Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Memories From the Road

Although I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I want to and I haven’t laid eyes on even ten percent of the places I want to see in my lifetime, I’ve traveled quite a bit. So far, I have seen more than half of the United States, almost all of Canada and various places in Mexico and Cuba. I made a lot of memories and met some great people along the way and below is a sample of some of my greatest travel memories. When I recall these memories, I am inspired and reminded of how important it is to have these experiences in life and I hope by reading mine, you will be inspired to recall some of your favorite memories from your travels and will share them with others. After all, travel is one of the most educational, inspiring and eye-opening things we can do throughout our lives and when people recall some of their best memories, often, it is from times spent on the road where they made new friends, tried new foods for the first time, immersed themselves into a new culture, fell in love or did something they normally wouldn’t do like bungee jumped off the side of a cliff. For me, it is not just one moment that inspires me to write this post but many life-changing moments that will stay with me forever. Here they are in no particular order…

I remember reading one of my father’s copies of National Geographic as a child and being awestruck at a feature of the Grand Canyon. From that moment on (even if it was the only place I ever got to see), I wanted to see the iconic symbol of America’s southwest. That dream came true in April of 2009 when I traveled to Las Vegas and made a side-trip to the South Rim in Arizona. Because it was my first (and certainly not my last) trip to the Grand Canyon, I decided to do a tour which combined a helicopter ride over and down into the canyon where I than drifted down the Colorado river in a pontoon boat. The experience was surreal and looking at those photos years before didn’t come close to seeing it with my own eyes, up close and personal. Our tour guide gave us the choice at the end of the first leg of the tour to either walk the horseshoe shaped skywalk for an extra fee or to head over to a place that few people are even allowed to go to. This area located on the Hualapai Indian Reservation was gated off and only open to the very few people who had a key and the permission to enter the well-preserved location far removed from the touristy areas. The stillness was incredible and while looking down into that vast canyon, it felt like I was the last person left on the planet. There was literally nothing getting in the way of that perfect moment. No power lines, no cars, no loud tourists, no screaming children, no hotdog vendors…just this large canyon stretching for miles into the desert. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about that incredible moment!
Another thing I had always wanted to do was rent a car and drive off into the Mojave Desert and find the fabled Route 66 that is at the top of many road warrior’s to-drive lists. Although I didn’t make it to that famous desert highway, I did depart Las Vegas at sunrise one fine morning in late April and explored the Mojave Desert for three days. My hometown is located in Eastern Canada and is surrounded by lush, green vegetation and rolling hills and small tree-covered mountains so this desert terrain was the complete opposite of what I am used to and maybe that is why I was so intrigued and so awestruck by my surroundings. The rock formations, the cactus, the Joshua trees and the long dirt roads that seemed to go on forever were all things so foreign to me. And don’t even get me started on the spectacular sunsets and that night sky out there in that desolate place…I never saw so many stars in all my life. I didn’t find Area 51 (of course I looked for it!) and I didn’t see any flying saucers out there but I did see actual tumbleweed floating by in the wind and even witnessed a dust devil!
The Canadian Rockies are world renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on earth and now, after making my first trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks, I can honestly say I agree with that statement. As I drove away from the hustle and bustle of Calgary, AB on that beautiful day back in 2009, I was anticipating the moment when those first snow-capped peaks would become visible up ahead. And when they did, tears welled up in my eyes for I had never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. I spent two full days driving around on main roads and back roads admiring the view and photographing the abundant and curious wildlife that often came right up to the car...and this brings me to my next defining travel moment; Kananaskis country. I happened along this area near Canmore, AB when I stopped near a reservoir to stretch my legs. I noticed an interesting looking gravel road that lead into what looked like backcountry. I got a little lost, sunlight changed to moonlight and I did eventually find my way back to the main highway but I had no regrets in taking that almost day-long detour. Valleys, snowcapped mountains, elk and bighorn sheep everywhere, crisp mountain air and a serene and silent environment like none I had every witnessed before.
I moved to Newfoundland after high school to attend college. The day I packed up my car and headed to the ferry that would take me on a 14-hour journey across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and to my new life in St. John’s was both a sad and an exciting one. Sad to be leaving my family, friends and my home of almost twenty years to start out on my own in a new place where I knew no one but excited to be branching out on my own. My parents and sisters made that long trip to help me settle into my new life and that and another memorable experience made that long trip even more memorable for me; a surfer and harmonica player from California who livened up the house band with an impromptu set of lively jigs and old favorites that had everyone in high spirits. If you ever traveled on these ferries, you know that the mood is not always so light but that night was an exception.
This next travel memory happened a good many years ago but it is still as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday. My family departed early one morning for one of our weekend beach road trips to Mira Gut and came across a peculiar scene on the other side of the bridge near the beach; a film crew. Of course, curiosity got the better of us and when we asked what they were filming, they said it was a music video for Anne Murray’s rendition of the song “Song for the Mira” for a country music special that would be aired on The CBC. Because they needed children to sit around a fire overlooking the Mira River, my sisters and I were invited to take part. Many marshmallows and a few hours later, we departed the beach and made our way home, stopping for ice cream along the way with the money we had made from our television debut!

