Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The 50 States Club

I'm the kind of traveler who cringes at checklists. I don't feel the need, as a maniacal girl I met once did, to visit all 393 units of the National Park System. (Nor do I have the means, so American Samoa and the Virgin Islands' national parks will have to wait until after I win the lottery.)

But somehow over the past two decades, I've ended up visiting all 50 U.S. states. Alaska truly was my 'Last Frontier,' which I finally knocked off last month. Illinois, where I was born, was my first, followed by a trail of Western states zipped through during one summer vacation in a grand loop to Yellowstone National Park and back. Weekend trips to the lakeshores of Indiana and Michigan, the farmlands of Wisconsin and Iowa, and St. Louis for baseball, barbecue and rides high inside the rickety Gateway Arch made up my childhood travels.

It wasn't until after I graduated from college that I really got motoring. As I traipsed back and forth across the country, some moments stand out. Like gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles as I drove the Seven-Mile Bridge out to the Florida Keys. My car being searched for hours at a tiny border-crossing outpost in Maine. Sweating out a night in a stuffy hotel room in Janis Joplin's hometown in Texas. Cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway until the sun sank behind the Appalachian hills. I've driven around each of the Hawaiian Islands, too, getting stuck in Kauai's traffic jams and Lanai's 4WD jeep tracks and rattling around Maui's Haleakala volcano.

So, what's next? Like I said, I'm not a checklist traveler. But I need a new travel goal, to inspire my wanderlust. Any ideas?

Have you joined the 50 States Club yet? What are your favorite road-tripping states? Most miserable stops? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Photo: Four Corners Region (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Itty-Bitty Book Review: Shadow of the Bear by Brian Payton

I recently suffered by reading what may be the most cowardly travel book written by a contemporary American woman. With the nauseating aftertaste of that insipid story in my mouth, I've decided to take time to blog about more satisfying travel books, focused on the outdoors.

Published in 2006, Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness by Brian Payton is a thoughtful travelogue. As he travels to Asia, South America, Europe and arctic Canada, Payton introduces bear ecology and rare endangered bear populations to everyday readers. While some chapter narratives tend to wander, ending up more like travel journal entries, overall the book will keep wildlife watchers with wanderlust hooked from start to finish.

Want to know why polar bears end up in "jail" in Churchill, Manitoba? How moon bears are rescued from cruel bile farms in China? What's being done to save the spectacled bear in Peru? This author found out first-hand. It's an inspiring read, both as a traveler (have you faced down any human-killing sloth bears in India lately?) and as an animal lover (I was so moved by the book that I donated to Animals Asia, a small nonprofit group that works to rescue and rehabilitate moon and sun bears in China and Vietnam).

What are your favorite travel books about nature, wildlife and adventures outdoors? Tell me what to read next by leaving a comment below. If you'd like a free copy of this book, leave your email address.

Image courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Travels in Alaska: South to Seward's Glaciers

We briefly boomerang back through Anchorage (consciously avoiding the Beck-Palin rally), then head off down the Kenai Peninsula. The road south of Anchorage snakes beside Cook Inlet and around poetically named Turnagain Arm, where a roadside BBQ shack smokes the best brisket I've gnawed on outside of Texas. Sunlight flashes on the waves and the permanent snow fields and glaciers that coat nearby peaks like dirty cake frosting.

On Hwy 9, the Sunday traffic dies out before Moose Pass, where the liquor store reminds passersby that it's 27 miles until the next chance to buy booze (apparently in either directio
n, because the sign faces both ways). Both the road and the railroad peter out at the water's edge in Seward, a fishing port named for the man who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia (assumedly, with love) in 1867. Quickly nicknamed Seward's Folly and Seward's Icebox by political wags, the territory cost the USA just over $7 million, or about 2.3 cents per acre. Today, with our human population booming and wilderness shrinking at a precipitous rate, that seems like a bargain.

It's wildness that we're here to see, after all. In the luxuriously long
daylight hours of Alaska's late summer, we take a sunset walk to the base of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. The mosquitoes are out for blood, but the breezes pick up as we clamber up the rocky trail to the base of the blue ice. Never before have I been so near a glacier, almost close enough to touch -- that is, if I didn't know the cracking ice might swallow me up if I stepped beyond the roped-off lookout. Two hikers with bear bells tinkling come loping down the trail from the Harding Ice Field atop the glacier, where nunataks -- solitary mountains peeking above the glacial ice like islands -- are lonely landmarks.

Early the next
morning, we fill up on eggs benedict topped with snow crab from a diner inside a train car by the harbor. With zoom lenses around our necks, we board a boat to sail through the Kenai Peninsula's wind-whipped fjords, past rock outcroppings where Steller sea lions bask in the sun, every king of the mountain barking and pushing off lower-rung juveniles. Porpoises swim in the boat's wake. Although no whales are spotted, sea otters splash near shore and a bald eagle alights on an evergreen treetop in the distance.

Hours later, the boat's engines hum as the captain negotiates thr
ough a frosty bay filled with icebergs at the foot of mile-wide Aialik Glacier. The tidewater
lacier audibly groans, snaps and cracks as it calves ever more icebergs. It's hard to know where to look to catch the next falling blue ice, which you hear only after the dramatic drop of another icy chunk into the sea. Everyone on board is silent with awe, like John Muir was when he first paddled into Glacier Bay. Here, too, the giant glacier moves of its own will, utterly ignorant of ant-like humans floating beneath its seductively dangerous face. It's impossible to look away.

Related links:
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
Travels in Alaska: The Road North to Denali
10 Steps to a Perfect Day in Big Sur

Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)