I Heart New York!

I am starting this post on the 1st day of the trip. This is not something I typically do but this is not your typical trip. This is a repeat trip. Something that rarely happens for me. Life is so short and traveling is expensive. Therefore, we may say the words…”if we ever come back, we will do this”. But the chances of that happening are slim to none. There are exceptions to that and NYC just happens to be one of them. I’m on my 4th visit. Yes, you read right, 4 times I’ve been to the concrete jungle. Why would probably be your next question. In my opinion there are 2 categories of NYC visitors. Those that hate it and those that love it. I’m in the latter of course. And often times those who hate it, never actually visited. I mean they did go there but they didn’t make the most of it. In other words, they walked around aimlessly belly aching about all the people and how much everything costs. I never try to talk anyone out of hating it. It’s their prerogative. Plus, there are some negatives about the city. Just to name a few. It is dirty, it is expensive, and most New Yorkers come across rude as heck to us southern folk. But the positives far outweigh the negatives in my opinion.

My 1st trip to the city was in 2003. I was 25 years old and I had never even been in an airplane. Other than my Grandpa Jinks’ 4 seater plane that took us as far as the neighboring county to look at farm land and was used as way to scare the bejesus out of a couple of teenage girls. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count! Shelby and I started dating that year and he asked me if I could go anywhere, where would it be. I of course in my over exaggerated accent said New York City. Well lo and behold a few months later, he made that happen. It was a short 3 day trip and we arrived via Amtrak from Connecticut where I finally got that real plane ride into. We didn’t see or do much. We mainly just walked around aimlessly in search of a Dr Pepper. Which we never found! All that walking was tough on this (then) pack a day smoker. I do remember going to Central Park, the top of the Empire State Building, and the Museum of Natural History. We also went to Ground Zero and stared at the gaping hole in the ground where the Twin Towers were standing just 2 years prior. I remember it being October and really cold. I also recall buying those tacky “I ♥️NY” shirts for all my friends. No offense if you have one. By the looks of things they are currently in style. I don’t think I truly fell in love with the city then. I remember thinking it was neat because I had never been anywhere or saw anything like it. However, I don’t recall learning anything or feeling like I couldn’t wait to go back.

It was 10 years later before I returned. This time at the ripe old age of 35, I fell in love with this city. I don’t remember the exact moment. It could have been when I was in the theater watching the oldest running Broadway show (Phantom of the Opera). Or when I was peddling my heart out on bicycle going across both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. All that peddling got us lost in Chinatown where everything looks the same since I don’t read Chinese. Maybe it was when Alexis Bledel, who starred in Gilmore Girls, was in line in front of me at a Brooklyn Starbucks. It could have been when I was touring NBC studios and got picked to do the weather. FYI there’s a dvd of that I keep on lockdown. Or was it when I got up early and ran in Central Park and then had my 1st taste of Shake Shack afterwards. Which is still my favorite fast food today. Maybe it was when I went to the top of both the Rockefeller Building and the Empire State Building in the same day. Or when I got to see Lady Liberty up close. She sure is a stunner! That was also the trip I went on a solo shopping excursion to Madison Avenue. It was unseasonably hot in early October and I remember walking into Tory Burch just dripping in sweat. My feet were hurting because I got on the wrong train and had to walk several blocks in a pair of red canvas Toms. I know you gals remember those! I was literally looking like a hot southern mess when I strolled in there. I did leave with my 1st TB purse so it was all worth it. I could go on and on about that trip and the combination of things that made it memorable. But I whole heartedly believe it was the people and the hustle bustle that lured me in. No longer a Marlboro gal, I was able to not only keep up but get around like I owned the place. This trip introduced me to the New York Subway System. Which in turn fostered my fascination with the people. I would watch them and imagine what their story was. I wouldn’t stare, just observe. It was the proverbial melting pot that I’d always wanted to be exposed to but never able to see at that time in Arkansas. So many people of different backgrounds and ethnicities going about their everyday lives. There was a grittiness about them and I had the feeling the world had hardened them some how. And I could be totally misreading the cues but what I saw in a majority of them was that life was hard. It was a daily struggle to keep your head above water in a city of 8 million.

Three years later in May 2016, I returned again. This time along with Shelby, my stepson Jack, and my cousin Neely. Previous trips, we had stayed in midtown. Mainly, because it was easy to get around from there. You are centrally located to everything. This time I rented an apartment off AirBnB on the lower east side. I wanted to live like a Manhattanite. Yes, that’s a word. I googled it. The 1st thing I remember about this trip is the limo ride from the airport. As a surprise, I rented a limo to pick us up from the airport and take us to the apartment. I know what you’re thinking. That must’ve been expensive. Well it was only $40 more than the taxi so I thought why not. We were supposed to arrive in the afternoon, but due to flight delays, we arrived late at night. In hindsight, I’m glad we arrived at night. Had we arrived in the daylight, we would’ve missed out on the cheesy neon interior glow of the stretch white limo. This thing was a party palace on wheels. I felt like I was going to a bachelorette party in Vegas. It wasn’t quite the bougie experience I was after. Memorable moments from this trip include a trip to the top of the One World Trade Center (aka freedom tower). As previously mentioned, I visited the site in 2003 and the memorial in 2013. The 1WTC was not open on my last visit. If you ever get the opportunity, I highly recommend a trip to the top. The elevator climbs 102 floors in 47 seconds, all while you witness the transformation of NYC from unsettled lands to today’s forest of skyscrapers. Once up top, stand in the sky portal, where real time high definition footage shows the streets 100 stories below. It is an experience I wish every American could have. You leave there with a feeling of pride. The reason for that feeling can only be explained as “Hey terrorists, I know you tried to break us, but we will not be broken! We are Americans. We are fierce and loyal. And when sh?t hits the fan, we will band together and come out stronger”. That there is a quote from yours truly! There was a couple repeats on this trip. I really wanted the kids (Jack-18 and Neely-23) to have those experiences. I realize they are not kids but they are kids to me. The Empire State Building and biking across the Brooklyn Bridge is always a necessity. We also went to a Broadway show. This time I picked one that had just opened, instead of a long running production. American Psycho, which apparently already had a movie made based on the book. I’d never seen or read either. I did know it was about a NYC bachelor who was a professional by day and a serial killer by night. I was prepared for the dark humor. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the sexual references. Sitting by Jack and Neely, my face was red the entire time. I mean it’s not as if they were 10 years old and hadn’t heard or saw that sort of thing before. However, I should’ve chose The Lion King. So here’s my tip…you can’t go wrong with Disney. Just stick with Disney! We also did a boat trip on the Hudson on a beautiful sunny May day. That same day we stumbled onto the 9th Avenue International Food Fest which was in Hell’s Kitchen and stretched from 42nd Street to 57th street. I read where 1 million people attend it every year. It was quite the scene. And the Nutella and banana crepe did not disappoint.

