Monday, October 31, 2016

Peak Fall Foliage Hiking at Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

Hiking one of the best kept secrets of Illinois

I suppose those years of living in New England really honed my taste for fall hikes. When I left, I though I was leaving all those glorious colors behind. Sure, I knew that New England is not the only place with deciduous trees but I figured everything would pale in comparison to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Thankfully, I recently discovered Matthiessen State Park in North-Central Illinois which stands up to what I was previously used to hiking. This gem of a park receives 1/6th of the visitors that nearby Starved Rock receives though is every bit as magnificent. Even on a peak-color day in October, I was mostly alone.

Hiking through this park involves two different locations. The first is the "Dells" area which is where deep canyons carve their way through preconceived notions that Illinois is nothing but flatness and prairies. Certainly this is the highlight of the park but the other "River Area" is special in its own right. Hugging the Vermillion River, these trails are far less visited and tend to be more serene. I loved both areas for their uniqueness. 

The Dells are is becoming my new favorite place to hike in the state. Its only about 80 miles from where I live in Chicago and I've returned a few times now only to be as facicated with it as the first visit. The landscape does not evoke the idea that the Midwest is flat and full of cornfields (though that can be beautiful too). Instead, it follows the patterns of many riverside parks where steep bluffs and cliffs give way to waterfalls and streams below. Many of the trails in the Dells area follow along the canyon rim or they wind through the bottom of the canyon.

I'd highly suggest wearing a very sturdy pair of waterproof boots due to these trails. Sturdy books allowed me to keep my focus on the abundant scenery rather than be preoccupied with not getting my feet wet.

Another serendipitous part of my trip was going after a thunderstorm. Some of the leaves had been picked off by the high winds but the waterfalls were running with terrific force. Others are only seasonal or flow after heavy rains- it was a treat to observe those elusive falls. All in all, I saw at least seven waterfalls on my trip. 

The Dells area has less than five miles of hiking trails but I spent over 6 hours wandering about. Autumn is a season that seems to pass more quickly than others and I couldn't miss a single moment in this lovely place.

Moving on to the River Area, I found this part of the part to be abundant in solitude and hardly saw any other hikers. Naturally, most are drawn to this park because of the waterfalls. My preference is always to have some peace and quiet all to myself and the river area satisfied this desire perfectly. 

As the river area receives a fraction of the visitors that the Dells area receives, the trails are less maintained and tend to be a bit ambiguous. I was turned around when hiking them the first time. This was not unpleasant, however. I find the Vermillion River of Illinois to be one of the most underrated adventure destinations and I did not mind being a bit lost in this serene place. Meandering along the riverbank allowed for quiet reflection.

Though less dramatic than the cliffs of the Dells, the Vermillion river creates many impressive bluffs itself. They precipitously towered over that was running in full force after some heavier storms. I wished I could have taken a run down it in a raft- something that I've done before in the summer. 

Back towards the parking lot, I noted a number of trees in full autumn display. Funny to think that the most pedestrian part of the area had the best colors- 

Same place, 2 weeks later

Same tree, two weeks later
So there you have it- my new favorite hiking destination in the state. This isn't my only treasured hiking destination in Illinois but the proximity to Chicago makes it enticing. Starved Rock is gorgeous, to be sure, but I love the solitude that Matthiessen State Park offers. I'll be returning soon in the winter!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Lessons From Our First Time Abroad in Madrid, Spain (And Europe)

First Time Traveling Abroad!

For somebody who considers themselves such an experienced traveler, It wasn't until my late twenties that I actually went abroad for the first time. Like many Americans, I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and Canada which are underrated international travel destinations in themselves. However most “real travelers” would say you have to get off the continent across an ocean to really experience international travel. I've been to all 50 states in the United States, so I think of myself adept. But I was actually quite intimidated at the thought of going to Europe. There are many variables that I have not faced that are integral to international travel. So going to Spain would be a grand adventure though one with a steep learning curve.  I'd like to share some of the victories and lessons that I learned with my first time abroad.


Where do I start? Why don't we talk about what I was looking forward to the most. There’s the usual standbys-  food, dance, culture, museums, new environments, ect. However, one of the odd things that really excited me on this trip was the knowledge that every inch traveled would bring me further East than I've ever been in my life. Also, growing up in California, I'm far from used to being around entire cities and landscapes that are 500 to thousands of years old. The civilization in North America dates back far beyond what we normally consider, though preservation has never been a priority like it is in Europe. Timelessness is a foreign concept to most of us Americans.

