Monday, July 21, 2008

Adv #3: "Pacific Coast" - San Fran to Seattle - July 13 thru July 20

When you're someone who enjoys traveling as much as I do you take a job that centers around can imagine how much anticipation comes with waiting for that first assignment. After all the training was over and I'd been getting a few hints about what my first tour would be, I actually found out what my first three tours were going to be all at once!

Starting with what's shown in this blog post, I was assigned a trek called "Pacific Coast" from July 13th thru the 20th, starting in San Francisco and winding up the coast to finish in Seattle. A nice, easy first trip it was actually 2 vans running parallel with each other with my fellow trainee, Kim Bonson driving the other van. We had a great time with 18 Germans, Swedes, Americans, Frenchies, Brazillians, and Danish folk, and it was my first chance to see Redwood National Forest, Crater Lake, the Oregon Dunes, Mt. Saint Helens, Mount Ranier, and Seattle.

Passing through much of California's wine country, it seemed only appropriate that our passengers get to stop for a tasting. And have you ever seen pictures of those Redwood Trees that cars drive through? Well, it's perfect for a group shot now, early in our trip up the coast. The "Avenue of the Giants" in Humboldt County is a beautiful drive and a great way to get a feeling for how large these trees are.

Below, Freddie Karlsson is showing us what's left of a Redwood tree after lightning. We learned lightning strikes will actually start burning the trees from the inside, and they smolder slowly for over 2 months before eventually crumbling into what you see in the picture.

After seeing the Redwoods in California it was off to Oregon, and Crater Lake which was at one point a volcano that reached about 1 mile above sea level. Thousands of years ago, it imploded, creating......(you guessed it).......Crater Lake. It is absolutely stunning and beautiful despite the heavy haze that was lingering in the area that day, and everybody took the opportunity to hike for the few hours we spent there. We think the haze was a result of the many fires in the area, but it seems nobody can confirm this. What a great surprise this park was, considering how I'd never even heard of Crater Lake before this trip!

(Above: Our camping spot on Diamond Lake, just north of Crater Lake.)

Now over on the Oregon Coast just north of Bandon, a small group of us chose to do a little horseback riding along the beach. The famous "Oregon Dunes" stretch for about 70 miles up and down the coast, and its a major tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Beautiful day, beautiful place.....Laura Fricke, you fit right in.......

The horseback riding was considered a bit "tame" for each of us, so the girls wanted to ride quads in the famous Oregon Dunes to let off some steam. Me? Riding quads? Julius might be jealous, but that's an opportunity I can't pass up. We only rented for about an hour, but there's enough sand and dunes out there that you could ride all day and never see the same spot twice. It's just one enormous recreational area......I love it!

And seriously Mira, I've got to tease you about this...especially since you tried so much to avoid having me take the photo : ) When the rear wheels spin and you start sinking into the sand, don't pin the throttle and make it sink further! Okay, maybe you got mixed up in the language barrier when we watched that pre-ride video. You know I'm here to dig you out of course. Okay.....I'll dig out Laura, and Catherine too........ : )

We finished this perfect day (horseback riding, quads, and a sunset?) by watching the sunset over the Pacific from the dunes.

Cute little Ellie just doesn't fit in the picture when she's on her own feet so I gave her a little help. Elizabeth was an au pair for a year in Charlotte, NC, and finished her time in the U.S. by doing 2 consecutive Suntrek tours with us. That's a bit more van-time than even I can handle!
Freddie from Sweden and his girlfriend Luisa from Germany met as au pairs in the Boston area and sure do make a cute couple. I think these photos are a good reminder to all of us, that sometimes the best photos are the ones where you don't know you're being photgraphed.

Below, what a great picture taken by Lina Behrendt from Germany. Great way to end a really great day.

The next day, were were in Silver Falls State Park in Oregon. Ten beautiful waterfalls were the highlights to follow on this 3 hour hike. Freddie was offering tickets to the gun show of course. Silver Falls was to me, another great surprise that I'd never even heard of before being assigned this trip! (Am I really getting paid to see all this stuff and do all these things I've never done before? Okay. I'm not getting paid much : (

We were in bear country in parts of Oregon and Washington, and this was a surprise to almost everyone in the group (non-U.S. citizens.) Julieny from Brazil was the one person that was absolutely terrified the most about running into bears. So one night out at Peter's Inn in Packwood, WA, I figured this pose with the bear on the wall behind her might be therapeutic in helping calm some fears. I still don't think she slept well once I mentioned "bears" a couple days into the trip.

