Vanlifers of Chincoteague

I have always been an animal lover, through and through, since before I can even remember. My Nana used to love to tell me the stories from my Great Uncle and Great Aunt’s farm. These stories would span from when I was only about 1 to 3 years old. She would smile and reminisce on how I would help collect the chicken eggs, how I would lie with the dogs, and follow the cat around. The most remarkable story of which was how I had a special connection with the horses. There was one horse in particular and he was no ordinary animal. He was a beautiful, solid white gelding and his name was Prince. He was the horse that liked nobody; the biting, stomping, grumpy, throw you off his back horse. He loved my Great Aunt and only her. Apparently, he may have loved me too. Nana would laugh and exclaim how I could just walk right under his belly, around those strong legs that would remain so carefully still in my presence, and around his powerful jaws that would never dare to snap in my direction. My innocent, loving spirit would just waltz right up to this grazing horse, grab his halter, and smile from ear to ear as he lifted me up into the air. Prince would then gently lower me back to the ground, and this became our game.

I share this memory because I feel it gives an insight into the desire, developed at such an early age, that pulled me to our next destination: Assateague Island to see the Chincoteague ponies. There are a few novels from my childhood that have left an impact on my heart and branded themselves into my memory. Misty of Chincoteague and its sequel, Stormy, Misty’s Foal are two of them. These childhood favorites, written by Margueritte Henry, describe the account of two children acquiring Misty and her mother from the Chincoteague roundup, and the subsequent exciting drama behind grown Misty’s birth of her own foal. So these tales, combined with my natural affinity towards these beautiful creatures meant I had to see a Chincoteague pony.

We were leaving Laurel Falls, Tennessee early in the afternoon and knew we would not have time to make it over to the island that sits off the eastern shore of Virginia and Maryland. I had previously spoken with an old college buddy and neighbor, JP, who told me he would love for John-Hilton, Bella, and me to come visit. He has a Weimaraner named Ziggy whom Bella used to play with all the time when we lived in Gainesville. We were so fortunate to live in an awesome, close knit, dog friendly community which I honestly don’t know what I would have done without at the time. So, JP lives in Richmond with his girlfriend, Claire, in a beautiful, older, historic looking home. They were incredibly welcoming, letting us stay in their extra room, grilling out for us, and taking us on a walk down to the river the next day. It was a blisteringly hot day, which made the river all the more rewarding once we got there. We hung out in the calm pools created by slabs of large rock, which created a boundary and protected us from the river’s rushing rapids. I experienced one gut wrenching moment when Bella saw a tennis ball floating in a swirling circle of doom at the edge of the rapids. I could tell it was taking all of her inner self control to keep her from chasing it, and thankfully some brave soul swam down to grab it. After walking back home, showering, napping, and rearranging the van, we said our goodbyes and continued on down the road. Our stay in Richmond had been wonderful. JP had said something to me that really made me smile, something along the lines of, “Look at us now, who would have thought we’d be doing so well!” It truly is a blessing in life to have friends you haven’t seen in years and to feel like a day has not passed. The moments have gone by, we have all grown, but the laughter and happiness and comfort in friends still remains.

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Walking through the art corridor:

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The drive to Chincoteague Island was uneventful and peaceful. Driving on the bridges over the Chesapeake Bay was particularly beautiful, although the $15 toll fee came as a bit of a shock. Assateague Island was where we had preferred to camp, but camping was full there as we had unfortunately arrived on Memorial Day Weekend. For those who are unfamiliar, the Chincoteague ponies are wild ponies that live on both islands. They are typically easier to spot and will actually walk through your campsite on Assateague Island, not to mention the park side of Assateague Island is dog friendly while Chincoteague Island’s is not. So, we were able to snag a spot at Maddox Family Campground, which was pretty lucky as most of the campgrounds were fully booked on both islands. It was like arriving to a music festival, there were cars parked wherever they could fit and tapestries hanging to separate the tents from each other. A lighthouse spun its guiding lamp in a timely, repetitive circle as we cooked ourselves dinner and settled in for the night.

In the morning, a fog covered most of our immediate visual area. AKA zero visibility. Well, we thought, fingers crossed that by the time we get to Assateague the sun will heat up and drive the fog away. It did, but only by a little. Upon arriving at the National Seashore, we asked every park ranger we could find, “Have you seen the ponies today?!” We finally were told to check out the ocean side campsites, that they may be over there harassing campers for food. I sighed, I wanted to be the camper being harassed for food. A few more loops in the van around the beach side and we spotted two chestnut ponies grazing by some bathrooms. I felt like a little kid again! John-Hilton was being so painfully slow in my impatient, excited, childlike state. “Come on! Come on! Look, they’re right there, let’s go! Hurry up!” I pleaded, waving my hands at him, beckoning him in my direction. “Oh wait,” I reminded myself, “I’m an adult human being.” So I walked over there, excitement in check, and started snapping pictures of the ponies. We let Bella take a look at them, but having been scarred by her last interaction with horses which left her in a death defying chase, we kept her at a distance.

