Category Archives: Outdoors

The Beaches and Their Stories

Now and then, you get glimpses of Old New England. Not the chic galleries and pride flags along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not the farm-to-table fine dining with views of the coast. Not Boston and its history of Irish immigration. You get it walking on the beach on a windy day when no one is around, those windswept sand dunes undulating like the sea before a storm, and you start to picture what the Pilgrims saw when they landed in Provincetown in 1620. This fact gets lost in our Thanksgiving story—we Americans are so gifted at myth-making—but on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore on what is now one of the most LGBTQ-friendly, art-loving communities in America. They deemed the sandy shores too difficult for farming so they explored further inland, looking for a good spot to till and hoe. Five weeks later, they made their way to what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, naming the location after the port from which they had sailed.

We spent last weekend in Cape Cod. It had been two years since our last visit. Haunting seems like an appropriate, yet overused word to describe the area. Cape Cod—and New England—is a region, but also a mood. Every time I’m there, I think of hardship and resilience, isolation and community, beauty and danger. A trite phrase often used in travel writing is to describe a destination as a “place of contrasts,” which you could say about almost anywhere. Cape Cod—and, really all of New England—is a study in cyclical conflict, made all the more poignant by its four very distinct seasons. Winters are exceptionally cold, brutal and long. By April, the land and sky soften and you feel yourself willing to forgive. By August, you sit on the beach enjoying a lobster roll picnic, and you can’t remember winter’s fury. In October, when the leaves turn, when the pumpkins are everywhere, when the air shifts, you know you’re in the most beautiful place on Earth, yet you start to wonder what the darker months ahead will bring, and if you’ll be prepared.

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Cape Cod reaches about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it literally looks like a flexed arm putting its fist up to the Atlantic’s many storms, protecting the rest of Massachusetts. I walked out on part of that flexed arm last weekend; a sign warned me about sharks and to stay away from seals, which get eaten by sharks. Looking out to the sea, you felt Cape Cod protecting you from all that happens in the ocean. Go past that barrier at your own risk; for centuries, this stretch has been dubbed an “ocean graveyard.” The National Park Service reports there are one thousand shipwrecks between Wellfleet and Truro, which is less than five miles long. The first recorded shipwreck occurred six years after the Pilgrims landed. Winter months, not surprisingly, were the worst, with an estimated two wrecks every month during the early 1800s. The region gets pounded by storms, blizzards, hurricanes. A category 3 hurricane hit the area in 1635, a force of nature settlers born in Europe had never heard of or seen before. The beaches, no doubt, could tell us many, many stories, everything from who showed up and when, to the horror unspooling in the waves, to the objects fishermen accidentally reeled in, to children scampering about getting a sunburn. The beaches have seen it all.

When I think about leaving the Northeast, I think about escaping New York City, but when I think about leaving New England, I hesitate. Jobs brought and kept us here, in New York, but New England pulls us away from all that. I grew up vacationing in Mystic, Connecticut. As a child, I remember being fearful of all those oil paintings featuring angry sperm whales attacking sailors. I got married in Vermont on the coast of Lake Champlain. My first newspaper job was in Dover, New Hampshire, the Granite State’s “Seacoast,” a 40-mile stretch of oceanfront. On my days off, I used to sit and chill on the sand in York, Maine, another beach that has seen its own share of shipwrecks. In fact, in 2013, a storm washed away enough sand to reveal the bones of sloop dating between 1750 and 1850.

Today, back in suburban New Jersey, I miss coastal New England. The gray weather here doesn’t feel intriguing like the gray weather there. Last weekend, on an overcast rainy day, I visited the Provincetown Library, an impressive building given to the town in 1873. The first thing I saw walking in was its “Mysteries” section. New Englanders love their spooky yarns. Stephen King is a lifelong Maine resident. Before King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts,—witch trial central—was writing about all the shit in the woods that could kill you, or, at the very least, emotionally scar you for life. Somehow, when you drive west and cross the Connecticut border back into New York and turn south to head into New Jersey, New England’s haunting beauty dissipates. It’s not going to compete with malls or the Manhattan skyline or traffic. You have to go there to feel it.

