Wednesday, October 7

night of october 6, 2009

The characters present in last night’s dream surprised me; people who have not entered my thoughts in months, or those who walked in uninvited for mere seconds the day before.national-mall-300hn-092209

Much of the dream’s initial details have been forever lost in the abyss of my subconscious. I recall a brief scene among an expanse of beaten grass; the greens and browns appear faint and melt together, like what might be found along the National Mall.

Lying on the grass, I wrap my arm around X as X2 stands in front of us, her face glowing red with anger. As she storms off into the distance…

The red blur slowly defined itself as the display on my clock. 4:46 am. A wave of heat seethed through me. Enraged. But for what reason? I closed my eyes and concentrated on calming my nerves.  I focused on nothing, emptying my mind...

I stand in the kitchen of a two story house. The best reference my mind can produce is 334, yet this house is different. On the second floor, a balcony  faces the front yard, covering the first-floor porch. Warped floorboards creak with each step. The wood railings are soft with years of saturated rain. Outside the grass lies without care and patches of earth are scattered about. Weeds have taken up residence alongside the porch and between the two graveled ruts of the driveway. A waist-high wrought iron fence surrounds the property and the gate is rusted open.

A nondescript cake sits on the kitchen table. A birthday party. Several former marching band members are present including NS, CD, and EU (the few I remember). I move to the balcony to further socialize and notice a car pull into the driveway. By the time I walk outside to greet the new guests, they are sitting on the front lawn. I recognize the newcomers as the New Moon cast, though Kristen Stewart* is the only face representing a real-life cast member.  gallery_main-guess-who-cookie-hoodie-07102009-04

Kristen is leaning back against the porch wearing dark skinny jeans and a black hoodie. As I approach, she looks up and says, “Hey.” 

“What’s up Kristen?"

“Nothing, we just wanted to stop by and say hi.”

Our conversation continues, but in my head it is an incoherent murmur. I feel the urge to continue being a good host so I invite them in for drinks and return to the party. For an instant I think: I should find Kate.** However, I realize Kate left some time ago to run errands. A party guest suggests that Kate might also be with CH. I grow anxious because I feel it is necessary to apologize to CH for my earlier behavior with CB.

Time passes and I move about the party, but the details are a blur. I walk outside to visit with Kristen again, but she is in a car and about to leave. I run up to the red Ford Focus and lean into the driver’s side window where she is sitting with her hands on the steering wheel.

“Kristen, wait. My friend Kate really wants to talk to you, but she’s not here right now. Do you mind if I call her and you just say hi over the phone?”

“Yeah, sure.” I dial Kate’s number and she answers in typical fashion; a light and inquisitive hello reserved for people she is familiar with.

“Kate, Kristen Stewart is here and about to leave, where are you?”

“What?! Shit! I’m on my way, but it will be several minutes.”

“Too late, I’ll put you on the phone with her.” I hand the phone to Kristen.

“Hi Kate, what’s up?” Silence follows and Kristen turns to me and mouths, “She doesn’t think it’s really me.”

Kristen continues to listen before handing the phone back to me. “Sorry, she doesn’t believe it.”

And as her car leaves the house, a piercing noise erupts in my dream, beeping in quick intervals…

Time for work.

* I am by no means a fan of the Twilight Saga; however, my former roommate is an avid fan of the individual actors. Thus I am exposed to all related propaganda.
** My former roommate. Her existence is KS-centric.

Tuesday, September 22

creating the illusion

[Editor’s note: I composed this a few weeks ago after a conversation with a friend* and struggled to tie the three parts together in a pleasing manner. After several revisions, I’m still not entirely satisfied, but what fun is reading if you don’t have to think to draw out the themes? Read it, think about it, and if you believe you have figured it out, email me.]

The rain began to fall in buckets yet I stayed on the bench as people rushed for cover beneath the carousel roof. She waved as her horse glided past. My clothes were soaked and a chill sank in, but it did not matter. I was so damn happy just watching her go around and around. I can’t explain why. She looked so nice in her blue coat and with a smile on her face. God, if only you had been there.**

The first time I remember experiencing loneliness was the summer before
third grade. We had moved from a comfortable house near a park in Dearborn to a new colonial-style home in Ann Arbor. The neighborhood was still under development, and a dirt road led to single acre lots surrounded by forest. It was, as far as I was concerned, the middle of nowhere.***

But neither Ann Arbor, nor the remoteness of the house brought about my despair. Instead, I had convinced myself that leaving my friends in Dearborn was somehow my fault, and as punishment, friendship would forever escape me.

I overreacted, but grief was the only way my young and naive mind could cope with the overwhelming feeling of uncertainty that begets loneliness. I did not understand then, but that year was the first time I felt the world was a cruel and unfair place.

John Steinbeck believed that love for others came only through understanding. If you listen to and appreciate the feelings and motives of another, many of the justifications for hate, envy, and murder would cease to exist. This theme is prevalent in his fiction, particularly East of Eden, and is the reason we endear ourselves to fictional characters. We love characters whose thoughts and actions we sympathize with (e.g., Adam Trask), whereas we despise those we either do not understand or with whom we share shameful traits (e.g., Cathy Ames).****

I am not covering new ground, but it amuses me how such a basic concept can be overlooked by the majority of the human race. I suppose it is our individualist nature, the need to satisfy the self first, that blinds us to the similarities present between us all. So in a perverse way one of the most powerful emotions, that which is associated with loneliness, happens to be a universally shared feeling.

Who of us has not experienced the loneliness felt when a heart is broken for the first time and love becomes a stupid emotion that you fear and hate, yet desperately reach for. When a loved one passes away and you are inconsolable in your grief and incapable of receiving the empathy of others. And even the moment when, in the face of death, you realize how alone you truly are.

* *

He had escaped death twice. Both instances occurred among the white-tipped peaks of the Sierra-Nevada range. Two years ago he found a solid hold that saved him from sliding off a cliff. Last year, he approached the edge of a 75-degree slope. It was mid-morning and the sun had chased away the chill of night. The warm rays softened the snow blanketing the slope he looked upon. He began to descend while his climbing partner rested on a nearby rock. Twenty feet later he slipped. In the first few seconds the ice axe was torn from his hands. Within five seconds he was careening down the side of a mountain where, 2,000 feet below, the snow gave way to a field of boulders.

He knew that life was rapidly drawing to a close, but there was no moment of
rapture, nothing flashed before his eyes. He turned onto his stomach and began
punching and kicking the snow in an attempt to slow down. His mind had never
been so singularly focused as it continued to repeat, “Fuck. Fuck. I have to stop myself.”

Everything but his heart slowed when his fists sank deep into a thick patch of snow. Then he came to a stop. If not for a small but dense snow pack untouched by the morning sun, the last moments of his life would have been brutal and terrifying, and they would have been experienced alone.

A near-death experience changes your perspective in profound ways. When he
returned home, the world moved in slow motion. The demands and condescending remarks from his boss were tuned out. There was little pleasure to be found in trivial arguments. He looked for humor in everything. The wilderness had ceased to exist as a place to regain one’s innocence as Christopher McCandless tried to do, and was now nature in its purest form, a beautiful, but treacherous and unforgiving world. But more than ever, he felt alone, unable to relate with friends whose lives had not skipped a beat.

* *

I waited as Robert scanned and bagged my groceries. Behind me a young girl shuffled her feet. Infancy lingered in her pudgy cheeks and in the curiosity that glimmered in her eyes. She looked up and pointed to the headphones I was wearing. I removed the buds from my ears and asked if she wanted to listen. She looked at me hesitantly, but with great interest, and turned toward her mother who nodded in approval.

“Te gusta la musica?”

“Si mama.”

The mother gently reminded her daughter to say “gracias,” and as the girl
handed the headphones back she said, “Thank you mister.” I said, “De nada.”

In an instant a smile broke upon her face and she turned to her mother,
“Mama, he knows espanol!” I flashed a quick smile, took up my bags, and left
the store.

Her smile reflected an untainted happiness only a child knows. That smile showed me a glimpse of a world free of disappointment, fear, loneliness, and death; a world in which a stranger can draw comfort from the purity of an anonymous child. In that fleeting moment, I was back in Dearborn.

*You are probably thinking: what kind of depressing conversations do you have with your friends?

**This is a quote only in that I wrote it. 1,000 cocktails to you if you know what I am referencing.

***A fact I soon began to embrace as my explorations through the woods developed into daring adventures to search for frogs, scale barbed-wire fences, and wander through a field littered with ancient televisions and rusting cars. It has all been flattened by a subdivision named Walnut Ridge that boasts unoriginal and identical houses that start in the 500s.

