My top ten backpacking items (and some honorable mentions)

When I was writing last weeks post, it was impossible to ignore just how much experience I’ve compacted into a short time. In terms of outdoor activities, I had a lot of catching up to do as a young bright-eye geology major–I didn’t own a single hiking, backpacking or camping item and certainly had no idea where to begin. However, over the past few years, I’ve compiled quite the collection. And for this week’s post, I wanted to share some of my favorites including some of the stories behind what makes them so important to me.

My top ten backpacking items (and some honorable mentions):

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(1) Patagonia Super Cell Gore-Tex Jacket
Why is a rain jacket at the top of my backpacking list? Let me tell you… It doesn’t take long being cold, wet and miserable (and pissed off) in daily torrential downpour on a certain giant mountain in East Africa to learn that not all rain jackets are created equal. I (and quite a few others on the trip) learned the hard way that non-Gore-Tex rain jackets are really, in fact, NOT WATERPROOF. You think I would have learned my lesson hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu (because it rained on us every day then), but nope. I didn’t want to spend the money. I was an idiot.

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Gore-Tex makes me happy, even in the crazy Himalayan rain

Don’t be an idiot. If you are planning on going anywhere with the likely chance of rain (i.e. the side, top, bottom of a mountain; the rainforest; anywhere with a rainy season), do yourself a favor and BUY A GORE-TEX JACKET. I’m a Patagonia girl, so it’s always my first go to for anything I put on my body for hiking, backpacking and camping, but you can buy GORE-TEX jackets from any of the big outdoor gear brands. They’re a pretty penny, so be prepared to fork over the cash. However, if you plan ahead, you can almost always find a great jacket on sale somewhere.


(2) Asolo Stynger Gore-Tex Boots

Like the rain jacket above, it doesn’t take long backpacking in the wrong boots to make you go a little crazy on the trail. I hiked (carrying most of my own gear) the Inka Trail in a pair of Keen’s that seemed the comfiest and best choice in REI a few months prior, but turned out to be absolute hell on the trail. Not only did I end up with a gnarly infected blister on one ankle (to be fair, I had a little incident a few weeks prior where I managed to drop a keg on my foot, but that scab was almost completely healed) and multiple blisters on my other foot from constant uncomfortable rubbing on my feet, but also these boots were not designed to carry heavy loads and were not manufactured with Gore-Tex (they were listed as “waterproof” however). So before my next mountain adventure (Mt. Kilimanjaro), I threw down some more serious dollar bills on a fantastic pair of Asolo boots. I haven’t had a single blister since (I also haven’t dropped a keg on my foot), I don’t have to worry about carrying heavy loads and feeling every stone or crevasse below my feet, and my feet always stay dry (even in torrential downpour and adventures through snow covered swamp lands).

If I didn’t make my feelings explicitly clear above, GORE-TEX IS THE MOST AMAZING INVENTION EVER. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking or backpacking, do not cheap out on this–get yourself some boots that are totally and completely waterproof. You also need a pair of boots that your feet love. I love Asolos for their durability and construction, but you don’t need to buy the exact brand I love. Everyone is different. There are other great brands out there that have really wonderful backpacking boots (my mom, my sister and many of my friends really love these Vasque boots).


(3) Osprey Aura 65 AG Pack

This number is a bit of wildcard as it is a fairly new purchase that hasn’t been tested out-and-about like my other items on this list. However, I put it here for a very important reason: it was purchased after a very thorough and detailed fitting with VERY competent employees at REI.

Prior to purchasing my new Osprey pack, I had been using a Gregory Jade 60 that I was never properly fitted in. I was a backpacking newb and didn’t know any better, but this was an expensive mistake for me. I lived with it for a few years, but decided this year that it was time to find my right pack. When I finally went back to REI and explained what had been going wrong, two employees immediately went to work dissecting the problem. They put me in a variety of Gregory packs and quickly concluded that despite having a torso and hip size that should fit in the specific pack I had, the pack was not sitting right on my body. Both of the employees then started putting me in other brands and quickly found that the Osprey backpacking packs were fitting me much better than anything else. From my preliminary tests on the pack, it feels absolutely amazing. I had no idea a pack could feel so comfortable on your back.

Like the two items above, a backpacking pack is not something you should cheap out on (and honestly, this might be the most expensive item you buy for backpacking). I would also advise strongly against bargain hunting for a backpacking pack. You need a pack that fits you right not one that is the cheapest, and if you don’t have the knowledge to fit yourself in a pack, seriously go to an REI or an Eastern Mountain Sports or any knowledgeable outdoor store and have someone who does know what they are doing fit you into a pack. Also, be aware of return policies. Many outdoor stores, like REI, let you try and return, so there is no need to suffer unnecessarily like I did for so long.


