The 13 Greatest Adventures for 2013
All photos “compliments of AdventureLink”
Though the odds have been bucked (there are bold travelers; and old travelers; but no old bold travelers), I’ve been reconnoitering the backs of beyond since the exordium of modern adventure travel, and have written about quite a few. I would imagine I could swing my Bic with the best of them. Nonetheless, I am daunted by AdventureLink, which boasts the world’s largest database of adventure travel trips and outfitters.
So, I combed through this dangerous catalogue, and picked out what I think will be the best adventures for 2013 (and I have personally tested them all, and reported about each on Huffington Post):
13) Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia)
It hosts the highest mountain in SE Asia, Mt. Kinabalu; the largest concentration of wild orangutans in the world; the greatest rainforests on the planet; some of the deepest caves; and of course the ambitious Dayaks, always looking to get a head.
12) Costa Rica
It has been called the Happiest Place on Earth, and is infused with a spirit called Pura Vida. It pours with the best rafting in Central America, has the best eco-lodges, more zip-lines than anyplace else on earth, great surfing, and some of the finest primary rainforest left.
Yes, it has the best beer in the world, and the oldest scotch distillery, the first Irish Coffee, but it also offers up some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe, great hiking and mountain biking, and in Belfast, the new stunning museum, Titanic Belfast (at the bar next door you can order a gin & Titonic)
Ethiopia is the Tibet of Africa, with an average elevation of 8,000’, and some of the highest peaks in the continent. It also is the source of the Blue Nile, running through The Grand Canyon of Africa, and the Omo River in the south, along which some of the most intact tribal cultures in the world survive…for now. It is the only country in Africa never to be colonized, and so the cultures run deep and untainted. The Queen of Sheba ruled in the north. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly hidden here. Good luck…
My Huffpo report (with Peter Guber): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-guber/african-water-rights-in-d_b_633678.html
Sometimes good things come out of war. Bosnia possesses what the rest of Europe has lost, as the country’s natural resources were not exploited during the conflicts. The result: the cleanest water and air in Europe; the greatest untouched forests; and the most wildlife. The best way to experience is the three rivers trip, which purls through the best the Balkans have to offer.
My Huffpo Report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richardbangs/post_1068_b_766474.html
Zambia is Zamazing. Not only does it have the largest game park in Africa (Kafue), walking safaris in the park with the most wildlife (South Luangwa), but it hosts the largest falling sheet of water in Africa, Victoria Falls, and the wildest rafting in the continent, down the Zambezi (I confess, I made the first descent). And it has the best place to get unplugged: The Kafue River Camp.
7) Rogue River
I’ve run most of the wild and scenic rivers in North America, and my favorite is the Rogue. It has thrilling rapids, stunning alpine scenery, crisp, clear water, beautiful white sand camping beaches, and a waterslide to which Six Flags can only aspire. And my only credit on IMDb is as a stuntman on the Rogue for a made-for-TV movie, Killing at Hell’s Gate.
6) Zanskar River, Ladakh, India
Ladakh, also known as Little Tibet, is a kingdom at the top of the world, in the throne room of the mountain gods, somewhere between mystery and imagination. The Zanskar, a river deeper and more stunning than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, cracks the Himalayas like an egg. It is Shangri-La manifested, a wild river of Buddhist temples, monasteries, ibex, and snow leopards.
5) Guangdong, China
What a discovery for me. Just a few hours north of Hong Kong or Macau the belly of the earth has bulged, wrenched and kinked in Danxia Mountain Park. There are spirits clad in emerald forest and red stone. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the nearly 70,000 acres of the park are nature’s great sculpture garden. This otherworldly landscape, looking more like the contours of the moon than an earthbound park, is enveloped by a warm, humid climate, which helps conserve great stretches of sub-tropical forest. Within this sanctuary more than 400 rare or threatened plant and animal species thrive in evergreen protection. And nearby are spectacular caverns, and a mighty gorge called Guangdong’s Grand Canyon. At nearly a thousand feet deep and nine miles long, this is a gaping call to adventure. The canyon’s diadem of glory is the Chengtou Waterfall, which fonts from a high ravine like an unleashed dragon.
Unthinkable not long ago to vacation in Nicaragua, but now, fully bathed in peace, and blessed with preternatural beauty, it is a beginning blip on the adventure travelers’ radar. Lago de Nicaragua, a lake too vast to see across, second largest in all the tropics, where 25 years ago guerrillas skulked among the broad-leafed trees of the 365 volcanic islands, is now garlanded with eco-lodges, kayakers, and volcano seekers. Some of the best surfing in the world is on the Pacific Coast. Once a hot spot, now a hot spot of a pleasanter sort.
