Haunting High School Spanish

IMG_0034Mrs. Williamsen, my piercing high school Spanish teacher, appeared to be hiding in every establishment I patronized in Mexico City.  After a combined four years of high school and college Spanish, I figured I would know the language well enough to order food and navigate the city.  But after just a few hours, I realized how little I actually knew.  When I stopped to buy a fruit, there was a grammarian in the house.  When I tried to decipher my restaurant menu, I could sense a distant vocabulary test gone unremembered.  When I tried to find a bus to get back to the airport, the words for airport and get off the bus, escaped me.  Most frustratingly, the accent was so sharp that I couldn’t understand anything.

I made it into the center of Mexico City easily enough, taking a bus and the subway.  After visiting some of the city’s prominent landmarks, I settled in at an idle restaurant advertising a 50 peso meal of the day. For a little under $4, I could get a feast.  Immediately, though, I ran into trouble.  I thought the meal was a set menu, but on no, there were choices.  First, I had to pick between rice and soup (cam…).  I couldn’t figure out the difference, so the waitress brought me soup.  She was kind enough to work through the language divide, reiterating her Spanish until I figured out what she meant.  The soup was good, but as a hungry cheapskate traveler, hot lime and pineapple soup is less preferable to a giant pile of rice.  Zero for one.

Next, I had to choose between a taco and something else.  I chose the taco and it was probably the best taco I have ever had.  One for two.  The taco had just the right mix of cheese, jalapenos, breaded seafood, and tortilla to cue the right milieu of taste buds.  In my backpack,I had a full list of taco houses recommended by the New York Times, but given my layover schedule, this hole-in-the-wall replacement would have to suffice.

Next up, I had to decide between pollo and something else.  Since I know pollo is chicken, I kept pressing for that despite the waitress’s protestations.  As I saw her bring a giant plate of steak to my neighbor, I kicked myself under the table.  One for Three.  Luckily, dessert required no decision, just acceptance of a delicious cold, lime green pudding.  I studied the menu as I prepared to leave, noting that it was not possible to tell that choices were involved.

Mexico City Cathedral

Next, I went to the city’s giant merced market which covers several city blocks and hides its accompanying metro station like a prisoner hides his escape tunnel.  After getting acquainted with the market’s layout, passing stands full of spices, vegetables, flowers, kitchen appliances, fish, and more, I found a fruit vendor from whom to buy an orange.  I pointed at the pile of oranges, and said, “uno.”  The proprietor started to fill a bag with oranges, thinking I had ordered one kilo.  I said, “no no no, uno!”  The woman glared at me and said, “una naranja o uno kilo.”  Aha, a perfect lesson on the importance of (indefinite articles).  

Finally, after my a few hours and $10 spent in Mexico City, I made it back to the subway stop to get a bus to the terminal.  Climbing the steps out of station, I spotted a woman wearing a red AeroMexico shirt, and decided to follow her to the airport.  The bus that dropped me at the metro was a slick, new bus obviously catering to the airport crowd.  Instead, I hopped on a collectivo or mini bus from what must have been the 1980s or earlier.  As the driver blasted his music, I struggled to say airport, and from the Aeromexico woman, he could tell where I was headed. When we got to the airport, the driver helpfully pointed it out to me, and told me to get off.  I couldn’t understand him until he was adamant about it.  He was trying to explain to me that I had to get off and cross the road to walk to the airport.  This time, the lesson on formal commands came to mind, but none of the specifics came with it. 


As I hopped off the bus and trudged back to the gleaming international terminal, I looked over my shoulder to see if Mrs. Williamsen had somehow followed me off the bus.  Fortunately, that was the end of the Spanish lesson for the day.  


Slow to Write

Mexico City CathedralMy tunblr account is blowing up with pictures and maps of my travels so far.  If you haven’t made it over there yet, you can check out what I’ve been up to.  In a sentence, I’ve been on planes, buses, boats, and bicycles in three countries.

Today I’m headed on a 20 hour bus ride to Puerto Madryn to see some wildlife.  Hopefully I’ll get some stories written on the bus.  Until then, enjoy the tumblr!

