American Hotels are a Rip-Off

I was somewhat excited about an upcoming trip to Boston. Then I started researching hotel prices.

Check this out:

1 night in a generic hotel in Boston = $210

Now contrast that to these (bear in mind that I generally travel just slightly off the peak seasons, but not much):

1 night in a British Bristol freighter airplane turned into a hotel in New Zealand: $160 Nz, roughly $85 US

1 night in a two-room suite with kitchenette in Queenstown, NZ: $150 NZ

1 night at La Mansion, a spectacular hotel in the jungles near Manuel San Antonio, Costa Rica: $150-$350 US (FYI, this place is super-deluxe. Ex-presidents stay here. It is not a (long string of expletives deleted) Best Western or Holiday Inn.

1 night in a slick backpacker’s lodge in Tongariro National Park, NZ: $40 NZ (call it $25 US)

1 night in a super-awesome eco-lodge in the rain forest of Belize: $85-$105

1 night in a sleek, modern, convenient hotel steps from downtown Cairns, Australia: $115 AU (call that about $85 US).

Seriously, are American hotels trying to price themselves out of consideration? If so, they’re doing a grade-A job of it. Factor in the fact that, to reach most foreign destination, I have to fly a foreign airline with better service and that I LOVE long flights, and you can see that American hotels will get my dollars only when family obligations require travel within this country’s borders.

If you’re a traveler, vote with your wallet. Take your dollars off-shore. Maybe that will get the message through.

So You’re Going to Australia … 11 Handy Tips

So you’re going to Australia? I know of more than a few wise people who are following my advice and heading really, really far south. Good on ya, as they’ll say in Australia. Rather than just hording my favorite tips for family and friends, I’ll share ’em with all of you.

1. Airline tickets – Australia’s a huge country, and it’s also very empty in the center. If you want to visit a few cities (and you should), think about something like the Qantas Aussie AirPass. I couldn’t find anything similar from Air New Zealand or V Australia – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – call either airline and ask if they have something to compete with Qantas for multi-city visits.

2. Eating in the air – Don’t bring food. None of the Australia or New Zealand-based airlines will starve you. In fact, they’ll try to stuff you full of food, fresh fruit and free beer and wine. You’ll even get breakfast. Also, being a big island, Australia is determined to keep foreign stuff away. Even your snacks can pose a threat to the Australian ecosystem, apparently. So away put your trail mix – you will not need it.

3. Clean your outdoor gear – I showed up with dirt from my local trails on my hiking boots. This was met with extreme disapproval by the Ozzy customs agents. Again, it’s an ecosystem thing. So arrive with clean gear.

4. This isn’t the usual coffee – Australia has a pretty distinct coffee culture. Rarely will you get to put cream in your own coffee. And that coffee is usually made espresso-style. I can’t even remember drinking drip coffee there. The good news is that the average Australian barista is well-trained and on par with the upper echelon of American baristas. That’s the way they roll.

5. Tomato sauce and capsicum – That’s ketchup and green pepper to you, yank! Brush up on some of the lingo, if possible.

6. Bond with Aussies in an instant – Want to strike up a conversation with just about any Aussie? Ask for a few tips on understanding cricket. The entire country seems to be sharply divided on Ozzy rules football (aka footy or AFL), Rugby Union and Rugby League. But they all share the love for cricket. Just acting mildly interested is a perfect ice breaker, and you’ll have a new friend in an instant.

7. Relax – Don’t let anything bother you. Missing luggage? Remain calm. Train late? Cool your jets. Things have a way of working out down there, especially if you maintain your composure and sense of humor.

8. Don’t be afraid to drive – I know it’s not the way you’re used to driving. But you should give it a go. Once you stop turning on the windshield wipers when you want to turn on the turn signals, that means you’re making progress. For the first few hours, though, if you feel right at home, you’re doing something wrong.

9. Don’t go to the Australian Venom Zoo before you go camping. Unless you like staying awake at night and quivering in fear.

10. Tipping is kind of rare there. I felt weird about this, but it’s true.

11. You won’t be here every week – It’s a long flight, and a big block of time. Make the most of it. Don’t be afraid to creep outside your budget a bit to do something truly cool that you can’t do anywhere else. But make it worthwhile, like some sort of crazy tour or experience. My main indulgence was a sweet didgeridoo. It was a pain in the butt to lug it around and it nearly caused coronaries for the baggage people in Los Angeles, but it was too cool not to bring home.

There! You’re well on your way to a great Australian vacation. I’ll see you soon … with your kangaroo scrotum keychain, a boomerang and a pound of Highland Pearls coffee beans!

If there’s anything you’re wondering that I haven’t mentioned here, feel free to ask. I’ll answer in a follow-up post. That goes for anywhere … not just Australia.

48 Hours in Flagstaff

Downtown Flagstaff with San Francisco Peaks in Background - Photographer unknown
Downtown Flagstaff with San Francisco Peaks in Background - Photographer unknown

Flagstaff has saved the sanity of many people from central Arizona. We know that, even on the hottest, most brain-baking weekends, respite is just two hours away up the I-17. That means you can squeeze relief from triple-digit temperatures into just one weekend.

Here are some tips for desert dwellers looking to get the most out of 48 hours. Out-of-state visitors can also use this to get their plans started.

Where to Stay:

Flagstaff has a little something for everyone when it comes to accommodations. Even the cheap hotels are pricier than they should be, but we’ll just have to grin and bear that. There are enough decent hotels that you shouldn’t have trouble finding a place. In fact, I’m not even going to name any specific hotels.

Here’s what I’ll do instead: I’ll tell you to mind the railroad tracks. The closer you are to them, the more you will hear train whistles and the roar of enormous diesel locomotives. Let the tracks be your guide. Unfortunately, some of the more fun places are walking distance from the tracks, too.

