Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday travel photo

Washington, D.C. Metro (Court House station in Arlington, VA)

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

I finally ate in Chinatown

Chinatown is about as much a part of New York as Little Italy, Central Park or the Empire State Building, yet it took me a year to finally go there to eat. Not for lack of desire; it just didn't work out till now. We're both fanatical about Mexican food, so that's always the fallback. We live in Brooklyn, so it's often easier to eat there. We have to drive through Chinatown traffic to get to the Holland Tunnel when we want to escape the city, so there's no incentive to stop then.

But finally, last week, we found ourselves downtown at small claims court (as spectators). Our friend's case got postponed, so we wandered out into nearby Chinatown for dinner. My, what I've been missing this past year! Being a group of five, we ordered family style and got a variety of dishes.

The pork & crab dumplings we started with were scrumptious, as well as fun to eat. First, put sauce into the bottom of a soup spoon. Then gently grab the tied-off top of the dumpling and lay it into the spoon (careful, or you'll rip it open). Next, delicately bite a small hole into the lower half of the dumpling and suck the soup out of the interior. When you've sucked it all out, pop the whole thing into your mouth and enjoy!

The rest of the table was covered with plates of General Tsao's chicken, shrimp & meat sauce, Singapore noodles, some type of eggplant dish and more goodies. I've never claimed to be good at writing about food, so all I can really say is "Yum!" It was fantastic, and unlike eating at the typical fast-food Chinese joint, I didn't feel bloated afterward. Just pleasantly, satisfyingly stuffed. Like a human dumpling.

I won't wait another year before I go back!

This guy does know dick about cutting hair

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Chicago: An urban jewel

I started reading a new book today—The Time Traveler's Wife—and it immediately took me back to an idyllic two weeks spent in Chicago back in 2001. On page one, the book's main characters (the time traveler and his wife) meet in Newberry Library, a place I spent a couple of days during those two weeks.

Since then, I've always thought of Chicago as one of the few big cities in the U.S. I'd like to live. I confess this feeling is in part biased by the fact that the weather during those two summer weeks was near perfect (in a city known for temperature extremes). But I am acquainted with that area's cold weather too, having spent two months during Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, north of Chicago, in the middle of a bitter winter.

No, what enchanted me most during that short stay in Chicago was the city's culture, not its weather. The city boasts the most amazing and diverse museums that I've encountered in the U.S. The food was outstanding—my visit coincided with the annual "Taste of Chicago" festival (a tradition that many cities have since copied), and I sampled the most succulent calamari that I have yet eaten anywhere. The nightlife offered some of the best blues you'll hear outside of Tennessee. The lake shore and river provided ample waterfront property for outdoor activities like bike riding and walking, especially the fantastic (and long) bike path along Lake Shore Drive. And, as you'd expect in a big city like Chicago, the public transportation was excellent.

Now that I've lived in New York City for a year, and have experienced what real urban life is all about, my desire to live in Chicago has waned a bit. Frankly, I'm not a city boy at heart. But as far as big cities go, I'd have to call Chicago one of America's crown jewels.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Big country in Minnewaska State Park

Just my luck: I find the most scenic country I've yet visited in my three years living on the East Coast, and they don't allow camping.

Minnewaska State Park
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But that didn't stop us from enjoying a day of mountain biking and swimming at Minnewaska State Park. Located a few hours north of New York City, Minnewaska sits perched atop the dramatic cliffs of the Shawagunk Mountains. This ridgeline not only provided a scenic ride through buttes and boulders, it also gave us a 50-mile view of the surrounding countryside.

They should have called this big country "Maxiwaska."

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Don't get mad (at the airlines), get even

I'm no fan of the airlines, and the inversely proportional relationship between their fees and quality of service. So when I read this article today that offers up some creative ways to stick it back in their face, I thought it was worth sharing.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday travel photo

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What will become of Havasu Falls?

I'm stunned.