Through the Snow

Today, I fought through several doses of Advil Cold and Sinus to hike up the Cedar Creek Trail to the Hawksbill Overlook in Shenandoah National Park. Hawksbill is the highest point in the park, so despite the 40 degree weather at the base of the mountain, the peak managed to hold onto all of its snow. Instead of narrating the hike, I’ll simply provide a photo essay of trip.

How Big Schloss Taught Me to Hike

Despair and dehydration are usually what I remember about my trips to Big Schloss Mountain in West Virginia.  Lost in a car, lost on a trail, or needling thirsty dogs to continue.  On my third summit of the mountain’s beautiful 360 degree rocky overlook, I realized how these experiences have shaped my hiking knowledge.   Over the course of three treks, I’ve morphed from a know-nothing adventurer to one with realistic credentials.


The Great North Mountain, Big Schloss’s foundation, provides some of the best day hiking within driving distance of Washington D.C.  Sadly, I had lived in the nation’s capital for more than two years before I reached its muddy trails.  Instead, I gained my footing by literally following my uncle’s brightly blazed footsteps around George Washington National Forest.


Edwin Demoney, my grandmother’s brother and Arlington resident, started one of the premier ultra-marathons in America, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100.  As a result, he knows every nook and cranny of the section of the national forest that hosts the event, and created a good chunk of the namesake trail.  Since he is largely responsible for my interest in hiking, I broke my boots in by hiking Massanutten.

After two years, I broke out of Ed’s tutelage by tackling Big Schloss, the highest point on Great North Mountain.  As if to exemplify my amateurism, I used a Falcon’s Guide to hiking Virginia to plan my first overnight hike.  Responding to interest from three friends who wanted to do a trip, I grabbed the book, and we set off on a weekend adventure.  For the first time, I was attempting a hike that wasn’t spelled out by an uncle or park ranger.  Thankfully, the book’s detailed directions made it hard to get lost.

The Falcon Guide’s directions placed the summit of Big Schloss, named by German immigrants, at 8 miles into the 20 mile hike.  That setup fit our expedition perfectly, since we got such a late start.  The four of us hiked for 6 miles on clear Saturday afternoon, crossing an ambling stream eight times, before setting up our makeshift camp near a smaller creek.  Iowa was the uniting factor bringing Joe, Fish, James, and I together on the mountain.  Joe, James, and I worked for Iowa congressmen, and Fish had played soccer with Joe in Iowa before attending grad school at Georgetown.


Our first day of the hike proved uneventful – just a group of guys enjoying a beautiful day in the woods.  Joe and Fish slept outside under the stars, while James and I retired to a tent.  Uneventful except for our attempts to anchor our bear bag.  Despite our softball prowess, our aim proved an apt metaphor for our team’s record that year.  Thirty minutes later, we finally looped our Nalgene-anchored bear rope around a tree.253643_546086417010_7919337_n

We reached the beautiful summit of Big Schloss just an hour into our hike the next morning before descending the tough 1200 vertical feet of switchbacks over 3.8 miles to reach a forest service road.  Following it for a half mile, we reached a river along which the trail shot up back into the woods.  This is where the trouble started.

After cooling our feet in the mountain stream, we marched back up the trail and reached our 14th mile.  With just six easy miles remaining to the car, James confronted the reality of his physique.  He wasn’t able to finish the hike.  Let me pause here to climb atop my soapbox.

<Soapbox> Only attempt hikes that everyone in you group can finish </Soapbox>

Now, I’ll climb back down and say simply, I did not heed this obvious advice.  While Joe and Fish played in D.C.’s top amateur soccer league and I was an avid biker, James didn’t work out much.  After 14 miles and a night in the woods, he was done.  We decided to split up; Fish and I would get the car and pick up Joe and James at the forest service road.

We reached the car in a little over two hours, and were on schedule to pick up the others less than four hours after we parted.  In the end, we were off by a similar amount.  Without the benefit of a map or smartphone, we followed the only route we knew, driving back to the interstate and driving south until we reached a road that led to the mountains.  Instead of a 25 mile rescue, we took a 50 mile unscenic detour.  After wandering the Virginia borderlands for several hours without any idea of how to find the guys, we resorted to asking for directions.

