Tori in Spain: Returning to Como

November 7, 2016

Lake Como, Italy. 2016.

Italy may be my favorite country in the world. The summer after I graduated from high school, my best friend & I backpacked through this beautiful country for a month, and it changed my life in a lot of ways.

It was in Italy that I was away from home, on my own, for a month, for the first time. It was in Italy that I was first able to drink legally. It was in Italy that I had to figure out who I was when no one else was around to tell me what to be. It was in Italy that I made some really big mistakes that eventually taught me how to live for God instead of living to bolster my own ego and prove myself to others.

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Backpacking through Menaggio in the summer of 2014 with my best friend Claire & her sister Emily.

Italy taught me about the beauty of cultural difference, how to navigate conflict and disagreement, and how I prefer to travel. Italy taught me about how I am different than others and how that is okay. Italy prepared me to enter into college equipped with more knowledge of who I am and who I want to be.

The most beautiful place I visited in Italy was a town called Mennagio in Lago di Como. It is a small village nestled in the Alps on the shore of a big, beautiful, clear lake. The scenery is breathtaking. Every second feels like a movie because it is just that awe-inspiring. Last weekend, I had the privilege of returning to Mennaggio and staying in the same hostel I stayed at 2 and a half years earlier with my best friend from high school.


Back at Ostello Menaggio 2.5 years later.

This village was where I made the biggest mistakes of my trip to Italy, and it was cool to return to such a crucial place in my story under such different pretenses. While I used to look back at the person who did those things in disgust, I can now see how the Lord was moving in my story and drawing my heart closer to Him in even my darkest moments. I do not feel the need to disassociate myself from the person who did those things, because they are beautiful proof of the story of redemption and healing that the Lord has been telling throughout my life. I was Tori then, and I am Tori now, and I will never be “good” on my own, but will always have a God who takes me as I am and loves me through the process of becoming.


Little ‘ol me looking out at God’s breathtaking creation (2016)

It was fun to return to such an important and beautiful place and do things differently. I went with Kristina, my roommate at U of R, as well as Amalie, my roommate in Madrid, and three of our other good friends. We picnicked on the shore of the lake, went out to a nice Italian dinner, and hiked up to a church with a beautiful view of the city. Additionally, there was FALLLLLL in Como. The leaves were vibrant and the weather was crisp. I had been deeply missing North Carolina autumn, so this was a welcome change from the one day summer next day winter seasonal transition in Madrid.


Picnic number 123912 of abroad!

One night we had drinks with some Australians that were staying at our hostel, and the wine made me “extra passionate” (Kristina’s words, not mine) about effective altruism, privilege, and human rights. Me and my new Australian friend fed off of each others comments and got fired up about social justice over wine. This is a hilarious contrast from the high school girl who didn’t know what a mature relationship with alcohol looked like when she arrived in Como 2.5 years earlier. Jesus is faithful.

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Lago di Como, Italy. 2014.

Olivia in Scotland: Not Throwing Away My Shot

November 4, 2016

Hello! Are you ready for a long post?

As you may remember, I spent a lot of the beginning of my time in the U.K. traveling back and forth between London and Edinburgh. Well, since then, I’ve stayed entirely in Scotland and explored more of this country. Let me tell you, it’s amazing. I did try to slow down a bit these past few weeks, but when I look back at all I did, I see that I’ve really still been going pretty nonstop. I guess that’s the nature of study abroad; I don’t want to throw away my shot to see as many of the sights of Scotland as I possibly can. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to in Scotland in October!

October 8th-9th: I traveled through the Highlands with a bunch of international students to the Isle of Skye! This was the most scenically stunning trip I have ever been on by far. I mean, just look at this:


From the Old Man of Storr which we hiked up on Saturday. The view was absolutely incredible. 

On the way to Skye, we made a lot of stops to see the sights of the Highlands. One of these was Loch Lomond—yes, the one from the song you might have heard before (the “you take the high road and I’ll take the low road” one). From there, we rode through the Highlands (on the same road that James Bond drives on in the movie Skyfall) to Glencoe. This was the site of Scotland’s famous Glencoe Massacre, and for me, the misty mountains there still carry an air of mystery with a touch of the ominous. With its three mountains called the Three Sisters, it is a starkly beautiful place.

