Road Trip: Arizona

Grand Canyon was exactly how I had pictured it in my mind: majestic and breathtaking. The bright sun illuminated the deep and steep canyon walls as far as the eyes could see. Some of the canyons looked like gigantic Buddhist stupas of Borobudur in Java—only these ones were carved by nature. The Colorado River, the “sculptor”, seemed endless snaking through the deep canyon. 

Sedona Bound

After the Grand Canyon, we continued the journey to Sedona. We drove through the San Francisco Peaks where Arizona’s highest, Humphrey’s Peak, stood. The landscape seemed to change dramatically as we drove. We left the deep canyons and headed toward the snow covered mountains.

We stopped in Flagstaff for a tasty Thai lunch on N. San Francisco Street. Thanks to the gods of technology finding local restaurants based on reviews get easier than ever. The possibility truly gives better options to our places-to-eat list during road trips. (I tried to use at least two sources. For this trip I used and

The scenery changed once again as we approached Sedona. Towering red sandstone greeted us along the curvy road. This tourist town had a marvelous backdrop of the red mountains. We strolled around the town’s galleries and shop filled downtown. The weather became warmer with the bright sunlight.

View from our pink jeep
We went on a
Pink Jeep Tour to Sedona’s backcountry the next day. The two-hour off road trip flew by. The bouncy jeep ride took us to see the gigantic red sandstone formation up close. Our driver stopped at a couple of scenic places for us to take pictures. He also pointed out that these red rocks used to be home to earlier dwellers thousands of years ago. Everything looked arid with a few short cactus decorating the area but magnificent nonetheless. 

Driving South

Jerome, AZ

We passed through a ghost town, Jerome, on our way to Scottsdale. What used to be a thriving mining town atop the hill in 1880s onwards with population of 15,000 is now a tourist destination and artist community of 450. Though galleries and shops fill its narrow and hilly streets, Jerome definitely maintains its tough wild west look and feel.

Not too far from Jerome is the Montezuma Castle National Monument. The carved limestone cliff served as a “high-rise apartment” home to the Sinagua people in 700 CE. We stopped by to check out this stunning piece of “real estate” from the past.

Traffic got heavier as we approached the Scottsdale. The landscape changed to the typical present day metropolitan America with huge highways and rush-hour congestion. Only tall cactuses along the way reminded us that we were still in the desert.

Our hotel concierge in Sedona told us that Scottsdale was a shopping mecca in the area. He should have said: a pampering mecca in the area. Restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, night clubs, and spas fill Scottsdale modern landscape. No wonder that it has been a popular domestic winter-getaway destination for some.

Joshua Tree

We drove back to Vegas in the morning to catch our flight back the next day. Tall cactuses seemed to disappear and Joshua trees came into view along the highway. We covered 1100 miles and entered a lot of new scenery into our memories in eight days.

Photos property of The Traveling Chili Pepper

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Fall Colors: Vibrant and Peaceful

The trees looked ablaze in their radiant colors. Bright morning sunlight amplified the vibrancy of the earthy tones. Dark green, bright yellow, dark orange, to blood-red seemed to color the foliage along the road to the Manistee National Forest.

We wanted to experience fall colors up close (and be outdoors as much as we could). So we headed to the northwest part of Michigan where the colors were at their peak. A hiking trail inside of the national forest overlooking a curvy river was the perfect choice. The sun was bright and the air was warm. It felt like summer weather came back in early October. The scenic trail and the breeze kept us cool and made our eight-mile hike easy. The colorful leaves seemed to filter and soften the sunlight that tried to sneak inside of the woods. They created a soft yellowish-green tone that illuminated the forest.

The sound of the leaves swaying and the river flowing became our soundtrack along the way. What a fine day!

Photos property of The Traveling Chili Pepper

More on Manistee River Trail: Fall Hike

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A Michigan Summer Destination: Pictured Rocks

Summertime tends to get a little serious in this part of the country. It could even feel tropical in some days. In sweltering hot days, when the heat index gets pushed to high 90s and above, a cooler-spot getaway is much-needed. In Michigan, a state that is surrounded by four great lakes: Michigan, Superior, Huron, and Erie, outdoor spots are easy to find. One location we visited this past summer was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on Lake Superior, the largest, deepest, and coolest of all the Great Lakes, this outdoor enthusiasts’ must-go-to place stays in the pleasant temperature even in the peak of summer.