I heard a news story in passing last weekend about flooding in the Grand Canyon, but I didn't pay it much attention. Come to find out today, it happened in Havasu Canyon, a place where I hiked and camped for several days in 2001. (You can read my account of that trip here.)

The signature natural feature that brings people there is Havasu Falls, one of the most beautiful sights in Arizona. The graceful arc of the cataract, and the aquamarine pool below it, look like they belong in the Hawaiian Islands, not sandwiched between a couple of red rock desert buttes.

Apparently last weekend's flooding not only wreaked havoc for the tourists camping out and the Native Americans living in the nearby village of Supai, but also caused untold damage to the waterfall itself and its surroundings. I can only hope that the damage is not permanent—but the pictures below tell a pretty sad story.

Havasu Falls when I visited in 2001:

Havasu Falls last weekend:

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Travel lessons from small claims court

I didn't expect to find inspiration for today's blog posting at small claims court, but that's where I found it. I was there to lend moral support to a friend, and though his case ultimately got postponed, the proceeding that took place while we waited was quite relevant to my recent blogging about airlines.

Last winter, a JetBlue customer arrived at his flight less than 20 minutes ahead of time, and was denied boarding. Tonight, he had the airline before the judge. To me, it seemed pretty clear-cut; the airline's contract of carriage specified the time frame by which ticketed customers have to check in, and it seemed the airline was within its rights to shut him out. But I was impressed that the judge did not take a by-the-book approach in evaluating the case. He chided the airline representative for letting the flight take off early, instead of letting the one-minute-late customer aboard.

The lesson I took away was to be sure to book your entire itinerary together. This guy had separately booked tickets from Phoenix to Denver, and then from Denver to New York. So when his flight from Phoenix was late, and he thereby arrived at the JetBlue gate with only minutes to spare, JetBlue did not know to expect him, and so he was considered a no-show. Had he booked his entire itinerary through a service like Orbitz or Travelocity, he would have been covered—and he would have saved himself the trouble of taking the airline to small claims court.

If you're wondering how the case turned out, you'll have to remain in as much suspense as I did. The judge told them he'd mail his decision, leaving the rest of us in the dark. Maybe I should sue.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

May United Airlines be the first to bite the dust

We all love to hate the airlines these days. I'm no different. But the reason we hate them is because of their stupid new fees, the inconvenience of delays and rising prices. All of which are annoying, of course—and they're all guilty.

But a story I just read goes beyond the pale—far beyond. It angered me more than any other airline horror story. Enough that I hope United Airlines is the first airline to go bankrupt, bite the dust and sell off its assets. Let it be absorbed by another airline, so that its name, logo and brand disappear off the face of the earth forever.

Here's the story.
Update 8/20: Here's a halfway uplifting follow-up to the original story (but still shame on United).


Monday, August 18, 2008

Cemeteries: Millions of untold stories

I love cemeteries. Always have. Whenever I come upon them, I want to stop, stroll around, look at the names of those who have lived, loved and passed on. Especially here in the Northeast where, more often than not, the cemetery turns out to be old or even historic.

Last October, the Tour de Bronx bike ride took us through Woodlawn Cemetery. The list of eternal residents is a Who's Who of bygone New York society and culture: J.C. Penney, Joseph Pulitzer, Irving Berlin, Frank Woolworth and Celia Cruz, to name a few. Like mansions for the dead, giant mausoleums display in death the wealth that many of the interred must have enjoyed in life.

On my first trip from LaGuardia Airport into Brooklyn, I got my first look at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. There, the horizon of the cemetery blends into the Manhattan skyline, making the distant skyscrapers look like just more headstones and monuments.

Last winter, I rode solo down the Ocean Parkway bike path, a route through Brooklyn that ends at the Coney Island boardwalk (and which is the country's oldest bike path). Along the way, I stopped at Washington Cemetery, a Jewish graveyard full of poignant headstones etched with likenesses of the deceased.