January 1, 2020, what a way to start a new decade. Jerri Ann (JA) and I had planned this trip in early 2019. A few months ago, Shelby decided or should I say begged to come. He loves NYC as much as I do and we’ve never been there without each other so what the heck. He did travel separately and leave a day early. It was a short trip for us. We left from Memphis at 6:30 am on Wednesday and returned at 9:00 pm on Saturday. Needless to say, we did not act up on NYE since we had to get up at 4 am the next day. To be honest, I never do anything special on NYE so it was worth it to go to bed early and get to NYC at a decent time. Our flight was nonstop (2 hours) to Newark, New Jersey. We arrived at 10 am and took the airport express bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan. We stayed in midtown due to it’s central location. After arriving at the bus terminal, we walked about 5 blocks to our hotel dragging our luggage through trash and food. I promised JA it usually wasn’t this dirty and it must’ve been because of the previous night’s celebration. I mean it is in fact always dirty but this was absolutely filthy. After storing our luggage at the hotel, we set off to the nearest subway stop and headed uptown toward Central Park where the Nordstrom’s flagship store was located. This store finally opened a few months ago after being in the works for 7 years. It has 7 floors and you can get anything from a martini to a pizza to a donut. All while shopping for shoes, clothing, and handbags. We didn’t buy anything but we did enjoy a rather expensive cocktail at one of their in store bars. After leaving there we strolled over to 5th Avenue and did some window shopping. We went in Trump Towers where our 1st Lady supposedly lives. I’m not bringing politics into this but there was a line trying to get in and it was really crowded inside. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that! We also went in St Patrick’s Cathedral before heading to check into our hotel. After checking in and freshening up, we hit the hotel bar for a few drinks while waiting for Shelby to arrive. The highlight of the night was the caramel sea salt banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery. This was the 1st of many desserts I consumed in those few days. The next day, I had booked a walking cultural food tour in Greenwich Village. The village is one of the most desirable parts of Manhattan to live. The streets are not on the grid system and have names such as Bleecker and Cornelia. Lots of history there and of course lots of good food. After meeting at Murray’s Cheese Shop, our group of 15 set off on foot for the next 3 hours. We dined on a slice of classic NY pizza at Joe’s Pizza, sampled olive oils and balsamic vinegars at Oliviers and CO, ate a Sicilian rice ball and sweet soppressata Italian salami at Faicco’s, sat down to a meatball at Pesce Pasta and an Eggplant Rollatini at Rafele. For my sweet tooth there was also a lemon glazed donut at the Doughnut Project and a Cannoli at Rocco’s Pasticceria. Last but not least, we ended up where we started at Murray’s for a sample of cave-aged cow, sheep, and goat cheeses. It was a fantastic tour with so much information, I’ve since forgotten it all. We did stop at the building that is used as the outside shot of the Friends apartment. I imagined them peering through the window at the naked fat guy across the street. After the food tour, we needed to walk it off so we headed to the High Line which is a 1.45 mile elevated park located on an old NY railroad spur. We also perused the Chelsea Market which is a food hall and the high line runs through it. It was overwhelming because of all the people and my full belly. I wish we would’ve come back and hopefully I’ll get to visit it again next trip. There was lots of food I would’ve tried had it not been for the food tour I’d just been on. That night we went and saw Jagged Little Pill on Broadway. The screenplay was written for Alanis Morissette’s Grammy winning album of the year from 1995. It was a very relevant story for this day and age. And the music was absolutely perfect. Like I had any doubt. After the show, I got my 1st taste of Junior’s Cheesecakes. The cheesecake was so good and I may or may not have went back for another slice the next night. Friday, Shelby headed home so JA and I did a little shopping at Hudson Yards. We also went on a boat ride around the entire island. We viewed the One World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Yankee Stadium from the boat. We also passed under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges as well as 18 other bridges. Twenty total I believe. The weather was terrible so it was not as enjoyable as it could’ve been had we been sitting on the top deck in the sunshine sipping a Michelob Ultra. And yes I’ve done that before. Our final night in the city required my 2nd visit to the 1st pizza parlor in the US, Lombardi’s. After walking around Nolita and Soho, we took the subway to Times Square. This was JA’ s 1st visit to the city so Times Square was a must see. We took a couple pictures and bought a few souvenirs. Saturday would be departure day but not until late. We spent the afternoon at Grand Central Station and the Macy’s Flagship Store. I got my carrot cake donut fix and was ready to hop a plane and be South bound.

I mentioned earlier in my post that “most” New Yorkers come off rude. In fact I believe a recent study said it was the rudest city in America. I threw in the word “most” last minute due to an encounter with a so called rude New Yorker. On the last full day of our trip we had ran out of money on our metro cards. I didn’t buy the unlimited this time because 5 days was the minimum. Therefore, I put money on each card when we needed it. At the start of that day, I loaded $5.50 on each card. There was $2.75 left on each at this point, which is one ride. I went through the turnstile, no problem. JA had an issue. Apparently, you have to hold your mouth just right to get it to work. Anyway, she just kept swiping and it eventually said insufficient funds. It must have took it at some point and she didn’t push herself forward. One of them rude New Yorkers was on his way out. He said you don’t have any money on it in his thick Northern accent. Then without hesitation he swiped his card for her to go through. Now I don’t know about you but I consider that the southern equivalent of holding a door open for the person behind you. So there may be hope for you yet New Yorkers!

Will I be traveling to NYC again in the future? There’s a pretty good chance. I recently read a quote that said “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”

Pardon my French

Bonjour! The name Quebec comes from the word Kebec which means where the river narrows and refers to the area around Quebec City where the St Lawrence River narrows to a cliff-lined gap. Just thought I’d add a little educational piece into this blog. Don’t worry I’m gonna try not to bore you with too many facts. I’m more of an opinion kind of gal. And I’m gonna start with a bold statement. Dare I say, I may have found my new favorite city! I say may because it could just be the sugar high I’m still on while sitting at the airport typing this. But I’ve got to tell you, this place is truly magnificent. Old Quebec City offers a glimpse of what living in a fortified city several centuries ago looked like. It is a romantic city and an architectural delight. Half of the buildings were built before 1850. There are 30 outdoor staircases in the old city. One of which is called the Neck breaker staircase. I layed off the vodka on this trip due to all these staircases. We did a majority but not all of the must-sees in old town. We probably could have skipped the 2 days outside the city and done them all but I wanted to leave something for a return visit.

We arrived in QC a day later than planned. We should’ve arrived at 10pm on Halloween but due to a 7 hour flight delay and a thunderstorm divert to Cleveland, we missed our connection in Newark. So what was supposed to be an easy 2.5 hour flight to Newark and then a 1.5 hour flight to QC turned into a bumpy all nighter. And when I say bumpy, I mean I nearly puked and I’m not typically a puker. We finally arrived in QC at 10am the following day. The AirBnB I booked exceeded all expectations. It was in the heart of the old city, within walking distance to everything. And since it’s off season, only $50 a night. We were right across from the city hall, sandwiched between a clothing boutique and a coffee shop. The apartment had all the amenities and all the old world charm which included exposed brick walls and those European windows that open out as well as in. I’m not sure what they are called. We had them in Scotland several years ago and there was an altercation between those windows and my old nose (Pre Dr. Branman nose job). Day 1 consisted of a long nap and shower and then we headed out. 1st stop would be the cafe called Baguettes and Chocolate which was right beside our apartment and was frequented several times over the next few days for croissants and coffee. We also visited Le Maison Smith cafe several times because it was home to the maple pecan pie we had for the next 3 nights dessert. Yes, it was that good! After a late lunch of crepes, soup, and empanadas we were ready to explore. It was cold and rainy but that never stops a Steward. I did have to buy a toboggan the 1st day because the wind nearly caused frostbite on my ears. We headed to Chateau Frontenac which is the towering castle that is the centerpiece of the old city. It is beautiful from every angle. We would have taken the funicular which links the upper old town with the lower old town and looks like a gondola on railroad tracks. However, it was closed so we managed going down the neck breaker staircase without any injuries. Coming back up was a bit more challenging. At the bottom of the staircase is the Quartier du Petit Champlain. It’s the area/street you see in all those Christmas photographs and apparently Hallmark movies. Which I can’t confirm because I don’t watch Hallmark. And while there was no snow, it was still lit up and even more charming than I could’ve imagined. We walked that area a few more times over the next few days so that I could always remember it in my head.

Day 2 consisted of an early morning walk. As did all the other days including departure day. I like to keep active. Especially, when my diet’s primary food group is sugar and butter. At lunch we went on a 3 hour walking tasting tour of québécois (yes that’s a word) cuisine which included 5 stops and 9 tastings. The food included: pea soup, pate chinois, maple taffy, macaroni and cheese, locally made wine and gin, croissant, Christmas candy, and of course poutine. The locals let it be known that poutine originated in Quebec and not all poutines are created equal. All of the tastings were great except the gin. I am not and will likely never be a gin fan. It tasted like a mixture of lighter fluid and nail polish remover. Our guide Florence was a delight. She was born and raised in QC and kept us highly entertained with tales of her people. That night we took the ferry across the St Lawrence River to Levis and back. No reason really except to enjoy the beautiful night skyline of the city. After the ferry ride, we went to Sapristi and feasted on French onion soup, fondue with Parmesan and tomato jam, and pizza. I’m a bit of a pizza snob but I have to say this pizza was fantastic. And like I mentioned earlier, there was maple pecan pie to go from Le Maison Smith.