(4) Big Agnes Sleeping System: (Big Agnes Grouse Mountain 15 Sleeping Bag/Big Agnes Q-Core Sleeping Pad)

My Big Agnes Grouse Mountain 15 Sleeping Bag was one of my first purchases in my newb days of hiking/backpacking/camping, and I still absolutely love it. As with all Big Agnes sleep system sleeping bags, it has a pocket on its underside to place and tie down a sleeping pad. This might be the most amazing thing about the bag; I never ever slip of my sleeping pad! And while the temperature rating (15-degrees) is for men (it is a men’s bag–I wanted the room in the bag to sleep on my side), I’ve never been cold in my bag.

Now for the sleeping pad. I used a Therm-a-Rest ProLite for a few years. It’s a well designed pad especially for those who want to cut weight on the trail, but it just wasn’t for me. The pad is supposed to be self-inflating, but I almost always had to inflate it myself. The main downside of this pad for me was it’s thickness. I’m a side sleeper, so even when I force myself to fall asleep on my back, I usually wake up laying on one shoulder or another. This pad was just too thin: my arms would constantly fall asleep during the night and I could almost always feel the ground below me. After a few years with the Therm-a-Rest pad, I decided to cash in some REI dividend to get a new pad: the Big Agnes Q-Core. This pad does require quite a bit of inflating (you can buy a foot pump, but on the trail this is really unnecessary weight) and does pack slightly larger than the Therm-a-Rest ProLite; however, it’s thickness, comfort and insulation capabilities were a huge improvement for me above my previous pad. Plus, it was designed to work with my sleeping bag.

There are lots of wonderful sleeping bags and pads out there, but I recommend Big Agnes to anyone that will listen. No matter what brand you buy, the most important thing is to make sure you are buying a bag and pad with the right specs for you (check the REI Sleeping Bag Advice for a really great detailed explanation on sleeping bags).


(5) Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent

My purchase of this Big Agnes tent was made possible through a very large REI dividend I received after my barrage of purchases for my semester abroad in East Africa (as well as my mothers purchases for Kilimanjaro) and a very awesome REI sale. I already owned a Big Agnes three man tent, so didn’t really need another tent; however, I wanted something much smaller and lighter that I could easily carry myself on the trail without hogging all the space in my pack. I settled on this two-man ultra-light weight tent because I wanted to be able to fit my gear inside the tent (rather than under the rain fly) when I was alone, but also wanted to be able to fit a second person in the tent. It’s been amazing. I haven’t, however, tried to fit Mike in it yet… so we’ll see if it’s still amazing after that.

I’m plugging Big Agnes because I love their products (I mean come on… they make tents with built in LEDs now!). Eureka, REI, Marmot, North Face (and many, many others) make great tents as well. Tents are pricey, but you can usually get them on sale if you are patient. Just do your research on what you need before buying.


(6) SmartWool Hiking Socks and Silk Liner Socks

These items are absolutely essential for me. I never go hiking anywhere without wool socks AND liners. I wear wool socks even in the blazing heat of summer (and no, my feet don’t sweat an ocean)–they actually dry much faster than anything made out of cotton and don’t stink as bad (well at least for normal people… just pray to whatever god that you don’t ever have to smell Mike’s feet after a day of hiking). In the winter, my thickest wool socks keep my toes nice and un-frozen. Liners are a god-send for anyone who has problems with blisters like I do. I have bumps on my ankles that can blister in two minutes if I don’t have liners on, but with liners I never have that issue. Another upside to wearing liners I’ve discovered is that your wool socks don’t break down as fast (the liners do, but those are much cheaper to replace).

SmartWool is my favorite brand of wool sock. REI does make a slightly cheaper pair, but I found that those wear down a bit faster than SmartWools. I hike a lot, so I invested in a good bunch of SmartWools which I’ve had since I went to Tanzania and Kenya in 2012. As for the liners; I haven’t found a brand that treats my feet as nicely as the REI silk liners.


(7) Black Diamond Spot Headlamp

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sunrise at the crater’s edge on Kilimanjaro after climbing in the dark all night

I don’t think I need to elaborate much on this item. It gets dark when you camp. You will need light. You can stick a headlamp on your head and not have to worry about carrying it around all night. You also might need said headlamp to summit a giant mountain because you had to set off from base camp at 11pm the night before. This Black Diamond headlamp is cool because it has different light settings (so you don’t blind the guy sitting across from you while playing an epic game of Euchre), but there are definitely other headlamps out there with similar or better features.


(8) SteriPEN Ultra Water Purifier

While I have done plenty of hiking, backpacking and camping in the past few years, it wasn’t until my trip to Nepal this spring that I actually had to worry about water treatment. Seems strange, I know, but I’ve always either (a) had water boild safe or been able to boil my own water safe or (b) had safe drinking water readily available. I decided to buy the SteriPEN Ultra because it’s small, lightweight and really easy to use (it tells you when your water is ready with a smiley face). This magnificent tool treats water through UV rays. While it obviously doesn’t remove large chunks of matter in your drinking water (you would need a whole other filtration system for that), it does kill off all the bad things in the water that might make you sick. Mike tells me it’s the same process water treatment facilities use on their own waters–so that’s pretty cool. The only major downside of the SteriPEN Ultra is that you have to charge it via a USB. However, the charge on my SteriPEN lasted the whole 10-day Annapurna Base Camp trek (with lots of battery to spare), and you can always carry a portable charger with you on a trek. For an extended trek, you would likely need to think of secondary options as well (like tablets or filters).


