We heart NY

Note: I began writing this post late September 2014. Vivian just proofed the draft and photos tonight and has given me permission to publish!

A month ago today the Nice family returned from an epic East Coast trip. I’m not sure how many blog posts (or how long) it will take to document all we did, but today I’m “spreadin’ the news” (cue Frank Sinatra’s famous tune!) about Vivian’s and my adventure in the Big Apple.


New York is one of my all-time favorite cities. Starting when I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about the city that never sleeps, and I’d pore over a coffee table photographic book of Manhattan she’d bought when she lived there in the 1960’s. In 3rd grade, the same year I wrote my 33 page mystery, and lots of people asked me what I wanted to be “when I grow up.” My answer: a novelist in New York City.


So my childhood dream eventually morphed into a parent dream after visiting NYC in 1998 and again in 2010 – I wanted to take Vivian to New York for her 13th birthday. So, even though we’d talked about the trip for a while, there wasn’t gobs of planning that went into the trip. My main goal was exposure to America’s greatest big city, and an authentic way to experience our days. And the goal was to not bust the budget. Luckily, we scored free tickets, thanks to airline miles and having the presence of mind to book our flight (a red eye) 7 months in advance.

Vivian settles in for the red eye.

Vivian settles in for the red eye.

I chose to find accommodations on AirBnB because I wanted us to stay in the West Village and immerse ourselves in a real neighborhood, even for just a short time. If you’ve ever booked on AirBnB, you know that it takes a little groundwork first. You have to set up a profile, start searching, then send out inquiries. It’s similar to VRBO in that respect, but oftentimes owners tell you their place isn’t available (even if it is on the calendar.) I sent out probably 10 inquiries back in February.


Our NYC “home” in the West Village.

We ended up at a charming place with a cool owner, Lauren. Lauren has a 3 bedroom, 1 bath apartment on a 4th floor walk-up, right in the heart of West Village, and she rents out one or both bedrooms on AirBnB. It couldn’t have been a better location, blocks from the subway line and awesome walkability. The price was right, too – probably half of what we would have paid for a Manhattan hotel room. There was one other young woman from Florida renting the 2nd bedroom, and we saw her more than we saw Lauren.

The bedroom was tiny - no room to walk or even set your bags down.

The bedroom was tiny – no room to walk or even set your bags down.

The micro kitchen/living room at our West Village AirBnB.

The micro kitchen/living room at our West Village AirBnB.

After a red eye with a stop in Houston, our plane landed at La Guardia about noon. Our driver, Ricardo, picked us up on time and drove us to “Equinox” – Lauren’s gym – to pick up the apartment key, then dropped us off at the front door minutes later. The hardest part was lugging our roller boards up four flights of stairs!

Approaching The Highline.

Approaching The Highline.

Within an hour we were rested and recharged, sort of. Armed with my Fodor’s NYC map and the knowledge that the Highline was our destination, we set off on foot and with one of Lauren’s umbrellas (yep, it was sprinkling.) After a block or two, I stopped to clarify directions, and this was the first of probably 25 times we would stop and ask for help. Every time, we encountered kindness and helpfulness. Vivian and I heart New Yorkers!

Highline greenery sprouting from the old railroad.

Highline greenery sprouting from the old railroad.

The Highline is one of New York’s newest attractions. Basically, it’s an elevated park  constructed atop an old railroad trestle. We wandered around between the raindrops, took photos, people watched, and found refreshments – coffee for me and sparkling Italian lemon for Vivi – just basically steeped ourselves in the city.


Vivian showcased her dance poses around the Big Apple, here at the Highline.

Eventually we made our way to Chelsea Marketplace afterward for more browsing and a food-court-style dinner. I also bought some breakfast food and snacks, and after dropping $40 for such simple sustenance, realized that eating for the next few days was going to blow my budget expectations. “I can’t believe we’re in New York!” Vivian kept exclaiming, snuggling up to me. Those snuggles have become more rare since middle school and I cherished the abundance of affection she showered on me in The City!

Picking up a souvenir at Chelsea Marketplace (can you read what's on the pouch??!!)

Picking up a souvenir at Chelsea Marketplace (can you read what’s on the pouch??!!)

Day 2 started slow. I slumbered for about 13 hours (the only night I really slept well) then had to wrap up a work project before Vivian awoke 90 minutes later. Our original plan was to hit 5th Avenue and Times Square since our Broadway show was that night.

Ready for her first subway ride (in the U.S.)!

Ready for her first subway ride (in the U.S.)!

Lauren gave me instructions via text which subway to take for “downtown.”  After a couple stops I realized we were going the wrong direction. So I asked someone and he corrected me that 5th Avenue was uptown, not downtown.

Times Square

Times Square

Well, okay. As I formulated a plan, mostly “what the heck should we do next?” a kind woman next to me suggested we just stay on the subway at South Ferry because it turns around and heads uptown. “They tell everyone to get off, but just stay put. If the conductor comes up to you, say you went the wrong direction and need to go uptown.”

Sure enough, they blared over the intercom to exit the subway. We didn’t move as everyone poured out the doors; the conductor came onto the train and listened to my lame (but true) excuse, nodded curtly, then let us alone. Phew! Minutes later the subway lurched and we bulleted uptown.


As I studied the subway map and noticed that 42nd Street was one stop before 5th Avenue, I decided we should just skip 5th Avenue and go straight to Times Square, since we got a later start than planned.

We climbed up from the subway stairs to the glitzy lights and garish signs swirling around and lording over us. Vivian shrieked “It’s bigger than life!” An unforgettable moment.


She insisted we go to H & M first, since Aunt Molly suggested it. I was pleased to notice the New Amsterdam Theater right next to the subway stop, noting that it would be easy to ride the subway back that night after the show.

The minutes melted into hours as we hoofed it all over Times Square: H & M, Forever 21, Uniqlo, and others that are now a blur. We found Radio City Music Hall. Vivian informed me we’re coming back during the holidays sometime to see the Rockette’s Christmas show.


My friend Maria recommended Ellen’s Stardust Diner for dinner because the servers are all aspiring Broadway actors. Alas, it was a 90 minute wait when we finally found it and I didn’t want to rush before the show. Consolation: Planet Hollywood, which Vivian deemed uber-cool. Their chicken strips impressed her, and she knows her kids-menu chicken strips! 🙂


Finally, what we’d been anticipating all day – ALADDIN! No live theater compares to a Broadway show, on Broadway. The theaters are so intimate, it’s like you’re a part of the show. Aladdin was pure magic, intoxicating. The music made us want to sing and dance along. And the set changes were remarkable, not too mention the magic carpet ride of Jasmine and Aladdin. But the Genie stole the show. He was hilarious, an extraordinary talent. Not surprisingly, he won a Tony for the role.

It makes me smile, writing about that night. So glad Vivian and I shared it together.


I felt confident to ride the subway back to the West Village since the station was across the street from the theater. However, once we walked up to the street level, I could not get my bearings. Not good.

The darkness, the different exits, the diagonal streets in the village, my fatigue, all combined to make us “lost.” It was an uncomfortable, even scary feeling, that I did my best to suppress, as we wandered for probably 20 minutes (felt like hours) past a couple of drunken bars and apartments that looked familiar, but weren’t ours.

We asked for directions at a pizza place and learned we were basically a block away. Then Vivian helped us find the apartment – on the opposite side of the street. Relief rinsed over me as we trudged up the four flights of stairs to the apartment.

Lobby of Rockefeller Center.

Lobby of Rockefeller Center.

Our third day we headed to Rockefeller Center to snag sunset tickets to Top of the Rock.

Rockefeller Center by night.

Rockefeller Center by night.

Mission successful. The shops on Fifth Avenue beckoned for the day and we hit it hard: Tiffany’s, American Girl, FAO Schwartz, Lindt, Guess, and more.