Day 3 we rented a car and explored the island of lle d’Orleans. This is not your typical island, and rather than living the salt life here, it’s more like the farm life. We drove the entire 47 mile circumference stopping and sampling the goods along the way. The island’s food production consists of mainly wine grapes, lots of apples and various other fruits and vegetables. As well as honey, maple, dairy, and poultry. Our focus was the apple products such as cider, butter, jelly, etc…I did purchase a bottle of iced cider and some apple jelly to take home. I was worried about the cider busting in my checked bag but being wrapped in double wool socks did the trick. We also visited Montmorency falls before heading back to the old town. After riding the cable car to the top, we crossed the suspension bridge on top of the falls which are supposedly 100 feet taller than Niagara. Had it been summertime, we could’ve zip lined across the falls. That would’ve been more my speed, just sayin. No big meal to report on this day since we sampled all day and of course I had my nightly maple pecan pie.

Day 4 we were supposed to head out of town again. This time to a Nordic Spa near Jacques Cartier National Park. I just happened to check the website and for the 4th consecutive day the spa was without power. Apparently, power outages happen often. I then went to Plan B which was an alternate spa. It wasn’t in Jacques Cartier National Park but it would have to do. It was called The Serbia Spa. We spent about 3 hours alternating between the sauna and/or hot tub, then the ice cold river water, then we relaxed in front of the fire. I had previously been to this sort of thing in Santorini but it was indoors. This place was outside in the woods beside a river. There were various hot tubs dotted around the premises. As well as relaxing stations with fires and hammocks or loungers. By the time we finished here, we both felt rejuvenated, and we both agreed this needs to be on every last day of our vacations going forward. The rest of the day was spent shopping. I went in as many little shops as I could. It would have probably taken a full 3 days to hit them all. The shopping was a bit overwhelming. There were little boutiques everywhere and it was difficult to figure out what street to hit up because they were all so enticing. I did the best I could with the few hours I had. The last night of vacation in such a magical place demands a fantastic meal. I’ve overindulged every day so far so what is one more meal gonna hurt. We went to La Bûche which is a sugar shack. What’s a sugar shack you might ask. It’s a building where sap from a sugar bush is boiled down to make maple syrup. These establishments serve traditional québécois cuisine. The meal was fabulous. And even though I wanted maple pecan pie again, I ventured out and had a caramel royal sundae from Chocolato. You can never go wrong with ice cream.

It was a short trip but I just know I will be back. I am a lover of Canada. In my opinion, it is an underrated vacation destination. While I have been to Canada a few times, this was my 1st trip to a French Canadian province. QC offers European charm without having to travel across the big pond. While the people do speak French, they also know English. They base their communication on yours and Florence said they appreciate any attempt you make at speaking French. So here’s to you and your people Florence: Au revoir Quebec! Je t’aime!

North to Alaska

Alaska….the 49th state. 11x bigger than Arkansas with 1/3 the population. So in my mind that equates to “God’s Country” for miles and/or a place where you could get murdered and your body would never be recovered. Now you really need to be an outdoor enthusiast to enjoy this type of adventure. And what I mean by “this type of adventure” is that it’s not an Alaska cruise. There is work involved, and that is not appealing to some folks, especially on vacation. Not to knock the cruise or people that want to take it easy on vacation. I actually really enjoyed the Alaska cruise I took in 2017 because it gave me just a little taste of Alaska. Just enough that I knew I would be back sooner than later. It had always been on my list to see North America’s tallest mountain and to make that happen meant I needed to step outside the box as far as accommodations go. In my mind there were really only 2 options; the tent life or the RV life. I chose the latter. I consider myself an aspiring outdoors-woman or a wanna be. Meaning I like outdoor activities, and I don’t mind sleeping in a tent, but I don’t want to do it for 8 nights. Four nights on the Inca Trail was enough for me for an entire lifetime. And there was gear to think about. Do I really want to rent all that camping equipment. Also, the weather in Alaska during the summer includes lots of rain and mosquitos. Being from O’Kean Arkansas I can handle the skeeters. It’s the torrential downpours that concerned me. Well that and bears! So the choice was an easy one for me.

The RV life is apparently a big deal in Alaska. I seen RV’s bigger than my house this week. There were some with as many as 5 slides, extendable decks on the back, fireplaces. I could go on and on. And when you rent a RV it comes outfitted with bedding, cookware, cooler, etc…Basically everything you need for your traveling apartment. After a long 6.5 hour flight from Chicago, we arrived in Anchorage at 2:00pm with the 3 hour time difference. Having exactly zero experience with an RV, I expected some sort of training. However, all we got was a 30 minute video and an instruction manual as thick as the King James Version of the Bible. Believe it or not the manual came in handy more than once. The RV was a 2017 Thor Four Winds 22 foot motor coach with 1 slide in the bedroom. It was perfect for 2 people and possibly a small child. Later in the week, I did see 8 people roll out of the same size RV like it was a clown car at the circus. After going to WM and buying our groceries for the week, we headed toward Whittier in our traveling apartment. Whittier is a harbor town approximately 55 miles East of Anchorage and it’s at the entrance to Prince William Sound where we booked a halibut charter for the next day. Right before arriving into town, you must go through a one way tunnel for 2.5 miles. Traffic takes turns going through every 15 minutes. It costs $13 round trip and there is a booth east bound that collects the money. This is important because within this booth housed the best mullet I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Being from Arkansas I consider myself a connoisseur of the mullet. In other words, I know a good mullet when I see one. This baby caught my eye before we could even get the window down. It was red but not like strawberry red. More like Reba McEntire red. It was wavy but not curly. There was no frizz whatsoever despite the obvious absence of hair gel. We dubbed it the Whittier Wave and I regret that I didn’t at least get a picture. Thankfully I had the opportunity to witness many more mullets in the next 8 days. None of them were quite as Fancy though. Get it Fancy?! (Reba song)

Creekside campground in Whittier would be our home for the 1st 2 nights. There were very few campers so we had our choice of prime spots and we chose one right by the creek. Going to sleep and waking up to the sounds of the creek rushing was the equivalent to the waves crashing on the ocean. Except it was cold in the mornings. Anywhere from 35 to 45 every morning and 60 to 70 during the day. The day which lasted 17 hours! Yes, you read right. The sun rose at 5:30am and did not set until 10:30pm. For me this proved to be an issue. I am an early to bed, early to rise person. I struggled to stay awake until dark. As a matter of fact, I only made it once the entire trip. So let’s talk about the fishing charter. Keep in mind, even though I’m a self proclaimed outdoors-woman, fishing and hunting is not part of my repertoire.Hunting will never be unless something happens like the Zombie Apocalypse and I have to hunt to survive. I am perfectly content with buying my meat at the grocery store where I don’t have to look it in the eye or witness it’s heart stop beating. I bet you’re wondering why I booked a fishing trip then. Shelby really wanted to fish plus I absolutely love halibut. The idea of shipping our catch back home, and being able to have fresh halibut for weeks, made me giddy inside. You are only allowed 2 halibut per day and 4 total per season. We ended up shipping home 30 pounds of filets off of the 4 fish total Shelby and I caught. Shelby caught the biggest of the day. Which is fine by me because all that reeling just didn’t interest me. It literally took 5 solid minutes of reeling to get one of those bad boys to the surface. I needed them dang fish to stop fighting and hop in the boat! Fortunate for us, or rather fortunate for Shelby, there were 4 kids on board. These kids didn’t care about fishing so we were able to catch more fish and use their tags. Ok Shelby caught more fish. The weather was perfect and the day was almost perfect. I say almost because the father of the kids and the captain of the boat got into a heated argument. The father was the type of guy who just couldn’t quite play nice. I can’t explain exactly what the tiff was about but it had been building all day. The Captain (John)was of course the type of person who enjoyed bossing others and felt superior in his somewhat authoritarian role. I’m ok with that, it’s his boat. It was awkward to witness to say the least. I wanted to run and hide, but there was nowhere to go, so rather I turned my snickers into popcorn and silently giggled as they played the proverbial “whose is bigger game”. And I’m not talking about the size of the fish.

