Sassy, Sultry and Inviting- Puerto Rico!

Beauty is all about us, but how many are blind! They look at the wonder of this earth and seem to see nothing. People move hectically but give little thought to where they are going. They seek excitement … as if they were lost and desperate. – Pablo Casals

rw2 and I started traveling about 13 years ago when his dad graciously sent us on a cruise for our 10th wedding anniversary back in 1998. Through several tropical, caribbean islands we made our way through the typical cruise itineraries, cheesy entertainment and endless food. After having disembarked, we quickly realized that this type of travel was not for us. Although we don’t have anything personal against the kind people at Royal Caribbean or those that cruise regularly, we switched our travel methods to that of our own devices and itineraries.

Finding ourselves in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the afternoon before we hopped our plane back to Chi-town, we meandered through the cobble-stoned streets of an ancient city steeped in history, art and culture. Having only a few hours to kill we didn’t get to see everything that the old city of San Juan had to offer, but a recent 4 day weekend offered us the opportunity to return.

Spanish colonization, followed by being ceded to the U.S. after the American-Spanish war, Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917. The heavy Spanish influence is apparent in the city itself, food and culture but the Puerto Rican flair is dominant. We stayed at Hotel El Convento, a 300 year old convent that has been converted into a luxury, boutique hotel. It’s interior courtyard, location in the heart of old San Juan and Spanish/Caribbean flavors made it a fantastic place to stay. The complimentary wine and cheese every evening was tasty and relaxing and the tapas restaurant found us lounging most days while the daily afternoon thundershower rumbled through.

On our first visit to the 100 mile long, 35 mile wide island of Puerto Rico, we toured Castillo San Cristóbal on the northern shore of Old San Juan. This is a U.S. National Historic Site and is maintained by the National Park Service. On our recent trip, we toured the other fort, Castillo El Morro which is only a short distance down the street from San Cristóbal. Being a U.S. National Park junkie, I swiped my yearly pass and in we went. The location of Puerto Rico was ideal for transportation of goods throughout the caribbean and from europe so these two forts played a pivotal role in trade and defense of it’s people throughout history. The city walls spread along the coast and make a lovely, romantic walk in the early evening as you walk along the Bay of San Juan. We came upon a local park along the bay that was having a music festival. Several singers and bands preformed on the outdoor stage with the lovely bay in the background. Loads of families, food vendors and a small market gave it a carnival like atmosphere and we were happy to act like ‘locals’ for the evening.

We like to find as much hiking as we can whenever we go somewhere new and PR did not disappoint. El Yunque is a U.S. National Forest and is the only rain forest climate in the national park system. With promises of waterfalls, stunning views, bird sightings and miles of trails through dense, lush rain forest surroundings, we anxiously reserved a rental car for a day of mother nature at her best. Unfortunately, she had other plans as we woke up to pouring rain with no promise or hint of it subsiding for our day in the great outdoors. Instead, we lazed, again, in the plant-surrounded tapas restaurant, sipping mojitos, reading and enjoying the intense tropical rain storms throughout the afternoon. Yeah, it was a *real* disappointment (wink, wink).

The next day was a bit more promising in the weather department, so we hopped a ferry from Old San Juan to Cataño to visit the Bacardi distillery. As loyal Guiness drinkers, we visited the beer drinking mecca of St. James Gate brewery while in Ireland. It’s multi-level museum gave interesting insight into one of the most famous, and delicious, beverages ever concocted. Even though our kids were not of drinking age, the historical, social and financial aspects of the beer and brewery gave us all a very fun day.

Alas, such is not to be said of the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico. The lush and beautiful grounds were aesthetically pleasing, but the rest of the tour was not. A 1 minute tram ride took us from the visitors center to the main building of classic art deco style. There we were given a brief history of the Bacardi product, shown several drink recipes and shown a video recapping the history that seemed to be more commercial than historical. After our less than 30 minute tour, of which we saw 3 vats in the actual process, we were shuttled back to the gift shop/visitors center. We passed a small building that said ‘museum’ but were not invited to go inside. A less than enthusiastic bartender poured us 2 complimentary drinks and we were soon asked to move from our tables so they could put up the chairs. All in all, nothing spectacular and nothing notable. I suppose if you are an avid rum drinker and Bacardi is your brand, this may be worth it for you, but I wouldn’t count on it.