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We all climbed back into the van and John-Hilton said, “Well we can’t leave after only seeing two ponies!” Yay, he was sharing my excitement, I smiled in agreement. We looked for slow moving vehicles that would give away the location of more ponies. We found some! And the ponies really were harassing campers at their campsites! They were eating food off picnic tables, rolling in the campsite lawns, and intimidating people back into their campers. I laughed, it was awesome. Bella stole my passenger seat to hang her head out the window in order to sniff a pony who had walked right by the van window. I had stepped out take more pictures, keeping the van between myself and said pony. Thankfully so, after talking to the park ranger on site, she told us how that pony was the most aggressive on the island and had pinned a lady against her car for an apple recently. We saw one more pony walking along the side of the road on our drive out, and I was totally satisfied.

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A Lesson From a Waterfall

A little bit of excitement, a little bit of nervous energy, a little bit of stress. Those were the feelings going into our frantic day of packing and loading up the van in preparation for our journey up the East Coast. Did we forget anything? Do we really need this? Do we have too much, do we have enough? Thankfully John-Hilton and I had a bit of a deadline to get to Jacksonville or we might have been at it, sorting and rechecking things all night. Besides at some point you have to chalk it up to faith that you’ve got the essentials.

We chose the city of Jacksonville, Florida as the first stop in our journey for several reasons. A. It was relatively close to Tallahassee, where we were departing from; B. I used to live there and my brother, Andrew, still does, so we would get to hang out with him and have a place to stay; and C. a good friend of ours, Lukasz, had just accepted a job in New Orleans and we would get to see him before the big move. Plus, while I had been living in Jacksonville, Lukasz, our other buddy Mitch, and I had perfected a delicious recipe for surf and turf tacos, so I always jump at a chance to recreate these culinary masterpieces. Needless to say, Taco Tuesday and a game night of Mario Kart and pool was the perfect way to start our trip.

The next day was one of those you could describe as comically disastrous. Firstly, I hadn’t had to give Bella flea medicine since being in Colorado, and my parents don’t have fleas at their house, so it wasn’t on my list of priorities. Well, poor Bella picked up some fleas around my brothers house. And by some, I mean she was infested. In just 12 hours she had scratched and clawed open scrapes across her armpits and belly and was downright miserable. I immediately gave her the flea meds, which thankfully is very powerful stuff that would have the fleas gone in a couple hours. So there we were headed north up I-95 with a flea infested pup, dripping with sweat from the excruciatingly hot Florida heat, trying to decide where to stay that upcoming night, feeling just slightly overwhelmed. A couple hours into the drive, we had mellowed out. John-Hilton was jamming out, and I was diligently picking the dead fleas that were falling off of Bella as she lied between our seats. I kept at it for a bit but it was warm and sunny, the perfect environment for drifting off into a light slumber.

I awoke maybe 30 minutes later, looking over to see my happy and content traveling companions still where I had left them, not like they had anywhere to go. I leaned down to pick a dead flea off Bella and *BOOM!!* The van shook, we lurched forward, our belongings went flying forward off of our storage shelving. “What the?!? What was that?!” I exclaimed. “Someone just hit us! That guy there!” yelled Hilton. I was so confused, I could see the bumper hanging in the side mirror, but we were still driving, there were no cars spinning out or cars careening into the ditch. We pulled to the side of the interstate, and watched helplessly as the guy who hit us threw his hand out the window and kept driving. Hilton was shaking, I was infuriated, I could feel the heat of my anger rising through my body. We could have been killed, Bella would have been seriously injured if not killed had she been lying in the back where she had been at the start of the drive. Imagining that 7 gallon water jug flinging down on top of her made me cringe. Not to mention this was my second hit in run within the past 2 months, and third accident (none of which I was at fault for) within the past 4 months. My hit and run in Denver involved a bus driver so she was easy to identify and I was able to get the license plate. It was a lengthy settlement process to get my car fixed, but it worked out. This was a different story. Thankfully for us in this scenario we had each other and a police officer drove by right after it happened. I had to wait 2 hours in Denver for an officer, completely alone sitting on the side of the road.

The officers were so kind and helpful. There was not much they could do about the driver who left us there, broken on the side of the simmering, congested, and dangerous highway but they did what they could, helping John-Hilton pull the bumper siding off so we could keep driving. We were thankful we were safe and that’s all that really mattered. The whole ordeal had set us back in time so we decided to meet up with my parents who were in Columbia, South Carolina for the night. They were on their way to visit Johnson City, Tennessee where had lived for a little bit of time growing up. We met up with them at an Irish pub for whiskey shots and dinner, before heading off to sleep at a friend’s of Hilton’s who lived nearby.

In the morning, we decided to go explore my family’s property in Winnsboro before heading up into the Appalachian mountains. It was a steamy morning, so we didn’t stay too long, but it is always a good time getting to show our friends around and giving them the history behind our land. Afterwards we headed northwest to Johnson City, Tennessee (FYI the Cumberland Gap is west of the city, making it impossible to be “heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City,” as the song so wrongly details). Here, we went with my parents to a barbecue dinner with old family friends who gave us several great tips on things to do and see in Acadia National Park up in Maine.

We parked the van at my parents hotel and parking lot camped for the night. I unknowingly sat in an ant pile before climbing into bed. My back started to itch and then burn, and I began apprehensively begging John-Hilton to look at my back. We discovered all the ant bites and started laughing. Sheesh, who would have thought to worry about the wilderness in a parking lot. In the morning, we were able to sneak some hotel breakfast and headed to our first hiking destination of the trip.

