The Red, The White, And The Bulls

Written by Brian Heller

 

My ideal 4th of July is not cramming in 6 hours of work, then driving for a few hours to JFK to catch a 9 hour red eye. But this wasn’t your standard 4th of July weekend. After years and years of wanting and wishing, I was finally heading to the small town of Pamplona in Northern Spain for San Fermin- the running of the bulls (encierro). The opportunity finally presented itself. And when it did, I made sure I wouldn’t miss it!

There were 8 of us traveling from near and far, meeting in Barcelona before catching our short flight to Pamplona. Once we arrived and made it to our apartment, it was obvious we were going to be right in the middle of all the action! The streets were flooded with patrons wearing the traditional white and red. If you were wearing anything but, you looked completely out of place. That was us. So, first thing on the agenda- buy a set of clothes that we would be living in for the next few days.

Once situated and decked out in the festive attire, it was time to hit the streets and see what San Fermin was all about. Tapas and cervezesas were on the menu, and the menu did not disappoint! We stuffed our faces with croquettes de jamon, sliders, and octopus, while washing them down with Estrellas and San Miguels. I thought I would definitely be affected by the lack of sleep, but the city was alive and the energy that was flooding the streets had a way of bringing me back.  I didn’t think the first night was going to be that crazy. I thought it was all about getting ready for El Chupinazo. I was wrong. It was mayhem, it was a party, it was just the beginning of a wild and crazy weekend!

As crazy as the first night was, July 6th is when it all really begins. Each year at 12 pm San Fermin officially begins, and you better be ready to get wet. Not wet by water, but drenched in sangria, wine, beer, and any other alcoholic beverage the festival goers are drinking. Its literally a living sea of white and red, crammed in to the city square and surrounding side streets screaming and chanting “Viva San Fermin”, tossing all drinks in the air. Giant balls and floats are dropped from the balconies where people hang out to get a better glimpse of all the action. Whistles, confetti, flags, and the red bandanas in the air, and then 12 pm strikes, the rocket shoots off, and the people erupt! El Chupinazo- let the party begin!

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The opening ceremony was nuts! If you don’t like crowds or if you are even slightly claustrophobic, you won’t  survive. Luckily our crew all embraced the madness and had an epic time! After a quick bite to eat and a couple of beers, we decided to walk the half mile course where we would be running with the bulls. Thats when it all started to hit me. This was actually happening.. I was here to do something I had wanted to do for the past decade. The streets were narrow and all cobblestone. The wooden barricades were up. I was looking for any exit point along the route in case something went wrong. The nerves started to set in. I needed another beer! Another beer turned in to 10. Casually walking down the  streets turned in to dancing with thousands of people  at a concert. As the day went on, it just got better and better! The hours tend to fly by when you’re having that much fun. Before I knew it, it was 2 am. We had to be up in a couple of hours to make sure we were inside the barriers before 730. It was time to head back and get a couple of hours of sleep.

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You would think that having your apartment right in the middle of town would be all positives. Well for me that was inaccurate. As I started to get ready for bed, it was clear the people outside were not going to slow down. The music kept blasting, the cars kept honking, and the paramedics drove by on an hourly basis. With all the commotion and with my mind racing a million miles an hour, sleep was out of the equation. Around 530 people started to wake up. The anticipation had taken over everyone. To make all of ours morning a little more stressful, the sky suddenly opened up. We sat and watched a gnarly storm roll through. All I thought was damn… theres nothing like running down a wet cobblestone road being chased by 1500 lb bulls dodging in and out of other people. But those thoughts lasted about 90 seconds. As soon as I started to throw on the white gear and red bandana, I knew it was game time. It was like a switch flipped. I was no longer tired and I was no longer doubting the run.