(9) CamelBak StoAway 100 Reservoir

I bought this puppy while at field camp in Park City, Utah in the middle the summer. My uninsulated CamelBak just wasn’t staying cold enough in the heat even when filling it with ice to start the day. Not really sure why I didn’t think of getting one sooner, but alas, you live and you learn (and spend more money at REI). This insulated CamelBak not only keeps things cool in heat, but also keeps things from freezing when super cold (my CamelBak froze while summiting Kilimanjaro and those who had the insulated CamelBaks did not have that problem).


(10) Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody

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cozy (and excited) in our Patagonia down sweaters at Annapurna Base Camp

I started my list with a Patagonia jacket, so it’s only right that I finish with another one. The Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody is probably my favorite purchase from Patagonia ever. Not only does it keep me unbelievably warm, but it also packs down into a teeny tiny little pocket located on the inside of the jacket. If hoods aren’t your thing, Patagonia also makes a Down Sweater without the hoody (but I freaking love me some hoods). I bought Mike the down sweater without a hood for his birthday so that he didn’t drag around his giant winter coat in Nepal, and boy was he happy he had it (told you so Mike).

If you plan on doing any type of trekking in colder regions, I highly recommend you get some sort of packable down jacket. You don’t want to be lugging around a heavy parka or ski jacket on the side of the mountain (or really any trail for that matter), but you do want something that will keep you warm. Like the Patagonia rain jacket I had at number 1, every outdoor company makes their own packable down–just try stuff on and find what you like best.


Honorable mentions:

Quick dry clothes: Don’t pull a Mike and go to Nepal without a single quick-dry shirt. His cotton shirts were so sad and wet (and stinky) but the end of the trek he almost couldn’t find anything to wear home on the plane. I could do a whole separate post on my favorite outdoor clothing (and likely will sometime in the future, so I didn’t link anything here). But I’ll just say this one more time: PATAGONIA.

Camp kitchen: this probably should be on my top ten list–you do need to eat on the trail, but I’ve somehow managed to survive most of my backpacking and camping experiences with very limited camp kitchen gear (I’m not including the few “fancier” treks I’ve been on when food has been prepared for me by a group chef or tea house cook… that was almost cheating). JetBoils are wonderful, I have one that I’m dying to get out and use, so if you’re looking for something that’s compact and easy to carry and also a way for you to cook some grub, a JetBoil is a great place to start.

Chacos: for those of you that have a pair, I don’t need to explain. These babies come EVERYWHERE with me. They are perfect when you make camp and want to get out of your hiking boots. They are perfect for light day hikes and explorations. They are even perfect for every sort of summer festival you could imagine.

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the glorious Buff keeping my hair out of my eyeballs and my ears nice and toasty up on Ankareh Ridge in Park City, UT

Buffs: if you’ve hiked with me, you’ve seen me in these. They keep my hair out of my face. They keep my ears warm in surprise cold winds. They also keep my most sunburn prone area from getting burnt (i.e. my forehead). Plus they come in pretty fun colors and patterns.

Trekking poles: these didn’t make my official list because they usually just get in my way. I find one pole useful in some steep, rugged uphills and downhills, but usually these stay collapsed on the side of my pack. However, for those who have knee issues or who have issues with balance on the trail, these are an absolute necessity!

Quick-dry packable towel: you likely won’t be doing much bathing while out on a trail, but these towels are great to have on hand for un-foreseen cleaning or swimming opportunities or even just quick wipe-downs.

Hammock: this was left off the list mainly because it’s not a necessity for me. I love my brand new Eno Hammock SingleNest (I’ve drooled over everyone else’s for years), but if I was worried about weight, this would probably be left behind.

…and obviously don’t forget a first aid kit (common sense people) and a decent camera.


If you looked at any of the links I’ve provided or if you’re an avid backpacker yourself, you’ve obviously already discovered that backpacking items can be extremely expensive. My best advice is to always plan ahead. If you have future trek planned, don’t wait until the last minute to buy what you need. With the exception of my pack, all of the items on my top ten list were purchased on-sale or with an REI dividend. When I know I need something, I usually shop around to make sure I’m getting the best price. REI, Backcountry and Moosejaw are some of my favorite online shops, but also be sure to check out the manufacturers website or local shops as well.

