Book Review ~ Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands

Part travelogue, part history lesson, part environmental plea, Our National Forests is exactly what we need to ignite a renewed interest in our country’s protected lands.

Turns out, National Forests (not National Parks, which are something else entirely) are much more than I thought. I was surprised to learn that not only had I likely visited a National Forest without even knowing it, they’re absolutely essential to the fabric of our nation. The National Forests are steeped in history — both good and bad — and the author doesn’t shy away from either. Whatever your mood (introspective, light, frustrated, or scientifically curious) you’ll be greeted with insightful stories and huge color images that you could easily get lost in.

Spotted Bear River, Flathead National Forest, Montana | US Forest Service | Flickr

Our National Forests is as varied as the lands in question: sometimes dense and textbooky with dates and figures, sometimes sprinkled with relatable anecdotes that’ll make you chuckle, and sometimes sobering. The author addresses challenging topics from the early days of the Forest Service as well as ongoing issues like human impact, apathy, and inequality. But just before the reader’s heart breaks, we’re presented with new stories of citizen science, advancements, and renewals. I especially enjoyed the historical chapter about the first planted forest in Nebraska. What an uphill battle it must’ve been to learn how to efficiently establish a forest where there was none!

A cool, clear mountain stream. A wide open prairie of tall grasses. A majestic range of western peaks covered in ponderosa pines. These are some hallmarks of America’s cherished national forests.

But, if we look more closely and shift our lens from macro to micro, a very different world comes into view.

-Greg M. Peters, Our National Forests

As the author points out, much of the forests themselves are millennia old, but the Forest Service is only 115. Clearly, there’s a lot more history to be written in this ongoing tribute to trees. If you love our lands and are interested in what’s protected, how, and why, Our National Forests belongs on your coffee table.

Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands by Greg M. Peters was published November 9, 2021 and is available now.

Thanks to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Those Ubiquitous Peruvian Alpaca Hats Interweave Culture with Nature in the Most Beautiful Way

You’ve seen them before. They’re super colorful cone-shaped hats with big earflaps, long ties, and are adorned with intricate geometric knitted designs. They’re a favorite among indigenous Peruvians, tourists, and snowboarders alike.

A must-have souvenir for almost every Machu Picchu tourist, chullos are much more than a fashion accessory. This cold-weather garment evokes the majesty, culture, and natural vibrancy of the Andes Mountains.

Andean culture has brought us some amazing things, not least of which is the chullo. These hats are traditionally handspun, handknitted, and worked on narrow gauge needles for firm fabric, maximum warmth, and space for intricate designs. The earflaps provide full coverage from the elements.

Sure, you can purchase solid-colored machine knit hats made out of synthetic fibers. But you’ll be sorely disappointed on all counts. The patterns are culturally significant, the local artisans who make them are skilled in their crafts, and the real alpaca, llama, or vicuña fibers are as luxurious as they are practical. These eye-catching hats are definitely worth wearing in the Andes.

First and foremost, chullos are comfy. Alpacas have super soft wool that is perfect for insulating against the frigid mountain winds. Because of the structure of alpaca fibers, there are lots of teeny tiny natural air pockets that will keep your head warm. And because it’s so insulating, you can use thinner spun yarn than you could with sheep’s wool or other fibers. This makes alpaca chullos perfect for tucking in your pocket.

Alpacas and llamas are domesticated but native to the Andes, so their wool is truly local. Vicuñas, their wild cousins, are still thriving in the mountains. This national animal of Peru produces eye-wateringly expensive ultra-fine luxury fiber. The price tag is largely due to the fact that most of these animals still live in the wild. Sustainable humane vicuña wool harvesting supports both the local community and species conservation efforts. So if you have the budget, vicuña chullos are a great way to support Peru as a whole.

Whichever natural fiber you choose, forget the plain hats and look for a regionally significant style.

The geometric patterns, exuberant colors, and design of each chullo are unique to the region and the makers. This mark of heritage represents thousands of years of cultural significance. In fact, the acts of spinning wool, weaving, knitting, and producing textiles is as essential to the fabric of South American culture as the Andes themselves. Traditionally, the vibrant colors are made from local plants, insects, minerals, etc. and each color has specific associations. Green represents lush forests, yellow for riches, red for warfare, and so on.

Most chullo designs feature repeated geometric motifs, but many modern styles include images. Jaguars, plants, birds, and of course, the animals who generously gave their wool for the hat. (It doesn’t harm them any more than a haircut, by the way.)

It can be very cold and windy in the higher peaks of the Andes, and tightly-knitted alpaca earflap hats are just the ticket to keep you from catching a chill.