Continue reading

Creatures and Caves – Hiking Canyon Vista and Walnut Canyon

An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.
An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.

In July, I was off to Flagstaff for more a bit of fun. For my wife, it was hard work – she was competing in the Mountain Man Half-Ironman Triathlon around Upper Lake Mary.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. right along with her after a fairly fitful night of sleep at the Travelodge on Butler Street (thanks, trains, for blaring those horns!). The Travelodge isn’t too bad if you can manage to get a room on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the tracks.

Anyway, my plan was to get her on her way, cruise out somewhere for a hike, then return by the time she was switching from the bike portion to the running. I grabbed a ranger at Lake Mary, who told me to head to Canyon Vista Campground. I did as he said, including following the path to the back where there was parking for a trailhead. There was also a map, but it actually didn’t seem very up-to-date.

I stepped into my La Sportiva Trango Trek boots (just in case it was a rocky trail), fired up the GPS, double-checked my water and headed off. For those who wonder about such things, I was also carrying my Pentax K100D-Super, an assortment of lenses, some energy bars, a Leatherman and a sturdy knife. My mistake was not packing my headlamp. More on that later.

A biker pedals past the canyon walls.
A biker pedals past the canyon walls.

If you bear left, the path first goes past a cool rubble field (you can also veer right if you want to go rock climbing). I’m not sure what its origins are, but I’d bet on volcanic. From there, I wound through the forest before descending down into the canyon. Up to this point, you’ll get some nice canyon views. The path starts getting rocky on the downhill, which made me happy I’d picked my more rugged set of boots. Yeah, you could get away with light low-top hiking boots or running shows, but why bother?

During this early portion, you can hear traffic from nearby I40. But that soon fades away, especially early in the morning. I went about two miles before seeing another person – a mountain biker right near a rock outcrop with a small cave (see photo). From there, I went into the Walnut Canyon Wilderness Area. Bikes and any sort of motorized contraptions are not allowed in here. It’s incredibly verdant – unfortunately, that also meant a lot of bugs, which I didn’t count on! No repellant for me. Oddly enough, I only wound up with one bug bite.

This is where I found a really cool cave, and where I also regretted not having my trust Petzl Tikka headlamp. That meant I could only go about 100 feet into the cave before losing too much visibility. I’m not sure how this cave formed, but I’m not betting it’s limestone. It seemed like a crack in the surrounding rock. It was very solid and damp, with lots of bugs standing sentinel at the mouth.

Another cool thing about Walnut Canyon is how many creatures you’ll see – huge wasps, hummingbirds, even eagles (I think that’s what they were). Find a nice place, preferably near some bright-colored flowers. Be quiet. Just listen. You won’t believe the awesome racket of all these animals. The hummingbirds are my favorite, especially when they chase each other around.

An industrious hummingbird takes a break.
An industrious hummingbird takes a break.

I knew it was getting time to head back. So I snapped a few more photos and retraced my steps, but with a little extra speed to get me back in time. A few miles later, I started encountering more people on their way out. Obviously, an early start is the way to go. That way, you’ll enjoy the solitude and then be enjoying some espresso from one of Flag’s fly baristas when everyone else is just showing up.

Total trip: 6.5 miles
Check the Maps & More Page for a map!

Possums and Parks – A Quick Visit to St. Louis

 Back in the old days before I began keeping my blog, I had to visit St. Louis. My sister-in-law was graduating from Washington University (a beautiful campus – the sort that would feature in a Revenge of the Nerds-style movie) and the wife and I were off to see her into the professional world.

I should preface the rest by saying my brother J.D. also live near St. Louis. He says Missouri’s state motto is "Missouri: Love it or Leave It -- hey, come back here!"

Well, our Southwest Airlines flight landed well into the nighttime hours. And I was famished since peanuts just don’t satisfy for that long. Once we got a cab from the airport to our near the university, our main objective was to find somewhere decent to eat in the Italian-flavored area known as "The Hill."

So Sarah and I began walking. As we were walking past some homes, I saw the eyes of a little creature poking out from a hedge. I guessed it was a cat from its somewhat furtive movement.

Being a cat-friendly guy, I immediately "kittykittykitty"d in hopes of making a new furry friend. The creature advanced slightly, giving me a better look.

And let me tell you, this was the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen. "This poor thing needs a lot of petting to help its self-esteem," I thought, running my gaze over its unusually beady eyes, it’s somewhat pointy snout and its disheveled, matted fur.

I heard Sarah yell at me "Justin, get away from that! It’s a possum!"

Well, jeez. How was I to know about possums? I’m from the Southwest! I don’t know from possums.

So what is there to St. Louis besides possums? Well, near our hotel was the absolutely wonderful Forest Park. It’s a great place to run, relax and recreate (though procreating might raise a few eyebrows, though I’m sure that happens at certain hours). I’m actually quite jealous of this resource: It covers nearly 1,300 acres. Yes, it has the obligatory golf course. But also an art museum, sports leagues, running paths galore, paddle boats, skating rinks, a zoo, an opera house and --

-- the St. Louis Science Center. It’s a nice place to pass a few hours, but it’s no Smithsonian. It’s still a nice complement to the Forest Park.

If you get hungry, as I often do, being close to a university can set you up right. There are chains for the unadventurous of palette – but you’ll find nice locally owned and ethnic sorts of places, too. I wasn’t taking such good notes since this trip occurred BWJ (Before Wandering, but ask a student and you’ll find the good stuff. Or ask the staff at Forest Park.

I have to give St. Louis props for Forest Park – and for snaring me in a near-destructive possum-petting incident. I can’t say I was bored!

My Best Zorbing Tips for Beginners

Sarah shakes off her Zorbing legs.
Sarah shakes off her Zorbing legs.

I’m kind of surprised by something: People are finding while searching for Zorbing tips for beginners. I’m not surprised because people are looking here for Zorbing info, but about tips for beginners.

