True, unadulterated, vibrant jungle life

Sometimes the urge to pull out the pen and paper hits us in sticky situations. For the last week and a half I’ve been running out of ink recording the constant stream of humid Colombian adventures with my gringo partner in crimes against arepas (corn meal pockets of deliciousness), Mateo.
I roasted myself into a candy cane gringo zebra my first day in Bogota walking up a mountain to 9,000 feet with a definite lack of sunscreen on my winterized skin.

A posterchild for how high altitude burns can happen to you!

A posterchild for how high altitude burns can happen to you!

The midday traffic and honking makes LA look like the remote desert it should have been. We couldn’t escape quickly enough, and when we got off the plane in the colorful Caribbean city of Cartagena we felt a wave of heat like a clean blanket fresh from the dryer. Colorful walls with flowers hanging from the balconies serve as backdrops to innumerable coconut salesmen, women cutting up fresh mango and papaya, and of course the hat men who can help you fulfill a secret desire to embody Panama Jack.

Time disappeared into the silky soft white sand beach of Playa Blanca, our island home for a couple days off the coast of Cartagena. Matt and I sat on blue plastic chairs entranced by the turquoise water still sticky on our skin after our umpteenth dip. A constant line of Brazilian bikini clad ladies boasting Playboy booties filed by slowly searching for their cabana, tent or hammock for the evening. Matt and I splurged for the $15/night cabana, run by a conspiracy theorist named Nico (apparently Castro was a Jew who worked for the CIA). our home was a ladder climb above the check in shack, basically a mattress covered by a mosquito net. Fresh water was not an option for washing and the toilet, a hole in a tent next to the cook shack, left nothing about your neighbors to the imagination.

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$15 view of paradise

From island paradise we zoomed back to Cartagena on a speedboat that gauged its speed on the squeals of the passengers. Did I mention the 6 foot waves and massive air time and the engine that cut out most inconveniently next to the rocky cliffs?
From there we travelled up the coast to Santa Marta, where we clutched our bags on an hour long jeep ride into a jungle town called Minca. We took a chance on Airbnb by reserving two nights on a coffee farm for $16/person/night.

Matt's first mule ride

Matt’s first mule ride

In the “town center,” four shacks at the dirt intersection, we were met by our host Eugenio and three mules. Matt’s first mule ride (other than a pony ride at a five year old birthday party) was this 45 minute ascent into the verdant hills during an orange sherbet sunset. Eugenio’s wife, Ana, welcomed us with fresh, organic coffee grown on their farm, followed by a delicious Colombian dinner.

For those of you who don’t mind geckos chilling in your shoes and bugs the size of Paris Hilton’s dog, La Candelaria promises an unforgettable slice of authentic Colombian jungle life. Brilliant green hummingbirds zoomed over our heads while we sat around the table conversing about Colombian politics, climate change and travel stories. 2014-04-02 10.17.45From their deck you can see the city lights of Santa Marta in the distance, with hundreds of avocado, mango, papaya and cacao tree leaves crinkling in the breeze. Eugenio gave us an in depth tour of the coffee making process and I now know more about seed to cup than most other people who don’t drink the stuff. One of our three days sharing their haven we day hiked to a series of refreshing pools and cascades hidden in the jungle. I even caught a glimpse of Toucan Sam in all his fruit loop glory.
Tomorrow Matt and I start a five day trek into La Ciudad Perdida, a sacred ancient lost city estimated at 1200 years old (450 years older than Machu Picchu).
From the rooftop hammock in the sea breeze,

Your crazy gringa

Nature’s Tinsel, Eureka Dunes, and a Happy New Year

Dear Family and Friends,

Full disclosure: Christmas is my favorite holiday. While toffee and pie wage war on the waistline and inspire optimistic resolutions, I relish the corny holiday songs and extra helpings.

The misty redwoods of Humboldt county

The misty redwoods of Humboldt county

A white Christmas was not in the e-cards for Tahoe, much to the chagrin of 60,000+ pairs of skis. Matt and I were granted a gray Christmas Eve walking in the misty wonderland of Redwoods covered in spider webs, nature’s tinsel. The crackling of crab shells filled the Robertson house last night, as we all devoured the candy of the sea. The evening faded into the living room by a raging wood-stove fire, wailing along to my talented boyfriend as he serenated his wonderful family.

