading across the border into Canada. This second leg of our trip included stops in Whistler, British Columbia and then across the water (Strait of Georgia) to Vancouver Island to spend time in Tofino and Qualicum Beach. Our third leg took us back stateside where we made our way back down through Seattle, east to Coeur d’Alene and into Billings, Montana. Then we began our southernly descent towards home going through Jackson Hole, Colorado Springs and Durango.

Golf, although not the main driving force of this trip, played a major role in how we organized this trip and deciding where we were headed. Our intent was to see as much of our amazing country, and new destinations in Canada, up close and personal, taking major highways only when time was of the essence. We had to pre-book certain parts of the trip, so staying somewhat to a schedule was imperative, but overall the total number days on the road was left to play out however it played out.

A single write-up of this trip would be labeled a novel, so as not lose my readers attention, I will break the trip up into the three different legs so I can share more details of each amazing stop on this bucket-list filled journey.

FIRST LEG – West Coast

Choosing which way to make our way up to NorCal was a challenge coming from the Phoenix Valley. Not many routes across the national forests that line the eastern border of California, from almost the northern tip down to Bakersfield, north of LA. We wanted scenic – so we meandered our way taking in the following amazing destinations on the first part of this leg.

Las Vegas:

Day 1 – Southern Highlands Golf Club was the first stop on our trip to play this beautiful private club. One of only four courses co-designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Robert Trent Jones, Jr.  RTJ, Sr. passed away during the construction of this course and there is a plaque on the 12th hole commemorating his passing – the last hole he finished. For the first time in our 33-year marriage my husband, a 14-hdcp, played really well and beat my score (I’m a 5-hdcp) – so this is now his favorite course!

Southern Highlands – a lush green oasis in the Las Vegas desert, with amazing views. Every tree was planted during the build process.

Day 2 – Ever wanted to put the pedal to the metal and go as fast as you can – legally? Drive whatever your dream sports car is at Exotics Racing in Las Vegas. A track with multiple turns to test your maneuverability and one long straight away to ‘let it out’ and see how fast you can go! Exhilarating – or so my husband said after driving his dream car – a Porsche. He was amazed at how physically demanding it was driving these cars – for just 7 laps, can’t imagine the exhaustion after driving 500 laps for the pros.

We finished off the day, our 33rd- wedding anniversary, with a fun whimsical dinner at Lakeside restaurant at The Wynn – singing frogs et al!

Exotics Racing – Las Vegas – Porsche 911 GT3 RS – powerful – fast. Bucket list item – check!

The Lakeside restaurant in the lower level of The Wynn sits on a man-made small lake, where you are serenade by singing frogs, bouncing balls and flittering butterflies.

Yosemite National Park:

Day 3 – We hadn’t been to Yosemite in over 30-years, so we were anxious to return. There is no easy direct route into Yosemite National Park. Due to narrow, windy, single lane roads – the last 80 miles took 4 1/2 hours, the last 20 miles took 2 1/2 hours. But with the beauty surrounding this whole area, one hardly notices or cares that you are forced to drive slow and take in the overwhelming aura of this park. El Capitan stands majestic to your left as you approach The Ahwahnee Lodge, Half Dome looms large in the distance, a multitude of massive trees line the roadway, rushing waterfalls thunder in their descent. A magical mystical place.

El Capitan – makes Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent even more impressive when you see this iconic rock structure in person.

Half Dome in Yosemite draws in your with it’s unique shape and just out of reach location.

Day 4 – Up early to drive to a high point in the park to witness the sun rise along El Capitan, bathing the Half Dome in sunlight. Driving out of the park, we stopped to walk through one of the many Giant Sequoia groves that dot the park. Standing at the base of these looming, behemoth trees is mind-blowing.

A high vantage point in Yosemite presents a sunrise show with the sun rising behind El Capitan bathing Half Dome in the morning sun.

Giant Sequoias – aka Redwoods – stand out with their size and robust red color.

Sonoma County:

Visiting Sonoma wine country was another bucket-list item for us. We have been to the Napa Valley multiple times and wanted to see what it’s quieter, smaller sister had to offer. We stayed at the new boutique hotel, MacArthur Place – 5 blocks off the main square in Sonoma. Spacious, well-appointed rooms, a great bar setting, an amazing eating experience at their top-notch restaurant Layla, and friendly attentive service throughout the whole complex warrants a return visit.

MacArthur Place in Sonoma is great new boutique resort that has brought service to a whole new level.

The next two days we were treated to full days of wine tasting and seeing the sights of Sonoma, organized by Val & Mike Marino, of California Wine Tours. Top notch service and wine tour experience!

Day 5 – Wine tours at: Hanzell, Deerfield Ranch and Repris. All had very unique wine caves.

Hanzell, Sonoma – going into it’s seventh decade of making wine, specifically Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, uses a holistic ‘farming’ approach in caring for their vineyards by growing veggies and fruit trees along wine rows, allowing farm animals to mow, dig, and fertilize the cropland. By appt. only.

The rustic stone barn tasting room at Hanzell offers panoramic views of the Sonoma Valley.

Deerfield Ranch, Kenwood – Red Blends are their speciality, with a focus on low amounts of sulfate and histamines, creating a smoother tasting wine while using less tannins, but also reducing additives that many people are sensitive to and can hamper their wine tasting enjoyment. Open to the public.

