Behind the lens

My dear wife often jokes that I must hate something before I love it. The most annoying thing about her observation is that she is right. Perhaps the most blatant example of this quirk (I’m being generous to myself) is my change of attitude about tours. You know, like guided tours, the kind where you spend two weeks with total strangers on a motor coach with a guide covering a lot of ground in Europe. Nope, not for me. Or so I thought. Never underestimate the power of true love.

My wife and I were married in May of 2014 and her dream was to go to Italy for a belated honeymoon that September. I had traveled there a handful of years earlier with three friends, but one can never have enough Italy, so I said sure – until she proposed the idea of doing a tour. She made a strong case – tempting me with perks like no waiting in lines at sites, no stress of driving in a foreign land and the big one – no schlepping your own luggage. And she ran the numbers that clearly showed we could get a lot more bang for our Euros by going the tour route. So, I acquiesced and immediately started worrying about the boring obnoxious deplorables we would be sharing our journey with.

Once again, I was wrong. Are you sensing a pattern here? I call it the luck of the Australians, and we were blessed with over a dozen of them on our tour. Bottom line – toss in a dozen Aussies and you are guaranteed to have fun. You may need to enter rehab upon your arrival home, but meanwhile, you’re going to have the time of your life. We fell madly in love with our mates from Oz and remain in contact with many of them to this day via social media. A subgroup of them has a reunion every other year or so and always manage to include my wife and me in the festivities – like a drunken conference call at 2:00 AM in the US. That 14-hour time difference is tricky. The last time they got together they had two little dolls representing me and my wife and we made it into almost all the pictures – and some of the drinks.

We never think of these travel friends without smiling and we hope to visit them one day in the Land Down Under. My life is bigger and richer for knowing them and I have my wife to thank for nudging (shoving) me into saying yes to a tour. The downside to that trip was that the bar was set awfully high for future trips. I thought we’d never even come close to such a great group of companions. And then we went on safari to Africa in 2018. There’s really no way to travel in Africa other than a tour unless you’re Bear Grylls and/or incredibly wealthy. We are neither, so once again my wife researched the hell out of all the tours and picked one.

If you’ve ever been on a tour, you know that the initial meet and greet is fraught with anxiety. That’s when you first see who you’re going to be stuck with for the next two weeks. It’s like a blind date on steroids. We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania very late at night and rode on a shuttle van to our lodge with some others who were on our tour. I sat in front of a woman from NJ who never stopped talking. And she was a loud talker – one of my pet peeves. She droned on and on – her poor husband never said a word and I started panicking at the idea of being with her in a jeep on safari for ten days. I leaned into my wife and said, “I cannot be with her. I will lose my mind.” My wife is so much better at rolling with obnoxious people than I am. She smiled and told me it would be okay. I was not convinced.

The next morning our group of 13 gathered after breakfast for the moment of truth. Loud Talker was already there monopolizing the conversation and my palms began to sweat. My anxiety was interrupted by a woman from IL who started talking to me. Not loudly. She was friendly and interesting. Her name was Candy, and she was traveling with her husband Fred. Our host introduced us to the two guides who would be driving us and after an overview of the trip, instructed us to get into one of the two vehicles parked out in front of the lodge.

Candy and I wound up next to each other on the walk to the jeeps – Loud Talker was ahead of us. Enter Divine Intervention. Candy turned to me and said in a slightly desperate voice, “I cannot be in the same jeep with her.” I grabbed her by the arm and said, “Follow me!” like I was Indiana Jones leading her away from the Temple of Doom. We climbed into the open jeep – our spouses followed. Already seated were a brother and sister, Jim and Suzie, who I had previously identified as nice. We had one slot open – and then came Marge – a soft-spoken solo traveler. Our vehicle was full, and we were safe. Funny thing – the rest of the entire trip, the seating arrangement never changed. Our group – our fabulous group – was together for the duration.

My wife is prone to motion sickness, so she rode up front with the driver – she offered to rotate her spot, but everyone was so kind, and we all sat in the same seats each day. I was beside Candy and Fred was in the way back with Marge. They were the serious photographers in our pack. I mean really serious. Multiple cameras and long lenses. They liked being in the back because they could stand up when we stopped and have no obstruction as they were shooting.

