When in Isla Contadora


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Isla Contadora Panama Pearl Islands

It’s all about timing. I was straddling the front edge of the boat that was bobbing up and down in the water as waves pushed ashore and then quickly receded. I had to stick my leg into the two feet of water onto the shore once the wave finished pulling back so I wouldn’t get dragged away from the boat, but not too late that another wave came crashing through and I ended up in chest-high water. “When I say ‘three’ you go,” barked the man in the boat. And before I could think about how I would go about doing this I heard, “One, two, THREE!” and a hand pulled up on my backpack of camera gear that was strapped over my shoulders, and like a crane I was lifted and dropped gently into the water.

I slogged unsteadily through the water toward the sandy beach and looked for Steve who was already ahead of me, dragging our bag of dive gear, leaving a trail of parallel tracks in the sand, tatooed by the bag’s wheels. Another man was behind me with one of our suitcases balanced on his right shoulder while carrying our other suitcase in his left hand. We looked terribly overpacked for this trip.

Most people who go to Isla Contadora are locals who visit the island for the day to lounge around the beach, drinking cervezas as they chill out to an endless library of Latin club music on their smart phones playing through little portable speakers. They don’t bring suitcases hurled over their shoulders. At most, they might have a beach bag or daypack. But we were here for four days, not just a day trip, and we were overpacked with our gear and khaki wardrobe from a week of birding around Panama’s mainland. We were ready to trade the treking through the humid jungle for four glorious days of relaxing beach time, whale watching, snorkeling and scuba diving. And of course, it looked like we were moving in.

The man with our bags dropped them on the ground at our feet and I put four dollars into his palm. “Gracias!” he said before he ran back toward the boat and hopped on it gazelle-like as the boat was chugging away with departing passengers for the ferry. I scanned the beach trying to figure out who was meeting us. This was Perla Galeon, the beach where all pick ups and drop offs for the ferry from Panama’s mainland happen. There were people queued up to leave for one of the transfer boats while others, like us, were being dropped off, except everyone else seemed to know where they were going as they made their way across the sand to the stairs leading up to the street.

“Where do we go?” asked Steve, who always looked to me for our next step on these trips since I always took care of the logistical planning.

“Um, I’m not sure. Someone is supposed to be here to meet us,” I answered as I scanned the beach for anyone who appeared as though they might be looking for us. Maria, the owner of our hotel, Perla Real, wrote in an email to me that someone would be there to meet us, but I didn’t know who. I didn’t even have a name.

Unfamiliarity is familiar to us. We crash into it every time we travel to a new place. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve traveled or how many times we’ve been to Panama. Every place is different, but the one thing that remains the same is this: Take a deep breath and just try to figure it all out.

Before I could even finish my deep breath, a young woman in her twenties, wearing a polo shirt and shorts was walking toward me and as we made eye contact she asked “Perla Real?”

“Yes!” I said with relief. “Hola!” And then the skinny man and a boy no more than 14 years old who were with her grabbed our bags and we followed them as we made our way across the sand and up the stairs on to a golf cart that took us to our hotel.

She drove the golf cart, piled high with our bags and it plugged up the hill like The Little Engine that Could. Steve and I have been amused many times when we’ve seen small pick up trucks in Central and South America, packed high with towering crates or hay or other wares–as if carrying the Tower of Pisa in the back of a little pick up truck, with one arm hanging out the window, clinging on to a rope that that is haphazardly wrapped around the goods. “Ha! Look at that!” we would say. “Isn’t that nuts?” But our own tower of luggage weighing down our golf cart here in Isla Contadora seemed more ridiculous as was apparent by the puzzled faces and raised eybrows we passed on the way to our hotel. Yes, we were the ones who were nuts.

Perla Real Hotel Isla Contadora

Lost in translation

The woman at the hotel front desk asked if we spoke Spanish. “Un poquito,” I replied and she rolled her eyes at me and gave me a heavy sigh. Not only did we over pack but we also didn’t speak Spanish. We were her least desirable guests and I quickly learned that I should have been a little more diligent with my Duolingo and Rosetta Stone apps before coming to Isla Contadora. This was our third trip to Panama, but our first to the Pearl Islands and I was accustomed to the many English-speaking Panamanians on the mainland, so I’d become lazy and had unrealistic expectations when venturing away from the main cities.

I signed all the necessary forms and then she handed us our key with it’s carved wooden fob. She gave us directions in Spanish, pointing to the courtyard, then to an open galley next to the office, overflowing with stacked beach chairs and umbrellas and a row of small coolers. I didn’t understand a single word and there might have been instructions about not doing something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I just nodded and kept repeating, “gracias.”

Golf cart Isla Contadora

The only way to get around on Isla Contadora is by golf cart. For about $80 a day you can rent one, whether it’s from the Visitor’s Center near Playa Galeon or in our case, it was through our hotel. Our rookie mistake the first day was thinking we could get around on foot, but after going up and down the hills and turning the wrong direction—not once, but twice—Steve and I huddled and decided that we were going to suck it up and shell out the $80 each day for transportation. Getting the key to that golf cart was like opening the door to freedom. Once we had the golf cart at our disposal we were able to roam around the island, stop by the mercado to get snacks and drinks, sample the various restaurants and get lost as often as we liked.

Counting pearls

After our breakfast at the hotel our first morning, we packed our golf cart with two beach chairs, an umbrella, a cooler with ice and a bag of granola bars, some fruit and drinks for our lazy beach day.

snorkeling Isla Contadora

Sitting on the sugary sand with legs stretched out at the edge of the ocean was like sitting in the tub at home as water washed up, licking just the top of my legs. I admired my coral-painted toenails in the water before the waves retreated into a foamy whisper. We were in a small cove, which was protected and the water gently rocked in and away from shore as though inhaling and exhaling. As I stared at my pedicure, my mind wandered and I wondered where exactly on this island that the natives counted pearls. In the 16th century around the time the Spanish were conquering Central America they enslaved the islands’ natives to harvest the pearls in this area now called the Pearl Islands and I imagined buckets piled high with pearls. Counting reminded me of spreadsheets, which reminded me of work. I don’t deal with spreadsheets much in my job—my career is in communications and I deal with words, not numbers. But it seems like everyone around me is a master at Excel and I couldn’t imagine anything as dull and boring as numbers. I imagined the native people of Isla Contadora probably hated the monotony of counting tiny pearls. We do a lot of monotonous things for money, I decided.

The blue snorkel sticking out of the water in the distance was Steve’s. I pushed out to float, turned, pulled my mask over my eyes and put my face in the water, blowing air in and out of my snorkel and I had forgotten how my breath seemed strangely amplified when snorkeling. The tiny fish the size of my fingers didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence. The water was kind—It didn’t toss and throw me against the volcanic edges of the shore. If I floated close to the edge I could put out my hand and gently push away from the rock. I located Steve’s fins ahead of me and I followed him as we swam near the rocky perimeter, pointing at orange and black fish that shimmied in the water, darting left then right and then disappearing behind me.

Pearl counting isn’t how I originally learned about the Pearl Islands. I learned about this archipelago from watching the reality television show, Survivor, which had filmed three of its seasons in the Pearl Islands. The clear azure water and brightly colored fish were the same as what producers and cinematographers depicted on TV and the waves crashed against the rocks with the same dramatic effect. I floated around with the realization that I could swim around without thinking that someone was trying to vote me off this island or stab me in the back. I knew that if I was ever on Survivor, I would be one of the first people voted off because I would suck at the challenges and spend too much of my time bird watching instead of building alliances.

After a morning of snorkeling we dried off in our beach chairs and ate our granola bars and pears. Steve fell into a nap, his snores muffled by the sound of the water rhythmically lapping onto the shore. Another umbrella popped up on the beach and a mom and dad set up their picnic while the boy and girl ran into the water squealing. I closed my eyes too, and dreamt that Survivor castaways and I were counting pearls together on this beach.

