Sunday, October 8, 2017

Ayer's Rock aka Uluru - Aussie Adventure Part 2

We saw the giant rock from the airplane.  In a vast, otherwise flat desert of the Outback, Uluru, and it's cousin Kata Tjuta  ("many heads"), are the only distinguishing features of the land.  This was one of the tiniest airports we've ever traveled through - a single runway, gate and baggage claim.  A shuttle picked up most of the airplane passengers, bringing us to the Ayer's Rock Resort where it seems the only hotels in the area are.  It was almost like a little community; different hotels at the resort obviously offered different amenities, but there was a town center where activities took place and there were shops and restaurants to mingle at.  Most of the hotels also had their own restaurants, and you could take a shuttle around the place to get from one hotel to the next, but the town center was an easy walk and had a lot to offer. 

We checked into the Desert Gardens hotel and got to our room on the second floor of a two-floor building with a view of Uluru.  Our room had a wide balcony, but we never really took advantage of it - the room was so spacious and comfortable, it was an oasis from our outdoor adventures.  I knew the Aboriginee dance demonstration was happening at the town center, but knew it was going to be tight to get there.  We did end up wandering down and caught just the last minute of it. 

Nerd Alert:  It was here, at Ayer's Rock Resort, where we
caught our first Kangaskhan in Pokemon Go.  I had noticed him on the radar as we were taking the resort shuttle to dinner, so we decided to do a big loop and get out at the stop nearest him to catch him.  And we did!  If you care but aren't aware, Kangaskhan is a Pokemon that is unique to Australia, so there's no way to get him in America.  The first one we caught was weak, but we ended up catching dozens others throughout our time in Australia, and got a few good ones to flaunt back home. 

Anyways, we had dinner at one of the other hotels that night; it was mediocre, but satisfied our hunger.  We called it an early night since the next morning would be another adventure! 

The next morning, after a hurried shopping trip in the town center for hats and water (how did we not think of that before?) we were picked up in the lobby for our camel train excursion.  The shuttle brought us to the camel farm, where our camels were all lined up and ready to be mounted.  First, we had to store all of our bags, and bring only water bottles and cameras in
bags they provided to us that would go around our shoulders.  Then, we each got a sheep skin to sit on.  Finally, they lined us up in front of our respective camels, and helped as each guest mounted the camel and "hung on for dear life" as they put it, as the camel stood up so they could adjust the straps for our feet. 
My camel's name was Spinifex, or Spinney for short, and Jaiman rode Khan.  As our camels carried us over small ridges through the desert, we were told anecdotes about our camels.  For example, all of these camels were wild before being tamed.  There are estimates as high as a million for the number of wild camels in Australia, but they're hard to track because they move so much.  Also, Khan wouldn't follow any other camel except Spinney.  The cameleers learned this when, on a tour one day, Khan had laid down and refused to get up, and they ended up needing to get another camel to bring the guest back to the farm.  Since Khan's face was roughly at my rear the whole way, it was easy to get to know his personality.  He was chill, and lazy.  He didn't want to do anything, and everything he did was begrudgingly.  But he did like pets, so I patted his head and told him he was doing good, even if he was veering off course and trying to stop the train.  Silly Khan. 
We toured through the desert, with great views of Kata Tjuta and Uluru in the background.  I was a little disappointed we didn't get closer, so for that reason alone I might not recommend this tour to others planning a trip to Ayer's Rock.  But if you think the idea of riding a camel for the sake of riding it, then I would definitely recommend this excursion.  The ride itself was slow going and easy, and not nearly as rough as I expected it to be.  I was also worried about the wind whipping sand into my face, and bugs, but neither of these were a problem for us.  It was a very pleasant ride, with no reason to stress. 

When we got back to the farm, the cameleers worked with each camel to get them to lie down, and then help the guests off their rides.  My camel, Spinney, was not having it, and started nipping at the cameleers.  Another came to
assist, and he was still being a big jerk.  Once they finally got him down, they said I couldn't take anymore pictures with him since he was being such an ass.  But that was fine, once Jaiman was down, we posed behind Khan, who was my buddy anyways.  We collected our belongings, and were invited to visit the other animals on the farm - an emu, a kangaroo, a baby camel and a water buffalo.  The baby camel was fun to see, but I was most excited about the water buffalo, mostly because of that darn Veggie Tales song that, if you know it, will now get stuck in your head.  You're welcome. 

I bought some postcards and a shirt that said, "HUMP DAAAY!" with a camel on it, because it was, in fact, Hump Day, and we rode camels.  Let's face it, that shirt was made for me on this exact day. 

Since the camel train didn't exactly take us to Uluru, we decided that we should take another excursion to actually go to the rock.  So after grabbing a bite to eat (I had an Outback Pizza with kangaroo and emu on it!) we headed to the tour area and booked ourselves on a hop on hop off shuttle.  Since we didn't really plan this, we had no idea what we were doing, and I think we ended up confusing the tour.  But really, if you call yourselves a hop on hop off, then we should be able to do whatever we want, right?  Well, what I found was that at Ayer's Rock, they really tried to take care of their guests by making sure they had everyone, which is nice in a way, but challenging when you aren't aware. 

So we were somehow scheduled for a pickup at our hotel.  It would give us enough time to see the Bush Yarn I wanted to attend at the Town Center, except that I had misread the schedule and realized that it wasn't happening that day.  So we decided to hop on the shuttle earlier and at the closest hotel rather than walk all the way back to ours and have to wait.  The driver then asked us what drop off points we wanted and when we wanted to be picked up at, and we had no idea, so he gave us a suggestion, but it was, like, 5 hours of hiking.  We were done well before that, and waited at the pick up point, hoping they'd still pick us up even though they made it sound like they weren't going to.  Just after I had given up on being picked up, the shuttle came.  Apparently, he was
late because he had been looking for us back at our hotel, not realizing we had caught an earlier shuttle.  I was so grateful to be picked up, I didn't even argue my point about it being a hop on hop off tour. 

The actual hike around Uluru produced some really interesting views; the rock changes as you go around it.  We didn't do the whole circumference - that was over 10 km - but we walked from the drop off point our driver had suggested to the pick up point.  There were parts of the rock that were considered sacred by the natives, and therefore were not supposed to be photographed.  The signs clearly marked where you could start taking pictures again and where you had to stop.  There were also plaques that talked about the different features of the rock, why it was sacred, etc.  It was a very hot and sunny day, and there was very little shade.  I had completely failed to bring
sunscreen somehow, and since I'd already spent a few hours in the morning in the sun riding a camel, I was getting worried about sunburn.  I tried covering my shoulders with the shirt I had bought at the camel farm, and kept my hat pulled tightly over my face and neck.  The bugs were awful here - flies and little gnats kept getting in our faces.  I had bought a cheap fly net the night before, and relented pretty quickly, putting that on.  It didn't stop the flies from getting on my net and irritating me that way, but much better than having them on my face. 
There wasn't much shade at the pickup point (read: practically none), so when we realized we still had close to an hour before the pick up time I was hoping to catch, we decided to venture on to the gorge which was supposed to be scenic.  The gorge was, as promised, pretty neat to see, but we were watching our time and so had to head back shortly after arriving.  At this point, we were nearly out of water (again, bad planning on our part), and I wanted to get out of the sun as much as possible, feeling my skin bake. 