Since our return from the Spanish land of wine, cheese and lisps, Matt and I have put our sleeping bags to work with regular camping trips.

2013's List

2013′s List

I got to check off a few more “To Do in 2013” items off my list hanging in my bedroom (literally a 3×4’ list of goals): a bike ride through the golden aspens along Tahoe’s famous Flume Trail and biking up Tioga Pass (Yosemite’s east entrance).

The stunning Eureka Dunes of Death Valley

The stunning Eureka Dunes of Death Valley

photo (3)Matt and I celebrated the national day of thanks amidst the vast beauty of Death Valley. We battled the tryptophan long enough to gawk at nocturnal astronomy shows by my favorite artist – nature. My camera could not quite capture the magical glow of Eureka Dunes rising above the valley floor protected by snow-capped peaks

Last week I traded the -14 degree evenings of Lake Tahoe for 86 degree days in Los Angeles. Both sets of parents were in the same city, and I jumped (or rather flew) at the opportunity to celebrate an early Christmas with them. Family, food and shorts kept me smiling and hugging in the massive metropolis.

Although a broken back has kept the running shoes off my feet for six months (an unfortunate record), the wanderlust has not been quenched. I’ve been wondering HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD, and I think I’ve found an opportunity to do so. A Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship proposal to examine the global perspective on the spirit of volunteerism has been on the forefront of my mind. If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or connections to places to volunteer internationally (or want to hear more), please let me know.

Trinidad, NorCal

Trinidad, NorCal

On this most wonderful of days I am sending you hugs as sweet as Grandma’s sugar cookies. You are the ornaments on my tree of life that shine beautifully on every branch of my being. Wishing you a joyful, healthy 2014!

Love,

V

10 Reasons to Visit (or Live in) Spain

Dear Friends and Family,
 
Ten days in Spain and I’m hooked! My best friend and boyfriend Matt and I are halfway through a three-week adventure to soak in the sun, aromas, and  lisping Spanish accents. We are currently bicigrinos, pilgrims on a six-day bike tour along the 300+km Camino de Santiago.
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As we sit in an albergue, one of hundreds of old monasteries turned hostals, a lightening storm crashes and interrupts the pouring rain on the cobblestone streets. We have splashed through mud, climbed thousands of meters up dirt roads and gawked at the vistas while following the yellow arrows and sea shells that mark the Camino. Despite a faulty pedal (me) and a broken gear shifter (Matt), I wouldn’t trade this part of our trip for all of the tapas in Spain. We’ve crested green hills pillowed in clouds with windmills in the distance and countless flower lined medieval towns with effervescent cathedrals.
 
If the cowbells and buildings dripping with history weren’t stereotypically European enough to make you fall in love, I’ve compiled a list of ten additional reasons why Spain deserves your company:
 
1. Food: Of course, this would be #1 for me.

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Salud-ing with a bocadillo de jamón

Hot chocolate that left me unable to speak(whoa!), the first olive I have ever enjoyed, and jamon (ham) like I never knew existed often paired with fresh bread and perfect cheese. They invented the art of snacking and understand that drinking should always be accompanied by good food. Hence, the free tapas with every glass of wine or cider, which leads to número 2…
 

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Homemade noodles under chicken cacciatore, with the national drink… vino tinto!

2. Wine: plentiful, cheap, expected. Oftentimes ordering a glass = free food or vis a versa (see #1).
 
3. Bike lanes: automobile-centric USA culture take note, drivers CAN coexist with bikers. The kilometers upon kilometers of heavily used bike lanes contribute to an active culture, which helps to combat the effects of daily chocolate croissants.
 
4. History: It’s normal to live in an 18th  Century building or to sit in a medieval plaza.

2013-10-02 17.06.24The modern amenities seamlessly weave into a fabric so rich in history that the footpaths have been worn soft by the soles of hundreds of years of pilgrims on the same path.

 
5. You can drink the water: Compared to most of my travels, this is a luxury I do not take for granted. It’s on par with flushing the toilet paper.
 
