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Essential Gear for Exploring America’s National Parks

Are you planning to explore America’s National Parks? Ensure that you pack the essential gear for your next adventure by checking out this list…
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America’s National Parks are a testament to the natural beauty and diverse landscapes that define our great nation.

From the serene lakes of Yosemite to the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, each park offers a unique adventure that beckons the outdoor enthusiast.

However, the key to a truly unforgettable experience lies not just in the journey itself but in being adequately prepared for it.

The right gear can make the difference between a challenging misadventure and a REWARDING exploration.

For those gearing up for their next national park adventure, it is crucial to equip yourself with the essential outdoor gear for safety, comfort, and enjoyment. This is what we will be going over today.

12 Must-Have Gear for Exploring America’s National Parks

To truly embrace these wonders of the environment, one must be adequately prepared. The right gear enhances the enjoyment of your journey and ensures your safety amidst the unpredictable elements of nature.

We listed the must-have gear that addresses shelter, hydration, navigation, and comfort essentials.

Each piece is critical in preparing for the diverse challenges and experiences America’s National Parks offer.

1. Comfortable Footwear

The correct footwear is essential for navigating the varied terrain of national parks. Choose shoes that offer SUPPORT and TRACTION, designed for the specific conditions you will face, whether rocky ascents or muddy trails. This is where first-rate arch support insoles can make all the difference.

Quality insoles will add comfort, and can even help avoid injuries, while you hike. Then your hiking boots or shoes can protect your feet over long distances, ensuring that your focus remains on the beauty around you, not the discomfort below.

2. Tents and Shelter

Choosing the right tent is pivotal for any outdoor journey. Aim for a shelter that strikes the perfect balance between being LIGHTWEIGHT for those long treks and DURABLE enough to stand up to the elements of nature.

Ideal tents protect against various conditions, from torrential downpours to high winds, while not weighing you down or being too cumbersome to install.

NOTE: You can visit Vargo Outdoors and shop for everything you need, from ultralight tents to reliable navigation tools, ensuring you are well-prepared for the diverse terrains and climates of America’s great outdoors.

3. Water Filtration and Bottles

Hydration is critical in the great outdoors, making reliable water filtration and durable bottles essential for your survival.

Portable filtration systems allow you to convert natural water sources into safe drinking water. This becomes more CRUCIAL when exploring remote areas, as you may not have ready access to potable water.

Combine this with a sturdy water bottle designed for easy carry, and you ensure that you stay hydrated no matter where your adventures take you.

4. Durable Backpacks

A backpack is more than just a bag; it is your mobile base camp. The best backpacks merge water resistance and ergonomic design with ample storage, organized in a way that makes your essentials accessible and your load manageable.

Look for designs with adjustable straps, ample padding for comfort, and compartments that help keep gear dry and organized.

The right backpack becomes an extension of you, capable of carrying everything you need WITHOUT becoming a burden. It should be your shield against everything Mother Nature can throw at you.

5. Navigation Tools

In the expansive wilderness of national parks, reliable navigation tools are INDISPENSABLE.

Traditional maps and compasses, alongside modern GPS devices, offer a safety net for exploration. They ensure you can always find your way back, regardless of cell service or battery life.

Understanding how to use these tools effectively is just as important as having them, offering peace of mind as you venture into unfamiliar trails and make your way back to civilization.

6. Backup Batteries and Memory Cards

Amid nature’s splendor, every moment is an opportunity for a memorable photo.

Keeping your camera equipped with extra batteries and memory cards means you will NEVER have to miss out on being able to capture the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of wildlife you encounter.

These backups are especially crucial in remote areas where the opportunity to recharge or download images might be days away.

7. Appropriate Clothing

The secret to comfort in the outdoors is layering.

Start with moisture-wicking base layers that keep sweat away from your skin, add insulating layers to retain body heat, and top with waterproof outer layers to protect against rain and wind.

This approach allows you to adjust your outfit to the day’s conditions, ensuring you remain COMFORTABLE whether scaling a peak or navigating an established trail one chilly morning.

8. Sun Protection and Bug Spray

Protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays and insects is paramount for your overall enjoyment.

A high-SPF sunscreen should be applied and reapplied according to exposure, while an effective bug spray wards off mosquitoes, ticks, and other pests that can be not just annoying but also harmful to your health.

These precautions are simple but critical for avoiding discomfort and health issues on your trip.

9. Cash

While digital payments are increasingly common, many locations within national parks may still operate on a cash-only basis.

Having cash on hand is essential for covering park fees, purchasing goods from local vendors, or handling minor emergencies.

It ensures you are prepared for all transactions, focusing on the adventure rather than payment logistics.

10. Food and Water

The energy expended during hikes and explorations necessitates a steady intake of calories and hydration.

Packing NUTRIENT-DENSE snacks and meals provide the fuel your body needs to keep moving.

A sufficient supply of water, augmented by a portable filtration system, also guarantees access to safe drinking water, keeping you hydrated no matter how far off the beaten path you venture.

11. First Aid Kit and Medication

A comprehensive first aid kit is your first line of defense against minor injuries, insect bites, or health issues that can occur in the wilderness. It should include bandages, antiseptics, blister treatments, and personal medications.

Being prepared to handle common ailments ensures that minor issues DO NOT escalate into major emergencies.

