Hi, I’m Mark, and welcome to "Mark's Travel Blog" at markstravelblog.com.  As you can imagine, it took me a long time to come up with that name. 

I use this site to share travel stories and photos with family and friends, but anyone bored enough to view my posts is welcome.


Happy travels!




How to Meet Dave Ramsey

March 07, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Meeting Dave Ramsey on the Debt Free Stage

Ken Coleman, Mark Aspelin, and Dave Ramsey at Ramsey Solutions, March 7, 2022



Whenever I’m faced with use it or lose it frequent flier miles that are soon to expire and I have don’t have much vacation time, I wrack my brain for experiences I would like to have or people I would like to meet.  This can take the form of concerts, unusual experiences, catching up with friends, or meeting people who have been influential in my life.  Past examples include attending a workshop with the Dalai Lama in Boston, meeting E.O. Wilson (biologist) at Biodiversity Days in North Carolina, and flying to San Francisco to catch Paul McCartney’s “Last Pick at the Stick” … the last concert at Candlestick Park in August 2014 before plans to tear it down and convert it into office space. 


E.O. Wilson and Mark Aspelin, Biodiversity Days, Duke University, March 2, 2017





With some of my Southwest Airline miles facing imminent extinction, I recently faced that decision again.  What did I come up with this time?  I decided to try to get a photo with Dave Ramsey at his Ramsey Solutions studio in Franklin, Tennessee. 


In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years, Dave Ramsey is a personal finance guru who hosts “The Ramsey Show”.  According to his website, The Ramsey Show is the third largest talk radio show in America, reaching over 18 million “combined weekly listeners”.  I don’t know what that means either, but let’s just say that he’s popular.  On his show, Dave takes phone calls from people of all walks of life.  In response to their questions, Dave dishes out tough, Tennessee-accented love in the form of “sell the car” and “act your wage” advice that aligns with his 7 Baby Steps for financial peace.  Some of the show’s callers make you think, “wow, that person is an idiot … I can’t believe they made such dumb financial decisions.”  Other callers will make you think, “wow, I’m an idiot … I can’t believe I’ve made such dumb financial decisions.”  For me, it’s usually the latter. 


My financial idiocy brought me face-to-face with a 7-year slog to get through Baby Steps 1-3.  This translates to being debt free other than my mortgage and building up a 3-6 month emergency fund.  Unfortunately, I had to do the emergency fund step twice.  Dave’s advice played a major role in getting me to take the plunge to get started and then stick with it year after year.  The end result is that I’m on MUCH firmer financial ground compared to where I was 10 years ago.  Not that you care.  So let’s get back to the subject at hand. 


How exactly does one go about meeting Dave Ramsey?  Glad you asked.  Here’s everything you need to know about meeting Dave in person … as of March 2022 when I visited the studio.



Why do people want to visit Dave in the first place

Dave has literally inspired millions of people to “live like no one else so, later, you can live and give like no one else.”  After completing a significant milestone in their financial journey such as getting out of debt, paying off the house, or crossing the “millionaire” net worth threshold, many people decide to make the pilgrimage to Ramsey Studios to meet Dave in person.  For some, it's to say thank you in person to Dave.  For others, it's a “job well done” validation of sorts – a celebration after completing a difficult step of the journey.  Or it can simply be something different to do for an afternoon while visiting Nashville. 


Some famous "Dave-isms" showcased on a wall at Ramsey Solutions




Where is the studio located and what’s the parking situation?

Ramsey Solutions is located at 1011 Reams Fleming Boulevard in Franklin, Tennessee.  Franklin is about a 30-minute drive from Nashville.  Parking is abundant and free of charge.  There are a few visitor parking spots just outside of the front entrance and plenty of other spots nearby if those are taken. 


Front entrance to Ramsey Solutions



When can I meet Dave – any particular day or time?

The first thing you’ll want to know is that you can’t just waltz in the front door any day of the week and meet Dave.  In fact, chances are very high that Dave WON’T be at the studio to meet you if you just randomly show up.  The first step is to fill out this form to let them know when you would like to visit.  Within a day or two, you’ll receive a response confirming when Dave is scheduled to be in the studio. 