Day 3 we headed back through the tunnel toward Anchorage. And yes I tried to catch a glimpse of those ginger locks on the way out but he wasn’t there. Maybe he had a hair appointment. Our destination was Talkeetna which is approximately 2.5 hours North of Anchorage. This little town could only be described as a hippie town on steroids. There were cute little shops everywhere with tourists coming out licking ice cream cones. Those same tourists could be spotted going in or out of High Expedition, the town’s dispensary located conveniently on Main Street. Prior to the ice cream cone of course. The West Rib Grill had the best caribou burger I’ve ever had. Ok so it’s the only one I’ve ever had but it was great none the less. We stayed at a camper park right on the edge of town so we could walk and peruse all the little shops. This would be the place the ginormous RV instruction manual got used for the 1st time. While Shelby is showering, the drain begins to back up. Come to find out there is a panel that we should’ve been monitoring that lists the levels of our LPG, battery, fresh water, black water, gray water. I’m pretty sure this was covered in the video but I’m a hands on kind of gal. After consulting the manual, it’s determined we need to dump the gray water. The manual recommends dumping black prior to gray. I was literally doubled over laughing at Shelby gagging while trying to hook up the hose. By the end of the week he was a professional pooper dumper though. Oh the glamorous side of RV’ing.

Day 4 we headed another couple hours North and the next 2 nights would be spent at Riley Creek campground inside Denali National Park. Despite there being no water or electric hookup and limited generator hours, this was my favorite place of the trip. The sites were spacious so you weren’t right beside someone plus there were hiking trails all around. You could do numerous short hikes in the 17 hours of daylight you had. The coldest morning, 35 I believe, occurred inside the park. Luckily we pushed enough buttons and figured out we had a propane heater. Day 5 we traveled 85 miles 1 way to Wonder Lake via bus. Cars are not allowed past mile 15 so the bus was our only option. I had 2 wants on this trip. I wanted to see Alaska’s Big 5; Grizzly, Caribou, Dall Sheep, Moose, Wolf. I also wanted to catch at least a glimpse of Mt. Denali. I say glimpse because only 30% get to see her. Supposedly 7 out of 10 days the mountain is shrouded in clouds. I knew the trip to Wonder Lake was going to be long. However, what I hadn’t planned on is it being so magnificent. Not only did I get to see 13 Grizzly Bears, numerous Caribou and Dall Sheep, and a trio of Moose but the artist formerly known as McKinley put on a show. She was visible bottom to top for the entire 11 hour trip. North America’s tallest mountain is most definitely a sight to behold. The bus driver commented that we must’ve done something right to get a magical day like this. I knew it was nothing we had done but rather God’s doing and I will forever be grateful for the day he bestowed upon us.

Day 6 we traveled a whopping 5 miles outside the park. I had prepaid or we would have just stayed inside the park 2 more days. I picked this RV Park because of the full hook up including cable. There had been no TV thus far and I didn’t plan on sitting around watching TV but it’s nice to have. Especially if it rains which it did on Day 7. I was not satisfied with this site. It was all gravel, no trees. Plus we were right behind all the Denali boardwalk shops so the view was of their dumpsters. Not the Alaskan experience I wanted but how could I complain. The 1st night we went white water rafting on the Nenana River. Well it was night to me (7-9) despite technically being daylight. This was in fact the only night I stayed up until dark. With the water being ice cold, we suited up in what I can only describe as a full body condom. It had latex suction around the neck, feet, and arms. The rest of the suit was bulky and filled with air. Shelby resembled the Michelin man and I couldn’t stop laughing at him. The raft trip was fun and included Class 3 and 4 rapids. However, I never feared for my life. I need heart pumping action. I wouldn’t have minded getting bounced out in the water as long as I survived with all my limbs in tact. Like I previously mentioned Day 7 was rained out. Summer in Alaska is rainy. Before we arrived it rained 7 days. Therefore, having only 1 rainy day out of 8 is fantastic. The Boardwalk shops came in handy that day. I was able to have coffee and purchase some Moose crunch popcorn that I consumed in bed while watching Judge Judy. I’m convinced her and Captain John would have made a heck of a match.

Day 8 we hit the road back toward Anchorage. We decided to stay at Montana Creek campground which was about 2 hours North of Anchorage, a few miles from Talkeetna. I was hoping to have the same experience as in Whittier where I could sleep with the windows open and hear the creek sounds. Ha! No dice there! The smell of fish was overwhelming. I don’t mean like the smell when you walk in Red Lobster. I mean like the smell of the dumpsters at Pike Place Market in Seattle. You could see hundreds of dead fish floating in the clear water of the creek. We of course had a creek side spot, and when the wind shifted, had to close all the windows. The next morning, we couldn’t hit the road fast enough.

Our departure day was in fact a good one. Our flight didn’t leave until 9:00pm so we had plenty of time to explore Anchorage. On the way there we stopped in Wasilla. And no we didn’t see Sarah Palin. We actually visited the Iditarod Race Headquarters where we learned all about the race and I held a couple 13 week old future sled dogs. It was a great ending to a great vacation.

I’m not sure I learned any lessons on this trip like I have in the past. Maybe the lesson is there won’t always be a lesson. Perhaps this trip was just what it was meant to be, a vacation for my soul and a chance to see the tallest mountain in the greatest country. It has been said it is better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.

The tale of a surf suit and an inflatable paddleboard

Writer’s block….Up until this past Wednesday, I was certain I had it. Even though I don’t consider myself a writer, I do try to make this blog as interesting as possible. I was 6 days into a 7 day vacation in paradise, aka Maui. Sure the vacation had been great, but had it been blog worthy? When I started this blog, I thought that there may be some trips that just didn’t make the cut but I secretly hoped they all would. I hadn’t expected the lull to happen so soon. Then the morning of the last full day of vacation things turned from uneventful to I can’t wait to tell this story! Therefore, I’m going to try and summarize the trip up until this point so bear with me.

This was my 2nd trip to Maui, one being last year to surf camp. You know a place has to be special for me to want to visit again. Especially when it involves an 8 hour plane ride from Dallas. There is something magical about Hawai’i. Something that you cannot get from Florida or any Caribbean island I’ve been to. And yes I’ve been to my fair share, not all but enough to make that statement at least. If you are an avid outdoorswoman and/or an adventure seeker, this is the place for you. If you are a beach goer only, this may not be worth the price or long trip for you. Also, if you just want to look at something beautiful this is your place. Where else can you see the volcanic mountains and the beach together in the good ole USA. Yes I’m aware you can travel to other countries to see that. And the merits of vacationing in the USA versus other countries is a totally different subject I might broach in another post. But what I will say is people including myself often get hung up on getting that passport stamped and/or bragging about a trip outside the country, when they haven’t even seen what’s in their own country. I realized a few years ago I was one of those people so I’ve since set out to see as much of the US and Canada as I can. Boy is it spectacular! And for the record I don’t consider Canada traveling abroad. They don’t even stamp your passport there. Perhaps next year, I will venture back across the pond but for now this completely satisfies me. Here I go getting way off subject! So to sum it all up, I had previously been to Maui but there was still lots more left to see. I was intrigued by the place.

