Monday, February 17, 2014

What Comes and Goes: Organizing Your Travel Essentials

   There is a set of five drawers built into the wall of the guest room of my 1940‘s Cape Cod house. That’s where I stash all my travel things.

   Whenever I pack for a trip, I know I can find what I need in one of those drawers and what I pick up along the way comes home with me and is stashed there. That means, after a busy year of travel, the drawers are stuffed, crammed with luggage tags, eye masks, adapters, hotel amenities, little cosmetic bags from airlines, tubes of lip balm and toothpaste, refillable 3 oz bottles and all the other travel-related odds and ends one collects.

   It’s interesting what we rely on to make travel more comfortable and what we bring back with us. I have a stash of airline socks from overnight international flights and tiny sewing kits from hotels; one makes long flights more comfortable and the other keeps me supplied with spare buttons. I always keep one or two hotel shower caps in my cosmetic bag and I’ve used them for much more than keeping my hair dry. They can wrap a sandwich, protect my camera from the rain or hold shells and sea glass from the beach. I always take a spare when I check out.

   One drawer holds the compression bags that help me fit more in a suitcase, crumpled boarding passes, a luggage scale, a travel-sized hair dryer and flat iron and--amid a jumble of camera chargers-- little notebooks and discarded makeup.  Opening another I find city maps and sunglasses and little souvenirs I’d forgotten I bought.

   January and February are good months to reorganize and get rid of the clutter. I put on a movie or catch up on an entire season of Downton Abbey and go through each drawer, organizing the things I need and tossing what is no longer useful. I sort through the various quart-size resealable plastic bags left over from trips, each with one or two half-empty bottles of mouthwash or hand lotion. I pull out the all the extra tiny shampoo and conditioner bottles and miniature bars of soap from favorite hotels to give to my daughters or donate to programs like AAA’s Soap for Hope.

   By the time I’m done there is room in each drawer. I’m up to day with the Dowager Countess and Lord and Lady Grantham’s headstrong girls. Things are tidy and easy to find and I’m organized for another year of adventures.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Weight of Words


        Lately, I have been editing my collection of books, thinning the shelves, lightening the load of reading material I’ve accumulated over the last decade or so.

Each day I take an empty shopping bag, the sturdy fabric kind with strong handles, down to the storeroom in my basement and I bring it back up full of books. I take the heavy bag to the “used book” counter at the bookstore downtown. They take what they want, give me store credit and I donate the rest to a favorite charity. This has been going on for a couple of weeks now. Over and over again I descend to the storeroom and return with as much as I can carry away. 

I have never been one to resist a good book. It’s not in my DNA. I pick them up at garage sales, at bookstores--new and used-- at airports and library sales. I’m swayed by an illustration, a subject, a cover, an author. I hold the book in my hands and in my mind’s eye I can actually see myself reading it, swathed in afghans, sipping tea, reclining on the chaise lounge in my room. Each book holds the promise of a few moments to myself, the chance that it will improve me, educate me, enthrall me. So I am sold. Then, the book comes home to sit beside my chair, gather dust beside my bed until it is read and, finally, rest on the shelves in my basement. Sometimes I buy a book because someone I know might like it but I either forget to give it to them or realize it wasn’t the right gift after all, and on the shelf it goes.

Every once in a while, when the weight of books becomes too much for the shelves ------and my conscience--to support, I hold myself accountable for the clutter and decide what I will keep for a bit longer and what I will let go.

Some of the books on those shelves are old friends. They are my family. Those books will stay there until I’m the one carried out of the house. Others were impossible to resist at the time, but they’ve lost their appeal.  Some were fun to read but not something I want to keep forever. Others--the travel guides and how-to books, for instance--are obsolete and others are no longer up-to-date. Into the bag they all go. Carrying one bag at a time up the stairs, I feel like I’m secretly tunneling my way out a fortress of words.

Of course, there is that store credit. And I have already brought home one or two new books from my book-selling trips. But that’s something to worry about in a few years. When the shelves fill up again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s weekly column is published by Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hotel Buffet Communion.