We rented a condo in Provincetown, just two blocks from Commercial Street and all its wonderful restaurants and galleries, and every morning as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I would look out from the kitchen and see the Provincetown Cemetery, a few of the taller headstones poking up from a hill. There are stones dating to the early 1800s, also worn by Cape Cod’s mercurial weather. If you read the dates on many of these graves, you realize a number of people barely made it to age 45. Many graves lack a birth date because the information wasn’t available.

And that’s Cape Cod, and much of New England right now: orange and brown leaves blowing past old headstones; people curling up indoors reading a good mystery; waves and winds hitting the beaches harder; fireplaces going strong inside restaurants serving chowder because it’s getting cold and warming up takes more effort. And it’s all beautiful, even when it feels creepy.

Mai Tais With the Sun

Tomorrow is the start of October, and usually I love this month. It’s glorious. The changing leaves. The variations in temperatures. The sky is a different kind of blue. Autumn, and October in particular, is pretty, though I’m not a fan of everything suddenly becoming flavored with pumpkin spice (that starts on September 1 for some reason, when the American Northeast decides everything should smell and taste like pie).

This autumn, the changing skies feel more ominous to me. Today was a very gray, gloomy day in the greater New York City area. Everyone wore black and carried black umbrellas. It felt like a funeral for summer. Today reminded me of my three years living in Seattle. In Seattle, I would become very depressed starting every November, I’d stay balled up until about April, and then between May and October I felt fine. I couldn’t figure out why. Then we moved to Washington, D.C., where winter seems to last seven weeks, crocuses pop up in late February, it’s generally sunnier, and suddenly I felt okay.

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I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and last winter was my first winter managing things without medication. Folks, it’s hard. You feel dysfunctional for about four consecutive months, that’s one-third of the year where you don’t feel like yourself. It’s only September 30, and today I had to use my light box for over an hour. Just a month ago, I was on a beach in Los Angeles trying not to get skin cancer.

I do all the things they tell people with SAD to do: I sit in front of my light box, which I named Helios. I do yoga, I dance, I bike if the roads are dry, I lift weights, I don’t hide in the house all day, I meditate, I meet up with people for lunch/dinner/drinks. I go outside. Last January, I remember sitting on my front step in 25-degree cold sipping hot coffee just because the sun was everywhere that day. The lack of sunlight is more than just a mood thing for me; ongoing darkness sends my thyroid into overdrive, which sends my body into a state of stress, which causes my heart to sometimes skip a beat—usually while I’m trying to fall asleep—which sucks because winter makes my insomnia worse. No pun intended, but there’s a snowball effect, with the physical following the mental. Darkness makes me anxious.

I was born in the Snow Belt. I grew up in a house where everyone yelled, where fallen apples or too much snow covered the ground most of the year. I lived in upstate New York until I was 22 years old. Summers were hot and short; winters were long and bitter. I believe my restlessness and need for travel began there in my childhood home, two miles from that moody Lake Ontario shoreline; I can’t recall a time growing up when I didn’t want to be somewhere else. And now, on this overcast day, as I watch neighbors’ Halloween decorations go up, as I overhear people revel in that “crisp fall air” vibe, I feel incredible isolation, for all I want to do is head to Mexico before Trump builds that wall, eat tacos, read on the beach all day, and dance at the clubs all night. This year, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Bahamas and Cuba, two late-spring trips within just a few weeks of each other. Let’s just say the Caribbean (and Mexico) is medicinal.

Last October, I went on a press trip to Mexico and noticed a change in my body chemistry while there. The trip was annoying, but my body felt calm. Sunshine flooded me. I came home four days later, daylight savings kicked in, which meant it was now dark by 4:30 p.m., and once again, I was huddled on the sofa trying not to think about death.

