All posts by Jeff

Somewhere in the Pacific

There was an original influence for this painting from a historic photo. I couldn’t see details clearly enough to continue using it as the basis for the painting so I decided to just let my imagination take over. I combined influences from Samoa (the fan), Micronesia, Fiji, Hawaii, and Bali, which is why I named it ‘Somewhere in the Pacific’. She is holding a wicker fan.

Bad Advice

I know this is a strange topic but every day I seem to encounter some form of advice that runs counter to my acquired wisdom. Often I find that this advice is well-intentioned but it comes from sources that are either 1) too emotionally involved to be objective 2) too optimistic or pessimistic or 3) based on faulty or incorrect information. With that said here is my list of “bad advice” which you might want to be a bit skeptical about before taking to heart.

  1. Internet Ratings
  2. Buy This Now Before It’s Gone/While It’s On Sale!
  3. Everywhere is Safe
  4. It’s Ten Minutes Away

Internet Ratings

Rating: 1 out of 5.

We all like to use sites like TripAdvisor to ‘help’ us find the best places to stay, eat, and enjoy. The problem is that these sites do a poor job of weighting and vetting the sources of the ratings and simply post an ‘average’ mean score. Many people are simply too nice or too emotionally invested in whatever place they are rating, and others will jump straight to a lowest score based on one bad experience without regard to the other factors involved (like people that are angry they didn’t get a refund even when they canceled outside of the cancellation window). There are even people that mistake the low score for the high score.

Generally, you should throw out the high and low scores and read the actual reviews, particularly the most recent ones. Also, keep in mind that a dive establishment might have the highest rating because it has loyal patrons that are friends with the owners, when in fact an honest review would be more average. And of course, you can sometimes read the reviews and notice certain language and names that are indicative of people that might be tied to the ownership.

The best bet is really to look at the ratings only if there are many, many hundreds and read the reviews for consistent patterns by people that have made a lot of ratings (like myself). Those people are the ones that are to be trusted more often than not.

Buy This Now Before It’s Gone/While It’s On Sale!

There are dozens of variations of this pressure sales language but it’s essentially the same. If you don’t part with your money immediately this great opportunity to pay less will pass. From my experience, this is a total falsehood and can lead to spending a lot more in the long run.

First off, sales are ALWAYS going on except for high-demand things. That exact same before Christmas bargain will soon be the After-Christmas bargain. And then when we enter the low-shopping season you’ll have yet more bargains. You should never feel time pressure to buy anything unless there is truly such high-demand for whatever you are purchasing that waiting a moment longer really will mean it is sold out.

So yeah, plane tickets, concert tickets, room tickets might well have a time demand placed on them and you really shouldn’t wait. But never pay in advance for ANYTHING that you aren’t going to use or do within a short timeframe (if you can). It is always better to save up over time and spend a tad more out of pocket than to bury yourself in credit expense that leads to interest charges just because you get a little discount for spending less early than paying full price later on. And interest is money thrown in the trash can.

It’s also harder to get refunds sometimes than you realize. I always opt for the pay when you arrive option instead of in advance. If for some reason I need to cancel I don’t need to make sure I am refunded.

Everywhere is Safe

Just about every guidebook I read tends to give a false impression about the relative safety of just about everywhere. And it sometimes drives me crazy to think young, naïve adults will believe it and potentially get themselves into some tricky situations.

Nowhere on planet Earth is perfectly safe. There are human dangers, environmental dangers, financial dangers, and logistical dangers. Knowing these in advance and being properly aware of them is so very important in order to be safe wherever you go.

There are two types of extremes among the advice you’ll encounter. One is that of the rose-colored glasses crowd that just can’t admit to itself that criminals are real, that food safety standards and building codes might not be optimal, that mosquitoes and ticks might carry diseases, and that the weather and other environmental concerns might actually be present. The other is the chicken-little crowd that lives in utter fear of literally everything and everyone and is probably more unhappy than anyone that ran into any difficulties from the naïve crowd.

Neither is right, but the truth is that you can probably go anywhere and do anything you want as long as you take into consideration what might potentially go wrong and how to avoid it as best you can. Not carrying expensive items and keeping those items on you or in a safe can pretty much eliminate the risk of theft. Knowing which areas of cities have higher crime rates, taking rides only with established driver services and tour groups, and staying in areas with a police presence all go along way toward staying safe.

