I Spy Something Green

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. – John Muir

Hiking, sleeping, and eating – it was a way of life for three full blissful days. It had been too long since our last vacation, and my husband K and I were overdue for some time away from the obligations and routines of our daily lives. We counted down the days in anticipation, packed up the car, and then hit the road to Hot Springs, Arkansas!

Road trips are the best. I always pack an arsenal of things to keep me busy in the car onlyVersion 2 to spend most of the time gazing out the window and daydreaming. I felt substantially more relaxed just an hour after leaving town, and I think our dog Cora felt the same! Gradually I noticed that the roadside trees seemed to loom taller and glow a brighter green as we got closer to the national park. It was all we could see for hours as we drove down the highway, and I joked, “I spy something green!” That evening after arriving at the hotel, we ordered a giant cheesy pizza from room service and kicked back watching cartoons. We made it!

Version 2We kicked off our first full day in Hot Springs with an indulgent breakfast (a free perk of staying at Embassy Suites), me piling my plate high with biscuits and gravy galore! I had to fuel up for a day of hiking after all. As soon as we hit the trails in the national park, K and I were mesmerized by never ending waves of green. Everything was lush and in full bloom, and we trekked in silence for quite a while, simply enjoying this time together in nature. We hiked uphill and downhill, over rocks, and along well-traveled trails, getting lost in our thoughts and then stopping to take photos of whatever caught our eye and pulled us from our reverie.

Back at the hotel giggling at more cartoons, we drifted off to sleep, Cora included. I am not typically a nap taker, but I lapsed into a deep sleep that day and the following two days of vacation. I slept more than I have in a long time, and I felt more refreshed than I have in a long time as well. We dined out that night at Copper Penny Pub in downtown Hot Springs, inhaling our hot comfort food and enjoying a pint of the local brewery’s wheat beer (my favorite).

We spent the next day at Garvan Woodland Gardens, a botanical garden and natureVersion 2 preserve on Hamilton Lake. Cora was very enthusiastic about the koi pond, wishing with all her might that she could jump in and catch one! We also caught sight of a cute fuzzy chipmunk just before he skittered back to his home under a large rock. Again the waves of green stretched on forever and the brisk wind rustled through the trees creating a soothing soundtrack as we hiked, catching glimpses of the cool blue lake just beyond.

The main attraction of Hot Springs is of course, the hot springs. Historic bathhouse row downtown consists of a string of old bathhouses, some still operational as such while others have been converted into other attractions. Thus, our trip would not be complete without a trip to the spa. We relaxed in the thermal pools at Quapaw Bathhouse before venturing into the steam cave, a dry sauna designed to look like the old thermal caves used by Native Americans believing that the heat from the hot springs had just as much healing power as the waters themselves. It was K’s first sauna experience, and while I don’t think he’d do it again, I’m glad we got to do it together.

IMG_0554We also went to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been well maintained and now functions as a museum. Wandering those halls is like a trip back in time to the age when the bathhouses were a highly popular destination and both men and women spent all day there, relaxing and socializing. I loved the old tile floors. We had lunch at the Superior Bathhouse, which was converted into a restaurant and microbrewery that makes beer from the local spring water. It was delicious, and they also played the best music mix of 90’s grunge rock as a backdrop for our meal.

After spending so much time inside however, it was time to return to nature and trek through the forest on our last hike of the trip. It was warm and sunny, so the lizards and squirrels were out. The ticks were also out unfortunately and we spent a good deal of time pulling them off of Cora’s feet, but it was worth it. She had a great time, as did we. Once again we fell asleep that night watching cartoons and slept soundly until the next morning when it was time to pack up and return home.

The best things in life aren’t things – they are experiences. Taking a short vacation to experience nature in all its bright green glory and to spend a few days simply relaxing and enjoying life gave K and I renewed energy and vigor for when we returned home. We all deserve an escape now and then, and an escape into nature is always fun and satisfying.

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A Wandering

You don’t have to always know exactly where you’re going. Sometimes it’s enough just to know you’re going in the right direction.

During the time I spent living and studying in Spain, my roommate and I took a bus to Las Alpujarras and trekked along the paths through the hills. We didn’t have a map or a plan.  We just wandered and came upon this view.

