MISSION: To visit every state and territory in the U.S. For my mission a visit is greater than a stop over; I wish to explore the natural and cultural environments of these areas. Each of these locations has a story to tell, and I want to find it.

As of February 2018 I have visited all 50 states (and Puerto Rico and 2 island in the US Virgin Islands) at least once.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Fall Weekends Revisited - Mountains of Color, Spooktacular Homes and Friends

I have always considered myself, first and foremost, a Jersey Girl!  I was born and raised in the Great Garden State.  I love my home and think there is nothing better than the diversity of riches available in NJ... don't believe me, I bet you have never been off the Turnpike. Give me a weekend, and I will show you a New Jersey you did not even know existed.  Still, other places have soaked into my psyche... I have had other homes.  I am extremely lucky to have experienced 2 very different states, not just on visits and vacations, but to have seen them as second homes.  I lived in Louisiana and Colorado  for short periods and fell in love in different ways.  Every year, I try and go back to visit friends (more like family), favorite places and aim to keep exploring these amazing places.

I flew out to Denver for a very quick weekend in early October.  With only 2 1/2 days in the Golden State, there is not much time for much besides friends and a few local outings.  My mentor, friend and Colorado Mom and I needed to catch up.  For years now she has been channeling Wonder Woman, Supergirl, She-Ra and any other badass female superhero as she fights and wins against cancer.  She is a walking miracle and marvel at her strength and determination.  And while she fights the good fight and works on various causes related to her cancer struggle (including the Colorado Ovarian Action Network), she also is a lover and supporter of the art community in Denver. 

My visit was her first attempt at major activity since a surgery to remove a tumor. So a trip to the Denver Botanical Gardens sounded like a nice leisurely thing to do... we wandered the paths.  Autumn color was all around AND we bumped into one of her friends.  The Gardens were displaying multiple Mexican Day of the Dead alters and her friend was designing one.  Just like that we went from a slow stroll to design consultants.  I have never worked on an alter before - it can be a highly personal thing.  These friends shared that cancer connection, and the alter recognized the strength of family, friends and women to tackle endless adversity.  It was a powerful message.  Three shelves - three parts to the theme.  I was honored to help. 

After reinforcements arrived, we walked a little more before we headed to Cherry Creek for some food at a fabulous French restaurant, LA Merise.  I think we were there for 2 hours just chatting, sharing pictures and enjoying our food.  Truth was I wanted her to rest, and this was the perfect way.  Neither of us wanted to call it quits (I fly a long way to see her) - so we headed to the Denver Art Museum to check out their newest special exhibit on the Italian Venetian Renaissance.  The special showing featured 50 significant works, including 19 from the Gallerie dell'Accademia. 
We didn't take one this time
Not my favorite genre, but I did complete a few Smithsonian classes on the period - I could do this.  I knew that this was really about color and light, and I even recognized a few from class. This was a chance to see paintings from the 1400s-1500s - that fact alone is amazing.  We both dissected a few pictures noting the glitter like quality of the oil painting in some portraits and contemplating the feelings some of the subjects were displaying - if anything, the Venetian Renaissance was the time of emotion.  After asking lots of questions of museum staff and reminiscing about trips to Venice, we headed to the gift shop that has incredible offerings... we perused  and I took her home.  I am so grateful for the time I get with her... she is an amazing woman.  (Her memoir, Remarkably Stable brought me to tears.)

I left one friend and headed to another, out in Golden.  Our plan was very domesticated - her son had a soccer game that weekend... so I was set for a fancy spaghetti dinner with my 6 year old best friend and some serious Lego time.  Promises to embarrass him at his game proved fruitless as he was excited by the idea that I would scream endlessly for him if he scored... alas, practice time was trying on my vocal cords as he manipulated a goal in close range with no goalie ... I should have thought that deal through more. 

The adults had a little time to talk and catch up.  One night, we headed into downtown Golden for drinks and dessert where my aversion to alcohol was a matter of perplexion and confusion to the waiter ... Golden is home to Coors.  So imagine the ticket takers and ID checkers the next day when we went on the Coors Brewing Tour.  You get free beer, and we both said "no thank you."  Seriously, I think people go just to drink... and my friend that graduated from the Colorado School of Mines, right down the street, assured me that that does happen.  The tour did show me the inner workings of this brewing power house... we walked through the process, smelled and touched samples of oats/barley and hops, skipped the samples, and learned about how Coors has supported a "greening" culture through corporate policy - they donate their grains to farmers, they constantly reinvent better packaging, their waste diversion rate is over 90% (don't remember the exact number but recall both of us saying "wow" out loud when we got to that part).  Their efforts were impressive.  And after our tour, we headed out for lunch, on the river where we chatted it up while soaking in a beautiful fall Golden day, took a walk along the river ... and sadly I had to head back to the airport.  The trip was too short, but I was glad I got to see them at all.

New Orleans

My trip to New Orleans was much messier, albeit not much longer.  My plan was to head into town to see some friends launching out with the NKOTB cruise (I decided not to sail this year).  I had booked this trip months in advance after finding an amazing rate on United.  And never once did I think to verify that date with any cruisers ... I was fine, I was told that they were shipping out for the holiday weekend... well, I guess plans changed, because when chatting with someone I was hoping to see, I was told I was WEEKS off!  If you have flown anytime in the last 10 years, you know that the airlines punish you when you change flights last minute... so faced with a conundrum of a trip to see friends without seeing most of them, and spending hundreds more to see friends, I decided to keep my trip intact.  I will be seeing many of my New Kids friends in California in January, and my New Orleans family agreed to host me for a few days... so off I went to New Orleans for a few days of solo day outings and some quality time with a good friend and her family. 