And if you’re like I was a few years ago and have a long way to go before you’re fully “equipped” to hike/backpack/camp on your own, remember to start with the most important items. I put a Gore-Tex rain coat as my number 1 item because I refuse to go anywhere without it, but it’s probably not essential to get started. If you already have a rain jacket (even if it’s not Gore-Tex), start with the boots or the pack. If you can’t afford a tent or sleeping bag right off the bat, borrow from a friend or rent (lots of outdoor stores actually rent all the items you would need for any trek), and if you’re going abroad on a trek check with your trekking company–both my Kilimanjaro and Nepal trek groups provided sleeping bags, shelter and other expensive trekking items in the trek cost!.

Happy trekking!

How on earth did I become a geologist?

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Before (in my pretty flower dress)

I didn’t come into the world as the geology-loving adventurer I am today. No one in my immediate family has worked in academia or research. Family vacations weren’t spent hiking or camping across the U.S (though I’m not complaining about the every summer Outer Banks vacations), and the only camping I did as a child was Girl Scouts Camp mouse house “glamping” (although at the time it was traumatizing). Nature was definitely not my thing growing up. I was more of a barbie/princess/fashionista girl than I was a geologist, or any scientist for that matter, in the making. And if you would have asked my mother what I was going to be when I grew up back when I was a no-pants-dress-only-hate-to-be-dirty child, geologist would have been absolutely no where on her list. So, how on earth did I become a geologist? Baby steps.


Baby step #1: Marine Biology

It wasn’t until elementary school that I first discovered my interest in (and real knack for) science. In third grade, I managed to talk my teacher into letting me turn her entire classroom into a giant underwater kelp forest, equipped with floor to ceiling paper mache kelp and cut out seals and fish galore, for a class presentation. I’m still not exactly sure what drove me to design a class project around giant kelp, but I was definitely one excited student who was obsessed with and eager to learn about all things marine. Whether because of the kelp or my own experiences on the Outer Banks or even my childhood obsession with Sea World (recent revelations about animal treatments aside), I spent the next ten years or so truly believing that I would become a marine biologist.


Baby step #2: Earth Science??

By high school, I had mostly grown out of my marine biologist phase, but I hadn’t completely left the physical sciences behind. I knew I was having significantly more fun (and success) in my earth science classes than in my traditional biology and chemistry classes (and exponentially more fun than in my history and literature classes). However, I still hadn’t accepted that earth science could be my career. People told me that my knack for science and math meant that I should be an engineer; no one ever told me I should (or could) be a scientist (it didn’t seem like a profession many thought too highly of at the time). And for some reason, I listened.


Baby step #3: Engineering [fail]

I was admitted directly into the University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering School as a freshman, and quickly began my undergraduate career chasing down “my goal” of becoming a chemical engineer. However, I immediately became frustrated. The rigid structure of the engineering program made me feel like I was drowning (literally, in classes I was uninterested in and hated to take) and unable to explore the world as I wanted. So, I left (after 1 1/2 semesters), unsure of what I would do next. I felt lost. I felt like I had failed. The dream everyone told me I should have, wasn’t what I wanted after all.


Baby step #4: Environmental Studies and Geography

Two good things came out of my experience in the engineering school: (1) I found out quickly and without a doubt that engineering was not for me; and (2) the engineering school requirement for a certificate (or minor) in another field ushered me to Science Hall, which housed the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (my certificate) and the Geography Department. Despite my huge interest in environmental studies, the institute did not offer a major for undergraduates. However, I realized that my first environmental studies class was cross-listed with geography, and so (because I wasn’t sure what else to do) I decided to take one of the entry level physical geography classes to see if I would like it. I loved it. And despite the many long phone conversations with my parents centering around “what the hell can you do with a physical geography major?,” I was hooked.


Baby step #5: GEOLOGY! (finally)

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After (slopping around in Kenya for geology… with dreads)

Most of my physical geography professors were trained (and doctored) geologists, so it wasn’t a big stretch (although it was a long walk across campus) to the Geoscience Department where I quickly fell in love again. My first geology classes were cross-listed with environmental studies (see a theme here?), and initially that was what got me through the front door. But I really couldn’t get enough; everything about geology was interesting to me, and I excelled at it. I had never been a part of a group of people that had so much fun together and worked so hard (I’m not sure any department can top the epic that is UW-Madison geology field trips). By the end of my sophomore year, I had found my new and (yeah, I’ll say it…) favorite major.

Once I had found geology, I dove head first into every research/job opportunity I could find so that I could discover my own geologic research niche. I worked in a paleoecology/paleoclimatology in the Geography Department (The Williams Lab) and a radiogenic isotope lab in the Geoscience Department (UW-Madison Radiogenic Isotope Lab). I even completed two undergraduate research projects: (1) “The effect of land degradation on water resources of the Noolturesh River in the Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya,” while studying abroad in East Africa (somehow I managed to create a geology research project out of a wildlife management study abroad program with the only other geology major on the trip) and (2) “Cryptotephra detection in a lacustrine sediment core from Spicer Lake, Indiana” as a part of The Williams Lab. If my love of my geology classes wasn’t a big enough sign, these research experiences solidified my obsession with everything geology.