In the morning, when I dress and make my way to the hotel breakfast buffet with the other guests, I notice we are all alike. I study their faces, eyes puffy, faces creased from sleeping too hard or not enough, hair damp and tousled. We don't speak, we don't even speak the same language. We don't try to impress one another.

Some of us behave well, some of us don't, elbowing in to take the last sticky bun or taking too much cheese, surreptitiously building a sandwich for lunch.

I never quite know how to use the coffee machines so prevalent in Europe so I stand too long, hesitating before pushing the buttons, annoying the coffee-starved queue behind me.

No one in the hotel dining room realizes it, but on these mornings when I am far from home, I consider them my traveling family. We are strangers,  but our need is the same and it brings us together: We are hungry. We need caffeine. We are far from home.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Beautiful View: Norway through my Hurtigruten porthole

August was filled with adventure, but my time in Norway was the stuff of dreams. I finally cruised the coast of Norway with Hurtigruten.
I'd studied the photos and words of others who had been there, and the cruise was at the top of my wish list. This summer I finally made it to that beautiful country.

I wrote about the trip for my Home Planet blog and recorded the essay for Spokane Public Radio.

"For 120 years Hurtigruten Coastal Cruisers have been steaming up and down the Norwegian coast delivering people and goods to the cities and small towns that dot the coastline. And, as if the physical landscape is not breathtaking enough, the seasons add their own drama. In the winter snow covers the rocks and trees and the Northern Lights wash the dark night sky with colors that flicker and dance. In the summer the midnight sun takes over and one day becomes another without a sunset and the water is a smooth as glass."

You can read the rest of the column here

Thursday, August 15, 2013

King Crab Safari at Kirkenes, Norway

(Read my Home Planet column: Feasting on Crab at Kirkenes, Norway)

We climbed onto the boat and straddled the padded humps that served as seats on our King Crab Safari boat. Our guide pulled slowly out into the fjord at Kirkenes, Norway, before picking up speed. The cold wind whipped my hair and caught my breath as we skirted the shore.

Our guide used a motorized winch to haul up the basket and pulled out more than a dozen giant crabs and took us to the small shack that had been fashioned into a dining hall. He prepared the crabs and then steamed them to perfection. 

It was a feast of abundance. 

The sweet, salty taste of the giant crabs was like nothing else I've ever eaten. And, I suspect, like nothing else I will ever taste again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Vigeland Park, Oslo

Near the center of Oslo, a sprawling garden draws locals and tourists every day of the year. The Vigelandsparken, also known as Frognerparken, was designed by sculptor Gustav Vigeland to display the more than 200 sculptures of stone, bronze and iron he created. A massive Monolith with 121 carved into a single stone captures the beauty, pain and struggle of human existence. 

The park was completed between 1939 and 1949, a time of war and social upheaval around the world. 

The morning I visited a soft rain was falling and it deepened the effect of his work, adding drama and emotion to the faces of the sculptures.

 If I lived in Oslo I would visit the park at all times of the day, chasing the light to see the way it paints the figures. 

Cruising the Coast of Norway with Hurtigruten

I'm taking the Hurtigruten coastal cruiser Midnatsol south along the coast of Norway from Kirkenes to Bergen. 

This is not like any other voyage I've ever taken. There isn't the glitz of a mega-ship or the all-inclusive luxury of a European river cruise. It reminds me of a train as we stop at small towns along the way, taking on new passengers or watching others go on their way. Hurtigruten's history as mail ships and a way for Norwegians to travel easily up and down the coast is a rich one. And not far beneath the surface today. 

There isn't any loud music or party on the top deck. The passengers are focused on the view, with good reason: the Norwegian  landscape is unlike any other. Craggy mountains, deep mysterious fjords, barren islands and vibrant, colorful, cities compete for attention.
The sky is light deep into the night, pulling me to the window when I should be sleeping. 

I am in the land of the Vikings and I cannot get enough of this view. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Baby Steps: Another 'Third Life' Lesson

"Years ago, I threw myself headlong into into mothering. It was the most frighteningly wonderful thing I have ever done or will ever do. And the reward? Four unique adults who made their way confidently out of my nest just as this little one stepped in." Read the rest

In this week's Home Planet column for the Spokesman-Review, I wrote about watching my granddaughter learn to walk. I raised four children so watching babies crawl and learn to put one foot in front of another is nothing new. But this time, perhaps it's because as the grandmother I have the freedom to step back and observe while her parents do the hard work, I noticed that as she began to take her first steps she never once looked at her feet. She was completely focused on where she wanted to go.