Fred looked like he was on assignment for National Geographic. You know how some people look like they just bought an outfit for the trip that they will never wear in their real life? Not Fred. His safari wardrobe was well weathered. He looked like he could be in an ad for a safari or a model for the J. Peterman catalog. He was a quiet man – only speaking to add insights into what we were seeing. He was smart and well-traveled, and he was super sweet to his wife, so we liked him a lot right away. And he had the eye of an accomplished photographer and would spot animals long before we did.

Candy would take pictures with her iPhone like us, but then she would call out to Fred like she was Martin Scorsese, “Did you get the lioness on the rock?” Fred always dutifully and cheerfully got the shot. Later at dinner every evening, he would show us some of the primo shots of the day and we would wonder if we had been on the same game drive. Impressive zoom lens you got there, Fred. And we were so surprised after one of the first nights of the trip when Fred called our room and asked if we wanted to meet for drinks before dinner. We liked Fred even more then and we had some lovely conversations – mostly about some of the many places where he and Candy had traveled. We learned about their son and their two granddaughters and that they loved cats, too. The life stuff that helps you get to know someone.

Fred was one of those rarest of men – at least in my experience. He was a man’s man – an Eagle Scout/MacGyver kind of guy who I’m sure could have gotten us out of any sort of jam. He was also a gentleman who would help you up that first big step into the jeep without making you feel inadequate. He had a kind smile, and he would give Candy and me a sly grin when Loud Talker went off on one of her tangents at dinner. And I repeat – he was so sweet and attentive to his wife. Like he would always ask if she wanted another drink before he got the check. Little thoughtful things like that. I think my wife and I both had a little crush on him and I’m certain Candy wasn’t the least bit worried. They were one of those couples that’s just good together and you enjoy being around them.

I could tell that Fred was a good dad and granddad, too. At the airport on our flight to head home, my wife and I had spent all our shillings – that’s the Tanzanian currency – and we desperately wanted to buy a couple of bottles of water. Fred overheard our frenzied discussion and kindly came to our rescue and paid for our waters. Just like a dad to save the day.

The flight from Arusha to Amsterdam was packed and we never saw Fred and Candy again. When we got home, Fred sent me some amazing photos that he had taken and we exchanged holiday cards. Two years ago, Candy let us know that Fred had been diagnosed with cancer. Fuck cancer. He was in and out of the hospital and rehab and we had not heard an update in a while. Until yesterday. Candy let us know that Fred had passed away last Sunday.

I was at my desk when I read her message and I sobbed. Sitting by myself in front of my laptop, I just couldn’t stop crying for a man I had only spent ten days with. I think this pandemic has stripped many of us of any protective layers we might have had. I know I have been teary about a lot of losses of late. And honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be completely authentic with your emotions. I pictured Fred hanging off the back of the jeep to get the perfect shot, telling a good story, watching an amazing sunset. Fred. Happy being on a magical safari with his wife.

I gathered myself and responded to Candy how very sorry I was and that my wife and I would always hold Fred and her in our fondest memories. She wrote back, “Wonderful memories of the best trip ever. And our last together.” Gulp.

So, this is my long way of thanking my dear wife for making me not hate tours. If not for her, I would have never met Fred Brown.

Rest well, intrepid traveler. You got the shot.

Northern exposure

alaska cover

Glacier Bay National Park  (Photos by Addison Ore)

Alaska is big. Alaskans make fun of Texas for thinking that it’s big because you could fit Texas into Alaska two times. In fact, Alaska is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Are you getting the big picture?

I got to experience just how big, bold and beautiful Alaska is earlier this summer when my wife and I spent two weeks there on vacation. Disclaimer: This trip was not my idea and I grumbled about it more than a few times but our 49th state has long been on my wife’s bucket list. (More on the concept of the bucket list later.) I didn’t have anything against Alaska, it just wasn’t ever high on my travel radar.

For the record, I was stupid. Now, I’m just mad about Alaska.

We did a land and sea package and while I usually balk about a group tour (Are you sensing a pattern here?), this is really the ideal way to see a lot of Alaska. Also, you never have to carry your own luggage. Best idea ever.

