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Stealing my grandmother

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An Alaska cruise with Mamaw in 2009. She got up early during our vacation, saying she’d need more time to get ready in case her hair “doesn’t lay right” in the morning.

I’ve been in clean-out mode the past few weeks, rummaging through my closet, emptying out drawers and putting my life’s possessions in piles as I declutter. There’s the throwaway pile, the giveaway pile and the keep pile, and since I haven’t been feeling very sentimental lately, the last pile keeps getting smaller.

Part of my minimization efforts include tackling four shoeboxes full of cards—birthday cards, anniversary cards, thank you cards and so on. I’m a words person and love reading what people have written to me, but after years and years of collecting cards, I decided it’s time to pare it down, keeping only the really special ones.

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“I’m ready!” Headed to D.C. in 2011.

That’s how I came across a couple of letters from my grandmother, dating several years back.

As I read the first letter, I was caught off guard. I started crying just a few sentences in, and within a couple of minutes could hardly catch my breath, like someone punched me in the gut. It reminded me of what used to be and what never will be again.

I’m fortunate that both my grandparents on my mom’s side are still around and that I’ve always been close to them. But in the past several years, my grandmother’s mental health has declined.

At times I get angry—at this aging process, at the fact that she doesn’t try harder to take care of herself. Other times I’m amused—at her no-filter comments, at her quips about getting older. And sometimes I’m disheartened. It won’t get better. It won’t get easier. And it scares the bejesus out of me that I might find myself in the same boat someday.

Mamaw was valedictorian in high school. She was a math whiz and kept the books for my grandfather’s business for over 30 years. She taught Sunday school for what seems like forever and loved to write just like I do. She was a fantastic cook. I remember waking up to the smell of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy.

Now I have to mentally prepare for our conversations. During one of our recent ones, she told me it was raining four times during our 30-minute chat. She’ll talk about all the things she has to do even though she doesn’t. Or the contest she’s about to win although we all know it’s a scam.

She doesn’t cook anymore or teach Sunday school. I can’t remember the last time she wrote me a note.

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A safety run pre-departure on our cruise ship to Alaska.

I always looked forward to visiting my grandparents and still do. I want to sit in their living room with no particular topic of conversation as the grandfather clock ticks in the background.

But it’s hard.

Reading her letters brought back memories of the Alaska cruise we took in 2009—just the two of us. She called it “the trip of a lifetime.” She wrote about the Sunday school lesson she had to prepare and the beans Papaw brought in from the garden that she needed to cook.

In a letter she sent while I was studying in Australia in 2007, she shared how happy she was that I was traveling but asked me not to make a habit of skydiving. She told me about her new Kodak camera and how she was learning to zoom. “I’m still trying to learn all the ins and outs and what all the different buttons are for,” she wrote. She told me about the creative writing class she was taking, too: “I’ve been working on my first short story. … If I have to shorten it much more it will lose some of the interesting parts and I don’t want it to be dull.”

She wrote about things that I’m thankful for, but that I’m sad are in the past. Dementia is stealing my grandmother away from me.

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Taking a ferry in Charleston, S.C., in 2012.

Next week I’ll celebrate my birthday, which I’ve always loved. I know some people get depressed when they’re a year older, but so far, I’ve enjoyed it. What I don’t like about aging is that certain memories get farther and farther away.

Mamaw still knows who I am and is still happy when I call or visit. We carry on conversation and laugh. Over Thanksgiving, I showed her pictures from my trip to Ireland as she commented on how beautiful it was. She always wanted to travel more (Papaw is a homebody), so I’m beyond grateful for our trip to Alaska, as well as subsequent trips to D.C. and Charleston.

But it’s different.

And as much as I like to change things up, there are some things I wish could stay the same.

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“Sometimes yet, I am still awed at how everything just fell in place.”
—A Dec. 16, 2009, letter from Mamaw about our Alaska cruise.

I told you I’d go to Ireland

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Next time I open my contact case, I’ll be in Ireland.

That’s what I was thinking as I switched my contacts for my glasses shortly before Pete and I boarded a plane for Ireland on Friday, Sept. 30.

I had similar thoughts the day before as I packed my suitcase: These shoes are going to touch Irish soil. … I’ll be wearing this scarf in pictures from Ireland.

If you’ve known me or followed my blog for any length of time, you know Ireland was on my bucket list for years. I estimate about 12 years, since college. (In fact, a blog post from this time 3 years ago was all about how adamant I was to visit. … And also mentions contacts.)

I knew I wouldn’t remember everything about my dream trip unless I wrote it down, so I diligently took notes on my phone throughout our five-day vacation. I plan to do the same when I return someday. 🙂

Day 1: Dublin to Kilkenny

My first glimpse of Ireland was around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, about 5 a.m. our time. The plane was quiet with most people still asleep on the overnight flight, but I couldn’t drift back off with Ireland coming into view. I smiled to myself as I watched the coastline become more pronounced—gray and rainy and perfect. Hello, Ireland.

Here are my random observations:

  • Everyone we met in Ireland was friendly with the exception of the rental car shuttle driver. He picked us up from the airport to take us to Sixt, the off-site rental car lot, and wasn’t much for chit chat. “American Woman” was playing in the background.
  • On the way to the rental car place, we passed a van that said Pigeon Supplies in big letters. Are Irish pigeons more high-maintenance than ours?
  • By the time we got to the rental car place, after a long day of work Friday and flying about 8 hours that night, the guy behind the counter told us we looked “subdued.” He was really friendly, but it took 45 minutes to get the car because of an insurance issue. I grilled him about parking options in Dublin while we waited and asked if he could make change for a 20. He pulled out his wallet and asked what I needed. Not exactly what I meant but OK.
  • The day we landed was also the day of the All Ireland Final replay between Dublin and Mayo (a rugby thing). We saw lots of blue (Dublin) and red and green (Mayo) across the city.
  • As the Sixt guy gave us directions to various parking decks that would avoid the rugby fans, he kept referring to the Liffey. What’s a liffey?, I wondered. I assumed it was a highway or something, but turns out it’s a river.
  • Once we got the rental car, we drove into Dublin to scope it out while we waited for a free walking tour to begin. We passed all kinds of restaurants—Asian, Italian, Dominos—and some double-decker buses. I was glad we had a tiny car because all the roads were narrow and kind of confusing. Pete drove the whole time.
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Somewhere in the heart of Dublin

