One thing I love about Colorado is that if you head an hour in any direction you'll find yourself in a drastically different environment from where you started, both ecologically and culturally. On our early May travel to Denver, which I wrote about here, we couldn't resist taking day trips to two of our favorite and varied spots: Boulder and Summit County.
Boulder sits at the base of the Flatirons (above from Chautauqua) and is quite a lovely little place. We started our morning with a trip to the Boulder Farmers' Market, which was packed with organic produce, dairy, flowers, coffee and baked goods (naturally we made a beeline for the baked goods).
How I love some Colorado blue columbine.
Next we headed to Chautauqua for a short hike—the only type we can manage with the littles at this stage, since one of them is walking and gets easily distracted by things like streams and flowers. Chautauqua has a fascinating history (check out the website) and serves as a gateway to the Flatirons. As you begin your hike, you get an incredible view of the mountains. (Thanks to my sister, Mari, for taking the photo below of Nora and me on Nora's birthday hike.)
When you turn around, you're in for a nice surprise: the entire city of Boulder laid out before you.
After our hike, we headed to Mountain Sun for lunch, then wandered around the downtown Pearl Street Mall. By that point, it was time to eat again. So we wandered over to one of the most fabulous places in Colorado for some birthday high tea: The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. As usual, it was divine.
Really, the Dushanbe is a must when in Boulder. (Here's a detail of the ceiling.)
And with that, we were too stuffed full of pastries and unusual teas to do anything but pile into the car and head back to Denver to go to bed.
Another day, we headed west along I-70 about 90 minutes into the mountains to our old stomping ground of Summit County, home to five famous ski resorts. We've spent several seasons and many weekend trips there, but it was our first visit since the summer of 2011.
The approach is both stunning (below you see the Gore Range with Buffalo Mountain on the left and Red Peak on the right) and death defying (do you know what a runaway truck ramp is?).
On the drive, we set a personal best for animal sightings, including a flock of bighorn sheep (below), two herds of elk and the Denver buffalo herd.
First we stopped in Frisco at our favorite lunch spot, Butterhorn Bakery, then crossed the street to browse the cutest shop in the county, The Next Page Bookstore & Tea Bar. Both places are just down Main Street from the Summit Daily News, where I worked during the summer of 2008. (You can find a few of my favorite stories from that summer here.)
There was still a fair amount of snow in the mountains, which isn't unusual in early May at the valley's elevation of 9,200 feet. Hiking was out of the question and we weren't prepared to ski with the girls, so we made just one more stop before heading back to Denver: the Dillon Marina playground. Not a bad view for a playground. Just don't forget your sunscreen.
Colorado has been on my mind lately; several areas have already been hit hard by wildfires this season. So it seems fitting to post (finally) some field notes from our trip to Denver in early May. The shots above and below have nothing to do with wildfire—just regular old sunsets over the Front Range from the condo we rented in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Our impetus for traveling to Colorado during that awkward time of year when winter activities are grinding to a halt but summer is still a ways off was a business trip of Jeff's. But I'll take whatever chance comes my way to head to the Rockies and see my Denver-dwelling little sister. Later this week I'll post about our day trips to Boulder and Summit County, but here I'll focus on our adventures around Denver.
Below clockwise from left: A pretty church on 9th...after we got six inches of snow in May. Another perfect sunset. A visit to my favorite—and the most swoon-worthy—bookstore in all the land, Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue. The pavilion at Cheesman Park.
And another view from Cheesman Park, overlooking the mountains.
We spent a delightful morning at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Spring flowers were just beginning to bloom around the grounds, which was strange considering that our home in North Carolina was already feeling like a tropical rainforest of neon green foliage.
Can you guess Cricket's favorite part of our garden visit? Yep, this pond full of toads...which were doing what toads do in the spring, but I'll spare you photos of that.
We took a nice stroll through City Park with my sister and her little dog, known to Cricket as "Doggy Peter," to distinguish him from her two human cousins named Peter. I'm not sure what the girls enjoyed more: exploring the park or feeding Peter treats.
We also came upon this tree of nesting cormorants, which surprised me since I think of them as sea birds.
Now let's talk about food, because our family likes to eat. A lot. One highlight was our ladies' lunch at Udi's, which opened recently next to Tattered Cover.
Another highlight was joining my sister and her friends for their tradition of "Sunday Supper" at Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria, which involved a four-course family-style meal for $10 per person, plus plenty of wine and ridiculous stories.
We also checked out several local coffee shops around town. Pablo's Coffee offered the most authentic coffee shop feel. Drip had the best mocha but little ambience. Roostercat Coffee House didn't serve up a great coffee but had a nice outdoor patio with a fire pit, which would have been a cozy spot to hang out had it not been hidden under six inches of snow.
