Tag Archives: outdoors

Summer Travel Must-Haves

There are many things I am not good at, and blogging is one of them. In fact, I’m wondering if I should open every blog post with a self-deprecating “I stink at this,” just to see who sticks around—a litmus test of your dedication, dear 2.5 readers.

But now and then, there’s something worth blogging about, so here you go. Check out Flung magazine’s latest on what some very seasoned travelers are lugging around these days. I’m very honored to be listed among such pros, including Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during a press trip to Cancun in October 2015. (Reflections on that trip here.) Sarah is an actual pro, meaning that she brings high-quality gear to properly capture a moment, and—most likely—remembers to pack enough clean clothes and seasonally-appropriate toiletries. I don’t always pack good gear, I have failed to bring enough clean clothes and once even forgot to pack underwear, and for some inexplicable reason, I bring my A-game when it comes to having enough of the right toiletries. My packing lacks logic.

However, what I never forget on any trip no matter how near or far is my giant plastic inflatable donut and my bathing suit. Usually, I pack two or three bathing suits because we all know bathing suits never dry fast enough when you’re on the go. I may not have enough socks and shirts or decent walking shoes for the trip, but by God, I am ready for the beach or hotel swimming pool!

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I just returned from Cuba Tuesday night, and the Cubanos were visibly amused by a gringa walking around downtown Havana with a blown-up donut. The beauty of being 45 years old is that there are many things you stop worrying about, and looking ridiculous is one of them.

I’m currently working on a donut floatie travel memoir because my donut has traveled to more places than many, many Americans. It’s a lucky piece of plastic, and I’m a lucky, lucky gal, pinching myself every day that someone wants to send me somewhere to write about someplace beautiful. I won’t lie: it doesn’t suck. So stay tuned for more donut floatie adventures.

Meanwhile, I’m returning to California soon, and there’s a hotel in Palm Springs I’m eager to visit. Why? Because this hotel’s Instagram feed is filled with photos of Floyd the Flamingo Floatie. The place is called the Monkey Tree Hotel, it recently underwent a renovation, and apparently (based on the Instagram feed), Floyd and Elvis impersonators hang here. These are my people, so I’m eager to introduce my donut to Floyd, get into the pool, and daydream under the sunshine. Those are things I’m good at. See you there.

The Doughnut’s First Year: A Retrospective

Just over a year ago, I started traveling with a giant plastic pink doughnut floatie. I can’t tell you where I got the idea, but I can tell you the doughnut made its debut in a private pool in Coral Springs, Florida, Christmas 2016. It’s public debut happened in Sedona, Arizona—a rather magical place to step out—specifically, the Amara Resort, which had a shallow pool with a great view, an ideal setting in which to begin.

Pools have always been a thing. This goes back decades. I wrote about my obsession with pools for the Los Angeles Times, and more recently for National Geographic Traveler. I’m like The Swimmer protagonist in the John Cheever story, but without the delusions. Water calms me. And connects me.

You might see the doughnut as a silly plastic toy, but over the past year, my floatie has introduced me to people around the world. Kids are more likely to approach me and say “Hey, is that yours?” and then we start talking, though sometimes an adult lounging by the pool will strike up a conversation. I’ll always remember Abdu, the Indonesian pool guy in Macau, who used a pump to inflate my floatie and commented that the Koreans brought floaties the size of deck chairs.

Sometimes, I’m alone dragging my floatie about but sometimes, I’m not. One of my favorite moments happened at Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs in Australia where I passed a few swimmers carrying their own large floaties. We exchanged smiles. Floatie kin. Another time, I spotted a woman crossing a busy street in Greenwich Village carrying an inflated swan floatie as large as a bike. So, we’re out there, in the desert, in the city, you name it.

In its first year, the doughnut has traveled to four continents, including four countries (Cuba, Italy, Australia and China), and five states (Florida, Virginia, Arizona, California, and as of last weekend, Texas). Family, friends, and complete strangers have floated and frolicked on this doughnut. I travel with it in my carry-on bag. It rolls up better than a pair of jeans. It dries as easily as a bathing suit. After an afternoon at Playa Del Estes on the northern coast of Cuba, I deflated the doughnut, draped it over my hotel room shower, and by morning it was dry and ready to be rolled back up into the suitcase. We have a routine. In fact, the doughnut makes its second trip to Cuba in May. We’re excited.

