Musings, Travel & Adventure

First Thoughts on Southeast Asia

Getting here was pretty rough.

We arrived last night around midnight, which back in the USA’s Central Time Zone was noon, 12 hours behind Cambodia. There was a point along the way where my morale began to drop, somewhere after 30-some hours of flying and airport sitting, 4 airplane meals and 2 hours of sleep in the last 48. After our third and final flight into Phnom Penh, we were picked up by tuk-tuk and zoomed through the streets of Phnom Penh to our hotel. It was a strange moment in my life. I was dazed from the flight and lack of sleep, the rundown streets were eerily deserted, and garbage littered the sidewalks and piled up against curbs. I had heard words like “homesickness” and “culture shock” before I left, but I didn’t think they would actually happen to me.

They did.

For a day.

When I woke up this morning at 5 a.m. and lay in bed, staring out the window, I wondered what I had gotten my brother and myself into. I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. I also couldn’t get the “free Wi-Fi” to work in our hotel room, which I had been hoping to use to contact my family and the Boyfriend to tell them I had arrived safely.

(There is a good ending to this, I promise.)

After we showered and went down to the lobby, things perked up dramatically. First of all, we ate, which hadn’t happened for what seemed like days, and plus it was something other than a packaged airline meal. Second of all, it turns out the router on our hotel floor is broken, but we can actually access internet very well from the lobby, so I got to send those “I’m here!” emails to my boyfriend and parents. Third, we began to meet people from our program as they wandered into the lobby area. Twenty-one of us from all over the US, Canada and the UK are here in Phnom Penh for our training course. Everyone was friendly and interesting. To be honest, I think that made the biggest difference. Culture shock is “shocking” largely due to a feeling of intense loneliness. At least that’s my interpretation. Meeting other friendly people who are also interested in traveling, volunteering, teaching, and working with kids changed my attitude dramatically.

Fourth, after breakfast a few of us were again escorted by tuk-tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. It was a heavy experience, walking around the memorial site of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of approximately 25% of their own Cambodian people. But I learned a lot about Cambodia’s history in that short hour and a half, the rainy weather felt refreshing after several days of travel, and the fellow rider in our tuk-tuk, a recent college graduate by the name of Harris, was good company. I also got to finally see Phnom Penh during the day rather than after hours at night while exhausted and shortly off the plane. So that was positive. The hustle and bustle of the city streets and craziness of the traffic was cheering and interesting, much more so than last night’s eerie ride from the airport. In the afternoon, we visited temples, palaces, and the markets that make Southeast Asia so appealing to travelers.

I’m getting the feeling that Cambodia is a pretty unique place. But over the course of our first day here, the culture shock — or just shock, whatever you want to call it — has mostly worn off and the excitement that I felt before has set back in.


Musings, Travel & Adventure

Just In Case

I am one of those people who has always been terrible at packing. One of many things will happen on almost every trip: I don’t have the right stuff, I don’t have warm enough stuff, or, more often than not, I have way too much stuff. I like to bring way too many items “just in case.” Just in case these jeans get dirty, I should bring a second pair. Just in case I finish this book, I should bring 3 more. Just in case we want to go sledding, I better bring my snow boots. Just in case I want to check my email, I should bring my laptop. Just in case I want a different scarf with this outfit, I better bring 5 scarves. Just in case I come along a dog that needs a home, I should bring this pair of dog dishes.

Ok, it’s not quite that bad. But it’s not good.

My first trip to Europe at age 20, I learned my lesson after lugging a rather gigantic suitcase around the countryside of France. My second trip to Europe, I downsized quite a bit and still found myself with too many cute shirts that I never ended up wearing. Worse, I didn’t have enough warmth for the drizzly winter weather of England. My third trip to Europe, I downsized even more still and ended up with one small suitcase and a much more reasonable amount of clothing overall. I was making progress, slowly but surely over the course of several long trips. My slightly anal-retentive and overprepared side was being pushed aside by the general annoyance of overpacking and carrying around too many heavy bags.

