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

Archive for May, 2012

Modern Self-Reliance

L to R: Storm clouds rolling in, M clearing debris by the fallen tree, this morning’s aftermath

During these early days of our journey, I’ve spent more time being active and less time relaxing than I thought I would.  Although I love reading, it’s hard to curl up with a good book when there is a mountain to climb or a town to explore or a recipe to invent.  This week I finally managed to spend a few evenings reconnecting with the likes of Thoreau and Emerson.  I laughed out loud rereading the introduction of Walden two nights ago, pleasantly surprised (again) by the relevance of some of his statements 150+ years after he wrote them.

Thoreau’s contemporary, Emerson, had a few relevant passages of his own in the 1841 sleeper Self-Reliance, which I’ve also flipped through recently.  To Emerson, self-reliance meant things like individualism and non-conformity and authentic inconsistency.   To me, this week anyway, self-reliance means problem-solving even when we don’t have complete information.  It means knowing how to read a map (and further, actually possessing one) when we’re off the grid and GPS can’t help us.  It means getting creative with where and how we workout when our usual running routes are hundreds of miles away.  And last night, it meant summoning all of my introverted courage to make a cold call to a person I’d never met asking them to help me.

Why did I need a stranger’s help?  First, let’s back up to last week, before our friend left town.  Just before heading to the airport, B filled us in on some need-to-know info about the house, practical stuff like where to find dry firewood and where to drop off the recycling.  He also mentioned the closest neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. H, saying he wished he had time to introduce us to them before he left, but alas, that hadn’t worked out.  So instead, we just got a passing reference to their existence, at which point for whatever reason, I catalogued their names in my brain.

There are only five houses on this gravel road, all set back into the woods and separated from each other by 1/3-mile sections of forest.  We pass three driveways on the way to B’s house, but we can barely see the houses, and we’ve never seen another car on the one-lane road.  Mr. and Mrs. H live just past B’s house, but we can’t see their house either.  Occasionally we hear car wheels crunching over the gravel.  Most folks in the area keep to themselves, and it was unlikely we’d run into any of the neighbors during our stay.

Then last night, after two days of self-imposed exile on the mountain, M and I headed into town for dinner.  We knew a line of thunderstorms was pushing through the area, but we weren’t too worried.  Rain’s rain.  We made it to dinner and almost back to the house before the first drops hit the car.  We assumed the storm was just arriving.  Then we noticed several branches and clusters of leaves on the road ahead of us.  “Looks like the storm already blew through here,” M commented.

We continued toward the house, through the series of dips and turns, before stopping to remove a large branch from the road in front of us.   Only after getting out of the car did we notice a giant tree down, blocking the entire road, about fifty feet ahead of where we stopped.  We walked closer to inspect things.  There was no way around the tree, no lights visible at the nearest neighbor’s house, and the rain was picking up.  The storm was just getting started.

We decided to back track to the main road where the tree cover was less dense, thinking that if one giant tree could fall, so could another.  We drove the five miles or so back into town and waited out the storm in a pharmacy parking lot (where there was cell service).  As rain pelted the car, we contemplated our options.  We could drive back to the tree, park the car, and walk (in flip-flops, of course) the remaining half-mile to the house to pick up B’s chainsaw, which (a) he warned us wasn’t top notch and (b) neither of us had used before.  We could find a map and see if we could locate an alternate route to the house, perhaps on a connecting back road.  Or we could try to flag down one of the neighbors for help.

For context, at my core, I am slightly awkward introvert who can go weeks happily without interacting with another human.  So the idea of blindly ringing someone’s doorbell is a paralyzing thought.  Making a cold telephone call is a close second, but it beats the in-person interaction.  So from the depths of my brain, I recalled Mr. and Mrs. H’s name and used the internet connection on my phone to look up their telephone number.  There were eight H’s in town, but only one on the right road.  With that find, I summoned all of my introverted courage and dialed the number.