Late snow melt had washed out all the access roads and that kept us from seeing Mt. Saint Helens any close than what you see in the picture below. Fortunately the Park Rangers made the whole group feel better by giving us our Smokey the Bear Hats (exactly what it takes to cheer up a bunch of twenty-somethings, right?)
A day before the end of the trip as we hiked around Mt. Ranier, Lina was able to find enough snow to revive Frosty for the mid-summer hang out.

And this trip ended in Seattle, even though I didn't grab any pictures from the city. (My first time there though!) We had enough time for a night out on the town, and I had to switch vans to get ready to drop off this great first group and pick up my next crew. Admittedly, I was choked up over our departure. Maybe it's because it was my first group....maybe because they all turned out to be such a fun group of new friends. I didn't have much time to dwell on this though, as further north I was headed...into the Canadian Rockies!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Adv #2: Suntrek Training - June 24 through July 10th

Again, the whole point in hustling out to California was for my training with Suntrek beginning June 24th. I knew I'd be camped out during training, but I thought it would be there at the company's headquarters. Turns out they had us set up at the KOA Campground in Petaluma, which is about 15 minutes south of Santa Rosa.

By the 2nd night there, pretty much all of my training group was together, and what a great group we had! Ranging from 21 to 42 years old, recent college grads to existing high school teachers, the 11 of us really ended up having a great time together. The experience could be compared to pledging a fraternity I guess especially since once you go through all of this together, it forms friendships quite quickly. We were in a sort of "basic training," waking up at early hours, working all day, cleaning, setting up, taking down, etc. Part of the weeding out process I guess. The total training was 3 weeks and everyone made it just fine with plenty of great memories forged along the way. Just a couple of days into knowing each other, and we were already talking about an end-of-season party altogether again.

What an eclectic group we trained with! Tashina is 24, she's lived practically everywhere in the U.S., loves the Hyabusa she's sitting on in the picture, and I knew she'd do great as a trek leader. Her artistic abilities are incredible. I saw some of her paintings online and they are really, really amazing. So welcome to California, eh? We did a "training trek" to actually go out and see what it's like on the road living out of the van. In Santa Barbara, I saw this dog, cat, and mouse living in complete and total harmony. (Picture above, and look closely to see the mouse on top.) This trio was just walking around on the sidewalk as if they were trying to prove a point.....which I think I got. Rodney King had something to say about this, too. (Okay, that's a pretty deep reference on a very deep thought. Bear with me.....I'm livin' the dream here!)

One of the spots visited on the training trek was Death Valley National Park. WOW, what an interesting and beautiful place to visit. We ended up seeing Badwater Basin, Devil's Golf Course, the Dunes, and more, including a hike up the hillside in the background. Our visit was during the first couple days of July, and yes, it was around 120 degrees each day. It cooled down to a comfy 75 or so at night, and I just love the fact that we got to camp out overnight there. It's a really fascinating place when you understand all the factors that go into making it such a consistently hot climate, and not to go unmentioned is the beautiful scenery everywhere. Funny part of the experience for me is that I had always envisioned Death Valley to be a wide open desert, with not much to look at. This could not be further from the truth.

All gay jokes aside, the picture above just shows how much fun we had during training. Matt, the one who's face is saying "this can't seriously be happening!" was woken by Clayton, the clown of our crew. Matt was actually my tent-mate for the training, and Clayton was the perpetual entertainer from Spokane. Clayton, I'll never forget the moment when you had a serious talk with us about saving money on food and such during training. You said "every 5 dollars I save now is another day I can spend in southeast Asia." That stuck with me, pal. I think about that often.Back at Suntrek headquarters, above is a picture of the whole training group "Team B.O.W.L." That self-imposed nickname indicates a humble status of the "Best of What's Left." (We were the last training group of 2008.) At this point, we were nearing the end of training and being assigned our equipment, tents, vans, and all the equipment we'd be responsible for.

Aside from all the equipment training, there's a mountain of paperwork and procedures we had to learn about, including paperwork that exonerates us of guilt should an accident happen and passengers are hurt. Our driving exams took quite a bit of time as well since most folks had never driven a 15-passenger van.....let alone with a trailer!

