Archive for November, 2008

Capturing the spirit of the Wild West

November 28, 2008

Just before posting this year-old (but wonderful!) Where they Went column, Wessel looked up the traveling sisters online. We were shocked and saddened to see that Cynthia Soroos, the sister I interviewed, died on Sept. 29, 2008. From speaking with her and reading comments posted to a remembrance site, it’s clear to see that Cynthia led a full life and inspired others. May her loved ones find peace.

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Nov. 18, 2007, in the Boston Globe)

This horseback trip is about as close to the American Wild West as you can get — except it was in Canada. While this was published in 2007 BB (before my blog), it’s a classic and one of my all-time favorites.

Cynthia Soroos rides a horse in the Yukon territory

Cynthia Soroos atop her trusty steed during camping trip in Yukon Territory

WHO: Cynthia Soroos, 32, of Cambridge, Mass., and her sister Sarah Soroos, 31, of Seattle.

WHERE: Yukon Territory, Canada.

WHEN: Two weeks in July.

WHY: “We usually go on a trip every year,” Cynthia Soroos said. “We like to do something different and some sort of outdoors or athletic activity. Sometimes you need to be scared and you need adventure.” The year before, they had been on a rafting and hiking trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “This one was my idea. I found it by Googling around. I starting seeing horseback trips, then saw one in the Yukon. There’s where we have to go, I thought. It seemed so remote.”

Cynthia (left) and sister Sarah Soroos on top of a mountain in the Yukon Territory

Cynthia (left) and sister Sarah Soroos on top of a mountain in the Yukon Territory

JUMPING IN: Although neither sister had done much horseback riding, they chose the 13-day trip with Northern Wildlife Safaris over the six-day option. “My thought was, if we took the shorter one, by the time we figured it all out, we’d be finished,” Soroos said. “And the longer one allowed us to take days off. It’s a small outfitter, and we told them we didn’t have a lot of riding experience, but we’re OK with camping, and that was fine.”

Horses Atlan and Arkell are patiently waiting outside the tent.

Horses Atlan and Arkell are patiently waiting outside the tent.

PRIVATE TOUR: “We lucked out that there could have been three other people, but it was just us and the guide,” she said. With three saddle horses, two pack horses, and a dog, they traveled about 18 miles a day over mountain ranges between Whitehorse, the territory’s capital and largest city, and Kluane National Park. “It was very overwhelming in the beginning,” Soroos said. “We were both a little hesitant about what we were getting ourselves into.”

OPEN LAND: “Sometimes there were no trails; we’d go through rivers and bogs, and up and over mountains. Sometimes the grade was really steep and you’re just holding on for dear life.” Soroos wasn’t worried about grizzly bears because “when you have a big enough herd size, the grizzlies won’t attack, and we were a herd,” she said. “We saw some, but they were pretty far away.” They also saw a wolf, two foxes, caribou, and “lots and lots of Dall sheep. We were in mostly open space surrounded by rocky peaks. It was really quite spectacular.”

Horse Cody liked to nuzzle the tent. Throwing grass at him was effective for shooing him away, but he still managed to tear it.

Horse Cody liked to nuzzle the tent. The women would shoo him away, but he still managed to tear it.

RIDE, EAT, SLEEP: The trio would ride, usually at a brisk walking pace, about four or five hours a day before pitching tents for the evening. The women weren’t as sore as they’d expected to be. “Our shoulders hurt, but it was nothing compared to what everyone said it would be,” Soroos said. “We became much better riders by the end.” They would camp and cook their meals over an open fire. The meals started out fresh and went to dried and canned by the end of the trip. “Chris, the guide and owner, knew spots for camping, flat spots that had a water supply and grass for the horses.”

TRUE WILDERNESS: “It didn’t get dark until about 11, and the sunsets, the angle of the sun, were really beautiful. It was just golden and reflected off all the mountains,” Soroos said. “It was unnervingly quiet. It made you feel like you were finally away, away, away. There were no traces of people. That was the coolest.”


