All posts by Daren Stinson

Daren Stinson is a self-taught tax expert who, for many years, lived on Martha's Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. She recently relocated to Durango, CO, before living in Scotsdale, Arizona. To date, Daren has visited countries on six of the seven continents. She has contributed photographs from the U.K. and Martha's Vineyard, as well as articles on the United Kingdom and Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico.


United Kingdom FlagThe islands that make up the United Kingdom probably broke off of the mainland of Europe about 8 millennia ago. Orginally occupied by little-known tribal cultures, some of whom are thought to have built Stonehenge, the island region was invaded by the Celts around 500 BC. These Celtic invaders drove most of the island communities into the areas that now make up the Scottish Highlands and Welsh mountains. In 54 BC, Juluis Caesar set up a ruling government in the southern regions and built roads, towns, and fortresses. During this time, various religions were introduced and agriculture and trade flourished. England–the area of the United Kingdom encompassing the southern and southeastern portion of Great Britain (south from roughly the Cheviot Hills in Scotland and east from roughly the eastern foothills of the Cambrian Mountains in Wales)–is a land slow to transform into the 21st century; still, modern-day England is a far cry from the England of the mid-20th century. The country wants to promote its old-world hertitage with a new-world flavor. More and more, the royal family seems to fade from the public eye, replaced by actors, artists, musicians, and “celebrity” politicians.

Traveling in England
England MapThe costs of traveling in England can drain your funds quickly. The more you do, the more it will costs you, so if you are looking for an inexpensive vacation, England (and especially London) may not be the place. Accessing funds in England shouldn’t be any problem, though, as traveler’s checks, ATMs, and credit cards are all widely excepted. England can be extremely expensive and London, in particular, can be a big drain on your funds. While in London you will need to budget at least US$35 per day for basic survival (dorm accommodation, a one-day travel card, and food). Even moderate sightseeing or nightlife can easily add at least another US$25 to this. If you stay in a hotel and eat restaurant meals you could spend more than US$90 per day, without living extravagantly. London, EnglandOnce you get out of the city, costs will drop, particularly if you have a transport pass and if you cook your own meals. You’ll still need at least US$30 a day, and if you stay in B&Bs, eat one restaurant meal per day, and don’t skip out on courtesy entry fees, you’ll need about US$65 a day.

Weather in England
Weather in England is something of a local obsession. England’s weather is typically mild and the ever-present rain is usually light. The worst times to visit England, weatherwise, would be between November and February, when the days are shortest and the air temperature is cold. The best times are between April and September, when the weather is warmer and most commercial operations are open. Beware, however, that during these months, England–specifically London–can be overrun with tourists; accomodations should be arranged well in advance, as well as any other reservations for popular tourist events such as festivals, shows, etc.

England Information
Europe Map Population: 50 million
Government: Parliamentary Democracy
Square Miles: 50,085 sq mi (129,720 sq km)
Capitol: London
Official Language: English
People: Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians
Religion: Church of England, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh
Major products/industries: Banking and finance, steel, transport equipment, oil and gas, tourism

Journey to the Center of the Earth: A Walk through Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

by Daren Stinson
New Mexico
An oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert, Carlsbad, New Mexico is approximately 120 miles north of El Paso, Texas. A nice town with plenty of hotels, restaurants, and a Wal-Mart, Carlsbad makes a good base camp from which to stock up and explore the area’s most significant attraction, the Carlsbad Cavern National Park.

Just south of town, a small brown sign lets you know to turn right and begin the five mile ascent on a twisting paved road through the area designated as Carlsbad National Park. The drive ends at the visitors center, the gateway to the caverns, but before you go in, take a look out over the valley stretched out below and imagine it during the Permian Age 286 million years ago, as a vast open sea.

At that time, the sea stretched across an area of land covering virtually all of what’s now the western United States, retreating as the Paleozoic Era came to an end. Because of the natural mountain boundary, a massive (250 miles wide, 300 miles long) salt sea basin remained in its place, covering an area made up of present day southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Over the next 38 million years, the remaining sea slowly evaporated depositing sediment rich in potash across the valley floor. Potash is a valuable ingredient in fertilizer, but nineteenth-century settlers found more use in the vast stores of bat guano, selling it first for fertilizer and later for the saltpeter that was an active ingredient in gunpowder. Mid-twentieth-century exploration found oil buried under the region, and to date almost 15 billion barrels of oil and 2.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas have been extracted from the area.
Entance to Carlsbad Caverns For scientists, however, the caverns themselves are the most valuable natural resource. To the scientific community, the limestone caverns and surrounding mountains provide an opportunity to study an ocean reef from the inside. Though the reef was made of mostly sponges and algae, which have long since disappeared, live bacteria still grows in the underground water pools, and well-preserved fossils have been found in the rock. Unfortunately, everyday tourists do not get to dig for fossils or collect bacteria samples. Instead, they come to see the effects water can have on solid rock.

