The waves picked up, barreling over my kayak as I struggled to paddle perpendicular to the shore. The salt spray blinded me momentarily until I was through the shore break and out into the relatively calm waters.
It was a beautiful Thanksgiving day south of the border. An almost record high of 85° convinced me to brave the chilly Pacific waters. The bright sun was intense – a welcome relief from my recent dunk in the ocean. I bobbed on the sea for a spell, thinking about everything and nothing. My last experience in the Pacific involved a surfing lesson after my time spent in the Channel Islands.
It was then that I spotted a brown face and sleek body emerging from the ocean’s surface. A sea lion decided to swim on by, checking out this oddly colored piece of plastic floating in his waters. I watched, I listened, I enjoyed life.
Fast forward 4 hours.
Bike riding along the beach was a fun pass time, but I was on a mission: hunting for sea slugs. These fascinating creatures are squishy mollusks that release reddish ink when disturbed. After a zippy three-mile bike ride, I found one!
My Mexico Thanksgiving was full of unique experiences and living “treasures”. I took a moment to appreciate my special outdoor experiences and how blessed I am to continue trekking around the world seeking out natural spaces.
I was also grateful that the sea slug ink came off… eventually.
The gentle murmur of waves greeted me as I shook off my morning slumber. Half asleep, I listened to the ocean purr and gurgle, rhythmic in its lullaby. Pulling on my hoodie, I tiptoed out to the shore for a morning stroll.
Pelicans dove violently for their breakfast while gulls skittered nearby picking for crabs buried stealthily in the sand. And oh, the sand! So fine it felt like flour, with tiny flecks of gold in it that caught the light of the rising sun. My feet took pleasure in its sloppy wet feel, and I gazed out over the Pacific Ocean.
This was Mexico.
I was expecting a touristy vibe similar to that of Cancun, especially knowing that the Baja Coast is a well-developed region. We pulled down a dirt road to get to the beach casa and narrowly missed hitting livestock on the way in. When “security” had to pull a rope tied to a rock to lift the gate arm, I knew I was in for a genuine Mexican adventure.
But back to the beach.
It was just me and the ocean at 6:30 am. Cold salt water (pleasant) and the smell of something burning somewhere (not so pleasant). I walked back to the house to get a cup of coffee, and saw the dolphins: seven of them cruising along the surf, leaping joyfully in the air. I waved back and smiled.
I was quite content to watch these fascinating creatures for another 20 minutes, while they took their time whisking through the sea. A feeling of complete and utter kinship accompanied me.
It was only 7 am, and it was going to be a darn good day.
The crowds of people were easy to maneuver: a hop here, a jump here. I skittered across the rocky portions of the trail, surefooted like its namesake. Those whom I jauntily passed by were scrambling slowly and uneasily through simple sections of uneven rock. One lady had a mild panic attack; I coached her through a slick section of rock amidst her protests and cries of despair. While I was helping her move sluggishly along, the trail built up quite a bottle-neck. A round of applause greeted the poor lady when she finally made it through, those in the crowd cheering their own eventual headway rather than a stranger’s actual progress.
I had managed my expectations before setting out to the Maryland side of Great Falls to hike Section A of the Billy Goat trail. And rightly so – one of the most popular hikes in the Northern Virginia area can take hours to complete due to the hoards of well-meaning individuals who underestimate their own abilities. Given the immaculate fall weather, it was worth it. Solid hiking boots allowed me to trek around the crowds on the path less-traveled when necessary.
There were numerous overlooks, all of them involving moving water. The cascading Potomac made me think of my hikes in the Smokies. The trail portion along the canal was reminiscent of my time biking the towpath in Cuyahogo Valley National Park. And the general autumn weather? Definitely à la Tetons. With that being said, Great Falls and the Billy Goat trail had its own special feel. The leisurely views filled me with a warm-fuzzy feeling, the intense sunlight adding to the overall effect. I breathed deeply, soaking up this natural place and relishing the feeling of being outside.
Yes, there was lots of chatter I overheard.
Yes, there were people who didn’t follow proper trail etiquette.
We were foraging for sticks – good ones that were both sturdy and sized correctly.
“How’s this one? And look at the pine needles I found for the brush part!”
I couldn’t help but smile, relishing the contentment I felt at spending time outside with a league of children. Our current project: creating paintbrushes using natural items we uncovered in a nearby wooded area. My young charges were very intentional in their scavenge, and eagerly helped each other construct their art tools.
The best part? This was just another Muddy Monday at my new place of employment: Lorien Wood School.
During the latter part of my 47 Parks trip, I began the onerous task of finding a new job. I vacillated between curriculum writing careers, outdoor education positions, and returning to elementary education. I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon an opening at an occupation that combined all three.