Myself, my husband Shelby, and my friend Jerri Ann arrived in Kahului, Maui on a Thursday afternoon. I decided I would bring my ISUP (inflatable stand up paddleboard) because in my mind why pay $50 a day to rent one when I can pay $40 each way to check mine as a 2nd bag. Also, I paid $600 for this board and had yet to travel with it. I immediately regretted bringing it when all 40 pounds of it was strapped on my back and I was hoofing it across the airport public parking lot looking for a Nissan Rogue on “E” row with the Hawaiian sun burning my pale face. Now why was I looking for a car in the public parking lot you might ask. Well in an effort to save money, I booked a car with a local company. Kimo’s rates were half the other companies. So instead of $400 for a car, we paid $200. There is a reason it was significantly cheaper, the car was at least 10 years old and had 100k+ miles on it. And they were hard miles! It sounded as if it was on its last leg. My husband and I even decided later in the week that Hawai’i should put car inspections back into law. You young folks may not remember those. However, the car had AC and ended up getting good gas mileage. At $4 a gallon, that was definitely a plus. We traveled approximately 15 miles to the Air BnB I rented. It was in an area called Maalaea. Right near the harbor where the snorkeling tours leave from. I picked this place because it was central to everything. Also, it was a quiet area and the 6th floor condo boasted killer views of the Pacific as well as Haleakalā in the distance. The condo was 2 bedroom/ 2 bath and upon arrival we noticed it was warm inside. This was disappointing because I specifically picked a place with AC. Several did not have AC or they disclosed they only had a unit in the living area. This unit did not disclose the AC was only in the living room. But of course it ended up being only in the living room. So the bedroom that was in the back where JA stayed was hot. After deciding there is nothing that can be done about the AC situation and hoping it would cool off, we headed out for dinner and supplies. The 1st dinner just had to be Ono fish. I discovered Ono (aka Wahoo) a few years ago in BVI. I immediately dubbed it my 2nd fave behind halibut of course. And it is native to the Hawaiian islands. So when in Hawai’i, I eat Ono. The meal was great but with the 5 hour time difference, we were ready for bed. After I inflated my ISUP with a hand pump of course. Where’s the electric pump when you need it.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of the loudest waves ever crashing outside the balcony. Something about that angry Pacific Ocean makes me happy. It will always be my favorite body of water. I enjoyed my coffee on the balcony like I would every morning over the next 7 days. Watching the surfers wait for the swell kept me entertained. I decided the 1st morning to put that paddle board to use. So my husband opted to come downstairs and help me get situated since it was rocky where I would launch. We got to the elevator and guess what it would not fit. Shelby being the sweetheart he is never once complained about carrying it up or down the 6 flights of stairs. Even though I know he was annoyed that I kept saying “pivot” when he would try and squeeze this humongous board around every corner without scraping it on the wall. All my Friends fans should know the “pivot” scene when they were moving the couch. Paddleboard session was nothing fantastic. It was a little rough but I managed to get in and out in one piece. That night we attended the Old Lahaina Luau. It is an outdoor dinner theater type show. Traditional Hawaiian buffet meal and a cultural performance about the history of Hawai’i. The food was ok, not bad but not great. It reminded me of Cruise food. There was plenty of it but it’s just so so. However, the hula dancing told a story and gave us a laugh. We will forever be pronouncing it as Hawai’i instead of Hawaii.

Saturday morning was the day of my 1st private surf lesson of the week. Shelby went with me to the beach where the lesson would take place. The company was Maui Surfer Girls which is who I attended the camp with the previous year. I did not know the instructor Carol. However, she was great and very patient. I did stand up on the 1st attempt but overall I felt as if I done way better last year at camp. Plus I ended camp on a hard top board and digressed to a foam board this go around. That was my own doing though. I requested the foam because I was a fraidy cat. My fear was getting slapped in the face with the hard top. I also made a major mistake on that 1st surf lesson. I bought a long sleeve surf suit and could not wait to wear it. Even thought the recommendation is to wear leggings when you surf so you didn’t get board rash, I didn’t want to ruin the look of my surf suit. Big mistake! Despite SPF 50 all over my body, the backs of my legs and part of my butt cheeks got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had. One butt cheek more than the other since that famous surf suit rode up a little. Needless to say, I could barely sit for the rest of the week but in true Ragsdell fashion, I soldiered on.

Sunday morning Shelby and I walked to the boat harbor and boarded the Leilani for a day of snorkeling and boozing on Shelby’s part. He may or may not have drank a little too much and made me take numerous Tom Selleck looking pictures of him. Yes the ones he posted on Facebook. We did have a great time snorkeling the Molokini Crater and swimming with sea turtles. Several people onboard were hurling over the side due to the rough waters. It was decided that we Arkansans can endure almost anything.

Monday morning we boarded a plane for Oahu. Specifically, we were going to Honolulu to see Pearl Harbor. I had booked a car for the day and rolled the dice with the “managers special” at Hertz. It was the cheapest option at $32 for the day. It ended up being a totally decked out Black Cadillac Escalade. We looked like the Kardashians tooling around in this ride. Ok so maybe more like the Clampetts! This almost made up for the Kimo mobile but not quite. Pearl Harbor can only be described as heartbreaking and it leaves you in a solemn mood. We only spent about 3 hours there. We left and went to Waikiki and then we took full advantage of the fancy ride and cruised the island all afternoon. Jason Momoa was in town according to his IG so I was secretly stalking him. Shhhh….don’t tell Shelby. I do believe Oahu will get a 2nd visit from the Stewards in the near future.

Tuesday morning was my 2nd private surf lesson. This time it was with KiKi who I had met the previous summer. I was a little bummed the morning of the lesson. My confidence in my surfing ability was waning. I even wished I had canceled. However, that soon changed. Kiki’s spirit is contagious. There are people in this world that just have a certain aura about them. I started out on that hard top board determined to do better than the previous lesson. From the 1st wave I rode to the last, it was a significantly better performance than Saturday. I was riding down the sides instead of straight on. I was riding longer waves and even learned a switchback maneuver. It was not perfected or pretty by no means. When I pulled out of the parking lot headed home, there was nothing but a smile as I bobbed my head to the island reggae tunes. The rest of the afternoon was spent at a beach about 15 miles from the condo. It had those beautiful blue/green waters that Hawai’i is famous for. It was a little creepy since a man was killed just 2 weeks prior by a shark swimming off this same beach. I tried not to think about those things. I mean what are the chances, 1 in 3 million I believe. I’d rather take those chances than spend my life being scared. When it’s my time, it’s my time.

