Monday, June 29, 2015

The Night Before

This is not exactly our Newark view
Greetings from lovely Newark, New Jersey -- well, the Newark airport Ramada hotel -- on this Monday night. Our first flight on the way out to Denver leaves in 7 hours, but the plus side is we'll arrive in the Rockies at 9 AM Mountain Time and have a full day ahead of us.

We'll need to hit the ground running tomorrow, considering the airport that serves Denver may as well be in another hemisphere from the city itself, 24 miles away. We'll have to claim our one checked suitcase before taking a cab to pick up the camping equipment we rented and our rental car in downtown Denver. The rest of the day will be spent traversing the majestic Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, before we make it to our first stop of the trip in Fort Collins.

Our whole itinerary can be found here, and we're looking forward to getting the trip off to a great start tomorrow in Colorado. We're going to fire up the GoPro and hopefully get some good footage along the way.

Here's a fitting tune to close out this post. Looking forward to writing from the mountains tomorrow!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Westward Ho!

Sitting in Fredericksburg on this Father's Day afternoon, it's easy to look back on all the family vacations my family took when my brother and I were growing up. We were extremely fortunate. We've strolled the beaches and body-boarded the waves of Hawaii more times than can be counted on one hand, stared out across the Grand Canyon, walked in Yosemite, absorbed the majesty of Niagara Falls, drove across the Badlands and stared up at Mount Rushmore, stood at the Four Corners Monument, and gazed down at Crater Lake, and stayed at many a budget hotel along the way. There are few places in this country my brother and I haven't seen, often times arriving via minivan or occasionally a sporty rental car when Dad got feisty at an airport agency counter. 

There we are.

Those adventures, though, took place when we were young, and many of those memories have unfortunately faded with the passage of time. I detailed some of my most recent travel experiences in my last post and in the time since writing that, I've been able to add the New York City borough of Queens, and Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland and a supremely charming town to visit on a warm summer evening, to the list. It's been a while, probably since my time studying in Europe several years ago, that I went on an extended vacation. Certainly within the United States, it's been a very long time since my ever-present feeling of wanderlust has been satiated.  

Annapolis, you beauty.

That is all about to change, and some wonderful new memories will hopefully be created. In just eight short days, the meatball and I will be on a 5:00 AM flight out of Newark, leaving the East Coast behind for a couple weeks in the Rocky Mountains. For those interested, here is an abbreviated version of the absurdly detailed, nine-page itinerary we've crafted thus far:

Tuesday, June 30 
Fly from Newark to Denver (via Chicago). Pick up rental car and camping equipment. Take in the sunset over historic Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Stay the night in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Wednesday, July 1 
Walk the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the University of Wyoming in Laramie. See the state capitol building of Wyoming in Cheyenne. Drive along Snowy Range Road to Riverton, and stay the night there.

Thursday, July 2
Wake up early to claim campground in Grand Teton National Park, driving via Centennial Scenic Byway. Explore/hike Grand Teton.

Grand Teton National Park

Friday, July 3
Drive from Grand Teton to claim Grant Village Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Explore the South Loop of Yellowstone, including Old Faithful.

Saturday, July 4 (America!)
Wake up to claim Canyon Campground. Explore the North Loop of Yellowstone. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, Storm Point Trail, and Mount Washburn are all possibilities on this day.

Yellowstone National Park

Sunday, July 5 
Leave Canyon Campground early and stop at Steamboat Geyser and Firehole Canyon swimming hole. Drive via US 89 and Livingston, Montana to Bozeman and hike the "M" of Montana State University up the Bridgers. Drive to Helena to see the state capitol building of Montana and the Cathedral of Saint Helena. Drive to Great Falls and finish the night at the famed Sip 'n' Dip Tiki Bar.

Apparently this is a must-stop.

Monday, July 6
Drive from Great Falls and cross the Canadian border into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta via Chief Mountain Highway. Hike the Crypt Lake Trail or do the "Beauty and the Beasts" scavenger hunt in the park. Camp at Townsite Campground.

Waterton Lakes National Park

Tuesday, July 7
Leave Waterton and cross back over the border into Glacier National Park in Montana. Hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail. Camp at St. Mary Campground.

Glacier National Park

Wednesday, July 8
Spend the first half of the day driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road through the heart of Glacier. Stop at nature trails, overlooks, and Logan Pass. Lunch in Kalispell, Montana. Drive to Missoula, and walk the campus of the University of Montana, hike the "M" up Mount Sentinel, and finish the evening at a brewery or bar.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Thursday, July 9
Drive to Boise, Idaho via Grangeville and the Payette River Scenic Byway. Tube three miles of the Boise River starting at Barber Park. Walk the campus of Boise State University. See the state capitol building of Idaho.

