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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!

26 August, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #2

Earlier this spring I posted a quick rundown of some of the hikes we had so far done in Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book (see here). Though we’re nowhere close to having gone through the entire guide — a book that represents a small fraction of the boundless hiking opportunities in Washington — we did check quite a few more off the list. Some we did as part of the overnight backpacking trip chronicled here; others were part of our recent Enchantment Traverse.

Now that summer is winding down, we expect to get out even more. Nothing stokes the fire of my passion for the outdoors like the coming autumn weather. We’re still dealing with some unusually warm 90-degree days here in western Washington, but I expect the weather to break by the time we get home from Portugal in a couple weeks. There’s still a few higher elevation hikes we hope to get in before the snows return.  But enough about that, on to the next installment…

Puget Sound Lowlands

We didn’t plan on doing any more of the lowland hikes once the weather started warming up, but one day we just felt like going for a run — and wanted an excuse to stop at a pizza place we like. So back to the Everett area we went…

Spencer Island (Hike #9)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Pavement, Grass, Woodchip

Verdict: Great for locals or bird watchers.

Spencer Island Bridge

The jacknife bridge heading out to Spencer Island. Photo by HikeOfTheWeek.com

The actual Spencer Island trail is a short soft-surface lollipop hike on an island in the Snohomish River estuary, just east of Everett. We parked along the river and ran the multi-use paved Langus Riverfront Trail two miles then crossed a small pedestrian bridge to the island. The trail simply loops around the southern tip of Spencer Island, winding along cattails and making its way back across the island on a levee. There’s some nice viewpoints for you to see the Cascades and plenty of egrets and herons to spot (and the odd turtle or two). We were there to get a workout in so no photos. I doubt we’d ever return, as there’s just too many options closer to home.

Skykomish River Valley

While the upper elevation trails slowly melted out from their winter burial, we made a few trips to the western slope of Stevens  Pass, for a fewer mid-elevation hikes to alpine lakes.

Greider Lakes (Hike #12)

Distance: 8.6 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Steep, crowded, but a worthy hike to a scenic lake.

Boulder Lake (Hike #13)

Distance: 13.8 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Overgrown, un-maintained, and technically closed, but the prettier of the two lakes.

Boulder Creek Bridge

Kristin crossing the technically-closed, hope-it-doesn’t-collapse Boulder Creek Bridge.

We combined these two hikes into one lengthy trail run of about 19 miles or so. It made for a long day, especially since the Boulder Lake trail is technically closed. The bridge across Boulder Creek had been blocked off, the decking and railings removed, and the trail beyond it in a complete state of abandon. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing on the banks of the impassable creek, we decided to risk it. Though Boulder Lake was certainly a worthy destination, it wasn’t worth the miles of rock, blowdown, and overgrown trail we had to deal with to reach it. Doing Greider Lake after Boulder Lake was a test of mental and physical endurance. And patience — there’s an awful lot of people that hike to Greider Lake. A nice hike, but there are better nearby, such as…

Bridal Veil Falls & Serene Lake (Hike #16)

Distance: 9 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A must-do early summer hike.

Lake Serene

Lake Serene has to be one of the most beautiful, lower elevation alpine lakes in western WA.

This was another combo hike that we decided to “run” that could actually be done separately. The mountains around here are filled with beautiful cliff-ringed, snow-fed alpine lakes, but Lake Serene was absolutely one of our favorites. Getting there isn’t easy. The climb up to the lake gets incredibly steep and is mainly a staircase for a mile long stretch that climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span. One thing to be sure, there will be ample two- and four-legged companions to keep you company. This hike is very popular. But for good reason. Fortunately, many people choose to go only as far as the waterfall. We hit the lake first, passing the base of the falls on our way, and then detoured up to the top of the falls (you can practically walk out over the edge… and chance death if you’d like) on the return. The climb to the top of the falls is another half-mile, very steep trail, but the falls are quite pretty. I do believe Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls will become an annual hike for us going forward.

Wenatchee River Valley

I flew home from Vancouver, BC on a Friday night, packed my gear, and drove out to Leavenworth an hour later so we could finally, after 14 years in the PNW, complete one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. The following two entries make up the two ends of the traverse, but miss the best part in my opinion.

Snow Lakes (Hike #56)

Distance: 13 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Unless you’re descending from the Enchantments, do Colchuck instead.

Colchuck Lake (Hike #57)

Distance: 8.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Absolutely worth doing, even just as an out-and-back.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass and the way up into the Enchantments.

