November 27, 2017

I Just Felt Like Running

Last summer, with the encouragement of my brother-in-law, Shaun, I trained for and ran a 30k trail run in Truckee. My goal was to finish feeling so good that the idea of signing up for a 50k trail run seemed like a good idea. I managed to do exactly this, finishing the 30 trail kilometers with about 3,500 feet of elevation gain in about 3-1/2 hours.

Within the next week or two, I managed to find a 50k trail run that looked pretty epic. The North Face Endurance Challenge - California 50k would start in Sausalito, wind around trails and fire roads in the Marin Headlands, and finish at Chrissy Field after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. The total elevation gain and loss would be a little over 6,700 feet.

Following a modified Hal Higdon training program, I steadily ramped up my weekly miles to about 50, with my longest training run being about 25 miles. On my last big training week before beginning a 3 week taper, I finally managed to give myself an overuse injury significant enough that I would need to rest. At the same time, I acquired a pretty bad cold. This combination instantly dropped my weekly training miles to about 9, and 5 for the third and second to last weeks before the race. I wasn't sure if my legs would cooperate, but my daily mucous production was much lower by the time race day came around and I was determined to give the race an honest attempt.

With Ava away traveling and my fear of driving in cities, I managed to put together a somewhat unsuspecting support crew. My mother-in-law, Nancy, kindly offered to get up with me at 5 am and drive me to the start. My good friend, Shane, and Ava's cousin, Gina, would meet me at the aid station at 23.5 miles and again at the finish.

I started running at 7 am with about 550 other runners. I was planning on averaging 13 minute miles and hoping to do slightly better. I was right on schedule and my body seemed to be cooperating through about mile 21, at which point my legs started feeling heavier. I was fortunate to find a 61-year-old woman who had run about 40 ultra runs to pace me for a while. We ran and chatted until we got to the 23.5 mile aid station, which was at 25 miles according to my GPS watch. At the aid station I met up with Shane and Gina and took a few minutes to rest. From here I would have one significant hill, then it would be downhill and flat to the finish.

Approaching the aid station at Mile 23.5

From here I pretty much put my head down and kept my legs moving, feeling like my hamstrings were about to cramp the whole way. Soon enough I found myself crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, knowing the finish line would soon find me. I ended up finishing in just over 7 hours. My watch claimed the total distance was 33 miles. Doing the math, 50k should be 31 miles, which means we all got two free bonus miles! Depending on what distance you believe, my pace was either a little over or a little under 13 minute miles, right about where I planned to be, and right near the middle of the pack.

Victorious finish pose / I am the fastest man alive!

I can't say I felt so good at the end that signing up for a longer race seemed like a good idea. However, I felt good enough that I signed up for another 50k. For the next one, I'm planning to meet up with my friend Graham (my main running inspiration) in August in Squamish, BC for a 50k with about 8,500 feet of elevation gain and 9,000 feet of loss.

I won't claim this endurance running thing is rational. I suppose I choose to do it because it's challenging, a good excuse to stay in shape, and a wonderful source of Type 2 fun. I think I'll take a bit of a running break while I continue to recover and transition to ski season. Thanks to Graham and Shaun for the inspiration; Ava for helping me train and supporting me through the training process; Nancy, Shane, and Gina for the race support; and my physical therapist for helping me get through the last few training weeks!

September 30, 2017

Oregon Archery Elk

For my first hunting season as a California resident, I decided to buy an archery elk tag in Oregon. I'm a huge fan of hunting in-state, primarily to reduce the time, fuel, and money required to hunt, but hunting elk in California is pretty much not an option. Oregon's liberal season and zoning for an archery elk tag means you can hunt the majority of the state, from late August to late September. Due to work commitments, I chose to hunt for one week in early September and one week in late September, the last week of the season. I also chose to hunt in Eastern Oregon in units where my tag was good for "any elk", which is ideal for a meat hunter like myself.

My first week of hunting, the week of Labor Day, can be summed up in two words - hot and smokey. Although no fires were burning near where I was hunting, I was due west of several large fires. The prevailing winds were happy to push all that smoke my way. On top of the smoke and poor visibility, the temperatures in nearby John Day, OR reached 104 degrees that week.

