A Manic May Approaches With Africa, Berlin, and Switzerland

Well, that sure went by fast. Seems like it was just last week when I stood high above Donner Lake in Tahoe, in route down to Yosemite to cover the park’s 150th anniversary. The story will be published in AAA Colorado this summer, and if you want to see some of the photos, they are published here. The days are just flying by, but I’ve been having fun. Since Yosemite, I took a swing through southern Colorado (Telluride, Durango, and Wolf Creek) to finish off the ski season, and then headed west to discover where to find the best ramen in Los Angeles. I drove up the coast of California, visiting the energy-vortex of Ojai and capping off my trip with a walk amongst prehistoric plants in Santa Barbara.

As many of you know, Santa Barbara was where I got my start in travel writing, and it was nice to revisit the old stomping grounds of California’s central coast. I’m back in Denver now, and for the first time in what seems like months, I have absolutely no plans for the weekend. It feels good on one hand, a chance to take a breather. But the break will be short. On Wednesday, I head east to Boston for the marathon weekend. After attending last year, I look forward to getting some good memories to replace the bad.

At the end of the month, I’ll take on my very first trip to Africa, both professionally and personally. I’m traveling throughout the country of Kenya, from the coast to the wildlife preserves and safaris. I know the photo below is a little dramatic, but I can’t say it’s not inspiring. I’m really trying to manage my expectations – that is, to have none – as I prepare to visit a continent that harbors most of the planet’s third-world countries. It will be nice to see the exotic animals and the vast savanna scenery, but I’m not sure it will compare to the insight and perspective I’ll gain from meeting the people and experiencing their way of life. It will be much different than anything I’ve seen before, at least, that is what I assume.

kenya

May is going to be one of those months that really tests my endurance. Upon returning to Denver from Africa, I’ll leave two days later to fly to Berlin. A week there, then it’s back to Denver for a few days before flying to Switzerland. I’m considering staying in Europe between Berlin and Switzerland and heading over to Spain, although the logistics remain to be seen. Hey, either way, good stuff. Worst case I get a few extra flier miles.

In terms of the rest of the summer, I’ve got trips planned to Turks & Caicos, the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, and Chile. I’m crossing my fingers on a few others. You can see why I’ve had trouble updating the blog of late. It’s something I’m trying to get better at, or rather, get back to. As most writers experience, the personal writing often takes a backseat to assignments with deadlines. It’s a good thing overall. But writing in your own voice without any walls to contain you is healthy, and has always helped me set the stories straight in my head. For the record, this is the third or fourth time I’ve written a blog about how I want to blog more.

If you want to see what I’m up to, almost all of my travels have been going into stories for Conde Nast’s Jaunted. You can find my author page here if you’d like to follow along. I write two a day (really), so there’s plenty to go through on a rainy afternoon.

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Hell on Earth: Following the Footsteps of the Donner Party

Last night, as the sun set over Lake Tahoe, I drove north on Highway 89 and headed west, past the once-Olympic venue and ski area Squaw Valley to a place I remember reading about as a kid in school, a place where hell basically surfaced on earth in the early winter of 1846: Donner Lake.

We all know the story, one of the most infamous tales of American pioneer journeys gone wrong. And I can tell you firsthand that there is something magically eerie about the place today, something that hit me when I took the exit for Donner Pass from the Interstate. At times, it’s dead quiet, the sun or the moon beaming off the snow-covered peaks that stand tall around the lake.

Donner Lake near Tahoe. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Donner Lake near Tahoe. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Other times, and more typically, the wind howls, blowing through at speeds near 60 miles per hour. When I got out of my car to take the photo above this afternoon, I had to immediately pull down my sunglasses to protect my eyes, and I could barely hold the camera still. Getting back in the car 20 seconds later, my hands were stinging and I had salty water streaming down my face.

As you can see in the photo, this was a bright, blue, sunny day. No snow, no clouds, no rain. Even at its best, the worst can be sensed. I felt firsthand the power of the wilderness that derailed the Donner Party, forcing them to result to cannibalism, no doubt blinding them to the beauty that masks this deadly terrain.