 
6. It’s Cheap(ish): I went to Spain expecting my frugal self to squirm whenever the wallet came out. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that for 10€ ($13) Matt and I can split a three-course meal with wine, or simply have a bottle for 1.5€($2) and stay in a clean room with a shower for 20€ ($26) without worrying about bed bugs.
 
 
7. Trains are so fast!: Latin American buses, despite having great dubbed Jet Li movies cannot compare to the zoom zoom of the rail system.
 
 
2013-10-03 10.55.128. No hurrying allowed: As one of our friends warned, ” Whatever you do, don’t fuckin’ hurry in Spain. It’s just not Spanish.” We’ve taken this to heart and enjoyed many a cafe con leche (Matt) or a pastry (V) to watch the clouds and people float by.
 
 
9. Sleeping in is not an issue: In fact, it’s encouraged. We stayed up till dawn with our incredible hosts in the foothills of Madrid  then subsequently slept till early afternoon.
 
 
10. The national lisp: I have to grin when they say Zaragoza (pronounced Thar-a-go-tha).
 
Spain’s cultural history is nearly as diverse as the many dialects that inhabit its various regions. We are less than 20 km from Santiago and our bums are looking forward to relinquishing the saddle. My back (which I broke in June) is doing great and hasn’t bothered me on the tour.
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Matt and I have hardly stopped smiling since we took off from Tahoe and we still have almost 11 days to explore San Sebastián and Barcelona. I hope that life is keeping you smiling as Fall begins to tickle the leaves to the ground.
 
Besos y abrazos,
V

Thank You to my Dream Team!

Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness

Backpacking in Desolation Wilderness

For anyone who knows me, I have never been a procrastinator. Yet here I am with the final hours until my final piece of content is due to Tourism Australia and working on one last blog until the clock strikes 6pm in Australia. This dire message, the song that rings from my slightly off key voice to your ears is a very appreciative THANK YOU!

Post-work runs with friends

Post-work runs with friends

Thanks, gracias, obrigada, to everyone near and far who has not only provided beautiful words of encouragement since the beginning, but also shared my wonderful opportunity with others. I was interviewed on NPR: Capital Public Radio, featured on Channel 2 News in Reno (CBS) and on Loaded TV in Reno, in addition to numerous press releases and mentions on various facebook and websites. This competition has challenged my ability to function well with less sleep while also working a full time plus job, but also provided a reason to share a snippet of my life with some folks who usually only hear it in the quarterly email updates.

News Release

News Release

I’ve been reconnected with some incredible people, and made new friends with many more. The best part of this two-week challenge has been that I haven’t stopped doing the things I love; in fact I promote them. I truly believe that the source of adventure is within us, and if I can harness my energy and enthusiasm to inspire people to create their own journey then I will be an even happier lady.

Stand Up Paddleboarding Lake Tahoe

Stand Up Paddleboarding Lake Tahoe

So here’s to the people that encouraged me to pursue this dream job, you are the reason that I keep on smiling. I should hear back from Tourism Australia by May 15th and will certainly keep you all posted.

Blast from the Past: V’s Intro to Central America

I’ve been dreaming about diving the Great Barrier Reef and watching sea turtle eggs hatch  (again) in Queensland, Australia and decided to post an email update I sent out to family and friends about similar adventure in Central America two years ago.

Costa Rica zipline to a waterfall

Costa Rica zipline to a waterfall

Hola mis amigos y familia,         Pura Vida!  This Costa Rican greeting that represents the “life is good” paradigm of its people has been infused into my newly bronzed, jellyfish scarred skin.  The last 3 months of 2011 have been largely spent in various Central American countries scratching mosquito bites and spending as much time as possible in the 80 degree Fahrenheit tropical water.   In the beginning of May my cousin Katherine and I flew to Guatemala and spent 3.5 weeks riding chicken buses across the country, into Belize island paradise and up the Mexican Yucatan peninsula to Cancun.  I was in LA long enough to do a couple loads of laundry and then I flew to North Carolina for staff training for a company called Broadreach that runs international academic adventure trips.  I had a wonderful week of playing games and getting to know the other guides who were all intelligent, active and similarly struck with a serious case of wanderlust.  From there I flew to Costa Rica for a couple weeks of solo traveling with no agenda before my Sea Turtle Studies program began. I befriended (shocking, I know) a great Texan fellow named Sam at the Costa Rican airport and we ended up traveling through Costa Rica and Nicaragua together for two weeks.  We spent a week in the jungles of Costa Rica and then crossed the border into Nicaragua to see the beautiful Ometepe Islands in Lake Nicaragua and the laid back surf town of San Juan del Sur.  Then I returned to San Jose where my two amazing co-guides Liz and Phil and I met the first of our 2 groups of 11 teenagers that we would be taking on a 3-week academic trek throughout Costa Rica.  So many travels and adventures to tell and for the sake of saving battery power on your iphone, ipad, i-crack technology I will keep it brief…ish.