The wine cave at Deerfield Ranch opens up into an inviting, well lit, living room style setting.

Repris, Sonoma – wines 125-years in the making, is a well-hidden gem – not even known to most locals. The climate of this Moon Mountain Vineyard creates some the highest quality grapes in the region. Their 18,000 sf cave reveals the natural stone walls left behind the big dig to create this natural wine cellar. By appt. only.

No matter how bad the fires got, the wine cave at Repris would safe coat a major portion of their wine supply. Great place for fun wine tastings too!

Day 6 – Wine tours at: A. Rafanelli and MacRostie.

A. Rafanelli, Dry Creek – sits on some of the most pristine property in Sonoma County, focusing on Zinfandels, Cabs and Merlots. Shelly Rafanelli, 4th generation, is the winemaker and her sister, Stacy, runs the financial side of the winery – continuing the Rafanelli legacy of great winemaking. By appt. only.

The Rafanelli family has been on this property for four generations and it shows! Absolutely gorgeous setting!

MacRostie, Healdsburg, is in the Russian River Valley, the go to AVA for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The property sits with an expansive vista that allows you an opportunity to contemplate life of maybe one day opening your own vineyard or winery. Open to public, but reservations highly recommended.

MacRostie Winery – a great place to contemplate life and take in the amazing vistas.

Bandon Dunes:

Day 7 – Back on the road to make our way to our first golf bucket-list destination, Bandon Dunes. The American version of Irish golf links. Upon our arrival at our cottage that sits at the edge of a lily pond, frogs were ‘croaking’ out their mating calls and on cue a momma deer and her two fawns appeared at the base of our balcony. A great start!

A momma deer and her two fawns made an appearance at the base of our deck at Bandon Dunes, right on cue to our arrival.

Day 8 – Up and at em’ early for our first round at the original Bandon Dunes golf course. The cool breezes off the Pacific had our attention quickly with no trees to break the blustery winds.  With 7-holes fully are partially along the ocean, our attention was focused on those stinger shots to keep our balls low and in play on this naturally created course winding through dunes and natural vegetation.

Are we in Ireland? It’s hard to tell the difference – Bandon Dunes does a great job of pulling off a true links golf experience.

Day 9 – Pacific Dunes became our favorite course at the resort. It was more captivating with its layout – challenging, but not in a quirky way. A playable distance, but an emphasis on shot making. With 7 holes fully or partially along the ocean, the 3-club wind had our attention today.

Probably the most photographed hole in Bandon Dunes is the 10th hole at Pacific Dunes.

Day 10 – Old MacDonald only has 4 holes that are directly affected by the ocean, but with some of the world’s largest greens and deepest bunkers there is no shortage of challenges. We were taking full body turns on some of our putts and hitting backwards out of several bunkers.

Our caddies walking off the back of one of the monstrous greens at Old McDonald. I needed a wide angle lens to have been able to capture the whole green.

Only way out – is backwards! Brutally tough and deep bunkers at Old McDonald.

Portland:

Day 11 – Our first trip ever to Portland – lush green rolling hills welcome you as you wind along the Willamette River and it’s tributaries, which make it very challenging to get around. There are no direct routes to cut through rivers and hills, but tour circuitous route allowed us to experience the beautiful Oregon countryside. We were treated to play on an old course – circa 1896, Waverley Country Club, along the banks of the river. A tight, heavily treed course with wrist breaking rough.

The picturesque 16th hole at Waverly Country Club – aptly named the Punch Bowl. Long shots end up in the Willamette River.

Seattle:

Day 12 – Seattle is similar to Portland in having to work your way around waterways and hills. We stayed at The Edgewater where we were upgraded to The Beatles room – where apparently they stayed back in the 1960’s. After walking to get our morning coffee at the original Starbucks, we headed to our second golf bucket-list experience – playing the famed Sahalee Country Club. Even the greatest players have been brought to near tears with fairways tightly lined with thick stoic stands of woods and greens harder to hold than my living room glass coffee table. Some greens were so tough to hold we just picked up our balls and walked to the next tee.

Evening view from our room at The Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, show cases the Seattle highlights with Mount Rainier lurking in the background.

Does anybody have a chainsaw?? As if the greens aren’t hard enough, they have to line the fairways with these monstrous trees, just to test your golf mettle a bit more.

Can you say tight? It’s hard to envision trying to pipe down the tight fairways at Sahalee CC, just outside of Seattle.

Almost a third of the way through our road trip, my husband and I were still talking to each other, we had already experienced enough amazing adventures to fill a life-time, but were energized and excited about the next two legs of our trip to visit new destinations and revisit old favorite destinations.

Check the Global Gallery in the near future to see more pictures from the first leg of our summer 2019 road trip. And stay tuned for ‘leg two’ of Summer Road Trip 2019.

 

Pinehurst – finally!

As I have mentioned in previous posts I am an avid golfer. I grew up in a family where you learned to play golf and ski or you find a new family. I decided I liked my family so I didn’t fight it when parents put me on my first set of skis at age 3 and put golf clubs in my hands at age 6. I skied until about 10 years ago, when I decided I liked my body in one piece and risking the slopes with an aging body was no longer a smart play. Golf, although mentally taxing, is a little kinder on the body and has given me opportunities to see some of the most amazing tracks of land across this great country of ours.