When I say sunshine and palm trees give me the feels, I mean it—literally. We are looking to move to Los Angeles, but that won’t happen until 2018, so I still need to cope with the Northeast for another year and a half. I would probably do very well with a Colorado winter—that state gets so much sunshine year-round it’s like someone smiling at you all the time. As I keep telling people, it’s not the snow or the cold that bothers me—I love to ski! It’s the lack of sunlight, the cloud cover, even the lack of color in the sky. The heaviness of this kind of weather sends my serotonin tanking. Today, I had practically every light on in this house just to counter the darkness outside, and we’re less than two weeks into autumn.

This fall and winter, I am armed with more strategies, now that I have a sense of what to expect off-meds. We are going to Florida in December. I am visiting a friend in Arizona in February. I am chopping up winter into more bite-sized chunks, unlike last year where I thought stubbornness and focus would help me slog through the entire season. Instead, I huddled at home. Nature showed me who’s boss—again. This time, I plan to soak up whatever sunlight I can wherever I can, and store it like a camel. I’m even getting on a plane to seek out sunshine, and I hate flying, but I figure a trip somewhere will take me out of the spiral that is SAD. And then in mid-March, we set the clocks forward and daylight will start to stretch into 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m. That’s when I feel the tension subside, negative narratives melting with the snow. Longer days mean more possibilities. The sun signals psychological relief, even optimism. And then we get to June when the sun lingers until 8 p.m. or so, like some dinner date where the conversation is going so well that you lose track of time, and you say “Yes! You’re still here! Let’s order Mai Tais!”

Big, Black, Bright Stillness

City life has many things to offer and engaging with the cosmos isn’t one of them. Lately, I’ve been feeling about the night sky the way I felt about the sun when I lived in Seattle for three years—I miss it. I saw part of that lunar eclipse three weeks ago, which was amazing, yet on a night-to-night basis, I can count on one hand the number of stars I see from my backyard or from my front step. Neighborhood street lamps and that massive light bulb across the Hudson River known as Manhattan block out a substantial chunk of natural sky. New York City is America’s biggest city, something I feel acutely whenever I ride the subway, wait in line for a bagel, or try to enjoy anything remotely celestial. Look up from my backyard and you’ll see United Airlines crisscrossing with some transatlantic flight crisscrossing with some rich guy’s Cessna (we’re also near Teterboro Airport) crisscrossing with the occasional police helicopter. Sometimes, on a clear night, you’ll see a star or two, which, one of them you later learn turns out to be Venus. In the winter, I can usually spot Orion, but that seems to be the only visible constellation from my little corner. This weekend while driving around the Catskills, I stood under a black, cold sky punctuated by millions—no gazillions—of stars. I saw the Big Dipper for the first time in ages.

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I’ve met people here who find the silence and vastness of rural landscapes and open sky overwhelming. They need the buzz of urban life to feel tethered. I increasingly prefer the country. If walking around the forest changes the brain (and I did that in the Catskills, too, and genuinely felt calmer afterward), my guess is stargazing at night also positively affects our synaptic energy. But under proper conditions, like what I enjoyed Saturday night. No planes. No helicopters. No anything trying to go anywhere. Just big, black, bright stillness.

Escaping the city for the something more pure is about as old as New York City itself. The word “vacation” is said to have been created here during the previous turn of the century because the rich regularly vacated the city for more pastoral backdrops, Theodore Roosevelt among them. I find myself craving starscapes, feeling pulled toward big open spaces so I can drink in that sense of awe that is the night sky. I’ve never been a very successful student of the sciences; I earned a C in my freshman astronomy class. When looking up, I have no idea what I’m looking at and I’m okay with that. I trust everything Neil DeGrasse Tyson says. I like the mystery of what’s above. Night skies are humbling, with a depth and complexity that surpasses mountains and oceans, perhaps because unlike mountains and oceans, the sky is untouchable. Simultaneously aloof and daring with a rhythm that we are a part of but where we have no say. The last time I witnessed a sky so pregnant with stars was when we were in Taos, New Mexico, a town that preserves much of the outdoorsy mysticism once in abundance in this country, and perhaps explains the alien lovefest that still thrives there. New Mexico is a place where people look up. New York City is a place where people look down, eyes glued on smartphones, away from each other.