****Adam and Cathy represent extremes of good and evil.

Thursday, August 27

the next chapter begins

Forever lost. There is a way out.

When I signed off in June with a pensive final entry, word traveled and people began asking friends and family about my mental well-being. In such moments you understand the annoyances and comforts of blogging for a small audience. Placing opinion in a public forum whose members lie in anonymity encourages “gossip” on a scale you may never know. Conversely, you identify individuals who have a genuine interest in your life and happiness. Rest assured all is OK; however, the tumultuous period of two months ago has now taken a different form.

I am in the midst of a move and a heightened sense of anxiety clouds my thoughts. The apartment I called home for the better part of three years has now been abandoned. In three days I move from Arlington, VA to Washington, DC. Right now, my belongings, my life, are in transition in the corner and on the couch of a friend’s apartment. Sleep and exercise have escaped me. In the absence of a refrigerator my diet has been sidelined by beer and peanut butter sandwiches. I am amused that the exhaustion I feel has taken me faster and more completely than weeks of driving and sleepless nights in tents, hostels, and cars. I am even more amused that this has all occurred in less than a week. My response? Relax? No. Start writing. And reflect upon the direction of this blog (as if it ever did follow a script).

On occasion I read my earlier work. I want to know if the writing has improved, if a style is beginning to take form, if I can feel emotion in the words as though I was writing them for the first time. In some instances, and this is especially true for my published work, I am disgusted by the simplicity, the Dan Brown-like vagaries, and the egregious and completely unnecessary overuse of flowery adjectives and space-filling adverbs found in Stephenie Meyer’s work.*

Aside from my travelogue, the posts on Rizzology were meaningless. The thought-pieces on the economy, politics, and outdoorsy subjects bored me. They were trite. So I deleted them. Well, not really. I do not condone the destruction of any written material. Instead, I banished it to my first blog, Zealously Moderate, which is now behind a wall that only an adept hacker can penetrate (go ahead, click the link for futility's sake). To compensate, I brought my favorite work from ZM under the Rizzology banner.

Another administrative change you may notice is the addition of the bolded Roadtrip Archive link on the sidebar. For those wishing to re-live my roadtrip, sans the painstaking process of tracking backward through the blog, the archive links every entry in chronological order and provides a gateway to the pictures.

Going forward, this space will take the form of my early work on ZM: infrequent, but more meaningful posts; obscurities and symbolism; less focus on current events, and more notes and thoughts on, well, who knows for sure.

Comments and criticism are welcome. And, as always, Twitter and Facebook will be there to provide updates on the madness that is my world.

*Get it?

Tuesday, June 30

time out

Due to administrative- and life-related reasons, I need to shift focus away from the blog and toward other ventures. At this point I am unsure as to when I will start writing again; however, you’ll know because of the oh-so-reliable updates on Facebook and Twitter. Until then, I’ll leave you with a little inspiration I composed following a discussion with some friends…

It’s no secret that I’m a subscriber to and preacher of the “you only live once” philosophy. This mantra has had such an effect on some people that they, almost immediately, began doing new and crazy things. In fact, when I recently passed on an event, someone said, “C’mon Erik, you only live once!” I gave in.

Last week, a friend was in town while en route to a new home. Him, another friend and myself went out on the town for some drinks, and many beers later we were immersed in a discussion of sentiments (in the manliest way possible, of course…no tears or “woe is me,” just stern looks and hand on the chin contemplative poses; “yes, I think I see what you’re saying.”). No specific situations or people came up, but one friend, having recently been at the wrong end of a relationship that never really started (a very interesting story), posited that if there is something or someone out there you feel will make your short, and at times seemingly useless, existence on this planet better, you would be stupid to not try and reach for it. And if, despite your best efforts, you can’t grab it, well, you may be left with a void for the rest of your life (and in my case, great inspiration for writing), but at least you can say you tried.

Thursday, June 18

too much rain over virginia

On Tuesday, a friend from NYC bused here for what had originally been planned as a two day hiking excursion in southern Virginia. Alas, the weather gods would not let it be; a sixty degree, all-consuming front of precipitation moved in from the west and rooted itself on the eastern seaboard. However, we refused to admit defeat and decided to try our luck in Shenandoah NP.

A light rain rebounded off the windows as I explained our backpacking itinerary to the park ranger. Descend some hollow*, summit a few peaks, find a mostly, not totally, sopping wet campsite, make a futile attempt to dry off, sleep and pack-out in the morning. No ten minute conversation has ever produced such varying looks of incredulity, but the ranger registered my car and issued a backcountry camping permit. Ultimately, the permit would be useless.

The Vibe ascended SNP’s thoroughfare, Skyline Drive, and the clouds came down to greet us. Forty miles of driving rain and zero visibility later, I hesitantly suggested we adjust the plan. When I leaned over the railing at an overlook and saw nothing but gray and at twenty feet the Vibe disappeared in a fog thick enough to be manipulated with my hands, the plan changed.

We decided upon a much shorter, eight mile hike into a canyon featuring several waterfalls.

The whole experience was rather surreal. In the rain, the park regains some of the dignity years of human interference has stripped away. The wildlife emerge from hiding as jean-clad tourists and their raucous children retreat to the city. The only sounds are that of rain pattering the canopy above, the occasional breath of air, and streams raging through the hollows and canyons with a renewed sense of purpose. And the foliage, wet with rain, is overwhelmingly vivid.

As we hiked, the rain created an melancholy atmosphere that encouraged silence and introspection. When words were exchanged, the conversation centered on the direction of one’s life and the analysis of relationships, past and present. Each time the trail approached a cliff’s edge, the trees parted for a view of nothing but gray mist. The contrast felt as though we had found a narrow plane of existence and beyond the thin layer of green on either side of us was a cold nothingness. We had stumbled upon purgatory.

After the hike, and our figurative and literal cleansing, the question was whether to camp or not. There was no mountain to climb or weeklong expedition to continue, so we saw little point in further dirtying ourselves (and the still-clean equipment) for the sake of camping. However, with the aid of Taco Bell and The Dark Knight on Blu-ray, we again refused to accept defeat…

An Appalachian term for a broad riverine valley, essentially a wider and less steep ravine.

Monday, March 16

the end is the beginning is the end

Last week my trip came to an end. I've spent the past three weeks trying to write a conclusion. On Saturday I reached a mental cliff and literally wrote "nothing" over and over again until my mind hit the bottom about ten minutes later. Safely down, I came to the realization that what I had just written was garbage and, consequently, it was banished to the folder of unfinished works. Let's try again.

When I first began my journey I had not created any grand objectives. I have long viewed the solo cross-country road trip as a kind of medieval chivalric romance where the distressed damsels and horses are replaced with the voices in my head and catalytic converters. I embarked on this quest not to "discover myself," as the tiresome cliche for the uninspired goes. Instead, while I knew some amount of acute self-awareness was inevitable, I simply wanted to experience America without a script and see where my mind dropped me off at the end.

I logged 12,554 miles on the road and visited 36 states (plus Canada so that I could avoid driving through Ohio). I reached as far north as Seattle, as far south as Daytona Beach, and touched both oceans. My car has seen the east and west termini of both Interstate 90 (Boston/Seattle) and 10 (Jacksonville/Los Angeles). I've seen mountains and canyons, deserts and swamps, and even squeezed in a trip to Jerusalem just as Jesus was about to die. Talk about great timing.

I'm repeatedly asked what my favorite part of the trip was. I don't know. I knew in advance that that question would be the most frequently asked and I still don't have an answer. Sorry. Imagine something you've always wanted to see or do. Now what happens when you see and experience said thing and that same process repeats multiple times during the course of one trip? What if each experience elicits a different reaction or emotion? How do you compare and rate a hike through the Grand Canyon on a perfect day to snowshoeing around Crater Lake during a blizzard to spending a weekend in the company of good friends?

So in the end what do I walk away with? The road was the source of both my greatest emotional highs and lows. Driving is one our greatest expressions of freedom. Every morning I would get in the car and head somewhere new, somewhere I decided to go. If the sun is out and a good song is on the radio, nothing matches the feeling of being on the open road and knowing I'm by myself doing exactly what I want to do. Conversely, there were times I faced crushing loneliness and depression. When the only meaningful social interaction you have in a week includes asking gas station attendants if you can get a receipt for pump three, you begin to drown in your thoughts. In those moments of desperation, your mind grasps for air and begins flirting with the idea of turning around and heading home. So if I stop now, I'll save money, I'll lower the chances of getting hurt, I can start looking for a job sooner...Arrgg!! Or you can do something different with your life...Keeping driving!