I wanted to take John-Hilton to this incredible waterfall I used to hike with my family when I was younger. It is called Laurel Falls and it sits just off the Appalachian Trail. There are two trails you can take to get to the falls; we opted for the shorter 3 mile trail over the 6 mile trail since we needed to drive to Richmond, Virginia later that day. After descending the steep, stone steps down to the cool, fast flowing water we became so excited. This is what we had come on this trip to do, to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of our country, to get lost in the woods and reconnect with our inner selves. Something John-Hilton and I both readily agree on is that we are not city folk, we love the places that take us away from the hustle and bustle. The ebb and flow of rippling waves and the rushing sounds created by this waterfall were so calming and relaxing, and that’s what we want to mold our lives around; a sense of peaceful movement and stability that cultivates growth in our hearts and souls, and brings life to our surroundings. I am a sucker for a beautifully written verse or poem, and a quote by Bruce Lee really resonated with me during this hike to the falls,

“You must be shapeless, formless like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash, become like water my friend.”

Our journey will be one of storms, of rainbows, of ocean waves, both trickling and crashing, of bends in the river, and curves in the bay; it will be one of endless flowing, cascading us over rocks and sandy shores, guiding us right to where we need to be, nourishing our bodies, minds, and souls every step of the way. Here’s to being like water my friends. Cheers!

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Van Life: The East Coast Edition

I am sitting in a blue, ’99 Chevy Astro van with my brown dog, Bella, on the side of a craggy shoreline in Rockport, Massachusetts. The sun has already set, and the van has decided to have a little engine trouble. John-Hilton, captain and van owner, is trying to mess with the battery to see if that will help the tired travel vessel. We are 1,300 miles from home, and have been on the road for about a week and a half. Go figure the van starts acting up right after an oil change. Oh well, such is life. Max (the van), did pick a hell of a spot to take a nap. I can hear the waves crashing on the jagged shore, and traffic is nearly nonexistent. A perfect opportunity to reflect on the trip thus far.

In an effort to see what this beautiful country has to offer, I packed up my room in Denver, rented it out for the time I’d be gone, and drove back to Florida. I’ve always wanted to do the van life thing, the idea of a minimalistic lifestyle has peeked my interest for some time. For the past few years I’ve downsized my belongings, clothing, kitchen stuff, house things, you name it. So here I am, with a suitcase, and some fun necessities, living out of a van, traveling up the East coast.

The essentials:

  • Van: ’99 Chevy Astro, fully equipped with a bed (so thankful for my dear friend, Rachel, who lent us her 3 inch memory foam topper), storage shelving, extra battery and inverter for running our electric stove and for charging our electronics.
  • Van Captain: John-Hilton, my fun loving, forward thinking, dream seeking, adventure partner. A kid at heart with a positive attitude so you can never have a bad day! Seriously, any expedition in life needs one! Did I mention he likes to cook?
  • Co-pilot: That’s me! I’m like the Google queen, I love to look things up and research them. Finding unique, fun, historically significant, or off the beaten path things to see or do is my forte. Plus I like to annoy the captain with amazing vocals to sing along classics, Sinead O’Connor anyone?
  • Dog: Pretty much a give in. I mean the blog is called Adventures of Kells ‘n Bells. I’m not sure how crazed the van captain is with my obsession of Bella, but he’s getting there. Besides why have a dog if you can’t show her the world too.
  • 7 Gallon Water Jug (BPA free): Seriously the most handy purchase I’ve ever made. We fill it up with some tasty fluoride free water, and we are good to go for a few days. Convenient, and much, much better for the environment.
  • Camera: I recently purchased a Sony A6000 so I can hone in on my picture taking skills. I love photography, and I can’t wait to see how this trip will help me define my style.
  • Miscellaneous:  Ice chest, to keep our beer cold of course. Kitchenware, hiking packs, dog toys, Eno hammocks (their lights are great too), and snacks. And lastly, a smile and an optimistic, flexible attitude!

We have been fortunate enough to stay with quite a few different people along the way, and I am so thankful for all of the great friends who have opened their homes to the three of us, and given us pointers on what to see in their beautiful cities. John-Hilton and I are very blessed to have made such close and loving friends throughout the years. However, I will say I am excited to ditch the cities and be surrounded by the wilderness, and the occasional quaint harbor town. Rockport is definitely one of those places; we got to enjoy the most incredible sunset at an old rock quarry earlier this evening. There is something so cleansing about sitting ocean side atop a large rock on a bouldered beach that has been smoothed by the constant repetition of salt watered waves.

I hope to be able to keep you all updated on the journey, and will reflect back on the places we have already been as well. In the short 10 days we have been on the road, one thing has remained constant: the air of wonderful uncertainty as to where we will be next! Tonight I will close my eyes at our Cape Ann camp site, tomorrow, who knows…. Perhaps New Hampshire?

 

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Please feel free to let us know about any stops you’d recommend! Especially in the Maine- Nova Scotia area!

Gas Masks and Volcanoes

If you are ever near Whakatane, New Zealand and are looking for something to do, you must go on a tour of White Island located in the Bay of Plenty. White Island, also known as Whakaari, is NZ’s most active volcano! It sits 30 miles off the coast, and you can only access the island through a chartered tour. We did the White Island Tour aboard the cruiser, PeeJay.