Vivian and the American Girl doll of the year. :)

Vivian and the American Girl doll of the year. 🙂

The highlight of the afternoon was our 1+ hour pedicab ride through Central Park. Alex, our rider/driver, a fit 20-something from Eastern Europe, gave us an entertaining and informative commentary on the park. He provided just the right amount of stops and photo opps between pedaling: Bethesda Fountain, Strawberry Fields, Yoko Ono’s apartment building. This is the best way to make the most of Central Park in the least amount of time. He dropped us off at The Plaza and we peeked in the lobby. Opulent!


Alex, our pedi-cab driver, pedals through downtown Manhattan at the beginning of our tour. Big city thrills!


Alex patiently waited for us while we explored Bethesda Fountain.

Strawberry Fields.

Strawberry Fields.


Yoko Ono's apartment building, where she has lived for about 40 years.

Yoko Ono’s apartment building, where she has lived for about 40 years.

Then as we watched some street dancers, I checked my email and learned the exciting news that Vivian had made the Elite Performing Company team! She was so thrilled, she bounded and leapt up the steps, reveling in pure joy. I will never forget that moment, nor will she.


Kickin’ it at Bethesda Fountain.

To celebrate, we went on the hunt for the Capezio store. Thanks to my smartphone and Viv looking up high (the store was located on the 2nd level), we scooted in 20 minutes before closing. Just enough time to try on and buy a new leotard!

Every dancer loves Capezio.

Every dancer loves Capezio.

Then it was back to Rockefeller Center for Top of the Rock. My experience to the top of the Empire State Building in previous years (crazy long lines) had me wanting to do something different this trip. My instinct was right this time.


We huddled in the dusky elevator and gazed upward. The glass ceiling showed the eery elevator shaft, illuminated with strobe lights as we soared to the top! Top of the Rock, in my opinion, is much better than Empire State Building. There are multiple levels and spaces for outside viewing, so it feels less crowded.


Being there at sunset was spectacular. Manhattan was awash with twilight hues of blues, grays, pinks, and violets. The glittery city lights twinkled as the night sky turned inky. Another moment seared in my memory.


Sunset cityscape view from Top of the Rock.

After strolling around Rockefeller Center, we capped off the day with a slice of NY pizza and chocolate Italian ice at the neighborhood pizza place (where we got directions the previous night.)



On the fourth day, we meant to get an early start, but slept in. Neither of us were sleeping soundly due to the heat. Despite the open window and fan in our bedroom, it was extremely stuffy.


Alas, we had no huge agenda, and decided to take the ferry to Ellis Island. My great-grandparents, Mary and John Schechtel, came to America via Ellis Island around 1912. When I visited Ellis in 2008, I looked them up in the immigration records.


The line to the ferry was long and slow, both coming and going, but overall worth it for the Statue of Liberty views along the way and walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. The baggage room and registry room have been preserved as they were when the immigrants who entered America. Each person was subjected to a medical exam and legal inspection, and if they didn’t “pass” either, they were detained and separated from their family, sometimes for weeks!

The Registry Room at Ellis Island.

The Registry Room at Ellis Island.

My German great-grandmother was pregnant with her 3rd child (my grandfather) when her husband and two young daughters left Russia to escape poverty and persecution as Catholics. After landing at Ellis Island, they eventually made their way to Portland, Oregon and raised seven children! I still remember family reunions centered on Granny Schechtel’s birthdays – she lived to age 96!


The ferry returned us to Battery Park and we walked up to Bowling Green to catch the subway to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, stopping at least once to clarify directions.

NYC's famous Brooklyn Bridge.

NYC’s famous Brooklyn Bridge.

We trekked across the Brooklyn Bridge and back in about an hour. It is truly one of NYC’s architectural wonders. The clouds hung heavy, droplets sprayed over us, and we gorged on fresh, tangy mango slices between stops for photos, people watching, and taking in skyline views. Our tired, leaden legs successfully hailed a taxi to drive us back to the Village. Man, those taxis are sure quicker than the subway!


We finally met our landlord, Lauren, the next day. She was a 28 year old investment banker originally from a small town in Massachusetts. It was good to chat with her for a while in person. I’d been annoyed at some shortcomings in the accommodations – no place to hang up clothes or even towels, running out of toilet paper, lack of a/c – all of which seemed silly after we got to know her.

Our last meal in NYC.

Our last meal in NYC.

Our last and best NYC meal was at Westville, a small cafe we’d passed a few times enroute to the Christopher subway station. It had great online reviews for brunch, and our meals didn’t disappoint. Me: egg/spinach/mushroom scramble + gluten free toast. Viv: bagel, fruit salad, and hot cocoa. We were the first ones there, and good thing, as there were only about 4 tables. It felt very villagey and even better, very affordable.

Artful breakfast at Westville.

Artful breakfast at Westville.

After breakfast we meandered through Greenwich Village, and picked up a few mementos in local shops. Vivian found some black and white NYC art to hang in her bedroom, made by the artist and shop owner. The best kind of “souvenir”!

Scenes from Greenwich Village.

Scenes from Greenwich Village.


Then it was back to our apartment to drop off the keys, say farewell to Lauren, and gather our bags. We hustled to to subway for one last ride directly to Penn Station. Once we arrived, it felt chaotic. Probably “absolutely normal chaos” to a New Yorker, but I felt edgy because we had cut it close time-wise.

We gave our Fodor's NYC map quite a workout over 4 days.

We gave our Fodor’s NYC map quite a workout over 4 days.

We soon found the right level, and after stopping not once, but twice to ask the Penn Station police (yes, police) for help, found the posted schedule. Then we stood with the masses, staring at the gigantic schedule and waited for the track number to pop up on our train. It finally did, just 10 minutes before departure.

Penn Station. Ready for part 2 of an epic East Coast trip.

Penn Station. Ready for part 2 of an epic East Coast trip.

We folded into the sea of humanity and funneled down the escalator to find our train. After a few minutes of searching, and kindly asking a young man to move, we cobbled 2 seats together. Finally, we could stow our bags and settle in. Our three hour ride rolled us through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. It wasn’t the most scenic ride, but it was comfortable and relaxing compared to air travel.

Finally, we rendezvoused with Jason and William at the Baltimore airport. The Nice family was reunited for a week in and around Washington D.C.!


Thank you, New York. My favorite city in the world lived up to my expectations  – the perfect backdrop for bonding a 13 year old daughter and her fearless mom.





Epic in every way, our spring break trip to southern Utah edged to the extremes. Road trip? Check – 50 hours in the car round trip. Big scenery? Yup – hikes and vistas that envelope you in all their vastness. Crowds? Yes, our very own; we traveled as a group of 21! The Nices, Larsons, Coys, Hamptons, and Martin-Higgins families rounded out our herd of 10 adults and 11 kids/tweens/teens!


Our Moab mob set to float down the Colorado River!

Traveling with a group presents its own brand of adventure. It helps to have a “chief” taking the lead on activity planning (thank you, Larsons!), a pre-arranged dinner schedule, and a healthy dose of patience and humor. Fortunately for us, this was easy for our group. For what you lack in flexibility with group travel, the fun multiplies exponentially when you get to hang out with great friends. A major plus: no whining from the kiddos on the hikes!

Vivian and Anna enjoy a quick shopping excursion in downtown Moab.

Vivian and Anna enjoy a quick shopping excursion in downtown Moab.

Moab, located in the southeastern corner of Utah, is the trifecta for outdoor recreation: 1. It’s super close to three national parks: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and (my favorite) Arches. 2. The Colorado River tumbles through the middle of town. 3. The area is a mecca for mountain biking, thanks to its extensive trail system and sunny, arid weather. And….we did it all.


Chiseled, cliffy Golden Throne lords over Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

A chiseled, stark monolith, Golden Throne lords over Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.

Because we had five families in our party, Mindy found the Moab Retreat House to rent. It was actually two spacious duplexes (connected through the garage) that sported three kitchens, eight bedrooms, 6.2 bathrooms, 2 livingrooms, 2 basement family rooms, and 2 great rooms (I know I sound like a realtor about now!) With 21 people it was lovely to have enough space to spread out. Situated near downtown Moab, it also had spectacular vistas of the red rocky hills.

The Capitol Reef sign melts into the landscape.

The Capitol Reef sign melts into the landscape.