There really has never been a better time to visit Egypt. I was there a month ago with my five-year-old-son, and was delighted by the lack of tourist crowds, and the overabundance of hospitality and service. Tourism, like the Nile, is lifeblood to Egypt, but visitors have stayed away with the news of internal political jockeying, and so the country is moving smartly to bring them back with a wide welcome mat. The Library of Alexandria is a favorite, and the whole of the North Coast, all the way to the Libyan border, is opening up new resorts and activities. I plan to return this winter. Now is the time for Egypt!
2) North Korea
North Korea has been closed to Americans for 60 years, but the doors have opened a crack. I led a group to the Hermit Kingdom last fall, and it was like dropping into the Rabbit Hole, an alternative reality unlike any other place on the planet. It is 80% mountainous, and is strikingly beautiful, with parks similar to Yosemite and Zion, and Pyongyang, the capital, offers up the world’s best preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture, and a chance to bow beneath the most amazing Ozymandias statuary.
Mountain Travel Sobek is also offering two departures in 2013: http://www.mtsobek.com/trip/north-korea-adventure
My Huffpo Report (which received more comments than any other piece I’ve written): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bangs/north-korea-and-the-hassl_b_1948471.html
1) The Best of South America (Iguazu, Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Galapagos)
If there is a geography of wonder, it is South America, and it is now possible to stitch together the four greatest wonders of the continent, including Iguazu (on the border of Brazil and Argentina), the waterfalls that make Niagara pale; Easter Island (Chile), where the origin mysteries still stir with giant statues that stare into an unknown past; Machu Picchu (Peru), the mystical hidden citadel high in the Andes; and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), the great living museum of wildlife diversity.
Buena suerte! And I hope to see you in South America!
Grannies on Safari recommended this blog by Mary Jo Manzanares. See the hottest destinations to travel by bike this year:
Hop on your bike and set off to see the world on two wheels! If that sounds like a great vacation adventure, consider this year’s eight hot destinations for bicycle travel which includes emerging destinations and already popular locales with something new to offer.
Situated on Africa’s southwestern coast, Namibia is considered by many to be Africa’s best-kept safari secret thanks to its extensive wildlife such as desert elephants, black rhinos, zebras, and cheetahs. Bike safaris are the least intrusive option and bring travelers closest to nature and to many tribal communities. Cyclists encounter rugged mountains, the world’s oldest desert, the largest canyon in Africa, wild rivers, a nearly thousand-mile coastline, and vast national parks. The country’s strong tourism infrastructure has long supported conservation efforts — and made for safe traveling.
Loire Valley, France
Bike touring is surging in the already popular cycling destination of the Loire Valley thanks to the new “Loire a Velo” bike route. The 500-mile route (which will eventually extend via the Eurovelo route 1,500 miles to Budapest) is well-marked, much of it on dedicated bike paths and quiet back roads. The high concentration of towns means plenty of hotels and restaurants — and most have rail stations should riders wish to shorten a day’s riding.
Chiapas is emerging as Mexico’s adventure destination. The country’s southernmost state (it borders Guatemala), it is remote and well off the beaten path. Cyclists ride through vast tropical rainforest to explore lagoons, canyons, mountains and waterfalls including the 3,000-foot-high Sumidero Falls. Along the way, they encounter ancient Mayan ruins, thatched-roof villages rich with living Maya culture, and 17th-century colonial towns. The people of Chiapas are renowned for their smiles and hospitality — and for their delicious Mayan and Mexican cuisine.
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany
European cycle tourists have already discovered Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, once part of former East Germany. More than 1,000 miles of coastline harbor 19th-century Baltic resorts, sandy beaches, charming fishing villages and medieval Hanseatic cities and towns. The inland landscape is dominated by a network of rivers and lakes and nearly 2,000 castles, national parks and estates, all connected by an extensive network of well-marked, asphalt, dedicated bike paths.
This once cut-off destination is now ripe for travel and perfect for cyclists who love adventure. Traveling around Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, travelers soon become aware of the immense legacy of a proud and powerful former kingdom that dates back 1,000 years or more. As adventurers cycle among the ancient temples, they will see firsthand the diversity of its people, culture, and topography that all make Burma one of Asia’s most fascinating and beautiful countries.
