November 2011

Most depressing moment of the week: Watching the Seattle 1/2 Marathon participants take off without me.

Not that I should really be complaining, because if that was my most depressing moment, then I’ve had a pretty good week 🙂

It was a stupid depressing moment, because there wasn’t any real reason that I didn’t run the Seattle half. I am not injured, I’m in reasonably good shape, and the race wasn’t sold out. My aunt/favorite family running buddy was participating. I just didn’t want to shell out the $100 bucks. If I could do it all over again, I would be $100 poorer. Running a race is priceless. (Well, not really. I don’t know if it would be worth a million dollars to run down soggy Seattle streets, but you get the idea.)

I told myself that I would go to the race and take good pictures. I never get good race photos because I’m always running. That plan failed as it was raining (of course) and I didn’t want to get my camera wet.

I told myself that I would go to the race and sell hand warmers to raise money for Team in Training. That plan failed as nobody wanted to buy hand warmers. And I hate selling things. I did give a bunch of the warmers to some homeless guys, so that made me happy.

I told myself that I would go and cheer on my aunt. That plan did actually work, but I think my aunt would have felt cheered anyways. Less than two and a half hours after the starting gun went off, she danced out of the finish line chute with her medal and a smile that can only be brought on by post-race endorphins.

“I feel so good! I could run another three miles!” She exclaimed as we headed to the recovery area.

“I feel so good! I could run another five miles!” She exclaimed as we headed to the car.  

I didn’t doubt her – she’s one tough aunt. Case in point: She ran the Spokane ½ last month and tripped, going down head-first at mile twelve. She stopped for some emergency first aid, but couldn’t get that finisher’s medal out of her bruising head. With a race aid worker by her side, she finished the race and headed directly to Urgent Care for eight stitches. She ran her first ½ marathon trail run a few weeks later.

In conclusion:

Be like my aunt. Run first, stop the bleeding* later.

Don’t be like me. Lay down that credit card,* pin on your race number and go.

*Note: I am not to be held responsible for any episodes of fainting due to blood loss or decreases in credit card ratings due to unreasonable race charges.

Someone who likes traveling and reading is extremely easy to buy a present for. There are tons of great books for travelers whether they are hikers, Francophiles, adventurers, or single females. That last category is getting more and more crowded due to Elizabeth Gilbert’s commercial success.  

My brother (who would definitely NOT appreciate “Eat, Pray, Love”) is a hiker and also a writer. As his sister, I’ve decided that he should read more. So I went out and purchased Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” as his Christmas present. Hopefully Jay won’t read this blog between now and December 25th.   

But it’s too easy to just buy someone a book, wrap it up, and call it good. So I’m giving Jay additional presents to open while reading. Naturally, each present corresponds to some section in the book. This also:            

a)      Ensures that he actually reads the book – sneaky, huh?

b)      Provides me a reason to read the book before giving it to Jay. So not only is he getting a present that I actually want for myself, but now he’s getting it secondhand. I’m a great sister.

Come Christmas, here is what my brother will receive along with his very own used copy of Bill Bryson’s book:

  • After the author decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, he spends the first 23 pages worrying about bears. He writes about past bear attacks in an increasingly panicked fashion. He particularly notes that bears like Snickers bars. When Bryson’s friend comes to join him for the hike, the friend (unbeknownst to the bear danger) brings a backpack full of Snickers bars. Jay’s first present is, of course, a Snickers bar.
  • After Jay reads the following passage on page 96, he will be rewarded with sticky rat traps. In the book, Bryson and his friend Katz find themselves spending the night in a rodent infested shelter:

I turned on my headlamp to find a packmouse on top of my sleeping bag…not six inches from my chin, sitting up on its haunches and regarding me with a gimlet eye. Reflexively, I hit the bag from inside, flipping him into a startled oblivion. 

“Got one!” cried Katz.

“Me too,” I said, rather proudly.