Looking for whales in silence

Don’t completely discredit our lack of Spanish language skills. There’s something to be said about the element of surprise when you are not exactly sure what you agreed to when you were only using hand gestures and drawing pictures. Apparently one morning we had agreed over breakfast to hire a private boat to go whale watching during a bit of charades with the cook at the hotel.

Humpback whale and calf Panama Pearl Islands

The young Panamanian man didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Spanish, which was beginning to be a theme on this trip. I wished I had paid more attention to Mrs Potts’ Spanish lessons in high school instead of doodling pictures in class. I should have focused more and learned to conjugate verbs. I regretted not knowing the words I needed and felt the lost opportunity to communicate and learn more about the area. I’m a chatty traveler and want to know about an area, but I couldn’t ask any questions and I fault myself. However, the young man did understand when I simply asked, “Survivor?” He nodded and then steered the boat to the different islands and pointed to each island that was used for the different seasons of the show.

The other word we shared was “whale!” The young man would shout this word and point to the water where a mother and its calf would expose their backs out of the water before they submerged again into the ocean. Our boat chugged through the water with its load motor as we approached a safe distance when the man stopped the boat. The lapping of the water against the boat was the only sound that interrupted the silence.

The humpback whale and it’s young calf were closer and they would swell out of the water and then slip back into the ocean. Up and down maybe twice and then they’d disappear. It would be another five mintues and the pair had moved to another location where they’d lift their backs out the water and then submerge again. We looked to see if they would rise again. If nothing, then our man in the boat would take us to show us more islands. He pointed and we would nod yes and I was sad because I couldn’t learn any more than what pointing told me. Our language differences were a silent wall that I had not yet climbed.

Herding cats

At every restaurant on Isla Contadora there is a cat or two that will rub against your legs and beg for food. I would scratch the top of its head and it would lean in its head to rub my leg and then I would look around to see if anyone was looking and drop a little bit of chicken from my fajita and the kitty would gobble it up.

Isla Contadora cats

“Look, Steve. The ear is clipped,” I pointed out with the first cat that befriended us. It was an interesting feature, but then we noticed it on the yellow tiger-striped cat at the restaurant where we had lunch and then at another restaurant where a gray striped cat begged for food as we slurped mango smoothies.

Cats had been a big problem on Isla Contadora, with new litters of kittens every six week from the feral cats, a local who spoke English told me. With all the new litters of kittens popping up, the feral population’s threat to song birds grew exponentially.  It was the businesses on the island that decided to pitch in money to bring over a vet from the mainland of Panama to get the cats spayed and neutered to help control the population.

The locals on the island rounded up over 400 cats their first attempt and now when the vet comes over they only need to spay or neuter three or so, which means they’re catching up. Part of the process of managing the cat population is clipping the left ear so they know which cats not to catch when they’re rounding them up.

“Good kitty,” I cooed as I scratched behind it’s clipped ear. “Now just stay away from the birds.” If I could toss a few scrambled eggs his way maybe I could keep him from killing a bird for a meal.

Finding Guillermo

“He’s never there,” a woman complained to us when she saw Steve and I standing outside Coral Dreams’ locked door with a “Closed” sign displayed. “Try to come back at 4:00. Sometimes he comes back then.” Finding Guillermo was getting to be impossible. He’s the Argentinian owner of Coral Dreams, the only dive shop on Isla Contadora and this was our third time finding his shop closed.

Diving Isla Contadora

We went back at 4:00 and the door was open. “You are lucky,” he said when we asked if he could take us diving the next day. “A man from Germany wanted to go, but I said, ‘I don’t take out just one person,’ so he will be happy.” The German would be happy and so were we.

All night the thunder shook our hotel room and the rain poured out of the sky. At 6 a.m. I turned over in bed and asked Steve if he thought our dive trip would be cancelled. “Just wait,” he assured me. “Rain doesn’t last very long here.”

Steve was right. When we boarded the dive boat the water was calm, the sky blue and only a few puffy white clouds dotted the sky. Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds soared in the sky, playing in the gentle breeze. The man from Germany spoke excellent English and kept thanking us for booking the dive trip so he could dive too. We all spoke English on this boat and I wanted to ask questions, but the roar of the motor was too load and I didn’t want to scream my words into the beautiful scene of this string of islands.

After a 15 minute ride in the boat Guillermo turned off the boat motor and gave us a thorough review of what we might see. With gear and a tank strapped on, I sat on the edge of the boat and let the weight of the tank pull me down into a backward roll into the water. The sea was warm and gentle. Once we all were in the water we let the air out of our BCDs and followed Guillermo down into the ocean.

It was silent except for my breathing in and out of my regulator. The world of water and the language of diving is simple: Just a few hand gestures and follow Guillermo and look. I didn’t need to know Spanish—or even English—as I glided slowly through the muted blue, watching needle fish, schools of yellow and black fish and bright blue fish skim around us.

Guillermo turned and faced us and floated, as if sitting in a chair and just as he motioned us to stop hundreds of sliver fish surrounded us and I felt as though I was floating in the middle of a mixer. The fish swam in counterclockwise circle, looking  at us with their big eyes with curiosity. I was floating inside nature’s spinning heart.

The silver fish eventually tired of us and moved on their way like a crowd in a train station moving to catch their next train. I didn’t want it all to end, but eventually Guillermo motioned us with his thumb up that we were going to surface. We waited out our safety stop at 15 feet and I hummed the alphabet song six times, which is how I time 3 minutes. This is not in the dive training, but it works for me.

On the boat ride back to the island Guillermo sees the ferry come in with more visitors for the day. “I hate them. They come and leave their garbage. The residents on the island don’t like them,” he complained.

“Do you think Survivor will come back?” I ask him.

“No,” he tells me. “There are not enough hotel rooms on the island to house them. They have a huge production staff—over 300 people.”

The island once thrived with several resort properties, but now Isla Contadora only has a couple hundred residents—a mix of local business owners of restaurants and services and those who are wealthy with big estates. The services could use the business of overnight visitors as opposeed to the day visitors. And the residents with the grand estates would prefer to have the island to themselves. For whatever reason, many of the hotel properties that were once were filled are now boarded up. Ask three different people why this is the case and you’ll get three different answers. Any story is an interesting footnote, but I wasn’t sure which one was the closest to the truth.

But for now, no more reality TV in the Pearl Islands.

Being stuck on an island is not a bad thing

We departed from Isla Contadora much the same way that we arrived on Perla Galeon, except this time there was confusion with our round-trip ferry ticket. We had our tickets in advance, but it wasn’t recorded on their list and we were told there were no more seats. There were frantic phone calls made by a man who stood behind a wooden desk set up on a concrete slab that looked like at one time it might have been part of an open-air cafe. We were scolded for coming late, even though we were 20 minutes early, as if that was the problem. This was the last ferry going back to the mainland and we had a flight early the next morning. I started imagining how I would have to send texts to my boss at work to explain that I was stranded on a tropical island and I’ll be a day late coming back to work and how suspicious that looked.

One more day and night on this island was not a bad idea, I thought. I was just beginning to feel like I got the hang of charades instead of speaking, and it was freeing to be on an island that is not commercial like the islands I’ve visited in Hawaii. It’s not a “canned” travel experience with perfectly beautiful buildings with elegant landscapes. Four days earlier everything was massively unfamiliar and I was just beginning to feel at home with the unpredictability of everything. Figuring everything out was less of a frustration and more like detective work, or trying to make out a word with Scrabble tiles of all vowels. It’s difficult, but rewarding when you find a solution.

The man behind the table, hung up the phone, called us over and said we were fine and told us to stand in the line with the other people waiting for a boat to take them to the ferry. It was their mistake, I was told, and we have seats.

