Chasing the Aurora Borealis

The outlook was grim. Clouds in the forecast. Moderate solar activity. Impenetrable but intriguing dials and graphs on SolarHam.

But anything can happen.

Our friends Chris and Angie had arranged for us all to spend the last two days of our visit at the Mount Aurora Lodge. On Christmas afternoon, we piled into the Prius and journeyed into the mountains outside Fairbanks, far from the light pollution of the “big” city.

P1010870 Mount Aurora Lodge daytime

The lodge doesn’t look like much, and indeed, it was originally built to house 300 gold miners at a time during the Gold Rush. Nowadays, it houses far fewer people in wi-fi-drenched comfort.

Mount Aurora Lodge main room

On our last night, the front desk clerk casually mentioned that the Aurora was supposed to be really good that night, and she was staying late to photograph it. My excitement level rose. We went out to dinner, where I avoided alcohol for fear it would make me sleepy. Back at the lodge, before the “scheduled” appearance of illuminated solar radiation, I took a nap. Then came the knock.

We saw the Northern Lights. For hours. They were faint but defined, and long exposures (1.5 to 3 seconds) make them appear brighter in these photos.

String the pix together in a time lapse, and you can see swirling shapes form and dissipate.

In reality, we stood around and talked (and snapped photo after photo), occasionally glancing up to realize a new pattern had emerged. Click here to view a playlist of my Northern Lights time lapses.

I would shoot for twenty minutes or so, get cold, go inside and review the photos, then head back outside. Eventually, the other photographers had all gone to bed, satisfied with their snaps, but I continued looking for new angles to capture.

At one point, I walked down a snowy path and thought, “Hmm, if I slipped and bonked my head here, it would take them a while to find me… and it’s really cold.” I made sure of my footing. When I returned to the cozy meeting room in the lodge later, Karen said, “I was just starting to wonder about you.”

Aurora group

It came down to the wire, but our Alaska trip ended with a spectacular natural light show. I’m grateful to Angie and Chris for setting it up, and to Karen for “starting to wonder” about me (as needed)!


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Next Stop: Alaska… in winter?!

Christmas in Alaska. Fairbanks, to be exact. Some friends asked if we were taking a cruise; others asked if we’d see polar bears. Then they’d pause and think about it. Fairbanks. It’s inland. It’s cold. It’s dark.

“Why are you going to Alaska in December?”

The main reason? To see our friends Chris and Angie, of course! They traveled with us to Peru and met us on the last leg of our world tour in China. Before all that, we had visited them in Fairbanks for the summer solstice in 1999, when the sun never set.

Now, we would be present for the winter solstice in 2015, when the sun strains to peek above the horizon before giving up the ghost and beginning its descent.

11:22AM on the solstice

The frozen foursome on the solstice. It’s 11:22AM.

Here’s a time lapse view from our hotel room. Note the clock in the lower left corner- the daylight goes fast.

When you have a small sliver of daylight, you make good use of it. One day, dog sledding!

The next, examining ice sculptures!

Plus, we crashed Chris’ work holiday party, toured Angie’s office, drank too much wine and beer, ate too much food, joined a family for Christmas caroling, slid into a snowbank on the way home, got pulled out of the snowbank by a guy whose shirt had Christmas lights sewn into it, flew a flight simulator, and played with feisty felines Reachy and CeCe Dangercat.

Karen couldn’t resist cooking, so we dined on homemade lomo saltado (Chris’ favorite Peruvian dish) and okonomiyaki (my favorite Japanese dish).

Alas, my one regret was that we wouldn’t see the Northern Lights. The time of year was right, but the weather forecast called for cloudy skies, which would obscure the faint display.

Then again, since when can they predict the weather? Maybe there’s hope… stay tuned!

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Muppet Flashback

You know how Karen and I recently went on a Muppet pilgrimage, spending an entire day studying Muppets behind glass in a museum?

That wasn’t the first time.

Kermit & Ken

Back in 2009, Karen and I went to the very same city (Atlanta), to the very same place (The Center for Puppetry Arts), for the very same reason. And whaddya know, my younger self captured plenty of material for a video, so here it is: A Tale of Muppets Past.

Many thanks to our tour guides and special guest stars, Amy and Jon. (They took these photos, too.)

Two Muppets and a man Skeksis-wannabe Amy

How long ago was 2009? Well, this is the first photo I ever posted on Facebook.

Ken Facebook status

Yeah, ancient history. And I haven’t even told you about our adventures in 2001 yet. Muppets forever!

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Next Stop: Muppets!

It was a Muppet pilgrimage. And it was not my first.

We made it!

A few years ago, the Henson family announced that it was donating oodles of Jim Henson artifacts to Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts. How much stuff? The Center broke ground on a new building to house it. This I had to see. And why not see it on opening day, when you just might bump into some Muppet celebrities?

Karen (yes, she decided to come along and watch her husband turn into a kid) and I arrived early, in case there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony. There was, but we weren’t VIP enough to get in, so we checked out the new building.