Our trip began in Fairbanks, the most northern part of our journey and we were fully immersed in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Wow. This is a really weird thing to adjust to. On our first full day in Fairbanks, sunrise was at 3:09 AM and sunset was at, wait for it, 12:28 AM. And the few hours between the two were never really actually dark – more like grey.

I kept hearing “Sunglasses at Night” – that Corey Hart song from the 80’s in my head. One evening after dinner we were having a “nightcap” sitting on a bench overlooking the Chena River and I asked my wife, “Should we be wearing sunscreen now?” We slept with hand towels over our eyes because even with the curtains drawn, we felt like we were taking a nap in the middle of the day.

fairbanks sun

Goodnight Sun.

Remember when you were a kid and you would stay outside on summer nights until your mom would come to the back door and call for you to come in? I wondered how long Alaskan mothers wait to make that call. Kids? What kids?

And let’s talk about the produce. Freaky. We’re talking 65 pound cantaloupes! The growing season is short but because of the extended exposure to the sun, anybody can have a green thumb in Alaska. We passed some fields of cabbages that looked like something out of a sci fi movie.

The natives make the most of summer in Alaska and it seemed as if everyone we met had at least two jobs. Our tour director, Scott, is a middle school science teacher and spends his summers working for Trafalgar, our tour company. We did a riverboat cruise our first full day in Fairbanks that was narrated by a personable guy with a great voice wearing a nautical looking coat. The next morning, we turned on the TV and saw our “Captain” reading the news. Turns out he’s a longtime local radio and TV personality.

The next day we headed out for Denali National Park. Scott had warned us that only one out of three visitors ever see the mountain known as “The Great One” because of cloud cover. He was smart to undersell us because as we approached the park and saw the highest peak in North America in all its glory, we were all giddy. It’s pretty funny to see 50 people snapping the same shot. We just used our iPhones but at the end of the day, something that massively magnificent cannot be truly captured by any lens. At least that’s what I told myself that evening when I deleted about 37 photos of something that looked like a white blob.


Objects in distance are a gazillion times bigger than they appear.

Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses more than six million acres. Yes, million, and only one ribbon of road bisects the wild land. One of the most popular excursions in the park is the Tundra Wilderness Tour – a 62 mile, 8 hour bus ride that gives you up close and personal views of wildlife and more intimate views of Denali.

My brother and his wife did this tour last summer and I think it may have been the low point of their 35 year marriage. He was not happy. Granted, this is a man who usually flies first class and was probably 15 the last time he rode on a school bus. Alaska was on his wife’s bucket list (seriously, more later), too. Go figure. Anyway, his review of the bus tour that would not end was enough to convince us to spend the day in Denali on our own and I think it was probably my most favorite day in a fortnight of favorite days.

It was a spectacular morning drenched in brilliant sunshine and we set out on a hike along the Nenana River. We passed a park ranger leading a group back from this trail and he reported no bear sightings. This is a real and present concern while in Denali and we were briefed to not run if we encountered a bear. I liken this to the instruction the flight attendant gives you if your oxygen mask is ever deployed : “Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.” Sure.

So if you encounter a bear, you are supposed to stand your ground, wave your hands a bit and say things like, “Hey, Bear.” Apparently they really are not interested in humans unless we run and then they think we are lunch.

hike joy

We ain’t afraid of no bears.

The only wildlife we encountered on our hike was some moose poop and we were able to differentiate it from bear poop because we paid attention to the poop display at the Visitor’s Center. We had our National Park swagger on after that.

Our trail led down to the rocky bank of the rushing river and we just sat for a few hours and breathed it all in. This has been a challenging year for me and my wife. I lost a job that I really loved in January in a perfect storm of misinformation and misguided decisions and it has been a painful and slow healing process.

I’m not a good enough writer to adequately describe our view that day and it was more than just what we saw – the sounds were almost reverent. The whooshing flow of the river, the echoes of birds in the trees, the breeze. I felt as close to God as I did in St. Peter’s Basilica and I felt more peace than I had felt in months. I sucked it in like it was that oxygen mask. I can smell that day right now – crisp and piney.

hike view

This day…

And I intend to hold tight to that day for as long as I can.