Wednesday morning I realized I had payed $40 each way to bring a paddle board I’d only used once. My biggest hang up was having Shelby lug it up and down the stairs. However, being the great husband that he is, he graciously volunteered to assist me. As I get down to the launching area, a lady sitting in a beach chair says boy you are brave. My reply was well I don’t know if I’m brave or dumb. Come to find out, I’m dumb. In my opinion, the wind didn’t seem to be blowing any harder than normal as I took off. And I did notice I was the only one out there but I was the only paddleboarder the 1st time as well. The difference this time was no surfers anywhere in sight. It only took about 15 minutes to get a good ways out. I then proceeded to do a few snaps and a live Facebook video. At this point is where the terror began. I decide to head back, even though I think to myself, Shelby is gonna say why did I carry that thing up and down 6 flights of stairs for you to only be gone 30 minutes. As I start back, I realized the wind has picked up considerably. The harder I paddle, the farther out I went. I am paddling on my knees at this point but I still can’t gain any ground. I tuck the paddle away and decided to try paddling on my stomach like it’s a surfboard. Still no luck. This went on for approximately 45 minutes with me even falling off the board and the board sometimes swirling around in a circle. Up to this point, I was crying. I was praying. I was singing gospel tunes, on the Jericho Road was the only song I knew so I somehow channeled my inner Sylvie Midgett (the town’s Avon lady when I was growing up). I was even quoting Arya Stark from GOT by saying “Not Today” over and over. I could not stop paddling because I would lose what little ground I had made and I was still nowhere near the shore. I had a decision to make. Do I abandon my board and swim for shore? I consider myself a strong swimmer but I did not have a life jacket. Or do I ask for help? I made the decision to press the Siri button through my waterproof case and told her to call Shelby which was ultimately waving the white flag of surrender. I couldn’t take the phone out of the case so I just sobbed and said please help me. What I didn’t realize was Shelby had been watching through the telescope from the balcony. Yes, that’s how far out I was! He knew I was in trouble so he was texting me not to panic and giving me some instructions. However, when I fell off he knew I had panicked and was out of steam. He called 911 and they pinged my location. The responder texted me help was on the way. I did not receive any of Shelby’s texts or the responder texts until afterwards (see screenshots below). The thing was even after I called Shelby for help, I never gave up. I kept paddling. Switching from my knees to my stomach. I was bound and determined to keep on pushing. I in fact made it to shore right after 2 fire trucks, 1 fire and rescue ambulance, and 1 cop pulled up. Also, right before the coast guard got to me. Picture the scene from the movie Overboard where Goldie Hawn’s character is plucked from the sea. Except instead of wearing an evening gown, I’m sporting the before mentioned surf suit. Well thank goodness that didn’t happen! I can’t sit here and say after the fact if I feared for my life or not. I was scared but I knew Shelby would never let anything happen to me. The crying and pleading with Jesus came from my fear of embarrassment and failure. How could I let this happen. Why am I so stubborn and headstrong. The scene it made. All the are you ok’s that came from total strangers. All the stupid tourist comments that were maybe not spoke out loud but definitely thought. These were all the reasons I was upset. Now after a morning like this, you’d think the day was shot. I could never let something like a near death experience keep me down. Shelby and I went on to have the best afternoon traveling the Road to Hana. We listened to the island tunes with the windows down on the Kimo mobile, swam in waterfalls, ate the best banana bread from a roadside stand, put our toes in the sand at a black sand beach. And so much more. A lady from the luau had told us the Road to Hana was life changing. I would venture to say the entire day was life changing for this gal. Looking back over the week, perhaps the paddleboard was trying to give me a sign. A sign that I chose to ignore. Maybe the lesson was to not give up so soon. And for the record, I never gave up. Or possibly it was that I need to put my pride aside. The Book of a Proverbs says Pride Goeth before a Fall. In conclusion, I will add these life lessons to my tool belt which will not be attached to that dang surf suit and I look forward to many more.

Maholo Maui!

In Loving Memory

Nathaniel “Jinks” Ragsdell age 83 went to be with the Lord on 3/20/2019. The last few years I had imagined standing up at his funeral one day and saying a few words. However, in typical Jinks fashion, there will be no ceremony to honor his life and death. Not because we the family didn’t want one but because he didn’t want one. I can hear him now saying “Sister, I don’t want all those people crying and making a spectacle over me.” So what would I say at his funeral if I had been given the chance? I’d start by saying I’ve spent a majority of my life wishing I had inherited some of my Grandma Blondie’s traits. She was the kindest woman I’ve ever met and everyone loved her for this. And you would be hard pressed to find anyone who did not love Blondie Ragsdell. I’m not here to talk about Grandma though, she’s an angel and we’d all agree on that. I’m here to talk about a man that was as flawed as the rest of us. A man that was as stubborn and ornery as they come. I’m here to talk about a man who used to ride me on a bicycle down to Leo French’s store and let me pick out the most expensive candy. A man who would pretend to be Santa every year by eating whatever hostess snack cake I chose to be “cookies for Santa” and lukewarm milk and then leaving a $20 bill in the plate. A man who bought me my 1st 10-speed bike. Granted my friends and I had to ride in the back of an El Camino all the way to Pocahontas and back to get the bike. I’m pretty sure a middle aged man with an El Camino full of 10 year old girls would be pretty suspicious looking today. A man that ate countless hamburger helper suppers because that’s the only thing I could cook. A man that took Grandma and me out to eat every Sunday until I was 15 and too cool to be seen with the old folks. We had two sometimes three choices; Pizza Hut, Taco Casa, or Bonanza. I’m here to talk about a man who bought me my 1st car when I was 15 even though he knew the weekly dinners would come to an end. A man that took me on my 1st airplane ride at 16. I remember it like it was yesterday. Him saying you two gals wanna go flying? Steph and I jumped at the chance! A man who came to my last home basketball game despite him hating that kind of stuff. I remember him saying he needed to see what all the fuss was about (referring to my athletic ability). A man who replaced my college textbooks without me asking, after they were destroyed when I wrecked my car two months before graduation. A man that gave me my 1st and only gun. It’s a snub nose 38 and I still have it. I was moving to Searcy and he wanted to make sure I was protected. The caveat was I had to practice shooting behind their house in O’kean. That was a debacle! I am to this day still terrified of guns. I’m here to talk about a man that loaned me the down payment on my 1st house at age 25. I still live in that house which is paid for and the sole reason I’m able to travel as much as I do. The man that bought me my 1st dog Lulu Ann Steward. She recently died after 15 years of love and loyalty. Once I was in my 30’s and married, I leaned on him less and less. But he would always be up for a visit from his favorite girl. The lone picture on the wall of his home is of me in the 9th grade in all my awkward glory. The last time I visited I said Grandpa you need a better picture than that, that one is horrible. He said “why sis, I like that picture. I look at it when I’m lonesome”. Not long ago he told me that him and Grandma considered me like one of their own kids, not just a grandkid. It warmed my heart because I felt the same way, having spent so much time with them growing up. I’d end my funeral speech by thanking Pa Jinks for being the father I never had. I’d then proceed to say I’ve often been compared to Jinks Ragsdell and I’ve never until now considered that a compliment. Above all he was generous and witty. I’ll take those attributes any day. So I’ll see you again someday Grandpa. Surely there’s a Pizza Hut in Heaven. I’ll even let you and Grandma have a slice of my half without sulking over it.

Tatankas, Baileys, New Ski Pants

These are a few of my favorite things this trip. I’m sorta, kinda, but not really like Oprah. The obvious difference being she’s filthy rich and I’m comfortably poor. The 1st vacation of the year should always be the best. It sets the tone for the entire year. That’s why I always go to my happy place. There is something awe inspiring about the mountains and for whatever reason I like to ski. I’m mediocre at best and it’s a love/hate relationship. It’s physically demanding, and if you think it’s all about gliding down the slopes with ease and then sipping a boozy hot chocolate at the lodge, you are only partially correct. Truth be it, I’m a better skier after the boozy hot chocolate. Which by the way, I loathe paying $15 for said drink so I smuggle travel size Baileys in my ski jacket to add to my drink. It’s kind of like when you stuff your purse full of snacks at the movie theater and try to hide it from the theater security guy. Nothing wrong with being frugal. I also smuggle Tito’s on the plane for my cranberry juice. I like living on the edge.

We decided to forgo Colorado or Utah this year and hit up Montana. Neither of us had ever been to Montana and Big Sky is touted as a skiing paradise. The largest by acreage in the US. Also, the proximity to Yellowstone piqued my interest. We flew into Bozeman on a Tuesday. It was in the zero degree range when we arrived and it wasn’t even dark yet. Apparently, Alamo had a shortage of rental cars, despite me reserving several weeks in advance. We had to wait approximately one hour for a car. This was no big deal to me. Even though I was hungry and I was bound and determined to eat at The Roost before we headed to the mountains. It had recently been featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-In’s, and Dives. The waiting was however a big deal to Walter. Who the heck is Walter you say? Well Walter was the disgruntled customer who thought being an ass to the rental car ladies would get him better service. I watched Walter behave like a child and treat the Alamo girls like dirt for 30 minutes. So when it came time to divy out the cars, Walter most certainly did not get a brand new, with less than 10 miles and tricked out, Toyota Highlander. Being nice pays off Walter. In the south, we always say you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I wish Walter no harm, but if he has to change a flat in zero degree weather, then karma has done her job.