  • By page 144, the book has returned to Bryson’s bear phobia. It’s the middle of the night and Bryson fears that there is a bear outside. Upon conferring with Katz (who is decidedly less hysterical about possible bear proximity), it is discovered that the sharpest instrument they have to slay bears with is…toenail clippers. Naturally, this is Jay’s next present. If I was a good sister, I would have bought bear spray for my brother instead. But bear spray is $40, so I decided to pass. If my brother ever does get mauled to death by a bear, I will feel very bad. Maybe I’ll buy him bear spray for his next birthday.
  • Jay’s next present (to be opened at page 185) is a $10 donation to Earth Justice, an organization that is working to stop some types of coal mining. Check out their website, wherein you can download the donation form. I’m giving Jay the form and a ten dollar bill, so technically he can decide what to do with it. However, he will have just read Bryson’s description of the town of Centralia. This eastern Pennsylvania town had to be evacuated in the early ’80’s because of the coal fire raging just under the town’s surface.

In 1981, a twelve-year-old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was about then that people started getting serious about the fire.   

  • Crazy, huh? Jay’s last present will be a body warmer, which he will be instructed to open on page 220, after reading about Bryson’s various descriptions of hypothermia.

I decided not to get Jay a final present upon completing the entire book, but an airline ticket to Great Smoky Mountain National Park would be appropriate, as would an “America the Beautiful Pass,” which is a yearly pass guaranteeing free admission to all the National Parks he may want to visit.

Please feel free to copy my idea as you are Christmas shopping for your own brothers, family members, and friends. But even if you don’t come up with a whole slew of presents to give alongside the book, any reader on your list that even mildly likes to hike will enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

Please know that this post contains affiliate links. Purchasing books or bear spray via the links in this post will earn me a bit of money – so thanks!

I’m kind of a history person, so I was excited to walk the Freedom Trail in Boston. My friend and I dubbed ourselves as “Freedom-ers” and set off along the painted red line from the Boston Commons. (We went backwards, by the way. I think you are supposed to start in Charlestown). We were ready for museums, Paul Revere’s House, and Bunker Hill.

We had barely passed our first historic cemetery when we stepped onto School Street and our conversation turned to food. At 60 School street sits the Omni Parker House Hotel, historic site of the first Boston Cream Pie. The glamour shots of the dessert in the window did look tempting, but we decided to keep our distance. We had planned a full-on touristy day are were dressed for the part. We did not want to stroll into the fancy hotel in our get-up of walking shoes, rainproof jackets, and cameras bags. We later found out that we could have avoided the lobby and stopped in the attached hotel store for a cream pie to go. Oh well.  

We dutifully checked out the Boston Massacre Site and the Old State House, but when we got to the markets across from Faneuil Hall, history was put aside. We strayed from our crimson path and found not only more Boston Cream Pie, but fudge, fish and chips, clam chowder, and other Boston fare. It should be noted that we did not eat ALL these things. Yet.    

After our market lunch we got back on track and headed to the North End. Any hope of following the trail was over at that point. The North End deserves to be wandered though. This Italian hub of Boston is way better than New York’s Little Italy. Every tiny street was packed with pizza-by-the-slice shops, bakeries selling over-sized cannolis, adorable restaurants with red checkered tablecloths, and dark inviting pubs. My friend and I started studying menus instead of historical information markers. We poked around wine shops instead of museums. We made dinner plans.

We ditched the Freedom Trail, headed back to our hotel to change, and returned for dinner the Florentine Cafe. We had some wine. I had the chicken-pork special. We had some more wine. Denise had pasta. And more wine. And more. Just as our waiter was hoping that we would pay him and leave, we decided to order bruschetta. And more wine.

“Seriously?” he’d asked, incredulous. Yeah buddy, we’re serious. Keep that food coming.

After our post-meal appetizer, we finally left the restaurant and realized that we hadn’t had dessert yet.