Miners Castle


  • The national lakeshore is maintained to be very natural. So, please EXPECT rustic campgrounds and sites. Trust, when I say rustic, it really IS. If anything rustic is not your thing, am sure you can find lodgings outside of the park.
  • Take the boat tour to see the whole formations along the lake shore. The tour lasts for three hours under the beautiful blue sky and bright sun. So be sure to protect your skin. Bring a hat and long sleeves for layering.

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Photos by The Traveling Chili Pepper

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Car Camping: A Social Function

Need a summer fun idea that doesn’t break the bank?

Car Camping!

Car camping means you camp in a tent next to your car on a campground. No need to haul everything in a backpack like we did in Grand Teton! Google the nearest state park or national park with campground around your area and decide what’s best for your comfort level.

Most parks we have visited have showers (with hot water) and bathrooms at campsite. Some even have power outlet, which we rarely use. We see our car camping activity as a social occasion, a chance to catch up with friends in a different setting…in nature, open space…with fresh air!

We have gone car camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Van Buren State Park, located on Lake Michigan (west Michigan). The two parks offer pristine beaches. Another park we went to for car camping was Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin where we enjoyed its amazing hiking trail.

Here are my few tips:

1)      Go with loved ones

2)      Bring delicious food

As a cooking enthusiast, I also make use of this get together as a chance to grill. Jeff would bring his portable grill to the campground and make food preparation and enjoyment to be part of the activity. Both of us are meat eaters. We love lamb and chicken satay seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and red pepper powder. We would freeze the meat inside of ziplock bags the night before, pack them inside of a cooler filled with ice packs, and store inside the car until meal time. I have also done turkey burger mixed with onions and jalapeno with a pinch of salt. Or my favorite: grilled chicken wings, boiled the night before with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, ginger, salt, red pepper powder, and galangal. Grill corn, red and green bell peppers, and asparagus to accompany the meat. Having real and delicious food at your own campsite is possible.

Note: Hotdogs and burgers will also work. And there are always the nearest restaurants too 🙂

3) (Invest in) and bring good recreational equipments

Planning and having the right gears are crucial for activities such as camping. Being outdoors requires a little comfort level adjustment. (We will talk about total comfort abandon, well…almost,… in another article about backpacking and backcountry camping). So in order to stay dry, comfortable, and content, PLEASE plan ahead.



4) Have fun!

IMG_7088Sitting around by the camp fire


Photos property of The Traveling Chili Pepper

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One Bright Night

Heavy snow continues to fall on Christmas Eve and blankets Chicago in white. Snowfall seems to mute the loud city noise. Most streets become empty around these hours of the day and time of year. Many have vacated the city to be with families and those in the city seem to be staying inside.

We are the only ones standing at the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park tonight. Jeff wants to experiment with his new camera. The park looks silent and empty. The cloud covers part of Chicago’s skyline to the south of us. In the summer time, parks get filled with lush trees and beautiful flowers—it would be green everywhere. But tonight, nothing blocks our view. We spot a fox roaming around the park by itself and a rabbit munching on the other side—it’s great to see other outdoor lovers around.

The overcast sky and snow-covered ground reflect the city lights, creating a bright night. The only sound we hear come from our footsteps on the crunchy snow and the 151 bus that passes through Stockton Drive. Even the air feels calmer and warmer. The city is illuminated, peaceful, and quiet. What a beautiful night…

Photos property of The Traveling Chili Pepper

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Feeling the Old Earth

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

(The adventure in nature begins, Labor Day weekend, September 2010)

The sky’s blue color intensifies as we approach Badlands. The towering walls and small hills that compose the National Park look parched, harsh, and lonely. The sharp contrast with the backdrop is magnificent. I have never seen such beauty.

We hike a short trail through these massive deposits. I touch the rock layers as I walk, trying to feel the earth’s past. I imagine the natural forces that formed and shaped the 65 million year-old fossil beds and wonder what the planet looked like back then. The formations feel like molded dry sand and solid mud. Rough, craggy. The trail takes us up a hill overlooking a flat terrain with miles of smaller formations. I see a group of tourists come out of a bus down the hill, loud and crowded. But up here, it is only the four of us and our shadows.