Inside the visitors center, a ticket buys access to the main cavern which can be reached quickly by an elevator ride, or alternatively, an hour-long walk through the “natural” entrance. The mouth of the cave was discovered long ago by Native Americans; settlers pushing West also explored the caves, but men were not the first visitors. The Mexican Free-Tailed Bat has been making Carlsbad Caverns its summer home for over 5,000 years. More than 200,000 bats currently reside in the cavern, and their evening flights en masse to hunt for food provide a magnificent experience for tourists.

The bats live and bear young inside the cave due to the consistent climate. Temperatures can be extreme above ground, but inside the caverns, temperatures hold steady around 56 degrees–be prepared to adjust to the change in conditions. In addition to the strong sulfur smell, the path is steep, slippery, and poorly lit in many areas. On the way down, but especially when you reach the cavern floor, stalagmites and stalactites are a feature attraction.

Doll’s Theater, Carlsbad CavernLike an elaborate cathedral created by nature, the main area of the cavern is called The Great Room. It is the largest natural underground chamber in the United States, with appropriately named formations, such as Doll’s Theater and Whale’s Mouth.

In 1923, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent inspectors to judge the aesthetic worth of the caverns. One inspector named Robert Holley had to say of Carlsbad,”…I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in the deep conflicting emotions, the feeling of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Devine Creator’s work which presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders…” The area was designated a national monument on May 13, 1930. In all, thirty miles of passageways can be explored, although, most of the areas beyond the Great Room require a separate admission and guide.

A total of 100 caves have been discovered in the area, encompassing 46,766 acres, including Lechugilia Cave. At 1,567 feet, it’s the deepest in the United States. In addition, thirty-five miles south of Carlsbad National Park, across the border in Texas, are the Guadalupe Mountains, which functioned as part of the natural boundary of the Permian Basin. Today, they provide hiking, camping, and four-wheel drive opportunities through desert, canyon, and highland environments. For more information on all the attractions in the Carlsbad/El Paso corridor please visit

Pipe Dreams

by Daren Stinson
British PlumbingDuring my four weeks in the United Kingdom last summer, I crisscrossed the country and reveled in its history, beauty, and variety. As the landscape changed, so did the dialects, architecture, culture, and food, but I did find one constant. I was constantly plagued by inadequate plumbing. I have friends and relatives who have been to the U.K. I have friends who are British. Why didn’t anyone warn me? Okay, the topic isn’t one likely to come up in polite conversation, but when my family asked me about my trip, I couldn’t help but express my frustration with the plumbing issues I faced daily. The Brits may take pride in their long history, progressive metropolises, and quaint country towns, but there is something to be said for modern convenience where you need it most: in the bathroom. Since my return, when I have had occasion to bring the subject up, I’ve gotten reactions ranging from surprise to a casual shrug as if it was something that everyone knew. For those of you who do not know, please read on…

Considering the inventor of the flushable toilet, Albert Giblin (credit is often, wrongfully, bestowed upon Sir Thomas Crapper), was himself a Brit, there is little excuse for primitive nature of British loos. At first, I thought I was just having bad luck, but after comparing notes with a fellow traveler, and discovering that she had encountered the same problems, we had a lengthy discussion about our experiences and came to the following conclusion: it takes at least three flushes to do the job. Holding the handle down longer doesn’t help and, in fact, can exacerbate the problem. I spent 20 minutes some days just trying to make sure that the loo was fully flushed for the next person.

Apparently, poorly functioning toilets are so widespread throughout the country that everyone just incorporates it into their day, like breathing. Near the end of my trip, I asked a friend who is a native Brit if he’d ever noticed problems flushing the toilets. He just shrugged. He didn’t seem to care. I wondered if his casual attitude was because he’d never experienced a properly functioning toilet? My advice: let the toilet water run full cycle before trying again, and if you are in a big hurry, try to sneak out of the bathroom before anyone figures out which stall you used.

The one bright spot I found during my toilet toiling was that Brits do have a sense of humor, however subtle and twisted. They annually acknowledge the “Loo of the Year” (see

I expect there is a long checklist of qualifications used to determine which public facility deserves such an honor, however, flushability is the obvious exemption. I know this because I used the bathroom at Castle Howard (outside of York, in North England) recipient of “2001 Loo of the Year” award. While the bathroom was attractive, with wood paneled stalls and Corian-style wash basins, I ranked it in my top three most troublesome flushing experiences (and make no mistake, that was not due to my contributions).