My learning and suggestion from all this is, hike Uluru early in the day, bring lots of water and sunscreen and hats and a fly net, and be more prepared than us.  All in all, we survived and even enjoyed ourselves, but we felt the pain of being so ill-prepared. 
Back at the resort, we picked up some food to go, and put our feet up in our hotel room with dinner and drinks, watching the sunset over Uluru.  As much as Ayer's Rock Resort was overpriced and felt gimicky, I couldn't get over the feeling that this was a lot like glamping - like, luxury in the middle of the desert.  I think people honeymoon here, or at least take fabulous vacations here.  As far as hotel stays, this was my favorite of the whole trip. 

The next morning, we did some final shopping in the town center, and then boarded the shuttle back to the airport to fly to our next destination - Melbourne! 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Adelaide and Kangaroo Island - Aussie Adventure Part 1

Something funny happened on the way to the forum, as they say.  Or in this case, on the way to Adelaide.  We had gotten to LAX just fine, and actually had such a long layover that we ended up leaving the airport to go get lunch at a place Jaiman really wanted to eat at, and coming back to check in.  The flight to Sydney went without a hitch.  But when we arrived and checked in for our domestic flight, a bit worn and weary from the travel, I was thrown off a bit.  The plan had been to arrive in Sydney at 7:01 am and leave at 10 am for Melbourne, and then fly to Adelaide at 12:55, landing at 1:45.  But when we checked in to our flight, it said we were leaving at 9:55 am.  A little weird, but no big deal, I thought, they moved it up by 5 minutes.  But the flight wasn't going to Melbourne, it was going directly to Adelaide.  I had already disappointed Jaiman with the news that we had two more flights to go, and here we were looking at an itinerary that had us one just one flight left.  I assumed I must have changed the flights and not updated TripIt accordingly, but that actually wasn't the case.  From what I gathered, it seems Qantas had cancelled the flight to Melbourne and automatically booked us on a better flight to Adelaide.  Already, we were loving Australia. 

Things got even better when we checked our bags in - they had an automatic system to do so, and it worked like a charm.  Pretty awesome, Oz! 

Alright, so we arrived in Adelaide even earlier than expected, and our bag arrived and everything was good.  As we were driven to our hotel, we noticed a lot of Asian restaurants along the way - a mini China town if you will - and so, after checking into our hotel (which they let us a do a bit earlier than the usual 3 pm check in), relaxing a bit and then booking our Kangaroo Island tour for the following day, we decided to venture out and have some Asian food. 
We ended up at an okay place, but neither of us were really feeling it all that much.  Nevertheless, we were starting to decompress from the wariness of travel and general life stress.  We walked around town quite a bit, actually playing Pokemon Go, too.  While we were no longer avid players of the game (and most of the world has quit months ago), we were well aware that there was a region-specific Pokemon called Kangaskhan that we were determined to catch while visiting.  After some walking around, we decided to call it a night early, and headed up to the hotel room. 

We slept well, and were up and excited for our Kangaroo Island tour the next morning.  The shuttle driver was in the lobby ready for us when we got downstairs, and we were on our way.  We were transferred to a larger shuttle, and then were driven about an hour to the ferry terminal.  At this point, I wasn't feeling great, a little motion sickness or something bringing me down.  The waters were rough, so that only added to my motion sickness.  I cautiously ate a sausage roll for breakfast with a Sprite.  I will say, the sausage roll was fine, but it was nothing compared to Debbie's back in NYC.  Regardless, I made it without getting sick, but was definitely glad to be on land again. 

Ironically, the first iconic Australian animal we saw was a wallaby - dead on the side of the road.  Sad face.  The day was sure to get better from there. 
Our first stop was Seal Bay where we saw Australian Sea Lions up close and personal.  We mostly stayed on a little boardwalk just a foot or two above the beach where the sea lions walked around, sun bathed and played.  This allowed us a very close up view without being in danger of the strong, unpredictable creatures.  But we did get to walk a bit on the beach itself (I know, I had to suck it up and keep myself from having a panic attack from the sand), and we were told to keep our distance during this walk, but still got to see them pretty well.  One little guy approached us directly, curious about us.  It was a very chilly day, being in the southernmost part of Australia and still spring, and the wind blowing off the water made it that much chillier.  In fact, the wind was picking up a bit of the sand, and making me a little uneasy, but I did my best to enjoy the adorable wild critters. 

We then had a quick lunch which was nothing to write home about, but satisfying.  I, of course, detoured to the bathroom first and practically gave myself a sponge bath in the sink, trying to rid myself of both the sand and the notion of sand. 
Next, the tour took us to a koala sanctuary.  We were told that holding koalas was illegal in this state, which I had anticipated and understood, but that we'd be able to see them essentially in the "wild" since this was truly a nature preserve and not like a zoo or something like that.  I loved the smell of the eucalyptus as we walked through.  The first few koalas we spotted were a bit hard to photograph and see very well, but we did get a couple good views of some other ones as we went along.  One was a bit more active, and actually was jumping from branch to branch, which was fun to watch.  In the gift shop, there were those awkwardly frightening koala masks, and I joked with Jaiman that if I wanted a picture of me cuddling a koala, he could just put one of those masks on and pretend to be a koala for me.  He was not amused, and would not partake in such photo. 
Being called Kangaroo Island, I was surprised that we had seen mostly sea lions and koalas so far, but there were wild kangaroos hanging out in the distance in several places, just not very photogenic, and we usually saw them as we passed without time to line up a picture anyways. 
Our next stop on the tour was a place called Remarkable Rocks which was another windy, chilly place on the shore.  Here, the wind and ocean spray and carved interesting shapes into the rocks, hence the name.  We didn't stay very long or desire adventuring much because of the cold wind and ocean spray, but it was worth seeing I suppose. 

Then it was on to Admiral's Arch, which initially was a lot like Remarkable Rocks with the ocean spray and wind, but it had seals.  We winded down the path to the arch, watching playful and sleepy seals along the way.  They remind me so much of my chiweiner, Carly. 

I had been advised to stay longer than a day on Kangaroo Island, but I think
our tour was sufficient.  I did much better on the ferry ride back, and even got some reading done on the bus. 

The next morning, we went to Hungry Jacks for breakfast, which is like Burger King, Whopper and all.  We both ordered toasties, which I think is another
Australian staple.  Stopping in a convenience store, we discovered for the first time that Australia has some fantastic KitKats, including some of our favorites from Japan!  I got a Mint Cream & Cookie Smash pack.  KitKats in Australia have more thickness in the chocolate than American and Japanese KitKats.  The ones I got were Ah-Mazing! 

Then it was time to head out back to the airport for our next little journey… we flew to Alice Springs and then to Yulara for our stay in Ayer's Rock, otherwise known as Uluru. 

Aussie Adventure - Intro

I've had some pretty awesome and extensive vacations in my life thus far, and feel very blessed to be able to say that.  But none of them compare to the amount of anticipation, planning, and preparation that went into my most recent trip to Australia.  I first developed this itinerary circa 2008 in anticipation of going in 2009.  Things fell through - mostly, my travel partner.  I re-upped it for 2010, and again, flakiness pushed it off.  2011 didn't happen.  Neither did 2012.  Years passed and I began to feel more anxious about it.  Finally, in 2016, I decided that 2017 would be the year, come hell or high water.  Not too long after, my company announced it was moving our headquarters across the country, and Jaiman and I had a tough decision to make about our lives, let alone my much anticipated Australia trip.  As you probably know if you know me or have read my other blog posts, we took the relo package and moved, but I did not want that to postpone my Australia trip.  Moving from Arizona to Connecticut meant traveling farther to Australia, and it was a little challenging to justify given that we have so much we can do and explore around our new home on the East Coast, but I was determined. 