Before moving out of Virginia, I spent a day in Harper's Ferry, a historic town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. On the hill overlooking the town, I found an old graveyard with markers old enough that the dates had long since been weathered away.

And just last week, while watching "House Hunters International" (one of our favorite shows), I found a cemetery I want to visit in the future: Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perhaps best known for being the last resting place of Eva Peron, the place looks like a city within a city, with narrow alleyways that invite exploration.

Why do cemeteries fascinate me so? Most people probably find my interest morbid. But that's not it. When I walk past the headstones and gaze at the names and dates, I think about the stories that each one represents. A life lived, whether short or long; love, whether unrequited or consummated; dreams realized or unfulfilled; hardship endured or fruits of labor enjoyed; loved ones left behind.

Put simply, when I walk through a cemetery, I feel the millions of untold stories swirling all around me. I read the scant clues provided by the names, dates and brief epitaphs and let my imagination fill in the rest. For me, ironically, there is no place more full of life than a cemetery.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Airlines: Pet-friendly or money-hungry?

Last night, a friend told me about the fees she had to pay recently to book a flight on Delta with her Chihuahua as a carry-on companion. I was shocked to learn that the dog's round-trip fare was more than the human's.

According to her experience, Delta's fee for pet travel was only $50 two years ago (it's now $150 each way). So it appears the airlines are also raising pet travel fees in their quest to cover rising costs (read: make more money).

The fees and rules for pet travel are varied and arcane for different airlines, so I advise you to research your preferred airline in depth if you plan to travel with your pet. For example, some airlines don't allow pets as checked baggage during the hot summer months, and many restrict the total number of animals on any given flight.

Following is a summary of the one-way fees (as of this writing) that some of the more popular airlines charge for pet travel. It's clear that, other than pet-unfriendly Southwest, the airlines are making a lot of money on pet travel.

Delta$150 in cabin / $275 as checked baggage
Continental$125 in cabin (does not allow pets as checked baggage)
United$125 in cabin or checked ($250 checked for large kennels)
American$100 in cabin / $150 as checked baggage
U.S. Airways$100 in cabin (does not allow pets checked as baggage)
JetBlue$100 in cabin (unclear on whether they accept pets as checked baggage)
Northwest$80 in cabin / $139-$359 as checked baggage, depending on size of kennel
SouthwestNo pets allowed (except service animals)


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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Urban cowboy

We may live in America's largest city, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a little bit of nature from time to time. Today, we ventured into Long Island, just beyond JFK airport, to go horseback riding in Hempstead. We went on an hour-long trail ride through lush woods alongside a lake. I hadn't ridden a horse in years, but having done lots of riding in my youth, it was like getting back on a bicycle.

Of course, trying to enjoy such an activity within striking distance of the big city, we spent more time in the car each way than we did on horseback, much of it in stop-and-go traffic. So was it worth it? Sure, I suppose. Better than sitting in the apartment all day. But maybe such an activity is better combined with an upstate weekend getaway in the future.



Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday travel photo

Stained glass in the ceiling of one of the bathhouses at Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs, Arkansas

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Join the "Stricklandia" community

I'm having a bit of writer's block tonight, so instead of writing about travel, I'll write about this travel blog—or, more specifically, its readers. In a word: You.

This blog doesn't enjoy a huge readership, but I can tell from the traffic data that I have a fairly loyal daily audience. Yet most of you remain quiet; it's uncommon that one of you posts a comment to a posting. Which is unfortunate, because blogs are not simply a virtual soapbox for people to self-publish their ramblings. The hallmark of a good blog is the creation of a community, an ongoing dialogue between its author and audience.

So I welcome, encourage, entreat you to join the conversation. I hope you enjoy reading this blog, but even more, I hope you consider interacting with it. Post a comment if I write about something you care about or have an opinion to share. Better still, if someone else posts a comment, jump in and keep the discussion going.

I'll kick-start things by asking a question: How are you dealing with the pain of air travel this year? Packing light? Buying tickets far in advance? Not traveling by plane at all?