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You couldn’t see the tops of the mountains because of the mist and it was eerily cool. Also #spiderpride in Glencoe 

One cool thing I did happened when we stopped for lunch at Fort William. I actually ran around looking for graveyards. That probably sounds pretty weird, but my parents told me that I had ancestors who lived there way back when, so I decided to see if I could find any of them! I didn’t have much luck, but I did see some names on their World War I memorial who could be relatives of ours. That was still a pretty cool feeling.

I’ll mention one other stop we made on the way to Skye: Eilean Donan Castle. It’s located at a point where three lochs converge. We didn’t go inside the castle, but this is definitely among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

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You might recognize this castle if you’ve seen the movie Made of Honor. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. 

Once we got to Skye, I had one of my favorite moments of the whole tour. We stayed in a hostel called Saucy Mary’s that had a bar in the bottom floor. In the bar that night, a band called Iron Midden played (yes, that was their real name). They were a traditional Scottish folk band and they were absolutely incredible. Here’s a sample of one of their songs.

The next day, we rode up to the North of the island, hiked the Old Man of Storr, ate fish and chips in Portree, and made a lot of other stops throughout the island before heading back to Edinburgh. Everywhere we went on this trip was just do beautiful. If you have the opportunity to do a tour like this, GO!


“What are men to rocks and mountains?” -Jane Austen 

October 14th-15th: Because I was showing a friend around the city, I finally did some of the more touristy Edinburgh things that I hadn’t done yet! We went to Edinburgh Castle where we saw the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny which was once the throne of the rulers of Scotland. We also walked along Princes Street where we saw the Scott Monument and walked up Calton Hill where we got a lovely view of the city, and the next morning we went up a bit of Arthur’s Seat for the sunrise.


Arthur’s Seat(ish) at sunrise! (I say “ish” because we didn’t go up very high; that hill is steeeeep.)

In the middle of this, we also took a day trip north to the town of Cupar where we went to Cairnie Fruit Farm. It was fun being in a part of Scotland I had never seen before; there were lots of gentler hills rolling away for miles around. The fruit farm itself had trampolines, pedal-operated go-karts, a corn maze, and a yummy café, so my friends and I had a lovely time.


Pumpkins + friends = a good day!

October 19th: I started making use of my Historic Scotland Membership by visiting nearby Craigmillar Castle with my friend Rachel. This trip illustrated one of my favorite things about Edinburgh—it’s a great city, but you don’t have to go very far until you reach nature again. Craigmillar Castle is only about a 20-minute bus ride away, yet it’s in the middle of open fields and has lots of trees around it. This castle is interesting because, although it’s a ruin and doesn’t look very big, there are a lot of twists and turns and it’s easy to get a little lost. Also, my friend Rachel and I found a room with amazing acoustics, so we had to try singing there.


October 21st-22nd: I went to a light show at the Royal Botanical Gardens on Friday night with some friends from my church. This was really unique and fun! It was actually more of a light-and-water show as they did things like this that combined the two with music:

Then on Saturday I visited the Scottish National Gallery of Art and went on the Potter Trail! Although it’s not as large as other national galleries, I really enjoyed the one here and its wide range of art. It was especially cool to see a few paintings of Edinburgh throughout the ages. Now, what is the Potter Trail, you might ask? Well, it’s a free walking tour that takes you to every location in the city that has something to do with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the series here and got her inspiration from some of the things around her so there’s plenty to see. The highlight? The grave of a “Thomas Riddell,” the name inspiration for Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort.


I was pretty excited to be standing at Voldemort’s grave. #potterhead 

October 28th-30th: I traveled up to St Andrews to visit my friend Susy from Richmond. It’s only about an hour’s train ride away from Edinburgh. The small town atmosphere was a nice change from the city. We went to the East Sands Pier, saw the castle with its impressive siege mine and countermine (which we went down into, although it’s not for the claustrophobic), and went to the ruined cathedral and climbed its tower where you can look out over the town.  For such a placid, peaceful place, it actually has quite a bloody history.