With the decision to move settled in early December, I suggested to Jaiman that we needed to minimize our physical belongings and that maybe Christmas presents should focus on experiences rather than things.  We had already begun a list of things we wanted to do in Arizona before we moved away, so that gave us some direction.  But also knowing that I wanted to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef, Jaiman gave me an awesome gift of scuba diving lessons and certification.  Unfortunately, we were both a little sick when we had initially scheduled the class, and again for the makeup class, and so although we attempted to get through it, we ended up not completing the certification.  We discussed the possibility of trying again once in CT, but ultimately decided to simply snorkel the Great Barrier Reef instead. 

Actually, that ended up working out better than I expected, and our snorkeling trip was absolutely amazing.  The only thing I would have done differently was bring our own snorkels because we had the ones that close up when you go under water, making it easier to do short dives as desired.  We had opted not to bring our own equipment in the spirit of packing as lightly as possible, given how much traveling we'd be doing and wanting to minimize our luggage and the exposure to losing things, but just bringing snorkels wouldn't have been too much of a stretch in hindsight. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's go back to the plan.  My initial itinerary, almost a decade before, had us hiking across the Outback for 3 days from Alice Springs to Ayer's Rock as the second thing to do; the first thing was a tour Kangaroo Island leaving from Adelaide.  My thought process was put something easy as the first thing, since we'd be tired from the initial trip over, and then put the hardest thing next so we knock it out early in our vacation and can coast the rest of the way.  Then we'd head to Melbourne and Cairns and finish with Sydney.  The two primary objectives were from my Life List, to snorkel/scuba the Great Barrier Reef and see a show at Sydney Opera House (#53 and #132, respectively).  As I started to finalize the details of the trip for 2017, I decided that it seemed to complex to deal with suitcases if we were trying to hike from Alice Springs to Ayer's Rock, and that I also probably wasn't going to be in shape to hike for three days straight, nor did that seem like a great use of vacation time.  So I ended up modifying that plan to simply visit Ayer's Rock - a great decision in hindsight!  The only other changes I considered were to add Nullarbor Links - a 100+ mile golf course that is also on my Life List, but determined to take several days - and a stop in Brisbane because of our MOS Burger obsession from Japan and theme parks.  In the end, we decided that those two stops could wait for another trip.  So we'd go to Adelaide, Ayer's Rock, Melbourne, Cairns and Sydney - hitting all but one state of Australia, and certainly a good mix of activities with some of the best highlights of the country. 

You know how sometimes the universe seems to be working either against a certain cause of yours or for it?  Well, despite the move across the country, I had some pretty funny little signs pushing me towards Australia as the trip neared.  First, my manager had hired a new teammate that was from Melbourne.  She was awesome, and I loved her instantly.  Her accent alone was mesmerizing - like, I could honestly listen to her all day.  It quickly came up that we'd be going to Australia soon, and before I even knew her a week, she had invited us to a housewarming party at her apartment in NYC.  There, we got to try our first tastes of some Australian staples like meat pies and sausage rolls, and met a number of her friends who were also from Australia.  All indications were that we'd love Australia.  A couple weeks later, I was actually in the middle of a book that was primarily about a woman with mental illness, but seemingly at random there was a whole chapter dedicated to a trip to Australia that had me laughing so hard I cried and again made me even more excited to go.  I learned from that book that certain parts of Australia outlaw holding koalas, but that they were stinky nasty creatures anyways.  Not that that was a big deal to me either way, I just wanted to see kangaroos and koalas, really, that was my biggest concern regarding the unique land animals of Australia.  Little did I know, I do much more than that! 

I'd been subscribed to the Sydney Opera House's events email for the decade I'd been planning a trip to Australia.  Honestly - it seems a bit crazy now, but that's how long this trip has been on mental burden on me.  So I knew from plenty of experience that shows didn't really get announced a year ahead of time, so it was hard in 2016 to plan what show we'd be going to.  I continued waiting and checking to see if anything good came up, and in the spring of 2017, a show did pop up that I thought was great and that Jaiman would really enjoy.  So I decided, again minimizing physical things as gifts, to give the tickets to Jaiman as an anniversary present.  We'd be going to see Postmodern Jukebox at the Sydney Opera House! 

With that date set, I was finally able to work out the rest of the itinerary around it, and I started booking hotels.  Since some of the excursions would pick up from certain hotels, I made sure to book the hotels based on those excursion pick ups - most of the hotels I booked were through Travelocity and had free cancellation, so I knew I could change plans with no problem if needed.  The one exception was Ayer's Rock - where the hotel I wanted wasn’t on Travelocity.  Here's a travel tip from me to you - I like booking on Travelocity for a number of reasons.  First, I've had great luck working with them if something happens and I have to cancel or change my bookings (even when its within the window; ref moving to CT and having my flight get cancelled and therefore I had to change my rental car and cancel my hotel the day of - Travelocity was great).  Second, I can pay with PayPal credit which is awesome for three reasons - PayPal credit doesn't show up on a credit report so it doesn't look like you have high balances of debt; you get 6 months no interest on all purchases over $50 which hotels obviously fall into, and I get my passive income through PayPal, so I can literally pay off my hotel expenditures with my passive income over time with no interest (…and since I don't include my passive income in my budget, this feels like I'm traveling for free!)  The other big reason I like Travelocity is because of the free cancellation policy on so many hotels, and I know from experience the cancellation is really easy to do online.  Also, when I've done comparative shopping, I've found that Travelocity almost always has the best price, and it's nice to have all or most of my bookings in one place.  Granted, I usually send my itineraries to TripIt and organize everything there as well, but it's nice to be able to double check in Travelocity, because TripIt doesn't update automatically when plans change. 

The main excursion for Adelaide was going to be the tour to Kangaroo Island.  But given that it was on the first leg of the trip, I decided to hold off on actually booking it until I was confident we'd actually get there on the right date.  So what I did was put the info in my TripIt itinerary, cleared labeled as NOT BOOKED so that I would remember to book it once we were well on our way and/or actually there.  This worked out just fine for us.  I did book the snorkeling excursion leaving from Cairns, since I figured there was no way I wouldn't make it to that.  I booked through Silverswift, advertising that it had one of the faster boats and therefore could get us out to see more of the GBR in a single day trip.  Many websites advise that you do overnight stays on boats to see the most of GBR.  That may be fine for another trip, but I really wanted to get out there and back.  At Ayer's Rock, I booked a camel tour, which seemed much more exotic in the description than what it ended up being, but it was still pretty fun.  To be fair, it was actually way less brutal than I anticipated, and although a bit gimicky, was a really pleasant way to see Ayer's Rock.  My only real complaint is that we didn't get very close to Ayer's Rock, so we still felt obligated to go out to rock afterwards on a different and pricier tour.  Had I known that, I may not have booked the camel tour at all, but in the end, I'm glad I did.  For Sydney, I tried to book a kayak tour through the harbor, but they didn't have tours on the dates that we were there.  We thought about doing the Bridge Climb, but postponed the decision.  In Melbourne, I had looked into a brewery tour, and but we also postponed booking until we were there.  For all the tentative plans, I simply put them into our itineraries as NOT BOOKED so that I knew what I was thinking but that we'd need to book them. 

As is often the case, I had opened up the invitation to others to come with us to Australia, and while there was some reluctant interest, no commitments happened, so it was just Jaiman and I along for this adventure again, but I was perfectly happy with that.  I sought advice about the best way to get to the airport from one of my other new teammates who had been local much longer, and she said the best way by far was to take an Uber.  Neither Jaiman or I had used Uber before, but were open to the idea.  If this trip did nothing else, it certainly converted me to the likes of Uber!  Honestly, all our Uber drivers and their nice cars blew away my preconceived assumptions and expectations of the service. 

