Sunday, January 28, 2018

Welcome to New York

This summer, my friend Jeff was working an internship in New York City and I went up for a visit. I had never been to New York before, but decided to make a weekend trip out of it. I researched flying or taking a train, but ended up just driving the ten hours into the city, leaving work early on Friday afternoon and arriving late that evening.

Jeff and I doing culture
I arrived at the 92nd Street Y on the upper east side where Jeff was staying after only a few surprises (did you know there's a $15 toll to cross the bridge to Manhattan island? E-ZPass only!). I picked Jeff up from a hackathon his company was doing and we stashed my Jeep in a nearby parking garage. It was incredible how many vehicles they had packed in there. From there we made our way back to the 92nd Y, which has an interesting history. Most people (at least from where I'm from in Virginia) think of the Y as a gym. This Y has a gym, but it also has a well-known performance venue, and dormitory style housing. Many Y's used to be like this, but only a few of them are left.

Jeff asked me what I wanted to do the following day, and, although I didn't have a strict agenda, there were several things that I was interested in seeing/doing. Jeff told me, "The good thing about New York, you'll never run out of things to see. Just step out of your building and start walking!"

And walk we did.

We started the day with a bagel at Jeff's favorite local bagel shop, Corrada Bread and Pastry. From there we took the subway down to the financial district and took a walk down Wall Street (after a quick dip into Pret for Jeff to get some tea).

The New York Stock Exchange
This was the first of several discoveries in the same vein. I was surprised at how small Wall Street is. A lot of these landmarks in New York I had read about in books and heard about on the news growing up, and, somehow, in my mind, they had taken on larger than life qualities. Wall Street was my first dose of reality. A few buildings clustered around a central square, rather than a long street filled with financial buildings that I had expected.

We headed towards the Staten Island Ferry, passing the famous Raging Bull statue on the way. I decided not to stand in line just to take my touristy picture this time (the Four Corners incident being fresh in my memory).

The view from the ferry
Rather than actually do the Liberty Island tour (which seemed like it would take up a good portion of the day) we did the drive by (or the boat by, as the case may be) of the Statue of Liberty via the Staten Island Ferry. I enjoyed the ferry ride out through the harbor, but, again, I was surprised by how short the Statue itself was. Not quite the towering monument I had imagined it to be, but it was still cool to see it in person.

Found it!
National September 11 Memorial
Next, we walked up through Battery Park on the tip of Manhattan Island and then walked north to the 9/11 Memorial. I had watched a documentary on the design and completion of this memorial several years prior, and it was interesting to see it finished. Almost sixteen years later, if it weren't for the memorial, it would be hard to tell that something so terrible had happened there.

Next, it was time for some lunch. We made our way to Chelsea Market and had lunch at the Creamline - a "farm to table" burger joint. I was already pretty hot by this point, so I may be exaggerating slightly when I say that the peanut butter milkshake I had there was incredible, but it was definitely delicious.

Waiting for our milkshakes
From there, we walked the High Line, an elevated walking path on the west side of Manhattan, converted from a freight rail line into a linear park. It was cool to be above street level, get a different view of New York, and not have to worry about traffic.

View from the bridge
The next stop was "The Intrepid," an aircraft carrier that has been transformed into an air, space, and marine museum. This is where Jeff's company began to throw their weight around. We walked up through the "members only" line (past all of the waiting peasants), Jeff flashed his badge, and both of us were admitted for free!

The ship was pretty cool. Among many other things, they have an SR-71 Blackbird, a submarine (which we went inside of), and the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which I had previously seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center (later replaced by Space Shuttle Discovery). However, my favorite part may have been a couple of LEGO models of the ship and a LEGO mosaic.

Found the nerd corner
We then walked up the street to Times Square, which was... an experience. I've done it once, now I never have to do it again. Too many people in one place. Also, too many weird people in one place. Oh, and add the Times Square Ball (that they "drop" on New Year's Eve) to the list of things that were smaller than I thought they would be.

Hello, Mr. Llama
After Times Square, we made a stop for rolled ice cream and then visited The Strand book shop, known for its "18 miles of books." Jeff quickly made his way to his favorite section (see below), and I found a llama that was nearly identical to the one that sits in my living room (long story)!