Alright, people … Zorbing is not exactly a skill. It’s not like skiing. There are no double black-diamond Zorbing hills (though that would be awesome). You don’t need a finely tuned sense of balance, powerful quads and awesome spatial awareness. Really, if you can fit in the hole, you can Zorb just as well your first time as any veteran can.

But you seem to want tips, so I’m gonna give ’em to ya:

1. Book a flight to New Zealand. This is where Zorbing was born, and thus is the ultimate place to Zorb. When you book, I recommend Air New Zealand since Qantas, unfortunately, seems to be experiencing a spiral into management wankery (the cabin staff and crews are still great, though). I’m hoping V Australia decides to start flying to New Zealand from the States, too.

2. Get a taxi from the airport to your hotel. Parnell is a nice neighborhood with good nightlife, decent hotels and a nice vibe. It’s also not far from bus and rail stations.

3. After spending a night in Auckland, take a bus to Rotorua. That’ll give you a chance to savor the countryside. Another option is to rent a Wicked Camper, if that’s more your bag. This also allows you to skip Step 4 and go directly to 5 .. along with flying your Freak Flag a bit!

4. When you get to Rotorua, rent a car.

5. Drive said car to The Agrodome. Sign yourself up for the Zydro, and make sure you have a friend -or mate, rather … when in Kiwiland, say as they Kiwis say, I guess- videotaping your roll down the hill.

6. Exit. Laugh. Repeat.

Congratulations. You are now an Olympic-caliber Zorbonaut.

5 Reasons Why You’d Hate Traveling With Me

Often, when I describe my travels to people, they’re pretty jazzed. But then they go a step too far: “Oh, I’ll bet it would be fun to travel with you!”

I suppose for some. But I think most people would think saddling up with my wife and me is a circle of hell if they encountered the reality of it. Here’s why:

1. We can’t say no to adding mileage. One of us will see or hear of something cool. And it’s only a short hike away! There’s no way we can resist, even if we’re already in the middle of a death march. Onward!

2. We walk everywhere. Unless we’re just getting into an airport, we largely move by foot once we’re at our destination. Yeah, we’ll take a bus from city to city, but once we’re there, it’s all on foot. And god help you if we’re hunting down rumors of a good coffee house or craft brewery. We’ve marched ourselves into the ground on many a damn-fool idea.

3. We get up really early. And we’re going full-throttle the entire day. By the time 10 p.m. rolls around, we’re dead to the world.

4. We eat really weird stuff. If you don’t and you’re tagging along with us, we will verbally abuse you and ostracize you until you take a bite of fricaseed jellyfish. And I will eat haggis just to make you gag.

5. It’s very unusual for us to spend more than two nights anywhere. So our trips are often less than relaxing. Yes, they’re fun – but of a slightly brutal variety.

Boil and Bubble at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand

The Champagne Pool
The Champagne Pool

If an army of Parrotheads and Grateful Dead fans ever invades New Zealand, I know exactly what strategy to take to stop the assault: The New Zealand forces would need to establish its positition and fall back, leading the unsuspecting invaders to the Mud Pool at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland south of Rotorua.

There, the marching Parrotheads and Dead Heads would come to a complete standstill. They would be rendered immobile by a combination of cannabis, the crazy colors and the pits of bubbling, boiling mud.

A long shot of Waiotapu
A long shot of Waiotapu

Look, I’m not exactly proud to admit this: I could’ve spent the entire day at the mud pit, watching as volcanic gas built up pressure, created huge bubbles, and then exploded, spewing the smell of sulfur and rancid baked beans through the air. It smelled like I was living with my dad again!

Here’s the thing – this part of the north island has a lot of active volcanic features. And here at Waiotapu, they really force their way to the surface. It’s a fascinating landscape of mud pits, boiling ponds, sulfur pits and other weird crap that I can’t even begin to describe.

So what’s so cool about watching mud boil and splash all over? Well, if you’re from a place as extensively paved as Phoenix, it’s wonderful to get a reminder that the earth is very much still alive. That there’s change. And that, for all our technology and influence on the world, humans are just a small part of the whole. And maybe not even the main part of it all.

I forget the name of this feature - I think "Incredible Hulk's Urinal" has a ring to it, though.
I forget the name of this feature - I think "Incredible Hulk's Urinal" has a ring to it, though.

Volcanism shaped both islands, and it’s exciting to think of the awesome power marshalling below your feet as you walk on seemingly solid ground. Look around you at Waiotapu and near Rotorua: You’ll see plumes of white steam venting from the earth randomly. The Kiwis are far-sighted enough to capture some for clean, inexpensive power. But they’re also smart enough to leave it accessible for people to see. It really did something for me to be able to look closely at this and see the living earth.

Exploding mud!

It made me feel like the world is really new. In fact, I thought of a quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as Dr. Marcus leads Admiral Kirk into the Genesis Cave: “Let me show you something that will make you feel young, as when the world was new.”

Be sure to check the super-sweet videos below – boiling mud in live action, and wind whipping steam off the Silica Flats. Awesome!

Watch Wallabies and other Wildlife in Australia’s Top End

What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.
What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.

Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.

It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit: The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.

If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory. It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,  measuring nearly 60 by 120

Crikey, what a specimen!
Crikey, what a specimen!miles. Many of the roads are rugged, and barely even worthy of being called trails - much less roads. There are certain rental car companies that will not even rent their vehicles to people who intend to venture into the Kakadu.

And each square mile of both the Top End and the Kakadu is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.

During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):

Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong
Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong

Corroboree Billabong

This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s  a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.

But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.

Rock wallaby at Ubirr
Rock wallaby at Ubirr


There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guides are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking. You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.

White Lilly Billabong

While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.

Hold still, Skippy!
Hold still, Skippy!

This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!

The Termite Mounds

Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.

Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.

