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Harpers Ferry: A Quick Note on the Fire

A fire that began in the early hours of July 23 in the historic town of Harpers Ferry destroyed several business and irreplaceable history. The two large buildings made of timber and stone that were gutted by the fire had stood for 200 years.

I arrived on the scene at 6:30 a.m. and the fire department was still struggling to put down the fire after three hours. It wasn’t officially put down until around 11:00. You could see the smoke from six miles away.  The only saving grace of the tragedy is not one person was harmed.

Harper's Ferry Fire Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is one of the historic jewels of the United States. The small town in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia sits on the flood plain and hillside of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, about 10 minutes from where I grew up. It was founded in 1734 by Robert Harper. He started his ferry across the Potomac in 1761 and the crossing became a gateway for early settlers traveling west in the frontier, which in those days was considered between 100 and 200 miles from the Atlantic coastline. American founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both visited Harpers Ferry in their day.

Harper's Ferry Fire

The town is best known for  radical abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the arsenal in the town in 1859 in is attempt to steal weapons and supplies to start a rebellion to free the slaves being held in the United States.  The raid failed but is considered one of the sparks that lead to the U.S. Civil War that started in 1861.

The town is part historic park and part functioning town, and well worth the visit for any one who like history, hand-made crafts and the feel of village life. The town has seen many tragic events in is long history: fires, the raid, massive floods and the Civil War (to name a few), and it’s still standing and prospering.

The fire was devastating and eight business were destroyed, but the town is still there and waiting to host your visit. We’re coming up on the best time of year to visit, too. Harpers Ferry is stunning in the fall as the leaves in the Shenandoah Valley begin to turn.

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New Years for Nerds: A Front Seat for the #PlutoFlyby

I count myself as a lucky man for many reasons, in part because my job as a photojournalist gives me the opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime events — several of them in the last 14+ years.

This past Tuesday in the early morning hours, I rolled into the parking lot of John’s Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, home of the New Horizons space probe team. The day was to be the day we finally got a good clear look at the planet we call Pluto. The New Horizons craft had been traveling for the last nine years at speeds reaching and exceeding 45,000 miles per hour as it journeyed toward the edge of the solar system.

It was a trip that took so long that it saw the planet the mission was sent to explore demoted to dwarf planet status. On a flag-waving note, the United States is the only country in the world to have sent a probe to visit every planet in the solar system.

To set the stage, the large hall was packed — it was like New Years for nerds. The crowd of more than 200 consisted of scientists and engineers, families and coworkers — even Bill Nye himself — all ready to celebrate the culmination of more than a decade of work and waiting.

Pluto Press Kit

As the time to reach Pluto ticked down into mere hours and then minutes, I got the chance to talk with Annette Tombaugh, the daughter of the man who discovered it. She told me his story; he was a farmer who made his own telescope and asked the local observatory to take a look at it to see if it was any good.  The observatory thought it was so good they offered him a job. He began scanning the sky as a professional with no formal training and came across a strange star, one that looked like it moved. Less then a year after he was hired he officially discovered Pluto.

We all hushed as the clock counting down New Horizons’ closest approach to the Pluto reached 20 seconds, and then at nine (because Pluto is the ninth planet) everyone began to count down. When the clock hit zero the audience erupted in cheers and applause with hugs and high fives circulated around the room to celebrate a job well done.

We don’t hide the fact that we’re a little spacey here at No Kids, so when I say this was one greatest events I’ve witnessed you have to understand our level of nerd-dom. We have a Pluto throw pillow bearing the year of its discovery (1930) and its demotion (2006).

F-Yeah, Pluto

Zeke, excited about the flyby.

Still, no matter what your personal level of nerdery, this was and is a big deal. We as a species have a duty and a drive to discover, whether that is here on Earth as we look at other cultures or up in space where we look at the stars.

 

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Greece: In and Out of Ruins

Once again Greece shouts “oxi!” (no), and it sends shivers through Europe. This time it’s not taking the moral high ground by saying no to Mussolini and the fascists, it’s to the European Union and the repayment of its debts.