When it was our turn to get on one of the boats that takes us to the ferry I slogged through two feet of water, threw my leg over the side of the boat and a brown-skinned man held my hand as I pivoted into the boat. Steve followed and sat next to me on a bench and the embarassment of all our luggage being loaded on the front of boat returned.

As the boat made its way to the ferry I looked back to the shore of white sand, leaning palm trees and mangroves and the reality of pearl counters, kitty wranglers, diving with a school of fish enveloping me and Survivor memories was already shrinking away in the distance.

My Spanish lessons, I thought, begin as soon as I get home.

I turned 50 and this is how it went


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I turned 50 a few weeks ago.

I’ve never had a problem with birthdays and getting older until this year when things started sliding down like an uncontrollable mudslide. I am now wearing 3.25 power reading glasses, my lips are thinning to the point that it doesn’t make sense to put on lipstick and my middle is getting squishier. There’s also the night sweats and that Welcome to the Club letter from AARP. The aging process is a culmination of unkind memories of a younger self that are still fresh in my mind.

You see, I don’t exactly feel like I’m 50. I mostly still feel like the dorky kid in junior high school with frizzy hair who doesn’t have a clue about most things. Most of my life I felt like I was the late bloomer. I didn’t even get my driver license until I was in college, didn’t find love and marry until I was in my 40s and I have no idea what Snapchat is. So here I am at 50 and I haven’t caught up to it—haven’t caught up to the shell of a body I have right now that is slowing down when I feel like I’m just getting started.

There is now a new box to check to identify my age when completing a survey or filling out a form, and I begrudgingly check it. I am to forever be in this separate category, pushed into a group that separates me from my younger self when I actually self identify as a thirtysomething who still has questions and not a whole lot of answers.

But I’ll be damned if I was going to turn 50 while sitting in the office. We had a big vacation planned to Panama this year for my 50th, but I couldn’t spare a long trip away from the office due to some projects, so we pushed that trip out to September. And because of the weird layout of our offices right now, even though I enjoy a spectacular view of the preserve outside my window, the dismal part is that there is not a soul who works by me. There would be no one to bring in bagels or even a cupcake for my birthday. No, I would sit there all day as the clock ticked away my last moments as a 49-year-old while I answered email and worked diligently on work stuff.

Nope. Not going to have it.

So  I came home one day a couple months ago and announced to my husband and mother (who lives with us) and said, “We’re going to the beach on my birthday.”

Life’s a beach

Growing up in Oregon and being an August baby, I always had my birthday at the beach. My folks would load up the family van with every Coleman camp accessory imaginable and we’d camp at either Fort Stevens or Beverly Beach campgrounds on the Oregon Coast. Sometimes it rained—poured, to be exact—on our big green family tent, but mostly we were able to catch the few days of sunshine Oregon managed to eek out at the coast. Never mind a few days of rain. It was the sunny day at the beach we were gambling for.

At the beach - 1968

The birthday trips to the beach started as early as my 2nd birthday. A trip to Beverly Beach with family friends (the two adults to the left and the little blond girl and boy who were more like cousins to us.)  I’m the kid looking over my shoulder.

On the beach my brother and three sisters and I would  start playing in the sand, building sand castles and then looking for sand dollars. Eventually we’d get the courage to enter the frigid Pacific Ocean and we’d stay there for hours on sunny days. Less so on cooler, overcast days.

family at beach

Some days we didn’t even bother putting on swim suits. Ordinary street clothes were just fine. (I’m the one in the striped t-shirt on the right.)


Me as a high schooler (frizzy hair and all), wearing my mom’s old college sweat shirt, sitting under the rain canopy over our campground picnic table celebrating another birthday at the beach. No Oregonian would be caught dead without a canopy.

When I got older and started traveling I quickly learned that ocean water doesn’t have to be cold. What? they’re not all like Oregon beaches? When I started traveling to the southern part of the country and even further south to Mexico, Central America and the northern most part of South America—right smack on top of the equator—I fell in love with warm ocean waters that lapped up on white sandy beaches.

And that’s what I was looking for on my 50th birthday this year: A birthday at the beach where the sun was out, the sand so blazing hot that you have to hop around on the sand as if you were walking on fiery coals, and, of course, water as warm as a bath. My husband and my mom and I traveled the 7-hour drive down south to South Padre Island, which is still in Texas and spitting distance to the US/Mexico border. It was the beach I wanted. No camping (the bones hurt at this age, remember?), but we stayed at a lovely hotel right on the sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.


That’s me on my 50th birthday at the beach on South Padre Island a few weeks ago. Matching the hotel beach towel was a bonus.

Being at the beach was exactly what I needed. My husband and I played in the waves, rode a boogie board and we even danced on the hotel deck to Top 40 songs covered by a live band. And we had Italian ice cream, so diet be damned. I AM NOW FIFTY!


And then like most 50-year-olds, I got pensive

In the weeks approaching my 50th birthday I had been compiling a list of 50 Things I’ve Learned that I thought I would share with you here. It’s been helpful to reflect and maybe I have  learned a few things along the way.

  1. Always smile in an interview
  2. The best way to get help even when you’re really frustrated is to tell someone in customer service “I really need your help. Can you help me?” Works all the time. Especially if you sigh first.
  3. Never go on a cruise during Christmas break if you want to avoid children.
  4. Whenever buying something on the internet before you check out make sure to search for coupon codes online. There is almost always a coupon code to use.
  5. Getting Global Entry and Nexus is totally worth it.
  6. Take the time to go through your photos right after your trip so that you can edit and delete sooner rather than later. Because, let’s be honest, you’re not going to get back to them after that. And if you do wait until later, then you’ve got a big mess to get through.
  7. Good knives are worth the money spent.
  8. Keep a bowl in the freezer. There is nothing better than eating cereal from a bowl that’s been frozen. Trust me.
  9. Chiggers will always find me.
  10. Bandannas are a curly, frizzy girl’s best friend when she travels.
  11. Those shower caps in your hotel room make great covers for DSLR cameras when it’s raining outside.
  12. It’s OK to photograph in Auto.
  13. You really don’t need bridesmaids.
  14. Never end the year with unused vacation days.
  15. Buying clothes a size smaller with the hopes that that diet will work is never a good idea.
  16. Always document the items you give to charity. It all adds up and will help you come tax time.
  17. Tip your hair stylist well. He or she will always take good care of you and will move mountains for you if you need a last-minute appointment.
  18. Prayer is helpful.
  19. Writing is hard work.
  20. Smart people are those who ask questions because you can pretty much count on others in the room having the same questions.
  21. Never say never.
  22. Babies on airplanes aren’t as awful as everyone makes them out to be. That’s what headphones are for anyway.
  23. Having a good tailor will open up all sorts of possibilities with your wardrobe.
  24. Don’t workshop a highly emotional memoir at a writing conference without a box of tissues.
  25. Try to meet in person some of the people you connect with on Twitter.
  26. Go to your 30th high school reunion. The cliques have dissolved and everyone wants to hug everyone. People have been through lots of hard stuff by then and it’s all better.
  27. Try karaoke once.
  28. If you do karaoke sing something by The Eurythmics because there’s probably only, like, 3 different notes in the whole song. Hard to go wrong.
  29. Don’t paint/tile/renovate your house in a vanilla sort of way for resell purposes. Decorate it tastefully in a bold way that YOU like.
  30. Learning to sew (hand stitch and machine) is an important skill to have.
  31. Before going to the doctor make a list of questions and use that to guide a conversation during your appointment.
  32. When giving feedback (at work, or on Yelp or someplace else), remember that the person you’re talking to or about is a person too.
  33. It’s perfectly okay to not have the desire to have children.
  34. Smile at a person who looks like they’re having a bad day.
  35. Don’t burn bridges. You just may end up working at that company again or work with one or more of those people again.
  36. Let falling in love be the reason you try something scary…like scuba diving.
  37. Bookmark Snopes and be a fact checker.
  38. Exercise gets harder as you get older.
  39. Don’t be afraid to just shut up and listen to people who believe completely different than you. It’s amazing what can be learned and shared by people on both sides of an issue.
  40. Surround yourself with a variety of people and viewpoints.
  41. More people are charitable and kind than not. Remember that when things in the world seem awful.
  42. There are so many answers to be found on the internet.
  43. There are so many lies on the internet.
  44. Every woman should own a pair of red shoes.
  45. Talk to people how you would like to be talked to.
  46. Not everyone will like me.
  47. There is always someone having a worse day or life than me.
  48. It is totally worth the money spent to get great seats at theatre, symphony, opera, rock concerts.
  49. It is better to be true than right.
  50. People still like receiving handwritten thank-you notes.