The Didgeridoo Hut

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – and your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high. During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.

Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut

Tucson’s Airplane Boneyard a Creepy Piece of History

Transports in the desert.

There’s this really creepy, weird place down in Tucson, Ariz. Most people call it the Boneyard. The official name is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC. In short, it’s where airplanes go to die.

I just wrote a piece about it for Associated Content. That’s where you can get all the official-speak – how to get there, what to bring, what to see. But since this is my own blog, I want to give you a little something different, plus bigger photos!

I'm guessing these are various types of C-135s.

I want you to picture thousands of acres. Then imagine rows of aircraft dating from post-WW II to practically present day. Dozens of B-52 Stratofortresses. Old Boeing 720s. Even the odd B-1B bomber! Helicopters, light transports, they’re all here baking in the sun.

This place just staggers my imagination. If this is where planes die, can you imagine how many are still flying? Can you imagine how many of these could find a second life better than being chopped up and turned into cans?

And the Boneyard is a starkly and oddly beautiful sight. If you’re riding the Fantasy Island mountain bikes trail network, the Boneyard is a backdrop for quite a bit of the ride. It makes me feel like Mad Max will soon coming roaring through the desert. No matter how many times I see it, I just wish I could spend a day walking among all these planes.

The Boneyard is a huge, impossible-to-miss piece of the military’s buying power and scope. I’m going to add a little something to that: Along I-17 and Highway 79, thousands of people pass decommissioned ballistic missile silos and never even notice them. In some ways, that’s more chilling than seeing thousands of aircraft strewn through the desert.




Can You Survive These 5 Foods?

When I travel, I make it a point to find something weird to eat. I’d prefer it not be something I can get just anywhere – I scoured Web sites for a way to get a fresh black sapote fruit here in Arizona, but no dice: I had to chase that all the way to Cape Tribulation in Queensland, Australia.

But I encounter the weirdest purely by accident. Here are a few wild foods that can delight or disgust, depending on your palette.

Dangerous Delectables from Down Under

As you might guess, they’ll eat just about anything in New Zealand – especially it’s #1 pest,

Have a bite of possum pie, mate!
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

the imported possum. While exploring the South Island of New Zealand, be sure to stop in Pukekura at the Sandfly Cafe. There, you can sample a personal-sized possum pie. Yeah, it’s a big ol’ ratlike marsupial. But, as Naked Bus driver Renee says, “It’s easy to eat!” It really doesn’t taste that different from beef. But you know it’s possum, and that makes it fun.

Australia gets two entries on my list of must-try whacky foods. If you’ve just arrived in Sydney, check out the Australian Heritage Hotel and its excellent restaurant. If you’re up for a liberal and exotic interpretation of a pizza, pick from emu, kangaroo or salt-water crocodile toppings. I chose the croc, and got a chicken-like texture with a briny hint of billabong. I hope your plans take you to Darwin in the Top End – it’s the starting point for awesome adventures into the Kakadu. It’s also home to the Wharf Precinct, where you can pick up a tasty camel schniztel. I expected it to be tough and stringy, but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t far different from veal – but I still get lots of “ewwwww” factor when I tell people about it.

Get Teste With Me

Now, my own home state of Arizona boasts more than a few crazy treats - pit-cooked javelina (a wild pig) and fried rattlesnake, to name just two. But neither can compete with what you’ll eat at the Rock Springs Cafe monthly Hogs ‘n’ Heat BBQ and Nut Fry. You can play it safe with steaks and such, or dive into the namesake “nuts.” No, we’re not talking pecans and almonds here. This is all about Rocky Mountain oysters, bovine  gonads, bull bollocks. Dig in, cowboy!

Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.
Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.

A Fishy Treat for an Iron Stomach

I’ve saved the grossest for last, and we’re visiting Iceland for this diabolical delicacy: rotten shark meat! The Icelandic folks call it hakarl, and devouring it is a show of fortitude. Or, if reports are to be believed, a sign of completely non-functional tastebuds. I fully intend to eat this when I get to Iceland. After all, a few moments of gagging is fully worth telling people about this and watching them gag just from hearing about it. With its ammonia content, this stuff must taste like cat pee, but I can’t resist a challenge.  It doesn’t sound like you can just roll into any old grocery store and pick some up, but this blog post gives some clues.

Phoenix Foodie Teaches the Art of Urban Foraging

Where you see a barren field punctuated by a few dried-out weeds, Ian Fecke-Stoudt sees dinner.

urban foraging
Ian Fecke-Stoudt examines a sprig of sorrel.

Fecke-Stoudt leads a weekly urban foraging session in downtown Phoenix, starting at coffeehouse/boutique Conspire. The mission: to teach people about edibles growing right under their noses. Since he’s a vegan, Feck-Stoudt keeps it strictly to plants – no feral cats or pigeons, fortunately.

I joined a recent group in April, hoping to catch a few urban foraging pointers. In one of my earlier conversations with Feck-Stoudt, he mentioned -in a very nonchalant fashion- living off the land in the Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix for nearly three months. I expected a survivalist outlook, but he takes more of a food lover’s approach. Feck-Stoudt works for Sapna Cafe, and seems very interested in incorporating as much locally grown produce as possible – even if he didn’t find it growing wild on the corner of 5th Street and Roosevelt.


urban foraging
Inspecting a bit of mustard greens.

Staying Safe While Foraging

  • Make sure the plant isn’t poisonous and that it won’t cause an allergic reaction. Rub it on a sensitive part of your skin (inner elbow, neck) and wait 15 minutes for a reaction.
  • Be careful about where the plants are growing. Animals tend to pee on plants nears curbs, while humans will relieve themselves on plants near walls. “It’s harder to see the urine than the feces,” Fecke-Stoudt says.
  • Be aware of herbicides and pesticides. Look for spots that give the plants a “burned appearance.” You can generally wash either off the plants, though.

