Thursday, September 30, 2010

First Taste of Small Town New York

    I woke early at Dingman’s and cooked bacon and eggs.  I made the discovery that if you cook scrambled eggs in a pan that contains extremely hot bacon grease, it takes about fifteen seconds to cook them.  I paid $35 for the campsite to a girl who had a football field of cleavage protruding from her blouse.  No comment to any questions about her age.
    I drove through Port Jervis which is technically in New York, but is basically at the intersection of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  It’s a small town and had a strip of town houses which were of such appearance that I couldn’t tell if there were lower, middle or upper class.  I passed one young couple who were attaching gear to their bicycles as if about to go on an overnight camping trip.  Something I’ve always wondered about.
    I drove into Middletown and went to a theater to see Eat, Pray, Love.  Even though the movie got bad reviews, I thought it would be cool to see a movie about someone going on an adventure while I was in the middle of an adventure.  One bad thing about finding restaurants or movie theaters in other cities using Google Maps is that occasionally it brings me to a mall.  For restaurants I’ll just go somewhere else, but for a movie, I decided to check it out.
    As soon as I walked in I realized something strange was happening.  I had entered the type of place which least represents what my trip is about.  People go to malls to buy THINGS.  Things that sit in their closets and never get used.  There’s something about malls that are so inviting though.  I think malls everywhere smell the same.  I recognized the smell even though it must have been years (yes, years) since I’ve been in one.  The crisp, clean smell of fresh linens, the aroma of cookies and hot pretzels all sending subtle messages of buy, buy, buy, buy.  Truly an atrocious place when you think about it.  I resisted the urge to buy a thing, but the draw of the mall pizza was too great for my hunger to resist even though I was supposed to be on my week long, “make all my own meals” plan.
    The movie wasn’t great, but it reminded me of the story which was.  I pondered as I sometimes do as to why it takes an event like a divorce for most people to go traveling/soul searching around the world.  If anyone is making a life manual out there, make sure to put the “Find Yourself” section before the “Find a Mate” section even though few will probably take the advice because, “She’s just so damn smokin’ hot man.”  Yeah okay.
    It was after seven when the movie finished.  I called a private campground I had called before the movie and the lady backed down from her offer to come meet me at the campsite from her house.  I called another site and an old man answered and said he’d meet me.  I put the campground in my GPS and headed that way, but then my phone started going ape shit.  The first thing that happened was the worst.  Just when I had driven out of Middletown and down this dark country road, my phone screen just goes black.  Not a good thing to happen when it’s the one giving you directions.  Even worse: I can’t call the guy back (or anyone) and don’t remember the campsite name.  When my phone finally does come back, it first tells me I’m half a mile north of the route I’m supposed to be on and the next second it tells me I’m just ahead of my destination.  So, I don’t know where the hell I am.  On top of all this, there’s a truck riding my ass.  I finally get to an intersection with a street sign just around a curve and hit the brakes to turn around upon which the truck behind me gives me a fuck you honk.  After looking at the sign, I figure out I’m very close to my destination.  The people at the campsite were very nice and I apologized for keeping the old man up who said he was just about to go to bed when I called.  I had a very weak signal, but managed to keep track of most of the first Saints game of the season.  WHO DAT!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thoughts on Blog and Trip

    I’ve been thinking some about my blog and about my trip.  First, on the blog: I have decided to recount only selected days of my trip instead of every single day in order to lessen the time I spend in front of a computer.  I haven’t decided whether I will attempt to summarize the days I breeze over with a few sentences or just not speak of them at all.  It pains me to rush through my recounts of days like that because each day contains so many mini-adventures that I could easily write a few thousand word short story on each of them.  I think, though, that it will be better to expand on the descriptions of the most exciting days than try to cram in a summary of three days into posts the length I’ve been doing.  I’m taking good notes on all days, so, regardless, I’ll have the details later if I want them.
    The pictures, though, I think I will be able to keep up with.  I may use them to tell the stories I leave out.  Maybe I’ll focus less on days as a whole and more on individual experiences throughout the day.  My posting less may work out better in the end because I’ll be able to go on that many more adventures and maybe one day it will save me from having to answer a publisher’s question of, “What do you mean you posted every single story on the internet?”
    On the trip: Quitting my job to go on this trip was the hardest and the best decision of my life.  Every single day is an adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life.  I went from feeling like my life was over to feeling like my life is just getting started.  My enjoyment of this trip is sustainable because it comes from the genuine form of happiness that can only come from experiences and never from things.  Every single day I am where I want to be.  There are many places I want to visit and many things I want to do, but traveling around my home country is what I want to do first.
    If I were offered the option to trade lives with anyone I would decline.  There are people who have more money, fame and power than I, but I don’t think there are very many people who are free as I am.  There are many, many people who could be as free as I am, but someone’s potential to be free or anything for that matter is meaningless unless they take advantage of it.
    As glad as I am for the decisions I made and the work that I did along the way that allowed me to go on this trip, I am more thankful for the opportunities that were given to me along the way.  I don’t know how many of the world’s parents are willing and able to raise and support their children through college, but I do know that the amount who would support their child’s decision to change life paths after achieving what they thought they wanted (especially when it involves quitting their job of designing a spacecraft during a recession) is much less.  I’m lucky enough to have both.  Thank you.
    I’d also like to thank all the friends who I talked to before the trip to gather up courage to go on it.  One young lady in particular deserves special thanks because she was not only the first person to convey her admiration for my writing and my pictures, but had it not been for the many, many life philosophizing talks with her, I am quite sure this trip would not have happened.  If any of you happen to get any enjoyment out of any of these writings or pictures, you can thank her for giving me the courage to post them.
    The way I am traveling is what makes each day an adventure.  It may not be for everyone, but I now think of planning every detail of a trip like planning every detail of a dance.  You will be sure to touch your feet to every place on the floor you wish to go if you grab your partner by the throat and thrust them around, but neither of you will have very much fun.  Some may worry that you would miss many things if you don’t plan everything in advance, but I think if you compared any length section of my trip to someone who plans everything in advance you’d find that however long they take to plan a trip, during that time I can go on a trip of the same length, see just as many wonderful things as they will and have a HELL of a lot more fun doing it because I’m not worried about where I have to be tonight or the next day.
    One of my favorite things to do on this trip, to make me remember how lucky I am to be living the life I am, is to imagine how many years it would have been before I’d visit the places I am during a particular moment in time if I’d stayed on the life path I was on before.  In the case of big cities the answer is usually years; in smaller ones, the answer may be decades; on remote mountain tops in places I’ve never heard of before, the answer is most certainly never.
    I would not advise anyone else to go on a trip like mine or, for that matter, to go after any other person’s dream.  There is little advice I feel worthy to give at this point in time, but one thing I can offer is for everyone to think very, very hard about what they want to do with their lives.  I didn’t get to this point by saying, “Screw it,” and throwing everything to the wind.  I got here by thinking very hard about what I wanted to do with my life every day for years.  I’m fortunate to live in a country where a lot of people fought very hard to create a country where people could live as they see fit.  Many today CHOOSE to be content with misery, but, it is their choice.  I choose to pursue happiness.  I will offer something else in support of this: Whether you believe life is generally good or generally bad, you will find evidence to support your belief.
    I am not a very confident person, but I know for certain that I am succeeding at life.  No matter what happens from here on out, by choosing to go on this trip I have succeeded.  I can say that with certainty because I now know to measure my success by the only standards that matter.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kayaking The Delaware Day 2