OK- so I wasn’t doubting the run while still in the apartment. But once we were inside the fenced off street, the anxiety went to a whole new level. The tension was in the air. You look around and all you see is 1000’s of people who have come out to see this world famous tradition. The balconies were full, people were perched on top of the fences,  and  climbing the light posts. This was something special, and was clear it means something to the people of Spain. With everything going on around me,  all I was thinking about was the locals telling us we were complete idiots and dumb Americans for running. Then you see people praying. F*ck what did we get ourselves in to!!It didn’t matter because  we were in and there was no turning back. The next 20 mins were the longest 20 mins I can remember.But as the time got closer to 8 am, the cheers and chants started. the energy picked up. It got loud, real loud, and then the canon. RUN!

We started the run about half way through the course. Within an instance I was separated from my friends. At this point it was every man for themselves and there was no looking back. I couldn’t believe that within 15 seconds the screams and people scurrying were creeping up on me. The bulls were close! I bobbed and weaved in and out of people and made my way out of the middle of the street. As the toros went flying by  I kept a close eye on my rear to make sure there were no stragglers.  When I made my way into the stadium it was pure chaos! the stands were completely full with people cheering us on. The runners were all congratulating one and other. Nothing but hugs, high fives and smiles. I needed to find my crew.

Finding your friends in the middle of that many people is not easy. I was moving around pretty quickly looking for a familiar face. Then all of a sudden people started running in all directions. A bull was in the arena! HOW DID NO ONE EVER MENTION THIS TO ME?!!! I went from grinning ear to ear, to running for my life. The stress was through the roof. The anxiety was at an all-time high. I wasn’t in a good place. After about 5 minutes the bull was taken out of the arena. At that point I was practically running through people to find my friends. Finally I found 3 of them. We all had the same response- stoked to see one another and also questioning what the hell was happening inside the ring. I wasn’t with them more than a minute, and another bull was on the loose. I was gone! running from side to side staying as far away as I could. I found the guys again and we decided we needed to get out of this situation.

After getting out, I was made aware that the bulls that were released inside were different bulls than the ones we ran with. These bulls had their horns capped, which made getting gored nothing to worry about. But people were still getting smoked. Regardless it didn’t matter to me. I was just glad to be out and even more glad to be reunited with the rest of our group. Beers please! Lots of beers!

Spain knows how to party, and San Fermin is the cream of the crop. The city doesn’t sleep for the entire 9 days of the festival, unless you count the people passed out in the streets. After the run, my nerves had calmed, and my mind was at ease. It was now time to enjoy the remaining time with some great friends and make the most of the limited time we had left together. It came quick, and it flew by. It was one of the most epic weekends I’ve had, and I will end by saying this- Ill see you again Pamplona!

 

                   **** Has anyone been to Pamplona for San Fermin? Im curious to know your opinions on the running with the bulls. Im personally ok with the running. But I do no agree with what goes on in the arena after. Let me know what you think!

Iceland and why I keep going back

Written by Brian Heller

 

Photos by Dan Fish

 

Golden hour outside of Vik

 

5 trips in 26 months; and I keep finding myself wanting to go back for more! That’s what Iceland has done to me. Its hard to describe the feeling I get while visiting this country, which I have come to not just love, but admire for so many reasons. I have always struggled in frigid temps. Because my body had a hard time adapting to the cold, I grew up dreading the New England winters. The days are short and you can go a week without seeing a trace of the sun. Because of this, any trip I had ever taken was to a warm weather destination. So when I made the decision to venture to the arctic for the first time, I was truly stepping out of my comfort zone. Instead of packing board shorts, tanks, and flips, I was packing thermals, winter coats, and heavy duty boots for an August trip to the land of fire and ice.

 

The trip that changed it all

 I remember stepping out of the airport for the first time and going to get my rental. The winds were fierce and the freezing rain felt like daggers to the face. That and being 430 am local time, I asked myself right away, why the hell did I decide to come to a place like this?! It didn’t take long before the sun started to rise, the clouds started to break, and the light was peaking thru in all directions. Between the multiple rainbows and the beautiful rugged landscapes, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the road.  Within the first 3 hours in the country, I had experienced rain, hail, hurricane-like winds, and one of the most amazing sunrises. That is all it took- I was hooked!