Badlands is a gateway to our whole adventure out west trip. Its bizarre form, its mesmerizing history of formation, and its gripping human tale lured us. We filled our itinerary with places of natural beauties that we wanted to add to our memory banks.  I think this Badlands experience and its amazing images will continue to be an easy retrieve for us.

All four of us have traveled and experienced almost all of the country’s metropolises and we wanted to experience something new. Curiosity and admiration of nature lead us to a different fashion of travel. Hence the birth of our ambitious eight-day, 3427-mile road trip plan that also includes a series of hiking and backpacking!

Our trip (by Google Map)

I look back to see the hills of Badlands one more time as we drive away toward Black Hills. There in a vast land they stand the test of time. In full surrender to nature’s willful acts and constant change. The wind and rain will continue to erode and transform the small hills of Badlands until there are no more. But until then they remain, quietly holding some secrets of the earth.

Photos property of Traveling Chili Peppers 

Special thanks to JN, LM, TJ, FW

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Catching Sunset

(Adventure Out West Series, September 2010)

We rush to beat the sunset today. I hear Fifi coughing as she tries to catch her breath. We’re walking really fast, close to running almost. We only have three and a half hours to finish a seven-mile hike up Harney Peak before the sky turns dark. So the hike that normally takes about four and a half to five hours, if done leisurely, gets accelerated. The trail we pick starts from the beautiful Sylvan Lake and through the woods, up the rocky ground, and ends at Harney Peak. Soft wind and sunlight support our hurried steps. We notice glitters on the trail coming from Black Hills’ mineral-filled ground, they look like bits of granite that sparkle with sunlight. From a distance we see the peak with a tower on it. It looks so far away, across the pine valley and hills.

Earlier this afternoon, we arrived at our second hiking destination at Custer State Park in Black Hills National Park, South Dakota. After a short hike at Badlands National Park we drove  through Mount Rushmore and the Needles Highway and set up camp at Custer State Park. We still have our long hike at Grand Teton and a camping trip at Yellowstone. Ambitious? Very much so. I feel like we were trying to squeeze in every natural beauty we can take during this short adventure out west.


The trail gets steep and narrow closer to the peak. Friendly fellow hikers say hello as we pass by, telling us that we are not too far away and that it is all worth the hike when we get to the top. Finally we see the stony structure with stairs going up to the tower on top of the peak. The air feels cooler as we climb up the tower. We get to be on the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountain, at 7242 feet elevation, with a view of Black Hills and beyond. A land of stony hills with sharp peaks and pine trees stretch as far as the eyes can see. Some of the tree tops look dry and yield this brown and red color that match well with the beige tone of the hills. Other trees cover the rest of the area with its green leaves. The sunlight peaks through a batch of white clouds casting a shadow on some hills while other part bask in the bright light. The sky seems to be bigger out here.

The sun starts to set as we descend back to the trail head.  We’re walking much faster trying to get out of the woods before dark. I see the sky turns pink and then dark red about halfway through the hike.  Afterward the sunset catches up with us and wins the race. We see the ground sparkles once again as our flashlights illuminate our way out of Black Hill’s wilderness.

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Into the Mountain: A Childhood Dream

(Adventure Out West Series)

Towering mountains stand close together like they are guarding something precious behind them. They remind me of city skyline reaching out to the sky, only in a much more incredible magnitude. The peaks look sharp like shark’s teeth chewing off white clouds that try to cover their magnificence look. Birds’ squawks bounce off the grey and rough Teton walls. A moose sneezes as we walk by. The animal glances at us, looking uninterested, then continues feeding itself. We laugh and keep on hiking toward Lake Solitude. Rocky trail demands my attention.  I keep my head down to watch my step. Up the hill is the only way to go. Walking with a 15-pound backpack is definitely not easy, especially in the mountains!

That morning we woke up at Cascade Canyon, up in the mountains.  The sun tried to peak from behind the mountains as we enjoyed breakfast. We had a long hike ahead of us. The five-mile hike we did the day before would be nothing compared to the 11-mile we were about to do. Novices in hiking in the mountains, we overestimated our powers. I know I did.

We spent the night before enjoying dinner and wine under the star-filled sky. The spot we found was nestled in between mountains and close to a creek. Songs of Gilberto Santarosa played from my cellphone mixed with the sound of water flowing from the creek serenaded the night. The stars made the sky glow. I had never seen that many stars in my life and forgot about the arduous hike.