    I woke up at 8am still exhausted from all the paddling into the wind I did yesterday.  I made some coffee and ate a few granola bars.  The wind was still blowing and turned my tent over as I was packing my gear up.  I headed out and paddled by where the Princetonites must have beached their canoes, but they were gone.  For the first hour or so, I had an extremely difficult time keeping my kayak straight.  I don’t know if it was the current, the wind, lack of knowledge or what.  I’ve kayaked and canoed several times before.  I think part of it was that I was near the front of the kayak and my gear was behind me.  I could steer from the front, but sometimes I would paddle as hard as I could on one side and the damn thing would still turn the wrong way.  I had to stick my paddle several feet out and pull in to straighten the boat, but then if I titled it a hair in the other direction, the mysterious forces would cause it to swing in that direction.  Sometimes I could even be going straight, but knew that the thing would turn damn near ninety degrees if I paddled on one side just a hair.
    I was able to take advantage of a few nice downstream currents including a short section of Class I rapids which moved me along swiftly without me having to do much paddling.  I passed a couple blue herons which would squawk loudly while flying away when I got near which I took as their way of saying, “Screw you.”
    Near the end of my journey, the wind coming at me really started to pick up and the last one hundred yards were some of the hardest paddling I’ve done in my life.  I was utterly exhausted when my kayak slid onto the canoe ramp.  I turned in my life jacket and paddle to the canoe rental employee and watched as a young couple entered the water in a canoe, paddled a few times on the left in an attempt to turn right (downstream) only to turn left and begin riding the wind upstream.  Screwed.
       I took my gear down to my car and saw the Princetonites sitting in a circle, some of their gear laid out to dry.  Guess they were waiting for a ride.  There was a ticket on my car.  You’re supposed to pay a fee to get into the beach area and park, but it’s a national recreational area and I have an interagency national park pass which claimed it was good for all recreational areas, so I put the card on my dash.  The writing on the ticket said, “Annual pass not accepted here.  No entrance fee.”  Right, there’s no entrance fee – you just have to pay money before you enter the parking lot.  Gotcha.
    I laid out my wet, dirty camping gear (the ground where I camped was wet) on a large grassy area next to the beach along the river there.  I took off my shoes, socks, shirt and took out everything from my pockets and walked into the cool river.  I got back out and laid out in the sun for the most relaxing hour of my trip.  I was so exhausted from paddling and so glad to be back before I started getting fined that I laid out on the grass and almost fell asleep.  I let all the small worries fade away and didn’t care what time it was at all.  I almost felt as good as when I was a kid at the beach.  I often wonder if it’s possible for adults to ever feel as happy as they were when they were kids.  I was close on that warm afternoon lying in the grass.  I thought about taking a nap, but knew I’d probably get sunburned if I did.
    As I was washing my gear off, I read a sign about how there was almost a dam build on the Delaware River to prevent flooding.  There were protests against it from citizens, but the government began clearing out areas along side the river anyway.  The project went on hold for a while or got delayed for a reason I can’t remember and eventually got turned into a National Recreation Area.
    I picked up some groceries in Stroudsburg, PA and then headed north along a riverside highway.  I wanted to pick up some beer, but only found a place that only sold by the case.  I was too exhausted to go on a beer hunt.  I miss being in a state where even lemonade stands run by six year old girls can sell booze (probably not true).  I got to Dingman’s Campsite at around six and cooked some grilled cheese and tomato soup.  When I walked out of the bathroom from brushing my teeth, this tiny dog ferociously barked at me and even made a few nipping jolts toward me.  Of course the damn thing wasn’t on a leash.  The owner said, “She’s just smellin’ ya.”  I didn’t respond but thought, “If she smells me with her teeth, I’ll smell her with my foot.”  All in all though, I was glad to be back in civilization.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kayaking the Delaware River

From Delaware River Kayaking Album
     I woke up at 7am, an hour later than my watch alarm told me to.  An older man a few spots down in an RV with his wife came over and introduced himself.  He told me that he and his wife were both out of shape, but had spent four hours climbing a mountain nearby yesterday.  Now that all the families were gone, he planned to take his boat out.  I told him about my trip and he, like a lot of people, seemed more interested in how my trip fit in with the working part of my life.  You know: laden yourself down with long lasting financial responsibilities so that you’ll be sure to never get a real break until you’re old, tired and generally broken down – The American Dream.
       “So you’re doing this trip before you have to work?” he asked.  “Well, hopefully I’ll never have to work,” I joked.  He laughed.  I cried a little inside (kidding).  Some people get it, some people don’t.
       I packed up some of my gear for the trip, but when it was almost 9am, the time the canoe rental place opened, I left, figuring I’d pack the rest when I got there.  When I arrived, I talked with the pretty, young, tiny brunette at the counter who had so much eyelash makeup on it was falling off in clumps about the details of my trip.  I decided on a 20 mile trip and, after checking out the size of the canoes and kayaks, decided on a two person kayak with one seat removed.  Eyelashes asked about my trip as some people do when they see I’m from Louisiana.  After I told her about it, she told me she’s always wanted to do something like that.  “Gas, grass or ass and you’ve got a ride,” I said.  Kidding.
       I parked my car at the site where I’d end my trip and finished packing my gear.  There was a couple from Massachusetts there too and I felt kind of guilty making them wait, but wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything.  One of the canoe rental workers asked if it was my first time.  “Yes,” I said, assuming he meant overnight kayak trip alone.  “Think I’ll make it?”  He smiled and turned his head.  “Fifty/fifty,” I offered.  He laughed.
       I studied the map on the ride to the start point and hit the water a little before noon.  There was a fairly strong wind blowing in the wrong direction and I worried that twenty miles may have been too long for a one night trip.  There was a $25 per half hour late fee if I didn’t have the kayak back by 5pm the next day.  After paddling my butt off and not moving much in the middle of the river, I found a channel on the New Jersey side of the river that was flowing faster downstream.
       Fifteen minutes into my trip, I saw a black bear on the other side of the river (my brain is learning to distinguish them from dogs now I think).  I took a few pictures and then paddled toward it (it was quite far away) to get a closer look.  It walked into the river and swam a little.  When I was about halfway across the river, I pulled my camera out again, and just as I was about to snap another few shots, it walked out of the water and into the woods.  Very cool experience and yes, there may have been a moment or two when I thought, “Am I really paddling toward a black bear in the wild?”
    I took a break every half hour or so and moved at about three miles an hour including breaks.  There were many nice views at the beaches of sand and rock where I stopped.  The mountains around weren’t that high, but the weather was nice and I saw a few deer getting a drink in the distance during one break.  I talked to a family of three a few breaks into my journey, trying to figure out where I was.  The milfesque woman asked about my kayak trip and seemed really excited about it even though I gave her no reason to be.  The dad gave me an estimate as to where I was and I moved on.
       At a little before 5pm, I selected a campsite about eleven miles into my trip.  I heated a dinner of canned tomato sauce and pasta and then had some hot cocoa for dessert to raise my spirits.  I was tired and a little more anxious about camping alone having seen a bear earlier in the day.  I shed my first blood of the trip when I cut myself while cleaning out the inside of a soup can with a sponge (this has happened to me once before while living in NOLA – damn soup cans).  The blood was coming out pretty fast, but I cleaned it and stopped it with a band aid out of my first aid kit.
       As I was cleaning the rest of my cooking gear, I heard a loud noise in the woods that couldn’t have come from something small.  I popped up, scanned the area, and saw a man in the distance.  I was quite excited to see another human being.  When I was eating beforehand, I had seen about six canoes go by and figured they must have stopped at a campsite a little downstream.  I walked down there and saw a group of people.  I was a little hesitant to approach at first, but my desire to interact with humans overcame and I walked up to them.
       They were twelve students from Princeton.  Right when I walked into their camping area, the alpha male of the group came over to ask what’s up.  I told him I was just making sure it wasn’t a bear I heard over here.  They were a nice, friendly group.  I mainly talked with alpha, a tom boy in a tank top, and an effeminate pale boy from Oregon who told me all about the Shakespeare plays I should see when I’m passing through there.  Alpha asked if this was my one year off deal.  I explained more and they understood.  Most younglings do.
       I guess there are some people that would be envious of a group of Ivy Leaguers that have their whole lives in front of them.  I mostly just wished them the best of luck, knowing how many directions they’ll be pulled that will seem right to them at the time, but will never make them truly happy.
       I headed back to my “camp” (no tent set up yet) and finished cleaning my gear.  I put all my “smell things” in my bear bag and looked around for a tree to hang it.  Hanging the bear bag is my least favorite part of backwoods camping.  It’s hard to find an appropriate tree, the damn rope always gets tangled and it seems like it’s always dark when I do it, no matter how hard I try to get it done when there’s still light.
       I found a tree not to far from where I had cooked (I planned to hike upwind a ways to pitch my tent) and threw a rock tied to the rope over a limb.  The rock made it over fine, but landed in a thicket of thorns.  I hadn’t thought to check out the landing zone.  I walked to the rock in my shorts, getting all scraped up in the process.  When I tried to pull the rope to hoist the bag, I found it was caught on branch cluster.  I tried pulling in different directions, whipping the rope, and all sorts of things to get it free, but it was just stuck.  I untied the rope from the bear bag side and pulled on the rope from the rock side, planning to start over, but found that the rope was wrapped one and a half times around the limb I had thrown over.  No way to pull it from either side because of the friction.
       I zipped on the bottom half of my pant legs, took a few deep breaths, and decided to throw the rock back over to unwind the loop around the branch.  The rock got caught in the same cluster of branches as before.  I kept my cool and decided to change tactics.  I picked up a branch about five feet long and decided to try to hit the rope on the side of the loop which was only hanging about a foot and a half below the main branch. On the first smack, the rope whipped around the branch, unwinding the loop.  I pulled the rope down and got the hell away from that tree.
       Its times like these where the qualifications required to be a bear bag tree can drop dramatically.  I hung the bag on a small tree, but the bottom of the bag was only five feet below the ground.  I sighed, untied the bag and found a sturdy, tall branch on a tree nearby.  I checked the landing zone, made a spectacular throw of the rock, and tied that sucker up.  It felt like the whole process took over an hour, but probably only lasted twenty minutes.  I set up my tent with only the light of my small flashlight and promised myself a beer and a nice meal when I got back.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

