CategoriesAdventuresTravel

5 Things I Miss While Traveling

If this was your cat, he’d make your top 5 list, too.

There’s a fool I pity – and that’s the unlucky sucker who is in front of me while boarding my Asiana Airlines flight to Korea. Any slow movers in front of me might wind up with my hoofprints on their backs. And I’ll probably volunteer to herd every other passenger aboard and personally buckle them into their seats so we can take off. Yes, I’m that fired up.

But as excited as I am about my first Asian adventure, I know that there are things I’ll miss. I’ll be fine without them for a few days. But then -- they’ll pop into my mind. And here they are:

The Cat – For the past 10 years, Noir has been my furry little buddy. He is a very vocal, energetic, people-loving character. Not bad for an ill-bred, uncouth, back-alley tomcat! Unlike most cats, he also holds no grudges about my occasional long absence. And props as always to my bandmate and friend Todd, who looks after Noir during my adventures.

It’s hard to fit all these guys in the same frame.

My Band – I’ve been playing music in Hung Dynasty for seven years. The aforementioned cat-sitter Todd was one of the two co-best men at my wedding. The other two guys are just as awesome, as are the former members (Phung, Stacy, Laura, Matt). I love playing my instrument. I like the tunes we play. I thrive on the banter. Playing live music loud and nasty – it’s addictive. I miss it when I’m on the road adventuring.

The Bike – I can ride just about any quality bike and be happy. Bike shorts, shoes, pedals and helmets are another story. I’ve gotta have my own. And they take up a lot of room in a pack. So I forgo the mountain biking when I travel. Unfortunately, I often see people riding and I wind up with a series jones for some saddle time.

Both my AdventureMobiles …

The Mexican Food – Sometimes, I can’t even go straight home from the airport. I have to stop at Le Condesssa and get a quesadilla. And one of its many types of savory salsas – like chipotle, cilantro and even pecan (yes, you read that right). If I’m somewhere like Iceland or the Midwest, the craving gets even more powerful.

The Car – There’s something about my Subaru Forester, my personal Battlestar Galactica. Sitting in the seat, stickshift in-hand -- I just feel at home. I know every noise it makes, every quirk. And I can MacGyver just about anything from the contents of its backseat. It also out-drives just about any car I’ve ever rented -- except the Subaru Impreza I rented in Portland.

CategoriesUncategorized

Scenes from Chicago in the Summer

If you’re planning to visit Chicago, summer is the best time. Check out the photos and you’ll see a city that comes alive when the weather gets warmer. To be honest, it’s nowhere near my favorite American city. But I still had a decent time. The architecture is very cool, and you can get just about anywhere on-foot with enough time. On the downside, the food is overrated and so is Navy Pier. The public spaces, as you’ll see below, are also first-rate with parks scattered throughout the downtown area.

It's a busy summer evening at Sky Harbor.
The amazing giant chrome bean of Chicago

Continue reading

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Best of Arizona – Pima & Dynamite Trail Network

gila monster, wandering justin, arizona
A gila monster!

I almost don’t notice it. But the slow, wiggling movement catches my eye. A splotch of black and orange among shades of brown.

Yes! It’s a gila monster!

Thirty years of living in Arizona, and this is only the second one I’ve seen in the wild.

This is exactly what makes the trail network near Pima and Dynamite in Scottsdale one of the city’s best outdoor activities. You can rip through more than 50 miles of great trails. You can enjoy stark-but-beautiful high-desert scenery.

And you can come face-to-face with wildlife. Here at Pima & Dynamite, I’ve seen more than just this gila monster. Add to the list rattlesnakes, juvenile bald eagles, chuckwallas, jackrabbits and coyotes.

pima and dynamite, mountain biking, wandering justin, arizona
The entire area is riddle with trails.

About my pebbly, leathery gila monster friend: He moves slowly, but quickly enough to get away. I get a bit of video on my Fuji XP-10 (a nice complement to my handlebar-mounted Helmet Hero) before he scurries under a bush. He is venomous, but too shy and slow to be of much danger. The encounter puts a grin on my face for the rest of the day.

Ripping through a tight corners. Short bursts of power to muscle my way up climbs. Flying up and down rolling sections of trail -- these are all great. But a glimpse of nature puts an extra shine on the day.

santa cruza superlight, pima & dynamite, mountain biking, arizona, adventure bicycle company, wandering justin
Fully loaded for a day at Pima & Dynamite.

Speed, excitement and fitness are great reasons to ride. But so is seeing the bigger world around you. There are few better places to bring it all together.

About Pima & Dynamite

  • Most of the trails are on Arizona State Trust Land. You need a permit to legally use the area. Check the State Land Department website for more information.
  • A map helps. And Dale Wiggins is a map master. Check out his offering for Pima & Dynamite.
  • Park at the intersection of Pima Road and Dynamite Boulevard. I usually park on Dynamite just off the westbound lane.
Another example of the crazy wildlife you'll find at Pima & Dynamite.
CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Best of British Columbia – Vancouver

 

raccoons, stanley park, vancouver
Raccoons out for a stroll in Stanley Park.

