Exploring the world one word…and one mile…at a time

Archive for March, 2012

Virtual Views of the Great Smokies

These first two weeks on the road were intended, in part, to be a dry run for our longer journey this summer.  A short trip provided us with a chance to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what we would do differently (or the same) when we’re gone for a longer period of time.  One of the things we’re experimenting with is our use of technology on the road–things like which blogging platforms, internet connections, laptops, phones, and cameras work best for us.  Included in the camera category is video…whether shooting video of our travels is feasible, and more importantly, whether it is interesting–both to us and to you.

For this trip, we used the basic movie setting on a non-HD, point-and-shoot camera.  The plan was to include videos as part of our daily blog posts, but we found that our internet connections on the road (which were inconsistent at best, even with a mobile hotspot…) rarely provided the bandwidth we needed to upload them.  We muscled our way through two painfully slow coffee shop uploads before waiting until we returned home to upload the rest.  We’re rethinking our strategy for the next trip, but while we do that, you might be interested in this virtual hiking tour of the Great Smoky Mountain N.P…

Home Sweet Home…For Now

After a whirlwind two weeks (and two especially long days of driving), we are back home tonight, looking forward to sleeping in our own bed and having breakfast tomorrow at our favorite cafe.  Two days ago, we left 80-degree sunshine behind in the Florida Keys.  This afternoon, we met friends of ours (in town from California) for drinks in chilly New Hampshire, rolling in to the bar directly from the highway.  In order to make it on time, we logged our longest day of driving to date yesterday–817 miles from Savannah, GA to Yonkers, NY–adding to the trip total of 4,073 miles.  Sal the Subaru was a champ on his first long-haul road trip, averaging more than 25 miles per gallon (fewer in the mountains than in the South).  Our words per gallon fared only slightly better, due largely to the lack of downtime we built into the schedule.  It’s something we plan to include more of in our longer trips later this year, but our priority for this one was simply to get far away from here and physically break away from our prior day-to-day lives.  Now that we’re back, somewhat rested and fully reinvigorated, we have a long list of posts, photos, and videos to write, edit, and upload.  We’ll spend most of April at home, writing, running, and finding a new rhythm.  But before March ends, we have one more adventure planned: to participate in a charity trivia bee tomorrow night.  After several days on island time, it will take a lot of focus and some strong coffee to ensure our brains are up for the challenge.

Island Hopping Through History

L to R: Early dock departure / Ft. Jefferson / Moat and outer wall / Arch architecture / Bird life / Does anyone look good in snorkeling gear?

Dry Tortugas National Park is both the southernmost park in the system and one of the hardest to reach.  Visiting the park has been on my bucket list for years, and we were fortunate enough to make it there on Monday (the fifth park of this trip!).  Located in the Gulf of Mexico 70 miles off Key West, the Dry Tortugas can only be reached by boat or sea plane.  We traveled there on the Yankee Freedom II, a two-level passenger ferry.  The first hour of the trip—out past the Marquesas—was relatively smooth sailing, but the second hour took us across a deep-water channel, so the seas were a little rough.  We arrived in one piece and were happy to be on land, if only temporarily.

The ferry boat docks at Garden Key, the largest island in the park and home to Ft. Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.  Millions of bricks from places as far away as Maine were used to construct the three-level fort during the 19th century.  Construction was never completed, but the fort has been used for a variety of purposes, including a military outpost and a prison, for much of the last 150 years.

The fort is impressive, but the view from atop it is stunning.  Surrounded by park waters in ten shades of blue, thousands of birds nest in the islands or make temporary stops as they fly between the Americas.  In addition to exploring the fort and the island, we hit the water with snorkel gear and explored a few underwater areas, including the fort’s moat wall and old pilings from a former coal dock.  (There are no services on the island, so for one all-inclusive ticket price, the ferry company provides breakfast, lunch, restrooms, and snorkeling equipment for day passengers.)

Satisfied with our adventure and just a little sunburned, we settled in for the trip back to Key West and arrived in time to watch the sunset.  More on that later!  In the meantime, take a peek at this video.  Consider it a sneak peek of your own trip someday!   -J

Is It Time for Bed Yet??

After driving 620 miles today (mostly in Florida…), we have finally arrived at our home for the night, a chain hotel right off the highway in Savannah, Georgia.  We’re a stone’s throw from South Carolina, which will be the 14th state we’ll hit on this trip and where we head early tomorrow morning.  But first things first!  Tonight we sleep…in a bed!  We’ve been camping for the last four nights, so this plush, king-sized mattress is a welcome change.  We need a good night’s sleep to prepare for tomorrow’s monster drive: 15 or so hours up the scenic I-95 corridor.  If things go as planned, we’ll be sleeping somewhere north of New York City tomorrow night.  By the end of the day, we’ll be closing in on the 4,000 mile mark for the trip…and we’ll be ready for another night of rest before hauling back to New Hampshire to meet up with friends visiting from California and participate in a charity trivia event.  Fun times are definitely ahead, but right now…it’s time for lights out!  -J

Staying Sane on the Road: Episode 1

This sign confused us. We took a right. We were wrong.