Above will help give a visual of what it's like around Suntrek headquarters. Lots of vans, lots of trailers, lots of grills, propane tanks, tents, and cooking equipment. We all work really hard to set up our gear for the tourists we take out on treks! This is the spot we call "home" during training, and in between treks (if your "between" time happens to be in the Santa Rosa area. Sometimes we finish one job across the country, and pickup another one somewhere else.) There are times when it's busy here at the campground and times when nobody is around. One thing's for sure: Get all the trek leaders back together after a few weeks out on the road, and you'll hear some of the greatest stories. My personal favorite? Brian Freeman had a group of Korean passengers on a 2-week trip, and one guy had forgotten his toothpaste and a couple of other things, so Brian took them to the store to fix the situation. A couple of days later, this passenger approached Brian with a funny look on his face and said in that Korean accent: "Oh...Brian. Something wrong with my toothpaste." Brian took a look at what he had been brushing his teeth with for two days, and it turned out to be tube of Preparation H!

Below are a couple more pics of what it's like around the training campground as all the trainees and active trek leaders get together for a 4th of July party. So many good stories, so many laughs. Admittedly, I'm guilty of trying to hang onto the grand memories of college life for far too long. This atmosphere brought me back to that life......and I absolutely I loved it.

Just had to show one more picture of part of Team B.O.W.L. This was just a random moment near the end of training where Clayton decided we needed to hop in the same tent together. At about this time, we were splitting up as everyone was handed their first "orders" to go out on Trek. First Clayton....then by one, we slowly slid apart as we went out on assigments for the summer. Sad to see it happen, but I'm sure we're all off to make more new friends and have some great experiences.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Adv #1: Shifting Gears: A change in career and ride across the country

To help paint the picture: I've resigned from my career of 8+ years, emptied and rented out my townhouse, sold my Chevy Tahoe, bought a motorcycle, and basically reduced my immediate belongings to what fits in my backpack or on the motorycle. Funny thing is, I never thought having to use quarters again to do laundry could feel so good...

This all started when I had the perfect opportunity to get out of my career in 3rd party logistics back in March of this year. Despite working hard and having plenty of successes, I've had the desire to get out of that career for a long time. In a perfect twist of fate back in March, my employer presented a great opportunity for me to leave with some severence so I took the deal, and now I'm going to try and run with it.

Having resigned from my old job, I was doing plenty of soul and job searching when I learned about working as an "Adventure Tour Guide" through my friend, Kevin. We were talking one night and he asked me what I wanted to be doing with my career. That had always been a tough question for me to answer in the past for some reason, but this time I was very clearly able to articulate that "I want to be outdoors, travel everywhere, meet everyone, and be physically active." The next thing Kevin said was "I've got a buddy who has a job that sounds just like that!" So he put me in touch with his friend Ryan who had been working as a Adventure Guide for a couple of different companies, and Ryan gave me some great advice about how to get started. Each time I learned more about the job by chatting with Ryan and heard what it was like, I just became more and more certain that this was the type of lifestyle I wanted to live.

There have certainly been opportunities to jump back into what I was doing, to keep making money and do basically the same thing I've been doing for over 8 years. But I just haven't been able to get myself interested in that type of work anymore. That work reminds me that I'd just be "chasing money" instead of doing what I want to in life, and no matter how cliche it may sound, I've just decided it's time to follow my heart for a while.

After a couple of weeks of sending out resumes, I received word that a company called "Suntrek" wanted me to come on board starting June in California. Most adventure tourism companies in the U.S. had completed their hiring for 2008 and there might not have been many more opportunities for the year, so I accepted the job pretty quickly in hopes that working with Suntrek will be a solid foundation for working in the Adventure Tourism business. Let me clarify here: When I say "Adventure Tourism," it means my job will be to take tourists on outdoor adventures, camping out, biking, rafting, climbing, hiking, and traveling to new places. No more time on the phone, in front of the computer or dragging myself through conference calls. On this job, I'll spend my time in State and National parks, recreational areas, beaches, campgrounds, trails, etc. I've known for a long time that I wanted to spend more time in such places, but I never knew quite how to make it happen considering money and my career. My desire to live like this has been mounting for quite some with this job, I get to live that way and get paid to do it!

Let these writings from here on just be an account of where these travels are taking me...the people I am meeting... and the things I get to do.

So back to the part about the motorcycle: Why fly to California for job training when you can start the "adventure" lifestyle with an actual adventure on an "Adventure" bike? After motorcycle shopping thoroughly for quite some time, I was notified late on June 11th by a local dealer about a used 2004 "KTM 950 Adventure S" that was available. Just looking at the pictures in the email and the whole package they had available, I knew that night that if the bike looked as good in person as it did in the pictures, I'd buy it immediately. So on June 12th, in the middle of hustling to close up my house and put everything in storage I rented a car, drove an hour to the dealership, and after a quick test-drive, bought this immaculate bike on the spot. I was so was exactly the deal I was hoping for!