To Mike’s Pastry we headed.   The post-dinner crowd was loud and happy here, and we fit right in. I highly recommend the red velvet whoopie pie.

The next day we started at Bunker Hill, determined to finish the Freedom Trial. We made the 294 step climb up the Monument, thus working off 1/20th of our meals the day before.

We were about to head back to the North End and check out Paul Revere’s House and the Old North Church when my Dad called.

“Are you in Boston yet?” he demanded. He and my mother had been here a couple years ago (during baseball season, which made me jealous), and they talk constantly about how much they love the city.


“Isn’t it great?” he asked. “Have you gone to Warren Tavern yet? They have the best clam chowder…” Dad went on for awhile, about how it was a bar that George Washington frequented, how the fish and chips were great, and what beer had been on tap.

My Dad has had a lot of clam chowder in his day. And he usually doesn’t gush. If he says the chowder was good, it was probably REALLY good.

Plus, Warren Tavern is really close to the Bunker Hill Monument. So off the trail we strayed again. The chowder was so delicious, I ate it all before I could take a picture of it.

We did finish the Freedom Trail eventually. Good thing, because the Old North Church was my favorite stop on the tour. Well, my favorite non-culinary stop. A few days later I was digging through my purse and found a half eaten red velvet pie wrapped up in a Freedom Trail Map. Ahhh, good Boston memories.

My favorite moment in Egypt wasn’t seeing the pyramids or cruising down the Nile. It was drinking sugar cane water with an Egyptian woman who’d just wrapped a headscarf around me and proudly announced, “Now you look like Muslim woman.”

In China it was staying up late talking with Elaine about guys, family, and life. In Mongolia it was the taxi driver who could have so easily ripped me off, but didn’t. And the reason I’m so attached to Norway is probably because of all those nights drinking and dancing with my favorite Scandinavian.  

New Mexico was no exception. Of course I loved the green chile cheeseburgers, the Navajo pottery shards that littered Oso Vista Ranch, and the pueblos atop mesas that people still live in. But it was the people that made the trip. If life (or a plane) takes you to the Four Corners/New Mexico area, I highly recommend you find these people and the restaurant/pueblo/company/ranch/canyon that they are connected to.

Calvin: Since the Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on Native land, visitors that want to go down into the canyon can only do so with a Navajo guide. There are about 60 guides available to give tours, but Calvin Watchman should be your man. Not only did he regal us with stories of his adventures climbing through the ruins that are tucked in high canyon crevices (he also fell several stories off said ruins), but he also pulled our car out of the mud. Calvin has a pretty deep connection to the place, and still has land there. It’s the same land that his grandmother resided on when she raised him. Calvin grew up solely in the canyon until he was twelve, wherein the government realized that he wasn’t in school. He did have some initial success escaping the confines of school at Fort Wingate, but now he frequently returns to his home without what I picture as cowboy-style-school-policemen hot on his heels.

Watchman’s tour company is called Tseyi Trails. Call 928-349-8528 to arrange things. The exact price of a tour depends on what you want to do (hiking, horseback riding, overnight camping) and if you will be driving your own car or his.  Without a guide, visitors can still enjoy scenic overlooks and hike the White House Trail.

Jim and Barbara: Scenic overlooks are a bit more nerve wracking if you are hanging out with Jim and Barbara. Instead of causally enjoying a view I was listening to Jim telling me to hang my heels off the edge of this cliff and casually sit back. Like, into thin air. It took me awhile, but I did it. As the owner of Kokopelli Adventures, Jim is used to coaxing people up and down rock walls. Working with at-risk kids is his specialty. He brings portable rock climbing walls to schools, takes groups hiking and canoeing, and teaches team building and leadership skills to kids through climbing and other activities. “My hope is that some of them will put me out of business pretty soon,” he says. If clutching rock faces sounds like fun (and it is!), check out Kokopelli Adventures here or give Jim a call at 505-863-9941.