I played my first tournament at age 8, and made golf my focus from that age on. I spent the summers on the golf course, while all my friends were hanging out a block away at the local pool. They were working on their tans and I was trying to hide my golfers tan. But that’s what comes with the territory of being a serious golfer. Living in Minnesota we had a very short golf season, but that didn’t deter our desire to play this crazy game. We spent our winters fixing clubs, hitting into nets and creating our dream courses on large pieces of tag board. Minnesota had one of the strongest junior programs of any state in the country, so we had plenty of tournaments to play in once the snow melted and the courses opened.

Our family of six had a standing tee time every Saturday and Sunday at our local course. My dad never missed a Men’s day and my mom – who got us started in this crazy game – never missed a Ladies day at the club. My Mom grew up in Duluth, and way back in the day, to earn a little summer fun money, she caddied for little known Patty Berg, one of the founding members of the LPGA. If Mom had only known back then what an icon Patty would become she would’ve stayed on her bag a lot longer.

My two next oldest brothers and I spent from sun-up to sun-down working on our games. If we couldn’t play, we took multiple shag bags of balls and headed to the largest fields we could find and pound balls hour after hour. Then head to the putting green and work on our putting, short game, sand game, and trick shots! Hey I took hot dog lessons when I was a young skier – so for golf I had to learn to hit every trick shot my brothers threw at me. They were pretty cool to let their little sis tag along, but they gave me one rule to abide by – ‘keep up’ – because they weren’t waiting around for me. So I learned to hit the biggest ball my 110 pounds of body mass could muster. It wasn’t anywhere near as long as they hit it, but it was enough to ‘keep up’ with them.

My oldest brother was more the team sport guy – baseball, football, basketball. But the stud athlete he was allowed him to play a pretty solid game of golf. My middle two brothers were the golfers of the family. They both had scratch handicaps for most of their high school years. One summer, the older of the two shot the course record of 63 on our home course. The next week, the younger brother topped that feat and beat the newly set course record by one.

Golf was such a huge deal in our family that for our high school graduation my parents gave us a choice between a week of golf at the most renown golf resort in the country, Pinehurst, or help in buying a car. My oldest brother took the car, but the two golfing brothers chose trips to Pinehurst. In the seven years since my oldest brother had graduated from high school, I put my all into the game of golf. My intent from the age of at least 12 was to become a professional golfer. I put the time and effort into achieving this goal, even moving to Arizona in my junior year of high school so I could practice year round. But what quickly became evident was that I was good, but probably not good enough to play at the pro  level. Or if I was good enough it would be a constant struggle of just trying to make cuts. I became burned out on the game and sadly hung up my clubs at age 18 for the next 5 years. No Pinehurst for me.

In the ensuing years I picked up my clubs again, and other than another 5 year break when my kids were born, I put enough effort back into my game to keep my handicap in the middle single digits. My husband took up the game after we got married. He played sparingly over the years with a very busy work schedule, but he was a strong athlete and made strong enough progress that in the last 20 years we have been able to enjoy some of the most amazing golf tracks around today: Pebble Beach, Spyglass, Pasatiempo, Bandon Dunes, Sahalee, Interlachen, The Ocean Course – but the one that kept eluding me was – Pinehurst.

Even though I willingly gave up the game of golf for a time, I never let go of the dream of one day wanting to play Pinehurst. Partly because Pinehurst was part of our families golf legacy, partly because of its place in history in the game of golf as a whole. Earlier this year we were invited by friends who belonged to Pinehurst to come play this iconic golf mecca. It took me all of 3 seconds to accept.

This has been my longest standing bucket list item – golf related or not. After 37 years of bypassing my opportunity to play Pinehurst for my graduation gift from my parents, last week I was finally able to check Pinehurst off my bucket list. We could not have hit better weather – 75 and sunny every day. Pinehurst now touts 9 courses in its’ line-up and was the location of the World Golf Hall of Fame from 1974-1998. Back when my brothers went, there were 5 courses with the 6th just about ready to open. My husband and I only had a few days, so we let our hosts pick the courses they recommended playing – as long as one of them was #2.

Pinehurst #2 is where it all happens. This is the course that has played host to several iconic US Open Championships and a myriad of other major tournaments. Champions list includes: 2014 US Women’s US Open and Men’s US Open played back to back – Michelle Wie & Martin Kaymer; 1999 US Open emotional winner Payne Stewart – there is a statue in his honor at the 18th green; 1951 – Sam Snead captained the winning Ryder Cup team.

The fairways are tightly lined with towering Loblolly Pines, and where their pine needles don’t fall in mats of slippery undercover, there are unending seas of waste areas consisting of the local sandy base with native wire grasses sprouting up like landmines. Not a hilly course, no water, but keeps your attention.

The greens are small, undulating, crowned and fast. We had a tough time keeping the balls on these upside down bowls – they were running at about 11 on the stimpmeter. For US Opens they run about 12.5-13. One of golfs most notorious sayings is ‘Drive for dough, putt for show’ – but at Pinehurst you need to put the ball in the fairway so you can hit your approach shots with the highest lofted club possible to have a chance of hitting a landing area about the size of a dime and keeping the ball on the green. Then work on your breathing – a lightly tapped putt is all you’ll need to have a chance of it dropping. Or take your lag putt and run to the next tee!

