Reflections on A to Z 2016

I made it through the month!!

Thanks for following along and reading about some of the wonderful places I’ve been (or in a couple cases, where I want to go).

I just heard about the A to Z Challenge a few months ago and am glad I signed up to tackle it. As the title would indicate, it was a challenge, but having the goal and a rough plan kept me motivated to complete it. Since my website is still new (as of mid-March), a learning curve took some time away from writing, so I just scraped by in meeting my personal goals (and I believe the content shows this).

My purpose (aside from completing the challenge, of course) was two-fold: to try my hand at travel blogging, and as a writing exercise. I was a bit concerned about whether I could keep up with a daily writing assignment without neglecting other projects. I knew that some letters of the alphabet would be a special challenge and, to be honest, was ready for this month to end as I approached the last few posts. I am happy that I succeeded in this goal and in the process have written much more overall than since I first started a blog.

I learned a few things last month, both personally and professionally. I had never taken a look at my vacations overall, and see that there have been some common themes. The outdoors is one (not a surprise since we enjoy camping), and in particular, National Parks. I hadn’t noticed before how many of my travels involve historic sites, whether by design or coincidence. Perhaps I just take note of the historic significance of places more than others might.

Interacting with several other bloggers was a big plus. As always, comments make a difference. The encouragement is a big help. Although I tried to read other A to Z Challenge blogs, I didn’t get to see as many as I would have liked. I am going to go back and read some over the upcoming weeks, but would have liked to have had time set aside to do this in April. If I do the challenge again, I will have to adjust my schedule to allow time for this.

My daily writing process evolved over the month. I had committed to posting about travel daily, but I was not willing to give up my other writing, so I had to schedule things more than I had in the past. Travel stories really require visuals, so I had to step up my game where pictures are involved. This took up time as well, and I took advantage of the fact I was perusing photos to better organize my digital collection. I have also started paying more attention to what I see in life, thinking about what visuals may be useful to have on hand at a later date.

I also noted a shift in my work process overall. I have started to think about scheduling more and creating a calendar for my content in advance. I am starting to look for inspiration rather than waiting for it to find me (and filling more notebooks with thoughts that don’t fit what I am working on currently). I know that I need to create a better schedule for myself to maximize my time.

Things to do better: Pre-writing more would have improved some of my posts. Pressure to get them up on the appropriate day resulted in some lackluster writing. My other blogs were a bit neglected; better planning and scheduling could help this. I also need to better organize and label my photos to make the process go faster and smoother.

Overall, the Challenge was a great experience. I think it has had a beneficial effect on my writing in general (writing more frequently tends to do that) and has potentially opened a new avenue for me personally. Meeting new people is always a plus, and I look forward to reading more of their work as well. As to next year, I’ll say definitely maybe.

Thanks again for taking this trip with me!



Zoos Promote Education and Conservation

100_6605I have always loved to visit the zoo. At their best, zoos are places that educate the public about wild animals, while working to ensure species’ long-term survival. I have been to a handful of places that are 100_6627better described as attractions, with sad-looking animals that are sometimes in poor health; I am not a fan of these, but reputable zoos have a place in our world.

Today’s zoological societies focus on caring for animals, both physically and mentally. The Philadelphia Zoo, the nation’s oldest, takes this concept seriously. Many exhibits have been redesigned with the animals’ comfort in mind, and after studying the way these animals behave in the wild. A num100_6636ber of enrichment “toys” are provided (sometimes made more attractive by adding enticing scents), encouraging animals to engage in behavior that mimics that of their wild relatives. In addition, 100_6631breeding programs are working to ensure the survival of some species. Signs near each animal’s enclosure provide information about the animal and its natural habitat. Special programs for all ages educate visitors on the importance of ecosystems and how we, as mammals, have some things in common with the zoos full-time residents.

The Philadelphia Zoo also has developed a new way for animals to explore areas previously inhabited by other species with similar habitat requirements. A series of see-through mesh trails allows some of the primates and big cats to wander about the zoo, reducing stress brought on by boredom and increasing their ability to exercise.

IMG_2397Not far from Philadelphia, the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, PA has a  population of animals mostly native to North America.IMG_2352 It has grown from a small IMG_2370IMG_2359privately-owned collection assortment of animals to a non-profit organization accredited by the Association of Zoos IMG_2381and Aquariums. Like many other zoos, it has education and outreach programs to raise awareness and appreciation for wildlife and the environment.

Yosemite National Park

photo from

Yosemite National Park, best known for its waterfalls, rock climbing and Giant Sequoias, is a place I have yet to visit. The park covers more than 1100 square acres and its terrain varies throughout the park, with lakes and rivers, meadows and wetlands and towering rock formations. With sections of the park more than 10,000 feet above sea level, weather conditions sometimes make some areas inaccessible.