LABOR Day

From Mountain Hiking in New Jersey Album
     I woke up early on Labor Day, the day The Man hath decreed not to be spent on work, unless of course you’re reaalllly behind schedule.  I walked around the park some and noticed that quite a bit of the “Recreational Vehicles” appeared to be set up in permanent or semi-permanent positions with attached decks, patios and hundreds of knickknacks one would expect to find in a trailer park scattered about, verifying the suspicion I had that trailer parks and recreational vehicle camps are one in the same.  Nothing against trailer parks…they’re just not what I want to be around when I go camping.
    I was planning on driving to the center of the Kittatinny Mountains/Delaware Water Gap Recreational Area when I was given good advice to go to the southern end of the area.  I drove there and pulled over at the first indication of a hiking trail.  I later found out it was a trail up Mt. Tammany (1527 ft.).  The trail was about a mile and half long, fairly steep and was quite rocky.  There were quite a few people out hiking: families, people my age, backwoods campers, a large group of Asians, and military folks including a guy who jogged up the trail with no shirt on while carrying a stick as if about to spear an animal.  I viewed the surrounding mountains at the top and then hiked down in a somewhat risky manner, quickly hopping from rock to rock (not to hurry, but for fun).
    I drove to an information booth near masses of picnicking families along a Delaware River beach and picked up some fliers on places to kayak and camp along the river.  I picked up some groceries and headed to Worthington State Forest Campground.  It was right along the river and mostly empty.  I ate a dinner of pasta while listening to the drumming and rhythmic chanting from a river island nearby.  I could see people on the island, but they were too far away for me to really tell what was going on.
    Ever since I took out all of the cooking gear I had in my ice chest and actually used the cooler for its intended purpose, my car has been a mess, so I took everything out of the car and reorganized which brought me an unexpected sense of relief.  While I was washing some dishes, a young man scared the crap out of me when he walked up from behind me and asked if I had any jumper cables to lend him.  They were an Arabic family from New York City who had accidentally left their door cracked over night.  I lent them the cables and went to sleep anxious about my trip.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Adventures

    When I woke at the motel, it was 46 degrees outside.  Pretty cool for the shorts and short sleeve shirt I had on.  At this point in the trip, I am ready to start expanding the breadth of my adventures.  I’ve been to parks galore, hiked all over, been to two major cities and seen museum after museum after museum.  I’m ready for something new.
       I headed out and fueled up at one of a string of full service gas stations (I wondered if it was a Northeast thing or a New Jersey thing) and had lunch at Turkey Brook Park where the sanitation man told me not to make a mess before I started eating.  Guess I look like one of those types. 
       It was a gorgeous day.  Blue skies, seventy or so out.  There were some power sockets near a picnic table, so I pulled out my laptop and blogged.  I only mention it (and probably won’t again otherwise I’ll be blogging about blogging about blogging about blogging) because I got some weird looks from families who must be saying to themselves, “Look at that crazed workaholic.  Comes to the park on this beautiful Sunday and pecks away at his laptop the whole time.”  I wish I could respond, “No, you don’t understand - this is my office.”
       I saw a place on my atlas called Waterloo Village nearby, so decided to check it out.  It was closed, but on the way I passed a large group of cars parked on the edge of some thick woods which is a telltale sign of a hiking trail.  I parked near the cluster of cars and threw my small day hiking pack over my shoulder.  A few yards into the woods I got to a board that had a bunch of mountain climbing warning signs on it.  I glanced at the map there and kept walking until I got to a huge rock face about fifty yards in.  There were a bunch of small packs on the ground, so I dropped mine and went around the base of the mountain to see if I could find an area I could climb up.  I found one and climbed about twenty or so feet high.  I figured there had to be a way I could get higher (that’s the thing about climbing really – it’s an addiction and all you want to do is get higher).  I walked around to the other side of the rock face and found a series of small boulders up a slope that was shallow enough I could probably climb it. 
       I started climbing before my mind had enough chance to really evaluate the situation (sorry Mom).  I wanted more adventure and here it was, so I went.  It really wasn’t that bad.  I got to the same elevation as the large rock face and walked around some, trying to find other climbers (partially to show I had gotten to where they were without any climbing gear, which in hindsight wasn’t that great of feat).  When I didn’t find anyone, I climbed up a shallow wooded slope to see if there were any more boulders to climb.  I ran into a trail that ran around the circumference of the mountain.  I started hiking it and came to a couple of very nice overlooks over a river and some mountains.  I walked down the trail some and turned around when I ran into a group of people who definitely weren’t climbers (they had started from a parking lot somewhere and had taken the “normal way” hikers get to the overlooks).  I couldn’t find/forgot where I got on the trail, so I guessed and ran into a different way to get down than I came up.  I used a sort of squat and slide method some of the time.  I was mostly in control of my movements.

     
     At the bottom, I passed a few hikers.  One guy asked if I was a climber.  I was walking around the base of the rock face in my glasses and no hiking gear, so I guess I looked like I either really knew what I was doing or…something else.  I said no and that I was just experimenting with bouldering.  His wife and infant kid were with him.
    This experience was just what I wanted.  An exhilarating new type of adventure that was totally unplanned.  The overlooks were just an added bonus.  I read the signs more carefully on the way back.  Apparently I was supposed to fill out some kind of ‘sign my life away’ form.  Whoops.  The mountain (Stephen’s and Allamuchy Mountain) was 1100 feet at its tallest and the road was at about 700 feet.
    I was planning to visit a local café, but figured I should call a local state park first to make sure there’d be room for me when I slipped in after closing like usual.  The first one I called was full.  Then I realized it was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.  I guess that knowledge was in the back of my mind, but it hadn’t really registered how it would affect me until now.  I called about five of them including two private ones, but everyone was booked up.  Finally, I called one way off the main highway and they had one spot because a couple had left at two.
    The private campground was full of RVs and screaming kids running around a swimming pool.  Luckily, I managed to get a somewhat secluded spot on a ridge where I cooked grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Definitely enjoying cooking my own food and always having cold milk on hand.  I went to sleep thinking about doing an overnight kayak trip in the near future.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Leaving Philly and Crossing the Delaware