The first trip was life changing! I had a whole new appreciation for cold temps, and remote destinations. I know Iceland has blown up over the past few years. So you might ask, how is this a remote destination? Anyone who has visited, knows that most tourists spend a majority of their time on the south coast, or on the golden circle. Tour buses cruise up and down ring road making the stops at all the iconic, Instagram worthy locations. But as soon as you get away from those areas, you could be in complete solitude. So much of the country is bypassed because it actually takes a little bit of work and physical endurance to reach. And its not even like they are areas that would be considered “hidden gems”. Skogafoss is a perfect example. Everyone that passes down Route 1 will stop in the town of Skogar to see this powerful waterfall. Some will walk right up and get soaked from the mist. Some will climb the 370 stairs to the top. But thats where 99.9% of people stop. If you followed the river in to the highlands, you would run in to another 20+ waterfalls, and they are all worth seeing! Also in the town of Skogar is Kvernufoss. Tucked away in a small canyon east of Skogafoss, this waterfall is totally worth the 5 minute hike and theres a great chance you could have it all to yourself! 

Cruising through Iceland in just my Honda CRV, with no plans and no reservations, gave me the flexibility to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I camped when I felt like spending a night under the stars, and I rented a room in an Airbnb when I knew I would want to wake up and take a warm shower. (No, I didn’t shower every day) Camping is a true treasure of this island. Being able to set up your home for a night, at the base of Skogafoss, and waking up to the power of the water crushing from the 60 meter drop is a backpackers dream! A couple of other great spots to pitch a tent are Pakgil, Skaftafell, Hofn, and Asbyrgi.

 

Best.Day.Ever.

DC plane wreck- photo by Dan Fish

Kirkjufell- photo by Dan Fish

 

 

 

 

After a week of exploring this country by myself, I knew I had to come back with a few friends so they could experience everything that I had. But instead of waiting for the warmer, longer days, we decided to take our chances in February. This decision led to one of the best days, and best weeks of my life!

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the northern lights is something you’ll never forget- especially for the first time! My first encounter was just an all out epic day! We left Reykjavik at 2:30 am and headed southeast to the site of the US DC plane crash on Solheimassandur beach. With no real road, and a lot of snow and ice, it was an event just getting to the plane. We followed super jeep tire tracks and after about 10-15 mins of driving we finally reached it. My buddies and I spent a solid hour having some fun and just checking out the plane. Then we looked up and out of nowhere the aurora was dancing thru the dark sky. There was a lot of screaming and shouting of pure joy. The feeling was indescribable and it gave us all a huge high moving forward to crush the day. We ended up hitting site after site on the southwestern part of Ring Road, before ending up on the Snaefellsnes peninsula for sunset. Mount Kirkjufell is the most iconic mountain in Iceland, and if you’re able to catch a killer sunrise or sunset there, you’ve really lucked out. Not only did we catch a great sunset, but 40 minutes later, the northern lights came back out, lighting up the sky and Kirkjufell. Twice in the same day we were blessed with one of natures most amazing sites, and I know its a day the three of us will never forget!

 

 

Summer vs Winter

Fjadrarglijufur winter- photo by Dan Fish

 

 

