Friday Photo: What Lurks Beneath North Dakota

Last summer, I went to the badlands of North Dakota in search of ancient fossils for The New York Times. I came back with more dinosaur knowledge than an entire Boy Scout troop, a renewed love of wide open spaces and an existential appreciation of our fleeting place in time. You can read all about the state’s public fossil digs and how you can play paleontologist for the day on the cover of this Sunday’s travel section.

Discovering the Tartan Day Parade

Several years ago, I lived in Williamsburg with my Scottish roommate, Shona. We pottered around the city every weekend, checking out shops and museums and whatever else was happening.

One April, we were on our way to Central Park when we spotted a group of bagpipers in kilts hanging out on a cross street. This got our attention, but bagpipes and kilts aren’t as strange as you’d think in New York. Then we noticed that the police had barricaded part of Sixth Avenue. With street fairs happening every weekend, this isn’t that unusual. It was only when we noticed people waving Scottish flags and a band of terriers waddling around that we had to stop and ask some questions.

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0001NYC

It was the Scotland parade, which is officially called the Tartan Day Parade – but I call it the Scottie parade… for obvious reasons.

Once you see a group of Scottish terriers waddling down the street in unison, their little legs scurrying as fast as they can go beneath their furry skirts, you won’t remember anything else.

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0010NYC

Tartan Week, New York City’s annual celebration of all things Scottish, has taken off in recent years – but the parade remains completely manageable (for now). That first year Shona and I went, there were so few spectators there that we could pet the dogs while they took a break and the bagpipers stopped mid-parade to invite us to the pub. There are crowds now, but not the normal crush of people.

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0002NYC

Plenty of spots to stick your nose out through the bars, if you so choose.

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0003NYC20160409_Tartan_Parade_0013NYC

This year, Seamus and I hung around the side street line up – which happened to be outside of the pet-friendly Algonquin Hotel. It was a typical Scottish day weather-wise (read: rainy) so I’ve mixed in some sunny photos from last year. The Westies started turning brown from mud, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. (And it didn’t stop a crowd from trying to catch a glimpse of the cast of Outlander outside the hotel.)

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0004NYC20150411_Tartan_Parade_0005NYC20160409_Tartan_Parade_0015NYC20160409_Tartan_Parade_0014NYC

I bring Seamus in to watch the festivities each year. It has three things he loves: other dogs, parades and bagpipes. Yes, dogs hear two times the frequencies as humans and this guy somehow loves the sound of bagpipes wailing at him. I guess it’s in his blood.

20150411_Tartan_Parade_0008NYC

He’s quite the little ambassador, greeting strangers and posing for photos. (Does Tartan Week need an ambassadog by any chance?)

I’m biased, but I think they’re the highlight of the parade. I’m not alone in my Scottie and Westie obsession – when the dogs start prancing down Sixth Avenue (rarely in a straight line and rarely without getting distracted), you can hear a collective “Oooh!” from the crowd followed by pointing and hysterical laughter. They are truly funny little creatures.

20160409_Tartan_Parade_0012NYC

Every single day of Seamus’s life, a stranger has stopped to see him. He stars in every AirBnBer’s photographs. People will actually pull their cars over to ask questions about him and pet him. I can’t confirm this, but thanks to one particular group of exchange students I am positive that he’s big in Japan. Every week, like clockwork, the street cleaner yells out, “How could anyone ever be sad looking at that face?” I agree, of course (because he’s the best), but most of the time I see Seamus from high above so I don’t quite get the full effect. Watching the terriers waddle and scurry down Sixth Avenue like little furry bumper cars on a mission is truly a sight to behold.

Have you ever been to the Tartan Day Parade? Will you go next year?

 

 

 

Happy Fur-th day, Matilda

Normally, when the cops show up to a birthday party, it’s time to go home. Then again, normally the birthday girl is a human.