What I was most nervous about was the language barrier and the knowledge that I'm really the outsider.  Even with the most intensely local-centric places I've been in the United States I felt like I had a knack for blending in with the background and hence getting a very genuine experience. That would simply be impossible for me to do in Spain and I knew that going into it. What would surprise me was how welcoming the people and culture are to travelers.

My partner in crime

Traveling with my spouse, Dee, is also an adventure in itself.  We have such starkly different preferences and travel. Dee  appreciates culture history art and relaxation. her trips tend to be carefully planned and executed with precision. I, on the other hand, appreciate nature remoteness, and experiences that may not go up and guidebooks. Hence, I tend to be more capricious and impulsive, ready to take something new on at the drop of a hat. Buying the two preferences ends up being unique as well as challenging.

Arrival and first look

Despite being intensely jet-lagged and sleep deprived once we got in the taxi and rode through downtown Madrid,  all of that didn't matter. I wonder if this is a  Collective experience of Americans abroad-  to be totally enthralled By architecture that is as ancient as it is enduring. The streets were so narrow, I assume because they were not originally meant for cars. people raised by on Vespas and bikes creating a bustling but not overcrowded feel. I could not stop taking pictures.

Dee was the one that chose our hotel in Madrid  which was just to her liking. She chose Hotel Catalonia Atocha. What a perfect choice that was! It was very elegant and modern though set in a neighborhood that seemed like a time capsule from another era.  We were very happy with  our posh 7th floor room right next to the terrace and bar that overlooks the city. We had a lot to see in our 4 days in Madrid so I would have been just as content to spend them in the hotel.

Very impressed with our hotel!
Four Days in Madrid

Madrid was a perfect place for me to get my first experience of Europe. Though it is difficult to fully navigate the city and sights without a basic understanding of Spanish, we stumbled our way around and had fun doing it. One of the first things we discovered was the Mercado de San Miguel. Naturally, everyone who comes to Spain wants to experience tapas. Perhaps this market is a good place to start where all the staples of the Spanish diet can be sampled at once. It gave us an excellent feel for what to expect later in our journey.

Plaza Mayor needs no introduction from me but I will say that it was worth paying a visit as well. There were dozens of tapas restaurants that lined this historic city center which we wished we could have eaten at every one. Puerta del Sol is equally well known though no less magnificent. Shopping abounds in this busier plaza.

Careless wandering continued to fill us with wonder. Naturally the Catedral de la Almudena (national cathedral) and the Royal Palace were glorious sights. Ancient royalty is another new concept we were immersed in around this part of Madrid. I would say the royal gardens or Jardines De Sabatini were actually the highlights of this part.

With respect to food, we had some excellent experiences though the most noteworthy were-

  • Bar Benteveo: Inexpensive though very authentic corner breakfast place. Tosta portion sizes were quite large!
  • La Infinito: Bohemian and hipster-ish coffee shop and cafe in the Atocha District which we found our favorite spot for café and té
  • Taberna El Sur: Generous and accommodating staff, very fluent in English and friendly to us. We wished we had eaten there daily!
  • Restaurante Triciclo: Upscale tapas dining with dishes that we hadn't experienced elsewhere. 

Dee appreciated the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía which is the modern art museum of Spain. This museum is analagous to MOMA in New York in stature and collections. Every appetite for modern art could be satiated here, from the unusual to the absurd. Dee was in heaven. Guernica is the most famous painting of the museum though it is littered with other instantly recognizable works of Picasso and Salvador Dalí.

Overall Impressions

Honestly, it was a bit of an intriguing risk to travel abroad. This isn't due to any safety risks- after all, any place in Spain is safer than every place in Chicago. However there was risk that our lack of understanding of language and culture would lead to some embarrassing faux pas. Additionally, we're just not as familiar with how time and travel work in far away places and intangibles such as these can lead us to a great expense of mental energy. As it turns out, there were times when that happened such as when we wandered into an extra-local bar and we felt the coldness of the crowd. However these experiences were few and far between. On the contrary, most places in Madrid were genuinely hospital and eager to share their love for the city to we humble Chicagoians. I'm glad we picked Madrid as our first destination abroad.