2016 In Review

2016 was a very busy, eventful, miraculous year. A crazy election…my first surgery… got engaged… Cubs win…whirlwind tour of Spain… A year ago, I had no idea that any of these things would happen.

With a boyfriend/fiancé in tow, I ended up driving a lot more instead of flying or taking the train on local trips. I took more short-haul trips and fewer big vacations, including countless road trips to Pennsylvania for work, a bunch of family visits in Maryland and New York, and trips to Chicago, Cleveland, Utah, and of course, Spain. With a wedding to plan and our usual hectic lives, I expect 2017 to be another busy one, but I hope M and I can add a country or two to our list.

2016 in numbers:

0: New state visited. I have still visited 39 out of 50 states.

1: New country visited – Spain.

2: New national parks visited – Arches and Canyonlands.

2: New credit cards. This is very low for me, as I’m trying keep the numbers down so I can apply for some Chase cards.

3: Countries visited, including the U.S.

15: States visited, including Washington D.C.

15: Amtrak trips taken.

23: Flights – half the amount of last year’s 43.

3,539: Amtrak points earned.

17,698: Number of miles flown, 30,000 less than last year.

160,000: Number of miles redeemed. This includes two tickets from D.C. to Barcelona in business class and two economy tickets from Madrid to D.C.

361,690: Number of points redeemed at hotels, including one free night due to credit cards. This includes six nights at the Westin Palace in Madrid, 1 night at the AC Palacio De Santa Paula in Granada, four nights at the Alexandra Barcelona (Hilton), two nights at the Courtyard St. George (Zion National Park), and four nights at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.

Too many to count: Car trips to Pennsylvania (along with some stops in Baltimore, New York, and Pittsburgh).

Spain #1: Barcelona & All Things Gaudi

Barcelona and Gaudi are almost like the same word. The Gaudi structures were the attractions I wanted to see most in Barcelona, and they’re the items Barcelona markets the most.

Antoni Gaudi was a Catalan architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a practitioner of Modernista architecture and heralded in his lifetime. Today, he is an artistic hero in Barcelona. Gaudi (and the modernista architecture movement that he is known for) is everywhere.

Of course, the Modernista movement was bigger than Gaudi. There are many beautiful homes and buildings built by Guadi’s contemporaries or students. As we walked throughout the city, there were constant traces of Modernista architecture: A lamppost, the distinctive curved doorway, the soft bowed windows, not to mention the merchandising in every single gift shop.

The Gaudi structures are also insanely expensive. Twenty euros for Guadi’s most famous houses. A whopping 29 euros for La Sagrada Familia. Even Park Guell charges seven euros now. Luckily, M was able to wrangle a press card that let us in for free in some of Barcelona’s biggest draws so we could experience Gaudi without selling one of our kidneys.

Our first stop was CasaBatlló, a Gaudi home built for Mr. Josep Batlló i Casanovas and his family on Passeig de Gràcia. The home was built between 1904 and 1906, and the family lived in it until the mid-1950s.

**IMG_5040.JPGWalking down the street, it’s impossible not to notice the façade. It is, in a word, weird – in a whimsical and fantastical way. Walking into Gaudi’s homes feels is like into a fantasy world – the stuff of movies. But it is very much real.

img_5032As I first walked in and took stock of the curved walls and wavy staircase, I was struck by the notion that Gaudi sought to defy gravity. Where traditional walls are straight and box-like, he insisted on warping them. Everything is turned on its head.

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img_5070img_5095img_5096The house is narrow and tall, climbing many floors. The curvy staircase lets out onto a rooftop with views of the city below and more of Guadi’s unique creations.

img_5160img_5169img_5081Only a few blocks away you can find another one of Guadi’s famous houses – Casa Mila. We didn’t go inside, but the exterior is a site to behold.

img_4888img_4891Gaudi is probably most famous for Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia – the famous sprawling church that has been under construction for nearly a century. More on those to come and the rest of Barcelona’s Modernista sites.

Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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Miracles!

This has been a year of miracles.

First, the Cubs won the World Series… after 108 years.

Then, all of our candidates won on election night (no, not Trump).

Then, I got engaged.

WHAAAAT!?!?

cubsI know, crazy. Who believed the Cubs could actually pull it off?

In all seriousness, it’s been an exhausting, but a great year so far. Losing (in baseball and politics) sucks. And being single and doing the endless dating crawl sucks.

Dating is a crapshoot, and it often seemed like I was getting served a lot of crap and not so much of anything else.

I got lucky and met M. But before I got lucky, I went on bad dates, waited on ex-boyfriends, and despaired. I am, appropriately, a born and bred Cubs fan, of whom the famous Chicago writer Mike Royko once wrote: “A pessimists see the glass as half empty; a Cubs fan wonders when it’s gonna spill.”