MAY:
Guatemala: “The land of many colors” and potholes
It turns out that Guatemala is quite large, and the majority of Kathri and my Guatemala experience took place on various forms of transportation with our two Argentinian buddies Seba and Guille that we met at a hostel our first night.  The local buses commonly called

Chicken buses

Chicken buses

230716_10150183508054205_515094204_6990931_3150907_n‘Chicken buses’ are American and Canadian school buses from the 1950s colorfully painted and decorated with Catholic memorabilia on the dashboard and on the exterior and usually stuffed about 30 people or more over capacity.  There is always space on a bus, although it might be 3 or 4 to a seat and/or standing room only on the 4 hour bumpy dirt road with drivers who prefer accelerating on the hairpin turns.  There is also the option to take a shuttle, which meant 20+ people stuffed into a 14 passenger van, usually with a few people riding on the roof with the luggage/chicken/produce.  On one 8 hour ride I climbed out of the back window and onto the roof to wave to the kids in the passing villages and watch farmers burn their corn fields in the highlands.  One of the highlights was at a place called Semuc-Champey which has pools of crystalline turquoise waterfalls in the middle of the jungle which you can swim in and jump from one pool to the next. One afternoon clad in bathing suits and tevas we took a nearby cave tour.  We each had a candle to hold above our head as we swam through the cave, up underground waterfalls and jumped into pools in complete candlelit darkness deep in the mountain.  The guide didn’t speak English and no one asked us if we were

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claustrophobic, afraid of the dark or if we could swim.  The entire experience cost us about $7 bucks.  In short, we loved Guatemala!  We also visited the spectacular Lake Atitlan surrounded by green mountains and the legendary Mayan ruins of Tikal, the capital of the ancient people who predicted the realignment of the universe in 2012.

Belize: Go Slow Girl, Go slow
240518_10150185284064205_515094204_7001684_3213695_oBelize is the stereotypical paradise that really is all it’s cracked up to be.  When La Kathri (Katherine) and I arrived to Caye Caulker, we were luckiest girls in the world.  Our first night we went to a bar and had a local guy named Pops start talking to us and invite us to his private island about a 20 minute boat ride away.  We were traveling with a spanish guy named Pedro and an Isreali girl named Shirly and he said the more the merrier and invited them too.

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So, the following morning at “10am” island time, which is really about 10:45am he picked us up on his motorboat and we spent the day snorkeling and catching the fish, lobster, and conch that we bbq-ed that night on his little slice of paradise.

The following day was more of the same incredible luck to be doing all of the touristy things (eating great food, snorkeling on the reef) without paying for it and without the throngs of backpacking hippy dippy tourists, which I usually consider myself a part of.
At one point while I was walking back to our little cabana, a local man on the bike called

244222_10150185280359205_515094204_7001635_6299004_oout “go slow girl, go slow”.  And so I did.  We had been rushing around Guatemala trying to see everything and it was nice to stay in one place for 4 whole nights.  We caught up on our sunsets and discovered the joy of One Barrel Rum with fresh coconut water.  This is an amazing place, you better Belize it!

Mexico: Tacos + Under the sea
Kathri and I had a rough start in Mexico.  Both of our cameras, my shoes and her journal got stolen within hours of crossing the border into the supposedly more “developed” country and we decided to wallow in our stupidity by indulging in the best part of Mexico: the food!  Every day tacos de mole, al pastor and fajitas stung our lips with a plethora of flavors, with au jus dripping down our fingers and stinging our bug/flea bites and staining our shirts.  But it didn’t matter because our mouths were rejoicing with flavor and textures that Californian mexican food has watered down to a safe American standard.  The epic food sustained us as we completed our four day Open Water Scuba Diving Certification in Tulum, Mexico.