Friday, July 10
Drive to Shoshone Falls (45 feet higher than Niagara Falls!) near Twin Falls, Idaho. Drive to Salt Lake City, Utah, via Antelope Island State Park and a potential stop in Ogden along the way. Meet up with Gina's old roommate Jamie and explore the city. See the state capitol building of Utah.

Shoshone Falls

Saturday, July 11
Drive to Provo, Utah and walk the campus of Brigham Young University. Hike the "Y" up Y Mountain. Drive to Colorado National Monument and hike the trails and overlooks along Historic Rim Rock Drive. Stay the night in Grand Junction, the largest city in western Colorado.

Sunday, July 12
Drive from Grand Junction to Denver and pick up key to Airbnb apartment downtown. Make way to Coors Field in LoDo for a Braves-Rockies afternoon game, and finish the evening at the bars and restaurants there. See the state capitol building of Colorado.

Too bad we won't see a night game...

Monday, July 13
Drive to Rocky Mountain National Park via Boulder and Bear Lake Road. Claim campsite at Moraine Park Campground. Hike along Bierstadt Lake or Glacier Gorge Junction.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Tuesday, July 14
Leave Rocky Mountain and drive back to Denver. Drop off rental car and camping equipment, and take cab back to airport. Arrive back in Newark at 11:01 PM (via Minneapolis/St. Paul). Back to reality...

...for a few days, at least. Then another international vacation is on deck. By July 22, the meatball and I will have been in three North American countries in 15 days. Not too shabby.

If anyone has any tips or has been to any of these places before and thinks there is something we absolutely need to see, please, we're all ears. There's only so much that guidebooks and websites can tell you, and there is no substitute for personal experience.

So that's the trip. We've been planning this since Thanksgiving, and that clichéd, surreal feeling is starting to set in. We hope to document our travels with short written blog posts, but more realistically, will annoy everyone we're associated with on various social media platforms by posting an inordinate amount of pictures. We also are trying to film short video clips every day, but we'll see how that goes.

Hope everyone has had a nice Father's Day.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thankful to Travel

I know, I know. It's been a while since the last time I wrote. A lot has happened since April 20, when I had just come back from a trip to Savannah and droned on and on about the historical significance of what is a very charming little Southern city. Just a few hours ago, the president of the governing body behind the world's most popular sport in the world resigned. There was a second royal baby in May. Earlier this week, a former Olympic champion and once the greatest athlete on the globe publicly began a new life as a woman. 

Time really does fly. I've been active myself recently and had the overwhelmingly good fortune to spend time with the most important people in my life in a variety of places I could never have anticipated having any reason to see. In just the last month or so, I've..

Always keep adventuring.
...watched the Meatball, along with thousands of her classmates, graduate from the University of South Carolina. 

...strolled along the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey and intimately felt the ocean's commanding presence without being surrounded by throngs of summer weekend tourists.

...stood on a crisp Friday night under a glowing sunset at the grave of Edward Braddock, the commander-in-chief of the British and colonial forces during the French and Indian War. 

...ridden a bike through nature trails outside Pittsburgh and had a picnic next to a small creek and a little league baseball field that instantly brought back so many wonderful childhood memories. 

...been to six baseball games in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and stood in front of the most important government buildings of three different states: the New Jersey State House in Trenton, the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, and the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg.

There are many travel blogs out there that feature exotic destinations and provide great information for those who are curious about the world outside of their own. I'm extremely envious of those who get to make a living traveling and detailing their adventures here and there, from beaches to forests to mountains and everywhere in between. I'd love to be able to do the same thing every day of my life.

When I stop to think about it, though, I realize just how lucky I've truly been already. I've lived in England for a year and a half and earned a Master's degree while I was at it. I've lived in five different states back on this side of the Atlantic, challenging myself by spending extensive time in unfamiliar environments (here's to you, Kansas!) where I literally didn't know anybody before I got there. I've visited places both in America and abroad that 99% of the world's population will never have the means to see, and I dare to complain when things don't go exactly to plan or I'm inconvenienced in some ultimately menial way.