Despondent, we came upon what I took to be a middle aged daughter and her elderly mother.  I believe the reason they were driving their golf cart in circles around their yard was to entertain themselves and their tiny white dog, but I could be wrong.  Despite my condescension, the younger of the duo gave us the best directions I have ever received.  Her directions went something like this:

“Go to the end of this road, and turn right at the church.  Go down the hill and turn right before you cross the stream.  Then drive along that road for a few miles and then turn right at a giant mirror.”  Despite my reticence, we followed the mirror to the rendezvous.  As dark settled in, we found the parking lot where Joe and James were preparing to hitchhike back to D.C.  They hopped in the car, and we sped away trying to forget our disappointing end to a promising hike.

That trip I learned the obvious lesson about choosing companions, but I also learned about my desire to hike alone.


Leading a hike can is stressful, and planning one is time consuming.  For my second trip to Big Schloss, I outsourced these tasks to my friend Amanda.   The lesson from this trip is pretty obvious.

On a warm July morning, my roommate and Amanda’s Friend, Jamie, their high school friend Lainie, and Amanda’s Australian Shepherds, Izzie and Cooper, and me all piled into our friend’s Subaru to head back to Big Schloss.  I had sent Amanda, a veterinary student, Hiking Upward’s directions for the Mill Mountain version of Big Schloss.  Touting my own self-importance, I copped out to being too busy at work to plan the hike, and trusted her with our itinerary.  Promising she had recorded all of the important directions, I pushed apprehension from my mind and let her direct.

Hiking Upward placed the beginning of the hike where Fish and I had picked up Joe and James, so I knew exactly how to get to the trailhead.  With the three ladies and two dogs in tow, I headed up the steep switchbacks that lead straight to Big Schloss.  After those same 3.8 miles and that same 1200 feet, we were standing atop the mountain once again – this time crossing over a new bridge, paid for by President Obama’s stimulus funds. 

Though Australian Shepherds are great hiking buddies, they can drink a lot of water to compensate for their long fur.  We had brought a lot of clean water, but to keep the dogs moving, we had to relinquish our supply.  Shortly after descending from the peak, the trouble started.  Instead of printing out Hiking Upwards’ directions, Amanda had written down some of the pertinent information, I guess thinking hiking directions can be followed a la carte.  According to her randomized notes, we needed to take a left turn after coming off the summit.  Trying to force a left turn, we found an abandoned trail leading to an old air beacon and took it.  After a couple of miles, we reached a gravel road, and, despite the ominous feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, picked up the pace looking for our car.CooperIzzy

We didn’t’ find it.  The road led to a dead end, and the other end a major highway.  After contemplating our mistake and suppressing my anger, we decided to hitchhike back to the car.  As surprising as it may sound, the third car to drive past us on the highway was a forest ranger.  After several confusing minutes, I finally explained where we had parked the car.  When I had the chance to look at a map and realized how far we had come, I understood his incredulity.  Fighting back his dedication to rules, he asked us about our water situation, and answered for us explaining we were out of water and that he better take me back to the car because we wouldn’t be able to hike back before dark.  I nodded in agreement.  (And we actually were out of water.)

Rule breaker and orator, the ranger talked my ear off explaining the agency’s procedures and recounting how the Forest Service used a helicopter to lower the Big Schloss bridge into place.


To g

e had to pass another forest service employee who was handing out information to visitors.  My driver didn’t say it, but I think he was worried about getting ratted out, so h back to the car, w

e stopped to schmooze before he continued scolding me on the final leg to the car.

I  quickly drove back to pick up the girls, and Cooper, and we returned home, embarrassed by our mistake.  Now, I plan every hike and commit the map to memory preventing future disasters.


This last Saturday, I went back to Big Schloss along with my buddies Neil and Scott, and Neil’s Friend, Sarah.  We again did the Mill Mountain hike, but we did it backwards so we would arrive at Big Schloss over halfway into the hike with only the quick 3.4 mile, 1200 feet descent back to the car.  Since I was leading the way and knew the area so well, it went off as planned.  Neil runs marathons, Sarah ran track in college, and Scott installs security systems for a living.  Needless to say, everyone could handle the hike, and I found myself laboring to keep up.