It might not sound friendly, but also it helps to know that it is ok to tell peddlers and vendors who are pestering you the word ‘no’. Say it and continue on without looking back. Often these people just want your attention long enough to suck you into a situation that you don’t want to find yourself in. I remember getting cajoled by hustlers in places like Tijuana and Belize City and New Orleans and while some of them might have been genuine, in other cases there are real risks of theft or worse. Legit or not, move on.

The French Quarter is full of street hustlers at night

As far as food and drink, fully cooked and served fresh is always the best bet. You can’t always see how food is prepared and how it was stored but killing bacteria is vitally important to preventing illnesses. Grilled food is generally the safest. Traveling is not the time to sample lukewarm food or rare delicacies.
Also tap water in many places, even the USA, isn’t always the cleanest. Personally, I like to buy bottled water wherever I am which gives everyone a good serving of clean drinking water as needed without having to reuse the same containers (which tend to get dirty). Just be a good person and make sure to recycle the bottles and don’t let them become plastic litter.
Also, of course, don’t imbibe in alcohol that isn’t served in a bottle or is served from a safe establishment. We’ve all read the horror stories about tainted alcohol.

You’ll rarely go wrong with craft beer

Also let’s not forget building codes in some places just aren’t all up to the same safety standards. AirBnb, Vrbo, etc are all popular for stays in vacation rentals but not every place has fire alarms, carbon-monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, etc.
If you can sleep at night with a window open, do so, even if it’s a bit hotter and more humid than you are used to. If you can’t open the window, you might pack a cheap fire alarm/CO detector to include in your luggage. Just set it up high (on a curtain rod, etc) in a room near the HVAC vents. Entire families have died as a result of CO poisoning in rental units and even hotels in places like Mexico and the Bahamas.

Prepaid Visa cards can be a great way to avoid having your credit card number stolen while traveling or losing your valuable credit cards (which you can keep in a safe). My wife and I both have had fraud charge alerts on our credit cards and unfortunately, while we lost no money, we lost access to the cards.
You can buy prepaid Visa cards and load them with $100, $500, … and you will likely have them fully spent long before a thief could try to charge the card. At worst, the amount you could lose is the amount you applied to the card.

Finally, be cautious of overly ‘friendly’ or ‘helpful’ strangers. There are countless stories of people who had their bags stolen after someone offered to help carry their luggage for them or stow it for them. Offers for ad-hoc tours, special discounts, or stays in places that are not commonly known can be a scam or worse.
We did once take a private cab tour of Puerto Vallarta and while it was excellent and we saw far more than we would have otherwise including the beaches, the overlooks, and the churches and city sights, all while being told the history of the city (the driver even took us to a Walmart and waited for us while we shopped), we would not do this again. We would only take established tours with known, reputable companies.
And be wary of strangers that seem too interested in your itinerary and where you are staying. While I’ve never encountered this, there are unfortunately many stories of criminals who will use that knowledge to victimize tourists if they know that the victim is leaving the next day and will thus be reluctant to go to police (essentially missing their flight in the process). If you start getting probing questions about your plans that seem geared toward figuring out your itinerary and where you will be staying, lie and walk away.

It’s Ten Minutes Away

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been told a place is a quick ten/thirty/sixty minute drive away only to find that it’s twice or three times that when we actually drive it. If you know the route exactly and have driven it repeatedly you will probably save a lot of time, but for drivers that are unfamiliar with the roads and traffic, those time estimates tend to be considerably understated.

I recommend giving yourself plenty of buffer time to avoid risking delays and missed connections and tours. I remember when we were in Charleston, SC we went first thing in the morning to Magnolia Plantation, then having to leave after a quick two hours to drive to Charleston harbor to make it to the ferry boat to Fort Sumter, and afterward running on to the Old Exchange and Provost for another tour. In the end we made it to everything but it was not relaxing and the rushing from one place to another took some of the fun out of it.

Don’t underestimate your drive times

I’ve learned the hard way not to be ridiculously ambitious in your planning. I enjoyed our trip to the Carolinas and Tennessee but the rapid movement across three states in less than a week made it more stressful and less relaxing than it should have been. Don’t try to cover too much ground too quickly.

