There’s no place like home. While we deal with new challenges, regulations, restrictions, etc., travel within the U.S.A. is going to be hot again. It's almost guaranteed. The airlines are already adjusting for this reality, and My XO Adventures is positioned extremely well. If you’re thinking about travel plans for the spring, summer, and fall of 2022 consider the places you have yet to explore.
The National Parks will be a lot like Disneyland, but fortunately, travel in the U.S.A is diverse and plentiful. In the travel business, the United States is often considered the most beautiful country in the world. For a travel planner, we consider the following (and more) when planning a destination for guests.
Believe it or not, we are more than Red and Blue. While the U.S. may not be considered the safest place on the planet, travelers generally don’t worry about where to visit. Take for instance Louisiana, and the French cultural roots we have there. Allons A Lafayette is an excellent choice when visiting the state. They can show you the true places of Cajun and Zydeco music. You can also get great food all over the place, including gas stations. French culture is heard in the language, seen in the architecture, and wafts through the air. It is simply amazing.
Arizona, Utah, New Mexico are all in the Southwest with their roots firmly grounded in Hispanic and indigenous cultures. The landscape is breathtaking, and the food is amazing. If you haven’t had a Hatch Chile, you haven’t experienced good Southwest Cuisine. A good outfitter in the area is Epic One Adventures, which can take you through Arizona, Utah, and some of the most beautiful landscapes you'll ever see.
Of course, My XO Adventures operates in an area that is overlooked by many, and thoroughly enjoyed by those who come. The Black Hills of South Dakota. Very little traffic, open roads, stunning mountains, and the Badlands. Southwestern South Dakota is the place to be. You might be thinking, South Dakota? Yeah well, it’s been kept a secret for some time now, and for good reason. It’s great being able to explore this part of the country in peace and tranquility.
Most people think of Mount Rushmore and nothing else. While this is quite an engineering accomplishment, the Black Hills themselves are the real star of the show. Ancient granite monoliths rise from the earth and sparkle in the sun. Filled with minerals like quartz, mica, feldspar, agates, and yes, gold. These towering spires are the Heart of All That Is for the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, and more. The mighty American Bison roams Custer State Park, the second-largest in the nation.
Elk, deer, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and more call these places home. Babbling brooks and streams flow out of the mountains and towards the mighty Missouri River. Ponderosa Pines mixed with bright wildflower-filled meadows abound. Spearfish Canyon awes as you drive through the 1000-foot towering limestone cliffs. Further out you can visit Badlands National Park, one of the weirdest places on earth. Frank Lloyd Wright said it was nature's architecture, and it happens to be one of the largest depositories of fossils in the world.
Not to forget, The Black Hills sport some of the most amazing roads in the country. Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway are the most prominent. All of this is within an hour of Rapid City. Traveling internationally can be exciting and quite a bit of fun, but traveling throughout the U.S. makes one realize how fortunate we are to live in such a beautiful country.
The next several months at least are going to be problematic with international destinations. Not until Omicron spreads through and well into the spring will we see infection rates come back to normal. This means international travel might as well be dead for the moment. If you’re hell-bent on it, consider looking at that specific nation's vaccination rate. You can find it at https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations. Ahem, look at second place.
If you don’t want to be so concerned with your personal vacation time, then get out and play. As the famous folk song is titled, This Land is Your Land. It overflows with natural wonders, places of healing like the Black Hills, and surely you haven’t seen it all. Fair warning though, start making your plans. Hotels will fill up, Airbnb’s will become scarce, and Private Tours will begin to become hard to find. Domestic travel also supports our economy and is made right here in the good ole U.S.A.
We are natural explorers and live in a part of the world where we're surrounded by magnificence. Try not to let fear keep you from getting out and experiencing new places, it might be just what you need.
South Dakota Great Places Designee My XO Adventures
I was truly honored and pleasantly surprised to become an official South Dakota Great Place Designee for Rapid City. South Dakota is an incredible place, and I've spent quite some time reading all kinds of books, listening to people, visiting special places, and doing the best I can to make sure each visitor to the Black Hills gets not a tour, but a great experience.
South Dakota Department of Tourism recently released their "South Dakota GREAT PLACE" designees.
From South Dakota Tourism Association:
"Great service is extremely important to the South Dakota Department of Tourism. That’s why we want to put a spotlight on the businesses that exemplify great service around the state.
We value and appreciate the businesses that consistently put people first, continuously go above and beyond, and help strangers at every opportunity. The South Dakota Great Place program recognizes these businesses each year."
While a lot of hard work and genuine passion goes into each and every tour, I want to say that I didn't do this alone. I'd like to recognize a few that have helped me along the way, and were integral to a successful season.
Black Hills Visit Rapid City Black Hills Tour Company (Kevin and Melina), Black Hills Recreational Therapy (Angie), God, my family, and friends who believed that I could accomplish anything I set my mind and heart to. This list is not exactly in order, but I want to give thanks to those who trusted me, welcomed me, and were willing to help when it was needed.
Our goals for 2022 are to contribute to a local 501c3 making significant impacts in our community, providing the highest level of education for those who love guiding in the Black Hills and Badlands, as well as setting a new standard of benefits to those I'm fortunate to employ.
Our intention is to make a positive impact on visitors to South Dakota, the economy as a whole, as well as the employees of My XO Adventures. Rapid City is now my home, and I truly love the Black Hills and Badlands. Next season is going to be even better, with the addition of an incredible guide, Ashley, and a new vehicle to accommodate more guests.
#myxoadventures #blackhillstours #hifromsd #supergrateful
Traveler, Adventurer, owner of My XO Adventures and occasional writer.
The Pasqueflower (Prairie Crocus)
I'm going to have to admit, I am learning about the wild flowers throughout the Black Hills, and yes I'm getting a head start. Before we have signs of life breaking through the snow covered ground of the Black Hills and with any luck, I'll have studied the most common wildflowers of Southwestern South Dakota.
A good start is to begin this journey with the first bloomers, and follow them in order to their appearance throughout the season. I've seen this delicate beauty, but never understood how highly regarded it is. The Pasqueflower, or Prairie Crocus. This is the state flower of South Dakota. It was the first flower settlers would see in spring, with many songs associated with it.
The Pasqueflower can be white and yellow, purple and yellow, lavender, maroon, and white with a few other variations in between. Low to the ground like the crocus I recognize as a child, if not careful you can easily step on these first signs of life. I can only imagine how wonderful it was to see, bringing with it the warming of the sun and a promise of more pleasant weather ahead. The pasqueflower is delicate, with 5-8 petals and can be found on the limestone glades or meadows of the Black Hills. These areas are wet in the spring and dry during the summer due to the underlying rock, and are an important part of the geological uplift of the Black Hills.
According to Mother Earth Living, in an article by Betsy Strauch, the Pasque in pasqueflower refers to to Easter or Passover, and the juices that come out of the stem are naturally green, at one time used to color Easter eggs. This plant, this tiny early blooming flower has been used in arthritis, and the tea given to an expecting mother which in turn slows hear heartbeat and aids the birth. On the other hand the same tea can be given to a mother whose birth is induced.
This little Easter Plant of South Dakota is downright fascinating. Toxins within the plant that were used to heal different ailments. One such treatment is prepared and applied to an irritation on the skin, resulting in blistering and thus aids in the healing process. Nerdy but WOW!
Seriously, I could and probably have gone down a rabbit hole with this topic, and I'll spare you. If you're out in South Dakota near the limestone glades (Prairies) keep an eye out. Even the smallest of them are intricate and play big roles in the life of Indigenous Peoples. I'll be using the seasons to study, but my primary source is Plants of the Black Hills and Bear Lodge Mountains. One of my very favorite places in downtown Rapid City is Prairie Edge, where you can pick it up in person or order online. The book is broad in subject matter, which is why I chose wildflowers and ordered them by seasons.
Each moment of time throughout the Black Hills brings forth another surprise, a different color, a new smell or sound. This season I hope to open another whole new world. The Plants and Wildlife of South Dakota are simply amazing.
Next season beginning in May, we offer our Tour of the Southern Black Hills, with a special option to take the Wildflower Tour. It adds maybe an hour or two, but if you like to learn about plants like I do its worth every penny.
Daniel Milks is an explorer, guide, soda enuthiast and ocassional writer.
Just as I'm writing this, the plans are being finalized for our Havana Heartbeat trips on January 6 and January 13. This is going to be the most up-to-date post on current travel to Cuba. For my guests, I want to make this an incredible experience, but how do you do that after a devastating pandemic.
As of November 15th, travel to Cuba Is open. The airlines such as Southwest have made flights available from Miami and Tampa. The cost is up substantially from pre-pandemic pricing. In previous years, the cost of a flight to Cuba was in the range of $300, but now that has risen to about $570 per person. Quite an increase, but I expected that to happen given the situation and conditions with the airlines.
