Florham Park, New Jersey — Intriguing describes the stunning blonde Nancy Ardolino and the alluring brunette AnnMarie Zecca who travel to places worldwide with names like Estepona, Anegada, and Yosemite.
The two met in grammar school and have made it their life’s mission to cross place after place off a bucket list that never ends. Their original plan included visiting every national park in the U.S., where they encountered nature’s unpredictability and exquisite beauty. They overcame fear and danger along their journey. Together, they experienced the untimely death of Zecca’s sister from cancer. Some of their journeys extended beyond the borders of the U.S., often eating exotic foods without hesitation. Nothing stopped them from following their passion for adventure; COVID only slowed them down, for now.
The two, dubbed “Thelma and Louise” by their friends, sat down for an interview and showed a deep bond, finishing each other’s sentences before the other answered the questions. Both laughed and cried at different times as they filled over two hours of storytelling, providing insight into what it’s like to long for adventure and fulfill that longing, not just dream about it. Their trips often include hiking, rafting, zip-lining, and snorkeling. They even slept under the stars in a Bedouin tent in Morocco.
Ardolino and Zecca got together over 33 years ago when their husbands, Joe and Mike, asked them to go skiing in Utah along with 5 or 7 other guys. They instantly became friends, and it was the start of a lifetime of exploration.
“We had a great time in Utah but didn’t travel again for years,” Zecca said. “We were raising children, and it wasn’t until years later when I was between cancer treatments that we went to Jamaica for a long weekend.”
“That trip renewed our interest to travel together,” Zecca said.
The National Parks
Ardolino, always the itinerary planner, had a powerful desire to visit some of the national parks in the western U.S. and put together a trip with her friend, Cheri Stanziano. Zecca’s sister Mitzi McLean jumped on board with the plan, and so did Zecca. They visited Bryce Canyon National Park (N.P.) Zion N.P., and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Thus began an epic journey to visit all national parks in the U.S., a plan curtailed by COVID-19, but they intend to continue the quest once travel is open.
As of 2019, the list of parks also included Yosemite N.P., Big Bend N.P. in Texas, and Badlands N.P., to name a few.
“I’ve been to over 46 national parks so far,” Ardolino said. “AnnMarie has visited about 39.
“We visited Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan on our month-long cross-country trip four or five years ago, before it was a national park,” Zecca said. “The government recently recognized it, and now it’s on the list at number 61.”
The two recalled experiencing astonishing beauty at Glacier Point in Yosemite, N.P. It is an overlook assessable by car, with sweeping views of the Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and most of Yosemite high country.
“I sat there and just stared out at a breathtaking panoramic view,” Ardolino said. “You can spend all day gazing at the unparalleled beauty of nature.”
Zecca suggested if you want to stay in Yosemite Valley Lodge where everything in the park is accessible, or any heavily visited national park, you need to book at least a year in advance.
One of Ardolino and Zecca’s other favorite sights was in Big Bend N.P. First, they drove into the park on the Mexican border in west Texas, through dense fog, unaware of the sheer, beautiful cliffs surrounding them. Every once in a while, the fog would lift and they would catch a quick glimpse. Then the mist again obscured their views.
“We arrived at the Chisos Mountain Lodge perched atop a mountain on the western side of the Chisos Basin, with no idea what the view was like. The fog was so thick,” Ardolino said.
It took two days for the fog to disappear.
“By the third day, we were like ‘Holy ****,’ look at that view,” Zecca said. “Our hotel deck looked directly upon ‘The Window,’ a beautiful narrow opening in the rock rim on the Window Trail, giving rise to the perfect vista for spectacular sunsets. It was stunning.”
Fear and Danger
Zecca and Ardolino are adventurous–if something comes up along their travels, they don’t back away. But Zecca is the first to admit her fear.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Zecca said. “But Nancy makes me try everything.”
Ardolino laughs, “She’s terrified.”
“I can do the zip-lining. It’s the climbing up or down or jumping off the towers I’m afraid of,” Zecca said.
A few years ago, Ardolino, Zecca, and a few friends rented a cabin on Howard Prairie Lake near Crater Lake National Park and went zip-lining. They had to jump off a three-story tower and slowly lower to the ground at the end of the ride-the idea of jumping paralyzed Zecca with fear.
“It got cold and dark,” Ardolino laughed. “There were no helicopters to take her down. No tour guide to tandem jump with her.”
“I told her we’d sleep on the tower with her,” Ardolino said. “I don’t know how long it took for us to talk her down, but we finally got her off the tower.”
Zecca admitted she’s better at overcoming her fears as time goes by with Ardolino’s help.
Ardolino has seen many scary situations as an EMT, but she experienced a life-altering moment on a rafting trip with her children over ten years ago in West Virginia. She recalled the river being rough with extreme class rapids; the tour guide reiterated if someone fell out of the boat, not to panic and not pull them up by the arms. Instead, the guide instructed them to pull the person up by their life vest to avoid dislocating their arms.