My other take away? Perspective. Thanks in large part to my blog and all of my notes, every moment of the trip is a fixture in my mind and on paper. However, a factor as simple as a different weather pattern could have had a dramatic impact on what was written in any of my blog entries. Bill Bryson hated Yosemite National Park, I loved it. The difference? Spring and fall separated by about twenty years. The old man in Wyoming had a different take on the economy as compared with most rational people. Tomorrow morning someone could leave Washington and follow in my exact footsteps and they would have a different experience. Heck, if I take the same trip in twenty years, my perspective will change demonstrably.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog over the past several weeks. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it (for the most part). I'm sure this site will continue in some fashion as a personal blog, I just haven't begun to think about the details yet.

Thursday, March 12

wicked pissah!!

I've been told on dozens of occasions that Massachusetts drivers are among the worst in the world. I can say, without hesitation, that is categorically false. They cannot hold a candle to drivers in Egypt, it's not even close. And after fighting through traffic in several metropolitan areas, all of which claim the worst drivers in the history of the automobile, I can tell you that Massachusetts drivers are not even the most despicable in the country.

I think people have a twisted pseudo-masochistic relationship with the traffic and drivers that populate the cities they live in. No matter what major city I am in, people complain about traffic to such a degree I almost sense an air of pride. And you always hear about how everyone else is crazy as though your friend is the only reputable driver around.

Los Angeles is pretty awful and is undeniably the worst place in the country to be stuck in traffic. However, when a thousand highways go in a thousand different directions and merge together every three miles nothing can end well.

Freeways simply don't exist within San Francisco’s city limits, which means the only way to get downtown is via side streets or the God-awful mass transit system. Interstate 5 is only road connecting the entire Seattle-Olympia thoroughfare, ergo a disaster waiting to happen. One initially thinks Chicago drivers are terrible until you see the potholes stretching off into the horizon, potholes whose only purpose in life is to: 1) wreck your car; or 2) wreck two cars when you swerve into your neighbor's lane trying to avoid a pothole. Boston drivers refuse to abandon the left lane no matter how fast they are driving, which is a constant 70 mph on freeways and dirt roads alike. Washington, DC is the extreme of passiveness. People would much rather stop in the middle of the road than engage in risky, overly aggressive behavior such as merging or changing lanes.

Where was I going with this? Ah yes, I didn't find drivers in Boston to be particularly intimidating. I did, however, find many of the people to be a tad aggressive. I had a great time wandering through downtown Boston for a day. I walked along the Freedom Trail, took in a reenactment of the Boston Massacre, and stuffed myself with many local delicacies (Chowda and Boston Scrod to name a few). Just to give you an idea of how seriously Bostonians take their history, the reenactment was put on by the Boston Massacre Historical Society. An entire group was formed and money was spent in honor of an event that lasted maybe ten minutes.

The sheer number of young men who appeared to be on some type of steroid, wore Red Sox caps backwards and were just itching for a fight caught me off guard. On multiple occasions a group of guys would purposefully make eye contact with me, no doubt hoping I would commit some heinous act worthy of a beating. It's no wonder the British sent troops to quell the citizens in 1768. Two hundred and fifty years later Bostonians half expect lobster-backed limeys to show up and over-tax their Venti Mocha Lattes from Starbucks.

Bostonians could just be jealous of New Yorkers. While the city possesses hardly any sports teams worth paying money to see, New York City boasts infinitely more of everything, including the worst drivers in the country. I am an aggressive-defensive driver hybrid who is rarely frightened by lunatics on the road; however, the brazen disregard for the law and the safety of pedestrians exhibited by New Yorkers sometimes surprise me.

I stopped in New York City for an evening to visit with friends and play beer roulette and trivial pursuit. It was relaxing and a fitting conclusion to my trip. After weeks on the road and countless sights, people, and sleepless nights, I arrived in New York City, the city that never sleeps, and spent the night on a couch playing board games.

I suppose all that's left now is a conclusion.

Tuesday, March 10

ann's arbor

Ann Arbor is the college town's college town. Even my USA travel book states that if you want to experience the quintessential American college town, Ann Arbor is the place to be. Madison, Wisconsin is a close second.

I have lived most of my life in Ann Arbor, yet I never really appreciated or cared much about the city until my first days at the University of Michigan. I attribute much of that aloofness to four years of private high school thirty miles away in Detroit. However, Michigan athletics is the elixir to cure all apathy. And for all you Michigan haters out there, no, I don't plan to wax philosophical and use awful cliches to idolize the city or depict my journey from naive high schooler to reservist and then God of the Michigan Marching Band. I'll save that for my memoirs which I am currently co-writing with Miley Cyrus.

My parents have lived in the same house in Ann Arbor since what seems like the beginning of time. Actually I think I was in third grade, but same difference. Even though I moved out of that blue colonial-style residence when I left for college in 1999, I find myself reverting back to childhood tendencies whenever I am in town for a couple of days. There are the typical complaints such as: "Mom! What's for dinner?" and "Why is there never any food in this house?" Then there are the more quirky habits, one of which I just noticed this past week when my travels took me to Ann Arbor.

Growing up, the bathroom I shared with my siblings never had a lock on the door (until my dad installed one at the behest of my sister, AFTER the boys had already left for college). There were a set of drawers next to the door that, when opened, would effectively block the door, rendering useless any mischievous attempts to break in. For years these drawers were our bathroom lock.

This past week, every time I went to take a shower, I found myself opening the drawer to block the door. Keep in mind neither my brother nor sister were even home. And I didn't even bother to use the lock. Some habits die hard.

The few days I spent in Ann Arbor were relaxing, a break from the whirlwind of Park City and Chicago. I mostly just slept, wrote, read and had dinner with my parents. The one exception was Thursday night when I met a friend at a restaurant in town for a few beers and delicious curry fries.

On Friday, I got back in the car. I had planned to stop in New York City, but at the last minute I changed my plans and continued north to Boston.

Monday, March 9

the bucket list

The following is the final product of some musing that began before my trip did. I'll have an update on my status tomorrow.

No one has ever heard of Alain de Botton with the exception of his mother and the few newspaper book reviewers whose quotes adorn the back of his books. If you know who he is I’m wildly impressed. De Botton was raised a spoiled rich kid in Britain, but dropped out of a Ph.D program at Harvard to pursue his passion: the writing, fiction and non-fiction, on the philosophy of everyday life.

A South African fellow introduced me to de Botton’s The Art of Travel while I was stumbling along the Inca Trail in Peru with an even clumsier friend--who happens to be a surgical resident. The book is a fascinating and nontraditional look at the psychology of travel and uses the lives and works of artists and writers to examine five ideas: 1) departure and the overlooked beauty found waiting at the airport watching planes take off, or taking a cab through a shanty town en route to a five-star resort; 2) motive and why we seek to go places other than our own backyard; 3) a comparison of cityscapes and countryscapes; 4) art and how it captures beauty and opens one’s eyes to landscapes viewed through another’s perspective; and 5) return, an interesting perspective on Frenchman Xavier de Maistre’s extensive travels in his own bedroom. Needless to say, de Botton's travelogue provided me with some of the self-insight I needed to realize what I was missing through my travels. 

I am constantly looking to improve my lot upon this planet and that includes my approach to travel. In years past I've found that instead of truly enjoying and capturing the beauty and culture of places I visited, I was merely taking pictures and checking names off of a bucket list. My trips that produced the most vivid memories involved an emotional high, whether it was physical pain or laughter: an experience that pseudo-traumatizes the subconscious. For example, hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or sitting around drinking beer and playing cards with some locals in a backwater town in Peru. One can easily take a car or plane to every worthwhile destination on the map, but the most rewarding experiences come when you get of your car and leave the comfort of the known. Pack up your stuff and hike alone into the wilderness or strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

All too often people view travel as the proverbial notch-on-the-bedpost. We must go to as many places as possible just so we can brag to friends about our travels by updating a world map on Facebook or posting gaggles of pictures on Flickr. American culture propagates this absurdity by publishing books on the 50 Places You Must See Before You Die or the 1001 Beautiful Cities/Canyons/Churches You’re Freakin’ Crazy Not to Visit. Before you know it, a generation of kids is traveling the globe without ever developing any type of relationship with the places they rush to visit.