The price does include the medical insurance Cuba requires for those entering the country but does not include the Cuban Travel Visa which is hovering around $100. This is essentially a piece of paper that you fill out and present upon arrival. Cuba is allowing those that have been tested via PCR within 72 hours to enter the country, but my feeling is don't do that, just get the vaccine. It's safer for you and for them, and for God's sake, it's overdue.
You should also have travel insurance that covers anything related to cancellation, trip interruption, and COVID-related expenses through a carrier like AIG/Travel Guard that will handle Cuba Travel. This is always a smart thing to do and required My XO Adventures, a Cuba Travel Agency on any international trip.
Here is what you need to enter Cuba:
1.) A flight that includes the medical insurance
2.) A valid passport that is good for at least 6 months after the scheduled date of return.
3.) Travel Insurance
4.) A Travel Visa
5.) Vaccination Card
6.) Cash for your entire stay plus some.
Cuba Travel tips about money. The monetary situation has changed dramatically since 2020. The CUC has been eliminated altogether. This is the currency you could use as a visitor in Cuba. It's gone, and the government has returned Cuba to a single currency economy. Why does the single currency matter? It's because that combined with a pandemic has created inflation, massive inflation. Recently, the government has announced that the USD is not to be used in Cuba, only the CUP, Euros or Canadian Dollars. If you're going to travel to Cuba, it's currently best to bring Euros, which have the most favorable exchange rate in Cuba as of this writing.
Pork, meat, and chicken are costly. Seafood is more readily available and the route I would go at this point. Government-owned institutions are only accepting CUP at this point, and being government-owned in Cuba means off-limits for Americans. This doesn't mean that you'll miss out, as there are alternatives to spending money in these places. Americans must only spend money on privately owned businesses. This is a regulatory rule by the U.S. Government for Americans visiting Cuba.
Airbnb has a special license to operate in Cuba, so lodging is generally not a problem. There are quite a few entrepreneurs in Cuba, just be sure to read the reviews carefully. It's always best to get a recommendation from someone who knows, or joining a small tour group like Havana Heartbeat to ensure quality. We stay at a 5 bedroom, 5 bathroom home in a suburb of Havana to enjoy a high quality, family-run and quiet location. The downtown area can be noisy, but some people like the convenience of not having to take a cab into town.
Some people wonder, Is it safe to travel in Cuba? I always say yes. I feel safer in Cuba than I do in my own hometown. For certain there is less crime, with the highest activity related to tourists being pick pocketing. It's never happened to me, but you should always bring a money belt no matter where you go.
You've got to jump through some hoops to go to Cuba, but there are professionals out there than can make Cuba Travel now a possibility. Successful travel to any place in the world is dependent on the relationships between the seller and those in the places they visit. I believe Cuba is a World Class destination offering the most unique travel environment in the world, and one that should be experienced. The best way to bring people together is by understanding them, and through that friendships are made.
It's my personal and professional opinion that the people of Cuba should no longer suffer from the embargo. It should be lifted immediately and unconditionally. We treat no other country the way we treat Cuba, and the result Is moral bankruptcy. We the people can help, and benefit from trashing the embargo and working toward mending our ties with one of our closest neighbors.
Cuba is called the "Paris of the Caribbean" for a reason, and if you'd like to find out why come join us on Havana Heartbeat. I'll be posting as much as possible, telling stories along the way, and updating you with the current situation as it stands. See you down the road!
I absolutely love travel, experiences, am a bit of a daredevil, and an occasional writer. My favorite place is the place I've never been.
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It's been one great year at My XO Adventures! With that said, next year is going to be even better. Ashley Kelican has been hired as an Adventure Guide for the upcoming season in the Black Hills. Over 100 candidates applied, and Ashley really stood out due to her dedication, curiosity, knowledge, skills, personality and desire to explore as much of the Black Hills and Badlands as possible.
Ashley grew up in Colorado and now resides in Deadwood, SD. She earned her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University in 2016. After graduation, she commissioned as a Captain in the United States Air Force. While in the service she earned her certification in Veterinary Acupuncture and now owns a small holistic veterinary practice servicing the amazing communities of the Black Hills.
Currently Ashley is expanding her studies and earning an Outdoor Education degree from Black Hills State University. In her free time she enjoys brewing beer, adventuring with her three dogs, and exploring all the wonders and wildlife of Western South Dakota.
Daniel Milks is the owner of My XO Adventures, guide, tour manager, explorer, daredevil, and occasional writer.
It’s my last day of the year to visit Custer State Park. I’m on my own and decided to take Iron Mountain Road to pay a visit to the old ghost town of Spokane, South Dakota. I came here after reading a book called the Spokane Kid, a story about a boy becoming a man as he learned the ways of the Black Hills. Living in Keystone, he initially helped out on several campgrounds before becoming a guide in the Black Hills.
It’s a story I can relate to. There’s so much to learn here, and so much to respect. His Black Hills Adventures take him around the entire mountain range with his father. It took them days, running across old timer miners, camping along the shores of Center Lake, Sylvan Lake and throughout what is now Custer State Park.
Back at this time there were quite a few little towns through Custer, which no longer exist because of the formation of the park. These lands were purchased, added to the park and flattened to let nature take over. The story speaks of the town of Spokane, which like most mountain towns was mined for gold, but they soon found the area was much richer in silver, mica and zinc.
I pulled over to Spokane Creek Campground, parked the car and followed the little sign that said “Ghost Town” on it. The colors of the forest were still golds and browns, with the Ponderosa Pine bursting with green needles. Spokane Creek ran along the trail, making it a little wet and muddy, but I was on a mission.
Soon I begin to find evidence of miners at work. Mostly consisting of rusted sheets of metal, cans, bottles and the like. The best park along the way are tailings. Tailings are the small to medium size rocks taken from the ground and piled up nearby. I can see quartz, mica, feldspar and granite. The ground appears to be littered with the jewels of the Black Hills.
Still searching for the old town of Spokane, I wandered on not seeing a trace of buildings until I come across a cut in the forest where electrical lines run. Here I see the foundation of a building. Whenever you’re in the Black Hills, it’s important to stop, look and listen. I imagine what it was like in 1893, when the story was written.
As I look around, I see large gaps between the older trees with younger growth in between. These are the trails and roads that used to exist and a road leads to more buildings. I follow it, and come across a home, with an outbuilding, classic cars and all kinds of mining artifacts. There are mining depressions in the ground dotted everywhere. Storage tanks are built into the ground holding who knows what.
I’m in the past, walking through areas that first indigenous people occupied and more recently settlers from the east. It’s incredibly beautiful. I feel a sadness come over me as I realize my time here is coming to a close, albeit temporarily.
Facts about Spokane South Dakota:
This makes for a great trail hike before entering the Eastern Side of Custer State Park. Pick up the book “Spokane Kid” at the Iron Mountain Road gift shop at Spokane Creek Campground. Maybe soon, I’ll be leading hikes through the hills and telling tall tales of the Black Hills National Forest.
Visitors have been coming to this area as tourists for a variety of reasons since the late 1800’s. It wasn’t all about mining back then, just mostly. Here’s a map of Custer State Park. The roads through the park such as the Wildlife Loop Road, Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road can get you turned around, so I suggest hiring a guide for a Black Hills Tour.
I hope to see you starting in April of 2022 for another season in the Sacred Black Hills of South Dakota!
Daniel Milks, Owner of My XO Adventures
Traveler, Adventurer, Daredevil and occasional writer.
Most people think mistakenly that you can’t travel to Cuba as an American Citizen. That’s bananas. You can travel to Cuba from the US so long as you follow the rules. For some time now, missionaries, educators, photographers, medical professionals and journalists have been visiting the island, but you too can go.
I truly believe that the thought of travel to Cuba being banned originates from two sources. One is the U.S. Embargo on Cuba. The other is propaganda from our media outlets. For far to long we’ve positioned ourselves as an enemy of the Cuban government, a powerful neighbor to the north that punishes, contains, strong arms and twists the truth. To be fair, Cuba does plenty of its own manipulation but that’s what governments do. We know that. Part of my job is to take people to Cuba to experience the culture of the Cuban people. It’s wonderful when you look closely.
I’m not saying I’d like to be a full-time resident of Cuba, but I know some Americans who do just that. They get hooked, and unless you visit you won’t know what I’m talking about. Imagine, you’re in what was the richest city in the hemisphere. All trade went through Cuba and much of that was gold from South and Central America. Havana was an excellent defended port, and one to restock before taking the journey across the Atlantic to Europe. Money poured into Havana, and all you have to do is look around to see. Yes, you’ll see crumbling buildings with faded and flaking paint, but that’s the makeup of one of the most amazing places in the world.
In the morning vendors sell their fresh fruits, bakery items and other clever treats. Children play marbles. Someone is smoking a cigar watching the city come alive. The sun shines through the many park trees throughout the city. Monuments come to life. The Capitol Building towers mightily and shines after its recent restoration. Three wheeled bikes and coco cars await to take passengers to their destination. Cars from the 1950’s are everywhere. Not rare sightings, but everywhere. Each in its own condition with some fully restored and others it’s a wonder their holding together. Some of the soviet era cars dot the streets like the infamously terrible “Lada”, that was copied from the French Groupe Renault.