  • Despite the plethora of Irish restaurants, our first meal was German. Oktoberfest was going on near the river, so I got a turkey skewer and potatoes. We ate in a big tent with “Country Road” playing over the speakers. Not very German.
  • It was in the low-50s when we got there and I was thankful for my scarf and boots. At one point, though, we passed a bunch of girls in belly shirts and short skirts. If my grandfather had been there, he would’ve warned them about pneumonia.
  • Prior to the walking tour, we checked out Temple Bar (meaning we took pictures of the outside because it’s famous) and Trinity College, where the Book of Kells are kept. The Book of Kells is “an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament.” Yes, that’s from Wikipedia. I didn’t see it myself, so I can’t think of a better definition.
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Trinity College

  • The walking tour was an hour-and-a-half or so and taught us a lot about the history of Dublin and Ireland in general. 2016 marks 100 years since their revolution, and we saw posters everywhere about it. I also learned from the tour guide that Bono was born in Rotunda Hospital, the world’s oldest, continuously running maternity hospital, right there in Dublin.
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Rotunda Hospital, where Bono was born

  • Throughout the trip, I noticed plenty of Irish-sounding businesses: O’Malley’s, Paddy Wagon, Shannon, McThis and McThat. I also noticed that they say “toilets” instead of restrooms or bathrooms, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask where the toilets were. It just sounds less respectable or something.

  • That first night, we drove about an hour-and-a-half (well, two hours … I made Pete stop so I could photograph swans) to a town called Kilkenny. It ended up being one of my favorite places on the whole trip, but more on that in Day 2.
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The swans

  • In Kilenny, we stayed at a bed and breakfast called Ashbrook House. We walked up to the front door that evening and just as I was about to knock, a balding, stone-faced man in glasses opened it. Me: “We have reservations?” Man: “Do I know you?” Pete: “Not yet.” Man: “What are your names?” Me: “I’m Tiffany and this is Peter.” Man: “Are you married?” Me: “Yes.” Man: “Are you sure?” Me: “Yes.” He let us in and introduced himself as Dermot. “Are you on your honeymoon?” Me: “No. We’ve been married six-and-a-half years.” Dermot: “Oh, well it must be going well if you’re still counting the halves. … Are you on holiday?” We learned that he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan.
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Ashbrook House in Kilkenny, our first B&B experience

  • That night, we ate at a place called Kyteler’s Inn, a fancy pub with all kinds of cozy nooks and crannies. Our meal was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, partly because I was so hungry. Pete and I split beef sirloin with carrots, cabbage and potatoes, then got a slice of apple pie. It was good but more light and cakey than I’m used to. (Let’s be honest; I eat apple pie for the crust.)
  • I also took 10-second videos from each place we visited. Here’s the first one:

  • The next morning, after about 10 hours of sleep, we woke up to a window looking out onto a field of green with white laundry blowing on a clothesline in the backyard. Mountains rose out of the fog in the distance. I like waking up in Ireland, I thought. We went downstairs and sat in a dining room with other guests to await this thing called a “full Irish breakfast”—bacon, a fried egg, roasted tomato, “pudding” which looked like sausage patties, juice, tea and bread. Sure beats the apple slices I’ve been having for breakfast on the way to work.
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Waking up to Ireland

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A full Irish breakfast. This is actually from our B&B in Killarney a few days later, but it’s basically the same everywhere.

  • Before we left the B&B that morning, I signed the guest book and noticed others from places like Italy, Wisconsin, South Carolina and around Ireland. I also noticed a sort of certificate hanging in the hall where the Pope had blessed the owners’ marriage.
  • One downside of the trip for the first few days was that I was fighting a cold. I was ticked that I had one because I’d tried so hard to avoid sick people and had downed about 6 glasses of Emergen-C that week, but I had a cold nonetheless. It was more annoying than anything, and Pete ended up catching it at the end, but it didn’t keep us from exploring.

Day 2: Kilkenny to Cork

After a brief time in Kilkenny, I told Pete I wish we could’ve gotten married there. I told him it was one of my favorite places in Ireland and he reminded me I hadn’t seen much of the country yet. Even so, by the end of the trip, it was still one of my favorites.

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A garden outside Kilkenny Castle

  • Kilkenny is like a glorified Blowing Rock with Irish accents and a castle. It was beautiful, laid back, had hills, water, gardens, street musicians and basically everything you could ask for in a town. I could have spent a lot more time there, but we had to keep moving to see all we wanted to see.

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Kilkenny Castle

  • The most random thing I saw in Kilkenny was during a brief stroll through an outdoor mall. All of a sudden, I saw a Bassett hound walking around outside the shops, making its way into one store then popping back out a few seconds later.
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A church in the distance, taken from beside Kilkenny Castle

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Cute ice cream truck!

  • One of the most beautiful spots in Kilkenny was a garden we stumbled upon. It was just outside Butler House, a Georgian mansion and former home of the Earls of Ormonde. It’s now a hotel.
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Butler House in the background

  • After spending a while in Kilkenny, we got back on the road for a couple of hours on the way to Cork. Pretty much every road sign we passed had words in both English and Gaelic. Our first stop in Cork was Blarney Castle.
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Blarney Castle

  • Everyone has asked me since we visited Ireland if we kissed the Blarney Stone. No, absolutely not. The Blarney Stone is at the top of Blarney Castle and the story is that people who kiss it are given the gift of gab (meaning eloquent speech). To kiss it, you have to lay on your back and reach your head backwards while someone holds onto you so you don’t fall down through this big open space below. No thanks, I’ll just take pictures. It’s dangerous enough going down the steep, narrow stairs to the bottom.
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Atop Blarney Castle, with the Blarney Stone straight ahead where the red jacket is.

  • I didn’t realize before we were there that the grounds around Blarney Castle were so big and beautiful. There are different gardens and sites you can see besides the actual castle, and I wish we’d had a little more time there.
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Trying to climb a giant tree outside Blarney Castle. If you can’t tell from the pic, I was unsuccessful.