We played Pinehurst #6 first – this Tom Fazio designed course was the most benign of the three we played, but it still demanded big drives and aggressive approach shots. A wayward tee shot easily turned into a double bogey just getting back in play. But a good course to prepare for what was to come on #2, which we played on our second day at Pinehurst. We finished our tour playing Pinehurst #9. This Jack Nicklaus design incorporates every discipline available to this imaginative course designer – tons of water; winding, rolling, lush, tight fairways; deep bunkers with wet heavy sand; long narrow undulating greens; towering pines lining the fairways with beds of slippery pine needles.

My Pinehurst mission is replete. I came, I saw and I got conquered – mainly by #2. I would love an opportunity to go back, knowing what I now know of the course, and give it another whack!

I generally intertwine my pics throughout the post, but there was a story that needed to be told, supplanted at the end with a few photos of the adventure that was Pinehurst. More pics available to view in the Global Gallery.

Played #6 in our first round at Pinehurst. Shot a respectable 78 with 3 double bogeys. Should’ve stopped after this round.

The end of October #6 & #9 will play host to the LPGA Q-School Finals. Good luck gals!

The drive into the entrance of #2 just oozes iconic golf course.

One of the famed waste areas on #2. Try and hit out of it to a crowned green with a landing area the size of a dime.

Sure you can hit that fairway. And you better hope that you do, as the green is about the size of a nickel and sloped at a weird angle.

By the 12th hole, our scores were in the stratosphere, so we decided to have some fun and have a head to head – literally – putt off.

Still smiling after the round and enough energy left to do the famed Payne Stewart fist pump!

Uphill, long, dog-leg, tree-lined hole at #9 had us all taking the esteemed Jack Nicklaus name in vein.

But alas, we made it to through with our dignity and love of the game intact. Shooting a 41 with 2 double bogeys on my last 9 at Pinehurst was a bit of salve on the wounds from the previous 27 holes.

Luckily they make a tasty and strong margarita at the Ryder Cup bar at the Pinehurst Resort. All is well that ends well – at the 19th hole.

Hunts Mesa, Monument Valley et al

Hunts Mesa. A destination, an experience, a vista that will live with me the rest of my years. I’ve been coming to Arizona for 40 plus years, and spending time in the National Parks and accessible tribal lands located within a days drive from the Phoenix Valley have been on my bucket list all those years. Recently I finally made the four hour road excursion north to take in the sights of Secret Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Monument Valley where Hunts Mesa rules over the valley below, showcasing many more monuments than what you see at ground level.

Page sits just south of the Arizona/Utah border, near the shores of Lake Powell, and was base camp for the next several days. It is a good central location with so much to see and do within a couple of hours drive in just about every direction. This historic little town sits northeast of the Grand Canyon, with easy access to the Colorado River for some river rafting via Lee’s Ferry.

The view from the hotel in Page looking towards Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

Because of the proximity to Page I was able to experience in 24 hours:

Secret Canyon – one of the areas slot canyons. It has an opening on both ends of the canyon, and you can also climb to the top of the canyon to take in a birds-eye view of the wavy slots from above. Weaving in and out of these wavy sandstone walls gives you an appreciation for the power of water as it swirls in these tight areas and has for centuries, leaving perfectly aligned ribbings along each orange-ish/pink-ish sandstone wall. The flood waters still come fast and hard from far upstream and can catch you unaware as you sit in these canyons with clear blue skies above. This slot canyon may be smaller than the famed Antelope Canyon, but it allows you access to ‘people free’ photos with a secluded 2 /12 tour with 15 people or less. Very intimate experience with a tribal guide who shared stories of his youth growing up in these canyons, and great photo tips.

Secret Canyon slot canyon – a maze of tight wavy curved sandstone walls.

Secret Canyon – no this is not a painting or highly photo-shopped. Handy work courtesy of Mother Nature inside Secret Canyon slot canyon.

Lake Powell, and all of it’s watery arm extensions, is an amazing location to catch the setting sun, lighting up a backdrop of multi-colored rock formations and inky blue pools of water with their rugged shorelines. Photographing the sunset is a popular evening activity with parking lots full of tri-pods and eager shutterbugs trying to capture the perfect natural lighting on the perfect natural setting. One of the countries largest man-made reservoirs, one could spend days discovering the many hidden gems of Lake Powell and is a must return for me.

A high vantage view of Lake Powell as the sun was setting over the marina.

Boat launch into Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina near Page.

Horseshoe Bend trailhead is a 5 mile drive from Page. The 3/4 mile easy hike to the edge of yet another amazing feature created by centuries of water powering it’s way through bedrock to create  this horseshoe shaped bend in the Colorado River. The contrast of multiple blue hues of the water weaving through the multiple shades of orange bedrock is breathtaking. So are the vistas all along this canyon, but with multiple deaths a year in the area from people getting too bold to experience the perfect view of looking over the edge of the rim a railing was recently installed above the bend to give security to the nearly 2 million annual visitors.

Horseshoe Bend photographed with a fish-eye lens showcasing all the amazing colors at sunrise.