Scuba Diving the Pit

Scuba Diving the Pit

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Kathri and I on white sandy beaches of Cancun

Kathri and I on white sandy beaches of Cancun

Jellyfish vs. V - who you got?

Jellyfish vs. V – who you got?

For $315 each we were granted lifetime admittance to the magnificent underwater world of colors and calmness.  We walked through the jungle laden with air tanks, BCs and regulators and jumped 6 meters into a cenote (an underground river canal) known as a “the pit” where a cloud of hydro sulfuric gas floats 28 meters under water until people swim through it.  Diving in the The Pit was one of the most beautiful, spectacular experiences of my life.  Nature decided to mess with our stereotype of the elements and put them all together: smoky air suspended in crystalline water below the Earth.  Wow nature, you win again.
One night at our hostel someone asked me what had happened to my leg.  I assumed he was referring to why mosquitos tend to devour my flesh when I noticed there was a long red line tracing from about mid thigh to my ankle.  The next day there were blisters forming along the line and I realized I had been stung by a jellyfish.  I never felt anything, but it is a bad ass scar to give me some street cred.
Our last day before flying back to the land of flushing toilets was spent in Cancun livin la noche loca.  We did not have any club attire, so we dressed in bathing suits and sarongs and somehow managed to get in free to a popular club and dance the night away without paying for anything except for the bus fare back to our cheap hostel in downtown.  It was a great night of dancing in the street in the pouring rain and gave us an overwhelming sense of being young and free to end our trip on a joyful note.

JUNE/JULY
[BRIEF WEEK BACK INTO THE USA FOR BROADREACH STAFF TRAINING THEN BACK INTO COSTA RICA]

Nicaragua:  $.50 pineapples, and attempting to learn to surf
My travel buddy Sam and I spent the four days in Fortuna near Volcano Arenal in Costa Rica swimming under waterfalls, hot springing in a celestial blue river and cooking with people from all over the world at our $5/night hostel, and then crossed the border to Nicaragua.   We spent a couple days exploring the Ometepe Islands of Lake Nicaraguawhere ancient pottery pieces lay strewn across the beach and snakes weave between the thatched roof above your hammock.

San Juan del Sur, Nica

San Juan del Sur, Nica

Sam had a generous buddy from Nicaragua who let us stay at his beach house in the small surfer town of San Juan del Sur for an entire week fo´ free!  I went surfing for the second time in my life on a board that was shorter than I was at the national surfing competition (aka humungous waves) and ended up pretty sore, a bit flogged and redder than a lobster.   Learning how to surf is like having any trace of belly button lint flushed out of your body via your nose repeatedly.  I lost all fear of drowning and felt like I was in an abusive relationship with the ocean.  I am far from able to say that I am now a surfer chick, but I did have one amazing moment where all of the starfish aligned and I caught the perfect wave and looked up to see all of my friends on shore hooting and jumping around for me (*fist pump*) -  I felt like a rock star.

Costa Rica:  Being Paid to Whitewater Raft, Catch Sea Turtle Eggs and Climb Waterfalls, and be responsible for 10 teenagers in a foreign country

Sea turtle eggs + a newborn!

Sea turtle eggs + a newborn!