Excellent cycling routes are a surprising, positive byproduct of Communist rule, which mandated that every town be connected by highways. These third-rate highways have since been replaced by more modern roads, and the old roadways now form a low-traffic network of bicycle routes — many of them now dubbed greenways. This makes it easy to traverse beautiful countryside (much of it in protected national parks) en route to medieval castles, remote villages, Baroque towns and a vast collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
From the beaches of Gokarna and the backwaters of Kerala to the misty northern mountains of the Himalayas and sun-kissed deserts of Rajasthan, bike tours on the subcontinent offer a true glimpse into the real India. Most tour dates run December through March, making these trips to India the perfect destination for winter-weary cyclists. Summer tour dates are also popular for the Himalaya tours.
Italy’s “Boot Heel”
Apulia, Basilicata and Salento, the three regions that comprise the heel in Italy’s boot, draw cyclists who want to experience an authentic Italy. Local traditions and culture have changed little over the centuries. Riders explore quiet country lanes lined with stones through groves of gnarled olive trees and past ancient farmhouses or along beaches and bluffs along the azure Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Another bonus: the region features flatter terrain than the more popular cycling region of Tuscany.
This list of hot cycling destination was compiled by BikeToursDirect, a central resource for bicycle tours worldwide, representing nearly 100 local bicycle tour companies that offer 400 tours in 70 countries.
Posted on January 30, 2013 By Julie
Just 45 minutes from Vienna, the jewel of the Burgenland is Lake Neusiedler, which is on the border between Austria and Hungary.
The lake shore is dotted with towns that are so picturesque they don’t seem real. Purbach is our choice for a quaint town in the region and the Nikolauszeche, a small 6 room bed and breakfast offers local charm. Purbach is what you’d expect in the Austrian countryside; spotless streets, whitewashed houses that survived Turkish raids, one main street with a few shops. Waking at 6 AM, not necessarily by choice but because the church bells ring at 6 AM each day, makes an excellent excuse to join the early morning patronage to the local bakery, along with dozens of the locals, most riding on bicycle to buy the daily fresh loaf of bread. In an act of selfless investigative journalism, we were required to sample as many fresh pastries as possible and every form of coffee available. Our analysis – pastries and coffee just taste better in Europe.
What makes this region unique are the local vineyards. Wine making is a family tradition with generations working side by side. Each village has several wine taverns or heurigans. These are family establishments that are only open when they have their own wine available. To let the villagers know they are open and the wine is flowing a bush is hung above the doorway – literally – they hang a bush. Most of these heurigans serve light meals with the wine and many have play areas for children. If the heurigan is large enough to have employees, they’ll be dressed in the traditional dirndl – which adds to the experience. Villagers spend their evenings with family and friends, sampling the local wine and sharing conversation. The wine is surprisingly good, if not excellent, but sadly, most of the vintners make only enough for the local community so it’s not possible to purchase these “boutique” wines in the US.
What makes this wine so good? Our research project led us to the vines. As with any scientific research project our methodology required numerous sampling experiments to formulate a valid opinion. Investigative journalism is a tough job, especially when it entails tasting dozens of wines in the private cellars of some of the most celebrated Austrian wine makers. But we were up to the task and in the course of our research, discovered their secret. Biodynamic agriculture. This is a philosophy first promoted by Rudolf Steiner, a nineteenth century Austrian scientist. This organic method of farming promotes a balanced relationship between living organisms and the interrelationship of soil, plants and climate, responding to the rhythms and activities of the larger cosmos. And he wasn’t from California! We witnessed (and tasted) its implementation and the results in several vineyards, purely for research of course.
The first time we came across biodynamics in action we thought that perhaps the wine maker had started tasting his wine a little too early in the day and a little too often.
This happened when we found a young wine maker, supervised by his 70 year old father, swirling cow manure in a large wooden vat in rhythm to a very loud rendition of the Blue Danube. One eccentric wine maker and you think it’s a fluke. But after several more wine makers demonstrated the cow manure that had been buried for 6 months in a cow horn, dug up and then stirred into a water mixture by the wine maker himself – no substitute to do the actual work because the winemaker must impart his own spirit into the substance – we knew this was more than a fluke. The manure mixture is used as organic fertilizer and applied to the soil during certain fazes of the moon.
We tasted the stinging thistle tea that is brewed to use as an organic pesticide – and found it quite good.
We witnessed vines that are spaced at double the distance of traditional vineyards to allow room for the soil to breath – with the ground in between either left natural or planted in a complementing crop such as mustard. We found vines that aren’t pruned or manipulated but left natural and bushy.