So we made it to The Roost around 7pm. It was packed and the chicken was hot! Spicy hot that is! I ordered the Nashville hot chicken sandwich and needless to say it was way hotter than the actual hot chicken you get in Nashville. It was really too hot. My mouth was on fire until bedtime. We left Bozeman headed to Big Sky and arrived around 8:45pm. I rented a studio off of Air BnB. I use them often and I highly recommend you do too. Message me if you’re not familiar and I’ll steer ya in the right direction. I like using them or Home Away because I have to have a kitchen. My eating habits are another post for another time. But what I will say is I cannot function eating 3 meals a day out. I’m good for one meal a day out. The condo was tiny, approximately 475 square feet but it was perfect for 2 or maybe 3 people. And it was economical, four nights for $650. Which in a ski town is cheap. Did I mention the airplane tickets for both Shelby and me were free with my miles. Message me if you’re interested in my secret to getting one to two free tickets a year. There’s no gimmick I promise. So I’m telling you all this because I get asked about the $$ amount of vacations all the time. Skiing is an expensive vacation with lift tickets, ski rental, and ski lessons. Also, the price of food in ski towns is ridiculous. But there are ways to make it affordable.

The next three days were spent skiing. It snowed four to six inches every day so powder skiing was in full effect. Which could only mean there were some epic falls on my part. Face plants, almost splits, and butt busters to name a few. You just have to dust yourself off and keep going. I do get better every time I ski. I try to take a lesson every year just to advance my skills. I did not this year mainly because they did not offer 1/2 days lessons and I’m not into the whole day lesson. There’s always a loud mouth horn-tooter in the class and I can’t deal with that the entire day. Now let’s talk about my ski pants!! I’ve been searching for seven years for the perfect pair and I’ve finally found them! This is my 4th pair so if anybody feels motivated by this blog to try out skiing and you wear a size 6 to 8, then holler at me. I have pants you can have. What constitutes the perfect ski pants to me? Well I don’t like bulky clothes. I don’t wanna feel like the marshmallow man! And I want to be able to move. I’ve tried on countless pairs and the ones that are more fitted are always low rise plus I feel like I’m gonna bust the seat out of them when I bend over. I need high rise, fitted, and stretchy. I saw the Kardashians wear some on TV that tucked into their ski boots. So in a world full of Kardashians, I chose to be a Kardashian. I took a chance and ordered the Butte Snow pant from Athleta. If you don’t know about Athleta then go find out. Most of my “athleisure” wear come from there. The pants are stirrup so they tuck in your boots and they take you back to 1985. They are fleece on the inside and high waisted. I can crash and burn in comfort and style. So hallelujah the search is over!

A few other interesting tid-bits about my time in Big Sky. I absolutely love talking to people on the lifts. I may in fact be Belinda Ragsdell made over. For those of you who don’t know my Aunt Belinda, you are missing out. This is a woman who is fearless and can rock a Budweiser swimsuit with the best of them. I always gage to see if my fellow skiers are friendly. Some are not and you can usually tell right away. However, most are and some of my best conversations are on the ride up with people from all walks of life. And there’s no pressure, because the conversation is over in a matter of minutes and you all go about your separate ways. My accent is typically the conversation starter which is ok with me. It’s gotten me this far in life. I do tend to turn on the “y’all” for entertainment with the northern folk. Now let me tell you about the lady I aspire to be. I did not meet her on the lift. I was pulled over on a run waiting on Shelby. He’s gonna be mad for me telling that so perhaps I should say I had just fell and was picking myself up. Ok we’ll go with that, wink wink. Anyway, this blonde lady approximately 60 years old was pulled over near me as well. Probably waiting on her husband too. She was very put together for skiing. I myself hadn’t even combed my hair that morning much less put on any makeup. I didn’t even bring any makeup. She had what was probably her signature pink lipstick on her slightly overfilled lips. No judgement on the lips here. Like my Aunt Belinda always said about anything you do, go big or go home. The blonde lady had a one piece snow suit on with a fanny pack. Inside the fanny pack was the good stuff. She pulled out a pint of either Gin or Vodka. In my mind it was Vodka. She took two pulls off the Vodka, tucked it back in her fanny pack, and went on her way. Also, in my mind I imagined she had an edible in that fanny pack. Probably a lollipop. I’ve got a lot of work to do in the next 20 years but I whole heartedly believe I will be this woman someday.

Day five of the vacation we left our tiny condo and drove to West Yellowstone. It was approximately one hour away. The drive there was blizzard like conditions. Poor Shelby could barely see the road. I went against my travel rules and booked the total package for this portion of the trip. It was a package that included three nights hotel, two days snowmobile rental with one of those days being a guided tour in Yellowstone, and the clothing (snowsuit,helmet,gloves,boots). Message me if you’re interested in the tour company. We arrived at Yellowstone a little early for check in to the hotel so we drove around and checked out the town. It is what I would describe as a cute little town with a Wild West flavor. It was very charming and I can imagine in the summer it is hopping. However, since it was winter, the town was dead except for the snowmobiles. Most of the shops were closed. The roads are not cleared because of the snowmobiles traveling around which was really neat. In my years of travel, I’ve never seen this much snow. There were piles everywhere taller than all the cars and most single story buildings. We visited the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center prior to hotel check in. It is tough to see animals confined but these animals would be destroyed if not for this center.

The next day we went to pick up our snowmobile. This day we would explore the Gallatin National Forrest on our own, no guide. We were handed a map with 500 miles of trails so off we went. I purposely only rented one snowmobile. Not because I’m scared to drive, I actually did drive for a while with Shelby on the back. I could see the reflection of his fear in my mirrors so I purposely drove a little faster. But I only rented one snowmobile because I am looking for wildlife and I can’t possible drive and rubber neck without killing myself. We drove 100 miles of the trails. It was fantastic. We only seen one moose but guess what that is enough for me. We stumbled across a lake resort that was abandoned for the winter. The lake was completely frozen and white. We crossed state line into Idaho, and by the time we returned to the hotel at 6pm, we were wore smooth out. Now here’s where it gets comical. The rental contract said we could keep the snowmobile at the hotel if we were renting more than one day. What wasn’t communicated to us was, a different machine has to be rode inside Yellowstone. So the one we used that day had to be returned at 5pm and exchanged for another for the next day. The rental place called my phone, called the hotel, and even sent somebody out looking for us. We passed him at the stoplight on our way back to the hotel. He rolled down his window and said I’m from the snowmobile place. We just waved and kept on scooting! We both thought well he was awful friendly. We laughed all night about that! And I was slightly embarrassed the next morning when we returned for our guided tour.

The last day of vacation was spent inside Yellowstone. It was extremely cold that morning, and despite three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves, my fingers and toes froze. There were seven snowmobiles plus the tour guide (Amy) in our group The tour was 65 miles round trip and we were all given the safety info prior to leaving. At this point, Shelby and I felt like experts since we had done 100 miles the day before. We rode right behind the tour guide and directly behind us was a lady who had not rode before. I say this because later there is more to the story. Now on this tour, my main goal was to see a Tatanka. A few nights prior in Big Sky, we watched Dances with Wolves. After that, I could not stop saying Tatanka! What I didn’t expect was to see so many Tatanka. They were everywhere, and you could just tell by how they strolled down the road like they owned it, they were as ornery as can be. They officially became my new favorite animal, behind the hippo and the rhino of course. Our ultimate destination was Old Faithful. As we pulled into the parking lot at the gift shop/restaurant behind Amy, there was a couple behind us who had been further back in the line up. Missing was the lady who had never ridden who ended up being a doctor. Amy immediately took off and we stayed put. Come to find out the doctor lady lost control of her machine, struck a tree, and was thrown from her seat. She was ok and more embarrassed than anything. Shelby offered to drive her snow mobile back and she could ride with me. However, that didn’t happen because the rental company came and towed it, charging her $100 per hour for the tow and a $300 deductible for repairs. I felt bad for her but it is just money. She will no doubt make more. Once we arrived at Old Faithful, it had just erupted so we had lunch and then I spent too much money at the gift shop. The lunch was really good. I had chili and Shelby had a double cheeseburger and fries. He swears my chili was Hormel, I argued it was Wolf brand. Either way, I was hungry and it was good. Plus we both ate for $16, can’t beat that. There are things I always buy on trips; a Christmas ornament, crazy socks, and stickers for my Mac book and ski helmet. I normally would shop around town and find something authentic for the ornament but the gift shop at Yellowstone had hand made ornaments by locals. I bought all those things at the Yellowstone gift shop and then my infatuation with Tatanka kicked in and I’m now the proud owner of a $20 stuffed animal that I named John Dunbar. With that being said, John Dunbar will likely be on full display if you visit my home. After watching Old Faithful erupt, we headed back out of the park, stopping along the way to learn more about Hydrothermal Volcanism and to let them ornery Tatanka pass by.