We decided to detour on our second day of driving to Capitol Reef National Park. Although it tacked on an extra three hours in the car, it was worth it since it’s tucked deep in Utah’s canyon country, so remote we’d never see it otherwise. What a beautifully strange landscape of multihued rock layers.


All the kiddos, including William, were ready to shake loose after 17 hours in the car!

All the kiddos, including William, were ready to shake loose after 17 hours in the car!

Our group was pretty happy to spill out of our cars to hike the trail to Hickman Bridge. It was the perfect intro to a week of many more hikes in jaw-dropping scenery. We made a point of viewing Golden Throne and Capitol Dome, too, because who knows when we’ll back? Probably never.

We dwarfed under the grand Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef.

We dwarfed under the grand Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef.


The hottest day in Moab drew us to the Colorado River. It snakes through red rock country that was the backdrop for so many spaghetti western movies of the 1950’s and 60’s. The brilliant contrast of the orange rock formations against the turquoise blue sky was absolutely mesmerizing.

Recognize the red rock plateaus from old western movies?

Recognize the red rock plateaus from old western movies?


Our guided river raft tour didn’t thrill us with rushing and gushing white water. Instead it was a relaxing and scenic float that replenished our vitamin D! The guide in our boat looked like he was about 16….and we weren’t surprised to discover at the end of the trip it was his first-ever solo guided float!

Jason took the oars for a while -our newbie guide needed a break after rowing upstream to rescue Will's overboard baseball hat!

Jason took the oars for a while -our newbie guide needed a break after rowing upstream to rescue Will’s overboard baseball hat!


Soon the day arrived to shred the trails on Moab Brands. Unfortunately, Vivian was sick and had to miss the mountain biking extravaganza. William kept up as best he could on his fat-tired Schwinn but Jason and I felt invincible on our rental mountain bikes.

William about to embark on his first mountain bike adventure at Moab Brands.

William about to embark on his first mountain bike adventure at Moab Brands.


These bikes retail for a cool $3K and it’s no surprise. You can tear up the slick rock when you have supreme shocks and first-class tires! Cruising along, up and down, down and up, twisting and turning, trying not to spill – what a rush! It’s a vastly different experience than mountain biking on our gravel and dirt trails under towering pines in Central Oregon.

My first-ever selfie when I got separated from my group. I wasn't lost, but I wasn't 100% sure of my direction!

My first-ever selfie when I got separated from my group. I wasn’t lost, but I wasn’t 100% sure of my direction either!


Stay tuned for a separate post on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks – hopefully sooner than later! 😉

Final shot at Capitol Reef National Park's soaring spires and colorful cliffs.

Final shot at Capitol Reef National Park’s soaring spires and colorful cliffs.






Earlier this month we were holed up in the house for 5 days with Snowpocalypse 2014 (a big deal for us in western Oregon.) Cabin fever set in quickly and I knew there was no excuse. No reason to procrastinate. So I tackled a project that tugs at me guiltily every time I think of it: doing something with the thousands of photos on my computer.


In the course of assembling two digital photo albums (which is not fast and simple – it was way easier to slap snapshots into the old fashioned, tactile album) I stumbled onto tons of pictures from our road trip to Yellowstone National Park. Then my National Geographic Traveler magazine arrived a few days ago with a feature about Yellowstone. And today I found my notes from our trip in the first pile I looked in my office. So clearly – this post is ready to be written.


Ah, Yellowstone. America’s first and oldest national park. Jason and I had gone to Yellowstone before we became parents. I would have been satisfied to keep it to one visit, but Jason really wanted the kids to experience it….and who am I to say no to an adventure?


Like 90% of our vacations, we made it a road trip. After two loonnngg days of driving (with an overnight in Boise to visit old friends), our road-pounded muscles and frazzled moods arrived at West Yellowstone. As we unpacked, the irony that we would have another two full days of driving to cover the park was not lost on me. (Which is why I would have been okay with only one trip to Yellowstone in my life.)


A fiery orb lifted at dawn the next morning. Surely such a brilliant sunrise indicated a great day ahead! Refreshed, we tumbled into the car again. We all agreed to push the reset button to make life more pleasant on the road. These comments are straight from my notebook:

Mom – “Have patience and use a happy tone of voice.”

Dad- “Have patience and enjoy the day.”

Vivian – “Ignore things and people who are bothering me.”

William – “I’ll try not to whine.”

IMG_2905Rolling into the park we kept our eyes peeled for wildlife. Soon we spied mangy, hulking bison, ubiquitous at Yellowstone. We snapped a bunch of photos of that first bison, not realizing we’d see bunches more throughout the park. Cruising through Yellowstone, we passed the Continental Divide, where west side waters flow into the Pacific and eastside waters flow – you guessed it – the Atlantic! IMG_2919

Throughout our many stops, a sulfury-rotten egg smell wafted around as we observed steamy fumeroles and deep azure puddles. Bubbling paint pots looked like dancing frogs! Geothermal pools spilled down granite banks into tumbling rivers.


Truly, there are so many geologic wonders at Yellowstone. We waited patiently with the hordes for spazzy Old Faithful, a window into the the interior of the earth, to explode.


My favorite was the West Thumb Geyser, a crater within a crater. Powered by our planet’s inner heat, it steams and glows year-round. Peering through my sunglasses illuminated deeper fissures in the cauldrons. It was like wearing 3-D glasses.


Our drive took us through Hayden Valley, a massive swath of rolling rangeland with lots and lots of grazing bison.


Another highlight was Artist Point, aptly named for the streaky rose, peach, and ivory cliffs. Photo opp!



All our stops on day 1 were clogged with visitors, and again, made us road-weary. We decided to take a different approach for the next day. After some research, we chose to hike Bunsen Peak. At 8564 feet in elevation, the hike was rated as strenuous, but only 4.2 miles round trip. Of course we went for it!



The trail was littered with minerals and Feldspar rocks (comes in handy to have a science teacher on your hike!) that clinked and plinked under our feet. Our efforts were rewarded with panoramic views at the summit. Even though it wasn’t a clear day, we could still appreciate the vast vistas of the entire park. And you know what? We met only one other party on the trail and one couple at the top. That hike was just what we needed after all the driving and touristy stops from the day before.


We headed toward the village of Mammoth Hot Springs for an ice cream break, but first explored the bizarre moonscape of the Travertine and Minerva Terraces. The sheer variety of landforms at Yellowstone is unbelievable and impressive.


Even the architecture at Mammoth Hot Springs is different, not rustic or “lodgelike.” Ivory clapboard buildings with red roofs stand among trim sidewalks and lush green grass. A herd of very tame elk grazed and rested on the grass.

These elk aren't from Mammoth Hot Springs, but they're the only elk photo I took.

These elk aren’t from Mammoth Hot Springs, but they’re the only elk photo I took.

The kids wanted to put one foot in Montana and one in Wyoming so we motored onto the North entrance at Gardiner, MT.

IMG_2991It was a thrill!IMG_2992

The Gardiner (Gardner? We saw it spelled both ways.) River slices through muscular mountains. The road ribboned along mountainside and led us to Lamar Valley, known as North America’s Serengeti for gray wolves, moose, elk, and bison, bears. We saw lots of elk, bison, and two antelope.


The scenery was naturally gorgeous, but the kids and I were bummed we didn’t see a bear (or a wolf!) in Yellowstone. Before we departed Montana for Idaho (which you may read about in a future blog post) we spent the morning at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in downtown West Yellowstone. And yes, we saw bears and wolves.


Ah, those were the days at Yellowstone – Parks and Re-Creation at its best in the West.


To have new eyes

Warning to my devoted readers: this post contains massive amounts of reflection (and quotes.) Read at your own risk! 

Miller Woods hike

Miller Woods hike

Okay, I hesitate to make this declaration on Experiential Passage because it means I have to be publicly accountable. But when one is serious about achieving a goal, it’s got to be said (or written) out loud, right?

Regardless where my days lead, travel or no travel, I resolve to post on this blog at least once/month in 2014. It may not seem like much, and compared to prolific bloggers, it’s hardly anything.

