Three Perfect Days: Houston
It's easy to think you know Texas—the word is shorthand for longhorns, cowboy boots, dusty trails, and a certain Southern charm. And, to an extent, it's all true: People in Houston do wear large hats sometimes, and few non-Texans can match their ability to rock cowboy boots in business meetings. But in a city whose top industries include energy, aerospace, and medical science, the Lone Star tropes only get you so far. Yes, there will be Tex-Mex and pearl snap shirts. But there will also be groundbreaking art, creative fusion food, and the control center that put humans on the moon. All towns have their contradictions, but few accommodate them as comfortably as this Southern city on the bayou. Everything's bigger in Texas, so there's plenty of room.
Story by Jacqueline Detwiler | Photography by Shannon O'Hara | Hemispheres, May 2018
Exploring Chinatown with a famous chef
Houston is a place of many surprises, the first of which is that the humidity will go right ahead and do your hair for you. By the time I finish drinking coffee on my charming little opera balcony at Hotel ZaZa, which overlooks the city's live oak–lined Museum District, the bayou breeze has worked its magic, leaving my hair with more body than I thought possible. As far as hotel amenities go, I'm all for it.
My first stop this morning is a funky red-brick coffee shop called Blacksmith, for a croissant with crème fraîche and marmalade. I'm also meeting Chris Shepherd, who won the James Beard Best Chef Southwest award in 2014 and runs an ever-shifting restaurant empire on a few blocks of Houston's Montrose neighborhood.
Shepherd enters Blacksmith with so much hand-shaking and back-slapping that he might as well be the mayor. A big man with oversize opinions, he tends to say things like: “The Houston food scene needs to be about more than us. It needs to be about a city united." Diners at his most famous restaurant, Underbelly, leave with a list of local restaurants, farms, grocery stores, and bars that Shepherd recommends they visit before they come back.
“My lips have swollen up as if they've been stung by wasps, and I still can't stop eating."
One of the restaurants Shepherd advocates for is Crawfish & Noodles, a Vietnamese-Cajun joint in Chinatown that was recently featured (along with Shepherd) in David Chang's Netflix documentary series, Ugly Delicious. Shepherd is taking me there to meet chef Trong Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant (the Houston metro area has the third-largest population of Vietnamese in the U.S.) who is making some of the most exciting food in the country right now.
Clams at Crawfish & Noodles
At a no-frills table in the back, Shepherd orders us a round of Tsingtao beers, sticky-sweet fish sauce chicken wings, fried salt and pepper blue crabs that we crack open to mine the sweet lump meat, and tender turkey neck with shallots fried so thin and chewy you could mistake them for noodles. Then there are the spicy garlic-butter crawfish, served in a bag that you have to cut open so they tumble out into a bowl alongside a potato or two and a fearsomely spice-slathered cut of corn cob. We rip the tails off and suck the heads in rapturous silence for a few minutes, until we're huffing and sniffling from the pepper. My lips have swollen up as if they've been stung by wasps, and I still can't stop eating.
Chef Chris Shepherd tackles the crustaceans at Crawfish & Noodles
“Who's got the stones to eat the corn?" Shepherd says with a laugh.
After lunch, he takes me on a tour of the neighborhood, stopping at a shop around the corner, Gio Lua Duc Huong, to pick up what he says is the best Vietnamese bologna in the city. Then he drops me back at Blacksmith, promising to meet up for drinks later.
To make room for dinner, I take a walk through Montrose, wandering streets lined with bars and restaurants and then rows of single-family houses whose porches are festooned with lanterns and whose pickup trucks sit beneath light-laced trees. Blame the weather: Houstonians love a good outdoor space.
About 15 minutes south of Blacksmith I find the Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational reflection space that Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil commissioned from painter Mark Rothko back in 1964. (It opened in 1971.) Inside, benches and meditation pillows face 14 moody Rothko paintings, their brushstrokes uneven enough to suggest hidden realms receding into the distance, like when you put two mirrors across from each other. My favorite is a bluish one that looks like the nitrogen bubbles sinking into a Guinness. I mean, it's also just a plain blue square, of course. Rothkos are confusing.
Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk in front of the Rothko Chapel
After freshening up at the hotel, I head back to Montrose for dinner at Shepherd's Underbelly. Come July, the space that currently houses the restaurant will have been transformed into his latest venture, a steakhouse called Georgia James, while a smaller, nimbler version of Underbelly, UB Preserv, will have opened down the street, and Shepherd's One Fifth concept restaurant, which offers a new cuisine every year, will switch to Mediterranean. Confused? All you really need to remember is that Underbelly's signature dishes—Korean braised goat and dumplings, cha ca–style fish with turmeric and dill, and crispy market vegetables with caramelized fish sauce, which were inspired by Vietnamese wings like the ones at Crawfish & Noodles—will be available in perpetuity at Shepherd's hipster craft beer bar, Hay Merchant.
A mural in Market Square Park by graffiti artist GONZO247
After I've eaten, Shepherd returns to join me for a drink at the nearby Anvil Bar & Refuge, a classic cocktail bar with a good-looking clientele, huge windows, and a flea-market Campari sign so cool I'd try to steal it if I could figure out how to get it in the car. Apparently, new bartenders at Anvil have to spend a night making every drink on the house list of 100 cocktails you should have once in your life, and selling them for just $1 apiece.“Blame the weather: Houstonians
love a good outdoor space."
Tonight's bartender tells us there are going to be two of them tomorrow, which feels a little bit like that classic bar sign, "Free beer yesterday." No matter—I'll gladly pay full price for a cocktail as fun as the Weather Top, which arrives in a tiny coupe glass with a powdered sugar–covered rosemary sprig on top, like Christmas in spring.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Montrose is an ideal neighborhood for carousing—you can walk from bar to bar, and everyone seems to have the same starry-eyed idea about what nighttime is for. Shepherd and I have drinks. And then more drinks. “I can't believe we're opening three restaurants at the same time, and renovating our house," he says. He claps me on the back, a sign that I have been approved by the de facto mayor of Houston. “We're stupid," he says.
Eventually, I say goodnight and call an Uber to take me back to Hotel ZaZa, where I shout “Goodnight, shiny horse!" to the disco-ball equine standing astride the lobby koi pond, and then crawl, fully clothed, into bed.
Getting to the root of "Houston, we have a problem"
OK, I need a donut. Actually, I heard rumors last night about something even better: kolaches, savory stuffed buns that are like a cross between a ham croissant and a King's Hawaiian roll, but with sausage. I decide to get one at Christy's Donuts & Kolaches, a no-nonsense pseudo-diner in Montrose. Under an enormous yellow sign, a few hardcore patrons read the newspaper, powdered sugar on their faces. I order two kolaches: a standard sausage, cheddar, and jalapeño, and a slightly larger one stuffed with boudin—crumbly, heavily spiced Cajun rice sausage. The latter can only be described as revelatory.
The tiny Mercury 9 spacecraft
Next, I'm off on a 40-minute drive down to Space Center Houston, the only way you can get into NASA's Johnson Space Center without a chaperone or a government ID. Inside the museum, I turn into an excitable 10-year-old. I touch rocks from the moon and Mars and pretend I'm a superhero. I climb into a replica space shuttle—the Independence—and pretend to press all the buttons. I look at old spacesuits and buy astronaut ice cream and imagine being crammed into the minuscule Mercury 9 spacecraft (about which astronaut John Glenn once said, “You don't climb into the Mercury spacecraft; you put it on.")
An Extravehicular Mobility Unit suit at Space Center Houston
Finally, I board a tram for a tour of the actual Johnson Space Center. The first stop is the historic Mission Control Center, which handled the Gemini and Apollo missions (Remember “Houston, we have a problem"?) until it was decommissioned in favor of a modern mission control center in 1995. The man who leads our tour reverently describes the dedication of the team that put humans on the moon using less computer memory than you could stash on a USB stick. It's sobering to learn a fact like that while looking at a room that could be a set in a 1960s period piece. What the heck have I done with all the power in my iPhone?
Next, we pass through the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where engineers are building a humanoid robot that is so dexterous it can turn a page without ripping it. A young boy leans over to his friend and says what I'm pretty sure everyone else is thinking: “I wish I had a LEGO set of this whole place!"
