Category Archives: Summer Vacation

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

dsc_1836

Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

SwimmingPig

Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

cuba-1600

I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

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.

star_gazing23-2

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.

Ich Bin Ein Californian

The pilot sounded giddy, like some waiter stoked about what the chef was concocting in the kitchen, as if the weather forecast was this awesome meteorological entree he couldn’t wait to dish up. And he was right. It was the smoothest transcontinental flight I had ever been on. Ever. The seat belt sign was barely on. The skies were clear and blue the whole way. I almost enjoyed myself. I almost felt my faith in flying restored.

We said goodbye to that fuzzy green humidity suffocating the Northeast and made our way west to San Francisco where you wear sweaters, hats and scarves in August. Even today, I’m wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa eating hot soup while 2,900 miles east, my backyard chickens sweat in their coop and my cat hides in the shadows to stay cool.

IMG_2350

IMG_2314

IMG_2349

We’re renting an apartment in the Cole Valley neighborhood, which is a seven-minute walk from Haight Street, still very much alive with hippies, hipsters and homeless. Tour buses cut through all this, as does the voice of some guy on a microphone explaining Haight-Ashbury’s colorful history to an audience of white people wearing normcore without irony. I was hat-shopping there Tuesday when some guy on the street shouted to the tourists on the bus “You’re being lied to!” That’s the beauty of walking around the streets and just hanging out. You see, hear, smell, sense more. We’re among the rows of Easter egg-colored dollhouses, Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings hugging the hills, where there’s plenty of sensory stimulation. Originally, Mike’s employer was going to put us up in a chain hotel in the touristy parts of town because that’s near corporate offices and that’s why we’re here, but after some online hunting, I found this great, third-floor walkup that saved the company about $1,200, and now everyone is happier. The more I travel, the more I lean on individual rentals than hotels; it offers greater authenticity and, quite simply, it costs less. Hotels distance themselves from their surroundings, they are their own little gated communities; apartments are integrated with their environments and you get to savor a city in an entirely different way.

IMG_2334

The accommodations are as integral to this trip as California itself. After 10 days in the city, we’re off for a return visit to Big Sur where we’ll sleep in a nest, which makes me giddy. I’ve been chatting with the artist who made the nest, and I may get a chance to watch him work next week because he does things to eucalyptus branches that you didn’t think could be done. Even the birds seem impressed. So we’re going to go check that out.

It’s always wonderful to sleep in your own bed, but I’m feeling way too at ease in our temporary housing, as if my daughter and cat and chickens should all come here instead of us flying back east. But I’ve known for a long time I’m a closeted Californian living in the New York City burbs. Last night, Mike and I took the trolley to the beach. The line ends and you literally run out of America because the Pacific is right there. There wasn’t much of a sunset because it was so cloudy, but it was still beautiful. We watched surfers flirt with the current and the current flirted right back; it was like overhearing some sultry conversation at a bar. To surf with so little light takes guts. That means understanding the waves without having to see them, listening for nuance in undulation. I loved eavesdropping in on this. I once tried surfing off the coast of La Jolla and nearly threw up from seasickness. I envy those who ride waves. Later, we walked through the gray, past several broken sand dollars covered by beaten-up beach. My husband remarked that it was very difficult to find an unbroken sand dollar and seriously, just seconds after he said that, I reached down and picked up what looked like a perfect one, unmarred by beachgoers and their hyper dogs. Mike rinsed it off in the ocean and was impressed. No chips, no cracks. It felt like finding a lucky coin on the ground. It’s now on our windowsill drying in the sun. I look at it and think, “Soon, California. Soon.”

IMG_2443

IMG_2444

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.

IMG_2041

IMG_2076

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.

IMG_2036

IMG_2096

IMG_2114

IMG_2117

A Short Meditation on New York City Dog Pee

New York City smells of dog pee. This is a cyclical event and very similar to the time when it’s ok for women to wear white pants, usually beginning around the Fourth of July festivities and wrapping up around Labor Day weekend. Everyone who lives and works in this area knows this. There are who-knows-how-many-dogs being walked across the Big Apple at this very moment, pissing everywhere, not caring whether it’s Fifth Avenue or some unlit corner in Alphabet City. And while dutiful dog owners have their little plastic baggies in hand, ready to swoop and scoop poop, there’s nothing anyone can do about dog pee. Even long after hot city sidewalks soak it up, the heat hits—and it hits hard—followed by the stickiest humidity the Northeast can deliver, and before you know it, you can’t smell anything but dog pee even if you’re back home in your own house, your own yard, feeding backyard chickens.

Anyone who can afford to leave New York City during peak summer months goes somewhere else. They go to the Hamptons or Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, where a third of the male population is named Anthony. We go to California.

Is the dog pee smell really that bad, you ask, that you have to go 2,700 miles west just to escape it? I think we lose the dog pee smell by the time we drive over the George Washington Bridge, but really, the yearly summertime schlepping to California goes beyond getting away from too much urine, not feeling safe wearing flip-flops around the city, or seeing too many people wearing black even when it’s 90 degrees out. Perhaps it’s more about what we want rather than what we don’t want, that coveted California lifestyle, the freedom to wear flip-flops anywhere as Californians do, the predictability of knowing it will be sunny just about every day, where avocados are priced at seven for a dollar and are so plentiful, Los Angeles bartenders mix avocado cocktails and guys in aprons scoop avocado ice cream.

Next month, for two weeks, I get to pretend I’m a Californian. I’m stupidly excited about this. I’ll be in San Francisco buying groceries, taking the BART, eating sushi here more than once because it will be near my apartment, perusing the shelves at City Lights, ignoring shuttle buses teeming with Google or Facebook employees. Yeah, I’ve been reading about how San Francisco is changing. Money has a tendency to ruin things: relationships, childhoods, cities. Since my 20s, I had a thing about living in San Francisco, and then the job opportunities brought us to Seattle, then to Washington, D.C., then to New York. To know a city deeply, you need to know its smells. Seattle always smelled of fish and coffee to me, which isn’t that bad as far as urban scents go. D.C. always smelled of dry-cleaning and power. Really. Power has a smell. It’s very musky. In a few weeks, I will have the chance to figure out San Francisco’s smells. I’m hoping it’s baked sour dough, although that could just be optimism talking. Maybe after all these years, I dodged a bullet. Maybe there’s a San Francisco smell and Mark Zuckerberg is financing the cleanup right now. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 2012 when I froze my butt off one late-August day, but perhaps the city has gotten too classy for me and lingering smells of any kind just aren’t tolerated anymore.

It’s just as well. I find myself more drawn to SoCal dreaminess anyway. My eyes have shifted to Los Angeles, which, like New York, is a place where a crappy coffee shop can peacefully coexist with an amazing coffee shop, where the mediocre and the really effing-awesome can be found on the same street, just perhaps with less dog pee in L.A. I haven’t quite figured out L.A.’s smells yet (feel free to enlighten me), but I’ve always liked its energy. New York City is the wrong kind of kineticism, there’s a stress addiction here I find exhausting. When you stack eight million people on top of one another, things get tense, which leads to pet therapy to alleviate stress, which leads to dogs being walked and peeing everywhere. Spread folks out on a beach like a blanket, surround them with salty sea air and mountains, and, well, maybe things slow down a bit, long enough to enjoy a crappy cup of coffee or some avocado ice cream.