Torres del Paine: The “W” Trek, Day 2

Kendra and I had survived our first day and night on our journey across the “W” Trek within Torres del Paine National Park. We awoke to another beautiful, warm and sunny day. It felt great to sleep in a bit, but since we were getting a later start to our day we quickly packed up our tent and belongings, and hit the trail. Day 2 of hiking was the least iconic in my opinion. It was still absolutely gorgeous, however, there was no remarkable destination that we were aspiring to reach. And yes, I know how that sounds, “it’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination”… and the journey really was fantastic! To be perfectly honest, we were mainly just trying to get to our refugio in time for dinner.

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Kendra and I trekked down from Campamento Torres, out of the valley, and across the front of the mountain range. Over the course of the 16ish kilometers, Lake Nodernskjöld  grew from a little blue, grey spec in the distance, to this massive turquoise lake we hiked alongside all day. The weather was still warm, but the wind added a chill to the air. I was constantly in and out of layers all day. Shorts and a tee shirt, pants and a tee shirt, shorts and a jacket, shorts and another jacket. It was a never ending game of finding comfort as the temperatures changed around every bend in the trail.

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Word on the trail was that the fallen bridge was still unaccessible, although rumors were starting to pop up about how people were getting around it. Some hikers told us that they heard of groups of people crossing it in the early hours of the morning, before rangers could catch them. Others said they heard the really adventurous were crossing further up river. We still had two more days before we needed to cross it, so we remained hopeful that we would find a way to get to the other side without back tracking. In the meantime, we crossed over what I feel was the most sturdy bridge on the trek, hiked up a couple of challenging and steep hills, and basked in the beauty of the land.

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We eventually began our descent through a forest of Magellanic deciduous trees to our final destination for the day, Refugio Los Cuernos. We had opted to stay at Los Cuernos with full board and dinner, as it was actually the cheapest option for places to stay due to the actual campground being fully booked. We arrived just in time for dinner, and I was ravenous. The food did not disappoint! We feasted on salad, vegetable soup, salmon and mashed potatoes with a lemon butter sauce drizzled over top, and a delectable caramel flan.

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A little post dinner exploring lead me down through the campsites to a rocky beach. The refugio is nestled amongst the trees on the bank of Lake Nodernskjöld, with the granite mountains towering behind the quaint building. I took some time to soak in the late evening rays, in awe of my surroundings. I continued to tinker around on the water’s edge for a while, gazing up at the sun as it slowly set over the mountain range in the distance. It was difficult to truly catch the actual setting of the sun, as the sun doesn’t really set until 11:00, with light lingering in the sky well into the night. In fact, the only night I ever even saw stars was during a bathroom run at around 3 AM. However, the peacefulness of watching and listening to the low lit waves crashing on the shoreline was just the mind clearing meditation I was needing after a long day on the trail. Afterwards, I walked back up to the refugio, played a couple of songs on the community guitar, and hit the showers before climbing up and settling into my third story bunk bed.

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Musings in a Clover Field

It is a warm, sunny, post rainy day here in North Hampton, New Hampshire. Bella and I are relaxing in a small field of luscious, green grass that is peppered with the blossoms of clover flowers. I’ve always thought clover was so pretty, despite its common classification as a bothersome weed. I enjoy watching the bees buzz and bounce around to each individual blossom, drawing life from their sweet nectar. Clovers and dandelions are actually very important “weeds” for the life of the collapsing bee colonies, and for many other species of animals (not to mention a clover is technically a legume, not a weed, and is great for the nitrogen balance in your yard). Did you know that you can eat the greens of dandelions and the flowers of clovers as well? In fact, dandelions are incredibly good for you. So stop weeding out your clovers and dandelions, people! Help the bees thrive, and eat a healthy lunch for free!