Keeping Big Bend a secret


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My out-of-office message on both voicemail and email said I was on vacation and “unplugged.” My boss knew how to get ahold of me in an emergency, but I warned him that I may not get his messages immediately.

Big Bend National Park is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a you-can’t-really-get-good-cell-service kind of nowhere. It’s 3G cell service in that southwest corner(ish) of Texas and even then, you’re lucky to get two, maybe three bars. And when you do, don’t be surprised when you get a text from your cell carrier saying “Welcome to Mexico where you’re going to enjoy roaming internationally!” because the only thing separating you from Mexico is the Rio Grande, which, by the way, you can easily cross on foot with the water not going past your ankles.


Trust me, this is the Rio Grande.  (At Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park.)

So yeah, getting ahold of me on vacation was going to prove difficult because my phone was in “airplane mode” and yes, I really was unplugged.

When I say, “middle of nowhere,” I mean it.

You aren’t going to see Starbucks, McDonalds or a Subway sandwich chain anywhere around Big Bend. In fact, I hadn’t seen any of those for several days. This is Road Runner and Wyle E. Coyote country. Its palette of brown earth, cyan skies and the occasional red or yellow bloom is empty of the droves of people you find spattered over other Big Daddy national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon.


Tunnel near Rio Grande Outlook (Big Bend National Park). Tell me, doesn’t this remind you of Road Runner?

We were at the park during peak season and still, there weren’t the crowds you’d find at other national parks. I remember my first trip to Yosemite back in 1995 and people were at every turn. Tent sites were staked within feet—not yards—of each other and trails were so crowded, you would bump shoulders with others on the trail. Imagine what it’s like walking around Times Square in Manhattan or along the Las Vegas strip—that’s what hiking the trails was like in Yosemite.

Even lesser-known parks, like Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming would have clusters of hikers on the popular trails, passing each other quickly whether coming or going like in an airport as people are scrambling to make their connecting flights. I remember hiking behind a man on one of the trails as he talked on his cell phone and I wondered how the hell he got any cell service in that area while also thinking, are you kidding? 

And same for those aforementioned parks, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. All fantastic parks with geology that your mind has trouble taking in at first. Hoodoos, red rocks, big ass canyons in the earth, and an ominous hike called Angels Landing. These are some of my favorite places on earth, but the problem is everyone else seems to also want to see them.

What we need is a park that either people don’t know about or one that is not particularly easy to get to. That’s where Big Bend National Park comes in.

If you enter at Big Bend from the west—via the scenic FM170 highway—you’ve already been given a preview of the mountains. But that drive is only a snippet of what’s to come. That snippet, by the way is called Big Bend Ranch State Park and it has a whole bevy of activities to do for the adventurous—back packing, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

Back to Big Bend National Park, though.

Shhh. I’d rather no one else know about Big Bend.

Honestly, I’d love it, though, if you’d just keep this find between us, okay? Please don’t tell anyone about the acres of Ocotillo cactus, with its skinny tentacles reaching toward the sky. If you’re lucky like us, you will have arrived in the springtime and you’ll drive past fields of these with red flowers adorning each branch. Close up they look wonderfully delicate as they reach up to the sky in a “jazz hands” sort of way. At a distance, when you see acres and acres of them altogether it looks like a red haze laying on top of the horizon.


Ocatillo cactus with its fiery red flowers.

Also keep it on the down low about the massive Santa Elena Canyon that’s been carved out by the Rio Grande over the course of 2 million years. The sheer, vertical walls of the mountains on each side of the gorge reach 2000 feet. Right now you can easily cross it by foot, but most people—when there’s enough water—will raft it, following it on to the nearby town of Lajitas. There’s a 1.7 mile (round trip) hike, which is mostly on paved stairs that will take you to great vistas of the Santa Elena Canyon.


Santa Elena Canyon (Big Bend National Park)

Don’t tell your geologist friends either. They’ll start coming in droves because the geology of Big Bend is complex. It’s a mix of sedimentary basin with significant faulting and volcanic activity, which means you’re going to find elevations in the park ranging from 2,000 feet above sea level to just over 7,800 feet. And all makes for a variety of unique bio zones contained just in one park, which leads me to the next thing that is awesome about Big Bend: birding.

Big Bend contains the most species of birds than any National Park in the U.S. That would be 425 birds, making it a mecca for birders. This was really the reason why we were at Big Bend National Park on this trip. We were a few weeks too early for the elusive Colima Warbler, but we weren’t disappointed in what we saw.  (Oh, and fun fact for your next dinner party: High in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is the only place in the U.S. where you would find the Colima Warbler.)


Birding Chisos Basin. (Big Bend National Park)

Also, be sure to not say anything about the fantastic wildlife here at Big Bend, especially the Carmen Mountain White-tail Deer, which don’t seem to mind if you’re standing or hiking two yards away. They’re not hunted and so they’re not wary of humans.


Carmen Mountain White-tail Deer

Promise me that you’ll keep Big Bend National Park a secret—especially from those in the office. The last thing you need is a Starbucks or McDonalds with WiFi out here. To unplug is to get away from the madness. Right now Big Bend is far from madness.

It’s pure happiness. Purely unplugged.


Viewing the “The Window” from Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park.


What Marfa can teach us


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Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Texas

Upon arrival the hotel desk clerk hands me a piece of paper—a photocopy of a chart someone put together—titled, “Marfa Time.” It contained a list of the different restaurants in the area including what times they opened and closed. Some were only open Thursday – Sunday. Others showed that they were opened all week, but with different times on different days. One restaurant, the Grilled Cheese Parlour, was only open from 9:30 p.m. until whenever it decides to close.

The paper not only is a helpful guide for Type-A folks like me who rely on the regularity of structure and predictability, but the chart of inconsistent and unexpected times gives you an immediate sense of Marfa. Basically, Marfa does what it wants to do when it wants to do it.

But it wasn’t the food that brought us to Marfa, or the art scene I’d heard about or the general quirkiness of Marfa, Texas. Frankly there were two reasons we stopped over in Marfa for a couple of nights during our 11-day West Texas road trip:

  1. See the Marfa Prada art installation
  2. Experience the area where the movie, Giant, was filmed

Prada in the middle of the desert

Yes, I’ll admit it: I love shopping. But I also love irony, so when I heard about this strange art installation in the middle of the desert I had to see it with my own eyes. I won’t pretend that I know a lot about the installation. What I know is basically what I read here from Wikipedia in advance of our trip.