Our 20-mile traverse began with a hike up to Colchuck Lake. It’s not a particularly challenging hike and the lake offers excellent swimming opportunities, ample (permit-only) backcountry camping, and a gentle descent back to the trailhead. It’s absolutely worth doing as a day-hike, even if you don’t intend to climb Aasgard Pass and do the traverse. The other end of that traverse descends from Snow Lakes. I would NEVER hike up that trail unless I was training to climb Mt. Rainier. Let me put it this way: I hated descending from Snow Lakes. It’s very steep (roughly 4,000 feet in six miles) and can be annoyingly rocky in spots. Now, this isn’t to say that the Snow Lakes area isn’t very pretty. It is. But you will never catch me coming up from that direction. Given that Colchuck (and several others) are just a little further up Icicle Creek road, I don’t know why you’d use this for a day-hike.

Blewett Pass

Of all the hikes we’ve been doing from this book, the Blewett Pass trails are probably the closest to our home. They’re also unique in that , though east of the mountains, they still have that rugged Cascade mountain feel we west-siders expect, but with drier conditions.

Ingalls Creek (Hike #116)

Distance: 11 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Not unless you really enjoy climbing over fallen trees.

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from Ingalls Creek trail.

We hiked several miles of the Ingalls Creek trail during our overnight hike in the Teanaway Valley, hiking the section from Cascade Creek to Fourth Creek. I cannot begin to tell you how many dozens (hundreds?) of blowdowns we had to climb over. The Ingalls Creek trail runs along the namesake creek, at the base of the south side of the Enchantments. It’s a very pretty hike, particularly as recent forest fires have yielded clearer views at Sherpa Peak and the Stuart Range due north of the trail, but it appears to get very little attention from volunteer groups or the Forest Service. Trip reports on sites like WTA.org suggest that few hikers continue up the trail beyond Falls Creek (downstream of where we were).

Naneum Meadow (Hike #119)

Distance: 7 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pretty meadow, but a rough drive.

Mount Lillian (Hike #120)

Distance: 7.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail, Double-Track

Verdict: Great views across to the Stuart Range, fun geology.

Mount Lillian hoodoos

Kristin running past the hoodoos near Mount Lillian.

We combined these two routes in a 13-mile loop that proved a bit too rocky, loose, and steep for us to run much of. But it was totally worth it, despite me bonking halfway through worst than I had in years. The Mount Lillian area offers great views across to the Stuart Range and snow-capped mountains, all while switchbacking your way past sandstone hoodoos and other geologic oddities. I can’t say the portion of the trail connecting Naneum Meadow with Mount Lillian was terribly fun to run, but it was scenic, even with the scars of wildfire evident everywhere. You’ll actually pass several meadows in this area and the chance of spotting elk is always present. As is finding some morel mushrooms if you got in May. Some of the trails have been torn up a bit from moto usage (quads and dirt bikes) but the area sees very little use on account of the rough forest roads one has to navigate to reach the trailhead. We actually flatted on the way back out, forcing me to put the spare tire on when we got onto pavement.

Wenatchee

I’ve mountain biked this next trail multiple times and always felt bad for never exposing Kristin to the beauty of the area. This year, after riding amongst the wildflowers with a large group of fellow mountain bikers, I returned with Kristin the following weekend and hit peak-bloom.

Sage Hills (Hike #122)

Distance: 10 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside trails.

Verdict: A must-do the third week of April.

balsam root

Sage Hills area covered in balsam root.

We skipped the book’s 5.5 mile route in favor of the ten-mile loop I mountain biked the prior weekend, making sure to climb all the way to the top of the area for the most wildflowers. A lot of us try to ride Sage Hills every April, but I had never seen the wildflowers blooming like they did when we went running. The fields were blanketed in balsam root, lupine, and indian paintrbrush, among others I forget the names of. And of course, the area smells of sage. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a hike (a hilly one, mind you) along a yellow-painted hillside, then head to Wenatchee in mid-April and hike Sage Hills. It’s worth the 2+ hour drive from the Seattle area.

8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

11 November, 2015

The Next Adventure

We were in our cabin aboard the MV Hatsu Crystal, showing the other two passengers the slideshow videos I’ve made. Iris and Wolfran smiled and commented enthusiastically as the past two years of our lives danced across the screen. I was anxious to show them the video of North America, as they had each only ever been to New York City; a crime of self-deprivation so many Europeans commit when visiting our homeland.

Kristin and I smiled upon finally queuing up the North America video, as did our audience, although for different reasons. While they oohed and aahed over the mountain scenery and the size of the bison and the raging waterfalls, we warmed with the reminders of home, one we’d eventually be returning to.

We just didn’t realize how soon.