Inside the replica shuttle Independence
"I turn into a 10-year-old, touching rocks from the moon and pretending I'm a superhero."By the time I leave, I'm starving. Luckily, even from the highway it's impossible to miss the massive wood pavilion that marks Killen's Barbecue. The food here is so good—woody and smoky and wonderfully fattening—that there's a long line of folks waiting to get in. I order tender brisket, smoky pork ribs, tangy collard greens, beef ribs, and mac 'n' cheese so thick and gooey it's practically a solid block.
Buffalo Bayou Park
There's not much one can do after such a lunch, other than fall into a food coma or take a walk. I opt for the latter. Founded in 1986, Buffalo Bayou Park gives visitors a sense of what Houston was like before it was covered in cool restaurants and fancy offices. Surrounding a creek that flows from Katy, Texas, through the River Oaks neighborhood, and down to Galveston Bay, the park is a wild mix of Texas prairie flora, a haunting cistern that dates to 1926, a “lost" pond, and some unexpected wildlife.
The sun is setting when I enter the park, and I soon find myself waiting in a crowd next to a bridge, in the hope that the 250,000 members of the Waugh Drive Bat Colony will wake up and flitter out into the dusk in search of insects. Finally, they emerge, spiraling out in wispy curlicues. A hawk swoops by, trying to catch one, and the crowd makes disappointed “awww" noises when it misses, as if we're watching a football game. But then the hawk succeeds, and tears its prey to smithereens in a tree while everyone watches in horror and fascination. What is this, Yellowstone?
"Buffalo Bayou Park gives visitors a sense of what Houston was like before it was covered in cool restaurants and fancy offices."
The park's underground 1926 cistern
Bats observed, I drive over to the Marriott Marquis, which towers over the downtown neighborhood of Avenida Houston like a Las Vegas casino. The marble lobby features intersecting arcs of grand chandeliers and fresh floral arrangements. From my corner room, which has almost more windows than walls, I look out onto Discovery Green, a park that hosts concerts and Saturday morning yoga and skating sessions in one of those plastic rinks that are ubiquitous in places with hot climates. I even have a view of the hotel's 530-foot-long neon-blue lazy river, shaped like the state of Texas.
The lazy river at the Marriott Marquis
Tonight's dinner is at the Marriott's restaurant, Xochi, an ode to Oaxacan food from Houston chef Hugo Ortega, who won the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. Ortega grew up in Mexico City, learned to make masa while living on top of a mountain with his grandmother, and worked his way up in the restaurant world starting as a dishwasher. If all that doesn't establish this place's authenticity, the seven-piece mariachi band that's serenading an adorable Latina toddler when I walk in ought to do the trick.
James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega
I start with a mezcal old fashioned that's so smooth you forget it's mezcal—more like an expensive bourbon that decided to wear a cool hat. Then come the moles, four of them, ranging from a black one that takes two days to cook to a red one made with ants. These are followed by housemade queso fresco served with dollops of black bean and butternut puree, crispy gusanos (worms), and big, round ants, which taste like meaty Rice Krispies. Next comes an order of buttery baked oysters topped with yellow mole and roasted lime, which tastes so good I toy with the idea of moving to Mexico. Dessert is chocolate mousse topped with a chocolate branch with real leaves and flowers, washed down with a rich, creamy hot cocoa frothed tableside with a stick.
A mole dish at Xochi
Do I go to sleep after this feast? Do you have any idea how much caffeine is in fresh hot cocoa? Near the Texas-shaped lazy river is an alluring rectangular fire pit. I grab my book and read a few chapters in the glow of the flames. When the crickets head off to bed, so do I.
"Then come the moles, ranging from a black mole that takes two days to cook to a red one made with ants."
Two-stepping from honky-tonk to Heights
From my window, I can see a family playing in the lazy river, and given that I am still full from last night's dinner, I decide to join them, lolling around in the pool like a sea lion until I get hot and retreat inside. The sun! Where have you been all my life?
Sun makes me hungry, so I drive back to Montrose to hit up Goodnight Charlie's, which has just opened up shop for its Sunday High Noon brunch. The place is a hip Texas honky-tonk, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, it's only because so is one of its owners: David Keck, a former opera singer from Vermont who attended Columbia University and Juilliard and came up with the idea to open this place while studying for his Master Sommelier exam. (He's the 149th person in the U.S. to achieve the distinction.) “I'm kind of an obsessive person," Keck tells me as I sit down to eat. (You don't say.) “But country music and bourbon are two things that I feel no obligation to go down the rabbit hole about. I can just enjoy them. So there's something about Goodnight Charlie's that is just about having fun."