We've seen the light
We jumped on the subway again and got off at Grand Central Station, where Jeff followed me, unsurprised, into the Apple Store. I remember watching a video on the opening of this particular store, and now I finally got to see it in person! Ha-ha. I'm slowly collecting pictures of myself at various Apple stores around the country. That's basically the only reason I travel.

Next, we went to visit the building Jeff worked in. He wasn't sure if all of the visit request hoops would be cleared cleanly, but when we got there, the nice security guards took my picture and gave me a temporary badge, no problem!

Crocodile, also known as a "gator"
The final big attraction of the day was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We only had an hour and a half or so before they closed, but we figured we'd make the most of it. I'm sure we saw hundreds of masterpieces in the space of 45 minutes. We spent a significant portion of our time in the medieval armor and weapons section (because when you're both guys who grew up on Lewis and Tolkien, that's what you do). We also quite enjoyed the Egyptian temple that was picked up and shipped to New York. My favorite piece, however, was probably "Crocodile."

Relocated temple
After they kicked us out of the museum, we visited the casual obelisk erected behind the museum on the edge of Central Park. At this point, I was pretty much beat, but Jeff still had plenty of energy and suggested we take a stroll around the reservoir in Central Park (because what's another couple of miles of walking). I figured if Jeff was up for it, I could be too!

Central Park skyline
For dinner we made a stop at Two Boots Pizza, Upper East Side. Again, I was pretty hungry, and the pizza was delicious. After we finished our dinner, we made one last stop at the headquarters for the company Jeff was interning with (weird elevators) and then called it a night.

Altogether, we walked roughly 24 miles total (+/- a mile or two, based on discrepancies between Jeff's Fitbit and my iPhone) that day. Just walking to the shower at the end of the day made my feet hurt.

The next morning, Jeff and I grabbed breakfast at a diner called 3 Decker (A+ waffle, by the way) and then made our way to the church he attended while in New York, Apostles Uptown East. They had a Behringer X32 as well (as does Northstar, the church I run sound for), so I spent a few minutes talking shop with their sound tech.

After that, Jeff and I retrieved my Jeep from the parking garage (no easy feat), and I started my journey back home. The weekend consisted of over 1,000 miles of driving, numerous subway rides, in addition to all of the walking, but it was great!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Southwest Loop

This summer, in late June/early July, I took five days and did a 1600 mile solo roadtrip through four of the southwest United States. I started in central New Mexico and drove north, passing through the corner of Colorado and into Utah, eventually looping downward through Arizona and finally back into New Mexico. Along the way, I hit four national parks, did 20+ miles of hiking in temperatures above 80 degrees, and went through a LOT of water. In efforts to do this on a budget, I rented a Kia Rio which got 40+ MPG (offset by "underage" rental fees), stayed mostly in Airbnbs, and ate peanut butter sandwiches or canned ravioli for most meals. It was a blast.

Zion National Park
Arizona line
The first day was a lot of driving (roughly nine hours). I began my trip heading north and made several stops along the way. The first was at the Aztec Ruins in northwest New Mexico, where I spent an hour or so wandering around the reconstructed dwellings.

I also stopped at the Four Corners monument that lies at the epicenter of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of all the places I visited, this is the one that felt most like a tourist trap. Pay $5 to stand in line for half an hour and have your picture taken at the same place hundreds of others people are going to that day. 3/10, would not recommend.

Look at me, I'm a tourist!
The bend
My last major stop of the day (and probably favorite roadside stop of the whole trip) was in Page, Arizona to see Horseshoe Bend. I had seen pictures of this canyon before, and it looked amazing, so I really wanted to see it for myself. A huge sign in the parking lot flashed dire warnings for anyone who would attempt the hike without water, so I was expecting a bit of a trek to get there. Turns out it was less than 3/4 a mile over a couple of ridges. This overlook was not nearly as developed as many of the other ones I encountered during the rest of my trip (with concrete, guardrails, etc.), and there were a few people who seemed very set on testing fate near the edge.