Alright, it’s time to wrap up my look at British Columbia. I can’t thank Teresa from MtnBikingGirl.com enough for all her help. She had info that some schmoe like me who’s in town for a few days couldn’t find on his own. Be sure to visit her blog. If you’re late to the party, check out our posts about Whistler/Squamish and the Victoria area!

Justin’s Quick Hits

Yes, Vancouver is really as cool as everyone says it is: a big but friendly city that’s progressive but not snooty. There’s a blend of old-school and new architecture. You’ll find awesome parks like Stanley Park, and you might catch some trials riders hopping around the beach areas. My favorite thing to do was just to walk. We’d pick a direction and go. You’ll find plenty of things to do, like the Granville Island Public Market and Chinatown.

Vancouver is pretty at night - view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel

We stayed at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel, which became my favorite hotel in Vancouver. The staff was friendly, it has great views and it’s perched atop a very awesome marke. It’s also close to a ferry stop, which offers a nice ride to the downtown area (a novelty for a desert guy and his ex-sailor wife). Vancouver has a very international population, so you’ll find any sort of cuisine. I’d be thrilled to have such a glut of awesome Asian food in my hometown. And watch for the fresh fruit. I got a hold of some life-changing blueberries.

I know Teresa will yell at me about this, but I’m not a big fan of Tim Horton’s – neither the donuts nor the coffee.

I'm hunting for wild blackberries - this is seconds before I fell into the bush and got ventilated by thorns.

If you’re a futbol fan, see if you can squeeze a Vancouver Whitecaps match into your schedule. It begins its first season in Major League Soccer this summer. Yes, I know it’s not exactly the Champions League --

Teresa Tells It All

What?! You don’t like Tim Horton’s?? Oh no!! Well, the good news is Vancouver has really good coffee with Artigiano’s and Delaney’s topping my list. Both are local coffee chains that take pride in their coffee. The owners of Artigiano’s actually spent time in Italy to learn how to do it right before opening their first location on the corner of Pender and Thurlow in downtown Vancouver.

A trials rider hops on the logs in Vancouver.

But enough about coffee … let’s talk about riding! Mt Fromme is found in North Vancouver and one of the more popular places to ride, along with Mt Seymour where you’ll find the trail Severed Dick. Severed Dick is one of the original North Shore trails and is a good intermediate trail with minimal stunts. A word of caution, even the easy trails here may be much steeper and technical than what you’re used to. Trail maps are found at all of the local bike shops, I really like Obsession Bikes. They have a really helpful staff and will point you in the right direction if you need trail recommendations.

The sky gets dark over Vancouver.

There is a great bed and breakfast at the base of Mt Fromme that caters to mountain bikers that I highly recommend. Lynn Valley Bed and Breakfast has a secure area to store your bikes and an area to wash them as well. A great place to stay that’s close to the trails.

Well, this concludes the “Best of British Columbia” series. Come back soon!

CategoriesUncategorized

The Iceland Epic – Hverir, Viti, Krafla

Viti Iceland crater
Viti explosion crater - and its bright water.

Glowing magma from horizon to horizon. A never-ending blanket of fire. I’m captivated just thinking about what this area looked like as recently as 1984.

If I’d been standing here back then -- well, I don’t even want to think about it. Even now, the ground still spews fumes. I can smell the beanie, farty, rotten-egg stench nearly everywhere.

Blackened slabs of sharp-edged lava. A grey sky. Bleak desolation. I know it doesn’t sound appealing … unless you’ve wondered what the world was like when humans were billions of years into the future.

For me, that’s the wonder of my ninth day in Iceland, exploring the Krafla fissure area.

Hverir Iceland geothermal
Hverir is a contrast from the surrounding lavascape.

A Day in the North

ReykjahliÄ‘ is a town of about 300 people. You might think that means there’s not much to do. Yet I plan on a day packed with activity. Just like yesterday.

Sarah and I start off at Hverir. It’s not just another geothermal area: It’s a single slab of mountain that is many shades lighter than the surrounding area. When we approached Myvatn yesterday, I thought the sun was shining through a hole in the clouds. But now, that’s just the brightness of the rocks.

The flatulent stink is at its strongest here. It’s the smell of the earth reconstituting itself. There’s something I love about the odor. It tell me the world is alive, not just lifeless rock and concrete. It’s awesome.

The Krafla fissure Iceland lava
The lifeless and barren Krafla fissure.

There are plenty of trails. Obey the signs – the ground is soft in many places. And you don’t want to get scalded in a mud pit. You can summit some of the large hills in the area for spectacular views.