The next day, after unfortunately coming across a horrific bus/SUV accident on Highway 89, where 3 people were airlifted to area hospitals, we were forced to change our plans of going to Bryce Canyon and ended up at a very unique little spot about 30 miles west of Page:

The Toad Stools sit at the southern edge of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Park with an easily accessible trailhead right off the highway. These multi-colored formations – from bright white, to a golden cream, to rustic orange – are mind boggling in how large boulders teeter atop a pointy sandstone spire that look ready to crumble. Even though they’ve been this way for centuries how do they not topple over?? I sure don’t want to be under one whenever that does happen! The 1.8 mile hike is easy, and generally not over crowded – plenty of space to spread out and see all the amazing rock formations and wall art created by Mother Nature herself.

Toad Stool – cream colored massive sandstone walls provide a backdrop to orange toad stools.

Finally made it to Bryce Canyon the next day – after a 2 1/2 hour drive northwest of Page along a two-lane windy road:

Bryce Canyon sits at an elevation of almost 9000 feet. I visited on April 5th and arrived to an amazing amount of snow. What a contrast of colors with the intense orange coloration of the rock formations dotted with thick layers of snow. It is meditative to fully absorb the aura of these cathedrals and amphitheaters of orange and cream colored spires and natural arches created by the extreme weather conditions that exist in this location. The canyon was named for a mormon homesteader, Ebenezer Bryce, in 1874. In Bryce Canyon you climb to above views of the spires, whereas in Zion National Park you drive through the low lying bases of similar formations. For this reason, Zion does not get as cold and is about 30 minutes closer to Page, which means larger crowds.

Bryce Canyon – this massive amphitheater of sandstone spires dusted with snow spreads out over miles.

A very cool natural arch, bathed in snow, at the farthest open end of Bryce Canyon.

Saturday, April 6th, 2019 – a day that will live in infamy, at least in my little world. A day I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see the end of, but when I did, I was oh so glad. The 2 1/2 hour drive from Page to Monument Valley mid-morning was non-plus. Enjoyed lunch at the The View Hotel while looking out over the world-renown Monument Valley. At 2:30 my travel companion and I met up with our native Indian guide, Toney Begay who works for Monument Valley Safari Tours. A man we would surrender the safety of our well-being to for the next 18 hours. A man who grew up in the area and has been a guide for over 40-years.

Some of the more prominent monuments basking under the crystal blue skies and blanket of white cotton candy clouds above Monument Valley.

For the next four hours we meandered along a 8-mile ‘road’, often going no more than 5-10mph, up the backside of Hunt’s Mesa, in a four-wheel-drive Suburban. I was happy to be enclosed and securely fastened by my seatbelt. The ‘road’ and I use that term loosely, wove through low desert sand dunes; up rock faces where we felt we were going to tip over backwards; along pathways that were no wider than the vehicle where we felt we were going to tip over sideways; and along drop-offs 100’s of feet on both sides of the road in one area. In these tribunal lands there are no guardrails, no barriers of any kind – one slip of the truck on a slick rock or a loose rock gives way – and it would’ve been all over.

Our roadway up the back side of Hunts Mesa to our vista point overlooking Monument Valley.

A higher vantage of the pathway we were about to embark on – with drop-offs of 100’s of feet on either side of the road.

I have always had a fear of heights, especially severe drop-offs. But I knew if I were going to get the best pictures I had to brave the ‘elements’ and sit up front. My travel partner sat in the back, often with her hands covering her eyes. Our highly experienced guide oozed with confidence, and we had no choice but to trust in him and his years of experience. During high season he makes this drive 5-7 times a week and often twice a day. He was so confident of his abilities he acted like we were out for a Sunday drive on the flatlands of Nebraska.

We took many deep breathes, and embraced the adventure that lay before us. When we arrived at our destination, we quickly understood the expression of awe when we told our slot canyon guide a few days earlier we were going to Hunts Mesa. He told us we were in for a treat of a lifetime and he was spot on!  As heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, lump-in-the-throat the trek to the top was – we felt we earned the views that now laid at our feet.

The heart stopping, mind blowing, gut churning, nerve-wracking trek was all worth it!

The whole of Monument Valley spread out before us like divas all battling for center stage to claim the crown for best in show. Each deep red rock monument has been given their own name by tribal ancestors over many centuries. It is hard to fathom this canvas of unique subjects was created by centuries of wind and water, not a pick and chisel at the hands of man. Their lines are majestic, magical, mind-bending – and nearly perfect, in their own right. I took over 600 pictures in the 18 hours we spent in the presence of such greatness.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa we stopped by our evening viewing point to see it had been overtaken by a heard of wild goats.

With no city lights for many, many miles in any direction the thick blanket of stars we experienced were bright enough to bath Monument Valley in a soft glow. Because we booked this tour on such short notice I did not have the proper equipment and knowledge to properly capture the night sky, but we were lucky enough to come across an amazing professional free-lance photographer who did capture some amazing pics that evening from the same look-out we were stationed at. Check out Ranjan Bhattacharya at rbfotoartcreations on Instagram.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa Toney asked if we were in a hurry. Thankfully we said no and were treated to more amazing sights along these sacred tribal pathways: Anasazi ruins built high up in rock faces; rock formations with a wow-factor to rival the world renown monuments we originally signed up to experience; and a hidden gem, Spider Arch, tucked deep along a dry river bed, through porcupine footprints, massive pincushion cacti – to a natural arch to rival any I have seen in person or in pictures.