    Walking around Philadelphia all day yesterday must have exhausted me because while I was sleeping, half the guys in the dorm came in and went to sleep including the guy above me who hadn’t even checked in when I fell asleep.  I didn’t wake up for any of it even though I should have been a little more on my guard after a Brazilian man checked in the previous evening, shook my hand, explained to me it was very hard for him financially traveling in the United States, and then began picking up loose coins on the dorm floor.
    I ate my cereal and toast while a girl at the table next to me hollared, “ALOOOOO…ALOOOOOO” an inch away from her laptop microphone.  Some type on online telephone call gone wrong I guess.  I checked out of the hostel and decided to drive to the Franklin Institute of Science Museum.  It’s not too far away I suppose, but Google Navigate had me getting on an interstate which I didn’t want to do, so I decided to wing it and get there by my own directions.  My brain was in full alert and I found my way well enough.  I only had to swerve twice to dodge a taxi and a bus which came into my lane.  I wouldn’t recommend driving in downtown Philly.
From Philadelphia Day 3 and Delaware Crossing
     There were lots of hands on, kid friendly exhibits there.  I checked out Sir Isaac’s Loft where I was barely able to pull down a rope to hoist the equivalent of 150lbs and then went to the Sports Challenge area where I threw a kickball 32mph.  I spent most of my time in the museum watching planetarium shows.  There was a Black Hole and an astronomy show which made me think about getting a telescope and doing a little astronomy research on my own (something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid but never did).  At the Black Hole exhibit, there was as Asian family sitting next to me.  One of the kids pointed to some planets on the screen and named them.  Later, at the astronomy show, a white kid about the same age pointed to Jupiter on the screen and said, “I like that balloon.”  When his father corrected him, he asked, “What’s it for?”  Interesting question I guess.  What is Jupiter for?
       I also saw a show on the Mayans and their understanding of the sky.  Their story on how the sun and moon were created was interesting to me.  Basically it all started with these two brothers (don’t ask me where the brothers came from or how they were alive without a sun, they just were okay) and these brothers started playing this game where they kicked a ball back and forth.  Somehow they ended up in the underworld where they kept playing this game.  Well, this underworld species started kicking the ball around too, and the underworlders are much better ball kickers than the brothers.  The brothers, though, somehow find a way to beat the underworlders at the ball kicking game.  Then, the brothers found their dad in the underworld, poured some kind of magic water or something on him and yadda, yadda, yadda, the brothers became the sun and the moon.  Even though I didn’t remember the last part there (probably because it was even more “out there” than the first parts of the story), I probably should have just made something up.  I did a quick online search and I’m thinking the museum may have made that story up, so what’s the difference.  One thing that is real though is the Mayan’s ability to predict solar eclipses very far in advance indicating they had a pretty good understand of astronomy.
    As I toured the rest of the museum and read things about energy, geology and electricity that I’d almost forgotten from various stages of memorization during my formal education, I realized that visitors to museums like this come in cycles.  Parents who (except for the occasional know-it-all dad who makes stuff up every once in a while because he refuses to answer, “I don’t know” to anything he’s asked) have forgotten all this science stuff bring their kids here to learn about it.  The kids will become full of all this knowledge and then, when they enter the real world, where it doesn’t matter how different groups of electrons orbit the protons and neutrons of an atom, will eventually forget everything and bring there kids to learn about it.  I don’t really fit into either of these groups, so I felt a little out of place.  After I paid $8 for a lunch sandwich, I made a pledge to stock my ice chest with groceries (it hadn’t held a single ice cube the whole trip) and make my own meals for a full week.  My grand finale of the museum trip was a visit to the observatory on the roof where I looked at the sun through some kind of filter.  Pretty cool.
    I spent a good while back in my car looking over my atlas, trying to figure out my next stop.  The only thing I had decided was that I wanted to stay in a motel that night to watch the first LSU game of the season on TV (watching it at a bar and then trying to find a campsite at 11pm didn’t quite feel like the right plan).  I ended up choosing a highway that went along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.  Pretty much by luck, I ended up passing right by where Washington crossed the Delaware for a surprise attack on the British reinforcements at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776.  I wonder if, right before the first shot, one of them said, “Merry Christmas Mother Fuckers.”  I can’t think of a better time in history for that to have been said.  I walked around location on the river where they landed and walked on the trail where they marched.  There were quite a few people around including one couple necking on the grass.  Would GW approve?  Tough call.
    After the park visit, I drove up a ways to the town of Lambertville.  I called about four or five inns, motels, and hotels in the area and none had prices below $200/night.  Traveling along the river is nice until it comes time to find a cheap motel.  I changed tactics and searched a motel’s website.  I found a place close enough to my price range twenty-five miles away in Raritan.  After I checked in there, I headed to a grocery store where I got milk, butter, bread, ham, cheese, tomato soup, lettuce, jelly, mayonnaise, mustard, and some sugar free cookies (I thought he was trying to GAIN weight).
    I was less passionate about the game than in previous years.  I enjoyed watching it, but it wouldn’t have bothered me if we’d lost and it wouldn’t have made me feel like a king if we’d crushed them.  I have some theories on why this is, some of which I’ll discuss later.  I have basically zero plans for tomorrow which way more often than not has turned into a very good thing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Creation of Our Nation

    I woke early Friday morning and had a breakfast of cereal and toast in the basement kitchen.  It was well stocked for a hostel kitchen – pots, pans, stoves, couple fridges.  I looked over my maps, googled some potential destinations with my Droid and headed out.  I took a tour of Independence Hall and saw the room where the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were signed.  I saw a few of the other buildings in the area – Congress Hall, the Old City Hall where the first Supreme Justices met, the Great Essentials building (didn’t live up to its name).  Out of all the places I’ve visited on this trip, these old government buildings in Philly definitely felt like the most historically significant.  This was where our country became a country.  There was one room, perhaps in Congress Hall or something, where the first peaceful transition of power in the history of Western Civilization occurred (according to park ranger).  Apparently people didn’t just hand off power to another person just because their time as ruler had “expired” back then and many, many people came to watch it happen.  I guess the world was watching, at a distance anyway.  GW could have stayed in power as long as he wanted.  The ranger said there lots of people were crying when John Adams was Presidented.
From Philadelphia Days 1 and 2 Album
    I walked into Carpenter Hall where the first formal meeting of the founding father’s occurred.  They met there because the British were meeting in Philadelphia Hall (later Independence Hall).  I talked to one educated older man there.  He said the British probably knew about the secret meeting of the colonists, but weren’t concerned about it.  He told me about this Carpenter group too.  Apparently in the 1300s, they were the primary architects and builders of buildings in England.  Then this big fire occurred in London in the 1600s.  The workload was too great for one company, so a whole bunch of companies either sprung up or came in from other areas.  After fifteen years or so when a lot of the city was rebuilt, there was not enough work for all the companies, so this Carpenter group went over to build Philadelphia with the Quakers.
    I ate a healthy lunch and headed back to the hostel, tired of museums and government buildings and ready to do something new.  I talked to the thin girl at the front desk who spoke with an accent.  I’m guessing she was Eastern European.  I took her recommendation of walking down to South Street.  On the way there, I passed some old residential areas.  It was nice to be away from all the tourists.  I walked down South Street to the Delaware River and then headed in the other direction, back towards town.  There were lots of stores and restaurants.  I passed an old market where farmer’s used to come into town to sell their vegetables.  I saw one poster in an art store that had headshots of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barrack Obama, and Malcom X in it, side by side.  The text below said Peace, Power and Respect.
    When I got to Washington Park, I read some of On The Road and watched a mother and her daughter throw cheese puffs to a squirrel.  I then headed down 7th.  It was early afternoon when I passed the African American Museum, and, in my state of trying to get alternative perspectives on history, I decided to check it out.  My favorite exhibit there was this collection of big screens that showed life sized videos of actors representing different AAs from Philadelphia.  You could push one of three buttons to ask them a question and they would answer.  The first lady I went up to claimed a life span of something like 1686-1813.  She pulled people back and forth on a ferry most of her life and, whenever people were mean to her, she’d pretend to be asleep when they wanted to come back to the other side.  “I’m old and I can’t hear so good when I’s asleep.”
    There were about a dozen or so of these videos, others of which showed a singer, a painter, a man who earned the highest rank in the Army an AA had ever been given, and a scholar.  It was interesting to me to see how many AAs were able to live good lives in the North.  Another thing about the museum that sticks out in my mind was a video of this group of several hundred people (mixed white and black) that went up and down a highway somewhere in Maryland or something with the plan to desegregate restaurants.  Each group of about four would walk into a restaurant with at least one AA in their group and order.  If they were refused service, they would read a script from this paper stating their cause, and then refuse to leave.  And then there were the marches.  I won’t forget those videos anytime soon.
    I strolled through Franklin Park and then decided to find Elfreth’s Alley.  I wouldn’t have gone to this place or even known about it if a couple hadn’t asked me how to get there while I was walking down South Street.  It’s supposedly the oldest street in the city that still exists as it did when it was first created.  It’s a residential strip from the first days of the eighteenth century.  I used a combination of my Droid and my street map to find it and then took a stroll.  It was an alley.  It was old.  Check the pictures for more.
    I had a Pepperoni Pizza Philly Cheesesteak and headed back to the hostel.  Goof had visited this small private art exhibit that wasn’t well known and had a few billion dollars worth of art in it.  Mostly impressionist stuff that was all owned by a Robber baron.  He said the Philadelphia Art Museum planned to “acquire” these pieces by means of what I’ll call bullshitery.
    I went to bed that night glad I had the opportunity to see so many historic things, glad to have met many people, but definitely ready to be back on the road, surrounded by nature.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Philly, Philly Here I Come