Fast forward through field camp, two graduate school application rounds, one successful acceptance season (don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about my first failed, tear-filled attempt in a future blog post) and two environmental consulting jobs, and I’m finally right where I want to be: getting my PhD at a renowned geology graduate school program (CU-Boulder), working with a fantastic advisor (Dr. Tom Marchitto) and studying paleoceanography, paleoclimatology and stable isotope geochemistry (in my fashionable white bunny suit).

A few of my favorite things

I travel to experience new cultures, to meet new people and to see exciting things, but more importantly, I travel to push myself outside my comfort zone. In the last three years, I’ve been to Peru, Tanzania, Kenya, and Nepal (and yes, I am one lucky ducky). In each of these places, I’ve experienced a variety of “culture shock,” but I’ve also experienced a sense of wonder beyond anything I feel staying close to home. I’ve learned more about myself in strange, unique places away from home than I have in the familiar corners of my every day life, and for that reason, I cherish anything that can bring me back to those amazing experiences.

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The glorious wall collage, where many of my travel photos currently live

It’s always been a goal of mine to bring a piece of a place home with me after an amazing trip, and while I’m no professional photographer (and I definitely don’t pretend to be any sort of savvy with a camera), pictures (and I mean thousands and thousands of pictures) are really the best way I know how. During my recent move however, I realized that pictures weren’t the only things I was dragging from place to place to commemorate my worldly explorations; my boxes were also filled with souvenirs I had bargained, purchased or dug up (rocks guys… I am a geologist) in cool, unique places abroad. Most of my souvenirs were acquired despite huge language barriers, currency exchange mental math problems and face-offs with more experienced bargainers. Together, travel pictures and souvenirs (and yes, rocks) fill my home with amazing, unforgettable stories. Here are a few of my favorite things:


In March 2012, I traveled to Peru with my sister, Lindsey, where we explored Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley and hiked the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu.

IMG_0944One of my first bargaining experiences ever occurred during my trip through the Sacred Valley in Peru. Lindsey and I found a merchant selling beautiful painted bowls of all different sizes, but my five years of high school French did not prepare me well for this moment. Between Lindsey’s knowledge of Spanish numbers and my super helpful ability to put up the correct number of fingers, we somehow managed to get the merchant down to a number we were willing to pay. And when I say we, I mean Lindsey. And thanks to Lindsey, my beautiful Peru bowls now hold beautiful things (like jewelry… and rocks).IMG_0946

If my hike on the Inka Trail taught me anything, it was that the Inka were amazing stone masters. Machu Picchu is the pinnacle of the impressive Inka building style, and after a very tiring three days on the trail, I went a little camera crazy on the incredible architecture at the finish line (Machu Picchu). Oddly enough, my favorite photo from my entire day at Machu Picchu is a simple picture of a surviving wall and window looking up toward the bright blue, white puffy cloud sky. Something about the photo brings me right back to the day and reminds me just how exhausted I was staring up at the amazing ruins.


During the fall of 2012, I studied abroad in East Africa through The School for Field Studies
(SFS); the first month and a half was spent in Tanzania and the second month and a half was spent in Kenya. Upon the completion of my semester, I traveled back to Tanzania to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro with some crazy, amazing women.

IMG_0958One of my favorite things that I brought home from my time in East Africa, is my Maasai blanket. Not only do I think that I picked the absolute best color, but also it’s one of the items I had to work extremely hard to get. Even when shopping in the local markets, us American students were almost always given the mzungu price (i.e. the white person/tourist price). This price was way higher than any of us wanted to pay, especially because we wanted to bring home Maasai blankets for everyone, and was way above what our local center staff told us we should pay. And let’s not forget the extra fun of bargaining in Swahili, which often quickly spiraled into a complicated dance of Swahili, English and hand gestures. However, after lots of failed attempts (flashback to Keela having to jump up and steal our money back from a merchant who tried to trick is into paying more for less), we managed to uncover the secret to getting away from the mzungu price: SO MUCH BUNDLING.

IMG_0952On one of our free days in Tanzania, our group had the chance to visit a local woodworking shop where members of a tribe from Mozambique were creating and selling incredible art. I knew it was going to be an expensive day, but the artists and workers were willing to bargain with us (and I’m sure still laughed all the way to the bank). I left that day with some new jewelry and two beautiful masks, a giraffe (my favorite safari animal) and a traditional wood mask, which have hung on my walls in a glorious wall collage ever since.

IMG_0955On another one of our free days in Tanzania, some of us opted to travel to a local artist’s home to learn all about batiks (a “painting” on a cotton cloth created through the use of wax and different paint color layers). For the first hour or so, we were able to create our own batik; mine turned out so horrid it’s still hiding in a box somewhere. However, after our mini arts and crafts session, it was shopping time. Bargaining wasn’t part of the game here as the artist had very reasonably priced his items (items of similar quality sold for almost twice as much at the tourist markets), but it certainly was a crazy race to get your hands on the batik(s) you wanted before someone else in the group did. I found two pieces, and like my masks, they have been hanging on my walls ever since. And while my “batiking” abilities were nowhere near the skill of the master artist, every time I look at the batiks on my wall I can’t help but smile and remember the day I dyed my fingers attempting to learn a new art.