The doughnut doesn’t judge. It doesn’t care what you’ve got going on in your life or where you’ve been or where you’re headed. If you like being in the water, “chillaxing,” as my daughter likes to say, and looking up at the clouds, then the doughnut is your friend. A best-selling author, actresses, advocates, artists, and kids from Cuba and Venezuela have floated on my doughnut. It embraces anyone. As long as you don’t have any sharp objects on you, you’re welcome to join and take it for a spin.

Private pools, public pools, freshwater, the ocean—the doughnut and I are open to it all. I’ve always been a swimmer, a bad one who isn’t very fast, but I beeline to the water, indoors or out. I took water ballet as a kid. I swam laps (slowly) for college credit. Along the Great Ocean Road, I couldn’t wait to wade into the Southern Ocean. When I saw the movie “The Shape of Water,” I nodded with understanding.

There are places the doughnut and I would really like to go. In no particular order:

– Lake Louise, Banff, Alberta, Canada
– Various chic hotel pools around Singapore via Flung’s new Singapore guide, which I would trust more than TripAdvisor or even Lonely Planet.
– Back to Northern Territories, Australia, perhaps Litchfield National Park this time for waterfalls and swim holes.
– Hampstead Heath in London. I swam there in 2000; so I’m overdue, and the doughnut hasn’t been to England.
– Anywhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or Central America.
– Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaii.

Today is my 45th birthday. I’m grateful for continued good health, family, friends, and the opportunity for adventure and to meet new people. My pool floatie connects these dots. We’re out there having fun, soaking up sunshine, seeing the world, making friends, and we’re just getting started.

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Anna and the doughnut, Omni Hotel, Richmond, Virginia

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My college roommate from London, Yvette, enjoying the doughnut in Sedona

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Playa del Estes, Cuba

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Four Seasons, Macau

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Siestre Levante, Italy’s northwestern coast

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Ca di’Pesa, Tuscany

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Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs, Northern Territories, Australia

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Making friends in Barton Springs, Austin, Texas

Moonstruck

The word “lunatic” doesn’t have the best reputation, and unfortunately, there’s no appropriate word to describe individuals who are mentally balanced, not overly weird, and simply enjoy the night sky when the moon is out. Selenophile doesn’t work either. Moon spotting seems ok, but has a menstrual quality to me. #Lunafan? #Lunaproud? #LunaLover? See? Nothing fits.

As I type this, Europeans are apparently enjoying a beautiful night for a “supermoon,” one of three to brighten up this winter between tonight and January 31 (the second one happens New Year’s Day). The “supermoon” nickname simply means the moon will appear about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a typical full moon. The supermoon at the end of January is predicted to be quite spectacular, which is good news for me because I’m feeling moon-cheated tonight. Clouds cover the New York City region; this morning it didn’t even look like the sun showed up for work, so chances of witnessing a supermoon tonight are dim.

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Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m addicted to sunlight otherwise I rapidly sink into seasonal affective disorder symptoms. But I’ve also become intrigued by the moon the more I travel. Years ago, I was at the Griffith Observatory on a night during the middle of the week; in between weekend crowds when there was no line to peer through one of the massive telescopes set up and pointed at the almost-full moon. The image was startling; a white rock with hard grooves posing like some aging nude model in an art class. Two years ago, I was sleeping in a nest in Big Sur and woke to moonlight hitting the Pacific Ocean so hard that almost everything appeared silver, as if someone had turned on a light. This past September, I laid in a hammock in Tuscany and watched the moon. In October, I walked around glitzy Macau and spotted the moon. A month ago, out near Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territories, I had an unforgettable moment with the moon. We were having dinner in the desert. Moonlight poured over everything. Shadows moved across the earth. Someone had set up two telescopes: one pointed at the moon and the other pointed at Saturn. It was a very clear night, the perfect conditions for a spectacular sky, in which there was a very full moon.