The only little hitch we had was, well, a failure on our part to think through everything to be honest.  I hadn't researched what visas were needed to get to Australia, and I guess I assumed someone would have told us if we needed such a thing.  So when we went to check in to our flight at the airport, we got this "Do not Board" message and the people at the counter couldn't tell us why, simply that something was wrong with our tickets and we'd have to wait until 9 am to sort it out, at which time our first flight would be well on its way to LA.  Frustrated, we sat down to the side and tried to figure it out.  After about 15 minutes of nothing useful, the manager came out and said he had figured out what was wrong - our tickets were fine but we needed what's called an ETA, which is Australia's visa system.  He said it would take 15 minutes to a few hours to get, but that's what was holding up our check in.  We quickly looked up ETA and started the application processes on each of our phones, and were able to get approval in minutes thankfully.  When we were certain we were clear, we got up and attempted to check in again and it worked.  Whew!  We barely managed to get our luggage checked in an hour before the flight, got through security with no issues and got on our plane.  We were off for the trip of a lifetime!  



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Birthday in Connecticut

Last year my birthday fell on the most hectic day of planning of the entire year, which is to say it was the day before the day on which we had to pretend like we had the slightest inkling we knew what would happen the entire NEXT year, despite barely being able to confidently predict what we would do this month, let alone the current year.  Internally we call it KP planning, and the preparation for the presentation is the hardest thing we have to do as demand planners.  I was brand-spanking-new to the job when I had to go through it last year, and even though I'm now slightly more seasoned this year, I'm still relatively new to my product lines.  Anyways, last year I ended up staying late on my birthday preparing for the big annual KP meeting the following day.  When my manager found out that it was my birthday, hours after I would have normally gone home, he promptly tried to send me home, but of course, we still had work to do.  He and my colleagues did try to wrap things up quickly though, once they realized, and of course I appreciated that. 

This year, the KP meeting is two days after my birthday, so while I was still in crazy KP planning mode, at least I was hopeful that I wouldn't be held too late on my birthday.  It is in the mindset I work up on a summer Tuesday to my first birthday in Connecticut.  We moved to Stamford, CT less than a month ago with my company's relocating of the headquarters from Scottsdale, AZ.  In doing so, I had left my comfortable home of 11 years, my family, and my dog who would be staying with my sister temporarily. 

I got ready for work basically like usual.  Jaiman was pretty sleepy when I kissed him goodbye, and he seemed to have forgotten to say happy birthday for a moment, but then remembered and said it.  On my way out, I grabbed the last piece of leftover pizza that hadn't been touched for breakfast, but after the first bite, decided to trash it outside the elevator. 

Needing a new source of breakfast, I debated going to a store or eating a bag of chips from our snack closet at work, but then remembered that Taco Bell is right across the street.  I pulled into the drive thru and tried ordering a steak quesadilla.  The lady on the other side of the speaker said that they were only serving breakfast, to which I pointed out that the breakfast menu wasn't showing.  So this funny young woman came out and switched the sign to the breakfast menu, giggling the whole time, and then went back in.  I asked for a breakfast quesadilla with steak and no egg, which is technically like ordering a steak quesadilla, but she allowed it.  When I pulled up to the window, I double-checked that she had gotten the "no egg" part, and she had, and then asked me if I wanted jalapeno added, to which I gladly agreed. 

As far as fast food breakfasts go, I can think of one time that it was truly satisfying, and that was on my birthday yesterday.  That steak breakfast quesadilla no egg add jalapeno was literally dripping with melty cheesey amazingness!  I was dripping cheese everywhere, but luckily managed to save my outfit with some clever maneuvers while barreling down the freeway at ---- errrr!  The freeway came to a complete stop, and I came to a stop in sufficient time but the car behind me nearly didn't.  I clicked my new "navigate to work" button on my phone and it directed me to get off the freeway.  Apparently traffic was significantly worse than normal, but Google would guide me around the big delay, causing only a shorter delay.  Ah well, more time to listen to my indulgent audiobook.  But as soon as my quesadilla was gone, I wished I had 14 more, it was so good.

On the way to work on my alternative route, I am pretty sure I saw a groundhog and then I definitely saw a wild turkey, so that was fun.  A few of my colleagues remembered my birthday and wished me a happy birthday when I came in.  Joe had bought bagels, and while it was clear it wasn't for my birthday, I accepted it as a secondary birthday breakfast.

Work went by as usual for the most part.  One of the fun highlights was when the new admin just so happened to be coming around to get our birthdays for a list, and when it was my turn, I told her it was today, to which the rest of my colleagues, including my manager, responded in shock and birthday greetings.  At lunchtime, my new lunch crew, Cody, Matt and David, asked what I would be doing for my lunch, and because I had work and meetings, I said I just figured I'd go to the cafeteria like usual.  So the four of us headed down to the cafeteria for an uneventful but enjoyable lunch.

I did manage to leave just after 5, and when I got home, Jaiman had a present for me, and then we headed out to the Cheesecake Factory.  If there's one thing I like about my new home, it's that we can walk to the mall and all sorts of restaurants and stores.  It drizzled just a touch on our way, and Jaiman commented how we'll have to bring our umbrella everywhere at this rate. 
As I perused the menu after being seated, I couldn't find the dish my sister Christy always ordered that was so great.  I texted her to get the name of the dish, but she didn't respond right away.  I did see a Chicken Chipotle Pasta on the menu that sounded tasty, so I ended up ordering that and a glass of wine.  We enjoyed the bread while waiting for our food.  My Chicken Chipotle Pasta was perfect - I really can't remember eating an entrĂ©e in which the vegetables actually complimented the rest of the dish so well.  The ingredients were truly complimenting each other making a better whole than the sum of the parts.  Then we ordered the cheesecake and the night seemed complete.  We practically crawled back to our apartment and I passed out pretty much as soon as we got in. 

All in all, knowing that I had to work, it was a pretty spectacular ordinary day, and about as good of a birthday as I could expect. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

How I Work Full Time and Run a (Mostly) Passive-Income Business on the Side

Spoiler Alert: I am not going to tell you a secret that requires no work and makes you millions, because those kinds of things just aren't real. 

It didn't take me long to learn that there are two ways to increase your wealth: cut your expenses and increase your income. Usually, becoming wealthy takes a lot of both. So while some people spend time "saving" money with coupons and scouring the earth for the best deal which may or may not be for something they actually need, or buying in bulk and having to store their goods for months on end, I focus on increasing my income so that I don't have to be a penny-pincher. And truthfully, a lot of my energy goes towards my day job, because I know if I kick butt there, I will be eligible for raises, promotions and bonuses, and I also regularly look at external jobs that I could interview for. All that being said, if you're still with me, I'm more than happy to share with you what I do as a sort of hobby that also earns me a little bit of "fun money," that also serves as a creative outlet for me.

I've found a little corner of the interwebs where I can design patterns, primarily for fabrics, but also for wallpaper, wrapping paper and decals. I create the designs in the

crude but effective PowerPoint, upload them, proof them (this costs a little bit of money) and then mark them for sale and earn commissions. When a customer orders one of my patterns, they select what fabric or format they want it on, then the website handles the order processing, printing the pattern onto the selected fabric to the specified size the customer ordered, and shipping it. And even before the product is shipped, the commission has dropped into my account, where it accumulates until I either spend it (usually on more proofs) or it gets paid out on a bi-weekly basis into my PayPal account. What's nice is that by using the site I use, my job is "mostly" done once a pattern is for sale. So essentially, there is some basic setup, and then money starts trickling in.
 