Tahama:  Definitely the spunkiest person (spunky: not my favorite word, but describes Tahama perfectly) that I met in New Mexico, Tahama was our guide through the Acoma Pueblo at Sky City. Continuously inhabited since the 1100’s, the 300+ buildings atop the mesa still serve as the cultural hub of the Acoma people. Although most families live elsewhere, many, like Tahama, return to their mother’s ancestral home for special events and festivals.

Sky City is between Albuquerque and Gallup off of highway 40. If you want to visit the pueblo, mesa, and surrounding areas, you must check in at the visitors center and sign up for a guided tour. Tours are given between February and November. Check their website ahead of time for tour times and a calendar of non-tour dates. Though I can’t promise Tahama will be your guide (she was finished with college, studying for her real estate license, and hanging out part time in Albuquerque at the time of my tour), hope for her anyways. She answered all questions and related the stories and history of the Acoma people ease and humor. Plus she had a few questions of her own. When she took a picture of Amanda and I, we told her that we’d met for the first time a few hours ago at the Albuquerque airport. She looked horrified. “How do you know each other aren’t serial killers?” she asked. We both smiled for the camera in response.

Amanda: I didn’t turn out to be a serial killer, and Amanda definitely wasn’t one either.  Instead, she’s a former Navajo teacher who can’t quite stand being away from the Four Corners area of New Mexico. She’s been to about a million different countries (ask her about getting to the islands off the coast of Panama – funny story), but ever since she was seven, New Mexico has felt like home. With her connections to the area, in-depth knowledge of the culture, and contagious love for the San Juan Flats surrounding Tohatchi, she’s a natural tour guide. Plus she makes awesome posole. Check out Blue Desert Guide Company’s website for different tour packages and gorgeous pictures of the area.

Margaret: Of all the great people that Amanda and BDGC is associated with, Margaret is definitely the kindest. There is no way I can ever picture her saying a mean thing. It’s just not possible. Like Amanda, Margaret came out to New Mexico to teach. She describes the same sense of coming home as soon as the Zuni mountains and mesas came into view. Margaret owns and maintains Oso Vista Ranch where we stayed. I could go on and on about the house (adobe windowsills, local art decor, great views, cozy fireplaces…) for awhile, but the teacher in me also has to mention the fact that Margaret opens up the ranch for several weeks during the summer while she runs an outreach program for local kids. Check out the Oso Vista Ranch Project’s website for more details. If you are interested in booking a stay at the ranch, information on how to do that can be found here.

My trip through New Mexico was sponsored by the Blue Desert Guide Company. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

I’m used to driving in the West. Long stretches of empty Nevada roads, the Pacific Coast highway, and FREEways make road tripping through the west gorgeous and easy. I was a little out of my comfort zone driving through Philadelphia, Boston, and D.C. But after driving the wrong way down a one-way street in downtown Baltimore (down Lexington no less, to the tune of “giiiiirl, you so dummmmb”), I was ready to give up. Plus, we were headed to New York next. I wasn’t about to compete with crazy cab drivers, bikers, and buses. Even my anti-public-transportation traveling companion agreed that it was time to take the train. And the subway.

So we stayed in New Jersey. Taking the Amtrak and/or subway into New York from Jersey isn’t for every traveler or every trip. When I mentioned my bridge and tunnel plan to my Manhattan-based brother in law he gave a slight shutter and backed away repulsed. But whatever. I liked staying in Jersey.

If you are looking for a quick weekend vacation in the city that never sleeps, bite the bullet and get a $400 hotel room. Or pitch a tent by the JFK airport. But if you are just passing though New York on a road trip, staying in New Jersey is the way to go.  Here are some transportation tips:

Getting around New Jersey: Trust your GPS. Don’t look at a map, just blindly follow the directions. I had received this advice prior to entering the “Garden” State, but I still typed an address into my GPS, looked at the map, decided I could get there a better way, and promptly drove around in confused circles. Roads don’t connect where you think they do, and you can’t turn left anywhere in Jersey. So even if your GPS sends you on a six mile circle to go half a mile down the street, just do it.