From French Creek State Park and Valley Forge Album
    I dreamt last night that I was a substitute secretary for a day for one of my old managers.  I thought I would be great at it, but I really screwed stuff up.  After drinking some coffee and catching a chipmunk snooping around my campsite on my way back from brushing my teeth, I hiked a mile or so loop around the park.  I was finally able to snap a picture of a chipmunk near the trail (they are so fast and it’s very hard to get close to them).  I passed another hunting sign indicating that I should be wearing orange to prevent being shot.  I hope warnings are also being passed along to the people with guns.  Like, “Hey this is a state park, so there’s a small chance there might be humans around.  Try not to kill any.”  Oh, and by the way, if you can’t tell if what you’re shooting at is human or not, you might not want to fire.  How hard is it to separate the hunting grounds from the camping and hiking area by say…a couple miles maybe…is that really too much to ask???  If you want to observe nature go here, if you want to kill it go here.
    I drove to Valley Forge later in the morning.  The winter camp location was chosen as sort of a compromise.  The troops were not in good shape, but Congress wanted to keep pressure on the British which had just taken Philadelphia, and this spot was close enough to keep an eye on them, but far enough to avoid a surprise attack.  There were a few clusters of hut replicas around the park.  They housed twelve men and Washington gave twelve dollars to the first person from each regiment to build a solid shelter.  I heard from a ranger that this was the first semi-permanent winter camp built during the war.  Before then, they mostly stayed in private residences and he said they did this partially as a public relations move because a lot of the locals were trying to stay neutral.
    When I was around the second stop on the driving tour, this mom and her son and daughter who were probably around ten to twelve years old jogged by me.  It was very hot out and I could tell the mother was forcing them to do this because the daughter was crying pretty much the whole time and occasionally let out a scream.  They made it almost a mile around the five or so mile tour before both neither kid could go on.  “We’ll do the whole thing tomorrow,” the mother said which resulted in moans and more crying from both kids.  My guess is the a doctor reported the daughter was on the path to obesity, so the mother decided the best plan was to do everything in her power to make both of her kids hate exercise.
    During winter, the soldier’s spent most of their time building shelters, gathering food which was getting scarcer by the day and training.  There was this guy from Prussia who Washington had train his men.  The Prussian guy said that initially, the Americans had to be told an order and the reasoning behind it before they would follow it.  He disciplined the army, and, when they had their first battle against the British that year, the training paid off.
    Valley Forge is named that because there used to be an iron forgery there.  The island of tyranny banned the colonies from making anything except raw strips of iron which would be shipped to England to make fine goods.  They also banned the colonies from exporting to other countries.  Thankfully, this forgery as well as others ignored these laws and made things like cannon balls and became one of the world’s leading iron exporters.
    I toured Washington’s old headquarters and there was a little exhibit about his leadership team.  He surrounded himself with people he trusted so much that they were essentially an extension of himself.  They finished letters for him, gave orders for him, met with Congressman for him.  Military experience was not a requirement for his immediate staff..  He chose them based on intelligence and ambition.  Most of them were fairly young and had a lot of potential in his eyes.  He encouraged participation amongst his team and often presented his own ideas as the ideas of others.  Basically, in my opinion, he had the best leadership style imaginable.
    While I was walking back to my car from GW’s headquarters, I overheard a frustrated young boy tell his mother, “I wish I was George Washington.  You’d be dead!”  There are so many questions that come to mind…perhaps the most urgent being: What the hell are they teaching kids about George Washington these days?  I’m not expert on the man, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t go around slaying mothers.
    I drove into Philly at around 2:30pm.  I decided not to use the navigate feature on my phone which was almost a mistake.  Thanks to my New Orleans driving experience and almost a month’s worth of straight traveling in new places, I arrived safely at the parking garage near my hostel.
    I checked into the hostel which is right in the middle of all the historic places in Philadelphia.  The male dorm room full of bunks for a dozen guys and was basically empty since everyone was out touring, so I threw on my backpack and headed out.  I stopped by the Visitor’s Center and watched a short film called “Choosing Sides” which showed real life examples of loyalists, a patriot and a guy who was somewhere in between.  When I was touring Valley Forge, I was surprised at how little the locals were willing the help Washington’s army (hiding their cattle in forests and such) so I chose that film to try to get a more realistic perspective of how people viewed the rebellion.
    I walked to the Liberty Bell.  It was nice and bellish just as I had expected.  One thing I didn’t realize is how much it was used as a symbol during the civil rights movement.  Heavy security around the bell.  I walked to where Benny Franklin was buried, saw some lady throw a penny on his grave (no idea why), then headed to a restaurant which was combination Chinese buffet, salad bar and sandwich shop.  I got a Philly Cheesesteak and fries.  I wasn’t going to get the fries, but the lady behind the counter convinced me with, “Get with fries and drink.  Is better.”
    I walked back to the hostel and got directions to the nearest grocery store.  On my walk there, I passed the place where the first Continental Congress met, the first national bank, a stream that used to pass through the city until they damned it up because it was getting too filthy, and a few gardens.  When I got back to the dorm room, there were about ten guys lying on their bunks with laptops.  “What a bunch of losers,” I thought before whipping out my Droid and checking my email.
    The dorm boredom wouldn’t last long though because that night was Pub Crawl night at the hostel.  Free drinks at 8:30pm and then walking around from pub to pub for $1 and $2 beers.  My kind of prices!  I took a shower, got dressed and then met some of the other guys in the dorm.  The first guy I met was from California (San Jose I think).  He had just flown in today to start his vacation.  He was very talkative and a little goofy/naïve.  He talked to the guy in the bunk above me.  “How long have you been traveling?” he asked.  “Five weeks.  I was in New York the last three weeks.”  “Cool, where are you from?” Goof asked.  “Paris.”  “Oh cool, that’s like New York.”  “No.  No, it’s not,” he replied in his accented English.
    I talked with Mr. Paris a little later.  He had told goof he couldn’t wait to get back to his job, so I had to ask what he did.  He was a lawyer.  It wasn’t just the job though.  He wanted to get back to the stability.  Plus he had been getting work emails throughout his trip and knew he had a lot of work to get done.  I said, “Yeah, I handled that problem by just quitting my job.  Eventually I’ll have a different problem though.  Money.”  A guy across from me was from Switzerland and had been in Mexico for a month surfing and learning Spanish.  Sounds like a good plan to me.  Five minutes later goof came into the room, turned to me and asked, “You’re from Iowa right?”  “No, Louisiana.”  “Oh, that’s like Civil War,” he said.  I laughed.  “What’s so funny?  Vicksburg?  Oh maybe that’s Mississippi.”  I must have given him a, ‘What the hell is wrong with you’ look because he just walked away. 
    Eventually we headed down to the community room or whatever it’s called.  It sort of felt like college.  Guys in one area, girls in another.  Social event involving alcohol where we socialize.  I poured myself a rum and coke and talked to Mr. Swiss more.  I told him I did a lot of camping on my travels, but he wasn’t so much an outdoors guy.  He had just spent a couple days in Boston.  Eventually he went over and started hitting on some girls by the drink area.  There was a table of prettied up girls sitting at a table in the corner.  One of them was really hot.  I did my usual lean against a counter and observe everything.  There were a couple of Irish guys, both of them kind of rough looking.  One was bulked up and scanned every square inch of any girl who walked by.  The other had a line of stitches down his forehead.  I looked back at the hotty table and couldn’t believe my eyes to see goof sitting next to and talking with the hotty.
       Our hostel host put on an episode of Jersey Shore before we left to “brief” us on some of the Jersey people we might see tonight.  We headed to the first bar at around 9:30.  On the way there, I talked to the smaller Irishman.  He had gotten the scar in Atlantic City where, despite being advised not to, he strayed off the tourist path and ran into a crackhead who tried to mug him.  He prevented anything from being stolen, but landed pretty hard on the pavement. 
       I talked to a girl from Ontario at the first bar.  She had worked on a farm for a couple weeks in Oregon.  I want to do something like that, so I asked her a bunch of questions about it.  I got a beer from the bar.  I made a $4 mistake of ordering a Coors instead of a Bud Light.  There was a big cheer while I was talking to the Canadian – apparently some kind of baseball game going on.  I told Ontario about my trip and how I planned to visit Canada.  Big Irish barked his game six inches from the hotty’s face the whole time we were there.  At the second bar, I successfully ordered a $2 local beer which was decent.  I finished it and headed back to the hostel so I could get a decently early start tomorrow on my only full day in Philly.