Bloody history or no, the view from the pier is beautiful!

We also went golfing at St Andrew’s world-famous Old Course! Well, not quite at the old course, more like right next to it. They have a putting green called the Himalayas where people who have no idea how to golf can go play mini golf for just a couple pounds, so it was perfect for us. Other than spending time with my sweet friend, my two favorite things about the trip were 1.) the Malteser hot chocolate that I bought at North Point, which is the café where Prince William and Kate used to meet for coffee when they attended the university, and 2.) this beautiful recreation of a movie scene that we caught on camera. We went to West Sands, the beach where the first scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed, and, well, you see what happened.

October 31st: A few friends and I took a road trip to Linlithgow to visit Linlithgow Palace and Blackness Castle. My favorite of these two was Linlithgow Palace. There’s a beautiful loch right next to it with all these little boats on it, and there was some beautiful fall foliage on the trees around it. I loved how the palace had lots of very large windows; the architects seemed to realize that they should just let the natural beauty of Linlithgow speak for itself.


The view from one of the big windows! If you look closely, you can see some white stuff on the water- those are swans.

Lastly, we stopped by Blackness Castle. This one isn’t very large, but its location on the North Sea definitely made it a worthwhile stop for me.

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Blackness Castle with friends! It’s a beautiful spot.

So, that’s all the places I traveled to in the month of October! I’m in love with Scotland. I love the landscapes and the people and the history. I hope I get to explore it more and get to know Edinburgh better in the time I have left here.

Till next time! Slainte mhath! (That’s “cheers” in Gaelic.)

Olivia in Scotland: Autumn Leaves

November 3, 2016

You can feel it in the air. People are beginning to hunker down for winter. It’s already been chilly, but now I’m seeing the addition of hats and gloves to the ensembles of people I pass on the streets (scarves, of course, have been in since I got here). The days are getting shorter, the coats are getting thicker, and the urge to stay inside with a mug of hot tea and a warm blanket grows greater every day.

I had been warned a bit before coming here that it would get really dark and cold and windy as the semester went on and that this would take a toll on my psyche. It’s true; I’ve seen since coming here that I tend to get sadder as the sun goes down and the days get darker. It’s one of those strange sensations that I feel I should be able to control, but it’s almost impossible to do so. I can see why this has been the land of storytelling and ceilidhs for hundreds of years—when the night and the cold seemed as though they were going to blot out everything else, the people here gathered around their fires with the people they loved and found some way to push back the darkness.

I’ve found some of my own ways to do this. The best way is, just as Scots have done for generations, being around friends and family. This may sound odd because I don’t have any blood relatives over here, but I don’t think that means that I don’t have a family here. I mentioned in my first blog post from Scotland that faith makes a family. The truth of this has only increased in my mind over my time in Scotland. My church here has a lot to do with that. It’s called Bridge Family Church for a reason: it’s small, it’s very close, and the people in it treat you like you’re family. These people have been such a blessing to me. As I’ve gone through the extremes of good and bad times here, they have been there for me to listen, laugh, cry with me, pray with me, and show me the love of Christ. I cannot thank them enough or emphasize enough how helpful it has been to have their presence and support.

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Here’s a lot of my church family from our day trip to Cairnie Fruit Farm!

These same friends and family have helped me get out, do things, and see the beauty in the world around me, even when I felt more like isolating myself. This could be as simple as having a movie and sleepover night or going out for tea. I keep seeing over and over again that the simplest gestures let me know that other people care about me, and I should do the same for them.


The ingredients for a perfect movie night with my friend Gianna #americaneedsjammiedodgers

These are the people who traveled with me to Linlithgow earlier this week to see Linlithgow Palace and Blackness Castle. I had so much fun exploring these beautiful places with such fun people. For me, the most stunning part of these places was the natural beauty of their surroundings. I don’t think anything will ever surpass Richmond fall, and I think all Spiders reading this will agree with me, but I did find some stunning fall foliage that day.