Prada Marfa

It was on our way to Marfa, after visiting the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, that we finally found the Prada structure. You can’t miss it. It’s on U.S. Highway 90, and about 26 miles northwest of the city of Marfa and from a distance you might think it’s a little convenience store on the side of the road. We weren’t the only ones who pulled over on the side of the road to get a closer look. There was a woman on the opposite side of the highway, with her back facing the Prada structure and taking photos with her phone of the flat landscape that stretched for miles. When she finally turned around to take snaps of the Prada structure,  I asked her if she’d like for me to take her picture with it. I stood in the middle of the road (because no one is on this highway) to get as close as possible without losing the visual of the broad, expansive dry  desert and snapped a picture of the lone woman in front of this ironic structure.

I, of course, had done my Wikipedia search prior to our trip, so I expected to see Prada in the middle of the desert. Perhaps the woman did as well. But then a long camper pulled up and sat alongside the road for 20 minutes before a stocky couple in their 60s waddled toward the structure (waddling like all of us do after sitting for too long driving through West Texas). Did they know about this or did they just stumble upon it and thought, “What the hell? Why is this here?” I hope so. That’s what makes Prada Marfa so delicious.


Now that I could check Prada Marfa off my list, I moved on to my second and even greater love: old movies. During the rest of our drive toward Marfa I pretended to be the eyes of director George Stevens (or his location scouts) in the search for the location for Giant. It must have looked exactly like this 60 or so years ago. Where was Riata? I wondered. Where was Little Riata?

In my mind I can’t separate Rock Hudson from Bick Benedict. Liz Taylor is Leslie and James Dean will always be Jett Rink. It’s all a messy beautiful combination in my head that makes sense to me. Rock Hudson is straight and madly in love with Liz, and by the way, I swear Brad Pitt was channeling Jett Rink/James Dean in Thelma and Louise when he was leaning against an outdoor sink on the side of the road before Thelma and Louise turned around and picked him up. (So confusing my reality even more.)

I hadn’t seen the movie, Giant, until I was in my 30s. A local movie theatre would play classic movies on weekends and Giant was on my list of Top 100 films (according to the American Film Institute) that I was ticking my way through. Not surprisingly, I was the only one in the theatre. The movie, based on Edna Ferber’s book carried themes of racism and strong women—surprising themes for the 1950s, but themes that reached right into my heart.

It was late in the day when we checked into the Hotel Paisano and I was handed the “Marfa Time” piece of paper. Unless you stay in Hotel Paisana, my guess is that the deep roots of Marfa and its connection to Giant is completely lost on most visitors.This was the same hotel where most of the cast stayed for about two months during filming. Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor each rented homes in the area rather than stay at the hotel, but newcomer James Dean! Dennis Hopper! They were there.

Rather than do the normal thing and seek out live music in the area or eat grilled cheese sandwiches at 9:30 p.m., Steve and I stayed in. I downloaded from iTunes the PBS documentary, Children of Giant that aired last year and Steve and I watched it on my laptop as we laid in bed eating squares of chili dark chocolate.

Edna Feber’s book was controversial with the oil tycoons of Texas, portraying them as big wealthy controllers of power, and it called out the discrimination between Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans. Layer on top of these themes director George Stevens’ recent return from World War II, having just filmed many atrocities, particularly in the Nazi concentration camps once the war had ended. This combination—Stevens and Ferber—is why the themes in Giant worked well both cinematically and on a social conscious level.

According to the documentary, even while filming in Marfa there was a separation between Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans. “A literal separation by the train tracks,” the narration from the video said, and just as those words came out through my laptop’s speakers, the loud “HOOOOOT! HOOOOOT!” came as the train, only a block from our hotel, rolled down the tracks.

We looked at each other. “Whoa. That was weird.” I said.

The reality of it all set in. Just days before terrorists exploded several bombs in Brussels. The election for a U.S. president has incited both anger and separation in my country, where we act like a political election is rooting for our favorite football team. It’s “us” against “them.”

And over the past year, racial tensions appear to be on the rise in the U.S. “It’s been the year of outrage,” a friend recently said to me. Yes, we’re all outraged right now. Terrorists. Candidates. Citizens of all colors.

No one wants to listen to anyone.

I’m with Bick. There’s hope.

It was a weird time to be in Marfa and thinking about the movie, Giant.

The end of the movie is one of my favorite scenes. Bick and Leslie, both with gray hair, are slouched on the couch.  A few minutes prior you witness a major transformation in Bick when he protects, not just the honor of his Mexican-American daughter-in-law, but of some Mexican-American strangers who were refused service in a diner where they were eating. He doesn’t win the literal fight that occurred in the diner, but he did win in that he changed.

As he and Leslie are relaxed on the couch, Leslie shares that she’s never been more attracted to Bick than when he fought for what was right. (Oh, how I love that sentiment.) And then as the camera turns to the their two toddler grandchildren in the play pen in front of them—one white- and one dark-skinned, and right then you know that Bick has not just accepted how his world is changing, but that he has changed. You know this because of the affection he shows in his eyes and that the cuts and bruises he still has on his face from the diner fight were to protect everyone from racial discrimination.

There are a lot of terrible things going on in the world today. I’ve always wanted to live in a world where things got better and improved, not get worse. But Giant reminds me that we may not win, but we can change.

There is great irony found in Marfa and in the desert. Whether it’s Prada that can represent whatever you want it to represent, or if it’s Hollywood descending on the desert to make a film. Or if it’s that the Marfa cemetery still had a fence separating Anglo-Americans from Mexican-Americans even up to last year when the documentary, Children of Giant, aired. (I didn’t check to see if that was still the case in 2016.)

Do we really change? I hope for that. I really do.


Confronting the enemy


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This is going to suck, I thought to myself. It was time to head up out of the cavern and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. Not in the way of I thought it was going to be hard, but that I really was convinced that Steve would have to leave me for dead in the cavern. I suck at hiking and we just descended down a steep pathway for 1.25 miles and there was no way out except to walk it back up the steep climb, which–as you guessed–is the same 1.25 miles. Yes, 1.25 miles is really nothing. People in somewhat okay shape do it all the time. But I didn’t think my nearly half-century-old body was going to allow me.

We had stopped for a sandwich at the little cafe at the bottom, drank a big bottle of some green drink with electrolytes in the hopes that it would give me not just the physical, but also the mental strength to do what I needed to do. After some time I couldn’t delay the inevitable. It was time to go back up.

When Steve and I had walked down, I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle of stalagmites and stalactites of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The mythical shapes that were sometimes called whale’s mouthlion’s tale or drapery were illuminated by up-lights like sculptures in a gallery or museum, yet the walk down into the bowels of the cavern was a walk into the absence of color–as if my life became film noir.

There were handrails all along the way, but the cavern’s temperature of 56ºF made them cold to the touch and I realized quickly that my ultra-sensitive fingers would quickly turn blue.  It’s a life hazard I’ve learned to deal with the past 10 years–fingers and toes that turn white, then blue and then eventually red–and I usually carry around gloves (oh, I have so many pairs of gloves), but this time I forgot them on this trip. Usually it’s not a problem, but without gloves deep in a cavern I could lose one or two fingers if I’m not able to get circulation to them. My solution became to just keep them in the pockets of my polar fleece jacket and occasionally Steve would take a hand and hold it tight in order to pass on the heat from his hand to mine to help my fingers thaw.


Lion’s Tail

The path was nicely paved, making it a smooth walk down, albeit a little steep, throwing off my balance from time to time, so I’d grab on to the ice-cold handrail for a moment to steady myself. A young man in his 30s briskly trekked by with a long stride up the steep incline. He was grasping the ankles of a toddler perched on his shoulders, and at this point it didn’t register to me that the walk back up was going to be hard. But then I saw a man in his 50s who paused at one of the switchbacks. He clearly was on his way up and was clutching the handrail and he had his other hand over his chest. His breathing was loud and deep and I thought, Good Lord, someone should call someone to help this man. He’s going to have a heart attack. 