One advantage of Ed’s long experience with hiking around D.C. is that he has a library of maps and books.  After one tale of woe, he gave me a heaping pile of books and maps so that I would never get lost again. On my latest trip, I didn’t have any prescribed online guide but instead a whole map of the the region.  I consulted it once to comfort my anxious mind, but we were never in danger of losing our way.

The lesson I learned on this last trip is more philosophical– my mind comes alive in woods. Different people focus their minds differently, and

have their own ways of exploring deep questions.  Some consult their higher power, or some talk to their friends.  For me, I go to the woods.  Conversation during the drive out that day had been decent enough, but once

we left the car and hit the trail, my mind came alive.  At that point I lit on conversation with the others and my normally wandering brainpower was put at ease.

During the course of normal living, I can’t focus on answering any deep questions.  When I need to concentrate, I head to the mountains.  On this occasion, I wasn’t wrestling with anything major, so instead my mind just focused on the people around me.  For years, I’ve known about my innate need for nature, but this was the first time I used that peace of mind to improve my connection to others.  I doubt my companions even noticed.


Though the first two attempts of Big Schloss are better stories and more memorable, the third one was much more enjoyable in the moment.  That discrepancy presents an interesting dichotomy – why do we do things – for the moment or for the lasting memory?  Hopefully both can be wrapped into one, and we don’t have to choose, and that’s the sweet spot I’ll be looking for now thaGEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAt I’ve learned my lessons.

From Iowa to Maryland in One Afternoon

Planned addition to the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail System (Washington Post design)

When D.C.’s Department of Transportation finishes the Kenilwoth Gardens segment of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, cyclists will have access to one of the best urban escapes in the area.  To reach the current trailhead of the Northeast Branch Trail, however, D.C. residents have to battle their way through Washington’s stop-sign ridden streets.  One benefit of this missing connection is the relative peace and quiet afforded the trail’s users.  As I pedaled along the path on a recent Saturday afternoon, I embraced the unexpected tranquility, finding the urban escape’s middle class surroundings gleefully reminded me of my childhood.

Riding in the District

Washington’s richer suburbs and the National Park Service have led the nation in developing long-distance trails, building gems like the bucolic Mt. Vernon Trail along the Potomac River, and the Capitol Crescent Trail along an old railroad bed.  These trails represent great achievements in cycling infrastructure, but they have been overrun for decades by throngs of thousand-dollar bike-pedaling, spandex-wearing cyclists.

What D.C. doesn’t have is a serene bike path connected to its low income areas.  Cycling advocates have long derided this disparity in development, while many urban planners have noted the shortage of low-income cyclists.  Though I understand the discrepancy, I still find myself craving long-distance rides that take me through the blue-collar neighborhoods of my rural Iowa youth.


Several years ago, a friend and I rode the metro to Greenbelt, Maryland, where we biked around the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Bowie, about 25 miles northeast of D.C.  I was simply tagging along on the ride, so I didn’t know anything about the area.  I was quite shocked, then, to find out recently via NPR’s RadioLab, that the refuge is a leading scientific research center.  Scientists there are leading an initiative to repopulate the once nearly extinct whooping crane.   220px-Grus_americana_SasataNearby Beltsville boasts the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research headquarters.  Together, these two facilities provide cyclists thousands of square miles of rural pastures, fields, and woodlands to explore in the heart of the Washington-Baltimore metro area.

Long since tired of my usual escape routes, I decided to ride out to Patuxent.   I expected to find a relaxing view of ponds, birds, and trees; I didn’t expect find a path through my past.

Getting There

Since D.C. is still at work on the connector trail, I first had to navigate Northeast’s bumpy streets from my house in the Atlas District, to Mt. Rainier, Maryland.  For the first few miles, I passed through the low income neighborhoods of Trinidad and Langdon, areas unfamiliar to my childhood.  As I reached Mt. Rainier, however, the neighborhoods turned into snapshots of my past.

Every two years during my childhood, my father, a politician, had to campaign to get reelected to the state house of representatives.  During even-numbered falls, I found myself searching for votes alongside him in the blue-collar towns interrupting Iowa’s fields.


