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10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

5 February, 2015

The Ghost Town Down the Shore

Having not lived in New Jersey since my teenage years, I should have no reason for knowing the casinos of Atlantic City as well as I do. I shouldn’t be able to reminisce. I shouldn’t be able to tell you about the time, at age nineteen, I made it to the final table of an invitation-only craps tournament and was a single roll away from winning ten grand. If only the stogie-smoking old-timer had rolled a five. My eternal optimism be damned, he crapped out and I only won $500. Nor should I have ever been comp’d a dinner of New Zealand mussels — the one thing I’m allergic to in this world — and be able to tell a story about me nearly vomiting on a casino table, only to grab my chips, cover my mouth, and sprint through the casino to the nearest bathroom. Security gave chase, after all I was a young man with a handful of chips running through the casino. With facing doors at the end of a narrow hallway, I couldn’t help but hip-check a woman into the wall as she exited the ladies’ room. Go Devils! I found a toilet in time to catch my half-digested shellfish. Security, winded from the chase, thanked me for not puking on the casino floor. We never did make it to the Brian Setzer concert that night. Remember him?

Despite the problems with the hotels, the boardwalk and beach looked better than ever. Well, at least since my last visit.

Despite the problems with the hotels, the boardwalk and beach looked better than ever. Well, at least since my last visit.

I’ve got a number of stories like that from my trips to Atlantic City. Of course, if I still lived in New Jersey, I’d just call it AC. Las Vegas gets shortened to Vegas. Atlantic City becomes AC. And that’s about it for the similarities.

The news of the casino bankruptcies reached us during our travels in Europe. My dad, the one who taught me everything I know about gambling, filled me in. To my surprise, like so many other New Jerseyites, he had moved on to casinos closer to home, albeit in Pennsylvania. The only show in town suddenly had too much competition and unlike that glitzier city in the desert, Atlantic City was nobody’s vacation destination. Trump Plaza was closed, Showboat had shuttered, and Taj Mahal was on the ropes. A new casino, Revel, closed in under two years. “It should have never been built,” my dad said, before describing a litany of marketing mistakes Revel had made. It seems they made the cardinal sin: confusing AC for Vegas.

Just us, the seagulls, and a few security guards on a lovely Friday afternoon.

Just us, the seagulls, and a few security guards on a lovely Friday afternoon.

So it was with equal parts morbid curiosity and nostalgia that we decided to make the drive down to Atlantic City last Friday. Kristin’s sister Lindsay, who we were staying with that week, had a conference to attend at Bally’s. I offered to drive. She accepted. And so the three of us set off early in the morning on a bitter cold day, barreling down the Garden State Parkway in a borrowed minivan with personalized plates — JOYFUL, indeed. With NPR’s “Morning Edition” playing at a reasonable volume, cruise-control set 9 miles over the limit, and our headlights on for safety, we were total rock stars. “AC, Baby!” Said no one. Ever.

Two hours of salted highway later, we arrived. A quick stroll over to Mickey D’s for breakfast took us past several blocks of outlet shops that were new since my last visit. Banana Republic, Guess, Clarks, Ralph Lauren and so on and so forth. Halfway there I realized how ridiculous this was. We were walking away from the boardwalk. And not in fear of being murdered. Where was the ghetto? Was I misled? Had AC turned the corner? Had the heavy helping hand of government managed to transform this place from a degenerate seaside city of sin into another characterless shopper’s suburbia? Maybe the financial difficulties were overblown. Maybe the city wasn’t doing so bad, after all. Seriously, Ralph Lauren? In AC?

As it turns out, stories of the city’s demise had not been greatly exaggerated.

We came in out of the cold at Wild West Casino, a themed area of Bally’s, and were immediately greeted with the full-body wagging excitement of a lonely dog whose owner had been away too long. “Thank you for your business! We’re so happy to see you! We hope you enjoy your stay!” It was awkward and sad, and also weird. The two greeters standing attentively inside the windowless street-side entrance were the only two employees we saw in the casino. We walked the entire length, from street to boardwalk, and not a single table was open for gambling. Not a single cocktail waitress carried a tray. Not a single patron was parked in front of a slot machine. Feeling like trespassers, Kristin and I hurried down the hallway that connects the casino with Caesar’s, the much larger casino and hotel next door. Caesar’s wasn’t completely empty; there were a few people playing the slots and a smattering of table games open, but it was quiet. Too quiet, like someone had died.