Fjadrarglijufur summer- photo by Dan Fish

If you’ve visited Iceland once, and loved it, go back 6-8 months later. Its amazing how different the country is summer vs winter. The winter is harsh, with the mountain tops dusted with fresh snow and endless amounts of  frozen waterfalls. The days are short and you have the chance to see the northern lights. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can check out the ice caves, or snow mobile across a glacier. As the days start to get longer, the snow starts to melt, the spring flowers start to bloom, the arctic lupins sprout up everywhere, and the mountains turn green. Once June hits, you have 20+ hours of daylight, giving you a lot of time to explore parts of the country that are only accessible during the summer months. You can do the Fimmvorduhals trail, which takes you from Skogar up in to the highlands, finally reaching Thorsmork. Along the way, you are treated to amazing, and breathtaking landscapes with numerous waterfalls, a volcano eruption site, hiking between two glaciers, and finally ending in Godaland (land of the Gods) This hike is about 15 miles but is totally doable with a little bit of planning and preparation. Your main concern is getting back from Thorsmork to the town of Skogar. You can take a bus or hitchhike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, visiting this country with people who are going for the first time is an experience in its own. Seeing peoples faces, and the joy that comes over them as they witness the places that I love is priceless. And the great thing about a country like Iceland, is that each time you go, the conditions will always be different, giving you a different perspective and a new experience. It could be the never-ending days of summer, where you see the sun set at 11pm, and rise at 1 am.  Or the short, short days of winter. When the light, even though its brief, is magnificent all day. And again, the weather. If you visit Iceland, you better be able to embrace it all!

 

Reykjavik

The capital city, which is home to 200,000 people, has a little something for everyone. You’ll have no problem spending a day exploring the city and checking out all of the bars, cafes, boutiques and restaurants. From the vibrant street art you’ll find on numerous buildings scattered throughout the city, and the music culture that Reykjavik is known for, being entertained won’t be an issue. If going out is your forte, the Icelandic nightlife will keep you satisfied. It is known that Reykjavik has some of the craziest nightlife scenes in the world! Some might blame it on the long winter nights, or even the endless days of summer- You can climb to the top of Reykjaviks most iconic landmark- Hallgrimskirkja (sorry Harpa) and get a beautiful view of the colorful buildings and mountains in the horizon. There’s also a  plethora of parks and gardens where you can spend an afternoon relaxing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chasing the light in Iceland

 Written by Chris Thorn
 
Photos by Dan Fish
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“Travel keeps you young. It does this by simply putting you in a situation where you feel like a kid again. Magically lost in a moment of discovery. Beautifully confused. These are life’s opportunities to shed the hustle of modernity, to join the moment, and stop sprinting forward toward some fabricated goal. Your heart races. Your metabolism shifts into lower gear. Everything is new again “– Joel Patterson
Velkomin til Íslands ( welcome to iceland )
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Trading in tropical weather destination for the great glaciers & icy-cold winds, the usual flip flops for much heavier, warmer layers definitly reminded me that this was slightly out of my comfort zone. YES, that was the exact logic behind it. Nothing could prepare us for the epicness and splendid beauty awaiting us in Iceland. It is so beautiful that it is in fact hard to find the words or pictures to match it’s allure.
The entire country is visually fascinating in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere. From the moment we laid eyes upon each morning, till the late hours of the night, we were just 4 friends exploring and chasing the great unknown- constant koolaid smile.
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Chasing the Northern Lights
It was by far the most glorious display I have ever seen in my life.  Just rainbows of colors dancing in the nightly skies & putting on an awesome show. I was completely addicted & wanted to witness them as much as I possibly could. Much like a tornado chaser, constantly looking at updates from meteoroligical channels.
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Looking back on the trip. It gave me a new perspective on life. And that’s what traveling does to you. Through the endless landscapes, the magical displays, the food, it’s charm, the culture, the people, it’s wildlife. Magically lost in endless moments of discovery. Beautifully confused. Your heart races. Everything is new again…
þakka þér Ísland ( thank you iceland )

“Memoirs of a Dream” a trip to Havasupai Falls, AZ

Written by Jesse Watkins

Photos by Dan Fish

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As I flew into Las Vegas, I could really start to feel the butterflies building up.  I always love traveling with Travel and Explore.  I have known the founders since college, long before T&E was created.  Some of my most memorable travels have been with this crew and they never disappoint with the amount of thrill, adventure, and awe that seems to arise from the trips that are planned.  Upon being picked up at the airport we began our 3-4 hour drive to the Havasupai Indian reservation in Arizona.  It was a great time to catch up and talk about what we had heard, seen on YouTube, or read about with Havasupai.