When I submitted the form to let them know I planned to visit in early March, they provided me with two potential dates: Monday, February 28 or Monday, March 7th between 1:00pm – 4:00pm CT.  Those were the only two options.  Needless to say, that narrowed it down fairly quickly for me.  March 7th it is.  So if you really want to meet Dave, you’ll want to confirm his availability before you start booking flights and hotels.  Even if they do confirm a date for you, they’ll add the following disclaimer: “Dave and the Ramsey Personalities schedule is not guaranteed and is subject to change at the last minute. Please feel free to call ahead a day or two before you come.”  That last sentence is highly recommended.  You’ll want to call or email a day or two ahead of time to confirm that everything is still on track. 


There are no tickets or reservations.  Ramsey Solutions likes to know how many visitors are arriving on a particular day so they have enough baked treats (cookies on the day I was there) on hand.  But you’re welcome to show up unannounced if that’s how you roll.    


I had no concept of how many people typically show up and I’m sure it varies quite a bit.  Given that Dave Ramsey has millions of listeners, I was picturing long lines.  Plus I had a flight to catch later that afternoon.  To play it safe, I decided to show up around noon – well in advance of the 1pm CT start time for The Ramsey Show.  When I walked through the front entrance doors at 12:10pm, I was the only visitor there!  Around 1:30pm, there were around 20 or 30 visitors before I left to catch my flight. 



What can I expect to find inside Ramsey Solutions?

When I stepped through the front door, I was immediately greeted by a person at the front desk.  She asked my name, where I’m from, and offered to answer any questions that I had.  She also invited me to visit the café to get a free drink and snack (cookie), walk through the bookstore, and do a self-guided “Our Story” tour about the history and progressions of The Ramsey Show over the years.  All visitors are entitled to one free drink and snack.  After the first round, you’ll need to pay for it.  As a bonus, all visitors also received a free Ramsey Solutions coffee mug.


The bookstore has all of the books published by the various Ramsey personalities, as well as courses, games, wallets, and purses.  Surprisingly, they didn’t have any T-shirts.  If you decide to buy something at the bookstore or café, keep in mind that Dave Ramsey doesn’t do credit cards.  You’ll need to pay cash or use a debit card. 


The self-guided “Our Story” tour was a good way to kill some time.  At the end of the tour, you'll find a recording booth where you can record your own story and send it to yourself.  I didn’t bother with that as I wasn’t interested in having an awkward recording of my story as a memento. 


Once people finish with the café, bookstore, and self-guided tour, people start to congregate in the seats in front of the two recording studios.  When I was there, the Ken Coleman Show was live from 12:00pm – 1:00PM CT so I could see Ken and his guest, John Delony, talking live.  Around 12:45pm, Dave walked into the other studio.  He was all business as he prepared for the upcoming show. 



Two recording studios 



John Delony and Ken Coleman recording the Ken Coleman Show


Baker Street Coffee Shop ...


... and Bookstore




More seating areas between the recording studios and coffee shop / bookstore


Event Stage on the lower level below the recording studios



Self-Guided Tour starts here





Booth where you can record your own story as a memento


Dave prepares for the start of the show



How do I get a book signed and how do I get a photo with Dave?

I lumped these two questions together as you’ll do these at the same time during your visit.  If you want to get a book signed, then you’ll need to either bring a book with you from home or buy one from the bookstore.  But you’ll need the book in your hand when you meet Dave.  Don’t bother bringing a pen.  Dave will have his own pen. 


Once Dave’s show starts, people start to gather in the chairs in front of that recording studio.  Dave and his co-host only come out to meet guests during the commercial breaks.  Before the first commercial break, a staff member comes out to explain how it all works.  There is a place to line up next to the Debt Free Stage.  Once a commercial break starts, Dave and his guest will take off their headphones and walk out to meet the first person in line.  While they embark on their journey through a back door of the studio to walk around to the Debt Free Stage, a staff member will direct you to stand on the stage and, if you want a photo, you’ll hand them your phone or camera. 