En Route to Philadelphia

    When I woke this morning, I decided to do a short hike in the park because one of my few ever changing trip goals (more on this later) is to hike in each state I visit.  I knew I wouldn’t be in Maryland very long, so off I went.  The only reason I mention this is because on my very, very short hike from the campsite I passed a sign indicating I was entering a hunting area.  What the kind of state park allows hunting a stone’s throw away from where people are camping?
From Gettysburg Album
    I had almost decided not to go to Gettysburg even though the entire purpose for my heading west out of D.C. was to go there.  The route I chose to Philadelphia (by the way, there’s actually a sign that says crossing the Mason Dixon line at the entrance to Pennsylvania) ended up going right through Gettysburg, so I said what the heck.  The national cemetery where Lincoln gave his speech was very somber.  There were signs around that said, “Be Silent and Respectful.”  There were even a few poems on signs along side some graves.
    I drove through the area where the Civil War battle took place.  With only getting snippets of information at a time as I drove along, it’s hard for me to get a feel of how the battle went down.  I walked up to the Flame of Liberty (which I didn’t know existed) where there was a seventy-five year reunion of the battle where a ninety or one hundred something Confederate and Union vets shook hands.
    At almost eleven, I headed down Highway 30, and, much to my later dismay, passed up many diners.  I ended up in a small town along a river which I’ll call Shit Hole of the Shit Holes, Pennsylvania.  I had a bad vibe about this place the second I stepped out of my car.  If the evil glare I got from a guy sitting on the side of the street didn’t give me enough motivation to find food elsewhere, the plastic bin full of maggots on the sidewalk should have.  I’m not sure I can remember ever seeing such an elevated concentration of bitter, hateful people.  The first restaurant my GPS told me about was closed along with a slew of other commercial buildings in the area.  I finally found a small Italian place open (there’s something about these small Italian places that just draws me in…).  The guy at the counter raised his eyebrows at me to indicate he was waiting for me to order.  He was on his cell phone before during and after I ordered.  They didn’t serve by the slice, so I got their restaurant’s special sub.  It was delivered by a guy who spoke no English and kind of groaned at me from behind the counter to let me know my order was ready.  At first I thought the sandwich, with it’s collection of brownish meats, was tasty.  Three quarters of the way through it, I started feeling nauseous and left.
    On my drive towards Lancaster, I started feeling so queasy that I was honestly contemplating purging to prevent food poisoning.  I ate a few tic tacs and a granola bar to try to rid myself of the taste.  By the time I got to the city, I felt a little better and decided to see what my metabolism could handle.
    My drive through the Pennsylvania country side later that afternoon was great.  I drove through Dutch Country without even realizing it until I passed an Amish guy in horse and carriage.  They were rolling hills of corn fields and cow pastures everywhere.  I’ve made sort of a pledge not to take pictures while I’m driving, and my words really won’t be able to do the scenery justice.  The only bad part about the drive was it smelled like manure almost the entire time.
    I got to French Creek State Park late in the evening, poised to strike Philadelphia the following morning.  Right after dark, I jogged three laps around the loop of campsites to get some much needed exercise. 
       Being in Pennsylvania really did feel different to me.  I don’t know if it was just my own built in prejudices that I was in “The North” or if there were really cultural differences I was able to pick up on.  I did see a few flags on people’s houses that only had the stars of the thirteen colonies.  It may have been the first time I’ve seen that flag on a residence and I had to think a little bit about what it means.  Is it the counterpart to the “Confederate flag” (“Northern Pride”) or is it something else?  Perhaps it’s just pride in living in one of the original thirteen.  I went to bed mentally preparing myself to enter the city where our country’s government and sense of unity was molded.

Friday, September 10, 2010

To Gettysburg or Not To Gettysburg

    At the crack of dawn on Tuesday, I packed up my gear and headed out of Shenandoah.  I thought I’d be able to get to Gettysburg by 10am, but when it took almost an hour just to get out of the park, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  I had heard good things about Harpers Ferry, so when I got there at around ten, I decided to check it out.
From Harpers Ferry Album
    Harpers Ferry is a unique historical tourist destination because such a wide variety of things happened their.  Harpers Ferry sits at the intersection of two rivers and three states.  In early colonial times, there was this guy Robert Harper who decided to run a ferry back and forth across one of the rivers to try to get the area settled.  The town is very small today, but people are still living there despite all the flooding that devastated the city a few times.  It was home to one of the first mechanically operated gun factories.  The machines powered by the rivers could supposedly make a gun ten times faster than a person doing it by hand.  The Union’s second largest armory was there and is where Meriwether Lewis acquired guns for his expedition across the country.  He also had a couple of collapsible boats he designed made there.  They worked on the test run, but failed on the journey.
    Harpers Ferry was also home to a pretty significant civil war battle.  I’ll summarize the park ranger’s rendition of it.  A group of young, inexperienced soldier’s from New York arrived in Harper’s Ferry by boat.  The commanding officer looked around at the men when they arrived and asked where their guns were.  They didn’t know.  After they walked ashore, the commander pried open one of the “benches” they’d been sitting on and found they were actually crates full of guns.  Meanwhile, Robert E Less, Stonewall Jackson, and the boys had been fighting battle after battle and their confederate troops were becoming quite experienced.  Lee split his troops into four groups and surrounded Harpers Ferry in what the ranger said was the worst Union defeat up to that point in history (and would remain so until a WWII Pacific front battle).  Thousands surrendered.
    What Harpers Ferry is probably most famous for is the John Brown raid.  John Brown is this guy front the Midwest who is very religious.  He decides, based on the (albeit somewhat conflicting messages in his view) Bible scriptures, that slavery is immoral and must be eliminated.  Many people shared this view and many people talked and talked about how wrong it was, but he was really the first one to take serious action against it.  His plan was to raid the armory at Harpers Ferry and incite a slave rebellion, creating a fierce army.  He and a couple dozen or so men stormed Harpers Ferry, took a few hostages including a nephew of GW (huge mistake), and thirty-six hours later were surrounded by a group of marines in a firehouse.  The marines barged in with bayonets under the orders of Lee (ahem, irony), and arrested him.  The actual raid itself was considered a huge failure on all accounts except that it began the process of turning words into actions leading to the start of the Civil War about eighteen months later.  Brown was hanged in front of a huge crowd in a town nearby.
    I toured a small building that contained the history of African Americans in the area.  It had lots of quotes which I like of course.  Even more interesting though was the story of Storer College and the Niagara Movement.  The Niagara Movement was a group of African American’s under W.E.B. Du Bois who met for the first time on American soil there to discuss civil rights issues.  Storer College was a school intended to be open to all races and sexes, but turned into a black school.  The thing that made me think the most during that whole day was this quote: “In this enlightened age there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.”  It’s not so much the words as who said it: Robert E. Lee, December 1856.
    I walked around on my own quite a bit and discovered I was actually in West Virginia.  The AT runs through Harper’s Ferry and I hiked that some on my tour of Storer College.  There’s also a rock where Thomas Jefferson scratched his…chin…or something.  It’s actually the spot where he admired the view of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meeting along the mountains and wrote some nice description of it, but to me it’s just too large an opportunity to make fun of a rock being named because one guy stood on it for probably a minute or so.
    After a nice stroll along the bank of the Shenandoah River , I headed out of the park at around six.  I had dinner in Frederick, Maryland and camped in Cunningham Falls State Park.  When I was in my tent listening to the night chirpers, I felt the urge to do something that didn’t involve hiking, history or war in the near future.