Drivers of the nicer cars have had this resource handed won to them from their parents, or outright bought it after saving for a long time. Much pride is taken in these cars, and the drivers are happy to take guests all over town. There are beautiful avenues mixed with streets of gordian knot electrical wires. Colorful clothes hang from the balcony drying in the bright sun.
Songs boasting from the squares come from ladies selling delicious roasted Spanish peanuts. They’re more than happy to come sing a song and give you some tropical flirt to get you to buy, and you should. Fortune tellers smoking cigars the size of a paper towel roll is there to read your cards. Cuba is primarily a culture with a mix of Christianity, Santeria and Atheism. Without an open mind this can feel uncomfortable, but it’s part of what makes Cuba so unique.
Step inside the many galleries of Cuba. The Artist Community is growing every day, and despite the protests and crackdowns they’ll continue to produce some of the finest art in the world. A representation of their dreams, thoughts and the life they know.
You’ll also see memorials and museums honoring not only the recent revolutionary heroes, but those of the past. Jose Marti, Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and those adventurers of long ago. Paladars, or privately owned restaurants can be large establishments, or the living room of an entrepreneur are ready to serve you. Tables with checkerboards and those playing are common in the city. Havana is robust, and vibrant. Music is part of its heartbeat and can be heard in a variety of locations.
I’m asked how to get in Cuba quite often. Almost like a clandestine operation. You can travel to Cuba in 2022. It requires a plane ticket, accommodations through My XO Adventures, private transportation, a Cuban Visa, insurance and cash. These are the requirements to travel to Cuba. Which airlines are flying to Cuba? Currently only Southwest Airlines offers a rather robust schedule of one flight per day out of Tampa. Finally, you’ll need cash to travel to Cuba. Is Cuba expensive to visit? Not really, but it all depends if you fall into the tourist traps. Expect to pay high prices for dinner and a show, but if you’re budgeting there are plenty of places to stay and eat that fit each budget.
The face of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara have recently been made popular in the US, but for too long they were painted as the enemy. Not because they did anything worse than the U.S. did, but because they did what they wanted. The U.S. doesn’t generally like that, and points fingers while the same kind of things are happening back at home.
It’s not very complicated. The U.S. used Cuba to its benefit, the people of Cuba got the shaft and a revolution started. The Soviets took advantage and, in the end, played Cuba like a pawn. It’s all very sad, and we have a wonderful opportunity to make a new friend, mend relationships and thrive together. Maybe someday this will happen, but it’ll take brave politicians to do the right thing so don’t hold your breath.
In the meantime, enjoy Cuba for where it is now. You’ll never see another place like it and you can travel there. My XO Adventures is expanding its presence in Cuba in the hopes of lifting people up and providing a greater understanding of an amazing people.
Traveler, adventurer, daredevil, part time writer and owner of My XO Adventures.
Cuba is expected to be over 90% vaccinated by November 15the 2022. How did this happen when the U.S. has been desperately trying to reach the same level for months? Many in the U.S. don’t realize the resiliency of the Cuban people.
What most people don’t know is that Cuba’s State-owned biotech sector has been developing successful vaccines since the 1980’s. The vaccines developed so far are for polio, rubella, whooping cough, measles, meningitis and hepatitis. All of these vaccines have been distributed and successfully used in countries all over the world. All this in opposition from the U.S.
I’ve been to Cuba a number of times, and after a while you start to understand the bigger picture. Propaganda has been rampant on both sides. The largest and most horrific humanitarian poison is administered by the U.S. Government through the embargo. Make no mistake about the it, this is a political tool being used by both Democrats and Republicans.
The embargo exists in large part because of the purple State of Florida. The Florida Cuban population represents almost 30% if the Latino vote. The total Cuban population in the state is 1,528,000. It’s a greater population than Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming. That’s powerful to say the least.
It’s no wonder why politicians around election time pander to the Cuban American vote. Many Cuban Americans today are brought up in a household where someone was affected by the Revolution. Stories passed down are absorbed as if gospel, and their thoughts reflect in their vote. There are some ugly stories, but there’s a bigger picture here. Unfortunately, the people of Cuba are the pawns in this game. They are the ones that suffer, not the government.
Recent unrest in Cuba was a result of food, medical and a plethora of supply problems. The Cubans cried out with pain during the pandemic, and at a time we were able to help, but didn’t. Instead, the U.S. government turned a blind eye, and President Biden with his promises of opening relations with Cuba, lied. No surprise there, as most if not all presidents do.
Obama had it right. Relax the sanctions, ease travel, create business opportunities, visit Cuba. The political affiliation plays no role here, it’s the intent and attempt. Cuba began to thrive, and the lives of everyday Cubans improved, then came Trump. Restricting cruise ships from docking in Havana and tightening sanctions. In his last gasp, he directs Mike Pompeo to designate Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. My God. Why? To gain the Cuban American vote and win Florida. It’s that simple folks.
Biden gets elected and promises to reverse the Trump Administration policies. The protests in Cuba change his mind, and instead tightens them and imposes more sanctions. Again, the Florida vote. Don’t forget that the understandable protests are occurring during an important mid-term that could shape the Senate and the House. Good for you Biden. The embargo and policies towards Cuba are the reason for the protests, and you come out looking like the hero. It’s villainous and just about everyone in Congress is guilty. It’s better to do the right thing and lose. You aren’t supposed to be there with a goal of retaining power, despite what Mitch McConnell says.
Want change in Cuba? End the embargo. Rid the Cuban government of the American “boogie man”. They’d no longer have the embargo to blame and would have to work harder to improve the lives of Cubans. Not only that, a Cuban middle class would be born, businesses would thrive, jobs would be created on both sides, and investments made.
The U.S. Government has been using the method of might and punishment as a way to get what it wants. Cuba is still standing. We can be friends and work together. Because we’re not, China, Russia, Venezuela, North Korea and the like are filling that gap. Is that what we want
I’ll continue to visit Cuba because I love it. It’s the best place in the Caribbean, and programs like Havana Heartbeat will engage, support and encourage the Cuban People.
I'm an adventurer, traveler, daredevil and part time writer!
In 2016, when President Obama began to pave the way for good relations between the U.S. and Cuba there was excitement in the air for all those who have a passion for travel. Maybe not everyone, but a LOT of people. I was one of them. At first we had to take a cruise from Jamaica to sail around Cuba, stopping at some interesting places along the way.
The program was actually quite good, but I didn't know at the time that I'd be creating my own adventures to the island a short time later. The first time visiting the island, everything felt like a new experience, or a different world
Here we are later, and a pandemic has taken place. Who would have thought? Tours for Cuba are on the books, almost filled and the excitement is building. Once again, it's going to be new. It's going to be different. One thing that stood out from the very beginning in 2016 was that Cubans are resilient and resourceful. While I know there will be hiccups and mistakes made during the opening, the Cuban people will figure it out.
It's a time for hope. Private enterprise has been on the rise significantly since 2016, and the current government is moving to encourage more of it. To be perfectly honest, they don't have much of a choice. Tourism and private ownership generates quite a bit of revenue for the island.
Like here in the U.S., when government overreaches it has negative consequences. The people are better at business than the government. On my first visit, a typical offering of a sandwich was a bun, ham and ketchup. Yep, this is what the government thought was a Cuban sandwich. I should disclose that a Cuban Sandwich is not Cuban at all. Contrary to those Cubans in Miami, it's the Cuban immigrants to the Tampa Bay region of Ybor City that invented the treat. It was made for the cigar factory workers, who were of all nationalities. The Cuban bread represented Cuba, the ham Spain, the salami Italian, the pickles German. Nothing that could spoil was added because it would do so quickly in the Tampa heat, but I digress.
It saddens me to say that a good portion of U.S. Citizens are misinformed about Cuba, it's current status and how it came to be a socialist country. I think politics and government are overrated, and in the case of both the Cubans and the Americans the real power lies with the people, so long as they are awake.
Cuba is full of outstanding architecture, artists, food, culture, history and a very different way of living life. The Cuban culture is worth exploring. It's not difficult getting to Cuba. You will feel safe there. You won't get arrested. Like anywhere, follow the rules and etiquette. I go over all these things before leaving to the exotic island of huge mangos, big green avocados, succulent pork, excellent rum, and yes, cigars. Come explore with me on Havana Heartbeat in January, February and November of 2022.
My experience in travel goes back over 12 years. I'm an explorer, a discoverer, a daredevil, writer and creator.
The White House has finally released some guidance as it relates to foreign nationals entering into the country. It also reaffirmed the current requirements for U.S. Citizens re-entering the U.S. from travel abroad. It's about time, and barely. The Southern U.S. is entering it's tourism season, and people in the U.S. have been wanting clarity for some time. We have enough to go on, but the situation is definitely going to evolve.
For foreign nationals, the U.S. is relaxing restrictions according to Reuters. This is for vaccinated visitors only. It's late in getting started, but may be enough to save the southern season, or overwhelm it altogether. Time will tell. Thirty three countries are on the list as open to air travelers. It's about time. We should have been leading instead of following in these circumstances.