After a mildly strange introduction to the tune of “we’ve never met, but I’m staying at the house next door and is there any chance you know of another way into the neighborhood because there is a giant tree blocking the road and we can’t get home.”  Mrs. H, who answered the phone, wasted no time in understanding my rapid Yankee speech and said, why, yes, there was a back road, but she wasn’t sure what condition it was in and the car might get all scratched up if we attempted to use it.  After a minute more of conversation and a brief chat with her husband, Mrs. H said that Mr. H would grab his chainsaw and meet us by the tree in a few minutes.  Sweet relief!

By the time we arrived back at the tree, Mr. H was busy at work.  We left the headlights of our car on to shed some light on the situation.  Mr. H quieted the chainsaw when we got out of our car and approached him.  “You said it was a tree, but I had no idea it was going to be this big of a tree!” he said with a laugh.  We exchanged handshakes and greetings and then looked up and up, to about 30 feet off the ground where it looked like lightning struck.  Half the tree was still standing, splintered at its wounded top, and the other half—an additional thirty feet or so of it—was on the ground, blocking the road from side to side.

After another minute of talk about the weather and how we knew B, Mr. H got back to work, cutting off branches and limbs before tackling the thin upper part of the tree.  While he figured out the best way to fillet the thick main trunk of the tree, M and I got down to work, moving the parts and pieces and stumps and logs to either side of the gravel road.

The whole task took about 15 minutes, a feat only possible because of Mr. H’s chainsaw.  As it turned out, Mr. H was grateful he found out about the tree on a Tuesday evening and not on Wednesday morning as he was leaving for work or his kids were trying to get to school.  He would have had to do the work either way, and better to know about it in advance and have a little help.  We were grateful for his help and his power tools.  Sometimes self-reliance means wielding the chainsaw yourself, and other times it means calling someone with a bigger chainsaw to help you.  -J


From Farm to Table…via Lynchburg

Our Virginia adventures continued yesterday with a day trip into Lynchburg.  A few weeks ago, while still back in New Hampshire, we had sought out and registered for a 10K race downtown.  We have a goal of running a race every month this year, and due to our travels, a Virginia race best fit our schedule for May.  Neither of us had been to Lynchburg before, and running the race was a great way to see part of the city.  (You can read my full recap here if you’re interested…)

After the race, which had an early 8 AM start, we did a quick change of clothes at the car (tucked into a shady spot in a free parking garage) and walked several blocks down Main Street to the Lynchburg Community Market.  We planned to fill a bag with fresh local produce, but first things first…specifically, breakfast.  We assumed the long line at Barb’s Dream Hut inside the marketplace was a good sign, so we ordered veggie omelets and shared a side of hash browns.  We also ended up sharing our table with a local couple in their late 70s.  They were newlyweds, having just tied the knot last December, although their first date was actually 63 years earlier, before he introduced her to his best friend…whom she subsequently married.  It was a sweet story and part of a lovely conversation.

After breakfast, we wandered around the indoor market, picking up some Vidalia relish and locally roasted coffee before hitting up the farm stalls outside.  We loaded two shopping bags with onions, peppers, squash, cabbage, beets, sweet potatoes, and kale, plus a loaf of fresh bread and a tub of sun-dried tomato goat cheese.  As is typical for farmers markets, we paid a lower-than-usual price for produce fresh from the producers’ trucks and a higher-than-usual price for artisan breads and cheeses.  For us, this is a fair trade-off, allowing us to support the local economy (wherever we are) and satisfy our own desires to know what we are eating and how it was made.

L to R: Lynchburg Community Market, the day’s bounty, grilled deliciousness

We left the market and walked back to the car, stashing our goods before driving over to the Old City Cemetery.  The cemetery is more than a burial ground, as it contains five small museums paying homage to Lynchburg’s role in the Civil War and the railroad’s role in Lynchburg’s history.  Lynchburg’s location on the James River and at the convergence of three major railways led to its establishment as a major hospital site during the Civil War.  The cemetery is filled with history, including the graves of more than 2,200 Confederate soldiers and numerous early cultural and political leaders from the region.