The caveat is that the infamous myth of "if you build it, they will come," is rarely true in our hyperconnected, attention-sucking world. I find there is a strong correlation between "driving traffic" through the use of social media posts and word of mouth, and my commissions. In other words, I make more money when I actively drive traffic to my designs, rather than relying on people to seek my designs out. So again, I could call it quits when I complete a design and get it up for sale. But I choose to take a more active approach to drive sales. The good news is that this also requires just a little bit of setup, and then is super simple and quick after that. So let's talk about the actual mechanics and routine of my little fabric design business.

Friday evenings I often have down time, and am exhausted from my work week. If I have noted some ideas for designs, I usually turn on the TV mostly for background noise and start idly playing with the shapes and colors of my design ideas. If I don't have any ideas queued up, I might seek out inspiration via TV, movies, YouTube, design sites and/or by reaching out. Inspiration can come from anywhere! I will often collect several ideas on a Pinterest board before getting started. The creative juices start flowing, and I often feel the sensation of getting a second wind despite being mentally tired from the workweek.

I put all my new designs in a collection, and unless I have an urgent request or feel the need to get out on the market within a week or two, I usually wait until I have at least 12 designs to proof, to reduce the cost of each proof. I usually have some recent income in my account, so the cost of proofing comes out of my income, which I don't consider in my personal budgeting anyways so it's like it's free. Once I receive my proofs, barring any issues with the way they look printed, I put them up for sale and move them into their permanent collections (just a few clicks).
Then I arrange the physical fabrics and take a few pictures, crop the pictures and create social media posts with the pictures and links to the designs. I also add the pictures to the design pages. These social media posts then become part of my rotation of posts. Most weekends, usually on Sunday, while watching TV or riding as a passenger somewhere, getting a pedicure, etc, I will use Hootsuite to schedule posts for the next week or two, to continue driving traffic. The big secret here is that I scroll through my previous posts, select the retweet option, and then remove the part in the message that makes it a retweet, so then it looks like a fresh, new tweet even if I haven't changed up the wording at all. I use the Autoschedule function which makes it super quick to schedule many posts in one sitting. I can do it in bed, while in the bathroom, while waiting for someone, while riding as a passenger, whenever I have internet and a few idle moments. About a week's worth of messages can be scheduled in about 20 or 30 minutes, and then I'm done for the week!

About once a month or so, usually on the weekends, I will respond to customer purchases (I usually wait at least two weeks to give the customer time to receive the fabric and start their project so I'm top of mind when they're working on it, not when they're waiting for it to arrive) and any messages from customers. Every time I get a purchase from a user, (there are guest purchases whom I can't contact) I make sure to do four things: (1) Thank the customer for their purchase, (2) Invite her to share a picture of the finished product with me so I can show off her work, (3) Provide a link to designs they may also be interested in (within my portfolio) based on what they've bought, and (4) Ask the customer to reach out to me if they have requests for similar designs with different colors, or any other ideas we can work on together. When customers send me pictures of their creations (which are way better than what I could make on my own), I get great free marketing material!  Of course, I only share with permission, but using my customers' feedback and pictures is much more fruitful and easier than coming up with my own graphics and content. 

That's it. That's all I do, and it's not really every weekend that I attend to my business other than scheduling social media posts from Hootsuite. It may be once a month, or maybe six weeks go by before I return to design work or responding to customers. I primarily make sure to have social media messages scheduled, and I make money daily. Again, it's not a lot of money, but it's real money I can use for charity or travel, and the little bit of effort it takes is also relaxing, fun and inspiring, so it's good for my soul!

The site I use is called Spoonflower, but before you jump immediately to that site and create your profile, keeping reading, because fabric patterns are not the only way to do this, and there is also a little bit more to think about. 

Find something you enjoy doing and happen to be good at. This may be easier said than done (trust me, I have a ton of passions and have been called unfocused more than once), but it's generally free or cheap to experiment, and failure can teach us as much as success. If you can't think of anything interesting and extraordinary to do, consider (1) taking a class at your local community college, library or arts center, (2) browsing Twitter for trends/topics that interest you, and then do more research to become an expert, (3) perusing fiverr.com for examples of things people do and get inspired, and/or (4) practicing a variety of arts and skills until you find a niche that stands out to you.

Don't quit your dayjob, or endanger it. Seriously, this is not a blog about how to start a business that will make you millions. But just as important, don't start a side business that competes, or can be perceived as competing, with your dayjob. Conflict of interest is a serious issue that can lead to getting a person fired, or at least in trouble, and isn't worth it. Besides, who wants to do more of the same? Variety is the spice of life; I find my work on the side liberates different parts of my brain and personality. My dayjob is somewhat analytical, so my side business is creative, fun and relaxing. Also, it's important not to use company resources, work time or work connections for your side business, to avoid conflict of interest issues again.

List your wares. We live in a global marketplace where the most niche products can find customers and novel ideas and content can go viral with millions of viewers. The first step to getting out there is finding your corner of this marketplace. Etsy is perhaps one of the most well-known marketplaces for crafts and art forms, but there are many other platforms on which you can express yourself. CafePress is another one that comes to mind, but do a Google search for "personalized gifts" and you'll find sites where you can upload designs and sell them pretty readily. I like the Spoonflower model because there's no fee for uploading or listing them for sale. Again, Spoonflower handles the order processing, production and shipment, so for that they get the bulk of the revenue, but I get a little percentage-based commission for every purchase of my fabric.

Promote and drive traffic. Coming back to perhaps the biggest myth of entrepreneurship, the, "If you build it, they will come," mantra. If you make a great product people are looking for, and you do your SEO (keywords & tags) right, you will get some traffic and maybe some sales that way. But for the most part, your work has only begun when you've posted your design. In many ways, people need to know a product is out there before they know they want it. I try to inspire the crafty-minded people with my messaging, and also use hash tags that help non-followers find my posts. I usually post new designs to facebook only once, but I will repeat posts on Twitter.

Here I would advise you to be sensitive to your social networks - many people are turned of by soliciting on facebook, and you may find yourself unfriended if you persist. So for facebook, I tend to make it more about, "Look at this cool thing I did," and less about, "Buy my new design." Customer pictures are a great example of something I feel I can share on facebook, because I give them a shoutout instead of making it about selling my product. Save the hard sales for Twitter, where you can post regularly and many of your posts will get lost in the shuffle until the right people come across the right ones.
Hootsuite is an invaluable tool for scheduling posts across multiple social media platforms and accounts, and it's free for a limited number of accounts, but well worth the upgraded account. At a minimum, try the free version when you are working on starting your business.  I won't get into keywords and SEO here, because that's a huge topic, but if you are unfamiliar with these topics, Google them to understand a little bit better about how to use the right language to get picked up in search in the best way possible. 

One other point on promoting through social media: make sure it's "social" and not just free advertising. Think about trying to inspire people, including creating content such as a how-to or a catalog of inspiration. A good rule of thumb is that you should have at least 3 "soft sell" or helpful content posts for every "hard sell" post (i.e. "Buy my product"). 

Use pictures. This is a no-brainer in social media these days, but for the novice, it must be said. Posts with graphics get way better visibility than plain text or text with links. Make great graphics, drive more traffic. I like to use pictures my customers send me (more on this later) to help inspire new customers and show my admiration of my customers' skill.