Whale’s mouth

So at the bottom of the cavern in the little cafe all I could think about was that man who struggled for breath. I’m going to be 50 this year and I had been recently feeling my age, and while I was grateful to have survived menopause, what with it’s night sweats and sudden onset of low energy, I was not at all happy with the toll it has taken on my body. Muscles that were once there seemed to have abandoned me, while a new squishyness encircled my waistline. Something as simple as bending over to pick up something off the floor has become my own personal CrossFit challenge. My arm isn’t nearly long enough to hold a piece a paper to read. Words look like faded, blurry shapes on paper now and everything seems to hurt as I get old and I can’t turn the switch back. I am beginning to accept that aging is a cruel companion to which I’m now forever shackled.

But pouting wasn’t going to get me back up out of that cavern. “Let’s do this,” I said to Steve, and we began our climb up.

It wasn’t too bad at first. The way back was relatively flat and then the first steep path presented itself. Not a problem I thought to myself as I tried to mentally cheer my body. Up the path and then a switchback and then up again and switchback. Two more times and then I had to stop at the switchback and cling to the rail and I realized, I’m that man. Geez, I hope there’s a paramedic around.  “Let’s take a break,” I said to Steve after going a quarter of the way.

“We can take our time. We’re not in a hurry,” Steve kindly encouraged.

My breathing was heavy. My heart beat was a rapid staccato. “You know those people who do all that walking?” I asked Steve.

“Like the Pacific Coast Trail?” he  responded.

Still catching my breath. “Yeah. Or that pilgrimage in Spain or that walk in Scotland,” I added. “I honestly don’t understand how people do it or why people do it. I mean, I get so bored walking for so long.”

“Are you bored now?” he asked.

“No. I’m just focused on finishing.”



I’ve never been an athlete. Since the age of 10 I ended up in emergency rooms multiple times thanks to knee problems that led to three different knee surgeries between the age of 11 and 16. And when you have chronic knee problems you also get a special note from the doctor freeing you from all physical ed classes at junior and senior high school. I thought I had hit the jackpot–no climbing the rope, no running around a track and no horribly uncomfortable locker room showers. I was free of physical ed classes, but I also was no athlete.

I later learned no amount of Step Aerobics, Spinning or Zumba classes as an adult would make up for lost time. I’ve just never been able to catch up cardiovascularly. And now my body is turning on me and there’s not an apology in the world that it will accept. It’s my enemy now.

Back on the path my heart rate got back to normal very quickly, which was a relief, and I said, “Let’s go.”

Calf muscles were stretching like pulled taffy with each step I took. My quads. My butt. They were all working together and I kept mentally scolding myself for not taking the stairs at the office more often. You wouldn’t be having this problem if you would just take the stairs, I kept thinking.This was not uplifting me at all as I continued the climb. Walk a little. Rest a little. Get my heart rate down. This was repeated over and over as we walked the steep pathway out of the darkness. Then back to walking some more. My injured ankle from my accident in Zion National Park over five years ago was beginning to swell. I kept checking my fingers for loss of color and when I did, I reached for Steve’s hand. He knew what to do as this has been our drill since we met.

After an hour and 45 minutes of enduring the steep pathway out of the cavern I then heard voices raised in excitement. “Ah, light!” I heard someone exclaim. I could feel the muscles in my legs power up as if recharged and my pace quickened. My heart was still racing, the dampness of my t-shirt from my sweat chilled my back shoulders. I felt like a mess, but I somehow got the energy I needed to climb out of this darkness.

It was too bright. I had to squint as the light that poured in from the outside burned my eyes. A collective sense of euphoria came over those of us ascending out of the cavern. Color was back. Oh, how I had missed it these past four hours. The light was relief as it touched my skin and warmed me. My fingers thankfully turned their natural color, and my 50-ish body–this enemy of mine–managed to get me out of the darkness.

Yes, thank you body. But I’m going to start taking the stairs more back at the office, so be warned.


Purging time capsules


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I had a general idea of what I was dealing with, but a box labeled, “home office,” or “kitchen” didn’t tell me much. Every time I sliced through the clear packing tape at the top of each box I was always surprised by what I found inside.

There were a lot of boxes to unpack and here it is, five months later, and I’m still unpacking. The move to Texas happened fast. I didn’t have time to purge and declutter before things got boxed up. In fact, I didn’t even box them up myself. A moving company moved us and was responsible for all of our packing–hence the mystery–so not only did I not thin out everything as things were packed, I honestly didn’t know what was in each box.

There’s help for this, I’m sure.

For some reason I hang on to a lot. Not exactly like a hoarder with rats running around and a stack of plastic florist card holder sticks and Cool Whip containers, but I hang on to every ticket stub for events I’ve attended, Playbills for every show I’ve seen, every Christmas card and Birthday card received, and notes from people. I’ve also hung on to interesting articles I’ve found. Most of what I’ve collected over the years I put into binders to form a visual journal of each year. Some people call this scrapbooking, but mine don’t look like scrapbooks. They’re just organized in binders like what a historian would keep. Yet here I was, facing all the accumulation of what I had been hanging on to–including the binders, but mostly files upon files of random things I had collected.

At least I was somewhat neat and organized about it. I had labeled manila files that helped me organize all the things that didn’t make it into the yearly binders–things clear back from high school. I had files labeled–

  • Every wedding announcement I had ever received
  • Emails I had printed out that contained bon mots and clever exchanges between co-workers that I thought were funny enough to file away and keep.
  • An entire file about Barbie. These were mostly cartoons and clever things written about the Barbie doll. Not sure why I had kept these and filed them away, but apparently I had enough of them that on one rainy day I must have sat on my bed in my apartment and created a folder for them.
  • There were folders for articles about The Cure (yes, the band–I was kind of obsessed) and a whole collection of stuff on the musician, George Michael. I was a member of the fan club during my twenties.
  • There were coins from a variety of European countries before there was the Euro

And then after I had peeled away layers of manila folders, underneath I found this:

Woody Allen Mia Farro Soon-Yi

I had been a long-time fan of Woody Allen so when the news of his relationship with Mia Farrows’ daughter, Soon-Yi exploded I was immersed in it all. I had collected everything in print on the news about the subject during a time long before social media and even before the Internet had matured enough to serve as a news source.

So here I was, faced with all these memories and I had to decide. Do I keep or throw away? On one hand, they are memories and they are about who I am as a person., which is exactly the reason I had kept them in the first place. But then on the other hand, it totally didn’t make sense to keep them. I didn’t have room for them in my house, and let’s be honest. I didn’t have room for them in my life any longer.

Then it occurred to me. This is exactly that moment this collection of memories was designed for. It’s as if they were all sealed up in a large metal box with a date on the outside that said, “Don’t open until 2015.” This was my time capsule.

As I approached each box and each folder inside, I spread the contents on my bed and spent time with them. I looked through everything and then I dumped everything. (Well, most everything. I actually discovered some important documents in the process–like an excerpt from a grandparent’s journal.)

I read every email that was printed out and laughed when I re-read the exchange with my friend Joe as we both secretly vied for the attention of a handsome co-worker, Trevin, and then they all went into the trash. I looked through each of the wedding invitations I received and fondly remembered the connections I had with the sender and then into the trash they went. I smiled as I leafed through the George Michael Fan Club material, remembering the evenings I would put his Listen Without Prejudice Volume I CD on repeat and write in my journal. Yes, all my George Michael dreams went into the trash as well.

These were a time capsule that I had put together in my twenties that were a definition of who I was at the time and here it is twenty or so years later to discover that, while they are wired into my DNA, they aren’t who I am anymore. They were certainly seeds that grew into who I am now, but I’m not a seed anymore. I’m a tree now.

Purging and decluttering is an emotional exercise. It wasn’t until I realized that I’m not that twenty something person any longer that I could let it all go. During the unpacking I gave myself my moments of reliving exactly what was intended when my twenty something self put these things in a manila folder—to remember and look fondly on those times, but move forward.