Since leaving New Hampshire two weeks ago, we’ve kept a small notebook in the car with pieces of information about our trip: gas purchases, mileage, expenses, lists of things to bring on the next trip, strange signs seen along the roadside, vanity plates…the list goes on.

The last page in our mini road journal includes a list of states and provinces labeled “The License Plate Game.”  The License Plate Game consists of writing down all unique states and provinces from license plates we see on the trip.  The goal is to get all 50 states and Washington, D.C. before we get home; provinces are just a bonus.  It’s not a competitive game as much as it is a team effort to complete the list, in part because it helps stave off boredom on the road and in part because it forces us to be aware of the little details around us.  We found two of the tough stragglers (Alaska and Montana) parked on side streets as we wandered around Key West yesterday.

In the 13 states we traveled through to get to Key West (NH, MA, CT, NY, NJ, PA, MD, WV, VA, TN, NC, GA, and FL), we recorded 44 different states plus Washington, D.C. and three provinces.

As we prepare to start the 30-hour, ~1,700 mile trip from Sugarloaf Key to New Hampshire, we have just six states left: HI, WY, ID, NM, UT, and ND.

We’ll be on the lookout for these last few states as we head back to the Northeast over the next three days.  If we don’t see them on this trip, we’ll just have to continue the quest when we drive out west later this summer!

P.S. In case you’ve wondered what it’s like to drive hundreds of miles through southern Georgia or northern Florida, take a peek at this…and then rewind and watch it 600 more times.

Setting Our Watches to Kairos Time

On Saturday morning, we drove to downtown Tampa to meet a friend and mentor of mine, Janet, for coffee at a local place called Sophie’s French Café and Bakery.  We were near the University of Tampa, and there was an arts festival in progress on the same street as the café.  We sat at a table among the eclectic collection of mismatched chairs and tables and caught up on life, writing, family and travel.  We also discussed plans for a visit later this year during which J and I will help Janet move her belongings back to New England to start a new job.

While telling Janet about our plans to travel and write for the upcoming 12 months, I mentioned that since leaving my job I’ve had a hard time remembering what day it is.  Janet responded, “You’re on mythic time now.  You’re living in the moment on Kairos time, instead of by the clock on Chronos time.”  Her statement stayed with me over the past couple of days, as many of Janet’s observations have, and last night I started doing some research into the concept of “mythic time.”

Chronos is the Greek word for chronological or sequential time.  This is the time of clocks and calendars, and the time that most of us exist in during our day-to-day lives.  Kairos is the Greek word for mythic time, or those periods where time seems to evaporate:  creative spells, long runs, meditations, getting lost in a task, etc.  Further research into Kairos revealed that the term can be translated as “the supreme or opportune moment,” a moment where one must choose to act in order to take advantage of an opportunity in front of them.  A closely related phrase is Carpe Diem, typically translated as “seize the day.”

I also read that the Greeks believed that mythic time was the time during which the gods lived out and recorded their stories.  These stories were emblazoned on the wheel of time as lessons for humans, and then the wheel was set into motion, forming Chronos time.  The metaphor of living our life on mythic time, completely in the moment and taking advantage of opportunities as they emerge, is beautiful to me.  This year will be a time for J and me to live out and emblazon new stories and experiences onto our past, new myths and lessons for how we will live our future together…whatever it will be. -M

The Sunshine (and Bug) State

Greetings from the Gulf Coast of Florida!  We’ve had a busy few days traveling south from the Smokies.  We spent the last two days visiting with family and friends in Tampa, and tonight we are comfortably tucked into our tent at a campground in Naples.  We are tucked into the tent this early (before 8 PM) because the “no-see-ums” are out in full force.  We were able to have a leisurely dinner at the picnic table and take a dip in the campground pool before the bugs forced us to take refuge.  Fortunately, we are only here for one night.  Tomorrow, we’ll visit Everglades National Park on our way to the Lower Keys.  Hope you are all having a great weekend!

L to R: Our campsite under the palms / Dinner of leftover stuffed shells and salad / Refreshed after a dip in the pool

Friday’s Running Adventure (or How I Almost Got Lost on a Loop Trail)

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I am in the final weeks of training for my first half-marathon.  I reworked my training plan before hitting the road to ensure I would be able to fit in both short and long runs in between our road travels.  This week’s plan called for 15 miles, and I planned to pick up 2 in VA and 3 in TN before a long 10-miler when we reached my aunt’s house in Tampa.  I researched running trails in her neighborhood and found a nature park with a 7-mile paved loop.  The entrance appeared to be right around the corner from the house, perhaps a mile away, so if we ran there and back, we’d get 9 miles.  Good enough for a safe, scenic route.