Like the Cubs, I got my miracle. In a month, M and I are off to Spain. In a few months, we’ll get married. And we plan on having many more adventures, and hopefully, some more miracles along the way (Red Sox vs. Cubs World Series maybe???).

And in case, anyone doesn’t believe in miracles, I refer you to this definitive episode of How I Met Your Mother:

 

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Being Social with Butterflies

We spent a lot of time with butterflies this summer. Butterflies are weird. I mean, they are bugs, after all. And I capital-H hate bugs. But there’s a difference between the bug on the wall of my apartment and bugs flitting about a garden, hovering over beautiful flowers while I hover over them with my camera in hand.

Our first butterfly visit was the garden at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house about an hour south of Pittsburgh. Sweltering in the August heat, I could not stop myself from snapping.

img_8931img_8982img_9122img_9140img_9035img_8906-2img_8915-2img_8988Our second garden was closer to home. After a weekend in Silver Spring, Maryland, we stopped by the Butterfly Garden at Brookside Gardens. Brookside Gardens is a beautiful area independent of the butterflies, but the butterfly garden was the icing on the proverbial cake. We even got to see some caterpillars before they transformed!

2016-08-20-23-03-062016-08-20-23-06-09-22016-08-20-23-06-402016-08-20-23-12-222016-08-20-22-47-412016-08-20-22-49-012016-08-20-22-53-452016-08-20-22-58-252016-08-20-22-59-20-12016-08-20-23-01-38-12016-08-20-22-46-112016-08-20-22-50-10-12016-08-20-23-25-102016-08-20-23-38-34The butterflies like M!

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Published!

First, a mea culpa. I have been AWOL, but this time it’s not just good ol’ laziness to blame. Election time is busy season for me, and I have been swamped with work. You know how accountants can’t breath or sleep during the first half of April? That’s me in September and October — just guzzling Diet Cokes faster than I can buy them. So that’s my excuse. Now the fun stuff.

M and I had our first collaborative effort published. Really, M gets most of the credit. He’s written a couple of articles about an amazing art exhibit called Washed Ashore. His latest is published in Sierra Magazine, and I contributed the photographs! Go us.

Washed Ashore is the brainchild of artist Angela Hazeltine Pozzi. The Oregon-based artist noticed the tons of plastic and debris littered across our beaches, and decided to turn the garbage into art. Her staff is made up of volunteers, and they spend hours collects, sifting, and organizing piles of beach garbage. Toothbrushes, bottle caps, beach toys, shoes, flip-flops — everything you can think of — become a piece of a sculpture.

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Chompers the Shark

The Smithsonian Zoo in Washington D.C. hosted an exhibit of Angela’s sculptures this summer, and M and I had a great time exploring and taking pictures. Here’s the most amazing part: Angela and her group don’t paint any of the items they collect. They use all the debris exactly as they found them.

When you walked into the zoo, you were immediately met with a giant, colorful parrot fish named Priscilla.

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The exhibit has since left the Smithsonian Zoo, but it is moving across the country and will even make a stop at the State Department here in D.C. Check out the website for details on where the Washed Ashore animals are going next. Here are some of my favorites.

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SeeMore the Sea Lion Pup

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SeeMore the Sea Lion Pup

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Sebastian James the Puffin

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Flash the Marlin

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Lidia the Seal

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Close-up of Lidia the Seal

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Octavia the Octupus

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Whale Bone Rib Cage

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Smith’s Jelly

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Welcome to Pittsburgh!

After seven months of dating, M and I finally took a trip together. More accurately, I went to Pittsburgh for work and M tagged along. But we managed to squeeze in some tourist time – my first real tourist effort even though I’ve been to Pittsburgh a handful of times.

Here are some thoughts. Pittsburgh is hilly, folks! I’m going to have to get into some serious shape if we’re going to do more Pittsburgh exploring. Pittsburgh is also a growing, trending city. In the four years since I started working for a Pittsburgh-based company, I’ve watch the city change: Rising skyscrapers, new restaurants and hotels, hip neighborhoods flourishing in the place of hollowed-out factories. Just walking around with my camera in hand was entertaining enough for me.

My favorite building hands-down is the PPG Place – a multi-building complex that takes up six city blocks. The 19,750 pieces of glass offer stunning reflections of Pittsburgh, especially on a sunny day. 

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There’s plenty of old-fashioned architecture too.

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And opportunities for self-portraits abound.

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We set aside one evening to take the cable car up the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington. The cliffside neighborhood offers stunning views of Pittsburgh’s many bridges.

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Photo credits to M on this picture of the incline.

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The glorious view that meets you at the top.

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St. Mary’s on the Mount lit up as the sun dipped into the ground.

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I dragged my tripod out for this view. Totally worth it.