Those in personal contact with us have known since the summer that before leaving Bali last June, we had placed a deposit down for a four-month rental house in the Penestanan area outside of Ubud. The plan was to wrap up the bicycle tour at the end of January, 2016 and then settle into a life of normalcy – whatever shape it took – in Bali. I was to spend those months working on the novel I’ve been developing over the past year and Kristin was to test the waters of remote-employment. Ideally, she’d already have a job lined up; if not, she’d spend that time conducting a job search while we lived inexpensively in Indonesia.

If you're ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don't hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea on Changi!

If you’re ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don’t hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea.

Kristin began putting feelers out at the end of summer to so see if anyone, including her former employer, was in a position to hire her remotely. Her baited hook received a few nibbles, but the rod never bent. And then, at the end of September, her efforts netted an unexpected proposal that drew our immediate attention. We spent the entirety of October in a holding pattern to see if the final offer turned out to be one she couldn’t refuse. Long days at sea were spent discussing a ceaseless stream of if/then scenarios, efforts to predict and mold into shape the remainder of this trip, and our lives going forward.

We are now very excited to share the news that our plans, as you are no doubt unsurprised to hear, have shifted yet again.

Kristin will be returning to work at her former employer, in Seattle, this coming January, helping to lead one of the company’s new initiatives. It is an opportunity that not only allows us to return to the location we love most – we’ll be house-hunting in our old neighborhood at the base of the Cascade Mountains east of the city – but also affords me the opportunity to focus full time on my fiction writing endeavors.

That beautiful Seattle skyline. Photo by Larry Gorlin.

That beautiful Seattle skyline… it won’t be long now! Photo by Larry Gorlin.

Our plans to cycle north from Singapore to Bangkok have been shelved. Instead, we have rescheduled our house rental in Bali and applied our deposit to a month’s rental, ending mid-December. Bicycle touring, to repurpose a phrase from the Peace Corps, is the hardest vacation you’ll ever love. We enjoyed this experience immensely and are thrilled to have taken it, but we’ve made our final dismount. The 52 miles we cycled from the port in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia to Singapore were our last. Seattle to Singapore by bicycle and ship was far enough — 226 degrees of longitude without leaving the planet’s surface.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

We arrived at the incredibly helpful Soon Watt Orbea bike shop, still sweaty from the sauna-like conditions we rode in, after dropping our bags off at a nearby hotel in this locals-only area of Singapore. We left our bikes for boxing and headed in search of lunch. That we didn’t look back or shed a tear of sadness was all the proof we needed to know that the timing was right. Nigel and his staff had the bikes boxed up by the following afternoon, leaving the boxes open so we could slide our panniers, shoes, and spare tire and miscellany down into the space around the bike.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood we'll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood — and friends and mountain bike trails — we’ll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Through much expense and several shipping-related headaches, our bicycles and touring gear have been sent ahead to our storage unit in Washington State.  We checked out of the somewhat grimy hotel near the bike shop three days later, our Ortlieb duffel bags serving as our sole luggage, and went across town for a few days, intent on giving Singapore a second chance.

We considered heading straight home, but it was always important to us that we take a few weeks to reflect on what we accomplished; to ponder what we saw and where we’ve been. Once upon a time we imagined flying to an island in the Caribbean from Tierra del Fuego, but we always knew, deep down inside, that the map you see here was, in all likelihood, for inspiration purposes only. Fortunately, we were able to shift our rental deposit from February to the present. One final month in Bali, right back where we were in May, should ease the transition and help protect us from burning out on reentry.

We know there will be some out there who will try to compare our initial plan with the ultimate path we took and feel we failed. Some will pose questions about the places we didn’t go instead of the ones we had; Negative Nancies who only see the holes in the Swiss cheese of life.  They’ll fail to see that this decision, like the one we made nine years ago to undertake this challenge, is every bit as positive. We’re excited to have done what we’ve done – cycling nearly 13,000 miles and visiting twenty or so different countries – and equally pleased to have zigged when we planned to zag. Some of our favorite moments from these two years came in places we never intended to go. And, perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled to be ending this trip in the manner that we are. When we are. On our terms.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon me home. Photo by Paris Gore.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon us home.  Nothing like mountain biking in the PNW! Photo by Paris Gore.

As I wrote in a guest dispatch to another blog two months ago, the thing we’ve learned most during our time abroad is the need to be flexible. To continue on just because we once drew a line on a map would be foolish. Similarly, to accept this job offer if we both weren’t fully ready to begin the next stage of life, to embark on the next adventure, would leave us with a life of regrets and what-ifs. We have none, nor expect any. We’ve taken our bikes – and this trip – as far as we wish for it to go. Six hundred days on the road (and counting) is over forty years’ worth of two-week vacations strung together. And as everyone who’s ever travelled has admitted at one time or another, we (finally) miss our own bed.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know someone who is. And he once (allegedly) gave some rather sage advice:

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

More to Follow: TwoFarGone.com won’t be going anywhere. We’ll no doubt have at least one or two wrap-up posts in the future (in addition to a second-take on Singapore next week) and at least the occasional update on how the transition back to home – and work — goes. I will also have an update in the coming months about my new website and work-in-progress. We’ll continue to travel, naturally, and will continue to post future travel-related articles to this site.

