The Streets of New Orleans

You first enter New Orleans a little tone deaf and flat-footed, tripping over the broken, heat-stressed sidewalks and the frenetic pace of Bourbon Street. Maybe there’s a Hurricane in your belly. You feel like simmering gumbo, stirred together with so many strange people—your flavors and stenches mixing, mingling with the notes of a distant band. A young woman melts into the sidewalk, a puddle of booze, pouring through the fingers of some boyfriend who has no idea how to collect her again out of the tumbling trash full of plastic cups and beads and food wrappers. You may wonder what appeals to people in that neon stew.

Don’t worry. Bourbon is just one street in New Orleans. Each has its own tempo, one suited for college kids on spring break and another for people like me—a middle-aged woman celebrating her 40th birthday. And the incredible thing is, no matter what happens the night before, the evidence is swept away before daybreak. Trash packed. Streets cleaned. Friends found. Swish, sweep, done. In the morning, you get a second chance to fall in love with the city and how everything from its food to its music is designed to be a celebration.

Spend some time wandering around on foot, and you’ll find the right street for you. Live jazz saunters out of Frenchman in the evenings, if that’s your thing. On the weekends, newlyweds may parade around Royal under parasols, followed by a trumpeting brass band. Decatur offers beignets, and they’re easy to find-just follow the trail of powered sugar down the sidewalk to Cafe Du Monde. A friendly ghost may join you on Chartres if you stop by Muriel’s for a cocktail. One of my favorite things was sitting outside at Muriel’s, leaning over the wrought-iron balcony with a Honey Child, watching the crowds at Jackson Square (the ghost never made an appearance).

By the time you leave New Orleans, the city will feel less like gumbo and more like a warm piece of bread pudding, dripping with whiskey sugar glaze, sweet and satisfying. You’ll be ten pounds heavier. You’ll develop a certain fondness for bartenders who call you “baby” and the Uber drivers who share their life stories during lazy trips in and out of the French Quarter. It’s hard not to fall in love with a place like that.

Jazz Band on Royal Street
Early evening on Bourbon Street
Random Couple that wandered into my frame
Beads from parades past dangle from trees
Another random passerby who added a little color to my shot
Lafayette Cemetery


Another way to get around the city
Food Staring at Me
My food is staring at me!
Bread pudding and shoe-fly pie
Newlyweds march through the French Quarter
Brass Band
Muriel’s on Jackson Square
Nikon at Muriels
Enjoying a Honey Child at Muriel’s
Jackson Square
Artist on Jackson Square

Capturing Iceland

This is my Iceland Writers Retreat writing competition submission. While I didn’t win this year, I was one of the finalists. I’m including the photos I took during the 2014 layover that inspired this piece.

The rules:
Iceland – Regard the Moon! Many authors have drawn parallels between Iceland and the moon. Write a max 500-word essay, story or poem on this theme.

Capturing Iceland

Stop One.
I’m completely alone. While evidence of human life surrounds me in the form of a lighthouse, a shipwreck, and a church of carved stone, I haven’t actually seen anyone in miles. The wind sandblasts my face raw as I step away from my rental car, and I wish for a scarf or a thicker jacket than what I’ve chosen to wear during my layover in Iceland. But this is okay. I’m on an exploratory mission, and thoughts of what I might find eclipse the desire for warmer outerwear.

Pictures are what I’m after. As a travel photographer, sitting in Keflavik International Airport and waiting six long hours for the next flight to Seattle isn’t an option. I never reject an opportunity to experience new places, and this layover affords me just enough time to circle the Reykjanes Peninsula with my camera. So I challenge the April winds, pushing ahead for the sake of art. A few clicks of the shutter later and I’m off again with a piece of Iceland safe in my memory card.

