Good Day at Red Rock Canyon

There’s a movie called “Bad Day at Black Rock” from 1955 where one of my favorite actors of all time, Spencer Tracy, finds himself in a hostile western US town.  If Tracy had only gotten his colors mixed up, he could have had a lovely day in the desert instead.

Red Rock Canyon, just outside of Las Vegas, is a national conservation area with ancient rust colored rock formations. It was one of the few “must dos” on my list for this trip: getting off the strip to see nature. The park’s small entry fee per vehicle is good for a full day and allows for re-entry  if you want to take a second loop through (we did).

The one-way road is well paved making it highly accessible for all with a number of places along the way to pull off to soak in the views or for hiking. I usually ignore visitor centers, but this one was worth the stop. The building was a modern eco-friendly design containing family friendly hands-on educational activities and displays with a focus on the environment and nature conservation.

Winding around Red Rock the landscape continuously morphs and the rock formations are always captivating.  Dog friendly walking, hiking, biking, and horse trails of various lengths and difficulties are everywhere for you to explore. At one location there was even a group of rock climbers repelling down the side of cliff face. For many though, the big draw of the park are the ancient petroglyphs  tucked back along one of the trails, and we definitely agree this is one thing not to be missed.

For a good day outside the hustle of Las Vegas visit Red Rock.



Hiking, Wine, and More in Shenandoah

In August of 2014, Mum and I met for a week in the appalachian region of Virginia. Neither of us had been to the area or new what to expect and both of us left wanting to return and explore more of the area.






We stayed in the small town of Basye near Bryce ski resort. Being there in the off-season turned out to be a good idea, not only because it was significantly cheaper. The ski resort, like many others across the country, offered activities to make the best use of the green hills like golfing, mountain biking, and tubing. Mum jumped at the chance to go zip lining and fly down the mountain through the tree tops. The whole idea frightens the ba-jezes out of me, so I sat on the condo balcony and knitted, watching her slide in at the end.

Shenandoah County offers a number of state parks with excellent hiking trails. Hondo and I hiked in a few of the local offerings and enjoyed the great views. Of course, Shenandoah National Park is also a prime local destination. The winding Skyline Drive offers amazing views of the valley and connects different peaks, waterfall, and amenities. There are a great deal of hiking trails, but not all are dog friendly, so be sure to follow signs and check your map. Thankfully the trail to the highest peak, Hawksbill Mountain was, and we enjoyed a long look over the patch-work countryside.

Nearby small towns of Mt Jackson, Quicksburg, Edinburg, Woodstock, and Harrisonburg make for great side trips . We made our way around some of the antique and thrift stores, family owned restaurants, and I picked up some local alpaca yarn. We even stopped at local potato chip factory, Route 11. They have large windows to the production floor where you can watch the potatoes at every stage from washing and peeling to seasoning and bagging. Their shop offers tasting of their regular flavors as well as a few unique offerings.

The Appalachian region also happens to be Virginia’s wine region. The “Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail” connects 22 local vineyards and you could take over a week just traveling to all the different options. Our favorite nearby stop was the Cave Ridge Winery. This small, family owned winery has daily tastings and live music on weekends. They’re also dog friendly and we felt very welcome to sit and sip our bottle while Hondo lounged by the vines.

The Appalachian region of Virginia has so much to explore and we only got a taste of it. I can’t wait to go back and see what else we can discover among the hills.




A Phnom Oudong Outlook

On my final day in Cambodia I was in for a treat. S took the day off work, made a very tasty spanish tortilla for breakfast, and (along with A & Y) we  were off on an adventure. We hired a tuktuk for the day and set off for a long drive north through the countryside, destination:  Phnom Oudong.