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We arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop around 4am and when I stepped out of the van and gazed up and saw the vastness of the stars shining so bright bringing me to a state of awe.  If possible, I highly recommend getting there the night before and sleeping in your car or popping up a tent so you can get an early start on your 10 mile hike to the campground.  As this was my first trip to the Grand Canyon I truly was not prepared for the view that awaited us upon sunrise.  Seeing the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon was absolutely breathtaking.

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Once we gathered our California crew who had already spent the night there, all 15 of us began our hike down.  You have the opportunity to rent a mule to help get your get down, so if your taking a big group and have a lot of gear, it may be a good idea.  With our camera man Dan Fish along side us, we were able to fly his drone high in the canyons and get a view unlike no other. 

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After about a 4 hour hike we arrived at the Havasupai Lodge. It was another 2 mile hike into the actual campground. The first visible waterfall “Fifty Foot Falls” is your first true taste of the falls as you descend into the campground.  You can stay high and view it from afar, or you can take the left-heading trails toward the creek and swim in the fantastic turquoise pool of water below the falls.  We camped near the beginning of the available camping and even though it was a longer hike each day to the falls, it was accommodating that we were near a fresh spring for water and the bathrooms.

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The first afternoon we visited Havasu Falls:  given its namesake of the area, you cannot miss Havasu Falls as the trail turns a corner and descends next to it. We then trekked through the campground further to get a taste of Mooney Falls.  Mooney Falls was the tallest of the 5 waterfalls, and is below the campground.  As you approach the falls the sound and power of the waterfall will make your stomach churn and your head spin.  The views from the top are so awe-inspiring.  If you want to reach the bottom of Mooney, you’ll have to descend the chains, ladders, and bolts down a 200 feet tall travertine cliff.  It is potentially dangerous as it is technically easy and possible to descend, pay very careful attention to yourself and your team as you descend because one slip and fall could be fatal.

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Once we were all back in camp that evening, we all enjoyed our MRE meals and took the opportunity to get our tents and hammocks set up and spend the evening telling stories and sharing in the energy of the Havasu Indian reservation.

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The next morning after we all had breakfast and a quick swim in the creek to clean up, the crew began  our adventure for the day.  It was a challenging and nerve wracking experience to get down to the bottom of Mooney, but with our teamwork and encouragement everyone made it down safely.  I keep coming back to this memory every time I close my eyes and think of Mooney, but the falls were so powerful it was nearly impossible to swim out close to them but I can still feel the water on my skin and the air coming from the flow of the water and it truly brought me a feeling of calmness and closeness with nature.  

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After hanging around Mooney Falls for a few hours, we all continued down to Beaver Falls, which is the most remote of the Havasupai waterfalls.  It’s about 3.5 miles down from camp and about 3 miles past Mooney Falls.  The hike was amazing and rugged and well worth the adventure.  There isn’t an exact trail and can be tricky if you don’t know your way but surely there will be enough people heading that way so if you’re journeying on your own or in a small group someone can help get you there.  

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I had watched several videos on YouTube of people jumping the falls and especially the videos from Beaver Falls.  I have to tell you that maybe 60 ft. up doesn’t sound like a lot but when you’re at the top looking down, it can be very intimidating and scary.  Thankfully Ryan Heller was with our group and after a careful inspection of the pool below where we would be landing, Ryan took the first leap and pioneered the way for us all to jump.  I’ve done some pretty scary and amazing things in my life but when I look back this is still one of the feelings ill never be able to forget.  I cant even begin to explain the anxiety I felt right before I jump and then the calmness once I stepped off and then the exhilarating rush of intensity that swept over me as I landed in the pool and then surfaced to a cheering and screaming group of friends high above.  We all spent a good amount of time jumping the falls some of us from higher levels but overall sharing in the thrilling experience.