I gave the staff member my phone, stepped up on the stage, and the next think I knew, Dave was walking towards me with a big grin and an extended hand.  Before we even shook hands, he was already asking my name and where I’m from.  We shook hands and he offered to sign the book that I was holding.  As he signed, he asked what I was doing in Nashville.  I told him that I was there to meet him, but he seemed to think that I MUST be in Nashville for some other reason too.  So I muttered something about being in Nashville for fun but was really there to celebrate that I had completed Baby Steps 1-3.  Upon hearing this, they congratulated me … and that’s when it hit me.  “They”!  I had completed neglected the co-host Ken Coleman.  I had not looked at him, shook his hand, or acknowledged that he existed prior to that point.  In hindsight, I should have prepared for that – perhaps buying his book at the bookstore when I saw that he was the co-host and then having him sign his book at the same time.  But it was too late to recover from that mistake.  The three of us were already lined up on the stage, with me in the middle.  The photo was taken, and then it was time for the next visitor.   It probably took a total of about one minute.  It’s a well-oiled machine. 


It all happened so quickly that I never got to implement my original plan, which was to deliver some kind of quip like “I took out a payday loan in order to visit today”.  I figured he has heard “thank you” stories so many times that it would be more fun to say something different. 


After the meet and greet, I looked at the “photo” on my phone.  I quickly learned that multiple photos had been taken - one of the initial handshake, one of the book signing, and two on the stage.  Had I known, I would have made a better effort to look at something other than the ground in front of me.  The joys of being Finnish.  I’m half Irish too, but unfortunately my Finnish social skills won out today.  So beware that multiple photos will be taken.


One other helpful tidbit … as I watched Dave meet other visitors, I noticed that he never puts his arm around anyone and nobody puts their arm around him for the photo.  He quickly puts his hands in his pockets to remove that option.  So, don’t go up there thinking that you’ll be taking a photo with him with your arm around him and vice versa.  He’ll have his hands in his pockets.


Greeting Dave from the Debt Free Stage



My Finnish heritage on full display while regretting that I did not have a book for Ken to sign



Ken, Mark and Dave on the Debt Free Stage




What about the Debt Free Scream?

Just to clarify, what I did was NOT the Debt Free Scream that is featured on his show.  That is something that you need to apply for on the Ramsey Solutions website and you may or may not get selected.  However, I did get to see an official debt free scream while I was there.  This is where a person is interviewed during the live show – telling their story to Dave, answering questions, and then doing a 3, 2, 1 countdown before screaming, “I’m debt free!!”.  Raising my voice is not my specialty and the idea of screaming on air for millions of people didn’t appeal to me.  But who knows, maybe I’ll feel differently when I eventually pay off my house!

Seating area in front of the recording studio with a person getting ready to tell their story and deliver a "Debt Free Scream"




What the debt free scream looked like during the recorded show on YouTube 



Anything else that I should know?

That should cover it!  Just in case, here's the information you’ll receive after filling out the online form and confirming your visit:



  • Yes, Dave will be in the studio on March 7th!
  • Currently Ken Coleman will co-host The Ramsey Show with Dave


  • The Ken Coleman Show is live from 12:00pm - 1:00pm CST and The Ramsey Show is live from 1:00 - 4:00pm CST.
  • Ramsey Solutions headquarters is located at 1011 Reams Fleming Blvd., Franklin, TN 37064.
  • Our lobby has a large viewing area just outside the studio where you're welcome to sit and watch the shows.
  • You can come and go anytime during the show hours.  No need for "tickets" or reservations.  We just like to know you're coming so we can bake enough goodies!
  • Dave and Ramsey Personalities enjoy stepping out during some of the brief commercial breaks, so please feel free to bring a book or camera if you'd like an autograph or photo with them.
  • Ramsey Solutions Headquarters is Open Monday and Wednesday from 10:00am - 5:00pm and Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8:00am - 5:00pm.  You can visit any time during the day if your schedule doesn't line up with the hour for the live shows.
  • During The Ramsey Show, we film in the lobby, cafe, and bookstore.  By entering Ramsey Solutions Headquarters, you agree to be on camera and allow us to use your image.  Thanks!
  • You're welcome to take photos - we only ask that you don't use flash, since it interferes with filming for the video channel.
  • If your children are visiting with you, we ask that you keep them with you at all times.  It helps if you have some quiet toys or books since we have periods where folks in the lobby have to be quiet during live portions of the broadcast.
  • You are welcome to view our self-guided "Our Story" timeline wall that tells the history and progressions of The Ramsey Show.


Email if you have any additional questions.  We look forward to meeting you!

PLEASE NOTE: Dave and the Ramsey Personalities schedules is not guaranteed and is subject to change at the last minute.  Please feel free to call ahead a day or two before you come.