Make what customers want. This is another point that may seem easier said than done, but I think you'll find its actually easier than you think. Anyone familiar with the lean startup methodology understands that asking customers upfront can save you time and effort down the road. The trick, I've found, is asking the right questions. If you ask questions that are too generic, you're putting the burden of the creative process on the customer, and I think you'll find, as I have, that most people are not all that creative. If, on the other hand, you ask questions that are too specific, you'll get false positives - that is, you'll get reassurances like "yeah, that's a great idea," but the income won't follow because it's not necessarily what people want. Here's an example from my business: I have found that recreating fabric patterns from popular characters has been profitable, so I will ask facebook friends, fellow nerds, and previous customers, "What is your favorite cartoon character?" Or, "What movie are you looking forward to most this year?" Not all characters have a distinctive fabric pattern associated with them, but the answers to these questions can at least give me leads to look into and get inspired.

Engage your customers. It may be obvious to some people, but it was a major revelation for me when I realized that people who have bought my fabric are the people most likely to buy my fabric in the future. My customers (a) either have some disposable income to spend on fabrics or are using the fabrics for their own business, (b) are obviously interested in fabric crafts, and (c) have access to my fabric store. From a target market perspective it doesn't get much more targeted than that! While some of my best-selling designs were original ideas, many of my top sellers originated with a request from a customer that had bought something else first. Probably my biggest success story was a request from a previous customer that, once completed and listed for sale, she shared with all her friends, and within a week, I had about 5x my normal income, and it quickly became popular among strangers too. When you do something your customer wants and loves, the reciprocity of word of mouth is powerful!

Make a routine. What I've tried to describe here so far are some general guidelines and specific examples of getting your (mostly) passive income business set up. Once you have found something you either have confidence in or are committed to experimenting with, get a routine down. As alluded to before, there may be some truly passive income of people searching for your exact product, but I consider my business less passive than that. 



It's not a lot of work, but with a steady routine of just a little bit of effort, I keep a steady stream of extra "fun money" coming in.  And who doesn't want a little more money every two weeks? 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Arizona Bucket List

They say you never know what you have until it's gone, and that's true of your home's proximity as it is of anything else in life. So many people live near tourist-drawing attractions and never visit because they keep putting it off (like the guy who has lived in Arizona all his life and never been to the Grand Canyon, or the woman who lived in Chicago for decades but never visited Sears/Willis Tower). With our move to Connecticut drawing closer, we put together a list of things to do and places to visit in Arizona. (Side note: I have a broader Life List, and I usually shy away from the term bucket list because I think it's morbid, and I like to focus on living life. In this case, however, our departure from this great state is not death, so I'm ok with calling it a bucket list.)

Anyways, I thought it'd be helpful to share our list for others visiting, living in or moving to Arizona to share our list and some recommendations so others can get the most out of this place I've called home for most of my life.  Some of these places are things we've only done recently as part of checking off our Arizona Bucket List, but I've also added things that we've done prior to planning to move that I think are important to include on such a list. 
Arcosanti

What is it: An experimental community based on combining ecology and architecture.
Who should go: Architects, futurists, anyone interested in sustainability or looking for inspiration. Really, it's just an interesting place for anyone to visit. Kids may not really get it much.
Why you should care: I am always an advocate for challenging the norm and seeing if there's things we can do better. Arcosanti is the epitome of challenging the norm, and while I'm not planning on moving there anytime soon, I did gain some learnings and inspiration you can read about on this blog post.
What to do: The main thing is the walking guided tour. The food isn't very good, but if you're willing to lower your standards for accommodations, I thought it was kind of neat to stay the night and be able to wander around; as a guest you are granted more freedom than a tour participant. We didn't get the Skysuite like I wanted, but it looks really cool.
Getting there: The turn off the freeway just north of Phoenix is well marked, but there is a dirt road to the parking lot. If you plan on staying over night, the road to the rooms is even rockier so I'd recommend an SUV or a vehicle with high clearance if one is readily available, although my Chevy Volt made it ok.
What to bring: Sunblock, insecticide, fly swatter, dress for light hiking.
When to go: We went on the weekend and the community seemed pretty dormant. Our tour guide recommended that people come during the week so you can see the ceramics and metal being worked. I would recommend going in early spring or late fall, since the rooms don't have A/C.
Warning: Food was very ordinary, and there really wasn't much to drink besides water. Accommodations are just marginally better than camping, must have an open mind!


Grand Canyon Skywalk

What is it: The Skywalk is a glass walkway hanging off the cliff and hovering above the Grand Canyon, offering views straight down the sheer rock. It's part of a self-paced kind of bus tour, get off and get on as you please, consisting of three stops. You can't do the Skywalk by itself.
Who should go: Every resident of Arizona should visit the Grand Canyon, and this is a great way to do it, honestly. Great for families.
Why you should care: Definitely not the only way to see the Grand Canyon, but this tour offers some good educational opportunities and the Skywalk itself is pretty unique.

What to do: There were actually a lot of family-friendly activities at the first stop, from horse-drawn hay rides to lasso lessons, and the chance to shoot at someone. We skipped the activities there, but we did go the Restaurant for the ribs meal included with the tour package. It included the meat, two sides, cornbread, a cookie and a founding drink. Based on reviews I've read, I'd speculate that this was the best value. The second stop is the main attraction, but there are also great views on the ledge leading up to the Skywalk, as well as some mockups of various native homes that you can enter and explore. The third stop has more breathtaking views and some hiking/climbing opportunities.
Getting there: Google GPS was very accurate getting us there, nothing special needed to get there.
What to bring: You can take pictures everywhere except on the Skywalk itself, so bring a camera for sure. Good hiking shoes are recommended but not required, I did it in flipflops.
When to go: Don't go if there is adverse weather in the forecast, because they don't refund your tour money if they close the Skywalk.
Warnings: Keep your expectations in check, and it's a great experience. If you recognize who it is run by, and that it's not like a fancy resort or amusement park, you'll be fine. Give yourself time to enjoy all three stops, make the best of it, and the pricetag is more reasonable. The second and I think the third stops had only outdoor seating for your meal, and it is windy out there pretty much all the time, all the more reason to go to the first stop for food.
Other recommendations: I'd also recommend sitting near the front of the bus if possible, because many of the drivers point out rock formations and tell you about the place, and we couldn't hear in the back. Also, since you can't bring cameras on the Skywalk, you can have your picture taken by them, and you can always decide later if you want to buy them or not. Just be patient with the process and enjoy the views!


Organ Stop Pizza
What is it: Silly eatery with a giant organ that is played while you eat. It's much more then just the organ, though, drums and cymbals and marimbas
hang from the ceiling and all around the room, and they get played by the organ somehow, and there's lights and silly puppets and bubbles and such.Who should go: Families and visitors, anyone who wants to be entertained. Good for birthdays and anniversaries, you'll get your name called out.
Why you should care: It's very popular with the snowbirds, so it must be worth a visit.
What to do: Pretty straightforward, order your food, get a table with a decent view.
Cheesy garlic bread was awesome. I wasn't a fan of the pizza.
Getting there: It's easy to find in Mesa, but if there's no parking, realize that it's going to be packed inside.
What to bring: Cash, an appetite and a sense of humor.
When to go: Since it is popular in the winter, you're probably better off going in the summer months, or at least on a weekday so you don't have a long line to wade through. The place gets PACKED!
Warnings: Cash only, bring plenty because the only ATM is one of those generic ones.
Other recommendations: Rather than ordering the nasty pizza, you could just get a few beers here, or ice cream, and still be highly entertained.


