Friday, April 21, 2017

An American Moon Landing

I had climbed the unnamed peak to get a sense of this alien landscape. From high up on my vantage point – a skinny crag jutting out into oblivion – a dreary moonscape tumbled in every direction.

Jagged crests and plunging valleys, stratified by varying shades of reddish-beige, crisscrossed and zigzagged in every direction. It was a haunting and barren panorama, but the otherworldly simplicity made it undeniably beautiful.

The enormous, deep blue sky around me dropped precariously into shadowed gorges, punctured by odd rock formations and irregular peaks. There was no noise, no breeze, no movement of any kind save my own shuffling in the celestial dust.

In the silence and the beating sun, I was exhilarated. My heart was still racing from the rugged, arduous climb that winded my lungs and pained my hands, but also from the extraordinary extraterrestrial terrain my eyes now feasted upon.

With all of the beauty and tranquility, I had to prevent my mind from wandering, lest I sway and stumble from this precarious outcrop. I peered over the edge and the sudden lurch in my stomach reminded me I was not on an alien planet, I was still very much on earth. Gravity still worked here in the Badlands.

The 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park is the stuff of fantasy. The park is possessed with an ethereal mystique, but all the while offering visitors of all ages, all interests and all abilities a chance to experience natural splendor and more than a few thrills.

Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, The Badlands boast some of America’s most stunning and unique topography, inside and out. Underneath, these hills of geological deposits encase one of the richest fossil beds in the world. Where prairie dogs and bison now roam, used to be the home of saber-tooth tigers.

Hop off Route 90 and head down to the Park’s main road that runs straight through the length of the prairies, plateaus and high, dry hills. Plenty of overlooks afford the roadtripper ample opportunities to stop and stroll out over the rocky terrain, or perhaps encounter roaming wildlife like bighorn sheep and bison. The visitor’s center is a good jumping-off point, where you’ll find tours, exhibits and information about the vast frontier you’re about to explore.

Venture further into the rugged terrain of The Badlands and you’ll begin to wonder how any living creature could survive here. But many spots will remind you that this is very much a wild National Park. I passed a sign that read “Beware of Rattlesnakes,” which only added to the excitement and sense of pioneer adventure. The warning also kept me on my toes, which helped as I traversed The Badlands’ rugged, serrated surface, one of the strangest and most exhilarating hiking destinations in the country.

Near the eastern entrance to the park not far in from the Cedar Pass Lodge, the park’s only on-site lodging option, is the trailhead for the Saddle Pass Trail. Only a quarter mile long, Saddle Pass is no walk in the National Park. The steep climb will take around thirty minutes to reach the top, where you can continue on further into the Badlands at the Castle Trail junction or skirt the plateau and scramble up to the tallest peak for the unmatched panoramic view.

Although Badlands National Park is a destination in itself, its neighbors are just as astonishing. This cozy corner of South Dakota is also home to two other American treasures: The Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, making it an area worth trekking to.

The Black Hills live up to their name and offer hiking vastly different than what you find in the dusty crags and grass prairies of the Badlands. Deep forests cover the Black Hills and the inclined trails bring you up to the top of big sky country. The trees expand in all directions like a dark emerald ocean.

While you’re gazing out over the majestic Black Hills from atop one of the scenic vistas, don’t be surprised if you see someone staring back at you. Nestled in amongst the undulating, tree-lined mountains are South Dakota’s four most famous residents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Less than two hours from Badlands National Park towers the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. No matter how many photos or snow globes or cartoon iterations of it you have seen, this awesome feat of artistry and engineering will assuredly drop your jaw.

Seeing the four presidential busts head-on is enough to satisfy any visit, but follow the horseshoe trail that leads from the surrounding exhibits up to the base of the mountain and back again. What looks like a rockslide around the base of the mountain is actually the chipped of pieces of stone, loosed by daredevil artisans to form the mammoth likenesses under which you now stand. It’s hard to imagine that looking up someone’s nose could be so remarkable, but it is.