I’m not a going to get into the details (and this is most certainly not a financial blog), so let me just put it this way: Greece’s economy is over-burdened by debt. The country owes billions to everyone, including its own people. A long-lasting set of entitlements and pension programs is adding to the burden as well as the attitude of most Greeks that paying taxes isn’t necessary.

The main industries in Greece are food and tobacco processing, textiles, chemicals, metal production, mining and — most importantly — tourism. But it hasn’t experienced any growth in the industrial sector since 2014, the unemployment rate hovers around 27% and isn’t rebounding anytime soon. To put that statistic in perspective, Americans thought the sky was falling back in 2009 when the unemployment rate reached 9.9%.

The point I’m trying to make is that the country is flat out broke. Even if the Greek government forcefully collected all the taxes owed them and slashed its public spending it would be a mere raindrop in an Aegean Sea of debt.

"The Exemplary Beach at Batsi"

“The Exemplary Beach at Batsi” – Andros Island, Greece

You hear phrases like  “country in crisis,” and “protests shut down Athens,” and you may think it’d be a bad time to visit. Who wants to be caught in a mob of angry Greeks? I sure don’t.  But just like the  long-held Greek tradition of avoiding paying your taxes, the tradition of showing your guests hospitality is still ingrained in their culture.

You will be treated as an honored guest in their country, especially since you are bringing much-needed cash into the economy. The $1,000-$2,000 you spend on a week’s vacation in the islands or on the mainland is important to each local economy. Not all of the money you spend will find its way into the coffers of the government, but it’s sure to end up in the pockets of the tavern owner or pension host.

Your tourist dollars are going to make or break the local economies of the white-washed villages and seaside towns you admire each day as you stare longingly at your office calendar of Greece. And when you plan your trip, consider visiting the ones outside of the popular cruise ship circuit.  I guarantee they’ll be just as beautiful and even more thankful for your visit.

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Columbia: A New Tour with a New Perspective

I am, sadly, one of those people who hear the name Columbia and when not thinking of the space shuttle, think of a South American country ruled by drug cartels. I think of a country where large-scale drug wars between gangs erupt into urban violence on the scale of modern-day Syria. I guess that comes from being a child of the 80s and seeing the video on the news each night of a country in chaos.

The modern Columbia is doing a lot to reshape its image. We found tour company Butterfield and Robinson doing its best to help.  The well-established tour company considers Columbia one of its Places on the Verge.  The Places on the Verge program criteria includes any region facing environmental or cultural change, if not necessarily risks, and seeks to bring people face-to-face with the complex challenges facing cultures across the globe.

We at No Kids often talk of getting an authentic experience while traveling, and that is what Butterfield and Robinson is hoping to accomplish by showing you a country in the process of renewal. Their eight-day guided tours give you an up-close look at the country, the challenges it faces, its progress toward becoming an example of environmental sustainability (much like northern neighbor Costa Rica) and the roots of their problems. In a 2014 interview co-founder George Butterfield said:

“I just think there are a lot of travelers out there who, like me, are increasingly interested in learning more about the world around them—about really connecting with it and educating themselves so that they can actually effect change.”

You start off your trip in Bogotá and end in Cartagena, stopping along the way to examine the coffee triangle’s economic and environmental impact. The Pereira region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its success producing some of the best coffee in the world. You will get a chance to feel like you’re back in the Jurassic period as you hike through an old-growth forest with massive ferns in the Nevados National Park (as long as the nearby volcano isn’t active) and drive the other amazing parks of the tropical country. The region is also home to Medellin, once one of the most dangerous places in the world, and now a place to see the urban revitalization sweeping through the country.

The U.S. Department of State’s travel warning for Columbia remains in place, but the stops on this tour are considered “improved” by the government.

The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in Colombia. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali.  However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas.

The image of the modern Columbia is one of modern buildings, bike lanes (still lacking in many major U.S. cities) and a reported restaurant scene that can rival some of New York’s best.