A small plaza a few blocks from our hotel offered a rare jewel that we unearthed quite by accident. Beth has been a cellist since the 7th grade and has studied cello performance at Roosevelt University as well as been in numerous local orchestras as well as the assistant principle cellist for the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra for the last 28 years. So, it was a pleasant surprise to find the Museo de Pablo Casals tucked away in the sleepy little San Juan Plaza.

The world famous cellist and humanist Pablo Casals passed away in 1973 but his music lives on. You can experience it at the Pablo Casals Museum in Old San juan. Hundreds of recordings and video tapes of the Casals Festival, since its beginning in 1957, are available in the main music room on the museum’s second floor and in the plentiful memorabilia around the building. Original manuscripts of Casal’s music, his cello and piano are on display in the main hall. There are medals and decorations by heads of government, diplomas, letters and photographs. The music rooms are often occupied by serious young students who come to appreciate the extraordinary contribution the Spanish-born maestro made to the culture of Puerto Rico and the world. Casals lived in Puerto Rico, where his mother and his wife were born, from 1956 until his death. His legacy includes the Casals Festival, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, the Conservatory of Music and the Children’s Special String Program.

Again, our travels did not disappoint. We met several U.S. travelers as well as rubbed elbows with the locals. Their kind, warm and inviting hospitality made our trip extremely memorable and made Old San Juan a much desired destination to return to. Perhaps we will find ourselves there with more time to spend than just an afternoon, a four day weekend or beyond. With an average yearly temperature between 75 and 85 degrees fahrenheit, who couldn’t spend a significant amount of time there? Gracias, Puerto Rico. Véale pronto.

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Nashville, TN

We’re in the middle of a good stretch of flying now. The cold winds of winter are around the corner and we have a few trips we want to get done before they arrive in earnest. On the heels of my flight to Michigan we’re going to head down to Nashville, TN to visit a friend who has relocated there from Austin, TX.

Mary and I worked together pretty closely when I was employed by Univa. She is a marketing guru and we worked together to try and tell the world about our wares. Her husband is a major hiker and has done a through hike on the Appalachian Trail. I’m not sure we’ll make it, but we’d like to try. At a minimum I can’t imagine we won’t do a section hike at some point. So our proximate excuse to go visit was to talk about AT.

Mary is also the one who told me about Bob Schneider, he has become our favorite musician for the past few years. During one of my first trips down to Austin after we bought Mary’s former company I was excited to go see some live music. Beth and I used to go see bands all the time, but as the kids got older and we started spending so many weekends in Wisconsin it quickly fell by the wayside. Since Austin is the music capital of the world I started hitting up people around the office for advice on what acts to catch while I was in town. Mary got out a copy of the Austin Chronicle and pointed me toward Bob’s standard Monday night gig at Saxon Pub.

I went over to Saxon with Brian. Brian is a guy who was trying to sell me consultants I didn’t need, but was so good at his job that I suckered him into coming to work for Univa. We headed over to Saxon and had a blast. Matt the Electrician was the opening act and also was a lot of fun. He did a 15 minute extended version of one of his songs that was amply embellished with an elaborate story about Rick Springfield buying the Saxon Pub because it had the best remaining orignal Pac Man console in the US. Over a period of a few years after this first show Beth managed to get down to Austin a few times and we’ve seen Bob in Milwaukee as well, at Shank Hall no less. It was loud, but I’m not sure it went to 11.

On launch day we are fortunate to have fantastic skies. The FAA says that you have to have done 3 nighttime landings within the previous 90 days as the sole manipulator for the controls in order to be legal to carry passengers. With the days in the northern hemisphere getting shorter, I headed out to the airport a few days earlier to accomplish this bureaucratic hurdle. A few times around the pattern and I was, once again, legal.

Let me be clear, not everyone should treat such regulations as a bureaucratic hurdle. I certainly don’t take the safety of myself nor my passengers as a given. That said, I’m a reasonably active pilot and did a lot of night flying in the spring. In this case it really was a demonstration of capability because the calendar was working against me.