My mother and grandmother often talked about the Magdelan Islands as my great-grandparents hailed from there. The islands, which are located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near PEI and belong to the province of Quebec were always at the back of my mind as a place I would visit one day. That day came in the summer of 2009 when I hopped in the car and made my way to the ferry crossing to PEI and took another ferry to the main island in the archipelago. I was immediately smitten with the laid back, Acadian way of life, the scenic outports and beautiful sandy beaches. Along the highway were giant sand dunes and when curiosity got the better of me, I climbed over those dunes to discover that eastern Canada is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in North America, not Florida as we are lead to believe by travel agents trying to get us to relax in the deep south. The beach looked like it went on forever and was completely deserted. The white sand was the softest I had ever felt on my feet and the water was so warm, it rivaled that of any water I swam in while in the Caribbean. A trip on a Zodiac over rough seas, through caves and around rocky coast to an almost deserted island away from the main island and a spectacular sunset at a beautiful lighthouse were among the other things that made that trip so memorable.
Almost everyone in the northeastern climate of eastern Canada where I am from dreams of being on a long sandy beach somewhere in the Caribbean once the snow starts falling and doesn’t stop for 8 or 9 months. Prior to my first trip “down south”, I had seen the pictures and witnessed the crystal blue water on TV and in movies but experiencing the real thing was nothing in comparison. Playa Del Carmen along the Riviera Maya in southern Mexico was my first trip to the Caribbean Sea and the moment I saw that beach and those blue waters for the first time, I knew I wouldn’t want to leave. The water was so warm, the sand so soft and the sunsets spectacular. Walking that beach with my feet in the warm surf each evening with the sound of Spanish guitars and upbeat Mexican music floating through the air reminded me of what it must be like in Heaven!
The Riviera Maya in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico is known for many things including the remnants of Mayan Ruins and beautiful world-class resorts. The beaches that these resorts are surrounded by are spectacular but are often crowded with thousands of tourists and local vendors selling everything under the sun. I love beaches but I love them more when I have them all to myself. That is why the moment I rounded that bend near the Mayan Ruins at Tulum and laid eyes on Playa Santa Fe, I knew I had found paradise! The long stretch of deserted sand with palm trees, warm water, giant sand dunes and a small beach hut complete with a few laid back locals serving cervasa was exactly how I envisioned a Caribbean beach getaway should be.
Here is another Mexico travel moment that is more a lesson learned than a memorable experience. I certainly learned that the advice that everyone had given me to not drink the water should have been taken a little more seriously. I thought I was being careful by asking the bartender to hold the ice cubes, closing my mouth in the shower and only drinking water from a sealed bottle but somewhere, somehow I managed to sip some tainted water and after a serious bout of water borne illness that had me off my feet for almost half the trip, I fortunately became well enough to enjoy some of it. I suspect the ice tea I ordered at the internet café across the street from my hotel was the culprit as I forgot to ask for no ice in my ice tea. Memorable only because it is a mistake I hope I never make again!