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The night before we departed, we stayed in one of the homes associated with the tour company. Compared to the close quarters we had been sleeping in, this was like a mansion! In the morning, we prepared for the trip by making sure we had sturdy, close toed shoes, on and had removed all of our silver jewelry. This was actually no joke, they had warned us that the metal could become tarnished in the acidic environment on the island. In fact, I couldn’t remove one of my upper ear piercings, and it is slightly darker than it was before the adventure. We signed waivers before boarding, acknowledging the dangers of visiting this active volcano.

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The boat ride out there was a little rough. It was a tad bit rainy, but not bad enough for the tour to be cancelled. Kendra and I opted to sit out on the balcony instead of being cooped up inside with the all the other passengers. It was pretty foggy out, so we had a bit of a hard time seeing too far, but we laughed and swapped life stories during the hour boat ride. Right before we got to the island, the crew members handed out hard hats and gas masks, and instructed us on the dangers of entering the island. The volcano sits mostly under the sea, so when you step foot on White Island, you are stepping on to the crater complex. We were warned that on a volcanic activity scale of 1-5, this volcano usually sat around a 2. In case of an eruption, we were to run far away from the open crater and vents, and get behind something to avoid flying volcanic matter. We were also not to wander very far from where our tour leader was, as you could accidentally step on to a hidden hot spot.  Finally, we were provided the gas masks because of the sulfuric steam. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but we were warned.

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We got on a dingy that took us to shore from the main vessel. Kendra and I were in awe, taking so many pictures. One of the guides laughed at us and told us to keep moving, as there were much better pictures to be taken ahead.  We walked across gray, ashen land tinted with streaks of yellow from sulfur, towards a steaming section of the island. These steaming fumaroles were bright yellow, and the gases they were emitting were intense! Even with the gas masks on, your throat was burning, nose was running, and your eyes were watering. The smell was a sharp, pungent odor of sulfur. Everyone started coughing, and the guides passed out hard candies for us to suck on. This actually helped a lot. I pressed my gas mask close to my face, and eagerly moved forward with the rest of the group.

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I can’t really describe the island as anything other than alien. I honestly felt like I had stepped on to another planet. It was incredible, I was filled with an alluring sense of danger mixed with a childish sense of awe and amazement. Walking around, there were chunks of scoria and bright yellow sulfur on the ground. There were pits of boiling mud scattered throughout the island. Towards the back end, there was one very large crater with a lake similar to those we came across while hiking the Tongariro Crossing.

image                         I mean does that not look just like an alien creature that would crawl out of a volcano??

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We started circling back to the front of the island. One of the guides told us about two fresh water streams on the island. He said we could taste test both, one was supposed to taste like iron and the other was to have a citrus taste. He was right! I touched my finger to the water in each stream, and timidly gave them a try. I was scared I might get some weird bacteria but it was cool to say I tasted volcano water.

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This is the stream that had the citrus taste.IMG_0843      This stream had the iron taste, it’s nifty how the colors align with the tastes.

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At the front of the island where we had docked, lies the remains of a sulfur mining settlement that had been destroyed in an eruption in 1914. The guides told us the story of how this lahar eruption killed 10 unfortunate souls, but left a surviving camp cat alive. People continued to mine the island, but eventually stopped as it wasn’t producing the amounts of sulfur wanted, not to mention the risks of being on the island were too high. As I explored the remains, I wondered if these men had been aware of the danger of working and living on the island.  I wondered if they knew what was happening when the volcano erupted. It’s crazy to think about because we could have reached the same fate, wandering about an active volcano with such leisure.

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Our two hours of exploration were up, and we scrubbed our boots to clean of the ash and chemicals before getting back on the ship. The crew passed out a packed lunch for everyone as we sailed around to the other side of the island. Here you could see a large gannet population and several fur seals lounging on the rocks. The fog had lifted at this point, and our trip back to the mainland was sunny and relaxing.

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PCH Pit Stops

Kendra and I were making our way to Whakatane to take part in a White Island boat tour. I know I previously mentioned I’m not a fan of tours, but this one was a definite exception as it’s a tour of a dangerous, remote volcanic island, only accessible through a charter company. We were traveling up the East Coast via the Pacific Coast Highway and made several pit stops along the way. And no, California is not the only place to have a PCH.

We started our journey on the PCH after finishing up our tractor ride at Cape Kidnappers. We did make a quick stop at Te Mata Peak before getting too far out of the Hawke’s Bay area. Te Mata Peak offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city, coast, and a couple mountain ranges. We watched a couple paragliders take off from the steep edge and relaxed in the shining sun. I snuck in some quick yoga stretches and head stands, and we hit the road again. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, and we stopped in Gisbourne for the night.

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Gisborne is a unique spot because it is the place where you can see the sun rise before anywhere else in the world. Luckily we were staying at a cute Airbnb right on the beach so we didn’t have to go far to catch the sunrise. We were even lucky enough to see it set right from our balcony as well. We awoke at 5:30 and made our way to the patio to catch the sun steadily ascend into the sky. It was a gorgeous morning with orange and pink soaked skies.