If you were out last night in Times Square, you might have noticed an eclectic crowd of cats and cops wandering into the Algonquin Hotel to celebrate Matilda’s birthday.

algonquin hotel matilda birthday cake

Matilda, the Algonquin’s resident feline, is arguably the most famous cat in New York. Her annual birthday bash is a highly coveted ticket – general admission sold out in a day, with 100% of the proceeds going to the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals.

The story of “The Algonquin Cat” is a New York legend. Back in the 1920s, a tabby cat wandered down 44th Street into the Algonquin Hotel lobby, where he stayed. Ever since “Hamlet” set up shop, the hotel has had an in-residence feline mascot.

Matilda came from the North Shore Animal League, so she very generously uses her birthday as a chance to give back to her less fortunate fellow felines.

nypd animal unit

This year, Matilda awarded four members of the NYPD’s new Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad for their work saving New York City’s cats. This new unit took over cruelty investigations when the ASPCA shut down their New York City law enforcement branch. Each officer had a special cat rescue story.

algonquin hotel nypd animal unit officers

Right before a huge snowstorm this past winter, Detective Lisa Bergen got a call about a cat and her newborn litter of kittens living precariously underneath a building. It took several hours in freezing temperatures, but she successfully coaxed all of them out.

algonquin hotel officer john passarella

Officer John Passarella made headlines when he rescued a Brooklyn kitten trapped in a car engine this past June.

algonquin hotel officer sean ryan

Also in June, Officer Sean Ryan spent an hour under a Queens tow truck trying to dislodge a kitten. (June was a rough month for cats.)

algonquin hotel officer andrea dinella

Last but not least, Officer Andrea DiNella had a very Algonquin experience when a cat waltzed into her precinct and “turned himself in.” The cat, who she named Frankie, refused to leave the office so she took care of him until he could be placed for adoption.

algonquin hotel round table bar algonquin hotel oak bar

In keeping with the theme, Matilda’s friends put on a truly epic fashion show. (What’s a party without models? Or, as they preferred to be called, mew-dels.) Ada Nieves, a certified animal fashion designer from FIT, staged “A Feline Salute to NYC’s First Responders” in the Algonquin’s Oak Room.

Each cat wore a custom New York City uniform.

algonquin hotel cat fashion show 2 algonquin hotel cat fashion show mta outfit aodhan

There was Aodhan, the cutest member of the MTA.

algonquin hotel cat fashion show fdny algonquin hotel zeus fdny cat outfit

Zeus, the FDNY fire chief, had the best accessories.

algonquin hotel cat fashion show 1 algonquin hotel cat fashion show dog catcher outfit

Milo, the dog catcher, brought his favorite pug toy.

algonquin hotel cat fashion show red cross cat 2 algonquin hotel cat fashion show 4 algonquin hotel cat fashion show persian cat

Thunderfolds, the Red Cross nurse, had a moment with Toaster, from FEMA.

algonquin hotel cat fashion show doctor outfit

algonquin hotel cat fashion show doctor costume

Q, the doctor, likes to go for a leash walk every day. At the end of the night, he waltzed through the Algonquin’s doors to a round of applause.

These surprisingly calm kitties all took a cat nap at some point, but Aodhan may have partied a little too hard.

algonquin hotel mta cat fashion show 3 algonquin hotel cat fashion show mta aodhan 2

There was the NYPD cat, who made a brief-yet-show-stopping appearance in his miniature uniform.

algonquin hotel nypd cat uniform algonquin hotel nypd cat uniform 2

Outside in the adoption van, several “little New Yorkers” found homes with bigger New Yorkers before the end of the party.

animal adoption van

The guest of honor, Matilda, was a bit camera shy, but in true hostess fashion she popped in every now and then to check on everyone.

algonquin hotel matilda birthday algonquin hotel matilda birthday 2

algonquin hotel cat ears

 

Beach Hopping on the Paradise Coast

Some people might question the logic in leaving for a flight at 4am the morning after a big New Year’s party. To those people I say: You clearly don’t know me at all.

Champagne glasses

I kicked off 2015 bright and early, with a flight down to Florida to attend my college friend’s wedding on Marco Island.