Needing a rest from our research, along with some coffee, we stopped in the nearby town of Rust, home to several storks that nest on top of chimneys.
Maybe this is where the old story of storks dropping babies down chimneys originated? Either way, home owners and storks live in harmony with specially designed platforms so the nests don’t block the chimney’s opening. The best vantage point is from the steeple of the church. We were lucky enough to catch the only woman with a key to the belfry—a ninety-plus year old parishioner that still rides her bicycle to mind the church every day. She happily let us up the belfry steps to catch the amazing view. Dozens of storks fly from chimney to chimney as if visiting each other.
After the stork diversion it was back to the research project and perhaps the most unique biodynamic cellar yet, Meinklang. Winemaker Angela Michlits led us into her modern cellar, her two year old daughter on her hip, to taste wine from the eggs. Yes, eggs. Meinklang boasts three large concrete egg-shaped vessels used for aging her reserve wine. The concrete allows the wine to breath and the shape promotes a natural upward current during the fermenting.
The “egg” wine was actually pretty good! She then led us to her vineyards where she dug up a few of the cow horns and attempted to have Joseph actually taste the decomposed cow manure. He didn’t oblige.
Combine this passion with the winemaker’s talent and the result is superb. The magic that is taking place in the Burgenland is real. The wines are special. Maybe there’s more to the biodynamic process than we first thought. Burgenland wines certainly rival the best French and California producers. Wine is sunshine and magic – and we found both in the Burgenland.
These kids own less than any children I have ever met. One of the boys was playing with part of a ripped power cord as a toy, a girl was playing with a rubberband. I marvel at their joy within the confines of their poverty. Even before they knew we were going to paint they were full of happiness. These children possess something special. When I first moved to NY from Seattle I worked as a nanny for a wealthy family on 5th avenue. They had three boys ages 13, 11, and 7, who I would pick up from school in the afternoon and watch until around 9 p.m., and then put to bed. Their mother would come from who-knows-where each night after they were sleeping. Their father worked overtime as an investment banker and had his own babysitter for them on the weekends. They had been raised by nannies. These kids had all the toys a child could dream of. They had a small basketball court on the second level of their penthouse suite. They had a mini toy castle to play in, a micro-corvette to in which to cruise around the huge apartment, and all of the latest technology and video games. They fought with each other bitterly and treated their mother and me with utter disrespect. Some days I would pick them up from school and the oldest boy just wouldn’t speak. He refused to talk with anyone for any reason. Not me, not his teachers, or even his brothers. He was mute with pain. If he absolutely had to say something he would go as far as to write it down on a piece of paper. I would take him to his therapist who told me he’d been that way for years. What’s better? To have all the things in the world, but no love? Or to have nothing, not even enough food or fresh water but to have love, parents who are there, the emotional support of community and many friends? It’s easy to see who’s happier. Finally the palettes are full with color and I ask my little friends in Haiti, “Are you ready to paint?!” in French, and they all shout “Ouiiiiii!!!!” We pass out the paint and they go for it, attacking the panels with gusto. After they finish I notice right away a different kind of style in their work. There always is. In Japan many kids painted manga and pop-culture icons, in Mexico most of the children painted elements of nature, in NYC the hearts tended to include a lot of material things like phones, money and clothes.After reading of Nicolina’s rich experience, earned by getting out of her comfort zone, I decide: “Yes, I’m going to Egypt.” Thanks, Nicki! She’s in Brazil now and finished reporting on Haiti. Click on over and travel for just a few minutes with abandon…as my niece, the globetrotting street artist, shares her adventure.