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After making some breakfast, we got on the road again. Our next stop was the Tolaga Bay Wharf. It is the longest wharf in New Zealand, totaling 660 meters in length. That’s roughly seven and a half football fields! It was such a beautiful day, and walking around in the warm sun along the warf and the coast was a real treat. At one point in a daze, I walked out to some rocks looking for a small cave like opening in the cliffs I had seen from the warf. All of a sudden a massive wave came crashing in, and I had to run back to the safety of the shore to avoid being stuck out in the rising water.

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Our next stop was in Tikitiki to see the Maori church called St. Mary’s. This church was built in 1924 to commemorate the fallen Ngāti Porou soldiers during World War I. It sat up on a little hill, surrounded by colorful flowers and trees. The church is unlocked and you may enter free of charge, remembering to be respectful of the sacred space and to turn off the lights when leaving. The Maori architecture, stained glass, and carvings in this building are beautiful. I will talk about the Maori a little more in a minute, but their artwork, mythology, and culture within New Zealand is fascinating. I am ashamed to say I did not do a good job of getting pictures of this place. I have this horrible habit of not being able to stay awake in moving vehicles, so I was incredibly groggy during some of these stops, and not completely with it. A big thanks goes to Kendra for the picture of the pulpit section of the church (and for the last warf picture above).

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We veered off the PCH again to see the world’s largest and oldest Pohutukawa tree in the township of Te Araroa. New Zealand is incredibly culture oriented. So, this tree has a name, and a story behind it. That’s how pretty much everything in NZ is though; behind every landscape or archaic architectural structure, there is a Maori story of how it came to be. The Maori were settlers from Polynesia who came to NZ around 1280 AD. You can see evidence of their culture all over the island. There are pous (similar to a totem pole) carved in many places as well as churches, and sacred land areas (we came across one while hiking the Tongariro crossing.) The All Blacks even do the Maori “Haka” dance, a war dance, before each rugby game. Any way, this Pohutukawa tree is around 600 years old and its name, Te Waha-o-Rerekohu, means “mouth of Rerekohu.” Rerekohu was an ancestor from the area who would store food near the pohutukawa.

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For our last stop on this road trip, we headed down to see the East Cape lighthouse. The road to the lighthouse is 22km long with no outlet, the end being where the lighthouse stands. This also marks the most easterly point of the New Zealand mainland. We made it a pretty decent ways along before we hit construction that closed the road down. I believe there was a washout or something of the sorts that made the road impassable. We were pretty disappointed, turned around, and headed back along this curvy, coastline road. The rest of our travels along the PCH were just as beautiful. The road was winding and narrow, with incredible views of the rugged coast. However, I was excited when we reached our final destination of Whakatane, and could start getting ready for our adventure on White Island.

Camping and Car Accidents

My drive from Colorado to Florida was much less eventful than my trip back to Colorado. After a pit stop in New Orleans (and an unfortunate missed turn that had me stuck behind a celebratory and rambunctious crowd of Mardi Gras parade watchers) to see a couple friends, I headed out to Texas. My goal was 13 hours away, Palo Duro Canyon State Park. I wasn’t going to get there until about 11:00 pm, another late night arrival to a campsite I had never been to before.

I called ahead to reserve a campsite and the park ranger gave me the gate code so I could get into the park later that night. That day of driving was miserably long, but thank god for podcasts. I started listening to True Murder…why I do these things to myself, I have no idea. Of course the first and second episodes had cases that took place in Texas. By the time I arrived it was frigid outside, an icy 23 degrees. I was decently prepared for cold weather, having packed my sleeping bag, a fleece blanket, and a down comforter when I had originally left Colorado. Blankets and pillows are a must have for me when on a long road trip. Bella also has a really comfy dog bed which I had layered on the back seat for extra sleeping comfort. After a few trials, I am starting to get the hang of making a decent sleeping spread in the back seat of my car; although I’m still hoping for an SUV asap.

My campsite was 5 miles from the entrance of the park, where an electric gate opened up after I punched in the correct code. There was not a cloud in the sky or any light pollution from the city of Amarillo. The stars were breath taking as the crisp air seemed to make them appear even brighter. We saw several mule deer fawns running across the steeper sections of the canyon roads. It was eerily dark around my campsite and I was the only one camping out there. The first spot that I pulled up to seemed like a nice spot to stop. That is until I got out and something screeched at me from the bushes. Yeahhh that wasn’t going to work. I drove a little bit farther down the road, found a suitable site with no screeching critters, and prepared for our wintry night in the car. Under the safety of my blankets and with Bella lying right next to me, I slept fine despite the below freezing temperatures. We awoke to frost across all the windows, and a still cloud free, beautiful, blue sky.

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I drove up to the visitors center to acquire a park map so we could do some hiking before heading back to Denver. The guy behind the counter was friendly and we had a great conversation before I hit the trails. I wanted to see the popular “Light House,” so that’s the trail we hiked. It was 6 miles through the bottom of the canyon up to this beautiful stone pillar. Bella was having a blast and making lots of friends, they were shocked to see her climbing some of the rocks along the trail. I chuckled to myself and explained that this was fairly mild compared to what she’s used to doing back in Colorado. By this time it had warmed up to a very nice 55 degrees and there were a lot of people showing up as we headed back towards the start of the trail. I was impressed with the amount of younger people who were there. I like seeing young kids and teens out exploring and enjoying nature.