The trip is meant to be an active one and you will get your exercise as many of the segments are done by bike. But each night you’ll get your rest in well-appointed luxury hotel rooms. The trip runs around $6,995 per person if you’re traveling with a companion, add $700 if you’re on your own.  I think this trip is a perfect example of getting to know a country beyond its reputation.

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Witnessing American History at the Supreme Court

Here at No Kids, Will Travel we typically focus on far-flung places, but this week we can’t help but celebrate an historic moment right here at home. Back to far-flung next week!

I have seen a lot of history during my career as a photojournalist. Some of it on the national stage, like inaugurations of U.S. presidents, and some of it so local that the only ones it’s history for are members the small communities where it happened. I have seen a lot of exciting, happy and fun things along with far too many sad stories. I’ve taken to burying my feelings and empathy as a defense mechanism, which can lead to awkwardness sometimes. So, this Friday when I arrived at the steps of the United States Supreme Court at 3:30 in the morning to see people lined up in hopes of getting tickets to sit in as they handed down rulings, my inner pessimist couldn’t help but think nothing is worth sleeping on a sidewalk for.

Having Faith in Justice For All #scotus #equalmarriage #equality #scotusmarriage

A photo posted by Zeke Changuris (@zekechanguris) on

As the morning rolled on and we did live shot after live shot explaining how the court may or may not hand down a ruling affecting the lives of millions of Americans, including many who I count as family and friends.

I’ll admit I found myself wishing that justice be delayed until Monday for my own convenience. You see, if the court didn’t hand down a decision Friday at 10 a.m. I’d get to go home and get on the road for my four-hour drive to Pittsburgh on time at 11 a.m. If the court handed down the decision it would mean my day would last well past noon. I know it was selfish.

The crowd outside the court began to swell as the hour neared, and what a colorful crowd it was. People waved rainbow flags and carried signs supporting marriage equality. I never asked myself, looking out at the crowd, who’s gay and who’s not (I really don’t think it’s any of my business). Nearly everyone there was united by a sense of common justice, that everyone deserves equal rights, including the right to marry the spouse of your choice, regardless of sex.

Media gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in anticipation of a ruling on gay marriage, June 26, 2015.

Media gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in anticipation of a ruling on gay marriage, June 26, 2015.

The media, numbering in the hundreds with all their crews and cameras and lights making the court’s front sidewalk look like an act from the Las Vegas strip, has a strange and fascinating tradition on days when they think history is going to be made. It’s called the running of the interns. The reporters who need to be on camera almost never go inside the highest court in the land. Instead, they send in interns, some paid and some not, to sit in and take notes as they wait for the verdict to be handed down. Outside, we all watch the door below the steps of the courthouse as the minutes tick by, first 5 then 10. Some start to think the decision will not be made.

All of the sudden from behind the stairs one figure is seen sprinting across the plaza, than a second, followed by a third, each in a tight-lipped race to give the verdict to his or her reporter first. Their goal is to give their reporter and network the right to say they brought the news to the public before anyone else.

We watch the reporters from the various networks confer with their interns for what seems like forever, as still more people came running out of the courthouse until — on the far end of the plaza where the crowd of supporters had gathered — a cheer of celebration went up. That’s when we knew the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, had just confirmed marriage is a civil right granted to all citizens regardless of sexual preference.

I was given the assignment of wading into the crowd and getting as much of the reaction as I could. I had to hold my 15-pound camera high over my head to get the mass reaction and try to avoid getting crushed in the celebration. I could hear the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington singing “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha and singing the “Star Spangled Banner” with pride.

The feeling, or “vibe” as Amanda put it, was one of elation and pride at the recognition of equality. I met couples that had been together 40 years, in tears knowing the state would now officially endorse the legal rights of their partnership, their vows and most importantly their love.

The police had to block off an entire lane of traffic as the celebration overflowed into the street.  I think even the control-happy Capitol Police realized they could bend a little for the celebration of equality deferred too long.

I too, with all my cynicism, couldn’t help but feel good leaving the Supreme Court. It was a long, hard day, but in perspective the delay in me seeing my wife was insignificant compared to the delay in affirming the LGBT community’s right to have their love recognized by all of America.

Congratulations!