We ran into a few of our tour mates later that evening as they staggered off their buses in search of some dinner. Their reviews were mixed but we knew we had made the right decision for us. We were outside all day – beginning with breakfast on the deck and ending when we finally returned to our room for the night (which wasn’t dark, of course). I felt like a kid again and I’m sure I smelled like one, too. It was rather exhilarating to be that dirty from just knocking around outside all day.


Future Iditarod champions. We saw puppies!

Anyone that’s been on a tour to Alaska knows that wildlife viewing can be a competitive sport with bragging rights for the best find. It was like a game of wildlife poker when you ran into folks at breakfast the next morning after everyone’s day of adventures. “We saw two moose, three eagles and a bear,” said one of the women from New Zealand. Not to be outdone, a man from Canada said, “We saw a mama moose and two babies, three reindeer and four Dall sheep.” The ante got even bigger when we moved on to the cruise portion of our trip and whale sightings became the equivalent of a royal flush.

One of the best things about a tour is meeting folks from literally all round the world. I love hearing different accents and learning about places I haven’t been – which finally brings me to the subject of the bucket list. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the concept of the bucket list. I just think it should have a better name than that. “Bucket” seems like such a utilitarian and unglamorous descriptor for something you deeply want to do. I also don’t like the idea of being motivated to do something before you die. It just feels a bit morose to me.

My blog mate and bestie  Carla and I had a discussion about this before I left on my trip. She agreed with me (she’s sweet like that) and suggested we change it to “dream” list or “wish” list. And yet, I was fascinated with the driving force of the bucket list so I got in the habit of asking people I met  on our trip why they chose to tour Alaska. I bet I asked 30 people and I think about 28 of them lit up and said, “Oh, Alaska has always been on my bucket list.” There you have it.

bucket list

A note on display at the Denali Visitor Center.

Call it what you want but I have to admit that there’s something quite special about sharing a dream/wish/bucket list trip with a large group of strangers. You immediately have an unspoken bond and the excitement and joy emanating from everyone is almost palpable. It’s like you’re all on the same team, cheering for the same things – sunny days, multiple orca sightings and extra drink tickets at the group dinners.

We made our way on to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, via train on the Alaskan Railroad. I had an ear worm of one of my favorite songs playing over and over – “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked. It’s about an exchange of letters from two old friends, one writes to the other in Dallas and the return letter comes from Anchorage.

Hey Shell, you know it’s kind of funny

Texas always seemed so big

But you know you’re in the largest state in the union

When you’re anchored down in Anchorage 

I love this song even more now that I’ve been there and my dear wife was so sweet to put up with me singing it (badly) every day.

Anchorage is a thoroughly modern city but one of the most interesting things we did there was visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a cultural center and museum designed to expand the understanding of Alaska’s Indigenous people. Many of the guides here were young people – high school age – and I was so moved by their reverence for their past.

These kids may have gone back to their iPads when they were done with their presentations of Alaska Native dance and games but they gave us such a rich and thoughtful narrative of their history. There was no eye-rolling or rote recitation. They spoke from their hearts and made us feel their deep connection to their beautiful land.


From an exhibit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.



Alaskans revere their heritage. (On display at the Native Alaska Heritage Center.)

One of our young guides apologized that some of the staff were missing that day and explained that it was the start of salmon fishing season and they were fishing – not for sport but for food for the winter. You get the sense that Alaskans are not careless with their resources. I don’t think you can be a weenie and survive there.

The only bad weather that we encountered coincided with our whale watching tour on the last day of the land portion of our trip. Scott gave us all fair warning that the seas would be rough and that the faint of heart should probably find a nice bar and wait for the group to get back. My lovely wife is prone to motion sickness but she had double dosed on Dramamine and Bonine and was game. I love that about her. She’s fond of saying, “I signed up for the full experience.” Little did she know.

Our whale watching outing started off well enough with an almost immediate sighting of a humpback whale but soon turned into an episode of The Deadliest Catch as we left the bay and headed into the choppy ocean and some very big waves. I think about a third of the folks on our boat got sick. It wasn’t pretty and I’ll just say once again that my wife is a real trouper. Oh, and we will never go on a whale watching outing again.

whale watching

Lambs to the slaughter.