When you find perfect fall leaves, you take a picture. It’s Instagram law. Then the dogs ran in and made it perfect!

As I see the leaves changing and feel the world around me following suit, I’m learning about letting myself feel what I feel. You may have seen some this struggle in my post about loneliness. I want so badly to be able to control all of the things that I’m feeling, but I see more and more that I can’t really do this and that that isn’t the answer. If I don’t first accept what I’m feeling, I can’t move on from that emotion, and then I end up isolating myself. This may sound rather Inside Out to the Disney lovers out there, but I’m learning firsthand that I have to let myself feel sad and angry before I can feel happy again. In the midst of all my emotions, though, I have felt how fully I can rely on God. He has not left me here for one second, no matter what I’m feeling. I’m so thankful for someone on whom I can completely rely in every situation and who cares how I feel. I’m so thankful for the love He has shown me through the people He has placed in my life.

This holds true for me through all the winds of change “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).

There’ll be one more post this week with my latest travel updates. 🙂 Till next time!

Jack in NZ: Flops

September 29, 2016

14:00; 2.5hrs until Bluff to Oban Ferry leaves; 2hrs until boarding but they’ll probably be flexible; 2hrs 50min drive from Dunners to Bluff; 1hr 50 mins to go; adequate safety margin for rest stop; ferry takes 1hr; getting me to Stewart Island at around 17:30; leaving a few hours of daylight to crank out the first leg of Rakiura; might have to do some hiking in the dark; that’s cool; might spot a kiwi; someone said they come out on the trail at night; campsite is by the beach; might see some there; what’s that song; the popular one; with the ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’?; also night hiking isn’t that bad; kinda fun; no navigational concerns; trail is well marked; have a headlamp; should be fine; do I have everything else?; tent; pad; bag; hiking clothes; sleeping clothes; Closer; binocs for birds; bird book; knife; fork; Chainsmokers; that’s the one; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; pot; stove; fuel; no pot lid though; that’s fine; use a little more fuel to boil water; have plenty; should be fine; socks; extra socks; extra underwear; book; definitely will have down time for reading; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; no extra headlamp batteries to read in the dark if they run out; notebook; pen; same deal w.r.t. writing in the dark; probably ok; replaced batteries recently; should be fine; rope; sunscreen; first aid supplies; food; tea; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; enough food?; yeah; plenty; should be fine; will be eating a lot; hike is 32km in three days; not bad; done worse; pack is pretty light; solo; should be fine; clear head; chill; meditate; read; write; enjoy outdoors; exercise; did I bring a towel?; yes; definitely; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; first night at Maori Beach; like 3hr hike in; might be able to hitch to trailhead; small island; people are friendly according to guidebook; 3hr walk in dark will be kinda cool; also some daylight for walking; next day wake up and do inland portion to North Arm; like 4 or 5 hrs; seafood possibilities there; then hike out next day; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; like another 4 or 5 hrs; Allan’s base camp on way to town; hang out; rest; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; go to town; maybe hit the pub; suss out kayak options; kayak out to Ulva for birds next day; then do some fishing; have rod; will need to get bait or scrounge some mussels or something; should be fine; kayak back to town; night at Allan’s; out early next morning; ferry at 8; need to save phone power for alarm; it’s plugged in now; turn low battery mode on; only use for pictures; should be fine; ‘we ain’t ever gettin older’; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; I wonder if the same flip flop driving rule applies in New Zealand; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’; ‘we ain’t ever getting…’; no…; no…; I didn’t…; did I?…; yeah; yep; yep; definitely did… [various redacted expletives]… what time is it now?; can’t turn around to get them; would miss the ferry… [various redacted expletives]; well… looks like I’ll be hiking in flip flops… ; … ; …should be fine; ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’…


Olivia in Scotland: Strangers Like Me

September 22, 2016

Greetings from Edinburgh!

After a week and two days, it’s still difficult to believe that I’m actually here. Even from what I’ve seen so far, this city and this country are as lovely or lovelier than I heard them described. Where else can you get views like this?


From my day trip to the Borders area where we stopped by the beautiful village of Peebles!