Art vs The Real Thing
My immediate first stop was the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park.  I don't get here on every visit... its hard to fit everything in, but I do make sure to check it out every few trips.  It is one of the largest art museums in the South, and it houses an extensive collection of French and American Art and the famous Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (where yoga and pilates classes are offered).  I took notice of the gilded Lincoln cabin since I had recently visited the actual Lincoln cabin in Kentucky - at closer inspection it spoke volumes about America, built with everything from wood and resin to corn and cigarettes, arrowheads, chains and shackles to railroad ties and spark plugs, bullets to iphones and keyboards.  (If you want to learn more - the piece, America, is by Will Ryman in 2013).  I also spotted another familiar piece in the French collection, a piece from this summer in Ottawa, when a friend and I visited the Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun exhibit - a portrait of Marie Antoinette... it never stops amazing me when trips come full circle and touch back to another.  

The next day I headed to the National World War II Museum.  For failing to visit this must-see museum, I have no excuse.  I used to live across the street from the place, literally!  I have watched this place grow from conception to the behemoth it is today.  In fact, on this visit, I barely recognized the place - now, not only is a multi-building complex, it also attaches to the themed restaurant, a themed 40's era clothing shop and a what looked like a meeting room complex.  I was dumbfounded... a friend told me that there was no way I could see it all in less that a full day, and they were right.  I spent 6 hours in the place, and was just overwhelmed... overwhelmed with its size and scope sure, but more overwhelmed with the impact.  You leave here emotionally spent. How can you not when you are engulfed in the sights and sounds of WWII.  The museum is split into 2 major sections - the War in Europe and the Pacific War, so you walk through the war 2x.  You can get a card at the start to follow someone through the war to better understand their story (me?  I got a child of a teacher in the Pacific that was trapped and prisoned in Japan but survived).  I started my museum tour with the Tom Hanks narrated movie, "Beyond All Borders" featuring first person accounts of the trenches to the home-front, with 4-G effects... a museum "add on" but a definite must see in my book.  It brings the museum alive, making you sick to your stomach at the levels of human depravity and proud beyond measure at the lengths to which  young men and women went to stand up to this level of insanity.  As our WWII vets pass on, this museum will stand as a guardian to the truth and tell their story.  Never again can the world sit back and allow this to happen. 

I was grateful that once I left the museum I was in such a colorful and amazingly alive city - you need to connect to life after all that death.  With New Orleans filled with color and sounds, I walked the streets for a bit.... I needed to stop by my favorite jewelry store, Earth Odyssey, to see my friend/owner and to add something to my collection.  Her store on Chartres was packed and hopping.  People coming and going, to and from readings, and others to look at the minerals and gems.   I can't recommend this place enough if you are in town - high quality, unique, knowledgeable staff, and a relaxed no pressure environment.

After collecting myself, I headed home so we could go out... we headed to midtown for food and then went off to see the houses of the Garden District - the ones that take Halloween to a new level.  Halloween is an institution in NOLA - and if I had ever lived there, I would be all over this fun!  Most homes have some level of decoration out - giant spiders in the trees, or ghosts on their porches, but there are a few, a chosen few, that cause traffic.  One creates a boneyard - an entire front yard filled with puns attached to skeleton characters - in the yard you find pop culture, sports figures, politicians, and those of fairytale and legend.  A few streets over, you can find homes that build entire sets ready for a movie - there is fog and sound & light effects, projects into the windows, creepy critters, ghouls, goblins (really vamps and ghosts - the stuff of NOLA lore).  One home dedicated to ghost pets...  it just goes on and one.  My bucket list has a NOLA Halloween party added to its ranks...
My friend took off work for a day so we could head out together... and she treated me with a trip to the North Shore (Lake Pontchartrain) to the Global Wildlife Center.  They are a conservation group that focuses on grazers. It is the largest totally free roaming wildlife preserve of its kind in the country.  On site, you can see a heck of a lot of Pere David Deer.  In fact there are thousands of them roaming this 900+ acre property freely.  Here, you also have a few llamas, giraffes, lesser rheas, antelope, big horn cattle, elk and zebras.  Apparently zebra and the aggressors on site and staff warned us constantly about them - their no nonsense approach to food has caused enough of a problem that there is talk of relocating them... but that does not take away from the fact that this facility helped save the Pere David Deer.  This Asian Deer's population has been reestablished in the wild with the help of this facility.  And this is pretty damn cool.  We rode a tram through the park, feeding a lot of grass pellets to these guys, and along the way knowledgeable staff spouted facts at you... there was something to learn, if you bothered to listen!

That evening, we headed back to the French Quarter for a ghost tour... I have not done one in years, though really any walk through NOLA is a ghost tour.  We stopped at a few familiar stops (like the Gardette LaPret Mansion), we stayed across the street and a corner from LeLaurie Mansion (most people do not like getting near that place), and stopped at a place that was "new to me" - the site of a vampire home.  We ended on a street on the west end of the French Quarter that is said to be cursed - as our guide took us through horror after horror, including one in recent memory - people are possessed.  Since so many NOLA tour guides earn their money showing these places off and telling their stories, publishing them here is unfair... go take a tour!  Its not expensive and its a fun way to walk around the city and learn about its darker side.... these stories are rooted in history and facts.

With that, my trip was over after a legendary swamp burger in Metairie...

I may be a JerseyGirl stuck in DC, but these places hold special places in my heart - So thank you friends for 2 great autumn trips.  I will see you soon!

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