Was it worth the visit?

Absolutely!  It was a fun experience.  I’m definitely glad that I did it … and I just may be back when I eventually complete Baby Step 6. 


Happy travels!




Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 





Happy COVID Christmas Greetings from New Mexico!

December 25, 2020  •  Leave a Comment



Happy Holidays from New Mexico!   


2020 will no doubt be the year that everyone will remember as the time when my son Erik became taller than me.  Oh, and there was that COVID thing too.  I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to avoid Coronavirus so far, probably due to the fact that I’ve been aggressively pursuing a “social distancing” policy for 20+ years.  My parents and son are unscathed so far too and they are doing well.  My niece and nephew, on the other hand, both got COVID at the same time, while attending college in different states.  Thankfully, they recovered quickly, other than some lingering impact to their sense of smell and taste … but the impact was not enough to get them to try my infamous green vegetable smoothies during their visit for Thanksgiving.


Like many of you, I entered 2020 with big plans, including two international trips.  Instead, my most exciting trip of 2020 was a 35-minute drive to Southwest Gastroenterology Associates to experience my first colonoscopy.  They declined my request for a virtual visit.  The procedure itself was nothing compared to the “preparation” that started 18 hours earlier.  My intestines have seen some serious combat over the years with my travels to many far-flung places, but it’s not a fair fight when I’m asked to drink a “preparation formula” that I’ve heard accurately described as a collaboration between Ex-Lax and Taco Bell.  Let’s just say that by the time I arrived at the clinic for my procedure, I no longer cared what they planned to do to my body.  I was more concerned about what might happen to them, as I could tell from the unsettling gurgling in my intestines that there was more work to do, and I had front row seats for the past 18 hours to know what my body was capable of.  Fortunately, I opted for the “I don’t want to remember anything that happens during the procedure” option.  Not exactly “reason for the season” material to include in a Christmas card but, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  And when 2020 gives you a colonoscopy … well, there you have it. 


So, what did I do with my treasured “use it or lose it” vacation time that I accumulated in 2020?  I partied Marie Kondo-style by immersing myself in the art of tidying.  Rather than explore the mountains and lakes of Patagonia, I dumped everything I owned into one room and spent over 10 hours each day for a week holding up every possession I own, one at a time, and asking myself “Does this spark joy?”  Instead of soaking in hot springs in Iceland, I was holding up old souvenirs and mementos and asking myself “Does this reflect who I am becoming, not who was in the past?”  On the day I should’ve been enjoying the festive atmosphere of the Euros (soccer) in Copenhagen, I was re-folding my clothes and stacking them vertically in drawers (which I now really like!).  In the end, I thanked about half of my possessions for serving their purpose (including over 600 books!) and put them to work in the circular economy, wherever that might take them.


Let’s see, what other boring stories can I share.  Oh yes, I dug a big hole in my backyard!  Pretty exciting, I know.  I spent many hours with a pickaxe and shovel to install a pond to support the local wildlife who frequently stop by for a drink.  I’ve even made friends with a large number of deer that regularly pass through my yard, to the point where I can now sit outside near them, as close as 10 feet away, while they take advantage of the water and corn that I provide. 


As for my job (Program/Project Manager at Optum Healthcare … part of United HealthGroup), everything is going well.  I’m very fortunate to be in a role that was not impacted with COVID.  I was already working 100% from home prior to COVID, so nothing really changed for me … and I still love working from home.  The only significant change from a work perspective is that I gave up my side gig as a personal trainer and substitute yoga instructor.  While I miss the people that I worked with at the gym, I do enjoy the extra free time.  


The only other exciting news to report is that I’m now a COVID puppy statistic.  Yes, I joined the many people out there who decided to get a dog.  On December 5th, my son and I drove to SW Missouri to pick up the new addition to our family – a 4-month-old Irish Wolfhound named Rohan.  We pronounce it “Rowan” as it’s easier to say quickly when he’s chewing things that he shouldn’t be chewing, which is often.  I’m hoping to train him to become a therapy dog and take him to hospitals, hospice, and/or retirement communities, but the jury is out on that one.  We have a long way to go before he will be ready for something like that.  I have a sneaking suspicion that hospital patients will not be eager to have an animal the size of a small pony galloping around their room, gnawing on their arms, legs, and furniture, or tearing their clothes to shreds.  Rohan blissfully ignores all commands except for “sit” or “come”.  “Come” is particularly easy as Rohan is my shadow.  I don’t have to say anything.  I can’t go anywhere in my house without him following close behind.