I approached one telescope. To the naked eye, Saturn was a speck of light, indistinguishable from the other white specks of light filling the heavens. Then I looked into the telescope and almost jumped. On the other end of the lens was Saturn, with perfectly clear edges and a ring. I didn’t expect to see the ring. The image looked like a kid’s sticker or a classroom science project of a planet dangling from a string. It was almost cartoonish, not at all like the large, looming images of Saturn I always saw at planetariums and museums.

Then I approached the second telescope, the one directed at the moon, and looked through. This reminded me of that evening in Los Angeles at Griffith Park. Like that night, the moon wasn’t being coy, everything was being bared—proudly. It made me think of how we wear our age, or maybe should wear our age. The moon is 4.5 billion years old. It’s easy to think of the moon as timeless, but it isn’t. It has a creation story, and for generations watched Earth’s continents drift and rethink their borders, watched empires rise and fall, watched wars and reunions, watched flags fly, watched men visit its surface and plant flags of their own, watched us watch it, watched me look up, think about how I never thought I would have traveled to Australia, how on my daughter’s desktop globe, Australia looked so far away. Yet, there I was in central Australia, in the middle of the desert, far from anything familiar, admiring the moon, anchored by its light, this beacon that’s been with me my entire life. Yes, we, especially I, need the sun, but where would we be without moonlight? Yes, the moon’s gravitational force is critical to earth’s well-being and to controlling the tides, but without moonlight, I’m guessing we’d lose about half of the world’s love songs—maybe about a third of all lovestruck poems.

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I was looking at the moon when my ride back to the hotel arrived; we had a 4:30 a.m. departure for a sunrise camel ride, but I wanted to stay with the moon. That’s the problem with itineraries—they don’t take into account the moments when you want to linger.

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During my press trip to Australia, we sat quietly waiting for the sun rise over Uluru. Seeing the light change at 5:30 in the morning was indeed beautiful (that’s not my usual hour for that first cup of coffee), but I kept my eyes on the moon, which didn’t budge. The light I couldn’t keep up with; I’d glance down into my coffee cup for a second, take a sip, look up, and the whole desert suddenly looked different whereas the moon held firm. The sky softened from purple to pink to a misty blue, and the moon was still there—the sun directly across from it—as if to say “This is my hour, too.” I didn’t sense competition, just an understanding that in the morning, the moon doesn’t quickly exit stage right for the day, even if you’re caffeinating up and need to be somewhere in a hurry. It’s not like that. After 14 years of living in the New York City area, I appreciated the lack of rushing. And now I look for the moon wherever I go. It fascinates me that wherever I stand, desert or beach, from a hotel balcony or my own backyard, the moon is steady, with a rhythm that I can rely on and a change in contour and colors that sometimes surprise. Clouds covered tonight’s supermoon, but I’ll be waiting for the next one.

There’s No Pill for Being Bicoastal

Being bicoastal refers to a dual allegiance to East and West coasts, specifically, New York and Los Angeles. The running joke is that one is so bicoastal, she “doesn’t know whether to root for the Yankees or the Dodgers.” Furthering this bifurcated thinking is a recent New York Times article that appeared in the Style section (you know as soon as it appears in the newspaper’s style section it becomes instantly uncool) lamenting on the exodus of New York City’s creative class to Los Angeles (we hope to be among them in a few years). Following that article was a really funny, snarky reply to that piece, as if being being acknowledged by The Gray Lady and The Big Apple was akin to being liked by the cool kid at school.

Let New York and Los Angeles duke it out for popularity. My state of bicoastalness isn’t so urban-centric and runs deeper than that, and I’m willing to guess it does for other folks, too.