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Outback on Horseback

When you think of the great stretches of open sky over the savanna you think of the Serengeti. But, on the opposite side of the world, is one of the greatest wildernesses — the Australian outback. I’ve often thought one of the best ways to experience the great open spaces of Oz is on horseback.  So, to indulge this fantasy of riding the open plains like Hugh Jackman in the film Australia, we did a little research to get your imagination going.

The cattle culture and life in the saddle is a big part of the Australian identity, so much like in the American west many stations (ranches) have added a tourism element to their businesses.  You don’t have to have to spend a lot if (or any) time in the saddle, since many offer bed and breakfast options. Your inner drover (cowboy) can be satisfied in a multitude of ways by taking part in cattle drives and trail rides that last for an hour, a day, or 14 days.

Digger’s Station Holiday is located in the Northern Territory, where the landscape resembles the southwestern United States. They offer several options, such as a 2-hour tour for $100 per person to more extensive rides. The longer rides run anywhere between $3,750 to $4,550 and includes round trip transportation from Kununurra, a bed roll with linens and mosquito tent, and meals. The tour features the opportunity to  see the amazing landscapes of the Kimberly Bush. You’d better like riding, too, for one of the extended trips; you’ll be spending 6-7 hours a day in the saddle. The overnight stays are designed for riders with a little experience, so my suggestion would be to get a few lessons from your local stable before you go.

Equathon is what you’re looking for if you want to add some beach time to your trek. They offer a beach and bush 7-day horse riding adventure as you travel the trails in Queensland. The tour guides will take you along the beaches of the sunshine cost and into the hinterland.  The tour guide is a former equestrian Olympian, Alex Watson. The name of this tour is luxury, spending each night in a well-appointed room with drinks and gourmet meals. I took a look at the schedule and you’ll have to book well in advance for this one. Book a trip for next year for about $2,950 per person.

For your own trip, I’d start by figuring out which region you’d like to visit and then narrow down the choices from there. I’d take a good look at experience level too, some require a lot of experience and others are designed for novice riders.  You also might want to take a good look at where the stations actually located, some are pretty remote and it could take you a day of travel to just get to the start of your adventure. I’m sure that with a little more research you can find the riding experience that fits your experience and comfort level.

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An Historic Hideaway: Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens

Ingénue to Icon

I have gotten to know the city of Washington, DC intimately over the last decade as a photojournalist, and yet I was absolutely stunned coming across a 25-acre estate covered in trees and streams right in the middle of the northwest quadrant of the city. Hillwood Estate, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post (a businesswoman, diplomat, philanthropist, fashion icon and grande dame of DC society) is home to a Georgian-style mansion, the largest collection of imperial Russian art outside of Russia as well as gardens and greenhouses. You can spend a whole day or a few hours wandering around the grounds for free or after gifting the suggested donation of $18 for adults.

The mansion tours are offered at 11:30 and 1:30 each day and offer a history lesson and context of the art inside the mansion and the mansion itself.  The docent will regale you with of tales of cocktail parties involving the rich, famous and powerful hosted by Marjorie Post.

Ingénue to Icon

A wonderful exhibit happening right now is Ingénue to Icon: 70 years of fashion form the collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post.  The key pieces are from her personal collection, spanning 1887 to the 1970s. She was considered the most well-dressed woman in Washington, her clothes made by the greatest designers and each considered a work of art.  You can follow the history of American fashion for 70 years through her carefully preserved wardrobe.

The formal gardens have come alive after the cold winter filling the estate with boundless color. The 13 acres of gardens were designed to be a progression of “outdoor rooms” for entertaining.  The gardens are connected, yet each has a very unique feel such as the French-inspired or Japanese-style gardens.

The greenhouses are filled with exotic flowers, especially orchids. The beauty of these fragile flowers is truly breathtaking. I love spending a cool, rainy morning in the warm beauty of the greenhouse.  A café is also on site, giving you a chance to have a light lunch while overlooking the gardens.

 

The Hillwood Estate is located right off of Linnean Ave bordering Rock Creek Park.  You can even park onsite.

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