As Ardolino and her children were paddling through the wild water, the guide said, “This is the place, this is the one (rapid) you don’t want to fall out in because there’s a dangerous undercut rock over there to the right, and you want to stay away from it.”
At the end of the stern warning, Ardolino’s daughter Amber, age 12, flew out of the raft. Panic set in as Amber’s boyfriend couldn’t grab her vest in the turbulent water. Finally, Ardolino said the guide screamed, “Just pull her in any way you can.” Although Amber didn’t suffer dislocation or damage, Ardolino had overwhelming feelings as they pulled her child to safety; the trip could have had an unthinkable outcome.
“I thought, what am I doing to my kids, putting them in dangerous situations?” Ardolino said. “They always knew the dangers, yet my children continued to be outgoing and adventurous.”
Ardolino agreed she led by example. “If you’re fearless, your kids will have no fear.”
“But they have to be respectful of the power of nature.”
Zecca’s sister Mitzi and her partner Al spent over eight years living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, with their homeport of Tortola. Zecca and Ardolino and their families would visit Mitzi and Al in either St. John or Tortola or other island locations.
Undoubtedly, someone would ask–what is the plan for the day? Al would respond, “The plan is there is no plan.” This simple phrase has become Zecca’s and Ardolino’s mantra. Al would lift the anchor, and the group would head one way, but if the winds were blowing in a different direction, they would end up anchoring somewhere else.
But no one expected cancer to ruin their dreams.
“I remember my sister wasn’t feeling well on a Sunday, and by Tuesday, she was in the emergency room,” Zecca recalled with vivid recollection and sadness. “Mitzi was very sick, diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She thought it was constipation. She passed away in less than a year.”
“Mitzi kicked herself because she never had a colonoscopy. She was just 59 years old.”
Zecca recalled how her sister dreamed of driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with the guys in a group riding motorcycles. After that, she had plans to visit Alaska and wanted to travel with Zecca and Ardolino, no matter where they explored.
“Before Mitzi died, she had heart-to-heart talks with me about life after death and expressed her wish to be cremated,” Ardolino said. “She wanted her ashes scattered in Anegada, in a place called ‘Flash of Beauty Beach.’”
Both women described the secluded coral sand beach and reef with fantastic snorkeling on the island’s north side as breathtaking.
“Five years ago, we flew to St. Thomas with our husbands, then chartered a boat to Anegada,” Zecca said.
“In the end, that’s where my sister wanted to be, and we honored her wishes.”
Food and Sleeping Under the Stars
Ardolino and Zecca admit the worse food they’ve eaten is airline food, but both agreed the best was in Morocco.
The journey to Morocco and its memorable cuisine began when Ardolino organized an excursion with Zecca and four others in southern Spain. The group climbed the Rock of Gibraltar with its stunning views from the 1,400-foot summit. On a clear day, you can see the Costa del Sol stretching to the East towards Estepona, and the shoreline of Morocco set approximately 15 miles south across the Strait of Gibraltar. Next, they hiked the Caminito del Ray through the El Chorro Gorge in Malaga, described as one of the most dangerous paths in the world, with sheer breathtaking cliff-side drops.
The trip ended in Morrocco, where they met their tour guide Mubarek. Both described him as one of the most interesting people they’ve encountered; he was funny, sometimes quiet, other times outgoing, and a master finagler wherever they went. Mubarek introduced them to tajine, a regional North African savory, slow-cooked stew named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked.
“At first, we loved the dish, so every time we stopped at a restaurant, Mubarek would order it,” Ardolino said.
“We had enough to last a lifetime,” Zecca laughed. “We finally asked him for seafood, anything other than tajine.”
Mubarek took the group to exotic spice markets and escorted them on a camel ride into the desert to spend a night in a bedouin tent under the stars.
“Morocco was where we met the most interesting people and had the most exotic, once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Ardolino said.
The two women ended their conversation with a sample of what’s ahead for them in the future. They mentioned a trip to Key Biscayne N.P. for both of them, a trip to Vietnam for Ardolino and her husband’s anniversary, and the list went on and on.
“I want to go to the Galapagos and Easter Island,” Zecca said. “Before they shut down the travel to protected and endangered places.
“I’m thinking of making a hereditary trip to Sweden with my two sisters,” Ardolino said. “There’s family there that found us.”
Ardolino and Zecca are curious, seeking extraordinary experiences, enjoying exquisite visual and physical sites around the globe, and enjoying food and everything life can offer through travel, which makes the two interesting.
No, they never got in trouble with the law or drove off a cliff like the characters in the movie “Thelma and Louise.”
“In all our travels, we never found Brad Pitt,” they said in unison.
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