U.S. National Parks on sale!

There are a lot of opportunities to save a few dollars here and there when we pass certain age milestones. Some businesses offer deals for customers as young as 50, but most of these “senior discounts” don’t kick in until we reach age 55, 60, or older. Many restaurants, hotels, airlines, rental car agencies, and retail shops try to attract our money by offering a dollar amount or percentage off… but often only if you ask (so, ask). Some of the deals are good, but many require the customer to purchase something they may not have wanted in the first place.

Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah should be on everyone's bucket list.
Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah should be on everyone’s bucket list.

The very best senior discount opportunity I know of is the one offered by the National Park Service. For just $10, plus a $10 processing fee, any U.S. citizen or permanent resident age 62 or over can purchase this lifetime pass to over 2,000 recreation sites. Senior Passes can be purchased online, by mail, or in person and will admit up to four adults (any age) in one non-commercial vehicle for free. How flipping great is that??!!

I have been anticipating the day my husband turned 62 so we can purchase a Senior Pass and, now, I am so excited to get my his hands on it! The National Park Service turns 100 in 2016 and we look forward to using the heck out of it to explore this amazing resource we are so fortunate to have in the United States (you can read my previous post about the National Park Service here).

If you aren’t yet 62 (I’m so sorry for you), there are other discount passes available, including one for current members of the military, people with disabilities, and 4th graders (I assume I don’t have any 4th graders reading my blog but some of you may have children or grandchildren who qualify). The $80 Annual Pass is available to anyone and is a great deal if you plan to visit more than one or two participating parks during a calendar year.

To learn more about the National Park Service and their discount passes, visit their website (nps.gov), or go straight to: nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm.

So little, yet so mighty!
So little, yet so mighty!

Then, get out and explore!

GratiTuesday: So long, fifties, it was fun!

Tomorrow, I will no longer be in my fifties. A new year and a new decade of my life begins. I’m not even sure how long I can legitimately claim to be “middle-aged” anymore (although I suspect that I’ll cling to that designation until my dying breath).

60 cupcake

At least up until today, I’m not too freaked out about this milestone birthday. Tomorrow could be a whole different story, but right now I feel optimistic. At 59, I’m generally healthy and happy, and I have no reason to think this will change when my odometer clicks over to 60.

My fifties started out not with a bang, but a whimper… mine. On the day of my 50th birthday, I had a 4-hour meeting with a client that required a 3-hour drive each way. I felt sorry for myself the whole day and my mood was only slightly brightened when my husband greeted my return with a hug and a kiss and a homemade cake. Poor me.

Fortunately, that inauspicious start was not a harbinger of things to come over the next decade. I soon left that good but uninspiring job for a better one which allowed me to learn a lot of new skills, work with some amazing people who became much more than colleagues, and gave me a strong sense of career satisfaction. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to work for a great company and with some outstanding individuals.

My fifties included quite a few travel adventures, including a trip to Cuba that I had dreamed about since I was in my thirties. I also got to explore parts of the United States that I hadn’t been to before, and re-visited other areas that warranted a second – or third – look. I am so grateful that my husband, traveling companion, and best friend are all wrapped up in the same package.

I took up a few new hobbies in my fifties, including blogging and photography. I am grateful for the generous help and encouragement I’ve received from others as I struggle to improve. I’m also grateful for the plethora of free, or nearly free, classes and seemingly limitless online resources that have helped to shorten my learning curve.

Of course, my fifties contained a few bumps and bruises along the way. Four years ago I lost my beloved 92-year-old father after many years of failing health. As sad as it was to say good-bye, I am so grateful that I had him in my life for so long. I, along with my brothers, had the privilege of caring for him as he declined and I am profoundly grateful that I was by his side to surround him with love as he slipped away.

My fifties is also the decade that I shut the door on the 8 – 5 world and opened the mystery door labeled “retirement.” Although it has been less than two years since I stepped over that threshold, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a second thought about that decision. I am grateful that I was able to leave work on my timetable and while young enough to experience the joys and take advantage of the opportunities retirement offers.

So, tomorrow I’ll celebrate the beginning of a new decade. I don’t know what it holds for me, but I’m grateful that I get to be here to say “hello, and welcome.”

A most cherished object

This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest 2015, which is taking place July 24, 25, and 26. Each participant is to write about one of their most cherished objects. After considering writing about my cherished husband, health, and friends, I decided they weren’t really “objects.” What I chose instead is a both an object and an entree to adventures.

 

I have in my possession, a magical and powerful document. Held within its dark blue covers is my key to foreign lands and infinite experiences. It gives me the ability to not only travel freely around the world, but to return to the United States with few questions or concerns.

Written inside the front cover are the powerful words that confer this special status to me and that asks other nations to offer me reasonable freedom of movement and protection:

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

Passport

Although certainly not unique – after all, there are close to 150 million U.S. passports in circulation – my passport allows me to visit 174 counties, many of them without the additional requirement of a visa. The ease with which my passport allows me to travel from one country to the next is almost unparalleled. In fact, United States citizens’ travel freedom is ranked first, along with Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Finland.