Some of What You Can Pick and Eat Downtown

There are lots more edibles in the desert and suburban areas, but these will get you started.

  • palm trees: The type of leaves will determine whether you have a date palm or not. The date palms have “feather” leaves, rather than fans. The fan palms feature black edible berries that are juicy in season. Fecke-Stoudt says the berry is caffeinated.
  • sorrel: A lemony tasting grass. Look for a yellow flower to mark its position.
  • oranges: Ornamental oranges have thicker, rougher skins. Despite the name and reputation, they’re still edible.

    urban foraging
    A close look at some nopales. 
  • palo verde: This ubiquitous green tree produces protein-rich seeds.
  • aloe vera: A desert succulent best known as a home remedy for sunburn is also edible, but … “I personally find it disgusting,” Fecke-Stoudt says.
  • nopales, AKA fan cactus: The smaller ones, also called nopalitos, are sweeter. Fecke-Stoudt says they contain 90 percent of the United States Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A, potassium and many other nutrients.
  • cholla : Apparently, you can eat the notorious jumping cactus. Fecke-Stoudt recommends driving a stick through one of the balls and cooking it over an open fire to remove the needles.
  • mustard greens
urban foraging
The bounty of urban forage.

After foraging, Feck-Stoudt led us to a friend’s kitchen, where we mixed our urban foraging bounty with some items from local gardeners to whip up a vegan meal. If you’re up for a foraging session, drop into Conspire on a Sunday around 4:45 and be on the lookout for Ian Fecke-Stoudt!

Eva digs into a freshly gathered vegan meal.
Eva digs into a freshly gathered vegan meal.

8 Ways to Live Through Summer Exercise

Arizona is bizarro world. Most places in the country hibernate and cower from the elements during the winter, but we do it in the late spring and summer – and heck, a little bit of autumn, too. You wouldn’t believe the number of people in this desert city who never learn to deal with the elements, preferring instead to scurry like suited-or-skirted rats from one air-conditioned space to another.

Its dry out here - bring some water!
It's dry out here - bring some water!

Those of us who choose to embrace the desert do it differently, especially when it comes to outdoor exercise in the heat. You really can survive summertime exercise and adventures in 100-degree-plus heat – you just have to be smart. Ask any member of the local fire department about all the nasty ways heat can hurt you – they’ve rescued enough ill-prepared people to know.

Here are some of my favorite tips to ensure YOU won’t need to be rescued. Feel free to suggest any I’ve overlooked!

1. Bring enough water. It would astound you how many people prepare badly for a foray into the hot sun. My rule of thumb is 30 ounces per hour. You can use a hydration pack, or one of these new-fangled water belts favored by runners.

2. Electrolytes – they’re what YOU crave. Sweating a lot burns off your electrolytes. Get too low on

I dont always use sports drinks ... but when I do, I prefer Cytomax.
I don't always use sports drinks ... but when I do, I prefer Cytomax.

sodium and potassium and you’re headed for cramp city – or worse. You’ll also feel horrible the rest of the day, with headaches a frequent symptom. If you’re out longer than an hour, use a good-quality sports drink. Gatorade isn’t terrible, but I prefer Cytomax.

3. Get started early. Leaving at high noon for a 10-mile run is gonna hurt. If you get started at 6 a.m., you can get done before the temperatures get really brutal.

4. Hydrate days before. Staying hydrated is a never-ending task. What you drank the day before is important.

He should've had one - and so should you.
He should've had one - and so should you.

5. Recover! Replace your electrolytes and calories. After a hot-weather run, a cold glass of V-8 really helps replace all the salt you sweated out. Chase that by more water and maybe even a sugary beverage to replace your calories.

6. Freeze your water bottles. The night before your exercise, pop your bottles in the freezer. It will help them stay cold at least a bit longer.

7. Bring a snack. This is essential if you’re spending an extended period outdoor.

8. Wear sunscreen. It definitely helps you feel cooler.

For more reading on the fun-filled world of heat-related illnesses and the good times of dehydration, check out these links: on heat stroke, dehydration and prevention

How to assess the stages of heat illness

So now you’re dehydrated … here’s how to deal with it

My Top 5 Flights – Plus, a Site for Flight Geeks

The rise of Facebook as a great time-waster is pretty well-documented, and now aviation geeks have their own way to flush hours down the lavatory: Let me introduce, a Web site that lets you input all your commercial flights. It then tracks your time and mileage and plots it on a map. You can even order a poster based on your flight paths. (Thanks to Things in the Sky for the discovery.)

What’s kind of useful is that you can choose to enter the bare-minimum of details, or delve into

Creaky old airplane got you down? Have your say on!
Creaky old airplane got you down? Have your say on!

excruciating detail about every single thing the airline, TSA and airport employees did wrong – or you can praise them for those times when “customer service” isn’t a punchline.

I’m still working on getting my flights in, but I’ve made some headway. It’s quite a lot of fun, especially since it appears to be of German origin and translated by members of The Scorpions while they were on tour with Van Halen circa 1985 (“We can now offer you some new thingies for your pleasure – introducing the FlightMemory shop!” … tell me you couldn’t hear Klaus Meine saying that!).

Continue reading

Land of the Aussies Versus Home of the Kiwis

The crater of Mount Ngauruhoe

Since I’ve been to both Australia and New Zealand, I’ve had a lot of people asking me which one I like better. You can read my answer at the end, but now it’s time to figure out which one you should visit first. Here’s my take on some head-to-head comparisons:

Food – This is pretty much a draw. Both are relatively close to Africa and Asia, in addition to having a lot of European influences. If you can’t find good food in Australia and/or New Zealand, you’re just too picky and set in your ways. Because I ate camel, crocodile and emu on its shores, this round goes to AUSTRALIA!