Make sure you get to the airport at least two hours ahead of your flight (if not three), giving yourself time to make sure you have everything and aren’t in a mad sprint to the gate. Flying is hectic enough without the added pressure of trying to get through security and to the departure gate in a rush. Also, schedule connections with a little leeway, not less than an hour.

Finally, take advantage of every possible pre-boarding and early boarding option that you can for flights, cruises, etc. If you have to spend a little to take advantage, just spend the little extra. You don’t want to fight for seats and stand in exhaustingly long lines needlessly.

Our Dogs

We have a 6 1/2 year-old Goldendoodle named Honey and a 15 year-old Chihuahua named Sassy.

Goldendoodles are a mix of two of the four smartest breeds (poodle and golden retriever). While mischievous, Honey is a terrific dog and brings a lot of fun to our family.

Sassy is slowing down with age but we have come to really like Chihuahuas too. They are not good with the snow but are intelligent and friendly.

A Ski Weekend in Taos

  1. Taos Ski Valley
  2. Sleigh Ride to the Bavarian
  3. Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
  4. Monte Sagrado Resort
  5. Orlando’s Mexican Restaurant

Taos Ski Valley

We had a lot of fun on the snow with our kids at Taos Ski Valley. We spent more hours in one day skiing than ever before. My kids advanced considerably at skiing and snowboarding.

I took my GoPro and tried it out on a few different runs you can view below.

First my son and I went down a section of Rubezahl toward the village:

Rubezahl

We followed that with lots of runs on Pioneer:

Pioneer

I also made a couple runs on Whitefeather. I recorded the entire length but condensed it for viewing here:

Whitefeather

Sleigh Ride to the Bavarian

We took a night time sleigh ride pulled by a snow cat to the German Bavarian restaurant at Taos Ski Valley. It was a bit expensive but very good and a lot of fun. It was a four course meal and I had schnitzel, strudel, cabbage, soup, and of course a liter of hefeweizen.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Since the weather was turning for the worse and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in heavy snow on the way home we made only a single stop on Sunday. We went to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge which was very impressive, especially in the snow. We’ll be back in warmer weather to see more of Taos’ museums, art galleries, and historic sites.

Monte Sagrado Resort

We stayed at the Monte Sagrado Resort which looks very nice but there were actually a lot of small issues that added up to it not being a place we would stay at again. We had to switch rooms after arriving because the first room wasn’t fully cleaned and there were dogs barking across the hall.

The new room was clean and quiet but the incredibly slow water flow made the bath tub unusable unless you plan to literally wait hours. The internet WIFI also never worked more than sporadically.

Orlando’s Mexican Restaurant

When we arrived we decided to give this popular restaurant a try. The wait was long in a heated patio area, but once we were seated the New Mexican green chili enchiladas and margaritas made up for it. I definitely recommend it.

Winter Solstice 2022

Today at last the northern hemisphere will reach the official starting point of winter, but we’ll also begin the long slow march toward the summer season.

Solstices are both an astronomical event as well as a moment when we can look back on past human history and consider the importance that ancient civilizations placed on these events. They built incredible structures, many of which still exist, to mark the occasions. Understanding earth’s seasonal clock was a matter of literal life and death.

I don’t think it’s an accident that holidays of family gathering and giving happen to fall so close to the winter solstice. Before Christmas, or Hanukkah, or the Roman festival of Saturnalia, there were older winter solstice traditions that marked the end of the harvest and hope for spring after the cold of winter. Those ancient holiday traditions have been largely lost to time, but they influence us even today.

So certainly we can look forward to a fun holiday season of gift-giving and family time in our warm homes. But let’s remember the most ancient of all holidays today and be thankful that no matter how cold it may seem now, spring and summer are coming once again.

Dopamine is the Center of the Universe

After reading a bit about dopamine I’ve come to realize that almost all human behavior (and that of mammals in general) can be understood as the biological drive for dopamine. Nature created the ultimate reward system by allowing us to naturally create a brain chemical that makes us happy, but only will trigger its release if we do ‘good’ according to the rules of nature.

When you eat, you get dopamine. When you exercise, you get dopamine. Sugar surges it to very high levels. So depressed people go for sugar for a reason.

Money doesn’t buy you happiness. But it could buy you a steady stream of dopamine sources. But more dopamine means that the threshold for dopamine happiness rises so people need ever more dopamine stimulation to be happy.