From Mt. Rushmore to the Badlands, South Dakota’s southwest corner is unlike anywhere else in America. Whether you gawk at gigantic heads or traverse the lunar landscape, a visit here is certainly out of this world.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sorrento’s sweet life


As the rest of Italy hawks ‘la dolce vita,’ Sorrento’s sweet life tends to be a bit tart. That’s because this seaside town embraces all things lemon – from souvenirs to side dishes, the bright yellow citrus fruit is imbued in just about everything here.

But when the sun bears down on the piers and cobbled streets, tourists rush for one Sorrento treat that comes in all kinds of flavors, including lemon: gelato.

The heat is no joke in Sorrento, especially during the summer months. Being a coastal town, the summer is also one of the more enjoyable times to visit this gateway to the Amalfi Coast. There are festivals and fireworks down by the piers and fresh seafood in abundance. The island of Capri is a quick, refreshing boat ride away, offering both the cool, cavernous Blue Grotto experience and a chairlift to the island’s breezy summit.

The town itself sits up on a bluff above the sea, its streets and neighborhoods swinging towards the cliffs like a hammock on a lazy summer afternoon. One road climbs up along the waters edge to a series of cliffhanging hotels, while another winds and declines down to the Marina Grande. A pedestrian walkway hewn into the rock provides access to the public beaches and the larger seaport. Altogether, Sorrento is an ideal summer destination, complete with seafood and citrus, sunbathing and swimming.

And of course, like most every Italian tourist town, a gelateria is never far away in sun-soaked Sorrento. They are on the main street, amidst the surprisingly buzzy nighttime scene, and sprinkled in amongst the back roads and pedestrian areas. And that’s a good thing, because a quick cone is always an option as dessert, as a palate cleanser, in between meals, as a snack…you get the idea.

If you’ve ever had gelato, you know quality is a product of careful craftsmanship. There are gelato makers that reach for the next level of frozen treats and Sorrento is home to some standouts.   

My family stopped – many times – at Raki, a small shop tucked in next to a colorful fruit stand, which was overflowing with massive peaches. On the first visit, we relaxed at the bistro tables out front, my one year old daughter reaching over my shoulder for one of the aforementioned peaches. She got one and sunk her tiny teeth right in, stopping only when my father-in-law emerged from the shop and plopped a cup of peach gelato in front of her.

Raki’s flavors were creative and bold. We tried a ricotta walnut honey, with a luxurious but tamed sweetness, as well as a cinnamon that had a distinct flavor of the natural spice but also mixed in the taste of fiery cinnamon candy. My favorites here were the delicious vanilla fig, which combined a deep natural vanilla flavor with bits of actual figs; and the peach, mainly because it tasted almost exactly like the real fresh fruit sold to us by the adjacent grocer.

Whereas Raki was situated on a more pedestrian side street, Momi Gelateria sat in a parallel spot right on Corso Italia, one of Sorrento’s main drags. Funky and fun, with a welcoming owner, Momi provided creamy, top-tier versions of my favorite gelato flavors: pistachio and nocciola (hazelnut). The combination, enhanced only by the addition of a third scoop of chocolate, is a go-to in Italy. And here at Momi, with its artisanal take on gelato, they do them as well as anyone. Their takes on the flavors burst on the palate, melting into each other in a nutty, creamy, cool concoction.

Back in the jumble of Sorrento’s cobbled roads is Davide il Gelato, a larger ice cream shop with indoor seating and an expansive cooler case saturated with vibrant mounds of colorful creations. The kiwi flavor was interwoven with chunks of actual kiwi fruit and the tiny black kiwi seeds gave the impression of natural chocolate chips.

But as is fitting for lemon-centric Sorrento, the most memorable flavor at Davide il Gelato was its succulent limoncello. The perfect balance of tart and sweet, it was a frozen aperitif, embodying the essence of this seaside haven.

There are many more options for gelato in Sorrento and more likely than not, wherever you choose you’ll get a taste of the sweet life by the sea.