In conclusion, I was contacted by a high school classmate this week who made the comment that Yellowstone was the most beautiful place he had ever seen but he hadn’t been to the places I’d been. My reply was simply:

It doesn’t matter where I’ve been, Beautiful is Beautiful.

Here is a picture of my John Dunbar for your viewing pleasures! And if you haven’t seen Dances with Wolves, shame on you.

Out with the old, in with the bold

In the spirit of the new year new me mantra, I have an announcement to make. Drum roll please…….I’m switching jobs! I know what you’re thinking, who cares. People change jobs all the time. If you know me at all, then you know this is out of character. I’m a self proclaimed creature of habit. I’ve always been adventurous in my personal life, yet cautious in my professional life. I am not a fan of the unknown. I didn’t come to this realization until a few years ago when it was pointed out to me by my boss. The question that has been nagging at the back of my mind since then is why and how do I overcome it. I probably need a professional to figure out why but let’s delve into my journey anyway. Maybe some of y’all are budding psychologists and can come up with the reason. For length purposes, this is just a glimpse. Ok so by now you’ve scrolled to the bottom and have seen that it’s more than a glimpse.

I grew up in a restaurant. A family run cafe in a town of 200 where we opened and closed when we wanted, served whatever we had, and charged whatever you could pay. The matriarch of our family was my Grandma Blondie. She was the hardest working woman I’d ever seen. She had never met a stranger and to this day I’ve never met anyone that did not love Blondie Ragsdell. May she Rest In Peace. Raising me was a joint effort between my mother and my grandmother. My mother was also a hard worker. Working long hours at a factory at night, then helping at the cafe during the day. I would describe my mother’s personality as meek. She had and still has a child like quality to her. With just 15 years between us, I’ve felt like the mother in this relationship more times than not. Despite their personality differences, both of these women possessed a superior work ethic. As a teenager, I found myself to be a little on the lazy side. I’m fairly certain most if not all teenagers are a little lazy. However, I still spent my summer months helping out in the cafe which consisted of me hiding in the back washing dishes and trying my best to avoid waiting on customers. Having spent a majority of my time with my grandma, one would think her personality would mold mine. It in fact did not. I was, and to some degree still am, socially awkward and unsure of myself. Through the years this trait has been mistaken for being uppity or snobbish. I assure you I was and am neither of those things. One would think I had low self esteem then as well. There were definitely a few indications of this. Looking back I’m not convinced. Mainly because I was a good basketball player. I held and still hold the record for most points scored in a career at my school. Yes it was a tiny school and has since closed so some might not be impressed with that statistic. I garnered tons of attention because of basketball. I remember one day at school during my senior year, the principal told me to be in the gym after lunch because someone wanted to speak with me. I showed up wearing the “OOTD” which consisted of a tie-dyed mushroom t-shirt, jeans, matching mushroom necklace, and white socks with black Nike sandals. Dear lord somebody get this girl a stylist! The man introduced himself as a reporter with the county newspaper and he was there to do a full page article on the #1 scorer in the State of Arkansas. I remember thinking are you sure you got the right person. He did the interview, which was like trying to pry a confession out of a serial killer, and took a few pictures. A week or so later the article came out and my “what not to wear” style was on display for all to see. I still chuckle to this day when I think of the first few sentences in the article which read “By her own admission, LeAnn Russom is a bit shy. Except when she has a basketball in her hands. Then she gets downright aggressive.”

Fast forward to college. I accepted a basketball scholarship far away from home. This was way outside my comfort zone but I was willing to fake it until I make it. The fake lasted for a few weeks and then I came crawling back to O’Kean with all my possessions loaded in the bed of a Ford Ranger. I did enroll in our local community college and ended up graduating from Arkansas State University five years later. Do I regret giving up so easily on something I excelled at. I wouldn’t classify it as regret but rather just a slight sadness. Funny thing is I wasn’t obsessed with basketball and really didn’t understand the magnitude of the natural ability I had been given. I say given because that’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t hard earned and the result of my work ethic. It was simply laid in my lap and instead of running with it, I chose to spend my energy running from it. God make give you the talent but he doesn’t often tell you what to do with it. I don’t talk or reflect much on that subject. As a matter of fact, most people in my everyday life would be surprised I played a sport where a ball flies at my face, ha!

During college I started working for the company I currently work for. I was 19 years old and had no life plan, but yet I blinked and now at 40, I’m the proud owner of the coveted gold 20 years of service badge. The 1st four years with the company were what set the stage for hopefully the next 30. What I mean is those years built loyalty in me. I say that because my personal life was a hot mess, and the family I had at Store #71, were the sole reason for my survival and success. I had a purpose for once and people rooting for me to succeed. I owe those people (they know who they are) a debt of gratitude. That day in December 2001 as I walked away from them to start my big girl management job in Searcy was bittersweet. Not only was I leaving my work family, I was also leaving my actual family and friends. I would describe the feeling I felt when the door was pulled down on that U-Haul in the parking lot of what was once Ragsdell’s Drive-In as mournful mixed with a shot of fear. Mournful that this chapter in my life was over and fearful that in a few weeks I’d be crawling back to O’Kean with that loaded down U-Haul trying to re-do that chapter once more.

Searcy, Arkansas….I had made it. It was kind of like quitting cigarettes. Once my mind was made up, I would never look back. Even though there were days I’d think puffing on a Marlboro Light 100 in O’Kean sounded like a dream come true. Come to find out, I was not ready mentally or emotionally for my big girl job. There were a few stereotypes I would have to overcome in order to be successful in this role. First was the college graduate stereotype. These were hard working people, and the last person they wanted telling them what to do, was some 23 year old college girl who had never spent a day of her life in a warehouse environment. The second was the retail stereotype. The success rate of those who had crossed over from the retail side to the distribution side at that time was slim to none. It was and is a tough transition from an air conditioned building to a non air conditioned building. My first summer there I thought I haven’t sweated this much since summer AAU basketball. And let’s be honest, I had absolutely zero leadership experience. But I hung in there and put in the work. Most of the time that is all people really want. I could see where I could make a life here and have that work family like I did at Pocahontas. Before I knew it nine years had passed.

2010 was a big year for me as far as change goes. First in May I became Mrs. Shelby Steward and then in September I took on a larger role at work. Now instead of leading my small area and small group of people, I was leading the entire operation which includes leading leaders. That sure is a lot of leading for a socially awkward country girl. This role has tested me not only as a manager but also as a person. I’ve come up short on many occasions on both. I’ve spent more time than most apologizing and admitting I was wrong. I’ve learned so many lessons these past eight years, I could probably write a book. I’ve seen my confidence take a beat down but I’ve also seen it flourish. There are things about this job that can’t be quantified with numbers. There are feel good moments that have nothing to do with the bottom line such as receiving a letter from a female associate whom you have inspired that it is possible to make it in man’s world. Playing the Easter bunny in our Annual Egg Hunt hops to the top of that feel good moment list. Believe it or not I’m always smiling under that big bunny head! Most of all these 16 years spent on the floor of a 1.1 million square feet warehouse with my work family has taught me empathy and to be bold.

And being bold is exactly what I’m doing. In a few weeks, I will step outside of my bubble. Just like I did when I went far away from home to college and just like I did when I drove away from O’Kean in that U-Haul. Statistically speaking, I have a 50% chance of this working out. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. What I do know is I’ll still be in the same building working with the same great group of people and I know whole heartedly they will never let me fail and they are the reason for my success. Just like the sign at our front door says “Through these doors pass the finest people in Arkansas”.