From Australia

People – Australians are gregarious and have a natural exuberance. All you need to do to break the ice with an Australian is ask them about footy (Australian rules football), rugby or cricket. Boom, you’re in! With a Kiwi, there will be no need to break the ice. They are born talkers. They have a slightly more proper English vibe to them, though. You’ll find people in both countries pleasant and laid-back, for sure. But being a bit more loud and exuberant myself, I say advantage AUSTRALIA!

Scenery – The entire middle of Australia is desert. The coasts vary a bit. You’ll have rain forests, and even snowier patches! A lot of the continent is remote and unspoiled. It’s darn pretty. But holy cow, New Zealand will boggle your mind. There’s a reason epic movies and adventure-themed TV shows are filmed there. The active volcanoes, the rain forests, the glaciers! Advantage NEW ZEALAND!

From Australia

Cool Stuff to Do – Australia has awesome cities, great small towns, adventures a-plenty. Camping in the Kakadu is unforgettable, as is spotting wild crocs in a billabong. What does it take to beat that? Hiking the aforementioned active volcanoes and glaciers, schweebing, zorbing, incredible national parks, parasailing, the Thermal Explorer Highway. Wow. Sorry, Aussie buds … but advantage NEW ZEALAND!

From New Zealand Volume 1

Transportation – In the cities, both countries are neck and neck. Australia is a huge freakin’ continent, but it’s easy to get around by air. And it’s not overly expensive. Driving is not feasible. New Zealand is small enough that you don’t really have to fly unless you’re jam-packing your schedule. This also goes to NEW ZEALAND.

Cost – The Australian dollar is a bit weaker than the American, so you can stretch your dollar. At this time, the NZ dollar is down nearly 2 to 1 to the US dollar. Mind-boggling exhange rates like this really let you get the most out of your trip. For now, advantage NEW ZEALAND!

Flora – Australia … all sorts of awesome fruits and vegetables, plus a strong coffee crop and vineyards! And there’s that wild exotic fruit farm in Cape Tribulation. Beautiful forests and bushlands. NZ has all sorts of great fruits and veges, too … and a hop-growing region along with the vineyards! But no coffee. Also great forests and bushlands. This round goes to AUSTRALIA!

From New Zealand Volume 1

Fauna – Oh, man … you will never see a more exotic and weird selection of native-born critters than in Australia. And just wait until you leave the airport! I kid, I kid. But seriously … salt-water crocs, box jellyish, snakes all and sundry, insects, wallabies, platypuses, kangaroos and more! New Zealand has a bunch of flightless birds, sheep and possums. Oy. This is all AUSTRALIA!

From Australia

Culture – Both places are rugged and manly, with Australia having a more bawdy vibe that suits me. As for the indigenous stuff, I love the aboriginee culture for its stories, its language and the mysterious buzz of the didgeridoo. The Maori are a butt-kickin’ bunch, too, but I have to give this round to AUSTRALIA!

Intangibles – There isn’t anything I don’t love about Australia. The people, the food, the activities are all great. I would go back in a second. But I love the newness of New Zealand … a place that still seems to be growing, evolving and forming. It’s like a land before life. There is a majesty there I’ve never experienced before. Tough call, but it’s NEW ZEALAND!

The final score … Australia 5, New Zealand Australia 5. I can’t believe it! I need a tie-breaker! Let’s see … the flight time from Los Angeles is slightly less of New Zealand, so I’ve gotta give the Kiwis the nod by the very slimmest of margins.

Now, back to you: If you’re scared of big mean creatures that want to kill you, you might prefer New Zealand. But if you’re a big-city fashionista, Melbourne and Sydney will tip the balance in the Aussie’s favor.

Either place you go, have fun, be safe and send your friends!

Coffee Culture Showdown – Comparing Caffeine

submit to reddit

Bookmark No Crocs Allowed

Coffee is a shape-shifting drink. No matter what country you’re in, that country has added something distinct to the coffee bean and the way people drink it. Each time I travel out of North America, I find a little learning curve waiting for me.

Imagine an Australian visiting a cafe in California and asking for a flat white. You can count on that traveler getting a blank stare from the barista. Same for an American visiting a non-Starbucks coffeehouse in Costa Rica asking for a Frappuccino, and so on.

My first experience abroad as a coffee drinker was in Costa Rica. I was expected some awesome coffee since Costa Rica is famous for exporting quality beans. I couldn’t wait to drink some coffee – even after checking into our hotel at about 9 p.m., I found a pot brewing in the lobby. I scoured the area looking for cream, only to find out Costa Ricans don’t take cream in their coffee. Better yet, I learned it doesn’t really need it. I also found that just about any place that serves coffee serves it well, from a roadside soda to a full-service coffee pillar like Cafe Milagro. Most of it is brewed rather than served espresso style.

Continue reading

A Practical Guide to Hiking Mt. Doom & Tongariro Crossing

submit to reddit 

From nz1

Mount Ngauruhoe is a rocky and barren place upon which your feet will find little purchase. The land surrounding it is a blasted hellscape devoid of much flora or any fauna. All that’s alive here is the earth, as proven by the number of vents gushing steam and shooting crystalline sulfur pellets from its fiery depths.

But walk a few miles, and the stench of sulfur will abate. A verdant rain forest will reappear.

As nice at is to see signs of life again, it’s the lava-scoured lunar surface that truly makes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by far the most incredible single-day hike I’ve ever done. According to most guide books, just hiking the crossing should take 6-8 hours, not including a side-trip up Ngauruhoe, which starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Mt. Doom, the hangout of bad guy Sauron. One look at it, and you’ll understand why it filled the role so well. It adds about three hours to a typical hike along the crossing.

I’m ready for a nice little walk.                                                                      From nz3

A QUICK TIME LINE – Just remember, Tongariro’s weather is highly variable. This was on a sunny and perfect day without much wind.
Hour 1: The hike starts off going between lava flows for Mangatepopo Car Park. You’ll pass dripping springs and a turn-off to one of the huts.