The edge
My lodging that night was a hostel in Kanab, Utah. Little sketchy, but it was a bed close to Zion National Park, which I hoped to visit the following day. By the time I arrived in the park the next morning, the parking lots had already started filling up. I parked alongside the road in the town just outside the gates of the park and entered on foot with other latecomers

Quick side note on the "America the Beautiful" Pass. If you plan on visiting three or more of the big national parks within a year, this is definitely the way to go. For $80, you and anyone else in your vehicle (or you + three others when per-person fees are charged) are allowed admittance at any of the national parks (as well as other sites managed by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management, among others) for a year. Considering admittance to Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon was $30 each, this pass paid for itself just within a couple of days.

Zion canyon
Having arrived late, I made the decision while riding the bus into the heart of the park to spend the full day there, rather than splitting it with Bryce Canyon, as I had originally intended. I'm very glad that I did! Zion ended up being the highlight of my entire trip. I did two hikes and there were many more I would have liked to have done. I could easily have spent several whole days there.

My first challenge was the Angel's Landing hike. My friend Dietrich had recommended it to me as a tough hike, but very rewarding when you got to the top. At about five miles round trip and ~1,500 ft of elevation gain, it is known to be one of the more strenuous hikes in the park. It is also one of the most dangerous, with the last half a mile or so lined with chains that you hold onto to keep from falling off either side of the mountain (see picture below for perspective). The park service is aware of "about five people" who have died accidentally on this trail.

Angel's Landing (note hikers for scale)

Ledge sitting
With that in mind, I filled my Camelbak, put on some sunscreen, and headed out. It was hot, and the elevation, terrain, and technicality made it probably the hardest hike I've done. I was thankful for every bit of shade along the way, and my (sarcastic) mantra became, "Yay, switchbacks. I love switchbacks." I actually made it all the way through my two liters of water by about mile four, on the way back down. The view from the top, though, was incredible.
Little sweaty

I'm a big fan of shade
My second hike of the day was The Narrows - a slot canyon with a river flowing through it. You can hike up the canyon wading in the river (which can get waist deep and beyond at times) for quite a few miles. I ended up going two or three miles upstream, just to get away from the hordes of people, but I met a couple of guys coming back who had gone six or so miles.
My turn around point

Smoke on the horizon
That night I stayed in Panguitch, Utah, which I didn't realize happened to be on the edge of the large Brian Head Canyon fire that was burning that weekend. I first noticed something was up when I started smelling smoke, and then saw the fire on the ridge as I rolled into town. The second picture below is a view from behind the motel I was staying in that night, which was just across the road from the "incident command base." I asked a couple of people if there was any concern, and their response was overwhelmingly casual, saying things like, "Oh, it's 65% contained."
This is fine
I went to church at the local cowboy chapel the next morning (the weekend before the 4th of July, ironically), which looked to be the only non-Mormon church in town. They wanted me to stay to eat soup with them, but I wanted to get going to my next destination... Bryce Canyon National Park.

Wall of windows
On my way into the park I unknowingly boarded "The Happy Bus" with a very enthusiastic bus driver who had obviously been doing this for quite a few years. The nice people of Blacksburg Transit have given me an overall positive view of bus operators, and this gentleman was no exception. He knew the capacity of his bus and wanted to make sure it was full of (happy) people!

A beautiful day for a hike
I devised a hiking route based on some advice from my friend Adam, whose family had visited the park earlier in the summer. It consisted of a 6 and 1/2 mile loop connecting the Queen's, Peekaboo, and Navajo trails. This was the first time I had done an "inversion hike." In Virginia, we hike up mountains. Then, when we're tired, we hike back down. Canyon hiking, however, is just the opposite. There's definitely a psychological difference in having to climb back up to the the rim at the end of your hike.
Selfies with tall things
While Bryce did have some cool rock formations, it wasn't nearly as varied as Zion, and I think I enjoyed the hikes there more. However, Bryce did have the advantage of being much less crowded than Zion on the day that I went. I hiked several miles on the floor of the canyon without seeing a single person, which was great.