With over 750 miles of trails, hikers of all abilities have many options to chose from. Those wanting to overnight on the trails must apply for a free permit (there is however  a charge for those hiking to the top of Half Dome). This is done to limit the number of people present at any one

Half Dome photo from

time in order to protect and preserve the park’s resources and to maintain the atmosphere of solitude that draws so many to visit. 60 percent of these permits can be reserved in advance. The park has descriptions of the trails including distance and difficulty on its website. It also has a “Things to remember when hiking” section to help minimize the chance that the park’s Search and Rescue Team will need to be sent out for you.

Bikes can be rented in Yosemite Valley and can be used on 12 miles of paved bike paths as well as park roads. Though bicycles are not permitted on the trails, horses are and a local stable offers guided mule and horse rides in the park.

Yosemite Falls photo from

Rock climbing is a popular activity; Yosemite is known as one of the best locations in the world. The park also provides boaters with a number of opportunities. Canoes, kayaks and white water rafts are permitted on many of the park’s rivers and lakes. The website lists regulations and ratings, which range from easy Class I water to advanced Class IV.

Bus tours ranging from 2 hours to all day are available, conditions permitting. If you prefer a self-guided tour, the 39-mile Tioga Road is a scenic drive through the park; park stores have several maps and guidebooks available to purchase that provide information on what to see and do as well as history and stories of the park. Yosemite has over 60 properties on the National Historic Register, including some of the oldest on the list, dating back to the mid 1800s.

Like many National Parks, there is an entrance fee, at Yosemite the fee is determined by your method of entry (car,motorcycle, bike, horse, foot or commercial vehicle) and the basic pass is good for seven days.

Camping is available in the park, but campsites not reserved in advance tend to fill up by early afternoon. There are also a number of hotels, private campgrounds and bed and breakfasts outside of the park.

X Marks the Spot

treasureMapX marks the spot on many maps indicating where pirates buried their treasure. This elusive X has been the subject of many explorations, in books, film and even in real life. While I really have no expectation that I would ever find buried treasure, I do have the desire to go to the type of place that one would typically expect that treasure to be.

Pirates have traveled coastal waters for centuries. There are a number of locations that are known for their shipwrecks. Some of these are because of the weather, but others are because ship have deliberately been sunk by pirates after boarding them and taking anything of worth. The southeastern coast of the United States was known for pirate activity, in fact some of the lighthouses located there were constructed after pirates took advantage of underwater reefs or rocky ledges and lured merchant ships there to run aground.

Another area known for pirate activity is the Caribbean Sea. Hollywood has taken full advantage of the allure of pirates (with the help of some attractive people) with the collection of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Coincidentally, one place on my travel bucket list, Dominica, is an island which was used to film two of the movies.

Known as the Nature Island, Dominica offers beaches, hiking, waterfalls and a number of jazz and creole festivals. It is largely covered by rain forest and is home to Boiling Lake, the world’s second largest hot spring. Unlike many other Caribbean islands, the coasts are not long expanses of white sand, but are instead rocky, with many coves offering glistening volcanic sand.

Exploring the Waimea Canyon and Wailua River

While in Kauai, our adventures included hiking the Waimea Canyon and kayaking the Wailua River. Both were highlights of our trip and things I hope to do again.

100_9322 Thankfully I had done my research and knew about Waimea Canyon before leaving home. This is the reason I packed hiking boots for a Hawaiian vacation, causing some to laugh at me. The boots were a must.

Our hike took us to the top of this waterfall. This photo was taken from an overlook.

100_9317Waimea Canyon is breathtakingly beautiful, with each roadside vistas more impressive than the last. Waimea Canyon State park is the largest canyon in the Pacific.

The Kauai chickens are everywhere

Ten miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep, it is on the western side of the island and is only accessible from the 18 mile long Rt 550. The hiking is rugged. At times we questioned whether we had gone off trail; unlike many other state parks I have hiked, there are no guardrails.

We started out journey at the boat launch

100_9578The geography of the Wailua River, on the east side of the island was completely different. We chose Wailua Kayak Adventures to guide us down the river and on a very muddy hike

Yummy mangoes and chocolate to refuel
We hiked through an ancient mango forest to get to the falls

through the rain forest to the Secret Falls, where we took a break and snacked on mangoes and chocolate! Our knowledgeable guide pointed out flowers and seeds and told us that the hibiscus100_9668 flower can forecast the weather. The flowers apparently bloom yellow and turn

The 120-foot Secret Falls

red within 24 hours. If bad weather is approaching (also known as “big water”), the color changes much faster. A light rain started while we were heading back and the river had many red hibiscus blossoms floating.