Lorien Wood is a private school located in Northern Virginia. The curriculum is integral, arranged in thematic units that incorporate multiple subjects, among which is outdoor studies. After spending so much time outside during my travels, I was pleased to be offered a position at a school that encourages joyful discovery of natural spaces and wild places.
Every Monday is a designated Muddy Monday. Small groups of students rotate through various stations designed to promote a spirit of discovery as children interact with the outdoors. As the designated STEAM* director, I get to design engineering and art projects for the students to undertake. I am looking forward to building forts, making miniature rafts, and exploring solar energy over the course of the year.
I look back over my national parks tour fondly, but relish in my new job that combines my passion for nature with my love of all things teaching/learning.
Rain, snow, or sleet, I treasure the opportunity I have to share this passion with my students.
Mondays just couldn’t get any better.
* STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math
I first met J.C. in a tiny camp store during my visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was one of those serendipitous encounters that led to some great conversations and a follow-up visit to Denver. J.C. is a guru on all things regarding safe travels. His website contains a wealth of information including country profiles, packing tips, and how to stay safe online.
This is his story.
Somewhere, Utah. Not far from Escalante.
It was dark. Pitch dark. So dark that watching the road in front of me as I walked was so disorienting that I stopped watching where I was going and looked up at the stars to keep from sitting down and taking a nap.
The three of us were five miles into our starlight walk and had already hiked 17+ miles that afternoon. This was the final test of a week-long survival course with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), and no one had any clue as to what time it was, or how many more miles until we reached the campsite.
The coyotes in the distance reminded us that we were not alone.
So why would you subject yourself, much less PAY to put yourself through an experience like this?
Well – for one: I’m a MUCH lighter packer because I know what is necessary and eliminate that which I don’t need… Okay, well, I still pack a luxury item or two when I hit the road.
Secondly, you’ll know yourself on a much deeper level. You’ll find your limits and what you can actually
Maybe the biggest reason is the boost of confidence. After spending a week with minimal clothes, no tent, flashlights, electronics, backpack or lighter, I know that if I’m stranded overnight while hiking a 14er that not only will I survive, but I will know how to make the experience more tolerable.
Bonus reason: Having the added benefit of doing it in a supervised environment will keep you from doing the dumb things and put you on the path to success much quicker while minimizing the chance of injury.
Here in Colorado, we like to call this style of activity “Type 2 Fun”. It’s the sort of thing that you curse most of the way through, then start planning the next one as you drive home.
For me; however, there was a broader reason behind this “fun.” As a serial traveler and ever the curious type, I continually seek out ways to make myself a safer and better traveler. Not every option I look for is this extreme or results in losing ten pounds in a week. It can be as easy as keeping my CPR certification up to date, or sampling random martial arts like Krav Maga, Tae Kwon Do, and Systema and, of course, taking a language class here and there.
I’ve heard study abroad program directors remove self-defense classes from their pre-travel courses because “the goal of the course was not to train MMA fighters.” I found this incredibly short-sighted. If you plan on traveling solo, I highly recommend taking a CPR class and enrolling in self-defense at a local gym or martial arts facility. The result is the same: an increased sense of security and self-confidence. When traveling, whether abroad or here at home, the vast majority of crime is a crime of opportunity; meaning that criminals are going to go after the easiest target. Thus, if you look more confident, aware, and put together this may cause a potential attacker to look somewhere else.
I close out this post with a challenge to you: Get outside your comfort zone; take a CPR class, learn a new language, sign up for a self-defense course, or maybe even a survival course in the woods. You’ll be a safer, more self-confident traveler and person.
My rather impromptu Colorado visit landed me in Rocky Mountain National Park once again, a few days shy from a year after my first go-round. Back then, I trod eagerly through many sections of the park, exploring multiple lakes, ecosystems, and wildlife via a wide variety of hiking trails. As I once again stood within the alpine climate – 12,000 feet above sea level – I took deep breaths and let the happy memories of the previous year rush in.
Heading down the east side of the mountain range, my friend and I had one main agenda: hike trails with water. This turned out to be a rather easy goal, since so many streams, rivers, and waterfalls undulate throughout the park.
Day 1 was a hefty 8-mile hike to Fern Lake, passing by some gorgeous cascading rivers and a not-too-shabby waterfall on the way.
Day 2, after more camping, boasted one of the best waterfalls in the park: Ouzel Falls. While only 5 miles round-trip, my poor feet were screaming to be let out of my hiking boots. A lazy summer in flip-flops had apparently spoiled them to laborious trekking.
While my life has taken on a rather consistent rhythm now that I’m back home and off the road, I appreciate the fact that I can still have miniature adventures in the outdoors. Life’s too short to stay indoors. 🙂
“A pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose.” – Peace Pilgrim