Now, on to my closet. I’ve got some unfinished business there too.


The technicolor world of Bisbee, Arizona


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In the middle of nowhere, really, in an old mining town with buildings painted in bright technicolor is a hat store. No, let me correct that–a fine hat store–outfitting both locals and tourists with Panama straw hats, fur hats, fedoras, optimos, top hats and derby hats. I chat up the shop owner about the Panama hat I just had made for me on our last trip to Ecuador and he gives me tips on how to take care of it. My eyes wander about his store, looking to see if there’s anything I need to try on. I just spent a fortune on the custom hat from Ecuador and so I resist the temptation to try on anything because once that happens there’s no getting out of there without one. I don’t need another hat, I tell myself (but secretly I know that’s a lie).

Bisbee Arizona

This is Bisbee, Arizona, an old mining town 90 miles and some change from Tucson and a side trip on our birding adventure where we also participated in hummingbird banding. By “side trip,” I mean we were looking for a place to eat. Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold, and silver mining town in 1880, and I desperately want to say, “I stepped back in time,” but I’d be ashamed of the cliché. So I won’t say that.

Instead, let me introduce you to Trez who relocated here in Bisbee AZ from Boston (I caught her saying, “The cahs drove down the street.”) She sold us her Killer Bee honey. (We bought the vanilla honey and almond honey, which sort of makes your eyeballs roll back in your head as you swoon.)

Trez at the Killer Bee honey store

And who says you can’t put in a store in a space the size of closet? Get more than two people in here and you’re going to have to call police for crowd control.


Just outside the Killer Bees Honey shop, Carl is hanging out playing the banjolele–a hybrid banjo and ukulele–fulfilling the promise on his t-shirt to Keep it Real. [click on video below to get a listen]

Every year on the 3rd Saturday of October you can tone your glutes by participating in the Bisbee 1000, a stair climb throughout the city that will take you through gardens and alleys, between buildings and along the main street as you meander your way through town. Being dubbed a quirky town it’s no surprise this town’s walk/run is quirky as well.

Bisbee 1000

Bisbee stairs

I’ve read that Bisbee is one of the best places in the US to retire and I wondered if I could do it. Could I retire here in this beautifully muralled town, with honey shops wedged in tiny places, with a step-climbing race and a millenary of fine hats for people who probably don’t need a fine hat?

Sure I could, I tell myself. Sure I could.

Thank you, Utah.


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I drove across the border from Utah into Colorado unceremoniously. I half expected a big sign pleading, “Hey Lisa, we’ve had 19 wonderful years in Utah. Please turn around and come back” as if, like a desperate lover, trying to make one last attempt to change my mind about leaving.

It’s not you, Utah. It’s me. Things change, but I still love you.

You throw your hat in the ring and BOOM! You actually land that promotion you applied for at work. High fives with the husband and then you realize–

We’re moving. The kind of moving where you have to move your house, leave your friends, leave your hair stylist/frizz tamer/color wizard/therapist. Leave your favorite restaurants, your class at the gym (even though you’ve been on the back row for years), and leave the brilliant it-just-makes-sense street system, laid out like missile coordinates.

I thought I would be crying as I drove with the majestic snow-covered Wasatch Mountains in my rear-view mirror. I wouldn’t have them any longer to keep me humble and remind me that I’m small and the rest of the world is bigger than me. They’ve been my companion of 19 years in the arid high desert and even though I don’t ski I will miss them something awful.

Utah is plagued with a misunderstood reputation. Of the nearly two decades I spent there, I rarely saw a polygamist and had probably the most diverse set of friends I’d ever had–representing different lifestyles, races and religion. It’s not to say that Utah didn’t have room to grow and mature. When I arrived fresh from California I was accustomed to eating alone in a restaurant. The first time I asked for a Table for One in Utah the hostess froze, not knowing what to do with me. I thought she was going to offer me a consoling hug and whisper in my ear, “It’s okay, honey. I’m here if you need someone to talk to.”

Now I can easily go into a restaurant alone or even see a movie alone and everyone else seems to be okay with that. Time changes perspectives, and while Utah isn’t a big coastal metropolis like New York City, LA, Seattle or San Francisco, it’s been growing up.

Utah has been a growing experience for me. It’s an interesting clash of cultures when people who feel more sophisticated than a city come to town. I was one of those. I probably spent my first year with a lot of eye rolls. “Geez,” I would say to myself. “They call this sourdough bread?” I thought I was too sophisticated and polished for Utah. Little did I know it would polish me.

I eventually found that I could spend years trying to prove (to no one, really) how much more awesome I was than Utah or I could fall madly, deeply in love with the state. And that’s what happened.Log Haven

I got married here and we celebrated our new life together with friends and family in a tucked-away historical restaurant in the nearby mountains. I didn’t find my husband here (I had to go to Scotland for that), but we dated long distance for two years and when he’d come to town he took my hand and dragged me to the obvious wonders I was ignoring–Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Antelope Island. All in my own backyard, but I was blind to them all because I had been so concerned about what was different from where I had been before.

Bryce Canyon

Utah is different. But so is every place else when you really think about it. And I’m not just talking about the geology or terrain. People will be different, customs will be different, and the DMV will be different. But that’s okay. We all can’t be the same, otherwise, there’s no reason to travel to different places. What made Utah different made me different than I was before I landed there. It made me lose the chip on my shoulder and helped me understand that while my viewpoint is different than some in Utah I had value and perspective to offer. I didn’t argue, I discussed. I quit rolling my eyes and started seeing. I found other voices like mine and we shared. And I also found a sameness I didn’t think I’d find.

Actor Ty Burrell (of TV sitcom Modern Family) and his wife call Salt Lake home and expressed exactly what I’m trying to say here, when he wrote in Huffington Post, “We didn’t realize the incredible impact that having the differing viewpoints of both the religious and secular populations of Utah would have on us. So many cities are actually mono-cultures and Salt Lake has an inherent diversity that’s not always apparent.”

You see, this mix and diversity is so delicious. And most people don’t even see it.

Utah was the third state I spent significant time. I grew up in Oregon, then spent almost 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area in my 20s, then settled in Utah. Now I’m moving to the south to Austin, Texas, which seems to be a conglomerate of all those places I lived previously.

Already I’ve found Austin to be very different. For the life of me I can’t tell how to get around on the street system here and I miss the mountains of Utah that always helped me know how to navigate direction. Some here call themselves hippies and others call themselves very conservative. But everyone calls me ma’am and says “howdy.” I like all of that.

Though it hurts to break up, Utah, please know that you will always be in my heart. Thank you for 19 wonderful years.

Wasatch Mountains



Let’s talk about that vacation you’re not taking


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Yes, all that paid vacation time you’re getting and not using. It’s piled up like a stack of unread newspapers (remember those?), and now it’s December and there’s no way—at least in your mind—that you’ll be able to take the time away from the office.

Stop that. Stop it right now.

I’m the poster child for vacations. Last year I used up all of my paid time off (PTO) offered by my employer and even took five days of unpaid vacation. Yes, I have direct reports and yes, I have a great deal of responsibility at the office, but I still take the time to get away to unplug from work and point my brain in a different direction. Studies have documented that when we take time away from the office we are much more creative people in problem solving and, quite frankly, better at our jobs. According to the study by Scientific American:

“Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind.”

If I feel like I’m going to die on vacation then I’m not thinking about the office

It’s true. As an avid global birder and scuba diver I tend to choose adventurous vacations where my mind is focused on things completely unrelated to work–things like staying alive. I’m the type that if I sit on a beach my mind will wander right back to work issues, but if I’m trudging in the rain on a boardwalk over swamps in the Amazon with anaconda lurking in the waters then I channel my energy and focus on making sure I live.