Shenandoah Strikes Again

From Shenandoah Day 2 Album
    I awoke on Monday, and during breakfast, I decided I’d had such a good time in the park, I’d stay another night.  There were a few activities that the park offered during the day that looked interesting plus I didn’t have to be in Philadelphia until Thursday.  I walked down the AT to the amphitheater to listen to see a bird raptor presentation.  The perky ranger lady gave a short talk on the importance of predators in the wild and how their role wasn’t understood early on and most predators were killed leaving a bazillion deer in the forest today with no natural predators.  I read later that around thirty deer are hit on Skyline Drive (main road through park) every year.  Hopefully not too many of those collisions are with motorcycles.  The main focus of her talk was on bird predators.  They day predator she had for us to view was a falcon.  All of the birds she showed us had been injured by cars and hadn’t passed the “mouse test” that would allow them to be returned to the wild.  I don’t know what kind of set up they have, but basically if they can’t catch a mouse four out of five times, they figure it won’t be able to survive in the wild.
    She warned us before she pulled the falcon out that despite the strong probability that it would desperately try to escape (slight exaggeration), the animals were treated very well and had nice homes.  The second she took it out, other birds in the area started freaking out.  The falcon was pretty calm until she was about to put it in his cage and then I understood why she had warned us.  The thing jumped off her gloved arm, swung by a rope attached to its foot toward the ground and started flapping its wings madly, flailing around in the process.  After a little time and patience, she was relieved to get it back in the cage.  The next bird was a very fluffy owl (barred owl I believe) which looked stoned and not happy to be in broad daylight.  Before she took it out, she had warned us not to move our feet around the rocks because they use sound to find prey.  The owl’s chilled out state completely changed when a couple of kids walked in to the amphitheater, scraping their feet along the rocks.  The owl pooped and then began its own frenzied attempts to get the f out of there.  The ranger asked the kids to take a seat as calmly as she could, apologized to the now wide-eyed, bewildered owl, and then put it back in its cage.  The last bird she took out was a tiny owl which she said usually only operates in pitch black.  It had a facial expression that seemed to say, “WTF you lookin’ at beotch?”  I enjoyed the presentation a lot despite the sixty something year old lady sitting next to me who blurted out answers to the rangers questions before the kids on the front row had a chance.
    While I was registering for another night, the lady at the desk recommended I hike down a different trail than I had planned.  I decided to take her advice and began my stroll along a three mile loop that had a waterfall on the way.  I saw a chipmunk cross the trail in front of me and run under some rocks.  I wanted to get a picture of it, but couldn’t think of a friendly way to get it out from under the rocks (perhaps a loud sneeze from one side of the rocks would have been acceptable?).  There was a fair amount of up and down on the trail, lots of rocks and the waterfall was okay (perhaps I’m a waterfall snob?).
    After the hike, I picked up a couple of my favorite liquids, wine and milk, at the camp store.  I rarely have a tent set up in the middle of the afternoon, so I took advantage of it and took a nap.  I awoke to the sounds of a generator owned by the lady “camping” next to me (she slept in her van).  That evening I had pasta with sauce and wine.  After dinner I took a stroll down the AT with a camping mug of wine in hand (don’t hike and drink – it’s a bad idea).  I had plans to have some moonshine (at the lodge bar), and well, get drunk, later in the evening.
       When I got back to my campsite, I was invited by the family across from me to have dinner with them.  I had already eaten, but decided to join them anyway.  The dad was a stereotypical American dad, the wife was from Spain and they had an eleven year old daughter and a nine year old boy who was supposedly a Webelos but had the most dangerous wood chopping technique I think I’ve ever seen.  They were also having pasta except were doing it in a much fancier way that I did.  They chopped up onions and other vegetables to make a sauce with and cooked it over some coals along with some corn.  They also had fresh bread and salad to go with it.  They invited another solo guy who was probably in his fifties and generator lady to join them too.  This other solo guy was quite a character.  He had damn near every quality in a person I don’t like.  He brought over a bottle of wine which was nice, but then went off on a long explanation of the wine’s origin (from Washington State he claims) and how the wine in the New York area was horrible.  He gave me some of his wine.  It tasted like shit, even compared to the camp store wine.
    I talked to him some about my travels, but he had one of those personalities where anything I said about anywhere I’d been turned into a perfect opportunity for him to tell me some of his experiences and how much of an expert he was in such and such an area, even if it was nowhere near where I’d been.  When dinner was served, he told the wife of the family, “I’d really like to say the prayer unless you’d like to be the man of the family,” or some bullshit like that.  While we were eating, he was explaining to the boy about some type of bug bites and began poking the boy’s body with his finger to demonstrate something.  It was one of those times when I wish the world had some kind of system to deal with people like that.  If only someone could drop down from the sky and say, “Congratulations, you’ve been identified as a dumbass.  Please take this manual and read over it carefully before you do anything else.  Take careful note of Social Interaction Rule Number 234: Don’t put your hands on a stranger’s children when they invite you over for dinner or ever for that matter.”
       I did end up eating some food because fresh bread and salad was too good to turn down.  Generator lady avoided eye contact with me at first, but once she found out about my trip, she began asking me all these questions.  She lives in some town an hour or so away in Virginia, but was only there about five days of each month because she traveled around so much.  She avoided interstates on her travels, but didn’t stray too far from her home (partially because of her lack of faith in her van).  She called me her hero when she found out how far away from home I was and was planning to go.
       Captain of the social misfits dominated most of the group’s discussion, telling us how much of a backwoods hiker he was one moment and then about his fancy cot the next.  He said he was divorced with two kids.  The only thing I couldn’t figure out is how his wife put up with him long enough to have two kids.  I didn’t bother to ask.
       We roasted marshmallows after dinner and I had my first smore in a long time.  Delicious.  I thanked the family for inviting me over and for the wonderful meal.  Captain Schmuck accepted thanks on behalf of the family of course.  All in all, it was a nice dinner experience.  While I was in my tent about to go to sleep, I heard something nearby and shined a light at it.  All I saw was the back end of a small white animal with a white fluffy tail that looked very similar to a skunk except there was no black.  Could have been an albino skunk.  I set my alarm and made plans to leave early the next day.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Unplanned Greatness