12. Rain Gear

Weather in the national parks can change rapidly, and sudden rain storms are not uncommon.

Lightweight, packable rain gear, such as waterproof jackets and pants, can be easily carried and quickly donned to keep you DRY and COMFORTABLE.

This gear not only protects against getting wet but also helps prevent the drop in body temperature associated with damp clothing.

Packing for Your Adventure

Mastering the art of efficiently packing can TRANSFORM your outdoor adventure, ensuring that every piece of gear serves a purpose without weighing you down.

Here is how to pack smart for your journey into America’s National Parks:

    • Start with a List: Begin by making a comprehensive list of everything you need, tailored to the duration of your trip, the climate, and the activities planned. This list ensures nothing essential is forgotten and helps avoid the common pitfalls of overpacking.
    • Choose the Right Backpack: Selecting the right backpack is foundational. Consider the volume (in liters) needed for your gear and the fit on your body. A backpack with adjustable straps, a supportive waist belt, and multiple access points can make all the difference in comfort and convenience.
    • Organize with Compartments: Utilize the compartments and pockets in your backpack to organize gear. Keep items that you will need frequently or quickly—like water, snacks, a first-aid kit, and rain gear—in easily accessible spots. Use packing cubes or bags to compartmentalize clothes and equipment, which not only keeps things organized but also compresses items to save space.
    • Balance the Load: Distribute weight evenly to maintain balance and reduce strain on your body. Heavier items should be packed closer to your back and centered between your shoulders and hips. This placement helps maintain your natural center of gravity and makes carrying the load more manageable.
    • Prioritize Accessibility: Pack with the day’s journey in mind. Consider what items you will need access to throughout the day and place them toward the top of your pack or in your side pockets. This strategy minimizes disruptions and the need to unpack and repack your bag.
    • Test and Adjust: Once packed, try on your backpack and adjust the straps for a snug, comfortable fit. Walk around to ensure the weight feels balanced and the pack doesn’t shift uncomfortably. Making adjustments before you hit the trail can save you from discomfort or injury.
    • Leave Space for Extras: Finally, leave a little extra space for items you might pick up along the way, like souvenirs or extra water. Having a bit of flexibility in your pack means you can adapt to unexpected needs or opportunities.

Efficient packing is not just about fitting everything into your backpack; it is about strategic placement, accessibility, and maintaining comfort throughout your journey.

With a well-organized pack, you free yourself up to enjoy the beauty and adventure that await in America’s National Parks, knowing everything you need is right where it should be.

Special Considerations for the Hunting and Shooting Community

For enthusiasts in the hunting and shooting community embarking on adventures in America’s National Parks, preparing requires attention to specific details BEYOND the essential outdoor gear. Here is what to consider:

    • Camouflage and Concealment: Effective camouflage is essential for blending seamlessly into the natural environment, a critical factor in successful hunting. Choose camouflage that matches the specific terrain and vegetation of the park you are visiting, whether it is the dense green forests of the Appalachians or the arid brushlands of the Southwest. This not only aids in the hunt but also minimizes disturbance to wildlife.
    • Firearm Safety Equipment: Safety should always be the paramount concern, making firearm safety equipment non-negotiable. This includes secure, lockable gun cases, trigger locks, and safety gear such as ear protection and safety glasses. Always ensure that your firearms are transported and stored according to federal and state laws and park regulations.
    • Knowledge of Park Regulations: Understanding and adhering to park regulations regarding hunting is crucial. Not all national parks allow hunting, and those that do often have strict guidelines on seasons, permissible areas, and types of game you can hunt. Before planning your trip, research the specific regulations of the park you intend to visit. This might involve permits, hunting seasons, and specific rules about the use of firearms or bows.
    • Ethical Hunting Practices: Beyond legal requirements, ethical hunting practices ensure that hunting activities contribute to conservation efforts and respect the natural balance of the park’s ecosystems. This includes following the principles of fair chase, only taking shots that ensure a quick and humane kill, and respecting wildlife and other park visitors.

Understanding the Terrain and Climate of National Parks

Understanding the diverse terrains and climates of America’s National Parks is CRUCIAL for any adventurer.

With its extreme heat and cold, the stark, sun-baked expanses of the Grand Canyon demand gear that can protect and adapt.

Conversely, the Everglades’ swampy marshlands require equipment that can withstand moisture and facilitate easy movement through water-logged areas.

The unpredictability of weather and conditions across parks like Yosemite, with its sudden storms or the high-altitude challenges of Rocky Mountain National Park, underscores the importance of versatile, durable gear.

From selecting a tent that shields against harsh winds and heavy rainfall to choosing a backpack that balances weight and accessibility, every piece of equipment must be chosen with the environment in mind.

Understanding these diverse ecosystems and preparing accordingly is not just about ensuring comfort—it is a vital step in safeguarding your adventure against the unpredictable elements of nature.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace principles” are essential for anyone venturing into America’s National Parks. Their premise is about minimizing our impact on these pristine spaces through MINDFUL PRACTICES.

It involves staying on designated trails to avoid damaging native flora, camping in established sites to prevent soil erosion, and adequately managing waste by packing everything you bring in.

Equally important is the respectful observation of wildlife from a distance, without feeding or disturbing them, to MAINTAIN their natural behaviors and habitats.