IMG_0961Many of our classes at SFS were held outdoors in national parks, conservation areas or local communities (i.e. in the “field”). This kind of learning requires a very different type of textbook, and so we were required to bring three field identification/reference books with us to East Africa: “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania” by Zimmerman, Turner and Pearson, “The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals” by Jonathon Kingdon, and “The Behavior Guide to African Mammals” by  Richard Despard Estes. I accidentally ordered two sets of the books (damn you Amazon), and so took one set with me to East Africa where I used it on a daily basis (and then donated it at the end of my stay) and kept the other, very clean and presentable set for a cool reminder of my semester abroad (and for a fashionable plant display).


In April 2015, I traveled to Nepal with my mom, Lindsey and Mike, where we explored Kathmandu, Pokhara and hiked to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalaya Mountains.

IMG_0963During our visit to Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) in Kathmandu, our guide took us to a local artisan school where local artists are trained the art of thangkas (Buddhist painting on cotton or silk). We had seen these paintings all over Nepal, but here we had the opportunity to purchase authentic thangkas directly from the artists. Depending on the skill level (novice to master), one painting can take between a few weeks to a few months, and the more skill and time put into a thangka, the higher the price. MIke and I walked out with two novice thangka mandalas (courtesy of my pocket book) and one intermediate level thangka mandala (courtesy of Mike’s pocket book), and now they hang beautifully in our dining area above our thrifted dining set.IMG_0969

While we were in Pokhara, we stumbled upon one of the most amazing shops I have ever been too: the Women’s Skills Development Organization. Everything sold in the store is made by local women, and the profits are used to invest back into the women who create the beautiful products and to help empower women around Nepal. Items for sale included bags, purses, hats, coasters and bedding (between the four of us, we bought at least two of all these things… no really, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest). My favorite purchase from this store was a beautiful hand-painted, hand-sewed quilt, which now sits in my guest bedroom. It’s a beautiful, unique piece that even Anthropologie would drool over (and probably charge an arm and a leg for), and I can’t ever see myself letting this wonderful piece go.

IMG_0980During our stay in Nepal, I don’t think a day went by without seeing the bright and colorful prayer flags. We saw them all over Kathmandu and Pokhara, and even saw them all over the Annapurna Base Camp trek. The two most impressive displays of the prayer flags were at (1) Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple) in Kathmandu and (2) Annapurna Base Camp. We of course could not leave Nepal without purchasing our own (miniature) prayer flags, and now photos of the real flags at both aforementioned places are displayed front and center in the glorious (yes, I’m still going with glorious) wall collage.

IMG_0972The last souvenir I wanted to write about for this post is an oddball: Mike’s furry, stuffed I ❤ Yeti animal. Okay, so technically Yeti wasn’t won at any bargaining table nor was he any sort of hand made magnificence. He was purchased in a Yeti Airlines shop in the Kathmandu airport while we were waiting for our plane to Pokhara. However, Yeti came with us on our trek through the Himalayan mountains (he even made an appearance at Annapurna Basecamp) and Mike’s half-kidding-half-serious obsession with finding bigfoot (which goes by the name of Yeti in Nepal), makes this silly stuffed toy one very special souvenir.


While some people may look around my home and see clutter, I see fun conversation pieces. Everything mounted on my wall has a story. Items on my shelves have meaning. Even things sitting on my couches and chairs have a history that no blanket from HomeGoods or Target could ever top. The things above (and many others) are what makes me feel most at home, and I can’t wait to add to the collection (Patagonia 2016 anyone?).

[and when I say my home in this post, I should obviously be including Mike… because I’m pretty sure he lives here too]

The name that no one can pronounce

Brigitta.

It’s a name that seems normal to me. I’ve had it all my life. It’s unique. It’s an homage to 50% of my ancestry. But no matter how hard anyone tries, no one seems to have any idea how to pronounce it. For most of the general public, this is understandable. It’s not a familiar name. But perhaps the most comical part, is that even myself and members of my own family don’t always seem to get it right either.

11236160_10207104041147672_6870523182150164678_nIf you were to Google the origins of my name, you would find that it is likely the Nordic version of the Celtic name Brighid, which stems from the Celtic words Brig/Briganti meaning “high/mighty or exalted one.” And I really can’t argue with that heritage (I mean look at the picture on the right; I was obviously meant for royalty). What you also find, however; is a slew of other similar names such as Bregitte, Brigette, Bridget/Bridgett/Bridgette, Brigit/Brigitt/Brigitte, and Birgitta, all of which I’ve been called at some point in my life. For others, living a life filled with this kind of name confusion would be bothersome. But I’ve been gifted with a glorious unique name, and I’m used to it.