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We also encountered these guys on our aimless journey.   I climbed up onto a rock out of their way, allowing them to pass us by.

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In response to the weekly photo challenge: The Road Taken

Wine Barrel Full of Laughs

“The best wines are the ones we drink with friends.”

My alarm went off at 4:15am. This was not a normal thing, especially for a Saturday, but it wasn’t a normal day. I got up, pulled on jeans and a T, eyed the stack of stuff I laid out the night before, and began packing it strategically into my suitcase. I let my husband sleep until the last possible moment when I kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear that it was time for him to take me to the airport.

Two flights and a long layover later, I arrived at Oakland airport. I made my way to First and Last Chance, the airport bar at which my best friend N had already jumpstarted our girls trip. She had arrived an hour earlier than me, having flown in from a different state. I hugged her fiercely and we chuckled at the bartender’s advice to stay out of trouble as we headed off to pick up our rental car. N turned up pop music on the radio as we wound our way out of Oakland, across the bridge, and into the wine country of Napa Valley.

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After we settled into our hotel and darkness fell, we walked the mile to downtown Napa. Our route took us through quaint neighborhoods into a charming area full of boutiques, restaurants, and bars. It was hard to choose a restaurant but we finally settled on Velo, a pizza place with local wine on tap. Having our first official glasses of wine in Napa fueled our excitement, so after dinner we went to a wine and tapas bar.  The festive atmosphere was a pleasant surprise. Groups of friends silly with drunkenness competitively guzzled wine from Spanish carafes, sometimes spilling it down their faces and clothes. A girl sitting next to us slurred her speech as she pined for the attention of the bartenders. N and I giggled relentlessly, entertained by the liveliness of the place and the people, periodically pausing to stare at the tattooed eye candy in the kitchen and then giggling some more. We stayed until close to closing time.

Most people would spend their first day in Napa visiting wineries. Not us! We had a few days to fill, so we decided to do something we hadn’t done together since junior high. We went to the Six Flags theme park! It was a day of thrill rides, long lines, head rushes, img_8631delirium, and boisterous laughter to the point that my stomach muscles ached in protest. The Joker ride was the best! At first glance it appears to be a straightforward wooden rollercoaster. By the time you realize the wooden façade is hiding a steel track that flips you upside down time after time, it’s too late. One of the tough guys riding in the seat behind us struggled not to throw up once it was over. It was fantastic. At dinner that night at the hotel, we shared the day’s activity with our server. He reacted by gasping and bringing his hand to his mouth in near shock at our scandalous lack of Napa refinement. He tried to recover himself but ended up mostly laughing instead, making us laugh, too.  I think he was secretly jealous.

The next day our winery adventures began. Wine tasting excursions in other places had converted me into a true wine lover. This was N’s first wine tasting experience, and I hoped it would have the same effect on her as it did me. We joined a day tour along with a handful of strangers from all over the U.S., England, and Australia. Of course, they would no longer feel like strangers after a day of wine tasting. By the end we were cracking jokes and laughing together like good friends.

Late summer is harvest season in Napa, and at our first winery tour, we wandered the rows img_8649of grapevines, plucking plump, ripe grapes from their bushels and eating them. We studied the difference in taste, texture, and tartness between the varietals, sipping wine in between. Throughout our excursion we experienced buttery chardonnays, peppery cabernets, velvety pinots, and many more, including some new to me entirely. Our tour guide advised us to drink a full bottle of water after each winery, and we obliged. It was our saving grace along with the mounds of cheese and crackers we devoured as if we hadn’t eaten for days.

Though I had been wine tasting before and already knew quite a bit, I learned some new things such as:

  • An easy way to tell when grapes are ready for harvest is to check their seeds. They start out green and gradually change to brown. Once the seeds are fully brown, they are good to go.
  • Heat and light are wine’s mortal enemies. Therefore, you should not store your wine in the kitchen or living room where heat and light are common factors. If you do not have a wine fridge, the best place to store your bottles is under your bed.
  • The primary difference between corked bottles and screw top bottles is that bottles with screw tops are meant to age only 1-3 years. Corked bottles can age gracefully for much longer.