Perhaps the highlight of my first week was being less than 20 yards from three mule deer bucks. I could have shot any of them, but I was too cheap to purchase a deer tag. I did find two small herds of elk, but spooked them before I knew they were there. After four days of suffering in the heat, I threw in the towel in attempt to save some energy and motivation for my next week of hunting.

About a week and a half later, I returned to the same general area. Thankfully, the weather had done a 180. A couple days in, the forecasted snow actually came. Since I learned a lot about where not to go during my previous trip, I was able to focus my time in some more promising areas. I discovered a freshly used wallow shortly before spooking a herd of elk that was bedded about 150 yards away. I spent the following morning looking for fresh elk tracks in three inches of fresh snow.

While deer and deer tracks were plentiful, I didn't see a single elk track. As I was walking back to my truck on an old logging road after covering several miles without cutting a single elk track, I saw a raghorn bull walking toward me at about 70 yards. It had no idea I was there, so I quickly took a knee on the side of the road and knocked an arrow. I didn't have time to range the elk, but it seemed very close by the time I got my arrow knocked. I guessed he was at 30 yards, drew my bow, settled my pin behind is front shoulder, and released. It felt like a good shot, but I didn't hear the musical "thump" of arrow penetrating vitals. After the bull ran off, I ranged where he was when I shot, and discovered that he was 47 yards, not 30. My arrow was way low. I soon discovered that it wasn't a clean miss, as there was bright red blood in the snow accompanying the bulls tracks. I tracked the bull for 3 miles in the snow, up and down hills, watching the blood slowly diminish as his wound clotted up. I eventually lost his trail when he entered a thick patch of timber where snow had not reached the ground. Based on his behavior, and the amount of lost blood, I am confident the bull will fully heal from my shot, which I concluded hit an artery low on one of his front legs. Nonetheless, I felt bad for wounding such an amazing animal.

The next day I met up with my lifelong friend, Jake, and we went to one of his favorite areas to hunt. This area, as I soon found out, can be characterized as steep, rugged terrain with challenging public land access. On the up side, there are a ton of elk! Since Jake had recently harvested a bull in Utah, he was committed to his goal of shooting an elk with his recurve bow. For the next few days, we backpacked into the area and had multiple exciting, close encounters.

We tried to head off the first herd we found, only to have them reverse course as soon as we got within compound bow range. I was at full draw on a cow at 62 yards, but opted not to take the shot as I couldn't see her vitals as they were hidden behind the grass between us. That evening, I stalked in on a lone, 5-point bull that I heard bugle about 30 minutes before the end of shooting light. I got close and hoped that he would continue walking in the same direction, into my shooting lane. He hung up in a small patch of trees, so I cow called a few times. The bull bugled in response, and soon came out of the trees. I ranged him at 75 yards as he continued to feed in my general direction. With daylight running out, I had to act fast. I ranged him again at 70 yards before he disappeared behind a tree. With his vitals exposed, I aimed for 70 and released. While this is a long shot for me, it's a shot I know I can make - provided I don't jerk the trigger, which I did. It was a clean miss. The upside of a clean miss is that the bull wasn't very spooked. I cow called again, and he continued in my direction. A few minutes later he was about to pop out above me at 30 yards. I knew the mistake I made with the longer shot, and I was not going to make it again. This bull was as good as dead in my mind. Because he came in above me, the wind was quickly becoming unfavorable. As the bulls nose started to come out from behind the last tree, he winded me and bolted.

The next morning, Jake and I were hunting together in hopes that he could call a bull in to me. Near the same area where I flung an arrow the previous evening, we heard a bugle. I moved forward and Jake moved back. Once I was set, Jake began calling. The bull bugled in response, but seemed reluctant to expose himself. I got several good looks at him and determined he was the same bull I hunted last night. He briefly showed himself at 60 yards, but never presented a shot before wandering off. Nonetheless, it was very cool to be that close to a bugling bull. With all these close encounters where things almost work out, I knew that it was only a matter of time until everything lined up.