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

You are now free to move about the tarmac

Maybe you're tired of reading postings here about the pain of air travel, but I haven't yet tired of writing about the issue. I wish there were no need for me to do so, but since there is, I feel compelled. Especially when my loved ones have to endure the pain.

Cassie just spent a week in New Mexico. She connected through Dallas both ways, and each time had to lay over four hours on what should have been a brief connection. I would specifically call out her carrier (American), but I think the problems she experienced are common across most of the legacy airlines—and the blame for the problem on her return fell to the weather (or, more accurately, to LaGuardia Airport's inability to keep flights on time when anything more than a 2-knot breeze blows across the runway).

While the boredom of being stuck in an airport for hours is indeed painful, it's not as bad as being shut in a plane and sitting on the tarmac for the same amount of time. This seems to be happening more often than ever these days, as airlines board planes and push them away from the gate, knowing full well that the plane is going nowhere.

Sure, from a logistical point of view, it makes sense to load the plane and put it in a standby position on the tarmac, so it can take off on short notice. But how fair is that to the passengers, when it's not known when the plane will be cleared to take off, and passengers are not allowed to unbuckle and use the lavatory?

Quite often, such delays are due to safety-related weather issues, particularly here in the summer thunderstorm-prone Northeast. And in all honesty, I have no idea how dangerous it is to take off in a thunderstorm (or a 3-knot gale at LGA). But I do know that the airlines are taking the easy, convenient route when they fill planes like cattle cars and shuttle them out to the tarmac to wait God knows how long. Thank you for keeping our safety in mind, but how about you keep us all crowded into the terminal instead. We'll be just as uncomfortable, but at least we'll be able to pee when we want.

My father, a seasoned traveler himself, probably echoed the sentiments of a great many travelers when he told me the other day that he has "completely lost interest in traveling, except by car."

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Monday, August 11, 2008

My weird travels

Monday is a day I sometimes write about "weird travel." Today, I thought I'd reminisce about some of the stranger places and things I've seen in my travels.

In London, there was "The Gherkin," an odd modern building that earned its nickname from the resemblance of its shape to a pickle. To my eyes, it looked more like something else that I won't mention here.

I've already written about the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, a series of alcoves decorated with the bones of countless Capuchin monks. It was like the Catacombs of Paris in terms of weirdness, but with much more macabre creativity.

Shortly before I moved to the East Coast, I visited a small bar in the small Baja California town of La Bufadora, where I drank a shot of homemade tequila scooped out of a jar containing a dead and fermenting rattlesnake.

I can't write about some of the strangest things I saw in Pattaya Beach, Thailand, but one thing that was weird for its anachronism was the popularity of the game Connect Four. Here was a hedonistic playground of alcohol and women, yet one of the most popular bar activities was this Milton-Bradley game.

Diving in Bonaire, I saw hundreds of pelagic tunicates floating in the water column, some solo, some strung together like a long necklace. I don't know quite how to describe them... they were transparent sack-like creatures with the texture and appearance of hard plastic. When I shined my light on them on a night dive, they burst forth with rainbow colors, like the aliens in the movie The Abyss.

At Sea World in San Diego, I worked as a diver. While I wasn't traveling at the time, the park is a popular tourist destination, and the episode ranks as one of the weirdest things I've seen in my life—so it deserves mention here. To put it bluntly, I witnessed a 2,000-pound walrus masturbating. Enough said.

In Pompeii, a fresco on the front porch of a rich man's home seems vulgar by today's standards, but in the days of Imperial Rome, the painting symbolized wealth.

While racking my brain to dredge up enough memories to write this blog posting, it occurred to me that, while I've seen some amazing things and scenic places, perhaps I haven't experienced as many weird travels as I should. This list should have been a lot longer.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sometimes a picture is worth only a few words

As I was paging through Scuba Diving magazine, an ad for Mexico caught my eye. It showed two people strolling along a beach underneath the distinctive arch in Cabo San Lucas, much like the photo pictured below. Such a picture is possible only once or twice a year, during an extreme low tide. The rest of the year, it looks like this.