After returning to land for about 30 minutes, we had to board our cruise. Yeah, the timing wasn’t great on that but this was my first cruise so I was pretty excited and the color was beginning to return to my wife’s face. We got through the embarkation process quickly with an alarming warning of a “slight” outbreak of the norovirus on the ship. Disclaimer: The crew of our ship did a great job containing the germs and only a few people were sick. That said, I think I have a permanent layer of Purell on my hands from over applying several times a day for a week.

The cruise ship experience was really fun. We loved breakfast room service and elegant dining at night but our most favorite thing was our verandah – cruise ship speak for balcony. It was so amazing to just sit and watch Mother Nature’s floor show as we sailed through Southeast Alaska, much of which can only be accessed by plane or boat.

joy of cruising

Her heart will go on. Just not on any more whale watches.

No question the highlight of the cruise was our day in Glacier Bay National Park which happened to fall on the summer solstice. Forgive me if I pile on the clichés like breathtaking and amazing. We stood on the deck of the ship in absolute awe as watched – and heard – Margerie Glacier, one of the most active glaciers in Glacier Bay, calving. You heard what sounds a little like distant thunder and then a loud cracking and then chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and splashing into the water. It’s absolutely thrilling.

Later that evening after dinner, we returned to our cabin and I went out on the verandah. I first thought I was looking at the sunset and then I remembered that I was in Alaska. There was a beautiful band of light and unusual color in the horizon and then it dawned on me – I was looking at the Northern Lights. I screamed – really, I did – for my wife to come outside and we just stood in rapt amazement. It is extremely rare to see the Northern Lights in summer so we felt like we had won the Alaska Lottery. And it was a stunning exclamation point on the longest day of the year.

use this northern lights

The Northern Lights

One of the other things I really loved about cruising was waking up in a different place every day. It was like Christmas every morning when I pulled open the curtains. Ta da! Here’s … Juneau! Imagine how exciting  our real lives would be if we woke up to a change of scenery every day. And then someone knocks gently on your door and delivers your breakfast. I felt like Lady Mary only less entitled and without the 23 inch waist. Whatever. I’m nicer.

st. john

Father Brown’s Cross overlooking Gastineau Bay in Juneau.

Our re-entry to the mainland of reality was painful – cancelled and delayed flights and 90 degree temperatures when we finally arrived home but we never got grouchy about any of it. My wife is pretty much incapable of being grouchy but I consider myself to be an advanced practitioner. I was on a post-Alaska high and nothing could melt my iceberg.

We’ve been back a couple of weeks now and Alaska feels a little further away each day and that makes me sad. I miss my unobstructed view of nature in all its glory. My time in Alaska was healing for me in ways I had not anticipated. I felt renewed and strong, cleansed from some of my burdens. The famous naturalist John Muir often wrote about these infinite powers of nature.

“Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.”

That’s big. That’s Alaska.

sailboat in alaska

Alaska makes everything look tiny, especially your worries.












Tour of Beauty

Our trip outlined in red.

This boot was made for touring. Our journey is outlined in red.


That’s the Italian word for the phrase “Let’s go!” – and that was pretty much the mantra of my recent trip to Italy.

We andiamoed all over the boot.

My wife and I decided on Italy as the destination for a belated honeymoon after our wedding in May and the actual planning of the trip taught me that compromise is an important part of a successful marriage. You see, my wife wanted to book at tour – a big fat tour – two weeks, 16 cities, with 43 of our closest personal friends that we had not yet met.

I had never been on such a tour but somehow knew that I would hate it. I don’t really have control issues (no, really) but I don’t much like being told what to do and when to do it. I had more in mind a smaller more intimate kind of trip. In the end, we compromised and booked the big fat tour.

What? I want to stay happily married for a very long time.

Selfies are just as silly in Italy as they are in North Carolina. This one was on the beautiful fishing island of Burano.

Selfies are just as silly in Italy as they are in North Carolina. This one was taken in the beautiful fishing village of Burano.

And to my pleasant surprise, the tour was not the least bit awful and it gave us access to so many unique opportunities we would have never had on our own.