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On our way out of town, I was going to make a pit stop at Cadillac Ranch. However, I never made it over due to the large truck that came crashing into the side of my car. It was a very minor accident, although the right side of my car will need to replaced and I cannot currently open my front passenger door. The police took 2 hours to get to us, pushing my arrival time in Denver to 10:00 pm, which was midnight back home in Florida. I was exhausted and hungry and couldn’t wait to get to my bed. We did make finally, the third installment, the absolute saddest story I’ve heard in a while, of the True Murder podcasts, kept me awake for the end of the drive.

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My Night in The Ozarks

I’ve been trying to retroactively write about my New Zealand experiences, but I wanted to take a break and write about what’s been going on recently. My internship in Denver has just ended and I miss working with my polar bears and otters so much! I really missed my friends and family back in Florida though, so I decided to load up my car and take a little road trip home. This is a 2-3 day drive depending on how much driving you want to knock out in one day. I had nothing else to do, so I figured why not, I’ll do it in two. My goal was to make it to Arkansas on the first night, so I could camp in the Ozark National Forest. I found some pictures online and thought the area looked really beautiful, plus National Forests are predominately pet friendly and cheap when it comes to camping. I figured I would find a spot as I got closer and go from there.

This plan wasn’t my worst, but it definitely wasn’t my best. My phone screen at the time was completely shattered and it kept freezing every minute, so I’d have to lock it and re-open it to keep using the touch screen or read the screen. At this point I was entering Arkansas and getting really nervous I wouldn’t be able to find a place to camp with how long it took me to use my phone, so I just picked the first campground that came up in my search and that seemed close off the interstate. Long Pool Recreation Area was the ultimate destination.

The next hour of my life was one of a serious internal battle. It was late and it was dark. I had been driving for 12 hours and it was about 10 pm. I turned on to this little road leading into the mountains out of a town called Clarksville, and my one working headlight was all I had illuminating my way through the winding roads. It had just rained, making the scenario all the more gloomy. I had never been to the Ozarks and I had never really found a campsite and stayed at one all by myself before. So my logical brain was telling me I was absolutely crazy and that my actions were irresponsible and dangerous. I mean I had no idea what this campground would be like, I had no clue where I was, and I was driving deeper and deeper in to the middle of no where. I lost cell service a little bit later (thankfully the pre-loaded GPS was still navigating me) and my nerves were all the more on edge. Also, I feel it’s pertinent to the story that I add that I watch way too many murder mystery shows. Thankfully I made myself stop watching Criminal Minds a few years ago for this very reason or I might have really been freaking out. I mean, this did seem like a story straight out of a scary movie. Girl goes camping in woods alone, girl gets kidnapped and tortured in a cave in the mountains, girl is never to be seen from again. However, this is also where my idealist side came into play. I always love the adventure and as much as I get nervous, or stressed, or my mind wanders to the worst possible scenario, I do keep a very optimistic state of mind. I knew why I wanted to camp, and I kept that goal in mind, and we (Bella was with me of course) made it to our campground.

I felt immediately more at ease once I reached the campground. It was 11 by now, so the campground host and the two other campers were asleep, but the campground host had the coolest set up at their site. It seemed very welcoming and fun, and I was ecstatic to discover I had picked a campground with an actual bathroom that had flushable toilets and running faucets. Bella and I walked around a bit, but I really couldn’t see anything, so I started re-arranging my car for our sleeping comfort. When I’m out on my own like this, I do typically carry pepper spray and a small pocket knife with me, just in case. I find that I feel very safe with Bella near me, as I figure most people wouldn’t want to mess with a 90 lb beast of a dog. I hung some tapestries in my windows, so no one could stare in at us and we settled in for the night. Bella was very confused as to why we were sleeping inside the car and kept staring at me for an explanation, but she finally lied down next to me.

We woke up the next morning to a very low-lit, foggy day. I slept better than I had expected to in our tight quarters and was interested to explore the area before hitting the road again. It had been perfect temperatures overnight, in the upper 40’s, so I just threw on a sweatshirt and Bella and I started to move around. I walked out in front of where my car was parked and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this beautiful turquoise colored river flowing right next to our camp site! It was incredible! I was absolutely not expecting to see water of that color out there in the woods of Arkansas. We walked around down by the river side, and there were so many spots where the water was slowly falling off the rocky edges next to the trail. It was breathtaking after such a nerve-racking drive in. I wanted to keep hiking, but I knew I needed to get back and my phone no longer had the GPS route saved and I still had zilch in cell service. This meant I was going to be driving back out, trying to remember how I got there in the dark of the night. The fog started lifting as I got ready for the long day ahead of us and as we started driving out, I was shocked to see that the road that we drove in to the campsite on had a steep drop off to the river below. Thankfully, the whole experience was a safe one and so much fun. I can’t wait to see where I’ll be camping on my drive back out to Colorado. I’m thinking Texas this time, but I have no idea just yet.

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Cape Kidnappers

On our way out of Napier we decided to do a tractor tour of Hawke’s Bay’s Cape Kidnappers. This is usually a 16 km hike along the beach that is very tide dependent. You can only complete this hike when the tide is out. Given our last two days of extreme activity, we opted to do the tractor tour. Personally, I’m not a fan of tours as I’d much rather have the freedom to do as I please, and take my time looking and exploring the things I find interesting.  But I didn’t have much of a say so on this one and we set off as the sun was rising across the ocean.