As you can probably see from Rowan’s clown feet in the card photos, he’s on track to become a very large dog.  His father is around 220-230 lbs., so chances are high that he will become a gentle giant.  Apparently, Rohan didn’t get the memo about the “gentle” part yet.  However, he’s certainly on track for “giant” status – at 17 weeks of age, he is already 60 lbs., and growing fast.  Rohan will likely be taller than both Erik and me by the time he is fully grown, although Erik might give him a run for his money.  I’m 5 ft 9 and a half, which I liberally round up to 5 foot 10 whenever asked, and it looks like Erik is at risk of breaking the 6 ft barrier at some point in the not-too-distant future.


Speaking of Erik, he is doing well.  He is 15 years old and is just about done with his driving permit requirements … less than 7 weeks and he will be 16.  Gulp.  Erik is still into skateboarding, doing flips and other tricks on the trampoline, and pretending like he is paying attention during his Zoom classes for school (all of his classes have been via Zoom this year).  But whatever he’s doing, it’s working.  He is doing well at school this year.  He is also really into working out … he goes to the gym nearly every day, but he knows his stuff and avoids working out the same muscle groups on consecutive days.  In short, Erik will soon be taller than me, stronger than me, and he’ll be able to kick my butt.  I’ve penciled in a New Year’s resolution to be extra nice to him moving forward.  Luckily, that will be easy to do as he is a great kid.   


One of the positives of being stuck at home most of the time this year is that it gave me some additional free time to keep myself fit, get back into birding (from my backyard), and I’ve finally made some progress on guitar … I’m slowly pushing past the level I’ve been stuck at for the past 20 years. 


That’s all the news I have for this year!


Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all the best in the New Year.


Happy Trails!




Mark Aspelin is a freelance writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



Rohan the Irish Wolfhound - The Adventure Begins (Picking Up Our New Puppy)

December 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


It's hard to believe, but I'm now the owner of an Irish Wolfhound puppy.  The sale and adoption of dogs has spiked along with COVID, so I suppose that makes me a COVID puppy statistic.  In truth, my decision to get a dog pre-dates COVID.  After my last Irish Wolfhound (Séamus) passed away a few years ago, I told my son that I wouldn't consider getting another large dog until I had a job that enabled me to work full-time from home.  Now that I've been working full-time from home for nearly 18 months, and I'm not exactly doing much in the way of travel these days, I was out of excuses.  My son and I agreed that the timing was right to take the plunge.   


After reaching out to several breeders in early November, I purchased a dog from a breeder in Missouri.  I liked the look of the dog from the photos, liked what I heard from the breeder during our telephone conversation regarding the dog's health, temperament, and parents.  The breeder said the dog looks "moosy" and will likely be very large.  Fortunately, I have plenty of indoor and outdoor space and I'm comfortable with the idea of having an animal the size of a pony running around the house. 


Since I had family staying at my house for Thanksgiving, the breeder agreed that it would be ok for me to pick up the puppy when he was 15.5 weeks of age (his birthday is 8/18/20) as long as I paid in full in advance.  I agreed, wired the money to the breeder's account and it was a done deal.  I was to pick up the new member of the family on the morning of Saturday, December 5th, 2020.


Here is a photo of the dog that we were to pick up, when the puppy was 13 weeks old. 

Our puppy at 13 weeks of age - the earliest photo I have



The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 1 (December 3rd, 2020)

As soon as my son finished school on Thursday, December 3rd, we had a quick dinner, packed up the car, and hit the road from my home in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Our destination for the night was a hotel in Shamrock, Texas.  Why Shamrock?  My original plan was to spend our first night in Amarillo, TX, but I read that the COVID was spiking in Amarillo.  As a result, I thought it was worth the extra 90 minute drive to get to the Holiday Inn Express in the small town of Shamrock, which has a population just under 2,000 people.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us.  Whenever my son and I go on road trips, we behave badly when it comes to food, and this was no exception.  Our first rest stop was a Dairy Queen in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  The drive went by relatively quickly, and we spent about two of the hours listening to an audiobook about Irish Wolfhounds to prepare us for what lies ahead.  We made it to our hotel a little past 11:00pm, checked into our room, and finally went to sleep around midnight.