Novelists create characters that represent an amalgam of people they know. During my summer abroad in Egypt, our group was often graced with the presence of a girl whose character perfectly embodies everything that is wrong with travel culture. Everyday I got to hear: “Ok, so last year I went to Turkey and it was like so beautiful and this year I’m going to Jordan and then two days later my parents are chartering a plane to fly me to Peru because the little girls in their native dresses are like soooo cute!” That might not be so terrible in and of itself, but her posse of girls would only eat only at the Euro Café, a hipster joint for Egyptian college kids who need wi-fi and croissants to avoid eating local cuisine with their fellow poverty-stricken countrymen. As if!

She also thought it a terrible idea to try and learn a few words of Arabic since we were only going to be in Egypt for two months. She is the reason foreigners think Americans are assholes.

I understand it’s easy to throw some of that back in my face. Yes, I ate at the Euro Café once, and during the past month I’ve not had time to enjoy some places as much as I would have liked. Now this is partially due to my blog, but at every stop I take time to examine my thoughts for what each place means to me. Descriptions and metaphors, yes, but I also search for peculiar flaws in seemingly invincible rock, the perfect angle to capture an image, or I try to walk in the shoes of people whose experiences long predate my own. I eat the house special at restaurants recommended by locals and try to get the latest gossip from the waitresses. Sometimes I just sit on the ground among a grove of trees listening to and feeling the breeze as the dense pines mute the faraway beckoning of civilization.

I owe many of the ideas for destinations on this trip to stories I’ve read by John Steinbeck and Bill Bryson, but de Botton’s work fundamentally changed my philosophy towards travel. Instead of simply taking pictures I try to immerse myself in and become a part of the landscape and cultures I’ve seen, even if it’s as a white Catholic guy in the middle of southern Egypt.

Thursday, March 5

this is sparta!! ha-ooh!! ha-ooh!!

*You need the latest version of QuickTime to watch the above video

Last weekend I was in Chicago and, sigh, I left the city exhausted. In fact, I had so much fun I almost developed a fever Monday night. Admittedly, my body's weakness was probably a combination of Park City and Chicago, the two of which were only three days apart.

I crashed with a college friend who is very tall, very Greek, and in law school. He only drinks Ouzo and uses big words like Galaktoboureko. My understanding of Greek is limited to shouting a quick series of letters, alpha-theta-omega-phi-psi-beta, and hoping I stumble across the spelling of a real word. He also has an attractive younger sister who we make the source of incessant shenanigans that lead to his six foot seven frame pounding us into a pulp. It's all in good fun.

While we took a walk in sub-zero temperatures to Navy Pier to see how desolate it is in the winter, we avoided the tourists spots since I have seen them all before. Instead we toured nearly every restaurant and bar in the city, including a deep dish pizzeria.

We were joined by another of my friends from school who described himself best Sunday morning after meeting a girl on the subway: "I was sitting on the subway drunk at three in the morning with two McDonald's double cheeseburgers in hand when she asked me what I did. I replied, 'I'm a doctor.'"

The three of us were together for the better part of four days in the city and the most interesting night was undoubtedly Friday. After an embarrassing game of pool--on my part at least--the bar we were in closed and we had to progress across the street. Somehow we got to playing Truth or Dare with several of my friend's law school classmates and he dared me to make out with the girl sitting behind me. I thought that was a ridiculous dare because she was a total stranger. However, never one to turn down a challenge, I tapped the girl on the shoulder, explained the situation and said that even though it was wildly inappropriate to make out, would a kiss on the cheek suffice? She said yes so the game moved on and my friend was shocked at my brazenness.

About an hour later, last call was announced and I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see the girl standing there. She proceeded to grab my head and go in for the kill. I was too stunned to really do anything except reciprocate. Everyone practically fell out of their chairs in surprise. I suppose the night ended on a good note.

On Sunday we met up with two more people on the way to a Greek restaurant. One is a friend from school who now teaches high school English in the area. I can't quite put a finger on it, but her understanding of the written word and appreciation for real literature is extremely intimidating, particularly for someone who writes prolifically. I mean like seriously, she uses Taylor Swift's Love Story as an example of how the Romeo and Juliet story so DID NOT happen. But it's such a good song!

The other is a law school classmate of my friend who, for some reason, loves Ohio State and couldn't provide me with a decent enough excuse. She also is the first female World of Warcraft player I've ever met. She obviously figured out the real way to a man's heart--well, at least the hearts of men who grew up among the video game generation.

Dinner was fantastic, but why would it not be? When you travel with a Greek giant, palate nirvana is first and foremost on their mind. The Greeks have a leg up on most ethnicities when it comes to food and crashing oil tankers into reefs while drunk. If you think about it, much of the cuisine in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and other Mediterranean countries have roots in Greece. I would assume that is due to Greek domination over much of the known world until they were beaten into submission by the Romans, then the Turks and finally the Nazis. Things have really gone downhill since Gerard Butler and Colin Ferrell fought for and ruled the region.

The next day I left for Ann Arbor along with one of my friends who was catching a ride back to visit family as well.

people listening

You may have noticed that I neglected to include any commentary on my time in Park City. The reason for such an exclusion? Park City is an anomaly as far as my trip is concerned. I had a great time and I got the impression everyone else did as well. The skiing was amazing, particularly considering I have never skied west of Boyne, Michigan. However, I didn't act as an observer like I have through the rest of the trip. There were no sights to see, no true adventures to be had and, quite frankly, I wanted to spend a few days not piecing stories together in my head. Further, I wouldn't want to utilize the eternity that is the Internet and tarnish any of my friends' sterling reputations. Just imagine nine friends from college on a ski trip in possession of nothing but a deck of cards and a lot of beer; you can write your own story.

Inevitably I did spend time musing about my role as a pseudo-journalist/storyteller on this trip. And while none of my thoughts were particularly interesting or worth describing here, they have made me much more aware of the people around me.

In every city, hostel, coffee shop, and National Park visitor center I happened upon, my ears were like a sponge. I tried to decipher foreign languages and looked for subjectivity within the monotonous scripted speech of a tour guide. I listened to scolding parents come within inches of strangling their children and the illiterate teenagers of the text message generation wonder out loud if Native Americans were the same as people from India since they are both referred to as Indians. And I tried not to look completely appalled as a very nice grandfather in Salt Lake City explained to me that the original settlers of North America were white and their skin was turned red after years of sin (Don't know what I'm talking about? See South Park for a history lesson).

In Nephi, Utah, I sat in a booth next to a clean cut couple who spent, at least, twenty minutes ordering food. No, it was not because they ordered everything on the menu. Instead, the wife kept asking the waitress if one item was better than the next. "Which is better, the chicken parmigiana or roast beef au jus? Or what about the cheeseburger and the Caesar salad? Which one is better? And is the draft beer better or should I get a pink lemonade?" At one point the words blurred in my head and all I could hear was my optometrist saying: "Which one is better, A or B? How about 1 or 2? Now 3 or 4?"

The guys who sat on the other side of me were the opposite extreme. Both men looked as though they had just spent the day carrying large amounts of weight through a mud pit. My back was to the filthier more tired-looking man and even though I was closer to him than his colleague across the table I couldn't understand one word he said. It was "urrg" this and "ungh" that. As far as I could tell, I was sitting next to some real, in the flesh Neanderthals. The waitress was very cute and I was worried that they were planning to club her and drag her off to their pickup truck. I planned to warn her until she forgot my hot chocolate. Tough break I guess.

Just remember, if you're at a restaurant and there is a solitary guy sitting by you who looks like a bum yet is wearing designer duds, he's probably on a cross-country road trip and hoping you'll give him some writing material.

Wednesday, March 4

the kings of corn

Before the invention of handheld video games and car DVD players, kids had to find other ways to pass time during long family road trips. Some of us had a pack of cards, others had car (miniature) versions of games like Connect Four. You could try to make a dent in your school's summer reading list, but motion sickness would inevitably end that endeavor. Many of us would simply stare mindlessly out the window with no regard to the passing sights; the only thing that kept our brains from just giving up and dying were the passionate wishes that the trip end soon.

And when, no matter how fast your dad drove, you finally resigned to the fact that you would be surrounded by cornfields forever, a billboard in the distance caught your eye: MYSTERY SPOT NEXT EXIT! WORLD'S LARGEST HORSE TURD EXIT NOW!! LAND OF GIANT LIZARDS TAKE EXIT 146 FOR A THOUSAND MILES THEN TURN LEFT!!!