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The morning was very foggy, but it added to the character of the looming cliffs along the beach. Essentially, Cape Kidnappers is a long peninsula with steep, white cliffs lining the beach. If you look closely at the cliffs, you can see the different layers of marine sediment from millions of years ago. You can clearly see fault lines where earth quakes and volcanoes have displaced the levels of the deposits. Towards the end of the peninsula, you will find the breeding and nesting sites for thousands of gannets, a large sea bird that flies to New Zealand from Australia for its breeding season. If you were able to see the land located at the tops of the cliffs, you would find the famous Cape Kidnappers golf course.

The intriguing name, “Cape Kidnappers,” comes from a story dated back to October 15, 1769. A local New Zealand tribe, the Maori, attempted to kidnap one of Captain Cook’s crew members. Cook was a British explorer who had been mapping out New Zealand’s coast line at the time. The Maori pulled up alongside Captain Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavor, offered the crew some fish, and pulled a young boy onto their boat. The boy was able to escape after Captain Cook’s crew opened fire on the ship, giving him a chance to jump overboard and swim back to the Endeavor. Cook left the peninsula immediately, documenting the experience in his journal, and dubbing the peninsula “Cape Kidnappers.”

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The fog cleared up enough so that we could get out and explore the end of the peninsula. We walked up through a sheep and cattle field to get to a rather large nesting point for the gannets. These are beautiful white and yellow birds that spend a lot of time in the water. They were very loud, squawking at any bird that got too close to their personal nest, which wasn’t very hard to do considering each nest was about a foot apart. A couple birds would fight, wrestling each other and battling it out with their impressive beaks. After observing the birds for a while, Kendra and I headed back down to the beach to admire more of the cliff side views. The beach itself was beautiful and we saw a fur seal resting on a large rock far out in the water. Soon it was time to get back on the tractor and head back. I will say the tractor ride was relaxing, despite the scolding I received for climbing up on a small rock to get a better angle on a picture I was taking.

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Napier Wine Tasting

Another day that started out simply enough. Kendra and I had left Tongariro and were now staying in a cute place on the beach in Napier. We were in wine country and couldn’t wait to take part in a wine tasting bike tour. After a morning beach walk, we headed over to a lady’s home where she rented out bicycles for people wanting to visit the vineyards. She handed us, what we would later discover to be, a poorly scaled map and we were on our way.

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Maybe we should have known better than to trust the map we were given. But this lady ensured us it was only 10 minutes to the first vineyard. About 45 minutes later we were finally arriving at the first listed stop. This vineyard was Abbey Cellars and it was our least favorite. The guy serving us was “meh” and the wine was not that tastey. We had a quick cheesey flat bread snack and biked to the next vineyard. It took us about 15 minutes to get to this one and we getting a little more suspicious about the distances shown on this questionable map. The wine here at Alpha Domus was much better. The atmosphere was a little more lively and there was an adorable pup running around greeting everyone. We were eager to get to the next winery which didn’t look too far, 5 minutes perhaps. However, about 20 minutes later we arrived at Sileni Estates. As far as taste goes, third times the charm! Kendra and I loved the wine here and got a couple bottles to take home. Unfortunately, this is also where things started to go awry.

The lady helping us out as Sileni Estates swore up and down the next winery was only a 15 minute bike ride away. We were slightly skeptical because the map had so far led us astray but she kept telling us, “No, it’s so close!” The wineries were closing in 45 minutes and she promised we’d make it in time to the next listed vineyard. Ash Ridge Wines was our goal and we biked and we biked and we biked. At this point I was starving and beginning to fall out a bit. Cars were flying by us on the street and we still hadn’t seen the winery. About 5 minutes after the wineries closed we came up on Ash Ridge; mind you that’s about an hour after our Sileni Estates departure. Kendra was my life saver and biked ahead down the long dirt drive as I walked beside my bike towards the vineyard. She convinced the cook to make us paninis and explained to him how we were so lost and kept getting told massive underestimates of how far apart the wineries were. He couldn’t believe the last lady told us Ash Ridge was close, “That’s at least 9km away!” he exclaimed.