The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 2 (December 3rd, 2020)

The next morning we got up around 8:30am, got cleaned up and by the time we made it downstairs, we had just missed the 9:30am window for the complementary breakfast.  We decided to hit the road and see what we can find.  A short time later, we crossed the border into Oklahoma.  My son noticed a sign for a BBQ restaurant in Elk City, Oklahoma (he is a big fan of ribs... me, not so much). But I agreed, why not.  So we soon found ourselves at Billy Sims BBQ in Elk City.  The first thing that we noticed in climbing out of our car is that masks seemed to be optional.  This was quite a change from the vibe in New Mexico, where masks are mandatory these days.  We wore our masks into the restaurant, just in case, but it turned out that we were the only people in the restaurant since it was still early for lunch.  The woman at the front counter was super friendly... which seemed to be a trend in Oklahoma.  Everyone we met in Oklahoma seemed very friendly based on our limited experiences.  My son was impressed and thought that it was a big difference from New Mexico.  For me, I think people in New Mexico are very friendly compared to a lot of other places, but I had to agree that our experiences in Oklahoma were impressive. 


We ate the food in our car.  My son ordered a full slab of ribs... a bit overambitious, but he managed to eat about 2/3 of it.  I had some brisket, sausage, and beans... a far cry from my normal breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and a large vegetable smoothie.  The food turned out to be good, but not great.  Overall, we gave it a 6 out of 10.


An hour or two later, we decided to give Braum's Ice Cream a try... it appeared to be a very popular chain.  It was a hit.  My son really liked it - he said it is now his favorite ice cream, and the prices were very cheap.  It's safe to safe that this will not be our last Braum's stop on this trip.


Braum's ice Cream in Oklahoma was a hit


After a few more hours on the road, we arrived at our next destination - the Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri.  The Holiday Inn was quite a bit nicer than where we stayed the previous night, and we were very excited to learn that they had a fitness center... and it was actually open!  We checked into our room, and immediately went downstairs to workout... it was a nice facility and we were the only ones there.  The workout felt great after spending the day in the car.  

A much-needed workout at the hotel gym


After a good workout and a refreshing shower, we decided to get a takeout pizza from Old Chicago, which was right down the street.  I'm typically a healthy eater but, like I said earlier, it's anything goes during our road trips.  For some reason I thought Old Chicago was deep dish, which Erik had never tried before, but it ended up being like a "regular pizza".  Another 6 out of 10 meal in our book.


We watched the end of the movie Groundhog Day (a classic!) and then the Han Solo movie came up next.  Darn.  So much for an early bedtime.  We both enjoy Star Wars movies, so we stayed up until 11pm, despite an early wake up tomorrow, and realizing that this would likely be my last night of uninterrupted sleep for a very long time.  


The Big Day - December 5th, 2020

I told the breeder that we would arrive around 7:30am so we had an early morning.  I stumbled out of bed around 5:45am to get a shower.  We packed, went to the Waffle House down the street to get two waffles to go, and we were back on the road.  Our destination was the small town of Granby, Missouri (population is just over 2,000 people).  We found the breeder's farm relatively easily, thanks to Waze. 


This was the big moment.  It was time to meet our dog.


We were immediately greeted by four large Irish Wolfhounds.  One of the dogs was particularly huge.  That turned out to be the father of our dog.  The breeder called him "Fire" (he has bright orange eyes, but you can't tell from the photo) and the breeder said that he weighs about 220 - 230lbs.  I was surprised at the size - definitely that biggest Irish Wolfhound that I have ever met.  I thought my last Irish Wolfhound was large, and he weighed about 150lbs.  Here is a photo of the parents (below).  The picture doesn't do justice to the size of Fire.  The mother was smaller, but still substantial.  They were both a bit scruffy after playing outside in the mud.

Meeting the parents



We had fun talking with the breeder and meeting the adult dogs.  Then it was the moment of truth.  We saw our dog tied on a leash about 100 feet away, and we walked down to say hello.  He was a bit skittish, but that is understandable given the circumstances.  We said hello and hooked him up to our leash, but he had no interest in moving.  In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him to the car.  I put him down for a minute next to the car so that I could open the back, and he immediately took a big dump ... really big.  Needless to say, I was very grateful for that!  I picked him up again and put him in the large crate that I had set up in the back of my car.