The Road to Hell

There are two craters in Iceland called Viti. That’s Icelandic for hell. One of them is up the road from Hverir. The crater is filled with electric green water. The wind is absolutely howling, making me reluctant to get near the edge. I wonder if anyone has ever fallen in. The water must be freezing, and scrambling out and back to safety would be a real test. Best not to find out.

Krafla Iceland
Sarah, with Krafla in the background.

Nearby, there’s some machinery from the power station. It’s harnessing heat from a nearby fumarole. The power is astounding: The roar from the fumarole is loud as any jet engine.

This was about 45 minutes of walking.

To the Fissure

This is not the Caribbean. It is not warm, inviting, relaxing. Harsh, barren, stark – at best. And a reminder of your own insignificance to this planet. A signal that you are nothing.

The Krafla Fissure has tried hard to drive people away. It’s nearly destroyed ReykjahliÄ‘ more than once. As implacable as the lava can be, it isn’t sufficient.

Hverir iceland geothermal
Sarah walks past a little fumarole.

I picture the lava fountains, the winter sky contrasting with the orange radiance of the magma. I wonder how many lava tubes lie under the wasteland, just waiting to be found.

I could spend weeks here walking the lava flow.  As it is, a few hours is all I have.

This is an amazing place among amazing places.

One the way out, we made a quick stop for the presentation Krafla Power Station. You can check out parts of the inside, and watch a movie about the fissure, the eruptions and the station itself. It’s more fascinating than it sounds.

Myvatn Nature Bath
Myvatn Nature Bath (Photo by Petr Brož)

Time to Kick Back

Currents of murky blue water swirl around me. The water temperature changes every few steps. One moment, I feel like a live Maine lobster getting cooked. Seconds later, I’m scrambling to find a warm spot.

This is the Jarðböðin við Mývatn (Myvatn Nature Baths). If you’ve heard anything about Iceland, you’ve probably heard of the Blue Lagoon. It’s only one of Iceland’s main attractions. This is its more remote, more scenic, more laid-back relative.

It’s smaller, but still filled with amenities like saunas and steam rooms in addition to the naturally heated, silicate-rich water.

And the most important amenity of them all: ice cream bars. Sarah and I have noticed the Icelandic tradition – families will hit the local pools together. They’ll swim some laps, lounge in the hot tubs, then top it off with an ice cream bar. Sounds sensible to me!

That’s most of our day, minus a repeat visit to the Cowshed and a decent pizza at Papi’s. It’s another nice night at Vogar. It wasn’t our busiest day. But I loved every second of it.

hverir iceland
Don't we look happy in this stinky place?
krafla fissure iceland
Stinky earth vapors escaping the cracks of Krafla.
hverir iceland
Looking from the top of Hverir
CategoriesTastes

Kaffitar Stands Out as Reykavik’s Best Espresso

I’m in Iceland.But I feel more like it’s high noon on Main Street in a dusty Old West outpost. The barista looks friendly, but I know I’m being sized up.

"What can I get you?" she asks – the shot-puller’s equivalent of "your move, pardner."

"A cappuccino, please," I reply – the espresso lover’s equivalent of "draw"

Ah, the cappuccino. It will quickly reveal with this Kaffitar place on the Laugavegur in Reykjavik is all about. There’s no sugar or syrup or fancy ingredients to hide behind. This is no double-mocha-latte-pumpkin-spiced frappe with sprinkles and extra whipped cream. Just espresso shots, milk and a bit of steam. And every smart barista knows it.

It took a few minutes for my cappuccino to emerge. Between the crowd and the care, that’s a good sign. Then I took a look: It was a wet cappuccino, which I prefer to the "dry" variety capped by about two inches of airy foam. Here, I saw a nice, dense microfoam.

I took a careful sip. The temperature? Perfect. Hot, but ready to drink right then and there. No trace of bitterness from over-roasted beans or nuclear-hot water.

There’s more to a cafe than just even the espresso drink, though. Kaffitar was filled to the gills, locals, travelers and tourists alike. Some pecked on laptops. Some  read. Some talked to a friend. Others struck up conversations they didn’t know a few minutes ago.

Perfect.

We spent several days in Reykjavik, and we had to explore the other cafes. There’s no excuse for marching back to the same place. But Kaffitar set the standard. Some espresso drinks came close – but they couldn’t quite match the barista skills on display at Kaffitar. Some actually bested it in atmosphere: Cafe Rot is about as friendly as it gets, especially when the World Cup is being shown on a big-screen TV in the basement. The desserts at Sufistinn were spectacular.

But overall, Kaffitar is the one I’d bring home with me if I could magically transplant it walking distance from my house.

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Images from Avondale, Ariz. – 2011 Hedgehog Hustle

mbaa2-9, Hedgehog Hustle 2011, Mountain Bike, Arizona
Getting aero on the downhill at the 2011 Hedgehog Hustle.