With the ribbon-cutting and all, I was hoping some Muppet luminaries would show up. When Karen said, “There’s Fran,” I was (a) thrilled to catch a glimpse of Fran Brill, an original Sesame Street puppeteer who recently retired, and (b) thrilled that Karen knows who Fran Brill is!

We were moments away from another celebrity sighting: a meet-and-greet with Sesame Street’s Abby Cadabby and her performer, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph. I dutifully stood in line with a gaggle of little girls in fairy princess dresses, and here’s what happened when I finally got to meet and/or greet.

Back in the lobby, keep your eyes open. You never know who will turn up.

Finally, we entered the museu- wait, nope, we had tickets to the Center’s holiday show, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was a good show, with another celebrity sighting and a chance to make some puppets of our own.

Can we go in now, pleeeeease? Yes, we can.

Entrance to the Worlds

Behold, Jim Henson’s desk. And Jim Henson’s moose lamp. Geeky stuff, and I loved it. We eavesdropped on a museum staffer giving a tour to a friend. He said, “This is Jim Henson’s actual desk. I don’t know how long we’ll have it, but it’s here for now.”

Jim Henson's office

Then came the puppets, from all eras of Jim Henson’s career. It’s kind of a blur from here on out. Java and Rowlf… Sesame Street… The Muppet Show… Fraggle Rock… Labyrinth… The Dark Crystal… and more.

Jim Henson isn’t the only game in Puppettown. The Worlds of Puppetry Museum also houses a global puppetry collection.

We’d been at the museum for hours. Scouring every inch of two new puppetry exhibits left me tired, thirsty, and hungry. My brain was full. So of course, I went through the whole Jim Henson exhibit again, while Karen waited in the lobby.

This time it was about looking more closely at the craftsmanship of the puppets, like the exact placement of the eyes. See how the felt circles have a slit cut in them so they lay flat? And the designers use feather-y materials in places you wouldn’t expect, like Sprocket’s whiskers. Beyond Don Sahlin and Faz Fazakas, I’m not that familiar with the names of the puppet builders, so I studied the work of early Henson collaborators like Bonnie Erickson, whose name was listed on more than a few puppets, including Miss Piggy.

A series of texts from Karen shook me out of my reverie. She had spotted “the woman from Avenue Q.” After seeing that show a decade ago, Karen can spot Stephanie D’Abruzzo from across a room? I made a beeline for the lobby, which now contained a beer and wine bar (Karen was halfway through a glass) and lots of nicely-dressed people wearing black. There was obviously a VIP event coming up. Sure enough, that’s Stephanie D’Abruzzo and her husband Craig Shemin (President of the Jim Henson Legacy), chatting with Sesame Street’s Pam Arciero.

I decided not to bother them with giddy fan gushing, so I caught my breath on a bench and noticed the nametag of the woman across from me: Bonnie Erickson. Unable to hold back my fan gushing, I marched over to her and told her, “I just took a thousand pictures of your handiwork.” She laughed, and we talked about making Muppets and things to do in Atlanta.

Bonnie Erickson and Ken

Bonnie Erickson

Jim Henson Company archivist Karen Falk came over to see Bonnie, which gave me the chance to thank Karen. You see, I emailed her a Muppet question years ago (like, via Netscape), and she immediately fired back the answer. Bonnie, Karen, Karen, and I chatted for quite a while about the other Jim Henson exhibit that is being prepared, this one at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

Karen Falk and Ken

Karen Falk

That’s right: stay tuned for another Muppet Pilgrimage in 2016.

Kermit waves to Jim

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Toilets: Turkey Edition

You know you’re in a Muslim country when you see this sign over the sink:

No ablution

It’s time for Turkish toilets!


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On My Own at Efes

After ten days of mosques and cousins and balloons and caves… Karen had simply had enough of all this beauty and fun! OK, actually, Karen headed home before me to get back to work and to our dog, Cosmo.

Cosmo at home

Karen sent me this pic of comfy Cosmo the night she got home

Knowing our pooch was well taken care of, I hopped a quick flight to İzmir, on the Mediterranean coast. At the airport’s poorly-labeled train platform, a Turkish woman saw my bewildered look and helpfully asked the staff which train I needed. She got me on the right one, and I soon found myself in Selçuk. It’s a city with a bit of history. As in, Saint John wrote his gospel up the hill from my hostel.

Selçuk is the jumping off point for Efes, or as the previous residents would have called it, Ephesus. This sprawling complex passed through Greek and Roman hands on its way to becoming a Turkish tourist magnet. And the name of the country’s favorite beer.

Efes beer menu

It’s probably best to arrive first thing in the morning, to beat the heat. I wouldn’t know- I got off to a slow start and headed to the shadeless site mid-morning. Oh well, I’ve slathered on sunscreen in Cambodia and Costa Rica. Why not here?

Mercifully, Ephesus has an ice cream stand. In my heat-induced delirium, I texted Karen a photo of the wrapper (as proof that I was still alive).