Trump Plaza: 1984-2014.

Trump Plaza: 1984-2014.

That someone was Trump Plaza, the casino next in line down the shore. We fought the wind south along the boardwalk past the vacant husk of Trump Plaza, the fourth Atlantic City casino to close forever in 2014. It was 30 years old. Famed narcissist and late-night punching bag Donald Trump sued to get his name removed from the forlorn property (he doesn’t run the property management company that bears his name) but the outlines of the lettering remain.

We marched on, southward, to Tropicana, the lone hotel on the boardwalk that a person of sound mind can visit without needing to pop a Prozac on the way in. My last time in Tropicana was for a friend’s bachelor party in 2005 and though it’s Caribbean-slash-Cuban theming still looked largely the same, it was in the process of getting new marble flooring and carpet near the craps tables. Nice to see at least something getting maintained in this town. I sidled up to an empty table, took the dice, and thirty minutes later, content with my contribution to the casino’s future upkeep, colored up and left.

A wonderful day to go for a walk.

A wonderful day to go for a walk.

Back out in the cold, clear weather, we continued southward along the boardwalk past the remaining hotels, to where the sidestreets are no longer named after states and presidents and Monopoly properties. Ahhh, there’s the ghetto! Just how I remembered it!

With the wind at our back we marched some two and a half miles northward past dollar stores, myriad Chinese massage parlors,  hot dog stands, and closed-for-the-season souvenir shops. One of the many security guards stationed along the otherwise vacant boardwalk noted that we were walking more that day than even he does. We walked all the way to the gleaming, silver curves of the beautiful building formerly known as Revel. The most expensive casino ever built in Atlantic City at 2.4 billion dollars closed last September, just two years after opening. It’s an alien structure that appears comically out of place, with a shining mirrored facade that will surely blind many a beachgoer long into the future.

Revel: 2012-2014

Revel: 2012-2014

With a couple more hours to kill, we turned back to the south and, for old time’s sake, climbed the steps to Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, the only one of the three Trump-branded casinos still in business (the other, Trump Marina, had been sold to Golden Nugget in 2011). The Taj Mahal was, in 1990, the first billion-dollar casino to open on the east coast. Today’s visitors can see what it looked like in 1990 firsthand. All they have to do is open the door. Whereas most of the casinos smelled musty, the Taj welcomed us with a noxious cloud reminiscent of the heating oil tank we had in our basement when I was a child. Carl Icahn’s 20-million dollar investment in the casino should keep it open for a few more months (signs throughout the empty gambling floor celebrated the casino’s ability to stay open), but it’s sure to prove too small a lifeline for too large a drowning victim.

Taj Majal: 1990-2015(?)

Taj Mahal: 1990-2015(?)

Disappointing as it was to see so many places where I had spent time closed and empty and going bankrupt, not to mention the thousands of jobs lost, we had a nice day. There are no bad days on the Jersey Shore, particularly in winter (fewer New Yorkers, no offense). And so we whiled away the day walking mile after mile back and forth up and down the empty windblown boardwalk, watching the waves, remembering the dozens of trips we had made to the shore when we were younger, and ultimately agreeing there was no reason to ever come back to Atlantic City.

AC, baby. What a shame.

28 September, 2013

Shaking it Down in Oregon

Shaking it Down in Oregon

We were supposed to be cycling a lap around Iceland. Or touring the Pacific coast  from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana, Mexico. That was the original plan, but somebody had to go and get laid off and start a new job with only two weeks of vacation: not even enough time to make it to San Francisco. So, instead, our dress rehearsal took place entirely in northwestern Oregon.

We loaded up every piece of gear we intend on bringing around the world — even the winter stuff — and pedaled out of Astoria, Oregon on a chilly, rainy, windy late August morning. We were headed south along the coast through the picturesque beach towns of Seaside, Cannon Beach, Lincoln City, and onward to Newport. It took a day for the sun to burn through, but once it did, it was glorious.

Cape Meares bicycle touring.

The Oregon coast is every bit as beautiful as you may have heard. Wide sandy beaches, headlands and offshore sea stacks and arches create a scene quite rare in the USA.