Posted on December 15, 2012 By Joseph
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok continues the 136-year-old tradition of service from its location on the Chao Phraya River in the Thailand’s capital. Besides offering an excellent location, it also specializes in luxury accommodations and spa pampering. We find Joseph speaking with general manager Amanda Hyndman on the hotel’s outside riverside terrace on this latest Travelscope pod cast. For more on the hotel visit the hotel’s website. Happy Traveling!Listen Now or subscribe using your favorite aggregator On the River at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok
(All photos by Trish Feaster)Landing with a dozen cruisers, our guide oriented us. I figured I’d wander off on my own. But he gave meaning to each discovery in a way I had never appreciated. He wielded a guidebook to the sea life (Audubon Society Nature Guide: Pacific Coast) like I would employ a guidebook to the Renaissance. Empty clamshells had a neat hole hammered by the beak of an oystercatcher. Chitons, considered one of the oldest life forms, clung to rocks as if part of the rocks themselves. An array of barnacles adapted to their environment so obviously that they inspired Charles Darwin to pursue his notion of evolution. Standing alone in my mighty rubber boots, I just listened to the crunching, squirting, wilting, and tilting of the fertile compost pile of life all around me. With each step, I killed things… while convincing myself that they were heartless things that would kill me if they could. Eagles soared overhead. Our guide said something about “obligate siblicide” among gulls, who had to kill their brothers and sisters to survive. I wondered, “Why? With this buffet of free and fresh seafood exposed with the falling tide twice a day, isn’t life pretty easy?” After the ebbing tide reached its lowest point, it began its steady march back in. Watching a limpet go from high and dry to underwater a matter of minutes, I pondered the flexible toughness of these creatures — under the sun for half their lives, and then under the cold sea for the other…first the prey of grazing birds, then the prey of scary-looking crustaceans. And surveying all this life — from that which the low tide never quite reached, to tide pools abundant with fanciful creatures; from the yellow lichen blanketing high rocks nourished only by sea spray, to birds overhead — I saw strata. It was a parfait of sea life. Our ship’s dining room — 10 tables for the 60 of us, with the crinkled surface of the sea at about table level just outside the big windows on either side — was a place of conviviality, for feasting on seafood while still marveling at the majesty of Alaska. Sitting down for dinner, we left Port Houghton and were heading up Frederick Sound to Stephens Passage. Just before dessert, our captain suddenly slowed way down and turned 90 degrees starboard. On one side, the sun was dipping behind glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. On the other side, a big full moon was rising over glacier-blanketed mountains in the distance. After five days, I thought I had experienced all that a cruise through Southeast Alaska could offer: breaching whales, calving glaciers, bears dragging salmon out of waterfalls, kayaking among harbor seals in desolate inlets, and hikes through temperate rainforests. Now, with this meal, bookended by the sun and the moon, I thought, probably not. Southeast Alaska goes on and on.
In honor of one of my personal heroes and in celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on April 13th, I’d like to share a very brief visual tour of when I went to Monticello recently. We filmed an entire episode there for my show P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table but I’d just like to remember back right now some of grounds and gardens with some imagery from my visit.
The Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Home
One of the joys of my work is to go to travel shows and meet other travel writers and travel TV hosts. I go to travel shows in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other cities where the sponsors try to book whatever well-known travel celebrities they can. These days, there aren’t many who can bring out a crowd. But Samantha Brown sure can. While she’s taking a break from her work at the Travel Channel, there’s a rumor that she’ll be back on in the future…so stay tuned. She is every bit as delightful in person as she is on TV.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
- London School of Economics – Holborn, Bloomsbury, Bankside, Butler’s Wharf, Clerkenwell. Rates: Single from £27; Twins from £44; Triple from £69.
- University College London – Bloomsbury (just north of the British Museum). Rates: Single from £31; double from £43.50.
- University of London – Bloomsbury, St. Pancras, Paddington, Marylebone. Rates: Single from £30; twin/double from £51.
- King’s College – The Strand (Covent Garden), Waterloo, Denmark Hill, North London/Hampstead Heath. Rates: Single from £28; twin from £58.
- University of Westminster – Near Victoria. Rates: Single from £34; twin from £50.40.
- International Students House – North Marylebone/Regent’s Park. Rates: Single from £39; twin from £62; triple from £81.
- Queen Mary and Westfield College – East End. Rates: Single from £41; twin from £73.
- London Metropolitan University – South Hackney, Cambridge Heath, Enfield, Wood Green. Rates: Single from £20.
I think I’ll wrap up my Road Trip USA series with this fun little video clip of a great band I bumped into on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. How can you not love street music like this? And check out the washboard talent! I had to buy their CD, and it didn’t come in a jewel box but rather wrapped in newspaper. By the way, thanks for traveling with me across this fun, friendly, and full-of-wonder country of ours. I’m sure I’ll do it again sometime soon. But now…it’s back to Europe. I’m flying to Portugal at end of next week. Stay tuned.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
Airlines won’t reveal how many people sitting in first class seats actually paid a first class fare. But it’s an educated guess that less than one out of every ten people do so.
The difference between a coach ticket and a first class one is huge. A coach, cross-country flight can cost as little as $350; a first-class round-trip fare can easily be ten times that. Traditionally, selling those sky-high tickets can make the difference between a profitable flight for an airline and a money-losing one.