This backcountry trip at the Grand Teton National Park was probably the most challenging part of our 8-day adventure out west. The four of us drove after spending a night at Black Hills, South Dakota, and hiked our way to Harney Peak. We arrived at our cabin at Colter Bay late at night and prepared what’s needed for the backcountry. I was nervous and eager at the same time. The trip was our first backpacking trip in the mountains, home of many bears. I had no idea what kind of terrain we were going into.

Growing up in Surabaya, one of Indonesia’s most populous cities, I remember going to the foothills of Mount Penanggungan just outside of the city with my family in the weekends. My parents love the fresh and cool mountain air. We would stay at a local hotel, swim, and hang out together. I’d always plead with my dad to go up into the mountain. He’d say that we are already in the mountain.  I would argue that I could still see the mountain, so I knew we were not up there yet. I was so intrigued. There was something mystical yet majestic, about these mountains, especially the ones in Indonesia as they sit on the Pacific Ring of Fire. I was always so fascinated by these earth’s towers and their magnitude.

The grueling terrain finally takes us to Lake Solitude. The water stands perfectly still, giving the mountains, clouds, sky, and birds a chance to see their reflections. Silence radiates and echoes all over.  The rocky and rugged panorama of the surrounding gets softened by the quiet body of water. The scene dwarfs us. I think I could spend hours here, just to sit and stare at the beauty. But a few minutes later I am reminded that we all still have to walk for another eight miles back to Jenny Lake and catch a boat to go back to our cabin. I don’t remember how long Jeff carries my backpack as we descend  but I do remember wanting to cry and call it quit. I think I may have satisfied my childhood dream of going into the mountains. It is very tough. But I would do it again.

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Yellowstone: Blow Off Some Steam

I woke up startled. Something brushed against our tent. It happened again and I struggled to sit up while still being wrapped up inside of my new sleeping bag. Jeff was sound asleep. I tried to see where the noise came from. For a minute I thought it was the grizzly we had been warned about. But then I saw it! Chunks of snow slid down our tent creating a loud noise. With a sigh of relief I lay back down and tried to ignore the cold. The temperature had gone down to 34 degrees that night, it was only early September. Just as I drifted back to sleep I heard the wolf howling.  Then, a painful and high-pitch wail of some other animal followed right after. The excruciating cry went for a while. The sounds of nature and the serenade by wildlife did not soothe me to sleep that night.

The four of us drove from Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park in the morning. After the grueling hike we did at Grand Teton, we decided to just drive from one point of interest to the next at Yellowstone. No one objected. We were tired, cold, and far away from the comforts of our own apartments.

Yellowstone felt like the perfect place to end our eight-day road trip adventure out West. The Park found a way to sum up the purpose of this rather ambitious travel. With its collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and steam vents, the world’s first national park seems to be housing quite a few spots for the earth to literally…blow off steam. One such spot is the Old Faithful Geyser that lets out pressure (on average) every 90 minutes. For first timers at Yellowstone, the Old Faithful seemed to be a must see. We joined the large gathering crowd at the outskirts of the geyser, waiting patiently to see it shoots out boiling water to the sky. As I waited, I imagined that maybe a long time ago, when human beings were closer to the earth and the universe, the very act of waiting for water to burst out of the ground was made to be some sort of a ritual. I wondered what myths were told to explain this one special behavior of the planet. The geyser finally erupted. The high-pressured water found its way out of the vent and into the air, captured by hundreds of cameras for about three minutes.

The Park, larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, offers many objects for visitors to marvel. Tourists, from all over the world, fill the winding road hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife taking refuge in the grand mountains and valleys. Canyon, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and forests seemed to be telling visitors that wildlife is their main priority—that people are just simply guests here.

A bison walked slowly on the side of the road ignoring its surrounding. Theo stopped the car at a safe distance so that Fifi could take pictures of the animal. Jeff got out of the car and captured the scene with his video camera. I followed Jeff and stared at the bison, it started to cross the road toward our car. We jumped back into the car and drove away, fast. The conversation about our encounter with the bison stopped when we spotted a black bear across the river. We joined other motorists who stopped to watch at the incredibly adorable looking animal as it moved slowly and quietly from behind tall trees to the river. The bear though seemed to show no interest in people, attention, or cameras and head back to the woods to find some peace and quiet. We spotted more wildlife as we drove all over the park, all had the same expression of pure bliss.

