Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Top 5 US National Parks - #5 Glacier National Park

Over the course of the next couple weeks, I'm going to take some time going back through some of my old photos from trips Allyson and I have taken to the many beautiful national parks in the US. This won't be in order of my favorites, because I can't possibly pick a favorite. My friend, Garrett, will have a heyday with this post. He teases us that we only ever travel to national parks. It is true that I prefer wilderness to city adventures, but I do appreciate both. But it's in the wild that I feel connected to both nature and people. Like I'm part of something bigger. 

So here we go....#5 is Glacier National Park. It's so far away from where most of us live, which is probably why it's still so incredible. It is definitely worth being on your bucket list though. There are day hikes for those that don't want to backpack. The Going to the Sun Highway through the park might be the most beautiful road in the world. (We'll see...I have a feeling we'll see some pretty spectacular roads in New Zealand.) But it's the more remote places that really blew me away. Here are some of the highlights from the trip we took to Glacier with our friends Jess and Dani:

For our first two nights, we camped at Two Medicine Campground. We took a great hike up Pitamakan Pass. If the weather had cooperated, we would've continued the loop to Dawson Pass. Unfortunately, we got freaked out by some creepy clouds and thunder and thought it was best to turn around. Still an amazing hike though with some of the best views I've ever seen!

Take a swim, if you dare, in Old Man Lake. It took our breath away, but felt so refreshing!

 Bear Grass (Interesting fact: These flowers are closely related to lilies!)

I don't know what this one is called, but he looks straight out of The Lorax to me. (Another interesting fact: I was the Lorax in a middle school play.)

Pitamakan Overlook

Our next adventure started a little late in the day, because Allyson and I decided to re-trace a good portion of our Pitamakan Pass hike the next morning in search of my lost Oakley sunglasses. She had gotten them for me as a gift right before our trip. Unfortunately, after re-tracing to the last place I remember having them, we didn't find them. Then we still had 8.1 miles to hike to our campsite at Red Eagle Lake. 

This hike was incredible, despite the downpour for the second half of it. This whole forest burned down in 2006, and we were there in 2009. As you can see from the pictures, it still looked very much burned. But there was something truly incredible about all the wildflowers coming up beneath these dead trees. 

The storm is coming


We ended up setting up camp in the pouring rain and spending hours in our tents. However, the rain left during the night and left a beautiful day for us the following day. We left our stuff at Red Eagle Lake and hiked to Triple Divide Pass. This was the day we saw a moose and hiked 16 miles in Chacos or Crocs or Keen sandals because or hiking boots were still soaked. 

The morning after


Awesome swimming spot...jump in and let that water take you away. Super fun. 

Fleabane (This was taken with my first point and shoot camera. I'm not sure I've taken a better picture since.)

We hiked out the following morning and planned to spend the next two nights at Fish Lake campground on the other side of the park. This meant a gorgeous drive down the Going to the Sun Highway. The following day we hiked the acclaimed Highline Trail. This is a long day hike (11.6 miles to The Loop from the Visitor Center and then you take a shuttle back), but totally worth it. And get this, you can have a Diet Coke on the top at Granite Park Chalet. Check out what might as well be a Diet Coke advertisement below.  

Under the bridge

Obvious Glacier Action

 Grinnell Glacier can be seen if you take the Garden Wall hike straight up from the Highline Trail

 Psychedelic Paintbrush

That is the Chalet in the right top corner of the photo

Diet Coke Ad

How cute is this deer?

So many more stories could be told about this trip (for example, the fact that our car wouldn't start on the morning we had to leave to get Jess and Dani to the Missoula airport), but we'll save those for another time. We will be back to this amazing place, because we only saw a fraction of what is there to see. Thinking back on it tonight definitely has me wanting to go back. Adventure, anyone? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Autumn Fun in the NC (Stone Mountain State Park)

This Saturday, we are taking advantage of the fact that the humidity is gone (jumping for joy!) and heading out for a hike. We plan to check out Hanging Rock State Park, which is a little over a 2 hour drive northwest from Durham, NC. In the meantime, I am reminiscing about a great hike we took last year on a perfect fall day in the middle of October. Allyson and I, along with our friends Ciara and Beth, took a beautiful drive up to Stone Mountain State Park. The State Park is right on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is arguably one of the best places in the country to see the fall colors.