This got me thinking generally about misleading travel photos. How many times have you been awed by glossy tourism shots of a destination, only to find the real thing is not the same? Sometimes, it's an image showing a place in a state you're not likely to see it—such as the Cabo shot mentioned above, for example, or a scenic panorama of the Forum in Rome without a single person to be seen.

Other times, it's the things a picture can't reveal, such as a shot of a pristine beach, which you find is infested with sand fleas or near a smelly storm drain outflow. Or a photo showing a relaxing hammock strung between two palm trees at a resort, which turns out to be located next to a noisy construction site.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that you should distrust every travel photo you see, or complain to management when reality fails to meet your expectations. Quite the opposite. Instead of letting such photos set your expectations, use these photos for what they are: fuel for your imagination, inspiration for making plans, building blocks for realizing your travel dreams.

And when you get to your destination and things don't quite match up with those glossy tourism photos, enjoy what you're experiencing instead of missing what you expected. In my case, there was no beach at Land's End, so I swam through the arch instead of walking—which was much more exciting.



Saturday, August 9, 2008

Go, Chargers! (to London)

I've been waiting for this day for months. Yes, that's right, it's football season again! Well, technically, it's "preseason," but that's good enough for me. I've been a fan of the San Diego Chargers for as long as I can remember, and tonight they kicked off the season with a game against the Dallas Cowboys (as of this writing, the Chargers are up 24-10 at halftime).

What does this have to do with travel, you ask? Very little. But as a blogger and die-hard Chargers fan, how could I not mention it? Let's see if I can make the stretch and connect the two.

In 2006, NFL owners approved a plan to play up to two regular-season games per year outside the U.S. This year, the Chargers play the New Orleans Saints in London's Wembley Stadium on Oct. 26.

Last November, I visited London for the first time, and enjoyed it tremendously. We drank in history metaphorically at Westminster Abbey, and literally drank "in history" at a 400-year-old pub. Best of all was the company of our hosts, Cassie's brother and sister-in-law. If time and my bank account could only allow it, I would love to visit them again in October and take us all to Wembley to show those soccer-crazy Brits a real football fan.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday travel photo

Trunk Bay, seen from within Trunk Bay
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

No more free hot dog

"Customers understand the cost of doing business with these fuel prices," said USAirways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr, quoted in a TIME magazine article. "They don't expect a free hot dog at the ballpark."

So that's where we are. No more free hot dog. Never mind the fact that a typical ticket to a baseball game costs about 10 percent of the average air fare. I guess you don't get a free pillow and blanket at the ballpark either. Or a free soda or bottle of water. You can still pee for free at the ballpark (last time I went, anyway), but don't expect that luxury to remain free in flight forever.

The same USAirways spokeswoman also said the airline expects these new fees to bring in as much as half a billion (with a B) dollars, so you can consider these fees here to stay. Like Congress enjoying the revenue stream from a new tax, the airlines won't cut off this new cash flow without very strong motivation.

JetBlue used to be my favorite airline (now that term is an oxymoron), so I was disappointed to hear about them charging $7 for a pillow and blanket. But if you fly them anytime soon, here's a tip: there may be no free hot dog, but they'll give you as many snacks as you want. Don't settle for just one bag of Terra Blues or Animal Crackers. Eat a pillow-and-blanket's worth. Then you won't want a free hot dog.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Take a virtual trip to Antarctica's dry valleys

Antarctica is high on my wish list of places I'd like to someday go, when money is less of an issue. To me, it seems the closest one can get to visiting another planet, though I confess that's somewhat subjective--one could argue Death Valley or any number of coral reefs I've dived on give an equally extraterrestrial impression.

But something about Antarctica beckons me. Perhaps it's the flavor of adventure any visitor must taste, even on the most luxurious cruises. Or the knowledge that you're in one of the most remote spots on the entire planet. Or, probably, the fact that it is just about as far metaphorically as I could get from my often mundane life.

