Holiday Letter 2013
Season’s greetings from Blackwell, Oklahoma!
We have just had our first snowfall and the ground outside is all sparkly under the bright sun. By the end of the day it will all be gone and the brown winter landscape of the Oklahoma plains will appear once again. It contrasts sharply with our landscape 12 months ago–all flatness and whiteness extending out beyond the curvature of the earth, with the exception of the South Pole Telescope, the Atmospheric Research Observatory, and a few other buildings in the foreground at the South Pole station.
From late October until mid February, we worked in Antarctica–an experience reminiscent of summer camp, with 60 hours of work (per week) thrown in. After hours we enjoyed many good social activities, game nights, dance classes, Kung Fu classes, carnivals, parties and good conversations, plus fascinating tours of the world-class science facilities. Unfortunately their budget cuts were such that we were not able to return this season, but we’d both like to go back again in the future.
We left The Ice for New Zealand on February 13th and immediately enjoyed the luxury of long, hot showers (we were limited to two 2-minute showers per week at the South Pole), a fresh salad (we hadn’t had freshies in months!), and the next day we celebrated Valentine’s day by strolling through the botanical gardens and enjoying the lovely green grass and sweet-scented flowers that we had missed for the last several months.
We spent the next few nights with couchsurfing hosts in Christchurch–a lovely family of 4 with several wonderful pets (another thing we had really missed at the Pole)–while we plotted our plans and prepared to tour the South Island for the next 6 weeks. We purchased bus passes and hut passes, loaded up on food, put our excess luggage in storage, and set out for Wanaka for our first hike. We spent the next nine days hiking from hut to hut through the wilderness of Mount Aspiring National Park. One would be hard pressed to find more breathtaking scenery in such a small region.
We returned to Wanaka to re-stock our supplies, and then hitchhiked to another trailhead which, after several days of hiking, would put us into Queenstown. This hike was perhaps the most beautiful of all the hikes we have ever been on. One section, called the Cascade Saddle, provides views of two steep valleys and an awesome glacier. The hike, incredibly steep, is worth every step.
The primary downside to certain areas of New Zealand is the sand flies. These little creatures deliver a nasty mosquito-like bite (except you really feel it when it happens!) and they are annoyingly persistent. Only the strongest and most disgusting DEET spray will keep them away. They aren’t too bad as long as you keep on moving, but the moment you stop to pull something from your pack, they swarm around you. We arrived at one hut on a gloriously beautiful day to find all the hikers huddled in the hut instead of outside enjoying the day. It soon became clear why. Sand fly hell.
Once in Queenstown we arranged for a kayak tour of Milford Sound. This place, long on Lily’s bucket list, is a fjord where lush peaks jut straight up out of the water, 5,000+ feet into the air. It is often foggy and overcast and the morning of our kayak tour was no exception. However, as we paddled along, spotting penguins and seals and oyster catchers, the fog began to lift in a move dubbed “The Milford Strip Tease” by the guides.
By the afternoon the sun was out and as we walked along the shore we could see the top of Mitre Peak– the iconic mountain jutting from Milford Sound to a height of over a mile–through the clouds.
We continued up the west coast of the island. We spent a full day at Franz Josef Glacier, hiking up the mountain for another stunning view.
We proceeded to Punakaiki–Pancake Rocks–for the unique rock formations along the coast and a beautiful hike to a cave.
We stayed in a unique hostel with a small “Stargazer Hut”–just big enough for a bed–with a clear roof so we could see the stars at night. Enthralled, we decided to build a similar loft in our storage shed back in Kansas.
Next, we continued on to Nelson. We loved the town of Nelson, on the northern coast of the South Island. It is famous for its beautiful weather and has both ocean and mountains nearby. We found some of the best priced food in New Zealand there, at the farmer’s market.
Lily had her first paragliding experience there, with a New Zealand record-holding paraglider pilot. The weather conditions were not ideal for flying, but it was still an amazing experience! We are now hooked on the idea of becoming paraglider (or possibly hang glider) pilots ourselves. We may even go back to Nelson to get the training–it seems to be an ideal place to learn the sport.
Video of Stu (the pilot) and me taking off in the paraglider.
Our last hike was in Abel Tasman National Park. Most people choose to hike only the coastal track, but we decided to hike the inland track as well for a big loop. We were so glad we did! We saw almost nobody on the inland track, and had all the huts completely to ourselves. We were also rewarded with stunning views of the coast and surrounding countryside.
The coastal track is also amazing and well worth the hike. We enjoyed access to beautiful beaches all along the way. However, as one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand, there are always lots of people. If we do it again in the future, we might take a tent and camp on the beaches rather than staying in the expensive and crowded huts.
As usual, our vacation ended too soon and we returned to Christchurch for our flight back to the U.S. We spent two more nights with a couchsurfer there and then headed back to Kansas.
While in Kansas visiting Keith’s family, we fulfilled our dream of building our own little stargazer hut–a loft in our shed. We love having our own cozy little space to call “home” there!
We spent a few days visiting Lily’s family in Colorado, and then moved to Evans for the summer while Keith went back to work.
Lily began working hard on her online business. An opportunity to start a travel magazine came up, and being in the travel writing industry has been a dream of Lily’s for years. Travel Beyond Excuse magazine is now on the Apple Newsstand and steadily growing its subscriber base. This coming year the magazine should be expanding to include Android devices as well.
In September Colorado got hit with flooding. Our house was safe, but the route between the house and Keith’s job required a boat, which most of the workers did not have, so work was canceled for several days. The floodwaters demolished houses, threatened bridges, and washed out roads within a short distance of where we lived. The city enacted a “no flush” ordinance to protect the overtaxed sewer system, and expected the ordinance to be in effect for no less than 10 days. Being unable to flush toilets or take showers or work, we decided it was time to move. The job was almost done anyway. We loaded our little cargo trailer and Keith drove back to Kansas while Lily and her mom headed west for a conference in California. After the conference, Lily spent several days visiting friends in California and then rejoined Keith in Kansas.
In October we moved to Oklahoma for the last job of the year. Keith selected a job close to Kansas so that we could work on an RV shelter with extra storage space on our property during the weekends. Sometime next year we plan to buy a motorhome to make our many moves much easier, and when we travel overseas we will store it in this shelter. This is the first time since college (14 years ago) that Keith has lived closer than a 9 hour drive from his family, and it was great being able to spend Thanksgiving with them even though Keith only had one day off.
Our poor cat, Sprite, puts up with all our moves. She hates riding in her cage, but within hours of arrival in a new place she has explored everything and is ready to settle in happily.
She has now lived in Leadville, CO; Rush, CO; Bastrop, LA; Crosset, AR; American Fork, UT; Ottawa, KS; Evans, CO, and Blackwell, OK, with a few weeks at various points in between. She stays with family when we are out of the country.
Speaking of which, on January 21 we will be moving to Ecuador to wait out the remainder of the winter. We have our tickets! Keep an eye on on this blog for details.
We hope the year has been happy for you and wish you the very BEST for 2014. Live life to the fullest! ~ Lily, Keith and Sprite