Newark Airport sunrise

A three-hour drive through Florida in January called for one thing: a beach-hopping road trip on the Paradise Coast.

The tail end of 2014 was dark. Literally, not figuratively. Our normally frigid temperatures with bright sunshine had been replaced by a dark, wet, and at times freakishly moderate climate. It was the kind of weather that guarantees a slow descent into madness. (Madness, I tell you. Madness.)

I stood in the airport rental car area of Tampa like winter refugees from Newark, positively giddy as the 85-degree heat belted us in our black down jackets, jeans, and boots. Tanned employees sauntered by in brightly colored polo shirts and Ray-Bans. A Chicago family in line with me practically exploded like vampires when the first Florida sunbeams hit them.

Yellow bridge Florida

Florida road trip

There is no state more perfect than Florida for beach hopping. I’m used to doing this kind of road trip to Florida, so this long weekend seemed extra short. But, as I found out, you can do a lot on the Gulf Coast in a short amount of time.

Florida Road Trip 1

I spent the day cruising around Cape Coral and Naples. This is the start of the “Paradise Coast,” a moniker I just heard for the first time through work. Bonus points for branding, Florida tourism.

The Paradise Coast consists of the Southwestern part of Florida along the Gulf. It includes Naples, Marco Island, Everglades City, Immokalee, and Ave Maria.

Toes and Seashells

Since it was approaching the single digits at home and beach season was still another six months away, I shamelessly did the tell-tale tourist things – like requesting outdoor seating at a restaurant and pointing out every single stretch of sand along the ocean. While people at home were doing the Polar Bear Plunge, I opted to jump right into the unheated hotel pool. (Brave by Floridian standards, I’m told, but actually not brave at all.)

Marco Island

Marco Island Beach

 

The next day, I checked in to Marco Island for the wedding, catching some mid-morning beach time pre-ceremony. Then we all danced the night away … and a random woman on her tenth-floor hotel balcony who rocked out so hard to the wedding deejay’s songs.

Christmas tree Marco IslandFlorida Christmas Sand SculptureFlorida Christmas tree Marco Island

Nutcracker Marco Island

The Christmas spirit was still alive and kicking in Florida. While a hot Christmas will never, ever make sense to me, I loved the Floridian twists on tradition in our hotels. I was on the hunt for a palm tree wrapped in white Christmas lights or a lawn flamingo in a Santa hat. I finally found the palm tree at my third beach hopping stop… but it wasn’t plugged in.

Florida Christmas decorationsFlorida Christmas fish

After Marco Island, I cruised up to Pinellas County and spent the day at Indian Rocks Beach, a beachy little town on a barrier island. I passed the usual Florida suspects on our search for dinner: the open-air seafood place with the live band and a parking lot full of pristine Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the karaoke joint with an oversized bouncer, a suspiciously empty Italian restaurant, an ice cream parlor, and a bunch of restaurants that closed before 7pm. (It’s not New York City, guys.)

Crabby Bills Indian Rocks

Crab shack

The newest restaurant in town happened to be a Chicago brewpub. The owner of Chicago Jaqx Pizzeria and Taphouse brought his native deep-dish pizza to the coast, along with a carefully curated selection of craft beers. Pizza and beer right off the beach? Well, it is vacation, after all.

Chicago Jaqx

I chatted with the owner for awhile. When my pizza came, he brought out a bottle of honey and rather mysteriously told us to save our pizza crusts for later. As it turns out, he once saw someone dip pizza crusts in honey at one of his previous restaurants. He loved the idea so much that he encourages people to try it for dessert. I once watched a table nearly come to blows in a New York City pizzeria over the concept of dipping pizza into cups of ranch dressing. Honey on crusts seems much more logical, somehow.

Surfboard lifeguard Florida

The next day, I left the Paradise Coast for the afternoon and drove to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. It’s not officially “Paradise” but pretty darn close.