Beautiful Vistas in Valley Forge

IMG_4432Valley Forge National Historic Park is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Unlike other historic military sites, the Valley Forge Encampment was not the location of any battles. It has a peaceful beautyIMG_4115 any time of year. The place where the Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78, there are rolling hills and fields, hiking and biking trails and an assortment of buildings to explore and see what life was like during that grueling winter.100_4642

The Visitor’s Center offers a look at the history of the area and has  artifacts on display. The 3500-acre park offers a 10-mile driving Encampment Tour with nine stops. The tour comes on a  CD that provides information about the park and what you are seeing as you drive the (mostly one-way) route and can be purchased at the park store or online. (We purchased the cassette version years ago and found it interesting and worth the money.) The drive can be completed in 20 minutes, more if you make multiple stops. There is also a cell phone tour which allows you to hear stories about the park after entering the code provided throughout the park. Trolley tours are another option; these leave from the Visitor Center.

IMG_4449Some original 18th century structures remain and many others have been rebuilt to show the living conditions the army endured.IMG_4093 Some, such as Washington’s Headquarters and Varnum’s Quarters, are open for tours. Muhlenberg Brigade, a collection of nine log huts and a reproduction of a Bake Oven is the center of the park’s Living History program. Throughout the year, there are special events with costumed interpreters giving

Valley Forge is home to a large population of White Tailed Deer.

demonstrations and sharing information here as well as at the Storytelling Benches at the Visitor Center and Train Station. Another program, Secrets and Spies, allows visitors to unravel a mystery while exploring the park (dates and times are listed on the park website).IMG_4577

There are a number of hiking trails in the park, which range from an easy walk along a creek to the more strenuous trek up Mount Misery. The park is the start of the 120-mile

Ruins along the trail

Horseshoe Trail, which begins near Washington’s Headquarters and connects with the Appalachian Trail at Sharp Mountain. There are also 21 miles of biking trails to bike or walk.

Looking out on the Grand Parade

Just across from the Grand Parade, where Washington trained his army, sits the Washington Memorial Chapel. Just outside the park, the chapel was built as a  memorial to George IMG_4122Washington in the early 1900s. An Episcopal church separate from the park, it welcomes visitors to the church and grounds, as well as the National Patriots Bell Tower and Carillon (played entirely by hand), which houses the Veterans Wall of Honor. The Cabin Shop behind the chapel offers souvenirs, gifts and snacks and provides a place for lunch, which can be followed by a peaceful stroll through the grounds.

University City Connects Education, Culture and Transportation

University City is a section of Philadelphia named for its institutes of higher education. The University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University,and the University of the Sciences all call this area home as do several renowned hospitals and the Ronald McDonald House (which hosts out-of-town families who have a child receiving care in town). University City also has a number of arts and music venues and an abundance of restaurants and food trucks with an unending variety of cuisines.

The Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is especially known for its Egyptian collection and is worth visiting. The more than 1 million items in the collection are from explorations in Italy, Greece, Africa, Asia and Central America. The building itself is of architectural interest. The exterior includes glass mosaics by Tiffany as well as beautiful courtyards and gardens.  The  University of Pennsylvania is also home to the Institute of Contemporary Art, which hosted Andy Warhol’s first solo show in 1965 and is known internationally (admission is free).

U of Penn’s Franklin Field is home to Penn’s football team and also hosts the annual 3-day Penn Relay Carnival, America’s oldest track meet (dating back to 1895) that attracts crowds of up to 100,000 each year.

Public transportation is available in the form of buses, subways and rail lines. Philadelphia’s 30th Street station, one of the busiest in the nation, is where the Amtrak and SEPTA rail lines meet.  The building itself is in the grand Art Deco style of the early 1900s and is fitting a hub that connects rail lines from the north, south, east and west. Inside The Spirit of Transportation, a bas-relief sculpture by Karl Bitter and the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, a sculpture by Walter Hancock commemorate local history. Just outside the main concourse, there are shops and both restaurant and fast food options for travelers. The station also has newly installed “The Porch,” an outdoor public space with seating and scheduled activities.

Times Square – A New York Attraction

291721_186088071459294_2633997_nTimes Square is what many people visualize when they hear New York City. The iconic intersection at Broadway and Seventh has been featured in film for decades, and is a typical stop on a NYC tour, attracting an 300585_186083751459726_5241687_nestimated 360,000 pedestrian visitors a day and many more each New Year’s Eve when crowds gather for the annual ball drop. The first electrified advertisement appeared in 1904; today the area is buzzing with a multitude of lights and sounds that can be quite overwhelming.