Talking turkey (they can hear you)

November 24, 2008
Heritage breed turkeys at Indigo Farm, a Bourbon Red flanked by two Narragansett turkeys

Heritage breed turkeys at Indigo Farm; a Bourbon Red is flanked by two Narragansett turkeys

I’ve seen plenty of wild turkeys in my day, but I’d never been around farm turkeys much until this year. Now that I’m visiting farms across North Carolina for my travel guide “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” I’ve visited several that have turkeys either for fun or for food.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Turkeys are just dang cute. Beautiful, really. They’re curious and very social, with each other and humans. At night, they keep away from predators by roosting in trees. Both their feathers and crazy colorful neck waddles are lovely. (Now if only human “turkey necks” were so attractive…)

Headshot of a Narragansett turkey a heritage breed

That's quite a neck on this Narragansett

Turkeys flocked around Wessel and me in August when we visited Indigo Farms in Calabash, N.C., which is near the coast and the South Carolina state line. Owner Sam Bellamy gave us a tour of his organic family farm, which includes a small flock of heritage turkeys. Heritage breeds are old-time ones that are threatened because of factory farming standardization.

Sam has two breeds, Bourbon Reds, turkeys named for Bourbon County in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region where they originated in the late 1800s, and Narragansett turkeys, named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the variety was developed. Those descend from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkeys brought to America by English and European colonists beginning in the 1600s. Now that’s what you’d call a blue-blood turkey. Sam says turkeys have the best hearing and eyesight of all farm animals, but I can’t vouch for that.

Group of young turkeys at Goat Lady Dairy Farm in Climax, NC

A rafter of young turkeys at Goat Lady Dairy in Climax, NC

In visiting all these farms, I have to say that I’m having a harder time justifying my carnivorous ways. Life was so much easier when I had the blinders on. I am still eating meat, but less of it and much of what I do eat now is from local farmers. But, still, could I eat a turkey I gotten to know up close and personal? I doubt it. So I’m still wearing those blinders.

Now’s a good time to tout the wonderful advocacy and education group Farm Sanctuary, which “opposes the slaughter, consumption and commodification of farm animals.” They have an Adopt-a-Turkey program that promotes raising money for saving turkeys instead of spending money on eating them.

Sticker of HokieBird on the car of a Hokie fan

HokieBird sticker on fan's car

On a lighter note, I didn’t mention that I was raised by a Gobbler. My Dad attended Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., where the football team is called the Gobblers (also the Hokies) and the mascot is a giant turkey. During my childhood years, the 1960s and ’70s, the stadium scoreboard had a giant turkey that would light up and gobble loudly whenever Tech scored. Oh how I loved that! Someone needs to tell me why they got rid of that wonderful contraption. Dad (who died in 1997) was such a rabid Hokie fan that when we lived in North Carolina and then Florida, he still subscribed to the Blacksburg newspaper. (No Internet in those days, of course.)

OK, enough turkey talk. Happy Thanksgiving week, all!

Lady Anne showed him the way

November 21, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Oct. 26, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

John is like the Energizer Bunny — with a backpack. I know I couldn’t keep up with him.

John takes a break after a steep climb to an ancient track known as The High Way.

John Mellecker checks the map after a climb to the ancient track "The High Way" on his hike along Lady Anne`s Way.

WHO: John Mellecker, 74, of Holden, Mass.

WHERE: England.

WHEN: 12 days in May.

WHY: To tackle his 15th long-distance walk in the United Kingdom since he retired from the financial-services industry nine years ago.

FOR THE LOVE OF . . . : “I never planned to make a hobby of this,” said Mellecker, who has logged more than 1,700 miles on foot in the UK. “I did the Coast to Coast Walk after I retired, and I was just smitten.” Mellecker is married but does his walks alone. He stays at bed-and-breakfasts and sometimes uses luggage transport services, as he did for this trip with Contours Walking Holidays.