Haystack Rock at Pacific City - a "summer" day in early January. (Completely untouched photo!)

Haystack Rock at Pacific City – a “summer” day in early January. (Completely untouched photo!)

Why do I want to post more often? After all, it’s just a hobby blog (I’ve never had plans to try and monetize it in any way) and if I haven’t ventured anywhere interesting, what’s the point of writing?

When I drill it down, writing for this blog is incredibly cathartic. It gives me joy.

When I started Experiential Passage over 3 years ago for our Semester at Sea voyage, I couldn’t fathom how my life would evolve and change. Experiential Passage is the documentation of my personal growth through travel; symbiotic of other milestones…. Despite all that, I haven’t allowed my blog to “grow up.” Perhaps that time has come.

Hiking to the mouth of the Nestucca River near Bob Straub State Park (same summery winter day.)

Hiking to the mouth of the Nestucca River near Bob Straub State Park (same summery winter day.)

The title for  Experiential Passage was birthed from two quotes:

“An experience we shall always remember or an experience, which alas, we shall never forget.”  ~ Julius Gorden


“Every door is another passage, another boundary we have to go beyond.”  ~ Rumi


Jason gave me a card with the Rumi quote before I took a group of high schoolers to Washington D.C. in 2010, before SAS was a reality. Talk about prophetic! It is still pinned on the bulletin board above my office for inspiration.

When I created the tagline “Experience. Life. Travel.” I loved how it could have different meanings depending on the way it was read. If I switched up the punctuation like this:

“Experience life; travel.” or “Experience lifetravel!” it took on a different tone altogether. For me, these words are interconnected. But I still prefer: Experience. Life. Travel. Now that Experiential Passage has turned 3, it’s time for it to evolve and branch out, true to its tagline.

Screen shot 2014-01-26 at 8.01.46 PM

It’s practically effortless for me to feel inspired, grateful, hopeful – all those wondrous emotions when you’re thrilled to be alive – when traveling or visiting somewhere new. As you’ve read on this blog before, travel is my drug of choice and if too much time goes by without a hit, I get draggy.

Sometimes it feels laborious to walk through everyday life and not recognize or appreciate the ordinary. Or let the inevitable stresses zap your zest.

Dappled sunlight through the firs and ferns at Miller Woods trail.

Dappled sunlight through the firs and ferns at Miller Woods trail.

2013 wasn’t a big year of travel, so I didn’t post as often. I felt guilty about not writing. Or when I did post, I felt guilty that I wasn’t writing to market my business. Quite the vicious cycle. It’s ludicrous now, reading it on the screen.

On New Year’s Eve day, I spent several hours on a spiritual retreat. I’ve gone on a retreat before but it had been almost 4 years. For those who have “gone apart” you can relate to the opportunity for uninterrupted rest (and restoration), reflection, clarity, and peace that comes from quietude in a Godly, tranquil setting.

View from acreage surrounding retreat house.

View from acreage surrounding retreat house.

Let’s just say I’m not waiting another 4 years to do another one! Some themes emerged from that day that I’m carrying with me: How You See Is What You See. Be fully present without fear, without bias, without judgment.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” by Marcel Proust. A few days later, buried in a dresser drawer, I found a Mary Engelbreit poster I bought years ago (it says 1991 on the back!) A coincidence? I think not.


The real challenge is how we view and live the life we’re making – the ordinary days between the glittering moments of adventure. I’ve resolved to “see” with fresh eyes, everyday.

Since I made that decision, ordinary activities emerged as extraordinary moments…

  • Roller blading through my neighborhood, thankful for safe streets, healthy legs to balance on, and friendly waves from neighbors.
  • Going on “football walks” at night with William, grateful for bonding over tossing a ball back and forth, especially magical when sparkly Christmas lights illuminated our way.
  • Savoring warmth from my coffee and fuzzy blanket during early morning contemplation.
  • Spending the day at Pacific City, basking in 57 degrees winter sun, enjoying low key family time.
  • Hiking at Miller Woods, a 5 minute drive from our house. We witnessed a red tail hawk soaring above us and sunlight dancing across a carpet of lush ferns. Jason taught all of us the basics of archery, too!ArcheryViv


If you’ve read this far, I’m sending you a virtual hug of thanks! And here’s one more quote from Walt Whitman (also pinned to my bulletin board) that resonates with me lately:

“You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.”

Storied Astoria

As 2013 rolls into 2014, I’m doing a lot of reflecting on the past year and planning for the next 365 days! My photos have clogged my iCloud storage, prompting me to delete a bunch and finally upload photos from the past 12 months.

Sunset view over the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.

Sunset view over the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean.

This year wasn’t a distinguished travel year for me, and that’s okay. Instead my journeys were marked by personal growth opportunities. But – one place I rediscovered in my home state and visited not just once, but twice.


Astoria, Oregon.

There’s a variety of water traffic into the port of Astoria.

Located on the northwestern tip of Oregon where the muscular Columbia River surges into the Pacific Ocean, the Astoria of my memory was dreary, drippy (supposedly it’s the rainiest city in the state), and underwhelming, despite its rich history.

We had spectacular river views, including a view of the Astoria-Megler bridge, from our room at the Cannery Pier Hotel.

We had spectacular river views, including a view of the Astoria-Megler bridge, from our room at the Cannery Pier Hotel.

But as we know – the only constant in life is change and that applies to towns, too. We were lucky enough to discover Astoria’s gems on two different weekends in summer and fall. And you know what? Not one raindrop fell!

Riding the school bus to the Washington side for the start of the 10k.

Riding the school bus to the Washington side for the start of the 10k.

In June, Jason and I broke away to Astoria for some R & R. Then in October we returned for The Great Columbia Crossing with a group of friends. The Columbia Crossing is a 10k run that traverses the Astoria-Megler bridge over the 4.7 mile width of the Columbia River. Quite the memorable route for a road race!


Trying to stay warm before running the Columbia Crossing 10K!

Did you know that Astoria is the oldest American settlement west of the rockies? It’s where the Lewis and Clark Expedition landed in 1805 and they braved the winter elements at Fort Clatsop. Six years later, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company established a fort where Astoria now stands. Over the past 2 centuries, the area played a central role in the Pacific Northwest’s economic development through the fur, fishing, and timber industries.


Spending time at the Columbia River Maritime Museum really drove home the magnitude of Astoria’s history, especially in fisheries and canning. The hard-scrabble port town existence of early Astoria residents is awe-inspiring. That gritty, working-class spirit still thrives alongside its colorful history and vibrant renaissance.


That authenticity – Astoria doesn’t gloss over its essence in the name of tourism – really captivated me.

Besides the Maritime, there are several notable museums. We also visited the Oregon Film Museum in October. It’s a nod to all the movies (remember The Goonies?) that have been filmed in Astoria. Housed in the old Clatsop County Jail, it’s a hoot! We created and edited our own short-short film. If I could find the link (but darn, I can’t) our improvisation skills would blow you away!

Mindy, Jen, and Anna "on location" at the Oregon Film Museum.

Mindy, Jen, and Anna “on location” at the Oregon Film Museum.

IMG_1878Jason and I rode bikes along the riverwalk trail that extends 5+ miles along the Columbia.  Such a carefree way to soak up the river views with the breeze blowing in my hair! Salty docks, warehouses, a few hotels, and brew pubs dot the land side of the path.

Pedaling out to Pier 39.

Pedaling out to Pier 39.

After our stop at the Maritime Museum, we cruised out to the Rogue Brewery at Pier 39, which is housed in the old Bumble Bee Tuna Cannery. More history: Bumble Bee Company formed in 1899 in Astoria with 7 salmon canners.

IMG_1885Much of the canning equipment is on display and the restrooms are precisely preserved from the early 1900‘s. You can just imagine the workers on their break – frigid fingers, aching backs, and enduring a rank fish smell. Thank goodness I was born in 1971 instead of 1871….IMG_1886

In October the gals grabbed a java at Coffee Girl, also at Pier 39. Truly one of the most delicious mochas I’ve ever sipped!


Divine and drinkable art from Coffee Girl.