Clearwater Beach

One giant cloud cleared everyone off of Clearwater beach for the evening, with grumblings from the locals about unpredictable winter weather. You might say some of them were downright crabby.

Clearwater Beach Crabs

My flight was at noon the next day, so I drove up to a Greek town my dad once brought me to. They were celebrating Epiphany, so we caught some of the festivities and had lunch at a nice restaurant on the water.

Greek Orthodox Church Epiphany

Greek doorSponge diver Christmas tree

Tarpon Springs church dome

Tarpon SpringsIs this not the most perfect Greek salad? There are few things in life that a giant brick of cheese can’t improve.

Greek salad

A few hours later, I were halfway up the East Coast and headed home. It was dark and the forecast called for snow. We would go on to get more snow this winter than we could ever have imagined, but in the meantime I unpacked the seashells that made their way into my suitcase. I ordered Greek food and blasted the heat inside in an effort to extend vacation a little longer.

Tiny clam shellsSunset from a plane

One Million Rose Petals: The 70th Anniversary of D-Day on Liberty Island

Statue of Liberty

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. As a thank you to American veterans for their part in liberating France in 1944, the nonprofit group The French Will Never Forget planned a joint French-US event on Liberty Island. This special ceremony honored the remarkable remaining WWII veterans and commemorated the US’s crucial involvement in stopping the war. What better place to hold it than right beneath the Statue of Liberty? As you probably know, this symbol of freedom and liberty was a gift from France to the US back in 1886.

Statue of Liberty D Day

I was invited to this event and was planning to go, but I had to schedule a last-minute phone interview and work out a few kinks with some upcoming travel plans (I’m leaving in 48 hours!).

So, Seamus and I took a ride to Liberty State Park to catch some of the events from our side of New York Harbor.

Liberty State Pk

Helicopters Ellis Island NYC

It started with a flotilla of sail boats and the French Navy Frigate La Fayette.

French Frigate La Fayette

Helicopters

There were tons and tons of helicopters – some news, some security, and some part of the event. New York City airspace has a lot of helicopter traffic, so Seamus is used to the chopper echoes. He watched them circle around from the pier.

Seamus Liberty State Park

We had a perfect view, with a slight obstruction – but that’s like complaining that the Empire State Building is ruining the view of your sunset.

D Day 70th Anniversary NYC

The American color guard and the French garde d’honneur joined 130 French and American school children carrying giant flags during the ceremony, accompanied by the First Company Governor’s Foot Guard.

Helicopters D Day Rose Petals

Helicopters Rose Petals

And then, my favorite part of all: around noon, three helicopters got into position and released one million red rose petals over the Statue of Liberty. Tough to photograph from thousands of feet away, but lovely to watch.

Statue of Liberty Rose Petals

Elk, Deer, and Hermits

Grand Canyon snowstorm

Only hours into our first full day of exploring the Grand Canyon, I discovered the real benefit to visiting in the height of winter. It’s not the lack of crowds or the solitude (although that’s nice). It’s definitely not the weather. It’s not even the fact that the animals feel comfortable enough to wander up to you.

Deer Grand Canyon 3

Elk Grand Canyon

The biggest advantage of visiting in January is the ability to take in the Grand Canyon’s best vistas on your own timeline. The Hermit Road is only open to private cars during the lowest of the low season – December, January, and February. The other nine months of the year, you’ll have to park at the visitor’s center and take a shuttle to each of the scenic lookouts with everyone else. In winter, the Hermit Road is all yours.

Hermit Road Grand Canyon

This scenic drive (formerly called the West Rim Drive) was designed and created in 1935 along the southwestern rim of the canyon. The road was redone in 2008 for safety reasons, but a lot of the original details (like the hand rails at the overlooks and the stone masonry) were maintained.

There are nine scenic stops along this route, and each provides a different vantage point of the canyon.

GCNP2Grand Canyon in winterGrand Canyon NP

People say that the Hermit Road has the best views of the Grand Canyon. You won’t hear any argument from me.