In just a few weeks Gina and I will be setting out on one of the most expansive vacations I know I've ever had -- spending two weeks traversing the Rocky Mountains, camping in five national parks (four in the U.S. and one in Canada), and spending nights in some cities like Missoula, Montana, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Boise, Idaho, that are not particularly well known here on the East Coast and which I am eager to explore. I hope to be more diligent in my effort to capture these experiences on paper (or in this case, my laptop) and in visual form. I'm hoping to do short daily video blogs while we're out there, but I'm learning more and more that if I don't stop and waste too much time documenting every small detail on social media, my life will still go on. I want to focus on soaking in all of the new things, and new people, we'll encounter. 

A short post today, but one that was important to me. Travel isn't always about the most glamorous locales or the means in which you do it. It's about gaining new perspectives and doing that with people who mean the most, whether it's yourself or with friends and family. And on that very cliched note, I'll leave it here until later this month!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Strollin' in Savannah

After a long winter in Baltimore, with trips to Montreal and upstate New York doing little to thaw the bones or warm the skin, the prospect of a change of scenery with a few days down south was eagerly anticipated. The meatball and I wanted to do something a little special on my penultimate visit to Columbia this year, and as that final trek will be to celebrate her graduation (I’m so proud of her!), this was our last chance to get out of town for a day trip.

There was much to do before that, however, including ignore her while becoming engrossed with Friday Night Lights when we arrived at her house late Thursday night after my flight into Charlotte. My main complaint, unsurprisingly, is that there isn’t enough football in the show, but considering I walked into a house full of girls in the middle of the third season of a show I’ve never watched, I think I managed to follow along with the plotline fairly well. I think Tyra giving up on her college dreams to follow the cowboy into the wilds of Texas was a huge mistake, but what do I know?

We woke up Friday and resumed our rivalry at the university’s gym, playing spirited games of Around the World and one-on-one before challenging each other to free throw and three-point shooting contests. Gina then abandoned me to work on a project with classmates at the business school – and by abandoned, I mean I encouraged her to leave so that I could ask the guys on the practice court next to me if they needed another person to play a pickup game, which we did for the next hour and a half before calling it quits.

After showering and changing into something a bit less disgusting and sweaty, I picked Gina up and we made our way to dinner at Cantina 76, an excellent Mexican-inspired restaurant and bar on Main Street in Columbia. The chicken pesto, chicken teriyaki, and BBQ shrimp tacos I had were washed down with a Corona, and Gina just had a veggie taco and the chips and queso she split with me since she and her partners took advantage of the value menu at Wendy’s earlier that afternoon. Choices, choices.

That night we went to a soirée hosted by Gina’s friend, and the birthday boy, Owen, a very cool guy to whom I wish I could’ve gotten to know more in my visits to Columbia over the past few months, but the timing just hasn’t worked out. People got dressed up, to some extent or another, and it was a fun time filled with delicious cookies made by Gina’s roommate Kristy for the occasion. Instead of continuing the night downtown, though, Gina and I headed home a bit early with our expedition the next day in mind.

My hot date for the night!

There were really three choices for our trip – Asheville, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia. I had some of the best few months of my life in the summer of 2012 as an intern at the Asheville Art Museum, spending many nights watching the sunset over McCormick Field and eating macaroni and cheese at the Southern on Lexington Avenue, but I also went back just last summer and Gina and I have our own plans for the mountains this summer. I’ve heard great things about Charleston, but as one of its most significant selling points is the beach and nothing but rain was expected that day, the desire to visit just wasn’t there. Selfishly, the minor league baseball team there didn’t have a home game that night, so that obviously ruled Charleston out for good.

In fact, the Charleston RiverDogs were playing a couple hours to the south in Savannah on Saturday evening, and going to Savannah also meant we could meet with a friend of mine from college who I hadn’t seen in a few years. Hannah just started working as the Catering Sales Manager at a fabulous boutique hotel in Savannah, the Mansion on Forsyth Park, and Gina and I made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Columbia in time to amble lazily around Forsyth Park itself, taking in beautiful, leafy squares and residential side streets before meeting Hannah and her boyfriend Morris for a short tour around the hotel, followed by lunch at a noodle restaurant on Broughton Street, the commercial and retail hub in Savannah today.

Walking into Forsyth Park
We then bid adieu to Hannah and Morris for the day and walked to River Street, a bustling riverfront environment of restaurants, bars, and little shops today but was originally constructed as the docking site for the port that made Savannah one of the most strategically important cities in colonial America. Even today, Savannah is still home to the fourth-largest port for shipping container traffic in North America. Savannah has a fascinating history; it was first established in 1733 as the capital of the British Province of Georgia and later became the first state capital of Georgia. It was the birthplace of the University of Georgia, today located in Athens. It was home to the first Girl Scout headquarters in the United States.