With a name like Brigitta, you get used to nicknames. The earliest nickname I can remember is attributed to my younger sister, Marisa (and no not Marissa… don’t even get me started on how people butcher her name), who had trouble saying my full name when she was little. Instead, Getta became the norm. Even my own Grandpop, capitalized on the nickname and used it into my adult years. Creative as it was, Getta was confined mainly to my family, and by elementary school, my friends were desperate to come up with their own nickname for me to save them from the embarrassment of having to say my full name. Sometime between third and fourth grade, my friend Emma had coined BG, and it stuck. It stuck so well, that it followed me all the way through college.

Almost accidentally, BG become as much a part of me as Brigitta. BG was easy. It was easier to give people my nickname than try to explain my real name (try going to Starbucks and giving them the name Brigitta and see what happens… they can’t even get BG right). But BG never made the name game any easier for me. The barrage of mispronunciations and name confusions continued with or without a nickname; people were always curious to link the nickname to the real name, and so back to Brigitta it is.

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Brigitta von Trapp, Sound of Music (left)

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of my lifelong name confusion, is the often assumption that I’m named after a certain character in a very popular musical: Brigitta von Trapp in the Sound of Music. There are many reasons why this is ridiculous to me, but the most obvious is that the character’s name is German. Her name is pronounced (bree-GEE-tah). My name, however; is Norwegian (the pronunciation of said name will be delved into below). Beyond the simple fact that Sound of Music Brigitta and I do not share a common name country of origin, it’s also obvious to anyone that knows my parents that neither of them are super fans of any such movie, nor can either of them (or anyone in my family for that matter) carry a tune to save their lives. But alas, I’ll give all you strangers a pass as only those close to me and my family would know the facts that would lead to the elimination of this name confusion.

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the wonderful woman who gave me my name

Where then, does my name come from you ask? That would actually be from the country of Norway. My mom visited Norway the year before I was born and met a woman with my name. She liked it so much that she kept it in her mental list of possible baby names. I won’t delve into how she almost wasn’t allowed to take me home from the hospital because she hadn’t named me yet (she was so certain I was going to be a boy, that she hadn’t even settled on a possible girl’s name), but eventually she decided on Brigitta (right choice Mom, right choice).

Now back to the pronunciation of my name. I’m sure you’re sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what the correct answer is. But I’m going to have to disappoint you. To the best of my knowledge, the correct way to pronounce my name as it’s spelt is bri-GIT-tah. No one, not even my own mother (yes you Mom, the woman who gave birth to me and gave me my name), says this. Most of us, myself included, instead say some variation of bri-GET-tah or bir-GET-tah, and in my opinion, if you hit either of those you’re golden. Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 11.21.26 AMSay the name fast enough and the bree/bir part of the name gets a little blurred and it’s hard to tell which version is exactly being said. Just don’t ever pull a move like the name announcers at my UW-Madison graduation, who were apparently “specialized” at pronouncing names, and call me bruschetta. I am part Italian (and do appreciate a tasty bruschetta), but you definitely won’t be invited over for Italian dinner after that.

My name was probably pronounced as it’s spelt sometime in the past (like back when I was a super-sized toddler), but today it’s morphed into something slightly different. And I like that. My family and I have truly made it our own. In the realm of unique names, I really can’t complain. There will always be some laughs and nervous looks when people first meet me and attempt to say my name, but I’ll take that any day over a name no one thinks twice about. There’s a long story behind my name, and I’m never giving that up.

BONUS STORY: The name that no one can spell
My last name is Rongstad. People never seem to have a hard time pronouncing it (and thank god because I don’t think I could handle having two names that people are afraid to speak out-loud), but they do seem to have a very difficult time spelling it. Without even thinking, people automatically go to Wrongstad. Call a doctor’s office or any place that holds records, and even when you spell it out for them, they go directly to the W’s. I really can’t explain it, but after a little laugh, it’s usually a quick jog back to the R’s.

IMG_3947Like my first name, my last name is Norwegian and unique. Recently, however; my dad discovered that we’ve all probably been spelling our last name wrong thanks to either some lazy immigration officer at Castle Garden (the first “Ellis Island”) or our ancestors own desire to Americanize their name. Rognstad appears to be the correct spelling of our fantastic family name, and apparently it’s derived from a real live place in Norway. I have to admit, the supposed real spelling (even just swapping the location of the g and the r) makes our last name just that more badass. But no matter if we spell it Rongstad or Rognstad, we’re still one big happy (part) Norwegian family.

The tale of a thrifted dining set

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Photo from Industrial Lane craigslist ad

After months of couch eating in my tiny Chicago suburb apartment, I finally have the space again to have a dining table. With a budget nowhere near my dream CB2 tables (Paradigm Dining Table and Dylan Dining Table), and my former run-down undergrad dining table long since donated to my older brother, I decided to dive into the world of Craigslist with the plan of attempting my first ever furniture DIY project.