So who are those free-loaders in the front of the plane?
Generally, they’re frequent flyers who receive automatic upgrades.
This helps explain why no one is carving roast beef seat side to be placed on fancy porcelain plates and why the Champagne is generally sparkling wine and the tablecloths aren’t made of fine linen. Today, first class passengers want WiFi and power outlets their computer plugs fit in without an adaptor.
So next time you pass through first class on the way to coach, don’t envy those passengers too much—think how much flying they had to do to earn those upgrades.
Travel writer Nora Dunn has spent the last two years traveling around the world. And she spends less than $17,000 a year. We could all learn from her.
First of all, she fits her possessions in one bag that’s just a bit larger than a carry-on bag and a backpack that carries her laptop and electronic gear. She takes a lot of trains. She looks for deals. And she rarely pays for a hotel room.
Last year, for example, her total lodging costs came to $173—for two nights at the Stockholm Hilton. So where did she sleep the other 360-plus nights? She babysat homes or apartments, often using Caretaker.org to find gigs. She used websites like CouchSurfing.com, HospitalityClub.org, and GlobalFreeloaders.com to find folks willing to accommodate a traveler at no charge for a night or two or three
She crewed on sailboats—there are web sites for that, too. And she used miles racked up with her credit card to help offset the cost of the occasional airline flight.
And, of course, you don’t have to take off a year to take advantage of Nora’s lessons.
I’ve been a mile high for the last couple of days, hyperventilating on Colorado’s mountain views and arid, red-rock majesty. With the sternness of the vast Great Plains ready to sweep us away, my attention seemed determined to appreciate the Rocky Mountain grandeur that caused those first pioneers to fall to their knees.
Driving across Colorado, we had two stops for lectures: Grand Junction and Colorado Springs.
Grand Junction — our smallest stop yet, with just 58,000 people — is the biggest city between Salt Lake City and Denver. Apart from a world of outdoor activities nearby, Grand Junction’s charm is limited to its delightful Main Street. I strolled the entire length of Main Street — which seemed positioned to frame dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks beyond — from my hotel to the theater for my talk. It’s the first big, wide, old-time main street I’ve encountered that traded traffic capacity for people fun. Sixty years ago, they interrupted traffic flow by adding parks, gazebos, and people zones — quite progressive for that time. Losing half its functional width and forcing single lanes of traffic to zigzag slowly through town, it’s as if town fathers wanted to be sure all would enjoy the modern and entertaining public art — like the popular Chrome Buffalo, made of old car bumpers — planted every few steps. Walking through town, I got a sense of what’s happening and who’s coming…according to the signs, it’s just me and Los Lonely Boys.
Grand Junction is a springboard for good country living: vineyards, thrilling rivers, red-rock canyons, and fossilized dinosaurs. It’s the gateway to the Colorado National Monument, a mighty canyon cut into the world’s largest flattop mountain, the Grand Mesa. The town was named for the junction where the Grand River (today’s Colorado River) flowed into the Gunnison River. The Grand was later renamed the Colorado River (perhaps to avoid confusion with the similarly named Rio Grande on the border of USA and Mexico). The Grand Canyon is named not for its size, but for the original name of the river that cut it.
The scenic drive into the Colorado National Monument, through piñon trees and cottonwoods, stirs butterflies and drops jaws with little shoulder and devastating drops. I fantasized about how easy it would be to film an engrossing TV show on this area.
This is Colorado’s wine country — a fact I was repeatedly reminded of by the friendly vintner who kept filling my glass while I did an extended Q&A at the pre-lecture VIP reception. And it is good wine. As I’d hoped, visiting smaller towns like Grand Junction reminds me how our country is filled with wonderful people.
After all the intense people action that came with our biggest crowd yet, I enjoyed a lonely walk home after my talk. Strolling back down the cold and desolate Main Street, while feeling a prairie wind like I’ve never felt before cutting through town at each cross street, I played a little soccer with a tumbleweed.
Driving farther into Colorado, we were a bit frustrated that the tiny but appealing museums along the way are open only April through September. At Glenwood Springs, we started hiking up to the grave of Doc Holliday, but were stopped by snow. Still, with a big, steamy outdoor pool powered by its namesake hot springs and busy with people, this town was a delight. Inviting streets were lined by crusty old taverns, hip boutiques and bakeries, and ski resort-type gift shops.