Pond behind the visitor’s center

Except for the population centers surrounding the area’s lakes, Iowa’s communities are largely uniform in their layouts.   Most have a commercial main street with houses rippling out for several blocks in each direction.  Residents live in one or two-story, single family homes, though some of the larger towns have built low income apartments on their outskirts or above downtown businesses.  As I cruised through Mt. Rainier, images of walking those streets, knocking on strangers’ doors, flooded my head.   Normally I spend my time in the district’s downtown or its revitalized nightlife corridors, neighborhoods completely alien to my pre-adult life.  Mt. Rainier, however, was bustling with small town life.  The town’s two-block business district boasted several local vendors, while in its neighborhoods, men devoured stacks of firewood.  Their kids played football in the backyard.  It could have been a lot of towns in Iowa.

The Anacostia

From Maryland’s mountainless suburb, I hopped on the Northwest Branch Trail following a tributary of the Anacostia River for two miles before connecting to its sister trail, the Northeast Branch.  At this point, the Anacostia is just a trickle of a stream, hardly prefacing the wide river it is about to become.  The river’s trails, however, outshine their demure benefactor.  The bike paths bob up and down the dikes holding back the Anacostia, creating a meandering path; most designers would have settled for a plodding route along the floodplain.  With functionality in mind, the engineers also avoided nearly all road crossings by directing the trail underneath bridges instead of bisecting traffic on top.  For nearly five miles I cruised along like a bobber dipping beneath the green waves of the levy.  Initially, 1950s houses with single car garages and brick façades peered out on to the path, but soon the levies widened to allow athletic fields to take root.  Countless football and softball fields and even a hockey rink took shape out of the flat grasslands created by the river over thousands of years.

Again, I harkened back to my youth.  On the campaign trail, we would pass city parks teeming with Iowans enjoying their Saturday afternoons.  If I saw a football game, I’d look longingly at my dad who would shrug sympathetically as we trudged to the next house.  During those fall campaigns, we’d encounter the best in families, enjoying their weekends to the fullest.  Power tools echoed from garages while feet connecting with taught leather rang out from city parks.  Inside houses, football announcers blared from big screens.  My December bike ride had that same Americana feel.  When I was forced to ask Iowans for their vote, I hesitated to intrude on their hard earned leisure time.  On my bike in Maryland, I experienced that same familial warmth, but without running interference.  The weather and time of year also framed the memory since those political Octobers in Iowa, felt like that warm December day in in the mid-Atlantic.  Colorless leaves still clung to their trees in December, much like they would have in an Iowa October.

Eventually, the rivertrail unceremoniously dumped me in a suburban hellhole, coming to a stop at a six-lane avenue strewn with stoplights and stripmalls.  While the river trail captured the best of the suburbs, the ugly side wasn’t far behind.  Suddenly, I was ripped out my memories and deposited abruptly in the present.

photo (1)

Entrance Road to the Wildlife Center

Coming to the end

I quickly rode past the supermarkets and Starbucks, escaping from the noise to a rural two lane highway.  Iowa oozes with small towns connected by perfectly straight, perfectly flat two lane roads.  As we drove from town to town, Dad and I would stare out at the corn and soybean fields sprinkled with tractors and silos.  While Maryland’s roads lacked Iowa’s precision, the USDA’s research facility, with its barns and elevators rising in the distance, provided an appropriate backdrop.  As I pulled into the Patuxent visitor center, it felt like Dad and I were returning home after a long afternoon of courting voters, but on this day, I was only courting memories.

Choose Your Own Adventure

This is something I forget about when I hear friends or acquaintances talk about their own travels.  Traveling is a personal endeavor, so everyone should be able to travel in a way that he or she enjoys most.  Graham Hughes in discussing his quest to visit every country in the world without traveling by plane, captures that idea:

Everybody has his or her own experiences of travel. Travel is a very subjective thing. I don’t think there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. I just think there’s a way that you enjoy and I actually enjoy this.


Hiking Korea

In this week’s NYT travel section, Elisabeth Eaves nicely captures what is so compelling about travel

It occurred to me that this sense of traveling through a half-understood world was something we had both sought many times over. Moving to a different culture meant the world suddenly became more mysterious. It could make you feel like a perpetual outsider. But it also made you feel as if you were always learning.