Leave No Trace” also encompasses the responsible use of fires, recognizing that the scars left behind can last generations and disrupt the ecosystem.

When fires are permitted, use established fire rings and keep fires small. Ensure all flames are extinguished completely before leaving the site.

Being considerate of other visitors is a core aspect. Keeping noise levels down, yielding to other trail users, and preserving the sense of solitude and natural experience FOR EVERYONE speaks to the heart of this principle.

Conclusion

Exploring America’s National Parks is an adventure like no other. The key to a truly enriching experience lies in meticulous preparation and selecting the right gear tailored to the diverse terrains and climates you will encounter.

Each item plays a pivotal role in SAFEGUARDING your adventure, from the essential comfort of a well-chosen tent and backpack to the critical necessity of hydration, navigation tools, and appropriate attire.

Furthermore, sun protection and emergency preparedness, including a first aid kit and sufficient food and water supplies, ensure that your focus remains on the beauty and thrill of exploration.

For those in the hunting and shooting community, additional preparation in terms of camouflage, safety, and adherence to park regulations underscores the importance of an ethical approach to wildlife.

As you pack for your next national park adventure, remember that proper preparation ensures your SAFETY and COMFORT and deepens your connection with nature.

Hiking Clothing for All Seasons, Weather Forecasts & Destinations

It’s important to know what to wear hiking to be comfortable and ready for everything the trails have in store, even if you’re going to the park…
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What to wear hiking? Hiking has been an increasingly popular pastime and it seems that this trend will continue. It’s important to know what to wear hiking to be comfortable and ready for everything the trails have in store, even if you’re going to the park.

We think the best place to start is at the bottom, the foundation you might say, by taking care of your feet. Proper arch support insoles reduce stress on joints, ligaments and tendons to help avoid injuries in the foot, knee and hip area.

And when your feet are happy, you will feel ready to take on any hike. So let’s look at ideas to keep the rest of you safe and happy as well.

Please take note of the following important hiking rule: You should always have extra warm and waterproof clothing, shelter, and extra food and drink in your bag.

Day hikers are more prone to fatal incidents than backpackers are because they are more likely to be caught unprepared. It may seem absurd to take a hiking gear for women, fleece jacket, camping clothes, warm leggings, a blanket, and a tiny tent in your daypack when sunny and 75 degrees.

There’s a good potential that you’ll spend the night or more in the wilderness if you take a wrong turn, fall, or otherwise become lost in the woods while hiking.

You never know when you will need them, so pack a few more with you. What to wear hiking is the fun part, so let us get started.

Basics: What to Wear Hiking

What to wear hiking? When you’re a novice hiker, it’s tempting to overpack and overthink things. The best option is to plan and pack just what you need. Chad Alexander, an accomplished hiker, CEO and personal trainer at Fitness Minimalists, believes that “many beginner hikers carry far too many stuff, which may make trekking more taxing on the body than it has to be.” Many hikers are seen carrying two or three heavy cotton sweaters hiking clothes for women, five T-shirts, and five pairs of socks, theory clothing in their backpacks. Still, professional hikers only take the best and lightest basics.

What to wear hiking? Choose fabrics that wick away moisture from the skin. Cotton (and denim, for that matter) is your worst enemy on the trail since they hold onto moisture, causing your T-shirt, socks, and underwear to stay damp for your journey.

Don’t forget to wear good shoes. As a rule, hiking boots with additional ankle support are recommended for those who want to spend a lot of time outside (by which we mean shoes with ample traction and foot support, not casual street style sneaks like Therafit or Converse).

Make sure you’re dressed comfortably so you can see the walkabout. Keep in mind that you’ll want to ensure that your range of motion includes the ability to climb up and over rocks and lift your arms to move tree branches or sit on a rock while you’re out in the wilderness.

Shorts are suitable for summer hiking outfits. If you are going trekking, it’s a good idea to wear a pair of hiking trousers rather than shorts. We think that these Travel Pants have been perfect for us. Why do you ask? Because practically every route includes some overgrown shrubs or grassy areas, low branches, jutting rocks, and other hazards, shorts leave your legs exposed to scratches and scrapes and bruises, and Poison Ivy bites ticks.

You will need a lot of these. Indecisive about whether or not to wear a long-sleeved shirt or a T-shirt cute hiking outfits. Wear both at the same time. Whether you’re unsure if you need a light anorak or a thicker fleece, we’ve got you covered. Bring both of them. The thought of wearing shorts in the winter is enough to make you nervous. Include a pair of pants in your luggage as well. Pack or wear additional layers wherever possible, even if you aren’t in any doubt whatsoever.

Hiking in Spring and Fall: What to Wear

What to wear on a hike? There is more in common between these two seasons than you would believe. Because the weather may be so variable — rain one day, 70 degrees the next, then frigid winds and dark sky — it’s even more important to dress in layers in these climates. Take along a waterproof or water-resistant anorak that may help protect you from wind-cold. ‘As a result of their small size and portability, they may be a lifesaver if the weather begins to change.

Wool hiking apparel is ideal for cold-weather trekkers because it can absorb some moisture without making you feel damp or sweaty. Gorp, an outdoors and travel website, recommends this if you are sweating or caught in a rainstorm. “There are several friendly synthetic textiles as well. Because nylon or poly blends are so durable, we choose them. There should be no more than 20% poly or nylon in your clothing if you want it to breathe.