L to R: Historical marker, engraved arch, serene grounds

Our next and final stop in town was the Anne Spencer House for a visit to her garden.  Spencer was a poet and part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.  Her house is part of the Pierce Street historic district (one of seven historic districts in Lynchburg), and the garden has been lovingly restored by a local non-profit group.  It is open to the public from dawn to dusk, and we found ourselves alone there on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  We wandered the garden paths and sat in chairs outside Edankraal, the writing cottage her husband built for her so she would have a quiet place to write and be inspired by the beauty of the garden.  The garden is filled with history, both in the stories of significant visitors that stayed there and in the plants and flowers in the garden, many of which have persisted since the Spencers first planted them in the 1930s and 1940s.

L to R: Cottage signage, J on the porch, garden fountain (gift from W. E. B. DuBois)

On the way home, we talked about how we would love to have a cottage like Edankraal someday, a quiet place for writing and possibly for living.  For now, we are getting used to writing and living wherever we find ourselves, which this week is at our friend’s mountain retreat.  After the short drive back there, we unloaded our bounty and got down to the business of making the most amazing grilled sandwiches using the fresh bread, onion relish and goat cheese.  We capped the day by heading up to the second-story deck to watch the sun set over the mountains, thankful for a perfect day and the opportunity to explore places like Lynchburg. –J


Home is Where The Car Is

Clockwise from bottom left: Front porch swing, gravel road leading to house, local swimming hole, morning yoga, and afternoon storm clouds

After our week-long stay in Maine and a weekend stop in Portsmouth for our friends’ wedding, we’ve made our way to a friend’s house in the mountains of central Virginia.  In a happy scheduling coincidence, our friend (who travels frequently) happens to be at the house for the first week of our planned three-week stay.  It’s been nice catching up with him over shared meals and late night card games, and it will be nice to find a rhythm of our own once he’s on the road again.  We arrived late Sunday night and have spent the week becoming familiar with the area and our new temporary home.  The house is set back about a mile down a gravel road, with few neighbors to encounter and many acres of woods to explore.  Each morning, I’ve taken my coffee outside and listened to the land come alive from my perch on the wooden swing. We’ve napped in hammocks and walked along winding paths.  We’ve witnessed deer grazing in the front yard, turkey vultures and coyotes scavenging along the main road, and countless birds and butterflies and bats and other things with wings.  We’ve also managed to keep our fitness routine somewhat intact, with some creative adjustments.  When the weather’s been nice, we’ve brought our workouts to the back yard, and when it was raining, I set up my yoga mat on the covered front porch.  We’ve explored sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and hiked to a remote waterfall swimming hole.  Today, we ventured to the next county in search of a safe running route and ended up finding a converted rail trail that was perfect for today’s training run.  (We’re running a 10K here in Virginia on Saturday, and it’s been a little tough keeping up our mileage on the road.)  We’re now back at the house, enjoying a quiet afternoon and watching storm clouds roll in from the west.  I think it’s going to be a good night to hunker down on the mountain. -J


Disconnecting for a Few Days…

We’re going off the grid for a few days, camping and hiking in the woods of Acadia.  We will update our Twitter feed (which you can see on the right side of this site) when we can, but we probably won’t do a long post again until this weekend when we roll back into New Hampshire for our friends’ wedding.  Hope you all have a great week!


Milestones and a 20-Miler

It’s been a week of milestones: selling the house, hitting 50,000 miles with Sal the Subaru, and today, celebrating our anniversary.  Last year, we snuck away to Bar Harbor to get married, and this year, we returned to town to celebrate the conclusion of a crazy first year while kicking off a new one.  We’re staying in the same room at the same inn, one with delicious breakfasts and cozy beds, and we’re enjoying the relative calm of a resort town before the summer season begins.  The weather has been perfect these past two days, and since we’re expecting rain later this week (while we’re camping, of course…), we’ve been playing outdoors every day.  Today’s adventure was a 20-mile bike trek across two loops of the carriage roads we hadn’t done last year, plus one we had.  We left from the Eagle Lake parking lot and headed north around the Witch Hole Pond loop.  It was an easy, rolling start to the day, followed by a moderate climb to some fantastic island views.  We then cruised back to the start of Aunt Betty Pond loop, a strenuous 6-mile section that managed to be uphill in both directions.  After returning via the Eagle Lake loop, we were sitting at 18.3 miles, so we pushed our tired legs a bit more to reach the 20-mile mark.  Along the way, I experimented a bit with video of our ride.  Maybe someday I’ll graduate to a helmet cam, but for now, I’m using a handheld one, which can be a little bumpy (so don’t watch if you get dizzy easily…).  The first clip was shot along a flat stretch and contains a brief narrative.  The second one is a bit longer, with very little narrative, lots of wind and a bit of speed.  I had the camera in my right hand, which is also my braking hand, so not my brightest move.  Hopefully the video gives a little insight into what it feels like to fly down a gravel mountain at 20-miles per hour… -J