Cape Lookout bicycle camping.

The hiker/biker campsites at the Oregon State Parks are  spacious, cheap, and come with all the hot water you need. Did I mention they’re only $6 per person?

Cape Lookout bicycle touring

Atop Cape Lookout with the previous night’s campground down below. Our biggest climb of the trip so far, on the third morning, but it would pale in comparison to the climbs to come.

We exited the grocery store in Newport after a  long but gorgeous 70 miles in the saddle only to be flagged down by a car full of people. They lived a couple blocks away and wanted to know if we had a place to stay. We were planning on using the campground two miles out of town, but their offer to come join them for dinner and and make use of their spare bedroom was too much to pass up. We’ve heard of these delightful offers of hospitality, but had never experienced them first-hand. It was everything we hoped. The next night, in Corvallis, we were hosted by a wonderful couple who accepted our Warmshowers request despite having friends over for a dinner party. We rolled up that afternoon and promptly traded the wine we picked up at a winery outside of town for a couple of IPAs from their fridge. Showered and settled in, Jeff and Bettina treated us to an amazing meal of Vietnamese and Cambodian food.

As it turns out, there’s a world of difference between cycle touring with a single set of panniers or a trailer and being fully loaded with four panniers and a duffle bag. Though we expect to field a number of questions each day on our longer RTW trip, we didn’t expect it on this one. In hindsight, that was silly. Just because we knew we were only out for 11 days, how could anyone else? Countless people shouted words of encouragement to us or ran up to question us about our trip. One guy, a runner in Corvallis, literally chased after us for several blocks trying to get our attention before we finally stopped and chatted. Another, an old retired Texan, called us modern-day adventurers and said he hopes his son grows up with a desire to see the world. Another applauded our lack of motor vehicle and thanked us for saving the world. That one we didn’t know how to reply to. If you ever want to feel like a rockstar, throw 60 pounds of gear on your bike and head on down the road.

Santiam Pass campsite

We left behind the cities along the coast and headed inland, up Santiam Pass. 60 miles, nearly all of which were gradually uphill, brought us to Lost Lake and a gorgeous campsite.

We sought out the quietest of forest roads through Willamette and Mount Hood National Forests and enjoyed a mountain calm not often found on pavement.

We sought out the quietest of forest roads through Willamette and Mount Hood National Forests and enjoyed a mountain calm not often found on pavement.

After several long days in the mountains, we rolled into Portland.

After several long days in the mountains, we rolled into downtown Portland for a motel and a visit to one of the city’s best brew pubs.

All in all, the trip went as smoothly as it could have. The rain wasn’t exactly a welcome addition to the trip on that first day, and it took a couple of days to get back into a routine, but we returned home with little to fix or modify regarding our gear and packing. There were a couple moments when we’d look at each other and start laughing. “What the hell are we doing?” we’d ask one another. But always in a can’t believe we’re going to be one of those couples we read about kind of way. The truth is, we didn’t want this dress rehearsal tour to end. Eleven days and 573 miles just wasn’t enough. We want more. And that’s how we know we’re ready…

7 April, 2013

Springtime Along the Columbia

It’s snowing in the passes as I type this. And not a small amount. But I look down at my arms, resting on my desk, and I see the deep farmer’s tan I got last weekend and I smile. We are now inside twelve months to liftoff and our early April crossing of the Cascades has us watching the weather and studying highway webcams like never before. What a difference a week makes. And what a colossal waste of time it is to try and extrapolate the weather outside today to what we might experience next spring. Yet we do it anyway.

Kristin and I had a monumental bike overnight last weekend: our first without the trusty Burly Nomad trailer. With Tubus racks installed and Ortlieb panniers attached, we made our way from Wenatchee, Apple Capital of North America, up to the beautiful mountain-ringed Lake Chelan. Saturday brought temps approaching 70F, bright sunshine, and a gentle 35 mile cruise up the western bank of the Columbia River with just 1500 feet of elevation gain. Kristin was carrying a lot more weight than she had in previous trips on account of me no longer towing the trailer, but she made light work of it.

Lunch with a view along the Columbia River.

Lunch with a view along the Columbia River.