Lake Havasu City & London Bridge

What is it: Cute drinking town on the water, surrounding the actual London Bridge.
Who should go: This would be a great place for a group to party.
Why you should care: There's an ounce of history or so.
What to do: I loved our room at The Heat (we booked the Inferno Suite with a view of the London Bridge). There was a bar upstairs, and other bars within very short walking distance, as well as a beer store like 30 ft from our room. You can play corn hole and dance to the dj'ed music at the hotel bar.
Warnings: Don't stay near the London Bridge if you plan to go to sleep early and need silence because the party is a little loud. After one drink each, however, we managed to pass out, so it's not that loud.  If you like to party, then disregard this advice and have a blast!


Low Key Dueling Piano Bar
Who should go: Seems great for birthday celebrations, fun for anyone who likes pop music (of old and current)
Why you should care: Far from an ordinary bar with live music, these artists are catering the show on the fly and adapting to different instruments as needed.
What to do: Get a reserved table upfront if you can. If you're feeling generous, buy the musicians a shot!
Getting there: I prefer taking the light rail into Tempe because parking sucks and then you don't have to drive away from the bars (which cops look for).
What to bring: Cash for tipping... these musicians are awesome and they are happy to take requests... if there's a bill accommodating it. :-D You may want to bring ear plugs, it was really loud in the front and our ears were ringing for hours after.
When to go: Thursday nights were the most fun on Mill Ave back in my college days, I assume that's still a good night to go out. Weekends are fine too.


Spring Training Game

Who should go: Sports fans, Chicago transplants, and people who like to eat and drink and have fun!
Why you should care: Even if you don't love baseball, these are professional athletes playing here in Arizona, and the opportunity to see them so up close should not be squandered.
What to do: Come hungry, there's so much to eat and drink!
Getting there: Light rail is a good alternative to driving and parking, but our tickets came with a parking pass so we used it. 
What to bring: Hats and sunblock. If you're sitting in the grass area, bring blankets and folding chairs if you can.
When to go: Spring, duh! 


Biosphere 2
What is it: At one time, it was a fully-enclosed environment in which eight people tried to prove the feasibility of a self-sustaining ecosystem.  Now, it is (obviously) open to the public for tours and also hosts a number of interesting, albeit less captivating, experiments, in partnership with local schools.
Who should go: Everyone!  This is especially interesting for people interested in things like space colonization.
Why you should care:  Because science!
What to do:  Take a tour.
Getting there: It's just outside of the north side of Tucson, no special vehicle needed. 
What to bring: Sunscreen and a camera
When to go:  They are open most days of the year, just be cognizant of weather when you go, because you will be walking outside quite a bit.
Warnings: In my singular experience, the tour guide wasn't all that informative, so it's good to have knowledge about Biosphere 2 and the experiment before going. 
Other recommendations:  Well before your trip, I recommend you get a copy of The Human Experiment by biospherian Jane Poynter.  This first-person narrative provides much more context and insight into the mindset of the cult-like organization that made Biosphere 2 possible than what can be gained on the tour.  The places within Biosphere 2 have been transformed and re-purposed, but the tour guides will tell you what it was, and you will be able to put the pieces together better when you are already familiar with the whole concept. 
Taliesin West
What is it: Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and school which his students built from materials primarily found right there in the desert landscape.
Who should go: Everyone, and specifically anyone interested in architecture, retro home furnishings or life in the desert. 
Why you should care: Frank Lloyd Wright was not only a prolific and famous architect, he is credited with inventing ideas such as path lighting and sunlights.  This little school-commune estate was his own architectural lab where he experimented with different ideas and reshaped the landscape of architecture itself. 
What to do: Take a tour (book online early because those tours fill up fast).  Also, give yourself plenty of time to visit the giftshop, there are a lot of interesting pieces and literature in there.
Getting there: Get off the 101 on Cactus and head east, and you'll run right into it.  No special cars needed, no fees for parking.
What to bring: Camera, sunscreen, sunglasses, water
When to go: There is a standard tour that runs daily, but there are also special tours you may want to consider if you're especially interested in his life, architecture or just like cool special effects (like the fire breathing dragon at night). 
Warnings: Tours book up fast, and they do take a while so give yourself plenty of time to visit. 
Other recommendations: There is only so much that can be relayed on a tour, and Frank Lloyd Wright had a devastating and absolutely crazy life and career, so I'd highly recommend educating yourself prior to your visit to give your tour that much more context.  I thought the documentary aptly titled "Frank LLoyd Wright" from PBS did a really good job and was something easy to watch together prior to our visit (versus having to read a book).  If you are from out of town and not familiar with some of Wright's other work in Arizona, you may want to make your own city tour as discussed here

Fossil Creek

What is it: A moderately challenging hike near Pine, AZ that brings you to a rushing waterfall, natural rock springs and water caves you can swim in. 
Who should go: Fit hikers
Why you should care: Of all the places I've hiked in Arizona, this one looks like none other.  With almost no signs of desert, this area is a green oasis teeming with beauty and adventure.
What to do: There used to be overnight camping available near the waterfall, but I've heard that is no longer an option.  However, it is totally manageable as a day hike, but be sure to leave Phoenix early in the morning to give yourself sufficient time to enjoy the watery paradise before the moderate climb back up to civilization.  It is about 7 miles roundtrip, and entering is downhill, which means you have to climb uphill coming back out.  Wear your bathing suit underneath your hiking clothes so you can take a dip. 
Getting there: Set your sights on Strawberry, AZ (which is near Pine) and you'll know just about where you're headed, but use better GPS as you get there.
What to bring: At least 3 liters of water per person, sunscreen, bathing suit, sunglasses, good hiking shoes, a towel, maybe water shoes, protein and carb-rich snacks, a flashlight, hat, camera and general hiking gear. 
When to go: September is just about the perfect time to go.
Warnings:  There are very dangerous parts of the water, so be very cautious.  The rocks and even branches in the water are mineralized, which means they are incredibly slick, and the current can be very strong in places.  I was personally dragged about 70 feet downstream and got severely bruised and battered, but luckily escaped with no major injuries.  There are also leeches in the water, so that was fun too (pro tip: if you see tiny things that look like leaves on your skin, wipe them off immediately, discern if they were leeches afterwards). 

Rock Springs Cafe
What is it: An unassuming roadside cafe that serves the best pie in the world. 
Who should go: Pie eaters (or people who like chocolate, because I'm not a big pie person, but this place is delicious)!
Why you should care: This place has been featured on a number of food shows and is world famous, right here just north of Arizona!
What to do: Try the chocolate creme pie, it's amazing! 
Getting there: It's just north of Phoenix, actually on the way home from Arcosanti if you want to combine the two bucket list items like we did!
What to bring: Money and an appetite!  They do take credit card, so no need for cash.
When to go: Try to go as early in the day as possible, as they tend to sell out of their better pies pretty quickly.  Also, around Pi Day (3/14) is a very busy time.
Warnings: No other pie will ever be the same after you've tasted a Rock Springs Pie. 

Tombstone & Bisbee
What are they: Tombstone is a legit city, but it is better known for its touristy Wild West town, where fake gun battles are staged in the street and in private shows.  Bisbee is a cute little mining town just a little bit past Tombstone. 
Who should go: Everyone!  Great for families!
Why you should care: A little bit of history, and a lot of silliness, these two little towns are a big part of the Arizona tourism scene, and a can't miss if you haven't been yet. 
What to do: Make sure to stop at Boot Hill in Tombstone and read the spooky and hilarious epitaphs.  In Bisbee, the Queen Mine Tour is highly recommended.  In both towns you can walk around and enjoy a taste of the wild west.  Stay the night at the Copper Queen Hotel if you dare - it is haunted by a number of ghosts!  Bisbee Brewery has great beer and decent food, and makes for a lovely sitting place if the weather is decent. 
What to bring: Money, a camera and a sense of humor.  Also, if you plan to do some shopping in Bisbee, bring your own reusable bags, as some places charge for plastic as part of a conservation effort.
When to go: Pretty much any time except summer is great. 
Warnings:  Don't count on much cell phone reception.  Instead, turn the phones off and enjoy real experiences, and share your selfies when you get back. 