Getting to New York via Amtrak: I was pleasantly surprised by all the nice places to stay in New Jersey. New Brunswick was a cute town, as was Edison. We stayed at the Marriott near the MetroPark train station (120 Wood Ave, Islin, NJ 08830) and paid less than $10 to park there for the whole day. A roundtrip train ticket to New York Penn Station was $20. Tickets are easily purchased at a kiosk in the train station. You can check amtrak’s website for schedules, or you can just show up whenever you feel like it. Trains leave at least once every thirty minutes. The train ride is forty minutes long.

Getting to New York via subway: Yet there is a cheaper way to do things. On our last day in New York/New Jersey, we were planning on heading up to Boston that evening, so we changed our traveling strategy. After checking out of our New Jersey digs, we drove up to the Bronx and for $11 we parked at Putnam Gardens Parking (3815 Putnam Ave West, Bronx, NY 10463) which was two blocks away from the Van Cortlandt Park subway stop (Line 1). Then for just over $2, we took the subway into the city. The ride down to Wall Street took just over an hour. I wasn’t quite as comfortable as the train, but when you start at the northernmost stop, you are pretty much guaranteed to secure a seat on the subway.

Besides, any ride is more comfortable that frantically pulling a U-turn across a crowded one-way street in Baltimore.

I am surely no Detroit expert. My time in Michigan totaled two days and I stayed in the suburbs (Farmington Hills is nice, if you are curious). But as a casual observer, I couldn’t NOT notice that the city can use some help.    

Detroit looks exactly like you think it does. I paid for my gas downtown through a sheet of bullet proof glass. Every sixth house is gutted and covered with graffiti, while the homes in between are kept up and lived in. I saw a lot of boards over windows.


Which is why I’m glad that I “toured” the southwest part of the city as a participant in the Day of the Dead 10K. Runners are always good company to keep, even if they are dressed up as sombrero-ed skeletons.

Though my non-Hispanic cultural lens, I’ve never really gotten the DĂ­a De Los Muertos. Jubilant skeletons, ghost parades, dancing on gravestones, and feasting joyously with the dead has always seemed a bit creepy to me. This race is exactly what I needed to get over my oh-so-traditional attitudes on death celebration.

I talked to a gal while we were waiting in line for the bathroom (this is the prime runner bonding spot in ANY race, by the way). Her husband had just moved here from Mexico so she figured running the race was appropriate. She gave me a quick de-briefing of the holiday. “He really doesn’t believe in most of this, but we celebrate for tradition’s sake,” she said of her husband. She then told me about the family feasts that are prepared, the celebratory atmosphere, the memorial alters, and the bowls of water that are placed out so the dead can wash their hands before sitting down to eat with the family.

I wondered if any of the dead would be running with us.    

If so, I hope they enjoyed the race as much as I did. Starting at Patton Park Recreation Center, the race goes though the historically hispanic part of Detroit, winding participants though two cemeteries and several neighborhoods. It’s not exactly an out-and-back run, but the course turns on itself several times, allowing you to see the front runners speeding past in the opposite direction. The race draws a pretty good crowd. The front runners aren’t Kenyans, but they are pretty speedy.

The festivities were the best part of the race though. Most holiday races put out of appropriately themed cookies and call it good. Not in Southwest Detroit! People went all out. About 1/3 of the participants were dressed up, and everyone seemed to be in a festive mood. When you sign up for the race, you can mention the name of a loved one who is buried in one of the race-course cemeteries, and that name is added to the memorial near the race starting line. As we ran though the Holy Cross Cemetery, there were two different dance troupes, boom boxes places near headstones, entertaining us runners.

