Monthly Archives: January 2016

Westward Ho

Regular readers of my blog know about my goal to visit the national parks. We bought an American Eagle Pass for $10 when Jim turned 62 which allows us entry into all national parks during his lifetime and we’re definitely getting our money’s worth! Each September we try to do a road trip within the U.S. coinciding with our wedding anniversary. In 2015, that road trip was to Utah because they have 5 national parks in close proximity to one another. While I thought we’d previously been to at least one, I couldn’t remember which one. It turned out we’d ducked into Zion National Park briefly, but we’ve now fixed that omission.

One of the great things about a road trip is stopping along the way. It’s not just about the destination. And one of the great things about retirement is we’re not hampered by a schedule. We can take as much time as we like.

Our first stop was the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. Well, actually our first stop was in DesMoines to see our kids as we drove through but other than our awesome sons and a decent breakfast while we had the oil changed in the car, there was nothing particularly noteworthy to report. Anyway, if you’re a fan of military aircraft and history, the SAS Museum is for you. I’m not especially fond of military aircraft but I do love history. Jim, on the other hand, is a big fan of this place. This was our third visit.


Atlas ICBM in front of Strategic Air and Space Museum


View of Hangar A

My favorite was the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders exhibit. On April 18, 1942, a group of 80 volunteers led by Jimmy Doolittle took WW2 to Japan’s homeland for the first time on a daring mission to bomb Tokyo and other cities. The object was to show the Japanese they were not invulnerable after their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The successful mission raised American morale tremendously.


B-25N “Mitchell” bomber like the ones flown in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo


Life magazine showing FDR pinning the Congressional Medal of Honor on General Jimmy Doolittle and photos of some of the 80 heroes from the bombing of Tokyo

The nose cone from a nuclear-tipped ICBM caught my eye because it looked like a pencil.  The U-2 plane like the one flown by the American spy, Gary Powers, also intrigued me having just seen the movie, Bridge of Spies, about swapping spies with the Soviets.


Nose cone from nuclear-tipped ICBM


U-2C “Dragon Lady”

I can’t tell you the maximum speed of the world’s fastest aircraft, the Blackbird, because it’s still classified, but the cruising speed is 1320 mph. Lockheed built just 32 of this craft  to replace the U-2 for high-altitude strategic reconnaissance, i.e., spying.


SR-71A “Blackbird”

After traveling 530 miles on the first day, we spent the night in North Platte, Nebraska. The following morning we made straight for Chimney Rock. Along the way, we discovered a historical mile marker at Windlass Hill Pioneer Homestead and stopped for a look about.


Windlass Hill Pioneer Homestead

The first scenic landmarks we spied were Courthouse Rock, named for the courthouse in St. Louis, and nearby Jailhouse Rock.


It’s no wonder Chimney Rock was the most famous landmark for pioneers traveling the Oregon, Mormon, or California Trail. With a height of 325 feet from base to tip, you can see it for miles. It marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of more mountainous terrain ahead. When I saw Courthouse Rock, I thought, “Is that it?” But when I saw Chimney Rock, it was unmistakable and it would have been for pioneers, too.


Our first view of Chimney Rock in the distance


Nearby campground with Chimney Rock in the background


Chimney Rock and Visitor Center


Yikes! This gave me pause for thought.


Jim at Chimney Rock

Believe it or not, Chimney Rock was originally called Elk Penis by early Native Americans.  Here’s a photo of the actual explanation at the visitor center for doubters.


Sign at the Chimney Rock Visitor Center


Say goodbye to the prairie

Our plan was to stay in Estes Park, Colorado and get an early start the following morning  driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This was the first of several challenges looking for accommodations. After numerous calls and internet searches on my smartphone, the closest city with a vacancy was 33 miles away at Longmont, Colorado. We took it.

We chose The Rib House for dinner. What a find! With outdoor seating in a lovely residential neighborhood on a beautiful evening and a feast of tasty BBQ, we left full, restored, and ready to take on the mountains the following day.


Jim approaching The Rib House, Longmont, CO


Outdoor seating at The Rib House, Longmont, CO


Josh’s Sampler Platter (we shared)


Post dinner sunset with our next stop in the distance

Based on events of September 2015.


Next time: Rocky Mountain National Park












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My Favorite New Travel Hack

Who doesn’t like a good spreadsheet? I’ve been thinking for some time that I wanted to create a spreadsheet to track my travel expenses so that at the end of a trip, I’d know the total cost to the penny for the trip. With my budget travel brand, it’s nice to be able to share the cost with readers to demonstrate that travel really can be affordable.

I tried to create something in Numbers on my Mac and rapidly encountered frustration. Then I thought, am I recreating the wheel? I looked at apps to see if someone had already created just what I needed. Low and behold, Abukai is just what I wanted.

I downloaded the free app on my iPhone. You won’t believe how simple it is. (I am not getting any remuneration for this testimonial!) You simply use the app to take photos of your receipts and if you have an expense without a receipt, you can manually enter that, too. It even accepts receipts in foreign currency.  Then at the end of the trip, you hit “process expense report.” That sends you an email with the spreadsheet.

The first time I encountered problems getting the report so I emailed tech support. They responded quickly and efficiently to fix my problem.

Below is a reduced-size copy of the spreadsheet for a two week trip to Utah. I had a total of 50 expenses that I recorded as we incurred the expenditure. The total cost was $2880.63 for gas, food, lodging, etc. That’s about $200 per day which I don’t think is too bad.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 8.49.53 AM

I plan to continue to use this app for all future travel to record my expenses and have a report at the end of the trip. How do you keep track of your expenses? Do you have a similar method? I’d love to hear from you.