Still in a hurry though, just 24 hours later on Friday the 13th, I packed up the bike, finished a few last minute things, locked up the house, and set out on this trip across the country. The timing worked perfectly, as I was able to detour through Milwaukee and surprise Dad by showing up for Father's Day. (Dad knew I was headed to California soon for the job, but had no idea that I'd even bought a motorcyle at that point.)
I chose the KTM Adventure 950 because it's truly a dual-sport, "all purpose" bike. Meant for riding both on and off-road, I have practically no limits to the type of terrain I can cover. It's also equipped with enough removable cargo space that I can pack everything I need to live. Camping & cooking equipment, tent, sleeping bag, clothing, spare's all there, right on my bike. If I'm riding along, unable to find a designated camping spot or a hotel.....and nobody's looking.....I can sneak off into the woods, plop down my tent, and have everything I need to eat, sleep, and be merry. What a feeling that is, might I add! Everything I need on 2 wheels? And it gets about 40 miles to the gallon? I knew this ahead of time, and that's why I chose the bike. Not to get off on another topic too early here, but living this way has really helped me realize how little use I had for my fully-furnished 3 bedroom townhouse in Atlanta....
(Above: At the very top of this posting is the picture my friend Carolyn had taken just as I closed the garage door and was turning on the bike to head out across the country. I still hadn't even bought my riding pants at that point which I would do on the way out of town in a hurry. And there's Carolyn showing such excitement for my journey and seeing how my helmet might fit if she wanted to ride!)

So like I was saying, off to Milwaukee to visit Mom and Dad, it was quite a scurry for my first couple of days on the bike. A quick stop in Chicago to visit with my buddy Brian Lang plus a couple of weather delays had me showing up late at my folks house late on Saturday night just before Father's Day. I had pre-arranged this surprise-visit with Mom, such that she would bring Dad outside to look at the landscape of the house or something silly just as I was arriving on their culdesac. Sure enough, they were out in the yard checking things out while I circled and revved the engine. (Dad had no idea I had even bought a motorcycle, since I did so only 24 hours before leaving on this trip!) Eventually entering the driveway and taking off my helmet to reveal myself, I think it was a fun way to stop in and surprise Dad.

Above is a pic of Mom and I about to set out for a quick ride. Admittedly, I was surprised how quickly Mom said yes about hopping on the bike. Dad went for a ride, too...but somehow we missed the picture of that. Also, my old high school buddy Stevie Flowers stopped by with his KTM to have a little welcoming party for my bike. Fifteen years earlier, we used to ride our dirt bikes all around New Berlin trying to ride a fine line between getting in trouble and having fun.

Then headed south out of Milwaukee and nearing Rockford, IL, I learned the hard way that my low fuel indicator wasn't working when I ran out of gas. Fortunately, Rich and Ryan Confer were driving by with the BMX Racing tractor/trailer, and they offered to take Julius (every motorcycle needs a nickname) and myself to the next gas station. The three of us pushed my bike into the trailer, and we were on our way. Thanks again guys!

Julius needed an oil change by about the time we got to Kansas. I would have liked to have handled my first oil change myself, but hey...I had just bought this bike and hadn't even had a minute to get the right tools, filters, etc. Thanks Mario and the guys at Letko for getting us back on the road so quickly!
When Delbert at the Sinclair gas station in Park, Kansas tells you that it hailed the other night: He means it. These hailstones were saved in the freezer behind him, and he says they'd lost about 20% of their size in the freezer since they hit the ground. Imagine what getting hit by one would feel like had you been out walking the 60 yards from one end of the town to the other (it's a very small town.)
About half-way to California I could you pass on this photo opportunity? The riding does get more fun and interesting from here on, but the tough part was that I felt a bit hurried in the first 5 days or so. I'd only owned my bike for those 5 days, and because you never know if everything is alright with it that early, I was trying to get out to California with at least a couple days of cushion time. Just in case something happened to the bike...

