About Kelli Mutchler
Kelli Mutchler left a small, Midwest American town to prove that Yanks can, and do, chose alternative lifestyles. On the road for five years now, Kelli has tried news reporting and waitressing, bungy jumping and English teaching. Currently working with Burmese women refugees in Thailand, she hopes to pursue a MA in Global Development. Opportunities and scenes for international travel are encouraged on her blog, www.toomutchforwords.com.
Latest Posts by Kelli Mutchler
The start of a Road Trip – stocking up on a last-minute list of supplies, eagerly pondering all possible necessities and necessaries, then blithely postponing them until ‘further down the road’ – is the best part. For, unlike backpacking to a foreign country, you are in full control of rest stops and meal breaks, playlists and car games. You can run the tank down and fill the chili bin up. Every turn-around and view point and highway name is an unusual, mental souvenir. This is freedom, epitomized on two wheels.
Norbert Mutchler’s name is one of thousands carved into the white headstones that line the Black Hills National Cemetery in South Dakota. Small plastic flags and individual red carnations are the only decorations. On holidays, family members still kneel to place these items of remembrance. Solid and unpretentious, the grave markers – like the dusky mountains surrounding them – represent an isolated remnant of the American spirit.
And, just as it is impossible to visit this veterans’ memorial without needing a Kleenex, it is impossible to visit the Black Hills without discovering the true heart of a country.
Paha Sapa and Khe Sapa, the Lakota Native Americans call these peaks. Translated brokenly into English, the names describe the sacred mountains emerging from the earth, and their pines that appear black in the distance.
Driving west on South Dakota’s Interstate 90, they first break the horizon like a dark mirage, an island amid the vast golden prairies. It is only when your wheels spin past Rapid City and on towards the famous sculpted faces of Mount Rushmore, that the scenery changes. Gone are the 360-degree skylines of the eastern Dakota territories. Now, aspen, deer and cowboy boots surround you.
The Black Hills have always marked the first outpost of the West; an enclave of indigenous culture, pioneering standards and gambling opportunists.
I returned to these shadowy forests – 28 years after my birth – to find a national identity that had withered abroad. The United States of my grandparents’ generation, the motherland that Norbert defended on the shores of Normandy, seemed to be an endangered ideology.
Filed under: Nature & Environment, North America, South Dakota, Travel, United States Tagged: a place I love, America, Black Hills, inspiration, South Dakota, travel writing competition, WeSaidGoTravel
“By most social measures of wealth, I’m about the poorest bastard you know…”
Below the knee, Greg Wilson looks like a cowboy. From the waist up, he could be an urban hipster: patterned scarf around his neck, an orange Penguin softcover tucked into his coat pocket.
He drives a red pickup and didn’t own a camera until his early 20′s. Wilson is the sort of American I love to meet abroad. The type who let travel expand their identity, softening them into something undefinable, beyond national stereotypes.
The kind you could meet in any bar in the world and wonder, Where are they from?
Wilson and I catch up over ciders at Flanagan’s Irish Pub in Spearfish, South Dakota. Originally from the state, Wilson currently lives and works as a windsmith in Wyoming. He’s back in town to arrange a photography exhibit at Black Hills State University.
“All photography is, in essence, trying to capture a moment,” he explains. “Something that can encompass everything, bring you back to a moment in time.”
Like an image of Cairns, Australia – where Wilson spent a year working on scuba boats – brings back the smell of mud flats, a brilliant sun, the cheers of kids in a nearby pool…
Perhaps a picture of Alaska, where Wilson says he learned to backpack. Or maybe a shot of some small-town USA, any of the places he biked through during the summer of 2010.
The cross-country trip exemplifies Wilson’s mix of respect and disenchantment with Uncle Sam. He does not hold back describing the ignorant and spiteful folks out there. Halfway through a quote, Wilson stops and asks me to cross out the words I’ve been scribbling.
“But,” he adds after a pause, “it’s absolutely amazing how many incredible individuals you meet in the same society.” Strangers who bought him meals, offered him shelter or simply a cold drink. “Travel’s changed my perspective on America.”
And photography, he insists, is all about perspective.
One of Wilson”s favorite pictures catches a sunset over Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Forest, a scene he’d explored 1,000 times before: hunting, camping and cutting down Christmas trees.