Savannah City Hall
Savannah was originally built around four open squares each with eight surrounding blocks that allowed it to expand over time, and today there are 22 squares within the city. Gina and I didn’t get to see all of them, but we did stumble on what I later discovered was the first and largest of them – Johnson Square, which was named for Robert Johnson, the British colonial Governor of South Carolina and friend of James Oglethorpe, the British general who founded the colony of Georgia in 1732. Johnson Square, located just a couple blocks from Broughton Street, has two fountains and, most interestingly to me as a history major, a monument that contains the remains of General Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War hero and Rhode Island native who died just outside Savannah. Greene began the war as a private in the militia and worked his way all the way up the ranks to lead the American forces in the Southern Campaign and became the second-most important military commander in the Continental Army, under only George Washington.

Nathaniel Greene's monument in Johnson Square

After waiting in line for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only twenty minutes in reality, we gorged ourselves on ice cream at Leopold’s, which has been around since 1919 and appears to be something of a local tradition in Savannah, at least judging by the wait to get in. I had one scoop of honey almond and cream and another scoop of chocolate chewies and cream, and Gina had chocolate raspberry swirl.


This April day was perfect for ice cream, and Savannah is an ideal town to wander around the cobblestone and brick streets, cone in hand, and lose yourself in the sleepy pace of life that characterizes so many Southern cities. With that said, no amount of green space or shade could mitigate the brutally hot and humid summer days there, and no amount of ice cream could pacify me into living amongst the slow pace of life exhibited by locals and tourists alike, and their lack of any sense of urgency whatsoever.

Gorgeous streets of Savannah

We finished the night at Historic Grayson Stadium, which has been around since 1926 and is home to the Savannah Sand Gnats, a farm team of the New York Mets since 2007. The Sand Gnats were hosting the aforementioned Charleston RiverDogs, and I brought my handy notebook and three different-colored pens to diligently keep score of the game. Around the third inning, I felt a pat on the back from a patron in the row behind us to ask what major league team I was scouting for, to which I disappointingly had to admit that I just really like baseball and was doing it for myself. My ego was then restored in the eighth inning, when the mom next to us, who put in a superhuman effort in keeping two very young boys in check by herself for over three hours, asked me if I worked for the Morning News, the city’s daily newspaper. Again I was forced to admit that no, I was doing it all on my own. The visitors triumphed on this evening, winning 6-4, and Gina found a new boyfriend from Texas.

Historic Grayson Stadium in all its glory

Sunday was quiet and rainy all day; we stayed home and made a nice dinner with bourbon-glazed salmon and asparagus. We braved a tornado watch on our drive back to the airport in Charlotte to drop me off, where the TSA agent called for me to step forward through the scanner before complimenting me on my Union Jack-patterned socks. After getting through security and stopping at a bench to put my belt back on and gather my things, I received another pat on the back from an older gentleman who asked if I play professional sports, because his kids are into soccer and he saw my socks and the Liverpool FC jacket (thanks Davey!) I was wearing. Gina says I’m annoyingly approachable, and I suppose I must acknowledge that it’s true.

I’m back in Baltimore now, and should have a relaxing next couple weekends before making my last visit to Columbia in early May. I’m very, very proud of Gina for how hard she’s worked for four years – interestingly enough, we both had lives before the nine months that she and I have been dating – and am excited to spend time with her family and celebrate a big occasion in her life. I’ll get to see two of her roommates graduate, too, so it should be a wonderful time overall. More then.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York, New York

Saturday was going to be an exciting day for me, one that I had been eagerly awaiting for the past couple weeks. It would be the first time I would set foot on the upstate New York campus of Binghamton University, where I’ve been accepted as a Ph.D. student in Art History beginning this fall. I’d get to see my family in New Jersey, which I love doing and have written extensively about before, though I know you’ve followed this blog with the utmost diligence and knew that already.

Still, though I had a four-and-a-half hour drive ahead, no degree of anticipation was large enough for me to indulge when my alarm went off at 5:30 AM yesterday morning. No activity should be pursued at that hour other than sleeping, and the last thing I wanted to do was get on an interstate highway with my functions operating so sluggishly. So, I went back to bed, woke up at a more reasonable hour, and got on the road...

…and almost immediately drove into a snowstorm. I might remind you that April is right around the corner, and this unexpected meteorological development sparked extreme annoyance within me, and this feeling was aggravated further right around the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, where it seemed that no one had ever seen such a phenomenon, and if they had, certainly did not know how to drive capably in it. I passed two bad wrecks that backed up traffic for miles, encountered cars moving at under 10 miles per hour even on open roads, and was forced to take a detour from my planned route through Harrisburg to an alternative passage around Lancaster, Reading, and Allentown.