    I headed out of the D.C. area after a quick breakfast Sunday morning.  Originally I was thinking of going to Gettysburg next, but Shenandoah National Park was on the way and I’d heard good things about it, so I decided to stop there first.  During lunch at a local Italian place, I called a hostel in Philadelphia to make sure they were empty enough that I could just show up whenever and I’d have a room.  Turns out they only had two nights at the end of the week available for one male, so I reserved them.
From Shenandoah Day 1 Album
    The drive into the park was quite scenic with many overlooks along the way.  I noticed one trail called something falls with a bunch of cars parked in a lot near the start of it, and since I hadn’t seen a waterfall yet on the trip, I decided to go check it out.  Most people on the trail were taking the 0.6 mile hike pretty seriously (1.2 round trip).  Backpacks, water bottles, hiking sticks.  I brought my keys, my knife and my camera. The waterfall scene was decent and I headed back up the trail (going back was uphill), part of which I jogged just to spite the trail’s determination to make things difficult for hikers.  I saw four doe grazing mere feet from the side of the trail and stopped to take a few pictures.
    I arrived at Big Meadows campground late afternoon (it’s called that because it’s right across from a um, yeah).  While driving around to find an ideal site, I passed a buck grazing along side the road and watched as it walked right in front of my car.  The site I ended up choosing was wide, alongside a hiking trail, and had a view of the mountains – I couldn’t believe it wasn’t taken.  When I went back to the station to grab it, the park attendant was talking on the phone to someone who kept asking comfort related questions.  This is what I heard, “Yes ma’am we have 240….Right, no hookups….Yes, you’d have water, but no electricity….No, we don’t have that either, but if you ask me one more question, I’ll be sure the second you arrive, someone shoves a pinecone right up your arse.”  Okay that last one I made up.  It’s probably what I was thinking at the time.  Turns out the trail that ran parallel to my site was the Appalachian Trail.
    When I got back to my site, I parked, got out and heard something in the direction of the AT.  I walked over and saw a buck grazing thirty feet away, right on the trail.  As I was taking pictures, this tamest deer in the park walked up the slope next to the trail and into my site.  It got within about three feet of my car which had the driver’s side door open (doh) and then walked across the road next to my site.  Every so often it would pop its head up when a dog barked, and eventually, one spooked it enough to make it sprint away.  Very cool experience.
    After I set up my tent, I headed over to the visitor’s center and browsed an exhibit of the park’s history.  Basically what happened (here we go again) is that in the early 1900’s (20’s or 30’s I think), there was some rumbling about setting up a couple of huge national parks east of the Mississippi to match those on the west side of the country (me too, me too).  They were looking for a large, unsettled space of land that wasn’t owned by too many people.  The area around Shenandoah wasn’t this at all, but was presented as such to the feds looking to set up the park in order get the park there and eventually attract tourists to the area.  The area was selected and the process of kicking people off their land began.  Many farmers protested (and rightly so) and the government even sent in a woman to “evaluate” the educational system in that area to attempt to prove that the people of the mountains couldn’t take care of themselves and needed to be relocated to other areas in order to receive proper education.  The park was initially going to be much bigger than the relatively (when compared to the beasts in the west) narrow strip of land it occupies now, but this thing called the Great Depression hit and the government couldn’t afford the park it initially envisioned (they were paying about $5 an acre for the land they bought).  The way in which they acquired the land is interesting to me because it’s an example of US citizens getting a taste of what it’s government does to others (no, you don’t understand farmer Joe: it’s our DESTINY to have this land).  Other things about the park: it was initially going to be littered with pools, cottages and gas stations (hurray lack of funding), it was initially segregated, and the AT was relocated so that the main road that runs through the park could be on an elevated ridge.
    After this heart warming tale of the park’s beginning, I headed over to the lodge and had a dinner of onion soup and salad to make up for the french fries I had during lunch.  Several items on the drink menu contained an ingredient known as Moonshine.  There was a little bar in the basement area and I thought maybe the following evening I’d come back and have a little taste.  This evening, however, I decided I should check out the Big Meadow.
    The meadow was wonderful.  The sun was setting, there were mountains in the background, trees were scattered about, and there were deer all over.  I ended up walking with a man who was my height and his two teenage daughters.  One daughter who was about 17, 6’2” and rail thin, walked a bit in front of us and the other one who was shorter, a few years younger and an aspiring photographer walked with me and the father.  They were traveling around to the highest points in each state.  I talked mostly with the father who worked for a coffee creamery company or something like that.  He said he recently hired on with that company and started out with only one week of vacation per year.  He called in sick for an entire week one time so that he could have some resemblance of a life worth living (he didn’t quite say it like that, but that’s what he meant).  I talked to him some about his travel experiences.  He said when he was younger, he and a other few marines hiked a fourteen mile trail without any food or water.  I think that’s one of those things you only do once.
    This day was definitely the best day of the trip so far.  The initial thought of, “Hey there’s a park and here’s a road that leads to it,” turning into a scenic drive, a hike to a waterfall, a campsite along the AT which a buck walked through right when I got there, a nice dinner, a stroll through a meadow at sunset while sharing travel tales with strangers.  Oh, and on the short drive back to my campsite at around 8pm, I saw a dark figure about to cross the road around forty yards ahead.  It was getting dark, and, at first, I thought, “Wow, that is a really big black dog.”  Then I got closer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Washington D.C. Day 3

From Washington D.C. Day 3 Album
    I started my third day in D.C. with a stop at the National Museum of Art West.  It, along with the Air and Space Museum, earned the title “National” which to me means there shouldn’t be another museum in the country which has better stuff than they do on their topic of choice.  The main section of the museum had some amazing things: a Leonardo, some Raphael’s, some Rembrandt’s.  I think the earliest stuff they had was from thirteenth century.  There are only so many words you can use when describing a visit to an art museum before inciting severe boredom.  On my way to the Allen Ginsberg photography exhibit, I passed through someone’s personal collection on display which I was just planning to pass by, but decided to slow down some when I saw what they had.  Picasso’s, Cezanne’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, Degas’s, Renoir’s.  Unfortunately I think a lot of the joy I got from seeing all these was just to have seen them.  It’s really against my traveling philosophy to do stuff just to say I’ve done it, but this time I think it was largely the case.
    I headed over to the Newseum after lunch.  It wasn’t initially on my traveling radar, but my host had given me an expired ticket, so I decided to see if I could get in.  My ticket was scanned and as I walked in, I looked back and saw a big red “EXPIRED” on the screen, so I hurried up the first stairs I could find.  The museum had a lot of short videos on significant journalism moments in American history.  Highlights included press coverage of the civil rights movement and how critical it was in exposing to the rest of the country what was going on in the southern states, the relationship between FBI and the media including The Washington Post’s publishing of the Unabomber’s manifesto, and a short film on one of the first female undercover journalists who went into this female psychiatric ward to expose the cruel conditions there to the public.
    On my way to the National History Museum, I heard some music coming from the Sculpture Garden and discovered it was Jazz in the Garden night.  There were hundreds of people there, most sprawled out on blankets with their own bags of food.  There was a Jazz band playing at the front of a big pond in the middle of the garden.  I bought a pulled pork sandwich (and almost a $5 drink which I really wanted, but decided $5 drinks weren’t on my budget) and found a spot in front of a sculpture.  It was nice to lie out on the grass and relax for a bit.  All the walking around D.C. can get pretty exhausting (even for a backwoodsman who enjoys running across metropolises).
    After dinner, I headed over to the National History Museum and saw some of the wide variety of exhibits there.  Things I saw included Julia Childs Kitchen, a statue of Washington dressed in a toga, the first electromagnets, and the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner.  I also read up on the conditions of regular Joes in the 1800s.  Factories used to be small and consisted of mostly owners and skilled craftsman, but as technology improved, the work required less experience and was easy to scale up, so managers and medium skilled workers were more of the norm.  This lead to poor work conditions and many conflicts between workers and managers.  Lots of workers lived close to the factories in small communities.  There were a few factory rule signs on display in the museum.  They stated no reading during working hours, specified the exact break times, specified the time frame for the sixty hour or so weeks they had to work, and other nit picky things.  Interestingly, they had to give two weeks notice as well and if they didn’t, they didn’t receive last week of pay.  The man was even more of a jerk back then before they drew a jerk box around him that specified how much of a jerk he was allowed to be.  Mostly just kidding around here, but jerk was not my first word choice.
    I managed to make it back without any bomb threats or subway scuffles.  It’s sad that today was my last day in D.C., but even if I’d stayed a week, it would be hard to visit all the “must sees.”  My positive outlook on it is that for the most part, I was able to enjoy all the places I went to without feeling rushed too much, and when I come back at some point, there will be more than plenty cool things to see and do.  Here’s something I thought of while I was walking around D.C. debating how to spend my time: Who has spent his time wisest: the man who runs through five museums in one day barely looking at all the exhibits as he passes by or the man who is so enthralled with a single painting that he sits looking at it all day, studying it’s every detail, feeling like he is in the world that the painting has created?
    The next morning, I finally managed to convey my thanks to my host by cooking breakfast and cleaning some dishes (how can these actions not impress when coming from a twenty something single male).  I spent a large part of the day uploading all the pictures I had taken up to that point.  I spent so much time in front of my laptop that I’m sure my host will remember me as more of a bloger than an adventurer.  I had dinner at a local restaurant whose specialty is chili dogs.  I ordered a couple, had a couple beers (originally was just going to have one which is plenty for my skins and bones, but they had an army of young women with eyes like hawks looking for people with near empty beers which they would approach and ask in their sweetest voice, “Want another beer?”  Thankfully, I was able to resist the second time.)  I had my first beard trim and shave of the trip, took a couple of self portraits (to show the nice beard) with the host’s dogs which I forgot to tell her about, but hopefully she won’t get too freaked out over it, and went to sleep with basically no plans for the next day.