When we got to the Artist Point, I wanted nothing but stare in silence at the overwhelming beauty. Giant canyon with yellow walls guarded the massive Yellowstone waterfalls. The water rushed and ran for miles and hitting gigantic rocks along the way like telling them to get out of the way. The dramatic view created a peaceful but fierce and forceful scene at the same time. I was captivated.

Nature’s magnificence distracted us from feeling cold on that rainy day. The sun would pop out once in a while to decorate the hills and valleys with rainbow. The rain turned into snow as the evening came. We struggled to keep our eyes open at dinner at Grant Village Dining Room Restaurant though I don’t think any of us slept well that night. We rose up with the sun and saw the snow-covered mountains, trees, and …tents. The morning revealed another greatness of nature—its ability to change the look of the landscape overnight.

I felt the wind blew with quite a force like it was trying to escape from the trap of the canyon at Inspiration Point, the last spot we visited before we head back home. The observation point was down more than the 50 narrow steps, overlooking the upstream and downstream of the canyon. Surrounded by nature’s sounds, colors, shapes, and feelings, I stood in awe.

In the words of Nathaniel P. Langford, 1870, one of the first explorers to record his impressions of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Print source: Canyon Area Trail Guide, Yellowstone National Park)

“The place where I obtained the best and most terrible view of the canyon was a narrow projecting point situated two to three miles below the lower fall. Standing there or rather lying there for greater safety, I thought how utterly impossible it would be to describe to another the sensations inspired by such a presence. As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature.”



This entry is part of the Eight Day Road Trip Adventure Out West. Coming Up: Entries on Grand Teton, Black Hills, and Badlands!

Special thanks to TJ, FW, JN

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Circling the Devil’s Lake

The gap between the rocks on West Bluff trail, on the north entrance, seems to get bigger each time I try to step forward. I can feel my heart pounding hard like an engine trying to boost me up about 500 feet to the top of the steep hill. The trees sway with the breeze while protecting Jeff and me from the blazing sun. It’s only nine in the morning but the temperature has gone up close to the high 80s and the air feels a bit too damp. We just started hiking with our backpacks at the Ice Age Trail at Devil’s Lake and I am already drenched. I drop my backpack and climb my way up to the first scenic overlook to take a breather. This is my first try at hiking on a steep and rocky slope trail. On the top of the bluff I see the quiet lake that offers an ancient tale of being a good provider to life around it. Above the water, blue sky becomes the backdrop for three eagles who are flying like they are in some sort of an air show. The beauty restores my energy.

I got up to the sound of birds chirping outside of our tent that morning. Jeff was already up. The smell of coffee invited me to crawl out of my sleeping bag and tent. The weather was still cool and the rest of the campground was still asleep. We were so excited to test our new camping and hiking gears. We wanted to find a hiking trail around the Chicagoland for the weekend. The search took us to a portion of the Ice Age Trail on the 1.6 billion year old rocky Baraboo Hills, Wisconsin, surrounding the Devil’s Lake. 

The clear blue lake seems peaceful and friendly, despite the name. It seems to be inviting so many people to celebrate its existence.  Little children with the biggest smile on their faces shriek happily when their little feet touch the water. Some cry, like their hearts are broken, when their mothers ask them to get out of the water for lunch. Families bring their big coolers filled with food and drinks. People say hello as we pass through the park on the way to the next steep hike on the Balanced Rock Trail. The sweet aroma of barbecue fills up the air around the park as we sit and enjoy our sandwiches.

The rocky and steep Balanced Rock Trail on the south part of the east bluff is pretty narrow. But since this is our second climb on this trip, I feel a lot more prepared. Still, the 0.4 miles with another 500 feet of elevation gets me to slow down once in a while to catch my breath. This is definitely a good cardio exercise! I hold on to the stones as I go up, trying to absorb the strength that they have demonstrated for the past billion years. We get to the top of the hill and see the Balanced Rock. The rock is wider on the top and narrow on the bottom standing tall on the top of another rock with a flat surface high above the ground. Literally, well balanced! We continue hiking through the woods of the scenic East Bluff Trail where the breeze feels cooler and butterflies roam free. We have circled the lake and still have a couple of miles until we reach our campground. Only this time the hike feels a lot easier.

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