Caterpillar Olympics

John-Hilton had previously worked with a solar company in the state of Maryland. He lived there for about a year, before taking his dreams to the road. His year spent in Maryland enabled him to save up to pursue his van life passion, and also gifted him with several great friends. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet a couple of these fellows during the course of our journey.

After leaving Assateague Island, we headed to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. One of John-Hilton’s solar buddies, Jimmy, was staying in the area at his girlfriend, Brittany’s, and invited us to come by. They were throwing a big Memorial Day party, complete with any crab snack you could think of, steamed crabs, crab pizzas, crab dips, crab tater tots, it was delicious! We took Bella out on a paddleboard, played corn hole, some good ole fashioned beer pong, and chatted with all the new people we were getting to meet. Everyone was so friendly, and Brittany’s family was incredibly welcoming and generous. Bella even found herself a friend who did not stop following her around from the second we got there to the second we left. It was pure puppy love. We stayed the evening there so that we could get an early start on our drive upwards through Delaware.

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It only took us a few hours to drive through the entire state of Delaware. We were getting up into the area of our country where you can drive through multiple states in the same amount of time it takes to get halfway across some of our western and southern states. We were catching a trailing piece of the tropical storm that had hit Florida a couple days earlier, so our drive through Delaware was pretty dreary. We did take some time to drive through Dover and saw the state house located there. That was pretty cool, I mean Delaware was our nation’s first state.

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We eventually made it into Philadelphia where we would be staying with our friend, Jessica. I’ve known Jessica and her family for a number of years now, but John-Hilton had grown up with her and her younger brother, Miller, down in Florida. Hilton and I went to college with Miller as well and their family has graciously opened their home to us on numerous occasions throughout the years. It was comforting to see a familiar face so far from home, and we enjoyed a night of dinner, Total Wine shopping, Moscow mules, and movies. In the morning, Jessica had to leave for work so John-Hilton and I packed up the van before heading to check out downtown. Since we had Bella, we were unable to enter into the museums, but we peaked in at the Liberty Bell through the window, walked around Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and the banks. The sun was beating down on the streets, driving us to seek shady shelters, so we took a stroll through Washington Square and Franklin Square, where we got to see the Chinese Lanterns they had set up as part of the Chinese Lantern Festival. We ended our downtown excursion with a stop at Sonny’s Famous Steaks for a Philly cheesesteak, provolone wit style. This girl doesn’t do cheese whiz. Time had escaped us a bit at this point, causing us to hit the road out of Philadelphia a little later than we had intended.

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I don’t have too many negative things to say about most of the places we visited during this trip, but I might venture to say that New Jersey was not my favorite. I know it wasn’t John-Hilton’s. It wasn’t that either of us can point to a particular moment or event that made us feel this way, I think it was just the vibes. Traffic was a nightmare, there were police everywhere (which is a little odd to see as it makes you wonder what is going on to need that much law enforcement around), and it was so difficult to find affordable, dog friendly camping. Not a single state forest campground was open to dogs, and we couldn’t get a hold of a dog friendly, family campground after 6 pm. Oh and I guess people in New Jersey don’t know that van life is a thing? I’ll get to that in a minute. So, somehow, John-Hilton found a campground called Mahlon Dickerson Reservation that only cost 15-20$ depending on whether you wanted to camp on the RV side which had electrical outlets at each site and bathrooms, or the primitive tent sites. We were arriving at dark, which is always a nerve racking experience, not to mention there were bear warnings everywhere. After making a loop through both grounds, we opted for the well lit, safer looking RV sites. We also decided it would be nice to have flushing toilets, and the electrical outlets so that we could easily make dinner and breakfast. Did I mention flushing toilets?

The bugs were awful, so thick through the forested trees that it sounded like it was raining. The only time we cracked the van doors was to brush our teeth before jumping into bed. John-Hilton got an X-Files episode going, and we settled in for the night. We awoke to the sun peeking through the green leaves of this very beautiful campsite we had so luckily found. There was a patch of soft, green grass between two trees of which Hilton hung his slack line around. I played fetch with Bella as he practiced his acrobatic skills. All was well. Eventually we got to cooking breakfast, laughing and enjoying the morning, when a large, black SUV started to creep by us. It slowly passed, and John-Hilton and I shrugged our shoulders, not giving the incident much mind until the SUV looped back around and stopped in front of our campsite. Two police officers emerged and walked up to where we were sitting, our grill plugged into the electrical outlet as we chugged along with our cooking. I got up and put Bella in the van, thinking they were going to scold me for not having her leashed, but they started questioning our motives and reasonings for being at the campground. We stated simply that we were on a roadtrip up the East Coast. This didn’t seem to register this as normal as they thought it was weird we were in a van. “Usually only RV’s stay over here,” the officers continued, “why would you stay here in a van?” We stated that we felt safer on this side of the road, that we weren’t very familiar with the town or area and liked the fact that there were other campers on this side of the road. I threw in the fact about electricity and flushing toilets, how in the world is this a weird thing?! The officers proceeded to ask for our information and ran our tags, the whole ordeal lasting about 25 minutes. They came back with our ID’s, made a joke about eating our breakfast, and drove off. It was so bizarre.