That evening as we were heading back to the truck to resupply with food and water, we heard multiple bugles in a thick patch of timber below us. With the wind blowing uphill, my instincts told me to head straight down in to the forest, get sneaky, and shoot the first elk that presented a shot. Meanwhile, Jake went back to the truck to get his compound bow and hunt the same herd. As I got close to where the nearest bugle was, I saw elk fur through the trees at about 60 yards. The steep, loose, rocky ground was difficult to move quietly over, so I moved very slowly in attempt to get a little closer and get a shooting lane through the trees. When I was about 50 yards out from the nearest cow (I could make out 2 cows and a spike bull), the cows trotted off in one direction while the bull went another. I later found out that another hunter was down below me and that Jake was making some aggressive moves farther off to my right. It's unclear what they were running from, but I don't think they every knew I was there.

Jake and I split up the next morning to relocate the massive herd of elk we spooked the night before. I ended up going back to where we located some elk a few days earlier. After hiking about 2 miles from the truck, I heard my first bugle of the morning. I quickly descended toward the sound and soon made out four cow elk crossing an open area. I attempted to get ahead of them in their path of travel, but ended up coming in on top of them. Once again I found myself sneaking in on elk from above, attempting to get close enough to get a shot through the trees. I got as close as about 45 yards, but never had a shot before the elk moved off, unspooked, but feeding away from me. However, I heard a weak bugle from the direction the elk had come from. I hoped that the bull would follow the path of the cows, so I set up with a good shooting lane and waited. I never heard the bugle again, and after waiting a while, I began to walk in the direction the cows had wandered. After moving 25 yards, I spotted a lone cow walking across the same opening. I knew this elk was trying to catch up to the rest of the herd, so I once again set up with a good shooting lane. If this elk followed the others, I'd have a 35 yard downhill shot.

Less than a minute later, the cow entered the opening below me. She was crossing way lower than the other elk, and I ranged her at about 82 yards. However, she was ascending as she crossed, and I ranged her several more times. I determined that, on her current trajectory, she would be at 72 yards just before she entered the trees and exited my shooting lane. With the steep downhill angle, my range finder said I would need to aim for 60 yards.

As the cow neared the tree line, I was at full draw. I made a mew with my voice and she stopped and looked toward me. I settled my pin, reminded myself not to jerk the release, and let my arrow fly. At that distance, my arrow was in the air for just shy of a second. When it hit, there was no question that my arrow met its intended target. On impact, the elk went airborn with all four hooves quickly rotating above its body. The elk proceeded to cartwheel down the steep hill about 5 times before sliding another 30 yards before coming to rest. It never got up again, but also didn't die right away. I hiked down the hill and put a second arrow in her chest to expedite the process.

After spending a moment thanking the elk for its life in my own particular way, I began the butchering process. The steep slope made this challenging, and it felt like a wrestling match at times. As I was hunting light and stealthy with my fanny pack (Jake and I had dubbed ourselves "The Fanny Pack Killers" for this hunt), I didn't have a good way to carry the first load of meat out. I ended up carrying a Kuiu game bag (essentially a duffel bag full of meat) in one hand and my bow in the other for the first trip. I'd hoped to see Jake when I got back to the truck, but he was still chasing elk around way down the hill below me. I returned with my pack for a second load and ended up shuttling a load part way back, returning for the last load, and taking that load all the way back to the truck. I got back to the truck about an hour after dark, exhausted.

The next morning I returned for the load I had shuttled up the hill. Hunting in that terrain combined with packing an elk out of it was the most physically challenging thing I've done in a very long time - the best kind of hard work.

I shot this elk on the second to last day of the season, so I got a full-value hunting experience. It was a relatively young cow and the weather was cool, so the meat is excellent. I've now harvested my elk four out of the last five years, including three different states. I owe much of my success to Jake, not only for introducing me to archery elk hunting in 2010, but also for showing me one of his favorite spots. While many hunters might be disappointed that they didn't shoot a bull and consider a cow elk a consolation prize, I couldn't disagree more. This elk's life was no less valuable than any other elk's life; and the difficulty, challenge, and reward associated with harvesting any elk with a bow will always be enough to make me extremely grateful.

August 12, 2017


Some people hear the word "keezer" and think I'm completely botching the pronunciation of a term for the human rear end. Then I say "kegerator" and all of a sudden everyone knows what I'm talking about, even though it's an inaccurate term for the appliance to which I am referring. For the record, a kegerator is a refrigerator that has been turned into a home for one or more kegs, and a keezer is a freezer that has been turned into a home for one or more kegs.