Divine and drinkable art from Coffee Girl.

Besides the riverwalk trail, the Astoria Riverfront Trolley is a scenic and informative way to explore Astoria’s historical waterfront. The trolley turned 100 years old this year! We kicked back for a leisurely ride and listened to the operator share historic sound bites of interest.

The Astoria Riverfront Trolley, 100 years young.

The Astoria Riverfront Trolley, 100 years young.

Astoria’s monument to its roots is the Astoria Column, towering on top of Coxcomb Hill. Built in 1926, we hoofed up the column’s 131 spiral steps to the top for 360 degree views. Saddle Mountain rises up beyond a blanket of dense foilage, Young’s Bay glimmers, and the Columbia River mingles into the Pacific Ocean. Spectacular!

The Astoria Column in all its glory.

The Astoria Column in all its glory.

More things to love about Astoria: we enjoyed the farmers market in the summer and our fall trip coincided with the 2nd Saturday Art Walk. I wasn’t expecting much but it was hip, a little edgy, and really fun. There were art displays of photography, jewelry, abstract oil paintings, live music, and more at local businesses and galleries. Every place we visited boasted a yummy spread of appetizers and wine. Impressive!

Views from atop the Astoria Column.

Views from atop the Astoria Column.

Now, for my personal recommendations should you choose Astoria as a future weekend destination…


For luxe lodging, you can’t go wrong with the Cannery Pier Hotel. There’s a reason why Sunset ranked it as a top 25 hotel in the west and New York Magazine featured it as well. It’s perched over the river on log pilings, so the water views are amazing.


Water views always get me to my zen place and the cargo ships and fishing boats floating by IMG_1870were mesmerizing. You even get a view from the soaking tub! Other perks at the Cannery Pier: wine reception every evening, chaffeured rides in vintage cars to dinner, bikes to ride, and a lovely spa. Ahh, just writing about it makes me happy.

Riding in style to dinner from the Cannery Pier.

Riding in style to dinner from the Cannery Pier.

For budget lodging, the Norblad Hotel gets my endorsement. Smack downtown, its location is unbeatable. The south wing and lobby were still under renovation when we stayed there, but the owner was friendly and helpful. Situated on the second floor, there are some peek-a-boo river views from immaculately clean rooms. You do have to be able to deal with hallway bathrooms, but for only $65/night, it’s not too difficult.


Beer tasting at the Wet Dog + Astoria Brewing Company.

Beer tasting at the Wet Dog + Astoria Brewing Company.

I’m not much of a beer drinker now that I have to avoid gluten, but I’m usually in the company of beer drinkers, and we seek out brew pubs! Astoria is definitely making a name for itself in the beer world.

Jared and Jason haven't met too many beers they don't like.

Jared and Jason haven’t met too many beers they don’t like.

I mentioned the Rogue Brewery earlier, located at Pier 39. There’s also Astoria Brewing Company at the Wet Dog Cafe on the river (they fling open their windows in the summer for open-air imbibing) and Fort George Brewery + Public House, located downtown. Fort George furnishes a “beer book” with tantalizingly technical descriptions of all their brews. It was my favorite for the chic industrial atmosphere and elevated pub fare. In June I savored a chanterelle mushroom and rabbit soup that was out of this world.

Fort George Brewery in downtown Astoria.

Fort George Brewery in downtown Astoria.


Okay, Astoria is crammed with truly unforgettable restaurants. Excellent service overall and great ambiance, too. I appreciated how every place wass knowledgeable and accommodating to food sensitivities; not all cities are. From seafood to burgers to breakfast, every meal we ate on both trips exceeded our expectations:

Breakfast at Blue Scorcher Bakery (gluten-free bread, too.)

Breakfast at Blue Scorcher Bakery (gluten-free bread, too.)

Bridgewater Bistro

Seafood-stuffed spaghetti squash at T. Paul's Supper Club.

Seafood-stuffed spaghetti squash at T. Paul’s Supper Club.

Baked Alaska

Fort George

Blue Scorcher Bakery

T Paul’s Supper Club

Street 14 Coffee

14 Street Coffee

14 Street Coffee


We didn’t do a ton of shopping because we were busy riding bikes in June and running a 10k in October – and eating our way through the town. But I snagged some cool finds at Vintage Hardware and Klassy Kloset. Vintage Hardware sells architectural salvage home furnishings on the ground floor of the (closed) Astor Hotel. And the classic Gimre’s Shoes offered lots of Uggs (the German exchange student in our group bought 4 pairs for family back home since they’re so much cheaper here) and Smartwool socks. Gimre’s has been in business since 1892!

The old Astor Hotel (Vintage Hardware is on the ground floor.) The Norblad Hotel is across the street - I snapped this photo from our room.

The old Astor Hotel (Vintage Hardware is on the ground floor.) The Norblad Hotel is across the street.

All right, this list barely scratches the surface, but you get the idea. Maybe we’ll catch up with you in Astoria in 2014 – the kids aren’t too pleased we’ve been there twice without them, so we know a return trip is in store!

Another gorgeous sunset over the Columbia.

Another gorgeous sunset over the Columbia.

Speaking of 2014, where are your travels taking you this year? Or perhaps your travel dreams? Feel free share with other Experiential Passage readers!

Vegas on the cheap

Our weekend jet-away to Las Vegas literally began as a “free” trip. As in, I received a post card in the mail that read:

 Fly FREE anywhere in the continental United States + 2 nights hotel= 2 night, 3 day FREE vacation!


You would think, savvy traveler that I pretend to be, I would know better. But the allure of free travel hijacked my sensibilities. Here’s a quick rundown on what I dragged myself and my family through to achieve this free trip:

  1. Drive 3 hours roundtrip to east Portland hotel and listen to 90 minute timeshare pitch with the kids.
  2. Filled out paperwork and sent certified mail with a $100 cashier’s check to a travel agency in Florida.
  3. Attempted booking a trip to Palm Springs but missed the 90 day planning window.
  4. Decided to “surprise” Jason with an anniversary trip to Vegas, but he saw the deposit on the credit card.
  5. Countless emails back and forth with Scott Tilley from VIP Travel to wrap my head around how this would actually happen.
  6. We did get flights booked on Spirit Air (will never fly them again!) and 2 nights at Tuscany Inn & Suites (which did exceed our expectations) but still had to pay a hefty fee.
  7. Attended mandatory 2nd timeshare presentation (that was closer to 3 hours) while in Vegas for a different timeshare – in order to get our deposit refunded.
  8. Our “free trip” eventually shook out as a “half-price” trip….and a mammoth travel lesson – ironically, I read this article in my National Geographic Traveler magazine on the plane ride home! See #6 towards the end of the article!

Honestly, I’m laughing now….because this all transpired from October 2011-August 2012. Maybe I was too embarrassed to write about it till now!

The City of Lights? Nope, Glitter Gulch, NV.

The City of Lights? Nope, Glitter Gulch, aka Las Vegas.

Anyway, Las Vegas was a blast, literally a sizzlin’, scorching, superlative escape from real life. When we stepped off the plane at 9:00 a.m., the 95 degree heat swirled around us like a clothes dryer.

After a quick cab ride to the hotel, we grabbed some breakfast using our complimentary food voucher (remember, this post is how to enjoy Vegas at the bargain-basement level!)

Since we couldn’t check in yet, and it took about 2 minutes to lose $5.00 on the slots, the logical way to kill time and stay cool was park ourselves poolside. The pool was actually spacious, clean, and resort-ish. Everyone at the pool had tattoos taking up more bodily real estate than I’ve seen in my entire life. We practically glowed white with our Oregonian, ink-free epidermis.

The Tuscany Inn & Suites pool area.

The Tuscany Inn & Suites pool area.

I pored over the literature I picked up in the hotel lobby, searching for free and/or budget  entertainment. The desk clerk informed us it would take at least 25 minutes to walk to the Strip. But according to the brochure (super-accurate, for sure) map, the Tuscany Inn was just a block and a half from the Strip. Of course, I surmised we could walk there in 15 or less.

The "sky" at the Bellagio's botanical gardens.