At this point in the morning, annoyed by incompetent motorists and still feeling a bit tired from the night before, I felt sufficiently hangry enough to stop at Sheetz in Kutztown, though Sheetz is worth anyone’s patronage no matter how they are feeling. Sheetz is an American treasure; both as an endlessly entertaining source of people-watching and for its delicious MTO food creations. I gorged myself on a hotcake with maple sausage, egg, and cheese, and washed that down with a nice flatbread sandwich with bacon, caramelized onions, and cheese (of course).

After surviving the heart attack scare prompted by the instantaneous clogging of my most vital veins and arteries, I plowed deeper into the heart of Pennsylvania, driving on past Wilkes-Barre and Scranton before crossing the border into New York.

Binghamton University is actually located in the small town of Vestal, a three-mile drive straight down the shoreline of the (frozen) Susquehanna River from the city of Binghamton itself, which is home to nearly 50,000 people and about 16,000 more when the university is in session.

It is probably best known as the alma mater of Tony Kornheiser, a co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and formerly an outstanding sports journalist at both the New York Times and the Washington Post. His daily radio show emanating out of D.C. provided the majority of my entertainment in podcast form on the long drive.

If not Kornheiser, you may also have heard of the illustrious achievements of Binghamton’s men’s basketball team, which competes in the mighty America East Conference and has fought its way valiantly to a 26-128 record over the past five seasons. The last time the Bearcats did achieve success on the hardwood, when they reached the NCAA Tournament in 2008, they did so on the back of a crack-dealing point guard, a forward who left a classmate in a coma after a barroom brawl before jumping bail and returning to his native Serbia, and a transfer student who was charged with stealing condoms from Wal-Mart.

I was invited to a conference put on the university’s Art History department; it provided a great opportunity for me to network with current students and faculty, interact with visiting speakers from other universities, including Harvard, MIT, and UMass, and listen to papers on such titillating topics as “Image and Materiality: Man Ray’s Atget Album”, “Glue as Such: The Collaged Books of Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, 1915-1917”, and “Assembling ‘Smallness’ at the American Small Industries Exhibition, Ceylon 1961”. It was, in all honesty, simultaneously intellectually overwhelming and stimulating, and I was glad to be there. I even contributed to the discussion by asking a question of one of the presenters, whose work was entitled “Industrial Visions: The Politics of Assemblage in Lewis Hine’s Men at Work (1932)” if you’re interested. No? Fair enough.

I was made to feel at home right away, and have nothing but positive things to say about the people who welcomed me to their conference and made concerted efforts to get to know me and answer my questions about the program. If they can somehow help me more realistically afford to attend the university, I would be even more generous in my compliments!

Thanks for the day, Binghamton.

I left Binghamton at about 6:45, having spent just over six hours on campus, and got back on the road for my drive back to New Jersey. This one was a breeze, a quick three-hour sprint back south around Scranton, east through the Delaware Water Gap, then past Piscataway and into the clutches of the Shore. Last night was spent catching up with my aunt, uncle, and one of my cousins, and we four musketeers all attended Palm Sunday Mass in Fair Haven this morning. The Gospel reading was four pages long. FOUR!! Women and children were seen fainting from sheer exhaustion, unable to stand for the duration of Saint Matthew’s recollections.

I’m back in Baltimore now, with Duke-Gonzaga on TV now (‘Zag pride!) for inspiration as I write this. Next weekend it’s home for Easter, then back up to New Jersey and down to South Carolina on successive weekends in mid-April. Until then.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Valentine's Day!

New Orleans’s loss was my gain last weekend, as after the meatball’s plans to go to Mardi Gras in the Big Easy fell through, she decided to come slum it with me in the Mid-Atlantic. Naturally since it was Valentine’s Day on Saturday, we had many romantic things planned for the weekend – starting with eating, progressing to more eating, and finishing with even more eating. We did take a break long enough to fulfill our outdoor activities quota, though!

Gina arrived in Baltimore Thursday night after a long drive from Columbia; she’s now halfway to evening up our dedicationometer after my two treks to South Carolina by car this year. We went grocery shopping, as we always do on our visits, at Target and made dinner in the house. Rigatoni with vodka sauce and parmesan with some chicken strips and bacon mixed in, garlic bread, and pita chips with roasted red pepper and feta cheese dip. 