Magnum wrapper at Efes

The city itself is amazing. According to the guidebook, this was the capital of Roman Asia Minor, so it’s no wonder that the gigantic theater leads to an expansive plaza leads to a towering library. Some were more complete than others, and to be honest, I like seeing at least some of the artifacts in their unrestored condition. It makes the ravages of time and history more palpable.

Oh yeah, this area (supposedly) had another celebrity resident: the Virgin Mary. Her house is 7 km from Efes and I was pooped, so I didn’t bike over to see it. No matter: I got the general idea from this map… brought you by McDonald’s.

McDonald's map to Mary's house


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Ken vs. Wild Dog

Conversations about our travels often involve someone saying to us, “Wow, I can’t believe you [rode a bungie swing / slept in a wat / hiked the Everest trail / whatever]. I’d be too scared to do that.” We reply with a good-natured laugh and an assurance that our activities are pretty routine and safe.

But occasionally, something like this happens.

After a delightful morning in a hot-air balloon, we had the whole day (minus a nap) ahead of us. We asked the owner of our cave hotel about the best way to experience the rugged landscape of Cappadocia, and she recommended hiking the Pigeon Valley. The trail, she reported, is easy to get to, well-marked, and just takes a couple hours to traverse.

Stone trail sign

We set out from the hotel and found the trailhead, which was indeed well-marked, with rock-solid signs. As we left civilization behind, fairy chimneys rose up around us, leaving us in awe of their centuries-old silhouettes.

Stone trail marker

The trail itself ran along the lowest point in the valley, and just enough water had collected to make it muddy. Then muddier. And muddier yet, to the point that we started walking alongside the trail. Or, when we encountered a tunnel, over the trail.

Karen motors through the mud Up and over the trail

Somehow, gradually, the trail seemed to fade. Is it this matted patch of grass, or this one? No more 400-pound trail markers either.

That’s when this happened.

Eventually, our heart rates returned to normal, and we continued our hike, a little less concerned with admiring the scenery, a little more concerned with staying on the damn trail. As the midday sun beat down, the sweat and dust and fatigue took hold. It was quite a relief to spot Uchisar, mirage-like, in the distance. They have (semi) cold soda there. And shade.

Uchisar the in distance Rooftop resting spot

And this cool castle-type structure. Great view from the top.

Uchisar castle Uchisar vista

No more hiking for us. We found a travel office in the “downtown” area and booked a taxi back to the hotel. In the coming days, Karen kept an eye on that red dot on my derriere, applying neosporin from time to time and watching it fade.

Pigeon Valley is quite beautiful. Just stay on the trail, will ya?

But wait, there’s more! The epilogue to my tale of canine confrontation.



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Next Stop: Mortgages & Matrimony

What?! Almost a year without a post on the blog? Have Karen and Ken stopped traveling, finally giving up their frivolous and unnecessarily-horizon-broadening pastime to settle down with a house, a station wagon, and 1.7 kids?

No way.

It was a close call, though. We did buy a house (a year ago today), and we do have a dog (Cosmo) who acts like a kid.

home sweet burb  Cosmo couch-mo

However, our travels have continued, and there are more posts to come.

Where’d we leave off? Turkey? Today is the perfect day to revive the blog, because we’ve got some good great fantastic news to share from Turkey. When we visited in May of 2014, Karen reconnected with her cousin Jamie, and we met his girlfriend Figen.

Blue Mosque dinner

What changes a year can bring. Today is Jamie and Figen’s wedding day, and many family members traveled from Wisconsin to Istanbul for the ceremony, held mere hours ago. As I type this, I think the whole gang is on a chartered boat on the Bosphorus- how’s that for an exotic wedding reception?

We think Jamie made the right choice… of getting our blessing on his relationship in advance. At least that’s how we’ll tell the story. Congratulations, Figen and Jamie!

And to you, dear reader, thanks for hanging in there during our hiatus. More Next Stops coming soon!

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Cave + Hotel = Cave Hotel

Chimney vista

Göreme is full of intriguing geological formations and stone houses. We flew over them, we toured them… we slept in them.

Cave hotel courtyard

We couldn’t resist the chance to stay at a cave hotel, and this one turned out to have an interesting history.

Despite a teeny, tiny mix-up at the end of our stay (in which our airport shuttle didn’t show up and one of the hotel staffers didn’t give a crap and passersby tried to help us but couldn’t and another more caring hotel staffer did help us and got us a cab and we were so late in leaving that the cabbie drove like a bat out of hell to the airport and thankfully drove safely enough that we didn’t die in a firey crash and got us to the airport just in time to go through no fewer than three security checks and step onto the plane moments before they closed the door), we enjoyed our time sleeping in a cave.

Cave hotel courtyard night

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Historical, geological, even biblical (Acts 2:9), the Cappadocia region is endlessly intriguing at ground level.

Just wait until you see it from the sky.

Hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia (Kapadokya in Turkish) have become so popular that the government limits the number of takeoffs per day… to one hundred. After missing our chance to soar in Albuquerque, we were thrilled to finally take flight. Can’t wait to go again!

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