Tank tops, T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, windbreakers, fleece pullovers, shorts or trousers may all be worn depending on the weather prediction. Do not forget to carry your food, drink, and other essentials in a big enough backpack for all of your gear. Brimmed hats, thick beanies, and gloves are good options for keeping the sun off your face and eyes.

Finally,

Ultimately, you want to be prepared for any weather. It is better to pack many clothes you will not use than to leave things behind and need them later. Always pack a raincoat and avoid wearing cotton while it is raining. You will be OK if you follow these guidelines!

On-The-Go: Here’s 5 Tips to Improve Your Comfort During Travels

With a little preparation and some practical advice, you can ensure that every trip is pleasant and enjoyable…
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Traveling can be daunting for some, but it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable experience. You can make your journey as comfortable and enjoyable as possible with the right tips and tricks. Here are five essential tips to help improve your comfort on the go!

1. Wear Comfortable Clothes:

When traveling, comfort is an absolute must, that is why we feel that a quality pair of comfortable shoes with good arch support insoles is the most essential item to pack for your trip.  You will be glad you did when your feet feel healthy, hardy, and ready to go all day. By providing much-needed stability and cushioning you and your feet will be unstoppable while exploring wherever you go.

It is also a good idea to choose layered clothing that can easily be added to or taken off depending on the temperature. So avoid wearing anything too tight or restrictive, as it will make you feel uncomfortable for the duration of your journey.

2. Pack Light:

Lugging around a huge suitcase is annoying and can hinder your mobility while you’re away from home. Try to pack light by only bringing along the essentials such as clothing, toiletries, and any necessary electronics like laptops or phones. This way, you won’t have to worry about carrying around a heavy bag that takes up valuable space. Additionally, you can save money on baggage fees if your airline has a weight limit for checked bags.

3. Bring along Entertainment:

During long journeys, it’s important to have something to occupy your time with. Whether it be reading a book or watching movies on your laptop, having an activity to focus on helps the time pass more quickly and prevents boredom from setting in. As a bonus, you can also spend the time relaxing and de-stressing while away from home. Also, if you’re traveling with children, don’t forget to bring along some toys or activities to keep them entertained during the trip.

4. Stay Hydrated:

Traveling can often lead to dehydration, especially when you’re on a plane or in an unfamiliar environment. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day and avoid consuming too much caffeine or alcohol as it can further dehydrate your body. Additionally, try to opt for healthier snacks such as fruits or nuts rather than processed foods high in sugar and other unhealthy additives.

5. Invest in the Right Gear:

Having the right gear can make all the difference in comfort. For example, Roam Often has a Case, a versatile and stylish item that can be used for leisure and business purposes. Its ergonomic design ensures that your laptop remains secure during transit and its adjustable straps allow you to adjust the bag size based on what items you need to carry with you.

Overall, following these tips will help improve your overall comfort while traveling. Taking time to plan will also ensure your journey is as stress-free as possible. With a little preparation and some practical advice, you can ensure that every trip is pleasant and enjoyable!

Living on a Boat #boatlife

It’s been a while since we actually felt like we lived anywhere.I realize that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s true. From the time we left St. Croix a dozen years ago until just this past year we have been essentially nomads. But now we bought a boat, moved on to it and made it our new home…
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It’s been a while since we actually felt like we lived anywhere.

I realize that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s true. From the time we left St. Croix a dozen years ago until just this past year we have been essentially nomads.

We spent the first half of that time bouncing around North America in a series of three motorhomes. It wasn’t our original plan, in fact we used to say “the plan is no plans” back then. But when the first RV kept running long after we assumed it would die, we just kept going.

As we chronicled in our book, GOING GYPSY: One Couple’s Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All, we were only looking to take a break after raising three kids by taking what we called a victory lap. It was only meant to last a year or so but fate had different plans.

Instead, we began writing about our adventures, which led to us traveling all around the world and passing our stories along via this website, social media, the aforementioned book, and any number of other outlets along the way.

Meanwhile, we had to “live” somewhere. (Yes, those are meant to be air quotes.)

At first we bought rental properties in Michigan, where our son went to college. Even though we spent very little time there, we used it as an address for all of those official functions that need one, like having a driver’s license, a bank account, voting, and paying taxes.

By the time he graduated and moved to Alaska, we were being asked to write about overseas trips quite a bit and, since both of our daughters lived in New York City, we bought a condo outside the city in Poughkeepsie. Once again, we were almost never there, but at least we had an address.

A couple of years ago some family matters in California came up that made living on the opposite coast inconvenient, so we packed up what little we had and headed west. A few months later our apartment burned to the ground while we were in Cuba.

Since we travel incredibly light, that left us with literally the clothes on our backs along with what little we had in our carry-on bags.

This lack of possessions pushed us into a decision about our living situation that we had been contemplating ever since St. Croix.

We bought a powered motor boat for sale. But unlike the boats we had back in Nashville, and the US Virgin Islands, this was set up to live aboard.

So that’s what we did, moved on to it and made it our new home.

At the same time we had decided to slow down our travel schedule, partly because it was becoming a bit too hectic, but mostly so we could spend the necessary time involved with getting a forty-five year old boat back up to ship shape.

The view from our deck.

With that task nearly complete, (but as any boat owner knows it is never really finished) we are about ready to embark on some seafaring adventures.