Of course, that’s extreme and a bit of humor to make my point, but it’s important to disengage from the office whether it’s to connect with your family, clear your mind or to simply stay alive. For the same reason that we look to hire people who are well-rounded and have a broad scope of experiences, we should look to make sure employees are continually engaging in things outside of the office and beyond the scroll of emails in their inbox.

It’s part of your total compensation package

I know many who freelance or work as contractors or consultants and they don’t get “paid vacation.” They would love it if someone was depositing a paycheck into their bank account while they hiked the Andes, went on a cruise through the Panama Canal or visited Pompeii. But you? You who draws a salary and was rewarded weeks of vacation has decided to not use it? You may have even negotiated more paid vacation as part of your offer, which makes not using it even more baffling. By not taking vacation you’ve essentially turned into a volunteer for your organization. Just think of it this way: Rather than volunteering to build water wells in Africa for a week, you’re showing up at the office to answer email and attend meetings.

The office doesn’t need you that much

I get it. You think you’re indispensable. It’s okay to feel that way. In fact, I realize that the higher one goes up the chain in the organization it does, indeed, become more and more difficult to take vacation, especially in very large organizations. You’re a “work martyr” and according to the Travel Effect website, the U.S. Travel Association’s research-driven initiative that researches the positive effects of taking earned time off, you’re not gaining anything by being the good soldier.  In fact, Travel Effect’s article titled, All Work, No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off the author references a new study by Oxford Economics, which states,

“…there is no link between putting in more time at the office and getting a pay raise or bonus. In fact, employees who left 11-15 days of PTO unused last year are actually less likely (6.5% less likely) to have received a raise or bonus in the past three years than those who used all of their PTO.

“The only thing employees gain by being tied to the office is stress. There was a clear correlation between those who have more unused PTO days and those who reported feeling “very” or “extremely” stressed at work, particularly for those employees who leave more than 11 days unused. “

It’s about planning and imagination

The people I see take vacation are those who plan. If you don’t plan for a trip or vacation you won’t likely take it and then you find yourself at the end of the year holding weeks of PTO, which you either walk away from or you end up taking time off to stay at home and end up working anyway.

The other factor in making sure you take your PTO is to be imaginative. This means do something. Don’t just hang out at home. I see this happen too much–a person decides to just take the week off with really no plans at all and then he ends up at the office. “Oh, I was just too busy so I moved my time off to next month,” he says, and you know what? He never takes the time. Or worse, I’ve seen people schedule time and then say, “Hey, text me or call me if you have any problems,” and then they find themselves attending conference calls and checking their emails every day.”

Whether it’s around your children’s school breaks, or a spouse’s schedule, or just your own desires, plan your time off. Don’t just schedule what days you’ll be out but what you will be doing. Be imaginative. I’ve been known to plan my next vacation while I’m on vacation. Always have plans in the queue. It’s a cliché, but create a bucket list and don’t let anything stop you from achieving it. If you can’t afford to travel away, staying at home is fine, but just don’t tell people in the office you’ll be around. Take notes from Alastair Humphreys’ book, Microadventures, which includes inspiration and ideas for adventures that are short, cheap and take you out of your comfort zone—and more importantly—out of the office.

So do it. Take your vacation. Make plans for 2015 and make them stick. See the world, not your office. Take a break from email. Spend time with loved ones. Recharge. You will have stress in your life, no doubt, but it’s not sustainable without a break. Find a purpose that’s more than your work and take that PTO and focus on that, and as a result you’ll see your contributions at work explode with richness and purpose.

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” 
― James Thurber (from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)

Come take a walk with me in Cuenca, Ecuador


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Plaza Abdon Calderon

Plaza Abdon Calderon

You quickly forget that you’re at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level. It’s those Andes mountains towering around you at all sides that give you the feeling that there are higher places than this. But the evergreen pines remind you that you’re not in the lowland tropics known for their broad-leaf fig and cecropia trees. But keep your place slow and steady if you’re not accustomed to this elevation, and there’s reasons beyond your lungs to keep it to a leisurely stroll.

In the highlands of Ecuador, just under 300 miles (482 km) south of Quito, you will find the city of Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site with a half million residents who are happily content living at 8,200 feet. And yes, you can walk quite easily.

You can run too

Give it some time and you just might even be able to run like these folks were doing this morning at the annual Festival Fundación de Cuenca 15k, which boasts participation of 20,000 people. During this visit to Cuenca, residents were spending the days approaching Cuenca’s founding (April 12) by celebrating and running–even at this high elevation. It’s notable to mention that Ecuador’s first olympian, Jefferson Pérez, a speed walking athlete is from Cuenca. He took gold in the 1996 Olympics (Atlanta games must have been a breeze at that elevation), and in 2008 he walked away with the silver in Beijing.

Festival Fundación de Cuenca 15K

Festival Fundación de Cuenca 15K

 Discovering Espumilla

It’s still before noon and women begin setting up big trays of fluffy Espumilla, a cloud of merengue topped with fruit and sprinkles. It’s a tradition and each woman adds her own unique touch. It looks like ice cream and when you dive your mouth in to take a bite, you take a bite of a light cloud. Sure, the density isn’t there, but the sweet lightness takes away any guilt of having this decadent treat before lunch.

A local scoops up some Espumilla

A local woman scoops up some Espumilla and adds some coconut

A church for every week of the year

There are 52 churches in Cuenca, many which are steeped in Cuenca’s history, hence the UNESCO site status. You could spend a lifetime in Cuenca, which includes City of the Crosses as one of its nicknames, learning about all the histories of the churches, but the most notable is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where it’s a case study in bad planning. The architect, Juan Bautistat Stiehle—a German-born friar—miscalculated the ability of the building to hold higher towers, so the towers were shortened, and the construction took a century to complete. Locals call it the “New Cathedral,” even though it was built beginning 1885. It’s “new” because the Cathedral replaced the nearby “Old Cathedral” that had become too small.


Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Market to market

Around lunch time is a perfect time to get to the market. There are several indigenous mercados (markets) in Cuenca where you will find fresh meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables exploding with color and assaulting your nose with a vast mixture of aromas. It’s a little crowded at that time, but being hungry is the perfect time to have your mind opened up to all the varieties of potatoes, prickly fruits and fish all laid out for selection.

The biggest market is the Feria Libre (Free Market) at Avenida de las Américas. This indoor market offers two floors and is naturally sectioned off according to offerings. Do not miss the Tree Tomato, which is a shame it’s not able to be grown in the United States. Just a block away outside is the flower market. Again the fragrances of all the flowers slam your nose. Cut flowers have been a major exporting business of Ecuador so the variety and quality is extraordinary.

Tree tomatoes in Cuenca market

Tree tomatoes in Cuenca market

Cuenca flower market

It’s the little things

Let’s turn down the quiet streets and peak into the daily lives of Cuencans. We almost missed it, but there is a man spotted in a tiny cut out of a building who repairs Panama hats for around $1.50.

A man repairs Panama hats in his tiny shop.

A man repairs Panama hats in his tiny shop.

And we stumble upon a pretty blue door into a café.

Pretty penmanship and pretty blue invite you in.

Pretty penmanship and pretty blue invite you in.

Looking out on the city

We end the day with a little drive to Mirador de Turi where we inhale the view of all of Cuenca. It’s a little like feeling as though you’re looking through a fish-eye lens when you see that Cuenca sits in a bowl.

View of Cuenca  from Mirador de Turi

View of Cuenca from Mirador de Turi

Cuenca in Spanish translates roughly to “confluence of rivers,” where the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara rivers—all which part of the Amazon river watershed—meet up in the colonial town. It’s no wonder that Cuenca feels like a place of meeting and congregating with mountains that surround it at all sides like a big hug.