This time, I am going on the longest trip of my life — a little less than three months by the time we get back — and have managed to fit everything into a backpack and one small suitcase, the latter of which I am donating to some country in Asia at the end of my trip because I will no longer need the items in it anymore. I basically had to throw my “just in case” attitude out the window. No, I do not need a laptop. No, I do not need my snow boots or 5 scarves or even 1 scarf. I don’t need a dog dish — as shocking as that is. Those things don’t matter in the end.  I even replaced my stack of paper books, a great love of mine, with a small, compact Kindle and a pocket-sized Bible.

Instead, I’m trading out my material “just in case” list for a “just in case” list of a much higher caliber.

Just in case, I am going to need:

  • An open mind to try new things, try new food and make new friends of all types
  • A willing heart to serve others
  • A trust in God for the challenging days
  • An awesome traveling companion (my brother Tom)
  • And my journal to record every. last. detail.

Just in case you happen to be thinking of us, send a thought and a prayer our way. We will be in Asia by the time I post again.

P.S. Old habits die hard and I’m not completely cured: I did sneak in an extra bottle of sunscreen for our fair-skinned Norwegian selves, some 40% deet mosquito spray and a bag of various types of medicine… Just in case.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Good Thing Diaries Are Portable

This boomtown girl is taking her diaries to a whole new hemisphere.

Pretty soon my brother Tommy and I will be packing up and flying out. When we land, we will be on the other side of the world.


In just a little over two weeks, we will be on our way to Asia to volunteer in orphanages and/or low-income schools — depending on where we are placed — until December. It was an opportunity I just couldn’t resist. Once the idea planted itself in my mind, quitting my job and traveling the world seemed like an easy decision. Now that it’s getting closer, of course, reality has set in. I have no idea what to pack, that tetanus and typhoid shot really hurt, I think I’m going to get lost a lot, and figuring out how to get a visa for China was not such a simple process. Easy decision? Well, when it comes down to brass tacks, maybe not so easy after all. But whether I’m ready or not, my ticket is booked and my job is on hold, and I’m going.

And I’m pretty darn excited.

Instead of teaching English to American teenagers, fighting oil field traffic and taking pictures of North Dakota sunsets, I will be teaching English to Thai children, traveling by bus and tuk-tuk, and hopefully taking pictures of karst formations near Southeast Asia beaches.

For a few months, anyway.

Then I’ll be back, ready to tell more stories about boomtown.

Tommy and I; borrowed from the McKenzie County Farmer
Tommy and I; photo borrowed from the McKenzie County Farmer

But since telling stories is what I love to do, I’m going to keep posting updates here on Boomtown Diaries about our upcoming adventures in Asia. That is, if you don’t mind bearing with me as I get lost a lot on the other side of the world.

Good thing “diaries” are portable. 😉

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Just Like Lewis, Clark and Teddy

A recent publication in the Bismarck Tribune stated that according to Continental Resources, Inc., the Bakken and Three Forks formations together contain an estimated 7.38 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This new estimate is double the estimate from 2008 and 50 times higher than the estimate in the 90s.

No wonder I sometimes feel like I can’t see western North Dakota through the trucks, flares, wells, drills, and hastily-constructed buildings. And trucks.

There is a place where western North Dakota still shines through, however, untouched by oil and its progress. This place is one of my favorites in the world, and I go there when I need an escape. I just escaped there a few days ago. This place is the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located only about 25 miles southeast of our farm. It’s similar to its more popular counterpart, the South Unit containing Medora, Painted Canyon, and other more well-known attractions, but the North Unit is more isolated and less traveled, so of course I like it just a little better.

If you haven’t been there, you need to go.

You need to go hike a few miles of the Maah Daah Hey trail, bike the roads, camp in the grove of trees next to the river, canoe the Little Missouri, see the bison, or just enjoy the views free of trucks, flares, wells, and drills. The North Unit is North Dakota at its best and most beautiful.