John in front of the entrance to Brougham Hall. Lady Anne restored the Hall's chapel in 1659.

John at the entrance to Brougham Hall. Lady Anne restored it in 1659.

ANNUAL THEME: “Every walk, I look for a theme,” said Mellecker, who this time traveled along Lady Anne’s Way, a route that follows the footsteps “sometimes in spirit and sometimes on the actual road,” he said, of Lady Anne Clifford. Born at Skipton Castle in 1590, the 15-year-old Anne was denied her inheritance because she was female. She got justice at age 53 and spent the rest of her life restoring her castles, rebuilding churches, and creating almshouses.

FINDING HIS WAY: “The walk is very obscure,” said Mellecker, who walked 103 miles in eight days. “The challenge is it’s not marked in the traditional sense but is cobbled together on country lanes and existing paths and there are no signs.” He used a guidebook, a GPS device, and a compass. “To do these walks, people should have a real comfort with using compasses and maps.” The first half was in the Yorkshire Dales and then into Eden Valley in Cumbria. “I had a pretty good altitude gain and loss, with a tremendous variety of terrain.”

Lady Anne`s favorite castle. She died there in 1676.

John at Brougham Castle: Lady Anne's favorite castle. She died there in 1676.

ANCIENT TO MODERN: “The weather was beautiful, but there were always thunderstorms lurking around in the afternoon,” he said. “England is so compact that history is compressed. I walked through Iron Age villages, checked out 19th-century mining operations, saw prehistoric forts, and walked on the same roads Roman legions walked on.” A more modern sight, and sound, occurred in Eden Valley, when Royal Air Force fighter jets flew overhead on training missions.

HERE’S TO LADY ANNE: At the end of each day, after checking in to the B&B, Mellecker would visit the local pub for a celebratory pint of beer. Towns he stayed in included Skipton, Grassington, Buckden, Askrigg, Appleby, and Penrith. In Appleby he visited an active almshouse Clifford built. “She kept a diary of everything she did, which was the basis of the walk, and in it she describes laying the cornerstone in that almshouse. There was a resident reading in the courtyard, and I felt like I’d stepped into the 1600s as an intruder and then went back through the arch to the 21st century.”

License (plates) to thrill

November 19, 2008

Have you ever been tooling up the highway in, say, Boston, Miami or Chicago, and you pass a car with an Alaska license plate? Too cool! A few weeks ago, I saw a Hawaii plate on a car in North Carolina. Even cooler! (Warmer?)

License plate from Lithuania issued before it joined the European Union in 2004

This car came to Norway from Lithuania.

It reminded me how this past summer when we were bicycling on Lofoten, an archipelago in Norway, above the arctic circle, we spotted some rather exotic plates.

License plate from Norway

Of course we saw mostly Norwegian plates

Of course there was the usual abundance of French, Dutch, and German road-tripping tourists. Any worldwide traveler knows that the German and Dutch go everywhere. And of course the Scandanavian drivers were in full force as well, including drivers from Finland.

License plate from Iceland

This Icelandic plate was the one farthest from Norway that we spotted

But the other more faraway plates included Italy, Spain, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and …. Iceland! That’s one of the many great things about international travel — spotting other international travelers.

Another interesting thing about Norway’s own plates — they have special ones for electric cars and hydrogen-powered cars.  Perhaps that’s something we’ll start see in the good ol’ gas-guzzling USA some day. 

License plates electric (left) and hydrogen car (Norway)

License plates from an electric (left) and hydrogen-powered car (Norway); Click on image to read Diane's story on electric cars for Ode Magazine

North Carolina parks, from mountains to sea

November 13, 2008
NC State Parks, a niche guide

NC State Parks, a niche guide

I’m very impressed with a new guide to North Carolina’s state parks and recreation areas, the first comprehensive park guide in almost 20 years! “North Carolina State Parks: A Niche Guide,” ($14.95), written by Ida Phillips Lynch and Bill Pendergraft, is a high-quality paperback with detailed info on the state’s more than 50 parks, recreation and natural areas. The most amazing thing about this guidebook is its photos — 185 full color and gorgeous photos, most taken by the authors. (I’m very envious because my guidebook, “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” will have only black and white photos.)