North Kaibab Trail overlook
The next day I had a long drive to Sedona, Arizona (by way of Flagstaff) with a stop at The Grand Canyon thrown in for good measure. I actually planned on stopping at both the North and the South Rims of the canyon. Since hiking to the bottom or rim-to-rim is usually a multi-day, permitted affair, I was OK with my time there being limited, since I wasn't planning on doing any significant hiking. I stopped at the North Rim first, which, although not as spectacular as the South Rim (the primary tourist destination) may have been prettier in my opinion, with the vegetation. I hiked out to Bright Angel Point and then part of the way down the North Kaibab Trail.

Bright Angel Point

Bright Angel detail
After that, I drove around to the South Rim and hit a series of overlooks, gradually making my way to the main overlook near the visitor's center. I spent less time here than I would have liked, but I was under a little bit of a time limit because I had to check into my Airbnb by 8:00 PM.
The South Rim
Airbnb view
In Sedona I stayed with a nice older couple in a golf community. They had converted the private master bedroom suite to host guests, and I had a view of the red rocks out my bedroom window. They also cooked me breakfast the next morning, and I enjoyed talking with them before starting my final long day of driving.

As I drove through eastern Arizona back into New Mexico I stopped at the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park. One of my coworkers had brought his family out earlier in the year and had loaned me the CD audio tour they had purchased for the park. I listened to this while driving a large loop through the park, which took an hour or two. It was interesting, but definitely falls to fourth on the list of National Parks I visited.

Lookit! Pretty rock
That night, I dropped off the rental car and got an Uber to my Airbnb for the night. I found this place while looking for a cheap place to stay near the airport. My flight left at 6:00 AM the next morning, so I knew I wouldn't be there for long, but, considering I had to go to work the day after I got back, I wanted to try to get some semblance of a night's rest (instead of just camping in the airport). With those criteria in mind, this room in someone's apartment popped up for $28 with no really terrible reviews. I thought, "I'm young. I'm by myself. Why not?!"

When my Uber driver dropped me off he asked, "Do you want me to stick around until you get inside?" I assured him I would be OK, as the host had told me to "just look for the bag of potting soil next to the front door" so that I didn't accidentally go into the wrong house. I reached through metal bars on the front door and let myself in. The first thing I noticed was the distinct lack of air conditioning on this hot summer night, which I didn't remember being mentioned in the listing. I wandered back to the bedroom and discovered the door didn't lock. No worries there, just set my pocket knife within easy reach of the bed. To their credit, the sheets at least looked clean, so I crawled into bed for a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, the mattress had a dip in it that kept wanting to dump me out in the floor, so I'm not sure if I ever really got any sleep that night.

When I got up at 4:00 AM to leave the next morning, I made my way to the bathroom and found a friendly cockroach feet up, twitching behind the door. So that was good. While waiting for my Uber in front of the house, the host actually showed up... at 4:15 AM. I asked no questions, gave him a nod, and moved on.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip home was relatively uneventful and I was back home around 3:00 PM the following day. Altogether an enjoyable vacation which resulted in some fun stories!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Gandalf and The Hobbits Hit the Trail

In June, my friends Dietrich, Carlie, Ken, and I joined our friend Beth (who was spending a month or so hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail) for a long weekend backpacking/camping trip along the Tennessee - North Carolina border. We spent two nights on the trail and hiked about twelve miles total from Spivey Gap to Sam's Gap.

Good morning!
I had done long hikes before, but never any real backpacking, so this was a new experience for me. Since it was warm, I decided to forgo a tent and use a hammock and rain fly instead. This worked out pretty well, except, as Carlie pointed out, since I was out in the open, I would be the first to be eaten by any wild animals.

Carlie joined Beth on Thursday, while Dietrich, Ken, and I drove down after work on Friday. Once we had dropped vehicles in the appropriate lots (and made a pitstop at McDonalds for Dietrich), we three guys started out in the dark to find Beth and Carlie at our first campsite. When we arrived at the campsite and heard Carlie and Beth, Dietrich and Ken greeted them in friendly voices (*read* loud caveman noises).

Before we went to bed, Beth and Carlie taught us their favorite game from the previous day called "It's Not a Bear." Gameplay proceeds as follows. When one hears an unknown noise in the forest, one turns to their friend and says, "That was not a bear." It seemed to work pretty well for us, seeing as how we didn't see a single bear the entire weekend.