She then, in her cute way, fell asleep on the couch while we watched Michigan suffer yet another heartbreaking loss in overtime at Illinois, managing to pry defeat from the jaws of victory by collapsing at the end of regulation against the Fighting Illini. After seeing Michigan win both of the first two games I went to in person, the Wolverines are now 0-3 in contests I’ve either attended or watched with Gina. Clearly an ominous sign for our relationship.

We met at my office for lunch on Friday, enjoying the remainder of our crackers and dip from the night before and winning admiring looks and stares from a couple co-workers, who bombarded me with questions and comments after we finished and I made my way back up to my desk. “Was that THE Gina?” “She’s SO cute Michael.” “Would it have been creepy if we came and said hi?” Yes, I know, and maybe, if you would’ve attacked her the same way you did to me five seconds ago.

We went out for dinner that evening, at the delicious Annabel Lee Tavern close to my house. Hint: if it’s Friday night and you didn’t make a reservation, there’s no chance you’re getting in, as we had found out a couple times previously. We had, though, also eaten there once before, and it was just as satisfying this time around. We started off with a mountainous plate of BBQ chicken and applewood smoked bacon nachos, so big that it wound up being boxed and finished by me for lunch earlier this week, before moving onto our respective main courses: roasted duck with poached eggs and Cajun hollandaise sauce over grits for Gina, and a nice, solid crab cake with mashed potatoes and seasoned asparagus for me. We did what damage we could, and I was more than happy to finish those leftovers this week as well.

Mouth is watering just posting this.

After being truly, deeply touched by Gina’s Valentine’s Day gift on Friday night, which included the most thoughtful and loving objects to set the five senses alight, we drove our separate cars back down to Fredericksburg Saturday morning for a quick pit stop at my house before setting out together once again. We made our way westward (though not quite as far west as we will in July. The panicking and hyperventilating that will result from desperate attempts to take pictures, mental notes, and blog after that trip makes my body seize up even now), heading for our second national park in as many weeks.

We’d visited Congaree National Park in South Carolina recently, and it had inspired a quest. There are 59 protected areas in[1] the United States run by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior that have been established as national parks for their natural beauty, unique geological features, unusual ecosystems, and recreational opportunities, and our new goal is to visit all of them. We’ve already been to a good handful of them on our own, though I know I don’t really remember trips when I was very young to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Sequoia National Park in California, and the Badlands of South Dakota, amongst others, so I’d like to start from scratch and do them all.

There are not many national parks that are conveniently located for East Coasters like us; the vast majority of them are in or west of the Rocky Mountains, so we needed to seize an opportunity that had presented itself. Shenandoah National Park is just a couple hours from my house in Fredericksburg, and though it was far too cold on this February Saturday to do any hiking, Skyline Drive runs for 105 miles down the spine of the park in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was calling our names, begging to be driven on at nothing exceeding 35 miles per hour.

It was an adventure in itself just to get out there. We were bogged down by traffic in Culpeper, just thirty miles from Fredericksburg but a world apart. Who knew Culpeper was so lively? Then, after needing lunch and gas but being far too stubborn and childish to stop in Culpeper, I decided to drive onwards, figuring we could stop in Sperryville because it looked fairly decent-sized on the map. Let me tell you, it is not. Certainly it is bigger than Woodville, which we drove in and out of faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters. If a town has one line written about it on Wikipedia, that’s all you need to know about it. Sperryville is unique. There was literally not a single gas station, which begs the question where its 342 residents fuel up their cars. Yet, every other edifice on its streets was an art gallery or antique shop, begging another question, who exactly buys any of those things? There was a mixture of gravel and paved roads, no surprise for a small town, until you consider that there were no automobiles in sight. Gina spotted a peasant simply trudging through the middle of an empty field. I spotted a vending machine just on the side of the road that had to predate the 1960s. It was the oddest little town, one without petrol, so frustratingly I had to admit I was wrong and we drove on.

We then stopped in Luray, where I knew there would be gas and food because I had actually been there before, having gone on several school field trips as a youngster to the tourist trap that is Luray Caverns. Stalactites and stalagmites, anyone? We pulled into a gas station there, where having been so flustered by our experience in Sperryville, I drove up to what was, unbeknownst to me, a pump that only emitted diesel. If it wasn’t for the kind, rednecky soul in a small pickup truck at the pump next to ours, I would’ve injected my little Toyota Camry with a fuel that would’ve ruined its system and set me back hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Thank you, sir.