The “sky” at the Bellagio’s botanical gardens.

About 6:00 we set out to get our glam on. The towering casinoes and glitzy hotels reigned over the skyline, seemingly so close. But this was the desert, and it was a mirage. Within 20 minutes we weren’t close, and hunger, thirst, and perspiration slugged us down.


And then – the sign. $1.00 Michelobs and $2.50 hot dog and Bud! It was clutch decision time. The opportunity to sit in the A/C, nurse a cold one, and nibble on junk food was too good to pass up.

We bellied up to the bar, played some Keno, and quenched our parched throats. Jason ordered the dog, and I noshed on baked waffle fries which were completely tantalizing. The bar was great for people-watching – you got the idea that lots of people there dropped by after work. It was probably obvious we weren’t regulars but no one cared.

Summer sunset on The Strip.

Summer sunset on The Strip.

Refueled, we powered our way to the Strip. Our free entertainment destination was the Fountains of Bellagio at some point.

IMG_2750(It had been 19 years since my last visit to Las Vegas. In my college days I could make $20 last a whole weekend, outside of lodging.The $3 black jack tables at O’Shea’s and Barbary Coast were my lucky casinos and I don’t really remember eating a whole lot – maybe a $4.99 buffet here and there? If anyone could do Vegas affordably, I could – at least in the early 1990’s!)

The sheer monstrosity, cackling energy, and number of new casinos was unbelievable.  Millions of lights, colors, aromas, and sounds enveloped us in a multi-sensory experience.IMG_2753 Like Times Square on steroids. We wandered, marinating in the flashy dazzle, and watching street performers like double jointed guy, storm troopers, the miniature Jackson 5, and Bert & Ernie & Elmo, and of course, Elvis.

We soon learned that street cocktails aren’t cheap, and I savored my $15 margarita as we listened to The Crashers – an 80’s metal cover band – belt out Bon Jovi and Def Leppard songs.

This was way more fun than trying to find our footing in the Bellagio. We couldn’t get a seat at dinner because Jason didn’t meet the dress code (guys have to be wearing long pants) and the free drinks while you’re gambling are a myth unless you have a mountain of chips staking your place. We figured out the cocktail servers ignore the slot players – or maybe you have to sit there long enough for your tush to meld into the stool.


One bright spot – the Bellagio’s botanical gardens are gorgeous and that was a lovely respite from the heat.

And – the star of the show, the Fountains of Bellagio delivered on every level and then some! The booming blasts of compressed air rocketed the glowy water skyward to music, technically choreographed. There are 1,214 jets responsible for the soaring water that twists and transforms into lithe “dancing.”

The magnificent Fountains of Bellagio.

The magnificent Fountains of Bellagio.

Astounding – and romantic. I insisted we wait and watch it again. This time, Elton John crooned “Can you feel the love tonight?” – one of our wedding songs. Very appropriate for our 17th anniversary, don’t you think?IMG_2754

We probably walked 5-6 miles that first night so more chill-axing by the pool was in order the next day. Except for the stupid timeshare presentation -‘nuff said.

Our second night we strategized our route to take in more free entertainment: the Mirage Volcano, Fall of Atlantis, and Venetian Light Show. Luckily, the Mirage and Venetian are basically across the street from one another.

Replica of the Rialto Bridge at The Venetian.

Replica of the Rialto Bridge at The Venetian.

Although we learned the hard way it’s impossible to cross the street whenever you want. Instead, you need to walk a block or more to find a sky bridge. More terrific vistas – The Eiffel Tower! The Empire State Building!IMG_2775

The Mirage Volcano “erupts” nightly and includes fireworks and music pumping. Worth the effort, for the most part.


The Mirage Volcano

IMG_2765Personally, I loved all the action at the Venetian – the masks, stilt walkers, living statues, and life-size puppets – a magical pre-game for the light show. Venice, Italy is one of my favorite European cities, so maybe that bias added to my enchantment.IMG_2766

We underestimated how long it would take to hoof it to Caesar’s Palace, home to the Fall of Atlantis show. And we also didn’t realize it was just a 15 minute show – so we missed it, and it was the last one of the night. Bummer!

Well, it led us to Max Brenner, a chocolate restaurant conveniently located steps away. Besides the chocolate shop, the inventive menu incorporates chocolate in many dishes.


“Taste our chocolate with all your senses and enjoy to the MAX!” – painting at Max Brenner.


Mmm-a decadent chocolate martini!

My blackened sesame halibut and chocolate martini was unsurpassed by any meal the whole weekend! A grand way to indulge our last night in the city of excess.

Take-aways from Vegas:

  • Yes, there are cheap ways to find entertainment. You can cut costs even more if you don’t drink or splurge at meals – but where’s the fun in that?
  • Do not fly Spirit Air (they charge for carry-ons, too) – lots of airlines offer reasonable flights to Vegas.
  • Las Vegas is a melting pot of cultures, nationalities, ages, and languages. It’s become a world-wide destination. Pieces of our weekend reminded me of Hong Kong and Singapore – a familiar, strangely comfortable feeling.

    Evidence of LV's international draw: women's restroom sign in 6 languages!

    Evidence of LV’s international draw: women’s restroom sign in 6 languages!

  • The Tuscany Inn (and other off-strip hotels) can offer nice accommodations and good value.
    Our room at the Tuscany Inn & Suites. Not too shabby!

    Our room at the Tuscany Inn & Suites. Not too shabby!

    But if you don’t want to walk, the cab rides could add up. (Besides airport transportation, we only took a cab from New York, New York back to the Tuscany to grab our bags and catch our flight.)

  • Vegas is truly “glitter gulch” – ostentatious, outlandish, oozing glamour, excess, and desperation, despondence. It’s quite the dichotomy. IMG_2772And it can ignite the wild side of the average Joe. While we were in line for security, several people were passing around a gallon-size bottle of Jack Daniels….even strangers were taking pulls to finish it off!

Sheryl Crow’s “Leaving Las Vegas” echoed in my mind as we boarded the plane. She won’t be back – but hopefully I will in less than 19 years!

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there! What a wonderful weekend it’s been. My family has spoiled me…and I indulged myself today writing for pleasure. So – here you are. Thanks for reading!

Mother's Day with my daughter and my mom, 2013

Mother’s Day with my daughter and my mom, 2013

Today also marks one month since we moved into our new (to us) home. This post won’t be about a new destination, but rather a snippet of our journey to live an intentional life.

If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you know that our Semester at Sea adventure was transformative on multiple levels. Not only did it open our minds and enlarge our perspective, it was the catalyst for me to resign from an 18 year career in education and “start over.” My web writing business, Write Nice, launched in the fall of 2011. It hasn’t been easy, but I have no regrets. Today, business is brisk.

Along the way, we’ve scrutinized how we spend our money, reflected on how we want to live our lives, and made some difficult decisions. Taking the Financial Peace class last year enlightened us to the fact that a disproportionate amount of our income was sucked up by our mortgage.

Many discussions between Jason and I ensued. What should we do? What were our priorities, and what were our options?

About 6 months later, we concluded the logical thing to do was sell our house and downsize to something smaller and more manageable. It took another 6 months before we listed our house for sale.

The kids were not thrilled….they adored our giant, newer house and kid-centric backyard (basketball, anyone?) We explained how our family was our “home” – no matter where we lived, we’d always be together.

But Vivian, a 6th grader now, had no qualms reminding us “Why do we always move?….You promised we’d be in this house until William went to college!….I don’t want to leave!”

William drew into himself, wandering the backyard in quietude everyday after school. If you’re a parent, you know how guilt can jab at you. This was one of those “guilty as charged” times.

Every time we prepared for a showing, I cursed under my breath, sweating as I rushed to scour each room, wondering what in the world were we thinking to create such upheaval and uproot the kids.

Six weeks after the for sale sign stuck in the ground, we got an offer. Surprise! Then, gulp – the buyers wanted to close in 30 days.

This commenced the mad house hunt for a suitable downsize. For a month we lived in limbo, looking at houses, making offers and counter-offers, hoping and praying something would fall into place so we wouldn’t have to move into a rental and wait for the right home to come on the market.