An Open Invitation: Our most cherished souvenirs from this adventure are the memories of the friends we made along the way, and the generosity they showed towards us. We wish to extend an open invitation to everyone who hosted us, shared a meal with us, or whom we spent a day sightseeing with, to please let us know if you’re ever in the Seattle area. It would give us so much pleasure to return the favor. And if you thought we were excited when you met us on the road, just wait till you see how enthusiastically we embrace the role of tour guide back home.

24 February, 2015

A Winter to Remember

The thermometer read -8.7º F (-22º C) when I came down for coffee this morning. The snow outside, blanketing the field out the window of the bedroom-turned-office I spend my days in, fell over a month ago. It doesn’t melt, it only deepens, compacts, and hardens. I had forgotten what winter felt like. Sure, we’d get occasional snowstorms and a couple days below freezing at our house in western Washington, but winter weather — real winter weather — was something we dealt with only by choice. It was tucked away in the mountains to our east, always there if you wanted to visit, but not something that you had to deal with on a daily basis.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don't add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

Short-lived snow showers like this one don’t add up to much, but sure look pretty coming down.

It’s been 17 years since Kristin and I spent a winter in the northeastern United States, and even then it was only to bundle up for the dash across a Pennsylvania college campus. With no shoveling responsibilities of our own back then, it hardly counts. So, in reality, it’s been over two decades since we experienced winter life in New Jersey, dealing with the cold and the snow and wind-chill and the ever-changing road conditions and fretting about the lack of tire-tread on the car we’re driving.

IMG_2776_SoloTreeSnow

One of the many snowy days since our return to NJ.

This much I now know: Sub-freezing temperatures feel a lot warmer when you only experience them while strapped into a snowboard or snowshoeing through knee-deep powder with a pack on your back. Recreation makes everything better. Warmer. Running errands, going for a walk, and taking the garbage out, on the other hand, exposes you to a cold I had long since forgotten existed. We’ve been back in New Jersey for over a month and the daytime temperature has only risen above freezing a half-dozen times in that span. Too many days failed to exceed 26º F (-3º C). The layer of ice on the driveway and front walk has existed for over three weeks. An inch-thick slab with no signs of budging, it has stubbornly ignored the sprinklings of salt and chemical de-icer I apply.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first places I ever mountain bikes with my brother.

Went for a hike on the mountain bike trails at nearby Chimney Rock Park, one of the first trails I rode with my brother.

There was a period last summer, during our ride through New England, when we began to think that settling in Vermont might be worth considering in order to be closer to family. As far as New England states go, Vermont’s geography and politics offers a close approximation to western Washington, its landlocked nature aside. But now? Hell no, screw that, not in a million years! The cold and snow we’ve been bemoaning for the past month in New Jersey is but a mere sample of a typical Vermont winter. No thank you. The inevitable drought that will plague the Pacific Northwest  later this year could be severe, but those balmy spring-like conditions Seattle has been enjoying lately sure seem nice from this side of the country.

I wrote most of the preceding paragraphs yesterday morning: then the ambulance came.

Kristin’s father was in terrible pain throughout the weekend, pain that was suddenly manifesting in nausea and trembling. The comforts of home were no longer enough to keep him comfortable. Fortunately, he’s got a great team of doctors and was admitted into the hospital, assigned a cozy single-patient room, and is close enough to home for frequent family visits. It may or may not be directly related to the cancer, we’ll know more soon.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Nothing like a walk through the woods on a freezing cold day.

Life is a funny thing. We’ve been back in the United States for over six weeks now and, if we’re being honest, we really miss our bikes. We think about them daily, miss being on the move, and have even questioned the length of this unexpected trip home. Sure, we’ve gotten to spend more time visiting family this winter than we have in years, but it’s not our nature to sit idle. We’re restless people.  We just want to get going again. But then something like yesterday happens and we’re so relieved that we happen to be here. Kristin’s mother was glad that Kristin was in the house to call her sisters as she dealt with the EMTs. Kristin, in turn, was happy to hand the phone to me when she began to sob. Our brothers-in-law were both available to accompany Kristin’s sisters to the hospital while we babysat our niece and nephew.  The day went as well as it could, the strength of this family I’m happy to have married into fully on display. Back home after another visit, I cooked dinner so Kristin’s mother could pack a bag and get back to the hospital quickly. Kristin tended to her father’s pertinent email as her sisters called with updates from the hospital. Nobody needed us to be here, but we’re sure glad we were.