Anyway I’m sitting here freshly showered, basking in the sunshine that dances in and out of the moving clouds, letting its rays work to dry my dripping hair, and warm my dampened skin. I am in full relaxation mode. I wish I could say the same for my counterparts. Bella is trying her best to place fetch but is constantly being harassed by a few biting flies. She leaps around, snapping her jaws, and contorting her body to get at them as fast as she can as they land on her back or fly by her face. Sometimes she retreats and hides under the picnic table, only to be drawn out by her lust to chase her squeaky rubber ball. She throws, and yes I mean throws, the ball at me, begging me to toss it back for her, and I happily pause my writing to oblige this request.

John­-Hilton is currently at an auto repair shop, getting our traveling home checked out. It has been sputtering and protesting when the gas pedal isn’t being pressed, before shutting off entirely. While one could look at this scenario and be turned off by the inconvenience, we are not. We have been most fortunate to find ourselves in this little town. The people are some of the friendliest we have met so far. The Shel­-Al campground is incredible; Shelly, one of the owners, has given us several coupons for local restaurants, and directed us to a fantastic brewery within walking distance. When she heard of our troubles, and that we would need to stay an extra night here, she blessed us with a complimentary night at a sight with firewood and electrical hookups. She stated she had been in our shoes before and wanted to pay it forward. Not only did this wonderful human being give us shelter, but she took her personal time to transport John­-Hilton to and from the auto repair shop to the campground, and offered us her car to take Bella to the beach or wherever else we would like to go. Thank you Shelly, you are truly a kind hearted and loving soul.

The other group of kind hearts we have gotten to meet are those over at Throwback Brewery. This place is a must if you are ever in the North Hampton area. Having been living in a brewery hotspot (Denver, CO) for the past year, I’d have to say this is one of the best I’ve been to. The location, vibes, staff, and flavorful beer put it right at the top of my list. We walked over to the farm that the brewery is located on as the sun was beginning to set. The first thing you see is this beautifully historic, white painted, 1800’s farmhouse that they brew out of. I read that it was once an old sheep barn! Next we walked around an old silo, and I was in heaven. The outdoor area had plenty of seating and two cornhole sets, perfect for some friendly competition. There was a large planted field, a barn, and chickens in the immediate surrounding area. Their indoor bar area was just as beautifully built, with glossy wooden tables and a glass wall looking into to their fermenters and tanks. My favorite part about their whole operation is that they are locally oriented. Throwback Brewery aims to have all of their ingredients sourced from within 200 miles, and to even begin growing a lot of it on the farm itself. After brewing, they send their used grain to local farmers as livestock feed, “Drink a beer, feed a pig,” as they say. John-­Hilton walked inside to place our first order as I secured a cornhole table, and Bella wandered over to sniff the chickens. He brought our beers out and ran back inside to start our tab. Upon arriving back at our table he had this ear to ear grin, his eyes were twinkling, and he excitedly exclaimed, “Babe, you’ll never guess what I just got!” Now to quickly add in this relevant fact, we have been binging on X­-files for the past few months. We’re basically obsessed. So, Hilton continues, “They give you a bobble head when you start a tab to help keep track of which one you are! You’ll never guess who they gave us!” He presented a Fox Mulder bobble head from behind his back and we both laughed. How awesome! We had definitely found our spot. The staff and owner (we only met one of the duo that run Throwbacks) couldn’t have been friendlier, either. They let us bring Bella inside after it had started to become pretty buggy outside. Oh, and in case you were wondering the beer was phenomenal. We tried several different ones, and my favorite was the Rhubarb Wit, John-Hilton’s was the Oyster Stout.

John­-Hilton has returned from the auto shop, and we are now listening to music, cooking lunch, and waiting for the van to be diagnosed and worked upon. Bella munches on a broccoli stem, temporarily distracted from her relentless nemeses, the flies. The tantalizing aroma of fresh, locally grown, simmering onions and green veggies fills the air, Pink Floyd and Joe Cocker serenade us with sweet melodies, the sun still shines, and the day is perfect.