Now that that's out of the way . . .

A few months ago I finished converting a chest freezer into a 4-tap keezer, which now resides in the garage. My brother-in-law, Shaun, was instrumental in its construction, which went something like this:
  • Remove the lid from the chest freezer.
  • Employ the services of a skilled craftsman relative who will likely accept payment in beer.
  • Somehow talk that same person into giving you some beautiful "scraps" of reclaimed 2x12 redwood boards.
  • Plane, cut, pre-drill holes, and assemble aforementioned boards to form the "collar" of the keezer.
  • Stain and seal the collar.
  • Attach drip tray.
  • Affix plumbing, insulate the inside of the collar, install external thermostat, and reattach the lid to the top of the collar.
  • Brew lots of beer, put it in kegs, and
  • Presto! You no longer have a chest freezer, you have a keezer (and probably more friends than when it was just a freezer)!

No, this isn't original, and no, I'm not creative. I must give credit to my good friend, Kris, who built something very similar in Seattle for the inspiration as well as guidance as I stepped up my homebrew game. Hopefully this beautiful and functional appliance will one day have an inside home where it can be properly displayed.

May 14, 2017

Long-Overdue Update

In no particular order, highlights since my last blog post include:

  • Archery hunting for elk in the Missouri River Breaks,
  • Buying my first firearm,
  • Shooting a mule deer while hunting with my sister and good friend, Jeff, with said firearm,
  • Moving to Truckee, CA,
  • Starting a new job,
  • Buying a house,
  • Going on a 3-1/2 year delayed honeymoon,
  • Gaining a nephew, and
  • Adding a canine member to our family.
I spend most of my time working, which has the dual consequences of me doing fewer blog-worthy things and having little to no time to write about the few blog-worthy things I manage to squeeze in. That hasn't changed, but I will attempt to post more frequently nonetheless. Below are a few more details on the events listed above.

I spent a week during archery season elk hunting in the Missouri River Breaks with Jeff. We hunted a few days from the river/reservoir out of Jeff's boat before experiencing motor problems, limping our way back to the put-in, and hunting from the roads for the last few days.

Hunting elk from a boat - a totally new experience for me

Classic terrain of the area we hunted

One of the few bulls we saw, and the biggest. Photo taken from about 550 yards.
I heard the bull above from about a mile and a half away. I quickly closed the distance to about a mile where I got my first visual, and saw about 10 elk milling around and feeding just on the other side of a major drainage. It was getting late and I didn't have much time before dark. I continued to close the distance anyway, using gullies and land features to hide my presence as I moved. I took a quick video from near the bottom of the drainage, after running out of good cover at about 550 yards. I could see a route to stay hidden and get within about 200 yards, but then I wasn't sure how I could quickly get close enough to seal the deal. I executed my plan and ended up backing out just after dark from about 200 yards away.

The next day, Jeff and I went back to find the herd, which we eventually did after hearing a bugle around 2 pm. The bull and his harem were slowly working there way down a draw toward where I saw them the previous evening. We planned an ambush and both set up at different locations in hopes that the elk would continue down the same drainage. Long story short, the elk veered up and out of the drainage until they winded Jeff, at which point the spun around and ran back up hill. As it turns out, I was up hill of Jeff and the elk were running right at me as I sat under a lone pine tree. The elk didn't come into view until they were about 20 yards away. I had an arrow nocked, but couldn't draw as the elk were facing me and very close. About 12 cows ran by me at 8 yards followed by the bull in the rear - nostrils flaring and breathing hard. I planned to draw after they all passed, call, and hope the bull would stop. He did, briefly, but he was in direct line with a branch from the tree I was sitting under. It was truly amazing seeing all those elk so close, and them having no idea I was there. I would have loved to come home with meat in the freezer, but that's as close as we came.

Rifle season approached and my meat supply from the previous year was dwindling fast. I broke down and bought my first firearm in preparation for a boomstick-assisted meat harvest. My sister, Molly, and Jeff joined me on the first day I was able to get out during the rifle season. Three hours later, I passed on a small whitetail buck. Five hours later, my new Browning X-bolt in .270 Win had done its job. Thanks to this amazing animal for its unwilling sacrifice. The fact that Jeff and Molly were with me made it very special. Molly had yet to be with someone when they took a big game animal, and she got to experience everything from the hunt to the kill to the meat in the freezer.