He's right about the fun: The stage is lit by pink and green neon cactus sculptures and a sheet-metal moon with punched-out stars. Behind the bar is a display that includes a 1970s Dolly Parton doll and a taxidermied armadillo holding a Topo Chico mineral water. I order breakfast tacos with chorizo, Yucatan-inspired cochinita pibil tacos with braised pork, and Mexico City–style cheese-steak tacos.
A honky-tonk band at Goodnight Charlie's
"There's something about Goodnight Charlie's that is just about having fun."From here, I drive up to the mellow, tree-lined Heights neighborhood to shop for souvenirs. At the top of some rickety wooden stairs I find Manready Mercantile, a pseudo–hunting lodge that sells flags and shirts and waxed canvas bags and man-scented candles made downstairs. I buy my boyfriend some bourbon-flavored toothpicks and myself a rose-and-musk candle from the $20 bargain bin. “They're working on a new scent, and these are the ones that aren't ready yet," the saleswoman tells me. I sniff. Smells ready to me.
Kitschy wares at Manready Mercantile
Down the street, I poke my head into AG Antiques, where, inspired by Hotel ZaZa's disco horse, I gaze longingly at a 4-foot rose-quartz cow skull. I'm pretty sure it won't fit into my carry-on, so I leave it where it is and hope someone reading a major airline magazine will buy it and give it a good home. Just don't tell me about it, or I'll be jealous.
At last, it's time to eat some vegetables, and there is a perfect place for such an activity just down the street. Coltivare reminds me of a rustic Southern wedding reception: Globe lights are strung up across the backyard, which features a woodpile and happy people sitting in circles sipping rosé. There aren't many tables available, but I manage to score a seat in front of the open kitchen, where I can watch the cooks artfully arrange pizzas in a blazing oven. I order buttery bread with chicken liver mousse and a crisp fennel salad with avocado and local citrus, followed by a large bowl of cacio e pepe with tons of Parmesan and olive oil. Olives are a vegetable, right?
“Imagine Houston as a kid who went off to graduate school for mechanical engineering and still refuses to take off his cowboy boots."
To balance out this brush with healthy living, I head out in search of the diviest dive bar in town. I end up at Alice's Tall Texan, which, seated at the intersection of two drab streets, is the kind of place where you'd get an establishing shot of a movie villain as he drives up. Inside, a couple of old-timers tap their feet to an even older jukebox. “What'll it be?" asks the bartender, gesturing to the two taps, both of them Texas-born beers: Lone Star and Shiner. I choose Lone Star, and the bartender delivers it in a frosted chalice the size of my face. I have to use two hands to lift it. “That'll be three dollars," she says. Well, shoot.
I sit there and drink my mammoth three-dollar beer and watch some basketball and marvel at the idea that a place like this could exist down the street from a place like Coltivare. But the wonderful thing about Houston is that you wouldn't even think to question it. The hip and the traditional, the country and the city, the immigrant and the old-timer—they're all equally Houstonian, and sometimes they're all the very same restaurant. Imagine Houston as a kid who went off to graduate school for mechanical engineering but still refuses to take off his cowboy boots. Who wouldn't love a kid like that?
To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month — recognized nationwide from September 15 to October 15 — we're highlighting the extraordinary impact of Hispanic Americans on our nation, starting close to home with our more than 13,000 Hispanic colleagues at United.
As part of our festivities, we're showcasing the stories of a few of our Hispanic employees, who were nominated by their colleagues as rock stars. In addition to their personal or professional achievements, these employees were selected because of the significant contributions they've made to United by going above and beyond to help our customers, their fellow colleagues, and the communities we serve, thrive. Whether donating their time volunteering for a worthy cause, leveraging their unique perspective to address a critical business challenge or helping foster an inclusive culture, they make United a better place to work. Let's get to know them better here.