There was a bit of a slick sandstone rock face we needed to ascend to take full advantage of the visual before us. Our guide Toney showed us how to navigate the rock face by traversing and to keep our bodies low to the rock. We were slip sliding all over and about to give up when I decided to risk doing a face plant and stood up and ran as fast as I could creating enough momentum to carry me up the rest of the face – only to be rewarded with one of Mother Nature’s most awe-inspiring creations. My travel partner plays the native flute and the site of her playing in this natural amphitheater, with our native American guide lying on his back listening peacefully will be a visual that will stay with me all my days.

A short but challenging rock face we had to climb to fully experience the whole of Spider Arch.

It doesn’t get much better than to be witness to my travel companion playing her native flute for our Native American guide as he relaxes under the Spider Arch.

As we made our way back out on to the main road to head back to our vehicle, all of our anxiety from the drive up Hunts Mesa was erased by the plethora of visuals that now filled our mind, our heart and our soul. Along with a new appreciation for the Native American culture that flourishes in places like Monument Valley. Toney and his tribe are a proud people and I am honored they choose to share these amazing sites – sites I will never take advantage of, and will do all I can do support their culture and their heritage so they will continue to be open to sharing these amazing adventuresome experiences.

Check back soon for more pics in the Global Gallery from Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and all the other sites we visited.

Alaska Adventures – part 2

Below please enjoy the follow-up post by my guest blogger, and son, Mike Malecha. Continuing to see more of Anchorage and experience one of Alaska’s 664 named glaciers – Washington is the state with the next closest number of named glaciers at 186.

Enjoy Alaska Adventures – part 2 by Mike Malecha:

 

Wednesday
Wednesday began nice and early with a workout at Body Renew, the gym where Tara does some personal training. It was (almost) effortless to get up early and head to the gym already surrounded by light that made it feel like mid-day. A few hours of sleep somehow felt like an eternity in an Alaskan summer. What a great feeling to be back at the house having coffee by 8 with an energizing workout (and a long stretching session which my body needed after a few days of climbing and hiking) already in the books. With the rest of the morning to myself to catch up on some reading, I set out to grab a little breakfast at the local McDonalds (just to make sure it’s the same in Alaska as everywhere else;) – and it is!) and then spent the morning with my nose in a book and doing the tiny bit of work I reluctantly allowed myself to bring on the trip.

Once Ryan had finished up at work himself, we kept the activity and adventure theme going and hit the road for another hike. One of the ‘must-do’ items on my list was to see a  glacier, and that was the item of the day. Ryan and I drove about an hour south to a town called Whittier, a very small water-side community tucked into a gorgeous river-valley between the mountains. The drive also included a 2-mile stretch directly through Maynard Mountain via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel! We set out on the Portage Pass Trail, up over a saddle between two peaks which took us to a glacier-viewing area. On the way up, we had a view of the pristine Portage Lake running through the valley behind us the whole way, and the sight only became more beautiful and expansive as we climbed upward.

Maynard Mountain with road/train tracks lead into the 2 plus mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

This way to glacier viewing!

I requested several stops along the way up, to turn around and embrace the scenery (and just maybe to catch an extra breath or two, but that was a very secondary reason ;). Once we made it over the saddle, the view of a hanging glacier, Portage Glacier, between the upper slopes of two mountains nearly stopped me in my tracks – truly one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The pictures below can do the glacier more justice than my words can, and the pictures aren’t nearly enough. Truly something that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The magnitude of nature’s power became overwhelmingly apparent while in its presence. Witnessing the masterpiece created by such monumental forces, which over immense periods of time, came together to form this natural wonder was a humbling experience.

From the road – the destination of the Portage Glacier looks daunting.

Portage Glacier slowly melts into Portage Lake as viewed from the Portage Pass Trail.

And it was worth the effort!

Dinner that night was at Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, a staple in Anchorage. Lines extend out the front door and fill the waiting area on a daily basis at dinner time, and for hours thereafter. We went at about 8:30 pm and still had to wait over a half an hour. Fortunately, the place brews a number of its own beers, so we patiently sat on the patio and each enjoyed our pick of their home-made Broken Tooth brews while waiting; my Raspberry Pale Ale was terrific. The pizza was every bit worth the wait – easily understandable why the place has become such a staple. Aside from the food quality, an ever-bustling family style atmosphere filled the place, not a person in the restaurant without a smile on their face. It’s the kind of place I’m sure has kids jumping up and down and shouting in joy when their parents agree to take them out for pizza.

Checking out the different brews at Broken Tooth Brewing while waiting to get in for pizza at Moose’s Tooth.

Big surprise, Ryan and I decided to do another hike on Thursday afternoon once he was off work, and today we wanted to focus on physical intensity more than the scenery. So, we set out on a two and a quarter-mile trek, pretty much directly upward from the base of Alyeska Ski Resort (about a half hour south of Anchorage) up to the resort’s winter lodge. Up until now, we hadn’t had to worry much about wildlife encounters, but as this outing took us through more raw wilderness, we were sure to equip ourselves with bear spray and Ryan’s firearm.

Our destination is the Alyeska ski lodge at the top of the hill.

Ran into a big snow-patch about halfway up the mountain! Forgot to bring our snowboards unfortunately!