These days, medical marijuana dispensaries, with their happy pharmacy-style green crosses, are part of every Colorado townscape. Popping into Glenwood Springs’ biggest dispensary, we enjoyed a tour — surveying an amazing collection of strains filling an inviting wall full of jars — and interviewed its owner on the latest in the drug policy debates in his state. Colorado and Washington are the two states in the USA with initiatives on the ballot in 2012 to legalize, tax, and regulate pot.
Today, all we needed to get high was a car. The scenic highway topped 10,000 feet as we drove by the ski resorts of Vail and Breckenridge. While Vail looked as fancy-condo as I expected, inviting Breckenridge was a place I’d love to come back to for some skiing.
Next up was Alma, at an altitude of 10,578 feet — the highest incorporated town in the USA. Towns like Alma, two miles above sea level (twice as high as Denver), have a thin-air, old-saloon charm. Amid the crooked tin chimneys, weathered timbers, and faded paint jobs, Colorado flags flaps like Buddhist prayer flags in the Himalayas.
Crossing the Continental Divide, we came upon the South Platte River. It occurred to me: Toss a cork in here, and I could net it in New Orleans, where I’ll be meeting my daughter Jackie for a fun father/daughter weekend to celebrate the end of this 20-cities-in-20-days road trip.
We tumbled out of the Rockies at stately Colorado Springs. The state’s second city sits beneath Pikes Peak. Locals love to remind visitors that this is “America’s Mountain,” and from its summit, the “O beautiful for spacious skies” lyrics of “America the Beautiful” were inspired and written.
If you wagon-wheeled yourself across the great American plains and didn’t want to go uphill, you’d have to stop at Colorado Springs. Founded in 1871 by a Civil War general named William Jackson Palmer, its economy was based on mining, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and, more recently, the military. NORAD, the air-defense mountain citadel, is tucked safely into the high valleys above. Locals recall how, on 9/11, the skies overhead seemed like an Armageddon tic-tac-toe board, with all the scrambling jets airborne.
Palatial-by-pioneer-standards Victorian homes line wide streets, recalling the days when the local mining aristocracy defined Colorado Springs’ high society while caring for “the deserving poor.” Chic and dressy for a Wild West town, it still feels uniquely chic and dressy today. But not too dressy. At my evening lecture — in the amazing Neo-Romanesque Shove Chapel on the Colorado College campus, packed with a thousand travelers — my host reminded me, “’Formal’ in Colorado means to wear some clean jeans.”
Working for Rocky Mountain PBS and the local public radio station (Classical 88.7 KCME-FM), I was set up in one of the nicest hotels imaginable: the Garden of the Gods Club Lodge. It’s part of a 480-acre estate given to the community in perpetuity in return for the promise that alcohol would never be served, sold, or consumed on the property. My room overlooked towering red rocks that glow in the morning sun and reminded weary pioneers of “Kissing Camels.” Walking in my bathrobe past grazing deer and spunky rabbits to the outdoor pool, I started my last day in the mountains by taking a dip and gazing through the steam at the radiant-red camels kissing at the foot of the Rockies.
Luxuriating in that pool, I wondered how my sister Jan is doing — now four days into the Iditarod. Last night, a volunteer at a station on the 1,000-mile trail to Nome called me and said she’s on track. The dogs are happy, and so is she. (For the latest on Jan’s Iditarod adventure, be sure to visit her blog).
By noon, I said goodbye to Keith and our car at the Denver airport to fly to Houston for a talk at Rice University. (I’m giving the keynote talk at a drug policy convention there.) Keith is driving to Oklahoma City, where I’ll reconnect with him in two days to continue our road trip.
Six days into our trip, we leave the Rockies. We’ve traveled 1,600 miles from Seattle in our mighty GMC Yukon (32 hours of driving at an average of 50 mph, 121 gallons of fuel burned, paying about $3 for ethanol when available, otherwise about $3.40 for unleaded — for a total of about $400 and averaging 25 mpg).
Each evening so far, I’ve been given a nice basket of local goodies as a welcome. Boarding the plane, I enjoy the last of my favorite bit of swag so far: Enstrom’s Almond Toffee Petites in Milk Chocolate from Grand Junction (like Almond Roca from Tacoma). Letting the milk chocolate make way for a happy ending of tasty toffee, I look forward to Houston.