Don’t Look Down!

Insane cliff faces, rocky trails, and stunning vistas were the stars of today’s adventure

I’ve never been fond of heights.  I remember refusing to sit anywhere but on the floor in the middle of our Ferris Wheel car in Niagara Falls at a young age.  In 8th grade, I practically had a nervous breakdown on our class rock climbing trip when I stood roped and harnessed at the top of a 150-foot cliff and had to lean backwards over the edge to rappel down.

In my adult life, not much has changed between me and heights.  When J and I rode the Ferris Wheel in Paris last summer, I was nervous (although I did sit in my assigned seat for the entire ride).  When we stood at the top of the aptly named “Jump Off” in The Smokies  two months ago, I couldn’t wait to continue our hike a bit further from the edge.  Today, I pushed the limits of my fears and tackled some challenging trails in Acadia National Park.

The park has two “hiking” trails that are often referred to as “technical rock climbing without the ropes.”  These trails are The Precipice (a 0.9 mile trail that basically scales the side of an 930-foot cliff) and The Beehive (a slightly smaller cliff at 0.6 miles and 520 feet).  This time of year The Precipice is closed due to peregrine falcon nesting season (sweet!), but The Beehive is open.  J was excited for the hike, and after watching several YouTube videos and online reviews (that didn’t help much), I reluctantly agreed to make the trip.

While we lingered over coffee at the B&B this morning, we looked at our pocket hiking guidebook (purchased for a mere $3.50 at our local coffee/used bookstore, Crackskulls) and planned a hike that would bring us up The Beehive, across two miles of ridgeline to the summit of Champlain Mountain, and down over Huguenot Head on a trail made up of nearly 1,500 pink granite steps (interpret that last word loosely…).  At the bottom, we would trot a short three miles along the Park Loop Road to get back to our car.  It all sounded amazing, but I needed to get past The Beehive to enjoy the rest.

“Just keep going and don’t look down,” was my mantra for the first hour of the day.  Even near the bottom of The Beehive, we had to use iron rungs secured into the rocks to get from one ledge of the trail to the next.  A little further up, we resorted to crawling over a series of iron bars laid out like a ladder across a 20-foot drop.  The two most difficult spots included a double series of iron bars that brought us almost straight up a rocky patch about 300 feet into the climb and a corner that required the use of one iron rung to scoot around it while stepping over a gap in the cliff’s edge.

Despite feeling weak in the knees, we made it to the top along with several other climbers, including a group from Dallas on their second-ever hike.  (Their first was Mt. Dorr…yesterday.)   It’s true that many people journey up The Beehive each year without issue, but before we started out, I wasn’t sure that would be the case for us.  By the end of the day, we not only conquered The Beehive (and my fear of heights), but we enjoyed the open ridgeline walk and 360-degree views of the Atlantic, Mt. Desert Island and downtown Bar Harbor from the summit of Champlain Mountain.  It was totally worth the terror.  -M


Test Driving Acadia’s Carriage Roads

Clockwise, from L: Jenn modeling a signpost; Marty rocking his ride; taking a break by Jordan Stream; Signpost 16; Jordan Pond and The Bubbles ridge; private gatehouse within park

After a five-week break to sort out things on the domestic front, we’re pleased to report that our National Park road trip is back on track!  This week’s destination: Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine.  We first visited the park last spring just for a weekend, and we’ve returned this year for an extended stay.  We’ll spend four nights at a cozy B&B in downtown Bar Harbor and then an additional four nights at a campground within the park.