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Our return bike ride home was exhausting. We were done. The only thing we had going for us was the beautiful scenery. Other than that we were so ready to ditch the bikes, get some decent food, and rest our tired bodies. I forgot to mention that the day before we had hiked the 2o km Tongariro Crossing, plus the extra distance we added running after our shuttle and hiking around town looking for a ride to Tongariro. Oh yeah and one weird thing we kept noticing on our bike ride was how many dead birds there were! It was strange, I mean really, they were everywhere. We finally made it back to the lady’s home 2 hours later, after a few wrong turns. Thank God. We later mapped out the distance we biked and it came out to about 36 km. So much for our leisurely planned out day of getting a little tipsy on good wine and cheese plates, and hello to a  decent day of Tour de France training.  All in all, Napier did not leave the best taste in my mouth but at least we did get a good bottle of Pinot out of it.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This day is one I will never forget. It started out simply enough, Kendra and I were to catch our shuttle at 6:15 AM to make it to the crossing by 7:15 AM so that we had ample time to get back to the shuttle at the end of the day. We layered up and packed up a hearty lunch with several snacks, mentally preparing for what everyone kept telling us was one of the hardest hikes they had ever gone on. We walked out to meet the shuttle at 6:15 and there it was… anddd there it went. We looked at each other for a split second in sheer panic, breakfast bagels in hand, and started sprinting after our shuttle, screaming at them to stop. After about two blocks, we stopped, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened and decided to walk to the i-site to see what we could do. Well unfortunately the i-site didn’t open for another two hours and no one was answering the phone for the shuttle company. Kendra and I were pretty angry and had just added an extra 2 miles of running to our already lengthy 20 km trek that was ahead of us… if we made it there. We had to make a decision. And that decision was to hitchhike. After several failed attempts, we found a young couple in a camper van filling up at the local gas station. We asked where they were headed and wouldn’t you know! They were headed to the end point of the crossing! All we had to do from there was convince a shuttle to take us to the front, and wouldn’t you believe it! They were taking the same shuttle that had left us! This amazing couple took Kendra and I to the end of the crossing, we secured a spot on our original shuttle after guilting them about leaving us behind, and made it to the start of the crossing, only an hour and a half behind schedule. We couldn’t help but laugh at what had happened and we were so excited to get our hike started.

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At the start of the crossing, there were hundreds of people. It was slightly overwhelming. It was a pretty chilly, windy day so I couldn’t imagine what it was like crowd-wise on a nice, warm summer day. However, once we got started the crowd thinned out a bit and we got so hot! The first section of the trek started on  a boardwalk overlooking a field of lava rock. We arrived at the first pit stop, Soda Falls, in about an hour and had to strip down to our base layers. Ahead of us was a steep incline known as the “Devil’s Staircase.” Kendra and I handled it surprisingly well. We took a couple short breaks to drink water and eat a granola bar, but we couldn’t believe that was all the “Devil’s Staircase” had to offer. At one point, we even asked fellow hikers if that was really it or if there was another intense climb we hadn’t arrived at yet.

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At the top of the staircase, you had the option of hiking to the summit of Mt.Nguaruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of The Rings) or to continue on the alpine crossing. We chose to pass on the summit hike as we were already running behind and it looked like something that might be slightly out of our physical abilities for the day. (Neither of us had done a mountain hike of such length and caliber before, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t dying and rushing at the end of the day.) If I ever return to the North Island of New Zealand, it is definitely something I would like to accomplish. As we continued on the crossing hike, we walked across a nice flat segment in between the two volcanoes, Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro. It was spectacular. There was no plant life, just tan colored sediment and snowy leftovers from the winter season.

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Kendra and I arrived at the next incline, very steep, but not as lengthy as the last. One section offered a metal chain for you to grab on to in order to help you up the icy rocks.  The view from the top of this final climb was more than breathtaking. I can’t even describe the beauty of the volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges. To one side of this 360 degree lookout, you had this incredible view of Red Crater. If you scanned over a bit, to where the trail was headed, you saw the Emerald Lakes followed by Blue Lake. Further still, you saw the Tongariro Volcano summit, and completing the full circular view, was Mt. Doom and its respective lake. Pictures cannot portray the beauty of this place. We proceeded to take a few hundred pictures and adventured off the path to get up close and personal with some of the sights.

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Climbing back down the other side of what we had just climbed up proved to be difficult and hilarious. We sat just off the side of the trail and watched people slip and slide down the trail of volcanic ash. Some falls were easily predictable, and as long as no one got hurt, we let out a few giggles. It was all in good fun as I took a spill myself, quite gracefully I might add, while we were descendingthr steep slope trying to get a better view of the yellow and green sulfur lakes. Around the three lakes, there were pockets of steam billowing out from the ground. Each lake had its own vibrant color. The first one that we came to was the largest, filled with bright green water within its center that was surrounded by a thin yellow ring along the outer rim. The second was the smallest and more of a pastel aquamarine color that reminds me still of an Easter egg. The third lake was my favorite. Its water had a translucent turquoise color towards the center that darkened quite a bit on the edges. It was absolutely beautiful. We decided to eat our lunch here before continuing on across the valley to Blue Lake and beginning our descent down the mountainside.

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Blue Lake was incredible as well. It sits up alone after you cross the valley between the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Mt. Tongariro. Kendra and I sat here for a bit as well since we had made decent time so far before we decided we had better get going. I didn’t want to leave but the shuttle would be waiting and we had taken enough pictures and mental snapshots that the views would last a lifetime in our memories.

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The descent, in my opinion, was the hardest part! My poor toes were constantly smashing into the front of my hiking boots and my knees, which are prone to soreness from IT band problems, began to send me little hints that they were not happy. There were a few more volcanic vents we passed by, including Te Maari Crater which had erupted most recently in 2012. Several signs warned us to keep moving quickly through this volcanic hazard area. After we were done hiking down the open volcano side, we entered a beechwood forest with more warnings to keep moving as we were in a lahar (lava flow) region. At this point we were more than ready to reach the end and when we finally saw the parking lot with all the shuttles we were relieved to be able to sit down and take off our packs. It had been quite a memorable day and we laughed as we thought back to our panic nearly 11 hours earlier when we thought we wouldn’t even make it to the start of our hike.

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