I was flying a plane that was relatively unfamiliar to me. The club recently bought a pretty nice Piper Archer with a glass panel so it was still a useful exercise to get up in the air and gain familiarity with a new plane.

Beth and I take off in the setting sun and enjoy our flight to Nashville. The rides are smooth and the workload light as we move from the Chicago area south. The skies are crystal clear and a gorgeous arc of the horizon is a beautiful crimson as the sun sets, a vibrant bald red head into the western hills.

We spend three hours listening to our reciprocating engine trying to tear itself apart and finally find ourselves in the Nashville area. John C. Tune Airport. There are several aircraft on instrument flight plans flying into Tune this evening. One by one we are handing off from controlled airspace to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) for approach and landing.

Upon landing we are met by one of the happiest linemen we have ever met. He flaggs us in and, upon our disembarking from the plane, complements us on the “the nicest paint job on any Archer I’ve seen”. That alone was worth the trip, though I disagree pretty strongly with his opinion. Mary and Walker are standing on the patio on the edge of the terminal. Oh, did I mention that the dude who hiked the Appalachian Trial was named Walker?

We get our gear out of the plane and head out to get some dinner.

There is a lot of music in Nashville and Mary hooks us up with a local place that had some good music and good food. The music is actually surprisingly good. They play mostly instrumental songs, but do so highly competently. This wouldn’t be as notable except that there are only about 30 people in the whole place. I suppose in places like that the entertainment is there far more ‘for the love of the game’ than folks like the Rolling Stones.

After a quick bite we head back to Mary and Walker’s place and enjoy a few beers while playing Bob Schneider on the iPod. They have a wonderful old home that has been modernized. We finish the evening around easy-to-start gas fireplace laughing and telling stories.

The next morning we are treated to a yogurt bar in the kitchen and discuss plans as we shrug off the nights sleep. As Beth is a collector of state capitals we decide that we will go to the capital building and take a tour of the place. Mary and Walker haven’t been there in ages, so they are happy to use the excuse of out-of-town guests to get back over and see it again.

We drive downtown and I’m more surprised than I should be by how active it is. Nashville is a legitimate city, so I don’t know why I expected a quiet little country town, but I did. We drive up one of the two main drags and see building after building filled with bars, gift shops and music stores.

Presently we arrive at the state capital and are disappointed to learn that it is closed on weekends. However, from the hill upon which the capital rests we enjoy a lovely view of the surrounding area and spy a famers market nearby. Walking downhill we find a massive map of Tennessee and spend some time roaming between cities.

After a quick and savory lunch we head back into town and see things closer up.

When I was in high school one of my favorite classes was print shop. We had a wide range of tools from old school movable type letterpresses with California Job Cases to the then start of the art laser imagesetters. We produced a lot of different kinds of stationary, books and posters. The posters, in particular, were brought crisply back into memory as we entered Hatch Show Print.

Hatch has been around for well over a century and uses a type of printing even older than lead type, wooden block printing. Wooden blocks have images carved into them and these are then arranged into a frame to create the image for the poster. Having been around for so long the shop is a library of alexandrian proportions. Having been in Nashville for so long, they have a vast collection of posters from classic country stars.

Beth looks around for a while and picks out a poster to bring home. While she does this Walker steps out of the crowded shop to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. We pay the eclectic staff for the poster and walk outside to find Walker sitting on the pavement begging for spare change.

Laughing, we ask what could have caused such a precipitous slide into homelessness in the two minutes that it took to complete our purchase. Apparently he just has that look about him. As Walker exited the shop a busker approached him to watch his guitar case while he took a need bio-break.

We huddle up and decide that we should next go to a nearby pub for mid-afternoon beer and music. The band is decent, but we are all the way in the back of the building. Too far to appreciate the band and too near to have a conversation. We quickly decide to bail out and head back to the house for a bit before dinner.

It’s a beautiful fall day in the neighborhood (slogan: “37206: we’ll steal your heart and your lawn mower”) and we sit out front playing dice to pass the time. Friends stop by to say hi and Walker and I solve most of the worlds problems with the help of his famous margaritas. All is right with life as we watch the world spin by.