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Bearskin Neck

If you’ve been following along from the beginning of our journey up the East Coast, you will recall that I wrote my first post from a roadside breakdown. I have now come full circle to that moment. John-Hilton, Bella, and I were on our way home from enjoying a tranquil evening at Halibut Point State Park, when the van shut off and coasted to a stop alongside a craggy shoreline in downtown Rockport. This was the second time in one day that Max, the van, had lost engine power. John-Hilton was stressed for obvious reasons, but luckily we were able to get the van started and made it back to the campsite. I type out “we” as if I had some help in this matter, but I meant he. He got the van started.

During our roadside escapade, I stumbled across a little spot called Bearskin Neck whilst looking up stuff to do in the Rockport area. Bearskin Neck is a small “neck” of land jutting out into Rockport Harbor, containing a plethora of small shops and restaurants. Apparently it was named after a fisherman who had seen the skin of a bear drying out on the rocks. The story of the bearskin tells of a man named Ebenezer Babson who saw a bear attack his nephew. He jumped in the water to distract the bear and lured him to where he would stab the bear with a fishing knife. So now they have a saying, “Babson, Babson, killed a bear, with his knife, I do declare.” The pictures of the rustic strip looked adorable and I convinced John-Hilton to let us make a stop there on our way out of town the next morning.

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We awoke to a crisp spring morning, sun shining in full force, beckoning us to start our day. John-Hilton wanted to swing by an auto store to pick up a fuel filter and Sea Foam to see if that would help Max with his engine troubles. We made the quick stop at a Napa and then drove into Bearskin Neck. Max shut off a couple times while we looked for parking along a busy street in front of the colorful strip. After we secured a space we wandered down onto the neck that was dotted with cute, artsy shops. The plus side of van life is that there’s not much room for storing extra items or trinkets you pick up along the way. So, the only purchases we made were for a bowl of lobster bisque, a couple of ice cream cones, and a small donation to a local band playing on the street. We meandered to the end of the neck where people were walking along rocks out in the harbor and traded photo op moments with other visitors. As touristy and bustling as this area was, we still really enjoyed our time there, the place just had good vibes.

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I’m not sure what our final destination for the evening was supposed to be. I believe somewhere along the border of New Hampshire and Maine, if not all the way into Maine. At this point we did not know we wouldn’t make it into Maine for several more days, but we were happily driving up through the area of Essex into Newbury Port. Antique shops riddled the sides of the road through Essex, pulling at my internal desire to go in search for a hidden gem. However, we kept driving and I kept reminding myself there was no space to store anything extra. Upon nearing Newbury Port, we stopped at a farm to pick up some fresh veggies for dinner. There was the friendliest cow here and I scratched his back while John-Hilton decided to look into changing his fuel filter. He didn’t quite have the necessary tools so we kept on keeping on until we reached a K-Mart parking lot where he could purchase the tools and replace the filter.

While working on Max, John-Hilton made friends with a man who was living out of his car in one of those kind of moments that has to make you smile. The man had clearly not had anyone to talk to in ages and went on and on about his life and about vehicle troubles and whatever else subject he could think of. After the replacement was complete, the man handed John-Hilton a couple of McDonald’s coupons. It was so touching as this man did not have much to give. We felt guilty taking the coupons as we would most likely never use them, but the gesture was too kind to rebuff. We would just have to pay it forward at another time.

After successfully replacing the fuel filter, we headed onward towards our destination. However, Max did not make it a quarter of a mile before shuttering and cutting off at a gas station. John-Hilton was frustrated and we were at a loss. I think that’s when we knew we wouldn’t be making it much further. We found a campsite nearby in North Hampton, New Hampshire and crossed our fingers we could make it there safely. And we did. We made it to the Shel-Al campground, thrilled to discover there was a brewery within walking distance. You know, it’s a funny thing about life, it seems to have these plans for you, these tests to see how well you can handle the ups and the downs, the crests and the troughs of the waves. This really was the beginning of some of the best and what could have been the worst moments of our van life trip.