Did you say 11-hour drive!?  First time in a car.



We signed some paperwork, shook hands, and we were off!  About 30 minutes down the road, we found a good spot to pull over to let our new dog out to give him a short walk and some water and to start to process of bonding.  He was definitely skittish and was not a fan of me picking him up to get him in and out of the car.  We ended up stopping frequently - every 1-2 hours (at least) to let the dog out.  And I'll confess that there were two more Braum's stops along the way home.  All in all, he was a great traveler, with no accidents in the car!  



The moments we cherished during our long drive home


Talking Rohan for a sunset walk somewhere in Texas


During our drive home, we settled on the name Rohan as it is a Celtic name meaning "little red one" (he has some red color in him) and "keeper of wolves."  Of course it is also a Lord of the Rings movie reference ("land of the horse lords") and Lord of the Rings happens to be one of my favorite movies.  So it was official.  Our dog's name is Rohan, but we pronounce it "Rowan" since it rolls off the tongue a bit easier that way. 


The first week at home was a busy one, but I'll save that for my next post.  Let's just say that Rohan has been my shadow ever since.  Here are three photos of Rohan on his first full day at his new home.


Exploring the upper deck for the first time


Rohan generally stayed about this close to me for the first few days



First night on his new bed




Mark Aspelin is a freelance writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



Thank you to Perceptive Travel Online Magazine!

December 02, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I am writing this post as a thank you to Perceptive Travel online magazine for featuring my article "Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave" in this month's edition (December 2019) of "Perceptive Travel: The best travel stories from authors on the move".


Here is a link to the Perceptive Travel article: https://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/1219/kenya.html and here is the article that was published:


Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave
Story and photos by Mark Aspelin


Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.


Kenya travel story

"Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?" - Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston


While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late '90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great—let's go!"


The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.


Kenya park guards

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.


The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.


Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.


After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.


It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery...and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.


And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.



First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Elgon National Park

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!


Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.


Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.


After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.


Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

author w flashlight


Hey, at least I had a flashlight.


The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.


After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.



The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. "Sounds interesting, what book is that?"

Kenya Kitum Cave

That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.


"What?!" I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.


I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before the trip?" I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.


Then things started to get even more interesting.



The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't put my mind at ease.


I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That's it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.


He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.


Kenya-Uganda border

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn't.


I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.


In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents' house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.


Thankfully, I'm happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.



Mark Aspelin is a travel writer, author of two books (Profitable Conservation and How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation) and the blog New Mexico and Beyond. He has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.





What is the best short hike in Albuquerque? Tree Spring Trail

June 24, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

As an avid hiker who has lived in the Albuquerque metro area for the past 15+ years, visitors frequently ask me the question, "what is the best hike in Albuquerque?"  My answer: If you're looking for a longer, strenuous hike, then La Luz is the best trail in Albuquerque; if you're looking for a shorter hike with nice views, then my personal favorite is Tree Spring Trail. 


The "La Luz" answer doesn't come as a surprise to most people.  It's a classic, well known 7.5 mile trail (one-way), that climbs 3,200 feet from the trailhead to the upper terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram.  You can learn more about La Luz at the following link: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cibola/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=64582&actid=50.  


There's even an annual La Luz Trail Run.  I've done the race several times and I highly recommend it if you don't mind some pain and suffering as you climb more than 4,000 feet over a nine mile course to the top of Sandia Peak.  It's longer than the normal hike as the race starts lower down on a road to help spread people out before they hit the actual trail.  If racing to the top of Sandia Peak sounds appealing to you, you're not alone.  The race sells out every year and you'll need to enter a lottery to get one of the coveted 400 slots that are permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. 


But let's get back to the topic of this post: Tree Spring Trail.  Tree Spring Trail is located in the "East Mountains of Albuquerque."  In other words, if you're in the city of Albuquerque, then you'll need to take I-40 East and drive to the other side of Sandia Peak.  It's about a 30-minute drive to the Tree Spring trailhead from downtown Albuquerque, but it's well worth it.     