Inside the Catskills farmhouse where we were staying, I thumbed through a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. On the subject of stars, would it please Thoreau to know that on Amazon—an arbiter of the unnatural world—“Walden” averages 4.2 out of 5 stars, with more than 530 reviews? Even online, more stars is better. And would he be intrigued by the conversation happening in the reviews of “Walden” where people discuss the generation gap among those who appreciate Thoreau’s observations and ideals? I appear to be in the middle of this gap. Thoreau’s phrasing is thick—paragraphs go on for a page—and while I enjoy a long read and resent the current listicle-ADHD online reading culture, the pages were a commitment.

But I want to keep going and read more. Thoreau struggled with respiratory illness much of his adult life and wrote about the restorative powers of being outside. “I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” he said, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Truth. Though who does four hours of anything anymore that doesn’t involve WiFi? I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very good at being outdoorsy. Camping is a lot of work. I don’t own gear. I hate bugs (I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings). I can’t read a map. I don’t really care for trail mix.

But I do love being outside and grabbing what little pieces of it I can. Thoreau might find today’s ideals of communing with nature somewhat ridiculous. So much as been pushed out that great effort is made to create sanctuaries for what’s left, such as the one square inch of silence in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Noise pollution is just as much of a problem as sky pollution (though the suburbs are quieter here, just not very dark). Who besides Zen monks and hunters spends hours of uninterrupted time surrounded by trees and silence? My last four-hour stint with Mother Earth was hanging out in a nest at a Big Sur glamping resort where I could walk uphill for sushi. Saturday night, I lasted less than 10 minutes just standing alone on the frosty grass watching the stars, no street lamps interrupting my view. Temperatures had dropped to the thirties, and while I wore a hat and warm coat, my body was still holding on to September.

Yet that ten minutes mattered. I felt my nerves disentangle a bit, my pulse settle, my thoughts slow down. Watching the whorls of stars, a wave of calm moved through me, something I hadn’t experienced since being out on the California coast last summer. The night sky made me feel small. And for that I was thankful.

The Adirondacks: A Small Place With Big Allure

On September 12, 1901, when there were maybe just a few hints of fall color touching the Adirondack Mountains, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt went for a hike. Vacationing with his family in his beloved North Country, he decided to climb Mount Marcy, New York State’s tallest peak at just over 5,300 feet. While hiking, some local man named Harrison Hall was trailing Roosevelt, carrying probably the most important piece of paper he’d ever held in his hands—a telegram with news of President McKinley’s life-threatening injuries. The Vice President got down the mountain, boarded a wagon and made it to a railroad station where he inched his way across New York State to get to Buffalo where McKinley had been shot. McKinley died on September 14, and Roosevelt was sworn in as America’s 26th president.

I think of this story every time I’m in the Adirondacks, which is where I spent this past weekend. Why this story? Because I think of how this understated 6.2 million acres of landscape used to attract some of the biggest names and most adventurous people. I mean Theodore Roosevelt chose to spend his down time here, where, 114 years later, I was spending my down time. This got me thinking how the Adirondacks’ timelessness appears indefatigable despite forest fires, global warming, and industrialization. Thirty-one years after Roosevelt became president, Lake Placid, the region’s biggest hub, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and did such a good job hosting that they got the gig again in 1980, drawing some of the world’s best athletes to this tiny town surrounded by blue peaks. The area, once known for back country lumberjacks and rural poverty, was now under the global spotlight entertaining some of the best of the best who had crossed sea and sky to reach this place. Today, the Olympic Games tend to go to bigger places with bigger budgets, and presidents vacation in luxurious locales like Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. The Adirondacks is not Aspen or Jackson Hole; there are some four-star accommodations and awesome eats, but it’s still mountain country where grizzly guys are out in the open driving their rusting pick-ups. Outside of the American Northeast, people have heard of the Rockies and the Ozarks and maybe even the Smoky Mountains and the Olympic Range, but few people seem to recall the Adirondacks unless you specifically say “Lake Placid, where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union” and then you get a nod of recognition.