Kartchner Caverns
What is it: One of the largest caverns of living stalactites and stalagmites open to the public.
Who should go: Everyone!
Why you should care: Because nature!
What to do: There are a couple of tours to take, you can choose to do just one or both. 
Getting there: It's actually also on the way to Tombstone and Bisbee, so consider combining the trip somehow. 
When to go: If you plan to do both tours, check the website before planning your trip, because bats inhabit some of the rooms and the tour for that area is closed when the bats are in there. 

Musical Instrument Museum
What is it: Exactly what it sounds like!
Who should go: People interested in music, culture, history, etc.
Why you should care: It's really interesting to see the similarities and amazing varieties of instruments and types of music developed by different cultures through time. There are amazing pieces that you wouldn't expect. 
What to do: Normally in museums I would just read the descriptions of things, but since music is such a strong component of this museum, I think the audio tour is an obvious add-on here that is totally worth it. 
Getting there: It's in Scottsdale just off the 101. 
Other recommendations: Don't be afraid to spend some time in the play area at the end; you can go a little wild playing on the instruments in that section.  It's probably meant for the kids, but hey, we're all kids at heart, right? 

First Friday
What is it: It's a little bit beyond words, but I'll try.  It's something of a street festival of arts, ice cream vendors, and general crazies. 
Who should go: Everyone! Especially people who enjoy people-watching like me!
Why you should care: Phoenix is often ridiculed (rightfully so) for the lack of culture, but if there's one thing it has, it's this. 
What to do: Keep an open mind about the kinds of people out there, and just walk around wherever you hear music until you've had enough.  Stop and watch artists work, argue with the religious screaming people, and listen to the local streetperformers' music. 
Getting there: Light rail is a good option for transportation since parking can be challenging. 
What to bring: An open mind and some cash for art or ice cream or whatnot. 
When to go: First Friday of every month!  Obviously, summer is hot, so I would recommend avoiding those months. 
Antelope Canyons
What are they: Deep cracks in the earth that cast the most amazing shadows and sun light effects.
Who should go: Everyone, and especially amateur photographers.
Why you should care: These canyons are some of the most photographed parts of Arizona, and with good reason, they are absolutely stunning!  Photos really don't do them justice, but you can try. 
What to do: Tour either Lower Antelope Canyon or Upper Antelope Canyon, or both, but make sure you leave yourself sufficient time because tours only leave so often and take a while. 
What to bring: Bring a lot of cash - credit card was not accepted - and figure about $50 per person for each tour. Bring your camera, but no tripod unless you want to pay an upcharge for the photographer's tour. 
When to go: Any time the forecast is not showing rain - these canyons are impassable when it's raining and tours will not run if there's a risk. 
Warnings:  It's sad that people don't realize this on their own, but I feel compelled to say: These tours are run by the natives, and they have a monopoly on the tours because the canyons are on their land.  Keep that in mind, and be patient.  They do a great job, but not if you get fussy or nasty or expect them to kiss your ass. 



Montezuma's Castle and Toozigut
What are they: Very short hikes to and around Native American ruins.  Toozigut is regularly maintained, so you can walk all over it and around it.  Montezuma's Castle is up on the side of the mountain so you can only view it from a distance.
Who should go: Everyone!
Why you should care: These two sites are rich in Arizona history and help us understand how the native people lived so many years ago.
What to do: You can buy tickets for multiple sites to save money.  Bring picnic food and hang out at Montezuma's Castle to take in the view and enjoy the babbling brook and nature all around you. 
What to bring: Sunscreen, hats and cameras. 
When to go: Anytime is fine, just be cognizant of weather as always. 



and finally, no Arizona Bucket List would be complete without...
Coyote Buttes North "The Wave"
What is it: THE most photographed part of Arizona, this is a moderately challenging hike with breathtaking rewards unlike any other hike I've ever known of.  If you work with Windows computers, you've probably seen it on one of the backgrounds - a beautiful sandstone structure carved by years of wind tearing through it. 
Who should go: Fit hikers with permits.
Why you should care: I mean, if you don't care about this place, I don't think we can be friends.  Also, there are dino tracks. 
What to do: The most challenging part of The Wave is not the hike or even the challenging drive in, but getting permits.  When I first learned about The Wave several years ago, it was much easier to get permits, but it is has become seemingly impossible lately.  But if it's of interest to you, keep trying!  The park issues 10 permits per day four months in advance through a lottery system; you

apply for the lottery online anytime the month prior to the drawing, and it's a small $5 fee that goes towards maintaining this beautiful park.  If you are selected, you will be notified on the 1st of the month, and have a few days to accept the permits at pay for them, $7 per person.  There's a trick, though, if you're a good planner and tech-savvy: All the unclaimed permits are released to the public on the website's calendar precisely at noon Utah time on the 15th of the month (note, it's not necessarily Arizona time - a mistake I realized when it was too late one month).  Those permits are literally available for seconds and snatched up by sneaky people who have figured out the system like I did so many years ago (it used to be easier to obtain permits this way, it's been much harder lately).  If you fail to get the advance permits, they also issue 10 permits per day in-person through a similar lottery drawing daily (permits are for the following day) but there is a large probability you won't get them, so make alternative plans if you choose this route. 
Getting there: Assuming you've passed the first challenge, the permit system, the next challenge you'll face is a rocky 8 mile road that absolutely requires 4WD and high clearance and could easily flood and become too muddy to get through if its raining or if there's snow on the ground.  Proceed with great caution!  There is also a "shortcut" to and from Phoenix that equates to about 40 miles of bumpy terrain that will lead to even the strongest bladder wanting to do the pee-pee dance.  I've been fortunate to go to The Wave three times, but I've only made this mistake once. 
What to bring: Standard hiking things, 3 liters of water per person minimum, snacks, a compass, flashlight, whistle, your permit (must be attached to your pack), hat, sunscreen, etc.  The permits come with an invaluable map that you can't replace with GPS or a store-bought map, so protect it and bring it.  Also, bring your camera and tripod, you do not want to miss out on these shots!  Goggles or some kind of eye protection may have been good, because the wind whips the sand up like crazy and it gets all up in your eyes, nose, mouth, ears, everything. 
When to go: January was a bit cold, but makes for some unique snowbank shots on The Wave.  The best times to get permits are late Feb through early April, but these will also be the hardest times to get permits. 
Warnings:  Unlike many hikes, the trails aren't really marked here and there aren't a lot of people roaming about to help.  Make sure you or someone in your party is confident in their navigating skills (and preferably survival skills also).  People die out here, so be cautious of the weather, give yourself plenty of time to get our before sunset, and prepare appropriately.  The sand is a bitch here - friends of mine know that I hate sand and so they assumed I was overexaggerating the sand here, but learned when we did the hike that I was serious - you end up skating down hills of sand, and it fills your shoes, and the wind blows it into every crevasse of your body, and your skin is raw from being sandblasted.  But even yours truly with a sand-phobia will say it is worth it! 




So that's it (at least for now) - that's my list!  How many have you visited?  Have I missed any?  Leave your comments below!