Based on events in September 2015.

P.S. I’m currently in Mexico with slow internet which hampers my ability to post. See posts from February 2015 for more information on my current location. I’ll let you know how well Abukai handles pesos.

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Wrap Up in Anchorage

We wrapped up our epic journey to Alaska in Anchorage, the largest city in the state.  With a population exceeding 300,000, nearly half the state’s residents call Anchorage home. Our hotel, the Westmark, included in our cruise package and owned by Holland America, was well-located downtown. We arrived early in the evening before an afternoon flight out of Anchorage the following day allowing us time for just a brief look around.


Panoramic view from our balcony at the Westmark Hotel, Anchorage

Dinner at Humpy’s came with outside seating made more enjoyable after the brief shower ended. Jim especially liked his caribou sausage but I had seafood again. Thankfully, salmon and halibut would soon be delivered to our door so it wasn’t my last meal of Alaskan seafood.


Jim and Sheryl outside Humpy’s

The following morning we got an early start to make the best use of our time. Anchorage plants more than 80,000 flowers in 270 flower beds throughout the city and we were happy to encounter more than a few on our walkabout.


One of the many flower beds planted around Anchorage each year

Our visit coincided with the Slam’n Salm’n Derby on Ship Creek, an annual fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen. I was intent on seeing this event so we headed straight for the creek. We overshot the mark, however, and ended up further upstream and found ourselves in a seedier neighborhood than we intended. In retrospect, if we had simply walked directly to the Information Center, we could have explored the area from there. The upside of getting off the beaten path, however, was seeing the Streambank Restoration Project to protect salmon habitat.


Ship Creek Trail


Fishing for salmon on the bank of Ship Creek for the Slam’n Salm’n Derby


More derby fishers at the Bridge at Ship Creek


Derby fisher weighs his catch

I later read the Derby winner for 2015 was a woman who caught a 37.55 lb king salmon early in the 10-day event.

We visited the nearby Ulu Factory and watched a craftsman work on a traditional ulu knife. With a history over 3000 years old, this tool was fashioned and used by native Alaskans and is still used today. We bought one for ourselves and one for a gift. I especially like it for chopping herbs since I don’t skin many seals.


Craftsman working at the Ulu Factory


My Ulu with cutting bowl


The Ulu Factory and Store


Jim with a dogsled displayed outside the Ulu Factory

A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center told us there was plenty more than we had time to see, and we would have to be content with the briefest of tours.


Anchorage Visitor Information Center


Downtown Anchorage

We decided to spend some of our precious time on an exhibit and video presentation of Dave Parkhurst’s photographs of the aurora borealis.  Photography of his work in the exhibit wasn’t allowed but you can check out his images on his website, The Alaska Collection. We once viewed the northern lights in northern Wisconsin and Jim saw them another time while driving in Iowa on I-35 but this show was phenomenal. As a result, I now want to see the aurora borealis in either Alaska or Iceland.


Video presentation of images of the Aurora Borealis by Alaskan photographer Dave Parkhurst

Then it was back to the hotel to grab our luggage and catch a taxi to the airport. As we said goodbye to Alaska, we were treated once again to views of Mt. Denali. What could possibly provide a more lasting impression of Alaska?


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali




Based on events of June 2015.



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McKinley Explorer

If you’ve followed my posts about Alaska, you’re aware that the name of Mt. McKinley officially changed back to Mt. Denali in September 2015. One of the few remaining references to President McKinley is the McKinley Explorer, the dome railway which we rode from Denali National Park and Preserve to Anchorage, Alaska. I wonder how long it will be until they change the name of the train?


The McKinley Explorer



Our Conductor and his assistant



Selfie and view of the dome car

It was a comfortable ride through the wilderness of Alaska with endless spectacular views and majestic scenery with wildlife sightings of moose, black bear, and beaver. The train crew was more like bartenders hawking specialty drinks and Holland America merchandise but we enjoyed their friendly banter and tour commentary.


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer

And then, we experienced day 3 of Mt. Denali Revealed. Despite a surfeit of superlative scenery, I believe we all continued to feel awe and reverence at every sight of this majestic mountain. I know I did.


Mt Denali peaking through the trees


Mt Denali from the McKinley Explorer


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali

Our continued sightings of Mt. Denali were all the more remarkable considering the ongoing smoke from the Sockeye Fire north of Willow. As we approached the area of the wildfire, we saw many acres of burned trees and ground cover, continued smoke in the air, and fire-retardant along the tracks.


Effects of Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska


View from the train of the Sockeye Fire


Sockeye Fire effects


Sockeye Fire, Willow, Alaska


Firefighter as seen from the McKinley Explorer

At one point, our train stopped and we weren’t sure we’d be able to continue. There were firefighters on either side of the tracks and the fire had jumped the tracks. No announcements were made so it was purely speculation on our part but we suspected danger. We heard that the day before they had to turn off the air conditioning through the fire area and the train cars got unbearably hot. Sheryl later met a woman who told her while traveling on the train the day before us, they were transferred to buses, then transferred back to the train again because the road wasn’t safe. They saw blazing fires and lots of smoke along the way. As I wrote in my previous post, Scenes from the Bus to Denali, the Sockeye Fire, caused by negligence, destroyed 7220 acres and 55 homes at a cost of $8 million.

We finally arrived unharmed in Anchorage but our luggage was not as fortunate. Some of the bags were dirty and seriously damaged. The luggage was transported separately by truck and HAL staff explained that they had to take gravel roads to avoid fire areas. This was an adventure we’d all just as soon have missed but I hope everyone learned the lesson. Do not leave fires unattended.

Based on events of June 2015.







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