  • That night in Cork, we walked around the city and ate dinner at Amicus where we had another not-very-Irish meal. I had chicken curry, bruschetta and a brownie sundae.
  • This night, we stayed at a hotel instead of a B&B, but overall I prefer the B&Bs. Not only do you get a great breakfast, but it’s more personal and unique. The hotel was beautiful, though—Fitzgeralds Vienna Woods Hotel. There was a sign on the bathroom door warning about using tanning products with their nice hotel towels. I guess that’s been a problem.
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Fitzgeralds Vienna Woods Hotel

  • The next morning, we went to the cushy dining room for breakfast and listened to “Hey Ya” while drinking tea. It was pretty odd.

Day 3: Cork to Gougane Barra to Killarney

Day 3 may be my favorite day overall. I won’t lie—we had a couple of tense moments—but we also had a lot of fun and some uniquely Irish experiences.

  • The first stop was Cork’s city center. It was rainy that day, so we didn’t walk around a ton, but we did stop at the English Market, which sold everything from fresh meat and fish to chocolates in the shape of sheep. I bought a smoothie called Banana Republic.
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The English Market in Cork

  • We also noticed that Ireland, and especially Cork, had a lot of Turkish barbers. I don’t know how they’re different from regular barbers.

  • After Cork, we headed for Gougane Barra. Dermot of Kilkenny told me there’s nowhere on the island of Ireland named that, and it WAS hard to find in the GPS, but alas, we found it! This was actually a place I saw a picture of a couple of years ago (in one of those “places to see before you die” type articles), and when I found out it was in Ireland, I thought, “I’m going there.”
  • But first, a detour! I mean, what’s an international road trip without a detour? On the way to Gougane Barra (another hour-and-a-half or so from Cork), we saw a sign advertising Ireland’s only toy soldier factory. At first, I thought, “Nah, skip it,” but as Pete neared the turn, I changed my mind. It turns out, the factory was so off course that they posted signs to encourage you to keep going. “Almost there! … 4 more minutes! 3 more minutes!” It was off some narrow, windy road up a hill where we passed only a few other cars. But finally, we made it, and it was pretty cool. We watched a lady pour pewter into a toy soldier mold, then browsed cases and cases of hand-painted soldiers, leprachauns and other figurines. I may have even purchased one for a Christmas gift. …
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Encouragement on the way to the Toy Soldier Factory

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Ireland’s only Toy Soldier Factory!

  • It was also just outside the factory that I found a cute post box to mail my postcards.
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Where I mailed my postcards

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Somewhere on our detour

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A beautiful cemetery on the top of a hill

  • After the factory, we decided to keep going down the road we’d been on instead of heading back the way we came. It narrowed even more, then turned to dirt, then gravel. Pete said it was more of a hiking trail than a road, but somehow, it was on the GPS. We passed some sheep, cows, donkeys and a house here or there, but that was it. Where do these people go to the grocery store?

  • Finally, we started to descend the mountain (or hill or whatever it was) and in the clearing I could see Gougane Barra! (Pronounced Goo-gun Bear-uh.) It’s a tiny community with a hotel, restaurant and a church called St. Finbarr’s Oratory. The church is what I’d seen pictures of. I’d even put a picture of it on my phone’s lock screen. But now I have my own!
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I made it! Pointing to a picture of St. Finbarr’s Oratory on my phone while standing in front of it.

  • After freaking out that I was actually in this place I’d seen pictures of, Pete and I ate at Cronin’s Café, overlooking the church. I had a delicious smoked salmon sandwich, then we walked back over to the church to go inside and take pictures. This was another favorite from the trip; I could’ve stayed there all day. It was the calm water surrounding the church, the beautiful stone building, the bright green grass, the brown-green mountains behind it. … Gorgeous. Pictures don’t do it justice.
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Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

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Inside the church

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I think I could live here.

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Even a panorama just can’t capture the beauty of this place.

  • The next stop was Kate Kearney’s Cottage, another hour away. The cottage is a meeting point for people who want to see the Gap of Dunloe nearby. I originally thought we could bike it, or maybe take a horse and buggy, but it was so rainy and windy that day that we decided to drive it. This was Pete’s favorite part of the trip and one of mine, too.
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On the way to the Gap of Dunloe

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Curious sheep

  • The Gap of Dunloe reminded us of Alaska with the huge mountains and open space. It was incredibly windy, though, and I almost blew away having my picture taken. This place also had really curvy roads, and anytime another car was coming, someone had to pull off to the side wherever possible so the other car could pass.
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I almost blew away getting this picture taken in the Gap.

  • It was also in the Gap of Dunloe that we finally saw wildlife cross the road. “Finally, something crossing the road!” I yelled, grabbing my camera. I feel like seeing a large animal cross the road is a legit Irish experience, so I had to snap a picture. At first, we thought it was a mule, which I named O’Malley the Mule, but then we realized it was a donkey. O’Malley the Donkey doesn’t flow, so it remained nameless.
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Approaching O’Malley the Mule…

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Then realizing he’s a donkey.

  • That night we stayed at the Woodlawn House, another B&B. The owner recommended Kayne’s for dinner, so we did that, then headed to The Grand for live music. First, we heard an Irish band, then J90 took the stage and sang Maroon 5, Jack Johnson, Tina Turner and Pharrell. Oh, and “Footloose.” (There was a lot of American music on this trip.) There were some locals around, but also lots of tourists—people from places like New Jersey and Ohio. (The J90 video is the only one on here over 10 seconds. I got carried away.)

Day 4: Killarney to Cliffs of Moher to Galway

By day 4, it was a little annoying not to have internet outside of Wi-fi, but it was also nice to unplug more than usual.