A tasty brunch menu beckoned us to Shells & Sauce, an outing made extra sweet by the fact that my sister and her boyfriend offered to take the girls to the Denver Zoo so we could have a quiet meal. De-lish. (They even wore Nora out so much that she took a long nap.)
A year ago, I set a goal to take monthly portraits of Nora's first year of life. Somehow, amidst the chaos of those early months with two little ones, I surprised myself and actually made it happen. This set of photos caps off an amazing year. (You can view Nora's previous portraits here: arrival, birth announcement, 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 4 months, 5 months, 6 months, 7 months, 8 months, 9 months, 10 months and 11 months.)
Each month I tried to capture a new developmental milestone, expression or activity she was particularly fond of. Sometimes I planned the location in advance; other times we came upon an interesting setting or she started doing something I wanted to document, and I ran for the camera.
For these 1-year portraits, we strolled down to a little park by my sister's house. Nora wasn't walking by her birthday but had been pulling up and cruising for months, so I wanted to find a bench where she could show off these abilities. Along the way we happened upon this flower-filled meadow. I knew Nora would love to sit for a few minutes and smell the flowers—a skill of which she is quite proud—and she did not disappoint. It was already late morning and the sun was high, so I positioned her in the shade to avoid harsh light on her face.
Eventually we continued on to the playground area and found a good bench for pulling up.
She made me so happy when she gave her goofy crooked smile. (But I realized as I was editing the photo that this expression hasn't made an appearance in weeks; it must already be a thing of this past. Sigh.)
Thanks to my brother-in-law, Christo, for taking this photo of Nora and me. I'm trying to be in more photos with the girls, but my instinct to hide behind the camera is strong. Very strong.
Three years ago, I was honored to be asked to speak at my high school’s Cum Laude Society induction ceremony the night before graduation. Since it’s that time of year again, I thought it would be fun to share with you a slightly abridged version of the advice I gave to the graduates. Here goes:
One night, [now] 10 years ago, I sat alone in my tent staring at a paper packet covered in cartoon worms and wondering whether I would survive the night. The front of the packet contained no words. Just yellow, orange and blue worms that seemed to wriggle right off the paper. I emptied the packet’s contents—what I had been assured was anti-parasite powder—into my water bottle and shook it until the particles dissolved. After a few deep breaths, I gulped down the mixture, which tasted suspiciously like Tang.
I was in the middle of a two-month stint as a field research assistant in remote Madagascar studying primate behavior, and had managed to pick up some sort of stomach parasite that was about ready to finish me off. The nearest hospital was a three-day trek by car over washed-out dirt roads. But we had no car. Or any mode of communication with the world outside the nature reserve where we were living. So I just curled up in my sleeping bag to fend off the falling temperatures and lay listening to the growing sounds of night in the spiny desert.
As I fell asleep, all I could think was: “What the hell am I doing here?”
Upon beginning the field work, I figured out quickly that lying on my back under trees that spew human-blinding sap to observe lemurs—the least evolved of all primates—forage and groom, hardly resembled the romantic Jane Goodall-esque experience I had hoped for. Neither did scouring the forest floor to collect lemur fecal samples for hormone testing.
I decided I could now safely check primatology off my list of potential careers.
Did that make this entire adventure—or misadventure—a massive, reckless mistake? After all, I had been reduced to entrusting my life to the Malagasy version of Tang and still had no career path on the horizon. And if I died out here in the middle of nowhere, my parents would kill me!
As it turned out, the Miracle Tang worked. I survived the night and made it home a month later. And, after losing 15 pounds during the trip, I was relieved to be back in a land of clean water, electricity and properly labeled anti-parasite medications.
I also began to realize that the experience was far from a misstep off the path to a fulfilling career and an exciting life. It was the path—or a segment of the path, anyway.
What I gained from the Madagascar experience far outweighed what I originally thought the opportunity could offer me.
Because when I was not studying lemurs, I was playing with the village children, taking thousands of photographs and keeping a journal on my observations of life in a developing country where children in remote areas never even get the opportunity to learn the language of education or business (in this case French), where the infant mortality rate is more than 10 times that in the U.S. and where endemic plants and animals are tragically and rapidly being destroyed.
When I returned to school that fall, I put together a photo exhibit juxtaposing pictures of Madagascar’s children with the broken landscapes they will one day inherit, hoping to elicit from the audience the same question with which I was struggling: What will be left for these children?
Seeing the lack of public health services where I had lived further drew me to the field of public health. And I couldn’t stop writing about what I had witnessed, if only to organize the thoughts that haunted my mind every time I ate a meal that did not consist of rice and beans, or took a shower that did not come from a 2-gallon plastic bag filled with water I had drawn from a well and laid out to warm in the sun.