Most people know of ritalin. But what does it actually do that helps people with ADHD? It raises dopamine levels so people aren’t actively seeking dopamine sources while trying to ‘concentrate’. Seriously.

People get addicted to sources of dopamine and so will most any animal.

Compliments give us dopamine too. But don’t harm us the way sugar can by loading us up with excess carbohydrates or requiring pharmaceuticals. So bring on those compliments and kind words.

My Running History

I decided to take some time to talk about another outdoor activity of mine: running. I have been running for a couple decades now, mostly just as a form of exercise which doubles as a form of stress relief and triples as a means of getting our pet dog some outdoor time as well. Over the last 15 years I’ve also run quite a few races, never with the intent of being a highly competitive runner but just to do incrementally better. As I’ve aged, however, the incrementally better is starting to slide and I’m ok with that.

My first race was the Dana Point Turkey Trot 5K in 2008 (in Dana Point, CA right on the coast) which we did as a family. My first 5K time ever was about 26 minutes. Not bad for a first run amid a huge crowd (I quickly learned to position myself nearer the middle so I wouldn’t spend much of the race weaving in and out of less athletic runners.

Since we enjoyed it we then continued to do several more races over the next couple years in Orange County: one in Newport Beach, one in Laguna Beach (2009), the Dana Point Turkey Trot 10K in 2009, the Cinco de Mayo 5k in 2010, a mud run in Irvine Park (2010), and the Ladera Ranch 10K on Independence Day 2011. There are probably a few more that I can’t recall now.

Moving to Colorado in Dec 2011 meant running in the relatively thinner air at 6500 ft (or 5280 for Denver events). I started out with the 2012 Turkey Trot in Castle Rock turning in a time in the 23 minute range (which was fairly satisfactory at the time). In May of 2012 I improved to a 22 minute time for the first time on the 5K.

We did some fun family races over the summer like the Bubble Run and Color Run before I decided it was time for my first Half Marathon. The Denver Rock and Roll Half Marathon was scheduled for my birthday in 2013 and I saw it as an omen that this was a race I was to do.

I finished in a time of 2:07 (that’s 2 hours seven minutes), which was a time I was pretty happy with but I knew I could improve on in the future.

I did a number of family races and a couple 10Ks in 2014 and 2015 including one called the Rock Challenge that not only was 10K but included the ascent of Castle Rock, CO’s Castle Rock. The hike to the top of the rock is only about 1/2 mile, but running to the top in 90+ degree heat and then completing a full half marathon was quite the challenge. It was as hard as the half marathons.

In Sept 2015 I was ready for another half marathon and I decided on the Prairie Dog Half Marathon in Westminster, CO.

1288JeffM3039Castle RockCO11816/2671/1202:02:089:19

It was an improvement of 5 minutes over my 2013 half marathon. I was pretty happy overall and I was looking forward to running more in the coming months. But with winter approaching and a pending house move the next race wouldn’t happen for a while.

In 2016 we moved into a new house in May and much of the spring was devoted to packing and unpacking. That year there were only two races, but they were memorable ones. My son and I did the Warrior Dash in Larkspur, CO in August and had fun going through all the obstacles together.

In November we did another family Turkey Trot, this time in Highlands Ranch, CO on a snowy day. I pushed my youngest in a covered bicycle stroller along the course while my wife and I wore turkey hats.

In 2017 we did the Furry Scurry run with our then nearly one-year-old goldendoodle. We won first place and got a free dog wash.

In July I signed up for my first trail run: the XTerra race in my home town. I did great, probably my best overall, but followed a group down the wrong path long enough to affect my time. Still for a 10K trail run it was pretty good:

405Jeff42MM40-44Castle RockCO281:12:041:11:4711:35

By 2018, I was starting to feel the effects of aging really start to kick in (everything seems to change at age 40 physically). I was also working hard on home improvements throughout most of 2018 and didn’t have many free weekends. Finally in September I ran a 10K in Castle Pines, CO with the family (they ran a 5K) on a horrendously hot, humid day and on a hilly course I was just happy to finish without stopping considering the conditions.

In 2019, I ran four races in a matter of three months. The first was a St. Patrick’s Day Race on a chilly March morning. I finished in the 26 minute range, which was rather disappointing. I was wearing a big green hat but it was still startling to see the drop in time from having not run regularly over the winter.