Oh, and these cemeteries need to be mentioned, because they are spectacular. No rows of old boring headstones here. Graves were topped with huge statues, rising obelisks, and intricately carved pillars. There are even a few mausoleums thrown into the mix. The Woodmere Cemetery was especially striking. I think it might have been even cooler than the above-ground burial sites in New Orleans. Oh, that reminds me – there was a saxophone player at the place where the 10K and the 5K race split. This can sometimes be a hard part of the race for those running the longer distance, and the sax was a welcome distraction.

After running six miles through gorgeous grounds with cheerful ghouls and witches covered in hibiscus flowers, I was warming up to the Day of the Dead. Maybe remembering deceased loved ones doesn’t have to be a sober and cold experience after all.

The Day of the Dead 10K is held annually in Southwest Detroit on one of the weekends close to November 1st. Check out the city’s website to register, and get to the race early. Day of race registration and number pick-up is a madhouse.

Since August I’ve had three oil changes in three different states. I’ve gone from Seattle to Wisconsin to Vegas to Key West to Boston and back. I’ve heard Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera’s “Moves like Jagger” approximately 700 million times on radio stations across the country. (My car and my iPod are apparently not compatible).

So when I got home last night and threw my first load of clothes into the washer, I was only thinking one thing: Thank God I’m leaving in three days.

And I am beyond excited about this next trip. This past month I’ve been screaming “I can’t wait for New Mexico!” in inappropriate places (Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, for example) because not only do I love hiking through red canyons, but this will also be my first press trip.

The opportunity to horseback ride through the Zuni Mountains came about by my participation in MatadorU’s travel writing program. I knew enrolling in the course was a good idea after seeing my instructor’s byline in National Geographic Traveler, but tons of magazine contacts and a plethora of press trips are also definite bonuses.  

This trip to New Mexico comes from the Blue Desert Guide Company. Started by two former teachers (teachers! my favorite kind of people!), my trip with BDGC means visiting pueblos, hiking in the Bisti Badlands and the Chuska Mountains, staying at the Oso Vista Ranch, exploring the Canyon de Chelly, watching Zuni dancers, rock climbing, and horseback riding. And I’m only seeing a small fraction of what BDGC can offer. Guides Amanda and Vino have lived and worked in New Mexico for several years, and their connection to the area means that they can take travelers to reservations, ancient destinations, and off-the-beaten-path locations not accessible to most people. Their website is full of stunning canyon and vista shots, proving that there is no better combination than red rocks and blue sky.

I already know that the area is gorgeous. A trip last summer from Mesa Verde, CO to Las Vegas took me though the Four Corners region. I was dying to stop and look around, but the rock stuck between my brake pads meant that my car was hell-bent on screeching its way to the nearest auto repair shop. I can’t wait to return in someone else’s vehicle. Mine needs a rest.     

I’m most excited (okay, and a little bit nervous) for the rock climbing. I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by ropes and mountain cliffs, but never had the chance (aka, I’ve never dated a guy who’s been into rock climbing. Now I don’t have to). Kokopelli Adventures is going to swoop in for this part of the trip, and I hope my arm strength will not disgust them.

Excuse me while I do a set of push ups.

I’m excited to flex my writing muscles as well. After re-reading press trip advice on Kaleidoscopic Wandering (my go-to blog for travel and writing advice) and talking to Julie Schwietert from MatadorU, I have a list of publications to pitch to. Plus I have twelve different people telling me to take pictures of everything I see, collect contact information from everyone I meet, and write down even the minutest of details. So if this blog is suddenly inundated with 342 pictures of the bathrooms at the Albuquerque airport, you’ll know why.   

So I’m off to go buy another memory card, get my climbing arms in shape at the gym, and get another oil change. Maybe I’ll hear “Moves Like Jagger” on the way to the store. Maybe I’ll forget I’m home and check into the hotel down the street. I kind of hope so. I already miss being on the road. New Mexico cannot come soon enough.

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