Captain Gabriel (Gabe) Vaisman, based in Houston, has been part of the United family for over 34 years. As a native of Argentina who immigrated to the U.S. with his family at a young age, Gabe faced multiple challenges during his school years, including financial struggles and learning a new language. However, with discipline and determination, and even working two jobs in high school, he was able to obtain his commercial pilot's license and multi-engine rating at the age of 18. He quickly moved up the ladder and landed his first job at United in 1985, where he continued to move up and became a captain for our Boeing 737 fleet 22 years ago. When he is not busy flying customer to their destinations, you can find Gabe visiting children hospitals as part of his volunteering efforts with the Pilots For Kids organization in Houston. For the past 14 months, he has also served on the board of Lone Star College, acting as an advisor for their professional pilot degree program and inspiring a new generation of pilots.
Gabe pictured at a lecture at Lone Star College (LSC), with LSC students, and at one of our recent events for Girls in Aviation Day.
"All the volunteer work I do has helped change one life at a time, and I hope that my career story inspires anyone who feels hopeless with no way out of their current situation. The message I always try to leave with young people is that no matter what career you choose, you will have to sacrifice time and maybe give up a few good times with your friends to accomplish what you are pursuing."
Vania Montero Wit
The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Vania earned her law degree from Harvard University and joined United's legal department 20 years ago. Throughout the years, Vania Montero Wit has advanced to become one of the key leaders of United's legal department as vice president and deputy general counsel. As one of the highest-ranking Latinas at United, Vania represents a crack in the glass ceiling for Hispanic women in corporate America. Despite the heavy demands of her job, Vania is very generous with her time, serving as executive sponsor for uIMPACT, a business resource group supporting women at United, and has given career advice to employees as a panelist for UNITE, United Airlines multi-cultural business resource group. She has made a positive impact in the community as Chair of the legal department's Pro Bono and Community Service Committee, where she even took on and won an asylum case. Vania's compassion for others and continued support of the company's diversity-and-inclusion initiatives make her a role model for both Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike.
Vania (center) speaking at a leadership event at United.
" As a working Latina woman, I strive to be a role model for any and all who are working in a corporate environment and struggling to find their voice or simply looking to make connections and expand their network. My long tenure at United has afforded me a range of experiences and teaching moments all of which I am happy to share with others."
Katherine Gil Mejia
Katherine Gil Mejia is a human resources representative for United Ground Services in at New York/Newark. A native of the Dominican Republic who moved to the U.S. only 8 years ago, she joined United shortly after at the young age of 19. With her work ethic and drive, she quickly became a go-to-person for many departments offering assistance or guidance when needed. Katherine never hesitates to step in and translate for customers or colleagues that are struggling with a language barrier, and she does so while providing amazing customer service. Katherine's knowledge of United — as well as her caring and friendly personality — have earned her the trust and respect of her colleagues. Katherine also has a passion for helping others, giving back, and making a difference in the community. She always offers to volunteer during United Airlines Fantasy Flights, and when she can, she also takes the time to bring Ben Flying bears to kids at hospitals.
Katherine in Newark.
"I know the language barrier for some employees can play a role in potential miscommunication. I often put myself in their shoes and try to relate. My upbringing in Dominican Republic taught me to work and trust my neighbors, community and family. It was natural to bring that trust mentality into work with my colleagues and employees. I believe that is what makes me successful in HR."
Antonio (Tony) Valentin has been working as a ramp service employee at Chicago O'Hare for three years. He's earned the respect of his colleagues by going above and beyond and always stepping in to help both colleagues and customers alike. It's not rare to find him around the terminal translating for Spanish-speaking customers and helping them find their ways to their gates. Tony's caring personality shines beyond the airport in all the volunteering work he does in the local community, especially in the Chicago Humboldt Park area, and in the work he has done as lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, including his deployment to Puerto Rico where he assisted with relief effort after Hurricane Maria.
Antonio at Chicago O'Hare.
"I've always had a passion for helping people and I truly believe that being a good person is equal to being successful. As a prior educator, I am always encouraging members of RSE (ramp service employees) to return to school and to live their lives as lifelong learners."