As fortune would have it, about 10 minutes into the hike, a woman passed by on her way down saying there had been reported sightings of a mother black bear and 3 cubs not far up the trail. Rather than a quick discussion of whether we should go forward, Ryan simply said, “Well that’s Alaska for you, better get used to it!” and proceeded to take his gun out of his pack to keep it close at hand, and we continued right on up the hill – and I had my bear spray at the ready. I thought I would feel much more fearful in such a situation, but I knew we were properly prepared and the initial fear honestly faded quite quickly. We made sure to make a racket as we went to alert any nearby critters of our presence, which basically resulted in a non-stop clapping, singing and whistling fest most of the way up the mountain – not a noise level that was much out of the ordinary for the two of us.

We made it to the top without a sighting of any wildlife, only with a couple of spent pairs of legs. The hike was a real kicker, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top was of course worth every second. Another Alaskan mountain conquered! A nearly 360 degree view of the mountains, valleys, bowls and the ocean off in the distance was yet another breath-taking setting. The views may not have been the focal point of our day, but they delivered nonetheless.

Alyeska Ski Resort sits at the base of what is called a deep steep slope.

After 4 hikes and some mountain biking under my belt in my short time in Alaska, I could see exactly why even residents would never get sick of outdoor activities day in and day out. To make sure we completely gassed ourselves and earned what we planned to be a final day of total R&R tomorrow, we finished up with another rock climbing session. We accomplished our goal of over-exhaustion, and I managed to move up one level from V2 to V3!

Round 2 at the rock climbing wall!

As planned, our final day was devoted to rest, relaxation, and a little reality TV – had to take in an episode of “Alaskan Bush People” while we lazed on the couch for the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day didn’t get much more exciting than that, and mostly involved working ourselves up to actually getting off the couch, playing with Hank, and packing at the last-minute in my patented fashion. My sore muscles thanked me for asking very little of them all day. Ryan, Tara and I enjoyed a wonderfully fresh seafood dinner, an absolute must when in Alaska, at the Southside Bistro before they took me to the airport. A trip that was 3 years in the making had gone by, as expected, in a blink.

Dining at one of Ryan and Tara’s favorite seafood restaurants. Most vehicles are either SUV’s or trucks.

Finishing my trip with a little R&R, fun and games, with my two hostesses with the mostesses! Thanks Ryan and Tara for an amazing trip!

My trip to Alaska was, in many ways, exactly what I expected it to be: a week devoted to experiencing nature like I never had before, and to be blown away by the scenery I saw all along the way. But there was more to the week than just mountains and glaciers. The most interesting thing I took away from the trip was how unassuming it all was. There I was, closer to Russia’s east coast than I was to home or any of my other family in the lower 48, in a highly functioning, North American urban setting, and it just felt right – even surrounded by all the natural rugged beauty one associates with Alaska. And it should, because it is very apparent that Alaskans greatly appreciate the many unique qualities the state has to offer, and are willing to battle through the harsh winters and long nights to live in this amazing place. Coming back to experience those 23-hours of darkness has now moved up near the top of my bucket list!

Check out more fantastic pics from Alaska in the Global Gallery.

Alaska Adventures – part 1

In years past I have had ‘guest bloggers’ share an amazing trip they experienced. This was well received, so I’d like to continue that trend and add a post done by my son, Michael – sharing his personal insight and pictures while he explored the magnificent state of Alaska.

My first Alaskan Adventure, by Michael Malecha – July 1-8, 2017

I had hoped my descent into Anchorage, Alaska would yield a progression of stunning mountain views, but with a full cloud cover in effect, there wasn’t much to view from above. It must have been karma, as I was flying out of Canada (I presently live in Regina, Saskatchewan) and into the U.S. on Canada Day, July 1st. Ryan (my cousin) and Tara (Ryan’s finance’ and native Alaskan), my hosts for the week, shared their sympathies upon picking me up and admitted I had missed out on a great vantage point of this amazing state – but there was still hope for the flight out.

Ryan, Tara and Hank – my gracious hosts for my visit to Alaska.

Even so, I was fascinated by what scenery was still available to me. The clouds and mist gave the atmosphere an alluring and mysterious vibe, and that was fitting with the sudden awareness I had just touched down in one of the far corners of the map. However, Ryan and Tara were persistent in their claims that everything I was seeing and feeling would pale in comparison to the experience on a clear day; these claims I did not doubt to be true.

Naturally, as soon as we got back to their house and dropped off my bags, the first order of business was to hike to the top of a “popular” nearby trail, Flat Top Mountain –  which in Anchorage means you see other people while you are hiking. I had requested our itinerary for the week occur almost entirely outside or involve physical activity, and being the adventurous and active couple they are, Ryan and Tara were ready to hit the ground running. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or rock climbing. I was briefly introduced to Hank, their pitbull-bulldog-mix that I had been anxiously waiting far too long to meet, before the whole crew saddled up and made way for the trail.

On our way up to the top of Flat Top Mountain, where we spotted an opening of blue sky.

The view from atop Flat Top Mountain – Anchorage in the backdrop.

Just a few hours into my introduction to Alaska, I had conquered my first mountain, and as fortune would have it, the sun peeked out on the way up! The views I had been waiting for shattered my expectations, and the snow-capped mountains rising right up out of the ocean shore were a spectacular sight. I wasn’t worried about seeing a plethora of wildlife during the week, but we got off to a quick start anyway as we passed by a moose on the way down the mountain! I quickly felt the sense that such encounters would be even more common than I had experienced in other locales dominated by nature.