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Witches and Sunsets

It was another foggy morning in Rhode Island as our traveling trio loaded up in the Astro van. We had plans to make a quick stop in Boston before heading up into Salem, Massachusetts. John-Hilton is very particular with his upkeep and care of Max the van, so we took Max in for an oil change before making the drive into the Bay State. My mother was staying in Boston for a conference, so our plan was to go say hello, check out the location of the Boston Tea Party, and then spend the majority of our day in Salem. I was eager to visit Salem as I love history and have always been fascinated by the somber events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. Plus, I think witches are pretty awesome and now I kind of want to go watch Practical Magic.

It began to sprinkle a bit during the first stretch of our drive towards Boston. Ole Max threw out a sputtering protest from the engine which caused John-Hilton and I to look at each other with concern. However, the van kept chugging along and I dozed off to the lullaby of the windshield wipers and spattering rain. When I awoke we were stopped dead in traffic trying to get off an exit for downtown Boston. We were basically parked on a downhill slope and when we finally got some movement to start moseying onward, Max cut off completely. In situations of van malfunctions, I’ve come to learn that my immediate reaction is to look at John-Hilton with a face of sheer terror. Eyes wide and frozen like a deer, I wait for him to speak words of comfort and reassurance. It doesn’t help when he looks worried as well, so then I begin to bombard him with a million questions, “Um what’s wrong? Did the van turn off? Why did it turn off? Why aren’t you saying anything? What do we do?” I’m sure it’s really annoying. Thankfully, Max cranked back up this time. Key phrase being “this time.” (That there is some ominous foreshadowing of our days to come, FYI.) We blamed the incident on idling in traffic for so long and drove over to my Mom’s hotel.

Traffic was a nightmare all over the city. We later figured out it was Harvard’s graduation weekend along with normal city traffic. As there was really no where affordable for us to park to get lunch or walk around, we visited with my mom in the lobby drop off area. Bella seemed very alarmed by her presence. I’m sure she was wondering how on earth mom could randomly be in this foreign and bizarre location. After catching up and showing my mom pictures of our trip so far, we hit the road to see the sights in Boston. The historical buildings were architecturally gorgeous. I was thoroughly impressed with the downtown area. John-Hilton and I both agreed that the city would be a cool spot to visit if you were able to fly in and stay without a vehicle for a couple days. It’s definitely the kind of place you want to experience on foot, avoiding traffic and outrageous parking costs.

The journey to Salem was relatively unremarkable. Our most significant moment was a stop for coffee and a free donut at a DunKin’ Donuts for Free Donut Day. Shortly after our pit stop, we pulled into the historic section of Salem, which I didn’t expect to be so tiny. I mean it makes total sense thinking back to the late 1600’s but still it was a little surprisng. We parked the van alongside Salem Common, a large field across from the witch museum. After some extensive googling, we opted out of visiting the museum, although in retrospect I would not have minded paying the 11$ for the described cheesey displays. Instead, we proceeded to the NPS visitor’s center to grab a map for a self guided walking tour. We passed by homes, churches, and other building structures from the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The historic walk around town was fascinating, albeit incredibly sad. Imagining the suffering and fear of those accused and/or convicted as witches was a horrifying feeling. My heart ached as I walked around the memorial for each person who was prosecuted by a narrow minded and fear ridden society. Each life taken serves as a reminder that we as a people living on this beautiful planet must never find ourselves in such a panicked and fearing state of mind that we would so mercilessly seek out and destroy the life of another innocent human being.