Death Valley, California is not a place that many people think of for a vacation destination but after reading so much about this intriguing place and its many mysteries, I put it at the top of my must-see places. When I left Las Vegas early one morning in April, it was a bit on the cool side and rain was in the forecast. I drove off into the desert and after getting lost a number of times, I found the entrance to Death Valley National Park and kept driving until I found a look-off where I could get out and stretch my legs. Nothing prepared me for the shock I got when I opened the car door and was nearly knocked off my feet by the inferno that was, as I was told, normal temperatures for the valley. I will never forget it! It honestly felt like my skin was frying in that scorching sun.
One of the most enlightening and satisfying things about travel is the people you meet along the way and I have met my share of interesting and memorable people on the road. One person in particular comes to mind when I think of the people I have met while traveling. I only spent a few moments with him at sunset on a beach in Varadero, Cuba but his kindness and interest in knowing more about me and my life back home will never be forgotten. I was sitting alone on the beach watching the sun go sun and taking a moment to relax away from the loud party atmosphere that was brewing on the resort that evening. I was a few hours away from having to catch a bus to the airport to fly back home and just wanted to take in those surroundings one last time for the road. A young man who I had noticed earlier that day when he selling sea shells and various items to sunbathing tourists was also sitting alone on the beach watching the sun go down. We made eye contact and he walked over to where I was sitting and took a place on the sand next to me. We exchanged names and that was easy enough but I soon realized that he barely spoke English and there began one of the most interesting conversations I ever had. Despite the language barrier we were able to exchange details about where we live, our families, our jobs and everything else under the sun. I learned some Spanish and he learned some English and in between, we communicated via drawings in the sand. We were still laughing and talking and learning more about our very different lives when darkness fell and I had to leave to catch my plane. After a quick embrace and a hand shake, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
Leading up to my solo trip to Cuba, I had traveled to many places but never went to any far-flung destinations alone. It wasn’t that I was afraid to or didn’t want to. It just so happened that I always had someone to travel with. I really wanted to get away last spring and no one was available to come with me so I put on my brave face and went ahead and booked the trip and did it on my own. My family and friends were appalled and terrified at the idea of me traveling to another country alone and tried to discourage me from it. They feared I would be kidnapped, mugged or murdered because I would be an easy target. At first, I was a little intimidated by everyone around me traveling in groups but the benefits of traveling alone soon became clear to me. It was easier to meet new people, especially the locals, while traveling alone. I woke up and slept whenever I wanted without being disturbed. I went wherever I wanted whenever I wanted without having to compromise with others. There were no fights for the shower. And the list goes on and on. Everything seemed more vibrant, more alive and more interesting because I was able to focus on everything more clearly than I would have been able to had there been others with me. I spent as much time as I wanted just laying in the sand, watching the sun go down or watching the night stars appear over the Caribbean Sea. Decided than and there that this traveling alone thing is something I should do more often!
Moose are plentiful in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and, although tourists love watching and photographing them when they wander close to the highway, they rarely do anything interesting except just stand there and block traffic or munch on leaves. There are many hiking trails in the national park and it is common to meet moose on the trails but, again, they rarely do anything interesting. I met many moose on many trails but only one of these run-ins left me with an unforgettable experience. I heard the rustling in the trees first. Than I heard the large splash in the lake below and that is when I knew something large was lurking nearby. Most people would run thinking it was a bear but I am a curious person by nature and this often means that instead of running when I should, I quietly move closer to whatever it is that has caught my attention. This is what I did that day on the trail. I moved in closer through bushes and found a place that gave me a great view of the lake without being seen. It took a moment to focus in on the large object slowly moving in the water. There, only meters in front of me were 2 large bull moose washing their antlers in the water. I watched them until they swam off into the swampy area behind the trees. I imagine this is something rarely seen by people as I have never heard of anyone else witnessing moose doing anything but running out in front of moving vehicles and eating branches.
This next interesting travel moment is probably something that is more common than I think but it certainly left me with something interesting to talk about it. While seated in a window seat high above the Gulf of Mexico, I happened to look down through the clouds to see another plane fly directly beneath my own. It was so close that I could even make out the company logo! I may or may not have been the only person, besides maybe the pilot, to see this because no one else mentioned it. Of course, the person seated next to me didn’t believe me when I told him about it but I know what I saw!

Las Vegas is a very busy place at all hours of the day but, as one would suspect, Friday night is the busiest time of the week particularly on The Strip. Bumper to bumper traffic across all lanes, pedestrians (who have often had too much to drink) darting out into the street and numerous distractions everywhere all make for hectic and nerve-wracking driving for locals and visitors alike. I had one such experience with the madness that is The Strip one Friday night on my way home from a quiet and peaceful drive in the Mojave Desert and although, at the time, it was a very stressful and nerve-wracking experience, it is one I can now laugh at. I set my GPS to take me straight to my hotel (which was located on one end of the strip) without actually driving down the busy street to get to it. I followed the directions provided and, after a near accident in a poorly marked construction zone and a few wrong turns, I ended up at the opposite end of The Strip. I barely made it in one piece to my hotel a couple of hours later than intended and my frazzled passenger was kissing the ground upon disembarking our rental car. I should have known the rented GPS would fail us because earlier that morning it had gotten us lost on some deserted desert roads…after we programmed it NOT to take us on deserted desert roads!
I moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland just out of high school to attend college and, although I was excited at going out on my own in a new place with new people and new surroundings, the one thing I was looking forward to more than anything else was witnessing the giant icebergs that come into the bays and inlets every spring. News of incoming bergs started to spread around the city in late May that year and at the first news of bergs being spotted off Cape Spear, I jumped in the car and headed out with my camera. There were three large chunks of ice in the harbour that day. I knew icebergs were big but I had no idea they were that big. I got as close as I could without actually going into the water and started taking hundreds of pictures of the stunning scenery complete with massive and ancient icebergs in the foreground. Suddenly, there was a large popping sound and some loud bangs before the largest of the three split into two smaller pieces right before my eyes! Ice chunks and debris flew everywhere and a large wave, caused by the disturbance, crashed on shore. Had there been a boat nearby, it would surely have capsized but fortunately, no one was on the water that day…just a few lucky onlookers onshore who got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness it.
The Cape Breton Highlands National Park is known for its stunning natural beauty, the world-famous Cabot Trail and its spectacular sunsets but, as I discovered one beautiful summer evening at Ingonish Beach, it is also known for its spectacular moonrises, particularly during a full moon. I was relaxing at the beach just after sunset with my coffee before heading out on the two hour drive home when I saw it; A yellow glow on the horizon. At first, I didn’t know what it was but soon, that yellow glow started to form into a large orange ball rising over the horizon. I watched that beautiful full moon rise to its place high in the sky. I must have sat on that beach for many hours because it was close to midnight when I started for home. To this day, I have yet to experience another full moon like it and it was one evening I will never forget. So simple and seemingly insignificant but sometimes it’s the smallest and most simple things that end up being the most memorable.

1 comment:

Suzy said...

That last shot of the full moon is beautiful. These all sound like great travel memories.


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