Hiking up Arthur’s Seat, the big hill in the middle of Edinburgh.


This is a little of what it looks like from the top of Arthur’s Seat!


I took this from inside The Elephant House, which is, for the Harry Potter fans, the coffeeshop where J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of the first book!


I love how cozy all of the streets look here. Many houses have flowers in their window boxes or front gardens. 

I’ve only really done one major tourist attraction in the city so far (Arthur’s Seat). Thankfully, I’ve got the rest of the semester to see the sights. So much of this past week has been about gathering basic necessities, enrolling in courses, meeting new people, trying to get over my jet lag, and generally getting settled. If you’re a student thinking of going abroad, make sure to be gracious with yourself; don’t feel like you have to see every sight of your new city all at once in the very beginning while you’re still exhausted!

I think often what is most striking about a new place is not what is different from one’s home, but what is unexpectedly the same. I’ve seen a lot of similarities over the past week so I’m just going to list some off:

  • The natural scenery. When my taxi took me from the airport through the surrounding countryside to the city center, I was surprised how much the landscape reminded me of Virginia. I have lived in Virginia all my life, and the hills here actually look quite a lot like those of western Virginia, or of somewhere like Albemarle county. I thought the same thing on my day trip to the Borders area on Saturday when I hiked through the Cardrona forest in Tweed Valley Forest Park.

While it’s certainly not exactly like home, to me, it felt like I was in Virginia but with more coniferous trees. 

  • The number of Americans. There are more American visiting students in Edinburgh than students visiting from any other country! Even outside of the university students, I have met many other American adults living in the city as well. I actually feel like I’ve talked to more Americans than Scots in my time here so far. This didn’t even happen on purpose; there’s just so many of them!
  • Political talk. Scotland and the US are both in political turmoil right now what with the upcoming presidential election in America and the fierce desire of many Scots for independence from the UK. My personal tutor (the equivalent of an academic advisor here) told me that he hasn’t seen the political situation this volatile here since the 70s. Both countries seem to be at a crossroads, so you’ll hear a lot of people talking about politics. All of the Scottish people here want to know what the Americans think about America’s political situation right now, so in turn, I ask them about their perspective on their own. It’s definitely led to a few interesting conversations.
  • The music. They mostly play American music on the radio in the shops and pubs here. For me, this was most striking when I attended  Christian faith events. In the church services I went to, as well as the worship session with Christian Union (a student organization here), we sang some of the exact same worship songs I sing in my church at home. While I definitely heard some unfamiliar Christian songs as well, it did feel nice to have some that I knew well.

All that being said, there are also a lot of differences from the life I am used to. I’ve never lived in a city before, so I’m still getting used to all of the walking (thankfully, Edinburgh is a very walkable city). There are more people here from other countries and regions than I’ve encountered in one place before. Unexpectedly, I’ve learned quite a bit about cultures other than Scottish culture just in the past week. I became friends with one student from Louisiana who explained the difference between Cajun and Creole culture and told me all about the city of New Orleans. I also became friends with several people of Korean origin and have eaten Korean food more than once since arriving here! I am learning that living in a city means encountering a variety of cultures, and I am loving it.

One difference between American and British culture I have fully embraced: when British people drink tea, they usually eat biscuits (cookies) with it instead of just drinking the beverage on its own. I knew this about the culture already because I have a boyfriend back home who is half English, so when I arrived, I decided to go all out with it. Tea biscuits were one of my first purchases here, and I’ve taken to drinking no less than two cups of tea per day with them. I’ve been an avid tea lover for a long time, so I feel rather like I’m able to fully be my true tea-drinking self here!


To close this post, I’ll share a little of what the most special aspect of this trip has been to me so far. I thought that it would take me a while to make friends in Edinburgh, especially friends who would really care about me. To my surprise, I’ve made good friends incredibly quickly. This is entirely due to the Christian community here. I’ve found that having one thing in common with other people—particularly having faith in common—can bond you together with them very quickly, whatever your other differences might be. I’ve certainly talked to people who are different from me in this area as well and I value those conversations very higly, but it has been very sweet to see how faith creates a family. I can’t wait to see more of this as my trip goes on.