Feeling a need for redemption I trained and ran much harder for a subsequent race a couple weeks later. I ended up with a personal best in a 5K for the Cookie Chase in April:

Time: 00:21:14 Speed: 14.13 km/h Rank: 24 Out of 1405

Now at age 44 running at that pace took a lot out of me even with it being a 5k. Often springtime allergens hit me especially hard with my highest levels of exertion and I was affected for hours afterward.

But we wanted more. The Steamboat Springs 5K/10K/Half Marathon was coming up and we decided to travel to Steamboat Springs as a family to take part. I ran the 10K instead of the Half Marathon and did relatively good:

44 Jeff M 43 0:53:15

But I was envious of the Half Marathon finishers. I really wanted to run a half marathon again so I decided that the upcoming Estes Park Half Marathon was the chance to do it.

I got up at 3 am, drove to Estes Park, and got to the starting line on a shuttle bus. The race got started and I got my best half marathon time yet:

 1:51. Overall position 56 Out of 423. Speed 7.02 miles/h Pace 08:33 min/miles

At that point I felt done for 2019 mentally and physically and looked forward to 2020 (not realizing there would be a pandemic that would shut everything down).

So of course 2020 meant no races. 2021 would have to make up for it. I signed up for 2 races.

First was the Prairie Dog Half 10K in Castle Rock, CO. Despite my age I think I kicked ass. I went off trail again and it ruined my time but I felt really good the whole way. And then on July 4 my son and I ran a 5K together in Castle Rock as well.

In 2022 we did only one race, returning to Denver to do the Cookie Chase in blazing heat near 100F. I finished in 25 minutes which was fine with me. I was proud of Evan and Shelley for finishing too in that ultra warm weather.

Next year I’ll get into it again. Just writing this has made me eager to shake off the rust and go for it.

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Rifle Falls State Park

If anyone were to ask me what the most impressive waterfall is in the state of Colorado I would give the edge to Rifle Falls. In a state that doesn’t receive a lot of rainfall, Rifle Falls is unique for its combination of height, breadth (actually multiple falls), the verdant environs of the surrounding area, and the caves near its base.

Rifle Falls State Park is located just outside of the town of Rifle, which is on the western slope not far from Glenwood Springs (a favorite town of ours with a lot to do in the surrounding areas).

The park has a number of short trails around the base of the falls. The falls mist the surrounding areas making it an oasis of greenery in an otherwise mostly arid region of Colorado. There are great vantage points on multiple sides of the falls.

The fun isn’t limited to the waterfalls. Trails lead off toward a series of shallow caves a short distance away that are a lot of fun for kids. We explored all of these with our dog too (she was only a puppy at the time).

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Santiago Peak Hike

It’s a rather slow time of year (for hiking at least) in Colorado, so I thought I’d talk a little about the Santiago Peak hike I did in Orange County, CA in 2011.

We used to live in Orange County (we were there from 2003 until the end of 2011) and by the time I decided to do the hike I already knew we would likely be leaving before long. And of course we did end up moving away.

Santiago Peak is the highest point in Orange County and loomed over our home for the six years we lived in the Portola Hills area. For most of that time I contemplated hiking it, but it was only when we were planning on leaving the area that I decided it was actually time to do it.

While the peak only rises to a modest 5,600 ft, the trail in 18 miles round trip (parking is a mile from the trailhead) and elevation gain is 4500 ft. So the hike is certainly not easy. Likewise the vast majority of residents of Orange County have no idea where the trailhead even is, as it is hidden off a canyon road (it is called the Holy Jim Trail). Also, wildfires have routinely affected the area of the trail in the years since I made this hike so much of the greenery may no longer be quite what you see in the photos.

The hike was on a hot Feb day (seems strange to say that now that I live in Colorado) and for the first several miles it was a rather unspectacular jaunt through canyons and hillsides of scrub. Eventually, however, the switch-backing trail began the full ascent of the peak and the views of the surrounding areas opened up.

While the summit is comprised of unsightly radio antennas, there is an impressive panorama of sites visible from the top. There was even a bit of snow on the shaded side of the summit. You can see Mt. San Jacinto (located near Palm Springs), Lake Elsinore to the east, and the Pacific Coast to the west in the photos below.

The entire hike took about 4 hours to complete at a fairly rapid pace. But for a memorable day hike in Orange County this is certainly a good choice.

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