Snow-capped mountains serve as a backdrop to the ocean, as viewed from our trek up to Flat Top Mountain.

My first Alaskan moose sighting!

My first evening in Alaska was spent in the usual fashion when Ryan, Tara and I get together: hours of laughing, fun and games (drinking, board and otherwise). They say time flies when you are having fun, and although true, I would argue that time REALLY flies when the sun never goes down – a lesson I learned on my first day/night (not sure what to call it when it’s 11pm and you still don’t need the indoor lights on) in Alaska. Even though going into the trip I knew I was in for an inordinate amount of sunlight, that didn’t prepare me for how it felt when night just didn’t quite come.

Looking for an indoor activity as a result of the continued gloomy weather, Ryan and I spent the following afternoon at the Alaska Rock Gym. I can’t nearly keep up with Ryan, who draws oohs and aahs from onlookers on a regular basis. On the universal difficulty ranking system, he is capable of doing V9’s and V10’s or better, while for reference I wasn’t able to complete better than a V2, with a vastly longer reach and body than Ryan has; the increase in difficulty from one level to the next is not slight either. Rock climbing is a great full body workout that tests your physical strength, flexibility and mobility, as well as your mental strength – making it through a climb entails strategic planning beforehand and quick improvisation while on the wall. It is not any wonder it is a sport that Ryan has found a passion for! Planning ahead and critical thinking are regular tasks for Ryan as an engineer. On the way home we took a short drive down to the local mountain water fountain – and had to wait in line for a cool refreshing sip!

Ryan climbing up the rock wall in the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage.

Nothing like a cool refreshing sip from an actual mountain spring.

Waking up to another drizzly day, I spent Monday morning reading while Ryan went to the office to get a little work done. Although I had wanted to be outside and doing activities in the wilderness as much as possible, sitting on the deck with a book was wonderfully relaxing. To the same effect, I also spent some time thinking about exactly where I was on the globe and how remarkable it was to be so far removed from the usual aggregation of the human population – Alaska is the 3rd least populated state in the union. “Getting away” really had meaning here, and came with a slightly more satisfying feeling of detachment from the world one usually seeks while on vacation.

I went to visit Ryan at work in the afternoon, and met a few colleagues of his – including the very generous J.P. who allowed me to borrow his Fat Tire bike so I could ride some mountain trails with Ryan. The ride that followed initially looked like a little more than I had bargained for, but a few minutes in and I was feeling comfortable cruising through the trails at a moderate pace and riding off some small drops with confidence – although I left the actual jumps to Ryan! It was an exhilarating ride through the forest and hills nonetheless, and another great workout.

Riding Fat Tire bikes up the paved paths eventually into the heavily forested dirt trails.

Ryan, gingerly making his way by another big moose before hitting the steep trail full of jumps.

Ryan showing Mike how it’s done on the bumps and jumps of a mountain trail. Ryan used to ride professionally, but he eventually decided it was time for a more subdued career after multiple collar-bone breaks from over-the-handlebars crashes.

On our way back up the mountain toward our vehicle, we came across a Moose on the side of our path, casually grazing. He must have been something of a local celeb as Ryan had seen him around the trail before and others walking by commented the same. He clearly wasn’t bothered by riders and hikers strolling right next to him one after another. It was almost hard to be afraid of the huge animal seeing how docile he was around the traffic, but the rational part of my brain strongly reminded me otherwise. We cautiously strolled by and he paid us no more mind than the trees he was standing in.

People making their way past a moose that stands only feet off the trail.

Tuesday, which was the 4th of July, we spent a bit of time with Tara’s family at her aunt and uncle’s house, which took us about 45 minutes out of the city. We still wanted to get some activity in for the day, so we set out on another hike in that area. Driving into a mountain range toward the starting point of our hike, we were already consumed by the clouds before we began, and couldn’t see further than a lob wedge in any direction. The Gold Cord Lake Trail, which would take us past an abandoned mine site and a lake at the top, was our elected route. Not a long hike, but an enchanting one on this day. The fog resting on the surface of the lake made it feel like an empty and endless abyss; eerily still, yet so peaceful at the same time.

The remains of the abandoned mine site seemed straight out of a thriller movie. It was dead silent too, aside from the few remarks we whispered to each other, almost like we were afraid to disturb the silence. We may have disturbed it more than a little when Hank had eaten enough grass to throw it all back up, and we couldn’t contain our laughter. A few patches of snow still remained, so we decided to toss a couple of 4th of July snowballs (how often does one get to do that?) and make our way back down the trail. We were about 10 minutes from getting towed out of the parking lot on our way out, so thankfully we didn’t lollygag up by the lake or hike any further than we did! Might not have been the most relaxing place to spend the night.

Old abandoned mine on the Gold Cord Lake Trail on a very misty eerie morning.

Who’s up for a little snow ball fight on the 4th of July??

Now, the really odd-seeming part about the day was there was very little emphasis on 4th of July fireworks, which finally made sense when bedtime came for everyone who had work tomorrow and it still was as bright as mid-afternoon – not the most optimal backdrop for fireworks! Our day wasn’t any worse for it though, being away from the desk and with family was our only to-do list item.

Hank making sure you aren’t going anywhere. Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures.

Check back soon for part 2 of Alaska Adventures with an added photo gallery!