As it turns out, I grabbed just 1 mile in VA, 2 in TN, and zero in the Smokies…although we did hike 11 miles on Wednesday, which definitely counts as cross-training and a short-mileage substitute.  So I arrived in Tampa on Thursday night with plans to go for a long run on Friday morning early enough to beat the heat.  I thought we could do 10 miles in just over 1 ½ hours.

We set out early, entering the park via the North Tampa Nature Trail, just a half-mile from where we were staying.  We wove our way through a bug jungle before we connected to a spur of the main Flatwoods Loop trail that I had read about.  At the time, we didn’t realize we were on a spur and thought the 7-mile loop had begun.  We stuck together for the first three miles and then broke off to run at our own paces…specifically, for me to slow down.  I was feeling the effects of the heat and humidity, and I contemplated cutting my run short, to 6 or 8 miles instead.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep pace for 10.

We agreed to finish the loop separately and meet back at a water station we had passed earlier.  It was a loop after all; as long as we kept running in the same direction, we’d get back to where we started.  Or so we thought.  I watched M run out of sight around a bend in the trail.  There were plenty of people around—several bicyclists and a few other runners—so I didn’t feel unsafe.  Plus, I had my cell phone with me, and the park was patrolled by rangers who could be also be contacted by phone (every water station listed the emergency number).   I kept running, hydrating and enjoying the scenery of the first few miles.

After five miles, I needed a break.  I walked a bit of Mile 6 and refilled my water bottles.  I jogged a bit more, and then walked again.  Somewhere around Mile 7, there was one fork in the road, where two separate loops appeared to join.  It wasn’t clear which direction to go, but after some debate with myself, I decided to stay to the right.  I was running clockwise in a circle; best to stick to the inside track.

Friday turned out to be an unseasonably warm day in Tampa—86 degrees before noon—and I quickly finished the water I had brought with me.  Fortunately, the park had basic water stations every mile or two around the loop.  And that loop…well it turned out to be further than I estimated.  Not the loop itself, but the fact that we had started on a spur instead of the main trail.  I was expecting to meet back up at around the 8-mile mark on my watch.  I kept running.  The sun shined brightly in a cloudless sky.  It was hot, and there was very little shade on the trail.  I ate a Goo (an energy product) and ran a bit more.

The GPS distance tracker on my watch kept increasing— 7 miles, 8 miles, 9 miles—and the trail kept twisting and turning with no end in sight.  What happened to a 7-mile loop?  There were fewer and fewer people on the trail.  I ran long stretches without seeing another person while lizards and armadillos darted into the brush beside me.  I kept running, drinking, running, walking.  10 miles, 11 miles.  I kept thinking back to that fork in the road.  What if he went left when I went right?  What direction were we supposed to go?  Why did we split up?  Why didn’t he have his phone with him?

To say I was panicked would be an overstatement, but my level of anxiety was rising with every mile.  Finally, around Mile 11, I flagged down a bicyclist and asked if she had passed a water station at a four-way intersection.  “Oh, sure,” she replied.  “About half a mile back.”  I don’t know where the speed came from, but I practically sprinted the next half-mile.  As I rounded the last corner, I caught a glimpse of the water shelter: empty.  M wasn’t there.  I lost steam and started trudging, thinking about my next move.

And just then,  he emerged from around a bend, walking in my direction.  I waved my arms to catch his attention.  I was sweaty, sunburned, exhausted, and safe…but I wasn’t done running.  We still had another mile to go before we got home.   Final distance: more than 12 miles.  What should have been an easy training run turned into a test of conditioning, endurance, and mental toughness…and I think I passed.  I also think running 13.1 hilly miles in New Hampshire will be easier than yesterday’s run in the park.  -J

L to R: New Tampa entrance to Flatwoods Park / Stretch of 7-mile Loop Trail / Me, sunburned and sweaty

To Hike or Not To Hike: Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” –John Muir

Hiking the AT (L to R): Atop Charlie's Bunion--Directional signage--2,000 miles to Maine!--Icewater Springs shelter

More than once, the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (hiking it from end to end) has crossed my mind.  Three or four months of solitude in the woods didn’t sound so bad, hiking beautiful mountains and clearing my head while I explored the world on my own two feet.  We’ve hiked short stretches of the AT in several states, including the Jackson-Webster loop in New Hampshire, and on this trip so far, our 10+ miles in Tennessee and Virginia.  While I’ve enjoyed each of those day hikes, with every mile I log, I wonder if I’m really up for 2,000 more.  And then we chatted with a few guys who were in the early stages of their thru-hike attempts, and I wondered why I ever entertained the idea in the first place.