Kristin's parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin’s parents dogs enjoying the snowy weather from the comforts of their chair.

Kristin and her dad were supposed to have left for Washington D.C. yesterday morning for a three-night father-daughter getaway. They had even arranged for a tour of the White House with the local Congressman. That trip to D.C., the other Washingtonisn’t going to happen. Or maybe it will. The one thing we’ve learned this past year is to not try and predict the future. We were supposed to be in Greece by now. We’re not. Instead, we’re headed to Japan in two weeks. Or maybe not.  We’re flexible.

Future Travel: When we left Italy last month we did so planning to spend March and April in Japan before heading to Bhutan for an 11-day trek in the Himalaya. That trip was cancelled last week due to a shortage of signups (we declined the option to pay extra for a private tour, as it was already budget-bustingly expensive to begin with). Not wanting to head back to North America or Europe after just going to Japan, we decided to book the entire month of May in Bali, in a small house in Ubud that will serve as a perfect writer’s retreat and basecamp for exploring Bali, Lombok, and Komodo. I miss surfing. Kristin misses yoga.

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Special Thanks: Kristin wanted me to once again thank you all for the wonderful comments and encouragement you left in response to our Detours Ahead post and to make sure we provided you, our faithful readers and friends, a short update. Those wanting a bit more information might be interested in this article about Kristin’s father, Eric, that was recently published in the local paper here in NJ. We’d also like to thank my mother for her generous contribution to our “cherry blossom party” and her sister Susan, my aunt, for a lovely Valentine’s Day gift. And to all of our family and friends who we’ve spent time with this past six weeks, letting us eat your food and drink your beers.

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.

23 January, 2015

Surprises, Ghost Stories, and a Road Trip

“Do you see them? Maybe Dad’s sleeping. Do you see anyone?” I hid in the corner by the front door peppering Doug with questions as he rang the doorbell to my parent’s Florida beach house. I had butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t wait to see the look on their faces. After all, they thought we were cycling somewhere south of Naples, Italy, not driving north from Naples, Florida.

“Shhh, your dad’s coming. Get ready!”

The door opened and Doug and I jumped out. I gave dad a huge hug and kiss and said, “I got your email this morning and came right away.” He went white and looked like he had seen a ghost and didn’t say a word. We’d later realize it was just the shock of seeing us, but he looked deathly ill. I thought he might faint from shock and Doug was ready to catch him.

Email? That was the most amazing part of this surprise. Let me explain.

For the past year, my parents were planning to come meet us somewhere in Turkey in March.  But about a week after Doug and I bought our plane tickets to Miami, dad emailed asking if I would consider taking a few days off while Doug watched the bicycles and gear, so he and I could spend a few days together in Europe alone. He wanted to go in late-January or early-February instead of waiting until March. He said his pain management was getting a bit more difficult and he didn’t want to wait until he was too drugged up to enjoy our time together. I knew that my dad didn’t want to interrupt our trip for his illness; he must have thought long and hard before asking. After rereading it, I smiled, and insisted that I come to the United States so he didn’t have to endure an eight hour flight. He said that he still wanted to come to Europe and suggested meeting up in Athens.

Nearly every tree in Savannah drips with Spanish Moss.

Nearly every tree in Savannah drips with Spanish Moss.

So Doug and I spent the past several weeks being vague about our itinerary for the coming months and evading my dad’s efforts to start making plans. I still questioned whether returning to the U.S. was the right choice: Was I depriving my dad of one more trip overseas or was he was really coming to Europe just because I was there and he was afraid he’d never see me again? It wasn’t long before I knew we had definitely chosen the right time.

After a lovely month in Italy and a visit to Everglades National Park, we were ready to finally surprise my parents. We split the drive from the southern tip of Florida in half and spent that Sunday night in Naples, Florida, camped out at a sports bar watching the NFL playoffs. The next morning, right before we left the hotel, I checked my email one more time and saw that an email from my dad arrived. It was titled, “Our Trip” and detailed some unexpected medical issues he was having that almost cancelled his trip to Florida. He also hesitantly asked if I would still be willing to come to the U.S. and perhaps spend a few days with him at the beach house in Florida. This is the email I referred to above when he opened the front door. Doug and I drove away from the hotel and were giddy with excitement.