Headaches, perpetual crankiness, and insomnia plagued me from the stress. Ugh. And then the mammoth job of purging (garage sale and countless trips to Goodwill), packing, and moving.

We're so grateful for the terrific help we received for the move!

We’re so grateful for the terrific help we received for the move!

Somehow we muddled through. Thankfully, family and friends helped at the exact times when we needed them.

God is good. It all worked out, better than I could have ever imagined. Let’s compare the specs:

Then:  3016 square feet, 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, built in 2004

3016 square feet, 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, built in 2004

Now: 1734 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, built in 1959 (with a funky 1970's addition)

1734 square feet, 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, built in 1959 (with a funky 1970’s addition)

That first week, we braced ourselves for a tough transition, based on how physically and emotionally draining moving week had been. I ended up sick in bed (after battling the bug as long as I could) our second day in the new house. By mid-week, I had recovered and life continued, amidst boxes and busy routines.

You know what? We transitioned smoothly. It felt right. When we’d moved into our old house I distinctly remember thinking, “This house is so big! This house is so nice!”

But never that it felt right.

William loves the climbing trees in our new yard.

William loves the climbing trees in our new yard.

Call me Goldilocks….this little place is just right. And the freedom that accompanies this smaller house opens up opportunities that would have stayed wistful dreams had we kept to the status quo.

Vivian and the irises in bloom in our new front yard.

Vivian and the irises in bloom in our new front yard.

Do I miss the old house? Sure, I miss my enormous walk-in closet. The automatic ice and water on the stainless steel refrigerator. But that’s about all – and as days pass, I miss those luxuries less and less.

We’ve gained other, intangible riches:

The liberation of cutting our mortgage in half. Simplifying and streamlining our “stuff.” Learning to share a cozier space. Building up college accounts and other savings. Planning new adventures in a financially-secure manner.

Is life perfect? Of course not. It’s just bigger and better (for us) living smaller.

Island Escape

Little did I realize, but my writing retreat to Seattle last year sparked an annual tradition. This year’s itch to get out of dodge, find inspiration, and rejuvenate my spirit found me happily booking a half-price ticket (and cashing in 10,000 miles on Alaska Air) to Long Beach, California. And from there, destination: Catalina Island.


My love affair with Southern California budded way back in 1988, when my jazz choir, The Twilighters, flew down to Disneyland to perform. The So Cal fast-pace and sunshiny vibe enamored me and my small-town ways.

Fast-forward decades later; May marks 20 years since my graduation from the University of Redlands (in Southern California). Those years at Redlands bestowed me many opportunities (as anyone who’s gone to college can attest to) but what endures, besides my degree, are some wonderful friendships.

Catalina cottage on Sumner Avenue

Susan, Jen, Trisha, Kim on the front steps of the Catalina cottage.

It had been almost 6 years since I flew solo to see my college girlfriends Susan, Kim, and Trisha. Our friendship is a blessing – we always pick up where we leave off without missing a beat (They visited me in Oregon in summer 2011, so we never go too long without getting together.)

Redondo Blvd. in Long Beach

Redondo Blvd. in Long Beach

Minutes after Susan picked me up at LGB, we drove down Redondo Boulevard,

Soaking up some So Cal sunshine!

Soaking up some So Cal sunshine!

which is nothing special, but the palm trees and sunshine immediately gave me that vitamin D boost. I was acutely aware of the sun’s heat on my right shoulder, kneading and melting away responsibilities left at home. Delicious anticipation of the weekend in Catalina rinsed over me.

Visiting Catalina with my friends is a grand tradition and I’m embarrassed to admit, one that I haven’t fully appreciated until this trip. Susan’s grandfather built a cottage on Catalina Island in the 1940’s. The first two times I visited we stayed in the original house.

IMG_1364About 12 years ago her parents rebuilt the aging cottage, and then just a few years ago they acquired the lot next door and landscaped a beautiful side yard. All the lots are skinny and deep, as you can see from the photo.

Catalina, just an hour boat ride away from Long Beach harbor, is a magical little island destination. Its arid, mountainous terrain slopes into the Pacific Ocean, and the charming village of Avalon is nestled on the shore and hillsides. Lots of Californian boaters like to sail to Catalina and moor their boat in the Avalon harbor. Everyone else simply walks off the Catalina Express to their accomodations, towing their rollerboard behind. The walkability is unlike any other coastal village on the west coast (in my opinion.) Those who don’t prefer to walk can tool around town in a golf cart or pedal a beach cruiser.

Avalon Bay, Catalina Island

Avalon Bay, Catalina Island

We always walk, as our favorite pastimes when we’re together are walking, talking, eating, and drinking. We’re good at all them, imagine that?!  Our route begins with trekking along the water’s edge, then hoofing it up the cliff. Golf carts buzz past us while our glutes are burning. It’s all worth it for the staggering view. Where else can you gaze upon the glassy sea, close enough to touch, then stretch your eyeballs to skybound blue? Maybe if you’re on a ship. (Oh, wait- I’ve done that. Except this time, no seasickness!)

Catalina’s charm is its timelessness and slow pace, “island time.” There are some cute, kitschy shops, and of course, lots of cafes and restaurants. We grabbed a $19.95 pizza at Antonio’s (as we do every time). Antonio’s dumps a pile of peanuts-in-the-shell on the checkered tablecloth to munch on while you wait for your pie.

Love the peanuts at Antonio's Pizzeria!

Love the peanuts at Antonio’s Pizzeria!

The second night we checked out the new, sleek Avalon Grille and splurged on fancy, fruity cocktails. There are some other new developments on Catalina, like ziplining. During one of our power walks we watched miniature people zigzagging across pencil-thin wires, their electric screams echoing throughout the canyon. Sign me up for next time!!!

My favorite new addition on Catalina is Descanso Beach. It’s a 5 minute walk from the Descano Beach, Catalina Islandvillage center, and as we noshed on nachos and shared a singular marguerita (only two of us had carried cash on our walk), it seemed as if we were beachside in Mexico with such a view and ambience. If only we’d had more time, I would have loved to rent a kayak or paddleboard at Descanso.

Boardwalk to Descano Beach

Boardwalk to Descanso Beach

One of the highlights of the weekend was parasailing! Thank you, Dorothy Dixon! (Kim’s mom gave us a voucher for 2 that she’d won at an auction. Kim and Susan didn’t hesitate to hand it over to Trisha and me.)

Strapped up and ready to fly!

Strapped up and ready to fly!

The only time I’d been parasailing was off the beach in Puerto Vallarta in 1997. Parasailing in Catalina was a hundreds times better! First of all, it’s tandem, so double the fun to share the experience with someone. And, you launch off a boat and float back down to the boat deck – much smoother than a beach take-off and landing. Plus, you don’t get wet.

The take-off!

The take-off!

Since Trisha and I were “experienced” parasailers compared to the other two young couples, we blazed the trail. The co-pilot harnessed us up as Lenny Kravitz crooned over the speaker, “I want to get away….I want to fly awaaayyy.” After a few brief instructions….then WHOOSH!!!

Soarin' over California!

Soarin’ over California!

The velocity of the boat and sea breezes lifted us up into the atmosphere. A sterling ocean lay glassy smooth below, stretching forever, melting into the gray horizon. Parasailing really does make you feel like you’re flying. Soaring… so peaceful and free. We paused from our chattering from time to time and let the vast quietude envelop us.

Practically dipping our feet into the waves. Eek!

Practically dipping our feet into the waves. Eek!

The only time my heart started thumping was when we noticed them gradually lowering us toward the water. No joke! Undoubtedly our depth perception was off, but you can see from the photo that we got a little too close for comfort. Fear jumped up my throat like a fat frog and after what seemed an eternity, we rose back up to a “comfortable” elevation.

Coming in for a smooth landing (with a little help!)

Coming in for a smooth landing (with a little help!)

Our flight ended all too soon (about 10 minutes) and I basked in an endorphin haze from the adrenaline rush. Talk about exhilarating!  Cruising around on the boat for the next half hour was a treat, too. And no queasy tummy, thank goodness.