This distinctly mountain-friendly style gained popularity from communities living in the Andes. For the longest time, chullos were nothing more than a functional piece of outerwear. What was once a humble stackable hat has become the most instantly recognizable garment of South America. Tourism has kept this traditional style vibrant and expanding.

It wasn’t always considered fashionable in Peru, but the chullo has taken hold as one of the most popular, iconic garments of the region. Customized to the local climate, knitted from the wool of animals who live there, and covered in unique motifs indicative of local history, chullos are quintessentially Peruvian.

If Lisa Frank was tasked with designing a bird, it’d be the ocellated turkey

Most wild turkeys look something like this…

Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

Or this…

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

But then there’s this fella.

National Audubon Society

Meet the ocellated turkey — wannabe peacock and birdwatchers’ darling.

And one of the most flamboyant birds I’ve ever seen.

There are six types of wild turkeys: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and our prismatic friend. Most turkeys can be found in Canada and the USA, but the ocellated version lives exclusively on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their small region includes only a small part of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. 

And yes, if you visit Yucatan ruins like Tikal, you might get a glimpse of these seussical birds. They’re quite comfortable living and nesting near Mayan ruins.

Ocellated Turkeys at Tikal, Guatemala by Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Though I’m pretty confident you could identify an ocellated turkey without a description, this bird stands out in more ways than one. This species is small as far as turkeys go, topping out at 12 pounds for males and 7 pounds for females. They have neon-blue heads decorated with garish hot orange warts, but no dangling ‘beards.’ Both sexes are blindingly colorful with females only marginally duller and greener. As a bonus, these turkeys’ voices are slightly less obnoxious than that of their blander cousins.

Ocellated turkeys spend most of their time walking rather than flying and enjoy a buffet of bugs, seeds, and leaves in their rainforest homes. The ‘ocellated’ part of the name refers to eyespots on their peacock-like tail feathers. Considering the brightness of the rest of this bird, you’d be forgiven for missing that detail.

Tim Proffitt-White / Flickr

These vibrant animals are Near Threatened and declining, thanks to overhunting and habitat reduction. But all is not yet lost — the ocellated turkey fanclub is growing, drawing ecotourists and conservationists to the region.

With continued conservation efforts and increased awareness of these eye-popping birds, more and more tourists can hope to spy an ocellated turkey. For some, ocellated turkeys are on the menu, but it’s my humble opinion that they’re better enjoyed visually. Maintaining their habitats and encouraging sustainable tourism to landmarks like Tikal will help get this glorious bird back on track. 

In the meantime, check out this desperate dance our rainbow friend does for a bunch of females who couldn’t care less. At least his fashion sense is on point.


Hidden Gems Alternative Travel Guide: Beatlemania at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

The Beatles only visited Arkansas once, and even then it was just a layover. But that was enough for Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, to dive into the deep end of Beatlemania and devote the town’s entire identity to Liverpool love.

If you consider yourself a fan of the Fab Four, Walnut Ridge needs to be at the top of your travel wishlist. The tiny town hosts a massive award-winning Beatles-themed festival at their Beatles-themed park next to their Beatles-themed museum, located (where else?) on Abbey Road.

beatlesbeatlesbeatlesbeatles

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Hidden Gems Alternative Travel Guide: Alaska’s Kennicott Ghost Town

Alaska has a lot to offer. Mountains, glaciers, polar bears, whales, heart-stopping beauty, and… ghost towns.

Just when things looked most promising for the brand-new copper mining town of Kennicott, Alaska, everyone left. What remains is the country’s most picturesque ghost town right on the edge of the country’s largest, most untouched national park.

It is awesome in the most literal way.

Let’s explore Kennicott and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

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Hidden Gems Alternative Travel Guide: Alabama’s Rattlesnake Saloon

Are you ready to travel the American South, but not sure whether you prefer to explore untamed wilderness, dance the night away, or dive into a plate of jalapeno poppers?

No need to choose! Alabama’s Rattlesnake Saloon ticks all the boxes and even offers handsome lodging for you and your horse.

Let’s go to The Rattlesnake Saloon!

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Hidden Gems – An Alternative Travel Guide

The sun is shining, it’s almost summer, and your vaccination card is filled.

Now you want to go on vacation, don’t you?

Me, too!

We all know about the big tourist traps and unmissable sights, but what about those lesser-known spots that always seem to be the highlight of the trip? I’m on a mission to find them! Let’s explore some of the country’s most interesting, unusual, underrated, and awe-inspiring locations.

Big, small, or just plain weird, America’s hidden gems are worth digging up.

Come on vacation with me!

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