State parks in North Carolina are amazing! The trails are always well-maintained and well-marked. Stone Mountain State Park was no exception. With a free trail map you will have no trouble finding your way back to your car. However, you may choose to extend your hike, as we did, because you are having such a wonderful time. We had planned to do the "strenuous", 4.5 mile, Stone Mountain Loop Trail. As far as I am concerned, nothing in North Carolina is strenuous. However, we did summit the mountain, all 2,305 feet of it! There is a steady climb leading up to the summit, which must be the reason for the strenuous rating, but just about anyone in reasonable shape can do this hike and enjoy it.

We started the hike at the Upper Trailhead Parking area and went clockwise on the loop trail; therefore, seeing Stone Mountain Falls first. There are great views of Stone Mountain off to the right for much of the first half of this loop. When we got to the clearing (about half way on the loop), we stopped and had lunch looking up at the climbers on Stone Mountain. After lunch, we realized we weren't ready to go back yet, so we backtracked just a bit to add on the Cedar Rock and Wolf Rock Trails. This was totally worth it! I recommend doing this no matter what, and skip the backtracking. Just turn left on the Cedar Rock Trail when you are coming down the Stone Mountain Loop Trail. There will be a great spot to stop and eat lunch right on Cedar Rock and no one will be there!

The only tricky part about the Cedar Rock/Wolf Rock loop is finding where Wolf Rock Trail starts. Once you are on Cedar Rock, head up the rock and you will find Wolf Rock Trail in the trees on your left. These two trails add on about 2.5 miles, making the whole hike about 7 miles.

I'm heading toward Wolf Rock Trail..it's in the trees to the left up there. 

After meeting back up with Stone Mountain Loop Trail, we stopped by the bathrooms at the Lower Trailhead Parking area before beginning our ascent. There were a decent amount of people enjoying the gorgeous day and trail, but not so many that we didn't have plenty of time to ourselves and plenty of space to goof around!

Near the top, there are several spots you'll want to stop to soak in the view. Mountains (more like rolling hills) as far as your eyes can see, covered in yellows, oranges, and greens. Just gorgeous!

We can't help it. It's hard not to laugh about a summit of 2,305 ft when you've climbed Mt. Whitney and backpacked in Glacier National Park. But there is something more peaceful or meditative about the Blue Ridge Mountains. We definitely appreciate their beauty, even if we joke about the summit. 

A couple cool things about this park...1. It's fairly close to Durham and a super easy drive and 2. You basically go through Winston-Salem to get there. There is a great brewery (with sweet potato fries) in Winston-Salem called Foothills Brewery. Make sure you stop there on your way home from a great day of hiking. We happened to pull into Winston-Salem right when their 1st Annual Pride Parade was taking place! It was nice to see a rather conservative town celebrating diversity. We make Foothills Brewery a regular stop on our way to or from Asheville or anything in the western part of the state.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

DJ vs iPod

Ok. So I thought I was done with wedding posts. But, for those of you that don't know, I think about things. A lot. And I am still thinking about things I would've done differently. Don't get me wrong. I still think our wedding was an incredible day and I mostly just think about that. However, we were recently at my cousin's wedding and afterward I decided it was worth putting up a post about a decision we all have to make when we have a wedding. It may seem obvious to some, but it didn't seem so obvious to us.

We are music people. We love and live music. Lots of our family and friends are music enthusiasts (read "snobs"). Therefore, we thought long and hard about our ceremony and reception music. Our top priority for music during the reception was to have songs that people (lots of people) would dance to. These days a lot of people don't immediately jump to hiring a DJ. And let's face it, we didn't get married in a big city with lots of djs to choose from. Our venue had a sound system, so we decided we could save some money (supposedly the average dj costs somewhere between $800-2000) and go the iPod route for the reception. 

Here are some of the pros and cons for both (I only know these now. We didn't know all of this when making our original decision). 


1. Someone to run the show                                  
2. Guests can request songs                                      
3. They bring their own sound equipment            

1. Uncertainty (without a referral, the dj could be awesome or totally suck.)                     
2. Cost             
iPod Playlist

1. Cheap (was going to say no cost; however we did spend money on songs we wanted but didn't have in our library.)                          
2. We get to keep the playlist and listen to it to remind us of our wedding. (I workout to our dance playlist all the time. Fun!)              
3. We had control of the songs up to the day before. We had fun putting the playlists together.                                                              

1. No MC. We didn't think about this before the rehearsal. Thankfully, our officiant and friend, 
Nora, rocks and mc'd for the first part of the reception. But it would've been great to have someone who knew when to make announcements (i.e. first dance, last song of the night, etc.) 
2. That lame delay between songs. 
3. Sometimes you don't think of a song you'd like until you are in the moment, and by then it was too late. 
4. If the venue doesn't have a great sound system (ours didn't and we didn't know that until wedding day), then you are kind of stuck with it. 