After a couple of years spent working for NOLS, remodeling, and working as a carpenter, I accepted a job offer with an engineering firm in Truckee, California. On the up side, Truckee is in the mountains, surrounded by mountains, and close to Ava's family. The only real negatives are that I'm now a Californian and elk hunting is virtually non-existent in this state.

The job's going well. Compared to other engineering positions, I've been given more trust, more responsibility, and more work. The firm, Holdrege & Kull, has about 50 employees in three offices. Only 5 of those are year-round, full-time employees in the Truckee office. About a week and a half ago we were purchased by a larger, publicly traded engineering company (NV5). It's too early to tell how that will affect things for me, but it doesn't seem like anything notable will change in the near future.

Planning to be here for a while, Ava and I decided to buy a house. We did so just in time to get buried for the winter, as the Sierra set some new records...and we're in the area that gets less snow than anywhere else around Truckee. At one point, the snow berms on the side of the driveway were about 12 feet tall, causing me to seriously consider purchasing a snow blower.

In February we temporarily left the snow for a luxurious trip to Baja California. We spent most of our time relaxing and eating good food at the resort we stayed at in Pescadero (Rancho Pescadero). We did escape the black hole of luxury for a day to travel across the peninsula to La Paz, where we spent the day on a boat in the Sea of Cortez, swimming with whale sharks. We didn't take any pictures, but there are several on the internet like the one below. Just imagine snorkeling next to a 30 foot long fish in 10 to 20 feet of water where the fish looks like it's just sitting there and you have to swim relatively hard to keep up with it, all while trying to remember to breathe and convince yourself you won't be eaten.

We spent enough money on the trip to justify calling it our honeymoon, which we promised each other we would do, eventually. It ended up being an excellent escape from both the snow and our very busy lives.

Shortly after we returned from Baja, Turner Iluka King was born. Congrats to Maiya, Turner, and Shaun! I'm super excited to have a nephew who lives in the same town as me, especially if he's as crazy as those videos suggest Shaun was when he was little.

Last but not least, we acquired Ethel from the local humane society. We've had her about 6 months now, and it's often hard to tell if we love her more than she loves us. In a few words, she's adorable, highly submissive, very energetic, a great running, skiing, and mountain biking partner, and she hates riding in cars. We often call her Ethel Sue, but her whole name is "Ethel Susan B. Anthony Holliott, first of her name, relocator of sticks, queen of flopping, lover of all beds and people".

And in case you're still reading, I'm hoping to post again soon regarding my renewed commitment to home brewing.

May 30, 2016

Shed Finished

After recently painting and staining the shed, my 5x14 foot shed is officially complete!  I built the doors from scratch, put in a reclaimed window on the south side, and included a 2-foot overhang on the north side for wood storage.

The shed sits in the corner of our lot, so I envision the fence lines eventually tying in to the edges of the shed.

The north side also includes a small ladder door so I can slide a 24' extension ladder in and hang it on the back wall.  The shed is topped with a corrugated, galvanized metal roof.  It is built from about 70 percent recycled material, which largely contributed to keeping the total cost down to $961.

I had a blast building it from the foundation to the roof.  I love the way it turned out, especially considering that this was my first piece of new construction.  Now I don't have to carry the lawnmower up and down the stairs into the basement each time I mow the lawn!

May 27, 2016

Westward Ho!

As I eluded to in my previous post, Ava and I will be moving to Truckee, California in about a month.  I received an engineering job offer that was too good to pass up.  I'll start working on June 20 as a geotechnical engineer for Holdrege and Kull in their Truckee office.  H&K have a few offices, with the main one being about an hour away in Nevada City, CA.

The Truckee office is small, with about five to ten people depending on the season.  The people I met there while interviewing a couple of weeks ago all seem to have a great perspective on the elusive work-life balance that matches my own.

I find that I'm filled with equal parts excitement to move and resume my engineering career, and sadness for leaving Missoula.  It'll be great to be closer to Ava's family and I'll keep my fingers crossed that this works out and I'll finally get to settle in a place long enough to become a legitimate part of the community.