The greatest thing about my great state is the diversity, starting with the Appalachias to the west and ending at the Atlantic Ocean to the east, with the foothills, piedmont and inner coastal areas along the way. The book is organized similarly, from the mountains to the coastal plain, and each chapter includes a general description of the site and detailed information about the park’s location, amenities, unique features, and contact and visitor information.

Wessel and Diane on top of the highest peak east of Mississippi River (6684 ft) in Mount Mitchel State Park, NC

Wessel and Diane on top of the highest peak east of the Mississippi River (6684 ft) in Mount Mitchell State Park, NC

According to the authors, in 2007 a whopping 13.4 million people visited our parks. It’s wonderful to know that so many folks are interacting with the great outdoors here. We had Dutch visitors last month who spent their entire two-week vacation in North Carolina, spending a week in the mountains and a week on the coast, mostly outdoors. They were surprised at how beautiful and interesting North Carolina was, and said their only regret was they didn’t have enough time to experience more of the state. Way back when, the NC tourism slogan was “Variety Vacationland.” I think the state needs to bring that one back.

Soar like a bird, if you dare

November 10, 2008
Diane in glider plane with pilot, Philippe Heer in back seat

Diane in glider with pilot Philippe Heer

Here are some things I’m pretty sure I’ll never do: hang glide, skydive, parasail, scuba dive. OK, maybe I’ll scuba dive, but you get the idea. The Ferris wheel is my idea of a thrilling carnival ride. So, when offered the chance to go gliding, or “soaring” as it’s called, why did I jump at it? I have no idea. Except that I’m not afraid of flying, and I have pondered, in a very distant and random way, taking flying lessons. And, oh yeah, it was free.

The hatch is closed to prepare for take off

The hatch is closed to prepare for takeoff

A glider ride was offered as an activity option during the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers, held last month in Houston. The club that sponsored the rides, the Greater Houston Soaring Association, wants to get the word out that 1) soaring is cool and 2) Texas, with a large number of thermals, is a great place to do it. What’s a thermal, you ask? Well, it’s not underwear. In short, thermals are columns of warm and therefore buoyant rising air. They’re what birds use to fly for days without stopping. You can read more about them here.

Glider plane is ready for take off

Similar glider is ready for takeoff

A glider, which has no motor, operates on physics. Once it’s hoisted into the air (in our case, towed up by a Cessna), it can move much farther horizontally than vertically. The more aerodynamic the plane, the longer it can stay aloft. Our “training planes” could go 28 feet horizontally for every 1-foot vertical drop. For more advanced planes, the ratio is 60 to 1. That’s without the help of thermals.

But, the fun part is “thermaling,” where the plane catches a thermal and stays aloft even longer. Thermals are energy sources, so riding one is like filling the gas tank. There are other forces that help keep the “ship,” as hobbyists call gliders, in the air, including heat and even mountains. The physics behind this stuff is truly fascinating. The guys at the Houston-area gliderport (just east of Wallis) said the record for a glider is 2,500 miles in flight, in the Andes. Whoa!

Cessna pulls glider plane as seen from Diane's position

Cessna pulls glider as seen from Diane`s position. Note the red yaw string.

The ships come with a stick and rudder, altimeter and barometer and air speed indicator. But experienced pilots say you can feel everything that’s happening and don’t really need the instruments. What they do watch is direction of the “yaw string,” usually a piece of yarn taped to the front of the plane. We were amused to see gliders worth thousands of dollars sporting little pieces of yarn attached with duct tape.

So, what was it like up there? There were about 35 of us going up, and the vast majority loved it and wanted to do it all over again. And then there were a few who said, “never again.” Guess which side I was on? As soon as the hatch closed and we took off, I thought, what the hell am I doing in this little fiberglass tube? I don’t do things like this!