Sylvia Gomez is the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents that moved to the U.S. in 1960. At the age of 5, her family moved back to Mexico so they could build strong connections with their heritage and culture. They eventually returned to the U.S. in pursuit of a better education, as her father believed that education was the key to success. The move back to the U.S. was not easy, but it gave Sylvia the opportunity to understand two different cultures, which has been instrumental in her career. She recently celebrated 30 years at United, where she currently serves as managing director of IT Infrastructure Program Management. Sylvia has been making a mark in the company with her efforts to pass forward her experience and knowledge, and she spends a great amount of her time mentoring United employees. She is currently mentoring five young women, and she also makes sure to stay in touch with previous mentees to make sure they are still on a path toward success. She is also an active participant on the planning committee for a Women in Technology group and volunteers with Junior Achievement USA, mostly working with inner-city high school students.
Sylvia (center) pictured with Digital Products managing director, Francisco Trejo and Security Technology managing director, Diego Souza at the HITEC San Jose Summit.
"Always look for people that have been there and learn from them. And, always look to see who you can help. Never underestimate the power of having people around you. Have the confidence to take risks and celebrate your successes."
Carlos Palacio, a lead customer service representative in Houston, has been part of the United family for 20 years. When speaking to Carlos, you can clearly see how passionate he is about his job and about United, and embracing his Cuban heritage has been instrumental in delivering excellent customer service at the airport. He even takes extra time with Hispanic customers that cannot speak English, making sure they have all their travel documents and that they have all they need for their journeys. On his spare time, the new father often travels to Latin American countries like Colombia and Cuba to visit children's hospitals and to donate schools supplies for children in need. Seeing the smiles of the little kids he helps keeps Carlos motivated and pushes him to continue his efforts to help others.
Carlos pictured in the cockpit of a United aircraft (left) as well as donating school supplies to children (right).
"I want young people to know that this is a great country … to go to school and make a career and pay attention to mom and dad who want the best for them, and one more thing, never forget we are all human. My culture is very fundamental in my job. I help people every day who need help in Spanish. Speaking Spanish at work helps many of our customers."
Roberto Hernandez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. His passion for travel and customer service ultimately led him to the airline industry four years ago, when he joined United as a flight attendant. Roberto worked as a purser for a while, displaying excellent leadership skills and customer service. He now works as a base supervisor at New York/Newark and is also the local chapter director for EQUAL, a business resource group at United. In his role at EQUAL, Roberto has been focused on fostering diversity and inclusion at United, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, he recently played a great role organizing this year's company celebration of Pride in New York and was there front and center representing our company in Pride Live's Stonewall Day on World Pride. Roberto really values his heritage and culture, and is very proud of where he comes from, which is why he did not hesitate to help with the relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Roberto, posing in the engine of one of United's aircraft.
"I bring my true, authentic self to work each day, ready to assist in whatever way I can. When I say 'true, authentic self' I mean the person I was raised to be. A kind, caring and patient individual who is ready to assist in any way I can. I think the most important piece is to respect each other and to learn from one another. Be proud of who you are, no matter where you're from. We're all different, but if we all integrate together we can make things happen. That's what I love about United. We're doing that."
In their own distinct way, these rock stars exemplify the many ways our company is enriched by our differences and unique journeys. When we create an environment where people feel valued, this influences how we treat one another and our customers across the globe. In the words of our chief executive officer, Oscar Muñoz: "This month is also an opportunity for us to think about our efforts to build bridges between cultures and communicate authentically to all the communities we serve," he said. "By becoming more culturally aware, we can be more effective ambassadors for United's values around the world and embody them in the way we serve our customers and one another."
We hope you're as inspired by this group of dedicated, passionate and talented rock stars as we are.
Yirlany Moya, a United aircraft move team employee in Los Angeles, is nothing if not an eternal optimist. Which is part of the reason why, for the longest time, she wasn't too concerned about the lump that had formed in her right breast. It couldn't be serious, she reasoned. After all, she was young and healthy.
One afternoon, while talking with her neighbor Cari, Moya joked about the "little ball," as she called it. Cari shot her a serious look and urged her friend to get it checked out. Moya's sister, Joscelyn, did the same after hearing about the lump, but, for weeks, Moya stubbornly refused.
"I kept telling them, 'It's not cancer, stop being negative.'"