For U.S. Citizens that are vaccinated, now is the moment to take a photo of your vaccination card, and keep it in a safe place. Airlines are now required to obtain documentation of vaccination before boarding the aircraft to a foreign destination that requires it. This is bound to make anti-vaxers angry.
There still are many countries that only require a test before entering, but that's likely to change. Americans traveling from international destinations who are not vaccinated face a tougher time. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION: Americans who are NOT vaccinated will have to provide proof of a negative test either from an antigen or PCR test administered within 1 day of travel.
This is designed to make it difficult for the unvaccinated. The angst created when you must received the results of a test in a foreign country as proof to enter the U.S. would have me sweating bullets. Not only this, but those same people will be required to provide proff of purchasing a viral test after returning.
Americans who ARE vaccinated will still be required to provide either a PCR or Antigen negative test result within 3 days of departure. I've done this on our Costa Rica Exotica trips, and will be doing it again on the upcoming Havana Heartbeat Series. As a matter of business, we'll no longer be accepting reservations for those traveling abroad that are not vaccinated. It's too risky. The CDC has recommended guidance for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Times are changing, and travel is opening albeit slowly. For those of you that want to travel internationally without a vaccine, your window is closing as the developing world begins to vaccinate it's people.
I'm an adventurer, explorer, daredevil and occasional writer. I love the travel the world and share my experience with others through my company, My XO Adventures.
Love, Compassion, Tolerance and Forgiveness to Myself and all Others.
It was June of 2020, and the height of the pandemic. The road had led me to the Black Hills. Like all other places, I had no idea what to expect or experience, but here I was. I knew I was being led, but the furthest I could see was the one step ahead I was being asked to take. “Everything is going to be ok.” The words came to me often throughout my journey. It first started in North Carolina and continued for the year and a half journey with no home, other than the kindness of people, the comfort of my tent, and the endless beauty of nature. This was my home, and a good one.
My first season in the Black Hills was working as a guide for a local tour company. I was used to being thrown to the wolves. It was a skill I learned many times before, but in this case in came with respect and responsibility. It was up to me to go above and beyond what the tourists came here to see. The monuments, museums and wild west stories abound, but the Hills were calling. So much history, both joy and pain reside here in the rocks. No place on earth is like it, and I find the learning side both fascinating and a bit of a rabbit hole.
One day I was asked to conduct a tour for a couple, and to take them to a place called Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. I had been in the Northern Black Hills to show off Spearfish Canyon with its towering limestone cliffs, waterfalls and multitudes of colors. Where is this Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary, and how was I to be a guide at a place I knew nothing of, or even why it’s there?
I figured I would just have to use social skills to make it through, so down the dirt road we went. Without a description, just a GPS location guiding me to the parking lot that marks the beginning of the journey. A wooden door with cast iron adornments greets you here. A message above the door reads “Love, Compassion, Tolerance and Forgiveness to Myself and all Others. This was a good start, but the love was about to become apparent as soon as the gate opened, and we stepped through.
One of the best tools a guide has is his or her eyes, so I immediately looked around searching for things to talk about. Walking sticks, umbrellas and a door with books behind it greeted us. The book was “The Turkey Shack”, by Dave Snyder. At the time, I thought this book was probably unrelated to what I was about to experience and not worth taking a look at. Instead, we were greeted with the handprints of men, women and children in a concrete plaque. One that would be important entering and exiting. The invocation was next, and then a place you could read about the sanctuary, it’s purpose and recommendations of how to proceed.
This was going to be a quiet journey, and I part from the guests for a time so that we can go through this in our own way. It was a beautiful day. I remember the leaves from the Quaking Aspens fluttering as they do, making a beautiful rustling sound helping to ground myself on what was otherwise a shaky ground for a tour guide.
Along the way, the bronze plaques were places to reflect. Benches with metal boxes containing notepads to write thoughts were dotted through the landscape. Who built this I thought? The meadow between the Aspens and the Ponderosa higher up on the hill lit up with color, and I could see the meandering creek running through it all, with a stand of trees directly in the center of the meadow. So many times along the path I stopped, read and was brought to tears by the words I read, but beyond that the special area this land inhabited. To this day, I’ve never had a stronger connection to the Black Hills than in this very spot.
What was it about this place? How perfect it was. Why was I being shaken to the core? How did this day turn from being a historian, entertainer, driver, personality, geologist etc. to simply shutting my mouth and connecting to nature? It was rejuvenating and healing at the same time, but still, I couldn’t explain why. Was this a Holy place of some kind? I suppose all places are in one way or another, but I’d like to return here again.
So I did, but not with tours. I returned by myself and another with an unexpected friend. Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary changed from green to golden during this time, with the last visit in 2020 being in September. The colors were outstanding. The yellow Aspen contrasted with the Ponderosa Pine, like islands in the massive green landscape. Each visit was special, and I returned with an inward reflection I never saw before.
The next year I return. Conducting tours on my own, I feel a bit like the Spokane Kid of Keystone. The Northern Black Hills are my favorite place to be, yet it’s the least popular for visitors to choose. During the summer I brought a few curious people here, who enjoyed every moment. I have no words, but from what my eyes have seen. I let the viewer experience it in their own way because I believe we are all brought here for our own reasons. Now that I’m at the end of another season, I’d like to first express my gratitude for the success I’ve experienced in the Black Hills, the kind people, and for Gods remarkable creation in Southwestern South Dakota.
I decided to call this place home, and in July of 2021 I signed a lease on a small apartment in an old home that is just perfect. I invited my family, and my mother came to see someplace she’d never been and only heard stories. It was October 4th, 2021 and I decided to show her the Northern Black Hills to catch the leaf change and share Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary with her for the first time.
I’m 43 now, and I don’t think she realized but my intentions were to make the most out of her time here. Not by cramming in a busy schedule but rather to be present, and to make memories. I want some mother/son time and I couldn’t think of a better place. I was excited.
Cows crossed the road; deer made their presence known and in my mother’s signature way she noticed it all. She could find beauty in just about anything, but it wasn’t difficult out here. We were surrounded. We entered the gate together, and my healing was already beginning. I knew what I was about to see but wasn’t quite sure how it was going to affect me, or her for that matter.
Like parent/child relationships there are epically painful and tragic moments mixed with happiness and love. This was my story at least, and I hoped to bring some healing where it was still raw and build on the love we have for one another. It was emotional for us both. I can’t speak for my mother, but her repeating this was her favorite place she’s ever seen, and it was magical.
It was indeed that, and I was glad to hear her express those feelings. I knew all along she would, as I’m more like my mother than I admit. We spent over two hours observing, reading, resting and sharing. We explored so many places, with Harmony Hill being the highlight. To sit, listen to the chimes and overlook this incredible vista of the meadow and bright yellow leaves below. You may not know it, but this is a place you come to be a part of, not so much a visitor. It is a part of you, and you it. After following the trail, we come full circle to the gate.
Our pace slows, a reflection that neither of us really want to go. We could be content here for the entire day if we wanted, but there was much more to see. I take a look at those books one year after seeing them the first time and buy one. It’s called “The Turkey Shack”, and there is a small metal and wood shack on one side of the property that stands. I imagine it bewilders those who see it the first time without reading the book.
I dropped in the recommended donation and took the book home. It became her book during the visit here. She read it each night for a short while before bed, and in the morning with a cup of coffee on the front porch, with the autumn breeze blowing by. She’s like this. It’s chilly outside. She brings a blanket, a book and a hot coffee. She must wonder how long she can stay out and enjoy everything. I let her have the time and work on my tours of the Black Hills as she does what she pleases.
Nine days later she finishes the book and tells me how wonderful it is. The writing gave her the answers to questions she had about the meadow. It opened her eyes and seemed to be at just the right time. Now she contemplates relocating here and well, we’ll see. Back safe in Florida now, she has the stories of the Black Hills, both Northern and Southern to tell her friends.
We now both have new memories, which is exactly what I wanted. Everything came together to create an invaluable moment. It’s my turn to read the book, and I’ve done so. It is a great book, and one of immense pain, growth and forgiveness. It’s a contribution of a lifetime experience that can be added to your own personal journey. I’m still not sure if it’s best to read before or after your visit. Whatever you believe, you’ll know that stories happened here, perhaps moments of great magnitude. Grandmothers, warriors, children, spirits and I’m sure God not only left an impression but continue to reside. As if greeters, guides and healers coming together for all those that enter.
It’s not a place to fear, it’s a place to love. It’s not a place to come for understanding of it all, but rather that there are many things yet not understood. It’s a place of being, and it’s right here in my new home. Thank you to the Snyder family for creating this special place, and for keeping it open to the public to enjoy. Thank you for the memories made and yet to come.
I'm an adventurer, explorer, daredevil and occasional writer. I love the travel the world and share my experience with others through my company, My XO Adventures.
I had to clear my head today, and nature is the best place for me to find the answers. Bear Butte is a place of vision quests and one that I’ve not hiked, so off I go.