Phnom Oudong, a mountain bordering the formal royal capital and Buddhist religious site, is about an hour dive north of Phnom Penh. Highway 5, which runs along the Tonle Sap river , isn’t yet fully paved, but will take you nearly to the gate. The dive north was something of an event in itself for me. From our tuktuk I would see the neighborhoods of the Cham minority (Cambodian ethnic muslims), rice paddies, fields of lotus flowers, factories, and tradtional khmer homes on stilts (so that they won’t flood during the rainy season). The sides of the roads are littered with trash throughout the country, as infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up with development yet, and at various points along the way there were small fires that were set to burn the collected rubbish. Cows walk on the shoulder, or sometimes in the middle of the road, prompting drivers to swerve around them.

just a few cows, in the road


You start walking up an incline past a number of stupas damaged by the Khmer Rouge, until you reach the start of the stone steps carefully set into the side of the mountain. There are a total of 509 steps up to the buddhist temple, and for the last section you need to take your shoes off out of respect (the white marble steps allow for you to not burn your feet). Along the way you pass baskets for monetary offerings, local beggars, and another stupa. We even encountered a few wise monkeys on our ascent.

The stupa at the very top is an incredible work of art. The white stone almost glows and every surface has intricate carvings and iconography. When you can finally tear your eyes from the structure and look out, the view is incredible from every direction. The country side below stretches  like a lush, green, patchwork quilt. From the southern view you can see the old city of Oudong below with its gold painted structures and temples.

Being so far away from the intensity of the city, looking out over the beautiful countryside, and hearing the buddhist prayers rise from a local center, its hard not to feel that this is something completely special. Thank you, Cambodia.


My Top 10 Must Pack Items

On my quest to become a perfect packer (more at PackRat Will Travel), I have learned a few tricks. Below are the top ten items I will no longer travel without…