I still don't know if we would've done it differently. We were planning from so far away and would've had to hire someone (the one dj in the islands) without meeting him. It seemed a little sketchy and we were really trying to make this a budget-friendly wedding. Overall, I think we did an awesome job of picking songs that people would dance to. We asked a friend to "man" the music and she did a great job. This is essential if you plan on going the iPod route. Make sure you designate someone is in charge of pausing/starting, adjusting the volume, and making sure guests aren't just coming up and skipping songs mid-song. 

However, if you have the money or have a friend that can do it, I encourage you to consider getting a DJ. Something about it just seems more like a party and it is nice to have someone mc-ing the night. If you do plan on going the iPod route, feel free to email me at asutkowi@gmail.com for our playlists (cocktail hour, dinner music, and dance party). 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Michigan, My Michigan

Michigan. Birthplace of Madonna, Kid Rock, Stevie Wonder...and me. That's right, I was born in good ole Flint, MI. I lived in Michigan until I was 14 years old and then took off with my family for sunny California. I must admit, as a teenager I was blown away by California's majestic beauty (still am) and was so happy to no longer have to endure my eyelashes freezing shut on a winter run!

I don't get back to Michigan much, but Allyson and I spent a week in Northern Michigan last summer and I developed a new respect for my birth state (I have a very difficult time with the terms "home state" or "hometown" because I don't know where mine are). We spent a week with some of my family boating around on beautiful Burt Lake and Indian River, biking around quaint Mackinac Island, and just generally being in awe of how clean the air and water was (this may have been due to the fact that we'd just spent the last two years living in the smog cloud of Los Angeles.)

I loved this when I was a kid! Melissa's (my cousin) son, Elijah, is "driving" the boat with his grandma's help. We had a speed boat (and a little sail boat) growing up and spent all summer out on the boats or in the water in front of our cottage. We didn't need much to stay entertained. I didn't realize how lucky we were then to have such a beautiful and clean lake to play in!

Allyson and Elijah bonded big time. Here they are hanging out on the boat, both a little sun-kissed from the fun we had out on both Burt and Mullet (yup...that's right) Lake.

The bridge I was in love with LONG before I even knew about the Golden Gate bridge. The Mackinac Bridge connects the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan. One of my first road races was across this bridge. Fond memories for sure!



My mom, Kayla (my cousin), Allyson, and I rode tandem bikes all the way around Mackinac Island. The day was gorgeous and we had so much fun. We also felt like we'd earned a short nap in the grass and a great big cone of Mackinac Island Fudge Ice Cream, something I've been craving since I left Michigan.

World Famous (maybe) Mackinac Island Fudge

Sadly, I didn't purchase the hat. I'm shocked my vegetarian wife didn't leave Michigan running, what with the animal pelts, Buck Pole (google it), etc. But she didn't, and we are both heading back for a very short weekend to celebrate the wedding of my cousin, Jessica, and her fiance, Kevin! Looking forward to it!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A is for Advice....Wedding Advice

Allyson and I were talking this week about some of the things we wished we'd done differently, as well as our favorite moments of the day. I'm a big list-maker myself, and think lists are an easy way to outline some of the things to think about for your big day. So here you go....

Top 5 Moments (or things we are glad we did)

1. "Pre-Vows"

We wrote our vows together. They were actually fairly easy to write because we agree on what a relationship means to us and what we want to give and get from each other over the years. The vows were set up like "I promise to...."

Our "pre-vows" came right before our vows and were a chance for each of us to say why we love the other one. We decided not to share this with each other before wedding day. We did talk about the length of them and the general approach, so that they seemed to fit together. This was by far the most meaningful part of my day. I cried saying mine and I cried when Allyson said hers. No matter what else happened this day (and lots of other great things happened), this made the day. 

We wrote our pre-vows and our vows in a little book that we can now keep and look back at over the years. We also wrote down everything we did the week following the wedding in the book, so we can remember that too. 

All Photos Taken by Wedding Photographer, Jonathan Steinberg

2. Our Song - I've Just Seen A Face by The Beatles

Allyson and I sing together a lot. We have lots of songs we could've sang. The one we chose isn't the one that necessarily highlights each of our voices the best. But the words are perfect. It's fun and easy to sing. And most importantly, we are so connected when we sing this song. It's nearly impossible to screw up because we can feel the other person doing their part; not just focusing on trying to get our parts right (I should really speak for myself here...I've been a singer my whole life and love to harmonize. Part of good harmony is connecting with the other person/people and it's kind of what I live for when singing. I'm just so so grateful I have married someone I can harmonize with). 