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On the ground, Lake Placid obviously looks quite different than it did during Roosevelt’s visits or even the 1980 Olympic Games. Towns, like lakes and mountains, are their own ecosystems, always evolving and adapting, as they should. But while kayaking alone on Mirror Lake yesterday morning, I looked around the mountains and sky reflecting off the water’s surface, Mirror Lake living up to its name, and thought of how much nature still manages to move us even while we’re all IV’ed to our smartphones. The buildings and roads in between the Adirondacks’ peaks and valleys change, but the impact the region has on those who live here and visit has not. There are still many, many places throughout the Adirondacks where you can’t get any cell service, and as long as there’s no emergency, this feels like a wonderful thing. To kayak alone on a serene lake without my iPhone on me, to be out there early enough before all the paddleboarders and boaters woke up, and to feel like I had the sky and lake and mountains all to myself, was intoxicating. And I imagined this was the pull that Theodore Roosevelt felt when he hiked Mount Marcy nearby. Maybe, like me, he thought “This is mine,” even though we knew otherwise.

There are countless beautiful places on this earth—the Adirondacks and Mirror Lake being among them—and it’s getting harder to keep them beautiful. Lesser-known corners of our planet struggle to hide from capitalism, climate change and population growth. Globalization means just that, where everyone’s backyards are connected even if it doesn’t feel so. When I kayaked across Mirror Lake, I thought “How much longer?” The state-protected Adirondack Park is home to 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, including the birthplace of the Hudson River; Mirror Lake is shockingly pristine compared with some of the others. Powered boats aren’t permitted and no one is dumping cow shit into it unlike the farms surrounding nearby Lake Champlain, the almost-sixth Great Lake that divides New York and Vermont (equally stunning though not as clean as it could be). The clarity of Mirror Lake’s shoreline sometimes reminded me of the Caribbean. Yet the area deals with salt contamination due to aggressive salt use as part of winter road maintenance. Folks there shovel more than 100 inches of snow per year; 86 percent of salt and chloride buildup has been directly attributed to road salting to help keep roads as dry as possible. Pollution comes from neighbors, too: many of the Adirondacks’ lakes suffered depletion due to acid rain as a result of wind patterns mixing with Midwest plant emissions.

Thankfully, there are already signs of ecological recovery, for mountain folk are fiercely protective types. Because of their efforts, we had a gorgeous, lazy day on a pretty clean lake Sunday. No floating garbage. No slimy muck pooling at our feet. Locals and tourists apparently playing by the rules. I’m so grateful for this region and miss it the moment we leave. It’s a side of the American Northeast people don’t think of; our colonial history and that stress-junkie lifestyle that defines the Boston to New York to Washington, DC, corridor often overshadows the quiet, mountain interior that appealed to Roosevelt. But it’s still there, and if you have the chance, go and experience it before it changes into something I wouldn’t recognize.

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My Quixotic Search for Small

Maybe it’s because I live in the shadow of the Empire State Building or that I’ve been in a car accident during rush-hour commuter traffic on the George Washington Bridge or that a homeless guy in the West 4th subway station peed on my foot (I was wearing flip-flops, a no-no in New York), but lately my travel interests have shifted to anything that feels smaller, more green, less crowded, and reflective of the past because my day-to-day can be too big, too gray, too busy and sometimes too 21st century.