It was the perfect ride alongside the mirror-like river, with weather those of us who live in WA can typically only dream of for March. We eventually turned onto seldom-used Route 971 and went up and over some hills to Lake Chelan State Park. The descent into the park was glorious: riding towards snow-capped mountains surrounding a pristine glacial-fed lake with vineyards and orchards all around. One of the most popular summertime parks in Washington, we would have it almost entirely to ourselves on this glorious weekend. That is, if you don’t count the beaver milling around on the rocks by our lakefront tentsite. Going camping on Easter weekend does have its benefits.

Columbia River near Entiat, WA.

Columbia River near Entiat, WA.

With camp chores completed, Kristin and I settled into our chairs, opened some beers, and enjoyed the sunset from our own private dock. Barefoot. It truly doesn’t get much better than this.

Beer, sardines, and our own private dock.

Beer, sardines, and our own private dock on Lake Chelan, just steps from our tent.

Come morning, we rolled ten miles eastward along the lake to the lovely small town of Chelan, where we were ecstatic to find an incredibly inviting coffee, wine & beer cafe open across the street from the church. Living in secular western Washington, you get accustomed to just ignoring religious holidays and assuming everything will be open. This isn’t the case in other parts of the state, as we’d find out.

A few miles later we found ourselves at the base of McNeil Canyon Road, a notorious hill boasting 5 miles of 12% incline, over 2200 feet of gain. The climb was long, and it hurt, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. We’re each pushing between 65 and 75 pounds of bike & gear, so it was important to me to get a loaded climb under us early this season, just to see how she’d handle it. Kristin conquered it like a champ! As a reward, several miles of rolling, tailwind-aided, desolate asphalt greeted us en route to the village of Waterville.

Kristin mashing those pedals on her way up McNeil Canyon Road.

Google Maps’ street view feature might reveal a grocery store and a restaurant, but it won’t tell you that these  places of business will be closed for Easter. And, as I already alluded to, such a concept has fallen out of the norm where we live. Surprise! Fortunately, that uniquely-Washington staple — the roadside espresso hut — was not only open, but featuring sandwiches! I never tipped a barista so well in my life, but the sandwiches, cola, and icy water bottle refills were just what we needed.

Our original plan had us continuing up and over Badger Mountain, but we were already 50 miles into the day and didn’t have another big climb in us. Especially when the rip-roaring descent down US 2 was the other option. So we left Waterville and cruised on down Highway 2, averaging 35 mph for six effortless miles, until we were all the way back alongside the mighty Columbia. Never before had I hooted and hollered during a descent while on pavement. It was that great.

Diving back off the Waterville Plateau to the river.

Diving back off the Waterville Plateau to the river.

Kristin and I took turns leading the way southward along the eastern bank of the Columbia River, back to the Park & Ride where we left our car in Wenatchee. We capped off a 70-mile day (and 5,000 feet of gain) with some of the best burgers in the PNW at Dusty’s. The drive home was long, the sunburn on our arms forced a fitful night of sleep despite our tiredness, but when we woke, we did so on the T-1 Year Anniversary. And we celebrated.

18 February, 2013

Whidbey Island Weekend

Kristin and I had been to Whidbey Island, WA a number of times over the years, but always either to go mountain biking and hiking at Fort Ebey State Park or to take out-of-state guests to see the majestic views from Deception Pass on the island’s north end. Never had we ventured off the main highway that bisects this lengthy island, the fourth largest in the contiguous United States. And now we know those other roads all too well. We rode onto the ferry in Mukilteo under a soaking drizzle with the temperature sitting at 46 degrees. The “liquid sunshine” would come and go throughout the day, but despite a brief clearing in the skies, the temperature wouldn’t budge.

Our route took us north along the western shore to the first of three state parks. We pulled into South Whidbey State Park for a lunch break, just as the heaviest of the day’s rains came. With no views to be had, we enjoyed our sandwiches beneath a picnic shelter while enjoying the temporary warmth of our poofy jackets. Alas, the sun was soon shining and off we went, continuing northward along Smuggler’s Cove Road towards Crocket Lake and Fort Casey State Park. Unlike Fort Ebey, whose naval guns have long since been removed, the 10 inch artillery guns of Fort Casey remain in tact. I had always thought the fort was from the 1940’s, but in fact it was built in the 1890s, after the government realized there was no major defense along the western coast. The fort was given to the state for recreational use over 60 years ago and now offers visitors camping, history, and unobstructed views across Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula in the distance.