  1. Pitchable Ponchos
    I pack a few disposable rain ponchos for travel during rainy season, or to locations like the amazing city of London, where rain seems to be a year-round ordeal.  Visitors also underestimate the need for ponchos when vacationing in sunny Central Florida, where brief afternoon thundershowers are a daily occurrence. I typically find ponchos in the drug store for a couple of bucks each. They’re light, take up no room at all, and will prevent you from having to choose between overspending or modeling an unflattering-at-best plastic garbage bag. If your’re preparing to travel with a group, you can also order clear, disposable ponchos by the dozen for $19 at
    *Tip – if you hike into the Costa Rican rainforest, do not leave your rain ponchos in your rental car.
  2. Techie Tool Kit
    A camera charger, a back-up battery, an extra SD chip, a cell phone charging cord, a Fitbit charging cord, a USB wall port and a USB car converter are my personal top tech needs. All tuck neatly in a transparent sandwich sized Ziplock. With three camera batteries and a cell phone to charge, I easily could employ three converters on an international trip. This summer, mistakenly packed only the converter I would need in Uruguay, South America. I neglected to research whether the same converter would work in Argentina. The answer was NO.
    *Tip – Save yourself some angst. Pack the complete kit, and be done with it.
  3. Pre-Packed Toiletries
    Since traveling intermittently for business in the ’80s, I have kept a grab-and-go toiletry bag packed at all times. When I return home, I refill what’s needed (like a fresh mosquito repellent bracelet) or add an item to my shopping list while it’s fresh on my mind. Among other necessities, I always have antibacterial wipes, my mini sewing kit, a magnifying mirror, a personal heating pad to fend off chills or sore muscles, and a small rubber door stop to wedge under my door for added security while in my room. My fully-packed catch-all bag resides in my small rolling carry on, providing a speedy way to skip town!
    *Tip – Hang a few safety pins from the bag’s zipper pull.
  4. Pretty Pill Box
    Ditch the bulky bottles. I photograph each bottle label with one easily identifiable pill, to ensure I have accurate documentation for two purposes; to verify my prescription while traveling, and to assist in case of a medical emergency. I take a full week in a pretty little pill sorter, with a few extras of my most important medications in case of a delay.
    *Tip – If you are prone to motion sickness, be sure to have your doctor prescribe Transderm patches for behind your ear.  Each works for three days – but the protection WILL wear off if you do not replace it by the end of day three. They fit right in the bottom of my pill case.
  5. Bubble Wrap
    I somehow gravitate towards bringing home “breakables.” So I pack a small roll of bubble wrap. I’ve carried home a vintage vase and a set of beautiful stoneware plates from England. I lugged a treasured pitcher from Paris, wrapped in a layer of bubble wrap, and padded with soft clothing. And I recently transported glass jars of goodies from South America. Yet, due to bubble wrap, I have yet to discover a broken artifact in my bags upon my return.
    *Tip – Consider shipping when you can; you’ll already have the bubble wrap!
  6. A Reusable Tote
    My favorite bags easily cover all bases, transforming between shopping bag, beach bag and “technology undercover bag” to deter thieves. I have very different preferences, depending upon mode of travel and destination. For international travel this inexpensive IKEA pocket-pouch converts into a generous sized backpack. For domestic air travel, I prefer a “personal item” that zips closed, like the duffel style bag available in our MeetUatGate online store. When driving, I prefer an open beach tote  stuffed with easy-to-reach road trip snacks.
    *Tip – The  IKEA pocket bags come in two sizes/styles and make great thank you gifts for travel hosts or new friends who you connect with during your travels. Take a few extra!
  7. Empty Ziplock Bags
    Ziplock bags ensure liquids like local sauces, liqueurs and perfumes do not leak onto your belongings. These also protect your fabrics from absorbing the scents of culinary herbs and seasonings you may want to take to or from your own home kitchen. I collect shells from each beach I visit, and the shells stay divided until I can display them. They also keep the tekkie tools listed above in one place. Quart and gallon sized ziplocks have a perpetual home in my rolling carry-on.
    *Tip – Pack a sharpie and clearly label your bubble wrapped and bagged items. I have this bag of beautiful, unlabeled stones…
  8. Wine Protectors 
    I must admit that I own both versions of these padded wine bags, and use them on nearly every trip. I carry wine, liquor or even olive oils to and fro in these great bags. My brief review: The WineSkin Wine Bag is more durable and a bit more attractive, but I like the heavy cotton absorbent padding in the Jetbag. I once carried a bottle of vino that sprung a slight leak  – and the potential mess was absorbed in my Jetbag, shielding  my clothing and new treasures from red wine..
    *Tip – The Jetbag accommodates BOTH a bottle of wine and a small bottle of sauce or olive oil (upside down and adorned in bubble wrap, of course. )
  9. Camera and Journal: With watercolor pencils and a waterbrush
    A few years ago I started creating a journal page depicting each trip.  I often have to finish them when I arrive home, but I have photos that spark vivid memories, allowing me to re-live sights, sounds and experiences. I write random things like names of kind waiters and foreign language snafus, sketch odd things like road signs and objects, and write descriptive entries about what I hear, see, and feel. The proportions of my scribbles are most times off, but my pages make me smile nonetheless. A waterbrush pen is a great tool for quick sketching on the move. The body of the pen is a water receptacle, so it stays moist without a cup of water nearby.
    *Tip – If you are unsure of your sketching skills, a small pad of tracing paper is your friend. Take rubbings of signs, portions of historic markers, foliage or textures and hand write your notes around them. Photograph or scan your “travel art” once home.
  10. Packing Cubes
    Last but not least, this year I became a packing cube convert! There are more expensive options, but the IKEA four-pack is an easy, inexpensive favorite as a start. For Li, packing cubes are about organization. For me it’s all about compression. When I traveled to South America for three weeks during their winter, I packed heavy sweaters, a sweatshirt, jeans and boots  – and could not believe how much could be rolled and stuffed into a single packing cube. The mesh allows the air to escape while you compress (sit on?) and zip the cube.
    This spring, I traveled to Cabo San Lucas with just a rolling carry-on and my clothing in just the three cubes pictured. The small cube contained five pairs of panties (hidden from view, thanks) and two swim suits, because what sane woman  could go to Mexico with only one? The mid-size cube contains a knit sundress, a pair of leggings, a casual knit dress that doubles as a beach cover-up, and a long sleeved tee. The largest cube is double-sided, with one side containing long cotton pants, a long knit skirt, two tanks,  a men’s white linen shirt, a cotton pashmina, and a strapless bra. The reverse side contained non-clothing items listed above like tech items, rain ponchos and journaling supplies. When I travel internationally, I pack clothing that I plan to leave behind. I plan for for the bubble wrapped treasures and of course, the wine bags full of goodies!
    Serial travelers may want to check out
    *Tip – A clothing-packed cube doubles as a nice, firm travel pillow. Just pack it into a pillow case. I’ve even carried mine on my flight, as pillows count as neither a personal item nor a piece of luggage.