Beth's resupply
Ken's breakfast
We started the next day with lots of uphill (and about as much complaining from Carlie). "Who put Ken in front? I have to take three steps for every one that he takes!" Despite the hard time I'm giving her, Carlie was a champ, hiking in a pair of flip flops because the shoes she had been wearing wore pretty bad blisters during the first day. Her footwear was a topic of interest for almost every hiker we passed, much to her chagrin.

A fork in the trail
A typical discussion when reaching a fork in the trail would sound something like the following:
Ken: "So, we have three options."
Dietrich: "How many options do we have?"
Ken: "Three."
Dietrich: "Are you sure?"
Carlie: "OK, what are our options?"
Ken: "Well, we could go straight up this hill, or go around it."
Dietrich: "Uh-huh. So what's the second option?"
Ken: "There are three options."
Dietrich: "Right, so what was the first one again?"

Approaching Big Bald
The biggest point of interest along this section of the trail was Big Bald, TN - a big, open bald (go figure). We reached this spot early afternoon on the second day. As we were passing through the meadow below, we met a couple, walking their dog, who happened to be from Delaware (which, including Ken, brings the population of that state to three, according to Dietrich).

On top of the bald, we met a group of muggles that had walked up the road from the ski resort below. One older guy in particular was extremely intrigued by the idea of thru-hiking (even over our short distance) and had lots of questions. "Generally, what do you eat? "Generally, do you get lost?" "Generally, do you sleep in tents?" (He really liked the word "generally.") We answered his questions as best we could, and, before we left, he asked to take a picture with us. As we were leaving, he told us, "You guys are heroes!"

Looking back at the meadow
A storm is brewing...
We were expecting a rainy weekend, but it wasn't until we were leaving Big Bald that a storm rolled in. We stopped to put on rain jackets and pack covers and then continued on our way. A while later, we noticed we had somehow left Ken behind and stopped to wait on him. He wasn't bitter about this development at all, but did spend the next several minutes telling us how some nice man he met helped him put on his pack cover since he didn't have anyone else around to help him.

It's hard to carry on a conversation in the rain, so we walked in silence for a good while... even after it had stopped raining. At this point, Carlie realized, to her horror, that she was the only (strong) extrovert in our group. She kept trying to start a conversation, but the rest of us weren't buying it. Eventually, she said, "Uggh. Why are all of my friends introverts?!"

Break time
As we were walking along, we discussed how we were hoping to stay dry that evening. Dietrich interjected, "Hey, Ken!" Ken replied, "Whatever you're about to say, it's not true." Dietrich went on to explain how he had cut some holes out of Ken's rain tarp to use the material to patch something, and Ken just nodded his head and said, "Uh-huh."

The rain had mostly stopped by the time we made it to our campsite, which was good. We cooked our dinner (including a couple of the large cans of food Ken had brought along) and then hung the rest of the food in the bear bag. It started to rain soon after dinner, so we all huddled together under my rain fly to stay dry. We sat and talked for a while, and Beth told us a couple of stories from her time on the trail thus far.

The next morning, we set out early to complete the last few miles to the parking lot. We climbed out of the valley and walked along the ridgeline with North Carolina on our left and Tennessee on our right. The clouds were rolling over the mountains, which made the forest look very "Lord of the Rings" like.

At some point, Dietrich ran off by himself down the trail and I mentioned that he looked like Samwise Gamgee, with the pots from dinner the night before hanging off of his pack. From there we decided Beth and Carlie could be Merry and Pippin (because Merry takes care of Pippin when he gets in trouble), I would be Frodo, and Ken could be Gandalf (because he was always in front, obviously).

Gandalf and the Hobbits
We made it!
Around midmorning we made it to our destination parking lot and took one final group picture, in "tallest to greatest" order. At this point, we said goodbye to Beth, who was on her way to the next shelter. A few hours ride back and Dietrich, Carlie, Ken, and I were home (after a stop at Sakura) while Beth continued on into the Smokies!

Tallest to greatest!