One of the three remaining 10-inch guns at Fort Casey State Park

One of the three remaining 10-inch guns at Fort Casey State Park

With still ten miles to go to our predetermined camping site, it was bad enough that Fort Casey stood atop a hill. Even worse was the sudden, dramatic shift in the wind. With chilled toes and out-of-shape legs already wishing the day was nearing its end, the arrival of gale-force headwinds made those final miles tick by slower than we could imagine. Struggling to go 7mph on the rare flats, it was over an hour before we pulled into the park. And the wind was only growing in strength.

Washington’s State Park’s system, like so many in the country, has been in a budget crisis of late. Suffering from understaffing and a reduction in services, many of the facilities one expects to find are temporarily locked up or missing. We knew the official campground at Fort Ebey State Park was closed through the end of the month but hoped the hiker/biker campsites, located a quarter mile outside the main campground, were still open for public use. After all, what does someone arriving by bike have to do with the needs of an RV? Just to be safe, we slow-pedaled up the road until a park ranger’s truck pulled out of sight, then doubled-back and pushed up into the woods unseen. I’m sure he knew we were there, and probably didn’t care, but it was best to not draw attention to ourselves just in case the no camping rules extended throughout the park. We waited till morning to deposit our $14 camping fee.

Kristin cruising past the gorgeous madrona trees of Whidbey Island.

Kristin cruising past the gorgeous madrona trees of Whidbey Island.

A short walk out onto the bluffs two hundred feet above Puget Sound squared us off against sustained 40mph winds and a plummeting wind chill temperature. Nevertheless, it was great to be walking around the park late at night, long after the last dog walkers and mountain bikers had gone home for the night. Sleep came easy, to a soundtrack of swaying trees and the clanging of the buoy bells off the coast.

We woke Sunday morning to find a trail race had been routed right through our campsite, just feet from our tent. Not wanting to be caught in a stampede of half-marathoners, we broke camp early and were pedaling along the shores of Penn Cove by 9:30am. Madrona Way, one of the my favorite roads on the island, isn’t just lined with the namesake tree but also wraps around one of the nation’s great mussel breeding grounds. With two weeks to go before the annual mussel festival, the tastiest tribute to shellfish I’ve encountered, we had no choice but to pedal right on through the quaint village of Coupeville. Our route on the second day led back along the eastern shore of the island, offering peek-a-boo views across the strait to Camano Island. Hill after hill rolled by under our wheels as the scent of Douglas fir and fireplace smoke mixed with the salty air and filled our lungs.

Harvesting those tasty Penn Cove mussels for the upcoming festival!

Harvesting those tasty Penn Cove mussels for the upcoming festival!

Though the highest elevation we reached all weekend was a measly 420 feet (128 m) above sea level, we nonetheless managed to accumulate some 6000 feet (1800 m) of elevation gain in just 95 miles (152 km) of riding. The wind blew the winter dust off our bikes, but it will take a couple more rides before the same could be said for our legs.

15 November, 2012

Mountain Mourning

The day we dreaded had come. We said goodbye to our sweet, sweet dog Annana who passed from us on Friday, October 19th. She was ready. We were not. Kristin and I had spent all but one of our fifteen years of marriage with dogs. You never realize how alive the house is even when the dogs are sleeping until you come home to a house with no dogs at all. Not wanting to spend the weekend sitting in the newfound quiet, we distracted ourselves from our pain on Friday by loading up our touring gear and readying for a weekend in the mountains. A bike overnight, if you will.

The first significant snow of the year was due to hit the Cascade Mountains late afternoon on Saturday, just as we expected to reach Snoqualmie Pass. There were other places we could have gone, but embracing the cold and the snow just felt right. It’d also give us a chance to test out our new tent and the cold-weather suitability of our Thermarest 35-degree “alpine blankets” and Sea to Summit’s +25 degree liners, the unorthodox-but-modular sleeping system I’ve been referring to in previous posts.

We rolled out of our driveway Saturday morning in 44-degree weather and quickly did our only descending of the day. We dropped from our ridge-top neighborhood into town and was soon on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (SVT), one of the two gravel rail-trails we would spend all but a few miles on this weekend. The sky was gray, the fiery leaves flickered and danced in the breeze.