Some good music along the way is necessary, to slow my brain down from its constant fluttering of thoughts, to-do’s and plans for the future. I settle on some Native American flute by Darren Thompson, a local artist. After about 40 miles of driving outside Rapid City I arrive in Sturgis and follow Google Maps, which takes me to the wrong place. Lesson number one. I turn off the GPS and figure it out by circling the mountain and finding the unassuming road to the parking lot.
My gear goes into my backpack, and I’m ready for another Black Hills Adventure. I read the posted signs at the base of the trailhead before making my way up. No photos of the prayer cloths hung from trees, silence is best, respect the wildlife and the sanctity of the area. I got this.
I hear the grass crackle, stop, get my eyes and ears tuned in, then she moved again. It’s the first animal, a beautiful female pheasant under a small pine in the golden grass. Revealing herself to me, she slowly moved ahead creating distance and putting the pine between her and I. Patiently I stand, watching her careful movements and just taking in the moment.
As I climb higher, I hear the sound of a bird calling. I’m hoping it’s the Magpie, my favorite bird of the Dakotas. She won the race for all two-legged creatures by cleverness, not physical prowess.
Teasing me, I stop, listen and hear nothing. I move forward and the calls come out, mixed with the sound of my boot soles as they touch the gravel. The contact makes just enough noise to keep her exact location from me.
Finally, it flies out of one pine to another, presumably flirting with his lover bird. The wings opened and he glided at an angle beneficial to my eyes with an iridescent blue.
It was the Magpie, and now he’s gliding back and forth between Ponderosa pines. Thank you, Magpie.
I continue my hike. This time the rock becoming my focal point, I reach a place where I can catch my breath and look around. Bright green lichen adorns the rocks, themselves like gypsum in their own linear crystal shapes. This mountain looks older than the spires, less worn but more cracked. Steps of Superman’s home accompany each protrusion.
The trail is adorned with strips of cloth tied to branches, each the color of the directions. Red for North, white for South, yellow for East and black for West.
Feeling both reverent and spooky at the same time, I try not to stare at the patters and shapes they form. It’s as if God were present, tending to the prayers and hopes of all his children. I walk carefully, mindful of my footsteps and body movements through the tighter areas of vegetation.
I hear the distant sound of poor-quality music, reminding me of the single speaker radio I once had in my youth. In an Instant, the Zen-like feeling and bright glowing Chakras flickered and blew out like a delicate microfilament of carbon inside a light bulb. Humans, sometimes they’re just unavoidable. They pass, and so does the moment. I’m taken back into the sacred.
Scars on the mountain are reminders of a large fire that burned here in 2018. Bear Butte lost almost all its trees. The trail takes you through this long-gone inferno and reveals the healing power of nature.
The mountain is regenerating. Each type of forest is its own story and position in the cycle. Surviving the flames, I come to a stand of Ponderosa. It’s then I hear the comforting sound of wind being split by the dark green sturdy needles.
A Hairy Woodpecker begins his hunt. The location is close and easy to spot. He pecks away at the dead limbs daring the burrowing bugs to the surface.
The prayer cloths are everywhere now. I wonder about the feelings each one represents. Hope, fear, needs, sorrow, wishes and dreams, they’re all present and vibrating. The evening before I had a terrible dream, making the situation even more intense. Don’t binge “YOU” on Netflix, it’s not right.
I’m descending, the pathway full of mistakes to be made. Keeping my head down and trying not to kick rocks I slowly forge ahead. A familiar “S” shape lays across the path. Green and yellow, the snake makes its way up the hillside through broken grasses, small branches and rocks. A typical reaction at this point would be to scream and run, but I know everything I see is a message from my higher power. I stand still and watch as the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer crosses the intersection.
Days ago, snow fell heavily in this area, leaving 2 feet on top of the mixed grasses. Laying down now, the pale green stems lead to golden tips. A sign of the cycle and a movement towards the winter season.
I’m down the mountain and thinking again. It was a great experience and just right. Right time, place and setting.
Bear Butte is a sacred place to the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes. It’s clearly a special place that should be respected and preserved. It’s best to be silent here, with no enhancement or distraction. Being in a quiet place is needed now more than ever. Think how nice it would be if everyone practiced silence.
I felt if I visited without expectation and an open mind, I’d find what I was looking for, and I did.
I'm a traveler at heart, with a constant desire to learn and explore. Home for me is in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My company is My XO Adventures, a dream come to reality that offers Black Hills Adventures, as well as cultural immersion vacation packages all over the world. As I explore, I share my experiences with close friends, family, guests and readers like you!
South Dakota is one of 4 states that does not recognize Columbus Day. Rather, it celebrates Native American Day on October 11, 2021! As it should be here, with rich Native American culture, heritage and diversity. Native Americans make up 9% of the current population of South Dakota.
I'm proud to say that I live in a state with 9 unique Native American Tribes. With this many tribes, I've only begun to scratch the surface on my understanding of what I consider a treasure of heritage that should be known, celebrated, protected and supported. My research over the next several weeks will intensify, lasting a lifetime and if I am fortunate will result in friendships with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.
Cheyenne River Lakota Nation
Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe
Lower Brule Sioux Tribe
Oglala Sioux Tribe
Sicangu Lakota Oyate
Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Yankton Sioux Tribe
It should be noted that the term "Sioux" is short for Nadowessioux, meaning "little snakes", a name the French learned from the Ojibwe. The proper term is Lakota, Dakota or Nakota depending on the dialect that particular tribe speaks.
There are many ways to experience the Native American Culture in South Dakota, and I'll be sharing those with you over the next several weeks as I dive in and explore deeper each day.
#myxoadventures #lakota #nativeamericans #badlandsblackhills #hifromSD
I have to admit, the Black Hills of South Dakota contain more stories than I ever thought they would, but some of my favorites come from Indian Lore. Primarily, the Lakota and the Cheyenne consider the Black Hills as part of their origin story. I've found that aside from speaking with a Native from these tribes, children's stories of Native American Lore can be an incredible reference.
One story that I love the most is about the Red Racetrack. It all started in the beginning of times, when the buffalo at the humans and not the other way around. The humans felt this to be unfair, so they appealed to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit had to settle the matter, so he decided on a race between all animals of the earth. He sent the crow to announce that there would be a great race, and everyone would need to participate.
It was decided that the four-legged animals would side with the Buffalo, and the two-legged winged animals would side with the humans. Everyone chose their fastest representative! They practiced, and while the buffalo were sure the cow they picked was faster than the human, she still wasn't going to have an easy time. The human was fast and determined to win the race.
The day had come, and the coyote and the wolf howled, marking the start of the race around the Black Hills. The birds immediately got a head start and zoomed past the four-legged animals, except the Magpie. No matter how fast she flapped her wings, she was always the slowest bird, but the Magpie also had a plan in mind. When nobody was looking, she landed on the back of the Buffalo. It was a very hot day, and the two-legged creatures decided to stop at a lake and take a drink, but they had too much which made them tired, so they fell asleep in the trees. Oh no!
Many of the animals of the Black Hills swam past them, but the Beaver was not able to do so well with those short legs, so he slipped away to a wonderful part of the lake and made a home, to be seen there ever since. The Otter and the Muskrat felt this was a good idea, so they followed. The Jackrabbit was scared by the coyote coming up from behind and he ran out onto the Great Plains, still wondering who is behind him.
The race lasted for days, with no animal exactly sure on how much time had passed. During that time of the race, the Rattlesnake at the toad and fell asleep, while the Mole and Gopher dug holes and burrowed inside, still believing the race is not over. The Prairie Dog wasted his time chattering to the Hawk as they do.
As time went on, the human man fell further behind the buffalo and the four-legged animals were surely going to win the race. The Buffalo tried even harder, increasing her lead. Magpie had been on the back of the Buffalo all along, and the time had come to hatch her plan. Right before the finishing line, she jumped off the back of the Buffalo and flew towards the sun, then dove downwards back to the finish line. She had crossed over the line before the Buffalo, winning the race!
The two-legged animals cheered with joy, and the race was declared fair, thus changing the order of things. From now on the Buffalo would be eaten by the humans. If you look close today, you can see each Buffalo has a beard, which is left over from the days when Buffalo ate humans. It's the human hair hanging from their chin.
The Great Spirit declared it a fair race, and so there it was. Humans now had a great responsibility to the four-legged creatures to respect and treat them right. From this point on the Magpie has never been harassed. The actual ring of red can be seen in the Black Hills as an oval racetrack, it's red color coming from the animals that ran the race, trying so hard that they bled into the ground staining it red. This is a true story, and the characters names have been omitted to protect their privacy.
When It's your time to come to the Black Hills of South Dakota, you can see and enjoy these stories while touring the area.
My XO Adventures believes the stories of the Lakota and all Native Peoples are worth preserving. We do so by incorporating them into our Black Hills Tours each and every day. We hope to see you someday to meet the Buffalo, Magpie, Prairie Dogs, Coyotes and all the winged animals of this Sacred Place, Paha Sapa.