Favorite two moments of this song on wedding day: 
                     1. When we messed up the words. Seriously, favorite part. Why you ask? Because we laughed for like 3 seconds and then just jumped back in like it was part of the song. My wife was pretty nervous about doing this in front of a crowd, and she was just so strong out there and actually had fun. So proud of her!

                     2. These lyrics get me every time: 

"...she's just the girl for me; And I want all the world to see we've met..."

 Because we are gay, and there is still so much controversy about that in our society. And so many gay people or couples feel like they have to keep their love quiet, these lyrics mean so much to me. There hasn't been a moment since I first considered being with Allyson, that I didn't want to tell everyone. That means something...she's it and no one can tell me otherwise. I want all the world to see we've met!

3. Venue

We spent months making a decision about where to have our wedding. We have friends and family all over the country. The first place we thought of was Orcas Island and we found Odd Fellows Hall online. We fell in love with the idea, but then ruled it out thinking it was too complicated for people to get there. We researched and visited at least 10 other places in the Bay Area, and nearly put money down on an amazing place: Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. Then we realized the venue itself would cost one-third of our budget and that just seemed insane! We are both so glad we came to our senses. For one-fifth the cost of the Center for the Arts, Odd Fellows could not have fit our personalities more. To get married outside, under beautiful madrona trees and looking out on the water, just worked for us. 

4. Our Parents' and Maid of Honor Speeches

We didn't have much control over this. And sadly, I think these were more emotional for our family and friends because we are gay. Our parents displayed so much support, love, and pride in their speeches. I think everyone cried. 

Photo Taken by Friend, Joann Chang

5. Friend as Officiant

 Allyson has known Nora since they were very young. They grew up together and now we are all friends, along with her lovely partner, Lynn. If we had hired someone we didn't know to officiate, I have to believe that the ceremony would not have been as special. Nora knows us and you could tell from every word she said that she believes in us, as individuals and as a couple. On top of that, she was a natural at speaking in front of people. Thanks Nora!

Runner Up: 6. Didn't Drink Too Much

This may seem like a silly thing for this list. We enjoyed every moment of this day. But we may not be able to remember every moment if we had drank too much. We had both talked about this ahead of time, but I honestly don't even know how we could've drank too much considering the amount of socializing before dinner and dancing after dinner we did. Nevertheless, lots of couples end up getting sloppy, and I'm so so so glad we didn't. I'm also grateful not to have been hungover - on top of the most exhausted I've ever felt - the morning after the wedding!

Top 5 Things We Wish We'd Done Differently

1. Thank You to Wedding Guests
First, we placed a framed "thank you" to our wedding guests by the guest book, but my guess is no one read it. We also said a thank you speech after our parents and maid of honor spoke. Well, we were so overcome by emotion from their speeches that we both feel we kind of dropped the ball on our speech. Our day-of coordinator convinced us that the thank you speech could take the place of walking around from table to table and talking with our guests. What a mistake! We are still regretting not being able to speak to everyone that came, and this would have been our opportunity to do that. Make sure you do this for your wedding! It's so important to feel like you connected with each person that traveled such a long way to be there for you. 

2. Group Photo

We ( I ) didn't do a good enough job telling our photographer some of the key pictures we wanted. We had pictures the perfect photo opportunity. All of our guests could have gotten on the patio at Odd Fellows Hall, along with us, and the photographer could have taken a terrific group shot from up on the balcony. This is worth taking the time to rally the troops. We so wish we had done this. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Steinberg

3. Eat the Cheese!

Neither one of us had a single bite of the appetizers, and we have heard that the cheeses were out of this world. We also only had ONE bite (and was it even a bite if it mostly went up Allyson's nose?) of dessert. Take a few minutes to eat the cheese.

4. Don't Commit to Too Much 

We had some friends planning to go whale watching the following morning, and we thought that would be so fun and give us a chance to spend more time hanging out with people who had come for our wedding. We said it sounded fun but we'd let them know. So we didn't totally bail, but I still felt bad that we couldn't go. Bottom line....give yourself time to recuperate the next day. You'll need it. And some people (probably younger people and those that stay up past 10pm on a regular basis!) could handle an after-party after their wedding, but we were exhausted and wanting some time to ourselves. We hear others had a great time but I'm just saying...I felt bad that I'd suggested an after-party and then we couldn't even make it ourselves. 