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Back at the van, John-Hilton and I debated our next move. It was only 5 pm, early enough to keep moving, but late enough we could probably stay in Salem and find something to do. We sat with the doors open, breeze circulating through, while Bella played with her squeaky rubber ball. After hanging out for about an hour, the decision had been made to keep traveling north. Back in New Jersey, we had run into a girl who recommended that we make a stop in Rockport, which was only about 45 minutes north of Salem. John-Hilton phoned a local campground called Cape Ann Campsite where we could stay for the night. After arriving at Cape Ann, we picked out a nice campsite that sat up high on the forested hillside and drove into Rockport to hike around Halibut Point State Park. We were arriving just before sunset, which wound up being perfect timing. Halibut point is the site of an old rock quarry of which you could see the different structures and rock formations used to aid the quarry workers. The grounds were stunning. The rock pit that had been kept dry from water during the mining days was filled with a glassy pool of water that reflected the setting sun. Further past the pool was an overlook point which offered vast views of the ocean and granite rocks. We wrapped around the point and followed a trail down to the shoreline. The sun was low in the sky, filling it with visions of yellow and orange swirls while waves crashed peacefully on the large slabs of rock. The whole setting and experience was fantastically meditative and relaxing. In between the rocks were small pools of vibrant green algae of which we hopped around and inspected. Just up on the sandier part of the shore, we built a small rock cairn to join the many others that were balanced among leftover pieces of quarry granite. We left feeling rejuvenated, looking forward to spending the rest of our evening nestled up in our campsite on the hill.

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Rhode Island Luna-Sea

I joke that I had a past life in Rhode Island. For some reason I had a profound internal desire to visit this state. I had this resounding urge and anticipation to see it. Honestly, this is also true for Massachusetts, but we were preparing to spend the next 2 days in Rhode Island and I couldn’t have been more excited. We had left New Jersey, and were driving through Connecticut, planning on at least one stop in the beautiful Constitution State before arriving in the Ocean State. I have a friend that grew up in Connecticut, so I had asked her for advice on a cool place to check out. Laura sent me a to do list of which included Gillette Castle State Park. The park wasn’t too far out of our way, and looked like it would be a fun spot for a quick stop.

Our drive through Connecticut was absolutely beautiful! I would not have minded staying here for longer but it just wasn’t going to work out that way. We drove through lush, green forests along rolling, twisting roads. The homes we passed along these roads were stunningly quaint, visions of New England style and flare. We arrived at the castle just after the park closed, which was fine, we weren’t planning on doing a guided tour of the grounds anyway. The castle was named Seventh Sister, sitting upon the most southern hill in a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. It had been designed and owned by William Gillette, a famous actor from the early 1900’s until his death. We walked around the property, admiring the castle from the outside and peeking in the windows. The backyard garden overlooked the Connecticut River which was stunningly gorgeous. A thick, deciduous tree line bordered the wide river bed that wound around a large bend, flowing out of our sight. After meandering along some of the surrounding trails we decided it would be best to be on our way.

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John-Hilton had another solar buddy named Dan who was living in Johnston, RI. We would be staying at his home for the next 2 nights as we wanted to have a whole day to explore the small state and all it had to offer. Dan and his fiancé, Lisa, graciously offered us their spare room for this adventure. Bella, John-Hilton, and I arrived at their home shortly after leaving the castle. We ate on a delicious pizza from a local joint, and I headed to bed while the guys hung out, drinking whiskey and catching up.

We awoke early to a foggy morning, but headed to Newport hoping the clouds would lift by the time we got there. Laura had recommended the cliff walk in Newport, saying it offered incredible views of the ocean and several old mansions, and that it was dog friendly! Well, luckily for us the fog cleared and “incredible views” was an understatement. Spring flowers were popping with color, and the water near the rocky cliffs was a turquoise blue. Unbeknownst to us, the cliff walk was a 3.5 mile one way trek. We had parked at the paved end (the other end turns into a rocky pathway) and had only paid for 2 hours of parking. Plus, we were not dressed for a 7 mile hike. We looked at the map of the walk and decided to do the paved part, turn around, repark the van halfway, and start again from there. The mansions on this part of the walk are enormous. It seemed that most were built as summer homes for families that had come from old tobacco money. A few have since been donated to the local university and you can tour most of them. After we turned back for the van, we decided there was no way we could continue without eating first. John-Hilton had never eaten fried clams before, so we drove over to Anthony’s Seafood to remedy this unfortunate lack of tantalizing, taste bud euphoria. That might be a bit of an exaggeration but I grew up eating fried clams, and I think they are delicious. So, we got a large thing of fried clams and a container of clam chowder, and drove off to find parking for the second half of the cliff walk. I’m not sure if where we parked was technically allowed, but it was the off season so the lot that was typically designated for those touring one of the mansions was nearly empty. We decided to go for it, devouring our lunch and changing our shoes before walking up to the cliff’s edge. Oh and John-Hilton gave a big thumbs up mid mouthful of his first fried clam taste!