Damajagua and 27 Charcos

Last year, September 2016, Mum and I were drinking in the peace of the Dominican Republic… and Presidente.

img_2439Besides intense relaxation, there was one thing I knew I wanted to do: waterfall slides. Not water slides, waterfall slides.   Just south of Puerto Plata there’s a series of 27 waterfalls that flow from the Rio Damajagua  down a mountain, forming natural water slides or jumps into deep pools (charcos). There are a number of different tour companies that offer packages which include transportation, and I opted to  reserve our spot ahead of time through Iguana Mama.  Even though we chose a group option, low season meant we got our own private tour. They picked us up down the street from our flat and the guide drove us to the falls, reciting some memorized facts.

Some little time later we were at the base of the mountain, being given helmets and life jackets by our 27 Charcos guide. There was a drought, so we were told we’d only be able to do 12 of the falls as the water levels were too low at the others.  The bonus of this was a
shorter, very pleasant hike half way up the mountain. Then came the trip helmetsdown. Sitting at the edge of a rock, I held on for a second with the cool river rushing around me.  I assumed the water park position, legs crossed at ankles, arms folded over chest, and…

Sliding down the short section of smooth rock, I fell into the pool, dropping deep before resurfacing.  The adrenaline of anticipation and the shock of hitting the water were direct opposites and fantastic in every way.  I swam off to the side of the pool and watched as Mum had her turn, surfacing from the water laughing.

There were also a few pools where the rock was not long enough to slide, but instead were straight drops. This honestly scared the #$%& out of me. Mum, always braver,  went first and then with her encouragement from the pool below (far, far below) I took a deep breath and…

The slap of the pool was like waking up all over again.  We swam, hiked, slid, and jumped all the way to the bottom.  The day was a once in a lifetime experience that was as amazing and fun as it was exhausting.  We definitely earned our Mamajuana drink that day!

Did I mention that it happened to be my Birthday? Since I’m not a fan of cake, Mum made sure I had a celebratory drink. Best birthday ever. Thank you, Mum!drbday3


That’s Why it’s Called a Rain Forest

In November of 2014 Mum and I packed our bags and headed to Costa Rica. Neither of us had ever been to any central american country before and we had no idea about what we might see. It was going to be an adventure!  The only thing we both knew heading in was that we needed to go to the rainforest.

I’ve been enamored with the rainforest since the third grade when there was a lesson on different earth ecosystems and environmentalism. I made a diorama out of cardboard and clay of a rainforest, complete with a tiny clay sloth. When I told mum that this was my only necessary outing in Costa Rica, she jumped in one with added request: to see a monkey.

rain in Parque Nacional Carara

On our second day in the country, we hopped into the rental car (for more on that see It Rains Rocks in Costa Rica) and drove to Parque Nacional Carara. We payed the modest entry fee and started to make our own way down the trail, no other people in sight. The giant trees were magnificent, with great green liana vines snaking from the canopy to the floor. Not five minutes later the skies opened up. It was pouring! We continued walking, hiding under the small umbrellas in our packs and covered the camera the best we could. After about twenty minutes, we gave up and left, soaked to the bone and without seeing any wildlife.

Two days later, we tried again, this time at Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. At this much more popular park, we paid for a local guide who lead us through the entrance to the beach area, pointing out the different plants and showing us animals through his telescope. Almost immediately we saw a giant two-toed sloth asleep in the tree. She was so much more beautiful than I had imagined years ago. I was in heaven. We also saw a small local deer, ants, hermit crabs, and wild raccoons who had claimed the area as their own. We spent another hour at the beach where mum swam in the warm water and I soaked up the trees. After another short hike around the tip of the park, we decided it was time to head out. Just as mum was expressing her disappointment in not seeing a monkey, there they were! An entire tribe of white-faced capuchin monkeys were crossing the path in front of us. We froze and whispered excitedly as mothers hurried past us with their babies on their backs. After they disappeared into the trees we hugged each other. “I’m so happy to be here with you,” I told her.

a mother Capuchin carries her baby