Pima Point

At Pima Point, you can get a clear view of Granite Rapids, part of the Colorado River.

Grand Canyon in winter 3

Hopi Point

You can also see the Colorado River from Hopi Point’s 7,071-foot elevation. (Those blustery cloud funnels are snow storms, by the way.)

Grand Canyon in winter 2

GCNPGrand Canyon snowGrand Canyon

So, who was the hermit? That would be Louis Boucher, a Canadian prospector who moved here in 1891. He worked on a path that went from the Hermit’s Rest arch down to the canyon. He spent his time there alone, looking for copper in Dipping Springs. Boucher really took to life in the Grand Canyon, and even worked as a guide for awhile.

Hermit's Rest Grand Canyon

Eventually, we arrived at the end of the road: the stone arch of Hermit’s Rest. This point is as far west as you can go on a paved road along the South Rim. (That bell was salvaged from a Spanish mission in New Mexico.)

Grand Canyon

Louis Boucher clearly liked his alone time, but as we found out, you’re never really alone here. Good thing the locals are friendly.

Hermit Road deerDeer Grand Canyon

Video: Driving the Hermit Road

Maybe it was the snow, or maybe it was the must-see scenery, but the Hermit Road felt a lot longer than its seven miles. It starts around the Bright Angel trail head ends at the appropriately named Hermit’s Rest. This winding drive is full of eager tourists at other points during the year, but we had it more or less to ourselves in the dead of winter. It felt a lot more hermit-y.

This is my first (public) attempt at travel video editing. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

Negative Ten in Arizona (Or, Winter in the Grand Canyon)

Grand Canyon in winter

 

When I woke up at 6am, I noticed something that made me think I was still dreaming: ice on the radiator, inside my hotel room. I poked at an ice-covered window and heater before checking the temperature.

It was -10.

Well then.

From the window, I could see the car was covered in snow and ice. I borrowed a shovel from the front desk and got to digging, ignoring the fact that the car wouldn’t start until the third time the key turned.

I don’t know if you know what -10 degrees feels like, but it’s somewhere between death’s door and on top of the world. It’s so cold that your nervous system goes into denial. You pass that miserable numb stage and you suddenly feel completely invigorated. I think it’s some kind of self-preservation pity party where your brain puts you in a state of euphoria because it recognizes that you’re about to die.

I was suddenly wide awake and loving life. In contrast, there have been winter days at home in the single (positive!) digits where I was genuinely convinced I was going to die in a snow pile while walking the dog, only to be discovered during the first spring thaw.

Grand Canyon winter

The good news is, it eventually warmed up to -6. My phone finally turned itself back on so I could document this momentous occasion.

The only thing open at that time of the morning was the McDonald’s, so out of desperate need of caffeine (and because I was afraid to turn the car off), I hit up the drive through for coffee. Remember how I said everything in Tusayan is marked up because of its remote location? I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in literally twenty years, but I’m pretty sure $8 isn’t their normal price for a latte.

A few skids down the road later, I was officially inside the snow-covered Grand Canyon National Park.

The Grand Canyon operates under the assumption that everyone within its boundaries is fully prepared for anything they’ll encounter, and that if they aren’t, it’s their own fault. In other words, if you’re not the outdoorsy type, stay on the shuttle. Completely fair, but a little daunting in the dead of winter. At the advice of our park ranger friends from the Mexican restaurant, I headed straight to the visitor’s center. The weather changes at the drop of a hat in these parts – especially in winter – so they told me to stop in for a full meteorological breakdown.

Grand Canyon visitor center winter
A woman at a desk showed me a map of all the trails and warned me that I wasn’t allowed to camp at the bottom of the caldera because of the sub-zero temperature. Absolutely no problem. I had to bargain her down a little from there because she didn’t want to be too discouraging.

“What else is off limits?” I asked.

“Don’t feed the bears. Or any of the creatures. And don’t try to pet them,” she offered.