UPDATE: See my report on Examiner.com for a race recap.

Today, I made a trip out to Estrella Mountain Regional Park in Avondale, Ariz., to check out the 2011 Hedgehog Hustle. My erstwhile Adventure Bicycle Company stooge-turned-real estate mogul Matt Long was out there lining up for the Cat 2 race with the infamous Phoenix International Raceway in the background. There was definitely a chill in the air, but it warmed into a nice day for some racing.

I’ll have a full report later one. For now, you can enjoy this here slideshow I’m about to unfold. But I done introduced it enough. (NOTE: I have many other photos. If you don’t see yourself, send a note including your race number to wanderingjustin@hotmail.com)

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

"Hell Walking" and Tramping – How to Hike Abroad

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugar
Right, mates ... who's up for some hell walkin'?

When Sarah and I were in Australia, we met a traveler from Ireland. She was single, in her late 20s, active.

She told us about all the trouble she was having getting other lone travelers to hike with her.

Well, she didn’t actually say "hike." That’s not the Irish vernacular for "stomping around in the dirt in big boots." For our Irish buddy, that’s known as "hill walkin‘."

Wandering Justin shows us how to tramp.
But, you pair this with an Irish accent, and you get -- "hell walkin’."

So she was probably scaring everyone away with the threat of walking into Beelzebub’s own nature preserve.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness any such mix-ups in New Zealand. There, "hiking"/"hillwalking" is known as -- wait for it -- tramping! Yes, you and your best friend can spend weeks tramping around New Zealand.

You can make what you will of the phrase Australians use -- bushwalking!

"Trekking" is another word that’s common for long-distance hiking. But really, it’s nowhere near as fun as these others.

CategoriesUncategorized

Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

Kristínartindar
This is one of the coolest mountains I've ever seen.

There’s a magnificent mountain in the distance. I can see spires and steep slopes. It looks like the ruined castle of an evil wizard.

It’s mezmerizing. I want to go to it. It’s called Kristínartindar. It’s spectacular. But it’s too far away – soon, a bus will pull up in Skaftafell to haul us off to Vik. We’re a bit low on food and water. If we were fully loaded, I’d head straight there.

When we return to Iceland, this will be a major point of the trip. We’ll come back with our camp stove and enough food for a few more days hanging out in Skaftafell. And we’ll go to Kristínartindar. Oh, yes. But as it was, we just finished a loop of about six miles.

Skaftafell Campground
The cheery Skaftafell campground.

Before Kristinartindar came into view, we stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall (foss = waterfall). Its basalt columns inspired the architecture of the Hallgrimskirkja (kirkja = church, and klaustur = convent) that’s such a landmark in Reykjavik. It’s pretty and picturesque, and relatively empty for a place that’s in every guidebook.

We folded the tent, repacked and boarded the bus to Vik (which means bay).

Us!
Us at Svartifoss.

It’s a fairly quick shot to Vik, which is home to about 300 people. We have a room at the Hotel Lundi (lundi = puffin). It’s here that I accomplished another major goal of my trip: eating hákarl! This word means "shark," and it’s pronounced "howker." I have an entire post dedicated just to the next five minutes of my trip, and you should read about it and watch it.

Vik
The cliffs and church near Vik.

We walk the town a bit, and have a fairly greasy roadside meal. Vik is a small town, after all! The black sand beach is a site to see, along with rocky spires in the ocean a few miles away. The sun often pokes out of the clouds, but it’s very windy. And the mountains are ridiculously beautiful.

We return to the hotel. I fall asleep while reading, and Sarah slips out to poke around a bit.

She rousts me at about 9 p.m. with the sun shining brightly, promising puffins and some sort of hobbit house.

We gamely trudge up the side of a mountain. It’s steep, and it’s about to get windy. But first, the hobbit house. You could easily miss it. It looks like a mound of grass-covered dirt with a door lying on it. And a smokestack popping out. Unfortunately, it’s locked and nobody’s home. I’d love to see inside!

Hobbit House
It's a hobbit house!

We get to the top of the mountain, which is completely flat. There are trails everywhere, including one to the other side. The wind was absolutely howling up there, effortlessly blowing us around and making it hard to even walk like a normal human.

The daylight would last, but our energy was on the wane. So we headed back down for a good stretch of sleep (my watch said it was night, but I wasn’t buying a word of it).

Tomorrow -- back to Reykjavik.

Cliffs near Vik
10 p.m. in Vik. No, that's not a typo.
Three Sisters
Three sisters in Vik.
CategoriesAdventures

The Iceland Diaries РDay 5 (Skaftafell, Fallj̦kull, J̦kullsarlon)

Falljökull
Sarah is ready to demonstrate her ice ax prowess.

It’s not easy to rattle Icelanders. But I’ve just figured out how to get a sure-fire rise out of an Icelandic glacier guide while hiking on Falljökull: Tell them you’ve been on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier.