There's a lesson for all of us in that, I think. It's so easy to keep our eyes on our feet and never once look up to see where we are, where we've been and where we're headed.

Now, in my third life, I’m taking baby steps again. I’ve packed everything I have learned from growing up, navigating a marriage, raising a family, building a career and living an ordinary life in an extraordinarily complicated world. I've got a lot of experience and a little wisdom and I still have the curiosity of a child.

I’m ready to step back out into the world and see a few things.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Girl in the Garden

For a few minutes tonight, I was 8 years old again.

After dinner, I stayed outside playing in the back yard until I suddenly realized the sun was long gone and it was getting too dark to see clearly. The lights in the house were bright through the windows.

Still unwilling to go inside and let the day fade away completely, I sat on the back step listening to the birds sing out in the dark as they called it a day. Something must have dropped down my collar while I was digging around under the rose bushes and I wriggled as I tried to find whatever was tickling me. My hair was tangled with leaves and petals.

The air was cool and soft and smelled like flowers and dirt. My cats stalked imaginary prey in the grass. I was tired and dirty and perfectly content to be exactly where I was at that moment.

When I finally opened the back door and stepped inside, I didn't feel at all like a grandmother. I felt like a girl who'd made the most of a long summer afternoon.

That's the beauty of this stage I call my third life. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I turn a corner and find myself.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

There is nowhere like the Northwest

More often than not, flying home from a trip means I have to fly into Seattle or Portland to catch a short flight back over to Spokane. Sometimes, when I'm already tired and jet lagged, I grumble. But every now and then I look out the window and I'm reminded that extra hop is a gift. There is nowhere like the Northwest. 

Last Saturday, making my way back home from a week in the south of France followed by a cruise from Quebec City to Boston on the Holland America Veendam, I flew into clear skies and a beautiful sunset that washed Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams with soft, beautiful hues. Like a lot of others on the Alaska Airlines flight, I pulled out my phone and  snapped a photo. It reminds me that I'm fortunate to live where I do and the extra miles it takes to get home are an opportunity to see things most people only dream about. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rediscovering the Pleasures of Solo Travel

When I was younger I thought nothing of getting on a plane or train or hopping in my car and heading off to somewhere I'd never been before. And I never minded going alone. But after I married, and then started a family, those solo trips were few and far between. Oh, I got away occasionally, but for the most part, we traveled as a family.

It wasn't until my children grew up and started leaving the nest, and my time was once again my own, that I felt comfortable taking off on my solitary adventures again. And I've discovered I'm in good company.

Maybe it was the influence of Eat, Pray, Love or simply a reflection of some other social marker, but it seems  the number of women who are choosing to travel alone is increasing. And I don't mean college students or gap-year wanderers.

I keep meeting and hearing from women who, like me, have worked hard and raised a family and are now enjoying the freedom of an empty nest.

Travel is a gift we can give ourselves, and solo travel is especially rewarding. It gives me time to think and time to write. In fact, I've written about the unique guilt and rewards of being a  traveling mother.

I like to think by not being afraid to strike out and go somewhere on my own, I'm an example of independence to my daughters. In this week's Home Planet column at The Spokesman-Review, I wrote about being a woman who sometimes goes it alone and I shared a list of a few of the things I've learned along the way.

Read Tips for Women Who Travel Alone and tell me what you would add to the list.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

D-Day Veterans and the Beaches of Normandy

 Earlier this month I was speaking to a representative of the Normandy region of France. When asked about the annual pilgrimage of WWII veterans who make the long trip to revisit the D-Day beaches that were the site of their war experience, he said something that made me think.

"This is probably the last year, or one of the last years we can expect veterans to attend," he said.

The men and women who fought in the war are fading away. Each week's obituary page is filled with notices. Soon, they will all be gone.