For a kid bored senseless, nothing is more alluring than a billboard advertising Auntie Em's Farm of Lawn Gnomes. Consequently, lost in the excitement of possibly leaving the car for a few minutes, we would beg and plead for dad to take the next exit. While we already know what our father's response will be, we continue to pray for intercession by God and all the patron saints of useless crap until the exit has passed and we quickly return to a vegetable state. Every few hundred miles the process repeats until we either reach our destination or, miraculously, the cornfields give way to a more exciting landscape, e.g. anything.

On my way to Chicago, I passed a billboard near Mitchell, South Dakota that instructed me to exit and see one of the great wonders of the world: The Corn Palace. In an instant I was intrigued and dismissive. I knew the Corn Palace would be among the most utterly lame experiences of my life. On the other hand, the childish need to finally obey a roadside billboard led me to exit the interstate.

The Corn Palace is astonishingly amazing and equally ridiculous. The building serves primarily as an arena and facility for community events. However, the main attraction is the outside facade which is made of corn and other grains. Each year the extensive corn murals are removed and replaced by a local artist. This year, a mural of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the National Mall, among others, greeted my arrival.

I chose not to go inside, primarily because there was an admission fee, but also because I began to feel foolish just standing outside THE CORN PALACE, so I got in my car and left. A childhood fantasy shattered in mere minutes.

Nowadays any inquisitive mind can see the Corn Palace on its live webcam.

Updated pictures here.

Sunday, March 1

my lands are where my dead lie buried

In the summer of 1876, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane sauntered into Deadwood, South Dakota. Among the first characters immortalized in frontier dime novels, Hickok and Jane both served stints as scouts for Custer and met while on a wagon train to Deadwood as the leader of the 7th Cavalry rode off into infamy. A few weeks later Wild Bill was shot playing poker in Saloon No. 10, the same saloon I now played blackjack in.

The Wild West conjures images of dusty one street towns in the Arizona desert, the Utah and eastern California settings of many John Wayne movies, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (If I remember correctly, Doc Holliday looked a lot like Val Kilmer). However, there are no tumbleweeds in Deadwood; no buildings and faces sculpted by years of the sun's abuse. The city rests in a gulch lost among the Black Hills, distinguished only by the dead Ponderosa Pines lining the surrounding hills. Yet Deadwood is the quintessential Wild West town, inspiring even the creation of a HBO miniseries.

Deadwood was originally an illegal camp on Lakota Indian territory during the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874. And while gambling is still the number one recreational activity, the city now caters to a less delinquent crowd: tourists and local retired folk looking to make some easy cash. I arrived the day after the yearly Mardi Gras party so the streets were mostly quiet and the bar staff greatly outnumbered the patrons.

Despite its reputation as a tourist trap, the restored 19th century Main Street, the swinging saloon doors, and the sawdust covered floors all found themselves quite to my liking. In my mind, sitting at the blackjack table with a drink in hand and chatting with some of the locals is as close as I'll get to an authentic Wild West experience. Then again I was a little drunk, which certainly is conducive to unwarranted nostalgia in places contrived to arose such feelings.

The next day I left Deadwood and drove deeper into the Black Hills. My first destination was the Crazy Horse Memorial, a literally mountain-sized monument being built in honor of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began working on the monument in 1948 and, if completed, the sculpture will be the world's largest at 563 feet. To put things into perspective, all four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit into Crazy Horse's head.

Even with countless decades of work remaining, the sculpture is remarkable if not a bit absurd and has generated an enormous amount of controversy. The Lakota Indians view the Black Hills as sacred and many believe the creation of this monument is akin to carving up Mount Zion in the shape of a biblical character. What's more, Crazy Horse refused to be photographed and was buried where his body could never be found; surely he would not have supported the construction of such an enormity.

I headed next to Mount Rushmore in the hopes of seeing Nicholas Cage fall out of George Washington's nose. Alas, no such luck. Even Mount Rushmore lies incomplete, but it did give me a scale with which to measure how the Crazy Horse Memorial will look if finished. To be honest, Mount Rushmore is an absurdity itself and was created merely in an effort to increase tourism in the Black Hills. Don't get me wrong, the monument is impressive and sculptor Gutzon Borglum did a remarkable job with the likenesses of the four presidents, even giving the impression that Teddy Roosevelt is wearing glasses. However, it's saddening to think Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, despite having good intentions, probably commissioned the Crazy Horse Monument in retaliation to the U.S. Government's own disregard for the purity of natural resources. The Black Hills are an oasis of rolling hills and Ponderosa Pines among the flat nothingness of the Great Plains, blemished by our desire to make money and to make statement.

Wednesday, February 25

a treatise on the state of american manufacturing

I have seen many spectacular, humbling, creepy and idiotic sights over the past few weeks, yet some of my favorite experiences have been with the people I've encountered along the way. While the Vibe was getting an oil change in Wyoming, I sat around chatting with a few locals who were there for the early bird oil change special as well. In fact, when I walked into the lobby and began looking for a magazine to read, a grizzled old man a few feet away remarked, "The least they could do is give ya some fucking cups. Amateurs." Apparently there was coffee but no cups, a world-ending predicament for a retired miner at eight in the morning. When he saw the Vibe we got to talking about the economy and the state of the American manufacturing sector. And if you hadn't figured out by now, this man makes Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau seem like BFFs.

Through our profanity-laced conversation I learned that the auto industry is on the ropes because we keep buying cars made by "Those damn Chinamen." I corrected him. "I think the Japanese are more of a problem than the Chinese." "Fucking-A," he countered. "All of those Chinamen are stealing our jobs and shipping car parts over here to be built. We can't compete with no damn Chinaman who works for nothing. We gotta start charging huge tariffs on them parts when they get shipped here on them damn boats."

A slightly younger man sitting next to the old man also happened to be retired and was just chuckling the entire time. When asked his opinion he replied, "I used to own my own business and..." "You're a capitalist dog, a corporate raider!" the old man interrupted.

By now I was resigned to nodding and laughing at the continuous stream of nonsense coming from the old man's mouth. When I said I live on the East Coast he asked, "Which part of Greenwich Village?" I was actually a little offended he
associated me with a bunch of latte sipping, rabidly liberal hipsters from New York City. I thought my unshaven and unclean appearance would disguise my obvious suburban roots.

When my car was ready, the other man pulled me aside and said not all Wyomingites have dreadful personalities and that I would be welcome back at any time. I laughed and told him I frequently deal with unsophisticated brutes in the allegedly more civilized Washington DC. The only difference is that in DC we pepper our speech with large multi-syllabic words in order to prove we got our money's worth from years of education. I rather enjoy the rugged landscape and people in Wyoming; it makes me feel like I'm truly out West. With that I shook his hand, said farewell, and was back on the road.

Monday, February 23

come on you wolverines!

Before leaving Park City, I told my friends that I was heading to Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park. I lied. Improved weather and my desire to escape mountains and snow led me to try my luck and head north. Much to my delight, the snow receded and the midday temperatures rose into the 40s when I reached Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I have had a secret interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn since I first read the story back in elementary school. It is one of those snippets of history that schools teach as a one-sided rah rah American tale of heroism, not unlike Catholic schools and their depiction of the Crusades as a conflict against the Muslim heathens. To this day I can still conjure the image of a picture in my history book depicting Custer's "Last Stand." The painting illustrates a horde of Lakota-Cheyenne riders closing in on the U.S. 7th Calvary as dismounted Indians bludgeon U.S. soldiers with war clubs and tear off scalps. In the middle of the scene, Custer, wearing his distinctive white buckskin coat, stands defiantly with his sword in the air, having just opened the chest of a nearby attacker.

Custer, a Michigander famous for leading the Wolverines of the Michigan Brigade during the Civil War, was immortalized by the American media as a martyr following his demise at the hands of some two thousand Native Americans led by Sitting Bull. I have always thought Custer was an arrogant opportunist who deserved his fate because of foolish military strategy. I also cheered the victory of the Lakota and Cheyenne, a final chance for honor and a slap to face of a expanding United States before being forced onto reservations.

I have criticized battlefields before in this blog, but Little Bighorn was different. A winding tour road marks spots of historical significance, but there is an added touch of realism. Following the battle, the dead soldiers were quickly buried in shallow graves marked by simple wooden poles. Weather forced the government to exhume the remains and bury them in a mass grave while headstones were placed on the spot where each man fell. You can actually imagine the battle raging as you walk the bluffs and see the marble stones scattered about.