Getting around the Black Hills can be a little challenging, which is why I've created a map of the Southern Black Hills, with all it's points of interest, campsites, restrooms, and road names. This is the map I use when plotting out a private tour of the Black Hills of South Dakota. There's so much to see, that you've got to have a plan on how to visit the Black Hills properly, or you could just hire me and I take the work out of it!
Is the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park Really Wild?
No. Surprised? The Wildlife Road Loop in Custer State Park meanders through 71,000 acres of parkland. While you'll be able to see all kinds of animals including Bison, Prairie Dogs, Pronghorn Antelope, Elk, Bighorn Sheep and more, the park is contained within that acreage. It's a fantastic place to see wildlife, but make no mistake about it, the park is fenced in.
A few gates exist with cattle guards to keep many of the animals in the bounds of the park, but the rest is wide open. When coming to the Black Hills of South Dakota this is a must-do on the bucket list. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about Custer State Park, but when asked about the Wildlife Loop Road they look at me confused.
The reason for this is while there are many fine Black Hills van and bus tours, roads are restricted by vehicle type. This means that generally speaking, if you're on a 50-passenger bus, you'll miss some of the most important parts of South Dakota tours. Vehicles with high clearance and big windows area extremely important. The ability to go down winding, rolling dirt roads is a huge plus here. One way to make sure that you'll see everything you'd like is to book a private tour to the Black Hills.
The loop takes more than an hour to drive, given the speed limit. Keep your camera and binoculars ready and be sure to look along the tree line. There’s lots of animals up there that people miss. Experienced guides can help by spotting these creatures and stopping along the way so you can view, learn and even listen to their sounds. Prairie Dogs bark, or chirp while Bison grunt!
It’s my personal opinion that visiting the park in early summer is the best. You’ll see wildflowers everywhere, and the baby Bison (Red Dogs) playing with their newborn friends. If you decide to do this on your own, make sure you’ve got a map. The roads can be winding, narrow and confusing. It’s easy to make a wrong turn and miss some important places.
Either way you do it, the Wildlife Loop Road is fun and interesting for all ages. It’s a must do, and even though it’s not technically wild, you’ll not even know the difference. Come visit the mountains and prairies of South Dakota.
Make a wish! Fall is in the air here in the Black Hills. It's begun to cool from the unusually hot summer, and golden is the color of the prairies and hills. It seems to dominate whether it be grass, flower and now the beginning of the trees. Quaking Aspens are just beginning to change color in certain parts of the area, reminding me that seasons, just like life, change.
This morning I'm heading out to the Southern portion of the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. Just about every day I've been here this summer, I've had the privilege to learn and share about geography, natural history, botany, Native American history, the people and places of the Black Hills. It's been quite a year, but putting one foot in front of the other seems to be the most important thing, even when distractions come along the way.
Like in the picture, it's often the small things that are missed. When you stop for a moment and just look carefully, there's beauty all around. It certainly is here. October 15 marks the end of a great season, and the beginnings of another. I've wished a few things to happen, and it looks like they have and are coming to be. Next year as well as 2023 are simmering on the stove and great things are about to happen. I hope that for you too. Make some plans to come out and see a part of the country that you've been missing all along, the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.
The Mighty Ponderosa Pine. It's the dominant tree of the Black Hills National Forest. It's what makes the Black Hills, well, black. Other species thrive here, like the Quaking Aspen, named after the way their leaves shimmer in the breeze, but nothing dominates like the Ponderosa. The Black Hills are filled with this pine, but at one time this wasn't the case. Tinkering with nature, even with good intentions has it's consequence.
Looking at photos from 1878 compared to 1978 shows a dramatic increase in the Ponderosa population. It's due to forestry management and fire prevention. Traveling through the forest on Iron Mountain Road you might notice slash piles, dead timber piled in neat little cone shaped mounds. These slash piles are burned each winter when snow is present to rid the forest of the "fuel" it accumulates over the years. As a result, less fire = more pine. Ironically, this creates a situation where a forest fire can spread from one tree to the other fairly easy.
Another result of this management is the 1300 streams that descend from the mountains are severely impacted. The Ponderosa canvas catches a good portion of the rain, and the trees are taking more out of the water table than ever before. Since discovering this, the Forest Service has now begun a process of thinning the trees. While it seems like a good idea, this may also have other unintended consequences.
The Lakota's lived in harmony with nature, and as time goes by we're finding out this happens to be the best way. Lakota, and earlier indigenous people of the area used the pines for a variety of purposes. The inner bark provided sweetness and carbohydrates, essential to survive in a mostly meat eating culture.
Other uses are medicinal, such as remedies for bruises, eye sores and deodorant. You can still find older pines (some up to 700 years old) that bear bark harvesting scars. These are usually rectangular in shape, approximately 3 feet high by about 10 inches wide. This method of harvesting prevented the tree from dying, and provided a sustainable source of food. Visit Norbeck Overlook on Iron Mountain Road and you'll see one of the Ponderosas with a large scar. Smell the exposed wood and you'll notice essences of malt, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch and even strawberry. Just don't get a splinter.
Ponderosa wasn't always the dominant species in the Black Hills. Lodgepole and Limber Pine were plentiful in this area, and small relict forests still exist. Limber Pine, named for it's flexibility can be found near the Cathedral Spires. The trailhead talks about their significance. Lodgepole can be found in the Northern Hills and near Rochford, a fun place to be while riding the Mickelson Trail on bikes.
Funny how a single tree can be so important to the area, and help shape it into what it is today. Come visit Rapid City and the Black Hills to learn about this sacred area and what makes it so special. Special enough to call my home.
Daniel Milks is a resident of the Black Hills and owner of My XO Adventures, providing tours of the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.
If you were headed to California, chances are your plans have changed recently. Don't let it ruin your vacation though, the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota welcome you with open arms. There's a lot to see here in Southwest South Dakota. A week of activities for a couple seeking to get away or a family of a much needed vacation. We have wonderful places to visit, fantastic tours and a wealth of natural beauty.
Most people come to the Black Hills because of Mt. Rushmore, and that's exactly what it was intended to do. Historian Done Robinson was actively seeking a way to bring tourists to the area, and through the construction of the monument that's exactly what happened.
Not too many people knew about the Black Hills or Paha Sapa as the Lakota refer to them. When families drove down old Custer Battlefield Highway (now I90) they crept right past the Badlands and Black Hills without even a thought of what they might be missing. Due to the conservation efforts and determination of people like Peter Norbeck, this all was about to change.
It began with Rushmore, then the Iron Mountain Road. Soon people were beginning to take notice. Upon completion of the Needles Highway, offering stunning views from the Heart of the Black Hills and access to a beautiful lodge on Sylvan Lake, the Black Hills of South Dakota was earning it's rightful place as a vacation destination.
When most people arrive in the Black Hills they immediately set out for the Southern portion of the mountain range. This has Mt. Rushmore, Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park, the Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway and Crazy Horse Memorial. It's not surprising why this is the first on the list, but don't be fooled. There's way more to the area than the Southern Black Hills.
Badlands National Park in the early morning or late afternoon is generally about an hour away from most hotels in Rapid City, and worth the visit. A private tour with myXOadventures.com is the way to go in order to make the most of your time. If you decide to go it alone, visit the Badlands Park Website to check out the calendar and see if there is anything special going on.
The morning and late afternoon or evenings are the best time to see wildlife in the park, and the photography is optimum. The spires, points, haystacks, buttes and tables are amazing. The colors and shadows they cast are like architectural wonders.
The Northern Black Hills aren't as visited as the South, and I'm sure the residents there like it that way. Well sorry for them, the Northern Black Hills are absolutely outstanding. Ponderosa pine, Black Hills Spruce and Lodgepole make up most of the evergreen forest. Streams meander along the roadside in between limestone cliffs in Spearfish Canyon. Waterfalls such as Roughlock, Spearfish and Bridal Veil are just a few. Look up and you can see the caves in the cliffs, and natural springs. Remnants of mining operations hide in the lush greenery.
You'll find the town of Spearfish charming and quaint. Quite the opposite of nearby Deadwood, the Wild West shoot-em-up town to the East. Keep exploring the Northern Black Hills and you'll find great hiking, photography and places to explore like Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. The Northern Black Hills will restore you're soul, and give you some well deserved respite. Enjoy the video!
The Wildlife of Custer State Park
Only second in the world to the cheetah, the Pronghorn can hit speeds of 55 miles per hour. This makes it the fastest land animal in North America! These animals are beautiful and occupy areas all over Custer State Park, but their range is from Canada to Mexico. The Pronghorns closest living relative is the giraffe, and if you look closely at the face there is a family resemblance. On the Wildlife Loop in Custer you may have to look hard some days, but it's almost guaranteed to spot on of these amazing creatures. We're so lucky here in the Black Hills to have a variety of wildlife that can be seen on any given day!