  • The morning we left Woodlawn House, we learned that the owner’s wife was 8 months pregnant. It was also her birthday the day before, so I left some Reese’s cups for her to celebrate.
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Woodlawn House

  • This was the longest driving day as we made our way to the Cliffs of Moher a few hours away, but we also stopped at a couple of places on the way, so it wasn’t that bad. Our first stop was in Adare, which I’d read about in a travel magazine from the rental car place. Adare is known for its thatched roof cottages, although the one I kept seeing in the travel book had actually partially burned down shortly before our visit.
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Cottages in Adare

  • We did have a nice stroll around Adare, where we visited a park, took pictures of a beautiful church, found some souvenirs and I bought a cappuccino.
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Adare Park

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Because why WOULDN’T you have chickens on an umbrella?

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One of the many beautiful churches in Ireland

  • After Adare, we headed toward Limerick. On the way, we heard more American music on the radio, but with Irish and British announcers.
  • We didn’t stay in Limerick long because we wanted to get to the cliffs, but we did get to see King John’s Castle. It was too expensive to go in, and again, we were short on time, but I was happy just seeing the outside. The castle was built in the 1200s by the River Shannon.

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Why can’t we have castles everywhere in the U.S.?

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On one side of the River Shannon

  • As we got closer to the cliffs, I noticed some funny named things like the Mermaid House (a hotel or B&B maybe) and an injury clinic/Pilates place.
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On the way to the cliffs

  • OK, so I know everything can’t be my favorite, but the Cliffs of Moher are definitely high on my list. This is what I think of when I think of Ireland. We spent quite a bit of time there and learned that lots of movie scenes have been filmed there, including a scene from “The Princess Bride.” I loved, loved, loved it. (Hence the jumping picture at the top of this blog.)
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Cliffs of Moher, pure Ireland

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I could look at the Irish coastline all day.

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At the bottom of O’Brien’s Tower, overlooking the cliffs

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That’s O’Brien’s Tower in the distance.

  • That evening, we drove another hour-and-a-half or so to Galway. The sun was setting on the way as we passed field after field of cows, separated by low stone fences. The fields framed the water, reflecting the red-orange of the sunset. It was breathtaking.
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Sunset on the way to Galway

  • That night, we stayed at Anno Santo Hotel. The people were nice, but it was our least favorite place to stay. (And incidentally, the only one I forgot to take a picture of.) We weren’t there long anyway. At least the location was good. We walked a couple miles that night along Salthill Promenade to find dinner and passed a place called Leisure Land. We ate at Oslo which had a section on its menu called “Pimp My Burger.” There were a few friends sitting behind us and one girl was spilling her life story the whole time. It was annoying yet entertaining.

Day 5: Galway back to Dublin

Here, it takes just under 4 hours to drive to my parents’ house the next state over. In Ireland, it took under 3 hours to drive cross country from Galway to Dublin.

  • By Wednesday, I was getting that “I don’t want to leave yet!” feeling. But all trips come to an end, and the last full day in Ireland was a good one. We spent the morning on the Riverside Walk in Galway, peeking in shops and taking pictures. Then we got on the road to head back to Dublin, where we’d fly out the next morning.

 

  • In Dublin, we walked around the National Botanic Gardens, home to one of the calmest places I’ve ever been. There’s a bridge going over a big pond there, surrounded by trees and colorful plants. It reminded me of the forest in “Sleeping Beauty.”
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National Botanic Gardens, Dublin

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One of the most peaceful places on earth

  • For lunch, we ate at O’Neill’s, an enormous, multistory restaurant. Pete had Irish stew and I had shepherd’s pie. I made shepherd’s pie once from a healthy recipe book, but this was much better.
  • As we walked around Dublin some more, Pete stopped at a kiosk to look at souvenirs. A man selling hats said things like, “Here you go, laddy.”
  • This wasn’t just in Dublin, but I noticed in general that there are more red heads in Ireland than I normally see around here. I truly felt like I was in Ireland every time I saw one.
  • That night, we were hoping to find a dessert spot, but our final B&B turned out to be far from anything open that would sell dessert. We ended up going to the gas station where I bought a Cadbury Dairy Milk Golden Crisp and Baileys Truffle Bar. I paired a couple pieces of each with hot Kenyan tea from the B&B. We also got soft serve ice cream at the gas station, but I didn’t like it and threw it away. (The first time I’ve EVER thrown away ice cream.) It tasted like marshmallow.
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Broadmeadow Country House, our final B&B

  • The B&B we stayed at was around a bunch of horses, and there was a sign on the staircase that said “No riding boots beyond this point.”

Thursday morning, we headed to the airport, where Pete flew back home and I flew on to Scotland to meet a coworker. There, we covered a work event in Peterhead, then went to London for a couple of days to train some of our UK partners on website and social media stuff. I was away from home for 12 days total and overall loved Europe.

Each place—Ireland, Scotland, London—had things I loved, but Ireland is still special to me. I know I spent the most time there, so it may be an unfair comparison, but there’s something about it that, as dorky as it sounds, calls to me. I really, really want to go back.

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Sunset in Dublin

7 months, 10 trips

So far this year, I’ve had the chance to travel A LOT. Sometimes for work, sometimes for pleasure. And I’ve loved it all.

Since there are so many places I’ve been wanting to share stories and photos from, I’m just going to focus on the highlights. This isn’t all the trips, but it’s the top 10.

1. Hawaii

In February, I was in Honolulu to cover a work event and got to tack on some vacation days while I was down there. Pete met me in Honolulu once the event was over, then we flew to Maui for a few days. Highlights:

  • On my flight to Honolulu, I discovered a love for chocolate covered macadamia nuts, which they offered on the plane. On Pete’s flight over, he sat next to a man who introduced himself as Shamu. We had very different experiences.
  • Because Pete’s flight was delayed, I had extra down time once I wrapped up with work. I made a trip to Pearl Harbor, where I watched a video about the bombing, walked through some exhibits and took pictures of the harbor. It was windy that day, so the ferries weren’t able to take anyone out in the water. I expected the area to be bigger, but I did only see a portion of the harbor, so that’s probably why. I could see a large, rusty part of the USS Arizona still sticking up out of the water in the distance.
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Pearl Harbor