On our last full day, N and I slept in and then took our time getting ready for the day. We img_8699ventured to the opposite end of the valley, enjoying the sights along the way. We had only hit boutique wineries and wanted the experience of something big and ostentatious, so we ended up at Castello di Amorosa, a castle and winery inspired by 13th century Tuscan architecture. We toured the impressive structure, enjoying the views of sprawling Napa Valley and momentarily forgetting we weren’t at a “real” castle. We shopped for souvenirs, and of course tasted plenty of delicious wines.

It is truly challenging to day drink and keep up the energy into the night. We were tired but ventured back to downtown Napa for a nice Italian dinner at Ca’Momi. The restaurant prides itself on its old world authentic menu and does not make dish substitutions or changes. It was not exactly the Italian fare to which I am accustomed, but my mushroom pasta dish was bold and creamy and delish.

Eventually it was time for N and I to travel home and part ways. I missed my husband and furry kids back home, but I didn’t want the adventure with my best friend to end. After four days of talking and laughing, we reluctantly said our goodbyes at the airport as I headed towards Terminal 1, she towards Terminal 2. After multiple flight delays, I finally made it home around midnight.

My hopes for N and her wine country experience panned out. She discovered a newfound appreciation for wine and even took home more bottles than I did! Napa is the enchanted land of big red wines, buttery chardonnays, and some sweet surprises in between, made even sweeter by sharing it all with my best friend.

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Summer in the Land of Lakes

Before the plane even landed, I was intrigued. As we slowly descended into MSP airport, I stared out the tiny window at the landscape below scattered with blue bodies of water surrounded by charming houses and lush greenery. I knew almost nothing about Minneapolis/St. Paul before my visit, but by the time I left, the city had won me over whole-heartedly.

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My first introduction to the culture of the Twin Cities was via one of my favorite things – food! My friend D took me to a local dive called Matt’s, which is the home of the Juicy Lucy. It is a hamburger infused with cheese that melts as the burger cooks. An endless flow of warm gooey cheese enhances every bite from the first to the last.  It was intensely satisfying. Paired with a local beer, I was in food heaven.IMG_8356

A few other foodie favorites from my twin cities experience included a flaky lobster pot pie, organic breakfast quesadillas, single-source coffee, a salted caramel rice krispie treat the size of my face, and a pint of Leinenkugel Summer Shandy beer on tap.

Minneapolis/St. Paul is a broad metropolitan area, but it only takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere, which makes me envious considering my own sprawling metropolis. Pockets of urban areas are interspersed with neighborhoods full of “city homes.” Many are Victorian, Bungalow, and Prairie Square styles dripping with character and unique design dating back to the first half of the 1900s. The homes by the lakes are even more charming. As my friends and I wandered the neighborhoods by Harriett Lake, I daydreamed about living there. In the same neighborhood, be still my heart, I came across a little free library.

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Walking the streets of downtown and the urban pockets of the city, the unique identity of the city is clearly visible. Nature and architecture exist cohesively among flour factories, waterfalls, hike and bike trails, and bridges. The music scene is vast. Murals pay homage Prince and his once strong presence in his hometown, where he used to frequently perform for free. Show-goers clad in black attend the free Avenged Sevenfold rock concert downtown. Families gather together in the park for a free contemporary music concert by the lake.

There are unique eateries and shops all over the city. My friend D and I had the nerdy pleasure of visiting a specialty bookstore called Once Upon a Crime. I indulged in the
purchase of two mystery novels, both written and signed by Minnesota authors.
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Little Girl Gone unravels the mystery of a missing baby and takes place in the Twin Cities during the deepest part of winter. The weather, which is iconic in the Minnesota, plays a major roll in both the imagery and plot of the book. It is a fast-paced fun read.

 

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Windigo Island unravels the mystery of a missing teenage girl. It takes place in a more rural northern part of Minnesota but uniquely incorporates the culture and folklore of Native Americans in the region. It is full of interesting characters both gritty and wise.

One of my absolute favorite things about Minneapolis though was the fairy trees. Throughout the city including in neighborhoods and along the lakes, at the base of some trees sit tiny painted doors. Locals indulge the idea that fairies live in the trees.  They make doors for the fairy houses and kids often leave gifts and ornaments for the fairies at the bases of the trees. In a world where we can all use a little more magic and enchantment in our lives, these fairy trees made my heart shimmer.