As with living on a Caribbean island, boat life may look like an endless vacation but real life is always with us. Bills still must be paid and family obligations don’t just go away.

So we will start slow, exploring the California coast and the Channel Islands just off of it, then maybe move further out, perhaps to Mexico or north to the Pacific Northwest and Canada. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

As we do, we will certainly be sharing our tales of the high seas.

David and Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Tell us what you think of this idea. Are we crazy? Could you live on a boat?

Car Batteries in Subzero Temperatures: Tips for Surviving Winter

As you embark on your winter adventures, remember that preparation is key to surviving the frozen tundra. Keep a vigilant eye on your car battery, ensuring it remains in peak condition to weather the storm… CONTINUE READING >>

Bitter winds howl, frost clings to your windows, and the bitter sting of the cold nips at your skin. Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again: winter. While some embrace the season with open arms, relishing in the beauty of freshly fallen snow and the cozy warmth of a crackling fire, others cringe at the thought of braving the elements. If you’re a car owner, you know all too well the struggles that come with winter driving. One of the most dreaded scenarios? A dead car battery in subzero temperatures. But fear not, dear reader, for I am here to equip you with the knowledge and tips you need to survive winter with your car battery intact.

Understanding the Power Within: Car Batteries Unveiled

Before we dive into the heart of the matter, let’s take a moment to understand the powerhouse that is your car battery. Think of it as the beating heart of your vehicle, supplying the necessary electrical energy to start your engine and power various components. Now, imagine this vital organ facing the wrath of winter’s icy grip. It’s a battle between life and death, and your car battery is on the front lines.

The Tale of Retribution: A Brush with Fate

Picture this: a cold winter’s night, the sky painted in shades of blue and gray. You’re bundled up in layers, eager to escape the biting cold. As you approach your car, anticipation builds in your chest, only to be dashed by the sight of a lifeless engine. Retribution, it seems, for neglecting to heed the warnings of winter’s icy embrace. But fear not, for redemption lies within your grasp.

Tips to Keep Your Car Battery Going Strong:

Embrace the Warmth: Just as you seek shelter from the cold, so too does your car battery crave warmth. Park your vehicle in a garage whenever possible to shield it from the harsh elements. If a garage is not available, consider investing in a battery blanket or insulation to provide much-needed warmth during frigid nights.

Show Some Love: Your car battery is a giver, providing the power necessary to keep your vehicle running smoothly. Return the favor by showing it some love. Regular maintenance, including cleaning the terminals and ensuring proper fluid levels, can go a long way in extending the life of your battery.

The Legend of the Givers: A Tale of Generosity

In a world consumed by self-interest, there exist rare souls known as givers. These individuals possess hearts overflowing with kindness, always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need. Such was the case for Tom, a humble mechanic with a penchant for generosity. When Sarah found herself stranded on the side of the road with a dead car battery, it was Tom who came to her rescue, offering not only a jumpstart but also valuable advice on winter car care. And so, the legend of the givers lives on, a beacon of light in a world shrouded in darkness.

Stay Charged: Just as you rely on caffeine to kickstart your day, your car battery depends on a healthy charge to spring into action. During the winter months, make it a priority to keep your battery charged to prevent it from succumbing to the cold. Invest in a quality battery charger and use it regularly to maintain optimal performance.

Navigating the Frozen Tundra: A Journey Through the Cold

As you embark on your winter adventures, remember that preparation is key to surviving the frozen tundra. Keep a vigilant eye on your car battery, ensuring it remains in peak condition to weather the storm. And should the need arise, don’t hesitate to seek assistance from fellow travelers or roadside assistance services. Together, we can brave the elements and emerge victorious on the other side.

Know When to Say Goodbye: Despite your best efforts, there may come a time when your car battery reaches the end of its lifespan. When this moment arrives, don’t despair. Instead, view it as an opportunity for renewal and growth. Embrace the prospect of car battery replacement with open arms, knowing that it marks the beginning of a new chapter in your winter journey.

In the end, winter may test our resolve, but with the right knowledge and preparation, we can conquer even the coldest of days. So, dear reader, heed these tips and embark on your winter adventures with confidence. Your car battery may face its fair share of challenges, but with a little care and attention, it will emerge stronger than ever before. Safe travels, and may the road ahead be filled with warmth and light.

Island Time in Key West

When we ran out of Highway 1, we knew we must be in Key West, southernmost point of the fifty states, biggest city in The Keys, county seat of Monroe County, and unofficial capital of the Conch Republic…
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With springtime in the air we are taking a look back at our drive down to Key West ten years ago…

Key West

When we ran out of Highway 1, we knew we must be in Key West, southernmost point of the fifty states, biggest city in The Keys, county seat of Monroe County, and unofficial capital of the Conch Republic.

Back in 1982 Key West declared itself the independent Conch Republic to protest a United States Border Patrol blockade. A seventeen mile traffic jam backed up when the Border Patrol stopped every car leaving the Keys for the mainland, supposedly searching for illegal immigrants.

The hit to tourism was so huge that the people staged a nonviolent, one day revolt. Click here to see our full story on the Florida Keys!