Showing a friend to the area, on the 1,0001 time, Wilson found something he’d never seen before. Luckily, he had his camera – a 5-year-old Pentax – in his backpack.
Before relocating to Wyoming, Wilson spent a long time roaming. But the plane ticket to Laramie drained his bank account and left him stationary for the unforeseeable future.
Though he loves living near friends and family - “They transcend miles and time,” - like all nomads, he’s dreaming of his next departure.
“Photography has taken over my passion. There’s a distinct lack of beauty in my life: an 8-5 job, coworkers with missing teeth…compared to the glories of the open road, I’m stuck in the middle of Wyoming with people who don’t understand the Traveller’s Way.”
It’s easy for Wilson to feel constricted back here, at home. Being surrounded by Americans, Wilson admits, can sometimes be the worst part of this short-term settlement. “Anyone who’s traveled alone knows that feeling.”
But again, it all comes down to perspective.
“Use your time wisely,” he mused, when I asked what advice he’d give to other Yanks who feel trapped. “Find that new perspective and learn from it.”
Teaching himself the art of photography; appreciating Tolkein’s wisdom that “Not all who wander are lost”; trying to turn travel into a lifestyle and not a holiday; this young gun in boots is doing just that.
“Through my lens I try to catch that glimpse of eternal, of that singular image of enchanted ecstasy my weary legs managed to lead me to. It is here, with tired feet and a sore body that I realize that it is not the road behind me, nor the horizon ahead of me, but the peace within me that I set out to find.”
So, where to next?
“My lease is up in May, and I’ll shoot from there…”
Greg Wilson’s photography – The Art of Being Lost – is on display in Meier Hall, Black Hills State University, Spearfish South Dakota, USA, through August.
Revelstoke, British Columbia might have North America’s newest and most vertical ski field; but, the town is more than just a winter sports mecca. While everyone else goes up the mountain, you can fill your day with ground-level, local activities.
No cold weather morning should start without coffee from the Stoke Roasted Coffee Company. La Baguette, a French style café, and Sangha, an artsy living room, both offer espresso made with beans from the nearby roasterie.
Before you add anything else to the day’s agenda, wrap up your scarf and wander the few blocks of downtown “Revy”, as the residents call it. Divided between outdoor gear stores, family dinners and specialty boutiques, Revelstoke is a decidedly small town with an international feel. Canadian natives mingle politely with European and American visitors. Untapped by too much tourism – the ski resort is only six years old – this is still the sort of place where a smile is common greeting, and every vehicle stops to let you cross the street.
Learn more about the multicultural history of Revelstoke at the Museum & Archives (Mon. – Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $5.00 donation). The highly personal exhibits, photos and relics, donated by generations of residents, document the Scandinavian-influenced ski industry, the expansion of Chinatown, and its 21st century links with Japan.
Across Victoria Avenue, the Revelstoke Railway Museum (Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 4 p.m., $10 adult) explores the region’s rail heritage, through retired engines and exhibitions on the Canadian Pacific railroad. Revelstoke began in the 1880s as an isolated supply center for miners working in the Columbia Mountain Range.
This encroaching landscape inspires a community of artists. The Revelstoke Art Gallery (Tue-Sat, 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., donation) showcases local artwork and offers educational art classes in silver jewelry-making, pottery and painting.
If you’re a collector, ArtFirst functions as a downtown gallery and retail store.
Revelstoke also has a strong beer-making past, beginning in 1890 with the opening of its first microbrewery. Now, Mt. Begbie – named for a strict local judiciary, Matthew “Hanging Judge” Begbie – creates a small range of beers based on regional flavors, such as Tall Timber Ale and High Country Kolsch. While tours run Fri.-Sat. (16 people per tour, book ahead), the gift store is open daily.
When the temperature finally begins to seer through your coat, join the skiers and snowboarders at the Revelstoke Aquatic Center (Mon.- Fri. 6:30 a.m.- 9 p.m., Sat.- Sun. 12 p.m.- 8 p.m.). The best place to wind down after a busy day, the Aquatic Center has a 25-foot swimming lane, water slide and lazy river. Its hot pool and steam bath will warm you up just in time for a Canadian poutine dinner.