  • The night Pete got there, we walked around a park in Honolulu and saw what I’m guessing were street performers practicing on the beach. There was a girl twirling hula hoops and a guy dancing around with fiery torches.
  • The next day, we flew to Maui on a tiny plane where the stewardess’ name was Ariel. Given my love for The Little Mermaid, I almost squealed when I saw her name tag. She gave us tiny plastic juice cups, the kind with peel-off aluminum lids like I used to get in school.
  • Maui isn’t that big, but there’s quite a bit to do. After picking up a rental car and eating at Denny’s (hey, we visited local places, too), we got on the Road to Hana, which is basically a jungle version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It took about 6 hours to get to Hana and back, making several pit stops to see waterfalls, sea turtles, a black sand beach and super green cliffs plunging into the ocean. Pete enjoyed zipping around the blind curves in our rented Dodge Dart.
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Road to Hana, overlooking the black sand beach

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One of the incredible spots along the Road to Hana

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One of my favorite views on the Road to Hana

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A rock meant for sitting

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See? A Hawaii version of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Wai’anapanapa State Park, Road to Hana

  • Afterwards, we stopped in Paia and ate pizza. The pineapple on the pizza was the only pineapple I had in Hawaii, but it was good. The pizza place was really hot inside, though, with brick ovens not far from our table.
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View from our hotel

  • The next day, we got up early to take a private kayak tour on the ocean. We paddled around the shore, watching humpback whales come out of the water just feet away, then swim under our kayak. We snorkeled for about 15 minutes on the way back. I forgot Pete gets seasick til we were a couple of hours in. Thankfully, he was fine.
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Kayaking in Makena Bay, Maui

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Yep, that’s how close the humpback whales were.

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We could hear a whale singing under the water.

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Snorkeling!

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This guy made me think of Finding Nemo.

  • That night, we explored more of the island. We checked out Iao Valley State Park for a little while, and by the time we headed back to the car, we were the only ones there, except some roosters walking around. I’d also found a lighthouse on the map, so we drove there, but it was dinky. Pete said it looked like a traffic cone. We did see a gorgeous sunset, though, then made our way to Lahaina for ice cream. Lahaina is really touristy which isn’t our speed, but it’s also home to an ENORMOUS banyan tree that, according to my thorough Wikipedia search, was planted by a guy in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Christian missionaries. I also saw a sign advertising teacup pigs at this 2nd-floor pet shop as we were walking around, but when we got up there, it was closed. That was probably the saddest part of the trip. 
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Sunset by the dinky lighthouse

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The dinky lighthouse

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Iao Valley State Park, Maui

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A short walk around the state park

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The crazy big banyan tree—it’s all connected!

  • Other random things of note: watching a hula show on the beach (did you know men hula, too?), petting a parrot, getting a postcard from Guadalupe the housekeeper who left it in my hotel room, buying a strawberry parfait from an ABC store (which also sells sunscreen and souvenirs), bear hugging a mayor, getting stuck exiting a parking garage, eating at an Irish pub with a real Irish waitress, having an amazing meal at Tommy Bahama, watching a man in loincloth blow a shell while his more fully clothed comrade lit a tiki torch, eating quinoa by the ocean and seeing a cream-colored crab while eating said quinoa.
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Mountains, beach, what more could I ask for?

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Sunset across from my hotel in Honolulu

2. Arizona

In March, I had another change of scenery when a co-worker and I went to Lake Havasu, Arizona, for work. We first flew into Vegas and had to drive to Lake Havasu, taking a detour to Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Highlights:

  • Driving through Vegas was an experience on its own, with billboards for places like Sexy Steakhouse. Blah, no thank you.
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Overlooking Hoover Dam

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Hoover Dam

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Hoover Dam

  • The rest of the drive through the desert was like being in a different country almost, it’s so different from North Carolina. There are miles of nothing but brown-red dust and mountains. It was a bit calming, and we did have a blast hiking with some other co-workers one afternoon, but I don’t think I could live there. I need green. Our computers and jackets got really dusty during the outdoor event.
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My co-workers are always up for an adventure.

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Beautiful

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You can’t tell, but I’m sitting on a steep cliff!

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Mountain goat?

  • One of the craziest things I saw on our drive to Lake Havasu was a dilapidated shack on the side of Highway 93 with graffiti that said, “This is it! Santa’s Land.” Pass.
  • I also saw lots of Ross Dress for Less stores.
  • Lake Havasu itself was beautiful. We were there during Spring Break, though, when hundreds of spring breakers descend on the lake, specifically the canal, wearing next to nothing, drinking too much and hooking up. There’s a family friendly side of the canal and a spring breaker side, but it doesn’t really matter because you can easily see one side of the canal from the other. On the plus side, the scene provided a great ministry opportunity.
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At the canal in Lake Havasu

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You can see a sign advertising our ministry event, a Will Graham Celebration, in the middle.

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Sunset in Arizona

3. Oklahoma & Kansas

At the end of April, I was in Oklahoma and Kansas for another work trip. The drive from Oklahoma City to Topeka was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken, minus the toll roads. Highlights:

  • There were a LOT of cows. Black ones, white ones, tan ones, brown ones, all in bright green pastures as far as you can see against pink and purple skies. And tons of white windmills. I wish I had stopped more to take pictures.
  • I learned that you can get $5 showers at the Cowboy Travel Plaza or stop in at Boots Barbecue for the “best pork butt in Pain County.” Quite a claim, Boots.
  • Oklahoma and Kansas love them some Subway. I can’t even tell you how many I passed.
  • I also passed an Oldsmobile with a bumper sticker that said “Honk if parts fall off.”
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Downtown Oklahoma City

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On the drive from Oklahoma to Kansas

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Cowboy outside the gas station

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Train going by

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A pit stop at the Monroe School, where Brown vs. Board of Education started

4. Amelia Island, Florida

For Mother’s Day, I took Mom to Amelia Island in Florida. We rented a condo in Amelia Plantation, where I decided I’m going to retire. Highlights:

  • The first night, we walked to Fisherman’s Pier. I climbed a sand dune and Mom took selfies with me.
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1st selfie of many on this trip

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Fisherman’s Pier

  • We got plenty of beach time. We read, collected seashells, dozed off and took more selfies.
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Made for the beach

  • One night we got ice cream at DeNucci’s, even though we were already full. I mean, you can’t go to the beach and not get ice cream. Mine was good, but they forgot the Nutella inside the cone. Tragic.
  • Amelia Island Plantation was a great place to bike. We rented bikes and took off for a few hours, stopping at a couple of parks along the way. It was shady and wonderful. We stopped at a smoothie place that’s part of Omni Hotel on the plantation and drank our smoothies by the fancy pool.
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Biking around Amelia Plantation

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I want one of these.