My passport has taken me throughout Europe and it has accompanied me across our northern and southern borders into Canada and Mexico. Most recently, it traveled with me to Cuba. I’ve only had to present it when I’ve entered and departed each country, but having it in my possession along the way has given me a greater sense of comfort and safety.

The United States is not perfect and I know that we could do many (many) things better, but I also feel very lucky to be a citizen. The happenstance of my birth has offered me privileges that many people born elsewhere don’t have. My U.S. passport represents the strength of my nation and the relationships it has built over the decades with most other governments.

Despite all of its power, my cherished document is lacking something very important which I hope to resolve over the next several years: there far too few entry stamps. My husband and I are looking forward to years of adventures in our retirement and I hope that, over time, those pages will be filled with dozens of stamps as we travel the world.

 

To read more posts by Cherished Blogfest participants, please link to this page to visit other most cherished blogs.

Building a bridge to Cuba

Although the news wasn’t a surprise, I was heartened to hear President Obama announce the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. This breakthrough came after months of secret talks between the nations followed by his acknowledgement last December that the relationship between the two countries was headed for a profound change. This Monday, the Cuban flag was raised over the country’s newly restored embassy in Washington, DC.

In 1961, the United States enacted an economic embargo with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. The sanctions were tightened even further in 1996, again in an effort to unseat Castro. History has shown us that these restrictions haven’t attained their goals; the Castros are still in power and democracy has eluded the island’s citizens.

Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as "The great homeland that grows."
Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as “The great homeland that grows”

Although past U.S. administrations have sought to moderate or remove the sanctions, politics has, until now, stymied any efforts. Politicians seeking the votes of the large population of Cuban exiles in the swing state of Florida have been unwilling to support any changes.

There are many reasons why what seemed impossible before, now appears to be happening. For Cuba, their two main benefactors, first, the Soviet Union and then, Venezuela, imploded, leaving the government without critical economic support. Tourism, trade, and investments from the United States will offer them much-needed monetary infusions. For the U.S., not only have the sanctions failed to oust the Castro regime, but they have severely constrained our country’s trade and foreign policy options. In addition, with an agreement, the Cuban government will lose a powerful scapegoat. No longer will they be able to blame their failed economics on the policies of the United States.

Demographics have also played a big role in the softening of the stance of both countries. The Castro brothers are now in their eighties and soon these powerful symbols of the revolution will be gone. In addition, the original exiles – the most vocal opponents to any change – are also aging, and younger Cuban-Americans are more open to removing the restrictions of the embargo. Although no one believes that Cuba will instantly become a bastion of human rights and democracy, it will be hard for their government to maintain its current policies when there is more freedom of communication, travel, and commerce.

Cuba's famous Malecon at sunset
Cuba’s famous Malecon at sunset

When my husband and I traveled to Cuba earlier this year (you can read about our journey here, here, and here), we found a country hungry for change. The Cubans we talked to (and there appeared to be little or no restrictions on our interactions) were friendly, welcoming, and eager to engage with Americans. Despite – and maybe because of – the hardships they face, many have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. They are also very proud of their country. Cuba has a 96% literacy rate and their citizens enjoy free education and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba’s water quality is among the best in the world, as is its citizens’ nutrition levels, health, and life expectancy.

Cubans are also very proud of their medical system. Cuban doctors are highly trained and their skills are in demand around the world. In fact, some 50,000 Cuban medical workers have been deployed in over 66 nations. That, of course, hasn’t included the United States, but maybe that could change. There has been a lot of concern lately about the dearth of general practice physicians here in the US. As the Baby Boomer population ages, more and more medical care will be needed. In addition, now that healthcare is more widely available through the Affordable Care Act, we need more doctors to provide care.

I know that there are many who feel that the sanctions should remain and that formally re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba sends the wrong signal. I, on the other hand, think it’s time to admit that our half-century estrangement hasn’t yielded the results we wanted and has actually produced many unintended negative consequences.

Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana's buildings are at risk of collapsing
Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana’s buildings are at risk of collapsing

By joining the rest of the world and opening up relations with Cuba, we can start a dialog that could result in increased freedom for their people. It might also mean that we could help satisfy our growing need for doctors by inviting members of their highly-trained medical establishment to practice here. Wouldn’t that be better than to continue a failed policy which, after more than 50 years, has yet to show any positive results?

It’s the journey, not the destination

Route 66

When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.

Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.
Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.

Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.

That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.
Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.

As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles.  Just about all of us were baby boomers.

World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.
World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.

Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.

Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.

A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.

The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.

* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.

Hit the road, Jack!