Finally, the pestering got to her and Moya called her mom, Esther, who is a retired nurse, for advice. Over the phone, Esther told her daughter not to worry, but talked her into coming to Costa Rica, where she was living, so that they could see a doctor together just in case.
There, a physician examined Moya. When he finished, he asked her to get dressed and meet him in his office. With a grave expression on his face, he said there was a fairly significant chance the mass was cancerous. Her mother broke down in tears, but Moya took the news in stride, not yet ready to consider the worst-case possibilities. It wasn't until she was back in Los Angeles a few days later, after a mammogram and ultrasound confirmed that she had stage-3 cancer, that reality set in.
In March of 2017, Moya underwent a double mastectomy, followed by a difficult three months of chemotherapy. By that fall, she was cancer free, but she wasn't physically able to return to work until October 2018. When she did finally get back to the airport, it was a welcome return to normalcy and a long-awaited reunion with her colleagues, many of whom are like family to Moya after 23 years with the airline.
They welcomed her back with open arms and she, in turn, talked openly about her cancer with them, hoping that it might help someone else. There's nothing wrong with assuming the positive, Moya says, but she tells other women to get checked out immediately if they notice a lump or anything else out of the ordinary. She also reminds them of the importance of yearly mammograms. And recently, when her supervisor was diagnosed with a form of cancer, she guided him through his treatments with encouragement and advice.
Sometimes, she's certain that she went through her ordeal so that she could be a beacon for others in that way. If that's the case, she feels it was worth it. Cancer gave her an ironclad resolve to spread goodness and hope. Her tattoos say it all: Inked across her chest, where her breasts once were, is an anatomically correct heart wrapped in bright pink swirls, with the words "Life doesn't allow you to be weak." On her right calf is a cancer awareness ribbon, with splotches of pink exploding out of it, symbolic of Moya's unbridled joy, which stems from her feeling of unending gratitude.
Moya's Tattoo across her chest: "Life doesn't allow you to be weak."
"I'm in a good place in my life," Moya says today, two years removed from her last round of chemotherapy. "I have a great job, and I'm blessed with a great family and great support system. I wake up every day and give thanks to God. I think there was a bigger purpose for what I went through. Ask me what it is, and I can take a guess, but I haven't figured it out yet. One day, though, I know the dots will connect."
Ask someone to name their favorite thing about fall and you'll likely get a different answer depending on where they live. For many people, the mosaic of vibrantly colored leaves and foliage is what defines the months of September through mid-December. Others find the scent of autumnal spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric is what makes the fall so special. And for some, it's the cooler temperatures that make being outside even more enjoyable. Plus, fall is full of fun activities no matter where you are — from pumpkin patches and apple picking to watching football and enjoying a bowl of chili. All of these things, and more, make the fall so magical. To help you celebrate the season, here are seven fall-themed activities to try this year.
Go apple picking
Apple picking combines outdoor fun with delicious and healthy snacks that can be used in a variety of ways, making it the perfect fall activity for adults and children of all ages. Though you'll find countless orchards around the country worth visiting this season, New England is widely considered a prime apple picking destination with over 120 varieties found in the region. It can be argued that the variety they are best known for is the McIntosh apple. This type of apple and many more can be found at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in the lovely town of Stow, Massachusetts, so be sure to stop in and take home a bushel that you pluck from the trees yourself. Picking times are from 9 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. daily, making it easy to schedule a trip.
Meanwhile in California, apple season runs until the end of November, giving you plenty of time to pick a few baskets of Red Delicious or Gala apples before winter. Riley's at Los Rios Rancho in the city of Yucaipa is one of the largest farms of its kind in Southern California and has been welcoming apple pickers to their 10,000-tree farm for more than 100 years.
Visit a pumpkin patch
If there was a fall mascot, it would be a pumpkin, so to celebrate the true essence of the season, it's hard to beat a trip to a colorful pumpkin patch. A pumpkin patch is more than just a place to find the perfect candidate for this year's prize-winning jack-o'-lantern, it's a wonderful way to create cherished new memories with your children or friends. The Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence, New York, is perfect for pumpkin picking, but also offers weekend activities throughout the fall, including scarecrow making lessons, cider brewing demonstrations, pumpkin pie eating contests, and live music and barbecues.