These guys swarmed the jungles in Sarapiqui, CR

These guys swarmed the jungles in Sarapiqui, CR

286544_105034049596359_4297086_o For the last 6 weeks my two awesome co-guides Phil and Liz and I have been taking groups of teenagers throughout Costa Rica with a great organization called Broadreach.  I had forgotten how difficult teenage hormonal blobs can be.  I didn’t know that there could be anything to complain about while whitewater rafting, ziplining through the rain forest, or hiking up waterfalls in a beautiful tropical jungle; but some of the kids in our first group were not that big on movement, bugs or academics, all of which were in abundance on our Costa Rica Sea Turtle Studies course.  We did all sorts of incredible things like walking down the beach at night and watching sea turtles dig their nest and lay their eggs.  These 200-300lb creatures are so majestic and I felt lucky to be able to not only watch them but to participate in the scientific research being done at the best sea turtle lab in the world in Tortuguero, CR.  One night I got to countturtle eggs around 2am on a turtle patrol.  It was in the middle of a lightening storm with pouring rain and I felt 126turtle eggs fall into my hand with my head inches from the turtle’s powerful back flippers.  Luckily she’s in a trance while she lays the eggs so I was not in danger of getting bitch-slapped by a turtle.
The entire experience was filled with hilarious moments, like having a kid have a snake fall on his head, get stung by a scorpion and lay down on a fire ant nest all within 24 hours.  We did a bio-luminescent snorkel one night which felt like we had entered Pandora’s glowing night time world from Avatar.  We went on dolphin/whale tours and snorkeled with white tipped reef sharks and hawksbill turtles and swam about 100 meters away from a 6 ft. crocodile.  We ate delicious fruit on the daily and volunteered at elementary schools where the local kids had rarely, if ever, seen a car.  The trip was life-changing both for me and (some of the) kids, but I can’t help but feel relieved that I am currently only responsible for one human being.  I have a whole new respect for parents.

———
And now I’m back in LA for a little less than a week and then off to peaceful, familiar Washington with no return ticket and no exact plans.  I am looking forward to settling in one place for an extended period of time but where that will be remains a mystery.  I’ve got a few ideas of what to do next swirling in my mind, but I haven’t been around a reliable source of internet long enough to really research and act upon them.  More great things to come!

I hope that you are all happy and healthy and I would love to hear what’s been going on in your neck of the woods recently.  Do not feel compelled to write a “War and Peace” Part II as I have subjected you to; I’m back in the land of cell phone coverage and would enjoy hearing your voice.

Besos y Abrazos,

V

Musings of an Over-Achieving Weekend Warrior

Strike a pose on top of Cave Rock at sunset

Strike a pose on top of Cave Rock at sunset

I started with a relatively simple premise: An adventure a day. After 24 hours I realized that this campaign would be impossible for me. How can I limit my adventures to JUST one a day?

I’ve been told that I’m always on the move. As one friend told me, “V, you aggressively carpe diem.” The last couple days may be his case in point.

Thursday I slept three hours due to a million vibrating molecules of excitement at the prospect of being a park ranger in Queensland. Waking up was not quite as exhilarating. I love my job as the Communications Liaison for the CA Tahoe Conservancy, an environmental state agency, but computer screen glare doesn’t fill my vitamin D daily dosage.

I biked home to host a quick happy hour on my patio below the vanilla scented Jeffrey Pine. By 6:30pm my friend Tim and I were heading towards Cave Rock, a previous cultural site for the Washoe Tribe to catch a sunset over Lake Tahoe. At 8:30, after a quick refuel of overly greasy burritos, the California standard, we drove to Fallen Leaf Lake. The moon was so full it seemed to drip into the aspens and light the trail. No headlamps necessary as we joined the coyotes in their eerie howls. Salsa verde finger licks and reflection of snow-covered Mt. Tallac made the minutes pull the moon further overhead.

IMG_2232The next day, after another full day in the office, my coworker and I changed into shorts and sandals and pushed off into the blue silk of Lake Tahoe on a windless afternoon. Every time I paddleboard through its crystalline water I find myself in awe. The sand lines wiggle beneath the liquid line that is so clear you have to remind yourself it exists. A vertigo of phases as the eyes move through liquid into air without a visible transition. I can’t describe the feeling of seeing Tahoe inside out, separated from the cold water by two inches of fiberglass looking out towards 8,000 foot white peaks. Moments like these, available in my very backyard, remind me why I live here.

Then again, absence makes the heart grow fonder and I am on the move as I type. This time Matt Robertson and I are rolling down the California coast towards the wooded coastal wonderland of Big Sur. I’ll be surprising my Dad, who is currently camping in San Simeon with my stepmom (the co-surprise coordinator, her official title). We should be pulling in about 1AM since both Matt and I spent all day manning booths at the South Tahoe Earth Day and weren’t able to leave until 6pm.

IMG_2235Even weekend warriors can manage to push the limits on the number of laughs and wows packed into a day. The moments of gratitude for living such an awesome adventurous life are reflections of the joy within.