And that brings us back to the front step of my dad’s house when we arrived. “We got your email and came as fast as we could,” Doug joked. He had only sent it that morning. Dad eventually found the words to invite us out back to sit on the lanai with him until mom returned from lunch with some friends. When we heard her car drive up, Doug and I hid in the corner. Dad went inside to meet her and ushered her out back insisting that she come see something. We sprung out from our hiding place and tears welled up in my mom’s eyes and she hugged me tightly for a long time. After seeing my parents’ reaction to our arrival, there was no doubt in my mind that we had made the right decision at the right time. My parents believe our arrival was divine intervention.

Doug and I only stayed for three days so my parents could enjoy some time alone before returning to work in New Jersey. Not wanting to miss a chance for a road trip, we drove my father’s gold Cadillac to his house in NJ.

Kristin slept soundly knowing I was on ghost patrol.

I slept soundly knowing Doug was on ghost patrol.

Our first stop was Savannah, Georgia. We never made it there during our five years living in Greenville, NC, and always regretted that. Same for Charleston, South Carolina. We finally did, if only for two nights. We arrived at the 17hundred90 Inn, supposedly one of the haunted hotels in Savannah. While I do believe in ghosts, I’ve never seen one or evidence of one and didn’t expect to see anything unusual. We spent the evening relaxing and after a good night sleep in the cozy, nest-like bed, Doug returned from his shower to let me know that “Anna” was very clearly written in the fog on the mirror. Our scientific minds went to work and quickly wrote it off as one of the staff writing on the mirror with RainX to be revealed only after a steamy shower. After all, the hotel had a reputation to uphold. Neither Doug nor I thought much of this when we mentioned it to the manager and housekeeper while we ate our breakfast. Their reactions told a different story. They both looked quite surprised and the housekeeper said to the owner, “Don’t tell the other girl cleaning the rooms. She won’t go up there if she knows.” These women were either great actors or there was more to this ghost story. The manager asked if it was written in lipstick, as some guests have had that happen to them.

As a former Girl Scout, I couldn't come to Savannah without  stopping by the Juliette Gordon Low house. Anybody want to buy some cookies?

As a former Girl Scout, I couldn’t come to Savannah without stopping by the Juliette Gordon Low house. Wanna buy some cookies?

After a nice breakfast we headed out to wander the streets of Savannah. It was a bit dreary in January, but we enjoyed the day out of the car. We walked around seeing several historical buildings and Forsyth Park where we saw the Confederate Memorial, fountains, and beautiful Spanish moss dripping from the many varieties of trees. We agreed that the gardens and parks must be beautiful in the spring and is probably worth a return trip. After a few hours, the cold temperatures got the better of us and we returned to our room to warm up and enjoy the fire. Doug was stretched out on the sofa and I was on an arm chair a few feet away enjoying our cups of coffee when I got up to grab something from the other room. When I returned, Doug’s laptop bag was on my chair. Neither of us put it there. Then, just a few hours later, Doug called across the room asking why I opened the door to the adjoining room. I didn’t. We both looked at each other and decided that Anna was in fact real and while we didn’t see her, as some other guests mentioned on Trip Advisor, she certainly made herself known.

We rolled out of Savannah the next morning continuing north towards North Carolina. We were fortunate to meet up with one of Doug’s friends from his childhood, Christy, and her family in New Bern, NC. We had a great dinner and lovely evening catching up and playing with their adorable children. As we were wrapping up the evening, Christy mentioned that she always remembered how Doug used to ask all the girls to dance at their 7th and 8th grade dances so that no one felt left out. What a sweet husband I have! But I already knew that!

The next morning, we took a slight detour eastward to the small town of Chocowinity to see the land we own. We bought it on a whim about 15 years ago after seeing an ad in the paper. What had started as a “let’s go take a look” trip ended with a signature and an acre and a half of land about a half mile off the water. As you can see, we have a long history of making impulsive decisions. It looked just as we remembered. We parked in front and walked down to the water remembering the excitement we first felt of walking just 10 minutes to be in the water kayaking or paddle boarding. It still is a great spot. Options…

We might never build a house in NC, but with a bay like this just a short walk from our land, it sure is tempting.

We might never build a house in NC, but with a bay like this just a short walk from our land, it sure is tempting.

We continued north over the 20 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel on a beautifully sunny, but frigid day. It is an amazing structure built in 1964 with three elevated spans and two tunnels, each a mile in length. The first and only other time we went this way was the first time we drove to North Carolina to look for apartments before our wedding. I wondered how 18 years had already passed. We stopped for the night in Rehoboth, DE, before getting on the ferry to Cape May, NJ. Never heard of Rehoboth? I hadn’t either, but lucky for me, Doug knew it was where Dogfish Head Brewery was. We had many interesting, and quite strong beers that night. We also made some new friends. The wait for a table was over 30 minutes and when we were finally called we invited a couple we had been chatting with in line to join us. We had a wonderful evening and they were so appreciative that they surprised us with a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Wit Spiced Rum. The kindness of others continues to follow us on our journey.