In late November 2012, I toured the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. I strolled through the garden, read the names inscribed on the wall and studied the sculpture and fountain commemorating the battle. It was deeply moving to think about the scope and drama of the events of June 6, 1944. More than 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and 150,000 servicemen were involved. It was, from all accounts, hell on earth.

I'd like to make the trip to the beaches of Normandy while there's still time to see it through the eyes of the men--and women--who were there. Before they're all gone.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Birmingham, Alabama #ThisTimeLastYear

Last spring I made a quick trip to Birmingham, Alabama. If you've never been south in the spring you've missed a treat. The azaleas and jonquils are blooming and birds are singing.

I snapped this shot of the historic Quinlan Castle on the city's South Side. Built in 1927 as an apartment building, the iconic structure is now part of Southern Research Institute. #ThisTimeLastYear

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Search for the Perfect Suitcase

I've taken to hiding them, shoving the new suitcase in the back of a closet or under the bed. The last thing I want to call attention to is the fact that I've bought yet another piece of luggage.

Like so many other travelers, I am constantly searching for the perfect bag. Not too big and not too small. I need it to be tough, but easy to manage. I want it to be heavy-duty but light enough to carry and easy to push down a crowded airport terminal with the one finger. And, of course, it must have wheels that spin 360 degrees.

I don't want much do I?

In this week's Home Planet column, I wrote about my endless search for the perfect bag. And, judging from the emails, I'm not alone. So, how about you? What's your favorite?

(The monster bag in the photo made a three-week Christmas shopping sweep with me through Wisconsin, Texas and on to a cruise in the Caribbean. I got home with all my treasures but hauling it around wasn't any fun! Never again.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Darling I love you, but give me 5th Avenue

Any day of the week Alaska Airlines flights are busy ferrying people from Spokane to Seattle. It's where we go to play, to get away and, for many of us, to get a little work done.

I decided to go over the day before the meeting and do a little shopping before the lunch on Tuesday. (I had a pocket full of Nordstrom Notes I'd been saving all year I and wanted to hit the Rack while I was in town.)

Two things drew me to the Red Lion 5th Avenue: it was right in the heart of downtown, close to Pike Place Market and the stores I wanted. And, it was a way to stay "local" even when I'm out of town.

Red Lion Hotels is headquartered in Spokane. I figure booking a room at a Red Lion Hotel helps my local economy, even if it's in a small way.

It was my first time at the 5th Avenue and I couldn't have been happier. My room looked out over Elliott Bay and the iconic market sign and the bed was comfy.  I was able to check in early, shop, have dinner and then sleep in before heading out to my noon meeting. It was like a mini-vacation with a little work tossed in for good measure.

In the past I've booked a last-minute room wherever I could find the best deal, and I usually had to walk or take the rail around town. From now on, to quote Zsa Zsa Gabor, just give me 5th Avenue.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Brain Washed

You'd think after a lifetime of trying to be something different, I'd accept that I am who I am. 

This morning I was confronted, again, with my natural tendency to simply fall into a daydream or memory and stay there. For as long as I can remember, I've found myself standing or sitting, staring into space while a chain of thoughts connect like train cars and take me with them when they pull away. My children laugh at me. My husband asks the question a second or third time, until I blink and come back to the present.

This morning I spent half an hour watching the washing machine spin.

I keep most textiles that pass through the rooms in my house. Most are chosen for the intricate texture or weave of the fabric. Some for their color. More than a few pieces for the price--as a longtime treasure hunter I can't help but give in to the bargain. And, unlike so many things we gather as we go, fabrics endure and adapt to change. They can be dyed, stitched, cut, torn or turned into something entirely new so nothing is ever really wasted.

I've been looking for curtains for my bedroom and I remembered I have four silk drapery panels in the "curtains" box in my storeroom. They are woven with squares of rich colors. A little too rich for the room, so I washed them with Rit color remover. As they tumbled in the washing machine, I could see them fading a bit as they turned. But only a bit.

Staring at the fabric I was reminded of when I was a young girl and I first discovered vintage clothing and textiles, the way I loved the weight and feel and strength of old silk when I held it in my hands. I thought of the gossamer filament that is the beginning of any silk fabric, a gift of the silkworm with nothing but the utilitarian task of creating a cocoon in mind. This, maybe it was the idea of a cocoon, a space that wraps us and shelters us as we change and grow, reminded me of a place I recently visited: Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's beloved country home. I am writing about the house for my next Home Planet column. Of course, that reminded me of tomorrow's deadline and soon my mind was spinning with the washing machine, tumbling words and images, structuring the essay I will sit down and write later today.