"People die there!" Gisli exclaimed, sounding dismayed that we’d go there.

How’d this come up? Well. I’d guess it was my polished crampon and ice axe technique. And maybe knowing a few tidbits about glaciers – like what makes the ice turn blue. After talking to me for awhile, Gisli’s fellow guide Robert said something like "you’ve done this before."

Falljökull
Gisli is ready to lead us onto the glacier.

Darn tootin’, we had. Nearly five hours on the ice at Franz Josef. That thing’s a monster. Apparently, a tourist-eating monster that just weeks earlier had claimed a few more lives. To be fair, it’s not the glacier’s fault. Don’t do stuff your guides tell you not to do.

Falljökull
We’re thrilled to be back on a glacier.

So far, the crew at Glacier Guides had found Sarah and I to be pretty much model glacier hikers. We take care of our gear, we pay attention to their instructions and we have one helluva time. (See more info about Glacier Guides at the end of the post).

It’s easy for us to have a great time on a glacier. We loves the things. This time, we were on Falljökull (pronounced Fall-yuck-cultl), which means "falling glacier." That’s because of the way it seems to spill over the nearby mountain, plunging down the cliffs. It’s a seriously beautiful glacier, with an epic, sweeping view of the landscape. I could’ve sat in the same place all day and just looked at the landscape.

Falljökull
A view of Falljokull from the bottom.

We were also pretty enthralled by the rushing water pouring over Falljökull. You could drink it and enjoy some of the purest water you’ve ever tasted. Most of the guides had carabiners duct taped to plastic water bottles – they started the trip empty, and just filled them on the glacier. Silly me for showing up with a full Camelbak!

Falljökull
A view from the top.

As you can see in the photos, it was actually warm on Falljökull. It wasn’t what I’d call physically demanding. At the high point of the route, we ate the lunch the guides packed for us and headed back down. Yet again, Sarah looked sad when she handed her ice axe over.

Falljökull
A wall of ice.

Soon, we were back at our old school bus. We boarded and headed from Falljökull to Jökullsarlon, where we’d take a boat ride in the famous glacier lagoon. This was more fun than I expected. The lagoon and its icebergs will blow you away. And it looks different every time, too. So you won’t see the same bergs and growlers, but a whole new set.

And maybe your guide will fish a hunk of glaicer ice form the water and break it into chips for everyone to taste. It was a cool experience -- sucking on a thousand-year-old ice cube.

There’s also a place to grab a snack. Go for the seafood soup if it’s a chilly or windy day.

Glacier Lagoon, Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

After about 45 minutes in the lagoon, we boarded the school bus for the trip back to Skaftafell National Park. There, we gathered our packs from the Glacier Guides office, pitched our tents and caught up on our sleep. Some nearby backpackers also kept us entertained by singing Joan Osborne tunes. It was a most magnificent day on the glacier. I’d call it an essential part of anyone’s visit to Iceland.

Ice, guide, jokullsarlon
An icy treat that’s nice to eat.

About Glacier Guides: This is a very friendly, competent guide service. They gave us a lift from Skaftafell to Hof the previous day so we could get to our guesthouse (our bus didn’t go there). Then they picked us up for the Falljökull hike the next day and stored our backpacks while we were out having fun. They were accommodating and informative. I highly recommend Glacier Guides. If you see an Icelandic sheep dog named Hekla with one of the guides, give her a scratch between the ears and tell her Sarah and Justin say hello.

icebergs, glacier lagoon, jokullsarlon
Icebergs floating in the lagoon.
Skaftafell, camp, Iceland
Campsite, sweet campsite. Bring on the Joan Osborn sing-a-long!
CategoriesUncategorized

Los Angeles is Perfect for Alternative Thanksgiving

Have a mammoth time at La Brea Tar Pits. (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s nothing fun about sitting around with a belly distended and sore from overindulging on turkey, mashed potatoes and the other traditional Thanksgiving food. It’s a ritual that I’ve grown to like less every year. A few years ago, I stumbled on a great "alternative Thanksgiving" idea:

Go to Los Angeles.

My wife wanted to visit her sister, who was attending Cal Arts in the Los Angeles area. We arrived to find the city virtually abandoned. I guess all the transplants who moved to the area seeking fame and fortune fled back to their ancestral homes for turkey and stuffing.

The infamous LA traffic? Virtually non-existent. Long lines? Nope, none of those either.

That makes Thanksgiving weekend the perfect time to explore LA. And you won’t even have to do dishes.

So what’s there to do? Plenty, even beyond the beach and the theme parks. Despite the holiday, you’ll find plenty of open businesses, restaurants and attractions. Here are a few off-beat ideas to get you started: Continue reading

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Restoring Sanity Through Mountain Biking

McDowell Mountain Regional Park
Awesome views, good times - McDowell Mountain Regional Park.