I think one reason I love it so much is my secret wish to be the early explorers, Lewis and Clark, seeing landscape after landscape in untouched beauty and solitude. Wouldn’t it be amazing to canoe down open rivers and hike over wild mountains only guessing at what might lie over the next hill? What did America look like back then? Or to be Teddy Roosevelt, ranching in the badlands, escaping Eastern urban and political life — he knew western North Dakota at its freshest and wildest, too.

Going to the North Unit is kind of like that. Ok, not quite, because there is a paved road and little parking spots for your pickups and campers, but it’s still open and undeveloped and, most importantly, untouched by progress like the oil field.

When I went a few days ago, the North Unit didn’t disappoint. Four of us canoed several miles down the Little Missouri River on a breezy, sunny evening. This is something you can only do in late spring and early summer, because after a few weeks of dry summer heat, it will be a winding snake of mud and sandbars without enough water to carry a canoe. But right now, after all the spring rains, the Little Missouri is flowing along at a brisk pace, just perfect for canoe trips.


And it was a perfect canoe trip.

We had excellent views…


Good company…


The sun and the breeze were just right…


We saw wildlife…


And the turkey vultures even kept their distance this time. Thank goodness because they still give me the willies after my last experience


Sometimes, I just had to stop paddling and take it all in…


Ok, this actually happened quite a bit, because my canoe partner was a better paddler than me, and I admit I may have slacked here and there.

But whatever.

It was perfect.

I almost felt like Lewis and Clark, out there exploring the wilderness. I suppose the big difference would be that our pickup and trailer waited for us at the end of the trip. Also, I had bug spray and cold drinks in a cooler. Also, I got to go home to a soft and comfortable bed. But even if I won’t ever see my beloved landscapes quite like Lewis and Clark and Teddy Roosevelt did, it’s as close as I can get, and I’ll take it.

Seriously, you need to go there.

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

The Zoo, 22 Years Later

This week, I escaped the oil field and the turkey vultures and experienced something equally as wild: watching my 2-year-old niece Dahlia and 3-year-old nephew Jesse while their mother is out of the country. After being cooped up for 3 days of rain, on Thursday we piled into the car and took a trip to the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck. I hadn’t been there in years, but I remember my mother packing up anywhere from four to six of her children and taking us on trips to the zoo several times each summer. We would feed the goats, eat cotton candy, fight with each other, and ooh and ahh at the otters (my favorite) and grizzly bears. My mom must be a saint disguised as a mother. Just look what she had to put up with back in 1991:

Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991
Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991

I don’t know how my mother did it all those summers, to be honest. You don’t really realize how much work it is until you are the one trying to keep the little guys out of the street, out of the puddles, and away from each other’s throats. This week we were only watching two of them, and in my case, only for five days! My mother had six for, oh you know, a couple decades.

I just have to say, these little guys are lucky they’re so cute.

So on Thursday, off to the zoo we went, my brother Joey, my mom, myself, and the little guys.


I learned a few important things while we were there.




(However, the quarters are not just for the little guys):


2. Fork over the three dollars to rent a double “tiger” stroller. It’s worth it.


3. Also fork over the buck-fifty for popcorn. It’s also worth it. But maybe buy two popcorns, because there WILL be fights over the popcorn box. Vicious fights. I didn’t even know 2-year-olds were capable of that kind of ferocity.


In fact, I saw a very strong resemblance between the fight over the popcorn box and these two young fellas here, except the bears were probably a lot gentler:


4. Don’t forget to ride the train! (It’s even better when you are sitting next to Grandma.)


And finally, 5. The little girl you are with may literally shake with excitement over every “kitty-cat” and “guck” (duck) that you see, which makes the whole thing pretty darn fun.


My trip to the zoo this week, circa 2013, was a little more work and responsibility for me than it was back in 1991. That’s ok, though. As adults, sometimes we forget how exciting it is to feed the goats, and we don’t usually shake with excitement when we see a tiger. But why not? We should probably do those things more often. These little guys reminded me.