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(American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930)

It’s a tall order. Small, green, uncrowded and old are hard to come by in this sprawling, metropolitan, monochromatic area of millions where too many people dress in black year-round. History lives on every block, but New Yorkers themselves don’t seem to have an awareness of these places. Ask strangers passing through the subway where George Washington threw a party to bid farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War and you’ll likely get a quizzical look (it’s the Fraunces Tavern, a great place for charcuterie and live Irish music). Washington’s name is all over the Big Apple, but 21st century New York City doesn’t seem to remember its 18th century self after so many face lifts. The Fraunces Tavern down in the Financial District near Battery Park is a great example of old, but it can get crowded. Heading north of the tavern to Chelsea, the High Line is a great example of something green, but it’s always crowded. Continuing north, I suppose Central Park is somewhat old and usually green but it’s way too crowded. Long story short, occasional bouts of green and vintage can be found across the city, but nothing uncrowded, even if I were to inch my way up to the Bronx and into Westchester where there’s a lot of green.

So where in America can a gal stretch her legs and quiet her mind?

Plenty of places, but not many that I find super-inspiring (with exceptions of our national parks; I’m talking about unprotected land). I’ve driven coast-to-coast three times so far and have become increasingly turned off by what I see, the “golden arches,” rampant obesity, billboards for Walmart, malls, malls and more malls. Yes, there are many Americas in America, but the one I just described is the one that’s most obvious from the highway, and it makes me wonder what the United States looked like before corporate consumerism swallowed us whole. I’m looking for something very particular, old like a random 19th century farmhouse on a slow road, not manicured Colonial Williamsburg-old. Or something not golf course-green, but an uninterrupted forest green like Vermont (it’s in the state’s name after all), where billboards are illegal and the farm-to-fork movement isn’t a movement but daily practice.

Ok, so farmhouses are often smallish—at least smallish compared with McMansions—uncrowded and green and old, right, so maybe I’m on to something there? I can already hear my 11-year-old’s eyes rolling with this one (though she does like my idea of AirStreaming through Canada into Alaska and picnicking on salami and salmon along the way). I do like farmhouses, so maybe I drive around America checking out old farmhouses and taking pictures of them the way photographer Robert Dawson and his son Walker traveled America photographing public libraries. Nearby in Brooklyn is a Dutch saltbox farmhouse built in 1652 that has successfully weathered urbanization as well as generations of hippies, hipsters and the craft beer revival. It’s called the Wyckoff House and it looks like a fun day trip, but it’s also spittin’ distance from a BJ’s, so not very green, and definitely not uncrowded. I could meander up the Hudson into the Catskills, back into Vermont’s verdant valleys, around New England and find some old farmhouses in sparsely populated towns there. Maybe that will quell this urge. We’ll see.

My quest for smaller, quieter space is undoubtedly a Quixotic one, but I’m convinced these places, these old farmhouses and less developed nooks in America exist, though they are getting harder to find because so many are being encroached by suburbanization. (Suburbanization is simultaneously ruining cities; stand in the middle of New York’s Union Square as I recently did and every store front can be found everywhere else: Children’s Place, TGIF Friday’s, Barnes and Noble, Staples. Yes, Union Square has a bustling farmers’ market but those veggie stands are besieged by Corporate America.) Lately, I’ve been wondering what Washington would think if he could see America now? Would he applaud our entrepreneurship or mourn the loss of land and landscape?

My need for these quieter, unvarnished slices of Americana is in direct reaction to the suburban affluence that surrounds me. As I write this, construction workers are hammering away at a couple McMansions; two are going up right now on the next street over. I jog or bike by them daily. Mid-century homes are getting bulldozed left and right while my husband and I work to renovate our quirky 1926 Colonial. We’re getting backyard chickens this spring, and, yes, while Brooklyn hipsters are also doing this, I know my interest in raising hens is to create at home what I am losing in my community, something small and sweet, hopefully green, not too busy, with some age to it—before someone knocks it down.