The Flag of the Conch Republic, Key West

Ever since, they have celebrated their own Independence Day every April 23rd. But the blue Conch Republic flags can be seen all over Key West any day of the year, with its clever slogan, “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

In the hope of establishing international relations we decided to drop by The Conch Republic Office of the Secretary General, but no one was around. The diplomats must have been observing island-time. Conchs, as Keys citizens are known, are generally pretty laid back.

Key West Dude

The town is easy to walk, so we continued along on foot. First stop, Willy T’s for a quick conch chowder. Conch is sort of the national food of The Keys, ever since colonial times when the shellfish was the only food that the king didn’t tax.

The chowder is tasty and Willy T’s is a hoot, with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollar bills scrawled on by previous patrons stapled to every available surface. An establishment really needs to be quirky to stand out in Key West.

Dollar bills decorate Willy T's in Key West

After lunch we strolled through the neighborhoods of classic island bungalows with tropical gardens packed into their tiny yards. No sprawling lawns here, land is at too much of a premium.

When we found a quintessential example of a house that just happened to be for sale, we decided to call and see what a one goes for. WOW! $795,000.00 for this little place, but the realtor said he had some cheaper ones around half a million. (No doubt this would be a bargain at today’s prices!)

Looks like being an eccentric, laid-back Conch can be expensive.

A Key West Bungalow

We moseyed on, passing the official ending point of US highway 1, the “Little White House” where President Harry S. Truman spent eleven vacations during his terms, and the former home of Key West’s most famous resident Ernest Hemingway.

From his house we figured we should hit Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole. At least that’s what they tell the tourists. Our feet were telling us to take a break so we sat down and hoisted a cold one to Papa.

Sloppy Joe's - Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar in Key West

There’s only one place to end the day on Key West, Mallory Square. It’s the site of the famous Sunset Celebration every evening, which is definitely the highlight of any day on the island.

Trained house cats, circus acts, jugglers, clowns, psychics, musicians, artists, street performers and pretty much every kind of dog and pony show gather to entertain, ply their wares, and hopefully make a little money every single day as the sun sinks slowly into the sea.

Key West Florida

It’s all spontaneous and free, just toss a little dough into the hat as it gets passed. Later, many of the acts can be found spending some of their tip takings in the gin mills on Duval Street.

The oldest bar in Florida

Not that we would ever frequent those establishments.

Who? Us?

Market in Key West

Shipwreck Museum in Key West Florida

The Strand Theatre in Key West, Florida

Click here to see our full story on the Florida Keys!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

The Ancient Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is not the kind of place that even the most wandering GypsyNesting-type will stumble upon by accident. It’s not on the way to anywhere. But since we found ourselves on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, what’s known as the Riviera Maya, we hopped on a bus to the ancient Mayan site. We wanted to enjoy both a … CONTINUE READING >>

The ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is not the kind of place that even the most wandering GypsyNesting type will stumble upon by accident. It’s not on the way to anywhere. But since we found ourselves on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, what’s known as the Riviera Maya, we hopped on a shuttle to the ancient Mayan site.

The entry to Tulum

We wanted to enjoy both a guided tour and some free time to explore on our own and, since the site is not that large, and we saved time by taking a Cancun to Tulum shuttle, both could be easily accomplished in one day.

Tulum, the Mayan word for fence or wall, is a walled city that dates back around eight hundred years and served as a sacred site as well as a sea port.

Tulum, Mexico

The peak of the Mayan civilization was around the year 1000 and Tulum was occupied late in the Mayan era, in fact it was one of the last cities they built.

Soon after Tulum’s rise, the Spanish arrived and the Mayans, along with the Inca and Aztec peoples, were conquered.

The Mayans proved to be the most difficult conquest, since there was no single king. Their political structure was set up in a number of separate city-states with individual rulers that traded and interacted with one another.

Because of this, and the fact that they didn’t have gold, the Mayans and Spanish coexisted for two hundred years before Spain finally took control of the Mayan lands. Even then, the people, culture and language did not cease to exist. In fact most people in the Yucatan today are of Mayan and Spanish descent, including our guide Carlos.

El Castillo, Tulum, Mexico

The most prominent feature of Tulum is El Castillo, previously presumed to be a simply a temple, with steps leading up to a columned shrine on the top.

However, in 1984, this structure was discovered to serve a more worldly purpose, a navigational signal to the large cargo canoes that the Mayans used in their trading with other civilizations up and down the coast.

Tulum, Mexico

The discovery, known as “The Secret of Tulum,” showed that small windows in the shrine line up perfectly with a gap in the barrier reef offshore. During daylight hours, the sky is visible through the windows so incoming canoes could line up by keeping equal amounts of light in each. At night another set of windows were lit to guide the vessels safely to the beach. A primitive lighthouse, as it were.

Pretty ingenious, we thought.

Temple of the Descending God, Tulum Mexico

Off to the side of El Castillo is the Temple of the Descending God. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name.

The sun rises exactly through the temple on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This is tré Mayan, as they were obsessed with the movements of the heavens and learned to mathematically predict almost every astronomical event.

They developed stunningly accurate versions of the calendar thousands of years ago. These calculations led to much speculation as to just what might happen when the calendar ended.

The Temple of the Frescos, Tulum, Mexico

The Descending God is also depicted in the Temple of the Frescoes.

Carlos spent a good deal of time showing us the details of this building, since it is the most unique artifact of Tulum.

The surviving frescoes inside are perhaps the finest examples of Mayan artwork remaining anywhere.