May 22, 2016

Bathroom Finished

Despite my lack of recent posts, I've been quite busy.  Between working 40 hours per week as a carpenter and putting in up to 30 more working on my own house, finding time to take pictures and write blog posts has been difficult.  Without further ado, here's the best before and after picture comparisons.



Of course, that's just one side.  The shower took the most work.

 And a little paint and pallet wood accent wall really spiffed up the toilet alcove.

The major pieces of this project were re-plumbing everything, redoing all the lighting, installing cabinets, tiling the floor, refinishing the tub, tiling the tub surround, and building the accent wall.  If it wasn't for a handful of termites discovered in some of the pallet boards and the mank discovered in the wall behind the shower, everything would have gone real smoothly.  As it was, I had to rebuild both mirrors and part of the pallet wall.  I also used pallet boards as base molding.  Other than having an electrician help out with some of the wiring and the countertop supplier install the countertop, I did everything else.  The total cost of the bathroom remodel was $6,815, which includes all new appliances, and fixtures.

So, we've got a beautiful new bathroom, finished just in time to move to California and rent our house out (more on that in the next post).

February 20, 2016

Bathroom Remodel - Phase Next

After installing the cabinets, countertop, and sinks, the next committing move was to tear out the old, plastic tub surround and redo the shower area.  This turned into a multi-phase project that was more work than anticipated.

The old shower, complete with pink bathtub and leaky, plastic surround
After removing the surround, I discovered two layers of wet, moldy drywall with complementary smell.

With the drywall removed and mold damage assessed, I decided to plane down the studs that appeared affected by mold and mildew.  This brought clean, fresh wood to the surface, convincing me the mold issue was surficial as far as the wall studs were concerned.  As an additional precaution, I hosed down the studs, twice, with mold and mildew killer/preventer.

With that unexpected issue dealt with, I began some framing modifications to accommodate a built-in niche for the new tub surround.

Framed out niche for 
 Prior to rebuilding the surround, I planned to turn the hideous, pink tub white.  Using a $95 refinishing kit from Bath Works, I made this happen.

White tub!
Next task, plumbing.  I installed a new valve, tub spout, and shower head and connected it all up with PEX.  The instructions said to use copper pipe between the valve and tub spout, but the "expert" I spoke with at Home Depot said PEX would be just fine (and I desperately wanted to avoid soldering).  So, I went with 1/2" PEX all around (more on this later).

Plumbing complete (sort of)
 With blocking in at all planned board edges and transitions, and the wall framing planed as flat as I could get it, I was ready to start rebuilding the surround.

 Rebuilding the surround would consist of installing 1/2" backer board up to about the level of the shower head and waterproofing the backer board layer prior to tiling.

Backer board installed
 I had originally attempted to leave the existing drywall above the back board in place.  This turned out to be noticeably thicker than the 1/2" backer board, so it had to come out as well.

Upper drywall removed and replaced
 Next, the waterproofing.  I taped all joints with 6" fiberglass tape and covered all backboard surfaces with Hydro Barrier waterproofing membrane.

Pretty, blue membrane
Once the membrane dried, I installed the fixtures in order to temporarily use the shower while we wait for our ordered tile to arrive.  In doing this I discovered that water would come out both the shower and bath outlets when it was only supposed to be coming out of the bath outlet.  Further research into this issue led me to the conclusion that it was because I didn't use copper pipe between the valve and the bath spout.  While there is nothing magical about the material itself, 1/2" copper pipe has a larger inside diameter than 1/2" PEX.  The reduced flow through the smaller diameter PEX causes a pressure build up that ultimately raises the column of water between the valve and the shower head high enough to allow water through the shower head.  My planned solution, waiting to be implemented and tested while I wait for a couple of PEX parts to show up, is to increase the PEX diameter from 1/2" to 3/4" between the valve and bath outlet.  With the back of the wall still completely open, this should be a relatively simple and non-invasive fix while still avoiding and need to solder copper pipe.

The entire process described in this post took me one week.  I worked mostly evenings as I've been working full work weeks as a carpenter with Confluence Construction for the last five weeks.  As my hair is still long and I'm now working as a carpenter, the low-hanging-fruit of a joke is that I look like a modern-day Jesus.