After that morning interruption, we were ready to get the heck out of there. The experience made us feel uneasy, not to mention about 20 minutes down the highway we saw a vehicle that had been pulled over by 6 police cars. Again, what is going on in New Jersey?! Just another moment of shrugging and brushing off our shoulders. We were heading to Buttermilk Falls in the Delaware Water Gap for a quick hike before heading to Rhode Island. The falls lie across the street from the parking lot, so we hiked up past them to connect with the Appalachian Trail. It still sounded like it was raining, even though the sun was very high in the cloudless sky. We started feeling things falling on us, and quickly learned that there were thousands of caterpillars falling from the trees. We were picking caterpillar after caterpillar off of us. They were in our hair, our clothing, our backpacks, our shoes, and on Bella! Some would be hanging in the middle of the trail by their threads, dangling precariously in front of our faces, testing out our best ninja moves. Even after we had turned back to the car and picked ourselves free of caterpillars, we found them crawling inside the van. John-Hilton and I decided the caterpillars were competing in a form of insect olympics, and that each caterpillar had to inch its way up to the tallest point of the tree it was on to get the gold. Only a few would make this treacherous climb to the top, as most would find themselves plunging to the leafy ground below or onto an unsuspecting passerby. We wished the caterpillars good luck, and took the first road we found out of New Jersey.

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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.

My “Almost” Lion Encounter

*First off I’d like to start by saying if someone would like to prove me wrong and tell me this is a paw print from an extraordinarily large dog, please do so! Otherwise, after comparing to many pictures online, and from the sheer size of it in person, I’m going to go with what I know and say it’s a mountain lion print.

Today I decided I wanted to take Bella on a nice long hike. It was another beautiful day here in Denver, not to mention I’m going up in to the mountains this weekend for Winter Wondergrass, and unfortunately Bella cannot join. So, I wanted to get her outside and have a nice fun filled day before the weekend. I had been wanting to check out the Beaver Creek Trail out of Genesee Park, so without much thought we jumped on 70 and headed west.

To give you an idea of where my head was at, a few days ago, Bella and I did a quick hike up in Golden, to the top of Lookout Mountain. I ran into a couple guys before we started the trail who had been hiking up from the lower Chimney Gulch trail. They stopped me and asked if I knew about the mountain lion advisory as there were several signs posted in the gulch about a recent sighting in the area. I replied, “Nooo… but running in to a mountain lion is a big fear of mine.” We talked for a minute and decided we would all kind of shadow each other on the trail, just in case. The walk was uneventful and Bella and I climbed down by ourselves after I was fairly certain there was enough foot traffic and actual road traffic sounds to keep any animal from wanting to make its presence known to a human. A few days later we hiked up in Pike National Forest, the story of which I’ll save for another post, but here I came across a rather large paw print. If you’ve ever seen my dog’s paws in person, you will know she has rather large ones. So, for her paw print to look “tiny” is saying something. I didn’t have cell service at the time and was unable to look up what a mountain lion paw print looks like, so we just rerouted our hike to a more open and populated area. Later, when  I got home I looked up all the details on identifying mountain lion tracks and signs that they could be in your area.