The question of what to do is complicated as there are so very many options. Theater, museums, shopping and restaurants are all in abundance and the crowds are pretty much a constant. Times Square is full of characters. One IMG_7133day last summer, we encountered not one but three men in costume, dressed as Spiderman. Other superheroes, as well as children’s characters such as Sesame Street and Disney characters are more than happy to pose for pictures, hoping to earn tips. (Tipping is appreciated, but not required, and signs alert visitors to report aggressive behavior.)

306440_186102101457891_6679536_nOne of our regular stops when in the area has been the now-closed flagship Toys R Us store, which felt more like a playground 100_2451304714_186098911458210_3997664_nthan a store. Exploring the four floor retailer was an adventure to share with out-of-town guests. Where else can you find a 20-foot tall roaring dinosaur, a 60-foot Ferris wheel, a life-sized Barbie house and life-size Lego creations?

Savannah’s Southern Charm

Forsyth Park is the largest in historic Savannah

Savannah, Georgia boasts a wealth of history and Southern charm. With several museums and art galleries, Revolutionary and Civil War sites, ghost tours, riverfront shopping and dining, one can easily keep busy for several days. The Andrew Low House, the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts is also a popular attraction. There are various ways to discover the city, you can wander about on your own, join a walking tour, or sign up for a tour via segway, bicycle, trolley, carriage, water, even helicopter.

Forsyth Park

Since we only had a couple days for our visit, we started exploring via a trolley tour, which was a good introduction to the city. The ticket allows you to hop on and off all day, and we discovered that the continuously looping trolley was a handy method of transport for tired feet (and to get out of the rain).

IMG_2024IMG_2059One of the trolley stops is at Forsyth Park, the largest park in the historic district. It is home to the Confederate War Monument, which is on the site where soldiers drilled before going off to war. The park also features a large fountain (the water is dyed green each St. Patrick’s Day) and a bandstand at the Forsyth Park Cafe. Large expanses of grassy areas provide ample space for play and picnicking, or simply relaxing.

The altar at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist

While walking around between trolley stops, we got caught in an intense downpour and happened to be near the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where we sought refuge. (But not before we were soaked to the skin – everything in my purse was soggy, even the chewing gum.) This beautiful church is open for tours from Monday to Saturday. The parish dates back to 1789 when French

Statue of St. Patrick

Catholics (some were nobles fleeing the French Revolution) came to the area after an uprising in Haiti. The Diocese of Savannah was established in 1850 and at that time, included all of Georgia and most of Florida. A statue of St. Patrick has a place of honor in the cathedral and his feast day is one of the largest celebrations in Savannah each year.


River Street has wonderful views, shopping and dining

We spent an evening wandering River Street, which has an interesting assortment of shops, while trying to decide on dinner. We had tickets for the trolley ghost tour, so a fancy sit-down place was out of the question. We found a small seafood place where I had an amazing oyster dinner.

IMG_2097 There are several ghost tours offered in Savannah, whose history would indicate the abundance of spirits. We chose to take the trolley tour (there was a package deal) and were IMG_2098entertained by our guide with stories of ghostly presence and more history of Savannah (she was especially concerned that a ghost not accompany us home as we were leaving one site on the tour).

We didn’t make it to nearby Tybee Island, with its beaches, featuring birds, sea turtles, pirates and water sports. It is also home to a lighthouse, so we will be back!

Ricketts Glen Is a Gem in the Endless Mountains

SCAN0231Ricketts Glen State Park, in the Endless Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, is a popular recreation spot year round. Home to 22 named waterfalls, as well as numerous other trails and Lake Jean, the park has something to offer for the adventurous and beach lovers alike.

Lake Jean is a popular place for boaters

The park is named for Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts, a Civil War veteran who at one time owned much of the park land and the surrounding Game Lands. Fishermen exploring his land found the waterfalls, and Colonel Ricketts built trails to the falls, which became known as the Glens Natural Area. He named the waterfalls after American Indian Tribes and his friends and family. In 1969, the area became a National Natural Landmark.

A beaver dam on Lake Jean

A 600-foot sandy beach on Lake Jean provides a place to relax and swim, with a food concession stand and paddle boat, rowboat, canoe and kayak rentals nearby. There are ample grills and picnic spots throughout the park and 26 miles of trails for hikers of all levels. Fishing is another popular pastime.

SCAN0178 ed (2)The 7.2 mile Falls Trail is the most difficult in the park, but also has the most rewarding views. Proper footwear is essential as the trail can be slippery in spots. (The trail is closed in the winter.) An easier 3.2 mile loop at the bottom allows you to see most of the falls.

Cabins and campsites are both available and fill up quickly in the summer months. Ten of these cabins are available year round. In the winter, cross country skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing are popular activities.