Beth had been fighting a stomach bug so after a much needed nap, she arises. We start to plan dinner and wander down the street in search of the restaurant. The sun is setting and the sky again fades from blue to yellow to red and finally to a starry black. It’s about 50 degrees out with no breeze, perfect conditions to enjoy a meal on the patio under the warm glow of the propane heaters.

Unfortunately the next morning arrives on schedule and we must depart for home. One of the things I like to do whenever possible is take people up for airplane rides. Walker is game, but Mary is hesitant. This is pretty common. A lot of people don’t like flying in general and the notion of going up in a small plane with an amateur pilot seems edgy and worth skipping.

Mary, however, decided to gut it out. We had some lunch and headed over to the airport. The skies were still quite clear and there are moderate winds at the surface. Not the greatest of conditions as the skies are likely to be bumpy. I give her another chance to bail out, but she decides that having come this far she may as well do the flight.

We take off and, indeed, the skies are quite bumpy. Instead of doing a longer flight I take us around an extended pattern that allows Mary and Walker to get a good view of downtown Nashville without bouncing around for an extended period of time. Even with the bumps it is wonderful to be able to share a flight with friends. We land and hug our goodbyes.

Beth and I launch for home and once we climb above the lower level turbulence, enjoy a smooth flight back to Chicago.

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Holland, MI

Another day, another chance to fly somewhere new.

This time I’m taking an old co-worker to Michigan to meet a friend, John, and his wife for lunch. I haven’t seen him in five or six years and I’ve never met his new wife.

My first officer this trip is a guy, Chris, I got to know at my previous company. We travelled a bit together and have stayed in touch since then.

Unlike the golf trip posted here recently, all the preparations are successful and complete. I get to the airport a few minutes before Chris and get the plane pre-flighted. I was the person who last flew the plane, so everything is ready to go. Chris calls me from the parking lot and I taxi over to pick him up.

He’s flown in small planes before, so a quick passenger briefing is all it takes to get him up to speed and off we go.

Today’s flight will take us southeast from DuPage underneath O’Hare’s airspace. I make notes about the altitude restrictions, setup some waypoints in ForeFlight and do a run-up on the plane to make sure the engine seems like it will run properly.

Once underway I get the plane stabilized and let him fly for a while. He has a steadier hand than most people and keeps us on altitude and heading without difficulty.

We gossip about our old company and compare notes on what’s going on with our new jobs. He’s working for a competitor of our last company so has some new perspectives. Chris also lets me know that another guy was just released. I make a mental note to see if there is anything I can do to help him land on his feet.

Flying around the southern edge of Lake Michigan always leads to a nice display of Southwest planes arriving and departing Midway. Today is no exception. Our flight is within a few hundred feet of both the O’Hare airspace and Midways. This puts us close enough to arrivals to see the whites of their eyes.

Ok, maybe not literally, but we are plenty close enough that large planes look like large planes. Typically the traffic we deal with are other small planes that end up looking like dots on the horizon rather than airplanes.

Clearing O’Hare and Midway’s airspace we approach the class D around Gary and request a transition through their airspace. We continue up the lakeshore for a while and I grab my mobile phone to send a text message to John to let him know to we would be arriving shortly.

Clicking the phone on I see a message from John asking about timing. Apparently I’ve managed to not organize this trip with the one hour timezone difference between Holland and Chicago taken into account so he’s wondering where we are. This turns out to be a bummer as now I won’t get to meet his wife. She has to shuttle children around during the new arrival time.

Chris and I land and arrange to have some fuel loaded onto the plane. As we get done talking with the lineman John pulls up and we head into downtown Holland. John gives us the nickel tour which includes the heated streets downtown (to melt snow) and the link to Johnson Controls that is responsible for much of the economy in the towns history.

John has picked The Boatwerks as our dining destination. It’s on the shore of a lake and the same great weather that has favored flying continues to shine down on us as we enjoy a tasty lunch with a view of the bucolic countryside surrounding the lake.

After lunch we head back to the airport and I get another quick briefing before departing. I explain to Chris that while the skies are clear, there are other things that can change. 9/11 was a dramatic example of that, with the entire national airspace getting shutdown. President Obama is another example. When the president travels there are temporary flight restrictions around wherever he is. This has always been true, but since Obama is a Chicago boy, we are more frequently affected than under previous administrations. The other reason, and the most common one, is that sometimes airplanes or pilots fail and turn an airport into crash investigation site.