This past weekend, I felt like I had a foot on both sides. I attended a pool party and was passing around photos of my trip to Big Sur where we stayed at the giant human nest at Treebones, a glamping resort. Fellow pool party attendees were not the camping, outdoorsy type. (I’m not very good at being outdoorsy either despite having slept in a yurt in the Adirondacks, some camping on the beach in California and Maryland and in the woods at Shenandoah National Park—I stunk at all of it and was either eaten alive by bugs or froze my butt off at night.) Friends made jokes about being in a nest and how I got to the bathroom and why would I want to be exposed to the elements like that. At Treebones, we met some of the folks staying at the yurts, and they commended us for nesting. The yurts there are heated and beautifully furnished so by comparison, they were glamping while we were actually camping, one Californian native said to me. I hate pitching tents and cooking food over campfires, so the nest was perfect, and in late August, we didn’t have to worry about cold. Shelter was already provided and I could drag myself uphill to the main lodge for frittata at breakfast or sushi for dinner (yes, Treebones has a sushi bar). I did tell my friends that Mike and I didn’t sleep well in the nest, which is okay because we weren’t paying $150 a night to get a good night’s sleep but to experience the outdoors in an entirely different way. That was the intent of artist Jayson Fann, who builds nests for resorts, zoos, children’s hospitals, women’s shelters, and private residences.

And we did experience our surroundings like we never had before. Cocooning in a nest by a tree overlooking the ocean is not like balling up in a tent in the forest or on a beach—you lose the view once you go inside your tent. From the nest, you see everything. I wondered, “Do birds really have it this good?” I never saw moonlight move over water like I saw while in the nest, that late-summer gibbous moon and its intense white light gliding over the Pacific. It was incredible beauty. It made me think this was how the world looked before governments and television and smartphones and corporations. Sky and sea cycling through a rhythm that predates most of what fills our days now. I was witnessing something very old and sacred, something many miss out on, and all because I had to use the bathroom at three a.m. The Big Sur sky was so clear that moonlight filled our nest and it felt like a light bulb was on. Later in the morning, tendrils of fog circled between the branches of the nest and we watched minke whales breach nearby—observing whales from a tree! A bucket-list first and I don’t even believe in bucket lists.

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(Watching whales from the nest)

My Labor Day weekend poolside party chat might not have happened in Seattle, where I used to live, or perhaps in California or Oregon either. During my three years in Seattle, I learned that everyone camped. Everyone hiked. Everyone mountain-biked on trails at the base of actual mountains. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d come into work on Monday morning and people would talk about where they camped that weekend. Co-workers camped the way I went out to the movies; you just got in the car and did it. I felt like the outsider lacking cool REI gear and tales of reconnecting with nature. I even noticed this from some of my West Coast friends’ and colleagues’ social media feeds—over the Labor Day weekend they were hiking and camping all over the place out there, posting to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook lovely shots of trails and campgrounds and other magnificent scenery. And I get it. Why wouldn’t you constantly camp and hike when the world looks that goddamn awesome 24/7???

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(The nest at Treebones in Big Sur)

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(Morning view from the nest)

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(Big Sur country)

Nature-loving East Coasters do exist (we’re related to one who happens to be a tree scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, but he lives in rural Vermont). And there are parts of the interior Adirondacks that is deep mountain country and off the grid (we discovered this when almost running out of gas and being 16 miles from the nearest gas station). However, nature lovers don’t exist in abundance in the greater New York metropolitan area or along the Boston-New York-Washington, 1-95 corridor. New Yorkers—who often believe Manhattan is truly the center of the universe—spent Labor Day weekend by chlorinated pools, not mucky lakes. I sat by a pool recounting my two nights in a nest, and had to explain to folks where Big Sur was located. Unless you visit Big Sur, you have no frame of reference how truly wild the United States once looked. Yes, there’s a highway there thanks to convict labor, but some East Coasters have never seen a vacant, pristine beach like the ones in Big Sur, the empty kind where the surfers like to go; every inch of oceanfront from Maine to Florida is pretty developed (New Jersey is among the worst in terms of development whereas Maine still has some gorgeous, rocky, wild coastline left but you don’t have to go far to find a hotel or lighthouse). I imagine there are some places in Big Sky country that share that same, somewhat-unadulterated look as Big Sur, but again, that’s out west. The East Coast is quite built up. For a number of East Coasters, you say beach and they think Asbury Park or Ocean City. Vermont is an exception to the rest of the East Coast because the Green Mountain State has such strong zoning regulations and a fierce protection of its landscape—they outlawed billboards. New Jersey doesn’t seem to care about environmental protection and zoning, having said yes in the name of economic growth to anyone with enough money to build; just look at Atlantic City and all the countless billboards along the roads it takes to get there.