I am now, of course, an expert on Italian tours and will share with you some important keys to having a positive tour experience.  Prego. (You’re welcome.)

First – make sure there are lots of Australians on your tour. This is essential. “Aussie” is apparently universal slang for Most Fun People on the Planet. Seriously. We had 13 Aussies on our tour – ranging in age from 15 to 70+ and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.

The folks from the land down under are a joyous lot and we closed the bar with them most nights. Actually, they let us hang out with them until we fell over and they closed the bar down. Apparently, Aussies also have hollow legs, allowing them to hold greater quantities of spirits.

And then there are those fabulous accents. They told us that they hate that Crocodile Dundee is the image most Americans have of Australians. I told them that we have similar fears, namely Honey Boo Boo.

They even made me a little Aussie dictionary, on a cocktail napkin, of course, with a bunch of their fun sayings. They call vacation “holiday” and all candy is a “lolly” – cute, right?

The next key to a great tour is a great tour director and we scored on that one big time with our guide, Muris, a handsome and charming Italian man – but then again, aren’t they all?

Muris is in his forties and has been a travel director for over 20 years. He was the perfect dispenser of interesting information without being professorial, enthusiastic but not perky. But what I loved most about Muris was how much he loves his country. He talked about Italy in the way you would talk about a beautiful woman and he wanted us to fall for her, too. And we did.


We’re just mad about Muris. Here he’s schooling us on Positano in the background.

He spoke English lyrically with a sexy Italian undertone and would woo us with phrases like “hid-in treazure” when a surprise stop was upcoming. And he threw in some very special touches along the way – like popping bottles of Prosecco and offering a toast when we disembarked after our gondola ride in Venice.

Most of us – men, women, and lesbians – were in love with him by the end of the trip.

Another key to enjoying your tour is to prepare yourself by letting go of the following three things:

1. Sleep as you know it

2. Trying to not look like a tourist.

3. Fear of the bidet.

Allow me to elaborate. On most travel days, your bag has to be outside your hotel room door by 7:00 A.M. Yes, it’s rough, but nothing three Advil and a double espresso can’t cure.

You just have to admit it, Europeans are cooler than us. Period. I don’t care how suave and sophisticated you think you are. And they are impervious to all weather conditions. The first few days of our tour, the weather was unseasonably warm. One afternoon in Capri, we were sweating like Italian sausages in a skillet surrounded by impossibly gorgeous Italians sauntering around with scarves draped artfully around their necks.


Just surrender and clutch your Rick Steves’ guidebook with confidence.

Okay, the bidet. You have to face it – literally, because it’s in every hotel room just staring at you as if to dare you to engage. Australia doesn’t have bidets either and the fascination with this fixture became a running joke with our Aussie posse. One morning, I greeted them at breakfast with a hearty, “Bidet, mates!”

So be bold and seize the bidet.

My optional solo excursion in Lake Maggiore.

My optional solo excursion in Lake Maggiore.

I did have a few low moments on the tour when I hit critical mass with the pack and I sat out some optional excursions to just chill out and soak up the local culture or as I call it, wine.

Sometimes it was just too much talking. And those damn radios. Every stop along the way we had a local expert telling us everything they thought we needed to know. Near the end of the tour in Florence, we were viewing the magnificent statue of David and I pulled my earplugs out to just gaze as our guide kept filling us with factoids.

My ever attentive wife looked at me seriously and mouthed, “She’s still talking.” I mouthed back to her, “I don’t care.”

I could have sworn David smiled at me.


The David. No words needed.

But all in the all, the tour was a magical experience.  Most of our traveling companions were also celebrating special events – milestone birthdays, anniversaries, a grandmother’s gift to her granddaughter, and so on. And there was something very sweet and intimate about sharing a group dream come true.

Maybe that’s why on our final ride to our hotel in Rome on our last night together, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found when Muris cued up his iPod and we heard the romantic tenor of Andrea Bocelli serenading us.

Con Te Partiro.

Time to Say Goodbye.


Sunset over the Basillica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Sunset over the Basillica of St. Francis of Assisi.


A final travel tip from Muris.

A final travel tip from Muris.