Jack Rabbit

Although our recent road trip (see this post and that post) included visits to several spectacular national parks and some family time spent with mid-west relatives, we also enjoyed stopping at interesting and often amusing roadside attractions along the way.

The era of America’s roadside attractions exploded in the 1930s, with the expansion of the highway system. Often marketed to the newly mobile public with flashy billboards and unique architecture, they were designed to attract attention and encourage travelers to stop and spend some money. Early entrepreneurs came up with crazy ideas like Mexican restaurants topped with huge sombreros, motel rooms shaped like tepees, and countless “world’s largest” just about anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, the 1956 Federal Highway Act and subsequent development of the interstate superhighways doomed many of these attractions. Some were completely demolished, leaving no trace. Others were closed years ago and only their run-down, boarded-up shells can be seen. A lucky few, though, have somehow managed to survive and can be visited and enjoyed today.

Wall Drug

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota
Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

We were told about this (apparently) world-famous drug store by a hotel owner in eastern Wyoming. He not only gave us great pointers about the best routes for us to take on our journey across South Dakota, he said that a stop at Wall Drug was pretty much mandatory.

We began to spot billboards advertising Wall Drug (“120 Miles to Wall Drug,” “Free Ice Water,” “5¢ Coffee,” “Entering Wall Drug Country”) as soon as we hit I-90 and headed east across the prairie. Even if we hadn’t heard about the place, I think the billboards would have lured us in.

Wall Board

Opened in 1931, when Wall, South Dakota was a 231-person town, Wall Drug is now less of a drug store and more of a shopping mall of kitsch. It has been featured on travel shows and in international magazines and purports to take in over $10 million and attract over two million visitors annually.

Corn Palace

Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot
Cornelius, the Corn Palace Mascot

Soon after leaving Wall, we began to see billboards for another small-town attraction: the Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota. Since we both vaguely remembered hearing about the attraction (and, since who could pass up seeing a palace made of corn?), we decided to stop and check it out.

The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892 as a way to showcase South Dakota’s farming community and lure settlers. It was rebuilt in 1905 when the city of Mitchell attempted to be designated as the state capitol. In the 1920s, the Palace was rebuilt once again, this time to lure tourists, not farmers, to the area.

One of the murals made out of corn
One of the murals made out of corn

Although we arrived too late to go inside, we enjoyed wandering around the exterior and admiring the beautiful murals made of corn. The murals, designed by local artists, are reconstructed each year. This year’s theme is the 125th anniversary of South Dakota.

After our visit we did a quick Google search to find out why the Corn Palace sounded so familiar to us.  Following 9/11, when grants were being distributed by the Department of Homeland Security to beef up security at various sites deemed to be at risk, some fiscally responsible politicians felt that protecting the Corn Palace deserved a portion of the funds. In 2004, the Corn Palace gained unwanted notoriety from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in the ensuing controversy. In 2012, the Corn Palace was featured on the Stephen Colbert Show (“A Shucking Disaster: Nightmare at the Mitchell Corn Palace”).

These are just two of the roadside attractions we enjoyed on our 5,161 mile road trip. We visited many more as our trip took us west out of St. Louis, through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and back to California. I hope you’ll follow along with us to see some of the attractions made famous by travelers past and present, as we made our way home along portions of old Route 66.

0 to 5161 in three weeks

Last night, my husband and I arrived back home after being on the road for three weeks.  We took off from Southern California on April 24 with a rough itinerary that included a couple of hard dates but also a lot of flexibility. We had family and calendared events waiting for us in Omaha and later in St. Louis, but, other than that, we were on our own.

A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park
A quiet walk among the the red rocks in Capitol Reef National Park

The 5,161 miles we traveled took us through 14 states and to 11 national parks and monuments, several state parks, and quite a few museums. We had days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, days full of ice and snow, and just about every weather pattern in between. We experienced the majesty of nature in the red rocks of Utah and Arizona and the audacity of men whose dreams led them to carve the likenesses of four presidents and an Indian chief on the sides of mountains. We saw a giant depression in the earth where a meteorite landed 50,000 years ago and we enjoyed the kitsch of visiting a giant rocking chair and sleeping in a motel room shaped like a teepee along the route made famous in the 1920s and 1930s.

My husband, best friend, and traveling buddy (I’m fortunate to have all three wrapped in one person) indulged my photographic whims by happily stopping whenever I asked him to. Our tastes are similar enough so that we usually easily agreed on attractions to stop for as well as food and lodging choices, but we are flexible enough so that we could change plans to accommodate each other’s interests.

Today is the one-year anniversary of my retirement. Over the past twelve months we’ve taken two driving trips and two trips that have required getting on a plane. Planes allow us to get to far-off destinations, but there is nothing like a road trip to best explore this country and build a greater understanding of ourselves and others.

As I do on every one of our travels, I kept a journal of our day-to-day activities and adventures. I also jot down inspirations, insights, and possible blog topics as they occur to me. I will share some of these over the next several posts.