Since November of 2016 when I first set foot in Cuba, I was hooked. Finally, a place in the Caribbean I found full of culture, excitingly different, vibrant with culture, abundant in architecture and natural beauty. A break from the typical Caribbean Island visit. A place like no other on Earth. A people resilient and kind. It also happened to be the "forbidden fruit" that as a professional traveler makes it extremely enticing.
President Obama relaxed rules on travel early in his tenure. He also demonstrated a willingness to engage and forge relationships, along with private investment and the promotion of human freedoms. U.S. and Cuban relations hadn't been better in 50+ years since the Revolution. Tourism flourished, and living standards rose. People learned about the history of Cuba, what it was and is today. Cruise Lines were permitted, and there was an audible hum of optimism in the air. Those were the good old days that were not so old. In a matter of a few years, we were headed in the opposite direction.
Why is Cuba what it is today? What happened to create fertile ground for a revolution and what lays ahead in the coming years and decades? These are all important questions, and like most things of late, it depends on what political party you ask. Cuba is the third closest neighbor to the United States, and we’ve been feuding for decades. Here’s a little background to sum it all up.
Starting in 1940 and running through to 1952, Cuba had a democratic government. It enjoyed a healthy middle class in the cities, 75% of the population were literate, the number of doctors per capita rivaled the most developed of nations, and its Capitol, Havana was a shiny and bustling city. Often referred to as “The Paris of the Caribbean”, Cuba had reason to be proud. Development was occurring at a rapid pace, and American tourists came in the droves.
There were also downsides. The U.S. government had unleashed the mafia in Cuba, making it their new playground. Casinos, Hotels and Resorts sprang up everywhere. Money was being made hand over fist. While mafia gangs, big corporations and government officials made enriched themselves, rural Cuba was a different story altogether. Racism was prevalent, movement restricted, poverty abundant and education poor. You’d be lucky to have made it through the second grade before being put to work in the fields. On the one end you had the living standard of a modern European country in the cities and the other, no better than plantation life. Herein plays the drumbeat of a revolution.
Sound familiar? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. You don’t have to look very hard to find some of the mightiest of nations have fallen due to this disparity. History sorts out who’s to blame, and I’ll do my best to make it clear in this particular circumstance. Let me make it plain as to who is responsible for the rise of a socialist/communistic society in Cuba. It is U.S. Government and the corrupt politicians that took their orders from Washington.
In 1952 President Batista took over in a coup, destroying the democracy he worked for so many years to create. Cast aside were the ideals of freedom for the people. Treasured Institutions were no longer regarded, and consolidation of power was the order of the day. This was the beginning of the end, and right under the nose and with the participation of the U.S. That’s right, Batista was propped up and mafia rule was endorsed by JFK and Washington. A daring young lawyer was about to take the island, and although the odds were stacked against him, the countryside was not. His name is Fidel Castro.
The U.S. had missed an opportunity to encourage stability and economic development for all Cubans. Since the revolution the American Government has tried to topple Castro with an invasion as well as multiple failed assassination attempts by the CIA. The wealthy and middle class had just been overturned with their businesses and property now nationalized. A new era begins in Cuba.
Tens of thousands of Cubans fled the island for the United States, and an embargo was imposed. Decades go by, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cuban economy cause a great deal of suffering. One thing that remains is the embargo, crippling the people of Cuba to no end. They make it through however and continue to defy the United States to this day, which brings us to the more present time.
With tourism thriving in Cuba from the changes of the Obama administration, the middle class again begins to grow, and opportunity is everywhere. I took full advantage of the situation by visiting the island and spending money in privately owned restaurants, homes and businesses. The race was on to see Cuba the way it is, not the way it might become. Years later, and once again, the relationships take a turn for the worse when then President Trump was elected.
While visits to North Korean President Kim Jong Un are being promoted and supported, regulations tighten on Cuba. While genocide takes place in China, and we continue enormous trade with this communist nation, relationships with Cuba sour. Travel to Cuba becomes more difficult, and eventually cruise ships are banned from doing business with the island.
Why? Power and special interests. If anyone thinks that the embargo is designed to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba, they are sadly mistaken. The tens of thousands of Cubans that fled Cuba are now throughout the United States, but primarily in South Florida. The minds of those Cubans are to be fought over by each president since JFK. Those initial immigrants have now had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Stories of Cuba are passed on down the line from those that had their homes and businesses taken. Their votes belong to the candidate willing to keep a hard line against Cuba. Trump was no different, and most Cubans identify as Republicans due to the rhetoric and propaganda promoted by the party. This rhetoric has influenced local and national elections. It’s elected Presidents. Meanwhile, the Cuban people continue to suffer at the cost of power from both the U.S. and the Communist Party in Cuba.
The stance against Cuba has nothing to do with individual freedom or democracy. Its roots are in revenge, anger, power and the grand prize of Florida’s 29 electoral college votes. The sweet smell of Presidential victory is thick in Florida and becoming even thicker. Trump exits stage right and on comes the Biden Administration. Offering hope of change again, Biden promises to reset relations with Cuba. I just put promises and a politician in the same sentence, so what do you think is going to happen?
There’s a pandemic raging, and economy tanking and a new sheriff in town. Biden has a lot on his hands and the promises to reset relationships gets pushed to the background. The left wants the reset, the right doesn’t, and the independents are mixed. The midterm elections, which usually go bad the first time around for a newly elected President are already under way.
Meanwhile, the situation in Cuba gets worse. Food shortages from failed crops and the inability to import what it needs causes anger in the population. Tourism is reopened in Varadero and the COVID cases begin to rise. Three vaccines are created by laboratories in Cuba, with “Abdala” having a reported 92.2% efficacy. Protests understandably begin and become deadly. Cuba looks to be having its own insurrection, which leaves President Biden forced to make a decision.
Does he help or hinder the relationship with Cuba? After 40 years in politics, Biden is no stranger to tactical moves designed to keep power, and this is the path he takes. Rather than helping our neighbor with critically needed medical supplies, food and humanitarian aid, he looks toward the outcome of the midterm elections. Doing what is right no longer matters, but how is that any different than what we’ve seen for so long? People are shocked of the demonstrations and the Cuban governments response. Shouts of freedom can be heard from coast to coast. Individuals are repeating what has been said over the last 60 years, which is to topple the regime, keep the embargo and force the government to provide more freedoms to its people. Ironically the U.S. Government is punishing Cubans for a situation it created.
Cubans do deserve more freedom and opportunity. There are many problems with the government of Cuba, but we only need to look in the mirror and find the same. Biden has made a huge error in not tackling the issue of Cuba earlier. He actually used the pandemic and economic hardship of the people in Cuba to once again stoke the flames of anger. Looking at this from an objective point of view I find it deplorable.
Biden turned his back on an opportunity to greatly improve relations through building bridges and rather decided to burn them. I’d love to see change in Cuba, but the answer is not by punishment. The government of Cuba suffers little. It’s the people that get caught in between this battle, and therein is the problem. The United States has been the only 1 of 3 countries in the United Nations to support the embargo. Everyone else knows what this is about, while the American public is lied to from both sides.
All the while other actions are at work. When the U.S. steps out from diplomacy, somebody is always willing to take its place. Those countries are China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and more. If your neighbor makes it clear they’re dead set on making life difficult, then one seeks out other friendships. This is what we’ve done. We’ve caused untold suffering of the Cuban people and opened the door to our adversaries. Congratulations to the Biden Administration for an epic failure, and hypocritical move when a gigantic opportunity was available.
Open relationships with the Cuban government would lead to more personal freedoms, economic development in both Cuba and the United States. It would create more jobs, support stability and prosperity in the region and raise the standard of living for the average Cuban citizen.
I don’t write this article in support of the Cuban Government. I write it because we’ve got it so wrong, and someone needs to speak out. Very likely, many Cuban Americans reading this article won’t respond so kindly, and I understand that. The point is not everything is as it seems, and it’s time for a real change. Where are those adults in the room?
Please take a moment to write President Biden and remind him about his promises. Promote Cuban Freedom by supporting its people. www.whitehouse.gov/contact/
The Black Hills (Paha Sapa)
Roaring out of the Earth in Great Plains of South Dakota are the magnificent Black Hills. Over 60 million years ago, through a great uplift the Black Hills rose high above the land, but their creation began deep within mother earth. Their origin began in the Precambrian Period, some 2 billion years ago. At one point it is estimated the Black Hills attained a height of 15,000 feet above sea level. Now, after millions of years of erosion, the highest point, Black Elk Peak reaches 7,244 feet. Although half the original size, the Black Hills are still the highest point from east of the Rockies to the Swiss Alps. Most of the Black Hills are composed of granite, along with quartz, feldspar and mica. Wondering through the area, you'll notice the ground glitters as if being surrounded by jewels in every direction.
The Native Americans of this region called this mountain range Paha Sapa, meaning The Heart of All Things. This was and is considered a sacred area by many, including the Lakota Tribe. The Lakota are made up of seven bands or tribes. These are the Sichangu, Brule, Oglala, Itazipcho, Miniconjou and Sihasapa. The Black Hills is considered a part of their origin story, with the rights of ownership in dispute to this day.