After many days of sunshine, clouds and rain finally caught up to us as we were boarding the ferry to NJ so there were no views to be had on the boat or the drive. We arrived at Doug’s sister’s house around 1 p.m. on Sunday which allowed for plenty of time to get settled and make final preparations before an afternoon of football. Our beloved Seahawks somehow found a way to beat the Packers in the final minutes of the game. It was an unlikely victory but so much fun to finally be watching football with family instead of alone in the middle of the night in a hotel room. Jessica had Monday off, so we were able to watch movies, catch up, and relax. It was so nice to just be still and lazy for the day.

My niece was so excited to decorate Doug with Disney princess stickers.

My niece was so excited to decorate Doug with Disney princess stickers.

We left Tuesday morning to spend the day with Doug’s mom before driving to my parents’ house where we would finally be able to settle in one spot for several weeks. That is not to say that we will be lazing around doing nothing. We each have some big projects in mind that we’ll talk more about in our next post, but for now, we are both relieved to know that we are in the right place at the right time.

Special Thanks: We want to again say thank you to everyone who has sent well wishes for Kristin’s father and our family. We so appreciate everyone’s thoughts, prayers, and support during this difficult time.

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12 January, 2015

Detours Ahead

“And then, after Italy, we’ll continue east through Greece and Turkey before heading up into Georgia and making our way across Central Asia to China.” I could see the hotel manager’s imagination was running wild, his eyes widened as they panned across the map of our proposed route. He asked how long it would take to reach Vietnam. I told him about a year, Insha‘Allah. “Unless we get bored and sell the bikes halfway across Uzbekistan,” I thought, updating my oft-used, pre-trip disclaimer about North Dakota. I always completed that attempt at downplaying our plans by adding: “And buy a one-way ticket to Tahiti.”

I wasn’t thinking about Tahiti at the moment, but neither Kristin nor I shared the manager’s excitement. We were spent. And it wasn’t all the time spent on the bike either, but just being on the move. No, the number that wore us down wasn’t the 9,000 miles we had pedaled to reach the Sahara, but the 170 different places we had slept in within a span of 8 months. The topic of taking some time off – measured in weeks or months and not days – became part of our nightly dinner conversation.

The conversations continued, even several days later after returning from an overnight camel trek in the Sahara, only then they were peppered with phrases like “bucket list” and “once-in-a-lifetime.” And it got us thinking about our lifelong travel wish-lists: African safaris, cruising to Antarctica, trekking in the Himalaya, and visiting Easter Island were just a few of the dream excursions that were mentioned.

And few of them fell along that line we drew across the map several years ago.

I forget who first mentioned it, but we were soon agreeing that we had lost track of what made us take this trip. Our goal was never to bicycle around the world, our wish was to take a mid-life timeout and travel, uninhibited, for as long as we had the money to do so. The bikes were merely a means of conveyance; the trip around the world, simply a compass bearing. And, frankly, the bikes were starting to get in the way of that. We developed stock, disarming, answers to all of the myriad questions posed to us over the past few years. From the one about North Dakota and Tahiti to our canned response of “when our money or desire runs out” when asked how long the trip would take. It would seem, with 65% of our budget then still intact, that desire was the first to show fatigue.

We spent the day after Christmas boxing up our gear and bicycles.

Giving new meaning to “Boxing Day”, we spent the day after Christmas boxing up our gear and bicycles.

Before we share our plans for the immediate future, we must first address the elephant in the tent: Kristin’s father has an advanced, rare cancer that’s terminal. He was diagnosed two years ago and was able to curtail its spread until this past autumn when the effectiveness of his treatment options met their end; the cancer has begun growing again, albeit slowly. Whereas I have used campground and hotel Wi-Fi to work on the website, upload photos, and play PC games, Kristin has often used it to put her biotech experience and industry contacts to work in researching clinical trials options for her father. Her father’s condition was always in our minds, leading Kristin to bury her tear-streaked face in my shoulder on the side of the road on more than one occasion. As you can imagine, it was a difficult decision to even start this trip. But, as long as he was feeling well – which he fortunately still is, even now – and we were within a flight’s reach of family, we felt that it didn’t matter if we were back home in Snoqualmie or somewhere abroad. Her family kept their protests to a minimum and respected our ability to do the right thing. The only request came from her father: “Just promise me you won’t be halfway around the world when I’m dying,” he asked. We promised.