5. Don't have a #5 - It really was an awesome day!

Top 5 Songs

This is hard and I'm trying to be objective. These are not necessarily my favorite songs of the evening. But these are the songs that got people on the dance floor. 

1. Love Shack - B52s
2. Thriller - Michael Jackson
3. Call Me Maybe - Carly Rae Jepsen (This slightly embarrasses me, and we actually were out taking pictures during this song. However, we have pictures documenting the fun people had!)
4. Let's Get It On - Marvin Gaye
5. It's a tie between 
              I'm Sexy and I Know It - LMFAO
              Any of the three Lady Gaga songs we played
              Call On Me - Eric Prydz (for a certain group of people)
              California Love - Tupac (for the California peeps)

I'm happy to share our whole list with anyone who is interested. Just send me a message at asutkowi@gmail.com

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Continued Adventures on San Juan Island

After spending several days on Orcas Island, we took the ferry over to San Juan Island for our last 2 nights in the San Juan Islands. Last year, we discovered the Bird Rock Hotel in Friday Harbor, and we decided it was worth another stay. This place is precious. When you walk in the lobby to check in, there is always fresh lemonade and homemade cookies waiting for you. You have an option of rooms without bathrooms (so you share a bathroom with other guests) or rooms with bathrooms. To be honest, we have never had trouble using the bathroom when we wanted it and the rooms are much more affordable without the bathroom. All of the rooms are named after San Juan Islands, and we stayed in the Sucia room. Nice view and very cozy!

As soon as we checked in, we knew we wanted to find the best place on the island to watch the sunset, drink some wine, and have a picnic. We asked the very nice woman at the front desk, and she directed us to West Side Road. All along the southwest coast of the island are places you can turn out and sit by your car or walk down little trails to sit right on the cliffs covered in golden grasses. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We ended up stopping shortly before reaching Lime Kiln Point State Park. We saw whales in the distance, with the mist from their blowholes spouting up into the sunlight. We saw kayakers enjoying a sunset trip down below. And we enjoyed a glass of wine, cheese, crackers and veggies while soaking in the beauty around us. This is what life is all about!

The next day, we were silly enough to get a couple's massage before heading out on the hottest day of the year for a bike ride to Pelindaba Lavender Farm. In the morning, we got adequate massages at Earthbox Day Spa (note to self, next time schedule the massages for the late afternoon...after the adventures!) Although it was relaxing and a nice treat for both of us after a busy few months of wedding planning and graduate school, I wouldn't recommend Earthbox. If I were going to get a massage in Friday Harbor again, I'd ask around for recommendations. 

The bike ride was tough! We are both pretty active and one might think an island would be flat, but this ride was no joke! It was worth it though. We rented hybrid bikes from Island Bicycles right in Friday Harbor. They were really helpful and told us the best way to go. Although it was really hilly, being on bikes gave us a chance to really experience the farmland, valleys, and ocean views in the distance. 

Once at the lavender farm, we took a good hour or two just relaxing in the shade, walking through the lavender, and going through the shop. When we told the woman working there that we had used their lavender in our wedding, she gave us another bouquet (like we needed more!) for free. We took it out on the picnic table we were hanging out on and I played around taking pictures of our rings along with the lavender. After we had re-hydrated and had enough time to recuperate, we headed back out on our bikes a different way than we came. The whole loop ended up being around 13 miles, so it was totally reasonable for an afternoon ride. 

When we were out to dinner at Cask and Schooner (amazing fish and chips!) that night, we asked one of the servers about a good place for a trail run in the morning. He sent us to American Camp National Historic Site. Wow! Talk about views as far as you can see! It was a perfect last adventure on the islands. Allyson and I enjoyed running on the footpaths and fire roads, up hills and out to the edge of cliffs. We managed to run about 5 miles weaving up and down different trails. One loop to start with is Grandma's Cove to South Beach Trail and back to the start via the Redoubt Trail (2.5 miles). Great little loop and options to add on to it. 

We both felt some serious sadness about leaving the islands. I felt completely relaxed and so happy about how our wedding and the week after had gone. However, there is something truly special about the San Juan Islands and it was very difficult to leave. It isn't just that being on vacation is better than going back the real world. It's that Orcas Island (and I suppose the rest of the San Juan Islands) are the IDEAL real world for me. Or maybe part of my ideal world. We will definitely be making this place a regular spot to visit and I'm so glad we took a leap and made it our wedding location as well. See you soon San Juan Islands!