Significant points of interest for visitors to this area are the Cathedral Spires, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake, Crazy Horse Memorial, and further to the East, Badlands National Park. This area is popular with nature enthusiasts, rock climbers, sightseeing, hiking, horseback riding and much more. The mountain range is 110 miles long and 60 miles wide generally being divided between two areas, the Northern and Southern Black Hills. In the Northern Black Hills, you'll find majestic Spearfish Canyon, filled with hiking trails, waterfalls, the nearby Wild West City of Deadwood and one of my personal favorites, Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. In my experience, the Northern Black Hills plays second fiddle to the Southern Black Hills to tourism, but this shouldn't be the case. The Northern Black Hills are a place of beauty, healing, history and recreation.
The Southern Black Hills are very special for a number of reasons. Generally, when people think of the Black Hills of South Dakota, they conjure up images of Mount Rushmore, with the faces of four great Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. This is certainly quite an accomplishment and beautiful work of art. There is a great visitors center with a short film, and exhibition hall documenting the idea, construction and impact the monument had on the area. Doane Robinson and Gutzon Borglum set out to create a monument that would inspire the nation, and more importantly bring much needed tourism dollars to the region. They succeeded, and now over 2 million people visit Mount Rushmore each year.
While Mount Rushmore stirs up pride and patriotism in many, the Native Americans of this area feel differently when gazing upon the monument. For them and others, it is viewed as a desecration to a sacred mountain. Mount Rushmore was named after an east coast attorney sent here to survey mining claims. Those he asked had no idea of the name of the mountain, so it was named after him - Charles E. Rushmore. Before this the mountain was known to the Lakota as Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. The Six Grandfathers are North, South, East, West, Above and Below. This was a place the Lakota came to pray, carry out ceremonies and considered the center of the universe. Protests, petitions altering the mountain and disputes over the land continue on into the unforeseeable future. It's my belief that we understand as much as possible, and from both sides the history of this special place.
If you make a visit to Mount Rushmore, you can't miss the drive on Iron Mountain Road. Construction of this road was meant to compliment the mountain, cause as little disruption to nature, offer spectacular views and provide a playground for automobiles. Iron Mountain Road winds through forests and tunnels which, when looked through align perfectly with Mount Rushmore, offering great photo opportunities. The road covers 17 miles, has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, and two spits. It runs from Mount Rushmore, and terminates near Custer State Park.
Cuba is an exotic destination that's beginning to reopen, and we're going to be there when it does.
Ask my friends, Cuba is one of my favorite places in the world. Inevitably I'm asked why. It's simple to explain reasons but not feelings.
Cuba is one of the most controversial places to choose for a travel destination, which is initially what brought me to the island. It was 2015, and while travel was opened, you could only visit by boarding a ship in another country. In my case it was Jamaica. We sailed around the island to Santiago, Havana, Cienfuegos and Maria Del Gorda. Since flights have opened, I've been there a number of times, with the last being Havana Heartbeat March 12-17 2020. Yep, our group was there when the U.S. declared a National Emergency, and it was fantastic.
What you learn here are the things that matter in your life, and from the example Cubans provide, thats in relationships with one another. A simple game of chess, a bottle of rum and a conversation is highly valued. Architecture abounds, some restored and some crumbling. Both equally beautiful and a photographers dream. The people of Cuba are outstanding and resilient. Unfortunately, the embargo has really done nothing to improve the situation there and its the people that bear the brunt, not the government.
Cuba is about the size of Florida, which means there's lots to see. Artists, textile makers, farms, newly opened businesses, beaches and more. It truly is a step back in time that exists nowhere else, and may not even exist for much longer.
As I write this letter, Cuba is already administering its own vaccines developed on the island. The expectation is to have most of the population vaccinated by the end of summer, which is heartwarming news. Slowly, business is beginning to reopen, and tourism will return shortly. The Cubans are waiting for us with open arms, and as their closest neighbor we should pay them a visit.
It's legal to travel to Cuba under the "Support of the Cuban People" OFAC category, and relatively simple. myXOadventures.com takes care of the details for you, answers questions, guides you through the island and introduces you to a place you should have been able to visit long ago. If you had a chance to visit Havana on an overnight cruise ship, you've not experienced Cuba. You've been given a tourism taste, and not a truly authentic experience. We can help.
Speaking of experience, we've made our inroads and relationships to provide you with a high quality, affordable option, and personalized small group experience. I invite you to come along with us in November for our upcoming Havana Heartbeat trip. It'll be beautiful, and its the best place to visit in the Caribbean, hands down.
Right now we've decided to offer a $100 per person discount for new bookings made from now until the end of June. Simply make your reservation online and use the code HAVHRTBT and click HERE.
Daniel Milks is the owner of myXOadventures.com and has been traveling the world with a passion since 2011. Always doing his best to open the mind and spirit through cultural exchanges, each destination has its own personal touch and feel. Never creating a "cookie cutter" experience, he hopes to show how travel can change each persons life by better understanding the world in which we live.
Tens of thousands of people are looking towards the National Parks to satisfy the adventurer within, and it's a great idea. The National Parks System is something we should all be proud of, in so many ways. In total, there are 63 National Parks, but 423 "National Park Sites" in the United States. On my travels, I've come across adventurers chipping away at the goal of visiting them all.
What a life eh? I can tell you from experience that there's so much to learn from each and every park. So many programs, guides, maps, locations, trails, routes, rules, permits and so on. I've been able to see the mistakes that most people make, and wanted to take some time to share them so you can avoid these pitfalls.
Your journey should begin with visiting the National Park Website, www.nps.gov. Here you'll find an almost overwhelming amount of information on each park. Be sure to check the calendars and events section, along with admission fees and restrictions. The next thing to do is download the App recreation.gov on your smart phone. Here you'll be able to make reservations for shuttle tickets, accommodations and much more.
After taking some time to explore these areas the best thing to do is get on a guided tour of some kind. These fill up way in advance, so the sooner you plan the better. Apps are great, but nothing compares to the experience of a professional guide. You'll be able to absorb so much more than trying to figure it out yourself. Yes, you're clever and savvy, but trust me, this is the best way to go. Get a private tour if a group setting isn't your thing. These are popular now and commonplace to offer.
Not a morning person? You really need to adjust. There's plenty of reasons the morning time is best in the National Parks. First and foremost, there are way less people meandering about. This alone should be motivation. There are other advantages though such as the animals. They mostly frolic at dusk and dawn. You'll have a much better chance seeing these great creatures at sunrise and sunset before they go into hiding. Speaking of sunrise and sunset, photography plays a significant role here. If you want good photos, these are the best times. Midday, you'll be fighting with glare, and potentially a washed out look with the sun coming from above. Colors abound in the morning and evening.
Local operators know these things, and they'll take you to the best places. Locals know the park, both inside and OUT. If you think all the magic happens in the park, you'd be mistaken. Thousands of miles of canyons, trails and overlooks exist outside the park system and can be made accessible, if you have the means, knowledge and permits!
I hope this provides a little insight into visiting the parks, and should you want the best adventures there are to offer, just CLICK HERE to fill out the form for a private organized tour for you, your friends, family or whomever you enjoy traveling with!
I was sitting across the table from a friend just the other day when I realized how much I missed personal conversations. I find it so therapeutic to talk about matters of substance. We were just finishing setting up for the backdrop of a new travel video for Project Pride and she made me some coffee. We sat down and just talked. We asked how each other were, what we've experienced since the last time we saw one another, and enjoyed our time together. Part of what we talked about (or I did) is how interesting it's been to observe so many people across this country, from one end to the other. How diverse we are from 1 mile to the next. I mentioned how different it was to be outside the country looking in.
A ton of perspective has been gained this year. I can't express how huge that is for me. It had been a month since we talked, and I really appreciated both her company and the delicious cup of coffee she prepared. Somewhere in between that coffee and my friend existed something of great value. It's called connection. When it's removed we become different people. We behave differently and we adapt to isolation. That may be good to prevent transmission of a virus but it's insidious to our mental health. What would the year have looked like if we could talk, touch, love, hug, kiss and play together. I guess we'll never know. I just know how much I love and miss it.
That's also why I love my job. It does all those things. I can remember standing outside a ship of thousands of people with a "Free Hugs" sign and gave everyone a hug who wanted it. CAN YOU IMAGINE? Would you give me a hug? Maybe soon, and I'll take one from ya!
Listen my friend, I love what I do because I love travel. I'm really not sure when or if I'll ever settle down. One day I might be writing from South America and the next from Glacier National Park. That doesn't sound so bad to me! Travel has an enormous power to heal and grow. It's way more than a "sector" of the economy, it's something we've done since we could walk. It's inherent to our nature. This as well as curiosity, connections, the desire to learn, explore and so much more. I can't wait until it's the right time for YOU to travel.
For those of you wanting to get out and explore, I have something for you. A new departure. It's the MIGHTY FIVE on April 12, 2021. Five of the most magical parks I've ever explored. Check it out and give it some consideration.