_DSC8500_DSC8478_DSC8489Stop Two.
A strip of faded asphalt cuts through a lunar plain. Down that road, the Eurasian and North American plates diverge in a tectonic rift. On a footbridge that crosses between the two sides, tourists have fastened padlocks to the chain links of the handrails. The love locks are red, purple, and gold—inscribed with names like Katja and Eros, couples who hope to stay together, even as the continents slowly drift apart. I raise my camera. Click._DSC8508-Recovered_DSC8526_DSC8522_DSC8519
Stop Three.
Beneath my feet, subterranean sea waters encounter cooling magma, and steam curls skyward from the earth’s crust—a thousand souls rising from sulfurous graves. A part of me thinks I should be afraid. This mysterious land could open up and cast me into its molten core. But, the explorer in me sees the beauty in it, recognizes her own insignificance and feels nothing but awe. Click._DSC8599
Stop Four.
I follow a sign that points to the Blue Lagoon. It’s a rapturous blue heart in the middle of a lava field in which—ah-ha!—every Reykjanes visitor has congregated! I want to stay, commune with fellow travelers. Dozens of heads bob up and down in the geothermal spa, and I envy them their cotton bathrobes and more time than myself. But, the layover hours have ticked away, and I must return to Keflavik. I aim my lens at the lagoon before departing. Click._DSC8543_DSC8551_DSC8545
Stop Five.
Reluctantly, I surrender my keys to the rental car company and pack up my camera. As I do, a thought strikes me—I have captured nothing. Iceland, in all of her tumultuous splendor, has captured me instead! How can I leave when there’s still so much left to see, things that don’t fit on a square inch of digital memory? As I head towards my gate, face thawing and hair a tangled mane, I’m already planning a solo mission to explore the rest.

American Refugee: 5 Reasons to Visit Inishturk, Ireland

Last summer I read an article about a tiny Irish island that would welcome American refugees if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. It was a joke, of course, probably meant to drum up some tourism.

During every election season stretching as far back as I can remember, Americans threaten to leave the country if their candidate loses. And on the Wednesday morning following every election night, those same people get ready for work and carry on as usual. However, this being an especially contentious election, I thought some voters might finally make good on those threats. Would that tiny Irish island be a good place for American “refugees”? I thought it might be prudent to check it out and report back. (Or, more truthfully, I was just looking for another excuse to return to Ireland…)

Anyway, two weeks after reading the article I was standing on Roonagh Pier, waiting to catch a passenger-only ferry to Inishturk, an island 14 km off the coast of County Mayo. The wind whipped my hair as I listened to stories about a storm that had blown through two days earlier. The ferry operators warned that the waters were still a little choppy, so we should all be careful and hold on. I have never been seasick but worried about the hour-long journey nonetheless.

Loading supplies

A dozen passengers and a few crew members boarded the ferry. Some stayed inside the cabin. I chose to stand on deck and keep my eyes on the horizon. The waves were a little rough at first, but by the time we arrived on Inishturk, the waters were much smoother.

And you know what? I’m glad (kind of, not really) Donald Trump ran for President because if not, I’d have never heard of Inishturk! I don’t know that I’d ever live there (it’s very remote), but I’d definitely go back for a week just to disconnect from all the daily noise that can make life so exhausting sometimes.

If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, whether to escape politics or just for fun, there are several great reasons to choose Inishturk island.

Reason 1: Peace and Quiet
Approximately 58 residents live on Inishturk. You could probably meet each one in an afternoon on your 5 km walk around the island. And forget theaters, fancy eateries, and shopping centers. There is a beautiful community center that functions as a restaurant, pub, and library and there are only a few B&B’s from which to choose.  It’s the simple life at its best. Writers, photographers, and artists will love a visit.



_DSC8905Reason 2: The People
I stayed at Tranaun Beach House, strategically located next to the community center/restaurant/pub. It’s a bit of a hike from the pier, so my host, Phylomena Heaney, drove down to pick me up.

The aroma of freshly baked bread greeted me at the front door of the B&B. Phylomena ushered me into the dining room, serving me tea and scones as I enjoyed a view of the Ireland’s west coast. She was so hospitable and kind – like everyone else I met during my stay. Islanders and other tourists simply wanted to stop and chat, and even though I’d traveled there alone, I never once felt lonely.

_DSC8890Reason 3: Sheep!
I met Farmer Heaney (Phylomena’s brother-in-law, I believe) on my walk around the island. He’d herded his sheep into a pen because some of them needed a fresh coat of paint. Farmers spray paint sheep with their mark as a means of identification. I’d never seen this done before, so he let me observe and take some pictures.



Reason 4: The Scenery
Fresh air and a decent view. I couldn’t ask for much more…


_DSC8938Reason 5: Hiking
As I’ve mentioned, it’s a 5 km walk around the island. The first part is all uphill from the pier, and it’s a great workout after spending so much time in airplanes, rental cars, and ferries to get there.

During my hike, I witnessed the islanders setting up for a festival that would expand their population from 58 to 150 over the weekend. I was tempted to stay on for that, but, as you can imagine, all of the B&B’s were booked and tents filled.