Part of my Edinburgh family!


Because family is also crazy and sometimes they paint your face.

Welcome week was great; now on to classes!

Jack in NZ: Awaroa

September 15, 2016

“I feel that I am pressing my face into the hot sand of a tropical beach. I feel lucky to be alive. I am lucky to be alive! Or is it that I am alive to be lucky?” – Terence McKenna

I’m sitting on a beach in Abel Tasman National Park watching the tide go out. My back rests against an oversized piece of driftwood. There is a solitary sand fly crawling across the left lens of my Ray Bans toward the bridge of my nose. I adjust my sunglasses slightly and the bugger retreats to my hand, preparing to dig in. I squish him a little bit and he gets the message: ‘shoo fly, don’t bother me’.

A man hauling a trailer drives by on an ATV and parks on the edge of the promontory. We exchange friendly nods. He unloads boxes of gear and departs, disappearing behind the curves of the inlet. He returns by boat with several others. They load the gear and head for the Cook Straight, riding the remaining bits of river into the sea.

The tide has been slowly receding all morning, revealing patches of muddy sand and collections of thousands of cockle shells polished green and blue and purple. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and wade across a trickling stream to an exposed sandbar where a flock of ducks soaks up the sun and enjoys a seafood feast. The ducks aren’t a fan of me, it seems. I get about 50 feet from a pair before they make a waddling retreat to the opposite shore.


I adjourn to the log, digging my swollen feet into the shoals along the way, letting the clam remains scratch and massage their flea-bitten, calloused skin. The water is refreshingly cold.

I walk to a small side trail flanked by large patches of gorse. The bushes are beginning to flower. Fuzzy green pods are emerging from the plants spikey stalks. Small yellow flowers like miniature orchids pornographically beckon bees that buzz past. The nectar-seekers bumble along, their striped backs alternating between orange and black.

I hear a whooping from one of the bushes that belongs to a California quail. The bird is dusky blue and has a single teardrop feather emerging from its head. He’s an order of magnitude friendlier than the ducks, tolerating five feet of separation before flitting over the trail with his buddies and a chorus of whoops.


I trek back along the trail. It’s interpolated with quail and boot prints. I sit on the log and drink lukewarm green tea out of a Nalgene bottle and watch a petrel float past the Jurassic landscape. The riparian mountains are every shade of green, dotted with palm-sized ferns. I can faintly hear the calls of tuis and the pips of small birds over the trickling of the tide.

It occurs to me that I haven’t experienced solitude like this in a long time. The weeks leading up to mid-semester break were hectic and crammed, with no time to visit the Great Outdoors and relax. Here there is no rush. I feel like I can finally think clearly, so I do. I sit and sip and think and write.


The tide has gone all the way out, it’s time to continue the trek. I walk back to camp and trade smiles with a group of trampers relaxing on the beach. I reach the hut and one of our group members says, “Wow dude, where were you? You were gone for almost four hours”

Another says, “You look really happy right now, man.”

“I am,” I say.



Jack in NZ: Screensaver

August 18, 2016

“Day, me say day, me say day, me say day

Me say day, me say day-o” – Harry Belafonte

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky” – Jimi Hendrix

“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” – Tim Rice

“Tide goes in, tide goes out… you can’t explain that” – Bill ‘Papa Bear’ O’Reilly

I realize that posting a barely-edited 45-minute GoPro video instead of a blog might seem like a copout. In some sense it is. I didn’t have to work very hard on it. I just plunked a camera in the sand and enjoyed the view, no writing required.

But it’s better for both of us this way. I’m not sure I have the linguistic facility to adequately describe what you’re about to see. I didn’t have it after a few hours of tipsy sleep in the beachside cave Thursday night, and I can’t summon it now.

So rather than write a frilly, dramatic, dashed-off-at-the-last-minute description, I’m going spare you my “waking up with shorebirds” and “staring over Earth’s elegant curve at the sunbeams advancing over the horizon” and “utter inner peace” hippy nonsense and let you provide your own.

That being said, please enjoy last Friday’s sunrise at Long Beach:

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