Tonight, I’m bunking up in a lodge nearby, and the creepiness that haunts me is what brings about a new-found respect for  a legend that lives on almost 150 years later. You will, for sure, be hearing more from me on this.

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New Columns Featuring Food and Booze Live on Conde Nast

Last fall, I took over as Assistant Editor of Conde Nast’s Jaunted to specialize in its destination coverage, and with the new year has come opportunities to design a few of my own columns for the site. The first, which highlights street foods and other cultural dishes from around the world, is called “Street Food Friday.” The other is focused on booze and drinking in different countries, and I call it “Monday, Five Thirty” in honor of the most needed happy hour of the week.

You can follow the links to check them out, but I’ve also included previews of them here. If you’re not familiar with Jaunted, be sure to check it out and follow along on Facebook.

Sipping on Estonia’s Flagship Booze, Vana Tallinn

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In celebration of the most needed happy hour of the week, we’re launching a new column called “Monday, Five Thirty” that will take a look at different vices from around the world, specifically boozes and beers unique to a destination. For this inaugural run, we zip over to Estonia for a taste of its infamous Vana Tallin.

Estonia is a relatively new country, having gained its independence from Russia just over twenty years ago in 1991. Its most wide-scale attraction, Old Town Tallinn, looks like it should be on the top of a wedding cake with its medieval castles, and last year I dished on some of its properties, including one where the KGB literally bugged the hell out of its guests.

View of Old Town Tallinn in Estonia. Photo by Wake and Wander.

View of Old Town Tallinn in Estonia. Photo by Wake and Wander.

We’re here to talk about booze, though, and the segue is in the name: “Old Tallinn” in Estonian is “Vana Tallinn,” which happens to be the name of the country’s flagship liqueur. It is marketed as if it is some ancient remedy, but the truth is that it was created in the 1960s, and there seems to be little historical context other than good marketing linking the drink to the city. Despite that, if you asked a resident what they think the local drink is, the answer will be Vana Tallinn 9 times out of 10.

Read the rest of this article.

Fried Lobster in Puerto Nuevo, Baja California

Fried lobster in Puerto Nuevo, Baja California, Mexico.

Fried lobster in Puerto Nuevo, Baja California, Mexico.

In a new weekly Friday column, we’ll explore street food and other culinary specialties from around the world. Last week, it was Laksa, Kolok Mee, and Satay in Kuching. This week, we head south of the border to Puerto Nuevo in Baja California to see what’s cooking.

Tacos and tamales are clearly the first thing that comes to mind concerning street food in Mexico, which is why it is somewhat refreshing to see a town doing something different. The self-described “Lobster Capital of Baja,” Puerto Nuevo sits been Ensenada and Rosarito, about 90 minutes from San Diego in Baja California. You can definitely get a taco in town, but what the tourists come for is the fried lobster.

Yes, fried lobster. Just when you think something can’t get any better, someone throws it in a vat of fat to find out. The shell is kept on and the entire lobster is pan-fried in lard to keep the meat moist, which is the key aspect and major difference between good and bad restaurants serving the dish. Rice and beans come on the side.

Most stories chalk the tradition back to before refrigeration, but otherwise the details of why the lobsters were fried in fat is rather vague (we’re assuming it simply tasted better than boiling them in water). Today’s culture continues because of tourism, for sure, and there are plenty of lobster-serving restaurants to choose from: Over 30 in the town of just a few streets.

Read the rest of this article.

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Photos: Was This the Most Beautiful Ski Day of My Life?

Over a foot of new snowfall dropped on Steamboat Springs prior to Super Bowl weekend, setting up deep runs through its infamous trees on Saturday. The locals refer to the area’s snow as “Champagne Powder” (which I’ll tell you about later), but it was when the storm passed that things got epic.

Every skier/boarder loves a good snowfall, but one thing that gets sacrificed on the account of a storm is the views and scenery on the mountain. When I woke up on Sunday morning, the clouds had cleared to reveal what is known as a “blue-bird sky” in ski lingo, providing a striking contrast with the white of the snow that had caked on to the Aspen and pine trees. Because the Broncos had yet to embarrass themselves, hope was indeed heavy in the thin Rocky Mountain air.