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No trip to Minneapolis is complete without visiting the Mall of America. My friends and I spent a half-day wandering the endless shops and then indulging in thrill rides at the indoor amusement park. We anxiously waited in line for the Sponge Bob ride, and at the height of the first drop, we happily screamed at the exact same time and laughed all the way to end.

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The summers in Minnesota are misleadingly beautiful. The sun and warm breeze cast a spell on you, and you quickly forget the other side of the season in which wind chills create a real threat of frostbite and snow threatens to hold you hostage wherever you are.

Minneapolis/St. Paul definitely cast its spell of enchantment on me, and I cannot wait to go back.

A Trip: Simplicity and Nature

Every day our to-do lists hang over our heads. We have tasks to address today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and our schedules stretch out even farther beyond. We cross one thing off of our list and add two more. These daily obligations overwhelm us. In tandem with work, family, friends, and the high expectations we have of ourselves to accomplish it all, we struggle to maintain momentum, eventually losing pace, and working our way closer to burnout. When we see this breakdown looming before us, it is a sign that we are past due for a break, for a vacation.

When you are away from home, you are free from distractions and can focus on what’s in front of you. You live simply day-to-day, making it easier to live in the present moment. You can fully see and experience everything around you. You have space in your mind to ponder and contemplate.

This year the husband and I opted for a short road trip to Beaver’s Bend State Park, staying in a quaint, somewhat secluded cabin.

We took advantage of the time to enjoy the simplicities in life. We slept in, took naps, watched cartoons, snacked on Froot Loops and shandy beer. We ate lunch outside and watched the small, grey squirrels chase each other up and down the trees. We hiked through the woods, focusing only on the next step ahead and hearing only the sounds of nature around us. We sat listening to the rush of the flowing river in the afternoons and stood in awe at its tranquil stillness in the wee hours of the mornings.

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We had carefree fun, talking, reconnecting, and laughing together. We took a paddleboat down the river to go fishing, and the hubs noted that we should avoid paddling under the IMG_7518trees in case a snake fell on us. Then something dropped from a tree onto the back of his neck, causing him to nearly jump out of the boat. It was a cute, fuzzy caterpillar (with horns?).

Also, I hooked myself in the leg with a fishing lure. That was not so fun. But I did catch some fish, including feisty little perch that were a beautiful bright orange and blue. I thanked them for humoring me and set them free.

On one of our hikes, we encountered a giant stinging insect, forever deemed as “the pterodactyl.” We stood for five full minutes contemplating how best to get around him and the tree on which he was resting. I finally just closed my eyes and made a run for it! I like to live life on the edge.

The hubs and I love all creatures. We respect life and were awed on this trip by so much of nature’s beauty and strength. The hubs caught mini frogs and redirected lost turtles back to the water. A dragonfly with seemingly wings of velvet was not shy when we met in the woods. I steered clear though of the healthy 5-foot black snake.

The hubs and I weren’t the only ones on this adventure. Our dog Cora swam in the river, hiked, fished, and snacked on Froot Loops with us. She even made friends with a pack of Version 2armadillos rummaging through the woods. She sniffed them and introduced herself but still wasn’t sure what to make of these strange creatures. When they took off running, she attempted to chase them and got caught in the thorny brush, much to the husband’s dismay since he had to climb in and free her.

The state park endured massive flooding at the end of last year. The water rose and roared, washing away roads and bridges, but the rock formations that remained once the water receded were astounding. The various strata of the rock revealed colors of red, orange, gold, blue and green. Cora climbed up and down over rocks, exploring the topography of the area. Quartz glittered everywhere. It is amazing what nature can do.

All of these moments washed away my worries. Returning home, I was happy to be back, but I vowed to hold on as long as I could to the state of mind I had while away. I vowed to be more present in my day rather than worry about what is happening in the future, both near and far. I vowed to revel in the abundance of nature around me and better appreciate the simple things in life.

Vacations from our daily routines give us a solid start for better pursuit of mindfulness. We can really see the world around us without all the distractions in our head. Give yourself a break and take a trip. Even a simple one will do you some good.