Hour 2: You’ll start up The Devil’s Staircase, which is where things start heating up. The reward once you get to the top is choosing whether to climb Ngaurahoe. Just do it! It adds three worthwhile hours. Turn right toward the hulking cone. Veer to the left, following a bunch of big poles in the ground. On the ascent, head toward the large rock outcroppings. You’ll get the best footing. If you veer right, I’ll hope you like calf-deep volcanic cinders and going one step forward and four back.

Hour 3: Still climbing. you’ll come to a false summit. You’ve gotta go all the way to the top.

Looking into the throat of Ngauruhoe                                                            From nz3

Hour 4: You’re up at the top of Mt. Doom! Snap your photos and head down. Pass the big rocks and follow the path past a vent surrounded by pellets of crystalline sulfur. From there, you can kind of “ski” down the slope. Look for a worn brown track. It’s deep enough that, if you fall, you’ll slide just a little way before the cinders drag you to a halt.

Ngauruhoe looms behind Red Crater’s fractured visage.                                                                                                                        From nz1

Hour Five: March across a flat plain between Ngauruhoe that’s emitting steam from unseen holes. It’s startling and unearthly. At the end of the valley, you’ll find a shorter slog up to Red Crater.

Emerald Lakes                                                                                             From nz1

Hour Six: From Red Crater, you’re onto Emerald Lakes, Central Crater and Blue Lake. There’s actually a small colony of gulls at Blue Lake, the first sign of animal life that I saw that day.

Headed up from the first view of Red Crater toward Emerald Lakes.       From nz1

Hour 7: From Blue Lake, you’ll descend past more steam vents to Ketatahi Hut. Stop there and refill your water, if needed.

Steam rises from vents as vegetation grows. From nz1

Hour 8: On to Ketatahi Car Park. You’ll finally get in under some vegetation. This part of the walk seems to take a long time: You’re at least in the shade finally, but you can’t really see the end. Rest assured, it’s coming! Get to the car park, hop your bus and return to Whakapapa.

We started our trip at the north end at about 7:30 a.m., and we finished just before 4 p.m. As a frame of fitness reference, my latest half-marathon time was 1:57. Sarah’s latest marathon time is 3:59. That should give you an idea of what you might be in for.

Okay, onto the practical stuff!

1. Whakapapa Village is the starting point for most people to launch their hikes. We arrived in the late afternoon from Rotorua, which is two hours away. Our original plan had been to rent a bit of gear like sleeping bags and stock up on supplies. But there’s barely anything to Whakapapa Village: a few hotels, a very small store, a visitors center and the ski lift further up. Stop in Taupo, a much larger town, to stock up on supplies – especially food and hiking snacks.

2. Dress in layers. I wore a pair of REI convertible quick-dry pants, a long-sleeve Nike base layer, a Prana t-shirt and an REI jacket, which I took off while climbing up The Devil’s Staircase. On the feet, I had Smartwool socks and a pair of La Sportiva Trango Trek boots. I love those boots like a lifelong friend. I also had a backpack carrying 120 ounces of water and a bunch of Hamish Carter One Square Meal bars, which is all I could find at the little Whakapapa store.

3. Bring a camera or you’ll kick yourself.

4. Try to get an early start to avoid the worst of the crowds. Even if people aren’t hiking the full crossing, a lot of people are out there. It’s still wonderful, regardless of the crowds.

5. Even if you drive yourself to the park, most locals insist cars are susceptible to break-ins at the trailheads. Most suggest booking a spot with one of the local bus companies from Whakapapa. I wasn’t willing to risk it, and considered about $25 NZ per person a good investment.

6. On the way up, wear gloves! I used gardening gloves, but a pair of Mechanix gloves would’ve been better. Put them on the second you decide to climb Ngauruhoe, and your hands will thank you.

Descending Doom                                                                                        From nz3
Celebrating Stage 1 of an epic day at the crater.                                          From nz3
Another view of the lip … notice Ruapehu on the far side – and the tiny size of the other hikers!                                                                         From nz3

5 Books to Help Survive Long-Haul Flying

submit to reddit

Bookmark No Crocs Allowed

I’m convinced that I’m one of the few people on the planet who enjoys long-haul flying. It’s nice to settle in and make a plane my home for 15 hours, especially if I’m headed someplace cool. While aloft, nobody can text me. I’m immune from telemarketers. That means I have a great sanctuary to enjoy some reading.

If you’re planning a long-haul flight, let me give you five suggestions for books that can make the flight a lot better.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
– This is a masterwork of speculative historical fiction. It’s funny. It’s moving. It’s creative. You’ll follow Biff, the Robin to Jesus’ Batman, through the childhood, missing years and eventual death of the Son of God. The first time I read this book, I laughed so hard that people at coffee shops thought I was going into convulsions.

The Underdog (Joshua Davis) – The author of this great non-fiction piece has mommy issues. He’s spent most of his life trying to please his former beauty queen mother. This leads him on a quest to be the best at something … anything! He takes up backward running, bullfighting, extreme sauna and more as he struggles to be more than a bespectacled data entry clerk.

Bad Monkeys (Matt Ruff) – This is a twisting, turning mash-up of cyber-spy thriller with the very real possibility that the protagonist is simply off her rocker. Jane gets arrested and claims she is part of a super-secret group that aims to rid the world of incorrigible evil. But is she actually that evil? A crazy and unpredictable book.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach) – Roach is one of my favorite authors for non-fiction ponderings of life’s mysteries. Her latest tackles sex, and how researchers have poked and prodded the world’s oldest deed through human history. Any author willing to shag her husband in an MRI tube for a book deserves my props.