I had started this trip using the Hennessy Hammock that I bought while I was in Atlanta. (See pic below.) Its a hammock that serves as a tent as well because of the mosquito net and rain fly that are built into it. It's great in concept, but after a few nights of setting up camp in Kentucky and Kansas, I realized how tough it can be to find two suitable trees for setting up your hammock. Depending on what campground you're at....sometimes its just not an option. So I stopped at REI in Denver and picked up the REI Half Dome tent, which seems to be working well.
Below are pics entering the beautiful Red Rocks Ampitheatre just west of Denver below. What a great setting for a concert with downtown in the background, and I think my buddy Greg Matzek has seen Dave Mathews Band here like 4 times? The place was empty when I got there of course, but it sure did make me want to stick around for a show or two.

And just a little further west in Dillon, CO, I visited with an good friend of the family, Ralph Stair. Ralph and my Dad grew up together and spent summers on Pewaukee Lake outside of Milwaukee. Thanks for the Bed & Breakfast on Lake Dillon, Ralph! It's always neat to be back in the Summit Area, as I'd been skiing and snowboarding there about 4 times since high school.

Made it into Utah of course, and Arches National Park is certainly worth a visit. I had the chance to stroll through the town of Moab, too, but ran out of time for Canyonlands National Park and all the camping spots there were filled up. Maybe I'll see it soon on the job with Suntrek?

So the next day after Moab and Arches, I buzzed past a stranger walking toward me as I cruised at about 90mph. We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere in western Utah on Hwy 50, and the sign he was carrying sparked enough curiosity in me to circle back and talk with him. Turns out, this traveler's name is Robert Williams, and he is walking from San Francisco to Washington D.C. to help raise awareness of autism. A couple of Robert's friends had lost their son recently due to an autism-related seizure, so to help raise awareness of autism at a rate of 30 miles per day, Robert has taken a leave of absence from his job back in Boston and set out on this awesome journey. Water has been buried for him every 15 miles, (look closely at the picture and you can see his shovel) and he keeps an iPod and cell phone with him for some basic means of entertainment. We talked for about a half-hour, and this was just a couple hours after he said Richard and Kyle Petty had driven past and talked with him. (A few random people at gas stations and such had told me the Petty's were driving through and I had just missed them.)

Anyway, my time with Robert gave me the chance to learn a bit more about what's really going on with autism, and it is much more serious than a simple film like Rain Man would suggest. One out of 150 kids are being diagnosed with this condition, and its something we all could stand to know more about. If you are interested in donating to support Robert in his efforts, click the following link: He'll be walking well into November, so keep your eyes out for him on his incredible journey.

Oh, and it was interesting to think: I left Robert at about 1:30 pm. At my usual 90 mph, that means about 20 minutes later I was passing where Robert was walking AN ENTIRE DAY EARLIER!!!

A stranger at a gas station (no, his name was not "Sea Bass") in Utah had told me that Highway 50 through Nevada would be unforgettable. Because I was making pretty good time, I sure did want to start seeing some of the lesser known roads by skipping the uneventful Interstate system, so Highway 50 sounded perfect to me.

The "nothingness" in Nevada is absotutely great, and that guy that recommended Highway 50 was right. Known as "The Lonliest Highway in America," Highway 50 is certainly worthy of such a title. I think I drove about 20 minutes a couple of times without seeing any cars in either direction. No fuel or service for two hours at a time. Gutsy? Maybe. I had only had my bike, Julius for about 5 days at that point. All I could do was pat him on the side, tell him he's good and strong, and hope that's all that was needed. He made it through Nevada like a champ, and I actually have a bunch of other "attempts" to capture the beauty by photo. As usual, the photos come up short of the actual experience.

Me and Julius...we go everywhere together.
A moment worth a photo as I finally entered California. That is one long drive...and it's not quite over. My destination is Santa Rosa, CA on June 22nd. That's just a few hours drive from this point though, north of San Francisco by about an hour. Above is shot in downtown San Francisco. We're getting close, but I had to take this fun photo-opp first while stopped in traffic. So that's what I look like on my bike?There we go! First picture above is from the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the last shot is from the north end, headed to Santa Rosa. Pretty neat that Suntrek is so close to such monument helping me mark the end of this journey (even though my destination was still about 50 miles north.) My writing above certainly does not cover all that I did or saw in these 9 days, but if we meet up sometime, and I'd be glad to tell you more about what happened along with the photos. Maybe I'll talk you into joining me for a ride!

The final bill when it's all over would be 3749 miles. Wow. The stop in Milwaukee and detour around Iowa (floods had the entire state shut down) added about 1200 miles to this trek. I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out.

Now onto the next training with Suntrek would begin on June 24th.....just a couple of days away.