  • On Mother’s Day morning, we headed to Peters Point to go horseback riding on the beach. Mom rode Jen; I rode Jesse. They stuck together the whole time, to the point where my legs were up against Mom’s horse.
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Me, Mom, Jen and Jesse

  • Mother’s Day night, we ate at Ciao in Fernandina Beach. We got to sit on the patio right by the sidewalk and people watch, which was mostly fun until a guy on a bike came by selling pineapples and playing a harmonica. He didn’t leave until a lady at the table nearby gave him money.
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At Fernandina Beach

  • After Mother’s Day dinner, we went looking for a lighthouse on the map (yes, another lighthouse fail), but couldn’t find it to save our lives. Instead, we found a swing set! 
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Like mother …

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Like daughter.

  • Other fun things: Being the only ones at the pool right behind our condo, watching a documentary on Gabby Douglas and going for runs in the morning while Mom got ready. I’d love to go back soon. We also stopped in Savannah, Georgia, on our way out of town, had lunch and iced chais.
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Mom reluctantly poses after lunch in Savannah.

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I love the Spanish moss.

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In Forsyth Park, Savannah

5. Missouri

In mid-May, I was in the Missouri capital for work. It was a short trip, but I try to find something fun or unique to do on each trip. Highlights:

  • I had the best peach smoothie of my life at Arris’ Bistro in Jefferson City. … That was about it for this trip, minus the cute downtown. It poured down rain for the work event, but it was encouraging to see so many people participate anyway.
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Jefferson City, Missouri

6. Minnesota

In mid-June, I went to Minnesota with our summer intern, Maddie. It was a work trip, but we got to tack on some vacation afterwards and stay with my in-laws. Highlights: 

  • Seeing my extended family! Maddie loved meeting our nephews, and we both enjoyed dinner out with my brother- and sister-in-law.
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The oldest

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The youngest

  • Of course I had to take Maddie to the Mall of America. We definitely got our walking in.
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At the Mall of America

  • We also discovered the best chicken wings of our lives at Doolittles near my in-laws.
  • The best part was a day trip to Duluth, with a brief hop over the Wisconsin state line so Maddie could say she’s been there. 
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Duluth

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I ended up framing this one for my desk at work. Can you tell I have a thing for lighthouses?

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Bridge in Duluth

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And a five-minute trip to Wisconsin

  • On our way up to Duluth, we actually went past it a bit and spend some time at Gooseberry Falls in Two Harbors. We saw an awkward engagement and almost walked into a picture of the couple. We stopped at Betty’s Pies afterwards (pre-lunch).
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Somewhere on the way to Two Harbors, on one side of Silver Creek Cliff

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Gooseberry Falls

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A trail at Gooseberry Falls

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A guy watching Maddie take this picture said I was brave. 🙂

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Where I had some apple pie a la mode before lunch

  • While in Two Harbors, we visited a different lighthouse, too. (Shush, I like this kind of thing.) It overlooks Lake Superior.
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Two Harbors, Minnesota

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Cheesin’ for the camera

  • Another highlight was Duluth Grille, where we had an amazing dinner. Grandma’s Marathon was happening that day, so there were a bunch of sunburnt runners limping around the restaurant.
  • We did some artsy stuff, too. We went to an art show one day, and then to a performance at my mother-in-law’s university another day.
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On campus at St. Kate’s University

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At an art show somewhere in St. Paul

7. Asheville, North Carolina

For the past several years, my best friends since middle school have tried to do a girls’ weekend. This year, we ended up in Asheville in early June. Highlights:

  • We toured the Biltmore, which Sara had never seen. (!) We also got exciting news from Alex!
  • Alex found a house for us to rent in the mountains, which was a lot of fun. 
  • We had plenty of time to walk around downtown, grab some chips from The Gourmet Chip Company and hit up a cute coffee shop.
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Besties since middle school

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Overlook on the back porch of the Biltmore

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Caught in a selfie

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A lovely day for the Biltmore

8. Wisconsin

In July, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin, to visit Sarah for a long weekend. Highlights:

  • The first day I was there, we had dinner with her husband at The Old Fashioned. It poured down rain while we were there and we got soaked running back to the car. Driving back to their apartment, we had to drive through a flooded intersection, but thankfully we weren’t washed away. It was crazy. Sarah handled it well and we all sopped up the water that got into her car afterwards.
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The scary flooded intersection

  • One of my favorite parts was exploring the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We stopped at some food trucks on campus one day and ate on the Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. I got to sit in a big yellow chair.
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Finally, a chair my height.

  • We also checked out the farmer’s market by the State Capitol, then went in the Capitol to cool off. We walked up to the Capitol roof and got a 360 view.
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Inside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison

  • Sarah and her husband took me to the botanical gardens one afternoon. Things like that make me wish I could grow stuff.
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Botanical gardens

  • Another favorite part was celebrating Sarah’s new job with a trip to the local coffee shop and walking on some trails afterwards. I got pretty sweaty and gross, but it was worth it. We don’t get much one-on-one time.
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Pointing the way

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A field of wildflowers

9. Montana, Idaho & Wyoming

In early August, I visited three states in a row to cover events for work. I spent 18 hours on the road and stayed in 5 hotels in 5 days. Highlights:

  • The first stop was Montana. The day our team was supposed to fly out was the same day Delta had the power outage, so it was a scramble that morning to rearrange our plans. I was originally supposed to fly into Helena, but flew to Great Falls instead. It ended up being a good thing for me because I had time to pull over and take pictures on the hour-and-a-half drive from Great Falls to Helena. I was in Montana for a mission trip in 2005, and it was just as beautiful as I remember. So open.
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Taking a short detour on my way from Great Falls to Helena

  • I like how outdoorsy everything is in Montana. When I landed in Great Falls, I went to pick up a rental car at the airport. I asked the attendant where the restroom was and she pointed toward a baggage claim conveyor belt behind me with a bright yellow kayak displayed on top. “It’s back there, right behind the kayak,” she said. That’s the first time someone has referenced a boat when giving me directions to the bathroom. 
  • Just like the drive from Oklahoma to Kansas, I passed lots of cows (and a steakhouse) on my way to Helena. Someone asked me when I got back if I’d had a burger while out west, but I couldn’t say I had. I did have Chinese food in Helena.
  • I called Mom on my drive from Great Falls and told her a little bit about the scenery. When she heard there weren’t many people around and I was driving by myself, she gave me some advice: “It’s always good to have some moves in case you have to punch somebody. Or have a little can of hairspray handy to squirt in their eyes.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to get scrappy in Montana.
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I found another park!