Slam (Nick Hornby) – Hornby is one of the few authors who’s both ubiquitous and genuinely deserving of his success. In Slam, he writes about the perils of teenage relationships and pregnancy without sounding preachy. He also presents a neat plot device involving 16-year-old protagonist Sam and a Tony Hawk poster. Hornby is also a master at writing in the perfect voice of his characters.

Count on these five to get you through a transcontinental flight with your sanity intact.

Destination: Franz Josef Glacier

UPDATE – See what my Franz Josef Glacier hike was like and get some tips.
From blog photos

Well, score one for my wife. She uncovered a very first-rate adventure someplace I didn’t even notice. During my New Zealand planning, I’d completely ignored Franz Josef Glacier. Big mistake! Fortunately, she was there to bail me out with a great discovery.

So, what’s so cool about it? I mean, glaciers aren’t exactly the speed demons of the geological world. Well, how do blue ice, ice caves, crevasses and stunning views sound to you? Yeah, they sound pretty awesome to me.

I booked us a tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The question was … which one? They have a lot of tours available, everywhere from two hours and up.

“If you’re gonna hike a glacier,” Sarah said, “hike a glacier.”

In other words, don’t do it halfway. Get out on the ice, and stay awhile. Get high up there and see the blue ice caves! Right on, then. I’d bet on this to be one of the high points of the trip.

Stand by for a full review upon my return!

From blog photos

Photos courtesy of Motorhomeforhire.

The dirt on … 5 Ski Resorts in North Tahoe

From tahoe

Alright, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for! After all, I didn’t go to Tahoe to eat smoked trout and guzzle coffee – I went there to ski. And I’m gonna spill the beans about where you should go. Bear in mind that conditions were icy, and mid-day temps were in the mid-forties. Bummer conditions for skiing. Can’t fault the mountains for that – it’s just plain ol’ bad luck.

1. Northstar-at-Tahoe – This is where we spent our first day of skiing. It’s a darn nice hill with a plethora of blue runs. It’s big, with lots of lifts headed to many places. The staff is really friendly, and the trails are pretty well-marked. The views on the southeastern-most trails are beautiful. Problem is, there’s a lot of homogeneity to the blue runs. Not a lots distinguishes them. They are long, so you get a nice, long, groovy glide. Be sure to check out the tubing park about halfway up the mountain. I didn’t, and regretted it. There’s lots of great food everywhere, especially at the condo/shopping area near the outdoor ice rink. Earthly Delights is pretty awesome. Oh, and don’t buy gear at any of the shops there. Rip-off! Oh, and Northstar is packed with sprogs. If short people put a harsh edge on your shred, best to avoid it.

Awesome view from a Northstar run.            From tahoe
At the very top of Northstar after clouds roll in.      From tahoe

2. Homewood Mountain Ski Resort – The most laid-back, genuine and unpretentious ski resort I’ve ever seen! Tons of great blue runs and lots of nasty, mogully black-diamond stuff for you animals out there. I’d love to ski here after a huge storm of fresh powder. The blue runs are all very different from each other, from wide but steep trails to bobsled-style runs. Some of the lips before the trail drops are imposing – but they’re usually worse than they look unless the snow is icy and you’re a big dude who’s also a scaredy-cat. It’s a very convenient setup here – Homewood is right on West Lake Boulevard. You pull into the lot, buy your ticket, pop on your skis or snowboard and go! Services here can be a little sporadic, especially on weekdays. You have to go to the north lodge to get food or water, which can be a pain. They could also do a better job of penning up the smokers to prevent them from stinking up the nice mountain air, though. The staff is friendly, and the views are spectacular. On many runs, the deep blue of Lake Tahoe looks so close that it feels like you’re a blown turn from swimming in it. If the kiddies at Northstar give you the willies, the crowd is lots older here. Also, the value here is sick … a weekday pass was something like $39. Super-cheap, as Alfred E. Neuman would say!

Can you believe that view?                          From tahoe
Early morning at Homewood.           From tahoe

3. Squaw Valley – We didn’t ski here. After two days of alpine and one day of XC, our legs were simply too shot. Just as well. (Gulp) Squaw Valley scares me. I didn’t see a single run from the lodge that I’d feel comfortable skiing. These mountains are craggy and beastly looking, and huge cable cars and gondolas carry people around. Except for at the bunny hill. You’d have to go there and see it in-person to see how scary it is. I was genuinely intimidated. I think Squaw Valley is also kind of silly in charging non-skiers $22 for a gondola ride to the High Camp, where they have a skating rink, tennis courts and other cool stuff. Seriously. Especially on week days. Silly.

4. Boreal – This is a perfect place for the newbies. The runs are short and unassuming, and there are barely any black runs. I’d probably fall asleep on these trails, but it’s perfect for either getting your ski legs for the first runs of the season, or helping a new skier get some confidence. Be sure to get a load of the lodge, especially the arcade. You’ll feel like you fell into a DeLorean aimed straight into the neon and spandex heart of 1985. Livin’ on a prayer, baby! This could be a fun place to snowtube … if they were actually open during their posted hours. Lazy bums.

5. Soda Springs – We went here to look into snow tubing. No dice – it was all torn up, and the staff seemed to have no idea what was going in. They sent us to Boreal, where we were denied again. But as far as the skiing, this seems like it would be a great place for a solid blue skier to get a taste of the black diamonds. This is a pretty unassuming place, with a lot of wide-open spaces for beginners to dial in their greens and move to blue. I would mind trying the black runs here, since none of them seem to long or intimidating – definitely less scare-factor than Squaw Valley or Homewood!

Your heroic guide, Wandering Justin.        From tahoe

Well, there you have it! I’d definitely consider Homewood the value king. But if you’re an awesome skier, Squaw Valley will keep you occupied. It has more ritz and glitz, if you appreciate that sort of thing. Homewood is more Guns ‘n’ Roses, where Squaw Valley is the London Symphony Orchestra.

Bookmark No Crocs Allowed