Kristin riding the SVT

We reached Rattlesnake Lake, the junction of the SVT and John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWPT), about 90 minutes after setting out and were taken aback by the clear blue skies. As my sister Jessica would say after seeing the photos, “It looks like summer!” It wouldn’t — and couldn’t — last.

Fargos in the wild: Rattlesnake Lake, WA.

The JWPT climbs steadily for roughly 19 miles towards Snoqualmie Pass. The trail corridor, extending eastward all the way to the Columbia river along the old Milwaukee Railroad, constitutes Iron Horse State Park and contains multiple access points leading to rock climbing, hiking, and fishing opportunities, all while myriad mountain creeks crash down from the ridge above just feet from the trail. The views from the trestles, despite the trail running a few hundred yards south of Interstate 90, are breathtaking. The mileposts counted off a descent beginning at 2136 as you climbed your way eastward, with each mile announcing your progress towards Chicago, the original end of the line.

We rested briefly at the entrance to  Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3 mile-long tube deep inside the belly of the mountain upon which resides the ski resort where nearly every adolescent in the greater Seattle area first gets their turns. The world-famous Pacific Crest Trail also crosses  directly above this tunnel. Having towed our fully-laden Burly Nomad trailer up 2500 feet of damp gravelly gain, I took the opportunity to rest atop a picnic table. The sun was so bright I had to bury my face in my arm.

Doug taking a breather before plunging into the darkness of Snoqualmie Tunnel.

The tunnel, usually a parade of hikers and cycling families on weekends, was devoid of human life. My NiteRider MiNewt 600, a secondary light I use when mountain biking at night, lit the way for the two of us as we pedaled in eerie silence through the pitch black. The only noise being the soft crunching of sand and the occasional dripping of meltwater seeping through the concrete surface of the tunnel walls.

We emerged in a blinding snowstorm. Annana was on our minds continuously as we climbed the pass, but now we couldn’t help but laugh. A mid-October snowstorm, “And we chose to ride into this?!” I laughed. Hungry and in need of some water we decided to ride into the small community of Hyak and get some burgers from the gas station near the ski resort (a post-snowboarding ritual of mine). We loaded up on burgers, filled our bottles and my dromedary bag with water, and most importantly of all, snagged a few extra plastic baggies for our feet for the next day. And what a difference they would make!

The snow had somehow intensified while we were munching down our burgers and was now rapidly accumulating on our handlebars and our jackets as we rode back to the trail. It was clear we weren’t going to ride all the way to Lake Easton State Park, as our initial plan had called for, so we opted for a stay at one of the backcountry campsites along the JWPT near Lake Keechelus. About four miles further down the trail, tucked amongst the fir and hemlocks, is the Cold Creek Campsite. A lone vault toilet and picnic table are yours to use for the honor-system donation of five dollars. We pushed the bikes past the postage-stamp tent pads and found a nice snow-free clearing amongst the trees to set up camp.

Under the tree umbrella near the shores of Lake Keechelus.

It was our first time setting up our new Hilleberg Nallo GT3 in the wild and we were both taken aback by how much larger the tent seems in its natural habitat. Buyers remorse set in, if only briefly, when we saw how much real estate we’d need to secure each night in order to set this nylon mansion up. Later, tucked inside the roomy interior, with our gear dry and safe inside the vestibule, we reached a different opinion: every square inch was precious!

Dinner this night was somber. I had packed a couple of the Mountain House freeze-dried meals I bought in bulk from Costco (a food item I have been meaning to sample for nearly twenty years, but never had… the verdict: not bad if you get them cheap). We spiked our hot cocoa with some whiskey I brought along and sat in the supreme silence of a snow-capped forest. Nearly six inches had fallen by the time we hit the sack. And nearly twelve hours passed before we were jolted away by the bombardment of bough-fulls of snow free-falling out of the trees onto our tent. Though the temperature hovered around 32 all night long, we both slept soundly with our sleeping liner and down blankets.

The way home…

We packed in relative quiet and pedaled off into a rapidly melting snowscape. The 45 miles back to our house went by fast. Too fast. For an empty home awaited us. Just as it would for the 17+ months to come before we embark on our bicycle trip into the great unknown.