Diane in front of two-seater plane

Diane takes the controls (not really)

I was in the front of the two-seater, with my patient pilot, Philippe Heer, suffering through my operatic near-screams (I did warn him) every time we banked or bumped over warm air pockets. We had time to catch just one thermal, and I could feel us rise up almost 2,000 feet. Intellectually I was totally excited. Physically, I was ready to get back on terra firma. It was a smooth ride, relatively speaking, and I wasn’t at all afraid of crashing, I just didn’t like the effect on my stomach.

When I compared notes with my fellow fliers, most of them had gleefully taken over the controls for a brief time, but I wasn’t remotely tempted. One of them was thrilled to be treated (upon request) to “negative G force,” or weightless flying for a short period, without gravity. Ugh.

Plane returns to grassy landing strip

Coming in for a landing

From the ship, the view was lovely and setting was peaceful, and I can understand how flying by the law of physics could be an addictive hobby. If you’re interested, visit the Soaring Society of America website and find the gliderports nearest you. Most places offer short rides to the public, for around $75. Me, I’m sticking to bicycling.

(A tip o’ the hat to my SATW colleague Kari Bodnarchuk for taking photos of me. Kari, by the way, loved the flight. She’d glided before and couldn’t wait to go again.)

Florida bound? Don’t forget your free juice

November 7, 2008
Free orange  juice at the state Florida Welcome Center on I-95

Free orange juice at the state Florida Welcome Center on I-95

It’s the time of year for tourists and snowbirds to make the trip south to Florida. We’ll be heading down in December for the Christmas holiday.

If you’re driving in, make sure to stop for free orange or grapefruit juice at one of the state’s five Official Florida Welcome Centers. I always look forward to a break at the center on I-95 north of Yulee and Jacksonville. It’s loaded with brochures and maps, helpful and friendly staff, and, best of all, yummy free juice. The restrooms are plentiful and clean, and Sabrina and Roxy have found the pet-walking areas to be to their liking as well.

Other welcome centers are located on I-10 west of Pensacola, U.S. 231 near Campbellton, I-75 at Jennings, and at the west entrance of the State Capitol Building in Tallahassee.

Don’t be fooled by the state’s many commercial “welcome centers” that try to sell you hotel and attraction packages. Stick with the real thing, or visit the state’s tourism site at

Caribbean cruising with Mickey Mouse

November 4, 2008

Disney cruises are pricey, but the company does know how to pack in the fun. Lucky Gilson kids (and adults, too)!

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Oct. 12, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

The Gilson Family

The Gilson Family

WHO: Diana, 39, and William “Gilly” Gilson, 46, and their children Will, 6, and Carli, 5, of Sharon, Mass.

WHERE: Caribbean.

WHEN: A week in April.

WHY: “People told me, if you’re really not looking forward to having your kids stand in long lines at Disney World, try a Disney cruise,” Diana Gilson said. “Our accountant had done the Western Caribbean cruise about four times and loves it, so we did that one.”

EASY PREP: “Disney does a great job with sending you a DVD that has pictures of the ship, what to pack, what the scene is like,” Gilson said. “It really takes very little thought. The only challenging part is you must absolutely have a passport for every person traveling, so I got the kids’ passports very early.”

FUN FOR ALL: “This was our first cruise, and everyone said the staterooms were bigger than usual,” she said. “We had a double bed, two bunks that folded up, and two bathrooms.” They also sprung for a balcony, where they would watch the sunset and other boats pass at sea. “Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and Goofy are walking all over the ship, and the kids just love that. For adults there’s a spa, workout room, and track, and they could have alone time when they dropped the children off at clubs organized by ages. Gilson, a pediatrician who said she’s “crazier than most parents about safety,” gave the ship and activities her “absolute seal of approval” in that department.