As usual, none of these have happened today and we launch for home.

Sitting at my laptop the next morning I click on Facebook and see a message from John about an airplane crash. The airplane in question is an experimental design from the mind of Burt Rutan. There is nothing to indicate that the airplane broken. It crashed on short final, which makes it pretty likely that the pilot let the plane get too slow, stalled and didn’t have enough altitude to recover. On impact the plane flipped over and, tragically, the pilot was killed.

Coincidentally, the crash took place at the airport we flew into yesterday for lunch. We were lucky to have flown out when we did or we would have been stuck there overnight while the investigation took place.

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Climb Every Mountain

‘Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame!’ - William Butler Yeats

I am fascinated with the mountains. If I didn’t love Chicago so much, I would move to the mountains in a heartbeat. There is, of course, something to be said for the beautiful, fertile land of Illinois with its seemingly endless miles of crops, sprawling from border to border. While passing through the Land of Lincoln, you can see nothing but…’seemingly endless miles of crops sprawling from border to border’. If you’ve ever had to drive more than 50 miles of IDOT’s finest, it gets pretty old, pretty fast. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to live in a state where the American farming dream is alive and well, but the mountains- oh, my!

I seriously fell in love with the mountains while in Alaska. I will not relive the glory that is Alaska in this entry, but feel free to revisit our blog from that trip. We’ve been fortunate enough to have hiked in several mountain ranges all over the world: Tatras Mountains(Poland), Wicklow Mountains (Ireland), Mount Fuji (Japan) and the Rocky Mountains (Canada and US). This summer, we were lucky enough to visit Glacier National Park. It shares the Canadian/US border with Waterton National Park in Alberta, Canada and the two parks combined create the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Seeing the boundaries of Glacier spread up into Canada got me thinking… wouldn’t it be awesome to hike up into Canada from the US? Why, yes, it would! However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as being an avid cartographer, it’s that things often look easier on a map than they are in real life. Turns out that the best (and only) way to hike into Canada from the US is to put in many, double-digit miles and overnight camping. While we had several days in the park, this option was one that I was not physically or mentally prepared for. Having had major back surgery a year and a half ago has left me a bit leery on the whole carry-everything-you-need-for-three-or-more-days-on-your-back concept. It is a goal that I am certainly working toward (Appalachian Trail, I’m looking in your direction) but I am still in the ‘baby steps’ phase.

Even though our dream of a multi-country hike ended in disappointment, our back-up hikes and Glacier NP in general did not. If I had to say that there was one thing wrong with Glacier NP, it would be (as with Yellowstone) that they are *almost* just too big. Now, that being said, I am truly grateful for it! These massive tracts of land are all that is right with the national park system. Even though it is technically a complaint, I say it very softly and with truly not much sincerity behind it.

Grand Teton, on the other hand is a very ‘doable’ size. From the moment we could see it (literally from miles away)I became enthralled with it’s picturesque and certainly ‘grand’ form. Part of the allure of Grand Teton is that it runs parallel to a small string of lakes on the east side with the sizable Jackson Lake towards the north end. I found myself gawking repeatedly at the range during our hikes/picnics and even from our campsite,which we have dubbed ‘THE Site’. It was, without a doubt, the best campsite we’ve ever had. While our set up at Glacier was among the high loge pole pines along Fish Creek, our site at Grand Teton was set down a small slope from the road among spruce, pine and fir with a spectacular view of the Tetons themselves.

Our many hikes in the mountains have led me to truly believe in one thing: even a bad hike is a good day. While we didn’t have any ‘bad’ hikes this trip, some hikes are better than others. Feeling as if we should see something other than the awesome mountains, we headed for Two Oceans lake which the park-issued guide said was a total of 4 miles around. It was only after we had rounded the north end of the lake that we realized we had hiked more than 3 miles, one way. As it turned out, circumnavigating the lake totaled more than 6 miles. Relentless mosquitos, the constant threat of bears and aching feet proved to be a challenge but the elk we encountered on the trail helped to make the long afternoon well worth it. Also, let’s face it… we were healthy, happy, together and loving every ounce that mother nature had to give that day.

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