It’s all too easy for me to feel like the world is headed toward becoming one nasty place.

People on both sides of the political spectrum squawk constantly, demonizing and dehumanizing each other. The only social currency seems to be bad TV shows. Average waistlines expand to the point where people are starting to have their own gravitational pull. Corporations funnel money to the richest, leaving the rest of us behind in servitude.

It all makes me want to get on a plane to New Zealand and never come back.

And a lot of times, I can’t even count on my fellow mountain bikers to make it much better.

They put their earbuds in and isolate themselves in another world. Other bikers don’t even seem to register, even if I smile and say hello. Which I do. Because that’s what mountain bikers are supposed to do.

That’s all a petri dish for bad juju.

Then I have rides like today’s. I’m out there in 70 degree weather on a fast, flowing trail.

Before I know it, my GPS tells me I’ve ridden 35 miles. My legs still feel good, but the thick coat of grit my chain has attracted makes my bike plead "no mas!"

Then I pass two other riders. They’re off to the side of the trail, shooting the bull and enjoying the view of the Superstition Mountains, a volcanic caldera from a supervolcano complex that last erupted about 15 million years ago.

Another shot of McDowell Regional Park, with Four Peaks in the background.

I give a quick "what’s up, guys?" as I pass.

Both respond with a very genuine and friendly greeting. I can’t even remember the words. But the meaning was plain: We’re just excited to be out here today as you are, and we’re glad you’re here, too.

Great trails. Spectacular scenery. Other people who love riding ’em as much as I do. An unstoppable feeling of physical and mental wellness.

Yeah.

That makes it easier to get through the crap that can plug the toilet of everyday life.

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

New Phoenix Trails Bring Recreation – and Dose of Controversy

Rusty Angel Deem Hills Wandering Justin
A look up the Rusty Angel Trail at Deem Hills.

There’s not much in the way of hiking and biking trails west of I-17 in Phoenix. That’s bad news for hikers and mountain bikers living in that area.

That makes the opening of Deem Hills Recreation Area, a great piece of news for people wandering around Phoenix, right? Right?

Um, maybe.

First, a small group of litigious homeowners halted trail construction for a few months, as reported in The Arizona Republic. Fortunately, a Superior Court judge didn’t buy their argument (“The suit claimed the building of trails violates Environmentally Sensitive Development Areas Policies Design Guidelines and the city’s own Trail Management practices and procedures,” wrote Republic reporter Betty Reid.).

Conversations with some hikers on the trail convinced me those arguments are a smokescreen: What really had the plaintiffs POd was:

1. They could see the trails from their backyard, a sad reminder that they’re not in an exclusive enclave but rather in a sea of tile roofs.

Deem Hills Google Earth
A Google Earth Views of Deem Hills and my routes.

2. They’re worried that trail users might be able to see into their yards.

Hmm. I drove about 30 minutes from central Phoenix to ride the Deem Hills trails for the first time. At no point did I peer into the yards of homes flanking the south side of the park.

You see, I was a little busy TRYING TO STAY ON THE TRAIL AND NOT WRAP MYSELF AROUND A CACTUS OR THREE!

Seriously, I’d love to know what these lawsuit-happy nabobs are doing in their backyard that has them so worried? Perhaps they’ve mistaken themselves for celebrities – they’ve forgotten that they are Joe and Ethel Suburb, and thus of little interest to the outdoor lovers enjoying the park.

Everyone I encountered on the trails was friendly, hikers and bikers alike. Many said it was their first time on the trails. But one of my talks with the hikers disturbed me: I mentioned that I saw some room for improvement on the trails.

Deem Hills Wandering Justin
A look at the trails in the hillside at Deem Hills.

“We don’t want it too nice,” she said. “We just live over in the neighborhood.”

In other words, “let’s prevent this amenity from rising above mediocrity so that I won’t experience any inconvenience.” And make no mistake about it: the trails at Deem Hills are merely OK. You can find out more in my review at Examiner.com. They’re not the best nor the worst – and they’re a huge score for West Valley mountain bikers, who will get some great training on the many climbs in the park.

The area is a bit unusual because it seems to be one of the few spots in the Valley of obvious volcanic origin. The park is littered with large black volcanic bombs. I’d definitely be curious to know more about its geology from those in the know. I’d have to guess the hills are heavily eroded cinder cones. I also spotted some agate-like minerals strewn here and there.

As for the controversy, let’s hope this is also the end of the legal drama and that the “don’t look in my backyard” NIMBY crowd gets over itself in all due haste.

CategoriesAccommodationsAdventuresTastes

Escape Winter’s Clutches in New Zealand

New Zealand’s scenery is unforgettable, from glaciers to volcanos.

Snow is great when it first starts falling. But give it a month, and you’ll be ready to get away from it. So where should you go?

New Zealand, no contest. Here’s why.