Here are directions to the Tree Spring Trailhead:

  • Take I-40 East from Albuquerque and get off on Exit 175 toward Cedar Crest / N-14.
  • Take NM-14 North for about 6.5 miles to NM 536 (aka the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway).  You'll also see a Shell gas station on your right as you approach NM 536, as well as the Lazy Lizard Grill ... a good place to stop after your hike for pizza, beer, and other food (and Live Music if you time it right) to help ensure that you'll end up gaining weight despite going on a hike. 
  • I should also note that if you need to use your phone for any reason, do it here.  Phone service is very spotty once you get to the trailhead.
  • Take a left on NM 536 and follow it for 5.5 miles until you see the Tree Spring parking lot on your left side. 


Your view as you approach the parking area will look something like this:

You'll either need to pay $3 per vehicle or $10 for a high capacity vehicle (15 or more passengers).  Bring exact change as you'll be putting the money in an envelope and dropping it in a narrow slot.  Too many coins will make the envelope too thick to fit in the slot, so try to remember to bring some dollar bills.  It's a self-service pay station so there's nobody there to give you change or charge your credit card.



For the detail-oriented readers out there, you may notice that the trailhead sign calls the trail "Tree Springs Trail", while the USDA Forest Service website calls it "Tree Spring Trail".  Feel free to use whatever option sounds better to you.  I usually hear it referred to as Tree Spring Trail, without the "s".  


You can also use an annual pass if you happen to have one of the following approved passes:


...and you'll also find some picnic tables and a toilet near the parking area.


Now it's time to hit the trail.


As you can see from the signs below, Tree Spring is a multi-use trail and dogs are welcome if they're on a leash. Keep in mind that your dog will likely encounter quite a few other dogs during your hike so be prepared.  In addition to dogs, I've seen quite a few mountain bikers, two crazy unicyclists, horses, and several alpacas in the 25+ times that I've hiked Tree Spring.  In the winter, you may find some people snowshoeing. Yes, snow is common in the colder months since the trailhead is at 8,470 feet and the top of the trail is at 9,440 feet.  This side of Sandia Peak has much more shade and it's about 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the west side of the mountain, which feels nice in the summer.  




The shade and moisture means that you'll also find different flora and fauna on the east side of the mountain, such as ponderosa pine (pictured below).


The trail is well-marked and easy to follow in the summer, as you can see below.


However, if you're hiking in the winter or spring, you may find quite a few downed trees that are blocking the trail.  You should be able to walk around or over the tree and pick up the trail again without much of a problem. Here is an example of a downed tree (a relatively small one) that is blocking the trail.


If you're hiking in the winter, snow may be completely covering the trail and you can quickly get off the trail without realizing it.  To help keep you on track, many of the trees are tagged with a blue spot, but it can still get confusing at times, particularly after a fresh snowfall that covers up previous tracks.


As you climb up the trail, you'll be rewarded with nice views to the east, such as the picture below.


You'll also come across two signs indicating trails that run perpendicular to Tree Spring.  In both cases, just keep going straight.  The first sign that you'll see is for the Oso Corridor Trail (pictured below).  You'll keep going straight over the rocky section of the trail in the photo below.


The second sign that you'll see is towards the very top of the trail - for 10K Trail.  Just keep going straight through the opening between the two fence posts ... otherwise you'll miss the best part!


The trail is narrower now and it can be muddy due to melting snow.


Finally, just 2.0 miles from the trailhead, you'll suddenly find yourself on top of a saddle of Sandia Peak, with fantastic views of Albuquerque to the west.  It's often very windy at the overlook, so you'll literally want to hold on to your hat!  


Here are the views from the top - a great place to snap some family photos such as the one below from a recent "Father's Day hike" with my father, brother, son, niece, and nephew (a crew ranging from 14 - 77 years old).  



After you've had a chance to enjoy the view, then you'll simply descend 2.0 miles back down the same way you came up.  It usually takes people around 45 - 90 minutes to climb up and 30 - 60 minutes to descend, depending on your fitness level and how many breaks you take.  So you can expect to finish the hike in 1.5 - 2.5 hours round trip, including some time to enjoy the views at the top.  If you're really going for it, you can do the hike much faster.  My fastest time (back in my trail running days) was 31:42 up and 20:34 down for a total round trip of 52:16, and many people can do it much faster than that.  But I recommend taking your time to enjoy the trail - it's a great hike ... my favorite short hike in Albuquerque!


Thanks for reading and happy trails!




Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



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