Fresco at Tulum, Mexico

It was here that archeologists discovered that the Mayans also painted the outsides of their temples in bright colors, and Carlos showed us some of the remaining original coloring.

Exterior on the Temple of the Frescos, Tulum Mexico

With the guided portion of our visit complete, we were free to wander among the ruins on our own, but not before we caught Carlos for a couple of one-on-one questions.

Tulum Mexico

We asked about Tulum’s population, likely around 1,500. He also answered our inquiries about the interaction and trade with nearby settlements, and how the relationships weren’t always friendly.

Hence the walls that give Tulum its name.

Tulum Ruins

The beach at Tulum. Mexico

Tulum overlooking the ocean

Looking out over the beautiful blue Caribbean we could see the island of Cozumel off in the distance, and behind us a sheer cliff with the ruins rising above.

The Mayans sure knew how to pick a good spot. We kicked off our shoes and splashed around in the surf for a bit, but soon our stomachs were more concerned with finding a bite.

Tulum, Mexico

Just outside the archeological site there is a small tourist village with food, crafts and, of course, the ever-present crap shops that crop up near any attraction like this. We found a little hole-in-the-wall shop that served up a pretty good street taco and proceeded to burn our mouths after not heeding the advice of the chef about the heat of the salsa.

Iguana at Tulum Mexico

While we ate, we watched as traditional dancers, acrobats and various barkers vied for the attention of the visitors.

We couldn’t help but notice that Tulum is thick with iguanas. Not only rampant among the ruins, but in the tourist village as well. Veronica had the big idea to try and touch one, but the wild variety of these spiny fellas would have none of that.

Luckily, a guy happened to have a tame one of these prehistoric looking lizards available for touching, holding and photo ops… for a few pesos of course. Well Veronica had her fun, and we got the video to prove it. Worth every centavo.

WATCH:

As was a visit to this incredible piece of history.

Learn more about visiting the Island of Cozumel, Cancun, or Tulum on visitaxmx.org

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Noto to Self: Explore Sicily’s Baroque Cities

Solid. Multi-layered. Fantastic.

There are too many adjectives to describe the Baroque cities of Sicily’s Val di Noto to fit into one article (but we gave it our best shot!).

In an effort to recreate the grandeur of Sicily after a devastating earthquake, massive structures were constructed in what came to be known as Sicilian Baroque… CONTINUE READING >>

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Bucket List Item: Do good and travel!

Sicily is a big island, the largest in the Mediterranean and forty-fifth in the world, so even though we rode over one hundred and fifty miles on our bike tour, we needed to focus on one region.

We couldn’t have picked a better one than Val di Noto.

Splashing waves on the Southern Coast of Sicily, Italy

The Trinacria is the symbol of Sicily. The odd three-legged fiqure features the head of Medusa

When we saw the name on our itinerary we envisioned a valley, but the word val in this use dates back to the ancient form of Arabic spoken on Sicily and Malta a thousand years ago.

Val means province, and Noto is one of the three traditional divisions on the island, taking its name from the city of Noto.

These regions, and the islands triangular shape, are represented by the Trinacria that has become the symbol of Sicily.

The odd three-legged figure featuring the head of Medusa and three stalks of wheat is on the flag, coat of arms, street signs – you name it.

We ran into her almost everywhere we went as we pedaled across the island.

The City of Noto

Noto in Sicily, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Noto in Sicily, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Under the Greeks the city was known as Netum and, according to legend, Daedalus rested here after his flight over the Ionian Sea and Hercules after his seventh task.

In 866, the Arabs took control of Sicily and chose Noto as the capital of one of the three districts of the island.

A massive earthquake in 1693 destroyed the ancient city of Noto, so what we visited was a new version built about five miles away from the original.

In an effort to recreate the grandeur of the ancient city, in the mid-nineteenth century massive structures were constructed along a central thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuel, in what came to be known as the Sicilian Baroque style.

The Parta Reale in Noto, Sicily, Italy

We entered the heart of the city through the monumental 19th-century arch, Porta Reale, and slowly worked our way along the broad boulevard to the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra.

The idea was to create a city worthy of the name, and we would have to say that they were quite successful.

We got a feeling almost like walking on the mall in Washington, DC, even if it was on a much smaller scale, because the major landmarks seem so well planned and laid out along the main road.

The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Noto in Sicily, Italy is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra is an impressive example of the rebuilding, and has suffered damage from several more earthquakes since being completed in 1776.

We also felt that the Palazzo Ducezio or Town Hall captured the importance of a capital city.

Palazzo Ducezio or Town Hall in Noto, Sicily, Italy

While we walked we couldn’t help but feel as though something was different about Noto. Then it hit us, unlike most Italian cities, Noto has a continuity to it, since almost everything was built at nearly the same time, using the same stone.

Ragusa Ilba

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Another city devastated by the earthquake and subsequently rebuilt is Ragusa, or more precisely in our case, Ragusa Ibla.

This older part of the city remains on the original site, while the post-quake newer area is known as Ragusa Superiore, or Upper Ragusa.

We visited Ibla for an evening architectural walking tour and, as luck would have it, found the thickening darkness to be a plus as the buildings lit up against the full-mooned night sky.

Our guide, Lea, met us in the town garden…

The palms in the garden in Ragusa Ilba, Sicily in Italy

… then led us up the Corso XXV Aprile while explaining how the baroque city was reconstructed.