So I was pleased when Gmail dealt me a wild card in the news link widget at the top of the mail interface: "Discovery Channel: Antarctica's Once-Living Valleys." Clicking the link, I was instantly whisked away to the bottom of the world (albeit virtually, and briefly). Someday, maybe, I'll set foot on that continent myself. Until then, I'll have to remain satisfied with words and pictures like these.

Note: If you're similarly captivated by Antarctica, I highly recommend Werner Herzog's new film, "Encounters at the End of the World."

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Airline woes hitting home

I've been quite vocal in this blog about the state of the airline industry, but because I haven't flown since March, I have so far been spared the pain that many fellow travelers have felt since then. (Unless, of course, you count the travel plans I've had to abandon because of prohibitively high air fares.) But now, I too have been touched.

Awhile back, we bought tickets to California for Thanksgiving. The other day, Continental sent an email to inform me that they'd changed our return flight for one that was three hours earlier. Our original flight apparently went the way of free meals and leg room—extinct.

The new flight was scheduled earlier enough in the day to be inconvenient, so I called Continental to cajole them into giving us a better flight. Considering the current climate of airline service, I fully expected to have a fight on my hands. But fortunately, after a brief hold time and an even briefer explanation of my issue, the representative changed us to the next later flight leaving that day.

But wait—it's not quite the happy ending you might expect. The next later flight turned out to be much later: a red-eye, in fact. So, thank you, Continental! (not)

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Here for the Beer: A tour I'd like to take

A 6-night "Beer Journey Through the Czech Republic." Sign me up!

More info


Sunday, August 3, 2008

We're diving "All West" in Curacao

A couple of months ago, I complained in this blog post about not having any scuba diving trips planned for the rest of the year. At that time, I posted some diving specials, including a "Buddy Weeks" offer in Curacao.

Funny how things work out. Since then, we have booked that very offer, and will find ourselves in Curacao in September to (hopefully) witness the coral spawning. We're staying at All West Apartments on the "all west" side of the island—which is the quieter side and has all the best dive sites. And the "Buddy Weeks" offer turned out to be even better than advertised, pretty much impossible to turn down.

We found it very hard to choose between the bare-bones bargain All West Apartments and the luxurious eco-lodge Kura Hulanda, both in Westpunt. We wanted to spoil ourselves, but we also wanted to save money. I want to acknowledge the friendliness of Bea and Andreas at All West, who put up with countless emailed questions and helped two indecisive people come to a decision. It may seem odd to compliment the staff of a lodging establishment before we even stay there, but based on the limitless patience of Bea and Andreas, I know we're going to have a fantastic time.

Here's what our view will be as of September 13 (I've already printed this photo and posted it above my computer at work):


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Saturday, August 2, 2008

My "Southwestern Sojourn"

Today, Cassie is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, preparing to set off into the Pecos Wilderness for a week of backpacking. Persistent back problems, work commitments and lack of vacation time prevented me from going with her, but her trip reminds me of my own explorations of the Southwest back in 2003.

Because of what was going on in my life at the time, my trip was more of an escape than a vacation, but that didn't stop me from trying to see as much as I could. I was also traveling solo, the occasional loneliness of which was balanced by an abundance of freedom to go where and when I wanted.

My friend Rick McKinney (with whom we spent last weekend in Maine) rode shotgun for the first leg of the trip, when we overnighted in Bisbee, Arizona, an artsy former mining town just south of Tombstone. From there, I went on alone, making successive stops in New Mexico at the Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell, Santa Fe, Bandalier National Monument, and the Very Large Array. I then headed back into Arizona, staying in Sedona before finishing the trip in luxury in Las Vegas.

If you'd like to virtually relive the trip, check out the journals and pictures from my "Southwestern Sojourn."


Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday travel photo

Cool clouds over Baja California, Mexico

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