Any way, needless to say I had already had mountain lions on the brain, so when I saw the sign at the start of the trail saying that the trail was in a known mountain lion area- pretty much every trail has a sign that says watch out for lions but this one was a little more specific- and to leave the pet at home- even though pets are allowed on the trail- made me very uneasy. Here I was again out all by myself, which is what every tip on hiking in lion country says not to do. From where I had parked, it was a .4 mile walk to the start of the trail head…I think I walked maybe half a mile in to the actual trail before my anxiety and nerves got the best of me.  I paused for a bit, made a phone call to a friend complaining that I didn’t know if I was psyching myself out or what, but ultimately decided I wasn’t going to have fun no matter what at this point, so I might as well just go back. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to hike a strenuous up hill climb, you better be having a damn good time. Oh and the fact that a few minutes before we turned around, Bella wouldn’t stop staring in to this one section of the trees and growling. I couldn’t shake the anxiousness, so I stayed on the phone with my friend, checking behind me and around me as we walked out of the woods, until we got to the open dirt road area. I thought alright we’re good, we just have under half a mile to the car. Bella brought me a giant stick, we played fetch for a minute and started up the road. No sooner had we walked 20 yards from where we were playing, we came to this iced over section of the road. I veered over to the left side where I had came down 30 minutes earlier and saw a massive, what I’m assuming was a deer leg, that had been completely stripped to the bone. That was not comforting. About another 20 yards later were the paw prints. They were probably 3-4 times bigger than Bella’s and perfectly matched the descriptions and pictures of tracks I had read about earlier in the week. I wish I had snapped a picture of Bella’s paw print next to these prints, but I was in a hurry at that point to get to the car as quickly as possible. The bone, nor the prints had been there before, of that I’m mostly certain. I typically walk with my eyes on the ground; it’s a habit from looking for snakes back in Florida when I’m out hiking. I noticed both immediately, so I’m 98% sure I would have not missed them the first time around. Bella also came running over to inspect the bone before I reached it, so I doubt she had missed it the first time around either.

After I had reached the safety of my car, I thought it would have been really cool to actually see the lion. Although, for human safety, I know it’s a good thing it never made itself visible to me, as long as it wasn’t stalking me that is. I don’t know too much about mountain lions, the only ones I’ve worked with were pretty lazy and docile. They would hang out in their dens and generally keep to themselves, unlike the other big cats who would stalk the sides of their enclosures when someone walked by. Mountain lions are also the biggest feline that can still pur, which is a pretty cool thing to witness. However, out here in the mountains and from stories my family in Canada have told me, they definitely take on a much more menacing vibe. I definitely do not want to ever have an issue with one of these powerful creatures. So for now, I’ll try to remain comforted by the fact that this lion kept hidden and seemed to want nothing to do with Bella nor myself, and that my encounter remained an “almost.”

 

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In another track I found, you could see the 3 lobes at the bottom of the paw pad, like in the drawing above. However, I was not concerned about picture quality at the time I took this. If you do look closely you can kind of see where the ridges of each lobe are. One toe is supposed to be slightly longer than the others (like a middle finger for us), but I think the deep mud kind of distorts that aspect of the track. I think the mud may also be why you can kind of see claw marks in front of the toes.

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These tracks made Bella’s big ole paws look tiny in comparison.

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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 Prairie Love

There is a hidden gem located in my favorite town, Gainesville, Florida, which I will get to in a minute. Gainesville was my birth place and my home for a total of 11 years. My first memory was after a Florida Gator basketball game and my first time living on my own was in this amazing town. I lived in Gainesville with my family for the first 4 years of my life before we moved around a bit. I circled back for college after I was accepted to the University of Florida. Needless to say, I have so many incredible memories in this town and it is the place I will always call “home.”

My first few years of college were really emotional for me, as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I mean I still don’t really know, but I have always found peace and comfort in the outdoors. It’s also worth noting that it was in my second year of college that I brought baby Bella home. 🙂 Back to the point though, Gainesville is full of fun outdoor activities. Two of my favorite outdoor things to do is to go shark teeth hunting in the creeks around town, and that hidden gem I mentioned, Payne’s Prairie State Park.

Payne’s Prairie is a gorgeous swampland that hosts several trails where you can potentially see wild Florida Cracker horses and bison! A trek down the La Chua trail on a warm summer day will leave you speechless. The number of alligators I have seen on this trail is unreal. I once counted just over 100 gators before losing track. I’ve seen alligators fighting, stalking and eating prey, and lazily lounging on the trails right next to me. The horses are beautiful and the bison are always a treat when you get to see them, as they are incredibly elusive. From 100 degree hikes, to watching sunsets, to hula hooping sessions, and wine drinking, to bike trips, and to countless hours spent with friends, this place will always have a very special place in my heart. I got to take a quick visit here with some close friends while I was home visiting and it was as magical as ever. There’s nothing like sharing memories and laughing with old friends while admiring the power and beauty of the outdoors. Payne’s Prairie is such a magnificent place and if you are ever in the area, it is definitely worth the stop. I’ve included several pictures from random adventures throughout the years and a picture of baby Bella for good measure.

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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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