Two days into this adventure, I’m already immersed in what promises to be a lifelong travel treasure. The “Inland Empire” of Eastern Washington and Idaho is corralled by mountains — the Cascades in the west, and the Rockies in the east. Monster mountains sprawl on the horizon as Highway 84 follows lonely train tracks across idyllic Western scenes. A glint of sun races along the shining brown rail, seeming to lead us — like the fake bunny at a greyhound track — through a brown wasteland across the northeast corner of Oregon and into the mountains of Idaho.
The color is thought-provoking. I sense that it has been, and will again be, green. But now, at the end of winter, plant life is the color of dirt and shows little promise of life. A dusty-beige 20th-century trailer park seems populated by ancestors of 19th-century pioneers who pulled their wagons into a circle. The only color is the flag — supersized for the setting. And, amid the browns and greys, that red, white, and blue really pops. Later, a giant pussy willow-gray cement factory provides a similar dreary visual context for the red, white, and blue of its big and furiously flying flag. Immersed here, in what to this big-city guy from the coast feels like the heart of this great land, you become part of its grandness — engulfed in and embraced by the vastness of it all. The flag invigorates the scene. As it provides color to the setting, we provide life. Here, even more than on the coast, the flag represents you. You appreciate it.
Crossing the Snake River, we enter Idaho and stop at the tourist welcome center. A monument reminds me I’m driving the “Blue Star Memorial Highway: Dedicated to the Armed Forces who have defended America.” In the men’s room, a religious flier, propped on the sink as if waiting for me, asks the important question: “Where will you spend eternity?”
The road, cleaned by the local Mennonite Youth Group, is really clean, and we get to Boise before we know it. As I hoped to throughout this road trip, my host for the evening’s event (tonight it’s Megan from Idaho Public Television) picks me up at the hotel for a little personal tour of the town.
Boise is famously livable and, as a friend of Megan noted after settling here, “freakishly friendly.” Locals say “boy-see,” giving the town a touch of French and recalling the origin of the name, when French pioneers marveled at les bois — the woods. (You wouldn’t be particularly impressed by the trees today…but they were likely hallucinating on rotten meat.)
You can’t help but think Boise is a great place to raise a family. There are so many active things to do here, from skiing to river rafting. The city has a strong Mormon influence. In fact, locals nickname the place “Salt Lake City North.” A new law prohibits taking alcohol on the river, so anyone envisioning a floating raft party needs to sneak their booze in 7-Up bottles.
My afternoon in Boise was a delight. We didn’t know whether the people lounging on the stately steps under the capitol building dome were occupiers or just soaking up some rays. I enjoyed a peek at the Boise State stadium, with its famous blue turf. Idyllic as a Seurat painting, Boise’s parks were filled with scenes of children hula-hooping and families tossing around the football. While the edge of town — like any town these days — has fallen victim to “the saming of America,” old Boise comes with a parade of classic old weather-beaten signs advertising funky diners, hamburger joints, and motels bragging that rooms come with TVs. Low-key street corners with dueling cafés had front porches filled with Idahoans enjoying a warm afternoon — with a low-in-the-sky sun that seemed to promise spring was on its way. Here on the western edge of the time zone, there’s later light, which is much savored.
Then it was time to work. After hosting a pledge event on Idaho Public Television, I was taken to the iconic Egyptian Theater, where 700 people gathered. The station charged more than I thought was wise for admission ($30 to $50 each), but they called it right — they filled the place with supporters who understand the value of public television.
Tonight’s talk was the straight “Travel as a Political Act” talk, which I’m excited to bring into our country’s heartland. Standing on a venerable stage in a theater filled with leading citizens of a town like Boise and talking about empire (96% of humanity looks at America and sees one), terrorism (overrated), military spending (we, 4% of the planet, spend as much on our military as everyone else in the world combined), and so on, is exhilarating. From the stage I watch, measure, and feel the response. With stern, questioning faces looking at me as I weave my case, it’s a fascinating and thrilling challenge. As long as I acknowledge that Europeans are thankful for the valor and heroism of America when we freed them from the Nazi terror and stood up to and ultimately defeated the USSR, and I assert that I’d never want to run my business in Europe and that I’m thankful to be an entrepreneur in the USA, people seem happy to hear the European perspective I share. When approached reasonably and respectfully, people’s long-held perceptions are open to the crowbar of travel experience. I pulled out all the stops — talking for about two hours. Then, after a 15-minute break (to let Barnes & Noble sell a few books), I welcomed people to sit back down for an extended Q&A session and enjoyed half an hour of back-and-forth. I went home thinking, “Wow…these people are freakishly friendly.”