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(Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, a favorite among surfers, where there were more seagulls than people that day.)

The West Coast learned from East Coast mistakes. And when I think of being bicoastal, this is what I think of: a love for the natural world coupled with colonial settler ambition; a need for open space coupled with the Northeast’s cycles of four distinct, sometimes harsh, seasons; a preference for taking things slow coupled with an eagerness to do more. I feel that same sense of awe every time I see Mount Rainier peak through the clouds or the Manhattan skyline light up the night, both showing off their own distinct towering glory. Bicoastal is not a New York versus L.A. thing—it’s more nuanced. It’s finding different elements of America’s two very different coasts, realizing you belong to them both, and wishing you could physically be in two places at once.

Summer of the Wee Beasties

In three weeks, I’ve been on two different antibiotics for two different infections. After avoiding antibiotics for years, believing my green smoothies and regular jogging protected me from almost everything, my summer embracing the outdoors has led to two trips to the doctor’s office and an afternoon cracking jokes in the emergency room. It was a wet June followed by a hot July in the Northeastern United States. Nature got prolific. And then nature found me.

The first infection was a urinary tract infection that I *know* occurred after I went swimming in Saranac Lake. Other people were swimming in Saranac Lake during that super-hot, global-climate-change inferno week in mid-July when temperatures reached the upper 90s. I eased into the water and one of my first thoughts was “I wonder if I’ll get a urinary tract infection” because the lake felt, well, um, alive. Very alive. Mike went swimming with me and immediately remarked on the thriving biodiversity that invisibly circled us like hungry sharks. By then I was neck-deep in water trying to cool off, so I decided not to be a diva about things and paddle about. Two days later symptoms started. A few days after that, I was on Macrobid. Can I *prove* E. Coli in Saranac Lake found my private parts? No, but I’ve swam in many lakes (including Lake George also in the Adirondacks) and didn’t towel off afterward with an infection. This time, as I toweled off, I just knew I had brought something back with me.

Fast forward two weeks, and we’re back up in the Adirondacks yurting at Falls Brook Yurts, which is just lovely and not for sedentary folks because it’s a two-thirds mile hike uphill just to access the yurt. Your only water source is a nearby brook and whatever bottled water you bring with you. Along the hike to the yurt is a giant Adirondacks style chair made of old skis.

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(Commuting Adirondacks style)

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(A church converted into a canoe and ski shop; very Adirondacks)

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I can’t say we truly camped there because we didn’t prepare any meals there or even build a fire. It poured both nights we slept at the yurt, and the ground was soaked even upon our arrival. The word that kept going through my mind as I looked at all the different fungi sprouting from the ground was “fecundity.” Forests are dark, damp and fertile. Like lakes. Perfect for more wee beasties. Considering my recent urinary tract infection, I “showered” outdoors Saturday morning by standing naked on the yurt porch and pouring two liters of Poland Spring bottled water over my head with 50-degree air to cool me off…quickly. No brook water for me, even if it was boiled.

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My second infection was just bad luck. I know the rules of the forest and have written enough about Lyme disease to know you enter the forest as if going to a job interview, dress conservatively, fully-covered, and show no skin except face and hands. Instead of perfume wear bug spray. I need to give a shout out to Burts Bees here, for it was quite buggy during our hikes to and from the yurt, yet all that castor oil and peppermint shielded me.

Until Sunday morning.

What could be more vulnerable than lying in bed half-awake listening to the forest wake up? Mike was up making coffee, I rolled over in bed, I was wearing long-sleeved everything but my lower back was slightly exposed and I felt a pinch. And then a second pinch. I sat up and saw this large fly on the sheet. Inside the yurt, this critter was the only other living organism with a central nervous system besides me and my husband. It wasn’t buzzing around like a house fly but just lying on the sheet dazed. I swatted it away. If I had to take a guess at what had just happened, I was likely just bitten in bed by a deer fly. And it was barely morning.