If you're traveling through the Midwest this season, hop aboard a vintage farm wagon at Polly's Pumpkin Patch in Chilton, Wisconsin, and make your way out into their scenic fields where you can pick as many pumpkins as you want. Other activities at Polly's include a livestock petting zoo, a 40-foot slide and a popular corn cannon that lets older kids launch corn cobs at targets for cash prizes.
Enjoy a harvest festival
An annual tradition in America that dates back to 1613, harvest festivals are outdoor celebrations that coincide with the growing and reaping seasons we all enjoy. Filled with food, fun, music and dance, you haven't truly experienced the wonder of the fall season until you've participated in a local harvest fest. The good news is that there are plenty to choose from around the country this year. Two of the most popular are the Autumn at the Arboretum festival in Dallas, Texas, which runs until October 31, and the incredible North Carolina Pecan Harvest Festival in Whiteville, North Carolina, which ends on November 3. Both of these festivals have been drawing huge crowds for years.
For a harvest fest that's slightly spookier, head to Wisconsin where you'll find the classic Jack O' Lantern Days celebration in the cozy town of Fish Creek, and the Halloween-themed Zombie Days festival on the coast of Chequamegon Bay. Ghoulish activities include an undead musical show, a zombie pub crawl and a traditional harvest festival pumpkin parade. The scary fun lasts from October 26 through October 27.
Hit the trails
Hiking is more than just great exercise; it's an excellent way to bring the whole family together during the fall. And since the leaves are changing colors, it's also a great way to snap some incredible nature photos. So lace up your hiking boots, grab your kids and your camera, and find a trail that's right for you. If you're looking for suggestions, Sterling Point Trail in Vermont and Rome Point Trail in Rhode Island are impossible to beat when it comes to picturesque fall hiking.
On the opposite side of the country, the trails at Dry Creek Falls in Portland, Oregon, were voted one of the most photogenic hiking spots on the west coast by BuzzFeed, and it's easy to see why once you've been there. Covering a distance of just over 4 miles, this beautiful trail is perfect for all skill levels, making it a solid choice for families with kids.
Roll in the hay
Hayrides and corn mazes are traditional fall activities that have never gone out of style, and for very good reason. There's just something wonderfully nostalgic about introducing a new generation of children to the simple pleasures of wandering through an overgrown corn maze, and with so many participating farms scattered across the country, there's a plethora of options to choose from. The Johnny Appleseed corn maze at Shady Brook Farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and the popular horse-drawn hayride at Papa's Pumpkin Patch in Bismarck, North Dakota, are two of the best.
In honor of Halloween, the massive haunted hayride at Fear Farm in Phoenix, Arizona, brings an assortment of ghosts, goblins and ghouls to life from early October until the first week in November. Filled with sinister special effects, creepy costumes and macabre makeup, this Hollywood-worthy hayride is recommended for adults and children over the age of 12. With five terrifying corn mazes to choose from, Fear Farm certainly lives up to its name!
Up, up and away
Hot air ballooning during the fall is a dazzling way to experience the season in all its natural splendor. After all, how else can you get a spectacular birds-eye view of the colorful trees as their leaves change from green to golden orange? Balloons Over Letchworth, located near New York's Letchworth State Park, offers astonishing views of the surrounding area, including majestic waterfalls and stunning forests. Best of all, they offer a variety of family tour packages, so you'll find just what you're looking for, regardless of the size of your group.
If you're visiting Southern California's wine region this fall, reserve a balloon ride with the fine folks at California Dreamin'. Their friendly FAA commercial licensed pilots will take you and your family on an unforgettable balloon voyage high above the vineyards of Temecula wine country.
Pitch a tent
Though typically associated with summer, in many ways the fall is truly the best time of year to go camping. Thanks to the cooler weather, there are few — if any — insects to bother you and your family. Plus, there are less people claiming all the best spots, so you should have no problem picking a prime location to pitch your tent. And when it comes to toasting marshmallow for s'mores over an open campfire, everyone agrees that they simply taste better when eaten on a brisk autumn night.
For the ultimate fall camping trip, book a spot at Earth First Farms in southwest Michigan and set up your tent in an actual organic apple orchard. The 49-acre farm provides campers with complimentary firewood and plenty of fresh produce to pick.