Noted.
I asked her what trail I should try that afternoon, dropping in a lot of keywords like “leisurely” and “safe” and “somewhere rangers patrol occasionally if I die.”

She looked me up and down, accessing my age and size.

“You’re fine with anything,” she shrugged, but I pressed on.

“What’s your fitness level?” she asked. I’ve learned the hard way that this is a trick question. In New York, I’m considered “really outdoorsy” and “super active.” But in a place like Colorado, where children start ice climbing and skiing at two years old, people start making off-handed comments about Darwinism and what happens to the weakest of the herd.

(I went with “average.”)

“Do you have ice grips for your shoes?” I did. In a bizarre twist of fate, I spotted ice spikes while Christmas shopping — in a New Jersey Macy’s of all places. It was an impulse buy that I figured might come in handy eventually. I didn’t realize I’d need them less than a month later.

Ice grips

The ranger pointed out some trails on a map and sent me on my way, past signs that warned me that I was on our own, and that avalanches and frostbite were very real threats, and that in the canyon no one can hear you scream.

Grand Canyon fatalities chart

First things first: I wanted to see the sights, and the best way to do that was on a scenic drive. The North Rim is totally closed in winter due to snow. However – the Hermit Road along the South Rim is open only to private cars only three months a year, and January is one of them. (It’s too crowded the rest of the year.) Off we went to explore the Grand Canyon’s lookouts at our own speed.

Video coming tomorrow.

Tusayan, Arizona

Four hours later, I arrived in the small town of Tusayan, Arizona. While the Grand Canyon itself is open year-round, tourist services are very seasonal. The North Rim road gets so much snow that it’s closed off in the winter months. (The weather reports casually threw around terms like “landslide” and “blizzard.”) There was really only one option, and it was Tusayan – a little village right outside the park entrance at the South Rim.

Grand Canyon bird tracks

Tusayan consists of six lodges, a Pizza Hut, a gas station and convenience store, a visitor’s center, a McDonald’s, and – inexplicably – two independent Mexican restaurants. The town is very isolated, and as a result the food options aren’t great and they’re enormously expensive.

The Grand Hotel Grand Canyon lobby

The upside to visiting the Grand Canyon at the very peak of low season is that it’s easy to find somewhere to stay. I found a room at the Grand Hotel, which apparently books up months (sometimes a year) in advance during high season. The Grand Hotel is adorable, with giant bear wood carvings and a chalet-inspired exterior. The rooms are basic, but the lobby is very cozy, with its fireplace and Southwestern decor. As a bonus, it has its own café, restaurant, and bar – but I’ll get to that later.

The Grand Hotel carved bear

The downside to visiting the Grand Canyon in January is the weather. I’m not talking about lots of snow. I’m talking about white outs, sudden snow squalls, ice storms, and other fun stuff in between general dustings that can make driving those few miles into the park virtually impossible – which I first heard about that very evening. I had dinner at one of the two Mexican restaurants because it was the only non-fast food place open that night. (Easy choice.) It was me, the national park rangers, a local family, the staff, and an international tour group. The food wasn’t great, but we all got to watch two Japanese tourists try their very first burritos. (They were not fans.)

Grand Canyon winter fountain 2Grand Canyon winter fountain

In the time it took us to eat dinner, it snowed about two inches and formed a layer of ice all around the car. We slid across the street to the one gas station to buy a car scraper plus some snacks and water for hiking. The park rangers from the restaurant showed up to put some chains on their tires, which wasn’t very encouraging when we’re driving a front-wheel-drive rental car.

Tusayan gas station
“That’s your car?” one of them asked us, before adding, “I think you’ll be okay.” We had discussed the weather in depth at dinner, because that’s what strangers in a Mexican restaurant in the Grand Canyon like to talk about. Did I mention that there is no cell phone signal around these parts?

“See you tomorrow!” they said as they waved to us, cheerfully.

As I was paying, the store clerk said to me in all earnestness, “Don’t worry. Someone will find you eventually if you have a problem.”

Tusayan gas station 2