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Part 8: Hiking Professor Creek

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch
Part 4: Hiking Dead Horse Point
Part 5: Canyons For As Far As The Eye Can See
Part 6: Waking Up At The Crack of Dawn To See Dawn
Part 7: Into The Fiery Furnace

With two national parks so accessible from Moab, it’s easy to ignore the rest of the surrounding area. But do so at your own loss! There are so many interesting sites and activities in the Moab region. From kayaking, to bike riding, to paddle boarding, to more hiking – there is something for everyone.

Our last day in Moab, we decided to wander off-the-beaten track. Our google research turned up the Professor Creek Hike (AKA Mary Jane Canyon), an 8 mile out-and-back hike through a small stream bed, deep into a canyon, and ending at a waterfall. When I say through a stream – I mean that literally. You WILL get wet. We found it impossible to stay dry, and 10 minutes into the hike, just gave into to the adventure.

At the same time, I recommend wearing some kind of sneaker and/or hiking shoe. The stream bed is very rocky and requires some maneuvering. You do not want to expose your toes to open rock, and some ankle support is helpful. We wore our regular sneakers and threw them in the wash when we got home from our trip.

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Our sneakers at the end of the hike.

As we started hiking, we marveled at the natural beauty and the sense of solitude we felt. The cold water sloshing on our feet was refreshing as we melted under the hot sun.

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This incredible structure overlooking Castle Valley is called the Priest and Nuns, for the obvious reason.

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About a mile and a half into he hike, the canyon walls start to rise. They continue to rise until you are hiking through a narrow slot which provides generous shade.

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The hike ends when the stream bed collides with a sputtering waterfall. At that point the water is quite high.

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Part 7: Into the Fiery Furnace

Part 1: Road to Arches
Part 2: Arches Galore
Part 3: Delicate Arch
Part 4: Hiking Dead Horse Point
Part 5: Canyons For As Far As The Eye Can See
Part 6: Waking Up At The Crack of Dawn To See Dawn

Five months before we even landed in Colorado, my sister and I booked two spots on the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike in Arches National Park. While most of the hikes in the park are open to the public, Fiery Furnace is limited to a small group of people per day. According to the National Parks website, “The Fiery Furnace is a natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls. To enter the Fiery Furnace, visitors must accompany a ranger-guided tour or obtain a hiking permit at the visitor center.”

The ranger-led hike is three hours long with many stops along the way to to talk about the geology and history of area. The website labels the hike “strenuous,” but I’m not exactly an Olympian and I was just fine. There are some tight spaces that involve a bit of scrambling, but those were my favorite parts!

The hike starts off with a scary sign and an introduction about the geology of the rock maze we’re about to enter. Confession: I spent more time taking pictures than listening…

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Our group took a break when we reached the cave below, featuring a natural arch. The guide talked about… something… Honestly, I was just taking pictures.

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I love the way the light peeks through the rocks.

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We took another rest stop at this natural water hole and the double arches below. Our guide told us about all the different types of bugs that live in the water. He warned us not to step or fall into the hole, lest we kill all of the bugs.

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We reach a particularly narrow stretch that involved some scrambling and creative maneuvering.

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My sister captured me at my most graceful.

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There were lizards everywhere.

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At the end of the hike, as we emerged from the furnace, we are treated to a beautiful array of red rocks.

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If you like guided hikes, Fiery Furnace is a must. If you get a little bored and prefer to roam on your own – like I – Fiery Furnace is still fun, and offers an exclusive peek into a different part of Arches National Park. Just remember: Book early. These tours get sold out! 

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Happy Birthday!

Crap, has it been a year already?

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Here’s the one nice part about getting older. It is the only way for things to change. For wounds to heal, for memories to fade, for new people and opportunities to present themselves. This year came along when I desperately needed something in my life to change. So I am happy to be older, happy to look back on the past year and remember all the amazing, new things.

I am happily in a new relationship with the wonderful M. Most importantly, my almost-four-year-old niece has given M her imprimatur of approval. I literally traveled around the world to Vietnam with one of my best friends and added two new national parks to my list (Arches and Canyonlands) with my sister. Finally, I have a bunch of exciting trips to look forward to, from Spain to Cleveland to a potential trip to Cuba (!!!!).

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Our first baseball game together. Cubs vs. Nats. Cubs win!

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Lisa and I laughing it up in Vietnam.

Life is far from perfect. There are stressful, difficult, blah-filled days. Like every human being, I worry about mundane things and big life things. There are things I should worry about, but stupidly push them to the space in my head where thoughts magically disappear. I struggle to remind myself that I can’t control everything and everyone (though the world would be a better place if I could). But….I am affirmatively happy. It is amazing how one person can change so much. I am thankful for that gift every single day. And I am looking forward to the many things M and I plan to share together. Especially the end of this oppressive heat wave. Until then, I am ensconced in my woman cave and have no intention of leaving.

Here’s to another year. And here’s to me.

 

 

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