As we begin February and settle in for the last home stretch of winter, I thought a glimpse of how beautiful it can be would do you well. Coverage from my trip to the jungles of Southeast Asia (Borneo) is next.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Photo by Wake and Wander.

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Why I Didn’t Take Photos When I Saw the Northern Lights

This article was originally published on Conde Nast’s Jaunted.

After a few nights of anticipation and washing down cod chips with Northern Lights beer, I finally saw the Polar Lights in all their glory about an hour outside of Tromso in the Arctic Circle. There are a lot of words to describe the evening: Powerful. Incredible. Fascinating. Colorful. Inspiring.

But mostly, it was overwhelming.

I’ll take you back to the beginning.

I told you last week that the Northern Lights are a fickle beast, but no matter how much I knew that to be true, I never really drank my own Kool-Aid. A part of me believed each and every night that I would see them, leading to a certain degree of disappointment when I went home with the sky still black. I said that I wasn’t going to leave until I saw them, but that was more dramatic than anything else. Truth is I had limited time in the Norwegian Arctic, just like any tourist that comes in search of the lights, and I was nervous. I traveled all this way and braved the cold. Was it really possible that I would leave with my tail between my legs?

On the third night, we drove slowly on the snow-covered roads from town with Tromso Safari to a forested area of Takvatnet, and there was a hut, big enough to comfortably fit all ten of us, with a wood-burning fireplace in the center. This is where I ate the reindeer stew, and once again settled into the all-too-familiar feeling of waiting. But there was something else lurking in the air that night, an annoyance that went beyond lights that wouldn’t shine. To be perfectly honest, I was ready to smash each and every one of my friends’ cameras.

No disrespect and nothing personal, but that’s how I felt. I thought they were all missing the point in a way, or that they had never heard of Google Images. Don’t you want to see it, I thought, I mean really see it? All this talk about shutter-speed, aperture, ISO and focus. I sure hope you get the fucking photo, I thought, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to remember what you experienced.

I was being a dick, of course. And I didn’t say anything — I kept my mouth shut. But when the lights did come out to play that night, I knew I didn’t want be anywhere near a camera. I tightened my boots and trekked into the forest, off by myself and away from everyone. I found a break in the trees and I put on my headphones. I danced. I sat. I got up and danced again. The lights waved across the sky. Mostly green, except when it fluttered, like someone going down the line on an invisible piano. That’s when I saw the purple.

It’s hard to describe. What you see in photos of the lights is a time-lapse, a representation of what it looked like if you could take a few seconds and piece them back together. When they’re strong and energetic, like they were this night, they move without barriers, constantly changing shape and morphing out of themselves. They can go from a small, waving dot in the sky to a swirling network of fingers in a matter of seconds.

And when I saw it happen, all I could do was laugh, literally like a madman, and dance. The dancing was how I dealt with all the emotions that came flooding. It was the beauty, it was how long I had waited, it was the cold, clear night.

I know this sounds pretty nuts, but I would highly suggest keeping your camera in your hotel room when you go in search of the lights for the first time. I know the thought of having a photo that you took sounds really sexy — and I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to taking photos — but the distraction is not worth it. This is not a point and shoot operation, nothing like a stationary view where you snap an easy photo and then come back to reality to enjoy the moment. The movement and unpredictability requires your full focus, and “just one more” is an easy mentality to fall into. Before you know it, after three days of searching, the show’s over. Imagine if, when you look, none of your photos are good. I know because I’ve seen it happen.

For those of you who have seen the lights multiple times, or at least once, go for it. Bring you camera, have fun, shoot away. To first timers, I offer different advice. Leave the camera at your hotel — don’t even bother with it — and go out in the wilderness and experience it. Dance. Cry. Yell. Scream. Hug your friends. Remember that you’re seeing something people wait their whole lives to see, and that the photo that you “had to have” will probably never come off your hard drive anyway, okay?

THAT ALL SAID, since I’m a team player, I will pass on some tips I learned in the arctic for capturing good photos of the Northern Lights. There is indeed a process, and a few things to keep in mind. And I’ll also offer up a compromise — a way I found to have your cake and eat it to — for any of you out there that bought into my little spiel yet would still like a personal photograph to take home. You can read them here.

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