BONUS Reason:  On my way back to the mainland the next morning, several dolphins swam towards the ferry! They stayed alongside us for a few moments before diving below the surface and disappearing. Even the seasoned ferry captain was excited to see them!

Some tips before you go:

  • Ask your hosts if they need anything from the mainland. It’s expensive and time-consuming to go off-island. They’ll appreciate the offer.
  • Bring your Wellies! This goes for Ireland in general, but it’s especially helpful here. Your hike around the island will take you off road and through some soggy hillsides. Totally worth it for the view, though!

Slainte! And don’t forget to vote!!

Sand Dune Sunset

_DSC9838Death Valley, California

After looking at routes out of Las Vegas back to Washington State, I decided to drive through Death Valley. I’d never been there before, and I wanted to visit – very briefly – the hottest place on earth.

Stepping out of my car to take pictures was like stepping into a furnace. Even at 7 p.m., the temperature gauge in my car reported 115 degrees! That’s just a little too hot for my Pacific Northwest blood!

Even so, it was worth seeing. This picture belies the deadly heat that oppresses the valley, and shows how beauty and life can still exist in the most inhospitable places.

The Melissani Cave

Argostoli Underground Lake

I wanted to like Melissani Cave, located on the Greek island of Kefalonia. The  Costa Cruise excursion brochure said that our guide would lead a select few down a tunnel and into a subterranean world, where a wooden boat would be waiting on the shore of an underground lake. It sounded like some secret adventure far away from the majority of Costa’s passengers, and it was paired with a winery tour, so I booked it.

One of the cons of taking a cruise is that you are at the mercy of the cruise line’s schedule. You can’t beat the crowds at your destination by avoiding peak hours. There’s no hope of capturing the coveted morning or sunset light (which is a big deal for photographers). You explore when you’re in port, and there are only a few hours to do it. Still, I hoped for a good photo opportunity.

An hour after disembarking from the ship in Argostoli, my bus kicked up gravel in the Melissani Cave parking lot. A line of other tourists, maybe 100 deep, already snaked around souvenir shops.


The Costa Cruise tour guide gave each of its passengers a playing card. This was our admission ticket into the cave. So I grabbed my card and got in line, inching forward under the hot Kefalonia sun as sweat trickled down my neck and back.

Eventually, I made it to the entrance of a dark tunnel, and at the end of it was the proverbial light. Standing on tip-toe, I caught a glimpse of the underground lake over the shoulders of other tourists. Its teal blue waters reflected light from a hole in the cave’s partially collapsed ceiling (done in by a 1953 earthquake).

I arrived at the dock, immediately  overtaken by the unobstructed view, but there was no time for pictures. An singing oarsman took my hand and hurried me aboard along with 10 others. Soon, we’d be rowing over those clear waters and on our way to stalactites and hidden caverns. Great! Lots of photo opportunities! That sense of mystery and excitement returned for a moment…

And only a moment.

Smashed against the oarlock, each rotation of the paddle hit me in the head. Not that I had to endure if for long. The whole boat ride was over 10 minutes – if I’m being generous. It wasn’t enough time to enjoy the cave or even really document it on camera. The oarsman passed around a tip bucket and shooed us away and back up the dark tunnel to buy souvenirs.

I’m not sure it was worth the hour drive from Argostoli.

If I were to return to Kefalonia, it wouldn’t be on a cruise line. And I wouldn’t waste time at tourist traps in the middle of the afternoon. I’d fly in and rent a car. From ancient city walls, fortresses, monasteries, and wineries, there seems to be plenty to do on that island if a traveler has the time to enjoy it. Seems like it’s worth a second chance (especially if a trip to Robola vineyards is included).

A winery tour of Robola vineyards helped ease my disappointment



The Power of Two


This is how it all ends, I think, doubled over and gasping for air on a sand dune in Southern Colorado, almost 9,000 feet above sea level. Although the altitude didn’t warrant Everest-sized fears, I knew that a wet cough would soon plague me, followed by frothy sputum and respiratory failure. My brother, Anthony, would drag my dead body back to the car, and it would be boxed and flown home to Seattle in cargo hold.

I’d had a good run, but I wasn’t ready for death yet – or more realistically – the pain of continuing on. Throwing off my backpack, I plop down and tell Anthony I’m not going any further.