Acadia National Park was the first park established east of the Mississippi River.   It is also notable for the fact that its designation as a park was spearheaded by local residents, many of whom (like George Dorr and the Rockefellers) were wealthy owners of summer homes on the island.  Today, a handful of private residences are still scattered throughout the park, and sections of the famous carriage roads on private land abutting the park are off-limits to bicyclists.  I’m not sure of the behind-the-scenes land politics, but as a casual visitor, it seems the public-private boundaries enjoy an easy coexistence.

We hadn’t been on our bikes in several months, so before heading out to tackle 20 or 30 (or more!) miles of road, we opted to start with a short 10-mile loop between Northeast Harbor and Jordan Pond.  Although there are more than 40 miles of carriage roads to explore, it’s pretty hard to get lost.  Roads are well-marked with numbered signposts that also include directional signage for popular park destinations like Jordan Pond House or Eagle Lake.  The Park Service also provides a carriage road map that indicates mileage between signs.

Those of you who haven’t been to Acadia might share my initial romantic vision that carriage roads are pleasant and flat, probably made of packed dirt or maybe even paved.  They are not.  While they are indeed pleasant, they are the opposite of flat.  They are groomed with crushed gravel (which can be loose and slippery under mountain bike tires) and they rise and fall repeatedly, climbing and descending hundreds of feet depending on the route you select.

Today’s route was a new stretch of trail for us, and the climb started immediately from the parking lot.  Although our legs and lungs are well-conditioned from running, we were winded and weary at the top of some of today’s hills, quads burning.  But the rewards were worth the effort.  We enjoyed sunny skies, sweeping vista, secret streams, and of course…speeding downhill while grinning like kids, trying not to lose complete control of our bikes or eat facefuls of gravel.  In that way and many others, the day was a great success.  And it’s only Day 1! –J.


We and Bobby McGee

L to R: Rainy, cozy trip to storage; saying goodbye to la casa; a well-packed Sal; Jenn kicking it passenger-style; Marty working on a post from Bar Harbor

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” –Janis Joplin (courtesy Kris Kristofferson, et. al.)

And we now—officially, after months of planning and hoping and maneuvering—have very little left to lose.  As of noon today, we sold the house and hit the road without an address.  To clarify, we have a P.O. Box where mail will be forwarded, but we do not have a physical address.  We are voluntarily homeless (which brings with it a number of sociological issues which J. plans to discuss in a future post, naturally.)  (Insert shout out to anyone who has agreed to host us during the next three months…)

Over the past few days, we’ve both been singing Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” while working to move our stuff into storage, sell the house, and take the final step toward freedom.  During this time, music has been a critical factor in our sanity and our motivation.  We’ve bee-bopped around the house:  packing, cleaning, moving, and singing.  We’ve raged and hip-hopped and rocked and sung the blues.  Throughout the process, the lyrics of “Me and Bobby McGee” proved to be especially relevant:  “Freedom’s just another word for  / nothing left to lose.”  They were sung quietly while carrying trash bags to the garage, belted out in the shower while we scrubbed off the basement grime, and hummed while packing boxes of stuff we wondered if we really needed.

Yet Janis isn’t the only one who’s been keeping us company.  Adam Ezra understood why we were “Takin’ Off Today.”  Air Traffic Controller knew that all of the hoops we’ve been jumping through were “just a test / test 1, 2, 3…”  And The Hold Steady explained that “we were young and we were so in love / and I guess we just needed space.”

But perhaps Modest Mouse captured it best: “I know that starting over  is not what life’s about / but my thoughts were so loud I couldn’t hear my mouth.”  It’s not often that you change most (or all!) of the key components of your life, but sometimes your thoughts are too loud to ignore.  We’ve changed so much with our physical and professional and personal selves that this financial transition out of the house seemed natural.  It was necessary to complete our journey into a place of total flexibility.

We have no idea what the future will bring, but for now, being on the road—traveling, reading, experiencing life and writing—is good enough… “good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”  -M&J