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Dominating Ragusa Ibla in Sicily, Italy is the church of San Giorgio, designed by architect Rosario Gagliardi. The cathedral was built from 1739–1775 to replace the original that had only one doorway left after the disaster. Most impressive, especially at night while bathed in blue light, was the large neoclassical dome that was added in 1820.
Duomo di San Giorgio

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Dominating the village is the Duomo di San Giorgio, designed by architect Rosario Gagliardi.

The cathedral was built from 1739–1775 to replace the original that had only one doorway left after the disaster.

Most impressive, especially at night while bathed in blue light, was the large neoclassical dome that was added in 1820.

Leaving Lea, we wondered on our own – getting purposefully lost in the narrow back streets of intricate, multi-layered Ragusa Ilba.

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, a baroque city in Sicily, Italy

Modica

Before Ragusa was rebuilt and became the provincial capital, Modica held that position.

Modica, Sicily

Baroque church in Modica, Sicily, Italy

The city is truly ancient, going back over three thousand years, and while it was stuck by the earthquake, it was not completely destroyed.

The blend of old and new has earned the city the honor of being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The buildings packed in on the hillside made for an amazing sight, but without a doubt our favorite thing about Modica, was a tour of Sicily’s oldest chocolate maker, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

Chocolate and beef? It was weird, but it worked! Sampled at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica, Sicily, Italy
Chocolate and beef? It was weird, but it worked!

The family has been processing cocoa beans for six generations, since 1880.

But their secrets go back even farther, as they use the methods of the Aztecs brought to Sicily via Spain in the 16th century.

Luckily we sampled the finished product before entering the kitchen; otherwise it might have been impossible to keep our hands out of the cookie jar so to speak.

The rustic chocolate that we sampled and watched being made was a fantastic taste treat and the perfect reward at the end of our morning ride through the surrounding hills.

Watch: Uh, yum. A chocoholic’s paradise

Sicilian Plate in Modica, Sicily, Italy

Modica is also dear to our hearts for introducing us to our first Sicilian plate – a yummy array of bread, cheese, meat and veggies.

See more about eating in Sicily – it’s quite the wonderful experience

Thank goodness we were on our trusty steeds, we had to burn off the calories somehow!

Scicli

Perhaps our favorite of the cities we visited in Val di Noto was also the smallest, Scicli.

The Baroque city of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

The city was founded by the Sicels, who gave the town and the island their names, all the way back around 300 BC. We had our share of trouble with the name ourselves, but finally mastered it as pronounced SHE-KLEE.

The mountainside cemetery of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

The mountainside cemetery of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

We rode into town down a steep winding road, stopping before we reached the bottom of the valley at the mountainside Cimitero Comunale, the cemetery of Scicli.

Unlike our typical notion of a graveyard, this is more like a small city built on a hillside.

The mountainside cemetery of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

The mountainside cemetery of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

The rows of mausoleums are arraigned in a grid along narrow street-like paths that stair-step down the slope.

Some are very plain, sort of the high-rise apartments of the cemetery.

Others are extremely ornate and command places of honor and attention, often at an intersection of two of the “roads” – for your guilded palace-types.

Water duct in Scicli, Sicily, Italy

After meandering all the way to the bottom, we climbed back up and remounted our cycles to head into the main part of town.

Scicli was settled where the San Bartolomeo, the Santa Maria La Nuova, and the Fiumara di Modica rivers join; now many of the streets and plazas are actually built over the waterways.

Ducts run throughout.

The Baroque city of Scicli, Sicily, Italy

Statue of Pietro Di Lorenzo Busacca in Scicli, Sicily, Italy

We followed via Alearde alongside and on top of the Santa Maria La Nuova to Piazza Busacca.

The square honors the city’s biggest benefactor, Pietro Di Lorenzo Busacca – in all his pantalooned-and caped finery, thumb tucked jauntily into his belt — who left the city tons of money back in the fifteen hundreds.

Quite the snazzy dresser, David wanted to ask him for tips.

His statue stands in the center of the square between the family palace, Palazzo Di Lorenzo, and the Church and Covent of Carmine.

A well dressed man looks out over Scicli, Sicily, Italy
These days, well-dressed men still look out after the city.

The Church of San Matteo overlooks Scicli, Sicily, Italt

This was not the main square, for that we rode up via Nazionale to Piazza Italia, but from there our attention was focused upward.

Scicli’s foremost attraction, the Church of San Matteo, overlooks the piazza from the top of the hill with the same name.

Even though it is no longer open, it is the oldest church in the city, with the foundations dating back well over a thousand years.

Looking closer, we could see the openings of caves dotting the hillside below.

Known as Chiafura, these were originally used as a cemetery, but became living quarters as people sought the safety of higher ground in the Middle Ages.

Oddly, there were still occupants inhabiting the cave houses until about fifty years ago.

But then, who are we to talk? We’ve been living in a twenty-two foot rolling house for nearly eight years now.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

DELVE DEEPER:
How did we hang on our bicycle tour? See it from the beginning!
We discovered the secrets of Syracuse!
Check out stunning Taormina
Mmmm… the food in Sicily
See all of our adventures in Italy

A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this going-for-Baroque adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Are you ready to go for Baroque in Sicily?