Finally, after making it to Shenandoah, we set out on the 35-mile stretch of Skyline Drive that was most convenient for us to get back to Fredericksburg. We drove from Thornton Gap to Swift Run, pulling off at lookout points every couple of miles to soak in the cold mountain air, enjoy the views from 3500 feet up, and get the best pictures for Instagram. Skyline Drive, and the larger Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through North Carolina and Virginia, is very well known and highly-traveled during the fall, when the leaves change and the foliage is colored brilliantly. In February, though, it was nearly empty, and that was perfect for us. Snow covered some areas on the ground and icicles had formed over the carved parts of the mountain that had been either tunneled through or exposed to construct the road running through it. The sight of the valleys below was something to behold.

View from above

I had wanted to visit Shenandoah since reading A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s memoirs of hiking the Appalachian Trail with his childhood friend from Iowa. I’ve been on a Bryson kick since last fall, devouring his travel writing from his exploits in Europe and the United States and it pleased me to no end to come across some of the same places he wrote about during his time in Shenandoah.

We spent a couple hours in the park, which we had been delighted to enter for free since it was Presidents’ Day weekend and the National Park Service wasn’t charging admission to enter its federal lands. On the way home, Gina was her most patient self, indulging me on a stop at Madison County High School, the opponent in my first ever varsity soccer game and somewhere I hadn’t been in over a decade. It didn’t look exactly as I had remembered it, and we drove around both the high school’s football stadium and an open space outside of the local middle school trying to jog some memories. In conclusion, after many minutes later and what surely was constant angry hair-pulling from Gina, I still can’t be exactly sure where we played but I was fairly confident it was actually at the middle school.

That night, since it actually was Valentine’s Day and I felt I should at least try to be romantic, we went to dinner at Brock's, a restaurant on the banks of the Rappahannock River in downtown Fredericksburg. There we dined in style, next to a table of 8 or 10 high school girls all dolled up, with fancy dresses and full makeup and heels, with literally nowhere to go unless their daddies came to pick them up and drive them somewhere else. Gina enjoyed a house salad and a glass of red wine to start, with a fish special for dinner that unfortunately I cannot remember the name of because our waitress may very well have been high when she recited its description and laughed in that ever-so-charming fake way as she did so, and I had chicken tortilla soup and a mediocre seafood carbonara pasta dish. I was a bit disappointed, in all honesty, though we did salvage the night by taking an excellent selfie to commemorate the occasion and stopping at Wegmans on the way home for chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

Aw, look at us.

Sunday morning, we laid on the couch and watched the Nat Geo channel on TV for several hours. Never in my life had I learned so much about cats of prey. Fascinating creatures, honestly. Of course we had to eat, so we had brunch at IHOP, alongside what apparently was the rest of Fredericksburg’s population. I couldn’t believe how packed it was. There was a 20-minute wait to just to get a table. At IHOP!! And like idiots, we couldn’t even use the coupon I brought because it explicitly said valid Monday-Friday only on it, a slight oversight on the part of the two people who read over the coupon multiple times but only read the small print about getting a free meal under $9 if you bought another meal and two drinks. Sigh.

So that was our Valentine’s weekend. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself, but I’m looking forward to even more fun adventures next weekend when we go back to our New Jersey roots. More then.

[1] Well, this includes parks in American Samoa, a US territory in the middle of the South Pacific; and the US Virgin Islands, a group of islands in the Caribbean not far from Puerto Rico.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hey Ma

I’ve spent nearly half a month in Columbia, South Carolina since the start of last fall, totaling the five long weekends I’ve visited. For someone who admires very little about Southern culture besides its mouth-watering, eventual heart attack-inducing cuisine, I must admit that I’ve enjoyed my time there and feel like I’ve gotten to know the town fairly well.

My restless personality makes it exceedingly difficult for me to sit still and pass the time by doing the same activities in the same places over and over again. Thus after arriving into town on Thursday night, I was very much looking forward to waking up the next day and doing something the meatball and I hadn’t done much of since our visit to Harpers Ferry last summer – enjoying the peace and tranquility of nature.

Congaree National Park, located just twenty minutes or so outside of Columbia, is one of just 59 such protected areas in the United States to receive that designation. It is the second-smallest park by area in the continental United States, covering over 26,000 acres, and preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the country.

For our purposes, though, it was the site of a lovely 6.6-mile hike traversing the woods and the floodplain of the Congaree River. We were told this moderate route would take between three to four hours to complete, but even with Gina’s stumpers and small strides slowing us (my gangly long legs) down, your two champions completed the walk in about two and a half hours. Take that, trail guide!