“But look,” he says, motioning towards High Dune, still 400 feet up. It might as well have been 4,000. “You’re so close to our goal. Do you really want to turn back now?”

I glance up at the wave of sand, tracing the curve to new heights I no longer cared to reach. “Yup. I quit.”

“It’s just the altitude. Take your time, catch your breath, and let’s keep going. You’re halfway there. Summon that inner firefighter.”

“I haven’t been a firefighter in four years. I’m out of shape. I can’t do this.”

Anthony walks a few steps ahead in silence, camera in hand, and I urge him to go on without me. I’ll wait. The sand is warm in the late afternoon sun, inviting me to nap until the burning in my lungs subsides and the wind cools my forehead. I’m inclined to accept, but he won’t allow it.

After a few minutes my heart rate slows, and the hot, pounding migraine I’ve been experiencing fades into a tolerable pulse, so I stand up and trudge forward. Fifty yards later, I fling myself onto the sand again. “I can’t go on!”

“You’re a Hanson. Yes, you can.”

“I’m not you. I don’t climb all the 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado on the weekends.”

Anthony glides over the terrain like an agile Sherpa, a natural mountaineer whose effortless pace I can never hope to match, and summits the first small dune we’ve been ascending for the past hour. He calls down to me, “Come on!”

A couple in their early 50’s, tan and serene, is sitting a few yards away, holding hands and gazing over the Great Sand Dunes vista below. I am holding my new Nikon and think of capturing the view from right there, but it isn’t really the shot I want. The real view is at the top and I need it for my portfolio, but continuing seems impossible. I’d cry, except I’m sure that would just make my headache worse.

“The peak of High Dune is right there. IT’S. RIGHT. THERE. You can do this, Jolene.”

The woman looks over at me and says, “You can’t come all the way up here with a camera like that and not go to the top. Keep climbing.”

She’s right. My camera, which I’ve dubbed “Fancy” after the Iggy Azalea song (to my shock and dismay, “Nat Geo” did not stick), was purchased specifically for travel photography, and I would never be content to know that my little brother beat me to the top and was capturing my shot. I’d have to make it or die trying. So I power on, taking ten slow steps at a time. Ten steps, break. Ten steps, break.

And then, something unexpected happens. Within feet of the summit of High Dune, the ache in my lungs, legs, and head begins to disappear. I run. Passing Anthony, I think about cartwheeling across the peak, except the running makes me lightheaded.

“See, I knew you could do it!” he yells after me.

I spin around, the 360 degree view transporting me to other worlds, and I feel like I could just as easily be somewhere like Morocco. With each actuation of my camera shutter, I forget about the struggles of the past hour and a half. I’m an explorer again. A traveler. A photographer. Not some defeated middle-aged woman crawling, half dead up a mountain.

Later, as we begin our descent, the couple in their early 50’s passes us. The woman says to me, “If you can do it, I can do it. Thanks for the motivation.”

Sliding down the dunes, shoes filling with sand, I think about how important it is to surround ourselves with people who believe in us, people who push us beyond our perceived limitations, people who won’t allow us to give up. I would have given up had it not been for Anthony. I have always carried a lot of pride in my individuality, the strength in the word ONE. But, I have to concede that there are some things only accomplished by the power of two.

Thank you, Anthony.



Gasping for Air
Gasping for Air


My brother and I at the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
My brother and I at the Great Sand Dunes, Colorado





Why I Travel


If you look at the earth from 37,000 feet, you’ll see rivers. You’ll see the scars left by those that dried up, snaking through the deserts. Farmland will be divided into little squares by red gravel roads, and you’ll see the hovering cumulous cast shadows on fields. There will be glowing patches of city lights, ink blots that are lakes, and the white, serrated edges of mountains. From the stratosphere, it all makes sense. The world is orderly. Quiet. Beautiful. You can’t see the cars littering the highways or the emails cluttering an inbox, and you can’t hear the neighbors fighting or the kids crying, and you can’t feel the shame and disappointments gripping your throat and the fear that you’ll never realize your dreams or find love or ever crawl out from under your pile of debts.

At 37,000 feet, you can breathe. You can enjoy the reprieve, the short moratorium you’ve declared on your responsibilities and open up your mind to the possibility that your life can still mean more than the mistakes you’re trying to fix.

Photo Credit: Sidney Gomez
Photo Credit: Sidney Gomez

See the world through an airplane window.