Many parts of Montana are beautiful, but the hills around the Little Bighorn River are desolate and a miserable place to die. Aside from a few trees, the only color is that of dead grass, and because the conditions do not favor agriculture, the earth is beaten and chewed by range animals.

As I drove through Montana, I kept trying to figure out what is meant by Big Sky Country. I crossed the border into Montana twice and each time I half expected the horizons to expand, see blues turn bluer or hear myself spontaneously blurt out, "Damn, that's a big sky!" The sky in Montana is vast and beautiful, but it's just as vast and beautiful as the sky in Wyoming, Nebraska, or any place where there is a lot of flat nothingness. The only difference would be Washington State or Michigan during the winter where there is no sky, just clouds.

Southern Wyoming, on the other hand, is a wasteland of epic proportions. Middling mesas stretch on for hundreds of miles and everything looks like someone just mixed dirt in with cement when they painted the landscape. I figure Nature was taking her first shot at designing canyons, realized she created a calamitous disaster and left the land to rot while she designed masterpiece after masterpiece a few hundred miles to the southwest. And, not surprisingly, humans agreed with Nature's assessment; there is not one settlement for a hundred miles with the exception of some obviously insane person who lives in a one room shack just off the expressway and has fifty cars parked on his front lawn.

I continued on to Devils Tower, a dramatic "monolithic igneous intrusion" that rises above the Black Hills in eastern Wyoming. The Lakota Indians believe the tower and the Black Hills were created during an ancient race as stampeding buffalo and other animals pounded the surrounding earth lower. Conveniently, the Magpie, who was racing in the stead of the slower human, won the race allowing the Indians to forever hunt the buffalo. I think the tower is a beacon for the extraterrestrials who built the pyramids, earthen mounds and the crystal skulls that drive men crazy. In fact, my theory was proven correct when aliens, led by a being that could take the shape of humans and was called Steven Spielberg, made contact with us at the tower in 1977. That same being, along with its life partner, George Lucas, proceeded to stay on this planet and ruin a great many of the franchise films we know and love.

Actually Devils Tower is an impressive piece of rock that explodes out of the landscape. I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the base of the tower absolutely dumbfounded at how erosion could create such a monument. On a side note, I have learned more about geology in the past few weeks than I have in the last 27 years.

As the sun began to wane, I lingered a while longer before driving through Sundance (A tiny town whose only claim to fame is Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid) on my way to Deadwood, South Dakota.

Wednesday, February 18

there's just too much to say

Road Warrior Report
Days on the Road: 23
Miles Driven: 8789
States Visited: CA, OR, WA, ID, UT, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, NV

The United States interstate system is highly convenient and completely anonymous. On one hand, freeways are generally in good condition, and are built in the flattest places which allow one to get from point A to point B in a relatively short period of time. However, by racing along miles of concrete at eighty miles an hour, you miss out on everything that is fascinating and unique about America. With a few exceptions (e.g., I-84 in Oregon that slices through the Columbia Gorge), it doesn't matter if you are on I-40 in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee or wherever, the landscape that zooms by all begins to melt together and you can barely tell which state you are in. The secondary roads that blanket the country like a cracks on a broken window lead to places you might not have discovered otherwise, like Arco.

Arco is one of those towns with less than a thousand people that make you wonder how people can find a living hundreds of miles from the nearest major population center. Other than the gas station, the motel, the grocery store and the school, what jobs could possibly exist? Arco also has the distinction of being the first community in the world to have been powered by nuclear energy, a fact not ignored by the locals. A local diner features several Cold War options such as the Atomic Burger and the Black Russian sandwich.

I am also dumbfounded by the rugged beauty of the landscape and the poverty of the community. Many of the town's residents live in houses or trailers that lie in various states of disrepair, but walk out the front door and you can see mountains as far as the eye can see. I've noticed this trend while driving through the Cascades in Washington, canyon country in southern Utah and pretty much anywhere in the Appalachians. And while many of America's poorest communities are in the most beautiful places, the people with money choose to live in gaudy McMansions bunched together in places called Walnut Ridge, Forest Glen, or any two word combination of a tree type and geologic feature. Instead of seeing a breathtaking mountain vista every morning, the guy who lives in the suburbs "to escape the city and own some land" looks out his back porch, across his half an acre, and sees his neighbor looking right back at him from an identical house whose enormity takes up the whole half acre he paid half a million bucks for. 

In any case, I traveled to Arco because of its proximity to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A fascinatingly random lava field in the middle of the Snake River Valley, Craters of the Moon is a desolate landscape highlighted by volcanic cinder cones, lava tubes, and the absence of tourists. Several feet of snow covered the monument making for poor pictures and visibility, but excellent snow shoeing. I spent the better part of the day climbing the cones and trying to avoid ruining the precious cross-country ski trails. Actually, I sloshed through the trails, a habit I've developed in honor of a man that my friends and I met while hiking through the Adirondacks last month. An avid skier, obnoxious local, and clearly convinced we were a bunch of juvenile delinquents, he spent twenty minutes explaining why we needed to go out of our way, whether it be jumping off cliffs or swinging from trees, in order to avoid the oh so perfectly-groomed ski trails. Apparently, the relationship between cross-country skiers and showshoers is similar to that of skiers and snowboarders, the later is simply sub-human.

Following a delicious Atomic Burger at the local diner in Arco, I headed south to Utah and even more snow. Counting yesterday, I have driven through either rain or snow every day for the past two weeks. Awesome.

Driving through Utah, it's not hard to see why the Mormons decided to stop their westward exodus and build Zion next to the Great Salt Lake; there is not a single eyesore or unpleasant view in the entire state.

To me the mountains and valleys of Utah are a bit worldlier; an endless playground for the adult boy who has not, and probably will never, shake his restless spirit. From the top of vermilion-colored mesas to the all-consuming darkness of slot canyons you can barely walk through sideways, one could spend a lifetime exploring the wild Utah backcountry. I was there for five days. Consequently, the wilderness of canyon country is where I walked away with the biggest disappointment of my trip thus far.

About eight bazillion years ago, tectonic plate shifts and earthquakes forced a 130,000 square mile piece of Earth up and created what is called the Colorado Plateau. Millions of years of erosion through rain, ice, and coursing rivers have whittled the plateau into what is called the Grand Staircase. The top step of the staircase rises over 11,000 feet above sea level and consists of the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. With each downward step, erosion turns varying rock types into distinct canyons with unique formations and colors. All of this beauty is within a span of two hundred miles. The lowest step is the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River’s final and greatest masterpiece on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. One step higher is Zion Canyon, the home of the Virgin River, one of the United States’ last free-flowing rivers, and Utah’s most popular national park.

When Mormon settlers first stumbled upon Zion Canyon, they declared it to be “Zion.” Upon his arrival, Brigham Young was quick to remark that the canyon, while beautiful, was certainly not Zion. For years, until efforts began to create Zion National Park, people actually referred to the area as “not Zion.” Today the park enjoys a reputation for ambitious hiking trails and accessible canyons for both amateur and expert canyoneers.

During the winter the north rim of the canyon is impassable due to snow and ice and since I wanted to hike into the backcountry my only real option was the southwest desert. Not to be outdone by the towering canyon walls with imposing names like the Patriarchs and the Tower of Sinawava, the southwest desert is a series of washes covered in spruces that hide an ancient petrified forest among their roots.

I hiked about six miles into the backcountry and camped along the lower ridge of a mesa with a view overlooking the entire desert and valley leading up to the entrance of Zion Canyon. Unfortunately, I don’t sleep well in tents and combined with a heightened sense of paranoia because I was alone and miles away from civilization, I suffered through a fitful night of sleep.

The next morning I broke camp at first light because the forecast called for rain and I wanted to be well on my way before then. Naturally, the unpredictable nature of the weather I have encountered dictated that blue skies prevailed when I arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon is the next step up in the Grand Staircase and could not be any more different than the Grand Canyon or Zion. Bryce is defined by its “Hoodoos,” orange-colored rock spires that belong on another planet. I hiked down the Queen’s Garden trail which switchbacks down to the floor of the Bryce Amphitheater, weaves between the hoodoos and climbs back up to the rim via a steep and narrow canyon called Wall Street.

I only spent a few hours at Bryce because the weather—again—was supposed to deteriorate and I wanted to make sure I was in Escalante before the snow hit. You’d think that at this point I would stop paying attention to the doom and gloom meteorologists, but the thought of driving up and down canyons and mesas in the middle of a blizzard was not that appealing.