The pose of a true outdoorswoman

I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to listen to the sounds of nature, even if we had absolutely no idea where they were coming from or what was responsible for making them, and how gratifying it was to see an environment left to itself and not artificially shaped by man. We were two of handful of people in the park that day, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. For a fleeting moment, we spotted a family of wild hogs scampering across the woods not too far from us, a reminder that we were part of their world, not the other way around.

After re-joining the world of the humans, serenaded on repeat on our drive back into town by the dulcet tones of Cam’Ron and his chart-topper, “Hey Ma”, we had dinner at a pasta place on the other side of town. Bacon-wrapped southeastern scallops served with a spicy sriracha slaw got us started, before I had crab bisque and a lobster ravioli dish and Gina had chicken with sautéed mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and green onions in a cayenne cream sauce over spaghetti. Not too shabby.

Dinner time

Later that evening we went out to a bar called Pinch in Five Points, one of the two main nightlife districts in Columbia, and the music there was just as on point as earlier in the day. I hadn’t heard ‘90s and early 2000s songs in a good long while, at least not since my iPod ceased functioning with any regularity several months ago, so I was comforted by the likes of Good Charlotte, Avril Lavigne, and Lou Bega. Somehow, two very intoxicated (and almost undoubtedly underage) people wearing Carolina Panthers jerseys thought grinding to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” would be the appropriate thing to do, so I had no shame in taking pictures of them without making the least effort to hide what I was doing. 

We continued our physical exertions at South Carolina's palatial on-campus gym, which charged me an extortionately high $5 as a guest to gain admittance to its facilities. We made thorough use of the practice basketball courts, playing spirited games of one-on-one, around the world, and horse. If we would've played two more classic games, knockout and 21, my flashbacks to youth basketball would have been complete. Then we moved over to the ping pong table downstairs, a workout in itself just to get there in this place, and pretended to be Asians for a while. It was all good fun.

The main event on Saturday, though, was the university’s basketball game against Georgia. Admittedly, the prospect of seeing two middling teams from a decidedly mediocre basketball conference wouldn’t be the most exciting thing in a world to any sane, rational person, but it did have appeal to me and I relished the opportunity to do so. Well, at least for the first half. The game was brutal. It was positively unwatchable. South Carolina controlled the game from tip to buzzer and won 67-50, but I would sooner gouge my own eyeballs out then be subjected to watch anything like that again. Georgia took 50 shots in the game and made just 11 of them, including only 3 of the 17 three-pointers they attempted. The two schools combined to commit 44 fouls in a 40-minute game. The official attendance was 13,031, but there was hardly any atmosphere or noise in the building and the fans started trickling out while there were still five minutes left in the game. Still, a major college basketball game is a major college basketball game, and I was happy to attend. Cross one arena off my list in the quest to see as many games in as many different venues as I can.

Another missed shot, I'm sure

Our Saturday night was positively wild. You can’t have had a crazier night than the one us party animals had. Through the miracle of Apple, we FaceTimed with Gina’s dad in New Jersey for a while, and were delighted to hear that her brother Cameron had taken a break from lighting his girlfriend Jaime on fire long enough to be accepted to Penn State this fall, though is undecided if he will attend. We also made plans to move Merlin, Gina’s cat, to her dad’s house until Gina gets a place of her own at some point this fall and will be able to take her big boy back for good. Then we watched my ultimate man crush, Justin Timberlake, fail to act his way out of a paper bag alongside the beautiful and talented Mila Kunis in a movie I have a secret soft spot for, Friends with Benefits We also had Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I’d say the night was definitely a win.

We felt so refreshed and content with ourselves after our hike on Friday that we set out for another nearby park on Sunday morning for another outdoor activity. Saluda Shoals Park was the site for an hour-long bike ride on the banks of the mighty Saluda River, if by mighty you mean serene to the point of brackishness. Still, it felt good to be outside on a chilly morning, feeling the brisk breeze whipped up by our frantic pedaling on our one-speed, back-brake bikes. What a bell on those bad boys, though! We finished our time in the park by taking advantage of the children’s playground near one of the campsites. Kids have it made, with their miniature rock walls and their monkey bars and their curvy slides. I miss recess.

Morning ride

Before my flight back to Baltimore, we ate and were merry at Mellow Mushroom and Marble Slab in downtown Columbia. There are positives and negative to the immediate proximity of delicious pizza and ice cream places, I suppose; far more joyous and satisfied in the moment ranging to the despair and stomach pains afterwards. It was tough going from the beautiful, 60-degree weather of South Carolina back to the freezing temperatures of the mid-Atlantic, but we’d had yet another successful visit and are looking forward to the next one in a couple weeks. More then.