Bill Gilson dances with Athenea the Dolphin

William Gilson dances with Athenea the Dolphin in Cozumel, Mexico

PORTS OF CALL: The ship departed from Port Canaveral, Fla., with a first stop in Key West. “They have an aquarium and a really cute butterfly garden,” Gilson said. On Grand Cayman island, all family members were thrilled by an optional submarine ride. “We took a 20-minute catamaran ride out to the middle of nowhere and then this huge white sub comes up. We went 103 feet down and we saw everything from barracuda to angel fish to a shipwreck in the clear, clear Caribbean water.” An opportunity in Cozumel, Mexico, to interact with dolphins at Chankanaab National Park was equally exciting. “You can kiss them, dance with them, and give a dolphin a belly rub.”

Will, Carli and mother Diana Gilson have a grand time at Castaway Cay

Will (left), mother Diana and Karli Gilson have a grand time at Castaway Cay

PRIVATE ISLAND: The final stop was Castaway Cay, Disney’s own Caribbean island. “They’ve got everything there. Places to eat and buy souvenirs. We got my daughter’s hair braided. There’s this little fort built 20 feet from the coast that children can swim out to and play in. Our kids spent most of the day in the water.” Everyone liked it so much that the Gilsons are considering the Disney Eastern Caribbean Cruise next year, she said. “It’s for people who totally want to spoil their kids.”

Culture comes alive on day of dead

November 2, 2008
Man paints cross on family grave in preparation of All Souls` Day

Man repaints cross on his parents' grave outside of Humahuaca in preparation for All Souls' Day

Because Wessel and I had only one week and many miles to travel when we were in indigenous Northwest Argentina two years ago, I had plotted our trip out pretty carefully. Then, true to the wonders of travel, the event I hadn’t been aware of ended up being one of the most interesting and meaningful part of our trip — All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2.

Sugar baby heads for sale on local market

Sugar baby heads for sale at local market

A couple days before the Roman Catholic day of remembrance for loved ones who have passed away, we started seeing ceremonial supplies on sale at the many outdoor markets. These included bouquets of cut flowers and also plastic coronas — rings of brightly colored flowers. (I still have the two I brought home with me.) Also popular at the market were ghoulish sweets, including sugar skulls, crosses, and baby heads. And there were carts of “pan de muerto,” or bread of the dead, sweet bread baked in various shapes, including crosses and llamas.

We learned through various innkeepers we stayed with that this was a very special time, marked by offerings to the gods and festivities, including town parades. As the day approached, we strategized a new activity — cemetery hopping in our rental car.

Graves colorfully decorated in Abra Pampa, Argentina

Colorfully decorated graves in Abra Pampa

By the end of All Souls’ Day we had visited seven cemeteries, from Yavi, the small town we woke up in, to Purmamarca, which is flanked by the stunning Cerro de los Siete Colores, or Hill of Seven Colors. Each town we passed had cemeteries of varying sizes. For at least a mile away from each one we could see people walking toward them, carrying flowers and gifts. (Most people in this region do not own cars.)

Man decorate large cross on the La Quiaca cemetery

Locals add wreathes to a large cross at La Quiaca cemetery

We stayed the longest at La Quiaca cemetery, near the Bolivian border and one of the liveliest. It was easy to locate — we followed the crowds to the main gate, flanked by ice cream and empanada vendors. A 10 a.m. Mass was wrapping up around noon, and a second two-hour Mass was scheduled for 4 p.m. Families and friends clustered around gravesites bursting with color from flowers real and fake. People lined up at water hoses to fill vases. They also lined up at grain-alcohol vendors to fill their cups.

All around the cemetery, hundreds of people swept, wept, drank, prayed, and sometimes sang. We were very grateful that none of them paid much mind to us, as we were the only outsiders there. We took photos while holding our cameras at our hips, not wanting to show disrespect. We felt a profound gratitude to have an opportunity to share in this wonderful culture that honors the deceased not only with the sorrow of death but with the celebration of life.

For more photos, here’s a link to the Boston Globe slideshow of Wessel’s photos.