Little by little, the lessons I gathered from what I thought was a random summer in Madagascar seemed to weave together a picture of my future that I hadn’t seen clearly before. I realized my interests in writing, photography, health, environment, science and international development were not disparate after all. I did not have to follow a prescribed path deeply into one field at the expense of my passion for the others. I was not flailing, as I had felt I was for most of college! All it took was a few parasites and a couple groups of lemurs to show me that I really was moving forward, on my own path.
Following these varied interests led me to: work in the fields of public health and international development; write for numerous publications; intern at National Geographic and other magazines and newspapers; create photographic documentaries, travel extensively, earn a master’s degree in medical journalism and try my hand at freelance writing and photography.
I cringe to think what I might be doing now if I had never taken a risk and ventured to Madagascar or to the many other places and jobs I’ve landed along the way. If I had stuck to a path that was safer, one where I seized opportunities only if I knew exactly where they would lead, I would be lost in someone else’s world right now.
As you prepare to graduate, you may or may not have given much thought to your career path. Regardless, you will probably feel pressured at some point, by your peers, your parents, your professors or your employers to head in a direction that is of their liking, and which may be quite far from yours. You may be tempted by the careers that many consider the most prestigious. And those careers can be great options for people who are passionate about them.
But open your eyes to the limitless possibilities that await you. You owe it to yourself and the world in which you live to find something—or always keep searching for it if it eludes you—that you love, that you are good at and that will give you the opportunity to contribute in some way to the society in which you live.
As you head off to college, your world will broaden. You will encounter courses on topics of which you’ve never heard. You will meet professors and visiting lecturers who are the most accomplished researchers or practitioners in their fields. You will befriend students with life experiences very different from your own, and from whom you will learn quite a bit.
The opportunities will be endless. But they may also take more effort to find—both inside and outside the scope of your university—and to whittle down to manageable proportions. They can be overwhelming.
So here are a few tips that might help you discover your own path—one that balances career and life and brings in an income. (Yes, you have to do something that will get you off your parents’ payroll.)
First, be adventurous. Seek out and try new things even when you don’t know where they’ll lead you —whether they are unusual jobs or research opportunities, travel that might be less than comfortable or even dates with people who aren’t your perfect match on paper. Trial and error is your best friend.
Second, if you haven’t already, learn to communicate well. And I’m not talking about texting. A strong communicator can talk or write her way to success in any field. You could be a world-class engineer, but it will still be difficult to land your dream job without a convincing cover letter or, in the very least, an introductory email that involves proper punctuation, the word “you” spelled “y-o-u” instead of just “u” and a distinct lack of smiley faces. If you develop a treatment for a life-threatening disease but can’t for the life of you put together a journal article or presentation that demonstrates the strength of your trials, you’re out of luck. And so is the rest of the world. So make sure you can write and speak persuasively.
Third, speaking of journals, please learn how to read and evaluate—even in a basic sense—a scientific journal article. I don’t care if you plan to be an English major or if you took a vow of scientific celibacy following your AP biology exam. In the age of infotainment, don’t take anyone’s word for anything. You have easier access to information than any previous generation, so learn how to use it well. Go straight to the source and figure out how to devour it to become a more informed citizen.
Fourth, learn to listen to the other point of view—with grace. (I’m still struggling with this one.) Very few things in life are clear-cut, and the grey zone is what makes life interesting. You will open many more doors for yourself if you can be sympathetic and practical than if you are simply arrogant.
Fifth, get out of your bubble—whatever your personal bubble may be. There is always more of the world to soak in and try to understand. I can’t encourage you enough to study abroad and stay with a foreign family. Learn another language. Volunteer on the opposite side of town from where you grew up. Or take a class that sounds intriguing even if you might not earn an “A.”
Sixth, find balance between work and play. Until now, you have had a fairly regimented schedule of required courses and sports practices and family obligations. Now it’s pretty much up to you. And you will struggle for the rest of your life to find the proper balance of your time. Sometimes you will fail and pay the consequences, but always try to regain that balance—it’s worth it, especially once you have a family.
And lastly, develop your powers of discernment. Learn to distinguish what is right for you—based on your own strengths, interests and experiences—from the path that is simply popular or expected.
High school, I hope, has prepared you well for the future of your choosing. But let the process be one of trial and error. Seek out all types of adventures and learn from them. Learn what you enjoy learning. Learn how you enjoy spending your day. Learn the level of stress that prods you into productivity but keeps you from becoming institutionalized. And learn what you dream of for your future family, so you can find the balance to realize those dreams.
You don’t have to be fighting parasites in the middle of Madagascar to find your path. In fact, your parents would probably appreciate if your path were a little tamer. But don’t sell yourself short. You have already demonstrated in high school that you are prepared to take the world by storm. So do just that.
The world awaits you. Congratulations!