Poplar Forest, tucked into a beautiful clearing in the Virginia countryside, is undergoing a complete restoration. At this time it is a beautiful shell. Walls have been strengthened and repaired. Oak flooring--as was in the original structure--has been installed. Windows have been rebuilt, alcoves opened and doorways reconfigured, all to bring the beautiful, light filled, octagonal home back to it's original design. Eventually, I suppose, the interior will be recreated to reflect they way Jefferson lived when he was there there. But I found the bare bones of the house to be incredibly beautiful and evocative.

The click of the machine startled me and I realized I had been standing in front of it for the full cycle, my mind having traveled thousands of miles and hundreds of years while the fabric swished in hot water and color remover.  I opened the door and pulled out a panel. It was, in spite of the process, still vibrant. A bit faded, but not to the degree I'd hoped.

Oh, well. It doesn't matter. I may use the panels or I may not. I lost half an hour but I found a path to what I want to say about a beautiful place. After a lifetime I have discovered that sometimes time wasted is time well spent.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Flanders Field American Cemetery, Belgium

 (Photos by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

On a chilly, rainy day in April, I walked along the rows of stark white marble crosses at the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium. The cemetery is one of 24 kept by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

The 368 men buried there were killed between October 30 and November 11, 1918. Just as the Armistice was signed.

They were only a fraction of the 9 million lost.

Now, almost a century later, we're celebrating Memorial Day, honoring those who have given their lives in military service and I've been thinking about a wreath of paper poppies--the symbol of Flanders Fields--that had been left in the chapel at the Flanders Field cemetery.

The card on the wreath said simply, "From an American who remembers." As I wrote on my Spokesman-Review Home Planet blog, the words touched me. That's something each of us should say more often than once a year.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Beautiful Bern: Switzerland in Spring

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

This time last year I was in Switzerland. One of the places I visited was the beautiful city of Bern. It was as if a fairytale city I'd imagined as a child had come to life. The narrow winding streets led from one lovely view to another. The Aare River curled through the city and green hills surround the beautiful valley.

As it happened, I was there on the day of the Grand Prix, the annual footrace that brings thousands of men, women and children to dash through the city.

Here in Spokane, we have something similar. Bloomsday fills the streets with people of all ages running and walking the 7 kilometer race. Just as so often happens in Spokane, the Bern Grand Prix was held on a day that turned rainy and cool. But the overcast skies simply highlighted the green lushness of the landscape.

In this month's Spokane Cd'A Woman magazine, I wrote about Bern and the similarity--at least the athletic similarity-- to Spokane. You can find that story here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Night view of the Menin Gate: Ieper, Belgium (Ypres)

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

When my plane landed in Brussels I was dazed from lack of sleep. I'd had only a few hours sleep in the last couple of days, having worked late into the night on Thursday and then pulled an all-nighter on Friday to get everything written and filed before my 6 a.m. departure Saturday morning.

Most people would have buckled up their seat belts and slept during the flight, but I have some kind of airplane insomnia. I find it almost impossible to sleep on a plane. Besides, we flew over so much unsettled weather (tornadoes across the Midwest) the flight was too bumpy to rest easy. Much of the time the flight attendants were sent by the pilot back to their own seats and the seat belt light was seldom off.

At any rate, my plane landed and my train from Brussels arrived in Ypres exactly on time. After lunch and a long nap, I set out to explore.

As I walked up and down the narrow streets near the marketplace, I thought about what drives us to go and see and explore. About what compels us to endure crowded, bumpy flights, the grating security annoyances and the harsh physical effects of long-distance travel. But when I turned a corner and caught sight of the Menin Gate I realized again that the answer, as is so often the case, was right in front of me.

We go because there are places and people and experiences that tell the flawed and all-too-human story of our loves and losses, our hard-won battles and bone-crushing defeats. Because there is nothing as powerful as standing in a place you've only read about before.