1. It’s summer down there. But to most of us in the United States, a Kiwi summer is like a mild spring. You will only see snow on the tallest mountain peaks. Otherwise, it’s swimming/hiking/outdoor weather!

2. It’s cheap. One US dollar gets you about $1.26 in NZ dollars. And prices down there are just reasonable all around.

3. The scenery is off-the-hook spectacular. Tongariro National Park. The Southern Alps. Franz Josef Glacier. Queenstown. You won’t believe your eyeballs at any of these places – and I’m leaving out dozens of scenic spots.

Our “room” at Woodlyn Park. We even had the cockpit!

4. It’s relentlessly laid back. Want to relax? Even if you spend your whole vacation stomping around with a backpack, you will feel the easygoing Kiwi nature.

Getting There

You’ve got your choice of Qantas or Air New Zealand. Pick whichever has the best deal and schedule at the time. They’re both a treat if you’re used to flying domestic airlines. Don’t like long flights? Well, harden up, as the Kiwis would say!

 

The Skinny on Hotels

Hotel rooms in New Zealand often have kitchenettes. There are very few huge chain hotels. There’s also a lot of novelty (look no further than Woodlyn Park and its Hobbit rooms and the Bristol airplane converted into two suites).

Highlights

glowworm, waitomo
Wiggling through the Glowworm Caves

The Glowworm Caves in Waitomo are worth spending half your day underground. Rap, Raf ‘n’ Rock can set you up with a great tour. I also loved hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – if you’re up for it, you can summit the volcano that portrayed Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Even two years after my visit, I’m still blown away by the full-day hike on Franz Josef Glacier, where Franz Josef Glacier Guides will walk you from tropical rainforest to the snout of a glacier before strapping on some crampons and hitting the ice.

Food

If you like fresh fish, lots of fruit and a heavy Asian influence, you will have no trouble eating in New Zealand. There are plenty of exotic and flat-out weird tastes, like possum pie and whitebait. Craft beer is also getting big among the Kiwis: Check out Croucher Brewing in Rotorua – they were not yet open during my visit, and I’m curious about them. Oh, and coffee! You’ll find a classy cafe with a skilled barista in even the tiniest towns. I guess I should mention the wine – I’m not a big wine guy, but people who like wine love what the Kiwis have to offer.

 

franz josef, travel, wandering justin, new zealand
An epic day on Franz Josef Glacier.

City Scene

Kiwis would have you believe Auckland is a dystopian megalopolis straight out of Blade Runner – or nearly as bad as Las Vegas. In reality, it’s got a very pleasant, Seattle-like vibe. Wellington is cosmopolitan and fun, with music, arts, food and museums aplenty. Nelson and Queenstown on the South Island are much smaller, but with active nightlife and plenty to do, both indoors and out.

Getting Around

Rent a car on the North Island. I’d recommend buses for the South Island … the roads are a bit tricky. The occasional bout of rain and driving on the opposite side of the road won’t help you any.

 

possum pie, wandering justin, new zealand, sandfly cafe
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

Odds & Ends

Bring some rain gear – New Zealand weather can change instantly. Sturdy boots are a must for the hikers. And bring a good camera. You’re not doing this scenery any justice if you’re using a cell phone camera, and I absolutely do not care how many megapixels it has.

Another thing: lighten up. Kiwis are talkers, and they’re very welcoming. In the U.S., I realize that their amped-up friendliness could seem weird. Maybe even creepy. Down there, it’s just the way people are. We could stand to learn from it, really.

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.

CategoriesTravelUncategorized

Airport Needs to Cut Specialty Lines, Improve Signs

Southwest Airlines, 737-700
All I want is a clear path through security and a seat on my flight with as little fuss as possible.

During a recent flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I had a reminder that the security screening processes are concocted by people who are disconnected from reality.

It was actually a fairly light morning at Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4 as I was headed toward the checkpoint. I made sure I didn’t accidentally slip into the first class line and made my way to the agent. Her first words?

“Next time, make sure you don’t use the medical and family line.”

I told her I didn’t notice the sign.

“It’s there,” she said rather shortly.

I looked back again. All I remember is NOT seeing a sign for the first class line. But I also know that arguing with a surly TSA agent is not the way to get to a gate on time.

What I did was file the tidbit away for further reflection. And here are my conclusions:

1. There are too many specific lines that are too underused. There was not a single body in the first class line. There was not a single body in the alleged “medical and family” line. If nobody is there, why bother with them? It seems like a lot of effort for a tiny portion of the passengers. And why should TSA cater to airline customers? It’s not like you get frequent flier mileage for passing through TSA checkpoints.

2. When I’m headed toward a security checkpoint, I am driven for efficiency. That’s so I don’t hold up the line and consequently other people (who might be later getting to the airport than I usually am). I have my boarding pass and driver’s license in hand. Even though I thinks it’s a ridiculous mockery of true security, I’m unlacing my shoes to take them off already. I’m ready to clear the items in my pockets.