We leave the Adirondacks Sunday, drive home, nothing happens Monday, and then yesterday around lunch, my back starts to feel hot, I’m breaking out in hives, and I’ve got two big red welts where I had felt the pinches. I try to diagnose myself via Google but nothing seems to match. I call the doctor’s office and it’s booked solid. My back is getting redder, my skin is getting hotter, and I’m starting to look blotchy and feel a little itchy. Off to the ER I go. The diagnosis? Allergic reaction to an insect bite (that’s a first for me) and cephalexin for cellulitis (say that five times, fast). Oh, and prednisone for swelling and inflammation and Benadryl for itching. Pop all those drugs at night and watch an episode of Game of Thrones. You’re numb and less spooked by all the gore and darkness.

While getting my vitals checked, I said to the ER nurse “I am done with nature!” and she responds “Oh, no, it’s the best thing for you. I’ve had chiggers and all kinds of things. Just get back out there.”

And I probably will, but not until next year. Over the years, I’ve camped on and off. I get pumped up to go native, head out into the wild, something happens, and I retreat to four-star hotels. In 1993, I camped in the Adirondacks and had no problems, so perhaps my false sense of security began then. Mike loves to tell the story of how in May 1999, we went camping in Orick, California. We had invested in all this REI equipment. We were living in Seattle and trying to embrace Pacific Northwest crunchy ways. All of our colleagues camped. Co-workers’ kids were little Lewises and Clarks. People hiked Mount Rainier the way I ran out for groceries. Everyone seemed to have fantastic outdoor survival skills except us. So we went super-rustic and pitched a tent along the California coast, not too far from brown bear territory.

Sand blew into our eyes and noses and I ended up locking myself in Mike’s 1987 Dodge Aries reading The New Yorker magazine while he tried to keep the mood alive by fussing with a cold dinner over a weak campfire. I hated every moment of that weekend. We drove back to Seattle, and that Monday, I sold our brand new REI tent to a co-worker.

Fast forward to October 2002. We’re camping on the opposite side of the United States now, in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The leaves have turned and the colors are truly spectacular. I figured a fall camping trip would mean no summer storms or summer bugs. However, since I had sold our tent, we borrowed from a friend a giant tent that slept eight. It’s too spacious and we froze. As I shivered during the night, I saw a silhouette of two deer on the tent wall. They appeared at ease, nibbling grass. Those are the moments that make camping worth it. I dozed off. A few hours later the sun rose. We packed up and thawed out at a Friendly’s restaurant.

Fast forward to July 2003 and we’re camping at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, another beach camping experience. Wild ponies roam there. And so do hordes of mosquitoes. Our tent blew down during a thunderstorm and we were eaten alive. Mosquitoes kamikazed into my coffee cup. We drove back to Washington, D.C. the following morning and shopped for calamine lotion.

After this past weekend of hauling and boiling water, of wondering what was lurking out in the forest (only to learn it was in my yurt bed waiting to bite me) I empathized with our ancestors’ struggles. Running water, electricity, Lysol wipes and quick access to antibiotics have made us (or me) soft. We still don’t own a tent. I’m not ready. I’m only on day two of cephalexin and am looking forward to next week when I can return to being probiotic instead of antibiotic. I don’t want to hike wearing biohazard suits, but I’m paranoid enough that I might. The outdoors brings out conflicted feelings for me when I write. I love it and hate it the way I love and hate New York City. Travel writing is often broken down into writing about destinations (this beach is so beautiful!), process (are airport full-body scanners safe?), or service (this hotel is rife with bed bugs!). Travel writing can lack nuance. Ma Nature makes travel writing more challenging. Outdoor destinations are beautiful and sometimes dangerous. The process of hiking, hauling, being prepared for beasties big and small isn’t easy, and is really only for the physically fit. And the service? There isn’t any. There’s no camping concierge to answer questions. At most, you might find a wooly, weird guy who can tell you if the bear tracks are fresh, somewhat recent, or nothing to worry about. Or the only service possible is a faint signal on your smartphone, if you’re lucky. I love the Adirondacks and the Great Outdoors, despite its beasties, which lurk everywhere in this world. But I need a reprieve, so while in California these next two weeks, you’ll find me indoors or at very manicured, pesticide-treated places. And that’s ok, too.