Visit seerevelstoke.com to find out about specific events in town.
I could barely read the menu through all the smoke wafting up from this crepe stall window. 8 hours in Paris: what could be more briefly-authentic than chocolate-filled pastries by the Seine?
“How far to the hot springs?” I asked. “About 7 kilometers,” Meghan calculated. “And how far is that in miles?” “Maybe…14?”
“We should be getting close,” Meghan promised, pointing at the trickle of hot water meting our icy path.
She’d been saying this for 45 minutes, up hills and through knee-high snow drifts. I’d unzipped my coat, the bitter temperature soothing my sweaty, tired torso. When everything is buried in 12 inches of white, “close” becomes an optical illusion.
Reaching the St. Leon hot springs requires a minor expedition. Located on private land near Nakusp, British Columbia, the sulfurous pools are dug into a mountainside some 7 kilometers from an unpaved, neigh-invisible turnoff. “It’s only about 14 miles,” Meghan assured me, after we’d strapped on snowboarding boots and camelbacks, and crunched our way up the snowmobile path. Luckily, her numbers were exaggerated. After a frigid but fast 40 minute hike – “Look for the blue tarp,” Meghan instructed – we stumbled upon a temporary lean-to dressing room of tarpaulin and pine branches.
Though there are several natural hot pools in the area, St. Leon is the only haunt open to visitors, for free. Layered rock tubs, fed from the spring via black rubber tubing, help St. Leon retain its untouched setting. Those who do make the trek arrive prepared, with candles, sandwiches, wine, headlamps, water bottles and dry towels.
This resolution is harder than it looks. While anyone who has ever worked a 40-hour week can recognize how quickly stress builds up, the duress of long-term travel often goes unreported. You might not be dealing with idiotic coworkers or a demanding boss; but, skillfully bartering for a cross-town tuk tuk, or trying to find a hostel after 30 hours in a vintage bus, are situations just as likely to cause migraines. In either environment, it’s up to us to let off some steam.
Sushi is simple. As should be your decision to try this unique Japanese cuisine at Tokoyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro. One of only fifteen restaurants in the city awarded Michelin Guide’s three-star rating, Jiro is renowned as one of the best sushi experiences in the world. Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant holds up to ten diners, and only accepts reservations via phone or person - in Japanese.
Don’t expect cheap rolls on a conveyor belt, or even a set menu. Chef Jiro Ono – who has been making sushi since the age of nine – determines the daily ingredients based on the freshest catch from that morning’s market. Jiro’s recommended course is comprised of twenty pieces, served one at a time, for 30,000 Japanese yen. (Or about$345.00 US dollars).
“But it is no use trying to skimp,” states Jiro’s website, “only a genuine professional sushi chef can reach your heart.”
The secret to Jiro’s international recognition can be found in the flavor of rice vinegar, made from an original recipe specially designed by Chef Jiro.
With only ten seats in the restaurant, reservations can book out up to a year in advance. But if you’re willing to wait, visit www.sushi-jiro.jp for reservation information. To find out more about this iconic Japanese sushi chef and his craft, watch the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
Too many travel narratives are written about the highly improbable, crazy or suicidal, vain-glorious antics someone participates in simply to publish. Too few are written accidentally, by honest travelers. Conor Grennan is at least frank. He confesses, within the first pages, that his round-the-world-trip plus volunteer-stint-in-Nepal was planned as a feel-good future pickup line.
But then he meets the orphans at Little Princes. And Grennan – a 20-something American with no prior experience in childcare or global development- discovers that he is more than just a foreign helper in an orphanage for trafficked children.
As it turns out, wondering what you’re supposed to do in an orphanage is like wondering what you’re supposed to do at the running of the bulls in Spain- you work it out pretty quickly.
Grennan’s initial experience turns into a three-year effort to reconnect children with their families. Open and eager, Grennan never admits to anything but a surprising love for the kids in his charge.
During dangerous treks into rebel-controlled regions, and unexpected moments of contentment, Grennan keeps his tone refreshingly witty and straightforward. He is a normal person who shares a true story, not one fashioned to impress readers. What better proof, than that a portion of all book sales goes to his organization Next Generation Nepal, which continues to work with trafficked kids.