I found a few tables, emailed a few people, but nothing was quite right. Most of the tables I liked were too big or too expensive, but then I stumbled upon something interesting. It was a listing for a “funky industrial chic chemistry lab science table” posted by Industrial Lane Vintage Store (check them out!) for a whopping $50. I looked at the pictures, and was pretty much sold that this was exactly what Mike and I needed for our new place. I had to have one.

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Mike and I traveled out to a warehouse where the tables (and lots of other wonderful industrial things) were being stored for sale, browsed the selection and settled on a rough blue-legged table with hilarious high school-aged graffiti. Somehow, the owners of the warehouse managed to pry the legs off the table for transport, and miraculously, the table made it home in one piece. I knew the bright blue paint had to go, so we purchased some 60-grit sandpaper and got to work. After a few hours of sweaty, mostly Mike work, we were able to remove the bright blue paint from the legs and underside.

Next, I began the hunt for chairs. I knew that the chairs had to have as much character as the table itself, but also didn’t want to spend a fortune on them. My new hair stylist had recently recommended a flea market/antique warehouse, Front Range Mercantile, in Longmont just north of Boulder. I didn’t have any idea what I was in for, but decided to check it out anyways. I was barely in the place for one whole minute before I spotted perfection: two distressed red french country cafe chairs for a $19.50 a piece. I paid for them immediately (so that none of the other old ladies in the shop could steal my find) and then I continued wandering around the market.

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Now, I can honestly say that I had never spent any significant amount of time in a place like this before; however, after about five minutes, I was hooked. There was no going back. I was going to dig around in every single spot until I found two more chairs for my epic dining set. It wasn’t until I got to the last aisle that something caught my eye: a wood dining bench marked at $28. I wasn’t entirely sure about it and ended up leaving it even after staring at it and sitting on it for a good 20 minutes.

Luckily, my more furniture experienced mother was on her way in town, and the very next day, I dragged her and Mike with me back to the Front Range Mercantile. The bench was still there hidden behind the large dining table and shelves I found it by the day before, and after showing my mom and Mike the bench (and the price tag), the decision was made: the bench was coming home with us.

In my righteous opinion, the thrifted dining set turned out fantastically well. I absolutely refuse to get rid of the etched high school graffiti on the top of the table (someone went full mean girls on my table and it will keep me amused for quite some time), but I do still plan on flexing more of my DIY muscles by finishing the legs and re-painting the underside of the table sometime in the future.

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Boulder(ing)

I’ve only been settled in Boulder for a little over a month (and I’m definitely still a Boulder newb), but I thought it was about time to make everyone not living here a little jealous with my gloriously insightful observations in my brand spanking new blog.

There is not a single bad view to be had here. Unless of course, flatirons and snowcapped mountains and forests and grasslands just don’t get your inner nature freak going.

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View from South Boulder Peak

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View from Bear Peak

Everyone here is fit. Okay, probably not everyone… but when you get passed by 70 year olds on the running trails while sucking some serious wind (which is even more demoralizing by the fact that you could run 6-8 miles at sea level no problem), it’s hard to believe that you’re not the most out of shape person in all of Boulder.

Trailheads are everywhere. Seriously. EVERYWHERE. I’ve never lived somewhere with so many options for exploring the outdoors and so many opportunities for instagramable photos.

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Mount Sanitas Trail

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Top of Flagstaff

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Flagstaff Trail overlooking Boulder Valley

Boulder is a bikers mecca. It seems everyone and their mothers and grandmothers have at least one bike (commuter, mountain, road bike… even those fancy sitting bikes). I can’t say I’ll ever dabble in the world of mountain biking (no way am I coordinated enough for that), but I’ll sure join all the crazy spandex rocking cyclists. Don’t worry lungs, I’ll stay on the flats for awhile.

The weather. When I was here in February, it snowed and then it was 65 degrees and then it snowed again. After the dreary, cold, never-ending Midwestern winters I’ve suffered through most of my life, I can’t say I’ll complain about that. Bonus: the flatirons are probably the most beautiful when covered in snow. As for the summer weather: mornings are mild even when the days are hot. And humidity… what humidity? Seriously, no weather complaints here.

The CU-Boulder campus is beautiful especially with the Flatirons in the background (UW-Madison, you’ve got some serious competition). And for a geologist attending graduate school here… HOLY CRAP. There are so many cool things to see and learn from here, especially from one of the best geology programs in the country (#9 for ‘Best Geology Graduate School Programs’ and #2 for ‘Best Global Universities for Geosciences’).

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Farrand Field and the Flatirons

Falling in love with Boulder has been easy, and I honestly can’t think of anything to complain about (except of course not being able to breathe while running… which I’ve clearly already complained about above). I can guarantee that I will throw a tantrum of epic proportions if or when I have to leave after my PhD.