That’s where I focus my attention. If the airport has a bunch of lines for first class customers, medical and family, people with gluten allergies, passengers who prefer pot-bellied pigs to dogs and customers who drive hybrid cars … make clear, concise signs in large typeface. I am too busy trying to pass my way through the intestinal tract that is a TSA security line to notice tiny, poorly written signs. Make them big and make them concise, or don’t bother.

Better yet, test the signs out using real-world travelers – a nice mix of leisure and business fliers. If you have suits making these decision, they won’t be under the stress of getting to a gate on-time or the prospect of holding up a bunch of their fellow fliers.

CategoriesUncategorized

3 Bizarre Buildings Still Stand Tall in Phoenix

Capstone Cathedral Phoenix
The Capstone Cathedral is one of the most odd and distinct buildings in the Phoenix area.

3 Bizarre Buildings in Phoenix, Ariz
Despite its short history, the Phoenix metro area has amassed some unusual architecture. Here are three of the best-known odd buildings you’ll find in the Valley of the Sun.
Read More

CategoriesUncategorized

Desert Museum is Worth a Drive to Tucson, Ariz.

Visitors to Phoenix probably don’t give enough credit to Tucson. That’s a mistake – the Tucson area has some great cultural attractions, and the outstanding Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is one you shouldn’t miss.

An owl readies for stardom at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Raptor Free Flight.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Shows Southwestern Wildlife, Plants & Geology
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson does a great job of showcasing the state’s flora, fauna and natural history. It’s also located in a very scenic piece of high desert terrain, so bring your camera.
Read More

CategoriesGearUncategorized

Gear Review – The North Face Rock 22 Tent

The North Face Rock 22 tent
Sarah lounges by The North Face Rock 22 tent in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

It’s been about 10 years since I first met my wife – that meeting, though, spelled doom for my old tent. It was an aging model from The North Face; it was so old that I can’t even remember the model. But it had room for three, a main door and two sphincter-like hatches your could escape from should a bear attack the front door (I’m presuming that’s why there were there) -- and the grimy funk of more than a decade of teenage/twenty-ish male flatulation, sweat and abuse.

Anyway, I loaned my then-girlfriend my tent for an expedition to the Grand Canyon with her friends. The first night they pitched it, said grimy funk angrily awakened from its tent tomb like Elvis might’ve after hearing that the late Michael Jackson married his daughter.

"Does your dude smell like that?" one of the campers pointedly asked.

My wife-to-be defended my hygiene, but spent the next few years jabbing withering insults at my beloved tent, which was less than portable shelter and more a repository of memories.

I eventually wound up at the late, fairly great Popular Outdoor. There, I scored a deal on a more modern tent – this one The North Face Rock 22 tent.

Over the past few years, I’ve had some chances to use The North Face Rock 22 tent in a variety of places and weather conditions. And I can’t help being even more pleased with it than I was with its smelly predecessor. It’s been nearly blown aloft by strong winds in Prescott, Ariz. It’s been subjected to freezing temperatures in the high desert. It’s been pelted by rain in the Landmannalaugar highlands of Iceland.

Not a drop of water has leaked into it. No pole has broken. There’s not a rip or tear anywhere. And it can endure being compressed to a size small enough to fit into a pack loaded for two weeks of mixed backpacking and civilized vacationing.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent pretty impressive. Even better, it only needs two poles. That’s fewer things to lose or break. It goes up in moments, which is really nice when you want nothing more that to dive into a comfy sleeping bag for a good night of sleep.

If I my Rock 22 disappeared or met some horrible fate that made it as smelly as my original tent, I’d buy another one in a second. According to The North Face Web site, it’s going for $189.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent a good buy for two adults who don’t camp in the snow. Pair it with quality sleeping bags, and you’ll still be able to use it when he temperatures plummet.

Enhanced by Zemanta
CategoriesTastesTravel

Update on Flying with MREs

Before leaving for Iceland, I was a bit worried about flying the military-issue Meals, Ready to Eat packs.

The answers I got from the Delta Airlines and the TSA were less than definitive – Icelandair was crystal-clear: They’re okay in checked luggage.

The good news is that I had no problems flying with my MRE packs. I went through security screening at three different airports (Phoenix Sky Harbor, JFK/New York and Keflavik International) and customs at two of them, and had nary an MRE-related problem (the monosyllabic and surly “instructions” of the wonderful Customs staff at JFK, however, was another story. Only one of that lot was even remotely pleasant.).

Based on my experience, you should have no problems if you put your MREs in your checked luggage and keep the packages sealed. Still, always check with your airline. Policies and regulations are always a moving target, and a terrorism-related panic du jour always seems to be around the corner waiting to monkeywrench travelers’ plans.