The majority of thru-hikers tackles the trail in a northbound fashion, meaning they start their trek at Springer Mountain, Georgia and walk in a general northeasterly direction until—approximately 2,180 miles later—they reach the end of the trail on the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine.  The journey takes the average hiker four to six months, although some take three and others take more.  The trip is generally constrained by weather, since most hikers need to make it to Maine before it gets snowed in.  In a less popular route, some hikers start at Katahdin in May or June and finish in Georgia in autumn.

The Park Service strictly regulates thru-hikers and backcountry camping.  To minimize impact on the trails and ensure a level of traceability, hikers are required to stay overnight in designated shelters.  There is a network of shelters (maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club and other organizations) that offer protected lodging and are spaced roughly a day apart on the trail.  Backcountry tenting is prohibited, and ridge runners (volunteers who run back and forth across segments of the trail) patrol the ridge to enforce that rule.

The shelters are beautiful buildings, often made of stone and timber.  But what they offer in beauty, they lack in comfort.  At the Icewater Springs shelter we checked out, the bunks consist of two large wooden platforms, one about two feet above the other.  Hikers (mostly thru-hikers, with a few day hikers thrown in for good measure) sleep shoulder to shoulder, often with strangers, in the three-sided structure.

We encountered several thru-hikers on the trail yesterday.  Most were men, hiking alone, ages ranging from early 20s to mid-60s.  We saw only one couple and one solo woman, likely in her 40s.  As a general rule, they were a chatty bunch, not afraid to strike up a conversation or ask a question.  We heard tales “vermin” in the shelters and of guys like “Machete Mitch,” a survivalist type who is hiking parallel to the AT (but not on it) equipped with only a machete, a compass, and an iPad.  (Apparently survivalist does not mean electronics minimalist.)

The “vermin” didn’t sound too exotic…mostly field mice and chipmunks looking for food…but in my mind, even a chipmunk becomes terrifying if he’s running across my face in the middle of the night.  Then there’s the incessant snoring from your neighbor, and if you’re extra lucky, a crying baby like one hiker reported from a shelter in the night before.  (Parents: I understand the desire to take your kids into the backcountry overnight, but can we agree to wait until they are potty-trained?)

And while the majority of the AT does cross scenic ranges in sparsely traveled places like those I imagined, some sections cross right through major tourist areas or the centers of towns.  One hiker shared the culture shock he experienced when he hitched a ride into Gatlinburg after two weeks on the trail…and was dropped off near a Hard Rock Café.  Not exactly the scenery of Muir.

I have total respect for folks that attempt a thru-hike, tackling a strenuous journey and relying only on themselves while they attempt the adventure of a lifetime.  Most sources estimate only 1 in 4 hikers who start the hike will finish it.  I, however, have a 0% chance of finishing it, because I will never start it.  But I will go to the mountains when they call, and I will return to the AT.  I’ll just continue to seek out my adventures in metered doses, in 10-mile sections that can be covered in one day. -J

Off and Running!

We spent last night at a hotel/conference center/golf resort in northeastern Tennessee. We selected it based on location and price (which was free…one of the benefits of years of business travel!), but the amenities were an added bonus. We were the only people in the pool and hot tub last night, and we were the only people on the golf course this morning. No, we were not up for an early round. Instead, we headed out at sunrise for a speedy two-mile run, weaving our way through the cart paths and footbridges along the rolling fairways. The only other people we saw on the course were members of the maintenance crew tending to the greens. We capped our run with weights and stretching in the spacious gym before heading back to our room. We treated ourselves to long showers and room service breakfast, knowing we have two days of a shower-less campground and outdoor oatmeal ahead of us.

We will arrive in the Smokies this afternoon, and we might go off the grid for a day or two. In the meantime, by special request, here is a list of the first 10 songs from Sunday’s roadtrip playlist (which we continue to listen to today). All of these songs have lyrical significance, and many are just plain fantastic. First up on today’s drive: replaying “Wagon Wheel” as we roll through Johnson City. -J

First 10 Songs from Sunday’s Drive

  1. Takin’ Off Today (Adam Ezra Group)
  2. Runnin’ Down a Dream ( Tom Petty)
  3. Cruisin’ With Jack Kerouac (Hot Sauce Johnson)
  4. Stuck Between Stations (The Hold Steady)
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan)
  6. Country Road (John Denver)
  7. Wagon Wheel (Old Crow Medicine Show)
  8. The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
  9. Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
  10. The World at Large (Modest Mouse)