I was the only person at the diner in Escalante when I stopped for dinner which meant that no one, other than the waitress, would see me devour a decadent cheeseburger covered in bacon, mushrooms, onions, and to top it all off, polish sausage. It was fantastic. I drifted off to sleep in my motel room looking forward to a day in the wilderness of the Grand Staircase Monument.

Much to my chagrin, I awoke to see five inches of fresh snow on the ground. What did that mean? No hiking in the Grand Staircase because the unpaved access roads were impassable and awful driving conditions as I continued on to Capitol Reef National Park. I was pissed, especially because the Grand Staircase was all off-trail backcountry hiking among hidden canyons, narrow washes and dinosaur tracks. Yes, dinosaur tracks.

Capitol Reef National Park was a pleasant surprise and certainly eased the pain of missing out on the Grand Staircase. Around the time the Colorado Plateau formed, the Earth’s crust folded to create the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile stretch of rock that has eroded away to form the park’s namesake. The upper reaches of the fold contain rocks that look like white marble, very similar to the color of the Capitol in Washington, DC.

The park also has a rich cultural history to complement its natural beauty. Over a thousand years ago, the native peoples who lived in the area carved numerous petroglyphs in the canyon walls that are still visible today. In the 19th century, Mormon settlers came to the area and flourished. Many of their buildings and orchards have been preserved in the park and during the summer, visitors may pick fruit from the many trees scattered throughout the park. Capitol Reef was also one of the Utah hideouts for the infamous robber Butch Cassidy and his gang. I followed the reef’s ridge for several miles to stand on the massive arch that immortalizes Cassidy’s name and stands guard over the wash he once used to traverse the reef.

On the way back to my car, I decided to turn the hike into a loop--versus a circuit--and walked alongside the park's main vehicle thoroughfare. I was offered a ride by a park ranger, the quintessential national park experience that, while seemingly harmless, is a rare treasure afforded mostly to hikers traveling alone. Don't ask me to expand, I can't right now. The consequence of not having much time to write is that ideas in my head don't ferment as well as they should. Nor do I spend nearly as much time editing. Guess that means I should write a book.

Now I'm in Park City for some skiing. I spent yesterday touring various Mormon sights in Salt Lake City and I'll have something to say about that later.

Pictures here.

a long time in the making

Where do I begin? It has been nearly a week since my last update, I have a million things to say, and the 60 minutes of Internet time the kind people at the Salt Lake City Library have bestowed upon me has dwindled to a mere 25. I'll give a brief update, with no pictures, and write more when I find reliable Internet access either tonight or tomorrow.

Since leaving Washington, I've made stops in Arco, Idaho (yes, you've never heard of it), and have spent several days traipsing around canyon country in southern Utah. It has snowed for at least a few minutes everyday, yet the daytime temperatures have generally been in the high 40s. I spent a night in the backcountry of Zion National Park and soloed some slot canyon routes that were borderline class 5 and would have my rock climbing brother aghast at my brazen disregard for safety. And for a large percentage of the time I was convinced that an attack was imminent, either by a mountain lion, or a crazed group of Mormon settlers who still thought it was the 19th century.

In any case, I survived and am now waiting for some friends to arrive so we can head out to Park City and begin a four day ski trip. I'll have plenty of time to upload pictures and write so expect a flood of entries (or just one really enormous entry) over the next couple of days. Time for some lunch.

Thursday, February 12

happy birthday abe lincoln

Pictures here.

There are twenty-eight breweries within the city of Portland making it the microbrewery capital of the United States. There is also an array of bookstores, one of which we visited during an evening in the city.

Powell's is the bookstore's bookstore. A 77,000-square foot monstrosity that
spans an entire city block with nine color-coded rooms and four floors, it also houses approximately four million new and used books. One could easily spend days lost among the endless bookshelves, unfortunately we only had a couple of hours. However, I did walk away with a couple of new books to add to the exponentially growing unread collection.

Afterwards we wandered downtown Portland searching for some grub and stumbled upon the Lotus Bar & Cardroom. A prohibition-era speakeasy, the Lotus has a terrifically interesting history that dates back to 1902 and includes alcohol, prostitution and gambling in smoky back rooms of the bar. The actual bar--where you set drinks--was built in the 19th century by a English company and was discovered and shipped to Portland before the Panama Canal was built (A rather long voyage). Today it's a tad less exciting and illicit, but the food was good and the beer was even better. On to Washington!

The next morning we drove to Mount Rainier National Park and prayed the Vibe would make it up the snow covered mountain roads. Just a few days before all roads through the park, and even to some of the small towns outside the park, were closed due to record levels of snowfall. Fortunately, the Park Service does a superb job of plowing and the road to Paradise, and the visitor center, was mostly clear. The visitor center and lodge were closed, but the sky was blue and the massive volcano loomed in front of us, hibernating underneath an equally enormous amount of snow. In an instant I was reminded of memories from my ascent and summit of Mt. Rainier in 2005: slogging over seemingly endless glaciers, hopping over bottomless crevasses, the woman who went blind from altitude sickness, and leaning against the side of the mountain, exhausted and convinced I couldn't climb the final hundred feet to the summit. I desperately wanted to pack the gear in my car, say adios to my friend, and attempt a winter summit.

Instead we left and had lunch at the restaurant that was my reason for coming to the park: The Copper Creek Inn. My father and I ate at the inn,
probably a hundred times, when we climbed Mt. Rainier in 2005. Our fixation revolved equal parts around the fantastic food and the phenomenally attractive waitress who served us. The inn is known for its blackberry-based products. Blackberry butter, blackberry vinaigrette, blackberry syrup and blackberry pie to name a few.

This time around we had a full three course meal, including pie for dessert, and I can say without reservation that the Copper Creek Inn is the best restaurant I have ever dined at. Alas, the waitress was not there.

With our stomachs full and eternally grateful, we headed to Seattle where my friend and I parted ways and I rode to the top of the Seattle Space Needle. The view was incredible and Mt. Rainier could be seen in the distance. However, I soon realized it was almost four and that rush hour would begin any second. I promptly left only to sit in an interstate parking lot fifteen minutes later.

One of my college friends lives and works in Olympia, the state capital, and my plan was to spend the night with him. He lives with his twin brother and the only significant difference between the two is that one is the faster runner and the other is the faster drinker. While his brother was out running, my friend and I went to a local bar where they served beer by the quart--Awesome!

And if you were not aware, I misplaced my glasses at the hostel in Charleston over two weeks ago. After days of phone tag, I finally got the manager to ship the glass here to Olympia. Since they did not arrive yesterday, I am spending the day here hoping the glasses show up this afternoon. Either tonight or tomorrow I will be heading to Idaho and then to Utah for a week's worth of camping before a ski trip in Park City. I'm not to optimistic about computer access over the next week and it will be a miracle if I post anything.

only vehicles with chains may continue

That was a warning displayed with increasing frequency as the Vibe climbed into the higher reaches of the Cascades. I have neither chains nor four wheel drive, but aside from a few fish tails and miles of white-knuckle driving, I made it through the first inclement weather of the trip without any hiccups.

Crater Lake is a caldera lake that has the distinction of being the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest lake in the world (1,949 feet). Situated in the Oregon Cascades at about 6,100 feet, the lake formed after centuries of snow melt filled a massive caldera left by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama about 7,700 years ago. The lake's most distinctive feature, Wizard Island, is one of many volcanic cinder cones within the lake and the only one to have risen above the water's surface.

When we arrived at the parking lot near the south rim of the caldera, a thick layer of clouds sat over the lake making it impossible to see a thing. The snow banks were over ten feet high and I was forced to strap on snow shoes in order to approach the rim for a magnificent view of nothing but a gray featureless abyss. For a brief moment, the clouds over the lake cleared, the sun bored a small hole in the foreboding storm clouds overhead and the entire lake was visible. The scene was painted in shades of gray, but even the doleful artist, whose perspective created this picture, managed to capture the beauty that was mostly hidden on this dreary day.

The clouds returned to fill the caldera and I decided to keep on the snow shoes and trek to Discovery Point. During the summer, Discovery Point is a drive-up vista that marks where the first European saw the lake. In the winter it is a 1.3 mile one-way hike through what had now become a white-out. As I trudged through the blistering winds and stinging snow, my friend stayed in the cafe, which, considering my current situation, can only be described as toasty warm.