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Apparently you can rent these and stay in the park.

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Before a downpour

  • After Helena, I rode the team bus to Boise, Idaho. I didn’t get to do much non-work stuff there, except eat sushi at Dharma Sushi and Thai. It was amazing.
  • Next stop: Wyoming, where one of the hotels I stayed at in Rock Springs had a Cowboy Room. I wish I’d peeked in now just to see what it was. 
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Outside the hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming

  • The absolute highlight from Wyoming was seeing a meteor shower with some co-workers in the middle of the night outside of Cheyenne.
  • Since several from our team flew out of Denver, Colorado, to go back home, I got to spend time with my friend, Maddie, who as I mentioned before, interned with us this summer. We grabbed dinner, walked around the city, then stood in line at Little Man Ice Cream. The guy gave me a HUGE scoop of salted Oreo ice cream, and I wasn’t complaining.
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Denver

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Before my big scoop from Little Man

10. Vermont to New York

A co-worker and I covered events in Montplier, Vermont, and Albany, New York, at the end of August. Highlights:

  • Exploring Burlington, Vermont, which is a really cute town on Lake Champlain.
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Burlington, Vermont

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Lake Champlain

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I guess you can’t tell this was taken in Vermont, but imagine the lake in front of me and cute, old buildings behind me.

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A Burlington mural

  • Visiting the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters and splitting a pint of ice cream on the patio.
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We missed the tour of headquarters, but this is basically just as good, right?

  • Picking up white cheddar popcorn and Dove dark chocolate for our late-night, 3-hour drive from Montpelier to Albany after a long day of work.
  • Passing cute inns, general stores, a life-sized superman statue, signs for moose (which I never thought of being in Vermont), along with advertisements for maple syrup, guns, tubing adventures and a battlefield.
  • The New York State Capitol was impressive on its own. Absolutely gorgeous. It reminded me of the Biltmore. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside since we were working during the open hours.
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New York State Capitol, Albany

I’ve been so blessed to get to visit all these places and never would have guessed this time last year that I’d be buzzing around the country, from one end to the other.

So after all this travel, what’s next on the agenda? 

IRELAND!!!!! And maybe a couple of other places. 😉 Lots and lots of pictures to come.

What a night in Wyoming taught me about God

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That’s me, somewhere outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Ryan Carl Smith.

“He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
—Isaiah 40:26

Three weeks ago, I visited Wyoming for the first time. I was there for work, but did have a little adventure one night with a few people from our team.

A couple of them had heard there was going to be a meteor shower, so we waited ’til it was good and dark and ventured outside of town. We turned down a gravel road surrounded by trees, parked and looked up.

Back home, it’s never dark enough to fully appreciate the millions of lights shining down on you. But in that field in Wyoming, it looked like a giant had filled both hands with glitter and blew it into the sky.

As the other folks on the team worked on getting video footage of the meteor shower, I thought about how each of those sparkling specks has a name—each and every one.

“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.”
—Psalm 147:4 

That means for every dot of glowing gas suspended in the sky, there’s a name assigned to it. It is known by God. He put it there and knows exactly how many of them there are.

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about the vastness of God. I’ve read verses about it and even taught Sunday school lessons about how big and great and mighty He is.

But when I stood in that field, freezing and tired, it really hit me just how limitless God is. His reach is immeasurable. His boundaries non-existent. Even when I laid on the ground, gazing up to take it all in, I couldn’t wrap my head around the enormity and power of our God.

In the weeks since, I’ve thought about that meteor shower often. I’ll go back and look at pictures of it and for a moment pretend I’m there again.

It’s not just that it was a gorgeous night or that I got to see something I don’t normally see. When I look at the pictures, I think about how God’s got this. Whatever concern I have, whatever unknown I’m facing, whatever my shortcomings or limitations, He is bigger than that.

And just like each of those flickering stars up there, He put me here and knows my name.

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“You have set your glory in the heavens” —Psalm 8:1. Photo by Ryan Carl Smith.

 

No stop, only go

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Pete and I got back from a mini vacation yesterday where we spent a lot of hours on a plane.

As we buckled up for the long flight home, I watched one ad after another pop up on the screen of the headrest in front of me. One ad for the airline caught my eye: “There’s no stop in us, or you. Only go.” A plane soared through the clouds in the background.

I get the ad—go, do, forge ahead, be a pioneer, we’ll take you where you want to be—but as the words faded off the screen, I felt a little stressed.

For pretty much the past decade, I’ve been busy. I’ve had a ton of fun, but it’s also been tiring.

“How was your day?”

“Busy.”

“How was your weekend?”

“Busy.”

So when I see an ad about going, doing, moving ahead and not slowing down, I start feeling a little hurried. In my head, I hear, “Go, go, go!” And all I really want to do is answer back, “Can’t I just sit here a minute?”

I’m not great at being still, even on vacation, but sometimes it’s nice to slow down, go at your own pace and take a breather whenever you feel like it. While we were gone, I told Pete that I wish we could be on vacation all the time. Our work weeks are full and our weekends too short, so I have to remind myself that rest isn’t just enjoyable; it’s necessary.

Heck, even God Himself took a day to rest. And then you know what He did? He commanded us to do the same. Commanded.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
—Mark 2:27

Sabbath means rest, to stop or cease. If we don’t take advantage of that regularly, we’ll run ourselves into the ground.