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The second part of the cliff walk was breathtaking. The mansions were more dispersed and there were much fewer people walking around. The paved path had turned to gravel and eventually began to take you out on the rocks beside the ocean, where you could venture down and admire the pebbled pools full of colorful yellow and green sea plants. In one area of the rocky section, a horseshoe crab had gotten beached by waves that were thrashing him back to shore every time he would try to make it out to sea. He would swim out only to have a wave crash in and fling him on his back, stranding him on the rocks. I was finally able to flip him upright in perfect synchronicity with the receding waves, enabling him to dive down and escape the perilous trap he had found himself in. We wound further along the cliff walk, eventually coming to its end near a road that we were able to use as a shortcut back to the van.

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We were determined to see as much of Rhode Island as we could in the remaining hours of daylight. There was so much we still wanted to do and experience, but we would have needed a week to accomplish it all. After taking the scenic Ocean Drive through and around Fort Adams on the southwest corner of Aquidneck Island, we headed to Beavertail State Park. This state park sits at the southern tip of Jamestown on Conanicut Island where a lighthouse stands guard over the Narragansett Bay. It’s actually the third oldest lighthouse in America. We walked along the rocky shoreline and relaxed for a bit, watching a few birds dive in and out of the waves hunting for their dinner. Speaking of dinner, John-Hilton had been obsessing over this burger place he saw on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. It’s called Crazy Burger, and I swear he watched 20 videos on the place throughout our drive up the coast. It was all Hilton could talk about when we discussed food and where we wanted to eat while in town. Crazy Burger is located in Narragansett and there was one more place I wanted to stop before the sun set that was sort of on the way there.

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Rome Point was our final destination for explorations. It is a known seal sighting area and although it was a little late in the season to spot them, I couldn’t give up the chance that we might get lucky. It was only 6 pm and Crazy Burger didn’t close until 9 so we had plenty of time. Well that is until John-Hilton locked his keys in the van. Thankfully he figured it out before we left for our 3 mile hike instead of afterwards. We decided to walk and call for roadside assistance as we knew it would probably take a while for anyone to get out there and help us out. This was another good call. We made it out to the point which was beautiful, but as we figured would be the case, there were no seals to be found. We tailed it back to the van, passing through dense brush, spotting old cars and building structures along the way. Time was ticking and it was nearing 8pm, putting Hilton on edge that we wouldn’t be able to fulfill his burger dreams. Just as we were beginning to accept defeat, the locksmith arrived! Our hero! He had us back inside the van and on our way to Crazy Burger in no time.

I must say that Crazy Burger did not disappoint. The menu had so many options, there was something for everyone. I eagerly settled on the Wild and Crazy Mushroom Burger, which was a mouth watering vegan “burger.” I’ve actually come to find that I really enjoy the vegetarian and vegan options of burgers as they are usually incredibly unique, and dripping with succulent and diverse flavors. John-Hilton couldn’t decide between the Whassupy Burger, a wasabi coated burger topped with melted Brie, and the Luna-Sea Burger, a salmon pistachio pesto mix baked in a crispy phyllo wrap. So he got both. They were both delicious, but he liked the salmon burger the best, because as I was saying earlier, the unique flavors were unmatched. We were floating on Cloud 9, the day had been long and adventurous. After totaling over 10 miles trekking around and filling ourselves with good food, we headed home, blasting sing alongs on the radio with a tired pup, full bellies, and smiles on our faces.

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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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