I did have a favorite public bathroom. It was in a little café in Guildford, about an hour south of London. The washroom was very small–actually closet-like–and had just one toilet and a very small sink. Despite the lack of elbow room (don’t try to bring your backpack in there), it had two very key benefits, a unique toilet seat and a one-flush-and-you’re-all-set feature. The toilet seat was outstanding. It was made of clear plastic, and suspended inside the mold were pieces of candy: lifesavers, gummy bears, gumdrops, peppermint swirls, and lollipops. My only regret from my entire trip was that I did not have my camera in there with me to take a picture of this seat. The fact that the toilet flushed on the first try was an added bonus, and the combination alone should qualify it hands down as the “Premier Loo of the U.K.” (For more on British toilets, see

While the toilets were troublesome, they were at times amusing. What I found distinctly less amusing was what the people of Britain accept as a sorry excuse for a shower.

I never did get confirmation on this, but I decided that British people must take a lot of baths because, aside from in the newer buildings (and even sometimes in those), every place I stayed had a bathtub with a makeshift shower. By makeshift I mean, instead of a sturdy chrome shower head poking through a wall of tile, as you might expect in many other first-world countries, a bather is instead faced with a hose-like contraption bracketed up the wall above the tub faucet and topped with a small plastic showerhead, all resembling a slightly larger version of one of those flexi-hose nozzles used to help rinse dishes in the kitchen sink. It was as if someone had traveled to America, been impressed by our quick and convenient method of bathing, and rushed home to the mother land to jerry rig a similar contraption from a piece of garden hose and a small sprinkler head. And after it was done once, the idea took off like wildfire across the country, with every copy cat using the same cheap parts.

Another interesting feature is that no shower in the U.K. operates by simply turning on the water–that would be too easy. Every single shower I used had a trick to it. You have to find the pull-cord or the red switch or knob, or all three, before you could get the eventual trickle of water to leak out. I strongly advise travelers to ask your host how the shower works before you are left alone in the bathroom to fend for yourself.

Also, since water pressure seems to be potluck, I often had trouble rinsing the shampoo from my hair, and usually ended up with rather dull, flat locks. My solution: don’t wash your hair more than once a week (it looks the same clean or dirty under these conditions anyway). Another option is to finish showering, then rinse your hair under the tub faucet. This works better, but it was difficult to get into an effective position, and I felt a little silly trying, so I only did it once, when I was staying in York, home of the worst plumbing in the country. (I do advise that if you are really struggling with these toilet and shower issues, avoid York altogether.)

Water pressure problems are the main source of the flushing and showering struggles. Most British homes have only a 1/2-inch supply line to the water main (compared to the much larger standard American pipes), which will not provide enough water for simultaneous use of sinks, showers, and/or toilets. To get around this problem, many homes have installed a cistern in the attic that depends on gravity to distribute water through the rest of the house. This sometimes forces a homeowner to install a pump or heater/pump in places like the shower (hence the switches, knobs, and pull-cords mentioned above) just to have somewhat adequate water pressure. As it is, the materials used in shower construction are designed for low-pressure flow.

My personal theory (and this has not been confirmed) is that the plumbing in much of Britain was installed in the wake of the devastation caused by World War II, and has yet to undergo any major renovation since then. And because the Brits seem perfectly content to live with their showers and loos as is, we tourists who are used to a little something more must simply get used to it too. But if you’re like me and love to travel, but always end up writing “Things I Miss from Home” lists, you can be sure that your bathroom, will be at the tops of that list, and it will forever after hold a special place in your heart.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

As you pass through the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico and west Texas—filled with prickly pear, chollas, sotols and agaves—you might never guess there are more than 300 known caves beneath the surface. The park contains 113 of these caves, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone, creating some of the largest caves in North America.

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Great Britain, United Kingdom

Great Britain (Scottish Gaelic: Breatainn Mhòr, Welsh: Prydain Fawr, Cornish: Breten Veur, Scots: Graet Breetain) is the larger of the two main islands of the British Isles, the largest island in Europe and the ninth largest island in the world. Great Britain is also the third most populated island on earth, with a population of 58 million people and is the world’s 5th largest economy. It lies to the northwest of Continental Europe, with Ireland to the west, and makes up the largest part of the territory of the country known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is surrounded by over 1,000 smaller islands and islets.

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Martha’s Vineyard (adjoining the smaller Chappaquiddick Island) is an island off the United States east coast, to the south of Cape Cod, both forming a part of the Outer Lands region. It is often called just “the Vineyard”. With a land area of 87.48 square miles (231.75 km²), Martha’s Vineyard is the 57th largest island in the United States.