So here’s a question: If the All Powerful came down right now and told you to take a nap, would you do it? Or would you mumble something about the dishes or your work or that thing you haven’t done yet?

I’d like to think I’d throw on my PJs and hit the pillow, but knowing me, I’d put up a fight.

“But, Almighty, I haven’t packed lunches or finished laundry yet.”

“Stop whining; I’ve got my hands full with the election.”

Of course, whenever I do take a moment to rest, it’s wonderfully refreshing and I’m left to wonder why I don’t do it more often. Hence the forever-vacation comment.

What about you? Do you have a hard time slowing down? How do you find rest?

Two things I’ve found helpful:

 

 

 

Farewell 20s, hello 30s!

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Dear twentysomething me: You have a lot to look forward to.

On January 23, I turned 30.

I know some people freak out at the turn of every decade, with thoughts of getting old and the fear of a swift downward spiral, but I truly love birthdays and my 30th was no different. (It also doesn’t feel so old once you get here … despite my 13-year-old sister calling me ancient.)

I will admit that in the weeks leading up to the milestone, I was a bit sad to see my 20s slipping away. But as I thought about all the things I’d done and all the places I’d gone, I felt like I really made the most of it.

Now that I’m a few weeks into my 30s, I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to reflect on the past decade—and to make a list of things I look forward to in the next 10 years.

In my 20s, I …

  • Studied abroad in Australia where I
  • Met my future husband.
  • Finished college and
  • Put myself through grad school.
  • Had 11 roommates.
  • Moved 6 times, including dorm rooms, apartments and a house,
  • Which I bought.
  • Held 6 jobs—
  • One selling expensive cutlery,
  • Another working for a newspaper, where I reported on everything from crime scenes to farming.
  • Totaled a car (not my fault … at least not all of it).
  • Cried at my first speeding ticket (my fault but still unfair).
  • Had 3 dogs.
  • Made 2 road trips to Minnesota.
  • Camped in Canada.
  • Made lots of new friends.
  • Took up running at age 28.
  • Ran three 5Ks.
  • Interned at a performing arts center
  • And a public radio station.
  • Saw numerous friends get married,
  • As well as my kid brother.
  • Tried to start a garden,
  • And determined I’m terrible at growing things.
  • Took an Alaska cruise with my grandmother.
  • Visited North Dakota, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, D.C., Kentucky, Colorado, Washington, New Hampshire, Brazil and Japan.
  • Went skydiving.
  • Changed my hair color 4 times, from red to blonde to dark brown to light brown.
  • Gained wonderful in-laws
  • And 2 nephews.
  • Hosted Easter lunch
  • And Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Took an all-girls trip to Charleston, S.C., with the women of the family.
  • Road tripped to Miami with the coolest co-workers ever.
  • Bought real furniture.
  • Read the entire Bible (twice).
  • Kept 4 blogs.
  • Went snowboarding and skiing for the first time … and don’t intend to ski ever again.
  • Celebrated 5 years of marriage with a bike trip.
  • And took thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pictures of it all.

Last night, as I browsed those old photos and blog posts, half of me wanted to go back and relive some of those moments. The other half didn’t, since going backwards would mean missing out on all that’s ahead—the fun, the challenges, the crummy things that still make you stronger.

So, here’s what I’ve got so far.

In my 30s, I look forward to …

  • Running my first 10K in April.
  • Visiting Hawaii … next week!
  • Learning to drive a manual. I mean it.
  • Finally going to Ireland!
  • Seeing Emily graduate from high school.
  • And completing anything else on my bucket list, in no particular order.

What about you? What was/is the greatest thing about your 30s?   

Tokens from Tokyo

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It’s been a month now since I was in Tokyo for work. I’m behind on writing about it, but I still want to share some of the highlights from that incredible trip. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Everyone there dresses nicely. Everyone. Like every single one. Most of the men wear black suits to work, and the working women almost always wear hose, even when they’re wearing pants.
  • It was common to see stores with English names. We also passed several American shops and restaurants, like Kinko’s and Denny’s.One guy was walking down the street in an Iowa State sweatshirt.
  • A lot of Tokyo reminded me of my trip to Sapporo a year and a half ago. Sapporo was big enough, but as the largest city in the world, Tokyo was even more mind-boggling. People were everywhere, day and night. One area we walked around was like the Times Square of Japan, with busy sidewalks and crosswalks going every which way.
  • Both times I’ve been to Japan, I was struck by how focused and hard-working the people are there. Many of them work long hours, and some students go to school half a day on Saturday. (Ick.) Yet, with so much emphasis on self-reliance and so much pressure from society to be successful, the country also has a high suicide rate. People don’t want to show their weaknesses.
  • With more career-minded women in Japan, many of them are putting off marriage and having fewer kids. During our stay, we had an interpreter named Lui who was born in Japan but actually lives in North Carolina now. Of all of Lui’s friends in Japan (in their early 30s), none of them are married. The day we visited a big national park, we saw several kids running around and Lui said that was a big deal. It’s not something you see that often in everyday life. And of course with fewer and fewer kids, it’ll be hard to continue supporting the economy.
  • Only about 1% of Japan is Christian, but everywhere we went, we saw Christmas trees and heard Christmas songs. Not “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” kind of songs, either. Songs like “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night.”
  • People are still allowed to smoke in restaurants there. And many do. That was one of my least favorite things.
  • Just like last time, I noticed that there was hardly a speck of trash anywhere. And yet, a trash can could not be found. I finally spotted 5 in a row at the national park, so I guess that’s where they all went.
  • The weirdest food I ate was a fried baby octopus. I will not be eating that again.
  • Even though different religions are accepted there, some see Christianity as a crutch, as something people need because they can’t get through daily obstacles on their own. That, as well as the small number of Christians, can make it hard for new Christians to get established and grow in their faith.
  • … Yet, there was also an openness to the Gospel there. Hundreds of churches came together to organize the 3-day event we had in Tokyo. More than 38,000 people came and about 1,500 of them decided to commit their lives to Christ, including lots of kids and teens. That, of course, was the best part of the trip.