We spent the night camped out in a cafe at the Dusseldorf airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Miami.

We spent the night camped out in a cafe at the Dusseldorf airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Miami.

One of the things that helped us get through the occasional bouts of homesickness this past year was remembering that everything would still be there when we returned. If we’re lucky.

It’s time to cut to the chase: our bikes, panniers, and camping gear are currently in storage in Rome. We plan to return in early September, after the crowds disperse, and continue our tour through Italy, Greece and Turkey at that time. And after that? Central Asia. The original plan, continued. Or not. Money and desire…

So where are we?

We are here!

There we are!

By the time you read this, we’ll have surprised Kristin’s parents at their beach house in Florida (after a brief trip to Everglades National Park). We were going to spend a month or two in Florence, Italy, but decided that it made more sense for Kristin to spend that time with her father than it did sitting idle in an Italian apartment. This is also a chance to take advantage of a very unique opportunity we have. So often, as we age, and family turns ill, we become so busy with our own responsibilities and obligations that we can’t just drop everything and spend as much time with our loved ones as we might in a perfect world. Kristin and I are in a unique position right now: willingly unemployed, homeless, and without a schedule. All of the same reasons we used to convince ourselves to undertake this journey, we now use to convince ourselves that this temporary pause is the right thing to do. And the thoughts we used to ward off homesickness now remind us that we’re not going to miss anything. Athens and Istanbul will still be there later this year.

Watching the gator swim under our boardwalk.

Watching the gator swim under our boardwalk at Everglades National Park.

Taking some time off the bikes was something we had discussed several times over the last month, but our discussion of “bucket list” items reminded me of two things that I’ve longed to do for many, many years. I got so used to these ideas being out-of-reach that I completely forgot about them. Back when I was a broke graduate student and Kristin and I were routinely juggling our bills to keep the lights on (not always successfully), I used to sit and page through the Mountain Travel Sobek catalog, daydreaming of visiting far-flung exotic locations. The one destination that always stood out was Bhutan, the Buddhist “Land of the Thunder Dragon” in the Himalaya with some of the tightest tourist limits on the planet. I’m ecstatic to report that we’re (tentatively) booked for an 11-day trekking trip to Bhutan at the end of April.

This heron sat completely motionless for a long while.

This heron sat completely motionless for a long while.

And before that? My favorite travel memory was a six-day trip to Japan I did in 2009, stretching a pair of two-hour business meetings with Platinum Games in Osaka into a memory of a lifetime. Japan was, and remains, my absolute favorite destination. And the more I raved about my time in Japan, the more Kristin regretted not being able to come along (we were hosting a Korean exchange student at the time). I always said that when we finally made it back to Japan, I wanted to go for at least a month and follow the cherry blossoms northward as they painted the islands in pink and white petals. And, family concerns permitting, that’s what we’re going to do. The yen has fallen a lot since I was there six years ago (nearing a ten-year low versus the dollar) so there’s no sense in delaying, especially if we need to be in that corner of the world for our trip to Bhutan. So, in March, we’re going to head home to the Seattle area to spend some time with friends and retrieve some items from storage, then continue on to Japan, without our bikes, and follow the sakura northward across Honshu and Hokaido islands. The shutter button on my camera will get a workout, for sure.

A particularly camera-friendly cormorant.

A particularly camera-friendly cormorant.

So, the blog isn’t going to be about bicycle touring for a few months. Nevertheless, we’ll still be posting every one to two weeks and hope you continue to follow along as we document our travels in words and photos. We’ll be back to posting bike-related content once we return to Italy later this year and throw legs back over our trusty Salsa Fargos.

On our way back to the docks after a spontaneous 3-hour canoe trip in the Everglades.

On our way back to the docks after a spontaneous 3-hour canoe trip in the Everglades.

This was a hard choice to make, as we had to beat back the inevitable feelings of our decision signaling a failure or that we were quitting. It isn’t and we’re not. But I’m particularly sensitive to those feelings, given a small list of key regrets I carry through life. Oddly enough, the decision to box up the bikes and take some time off was even harder than pedaling across another mountain range, despite how much our bodies – and our hearts – knew doing so was the right thing to do. It would seem that we had reached a point where continuing to pedal onward, even though we weren’t enjoying it as much and had family concerns on the mind, had somehow become the easy thing to do. Weird, huh?

Part of that is your fault. So many of you have shown such great dedication in reading and commenting on the blog and on Facebook, and in so generously providing support and hospitality, that we simply didn’t want to let you down. We hope our detour isn’t a disappointment and that you understand our need to temporarily change gears, switch to the fast lane, and jump ahead a few dozen degrees of longitude.

Thanks for reading. We hope you continue to do so.