I reached Discovery Point in thirty minutes and it was a ghostly scene. I had been hiking over mountains of snow and suddenly part of the road was uncovered and a plaque commemorating the site lay half buried in snow. To my right was the gray abyss that hid the lake and a dense forest was to my left. I glanced behind to see my lone set of snow shoe tracks trail off into the storm and for a moment I thought I was the last person on Earth wandering through a nuclear winter.

I was also standing near the spot where, a few days earlier, two guys from the air force base in Klamath Falls had been hiking. Somehow managing to make the hike without snow shoes, their luck ran out when one of the guys, in an attempt to find a dropped camera, slipped and fell a hundred feet down the side of caldera. He stopped a mere ten feet from the edge of a 500-foot drop into the lake and it took rescuers four hours to bring him up to safety and treat him for mild hypothermia. Winter hiking isn't for the faint of heart.

After a hot lunch in the cafe, the Vibe and I fought through the driving snow until reaching 3,000 feet where the snow promptly began rain, the roads cleared and it was smooth sailing, relatively speaking, to Portland.

Updated pictures here.

Tuesday, February 10

very superstitious, writing's on the wall

If you are a superstitious person, the past day would have sent you running for cover. After two straight days of rain--in California of all places--there was a light drizzle when we left Berkley this morning.

I try to avoid using CDs or MP3 players during road trips so that I can listen to local radio stations. A great testament to the power of the Internet and domestic globalization, nearly every radio station is identical to the next from Britney Spears' latest single to the same low-budget commercials advertising Joe's Shop for Whatever. And when I'm tired of hearing about when Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, or when the bloviating Rush Limbaugh denounces President Obama as the Antichrist, I switch to NPR for a solid dose of pinko communist propaganda.

This morning NPR had a segment on tonight's full moon that included some obscure trivia on how the Earth is, at any one moment, half covered in light and half covered in shadow. I'm glad the producers at NPR dispatched brilliant scientific minds to uncover this mystery of the stars. What they failed to mention, however, was that a full moon is known to induce strange behavior in both humans and nature.

We drove up the north coast of California to Redwood National Park and the rain subsided. The redwood groves that stretch from San Francisco to the Oregon border are the only old-growth forests left in the United States and the last remaining redwoods in the world. Further, these forests contain plant species that have outlasted the dinosaurs. Wandering among the 300-foot redwoods and pushing aside the descendants of pre-historic ferns is the closest one can get to experiencing what life was like while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. I half expected to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex come crashing through the undergrowth.

As we fast-fowarded to the present and began to weave through the Cascade Mountains towards Oregon, the rain returned and quickly became snow. From that point on, the weather seemed to change by the mile. The snow gave way to rain until blue skies parted the clouds for a instant before disappearing behind clouds and more rain. Fifty miles outside of Klamath Falls, the highway climbed up into the Cascades, the temperature dropped fifteen degrees and a drizzle became a blizzard. The road was quickly vanishing beneath the snow, but there were barely visible tracks and what appeared to be salt and sand preventing slippery conditions. Twenty miles later we caught up with the salt truck that had been providing the Vibe with so much traction. We followed the truck for another ten miles until the snow suddenly subsided and the roads cleared and were even dry. It was as if we had walked through a door separating a storm system and clear skies.

The sky was eerily beautiful and the brilliance of the full moon illuminated the landscape in a fluorescent light. Occasionally thin clouds would dissipate some of the light, but when the moon emerged the snow on the hillsides would light up like a white T-shirt underneath a black light. And if the day hadn't been strange enough, we pulled into Klamath Falls around eight and decided to eat at a BBQ joint that received rave reviews from the locals. While I was a little hesitant to accept BBQ in the Pacific Northwest, the food was great, better than most BBQ places in DC.

Now I'm pondering a jump in the heated pool here at the hotel. Tomorrow morning we are heading up to Crater Lake.

I only took a couple of pictures today and will update on Wednesday.

Sunday, February 8

how the west was won

Pictures have been updated and are here.

The road to Las Vegas passes through the Lake Meade Recreation Area and over the Hoover Dam. A Depression-era engineering feat, the Hoover Dam is best known for housing Megatron until his escape and demise at the hands of Shia Labeouf in the streets of Los Angeles. Standing on the dam looking down towards the Colorado River more than 700 feet below, the first thought in your head is a breathtaking, "Holy shit," followed shortly by, "How the heck was such an incredible piece of engineering built back in 1935?"

The Hoover Dam also marks the border between Arizona and Nevada. This change is noted, not by a change in scenery, but by the casino located about a mile from the dam. This establishment is placed strategically in case you cannot wait to flush money away in Las Vegas. If you can avoid the urge to gamble for thirty minutes, your patience is rewarded with a sweeping view of Vegas as the mountains fade into the desert.

Las Vegas was once the nation's fastest growing city; now it has one of the highest foreclosure rates. Nevertheless, the Strip at night is electrifying and overflowing with hundred thousand dollar cars, gambling addicts and illegal immigrants who are paid to hand out advertisements for strip clubs and escort services. Even if your idea of a good time is not losing exorbitant amounts of money in mere seconds, it's impossible to not be excited by the flashing lights and the whirring of slot machines.

I met up with some friends who were staying at the Venetian on business and after a few drinks in the hotel, we hit up the casinos. I threw down $50 at the blackjack table and was out after eight hands. My friend lost $400. With only $1 left--that I was willing to spend--I sat down at the penny slots and walked away 24 cents richer. I proceeded to lose the entire $1.24 playing video poker while waiting for a drink at the bar. After all that excitement, we wandered around Caesar's Palace until we realized it was two in the morning and my friends needed to be up for work in three hours. It was off to bed for a quick nap and a drive to Los Angeles the next day.

While watching the Weather Channel the next day, I noticed the forecast called for clear skies across the country and rain throughout the entire state of California. Four hours and a few hundred miles later we were sitting on I-10 in Los Angeles, stuck in rush hour traffic and the only day of rain the city will see all year. Another hour and ten miles later, we had parked and were sitting in the Broadway Deli, a great restaurant on the Santa Monica promenade. Afterwards, I met up with my brother and some of his friends at a bar near his office.

My brother and his friends work in Hollywood and, consequently, are the only people I really enjoy hearing talk shop. They never fail to have the inside scoop on celebrities or movies that you can't get on any entertainment blog. When we left LA to begin driving up the Pacific coast I was up-to-date on all the latest Hollywood gossip.

We spent the night in a small town north of Santa Barbara and woke up to more gray skies and pounding rain. I planned to spend the day cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway and rain was certainly not an integral part of that plan. Fortunately, whether by luck or divine providence, the rain slowed to a drizzle and when we hit the coast the clouds parted and the sun broke through.

Driving along the PCH is like every experience in the west: dramatic. The highway snakes around cliffs that fall hundreds of feet into the Pacific Ocean. We stopped in Big Sur and hiked down to one of the many beaches where writers such as Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac found peace, beauty and inspiration.

You really haven't seen a coastline until you've visited Big Sur. The isolation, the pristine beaches, the jagged rocks and cliffs all contribute to a landscape that can only be described as epic. I spent half an hour sitting on the beach staring at the surf and breathing the sea air wondering why the American West was gifted with such incredible beauty. I also wondered why anyone would live on the East Coast when the West has so much more to offer. I live in the East and couldn't give myself an adequate answer.

The sunshine and perfect 65 degree temperature made leaving an arduous task. It was time to press on to San Francisco where we would be spending the next two nights in Berkeley.

I have never been to San Francisco and the city exceeded my expectations in many ways. First off, the city was much bigger than I had ever imagined. My previous knowledge of San Francisco revolved around Grand Theft Auto III and a couple of racing video games where you speed up and down the hilly streets in a Corvette. Two of my friends were in the city this weekend (one actually lives in LA) and they took us on an extensive driving tour that covered nearly every major sight in the city. We went from Coit Tower to the famous switchbacking Lombard Street to Golden Gate Park to the Haight where the hippie movement and the Grateful Dead were born in the 60s.

Again the weather was miserable and a thick fog covered most of the city. However, luck was on our side as we arrived at Golden Gate Park. As we turned a corner for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog lifted, the sun emerged and the bay was bathed in sunlight. Shortly thereafter the clouds reclaimed the sky and the rain returned, but not before we saw the Golden Gate Bridge underneath blue skies.

Tomorrow morning we are leaving for Redwood National Park on the way to Seattle. I would expect the next update by Wednesday night at the latest.