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Probably the most memorable and amazing part of the trip was what lies ahead: another 5 mile unmarked and difficult hike to the Colorado River.   So as I hiked down on the first day somehow unexpectedly I had bummed out my left knee creating a lot of pain and uncertainty as to whether I should even make the journey.  Well as the saying goes, “You Only Live Once” I decided that with brothers Brian and Ben Heller leading the way and after many trips with them in my life, I know that I would be safe and could make it through this excursion.  Now I have to tell you that you must plan this hike accordingly with the time because there is no marking and really no trail to get to the Colorado river and the last thing you want to have happen is be stranded almost 10 miles away from camp in the dark with no food or water so make sure you prepare.  The 6 of us that set out used our intuition and faint markings along the way.  We only passed two sets of people who had made the trek that day and were already on their way back and we still had a long ways to go.

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When we finally reached the Colorado River and stood high in the Canyons gazing down at the River, I can comfortably say that I’ve never in my life seen such a site.  Somehow with fate, a group of 4 rafts were coming down the river and it felt as though we were in a scene from a movie.  With my knee being bad,  after about 20 minutes of savoring a little bit more of the view, I began to make my way back while the other traversed down to meet the rafts stopping at the mouth of the Havasu Indian Reservation waters and the Colorado River.

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Come to find out, they were on a 20-day rafting trip on the Colorado and we had been the first people they had seen in days.  I’m sure for them it was a great experience and I know for us it was the same.  We all began to hike back to camp with a good pace knowing that we were in a race against time for daylight.

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As the day began to fade and turn into night, we still found ourselves a good ways away from camp and having to navigate back was quite difficult but at the same time so primitively alluring.  We finally made it back through Beaver Falls and onto Mooney where we stopped at the bottom taking a look up at the obstacle course we would have to traverse and ascend back up.  It was well into night at this point and as we climbed the canyon I really got to fulfill my childhood wish of being in the movie “The Goonies” Once we finally made it to the top, the state park rangers were there waiting to greet us and explain they were worried.  I’m very thankful and grateful to Brian, Ben, Dan, Ryan, and Tanner for giving me the strength and courage to make that journey that day.  It is one that I will never forget and cherish for the rest of my life.  Once back into camp, I was lulled into a sleepy bliss with food, music, and amazing company each sharing our perception of the day’s adventures.  I never thought sleeping in a hammock could be so good

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The next day as we packed up camp and started to head out we knew that the 10 mile journey and hike out of the canyon would be tough and that I’d much rather be laying by Havasu Falls soaking up some sun listening to the serine sounds of the water and nature.  It was challenging and tough with my bum knee and as I watched so many take flight out of the campground on helicopters and the mules rapidly ascending the canyon, I knew that the only choice for me was to suck it up and continue the journey hiking which I had started.  Huge thanks to Dan Fish to sticking by my side and helping me with the hike, though I think he needed my support just as much as I needed his.  The last 2 miles out was the most difficult and excruciating but as we reached the last half mile Dan and I were so relieved to see Ben and Brian Heller come down to help us carry our packs out the final haul.

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Travel and Explore is never selfish or wreckless with the trips and there’s always such a huge sense of community that even though half of the people that came on the trip were from California and I had never met before, at the end I felt as though we were all family.  That is how founders Brian and Ben have always portrayed themselves and given so much of themselves to others so that they could experience joy, happiness, and freedom with travel in life.  As I took one last glance out onto the Grand Canyon, I blinked my eyes a few times and couldn’t believe what I was seeing or feeling.  How in 3 days had I and the others hiked over 40 miles and seen some of the most amazing waterfalls and scenery I’ve ever seen in the world much less the United States?  Truly a paradise and heaven on earth. As we were leaving, I bought a Gatorade from a Havasu native who had a cooler full of drinks for sale, I’ll never forget her friendly demeanor thanking me so much for having come and wishing me the best on my journey in life with the hopes that I would soon return to Havasupai Falls, Arizona one day again.

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