How I covet the handcrafted baby gifts friends and family have made for us over the years—the knit hats and blankets, the oh-so-perfect quilt, the tiny pants, the booties. Every time I open a package containing a little work of art, I vow I'll be prepared with something just as beautiful and artisan and heirloom the next time I'd like to give a baby gift. And then the time comes and I haven't learned to knit or sew or quilt, so I end up buying something generic—cute and useful—but generic. And then I feel utterly uncreative.
For Nora's 1st birthday, I wanted to make her something special. Instead of being disappointed that I haven't gotten around to perfecting my nonexistent needlework skills, I decided to hunker down and use the skills I have. Nora loves paging through the board book of family photos I made the girls for Christmas, naming everyone and giving us big, sloppy kisses.
So I decided to make another board book, but instead of using existing photos and the printer's software to design it, I would take photos specifically for the book and do the design myself in Photoshop. Since we're always looking for attention-grabbing educational books, I liked the idea of creating a themed counting book.
We have a fantastic children's museum in Durham, NC, called the Museum of Life and Science, where we spend a lot of time. Life and Science has a huge range of exhibits, from trains to an outdoor dinosaur trail to live bears and lemurs; with so much variety, it seemed like the perfect backdrop for the book photos. And it was. I brought my camera on several visits to the museum and took tons of photos, so I could be sure to have something usable to represent each number from one to 10. (I'll admit I had to get creative for the higher numbers!).
Spoiler alert: When I finished the book and saw how much Nora enjoyed it—she’s kind of obsessed, actually—I realized I could print copies of the book when I need baby gifts for friends. Sure it's not snuggly and soft, but it's a fun way to translate my skills into a unique present. (If you're interested in purchasing a copy, just send me an email and I'll provide you with pricing.)
Does creating a board book sound like something that's up your alley? Give it a try. I used Pint Size Productions this time and was very happy with the print quality.
Need more DIY ideas? Click here.
Five years, people. That's how long Jeff and I have been married as of last weekend. In some way it feels like I was walking down the aisle last week. In other ways it feels as though we could be celebrating our 25th anniversary with all the adventures and babies (and stress) we've crammed into such a short time. Either way, life is pretty sweet when you marry your best friend.
I wish I could say I had the brilliant idea way back on our wedding day to save my bouquet so I could take a photo of it years later and turn that photo into an anniversary card. That's not the case. The idea came me about three days before our anniversary. Want to do the same with your bouquet? Here's how I made it happen.
Drying: The technique I used to dry my peony bouquet was to throw it into a vase (without water) in my closet with a stack of wedding paraphernalia before we left for our honeymoon, then forget about it for a few months. Eventually I unearthed the bouquet and was pleasantly surprised that it looked incredible, thanks to my superior flower drying skills. I put that vase and bouquet on a table next to a display of wedding photos, where it's been sitting for around 4.5 years.
Photo: I took the bouquet, still in its glass vase, outside onto our back deck when it was in full shade and positioned the vase on an old wooden porch table that I like to use as a background. I stood on a chair above the bouquet and took photos with my aperture almost completely open, making sure to leave some empty space in the corner where I could add text later without making the image too busy.
Text: I used Photoshop to add text. (My text inspiration came from this pin.) If you don't have software you can use to add text or aren't sure how to do it, you could take a photo with your phone and add text with A Beautiful Mess. (There are probably a lot of similar apps out there, but I just learned about this one.) Or you can just leave the text off.
Printing: Once I added the text, I dropped the photo into a Photoshop template for a 5x7 card and had the card printed by Pro Digital Photos, though many photo printing websites offer this service. You could also just order the photo and use double-sided tape to affix it to a blank card from a craft or stationery store.
Bragging: Be sure to inform your spouse that you made the card from your (or your spouse's) bridal bouquet, because he/she will be quite impressed.
Despite only inviting family to Nora's 1st birthday party, I couldn't help creating a little bee-themed invitation. The party ingredients were simple: (below clockwise from left) a really sweet 1-year-old, a birthday wreath, flowers from the Eno River Farmers Market and a beehive cake with sugar bees (inspired by this pin).
Nora loved her gifts and, as any good teether would, opened several by biting through the wrapping. I could barely contain my happiness when she was as excited about the new board book I made for her as I was. (I'll be posting soon about the book.)
The weather was perfect, so we grilled and hung out on the back deck. I loved the typical 1-year-old cluelessness on Nora's face as she wondered why we were singing to her and presenting her with a large beehive topped with fire. (Thanks to Jeff for snapping this photo, though I'm not sure why I turned out looking like I have a spray-on tan.)
And here's the birthday girl stuffing her face with cake. It was a good day. But really, how can she already be 1?
I'm Julia Soplop. I've spent my life documenting the world around me in writing and photography. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.