And they also gave me a new respect for my mother, 22 years ago. Thanks, Mom 🙂

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Ticks and Turkey Vultures

There are two things my Canon camera and I can never resist when we are together.

The first is flowers: wildflowers, garden flowers, apple blossoms, really anything remotely related to flowers, including clover buds and even golden wheat stalks. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the gentle lilacs rank on top of the list: a sweet but fleeting signal of spring. There has been a lavender-colored explosion around the Midwest in the last week or so, enhanced by the large amount of rainfall we have patiently suffered through. My camera and I have been itching to get out of the car every time we drive by. It’s not just the lilacs. All the little pops of color coming to life all over the countryside are too irresistible to ignore.




Even a dandelion can be almost as pretty in the rays of a spring sunset, don’t you think?


The second fascination my Canon camera and I have is for old abandoned buildings. I cannot leave them alone. If I don’t have time to get out and actually photograph the old farmhouses and barns I drive by, then I at least take time to imagine the stories behind them: Who lived there? How many people were crammed into how many bedrooms? What did they do? Could they afford wallpaper? What dreams did they have for their homestead, and for themselves? At what point did they close the door and never look back?

Or did they look back?

I wish the old buildings could tell their stories.

Since they can’t, my Canon and I take photographs and I let myself imagine. Who knows if I will do something with the photos someday. Maybe I will publish a book; or maybe when I’m old I will just dig them out of a box and remember the satisfaction I got from my imagination and from the wide open prairie, whispering of the pioneers who lived there, who struggled to make a living there, who built houses there, who died there.

But lest I get too poetic, I must give you all a warning about photographic urges like mine. Last week, Boyfriend and I were on a hiking date at Cross Ranch State Park next to the MIssouri River. It was a beautiful evening; the park was peaceful and hardly occupied by other humans. It would have been romantic, really, were it not for the 1500 wood ticks that we continued to pick off of each other and ourselves for the next day and a half. I’m really mad at the one that I found on my neck at 5 a.m. the next morning. Needless to say, he ruined my sleep, considering every tiny tickle I felt after that was surely another one. I rolled around in the covers for an hour, imagining ticks crawling all over my body, and finally got up at 6 to do another thorough check. I’m pretty sure I’m still feeling ghost ticks after that infestation.

So anyway, we were driving home from Cross Ranch when I saw the abandoned building. Naturally, I had to stop and hike through the prairie grass with Canon camera; Boyfriend was on the phone so he stayed in the car; I was dreaming of the building’s inhabitants and vaguely noticing a very loud rustling coming from inside the structure.


That’s when it happened. Only feet in front of me, the hugest winged creature I have ever encountered in close proximity burst out of the house, nearly knocking me over on her way out. Surely it was a flying dinosaur! But no. A dinosaur would have been better-looking. The red, naked head and hooked beak gave her away. A turkey vulture. A black monstrosity of a bird. I thought she would fly away, but instead, she scared the bejeebers out of me by swooping back to cycle over my head. And continuing to circle more and more closely over my head. I’m pretty sure she was protecting babies in the house. Guys, she was huge.

So what did I do? I took pictures, of course. I began to envision myself lying in a field, murdered by a turkey vulture and served as dinner to her babies. I wanted evidence of the last moments of my life, cold hard proof right there on my Canon camera.

She cycled closer.


And closer.


And closer.


I decided to give up the search for amazing old abandoned building pictures momentarily and hightailed it back to my car, looking back over my shoulder all the way. The Bird of Death was still following me, but veered off when I reached my vehicle and threw myself into the driver’s seat.

You know what? Boyfriend was laughing. I couldn’t believe it. Here he almost witnessed my untimely death in a North Dakota pasture, and he was laughing. So much for romance. Ticks and turkey vultures were third wheels on our date, and I can’t say I enjoyed their company much.

I have a confession though: If he was the one getting chased by a turkey vulture, I’m pretty sure I would have been laughing even harder.

And taking pictures, of course.