Provided this plumbing fix works, the main tings left to finish the bathroom are to tile the surround, tile the floor, finish up some drywall installation, texturing, and painting, and some minor trim work.

December 30, 2015


After working a winter skiing course for NOLS in early December in the mountians of western Wyoming, I had about two days before heading to Cuba with Ava's family.  The adjustment from living in tents and snow shelters to all-inclusive resorts in the humid tropics couldn't have been more abrupt.  I'll try to keep this post in summary form as the prospect of recounting all the events and experiences we had in Cuba is far too daunting.

Rick, Nancy, Maiya, Shaun, Ava and I traveled to Cuba with Backroads on a People to People visa.  There were 20 participants in our tour group, including the six of us.  We had two amazing Spanish guides and a local Cuban guide who was employed by the state.  We spent seven days in Cuba; three near the town of Matanzas, and four in Havana.

The Hollidays (sandwiched by an Elliott and a King) at the Dupont mansion, Xanadu

A requirement of our People to People visa was that we needed to spend all of our time engaging with various locals and generally learning about Cuban culture.  This made for a highly educational trip as well as giving the trip a pretty intense "go, go, go!" vibe.  The following list provides an idea of how we spent our time:

  • Visited an organic farm
  • Visited tourist attractions such as the Dupont Mansion and Hemingway's house
  • Listened to lots of live, local music, and speaking with the musicians
  • Ate at several private restaurants, many of which also served as art museums
  • Toured some limestone caves
  • Spoke with a former professional baseball player
  • Spoke with Marc Frank, an American born Cuban who writes for Reuters and Financial Times
  • Visited several art museums and spoke with artists
  • Had many great and enlightening conversations with our Cuban guide, Oscar, who encouraged us to ask any and all questions
  • Walked the streets of Havana, visiting Catholic churches and a synagogue
  • Hiked through a reforested coffee plantation
  • Visited a small town in the forest with a commune vibe
  • Etc., etc.
Rather than recount all of these experiences and more, I'll summarize my overall impressions and learnings.  I think the biggest thing I got out of this was a first-hand impression of what life in a communist/socialist country is really like.  The US media loves to demonize communism and socialism doesn't fare much better.  We always hear the negative side associated with these types of societal structures, but never the positive.  Speaking for what I observed in Cuba, it's true that people tend to have very little expendable income.  However, you don't need much expendable income when education and healthcare are free and housing and food are highly subsidized.  The education system is so good that one of Cuba's main exports is educated people (e.g., doctors).

Old Catholic church in Matanzas

Of course there are problems with this system, just as there are problems with any system, but my point here is that it is not all bad.  In some ways (education, health care, lack of xenophobia, equity), Cuba is far ahead of the US.  Other than the occasional theft, there is almost no crime.

The cars, and much of the rest of the country, seem to be stuck in the 50's.

The next major learning I'll talk about is my impression of the general state of contentment of the Cuban people.  In the news, we hear about Cubans risking their lives to escape Cuba via raft, directly implying that life in Cuba is so awful everyone wants to leave and some people are willing to risk their lives to do so.  Based on what I observed, this is the exception rather than the rule: akin to saying that everyone in the US wants to shoot up a school because there have been so many mass school shootings.  Everyone we spoke to seemed content with the system and actually had quite a bit of pride in their country, while at the same time recognizing that there is substantial room for improvement.

A sample of the somewhat morbid art that was fairly common

I have many other thoughts pinging around in my head that have yet to land and solidify.  Suffice it to say that I learned a ton and think I will continue to learn as I process my experiences and filter media coverage of Cuba through a realistic lens.  I'll finish with a smattering of pictures, but before I do, I'd like to give my sincere, blog-public thanks to Rick and Nancy for making this trip possible.

We found many adorable dogs, and at times wished we were on a People to Dogs visa

Invasive bamboo, a cow, and a cow reflection at a sustainable farm/restaurant/art studio

Classic Havana

Streets of Old Havana

Cuban National Bird (Cuban Trogon)

Hiking through a former French coffee plantation

Totes adorbs

Also totes adorbs

Baseball practice near Hemingway's house, by far the most popular sport in Cuba