As I tap out this post on my keyboard, enroute to Portland, gratitude fills me. I’m thankful for the chance to get away and get rejuvenated in a familiar, favorite place. Thankful for Jason and the kids holding down the fort while I’ve been away. And grateful for true friendships that endure, despite distance, through the years!


What about you? Do you have a place (or special people) that is your enduring “getaway”?


The first weekend of December marks the Nice family’s annual tradition of getting our Christmas tree. Living in the soggy Pacific Northwest has its advantages around the holidays and one is the abundance of home-grown Christmas trees! Since 2000, we have driven out to Ramsby’s Tree Farm to select the perfect tree (a noble, if anyone wants to debate that.) Actually, we find two perfect trees – one for my parents. They appreciate a fresh cut tree delivered to their front door!

Ramsby's Christmas Tree Farm McMinnville, Oregon

Vivian, Jason, and William proudly display our freshly cut tree at Ramsby’s Christmas Tree Farm.

It usually takes about 30 minutes to trek around the mushy earth in our rubber boots, saw down the trees, and load them up in the back of the truck. Then, Ramsby’s hot cocoa and candy canes are a sweet reward and supply us the energy to power through decorating the rest of the day!IMG_3316


How to describe the tumultuous relationship I have with my plethora of Christmas decorations??? (Jason hauled down 9 boxes from the attic.)

The kids absolutely love it, but their attention wanes after about an hour or two. They get sidetracked reading Christmas mail from years past and storybooks, but who can blame them?

So yours truly ends up finishing it all and cleaning up. It’s tiring, takes a full 8 hours (no exaggeration) and I can usually think of lots of other non-decorating projects that need to be taken care of.IMG_3317

But what I do adore is hanging the ornaments on the tree. Our Christmas tree has never remotely resembled a Pottery Barn catalog tree or any holiday “theme.” Instead it’s a wild hodge podge of ornaments received as gifts, ornaments inherited from my childhood, kids’ artwork, and….mementos from treasured trips.IMG_3320

Unwrapping each ornament, slipping a hook in, and strategically placing it on a branch often recalls a memory from one of those destinations. Or reminds me of the loved one who made the ornament or gave it to me. This makes me smile and forget my To Do list, mindful of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had and the incredible people whose presence is a blessing.

Life is full of extraordinary moments inside ordinary days. Being able to recognize those moments takes practice…. and it’s a practice I’m trying to commit to.

Even though we’re sticking close to home for now, in my mind’s eye I traveled to each of these places on Saturday as I hung up ornaments from:

  • Disneyland
  • Camp Sherman/Metolius River
  • Venice, Italy
  • Leavenworth, Washington
  • Oregon coast
  • Yellowstone
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Salzburg, Austria

What about you? Do any of my fabulous readers collect ornaments from their travels? Feel free to share in the comments section!

And is anyone heading out on an adventure this holiday season? I’d love to feature a “guest blogger” of sorts on Experiential Passage. (Matt, are you reading this? Note to readers – my brother and sister-in-law traveled to Ireland this fall and I’m still waiting for him to accept my invitation!)

Whether the holidays find you jetting off to Hawaii (like some friends of ours), cozying up by the fire, or hitting the holiday party circuit, I wish you a season full of joy, cheer, and peace. Merry Christmas!

Paulina Creek OregonWe’re settling back in the routine of school, work, and the myriad of activities that jam each week, just like the rest of Americana, I suppose. Fortunately, the memories of late summer are ready to be recounted in Experiential Passage. For me the next best thing to travel is writing about the adventure. Kind of. Well anyway, that’s the plan for the next several months – sticking close to home and writing about my favorite hobby.

“(S)he decided if (s)he could not travel physically, (s)he would travel mentally.”

~ Graham Greene

I crossed off two goals on my recreation To Do list this summer: the (unofficial) Paulina Plunge and paddleboarding. Paddleboarding is the epitome of enjoying tranquility of water, solitude, and a full-body workout. Plus it’s easy to learn on your own. I’m asking for a paddleboard for my 42nd birthday. Hopefully someone in my family is reading this…

Paddleboarding on the Deschutes River. What a peaceful way to enjoy the water without your rear getting wet and cold!

Back to the unofficial Paulina Plunge. It’s a guided mountain bike excursion that takes riders to a series of natural water slides in Paulina Creek. Paulina Creek flows down Paulina Peak, which juts up almost 8,000 feet in the 17 mile wide Newberry Crater. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Bend in Central Oregon. In 2010 Jason and I made reservations to go on The Paulina Plunge for our anniversary, but I came down with bronchitis and we had to cancel. So unfair. But it was worth the wait and even better the way we did it this summer with “the Budge cousins”, as Vivian and William refer to their superstar older cousins….

Jason, William, Vivian, Madison, Courtney, Jessica, and Joe at a Paulina Creek waterfall.

First, a little background about the Joe and Rebecca Budge family. Jason’s sister, Rebecca, her husband Joe, and their four daughters Jessica, Makenzie, Courtney, and Madison are adventurers and travelers in their own right. I have long admired how they take initiative and make things happen for the sake of recreation and adventure. And because they’re a family of six, they’re very industrious finding the most affordable way to have fun.

Madison’s perched on a boulder, surveying the next water slide.

Courtney and Jessica rock the second water slide.

For example, about eight years ago the Budges wanted to go whitewater rafting. But a guided rafting trip was prohibitively expensive for the whole family. What to do? They borrowed a raft from one of Joe’s firefighter friends. Joe, not having any background guiding a raft, but possessing plenty of brawn, outdoor smarts, and confidence, tried out the route himself. No problems occurred, so he led a family raft trip down the Deschutes River. It went so well they went rafting multiple times over the next few summers. Impressive, eh?!

So I wasn’t surprised at Thanksgiving 2010 when the Budges told us that they rode the Paulina Plunge on their own. How? Oh, they did some background research on the trails and mysteriously learned the route (I have been requested by outside influences not to divulge their methods.) The trails and creek are US Forest Service land and belong to the public, and therefore, welcome to anyone and everyone seeking adventures in nature.

Ready to ride and slide!

We were thrilled that our schedules matched up this summer to meet at Sunriver, where the Budges were vacationing, and then caravan to the Newberry Caldera National Monument. It’s a spectacular setting – in fact the photo on Experiential Passage’s banner is from Paulina Peak! Pristine Paulina Creek flows down the mountain into Paulina and East Lakes, which are popular for fishing and camping. There are also lots of hikes and mountain biking trails.

Commanding view of Mt. Bachelor, the South Sister, and Broken Top from the bike trail.

And that was our quest for this summer day….a mountain bike trail that would lead us to natural water slides along Paulina Creek. We kicked up a fair amount of dust and had to walk our bikes occasionally on looser parts of the trail BUT overall it was a slight downhill grade and very un-technical riding. Ideal for mountain biker novices such as ourselves!

Paulina Creek Oregon

Nothing like waterfall rain!

The total ride was about 6 miles and we pulled off the pine-shaded path three times to shoot down the rapids or wade under the waterfalls. On average we hiked about a quarter or half mile to the swimming holes, making it my ideal recreational trifecta: hiking, biking, and swimming. Awesome!

The adrenaline seeker in me did hesitate briefly before our river spree. Were the rocks sharp? How deep was the creek? Was it super cold? It took just a few minutes of watching the broad smiles on Joe and Jessica’s faces as they whooped it up, dunking under the rapids. They spurred me on!

The first slide was a little bumpier than I anticipated. Besides my bum taking a bit of abuse, my hands felt scraped. I finally learned to hold my arms up in the air like a total daredevil, but instinctively I wanted to control the speed and plant my hands beside my hips. It took a few plunges before it dawned on me to just let go!!!

The second slide proved smoother, shorter, and faster. FUN! And submerged each of us with a WHOOSH dip at the base of the slide. We spent the most time here, launching ourselves down the slippery, steely flat rock over and over. What a rush! It took my breath away each time.


Last waterfall of the day, and they could have splashed till dark.